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.