Climate Change News from New York

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The big news coming out of the United Nations Climate Summit in N.Y. City –  following the largest climate change march in history is…

….what WILL NOT happen.

 

This is from a news story from the Associated Press – flash!

  • The United States WILL NOT join 73 other countries to support a price on carbon.
  • Brazil WILL NOT sign a pledge to halt deforestation by 2030.
  • China WILL NOT agree to President Obama’s declaration that “nobody gets a pass” and insists that developing nations be treated differently

The rhetoric coming out of the historic meeting of nations following massive rallies by climate supporters in NY and around the world was indeed inspiring.

“Today we must set the world on a new course” according to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

President Obama proclaimed “Today I call on all countries to join us, not next year or the year after that, but right now.  Because no nation can meet this global threat alone.Continue reading

Walmart’s policies are the cause not the solution to poverty

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Walmart, the largest grocery store in the world, is often presented as a solution to poverty because of its low prices.  There is a reason for those low prices however and it is because they put ever-increasing pressure on suppliers (including those that supply food) to drive down their costs.  This drives down wages, both for the Associates who work in the stores as well as all across the manufacturing and food production chain.

Walmart is the major player in the “race to the bottom” which keeps full-time employees in poverty.  Other retailers are forced to follow in their footsteps.  When we shop locally and pay a few cents more for our food, we invest in a better quality of life for all.  Continue reading

Will the International Year of Family Farming slow the “cancerous” growth of industrial farming?

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The 66th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, declared 2014 to be the International Year of Family Farming” (IYFF).  Family Farming, according to the U.N., is the dominant form of agriculture throughout the world with over 500 million family farms.  These farms range from small and medium size holdings, and include peasants, indigenous peoples, traditional communities, and pastoralists.

The U.N. claims that family farmers should continue to be an important part of the solution to free the world from poverty and hunger. If this is to be the case, real policy changes will be needed to stop the multinational investors from continuing to acquire large tracks of land in both developed and developing nations.  A recent report titled “Land is Life” by La via Campesina documents the struggles of farming families to retain access to land in the face of escalating “land grabs” by the multinationals. According to this report…

“Land grabbing re-emerged during the 2007-2008 global food crisis, which pushed an additional 115 million people into hunger, leading to a total of almost one billion suffering from hunger by the end of 2008.  Today, global food prices remain high and volatile, particularly in developing countries. National ‘offshoring’ for land and food production, increased speculation in food markets, the ‘meatification’ of diets and the push for agrofuels are major trends that are fuellng the global land grab.”

Land speculation by corporate investors drive land values up and are seen as potentially profitable in a world where food will be in increasingly short supply.  This benefits both the investors and the industrial farms that will grow food in place of millions of small family farms.

But aren’t large, efficient farms the solution to hunger?

The multinational agribusiness and investment sector justifies the purchase of land in developing countries with reports stating that the only way to feed the world is through industrial scale, chemically-intensive and corporately-controlled farming operations.  The threat of escalating world population and increased consumption of meat in India and China are used as a rationale for putting peasants off land they have farmed for centuries.  Peasant agriculture and family farms are framed as inefficient and non-productive from a business perspective.

Nevertheless, the U.N. calculates that over 70 percent of food insecure peoples live in rural areas of Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Near East.  Putting these people off their land to satisfy the corporate demand for cheap, raw foodstuffs to feed the industrial production of processed foods and biofuels will do little to alleviate global hunger.  Concentrating production in the hands of fewer and fewer multinationals will only make the entire planet more vulnerable to crisis.  Seemingly, the government of Australia recognized this trend was not in their national self-interest when they blocked the purchase of GrainCorp by Archer, Daniels Midland Co.

The self-proclaimed “supermarket to the world” expressed their disappointment with the following statement from CEO Deborah Woertz; “we are confident that our acquisition of GrainCorp would have created value for shareholders of ADM and GrainCorp.”  The proposed acquisition was not about growing more food.

In fact, the corporate food business has never been about feeding hungry people.  Despite wave after wave of promises to “feed the world” from the corporations that seek to control the global food supply, the worth of industrial farming is measured only in return on investment. The business of growing food has been financialized to the point that the health of rural communities, the quality of rivers and streams, public health and food safety have been sacrificed to maximize corporate profits.  Deregulation of government protection of the environment, small businesses, and public health, especially in the United States, has reached a radical extreme.

There is no reason to believe that continued industrialization of farming will ever “feed the world.”  Agribusiness is more of a cause than a solution to world hunger, as industrialization accelerates poverty and hunger among the displaced peoples of developing nations.  Perhaps it is time to balance industrialization with an effort to help family farmers feed the world.  (NOTE:  this is not to say that large farms should not be part of the solution to world hunger, but they would have to be regulated to prevent harm to rural communities, public health, food safety and environmental quality).

In addition to efforts to stop the “cancerous” growth of unregulated corporate farms, a supportive policy environment for family farmers might allow them to deploy their productivity potential.  A 2010 report from La via Campesina claims that indeed sustainable family farms can make a major contribution to ending world hunger.  By supporting rather than displacing farmers on the landscape, the world might create a more resilient food production system, less vulnerable to crisis.  The U.N. statement of support for Family Farming claims that:

“Facilitating access to land, water and other natural resources and implementing specific public policies for family farmers (credit, technical assistance, insurance, market access, public purchases, appropriate technologies) are key components for increasing agricultural productivity, eradicating poverty and achieving world food security”

Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine a policy shift so extreme that the World Trade Organization (WTO) would agree to an agricultural policy that prioritizes local and regional trade (which supports family farming) at the expense of the global import/export business.  To date, any policy that threatens global trade (such as environmental protection) has been sacrificed to the financial bottom line of the multinationals.

What about family farms in the United States?

In spite of the support for this effort by the National Farmers Union in the U.S., the track record of U.S. policy has been anti-farmer for the past 60 years.  Wenonah Hauter writes in Foodopoly, “After World War II, farmers became the target of subtle but ruthless policies aimed at reducing their numbers, thereby creating a large and cheap labor pool.  In more recent times, federal policy has been focused on reducing the number of farms as labor has been replaced by capital and technology.” 

U.S. federal farm policy has been markedly pro agri-business and anti family farmer, in spite of the rhetoric of U.S.D.A. administrators.  While this policy has resulted in cheap food (consumers in the U.S. expend less than 10% of their income on average toward food) the effect on all other aspects of society such as public health, environmental quality, rural community vitality, and the economic viability of the family farm has been decidedly negative.

The business of growing and distributing food in the U.S. is owned by only a few major corporations.  This is not the result of “free trade” and fair competition but rather public policy.  Consolidation of the food industry is supported by the same politicians that benefit from corporate contributions to election campaigns.

It will take a remarkable turn around in public policy in the U.S. if we intend to participate in the celebration that is the International Year of Family Farming! 

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Please check out my Just Food Now Resource Page and see our Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences program at the University of Massachusetts.  Go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Your life is a story within a larger story

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As I prepare to teach my Agricultural Systems Thinking class, I’ve been thinking (again) about hierarchy.  I explored this topic a while back in “Systems Thinking Tools: Understanding Hierarchy“, in which I wrote about the power relationships in a human constructed hierarchy as compared with a natural systems hierarchy.

In this blog, I will try to examine more closely the relationship of subsystems within a natural systems hierarchy (or holarchy) to the “system above”, which provides the “system below” with meaning.  But first, lets go back to the title of the blog “your life is a story within stories.”  I borrowed this metaphor from a wonderful systems thinker, Michael Dowd, who wrote ”

“Each of us is a story within stories. My daughter’s life story is part of both my story and her mother’s story. The story of our family is likewise part of other stories larger than our own: the story of our town, our state, our nation, Western civilization, humanity, planet Earth, and the story of the Universe itself. Each of us is a story within stories within stories.

“There is a dynamic relationship between every story, the larger stories it is part of, and the smaller stories that are a part of it. Larger stories influence and add meaning to the stories that are nestled within them. For example, if my wife and I were to move across the country, my daughter’s story would be affected. Similarly, if my nation goes through a severe economic depression, experiences prolonged drought, or undergoes a major spiritual awakening, my community’s story, my story, and my daughter’s story will each be affected. The destiny of every story is affected by the larger stories of which it is a part.”

Get it?

As if the universe was trying to affirm this message, I opened a little book this morning which I had picked up at the library yesterday and read the first line in Hunger Mountain by David Hinton.  He wrote; “things are themselves only as they belong to something more than themselves: I to we, we to earth, earth to planet and stars…”

Hmmmmmm…..  sounds an awful lot like the image from my earlier blog.

I find meaning and purpose in my life by being useful to a system (story) larger than myself, in which my life is embedded.  This mental model of relationships helps me to know who I am and why I am here.  And it helps me choose how to invest my limited time on this planet.

Addictions are a coping mechanism

I sometimes wonder if the many addictions that humans seem to, …. well, become addicted to, result from a life focused on the little “myself” without a strong connection to the larger story.  And of course the addictions are many:

  • drugs (prescribed and illegal)
  • alcohol (at least its legal)
  • recreational sex (friends with benefits in today’s common lingo)
  • passive consumption of violent sports (football, hockey…..)
  • shopping (the number one addiction in America)

Of course, when not taken to the extreme these are normal human behaviors.  But we seem to be addicted to “the extreme.”  I wonder if these common addictions are coping mechanisms for a life lived without a sense of purpose, or a connection to that system (story) larger than the little “myself.”

I believe we find meaning and purpose in “larger” systems (in which our lives are embedded) because indeed, we are an intimate part of those larger natural systems.  This is not necessarily true however, for a human-constructed hierarchy.

We may not want to invest our lives in the next higher system in a human constructed hierarchy.  We may simply choose to “do our job” and take our paycheck home.  Many people today, seem to be willing to settle for this sort of life.  This seems a little sad to me.  I”m reminded of a Robert Frost poem, Two Tramps at Mud Time, where he writes;

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation.

I wonder how many of us are blessed with a vocation (that which we need to do) that is also an avocation (that which we love).

Frost continues:

Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.

When we live within a human-constructed hierarchy, we may not be in a position to work for “heaven and the future’s sake.”  Whereas, in a natural systems hierarchy, each subsystem is an intimate part of the next “larger” system.  We have no choice but to play for mortal stakes!  Indeed, we (the organism in the graphic below) contribute to the health (or ill health) of the human population, the larger ecosystem, the planet……

When I see myself as part of a human constructed hierarchy, I am likely to be competitive and selfish.  When I see myself as part of a natural systems hierarchy, a living system, it is in my best “self” interest to work for the good of the next larger system!

We are stores within stories

There is a visual tool that might help us picture the relationship among levels of complexity within a natural hierarchy called the Mandelbrot Set.  This is a mathematical set of points with a unique and distinctive shape.  As you look more closely at the shape however, you see the same shape repeated over and over again, seemingly infinitely.

A system in nature consists of smaller systems, upon which it depends.  Likewise the smaller systems are completely dependent on the larger system.  That is, we are stories within stories or using the Mandelbrot metaphor, common shapes within shapes.

But my family or community is a mess!

If we are not blessed with a healthy family and community (and I believe that those of us that are blessed with a healthy family or community have a special responsibiltiy to contribute to the well-being of others), still…. we ALL have a common, and powerful story.  It is The Great Story, and it is the greatest story ever told!

When we see ourselves serving a human constructed hierarchy of power and control, we may become scared and selfish.  And then the addiction that seems to dominate the national dialogue in America emerges, anger.

On the other hand, when we see ourselves as part of The Great Story of the continued evolution of the universe, we may choose to be of service to family, community, the planet, the universe, or even the divine.  When we see ourselves as something MUCH larger than the little “myself” – we may recognize our larger purpose and our obligations to other beings (both human and otherwise).

I believe we have a choice……

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On Leadership….

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Many organizations are over-managed and under-led. Daily routines are handled, but no one questions whether the routine should be done at all. Over time, the organization may find itself humming along efficiently, but not terribly effectively.  Outsiders begin to question the need for the organization – and a crisis in leadership ensues.  At this time of rapid social and economic change, leadership will help determine which organizations prove sustainable.   This post shares a few thoughts on effective leadership.

Dr. Robert Terry, former Director of the Reflective Leadership Program at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs of the University of Minnesota, presented six common views of leadership (and then adds a seventh) in his classic book, Authentic Leadership: Courage in Action.  The six common views of leadership are are follows;

  1. The first is called the trait theory. There are “born leaders” – like John Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and perhaps Barack Obama.
  2. The second type of leadership is called situational. Leaders respond to the situation – the war years “created” George Washington, Winston Churchill, and FDR. The “times create the man or woman.”
  3. The next leadership theory is called organizational. In this view, leadership is a function of position or rank in a hierarchical structure. This type of leadership is functional in many corporations, universities and of course the military.
  4. The forth view is the power theory, which suggests that position in a hierarchy isn’t as important as the ability to stimulate action. We all know people who passively occupy positions of authority, while people without impressive titles make things happen.
  5. Terry’s fifth type is called visionary. Leadership understands the past, scans current trends and helps point people toward a meaningful future. The visionary leader always asks the question “where are we going?”
  6. The sixth view, the ethical assessment theory, is also visionary, but it is a vision that involves ethical reflection. This leader not only asks “where are we going?,” but also asks “why are we going there?”

Terry believes that each of these six views of leadership is important, but incomplete. He proposes a seventh view that is a combination of all the others, which he calls the theory of fulfillment. In Terry’s view, leadership is exercised when people organize to engage and fulfill the needs of the people in the institution, while serving the mission and working toward a shared vision.

Terry’s seventh view is that “leadership is a particular kind of social and ethical practice. It emerges when persons in community, grounded in hope, are grasped by unauthentic situations, and courageously act in concert with followers, to make those situations authentic.”

I’ll restate the seventh view with some explanations in parentheses; “…leadership is a particular kind of social ( we are people in communities) and ethical ( thinking and acting for the sake of others) practice ( leadership is doing). It emerges when persons in community ( together), grounded in hope ( things can get better), are grasped ( see and called forth) by unauthentic situations, ( something is wrong), and courageously ( it won’t always be popular) act in concert with followers ( together), to make those situations authentic ( right).

Leaders are visionaries, dreamers, idealists – with their feet firmly planted on the ground. Effective leaders nurture a shared vision within the organization. They do this by constantly acting on their vision.

I’ll conclude this essay with two examples of visionary leadership. On the day that A. Bartlett Giamatti assumed the presidency of Yale University (July 1, 1978), he sent the following memo to the Yale faculty:

******************************************************************************************

In order to repair what Milton called the ruin of our grand parents, I wish to announce that henceforth, as a matter of University policy, evil is abolished and paradise is restored.

I trust all of us will do whatever possible to achieve this policy objective.

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I’m sure “the abolition of evil and restoration of paradise” is indeed a worthy vision. The only problem is that it wasn’t shared. The Yale faculty were shocked and upset by their new President’s lack of decorum.

Leaders must recognize the “boundaries” of institutional vision. Warren Bennis wrote in his book, Leaders: “…vision should be projected in time and space beyond the boundaries of ordinary planning activities – but not be so far distant as to be beyond the ability of incumbents in the organization to realize.”  Bennis suggests that: “boundaries are set by the values of the people in the organization.”  Sometimes leaders don’t recognize the boundaries until they are crossed. Giamatti crossed the line his first day on the job.

The second example is a truly shared vision from a slave rebellion in 70 BC against the Roman Empire. When the Roman General Crassus told the outnumbered slaves if they turn over their leader, Spartacus, they would not be punished (remember the 1960 movie with Kirk Douglas), each of the former slaves stood up, stepped forward and shouted out to Crassus “I am Spartacus.”

Now that was a shared vision.

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Please check out my Just Food Now Resource Page and see our Sustainable Food and Farming page. Please share this blog with anyone who might be interested in either the Bachelor of Sciences degree or our 15 credit Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts.

Antibiotic Resistance at Factory Farms “Scares the Hell Out of” Scientists

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The headline above caught my attention when it first appeared in 2009.  Johns Hopkins University Scientists declared that antibiotics should be banned from animal feed.  If we didn’t take action, they warned we are likely to see an explosion of human deaths from previously preventable bacterial diseases as antibiotics become less effective.  I was sure this news would result in a public uproar….. I was wrong.   So when the latest news reports on antibiotic resistance appeared outlining the potential crisis in human healthcare, I had to wonder – maybe this time?  Will there be a public outcry about the use of antibiotics in the animal industry now?  Well, not yet!

While we have known this is an emerging global problem for some time, recently the medical profession is talking about a “catastrophic threat –  as big a risk as terrorism.”  There seems to be two point-sources for antibiotic resistance; one is hospitals which need antibiotics to safely do even simple surgeries.  The other place antibiotic resistance is developing is CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations) or “factory farms.”

A well-documented report on the use of antibiotics in factory farms states:

Animals live in close confinement, often standing or laying in their own waste, and are under constant stress that inhibits their immune systems and makes them more prone to infection.  When drug-resistant bacteria develop in industrial livestock facilities, they can reach the human population through food, the environment (i.e., water, soil, and air), or by direct human- animal contact.  

In response to this problem, the FDA asked the animal industry to voluntarily reduce the amount of antibiotics used in factory farms.  The Animal Drug User Fee Act (ADUFA) requires drug companies to report the amount of antibiotic drugs sold or distributed for use in food-producing animals (although the industry seems to be fighting back to keep this information out of public eyes).  So how did the animal industry respond to this reasonable request?    A recent report of the Pew Charitable Trusts (a reputable group) reported that antibiotic sales for meat and poultry are soaring!

If we have known about this problem for a long time, why is nothing being done?  Last November, several hundred thousand citizens, including many senators and congressmen, urged the FDA to take action. It is doubtful however than anything will change without a public outcry. Pew Health Initiatives asks you to take action! They write;

On April 16, 2013, Pew will be hosting the second annual Supermoms Against Superbugs Advocacy Day. Concerned moms, dads and other caregivers will come to the nation’s capital to lobby the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Congress and the White House to rein in the overuse of antibiotics in meat and poultry production – a practice that breeds dangerous superbugs that can infect humans.  Learn how you can get involved

There is a safe way to raise animals for meat without antibiotics!  You can make a clear statement of support for changes in legislation by signing the petition here refusing to buy meat products produced in a factory farm.  Learn more about the safe raising of animals and find producers non-factory farmed meat at Eat Wild or at your local farmers market!

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  If you are interested in sustainable food and farming, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And please check out more of my World.edu posts or my personal webpage.

U.S. Energy Policy: burn America first!

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In the U.S. presidential debates, both candidates have proudly declared that they will expand exploration and exploitation of domestic oil, so-called “clean” coal and especially natural gas with no mention of the impact of burning more fossil fuel on the climate.  The desire to become energy independent is surely a laudable goal, but burning more domestic fossil fuel only makes sense as part of a long range plan for investment in renewable energy and increased conservation.  The problem is that’s not the plan.

Our energy policy is to “burn America first!” 

New technologies have allowed the energy industry to exploit reserves that were inaccessible only a few years ago.  Hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) reminds me of the 17th century Francis Bacon claim that “we must torture mother nature for her secrets.”  Bacon of course was talking about the need for rigorous experimentation at the beginning of the scientific and industrial revolution.  Today, science and industry continue to “torture Mother Earth” so that humans can avoid the discomfort of choosing to conserve rather than burn fossil fuels.

Former-President George W. Bush had the courage to charge the nation with being “addicted to oil” but not the willingness to create policies to deal with it.  The first step in any recovery program from addiction is to admit that we have a problem.  But it seems that neither politicians nor the general public are willing to face this truth – and like other addictions – this one will end badly.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns the result of continued burning of fossil fuels will be sea level rise, melting ice cap, and more violent and unpredictable weather patterns affecting the economy and livability of the planet.

If the government agency responsible for environmental quality reports that climate change will undermine the future of the economy and quality of life everywhere….. why don’t the candidates have a policy to address this problem?  Of course, they can’t or dare not if it should lose them votes.  Both have learned from the public response to President Carter’s famous 1977 “cardigan sweater speech” in which he told us that the United States was the “only major industrial country without a comprehensive long range energy policy.”  Thirty-five years later – this is still true!

Carter reminded us that the energy we can save through conservation is greater than the amount we import.  He challenged Americans in a speech from the Oval Office to “not be selfish or timid” but to “put up with inconveniences and make sacrifices” or face a “national catastrophe.”  The response of the press and many people was to ridicule “President Cardigan” for his symbolic action of turning down the heat in the White House and wearing a sweater.  And of course Carter was a one-term president.

We can’t expect any politician to take an unpopular position (that might inconvenience people) when they are continually running for election.  The structure of politics is such that those serving in congress can only afford to have a 2-year planning horizon, presidents – a 4-year, and senators – a 6-year planning horizon.  Even good, intelligent leaders like President Carter, could not afford to think about the 7th generation and remain in office.

Both President Obama and Governor Romney have spoken in favor of government policies to reduce carbon emissions in the past, but they realize that asking American’s to deal with the reality of climate change is unpopular and may cost them the election.  So they avoid the issue.  We can’t wait for our leaders to lead on climate change!

Leadership must come from you and me…

Politicians will only be able to address the difficult truth if people like you and me take personal actions to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.  By taking individual actions, we can begin to shift the way we think!  We must “start a parade” and if it is a big enough parade, the politicians will jump right up front and carry our banner!

Personal change alone will not make a big enough difference  – BUT  – unless each one of us makes a commitment to changing our behavior, politicians will never find the political will to sponsor much needed policy initiatives.  We must begin by turning out the lights when we leave a room, hanging our clothes out to dry in the sun, riding a bike, and….. well you know.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming.

Don’t wait for the federal government to fix the economy – relocalize your money now!

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“What would it be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles of where we live?”  

Woody Tasch founder of Slow Money.

Even though the U.S. economy was rocked by market and banking scams, Wall Street has rebounded quite nicely from the economic crisis they helped to create with assistance from a federal government that continues to support a “big corporation” economic policy.  Want proof –  just follow the money!

  • According to Neil Barofsky, inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the financial  assistance provided those corporations that were “too big to fail” exceeded $3 trillion
  • The U.S. federal government Small Business Jobs Acts created a fund to spur local bank lending to small businesses, investing about 10% of the amount provided to the big banks through TARP

But that’s not all.  According to Amy Cortese’s new book, Locavesting: the Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit From It, government subsidies, tax breaks and grants to big corporations are estimated as:

$10 to $30 billion to “big agriculture” each year,
$17 billion to oil and gas companies per year, and
… tens of billions to state and local officials to attract corporations to build stores, factories and warehouses in their communities that compete with local, small businesses.

There are fundamental flaws in how the federal government deals with the financial system.  They continue to underwrite big investment banks that play roulette with our money.  They have bailed out financial institutions and corporations deemed “too big to fail” and then allowed them to get even bigger.  And they subsidize multinational corporations that continue to move jobs offshore.

Healthy small businesses and vibrant community banks are needed to restore economic vitality in the U.S. because they create jobs and circulate money locally.  Multinational corporations have failed to produce sustainable prosperity, because they are more interested in making money than making things people need.

According to Sagar Sheth, cofounder of a successful technology firm, “we have lost a sense of respect for what brought us here – building things that the world can use.”  He continues…  “… you have these smart kids coming out of school and going to Wall Street and making a lot of money playing around with numbers.

Federal deregulation has made our financial system a casino for the rich – and they are playing with our money.  When Congress repealed of the Glass-Steagall Act, the relatively conservative culture of banking changed radically and became a free-for-all of risky speculation culminating in the collapse of 2008.   

A ballooning trade deficit producing a massive international debt, an underemployed middle class, the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs overseas, and the acceptance of speculative trading as the way to make “easy money” –  is not the road to a sustainable prosperity.  When 40% of the annual profit of large corporations are generated by the Financial Services Divisions that make speculative investments to maximize short term profit (rather than actually making something real) we are in serious trouble!

According to Cortese, the financial system supports “…a massive misallocation of capital away from its most productive uses and toward unproductive, even harmful, ones, such as speculative trading, subprime mortgagees, and the latest bubble du jour.”

Our trade, tax and bank policies create a business environment in which exploitative practices are the norm.  Given the financial power of Wall Street, efforts to regulate this dangerous behavior will be difficult.  Politicians that try are labeled “socialist” and marginalized. 

What can the ordinary person do? 

 

Well…

Occupy Wall Street is one response!

Another is to keep your money close to home!

We need to relocalize our money!

Here are some ways how

Our corrupt financial system must be reformed, (even some bankers agree) but we can’t wait for the federal government to begin.  Politicians run for election full-time and depend on corporate money to stay in office. Wall Street has too much money and power to be reformed by government.

We must take action ourselves and reclaim the power to make the economy work for people, rather than allowing the 1% to manipulate the financial system to serve short-term greed.

Impossible you say?  I say – believe it!

Begin with small actions like those listed above.  Small actions taken by enough people will create a reinforcing feedback loop that can develop into a title wave of change.  If we start a parade, eventually politicians will want to jump up front and carry our flag.

Too many people just don’t believe it is possible to create real change…

To quote a classic……

“‘I can’t believe that!” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the White Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Believe it

…. and then relocalize your money – today!

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For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.  And for those of you from Amherst, please send me your favorite public initiatives to promote local food to add to my list for a future blog.  This post was inspired by the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project.

Ethics, self-interest & a purposeful life

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It seems to me that everyone from news reporters to the Occupy Protesters are questioning whether “normal business practices” are ethical.  Good question – there have been lots of wrongdoing exposed of late – but before we simply damn the business world as unethical lets look closely the nature of ethics.

This blog proposes a means of examining business practices within a larger and more comprehensive ethical framework.

Ethics change and grow over time.  Professor Aldo Leopold called for an expansion of rights to include environmental ethics in his classic essay, The Land Ethic (published in A Sand County Almanac in 1948).  Speaking of an earlier time, he wrote  “when god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence.”  

Now hanging slave girls would certainly not be considered ethical human behavior today (even on Wall Street), so I guess we’ve made some progress.  Homer’s Odyssey reminds us that concepts of right and wrong were not lacking in ancient Greece, but the rights of slaves had not yet been included in the ethical framework of the day. Over the past 3000 years, basic human rights have expanded from the family (Odysseus was very loyal to his family), to the immediate tribe or village, and in some places to all people of the nation.

In spite of this seeming progress, business ethics in the 21st century seem to be that “anything goes” as long as you don’t get caught breaking the law.  And then, if you have enough money or political power – even this is okay.   And of course, what seems immoral to some of us is just a standard business practice to others.  We live at a time in which extreme relativism has become a social norm. That is, what is right and wrong for you is different from what is right or wrong for me.  Taken to its logical conclusion, extreme relativism would contend that there is no evil other than that which I proclaim to be evil for myself.   In this context, as long as I am serving my self-interest I am acting ethically.

Nevertheless, many cultures across the human spectrum have shared ethical traditions.  C.S. Lewis gleaned eight principles from the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, and ancient Egyptian and Babylonian texts, that express the universal nature of what he called Natural Law.  I believe humans can (and must) agree upon an ethical framework or a perennial truth that holds true for all people.

But how can we think usefully about business ethics in a world in which self-interest dominates our sense of what is right and wrong?   Rather than damning business ethics as being inadequate, what if we looked at business ethics as part of a expanding circle of ethics founded on enlightened self-interest?   And further, what if we understood “the self” as much bigger and richer than merely the “economic self?”

The business world and quite often government officials refer to humans as “consumers” (as if buying stuff was our primary purpose in life).  We know this isn’t true, yet many of us seem willing to accept this diminished view of what it means to be human as normal.

What if we saw the “economic self” as an important and legitimate subsystem embedded within a larger system of “community self,” which itself is embedded in a still larger system of “ecological-self”? And what if the “ecological-self” was yet another subsystem embedded in a larger system that we might call the “universal-self”? Finally if we push this theme beyond the mere material, we might even see the universal-self as part of a cosmological or divine-self.  Each level of “self” is important but when we work toward enlightened self-interest in this framework, we are no longer limited to serving the economic-self alone.

By acting from our higher self (the family, community, the earth or the divine-self) we may discover of sense of meaning and purpose much richer than mere financial success (which beyond some minimum level doesn’t make us happy).  Without this broader perspective of self however, we are left to find meaning in common distractions like drugs, alcohol, recreational sex, video games, passive consumption of violent sporting events, and of course our number one distraction – recreational shopping.

I believe that many ills in society result from a diminished understanding of who we are as humans.  As long as we believe we are primarily economic beings, we will never be happy – because we can never have enough.   We we become the people of “more” – more money, more stuff, more college degrees, more shoes, more promotions at work, more gadgets, …. more.

And in this quest for more, we are hitting a “bottom” as a society that is much like the bottom of an alcoholic or drug addict, or someone who has maxed out their credit cards.  While this is a painful experience for individuals and society alike, it is in fact good news because the bottom is where recovery may begin.

I was on a panel a few years ago with Jordan Belfort, the self-proclaimed “Wolf of Wall Street” who told his story of riches, extravagant lifestyle, and eventually jail.  Mr. Belfort seemed to have redemption from the disease of more and told a group of entrepreneurs at UMass that “crime doesn’t pay.”   But the story of depravity, suffering and redemption is not only the story of unethical stockbrokers. The line between good and evil passes through every human heart.  We are all capable of unethical behavior. But we all also have the opportunity to experience redemption by serving a higher sense of self, and we may begin whenever we choose.

I believe we can find our way to redemption as a society through service to community, the earth or perhaps the divine – or we can find our way to redemption through pain and humiliation (for individuals this means jail – and for a society it may mean economic collapse).  I believe we have a choice.  If I see myself as merely an economic being serving a narrow self-interest, then fear of punishment may be an effective incentive for ethical behavior. But when I see myself as an economic, communal, ecological, universal and cosmological being, the result is not only “right” behavior, but a joyful and purposeful life.

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What will you do when the lights go out (again)?

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An unusually early snowstorm in the Northeastern U.S. left three million people without electricity for up to ten days at the end of October.  While some deaths were reported (mostly caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from using gas stoves, generators, and even charcoal grills indoors), for most of us it proved to be a week of inconvenience and discomfort.

The local newspapers covered the storm extensively, sharing stories about long lines at the fast food restaurants, people hanging out at coffee shops to get internet and stay warm, and many showing up at the library or other public buildings to charge their cell phones.  Letters to the editor criticized the electric companies for ill-preparedness and politicians promised to investigate the situation!  Lots of people seemed pretty angry about the disruption in electrical power (something that is relatively common in much of the world).

A story nobody covered however happened in my basement, where neighbors gathered each evening for dinner cooked on the wood stove.   As someone who teaches classes on sustainability, I figure I need to be somewhat prepared for “the end of civilization.” 

Okay, so this is bit of an overstatement (I hope), but I do think everything we consider normal (plentiful food in the stores, lights that turn on at the flick of a switch, and ready supplies of fuel – just to name a few) will come to an end someday.   Why you ask?  Well, lets consider;

  1. Peak oil – If something can run out….. it will run out.  Easily accessible fossil fuel is an energy resource of the past.  And we are not doing much to develop alternatives, are we?   Well, are we?
  2. Global climate change – I don’t know about you – but it hardly seems “normal” when my home state of Massachusetts experiences a hurricane, a tornado, tremors from an earthquake, and a major October snow storm in the same year.  Something is up…..
  3. Economic stress – I guess you read the newspapers too.

So, yes….. I think we are experiencing a “new normal” in which power outages, fuel shortages and periods in which some foods won’t be available will be more commonplace.  I don’t know when……..   but if the lights can go out…. well, they will go out.

And, yes….. I confess to have done a little work in preparation for time when the electricity might shut off for a few days.  Over the past few years, my wife and I (okay, mostly me… she thinks I’m a little nuts) have invested in:

  • A big garden
  • Solar hot water
  • A wood stove
  • An alcohol cook stove
  • A small generator
  • Oil lamps
  • Efficient hand-cranked flash lights
  • A water filter and rain barrel
  • A chain saw
  • A portable toilet
  • And chickens….. yes, we have fresh eggs when the stores are closed

I’m not a survivalist nut…. no, really.  But I think a little preparation might be good practice for the day when power outages are part of everyday living.

So, what happened when the lights went out at my house?

Well, we weren’t prepared for a snow storm in October.  One of the things you need to run a generator is gasoline.  When the lights went out, I went out to the garage, pulled out the generator and realized we didn’t have enough gasoline to get through the night.  Undaunted we went around the neighborhood and siphoned gasoline (with permission) from lawnmowers that wouldn’t be used until next summer.  We had lights!

The generator provided just enough electricity to keep the freezer (with 25 frozen chickens we had raised in our backyard last summer) humming along.  The refrigerator was next and then a few lamps to read by.  We spent a quiet evening by the wood stove sipping tea we warmed on our alcohol stove.  And we woke to a world in which tree limbs were everywhere and power lines lay on the ground.  It didn’t look good.

The first neighbor who showed up had heard the generator and asked to put a few things in our freezer.  The next neighbor wanted to take a shower (the sun was shining and the solar system was making hot water).  And then folks began stopping by  just to get warm and charge their cell phones.

For most people, the week in the dark began as a bit of an adventure and turned into a depressing and cold week….. well, everywhere except in our basement.  There we had food (salvaged from thawing freezers in the neighborhood), hot coffee and tea, and good conversation.  My wife served breakfast each morning of local (from our backyard) eggs.  A few family members and neighbors spent the night.  I got some help removing tree limbs from the yard.  We even provided internet service (I have no idea why it was working).  My wife and I enjoyed being able to help a few friends simply be a bit more comfortable.

And then the lights came back on!

So, what did we learn?

Well, perhaps a few more of us might want to be prepared for the next time the lights go out.  That’s pretty obvious. You can start with any of the items on the list above.

But what about the deeper meaning?  For me, it was about neighborliness.  I believe we have a yearning for community.  Bill McKibbon, in his book, Deep Economy, wrote “if you are a poor person in China you have plenty of friends and family around all the time.”   But this is not true for the average suburban homeowner in the western world.  For the suburbanite he wrote, “….adding a new friend is a big deal.”  We lack human connections. Frankly, I really liked having friends and neighbors stopping in, unannounced.  Nobody has stopped by since the lights came back on.  I miss them.

What else?  I noticed how difficult it was for people to ask for help.  We need to work on this.  Hyper-individualism will literally kill us if we don’t learn to depend more on each other.  My thing is food.  I grow way too many vegetables.  In the summer, I like to put the extras out in front of the house  for anyone walking by to take.   I also enjoy helping people get started raising hens (for the eggs of course).  And we give away lots of eggs.

But this is only a beginning.  Maybe we should start practicing asking for help before the lights go out again.  And how about sharing a snowblower among a few families?  Do we all need a 40 foot extension ladder?   But sharing tools is the easy part – its difficult to borrow a ladder when you don’t know your neighbor’s first name.

Last fall I joined with a group of neighbors to read  Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition.”   Caroline Baker suggests that to be prepared for the pain and confusion of the coming crisis, we might want to try to become better practiced at dealing with despair.  She suggests a few tools such as mindfulness meditation, story telling, and “inflicting joy” on each other.   At least we might want to get to know our neighbors a little better.  When things get really bad, it won’t be enough to be able to siphon a little gas from your neighbor’s lawnmower.

As the impact of peak oil, climate change and economic stress accelerate, we may learn that growing food, finding clean water, and providing heat will be among the easier transitions.  More difficult perhaps may be learning to communicate effectively while we are hungry and cold, to barter and trade with our neighbors, and to support each other as all the things we take for granted today slowly disappear.

Thomas Malthus wrote in 1798 “the mighty law of self-preservation expels all the softer and more exalted emotions of the soul.”  He predicted chaos in response to what he called “…the chilling breath of want.”   I suspect he is right.  If we are to survive the coming chaos, we’ll need to prepare both our homes and gardens as well as our souls for a new and much harsher world.  But perhaps in the pain and despair, we’ll rediscover what it means to be a human being again, living in community.

 So what will you do when the lights go out (again)?

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.