Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Some big news stories
My regular readers know that I don't play politics and always try to write positive things about what we can be do to face our challenges instead of spreading anger and doom and gloom. Nevertheless, I'm seeing so much written lately about possible food shortages that I feel this a highly controversial topic is well worth discussing here. And, so, while most of what I write, in my green ideas and eco-friendly posts, has to do with reducing our carbon footprints and avoiding useless waste, this post goes a bit beyond all that. I'll begin with two recent news stories that I believe should be taken seriously.

First, the global food situation is serious and appears to be getting worse. Second, the massive rioting in Egypt and the downfall of the government, that has been so visible in our media these days. The Egyptian situation has had many motives including the fact that 40% of the population lives on about 2 dollars, and months of shortages including basic products such as wheat and other grains.  And we all know that there are many nations where the majority live on even less money than that - with devastating human and social consequences. What may have escaped our radar, is that important price increases and food shortages have also recently led to unrest and riots in other countries such as Algeria, Chile, Mozambique, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Price increases in food and other commodities
By all predictions, food shortages and increasing gas prices and their consequences will continue to be a part of the world news throughout 2011. Although this situation has to do with world commodity trading, just as it did back in 2008 when there was a lot of rioting around the world, the events happening today are even more complicated. Last year Australia and Brazil, two major food growers, had huge floods that destroyed almost all their agricultural production. Russia and China, other major players in the world's food supply, have been under drought conditions for the past several years. And, the U.S. once a great exporter of foods now imports most of what we eat due in part to government payments for not growing foods (at all) and high subsidies for certain crops such as corn, soybeans and other grains to be used primarily for exports, for animal feed and to produce ethynol gas. At the same time, we aren't sure about the coming growing season in the Northern Hemisphere where record cold temperatures and continual snowfalls have already destroyed most winter crops.

All this has led to significant rises in world food prices. The UN just reported that the global price of food was at an all-time high in December, and that China, a country that was, until a couple of years ago, food independent will now be a major importer of wheat in 2011. The Chinese already bought up more than half of the world's supply of soybeans in 2010. No wonder nobody knows what is going to happen in 2011. According to data by Forbes, corn is up almost 100%, soybeans are up 50%, and wheat is up 80%, and all this since last June. Now, according to food experts, it takes about six months for the prices of agricultural futures to get to the consumers at the supermarkets. That makes for big problems in the food aisles beginning around the middle of 2011. By the way, this past year, Wal-Mart, formerly a high-discount store, increased most food items by about 5% and positioned itself only slightly below the pricing level of other big chain supermarkets.

So with price shocks and food shortages already being reported all over the globe, it's not too far-fetched to say that there will be an even worse global economic situation in 2011. And, can we reasonably expect big food exporting nations to have such huge harvests that all this can be turned around in 2012 or 2013? Probably not. And people in the U.S., Canada, and Europe will begin to feel, not just the backlash from poor countries, but may find themselves facing periodic shortages and huge price increases, particularly in what concerns food and gas.

In many countries, the large majority of people have to spend half their incomes and more just to feed themselves. Could that happen here? Well it might. Just look at what has happened already in the U.S. Homes have lost more equity proportionally than during the Great Depression and unemployment levels are higher than they've been in decades. One U.S. person in six depends on federal and state aid for basic needs. And now there's talk of a “jobless recovery” which means that big business will continue to have good profits while unemployment "stabilizes" around 9-10% (or more, depending on how you count it). Also, it's doubtful that current government benefits will be extended for what some are now calling the "chronically" unemployed.

Well, now it's time, or past time, for Americans to confront these issues and decide how they can best face what may be a bad economic year. And add that to the possiblity of poor or no improvement in 2012. The mood of of the country could change from "cautious optimism" - at least that's what they tell us - to widespead gloom. We need to face our coming challenges in the most peaceful, hopeful, and purposeful way that we can. To put ourselves in a better outlook, we have to stop our petty bickering over what often amounts to trifling political issues and get to work to find solutions for our families, friends, and communities.

Let me tell you a story.
This story occurred to me last night and in the early hours of the morning. It's a story of a fictitious elementary school, a trendy private, high-tuition school that has a track-record of always preparing its students to be years ahead of their grade levels. This school has the good fortune, at least for its owners, of being situated in a completely de-regulated state and county. That means that the school can make its own rules about everything, and its continued existence depends completely on the principles of free enterprise.

Now, to digress in the story, do you remember a popular book written a couple of decades ago, titled something like: Everything I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarden?. Well, thinking back, when we first went to school, one important thing that all five- or six-year olds had to learn was how to act in a fire drill. If my memory is correct, we were taught to quickly rise, leave all our belongings, stand at the door in a double file, holding hands with our partner, follow our teacher, and stay close to the students in front of us until we were safely out of the building and in a safe area. If two classrooms of students met at the stairs at the same moment, one group would go down in an orderly fashion before the other. Made sense, didn't it?

O.K. - now fast-forward to our trendy, private school. There are no rules for fire drills here. Each well-academically prepared, classroom teacher will take care of unforeseen situations in the best way that he/she sees fit. Besides, no fires or other emergencies are likely to happen. The school has been in existence for over fifty years without a fire. It also has several fire extinguishers spaced out in the halls, a water-sprinking system should a fire begin, and a security table to filter out any unwanted visitors at its only entrance. Its clearly a safe school. The school has even bragged to the parent clients that the decision to stop all fire drills is more than reasonable - its even desirable. Fire drills may frighten certain delicate students and always cause a lot of general confusion for a half-hour or more. And that kind of confusion takes away from the strictly academic purposes of the school.

So, what could happen?  One day, despite all the acculated statistics, the fire bell rings and everyone begins to choke on thick, black smoke. So, each teacher goes about his/her own plan to get the students to safety.

Some teachers have decided on Strategy 1. Shut the door, place a towel at the bottom of the door, tell the students to get under their desks close to the floor, and wait for the firemen to rescue them. (It's something they learned from staying in high-rise hotels.) The teachers, being conscientious people, stay in the room with the children.

Others put Strategy 2 in place. They tell the children to get out their cell-phones, dial the number for fire emergencies, and open the door. The children, hopefully, will get some kind of GPS instructions to get out of the building and where they need to be. The teachers prepare to do the same.

A third group of teachers follow Strategy 3. They open the windows and tell the children to bail out. If they're on the first floor, not too many injuries will occur. If they're on the second floor, hopefully, most children will survive the fall (although injuries are likely). By the time the bulk of children get up the nerve to jump out, the teachers will then follow, and by that time, firemen may have put up some kind of net.

A group of young teachers believe in Strategy 4. They think that the only way for the students to get to out of the burning building is by being mean and strong and, therefore, able to push or beat other students (and teachers) out of the way. They keep a basket of big, heavy sticks near the classroom door and, in the fire emergency, pass the sticks out to the students as they go out into the hall. It's every child for himself. Let the fittest survive. These teachers also have their own big sticks.

The last group of teachers are somewhat older and remember the ol'time manner of handling a fire drill. They follow the classic instructions (that most of us learned) - Strategy 5 - to get their students to safety.

So, what groups get to safety? What groups end up committing all kinds of violence? And which groups end up with a lot of death and injury?

You get the idea – non-violence and rationale planning, taking into account the safety of the entire group, is what's likely to work in the long-run.

So, what's the best way to face the challenge of shortages in foods and other basic commodities? I'll tell you my idea, and it's shared with a lot of other cautious and caring people.

Have a safe and non-violent plan to face food and other emergencies.
- See what you need and have on hand in the way of food and other emergency supplies. Plan to add what you may need to your pantry. Instead of wasting a lot of food money on discretionary spending, buy the basics and cook "from-scratch" meals. Learn to enjoy simple - ol'time - food that can be made from staple ingredients that you can keep on hand.

- And stop eating a lot of meat. Look at parts of Europe and Japan, meats (while also creating huge carbon footprints) tend to reach unthinkably high prices in bad times. You might also help yourself by learning to enjoy simpler, less calorie-rich meals and lose some pounds in the process, particularly if you're substantially overweight. Any extra weight will be your worst enemy in times of trouble. (It goes without saying that cigarette smoking and other addictions need to be dealt with.)

- Be assured that,  in emergency situations, larger groups can be stronger than individual people and single families. One way to bring together these larger groups would be  to look for some kind of neighborly or faith-based relationships that move beyond "just socializing" to actions that can be beneficial to the whole group and, maybe, to other people in times of need. Among other activities, such groups could start up regular (weekly or monthly) pot-luck dinners with whatever foods each family has on hand. The goal will be to learn to promote friendships and to prepare and enjoy survival recipes (and not to impress each other with gourmet knowledge and deep pockets).

- Buy from your local farmers' markets. They have been and can continue to be an important source of whatever's seasonal and at a reasonable price. And don't drive by road-side stands in the warmer months. These stands usually offer the freshest produce available anywhere.

- Plant as large a garden as you have space for this spring. (As much as 40% of US produce came from homebased "Victory Gardens" - of all sizes depending on yard or patch space - during World War II.) If you can, work with other people to put in a community or group farm.

- Don't be cornered into large-scale hoarding. It may not have the good results you imagine, if you have to leave your base or can't get to your stash. Also, hoarding when its done by too many people, reduces supplies and forces up the prices even more.

Here's a joke about that.
My uncle Jack, now deceased for many years, liked to tell all kinds of "tall" stories and jokes. Among his most famous was this one. (I think it was in the early 1980's when all kinds of surprise shortages occurred.) "There aren't many of those things (- you fill in the blank -) left. We better go out and buy up a lot before all those hoarders get them." Whenever the occasion warrants it, our (older) family members remember Uncle Jack's joke and have a good laugh.

So, plan and prepare. Know what's available in your area and be active in strengthening existing networks and creating new organizations that can be mutually helpful. Have the peace of mind that the Lord will help those who help themselves In this case helping ourselves means being caring, non-violent people and doing our best to assure that our families and communities will have whatever they really need. (Of course, that almost assuredly, doesn't mean having everything that they could possibly want.)

Related posts
Reduce your meat consumption

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