Published on April 30th, 2011 | by andrea devon1
book review: Hunger- An Unnatural History
I have always been an avid reader, and now that I am a serious food geek too, it is natural that my reading interests often fall into the food and culture categories. Hunger- an Unnatural History by Sharman Apt Russell is no exception. This book was published in 2005, but I just found it at a thrift store and devoured it (ha?) in one weekend and one sick day at home. Her writing is clever, sharp and convincing- brutally honest about hunger in the world, our general misunderstanding of the path of hunger, our ineptitude at dealing with the enormity of the problem, and our continued apathy towards it. The thing that struck me the most about her writing was her sensitivity towards the topic, balanced with her straightforward assertion that she (and we, in America) do not do enough because we are greedy- which may offend plenty of people. But if we are honest with ourselves, it is appallingly true.
Russell is a clever writer, blending historical facts with present day applications, with the ability to tie her emotions into the text in a sympathetic manner. The beginning chapters are historical accounts of the meaning of hunger: public fasting, fasting for public health, fasting for God, fasting as non-violent resistance, including the hunger strikes of English suffragettes and Ghandi. Explanations of the ‘metabolic gymnastics’ of digestion are mixed in throughout; I was fascinated by the many ways our bodies respond without continuous intake of carbohydrates and sugars, and how our entire digestive system and all other body systems change in order to continue to ‘feed’ the body. But despite the persistence of hunger throughout the world, we know startlingly little about how hunger and starvation really works- and the best way to solve it.
Much of the existing data on hunger was gathered from research undertaken in the awful setting of the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto during World War II. The residents of the Ghetto were literally starving to death on the allowed rations of about 500 calories a day. Doctors and researchers in the hospital, also severely hungry, worked as a team to generate one of the most complete studies of starvation in history. Some of the research was lost during the razing of the ghetto is subsequent years, but much of the materials were smuggled out and saved. In a safer, more clinical study in Minnesota during the same time, dozens of healthy men volunteered for a study of starvation as part of their war effort, with facinating results about how our brains and personalities are directly affected by hunger and subsequent re-feeding. Other research about hunger- cultural conceptions of hunger, food, and eating- came from mid-century anthropological studies of isolated societies in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America. From these research accounts- biased, enthnocentric, and criticized as they are- we are offered a snapshot of how persistent hunger and food shortages affect communities of humans and create systems of greed, hoarding, and cultural customs (or lack of) surrounding food.
Russell’s most passionate chapters focus on the hunger of children and the present activism of hunger relief. She describes why hungry children are often used to represent hunger as a global issue in the West: “When an adult is hungry, it happens in the present tense. When a child starves, there is another dimension. It also happens in the future. For a child is potential, in the act of becoming” (180). But she also mentions that while children may break our hearts harder, they might be viewed as less important than the surviving adults within the starving group: “The future of a group does not lie in its orphaned babies but in those men and women who can go on to reproduce again (181). The closing chapters, focusing on the successes and failures of international food aid and work is shocking it it’s ineptitude, yet inspiring in the ongoing research and practicing of relief organizations and international bodies like the United Nations, trying to address the problem of a world of starving people.