Bricks and Balloons

the book Food Fix, in a gardenFood Fix is a book published at the right time: It went to press before coronavirus hit the United States, yet without mentioning the pandemic at all, it explains very clearly how the problems with our global food system addressed in this book are worsening the spread of the virus and its deadly effects!  Read my review at Kitchen Stewardship to learn how Mark Hyman, M.D., details the urgent need to improve our food system to save human lives, reverse climate change, and reduce poverty.  Although food is not the only factor driving any of these problems, it is a big one, which affects everybody every day.  Fixing food would make a huge difference that would help all the other issues fall into place.

For example, Food Fix cites multiple research studies on the effects of improving nutrition for people who had committed violence–some adults, some children.  Even a small improvement in diet or supplements may reduce violent behavior by 25% to 91% compared to control groups.

This makes me think of Rolf Loeber, one of the principal investigators of the Pittsburgh Youth Study where I lined up the data of 1,517 young men’s life stories and set up many analyses of risk and promotive factors that make boys more or less likely to commit violence or other crime in the short and long term.

Rolf had a slide he often showed in lectures, depicting a boy with a stack of bricks on one hand and a bunch of balloons in the other.  The side of him loaded with bricks is pulled down; the arm with the balloons is reaching up as high as it can.  Rolf said that the risks in a boy’s life are like bricks, draining his energy, slowing him down, hurting his body, annoying him, limiting his options–but we must never forget the helpful things that act as balloons to balance the strain on the boy, lifting him up, helping him stand tall, giving him hope, sometimes even floating him to a better situation.

In every society on Earth, most people have some sort of tolerable balance of bricks and balloons, a few people have so many balloons they just drift lazily through life, and some people are overloaded with bricks.  Which bricks and which balloons get a person to the tipping point varies, but everybody’s got a point at which he’s barely staggering along with the bricks, and then the wind snaps off his best balloon and he just can’t anymore and he’s sitting on the concrete with one hand crushed under bricks, and okay it might not help to throw bricks at someone else but he’s so angry and what else can he do?

This is why every society has a vested interest in balancing bricks and balloons among the people.  We’re all less safe when anyone’s options come down to a choice between stealing or starving.

Feeling certain that our police officers intend to keep us safe is a balloon.  Most Black people in the United States don’t have that balloon.  Many other people, especially those who don’t speak English well, don’t have that balloon.   I’m a white person with only a small and fragile police-keep-me-safe balloon because, although police have never hurt me or gotten me into any more trouble than a traffic ticket, their attitude chills me; their swagger seems not protective but menacing; it’s like being near a dog who at any moment might jump on my chest and start barking in my face and nobody would stop him.  If it were obvious that people who look like me are especially likely to be killed by police and to be targeted by police while just going about daily life, oh man, my police-keep-me-safe balloon would have blown away in little shreds long ago!

Black Lives Matter.  All of us Earthlings need to help with the big, knotty problem created by centuries of treating Black people as if the color of their skin is a brick in itself and attracts other bricks like a magnet.  Yes, other ethnicities can act as bricks, and the white balloon is not the same size for every white person.  Yes, many human traits other than race can trigger discrimination.  We all need a balance of bricks and balloons; look for times when you can lift a brick off someone’s load or share some of your balloons.

Nutrition, food quality, and labor exploitation in the food-production industry all are issues whose negative impact has fallen harder on Black people worldwide than on most other people.  That’s why Food Fix, in addition to being startlingly applicable to the coronavirus pandemic, also connects in many ways to the anti-racist movement that gathered steam just after I finished reading the book.  Simply protecting Black people from getting their necks crushed in the street or rubber bullets shot in their faces is not enough!  Black lives deserve so much more than just being allowed to continue breathing!

Black lives deserve to be healthy lives, yet the bricks of COVID-19 are hitting Black families disproportionately hard, and the reasons for that match right up with many of the issues addressed by Food Fix: chronic diseases that increase vulnerability to the most serious effects of the virus, lack of access to a healthy diet that helps control those diseases, unsafe working conditions in meat-packing plants, pollution of lower-income neighborhoods.

Good nutrition builds healthier minds.  It’s a balloon that lifts our perspective by making our brains more able to think through many options quickly, to consider the consequences for ourselves and others, to resist criminal actions but also to resist using violence against people to punish vandalism of property.  Nothing says, “Your life doesn’t matter that much to me,” like smashing a person’s head because he smashed a car window.  Escalating from vandalism to violence makes the whole situation worse, not better!  Maybe police officers need better nutrition, too!

The higher prevalence of some violent crimes among African-Americans does not mean that their ancestry makes them violent!  Race is connected to many other risk factors that are stronger predictors of violence and other crimes.  (Here are the 9 things that make a boy twice as likely to become a murderer.  Race isn’t one of them.)

Food Fix helped me to see that now is the cool of the day not only for our environment but for our society in many other ways: the food system, racial disparities in justice, the health-care system, the economy, and more.  We need a massive rebalancing of bricks and balloons.  We must stop rewarding damage, discouraging healing, and lying to make this mess look better.

It may look like our massive, corporatized, world-wide food system is set in stone, but it’s really just built of bricks.  Let’s use this extraordinary season on Earth as motivation to roll up our sleeves and start rearranging!

Visit Hearth & Soul for other writers’ perspectives on living on Earth in 2020!


5 thoughts on “Bricks and Balloons

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