Monday, January 16, 2012

World Hunger and the Inescapable Network of Mutuality

This is the text of a talk I gave as keynote speaker at the 2009 Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, in my hometown of Sonora, California:

 World Hunger and the Inescapable Network of Mutuality 

All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.
--Martin Luther King Jr.

We are gathered here, this afternoon, at a critical moment in history. When Martin Luther King was leading the civil rights movement in the middle of the last century, the United States was a prosperous country, confident of its primary position in the world. While many who participated in the movement had known what it means to go without food, the country, by and large, was well-fed. Grinding poverty was being addressed by any number of programs. Collectively, we were in an optimistic mood reflected by the notion of the Great Society.

Today, we sit in this auditorium in a much more sober frame of mind. Many of us have concerns about investments and pension funds, about the security of our jobs, or about simply meeting each month’s bills. And despite optimism about the new Obama administration, there is a realization, encouraged by the President-elect himself, that things may become increasingly difficult, before they improve.

This economic change was gradual, as the plenty of five decades ago became excess, then, ultimately, Titanic greed. Like the captain of that “unsinkable” ship, the Titanic, our leadership has made disastrous choices, and now, we find ourselves standing on a tilting deck, wondering what to do next, as the economy of the country seems poised to slip beneath the waves.

One of the hallmarks of a great leader is that he speaks to particulars, but sets an example that is far-reaching. Martin Luther King was such a leader. His particular focus was civil rights, but he addressed other issues and his egalitarian interests were global.

What, do you suppose, would Dr. King tell us, now, if he were alive to witness our present financial, ecological, and ethical disasters?

I think the answer might be contained in his statement, “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

The network has become an important concept in our times. There’s networking among people, the electronic Web of the Internet, the philosophical notion of the development of “hive mind,” and the Gaia Hypothesis that exposes the essential interconnectedness of all life. Given this notion of a universal network of interlocking and interacting parts, Dr. King’s declaration that all men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality is very current, indeed.

So, given our present state of affairs, what does it mean to us, to be mutually interdependent? Of what does human mutuality actually consist? And how might we justify such interdependence with Dr. King’s other great passion, for human freedom?

Such questions can form the basis of a critical analysis that investigates who is served by the present situation, and who is marginalized. Critical analysis can provide more inclusive accounts of how the world is organized, and how that organization can be changed toward more democracy and equity. This is important because, as Dr. King wrote in a letter from Birmingham jail, in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

We have been, of late, a society dominated by another kind of network, of the super-rich. This network is in its turn tied into, and draws its sustenance from, a web of multi-national corporations that now spans the globe. What’s more, many of us who are not among the super-wealthy still derive income from stocks and various investment funds that are tied into multi-national businesses.

This form of investment has given many in the developed nations a very comfortable lifestyle.  But the alarming fact is that the world's wealthiest 16 percent uses 80 percent of the world’s natural resources. In the US, alone, every man, woman and child is responsible for the consumption of about 25 tons of raw materials each year.

So, we can clearly see that the human race is living far beyond its means – the developed nations in particular. A recent report by over thirteen hundred international scientists warns that "Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted."

So, in our critical analysis, one of the assumptions that we’ve always taken for granted, that “Earth abides,” as the Bible puts it -- that the natural underpinnings of human wellbeing are ever-normal -- must be relinquished. We are destroying the very foundations of our own survival, and that of future generations, not to mention the survival of species other than our own. We are, indeed, enmeshed in Dr. King’s “inescapable network of mutuality,” and there is not one of us here today who could exist for long without that network of natural and cultural assets.

Yet, the fact of the matter is, the on-going incursions of multinational corporations deep into the natural infrastructure are causing ecological disruption that threatens cultural coherence everywhere. For the peoples of the developing nations, especially, the situation is stark. Their basic needs are going unmet and the cultures that previously have sustained them are collapsing.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. For the last twenty-five years, I’ve been traveling in Mexico, in the area known as Barrancas de Cobre, Copper Canyon, or the Tarahumara Sierra, after the indigenous people who, for hundreds of years, have lived in caves in the canyon’s cliffs. Today, they lead a barely-sustainable existence of marginal agriculture on ejido land.

The ejido is a system of communal land ownership that was instituted after the Mexican Revolution to restore lands stolen from indigenous peoples, during Spanish colonization. Ejidos are the cornerstone of a subsistence economy, and have enabled many of Mexico's indigenous groups to preserve their cultural identities. The Agrarian Reform Law of 1992, however, has destabilized the ejido system, by paving the way for the privatization of ejido lands, and now there is outside pressure to sell.
When I first went to the Sierra twenty-five years ago, it was common to see the little log or adobe cabins, or cave and rock shelters, of the Tarahumara nestled into creek and river basins. Each would have its small field planted in scraggly corn, and its little collection of scrawny chickens and goats. The fields were tilled with wooden plows, sometimes drawn by a burro or horse, but as often as not, pushed by the landholder, himself. Deeper in the canyon, the cave dwellers still carried on their ages-old subsistence existence of marginal agriculture, hunting, and fishing from the Rio Batopilas.

On one early trip, I was amazed to see that a huge industrial plant had erupted outside of one of the tiny mountain towns, ten times larger than the town, itself.  I learned that it was a paper mill, funded by the World Bank.
 On subsequent trips, it became clear that the mountain ejidos were becoming economically dependent on the logging industry that feeds the paper mill. It became less common to see men out doing field work and much more common to meet trucks loaded with pine logs, bound for the mill.

Soon, in the northern entrance port of Juarez, and in the state capital, Chihuahua City, Tarahumara women and children began appearing in droves, begging. Vast shantytowns sprang up on the outskirts. Clear-cutting in the mountains was causing erosion and drought, which was driving the people from their lands.

Up in the Sierra, the situation is worsening. Logging has led to new road construction, so that areas that formerly could be reached only by ancient Tarahumara trails have suddenly been opened to mainstream economy. Modern goods are flooding in and now, children who formerly have eaten scant but nutritious foods, are wandering along, toting liter bottles of Coke. The incidence of dental caries is dramatically on the rise, as is alcoholism among the adults.

Far more serious is the rising dominance of drug cartels that have followed the new roads into the Canyon. The illegal drug economy is a destabilizing force in any culture, and in the marijuana growing canyons of the Sierra, young Tarahumara have abandoned their traditions, adopting the lifestyle and values of the mestizo culture, which is also being transformed by drug culture and profits. As the cartels move into the area, violence and bloodshed follow.

Drug cartels, corrupt officials and police, and big-time logging businesses are working hand-in-hand to exploit the resources of the Sierra, through illegal extraction of timber and large numbers of questionable logging permits. Meanwhile, the rich forests of the Tarahumara Sierra are noticeably thinner, and the remaining trees, smaller.

Rio Batopilas and its tributary creeks are filling with run-off mud, endangering the fisheries of the Tarahumara. And the men who formerly tilled the fields are pulled away to other work, both legal and illegal.

One government report speaks optimistically of “speeding the process of assimilation into the global economy for the Tarahumara and other indigenous groups,” which is euphemistic language for the sale of native lands, and the increasing cultural disruption and economic and nutritional impoverishment, to which I have been witness.

For me, the iconic image of the “process of assimilation into the global economy for the Tarahumara,” is a young man whom I saw a couple of years ago in Creel, a town on the edge of Copper Canyon. Obviously, he recently had come up from one of the cave dwellings deep in the canyon. Despite the cold weather, he was clothed only in the white cotton loincloth traditional to his people. He was about six feet tall, but must have weighed only about 120 pounds. His long, runner’s legs were stick thin; his coppery chest displayed every rib.

He was leaning against the adobe wall of the mission, looking both dazed and exhausted. Someone in the mission had given him a man’s Polyester suit coat, which he wore draped over his shoulders. Beside him, on the ground, was a bottle of Coke.

Welcome to the assimilation process into the global economy, my friend!

This man is just one of tens of thousands disrupted from their traditional lives by the coming of one paper mill.

Mexico has a paper production deficit, but the nation's food deficit is far graver. Forty percent of the population suffers from some degree of malnutrition, and for the 23 million Mexicans who now live in extreme poverty, the nutritional gap is widening. Taking food-growing land out of production is bad policy. Not only does it deprive the poorest of the poor -- mostly rural indigenous peoples -- of sustenance, but it increases dependency on global grain cartels like Cargill, Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland.

As one man said, who had been approached about selling his forest,  “They'll take up our water and dry out the soil and we'll never grow anything on it again. Then what are we supposed to eat, paper?"

Mine is not an isolated story that I am simply indulging myself by telling, but an eyewitness account of a phenomenon occurring, not just in Mexico, but all over the globe today, as multinational corporations, often funded by the World Bank, sink deeper and deeper into the wilderness areas of the earth, in the relentless search for resources. In the process, the rich are getting richer, we citizens of the developed nations live quite comfortably – so far -- and the poor are devastated, often slipping over the margins into violence, starvation, and death.

Rural people the world over, despite many differences, share one profound thing in common. By and large, they have been neglected by their own governments and by an international community that continues to ignore the catastrophic consequences of both inaction, and complicity with multi-national interests.

The World Bank is the single biggest source of finance for international development, and its policies have a critical impact on more than 110 borrowing nations. The Bank has become a seemingly unstoppable and often destructive environmental and political force, with life-and-death impact around the world, such as huge dams that have forced the resettlement of millions of the poorest people on earth, and road building and jungle colonization in Brazil, Indonesia, and Africa that have left vast deforestation and social conflict in their wake.

Nevertheless, senior Bank officials continue to fund projects with disastrous ecological and human rights consequences, and repeatedly, and without political accountability, have increased the Bank’s support for regimes that torture and murder their subjects. While governments of developed nations back the play of the World Bank for their own purposes, millions of the world’s poor suffer and die.

923 million people were undernourished in 2007, of which 907 million live in developing countries. The number of hungry people in the world has increased by 75 million. Rising food prices have hit Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia and the Pacific the hardest, where the number of hungry people has increased by 65 million.

Lest hunger appear to be an issue that takes place only in remote, underdeveloped lands, however, it’s important to stress that hunger persists in the U.S., as well. 35.5 million people live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. This represents more than one in ten households in the United States. Right here in Tuolumne County, 12 to 17 percent of families face the daily trauma of hunger. With the present recession, these statistics are surely becoming more grave, with each passing day.

 Dr. King once said that “we must all learn to live together as brothers. Or we will all perish together as fools.” Nothing could be truer of the global hunger crisis. Already, because of human demand for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel, more land has been claimed for agriculture in the last 60 years than in the 18th and 19th centuries combined.  An estimated 24% of the Earth's land surface is now cultivated.

Water withdrawals from lakes and rivers have doubled in the last 40 years. Flow from rivers has been reduced dramatically. For parts of the year, the Yellow River in China, the Nile in Africa, and the Colorado in North America, dry up before they reach the ocean. Humans now use between 40% and 50% of all available freshwater running off the land.

At least a quarter of all fish stocks are over-harvested. In some areas, the catch is now less than a hundredth of that before industrial fishing. An estimated 90% of the total weight of the ocean's large predators - tuna, swordfish and sharks - has disappeared in recent years.

Grim as these statistics are, hunger does not exist because the world does not produce enough food. We have the experience and the technology right now to end the problem. What it would take to end hunger and malnutrition worldwide is a concerted effort and more equitable distribution.

Hunger is a political condition exacerbated by global economics. And so the key to overcoming hunger is to change the politics of hunger. And it is urgent that we do so. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes -- one child every five seconds. In the 20 minutes that it’s taken me to deliver this talk, 240 children have died from hunger.

Dr. King addressed the mutuality of humankind when he said that we find ourselves “a rather bewildered human race. . . Our world is sick . . . If we don’t have good will toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves. . . . And so, if we assume that life is worth living, if we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative . . . Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone . . . Yes, as nations and individuals, we are interdependent. . . .”

Speaking of a trip to India, King continued, “How can one avoid being depressed when one sees . . . evidence of millions of people going to bed hungry at night? . . . More than a million people sleep on the sidewalks of Bombay every night; more than half a million . . . on the sidewalks of Calcutta. . . They have no houses to go into. They have no beds to sleep in. . . And I started thinking  . . . that right here in our country we spend millions of dollars every day to store surplus food; and I said to myself: “I know where we can store that food free of charge – in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even in our own nation, who go to bed hungry at night.”

“It really boils down to this:” he said, “that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Dr. King claimed that “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” Thus, it behooves each one of us to educate ourselves, and to consider in what ways our own comfort is paid for by the sweat of another’s brow and by the degradation of the natural world. What we must come to realize is that we are all implicated in this global humanitarian crisis. Whether it is evident or not, as citizens of the wealthiest nation on earth our stability is built on the backs of disenfranchised peoples the world over.

Today, I’ve addressed but one of the causes of world poverty and hunger. Obviously, there are others. I have chosen to speak of an issue about which we can do something. I did not come here with answers, but to raise questions. How can we best serve our fellow humans, now, and the earth that supports us? As we reorganize the U.S. economy, what must we rethink, in our critical analysis of the situation, or re-legislate, or reinvest? As we begin the restructuring of our economy, what institutions must be lent our support, and from which must we withdraw support, if we are to practice “non-cooperation with evil”? These are the critical questions of our moment in history that we ignore at our peril.

I want to close this afternoon with words Dr. King spoke at the end of his Christmas sermon to the Ebenezer Baptist Church, in 1967:

“Today I still have a dream.

“I have a dream that one day men will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers. I still have a dream this morning that one day every Negro in this country, every colored person in the world, will be judged on the basis of the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, and every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

“I still have a dream that one day . . . the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer, but rather the first order of business on every legislative agenda.

“I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

“I still have dream today that in all of our state houses and city halls men will be elected to go there who will do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God.

“I still have a dream today that one day war will come to an end, that men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. . .

“I still have dream today that one day . . . every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. . .

“I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.”

Thus ended my 2009 speech, but of course the situations I described have not ended, but only gotten worse. It is incumbent upon each one of us to choose some small part of some huge problem and begin to gnaw away at it with determination. Like King, we may not get there, but such actions will at least give us a glimpse of the Promised Land.



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