So many of the problems regarding environmental destruction, human and animal rights often seem so remote that it can be difficult to know what to do to address them. Everything that is being done, however, is vitally important and no effort, no matter how small, is a wasted effort.
You may well have heard the tale of the hummingbird and the forest fire, but for those of you who haven’t, here goes. Generally attributable to that great Kenyan activist and environmental campaigner, Wangari Maathai, the story is of a forest fire that breaks out one day and soon becomes an inferno that consumes all before it. Terrified animals – elephants, zebra, giraffes, baboons, snakes, birds and creatures of every kind – flee the forest and soon find themselves at the river’s edge. With the river at their backs and the fire raging before them, they jostle in a panic of uncertainty and bewilderment, too frightened to know what to do. A hummingbird, however, quietly skims the surface of the river, takes up a drop of water in its tiny beak, flies to the fire and lets the water fall. Again and again it does this, until the animals begin to notice. They challenge the hummingbird, asking scornfully, “What are you doing? What can you hope to achieve?” And the hummingbird says, “Well, I’m doing the best I can.”
We are all hummingbirds in the face of the inferno currently consuming the earth, and we can all do something. First we must understand that the fire rages not only in faraway places but right here at home, so maybe we don’t have to go far to begin to make a difference.
Today is the shortest day of the year, the prelude to the festive season, and I am not about to fill the air with gloomy portents. I am just going to talk about food. My partner, Sally, and I will be sharing our Christmas Day with our family. All of the food on the table, as well as any other food we eat through the festive season, will come from small-scale ethical producers and independent shops. Most of these will be local, and nothing that we eat, from the pre-dinner nibbles to the Christmas pudding to the pickles we might serve with the ham on Boxing Day, will be pre-packaged, processed or bought in a supermarket. This is not some kind of elitist stance – it is a way of life for us. A way of life that also gives us a different take on the Consumerist Christmas sold to us by the multi-nationals, the government and the media.
We are not die-hard hair shirt wearers. We believe in having a good time just like anyone else. There will be a Christmas tree and champagne and good cheer and presents, but those presents will be no more than tokens of the festive season, not a race to see who can spend the most, and they are quite likely to be home-made foodie delicacies. Above all, our chosen way of life will not come to an end on Twelfth Night, but continue for as long as we walk this Earth.
The way we live is based on our understanding of what has caused the human species to find itself hurtling towards oblivion, and the realisation that each one of us can do something on a daily basis to pull back from the brink. Sally and I started with food, because we like to eat every day, so it seemed the obvious place to implement change. More crucially, I had been forced to confront certain food issues some years ago, in order to reverse the effects of ME without resorting to drugs. Since then, many years of research into food systems has confirmed for me that our industrialised global food system is literally killing us and our planet. There is no necessity to expand on this idea at the moment, but I will take up the theme again soon, and show how the industrial food system is responsible for something in the order of 60% of carbon emissions worldwide.
For now, let me say that it has been an exciting and pleasurable experience to work out a way of removing 100% of our food spending from the global system and put it instead into the local economy, knowing that by doing so we are making a small contribution to the solution. Along the way, I have enjoyed returning to full health and saving money at the same time. Sally and I run a food-related business together, and our accounts prove how much we have saved since transferring our allegiance to the local economy. In addition, we now feel part of a community, we enjoy the human interaction of buying from people we know and trust, we have reconnected ourselves with our food and the soil that makes all food production possible. In turn, we have come to understand how all food could one day be produced sustainably.
It could be said that, in many ways, we have gone back to basics. Through having to deal with food issues on a personal basis, we have discovered some central truths about the human race and its relationship with its own members, as well as all the other species and vital ecosystems that share this planet with us. In any quest to find what is important and what is irrelevant, I cannot think of a better starting place than food, that most fundamental of requirements in the sustaining of all life.