Everyday entropy: famine

hunger

The number of famished people in this Washington Post article is shocking even if it isn’t news or even entirely true.  The information it contains is hard to find and harder to verify, but the baseline, that the number of people facing severe hunger is growing even though the hunger index is falling, parallels the metrics on deforestation where we are not winning so much as losing less rapidly. Assuming that each hungry person matters as an individual human being and not as an abstract quantum of famine attributable to the mean field of hunger, then the total number matters much more than the percentage in the index. Moreover, we do not count the refugees flooding Europe in percentages, but in whole numbers of individuals.

“Our world produces enough food to feed all its inhabitants. When one region is suffering severe hunger, global humanitarian institutions, though often cash-strapped, are theoretically capable of transporting food and averting catastrophe.

But this year, South Sudan slipped into famine, and Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen are each on the verge of their own. Famine now threatens 20 million people — more than at any time since World War II. As defined by the United Nations, famine occurs when a region’s daily hunger-related death rate exceeds 2 per 10,000 people.

The persistence of such severe hunger, even in inhospitable climates, would be almost unthinkable without war.

Each of these four countries is in a protracted conflict. While humanitarian assistance can save lives in the immediate term, none of the food crises can be solved in the long term without a semblance of peace. The threat of violence can limit or prohibit aid workers’ access to affected regions, and in some cases, starvation may be a deliberate war tactic.

Entire generations are at risk of lasting damage stemming from the vicious cycle of greed, hate, hunger and violence that produces these famines. Children are always the most affected, as even those who survive may be mentally and physically stunted for life. And while this article focuses on the four countries most immediately at risk, ongoing conflicts in Congo, the Central African Republic, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan has left millions hungry in those places, too.”

But even for those not in danger of starvation, access to food may be complicated by economic factors in countries far away.

“Oxfam believes that food aid can be essential to humanitarian response. However, food aid cannot be a substitute for sustainable development, which is the best way to reduce hunger for the more than 850 million people who are still suffering from chronic malnutrition. For many development and humanitarian needs, food aid is not an appropriate or efficient tool. In particular, in-kind food aid often fails to improve access to food due to delays in delivery and monetization, and mismatches between recipient needs and the commodities donated.”

The danger of losing less quickly is that you can convince yourself that eventually you will start winning, and then with that momentum victory will be inevitable.  This was the battle of the bulge for Germany and Iwo Jima for Japan.  It is the tennis player who thinks that having lost the first set 6-0, then the second set 6-2, that the tide is turning and victory will come in the tenth set.  But the match will be over after the next set.  We have the same delusion in carbon emissions, where a levelling off of emissions is taken as success, when the reality is that only a staggering reduction would suffice.  When, with maximum effort, the best you can manage is a reduction in losses, you are losing, and maximum entropy is in the offing.

Business and Sustainable Development Report:

“2016 has unsettled business leaders everywhere. Whatever one’s political views, uncertainty and the return to a much more nationalist politics in many countries have displaced the assumption of steady global integration. Many commentators have declared that globalisation has already peaked, despite its role in the past 30- year run of unprecedented successes worldwide in health, wealth, education and life expectancy. Certainly the contradictions of that success caught up with us in 2016. In the West, stagnant incomes among broad groups made them angry at elites who were bailed out after the global financial crisis. Frustrated voters have rejected more international integration. Elsewhere, too, those losing out either economically or environmentally, such as the citizens of smog-choked Asian cities, or socially, through the breakdown of traditional rural communities, are asking whether the costs of our global economy are greater than its benefits.”

The bleaching of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is following an eerily familiar script.  From the Guardian:

Some reef scientists are now becoming despondent. Water quality expert, Jon Brodie, told the Guardian the reef was now in a “terminal stage”. Brodie has devoted much of his life to improving water quality on the reef, one of a suite of measures used to stop bleaching.  ARC conducted an aerial and underwater survey of the reef which concluded that two-thirds of it has been hit by mass coral bleaching for second time in 12 months.  He said measures to improve water quality, which were a central tenet of the Australian government’s rescue effort, were failing.

“We’ve given up. It’s been my life managing water quality, we’ve failed,” Brodie said. “Even though we’ve spent a lot of money, we’ve had no success.”  Brodie used strong language to describe the threats to the reef in 2017. He said the compounding effect of back-to-back bleaching, Cyclone Debbie, and run-off from nearby catchments should not be understated.  “Last year was bad enough, this year is a disaster year,” Brodie said. “The federal government is doing nothing really, and the current programs, the water quality management is having very limited success. It’s unsuccessful.””

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