Sunday, November 27, 2011

Keeping the OWS Fires Burning

Occupy Wall Street protesters, the 99%, are pulling up stakes and leaving areas all around the world.  Regardless the perceived problems with diversity within the protest platforms, you've got to admit it was pretty impressive how many people in so many different cities were able to rally together to fight the power!

If we compare it to the civil rights movement, the beginnings are not dissimilar.  Both had to contend with a media backlash of course.  But there are a couple of  marked differences in how the civil rights movement was able to really take off.  First, the civil rights movement had several remarkable people who rose up to lead.  The OWS group needs a good speaker to unify the people.  We need a Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. - an excellent speaker who is intelligent and really understands the background and the direction we need to move in and who can excite the masses passionately.  Maybe Tom Zolot (check out how he controlled the situation at about 5 minutes into the video) who was one of the protester who got pepper sprayed.   We need someone who says things like this:
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom. - Martin Luther King Jr.
Or this:
I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation. - Malcolm X
The movements differ significantly in how concrete they are.  The civil rights movement had tangible obstacles to overcome.  They could individually fight by daring to sit in the wrong place, marry the wrong person, move into the wrong neighbourhood, go to the wrong school....  By contrast, the OWS movement is ineffable.  It's harder for individuals to use small daily acts of bravery to take it down.  There are things that people can do, but they're not as visible, not as public.  We don't all notice how many people are in on it, so it's hard to gather speed.  On the bright side, because we can't make those small daily public acts, maybe this movement can be less violent.  Maybe we can effect change without anyone getting hung or raped or stabbed.  In the states, there was about as much violence during Black Friday shopping sprees as there was at the protests.  This is the pepper spray revolution!

So, is it over?

It doesn't have to be.  Here are some ways individuals can help change the world, some individual acts that really do make a difference:

First, get educated on why people are so riled up.  There are many movies out about the scandals that have brought all this to a head.  For my money, the very best is The Inside Job.  I summarized it here if you don't want to watch talking heads for two hours.  In a nutshell,
Progressive deregulation of the financial sector since the 1980s gave rise to an increasingly criminal industry, whose “innovations” have produced a succession of financial crises. Each crisis is worse than the last, yet few people are being sent to prison despite fraud that caused trillions of dollars in losses to private citizens.
Secondly, move all your money out of banks and into a credit union, then tell people what you did.  What's the difference?  A bank is a government or privately owned business that gets to decide what to do with your money (even in a democracy).  When you pay interest on loans, it makes the people who own and run the bank a little richer, and banks are allowed to gamble with your money on the stock market.  A credit union is a co-op, a collective in which you're a member with the rights of membership including having a say in things.  They're often not-for-profit (except in Canada where they're allowed to make some money).  Typically when you pay interest on a loan it goes into the system and benefits everyone involved including you.  It's the difference between Potter's Bank and the Bailey Building and Loan:

Third, avoid paying years of interest on loans.  Back in the day when I was buying a house, there was a formula for mortgage lending that stopped people from buying something they couldn't afford.  It kept some people from owning homes they wanted, which infringed on their freedoms some criticized, but it ensured that nobody was in a bind if the interest rates went up.  I had a 40% down payment on my first house by living in less-than-ideal conditions for several years while I saved every single penny.  Now you can buy a house with as little as a 0% down payment!  That's veryvery dangerous.  If the interest rates go up and the house prices go down, then you can lose your house yet still have a mortgage to pay.  Can you afford to rent somewhere AND pay a mortgage on a house you lost?  The tent cities outside wall street and government buildings are down, but the ones in inner city side streets and parks, those made out of necessity because people have lost everything, are still standing and will be for yet another winter.

Mainstream media will tell you that raising the required down payment is "closing out home ownership to people" - which it is, but why is that a bad thing?  It's ensuring that people who can't afford a house, don't try to buy one until they've saved up more money.  And this site makes a compelling argument for just avoiding the whole home-ownership process to begin with.  In the end, renting isn't throwing away money; you actually end up further ahead.  But we're sucked in to believing that a house is part of the dream, part of being a grown up.  We think we want the right to make our own mistakes, but most people aren't able to see how the whole system operates well enough to make true informed choices.  There are too many sneaky weasels in the mix.

Fourth, this one is harder and more contentious, but if you're community minded, and you can afford the necessities easily, then voluntarily reduce your work hours.  This typically means giving up your benefits too, so make sure you can afford to do it.  We don't have enough work to go around.  Media (dictated by government and big business) suggest that interest rates are rising much slower than reality.  Get a crash course in these fuzzy numbers here.   We have a lot more people, and a lot of labour is being outsourced, so there's going to be rising unemployment.  If we can't change the way business works, maybe we can share the wealth by sharing jobs.  It also requires buying fewer luxuries, which some say will destroy the economy and everything will collapse.  I don't buy it, and neither does Tim Jackson in Prosperity Without Growth.  But that's a story for another day.

Fifth, write letters to political figures under the illusion of true democratic governance and tell people whenever you send them.  Demand clear, financial transparency.  Hold them accountable for their actions.  Should the elected officials who were in on all the deregulation be taken to task for that?  Should the bankers who got rich by insuring faulty loans be arrested for fraud?  Tell them to take out loopholes in the tax system and/or to raise taxes on outrageous luxury items (a second home, a yacht...) and eliminate them on necessities.  Recognize though, that if you get a little extra money, you'll be the one paying more taxes.  But if we want to reduce the huge rich/poor gap we have right now, then that's the way to do it!       

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Animal Welfare Labels

The U.S.-based Whole Food's Market Inc. is planning a labelling system for their organic grocery stores that informs consumers of the conditions in which animals were raised.  The system goes from a 5+ in which the animals live outdoors and eat foods intended for their digestive system (i.e. grass for cows, etc.), to a 0 for animals crowded in cages which is called "Does not meet Whole Foods market requirements."  It's unfortunate that much of the meat processed today would rate a "0" on this scale.

Of course the next day's paper had several letters suggesting that if people really care about animals, then they shouldn't eat meat at all.  That's true, BUT I don't think it's a useful way to provoke change.  If we maintain an all or nothing mentality, people aren't going to budge from their current place.  It's just too great a leap to go from possibly eating meat from fast food outlets several times a day to never eating meat again.  It happens once in a blue moon, but not nearly enough to have a significant effect.

If we want to help the world, we're unlikely to convince everyone to become vegan, but we might be able to convince them to eat "kinder" cuts of meat.  This doesn't necessitate changing our eating habits, just changing suppliers.  And when enough people shift to buying only animal-centered meat from Whole Foods, then this is what grocers and fast food restaurants will start to supply.  And that will affect our groundwater and river systems, our health as neighbours and consumers, and our conscience.

It's a start.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

In Case You Miss Me

I've started writing in two other places, mainly because I had to learn how to use wordpress.  I'll stick to strictly environmental and social justice posts here.  But you can find posts on education in general (and technology in the classroom in particular) at Snyder's Symposium.  And you can find posts on human nature and life in general (philosophy, psychology) at A Puff of Absurdity.  Feel free to comment.
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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reduce Weight Gain with This One Life-Changing Tip!

There's an article in the paper today about kids under five needing a 3-hour daily exercise regimen to prevent obesity.  I'm taken with the words "exercise regimen" as opposed to, say, "playtime."  Apparently parents are keeping children trapped in swings and strollers all day instead of actually interacting with the wee ones.

From my limited sample of people on my street, it's not the case at all.  But I live on a street uptown with big front porches - where I live all summer (to do my people-sampling) - and places to walk to, and I think that affects how often people are outside.  Generally, elsewhere, we're pushing technology over nature.

But I still think the biggest cause of rising obesity rates is how our food has changed.  The local grocery store has huge ads everywhere saying, "Ontario corn-fed beef coming soon!"  They make it sound like a really great thing.  I like that we can eat local beef, and I admit I naively thought we were all along.  But "corn-fed" is a huge problem.  Beef should be grass-fed to prevent e-coli, reduce methane emissions, and reduce potential obesity.  I won't get into details here, but watch Food Inc. for the bigger picture.  And I have to wonder, if the cows weren't eating grass or corn before, what were they eating?  I'm actually restraining myself from vandalizing the signs with "Watch Food Inc. to find out the problems with this ad!"

Okay, here's the one life-changing tip:  If you want to avoid obesity, avoid one food:  high-fructose corn syrup.    See this study for why.  The problem is it's in everything, so good luck with that.  If you eat low on the food chain, and entirely unprocessed foods, you'll have no problem with this - but you probably don't need to lose weight then either. It's labelled as fructose (the same name as sugar from fruit, but not the same thing), sucrose, glucose, dextrose, etc.  Essentially, if you're buying processed food, look for "sugar" and no "-ose" ingredients.  Give yourself twice as long to do groceries next time you go though.
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Monday, July 11, 2011

Questionable Economic Models Driving Policy

Tom Rand wrote in the Globe & Mail today that the climate-policy debate is using an economic model, DICE, that mistakenly views climate change as a slowly accelerating process rather than a non-linear model that recognizes the impact of sudden catastrophic changes in climate already happening (as explained in the Stern Review).  As such, we're doing precious little - pretty much ignoring the risks to our livelihood.

In Australia, on the other hand, the PM, Julia Gillard, is making industry pay $23 a tonne for carbon emissions which is expected to lead to reductions in emissions on par with taking 45 million cars off the road.  The article also notes that "Ms. Gillard's government is the most unpopular in 40 years."

This is exactly what we need: elected officials who aren't afraid to be hated in their quest to do what's right for their country and the world.

Here's more from Rand:

That's it!
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Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Energy Glut

Philobiblon wrote a post the way I like to - an annotated summary with page references.  The book's called:  The Energy Glut: The Politics of Fatness in an Overheating World, and it's driving home what I've been saying for years.  If you want to save the environment and lose weight, ditch your car.  You can also save scads and scads of cash.  

I'm creeping up on 50, and I still haven't bought a car yet.  I think I can go the distance on this one.   I almost succumbed to teenager-pressure, but I re-did the math and assured myself that taking the occasional taxi when necessary is a very cost-effective way to travel.

That's it.
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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Summer Movie List

ETA - I'm going to use this post as a bookmark of all the movies I loved or hated this summer.

First of all, I understand the Provincial NDP's move to alleviate poverty by lowering the gas tax and as a means of wooing voters for the fall election, but from an environmental perspective and from a socialist perspective, it's a bad move.  Or at the very least, it's not a direction one would expect from the NDP.  It just gives opponents ammo when they insist the NDP policies will never work.

Secondly, I managed some serious escapist marathon movie-watching to mark the end of school.  I'm hand-sewing cushions which I thought I could do in front of a few movies, but I foolishly chose several sub-titled ones which made it difficult to look anywhere other than the screen.  Here's a summary of the best and worst of what I watched last night (and into the wee hours this morning):

Don't Bother With...

imgres.jpgCry-Baby - With Johnny Depp, how could you go wrong?  This is how.  Directed by John Waters of Hairspray fame, I couldn't make it through more than twenty minutes.

Breaking Upwards - A very realistic portrayal of a couple in crisis, but I find it hard to sit through all the angst.  I made it about 3/4 the way through.  What is it about Annie Hall that I can watch that break-up over and over, but most movies like this are just grating?  I think it's often all the petty arguing that, instead of getting just a taste, just the idea of how they bicker, we have to sit through entire episodes.  I hate it in real life; why would I want to watch other people do it?

Adventureland - Teen angst and drama without anything new to the story.  Plus, I'm really tired of Kristen Stewart.

I Admit I Kinda Liked...

Knight and Day.  I've still got a soft-spot for Tom Cruise and action flicks that don't really make sense.  The best part is the car chase when Diaz has to steer a car with a dead man's foot flooring the gas pedal, and Cruise blocks her vision with his body across the windshield while making quips to calm her down, and, despite swerving insanely on the freeway, she hits nothing - of course.  Sorry if I gave that away for anybody.

Middle Men - It's a telling of how one man can get sucked into some nasty stuff trying to make money off porn.  It's Goodfellas-lite.  Good to sew pillows to.

Definitely Check Out....

Tell No One - A very tense and exciting murder mystery with a few clever twists.  I love this stuff!

Volver - Gorgeous film.  Breaks the barrier between the living and dead, but not in a Ghost kind of way.  At all.

The Bothersome Man - A man gets dropped off in this weird town where everything is simply pleasant. There are endless dinner parties and mindless conversation particularly about home renovations!  There are no children - children are chaotic and cause upheaval. Nor is there any delectable food.  It's all pretty bland, but everyone is really happy with this version of perfection - except for him of course.  We need a bit of chaos, something to spice things up, for better and worse.  Some of us do, anyway.    

And then I watched So I Married An Axe-Murderer for maybe the fourth time.  "Piper down" still slays me.

Here's more must sees....

Terribly Happy - Corrupt cop trying to do good, but just can't get a break.  Loved it!

Buddy - A cute movie that could be used to look at if the ends can justify the means.  Also a good look at friendship and love.  Thoroughly enjoyable, and good for the whole family - well, my family.

Barney's Version - Fantastic film about a guy and his love of a good woman.  I question the analysis that she's a saint - a bit of a doormat if you ask me.  But lovely nonetheless.  He loves her, but what's the difference between love and need?  He can't cope without her, even for a few days, but he gives nothing back to her, ignoring her accomplishments completely.  Personally, I don't think that's love.  Also, the wife is lovely, but I thought her acting a bit stilted and, well, monotone.  It reminded me of the girl in High Fidelity - who almost ruined that movie for me.  

The Station Agent - Loved it!  A train-nut inherits a station in the middle of nowhere.  And he's a dwarf (the word he uses in the film).  An excellent look at friendship and coping and such.

Win Win - Liked it a lot - mainly the ending.  A nice, but mildly corrupt lawyer neglects an elderly client for cash and ends up developing a sweet relationship with the grandson.  A bit contrived (he's a wrestling coach and the grandson's a ringer), but I liked the refreshing view of an ethical conundrum - i.e. he actually does the right thing.

Death at a Funeral - Very funny.  And a good bit about the nature of love also.  A good blow-off line to an obsessive guy about the nature of love.

Bridesmaids - Hilarious.  And the love interest is one of my favourite characters from Pirate Radio - one of my favourite movies.  The ending is likely intentionally reminiscent of another favourite movie, but I won't spoil it by saying which one.  "What kind of name is Stove anyway?"
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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Avoiding Environmental Toxins: Start Young

A guest post from Krista Peterson:

Cigarette smoke, lead-based paint, pesticides, asbestos, and household chemicals are just a few examples of environmental toxins that are currently known to be harmful, especially to children. And the only way to minimize the risks of these environmental hazards is to limit exposure to them. Luckily, unlike certain health issues that we have no control over, environmental toxins present an issue that can be thwarted. But in order to do so, there needs to be a concerted national effort focused on raising awareness and reducing their existence.

Educating children on the importance of avoiding environmental toxins at an early age can be a useful tool for promoting a healthier, eco-friendly lifestyle. Children are particularly vulnerable to environmental toxins because they are growing, their organs are developing, and their behavior often puts them in close contact with the ground. Due to increased susceptibility, it is crucial for kids to know how to protect themselves at an early age.

Because of their widespread nature, it is nearly impossible to completely avoid environmental toxins. But by making some environmentally friendly decisions, it is possible to minimize your exposure. provides a pretty comprehensive list of ways to avoid toxins:

• Buy and eat, as much as possible, organic produce and free-range, organic foods.
• Rather than eating fish, which is largely contaminated with PCBs and mercury, consume a high-quality purified fish or cod liver oil.
• Avoid processed foods -- remember that they're processed with chemicals!
• Only use natural cleaning products in your home
• Switch over to natural brands of toiletries
• Remove any metal fillings as they're a major source of mercury. Be sure to have this done by a qualified biological dentist.
• Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners or other synthetic fragrances as they can pollute the air you are breathing.
• Avoid artificial food additives of all kind, including artificial sweeteners and MSG
• Have your tap water tested and, if contaminants are found, install an appropriate water filter on all your faucets (even those in your shower or bath).

Another important step to take is to make sure your home and school are free of mold and asbestos. Asbestos is a common toxin that was widely used as insulation on floors and ceilings throughout the 1950’s to 1970’s. The material is extremely dangerous and is known to cause a deadly cancer called mesothelioma. If you live in a home or go to a school that is particularly old, get a professional to come and ensure that you’re not breathing in the deadly material on a daily basis. Doing so can potentially save your life; the mesothelioma life expectancy, after diagnosis, is only 14 months long.

Even if we take all the steps necessary to protect ourselves from the threats of environmental toxins, the fact remains, an enormous amount of pollution still occurs on a daily basis. Environmental toxins are simply a byproduct of the modern lifestyle, and with the current state of our society, it may seem like there is no going back. But that doesn’t have to be true. If we can educate the young and promote healthy, green lifestyle decisions, there is hope that our population can live in peaceful unity with the environment.
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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Strip the Streets

After being disappointed in We Day, it was a delight to participate in Strip the Streets this weekend.  A couple hundred students from 14 schools got together to raise awareness and some funds for several groups that help local homelessness.  (I think it's okay to put this photo here since its from The Record.)

There were excellent speakers, a meal at the legion, then a night outside.  I like that the schools were mixed together to talk about different issues.  It's an event that actually develops community along with awareness.  But what had the most impact was breakfast the next morning.

We went to First United Church where many people without homes spent the night sleeping in the basement.  Students shared porridge and toast with people who live like this every day.  Many of the students were moved to tears.

As I stood on the sidewalk, away from the rest, getting a panorama shot of people taking down tents in the morning, someone in a car slowed down to yell, "You guys are dressed too well to be homeless!!"   I didn't share that with the others, and it completely missed the point anyway.  The event raised money, collected tons of toiletries and other essentials, and completely transformed the participants.  The students weren't pretending to be without homes; they were getting a small taste of what it must be like for many people, including about 1,000 youth in the region, to have to go without something we take for granted.  It was an eye-opener, and I found it to be profoundly effective.

ETA - A student today commented on the evening.  She thought the worst part would be suffering through a cold night, but what was far worse was a total lack of privacy 24/7.  It's degrading to not be able to get yourself presentable in the morning without seeing other people in the mall washroom.  We have a need for private space that can't be helped with temporary group sleeping areas.

My weekend was topped off with an excellent drama presentation last night - excellent except for the silly bandz that we've decided to give away at every event.  My 6-year-old was thrilled.  Me?  Not so much.  They're made of a silicone rubber polymer which in itself isn't particularly toxic or problematic.  Careful of choking if you try to eat them, or cutting off your circulation if you wear them.  But it's trendy crap that's destined for the landfill where they won't decompose.  They might, however, photodegrade so in a few years we can breathe in the particles and decrease our fertility.

This is where environmentalists are total downers, but, I think, necessarily so.  I was excited to see the play without the toys that came with the ticket.  It doesn't make our school suddenly cooler to jump on a marketing trend.  It just makes more garbage to clean up at the end of the night.  

The weekend as a whole reminded me of a line in the film No Impact Man.  Colin's talking to an old hippie gardener who tells him:  "It's always 50/50.  Some thing get better and some things get worse.  It'll always be like that."

True that.  We just need those little bits of "better" to keep us going over the worse.
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Monday, February 21, 2011

Me2We Day

I appreciate the excitement many felt at We Day Waterloo, but I have a few concerns.  I considered sending this to The Record to balance out Carragh Erhardt's glowing editorial, but I decided otherwise.  Here's good enough.

If a rally is going to change how we live it has to do more than shout homilies at us. It has to model how to be. In this respect We Day failed. In words it told us to change the world, but in actions it told us to be wasteful consumers.

If these kids are our future, it’s a problem that so many bought bottled water. A few students told me it’s all they had for sale. This begs a question that I didn’t have the heart to ask: Why didn’t each of these “ambassadors of the future” bring a reusable bottle full of water? Thousands of water bottles were purchased in those four hours that made up the day.  As we listened to tales of women who had to miss school to walk hours for water, so many felt they couldn't make it for four hours without.

People like Al Gore were flown in to talk for less than ten minutes, then flown home again. A live video feed could have been as useful, and people would still have come for that, especially if it meant reducing GHGs. The “pumpers” made everyone stand up for most of the day, so we couldn’t see most of the speakers on the stage anyway, we had to watch on screens close to the ceiling.

They encouraged kids to buy t-shirts and jewelry and books as souvenirs of the day.  Right after the lunch break, some students spent a few entire speeches playing with their new purchases.  If you need a new shirt or necklace, then by all means, this is the place to get it where it's made or designed by hand and traded freely.  But do you really need more stuff?  We've trained our kids to want mementoes of everything they do, but it's just another consumerist scam under the cloak of charity.

Then we left the building to find, in the parking lot, 100 buses idling for over 45 minutes as kids got on to go home. They had to sit until every last person boarded a bus. It’s kind that they made the buses warm for us, but I think we can tolerate the cold for the sake of the planet. If we want to change behaviours, we can start by telling kids and the bus lines that it’ll be cold waiting in the bus, but we can handle it!  We just spent half a day listening to real hardships.  It's pathetic that we expect water on demand and a warm bus to wait in.

I’ve seen Craig Keilburger before without the flashing lights and pumpers and shouting. He is truly an inspirational speaker able to hold an audience for hours, right up there with David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis. The stories are the inspiration; if they only have an hour’s worth of stories, then make it an hour-long presentation. But why not have speakers tell their whole story instead of just teasers. There were little kids in the audience too, and some people think they need lots of variety to maintain their interest. But that belief actually creates a dwindling attention span.  Caught early, little kids love a good story told well. Everyone does.  We can foster that instead of expecting people to fall asleep if their attention is sustained by a single voice for more than ten minutes.

Dancing and chanting energize people so they think something important’s happening, that some connection has been made between all these strangers, but it doesn’t last. It’s fun and exciting for some, but doesn’t have the power to sustain us in a struggle to keep fighting the good fight. It certainly didn’t get kids to question their “XCI is the best school ever!” signs they held aloft right to the very end – ironic at an event that works to get us to shift our focus from a “me” to a “we”.

The day was frustrating because it’s so close. They’ve got the bodies and the interest, but too many words instead of actions of substance. They could cut out some time spent on dancing and have students do some good. Make people talk in small groups and pledge specific acts right there and then to be started before June, and have them submit them to a website co-ordinator so their promises are made public and they're held accountable.  Have schools sitting next to each other shake hands and say hello. Get names and make some new Facebook connections that can be counted on to join us for our next school event. Have people change their signs to “The world is the best school ever!”  And challenge students that didn't bring water with them to go the whole time without, to actually feel what it is to be thirsty and unable to get water, rather than fill our landfills and oceans with more plastic.

It was a pep rally that got everyone riled up, but a stunning waste of resources unless every one of the 6,000 in the audience actually starts to think globally with every action all the time - and they couldn't do it for a day.
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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Silent Spring Backlash

On a student's recommendation, I checked out the book The Fly in the Ointment by Dr. Joe Schwarcz.  I'm always going on about the increase of toxins in our environment and how to avoid getting overloaded.  Schwarcz insists eating spoonfuls of DDT is perfectly safe and that Rachel Carson (of Silent Spring fame) used junk science to convince the masses that DDT is harmful.

Schwarcz examines one of the many studies from Carson's book and shows how the treatment group of birds (exposed to DDT) had almost as many eggs hatch as the control group (no DDT).  And there are a few studies that show no harm, in fact an improvement in egg hatching.  Therefore, according to Schwarcz, all her studies are flawed.  I was just about to count the number of principle sources she used in her book, but they take up 53 pages of notes, and I don't want to count that many.  Suffice it to say, that study he jumped on wasn't the only study she used to back up her claim that DDT affects fertility in birds and likely affects fertility in people.  Eating a spoonful of DDT won't kill you.  But if you're a woman, and you inhale the stuff over years because you live on a farm or near a golf course, you might end up having problems conceiving.

Schwarcz laments the many children dying of malaria because of Carson, but Carson never advocated for a total ban of DDT, she just wanted it much more controlled than it was back in 1962.  I agree with both of them that spraying to stop deadly malaria is a good use for this pesticide.  Spraying it on our fields as a regular practice here - not so much.  And, most importantly, spraying it on lawns and golf courses to kill off cinch bugs and other "pests" because we love the aesthetics of a monoculture - not at all.

Schwarcz also is a consultant for Monsanto.  Just saying.

There are a lot of conflicting studies and scientific expertise on different scientific topics.  Carson is a marine biologist with a masters in zoology.  She wanted to do a PhD, but had to leave school to support her family. Devra Davis is an epidemiologist with a PhD in sciences and post doc work in oncology.  Schwarcz has a PhD in chemistry.  When PhDs conflict, how do we know what's true?

We can take the time to look at the research the scientists have studied.  It's especially important with "pop" science and social science books.  I did that with The Tipping Point series.  The studies are fun and interesting, but I want to withhold judgment until I read the original studies. It's usually pretty easy to find them on-line.  Look for controlled and treatment groups, large sample sizes, random samples, isolated variables, if the studies were repeated with similar results, and other markers of good scientific research.

A fast method, though, and the bottom line for me is that if we can live without certain synthetic products, then we should.  Eat low on the food chain, free range, organic, when it's possible, and here and now, that's really easy to do.  Avoid plastics and fragrances.  Really none of that is a big deal or difficult.  And I don't think it's paranoid to avoid buying a whole lot of crap we don't need.  Also, when studies conflict, always follow the money.  If Carson made up her studies (or Davis), what would she have to gain from that?  But Monsanto has a whole lot to lose if they can't find some PhDs to rail against these claims that pesticides can harm us.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

God vs Trees: A Confession

Okay, I was totally busted in the paper today.  I wrote a letter to the editor at the Record last Tuesday suggesting that one thing we hadn't considered in the whole giving-Bibles/Korans-to-every-grade-5-in-the-region issue was the number of trees destroyed to make all that paper.  But I used a quotation to further my argument from Revelations 7:3 about not hurting trees.  Truth be told, I knew I was taking the passage out of context.  The point of that bit of writing is that nothing bad will happen to the world (like the apocalypse or the second coming or what have you) until after God saves his loyal servants, not that we should be nice to the planet.

What was I thinking?  Well, I thought for those in the know, it would get a chuckle (if they knew that I knew, that is), and for those not, it might get a following.  The mere suggestion that it's right there in the Bible that we mustn't harm the trees might go a long long way towards their protection - maybe more than would happen from a more secular environmental approach.  Underhanded?  Perhaps.  I'm at a loss for what else can possibly influence people to care about the earth.

But the letter outing me sends the whole dialogue in a different direction.  First the writer suggests that if we get flyers we don't ask for which wastes paper, and the Bible's more valuable than flyers, then it's not a waste of paper to print off tons of copies of the Bible that people don't request.  In other words, since we get some things we don't want, then it should be acceptable to get other things of greater value that we also don't want.  That's two wrongs don't make a right.  I don't like flyers either, so that argument doesn't really convince me.  The Bible is definitely more valuable than flyers, but the question remains:  is it valuable enough to allow many trees to meet an untimely death for copies that might go untouched or get tossed when it can be easily read on-line in full with professional commentary to boot?

But a more interesting thing is how the letter is being interpreted.  Several people told me that there's a rebuttal in the paper that suggests that God is more important than trees.   If you read it carefully, it doesn't really say that.  But that's how it's being interpreted, and it certainly suggests that.  So which matters more:  what's actually said, or how it's understood by the people reading it?  Because the people who brought it to my attention seemed to miss the fact that I was being chastised for quoting out of context, but instead wanted to start a dialogue on which is more important, God or trees.

I'm leaning towards trees, myself, but can't it be both?  And, for some, isn't it the same thing anyway?

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Monday, January 10, 2011

An Eco Rap

Video by EcoPanik
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Sunday, January 2, 2011


I just finished Devra Davis' new book, Disconnect, about cell phones.  Here's the main point:


This is a controversial topic, and she lays out every bit of research out there in heavily annotated detail.  I'll summarize the most compelling pieces of information below with page numbers from the book.  If you want a summary of my summary, just read what's in bold.

She explains how radio waves work and why many think nonionizing radiation shouldn't harm us (16).  "If nonionizing radiation didn't break ionic bonds, and the intensity used was too low to produce any change in temperature, what trouble could it possibly cause?" (19)  One of the biggest arguments against cell phones being a problem is that there's radiation everywhere, right?  The sun radiates us.  So what's the big deal?  Well, nothing sits next to our bodies giving off a constant source of artificial radiation like cell phones do.  And there are many experiments that show a serious problem with nonionizing radiation.


There is more religion in men’s science, that there is science in their religion.” - Henry David Thoreau

There’s no money for independent research in science, so almost all research is funded by industry. (Universities are also funded by industry.) So there is no impartiality any longer. There’s no certainty around cell phones because “this issue has been manufactured by those with deep pockets whose bottom line remains their primary focus…. As it did with tobacco, asbestos, benzene, and hormone replacement therapy” (202).

Several governments (France, Finland, Israel) are acting to reduce exposures to cell phone radiation and insisting on more public information (202). We insist on seeing proof that an epidemic is under way before acting to restrain exposures to an agent that damages DNA, weakens the blood-brain barrier, and unleashes destructive free radials throughout the body (203).

The Stewart Commission recommends limits on cell phone use and advises that children under age sixteen not use cell phones at all (208).

Davis ends the book with this: “Years from now our grandchildren will look back and ask: Did we do the right thing and act to protect them, or did we harm them needlessly, irresponsibly, and permanently, blinded by the addictive delights of our technological age?” (243).

Everything on cell phones here also goes for cordless phones and wireless signals to computers. It’s all the same type of radiation.

But there’s radiation everywhere, right? “The levels of radio frequency signals that started the only world we know were billions of times less than those that are getting into our heads today around the world” (81).

Her information told a compelling story. Below, it’s all chronological.  I’ve been told this concern is just another way to get us afraid. I don’t think so. I don’t think telling people to keep their phones an inch from their bodies when they’re on is any more fear inducing than telling them to wear a seatbelt or a bike helmet. I don’t advocate destroying them, just using them safely. Even if the research is all a big hoax (to whose benefit I must wonder), why fight against taking some very simple precautions?

Absence of research has become the rationale for making no changes. There are many studies finding inconclusive results, but most of these are funded by the cell phone industry including the WHO Electromagnetic Field project (48). Science is limited by political and economic circumstances that determine what questions are asked, who gets to answer them, and whether that work becomes public (52).

Why do similar studies show different results? “Those who set up studies that are supposed to replicate work on the blood-brain barrier, can make changes in the design that are small but critical. Basically what is supposed to be an identical experiment with contrary results turns out to be not similar at all – significant changes have been made to ensure the study won’t work. Studies are done not to clarify the problem, but to confuse people. Most of the studies that find no problem have been sponsored directly by the industry and have used slightly different approaches. The generation of negative studies in this area has been deliberate” – Allan H. Frey (68).

“Because the causes of chronic disease can take decades to be detected, we should not wait for definitive human evidence” (56). “It is far easier to keep doing studies aimed at evaluating whether there is a problem and probing the numerous uncertainties of the field than it is to come up with policies to curtail or control potential sources of that problem while studies continue” (49).

3G and 4G phones use a wider bandwidth, and continually send digitally pulsed signals to base stations to get new information. As a result, they can result in greater cumulative exposure to radio frequency signals (46).


1960s - Milton Zaret, an ophthalmologist in New York – examined 1,600 air force, navy, and army workers to see if their jobs with radar and radio frequency exposure had any impact on their eyes. Typically half of all people age 70 have cataracts in both eyes. Almost no one has cataracts in their 20s or 30s or only one eye unless something has damaged the membrane. He found posterior cataracts in men under 40 uniquely tied with microwave exposure (196).

1962 – Safety standards for radio frequency radiation in the U.S. date back to 1962, long before cell phones moved from theory to reality (74).

1970s - Allan H. Frey, Office of Naval Research, demonstrated that radio frequency radiation relaxed the membrane surrounding the brain. This information was used to help chemotherapeutic agents pass across the brain barrier (65). Exposures to radio frequency add up over time. If the same area gets tweaked over and over again, repair may not happen as easily or at all (90). Frey showed that radio frequency signals opened up the normally closed barrier between the blood and brain. He injected dye into the bloodstream of white rats then exposed them to pulsed microwave signals. Within a few minutes the brains of the injected rats began to darken. The rats not exposed to the microwaves did not get dye into their brains (111). Others claimed the studies were wrong through a repeated study in which, instead of injecting dye into the artery where it could circulate, they injected it into the abdomen, waited a minute before killing the rat, then found no evidence that the dye reached the brain because it did have time to circulate completely – they made sure of that (113).

1973 – Dietrich Beischer found radio frequency signals raised triglycerides and blood pressure in humans. Just before he was going to report the results publically, he called a colleague to apologize that he couldn’t make it, and he couldn’t ever talk to him again (157).

1980s - Leif Salford, a neurosurgeon at the Lund, Sweden, was concerned that if microwaves can help chemo get into the brain, what else do they let in. For the past twenty years at the Rausing Laboratory of Sweden, they examined brain cells from rodents using mobile phone exposures of 2-6 hours a day. Animals exposed to just two hours of cell phone signals were much less able to complete simple tasks at which they usually excelled. Even two months later exposed rats remained less capable (66).

Using computers to characterize gene patterns, Salford showed that rats subject to cell phone radiation have more direct brain damage, less ability to fix this, and greater chances of growing and acting strangely. Once the blood-brain barrier is breached, then anything circulating into our bodies at the time, alcohol, drugs, toxic chemicals, cigarette smoke, diesel exhaust, will more readily enter the brain from the blood (66).

Henrietta Nittby has shown that rats exposed to cell phone signals for just two hours a day for a single week began to leak microscopic fluid from their brains into their blood which makes them vulnerable to taking in other agents in the blood that would normally never enter their brains.

The Lund team concludes that cell phone use in children may, “in the long run, result in reduced brain reserve capacity that might be unveiled by other later neuronal disease or even the wear and tear of aging” (67).

1993 – In a memo located by Microwave News, the FDA concluded that several studies showed that microwave radiation increased cancer risk – but by 1997, the FDA changed their mind and decided little is known about the health effects of exposure (44).

1994 - Henry Lai, University of Washington, subjected living rats to two hours of radio frequency radiation at the same level used in cell phones. Brain cells were taken from the animals and evaluated. DNA from the cells of these rats were broken. The broken brain cells found in these cell-phone-exposed animals are the same as those known to occur in cancer. To remain healthy, DNA needs to remain intact. This was the first time we saw direct evidence that cell-phone-type radiation adversely affects DNA (60).

1994 - Mays Swicord, University of Maryland, produced basic research that showed that radio frequency signals at the same frequency as cell phones could disturb the DNA within the center of brain cells for the FDA, but left the year cell phones were approved without any safety testing at all (42).

1996 – The Federal Telecommunication Act prevents local authorities from considering health concerns in deciding where cell phone towers can be placed (42).

1996 - Om P. Gandhi, University of Utah, contracted by the Defense Department, found that radio frequency signals were absorbed much more deeply into the brains of children than those of adults (79). The heads of smaller adults also absorb more radiation. To determine safety levels, the FDA uses a SAM model – a mock-up of a “standard” brain that is similar to a 200 pound man, and uniform in consistency, unlike our own brains which are of varying densities throughout. The SAM model is useless for developing real-life safety standards.

1997 – Jerry Phillips, a Motorola-supported scientist showed that genes of rodents exposed to cell-phone-like radiation looked significantly worse than those of unexposed animals. The paper was published, but someone added a line at the end, “…is probably of no physiologic consequence” that Phillips insists didn’t appear in his original report (43).

2000 – The FDA advised that the National Toxicology Program should test radio frequency radiation for its potential to cause cancer noting that there’s “insufficient scientific basis for concluding that wireless communication technologies are safe” (44).

2000 – Israel – The world’s heaviest cell phone users have triple the rate of cancer in persons under the age of twenty (84).

2000 – A Swedish analysis compared 1,400 people with brain tumors to a similar number without the disease from 1997 to 2000. They found that tumors of the auditory nerve were three times more frequent in people who had used cell phones for more than a decade (182).

2000 – Franz Adlkofer, head of the Verum Foundation which was funded by tobacco money for years. They worked with human cells and rat cells exposed and not exposed to radio frequency radiation found in cell phones. The DNA from the exposed cells looked sick. There was an increase in DNA strand breaks. Not just in this lab, but in two separate facilities as well. They consistently found increases in a type of damage called micro-nuclei, which proves the existence of serious genetic defects leading down the path to cancer (106-7). “The kind and extent of DNA damage became a very inconvenient fact of life.” They found ten times higher rate of broken DNA with the new 3G phones compared to 2G (121 – published in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health). Then one of his research assistants suddenly was claimed to have admitted to fudging the data, and Adlkofer was charged with fraud. The assistant later insisted she said no such thing, but his name was already muddied. It didn’t matter that there were, at the time, eleven other independent studies that found similar results (122), the industry published the findings that “Cell Phones Do Not Damage DNA” based on the claims of one piece of fudged research. To make matters worse, the university demanded that all Adlkofer’s research be destroyed (127).

2001 – A commission of the Royal College of Physicians, chaired by William Stewart, said that children might be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head, and a longer lifetime of exposure. “We believe that the widespread use of mobile phones by children for nonessential calls should be discourage.“ By children, they mean anyone under 16 (91).

2002 – Industry did a major study to prove the safety of cell phones. They reviewed health records of over 400,000 people who signed up for private use of cell phones between 1982 and 1995. They kicked out almost half the people – anyone who was part of a business that used cell phones (that is, the heaviest users), and only included people who used cell phones for personally purposes only and for less than eight years in total. They found that there was no evidence of harm. But, duh, they diluted the high-exposure group to lower their chance of finding an effect (181). They did agree, however, that cell phone signals do penetrate the brain. “During operation, the antenna of a cellular telephone emits radio frequency electromagnetic fields that can penetrate 4-6 cm into the human brain” (182), but they insisted it’s not clearly harmful.

2005 – C.K. Chou replaced Gandhi as advisor to the Defense Department. He also was a senior executive with Motorola – a clear conflict of interest. Under Chou, the committee relaxed the standards for cell phones. Today’s standards for cell phones have more than doubled the amount of radio-frequency radiation allowed into the brain (86). They use a model that holds the phone at least half an inch from the brain to determine levels of impact on the brain. Also nowadays phones are smaller with three or four antennas built directly into their backs. As a result, exposure to radio frequency radiation inside the brain is many times higher (87). Four different peer reviews of Chou’s critique of Gandhi’s work indicated that Chou’s critique was scientific junk (87).

All new manuals for cell phones include warnings to keep the phones away from the body – typically almost a full inch. This ensures that people can’t sue if the cell phones cause a problem unless they can prove they used them appropriately.

2008 – Ashok Agarwal, Cleveland Clinic, - Cell phones in the pocket lead to men with fewer sperm with more deformities (138). From a study of 400 men, men with the lowest sperm counts were significantly more likely to keep their phones on their bodies all the time. Men who used no cell phones had far healthier sperm than those who used a phone over two hours/day. Men who used the phone over four hours/day had the sickliest sperm counts. There is a clear and direct correlation between health of sperm and cell phone use (141). These aren’t the first studies to show this – it’s been shown in many different countries over decades (142).

2009 – Melaka Manipal Medial College – “teenaged” white rats exposed for just one hour a day had more damaging free radicals in their blood, reduced sperm counts, and lowered amounts of male hormones.

2009 – German study – Contrasted the life experiences and reported cell phone use of 366 people with deadly tumors of the brain called gliomas and 381 people with slow-growing, benign tumors of the membranes that cover the spinal cord, against 1,500 people between 30 and 69 who did not have brain tumors. Those who reported having used cell phones for ten years or more had twice the risk of gliomas.

2010 – Austria - Children’s brains are smaller and also developing faster. They absorb at least twice as much radio frequency radiation as those of adults. Bone marrow can take in ten times more radiation in children than in adults (82).

2010 – John Aitken, - After little more than a day of exposure to cell phone radiation, sperm becomes sluggish. There’s a dose-response relationship – as the dose goes up, so does the damage. The radiation does not directly damage the sperm’s DNA straight on, as happens when X-rays hit, rather, cell phone radiation weakens the ability of a sperm cell to function (143). Free radicals are generated through leaking mitochondria which harms DNA by weakening the basic structure of the genetic material (143). – Like a rubber band that’s been stretched too many times.

2010 - Lennart Hardell, Sweden, an expert on microwave radiation - “In my studies I find one pattern over and over again. Those who have used their phones the most and for the longest, have more malignant brain tumors than others” (176). Similar findings have been developed by scientists in Israel, Finland, Russian, and England. Hardell has also shown that those who start using cell phones regularly as teenagers have four to five times more brain cancer about ten years later, in their 20s (176).

On-going – For the past five years, scientists in Moscow have been following two groups of children between the ages of 5 and 12 – one group using mobile phone and the other not. Every year the children get a battery of tests. They found changes in the working of the brains of the cell phone users ranging from decreased capacity to work, increased fatigue, decrease in attention and semantic memory, and significant loss of the ability to tell the difference between different sounds. They also have functional problems – difficulties with learning and behaviour (61).

For the past twelve years, Lukas H. Margaritis, at the University of Athens, employs real cordless phones, Wi-Fi systems, and baby monitors and sends signals into cages where rats live. He then does memory tests with the rats. They are taught to swim to a platform – something they learn easily. Exposed rodents get confused and swim around in circles, unable to remember what it learned just a few hours earlier.

Other research from Greece found that the brains of rats whose mothers are exposed to cell phone radiation during pregnancy have cells that look different from those of unexposed rats. Small amounts of pulsed radio frequency radiation leave rat offspring with what looks like brain damage. They also studied a worm that can grow back when the animal is cut in half. After simple exposure, the worm grows back snarled and bent instead of straight and flat (62).

That’s It – Except….
There’s another whole section of the book about other concerns with power lines and particularly electricity used in the treatment of sports injuries strongly correlated to Lou Gehrig’s disease – but I just focused on phones here. That was enough!

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EcoSchools - This Time It's Personal

"I have not failed.  I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work."
       - Thomas Edison

I went to a staff Christmas party where there was, quite literally, some jovial pointing and laughing going on because I don't shop at Wal-Mart, don't eat at McDonalds, and have never owned a car.  Of course there are good reasons for these lifestyle choices, but that's besides the point.  If you're the EcoSchool rep, and you live by your convictions when it's not too difficult, then you might be perceived as being a bit of a freak show.  And that just sucks.

However, I was quite impressed by the instinctive social mechanisms that create community through conformity.  People who are different are relegated to the out-group until they start to tow the line.  That's a useful dynamic if we want to train people to be honest and trustworthy, ostracizing those that lie, cheat or steal.  It's just really unfortunate that what we conform to today has been largely determined by industry - consumerist mantras in the form of jingles.  Have you had a break today?

The question is, how do we make living with a conscientious worldview the in thing to do?  

It's easier not to care, and that won't likely change unless we're willing to elect a totalitarian government who will make us live ethically.  So it can't be a matter of making everything environmental easier to do. It has to be cool to be eco-friendly.  We've got celebrity endorsements on our side, but that's not enough. It has to be younger and hipper.  I wonder if a different teacher could get more people on board.  Hmmm...

But back to me.  One time I walked into a room with colleagues finishing their lunch, and one teacher said to the other, "Uh oh, we'll have to recycle today.  Marie's here."  I'm the bad guy, the eco-police.  People feel like they have to be careful around me.  And, truth be told, it never stops surprising me that people don't automatically recycle or compost or walk places.  Some eco-behaviours that were once ingrained in society, have actually been lost.  We were trained not to litter as kids.  Once the indoctrination between cartoons ended, the behaviour ended for the next generation.  It's curious how briefly good ideas stick around before they disappear and have to be re-introduced.

If someone puts recycling in the garbage, I'll question it because it's so baffling to me, or I'll just take it out myself and put it six inches to the left in the recycling bin which makes me a garbage-picker.  Excellent.  If I see people with a single-use cup every day, or even several times a day, I'll suggest they get a travel mug, or even offer to buy them one.  It's no wonder people avoid me.  It's a tricky line to walk:  reminding and encouraging people to get on board without being a thorn in their side or seeming self-righteous.

Maybe I just take being a gold-standard eco-school way too seriously and should just cut corners:  fudge the results, only compost in the staff room for instance (which still counts as composting), not actually try to decrease waste or energy, but just do the bare minimum to continue to qualify for a sticker each year.  Forget about the whole point of the program, and just go for it as a status symbol to attract more students to our school.  

The situation is reminiscent of when I did my Master's degree.  Many students in my class actually bragged about not reading the books we were assigned.  I read them and did the additional reading as well, not because I was told to, but because it makes sense to get the most out of the educational opportunity.  They could recount details of the previous night's Ally McBeal episode, but had to b.s. their way through questions asked in class.  It's the power of the immediate rewards over distant punishers.  Watching TV is more rewarding than reading regardless of the possible pain it will cause the next day in class - apparently even in grad school.   And getting good deals at WalMart is rewarding despite the long-term impact it may have on the uptown core of a city.

I remember one fellow grad student who shook his head at how much work I put into the program.  "You really don't have to do so much.  It's really easy to get the credits without any effort."  But that was never the goal I was going for - the credits.  I wanted to learn something.  And I'm not into Eco-Schools for the status, but because it really will make a difference if we can get over 1,000 people to care about the world - if we can train them to recycle and compost and use travel mugs and re-usable water bottles, and to think a bit about where they shop and what they eat.  I think when that fellow student chastised me it was really in order to alleviate his own guilt.  He had to convince himself that he wasn't doing anything wrong by ignoring the pile of books in the corner; I was the crazy one for making an effort.    

That grad student successfully jumped enough hoops to be a professor - just so you know.  

It's so ridiculously easy to reduce waste and energy use, to decrease car use, to stop supporting stores with a history of social injustices, but people really really really don't care.   And I don't believe people will begin to care until life gets very very bad for us.

In Australia, after a ten year drought, the government requested that people dramatically cut their water use in their homes last year - stop flushing toilets unless absolutely necessary, wash clothes less often, don't wash cars, etc.  It took just two weeks for the public to cut their water use in half.  It's very possible to do, but we won't budge until the ground is parched.  We are just too stupid to live.

I include myself in that last line.  Having access to a car briefly, I found myself using it for little trips where I used to walk.  It's just so easy.  It's hard to walk past the thing and keep on going.  But in just a few months of driving, I have the weight gain to show for it!  We're a lazy lot, and how do we remember the impact of our actions on the whole world when we're just one single person taking just a short trip by car?  It's hard for sure.

A relative recently asked me if it's depressing reading all those books I read on the problems in the world.  I said:  Absolutely not!  It's exciting and inspiring because we know what harms us, we know what's wrong but we also know all the solutions.  We have the ability to solve all these issues.  And we have the power to act on that knowledge by educating others or writing and protesting corporations and governments.

What's depressing isn't the knowledge; it's the apathy.

Ignorance isn't bliss.  It's just plain ignorance.

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