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.”

fireworks

Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the founding of the United States. How will we do this? People have different ways but the most noticeable one is to make tons of noise and display lots of colors, using fireworks! Last night, two nights before the “big” night, people in the neighborhood I was visiting were blasting these incendiary devices for several hours. I guess people’s celebratory zeal was just too much to contain.

With all the talk about “protecting the environment” and “cleaning our air and water,” you might reasonably ask, “are fireworks a sound practice?” Given that the air blackens and smells horrible after a fireworks event, the answer to this simple question seems obvious. However, as usual in environmental thinking, the “devil is in the details.” So are fireworks safe and should we continue to use them as we do? (I decided to write this on the day before the “BIG” day, so as not to be too much of a “Danny Downer.”)

Apparently, fireworks consist of gun powder, heavy metals and other toxins, such as perchlorate (ref 1). Many of these are known to have carcinogenic impacts or interfere with human hormones (ref 2). What chemicals that are used change while “exploding” and take on new chemical forms and properties, many of which haven’t been carefully studied. And these chemicals stay in our air (more than 12 hours afterwards) eventually settling in the soil and ultimately ending up in our waterways. Not good, right?

Yet, maybe since we normally only use them on one BIG day, everything is fine; famously, “everything in moderation.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t work either. First of all, we are beginning to use them at many public events (baseball home runs often come with a firework display and colleges are using them at pre-graduation celebrations, and recall the pre-July 4th eruptions in our neighborhoods). Also, the chemicals used are often persistent meaning that they don’t easily break down into “safe” forms, so they remain toxic to our environment for years to come. Additionally, fireworks result in a huge numbers of hospital visits–in 2014, there were over 10,000 emergency room visits during the “month” of fireworks (ref 3). And lastly, you would be surprised how many thousands of cities, towns, and even neighborhoods have their own large firework displays. Last year, while driving around St. Louis looking for Ted Drewes’ amazing ice cream, I witnessed at least four such events going on at the same time.

Despite all of the above information (and books more of it at our cyber fingertips), I have a hard time thinking that we’ll make any headway stopping people from enjoying their city’s firework displays or blasting off a few bottle rockets in their backyards. (Though apparently there are 8,700+ people who have signed a petition to ban the private use of fireworks in New Zealand, ref 4 And, due to this years terrible drought many communities in Michigan are calling for reducing or cancelling displays (ref 5)). Sadly, this just represents one more thing that we know we shouldn’t do but we just can’t seem to do. This is particularly confusing when we realize that we are talking about something that is completely unnecessary to us and our collective health. As such, it represents another instance of the need to completely rethink how we function as a society. We need to have principles that we adhere to (such as, “we shall not poison our air and water without due cause and consideration”) and don’t deviate from just because its “fun” or “the thing we do.” Change is hard but challenges make life interesting, don’t they? Celebrate tomorrow, but do so with a small kernel of awkwardness and contemplation.

crying

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

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

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

only two problems?

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

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

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

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

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

100 years — father

Since it is Father’s Day, I thought I would discuss something my father has always taught me to admire—longevity. My father, David, has always made a big deal about living a long life. Growing up, I often heard him emphasize the age of “old” people. He also spoke regularly of the importance of taking vitamins and eating lots of protein and nutrients as a means to ensure a long, healthy life. He didn’t just preach, he used to take 10 g of Vitamin C a day (that’s 20-500 mg pills) and a host of other vitamins, probably thirty pills a day; I am not sure of his daily regimen now.

Anyhow, as a result of this “teaching,” I can say that I value longevity. I’ve learned through my scholarship that life expectancy is one of the best indicators of the “well-being” in a country. If people in a country are living long lives, it can be expected that the country also has good quality health care (especially for soon-to-be mothers and children), educational opportunities, and food access for the vast majority of its people; this is in contrast to economic indicators, such as GNP (Gross National Product), which often can mask suffering among its lower classes. I cherish the opportunity to speak to older people as I realize that they have encountered a lot of things that I haven’t lived through—with experience comes a fair bit of wisdom.

Japan is home to the highest percentage of centenarians (with some 60,000+ of them currently); there is some debate on this, apparently Cuba may have recently surpassed Japan (ref 1). And while I hope to reach the “100” mark (my dad is working towards it to–still running ~14 miles a week at age 72), I realize that a few things working against me. One I am a male. For every male that reaches 100 years, there are 6 females that do. Also, being large (6’4”, 235 lbs) doesn’t help my cause either (ref 2). Yet, given that no statistic is deterministic, I will still eat my “fruits and vegetables” and wish for the best. Better still, I’ll use the time I have on this wonderful planet to make it better for me, my planetary neighbors (of all species), and most of all, on this day, my children!

getting to know other humans

Despite it being 2016, we still know very, very little about planet Earth. For instance, it is estimated that scientists around the world have only documented ~14% of the world’s terrestrial species (ref 1). And documenting them doesn’t come close to accounting for their unique properties and behaviors nor their chemical makeup, all of which represent “intelligences” that could have profound implications to humans biomimetically (learn more about biomimicry, link).

However, as astoundingly unaware of our biological neighbors as we are, I assert that we are equally unaware of our human neighbors and this “ignorance” probably has profound implications as well. There are two ways in which we are acutely unaware of humans and both prevent us from acting in ways that are in our best interests and the planet’s best interest. First, we (and I mean the vast majority of us, myself included) have almost no idea what the majority of humans struggle with day in and day out. Nearly 50% of the world’s human’s live on less than $2.50 a day (ref 2). How do they survive on so little? Many of these people live in nations that are recipients of military aid yet little humanitarian aid (from the US and other nations) (ref 3). They suffer from preventable disease but despite the extremely low cost for a basic series of immunizations millions of children in these lands suffer and die each year because they don’t have access to this basic medical care (ref 4); apparently it would cost between $11-15 billion to meet the WHO-UNICEF Immunization Targets (ref 5) which is less than 1% of the world’s military budget. My failure to fully appreciate the horrors associated with these horrible (unnecessary) circumstances faced by hordes of fellow humans makes it very difficult for me to prioritize the needs of these other humans in my own life. I suspect that if I, or one of you, were to spend quality time with these people, our hearts would open up and our life’s priorities would change quite drastically.

Second, we are largely unaware of the humans on this planet that are making the greatest positive impact. Have you heard of the Goldman Prize? Since 1990, the Goldman Environmental Foundation has been giving awards to the top environmental leaders around the world. One person from each of the six major continents (Islands and Island Nations are considered a continent) is awarded a Goldman Prize for his/her/their “sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk” (ref 6). Take a look at the list of recipients (link), who number ~175 now. How many of them do you know about? (Why does the mainstream media tell us about any of them and their great achievements?) A few are household names among informed people (such as, Wangari Maathai and Lois Gibbs) but the vast, vast majority of them are unrecognizable to us. For example, the 2016 North American winner, Destiny Waterford (for her bio, link), is a name, embarrassingly I admit, I’ve never heard of until this writing; nor had I heard anything about the other five 2016 recipients.

Why does it matter that we don’t know who these people are? You might be saying, “Peter, there are 7+ billion people on this planet, how I can know them all.” Well, the reason is, these are incredible people who are successively working to make the world better. And none of them are acting alone either; most have tens if not hundreds of others working hand-in-hand with them. If we knew more about these amazing “neighbors” and the challenges they are tackling, often despite greater disadvantages than we personally have, we might be inspired to struggle more intensely regarding challenges our communities face (such as, hunger, water quality, teen pregnancy, economic hardship, tree death, etc. where I live). Understanding how these heroes and sheroes work with others to make progress would teach us how essential it is to work collectively and how voting in elections isn’t the primary way these leaders (and their support “staff”) make things happen (despite the overwhelming importance granted to this singular act by our media outlets). Just over 10 years ago, I had the amazing fortune to work side-by-side for five months with a future Goldman Prize recipient (Kim Wasserman, Chicago, 2014 Goldman recipient) during my first sabbatical. The lessons I learned from assisting her organization’s campaigns all the while surrounded by other dedicated staff and volunteers (at LVEJO, link and in the Little Village community) were profound. This experience convinced me that I had to be more involved in my community. I had to take action. I had to reach out to and work with others. And, most importantly, as Kim and her team proved when they successfully got the two coal-fired power plants in Chicago to close and spearheaded the creation of the new La Villita Park on the West side of the city that opened this year (link) (both struggles took more than 10 years before their desired outcomes were achieved), we can make our world healthier if we really want to.

So, there you have it, we need to understand humans better. There is a lot of positive that could come from that knowledge and engagement. Let’s do this.

Top 10 List: Non-fiction books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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