By Don Smith
I was at dinner with friends the other day and the subject of poverty and hunger in Africa came up. One friend of mine is working with a non-profit charity that collects money for children in Sierra Leone who are going hungry. The work she does is admirable and she understands it’s just a band-aid of sorts. Sierra Leone has a ton of its own problems aside from hunger, particularly because of the warring factions involved in the diamond trade there and attendant refugees, child soldiers, destroyed landbases, warlords, and other effects of the commodification of what are essentially pretty rocks (a bitter irony in itself—that a rock has come to mean more than human lives, a livable environment, etc.).
Her young daughter turned to the rest of us and said: “Why are people going hungry?”
One well-intentioned friend turned to the rest of us and said, “There’s a finite amount of things in this world and that includes food.” He soberly added to my friend’s daughter, “There’s just not enough to go around, I guess, but the work your mommy is doing is the best we can do!”
Two obvious questions arose from this conversation and I tried to gently talk to my friends and the young girl about them, but they’ve been bothering me ever since:
1. Is there not enough to go around?
2. Is this (non-profit/charity, etc.) the best that we can do?
The first one is easy enough to answer, as there’s been shit-tons of research on it. Hunger Notes1, for example, showed in their 2011 study that we already produce enough food to feed everyone in the world—that’s right, you read this correctly—we can feed everyone right now. But we don’t. The problem isn’t a limited supply, but access.
We’ve organized our world into an economic system called capitalism that allows some to amass huge sums of wealth at the expense of the rest of us. Now, my friend had a point. There is a finite amount of resources in the world. But rather than there being too many mouths to feed and not enough food, we produce plenty for all of us and AT LEAST ONE THIRD OF IT GOES TO WASTE2.
That’s because under capitalism things like food, water, housing—all of the things that we need access to in order to live decent lives—are treated as commodities that can be privately owned and sold for a profit. Rather than all of us working together to eradicate unnecessary hunger, we work our asses off to make a few people super rich while most of us barely get by and many of us go hungry. Ever seen a person begging for coins outside of a convenience store to try to get enough cash together to get a little food? How ironic that we’ve organized our world in a way that the person can stand just feet away from huge stores of food, much of which will be thrown away, and yet can still go hungry! How absurd that we allow this to continue, particularly because it’s in our power to change it and organize society in some other way! Capitalists, if they cannot profit off of food, will let it rot!
That’s where the second question comes in: Are non-profits, charities, NGO’s, or even legislation the best that we can do to remedy this? You can probably guess that I don’t think so. Humans have lived in societies throughout history organized on vastly different principles. And possibilities exist for us to do so again, in new and largely unimaginable ways. Really, hunger is the tip of the iceberg here if we continue allowing our world to be organized for the benefit of a wealthy few who profit off of us. The task we have before us is a big one. Those same wealthy few control our schools, our major newspapers, television stations, grocery stores, the food in them, the super-stores and everything inside them—they’ve even managed to commodify and profit off of the most intimate aspects of our lives like sex, our personal stories and friendships on their social networking sites—these lists could go on and on because a part of how capitalism functions is to find its way into every aspect of our lives (sometimes they even manage to commodify and profit from our resistance strategies!). But beyond hunger, this insatiable need for profit has led to multiple economic crises (the one we are in now is just the latest), an environmental crisis as we treat the entire non-human world as a commodity for profiting off, and multiple crises of war and human conflict.
I know that’s a lot of bad news. But the good news is that we don’t have to take it. Collectively, we can take back those things that should belong to everyone. This can manifest itself in simple refusals toward being managed and treated like commodities. We can organize alternatives based on solidarity and mutual aid in the here and now. We can attack the institutions that oppress and manage us. And we can organize to take the world back and treat it, and each other, as something more than mere commodities for profit.
If we’re up to the task, perhaps the kinds of questions that arose over dinner among me and my friends might sound different in a not-so-distant future. Perhaps one day we’ll create a world where we all have access to food, water, housing, and dignity. Perhaps one day, when I get together for dinner with my friends, the question their young daughter will be asking will be something like, “Mommy, what was hunger like?” I’m not sure it’s probable given the enormity of the task ahead of us. But I think the possibilities are endless and only bound by the constraints that we allow ourselves to be compelled by.