By Donella Meadows
–December 17, 1987–
About one out of every eight persons on earth is chronically hungry. The daily death toll from hunger is around 35,000 people, equivalent to 100 fully-loaded jumbo jets crashing EVERY DAY. Most of the victims are children.
Suppose we put a stop to that devastation. What would happen? I don’t mean what process would we go through to end hunger. I mean what it be like when the job was done. How would it feel to live in a world where no one had to live or die in hunger?
Once in a seminar I asked that question of people who devote their lives to ending hunger. They work in aid programs, in agricultural research and extension, in relief agencies. You would think they must have some image of the goal they are working for.
But if they do, they aren’t eager to talk about it. My question set off all sorts of mental short-circuits.
Some of them said hunger will never end, so it’s nonsensical to talk about it. Some said that they only need to think about how to get there, not what the world will be like when they do. Some got angry and resisted the whole exercise. To glimpse even for a moment a world without hunger can deepen the hurt of living in a world where hunger is a daily reality.
Some of the hunger-workers told me they distrust visions of ideal worlds — they said throughout history visions have caused nothing but trouble. And others admitted that they have a guiding vision of the end of hunger, but that it’s personal, something that makes them feel childlike and vulnerable when they bring it out in the open.
And then there were those who, hesitantly, started talking about the end of hunger.
One of them said, “In a world without hunger, if you took a poll and asked kids what they want to be, being a farmer would be at the top of the list, not the bottom.”
Another, plunging right in, said, “There would be education, health care, and clean water for everyone. Population would stabilize because people would understand about health, about their bodies, and about what it means to give and nurture life.”
Finally the visions poured out, as if they had been waiting a long time for release. For instance: “When I picture a world without hunger, I see lightness, by which I mean a human lightness, playfulness. Human beings in that world will find it easy and joyful to care for each other. No one will have to worry about anyone on the other side of the world, because people will be taking care of each other near at hand.”
Another said, “The air would feel new and fresh to me, the meals would taste incredibly good, my home would feel comforting in a storm, because for the first time in my life, I would know that everyone was clothed and fed and sheltered. I would be able to experience my life without being split apart by guilt and sadness.”
And another burst out: “When the last person is fed, there will be a qualitative shift. People won’t rush by each other. When hunger is ended, instead of single notes beaming out of each of us, there will be a symphony — we will see that each one of us is fascinating!”
Whenever a conversation gets that poetic, you can count on someone to bring the mood back down to earth. “You know,” one person said, “we’ve made significant inroads on hunger in the United States, but I don’t sense any lightness or symphony. Why not? Is it because of the half billion over there who are still hungry? Or are you visionaries all wet? Maybe when hunger is eliminated everywhere, it will just be like the U.S. now, with all the stresses and strains.”
Maybe so. Maybe it’s dumb to go around asking about a world without hunger.
But I keep doing it. Somehow I think it’s essential. Behind every decision to fund a foreign aid bill or start a community garden, to give to an aid organization or breed a high-yielding strain of wheat, to take a stand for justice or not to, there is some kind of a vision. Visions alone don’t produce results, but we’ll never produce results that we can’t envision or that we don’t like when we do envision them. The absence of vision is one of the main reasons there is still hunger on this earth.
If we all think that the end of hunger will be a great, grim sacrifice, that it will take away our own comforts or privileges, that it will require worldwide regimentation, that the only beneficiaries will be those who are hungry, or that if hunger did end the world wouldn’t be very different, what will we ever do to end hunger? If we see that there is more than enough food for everyone, that ending hunger would be easy, that it would be joyful, that it would allow hundreds of millions of people to become productive partners with us, that the lives of all of us would be enhanced immeasurably if 35,000 people per day were not dying of hunger, what might we do?
Imagine, really imagine, the whole world with no one living in dire need. Think how it would feel to be part of a society that had taken on and solved, permanently, the problem of hunger. I think the person who has come closest to expressing how it would be is Frederico Garcia Lorca. His vision is the one I carry around with me to motivate my own actions:
“The day that hunger is eradicated from the earth there will be the greatest spiritual explosion the world has ever known. Humanity cannot imagine the joy that will burst into the world on the day of that great revolution.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987