“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.

the “efficiency” trap and RE’s benefits

Efficiency is an overused/misused concept. It is just a measure of the closeness to maximum energy exchange of a process. So when you burn coal, the best modern engineering can extract from this “burn” is ~33% (given conventional systems) because to get “electricity” (the energy we want) from the coal we have to create steam which then spins a turbine (and in each step there are losses in conversion). Geothermal systems are actually less efficient in converting heat to electricity (see article, ref 1; though much more efficient in extracting heat, as in, geothermal heat pumps which are much better than conventional gas-powered furnaces). And solar arrays are in the same ball park as geothermal systems with efficiencies of ~15-20%.

However, the big difference between the coal and the others is the fact that while the sun provides us light for free and the Earth provides us heat for free (24/7 as well), the coal comes by way of extraction from distant areas. (Solar photovoltaic panels and geothermal components require the extraction of materials from distant lands as well, but once this initial extraction is done and manufacturing is completed, they operate for 25+ years.) Also, sun and Earth heat will continue into the distant future while coal is limited in quantity (as it takes too long to replenish). Additionally, when one burns coal, waste products are produced, many which are quite toxic to humans and life, most notably, mercury, PAHs and sulfur dioxide (ref 2).

Thus, while efficiencies of renewable energy forms may be less efficient than fossil fuel forms, the key benefits derived from RE’s are:
(1) the pollution created in using them (over a 25-year cycle) is so much less;
(2) the RE energy sources are on-site (or close by) at the point of use;
(3) the RE sources are plentiful and renewable.

Additionally, and importantly, given the nature of geopolitics right now, RE resources also create more jobs (ref 3) and can be more decentralized (which allows people to have more control over their operation and production; I say “can” because this requires forethought and intentionality regarding democratic input and collective ownership, something still missing from most RE installations).

Given all of these benefits (here is the Union of Concerned Scientists’ take on these, ref 4), investors are finally taking notice in a big way and, as expressed best by a recent (April 2016) Bloomberg article, “Wind and Solar are Crushing Fossil Fuels” (ref 5). So, don’t be squeamish at all advocating vehemently for RE creation/expansion in your neighborhood/community. Everything is now on the side of RE (economics, environmental concerns, and social/health factors). The time is right, to “flip the switch.”


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.


Is it okay to cry? Obviously yes, right? Well, I am not talking about crying when you’ve lost someone close to you (sorrow) or you suffer some horrendous fall (pain), I am talking about crying in more mundane circumstances. Over the past 15+ years, I have noticed that when I speak about the Earth and its humans and the incredible opportunities for advancement that lay before us, I often tear up and have difficulty speaking. It also happens when I hear others speak about similar topics with passion and optimism. Is this okay?

Obviously yes, right? Well, not so fast. I have noticed that many of my male friends and even some female ones will criticize others when they see them becoming too emotional about things. LeBron James cried when he won the NBA Championship for Cleveland, Ohio last month. Impassioned mothers and fathers cry when they articulate a better future for their children and community. Aren’t these okay responses?

After some thought, I think I have decided that it is not only okay to cry but that we had better begin to do it more often. If we care about something, some of us may be brought to cry about it. This is okay, very okay. In fact, reason (mind) alone will not bring us to where we need to go as a culture. In fact, much of the “reason” out there today is only taking us backwards. We will need some emotion (heart) as well. We need a balance of the masculine and the feminine. (Nina Simons is one of the best at articulating this, link) We all have some of both in us. We can become fuller humans by opening up both elements within us. Let’s recognize this, within us and within others. Let’s shed a few tears together.