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.