Battling Climate Change in the Himalayas, One Woman at a Time

by Jennifer Russ

The Indian state of Uttarakhand, in the lower Himalayas, holds the fifteenth rank in agriculture in the country. Almost 88% percent of the land holdings come under the small and marginal category, which is about 55% of the area under cultivation. In the past three years, Uttarakhand has received less-than-normal rainfall, which has affected crop production and adversely impacted the livelihood of the almost 78% of the State’s population dependent on agriculture.

On these mountainous farms, the families’ survival depends on their ability to adapt to increasingly erratic weather patterns. About 90% of agricultural lands in Uttarakhand are fed by rain and are thus highly vulnerable to climate change and degradation due to erratic and unpredictable rainfall and severe erosion of soil nutrients. This has posed a major threat to agriculture in the region, the life support for the state’s population.

1,  , thaheli village, bhilangana block, tehri district, MVDA (Kirti Nautiyal)

Meeting of seed bank group

Women play a crucial role in hill agriculture, as they undertake up to 90% of the total work in agriculture and animal care. The impact of decline in productivity due to climate change and degradation of natural resources has affected the food security of women the most.

Since 2012, Buddhist Global Relief has been partnering with Oxfam India on a project that is equipping women in thirteen villages in Uttarakhand to fight along the front lines of climate change. The core of the project is the formation of women’s farmers associations, where women meet and learn new farming techniques like the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and System of Wheat Intensification (SWI). These techniques enable farmers to produce more crops with less labor, fewer inputs, and less expenditures.

The result has been a 40% yield increase in rice and a 30% yield increase in wheat. These increases not only result in more food for their families but more income. With the extra money, the families can stop struggling to survive. They feel less pressure to keep their children home from school.

8, Training on protection of Natural water resources (Kirti Nautiyal)

Training in protection of natural water resources

At meetings of these farmer associations, Oxfam teaches women about climate change and how to maintain farms that are resilient to it. The women establish seed banks that preserve traditional plants while promoting hardier varieties. Farmers give back twice as many seeds as they take, which reduces their reliance on the market. The project also allows farmers to take out lines of credit with low interest so they may expand their farms. Together, women have more power to demand better prices for their products in the market.

Over 550 farmers across thirteen villages in Uttarakhand have benefited from this project. In the Gewali Village, one farmer was inspired to expand the project on her own. Sarita Devi, the wife of a shopkeeper and mother of three, manages the farm and livestock that are her family’s main source of income. Before Oxfam came to her village, Sarita and her husband were unable to support their family. Sarita joined a farmer’s association right away and was among the first to adopt SRI and SWI. That season, she enjoyed a higher yield and more income, but she didn’t stop there. She held demonstrations in her field and persuaded twelve other women in the Gewali village to adopt sustainable farming practices. Oxfam India reports that “Sarita Devi is an inspiration to all!”

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Indian women farmers, taking control of their own destiny

India is not the only country in which BGR has been sponsoring crop intensification programs. With your support, Buddhist Global Relief is planting many seeds of responsible farming in vulnerable communities around the world: in Cambodia, Vietnam, Haiti, Ethiopia, Côte D’Ivoire, Rwanda, and Malawi. To learn more about these projects, please visit our Current Projects page at http://www.buddhistglobalrelief.org/active/projects2014.html.

Girls in India as Agents of Change

by BGR Staff

BGR is presently sponsoring a project by the Bodhicitta Foundation in Nagpur, India, that has created a girls hostel to prepare girls for a better future. The hostel is accommodating thirty girls from extremely poor families, training them as social workers who will eventually return to their villages and become agents of change. At the end of January we received a half-year report from the Foundation. Below are highlights.

Adolescent girls in India make up a large percent of an invisible and vulnerable population. Prevailing cultural customs in India’s patriarchal society leave them powerless to decide their own future and disregard their potential as autonomous agents. Families traditionally favor male children, who are better fed and given preferential educational opportunities. Girl children are subject to gender-based discrimination. They are often denied an education but are instead forced into early marriage and child-bearing even before they outgrow their teen years. Investing in education for girls can be one of the most potent weapons in the fight for greater social justice. Educating girls can help alleviate poverty and the ignorance that leads to oppression of poor girls and women.

The focus of this Bodhicitta project is to enhance the education of adolescent girls. The project provides 30 girls with scholarships and hostel accommodations for three years. It trains them as health care and social workers or in other related fields of interest. These girls will become agents of change who will eventually return to their own villages, ready to empower other disadvantaged people and enable them to become self-sufficient.

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The girl’s hostel has 30 girls in residence, coming from Bihar, Maharashtra, and Nagpur. The girls, aged 10–22, are studying in nearby schools or doing university degrees by correspondence. When the girls first arrived at the hostel, many were so shy they could not speak in a group. Some were undernourished. Others suffered from worms, iron deficiency, head lice, and other conditions. Slowly the girls learned the routine at the hostel and developed their ability to study and focus. Now they can’t wait for the classrooms to open so they can practice their computer skills, play group development games, and share their opinions. On Saturday night the girls watch movies about inspiring people such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and Gandhi. But what they enjoy most are Bollywood movies with fantastical plots, wonderful costumes, and lots of dancing!

Their growing confidence, laughter, and joy in learning is a privilege made possible by the kind volunteers and donors of Buddhist Global Relief.

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One hostel resident named Anjali, age 19, writes:

At home I spend all day serving my father, who drinks and is bedridden. Sometimes I felt like committing suicide because all my dreams for a better future were impossible. But since I found the hostel, I feel so happy. I have never been able to focus on my studies like this. I also really enjoy the extra programs like computers, counseling, classical dance and yoga. I feel myself growing in confidence. I never thought a woman’s life could be like this. Now I feel that I can be stronger in the future and secure employment and a better life. I hope I can get a good job and help my family and our community. But most of all I look forward to being independent.

Another resident, Nikki, age 14, reviews her experience:

My mother is a sex worker. Last year she was sent to jail. My father is an alcoholic and drug user. My brother and I were often alone in the house. We had no food and had to beg neighbors to give us something to eat. My father sold our food to get drugs. Some friends of my father came to the house and tried to molest my brother when I was away. I was afraid I would have to become a sex worker like my mum. I had given up all hope of having a normal happy life. How can you think about study when your brother is in danger and your father threatens to sell you?! Ever since I can remember I have had to fight for life, fight for food, fight to be safe, fight to be heard. Bodhicitta Foundation is like paradise for me. I am happy my brother is in boarding school, although he is still very naughty. I know this is my one chance to make sure I don’t end up married to a laborer or working like my mum. If you don’t have education people will cheat you, you will be a slave your whole life. I feel so safe and free here. I hope to become a social worker and activist. I want women to get good jobs and have better lives. Thank you for helping me!

As part of the project Bodhicitta has funded a small community center. This center provides vocational training, training in life skills and capacity building, counseling on domestic violence and sexual abuse, family and relationship counseling, meditation and yoga, and internet facilities. The center continues to offer tuition to slum children, meals to undernourished children, and vocational training to women.

Women receive loans and education to enhance their business acumen and empower them to start their own businesses. The income gained will directly increase the well-being of their children, families and communities, lifting them out of poverty. The community center creates offers health workshops, counseling, career guidance, and quality education that is currently lacking in the difficult environment of a large industrial slum.

Kunta Bhai, age 43, a sewing course participant, writes:

My husband and mother-in-law threw me out on the street. I had nowhere to go and no education. Through the sewing course I can get piecework for shops and make more money than collecting recyclables from garbage. Meeting other women and hearing their problems gives me hope and comfort. After so much pain, meeting with the women in my micro-finance group once a month is like having a family. We cook for each other and help watch each other’s kids. I feel happy and more optimistic about my future now. I hope my daughter will finish college and have opportunities I haven’t had.

  Jessie Benjamin contributed to the writing of this article.

 

 

 

Three Minutes to Midnight: Can We Turn the Clock Back in Time?

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

With atomic scientists’ “Doomsday Clock” two minutes closer to midnight and a report from the National Climatic Data Center confirming that 2014 was the hottest year on record, Congress is trying to move us closer to ecocide. Reversing course will require urgent, concerted action.

On January 22, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced that it had moved the minutes hand of its “Doomsday Clock” ahead two minutes, from five minutes before midnight to three minutes before midnight. The clock envisions the life span of human civilization as a period of 24 hours. Thus when scientists decide to move the minutes hand ahead by two minutes, this means that they consider us to be drawing closer to the end of our time. With only three minutes left, we don’t have much leeway.

The analogy, however, is not perfect, for there’s an important difference between a real clock and the Doomsday Clock. A real clock, as long as its batteries are working, will always move forward, from second to second and minute to minute. The Doomsday Clock, in contrast, does not have to move forward, for apart from its astrophysical constraints, human civilization is not rolling along a one-way track toward some predestined end where everything comes to a stop. The minute hand on the clock of civilization could well stand still, or indeed even move in reverse, from the danger zone back toward safety. We can, perhaps, delay our final dénouement and flourish – even for many more centuries.

The hand has not moved forward because a giant meteor is about to crash into Central Europe, or because a ring of volcanoes is due to erupt from France to Siberia, or because alien invaders from a distant galaxy are about to land in the American Corn Belt. No, the hand of the clock has moved forward, from five minutes to three minutes before midnight, because of human activity itself. It has moved forward because of bad choices, programs and policies imposed by those at the wheels of power.

The Bulletin cited in particular two factors as the basis for its decision to advance the minute hand of its Doomsday Clock. One is the unchecked increase in climate change, the other the modernization of nuclear weapons systems. Both are clearly reflective of misguided choices, and the scientists spared no punches in laying the blame where it deserved to fall: on world leaders who failed to act “with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe.” Some scientists pointed to the role that nuclear weapons have played in heightening the danger; others stressed the failure to stem climate change. One board member, Richard Somerville, emphasized that “efforts at reducing global emissions of heat-trapping gases have so far been entirely insufficient to prevent unacceptable climate disruption . . . The resulting climate change will harm millions of people and will threaten many key ecological systems on which civilization relies.”

The Heat Is Up

As a reminder of the urgency of our situation, another report – this one coming from the National Climatic Data Center of NOAA – confirmed that 2014 was the hottest year on record. According to the report summary, “the globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for 2014 was the highest among all years since record keeping began in 1880.” During 2014, the average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.24°F (almost .7°C) above the 20th century average – the highest on record. The globally-averaged land surface temperature was 1.80°F (1.00°C) above the 20th century average, the fourth highest on record. The globally-averaged sea surface temperature was 1.03°F (0.57°C) above the 20th century average, again the highest on record.

Stated in the abstract, such figures may offer our minds little to get a grip on. So let images take the place of words. The image just below reveals at a glance the extent to which 2014 land and ocean temperatures deviated from the average. The image clearly shows that, with a few exceptions – including the eastern third of the United States – temperature increases spanned the globe. Europe was hit the hardest, but every continent was affected, and the oceans too, a critical ecosystem, also warmed “from sea to shining sea.”

2015.2.7.Chart.1

The higher temperatures of 2014 were not an aberration, but consistent with overall trends. The graph below,  also from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, shows how the global mean temperature has steadily risen over the past half century. After a phase of fluctuations between the 1930s and 1960s, global temperatures suddenly started to climb from the 1970s on, mounting ever higher like a flight of steps.

2015.2.7.Chart.2

A warmer planet means not only more bizarre and destruction spells of petulant weather – more droughts and floods and brutal heat waves – but also a mounting threat of feedback loops. The most ominous of these is the release of methane, a process that has already started. On a 20-year time scale, methane has a greenhouse effect 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide; on a century time scale, it’s about 23 times more potent. A veritable time bomb of the stuff, billions of tons, is stored beneath the Arctic permafrost and deep under the ocean’s floors. In the Arctic region, it exists in the form of frozen hydrates, which lock the gas safely below the surface. However, as temperatures steadily grow warmer, the frost melts, unlocking the repositories of methane. Then, in bubbles and belches, the methane will emerge, like a deadly dragon awakened from a long sleep, wreaking havoc on the earth’s fragile ecosystems.

The explosion of the “methane bomb” could flood the atmosphere with enough gigatons of carbon to push global temperatures beyond the sustainability level for human civilization. Then the Doomsday Clock will cross the remaining three minutes and reach the midnight mark. That could mean the true “end of history,” though in a different sense than that conceived by Francis Fukuyama. Indeed, it could bring to an end nature’s audacious experiment with a reckless species that prematurely named itself homo sapiens, “the wise humans.”

Congress Kicks In

The irony in this species name was already evident last month when the Senate voted on a proposal by Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), stating that human activity contributes “significantly” to climate change. The measure won, but just barely, by a vote of 50 to 49. Thus, while 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity underlies global warming, those who actually wield the power to curtail climate change are divided down the middle over the question whether we are even capable of doing something about it. Half our senators, and a great majority of our representatives in the junior house of Congress, stand on the side of denial.

It is probably such obtuseness – along with generous gifts from the fossil fuel corporations – that explains the refusal of Congress to tackle the gravest threat humanity has ever faced. Far from resisting the lure of Big Oil, on January 29, the Senate passed a bill approving construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The measure had bilateral support, garnering 62 votes in favor, 30 opposed. The Senate vote follows a House vote earlier in January, of 266-153, in support of the pipeline. President Obama still has the authority to make the final decision regarding construction. He has said that he would veto any bill approving the pipeline that crosses his desk, but his objection to the congressional vote rests on procedural grounds rather than on a considered decision. His actual decision still remains undetermined, awaiting the completion of an environmental impact study.

If constructed, the Keystone XL pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil every day from the tar sands pits of Alberta, Canada, to US refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. Tar sands oil, or diluted bitumen, is considered one of the dirtiest, most polluting substances on the planet, more carbon intensive even than petroleum. The extraction of the oil from tar sands requires huge amounts of energy and water. Its transport by pipeline poses grave threats to precious water and farmland along the route. And approval of the pipeline would let the fossil fuel industry know who’s really in charge of the planet’s destiny. It would be tantamount to an announcement that profit has finally triumphed over planet, that all the earth’s remaining stores of fossil fuels are fair game for extraction, sale and consumption.

Every day, more and more fossil fuels are being pumped up from the earth and seas – coal, oil and natural gas – far more than we can safely burn. Since the 1980s, we’ve had warnings, loud and clear enough, that we’re gambling with our collective future. We’re already at three minutes to midnight. However, though it’s late, it may yet not be too late to turn the clock backward. But for this to happen, drastic action will be needed, a full-scale collaborative effort undertaken with the vigor that enabled us to prevail against fascism in World War II.

If we can unite around this effort, if we can phase out nuclear weapons, let fossil fuels remain in the ground, and switch over to a clean-energy economy, we might turn the clock back. We might reverse it by five minutes, by 10 minutes, even by hours before midnight. But if we continue with business as usual, letting the giant carbon corporations dictate policy, the clock will continue to advance. When midnight arrives, we’ll reap the consequences of our folly: the death blow to civilization, the moment of ecological suicide.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

 

 

Hunger Still Shadows US Schoolchildren

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

A recent bulletin from the Southern Education Foundation reports that, for the first time in fifty years, a majority of students in US public schools come from low-income families. The data, collected for the 2012–13 school year, considers a family low income on the basis of whether the children register for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches to students. Figures show that 51% of students in US public schools, ranging from pre-kindergarten through the twelfth grade, were eligible for the lunch program. While poor students are spread across the US, the highest rates of poor and low-income families are concentrated in the Southern and Western states. In twenty-one states, at least half the public school children were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. In Mississippi, more than 70% of students were from low-income families. In Illinois, 50%—one of every two students—were low-income.

Michael A. Rebell of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College at Columbia University, noted that the poverty rate has been increasing even as the economy has improved. He emphasizes that to give children a meaningful education, “we have to do things that overcome the damages­ of poverty. We have to meet their health needs, their mental health needs, after-school programs, summer programs, parent engagement, early-childhood services. These are the so-called wraparound services. Some people think of them as add-ons. They’re not. They’re imperative.”

Hunger is not only a health issue for children, but also a challenge to the process of learning itself. Hungry kids are more likely to have trouble focusing at school, less likely to do their homework, and to be less inclined to pursue opportunities for learning outside the classroom, for example, by going to the local library. Hungry children are also more prone to have behavioral and emotional problems.

A new report by the US Census Bureau, released on January 28, found that the number of children living with married parents who receive food stamps almost doubled between 2007 and 2014: “In 2014, an estimated 16 million children, or about one in five, received food stamp assistance compared with the roughly 9 million children, or one in eight, that received this form of assistance prior to the recession.”

In its annual report on poverty last fall, the US census bureau found that one in five children lives in poverty. According to the UN, out of 35 economically developed countries, the US ranks 34th when it comes to relative child poverty (defined as living in a household in which disposable income, when adjusted for family size and composition, is less than 50% of the national median income). In this ranking, the US is trailed only by Romania but surpassed by Italy, Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, and Latvia. The Scandinavian countries—Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden—are high up in the charts.

In 2013, 44% of US children under the age 18 lived in low-income families— those with an income below $47,000 a year for a family of four. That’s equivalent to 31.8 million children, according to a report from the National Center for Children in poverty at Columbia University. The center also found that about 22% of US children live in poor families, with income below $24,000 a year.

Although roughly 48 million people, or one out of seven Americans, had been enrolled in the SNAP program—or food stamps— since the recession of 2007, Congress cut $8.6bn from food stamps a year ago. With a radically conservative majority now in charge of both houses of Congress further cuts to the food stamps program likely lie ahead. Food stamp eligibility rules are tightening in states across the country, causing up to 1 million current recipients to lose benefits and resulting in “serious hardship for many.”

Underlying the antagonism to food stamps and other nutritional assistance programs is the premise that those who depend on them are too indolent to support themselves and thus seek to exploit the bounty of the federal government. But Dave Reaney, the executive director of the Bay Area Food Bank in Theodore, Alabama, turns the focus of the argument from the adults to the children:

 You can’t blame the child, no matter what the circumstances. A two-year old can’t take care of themselves. They might not like the fact that the parents aren’t able to take care of the child and wish they’d change, that might be their opinion, but they won’t blame the kid. Even the toughest, hard-nosed, anti-government-funding person would say: ‘Well, kids ought to be able to eat good.’ We try to make sure that they understand that whether you like it or not, [food stamps] help kids and kids can’t help themselves. So stop worrying about the parent, and start worrying about the kid and then maybe we will get along better.

Thank You from Haiti

A Thank You Message from Lavarice Gaudin
Program Manager, Na Rive

Since 2010, Buddhist Global Relief has been a partner of the US-based What If? Foundation, which over the past fifteen years has been providing free meals for hungry children in the Ti Plas Kazo neighborhood of the capital, Port-au-Prince. During the first three years of our partnership, the focus of our projects was on the free meals program, which had become especially critical after the earthquake that struck the capital on January 12, 2010.

Over the past two years our partnership has expanded to include an education component, as WIF initiated a scholarship program to enable children to attend school. In Haiti school tuition is extremely expensive in relation to the country’s overall economy, and thus the assistance that BGR provides has been a great asset to children who would otherwise be unable to attend school. 

Below is a letter of thanks from Lavarice Gaudin, Program Manager of Na Rive, What If? Foundation’s on-the-ground partner in Haiti. His letter is introduced by WIF founder Margaret Trost and executive director Suzanne Alberga.

From Margaret Trost and Suzanne Alberga

Margaret Trost in Haiti

Dear Friend of What If? Foundation,

On this day, which marks the 5th anniversary of the devastating earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince, we hold the people of Haiti especially close to our hearts.  Below is a letter written to What If donors by Lavarice Gaudin, the program director for Na Rive, our Haitian partner. In it he shares reflections on the earthquake, our partnership, and the life-giving work that has been possible thanks to your support.

We are deeply grateful for our partnership with Na Rive, which offers a trustworthy and effective way to provide hope and opportunity to children in Port-au-Prince.  And we are grateful for your encouragement, your prayers, and your ongoing donations that are so crucial for this work to continue.

From Lavarice Gaudin, Na Rive Program Manager

Lavarice Gaudin with school children

Bonjou! Hello! friends of the What If? Foundation,

I write to you from Haiti and thank you for your support and love. Five years have passed since the earthquake that shook our country and broke our hearts. We remember it like it was yesterday.

On January 12th, the members of Na Rive will hold a prayer vigil to remember and honor the 300,000 people who lost their lives on that day. And we will remember in our prayers all of you who helped us.

The Haitian people remain strong and resourceful. We have deep faith and continue to hold onto hope for the future.

If you came to Port-au-Prince, you would see the rubble has been cleared and some new government buildings and hotels have been built, and also some new roads. But most people who lost their homes are still without a safe place to live. More and more people are hungry every day because they cannot afford to buy rice. The cost of living keeps going up. School tuition keeps going up. There is growing frustration throughout the country because people thought things would improve by now.

But you have made such a difference in the Ti Plas Kazo neighborhood. You have been with us and alongside us — before, during and after the earthquake.

Children enjoy a free lunch

When What If? Foundation partnered with us almost fifteen years ago, we were able to start serving hot, nutritious meals to the children; and then you made it possible for hundreds of parents to send their children to school. Because of the great food and education programs you support year after year, the children and their parents have been able to make it through all these difficult times.

Haiti-WIF-students

Students in Haiti

We see this every day in their eyes, and in their strength, courage and determination to have a better future. We do this work with all of our hearts. We believe love is the most powerful force.

Cooking team at Na Rive

There are so many who need help and we cannot help them all, but whoever is cooking the food, they do it with love. Whoever is working with the students, they do it with love.

And so, as we enter the New Year, we will continue, with your help, to feed the children, and teach them and guide them. We want to help them become leaders in this community.

We hope you will support the What If? Foundation again this year and continue to pray for us.

The children of Ti Plas Kazo join me and the rest of the Na Rive staff and volunteers in thanking you for standing with us all these years.

Piti piti na rive,
Little by little, we will arrive,

Lavarice Gaudin,
Na Rive Program Manager

Many Americans Don’t Get Enough Food

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

While the United States proclaims itself the land of limitless opportunity, the shining “nation on a hill” where dreams of prosperity and success become true, the reality on the ground often belies this pastel rhetoric. The reason for this failure is not lack of resources but policies determined by voodoo economics and rabid cruelty. Too many people are unemployed or underemployed. Too many workers are earning poverty-level wages. Too many programs that provide critical assistance to the neediest of our fellow citizens are being cut. Yet the big shots in Congress, who lecture the poor about the need to work hard, still subscribe to the belief that cutting taxes for the rich and granting subsidies to big business will result in rising incomes for everyone else.

One of the most effective measures in assessing a country’s real economic health is the extent of food insecurity among its population. Figures from reliable sources indicate that a shocking number of Americans perpetually live in the shadows of hunger. Over 46 million Americans–roughly 1 in 7 people–are dependent on SNAP, the food stamps program, which has been in the crossfires of a radically regressive Congress. If funding for the program is cut still further, the number of SNAP recipients will go down while the number of people unable to obtain sufficient food will rise.

The 32nd Annual Report on Hunger and Homelessness, issued by the US Conference of Mayors, reveals the extent of hunger in America. Released this past December, the report is far from comprehensive. It covers only 25 major American cities, while much of the hunger in the US is found in rural areas and in smaller towns and cities. Nevertheless, despite this limitation, the report reveals enough to remind us that we need to get our house in order.

An article on the website Alternet entitled “Ten Cities Where an Appalling Number of Americans Don’t Have Enough Food” sums up the findings of the report. Of the 25 cities covered by the report, 71% said the number of requests for emergency food assistance had increased last year, while 82% reported that food pantries and kitchens had to cut the amount of food distributed per visit, and 77% had to turn people away due to lack of resources. In 2015, 84% of cities expect requests for food aid to increase, but many  food banks and pantries worry that they may not have the resources to meet these requests. At least 20% of the food being distributed last year came from federal funding (in Los Angeles, it was as high as 51%).

Food bank in San Francisco

The article surveys the ten cities mentioned in the mayors’ report as at the bottom with respect to hunger and food insecurity. The ten are: Memphis, San Antonio, San Francisco, Washington DC, Des Moines, Boston, Santa Barbara, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, and Norfolk. Memphis, known as “the hunger capital of the US,” had the worst hunger problem of the 25 cities included in the survey. Last year 46% of the city’s requests for emergency food assistance were unmet. The main causes for food insecurity in Memphis have been unemployment, low wages, and poverty. Twenty-six percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. San Francisco, surprisingly, also has one of the country’s most critical hunger problems, partly due to the relatively high cost of living in the city. Last year 37% of the city’s requests for emergency food assistance were declined. The report predicts that in 2015, the need for food assistance in San Francisco “will increase substantially,” while funding for the city’s anti-hunger programs “will decrease substantially.”

The figures in the article indicate that those dependent on emergency food aid are not necessarily unemployed. Many have full-time jubs. The reason they require food aid is simply that their wages are too low. They also receive inadequate benefits and thus must meet health-care costs on their own. This traps them in a vicious cycle by which inadequate diets contribute to poor health, and payments for health care absorb earnings that might otherwise have been spent on better nutrition, thus undermining health.

Another article on Alternet predicts that the problem of hunger and food insecurity in the US will be further exacerbated when one million of the nation’s poorest people will be cut from SNAP by the end of 2016 even if they’re actively pursuing work. In some areas, SNAP will reinstate a three-month limit on benefits for unemployed adults who are not disabled or raising children. These people will lose their benefits even if they are unable to find jobs, unless they are enrolled in a job training program. Many states, however, do not have such programs even for those who seek training. Thus, despite their plight, such people will be turned away from the program.

It is said that the best way to evaluate the social health of a nation is how it treats the least among its citizens. On this criterion, the US has a long way to go to live up to its ideal of “with liberty and justice for all.”

Aspiring for Peace in the New Year

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

The expanded text of a talk given at the New Year’s Interfaith Prayer Service, Chuang Yen Monastery, January 1, 2015.

At the beginning of a new year it is customary for us to express our hopes for peace in the year ahead and to wish each other peace. But to actually achieve peace is by no means an easy task. Real peace is not simply the absence of violent conflict but a state of harmony: harmony between people; harmony between humanity and nature; and harmony within ourselves. Without harmony, the seeds of conflict and violence will always be ready to sprout.

When I reflect on the challenge of achieving peace in today’s world, I have found it useful to treat the subject under three main headings: (1) The Obstacles to Achieving Peace—the barriers that maintain tension and foment conflict; (2) The Prerequisites of Peace—the goals we should pursue to achieve peace; and (3) The Means to Realizing these Goals. Each can in turn be analyzed into three secondary aspects.

The Obstacles to Achieving Peace

(1) Profit-seeking: Driven by the urge to expand profits, global corporations and other mammoth enterprises flood the market with harmful or frivolous commodities. They spend billions on advertising, despoil the natural environment with toxic waste, and scuttle laws that protect workers and consumers. They take wild risks which, when successful, benefit management and shareholders, and when failures, push the costs on to the public. The neoliberal economy has led to wider inequality of incomes and wealth.Recent figures reveal that the richest 70 people now own more wealth than the poorest half of the world, while in the US a mere 40 individuals own as much wealth as the bottom half. High levels of income inequality are associated with economic instability and crisis, whereas more equal societies tend to be more stable and to enjoy longer periods of sustained growth. More unequal societies show higher rates of violent crime and lower levels of social trust; more equal societies have lower crime rates and greater social trust. Greater economic equality thus contributes to peace.

(2) Plunder: Since the dawn of the industrial era we have been plundering nature’s treasures with reckless abandon. Today, this extractionist frame of mind drives us ever closer to the edge of calamity as rapacious economic activity disrupts the natural climate cycles on which human life depends. The big fossil fuel corporations plunder the earth for oil, coal, and gas, clearing ancient forests, blasting mountains to bits, and drilling down into the ocean depths. They transport the substances they extract over vast distances from source to refinery to market. Factories fill the skies with carbon dioxide, particulate matter, and harmful toxins. Extraction operations discharge toxic waste into rivers and lakes, poisoning the water resources on which whole communities depend.

Cumulative carbon emissions are cooking the planet and warming the seas. We’ve already had a taste of the future in the strange weather events that occur with greater frequency: droughts, floods, heat waves, and crop failures. As large regions of the earth turn barren, we will face mass migrations that can raise tensions and ignite violent confrontations. States may fail, unleashing chaos and giving the chance for tyrants to seize power and launch campaigns of conquest.

(3) Power projection: Driven by narrow economic interests, the powerful nations seek to enhance their might by projecting strategies of full-spectrum dominance across the globe. They finance ever more sophisticated weapons systems, spend billions on armaments, and spy on their citizens. They manipulate international protocols to their advantage, heightening tensions among old rivals. Weapons corporations thrive on the tensions, which they regard as new opportunities for profit. Global hostilities boil, and in certain hot spots periodically explode in outbursts of lethal violence.

The Prerequisites to Achieving Peace

(1) Protection: To achieve real peace, we need a global commitment to protecting people everywhere from harm and misery. This commitment must be rooted in a universal perspective that enables us to see all people as brothers and sisters, worthy of care and respect regardless of their ethnic, national, and religious identity. As Americans we can’t go on thinking that American lives are more important than the lives of people elsewhere—in Iraq and Afghanistan, in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. We can’t think that only the lives of middle-class people count, but not the lives of black youths in Chicago, herdsmen in Ethiopia, rice farmers in the Philippines, or factory workers in Bangladesh. Rather, we must regard all people as endowed with intrinsic value, which we must affirm by establishing greater economic, social, and political justice.

(2) Preservation. The greatest challenge of our time is to avoid climate chaos. The earth is our irreplaceable home, and if we destroy it, we will have no other place to go. At the rate we’re spitting out greenhouse gases, within a few decades we may raise the earth’s temperature to the point where the planet becomes inhospitable to human life. All the money in the world will be worthless on a planet where the grain belts have withered and oceans have turned deadly acidic.

We need to start making a rapid and full-scale transition to a new economy powered by clean and renewable sources of energy. The sun, wind, and heat of the earth are capable of providing us with all the energy we need. The main obstacle to date has been the lack of political will, whereby a band of powerful corporations, lobbyists, and compliant politicians reject the hard truths of science and even the clear decrees of rational self-interest.

We must stand up against moneyed interests and press our governments and civil groups to expedite the transition to a clean-energy future. Our window of opportunity is closing, and we must act fast before it slams shut. We need a sense of urgency, as if our clothes were on fire, an urge to act to preserve this precious planet—a miracle in a sea of cosmic dust, a blue-green pearl teeming with living forms.

(3) Prosperity. While extreme wealth for a few means misery for many others, prosperity is a good in which we all should be able to share. There is certainly enough wealth in the world to ensure that everyone can obtain sufficient food, clothing, housing, and medical care. The problem is not lack of wealth but its uneven distribution.

To lay the foundations for real peace, both national policies and international institutions must give precedence to uplifting people from the worst extremes of poverty. In today’s world, 900 million people live in perpetual food insecurity, while at least two billion suffer from malnutrition. Six million people a year, over half of them children, die from chronic hunger and related illnesses. The UN estimates that it would take just $30 billion a year to solve world hunger, a small fraction of the $737 billion that the US spent on defense in 2012. Tackling global hunger is not only a moral and ethical obligation but a policy that would have positive economic impacts and promote global solidarity. It could be a giant step in the direction of world peace.

Here in the US, some 50 million people—one out of seven—live in poverty. A half-century ago, the US had a social system that, while far from perfect, excelled in its public services. Over the past 30 years, many of these services have been downgraded or slashed. As the wealthiest country in the world, we can easily provide for the basic needs of all our citizens. But this will require new values. Instead of exalting individualism and ambition, we should prize cooperation and compassion. Instead of inciting competition, we should nurture harmonious communities and social solidarity.

The Means to Realizing these Goals

(1) Prayer, meditation, and contemplation. People of faith should root transformative action in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. While traditionally such practices served as stepping stones to the realization of a transcendent goal, today we need a wider spiritual vision that can encompass the divine and the mundane, the transcendent and the immanent, in an integral whole. By bringing us into intimate contact with the transcendent ground of justice and love, practices like meditation and contemplative prayer empower us to bring greater justice and love into the world. By purging the toxins of greed, hatred, and selfishness from our hearts, these practices open us to the universality of suffering, awakening our compassion and inspiring us to become a source of good for others.

(2) Peace. Peace is not only the goal of our efforts but also a means for reaching that goal. Peace belongs to the means because in order to establish peace, we must be peaceful ourselves. If our minds are agitated by anger and resentment, our efforts to promote peace are more likely to create more conflict and perhaps ignite more violence. An angry mind is not a reliable instrument for promoting peace. But when our minds are peaceful, our bodily actions will be peaceful, and we will convey an ambiance of love, care, and mercy, which will help to establish peaceful relations.

(3) Participation. While the pursuit of meditation and other spiritual practices as a private quest for inner awakening and liberation may have fit the worldview of past historical eras, in today’s world our emphasis must shift toward a more participatory kind of spirituality, one that unites the quest for inner peace with the commitment to world peace, human unity, and planetary preservation. Our devotion to contemplative practice can inspire in us a stronger aspiration to promote social and economic justice, to preserve the planet’s vital ecosystems, and to heal long-standing enmities. At the same time, our active commitment to the well-being of others can nurture our own spiritual growth, deepening our compassion and strengthening our moral integrity.

There are many venues through which we can embody participatory spirituality in action. We can support organizations that advocate for poverty alleviation, address climate change, and promote the ethical treatment of animals, immigration rights, and better pay for fast-food workers. We can write to our congressional representatives, expressing our views on the issues that most deeply concern us. Our votes, too, express our values and conscience. Although the electoral process in this country has been badly skewed in favor of Big Money, our votes still count and can make a difference.

To express conscience in action, we can sign petitions, join marches, and participate in demonstrations. In New York this past September, 400,000 people walked peacefully through the streets on the People’s Climate March, demanding that world leaders tackle the climate crisis. In cities across the country, low-wage workers have been demanding better wages and other conditions that will enable them to live with dignity. In many cities as well, people of all ethnic backgrounds have joined hands to protest police brutality against communities of color.

While the endeavor to achieve peace may often be frustrating, we should remember that nothing truly worthy can be achieved without effort. Peace and justice may be slow to arrive, but we will never obtain them without a struggle.

Let us make 2015 a year in which we firmly commit ourselves to the pursuit of real peace. Then, a year from now, we can look back at 2015 and consider our time to have been truly well spent.