« Reading List: Launch On Need | Main | Reading List: Russia and the Big Red Lie »

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Reading List: Hunger: An Unnatural History

Russell, Sharman Apt. Hunger: An Unnatural History. New York: Basic Books, 2005. ISBN 978-0-465-07165-4.
As the author begins this volume, “Hunger is a country we enter every day…”. Our bodies (and especially our hypertrophied brains) require a constant supply of energy, and have only a limited and relatively inefficient means to store excesses and release it upon demand, and consequently we have evolved to have a strong and immediate sense for inadequate nutrition, which in the normal course of things causes us to find something to eat. When we do not eat, regardless of the cause, we experience hunger, which is one of the strongest of somatic sensations. Whether hunger is caused by famine, fasting from ritual or in search of transcendence, forgoing food in favour of others, a deliberate hunger strike with the goal of effecting social or political change, deprivation at the hands of a coercive regime, or self-induced by a dietary regime aimed at improving one's health or appearance, it has the same grip upon the gut and the brain. As I wrote in The Hacker's Diet:

Hunger is a command, not a request. Hunger is looking at your dog curled up sleeping on the rug and thinking, “I wonder how much meat there is beneath all that fur?”

Here, the author explores hunger both at the level of biochemistry (where you may be amazed how much has been learned in the past few decades as to how the body regulates appetite and the fall-back from glucose-based metabolism from food to ketone body energy produced from stored fat, and how the ratio of energy from consumption of muscle mass differs between lean and obese individuals and varies over time) and the historical and social context of hunger. We encounter mystics and saints who fast to discover a higher wisdom or their inner essence; political activists (including Gandhi) willing to starve themselves to the point of death to shame their oppressors into capitulation; peoples whose circumstances have created a perverse (to us, the well-fed) culture built around hunger as the usual state of affairs; volunteers who participated in projects to explore the process of starvation and means to rescue those near death from its consequences; doctors in the Warsaw ghetto who documented the effects of starvation in patients they lacked the resources to save; and the millions of victims of famine in the last two centuries.

In discussing famine, the author appears uncomfortable with the fact, reluctantly alluded to, that famine in the modern era is almost never the result of a shortage of food, but rather the consequence of coercive government either constraining the supply of food or blocking its delivery to those in need. Even in the great Irish famine of the 1840s, Ireland continued to export food even as its population starved. (The author argues that even had the exports been halted, the food would have been inadequate to feed the Irish, but even so, they could have saved some, and this is before considering potential food shipments from the rest of the “Union” to a starving Ireland. [Pardon me if this gets me going—ancestors….]) Certainly today it is beyond dispute that the world produces far more food (at least as measured by calories and principal nutrients) than is needed to feed its population. Consequently, whenever there is a famine, the cause is not a shortage of food but rather an interruption in its delivery to those who need it. While aid programs can help to alleviate crises, and “re-feeding” therapy can rescue those on the brink of death by hunger, the problem will persist until the dysfunctional governments that starve their people and loot aid intended for them are eliminated. Given how those who've starved in recent decades have usually been disempowered minorities, perhaps it would be more effective in the long term to arm them than to feed them.

You will not find such gnarly sentiments in this book, which is very much aligned with the NGO view that famine due to evil coercive dictatorships is just one of those things that happens, like hurricanes. That said, I cannot recommend this book too highly. The biochemical view of hunger and energy storage and release in times of feast and famine alone is worth the price of admission, and the exploration of hunger in religion, politics, and even entertainment puts it over the top. If you're dieting, this may not be the book to read, but on the other hand, maybe it's just the thing.

The author is the daughter of Milburn G. “Mel” Apt, the first human to fly faster than Mach 3, who died when his X-2 research plane crashed after its record-setting flight.

Posted at February 29, 2012 23:29