My life is currently being consumed (more food puns!) by the EPIIC symposium, focused this year on the theme of Global Health and Security. For this week, I want to reflect on a speaker from last night’s panel on food insecurity, nutrition, and conflict. Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund began his talk with an Oromo proverb: “You can’t wake a person who’s pretending to sleep.” He was referring to climate change and food production, and the fact that the world’s population (particularly those of us living in wealthy countries with exponentially larger carbon footprints) recognizes the crisis that faces us as a global community, yet remains resistant to change. Some of the figures he gave were stunning: In the next 40 years, humans will need to produce as much food as has been produced over the last 8000 years. Also, a cat in Europe can have a larger carbon footprint than the average African. A CAT. Clay put forward the ultimatum that either we need to come up with ways to improve food production technologies or dramatically change the ways that humans consume food.
These types of lectures, and the topic of climate change in general, usually leaves me feeling hopeless and panicky about our inevitably disastrous future. My generation will become the policymakers and consumers that will carry the blame for the destruction of the environment and the deterioration of living conditions for billions of people. One unique question that Clay brought up was the question of agency: should people have the choice to buy products that actively harm the environment? Isn’t taking that choice away the most responsible option for governments, lobby groups, and manufacturers? Perhaps this is just my socialist-leaning side speaking, but I appreciated the boldness of these suggestions. The impetus for extreme change should be on countries like the United States, who have a disproportionate impact on the environment—that, ultimately, will most severely affect the developing world.
This reminded me of a principle I learned this year in EPIIC: sometimes, ensuring health requires limiting freedoms. For example, during a viral outbreak, government or health officials might need to impose a mandatory quarantine. Climate change, and the way we consume food, needs to be framed in the same light. Individual decisions have intensely important repercussions, and dialogue about producing and supporting harmful needs to include the mundane everyday. I know I often use my dollars in ethically and environmentally compromised ways because I don’t feel accountable. To me, limiting consumer choice and market freedom is inevitable—it’s just a question of how long before we take the actions of individuals seriously as part of the global community’s collective action to reverse the damage that privileged populations have incurred.
Clay, Jason. “Food Insecurity: Hunger, the Environment, and Conflict.” EPIIC Symposium: Global Health and Security. Tufts University, Medford. 21 February 2013. Lecture.
Photo taken from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/world/globalfoodcrisis/