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.