The Covid-19 crisis is a wakeup call. It is a literally once in a lifetime opportunity for every single person in the world to stop and question the status quo.
This crisis has shown everyone that real, meaningful change is possible. Governments around the world are issuing Universal Basic Income to their citizens during this crisis. The US 2.2 trillion stimulus measure is the largest federal response in history. Things we were long told were impossible are now simply reality. Now that this is undeniable, it is up to each and every one of us to make meaningful change.
All human institutions are simply stories. In other words, every human social institution is real only because a group of people agree that it is real – a social construct if you will.
An easy example to point to are nations. Despite being the global hegemon and the most powerful country in the world right now, the United States of America did not exist 300 years ago. Looking at a map, it seems so substantial, but in a very real sense the border between the U.S. and Canada does not exist. A black bear has no idea that it is passing from one country to another when it crosses our invisible line. To that bear there is simply the land, regardless of whatever stories we humans tell ourselves about it. America is a story that enough of us hold in common, and for that reason, and for that reason alone, it exists.
For just about all of us, we live almost entirely inside of these social constructs. Property is a story. Money is a story. Religions are stories. Political ideologies are stories. Culture is a story. We live in a world that is built out of stories. What makes stories like these so powerful is that few recognize them as stories. Most of us take them to be as real as gravity. It of course makes complete sense to think of them as real, because they are. But they are only conditionally real. Their reality rests on the agreement, the belief, of enough people.
This belief is implanted in us as young children and then continually reinforced as we grow older. Social science refers to this process as enculturation and/or socialization. It is through enculturation that societies keep themselves alive. Human cultures maintain continuity and perpetuate themselves as each generation passes on its stories to the succeeding generation. Thus we inherit the bulk of our stories – our agreements – from those that have come before us. It is through this process that we are taught how to see the world, our worldview. We are taught right and wrong, what is and what is not acceptable behavior in our society. It is through this process that we are taught the shape of the world.
Many of the things we are taught are ultimately arbitrary; learning English instead of Spanish for example. Others are just plain incorrect. I believe that is the responsibility of each of us to critically examine the beliefs we were raised with, and see if they are true and worthwhile. It’s not your fault if you were born to a racist household and raised with racist beliefs, but it is your responsibility as a moral adult to challenge that belief in yourself.
It has long been my position and message that the current social institutions of the world have not been serving us for a long time and need to be changed. By us I mean all of us. Every single person on this planet. The few benefitting at the expense of the many is not in service to all.
The beauty of this is that our institutions are ultimately arbitrary and thus are able to be changed. All it takes is the breaking of old agreements, and the creation of new ones.
The Covid-19 crisis is just one of many facing us as a species. What makes it special is that it’s sudden, highly visible, and can affect anyone and everyone (most notably the rich and powerful). This is in contrast to the many other crises facing us, which are much slower moving, less visible, and disproportionately affect the poor and other marginalized peoples.
Let’s look at world hunger. Around the world, 821 million people do not have enough of the food they need to live an active, healthy life. One in every nine people goes to bed hungry each night, including 20 million people currently at risk of famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria. About 9 million people die of hunger every year – that’s 25,000 a day. At the time of this writing, I would be very surprised if the death count of Covid-19 will reach that high.
The problem isn’t that there’s not enough food in the world – there is – the problem is that it is not worth it to those that have the food to give it to those who don’t. Put another way, 821 million people go hungry and 9 million of them die each year because the rest of us don’t care enough that they do. This is a systemic issue. A feature – not a bug – of capitalism. As long as we continue to practice global capitalism the way we have been, this will continue to happen.
To bring it closer to home, Covid-19 is highlighting other crises here in America. Many people are predicting domestic violence to spike because of quarantine. Our response to this crisis as a country was incredibly impaired due to the polarization of our social discourse – half of the country can’t talk to the other half (I examine this in detail in my last post). Even before Covid, America was in the midst of several “epidemics,” including obesity, opioid abuse, and child hunger. Our population is not a healthy one, despite our spending more money per capita on healthcare than any other country by a good bit. Perhaps the largest pre-existing crisis that Covid is both highlighting and exacerbating is economic inequality.
Per the American Payroll Association and the National Endowment for Financial Education, 74% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. In the wealthiest nation in the world. Examining the causes of economic inequality is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that they are systemic, and not just people making bad decisions. With many businesses closed due to quarantining, many people have lost their jobs and will run out of money. America’s social safety net is minimal compared to most other developed nations, and will be stretched to the ends of its ropes by this crisis. I will state, without making the case for it, that economic inequality is another feature, and not a bug, of capitalism. Furthermore, people living in poverty are much more likely to have already had health issues, and thus Covid-19 will be much more severe and deadly among the poor.
There are too many existential crises facing us as a species to go into them all, climate change, AI, ocean warming and acidification, and ecosystem loss being just a few of them. These, as the ones we explored above, are all consequences of what has up until now been the norm. Normal, our system of relating to each other globally known as capitalism, is the problem. And these crises, when they hit fully, will be far, far worse than Covid.
Luckily capitalism, like all our other social constructs, is not a fact of life but simply one out of many possible ways we could relate to each other. It is a choice. We can choose other possibilities. It is this knowledge, that we don’t have to accept the status quo, that we do have a choice, that I hope I get across in this post.
But it is we, the ordinary people, the 99%, who must make this choice. Real, meaningful change will not come from our so-called leaders. Our current leaders are in the position they are in because they have sought power and attained it, and it is this self-same pursuit of power that created the mess we now find ourselves in. Those in power will make only the bare minimum concessions to the rest of us, just enough to prevent outright revolt, while making no real changes to the underlying system that is the cause of all the symptoms.
The truth is, those in power are in power only because the rest of us agree that they are. The French Revolution, and the many revolutions that followed it, proved once and for all that the true power lies in the people. It is they who need us, not us who need them. They have gotten very good at tricking from us our agreement, but that is only because they need it so badly.
As Charles Eisenstein often points out, none of the challenges and crises facing us are technically difficult. We have all of the knowledge and technology that we need to solve them. What we lack is the political will. The system, and those that rise to the top of it, have failed us.
So, what are our alternatives? I will offer two different ones. One that I consider idealistic, and one that I consider realistic.
We collectively realize that we are all equal members of one human family. It is globally agreed upon that every human being deserves to have their basic needs met. This, and repairing the damage we’ve done to the environment, become the priorities of the world. This could look like:
Universal basic income for all humans on the planet
Universal healthcare for all humans on the planet
A wealth cap. Say $10M
An income cap. Say $1M/yr.
Removing fossil fuels from global supply chains as quickly as possible
This would entail massive relocalization, which is great for the environment and human well being (it restores the basis of community, which is just about destroyed here in America)
Eventually switching to a closed loop resource cycle.
Remove the economic necessity of growth by switching from our current debt-based money system to an alternative model, perhaps demurrage.
The global economy becomes centered on meeting the needs of each human, and preserving and restoring the environment.
As I said, idealistic.
The above does not happen. Not enough people are willing to challenge the status quo. Instead, we get disaster capitalism. The rich get richer, the poor die or get poorer. Covid-19 is used as the reason to increase totalitarian measures – increased surveillance, mandatory vaccinations, etc.
However, even though there isn’t a sufficient critical mass of people willing to challenge the status quo, this crisis is the final straw for some people. These people realize that the system is irredeemably broken, and start to look for alternatives to it. They realize the system is based on power-over dynamics and built on taking advantage of the weak. No longer wanting to contribute to it, they realize that if you’re not meeting your own needs yourself or locally, then you are dependent on and contributing to the system. There’s a new Back to the Land movement as more and more people reclaim their personal sovereignty by growing their own food. They realize that there is no freedom without food security.
These people realize that to directly fight the system is to lose. The only way to win is to not play the old game. They see the truth of Buckminster Fuller when he said, “In order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.” As the old system and its stories fall apart, these people will be the seeds of what is to come.
Normal was not serving us. Rather than seek to return to it, let’s instead create The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.
Sensemaking is the process of making a reasonably accurate mental model of the world. We have information coming in from all over: from marketing, from government sources, from campaigning, from what our neighbors and friends tell us, our own senses, from social media, etc. We use that information to make sense of the world, to then make choices that are aligned with our goals, values, and what’s meaningful to us. What we hope is that the information that’s around us is mostly true and representative of reality so we can use it to make choices that will be effective. Good sensemaking is necessary for good choice making. It’s hard to get to your destination with an incomplete or inaccurate map.
Good sensemaking has become incredibly difficult in this day and age. Misinformation and disinformation abound; the information ecology has become incredibly polluted. The coronavirus crisis is a great demonstration of why good sensemaking is necessary and why a polluted information ecology is dangerous.
My life-path has been rather twisty and windy, which has brought me into contact with a wide assortment of different kinds of people. Many of them are friends of mine on Facebook and as a result I have seen a huge variety of responses to the coronavirus crisis. Additionally, I live in an intentional community of 70 people and get to hear and witness how they respond.
What I’ve seen is that a large percentage of people were/are not taking coronavirus seriously, for a number of different reasons.
It’s not a big deal
Lack of care for others
Just so we’re on the same page, let’s start with the basic facts of the matter. (Schmachtenberger provides a much more in depth look here ) If you’re familiar with the scientific consensus about the virus, feel free to skip ahead to the ‘Sensemaking’ heading. Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a novel virus that first showed up in Wuhan, China. Novel in this context means that no one has any immunity to it before being introduced to it which means that everyone can catch it and spread it. It is quite virulent, which means that it spreads quickly and easily. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.
Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
Before going into the numbers, to avoid doing poor sensemaking ourselves let’s talk about how reliable the numbers are. The main statistics being reported are the number of cases testing positive, the number of cases that present severe symptoms, the number of deaths, and the number of cases fully recovered.
The first thing to be aware of is that the number of cases testing positive does not reflect the number of people who actually have the virus. Especially here in the US there is a severe shortage of tests. I can’t find the source now, but I’ve seen estimates from experts that say there are from 10 to 50 times as many people who actually have the virus compared to the number of cases tested positive. This number is increasing exponentially every day.
Next, not everyone experiences symptoms. According to Forbes about 18% of people who contract coronavirus will show no symptoms. These people will likely not get tested, and thus will not show up in the statistics. This has the effect of skewing the numbers to look more dangerous than they actually are. The only people who are likely to be tested are those displaying more serious symptoms. Thus the percentage of people who have severe symptoms or end up dying will be disproportionately represented in the official numbers for a while to come, causing the reported statistics to be higher than they are in actuality. Therefore the WHO’s reported mortality rate of 3.4% is likely to be higher than the actual mortality rate. People who do not experience symptoms are still contagious and can pass on the virus to others.
Furthermore, not every country is sharing their numbers. Iran has not been transparent in reporting cases, etc. and there are people casting doubt on the accuracy of China’s numbers.
Recognizing the inherent unreliability of the numbers at this time, it’s still worthwhile to explore them. According to the WHO: “while most people with COVID-19 develop mild or uncomplicated illness, approximately 14% develop severe disease requiring hospitalization and oxygen support and 5% require admission to an intensive care unit to try to prevent the most severe complications including septic shock — a significant drop in blood pressure that can lead to stroke, heart or respiratory failure, failure of other organs or death.” These are the statistics that make coronavirus so dangerous. They also mean that 86% of people will be fine, at worst getting bad flu symptoms.
The reason these are the dangerous statistics is that 14% of the entire country is A LOT of people. The population of the US is pretty much 330 million people. 14% of 330 million is 46.2 million people. The number of staffed beds in all US hospitals is 924,107. 5% of 330 million is 16.5 million. The number of ICU beds available is 97,776. It is easy to see that we have far too few hospital beds and ICU beds available to treat everyone who needs them should everyone get sick at the same time. It would overwhelm our hospital system. It is also worth remembering that coronavirus is not the only reason that people need to go to the hospital, and many of those beds are already occupied.
To avoid overwhelming the hospital system, we need people to not get sick all at the same time. To do this, we need to slow the spread of the virus. You may have heard this referred to as “flattening the curve.”
Slowing how quickly the virus spreads will limit how many people get sick at any one given time. As the people who get sick first recover, the bed they were using would then be available for people who are just getting sick. As long as the number of sick people at any one given time stays under the number of available beds, there will be no unnecessary deaths.
What do I mean by unnecessary deaths? Some percentage of people will die despite getting the best treatment available. These deaths are unavoidable. There is another percentage of people that would live if they receive treatment, yet die if they don’t. These people are what all of the fuss is about. If someone dies from failing to receive treatment, their death was preventable. Unnecessary deaths = deaths that could have been prevented, but weren’t due to lack of treatment. So if the number of cases requiring hospitalization exceeds the number of available hospital beds unnecessary deaths are virtually guaranteed.
Slowing the spread of the virus so that the severe cases don’t overwhelm the hospital system is the only way to prevent these deaths. All of the measures being asked of us (handwashing, social distancing, closing businesses, etc.) are designed to slow the spread of the virus, and thus save lives. Thus us collectively doing these things is how we can best respond to this crisis responsibly.
Now, above I wrote “let’s start with the basic facts of the matter.” This brings us to the meat of this post. If we’re reading critically, we’ll see that I just brought in a number of assumptions. First, that there are such things as facts. This is an epistemological argument, and outside the scope of this post. Worth noting though. Much more relevant to the issue at hand is that by couching the information I share as facts I am claiming that they are true. By using the modifier ‘basic’ I am further implying that they are comprehensive and simple to understand. Now, I believe what I wrote above to be true. But what exactly does that mean?
The difference between true and truthful is an important distinction. When we say someone is being truthful, what we mean is, that what they are sharing maps to what they believe. There is a correspondence between the signal you’re communicating to me and what you believe is true. Breakdowns in truthfulness happen when people intentionally distort the information they give others. This can happen through lying, lying through omission, or lying through emphasis bias.
In general, if we say someone is saying that something is true, we don’t just mean that there’s a correspondence between what they’re saying and what they think, but there’s a correspondence between what they’re saying and independently verifiable reality. Someone can be truthful, meaning they’re saying what they believe, but what they’re saying is misinformed because it doesn’t correspond to independent reality. So they’re propagating the information honestly, but it is not true.
So these are two sources of misinformation: information that is untruthful, and truthful information that is untrue.
A third type of misinformation is representative. Which is, it’s possible for someone to be truthful – share exactly what they think is going on – and what they’re sharing is actually true – they’ve done epistemology and empirically validated what they’re saying, it maps to reality in some clear way – and yet the interpretation I get from that will still actually mislead me because the true information is not representative of the entire context – there is missing information.
For example in biotech, I can get a patent on a synthetic molecule but I can’t get a patent on a natural molecule. Therefore a lot more money is going to go into researching synthetic molecules compared to natural ones. Someone could then look at this and say, “There are not that many Phase III trials on herbs compared to pharma meds, so pharma meds must be superior.” Well, no, it’s a consequence of profit seeking in the pharmaceutical industry. Even with true information, preponderance of evidence will create problems for good sensemaking. This is true information that is being shared truthfully and yet is still misrepresentative of reality.
This then is the criteria for good information: it must be true, truthful, and representative.
This understanding established, I want to elaborate and say that the information I shared about Covid-19 is true to the best of my knowledge, that I’m being truthful and honest in sharing it, and that it is representative of the biological and social-health reality of the crisis.
But how can I claim that my information is true? I’m not a virologist. I didn’t count the hospital beds in the country. I’ve yet to personally witness anyone get sick. I am basing my information on what I’m being told by others.
This, right here, is the heart of the matter. How do we know what information to trust? This is what sensemaking is all about.
Broken information ecology means that we can’t trust that most of the information coming in is true, representative of reality, and will inform good choice making.
Where does information come from? Signals are being shared by people, and by groups of people that have shared agency like corporations, governments, political parties, religions, etc.
Why do people share information that is not true and representative of reality? This is a key thing to understand.
If I’m just in nature watching what’s happening with rabbits and trees and birds, I’m getting information about them that they aren’t even intending to transmit. So the information is just reflective of the nature of reality.
As soon as there’s an agent that can share information strategically, with an intention, then I don’t know if what they’re sharing is reflective of reality or if it’s reflective of what they think will advance their intention. The moment we have abstract signalling, which language allows us, along with the ability to forecast/model each other’s behavior, and your wellbeing and agency doesn’t seem to be coupled with my wellbeing and agency perfectly – there is now the incentive to mis/disinform. An example is cheating in a romantic relationship.
If I’m a marketer of a product, I want you to purchase it whether my product is actually the best product or not. Regardless of whether a competitor’s product is better, regardless of whether you need the product, I want you to think that you need it and that my product is the best.
When there’s a breakdown between what seems to be in my wellbeing and what seems to be in yours, whenever there’s a conflict of interest and there’s the ability to share information for strategic purposes, then there is potential for there to be signal that’s being shared that isn’t truthful. Where is this happening? Everywhere.
When you’re playing poker you learn how to bluff, because it’s not who has the best hand that wins, it’s who makes everyone else think that they have the best hand. Poker is a zero sum game, my win does not equal your win, my win is going to equal some other player’s loss. Because of this, I have an incentive to disinform you because information about reality is a competitive advantage.
This is the key way of thinking about it. Disinformation even happens in nature, with other animals. There are caterpillars whose tails look like a head to disinform birds so that they go to peck at the false head and the caterpillar might survive. Camouflage is a type of disinformation – it’s an attempt to not signal – because there are rivalrous dynamics between the caterpillar and the bird in this scenario.
Market dynamics are fundamentally rivalrous, meaning my balance sheet can get ahead of your balance sheet and that my balance sheet can get ahead even at the cost of hurting the commons. The goal of marketing is to compel the purchaser’s action in a particular way. Which means that companies want to do sensemaking for us because they want to influence our choices. They’re not interested in our sovereignty nor in our quality of life. They are interested in us thinking that they’re interested in our quality of life. They’re interested in us believing that their product will improve our quality of life. But whether it actually does or not they don’t care.
If they can sell us food that is very addictive, or cigarettes, or social media, or media, or porn, or whatever it is that actually decreases our baseline happiness but makes us need another hit, faster, and is addictive, that’s really good for lifetime revenue of a customer. Because their fiduciary responsibility is to maximize profitability for their shareholders, and so they need to maximize lifetime revenue of their customers multiplied by maximizing the customer base, addiction is the most profitable thing they can get. But this is never in the best interest of the customer.
Agents of all different kinds have incentive to mis/disinform others to attempt to get ahead. As a result the information ecology is incredibly polluted. Little information can be trusted. This is the key understanding.
Consequences of a Broken Information Ecology
Now many people don’t have the words to put to the ideas I just shared, but they know they’re being lied to somehow. On top of this, the modern world is incredibly complex. Far more complex than any one person can make sense of. In the face of mass disinformation and overwhelming complexity, it’s no wonder that most people give up on doing good sensemaking. That’s when we get simple heuristics like, “Don’t trust the government” and “Don’t trust the media.” It’s because our information ecology is so broken that Trump can simply say that anything he doesn’t like is ‘fake news’ and get away with it.
Thus, it is sad yet totally understandable to me that so many people are not taking COVID-19 seriously. After years of being told to be afraid of SARS and zika, etc. how is this any different?
This crisis highlights just how dangerous this can be. Because the truth (see what I did there?) is that there is a base reality that doesn’t care what you believe. Lots and lots of people are going to die unnecessarily due to our broken information ecology.
Especially towards the beginning of the pandemic I saw and heard quite a few people dismiss the reality of COVID-19. Claims that this was a cover-up to arrest pedophile elites, or just a ruse to introduce totalitarian measures.
From Charles Eisenstein:
Because Covid-19 seems to justify so many items on the totalitarian wish list, there are those who believe it to be a deliberate power play. It is not my purpose to advance that theory nor to debunk it, although I will offer some meta-level comments. First a brief overview.
The theories (there are many variants) talk about Event 201 (sponsored by the Gates Foundation, CIA, etc. last September), and a 2010 Rockefeller Foundation white paper detailing a scenario called “Lockstep,” both of which lay out the authoritarian response to a hypothetical pandemic. They observe that the infrastructure, technology, and legislative framework for martial law has been in preparation for many years. All that was needed, they say, was a way to make the public embrace it, and now that has come. Whether or not current controls are permanent, a precedent is being set for:
The tracking of people’s movements at all times (because coronavirus)
The suspension of freedom of assembly (because coronavirus)
The military policing of civilians (because coronavirus)
Extrajudicial, indefinite detention (quarantine, because coronavirus)
The banning of cash (because coronavirus)
Censorship of the Internet (to combat disinformation, because coronavirus)
Compulsory vaccination and other medical treatment, establishing the state’s sovereignty over our bodies (because coronavirus)
The classification of all activities and destinations into the expressly permitted and the expressly forbidden (you can leave your house for this, but not that), eliminating the un-policed, non-juridical gray zone. That totality is the very essence of totalitarianism. Necessary now though, because, well, coronavirus.
This is juicy material for conspiracy theories. For all I know, one of those theories could be true; however, the same progression of events could unfold from an unconscious systemic tilt toward ever-increasing control. Where does this tilt come from? It is woven into civilization’s DNA. For millennia, civilization (as opposed to small-scale traditional cultures) has understood progress as a matter of extending control onto the world: domesticating the wild, conquering the barbarians, mastering the forces of nature, and ordering society according to law and reason. The ascent of control accelerated with the Scientific Revolution, which launched “progress” to new heights: the ordering of reality into objective categories and quantities, and the mastering of materiality with technology. Finally, the social sciences promised to use the same means and methods to fulfill the ambition (which goes back to Plato and Confucius) to engineer a perfect society.
Those who administer civilization will therefore welcome any opportunity to strengthen their control, for after all, it is in service to a grand vision of human destiny: the perfectly ordered world, in which disease, crime, poverty, and perhaps suffering itself can be engineered out of existence. No nefarious motives are necessary. Of course they would like to keep track of everyone – all the better to ensure the common good. For them, Covid-19 shows how necessary that is. “Can we afford democratic freedoms in light of the coronavirus?” they ask. “Must we now, out of necessity, sacrifice those for our own safety?” It is a familiar refrain, for it has accompanied other crises in the past, like 9/11.
To rework a common metaphor, imagine a man with a hammer, stalking around looking for a reason to use it. Suddenly he sees a nail sticking out. He’s been looking for a nail for a long time, pounding on screws and bolts and not accomplishing much. He inhabits a worldview in which hammers are the best tools, and the world can be made better by pounding in the nails. And here is a nail! We might suspect that in his eagerness he has placed the nail there himself, but it hardly matters. Maybe it isn’t even a nail that’s sticking out, but it resembles one enough to start pounding. When the tool is at the ready, an opportunity will arise to use it.
And I will add, for those inclined to doubt the authorities, maybe this time it really is a nail. In that case, the hammer is the right tool – and the principle of the hammer will emerge the stronger, ready for the screw, the button, the clip, and the tear.
Either way, the problem we deal with here is much deeper than that of overthrowing an evil coterie of Illuminati. Even if they do exist, given the tilt of civilization, the same trend would persist without them, or a new Illuminati would arise to assume the functions of the old.
True or false, the idea that the epidemic is some monstrous plot perpetrated by evildoers upon the public is not so far from the mindset of find-the-pathogen. It is a crusading mentality, a war mentality. It locates the source of a sociopolitical illness in a pathogen against which we may then fight, a victimizer separate from ourselves. It risks ignoring the conditions that make society fertile ground for the plot to take hold. Whether that ground was sown deliberately or by the wind is, for me, a secondary question.What I will say next is relevant whether or not Covid-19 is a genetically engineered bioweapon, is related to 5G rollout, is being used to prevent “disclosure,” is a Trojan horse for totalitarian world government, is more deadly than we’ve been told, is less deadly than we’ve been told, originated in a Wuhan biolab, originated at Fort Detrick, or is exactly as the CDC and WHO have been telling us. It applies even if everyone is totally wrong about the role of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the current epidemic. I have my opinions, but if there is one thing I have learned through the course of this emergency is that I don’t really know what is happening. I don’t see how anyone can, amidst the seething farrago of news, fake news, rumors, suppressed information, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and politicized narratives that fill the Internet. I wish a lot more people would embrace not knowing. I say that both to those who embrace the dominant narrative, as well as to those who hew to dissenting ones. What information might we be blocking out, in order to maintain the integrity of our viewpoints? Let’s be humble in our beliefs: it is a matter of life and death.
Probably the most common thing that I’ve seen/heard is that people just don’t think COVID-19 will be a big deal. This is due to ignorance, both true and willful. For whatever reason, these people can’t be bothered to look into the issue themselves, and dismiss the attempts of others to get them to take it seriously. This is what happens when people give up on sensemaking.
This is further complicated because all of the preventative measures being asked of us are precisely to make it not a big deal. If quarantining is successful, and the curve is flattened, then those who didn’t take it seriously will be able to point to this and say, “See, told you.”
Lack of care for others
This is actually not bad sensemaking at all. Whoever that young person is, it’s hard to argue with their logic. This became especially more poignant with the many calls from conservatives to sacrifice lives to protect the economy.
What does good sensemaking look like?
Being open to being wrong
Understanding logic and rationality, when they are appropriate, and how they are to be applied
Finding people/sources who themselves do good sensemaking
Asking yourself if new information is compatible with what you currently believe to be true
Why we need good sensemaking
As a species, we’ve developed the capability to drastically affect each other and the rest of the biosphere. The Bomb, CRISPR, AI, rearranging entire ecosystems – we’ve gathered the power of the gods. For this to not be disastrous we must therefore have the wisdom of the gods.
The power we wield is largely collective. Climate change is due to the actions of no one individual, but instead the cumulative actions of each of us. This pandemic is the same. No one person is responsible for the spread of this illness – it is the result of many people’s actions.
Our power as a species comes from our coordination. Coordination comes from the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Money is a story. America is a story. Capitalism is a story. What we are witnessing are the consequences of the stories that have driven our social world for the last several millennia. The old stories are no longer serving us, and have actually been harming us for quite some time. And the stories we believe shape our actions.
The problems facing the world today are problems that are and will affect all of us. Climate change, automation, growing economic inequality, ocean acidification, desertification, risk of nuclear war, financial collapse – these are all systemic problems caused by the collective actions of many, if not all, of us. Their only solutions lie in similarly collective action.
Collective action requires coordination. Coordination can only truly come from voluntary assumption of roles and tasks. Coercion can also shape collective action, but there must be agents applying that coercion and these agents must voluntarily agree to do so.
Coordination requires communication and agreement. A goal must be agreed upon. A strategy must be agreed upon. A plan of action must be agreed upon. Those who agree to executing an action must actually follow through with it.
To gain this agreement without coercion, people must buy in to a story. So, what story is the right one? That is the purview of sensemaking. Before people will agree to a plan, they must agree to a story. Covid-19 as virus calls for very different action than Covid-19 as hoax. Before you can get people to voluntarily take on quarantine measures, you must convince them why they must take on quarantine measures. It is the responsibility of each of us to do the work of good sensemaking, so that we can make responsible choices. As more and more of us do proper sensemaking, the information ecology will become healthier and healthier, in turn making good sensemaking even easier.
The spread of Covid-19, especially here in the US, is far worse than it could have been. There are many measures that could have been taken to greatly reduce its impact on our country. The reason that these actions weren’t taken was due to poor choice making, which in turn was due to poor sensemaking, which itself in turn is due to the difficulty of good sensemaking in our polluted information ecology.
Yes, Trump failed as a leader, especially by down-playing the severity of the crisis until its reality was unavoidable. That said, we, each of us, are sovereign individuals. We could have taken action ourselves. We didn’t. Government (coercive) quarantine wouldn’t be necessary if people would voluntarily self quarantine.
We will only come to collective action if we can find a collective story. Until now this has seemed unlikely, as social discourse has become increasingly polarized. Perhaps this crisis is the wake up call we need.
Covid-19 as Example
Covid-19 is a global crisis. As such, it is simply one of many. What makes it stand out is its immediacy. Unlike climate change, ocean acidification, and deforestation (etc.), Covid-19 is fast acting and highly visible. And, as bad as it is, thankfully it seems to not be all that incredibly deadly. As such, it offers a great window into how the world can and will respond to future crises.
Just as the leaders of the US failed to handle this crisis well, global leaders are failing to handle the other crises bearing down on us. Let’s look into climate change as a counter example.
Just as there were people casting doubt on the validity of Covid-19, there are people casting doubt on the validity of climate change. Just as many governments around the world were too slow to act in responding to Covid-19, governments around the world are failing to act in time to avert climate change. Just as it takes a critical amount of people cooperating by quarantining to slow the spread of the virus and flatten the curve, it will take a critical amount of people making the necessary lifestyle changes to reduce the impact of climate change.
Covid-19 highlights the interconnectedness of the modern world. We are dependent upon each other. Quarantining to slow the spread only works if enough people do it. It takes a critical number of us. If only one person quarantined, it would be ineffective. That one person’s being responsible would be negated by everyone else’s being irresponsible. Same thing for climate change. Only one person giving up driving a car and flying on planes is not enough. In this connected world, certain of our actions are only effective if a large enough number of us do them.
Charles Eisenstein recently shared a phenomenal essay about Covid-19 (which I already quoted from above and very much recommend). It’s long, but it does a beautiful job of highlighting how Covid-19 has disrupted most of the habitual actions of our global civilization. This disruption gives us the chance to reconsider our habits and ask if they are serving us. We could try to return to the way things were. We could be facing increased totalitarianism and social control measures. Or we could decide that the old way of things was not working. Hopefully, this crisis has shown enough people that the human world is a socially constructed one, and is only upheld by enough people agreeing to those social constructs. So many things that those in power told us would be impossible to do were done quickly when they were threatened. The fact that people staying home from work has tanked the stock market shows that the true power lies in the people. The 1% need us, for they live only off of us. They don’t create value themselves, just appropriate it from others.
I do not believe that those currently in power are looking out for the well being of all. Meaningful change will not come from the top. If it is to happen at all, it must come from each of us.
In order for us to take our power back, we must come up with a new global story that we can all get behind. Only then will we be able to take the collective actions necessary to face the coming crises that will make this one look tame in comparison. To come up with this new global story we must first do good sensemaking, individually and collectively. So, what do you believe to be true, and why do you believe it? Are you open to being wrong? Are those you trust worthy of that trust?
Meat is, of course, produced by industrial agriculture (IA), and the meat thus produced – IA meat – is absolutely bad for the planet and for the health of those consuming it. IA meat makes up almost all of the meat that is produced today, and thus it is very understandable that meat in general seems terrible for the environment – most people don’t realize that there is meat that isn’t produced by IA.
It is very important to recognize, however, that plant-based IA is also terrible for the planet. This often goes unacknowledged by those advocating for vegan and vegetarian diets.
Before going into the details of these distinctions, I want to acknowledge the truth – to the extent that they are true – of the many articles and studies that claim that meat is terrible for the planet. The meat available in grocery stores (IA meat) is terrible for the planet, period. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO’s) are hell-holes of animal cruelty and disease, as are IA slaughterhouses. IA beef, as an example, takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. IA figured out that chickens would eat their own shit if it was mixed with enough molasses and salt. IA meat is absolutely worse for the planet than IA plant-based foods. In South America they are cutting/burning down the Amazon to make room for more pasture for cattle. These things acknowledged, let’s now examine how these facts don’t tell the whole story.
The primary misleading assumption is that IA is taken as a given. Given the choice between IA meat and IA plant-based foods, the choice is clear: IA plant-based foods are more humane and better for the planet. But this is a false dichotomy. IA plant-based foods are still inhumane, terrible for the planet, and terrible for people’s health. IA plant-based foods are heavily reliant on fossil fuels and IA plant agriculture is unsustainable.
So it is not meat production and consumption in and of itself that is harmful but instead the constellation of bad practices that comprise industrial agriculture. Let’s now dig into how exactly IA plant-based foods are problematic:
Large amounts of fossil fuel are required to power heavy farming machinery, to process foods, to refrigerate foods during transportation, to produce packaging materials, and to manufacture and transport chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. Fertilizers containing nitrogen are particularly fossil-fuel-intensive; production and transport of 1 lb of nitrogen releases an average of 3.7 lbs of CO 2 into the atmosphere.
A tremendous amount of energy is also used to transport our food. As a result of the development of centralized industrial agricultural operations and the corresponding disappearance of local family farms, food is now shipped extraordinarily long distances before it reaches your dinner plate. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, food and agricultural products (not including imported or exported foods) are transported 566 billion ton-miles within U.S. borders each year, constituting more than 20% of total U.S. commodity transport. In 1969, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that, on average, food traveled 1,346 miles. Another study conducted in 1980 determined that fresh produce traveled 1,500 miles!
Furthermore, an increasing quantity of food is now being transported internationally; in 1998, a total of 172 million tons of food were shipped into and out of the U.S.10 In 2001, the U.S. imported 39% of all fruits, 12% of vegetables, 40% of lamb, and 78% of fish and shellfish. This excessive and unnecessary food transportation requires the consumption of large quantities of fossil fuel, thus polluting the environment and damaging human health. Lengthy food transport also generates additional energy expenditures by creating the need for increased food packaging, processing, and refrigeration.
If we recognize that we have to cease all carbon emissions, relying on an agricultural system that depends on fossil fuels is insane.
Monoculture and artificial fertilizer
IA plant-based foods are essentially synonymous with monoculture. Monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in a given area. Think endless rows of corn, soybeans, and wheat. This is obviously not a natural state, and there are many problematic consequences of practicing it.
First, to create cropland one must destroy an ecosystem. Instead of a forest or a prairie, there is now a field. Instead of many birds, animals, and plants, there is now one. Monoculture is the exact opposite of diversity, and diversity is necessary for a healthy environment. There’s a lot of death and destruction that goes into creating cropland.
Monoculture breaks the cycle of life. Simplified: the soil feeds the plants, the plants feed the animals, and the animals feed the soil. Growing for market entails taking from the soil – from the land – and not giving back to it (because it’s shipped far away). This is unsustainable. In order to grow, plants require nutrients. The big three are nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus. When plants are grown and harvested, the nutrients are taken from the soil, which then has fewer nutrients for the next crop. Continue this for too long and the soil becomes barren – it will no longer grow crops. To rejuvenate the soil, nutrients must be added back to it – this is what we call fertilizer. Non-monocultured soil is fertilized by dead plants and animals, and animal feces. Monocultured soil misses out on most of these inputs.
Back in the early twentieth century we were starting to run out of nutrients in our soils, which was resulting in diminishing crop yields. This problem was overcome (at least for the time), with the Haber-Bosch process, which allowed us to “fix” nitrogen out of the atmosphere, at the expense of immense heat and pressure fueled by natural gas. The Haber-Bosch process was discovered as the result of a multi-year, focused, competitive effort responding to the widespread fear of food scarcity.
The Haber-Bosch process has dramatically changed the face of agriculture and with it the face of our planet. The introduction of nitrogenous fertilizers and their increasing application had a dramatic impact on grain yields. Together with new high yielding, short-stalked varieties and chemical protection, yields of wheat and rice worldwide eventually tripled and quadrupled during the 20th century (Smil 2011). The availability of these fertilizers also opened the door for farms to move away from the proven and millennia-old system of cycling and re-cycling nutrients and organic matter in each farm. Diversified farms growing crops for humans, soil-building crops for livestock where the manure was applied back onto the land had been the norm. Now it suddenly became possible to look at a farm in a much more linear way, importing plant nutrients and exporting crops. Industrial monocultures began to take over. Farms moved away from being diversified and multi-dimensional and the `modern’ corn-soybean crop farm took over. Also the disconnecting of animal husbandry from the land and from crop growing set the stage for the so-called CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). What used to be the perfect “marriage” between cropping and livestock turned into two serious problems, the need to import expensive fertilizer into farms and the necessity to dispose of animal manure. A much-valued resource, `black gold’ has suddenly become a waste disposal problem (Pollan 2006, Montgomery 2007, Hager 2008). Haber-Bosch also made possible the `Green Revolution’, which transformed agriculture during the mid 1900’s in many so-called developing countries. This massive technology transfer of a more industrial style agriculture rested on the availability and application of nitrogen fertilizer.
The increased yields worldwide supported the rapidly expanding global population, which grew by 5 billion between 1900 and 2000. The number of humans supported per hectare of arable land has increased from 1.9 to 4.3 persons from 1908 to 2008 (Zmaczynski 2012). Today our world food supply has become very dependent on anthropogenic nitrogen. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers supply just over half of the need of our world’s crops (Smil 2011).
Without this industrial nitrogen our soils today simply could not grow enough food to provide for our current dietary needs. While this fact might be a reason to celebrate, it does come at a higher and higher price. The increasing application of soluble nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides into soils and environment brings with it serious ecological challenges in the form of emissions of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, as well as ground water contamination and surface water eutrophication (Smil 2001, Smil 2011, Charles 2013). The well-documented `dead zones’ in the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea have gained infamous notoriety, among countless other examples. Additionally, industrial agriculture and the `Green Revolution’ have had other dramatic negative, unforeseen and unintended consequences. Socio-economically, with the advent of industrial agriculture came the disruption and weakening of traditional farming systems and the communities and local economies they were embedded in (Berry 1986, Shiva 1991). The significance of Haber-Bosch in our current world can hardly be overstated.
The energy and hydrogen required to power the Haber-Bosch process are provided by fossil fuels, which are of course problematic and unsustainable.
The Haber process now produces 450 million tonnes of nitrogen fertilizer per year, mostly in the form of anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate, and urea. The Haber process consumed 3–5% of the world’s natural-gas production (around 1–2% of the world’s energy supply). The Haber–Bosch process is one of the largest contributors to a buildup of reactive nitrogen in the biosphere, causing an anthropogenic disruption to the nitrogen cycle. Since nitrogen use efficiency is typically less than 50%, farm runoff from heavy use of fixed industrial nitrogen disrupts biological habitats. Nearly 50% of the nitrogen found in human tissues originated from the Haber–Bosch process.
Monocultures are also vastly more susceptible to diseases and pests than polycultures are. Thus they require herbicides like Bayer’s RoundUp (glyphosate), fungicides, and pesticides. These are toxic, and end up in the soil and water harming humans and other life.
You might be thinking that you can avoid the above issues by buying non-GMO organic. You’d be partially correct, as non-GMO organic is less problematic. It’s still however quite problematic. Most of the issues with monoculture still pertain to organic plant-based foods. Large amounts of fossil fuels are still required to grow, preserve, and transport it.
Organic farming, as it is practiced now in the U.S, is largely reliant on the very synthetic fertilizers and the confined animal feeding operations that it prohibits. The link in this reliance is animal manure and the key nutrient is [once again] nitrogen.
The exception to this is of course if you buy from local farmers whose methods you trust. But how many people buy exclusively from local farmers? And even then they are still using fossil fuels, as we all are. And as the above link points out, pretty much any farmer growing for market benefits from synthetic nitrogen fixing.
IA plant based agriculture also draws heavily on water resources. The reason California has droughts and water issues is the same reason as why the Ogallala aquifer that feeds America’s breadbasket is running out: IA agriculture uses more water than is sustainable. Addressing water scarcity would take an entire blog post on its own, but is a huge deal, and IA is a huge contributor to it.
In short, IA plant-based foods are neither healthy nor sustainable. When articles tell you to stop eating meat, this is what they want you to support instead.
And believe it or not, there are viable sources of healthy meat. In fact, when done properly animal husbandry is good for the planet. I’ll even take it one step further and say that responsible animal husbandry is actually crucial to the future of agriculture.
Let’s start by talking about cows. Cows and beef get a lot of bad press, for example, the statistic I quoted above that it takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. The argument goes that this grain could instead go to feeding people directly. Ignoring the fact that no human would want to eat the grain that gets fed to cows, let’s instead talk about how cows shouldn’t be eating grain in the first place. They should only be eating what they evolved to eat, which is motherfuckin’ grass.
Cows are incredible. They are renewable solar energy sources. They turn sunlight into beef and dairy. Grass, unlike monocultures, requires very little management. Now you might say here, plants turn sunlight into food even more efficiently. You are of course correct, but you might not be aware that pasture is not the same as cropland.
Pasture =/= Cropland
Intact grasslands inhabited by herds of large herbivores have a tremendous capacity to sequester carbon in the soil. Data in terms of tons of carbon per hectare is hard to pinpoint because estimates obtained through measurement and modeling vary by several orders of magnitude, depending on geological conditions, rainfall, types of grasses and whether they are cut, and the presence or absence of herd animals (whether wild or domesticated livestock). Furthermore, sequestered carbon can remain in the soil for varying lengths of time. Some carbon-containing soil organic matter decomposes in a year or two, much of it remains in the soil for a few decades, and some isn’t recycled back into the atmosphere for thousands of years (if ever). The ten-foot-thick topsoil of the American Midwest (much eroded today) testifies to the ability of grasslands to store carbon underground.
The highest carbon storage comes from native grass mixes occupied by large, roaming herds of herbivores. Sadly, 97 percent of the original North American highgrass prairie has been converted to cropland, suburbs, and sown pasture. Originally covering 70 million hectares, its carbon-regulating capacity was enormous. Judging by the data, albeit sparse, coming from management-intensive grazing practices that seek to replicate natural herbivore grazing behavior, it is conceivable that highgrass prairie could sequester 8–20 tons of carbon per hectare per year. Today, instead, most of this land is a carbon emitter, because it is cultivated for crops. Plow-based cultivation that exposes bare soil to the air, water, and wind makes its organic matter (carbon) available for oxidation. A similar story has transpired in the steppes of Asia, the veldts of Africa, the pampas of South America, and so on. According to the FAO, up to a third of global grassland has already been degraded. What could be a carbon sink is becoming an emissions source.
Charles Eisenstein, Climate, A New Story
Furthermore, not all soil is the same, and there is plenty of soil that is unsuitable for growing crops yet grows grass well. Thus, done properly, cow pasture does not compete with cropland, and expands the amount of land that is able to contribute to human food.
As mentioned above, large ruminants (i.e. cows, bison, etc.) play a crucial role in healthy grasslands. Their main contribution is their heavy hoofprint which presses grasses down into the soil, thus sequestering carbon, but their poop also contributes. What makes a ruminant a ruminant is that they have four stomachs that allow them to ferment grass inside themselves, growing bacteria, which is what actually provides them nutrition and energy.
Rumens are meant to digest leafy plant matter. In the case of cows, mostly grass. Their stomachs are not meant to digest grain, nor do they handle it well. Thus, it makes little sense to be feeding cows grain. IA does it because it causes them to gain weight faster, with higher fat content, at the expense of their health.
As large ruminants, cows in particular have a huge roll to play in regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is practicing agriculture in such a way that it is not only sustainable, but actually regenerates the land upon which it is practiced. An example would be reclaiming the land now used for cropland in the American high plains and restoring it to prairie. This would stop the carbon emissions that cropland causes, and start to once again sequester carbon. Since the American Bison was hunted close to extinction to remove it as a food source for Native Americans by colonizers, cows will be very helpful in restoring the prairie. Cows are also incredibly useful for building soil and soil health in any grassland setting when managed properly. Pastures sequester more carbon than do forests.
Carbon sequestration is important for more than just fighting climate change, it also makes for better, healthier soil. In the soil, carbon is commonly referred to as ‘organic matter content’ and is one of the primary things that determines how healthy soil is. This is because carbon enters the soil in the form of plant matter, which then becomes food for the bacteria and insects that make soil alive. Soil with high organic matter content can also absorb much more water during rainfall, making less runoff and therefore less soil erosion.
Pigs and Chickens
The main two other meats that we eat are pork and chicken. IA pork and chicken are way worse in pretty much every way than IA beef. Given the choice between IA pork and chicken and IA beef, I’d choose IA beef every time, both in terms of my own health and that of the planet.
Outside of IA, however, both pigs and chickens have valuable contributions to make to a holistically managed farm. Pigs turn compost into bacon and lard, and chickens remove insect pests and produce eggs and meat. Pigs also can provide value by working the land. Look up Joel Salatin for more information. They can be raised in a way that is beneficial for the land, and provide valuable nutrition.
Done properly, animal husbandry is much more labor efficient than plant-based agriculture in terms of calories and nutrition produced (Outside of IA. Of course it’s more labor efficient in terms of man-hours to have fossil fuels do all the work). I don’t know how many people have ever tried to completely feed themselves out of a garden, but gardening is long and hard work. Properly managed animals require a lot less time.
If you actually care about the planet, the thing to do is stop supporting the Industrial Agriculture system. This, however, is harder than it sounds. It pretty much means that you stop buying food in the grocery store. And since that’s where pretty much everyone gets their food, it’s a tall order.
However it’s easier and easier to support local, regenerative agriculture. There are CSA’s (community supported agriculture) all over the place, likely near you. Most metropolitan areas will also have access to a butcher that sources local, healthy meat.
One way or another, at some point we will no longer use natural gas to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. We might stop when we realize that burning fossil fuels is no longer tenable. At the very least we’ll stop when we run out of natural gas at some point in the future. By being dependent on a non-renewable resource, the Haber-Bosch process is by definition unsustainable. A sustainable agricultural system will need animals, especially cows, to maintain soil fertility.
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”
In this quote Thoreau is referring to philanthropy as practiced in his time, yet I feel it is relevant today in an even broader sense.
The United States is a house divided. Never before has our social discourse been so polarized. The Left and the Right cannot even speak to each other. Both sides feel under attack. Both sides are scared. Each side feels like the other is the Enemy.
There are countless problems in the country and the world, all existing simultaneously. The Left is killing unborn babies. The Right is dictating control of women’s bodies. The Left wants the country to be overrun by immigrants. The Right is tearing children from their parents. The Left wants to make it harder for people to earn an honest living. The Right wants to destroy the environment and kill us all through climate change. The Left wants to take the money of working people and give it to lazy slackers who don’t contribute. The Right wants to destroy the social safety net. And so many more.
My contention in this post is that all of these issues, and any future issue that is the focus of national attention for a news cycle, are branches of evil. This doesn’t mean that they’re not important, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about them, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything about them. What it means is that these issues are symptoms, rather than causes.
Let’s take the hot issue right now – kids in detention centers being taken from their parents and abused. Is it terrible? Absolutely. But why is it happening? The Left says it’s because Trump’s administration is heartless and cruel. The Right says it’s because illegal immigrants are trying to come here with no respect to our laws and take hard-working Americans’ jobs away from them. To an extent, both of these narratives are true. Both they are both incomplete.
Why are these people trying to come to the US? Because they are seeking a better life. Why are they seeking a better life? Because their old lives were shit. That’s the only reason you’d walk your family thousands of miles to an uncertain future. Why were their old lives shit? For a number of reasons, but the biggest is that foreign (mainly US) corporations, with the help of the US government, have been taking their resources and destabilizing their governments.
…we must also acknowledge the role that a century of U.S.-backed military coups, corporate plundering, and neoliberal sapping of resources has played in the poverty, instability, and violence that now drives people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras toward Mexico and the United States. For decades, U.S. policies of military intervention and economic neoliberalism have undermined democracy and stability in the region, creating vacuums of power in which drug cartels and paramilitary alliances have risen.
From John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man:
I was hoping to end a war I had helped create. As is the case with so many things we [Economic Hit Men] must take responsibility for, it is a war that is virtually unknown anywhere outside the country where it is fought. I was on my way to meet with the Shuars, the Kichwas, and their neighbors the Achuars, the Zaparos, and the Shiwiars—tribes determined to prevent our oil companies from destroying their homes, families, and lands, even if it means they must die in the process. For them, this is a war about the survival of their children and cultures, while for us it is about power, money, and natural resources. It is one part of the struggle for world domination and the dream of a few greedy men, global empire.
Ecuador is in far worse shape today  than she was before we introduced her to the miracles of modern economics, banking, and engineering. Since 1970, during this period known euphemistically as the Oil Boom, the official poverty level grew from 50 to 70 percent, under- or unemployment increased from 15 to 70 percent, and public debt increased from $240 million to $16 billion. Meanwhile, the share of national resources allocated to the poorest segments of the population declined from 20 to 6 percent.
During this same period, the indigenous cultures began fighting back. For instance, on May 7, 2003, a group of American lawyers representing more than thirty thousand indigenous Ecuadorian people filed a $1 billion lawsuit against ChevronTexaco Corp. The suit asserts that between 1971 and 1992 the oil giant dumped into open holes and rivers over four million gallons per day of toxic wastewater contaminated with oil, heavy metals, and carcinogens, and that the company left behind nearly 350 uncovered waste pits that continue to kill both people and animals.
Trying to help the families in detention centers on the border is all well and good, but it does not address the conditions that created the situation in the first place. By enjoying the resources that our corporations have taken from Latin America and paying taxes to a government that has overthrown democratically elected presidents to install military dictators friendly to US corporate interests, we are the cause of the very problem we are now trying to fix. Even if we were to somehow rescue and save all of the families currently in the detention centers, there will be more. Cutting down a branch without digging out the root is a temporary solution at best. There will soon be another branch.
So what is the root? In the case of immigrants in the detention centers, it’s US corporate and governmental pillaging of Latin America. Even more broadly though, I put forth that almost all worldly injustice has a foundation of economic injustice. As long as there is economic injustice (the root), it will breed countless other forms of injustice (the branches). Where does ecological destruction come from? Short-sighted pursuit of profit. Where does racial injustice come from? Historically, slavery was obviously an economic endeavor, and today the main fear of immigrants is that they will take current citizens’ jobs – again, economics. Helen Fischer in her fascinating book The Anatomy of Love makes a very compelling case that the injustice between men and women was first started with the adoption of the plow 4,000 years ago which created an economic imbalance between the sexes. This economic imbalance persists to this day, and is behind most of the injustices that men perpetuate on women. Why is there sex trafficing? $$$. Why are there starving children? Because they have nothing to offer to trade for food. Perhaps the one type of injustice that economics don’t play a large role in is LGBTQ+ issues, and even here I have a suspicion that economic issues do factor in somehow.
To put it all into a word, it’s capitalism. Capitalism as practiced today, and the scarcity that inevitably accompanies it, can reasonably be said to be behind almost all modern injustice. What’s much harder to swallow is that by participating in capitalism, we first world citizens create the demand that is the fuel for the world destroying machine. We Americans have cheap gas because we kill innocent civilians in the Middle East and support cruel dictators there as long as they allow us access to their oil. We have cheap clothes and shoes because they are made by women and children in horrifying conditions. Our cellphones are made in factories that more closely resemble prisons and which have nets installed to catch people attempting to escape by suicide. We destroy the earth and sea digging for fossil fuels and valuable metals. All so that we can have air conditioning and Netflix. In other words, we are “doing the most by [our] mode of life to produce that misery which [we] strive in vain to relieve.”
Now we did not choose capitalism, we were born into it. Most of our affluence and privilege is never even thought of, it simply is The Way Things Are. Growing up my family used A/C in our house, because why wouldn’t we? In many places you need a car simply to live. But we can no longer claim ignorance. A casual look at any problem of the world, much less all of them, reveals that things cannot continue as they have been.
As an individual, there’s very little most of us can do to directly help the immigrants in the detention centers. Unless you’re a doctor or such with the available time, probably the most you could do is donate to the ACLU. Most of us will probably voice our disapproval on social media and call it a day.
What you can do as an individual, however, is stop contributing to the conditions that created the current immigrants and thus prevent a similar thing from happening to others. This is how you strike the root. What does stopping contributing to capitalism look like? Many things.
A simple heuristic is to seek to meet as many of your needs as possible outside of the money system. Food offers an easy example. By growing your own food, you prevent a great amount of injustice. Bananas are instructional. Banana plantations are often hotbeds of human rights abuses. Bananas must also be shipped to the US using fossil fuels. By no longer buying bananas, you are no longer personally culpable for that expenditure of fossil fuel nor the market demand that fuels human rights abuses. (Sorry to ruin bananas for you) A much more domestic example is corn and soy in the US. Monocropped industrial agriculture is terrible for the planet, farmers, and your health. And corn and soy are in almost everything. Similarly, ditching your car for a bike relieves you of the culpability for all of the death and destruction that accompanies oil production.
Thinking along this line however quickly reveals how hard what I’m asking is. Most Americans meet pretty much all of their needs through the money system. To meet your needs without using money would require a radical restructuring of your life. Most of us would have no idea how to even start going about this.
It’s easy to point a finger at the other side and make them the bad guys. It’s easy and it feels good. Self righteousness is seductive. What’s not easy is to look in the mirror and recognize that you may have been out of integrity.
Perhaps though, recognizing these truths might grant us some grace for others. Underneath our seemingly unbridgeable differences, we’re all the same. We’re all looking for the same things. We all want to feel safe. We all want to love and be loved. We all want respect. Perhaps recognizing the ways in which our lifestyle choices are out of integrity can help us understand and have empathy for the choices of others. This is a hard time to be a human. There is so much suffering in the world today. But fighting each other is not the answer.
I believe that the world’s problems will only be getting worse. I further believe that the solution to them lies not in authority or an institution, but in each of us taking personal responsibility for the consequences of our lifestyles. This is difficult because we humans are loss adverse, meaning that losing $100 feels way worse than gaining $100 feels good. This applies to us first world citizens because we have a lot of privilege and affluence, and letting it go will feel like a loss. It is not easy.
When the next outrage is reported in the news, rather than blaming someone else, I encourage you to examine how your lifestyle may have contributed to it.
An idea for a new law: next to every normal price tag
must be an “Energy Price Tag” that tells you how much energy was
spent to get that item/service to where it is – in other words its
cost in terms of energy.
First, a brief digression into what I mean by energy.
In this post when I refer to energy I will mean in the physical
sense, i.e. as defined by science/physics. Energy is the ability to
do work. There are a large number of units that all measure energy.
The SI unit for energy is the joule. Energy is also given in terms
of: BTUs, kWh, calories, and other units.
Why would we want to do this?
Because it would raise awareness around energy
consumption. Most people have no idea how much energy it takes for
our economy to function as it currently does, and this would make it
far more transparent. It would make it much easier for people to
factor in environmental costs to their purchasing decisions.
For example, pre-industrial agriculture was an energetically positive endeavor. What I mean by this is that more energy was gained by eating the food than was spent to grow it. This is not the case for modern industrial agriculture, which is completely reliant on fossil fuels. Now on average 12-15 Calories of energy from fossil fuels are spent to create one Calorie of food. This results in a huge net energy loss.
How would this work in practice?
Businesses at each step of the supply chain would be
responsible for monitoring and reporting the energy that goes into
their process/product. It would be the energetic equivalent of a
value added tax – without the tax.
There would of necessity be some sort of compliance
enforcement. Perhaps the IRS could be expanded to include energy
monitoring, or there could be independent firms that do the same
thing, like accounting firms today.
Once the system was in place, it would be simple for
the last step in the supply chain to add up the energy cost of the
previous steps, add their energy cost to it, and then display it for
What would the difficulties of implementing this
Most of the
difficulty in implementing this new law would be in getting the
necessary systems to do so up and running. A standard would have to
be created and agreed upon, and then some kind of monitoring agency
would have to be created. Businesses would have to implement new
processes to determine and then monitor their energy usage.
and reporting energy use would be an added burden on corporations,
they will be opposed to doing so. Corporations will almost certainly
lobby against this, should this idea ever make it into potential law.
difficulty would be that this would have to happen world-wide.
Because supply chains are so globalized, instituting this law in just
one country wouldn’t work. However, it would really only take a
handful of the largest economies to insist on this rule for it to be
What might the consequences of implementing this
and especially if this effort is accompanied by an educational
campaign, consumers would display some amount of preference for lower
energy cost goods and services. For a (made up) example, if a bottle
of Coke and Pepsi cost the same amount of money, but it takes twice
as much energy to create that bottle of Coke than that of Pepsi, some
amount of people might decide to purchase the Pepsi on the basis of
its lower Energy Price Tag (EPT). All other things being equal, I
imagine that most people would chose the energetically cheaper
option. I can even see people being willing to pay more money for a
product with a significantly lower EPT.
If the above bears
out, this could have all kinds of eco-friendly effects. Companies
might start advertising that their product is energetically cheaper
than their competitors’. Companies would be incentivized to be more
energy efficient. Local goods would almost always be energetically
cheaper than foreign goods, and thus there would be some amount of
incentive to shop local which is good both ecologically and socially.
New machinery would almost always be more energy expensive than
repairing old machinery, and thus EPT might help combat planned
I glossed over it
earlier, but coming up with standards to properly measure energy
usage and then allocate it appropriately among goods and services
will not always be easy and in some cases could be incredibly
difficult. For example, how would one allocate the energy spent
researching a new pharmaceutical over the pills it leads to? This
might require two separate EPTs, one covering the manufacture and
transport of those individual pills and another noting the net
research energy cost. However, I think the time and energy it takes
to do so will be well worth it.
In my initial
conception of this idea, I think it would be best to only measure and
account for non-biological sources of energy (fossils fuels not being
considered biological). Thus fossil fuels, wind, solar, geothermal,
etc. would all factor into EPT, while human and animal physical labor
would not. An exception to this would be biofuels such as ethanol.
The EPT of biofuels would only measure the energy that went into
growing them, not the energy that they captured from the sun.
Determining the EPT
of energy itself would be another interesting case. Perhaps noting
that energy source’s EROI (energy return on energy invested) would be
sufficient. Dividing the amount of energy you use from a given source
by its EROI would give the EPT of that amount of energy.
It is also worth
keeping in mind what EPT would leave out. EPT would not measure
ecosystem degradation or destruction. EPT would not account for
socially disruptive practices. EPT would not measure humans rights
abuses such as sweatshops, and perversely would actually incentivize
them. Perhaps this could be addressed by requiring sweatshop use
disclosure in products.
I’m sure there of
many considerations I haven’t thought of, and would love to hear from
you if you think of one.
It would not occur to anyone to question the statement that we ‘need’ iodine or Vitamin C. I remind you that the evidence that we ‘need’ love is of exactly the same type.
– Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being
This is the first of a series of Case Study posts. The Story of Progress would have us believe that things have never been better than they are now. While modern living does have advantages, I would contend that they are less and fewer than many believe. These Case Studies will highlight things we have lost as we have pursued modernity.
In the 1960’s the small town of Roseto, PA offered a puzzle to the U.S. medical establishment. The residents of Roseto did everything you’re not supposed to do, and yet were far healthier than the U.S. in general and neighboring towns in particular.
In 1964 a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined a population of recent Italian immigrants in Roseto, a small town in the state of Pennsylvania. The study was instigated because the town doctor was completely baffled by the Rosetans’ near immunity to heart disease. He reported his observation and an extensive statistical population study funded by American State and Federal governments was conducted.
The study compared health statistics of Rosetans to neighbouring towns and the initial results were astonishing. During the seven year period of study from 1955-1961:
No-one in Roseto under the age of 47 died of a heart attack; there was a complete absence of heart disease in men under the age of 55
The rate of heart attacks in men over 65 was half the national average
The death rates from all causes was 35% lower than anywhere else
The study confirmed the town doctor’s findings and went on to examine the factors that gave the Rosetans such improved health. It became known as the ‘The Roseto Effect’.
So what gave the Rosetans a near imperviousness to heart disease?
Well, the researchers asked the same question and first looked at the most obvious factor – diet. Being Italian immigrants, the researchers thought that the Rosetans must be eating a healthy ‘Mediterranean’ diet of fish, olive oil and fresh vegetables. Not so – in fact the researchers discovered that the Rosetans did not have enough money for fish and ate high fat meatballs and sausages, with an average fat intake of up to 40% of their entire diet! And the fats weren’t your ‘healthy’ types of fat, for the Rosetans liked to fry all of their food in good old lard.
The researchers then thought that surely if diet was not the contributing factor than it must be lifestyle, so they looked at how the Rosetans spent their leisure and work time. It turns out that the Rosetans were very hard workers but mostly worked in slate quarries or mines, which were renowned for having extremely harsh working conditions with high rates of on-site accidents. As for leisure time, the Rosetans loved their wine and cigars and consumed both with reckless abandon.
So let’s get this straight – the Rosetans had extremely low to no heart disease, yet they ate red meat deep-fried in lard, smoked and drank heavily, and worked in toxic slate mines? Yep.
This also had the researchers totally stumped as well and they studied all other possible factors such as ethnicity, water supply, environment, you name it. In the end, the researchers concluded that the unusually low incidence of heart disease in the town could not be attributed to any of these factors.
While living in the town to conduct the study however, the researchers observed several major differences as to how the Rosetans related to others in their community. They noticed a remarkably close-knit social pattern that was cohesive and mutually supportive with strong family and community ties, where the elderly in particular were not marginalised, but revered. Put simply, the Rosetans lived in brotherhood with one another.
So the researchers instead suggested that “the quality of family relationships and the social milieu may be pertinent to the occurrence of or protection against death from myocardial infarction.”
When investigators sought to unravel Roseto’s secret they conclusively determined it to be the ties of family and community in Roseto. What made Roseto different than neighboring towns and America in general was that it was peopled exclusively by close knit Italian American families who still practiced their Old Country ways.
Each house studied contained three families, or three generations. The elderly were neither institutionalized nor marginalized, but were “installed” as informal judges and arbitrators in everyday life and commerce. 80% of Rosetan men were members of at least one community organization.
Rosetans, regardless of income and education, expressed themselves in a family-centered social life. There was a total absence of ostentation among the wealthy, meaning that those who had more money didn’t flaunt it. There was nearly exclusive patronage of local businesses, even with nearby bigger shops and stores in other towns. The Italians intermarried in Roseto, from regional cities in Italy. Families were close knit, self-supportive and independent, but also relied…in bad times…on the greater community for well-defined assistance and friendly help.
Because they supported each other, they did not need outside assistance. There was no crime rate and few applications for social assistance (then called Relief). That’s not a typo… there was a zero crime rate (meaning no reported crimes) and no files for any emergency relief. “Back then everybody knew everyone else,” said Michael Romano, 62, the borough council president. “If you walked down the street and you were doing something wrong, the parents didn’t have a problem disciplining someone else’s child. It’s not that way today.”
In 1963, the investigators made a prescient observation: they believed that as Rosetans became more Americanized (meaning less close, less modest, and less interdependent), they would also become less healthy. The wearing off of the now famous “Roseto” effect would be apparent within a generation. And so it was.
In the 1970’s, the region was suburbanized, including Roseto. Single family homes, fenced yards, and country clubs were brought in. The social ties weakened and then started to fail. A 1992 survey, as published in the American Journal of Public Health, confirmed this sad prediction. The officials of the AJPH, no doubt beguiled by Roseto’s fate, descended on the town yet again. Again the investigators rifled through the death records of Roseto, and again they compared them with the surrounding towns of Nazareth and Bangor. The result: the Rosetans now suffer equally from the ravages of heart disease as every other town does, in the vicinity or not.
In fact, the wearing away of intra-marriages (Italian to Italian), the dismantling of the social ties between family and community, the adoption of conspicuous consumption by wealthy Rosetans, and ignorance of common values, could be charted with precision from decade to decade. Lo and behold, there is an almost perfect correlation between Americanization and heart disease death rates.
We humans are social animals. We evolved in close knit bands of relatives, knowing those around us intimately. This is necessary for our health. There are countless articles detailing the dangers of loneliness. In particular are highlighted the Lonely American and the Lonely Man. This is due to the breakdown of family and community in modern society and its attendant separation and isolation.
One-in-six Americans are prescribed psychiatric drugs. Are that many of us born with abnormal brain chemistry? Or is there perhaps something crucial lacking from our society that is making us sick?
At East Wind we reap the benefits of cooperation. Because we work
together, we are able to achieve a lifestyle of leisure and comfort
while spending far less money than the national average. Let’s get right
into the numbers (the following numbers are based on our fiscal year
2016-17, specifically July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017. As far as
expenditures go, this year is representative of East Wind’s operating
It is probably impossible to come up with an accurate average
population count at East Wind. Members leave East Wind and drop
membership to pursue other opportunities, and new members are constantly
joining. Members often leave the farm, sometimes for extended periods.
At the same time, there are pretty much always non-members – visitors,
and guests of members – on the farm whom we are feeding and clothing and
who may or may not be contributing labor. To avoid even attempting to
address this problem I will be using our population cap, which we were
at for the year in question, of 73 members as our population count. This
is slightly misleading as we do not have 73 full members and there are
benefits such as full health coverage that only full members receive,
but fairly accurate as most of the benefits of living at East Wind are
shared by everyone living here.
Click here for a
full description of East Wind’s labor system. Something not mentioned
there is the many vacations we East Winders enjoy. While our weekly
labor quota is 35 hours per week, once a month we have a holiday, and
quota is reduced by 8 hours for the week the holiday falls in. Members
also get the same 8 hour quota reduction for their birthdays. Every year
members get three weeks worth of hours (105) on their anniversary as a
As a community we worked 101,798.9 hours for this year. Bear in mind
that the following does not truly reflect our average working week but
instead is a rough approximation based on the idealized population of 73
members. As mentioned above, East Winders will leave the farm for
sometimes significant amounts of time. Furthermore, outside of the
winter months we always have visitors and guests here who contribute
labor to our community. These caveats noted, our total hours divided by
73 members and 52 weeks works out to 26.8 hours per member per week.
I cannot even begin to describe how well we eat here at East Wind.
Every night at 6 our cooks put out dinner for community. The
deliciousness and variety is continually amazing. Our cooks serve all
different styles of meals: Thai, Southern, Mexican, Indian, Italian,
barbeque, or just good ol’ meat and potatoes. Lunch is often put out at
noon, usually consisting of leftovers and maybe a fresh dish or two. We
are also free to cook whatever we want for ourselves at any time. During
the summer there’s fresh produce from the garden, and there’s always
cold raw milk on tap and freshly baked bread to eat. We buy things to
eat that we don’t produce ourselves such as avocados, pasta, fruits year
round, and chocolate chips. Desserts often just appear on the serving
counter at night. You have to eat here to really understand, but I’d say
we eat better than just about anybody. And we do it while spending way
less on food per person than just about anybody. Our successful ranch,
dairy, garden, and food processing programs contribute greatly to this
low cost, high quality food.
Food Costs for a year:
Buying food: $81,138
Kitchen Supplies: $3,770
Food Processing (meat and veggie): $2,362
Ranch & Dairy: $25,005
Total food cost per person per month comes to $134.84
We are able to keep our food costs so low because we provide a good
chunk of our food for ourselves, outside of the money economy. And we of
course do all our own preparation. The following breaks down how much
time we spend growing, preserving, and preparing our own food.
Kitchen = 12,826.3 hours
Food processing = 4,381.2 hours
Garden = 5,677.2 hours
Ranch & Dairy = 11,178.8 hours
One of my favorite things about East Wind is that every single night I
get to enjoy a delicious, fresh, home-cooked meal. Before living at
East Wind I would cook for myself, but with hardly any variety because I
am a lazy cook. Cooking for one or two just always seemed so
inefficient. Here that’s obviously not the situation. If we say that
East Wind prepares about eleven community meals a week (seven dinners
and four lunches) then we only spend .3 hours per person per meal. That
level of efficiency is only possible in cooperative living. I guess you
could pop something in the microwave and have it be ready in less than
18 minutes, but there is absolutely no comparison between our freshly
made, many-dished meals and frozen microwave dinners. This .3 hours per
person per meal also includes cleaning and all the ancillary chores
associated with maintaining a kitchen like stocking and ordering food
(which would be shopping for those in the mainstream).
I asked our incredible Food Processing manager if she had any numbers on our food production for the past year, and boy did she.
The following list is what we put up from our garden
production in 2016. We certainly consumed much more than this, but
there’s no way to know how much. A key thing to keep in mind is that the
following was produced by our gardens and food processing kitchen. Our
veggies are of the highest quality. We use completely natural methods
here at East Wind, and you cannot get any more local. We use nothing
artificial; no fossil fuel fertilizers, no pesticide, no GMO seeds, etc.
100 gal. Tomato Sauce
25 gal. Pickled Peppers
10 gal. Roasted and Tomatillo Salsas
A small chest freezer’s worth of Strawberries
Two large chest freezers’ worth of Corn, Okra, Pesto, Sweet Peppers, Eggplant, Summer Squash, and more
100’s of lbs. of Beets and Carrots
3,000+ lbs. of Squash and Sweet Potato
~2,000 lbs. of Potatoes
We have a fantastic dairy program here and milk 3-6 cows twice a day,
every day. Our cows are treated extremely well, and like our garden,
are natural. They are grass fed and we don’t use hormones. This year,
they produced ~34,000 lbs. of raw milk (~4000 gals.). We drink a good
portion of this. What we can’t drink we turn into butter, cheese, and
yogurt. In 2016, we made ~150 lbs. of the most delicious butter I have
ever had. Our butter is a rich yellow, so different from what you can
find in stores. We also produced ~1,500 lbs. of all different varieties
of raw cheese. In our processing we use no pasteurization, which
maintains all the healthy probiotics native to raw milk.
Like everything else at East Wind, our meat animals are all natural
and raised with love. We use no hormones or antibiotics, nor herbicides,
pesticides, or fertilizers on our pastures. Something that truly sets
East Wind apart is our meat processing. We do everything ourselves. Our
animals are raised, cared for, slaughtered, butchered, preserved
(naturally, not artificially), and eaten all within a quarter mile
radius. You cannot get more local.
We didn’t keep the most detailed records of our meat production for 2016, so the numbers that follow are averages.
6-12 Pigs @ 100lb. yield 900lbs. pork
2 Hogs @ 400lb. yield 800lbs. pork
3 cows @ 300lb. yield 900lbs. Beef
We have numerous egg layers in two mobile chicken tractors, and get
an ample supply of farm eggs every day. The difference between our farm
eggs and those we purchase is stark, the yolks of our farm eggs are a
rich, dark, orange color, while those of our purchased eggs are a pale
yellow. It goes to show that malnourished chickens produce malnourished
East Wind provides medical coverage to the best of our ability for
full members, including vision and dental. Our total medical expenditure
came to $50,138. This works out to $686.82 per member per year. Compare
this with the national average:
“A 2015 Employer Health Benefits Survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation
found that employer-sponsored family healthcare insurance premiums cost
$17,545 annually, and the average worker contributed $1,071 for single
coverage and $4,955 for family coverage per year.”
We also create a ton of our own medicine from herbs we grow in our
herb gardens. These include salves, tinctures, tea blends, and more. Our
healthy, active lifestyle further contributes to lower medical costs.
Because we pay cash out-of-pocket for medical expenses we often get huge
reductions in charges, as much as 40% off.
Despite owning and running a nut butter business and factory, our per
capita energy consumption cost is quite low. We heat a lot of our
buildings with firewood which we harvest from dead standing trees. Only
our business offices, factory, and certain member rooms (as well as
hallways) have air conditioning.
Energy Costs for 2016-17:
Forestry: $1,815 (2312.1 labor hours went into Forestry this year)
Total per person per month comes to $51.41.
Total community kWh for the year: 544,830
Per person per year: 7,463 kWh
National Average: 12,987 kWh in 2014
“Electric power consumption measures the production of power plants and
combined heat and power plants less transmission, distribution, and
transformation losses and own use by heat and power plants.“
It is worth noting that East Wind’s electrical consumption includes
the energy consumed by our Nut Butters factory and yet we are still
significantly below the national average. It is also worth noting that
some of the buildings built here are not very energy efficient.
Our main community business, East Wind Nut Butters, made $630,000 in
profit for fiscal year 2016-17. This amply covered our domestic costs.
We put in 18,734 labor hours into this business, which works out to
$33.63 per hour. Not bad for a bunch of hippies.
Total Cost of Living:
Factoring in the varied other costs that go into providing a high
quality of life, we pay a total of $533.05 per person per month to live
as we do. Included in that amount is each member’s Discretionary Fund,
which is $150 a month. That number encapsulates every domestic
expenditure: medical care, auto maintenance and gas, housing, food,
energy, shopping, discretionary funds, phone and internet, etc. In
short, we have an incredible quality of life for far less than most
Per capita, we each live on $6,396.58 a year, which is well below the national poverty line of $12,060.
In posting my last post Why I Don’t Vote (in national elections) to Facebook I received quite a number of responses, many of them critical of my stance. I wrote the following on Facebook to provide additional context to my last post and will repost it here:
Before I address my post I want to share a little about myself as many of you do not know me well. The past Presidential election was the first I did not participate in since being able to do so. I reached my majority in 2004 just in time to vote against Bush’s second term. I voted straight Libertarian (and Democrat when there was no Libertarian candidate). Though my thought has grown quite a bit since then, even back then I did not like the “System.” In 2008 I had planned to vote the same way but at the last minute inside the voting booth switched my vote for President from Johnson to Obama, swayed by the possibility of a candidate who might truly change things up. I was disappointed, finding Obama hardly better than any other politician. That being the case, I returned to voting straight Libertarian in 2012. Had Bernie been the Democratic candidate in 2016 I would have voted for him for the same reason I’d voted for Obama, on the off chance that he might actually be something different. But of course he didn’t win the primary.
I used to vote for the same reasons so many of you are telling me I should now. I’ve been on your side of this argument many times. My final argument when doing so was usually, “If you don’t vote, don’t bitch.”
What was different in 2016 was my perspective on politics in general. In 2012 I voted Libertarian mainly on the basis of their stance on U.S military involvement in the rest of the world, which is essentially that we shouldn’t be involved militarily in the rest of the world. I felt that by voting for Johnson I was voting against U.S. troops killing foreigners, especially innocent civilians. By doing so I felt I could then say, “At least it wasn’t me, I voted against our neoliberal foreign policy.”
But even then I knew that to be a cop-out. Despite my vote, it was really oil that drives the death and dislocation the U.S. has caused in the Middle East. Oil I was helping create demand for by driving a car, eating non-local food, and buying plastic products. Regardless of how I voted, my lifestyle was predicated upon the American Empire and the innocent deaths it causes. I was also by that same stint contributing to climate change, which I feel is probably the most urgent issue facing us as a species right now.
Perhaps this gives a window into my current stance on voting and political action in general. My vote for a third party candidate is meaningless in all but the most abstract sense. So much so that Vivian got quite mad at me leading up to the 2016 election when I told her I might vote for Jill Stein. She was angry I might “throw away” my vote on a third party candidate and gave me the classic “lesser of two evils” argument.
By then I had already moved to East Wind, and while we are most definitely still plugged into capitalism, I felt that I had changed my lifestyle as radically as I could to no longer support the destructive actions of modern civilization while still having a good quality of life. My guilt of complicity in the American Empire thus assuaged, I realized that not one of the Presidential candidates stood for a fraction of what I believe in, and in general I had no faith in the American political system.
This brings us to my post. As far as voting itself goes, I’ve already shared my thoughts on it. I think most people recognize that unless you live in a swing state, your vote in a Presidential election is pretty much only symbolic. For example, I live in the Red State of Missouri. Trump won the state by over 500,000 votes. Had I voted for Jill Stein as I had considered, he still would have beat Clinton by that same number. Had I voted for Clinton as my sister wanted me to, he still would have won by over 500,000 votes. I consider either scenario a meaningless difference.
I think where I differ from most of you who disagree with my post is that I try to take a global, rather than just national, perspective on politics. From a global perspective, I find the way we humans collectively live on this planet to be simply unconscionable. Approximately 9 million people die from hunger each year. That’s almost 25,000 people dying each day. Due to hunger. It’s not as if the food doesn’t exist to feed them – it does – but they can’t afford it. They can’t afford it because of our capitalist world-economy which unavoidably concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, leaving the many with next to nothing. So much so that they die from lack of food.
We are in the beginning of the sixth mass extinction event in the last 450 million years. According to the UN Environment Programme, we are losing 150-200 species every day; this is nearly 1000 times the “natural” rate. This is obviously not due to an asteroid, but is attributed to us humans.
We’re losing the rainforest. We’re losing the coral reefs. We’ve overfished the oceans. We are causing climate change which will be catastrophic for us and other species. And all of these trends look to be only getting worse as time goes on.
The driving cause of all of these – and many more – problems is how we humans relate to each other and our planet on a global scale – in other words, civilization. Now, did any of use create this system? No, we were born into it. But it is my position that if we do not work to correct it we are just as culpable. This brings us to the discussion of political action.
It is my position that by living inside this system one helps perpetuate it. I almost certainly at some point in my life bought an article of clothing made in a sweatshop. Was I aware of it? No. Did I still contribute to oppression and injustice? Yes. The same idea applies to virtually every facet of mainstream American life. We have the cheapest gas in the world outside of major oil producing countries because of our economic and military empire. A huge chunk, if not all, of the destabilization of the Middle East can be laid at our feet because of our interest in its oil. By buying gas and driving cars I feel we are complicit in that mass amount of suffering.
Are any of us in this thread doing these things directly? No. But I don’t see that as an excuse.
The best solution I’ve found to this problem is to stop contributing to this destructive system, to unplug from the Matrix. More than one person has called this “dropping out.” And they’re right. But they see it as me washing my hands of responsibility while I see it as stepping up and taking ownership for my part in our destructive world-system.
This brings us to privilege. All of us participating in this thread are incredibly privileged. We were born middle-class or better in the richest, most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Compared to so many others, we have it so easy, we have it so good. But privilege cannot exist without oppression. They are two sides of the same coin. Our nation’s vast material wealth comes at the expense of mass worldwide poverty and of the destruction of nature.
It is my position that by enjoying our privilege without working to remove it we are in a morally indefensible position. I have tried to cease being part of the problem. I live below the poverty line and receive only $150 a month for discretionary spending, and yet still benefit in so many ways from the suffering of others simply by virtue of living in America. Short of living alone in the woods, which I don’t have the skills to do, I’ve yet to find a better solution.
To address the issue of voting one last time, I do not feel that many Americans agree with my views. I think most of us like being the richest country on Earth. I don’t think I could ever do anything inside of the system to address the many problems I see in the world in a meaningful way, so I am instead seeking to create change from outside of the system. I no longer will vote because I feel the economic world-system that our nation, and every other nation, rests upon is irredeemably broken and by participating in it I would be complicit in perpetuating it.
Furthermore, a friend from high school, JP, informed me that the the Gilens and Page study I referenced in my first post has been debunked. I had not looked into their methodology until just now and agree with both their critics and JP in that their data does not support the conclusions they drew. That said, I still agree with their conclusions. I referenced that study because it succinctly summarized what will now require many more sources. One of the interesting things his link informed me of was that they considered the rich the top 10%, with a yearly income floor of $160k. I do not consider these to be “elites.” Perhaps oligarchy is overdramatic, but I don’t think anyone can argue that true elites, let’s go with the popular top 1%, have far more influence than the rest of us. I don’t have links ready to share, but I can mention books that have shaped my belief that the super-wealthy in many ways control the direction of society. Two books in particular were particularly illuminating: Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John C. Perkins and The Underground History of American Education by John T. Gatto. Another data point worth mentioning is that our central bank, the Federal Reserve is a private entity owned by member banks, which are owned by private citizens. While I have no idea who they are, I can’t help but imagine that there are some unimaginably wealthy central bankers who have an absolutely enormous influence on the world
This post is written mainly as a response to criticism from my sister Vivian, who thinks it hypocritical of me to advocate for political change when I did not vote in the Presidential election.Therefore I will at times be addressing her directly. This started when she took umbrage with me sharing the following photo on facebook:
First off, this Princeton University researcher sums up my stance pretty well: “I’d say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups — of economic elites and of organized interests.” [Update 8/20: I’ve learned that this study has been debunked.See my follow up to this post.] These “economic elites and organized interests” have been referred to as the Deep State. Real talk: America is not a democracy, it’s an oligarchy. And I’m not an oligarch.
For this reason and others, I have no faith in the American political process. I believe that working inside of the system is a waste of time. Vivian disagrees. She thinks that change is slow, but it is only possible by concerted, cooperative effort inside the political system. I think this view is naive.
By voting, you are implicitly agreeing that our system is just. It is a tacit agreement that the Way Things Are is acceptable, it is condoning the status quo. By participating in the 2016 Presidential election you agreed that it was a legitimate process to decide the leader of America. I don’t think it is. The French Revolution proved once and for all that the power lies in the people. When you vote in a broken system, you are handing that broken system your power. Furthermore, I feel that believing your vote has meaning actually dis-empowers you. By believing that your vote matters, you are less likely to engage in political action that does actually have an impact.
I’m going to even take this one step farther. You (Vivian) accused me of resting easy on my privilege. I going to actually flip this argument back onto you. You say that voting is meaningful. That working inside the system is slow and incremental but is what makes actual change. The very fact that you can afford to wait for slow, incremental change is what privilege looks like.
You’ve been more politically active than most people, but tell me, how many times have the changes you’ve pushed for become a reality? As I understand it, you’ve been on the losing side almost every time, even at the local level. How many hours have you spent demonstrating with nothing to show for it? You exercised not only your vote but also your right to demonstrate and speak and still nothing changed. Tell me again how voting is effective. The fact that you continue to support a system that perpetuates injustice simply does not make sense to me. Again, I will reiterate my basic stance that ordinary citizens no longer have any meaningful impact on the political process in America.
Here’s a brief list of political issues that I have feelings about: monetary reform, climate change, cutting down the rainforest, plastic in the oceans, ocean acidification, desertification, soil erosion, factory farming (CAFOs), monoculture agriculture, Monsanto patenting plants, Nestle owning water, fossil fuel dependency, economic structure (i.e. capitalism), American military atrocities in other countries, racism, fascism, gender inequality, wealth and income inequality, political corruption, police brutality, pollution, oil pipelines, human trafficking, ending the drug war, terrorism, NSA spying on all Americans, literal Nazis, the military-industrial complex, education reform and more.
Each of those issues have multiple people dedicating the bulk of their lives to righting those wrongs. And they’re losing. For every victory, there are five defeats. There will never be a congressperson, let alone a Presidential candidate, that will represent my stance on even a fraction of these issues. The US political system systemically precludes that possibility.
It’s too much. As an ordinary citizen I cannot make much of an impact on any one of those issues, much less all of them. It is impossible. The only solution I have been able to find is to cease being part of the problem.
I remember you arguing that while Hilary has her faults, she was the lesser of two evils. I don’t disagree. But that still doesn’t qualify her to lead the country. It’s a classic sales technique, that I learned as the “alternate of choice.”
The Alternate of Choice is a closing technique in the form of a question with two answers — and either answer is an agreement. The key is to give two solutions that both lead toward the sale. By giving two choices, one or the other is usually chosen. This is much better than what happens when you give one choice and the only other option is “no.” Here’s an example: “The way I see it, Mary, the only real decision we need to make today is how soon you can start reaping the benefits of our fine service. Shall we schedule our people out here tomorrow, or would the next day be better for you?” Once it’s scheduled, it’s sold.
“So Citizen, which will it be, the blue asshole or the red asshole?”
As if all of these reasons weren’t enough, there’s the simple pragmatic fact that my vote, should I ever cast it, would not count. And neither does yours.
I want to be clear that I am not against voting in general. In fact, I am very much for it. I am quite politically active here at East Wind. I attend, and speak at, virtually every community meeting we have. Not only do I attend them, but I have initiated our political process here by proposing meetings myself. I likewise vote on virtually every community vote we have. Furthermore, I regularly discuss community issues in my free time. The difference is that here at East Wind, because there are only so many members, every vote actually does count. When my vote counts, I vote.
I take a much broader view of political action than you do. I view every action as political. It is in this sense that I view myself as far more revolutionary than most people. For example, by living at East Wind I pay no taxes to the Federal government. This means I am not supporting the military in its killing of countless civilians in the Middle East. I am not paying for drone strikes. Anyone who does pay Federal taxes is. You are paying for those bombs, I am not. Another benefit of living here is that both my economic and carbon footprint is much smaller than the average American’s. I am thus that much less responsible for the devastation of our planet than the rest of my country. Lastly, I am in the process of writing what is ultimately a political book that I hope will have a far larger impact than my vote ever could.
If you want to pretend that voting makes a difference, fine by me. You didn’t hear me criticizing your naivete until now after you forced the issue. I direct my political efforts in other directions that I feel to be more meaningful. It is not apathy that makes me refuse to vote, but conscientious abstention. I wish you would stop criticizing me for trying to solve the many issues of our world in a different way than you choose to. Be happy that we’re both working to make the world a better place.
This post is long overdue. I had originally planned to update this blog about every two months or so, but that’s obviously not happening. So I’ll update when I do.
A lot has happened since I last wrote of East Wind. Perhaps most significantly to me, I became a Full Member at the start of February. Provisional membership lasts a year at East Wind, after which Full Members vote on the Provisional Member’s membership. I passed 🙂 . This entitles me to the same rights as any other member of East Wind, including full health care (major medical, dental, vision), a full vote, 1/73rd ownership of East Wind, three weeks vacation each year, and the security of knowing it would take two thirds of all full members to force me to leave.
It has been a beautiful and mild summer here, with ample rainfall. Everything is super green even now in August. The local area here actually made national news due to the torrential rainfall and subsequent flooding that we received in late April. Many local bridges were knocked out and many people in the area lost their homes. It was devastating. Luckily East Wind came through pretty much unscathed. We lost a canoe or two, but otherwise came out great. Our creek became a roaring river during the flooding; I witnessed entire trees whizzing by going at least 20 miles an hour. Our hayfield flooded, as it is land owned by Army Corp of Engineers for just such an occasion. For about two months we had lakefront property due to the high levels of Norfork lake. The creek has finally returned to its normal level lately and it will be fun to explore how it is different.
My labor here has become relatively settled. While I enjoyed keeping an open schedule when I first got here, over time I found myself taking on more and more scheduled labor. It suits me well. An average week goes as follows:
I teach a dance lesson at 11am. Though not actually labor, the lady I teach gives me 1 PSC for each hour I teach her, so it works out to the same thing. I eat lunch at noon. While we are in production I have a nut butter production shift monday afternoon. These last usually between 3 and 5 hours.
Tuesday mornings I get up early and milk the cows at 6:30am. We currently milk four cows, which produce more milk than we can drink. The only other scheduled labor I have on Tuesdays is my HTA shift after dinner. HTA stand for Hard To Assign, and refers to cleaning the kitchen. I wash pots for two hours every Tuesday evening and consider it a bargain for never having to cook. The rest of my tuesday I keep open to be able to work on projects.
I milk cows again on Wednesday mornings and teach another dance lesson at 11. After lunch I make cheese. Lately I’ve been making mozzarella, which is about a ten hour process. I’m starting to get good at it, it actually tastes almost the same as you would find in a store.
The only scheduled labor I have on Thursdays is my CP shift in the afternoon. CP stands for Consumer Products, and essentially entails answering the phones and every so often selling some of our products to the rare walk-in customer. Since I have access to the internet while doing this shift, I often research for my book or catch up with friends and family.
Friday mornings I milk again, this time at 6am. I have my third and final dance lesson of the week, again at 11. In the afternoon I do my second CP shift.
Saturday morning is my bread shift, which I usually start at 8:30. There is a bread shift every morning so that we always have fresh bread. I make white bread because most other people make wheat bread. After lunch I have comptoil which entails collecting all of the full poop buckets from the composting toilets and replacing them with empty ones. It’s not near as gross as you might imagine. I then shower thoroughly, which is labor creditable. I then usually clean an elevator in the factory if we are in production.
Sundays I have no scheduled labor. Our community meetings are Sunday at 2 however, and are labor creditable. I attend almost all of them. Otherwise I usually take Sunday as a rest day, or catch up on things I didn’t have a chance to get to over the week.
I’ve also undertaken a few projects in my time here. The project I’m most proud of is also the most boring. Nut Butters had been losing potential customers due to not being certified by a third party food safety company. To become certified we need a Hazards Analysis and Control Points (HAACP) program and the foundation of a HAACP program are Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). SOPs are essentially written out instructions for everything that gets done in the factory. Everything. And that was my job. I took notes left over from previous managers and wrote out an SOP for just about every job in the factory. What I didn’t do my friend Warren did. It was a lot of time in front of a computer and wasn’t the most fun. It was important though, and in the end we got a 99/100 on our inspection.
A less important but much more fun project was building shelving and drawers for our new walk-in pantry. Our old pantry was too small and too old, and so this spring Becky tore it down and built a much nicer new one. I undertook to build the storage spaces for it. Our kitchen managers told me what they would like – a wall of shelving and a wall of drawers – and left the rest up to me. I drew out a design, compiled a materials list, ordered materials, and with help turned my vision into reality. These shelves and drawers should serve East Wind for years to come.
As I mentioned in my last East Wind post, I had taken our nut butter onto Amazon. Since then I have sold over $38,000 of our product there, at about a 25% profit margin. In July of this year alone I sold $8k. Not a huge deal compared to our bottom line, but I’m still proud.
One thing that has been really nice is how much time my labor here affords me to work on my book. I have a number of jobs that have a good amount of down time to them, namely my cheese makes, my breadmaking, and my CP shifts, and these allow me to serve community while at the same time making progress on my book. One of the many perks of this lifestyle.
Something that might be of interest to you is how I view the turnover in membership here. While the bulk of people that were here when I got here are still here, there has been a fair amount of turnover in the last year and a half. However, by and large I think it has been really good for East Wind. In that time we’ve gained some great new members, and the vast majority of those who have left are what I would consider people I’d rather not live with. In general, I feel that East Wind has amazing momentum in the positive direction. Nut Butters just had it’s best year in years, we’re building two new buildings this year, and there are more and more badasses on the farm.
So life is good at East Wind. Again, no promises, but I might post some updates in the relatively near future; some writing I’ve done for my book.