Saturday, October 6, 2012

UU Guilt

There’s Catholic guilt;  there’s Jewish guilt.  Many of us became Unitarian Universalists to get away from religious guilt.  But after you’ve been UU awhile, you realize that Catholic and Jewish guilt have nothing on UU guilt.
  Catholic and Jewish guilt are merely about saving your immortal soul and maintaining charitable relations with your fellow humans.  UU guilt is more.  UU guilt is Green.  UU guilt is about saving the entire planet for all future generations.  Let’s trace the opportunities for guilt in a UU’s day.
Our prototype UU starts the day with coffee, orange juice, toast, and eggs.  Each of those menu items is fraught with guilt.
  The coffee.  It wasn’t local, but was it fair trade?  Our UU could have drunk a brew he concocted from roasted, locally raised grain.
Orange juice.  Also not local in most of the United States.  Our UU could have an orange tree in his greenhouse, but then there’s the fossil fuel to heat the greenhouse.
Toast.  Did our UU grow the wheat in her kitchen garden?  Did she take the time to harvest it, thresh it, mill it, bake it?  And then our UU has the temerity to use extra electricity to make toast.  Most electricity is generated from coal.  The process of extracting coal either buries miners alive or devastates environments.
Those eggs. Were they bought at a co-op or farmers' market?  Was the hen who laid the eggs veg-fed?  Did she have the freedom to roam with her fellow hens?  Was she content?  For that matter, couldn’t our UU raise chickens in the backyard and gather his own eggs?
And that’s just breakfast.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Why I've Turned Chartreuse, Part III: Gloom and Doom Are Unsustainable

“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage,” said John Stuart Mill [1828 speech on Perfectibility].    Pessimists continue to get credence, despite their track record.
The Times of London predicted in 1894 that every street in London would be piled nine feet high with horse manure in fifty years.  And they would have, had things gone on as they were.  However, things don’t go on as they always have. Just like we can’t forecast the weather more than about ten days out, we can’t predict human ingenuity. The automobile, although not invented for that purpose, kept manure off the streets.
Eminent historian Arnold Toynbee in 1950 predicted the imminent onset of World War III, but obscure meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson did the math and said, “A long future may perhaps be coming without a third world war in it.”   [Steven Pinker The Better Angels of Our Nature pp 189-190].  Toynbee didn’t account for the fall of nationalism, the revulsion toward war, and a world increasingly interconnected by communication and trade.
Ken Olson the founder of the Digital Equipment Corporation said in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”  Who would when they weighed a ton, took up a whole room in the house, and cost a fortune?  Olson didn’t account for the human ingenuity that shrank computers and their cost.
The Greens are really good at pessimism.   Here’s one example from the Club of Rome from the rear cover of their massive bestseller Limits to Growth in 1972: “Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for? A world where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population has suffered a catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts.” [Quoted by Matt Ridley at Angus Millar lecture 10/31/11 Edinburgh] To stave off the predicted disaster, the Club of Rome recommended strict controls on population and no more economic expansion.
Forty years later, grandchildren have been born to those who were young adults in 1972.  World population has doubled to seven billion, who still breathe the air and drink the water.  With World Gross Domestic Product almost twenty times the 1972 figure, industrial production and civilization have continued. Poverty and war are on the decline.  Women’s lot is improving. [Christian Science Monitor 12/26/11].  The world didn’t follow the Club of Rome’s advice, yet their dire predictions turned out dead wrong. I guess the computer made a mistake.
The only pessimistic prediction I’ll believe is this one:  Imagine Thor, a hoary Viking, saying in 1000 CE, “Yo, Greenlanders, listen up. This warm weather pattern won’t last, eventually supply ships from Norway won’t be able to get through the North Atlantic ice and the Greenland colony will collapse.” Thor would have been right. The Greenland colony did collapse –  not because humans couldn’t survive in Greenland but because the Greenlanders spurned the ingenuity of the native Inuit who knew how to cope in the Arctic. [ Jared Diamond Collapse]
The reason dire predictions don’t come true is because things don’t go on as they always have.  Something unforeseen happens. New ideas crop up as human beings exchange ideas in the process of specialization and trade.  These cross-fertilizing ideas form a collective brain.  That collective brain has kept our species flourishing for thousands of years. [Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist] May it continue to do so.

Why I've Turned Chartreuse, Part II: Go Local, Go Medieval

If we limit ourselves to local food, our diets are limited to what can grow locally.  No more coffee or bananas.  We’d adjust to drinking roasted barley brew and eating apples, but what if our local crops fail? And fail they will.  Although locavores argue that local food staying in the local economy ameliorates local food insecurity, when there isn’t any local food, interdependence adds food security.  Looking at the larger geographic area, more food miles are a good thing.
  We are likewise told to only buy local because local dollars stay local. We’re told to boycott WalMart, the store that brings low prices to poor people.  Support your local bookstore rather than that big bad  But someone living where there’s no local bookstore can buy any book from Amazon and local bookstores can’t stock the volume Amazon does.  Buying in a bigger market gives us more choices.  Moreover, the workers in a big box store are local who will spend their wages locally especially if there’s a local low price WalMart.
In the United States, very small businesses that do less than $500,000 worth of business and engage in no interstate commerce are exempt from labor laws, leaving their employees subject to exploitation. In contrast, employees at and WalMart must be paid federal minimum wage and overtime.
The eat and buy local movement implies that local people are more worthy than outsiders. “You’re not from around here, are you?” is hardly a hospitable greeting.  Keeping our food and purchases local sets up an invidious distinction between local (us) people and non-local (them) people. What about the inherent worth and dignity of every person?  I eat Corvallis food, but not that dreck from Eugene or Salem. Who knows where it’s been?
When groups of people compete, it’s win-lose, but when people trade it’s win-win.  Everyone can be a foodie when Oregonians trade their marionberries for California artichokes!
The world the locavores want to return to sounds like the 14th century medieval manorial system.  We imagine bucolic villages where everyone knew everyone else growing their own organic food. But what happened when local crops failed?  From The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley: “the price of wheat approximately trebled in 2006-8, just as it did in Europe in 1315-18.  At the earlier date, Europe was less densely populated, farming was organic, and food miles were short.”  Just what the locavores advocate.
Let’s examine the 14th century stats.  “Europe was less densely populated.” The population of Europe was approximately 70 million in 1300;  it’s increased ten fold – to about 700 million  today [2012].  “All farming was organic.” Crop lands had to lay fallow some of the time to replenish their nutrients and feed had to be grown for the draft animals, taking up crop land that couldn’t be used to feed people. Yields were small, 10% of what they are now.  The potato, which flourishes in Northern Europe and produces more than twice as many calories per acre than wheat, hadn’t been introduced from the New World yet.  “Food miles were short.”  They had to be.  There wasn’t the technology to ship food in the 14th century.  No trucks, freeways, railroads, steam engines, or airplanes.  During the famine, this meant food couldn’t be moved from the unaffected Southern European regions to the famine regions.  
A short digression: remember the story of Hansel and Gretel, the children who were left in the woods to fend for themselves when food got scarce?   That story originated during that Great Famine of 1315-18 when the adults would abandon children and the elderly.  By 2008, we’d forgotten the grim reality behind the story;  Hansel and Gretel are just fairy tale figures.
The frequent famines demonstrate there was no sustainability in the manorial system.  When times and weather were good, population grew exponentially, but available arable land grew arithmetically.  Until new sources of energy in the form of fossil fuels were discovered, Malthus was right.  Fossil fuels also help capture nitrogen for fertilizer from the air and thus preserve land to grow food for humans.
  After Europe recovered from the famines, the Black Death or plague decimated the  undernourished population.  One-third to one-half of the population died.  Other contributing factors were the overcrowding, lack of hygiene, and prevalence of rats. Neither the church nor the government could address the problem.  Superstition was rife.  People blamed the lepers and the Jews for the plague, so they killed them. The 14th century locavore’s world was a violent one.
In the 21st century the plague organism Yersinia pestis is still extant.  A dozen people a year are infected in the US, but we bathe, wash our clothes, keep rats out of our dwellings, and eat well, factors making an outbreak unlikely.  If there is one, we have antibiotics, laboratories, communication to stop a pandemic in its tracks.
Our sixth Unitarian Universalist principle counsels us to commit to the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. We likewise value the life of the mind.  The 14th century was an eat local/buy local world.  Was there culture?  Not when most people were illiterate.  Was there peace?  No, there was almost constant war among competing fiefdoms. Was there liberty?  Not for the 95% of the population who were serfs.  Serfs were one step up from a chattel slave – they couldn’t be sold individually, but they had to stay with the land.  Was there justice?  Not if you recall the grisly public torture-executions for offenses that aren’t even illegal today.
We Unitarian Universalists need to dig to the root of issues like the buy and eat local movement.  A movement whose end result is a return to the 14th century medieval manorial system is not just nostalgic, it’s reactionary.