The effects of global warming are no longer part of an abstract, future dystopia or a hard-to-comprehend “hyperobject.” Summer 2021, with the whiplash of Covid outbreaks and re-openings, supply chain breakdowns, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires from California to Turkey, and heatwaves even in Siberia, was a sobering wake-up call for many who had believed they would not live to feel climate collapse.
By Heidi Hart
“Western consumers should put aside their reservations about eating crickets,” states a recent Economist commentary, “and give plant-based burgers, 3d-printed steaks and vat-grown artificial tuna a try” (Pascual, 2021). What is happening here? Consumers in privileged countries have taken dietary luxuries for granted for several generations, eating beef and buying wild-caught fish at the supermarket, choosing to go gluten-free or vegan for health or political reasons, abiding by religious food traditions and taboos. Now, simply finding what you want to eat is not so simple after all.
Covid-era food shortages, with familiar items missing from grocery shelves in wealthy countries, are only part of the story. Long-term droughts, locust invasions, and lingering shortages from the 2014 Ebola outbreak in west African countries complicate the picture (Burgeon, 2021). The current megadrought in the western US, one painful side-effect of global warming, is straining farms and ranches beyond their already environmentally costly water use for irrigation (Nelson, 2021).
Climate leaders Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac (2020: 16) have envisioned two scenarios for Earth’s livability in 2050, depending on the level of global warming in the next several decades. In once scenario, air pollution is endemic, droughts and famines commonplace, and food production unpredictable. “Disasters and wars rage, choking off trade routes,” they predict in this scenario. “In some places, the inability to gain access to such basics as wheat, rice, or sorghum has led to economic collapse and civil unrest more quickly than even the most pessimistic experts had previously imagined.”
In the alternate scenario, which seems painfully far-fetched after the recent disappointments of COP26, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac (2020: 26) imagine emissions halved every decade until 2050, keeping global warming at the 1.5-degree threshold. In this case, industrial agriculture has given way to regenerative farming, which involves “mixing perennial crops, sustainable grazing, and improved crop-rotation on large-scale farms.” Food shopping has shifted from large commercial centers to small, local markets and co-op purchasing groups. Meat and dairy products have all but disappeared. “We’ve come to realize,” the authors continue, “by growing our own, that food is expensive because it should be expensive – it takes valuable resources to grow it, after all. Water. Soil. Sweat. Time.”
However idealistic this scenario sounds, it does reflect present concerns about food deserts, in which poorer city dwellers do not have access to fresh produce and other healthful options, and about farming practices that deplete rather than nourish the soil.
Environmentalists have long spoken out against genetically modified foods and pesticide-heavy industrial agriculture. Proposed solutions include organic and no-till farming, which regenerates the soil with minerals, as well as “multistrata agroforestry,” which creates vertical plant layers and horizontal “blankets” of crops to mimic forest biodiversity (Hawken, 2017: 46-47). Dietary changes by individual consumers, such as avoiding environmentally costly beef consumption, can make a difference as well.
These solutions come with their own problems, however. The effects of global warming are no longer part of an abstract, future dystopia or a hard-to-comprehend “hyperobject,” as environmental philosopher Timothy Morton described it in 2013. Summer 2021, with the whiplash of Covid outbreaks and re-openings, supply chain breakdowns, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires from California to Turkey, and heatwaves even in Siberia, was a sobering wake-up call for many who had believed they would not live to feel climate collapse.
Regenerative farming may not be enough in areas without sufficient water. Consumer food choice may become a luxury even for those who have never had to worry about finding the ingredients they need in a short errand to the market. For those who have already suffered from food insecurity, indoor “vertical” farms and 3-D printed meat (Pascual, 2021) may still be far out of reach. Privileged proponents of “full stomach” environmentalism may come closer to understanding their “empty stomach”-driven counterparts (Guha, 2006 in Nixon; 2011: 5), but this is a long process, and the planet is warming and drying and flooding more quickly than human empathy may be able to catch up.
Two results of this profound environmental stress have already begun to show: on the one hand, increased rigidity around food choices among those wealthy enough to choose (dietary “purity culture” that crosses political lines and spills into Covid vaccine debates as well); and on the other hand, deeper engagement with food sources that takes Indigenous values as a guide. Creating community gardens based on historical practices in the Ute (Utah, US) tribe is one example; growing only as much as each community needs and working from a shared economy allows the tribe to “go from an experience of exploitation to one of authentically living with each other” (Braidan Weeks, in Bitsóí and Larsen, 2021: 67-68).
“As a human being who cannot photosynthesize,” writes US Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, “I must struggle to participate in the Honorable Harvest” (2013: 180). What she means by this term is the ecologizing mindset that treats plants as beings in their own right, that honors the animal killed for meat, that does not take more than one’s share. “Cautionary stories of the consequences of taking too much are ubiquitous in Native cultures,” she notes, “but it’s hard to recall a single one in English. Perhaps this helps to explain why we seem to be caught in a trap of overconsumption, which is as destructive to ourselves as to those we consume” (Kimmerer, 2013: 179).
Learning limits and humility is difficult for humans used to consumption-based economies. Paradoxically, though, Indigenous gift economies have fostered a sense of abundance and community reciprocity, rather than scarcity and individualism. Kimmerer (2013: 29) recalls an experience at a market in the Andes, where the transition “from private goods to shared wealth” created a sense of gratitude and, with a meal in every basket exchanged, “justice” as well.
The deep community work required to shift collective mindsets may seem impossible, but with droughts and supply chain breakdowns already occurring, it may soon become essential for survival. The alternative is a future of pandemic-style hoarding and water wars. Smarter farming, access to birth control, education for women, and local food co-ops (see Hawken, 2017) may help ease the strain of feeding a crowded, warming planet. At the local level, learning to share rather than hoard one’s groceries is a good start.
Bitsóí, Alastair Lee and Brooke Larsen, Eds. (2021). New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, & Climate Crisis. Salt Lake City, UT: Torrey House Press.
Figueres, Christiana and Tom Rivett-Carnac. (2020). The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis. New York: Vintage.
Guha, Ramachandra. (2006). How Much Should a Person Consume? Environmentalism in India and the United States. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Hawken, Paul, Editor. (2017). Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. New York: Penguin.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
Morton, Timothy. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.