Back in the 1950s I was living in Los Angeles with a roommate, Sally, who was confined to a wheelchair. Among our mutual friends was a youngish doctor. I can’t remember what his specialty was, but he was very concerned about Sally and convinced that with his help, she could walk. He had helped others gratis, and one day when I commented on his generosity, he told me a story about himself.
During World War II he lived in Berlin with his family. He was 18 and his family was Jewish, so they were in hiding, hungry most of the time and always fearful of being discovered by the Nazis. One day word was whispered that there was bread being sold at a bakery not terribly far away. It was dangerous to leave their apartment, but he volunteered to try.
Walking blocks and then waiting in line for hours, he managed to get a loaf of bread. As I started to say something soothing and complimentary to him for risking his life for bread for his family he put his hand on my arm to silence me, shaking his head, “I ate the whole loaf of bread by myself on the way home,” he said.
Since then, he has spent his life trying to atone for this act, even though it was not his fault that his family was starving and deprived of their livelihood. They were just the outcastes. Even the rank and file of the time were suffering from scarcity, but those in power had the force, the money and successful propaganda to convince them that they were loved and looked after by the leader and that soon prosperity would return and they would get their share. It didn’t happen under that regime.
Recently I came across the name Foster Gamble, a member of the family connected with the worldwide Proctor & Gamble Co. Instead of following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Foster began asking the question, “What could account for the staggering agony and deprivation on the planet today?”
His conclusion from his research, now made into a film, is that those who control the energy (energy meaning both the kind that makes our machines go, and food, which makes us go), can control the world. And if they do not share this ownership in a fair way but get greedy for more control, there is bound to be suffering.
As I watched the film, I recalled the doctor so long ago in Los Angeles, and the plight of his family living in Nazi Germany.
It is almost impossible to share a loaf of bread or do unto others when your own life is so desperate. And it all boils
down to energy: Who has it, who controls it and who controls the source.
It is ironic to think that once energy, both kinds, were free and available to everyone, but that was when there were fewer
people on earth. Food was obtained from the earth and from other creatures. Fire was probably the first source of energy to be controlled, but generally, humans lived according to the circle of the day and of the year, with little desire or need to travel great distances. Ownership was limited to what you had on you or what you could carry.
Times have certainly changed. The world became so complicated and populated that it was necessary to organize it. That was also when ownership became an important aspect of life. And that is when there appeared the haves and have-nots. The have-nots must learn to conquer fear and the haves must learn to conquer greed.
There are those who will argue that there is plenty of cheap energy available. Maybe, but one of CNN’s heroes this week was a woman who brought the energy to make light in hospitals in small villages in Africa so that doctors could see what they were doing when they helped deliver babies. And there is always a hero who is feeding the hungry and often homeless.
Ironically, but with justification, the winning hero of 2013 was a young man who when he was struggling to make a living on his boat saw the incredible piles of garbage on his river. Singlehandedly he began cleaning the Mississippi of the trash associated with both kinds of energy, that people had dumped into the river. Now there are thousands who are helping him.
There is something wrong with the entirety of this picture.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Nelson Mandela.