Not only were we driven by limited time together, but by the rising pressure of food insecurity that is playing out all over the world. Here are just a few of the news stories that have come across my desk in the last week or so. Individually and collectively they point to a real, deep, and serious food crisis.
'As world food prices continue to surge, 37 countries are facing critical food crises due to conflict and disasters, according to a report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
FAO's global food price index rose 40 percent this year to the highest level on record. Food costs in the world's poorest countries — including Iraq, Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, and 20 African countries — rose 25 percent to $107 billion.
"Urgent and new steps are needed to prevent the negative impacts of rising food prices from further escalating and to quickly boost crop production in the most affected countries," said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf in a press conference last week at FAO's Rome headquarters.
"Without support for poor farmers and their families in the hardest-hit countries, they will not be able to cope. Assisting poor vulnerable households in rural areas in the short term and enabling them to produce more food would be an efficient tool to protect them against hunger and undernourishment." '
"Asian nations, many at risk from climate change, must invest more in urban and indoor farming to help feed the hundreds of millions of people in their growing cities, the World Meteorological Organisation said on Wednesday"
"A new crisis is emerging, a global food catastrophe that will reach further and be more crippling than anything the world has ever seen. The credit crunch and the reverberations of soaring oil prices around the world will pale in comparison to what is about to transpire, Donald Coxe, global portfolio strategist at BMO Financial Group said at the Empire Club’s 14th annual investment outlook in Toronto on Thursday."
Global food prices will come under further pressure today as benchmark prices for cereals at much higher levels come into operation, making it almost inevitable that a second wave of food price inflation will hit the world's leading economies.
In Chicago wheat and rice prices for delivery in March 2008 have jumped to an all-time record, soyabean prices are at a 34-year high and corn prices at an 11-year peak.
Knock-on price rises are set to hit consumers in coming months, raising inflationary pressure and constraining the ability of central banks to mitigate the slowdown in their economies. Knock-on price rises are set to hit consumers in coming months, raising inflationary pressure and constraining the ability of central banks to mitigate the slowdown in their economies."
"The US Department of Agriculture has predicted that global corn stocks will fall to a 33-year low of just 7.5 weeks of consumption, while global wheat stocks will plunge to their lowest level in at least 47 years at 9.3 weeks."
Just as I once wrote that over the last year I have shifted my rhetoric on peak oil and climate change from talking about what may be to speaking of what is, it is now time for all of us to stop speaking of hypotheticals when we are thinking about famine. We are not now short of food - fair and just systems of distribution could still avert the worst outcomes. But those are not the systems we have in place.
So the question becomes, both for Aaron and I in our book, and for our society as a whole, how do we change that? How do we change our food systems so that what we eat and what we grow keeps justice in mind? How do we put new systems in place that maximize food production and minimize inputs? How do we do this quickly, but with minimal destruction?
Those are incredibly hard questions to answer in many ways. And while we have some ideas and solutions for some of those questions and a host of others, we don't claim to know everything. A lot of times, we feel like we don't know anything at all. Which is why I will be writing a lot about food over the coming months here, throwing ideas out to my readers for comment and critique, thinking the questions through with your help.
I wonder sometimes if it is crazy for the two of us to take up the most basic questions of our society, to act as though we know enough to find a solution for such a vast problem. My training is in Shakespeare, poetry, language, history. Aaron's is in landscape architecture and journalism. Shouldn't this job be being done by someone more famous, more important, better trained, more knowledgeable? And, of course, it is being done by some people who fit those descriptions.
But when I feel least certain that we can do the things that are needed, when I most see myself as inadequate to the task, I'm reminded of four quotations that I'd like all my readers to look at, and think a little on. The thing is, I suspect a lot of us are in the same boat - we spent our lives preparing for a different world and life than the one we're faced with. And now we know this stuff about peak oil and climate change and the world, and we have to do something. But how can we? How can *WE* do something, when we're not trained, or prepared, or ready? When we're not activists or leaders by nature? When we have fears and doubts and weaknesses?
There's so very much work that needs to be done that it can get overwhelming. How do we narrow things down? None of us can do it all, so how do we know what to do, when to step up? How do we put ourselves forward into places we weren't fully prepared to go, into roles we aren't wholly ready for?
The first three are very short, the third, longer:
"We are what we pretend to be." - Kurt Vonnegut
I have loved Kurt Vonnegut's writing since I was a teenager, but this quotation particularly has always struck me. When I became a peak oil writer, instead of a weird chick with a crazy blog (which, let us note, is a process, not a moment, and still has not happened in many circles
"She did not cry, 'I cannot, I am not worthy,'
Nor 'I have not the strength.'
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
Bravest of all humans,
consent illuminated her." - Denise Levertov
I came across this poem in the same place I found the following one, in one of Annie Lamott's wonderful, funny books. Levertov is talking about Mary, mother of Jesus, and Annie Lamott quotes this poem, and then follows it with the line "This is so, so not me." Well, it isn't me either. I'm not real holy here, and not much of a Mariologist. But I like very much the notion that consent can illuminate us. I think sometimes simply consenting to do the work may be the big transition - we go along thinking hard about ourselves as one sort of person, doing one sort of thing, and suddenly, we have to find a new way to understand ourselves.
Sometimes we know what we want to do, but often, the work finds us. This was how it was for me - like many of us, maybe most of us, here I was growing my family's food and writing about that, and about a few other things. It was a hobby at most, I, like millions of other people, was putting down my thoughts on a particular passion of mine on the internet. And when it came time to sit down and figure out (only a couple of years ago) what I would do when the kids got a little bigger, "Writer" wasn't even on the list. "Peak Oil Writer" wasn't a job, as far as I knew. So to say I didn't plan to embark on the career I'm on doesn't even begin to describe it - I didn't know this career existed. I had read people like Heinberg, Darley, Kunstler - but the idea that they too wandered into their work by confronting an idea and coming to see it as theirs never occurred to me.
Two years later, I'm a peak oil writer (as well as a host of other things), doing this job I didn't know existed. The work found me. And I would bet that some of you are have been found by some of this work. I hope you will take it up.
"...one of the immutable laws of being human is that the people who show up are the right people." - Annie Lamott
Could this possibly be true? That is, could it be true that we some how, trusting our intuitions and our guts, know what our proper work is, what we can contribute to the world? None of us can do everything we need to in the world. Trying to do so will drive us mad. But all of us can find a piece of the project, a limited part of what desperately needs to be done, can trust the part of us that says "this is my proper work in the world" and pick that up and go on with it.
I don't know what your work is - heck, I didn't know what mine was. Maybe your job is to start a small, local seed company that will serve your area, or to help families in need in your spare time. Maybe your work is to spread the word about climate change to your friends and family, or to write position papers for a Senator. Maybe your work is a very small piece of everything - to tend this patch of ground, to care for these particular people who need you. Maybe your work is much larger - to transmit this idea or make this policy change. Maybe your work will change over time - maybe right now you are head down in a medical crisis, or new fatherhood or school and your work is to get yourself to a place where you can take on a little more later - and then you'll find what else there is. Or maybe you are moving from one kind of work to another to match your interests or your needs. Some of us will have a single immutable project, others a host of them, or a shifting pattern of pies we put our fingers in.
But, I would argue, all of us are the right people for some work. All of us have the obligation to show up, to the extent of our abilities, to stretch ourselves a little, to take on a piece of this, and maybe just a little more than we can possibly achieve.
Finally, a long quote that I may have used before here, but that I repeat because I believe it is so important.
I discovered in my earlier research on international conflict resolution that however intractable an intersocietal conflict may be, there are always people working on the solution. Pick the direst time in the Middle East conflict, for example, and you can find someone hidden away in a basement drawing up maps for the water and sewer lines, the lines that will connect the two societies and that must be built when peace is reached, as inconceivable as that tis at the time. Someone else is sketching the constitution for the new country, the one that is also inconceivable at the time. And someone else is outlining the terms of trade for the as yet unproduced goods that will traverse the two societies' border....Surrounded by intense conflict, hatred and violence, these people appear the fool, idealists who do not know or can not accept the reality of their societies' situation. If they really knew that situation, others would say, they would be 'realists;' they would concentrated their efforts on hard bargaining, economic incentives and military force. But, in practice, when a threshold is passed, when leaders shake hands or a jailed dissident is freed or families from the two sides join together, everyone casts about for new ways to organize. - Thomas Princen
I came to this by accident. I was interested, and I noticed "I don't think anyone has ever written about this" and "I wonder if this might be helpful." And it turned, oddly enough, into part of a career. But even if it hadn't, it would still have been my right work. The moment I noticed that no one was doing something that needed doing, I had begun the process of entry into the great project of ameliorating and regenerating. Because the answer to "this needs doing" is almost always "Great, why don't you get started." I didn't know where getting started would take me. Sometimes I still wonder if I'm the right person, often consent does not illuminate me, sometimes I'd just as soon do something else. But the truth is this - the work must be done by someone, and why not me?
And why not you? Perhaps food isn't your thing, but water systems, or energy policy, or conflict resolution or green education is. Perhaps food is your thing, and you don't have the slightest idea what to do - do you buy a farm, do you join a CSA, start a community garden, begin a coop?
I can't tell you. I can only tell you this. The work is out there, and it is as much as all of us can do. And the right people are the ones, illuminated by consent, who take on a project, and a vision of the future, claim it as their own, and go forward, in all our limitations.
If you feel inadequate to the job, welcome to the club! If you feel you don't know enough, have enough strength or courage or skill, I'm glad to meet you - we're in the same boat. If you think that this is a job for someone with authority, I'm going to tell you my secret. The week before I was a farmer, I was a grad student with a seed and some dirt I had no idea what to do with. The day before I was a peak oil writer I was a Mom with grubby children and dirty dishes and a blog. The transition from inadequacy to authority is only this - one more day of trying, one more experiment, one person who knows even less than you do, the willingness to try, at least, to help them, and the illumination of consent.
I wish you all good work.