Sunday, April 28, 2013

Media Diet

I was introduced to the concept of going on a media diet during the first Reagan Administration when supply-side economics, which led to the economic meltdown we are drowning in now, was launched. I witnessed the media complicity in Reagan’s calculated tactic of promoting falsehoods (i.e., lying) by issuing erroneous information under the guise of “facts” that were splattered across the front page of the newspaper in Apocalypse Now Font, only to be refuted and corrected a few days later in bacteria-sized font and buried on page twelve.

During the Reagan Era (and Bush Sr. after him), I took care to monitor how much news I allowed myself to absorb because if I exposed myself to too much of it then I got terribly depressed and it affected my ability to function. When Clinton became president, I thought perhaps I could safely tune in to the media more often. But the media feeds on negativity and it was a challenge to find positive news. It seemed as if most news items were violent, sensationalist, tragic, mundane, insignificant, foolish, or all of the above. I did not wish to ignore the events that were shaping the world, but I was burned out on the blood-frenzy for reader-feel-bad journalism.

Then along came W. and I couldn’t stand to even see his mug in the paper. I depended on NPR, alternative news, Amy Goodman, Molly Ivens, Michael Moore, Al Franken, Jon Stewart, and a host of other rebel journalists (eventually Rachel Maddow and MSNBC) to keep me afloat and, honestly, to keep me laughing so I didn’t drown in despair. But eventually the spiral toward disaster overwhelmed me. I chose to just say no. After W. and his stable of crooks stole the 2004 election I bought a Bush Countdown Clock, hung it on my wall, and never opened a newspaper. All I needed to know was how many more days I had to endure the village idiot in the White House.

After Obama was elected, I thought it might be safe to crawl out from under my rock. Not so. The mainstream media continues to worship negative and useless stories. Not to mention the ones that are flat out false. But over the years I have learned to efficiently filter the news. I particularly like science, technology, nature, and health/medicine news. I like to read about good things that happened to people. I search for stories that raise my spirits and I have figured out where and how to find feel-good news. I appreciate articles that cheer me, nourish me, and reaffirm my faith in the miraculous.

This blog post was prompted by an article sent to me by Akili (my son) about why the news is “bad for us.” He was curious to hear what I thought of it. I disagree with much that is in the article, which advocates for not reading any news. I’m not entirely sure how the author defines the news, but I think avoiding all news is a poor choice. I am going to list some of his key points below because they are a good springboard for considering one’s personal relationship with the media. They sparked this blog and my own thoughts on how I approach the news these days. The author of the article suggests that we should stop exposing ourselves to the news because (his list, I don’t necessarily agree):
1) News is misleading (tends to focus on the wrong aspects of a story and/or provides false information or implies it).
2) News is irrelevant (has no useful purpose in the reader’s life, does nothing to improve one’s life or help one make smart decisions).
3) News is toxic (absorbing negative news causes chemical activity in the body that contributes to ill health and can also cause unhealthy mental disturbance).
4) Single news items have nothing to do with the larger transformative movements of our time and merely distract us from what is important (I love this one – astute observation).
5) Online news (gathered from the internet) in particular interrupts concentrated thought and disrupts our ability to engage in sustained cognitive function and focus (see my blog post about how the internet is ruining ourbrains).
6) News wastes our time (as we fritter away our lives reading about idiotic and irrelevant things that have no use for us – see number 2).
7) News crushes creativity (he claims things we “already know” limit creativity and says that consuming news causes us to come up with old solutions to problems).

I agree that negative and sensationalist news is detrimental. But I believe it’s important to stay on top of what's happening in the world. Contrary to point number 7 above, I frequently find the news stimulating and it sparks my creativity. I want to know the latest developments in medicine and green technology. I want to read news that makes me hopeful, kindles my sense of wonder, and reminds me of the possibilities. I love to be amazed. It takes some work to find news that does this, but I’ve gotten good at it. I am in favor of the media diet, but it takes work to establish a system for selecting news worth reading and rejecting news that serves no function and just generates bad feeling.

This is perhaps not strictly a news item, more like a story, but it exemplifies the kind of positive news items I would like to read more often.Check it out by clicking here. Reading this was a terrific use of my time and gave me something of value to take to my life. Now that’s good news. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

How Does One Apologize to the Trees?

Perhaps the great battles to save the Rainforests were fought and lost to corporate muscle years ago. Perhaps there are some still in progress that are winnable. I live in a part of the country that was once a Rainforest itself until logged out. And a battle to save the forest is again raging here, in my backyard, in the town of Willits in the Little Lake Valley. Caltrans is in the first phase of the process of devastating a vast area of extraordinary and irreplaceable forest, savannah, and 86 acres of wetlands in order to build 6 miles of superhighway that is neither needed nor desired. Caltrans calls this monster project the Willits Bypass, and it is ostensibly to alleviate a brief bottleneck that drivers experience when they drive through the town of Willits on their way roaring North on Highway 101; despite the fact that, according to sound environmental impact reports, this bottleneck will not be alleviated at all by the Willits Bypass.

Caltrans has fabricated a host of deficient explanations for the need for the bypass and how it will improve traffic flow. For instance, Caltrans claims there is a significant issue with congestion at the turn-off to Highway 20; however, the congestion they refer to was created about 20 years ago by Caltrans itself, when they ingeniously re-striped the northbound approach to a single lane, eliminating a critical right-turn lane. The congestion to which they refer started the minute they did this, creating the false perception that a bypass was needed to solve the problem, which was initiated by Caltrans’s own faulty traffic engineering in the first place.

The bypass will have enormous negative impacts to the community, economy, and ecology of the area. Businesses will fail, tax revenue will drop, and agricultural land will be lost. Ranchers have already been forced to sell their lands into something Caltrans calls a Migration Trust, with the assurance that they would be able to buy the lands back for grazing, and now Caltrans is backpedaling on the assurance and the ranchers are sadly realizing that they will never have access to the land again. End of ranching, end of livelihood. Caltrans promised to upgrade the city streets in Willits as part of the bypass project, including making sidewalks ADA compliant (with cut curbs), despite the fact that Caltrans was supposed to have done this a long time ago and never did. They act as if this is a benefit they are offering Willits as part of the bypass project, without acknowledging that it is actually the correction of a failure on their part to comply with ADA law.

The construction of the bypass will cause ancient trees to be felled, wetlands destroyed, forests lost, wildlife killed or driven out, and sacred Native lands desecrated (tribal burial sites and sacred areas fall within the area to be stripped and paved). The volume of CO2 emissions from the construction work will be astronomical. And with so many trees ripped out to make way for the bypass, how will the air be cleaned of that mess? Ever? The delicate chalk-green lichens that dangle from our oak trees in this region clean the air and help to make it fit to breathe. The project will eliminate these lichens.

Honestly, the people who live in Mendocino County, across the entire spectrum of political and spiritual belief, choose to live here in large part because we are people who wish to live close to nature. We live in a magnificent and wondrous forested area, near the ocean (where we can see the whales swimming offshore in season), with fresh air, marvelous birds and animal wildlife, fish and game, wetlands, splendid flowers and other miraculous vegetation, and ancient trees. We are farmers, growers, planters, gardeners, and good stewards of the earth. It breaks our hearts and disturbs the spirits of the Native ancestors sleeping beneath the veil of present everyday life to witness the desecration and destruction of this land by the felling of our ancient trees. Even if all other arguments against the bypass, such as the detrimental impacts on the economy and environment, were unfounded—and they are NOT unfounded—but even if they were, finally, the most compelling argument against this Caltrans catastrophe is that the bypass will cost us the trees. What numbskull ignorance causes people to lose sight of the deep importance of trees?

As construction moves relentlessly forward, even in the face of great resistance (demonstrations, nonviolent civil disobedience, tree-sitters, hunger strikes), rage, and grief in the community, I have come to wonder how to ever apologize to the trees for the violence inflicted upon them by my clueless fellow humans who are so intent on building this superhighway. Shame on you, Caltrans.

Here is a photo of a 500-year-old Valley Oak, felled to make way for the Willits Bypass.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

On Deficient Elevators and the Bomb

Last week I noticed a curious post on Facebook about the design of the eco-friendly Bullitt Center in Seattle. The post slammed this visionary environmentally sound structure for discriminating against the disabled. I clicked on the link provided to find out more. As it turns out, the architect (Hayes) purposely had a lousy elevator installed in the building. This is the way his choice was described in the article:  Another signature feature [of the Bullitt Center], a glass-enclosed stairwell that Mr. Hayes has named the “irresistible stairway,” rewards climbers with panoramic views of downtown and Puget Sound. The behavioral carrot, aimed at promoting both health and energy conservation, has been juxtaposed with the stick of a slow and less conveniently sited elevator that requires key card access. (Here is the link to the full story about the Bullitt Center should you wish to read.)

If you have not already worked out why this article sparked outrage, it was because the ignorant architect designed the slow and inconvenient elevator with able individuals in mind and with utter disregard for those who can’t use stairs. One of my disabled friends used this as a prime example of “able-ism.” For a visionary designer, Hayes certainly disappoints with his dis-ability to see past his nose. The Bullitt Center sounds wonderful in every other respect, but it’s quite astonishing that Hayes failed to recognize that a great many people who use elevators have no other choice in the matter and are not using elevators out of laziness. Not only people in wheelchairs and people with physical disabilities that preclude the use of stairs, but also our large aging population, which has issues with knees and hips and feet (making stairs a painful endeavor).

The conversation about this slow and inconvenient elevator in an otherwise brilliantly environmentally friendly structure was serendipitous for me. I am presently wrapping up a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for funds to establish an endowment at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest that has a five-star agriculture studies program. The endowment will be used to create a multidisciplinary program that seeks to combine the science of food/agriculture studies with studies in the humanities. Agriculture students will not only study biology and plant genetics, but will also study ethics, philosophy, religion, and history (and how these humanities topics intersect with the study of food and agriculture). Central to the proposed project is the notion that to practice sound agriculture, our future agronomists must have a firm grasp of ethics. In other words, while learning how to develop genetically modified organisms (GMOs), students will also research the consequences of doing so and will be asked to think about whether or not GMOs are such a hot idea. Students will do field research into topics such as how lack of access to fresh produce in the inner city contributes to obesity, and the environmental justice implications of this.

In short, the college for whom I am writing the NEH grant believes that scientists must be educated to think critically about how their scientific work will impact the human environment. Otherwise, we wind up with boneheads who design ecologically miraculous buildings that create barriers for the disabled rather than using all the technological advances at our command to further remove such barriers. And we wind up with worse, such as physicists who invent a nuclear weapon so powerful that it has the ability to wipe out all of the human race. That took brilliance, indeed. And then they give this weapon to politicians and the military. Go figure. And the science becomes available to the minions of the likes of Kim Jong Un. And the politicians are mystified as to how this could happen so they politely ask Kim Jong Un not to develop this weapon. They ask politely because if they piss him off he might blow us all to smithereens. Time for my meds (oh wait, I don’t take meds).

No matter how brilliant a person might be, or how knowledgeable, unless s/he has a moral compass, a sense of the difference between right and wrong and the desire to do right, then that brilliance is useless; more than useless:  dangerous.

  The staircase at the Bullitt Center.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Capitalism Is Not a Democratic System

Capitalism is not a democratic system, but you would think it is by the way many people defend it as if it’s written into the Constitution and the basis for freedom in America. It’s generally taboo to criticize capitalism, to suggest it doesn’t work, or to question why we adhere to it. People in this country who argue against capitalism are accused of being unpatriotic. Why is it acceptable to engage in criticism of the education system, transportation system, and agriculture system, but those who criticize the economic system are booed out of the theater? Answer:  the Cold War. Americans have not let go of their fear that if we give up on capitalism then we will be taken over by Stalinist-style communists. So if I say I think capitalism is a failure, then I am immediately suspect. Let’s get real and have a meaningful conversation.

The way capitalism works in this country, a very few high-echelon individuals at corporations and financial institutions make decisions that affect millions of people without consulting them. Those people most impacted by these decisions certainly do not have the opportunity to vote on the decisions. That’s not a democracy. In some instances one person makes the decision. That’s an autocracy. Our elected congress does not make these decisions. The people, those doing the heavy lifting, have no say. That is not a democracy.

I admit that I am woefully ignorant about economics. I have trouble wrapping my head around numbers. But honestly, I am better at understanding economic principles than I am at balancing my checkbook. And I look around me and I see some serious fallacies being accepted into the common lexicon of economic discussion.

For one thing, the economy is not recovering. I work with statistics every day at my job. Number one:  The way unemployment is counted gives a false picture. Number two:  the number of people living in poverty is calculated based on an arbitrary measure. People who have given up on looking for a job are not counted in unemployment figures. Middle income people are still losing their homes and going deep into debt to pay for such things as medical care because wages are stagnant. So when you hear that the economy is recovering, you should ask, “for whom?” For financial institutions bailed out by the government? Saying that the economy is recovering makes all the people who are unemployed, I mean ALL, not the government figure (and ALL is actually estimated by real economists to be over 15% of the population), it makes all those people feel rotten. If the economy is recovering then why can’t they find work? And who can live on an income that is marginally above the poverty level? The federal poverty level is not derived from any real effort to figure out how much a family needs to earn to survive. If real calculations for poverty were used, then more than one-third of the population of the U.S. would be counted as living in extreme poverty. That’s a lot of children and grannies going to bed hungry. And most of the rest of the population, living not much above the poverty level, are barely getting by, struggling to pay medical bills and figure out an exit strategy from the work force so that they don’t have to work until they drop dead.

It used to be that getting a good education was a ticket to a better way of life. Now it is a ticket to an avalanche of debt. And the inability of young people to find meaningful work that pays an adult wage is disgraceful. Concepts of socialism built on the shocking idea that those who work for a company should make company decisions, not the shareholders, not the board of directors, but the employees, well that threatens the very basis of profit-mongering. And capitalism is all about profit. There is no such thing as trickle down, Mr. Reagan. I’ll tell you what actually trickles down and it ain’t money.

I am not advocating for any other particular type of economic system. I am not that knowledgeable about economics. But I’m certain that there is another system that we can develop that is not capitalism, that does not create the disparity between the 99% and the 1% we have now. And I am certain that capitalism does not work. We are seeing it not work. One thing I find quite interesting is that until relatively recently in the evolution of the human race, our economic system did not utilize a market for the distribution of goods, resources, and services. Distribution occurred directly and without the use of money. In tribal cultures, everyone worked the communal land together and reaped the harvest, which was divided amongst them. If someone was sick, then the healer served them. If someone was young, then teachers taught them. If someone was old, then they were cared for. I’m not going to move to the Andes and live in a remote tribe, but I do think that if we put our heads together, we can come up with a better way to exchange goods and services, to distribute resources, than the system we have now, which has flopped on a grand scale. And is it so outrageous to suggest that the answers will not be found in the “civilized world”? Why we call it civilized to allow our elderly and our children to go to bed cold and hungry while our millionaires fly around the world in their personal jets, well that escapes me.

Here are some of the immediate questions on my mind in light of the ongoing economic crisis: 
1) Why isn’t the government creating jobs, filling them, putting people to work as government employees, like FDR did in the 1930s? Giving money to banks and corporations does not work as economic stimulus. Any idiot can see this. The federal government should directly hire people to build infrastructure, develop green energy alternatives, design more workable health care systems, provide universal preschool, and more. Sheesh.
2) Why is the government chipping away at the few protections people have in hard times and old age, such as Social Security and Unemployment Insurance? It’s not as if anyone can really live on what they earn from Social Security, which is not much more than $12,000 per year for most people. But it’s something. It helps.
3) What happened to federal regulations on the banking industry? Ever since the Clinton Administration repealed the Banking Act (in 1999), things have gone from bad to worse because banks have the ability to take huge risks, which by-the-way caused the economic crisis of 2007. And then what did the government do to address the crisis? It gave my hard-earned and taxed income to the banks to bail them out. Remind me again about why that was a good idea. Because I’m still furious.
4) Why is the government spending precious dollars on military interventions in foreign countries?
5) Why are our young people receiving such little help in obtaining a quality education and why does the government continue to allow them to be exploited in the job market with things such as “unpaid internships”?
6) Why is there so much opposition to a sensible health care system? I’m not asking for that watery Obamacare, but something with some substance that is more socialistic, like they have in Canada (where pharmaceuticals are affordable) or France. Somehow a lot of people seem to think socialism is the same as communism. So to those of you who wince when I use the word “socialistic,” I say, “Get a dictionary.”

Nothing will change until it becomes acceptable to engage in open discourse about our economic system. Nothing will improve until that discourse leads to the dismantling of capitalism. The economic crisis will continue to unfold in devastatingly new ways until that discourse leads to the development of a sustainable and equitable economic system to take the place of capitalism. So don’t talk to me about economic recovery or economic stimulus. Talk to me about what a new economic system would look like. That’s a conversation I am dying to have.