As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine grinds on, there has been a global outpouring of support. Faced with the horrors of war, we feel called to do something to help or at least to show our solidarity. Voluntary poverty can serve both as an act of solidarity with those who are suffering and as a practical response to the effects of the war on the global economy.
While the destruction of Ukrainian cities gets more attention in the media, a crisis is developing in poorer countries around the globe. The world is facing a food, fuel, and fertilizer shortage. For most of us in the USA, this is likely to prove only a minor inconvenience. For those in the poorer countries of the Global South, it is life-threatening. By embracing voluntary poverty and cutting back our own consumption, we can free up supplies for those in need. Judicious donations can transfer our unused “purchasing power” to those who would otherwise be unable to afford basic necessities.
Together, Ukraine and Russia produce a third of the world’s wheat and barley exports, and more than two-thirds of the world’s sunflower seed oil. As the war disrupts farming and transport, and sanctions hamper shipping, these supplies are in danger of disappearing. This will have catastrophic effects on countries that depend on food imports, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.
At the same time, 26 million tons of grain are fed to livestock every year in the USA alone. This represents a massive waste of calories, since the resulting meat, eggs, and dairy products contain many fewer calories than the original grains. If we all reduced our consumption of animal products, this grain would be available to feed human beings. Such a reduction would bring our consumption more into line with the global average meat consumption. An average person in the USA consumes more than 250 pounds of meat a year, while the world average is closer to 75 pounds. Feeding less grain to livestock would also reduce the environmental impact of American farming and promote better living conditions for farm animals.
Our alcohol consumption also wastes a lot of grain. Every year, the USA grows two million acres of barley for producing beer and other alcoholic drinks. By reducing our alcohol consumption, we can free up some of that land for more productive uses.
Our appetite for alcohol, however, is dwarfed by that of our vehicles. Every year, 5 billion bushels of corn are turned into ethanol to fuel American vehicles. This is a terribly inefficient way to produce fuel since the amount of energy used in the production process is so large. It is notable that most other countries do not use grains in this way; ethanol production in the USA is the result of aggressive lobbying by agribusiness interests. It is not efficient enough to be profitable on its own.
Gasoline prices have also gone up around the world, since Russia is a major oil exporter. By limiting our travel, we can help to reduce these prices and keep poorer countries from being priced out of the market for transportation fuel.
Russia is the largest exporter of nitrogen fertilizer in the world, and also a key exporter of natural gas, which is critical for fertilizer manufacturing. As the prices of fertilizer skyrocket, small farmers are being pushed out of business by growing costs.
Americans “cultivate” 63,000 square miles of lawn! All that lawn uses a lot of fertilizer—around 90 million pounds of it! Now would be a good time to skip fertilizing useless, decorative lawns to save fertilizer for more important uses. This would help to lower food costs, which are being pushed higher by fertilizer prices.
It is said that the world is facing a food shortage. This isn’t really true. Despite the effects of the war, there is plenty of food to go around—but we Americans are feeding all the food to our cows and cars! Our “need” for cheap meat and travel is depriving other people of the food they need to survive, and contributing to the ongoing degradation of the environment that we all depend on for survival. Faced with this reality, the only Christian response is an embrace of voluntary poverty. In Gaudium et Spes the teaching of the Church on this matter is laid out very clearly:
God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner… In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others. On the other hand, the right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church held this opinion, teaching that men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods…Since there are so many people prostrate with hunger in the world, this sacred council urges all, both individuals and governments, to remember the aphorism of the Fathers, “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him”.
This is a matter, not of charity, but of justice. It is unjust to consume more than our fair share of the world’s resources, particularly during a time of crisis. If we consume more, some other person will have to consume less. While we don’t know these invisible “others”, God knows them, and Christ identifies himself with them. When we stand before Christ, will he say to us “I was hungry, and you fed me”, or will he say “I was hungry, but my food was wasted because of your greed”?