Friday is “BND.” Celebrate it!

Based on the increased energy coming from commercials, this Friday purports to be a day of great significance. Every retailer is having a sale and what else is there to do on a Friday but shop. It seems only natural that we would buy (another) large TV or computer, or take advantage of the “incredible” discounts available at most stores. Sadly, there is something quite disturbing about this situation.

Just as we can be lured into pro-war sentiment—remember post-9/11 and the ubiquitous flags—apparently we can be persuaded quite easily to buy more stuff, particularly if we feel we are getting it for a “steal”. So, what could be wrong with this? We are going to buy new things after all, aren’t we? Why does it matter when we do it? And, definitely, we should try to get the most for our dollar, shouldn’t we?

First off, the compulsion to buy things (which we do to make us feel better, notice that the ads make consumers look cool and savvy) is an addiction. Identified by scholars as affluenza (see PBS program on topic, link), this illness is perhaps the greatest challenge we face as a humanity. Overconsumption causes tremendous problems. For every pound of waste that we “see” (for example that old working TV that is going to be put curbside because the new TV is bigger and has better graphics), it is estimated that ~80 pounds are produced upstream (see Annie Leonard’s The Story of Electronics, ref 1). And much of this upstream electronic waste is highly toxic. So, our addiction has grave consequences for the planet.

Second, our addiction is a false solution. Overconsumption doesn’t bring long term happiness. Psychological research has established that the more materialistic one is, the more unhappy he/she/they tends to be (here is a short video that clarify this, link). In this way, buying something for a pick me up is similar to taking an “upper.” At the end of the day, one feels less happy and has more stress caused by financial difficulties driven by spending money one doesn’t have; actually, substance abuse also tends to be higher for materialist people. Ultimately, we must all find more productive ways to deal with our anxieties and unhappiness. According to experts, more social interaction is highly recommended.

There are many resources for those that are looking to fight against consumerism.
Enough (link) is a group in England focused on this. Adbusters is a journal that has lots of material on the subject (link). Buy Nothing Day is this Friday, that sounds a lot better than “Black Friday,” doesn’t it? (link to Adbusters’ BND page!) So, join the anti-consumeristic movement this Friday and feel good about yourself in a way that is powerful, purposeful, and longer lasting. Let others know too, because that is how it will become the new norm. Have a great Thanksgiving everyone!

vote, but

As mentioned in my last blog, I do think that people should vote. This may come as a “no brainer” to most reading this but it’s not as simple as it looks and a more detailed inspection highlights valuable insights.

Many who argue that we are obligated to vote remind us of the thousands (if not millions) that fought and died for their/our right to vote. In fact, this is no understatement. Our nation’s history does contain innumerable examples of tremendous struggle tied to obtaining “right to vote.” Women didn’t get this fundamental right until 1920!; so much for the “Land of the Free.” Many, many women were threatened, beaten, arrested and/or worse in their struggle for suffrage. To think it took our “enlightened” nation almost 150 years of existence to provide half the population this fundamental human right is astounding; and the US took longer than most Western nations–New Zealand was the first country in the world in 1893 (if interested in other nations, visit link). While African-American men were granted the right to vote in 1870 (15th Amendment), in practical terms, most were forbidden to do so because of racist “grandfather clauses,” literacy tests, and poll taxes that existed until 1965 (see link for historical timeline); thus, a significant component of our population has only been able to vote for ~50 years. Felons and others “being watched” by state are often not able to vote. This represents unfair disenfranchisement as our criminal justice system is extremely discriminatory (see Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”).

This is a strong argument for voting but it fails to consider exactly what voting means. Most elections are “majority rules” in our nation–to the winner goes all the spoils. This greatly disenfranchises minority groups. Sadly, even today, many voices of people overlooked and undervalued are ignored. The Native Americans struggling in the Dakotas (and elsewhere) are but one such example. Since these groups rarely have the ability to impact the outcome of an election, voting doesn’t help their cause(s). Other countries have governing bodies where representation is proportional. Then at least more voices are being heard (though, perhaps, not listened to).

Most of our elections (even many local ones) see two people vying to be the lone representative of “all.” So when one votes, one must decide between these two, and only these two, people. There are many shortcomings of this characteristic—one true to the vast majority of our elections. First, typically the two people that reached the “top two” have been propelled there by corporate funded publicity, and, thus, have very pro-corporate mindsets. Let’s face it, it costs hundreds (if not thousands) of thousands of dollars to run even a statewide election. This severely limits candidates to those who are independently wealthy or “puppets” for those that have immense wealth. Second, the two people each typically represent one of the two major political parties. This is problematic because these two parties have become very pro-corporate and elitist; there are definitely exceptions to this but I am talking here about the vast majority of candidates representing these two parties. Third, having only “two” parties represented greatly limits the scope of what will be said/voiced and disseminated. We see how powerful this is in the current Presidential election. No “third party” representatives were invited to take part in the three debates (masquerades, might be a better word) that took place this year. If anyone watched the alternative debate organized by Jill Stein (it can be found online and at her Facebook page), you saw how significant having a third voice, particularly one not beholden to deep pockets and multinational corporations, can be. Interesting, there is sound evidence that the “two party” state was a natural outgrowth of the USA which was founded & organized by wealthy male landowners. These men understood the conservative nature of a “two party state,” one that gave them incredible power to control the policies and programs and any conversations held about them; see more on this in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The terrible lack of coverage of third parties by the mainstream media clarifies how culpable this potentially democratizing entity is in controlling/limiting the coverage. (As a side note, this is one major reason that the two parties spend so much of their campaigns discussing social issues (such as, abortion, drugs, crime, guns, etc.), as these issues don’t upset the apple cart of extreme economic inequality that continues to expand over the past 40+ years independent of what political party is in the White House or in control of either legislative chamber.) Fourth, having only two choices often means that there is no way to submit a protest vote (such as “None of the above”) or a “write-in” candidate. In my mind, there should always be both of these for every election. For these, and other reasons, some decide, “why vote if both candidates represent the ‘status quo’,” when real economic, environmental and health challenges only get worse.

All of this is to say, “yes, vote, but do a lot more!”; I focus on the “more” in many of my other blogs and I encourage commenters to speak their minds on this as well. I voted but I am under no illusion that by doing so I have somehow done my part to build a better world. It will take a lot of other contributions, today, tomorrow, and every day in the future; and not just by me, but by you as well. This, the illusion associated with voting, may be the greatest challenge we face. Whoever wins next month, we will have our plates full of things to do and ways to contribute. Why not start making those lists today. We definitely don’t want to be (nor do we have time to be) complacent.

proudly voted for Stein

[Note: I contribute this piece with the following caveat. The “media” has given 99% of the political coverage to the goings-on of only two presidential candidates. This is absurd in so many ways. The state in which I live is in very serious financial trouble and our media outlets should be spending at least as much time focusing on the many statewide races as they do on the national election. Also, all candidates and political parties should be given equal coverage in the media and in any debates that are held. To not do so greatly jeopardizes any sense of democracy that we supposedly have.]

Given the extremely limited media coverage given to third parties, it is important for those that think “outside the box” to express why they feel justified going against the grain and voting for a third party in this election (and in other elections). Yesterday, I proudly cast my vote for Jill Stein (& Ajamu Baraka) for president (& vice president). As there are many independent thinkers out there who may still be contemplating whom to vote for in this year’s presidential election, let me express my rationale.

In order of relevance:

(1) Jill Stein is the best candidate, hands-down. She is the best educated. She is the most rational. She has dedicated years to understanding the complexities of issues and her positions and argumentation demonstrate that she truthfully listens to the people! She came through my town nearly five years ago and she met with and dialogued with ~15 everyday people in a coffee shop for 2 hours.

(2) Jill Stein has real solutions to the many challenge we face as a nation. Let’s face it, our ways are destroying the planet, causing enormous pain and suffering on people here and abroad, and the super rich continue to steal from everyone else. This has to change. Really, it has to change and soon. To do otherwise is to continue the plunder and suffering. Hillary’s positions on energy, sustainable agriculture, and the environment are much too tempered (by the elite mindset that she existentially represents). Please read Jill Stein’s plan, here, before dismissing it as unrealistic.

(3) Jill Stein is not beholden to multi-millionaires or multi-billionaires or corporations that largely own and operate most media outlets, TV networks and magazines. This is a HUGE deal. All other viable candidates (and virtually every currently elected senator and congressperson in the U.S.) have been on the doles of these very powerful interests since they first set foot into the “democratic” political process. We have to begin voting for real people, not stooges for special interests.

(4) Jill Stein understands race and poverty so much better than the other candidates. Watching the two mainstream presidential debates (primarily for their comedic value), one located just miles from Ferguson (MO), probably the most revealing thing was the absolute ignorance with which Hillary spoke about our current racial divide. Under her husband’s command, we put more people of color into prison than ever before. We led a “drug war” that did nothing but fill jails and further impoverish communities and displace children from their parents/guardians. This pattern continues. (Please read Michelle Alexander’s amazing book entitled, The New Jim Crow (link to website), to find out how pernicious our system is in this regard.) The lack of leadership at the top of our government on these matters should give anyone pause that Hillary will do anything different than what is being done today. We need a leader that is willing to get arrested to defend the rights of oppressed peoples, as Stein and Baraka were willing to do in the Dakotas (in protest of a “profit over people” pipeline).

(5) The Greens will get significant financial support if they get 5% of the vote (read the law here). Yes, there is a very practical reason to vote Green for President this year! Just think what the Greens could do with these resources to educate the public (using social media and alternative media) about the real options that exist. Think of what message would be sent to all voters if the Greens were to have a presence in the national discussions. To think that Mr. Johnson (Libertarian) will get these federal funds and not the Greens is very, very sad; apparently, libertarians have a stronger commitment to the positions which they hold than do progressive thinkers.

(6) Jill Stein is a woman. Yes, this is important. I’d love to have a woman running the White House, but I want a woman that will truly stand up for women’s rights and won’t be converted into a testosterone-laden man in order to prove how tough she can be. A “hawk” (regardless of sex) is definitely not what we need right now in this world. As Secretary of State, Hillary has failed to represent peaceful interests in places like Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, and Palestine. She certainly won’t do so as President of the US.

(7) Jill Stein chose a real crusader for human rights as her running mate. Ajamu Baraka has a long history of work in the arena of justice and peace; read about it here. Don’t we want a vice president that is a true advocate for such important causes, not some homophobe (i.e., Pence) or some centrist (to make the “pro-lifers” happy) (i.e., Kaine)? Dr. Stein shows her amazing insight and courage by selecting such a heroic and honorable person as her running mate!

(8) I live in a state that Hillary can’t lose. I don’t rank this as very high as I would vote for Jill in any state of the US but I can see how some people might feel uncomfortable if they live in Florida or Ohio or North Carolina. If you don’t live in one of these states, you have no excuse not to vote for Stein; if you live in one of these very few states, you must make a choice but given the collapse that Trump has begun, Hillary is probably very safe in your state as well.

(9) Lastly, I voted. I believe one should vote. It isn’t all one should do. In fact it is probably only 1/20 of what one should do, but it should be done. If there were no options but for Hillary or Trump (and no write-ins or “None of the Above”), then I think people should vote for Hillary but, again, this only represents 1/20 of the political and social work that each one of us should be doing in our communities.

Comments/reactions? As always, such input from others is very welcome!

Insanity continues

[This piece is being offered on “Columbus Day” on purpose. The fact that we still celebrate this barbaric man and validate the conquering of people is clearly insane…so it fits nicely. Twelve years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a similar full-page piece for The Zephyr—then an alternative local weekly newspaper—which I hear might be making a comeback! For those that want to read the old piece, click here.]

Perception and reality are often far apart. Projection, here the perceptions that we project (i.e., our cultural stories), and reality are equally so. Worse yet, the few people that contemplate on these glaring inconsistencies are often dismissed as weirdos, greenies, or catastrophists. Hence the flawed stories and the complacency, dependency and hopelessness they breed continue.

So what is so insane about our world, or more specifically the Western civilization (that we’ve grown up in)? One not need look far. In fact, it is much easier to identify the “craziness” of our world than to find rationality. Let’s examine the two most fundamental aspects of any civilization: (1) human relationships with nature; and (2) human within species relationships. No rational civilization would consider itself successful if it didn’t function at a very harmonious level in these two areas.

So how are we treating the Earth and its other billions of inhabitants? On nearly all objective measures we are doing very poorly. The bees are down (ref 1), the bats are down (ref 2), the butterflies are suffering (ref 3), many bird populations are in steep decline (ref 4), and fisheries around the planet are collapsing (ref 5). Not a very good report card. And scarier still is the precipitous decline in ocean plankton (ref 6)—most concerning as these microorganisms are at the bottom of the food chain (and consequently will affect all life forms above them). I suspect many of you have heard of these things but given the grave nature of the news and the sources of their demise, most media sources steer clear of giving them too much attention. So not only are we seeing tremendous losses of other life forms but we’re all too busy to focus on this issue. Not surprisingly, I have heard no word on these matters coming from either major party during this year long campaign period.

I could go on and on about how much of the rainforest is razed each day (to grow more sugarcane or lifestock meat), how oceans are becoming inhospitable to large sea creatures because of sound waves emitted by military craft, or how many billions of pounds of new pesticides are being sprayed, etc. But no matter how many pages of scientifically-collected information I provide here, I realize that I am unlikely to raise much of an eyebrow. Reality tells us that humans are functioning in ways that are clearly in opposition to life and though an increasing number of “two-leggeds” are becoming aware of this, our civilization’s ways of “progress” beat on with little hope in sight.
Okay, so what about how humans are treating other humans? Clearly, an intelligent species would at least function to promote its own, right? Well, if the nightly news is any indication we are doing very poorly on that score as well. Murders, threats, conflict, and turmoil appears to be found everywhere one looks. But as I’ve warned in earlier blogs, we can merely trust the information emanating from our screens because of the monetary incentives involved in capturing our attention (and our fear). Looking at more objective statistical data provides some hopeful signs. Life expectancy (at birth) is way up. People are living to their 80s in the UK and to their mid-60s in India. Just one-hundred years ago these numbers were 54 (UK) and 25 years (India). Infant mortality is way down as well, from 122 (per thousand births) in 1960 to 32 in 2015. These trends certainly are signs of improvement. However, other statistics paint a different picture.

In the US, we put more people into prison than any other country and the proportion of our population in prison is nearly double that of Russia and nearly six times that of China! We subsidize corn (and a few other grains) that is largely turned into ethanol (driving up the cost of food worldwide) or fructose which does harm to our bodies in many ways. Much of the “cheap” food produced by large-scale corn and soy production is overconsumed by masses of our population who are overly stressed out economically and have limited options for fresh food in their neighborhoods. This has consequences in terms of child- or adult- onset diabetes; diabetes rates have grown from 1% of the US population in 1958 to 7% in 2014 (ref 7). Though we know that nutrition is key to health, very few doctors are taking nutritional courses in medical school and many of our schools are pumping “cheap” food into our children’s bodies (and minds) (especially given that most of it is now “freely” provided by the government, via these same subsidies, to the industries that make “cheap” food) and we are surprised that kids can’t concentrate. We are seeing significantly lower sperm counts among men (ref 8) and much faster sexual maturity rates among girls (ref 9), especially girls of color, and we hardly bat an eye at these very disturbing trends. And let’s not forget that nearly 100 million people were killed because of war in the 20th Century–and the 21st Century has gotten off to a similar start. These astonishing number aside, consider how we now have nearly all of our media outlets owned and operated by major corporations and yet most of us still go to them (e.g., CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, etc.) for our news and so few of us boycott the “debates” when these corporate outfits refuse to allow third-party candidates (and their ideas) to be represented. This is equivalent to asking the foxes how the hen house is doing! I could go on but these insane realities of our civilization should be enough to give major pause.

Yet, despite all the insanity, there is hope. Yes, I know, it doesn’t seem possible given the insanity. But there is. Everywhere you look there are humans that are doing their part to make this world sane again. From those that dedicate their lives to growing food in humane ways to those who reject materialistic ways and work to spread love and peace instead. The precautionary principle has a lot to offer us in new ways of thinking (ref 10, ref 11). There are much more intelligent ways to activate a truly democratic country. But unless we firmly recognize how insane our ways are right now, we have very little hope of doing the work and making the sacrifices and changes that are needed to right our ship. Columbus and his ilk took us down a path of genocide and conquest, one we’ve continued on for the past 500+ years. It is time to alter our course and live in peace and sanity.

A ‘Wall,” so passé, build a NASCAR track instead

There is all this talk about building a wall on the US/Mexico border, at least among one presidential candidate and many of his followers. Let’s inspect this idea for a minute.

Are we that lacking in scientific and technological know-how that we are looking for solutions that were deemed “state of the art” 220 years before Christ? Come on folks. If we want to keep “them” out, we can do better than a “Wall.” An electronic fence of high voltage wire would be cheaper and a more effective deterrent. We could put sophisticated mines along the border with signs “cross at your own risk” (knowing full well that the mine density and explosive capacity would leave “them” little hope of survival). We could advance science along the border and build an artificial moat filled with the most dangerous (and hungry) creatures who could be studied for their breeding and eating habits. And alas, we could make the entire stretch of the 1,933 mile border a continuous NASCAR event (eat your heart out Indianapolis 500) and crossers could test their quickness relative to 200+ mph souped up Chevys. This final idea would have the added bonus of improving our Olympic sprinting team in years to come.

But alas, even if we made our border with Mexico impermeable, wouldn’t we still have to contend with the ~6,000 miles of US coastline (neglecting Alaska & Hawaii—-oops, did I just leak a confidential secret on how to get here by less obvious means?)? Ah, but again, it would be cheaper to line all our coasts with high voltage (semi-exposed) wire than a “Wall.” This would work well now that our beaches are too polluted to swim in or too hot to enjoy (climate change is doing a doozy on sand).

Ah, but what about by air or tunnel? Couldn’t “they” come by hot air balloon, propeller planes, propulsion jet packs, or burrowing devices? Damn, this is going to be harder than I first thought. Maybe we can all just move to caves ourselves. They’ll never find us then. But, who wants to live in a cave. So, what if we nuked our entire border, land, air and water. I hear this candidate is pro-nuke so this might just be in the cards! This should keep “them” away for a very long time.

See, it just takes a little bit of ingenuity and thought and the solution to all our problems is merely at the tip of a “button.” If you still think a “Wall” will be enough to keep “them” out, think again. Get your head out of the sand. Realize you live in the 21st Century and there are a lot more scary and “sophisticated” ways to keep us safe. I mean, we certainly don’t want to blow all of our public resources on a simple-minded wall when we can spend less (we have more nukes than anyone else, don’t we?) and make it much more impressive and permanent. Just imagine what our descendants (full-fledged Americans) of the 22nd Century will think of us when they realize how visionary we were. Have more of an imagination America!

Author’s note: If you don’t see the ridiculous nature of the above, please stay away from the polls on Nov. 8th.

stand, sit, kneel, or lock? (modern protest)

Just over a week ago a professional football player (Colin Kaepernick, but let’s call him Kaep for short) decided that he wasn’t going to stand during the National Anthem because he believes that people of color are being mistreated by police. This simple act of protest became the most prominent sports story for the next week and counting. People from all corners of society weighed in on Kaep’s action and a fair bit of exchange ensued. Most discussion sadly focused on whether Kaep should or shouldn’t protest in this way rather than on the issue that Kaep was trying to raise awareness of. A few days later it was revealed that Kaep has also been wearing socks during practice which depict “pigs” wearing police uniforms. Immediately, a huge outcry was heard denouncing Kaep for this disrespectful showing, even from many that felt the initial “sitting” protest was admirable. Within a day of this “revelation,” Kaep kneeled during the anthem (an act expressing his respect to those that serve in the military), performed well in the preseason game that followed, and announced afterwards that he would be donating $1 million (of his $11 million annual salary) to the causes that he was bringing attention to. Many saw this “gift” as a gesture of Kaep’s commitment to the issues and many praised him for this significant offering. And now there are reports out that Kaep’s jersey sales are way up, and some evidence of a new found admiration of his recent actions. We are only a few days into this Kaep activity and the regular NFL season starts in a matter of days (although it isn’t clear how prominent a role Kaep will play on his team, his stock slipping mightily since he took the 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl). Yet, very few athletes have gotten so much mileage out of what otherwise would seem like a very mundane action. How so? And what does it tell us about our modern society?

Were Kaep’s actions so courageous and, hence, worthy of such attention? Let’s look at what Kaep did in basic terms. He refused to stand for the National Anthem. He wore mocking socks to football practice a few times. He then changed his anthem stance from a sit to a kneel. These are very minor acts at some level. They require very little effort. And, they weren’t dangerous. Now, let’s compare Kaep’s actions to Dale American Horse Jr. who locked himself to a backhoe in North Dakota in protest of the pipeline that is being built to transport oil from the North Central Plains to states further south. (Here is more on this story that probably got 1/1,000th of the coverage that Kaep has received, link). Dale American Horse Jr. performed this action knowing that it was a violation of U.S. law and that a host of police would extricate him from the machine and charge him with a criminal offense, with unknown penalties, financial or jail time. On the face of it, it would appear that Dale American Horse Jr. faced much greater danger in more unpredictable circumstances–many other protesters were pepper sprayed and some, including children, were bitten by dogs “managed” by security agents. However, while Dale American Horse Jr.’s actions are definitely risky and courageous, Kaep, a well-known professional athlete, risked the loss of corporate endorsements and even his professional career (and its lucrative salary) by falling out of favor with the corporate executives that own NFL teams. He also risked eliciting the wrath and boos of millions of American’s who find his actions (and words) offensive. But, even still, an unspecified jail sentence seems like a lot more ominous than a loss of millions of dollars (but that is probably because I don’t have millions to lose).

If not so courageous, what explains the attention. I contend that it occurred because Kaep’s act is contentious. The modern media loves a good debate (as long as the parameters stay within a relatively narrow box; for example, we are not going to debate the sources of abject poverty in our country, the “richest” in the world, because that would implicate the same large corporations that run our media outlets). Kaepernick was a well-enough known celebrity to draw consumer gazes in a specific direction. Nearly all media now are full of advertisements and news outlets are competing harder and harder for this gaze; this explains the sensationalism that permeates media today. But why would not standing during the anthem cause such a storm? It is because many people in our society have developed a visceral attachment to the U.S. flag; recall the post 9-11 flag frenzy. To do anything to disrespect the U.S. is considered blasphemous to some. To others, the flag, the most recognizable symbol of the United States, deserved disrespect because of the outrageous things that have been done it its name (mass incarceration, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, My Lai, etc.). To these people, how better to show your disapproval of the actions of a nation than to desecrate its “sacred” image. Either way, mess with the flag and you’ll get attention, tie yourself to oil machinery and just let the local authorities handle this one (certainly no need for national exposure); facetiousness intended.

The surprising attention to Kaep also stems from the immense amount of attention that we give to sports these days. Athletes are household names. Most people probably know the starting quarterback on their cities team more so than they know who their U.S. Senators are. Certainly, most care more about what the QB does than what the Senator does (as long as it isn’t something scandalous, such as sexting). And given this heightened position, it makes sense that Kaepernick, and other athletes, might use it for some social good. For example, I am just some lowly professor (who makes less than 1% of what Kaep will make this year). I am likely not going to get any attention if I do something like not standing for the National Anthem or wear some offensive socks. I might get the scorn of people around me but no one who lives in a neighboring town will ever know that I am “protesting.” However, if I were a world-renown scholar, then I would likely consider protesting for my beliefs. (There certainly are a lot of things worth protesting for.) The point is this: athletes are so prominent in our lives (even more so than most of our political leaders), is it any wonder why we coast along in this economic malaise without much of a hiccup?

In the end, I am thankful that some well-to-do people, be them athletes or not, are willing to sacrifice their millions for a higher calling. Our culture has such a short attention span. A mass shooting occurs and that keeps its grip on it for a week or two, then we are back to normal. Structural racism has been hard at work in this country for nearly 400 years (when the first African slaves arrived on this land). Kaep’s effort to keep it in our consciousness is worthy of praise not scorn. Whether it will result in a positive outcome remains to be seen. And as much as we should focus on his efforts/words, we cannot forget the others that struggle mightily for justice elsewhere but simply due to their “less favorable’ (and visible) status have their battle cries go unheard.

are we moral?

In a world where people eat scrumptious meals in fancy restaurants while homeless people peddle for coins just on the other side of the glass, where others drive their $100,000 autos solo daily past hordes of bus goers (in sub-freezing temperatures) without considering offering a ride, and where increasing numbers communicate via “god-like” cellular devices while others, thousands of miles away, work feverishly in horrific conditions to collect enough “coltan” (a versatile metal alloy used in WiFi-transmitting electronics) to feed their families, one has to ask, “What’s moral these days?” And, relatedly, in a world so extreme in its inequality and maldistribution of resources, “Is it even possible for a person of economic privilege to live morally?”

Imagining an extra-terrestrial who happened upon our planet, I suspect he/she would unequivocally state that nearly all “first-worlders” live immorally. This judgment would come simply from his/her observation that we consume resources that are obtained, distributed, manufactured, and sold in ways that usually cause great psychological and physical harm to other humans and other forms of life. From the pesticide-laden plants (or hormone- and antibiotic-dosed meat) food that dominates food systems, our fossil fuels which often come from war-torn regions of the world where (despite the amazing amount of $$ that these resources must be worth) most people have remained severely impoverished for decades, or our everyday clothing and house “products” that are almost always made by workers overseas who live in inhumane work environments, this verdict is undeniable. If there were a functioning international court, we would be found “guilty” of immoral lifestyles.

Concluding that we are living immorally shouldn’t be news to anyone, though it rarely gets coverage in such blatant terms. It also doesn’t have much meaning if it isn’t just an inevitable result of living in the 21st century (or at all). Clearly, humans must consume substantial resources to live, all large animals do by necessity. So, do we have any real choice? The answer is “yes.” First, we overconsume, producing excessive amounts of waste. Many of the products that we buy aren’t necessary to living a fulfilling life. Second, we, if we really cared to do so, could find many of the resources that we do need to thrive from producers that aren’t destroying the environment in their work. This is particularly true with food but is doable, albeit difficult, in other areas as well. (Here are a few articles that lay out some of these options, ref 1, ref 2). Third, all of us are entangled, whether we like it or not, in the most immoral component of our “consumption”: the trillions of dollars lost (which we pay in taxes) on the continued militarization of the world and its ties to resolving humanitarian and economic challenges with arms and violence, rather than diplomacy and peace.

All this said, it must be noted that many of those that live in “rich” countries, especially the U.S., live under great economic stress and this limits their ability to act morally with regard to their consumption patterns. Reasonably, until they are relieved of their structural impoverishment, their immorality doesn’t deserve much attention; though increasing their “take” and not causing further damage would necessitate a different type of growth than we are use to. On the other hand, the behaviors of those that live in middle- to upper-class lives cannot be overlooked. Sadly, much of what they (and “I”) consume falls into the category of “horrible.” Our educational system and mainstream media (both increasingly influenced/controlled by corporations), in their effort to ensure that we continue to consume, completely fail to teach us what we need in order to consume morally.

So, where does this leave us? I don’t think there are any magical solutions. But, just as alcoholics must admit their addiction before making headway, we need to admit our immorality as well. Perhaps part of the solution is something equivalent to AA (or NA) where people could meet regularly and figure out ways to modify our (individually and collectively) consumption patterns toward moral pathways. Such meetings are happening under other auspices (e.g., Green Party, First Nations Environmental Network, Urban Ag/Permaculture, etc.). Start your own group or check one of these out. Let us know what you find!

playing with systemic thinking

One of the major weaknesses of the current dialogue about critical issues of our time (race, poverty, disease, etc.) stems from our inability to think systemically. This inability is crippling our efforts to reach workable solutions and making it much harder for us to “get to the bottom” of our collective challenges.

To understand what “systemic” means, let’s actually look at a few problems that we don’t’ look at systemically. Many say “drugs” are the problem in the US. And by the huge increase in incarcerations, it must be a major problem (sarcasm intended). Others think violence is a major problem. And this must be a major problem especially when we have the most mass shootings of any country by a long stretch (ref 1). And on top of drugs and violence, our lack of jobs must be a major problem; oddly, latest figures say that less than 5% of our adults are unemployed (down from 10% in 2010), however this is largely due to a misleading accounting practice as many people aren’t counted anymore (such as, those imprisoned, those that have stopped seeking work, those that are on disability, etc.). How about hunger? As I have previously outlined, food insecurity is a very serious problem in the US (ref 2) with almost 50 million Americans living in food insecure households. So now that we have a pretty good list to work from let’s look at how we deal with these “problems.” (How would you order these four “problems”? What would you add to the list?)

Dealing with these “problems” takes the form of proposedn solutions. So let’s look at the solutions to these problems as offered regularly by our politicians and the mainstream media. Our “drug problem,” we are told, can be solved by: (a) putting those people who use or sell them in prison so they can no longer use/sell them; and, (b) teaching our children to “Say No to Drugs” by convincing them of the harms that drugs do to our bodies (ironically, this message continues concurrently with the massive expansion of “legal” drugs by big pharma and the expansion of alcohol use in our popular culture). Violence, we are told, can be solved by: (a) surveilling everyone with the intent of figuring out when/where/who might commit such crimes; (b) making it harder for people to get access to deadly weapons; (c) increasing police presence in our communities; (d) making sure “good” people have readily accessible “defensive” weapons to protect themselves and others in case of a violent attack by a ne’er-do-well, and, (e) increasing our military presence everywhere we can and using brutal methods (including drones and robots) to kill preemptively those that might do us harm. Unemployment can be remedied by: (a) forcing people to “work” by making it increasingly difficult to get workers’ compensation or unemployment payments or “welfare”; (b) keeping minimum wage low so as to allow companies to employ more people; and, (c) keeping taxes on corporations and the wealthy low because this will allow them to spend more of their “hard earned money” employing people. And, lastly, hunger can be dealt with by: (a) filling community pantries with large amounts of processed food; (b) subsidizing school lunches using overage from industries that produce highly-processed and nutritionally low-density foods; and, (c) subsidizing a few food crops in the U.S. (primarily corn, wheat, rice and soybeans) to the tune of ~$20 billion a year enabling processed foods to remain inexpensive (and therefore the staple of choice for an increasing number of people).

Do you notice anything about these “solutions”? They are almost all reactive to the specific “problem” that is being addressed. None of them deal with basic questions that anyone making a serious attempt to understand the nature of these identified (or other) problems. Such questions would include: Why are people using so many drugs? Why are so many people choosing to sell drugs knowing full well that the penalties for getting caught are extreme? Why are people committing violent acts, be they terrorist, hate-crimes or domestic in nature? Internationally, what impact does killing innocent people (purportedly to bring peace) have on the creation of future terrorists and people willing to kill others out of revenge? Why have many of the efforts to reduce the most violent crimes only be met with increases in frequency of these types of crimes? Why are so many people unable to pay their bills despite being full-time employees? Why are mental health services so hard to find (or afford) for most people and why are mental health matters usually not considered part of our health care program? What influence does poverty, malnutrition, and systemic violence and racism have on our individual and collective mental health? Why are so many former “criminals” unable to find meaningful work (which would allow them to reintegrate smoothly into society)? Why are most things we purchase made in other countries? Why have so many manufacturing plants in the US (which used to be filled with hard working, often unionized, domestic laborers) moved to foreign countries? Why are so many mothers unable to get maternity leave so that they can properly nurture our future generations? How can so many people be hungry in the “richest” country in the world? Why are processed foods so much less expensive than more nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables? Why are an increasing number of neighborhoods in the US seeing food markets (with fresh fruits and vegetables) being replaced with liquor and convenience stores? Why are increasing numbers of people choosing to eat processed and “fast foods”?

These questions try to get to the bottom of the “problems” of drugs, violence, employment and hunger. They are not exhaustive by any means (and I hope readers will share their illuminating ones here as well) but most have something in common, the word “why.” In so doing, they attempt to understand why these things are happening rather than just trying to stop them. Trying to stop something without understanding why it is happening in the first place is inane and harmful but consider how commonplace it is for us to react in exactly this way rather than to think more holistically about the origins of our collective challenges.

What happens when we start asking the “why” questions? I suspect we’ll begin to make connections between “problems,” such as drugs, violence and unemployment. We’ll begin to recognize that many of our current problems are merely symptoms of more systemic issues such as inequality, historically-rooted prejudice and racism, and hypermasculinized forms of power and governance. When we start looking deeper into these systemic issues, we will likely have very different conversations about our “problems” which will lead to very different solutions being offered. Yet, those in power benefit from the status quo and, as such, do their best to keep us “sheeple” reacting ineffectively to symptoms rather than addressing core injustices. Until we acknowledge this we will not be very successful in solving much of anything. Let the “Systemic Games” (riffing off of the Olympic Games which are taking place right now in Rio) begin!

“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.”