Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fallen Fruit

Here's a short radio broadcast about Fallen Fruit, an organization that collects fruit on public land in Los Angeles (mostly from private trees overhanging public land) and more importantly, is making maps of existing fruit trees and lobbying the LA government (unsuccessfully) to plant more fruit trees.

The city notes that rats, high water needs, and the danger of "fruit fall," are reasons why it won't plant fruit trees on public land. This, I admit makes sense, but Fallen Fruit's point about creating free urban food sources also makes sense. Perhaps the middle ground is finding trees that provide food without the danger. In some cities, that could mean sugar maples, in DC, mulberries could play that role (and do to some extent). I'm sure rats eat some of the berries, but there's no danger from fruit fall (mulberries are soft) and DC is pretty wet so water use is probably not a concern.

But why stop there? Fruit doesn't just grow on trees. Why not get cities to plant blueberries and blackberries along the edges of land--it'd make good natural fencing and provide fruit (without the danger of fruit fall).

Fallen Fruit is also encouraging others to map their cities' fruit production--take a look. And then, if you have time, make a map.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Books on Life Skills to Prepare for a Changing World

Here is a partial list of books that will provide useful skills in the case we can no longer rely on a complex social order (where doctors, running water, and other modern day luxuries abound).

The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook by Albert Bates is a good starting place as it's light and witty and fun to read.

For a more serious account When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance & Planetary Survival, by Matthew Stein is a good choice.

If you want to specialize, here are a few that'll get you started:

On basic survival and homesteading skills:

Tom Brown's Field Guide series is useful (on really roughing it)

as are The Foxfire Book series (on homesteading)

Also, if you want to learn basic medical skills, Where There Is No Doctor has proved useful in developing countries for decades now. Through the Hesperian Foundation, there are now over a dozen books of this nature: on dentistry, midwifery, is even one on Where There is No Dentist in case you're willing to learn to yank teeth without a license. All of these can be downloaded for free on Hesperian's website.

And if you do purchase any of these books (odds are they won't be in the library), remember to buy them used.

Prepare for a Changing World

Because of the rapid decline of the ecological systems on which human society depends, the probability is high that serious political, social, and economic disruptions will occur. We should prepare for this contingency, especially by cultivating one or more basic skills, such as food production, construction and repair, basic medicine, basic sanitation, and so on. Having these skills and teaching them to others will be vital in maintaining and rebuilding human civilization in the event that a collapse occurs.

The danger with including a principle like this is that it sounds so “doom and gloom,” so apocalyptic. But that isn’t the point at all. This is more an example of hedging one’s bets. To quote a cliché: “The only thing that’s certain in life is change.” If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to live our entire lives in a country that has access to hospitals, grocery stores, clean tap water and sanitation, and electricity. But there is no guarantee of this. Much of the infrastructure in the United States is old; we expect it will be repaired when it breaks, but if a major depression occurs it’s possible that increasing numbers of Americans will no longer be able to count on access to basic services we see as natural. And in many other places these services are still just dreams. Almost a billion people are underfed, and lack of clean water and sanitation accounts for 10 percent of the global disease burden.

If we don’t shift our economy away from being dependent on ever-increasing levels of consumption—an impossibility on a finite planet—Earth’s ecological systems will fail and, with them, the economies of many countries. (And these will be deep failures that will make the current recession seem trivial.) Already the effects of climate change are being felt in some areas and are leading to less certainty in crop cycles, declining access to fresh water, and more erratic weather patterns. Not possessing a diverse set of skills or the knowledge to adapt to changing conditions will leave you at the mercy of others—but having a skill will enable you to adapt, and to barter your knowledge. And if these changes don’t occur in your area or lifetime? Many of these skills can be fun to learn, so just consider them eccentric leisure activities and fodder for cocktail party banter.

Over the years a slew of books has offered survival tips in case a rapid economic or ecological decline makes our current way of life impossible. The Post Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook is a recent one that injects a sense of humor into what could be a dire discussion. (See here for a list of several more.) This readable guide includes many important tidbits of information—from how to can food, grow sprouts, and do basic first aid to instructions on designing rainwater collectors, composting toilets, and solar ovens. It also provides references for those who want to specialize in a specific topic. Of course, it’s impossible to learn all the skills, but learning a smattering of many or gaining expertise in one will be useful, in case all the skills in Excel, Word, and surfing the Web we’ve been honing over a decade become suddenly irrelevant.

This essay is reprinted from World Watch Magazine, May/June 2009

Life of Service

We are all part of a greater system, and the whole will only be healthy if its constituent parts are. Thus we should help those who are in need, especially in ways that provide a useful understanding of the world and our role in it—namely that we are dependent on and part of the Earth, and that only through sustaining this beautiful, fragile system will we lead meaningful and satisfying lives.

With the current recession, economic insecurity is spiking worldwide. But even before this crisis, there were almost 2.6 billion people living on less than US$2 a day. Those of us with the means to help others less fortunate than we are have an obligation to do so. I won’t justify that statement here; anyone who has seen others suffering and doesn’t feel compassion to help will surely not be transformed by anything I might say in this essay.

Nor will I go into the ample research showing that helping others often makes one happier and more fulfilled. But what I do hope to make clear is that some ways of helping are better than others. There’s an old Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Of course, that was before oceans were acidifying and fish threatened to become a rare luxury, but the broader point still rings true. Providing temporary aid that doesn’t get to the root of the problem is futile. (For a detailed discussion of this, see the book Sweet Charity.)

Considering our rising population and declining ecological systems, it’s imperative that we teach people to live simply. Not surprisingly, living simply will actually reduce economic worries, while increasing free time and reducing impact. Too often wealth is conflated with wellbeing, when in fact the two are only tangentially related. By recognizing that a good life depends not on wealth but on health, basic security, community, and purpose, lives can be very good while being simple and low-impact.

Charity, in theory, could be a perfect vehicle to teach this, but is rarely utilized in that way. Instead, most charitable operations provide a fish each day and do nothing to counteract the billions spent by advertisers to teach that unless you have not just swordfish on your plate but a yacht to catch them from, you’re not going to be happy. Hence, people have trouble making ends meet, even when earning good salaries, because they’ve reached their credit-card limits and taken additional mortgages on their oversized homes—all for consumer goods like flatscreen televisions that increase their electricity costs and encourage them to sit still and watch more ads.

Imagine if charities were designed to reeducate “failed” consumers in simple living, ecological stewardship, and informed citizenship, so that when a new family walks into the food pantry they receive food aid, but only after they agree to enroll in a course on financial planning, living simply, media analysis (to help defend against advertising messages), our ecological footprints, and so on. Or when a diabetic walks into a free clinic, he is treated—but only after agreeing to take a course on healthy cooking and to work several hours in the clinic’s community garden. Yes, give fish to those in need, but teach them how to fish while they eat. Slowly but surely, by replacing the influences of the consumer society, people will learn how to live healthier and more sustainable lives, and most likely become happier in
the process.

Of course, one problem here is that few such programs exist. For the social entrepreneurs reading this, consider starting one. For others, don’t let the Perfect be the enemy of the Good. Search out a local urban garden or food security agency that at least understands these points and then push them to do more to address root causes.

Ultimately, the best way to serve may be the least satisfying: lobbying to make major changes in the systems that prop up the consumer culture. But one can be an advocate for change while helping individuals directly. And every person awakened from the consumer dream can also start helping others, both directly and through advocating systemic changes.

This essay is reprinted from World Watch Magazine, May/June 2009

Friday, March 20, 2009

Gardens Growing

A couple of great articles that might help the idea of growing one's own food spread.

First an article about how the Obama's are setting up a garden at the White House. No better advertisement for gardening than The First Family of Cool taking this on.

And then, how to enact one's sudden urge to get in on the game:
Here's an article describing Sharing Backyards, a small effort to help connect yard owners with people who want to garden. And then, in some areas there are even innovative new sustainable businesses trying out the same concept. See Your Backyard Farmer for an example.

So, get out there and start gardening--your land or someone's elses. The spring is here!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

One kid? Or Voluntary Human Extinction?

Wow, I thought the Living Earth Ethical Principle on family size was challenging--since it encourages all families to give birth to just one child (though families should adopt as many additional children as they have the means and interest to raise). Then I learned today about the "Voluntary Human Extinction Movement." These are individuals who have not only agreed to stop reproducing but actually want the human species to go extinct (though not through violent means, just through choosing not to continue).

While I understand the impulse, really, once we can bring down the human population to a sustainable level--perhaps 1 billion with high-income lifestyles or 6 billion with middle-income lifestyles, then we can live in balance with the planet (though these estimates decrease each year we live beyond the biocapacity of the planet as ecological capital continues to be degraded or depleted). So while I find the movement thought provoking and funny, I hope people in the movement will consider a new focus: The Voluntary Human Reduction Movement, where members are encouraged to give birth to no more than one child per couple (with twins the accidental exception). That's a message that might resonate better, spread further, and still have significant benefits.

Video that makes a painful comparison

You've heard the old comparison between the human species and a cancer. But have you heard cancer's side? Watch this video to hear its defense:

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Exercise or Eat a Big Mac?

On February 12th, the BBC posted a new article about how exercise reduces colon cancer and a video about how during the recession, more people are eating at McDonald's and other fast food joints, which will, when done in excess, lead to obesity and many nutrition-based diseases, cancers included. This certainly makes an interesting juxtaposition. In the first article, Sara Hiom, director of health information at Cancer Research UK, explained that "around half of all cancers could be prevented by changes to lifestyle." And that "maintaining a healthy bodyweight is one of the best ways to lower the risk of bowel and other cancers - potentially helping to avoid an estimated 13,000 cases each year." In other words, skip the MickieD's.

There are many paths I could take with this blog, but let's jump straight to the most important one: in this moment of economic uncertainty you can eat very healthy on little money if you're willing to prepare the food yourself. Yes, it takes more time, but then again, perhaps we'll start having more of that as unemployment leads people to scale back their spending and live with smaller incomes. Learning to cook would be a good way to eat healthier while saving money (and would even give you a bit more exercise than waiting at the drive thru). Dried beans, rice, fresh veggies and spices can be made into an exquisite meal for little 'dough.' And you'll be much better off than eating $1 burgers.

Combine that with exercise--as simple as walking to the grocery store or doing a little gardening (saving a bit of money on food that way too)--and you'll be a lot healthier. Spring is coming, which makes this a perfect moment to find a plot you can start cultivating. Or if you live in an apartment, why not try setting up a little balcony (or indoor) garden. You can tend that year round. Watch the below video to see one guy quite inspired by his balcony garden. Feel free to use less exotic plants than he does! Even some basil, tomato plants and a few other herbs would be a good start.

Friday, February 6, 2009

More on the Climate Impacts of Meat

I don't think I have to belabor this point, but eating factory farmed hamburgers and steaks has a much larger ecological impact than lentil soup or a nice veggie stir-fry. Here's a Scientific American article that provides some concrete statistics. A half pound of conventional veggies shipped all the way from Peru? 4.4 ounces of co2 equivalent.

A half pound of hamburger? The equivalent of 3.6 to 6.8 POUNDS not ounces of co2 equivalent. (It's actually a small amount of methane but that has 23 times the climate changing potential of co2.)

So, point is: eat very little meat, and what you eat should be raised naturally, and ideally low on the food chain, like chicken not beef. But an occasional grass-fed hamburger on very special occasions can be ok--as long as special occasions don't include all days that end with the number 3, every Sunday, or days that start with T or S. More like: 3 or 4 birthdays and a few holidays--leading to meat and fish consumption on the order of two pounds a month. (Or just make Sunday your meat night and have one big 1/2 pound of meat then.) The Earth could sustain that level of meat consumption. In fact, it would welcome it: right now we eat about 435 million tons of meat and fish each year (275 and 160 million tons respectively). If everyone pulled back to a kilo (or 2.2 pounds) per month we'd only be eating 41 million tons per year--just 9% of current meat and fish levels. Even at a population of 9 billion, this number would only rise to 54 million or 12% of current consumption levels.

Along with being healthier, our oceans would heal, greenhouse gas emissions would fall, we could go back to raising animals more naturally, and grow more vegetable and grain crops for human consumption leading to less hunger (if better distributed, which would mean that total farming jobs wouldn't have to fall). I know, it's a dream, but cut your own meat consumption--that's a starting point and then encourage others to follow suit. And I've found that it's definitely easier to encourage people to make meat a smaller part of their diet than abstain altogether. Good luck!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

High Blood Sugar = Umm, I forgot

One more study that suggests that having high blood sugar leads to lower quality of life as one ages--in this case, in the form of reduced cognitive functioning.

As Columbia University neuropsychologist Adam Brickman notes in the article, “there is now converging literature that implicates uncontrolled blood glucose levels with poor cognitive aging. While the mechanisms underlying that are still unclear, there have been enough … studies now to really raise our eyebrows.”

Type-2 Diabetes--caused by poor diet, too many processed foods, not enough physical activity--cuts the average lifespan by about 10 years, reduces sexual function, leads to blindness, now cognitive dysfunction. There's a clear benefit of maintaining a healthy diet: for ourselves, our families and the planet.

The Goldilocks Story of Parenthood

Here's some new evidence that it's not just a mother's age but a father's that can affect the health of a baby.

The bottom line: after a father turns 40 chances of autism increase significantly.

Take home conclusion: it's good for the Earth if you don't have a child too early (see earlier post), but for your own child's sake, you don't want to have the child too late.

In other words, nature has taken a cue from Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This mother is too young, this father is too old, this one is just right! It appears that the best window of time to have a child is in the 30's--for both mother and father, not just the mother as is commonly believed.

New studies, however, are always coming out and research might find that with so much exposure to chemicals, maybe the reproductive system weakens earlier and so for safety sake a child in the late 20s might be best. Anyone know of studies investigating that question? Comparing birth defects in places with high chemical exposure at different ages and against populations with lower chemical exposures? Comment if so.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Family For All Families

Until the human population returns to a number that the Earth can healthily maintain, all couples should moderate their reproductive fruitfulness. Those wanting larger families should consider adopting as many children as they have the longing and means to raise. All families should focus on teaching their children to tread as lightly on the Earth as possible.

We need to shrink the human population as fast as humanely possible if we expect the majority of humans to live in anything but the most abject state of poverty on a disrupted planet with ecosystem services increasingly less able to sustain humanity. But a reduction of how much, exactly? The conservatively calculated Ecological Footprint indicator suggests that the Earth can sustain about 2.1 billion high-income individuals or 6.2 billion middle-income individuals or 13.6 billion low-income individuals (this assumes all of Earth’s biocapacity is used for humans). Few will be willing to return to a state of poverty, nor should they, so really we need to aim for either a high-income (“consumer”) population one-third of today’s population (and no one else), or, more realistically, a larger but still much-reduced middle-income population—one that maintains a simple but satisfying way of life.

So, the Earth can sustain 6 billion mindful individuals or fewer consumers—yet we’re en route to a total population of about 9 billion, including 2–4 billion consumers. That means our survival depends on an aggressive campaign to reduce population and consumption, starting right now. In part we can address this by offering opportunities to women to control their own reproductive choices. Many have written about this, including Worldwatch vice president Robert Engelman in his recent book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want. In essence, he notes, “women aren’t seeking more children, but more for their children.” If we can provide education, support, and access to contraception, many women will choose to have fewer children.

Family planning efforts like the ones Engelman describes will help significantly, but they typically only focus on low and middle-income individuals. What about those women who are seeking more children in consumer countries, where each child has the impact of many children in low-income countries? The goal here also needs to be to encourage moderation in fruitfulness. Successful population management will most likely require not only good access to family planning but a new reproductive norm—that bearing one, or at very most two, children is the very best choice—whether through ecological education efforts, social marketing campaigns, or religious teachings.

The trend seems to be going in the other direction, at least in the United States, where families are having two, three, four, even 18 children in the case of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, a reproductively energetic family prominently showcased on the Discovery Health Channel. Yet what few U.S. or other consumer-class citizens fully understand is that even their smaller families consume staggering amounts of resources and thus have a hugely disproportionate impact. The average family has 2.1 children, yet from a global resource perspective each of these children uses the resources of 9.4 children in a low-income country. In other words, the average U.S. family has about the equivalent of 20 children (while the Duggars have 169). So the problem is more to be found in rich countries than in poor countries where families are having just three to five children.

While few people will be willing to forego children altogether, anyone truly committed to global justice, the environment, sustainability, ethical living, stewardship of God’s creation, or however one personally frame today’s converging social and ecological crises, must choose fewer children. A one-child goal, adopted as a personal choice and reinforced through tax incentives and the intentional cultivation of a new social norm, may be the best solution until population and consumption habits regain balance with the planet’s longterm capacities.

But isn’t it true that “only” children turn out to be spoiled brats? Writer Bill McKibben investigated this question in his book Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families and found that single children were smarter, better motivated, and better adjusted than children with siblings. But if you don’t want to believe the research or you just want a big family, simply adopt more children—ideally kids who would have grown up in consumer families whom you can raise sustainably instead.

Along with choosing the number of children, parents have an important role to play both in the values they instill and how they raise their children. By teaching ecological values early—through the stories, lessons and activities they share—parents can help their children internalize these values, slowing down acculturation into consumerism and helping to create a new and lasting cultural norm. Parents can raise their children sustainably often by choosing the most traditional or natural options: breastfeeding when able, using cloth diapers, making their own baby food from organic and locally grown produce, reusing second-hand clothes and toys passed down from older friends and family members. Some will think this is unrealistic, but many of these changes will save money (used clothes and toys are free, self-made baby foods are cheaper and healthier, and cloth diapers can save thousands of dollars per child). And while some of these efforts take time or add work, giving birth to only one child reduces the workload and the necessary period of fulltime care. Of course, sustainable childcare could be promoted further if laws were widely adopted like those in Norway or Sweden that give primary caregivers 10 or 15 months of paid leave after birth to devote themselves fulltime to child care (though perhaps limiting this leave to just the first child).

Finally, one last question often neglected in this discussion: When to have a child? The answer: when you’re older—ideally around the age of 30 (though not much older, in order to avoid increased health and developmental risks). Waiting until that age helps slow population growth. Here’s an example: suppose that a 20-year-old woman gave birth to twin girls in 2000. One of the twins has a child at 20 (2020), the other at 30 (2030). Each of their children has one child each at 20 or 30, following their mothers’ leads (2040 and 2060 respectively), and this happens once again in 2060 and 2090. By 2060, the first sister has produced one more generation than the second. If each of the original twins gives birth to only one child, both have helped in slowing population growth, but the second sister has contributed a third less growth over the same period of time. Assuming this is happening among millions of families, this demographic shift could lead to the reduction of hundreds of thousands of people. And while western economists will say that this will disrupt the global economy, that is a shortsighted concern. Yes, social and economic changes will be necessary to cope with the shift (such as retiring later, rebuilding communities, altering migration patterns, and encouraging adult children to bring parents back into their homes), but these will be minor compared to the ecological collapse that failure to slow population growth will bring.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fewer Calories, More Memories

Here's more evidence to support moderating one's calories: a BBC article that describes a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that found that a calorie restricted diet in 50 elderly volunteers improved their memories significantly. These same volunteers also had "fewer signs of inflammation" and decreased levels of insulin.

Want to live longer, feel better, have a smaller ecological impact, and now remember more? Eat fewer calories--and make those calories as nutritious, local, ecological and low on the food chain as possible. See the earlier essay on Right Diet for more on how to do this.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Exercise and healthy diet keeps memory strong

A new study finds that elevated blood sugar levels can have a detrimental effect on the memory. Bottom line: eat healthy (particularly fewer refined high sugar foods) and exercise. Enough said.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Wanted: Moles at ExxonMobil

Here's a little more support for the idea of pursuing a just livelihood--regardless of where you work or what you do, even if that means whistleblowing or footdragging. The author, Auden Schendler, a sustainability officer at a ski resort, noted the following in Orion Magazine recently:

"To someone who asks, “I want to establish a relationship with the divine. Can I come to your monastery?” Keating might reply, “You can have that relationship anywhere, and should.” My conversation with Keating reminded me of the many phone calls I get from eager, young, well-educated college graduates who desperately want to get into the “sustainability field.” My response is that given the scale of the problems, every job must become a sustainability job. So one approach is to look for ways to turn your own position into one that addresses climate change. If every job doesn’t become a climate job, we’re not going to solve the problem. Even if you work for the worst of the worst—let’s say it’s ExxonMobil—we need people inside the beast. We need moles. And there isn’t a job in the world that doesn’t somehow influence the changing climate."

Now, he doesn't mention footdragging but he said we need moles. What does that mean? Ideally, in his context, the worker is pressuring his colleagues, superiors and subordinates to focus more on sustainability. But how overtly? In some companies--ExxonMobil is Auden's example--how openly can you be a mole (and by definition a mole is an animal that lives underground, quietly tearing things up)? When one can't overtly change a system without risk to oneself, then whistleblowing or footdragging become justifiable. Final question: shouldn't one just leave the job, assuming one can find another job? There are arguments on both side: If you do and find a job working for a company that is receptive to becoming more sustainable, then you might be doing a more useful service in the world, helping that company grow and grow greener. But that means someone that is probably less interested in sustainability would replace you at ExxonMobil. And thus the company continues on destroying the planet with a workforce even less concerned about the consequences. But really, the world isn't this straightforward. Jobs aren't infinite and neither are workers' skills. So sometimes one can't just easily switch jobs. The big point is that if you are concerned about the long-term state of the planet (which will determine the ability of humanity to thrive in the future), then you must use your job--wherever and whatever it is--to push for sustainable business practices: whether out front in a supportive business environment, or at worst, as a mole, a whistleblower, or a footdragger.

On the Ethics of Foot Dragging

I received a comment recently on the essay "Just Livelihood" from a reader (through World Watch magazine so I won't post the name here in case the author did not expect this to be available in electronic format):

"I am writing to object to a strategy recommended by Erik Assadourian under the banner "The Living Earth Ethical Principles" (pgs 30-31 of World Watch Magazine, Jan/Feb 2009).

Where is the ethics in Mr. Assadourian's recommendation to employees of "foot dragging, an effective tactic to imperceptibly slow down down, whether by moving just a bit more slowly, filing papers incorrectly, or entering data with a small error (just a few examples). If done right, managers won't detect it's intentional (or you!)"

If Mr. Assadourian and by association his employer the World Watch Institute advocate for subterfuge and deception, let it not be under the banner of "Ethical Principles."

I am truly dismayed by the lack of personal integrity and ethics put forth by this staff member of World Watch."

And so I respond:
In his book, Rules for Radicals, community organizer Saul Alinsky updated Machiavelli’s statement “The ends justify the means,” with a question “Does this particular end justify this particular means?” Of course, the ethics of any action depends not only on the action itself but the intention behind the action (i.e. the end one pursues).

With footdragging (slowing down one’s work), if the end in mind is to get back at a boss you don’t like or because you don’t enjoy your job anymore, as happens today with millions of Americans (according to the book, I Quit But I forgot To Tell You) then the action of footdragging is unambiguously unethical. But if the end in mind is to slow down the destruction of the planet, the poisoning of communities with toxic chemicals, or the reduction of profit of a corporation that benefits from the above (ethical ends), then footdragging in this case would be an ethical means.

I admit this description of ethics is not as black and white as most people would like but neither is the real world. So let me reiterate what I said in the essay: footdragging is not the first or best option. Of course one should try to change the behavior of the company (directly through discussion or if impossible through “whistleblowing”), or if that doesn’t work, find a new job. But if those are not options, then should one do her job as effectively as possible when that means more efficiently sickening the planet or killing innocent people (even if that’s just an unintended consequence of the business)? Or should one redefine one’s job to: doing it more de-lib-er-ate-ly, more me-thod-i-cal-ly, (ok, more slow-ly), hoping in a small way to save lives and slow down the system while others build new responsible businesses that eventually replace their unsustainable competitors? Particularly in oppressive economic climates, where job opportunities are limited and overt dissent could lead to imprisonment or worse, quiet footdragging may be the only means of resistance available (as anthropologist James Scott notes in his book Weapons of the Weak). To dismiss this tactic out of hand is unrealistic at best, unethical at worst.