Haitians Eat Dirt, Cars Eat Corn

Sharon January 30th, 2008

I often say that the worst excesses of the rich world are actually less ethical problems than grammatical problems. I say this for effect, of course, because they are deeply ethical problems. But a part of the difficulty is our articulation of the difficulty. Consider this story, about Haitian people who cannot afford even the most basic staple foods are literally eating dirt:


“When my mother does not cook anything, I have to eat them three times a day,” Charlene said. Her baby, named Woodson, lay still across her lap, looking even thinner than the slim 6 pounds 3 ounces he weighed at birth.”


I’m hoping one day I’ll have enough food to eat, so I can stop eating these,” she said. “I know it’s not good for me.”

Now this simple fact is that the rich world is doing this to this woman. Our society, and the people in it. There is no doubt about it - the rise in food prices is closely tied to biofuels, used by rich people to feed corn and soybeans to their cars, rather than to people, and by meat consumption.

It is also true that virtually no one in the rich world, as we struggle to deal with our own political and personal strategies, chooses to phrase this relationship in a grammatically correct way. That is, we say things like “I have to go do this thing or that thing - I have to commute long distances, because that’s where my job is, or I have to go bring my kids to visit their grandkids, or I have to go get a dress for the wedding.” And all of these facts are absolutely true as far as it goes - that is, often our society doesn’t give us a lot of choices.

But what we never say is “I have to commute to my job, so those people in Haiti have to eat dirt” or “I have to make sure my kids spend time with their grandparents, so some Bangladeshi farmers have to drown.” That is, we leave out the implied second clause in our sentences. And that’s because we couldn’t live with ourselves if we articulated the whole of our statements.

Now whenever I say these things, I royally piss people off, because they don’t want to hear this. No one wants to think that they are responsible for harm to others. We don’t intend it, we don’t want to be, we want badly for us just to be able to go about the basics of our own lives without doing harm to others. We want this so badly that we change the structure of our sentences so that we don’t even have to think about the full consequences of our actions.

On the same point, no one much likes the conclusion that we may already have pushed the climate and other natural resources so far that we may not have a lot of good options for fixing it - we may have to live a very, very different kind of lifestyle. We dislike it so badly that we’re willing to do all kinds of twisting and turning to avoid the conclusion that we may not be able to have most of the things we want.

I’ve spent a lot of time coming to these conclusions, and they no longer freak me out - too much. But that’s not the same thing as saying I like them. That is, I’ve gotten pretty good at reducing my emissions, and using less energy, but what I really want is for the projected reality to be just about the level that makes me comfortable - that is, I want us to be able to do a renewable build out that has enough energy and is used in particular ways so that I can do my happy little low energy thing and feel good about it. That is, I want pretty much what everyone else wants - I want to go along living my life without worrying about whether I’m doing harm, or I have to push myself to a scary, different place. And I want that really, really badly.I really have to watch myself, because I find myself doing what most of us do - twisting the facts around to support the conclusions I personally feel like I can live with.

But the truth is, that’s not what the evidence says. That is, the climate writers who say “oh, if we just do this massive infrastructure project…” are wrong - most of those massive infrastructure projects can’t possibly be supported while stabilizing the climate - most of them will push us over the top. And it isn’t just that biofuels are a bad idea - it is the idea that we’re all going to get to have personal transport is a bad idea. But, of course, we want it to be true. We want there to be a way out - most of us don’t demand that it would be easy, just bearable.

And if it isn’t, if the news is really bad, we respond to it by getting angry at the person who is saying it, or saying, “Oh, well, it is hopeless.”But it isn’t hopeless. It is just that what we have to do is enormously hard and painful. And that’s maybe not fair. And we have every right to be angry and frustrated - just as long as we don’t allow ourselves to forget, however much we would want to, that other people are eating dirt. That is, our anger and frustration is legitimate, but as hard as this is on us, we cannot ask other people to pay a far higher price. Period.

All it takes to know that is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of that woman in Haiti. Imagine you haven’t had any food in three days, you’ve never had enough food, that all you and your child will have eat today is a cookie made of shortening and dirt. And ask yourself, is what I am being asked to do so very hard? Is it so hard that I can ask that woman to bear a little more of my burden?

I do not diminish the challenges of finding a way, but this woman in Haiti is the beginnings of a vast, vast and evil tragedy created by us. Just as the farmer in Bangladesh who said, as his farm and only sources of food were washed away under him, “I have been told this problem is caused by electricity, but I swear, I have never had even a single lightbulb.”The burden of these problems will be borne anyway. There is no longer time to imagine that someone will not suffer.

The question is whether we will take up our share of the suffering, and find a way to change the things we “have to” do, so that others, who might, if we bothered to ask, say that they “have to” eat and “have to” live get a chance to do those things.We need to stop the biofuels boom, and working on that means working at every level - we need to tell political candidates what we care about, and speak and write, and also drive less, and not buy ethanol. We need to stop climate change at every level - that means voting and running for election ourselves, or writing, or calling or marching - and also cutting our own emissions.

Because otherwise, we become cannibals. We are feeding other people’s lives to our cars, devouring the world’s poor. And it doesn’t stop there - as we warm the planet and draw down biological resources, we are eating our own children. It must stop.

The article notes that the price of the good dirt is going up. Now there’s a metaphor - when we reduce the world’s poor to eating dirt, and eat the next generation’s topsoil, what will be left?


3 Responses to “Haitians Eat Dirt, Cars Eat Corn”

  1. shanaluluon 31 Jan 2008 at 12:00 am

    Oh, Sharon, you scare the hell out of me on a regular basis, but I’m pretty darned sure you’re right. This is SUCH a hard sell for most Americans, and it’s difficult to have hope when it looks like most of us are ignorant or selfish enough to just keep on as we are for as long as it’s at all possible.

    Thank you for not being afraid to say these things, for not being afraid that some people may think you crazy, and for keeping the faith in these uncertain times. You inspire me, both to have faith and to try harder to reduce my consumption.

    –Shana in Missouri

  2. sherryon 01 Feb 2008 at 12:04 am

    there is an interesting article on a somewhat similar theme with respect to climate change here (though not expressed with quite Sharon’s passion):


  3. katecontinuedon 01 Feb 2008 at 4:28 am

    I’d been contemplating my version of this article when I saw your post at Casubon’s Book this morning. The comments made me so cranky I chose not to comment.

    Tonight I remembered I could comment here. I am glad you put a real kick in the pants in your post. I appreciated your detailed focus on our responsibilities. I came at quite differently, but that is what shows our diverse blogosphere.

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