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Shortages: A topical assembly

To examine the effects of shortages across the world upon different populations.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To examine the effects of shortages across the world upon different populations.

Preparation and materials

  • This assembly could be student-led.


  1. Throughout history, conflicts and wars have been fought between people who band together into groups. The members of these groups were united by some common factor, such as language, religion or habitat. Most of these conflicts were concerned with staying alive: there was not enough food, water or fuel to go round. By banding together in this way, people gave themselves and their loved ones a greater chance of survival. But it was not a good life. It was, as the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called it, ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. One’s kin could quickly turn upon one, meaning that life was never secure.
  2. Fortunately, this is not the experience many of you will know. In Europe, there is enough food to go round. Although not everyone is rich, it is very unusual for someone to starve. Survival is guaranteed, at least until a natural death. This security allows us to concentrate on other things, such as education, play and consumer goods.
  3. Yet for some, the Hobbesian world is still a reality. The world’s population is six billion; although global economic advancements have made life significantly less dangerous for most, around one billion remain trapped in absolute and seemingly incurable poverty. This is poverty on an unimaginable scale: imagine living on less than $2 a day – that’s about £1.40. Moreover, imagine having children to feed as well on that much. Famine and war frequently disrupt the already meagre economic lives of these people.
  4. The real tragedy is that many of these disasters are preventable. In the past, a poor harvest was a matter of bad luck. In the modern world, advances such as Norman Borlaug’s ‘Green Revolution’ and the global food market ensure that there is enough food to survive a bad harvest. Beginning with the Soviet Union in the 1920s, many twentieth-century famines have been the outcomes of poorly informed or malicious political decisions. This is true for capitalist countries as well as communist ones: when food is in warehouses but the poor cannot afford it, it might as well not exist for them.
  5. Abundance is a cause worth committing to; in a world of abundant food, fuel and water, humanity’s worst instincts will find fewer outlets. Shortages are the main cause of war, conflict and crime. It is in everyone’s interest to ensure that those who lack, do not do so for long.
  6. Over the past few months, shortages in cotton have led to one high-street retailer, known for very cheap prices, to warn that prices will rise soon.

    Perhaps more important, there have been riots in some very poor countries where people can no longer afford to buy food staples owing to a rise in prices caused by shortages.

Time for reflection

In the New Year, you may complain as prices rise and the cost of new clothes reflects that rise.

Your household food bill may rise as the increased cost of wheat is reflected in the higher price of a loaf of bread.

More expensive animal feed will put up the cost of meat.

Now spend a few moments thinking that, for some families, that same rise in the cost of wheat may mean they have too little food, and that may lead to starvation and death.

How could we, as individuals, change our patterns of consumption to alleviate suffering far away?

How can I change my buying habits to enable someone else to have a better life?


‘When I needed a neighbour’ (Come and Praise, 65)

Publication date: December 2010   (Vol.12 No.12)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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