Thursday, April 03, 2008

What really matters

I 'write' mostly about my software experiences, and the majority of those 'experiences' about Linux. What little else I write about is a smattering of issues when the real world seems to intrude into my little world. I come across as pre-occupied and spoiled by an American middle-class standard of living that many in the world will never see.

Everybody has been feeling the pressures of higher prices: higher gas (petrol) prices, higher food prices, higher prices when you get your power bill in the mail; higher prices just about everywhere these days. And so you trim expenses and cut back here and there and then you start to complain or listen to others complain about the same issues. And gradually you develop the insular attitude that you're being put-upon, that the world is unfair, and you can't understand why. No. The world is not fair. But it's a lot more unfair outside the U.S. than within.

What follows is a very small sampling of the far greater problems that so many others in this world face.
  • Consider the story that appeared January 31 about Haiti's poor eating mud cookies. The rising cost of food hits the poor outside the U.S. far harder than anyone here in the U.S. The poor Haitians make 'biscuits' from dried yellow mud and water, salt, and vegetable shortening or margarine. These 'biscuits' have become a replacement staple for those who can't even afford a plate of rice because food has risen in cost 40% due to hurricane damage. With such an example of dire poverty in Haiti and other areas around the globe, what right have we in this country to complain?
  • On the subject of food, the BBC reported March 17 on the Egyptian army's added task of producing and distributing more bread in order to avoid food riots and minimize shortages in the poorer neighborhoods. Outside of mentioning certain contributing facts, such as corruption in the system and that the "army and interior ministry control numerous bakeries normally used to supply bread for troops and police", one fact really stood out: the price of wheat has more than tripled since last summer on international markets. When you're living on the sharp edge between living and starving, who can afford such a price increase for a basic staple?
  • As if droughts and wars disrupting farming and distribution are not enough, a report was released March 5th by the UN News Centre concerning the spread of a virulent wheat fungus rust strain spreading from parts of east Africa and Yemen on up through Iran. Other countries at risk include Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia suffered crop losses in 2007 from the rust. The long-term goal to solve this seems to be to develop more rust-resistant strains, but one reason this is so potentially devastating to so many is that there is very little (if any) variety in the wheat population.
  • CNN, in a March 25 article, also reported on rising food prices world-wide. The article touched on Haiti again and the harsh lack of food that many Haitians face. What was more interesting were the reasons behind the reason of higher prices. Major economies, specifically India and China, have ever larger populations with growing appetites for richer foods, such as beef. When you eat beef, you eat an animal which has been grain feed (this also includes poultry, at least in this country), so the impact on grain is far greater than if it is only eaten by humans. Further, with laws in many countries mandating the use of ethanol to to supplement gasoline for our SUVs, the need for grains (corn in particular) is even greater, driving up the cost of raw materials even further. And that just attracts further speculation in the commodities markets like blood in sea attracts sharks, adding further to higher prices.
  • The BBC reported April 1 that India had imposed an export ban on all varieties of rice except Basmati, and the export price of Basmati has been raised to $1,200/tonne. All this to bring under control the soaring cost of rice. According to the BBC the "problem is an international one, as global rice stocks have reached a 25-year low." No reason is given why.
  • Turning away from food problems, the CNN reported today about refuges in Somalia. The report highlighted the plight of 250,000 refugees fleeing from Mogadishu, and living in huts made of little more than sticks and bits of cloth. With attention riveted by the genocide in Darfur, it's easy to loose sight of other trouble spots in Africa. But the camp outside Mogadishu is called "largest concentration of displaced people in the world."
There is so, so much more out there than this; just read the on-line news sources or google for the topics. There's an unfortunate tendency with too many Americans to pull in their horns and ignore such problems. It's too easy for us to say "What can I do?" and keep living rich. Rather than give up there is a lot more I can as an individual; truly cut back and give it to others who need it far more. I am reminded of a high-school student named Mark Schultz, a fellow high-schooler who was big, but not fat. He was a big, nice, easy going guy in the marching band. We graduated, went our separate ways, and then about two years later (1974) our paths crossed again at a place I was working while in college. He'd lost a considerable amount of weight. I asked him what had happened, and he told me how he'd discovered first hand how the rest of the world was a lot less well off then he. So he'd cut back on his life style and given that portion to others in real need. He benefited personally and spiritially and others had benefited due to his generosity.

The world is a lot worse today than it was in 1975, especially with population and regional fighting. It's time to for me to not just remember Mark but to act like Mark. I've been comfortably (too comfortably, unfortunately) charitable in the past, but a lot more is needed of me now than every before.

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