Thursday, February 15, 2007

Zinn Mind

"What does it take to bring a turnaround in social consciousness - from being a racist to being in favor of racial equality, from being in favor of Bush's tax program to being against it, from being in favor of the war in Iraq to being against it? We desperately want an answer, because we know that the future of the human race depends on a radical change in social consciousness."

-- Howard Zinn, The Progressive, March 2005

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

More On These Stories After This

I'm taking a break from blogging. I'm not always sure what I'm accomplishing, and I'm certainly growing more cynical. I just ran across this same sentiment at Pocket Farm's blog. The cynicism, I mean. It's beginning to feel like another chore, rather than something enhancing my life and cause. Now that I'm going to be working again I'd like to minimize my obligations. I still plan to stay informed, and if I run across something I think must be shared, I'll do an entry.

I am happy to report that, having been unemployed for several months, I will be teaching two courses this Spring quarter, one here in town at CWU, and one online for Everett Community College.

Before my break I'd like to outline the steps I'm taking to minimize my environmental impact. In case anyone "drops by" I'd like to have my most recent entry be inspirational, if possible!
  1. I don't drive anymore, except on very rare occasions. The last time I drove was to the doctor because I felt too sick to walk or ride. I do my laundry, grocery shopping, and all other errands on my bike, or less often, on foot. I will be using my bike to get to work this quarter (about a 10 min. ride). Using my own power to get around has been as good for me as it has been for minimizing environmental impact. I feel better physically and emotionally, and my life is much more peaceful. If I were living in the city and trying to commute by bike during a 40-hr. work week, I'm not sure how I'd be feeling. But here, I truly enjoy being outside, seeing this beautiful town at a slower pace, and feeling good when I get home. When I go over the mountains to visit my friends and family, I take Greyhound. It's a 4-mile walk from town to the station, but I'm surprised at how short 4 miles actually is. It's a one-hour walk, give or take, and I find it amusing that we generally think nothing of spending an hour in the car to get somewhere, but an hour walking at a leisurely pace? Most people never consider it. I certainly never used to.

  2. I'm buying organic food, and local when possible. Sometimes the only organic apples at the store are from New Zealand. I live in Washington - the apple state!! Is it better for me to buy a local, chemically-produced apple, or one that came from thousands of miles away, across oceans? I'm happy when there are organic apples from Washington. What I wouldn't give for an apple tree right in my yard! As far as shopping at the smaller, privately-owned natural foods stores, I haven't been much of a customer. There's little to no produce, and most of the items are a full dollar or more than the same item at the grocery store. I have to buy gluten-free foods, which are already expensive ... so it's hard for me to lay down those extra bucks. I don't feel good about the large store where I shop, but maybe when my income stabilizes I can make a commitment to the local stores. After all, in the post-Peak Oil world we will really need smaller stores to serve our communities. I don't want them to go under before that.

  3. I do my best to MAKE DO, OR DO WITHOUT. It's surprising how little we really need. Food, yes. More clothing, no. Toilet paper, yes. Paper towels, no. It's pretty simple when you break it down. I try not to buy anything for which I could re-use something I already have. I'm so attached to my cloth napkins, I use them for everything. I use my backpack for a grocery bag, and I wash plastic produce bags and re-use them (they're suprisingly durable). We won't be purchasing any more ziplock bags, plastic wrap, that sort of thing, so if I do use an item like that I either wash it for re-use, recycle it, or throw it away, knowing it won't be replaced. These steps have involved a shift in thinking that ultimately has liberated me from our culture of acquisition. At first I used to repeat to myself over and over, "They can't make me buy stuff." They are the corporations, who bombard us with marketing to convince us we need things that we don't actually need, things that are destructive to the environment and to a culture centered on peace, sustainability, and helping others. There is so much joy to be found that doesn't involve purchasing anything. If you feel like you have to buy something, I suggest a secondhand bicycle or musical instrument, preferably acoustic. (I'm assuming that someday we may not have electricity the way we do now, or we won't be able to afford it.) Learn to find joy in things that don't leave destruction in their wake. The elation in finishing a long bike ride, or learning a new chord, is far more pure and satisfying than the temporary fix of purchasing a new knickknack for your home, or a new outfit to show off at work. Also, the satisfaction of doing the right thing for the planet and all its species, is a true joy unto itself. Don't knock it till you try it!

  4. I don't eat meat anymore. Not only do I want to refrain from contributing to an industry that is cruel and unhealthy, but I'm aware that everything that goes into meat production and distribution is bad for the environment. All that grain could be used to feed people. All that methane contributes to global warming. All that fertile land is taken up and destroyed by grazing. Mostly, though, it's the suffering of the animals that I can't bear to be party to. If our neighbors were using factory-farming methods on animals in their own backyard, we (average Americans) would be horrified and call the authorities. But when it's out of our sight, and it ends up as a steak or drumstick on our plate, we accept and support it. I am getting in the habit at looking at the way things actually are and absorbing the reality of it. Understanding the reality of mass-produced meat means I cannot contribute money to that industry or put that contaminated food in my body. I still eat organically-produced dairy and eggs. I try to get the eggs from local folks. I'd love to go vegan, and might eventually, but I'm already gluten-free and vegetarian ... so it will take some time.

  5. Recycling and composting - T. and I are doing are best to recycle everything possible, and, along with our landlady, with whom we share a yard, we are composting all our table scraps. There's no meat in our scraps so everything goes in the compost, and our garbage consists almost entirely of packaging. Someday I hope to see this reduced.

  6. We are planning our garden. Neither of us is really a gardener, but we have some excellent help from a master gardener friend of ours, and our landlady (with whom we share the backyard) is also willing to help us get started. I hope this summer and fall we'll be eating fruits and veggies that came right from our little patch of dirt. Of course, we'll be using only organic methods to help our garden grow.

  7. I call my legislators and sign letters and petitions. This wasn't an easy one for me. I'm shy and reserved by nature. But someone told me that senators and members of congress, at the state level, consider one phone call to be the equivalent opinion of 10,000 people. Whether or not this is exactly true, I believe it's important that we involve ourselves in our government whenever possible. The government exists to serve the people and our interests, which include the interests of our grandchildren's grandchildren. There simply isn't anything more important than saving our planet. It's easier than ever to stay informed when organizations like MoveOn and WashPIRG send out regular emails with prepared letters and petitions.
I recently watched an interesting program on American photography, and it showed the first pictures of the Earth from space. What struck me was one comment on the picture of Earth rising above the landscape of the moon - how it presents a vivid contrast between a living and dead planet. We have a LIVING PLANET. It's teeming with life. And it's the only one we have. We're not colonizing any other planets any time soon. We must focus all our resources on what is truly "Homeland Security." This is it. Let's not let this miracle die at our hands, when we have the opportunity to save it. I want generations of folks hundreds or thousands of years from now to remember this precarious time as one when greed, materialism, disconnection, and self-absorption began to slowly dissipate as love, sacrifice, community, and commitment to the future took hold worldwide.

Happy Spring! I plan to return to my blog in the summer.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Mystery Meat / Meet My Neighbor

The meat industry never ceases to amaze me. Perusing baloghblog today, I learned that beef is now being treated and packaged with carbon monoxide to maintain its color and texture. According to Don Berdahl, vice president of Kalsec Inc., a maker of natural food extracts in Kalamazoo, Michigan, carbon monoxide-treated meat could be left on the kitchen counter for five days and would still look bright red and fresh. Kalsec filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration seeking a ban on the use of carbon monoxide in meat packaging. He noted that carbon monoxide "also suppresses bad odors and the presence of slime, other telltale signs that meat is spoiled." The FDA has approved the use of carbon monoxide for this purpose, but it is interesting to note that the European Union does not allow it.

It's reasonable to assume that folks will consider the expiration date when purchasing meat, but I remember an expose a few years back on grocery stores' commonplace practice of covering true expiration dates with later ones to improve sales. [Although, I can't find any information on this. If anyone does, please send me a link!] Considering this and the false red meat treated with carbon monoxide, or the false pink salmon treated with dyes, or abnormally large, genetically altered chickens and turkeys that suffer painful disorders ... how much sicker will this industry get? I am a former meat eater, and I miss it at times. But I am sickened by the horrific industrial method of providing meat to the public. There is nothing they won't do for profit ... public health and even the slightest compassion for the suffering be damned.

The Mad Cowboy would agree, and I'm certain he could tell stories that would turn us green. Former Montana cattle rancher Howard Lyman and Oprah Winfrey were sued for libel by Texas cattlemen in 1998, under the "Food Disparagement Act." Lyman had written The Mad Cowboy to expose the practices of factory farming and explain why this fourth-generation family farmer and meat-industry supporter became a vegetarian and activist. He appeared on Oprah's show in 1996 to discuss Mad Cow disease and other aspects of meat production. Meat sales dropped significantly after the show aired, and a chain of events began that finally ended in 2002 when after several appeals a Federal judge dismissed the case. Howard travels around the country and the world as an activist and speaker, and has a new book entitled No More Bull! and a documentary which should air on PBS this year. His non-profit educational organization is Voice for a Viable Future, which promotes "organic family farming, biodiversity, vegetarianism, environmentally friendly practices, and enlightened trade."

He's also our neighbor. Howard and his wife discovered and fell in love with Ellensburg during their travels, and left their home in Virginia to settle here. They are renting the house right next door to ours. They're very nice folks, involved in the community, and from what I hear, they cook a mean vegan spread.

Friday, March 03, 2006

A Better World is Possible

This unique Cuban transport vehicle, called a "camel", can carry 300 passengers. (Photo by John Morgan, from the Energy Bulletin website)

Check out how Cuba is way ahead on sustainability and building a society with minimal dependendence on oil.

A few highlights:
  • Today an estimated 50 percent of Havana's vegetables come from inside the city, while in other Cuban towns and cities urban gardens produce from 80 percent to more than 100 percent of what they need.
  • Cubans have moved to a primarily low-fat, vegetarian diet.
  • Government officials allow private entrepreneurial farmers and neighborhood organizations to use public land to grow and sell their produce. They encourage migration back to the farms and rural areas and have reorganized their provinces to be in-line with agricultural needs.
  • At the Organipónico de Alamar, a neighborhood agriculture project, a workers' collective runs a large urban farm, a produce market and a restaurant. Hand tools and human labor replace oil-driven machinery. Worm cultivation and composting create productive soil. Drip irrigation conserves water.
  • Solar power is providing electricity for homes, schools, medical facilities, and community centers.
  • An innovative mass transit system was created out of necessity. Virtually every form of vehicle, large and small, was used. Commuters ride in buses, other motorized transport, hand-made wheelbarrows, and animal-powered vehicles. Government officials pull over nearly empty government vehicles and trucks on Havana's streets and fill them with people needing a ride.
  • The literacy rate in Cuba is 97 percent, the same as in the United States. Cuba's education system and medical system are free.
  • The Cuban government changed its 30-year motto from "Socialism or Death" to "A Better World is Possible."

Monday, February 27, 2006

Autarky, and Stormy Weather

au·tar·ky or au·tar·chy
  1. A policy of national self-sufficiency and nonreliance on imports or economic aid.
  2. A self-sufficient region or country.
from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: 2000

I ran across this word (and a lot of other words I'd never read or heard) in James Kunstler's The Long Emergency. Here's a short review on Treehugger that will give you an idea of the what the book covers and its tone. It's depressing, to put it lightly. It has deeply impacted my thinking (even though my thinking was already heading that way). We are moving toward the creation of sustainable societies whether we like it or not, and the journey there will be painful and difficult. Of course, Kunstler is just one man, and I'm not sure all his predictions will be spot-on (he's not either) ... but if he's even half-right, we're in for some rude awakenings. While all this is happening (Peak Oil, global warming, oil-based wars), I am amazed people are still buying cars and new carpet and meat. I'm amazed but I also understand it. Our culture is balanced so heavily on the availability of cheap fossil fuels, and we're so many generations removed from being farmers and craftsmen and local businesspeople, we simply can't fathom a different way of life. My common-sense American brain resists the notion that our whole economic system could collapse when the oil goes away, or more realistically, when it becomes too expensive to retrieve. But every time I try to think of a way around it, maintaining our destructive lifestyles, it just doesn't seem possible. Meanwhile, fossil fuels and rampant, unchecked growth are destroying our planet. I may curse myself later for saying it, but there's a part of me that can't wait for the oil to run out. This is such a crazy time to be alive. There's no question that humans are smart and we're not disappearing anytime soon. How will we cope with the changes as they become impossible to ignore? I'm terrified and fascinated. I have recently decided, however, that it's still OK to enjoy life. I'm doing my best to find peace and contentment and joy while minimizing my impact, and preparing for difficult times ahead.

Some other equally cheerless information: maybe I am way behind, but I didn't realize the severity of the hurricane situation. We are all aware of the horrific destruction of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but here are some additional hard facts outlined in a recent column by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, entitled "Watermark: Can southern Louisiana be saved?"
  • There are usually about eleven or twelve storms named per year by the National Hurricane Center. In 2005, there were twenty-seven.
  • Of the twenty-seven storms, fifteen developed into full hurricanes, which was a record.
  • In the course of an average decade, three or four Category 5 hurricanes form in the North Atlantic. There were three of these hurricanes in 2005 alone.
  • Lower sea-surface temperatures have prevented hurricanes from forming in the South Atlantic, since recording of storms began. In March 2004, a hurricane formed in this region for the first time.
The answer to the question posed by the article's title appears to be a resounding "No" ... although, understandably, a great number of residents of the area want their homes and communities restored. I can't imagine the feelings of displacement and emptiness that would accompany this kind of tragedy. However, can we allow the expense and waste of rebuilding this area? Judith Curry, chair of Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences states:

"Speaking from the climate and the environmental-science perspective, a hundred years from now there's just no way there's going to be a [New Orleans] there. You can fight it. We can rebuild it and wait until it gets wiped out again. ... Maybe a colossal engineering effort can do something, but at some point that is going to fail. This is just the way geology and climate work. You can't fight it forever."

It's an interesting commentary that can be applied to our whole way of operating in the United States. When the oil dwindles to a trickle, desperate and massive attempts to hold on to our lifestyles and economy will be front-page news, and people will cling to these like branches hanging over a raging river. The more I learn, the more I am certain that it simply won't work to live this way. The sooner we begin be building our local autarkies, the better.

I'm going to start my first garden this spring.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Path to Freedom

I'm so in love with the Path to Freedom folks. I've mostly been reading their journal, and it never ceases to inspire me. These people are really doing it - they've created an urban homestead, growing tons of organic food on their 1/5 acre in Pasadena, using greywater to irrigate, raising chickens and ducks, walking and riding bikes, making their own biodiesel for car trips, building a solar shower and cob oven, holding educational events for sustainable-minded folks ... and with great eloquence, they are sharing it with the rest of us. (The beautiful flowers pictured are from their garden, just this week.) I always look forward to reading about the joys and the trials of their journey - for an example of the latter, see the Feb. 9th post on the composting toilet installation saga. The only bummer is not being able to link to a specific day's post, as there are so many gems. But you can search their site from their home page, and find what you need.

I deeply appreciate their commitment to sustainability in every area, not just cutting back or making changes where it's most convenient and hoping for the best. With their choices, they're making it clear that there is another way to make it on this planet, even when you live in one of the most populous urban/suburban regions in the country.

There are a ton of resources on their site and I highly recommend it. I've gotten lost in great links, which link to more great links ... you know how it goes. Currently, I'm most inspired by the idea of building our own wind turbine to produce at least some of our electricity. We live in an extremely windy area, and we have such a tiny house (400 sq. ft.) ... it seems silly to let a freely available energy source go to waste. Check out PTF's links page for alternative and renewable energy sources and get inspired.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Little Consumers

Thanks to all the parents who responded when I asked about green parenting. It's a dilemma I respect. I have a difficult enough time being conscious of my own actions and choices, and modelling my behavior in little bursts, like writing this blog, or interacting with others in some social setting. But if a child were right there, seeing everything I say and do (for the most part), and learning how to function in the world primarily through my behavior? Sounds daunting, even without trying to compete for my child's attention with multi-billion dollar corporations that have no mercy or conscience.

I just finished Juliet Schor's Born to Buy. I confess that I could hardly put it down. It's very disturbing, very scientific. I knew corporations were advertising to children (see Lucy Hughes' description of her study on the use of nagging as a marketing tool in The Corporation), but I didn't know the lengths to which they would go, and how many psychologists and researchers are employed full-time to help companies figure out how to get into the minds and hearts and pockets of children. Not just on TV and on the internet but in school ... not just big overlit vending machines, but brand names strategically placed into textbooks, corporate donations to schools in return for advertising or access to students' opinions, "news" programs that run each morning and promote junk food and other unhealthy products.

There's a lot to the book ... here's a few things that threw me:
  • At one conference for marketers to children that Schor attended, The Gepetto Group created a simulated safari video entitled The Nature of Kids which depicted children "slinking through the jungle on all fours, guzzling soda and eating toaster pop-ups, speaking their own commercially inspired lingo." The hunter/narrator was Gepetto the research firm, able to hunt and capture (read: brand and sell to) these elusive creatures. Workshop titles at conferences of this nature included "Emotional Branding: Maximizing the Appeal of Your Brand to Hispanic Youth" and "Purchasing Power: Capturing Your Share of the Tween Wallet."
  • The number of corporations with the corner on the children's market is suprisingly small, leaving the real decisions about the direction of children's advertising in the hands of a privileged few. Four corporations dominate the media market: Disney, Viacom (owns MTV, Nickelodeon), News Corp (owns Fox), and AOL Time Warner (owns WB, Cartoon Network, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and DC Comics). Mattel and Hasbro own virtually all the big names in children's toys, including Playskool, Fisher Price, Tyco, and many more. Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft have cornered the video game market. It's the same for all the food categories ... candy, soft drinks, fast food, cereals. They're all dominated and controlled by a few huge companies, who in turn must dominate and control how children are shaped as consumers, in order to guarantee present and future revenue.
  • In the late 70's, the Federal Trade Commission determined from its own investigation that children's advertising was destructive and unhealthy, and advocated a ban on advertising sugared products to kids, as well as an end to commercials aimed at children under eight. But legislation of this sort today would be doomed before it was ever conceived, since the media and food corporations wield so much political clout with both parties. Clearly, the culture change needs to come from within, not without. If we wait for business, industry, and government to make children's health and well-being a priority, we'll be waiting a long time, probably forever.
  • Here's a quote from a researcher working specifically on marketing to children: "We are targeting kids too young with too many inappropriate things. It's not worth the almighty buck. ... at the end of the day, my job is to get people to buy things. ... It's a horrible thing and I know it."
Schor describes one marketing tool (part of the new trend aptly called "viral marketing"), which gets kids to use their friends for gaining information or selling products. The Girls' Intelligence Agency (GIA) recruits girls from ages 8-14 or so, whom the company has determined to be "alpha" girls, or "influencers" ... meaning, these girls seem to have a powerful effect on their peers in determining what is cool. Alpha Girl has to hold a party with ten or eleven other girls, using a kit called "Slumber Party in a Box," which contains featured toys, films, TV shows, health and beauty aids, directions to websites, or whatever relates to the product of the client. Alpha Girl collects information about what her friends are in to, talking about, wearing, etc. To the girls selected for these "missions," the company suggests being "sneaky" about attaining information, implying that being an official GIA Agent means inclusion in an elite, secret group, with the inside scoop on fashion and gossip. You can look at the GIA site for girls here. The site was even creepier than I had imagined. In one section they list "agent quizzes" for kids visiting the site, or for members of GIA. They include stuff like this:

What are the new slangs for the year: Hook us up and leave a defintion (sic) for each word and how we should use it!!!

and ...

New fragrance of the year?
a) New Tommy Hillfiger with Bionce called True Star Gold
b) Britney Spears Stella
c) Live Jennifer Lopez
d) Curve by Estee Lauder
e) Children Fusion by Fantasy

What is going to be your new hair style?
a) short and sweet
b) long and wavy
c) shoulder length and messy
d) funky cut with bed head products
e) layers
f) same

... and one "quiz" entitled "Are You a Net Nerd?", which as far as I can tell just aims to determine the video capabilities of the child's computer.

Schor talks a lot in the book about marketing themes used to appeal to kids ... one is "anti-adultism," protraying adults as fools, or boring, or strict authoritarians against whose rule kids must prevail. And naturally, how better to prevail than a pizza roll, or a sugared juice drink, or a video game? To me, it all sounds destructive of the fundamental respect we strive to have for each other, adults and kids alike.

I've been looking more critically since I read this book at the amount of marketing to children, and the messages conveyed. The defenders of children's advertising suggest that we are "empowering" children with these messages. Schor's own research, along with most of the other research she explored, suggests otherwise, and she offers ideas about what we can do individually and what our communities and leaders should be doing. Obesity and other eating disorders, early sexual activity, depression, anxiety, psychosomatic complaints ... they are all linked to the destructive effects of consumer culture. The typical American work-and-spend aspirations are not positive for our children.