No time to waste

In 1923, a year after TS Eliot published his lament, The Waste Land, the artist Käthe Kollwitz produced a harrowing woodcut called Hunger, which shows a woman weeping because she can’t feed her baby. Another of her prints depicts children holding up empty bowls. Perhaps worried her message wasn’t obvious enough, Kollwitz called this second work, Germany’s Children are Starving!

It’s hardly surprising that Kollwitz used pleading children to make her point. There’s something particularly abhorrent about their suffering, and such imagery is deployed today by aid organisations fighting mass starvation. Despite these efforts, every year more than three million children die from hunger. In absolute terms, the problem is getting worse. According to the World Food Programme, 2023 has already seen record levels, more than 345 million people, facing “high levels of food insecurity”.

A century on, and the safety nets put in place after World War II mean that western countries in the 2020s are unlikely to see a repeat of the mass deprivations of the 1920s. Yet, with dramatic rises in food and energy prices, which hit the poor the hardest, those safety nets are fraying. The extent of the problem in the UK was exposed at the start of the covid pandemic, when the footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford felt the need to ask: “Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should go to bed hungry?” While Rashford won his wrestle with Boris Johnson over free school meals, the numbers affected by food poverty have increased as the cost-of-living crisis has deepened. A report by the Food Foundation from January 2023 shows over nine million adults and over four million children in the UK regularly go hungry.

These are shocking statistics for the world’s sixth richest nation. Perhaps if there was a political consensus about starving kids representing a red line, as Rashford supposed, we might be some way towards solving the problem. Regrettably, recent years have only seen an increase in polarising rhetoric, which at its extreme has seen poverty portrayed as a “lifestyle choice”. More sickening still, ten million tonnes of food are thrown away in the UK every year. We are not alone – according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately one third of all food is wasted, enough to feed the world’s starving at least twice over.

One third of all food is wasted, enough to feed the world’s starving at least twice over

Eliot took his cue for the “stony barren ground” of his epic poem from the blighted Arthurian realm of the Fisher King. For all the heat of the summer of 1921, the stench of our garbage pits, full of rotting supermarket produce still in its plastic wrap, would have been inconceivable to him as he sat composing it on Margate Sands. But, if alive today, Eliot would appreciate the aptness of the metaphor for the vileness of our own wasteful age. The devastation caused by the conspiracy between technological advancement and slavish consumerism, which he detected in its infancy in the 1920s, is reaching its apogee in the 2020s. Written today, The Waste Land might chronicle the depravity of a society that squanders more food, every hour of every day, than is needed to feed those within its own ranks who are stalked by constant hunger.

Despite the surfeit of produce that planet earth currently provides to meet human needs, if we maintain our current trajectory, “stony ground” might well be the outcome. At a time of increasing ecological degradation and climate disruption, our waste has enormous environmental consequences. In addition to the fact that nearly one tenth of the West’s greenhouse gas emissions are released growing food we will never eat, forests are destroyed in the process, fresh water wasted, and soil depleted. The needs of planet and people are caught in a deadly feedback loop: alongside war and economic shocks, climate chaos is one of the main causes of famine worldwide.

In the short term, however, what makes starvation different from other seemingly intractable problems is that the solutions are largely obvious, technically within our grasp, and wouldn’t cause immediate discomfort. More than enough food for current needs is already being produced, the logistical systems for its equitable distribution are mostly in place, and it is primarily a question of finding the political will to create the necessary legal and economic imperatives for it happen.

The remarkable Rashford is of course not the first celebrity to push for change. Many Hollywood stars, stage performers and celebrity chefs have done their bit. Perhaps most famously, next year it will be 40 years since Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s first Band Aid fundraiser for Ethiopia. As with the global NGOs, many of these private efforts have produced significant results, and even shamed governments into taking action. None have bridged the gulf between waste and want. What should worry us all, if only out of self-interest, is that the gap is widening, and more and more of the world’s humans are falling into it. As we sit down to celebrate the season, it’s worth reflecting again on one provocative line from Geldof and Ure’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?:

“Spare a thought this yuletide for the deprived
If the table was turned, would you survive?”

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Columns, December 23 / January 24, Soapbox

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