The year in the humanitarian world? It ends with agencies scrambling to respond to another typhoon in the Philippines (luckily not as severe as last year's but still plenty worrisome), as well as bravely continuing work in the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.
What 2014 has principally been, though, is a year of constant and churning problems, in which the challenges of climate change and food security (the availability and access to food) became more acute and ever-more clear.
The large-scale global protests demanding that political leaders take action on climate change -- all were good, as was the agreement by the United States and China limiting carbon emissions.
But there is already concern that this is too little, too late, and that humanity's scramble to make up for lost time and lost opportunities may be just that -- a scramble indeed, based on several parts panic and several parts dread.
As Shaun Ferris, an agriculture expert with Catholic Relief Services, recently told me, we're still dealing with "short-term political cycles that are focused on economic volatility, rather than long-term stewardship issues."
Those most hurt, of course, will be those "living off the land, in countries which already experience increasing levels of extreme weather, such as in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and Southern Asia," he said. "This means that their lives will continue to be threatened by acute and chronic droughts and floods."
How does this play out exactly? It's not difficult to see. "Poor weather conditions depress food production, and diminish income, which ultimately leads to economic and political instability," Ferris said. A lethal combination of extremes in weather, income volatility, political instability and large numbers of under-employed youth will end up raising "real concerns about how to deal with hungry and angry people," he predicted.
Ferris and other experts argue that if we don't invest in helping farmers both adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, it likely means we -- again, humanity -- may have to pay a higher price down the line. We will be dealing, Ferris argued, with the costly, messy and damaging realities of increased migration across continents, emergency response efforts and perhaps even military-backed interventions.
How will the world react to this? Probably not well; the poor are already bearing the brunt of the problem, though they have allies. Humanitarian groups are attuned to this reality, as are many in the religious community. We can be thankful that Pope Francis, in a recent address at the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome, said that "the hungry ask us for dignity, not for charity," and warned against the lack of solidarity in the world -- the kind of solidarity that could make a difference in the world.
Solidarity, he said, "is the attitude that makes people capable of reaching out to others and basing their mutual relations on this sense of brotherhood that overcomes differences and limits, and inspires us to seek the common good together." The pontiff added: "Human beings, as they become aware of being partly responsible for the plan of creation, become capable of mutual respect, instead of fighting between themselves, damaging and impoverishing the planet."
This damage is being felt in places like South America's Gran Chaco, the largest dry forest in the world. There, indigenous communities have waged a brave fight to reclaim land in an environment where corporate, export-agricultural expansion is eliminating the equivalent of about 500 football fields a year. That's more than one a day. "Whole areas are being bulldozed into nothingness," said my colleague Fionuala Cregan, a Church World Service program officer.
Meanwhile, those who have tilled the land for decades and those who work with them say that climate conditions are different and are more challenging.
Yet people are coping. Ricardo Paita of the Bolivia-based Center for Regional Studies of Tarija, a group supported by Church World Service, Foods Resource Bank and other groups with ties to the U.S. church community, said more and more people in the Chaco are recovering "values of ancestral knowledge." One aspect of this: a growing belief that monoculture (exclusive dependence on corn, for example) is harmful to both the land and to those farming.
An expansion of diet through community vegetable gardens, for example, is reclaiming a traditional diet the indigenous in the Chaco knew before their forebears worked in sugar estates and ate nothing but corn, some rice and pasta. A key fact here: This is being done as indigenous communities slowly reclaim ancestral lands that were once theirs.
On a recent visit to the Chaco, a wonderful couple, Justina Romero and Adolfo Torres, recounted how they had been on the land for six years and did not receive much support and had subsisted on corn, potatoes and onions.
"Now, we have vegetables and even leftovers;" now they are cultivating not only for themselves but to sell -- and build a stronger foundation for their ongoing livelihood. This example of poly-cultivation is a success not only because of the mixture of its various parts, but also because the garden is using natural pesticides. A mixture of chilies, garlic and vinegar works, as does placing onions in strategic spots.
Juancito Pinto, a neighbor who shows off his chard and lettuce, agreed. He noted that the municipal government had at times provided chemical pesticides for use, but that their use became perilous because of improper training. "People would get sick," he said. "They would use liters (of pesticides) when they saw one bug."
Of course, this method of controlling pests involves more work -- there is more to mix, and it's more labor intensive. But it's cheaper, and the benefits are obvious, With less need to buy food, the community is becoming more self-reliant. Pinto's own small plot of land is not the best, he said, "but we are doing the best we can for it." Before the gardens, he said, "people were hungrier."
These are not, by any means, full or definitive solutions to the changes afoot due to climate change and food insecurity. But in making poor communities more resilient, such efforts are making a difference in strengthening them for the challenges ahead. At the least, and as the year ends, they uphold Pope Francis's belief that "the hungry ask us for dignity, not for charity."
++ Chris Herlinger, Church World Service's senior writer and a contributor to National Catholic Reporter and its Global Sisters Report, is writing a book on global hunger. Food Fight: Struggling for Justice in a Hungry World, will be published by Seabury Books in the fall of 2015.