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Farming, Freedom and the Food Crisis: Staying hopeful in the face of climate change

Damien McGloin By Damien McGloin Published on July 23, 2016

“The great hope of the Enlightenment—that human rationality would enable us to transcend our evolutionary limitations—has taken a beating from wars and genocides, but only now, on the problem of climate change, has it foundered altogether.” (Jonathan Franzen, The New Yorker, 2015)

This bleak and uninspiring quotation comes from the American novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen. His 2010 novel, Freedom, portrays the struggle of a man named Walter as he attempts to build a bird sanctuary. He is described as “greener than Greenpeace,” commutes by bicycle, and fears overpopulation.

Franzen's smiling protagonist ultimately makes a series of deals paving the way for a potential environmental catastrophe. This is an oversimplification of a deep and touching story, but for the moment it will have to suffice. The novel highlights the difficulties present in the environmental movement today, while also sounding the call for a greater response to the conservation movement. For some, it offers insight into the degree of compromise required for an environmental group with a small budget to have any noticeable impact on the world. For others, it conveys the defeatist attitude present in many discussions of the seemingly unstoppable crisis that looms in our future.

At this point I'd love to offer some hope and encouragement, but I’ve read a few too many articles predicting a bleak future centred around trading household objects for food as society crumbles around us. Well, we haven't quite reached that point yet, so perhaps it's time to consider the impact climate change is set to have on food production while we try to find our courage.

According to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), we can expect to see a greater number of extreme climate events affect crop and tree yields, forestry, and livestock. These extreme events include heat waves, droughts, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Effects on livestock will probably be the most heartbreaking for those in developed countries. A diet of meat is symbolic for many, as it represents a more affluent lifestyle. It’s also delicious, but a change in diet may be unavoidable. Animals are particularly sensitive to heat; they need reliable sources of water, and hotter weather can promote the spread of disease.

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Many cities are unprepared for the effects of extreme weather events caused by climate change.

In 2009, the Ethiopian Society of Animal Production (ESAP) published a report outlining some of the problems we can expect to see affect pastoral farming, including the loss of plants and herbs essential for feeding cattle and other animals. Current levels of food production will likely become strained as the world’s population increases. Efforts to sustain both crops and livestock will see increased demands on water supplies.

For those of you who enjoy seafood, changes in sea level will most likely lead to difficulties in some of the world's most productive fishing areas. Rising temperatures will also prove problematic, and could lead to increased underwater migration. It has been estimated by the European Climate Foundation that the total loss sustained by global fisheries could reach $41 billion by 2050.

So far, writers like Franzen seem to offer a glimpse at what the future could hold. Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, The Mandibles, also predicts a dreary future for mankind (or at least America). Set over the course of four generations of the Mandible family, it tells the story of a family attempting to endure an economic crisis that makes you feel grateful for the toilet paper in your bathroom and the socks on your feet. While the cause may be different, the end result is much the same. Soaring food prices, restrictions on water usage, and questions about what must be left behind in the scramble for survival?

This dystopian viewpoint has become pervasive and, while these fears are not unfounded, it is important to focus not only on how the world is changing, but on our role in shaping these changes. We need both to reduce carbon emissions and to adapt to the changes brought on by global warming. We also stand to benefit from agricultural policy encouraging reforestation, lower rates of expansions into natural habitats, and financial incentives to maintain and increase forest area.

Ideas like these sound appealing as we read about them, but events can seem beyond us. However, there are some ways that we, as individuals, can prepare for what lies ahead. My first suggestion might seem obvious (and I’m sure you’ve already considered it), but building a bunker and filling it with tinned soup is a sensible means of hiding from the ravenous mobs that will inevitably ransack our cities. 

For those of us who'd rather enjoy a future outside the comfort and security of our own bunkers, now is the time to reconsider our relationship with meat. Multiple reports from NASA, a 2006 UN food report, and a 2009 World Watch study have all delivered the same message; if we wish to survive, we must eat less meat. Livestock farming impacts land usage and air quality, as well as being one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. Its impact is so great that quitting meat would actually be better for the world never driving. Imagine how smug you’d feel if you manage to quit both...

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According to The Vegan Society, 3.5 billion people could live off the food currently fed to livestock.

It's easy to disregard this idea as extreme and free yourself of any moral responsibility. Telling others you're suddenly a vegetarian and attributing the switch to climate change can attract strange looks. Some may consider you pretentious or starved for attention. I know how unnerving it is to make such a statement and have to defend your choice; I recently made the change myself.

However, if like me you're tired of reading articles about the impacts of flooding on infrastructure and the hesitancy of world leaders to commit to limiting global warming, if you feel tired of stories about the loss of pacific islands as sea levels rise and the impact on corals in the Great Barrier Reef, if you're sick of reading about flash floods in China and people dying from the heat as they queue for water in India, if you’re tired of feeling helpless, then maybe it’s time to get involved.

The Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw once said, “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Never has the need for change been greater. This is a chance for our generation to do something meaningful but we can’t delay any longer. Everyone has to do their part so hopefully you’ll stop gathering your soup cans and decorating your bunker. Hopefully you’ll be part of something huge. There's still time to make a difference.

English teacher, student of applied linguistics, terrible violinist and mediocre runner