Is Humanity Morally Sustainable?: “Over A Billion Served” Isn’t Enough

The number of people affected by hunger globally rose to as many as 828 million in 2021, an increase of about 46 million since 2020 and 150 million since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic (1), according to a United Nations report that provides fresh evidence that the world is moving further away from its goal of ending hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030.

    As the world gradually emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, governments and communities begin to reflect on the effect it has taken on their economies and citizens and it isn’t pretty. One hundred years ago when the Spanish Flu pandemic struck, the technology to diagnose and slow the spread of the illness was far removed from the resources that exist today. The world was also embroiled in a bloody war, the first of the two great wars of the 20th century. As a result of these and other factors, the pandemic spread rapidly around the world and eventually killed 20 million people. When the population of the world was much less than the 7-8 billion that is estimated today, those were devastating numbers.

    Resource availability is the number one priority of survival, it has driven the existence and well-being of human society since the first hominids emerged from the forests and caves of an ancient Earth. The early tribes of hunter-gatherers spent their entire days foraging for sustenance. Over time, they learned which plants could be consumed and which could not. They learned to hunt and fashion weapons that could efficiently kill and prepare the game they caught. And perhaps most importantly, they found sources of fresh water and based their dwellings and communities on this most valuable element. 

    Despite the modern world’s technology and development, human beings have not changed much and the subsistence required remains the same. We still need balanced diets with the appropriate amount of calories and nutrients in order to conduct productive lives. The basic requirement for food and water is a human constant, however it has also not been available to all people at all points of time. As a matter of fact, the basic needs of survival have factored in the balance of human populations. In a sort of twisted Darwinism, humans have determined the availability of basic sustenance for society and in doing so have influenced the success or downfall of entire civilizations. 

When all the trees have been cut down,

when all the animals have been hunted,

when all the waters are polluted,

when all the air is unsafe to breathe,

only then will you discover you cannot eat money.

Cree Prophecy

    When humans first began eking out their existence, the problem was not lack of resources, it was lack of knowledge and technique. Humans had to learn and teach themselves because the alternative was starvation and death. Obviously humans overcame their deficit of knowledge and began to thrive. Over the course of hundreds of years humans began to control the environment, invented agriculture, engaged in animal husbandry and even affected the genetic direction that their own and other species took. By the 21st century long after the advent of tools and the Industrial Revolution, humans are capable of manipulating almost any environment and in the best scenarios would be considered the apex predator. Our species has populated the planet one million fold and are actually straining the limits of their ecological environments and artificial ones. With the advances the species has made, it would certainly stand to consider that it has increased the chances of survival exponentially. However it has come at great cost. Industrialization has benefited one species primarily while driving to extinction or endangering countless others. Humanity has also chose who will benefit the most through hierarchies of status, perceived stratifications of those who are “more worthy” than others. This has resulted in needless suffering. 

    There is no reason that some humans should suffer in order for others to succeed and horde resources. No logical reason that is, but human society does not follow logic or even selfless compassion most of the time. Humanity has evolved from nomadic tribes to tribal allegiances to sovereignty; theoretical constructs of social organization whose ultimate goal is control over land, rights and resources. The result of this is seen in the effects of severe inequity between the nations and territories that have resulted from cultural and social differences. In this competition, those who possess the land with the most valuable resources are the “winners”. By fortune, or force, these lands rest in the power of the most powerful “tribes”. Those who happen to inhabit lands with less valuable resources are left to their own means. That is why the political composition of the world consists of only a few “superpowers” after which there are countries considered at a lower tier, and under that “developing nations” who struggle to maintain existence. Developing nations frequently collapse and either re-form or more powerful nations are allowed to take control of them and whatever resources they possess. This does not necessarily benefit the residents of these nations who do not find themselves citizens of the more powerful ones but rather colonies. 

    In lending to the proverb that proceeds this paragraph, humanity defies the definition of humanity itself. I’ve long proposed a differing definition of “humanity” appropriate to the careless nature that our species has evolved to approach itself and its effect on the environment. It isn’t that individuals are particularly lacking in compassion for their peers, in fact, almost all people are willing to help and come to the aid of their fellow man or woman. However, when you give a group or society a banner and call it a nation then things can change perspectives. “Us vs Them” becomes a powerful theme and a means to pit ourselves against one another. Under the philosophy of nationhood, all resources become Our Resources, the land becomes Our Land, and what is mine is no longer yours. This change in philosophy is one of the aspects that the Cree saying struggles to understand. The natives or indigenous people had a more holistic approach to the land and nature. Although they certainly drew territories and engaged in war, they also understood that there was no sense in controlling the land or nature overall. They believed that they themselves were part of the world and belonged to it instead of destined to claim ownership over it. Modern humanity and the organization of nations has abandoned this principle. It is every nation, every one for themselves. 

“Fleshy bags of mostly water.”

    H2O is the one element that is crucial to all life. This is fact and not a negotiable one. The human body might survive for up to 7-8 days without food sustenance, however it will barely go 3 days without potable water to consume. You can look up the results of dehydration and the horrible symptoms that afflict the body when it is starved of this vital element. It isn’t pretty, and along with being an unnecessary measure of suffering, the instances of death by dehydration in the 20th and 21st centuries are startlingly high in not only developing nations but even those such as the United States. 

    One thing that the 21st century has made abundantly clear is that all the old measurements and standards are rapidly falling by the wayside. In the American Southwest, the normal sources of water are drying up. Reservoirs and streams now run dry, states fight over water allowances from once abundant sources and communities employ restrictions on water use to conserve for actual needs. It will not get better or reverse itself, the crisis is just beginning. The World Health Organization reports that nearly 1 million people die every year due to poor drinking water sanitation. This largely includes diseases caused by bacteria and parasites contained in contaminated water. After many thousands of years of survival you would think that the human race would be better at ensuring that we all have decent water to drink. However, as I discussed previously, it isn’t dependent on the availability of technology or resource availability as it is political will. Developed nations don’t care what happens in nations with fewer resources and higher demands for their populations. 

    Even in a developed nation the argument rages over how to distribute and attain more drinking and agricultural water resources. Often one of the answers stares us directly in the face on two or more coasts: the oceans. Saltwater is not consumable for drinking unless you want to die. Eventually the salinity will further dehydrate and poison the body and lead to some very nasty symptoms before death. Salt water desalinators have existed for decades but are expensive to maintain and run, however the coming decades will find that they become more of a necessity than an option. It is not hard to predict that by the year 2100 desalination processing plants will dot the coastlines of almost every nation that can afford to build them. But what of those poor nations, particularly those in Africa and South America? Will they continue to be left behind just because the superpowers of the world choose to see them suffer instead of enacting what should be a moral imperative? Judging by the way they have been treated historically the answer is “yes”. 

Waste Not, Want Not 

    The figures are staggering and shameful. More than 1 billions pounds of food is wasted per year while thousands starve to death in developed and undeveloped nations alike. Guess who leads the world in this category? By now you would be ignorant not to assume that it is the United States of America, the poster child for all things wasteful. Add the wanton use of food to our terrible dispensing of water resources and reverse both of those statistics and you could eliminate starvation and famine completely. I repeat, with a different approach those scourges could be eliminated completely. 

The saying that your parents repeated ad nauseam, “finish your plate, there’s starving kids in (insert foreign country here)”, could not have spoken truer to the epidemic that food waste has grown to in the 21st century. The causes of food waste are more complex than just overproduction. Among some of the factors are the food habits of consumers, knowledge concerning types of food storage and disposal, and corporate/consumer influence. Americans purchase more food per capita than any other country in the world and for that reason, manufacturers generate more food than most other countries. Most people are not familiar with how long food should be kept and how to dispose of unwanted food other than throwing it away. Sometimes, even state or local laws prohibit or discourage the donation of food to pantries or directly to needy communities. Additionally, the culture of American consumerism drives over consumption and purchase of food which resultantly becomes wasted. 

Like the aforementioned issues of resource availability and distribution, hunger is a problem that has multiple solutions. Plenty of organizations, for-profit and nonprofit have seen fit to devote services, man hours and technology to assist communities in need. The collective will of the human race is enough to make a tremendous difference. Unfortunately, it is its collective indifference that has perpetuated the astounding disparity in quality of life for millions. 

Give a man a fish…

    It’s not as simple as the old proverb about the difference between giving someone food and teaching themselves how to attain it themselves. The world is more complex than just going out into the wild and foraging for what an individual or community needs to survive. Human population boom and the reduction of access and availability of food and water resources have become increasing challenges as our population approaches 10 billion. Modern cities, where humans are most heavily concentrated, are dependent on supply lines and shipment of processed and packaged food. Even water relies on the infrastructure to deliver it safely and in a sanitary form. In the next several decades the challenge to see that all communities are provided for will become one of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century. Many societies have already failed to provide their citizens with adequate resources or have been left to fend for themselves in this plight. Even in places such as the United States there live inhabitants who do not have access to basic utilities. Look at the example of a slum or an Indian reservation: third world islands enclosed in a first world setting. 

As the effects of climate change become increasingly more evident, ecologists predict that it will threaten the global food supply at an accelerated rate. Along with fresh water sources drying up or being expended, the amount of productive land the world uses to grow crops and raise livestock continues to decrease. Natural disasters such as droughts, hurricanes, wildfires and floods will continue to damage valuable resource infrastructures and disrupt supply chains. The war in Ukraine is already having effects on the global grain supply. The megadrought that the western U.S. is in the middle of has already damaged crops and decreased output as well. Ocean pollution and acidification has rendered many ecosystems uninhabitable by the fish and other life forms that used to populate them. As with all breakdown of environmental systems, humans are a major cause. The indigenous people who inhabited every continent, including North America, before the settlements of “civilization” managed the land in harmony with the land and their own needs. They were careful not to disrupt the balance of give and take and understood the cycles of life that provided prosperity for themselves and other organisms. Humans have strayed from this practice. Extraction of resources is based purely on profit and materialistic ends. “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

Is this really the way we want humanity to end? For the enrichment of a few? This philosophy will leave billions to suffer and a wrecked environment. Humanity already sacrifices the well being of many as I have pointed out. Emerging from the pandemic, the world economy has responded with pushing necessary resources to exorbitant costs. Accompanying the tragedies of unnecessary deaths and the breakdown of many healthcare systems, many also found themselves out of work or saddled with higher expenses. To be more concise, every economic system attempted to maximize profit in the face of having lost it for the past two years. Humanity is moving farther away from its connection to the environment and its needs and towards a sociopathic existence based on materialism. This isn’t how our race survives hundreds and thousands of years into the future. If humans are to prosper, we must pay attention to our elders and be better stewards of our world. After all, you can’t digest paper.

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