September 30, 2011

Cold Water Flats

New York Cold water flats, Will Eisner
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats..."

So begins Allen Ginsberg's epic poem Howl, his wild poetic record of the military/industrial complex steamrolling over everyone, and everything in its path. But it is also an ode to freedom and happiness, and the sacrifices that must be made to realize them. Sacrifices like going without toilet paper, or new shoes, or living in a flat without unlimited running hot water.

Ever since reading Howl I have been taken by the idea of cold-water flats. It is difficult for most of us in developed nations to imagine living in a home that does not have full time running hot water, and where the bathroom is a small closet with just a toilet in it. Not only do today's huge homes have ample supplies of hot, running water, but they also often have a separate full bathroom for every person in the family.

In most industrialized countries, cold water flats are (officially) illegal. Along with their passing went a whole way of living frugally and appreciating the little things in life. I am not romanticizing the 'good old days' - life in a cold water flat would be challenging at times. However, it is entirely possible to live in such simple surroundings and still be happy.

An ex-tenant of a cold water flat remembered his experience fondly:
"My mom bathed us once a week whether we needed it or not. Because we were small kids, my two sisters would bathe at the same time, and then I would be bathed in the same water because it was still warm. We tried to use as little gas as possible with the water heater....anyway, my sisters didn't get very dirty in those days.

We had an ice box and bought ice from the ice man for 15 cents or so.  The ice lasted a couple of days.  When we got holes in our shoes my mom would line the inside of our shoe with cardboard to cover the hole until she saved enough money from her tight budget to buy a new pair for us. We never considered ourselves poor." - source
Perhaps we were happier in cold water flats than we are today in 3500 sq. ft. designer homes. Back then 'sacrifice' was not necessarily seen as a bad thing. It was good, character-building stuff to "give up, abandon, relinquish, let go, do without, renounce, forfeit, and forgo" certain decadent luxuries. How things have changed.

People no longer have an appreciation for the simple things. That has been replaced with high expectations, pampered entitlements, and an acquisitiveness formerly only seen in insane monarchs with delusions of grandeur.

Only a few decades ago we experienced more happiness with less stuff. We must achieve that state again, and soon. Currently it is a race between epidemic levels of depression and environmental/financial/social collapse, as to what our ultimate demise will be.

We need to get our bloated expectations in check, and relearn the lean-living, frugal ways of our grandparents and great-grandparents. We may find we are happier in the end.

Give me a cold water flat over a mini-mansion any day.

September 28, 2011

Peas Be With You

Perfect peas in my patio container garden

When Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote, "God is alive, magic is afoot", she was probably thinking about a vegetable garden. If she was thinking about a particular vegetable, I am sure it was peas. No vegetable more exemplifies a garden for me than peas picked right off the plant, whether they are shelling, snap, sugar or snow peas. Pick them - eat them - magic.

This year we planted snap peas in our patio container garden. There was at least one good thing about our late summer - the long, cool, wet spring weather provided ideal conditions for growing peas.

After an early trimming by foraging Sitka deer, the peas flowered prolifically with economical, small white flowers. Soon mini-pods were poking out, and before long dangling green shells of perfection were hiding among the vines, each one a happy discovery of deliciousness.

After a couple of harvests, and with the promise of several more, I looked at the snap peas in the grocery store. They were in sad cellophane packages squished flat, and the pods looked lifeless. When I picked them up, instead of hard and crispy, they were rubbery and limp.

It looked like the long voyage from a field in China had taken its toll. Now the snap peas were nutrient-deficient, drained of magic, and expensive. "God is dead here", I thought as I put them down.

Growing a garden over the years, whether large or small, has provided some of the best evidence that "God is alive, and magic afoot". This year's crop of sweet, crunchy, nutritious (and darned near free) snap peas reconnected me with the miracle of growing my own food, and the satisfaction of picking peas off the vine instead of off the boat from the other side of the world.

Peas be with you.

September 26, 2011

'No More Ignoring The 99%' Monday

Should this man be maced and arrested?
The non-violent social movement developing at ground zero of the global financial system may not be getting much mainstream press, but they do have perfectly legitimate points. Unregulated greed and profiteering is tearing our social and environmental fabric to shreds.

The top 1% of income earners globally owned a whopping 40% of the wealth in the year 2000. The inequality gap widened even further as the effects of the Great Recession took hold in 2009. The rest of us were hit much harder than the wealthiest 1%, and we continue to suffer the effects of the unchecked greed and corruption of both our business and political leaders. And it is not getting any better.

Have you seen the financial news as the Wall Street Occupation continues? The 1% must be nervous, for several good reasons. Their empire is crumbling around them, and it looks like the system might be too broke to save them this time.

We will restore democracy, exert the power of the 99%, and create a better system after this one crashes. One that works for 100% of us.

Is that too much to ask?

"#OCCUPYWALLSTREET is a people powered movement for democracy that began in America on September 17 with an encampment in the financial district of New York City. Inspired by the Egyptian Tahrir Square uprising and the Spanish acampadas, we vow to end the monied corruption of our democracy … join us! We're now in DAY 9." - Adbusters

Check for more information.

September 23, 2011

Living Well Is The Best Entertainment

What else could we do with $1.8 Trillion a year?
Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World of humanity's "almost infinite appetite for distractions". Fear was not what we should be worried about, because it may be our desires that would be more damaging in the end. He could see how the pursuit for pleasure could easily turn into a tyranny of the trivial that we willingly accept into our lives without complaint, and at our peril.

More recently, Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves To Death, asked, "Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?" Why would we want to, you may ask? Because it could mean your freedom, financial and otherwise.

The industry that keeps us artificially entertained (and distracted) is a glittery Goliath that sucks up enormous amounts of our wealth and time. Global entertainment and media (E&M) industry spending is expected to rise to about $2 trillion by 2015. That's right - 2 trillion dollars a year spent on movies, video games, television, casinos, music and Internet. Who, indeed, would be brave enough to take arms against this global Goliath?

In the post-apocalyptic novel, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, there is not much left of the entertainment and media industry, or anything else. The 1949 novel describes a world population that has been decimated by disease. Entertainments and distractions, pleasure even, is of little use to the small group of humans that are busy just trying to survive the collapse of civilization.

In the novel the main character, Ish, "was surprised at how little actual necessity they had to seek amusement. In the kind of life they lived there always seemed to be a good deal to do just to get food and to support one's self in comfort and there was in it a great deal of satisfaction which did not call for anything as definite as amusement."

The collapse of civilization is what it might take to divert those 2 trillion dollars toward more useful purposes, such as ending poverty and hunger, or providing education for all, or even just making sure all humans are able to survive another day.

My low impact basic life is much more than survival - I feel like I am thriving. However, one thing I have discovered in my frugality is that a lot of time is spent working to support my self and my family with the basics.

There is a lot of work to be done just putting food on the table when you don't eat any processed foods, fast foods, or restaurant meals. Walking and cycling take more time and effort than driving. Growing a garden requires more work than a trip to the grocery store. The simple life may not be an easy life, but it is naturally rewarding, satisfying, and yes, even entertaining.

The things that make up our daily existence, when conducted with the right attitude, become a form of beauty and entertainment in themselves.

I don't want my attention to be held by artificially amusing or diverting entertainments manufactured to keep me from being an active, engaged, and inquiring citizen. My favorite entertainment is living well while seeking out continual improvements and refinements.

I enjoy being entertained by things that keep me healthy and connected with nature and the larger community. Activities that are expanding and creative, rather than limiting and passive. I enjoy situations that challenge me to become a better individual and more effective global citizen.

For me, those and not the mindless, fake, and often violent crap offered by the 2 trillion dollar E & M industry, are the best entertainments and sources of satisfaction that I know.

September 21, 2011

Occupy Wall Street - America's Arab Spring?

I have wondered, since the spring, how bad things would need to get before complacent North Americans left their couches and took to the streets, like those in the Middle East. Has that time come as citizens gather in the streets to establish a semi-permanent occupation of Wall Street?

The peaceful populist rage that started with the Arab Spring is spawning revolution and change, and now it is hitting where revolution needs to happen the most - the very center of our corrupt financial system.

Participants say that they are there to criticize a financial system that unfairly benefits corporations and the rich, and undermines democracy.

Conditions for the majority of North Americans have been deteriorating for a long time, with incomes stagnating since the 1980s, and then the final death knoll for the good life, the 2008 financial crisis.

2008 saw the greed and corruption reach frenzied proportions, led by Wall Street. The super-rich have been staging a revolution of their own for decades, aided and abetted by the very people that have been entrusted with guarding the public interest - our elected officials. Events post-meltdown have confirmed that our governments have been hijacked.

Those engaging in civil disobedience know they can not go to government and be heard. Disappointing, since government listening to the people and acting on their wishes is one measure of how effectively a democracy is working. The only option left is to take to the streets.

Wall Street occupiers say, "We are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are building the world that we want to see, based on human need and sustainability, not corporate greed."

I may live 6000 kilometers away, but I am tempted to pack my tent, join the revolution, and brave the NYPD arrests.

September 19, 2011

No Rusty Cages Monday

Break that rusty cage and RUN!

What if you gained every material comfort you could dream of, but lost your freedom? Gained wealth, but lost your moral compass? Gained fame, but lost your family? Such is life for so many in 'developed' countries and other places where money and economic matters increasingly dominate the bottom line of all decision-making.

For too long has the world been invaded by the shock troops of materialism, greed and consumer capitalism. The purpose of these deadly economic soldiers is to infiltrate our defensive lines and break our cohesiveness as much as possible. When they succeed, family and community life become casualties as cooperative values are replaced by a competitive race for scarce resources.

It has not been called the Consumer Revolution for nothing, as there indeed has been a complete overthrow of our social order. And the battle continues and spreads like a festering sore through the other shock troop - globalism.

Considering our experience, I fear for those countries enduring 'development' through globalization today, notably the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Will the citizens of these rapidly changing nations willingly enter into the rusty cage of consumerism being built for them?

Just as I hope that the consumers of 'developed', or 'conquered', nations can break out of their economic rusty cages, I hope that the citizens of developing nations currently under assault can resist stepping into them in the first place.

September 17, 2011

Lifting Burning Cars And Other Acts Of Kindness

"I expect to pass through life but once.  If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again."  ~ William Penn 

The recent viral video showing the good Samaritans lifting the burning car off of the motorcyclist is a dramatic example of the universal acts of kindness that take place every day across the globe.

The media and entertainment industries churn out manufactured fear designed to keep us apart and dependent on the system, but our instinct toward kindness and cooperation is not easy to stifle.

If I learned anything during a year of international travel it is that the world is one beautiful, peaceful, non-threatening place, benign even. It did not matter what country I was in - wherever I went I was met by good people doing good deeds, and nary a terrorist in sight.

Over the 365 days of my travels I discovered that the world was not the scary, thug-ridden place depicted by media and movies. Nor did I find it to be like the competitive, selfish, dog-eat-dog model promoted by our economic system. Everyone I met was kind, generous, supportive, and eagerly cooperative.

We are not as self-interested as we are told we are by the greed industry. For the most part we do what the burning car heroes did - we give in to our natural instinct to help each other, to do the right thing. It is what we do best when not impeded by "You vs. The Joneses" messages.

When the media is so focused on keeping us fearful of everything, including each other, it is easy to lose our perspective and forget what a wonderful world we have. Most people, I hope, experience humanity's enormous capacity for kindness on a daily basis. But it doesn't contribute to the GDP so you won't hear much about it.

Unless a group of people lift a burning car off someone.

We can defy those who would control us, and refuse to give in to their manufactured fear. Love and kindness are our tools for dissolving the hate and greed that they market.

Together we are strong, and together our love and kindness will triumph.

September 15, 2011

Does Living Simply Keep The World's Poor Down?

Does doing without keep others in poverty?
Was Gandhi wrong when he said, "Live simply so that others may simply live"? That is what hard core consumer capitalists think. At the height of the last global economic crash, business types were not pulling punches, and many of those blows were aimed at the simple living movement.

In a classic "keep shopping" moment, Arthur C. Brooks, business professor and consumerism apologist, accused simple living types of sabotage in a bit of preposterous propaganda:
"If we all truly lived simply, we would help countries around the world regress to the economic levels of Japan in 1950, China in 1990 or sub-Saharan Africa today. If we piously refused to purchase new clothes and televisions, we would create truly lethal unintended consequences for the world's most vulnerable people." - source
Mr. Brooks is a business shill, and his article was posted in 2008, 4 days after the anniversary of 9/11 (the original 'keep shopping' moment). The global economy was beginning to unravel, so he might be forgiven for telling us that we have a moral obligation to shop. He was probably experiencing a moment of temporary insanity, or panic perhaps.

Business as usual has already "created truly lethal unintended consequences" for the most vulnerable people as well as the ecosystem as a whole. The unintended consequences the professor is referring to, are those that might ensure at least some humans remain free of the tyranny of consumerism. They may also limit the spread of corporate power and influence, and that in Brooks' book is bad.

Brooks and his friends want the world's most vulnerable to gain some material wealth, but they do not mention how the formerly poor will surely suffer new forms of poverty - the mental, moral, and spiritual poverty which occur after wealth and material possessions take over as the new bottom line.

If we still believe that we can shop our way to a better world, we have to snap out of it before it is too late for not only the poor, but everyone. Since its beginning, consumerism has created more problems than it has solved.

Producing a bunch of useless stuff for us to sell to each other has trashed the planet, destroyed our communities, and converted a large part of the world's population into wage slaves. This has led to unprecedented levels of depression and ill health.

Brooks and company tell us to embrace consumerism or be held responsible for keeping the world's poor in poverty. What a load of bull. These people are obviously desperate. Taking Brooks' advice will lead to unintended consequences far more serious than not having a wide screen television, or 50 flavours of ice cream.

I will not be deterred by consumerist business-as-usual propaganda. If working a job I don't like, so I can buy stuff I don't need, while my actions devastate the environment, is the only way to help the poor, then obviously our system is broken and doomed to fail.

Mr. Brooks is sadly, dinosaurily delusional, and soon his type will be extinct. Gandhi was not wrong - living simply on our planet is the only way we are going to make it. 

I am 'piously' refusing to go along with such business buffoonery, and firmly believe my simple living actions help, not hinder, my brothers and sisters across the globe.

September 11, 2011

Using Money Responsibly

Which one is your money supporting?
For me 'using money responsibly' means making financial decisions based on need, not greed. It means being aware of how your financial choices affect you, your family, your community, and the world. It is about making spending and investment decisions that are socially and environmentally responsible, and therefore sustainable.

It is easy to appeal to 'lack of time' as an excuse for maintaining ignorance of how our use of money may be contributing to personal and global harm. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is also what causes us to lose control with devastating results.

When I use money I take the time to consider the consequences of how I channel my cash:
  • Are my dollars supporting waste by adding to the profits of wasteful people and/or businesses? 
  • Does the use of my money cause undue harm to the environment? 
  • Is my money financing inequality and the exploitation of workers? 
  • Are my financial actions doing the least amount of damage possible?
  • How am I being manipulated by those who want my money?
It doesn't matter if you are rich or poor - using money more responsibly will make your life, and the lives of others, better. It does not help to foist the responsibility on to someone else; it is yours, and abrogating it creates more problems than it solves.

By giving up control of your finances you end up being susceptible to people who will take advantage of your situation. You may lose your money, or it may be used in destructive ways without your knowledge. Once you accept responsibility for how you use money, you are able to simplify, and take control of, your financial decision making.

Armed with the understanding of how money can either create, or destroy, we can make choices that support the environment and each other, in a sustainable manner. At the same time, this understanding will improve our financial situation by eliminating harmful habits.

Using money responsibly leads to a healthier life, and a healthier planet.

September 9, 2011

The Carmina Burana: Warnings From A Simpler Time

Illustration: The Forest, Carmina Burana
"I see the sunstruck forest,
In green it stands complete.
There soon we all are going,
The summertime to meet."

The Carmina Burana is a very interesting piece of ancient writing from the area of present day Germany. The 13th century manuscript highlights the delights of living well, free from conventional considerations. The rebels that wrote it dared to think differently.

I love the imagery of the poem quoted above for it reminds me of the importance of nature. We need nature to sustain us in body and spirit, and some of the poems and songs in the manuscript address this relationship, showing that environmentalism is hardly new. The prophetic writers went even farther.

They attacked the church for taking money for administering the sacraments, and conferring positions in the church hierarchy. Admonishing the clergy for their greed, the writings sound much like present day lamentations warning about the greedy practices of other corporate, bureaucratic entities.

At the time the Carmina Burana was being written, the money economy and capitalism were filling the void left when feudalism began to collapse. The authors could see trouble coming with these changes, and traveling and court minstrels spread the word among royalty and regular people alike.

These writings are said to have a simplicity on the surface, and a deep lust for life underneath. They were written in a time when massive changes were coming, and old ways were beginning to slip away. The set of poems and songs not only tell of these changes, but warn of their detrimental effects.

Were they mourning the loss of a better way of life, before money and commerce began to dominate our lives?

O Fortune, 
like the moon,
you are changeable,
Ever waxing and waning; 
hateful life first oppresses 
and then soothes 
as fancy takes it;
poverty and power,
it melts them like ice.

September 7, 2011

The Greatest Threat To Western Civilization

Just what the establishment does NOT want - you to be satisfied
People living slower, saner, simple lives tend to be happier. Happy people spend less and buy fewer things. Will that ruin the economy, cripple global consumerism, and end civilization and the establishment as we know it?

The establishment is afraid of talk of living better lives without their stuff. What if even a small percent of people who could buy more stuff didn't. What if we kept our money in our pockets and retail sales fell by 30%? Mayhem, investor panic, and massive change. The mighty would fall.

Would it be the end of global consumerism, of civilization itself? The short answer is, "Who cares?" Perhaps we would be doing all of humanity, and our planet, a big favour  by ending this sick thing before it is too late.

What about a kinder, more compassionate capitalism? Uh, ya, right. "When people talk about greedy capitalists, that's redundant," says Noam Chomsky. "You have to be a greedy capitalist or you're out of business. In fact, it's a legal requirement that you be a greedy capitalist and that you don't pay attention to what happens to anyone else."

But what if alternatives to capitalistic greed and destruction don't work? Well, capitalistic greed and destruction are not going so well either - they are hardly looking like viable alternatives at this point.

The Euro-zone has been threatening economic collapse for months, recent US jobs data has been dismal, there is a massive extinction event happening, global climate change is bashing us with catastrophic storms, and extreme inequality means that billions of our brothers and sisters are not able to meet their basic needs. That doesn't sound like a system that is working. Not for most of us, that is.

Rampant crony capitalism has already subverted western civilization. It is the greatest threat to civilization, not our contentedness and happiness through turning our backs on consumerism.

We have the ability to unleash the power of simplicity, the slayer of corruption and imperialism, and the destroyer of sick, excessive civilizations. Let us live simply, be happier, and see what happens.

September 5, 2011

No Pavement Monday

The original Park (ing) Day temporary green space, Rebar, San Francisco (2005)
Imagine how different our cities would be if even a little bit of the space provided for cars, was taken back for green space. Even if it was just for a moment, it would be the beginning of a new way of thinking. Less car-centric, fast, and smothered, more calm and people oriented.

That is what Park (ing) Day is all about. This year, September 16th is the day to green up the pavement, one parking spot at a time.

"PARK(ing) Day is a annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into “PARK(ing)” spaces: temporary public places. 
The mission of PARK(ing) Day is to call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat … at least until the meter runs out!"
The movement to take back the streets to create pop-up green space has been taken even further by individuals thinking of new ways to stretch the green envelope. Take, for example, the Chicago Pop-Up Park.

3,000 sq ft, a whole block of grey city street, was covered over by soft, green sod. For the following four hours the community took back the street, took their shoes off, and enjoyed the sense of the natural and each other. Then the cars took back their domain.

Chicago Pop-Up Park
San Francisco, birthplace of Park (ing) Day, has recently made the concept a more permanent affair. This coastal city is one of the most densely populated, and in the built-out core, green space comes at a premium.

Enter the 'parkmobiles', bright-red dumpsters, 16 feet long by nearly 6 feet wide and filled with greenery and a bench to sit on.

These parklets are mobile and will be moved every few months to a new location in need of green space - any green space. I am certain that just looking at them when you pass by has beneficial effects such as stress-reduction. Really going for it, and sitting down for a while could make your whole day.

Tiny park in San Francisco, LA Times
Imagine personal automobiles falling out of favour with the general pubic. Imagine renewed green grids, and flowing rivers of life replacing sterile paved-over streets and highways.

Green space would provide habitat and wildlife corridors for a host of creatures, would provide atmosphere-cleansing services, not to mention a sanctuary for the hundreds of millions of stressed out city-dwellers everywhere.

Streets are for people. Let's start converting some of that black top to a green oasis. Celebrate Park (ing) Day, September 16, 2011. Take a moment and enjoy a pop-up park in your town.

Or better yet, create one yourself and host a bunch of weary pavement pounders suffering from nature-deficit disorder. What if a bird, or squirrel came to your park? Whoever, or whatever comes, I am sure they would be appreciative.

September 1, 2011

Fukushima And Eating Low On The Food Chain

Bio-concentration in action
"Eat low on the food chain" was a saying popularized by Frances Moore Lappe in her 1971 meat-busting book Diet For A Small Planet. Her work highlighted the wasteful nature of grain-fed beef, and called for a plant-based diet, arguing that it was best for our bodies and the world.

But there is a new reason for leaving meat behind - the deadly nuclear fallout that has been spewing from the smashed and melting Fukushima power plant since 03/11.

This is what scientist Helen Caldicott said recently about radiation, food chains, and our health:
"Hazardous radionuclides such as iodine-131, caesium 137, and other isotopes currently being released in the sea and air around Fukushima bio-concentrate at each step of various food chains (for example into algae - crustaceans - small fish - bigger fish - then humans; or soil - grass - cow’s meat and milk - then humans. This process is called bioaccumulation and comes in two subtypes as well, bioconcentration and biomagnification.)
After they enter the body, these elements – called internal emittersmigrate to specific organs such as the thyroid, liver, bone, and brain, where they continuously irradiate small volumes of cells with high doses of alpha, beta and/or gamma radiation, and over many years, can induce uncontrolled cell replication – that is, cancer.
Further, many of the nuclides remain radioactive in the environment for generations, and ultimately will cause increased incidences of cancer and genetic diseases over time."

Fukushima radiation has already entered our food chain, just like Chernobyl radiation did in 1986. These particles, depending on what kind they are, could last for thousands of years. The thing about a nuclear accident is that it has a start date, but no real end date.

Animals bio-concentrate toxins, including Fukushima radioactivity. Creatures closer to the top of the food chain, such as tuna, salmon, and cows will accumulate more radiation than those low on the food chain. Soon you'll be able to eat a salmon steak or T-bone at night without turning the lights on.

The closer to the bottom of the food chain, the lower the concentration of contamination, generally speaking. For example, sardines may have lower concentrations than the larger predator fish. And plants, being at the bottom of food chains, will accumulate the least amount of radioactivity.
Fukushima fallout cloud, May 08, 2011

Eating a plant-based diet may be the best way to reduce exposure to nuclear stuff like the "hot particles" that were detected raining down on North America in March and April, 2011.

These will find their way into all our food eventually, but bio-concentration will see radioactivity increase as you go up the food chain.

In Japan scientists have already found cows contaminated through eating radioactive rice straw infected by the radioactive cloud still issuing from the melting Fukushima reactors.

Governments are behaving negligently in not informing their citizens of the dangers we are being exposed to. There was some talk of Canadian government scientists testing a popular 'high on the food chain' meat, salmon, for radiation, but I have seen no results yet. Radiation has already been found in west coast seaweed, so be prepared to hear the worst possible scenario - our food supply has been irradiated.

When it comes to radioactive particles, small reductions in exposure matter, and eating low on the food chain may reduce exposure. Frances Moore Lappe would be horrified at this turn of events, but would agree that a meatless menu is the way of the future.