In a world of disasters, how do we cultivate hope?

Oil in wave
An oil-filled wave off the coast of Santa Barbara in the wake of this week’s crude oil pipeline burst. (Photo by: Spiritnthesky. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)

My home state of California has been hit with two disasters in one week–a raw sewage spill in Monterey Bay, and the more devastating crude oil spill off the Santa Barbara coastline. These two spills are only the latest examples of the thousands of human-caused disasters that plague our shorelines every year (not counting all of the natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes that add to these impacts).

The combined impact of these acts of negligence to our own health and the health of coastal ecosystems, while only partially known at present, are unquestionably negative and potentially long-lasting as has been shown for the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf.

Dead fish, kelp and other sea life start to wash ashore in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara oil spill. (Photo: RaeAnn Christiansen. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)
Dead fish, kelp and other sea life start to wash ashore in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara oil spill. (Photo: RaeAnn Christiansen. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)

I work in a field where these types of environmental disasters are at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and in which people are constantly trying to develop strategies to prepare for, respond to, and reduce the impact of such disasters to protect ecosystems and human well-being to the greatest extent possible. When we as environmental scientists, science communicators, and science educators are confronted with almost daily stories of disaster and destruction, how can we cope? How can we support each other and cultivate optimism and positive action in the face of such constant devastation?

A support group might be nice. But in reality, it comes down to each of our own individual mental frameworks–i.e., how we construct our view of the world. In a world filled with natural and human-caused disasters and environmental destruction, we must consciously sow seeds of hope and optimism through individual action (grass-roots, if you will) and awareness, building a strong, bottom-up platform of change in the same way that most social movements have done historically.

I struggle daily with balancing a) my internal rage and feelings of hopelessness as I am barraged with stories of overfishing, deforestation, sea level rise, and a million other dangers and b) my feelings of hope and excitement at the many inspiring stories of species or habitats saved from extinction, or communities banding together to protect their livelihoods and their environment.

This is the reality of a world now dominated by social media. As I scroll through the Twitter feed of the organization I work for, my brain attempts to sift through hundreds of story lines and commentaries within minutes, representing a schizophrenic range of topics from the devastating global consequences of climate change to the adorableness of baby sea otter pups (which typically get exponentially more shares and likes than the ‘serious’ links). Sifting through one’s social media feed is enough to make anyone want to throw their hands up in exhaustion and just accept that ours is a world where cute animal videos reign supreme over issues of dire consequence to our future existence.

But it’s not that simple. Our minds are a microcosm of our external environments. Just as the external world is a balance of life and death, periods of drastic change and destruction interspersed with periods of stability and renewal, our minds can only handle so much bombardment with stories of death and destruction. We need mental ‘breaks’ in which we can enjoy the simple pleasures provided by positive, even humorous anecdotes from family and friends–in fact these breaks may be essential in helping us cope with the more serious issues we are so often confronted with.

Perhaps we need a certain does of silly animal videos to avoid empathy fatigue when we are asked to put mental energy towards serious, potentially overwhelming challenges. Or maybe I’m just creating an excuse for frivolous use of social media to assuage my own guilt at the joy I get out of watching the latest ‘animal odd-couple’ video clip.

Still, I’d like to think that the patterns of positive and negative stories we see in our Twitter and Facebook feeds represent the potential resilience of a global community of humans, as opposed to a self-imposed duality in which we can indulge in light stories at the expense of solving some of the greatest challenges of our time. And there IS evidence that social media campaigns can lead to real-life positive actions by citizens. (Note: I’m not here today to argue whether our growing reliance on social media is overall a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing for social resilience–that’s a whole different topic worthy of reflection).

I guess its all about how we want to construct our realities–its up to each of us to take advantage of our social networks, both in the ‘real’ world as well as the virtual, to make the most of our positions as communicators, or activists, or educators, etc, as the case may be. And if you post a video of a cat playing a keyboard right after you post a story about the melting of the Greenland ice sheet–well, you are human, and its just your mind trying to keep the balance of light and heavy out there in internet land. I forgive you (and by that, I mean I forgive myself).

More importantly, I’ve found through my experiences as a science communicator that positive stories resonate much more strongly with people than negative ones. As a result, I make an effort to highlight as many good news stories (e.g. about new scientific discoveries, or newly designated protected areas/species) as I do stories warning of impending harm or threat. While its important to be aware of the environmental challenges we face, we also need to know that there are solutions, and that each of us can contribute to those solutions in myriad ways.

Do you have thoughts/reactions to the rise of disasters around the world, and how you feel about our responsibilities as individuals or as society to confront and address them? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Here’s hoping for a world that evolves towards greater and greater consciousness, sustainability, and compassion.

-Dr. K

Still working on that Food Revolution

hummingbird-nectar-no-red-dyeI know it’s not Thursday, but I wanted to throw back to a blog I wrote a few years ago on another website. I bought a hummingbird feeder for my mom the other day, and was looking at the various nectars for sale at the store. It was depressing. Most of them had artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, and were heftily priced to boot! Is it not enough that we are poisoning ourselves with processed food–now we have to poison tiny birds too? For goodness sake, all you have to do is mix sugar and water together and put it in the feeder.

The experience reminded me of a blog I wrote a few years ago, so I went back and read it. I found that everything I was thinking at that time is still timely and important to me, so I thought I would share it with YOU! Now that I am back in the U.S. and teaching about sustainability, I find it all the more imperative to continue stressing that the decisions each of us makes for ourselves and our loved ones builds the foundation for positive changes in society. That said, feel free to read on if you are as concerned as I am about the future of food, health, disease, and the world.

July 16, 2010: An American Food Revolution–is it coming?

Last night, Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” premiered here in Australia. The television show follows Jamie’s efforts to improve the health and eating habits of residents in Huntington, West Virginia—rated the ‘unhealthiest’ city in America based on government disease and death statistics. Obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes are rampant in the town, as they are throughout America (especially so-called “middle” America). These health traumas correlate directly to the abundance of consumed fast food, deep fried foods, and empty carbohydrates. In other words, blatant malnourishment. Not undernourishment, but a consumption of inadequate vitamins and minerals. When he gave the statistic that this generation of children is expected to be the first to die at a younger age than their parents due to obesity-related health problems, the severity of this problem really hit me.

I watched as Jamie visited the local elementary school, and was appalled to see that the same barely edible food that I had blindly ingested as a child was still being served at public schools. Jamie was equally disgusted, especially upon finding that children were being served pizza for breakfast. Preservative filled, meat stuffed, greasy frozen pizza at that. I won’t even go into the wasteful (and dangerous chemical-filled) packing materials and plastic/Styrofoam lunch trays, utensils, etc. That’s fodder for another blog. Now, I never ate breakfast at my elementary school, but I did purchase school lunches from time to time, and I clearly remember the square slabs of rubbery pizza stuffed into little plastic and cardboard boxes, topped with runny cheese and pieces of crunchy “meat”. White bread, white cheese, brown meat. All full of preservatives, fat, and empty calories, but severely lacking in essential nutrients.

As a child, you can be forgiven for choosing pizza over salad. Children don’t often understand the importance of healthy, balanced eating, especially if they haven’t been raised to appreciate such basic values. They just want what tastes good, and even more than that probably, they want what their friends are eating. They don’t want to be the weird one eating green stuff. But what is not forgivable is the federal government, state government, and school districts of America who have a complete disregard for our modern understanding of health and the direct links between food consumption and preventable diseases. Most adults fret about cancer, while in the meantime more than two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese but are completely ignoring the influence of diet and exercise.

I was ashamed to witness the defensiveness and outright hostile response of Huntington residents to Jamie’s attempt to spread awareness about responsible eating and cooking. It’s embedded in human nature to defend our beliefs and habits even in the face of undeniable contrary evidence, and never was this more blatant than on the first episode of Jamie’s show. Despite the abnormally high obesity and death rates in the country, many residents felt threatened by someone suggesting they change their lifestyles (ahem—similarities to climate change, anyone?), even if it would benefit themselves and their children to do so. Even as high up as the district officials responsible for planning school menus, defensiveness and distrust were thrown at Jamie even though he was completely clear about his goals and intentions.

Of course it’s not particularly the school cooks’ faults, nor the schools themselves. It comes down to the outdated, invalidated government dietary regulations for school meals. Jamie’s frustrating experience during his first week at the Huntington elementary school made this clear. He prepared roasted chicken, brown rice, fruit, and vegetables for the children—a perfectly balanced, flavourful meal in which he used all fresh spices, herbs and other ingredients. Yet he was penalized for not having ‘two servings of bread’ on offer. Apparently, the other lunch option, the greasy thawed out frozen pizza (which was recycled from breakfast the day before as this day’s lunch), fulfilled the two bread servings, and so was allowed to be served (no one seemed to care about the quality of the bread servings—e.g. the fact that they were preservative filled white bread, which has nearly no nutritional value).

“Look at the regulations now,” says Renee Hanks, food service director for the South Colonie School District in Albany. “The U.S.D.A. requires so many carbohydrates that we’re throwing whole wheat bread at them. We’re throwing extra crackers at them. If they aren’t out and active they can’t handle all those calories.” So few people question this policy, which blows my mind! As for many things American, the school lunches came down to quantity, not quality. I hung my head as I listened to the events unfold, because as a child I witnessed first hand these same kinds of pre-cooked, unwholesome meals. At the time, I ate them unquestioningly (as queasy as it makes me to think of it now). But now, I know better. As should parents—or at least they should be concerned enough to want to know more about their children’s diets and how they can improve them. How can you not question sugary pink milk, or rubbery salt-filled nuggets and pizzas preserved with mono- and diglycerides, especially when your children are getting fatter and more sluggish by the month?


A few people have taken issue with school meals elsewhere in the country, in particular the efforts led by Alice Waters (see photo, right) in the Bay Area, California, to improve the quality of school lunches and teach children about the food they eat through edible gardens. I think this should be a compulsory requirement for all schools, and would fundamentally change (read: improve) the way we understand and respect food as we grow and age. My French flatmate explained to me that in France, dietitians and chefs visit every school and as part of the curriculum children are taught about basic food ingredients and how to cook. On top of this, each year they spend an entire week dedicated to food education. They are fed balanced meals made with whole foods, and the majority of it is still subsidized by the government. As a result, most children grow up with a stronger appreciation for real food and how to balance healthy and indulgent eating. And, surprise, surprise, they eat their veggies instead of dumping them in the bin. We desperately need a country-wide program such as this in American schools, and even more-so it should be extended to educational programs geared for parents. Time and again we are faced with images of American children who cannot discern a tomato from a potato, or who think carrots grow on trees. The combination of student gardens and healthier meal options at a few trial schools throughout the country show that childrens’ interest in learning and ability to concentrate are greatly enhanced with these programs, but yet they still have not caught on in most places.

For some reason, our government seems averse to supporting preventative healthcare programs, such as nutrition education, despite the billions they would save on the cost of medical treatments for those with diabetes and related weight disorders. Instead of subsidizing surplus powdered milk or artificially flavoured frozen concoctions, the government needs to sponsor healthier options for children, as do many other Western countries. Some policy makers are trying to increase government budget spending on food-to-farm programs and student gardens in schools, but they keep hitting a brick wall in the legislature. According to the NY Times, a Senate committee recently cut by more than half President Obama’s proposal to spend a record $10 billion more on child nutrition programs over 10 years, including school food. The government just isn’t getting it. A shift in American culture towards this kind of preventative care would be paramount and uplifting. Children would have natural energy (not the ADD kind that is overly medicated), would be healthier, fitter, happier. Parents would be better educated, proud of their efforts, and live longer to enjoy watching their children grow up healthy. Food would once again become the centrepiece of culture in a positive way, rather than as an enemy to overcome with yo-yo diets and artificial sweeteners. This is the utopia I imagine, folks! But the fact is, it is incredibly possible. In the face of so many seemingly insurmountable battles (GE foods, health care reform, carbon emissions), what we feed ourselves and our families lies at the root, at the crux of it all. And we can be in control of it. We can even, together, demand more control over it in schools and public facilities. We can demand that our children be treated with respect rather than treated as cattle.

I think it all starts at the individual level—not with schools or districts, but with families. Parents and kids at home. Jamie himself, unable to win the hearts of the elementary school staff despite his honest intentions, decided to make individual connections throughout the town and had remarkable results. He met a pastor whose concern for the community’s health matched his own. He encouraged a family who relied on fried and frozen food to bury their deep fryer and begin preparing simple, healthy (and might I add, cheap) meals together. These last images provided a spark of hope that the roots of positive change can indeed be sewn, one at a time, in the hearts of responsive people. No right-minded person wants to contribute to their own or their children’s death by what food they prepare. But as it stands now, many are eating the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes a day in terms of the negative health value in the ‘foods’ (I use the term loosely) they choose to consume.

I say it begins with the individual. And it must. Children learn first and foremost from their parents’ habits. But from here it must spread to the community, then to local, then to national regulations on food standards and education. Ignorance should no longer be an excuse for disease. Nor should budget. There is too much information about healthy eating while staying within a reasonable budget, whether as an individual or as a school district. I hope that the efforts of people such as Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters develop roots that spread the country and improve our standards of living for future generations.

There are hundreds of links I could suggest if you were interested in learning more, but I will just start with a few:
http://www.jamieoliver.com/campaigns/jamies-food-revolution

http://www.edibleschoolyard.org/

http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/26/bill-on-school-lunch-is-scaled-back-abuse-of-school-lunch-isnt/

 

Where have all the civilized people gone?

Part 2 in my blog mini-series on how everything is connected 

My last post discussed the idea of connectivity with a focus on ecosystems, and how human activities are damaging ecological connectivity. This week I want to expand upon this concept based on an inspiring interview that ties together environmental conservation, human survival, democracy, gender equality, and climate change.

Vandana Shiva (left) and Jane Goodall during an interview about climate change, democracy, and the role of women.
Vandana Shiva (left) and Jane Goodall during an interview about climate change, democracy, and the role of women.

The interview opened the International Women’s Earth and Climate Initiative Summit last December, and featured Vandana Shiva, a prominent environmental activist and author, and Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist, author, and founder of the non-profit Roots and Shoots. You can watch the extended version of the interview—highly recommended if you have the time and patience—here (special thanks to Tyagaraja for initially bringing this interview to my attention).

“We need a new paradigm of what it is to live on the Earth.”

I came across this interview the same week as the NPR story discussed in my previous post, and the ties between the two were uncanny. Both women underscored the dire need for our society to undergo a global shift in thinking—a shift away from the ‘corporate patriarchy’, whose particular type of knowledge and power form a political structure of oppression and destruction, and towards a ‘diversity of knowledges’ that emphasizes compassion, interconnectedness, and well-being in the most inclusive sense.

Catastrophic floods in the Himalayan region of India killed thousands of people and destroyed countless structures and natural habitat. As Vandana Shiva discussed during a recent interview,  the severity of these floods is in large part due to irresponsible hydropower and development projects greenlighted by a corrupt government. Photograph: Indian Photo Agency/Rex Features
Catastrophic floods in the Himalayan region of India killed thousands of people and destroyed countless structures and natural habitat. As Vandana Shiva discussed during a recent interview, the severity of these floods is in large part due to irresponsible hydropower and development projects greenlighted by a corrupt government. Photograph: Indian Photo Agency/Rex Features

Shiva links the widespread ecological genocide occurring across the world with concurrent socio-cultural patterns that perpetuate social inequity (via gender, race, etc.) and violence. According to her, “We need to see more deeply the connections between human inequality and injustice, and the violence against nature.” Industrialized agriculture induces the raping of land, resulting in unproductive soil and loss of valuable resources. The destruction of productive land, whether forest or field, is the source of poverty for millions of humans, particularly in rural areas and developing countries. What is the consequence? Local farmers out of work, men and women who cannot provide for their families, who become frustrated, angry, and sometimes violent or desperate.

As an extreme example, Shiva points to Punjab, “land of the Green Revolution.” Here, the agro-industrial complex was introduced with great fanfare as a solution to all food production problems. The subsequent decades saw massive increases in violence, extremism, and deaths, much of which can be attributed to changes in agricultural practice—mechanization greatly reduces jobs leading to high unemployment; soil health declines rapidly with the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides; food security declines as local crop varieties are replaced with monocultures of non-food cash crops such as cotton; and human health is threatened as exposure to toxic chemicals increases (the Bhopal pesticide factory explosion being an extreme, heart-wrenching example of this, in which thousands of people died from direct chemical exposure). Human inequality and injustice are often inextricably linked to violence against nature.

What’s more, the land impacts man just as much as man impacts the land. Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel) has made a career out of documenting hundreds of such cause-effect relationships that outline a contentious history between humans and nature. From the ecological destruction of Easter Island to the fall of the Roman Empire and the Mayan civilizations, human-caused land degradation has led to political and social instabilities resulting in famine, mass migrations, and ultimately societal collapses.

An Indian cotton farmer inspects his crop. Bt cotton, which requires high investment in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and water, has caused many local farmers to go bankrupt and even take their own lives due to pest infestations, lack of irrigation, etc. leading to perpetual crop failures.
An Indian cotton farmer inspects his crop. Bt cotton, which requires high investment in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and water, has caused many local farmers to go bankrupt and even take their own lives due to pest infestations, lack of irrigation, etc. leading to perpetual crop failures.

“The concrete solutions are the most radical ones. The abstract has had its day.”

The problems with our current political and food production systems are many; but how are we to affect change? What new paradigm would replace our current broken system? It’s easy, even for those of us who are in some way involved in social or environmental movements, to feel overwhelmed in the face of powerful corporations, media conglomerates, and totalitarian governments. Luckily, fearless and charismatic leaders exist—even if they are far and few between—that embody the courage to not only speak out against corruption but to present alternative realities based on compassion and justice.

What draws me to individuals such as Vananda Shiva and Jane Goodall (among many others) is their ability to articulate an alternative approach to living, and to lay out, in great deal, the steps to move down that path. For Goodall, it begins with teaching children fundamental values based in love and kindness. How can a child show empathy for the environment, she asks, if they have never known and learned true kindness or compassion? It is a straightforward, yet critical, component to developing a more empathetic society.

jane Goodall with volunteers in her Roots and Shoots program, which engages children in solving social and environmental problems.
jane Goodall with volunteers in her Roots and Shoots program, which engages children in solving social and environmental problems. Image by: Wildliferesearch.org.

Both men and women are crucial to revolutionizing our value systems and political structures; but this particular interview focused on what women, in particular, bring to the table. And it was on this topic that Shiva again brought the concept of interconnectivity to the forefront:

“If there is one thing that women can bring to this discussion,” she stated, “in addition to those beautiful words Jane used of love and the capacity to have compassion, it is the capacity to see connections. That is the disease that the deeply patriarchal mindset has not been able to overcome; they can’t transcend fragmentation, and separation, and thinking in silos, and worse—thinking as if we are separate from the earth, and therefore masters and conquerors…”

According to Shiva, our world is treated as if everything is a commodity; everything has a monetary value, as if nature is dead and women are passive. We need to resurrect other knowledges—indigenous knowledge, ancient knowledge, women’s knowledge, local knowledge—as a counter to this dominant patriarchal paradigm. Its not that woman should take control (though I do believe woman need to play a more prominent role in political decision making), but that we all, man or woman, need to break down the barriers of what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’. To be compassionate is not to be weak; indeed an act of compassion displays more courage and intelligence than any act of force or violence.

Vandana Shiva has founded non-profit organizations, community-based movements, and an Earth Institute dedicated to promoting local, sustainable agriculture. Here she is seen promoting  seed saving as an act of self-sufficiency and defiance against the corporate takeover of food production. Image credit: the Canadian Daily.
Vandana Shiva has founded non-profit organizations, community-based movements, and an Earth Institute dedicated to promoting local, sustainable agriculture. Here she is seen promoting seed saving as an act of self-sufficiency and defiance against the corporate takeover of food production. Image credit: the Canadian Daily.

Plant a seed, grow Democracy

Shiva and Goodall agree that representative democracy is failing in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Governments no longer listen to the people; they are owned by big business. We as citizens cannot sit by complacently, but must through our individual actions demand a more just direct democracy.

To Shiva, and many other social and environmental justice activists, the most radical action one can take is to grow his or her own food. “Every time we save a seed,” she says, “every time we plant a garden, every time we create a community, we are cultivating democracy and freedom and hope,” to which Goodall adds, “and empower our youth.”

Near the end of the interview, Goodall recounts a story of a farmer who has been growing genetically engineered tomatoes that are square, instead of round, meaning that more tomatoes can be packed into each truck that goes to market. ‘Yes, but these don’t even taste like real tomatoes!’ Lamented a friend, to which the farmer replied, ‘Who cares? Soon everyone who knows what a real tomato tastes like will be dead anyway’.

"Can they put us all in jail for growing tomatoes that aren't square? No they can't."--Jane Goodall, arguing that we should all grow our own tomatoes instead of being force-fed tasteless genetically modified square tomatoes.
“Can they put us all in jail for growing tomatoes that aren’t square? No they can’t.”–Jane Goodall, arguing that we should all grow our own tomatoes instead of being force-fed tasteless genetically modified square tomatoes.

Goodall was chilled by the story, but it also ignited her into action. Her response? We need to be growing our own tomatoes, and teaching our children how to grow them, rather than be force-fed resource-intensive, unhealthy ‘foods’ bred for uniformity rather than quality. This corporate-controlled agriculture is leading towards a system in which a few powerful companies own all the means of food production, putting local agriculture out of business or worse, making it illegal.

“If we all do it [grow our own food],” Goodall argues in her soft, composed voice,” even if its against the law, if we all do it can they put us all in prison for growing tomatoes that aren’t square? No, they can’t.” Oh Jane, the peaceful warrior, encouraging acts of defiance in the politest of ways. A quiet revolution! Brilliant.

One size fits no one

In the end, just as we have finally begun to realize that crop diversification is much healthier and more productive than large monocultures, we need to realize that diversity is what will help us solve our larger societal problems. There is no one-size solution to our social, economic, and environmental woes. If there is a key thing we can learn from grassroots movement, it’s that there are as many solutions as there are people on the planet (I’m echoing Goodall’s words here). Sustainability can mean a million different things, and have a million (or more) different solutions and innovations depending on the social and environmental context in question.

While we need to respect our shared ethics of equality and justice, a diversity of solutions will be the way to ensure resilience in the face of current and future obstacles to survival. The stakes are high, but I see hope in the eyes of critical leaders as well as in the younger generations.

Just as biodiversity is crucial to ecological resilience, a diversity of ideas and solutions will be essential for overcoming socio-economic challenges and achieving sustainability.
Just as biodiversity is crucial to ecological resilience, a diversity of ideas and solutions will be essential for overcoming socio-economic challenges and achieving sustainability.

In my next blog post I’ll discuss some of the theories regarding empathy and society, and how we may potentially evolve (culturally speaking, if not physiologically) in the future to better connect with our fellow human and non-human beings.