Monday, June 13, 2011

When Guys Like This Go To Prison, Questions Must Be Asked

Tonight I heard one of the most inspiring, intelligent, hopeful and sensible discourses ever.  Unfortunately, the speaker, Tim DeChristopher, is going to jail.

Mr. DeChristopher ran afoul of the law at the end of the Bush Administration, when he entered a false bid in a Bureau of Land Management mineral auction, effectively stopping the despoliation of 22,000 sensitive acres near Arches National Park in Utah.  The results of the auction were thrown out anyway, after a finding that BLM was violating its own standards, effectively giving away public resources to the extraction industry (some of the land DeChristopher purchased cost as little as $2.25 an acre).  Nonetheless, Obama’s Justice Department is intent on prosecuting DeChristopher, who faces a probable sentence of 4 ½ years in federal prison, to be announced later this month.

Speaking at Santa Fe’s University of Art and Design, wearing a “Peaceful Uprising” T-shirt that revealed bulging biceps and a barrel chest, DeChristopher looks more like a wrestler than an activist.  Yet he talked fluidly, in complete paragraphs without notes, for over an hour on what drove him to his act of civil disobedience.

He recalled attending a conference in 2007 with Nobel Prize winning scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change.  The worst case scenarios they presented were catastrophes for the planet, while the best case scenarios were also disasters.  Essentially, the scientists agreed that their generation had failed and that the then 26-year-old DeChristopher and his peers would be facing a radically diminished future.

But it’s our economy that has failed, DeChristopher said, built on a premise of ever-increasing acquisition and consumption that has produced huge profits for corporations and a few wealthy winners at the top, but failed to generate happiness or even justice for the majority.

The fossil fuel industry is largely to blame, he suggested.  Look at states where that industry has achieved its greatest success … places like West Virginia and Kentucky for Big Coal, regions like Louisiana and Mississippi where off shore drilling is booming.  These are generally states marked by poverty, lower than average life expectancy, and dismal educational system.  Why?  In an economy based on extraction, whoever owns the resource controls the rules and the outcome of the economic game.

Solar and wind energy challenge that equation, ready to be harnessed by whoever has know-how and is willing to work.  In comparison to oil, coal and nuclear, they tend to democratize power, spread wealth around.  That’s why there is so much resistance to renewables.

In the question-and-answer session, someone asked if capitalism is compatible with a clean environment.  DeChristopher, an economist, responded that, regardless of whether the party in charge calls itself socialist or rock-hard Republican, what matters most is an informed, engaged citizenry not afraid of their own government.  America is not a capitalist country in any case, he continued, but one based on corporate nationalism, with a virtual merger of business and ruling class. 

Adam Smith, who is widely considered the father of capitalist economics, called for “competitive markets,” he pointed out, and to be truly competitive, those markets need to insure that the price of goods truly reflects the costs involved (and that costs are not simply “externalized” or sent downstream like so much pollution, for hapless folks down river to pay in out-of-pocket costs for health care).  Consumers need equal access to vital information.  And according to Smith, no company should be so big or powerful that it can control prices.  Every player should be a price “taker” rather than price “maker.”  America right now could use a little old-fashioned capitalism, DeChristopher proposed.  How’s that for radicalism?

By mid-summer, he’s likely to be behind bars, and he’s reconciled to that. Because when guys like him are so threatening they’re imprisoned, people begin to ask questions.  Who is our government really protecting?  And whose interests does the law really serve? 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Nutritional Nonsense

The USDA today unveiled the new plate that replaces previous versions of the "food pyramid" intended to guide Americans in their nutritional choices.  But is it any improvement over the older versions?

Michelle Obama is pictured with the new design, a dinner plate where Fruits, Grains and Vegetables occupy most of the servings, with just under a quarter of the plate reserved for "Protein."  And for "Protein" the average American will probably substitute the word "Meat."  But wait a minute.  I thought the USDA told us that grains and vegetables were also Proteins.

These figures, also from the USDA, analyze the protein content for average portions of various food groups:

Pinto Beans      15.41 g
Ground Beef     21.73 g
Bulgur               17.21 g
Chicken Drumstick     15.80 g
Alaska King Crab     16.45 g
Canned Pink Salmon     16.81 g
Sliced Ham     9.41 g
Lentils     17.86 g
Split Peas     16.35 g
Trail Mix with Seeds & Nuts     20.73 g
Soybeans     28.62 g

As a vegetarian (a vegan, actually), people frequently ask me "where I get my protein?", as if grains, nuts and legumes aren't full of the stuff.  I'm afraid the new "food plate" will lead to the same confusion among most Americans, who will continue to suppose (wrongly) that meat and dairy products are necessary to a balanced diet.

It would be interesting to know how much input the dairy industry and packing houses like Swift and Armour had into crafting the new guidelines, because clearly they weren't designed by nutritionists and don't even reflect the USDA's own data.

Excessive meat and dairy intake accounts for many of the chronic diseases afflicting our country, from obesity and diabetes to heart disease, stroke and cancer.  For good health, a diet that focuses on plant-based foods  just makes sense.

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