“Famine isn’t unique to humans. All species are subject to it everywhere in the world. When the population of any species outstrips its food resources, that population declines until it’s once again in balance with its resources. Mother Culture says that humans should be exempt from that process, so when she finds a population that has outstripped its resources, she rushes in food from the outside, thus making it a certainty that there will be even more of them to starve in the next generation. Because the population is never allowed to decline to the point at which it can be supported by its own resources, famine becomes a chronic feature of their lives.” 

When I first read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit, back in about 2004, it completely disrupted my perception of the relationship between humans and the other sectors of nature. It was as if it lifted a veil of delusion, and I understood the world in a way I hadn’t before. For the first time, I really grasped how humans have sought to dominate nature, and how unsustainable a strategy this is.

By “Mother Culture” in the passage above, Quinn refers to the collective myth that we humans demonstrably hold; that we are superior to nature, that nature is there to serve our purposes, and that we are in some magical way exempt from the rules of nature.

He isn’t saying that famine relief is a bad thing – clearly it is the “civilised” and compassionate thing to do – but he is saying that, at the macro level, it doesn’t address the systemic problems that created the famine in the first place. It’s giving a man a fish to feed him for a day, rather than helping him relocate to a place with more fish, or better still, finding ways (education, contraception, etc) to help him and his family produce fewer human mouths in need of fish.

Quinn goes on to say:

“You need to take a step back from the problem in order to see it in global perspective. At present there are five and a half billion of you here, and, though millions of you are starving, you’re producing enough food to feed six billion. And because you’re producing enough food for six billion, it’s a biological certainty that in three or four years there will be six billion of you. By that time, however (even though millions of you will still be starving), you’ll be producing enough food for six and a half billion—which means that in another three or four years there will be six and a half billion. But by that time you’ll be producing enough food for seven billion (even though millions of you will still be starving), which again means that in another three or four years there will be seven billion of you. In order to halt this process, you must face the fact that increasing food production doesn’t feed your hungry, it only fuels your population explosion.”

And of course in the closed system that is Planet Earth, the more humans there are, the less space is left is left for other species. Sadly, this is one zero sum game that isn’t going away. (Even if you’re into colonising other planets, it’s going to be a very long time before they becomes a viable source of food.) As you can see from the graphic, humans now require more than 50% of Earth’s land surface area for our homes and our food production. Every extra square mile that we claim for ourselves means one less square mile for rainforest, wetlands, savannah, and other vital strongholds of biodiversity.


It’s not just the amount of space that we take up – it’s how we use it. Over the coming weeks I’m going to take a look at modern food production, covering such topics as:

  • Monocultures
  • Chemical farming and agribusiness
  • Run-off and dead zones
  • Soil degradation
  • Food shipping (and plastic packaging)
  • Animal cruelty (feedlots and slaughterhouses)
  • Climate change
  • Deforestation and palm oil
  • Displacement of subsistence farmers (US, Africa etc)
  • GMO

These are quite big and heavy subjects, so I’m going to be keeping these blog posts shorter. I’ve been getting a bit long-winded of late (!), so am downsizing this series of food-related posts into bite-sized (Chicken Mc)nuggets.

A final comment from Quinn/Ishmael, pulling no punches:

“This is considered almost holy work by farmers and ranchers. Kill off everything you can’t eat. Kill off anything that eats what you eat. Kill off anything that doesn’t feed what you eat.

It IS holy work, in Taker culture. The more competitors you destroy, the more humans you can bring into the world, and that makes it just about the holiest work there is. Once you exempt yourself from the law of limited competition, everything in the world except your food and the food of your food becomes an enemy to be exterminated.” 

Other Stuff:

I’m off to Wales tomorrow for a Sisters weekend retreat. Very much looking forward to connecting with some amazing women, with lots of walking and talking on the agenda. Especially looking forward to exploring several miles of Glyndwr’s Way, even if it is named after a warrior idolised by the Welsh for taking on the English!

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