Archive for the 'justice' Category

7 Million Americans May Have Died of Hunger in the Great Depression

Sharon May 25th, 2008

I have not been able to find the original Wikipedia article or any of the critiques mentioned in the article.  But it does answer a question I’ve had for a long time at least in one way - because we know people died of starvation during the Depression in the US.  Hoover told us “at least no one has starved” and then they started pulling bodies out of Chicago tenements.  There was a minimum of a 25% malnutrition rate in urban schools in many places.  So yes, we know people died.  But I’ve located no full scale investigation until now.

And again, just as we saw in Gaidar’s analysis of the fall of the Soviet Union, we begin to realize that moving rural populations off the land can devastate whole nations.  Preserving farmers isn’t just about preserving rural landscapes.  Without food and the people who grow it, we don’t eat - period. 

 How many people may starve this time?  And how many will we know about, even as it happens? 

“The researcher, Boris Borisov, in his article titled “The American Famine” estimated the victims of the financial crisis in the US at over seven million people. The researcher also directly compared the US events of 1932-1933 with Holodomor, or Famine, in the USSR during 1932-1933.

In the article, Borisov used the official data of the US Census Bureau. Having revised the number of the US population, birth and date rates, immigration and emigration, the researcher came to conclusion that the United States lost over seven million people during the famine of 1932-1933.

“According to the US statistics, the US lost not less than 8 million 553 thousand people from 1931 to 1940. Afterwards, population growth indices change twice instantly exactly between 1930-1931: the indices drop and stay on the same level for ten years. There can no explanation to this phenomenon found in the extensive text of the report by the US Department of Commerce “Statistical Abstract of the United States,” the author wrote. “


The Mirror, Not Malthus: The Hunger Crisis and the Illusion of Scarcity

Sharon April 17th, 2008

Perhaps you saw the recent UNESCO report on the future of agriculture .  It calls for a major paradigm shift in agriculture, away from fossil fuels, towards organic agriculture and greater equity of distribution.  Wow, I wonder why I didn’t think of that ;-)? 

Seriously, this is the largest single report ever to tell us what we already knew - that ”the status quo is not an option.”  That is, we cannot go into the future as we are.  We all know this on some level. 

But until now, the larger narrative has been that we will rely on some magical technology - genetic engineering or a new green revolution - to create food in such abundance that we do not have constrain our appetites.  Although the UNESCO report dances around some of the central issues, it is also true that they admit that the solution is both simpler and more complicated - work on food justice.  Get the fossil fuels warming the world out of agriculture.  In the meantime, get the rich nations to pay for the food desperately needed in the poor world.

It seems so obvious - but the fact that a major institution like the IAASTD is actually calling for fewer fossil fuels and more equity represents the beginning of a sea change - and change that couldn’t possibly happen fast enough.

Even ignoring the fact that various institutions supported by UNESCO have helped create the mess we’re in, promoting fossil fueled agriculture and globalized markets, and ignoring the fact that despite widespread public perception the reality that organic agriculture can match yields has been widely known for some years, this is still a move forward.  But again, not fast enough.

Consider this report from a group of nurses just returned from a humanitarian mission in Haiti:

“The nurses saw firsthand desperate lives made worse by the world food crisis.

“It is incredibly astounding … having a family sit in front of you and have the mother offer you the baby in arms - and the baby is 8, 9 pounds - and be told that child is 2 ½ years old,” Tinker said.

“Everyone is malnourished.”

The food crisis only worsens the desperate circumstances of this poorest-of-the-poor nation.

Children with stick-like limbs arrive at the clinic listless and with distended stomachs. Common worms “take what little nutrients these starving people can give themselves,” Tinker said.”

I have a two and a half year old.  Asher weighs 27 lbs.  I don’t think there’s a better way of understanding the food crisis than to look at your own child, or your grandchild, a nephew or a niece or a neighbor’s child, and ask “how would I feel if this were my child?”  In fact, most of the world’s faiths would argue that their children *are* our children - that there can be no difference. 

I hope the answer to how you feel  is not just sad - I think this is an excellent reason to weep, but I don’t want anyone to stop with weeping - anger and outrage are the appropriate reactions, and we need more anger of the sort that moves us forward.  In fact, the poor are furious - riots are breaking out all over the world.  The victims of our affluence are not fools. They know they are being “massacred” as one UN report put it. 

And we should be equally angry - both because what can be done to poor Haitians can also be done to our “own” (I never have been clear on why American children are supposed to be mine, when the rest of the world’s aren’t, but we’ll use the conventions) children under the current system (they already are, as I reported this winter), and because THERE IS NO SHORTAGE!!!  It would be terrible if this were happening in times of absolute shortage, if there really wasn’t enough food to go around.  But that’s not true - there is plenty of food for the whole world- the world is overflowing in food.  The problem is entirely one of distribution, and of the indifference of the affluent. 

 The term “Malthusian” gets tossed around a lot lately - my doctoral dissertation was on population and literature, and part of it was specifically about Old Thomas Malthus and his idea.  So let me offer that point to say that “Malthusian” is precisely the wrong word to use here - Malthus was speaking of the problem of food supplies meeting rising population’s demand, but he was talking about absolute scarcity, something we are not experiencing.  The essay cited above uses it:

This Malthusian crunch has been building for a long time. We are adding 73m mouths a year. The global population will grow from 6.5bn to 9.5bn before peaking near mid-century.

Asia’s bourgeoisie is switching to an animal-based diet. If they follow the Japanese, protein-intake will rise by nine times. It takes 8.3 grams of corn feed to produce a 1g of beef, or 3.1g for pork.

China’s meat demand has risen to 50kg per capita from 20kg in 1980, but this has been gradual. The FAO insists that this dietary shift is “not the cause of the sudden food price spike that began in 2005″.

Hedge funds played their part in the violent rise in spot prices early this year. To that extent they can be held responsible for the death of African and Asian children. Tougher margin rules on the commodity exchanges might have stopped the racket. Capitalism must police itself, or be policed.

Even so, the funds closed their killer “long” trades in early March, causing a brief 20pc mini-crash in grains. The speculators are now neutral on the COMEX casino in New York.”

Hedge fund speculation and meat consumption were simply not what Malthus was worried about.  Malthus was aware of the problem of inequity, but he argued that it was dwarfed by the problem of population pressure - in this case, that’s the exact reverse of our present situation.  That is, population pressure is causing difficulties - but population growth rates are quite stable, and cannot account for the doubling of grain prices every 18 months. 

It is not that population is not a growing issue - at some point in the future we will almost certainly encounter this question of absolute limits - but this is not the root cause of our present disaster, and every time we pretend that the issue is primarily population (which is growing most among the poor),  we are lying to ourselves - moreover we are telling ourselves that the problem is someone else’s fault.  We’re going to have to ask ourselves harder questions - do I want that burger enough to justify a 9lb 2 1/2 year old? Do I really need to go to soccer practice that badly?

Look at the names on the table.  Niger.  Liberia.  Eritrea.  Botswana. Haiti. Bangladesh - they are small nations that rely on imports to feed themselves.  100 million people are quickly sliding towards death in those nations - and they will, rightly, decline to slide quietly. They sound like far away places.  They have always had their troubles - and yet millions of people who survived global warming, war, poverty are now meeting the one thing they cannot survive - our appetites.

 Waiting in the wings, with its poor on the fast track to starvation are more nations - India, the Phillippines, North Korea, Mexico, Egypt, Pakistan.  Note how many of those nations have strategic importance for us or hold nuclear weapons.  It is a fantasy to believe that we can allow this to happen and not pay a price.

And if this were a Malthusian world of real scarcity, we might be able to say that we cannot do anything about this.  But as Greenpa points out, that’s errant nonsense.  We could very easily prevent this tragedy.  There is plenty of wealth in the rich world to feed the hungry. We could stop hedge fund speculation about food.  We could stop eating so much meat.  We could stop making biofuels.  We could stop.

But that would require that we care in a deep way - not in the way we’ve become accustomed to, of thinking “Oh, how terrible” and then “oh, someone should do something about that.”  It is time for all of us to let our moral rubber hit the road, and recognize that more is being asked of us than simply to think something is very sad.  This is a crime of our creating - and we have the power to stop it.

 How?  As Greenpa suggests, call your representatives and talk to them about biofuels and food speculators.  Cut the meat back in your diet, and focus on meat that is raised without the use of human food - that is fed on grass.  The rest of the time, go vegetarian.  And most of all, get to work raising awareness in your community, raising funds for hunger relief, and making it clear to people that this isn’t happening because of something we cannot control, the spectre of Malthus rising - that’s a longer term problem, and one we have to deal with.  But this crisis is one Malthus never foresaw, and the root causes look back from the mirror.

The Food Crisis Getting Worse - Fast!

Sharon April 1st, 2008

Well, the last week has had some disturbing news about food supplies.  First, rice prices jumped by 30% in a single day, putting many of the 3 billion people who depend on rice as their food staple at risk of hunger.  The Guardian tells that people are stripping rice fields before the farmers can harvest them.  Most rice eating nations are self-sufficient in rice, but there some disturbing exceptions, including the Philippines. 

The next news to arrive was the projected US corn production, which was released yesterday, and now some analysts are warning us to expect corn rationing this year! Mexicans are already struggling with high corn prices, and much of Africa which relies on maize is endangered by rising corn prices.  Understandably, tensions are rising with hunger. (Note that the article calls the decision, say, to reserve rice supplies for one’s own hungry people rather than sell them on open markets “counterproductive.”  As usual, growth capitalism revels in the “creative destruction” of anyone but large corporations    ;-P.  Also note the charming shift of the problem onto the developing world’s large population and desire to eat meat occasionally, rather on to the rich world where every person consumes 15 times the resources.)

Add in wheat and soybeans, both at record highs for a host of reasons, and virtually all of the basic staple foods of most of the world’s population are skyrocketing in price - and increasingly out of reach not just of the world’s poor (already starving)  but of ordinary Americans.  News that more Americans than ever will need food stamps next year is hardly surprising, as are accounts that food pantries are really struggling to meet demand.  I think it will surprise many analysts exactly how big and deep the hunger problem gets in the US, as we are squeezed between rocks and hard places in a host of ways.

What should we do about this?  Well, rationing isn’t a bad thought.  I know a lot of people instinctively react badly to the idea of rationing, but the truth is that we ration food today - we simply ration by price.  Too poor to buy rice?  Ok, you go hungry, so that the richer folks can have it.  We *ARE* rationing.  What formal rationing systems do is give even poor people a right to eat.  I’ve written about this before, but I think it bears repeating - people *LIKE* rationing in times of scarcity, because it ensures they get a fair share.

Now the logical place to start the rationing would be at the biodiesel and ethanol plants - rationing them out of existence in many cases would be an excellent choice.  Certainly, limiting access to feedlot meat producers wouldn’t be a bad idea either.  But given the fact that we are probably stuck, we should all dig in and prepare for a long, terrible, hungry year - and probably more. 

Meanwhile, those gardens matter.  Grow an extra row for the food pantry.  Eat a little more of your own homegrown, and donate what you save to world relief agencies. If you eat grains, grow some - Gene Logsdon just announced that he’s re-releasing his wonderful book _Small Scale Grain Raising_.  Write your congressperson.  Get involved with those who are fighting hunger and biofuel production.  And grow.  And grow.