Others Are What We Eat

During the year that I studied at Regent College, we were treated to a guest lecture by William Rees in one of my classes. Rees is a professor in the School of Regional and Community Planning at the University of British Columbia and is a world renowned expert in sustainability issues. Heard anything about your “ecological footprint” lately? He’s the guy who came up with the concept.

The discussions about sustainability that I’ve participated in or read about frequently center around localization or bioregionalism, i.e. functioning economically, agriculturally, and politically on a primarily local or regional level. And that’s completely justified. I, of all people, will tout that as being key to truly sustainable societies till the cows come home. In his lecture, though, Rees gave us a benchmark for sustainability that places it in its proper context: “No lifestyle is sustainable if it could not be extended to all members of the human family without overloading vital global life-support systems.” He went on to ask, “Do we have the right to extend our ecological footprints into the developing world if it compromises future development options? How can the already wealthy be persuaded to live on smaller footprints so the poor may live at all?”

Rees spoke to us in January 2005, a month to the day after an earthquake under the Indian Ocean caused tsunamis creating devastating effects to Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India . He explained part of the reason why the level of destruction from those tsunamis was so massive:

Ecologically intact coastal mangrove ecosystems provide significant insurance against storm surges and tsunamis. The outer layer of red mangroves, with their flexible branches and tangled roots hanging in the coastal waters absorb the first shock waves [of a tidal wave]. The second layer of tall black mangroves then serves like a porous wall, dissipating the energy and intensity of the fuller flood.

But mangrove forests all over coastal areas of southeast Asia and Indonesia have been ripped out. Why? For us here in the U.S. Said Rees: “Coastal mangroves are cleared for tourism and shrimp farming. This appears to have greatly exacerbated the human and physical damage caused by the tsunami.”

When I heard a teaser on NPR yesterday for a story from PRI’s “The World” about mangroves and the recent Myanmar cyclone, I knew exactly what they were going to say. Sure enough, when I listened to the whole story, they confirmed the very things Bill Rees had told me three years ago.

Jeffrey McNeely, chief scientist for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said this:

“I saw with my own eyes in southern Thailand just after the tsunami . . . the areas where the mangroves were intact suffered much less damage from the tsunami than areas where the mangroves had been destroyed to make shrimp ponds so that Americans can get cheap shrimp at the various fast food restaurants.”

Click here to listen to the whole story (less than five minutes long).

And so, that quote from Wendell Berry I have over in the right sidebar of this blog rings true once again. How we eat largely determines how the world is used and how someone else lives. In this case, because we Americans create the demand for cheap shrimp, people on the other side of the world suffer. The death toll is expected to reach 100,000 with 1 MILLION homeless from the Myanmar cyclone. Can we even begin to wrap our minds around that kind of human tragedy? Yes, of course I know we didn’t cause the cyclone. But we have certainly contributed to the seriousness of its destruction.

Do I say all this to make us feel guilty? No, not really. Mostly it’s to expose more of us to information that I hope will inspire us, mature us to consider how our ways of life affect others. As a Christian who takes her theology seriously, that’s tremendously important to me. One of the questions I’m called by God to ask on a daily basis is, “How does this affect my neighbor?”

So, for instance, when I find out that U.S. grain subsidies allow us to flood Mexican grain markets rendering Mexican farmers unable to compete with our low grain prices, that matters to me. And when I find out that those Mexican farmers resort to desperate measures like illegally entering and working in the U.S. just to feed their families, that matters to me. And when I visit one of the farm labor camps in northwestern Washington state where those illegals live with their families in cramped quarters with no electricity or running water, that matters to me. And when I find out that those people live there while they earn a pittance picking tomatoes that we insist on purchasing cheaply, that matters to me. Knowing these things should inspire me to make at least small changes in the way I obtain my food, in the way I live in the world.

One of the most difficult things we Americans have to contend with is the deeply entrenched cultural ideal of individualism. It seeps into our consciousness and colors the entire way we view the world. At its worst, it blocks our vision of how our actions affect our brothers and sisters around the world (and yes, fellow Christians, all God’s children, not just the American ones, are our brothers and sisters: “God bless the rest of the world, too”). Once we have this information, once we know the ramifications of our actions, may we stop turning away from our neighbors and instead turn toward them.

The good news in all of this is that, here in the U.S., we’re the ones with the power. We have more influence and more wealth than anyone else in the world. We’re the ones who have the resources and who create the economic demand that can turn things around. We can share more of our wealth with those who needlessly suffer. We can reduce our demand for cheap food. We can share our knowledge with each other and model change. We can choose information over ignorance. We can pay attention to our way of life and what it means for others.

We can even help restore mangrove forests!


About EMH

Forty-something. South Dakotan. Mother to 11-year-old K.L. Wife to Cory. Lutheran pastor. Novice organic gardener. Sustainable living aspirer.
This entry was posted in Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Others Are What We Eat

  1. joe nelson says:

    How do we combat individualism? Do you think that individualism is al all tied to the concept of private property? What type of socialization/upbringing should children receive, so that they do not have the individualistic tendancies that the average American has? I am doing my best with my kids. I try not to buy them toys often, it is usually cheifly reserved for birthdays and Christmas. But to what extent should we persuade them to think of themselves as stewards and not owners? Or should we not do that at all? The cry of “That’s mine!” persuades me to think that perhaps stewardship, and not ownership, should be stressed. Your thoughts?

  2. Dr. David Miller says:

    Coastal mangroves exert a protective effect? On what? Undeveloped land? You are in essence saying that the land has devised systems to mitigate and protect itself against radical events. It’s called evolution. As for the mangroves being ripped out for tourism and shrimp farming, yes I suppose it’s true. Let’s remember that those enterprises are providing needed revenue to people who might otherwise be poor and starving. Is there some algorythm which can predict the number of lives lost to the tsunami vs the number of lives saved by the removal of the mangroves? I don’t think so. Things are more complex than simple one step fixes. Everything affects everything. No such thing as and effect free life. Good luck with that one.

  3. So David, did you actually read the article above or the links included that support what the article says?

  4. Stefania says:

    what a funny coincidence. I’ve just handed in a paper on the sustainability of shrimp production. Perhaps David would be interested to read any of this reports


    with regard to the ‘revenue’ generated by farmers in Asia, perhaps David should know that according to FAO, the shrimp trade is stagnating and that has not currently increased very much in recent times: as at 10 March 2008, the market price at the Kensai Commodity Exchange (Japan) was of 1764 Yen per contract, near its all-time low on 31 August 2004 with a decrease of almost 50% since October 2007. The price of 1764 Yen is per 5x 108kg blocks, which represents a secondary market price of approximately ¥200 per kilo – you guys can work out how much these farmers are REALLY making.

    Furthermore, typically farmers use rice ponds for shrimp farming, but, once depleted (because of the extensive use of chemicals and antibiotics) these ponds CANNOT be reconverted into rice ponds.

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