Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Plan B, Chapter 9 Highlights

For notes on Chapter 8, check out my other blog.

Chapter 9 of Lester Brown's book is titled "Feeding Eight Billion People Well." It's a big issue. My friend JLC shared a blogpost by someone today while I was reading the Brown chapter; this post talked about how our huge population is a blessing and not a problem. This made me angry and I shared it and my response to it via googlereader (which I think you can check out through this very site). Anyway, on to Chapter 9, which shows that it's all connected, baby.

So, how do we feed all the people in the world? Here's Brown's Plan, sometimes with my interjections:

1. Increase Food Productivity. Granted, we have been doing this, through using more fertilizer (but at what cost to the environment, ecosystems, and other life forms?), through improved irrigation, and through different crop breeds (a lot of the arguments against GMOs are overzealous and ridiculous, as humans have been hybridizing plants manually for thousands of years, but we should still be cautious of how, why, and how thoroughly we research the effects of some of the more invasive splicings). However, productivity cannot grow forever. Crop yields in corn, wheat, soy, and rice have pretty much all hit their peaks. Brown talks specifics in the beginning of this chapter, and if you want to argue the science, I encourage you to read it.

2. Increase Water Productivity. Drip irrigation is really good for this. Brown also argues for giving more power and responsibility to the locals and taking it away from central governments. This can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the infrastructures provided by the government for the common good. This suggestion of Brown's is fascinating to me but brings up questions of how to balance the government's role (in providing security, liberty, infrastructure, etc.) with local and personal sovereignty.

3. Produce Protein More Efficiently. "World meat consumption increased from 44 million tons in 1950 to 260 million tons in 2007" (226). "In every society where incomes have risen, so has meat consumption" (ibid). So, what can we do? Well, on the supply side, we can use crop residues instead of specially allotted grains to feed dairy cows, as they do pretty darn effectively in India right now. Eat less meat, and eat smaller animals. If you must eat meat, go with sustainably raised chickens and fish rather than cows. Brown also seems to nod a little at Derrick Jensen, noting that salmon aren't particularly sustainable as far as fish go. They're carnivorous, after all. If you're going to eat fish, consider carp, tilapia, and catfish. Brown likes to talk pragmatically as much as he does moralistically, but he doesn't forget that, either. The easy answer is to reduce consumption: "Meat consumption is growing almost twice as fast as population" (230). He makes a nuanced argument later in the chapter about how much protein we really need anyway. He doesn't make the point very strongly, but he does point out that a moderate amount of protein does lead to longer lifespans. Relying mostly on grain for calories as they do in India and other nations is correlated to shorter lifespans, but so does relying more on too much protein as we do in the U.S. Brown loosely suggests a Mediterranean-type diet, which falls somewhere between the two extremes, as being closer to the ideal.

4. Localizing Agriculture. Well, this often results in lowering the carbon required in transportation costs. Arguments have been made that producing and shipping stuff in bulk is more carbon efficient than individuals driving their SUVs (or Priuses) and purchasing small amounts in farmers' markets, but I don't quite buy it, and I think that local is good for a lot of things. There's also the idea that localized agriculture, at least when compared to ridiculously huge agriculture, provides better opportunities for nitrogen fixation and general nutrient recycling as farmers who are less removed from their land are more aware of how composting, using animal waste, and growing legumes alongside their cash crops can help productivity and reduce long-term monetary and ecological (which eventually become monetary) costs. Again, please bug me more about this if you like, or read Chapter 9. And, while I'm at it, check out Farmer John's blog. He's an actual farmer'n'stuff. :-)

5. Reduce Demand (233).
     a. Stabilize the Population (See this blogpost on why feminism is awesome.)
     b. Move down the foodchain, especially in first world countries like the U.S. This means eating less meat or at least smaller, more grain-efficient animals.
     c. Reduce the use of grain to fuel cars. I'm not sure if ethanol still has a big push in the U.S. and other countries, but here are some numbers:
"The estimated 104 milliion tons of grain used to produce ethanol in 2009 in the United States is the food supply for 340 million people at average world grain consumption levels" (235).

Brown finishes up the chapter with the idea - perhaps the book's theme - that it's all connected. If it keeps getting hotter and sea levels rise while deserts grow, food productivity will decrease. "With water, as with energy, the principle opportunites now are increasing efficiency on the demand side, not in expanding the supply side" (236-237).

There is one more chapter left in Lester Brown's Plan B. It's titled "Can We Mobilize Fast Enough?" and will probably be less full of the facts, which he's brought in good measure throughout the rest of the book, and more a direct call to urgent and immediate action. I'm not sure what I suggest that individuals do, but one of the first answers seems to be to Educate people, demonstrating that the problems outlined and elucidated are real and imminent. Then we can Empower them. Not just to change the bad behaviors but to engage in good, sustainable, community-building, soul-enriching behaviors, routines, and rituals [about which I need to write later].

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Plan B, Chapter 7 Highlights

"On the food front, the number of hungry is climbing. The long-term decline in the number of hungry and malnourished that characterized the last half of the twentieth century was reversed in the mid-1990s—rising from 825 million to roughly 850 million in 2000 and to over 1 billion in 2009. A number of factors contributed to this, but none more important than the massive diversion of grain to fuel ethanol distilleries in the United States. The U.S. grain used to produce fuel for cars in 2009 would feed 340 million people for one year" (Brown 170).

Yes, Brown cites those numbers. Check out the PDF for more info.

"Economist Gene Sperling [in “Toward Universal Education,” Foreign Affairs, September/ October 2001, pp. 7–13] concluded in a study of 72 countries that “the expansion of female secondary education may be the single best lever for achieving substantial reductions in fertility" (Brown 172). We're talking about fewer pregnancies in general, but we're also talking about lower infant and childhood mortality rates.

George McGovern (former Democratic Senator) thinks that feeding poor babies worldwide can help "dry up the swamplands of hunger and despair that serve as a potential recruiting ground for terrorists." Of course, that's not the only reason to feed hungry children, but it's a great argument when dealing with those among us who are more interested in national security than compassion. Brown adds, "In a world where vast wealth is accumulating among the rich, it makes little sense for children anywhere to go to school hungry" (174).

The next 10+ pages or so talk about stabilizing population growth, which many thinkers from multiple political persuasions think is the key issue we should focus on. Brown is blunt in his own opinion: "Put simply, filling the family planning gap may be the most urgent item on the global agenda. The costs to society of not doing so may be greater than we can afford" (184).

Final thoughts for today: subsidies are bad. Not only do they skew the ecological and human price of domestic commodities like corn and oil; they also undercut the fair market price for commodities produced by other nations. Not cool as far as global economics goes. When more states fail and the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, it hurts everybody. This trickle-down stuff has had its run and it didn't work.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Quotations from Brown and Plan B

"The twentieth century witnessed the globalization of the world energy economy as the entire world came to depend heavily on a handful of countries for oil,  many of them in one region of the world. This century will witness the localization of the world energy economy as countries begin to tap their indigenous resources of renewable energy.

"The localization of the energy economy will lead to the localization of the food economy. For example, as the cost of shipping fresh produce from distant markets rises with the price of oil, there will be more local farmers’ markets. Diets will be more locally based and seasonally sensitive than they are today.
The combination of moving down the food chain and reducing the food miles in our diets will dramatically reduce energy use in the food economy.

"As agriculture localizes, livestock production will likely start to shift from mega-sized cattle, hog, and poultry feeding operations. There will be fewer specialized farms and more mixed crop-livestock operations. Feeding operations will become smaller as the pressure to recycle nutrients mounts with the depletion of the world’s finite phosphate reserves and as fertilizer prices rise. The recent growth in the number of small farms in the United States will likely continue. As world food insecurity mounts, more and more people will be looking to produce some of their own food in backyards, in front yards, on rooftops, in community gardens, and elsewhere, further contributing to the localization of agriculture."

Lester Brown, Plan B 4.0, p. 140

Monday, February 14, 2011

Quick Climate Quotation

"Climate change is caused primarily by fossil fuel use. Burning fossil fuels has two main consequences: on the one hand, it produces substantial benefits through the production of energy; on the other, it exposes humanity to the risk of large, and perhaps catastrophic, costs from climate change. But these costs and benefits accrue to different groups: the benefits arise primarily in the short to medium term and so are received by the present generation, but the costs fall largely in the long term, on future generations. This suggests a worrying scenario. For one thing, so long as high energy use is (or is perceived to be) strongly connected to self-interest, the present generation will have strong egoistic reasons to ignore the worst aspects of climate change. For another, this problem is iterated: it arises anew for each subsequent generation as it gains the power to decide whether or not to act."

~ Gardiner's "Ethics and Global Climate Change," p. 595

Friday, February 11, 2011

You say you want a revolution?

I wrote a blogpost on my other blog (boureemusique.xanga.com) today and then went to read all of my subscriptions at that site. One of my favorite bloggers, a liberal old man who works at a hospital, takes his wife to symphony, and plays a phenomenal game of Scrabble, wrote about Mubarek's stepping down in Egypt. Hell, the whole world is writing about it right now. And rightly so.

I'm optimistic about this. I'm elated that the Egyptian people are free and can begin to make better and more informed choices about how they want to live because information is now freer there. But I cannot simply rejoice. Here is my response to Bob's post:

"I am glad Egypt is free and there is a feeling of revolution there. Now I hope that people in Egypt, in the Middle East, and all over the world begin to look more clearly at our natural resources, their availabilty (by which I mean scarcity), and how the global market affects global politics. Egypt moved from an oil exporter to an oil importer; global food production took a major hit this year while demand is rising; and here in the U.S. we continue to keep our heads in the sand about climate change because it's not "economically sound." Well, neither us subsidizing a proverbial plane that's about to crash. So... Yay for revolution! Let me not downplay that. But let's keep that momentum going!"

I'm just trying to see the bigger picture. People are people and national and political boundaries are manmade and often arbitrary. But we all live on this planet. As populations grow physically larger and socially more hungry (whether they want to not starve or they want to drive cars), our non(ornotquicklyenough)renewable resources are dwindling. Something's got to give eventually. Let revolution be a joy AND an opportunity.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Meditation on Seeding

People meditate in different ways and for different reasons. I often meditate while doing other things. For example, if I'm on the elliptical (which I haven't been in weeks), I often forgo the music or the television and focus on my breathing. This is good for my body and for my spirit. I am usually less mindful of my self, but I could argue that sometimes I meditate when I sing. I'd call this more a transcendent experience, or perhaps something even more active, like prayer. Some people practice guided meditation while others meditate while knitting. Some people sit in lotus pose, on a mat, in a forest, on a mountaintop. All of these sound calming and sacred to me. All seem to have the potential to help energize or relax, to reduce blood pressure and increase alertness, to improve an individual's sense of well being and mental clarity.

Let me share with you part of a blogpost I snatched from my friend John B. Farmer John, if you will. He's made a lot of changes in his life lately, and dropping out of college to pursue farming full time was one of his biggest and best, in my mind. He's written recently about planting seeds, and he does so beautifully and in his own real voice:

"Speaking of seeding, on the past few occasions I’ve been using a mechanical plate seeder to plant the crops.  It’s a fast and moderately effective device, yet it’s one weakness is that it spits out seeds like a machine gun.  This is bad for two reasons, the first being that when it comes time to thin the crop I’ll be stuck out there for hours, and the second reason being the fact that it’s very much a waste to spend so much money on seed and have to throw away the majority of it whenever it germinates.  We don’t have a precision planter, so I’ve taken to seeding some crops by hand.

"It’s a surprisingly spiritual exercise, I’ve found out.  The first thing I realized is that it’s very humbling to have to get on your hands and knees and move at such a slow pace, planting a few seeds at a time.  It takes a fairly long while, yet the time seems to fly after a while as your thoughts drift while conducting the monotonous exercise.  Before too long, I realized that this was actually a very effective form of meditation, a way to anchor myself and let my thoughts drift away in the sea of time.  Finally, before too long, I realized that there was a spiritual component to what I was doing.  I felt as though, subconsciously, I wasn’t merely planting seeds but also engaged in silent prayer as I knelt down to the ground and rhythmically slid my hand over the dirt to cover the seeds before patting down the location where they had been buried, as if giving them some final blessing before moving on.  Despite how tedious this exercise is, I imagine I’ll keep doing it even after a more precise seeder can be purchased."

Check him out.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

On Duality

I don't like binary systems. Rather, I don't like that opposites are assigned values and are often defined each by the other. For, example, white is good and black is bad. Straight is good and queer is bad. Light is good and dark is bad. Etc. This idea extends in many contexts to subject/self is good and object/other is bad. And I can't buy it. I try to understand it from a literary, a psychological, and a theological perspective. Lately the last of those three has been most interesting to me. So I will try to explore it a little from a few traditions I know a little bit about.

Many Christians believe that the self (humanity) is bad and that the other (God) is good. The Gnostics, prot-Christians, went so far as to say that the body was an illusion, something to escape. This is in line with many puritanical sects today, those who say "the flesh is weak," etc. Many Buddhists believe the same thing, that humanity suffers categorically and that, to some minds, the only way to alleviate this suffering is to detach ourselves from what makes us human, desire.

Another understanding of Buddhism more in line with the little Hinduism I understand sees Brahman as the ultimate self. Christian, Jewish, and other mystics, see themSelves not as separate from God but in union with the divine. Meister Eckhart, a 13th century German Dominican, was pretty much labeled a heretic for his "panentheism," the idea that God and man are one (but, of course, God is still separate and better).

There are other examples and nuances of each of these positions of course. But basically we can see self as good and other as bad, other as good and self as bad, or self and other as the same thing. To these three options I have today added a fourth. Noah Sobe interprets the pedagogical work of Maria Montessori, after whom the Montessori-type schools are named, and writes about her focus on children's interactions with objects in their education. Specifically, he posits, an object is "an enabling device" to help students "establish the self" (Sobe 295).

What's the point? Okay, my tenuously explained connection is that I really like this idea. I like the idea that before Time we were all part of the Divine, of something Universal and singular. Something - the Big Bang or the creation of man - causes us to disperse. Now it is our choice to return to the Way, either physically or spiritually or what have you. But why, then, do we need the dispersion? For me it's wrapped up in the idea of choice. We need the object, the physical world around us, as an object with which to interact, which can enable us to understand our true selves better. Please note that my concept of "other" and "object" does not refer to any human beings. All souls (whatever *that* means) are subjects and we should respect them as such. To try to tie this concept back to the sloppy ideas at the beginning of the post, basically I say that subject and object don't have to work against each other. They can exist harmoniously, each affecting the other.

Many of you have already pondered this on some level. And many of you probably think my theology is cracked. But this is a really cool turn of phrase for me, so I'm gonna roll with it and add it to my arsenal of language with which to try to express my ideas of the world.


Sobe, Noah W. "Challenging the Gaze: The Subject of Attention and a 1915 Montessori Demonstration Classroom. Educational Theory 15.4. University of Illinois: 2004.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Props to JLC

As usual I'm trying to find balance for myself: work, church, friends, games, my love. And in all of these, how much do I consume, how much do I pay for it, and what do I offer in return?

I read an article today that posited that U.S. citizens consume less energy than we did in the 1970s. My friend ECM made a similar argument recently, and I'd like to hope it's true. However, we still have a growing population and, what's more, a growing population that is getting used to "our" way of life. More cars, more calories, more electricity, more gadgets.

While I am still of the opinion that there is something morally wrong with such flagrant excess, it's much simpler to argue pragmatically. Resources such as we are able to use them now are finite. Egypt used to be an oil exporter, and now they consume as much as they produce. This among myriad other factors contributes to the instability in that region now. We (as civilized humans) continue to worship growth for its own sake, thinking via some twisted logic that it is necessary to keep us afloat. At best, this growth we think we need is being measured inaccurately. It takes into account the wrong factors (GDP instead of employment rates, for example) and refuses to take into account others (like the real price of dwindling resources).

The long-term solutions, according to some?:
1. harvest the energy of the sun (we're starting to do this; bring it on;... and yet, still, with our current growth rates, even this won't be enough eventually)
2. go gobble up other planets (not terribly feasible at this point, and there's a huge resource sink in making that happen)

Technology will continue to make some processes more efficient and less resource-intensive, but we're still using more and more and more. We will eventually find equilibrium - we always do. I'm only advocating that we find it sooner rather than later, mitigating as much of the misery that is going to accompany such a crash.

Okay, and the reason I started this blogpost in the first place.... Here are some quotations from JLC's latest post:

“It would appear that impressive economic growth does not, in fact, magically alleviate crushing poverty” and “Eventually, the natural resources feeding exponential economic growth provide a hard limit on that growth, as we see in Egypt and elsewhere around the world.” Also “How can we expect the price of energy to do anything but trend upwards as the supply of the cheap sources of that energy continue to trend downwards?” 

Funk soul bruva, check it out now:
Right about now, about now, 'bout now, 'bout now.
Fuuuuuuuunkkkkkkkk sooooooooooul bruuuuuuuuuuuuuvvvaaaaaaaaaaaa.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Musings on Romantic Relationships

A couple I barely know announced via Facebook this morning that they're splitting up. They're both nice people - you know, based on the two times I've met them. They seem fun and interesting and generous. And I think they were together for a while. Their breakup should not affect me in the slightest. And yet it does.

I won't pretend to know what went wrong. I will try not to pry too much or to point fingers or to blame people without hearing the whole story. But as it stands, it reminds me a bit of my last relationship. I'm projecting my own former pain and mistrust onto the few details I choose to read as clues. My social ties make me closer to him but my feminine instincts make me closer to her.

My own last, long relationship went on far too long, although I needed it to in order to be sure. During that time, though, I was repeatedly encouraged to second-guess my gut feelings, to presume I was overreacting when something felt wrong. I'm slowly learning not to do that anymore. My sense of self is returning.

My sense of self is not tied up (often, anyway) in my significant other. We embrace vulnerability and entwine in measure, but each of us is a strong individual on our own. We have our own careers and distinct social activities, but we also love spending time with each other, doing things romantic or friendly or mundane. I bristle and my heart clenches when I think about the possibility of ending things, but I know we're both strong enough to not just survive but thrive. I don't dwell on things; I am all about living in the moment (at least relative to how past- and future-oriented I've been in the past).

I seem to let each long-term relationship I see end weaken my own relationship, or at least make me question it. Make me paranoid. Make me wonder at all the hidden things between people that make or break something. When is something worth it? When is it not working anymore? What do people want? How much of that changes, and how much of that stays the same?

It's about commitment. Actively and repeatedly choosing to make it work. But what's the value of commitment anymore in contemporary Western society? It's about honesty. Not being out to hurt your partner but being willing to do so if it means avoiding deception. It's about affection. Genuinely liking another person, flaws and all. Being willing to give the benefit of the doubt, and forgive, and compromise. It's not for everyone. It's not always forever. But for me, right now, it's right.

Currently reading: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell