Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Solution to Overconsumption?

Consume more!
Or so claimed an analyst on NPR Friday, while also deriding Buy Nothing Day. He started off on a note that gave me hope –listing some of the problems caused by overconsumption. But then he said that the entire economy would collapse and all of America would be poor if everyone observed Buy Nothing Day. (Somehow I think the economy could survive one day without purchases, but hey, what do I know?) Then he compared Floridians with others in similar environments, and pointed out how much better off the Floridians are because they have stronger houses able to withstand hurricanes better than their counterparts in the third world. Which is true, I’ll grant him that, but he neglected to mention that part of the reason storms are so fierce these days is a direct consequence of overconsumption. He then somehow used this comparison to make the leap to his conclusion that everyone in the world needed to consume more, especially the third world. More of everything –meat, grain, steel, water, etc. Until they all matched American lifestyles.

By this point I was barely listening. I was completely dumbfounded. How could anyone come on the radio and claim this? Now I don’t know what his motives are. Maybe he is just altruistic and wants everyone in the world to live a good life. (A very grand goal and one I also hold.) Or maybe he just wants to make one hell of a profit. Either way, he’s dead wrong. While its true that some people need more –principally food and water –Americans need to consume far less.

What would happen if other countries were able to reach the standard of living of the average American? It’s easy to calculate that –or rather, the resources it would entail. Lester Brown, of the Earth Policy Institue, calculated how much resources China would consume if everyone lived at our level. Which, by the way, will be in 2031 by his calculations. You can find these figures on page 10 of his book Plan B 2.0. The short hand is that China would need: 2/3 of the current world grain harvest (which has all ready declined for the past 7 years running), 305 million tons of paper annually (double the current WORLD need –there go the forests!), 99 million barrels of oil a day (current world output is 84 million, and PO is imminent), 1.1 billion cars, and a paved area for them equal to the total amount of land rice is harvested on today.

And that’s just for China. Every other country in the world is also dreaming the American Dream. This just is not possible. I don’t know how else to phrase it –we’re in deep trouble. People are all ready dying in India due to lack of water; in Australia, water is so precious it is now being stolen in some provinces. World grain harvests have declined so much all ready that only 57 days stands between the entire world and famine.

And the way out of this mess is to consume more? That is the ideology of the cancer cell!

I’m doing my part to reduce my consumption. I want to be able to tell my grandkids that I did my best not to contribute to the mess we’re making of the planet.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Grandma's Veggies

As if we didn't all ready have enough reasons to eat organic -from fish genes in tomatoes to enormous amounts of pesticides -here is yet another reason: today's conventional veggies are less nutritous than they were 50 years ago. This story is from NPR's weekend edition. The link to the transcript and the audio feed is below. On the radio they went on discuss how the differences disappeared in much organically grown produce.

Grandma's Veggies May Have Been More Nutritious
If you're looking for evidence that today's mass-produced vegetables don't quite measure up to those your grandparents ate, you can find it in data published by the US Department of Agriculture.
For more than a century, the USDA has measured levels of vitamins and minerals in American food. Donald Davis, a researcher at the University of Texas, compared the USDA figures from 1950 and 1999, for 43 common fruits and vegetables.
"Of the 13 nutrients that we were able to study, we found statistically reliable declines in six of the 13," he says. Levels of other nutrients stayed roughly constant over the years.
But a big word of caution: USDA nutritionist Joanne Holden says those 1950 numbers may not be trustworthy. For one thing, measurement techniques have changed, possibly changing the results. In addition, she says, no one knows whether the vegetables measured in 1950 were an accurate sample of the American diet.
It took until 1997 for the USDA to apply what could be called modern polling techniques to the analysis of food. At that point, the agency began gathering random samples of produce from supermarkets across the nation. USDA nutritionist David Haytowitz says USDA vegetable buyers follow strict rules to ensure the sample is truly random.
"We don't want them picking one off the top, because in the stores, they'll put the best ones on top," says Haytowitz. "We want an average one, a representative one."
This is important, because individual vegetables can vary enormously. The USDA found that some cantaloupes have four times more vitamin A than other cantaloupes.
University of Illinois plant geneticist John Juvik discovered that some stalks of broccoli had 40 or 50 times more glucosinolates -- compounds that can help prevent cancer -- than others.
"So you could go into the store one week, and buy a head of broccoli that would provide a dose of glucosinolates that would protect you from cancer," says Juvik, "but you could go back a week later and get one -- you couldn't see the difference -- and it would provide you very limited health benefits."
Vegetables can vary widely because of their genetic makeup and their environment. Juvik says plant breeders, until recently, didn't pay much attention to nutritional quality when they created varieties of vegetables.
"They were selecting for yield, marketable yield, and they were selecting for appearance," he says.
While many farmers and food companies may not know the best way to grow nutritious crops, it doesn't mean you should stop eating your fruits and vegetables.
Davis reminds people that the decline in nutrients in American produce is nothing compared to what people do to themselves.
"If you're really concerned about loss of nutrients in your diet," he says, "you probably ought to be looking first at how much of your calories are coming from added sugars, fats, and white flour and white rice."

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Very Surprising Visitor

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but haven’t had the chance. Last month I had a very surprising –and very welcome –visitor to my garden. One I never expected in my wildest dreams. It was a warm, sunny day and I went outside early in the morning to do some tiding up in the yard and garden before a craft show I was going to started in the afternoon. Butterflies were everywhere, mostly swallowtails of every sort. My house is the only one in my area to get these lovely beauties; probably because mine is the only one with flowers planted. I have loved butterflies since I was a child. To me, they are Hope and Light given wings. But I had never, ever expected to get such an esteemed visitor in my garden.

I first noticed here when I was deadheading some flowers. She was darting here and there among them. Part of my mind registered the fact that she was different from the others, but the conscious part didn’t think anything of it. When I finished my chores and cleaned up I got a cup of coffee and sat on the porch to enjoy the view. It was then that she landed on the porch railing.

I froze. I couldn’t move. I took a deep breath and felt my eyes widen. It couldn’t be. My eyes were playing tricks on me. She took the air again in a sudden moment and did a wonderful, airy dance. Then she landed again –on the porch, less than a foot from my right hand. Suddenly I couldn’t even breathe. She was so incredibly beautiful. Her wings glowed like jewels in the morning light. Never had I expected to see such a wonder outside of an enclosure or a book! She sat there on my porch for what seemed like an eternity. Her wings gently opening and closing. Then suddenly there was a whoosh of air, and she took off in a furious burst of jewel colored wings. She circled my yard once more, and then she was gone, into the wild blue sky.

For another long moment I couldn’t move. Then I blinked. No, I decided. It couldn’t be. She had to just another common swallowtail. What would such a wonder be doing around here? But I had to be sure. The craft show I was going to that day was at the local Botanical Gardens. So, I stopped by the butterfly house while I was there. They had pictures on all the walls of different butterflies. I found the one that matched the beauty who had visited me, and sure enough, it was the same one. Then I went into the Butterfly House –an open air enclosure that holds dozens of species of endangered butterflies in the hope of breeding enough to replenish the species –and there were hundreds of her kind, all dancing around the flowers and the ponds. One alighted on a wood railing right beside. My breath caught again. And it was then I knew for sure.

Wherever she came from, wherever she was going, I have no clue and will never know. That will remain a mystery forever. But one thing I will always know for sure. On a warm, sunny October morning she stopped by my garden for a visit. I have never felt more honored. And Madam Monarch, wherever you are, thank you for the honor of your visit!

Monday, November 06, 2006

My 'neurotic' dislike of debt and spending

I discovered the other day that I am apparently a dinosaur. And a neurotic one at that. You see, I apparently have a neurotic dislike of debt and spending. No, I don’t mean that seriously. At this point I know enough about psychology (and myself) to know that if I am neurotic, it’s not in that way!

What brought this up? Well, the other day I was reading an old article (it’s not online sorry) and I have been thinking about it ever since. This article was about a woman who was really thrifty and had been driving her husband and son nuts because of it. This woman refused to carry a credit card, insisted on saving at least $500 a month, was determined to pay off their mortgage, and refused to give into her family’s many requests for indulgences. (Such as her son’s plea for an expensive game system for Christmas.) Her family decided something was wrong with her and convinced her to see a counselor. The counselor diagnosed her with a ‘neurosis towards debt and spending’ and was going to work with her to help her change. Um, excuse me? Now I haven’t seen this woman’s case file. I certainly haven’t read her chart, met her, or spoken to her or her therapist. But from the information I had, I could only conclude that the woman was exceptionally frugal, not neurotic. (And I couldn’t help but wonder how her counselor had gotten a license, much less managed to keep it, just judging from some of the silly remarks.) Okay, so what?

Well, to me this case is indicative of the state of our culture. It wasn’t that long ago that spendthrifts were considered to be the crazy ones. If you went into debt, it was for something really important (like a house) and you paid it off absolutely as soon as possible. People didn’t shop for recreation. Now it seems that if you don’t do these things, you’re nuts. I am reminded of two of my relatives. My great aunt died when I was in high school. She was well over a hundred years old. For years people had described her as poor as a church mouse and she died without a penny to her name. She also didn’t have any debt. What did she have? A house and some land that was paid for, a classic car that was also paid for, and a whole lot of antiques. All together, her net worth turned out to be more than that of all her heirs combined! This woman who was ‘poor as a churchmouse’ wasn’t poor at all. She just didn’t have a big fancy house or flashy stuff like her relatives. But she also didn’t have payments on all of that stuff, either.

Then there’s my grandmother, of an entirely different family. (She’s my step-grandmother, so our family lines are different.) Last month she turned 85. She lives entirely off her social security check. Most seniors struggle to make it on just that. No her. She lives large, and loves to travel. How does she do that on a measly $600 a month? Quite simple. Her only bills are utilities, gas, and food. Once a year she has to pay taxes on her condo and car. That’s it. Everything else goes to non essentials or into her significant savings account. She eats out all the time and is saving for a trip to Alaska. (God, please let me live as long as she has and be in the kind of shape she is in!) She wasn’t able to do this because of a high income; she was a single mother and worked as a clerk for most of her working life. Nor did she deprive herself of necessities (and a few luxuries) to do this: she is the most traveled person I know, and has been to every continent except Antarctica. She spent six months in Japan and saw the Berlin wall before it came down. Her tactics? She spent little, saved a lot, and stayed out of debt as much as possible.

It seems like all of those who lived through the Great Depression where this way, to one extent or another. Did an entire generation have this debt neurosis? Or did they have a reason for this avoidance? Gee I wonder. And what about all the generations before them, who didn’t borrow even when they had access to debt? Were all generations prior to the current ones full of this kind of neurotics? Somehow I don’t think so. So, what else could it be?

I am not knocking debt per say. It has its place of course. But what is this spend, spend, spend attitude people have these days? They’re in debt up to their eyeballs and they’re still spending. Which ones are crazy here? My great aunt had this “silly” belief that credit cards were a form of usury. I wish now that I had listened to her, lol.

Nor do I think that I am any better than anyone else. I have debt myself, so I definitely understand it. I got a credit card in college in order to help build my credit rating so that when the time came I would have an easier time buying a house or car. In this society all they care about is that magic number –not whether or not you can actually repay the loan! For a long time I was really, really good with it. I would only use it once a month or so to buy gas or groceries and then pay it off when the bill came in. A couple of times I used it for real emergencies –i.e., I got really sick and didn’t have insurance to pay for the $200 antibiotics. Then my mother got diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. She lived halfway across the country, and for the last six months of her life I had to go out there and back nearly a dozen times. I’m the eldest, so it was my responsibility as next of kin to fill out all of the paperwork etc. That was really expensive for someone in college, and I missed a lot of work. So I had to use my credit card for much of that. My sibs, who went with me many times, refused to help pay for anything. When the time came for her funeral they also refused to pay for any of that. So, I was left holding the bag for that too and had to go into debt further to pay for that.

So, I know about debt. And that I think is why I dislike it so much. But I dislike spending just as much. I can’t see any reason to pay two thousand dollars for a tv. That just makes absolutely no sense to me. So, I don’t have a big screen television, or an IPOD, or any of the other gadgets people love so much. Part of that is my eco-kick, but part of it is just the fact that I am a tightwad. I use a clothesline whenever possible, I wear my clothes until they wear out, etc. But what I do instead of buying all those gadgets is put that money towards my debts. I hope to be out of debt by the time I turn forty, or forty five at the latest. I don’t mean just my credit card bills; I mean everything. I’m paying off my credit cards first, then my car, then my mortgage, and finally my student loans. I know that sounds crazy, but I would rather be out of debt than have a house full of gadgets and vacation in exotic places every year. There are a lot of benefits to not being in debt: more security, more flexibility, less work and salary requirements, etc.

My friends and neighbors think I’m crazy though. I wonder if they’ll still think that when I invite them to my I Paid Off the Mortgage party in twelve years or so?