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.

crying

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.

only two problems?

If we could solve only one problem, which problem should it be?
This is a question that I often get asked and it is one that I have pondered on my own as well. It presupposes that there is one problem that, if solved, could lead directly to the solution of other problems. Well, I haven’t figured what that one problem is, but I can tell you that if we solve two problems, we’d be well on our way to tackling most human challenges.

What must you do, each and every day? Eat food and drink water. So, assuming that these things were provided to you, you could get on with your “life.” What else would you need? Well, obviously, shelter of some kind. Would that be enough? Water, food and shelter may be enough to live, but there are other things that have become part of our “civilized” human condition. Most importantly among them is energy. We need energy to survive and to live a modern lifestyle requires quite a bit of it—to run our refrigerators, our computers, our water heaters, our cars and lawn mowers. Clearly, any future that looks anything like the present would require sufficient amounts of energy.
Here is the rub. Despite the fact that at least a billion people on Earth have sufficient access to food, water, and energy, many more do not. And while that is horrible situation (and how can we celebrate everyday things when so many go without, especially when there isn’t really any good reason why they don’t), the question I would like to examine here is, “How key are food and energy to our collective present and future?”

Clearly, if nearly a billion people on Earth suffer from chronic malnutrition (ref 1), “we have a problem Houston.” Obviously, every effort imaginable should be made to make sure that this problem is eradicated. A comparable but less recognized evil is the energy poverty that exists in the world today. Without basic allotments of energy, many people around the world cannot satisfy basic needs, such as, cooking food, heating/cooling their homes, or perform important tasks at night; consider that 1.4 Billion people do not have access to electricity (ref 2). Even in places where some energy is available for such things, it is often dangerous (e.g., kerosene) or detrimental to local environments (e.g., firewood). Without sufficient food or energy, more than 1,000,000,000 people suffer unduly.

Obtaining food and energy isn’t just an issue for those that don’t have much of them but also to those that live in areas where food and energy is plentifully produced but improperly distributed. How much current conflict in the world is due to “resource wars”? As these two sources indicate (ref 3, ref 4), many (if not most) of the conflicts occurring right now have strong drivers in resource shortages. And these shortages are not getting alleviated much because the current unbalanced distribution is due to the increased commodification (and profit obtained) of these resources. And sadly, the $1.4+ trillion dollars spent each year on militaries (largely to protect/secure these resources) creates a huge financial well that leaves very little left for other critical needs (such as education, health care, etc.).

In closing then, if we were able to tackle the food and energy problems, we would likely be on our way to solving most of the world’s current problems. We have enough (to be clarified in an upcoming BLOG), we just must begin to share what we have and look at each other as “brothers and sisters” rather than enemies.

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.

Top 10 List: Non-fiction books

(Every 10th blog or so, I will offer a Top 10 list of different sorts. Every such list will leave off many items but that comes with the territory. If you see something more worthy, please share it. I’d love to see people offer their top 10 lists as well! The lists will be organized in reverse order to add some excitement. Drumroll, please.)

10. Mismeasure of Man (Stephen J. Gould, 1981)
How could the leading scientists of the most pre-eminent institutions in the world spend so much time trying to prove that human intelligence was racially determined (with “whites” on top of course)? And how twisted their “scientific” methodologies had to become in order for them to appear rational and justified. Gould clarifies that scientists are not inherently objective and that preconceptions of how they want to see the world (i.e., prejudices) often drive their research. We need to remember this and always be cautious and scrutinizing when accepting scientific claims about such controversial issues as health/diet, chemicals in the environment, and cell phones and GMOs. Always find out who the source is and where their paychecks (or ideological commitments) come from.

9. When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution (Devra Davis, 2003)
Stemming from a major pollution episode in her hometown in 1948, Dr. Davis went on to become a leading world scientist who feels compelled to tell us the “story” key environmentally-driven challenges (here air pollution; in other books, cancer and cell phones). This book clearly and definitively establishes how dangerous it is to continue pouring billions of pounds of known hazardous chemicals into the Earth’s atmosphere each year. Through her detailed 20th Century historical analysis, Davis introduces us to many heroes/sheroes that often have been overlooked in our history (people like, Lester Lave, Herbert Needleman, Mary Amdur, Mario Molina, etc.). They give us hope and direction despite the devastation.

8. The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (David George Haskell, 2013)
Ever want to walk into the woods with a tour guide who could explain to you to all that you see or expose you to things that evade your neophyte lens? Well, if so, then Haskell is the person you want to have. Each short chapter captivates and introduces you to so many interconnections of life, matter, and science, you’ll be spinning and pining to go traipsing through the forest as soon as the book hits the table.

7. EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want (Frances Moore Lappé, 2011, link)
Let’s face it. Humanity needs a new mindset. Fortunately, Lappe has brought us one to share! In this book of just over 200 pages, Lappe covers an amazing landscape of “mindsets” that have gone wrong and offers viable antidotes to all of them. If you need a philosophical pick-me-up, look no further!

6. The Shock Doctrine (Naomi Klein, 2008, link)
Planned chaos (“shock”) serves as a perfect environment for power-hungry government organizations and corporations (often working together) to enact all types of anti-democratic and draconian policies. And to think that this strategic ploy is ground in world class psychological analysis developed in our world’s top ivory towers. Makes you wonder what is being planned for us now? Klein’s critical work prepares us to respond to current and future “shocks.”

5. Living Downstream (Sandra Steingraber, 1998 (updated in 2010), link)
I picked this book up by accident during a trip to the Univ. of Chicago back in the early 2000s. Was I in for a surprise—a true masterpiece. Steingraber, the modern version of Rachel Carson, puts the state of humanity vis-à-vis the tens of thousands of toxic chemicals that we pour into our “streams” into digestible chunks. She doesn’t only provide us the most poignant and well-researched account but also shares viable solutions, such as “reverse onus” and the “precautionary principle.” A movie was made of Steingraber’s life and the research presented in this book. Also, be sure to check out: Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood (2001) and Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis (2011). With all this knowledge present in her mind and heart, Steingraber has become one of the leading activists resisting fracking and other threats to our future.

4. The Long Haul: An Autobiography (Myles Horton, 1998)
A plainly written book without a lot of flash, but with insight after insight about how we can work together to move forward. Based on Myles’ work founding and working in the Highlander Folk School in eastern Tennessee, where Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer and Martin Luther King, Jr. spent considerable time, we are exposed to simple lessons of about humanity and working collectively. Revolutionary concepts, such as “popular education” and “nonviolent protest,” were taught through educational workshops where people of all persuasions could work together (unheard of back in the 1920s-1950s in the South) under a common purpose. Myles is a teacher we all should have had and thanks to this book, we can!

3. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature (Janine Benyus, 1997 (updated in 2008), link)
Bioneers (the amazing organization) introduced me to Benyus, her amazing work and the revolutionary potential of biomimicry. Folks, the way of the future is to live with nature not to continue to manipulate, dominate, or even destroy it. If we humans are going to survive on this planet of 3-30 million species, we are going to have to learn how to get along with them. And what better way that by mimicking them. Yes, as simple as it sounds, animals, plants, fungi and even microorganisms have a lot to teach us, as long as we are humble enough to listen and learn from them. We are one of the youngest species on Earth; our organic neighbors have been here a lot longer. And they are here because they have learned to “get along.” They have solved most of the problems we are facing, e.g., “how to extract nutrients,” “how to obtain water and energy,” and “how to live without producing dangerous waste.” Janine’s masterpiece sets us on this journey with endless possibilities. If you haven’t heard of Biomimicry before, watch this video and then read Benyus’ book! You definitely won’t regret it!

1 (Tie). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Michelle Alexander, 2011, link)
Most of us realize that the deck is stacked against many of our brothers and sisters right now. And this propels us to be kind and supportive to them and, for some, activates a bit more energy and willingness to struggle. But, with the detailed account provided by Dr. Alexander, we will realize that our kindness, humanity, and struggle has been far from enough in this time of tremendous need. In many respects, things are worse now for our kin than they were 40+ years ago. Prisons (increasingly privatized to make money) are swelling and new ones are being built in neighborhoods where “math test scores” are the lowest (as the “state” and profit-seeking prison corporations recognize that this is a top indicator of where criminality will be bread and are accepting of (or, worse, “licking their chops” at) this future for far too many of our “children of color.”). Drug laws are racist. Our criminal justice system only punishes and rarely heals or prepares inmates for a healthy life once they have served their time. The list goes on and on. Given that so many (in some cases 50% of men in urban neighborhoods) are destined to be behind bars (something that makes prison investors quite happy), we need to trace the history of how we got here and what we can do about it. There will not be must environmental justice worth its efforts until we can treat our own more humanely. Alexander’s masterpiece couldn’t have come any sooner.

1 (Tie). Making Peace with the Planet (Barry Commoner, 1992)
Honestly, this book probably set my career as an environmental teacher and scholar, hence it is difficult not to make it share the top spot on my list; thanks Dad for purchasing it for me. Commoner’s logic about the foolishness of technological determinism and his historical anecdotes about seemingly small decisions (e.g., whether the automobile industry would promote the sale of small efficient cars or gas-guzzling, masculine machines of power; guess who won?) gone seriously wrong still resonate with me. A thinker before his time but one that never stopped thinking (he was writing ecological tomes and renewable energy white papers 20-30 years earlier). In the end, the title says it all. It could be a mission that we all adopt. What a world that would be. Really!

Others just missing the cut but still amazing, in chronological order (HR = Haven’t read but highly acclaimed):

Principia (Isaac Newton, 1687)
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Frederick Douglass, 1845)
On the Origin of the Species (Charles Darwin, 1859)
A Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold, 1949)
Notes of a Native Son (James Baldwin, 1955)
The Other America: Poverty in the United States (Michael Harrington, 1962, HR)
Silent Spring (Rachel Carson, 1962)
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas Kuhn, 1962)
Why We Can’t Wait (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)
The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Malcolm X, 1965)
Against Interpretation (Susan Sontag, 1966, HR)
The Double Helix (James D Watson, 1968)
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (Dee Brown, 1970)
Our Bodies, Ourselves (Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, 1970)
The Lorax (Dr. Seuss, 1971)
The People’s History of the United States (Howard Zinn, 1980)
A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking, 1988)
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Edward Herman & Noam Chomsky, 1988)
The Beauty Myth (Naomi Wolf, 1990)
The Ecology of Commerce (Paul Hawken, 1993)
“Racial” Economy of Science (ed. Sandra Harding, 1993)
Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (1995), My Ishmael (1998) & Beyond Civilization (2000) (Daniel Quinn)
The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices (Brower & Leon, 1998)
The Carbon War (Jeremy Leggett, 1999)
Development as Freedom (Amartya Sen, 1999)
No Logo (Naomi Klein, 1999)
Hungry For Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food and the Environment (eds. Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster & Frederick H. Buttel, 2000)
The Legacy of Luna (Julia Butterfly Hill, 2000)
Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser, 2001)
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Barbara Ehrenreich, 2001)
Tales from the Underground (David Wolfe, 2001)
Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability (David Holmgren, 2002)
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (John Perkins, 2004)
Crimes Against Nature (Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., 2005)
Stop the Next War Now (eds. Medea Benjamin & Jodie Evans, 2005)
Escaping the Matrix: how We the People can change the world (Richard Moore, 2005-6)
Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders and the People Who Fight Back (Amy Goodman & David Goodman, 2006)
The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (Naomi Wolf, 2007)
Manifestos on the Future of Food & Seed (Vandana Shiva, 2007)
Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan, 2007)
Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice (David Pellow, 2007
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver, 2008)
Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World (Paul Hawken, 2008)
Give Me Liberty (Naomi Wolf; 2008)
Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives (Edwin Black, 2008)
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Richard Louv, 2008)
Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth (David Korten, 2009)
The Green Collar Economy (Van Jones, 2009)
Half the Sky (Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn, 2009)
Stuffed and Starved (Raj Patel, 2009)
Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation (Devra Davis, 2010)
eaarth (Bill McKibben, 2012)
The Story of Stuff (Annie Leonard, 2010)
The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age (Richard Louv, 2011)
Too Many People? (Ian Angus & Simon Butler, 2011)
Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores (Greg Palast, 2011)
Everything Under the Sun: Toward a Brighter Future on a Small Blue Planet (David Suzuki, 2012)
The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (Grace Lee Boggs, 2012)
Local Dollars, Local Sense (Michael Shuman, 2012)
What Has Nature Ever Done For Us (Tony Juniper, 2013)
The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert, 2014, HR)
The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance (William McDonough & Michael Braungart, 2014)
Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015)
Runaway Inequality (Les Leopold, 2015, HR)
This Changes Everything (Naomi Klein, 2015)
No is Not Enough (Naomi Klein, 2017)

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!

Lincoln’s shadows

At the fourth of seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, the following was spoken, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.” So whom do you think said this? Hint, it wasn’t Douglas.

But, less than a month later, while in Galesburg during the 5th Debate, Lincoln said, “Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the Constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.”

So, which Lincoln do we know or choose to remember? Obviously, most of us learn that Lincoln was the champion for equality and eliminating slavery. We learn that he was a man who was killed because he had the courage to support such “radical” ideas during a different, less “enlightened” period in our nation’s history. Yet, in simplifying and mischaracterizing his beliefs and contributions, aren’t we making a major error, one that makes it harder to understand today’s political discourse and action as well?
Obviously, based on the two quotations provided, Lincoln was very conflicted about race and equality. He didn’t see humans as equal but at the same time he didn’t think it was right for one person to be so powerful relative to another. This is simple to understand, yet we generally don’t learn this complexity in school. Many other “great” Americans (such as Thomas Jefferson) thought that certain humans were inherently inferior and to others and this belief rationalized their superior position and privilege. This is our nation’s history. Rather than recognize it, we are too willing (or wanting) to accept the rosy and simple version of it. (For a great piece on modern slavery, check out Doyle’s article from 2006, link.)

Though it might “feel good” to publicize and celebrate the “good” beliefs/thoughts/actions of our heroes and sheroes, we do a disservice not being more honest about our history. By living with a “lily-white” version of history, we fail to understand the complexities and hypocrisies that our former (and current) leaders live with. A truer picture of our history reveals that all of our idols had/have contradictions and confusions. And, by extension, so do we. It is one of those things that comes with being human. This shouldn’t be used as an excuse to justify irrational or immoral beliefs or actions, but it does allow us to understand things as they were/are rather than glossing over disagreeable elements in our past and present.

History is formed through contestations–moral, intellectual and physical. Our predecessors made it and we are also playing a part in making it. Realizing this in light of the inconsistencies and contradictions of our historical icons might give us reason to be: (a) more inquisitive about our collective past; (b) more textured in our assessment of our nation’s success; and, (3) more willing to be self-critical about our own beliefs about important challenges we face today. With these things in mind, we should be able to be better makers of history ourselves.

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.