fireworks

Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the founding of the United States. How will we do this? People have different ways but the most noticeable one is to make tons of noise and display lots of colors, using fireworks! Last night, two nights before the “big” night, people in the neighborhood I was visiting were blasting these incendiary devices for several hours. I guess people’s celebratory zeal was just too much to contain.

With all the talk about “protecting the environment” and “cleaning our air and water,” you might reasonably ask, “are fireworks a sound practice?” Given that the air blackens and smells horrible after a fireworks event, the answer to this simple question seems obvious. However, as usual in environmental thinking, the “devil is in the details.” So are fireworks safe and should we continue to use them as we do? (I decided to write this on the day before the “BIG” day, so as not to be too much of a “Danny Downer.”)

Apparently, fireworks consist of gun powder, heavy metals and other toxins, such as perchlorate (ref 1). Many of these are known to have carcinogenic impacts or interfere with human hormones (ref 2). What chemicals that are used change while “exploding” and take on new chemical forms and properties, many of which haven’t been carefully studied. And these chemicals stay in our air (more than 12 hours afterwards) eventually settling in the soil and ultimately ending up in our waterways. Not good, right?

Yet, maybe since we normally only use them on one BIG day, everything is fine; famously, “everything in moderation.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t work either. First of all, we are beginning to use them at many public events (baseball home runs often come with a firework display and colleges are using them at pre-graduation celebrations, and recall the pre-July 4th eruptions in our neighborhoods). Also, the chemicals used are often persistent meaning that they don’t easily break down into “safe” forms, so they remain toxic to our environment for years to come. Additionally, fireworks result in a huge numbers of hospital visits–in 2014, there were over 10,000 emergency room visits during the “month” of fireworks (ref 3). And lastly, you would be surprised how many thousands of cities, towns, and even neighborhoods have their own large firework displays. Last year, while driving around St. Louis looking for Ted Drewes’ amazing ice cream, I witnessed at least four such events going on at the same time.

Despite all of the above information (and books more of it at our cyber fingertips), I have a hard time thinking that we’ll make any headway stopping people from enjoying their city’s firework displays or blasting off a few bottle rockets in their backyards. (Though apparently there are 8,700+ people who have signed a petition to ban the private use of fireworks in New Zealand, ref 4 And, due to this years terrible drought many communities in Michigan are calling for reducing or cancelling displays (ref 5)). Sadly, this just represents one more thing that we know we shouldn’t do but we just can’t seem to do. This is particularly confusing when we realize that we are talking about something that is completely unnecessary to us and our collective health. As such, it represents another instance of the need to completely rethink how we function as a society. We need to have principles that we adhere to (such as, “we shall not poison our air and water without due cause and consideration”) and don’t deviate from just because its “fun” or “the thing we do.” Change is hard but challenges make life interesting, don’t they? Celebrate tomorrow, but do so with a small kernel of awkwardness and contemplation.

100 years — father

Since it is Father’s Day, I thought I would discuss something my father has always taught me to admire—longevity. My father, David, has always made a big deal about living a long life. Growing up, I often heard him emphasize the age of “old” people. He also spoke regularly of the importance of taking vitamins and eating lots of protein and nutrients as a means to ensure a long, healthy life. He didn’t just preach, he used to take 10 g of Vitamin C a day (that’s 20-500 mg pills) and a host of other vitamins, probably thirty pills a day; I am not sure of his daily regimen now.

Anyhow, as a result of this “teaching,” I can say that I value longevity. I’ve learned through my scholarship that life expectancy is one of the best indicators of the “well-being” in a country. If people in a country are living long lives, it can be expected that the country also has good quality health care (especially for soon-to-be mothers and children), educational opportunities, and food access for the vast majority of its people; this is in contrast to economic indicators, such as GNP (Gross National Product), which often can mask suffering among its lower classes. I cherish the opportunity to speak to older people as I realize that they have encountered a lot of things that I haven’t lived through—-with experience comes a fair bit of wisdom.

Japan is home to the highest percentage of centenarians (with some 60,000+ of them currently); there is some debate on this, apparently Cuba may have recently surpassed Japan (ref 1). And while I hope to reach the “100” mark (my dad is working towards it to–still running ~14 miles a week at age 72), I realize that a few things working against me. One I am a male. For every male that reaches 100 years, there are 6 females that do. Also, being large (6’4”, 235 lbs) doesn’t help my cause either (ref 2). Yet, given that no statistic is deterministic, I will still eat my “fruits and vegetables” and wish for the best. Better still, I’ll use the time I have on this wonderful planet to make it better for me, my planetary neighbors (of all species), and most of all, on this day, my children!

getting to know other humans

Despite it being 2016, we still know very, very little about planet Earth. For instance, it is estimated that scientists around the world have only documented ~14% of the world’s terrestrial species (ref 1). And documenting them doesn’t come close to accounting for their unique properties and behaviors nor their chemical makeup, all of which represent “intelligences” that could have profound implications to humans biomimetically (learn more about biomimicry, link).

However, as astoundingly unaware of our biological neighbors as we are, I assert that we are equally unaware of our human neighbors and this “ignorance” probably has profound implications as well. There are two ways in which we are acutely unaware of humans and both prevent us from acting in ways that are in our best interests and the planet’s best interest. First, we (and I mean the vast majority of us, myself included) have almost no idea what the majority of humans struggle with day in and day out. Nearly 50% of the world’s human’s live on less than $2.50 a day (ref 2). How do they survive on so little? Many of these people live in nations that are recipients of military aid yet little humanitarian aid (from the US and other nations) (ref 3). They suffer from preventable disease but despite the extremely low cost for a basic series of immunizations millions of children in these lands suffer and die each year because they don’t have access to this basic medical care (ref 4); apparently it would cost between $11-15 billion to meet the WHO-UNICEF Immunization Targets (ref 5) which is less than 1% of the world’s military budget. My failure to fully appreciate the horrors associated with these horrible (unnecessary) circumstances faced by hordes of fellow humans makes it very difficult for me to prioritize the needs of these other humans in my own life. I suspect that if I, or one of you, were to spend quality time with these people, our hearts would open up and our life’s priorities would change quite drastically.

Second, we are largely unaware of the humans on this planet that are making the greatest positive impact. Have you heard of the Goldman Prize? Since 1990, the Goldman Environmental Foundation has been giving awards to the top environmental leaders around the world. One person from each of the six major continents (Islands and Island Nations are considered a continent) is awarded a Goldman Prize for his/her/their “sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk” (ref 6). Take a look at the list of recipients (link), who number ~175 now. How many of them do you know about? (Why does the mainstream media tell us about any of them and their great achievements?) A few are household names among informed people (such as, Wangari Maathai and Lois Gibbs) but the vast, vast majority of them are unrecognizable to us. For example, the 2016 North American winner, Destiny Waterford (for her bio, link), is a name, embarrassingly I admit, I’ve never heard of until this writing; nor had I heard anything about the other five 2016 recipients.

Why does it matter that we don’t know who these people are? You might be saying, “Peter, there are 7+ billion people on this planet, how I can know them all.” Well, the reason is, these are incredible people who are successively working to make the world better. And none of them are acting alone either; most have tens if not hundreds of others working hand-in-hand with them. If we knew more about these amazing “neighbors” and the challenges they are tackling, often despite greater disadvantages than we personally have, we might be inspired to struggle more intensely regarding challenges our communities face (such as, hunger, water quality, teen pregnancy, economic hardship, tree death, etc. where I live). Understanding how these heroes and sheroes work with others to make progress would teach us how essential it is to work collectively and how voting in elections isn’t the primary way these leaders (and their support “staff”) make things happen (despite the overwhelming importance granted to this singular act by our media outlets). Just over 10 years ago, I had the amazing fortune to work side-by-side for five months with a future Goldman Prize recipient (Kim Wasserman, Chicago, 2014 Goldman recipient) during my first sabbatical. The lessons I learned from assisting her organization’s campaigns all the while surrounded by other dedicated staff and volunteers (at LVEJO, link and in the Little Village community) were profound. This experience convinced me that I had to be more involved in my community. I had to take action. I had to reach out to and work with others. And, most importantly, as Kim and her team proved when they successfully got the two coal-fired power plants in Chicago to close and spearheaded the creation of the new La Villita Park on the West side of the city that opened this year (link) (both struggles took more than 10 years before their desired outcomes were achieved), we can make our world healthier if we really want to.

So, there you have it, we need to understand humans better. There is a lot of positive that could come from that knowledge and engagement. Let’s do this.

our food challenges

I’ve been a vegetarian since 2002, and that decision was largely driven by issues of fairness (link for my 2003 article on this subject). I recognize that people’s choices surrounding their food intake are quite convoluted and very personal. However, the impacts and ramifications of these daily decisions are huge and far reaching. As such, it is often difficult for people to discuss their dietary choices with others without things quickly brimming with frustration and defensiveness. Yet, these conversations must happen, as the stakes are too high.

Our food system is broken. Way too many people in our country (USA) go without adequate calories (ref 1). Many also lack access to healthful and fresh food (ref 2). And industrial farms inject huge amounts of toxic chemicals into the environment (via pesticides, herbicides, fossil-fuel based fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, highly concentrated animal waste products) and deplete aquifers (ref 3). The medical costs we bear through our high incidence of largely diet-driven disorders and diseases (such as coronary disease and type-II diabetes) are enormous and growing (ref 4). Clearly, things need to change. But how?

Many who come to terms with the above list of calamitous outcomes of our current food system are driven to reduce their meat consumption by staying away from particular meats or eliminating meat or animal products altogether from their diets. And while these shifts in our culture are meaningful and have had lasting effects on our health and environment, the tragic outcomes of industrial agriculture continue to occur, and in some cases get worse (as for example, the massive increase in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) throughout the country). Fundamentally, the problem is: not enough people realize or care what impact their food intake has on them or others or their options, largely due to economic stressors, are so limited that they continue to act in ways that are not in their best interests. Whatever the reason, we need to find ways to get more people to the point that they vote with their food dollars in ways that promote wellness, economic vitality (especially locally), and environmental health.

For those that choose to do so by becoming a vegan or vegetarian, consider that your vegetables and fruits will still largely come from the industrial agriculture system unless you make a conscious effort to buy them locally, in season, and from as close to the farmers as possible. If becoming a vegan or vegetarian doesn’t work for you (and apparently there are some for which it can be dangerous, ref 5 & ref 6), make sure you consider where your meat is coming from. You can almost guarantee that if the meat you are purchasing is from a regular grocery store or a restaurant, it is coming from the industrialized meat sources, which are much more interested in maximizing profit then offering some that is healthful to you or the planet. Sadly, very little meat available to us on a day-to-day basis isn’t industrially produced. Thus, it is critically important for meat eaters to become vigilant about purchasing meat that is properly raised (by requesting it at the store and restaurants in their neighborhoods, demanding cuts in governmental subsidies to corn and soy which are largely grown to produce meat, and finding local purveyors of “good” meat and sharing this information with others). If enough of them were to do so, they could make a huge impact on the state of the meat industry and the impact that it has now and in the future. Lastly, vegans, vegetarians, or omnivores, all need to ramp down the purchase of process foods as well given that they are big drivers of the industrialized farm system (which pumps us full of high fructose corn syrup and dangerous preservatives, see ref 7).

Additionally, and importantly, we need to look critically at the matter of how poverty (which is also rampant) restricts people from purchasing better food. Many of the options listed above are not “true” options for those that are challenged economically. People should not be forced to purchase high-caloric food rather than highly nutritional food because they can’t afford the latter. The battle to end poverty is one we all must contribute to.

So challenges & options exist for all of us. It is time that we spend a good bit more time thinking about the food that we consume and the food options available to other members of our community! We are what we eat, and so is the planet.

feeding people

Everyone deserves to eat healthful food, right? I would argue that this should be a human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948, thought so too. In its Article 25, it reads: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” But despite this, we know that nearly a billion people still suffer from chronic malnutrition (ref 1, ref 2) and among urban children rates are still 30% in Africa and 14% in Europe (ref 3). These are shocking statistics during a time when we have more than enough food for everyone (ref 4).

Hunger is not just a disease that affects people in poor countries. We have considerable amounts of it in the United States as well. According the USDA, 17.4 million households (or 14% of people) were food insecure at some point in 2014, where a food-insecure household is one that “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources” (ref 5). Two conclusions derive from this finding. One, it is horrifying that over 43 million people go hungry in the “richest” country in the world. Two, the chief cause of this hunger is poverty (and, by extension, economic inequality). If you wonder what type of people go hungry, Feeding America (an non-profit organization) provides a heartening look at the faces of hunger on its website. Answer: everyday people.

So what should we do about this? A lot of people in this country work on this problem as they, themselves or through their neighbors and friends, have felt the pangs of hunger for a long time (it is not a new problem). In my community, we have several food pantries operating, we have an organization that serves free meals twice a month, we have another relatively new organization that fills backpacks for school children on Fridays (so that the kids can get food on weekends when school lunches aren’t available), and we have a Farmers’ Market that ensures that LINK dollars (the IL version of “food stamps”) can be used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. And while these organizations and the hundreds of volunteers that make them function do incredible things for our struggling community members, the programs they run are largely “Band-Aids” rather than long-term solutions. Our community took one of these “Band-Aids” off this summer when, due to state budget failings, its school board eliminated summer school for elementary students. This cut hurts our kids’ minds as well as their stomachs because a summer breakfast/lunch program, that was mandated to exist in conjunction with any summer school offering, was cut as well.

How should we respond to these continued cuts and hunger in general? We could organize volunteers to feed children this summer. We did just that about five years ago when the local schools closed in early January for two weeks to save money on heating bills. It, the Lunch Spot Program, was a great success (and even received high commendations from the State) but it required a lot of intense volunteerism over a two week period. In the situation we are facing now, we would need at least that level of support during the summer (a harder sell for volunteers than winter) for ten weeks. And, even if that were to be accomplished, it would still be a Band-Aid. Thus, we need to create solutions that solve the problem of hunger, not just ones that relieve it temporarily. This will take new ideas and new visions of what is most important in our community. If food truly is a human right, today is the day to offer up these new visions. Ideas?

meritocracy

Since I was young, I have been told by society, “work hard and you will succeed.” And, guess what, the prescription worked.

Ah, but not so fast. I know many others that have worked hard as well and they haven’t been as fortunate. Also, I have met many people who have “made it” largely based on luck (having wealthy parents/family or merely occupying a high-paid, paper-pushing job). Is this fair?

I realize that I was very lucky too. Both of my parents are intelligent and educated. And my aunts and uncles are too. Additionally, I lived most of my life in Northern Virginia, which has very strong school systems. A good education can go a long way.

I also realize that I have other fortunate assets that have made it a lot easier for me to “make it.” I am “White” (though I have endured some discrimination due to my ethnic last name), I am a male, and I am taller than average. In the U.S., in 2016, “Whites” make nearly twice as much as African-American’s do and men still make ~27% more than women (ref 1, ref 2). (Notice that the stat I provide is higher than the one in the article–this is due to how one reports the difference. If you say that women make 79 cents for every dollar men make, you can equivalently say that men make 27% percent more (as 100 is 27% larger than 79) or you can talk about the “21% wage gap,” as does the article; which one highlights the severity of the problem better?). Also, interestingly, in the history of the US, the taller candidate for president has won 67% of the time, suggesting that being tall is a significant advantage (ref 3).

So, I have been lucky too, and I can’t complain. But, I don’t like to think that my accomplishments have been based on luck alone; I suspect others feel the same way about their “fortune.” Having studied environmental justice for the past 20 years, I am aware of how pervasive economic injustice still is, both here in the United States as well as internationally. Thus, I am not comfortable telling people “less fortunate” than me to “just work harder.” I recognize it often takes a lot more than “work” to succeed. So rather than just brazenly telling people what to do from my ivory tower, I do what I can in my local/regional environment to “pay it forward.” One example of this is my co-creation of a Time Bank in my community earlier this year; you can find out about it here. I don’t make these contributions out of guilt. I do it because I firmly believe that we will all be better when we all have better opportunities. Our economic system, which has largely lives by the principle that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” is a deceptive failure to increasingly many (ref 4). We need to do what we can to truly develop economic justice and opportunity for all. Only then will we make real progress.