In honor of that amazing American holiday we celebrate today–the day we reimagine our nation’s history to be one of generosity and mutual exchange, the day we eat too much, take long naps, and then eat some more, the day each year we force even the youngest among us to recount something for which they are thankful before they can take a seat at the table–in honor of that day, I’m serving up a little dose of guilt to dollop on your pumpkin pie. (Shocker, I know.) So if you don’t want to feel a little bit guilty, you should just shut your laptop right now.
For those of you still reading, there’s one more warning that the following post needs stamped on it. It’s for mature audiences only. By that I mean that the writer uses some strong language. He grew up on a farm and, well, calls a spade a spade. Today’s essay is adapted from a talk originally delivered to college students on our local campus last Friday, in an attempt to raise awareness about the Fair Trade movement. (Check out the Resources page here at Texas Schmexas if you don’t know what “fair trade” means.)
So there’s one word that the writer uses a few times–it rhymes with “quit”–for emphasis. I decided not to change his word choice because it wasn’t as effective without it. If you are bothered by strong language, don’t keep reading. I’m serious about that. As a result of the strong language, I am requiring those of you receiving this via e-mail or from the Schmexas homepage to “click to read more” in order to continue.
So here we go.
Plants, especially corn, need nitrogen to grow. Fortunately, farmers have always had an excellent source of nitrogen to dump on their fields: cow manure. Manure, which is extremely high in nitrogen, as well as other beneficial compounds, gets spread on the fields, and everything grows much better. Since, historically, the same farmers that grew corn and other products always had cows, and since one thing that cows produce a lot of is manure, there was always plenty of it to put on the fields, and corn grew quite well.
In 1947, a huge munitions plant in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, found that it had a massive amount of leftover ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient for making explosives during the recently ended war. After a vigorous debate, agronomists in the Department of Agriculture convinced the government that this nitrate should be used on farmland, especially in the Midwest, to increase the yields of corn that we could get. With this new massive influx of nitrogen, farmers found that new hybrids of corn could grow much closer together, which meant that they could just specialize in corn and not bother with cows at all anymore. The cows, then, all got shipped to California or Wisconsin or Idaho or New York, large dairy states, while the corn all got grown in Iowa and Illinois.
Now whether this is ultimately a better food system or not is beside the point today; certainly it has done more than any other revolution to increase the amount of food that we can grow. The point, rather, is that this rather wonderful new division of labor ended up leading to two major problems: too much free nitrogen in the Mississippi basin, and too much shit in the dairy states.
The easily applied nitrogen, all made from fossil fuels, flows into the Mississippi and then into the Gulf of Mexico. Another plant that likes nitrogen almost as much as corn is algae, and the wild growth of algae in the Gulf has created a hypoxic zone, literally a dead zone where essentially nothing lives except for the algae, that is as big as the state of New Jersey and growing.
The shit, on the other hand, no longer has anywhere safe to go either. Lacking enough nearby fields that need such massive dumps of fertilizer, which would probably kill anything growing there, many really big cattle farms must store the crap for long periods of time in giant containers that contain such massive amounts of nitrogen as to be toxic to human beings. At last estimate, over a million people in the US drink water that has so much nitrogen from cow manure specifically that it is dangerous to their health.
In short, we have taken nature’s elegant solution, where the plant feeds the cow and the cow feeds the plant, and have turned it into two serious problems: too little shit in one place, and too much shit in another.
In the exact same way, we have taken God’s elegant solution for the care of the world, in which people everywhere might ideally spend meaningful lives laboring for their own good and the good of those around them and eat the products of that labor, and turned it into two related problems: we have too much shit in the rich countries, and far too little everywhere else.
Let us dream together for just a minute, let us ignore what is possible, politically and economically, and dream of a world like God may have wanted it to be.
- Every person in that world would have a job that she desired to do well, not because it made her more money or led to her advancement, but because she believed in the good of what she was doing.
- Every person in that world would eat food grown more by the sun than by fossil fuels, picked by those who desired to labor rather than those forced to labor, and prepared by chefs who loved the food as much as those who grew it.
- Every person in that world would see his life as part of a broader and more important story that filled his actions with significance, and his life with joys and sorrows of depth and import.
- No one would go hungry or starve, as 211,300 people, nearly 1 in 7, do, in Central and Eastern Kentucky right now.
- No one would watch their children die of hunger-related causes, as about 15,000 mothers do every day.
This would be God’s elegant solution, where my dependencies are met by your care and labor, and your dependencies are met by mine.
We do not live in that world. Instead, we live in a world gone mad.
- Only in a world gone mad do Americans have so much food that by some estimates the number one preventable cause of death in America is having too many calories, while the number one health risk worldwide is hunger.
- Only in a world gone mad do Americans suffer from the sense that they cannot have a meaningful life, that there is nothing worth doing, while the rest of the world has no work to do.
- Only in a world gone mad do Americans spend an average of almost $700 on Christmas presents for each other, while 80% of the world lives on less than $10/day.
- Only in a world gone mad do we walk into grocery stores that, on average, have over 35,000 items to choose from, while almost a billion people in the world do not have enough to eat.
- Only in a world gone mad would Americans use more water in a five minute shower than the poor of the world use in a day (and their water is not nearly so clean!).
- Only in a world gone mad do the poorest 40% of the global population get 5% of the global income, while the richest 20% gets 75% of the world’s income. And by the way, we, and pretty much all of the Occupy folks around the country, are in that top 20%.
Clearly, in America, we’ve got too much shit, while the rest of the world does not have nearly enough.
How many shirts and shoes and pants do you have in your closet, and how much did they cost if you actually added them all up?
St. Basil the Great, an early theologian, was trying to understand Jesus’ command to give away our cloak when we are asked. He writes:
When someone steals another’s clothes, we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry… the money you hoard belongs to the poor.
Or if you prefer a scriptural passage, consider 1 John 3:17:
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
These are hard words, who can hear them?
So what should we do?
My advice to you is simple: you will be better off if you get rid of some of your shit.
[There’s a second part to this post, my friends. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s “Black Friday” entry, which focuses on putting our money where our mouth is.]