Monday October 23rd 2017

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‘Signs That We Have A Problem’ Archives

Wild Words

Yes, it has been a long time.  Been having a hard time finding that “life-balance” thing.  My life has been consumed by work — little time to read, ponder, or write……
For a while there I was really in a groove.  I was reading quite bit on sustainability and I had lots of ideas for the blog and messages that I wanted to share.  I haven’t picked up a book in three months.  I haven’t written a thing in two months.  It is so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day routine.  The days pass.
Each night as my head hit the pillow I would feel disappointed in myself for failing again to make any progress on the blog.  For failing to learn more.  Failing to share more.  As I would drift off to sleep I would promise that tomorrow I would get up early and do some research and some writing.  Didn’t happen.  At home each night I would be too tired and would find ways to avoid “thinking.”
The months pass and little has changed.  Our society is hurtling toward disaster and still no real discussion.  No serious re-evaluation of who we are, of what we are becoming, and of what we could be.  There is system failure all around us (environmental, political, economic, social) but people hang on tighter and tighter to beliefs, ideologies, and values that are simply not valid in the world we now live in.  (The increasing “shrillness” of our political system is a clean indicator of this)
There are thousands of people out there creating a new reality.  Creating the world of what could be.  I will be writing about some of them and their “movements” in the weeks to come.  I will be encouraging you to find the one(s) that resonate and figure out how you can make your mark.
But for today, I will leave you with some “wild words.”  Every day I rack my brain trying to figure out what is the statistic, the turn of phrase, which image, which vision is the one that will enable someone to finally have that “Aha” moment.  Do I paint the apocalypse or sketch the milk and honey?  What will it take to inspire someone?
Every day more and more people “get it” but that number is still far too small to change the system.  So today, an attempt to jar some consciousness:

Herman Daly and John Cobb wrote this in 1994 (15 years ago!)
But at a deep level of our being we find it hard to suppress the cry of anguish, the scream of horror—the wild words required to express wild realities.  We human beings are being led to a dead end—all too literally.  We are living by an ideology of death and accordingly we are destroying our own humanity and killing the planet… Even the one great success of the program that has governed us, the attainment of material affluence, is now giving way to poverty.  …The United States is just now gaining a foretaste of the suffering that global economic policies, so enthusiastically embraced, have inflicted on hundreds of millions of others. If we continue on our present paths, future generations, if there are to be any, are condemned to misery.  The fact that many people of good will do not see this dead end is undeniably true, very regrettable, and it is our main reason for writing this book;

(For the Common Good:  Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future)

This is a great book and one of the first that I ever read on ideas around sustainability.  Herman Daly was a World Bank economist who realized that mainstream economic thought was flawed and ultimately unsustainable.  He shows why most of what we were taught in Econ 101 is wrong.  But this book is much more than economics.  Cobb is a theologian.  Together they write a fascinating book that maps out what a sustainable society could look like, and they were some of the first to look at the economic and spiritual and philosophical changes needed to create a sustainable society.  Pick it up at your library!

I am going to leave you with some selected thoughts from Adam Sacks.  In this blog post (shown in blue text) Adam writes a long critique on the environmental movement and its failure to properly communicate the problem of climate change to society.  His critique challenges the very core of our history, and challenges how we define ourselves as humans.  You can read the full blog post here.

I’ve already shortened his piece, but if you are really in a hurry, read the selections I highlighted in RED

In the 20 years since we climate activists began our work in earnest, the state of the climate has become dramatically worse, and the change is accelerating — this despite all of our best efforts. Clearly something is deeply wrong with this picture. What is it that we do not yet know? What do we have to think and do differently to arrive at urgently different outcomes?[1]
The answers lie not with science, but with culture.
Climate activists are obsessed with greenhouse-gas emissions and concentrations. Since global climate disruption is an effect of greenhouse gases, and a disastrous one, this is understandable. But it is also a mistake.
Such is the fallacy of climate activism[2]: We insist that global warming is merely a consequence of greenhouse-gas emissions. Since it is not, we fail to tell the truth to the public.  I think that there are two serious errors in our perspectives on greenhouse gases:
Global Warming as Symptom

The first error is our failure to understand that greenhouse gases are not a cause but a symptom, and addressing the symptom will do little but leave us with a devil’s sack full of many other symptoms, possibly somewhat less rapidly lethal but lethal nonetheless.

The root cause, the source of the symptoms, is 300 years of our relentlessly exploitative, extractive, and exponentially growing technoculture, against the background of ten millennia of hierarchical and colonial civilizations.[3] This should be no news flash, but the seductive promise of endless growth has grasped all of us civilized folk by the collective throat, led us to expand our population in numbers beyond all reason and to commit genocide of indigenous cultures and destruction of other life on Earth.
To be sure, global climate disruption is the No. 1 symptom. But if planetary warming were to vanish tomorrow, we would still be left with ample catastrophic potential to extinguish many life forms in fairly short order: deforestation; desertification; poisoning of soil, water, air; habitat destruction; overfishing and general decimation of oceans; nuclear waste, depleted uranium, and nuclear weaponry — to name just a few. (While these symptoms exist independently, many are intensified by global warming.)
We will not change course by addressing each of these as separate issues; we have to address root cultural cause.

[MD:  long section on climate science, let’s skip that and get to the good stuff]

Bitter climate truths are fundamentally bitter cultural truths. Endless growth is an impossibility in the physical world, always — but always — ending in overshot and collapse. Collapse: with a bang or a whimper, most likely both. We are already witnessing it, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.
Because of this civilization’s obsession with growth, its demise is 100 percent predictable. We simply cannot go on living this way. Our version of life on earth has come to an end.  Moreover, there are no “free market” or “economic” solutions. And since corporations must have physically impossible endless growth in order to survive, corporate social responsibility is a myth. The only socially responsible act that corporations can take is to dissolve.
We can’t bargain with the forces of nature, trading slightly less harmful trinkets for a fantasied reprieve. Geophysical processes care not one whit for our politics, our economics, our evening meals, our theologies, our love for our children, our plaintive cries of innocence and error.
We can either try to plan the transition, even at this late hour, or the physical forces of the world will do it for us — indeed, they already are. As Alfred Crosby stated in his remarkable book, Ecological Imperialism, mother nature’s ministrations are never gentle.[5]
Telling the Truth
If we climate activists don’t tell the truth as well as we know it — which we have been loathe to do because we ourselves are frightened to speak the words — the public will not respond, notwithstanding all our protestations of urgency.
And contrary to current mainstream climate-activist opinion, contrary to all the pointless “focus groups,” contrary to the endless speculation on “correct framing,” the only way to tell the truth is to tell it. All of it, no matter how terrifying it may be.[6]
It is offensive and condescending for activists to assume that people can’t handle the truth without environmentalists finding a way to make it more palatable. The public is concerned, we vaguely know that something is desperately wrong, and we want to know more so we can try to figure out what to do. The response to An Inconvenient Truth, as tame as that film was in retrospect, should have made it clear that we want to know the truth.
And finally, denial requires a great deal of energy, is emotionally exhausting, fraught with conflict and confusion. Pretending we can save our current way of life derails us and sends us in directions that lead us astray. The sooner we embrace the truth, the sooner we can begin the real work.
Let’s just tell it.
Stating the Problem
After we tell the truth, then what can we do? Is it hopeless? Perhaps. But before we can have the slightest chance of meaningful action, having told the truth, we have to face the climate reality, fully and unflinchingly. If we base our planning on false premises — such as the oft-stated stutter that reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions will forestall “the worst effects of global warming” — we can only come up with false solutions. “Solutions” that will make us feel better as we tumble toward the end, but will make no ultimate difference whatsoever.
Furthermore, we can and must pose the problem without necessarily providing the “solutions.”[7] I can’t tell you how many climate activists have scolded me, “You can’t state a problem like that without providing some solutions.” If we accept that premise, all of scientific inquiry as well as many other kinds of problem-solving would come to a screeching halt. The whole point of stating a problem is to clarify questions, confusions, and unknowns, so that the problem statement can be mulled, chewed, and clarified to lead to some meaningful answers, even though the answers may seem to be out of reach.
Some of our most important thinking happens while developing the problem statement, and the better the problem statement the richer our responses. That’s why framing the global warming problem as greenhouse-gas concentrations has proved to be such a dead end.
Here is the problem statement as it is beginning to unfold for me. We are all a part of struggling to develop this thinking together:
We must leave behind 10,000 years of civilization; this may be the hardest collective task we’ve ever faced. It has given us the intoxicating power to create planetary changes in 200 years that under natural cycles require hundreds of thousands or millions of years — but none of the wisdom necessary to keep this Pandora’s Box tightly shut. We have to discover and re-discover other ways of living on earth.
We love our cars, our electricity, our iPods, our theme parks, our bananas, our Nikes, and our nukes, but we behave as if we understand nothing of the land and water and air that gives us life. It is past time to think and act differently.
If we live at all, we will have to figure out how to live locally and sustainably. Living locally means we are able get everything we need within walking (or animal riding) distance. We may eventually figure out sustainable ways of moving beyond those small circles to bring things home, but our track record isn’t good and we’d better think it through very carefully.
Likewise, any technology has to be locally based, using local resources and accessible tools, renewable and non-toxic. We have much re-thinking to do, and re-learning from our hunter-gatherer forebears who managed to survive for a couple of hundred thousand years in ways that we with our civilized blinders we can barely imagine or understand.[8]
Living sustainably means, in Derrick Jensen’s elegantly simple definition, that whatever we do, we can do it indefinitely.[9] We cannot use up anything more or faster than nature provides, we don’t poison the air, water, or soil, and we respect the web of life of which we are an intricate part. We are not separate from nature, or above it, or in any way qualified to supervise it.[10] The evidence is ample and overwhelming; all we have to do is be brave enough to look.
How do we survive in a world that will probably turn — is already turning, for many humans and non-humans alike — into a living hell? How do we even grow or gather food or find clean water or stay warm or cool while assaulted by biblical floods, storms, rising seas, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, snow, and hail?
It is crystal clear that we cannot leave it to the technophiliacs. It is human technology coupled with our inability to comprehend, predict, and prevent unintended consequences that have brought us global catastrophe, culminating in climate disruption, in the first place. Desperate hopes notwithstanding, there are no high-tech solutions here, only wishful thinking–the tools that got us into this mess are incapable of getting us out.[11]
All that being said, we needn’t discard all that we’ve learned, far from it.[12] But we must use our knowledge with great discretion, and lock much of it away as so much nuclear weaponry and waste.
Time is running very short, but the forgiveness of this little blue orb in a vast lonely universe will continue to astonish and nourish us–if we only give it the chance.
Our obligation as activists, the first step, the essence, is to part the cultural veil at long last, and to tell the truth.

Disconnect to reconnect

When you wake up in the morning, what is the first thing you do? 

Can you remember the last time you were not even a little bit tired?

I thought I would share this article that I read a few days ago — it really resonated with me.  As we find more and more ways to “stay connected” or be entertained we have less and less time for ourselves and our own thoughts.  Last year I used to take the metro into work each day.  I always took an issue of Newsweek magazine along so I could do some of my “current events” reading.  Heaven forbid I should waste the 40 minute one-way ride.  After a while I decided to not do any reading during the morning ride — I “allowed” myself the luxury of just sitting and thinking.  I loved it.  I have so many things I feel that I should be doing, reading this, writing that, working on something else, I grant myself very little time to do nothing.  In our culture, that is wasted time.  I feel that stress every day, to not waste a minute.  I am working hard to move away from technology and more towards nature and flesh and blood people.  I highly recommend it.

Despite what our culture says, doing more, does not equal living more.

New York Times
August 24, 2010

Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime


SAN FRANCISCO — It’s 1 p.m. on a Thursday and Dianne Bates, 40, juggles three screens. She listens to a few songs on her iPod, then taps out a quick e-mail on her iPhone and turns her attention to the high-definition television.

Just another day at the gym.

As Ms. Bates multitasks, she is also churning her legs in fast loops on an elliptical machine in a downtown fitness center. She is in good company. In gyms and elsewhere, people use phones and other electronic devices to get work done — and as a reliable antidote to boredom.

Cellphones, which in the last few years have become full-fledged computers with high-speed Internet connections, let people relieve the tedium of exercising, the grocery store line, stoplights or lulls in the dinner conversation.

The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.

Ms. Bates, for example, might be clearer-headed if she went for a run outside, away from her devices, research suggests.

At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory of the experience.

The researchers suspect that the findings also apply to how humans learn.

“Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

At the University of Michigan, a study found that people learned significantly better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban environment, suggesting that processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued.

Even though people feel entertained, even relaxed, when they multitask while exercising, or pass a moment at the bus stop by catching a quick video clip, they might be taxing their brains, scientists say.

“People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves,” said Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist.

Regardless, there is now a whole industry of mobile software developers competing to help people scratch the entertainment itch. Flurry, a company that tracks the use of apps, has found that mobile games are typically played for 6.3 minutes, but that many are played for much shorter intervals. One popular game that involves stacking blocks gets played for 2.2 minutes on average.

Today’s game makers are trying to fill small bits of free time, said Sebastien de Halleux, a co-founder of PlayFish, a game company owned by the industry giant Electronic Arts.

“Instead of having long relaxing breaks, like taking two hours for lunch, we have a lot of these micro-moments,” he said. Game makers like Electronic Arts, he added, “have reinvented the game experience to fit into micro-moments.”

Many business people, of course, have good reason to be constantly checking their phones. But this can take a mental toll. Henry Chen, 26, a self-employed auto mechanic in San Francisco, has mixed feelings about his BlackBerry habits.

“I check it a lot, whenever there is downtime,” Mr. Chen said. Moments earlier, he was texting with a friend while he stood in line at a bagel shop; he stopped only when the woman behind the counter interrupted him to ask for his order.

Mr. Chen, who recently started his business, doesn’t want to miss a potential customer. Yet he says that since he upgraded his phone a year ago to a feature-rich BlackBerry, he can feel stressed out by what he described as internal pressure to constantly stay in contact.

“It’s become a demand. Not necessarily a demand of the customer, but a demand of my head,” he said. “I told my girlfriend that I’m more tired since I got this thing.”

In the parking lot outside the bagel shop, others were filling up moments with their phones. While Eddie Umadhay, 59, a construction inspector, sat in his car waiting for his wife to grocery shop, he deleted old e-mail while listening to news on the radio. On a bench outside a coffee house, Ossie Gabriel, 44, a nurse practitioner, waited for a friend and checked e-mail “to kill time.”

Crossing the street from the grocery store to his car, David Alvarado pushed his 2-year-old daughter in a cart filled with shopping bags, his phone pressed to his ear.

He was talking to a colleague about work scheduling, noting that he wanted to steal a moment to make the call between paying for the groceries and driving.

“I wanted to take advantage of the little gap,” said Mr. Alvarado, 30, a facilities manager at a community center.

For many such people, the little digital asides come on top of heavy use of computers during the day. Take Ms. Bates, the exercising multitasker at the expansive Bakar Fitness and Recreation Center. She wakes up and peeks at her iPhone before she gets out of bed. At her job in advertising, she spends all day in front of her laptop.

But, far from wanting a break from screens when she exercises, she says she couldn’t possibly spend 55 minutes on the elliptical machine without “lots of things to do.” This includes relentless channel surfing.

“I switch constantly,” she said. “I can’t stand commercials. I have to flip around unless I’m watching ‘Project Runway’ or something I’m really into.”

Some researchers say that whatever downside there is to not resting the brain, it pales in comparison to the benefits technology can bring in motivating people to sweat.

“Exercise needs to be part of our lives in the sedentary world we’re immersed in. Anything that helps us move is beneficial,” said John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”

But all things being equal, Mr. Ratey said, he would prefer to see people do their workouts away from their devices: “There is more bang for your buck doing it outside, for your mood and working memory.”

Of the 70 cardio machines on the main floor at Bakar Fitness, 67 have televisions attached. Most of them also have iPod docks and displays showing workout performance, and a few have games, like a rope-climbing machine that shows an animated character climbing the rope while the live human does so too.

A few months ago, the cable TV went out and some patrons were apoplectic. “It was an uproar. People said: ‘That’s what we’re paying for,’ ” said Leeane Jensen, 28, the fitness manager.

At least one exerciser has a different take. Two stories up from the main floor, Peter Colley, 23, churns away on one of the several dozen elliptical machines without a TV. Instead, they are bathed in sunlight, looking out onto the pool and palm trees.

“I look at the wind on the trees. I watch the swimmers go back and forth,” Mr. Colley said. “I usually come here to clear my head.”
Some of my favorite comments on this article:

Rob  New York  August 24th, 2010  4:06 pm

I was out to dinner with some current and former colleagues. I had put the evening together hoping for some interesting conversation. The only participant in those conversations seemed to be me. The others kept glancing (nervously) at their phones. They missed out on a lovely evening and I vowed never to dine with such idiots again.

Rage Baby  NYC  August 24th, 2010  4:06 pm

I click on things to avoid the pain of thinking

Steve St-Laurent  Vancouver, BC  August 24th, 2010  4:06 pm

The end result of this self-absorbption is that everyone else becomes, well, just traffic – stuff that distracts you or gets in your way. Then we wonder about the epidemic decline in empathy. What a sorry state and pathetic waste of our humanity!

T.R.  New York  August 24th, 2010  3:35 pm

I do not find this news surprising. As a high school English teacher, I blame this lifestyle on my students’ inability to think. I see it among adults as well. Nobody discusses ideas because nobody has any.

Matt  New York City  August 24th, 2010  3:35 pm

Yes, our passion for connectivity is disconnecting us from ourselves.

jesus.christ  Newark, NJ  August 24th, 2010  4:57 pm
Ball-and-Chain nation. That’s what I tell my students who can’t seem to let go of their cell phones. Slot machine mentality, they await for some event that will change their lowly lives. That event won’t come from a cell phone though, yet they continue to fixate on this little device. It’s all they need, and in many ways I must agree that many of these minions will die waiting to live their lives. Such is youth

MT  Rhode Island  August 24th, 2010  4:57 pm

Articles like this inspire me to remove myself from my digital devices. I myself turn on my itouch and check my email before I put on my glasses in the morning, listen to my ipod while working out, and spend more time on the computer daily than I do reading a book. From now on,I will make a pledge to myself to use less of my digital devices, and spend more time living in the present, appreciating and acknowledging my surroundings and the natural world. Thank you for motivating me to live my life! :)

This is all you need to know. (Between a Rock and a Hard Place)

Here it is.  This all you really all you really need to know:

Humanity is facing two megatrends, the impacts of Peak Oil, and the limits imposed by Exponential Growth on a finite planet.  How we respond to these challenges during the next 20 years will define the quality of life for your family tree over the next millennium. 

Peak Oil

Within the next ten years the world as we know will change forever.

Such a statement doesn’t carry much of a punch these days in our era of 24 hour news cycles where we hear bombastic headlines on a daily basis.  Real issues, like this one are rarely discussed and when they are they slip under the surface quietly, drowned out amongst the din and clamor of banality (American Idol update, anyone?). 

Why should you care?

If you are reading this blog you, like me, have existed during the unique era of human history defined by cheap oil.  We have never experienced a day when the supply of oil was insufficient to meet the demand.  For the last 150 years we have acted as if we had an infinite supply of the stuff.  It took hundreds of millions of years for the planet to produce the oil that is in the ground — it has taken humanity less than two hundred years to use up 1/2 of that amount.  (try graphing that statistic if you want to get a sense of the magnitude of that last sentence)

Cheap oil defines every fiber of the American society.  We created a transportation system based on the privately-owned automobile — thousands of pounds of steel to move, typically, one person around.  We built suburbs further and further from where people work.  We passed zoning laws that separate our homes from where we work, from our schools, and from our stores.  You must drive to do everything.  On average Americans drive about 1 hour a day  back and forth to work (does this article ring true?).  The shopping malls are far from where we live.  We created a network of large department stores with acres of parking lots that can only be reached by car.  How will people in the suburbs survive when it costs $10/gallon for gasoline?

Our industrial food system is drenched in oil — we burn about 10 calories of energy in fossil fuels for every 1 calorie we produce in food.  Think about those huge combines, the tractors, and all the equipment used in the creation, storage, and movement of food.  Don’t forget the massive amounts of fossil fuel based fertilizers that are sprayed on the fields each year.  Much of the food on our plates travel an average of 1,500 miles before we dine on it.  

Remember the impact of the “high” fuel prices experienced in 2008?  Food prices also shot through the roof in the US and around the world.  Remember the images of food riots from around the world?   Now, think bigger, much, much bigger. 

A mere 5% decrease in oil production in 1970 caused fuel prices to rise 400%.  Think about the impact such a price jump would have now as it rippled through our economy.

E-v-e-r-y facet of our lives is based on cheap fuel.  How much plastic do you have in your life?  How much plastic is there in you car?  TV?  House?  In the products you use day in and day out?  All made from oil.  Most of our consumer products are made in factories many thousands of miles from here (China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, etc.)  Forget 12,000 mile product supply chains once Peak Oil hits.  The foundation of the global financial system is based on a growing supply of readily available cheap energy.   Banks create new money in our economy by giving loans to new businesses or to existing business to expand.  That debt, when paid back in the form of the interest rate paid on the loan, allows the economy to grow.  All that new economic activity is based on a growing supply of cheap energy.  The system most grow every day or it collapses.  Yes, our financial system is a massive ponzi scheme —  watch it fail the day there is not enough oil to fund new economic growth to pay back all those loans. Think house mortgage bubble crash that we recently had, plus the bank collapse, now multiply by 1000. 

I could go on and on but I can see your eyes glazing over.  The demand for oil is growing exponentially while the supply is flat and will soon be decreasing.  Oil is one of the most energy dense substances on the planet and is unique.  Our world will change very soon.  What are we doing to prepare for this new reality?

Exponential Growth
If Peak Oil is the “Rock” then Exponential Growth is the “Hard Place.”  (See the title of this posting if you are confused)  

We live on a finite planet.  The number of people on the planet is growing exponentially.  The amount of resources each person is using is also growing exponentially.  The amount of water we have is fixed.  Trees can be replaced only at a certain rate.  Fish can reproduce only so quickly.  The earth can absorb pollution and clean the air and water at a certain speed. Our demands for the earth’s resources are growing exponentially and will soon reach their limits.  

Read my post here to see more details.

This graph summarizes the situation (source):

In the late 1970s humanity’s demand surpassed the earths ecological capacity.  This means that we are currently living as if we have 2 planets.  Every day we stay above that horizontal line we are eating way the earth’s natural capital.  With each day we reduce the earth’s capacity to support life on the planet.  The impacts of this are becoming more and more apparent with each day at fish stocks collapse around the world, as water tables go dry, as the forests disappear, as the temperature rises, and so forth and so on.

So you can stop reading the news.  Can certainly stop watching the “news.”  Stop reading the magazines.  Background noise.   Soon there will be wild accusations, emergency actions, demands for investigations, military actions to protect the national interest, a rush to invest in research and magical technology to solve our problems.  It will all be for naught unless the debates and calls for action are to address the root causes, and not the symptoms.  

What are you doing to ensure a livable future for your children?  Grandchildren?  Nieces?  Nephews? 

Learn the issues.

Teach others.

Take action.

If you don’t, who will?

More Information can be found here:

  1. Great list of sources on peak oil here.
  2. Good website dedicated to peak oil here.
  3. Wake up, America.  We’re Driving Toward Disaster (Washington Post) 
  4. Imagining Life Without Oil, and Being Ready (New York Times, June 10, 2010)

This is posting was inspired, and based on a speech I heard Bill Mikibben give at a Slow Money conference held in Vermont in June 2010.  I liked the way he framed the idea so much that I thought I would try and share the main ideas here. 

Time to get off the bench…

Many of us have been captivated as the largest ecological disaster in our history slowly unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico.  The days pass as man struggles to put the cork back in the bottle and ebb the eruption of oil from the ocean floor.  The images are heartbreaking.

The reality is that fossil fuels have been wiping out life in the Gulf of Mexico for many years.  Our industrial food production system is heavily reliant on fertilizers that are produced from fossil fuels.  Most of the fertilizer used in the Midwest washes off the crops and fields and eventually is deposited in the Mississippi River which empties out into the Gulf of Mexico. (here is a animated explanation)

The nitrogen in the fertilizer spurs the rampant growth of algae in the water which eventually sucks the oxygen out of the water — no oxygen, no life.

The size of the dead zone varies but it can be as large as the state of New Jersey, or about 7,000 square miles.  (more here)

We have simply added a killing zone to the dead zone.

While the anger towards BP is warranted the opportunity presented by this catastrophe will be wasted if yet again we only focus on the symptoms. Or worse, if we simply do nothing.

The use of  coal causes a myriad of health problems and thousands of deaths across the country.  Thousands of US soldiers are continually put in harm’s way to ensure adequate access to oil fields.  Contamination by leaks from oil tankers and oil wells destroy entire ecosystems around the world every year.  The burning of fossils fuels are the driving force behind climate change that threatens to create an unlivable planet.

When do we start acting like adults and acknowledge the simple facts?  When do we start to make changes in our society?  Want a livable planet?  Want a few other life forms to survive with us?  Want to revive the American economy?  Then do the following:

  1. Write/Call your senator (Yes, really): Demand that we put a price on carbon.  Demand that they take action to stop global warming.  The true cost to society of burning coal and oil is not yet reflected in the prices we pay.  Once costs rise for these dirty fuels, industry will rapidly shift to renewable energy.  Renewable energy is LOCAL energy….local jobs, local manufacturing….what’s not to like?

    You can find your senator’s contact information here.

  2. Live a sustainable life style:  Each week look for a new way to reduce the amount of energy you use.  Drive less.  Get an energy audit for your home.  Weatherize your home.  Install some solar power on your roof.  Buying a new appliance?  Do your homework and get the most energy efficient model you can.  Buy less stuff. Avoid plastics.  Re-use.  Recycle.
Life is not a spectator sport.

Food for Thought

It was an amazing day at the Slow Money National Gathering today here in Burlington, VT.  This movement is about creating an alternative to our unsustainable industrial food system.  The presenters were humble, good-natured, and stunningly intelligent and pragmatic.  I challenge anyone to not be inspired by the stories of their efforts to create healthy food in a way that is both profitable and ecologically sound.  Their efforts to figure out how to allow people like you and me to invest in our local communities and support our local farmers and artisans.  Or current legal system actually makes it very hard to do this.  Despite all the odds people are making it happen.  It is real.  An odd mix of financial gurus, social entrepreneurs, and farmers are working together to create this new future.  What’s all the fuss about?  Well, here is a great article that was in Time Magazine about our current food system and its trappings. 
Friday, Aug. 21, 2009

Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food

Correction Appended: Aug. 20, 2009
Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won’t bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He’s fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he’ll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That’s the state of your bacon — circa 2009. (See TIME’s photo-essay “From Farm to Fork.”)
Horror stories about the food industry have long been with us — ever since 1906, when Upton Sinclair’s landmark novel The Jungle told some ugly truths about how America produces its meat. In the century that followed, things got much better, and in some ways much worse. The U.S. agricultural industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans. Those hidden prices are the creeping erosion of our fertile farmland, cages for egg-laying chickens so packed that the birds can’t even raise their wings and the scary rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria among farm animals. Add to the price tag the acceleration of global warming — our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy.
And perhaps worst of all, our food is increasingly bad for us, even dangerous. A series of recalls involving contaminated foods this year — including an outbreak of salmonella from tainted peanuts that killed at least eight people and sickened 600 — has consumers rightly worried about the safety of their meals. A food system — from seed to 7‑Eleven — that generates cheap, filling food at the literal expense of healthier produce is also a principal cause of America’s obesity epidemic. At a time when the nation is close to a civil war over health-care reform, obesity adds $147 billion a year to our doctor bills. “The way we farm now is destructive of the soil, the environment and us,” says Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). (See pictures of what the world eats.)
Some Americans are heeding such warnings and working to transform the way the country eats — ranchers and farmers who are raising sustainable food in ways that don’t bankrupt the earth. Documentaries like the scathing Food Inc. and the work of investigative journalists like Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan are reprising Sinclair’s work, awakening a sleeping public to the uncomfortable realities of how we eat. Change is also coming from the very top. First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House garden has so far yielded more than 225 lb. of organic produce — and tons of powerful symbolism. But hers is still a losing battle. Despite increasing public awareness, sustainable agriculture, while the fastest-growing sector of the food industry, remains a tiny enterprise: according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), less than 1% of American cropland is farmed organically. Sustainable food is also pricier than conventional food and harder to find. And while large companies like General Mills have opened organic divisions, purists worry that the very definition of sustainability will be co-opted as a result. (See pictures of urban farming around the world.)
But we don’t have the luxury of philosophizing about food. With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil — which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills — our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later. As the developing world grows richer, hundreds of millions of people will want to shift to the same calorie-heavy, protein-rich diet that has made Americans so unhealthy — demand for meat and poultry worldwide is set to rise 25% by 2015 — but the earth can no longer deliver. Unless Americans radically rethink the way they grow and consume food, they face a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs — and bland taste. Sustainable food has an élitist reputation, but each of us depends on the soil, animals and plants — and as every farmer knows, if you don’t take care of your land, it can’t take care of you.
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The Downside of Cheap
For all the grumbling you do about your weekly grocery bill, the fact is you’ve never had it so good, at least in terms of what you pay for every calorie you eat. According to the USDA, Americans spend less than 10% of their incomes on food, down from 18% in 1966. Those savings begin with the remarkable success of one crop: corn. Corn is king on the American farm, with production passing 12 billion bu. annually, up from 4 billion bu. as recently as 1970. When we eat a cheeseburger, a Chicken McNugget, or drink soda, we’re eating the corn that grows on vast, monocrop fields in Midwestern states like Iowa.
But cheap food is not free food, and corn comes with hidden costs. The crop is heavily fertilized — both with chemicals like nitrogen and with subsidies from Washington. Over the past decade, the Federal Government has poured more than $50 billion into the corn industry, keeping prices for the crop — at least until corn ethanol skewed the market — artificially low. That’s why McDonald’s can sell you a Big Mac, fries and a Coke for around $5 — a bargain, given that the meal contains nearly 1,200 calories, more than half the daily recommended requirement for adults. “Taxpayer subsidies basically underwrite cheap grain, and that’s what the factory-farming system for meat is entirely dependent on,” says Gurian-Sherman. (See the 10 worst fast food meals.)
So what’s wrong with cheap food and cheap meat — especially in a world in which more than 1 billion people go hungry? A lot. For one thing, not all food is equally inexpensive; fruits and vegetables don’t receive the same price supports as grains. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 calories of soda but just 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit. With the backing of the government, farmers are producing more calories — some 500 more per person per day since the 1970s — but too many are unhealthy calories. Given that, it’s no surprise we’re so fat; it simply costs too much to be thin.
Our expanding girth is just one consequence of mainstream farming. Another is chemicals. No one doubts the power of chemical fertilizer to pull more crop from a field. American farmers now produce an astounding 153 bu. of corn per acre, up from 118 as recently as 1990. But the quantity of that fertilizer is flat-out scary: more than 10 million tons for corn alone — and nearly 23 million for all crops. When runoff from the fields of the Midwest reaches the Gulf of Mexico, it contributes to what’s known as a dead zone, a seasonal, approximately 6,000-sq.-mi. area that has almost no oxygen and therefore almost no sea life. Because of the dead zone, the $2.8 billion Gulf of Mexico fishing industry loses 212,000 metric tons of seafood a year, and around the world, there are nearly 400 similar dead zones. Even as we produce more high-fat, high-calorie foods, we destroy one of our leanest and healthiest sources of protein. (See nine kid foods to avoid.)
The food industry’s degradation of animal life, of course, isn’t limited to fish. Though we might still like to imagine our food being raised by Old MacDonald, chances are your burger or your sausage came from what are called concentrated-animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are every bit as industrial as they sound. In CAFOs, large numbers of animals — 1,000 or more in the case of cattle and tens of thousands for chicken and pigs — are kept in close, concentrated conditions and fattened up for slaughter as fast as possible, contributing to efficiencies of scale and thus lower prices. But animals aren’t widgets with legs. They’re living creatures, and there are consequences to packing them in prison-like conditions. For instance: Where does all that manure go?
Pound for pound, a pig produces approximately four times the amount of waste a human does, and what factory farms do with that mess gets comparatively little oversight. Most hog waste is disposed of in open-air lagoons, which can overflow in heavy rain and contaminate nearby streams and rivers. “This creek that we used to wade in, that creek that our parents could drink out of, our kids can’t even play in anymore,” says Jayne Clampitt, a farmer in Independence, Iowa, who lives near a number of hog farms.
To stay alive and grow in such conditions, farm animals need pharmaceutical help, which can have further damaging consequences for humans. Overuse of antibiotics on farm animals leads, inevitably, to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and the same bugs that infect animals can infect us too. The UCS estimates that about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we’re breeding more of those deadly organisms every day. The Institute of Medicine estimated in 1998 that antibiotic resistance cost the public-health system $4 billion to $5 billion a year — a figure that’s almost certainly higher now. “I don’t think CAFOs would be able to function as they do now without the widespread use of antibiotics,” says Robert Martin, who was the executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.
See more pictures of what the world eats.
See photos from a grocery store auction.
The livestock industry argues that estimates of antibiotics in food production are significantly overblown. Resistance “is the result of human use and not related to veterinary use,” according to Kristina Butts, the manager of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. But with wonder drugs losing their effectiveness, it makes sense to preserve them for as long as we can, and that means limiting them to human use as much as possible. “These antibiotics are not given to sick animals,” says Representative Louise Slaughter, who is sponsoring a bill to limit antibiotic use on farms. “It’s a preventive measure because they are kept in pretty unspeakable conditions.”
Such a measure would get at a symptom of the problem but not at the source. Just as the burning of fossil fuels that is causing global warming requires more than a tweaking of mileage standards, the manifold problems of our food system require a comprehensive solution. “There should be a recognition that what we are doing is unsustainable,” says Martin. And yet, still we must eat. So what can we do? (See pictures of an apartment outfitted for goat-milking.)
Getting It Right
If a factory farm is hell for an animal, then Bill Niman’s seaside ranch in Bolinas, Calif., an hour north of San Francisco, must be heaven. The property’s cliffside view over the Pacific Ocean is worth millions, but the black Angus cattle that Niman and his wife Nicolette Hahn Niman raise keep their eyes on the ground, chewing contentedly on the pasture. Grass — and a trail of hay that Niman spreads from his truck periodically — is all the animals will eat during the nearly three years they’ll spend on the ranch. That all-natural, noncorn diet — along with the intensive, individual care that the Nimans provide their animals — produces beef that many connoisseurs consider to be among the best in the world. But for Niman, there is more at stake than just a good steak. He believes that his way of raising farm animals — in the open air, with no chemicals or drugs and with maximum care — is the only truly sustainable method and could be a model for a better food system. “What we need in this country is a completely different way of raising animals for food,” says Hahn Niman, a former attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice. “This needs to be done in the right way.”
The Nimans like to call what they do “beyond organic,” and there are some signs that consumers are beginning to catch up. This November, California voters approved a ballot proposition that guarantees farm animals enough space to lie down, stand up and turn around. Worldwide, organic food — a sometimes slippery term but on the whole a practice more sustainable than conventional food — is worth more than $46 billion. That’s still a small slice of the overall food pie, but it’s growing, even in a global recession. “There is more pent-up demand for organic than there is production,” says Bill Wolf, a co-founder of the organic-food consultancy Wolf DiMatteo and Associates. (Watch TIME’s video “The New Frugality: The Organic Gardener.”)
So what will it take for sustainable food production to spread? It’s clear that scaling up must begin with a sort of scaling down — a distributed system of many local or regional food producers as opposed to just a few massive ones. Since 1935, consolidation and industrialization have seen the number of U.S. farms decline from 6.8 million to fewer than 2 million — with the average farmer now feeding 129 Americans, compared with 19 people in 1940.
It’s that very efficiency that’s led to the problems and is in turn spurring a backlash, reflected not just in the growth of farmers’ markets or the growing involvement of big corporations in organics but also in the local-food movement, in which restaurants and large catering services buy from suppliers in their areas, thereby improving freshness, supporting small-scale agriculture and reducing the so-called food miles between field and plate. That in turn slashes transportation costs and reduces the industry’s carbon footprint.
A transition to more sustainable, smaller-scale production methods could even be possible without a loss in overall yield, as one survey from the University of Michigan suggested, but it would require far more farmworkers than we have today. With unemployment approaching double digits — and things especially grim in impoverished rural areas that have seen populations collapse over the past several decades — that’s hardly a bad thing. Work in a CAFO is monotonous and soul-killing, while too many ordinary farmers struggle to make ends meet even as the rest of us pay less for food. Farmers aren’t the enemy — and they deserve real help. We’ve transformed the essential human profession — growing food — into an industry like any other. “We’re hurting for job creation, and industrial food has pushed people off the farm,” says Hahn Niman. “We need to make farming real employment, because if you do it right, it’s enjoyable work.”
See pictures of the global food crisis.
See pictures of the world’s most polluted places.
One model for how the new paradigm could work is Niman Ranch, a larger operation that Bill Niman founded in the 1990s, before he left in 2007. (By his own admission, he’s a better farmer than he is a businessman.) The company has knitted together hundreds of small-scale farmers into a network that sells all-natural pork, beef and lamb to retailers and restaurants. In doing so, it leverages economies of scale while letting the farmers take proper care of their land and animals. “We like to think of ourselves as a force for a local-farming community, not as a large corporation,” says Jeff Swain, Niman Ranch’s CEO.
Other examples include the Mexican-fast-food chain Chipotle, which now sources its pork from Niman Ranch and gets its other meats and much of its beans from natural and organic sources. It’s part of a commitment that Chipotle founder Steve Ells made years ago, not just because sustainable ingredients were better for the planet but because they tasted better too — a philosophy he calls Food with Integrity. It’s not cheap for Chipotle — food makes up more than 32% of its costs, the highest in the fast-food industry. But to Ells, the taste more than compensates, and Chipotle’s higher prices haven’t stopped the company’s rapid growth, from 16 stores in 1998 to over 900 today. “We put a lot of energy into finding farmers who are committed to raising better food,” says Ells. (See pictures of the effects of global warming.)
Bon Appétit Management Company, a caterer based in Palo Alto, Calif., takes that commitment even further. The company sources as much of its produce as possible from within 150 miles of its kitchens and gets its meat from farmers who eschew antibiotics. Bon Appétit also tries to influence its customers’ habits by nudging them toward greener choices. That includes campaigns to reduce food waste, in part by encouraging servers at its kitchens to offer smaller, more manageable portions. (The USDA estimates that Americans throw out 14% of the food we buy, which means that much of our record-breaking harvests ends up in the garbage.) And Bon Appétit supports a low-carbon diet, one that uses less meat and dairy, since both have a greater carbon footprint than fruit, vegetables and grain. The success of the overall operation demonstrates that sustainable food can work at an institutional scale bigger than an élite restaurant, a small market or a gourmet’s kitchen — provided customers support it. “Ultimately it’s going to be consumer demand that will cause change, not Washington,” says Fedele Bauccio, Bon Appétit’s co-founder. (See pictures of two farms in Nebraska.)
How willing are consumers to rethink the way they shop for — and eat — food? For most people, price will remain the biggest obstacle. Organic food continues to cost on average several times more than its conventional counterparts, and no one goes to farmers’ markets for bargains. But not all costs can be measured by a price tag. Once you factor in crop subsidies, ecological damage and what we pay in health-care bills after our fatty, sugary diet makes us sick, conventionally produced food looks a lot pricier.
What we really need to do is something Americans have never done well, and that’s to quit thinking big. We already eat four times as much meat and dairy as the rest of the world, and there’s not a nutritionist on the planet who would argue that 24‑oz. steaks and mounds of buttery mashed potatoes are what any person needs to stay alive. “The idea is that healthy and good-tasting food should be available to everyone,” says Hahn Niman. “The food system should be geared toward that.”
Whether that happens will ultimately come down to all of us, since we have the chance to choose better food three times a day (or more often, if we’re particularly hungry). It’s true that most of us would prefer not to think too much about where our food comes from or what it’s doing to the planet — after all, as Chipotle’s Ells points out, eating is not exactly a “heady intellectual event.” But if there’s one difference between industrial agriculture and the emerging alternative, it’s that very thing: consciousness. Niman takes care with each of his cattle, just as an organic farmer takes care of his produce and smart shoppers take care with what they put in their shopping cart and on the family dinner table. The industrial food system fills us up but leaves us empty — it’s based on selective forgetting. But what we eat — how it’s raised and how it gets to us — has consequences that can’t be ignored any longer.
With reporting by Rebecca Kaplan / New York
The original version of this article mistakenly referred to the Bon Appétit Management Company as the Bon Appétit Food Management Company
See the top 10 green ideas of 2008.
See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.
The Tale of Two Cattle
How did your hamburger get to your plate — and what did it eat along the way? The journey of beef illustrates the great American food chain
ORGANIC (1% of all cattle)
This is the way all beef used to be raised — and how some people still imagine it is. Bill Niman tends a small herd with one of the lightest hands in the business and produces what Bay Area chefs swear is unparalleled beef
Diet: Grass
Niman’s cows eat only grass, along with a smattering of hay. That’s the normal diet for cattle. Their rumen, a digestive organ, can break down grasses we’d find inedible
Supplements: None
Niman gives no supplements whatsoever to his cattle — no drugs, no hormones, no additives. That’s not ironclad for organic beef — some companies might use antimicrobials — but generally the animals are supplement-free
Environmental Impact: Living with the Land
To prevent his ranch from becoming overgrazed, Niman shifts his cattle around the land, ensuring that the grass has time to recover between feedings. The result is a surprisingly low-impact hamburger, since grass doesn’t need chemical fertilizer to grow and its presence helps prevent soil erosion. There’s no need to clean up manure — with Niman’s low cattle density, the waste just fertilizes the land
Human Impact: The Omega Effect
Beef has a bad rep among nutritionists, but that might be partly unfair for grass-fed steaks. According to research from the University of California, grass-fed beef is higher in beta-carotene, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids than conventional beef
CONVENTIONAL (99% of all cattle)
The vast majority of all American cattle start off on open ranges, but that’s where the similarity to their organic cousins ends. They’re shifted after a few months to the tight quarters of an industrial feedlot, to be fattened up as fast as possible
Diet: Grass and corn
Conventional cattle feed off grass pasture for the first several months, but at the feedlot, they’re switched to a heavily corn-based diet, which makes them gain weight faster but also makes them get sick more easily
Supplements: Chemicals
In part to help them survive the crowded conditions of feedlots, where infections can spread fast, conventional cattle are given antibiotics in their feed, and sometimes growth hormones, bloods and fats
Environmental Impact: Waste
A 1,000-head feedlot produces up to 280 tons of manure a week, and the smell can be powerful. All that feed corn requires millions of tons of fertilizer and, ultimately, a lot of petroleum
Human Impact: Fat Attack
Feeding corn to cattle for the last several months of their lives doesn’t just get them fatter faster; it also changes the quality of the beef. Corn helps produce that marbled taste many of us love, but it can result in beef that is higher in fat — helping to fuel the obesity epidemic

A Timely Thought

It has been over a week since my last blog posting.  Hopefully, you noticed and perhaps even lamented the omission.  So, what kept me from writing?  Did I run out of things to say?  Been traveling?  Bed-ridden with illness?

Alas, nothing so major — I just didn’t have time.  I recently started a new job so that has greatly cut into my blogging time.  On Wednesday I traveled to New York do a talk on sustainability (“The American Dream, The World’s Nightmare”) for an organization.  Most of my nights leading up to this event were spent working on adding new slides and revamping the presentation.  So, just not much time.

In our current society most of us are asset rich and time poor.  We have so much stuff in fact that the self-storage industry is one the fastest growing sectors in America.  You know the places, those little sheds that many of us rent each month to hold all the extra stuff that doesn’t fit in our current home.  This is especially ironic given the average house size has grown dramatically during the same time period while average household size has shrunk! (so bigger and bigger houses, with fewer and fewer people in those houses, and we still don’t have enough space for all our stuff)

 To pay for all this stuff Americans work longer hours than workers in just about any other industrialized country.

We work longer hours than the English, the French, and much more than the Germans and the Norwegians.  We take less vacation.  We retire later.  
The more time we spend working the worse the impact on the planet and our souls.  Why?
With rising incomes we have more and more money to buy things.  Bigger homes.  Bigger TVs.  More TVs.  Bigger and fancier cars.  Multiple cars.  More and more clothes.  More gadgets.  You know the drill.
But with all those extra hours at work we have less time for ourselves.  Less time to spend with our families.  Less time to engage with our communities.  Less time for the things that actually make us human.  We are are social beings.  Our well-being, our happiness is fundamentally rooted in our connection to others.  We are becoming more and more isolated, more individualistic, and less connected to others.   Depression rates are 10x higher than 50 years ago.  We have the highest divorce rate in the world.  We have the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Drug use is a constant problem.
To fill the void we consume more.  The buzz is nice, but it soon wears off.  That new ipod will never fill the void left by a disenfranchised family, distant friends, and no sense of belonging to community.  But we keep trying.  “Retail Therapy” anyone? 

In a sustainable world we will be asset poor but time rich.  We will work less, perhaps 20 hours a week.  Maybe 3 days a week.  With less income we will consume much less, reducing our burden on the planet.  Imagine living in a place where you now have time.  Time to really play with your children.  Time to go on a long walk.  Time to walk to the store.  Time for a bubble bath.  Time to actually cook and taste a meal.  Time to plant food and harvest it.  Time to tinker around the house.  Time to read all those books you’ve wanted to read.  Time to, gasp, re-read the same book. Time to learn to play the guitar.  Time to spend with your grandmother.  Time to improve your tennis serve (I need a lot of time for that one).  Time to nap.  Time to help your friends.  Time to volunteer.  Time to sing.  Time to dance. Time to walk the dog.  Time to write your senator.   Time to read great blog posts.  Time to write great blog posts.  Time to do, well, nothing at all.

Time to imagine the world we really want. 

It’s time to make it happen.  Work Less.  Buy Less.  Live More.

The Corporate Challenge

We will never succeed in creating a sustainable society until we overcome the death-star like power, and evil, represented by the modern corporation. Seem a tad extreme? Let’s look at a few facts.

Corporations only make up 20% of US firms but they account for 85% of all US business revenue.

The economic power of the largest corporations boggles the mind — of the100 largest economies in the world, 53 of them are corporations!

There are only 10 COUNTRIES that have economies larger than Exxon Mobil. Or to put it another way, Exxon Mobil is economically larger than 180 countries in the world.

We now have 63,000 multi-national corporations in the world — huge monoliths that transcend national boundaries and operate beyond the legal jurisdiction of any national legal system.

The massive economic wealth of corporations overwhelms most political systems, including ours, and weakens democracies around the world. Our political process moves, or is blocked, at the whim of corporate sponsors and lobbyists.

We have no one to blame but ourselves — we are the mad scientists that have created these economic Frankensteins. How so?

First, we made it LAW, that the directors and managers of a corporation have a duty to act in the best interest of the corporation, which has been interpreted as an obligation to do whatever it takes to maximize the wealth of shareholders. This, the “best interest of the corporation” principle is one of the greatest obstacles in allowing corporations to become more socially responsible institutions.
If polluting the nearby river maximizes profit, the managers are obliged to do it. If the corporation can maximize dividends by closing a factory and moving to another country, shut her down. If carcinogenic ingredients help keep costs down, and therefore profits up, well, then a bit of cancer is the “price” of doing business.

Under our current system, a corporate manager is being UNETHICAL if they consider policies that would promote positive social, health, or environmental impacts if they would reduce profits. Really. No, really, that is the system that we created.

If an individual acted this way we would call him or her a sociopath, but if a corporation does it, it is “just business.”

Second, we further encourage such diabolical behavior by limiting the liability of shareholders for the action of their companies. Limited liability is why corporations must be chartered by a government authority — in the US the states do this. They are supposed to supervise and regulate the corporations but it is rarely done in practice. Shareholders might take more care if they were held financially accountable for the misdeeds of their companies (think BP and the oil disaster for a current example).

Third, in the US we have granted corporations “personhood” allowing them protection under the constitution just like a flesh-and-blood person. Corporations are now allowed to spend as much money as they like to influence elections.

Corporations have become not only the most powerful economic force on the planet, but the dominant political force as well. This concentration of power is increasingly unaccountable to you and me, to our government, or the planet.

How do we fix this? A few ideas:
  1. Revoke corporate charters of companies violating the public trust
  2. Roll back limited liability
  3. Corporate directors and top managers should be personally liable for gross negligence
  4. Extend liability to shareholders under certain circumstances
  5. Eliminate corporate personhood (Learn more here)
  6. Change the legal mandate that requires the corporation to strictly pursue its own self-interest and to give primacy to maximizing shareholder wealth.
    (Maryland has taken a step in the right direction by creating the legal framework for the “Benefit Corporation.” (Learn more here))

Ultimately, we need to rethink the whole nature of the corporation and its role in society. It is clear that the mindless pursuit of short term profits, regardless of consequences, is ultimately doomed to failure — not only for the company but for society at large.

A world full of Americans?

Many in the US believe that the rest of the world should follow in our economic footpath and if they do, they can benefit from the “American Dream.”  Philosophical questions aside, is this even possible?  Can the planet support a world full of people who consume in the same way as a typical American?

How do Americans consume?  This slide will give you a sense.

We represent about 5% of the world population which is indicated by that blue piece of the pie.  That is our fair share of resources from the planet.  The amount we actually consume is shown in blue + purple.  As you can see, we consume much, much more than our fair share.

Although 1/20th of the world’s population we consume
1/4 of the world’s fossil fuel;
1/3 of the world paper
1/5 of the worlds minerals

And America, 5% of the world’s population produces 75% of the worlds toxic waste.

So, how many “Americas” can the planet support?

The United States, at 5% of the world population (about 300 million people) consumes about 25% of the worlds resources.  Let’s imagine that another 300 million people develop in the same manner and live a similar lifestyle.  Now we have 10% of the world consuming 50% of the world’s resources.  Add another 300 million people and we have 15% of the world consuming 75% of the world’s resources.  One more time and we have 20% of humanity using 100% of the worlds resources.

Hmmn.  So 1.2 billion people are living very well.  But the current global population is 6.8 billion.  What happened to the other 5.6 billion people?

Well, they are dead.  We are using up all their resources.

Following our Lead
It is clear that the world cannot even support 4 “Americas.”  Turns out that the world is now following in our footsteps.  Most societies have some form of capitalism in place and they are succeeded in creating millions, and millions of new consumers.  People who are now living the same type of lifestyle we do in the US.

Let’s add them up:

  1. Unites States
  2. Europe (that is about 300 million people who live about as well as we do)
  3. China (china’s economy has been booming for the last 30 years…now have at least 300 million middle class consumers)
  4. India (India’s economy has been booming for the last decade or so, and have created roughly another “America”)
  5. Asian Middle Class (Add up the middle class from Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and you get another 300 million consumers)
  6. Russia/Central Europe (Add up the growing wealthy elite in these countries and you get another 300 million)
  7. [email protected] (At the current rate of growth, China will add another 300 million to their middle class in the next 20 years)
  8. [email protected] (At the current rate of growth, India will add another 300 million to their middle class in the next 20 years)

Sooooo, in the next 20 years we are going to have 8 Americas come on line.  There is nothing subtle about this.  No room for negotiation.  There is no technology, or “greater efficiency” or production improvement that can deal with this.

For the current population to live like Americans, we would need five Earths.  We don’t have five earths but we are hurling ahead as if we do.

This last graph says it all.  Somewhere in the 1980’s we passed the carrying capacity of the earth.  The longer we stay above that horizontal line the more we are eating away at the earths natural resource capital.

Every day above that line we reduce the earths ability to support life on the planet.  For future generations to survive and flourish, we cannot take resources from the planet faster than the planet can regenerate them.

Our sense of what is a “realistic” lifestyle is simply off the charts.  We need to dramatically change our lives before mother earth does it for us.

  1. Buy Less
  2. Work Less
  3. Drive Less (get rid of one of those cars)
  4. Reduce, Re-use, Recycle
  5. Buy local (when you must)
  6. Live more.  Family.  Friends.  Self

Check out:

When you are in a hole……stop digging

Remember that pithy ditty, what was it again, all yeah, “Drlll baby, Drill”?  Michael Steele, the current head of the Republican National Committee came up the phrase and the party faithful chanted it gleefully at the 2008 Republican National Convention.  It made for good TV and it was kind of catchy.

It is also one of the f*%$# stupidest things I have ever heard in my life. ( I tried to find a more eloquent way to phrase my disdain, but after sitting here for 10 minutes I gave up.)  For any elected official to say such a thing reveals that s/he is unfit for any office of responsibility because s/he is either criminally incompetent or completely corrupted by special interests.

And the fact that any person, government official or just your average American can be so gleefully unaware of how the world works is, well, terrifying.

Why is the expansion of off-shore drilling such a bad idea?  Let us count the ways:

Climate Suicide
Global warming represents a profound threat to the survival of most life forms on the planet.  We need a “Man to the Moon” sense of urgency in stopping the burning of ANY fossil fuels.  ANY law, program, activity, incentive, tax break, or subsidy that promotes the continuation, or worse, the expansion of the use of fossil fuels is insane.  It represents societal suicide.

For me, that is a slam dunk, argument over.  But if you want more:

Energy Independence
Proponents argue that the United States should tap into all domestic reservoirs of oil so we can rely less on foreign oil and reduce the price we pay at the pump.  For this to make sense the US domestic oil supply would have to represent a significant percentage of the world oil supply to have any impact on price.  Here is the reality:

Do you think that little yellow slice is going to change our reality?

Simple Fact:  If you drilled EVERYWHERE in the United States that might have oil (on land, in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and at all off-shore sites) the US, might be able to produce 3% of the worlds oil. 
And remember, this doesn’t happen overnight.  It would take 10-20 years before that oil would come online.

And this oil is sold on the world market, not uniquely in the United States.  So the world market determines the price.

The United States consumes 24% of all the worlds oil.

So, we invest billions, wait 10 to 15 years, to add a sliver to the world’s oil supply.  Saudi Arabia simply shuts off  a tap or two and the world market is now down by whatever amount we just added.  Nothing changed.  Drilling would have no impact on the price of gasoline.

Drilling does nothing to improve our energy independence.  And I would argue that following this path makes us much worse off.  Drilling is a costly and dangerous diversion.  While the rest of the world is racing ahead and creating the energy technology of the future, solar technology, wind technology, battery technology, we are investing our time and money in last century’s technology.  During testimony before the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works venture capitalist John Doerr stated: “If you list today’s top 30 companies in solar, wind and advanced batteries, American companies hold only 6 spots. That fact should worry us all.” (Read his full, crisp, powerful testimony here).

Wasting time on more drilling ensures that we will simply trade one energy dependence, oil, for another — solar, wind and battery technology.

Peak Oil
Any oil executive will tell you that the world has already reached peak oil or will do so within a decade.  Every aspect of our society is based on the premise of cheap oil.  Our food production system is incredibly oil intensive.  Our transportation system relies on the private automobile — think about our towns and suburbs where you must use your car to go get a loaf of bread, or take the kids to soccer practice, or get to work. Most of our “cheap” products travel up to 12,000 miles from factories in China and other countries.  The world’s demand for oil is growing exponentially — the day there is not enough oil to meet demand, our deck of cards economy will be devastated.  The financial crisis of 2008 will look like a quaint garden picnic.(Think about what happens to a company when their rate of profit INCREASE is less than expected — their stock price can plummet.  Not a drop in profits, not a loss, but just less growth in profits than expected — chaos!).  A mere drop of 5% in oil supply can cause a global economic meltdown.  More data and details on peak oil can be found here.

Life as we know is about to change forever. The sooner we shift away from relying on oil, the better chance we have of surviving the day of reckoning from peak oil.

Human Imperfection
Stubbornly, even maniacally i would argue many still believe that we can create perfect technology.  That we can control all the risks associated with our increasingly complex world.  Get over ourselves.  The BP oil spill may not be contained for 3 months.  It may represent the greatest ecological disaster seen in modern history.

It only takes one mistake to wipe out years of perfection. 

Drill, baby, Drill, is the rant of an drug oil-addict –delirious and disconnected from reality as any heroin addict.

Given these facts, how could a rational person support expanding drilling for oil?

Think, Baby, Think!  (Now that is a ditty with a future.)

Why Al Gore Doesn’t Matter

From time to time I meet someone who tells me that they don’t believe in climate change. Usually, about 70% of the time, within the next 2 to 3 sentences after making this proclamation, said person will argue that it is all a conspiracy orchestrated by Al Gore. He might add that the issue is just something made up by Al Gore so he and a few scientists can make a lot of money, etc.  Some have heard a rumor that he has this really big house with a huge energy bill so that just proves that he is a hypocrite so global warming must be a lie.

Al Gore?  Who the hell cares what Al Gore has to say?  What do climate scientists say about all this?  Deniers argue that there is no clear scientific consensus on the topic.  They claim that the scientific community is widely split and many doubts remain.  This is beyond ludicrous.  Let me give you a visual representation of how the camps are divided.

 A photo taken at a climate scientists’ recent flag football game.  😉

Ok, the photo is a joke but the message is accurate — the vast, vast majority of the science community accepts that climate change is happening and that it is caused by humans.  This is may be shocking to some, especially if you only occasionally follow the issue or catch sound bites from Fox News or if you only catch the headlines from articles and columns from the major newspapers.  Yes, the media has done a terrible job of explaining the story.  And it turns out, not surprisingly, that scientists are poor communicators.  (I will deal with that issue at a later time.)

So, who exactly is saying that climate change is real?  And when did they start saying it?  Is it just a couple of hacks that Al Gore found somewhere?

The Experts
Scientists around the world started to notice the effects of climate change in the 1980s.  In response the United Nations (at the request of the United States and other concerned countries) created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 to look into the issue.  The IPCC is made up of the top climate scientists from around the world.  The IPCC does not carry out new research nor does it monitor climate-related data.  So what does it do?  Every few years they produce an assessment report based on a review of the latest technical data and peer-reviewed published reports related to climate science.  The purpose of the assessment report is to offer guidance to policy makers (e.g. world leaders and politicians).  Four reports have been produced to date: 1990, 1992, 2001, and 2007.

The IPCC Assessment Report represents THE official view of the scientific community on climate change.  Is this document credible?  Let’s look at the 2007 report.  The document was written after 6 years of work involving 130 countries, 450 lead authors and 800 contributing authors.  The validity of each topic section was checked, critiqued, and verified by the leading experts for that field.  The document was reviewed by 2,500 expert reviewers.  I am not sure if you fully appreciate how unbelievably rigorous this review process is. 
A bit of background.  How does science move forward?  Well, normally a scientist does research and then s/he submits the findings to a peer-review journal like the Lancet (health related) or Science, or Nature, etc.  The journal would then search out 1 to 3 experts in that field and ask them to review the study for scientific validity.  If the reviewers feel the methodology and calculations look fine, the study is accepted by the journal for publication.
The IPCC report is reviewed, and re-reviewed by THOUSANDS of the very best scientists of the world.  And the entire submission process is completely transparent – all submissions to the IPCC, all comments, and all responses to comments are available for anyone to review.
Hang on, we are not done yet.  The IPCC then submits the report to the world’s governments to review.  Each country has the right to critique the document and make edits.  The main recommendations and language are NEGOTIATED with the world’s political leaders.  The final document is then submitted to the United Nations where each country has the option to sign on in support of the findings.  If a country does not agree, they simply don’t sign.
The latest report has declared:
  1. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.
  2. Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.
Wow.  For science-speak this is like screaming from the roof-top.  Try getting a scientist to say anything is “unequivocal.”  And as defined in the report, the term “very likely” indicates a >90% probability.  The scientists are saying that they are more than 90% sure global warming is happening and it is caused by humans. 
So who has signed on in support of the IPCC findings?
  1. EVERY scientist who participated in producing the document has signed on.  Signature does not mean that a scientist necessarily agrees with every statement in the report but that s/he agrees that the content is fair and credible.
  2. EVERY country in the world, including the United States has signed on in support of the document.  Yes, George Bush signed his support for the 2007 report.
Anybody Else?
Has anyone else signed on in support of the findings of the IPCC report?  In the United States the National Academy of Sciences has said:
 “The IPCC’s conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue
Should we listen to the Academy?  It is home to about 2,100 of America’s top scientists with close to 200 of them having won Nobel Prizes for their work. Only the finest scientists our country produces are elected to join this body and membership is considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded to a scientist or engineer.  Don’t sound like hacks to me.
I got more.
In 2008 the National Academies of 13 countries (United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Canada, China, Germany, France, Italy, Brazil, Japan, India, South Africa, and Mexico). put out this statement:
 “….climate change is happening and that anthropogenic warming is influencing many physical and biological systems.” Among other actions, the declaration urges all nations to “(t)ake appropriate economic and policy measures to accelerate transition to a low carbon society and to encourage and effect changes in individual and national behaviour.”
So, the most prestigious scientific bodies, including most of the top scientific minds on our planet, from some of the most advanced societies in the world support the findings of the IPCC.
Oh, I’m not done

These organizations have signed on in support of the IPCC findings:

U.S. Agency for International Development
United States Department of Agriculture
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
National Institute of Standards and Technology
United States Department of Defense
United States Department of Energy
National Institutes of Health
United States Department of State
United States Department of Transportation
U.S. Geological Survey
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
National Center for Atmospheric Research
National Aeronautics & Space Administration
National Science Foundation
Smithsonian Institution
International Arctic Science Committee
Arctic Council
African Academy of Sciences
Australian Academy of Sciences
Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts
Academia Brasileira de Ciéncias
Cameroon Academy of Sciences
Royal Society of Canada
Caribbean Academy of Sciences
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Académie des Sciences, France
Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences
Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina of Germany
Indonesian Academy of Sciences
Royal Irish Academy
Accademia nazionale delle scienze of Italy
Indian National Science Academy
Science Council of Japan
Kenya National Academy of Sciences
Madagascar’s National Academy of Arts, Letters and Sciences
Academy of Sciences Malaysia
Academia Mexicana de Ciencias
Nigerian Academy of Sciences
Royal Society of New Zealand
Polish Academy of Sciences
Russian Academy of Sciences
l’Académie des Sciences et Techniques du Sénégal
Academy of Science of South Africa
Sudan Academy of Sciences
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Tanzania Academy of Sciences
Turkish Academy of Sciences
Uganda National Academy of Sciences
The Royal Society of the United Kingdom
National Academy of Sciences, United States
Zambia Academy of Sciences
Zimbabwe Academy of Science
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians
American Astronomical Society
American Chemical Society
American College of Preventive Medicine
American Geophysical Union
American Institute of Physics
American Medical Association
American Meteorological Society
American Physical Society
American Public Health Association
American Quaternary Association
American Institute of Biological Sciences
American Society of Agronomy
American Society for Microbiology
American Society of Plant Biologists
American Statistical Association
Association of Ecosystem Research Centers
Botanical Society of America
Crop Science Society of America
Ecological Society of America
Federation of American Scientists
Geological Society of America
National Association of Geoscience Teachers
Natural Science Collections Alliance
Organization of Biological Field Stations
Society of American Foresters
Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
Society of Systematic Biologists
Soil Science Society of America
Australian Coral Reef Society
Australian Medical Association
Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
Engineers Australia
Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
Geological Society of Australia
British Antarctic Survey
Institute of Biology, UK
Royal Meteorological Society, UK
Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
European Federation of Geologists
European Geosciences Union
European Physical Society
European Science Foundation
International Association for Great Lakes Research
International Union for Quaternary Research
International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
World Federation of Public Health Associations
World Health Organization
World Meteorological Organization
Damn, that Al Gore guy is goooooood. 
But doesn’t it seem like there are a lot of people saying that climate change is not happening or that the science is far from done.  Yes, it does seem that way.  I will write on this later but for now think of it this way.
Remember when everyone thought smoking was honky dory?  Then a few scientists started producing evidence that smoking was linked to lung cancer.  The tobacco industry created a research consortium called the U.S. Tobacco Institute and within a few years some scientists and “experts” appeared with studies showing that there was no credible data linking smoking to cancer.  The tobacco industry bought off scientists, hired PR firms to spread disinformation, and lobbied heavily with government officials.  The whole goal of the campaign was to create doubt in the public mind.  We all know how it turned out.  The body of evidence became overwhelming and the tactics and fraud of Big Tobacco were revealed to the public.  We now all accept as common knowledge that smoking can kill you.
That is our reality now.  The illusion of doubt around climate change is simply the output of a well-funded campaign orchestrated by the fossil-fuel industry (because it threatens their profits) and right-wing political parties (because the solutions threaten their world view). 
The evidence however is overwhelming, and climate change can kill you.  We need action now.
Learn more here.
Change your life to reduce emissions that cause climate change.
Demand political action now.  Call your elected official and tell them you want action.
Want to learn more?
Here is a report that shows how Exxon Mobil has funded over 40 organizations to spread disinformation on climate change.
whew…i am exhausted….gotta write something shorter tomorrow

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