How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Stuff – Part II

The Real Cost of Cheap Goods

How is it possible that a toaster at Walmart sells for $4.99? When one adds up the cost of materials, labor and impacts to the environment, the $4.99, toaster just doesn’t add up. The components of the toaster, tin, steel, copper wiring, rubber and paint or lacquer, must be mined, refined, smelted, manufactured and transported. Once each of the raw materials has been produced at locations throughout the world, they are then sent to a factory, probably in China, to be assembled into the completed toaster by human hands. The person in the factory may have a family at home to support with the meager wage he or she earns. Once assembled, the toaster is then shipped across the world again to end up on the shelf of a big box store. In the not to distant future, as should be expected, the $4.99 toaster breaks and is disposed of in a landfill.

Throughout the life history of the $4.99 toaster, innumerable costs are incurring that do not appear on the price tag. The metallic components of the toaster begin their lives as ore in the ground. Most ores contain 2% or less of the desired metal, so extraordinary amounts of ore must be mined to produce small amounts of metal. In most cases, the ore is strip mined. First the land is cleared of all vegetation, then fossil fuel guzzling heavy machinery literally rips the bedrock into pieces of ore. Many strip mines cover many square miles. Once the strip mining process is finished, the land areas are rarely, if ever reclaimed and become vacant wastelands devoid of life.

The metallurgical process also involves several, environmentally devastating stages. First, the ore is crushed to powder. In the case of copper (used for wiring), the powdered ore is then mixed with sulfuric acid and/or other chemicals to liberate the metallic components from the rock. The crushed ore is heaped into a pile and saturated with the chemical solvent. The leftover tailings are left in heaps at the production site and contain extremely high levels of toxic chemicals and heavy metals sitting in an acidic brew. Then, the treated ore is smelted in a furnace mixed with limestone and silica. Finally the brew is reduced to the finished copper metal by exposing it to extremely high temperatures to burn off any oxides that may remain.

The above process is a basic standard for the extraction of most metals; however, many require more extensive treatment with subsequent greater environmental impacts. The environmental effects of mining and processing metal include habitat destruction, landscape degradation, toxic contamination of groundwater, air and land, excessive fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas production, and the list goes on. Once a mine is exhausted, cleanup, restoration and mitigation expenses can run into the millions of dollars, but the corporate benefactors of the mineral extraction rarely pay the costs.

Until recently in the United States, mining operations were simply abandoned and local residents were left to suffer with the consequences. In response to several large scale environmental disasters, in 1980 the US government passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (a.k.a. “Superfund”) to hold corporations accountable for cleaning up their industrial messes. Unfortunately, on most Superfund sites that were contaminated prior to the passing of the legislation, the taxpayer has picked up the tab. As for the corporations, they have largely moved their mining operations overseas to developing countries that have no such legislation for environmental liability. Once can almost certainly assume that the environmental costs of production are not included in the $4.99 sticker price of our toaster, and we have not even discussed the manufacture of paint and transportation considerations.

A human cost is also not calculated into the toaster’s sticker price. Once upon a time in America, a vast middle class enjoyed good paying factory jobs with benefits. Most of the consumer goods sold in America were also made in America. The globalization of the marketplace has basically eradicated those jobs taking the American middle class with them. In the new world of free trade, it is much cheaper to hire a factory worker in China, Bangladesh or the Philippines than it is to hire one in the United States. Developing countries do not require minimum wages, healthcare or retirement packages. Labor that once cost dollars per hour can now be obtained for pennies. Needless to say at those prices, factory workers in the developing world for the most part work in unsafe, intolerable conditions. Working environments that were long ago deemed inhumane and illegal in the United States are now the standard in manufacturing across the globe.

Artificially cheap goods and services that do not reflect the true cost of their consumption also act as a monopolistic domination of sorts in the market. As overall prices plummet, conscientious manufacturers who pay their workers a fair wage and clean up their environmental messes cannot compete. The lower price for the consumer also prohibits the development of newer, cleaner technologies, as these technologies would incur costs that would inhibit competition with the artificially low price tag associated with conventional manufacturing.

Sadly, as good blue collar jobs have gone the way of the dodo bird in the United States, a declining middle class is forced into employment at the same big box stores that sell $4.99 toasters. Struggling to make ends meet on less than subsistence wages with no benefits, the consumer can no longer even afford to buy goods at their real cost, thus perpetuating the vicious downward cycle. Conscientiously manufactured “green” and fair trade goods are available only to the lucky few that can afford them.

Every trinket, toy, appliance and gadget in our homes is complicit in the environmental and human degradation above. Shop wisely.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Saving Mother – Part IV

Creating the New Economy

If the events of the past year have taught us anything, we should have now learned we cannot rely on our governments, banking institutions or multinational corporations to take it upon themselves to fix what is broken with the global economy. As Wall Street was gambling with our futures, our government stood by and did nothing to regulate or stop them. As countless families lost their livelihoods, taxpayers were forced to bail out those same multibillion dollar institutions that got us all into this disaster in the first place. Meanwhile, hedge fund managers and banking CEO’s are still taking home extortionate salaries and bonuses, and we the taxpayers, in a large part are paying for them. The promise of “change” has turned out to be more of the same.

Needless to say, if we the people expect to effect any change in the status quo, it is up to us. Fortunately, we have the power. For all the governmental control, psychopathic greed, manipulation of public policy and ambivalent destruction of the environment that corporations exercise on a global scale, they cannot operate or survive without our complicity. They need us, the consumers, to choose to purchase the goods or services they are pedaling. They need our money. Without our purchases, their profit margins shrink, their share prices fall, and they go bankrupt. Since we obviously can’t beat the market, we need to join it in order to change it.

The history of the organic foods movement is case in point. The organic movement began in the 1970’s as a response to industrial farming. As conscious individuals became aware of the environmental and health implications of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, they began to demand food that was grown naturally. In the 1990’s the movement had grown large enough that the USDA was obliged to create official organic certification standards. Today, the organic foods industry is the fastest growing sector in the food market expanding at a whopping 20% per year, and this growth is entirely driven by consumer demand. When consumers speak with their dollars, the market listens. The individual can effect great change by simply living the life they want to see in the world.

Step 1 – Don’t buy anything you don’t need
Our dysfunctional economy is based on the delusion of perpetual growth. As most American consumers are fortunate enough to have access to the basic necessities of life, corporate entities must grow by creating limitless wants in the consumer population. Through advertising, we are led to believe that miracle products hold the key to our happiness, so we go to the mall, ever hopeful and often at the expense of incurring debt, to purchase the latest and greatest gadget, diet product, beauty cream or wide screen TV only to find ourselves even more miserable (now laden with debt) than we were before. The truth is that having more stuff does not solve any of our problems and usually creates more problems. All of the scientific research conducted on the elusive state of happiness concludes that once a person has the stuff for basic subsistence, having more does not increase one’s happiness at all.

Furthermore, every item purchased represents spent resources in terms of the energy and materials used to create it. Once the product outlives its usefulness, it becomes waste and pollution. Every time we make a superficial impulse purchase, we reinforce the wasteful consumerism inherent in our deeply flawed and unsustainable economy. By buying only what we need, we encourage the market to return to a more sustainable modality based on utility rather than frivolity.

Step 2 - If It’s Broken, Fix It
Once upon a time in America, people bought goods and expected to keep them for a lifetime or even longer. Everything from televisions to toasters and automobiles were lovingly maintained and kept for years or even decades. When something broke, a person took the item to a repair shop or a service person came to the home to fix it. Entire businesses were built around maintenance and service. Today vacuum cleaner repair shops and TV repair man are the stuff of legends. Consumer goods are intended to be thrown away when they malfunction, as the manufacturer can then sell you another and make more profit. People who once owned service related businesses have gone out of business. To make matters worse, the increase in manufacturing resulting from our disposable consumer culture has not resulted in more blue collar jobs because those jobs are all now overseas where labor is cheap. Contrary to neoliberal economic mythology, buying consumer goods over and over again is good for someone’s economy but not ours. If we replaced the ‘consume and throw away’ paradigm with a ‘keep and repair’ model, we would actually create service jobs locally that could not be outsourced overseas. We would save our landfills mountains of waste, preserve precious resources and improve our local economies if only we would learn again how to take care of our toys.

Step 3 – Eliminate Debt
Now that we are only buying what we need and taking care of what we have, we will notice our credit card balances starting to creep slowly in the downward motion. Perhaps we have a few extra dollars at the end of the month that can go to pay down the mortgage. Being debt free has value beyond the obvious. After all, debt based securities are the financial instruments of doom that caused the great recession. With debt hanging over our heads, we end up going to work just to pay off debt and hopefully break even. With less debt, one could work less hours and spend time enjoying life instead with the added bonus of restricting the market for the predatory lending on Wall Street.

Step 4 – Be a Conscious Consumer
Let’s face it we all need some retail therapy from time to time, appliances break down, clothes wear thin, and we get hungry. Inevitably, we must make purchases from time to time, but we can shop without contributing to environmental degradation or corporate excess. Properly placed purchases can effect real positive change in the world. Purchasing clothing, furniture and odds and ends at antique, consignment and thrift stores is a form of recycling. Certified fair trade products ensure farmers and laborers have been offered a safe work environment and a fair living wage for their efforts. Certified organic foods and textiles save the environment from toxic chemicals, and buying from small, local businesses keeps revenue in local economies.

Step 5 – Invest in a Better Future
Remember how Leeman Brothers and Merrill Lynch lost all of their clients’ money while the companies’ CEOs retired to affluence? After making some really bad investments, the culprits got bonuses while grandma and grandpa had to come out of retirement and work as greeters at WalMart just to make ends meet. Why do we continue to trust these people to make our investment decisions? In the modern era, the wise investor needs to take control of their investment capital.

Not all corporations are entirely evil, and the savvy investor should choose securities based on a company’s social and environmental record as well as its potential for profit. Starbucks offers all of their employees a living wage and health insurance. Google headquarters run on solar energy, and numerous international and startup companies are doing outstanding work researching and developing alternative technologies that will help to create a sustainable future. Instead of lining some fat cat’s pockets with your hard earned dollars, do your own research, and then invest in companies you believe in.

As we approach a new year and a new decade, we can make the world we want to live in. While we don’t have the power to change laws or equitably distribute wealth across the planet, we can make the world a better place with the financial decisions we make. The global economy is all based on money, and we hold the money in our pockets.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Water Enough For Earth

“Water is the source of all life – The Koran.”

The primitive solar system was a chaotic place. From 4.6 to 3.5 billion years ago, a young, hot Earth was bombarded by icy asteroids, comets and small protoplanets. Volcanic eruptions spewed methane, ammonia, water vapor and other gasses to blanket the Earth in a fragile atmosphere. As the planet cooled, water vapor in the atmosphere rained down upon the surface to form the oceans.

Early Earth’s briny sea was a soup of organic molecules subjected to volatile atmospheric conditions with tempestuous winds and constant lightening strikes. Within the primitive oceanic broth, molecules collided, reacted and reformed until self-replicating compounds began the metabolic processes that sparked the beginning of life.

Consequently, human cultures across the globe have always held water, the most abundant substance on the surface of the earth, as sacred. In Genesis, Yahweh separated the waters creating the dome of the sky and the waters of the Earth. In Ancient Egypt, all that exists was born of Nu, the primordial chaotic sea. The Ancient Babylonians believed that Tiamat (salt water) and Apsu (fresh water) combined to form the first gods who in turn became the progenitors of all life. Poets, artists and writers throughout the ages have compared the flow of a river to the course of a lifetime. Art, science and myriad creation myths share an innate knowledge that water is the source of life itself.

H2O is a simple molecule comprised of one oxygen atom combined with two hydrogen atoms. The molecular structure of water is believed to be a bent, boomerang shape with the hydrogen atoms at either end and the oxygen atom at the apex in the center.

The shape and orientation of various components lend water some very unique properties. Hydrogen exerts a positive charge, while oxygen tends toward a negative charge giving the molecule a distinct polarity. The positive poles on one molecule are attracted to the negative poles on nearby water molecules in a phenomenon known as “cohesion.” This property allows water striders to skate across the surface of a puddle without drowning. The polarity of water also allows for the capillary action that transports water from the roots of forest giants hundreds of feet against the force of gravity to be exhaled on the breath of the leaves of trees. Water is a remarkable solvent, and has the remarkable property of being less dense in a solid state than in a liquid state allowing ice to float on water.

When the first brave vertebrate left the ocean realm hundreds of millions of years ago, it took the ocean onto the land within its body. Water is the solvent in which all of our metabolic activities take place. It runs through our veins and plumps our cells. Almost 70% of our body is comprised of water. As the most basic necessity of life, water is the resource scientists look for on other planetary bodies as an indicator for extraterrestrial life.

Water, like the air we breathe, occupies a resource realm of its own. It is necessary for life, eternal and abundant yet fragile and precious. It burbles up from the land and snakes through the landscape charting a determined course back to its origins in the sea. It rides on the winds, falls from the sky, and penetrates into the earth joining ancient aquifers only to percolate out lifetimes later to rejoin a river back to the sea. It is always moving. Water never disappears, but instead is constantly reborn into new lives and new possibilities. The same molecules of water that exist in our veins once lived in the primordial oceans of ancient Earth and in the cosmic dust that once swirled through the vast universe. None of us truly owns water. We merely make use of it as it passes through our organism and onto its next life.

Water is abundant. It covers approximately 71% of Earth’s surface. 97% of this water is contained within Earth’s oceans. A further 2.4% of Earth’s water is contained within glaciers and polar ice caps. A mere 0.6% of this vital resource is found in lakes, rivers, aquifers and other fresh water bodies. At any time, only a small fraction of a percent of the water on Earth is bound up by Earth’s life forms.

Completely dependant upon water for survival, human civilizations formed along the sacred rivers of antiquity - the Jordan, Tigris, Ganges, Euphrates, Thames, Rhine and Nile rivers to name a few. So revered were the ancient rivers, they were worshipped as goddesses, and the veneration persists within many cultures into the current day.

Initially, Homo sapiens’ water consumption was limited to the basic necessities of drinking, cooking, bathing and subsistence agriculture. Civilizations persisted for millennia observing natural hydrological cycles and sustainably using the water resources available to them. With the advent of industrial agriculture and manufacturing, however, water consumption has skyrocketed.

Even though water is one of Earth’s most abundant resources, we are running short. The intensive irrigation of monoculture crops is resulting in the depletion of ancient aquifers on a global scale. Marginal lands are rapidly being lost to desertification and reservoir levels are dropping. As primeval rivers are diverted from their natural courses to the sea, fisheries stocks are declining and entire ecological communities are collapsing.

As we use water with indiscriminant gluttony, we also dump the poisons of our activities into the fragile hydrological cycle. Toxin-filled runoff spews off farmlands poisoned with chemical fertilizers and pesticides and chokes the life out of rivers and streams. As the rivers run their inevitable course to the sea, we are using the sacred ocean, birthplace of creation, as a toilet for the byproducts of our greed.

In spite of our misguided ways, hope for the future remains. Many communities worldwide are returning to traditional agriculture and water conservation strategies to restore rivers and aquifers to their rightful place of respect and reverence.

“The earth has enough for the needs of all but not for the greed of a few – Mahatma Gandhi”

References and Recommended Further Reading

1- Shiva, Vandana (2002). Water Wars. South End Press, Cambridge, MA.

2- De Villiers, Marq (2000). Water – The Fate of our Most Precious Resource. Stoddart Publishing Company Limited, Canada.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Reason for the Season

“Worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23).”

“Happy Holidays” has recently become a politically incorrect greeting in the increasingly religiously conservative American culture. We are told the birth of Jesus is the reason for the season, and we should shed any secular observations of the season in favor of embracing the “real” meaning of Christmas.

Celebrating the birth of the great prophet Jesus with an emphasis on the enlightened message he brought to humanity is certainly a useful pursuit. Jesus exemplified the values of equality for all, tolerance, charity and nonviolence. Bravo to those who promote these values as the reason for the season. The traditions we observe every year during the winter season, however, do have a history that extends long before the birth of Jesus. As enlightened individuals, we should respect the rights of all people to embrace the season according to their own beliefs and values. The birth of Jesus is but one of many reasons humans have historically celebrated wintertime holidays, and closed minded folks who would seek to hijack the season for their personal dogmatic beliefs would do well to educate themselves to the multiplicity of traditions that surround this most wonderful time of the year.

Thousands of years ago, before electric lighting illuminated the world even on the darkest of nights and imported food from Chile blessed the market shelves throughout the year, the encroaching winter brought with it the real potential for hardship and poverty. After days of increasing darkness, the winter solstice arrived in the second half of the month of December marking the point where the sun triumphed over darkness. After the Solstice, the days lengthened and the birth of the new sun brought the promise of springtime to our ancestors suffering in cold and darkness. For millennia, humans have rejoiced in the rebirth of the sun each year, celebrating the return of longer days by feasting, exchanging gifts, caroling, giving alms to the poor and decorating their homes with evergreen trees and boughs of mistletoe, holly and fir. Evergreens symbolize the promise of everlasting life that renews each spring after the hardship of winter, and a kiss under the mistletoe is a sacrament to ensure a fertile spring.

In the year 350 C.E., December 25th was declared by papal decree to be the birthday of Jesus Christ. Pope Julius the First did not select the date randomly. December 25th was observed in Rome as the official day of winter solstice. Additionally, the date has long been celebrated as the birthday of the sun god Horus. The god of agriculture, Saturn along with several other Roman deities, claimed the period from solstice to New Year as “Dies Natalis Invicti Solis” or “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” Befitting the season of the sun’s birthday, feasts and merriment and goodwill to all were the order of the day. By selecting December 25th as the birthday of Jesus, the Pope’s decree allowed aspiring pagans to convert to Christianity without disrupting their engrained rituals.

In the centuries that have since passed, the celebration of the season has taken on new aspects that would have both Jesus and Horus rolling over in their graves. At some point, the ritual of gift giving was distorted into consumerism. An act that once symbolized the sharing of earth’s bounty with one’s fellow man has turned into a gluttonous spectacle of indulgence and waste, where the wealthy lavish in spending on themselves, and the poor survey the carnage with a mixture of bitterness and envy. Relations buy useless gifts out of a sense of obligation rather than generosity that remain unused and ultimately end up wasted in a landfill. Pushing and shoving stressed out consumers duke it out in toy stores over the latest Tickle Me Elmo or Cabbage Patch Kid. Meanwhile, the poor and starving kids in the slums of Kenya sniff glue on Christmas Eve to ward off the hunger pangs in their empty bellies so they can sleep.

Jesus would never have purchased gifts for wealthy friends while a single child on earth went without food. Nor would he have indulged in the blatant excess that characterizes the season dedicated to his birth. He would have abhorred the blatant consumption of resources and consequent pollution being perpetrated in his name. Similarly, the pagan ritual of gift giving was intended to share abundance with one’s fellow man and spread the wealth around so nothing was wasted. In the depths of winter when many suffered from want, the tradition served communities well.

A dear departed friend, Guy Johnson, used to tell his family members that if he couldn’t eat it, drink it or smoke it, he didn’t want it. His were sentiments that truly reflected the historical observance of the yuletide season. Eat, drink and be merry with your loved ones and rejoice in the abundance you have received this year by sharing it with those who have not been so fortunate. Donate to your friends’ and relatives’ favorite charities in lieu of consumer goods they don’t want or need and will never use. Plant an evergreen tree, and kiss somebody under the mistletoe.

With your actions give voice to the universal longing for peace on earth, sharing and goodwill towards friends, family, neighbors and all living things. Rejoice. The sun is reborn. Season’s Greetings.
Recommended References

Friday, December 4, 2009

How the "Green Revolution," Monsanto and the World Trade Organization are Ruining Farmers' Lives

A young man in India has a small piece of land that has been passed down in his family for generations. He lives on the land with his wife, parents, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and his own young family. He has a small herd of goats, a cow and chickens, and he grows a wide variety of crops. He waters his crops with fresh, clean water that he gets from a community well and fertilizes his crops with dung from his livestock. Every week, he takes some of his harvest to the market to sell. He also saves the best seeds from his harvest every season to plant the following season. He trades and barters his seeds and produce with his friends. He makes very little money, but he doesn’t need much because the land provides him and his extended family with everything they need to survive.

The Indian farmer’s life is not easy but neither is it impoverished. He and his family have healthy, nutritious food to eat and the love and support of an extended family and larger community. To the World Trade Organization, that measures human welfare in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), our farmer is a failure. His income is low enough that his is classed as living in abject poverty, and he is not a productive contributor to the wider, global economy.

The ironically entitled “Green Revolution” is a movement to bring industrial agriculture to rural areas that practice traditional subsistence farming. Companies like Monsanto hold workshops in rural areas where they promote the benefits of industrial, “modern” agriculture. Landowning subsistence farmers are told that they can greatly increase the profitability and productivity of their lands by replacing their old fashioned traditional farming methods with new technologies. The new hybrid and genetically-modified crops promise increased yields and ease of maintenance. Add a modern irrigation system and a farmer no longer needs to engage in the daily drudgery of planting, hauling water and pulling weeds. With a Roundup Ready crop of corn or soy, he simply sprays the land with Roundup, plants his seeds, uses his new irrigation system to water his plants and then harvests a crop that will fetch dollars on the international market. Voila, our subsistence farmer has entered the modern age and the WTO is very happy, as he is now engaging in monetary trading.

The above scenario is taking place across the globe in developing communities, and the WTO says that free market globalization is helping to improve the lives of people everywhere. Per capita incomes are increasing and global trade is exploding. All is well with the world, but a nagging issue of the skyrocketing suicide rates among Indian and other farmers around the world belies the WTO’s measurements of success.

The Indian farmer was persuaded by his government and corporate agribusiness that switching from the traditional farming methods that had served his family well for generations to modern methodologies would provide him with an economic windfall. By growing a monoculture of a commodity crop like corn, soy or cotton, the farmer would be able to sell his produce on the international market for top dollar. Unfortunately, most subsistence farmers lacked the startup capital to invest in the hybrid and GMO seeds, irrigation systems, herbicides, pesticides and machinery required to begin such an enterprise. So, farmers take out loans against their family farms with hopes for a better future.

When subsistence farmers switched from diverse subsistence crops and livestock to monoculture commodity crops, they indeed joined the global economy. They also forfeited a sustainable, self-sufficient life for one in which they must now pursue making money in order to survive. By mortgaging their farms to cover start up costs, they entered into a vicious cycle of borrowing money each year to cover expenses and then hoping they will earn enough when the crops come in to pay back the loans. American farmers were driven off the land and into the cities decades ago when they lost their farms to foreclosure under similar circumstances, and now farmers in the developing world are staring at the same fate. Sadly, once the vicious cycle is set in motion, the indebted farmer cannot turn back to his old ways, as he is now obliged to pay off his debt with cash that he can only procure by selling a commodity crop, or he loses his ancestral lands to foreclosure.

Unfortunately, the cards are stacked against the farmers from the beginning. Commodity crops are heavily subsidized by governments in developed countries, driving down prices and making it impossible for farmers that are not similarly subsidized to compete on the global market. Added to the mix are the inevitable risks inherent with farming. Drought, pestilence and other factors may result in crop failure. When the farmer ends up losing his land, large agribusinesses are ready to swoop in and take it up. Often the farmer ends up working for meager wages on the lands his family once owned, or the reality of losing the farm his family has owned for generations drives him to suicide. The United Nations reports that more than 100,000 farmers in Indian have taken their lives due to indebtedness in the decade since 1997 (1).

The winners and losers in the Green Revolution are obvious. The environment is a big loser. The introduction of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides has resulted in toxic contamination of land and water supplies. Long tern use of the same chemicals has rendered many lands infertile. Planting of monoculture crops has reduced biodiversity and resulted in the extinction of many heritage seed varieties. Farmers are losing independent, sustainable livelihoods, their farms, their cultural heritage and their lives. Multinational agricultural corporations are winning. They have succeeded in expanding their markets on a massive scale, and their profits continue to climb.

The World Trade Organization sees the Green Revolution as a unanimous success, and governmental and international policy continues to strive towards spreading the revolution to yet unspoiled regions of the globe in the name of “development.”