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.

systemic food solutions

In an earlier BLOG, I argued that systemic solutions to our local hunger problems were necessary and that most current efforts, while very well-intentioned and very important to curb hunger in the immediate, are mere “Band-Aids.” Here is a letter I wrote to some local people to share my thoughts on what we can do in our City (modified a little to make it more relevant to those that might be reading this from other areas of the globe; please share your ideas too!).

Now for the “solution” part as it concerns our community directly and systemic solutions to hunger:

There are many steps to ending hunger in our community. First, we have to acknowledge it exists; the KPCK founders did this early on (we did research and shared findings). Second, we have to dig deep within ourselves and ask how important the fact that people and, especially, children are going hungry in our community is to us. Third, we have to determine how much time and effort each one of us is willing to give to remedying, and ultimately eliminating, this tragic situation. Once we do this, then we can begin to build systemic solutions.

What are systemic solutions? They are ones that will not only reduce/end hunger today but they will build an infrastructure in our community that will reduce/end hunger in the future. Here are a few things we can do (I’d love to hear your ideas and reactions as well):

1. Teach people to cook healthful food; weekly classes in a predictable, accessible, functional space.
2. Make healthful food available at affordable prices year-round
3. Greatly increase the purchase of locally-grown food (monies that will be reinjected in to our community and provide incomes to existing food producers)
4. Provide people opportunities to grow their own food (through repurposing open lots, providing raised beds, rain barrels, seeds, etc.; weekly lessons on techniques; daily camps for children)
5. Get the City’s leaders (governmental, non-profit, foundational, religious, educational, etc.) to acknowledge this is a major problem and get them to contribute their money & time to systemic solutions
6. Improve transportation access to healthful food centers, especially in winter.
7. Train future farmers who can rebuild the region into a diverse food production system.

Connecting the dots:
(1), (2) & (3) could be done through a Food Hub. We need to return to this solution; not sure why we stopped that push.
(4) is happening at various venues but they all need more volunteers and small monetary contributions to strengthen and we need new venues and supplies
(5) needs to be asked (or demanded)
(6) has been discussed by various groups but more push needs to happen to clarify how this can be best accomplished (perhaps, better bus routes, food distribution truck, neighborhood food stores, etc.)
(7) needs support of local extension offices, Community colleges, school districts, etc.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Ottumwa, Iowa (2.5 hours west of here) started a Food Hub downtown just last year and it is booming (link). Chad Summers launched Healthy Harvest Urban Farms & Organic Garden Center (link) in East Moline just a few years ago (and it has been so popular that he will be opening a second store in Rock Island)! There is the Food Coop that just opened in Macomb (link). There is a new healthful food store, The Butter Churn, in Woodhull (link). The list goes on and on. Let’s make something happen here in G’Burg!

a “can” or at least a “maybe”

One of the more frustrating things about being a community activist is the number of people that tell you and others what can’t be done or why X is not possible or won’t work. I’m all for a “reality check” and no question I am a bit too optimistic about things sometimes. However, the core of my frustration stems not from people who have taken new ideas seriously but those that either flippantly reject them out of hand or offer none of their own.

From my vantage point, humanity is in a very precarious position. A good number of people in my community don’t disagree with this sentiment. However, where we tend to disagree is how we should go about doing something in response to it. I tend to want to act more than think deeply and others prefer thinking deeply first. I am comfortable with this continuum and actually think diversity of thought is something we should value rather than extinguish. However, diversity of thought doesn’t mean that negativity (or, worse, fatalism) should trump positivity, optimism, or “out of the box” thinking, most of the time.

Einstein is famous for saying many things, but perhaps the most relevant to this conversation are his definition for “insanity”: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” and his related insight, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” We have created lots of problems in the last two centuries and many ecological systems are at their “boiling” point. We have to begin thinking differently and doing things differently.

Spend some time watching how people interact with each other and how often people will “shoot down” someone’s new idea. This mentality is so pervasive we often do it to ourselves as a reflex action. Self-censorship is off the charts. I hear it from my colleagues and friends, who say things like, “it is too risky to say X or Y,” “it might identify me as M or N,” “I might be wrong.” In this cultural environment, isn’t it time to say what we think and feel and be open to honest responses? And, isn’t also time to listen to others more fully, especially those that are trying desperately to make things better before criticizing them or their ideas. Perhaps, a simple, “maybe, that seems plausible” or “perhaps that can work” will be that contribution that keeps us moving where we haven’t been.

out of sight

Most of us know that terrible things are done on our behalf each and every day. These awful deeds may come at the expense of the our food which, if meat, probably comes from animals living in concentrated feeding operations (CAFOs) where they are pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones on a daily basis, or, if vegetables and fruits, probably come from farms where the laborers are grossly underpaid, overworked and exposed to harmful chemicals broadly sprayed by industrial agriculture techniques (farm workers have poverty rates double other paid workers) (ref 1, ref 2). They could come from the clothes we wear, many which are made in factories here or abroad where workers are treated horribly and suffer many human rights abuses (ref 3). They also come by way of our ubiquitous use of electronics. Nearly all electronic devices that transmit Wi-Fi (which includes phones, video games, and computers) have a metal alloy called coltan in them. Sadly much of this rare metal comes from regions of the world mired in war and conflict (such as The Congo), which the valuable resource has largely exacerbated (ref 4). And every time we use energy, in virtually every form it comes in, whether its source be fossil fuel or renewable (e.g., in solar panels that are increasingly made in China), large amounts of toxic material is produced and many humans are abused. (The Story of Stuff puts a lot of this into perspective: the Book & the Videos).

Not a fun paragraph to read, was it? Well, if all this harm is being done on our behalf, especially those of us fortunate enough to live affluently, why aren’t more of us doing anything about it? Many answers come to mind but the most telling may be that the bulk of the harm done is done “out of sight,” somewhere far from us. I believe that humans are moral beings. Most of us are not intentionally and purposefully doing harm to others. We wouldn’t. Most of us would be sick to our stomachs if we were forced to live this way. Wouldn’t we? Perhaps this is why when presented with “facts” that implicate us, and our lifestyles, we ignore them or get defensive. This creates a real existential problem then. The people that need to change (us) to make the world more humane aren’t willing to accept responsibility for the damage being done. So what can we do about it?

This blog is largely dedicated to exploring answers to this question but I think the first step for everyone is to familiarize themselves with the various “pains” created by our way of life. This knowledge can be very liberating. It motivates us to do something to make others’ (and by extension our own) lives better. This revelation is extremely eye-opening for many. And many of us definitely recognize this. Consider how many people in your community donate/volunteer 100’s of hours a year for the greater good! We do get greater satisfaction from intrinsic rewards even though our culture (especially that component that is trying to sell us something or another) puts so much emphasis on extrinsic ones (ref 5). So by knowing more about the true impacts of our lives and, then, intentionally acting to make them more humane, we can all begin to heal and feel better all the while.