Deforestation, Erosion, Desertification. These seem like such foreign terms to those of us who live in the eastern United States. Sure we have clear-cutting, which we all complain about until a logger waves a few bucks under our noses. However, the forests always seem to grow back. We know that it’s only a remnant of it’s former glory, but at least it’s there. This is the case because we have been blessed with what Leopold called a “resilient ecosystem”. That simply means that the natural ecosystem in which we live is able to absorb a tremendous amount of abuse before it collapses. The effects that we have are so gradual as to hardly be seen.
In Ethiopia these terms are all too real. The forests have been cleared and are unable to regrow. The topsoil has been washed away and with it the fertility of the land. The land is no longer able to retain the water that falls only during certain brief periods during the year. During the rains the water runs off in mighty torrents that carry what little fertility is left and any crops that might be standing. As soon as the rains pass the land quickly becomes parched until the next flood arrives. They are in a “catch 22”. Should they pray for rain or pray for sun? It seems that in their current state either one results in famine. In fact, in their most productive year on record (1996) as many as 2 million people still starved. This proud and ancient civilization that has sustained itself for thousands of years is now unable to feed itself.
We bumped into James and Sarah at church the first Sunday that we were here. James and Sarah are friends that Jon and Joe met in January; they work for Samaritan’s purse here in Ethiopia. James was telling us how busy they are right now trying to get food aid to the people here. Ethiopia is in another food crisis. Last year flooding washed away the crops that were in the fields. This year drought has scorched the crops. To make matters worse international food aid from the west has been cut, especially from the US. So they are trying to stave off starvation on a massive scale with limited resources.
In the US we rarely stop to think of how fragile our food system is. However, we aren’t so far removed from situations similar to what Ethiopia faces. Though only the oldest among us can remember the time, we’ve all heard of the “Dust Bowl”. The prairie states of the mid-west contain one of the most fragile ecosystems. In ages past, the prairie held this ecosystem in a tentative state of stability. As soon as the plow touched it and the wheat and corn spouted it was a downward spiral until it collapsed. In fact, the only thing keeping the “bread bowl” from being called a dessert is the extensive irrigation systems that are draining aquifers at an alarming rate. Certainly our whole food system is built upon massive irrigation systems. The next time you are buying produce at the grocery store check the sticker to see where it was grown. About 75% of the time it will say California. This is made possible only by dry, sunny southern California swiping water from it’s rain soaked sisters to the north. The only thing keeping the US from experiencing famine and environmental collapse is that we have the luxury of being able to afford the technology to moderate the effects of our abuses. There are few luxuries here in Ethiopia.
So we’ve been blessed. Should we feel guilt with every bite we take? Certainly not, but we should feel something. We should feel a great since of thanks for what we have been given, and how better to show our thanks than through our action (1 John 3:17-18). There needn’t be a choice between feast (for us) or Famine (for them). We have the means to feed the world. Why aren’t we doing it?