On Food Waste

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When baby boomers were kids, their parents got them to eat their peas by wagging their fingers and intoning that "there are people starving in China." And they were right. Millions—perhaps tens of millions—of people died the in the Great Leap Forward famine of 1959-61. Over the ensuing decades, Western eco-activists have stoked this primeval guilt complex continuously, arguing in true Malthusian fashion that the ratio of the Earth's food supply to its population is always near-critical. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich proclaimed in his 1968 book The Population Bomb. "In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." Less than a month ago (November 2017), fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an alarmist Warning to Humanity that included an appeal to "reduce food waste through education and better infrastructure."


In North America the season of peak food moralizing falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when our gratitude for bountiful nature does indeed seem to be top of mind, and when the urge to allay the hunger in our midst is greatest. Not for nothing did Charles Dickens end A Christmas Carol with the miserly Scrooge sending the fattest turkey in London to Bob Cratchit. Just this week, writing in the New York Times, journalist Somini Sengupta implored affluent North American consumers yet again to stop wasting so much food, citing a U.S. Department of Agriculture bureaucrat to the effect that "people don’t value food for what it represents." Same guilt trip, different century.

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But where do we actually stand on global food security? According to the World Bank, we have been making astounding progress. Less than ten percent of the world’s population today lives in extreme poverty—down from 37 percent in 1990 and 44 percent in 1981. Just last year a group of agriculture and trade ministers met in Rome under the auspices of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (F.A.O.) to discuss the world food supply. They reported that 793-million people remain undernourished, and that two billion are not getting enough micronutrients. But the trend-lines continue to move entirely in the right direction. F.A.O. data show that "large food supplies have resulted in prices moving at lower levels." Over the next dozen or so years, commodity prices (meat, dairy, cereal) are expected to remain low and stable—optimal conditions for the expansion of the regional trade flows that have revolutionized food distribution in the developing world. What this means is that, barring the unforeseen, the F.A.O.-led 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is on track to end "extreme poverty, hunger and all other forms of malnutrition."

This is a redemption narrative on a truly Dickensian scale, but it is no cause for complacency. The achievement of global food security is within our collective reach. And you should still eat your peas.

On Toys and Gender

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No North American under the age of 60 can remember a time when the issue of gender bias in children's toys was not a matter of the utmost cultural and political urgency. Indeed, there have been times—including the present, apparently—when it has erupted into a full-blown moral panic.

Take four-year-old "Ada," for example, one of the kids profiled in the Toronto Star's recent feature on gender and toys. Ada's parents are über-progressive Gen-Xers who raised her on "toys carefully selected to develop problem-solving skills and foster curiosity about the way the world works." And what do you know? Starting just after her third birthday, Ada has been in a "princess phase," where she remains. “I’ve got to say, it breaks my heart a little bit,” says her mom. The same remorse is expressed by "Guinevere," another parent profiled in the Star article. As a kid she loved her Tonka toy, but what do you know? Her own daughter "prefers stuffed animals and dinosaurs." 

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The Star piece rolls out the usual theories from the usual suspects to explain this perennial paradox—the ebbs and flows of feminist theory, schoolyard peer pressure and, of course, the pernicious influence of indifferent toy-makers and retailers. But where stands the actual research after all these decades? This is where things get interesting. Even among academic researchers—most of whom appear to be fully committed to the cause of gender-neutralizing toys—the consensus is that "both biological and social factors influence kids’ choices about what toys to play with and how to play with them. Nature and nurture. Not one or the other." As for the secretive toy manufacturers and retailers (Walmart, Amazon, and Toys R Us refused to talk to the Star), those willing to speak on the record cite "focus group research" like Lego Corp's four-year study showing that—wait for it—"boys and girls gravitate toward different toys."

Progressive parents will not be shocked at these findings, nor should they be the least demoralized when their sons and daughters fall into "stereotypical" patterns of gendered play. The point of the Barbie store display in the Star piece (shown above) is not that the dominant colour is fuchsia and aimed at girls. It's the tag line. You can be anything.

On Polar Bears and Billionaires

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What happens when a complex and divisive policy issue is reduced to pure symbolism? We're about to find out, for that is where the climate debate appears to have dead-ended this week, as "world leaders" (including Sean Penn, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Elon Musk) fly into Paris for yet another climate conference.

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On the side of climate-change activism we have the symbol of the sickly, desperate Baffin Island polar bear, which has this week gone viral and attracted sympathetic coverage from virtually all mainstream media. Critics have tried to ask rational questions—about the health of polar bear populations, the circumstances of this particular bear, the failure of the videographer to intervene on her behalf, the ethics of promulgating fake news in a good cause, etc.—but they're wasting their breaths. What matters is viewers' visceral response. As former E.P.A. head Christine Todd Whitman noted recently, serious discussion of climate science only confuses the public. A second powerful element in this week's propaganda offensive is Emmanuel Macron's "Make Our Planet Great Again" program of research grants, via which he has reportedly "lured" thirteen leading American climate researchers to France. Here, too, the symbolism is obvious: under Donald Trump, American scientists are themselves suffering undernourishment and habitat loss.

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France's peculiar politics require that President Macron self-identify as "pro-capitalist" while speaking the language of radical change. "We are very far from the goal of the Paris agreement of limiting the rise in temperatures to below a two-degree threshold," he said yesterday. "Without much stronger mobilization, a jolt to our means of production and development, we will not succeed." The stated objective of Macron's conference is to boost private-sector financing of new global-warming-mitigation technologies, culminating in the creation of a $100-billion fund for projects in the developing world. Needless to say, the protesters rallying in the streets of Paris (shown here) don't buy it. "Despite the hype, the One Planet summit is delivering little for the world's people who are the most vulnerable to climate change," says Brandon Wu of ActionAid USA. "Rich countries continue to pretend that new schemes for businessmen to increase their profits will be the center of the solution for the poor."

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Before the polar bear video went viral, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna was the best-known Canadian symbol of climate justice. ("THIS is what climate change looks like," she tweeted. "Climate change is real. As are its impacts. Time to stand up for our polar bears and our planet.") Today, Ms. McKenna is sitting in on the Paris meeting—across the table from M. Macron and cheek-by-jowl with billionaire philanthropists Bill Gates and Richard Branson. Forget about the bears, and the research grants, and the eco-Marxists. This is the symbolism that matters. President Macron has taken charge of the climate file. He and the world's richest capitalists are now on the job.