Thought for the Week – Food energy is another helpful way of thinking on how we consume

This week, David Wang looks at how food connects us to the world and all living things.

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David McKee died this month, both an outstanding children’s illustrator as well as being a master storyteller. My favourites include Elmer the Elephant (who was different), Not now, Bernard (whose parents were always busy) and The Conquerors, (never a more winsome apology for pacifism). All his stories are a charmed close look at life, including its ethical conundrums but never condescending to the child reader, and open to wide interpretation – parabolic.

For me his most enchanting were the extraordinary adventures of Mr Benn which had been made into a hit TV series in the 70s, which totally mesmerised me and my brothers as children.  The adventures always starred the bowler hatted Mr Benn and started in the humdrum of life on his street, Festive Road. On one occasion it was filled with queuing traffic due to a road diversion.  He was motivated to head for the special costume shop because he wanted to get away from the traffic noise.

Queuing traffic has become a familiar sight again on many streets of London, the blissful calm of early lockdown now but a distant memory. Traffic this winter on the school run seemed worse than ever. It seems people have started using their cars again to avoid public transport and I guess have been slow to stop using them. Our generation has gotten used to living in a high energy society, a society where we are desensitised to the gratuitous expenditure of energy that passes for necessary everyday activity.

I love the character ‘Gru’ the laughably insecure dad & master criminal from ‘Despicable Me’, who drives a stupendously oversized rocket (car) so nobody can look down on him.  It’s an animation, in reality no local authority would allow anything as reckless, except… What do our local roads look and feel like when you are a cyclist? The average person weighs less than 100kg and a bike an elegant 10kg, for personal transport, it definitely makes strange sense to use a car, 2000kg of accessory.

Sallie McFague says that ‘food is the sine qua non in nature’ the absolutely necessary.  Food connects us to the world and all living things because all are part of nature’s food chain. ‘[food] sums up the entire corporeal planet, which is created by energy and sustained by food; the evolutionary story is the story of who gets food and who does not; and wars increasingly will be fought over food.’ *

Wanting speed & quantity over other qualities, we have unintentionally built ourselves into a society that lives by very high energy habits. A litre of petrol embodies 34000 KiloJoules energy, the equivalent of all an average adult’s energy needs from food for 4 days. Popping down to the shops (3-4 miles away) in a car burns up the energy of 4 days food, whereas a mere mouthful of food would cover cycling and give health benefits besides.

It might seem odd to equate energy used for transportation with the energy stored in food but they’re both part of the same food chain powered by the sun.  Here in the UK the average adult consumes about 150 million KJ** of energy a year, the equivalent in calorific value of 50 years worth of food. That figure doesn’t even include the energy embodied in the goods we buy from overseas.  Its eye watering to measure our energy consumption in terms of food, on average in addition to what we consume eating we also burn through another 50 years worth of food every year.

So what?  Well for me this way of seeing helps me understand how I need the stories I tell myself (justifications), about living the good life I try to live, that my stories might need further interrogation. Secondly it’s a reminder that I inhabit a very high energy society which, needing a plentiful supply, creates global environmental and political problems. The current war in Ukraine as well as recent wars in Iraq, South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, Syria in the final analysis are all twenty-first-century energy wars.  Thirdly, since I started writing this blog, I turned down the hot water temperature at home by 3 degrees, I found a small action to take.

The Easter story is a great reversal, from death to life, from total loss to unimaginable riches, fear to fearlessness, exclusivity to catholicity.  Things kept hidden brought into a new light.  I see for example that in the Old Testament life in the fast lane was never God’s plan for his people, even in his judgement slowness was the adjective used of God’s own character.  God has demonstrated his love to us by kenosis, self emptying. Perhaps it’s unfamiliar to think about God in this way but is God telling me to follow the same path to find freedom and joy?  If the UK already has more than its fair share is it also to aim for a smaller economy?

Mr Benn gets to the costume shop where he puts on a caveman animal skin and goes back to prehistoric times. After his adventures there Mr Benn is back amidst the traffic on Festive Road, but this time he sees that some of the vehicles look different… they look like dinosaurs.  David Mckee, in my view, had a prophetic edge to his storytelling.  Might cars go the way of dinosaurs?  Might we?

Mr Benn illustration

*- Blessed are The Consumers by Sallie McFague

** – Extrapolated from the US Energy Information Administration: UK Energy Consumption