11 August 2010

What To Eat...

Lately I've found myself becoming a bit anxious when it's time to make dinner (or any meal for that matter) and this morning I decided it might be time to ponder this anxiety and perhaps put it to rest, or at least come to a better understanding. So much of my time is allocated to deciding what to buy, when to eat it, how to cook it, how to serve it, and who in my household enjoys which food.

It then extends beyond these simple questions to how it was grown, where it was grown, whether or not it's actually in season, the possible pesticide residue, the footprint (energy, carbon, water, environmental impact, chemical residues from fertilizer and pesticides). It's enough to make a person catatonic with indecision. Our current society is unfortunately the first society to ask these necessary questions. We're the guinea pigs. Some of us grew up asking these questions, and learning the answers, but a lot of us don't know where to start, and often feel overwhelmed.

Sometimes I think life would be a lot simpler if my local grocery store only carried local crops grown in THIS season. Sure, I'd have less choices, but sometimes that's actually a good thing.

20 May 2010

Too Clean

There's the old saying that a little bit of dirt is good for you. Turns out that's actually true. Studies are now showing that our desire for a totally sterile freakishly clean living environment could be causing problems down the line, leading to immunological problems, and ultimately allergies, asthma, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases. The WSJ has an excellent article on the subject.

Over the past decade I've observed a change in cleaning products, as well as an explosion of new brands and advertising claims. The main selling points these days seem to be one of two things: "Now kills XX% of germs!" or "Biodegradable and phosphate free! Unscented! Hypoallergenic!"

As a kid I remember cleaning products being simpler. Granted they contained things we now know to be toxic and dangerous. But this preoccupation with sterilizing our surroundings seems to have gone a bit overboard, and is now endangering the health of the next generation. Another dimension to this problem is the prevalence of antibiotics used in soaps, shampoos, body washes, hand gels, and of course in our food (a Grist article details the food issue nicely). We are a nation of clean freaks, but our penchant for being beyond squeaky clean (perhaps screamingly clean?) has given rise to two distinct problems: a lack of dirtiness which later causes disease, and the rise of the resistant super bacteria which ALSO causes disease. Double trouble.

On a More Personal Note

I'm almost finished putting in the garden, and will soon be growing far more vegetables than my partner and I can reasonably eat (so I'll be giving a lot away to the rest of my family). My partner is also involved in a sustainability project for a university class, and has decided to build a chicken tractor from recycled materials. To make it even better, the tools we're using were checked out from the North Portland Tool Library (rather than buying everything ourselves). Saves money AND everything gets re-used week after week. We make an effort to be sustainable in our everyday life. But all of this has really gotten me thinking...

What does it REALLY mean to be sustainable?

I'll tell you what it means: everything in your life must be one hundred percent recyclable, and all energy used must be one hundred percent renewable.

And why is this the ONLY way to be sustainable? Because if we create anything that cannot be recycled, using non-renewable energy, we lose. We lose the matter used in the items creation, we lose the energy used to create it, we lose the mass used to create the energy. We lose these things, and if they come back around at all, it will be in a form we likely cannot utilize. At some point, we will run out of matter. We will carve up our planet in search of resources which we will transform into wondrous things, resources which will never return to their natural state, and will forever be lost to us.

Our planet is a finite thing. Get that through your head.
Finite. Limited. Fixed. Restricted. Determinate.

Stop pretending our world is endless.

14 April 2010

Urban Density

If we all lived in an urban density that equaled that of Brooklyn (something many people would consider perfectly livable) the entire population of the US would fit into the state of New Hampshire, approximately 9,000 square miles. Wait... what?

Yes, 300 million people would fit in the fifth smallest state, with room left over for a lot of parks.  If we tweaked the shape of this 9,000 square miles into an actual square shape, it would measure about 95 miles on a side.

Yes, 95 miles.

So the farthest we'd live from anyone would be 95 miles. A two hour drive, maybe three in rush hour traffic. You could bike anywhere, walk anywhere, take the subway or the bus anywhere. What would this world be like? Would people actually know their neighbors names? Would we walk to work, and take a stroll in the evening? Would we take pride in our homes, and our parks? Make an effort to keep our streets clean?

Expecting people to be willing to make such drastic changes may be too optimistic, but it demonstrates how little space we really need to live. A radical idea, but one that can inspire change.

09 March 2010

Nationalism Fades

Our world is increasingly interconnected through financial mechanisms, language, and the spread of consumption oriented , so-called "American" culture. The 1940's, and World War 2, saw the peak of nationalism, an identity given to a nation by its people, composed of ideas and ideals. Since that time nationalism has declined steadily, perhaps because the lines have been blurred between countries, and between nations and corporations. Many governments have become disconnected from the common citizen, and civilians find themselves disenchanted with their leaders and promises of change and prosperity.

Increasingly in the last decade the blurring of lines has led to a rise of globalism in place of nationalism. Citizens who identify themselves with a global community and stand in solidarity with those in other countries. The idea of the state has become almost outmoded due to the inextricable linking of national economies. The fall of a single country now ripples throughout the world and can cause economies on the other side of the world to dip or even crash. With the lines disappearing the average citizen has only one recourse, to join their voice with others in defense of their rights and their freedom, regardless of borders and nationalities.

Corporations and governments, by their actions, have given rise to this movement, and yet it is exactly this movement that becomes their greatest obstacle, and may eventually be their downfall.

11 February 2010

Real Profit or Deferred Loss?

How do we as the public differentiate between true profit and a deferred loss when it comes to large corporations? Their complexity coupled with the lack of transparency (defended through the mechanism of proprietary information) prevents the public from understanding their true workings. When the true story comes out it's usually far too late to raise any objections. Lets take a look at a short example.

For simplicity, lets look at a mining operation. This is an industry which directly affects the environment in which it operates. Corporation X owns and operates a copper mine in Montana. They have a large body of law they must obey, including environmental, financial, and labor regulations. They operate the mine for ten years, reporting a profit of fifty million dollars a year. After ten years they decide the remaining ore is not profitable, and they sell the mine to another corporation who thinks they might be able to make a profit.

Sounds good right? Capitalism at work. Jobs are created, profit is accrued, shareholders increase their wealth. Raw materials are provided to the world economy. Good work! But wait... maybe the story doesn't end.

Corporation X moves on, and the new owner, corporation Y, takes ownership of the mine. The bad news starts to roll in. During the last ten years environmental regulations were ignored. Lead and arsenic taints the water table, the tailings from ore processing have been dumped in the river reducing the fish population by up to 90% and causing sediment buildup, and erosion around the mining site has stripped the surrounding area of massive amounts of topsoil. Corporation Y applies for Superfund status to help clean up the area, arguing that the problem isn't their fault and they shouldn't be forced to foot the bill. Now the federal government steps in and uses taxpayer dollars to begin the cleanup. Costs climb as more and more problems are unearthed and the full extent of the damage is realized.

The original owner made five hundred million in profit over ten years. The cleanup costs reach a total of six hundred million.  Now we begin to see the real picture. If they had obeyed the laws, and conducted their business properly, they would not have been profitable at all. Now we see that what I refer to as a deferred loss. Adding insult to injury, the profit was made at the taxpayers expense. It is also called an externality: a cost of business is shifted outside the corporation so that someone else must foot the bill.

In many businesses externalities are built-in, such as raw material providers. Someone else must pay the price, whether it is environmental, financial, or social. This begs the question: how much of reported profit is truly profit, and how much is deferred losses?

27 January 2010

Standard of Living

It's a phrase that is often used in debates and arguments, to support or decry changes in laws, or proposed legislation. Sometimes people believe our standard of living will go up, while others believe it will drop. Problem is, no one really agrees on what 'standard of living' means. It's pretty subjective, and varies according to personal values and beliefs. Yes, there some factors that are pretty much universal. Food and water supply, a roof over your head, and maybe conveniences like electricity and private bathrooms.

Supposedly the US has one of the highest standards of living anywhere in the world! GO US! But how do we measure that? What's the baseline? What criteria do we use?

We could start with healthcare. Medical technology and medicine in the US is arguably very advanced and continues to be researched and developed. Score a point for standard of living. But that's pretty one-dimensional isn't it? How about coverage? Woops. Not so good. A lot of citizens don't have ANY insurance, and a lot more are underinsured. Even the ones who DO have insurance often get denied, and end up paying expenses out of pocket. And healthcare prices are skyrocketing, far faster than the inflation rate. Thus while we have very advanced healthcare, the cost is beyond most peoples means, making the availability pretty bad. We could say that in terms of healthcare, our standard of living is great... but only for some people.

Another classic factor is food. It seems the US would rank pretty high here too. We have plenty of food. Too much even. And it's cheap. So cheap that one third of our country is overweight, and one third is obese. No lack of food here! But again, that's pretty one-dimensional. Quantity isn't the only consideration. Quality matters, and we're not doing so great there. Most school lunch programs serve extremely high calorie foods with low nutritional density. Prepackaged meals heavy with sodium, fat, and cholesterol. Often the cheapest foods in grocery stores are also the least nutritious. The availability of organic foods, although increasing, is still very low. Additionally because of economies of scale, organics are typically significantly more expensive. Add to this the fact that most inner-city neighborhoods don't even HAVE a grocery store, and residents buy most of their food from so-called "convenience" stores at much higher prices. Looks like our standard of living when it comes to food is also a mixed bag. Great for some, terrible for others. You could argue that lack of starvation is a big plus, and I'd agree. But killing yourself slowly through bad nutrition and obesity isn't exactly an improvement, and actually ends up costing our country far more than if we'd simply dropped dead right away.

Well, that's two major factors with a severely mixed outcome. What about housing? Another oops. This one doesn't even require explanation does it? Homelessness, gentrification, relegation of lower income households to run-down neighborhoods, astronomical prices for city housing, suburban sprawl, and best of all the mortgage meltdown. The upside? Gated communities, expensive high-rise apartments close to urban centers, vacation homes, rural developments for the rich, and McMansions. Yet another mixed bag. So far our 'standard of living' is kinda shaky isn't it?

Education is often cited as the cornerstone of industrialized societies. Without it, we'd be a bunch of sheep-herders (or something). The US has a LOT of advanced education. Universities, colleges, vocational schools, you name it. Sounds pretty spiffy. But wait! K12 doesn't sound quite so grand. Schools aren't created equal. Many of them are so poor they might as well be teaching in a cave and drawing on the walls. The poorer the community, the poorer the school. Sure, YOU may have gone to a decent one, but there's also ones in such disrepair they're about to fall down, with leaking roofs, drafty windows, no modern technology, and twenty year old textbooks. If we think those kids will grow up to have the same opportunities as everyone else, we're idiots. Quality of education is definitely NOT universally high in the US. That brings us to so-called "higher education." This stuff is even MORE inaccessible. Prices are skyrocketing here too, far faster than the inflation rate. Most students these days HAVE to take out loans to get a degree, and that assumes that they qualify for one! There's a lot of factors that go into getting a school loan, not the least of which is credit history. Say what? Whether or not we can be educated depends on if we paid off our credit card on time? And for some students, especially those just out of high school, their credit history is non-existent. Couple that with the fact that until the age of 25 or so, your finances and those of your parents are inexplicably linked when it comes to figuring out how much you qualify for, and we have a system that is dysfunctional in the extreme. You want a four year degree? Prepare to be saddled with enormous debt for the following 20-30 years. Kiss the 'American Dream' goodbye. You wont be able to afford a mortgage any time soon.

To recap, the factors listed above are healthcare, food, housing, and education. Pretty solid indicators of standards of living. Arguably, we're still ahead of many third-world countries, but making a blanket statement that "the standard of living in the US is pretty good" is a crock. It varies enormously from person to person. It's time to stop tooting our own horn, and take a good hard look at what we've fooled ourselves into thinking is the greatest country on earth.

26 January 2010


In the documentary 'The Corporation', a corporate entity is explained. From a legal perspective it has all the rights pertaining to an actual person. It can purchase and own property and goods, pay taxes, and so forth. From a psychological perspective a corporation fits the profile of a psychopath. Its sole purpose is to make money. It does not concern itself with relationships, humanitarianism, or environmental issues. It does everything within its power to circumvent the law in the quest for profit, wielding its political influence to make favorable alterations to existing laws or have them dismissed entirely. It even goes so far as to ignore the law, often without consequence due to its enormous power (both political and financial). Other times it must pay a fine or restitution, which it simply counts as the cost of doing business.

In all of this, there's something that's often overlooked. I stated it above, and I will do so again: the sole purpose of a corporation is to make money.

Because this is its purpose, it cannot take any action which will knowingly diminish its worth or profits. It MUST act in the interests of its shareholders, even if those actions are detrimental to anything outside the corporation. If there is no law against it, the corporation will do it if it can benefit from it. It does not have a conscience. It does not feel emotion. It has no guilt, no remorse, no love, no pain, no happiness. It has all the rights of a person, without any humanity.

The corporation is also the largest and strongest force in the world for inequality. Due to its structure, money that is acquired by the corporation is funneled upwards to the top tiers, consisting of a handful of individuals who grow obscenely rich. Due to its drive for profit it finds every possible way to replace human with machine, to remove responsibilities from employees so less pay can be justified, to extract as much effort as possible from every employee regardless of the consequences. These things are all logical when you remember that its purpose is profit. But the inequality goes beyond the corporation itself. It uses its political and financial power to negotiate relationships which are as beneficial as possible to itself, regardless of the damage to others. If the law allows it, the corporation will do it. If the laws HERE don't allow it, the corporation will go somewhere else. Is this beginning to sound familiar?

Our cheap and abundant lifestyle exists due to corporations. Entities so large and powerful that they can dictate the actions of governments and control entire markets. Entities which willingly destroy in order to grow. Environmental, social, and financial responsibilities are of no concern. In embracing the modern corporation, we are destroying ourselves, our communities, our environment, and our economy. And all without any apparent consequence to the psychopath and its rich cohorts.

23 January 2010

Extreme Living

In writing this blog I have been forced to formulate new questions and ideas, and consider issues that, while on my radar, were not high on my list of priorities. With each new post my position on issues has solidified. This post goes further into the subject of sustainability and feasibility.

The big question I want to ask is this: just because we can live somewhere, should we? It's been asked many times before, in many different ways, with many different answers. But it seems to me that if we're going to continue as a species (feasibility) and not destroy our environment (sustainability) then the answer would be a straightforward no.

Extreme living, my title for this post, doesn't refer to places like Antarctica or the Mojave Desert, where resources essential for life are virtually non-existent. It refers to our tendency to settle and develop any area that is marginally habitable with the assistance of modern infrastructure.

Let's take Houston, Texas for an example. It's a big city. As of the 2008 census it had a population of 2.2 million, not including outlying areas such as Galveston. Yet, it's a singularly unpleasant place to live, and for most residents it would be intolerable without air conditioning. It sits only several feet above sea level, and the water table is literally a few feet below the surface. The humidity is uncomfortably high year-round. When it rains, there is standing water for days. The mosquito population is enormous, and requires pesticide spraying after rainstorms. Fire ant mounds dot the landscape. It is easily threatened by storm surges and hurricanes.

So why is it such an enormous city? The answer is business. It has a large port, and sits in the middle of a rich oil field. From the shores of the city one can see many drilling rigs dotting the Gulf of Mexico. This is the justification for its existence. Once the oil reserves run dry, will the city dry up as well, much as Detroit did when the steel industry disappeared?

Houston at least has a reason to exist, and a lucrative one at that. Lets turn out attention to another city which has a population of 1.5 million. Phoenix, Arizona. This city also owes its existence to air conditioning, as well as the ability to deliver water from far flung sources. For approximately a third of the year the daytime temperatures go above 100 degrees F. The area receives an average of about 8 inches of rain per year. It has little redeeming agricultural value in the current economy due to non-competitive levels of operating costs. It has switched in part to tourism to support the economy, as well as encouraging high tech companies to relocate due to low cost of living.

Despite its continued survival, and even growth, this city requires resources and practices well above and beyond those in more temperate climates. For all intents and purposes, it is a desert settlement. It requires far more water than nature provides to the area, as well as large amounts of electricity for constant cooling of all buildings. Due to the extremely arid climate common food crops cannot be grown locally, thus forcing all food to be brought in from farther afield.

All of this begs the question. Should cities such as these be encouraged? Should we, as responsible and culpable members of our species, voluntarily participate in their existence, despite their overwhelming (and sometimes disproportionate) use of resources? Resources which often are taken from the areas where they naturally occur, and diverted hundreds or even thousands of miles? Can we argue that they are necessary due to population growth, when so many more hospitable areas are left untouched?

Maybe that's the real sticking point. Maybe we need to stop for a moment and question our apparent need to continually increase our population. In other species, nature has checks and balances to constrain a population. With our current level of technology we have managed to remove those checks and balances. It may be that there truly are too many of us, and that this will be the cause of our demise. Because we can is not, and has never been, a valid or logical argument.

19 January 2010

A Svalbard for Knowledge

Norway has constructed an excellent facility known as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It's purpose is to store plant seeds in case of global disaster, disease, or other mishap, in which case we'll have a backup of the seed to replant.

Something similar for knowledge might be a good idea. Wikipedia is a great resource, but is it secure? Not secure from attack. Secure from destruction. Are there multiple copies located at sites around the world to ensure its survival? I can't answer yes or no to those questions, because I don't know. But the questions are almost moot when approached from a different angle. If we lose the ability to access the site, we effectively lose the technology.

Ogelthorpe University, on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia is home to what is known as The Crypt. It is a time capsule which will, theoretically, be opened on 8133 CE. Inside it contains microfilm with enormous amounts of information. But it also contains the device necessary to read this film, as well as backups of the film on metal plates. The current sum of knowledge of mankind has not been aggregated in a single body of work. Wikipedia goes a long way to addressing this issue, and is by far our largest concentration of digital information. But if civilization loses the ability to access digital information, the knowledge is rendered useless. It may be time to start planning a vault of knowledge, with the utmost care taken to ensure that future generations will be capable not only of entering this vault, but of accessing the information stored within.

16 January 2010

Will We Continue to Evolve?

The well known phrase "survival of the fittest" refers to evolution. Individuals that develop beneficial traits through mutation survive, while individuals who lack beneficial traits (or worse who possess traits which handicap them) die off. In the long run the beneficial traits are spread throughout the species. An ongoing process that weeds out undesirable mutations and strengthens the population.

But will humans continue to evolve? We are no longer subject to survival of the fittest. Our environment does not kill off mutations which hinder rather than help. Medical technology can save some of the most ridiculously unhealthy individuals. Cancer, heart disease, major food allergies, respiratory problems. All of these are on the rise. Some of it is directly linked to the American lifestyle. But these problems are also appearing in nations which do not share our lack of exercise and penchant for too much food.

Each time medicine saves someone with a disease, either hereditary or contracted, we give that individual a chance to procreate, to pass on genes that are more susceptible to such diseases. With nature unable to checkmate such mutations, these genes spread throughout our population. This begs two important questions. With our environment no longer weeding out bad mutations, will we evolve any further? But more importantly, because we protect even the sickest of our society, will we begin to roll back our evolution? Will we end up as a civilization of sickly individuals inextricably dependent on science and medicine in order to simply survive long enough to procreate and create the next diseased generation?