Math that matters (Part II–Atmospheric Changes)

Everyone now knows (or denies) that CO2 has been increasing in the atmosphere for the past couple hundred years and this increase is largely responsible for the climate changes that have occurred over that time. And 400 ppm (parts per million) is a number that more and more people are familiar with as well; it represents the average concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere (up from 280 ppm when the Industrial Revolution commenced, ~1750). Well, there are a few other very interesting/compelling numbers that we can determine based on this information alone, including:

(1) What is the average annual growth rate of the CO2 over this period (1750-2017)?
(2) What is 400 ppm in percentage terms?
(3) How many molecules of CO2 are there in a regular sized balloon?
(4) Considering CO2 changes alone, by what percentage has the composition of the atmosphere changed since Industrialization?

Let’s do some calculations:

(1) What is the average annual growth rate of the CO2 over this period (1750-2017)?

Atmospheric CO2 concentration has risen exponentially so we use an exponential growth equation to model it:

(a) Cf = Ci x e^(rt),
where, Cf = final concentration, Ci = initial concentration, e = 2.718 (Euler’s number), r = annual rate of growth, and t = duration of time (^ is used as an exponential symbol)

The variable we want is r (as we have all the other numbers). Solving for r requires using a little “Algebra II”:

First move Ci over by dividing both sides of (a) by Ci and flipping the equation around; this leaves:
e^rt = Cf/Ci

Now, if we take the log of both sides (here the natural log, ln) and use the fact that ln(e) = 1, we get:
ln(e^rt) = ln(Cf/Ci)  rt x ln(e) = ln(Cf/Ci)  rt = ln(Cf/Ci)

Now, if we divide both sides by t, we get an equation solved for r, the desired variable:
r = ln(Cf/Ci)/t

Inputting the values of the three known variables (Cf = 400 ppm, Ci = 280 ppm, and t = 2017-1750 = 267 years) yields the annual growth rate:
r = ln(400/280)/267 = 0.00134 (or 0.134% per year)

If we just look at the growth of CO2 concentration since 1950 (when industrialization became global; CO2’s concentration in 1950 was ~310 ppm), we can once again use the exponential equation above to determine the growth rate in more recent times:
r = ln(400/310)/67 = 0.0038 (or 0.38% per year)

In either case, notice that humans are increasing CO2’s concentration only very slightly each year. (Over the past 267 years, CO2’s concentration has gone up 43%.) However, what may appear “slight” is definitely not slight in terms of its current and future impacts.

(2) What is 400 ppm in percentage terms?

Answering this merely requires us to understand what ppm (parts per million) means. Unlike some words in English, ppm means literally what it says. If the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is 400 ppm then for every million parts (or molecules) of atmospheric gas, CO2 will be 400 of them. With this understanding we can compute a percentage by expressing the amount of CO2 (relative to everything in the atmosphere) as a ratio:
% of CO2 in atmosphere = ppm of CO2/1,000,000 parts of atm = 400/1,000,000 = 0.0004 (or 0.04%)

Again, this is a very, very small amount but as we know this small amount of CO2 is responsible for a significant amount (~30-40%) of the Natural Greenhouse Effect (NGE) and the bulk (~50-60%) of the Anthropogenic Greenhouse Effect (AGE), associated with “global warming” and “climate change.”

(3) How many molecules of CO2 are there in a regular sized balloon?

While (2) tells us what proportion of gases in the atmosphere are CO2 it doesn’t really tell us how much CO2 is a particular volume. If we take a typical balloon (1 foot in diameter; let’s assume it is a sphere), we can find the volume of the balloon using this formula:
V = 4/3 x pi x r^3,
where V = volume, pi = 3.14159, and r is the radius of the balloon. Plugging in the numbers leads to:

V = 4/3 x 3.14159 x (0.5)^3 = 0.52 cubic feet

Since 1 liter = 0.0353147 cubic feet, the volume of the balloon is:
V = 0.52 cubic feet x (1 liter/0.0353147 cubic feet) = 14.7 liters

This seems quite high when one considers a two liter bottle of soda but rest assured this is the correct value.

Now that we have the volume, we’ll need to determine how much CO2 is in such a volume. Here we have to use some chemistry laws; here the most well-known of them all, the Ideal Gas Law:

(c) PV = nRT, which can be rewritten as, n = PV/RT,
where P = pressure, V = volume, n = number of moles of gas, R = the Ideal Gas Constant = 0.082 L-atm/mole-K) and T = temperature in Kelvin degrees.

Assuming that we have a standard atmospheric pressure of 1 atmosphere and we are at room temperature of 27 deg Celsius (equivalent to 81 degrees Fahrenheit or 300 K), we can plug the numbers into equation (c):
n = (1 atm)(14.7 L)/((0.082 L-atm/mole-k)*(300 K)) = 0.60 moles

So what is a mole? Chemists define one mole as 6.02 x 10^23 molecules (or 602,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules).

Notice that our use of the Ideal Gas Law was for all the molecules of gas, not just CO2.

Thus, if the 14.7 L (of a balloon) contains 0.60 moles of gas, we calculate the number of molecules of gas in the balloon as such:

# of molecules of gas (in balloon) = 0.60 moles x (6.02 x 10^23 molecules/mole) = 3.61×10^23 molecules

Now to determine how many of these molecules are CO2 we use the information determined in the previous question thusly:

# molecules of CO2 in a balloon = 3.61 x 10^23 molecules of gas x (0.0004) = 1.4 x 10^20 molecules of CO2

There we have it. There are 140,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of CO2 in every balloon (assuming it isn’t filled with helium 😊).

Now, while this balloon’s gas is very light, it certainly is filled with a lot of molecules of CO2. This might lead one to wonder how much does all the CO2 in the atmosphere weigh. Well, this calculation is a bit trickier. According to web references, the entire atmosphere weighs approximately 1.1 x 10^19 pounds (or 5.5 quadrillion tons). We might want to just multiply this by the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere in order to determine the total weight of CO2 in the atmosphere but we would be wrong to do so; though it wouldn’t be a terribly bad approximation (if we did so we get 4×10^15 pounds). The different molecules of gas have different weights. Thus, we would have to do a calculation that would include all of these different gases and their weights. This is a bit more complicated than I choose to get right now, so suffice it to say that all the CO2 in the atmosphere weighs approximately six thousand times more than all the humans on the Earth combined (which is approximately 7×10^11 pounds).

(4) Considering CO2 changes alone, by what percentage has the composition of the atmosphere changed since Industrialization?

Calculation (1) clarified how small CO2’s concentration is the larger scheme of things, while (2) and (3) suggested how much CO2 there is. Notice, it all depends on how we look at things, as do most things.

The question asked here aims to provide a sense of how much change has occurred in our atmosphere since industrialization.
We know that the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration has gone from 280 ppm to 400 ppm (a 43% increase). And we calculated that CO2 comprises 0.04% of the atmosphere. Thus, to determine how big a change in the atmospheric composition has been caused by Industrialization, we need only to multiply these two percentages together, as such:

Change in Atmospheric Composition since industrialization = % Change in CO2 concentration x % of atm. that is CO2.

Putting numbers in yields,

Change in Atmospheric Composition since industrialization = 43% x 0.04% = 0.017%

Since most don’t work with percentages this small, what does this amount of change mean. Well, if you had 5,814 molecules of atmospheric gas–represented by 5,812 red polka dots (each representing a molecule of gas other than CO2) and 2 blue polka dots (each representing a molecule of CO2)—over the 267 years of Industrialization, one more molecule of CO2 has been added to the atmosphere (or one more blue polka dot). Another way to look at it: If you had 5,814 fans sitting in a gymnasium, 267 years later, one more fan would join the fray. Would you notice a change of this amount? Most definitely not (unless of course the fan was decked out in the rival’s colors 😊). But we can thank modern science for building equipment that can measure such small (yet powerful) changes in the atmosphere. Perhaps the most salient question is: have we built a political/social apparatus to respond to the future/predictions that this information clarifies?

Math that matters (Part I–Missing Women)

If we want kids/adults to learn math, we might as well make it relevant. Here are a few relevant calculations (that employ nothing more than algebra) which I find very relevant to our future. Imagine these calculations being taught to an 8th grade algebra class! Here is the first installment:

Missing women

Most people are not aware that females were systematically removed from the population during the 20th Century and it is a practice that continues today. How do we know? Well, as Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, noted back in the 1990s, if we look at sex ratios of nations, we find several that have ratios that are far from 1:1. Pakistan and China have ratios of 0.94:1 and India has a ratio of 0.93:1 (in 2016) (these numbers are pretty much the same as they were in 1990, though Pakistan has improved slightly from 0.91:1). Given that women live longer than men, nations should have sex ratios above 1–most European nations are above 1.03:1. Given these “small” differences among nations, one might just dismiss the low ratios as “normal” variation. Unfortunately, this would be a huge mistake. Here is the math to determine what a ratio of 0.93:1 means, in comparison to a 1.03:1.

First, let’s define the variables needed:
F = number of females in a population
M= number of males in a population
T = total population = F + M
R = sex ratio = F/M

So the above two equations have 4 variables (F, M, T, & R)…if you know two (and you do, T and R, from Internet sources), you should be able to use simple algebra to compute the other two, F and M.

Again, the equations are: (1) T = F + M and (2) R = F/M

Here is how you solve these two equations:
Solving (2) for M yields (3) M = F/R, substituting (3) into (1) yields, F + F/R = T; this can be rewritten as: F(1+(1/R)) = T
which can be rewritten as
(4) F = T/(1 + 1/R)

So, you can determine how many females are in a population using this equation. This can be considered the Actual Females (Fact).

So, with a population of 1 billion (1,000,000,000; which is smaller than both India’s and China’s current population) and a sex ratio of R=0.94, we use equation (4) to solve for Fact as such:

Fact = 1,000,000,000/(1 + 1/0.94) = 485 million
So, Mact = 1 billion – 485 million = 515 million

Now to determine the Expected Females (Fexp) in a “healthy” society, with F/M = 1.03, we use equation (4) again with this new R value.
Fexp = 1,000,000,000/(1 + 1/1.03)) = 507 million
So, Mexp = 493 million

Now you can determine the “missing females” (Fmiss) using this simple formula:
Missing Females = Fmiss = Expected Females – Actual Females = Fexp – Fact

In our example above (the hypothetical nation of 1 billion people), we find:

Fmiss = 507 million – 485 million = 22 million

Is this a large number? Well, when one considers that between 50-60 million people died in World War II, I’d say it is! Also, this is only for one country (say China or India). If you were to add up all the nations in the world with “missing women,” it comes to close to 100 million! Now that is an abominable figure, isn’t it? Yet, how many of you have heard of this figure before? If you are wondering why women are missing, do some research. It isn’t a pretty story. (I wrote about this issue over 10 years ago and got it published in a local paper’s front page. Sadly, as I recall, it hardly drew any attention.)

Just to put these numbers in perspective it is sometimes valuable to imagine what a sex ratio looks like when you bring it down to a scale that we can see. Let’s say, if you had a party of 100 people and a sex ratio of 0.94, you would have 52 men and 48 women. This would hardly be noticeable, would it? Hence, now we see why we need to do the large-scale calculations to expose something very sinister.

We will, yes we will!

[This journal was inspired by the 68 students who just finished their first week of classes with me. Their blogs, journals and in-class comments provoked me to reexamine the prospects for humanity.]

Things don’t look too promising right now. Super hurricanes have just pummeled two regions of the U.S. and forest fires continue to burn millions of acres of land in another. These are just the most recent calamities that pervade our consciousness. Bees, birds, bats, butterflies, and bears (nearly everything beginning with a “b”) seem to be suffering greatly. Pick another letter and you will find some of the same depressing trends (how about “I”, ice sheets, icebergs, infectious diseases, islands, invasive species, etc.). However, these trends can be reversed and humanity can bring about peace within their own species and across the entire biosphere.

How in the face of all this disaster can I say something optimistic? Well, you definitely cannot claim the opposite of what I’ve said. Saying that you know that humans are incapable of reversing these trends requires a degree of self-righteousness (and clairvoyance) unimaginable. And if you can’t argue the opposite, then you are left with only two options. You can assert that you don’t know or you can, as I just did, assert that humanity can resolve these matters. Saying you don’t know if humans are able to (or will) reverse these ominous trends, while inherently true (we actually can know nothing of the future with certainty), is equivalent to being ambivalent (or “pleading ignorance”), and we frankly have no time for this; to claim ignorance is a cop out of the worst kind. Humanity must do something to reverse these trends and the time is now to do so. Logically, then, we are left asserting that humans can (and will) do this!

But there is more than mere logic that forces us to accept that we can. Consider two additional insights. First, the world we live in is so different from the worlds that humanity has lived in the past. In no time in the past has a human being in Venezuela been able to visually see and talk to a human being living in Indonesia (the exact opposite side of the planet; if you want to see what is directly on the other side from you, check out this website, link). In no time in the past have foods/materials been able to move from one place on the planet to any other place on the planet in less than 24 hours. Never in past worlds have all humans had the capacity to find out almost any known information at the click of the mouse. These three incredible “technologies” permit possibilities that are just as unlimited as they are unimaginable.

Second, consider how much we have learned about the world in the past 100 years, e.g., penicillin was discovered in 1928 and DNA’s helical structure became known in 1953. If we consider how few humans have been involved in this type of discovery, particularly with the existing underclass that pervades almost every modern nation, we should anticipate that unlimited insights from new knowledge await us. Furthermore, despite all that we currently know about how to reverse the “trends” (through research in the fields of environmental studies, ecology, biomimicry, engineering, medicine, horticulture, communication, renewable energy, sociology, computer science, atmospheric science, etc.), consider how few of us are actually engaging directly with this knowledge in practice, whether it be researching phenomena, disseminating/teaching findings, or implementing solutions. There is so much that could be shared and accomplished.

So, for all the above reasons, I look at the future with a confidence that humans will reverse these trends. I didn’t say it will be easy. However, I can promise you this. It will be incredibly satisfying and uplifting for those who were involved in doing so! And if you are wondering where to start, you are exactly where you need to be! Check out your local scene. There are probably many people already at work on reversing trends–whether they are doing urban farming, enhancing biodiversity, teaching/mentoring, engaging in grassroots politics, building social capital, et cetera. They would love more support and camaraderie and if more of us work together we can succeed in reversing the trends and building a sustainable society.

The Illusion of Poverty: The Age of Sharing Awaits Us

Huge caveat: The author fortunately has not suffered directly from impoverishment during his life. (We all suffer from it indirectly.) Thus, he contributes this piece, not as an expert on the “topic,” but as attempt to generate productive exchange.

People in the world, in fact most people in the world, suffer greatly because they are economically poor. (Many are spiritually and culturally rich and this should give many unfulfilled “Northerners” pause regarding the “civilized” nature of our lifestyle.) They go without food, water, housing, health care, education, etc., because they cannot purchase these necessities. Why? It is because these items, despite being core basic necessities for a fully actualized life, have all been commodified. (All resources are commodified, even air–you don’t pay a monthly fee for air yet but you suffer, and pay for medical treatment, from the reckless polluting of the atmosphere.) Commodification in our capitalist world dictates that these (all) resources are provided (or not) so as to maximize profits for the few. This is a terribly inhumane situation and one that will continue to bring great suffering to the world if not ultimately trigger the elimination of our species.

But hold on. There is something incredibly simple about this terrible situation. It is completely an artificial construction! It isn’t like we don’t have enough food, land, water, or shelter to provide every human sufficient resources to self-actualize. We do! Yet we don’t make this grand aim a priority and most of us are not yet willing to share. But we could change this, couldn’t we?

What is holding us back? I think three things are key. One, we accept inequality and selfishness as reasonable/normal and a natural outcome of human society. I see this point of view as a cop out/rationale which can be tackled by intentional efforts to share and redistribute resources so that every person is a “have” and no one is a “have not”. Two, we must change the economy from a profit-based one to an equity-based one. We need progressive taxes (not more regressive ones) and shared resources. One need look no further than the difference between health outcomes in the USA (where more and more hospitals are becoming privatized and costs are skyrocketing) and those in Europe (where socialized medicine reigns)–U.S.’s health system is ranked #37 by the WHO while 17 of the top 20 ranked are European (link) Similar benefits would come by making sure that all of us have true access to the best education possible, clean water, healthful food and safe housing. (Recent efforts to privatize these resources has resulted in worse conditions, not better.) Three, we should have more free time to give to our families, children, friendships, & communities; some European countries are moving in this direction. Capitalism has demanded more of our time (men and women) and not made us any happier or fulfilled. It is also destroying the planet due to its “rational” short-sightedness that dictates that an old-growth forest is worth more as a ream of paper now than a flourishing ecosystem for perpetuity.

So, some big changes in consciousness and structures are necessary, but we are closer than we think. Recall it was just 150 years ago that many thought slavery was necessary to deliver a good life. Some still do, but most do not and we are part of that most and we can make a better future for ourselves and the future.

Friday is “BND.” Celebrate it!

Based on the increased energy coming from commercials, this Friday purports to be a day of great significance. Every retailer is having a sale and what else is there to do on a Friday but shop. It seems only natural that we would buy (another) large TV or computer, or take advantage of the “incredible” discounts available at most stores. Sadly, there is something quite disturbing about this situation.

Just as we can be lured into pro-war sentiment—remember post-9/11 and the ubiquitous flags—apparently we can be persuaded quite easily to buy more stuff, particularly if we feel we are getting it for a “steal”. So, what could be wrong with this? We are going to buy new things after all, aren’t we? Why does it matter when we do it? And, definitely, we should try to get the most for our dollar, shouldn’t we?

First off, the compulsion to buy things (which we do to make us feel better, notice that the ads make consumers look cool and savvy) is an addiction. Identified by scholars as affluenza (see PBS program on topic, link), this illness is perhaps the greatest challenge we face as a humanity. Overconsumption causes tremendous problems. For every pound of waste that we “see” (for example that old working TV that is going to be put curbside because the new TV is bigger and has better graphics), it is estimated that ~80 pounds are produced upstream (see Annie Leonard’s The Story of Electronics, ref 1). And much of this upstream electronic waste is highly toxic. So, our addiction has grave consequences for the planet.

Second, our addiction is a false solution. Overconsumption doesn’t bring long term happiness. Psychological research has established that the more materialistic one is, the more unhappy he/she/they tends to be (here is a short video that clarify this, link). In this way, buying something for a pick me up is similar to taking an “upper.” At the end of the day, one feels less happy and has more stress caused by financial difficulties driven by spending money one doesn’t have; actually, substance abuse also tends to be higher for materialist people. Ultimately, we must all find more productive ways to deal with our anxieties and unhappiness. According to experts, more social interaction is highly recommended.

There are many resources for those that are looking to fight against consumerism.
Enough (link) is a group in England focused on this. Adbusters is a journal that has lots of material on the subject (link). Buy Nothing Day is this Friday, that sounds a lot better than “Black Friday,” doesn’t it? (link to Adbusters’ BND page!) So, join the anti-consumeristic movement this Friday and feel good about yourself in a way that is powerful, purposeful, and longer lasting. Let others know too, because that is how it will become the new norm. Have a great Thanksgiving everyone!

vote, but

As mentioned in my last blog, I do think that people should vote. This may come as a “no brainer” to most reading this but it’s not as simple as it looks and a more detailed inspection highlights valuable insights.

Many who argue that we are obligated to vote remind us of the thousands (if not millions) that fought and died for their/our right to vote. In fact, this is no understatement. Our nation’s history does contain innumerable examples of tremendous struggle tied to obtaining “right to vote.” Women didn’t get this fundamental right until 1920!; so much for the “Land of the Free.” Many, many women were threatened, beaten, arrested and/or worse in their struggle for suffrage. To think it took our “enlightened” nation almost 150 years of existence to provide half the population this fundamental human right is astounding; and the US took longer than most Western nations–New Zealand was the first country in the world in 1893 (if interested in other nations, visit link). While African-American men were granted the right to vote in 1870 (15th Amendment), in practical terms, most were forbidden to do so because of racist “grandfather clauses,” literacy tests, and poll taxes that existed until 1965 (see link for historical timeline); thus, a significant component of our population has only been able to vote for ~50 years. Felons and others “being watched” by state are often not able to vote. This represents unfair disenfranchisement as our criminal justice system is extremely discriminatory (see Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”).

This is a strong argument for voting but it fails to consider exactly what voting means. Most elections are “majority rules” in our nation–to the winner goes all the spoils. This greatly disenfranchises minority groups. Sadly, even today, many voices of people overlooked and undervalued are ignored. The Native Americans struggling in the Dakotas (and elsewhere) are but one such example. Since these groups rarely have the ability to impact the outcome of an election, voting doesn’t help their cause(s). Other countries have governing bodies where representation is proportional. Then at least more voices are being heard (though, perhaps, not listened to).

Most of our elections (even many local ones) see two people vying to be the lone representative of “all.” So when one votes, one must decide between these two, and only these two, people. There are many shortcomings of this characteristic—-one true to the vast majority of our elections. First, typically the two people that reached the “top two” have been propelled there by corporate funded publicity, and, thus, have very pro-corporate mindsets. Let’s face it, it costs hundreds (if not thousands) of thousands of dollars to run even a statewide election. This severely limits candidates to those who are independently wealthy or “puppets” for those that have immense wealth. Second, the two people each typically represent one of the two major political parties. This is problematic because these two parties have become very pro-corporate and elitist; there are definitely exceptions to this but I am talking here about the vast majority of candidates representing these two parties. Third, having only “two” parties represented greatly limits the scope of what will be said/voiced and disseminated. We see how powerful this is in the current Presidential election. No “third party” representatives were invited to take part in the three debates (masquerades, might be a better word) that took place this year. If anyone watched the alternative debate organized by Jill Stein (it can be found online and at her Facebook page), you saw how significant having a third voice, particularly one not beholden to deep pockets and multinational corporations, can be. Interesting, there is sound evidence that the “two party” state was a natural outgrowth of the USA which was founded & organized by wealthy male landowners. These men understood the conservative nature of a “two party state,” one that gave them incredible power to control the policies and programs and any conversations held about them; see more on this in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The terrible lack of coverage of third parties by the mainstream media clarifies how culpable this potentially democratizing entity is in controlling/limiting the coverage. (As a side note, this is one major reason that the two parties spend so much of their campaigns discussing social issues (such as, abortion, drugs, crime, guns, etc.), as these issues don’t upset the apple cart of extreme economic inequality that continues to expand over the past 40+ years independent of what political party is in the White House or in control of either legislative chamber.) Fourth, having only two choices often means that there is no way to submit a protest vote (such as “None of the above”) or a “write-in” candidate. In my mind, there should always be both of these for every election. For these, and other reasons, some decide, “why vote if both candidates represent the ‘status quo’,” when real economic, environmental and health challenges only get worse.

All of this is to say, “yes, vote, but do a lot more!”; I focus on the “more” in many of my other blogs and I encourage commenters to speak their minds on this as well. I voted but I am under no illusion that by doing so I have somehow done my part to build a better world. It will take a lot of other contributions, today, tomorrow, and every day in the future; and not just by me, but by you as well. This, the illusion associated with voting, may be the greatest challenge we face. Whoever wins next month, we will have our plates full of things to do and ways to contribute. Why not start making those lists today. We definitely don’t want to be (nor do we have time to be) complacent.

Insanity continues

[This piece is being offered on “Columbus Day” on purpose. The fact that we still celebrate this barbaric man and validate the conquering of people is clearly insane…so it fits nicely. Twelve years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a similar full-page piece for The Zephyr—then an alternative local weekly newspaper—which I hear might be making a comeback! For those that want to read the old piece, click here.]

Perception and reality are often far apart. Projection, here the perceptions that we project (i.e., our cultural stories), and reality are equally so. Worse yet, the few people that contemplate on these glaring inconsistencies are often dismissed as weirdos, greenies, or catastrophists. Hence the flawed stories and the complacency, dependency and hopelessness they breed continue.

So what is so insane about our world, or more specifically the Western civilization (that we’ve grown up in)? One not need look far. In fact, it is much easier to identify the “craziness” of our world than to find rationality. Let’s examine the two most fundamental aspects of any civilization: (1) human relationships with nature; and (2) human within species relationships. No rational civilization would consider itself successful if it didn’t function at a very harmonious level in these two areas.

So how are we treating the Earth and its other billions of inhabitants? On nearly all objective measures we are doing very poorly. The bees are down (ref 1), the bats are down (ref 2), the butterflies are suffering (ref 3), many bird populations are in steep decline (ref 4), and fisheries around the planet are collapsing (ref 5). Not a very good report card. And scarier still is the precipitous decline in ocean plankton (ref 6)—most concerning as these microorganisms are at the bottom of the food chain (and consequently will affect all life forms above them). I suspect many of you have heard of these things but given the grave nature of the news and the sources of their demise, most media sources steer clear of giving them too much attention. So not only are we seeing tremendous losses of other life forms but we’re all too busy to focus on this issue. Not surprisingly, I have heard no word on these matters coming from either major party during this year long campaign period.

I could go on and on about how much of the rainforest is razed each day (to grow more sugarcane or lifestock meat), how oceans are becoming inhospitable to large sea creatures because of sound waves emitted by military craft, or how many billions of pounds of new pesticides are being sprayed, etc. But no matter how many pages of scientifically-collected information I provide here, I realize that I am unlikely to raise much of an eyebrow. Reality tells us that humans are functioning in ways that are clearly in opposition to life and though an increasing number of “two-leggeds” are becoming aware of this, our civilization’s ways of “progress” beat on with little hope in sight.

Okay, so what about how humans are treating other humans? Clearly, an intelligent species would at least function to promote its own, right? Well, if the nightly news is any indication we are doing very poorly on that score as well. Murders, threats, conflict, and turmoil appears to be found everywhere one looks. But as I’ve warned in earlier blogs, we can merely trust the information emanating from our screens because of the monetary incentives involved in capturing our attention (and our fear). Looking at more objective statistical data provides some hopeful signs. Life expectancy (at birth) is way up. People are living to their 80s in the UK and to their mid-60s in India. Just one-hundred years ago these numbers were 54 (UK) and 25 years (India). Infant mortality is way down as well, from 122 (per thousand births) in 1960 to 32 in 2015. These trends certainly are signs of improvement. However, other statistics paint a different picture.

In the US, we put more people into prison than any other country and the proportion of our population in prison is nearly double that of Russia and nearly six times that of China! We subsidize corn (and a few other grains) that is largely turned into ethanol (driving up the cost of food worldwide) or fructose which does harm to our bodies in many ways. Much of the “cheap” food produced by large-scale corn and soy production is overconsumed by masses of our population who are overly stressed out economically and have limited options for fresh food in their neighborhoods. This has consequences in terms of child- or adult- onset diabetes; diabetes rates have grown from 1% of the US population in 1958 to 7% in 2014 (ref 7). Though we know that nutrition is key to health, very few doctors are taking nutritional courses in medical school and many of our schools are pumping “cheap” food into our children’s bodies (and minds) (especially given that most of it is now “freely” provided by the government, via these same subsidies, to the industries that make “cheap” food) and we are surprised that kids can’t concentrate. We are seeing significantly lower sperm counts among men (ref 8) and much faster sexual maturity rates among girls (ref 9), especially girls of color, and we hardly bat an eye at these very disturbing trends. And let’s not forget that nearly 100 million people were killed because of war in the 20th Century–and the 21st Century has gotten off to a similar start. These astonishing number aside, consider how we now have nearly all of our media outlets owned and operated by major corporations and yet most of us still go to them (e.g., CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, etc.) for our news and so few of us boycott the “debates” when these corporate outfits refuse to allow third-party candidates (and their ideas) to be represented. This is equivalent to asking the foxes how the hen house is doing! I could go on but these insane realities of our civilization should be enough to give major pause.

Yet, despite all the insanity, there is hope. Yes, I know, it doesn’t seem possible given the insanity. But there is. Everywhere you look there are humans that are doing their part to make this world sane again. From those that dedicate their lives to growing food in humane ways to those who reject materialistic ways and work to spread love and peace instead. The precautionary principle has a lot to offer us in new ways of thinking (ref 10, ref 11). There are much more intelligent ways to activate a truly democratic country. But unless we firmly recognize how insane our ways are right now, we have very little hope of doing the work and making the sacrifices and changes that are needed to right our ship. Columbus and his ilk took us down a path of genocide and conquest, one we’ve continued on for the past 500+ years. It is time to alter our course and live in peace and sanity.

stand, sit, kneel, or lock? (modern protest)

Just over a week ago a professional football player (Colin Kaepernick, but let’s call him Kaep for short) decided that he wasn’t going to stand during the National Anthem because he believes that people of color are being mistreated by police. This simple act of protest became the most prominent sports story for the next week and counting. People from all corners of society weighed in on Kaep’s action and a fair bit of exchange ensued. Most discussion sadly focused on whether Kaep should or shouldn’t protest in this way rather than on the issue that Kaep was trying to raise awareness of. A few days later it was revealed that Kaep has also been wearing socks during practice which depict “pigs” wearing police uniforms. Immediately, a huge outcry was heard denouncing Kaep for this disrespectful showing, even from many that felt the initial “sitting” protest was admirable. Within a day of this “revelation,” Kaep kneeled during the anthem (an act expressing his respect to those that serve in the military), performed well in the preseason game that followed, and announced afterwards that he would be donating $1 million (of his $11 million annual salary) to the causes that he was bringing attention to. Many saw this “gift” as a gesture of Kaep’s commitment to the issues and many praised him for this significant offering. And now there are reports out that Kaep’s jersey sales are way up, and some evidence of a new found admiration of his recent actions. We are only a few days into this Kaep activity and the regular NFL season starts in a matter of days (although it isn’t clear how prominent a role Kaep will play on his team, his stock slipping mightily since he took the 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl). Yet, very few athletes have gotten so much mileage out of what otherwise would seem like a very mundane action. How so? And what does it tell us about our modern society?

Were Kaep’s actions so courageous and, hence, worthy of such attention? Let’s look at what Kaep did in basic terms. He refused to stand for the National Anthem. He wore mocking socks to football practice a few times. He then changed his anthem stance from a sit to a kneel. These are very minor acts at some level. They require very little effort. And, they weren’t dangerous. Now, let’s compare Kaep’s actions to Dale American Horse Jr. who locked himself to a backhoe in North Dakota in protest of the pipeline that is being built to transport oil from the North Central Plains to states further south. (Here is more on this story that probably got 1/1,000th of the coverage that Kaep has received, link). Dale American Horse Jr. performed this action knowing that it was a violation of U.S. law and that a host of police would extricate him from the machine and charge him with a criminal offense, with unknown penalties, financial or jail time. On the face of it, it would appear that Dale American Horse Jr. faced much greater danger in more unpredictable circumstances–many other protesters were pepper sprayed and some, including children, were bitten by dogs “managed” by security agents. However, while Dale American Horse Jr.’s actions are definitely risky and courageous, Kaep, a well-known professional athlete, risked the loss of corporate endorsements and even his professional career (and its lucrative salary) by falling out of favor with the corporate executives that own NFL teams. He also risked eliciting the wrath and boos of millions of American’s who find his actions (and words) offensive. But, even still, an unspecified jail sentence seems like a lot more ominous than a loss of millions of dollars (but that is probably because I don’t have millions to lose).

If not so courageous, what explains the attention? I contend that it occurred because Kaep’s act is contentious. The modern media loves a good debate (as long as the parameters stay within a relatively narrow box; for example, we are not going to debate the sources of abject poverty in our country, the “richest” in the world, because that would implicate the same large corporations that run our media outlets). Kaepernick was a well-enough known celebrity to draw consumer gazes in a specific direction. Nearly all media now are full of advertisements and news outlets are competing harder and harder for this gaze; this explains the sensationalism that permeates media today. But why would not standing during the anthem cause such a storm? It is because many people in our society have developed a visceral attachment to the U.S. flag; recall the post 9-11 flag frenzy. To do anything to disrespect the U.S. is considered blasphemous to some. To others, the flag, the most recognizable symbol of the United States, deserved disrespect because of the outrageous things that have been done it its name (mass incarceration, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, My Lai, etc.). To these people, how better to show your disapproval of the actions of a nation than to desecrate its “sacred” image. Either way, mess with the flag and you’ll get attention, tie yourself to oil machinery and just let the local authorities handle this one (certainly no need for national exposure); facetiousness intended.

The surprising attention to Kaep also stems from the immense amount of attention that we give to sports these days. Athletes are household names. Most people probably know the starting quarterback on their cities team more so than they know who their U.S. Senators are. Certainly, most care more about what the QB does than what the Senator does (as long as it isn’t something scandalous, such as sexting). And given this heightened position, it makes sense that Kaepernick, and other athletes, might use it for some social good. For example, I am just some lowly professor (who makes less than 1% of what Kaep will make this year). I am likely not going to get any attention if I do something like not standing for the National Anthem or wear some offensive socks. I might get the scorn of people around me but no one who lives in a neighboring town will ever know that I am “protesting.” However, if I were a world-renown scholar, then I would likely consider protesting for my beliefs. (There certainly are a lot of things worth protesting for.) The point is this: athletes are so prominent in our lives (even more so than most of our political leaders), is it any wonder why we coast along in this economic malaise without much of a hiccup?

In the end, I am thankful that some well-to-do people, be them athletes or not, are willing to sacrifice their millions for a higher calling. Our culture has such a short attention span. A mass shooting occurs and that keeps its grip on it for a week or two, then we are back to normal. Structural racism has been hard at work in this country for nearly 400 years (when the first African slaves arrived on this land). Kaep’s effort to keep it in our consciousness is worthy of praise not scorn. Whether it will result in a positive outcome remains to be seen. And as much as we should focus on his efforts/words, we cannot forget the others that struggle mightily for justice elsewhere but simply due to their “less favorable’ (and visible) status have their battle cries go unheard.

are we moral?

In a world where people eat scrumptious meals in fancy restaurants while homeless people peddle for coins just on the other side of the glass, where others drive their $100,000 autos solo daily past hordes of bus goers (in sub-freezing temperatures) without considering offering a ride, and where increasing numbers communicate via “god-like” cellular devices while others, thousands of miles away, work feverishly in horrific conditions to collect enough “coltan” (a versatile metal alloy used in WiFi-transmitting electronics) to feed their families, one has to ask, “What’s moral these days?” And, relatedly, in a world so extreme in its inequality and maldistribution of resources, “Is it even possible for a person of economic privilege to live morally?”

Imagining an extra-terrestrial who happened upon our planet, I suspect he/she would unequivocally state that nearly all “first-worlders” live immorally. This judgment would come simply from his/her observation that we consume resources that are obtained, distributed, manufactured, and sold in ways that usually cause great psychological and physical harm to other humans and other forms of life. From the pesticide-laden plants (or hormone- and antibiotic-dosed meat) food that dominates food systems, our fossil fuels which often come from war-torn regions of the world where (despite the amazing amount of $$ that these resources must be worth) most people have remained severely impoverished for decades, or our everyday clothing and house “products” that are almost always made by workers overseas who live in inhumane work environments, this verdict is undeniable. If there were a functioning international court, we would be found “guilty” of immoral lifestyles.

Concluding that we are living immorally shouldn’t be news to anyone, though it rarely gets coverage in such blatant terms. It also doesn’t have much meaning if it isn’t just an inevitable result of living in the 21st century (or at all). Clearly, humans must consume substantial resources to live, all large animals do by necessity. So, do we have any real choice? The answer is “yes.” First, we overconsume, producing excessive amounts of waste. Many of the products that we buy aren’t necessary to living a fulfilling life. Second, we, if we really cared to do so, could find many of the resources that we do need to thrive from producers that aren’t destroying the environment in their work. This is particularly true with food but is doable, albeit difficult, in other areas as well. (Here are a few articles that lay out some of these options, ref 1, ref 2). Third, all of us are entangled, whether we like it or not, in the most immoral component of our “consumption”: the trillions of dollars lost (which we pay in taxes) on the continued militarization of the world and its ties to resolving humanitarian and economic challenges with arms and violence, rather than diplomacy and peace.

All this said, it must be noted that many of those that live in “rich” countries, especially the U.S., live under great economic stress and this limits their ability to act morally with regard to their consumption patterns. Reasonably, until they are relieved of their structural impoverishment, their immorality doesn’t deserve much attention; though increasing their “take” and not causing further damage would necessitate a different type of growth than we are use to. On the other hand, the behaviors of those that live in middle- to upper-class lives cannot be overlooked. Sadly, much of what they (and “I”) consume falls into the category of “horrible.” Our educational system and mainstream media (both increasingly influenced/controlled by corporations), in their effort to ensure that we continue to consume, completely fail to teach us what we need in order to consume morally.

So, where does this leave us? I don’t think there are any magical solutions. But, just as alcoholics must admit their addiction before making headway, we need to admit our immorality as well. Perhaps part of the solution is something equivalent to AA (or NA) where people could meet regularly and figure out ways to modify our (individually and collectively) consumption patterns toward moral pathways. Such meetings are happening under other auspices (e.g., Green Party, First Nations Environmental Network, Urban Ag/Permaculture, etc.). Start your own group or check one of these out. Let us know what you find!

“The Media” and getting “outside the box”

[As always, this contribution is as much self-critical commentary as anything else.]

Watching the exposure of the indiscretions and hypocrisies of the two major party candidates and their committees over the past two weeks has only reaffirmed how flawed our media systems are and how easily they can get played by those that make an effort to do so. Rather than this evidence being used to engage in greater inquiry and scrutiny (as would be the result of truly independent investigative journalism), this otherwise condemning evidence only gets sensationalized and glamorized. Trump summed this up with his recent tweet, “all press is good press!” And, here is the rub, since there are enough citizens who are “independent” and responsive to these manipulations, and subsequent polls which amplify their wandering minds (and make for high ratings), our democracy’s future is at stake.

Our “boob tube” (a.k.a. TV for those too young to know this term) streams information into tens of millions of homes each day. Given the oversupply of channels (and the resulting “high” competition), we are lead to believe that what we hear on the TV is: (a) what is important or relevant; (b) what is known on an issue; and, (c) why “it” matters. Well, for those that believe these things, I caution you to think a bit more deeply about what is being said and why. Ask yourself, in whose interests are these promoted ideas? What are the sources of the information? What are alternative news agencies (such as therealnews.com, democracynow.org, or www.aljazeera.com) reporting? For those that don’t believe that our TV channels are reporting the “real” news, what efforts are you making to find out what is really happening? What role are you playing in disseminating these alternative viewpoints? Based on my circle of colleagues, I suggest that our efforts are failing because a critical number of our “neighbors” aren’t getting (or “buying”) these alternative messages. As long as the vast majority of our neighbors keep accepting the dominant memes sounded by the mainstream media, we will not make much progress. So what’s happening and why?

Our country’s people are in a serious bind. We have become so isolated from people who think differently than we do that we cannot fathom how our “opponents” conceive of their “wacky” ideas. And they can’t fathom how we can believe what we do. The media exploits this dichotomy and provides enough evidence supporting both sides that everyone feel empowered. There are many additional reasons for this critical disconnect.

First, and perhaps most importantly, we never admit when we are/were wrong. How long has it taken most liberals to admit that Obama’s presidency has been largely a failure? Some still haven’t. (Sure, we can blame Congress for many things over the past 8 years but Obama cannot skirt all responsibility for drones, criminal injustice, & continuation of regressive taxes and hypermilitarism; don’t forget that Obama has a Democratic majority in both Houses of Congress in his first two years as President.) How many in the state of IL are willing to state that the Democrats in IL (under the leadership of Governor Quinn and Rod Blagojevich) failed to deal with critical issues (such as pension reform, voter reform, the prison industrial complex, extreme tax regressiveness (among worst 5 in the US))? (I am not saying that Gov. Rauner is any better and certainly the 25 years of Republican Governors in IL, from 1977-2002, didn’t help much either. But, importantly, the Democrats had nearly full power in the Governorship, the Lieutenant Governorship, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General’s office, and both houses of Congress from 2003-2014 (12 years) and very little reform occurred. And everyone was surprised that a billionaire Tea Partier in Rauner beat Quinn by a few percentage points? If the major parties cannot be self-critical and realize why they have failed, they should now longer exist as parties. For those that submissively support either of these two parties, I urge you to stop doing so. And if you weren’t openly critical of the Blagojevich and Quinn administrations then you were submissively supporting them. Liberals and progressives are in the same situation vis-à-vis the current Democratic presidential candidate. Any informed person must honestly find many problems with electing Hillary Clinton but rather than talk about these, they feel any criticism of her will only improve the chances that Trump gets elected. However, our inability to be self-critical (purposely not just reactively) makes it nearly impossible for others outside of our “world view” to trust anything we say. This collective failing will likely lead to having millions of smart, well-meaning people, recognizing the rampant but unspoken failings of both candidates, fail to make it to the voting booths in November. And this is more than anything likely to lead to a Trump victory. Yet, despite our recognition of this outcome, we remain silent and ignore the obvious hypocrisies infecting candidates and their positions. The inability to admit failure or mistakes has both parties (who have both made innumerable horrific mistakes) unfit to rule. (Then we criticize third parties who have better platforms and a real desire for righting this sinking ship for taking votes away from “mainstream” candidates; and, we don’t even pause when their ideas aren’t shared in the media or at least represented in political “debates”.)

Second, we have allowed the media to frame all the issues. This is a critical and very understated problem. What are the major issues right now? Economic and social inequality would seemingly be #1. However, the media (and the two parties) talk endlessly about abortion, gun rights, and immigrants. Also, so much of the media is now (from before the first primaries even happened) entirely focused on two individuals (Hillary and Trump) as if the other 300+ million of us are irrelevant or at least someone else’s ideas deserved a hearing. How much attention has been paid to state elections? Almost none. This would be hilarious if it wasn’t so painfully said, especially in our “broken” state of Illinois. How much attention is being paid on the local elections in your community? In ours? None. Most people I speak to don’t even realize that in April 2017, there will be four local offices up for election (the Mayor, and three City Council seats). We act as if nothing matters but the presidency. Why do we think this way? Largely because The Media tells us to. Once again, we need to reject this and think and act “outside the box.”

Third, all of us seek comfort and security. This is a natural human reaction to stress and discomfort. Why are we so stressed out? Lots of reasons. Our TV’s (& Internet streams) are feeding us hyper-sensationalized doses of fear-mongering continually. A kidnapped child from a town 2,000 miles away makes us afraid to let our kids walk to school; have you noticed how many parents/grandparents now drive kids to and from school. A sexual predator in a neighborhood two hours away makes us fearful of our neighbors, to the point that we don’t speak to them and certain don’t invite them into our homes. We fear everything now. And, most of us respond to this fear directly. Either by fomenting it as one of the candidates is doing or saying, “you gotta support her….this is Trump we are talking about!” And, the mainstream media feeds this frenzy and these simplistic responses because they too profit from the enhanced viewerships that come with sensationalized reportage.

As a member of this culture, we have three choices given our predicament. We can continue to act as if the mainstream media is properly framing the issues that matter. Or, we can avoid the issues altogether and find calmness and serenity in the other non-news media programs (such as “reality” programs, mindless sitcoms/soap operas, or competitive sports); no wonder why these are increasingly popular the worse and worse things get. Or, we can explicitly reject these other two options and aggressively become alternative media sources of our own. This last option, which I believe to be the only real option to save our democracy, is extremely difficult for many of us because it requires that we step outside of “our comfort zones.” In addition to spreading fear, “The Media” does a marvelous job of promoting the value of “fitting in” and conforming. We see this in the clothes we buy, the shows we watch, the chain restaurants that we frequent. Getting “outside the box” forces us to abandon one of our most comforting pleasures, that which comes through the conformity of consumption. You don’t believe me? Try becoming an aggressive human rights advocate for one day (using Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.) and see how people respond to you. If you try this, please communicate what happens to the rest of us. You can be a pioneer in this uncomfortable space that most of us refuse to inhabit. We’d prefer to remain in our comfort zones, hoping that somehow others will come to their senses and make things better. In this way, we are drugged by “The Media.” We choose not to pursue that which we know is moral and right. We need to stop injecting our bloodstream with the caustic and contaminated nonsense streams that proliferate The Media’s channels and websites. It will take lots of effort to withdraw from this drug, but humanity has conquered many things in the past and I am confident that with patience and courage we will tackle this one too.

Lastly, while I strongly urge all of us (myself included) to “get out of the box” in a very visible way, I also caution all of us to do so by advocating from a positive position and one that is open to constructive critique (and re-examination). There are real solutions that are possible. There are real alternatives to the ones being offered by the mainstream, typically disguised fluff for status-quo policies. (I examine these in previous blogs and will do so again in my next.) Being anti-everything isn’t going to solve our problems (though it might just get a buffoon elected). Promoting new and innovative ideas and supporting those that are pioneers in this effort locally will take effort and deliberate action. Yet, this effort might be a key to our survival.