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Deep thought - June 2

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The Food Movement, Rising

Michael Pollan, The New York Review of Books
Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front
by Joel Salatin
Polyface, 338 pp., $23.95 (paper)

All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?
by Joel Berg
Seven Stories, 351 pp., $22.95 (paper)

Eating Animals
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Little, Brown, 341 pp., $25.99

Terra Madre: Forging a New Global Network of Sustainable Food Communities
by Carlo Petrini, with a foreword by Alice Waters
Chelsea Green, 155 pp., $20.00 (paper)

The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society
by Janet A. Flammang
University of Illinois Press, 325 pp., $70.00; $25.00 (paper)

Food Made Visible
It might sound odd to say this about something people deal with at least three times a day, but food in America has been more or less invisible, politically speaking, until very recently. At least until the early 1970s, when a bout of food price inflation and the appearance of books critical of industrial agriculture (by Wendell Berry, Francis Moore Lappé, and Barry Commoner, among others) threatened to propel the subject to the top of the national agenda, Americans have not had to think very hard about where their food comes from, or what it is doing to the planet, their bodies, and their society.

Most people count this a blessing. Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any people in history—slightly less than 10 percent—and a smaller amount of their time preparing it: a mere thirty-one minutes a day on average, including clean-up. The supermarkets brim with produce summoned from every corner of the globe, a steady stream of novel food products (17,000 new ones each year) crowds the middle aisles, and in the freezer case you can find “home meal replacements” in every conceivable ethnic stripe, demanding nothing more of the eater than opening the package and waiting for the microwave to chirp. Considered in the long sweep of human history, in which getting food dominated not just daily life but economic and political life as well, having to worry about food as little as we do, or did, seems almost a kind of dream.

The dream that the age-old “food problem” had been largely solved for most Americans was sustained by the tremendous postwar increases in the productivity of American farmers, made possible by cheap fossil fuel (the key ingredient in both chemical fertilizers and pesticides) and changes in agricultural policies. Asked by President Nixon to try to drive down the cost of food after it had spiked in the early 1970s, Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz shifted the historical focus of federal farm policy from supporting prices for farmers to boosting yields of a small handful of commodity crops (corn and soy especially) at any cost.

...Food Politics
Cheap food has become an indispensable pillar of the modern economy. But it is no longer an invisible or uncontested one. One of the most interesting social movements to emerge in the last few years is the “food movement,” or perhaps I should say “movements,” since it is unified as yet by little more than the recognition that industrial food production is in need of reform because its social/environmental/public health/animal welfare/gastronomic costs are too high.

As that list suggests, the critics are coming at the issue from a great many different directions. Where many social movements tend to splinter as time goes on, breaking into various factions representing divergent concerns or tactics, the food movement starts out splintered. Among the many threads of advocacy that can be lumped together under that rubric we can include school lunch reform; the campaign for animal rights and welfare; the campaign against genetically modified crops; the rise of organic and locally produced food; efforts to combat obesity and type 2 diabetes; “food sovereignty” (the principle that nations should be allowed to decide their agricultural policies rather than submit to free trade regimes); farm bill reform; food safety regulation; farmland preservation; student organizing around food issues on campus; efforts to promote urban agriculture and ensure that communities have access to healthy food; initiatives to create gardens and cooking classes in schools; farm worker rights; nutrition labeling; feedlot pollution; and the various efforts to regulate food ingredients and marketing, especially to kids.

...Beyond the Barcode
It would be a mistake to conclude that the food movement’s agenda can be reduced to a set of laws, policies, and regulations, important as these may be. What is attracting so many people to the movement today (and young people in particular) is a much less conventional kind of politics, one that is about something more than food. The food movement is also about community, identity, pleasure, and, most notably, about carving out a new social and economic space removed from the influence of big corporations on the one side and government on the other. As the Diggers used to say during their San Francisco be-ins during the 1960s, food can serve as “an edible dynamic”—a means to a political end that is only nominally about food itself.

...In a challenge to second-wave feminists who urged women to get out of the kitchen, Flammang suggests that by denigrating “foodwork”—everything involved in putting meals on the family table—we have unthinkingly wrecked one of the nurseries of democracy: the family meal. It is at “the temporary democracy of the table” that children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civility—sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending—and it is these habits that are lost when we eat alone and on the run. “Civility is not needed when one is by oneself.”
(May 2010)

Economics and the nature of political crisis

Stoneleigh, the automatic earth
Given that we are facing not just a financial crisis, but a major political crisis, as Ilargi has pointed out many times, I thought it might be appropriate to explore the nature of politics - the art of the possible - in a little more depth . That will make the nature of political crisis much clearer.

To begin with, all human political structures, existing at all scales simultaneously, are essentially predatory. They exist to convey wealth and resources from the periphery to the centre, thereby enabling an enhanced level of socio-economic complexity. Each centre - whether municipal, regional, national or international - has its corresponding periphery – the region from which it can extract surpluses. (For more on this concept, see Entropy and Empire)

During expansionary times, larger and larger political structures -can- develop through accretion. Ancient imperiums would have done this mostly by physical force, integrating subjugated territories into the tax base by extracting surpluses of resources, wealth and labour. We have achieved much the same thing at a global level through economic means, binding additional polities into the larger structure through international monetary mechanisms such as the Bretton Woods institutions (IMF, World Bank and GATT, fore-runner of the WTO). The current economic imperium of the developed world is truly unprecedented in scale.

To simplify for a moment, one can build an analogy between layers of political control and levels of predation in a natural system. The number of levels of predation a natural system can support depends essentially on the amount of energy available at the level of primary production and the amount of energy required to harvest it. More richly endowed areas will be able to support -more- complex food webs with many levels of predation.

The ocean has been able to support more levels of predation than the land, as it requires less energy to cover large distances, and primary production has been plentiful. A predator such as the tuna fish is the equivalent, in food chain terms, of a hypothetiacl land predator that would have eaten primarily lions. On land, ecosystems cannot support that high a level predator, as much more energy is required to harvest less plentiful energy sources.

If one thinks of political structures in similar terms, one can see that the available energy, in many forms, is a key driver of how complex and wide-ranging spheres of political control can become. Ancient imperiums achieved a great deal with energy in the forms of wood, grain and slaves from their respective peripheries. Today, we have achieved a much more all-encompassing degree of global integration thanks to the energy subsidy inherent in fossil fuels.

Without this supply of energy (in fact without being able to constantly increase this supply to match population growth), the structures we have built cannot be maintained (see Joseph Tainter’s work for more on this)...
(26 May 2010)

Being Realistic

Robert Moran, Beyond Real Time blog
The well written post in the NY Times titled Doomsayers Beware, a Bright Future Beckons states that in the end, all will be well regarding tech and the future of man. This may be so according to John Tierney, but to me, the most interesting part of the piece centers on how trading became the catalyst for tech, something worth considering even though war also advances tech just as much as seen by the arms race all conflicting parties wage in attempting to win on the battlefield.

"What made Homo sapiens so special? Dr. Ridley argues that it wasn’t our big brain, because Neanderthals had a big brain, too. Nor was it our willingness to help one another, because apes and other social animals also had an instinct for reciprocity.

“At some point,” Dr. Ridley writes, “after millions of years of indulging in reciprocal back-scratching of gradually increasing intensity, one species, and one alone, stumbled upon an entirely different trick. Adam gave Oz an object in exchange for a different object.”

The evidence for this trick is in perforated seashells from more than 80,000 years ago that ended up far from the nearest coast, an indication that inlanders were bartering to get ornamental seashells from coastal dwellers. Unlike the contemporary Neanderthals, who apparently relied just on local resources, those modern humans could shop for imports.

“The extraordinary promise of this event was that Adam potentially now had access to objects he did not know how to make or find; and so did Oz,” Dr. Ridley writes. People traded goods, services and, most important, knowledge, creating a collective intelligence: “Ten individuals could know between them ten things, while each understanding one.”

While I agree trade (and war) were instrumental in enabling man to develop technology, there seems to be too great a belief tech will continue apace without too much difficulty, something I find somewhat specious given the current situation society finds itself in. i.e.

Oil - To replace this energy source is difficult to say the least. Oil is incredibly efficient. Portable, energy dense and easily processed and distributed, oil has all the prerequisites needed to sustain man as long as one doesn't care about pollution. As it becomes scarce, (Peak Oil), the stress on civilization will grow. When it's gone, the impact on civilization. if there is no substitute, goes beyond words...
(21 April 2010)

Educating for Democracy: What Motivates Children to Learn?

Joel Shatzky, Huffington Post
When I was in fifth grade, I was stricken with an illness -- glomerulonephritis -- a kidney disease that required me to stay in bed for almost three months. For some reason, which has never been clear to me since both my parents were educators, I was neither conventionally "home-schooled" nor given home instruction. Yet I probably learned more of what became the "core-knowledge" of my future academic career than at any comparable period in my life before or since. I became "self-schooled" and read over 2000 pages of books on history and culture, particularly H.G. Wells' Outline of History and the two-volume History of Western Europe by James Harvey Robinson.

I committed to memory the Royal succession of the monarchs of England and France and the important events of Western civilization from the time of the Pharaohs through World War l (which is when the books ended). No one gave me a grade or tested me to find out what I had "mastered"; no one paid me to read or to remember what I had read. Even my parents, who both were teachers, didn't feel they had to praise me for doing something I wanted to do: learn. When I returned to my school, having missed classes from late November through February, I was "behind" in a few grammatical terms but otherwise, I would say I was way ahead.

I didn't turn out to be a"genius" academically even though I had done so much reading and understood most of what I read by the time I was ten. In Junior High School I was an average student although in the SP's, "average" was probably considerably above average. In the High School of Music and Art, where I unsuccessfully studied the cello, I did not even have a 90 average and was never on the honor roll. In college I barely had a B average. Yet I have been told that I have an unusually broad knowledge of music, art, literature, history, philosophy, scientific concepts and other subjects that I did not consistently "study" formally even though my higher math skills are limited (With calculations, however, I can do most basic math in my head.)

What motivated me to learn and continue to do so, is, honestly, a mystery to me. But there are many "life-long learners" like I am who continue to take courses at Elder Hostels, college extension, and "Senior Education" programs all over the country. They are the ideal group that as young learners would have fit into the ideal school curriculum envisioned by E.D. Hirsch. They can come from a highly educated background, from poverty, or even a culture of illiteracy like Abraham Lincoln -- who had the one mentor in his step-mother -- and Richard Wright, whose thirst for knowledge overcame his fear of "hell-fire" for reading "the devil's books" which were not connected to Bible study.

But what motivates someone to spend hours of each day reading, writing, thinking -- when there are so many easy distractions in today's cyber-spaced-out world -- is a gift that can't be taught or learned in any conventional way. It can be inspired by a teacher or other mentor, but even inspiring teachers cannot motivate those students who are turned off to the bizarre notion of mass education which began in the mid-nineteenth century: the misguided idea that true learning can be done in a confining room, for arbitrarily limited periods of time, and with no connection to the students' everyday lives as the teachers jump from one subject to the next. In fact, I think that most young learners who really learn do so in spite of school rather than because of it...
(20 May 2010)

Converging Crises: Reality, Fear and Hope

Susan George, zcommunications
Although the G-20 and other official bodies have so far refused to acknowledge the fact, we are not simply living through a financial crisis, however grave the financial aspects of the current upheaval may be, but a multiple crisis whose component elements all strengthen and reinforce each other. For that matter, it's not even a 'crisis', which in uncorrupted language is a relatively brief moment between two possible outcomes—in an illness, for example, between recovery and death. We're in for a much longer period but here we will bow to the now-standard vocabulary.

Beyond finance, one should recognise that inequality within and between countries and citizens has reached unsustainable levels in both developed and developing countries. Poverty is spreading and deepening, food and water scarcities are worsening, conflicts thrive in increasingly stressed societies, and catastrophic climate change—advancing much faster than experts predicted—looms over the whole.

These aspects can no longer be envisaged separately: to provide just a few pump-priming examples of connections, we may note that the rich have huge, dinosaurian ecological footprints and despite their relatively small numbers arguably cause far more damage than hundreds of millions of poor people. As Jared Diamond shows in his book Collapse, a major reason for the ruin of past societies under environmental stress was the consumption of the elites who continued massively to use up resources long after their far poorer compatriots had felt the pinch, and thus drove their societies over the brink. Global warming hits the poor harder than the rich as well, simultaneously exacerbating social inequalities and food and water shortages. The financial crisis grinds down the poor: one need only think of the tidal wave of foreclosures in the United States that has thrown millions of families onto the streets, deepening their insecurity and poverty.1

Prices for the very food staples the poor most depend on for their daily tortillas or chapattis may double overnight when financial speculators move into commodities markets or governments and large landholders place massive land resources under cultivation for agro-fuels. And how can one even imagine fixing the economy when millions have less money in their pockets and have been hard-hit by the financial and job meltdown?

This is only a sampling of the myriad interactions between the elements of the plural crisis, yet these impacts remain largely unrecognised. The financial sector, already deeply divorced from the real economy in which real men and women live has moved even further away from it and is once again creating bubbles destined to burst one by one. The moment stock markets show signs of life, we are told that the crisis is over.2

The newly self-appointed global government of the G-20, accompanied by its perennial acolytes the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization, clearly have not grasped present realities. The remedies they have so far devised are limited to the financial sector—the only aspect of the crisis they perceive—and even there, the remedies are turning out to be worse than the disease. Estimates of the money thrown at the world's financial institutions start at about five trillion dollars ($5,000,000,000,000); many are much higher than that.3

This money does not come out of the air but is like all value rooted in work and in nature. Governments are betting on future work in the form of taxes, and on nature in the form of cashed-in, non-renewable resources to pay for their largesse to the financial sector. Thus they are also counting on the future tout court, which takes on the shape of an ever-growing pyramid of debt.

To finance such debt, the solution chosen by the United States is to sell Treasury bonds (the UK sells its 'gilts') which deepens the deficit and pushes the debt ever further into the future. Nothing, however, guarantees that the US government will not succumb to the temptation of devaluing its currency, overtly or covertly, in order to reduce its debt burden: abundant signs of such a strategy are already visible on the horizon and a bubble in government securities is a distinct danger. They can also, along the same lines, simply print money, conjuring up visions of Weimar and similar horrors that wiped out an entire society and led to history's bloodiest war.

They can also continue to liquidate forests or soils or minerals at fire-sale prices—their own, or other peoples' depending on how far their predatory reach can stretch. And they can of course tax (and tax, and tax) their citizens while simultaneously reducing the entire range of government services. The G-20's preference for such measures is obvious: it has no other policy to offer. Citizens everywhere will pay for it not only in taxes and in reduced public services but also through lower investment and consequently higher unemployment...
(21 May 2010)

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