Normalizing the Appalling

Years ago I took a job in a restaurant to help pay for college expenses.  I had never been in a commercial kitchen before.  On my first evening I saw wait and bus staff grazing off of plates that had come back to the kitchen partially finished.  Grilled shrimp, parts of a steak or chicken breast were prized finds, even though they were coming from the plates of patrons and no one knew what had happened to them out in the dining room.  This was not about hunger born of need.  This was opportunism, clear and simple.  I was appalled.  It was unthinkable that people who were not driven by starvation would pick over the leavings of another person’s dinner.

But little by little, I got used to seeing it.  It was no longer shocking, then no longer odd.  Then one night, I realized that I was, without much thought, reaching out for a shrimp myself.  It took less than 2 months from the day I started working there until I had normalized behavior that had so shocked me that first night.

So, why am I rambling about an old and personal story?  It is a clear example of what I am today most concerned about in the world.  We have so many issues, so many places that we have allowed the unthinkable to become normal.  We have become numb to such critical issues as death from hunger (30,000 a day by some estimates), cruelty and abuse, focus on disease treatment with much less effort on prevention- the list goes on.  If any of us was parachuted into the world with no previous knowledge, we would be appalled at what we see.  But our outrage has been neutered because the issues became issues slowly.  Like the proverbial frog in a bowl of heating water, we did not act until the challenge has become overwhelming.

No one, when the first combustion engines were invented, had any thought that the outcome would be the current scale of fossil fuel consumption.  When famines happened as little as 10 decades ago the scale was smaller.  We hardly had infrastructure to understand and respond in time.  Today, we know immediately, but have become both stretched thin and inured to the impact.

Think I am off base here?  Have a look at this presentation from TED by Chris Jordan who through art shows us (remarkably with judgment or finger pointing) the impact of our actions and inactions as a society.  Not the result of purposeful cruelty or war, but of the simple unconscious actions we take getting through the day.  Actions that have small or no impact individually- but when scaled to the number of us on the planet should rekindle our sense of outrage.

The irony here is that today, separated by several decades from my shock at grazing on dinner plates of others, I am appalled at the amount of food that is wasted every day.

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