Action 84. I’m going hungry.

I try not to mix my religion and politics, but these two posts come on the heels of the High Holidays and this year I’m finding some illuminating connections between faith and climate change. We just finished Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Its a pretty big deal of a day, not the least of which is because you are asking a Jew to go without food for an entire 24+ hour period and that, my friend, is hard for anyone raised by Jewish mothers and grandmothers (“have a little more!” “You look so thin!” were about the two most often heard phrases at my family dinners).

So I did the fasting thing this weekend. Why do we fast? The Wikipedia ( I know, slap my hand, it drives teachers nuts when students use it) entry on Yom Kippur has a surprisingly good description,

A parallel has been drawn between these activities and the human condition according to the Biblical account of the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Refraining from these symbolically represents a return to a pristine state, which is the theme of the day. By refraining from these activities, the body is uncomfortable but can still survive. The soul is considered to be the life force in a body. Therefore, by making one’s body uncomfortable, one’s soul is uncomfortable. By feeling pain one can feel how others feel when they are in pain.This is the purpose of the prohibitions.

So we do this fasting in part so we can experience others’ pain, and that is an incredibly important reason for me, personally, to fast. I have been blessed with a life free of food insecurity. That is not true for more than 17 million of my fellow Americans who were food insecure in 2012, according to a USDA study. Or the 870 million people world-wide who are categorized by the FAO as chronically undernourished. An opportunity to experience what not having enough food and water is, even for one day, is a humbling experience: its hard. It is headaches, it is trying not to obsess about the food you can’t eat, its thirst, its foggy thinking. To experience in a small way what millions of people in our country, and hundreds of millions across the world, go through for days or longer, is a powerful and important lesson that increases my awareness and sympathy for the difficulty of hunger.

How does this intersect with climate change? Climate models suggest that we are heading for more food insecurity in a higher CO2 world.  There is good reason to think that the progress that we have made in improving food security (despite the many millions that are food insecure, the last few decades have seen some major progress on hunger) could be interrupted or even undermined in many areas in the face of climate change. Changes in rainfall patterns and land surface temperatures will shift agriculturally productive ranges from their current locations. The reality of how this plays out is bound to be complex and not unidirectional: for example, climate change models suggest the US and Canada could potentially end up with more arable land; while agricultural lands in South America and Africa (which currently comprise 40% of the world’s potential agricultural land) could shrink up to 20%. Whether agricultural expansion even works in the northern hemisphere’s favor depends a lot on our ability to change land use and policies to shift with those changes. Warmer temperatures may make crops grow more quickly; but they may reduce yields, and extreme weather events  may yield greater rates of drought, crop damage, and disease.  In many areas of the world, increased drought and water scarcity is quite likely to become one of the greatest threats to agricultural production.

And, of course, we face the growing danger of ocean acidification and its predicted largely unhappy consequences for our ocean food chain and global fisheries. Just today the Seattle Times had an article on a family up and moving their entire shellfish business from coastal Washington to Hawaii to escape the northwest’s acidifying waters’ harmful impacts on shellfish production over the last handful of years.

Though this is quite frankly a distressing picture of what is to come, it is not all doom and gloom: there are many governments, communities and businesses that are not taking a wait-and-see approach to climate change. The oyster business leaving for Hawaii is an extreme, but many of our local shellfisheries here in the Northwest are moving forward on ways to mitigate climate change, by doing things like connecting in to real-time data to predict acidic conditions and shift water input timing to hatcheries. And around the world, there are positive examples of communities trying to get out in front of climate change, such as agricultural conservation techniques that stretch water and nutrients in marginal lands in Burkina Faso;  and the inter-American Development Bank supporting projects that reduce carbon emissions and increase climate resilience in Latin America. (Or type in “agriculture” in the search box of our friends over at Cakex, and see a whole bunch of interesting case studies on preparing agricultural efforts for climate change).

So, as per usual in this experience, I circle back around to my tiny little action in a sea of change, and wonder what difference it actually makes. Does going without food make a difference? Yes, I think it does. I think its one thing to read about hunger in the papers or online; its another thing to experience it, and touch even in a small way the pain and suffering that millions of our fellow humans feel, and realize that this feeling could affect even more people in the face of climate change.


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