Hunger: A Product of the Mind?

Published on 11th October 2005

Why are people poor and hungry? Some people argue it is because of circumstances and events within a country. \"If they would just stop having babies, their problems would be solved.” Who presents the problem in this way? This is the parochial view, the isolationist or neo-isolationist point of view. In the United States of America, it is known as \"America First.\" \"The world begins and ends with me, on my block, in my town.\"

When the problem is defined in this way, the typical solution is to get rid of the people. Garret Hardin, a biologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, developed the concept of Lifeboat Ethics. In this view, a big ocean liner is sinking, and there are too many people on the lifeboat. The ethical dilemma is to determine who is to survive. The rich people are in the lifeboat and want to keep the multitude of poor out. In contrast, the poor argue that it is the over-consuming rich that are putting the greatest stress on the world\'s resources. For Garrett Hardin, there are too many people on the planet. Some will have to die. Hunger is simply nature\'s way of taking care of the overpopulation problem.

There is a direct correlation between the way we analyze a problem and the solutions we pose to that problem. A myriad answers on the root causes of hunger and poverty may be grouped into two broad categories: internal or external factors. There is need to move from discussing the symptoms of hunger and poverty to addressing their root cause. Chronic poverty causes hunger. But what causes the chronic poverty?

Poverty is more than a material condition and circumstance; it is a way of looking at the world, man and ultimate reality. The way one sees things may stifle life and lead to underdevelopment. As Richard M. Weaver says, \"ideas have consequences.\" There is a logical relationship between an idea or a value, and its outworking in behavior and life. Ludwig von Mises, the internationally known economist, stated: \"Action is always directed by ideas; it realizes what previous thinking has designed.\" A culture which values human life will function very differently from one which does not. What does a woman carry in her womb? Is it a \"baby,\" or a \"product of conception?” The answer given reflects a person\'s or a culture\'s ideas concerning life. Those ideas, in turn, result in distinct patterns of behavior. If a woman carries a baby in her womb, it is cared for and nurtured. If it is considered simply a product of conception, it may be removed from her body and destroyed.

Culture may be referred to in both material and non-material terms. In material terms, culture refers to a society’s artifacts, inventions, tools and technologies, its music and art, its architecture and buildings and more. Those objects are the subject of archeological discovery and anthropological research.

The non-material side of culture deals with values, ideas and ideals, tradition, language and language structure, morals and mores. Non-material culture guides the thinking and decision-making process of a people -- it is the grist of the mind and the passion of the heart. These are derived from the culture\'s sacred belief system and in turn establish the theories and philosophical insights which are the foundation of a society’s laws and government policy, ultimately enlivening a people\'s behavior and lifestyle.

Chronic poverty is caused by a culture of poverty. This in turn is fed by personal poverty of the mind and heart, a spiritual, moral and intellectual problem. As Lawrence E. Harrison says, \"Underdevelopment is a state of mind.\"  Personal and cultural values create a grid or matrix which either defines and enhances, or retards the development of individuals and whole societies. Culture, not physical environment or circumstance, is the major determining factor in a nation\'s rise from poverty. In 1959, Oscar Lewis, writing in his book Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty, makes a distinction between poverty and the culture of poverty:

As an anthropologist I have tried to understand poverty and its associated traits as a culture or, more accurately, as a subculture with its own structure and rationale, as a way of life which is passed down from generation to generation along family lines.

Stockwell and Laidlaw, writing in Third World Development, say:

Economic development, or any kind of economic change, does not occur in isolation, but is part of a much larger and more general cultural transformation.... In other words, economy and culture are dynamically interrelated; economic development will both influence and be influenced by other aspects of culture.

They continue:

Finally, we would suggest that development requires a sociocultural milieu that will encourage the kinds of behavior that are necessary to achieve more adequate resource development and utilization. To the extent that such behavior is discouraged or not fully encouraged, culture may act as a serious obstacle to economic development.

In India, the Hindu caste system has imprisoned whole classes of people in poverty. Likewise, slavery in the United States and apartheid in South Africa, institutionally immobilized blacks in poverty. While the slave owners may have materially prospered, it was at the expense of their own moral and spiritual health and the physical poverty of those they oppressed.

Animistic cultures fuse the natural and spiritual worlds and, as a result, lack an understanding of physical law and of germ theory. Natural catastrophes are to be stoically endured, and disease is caused by an angry god who must be appeased. Similarly, most underdeveloped cultures believe that good is limited. If one person has more than another it is because he has stolen from his neighbor. This stifles any sense of material advancement or \"getting ahead.\" Past time frames and \"life on the wheel\" mark Hindu, Buddhist and animistic societies. There is no future; only limited time orientation. History is not going anywhere. This leaves little or no room for development, because development is a concept born in the future where progress can be made as time marches forward.

In other words, lack of interest in the material world also stifles development. There are no grounds for hard work or ownership of the product of one\'s creative efforts. The contemplative life is favored; business, labor and agrarian work is shunned. Ideas have consequences. Some ideals and values support the ending of poverty and hunger while others imprison people in poverty and hunger.

When the problem is framed in this way, what is the solution to the problem? We need to change people. There must be a transformation of minds and hearts. Development and the end of hunger and poverty must proceed from the inside out. A young couple went to the Dominican Republic with the Hunger Corps to live and work among the poor. A micro-enterprise loan program they administered made a loan to a single parent who made a living as a baker. Within six months, the loan was paid off and the woman’s household income had increased five-fold. A model success story! Not quite. The Hunger Corps couple noticed that the woman\'s children were still dressed in rags, had distended bellies and no shoes. Upon investigation it was discovered that the woman was spending the additional income on cigarettes, booze and lottery tickets. It was only after the woman\'s life was transformed from the inside out that her new income began to impact the lives of her children.

The problem of hunger and poverty is not primarily a physical problem, but a moral and spiritual problem. The solution to these tragic problems must be comprehensive, dealing with all of man and his whole world. This process begins in the minds and hearts of individuals. As lives are transformed, ideals and ideas, values and mores are changed. As enough lives are transformed, reformation of culture occurs. This in turn leads to the building of new structures that favor the value of freedom from hunger.

Why are people poor and hungry? One’s worldview will determine how this question is answered. The way the problem is defined will determine the solution put forward.






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