Mar 142017
 

From: The Earth

To: The people of Washington, DC, and particularly to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

This is a letter to inform you that the manner in which you are living your lives is incompatible with the continuation of your civilization. Without significant changes, your future will be filled with famine, war, fire, brimstone, blah, blah, blah.

Ok, I’m the Earth and that’s not how I talk. Consultants hired down on K Street—a spot you all seem to know too well—suggested I write in what they called “legalese,” but I’m more of a birdsong and blossom kind of being. And sometimes when I’m really miffed, I favor the artistic power of a hurricane, drought, or flood. You might remember some of my most dramatic recent works—you named them Katrina and Sandy.

Those consultants rolled their eyes when I suggested that an eerily early bloom of Washington’s renowned cherry blossoms followed by a massive snow storm would finally be the sign needed to take seriously the climatic changes that your binge on my stored carbon is causing. But they also weren’t inclined to extend the dam-busting storms on the American west coast or prolong the brutal droughts spanning large swaths of Africa. One actually shuddered at the thought.

So, long story short, I fired the lot of them and decided to write you a personal letter. I hope you enjoy the cherry blossoms—and the snow day.

But while you’re strolling along the Tidal Basin tweeting photos of the ice-encrusted blossoms, please take a moment to reflect on the fact that the Tidal Basin and much of the National Mall were reclaimed from the Potomac River and Tiber Creek. Keep in mind that your precious cultural heritage—placed upon a low lying area that should already be underwater—will certainly be inundated when the Western Antarctic melts (I shouldn’t tell you this but I’m getting a tingling on my underside that suggests you’ve got maybe a few hundred years at most before something seriously gives down there).

So please note that this letter is a last friendly warning that you must take the wrongs you have dealt me seriously. I will endure them, not quietly, like your quaint little Lorax character who let that greedy Once-ler get away with destroying the Truffula Forest (I wish I had thought of those trees, those trees, those Truffula trees—perhaps next go-round, after this current mass extinction event).

No, not like the Lorax but like the Greek goddess of agriculture, Demeter. Demeter, if you recall, allowed Erysichthon, King of Thessaly, to cut down her sacred grove, but then cursed him with an insatiable hunger that led him to keep eating until he literally ate himself! I always get a chuckle from that story. You, however, probably won’t find the famine, flooding, and war ahead very funny.

Anyhoo, I wish you all the best, truly, and I warn you one last time: get your act together. Ratify the Paris agreement, shift away from your unsustainable growth-centric consumer culture, impeach your president and other elected officials who don’t believe in the basic scientific realities of climate change (seriously?!). Do whatever is needed to become a carbon-neutral species as quickly as possible, or you can kiss your city, and, heck, your whole civilization, goodbye.

Best Wishes,

The Earth

 March 14, 2017  Posted by on March 14, 2017 Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »
Aug 252016
 

What might education look like in 2040 if it were to be truly Earth-centric? That is to say, teaching a deep connection to—and obligation to care for—the planet that sustains us? Over the course of the summer, as I work on the upcoming State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, I will post five visions of thriving EarthEd schools in the year 2040. Learn more about this series.

Today, Saikou arrived early at the dock where his school will pick him up for the day. Yes, instead of taking the bus, he’ll actually be picked up by his school, as the Tigerfish Floating School is a large boat. Over the course of the school day, Tigerfish meanders up and down a few kilometers of the Gambia River, just downstream of the city of Bansang, picking up the school’s 160 students

Today, it’s Saikou’s turn—along with his other classmates who meet at this dock—to harvest the day’s catch from the school’s dockside fish farm. Lunch each day consists of a mix of vegetables, rice, and the fish that the school raises in a series of small tanks, located on each of the docks. This ensures that even the poorest of Tigerfish’s students get adequate protein each day. The fish farms also are an integral part of the curriculum: all students will graduate middle school with a comprehensive knowledge of fish farming—from growing the insects that the fish eat, to proper harvesting and management of the tanks, to even basic veterinary training.

floating school education

Makoko Floating School in Nigeria (from CEE HOPE NIGERIA, May 2014), an early prototype of the floating school of 2040

After feeding the fish and harvesting today’s catch, Saikou and his classmates see their school approaching. The floating school is a large pyramid-shaped boat—designed not for speed but for stability, even in the worst weather. The school consists of several well-lit classrooms, a kitchen, even two science labs—as science is a priority at Tigerfish. Today, the first-year students (sixth graders) are learning about circuits and solar electricity. With a solar array covering the boat, the students have the chance not only to learn about photovoltaics in the abstract, but also to take part in maintaining the boat’s electrical system.

In the other science lab, the eighth graders, including Saikou, have been spending the day dealing with a problem. The tilapia in one of the school’s fish farms have developed some sort of disease, with many of the fry dying and many of the adult fish developing skin lesions and rubbing themselves raw against the sides of the tanks. Over the course of the day, the students have dissected several fish to explore internal symptoms, examined fish cells under the microscope, and conducted online research—first on Googlepedia and then in academic journals—to assess the problem. Their hypothesis: the fish are suffering from Trichodina, caused by tiny parasites that attach to the gills, skin, and fins.

The teacher, who has been quietly nudging the process along—helping with the equipment, engaging those who get left out, settling down those who get too excited—now makes a video call to the local veterinarian and allows the students to present their case that the tilapia are suffering from Trichodina. The vet, seeing the evidence, supports their conclusion and agrees to come by the fish farm the next day to give the fish a potassium salt bath to kill the parasites. After the call, the teacher praises the excellent work of the class, although it is the success of correctly identifying and dealing with the problem that is most rewarding to Saikou and to many of the other students.

Not every day does such a “perfect” project manifest at Tigerfish, offering the students an opportunity to expand their vocational knowledge, research skills, critical thinking, and ability to work together. However, routinely integrating river life into the school curriculum tends to offer more opportunities than would otherwise exist. Biology, chemistry, climatology, ecology, and physics are all naturally a part of life on a river—a river that most of these students will live along their entire lives.

Having a deep knowledge of and connection to the Gambia River is perhaps the most valuable aspect of Tigerfish, although gaining an understanding of the many changes occurring in the ecosystem is also very valuable. As climate change and population pressures have reduced wild fish stocks to endangered levels, farmed fish have largely replaced wild fish. And after several serious floods made schooling impossible for tens of thousands of children living along the riverbank, the idea of floating schools became more celebrated—with a quarter of The Gambia’s students now spending at least some of their school years at a river school.

Recognizing the high risk for future climate-related changes—including the potential submersion of vast areas of the country—certain skills are an integral part of the curriculum: the ability to swim well, disaster education (how to respond effectively in a crisis), and, most importantly, multilingualism. Although English is the primary school language, all students also learn French and Mandinka. The hope is that knowing two global languages will increase students’ employment opportunities in good times, and, if a large share of the population eventually becomes climate refugees (a possibility that the government now openly acknowledges), knowing both English and French will help people better integrate into other countries.

While floating schools certainly aren’t solving the climate crisis in The Gambia and the many other coastal countries where they’ve emerged, they’ve proven to be an ingenious adaptation—one that Saikou feels lucky to be part of.


Author’s note: I want to acknowledge the innovative efforts of the Makoko Floating School in Nigeria as inspiration to this future scenario.

While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.

I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.

 August 25, 2016  Posted by on August 25, 2016 Tagged with: ,  No Responses »
Aug 172016
 

What might education look like in 2040 if it were to be truly Earth-centric? That is to say, teaching a deep connection to—and obligation to care for—the planet that sustains us? Over the course of the summer, as I work on the upcoming State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, I will post five visions of thriving EarthEd schools in the year 2040.

Keep in mind that with this diversity of examples comes a wide difference not just in geographies, student ages, cultures, and available resources, but also in the direct impacts that school systems suffer on a rapidly changing planet. In places where flooding, drought, and other climate disasters have become omnipresent challenges, these experiences and their response strategies naturally have become part of the core curriculum—even the school design. Where stability has endured, these topics remain more “academic,” with activity focused on how students can help prepare themselves and global society for thriving (or at least surviving) in a changing world. But in all cases, the shifting ecological realities of the 21st century have deeply affected how school is taught to these students of the future.

What is unified across these stories is the schools’ commitment to put the Earth at the core of their curricula: teaching ecoliteracy and systems thinking, cultivating a direct relationship with a specific place or environment, and embracing global stewardship. Also at the heart of these stories is the teaching of moral education and the “art of living together” (conviviencia), as well as cultivating creativity and an ability to “learn how to learn” (what in the world of AI is called “deep learning”). Teaching life skills permeates every aspect of the school experience. And above all, these schools teach their students to be “Earth-centric leaders,” who will work both to heal the planet as well as to help humanity adapt to the inevitable changes that we are bestowing on coming generations. These curricular elements combine to form the Earth Education Core Principles (or EarthCore for short; see figure).

EARTHCORE

 

While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.

A final note: I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.

Rima’s Day at the École Gardiens de la Forêt (Montreal, Canada)

It’s late spring. Rima has just finished breakfast and is gathering her things for her first day back at École Gardiens de la Forêt (The Guardians Forest School) after the spring holidays. Although Rima had a good time on vacation, she can’t wait to get back into the woods and play. The holidays are never as fun or as wild as stomping and romping in the fields and forests of Gardiens.

Quebec was one of the first provinces of Canada to resurrect the idea of micro-neighborhood community schools—what Americans once called “one-room schoolhouses,” although few of Quebec’s schools actually have rooms. Many of the province’s elementary schools are now micro-forest schools, where children spend a large portion or even all of their day outside and embedded in a specific place and ecosystem. Gardiens serves a small neighborhood at the edge of Montreal with a total of 16 students and 2 teachers, Marie-Claude and Loic.

All of the students live within two kilometers of the school and are picked up each morning by “pedibus”—literally a walking bus, but in reality just the group of students walking together to school and chaperoned by a teacher. Admittedly, the pedibus takes Rima longer to get to school than a car would, but not for the reason one might think. Her teacher, Loic, stops frequently to identify animal tracks, wild edible plants, a tree in bloom (and one that’s rotting), and even scat. “Whose poop is this?” he asks the students, repeating a question that he has asked so often that it’s become a running joke.

The pedibus, along with being an excellent teaching opportunity and another way to make sure kids are active, further reduces the environmental and financial costs of the school, even when compared with the solar-electric buses that are now common in other parts of Canada.

Gardiens, itself, is nothing fancy: just a one hectare plot of woods and fields where the students explore, play, and learn. Twenty years ago, this site was an abandoned strip mall with its vast stretch of parking lots, but now it is transitioning to a mature sugar-tapping forest (still another 10 years or so to production) and a community green burial ground, which has helped finance both the reforestation efforts and school operations. The school also receives community and state funds—although not as much as during the peak years of the consumer era—but selling burial plots and (eventually) maple syrup will help it generate enough supplemental income to remain open even in the event of further cuts in educational funding.

In the morning, before the sun is too high, Rima and her classmates spend a few hours in the quarter-hectare garden and adjacent hoop house, learning about growing food and agroecology, as well as harvesting the greens and vegetables that will flavor the students’ lunch, usually a stew cooked on the central fire that the students help to prepare, serve, and clean up. Today, Rima is particularly excited because she gets to help chop the veggies—a first now that she’s turned five.

For the rest of the morning, the children are free to play on their own. Some stay close to the fire to read and to continue drawing a storybook that they’ve been working on. Others, including Rima, go off and finish the fort that they started building yesterday. And a few, under the watchful eye of Marie-Claude, practice their tree climbing skills. One child, Quinn, successfully hunts a squirrel with his throwing stick, which Loic, at the fire pit, helps him skin, gut, and add to the stew. “Tomorrow,” exclaims Loic, “we can invite the class to learn how to tan a hide!”

At lunch, all give thanks to the forest, to the fields, and to Earth for the meal, to Quinn for his success in the hunt, and to the squirrel for giving up its life to sustain their lives for another day.

After the dishes are washed, the students work on math and reading, with the older children helping the younger ones with basic problems. Studies have repeatedly found that there are few better ways to consolidate learning than when the student becomes teacher.

After the afternoon lesson block, Marie-Claude leads the class in what she calls their “Deep Dive” sessions. This week, she’s been focusing on the life of birds. On Monday, they observed birds on the school grounds and proposed hypotheses on various aspects of birds’ lives: what they eat, how they nest, and who hunts whom. Yesterday, they built their own wings out of cardboard and paper feathers and “flew” around the forest while discussing the mechanics of flight.

Today, Marie-Claude, with her infectious enthusiasm, declares that they’re going to make a nest. The first 20 minutes are spent brainstorming the best ways to build a nest and deconstructing an old nest that she found in a tree. The next hour is spent gathering twigs, branches, long grasses, and mud, and the class then constructs its own nest as a group. Rima overhears Marie-Claude whisper to Loic at one point: “Wait until tomorrow when a giant egg appears and we take turns sitting on it!”

Another day filled with adventure, thinks Rima, as she ends it with a relaxing walk home and dinner with her parents, during which she shares all her new experiences and life lessons learned at Gardiens.

Read more School Days in 2040 posts:


Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch and the Project Director for EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, State of the World report.

 August 17, 2016  Posted by on August 17, 2016 Tagged with: , , , ,  No Responses »
Jul 052015
 

A few months back I wrote a reflection on raising an ecowarrior thus far for Adbusters and thought I’d repost here (with corrections and paragraphs that somehow fell out in the editing process….).

“It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive. History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.”

Professor Will Steffen, director of the ANU Climate Change Institute

In January, a group of environmental researchers led by Will Steffen of Australian National University published an update to their earlier work on “planetary boundaries,” thresholds of nine fundamental ecological processes — like climate regulation, ocean acidification and freshwater use — which, if crossed, could potentially trigger a collapse of human civilization or at least a whole lot of human suffering.

Hopefully, we’ll correct course and prevent potentially cataclysmic ecological disruptions — including a five to six degree Celsius warmer future — “that won’t be good for large mammals like us,” as Steffen notes. But realistically, the window to prevent this path may have already closed — or at least is so politically nonviable that anyone bringing a child into the world today needs to recognize that the future of their children will in all likelihood be unstable, violent, and ugly — as 8 to 10 billion humans fight to survive as droughts and disasters disrupt food supplies, access to fresh water and energy is limited, and as fertile lands and cities are consumed by a rising ocean.

When my wife and I decided to bring a child into the world (just one, as humanity needs to quickly stabilize and shrink its total numbers), part of the agreement was to raise him to be a future ecowarrior. One who, hopefully, could help steer us toward a more sustainable path so that the nasty collapse that kills off several billion people and countless other species will be averted or at least cushioned. Or if that is impossible, at least provide him with the skills and wisdom to increase his odds of surviving the ugly transition ahead, and help others to do the same.

Let me acknowledge right from the start that the freedom to raise my son, Ayhan, this way reveals a level of privilege that only a minority of people around the world have. The fact that I can take care of Ayhan half of every day instead of working 12 hours a day mining gold, assembling iPhones in a sweatshop, or foraging for valuable scraps in landfills is a luxury many will never have. But being part of the American middle class, I do have that luxury — especially as I have made economic choices to make the math work, such as owning no car and no home, and yes, having only one child — and with it I have the freedom, and even the responsibility, to prepare my child for the radically different reality he’ll grow up in.

As Ayhan is only two and a half, I’m still navigating what it means to truly raise an ecowarrior, and a lot of my hopes and plans for how to raise him are just that. Already we’ve learned a lot, especially on how to lay a strong foundation — and just how important that foundation is, not to mention how much work it takes. Below are the key discoveries of my first years of fatherhood. I hope when you read these, you think “duh,” but in reality, I’ve met so few parents, also of the American middle class variety, that are conscious of these facts and realities, and instead simply follow blindly the cultural norms of the unhealthy, unsustainable, socially disconnected consumer culture they’re part of. Without first breaking through that mindlessness, I can’t imagine much success in teaching the more challenging ideas, skills and lessons that will need to be part of bringing up children to survive the stormy century ahead. Sometimes the first step is simply to identify what is so difficult to see.

Birth and Infancy

The first and most important lesson to learn as an expectant parent is to not blindly trust in the medical system. This seems obvious considering the levels of corruption in the American medical system, but I’ve found that many soon-to-be parents spend more time researching which smartphone to buy than how to have a safe and healthy birth. Instead, invest your time in researching what a safe, healthy, and natural birth entails. A third of American women give birth via Caesarean section — with their babies pulled from a slice in their wombs, oftentimes for controversial reasons due to a dysmal American medical system. This can cause all sorts of complications — from slower healing in mothers and challenges with breastfeeding to a changed microbiome for babies (interesting fact #1: a baby’s gut bacteria is partially established from the mother’s birth canal). Increase the odds of a natural birth by eating healthily during pregnancy (goodbye white flour and sugar); choosing to deliver with midwives; writing a birth plan; having the support of a good doula; making sure your partner plays an active advocacy role during labor; and most importantly doing your homework — reading books like Pushed and watching documentaries like The Business of Being Born. If you aren’t aware of the “cascade of interventions” that can be triggered by doctors administering Pitocin to accelerate a woman’s contractions (often just for their own convenience), you may end up as part of the C-Section statistic.

Birth, however, is just the first moment of parenting. In the first two formative years, the role you play is critical — from breastfeeding your baby (or supporting your partner in this essential practice) and feeding him real, home-cooked foods rather than overly processed packaged baby food, to raising your baby yourself instead of outsourcing his care to low-paid workers. Granted, all of this takes significant time and sacrifice. And it is especially difficult in a country like the U.S. (as compared to Europe), where the culture completely devalues the role of parents, rarely providing paid maternity care or even follow-up support after birth, and instead equates getting parents back to work and growing the childcare industry as beneficial to economic growth. But the joy of watching Ayhan grow, and building such a close relationship with him far exceeds any costs endured.

CellophaneBaby31Plastic Wrapped

One of the most challenging steps so far in this childraising process has been to avoid raising my son as a “space age baby”. Children today are surrounded by layer upon layer of plastic: wearing disposable plastic diapers, fleece onesies, and nylon jackets. They play with plastic toys; swipe plastic iPad screens with hands coated in hand sanitizer; suck food from plastic baby food tubes; ride in plastic strollers that are even sealed in vinyl covers on rainy days. Just the toxic burden of all that plastic should break us of this mindless activity. But perhaps a worse side effect of suiting up our children like astronauts is that from infancy on they are completely separated from the natural world.

Few children are regularly exposed to plants, birds, dirt (interesting fact #2: ingesting dirt may be necessary to prevent asthma and autoimmune diseases), wind, rain, the sun, even the stars in light-polluted cities. If nature is absent in children’s lives, they may suffer immediate and long-lasting psychological effects, as Richard Louv describes at length in Last Child in the Woods. The odds are high that they will no longer value, defend, or even understand their dependence on the Earth and its myriad ecosystem services.

Back in 1949 Aldo Leopold said, “Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.” And today, we have far more gadgets and middlemen. We even have unlimited access to an addictive, virtual world readily accessed at every turn through smartphone and computer interface. Limiting your child’s access to media is as essential as feeding her well. Of course, it’s not easy finding the time to read 40 kids’ books a day instead of plopping a child in front of Sesame Street, but then again, it can be quite joyful, especially after your two year old starts walking down streets and points to tree stumps exclaiming “broken tree, thneed!” making the connection between the ecocide portrayed in The Lorax and the ecological destruction he witnesses in his own home city.

Beyond the Toddler Years

This is all foundational, but what about with older children? How do we go about combating misinformation and consumer socialization at every turn — in school classrooms and cafeterias, from friends, from extended family with conflicting values, from the media, which I can only imagine becomes harder and harder to protect a child from as they get older? I do not yet have answers. I daydream of homeschooling Ayhan so that I can prioritize the knowledge and values that I think will be relevant — math, languages, and ecosystem sciences, of course, but also wilderness survival, basic medicine and first aid and martial arts. I consider what it will means to raise my child as an ecowarrior — teaching him to understand that all ethical norms and choices should stem from healing our living Earth and protecting it from further ravages of Man gorging beyond his ecological niche.

Right now, I am just setting the groundwork. My son is learning English from me, Russian from my wife, and we’ll add other languages later. He’s gardening, composting, and foraging fruit from street trees with me, and will attend his first primitive skills training this spring. We’ll enroll him in a martial arts class when he’s ready, and have already taught him a bit of yoga — surely, mindfulness in this increasingly mindless world will be a valuable skill to lean on.

Whether my son rebels against all this is an open question, but even if he does—as many more experienced parents tell me he will—when the collapse comes, he’ll still be able to forage wild edible plants, purify water, process acorns to make flour, and hunt, increasing the odds that he’ll survive as others go hungry when climate change disrupts the global food trade and grain prices skyrocket. And he’ll take the knowledge and wisdom he’s learned—and hopefully a deep-seated reverence for the Earth—and share that with others as well, perhaps even helping to sow the seeds for a new ecocentric civilization centuries from now. But no matter what comes, I understand that it is my role—as a responsible parent in this changing time—to do my best to prepare Ayhan for the daunting new reality he will grow up in. I invite others to do the same.

— Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch Institute and a contributing editor to Adbusters.

 July 5, 2015  Posted by on July 5, 2015 Tagged with: , , , , ,  No Responses »
Mar 082015
 
Photo by merz_ingbert via Pixabay

Insert token cute puppy picture here (photo by merz_ingbert via Pixabay)

Babies and puppies. Everybody seems to love them—perhaps it’s instinctual, perhaps it’s socialization. Probably the latter, for in Washington, DC, where I live, far more people stop to make goo-goo noises at puppies than at babies. And in some cultures, dogs are meat sources, not sources of affection.

But what’s most interesting about both puppies and babies is that consumers around the world spend billions of dollars on products for their pets and children that serve no real purpose. Sure, these purchases serve as symbols of their affection, devotion, or their concern. But, do they make pets and kids healthier, happier, smarter, or more secure? A poodle doesn’t really need rubber boots and overalls, and a baby doesn’t really need a Baby Einstein CD to help improve her cognitive skills. And pets certainly don’t need Halloween costumes, yet in the U.S., $330 million was spent on Halloween costumes in 2013 just for pets. (Along with another $1.2 billion for kids’ costumes.)

Ultimately, with 7.2 billion people gracing the Earth—and another 2 billion on their way by 2050—the luxury of spoiling children and Chihuahuas is not just an example of consumers being manipulated into wasting their money, but a grave ethical transgression. Is it fair or proper to convert global fish stocks into millions of tons of cat food when these fish resources are being depleted to an extent that coastal peoples will no longer have enough to eat? Is it ethical to use chemotherapy to treat cancers in dogs, when a majority of people on the planet don’t have access to these treatments, and when the environmental and public health effects of these treatments are so detrimental?

Of course, few parents or pet owners consider the larger ramifications of the choices they make. When Fido gets sick, you go to the vet, and do what the vet says will maximize your beloved doggy’s chances of survival. He is, after all, family. Eighty-three percent of Americans now consider their pets family members—a result of “humanizing pets,” a marketing strategy cultivated intentionally by the pet industry. And this strategy has proved very lucrative as Americans now spend $55.7 billion each year on their pets.

And let’s not even get into kids: parents would do just about anything in their power to save their child from illness. And many more would make significant financial sacrifices to give the very best opportunities to their children: whether educational toys, elite schooling, or health interventions—as long as it was in the form of a consumable. Most parents are willing to spend copious amounts of money but far less time with their children; many don’t hesitate when it comes to outsourcing their children in their very first years of life to a nanny or daycare (oftentimes far less qualified than the parents themselves), and don’t hesitate to switch the breast for the bottle or give their children unhealthy, processed foods, because the latter are more convenient or simply better marketed.

It’s strange how completely we’ve become consumers. We’ve allowed our common sense to become enslaved to marketing messages. $500 billion is spent each year to convince consumers around the world that they’ll be better off drinking Coke, eating Big Macs, driving cars, owning pets, using disposable diapers and formula, and flying to far off luxury destinations. Of course, buying into all those products will mean working longer hours—even if that means putting your child in daycare and not having enough time to take care of oneself, cook healthy meals, exercise and so on. But the good news is that as you get fat and sick from eating junk food and living a sedentary and stressful lifestyle, there are pharmaceuticals you can buy to control your blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels, even serotonin levels when you become depressed and your pet dog can no longer make you feel better.

"Platon Cave Sanraedam 1604" by Jan Saenredam (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

“Platon Cave Sanraedam 1604” by Jan Saenredam (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

How Do We Break This Cycle?

When children are made into consumers from before they even come out of the womb, how do we break the cycle? New research finds that children’s palates are shaped in utero, so if mama is eating junk food, her baby will be predisposed to this type of food. And feeding babies formula, powdered cereals, and store-bought baby food leads them to prefer sugary and salty consumer foods, rather than complex home-cooked, more nutritious foods. Add to that the amount of screen time babies and children are now exposed to (including marketing) and kids are essentially born chained in Plato’s cave of shadows—it just happens that the shadows are coming not from a fire, but from the flickering of iPad, TV, and smartphone screens.

Are pets much better off? In the U.S., 53 percent of dogs are now overweight or obese. Their ‘parents,’ who are most likely overweight themselves, are feeding them too much and not exercising them enough. Their owners probably don’t even notice that their pets are fat. According to a recent Gallup poll, 55 percent of Americans don’t consider themselves fat (even if 69 percent are actually overweight or obese according to national health statistics), so it makes sense they wouldn’t realize their pets were fat either.

In theory, if you restrict advertising, perhaps people would stop buying so much stuff for their kids and pets. But then again maybe not. At this point in consumer cultures buying stuff has become a primary means to communicate one’s love for another being (human or not). 65 percent of pet owners even buy Christmas presents for their pets (though I’m guessing their dogs aren’t Christian).

It’s sad really: in 100 years when the Earth heats up another 4-5 degrees Celsius—because we failed to curb our rapacious ways—it’ll be consumers we’ll blame for being unwilling to give up their decadent love of luxuries. And yet when it comes down to it, it’s hard to say most consumers are happier from the Earth-raping habits they’ve adopted. They’re just like factory-farmed cattle, being force-fed corn in a variety of forms, so that they can be slaughtered for profit. They eat more, they get fatter, and then the medical industry rakes in cash treating the myriad diseases that come at the end of this cycle. That part is slightly different than what happens to cows, but at the end of the day both are liquidated to make money. Meanwhile the planet becomes less and less suitable for the continuation of human civilization.

Somehow we have to free consumers from the pen they’ve been corralled in, from the cave they’ve been imprisoned in—for the good of their children, their pets, and especially for the good of the 4 billion non-consumers at their and the changing Earth’s mercy. How? Plato thought that once the prisoner escapes the cave, he must go back and drag others out—even if prisoners resist and attack him. While I don’t disagree with that, the escapee must also start raising a new generation of post-cave dwellers, who can help both with organizing a more coordinated prison break, and—recognizing that the prison is very well-guarded but very expensive to maintain—prepare for the day when the prison goes bankrupt and releases en masse its captive population. When the changing Earth triggers the collapse of the consumer culture, what will remain? Packs of feral pets menacing human populations (like in many developing countries)? Ignorant children and adults who don’t know where to get food once it’s no longer available in grocery stores? It will take scores of guides to show these ex-cons how to survive in their new reality.

Raising Future Guides

I personally am working to raise one of these future guides—even if it isn’t easy. At 2.5 years old; my son, Ayhan, hasn’t eaten any junk food yet and has grown up eating only real food; he has been exposed to almost no screens (he video-Skypes with his grandparents and once in a while watches old Soviet cartoons in Russian); and spends almost as much time outside running around the city than sitting down inside. One of his first words was even compost, and he can identify and harvest (ok, pull some leaves off) several plants already, which isn’t too bad for a city-dwelling toddler.

Sorry son, no doggy for you. (Photo by akashjatania via Pixabay)

Sorry son, no doggy for you. (Photo by akashjatania via Pixabay)

Even more important, Ayhan has been raised mostly by his mom and me. This hasn’t been easy—it’s a lot easier to plop a 2-year old in front of an electronic babysitter than read book after book after book to him. It’s even easier to drop off a child every morning at a daycare center and pick him up six hours later. My wife and I have certainly had to make sacrifices in revenue earned, in short-term mission goals, and so on. But we are also consciously choosing to have only one child, so being present makes more sense than regretting missing our only son’s childhood. And having only one also means his economic costs are manageable and even more importantly, his environmental costs, while not exactly sustainable (living in the U.S. makes that nearly impossible), are as constrained as possible.

And hopefully, if all goes well, Ayhan will play an important role in helping his peers adapt to a new post-consumer reality as the global consumer culture buckles in the face of rising sea levels, droughts, and all the other apocalyptic nightmares that climate change will bring with it. His childhood certainly won’t be easy—and he might not forgive me for never buying him a dog, a cat, or a TV—but then again, his adulthood won’t be easy either, so I might as well prepare him in a way that at least gives him a chance to survive, and perhaps even a chance to help rebuild human civilization.

—-

Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and co-director of State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? He writes about raising his son to survive the collapse of civilization at http://raisinganecowarrior.net/. This essay was first published in German in KULTURAUSTAUSCH – Journal for international perspectives.

 March 8, 2015  Posted by on March 8, 2015 Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »
Sep 202014
 
Image by thethreesisters via Flickr

Image by thethreesisters via Flickr

This week I’ve been reading Global Environmental Politics: From Person to Planet, by State of the World 2013 contributor Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner and it has proved an excellent read—with classic articles from a score of environmental experts, many of which have been on my ‘To Read’ list for a long time. But the hidden gem of the book resides on page 33. This being a college reader, each section ends with a thought exercise, with “The Time Machine,” wrapping up Section 1:

Imagine you are sitting in a time machine. You are required to make a choice. You can go back 300 years or forward 300 years. You can’t stay in the present, and once you have made your decision, you’re not coming back…. Which would you choose? To go forward or back?”

I had a lot of fun thinking through this. Though in truth, I would need just a bit more information before I could truly make my choice. Here’s my question: If I chose to go backwards in time would I get to influence the past, possibly even preventing the ecocidal present I’m now part of (kind of like that sci-fi show Continuum but set in Colonial America rather than modern-day Canada)? Perhaps I could become some sort of prophet that spreads a new ecological philosophy so that we never go down the suicidal grow-until-we-crash path. Possibly I could selectively introduce vaccines and antibiotics and sanitation—the best parts of the industrial revolution in my opinion—but decoupled from all the bad forms of progress that grew in parallel to this public health revolution. Or maybe I’d simply be shot or jailed as I tried to implement these changes. By 1714 the ideology of growth was well rooted and let’s be honest, I’m not sure how one would go from penniless time-immigrant to influential shaper of the future. If I was lucky, maybe I could sell enough future knowledge to buy up some of Manhattan before the island’s real estate market really took off. But probability of success aside, if you told me that there was any chance at all, I think I’d take it.

But let’s then assume the answer is no. That time is not linear and all is already as it ever will be. So if I went back in time, then that was always the case and I’ve already influenced it and it turned out as it turned out (You still with me? If not read here). In that case, I’d go forward. Certainly not because I think I’d be traveling to some sort of happy Star Trek future but just because I’m damn curious to see how the coming centuries unfold.

Call me suicidal if you will—the odds favor that if I left from Washington, I’d end up landing in the ocean (300 years from now I’d bet all the Manhattan real estate I bought in 1714 that Washington is underwater as Western or possibly all of Antarctica will most likely be ice-free by then). Or maybe I wouldn’t even be on a planet with a breathable atmosphere any longer. Or maybe I’d die from radioactive fallout still floating in the air from the nukes detonated during World War III.

Then again, if the collapse was slow and controlled rather than rapid and rabid, I might arrive thinking I pushed the “Backwards” button instead of the “Forward” one. With families farming little plots of land, dressed in home-tanned leather pants and homespun cotton shirts. But I’m sure a few minutes later I’d notice the well cared-for rifle or pair of binoculars—a family’s prize heirloom that has been well-used and passed on for generations. And once I turned my eyes toward the horizon, I’m sure I’d see some sharp angles of ruined skyscrapers hidden amongst the trees.

But is there any chance I’d see some sort of biomimickry-cradle-to-cradle-solar-organic utopia? I highly doubt it. While several chapters bring up the importance of hope in motivating us to build a sustainable future (“optimism makes us bigger,” blathers Alex Steffen, and Barbara Kingsolver has a whole essay on “How to Be Hopeful”), let’s be honest. More of the chapters—from Thomas Friedman’s essay “Too Many Americans?” to Bill McKibben’s “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”—reveal that the window for getting to a high-tech sustainable future has closed (if it was ever open in the first place). Instead, we may get to a sustainable future–but through a painful process of degrowth (with how painful that process being determined by who leads it–people or the planet).

Growth of fungi in Petri dishes (Photo by: Dr. David Midgley Cultures: Dr. David Midgley University of Sydney, Australia.)

An essay by Charles C. Mann beautifully explores this point. When any species is given unbridled access to resources, it grows until it is stopped by some competing force. As he notes, if nothing stopped the growth of a single Proteus vulgaris bacterium, in just 36 hours “this single bacterium could cover the entire planet in a foot-deep layer of single-celled ooze.” The same goes with humans, where, as Mann notes, our monocropped grain fields look similar to the Petri dishes that bacteria colonies completely fill up and then collapse in. Mann reflects on what biologist Lynn Margulis thought about whether we too would grow until we crash, “It would be foolish to expect anything else…. More than that it would be unnatural.”

Of course the point of the book is that global environmental politics, wielded well, may help prevent our eventual crash, or at least help steer our descent so the future looks more like Colonial Williamsburg than The Planet of the Apes (the original not the crappy remake). Let’s “hope” Nicholson and Wapner are right.



Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and is teaching a course on Environmental Sustainability & Resilience at Goucher College this winter.

 September 20, 2014  Posted by on September 20, 2014 Tagged with: , , , ,  No Responses »
Aug 312014
 
6610-shell-pumps

Fill ‘er up? (Image from Danjam via Brickipedia)

That LEGO is partnering with Shell is nothing new. From 1966 to 1992 LEGO regularly produced Shell-themed LEGO sets. You might even remember them from your childhood:

  • There’s the 1981 Shell Gas Pumps set;
  • And the Shell Service Station from 1983;
  • And then there’s the rare, cross-over Pirates/Town set, “The Shell Pirates’ Illegal Offshore Exploration Ship” (see below);
  • And the even rarer Shell Death Star commanded by Shell CEO Darth van Beurden.

Well, as you might have heard, LEGO has recently renewed its partnership with Shell, producing a new line of Shell branded LEGO sets.

Fortunately Greenpeace has rocked the oil platform a bit with its excellent cartoon about Shell’s destruction of the Arctic (made with LEGOs of course), claiming that “Shell is polluting our kids’ imaginations”:

Greenpeace’s cartoon and campaign raises the important question of whether LEGO should partner with an oil company or not. But without too much reflection it seems clear that this type of partnership is not appropriate—for the very simple reason that LEGO blocks imprinted with the Shell icon help create a positive association in children’s minds between Shell and the enjoyable hours spent playing with LEGOs. The more positively oil companies are viewed (at a primal, deep brain level) the harder it’ll be to convince people that fossil fuels (and the companies that profit from their extraction) are not compatible with a survivable future. So in other words, yes, Shell—and LEGO through its partnership—is polluting our kids’ imaginations.

Shell Pirate Ship-6285

“Ahoy maties! Let’s go find some new offshore oil deposits to exploit!” cries out Captain van Beurden from the crow’s nest.

So should parents stop buying LEGOs? Notice that not even Greenpeace suggests that—LEGO is a powerful brand, one that kids love. So parents would be reluctant to abandon this reliable brand, let alone try to explain to their kids why they can’t play with their LEGOs anymore. Probably why Greenpeace simply encourages parents to sign this petition to LEGO. Perhaps enough parental anger will make LEGO reconsider whether this brand taint is worth the $116 million its deal with Shell is estimated to be valued at. But then again, considering what LEGOs are made out of, I don’t imagine LEGO is really averse to oil drilling and might as well find a partner to make its company even more lucrative (at least until the end of the fossil fuel era takes it down).

But yes, parents should probably think twice about supporting LEGO and honestly, all toy brands. My son, Ayhan, is only 2 and already we have two big boxes of toys (and that’s with aggressive efforts to discourage people from buying us any new stuff). The key for me will be to redirect Ayhan beyond the exaggerated period of extended childhood that Americans prefer and get him playing with/building real stuff sooner. Why assemble LEGO sets when you can assemble a meal to serve to your family? Why arm a hundred LEGO knights when you can build your own bow and arrows? Why wage LEGO battles when you can hunt down a squirrel and make stew from its meat and a pouch from its hide? Yes, Ayhan is a few years from that, but by six he should be a competent squirrel hunter or at least a squirrel trapper and at that point hopefully any LEGOs we’ve accumulated will be collecting dust in the closet.

I admit all that sounds primitive, but then again, primitive skills will probably be an integral part of the post-oil, post-plastic, post-LEGO future that’s speeding toward us like a derailed LEGO train (probably loaded with unreinforced Shell oil tank cars). “All aboard! Next stop: New Miami” (since old Miami will be long submerged by then).

 August 31, 2014  Posted by on August 31, 2014 Tagged with: , , , , ,  No Responses »
Aug 182014
 
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Ayhan expressing affection for his comrade-in-arms. (Image by Erik Assadourian. All rights reserved.)

I’m not sure how it happened but every once in a while, when my 2-year old son walks past a tree along the streets of DC, he stops and gives it a hug. Sometimes even a kiss. Why that it, I have no idea. The environmental values I’ve communicated to him have been rudimentary at best. Essentially I’ve taught him that certain plants are edible and that food scraps are compostable and get mixed back into the soil. (He also knows to put recycling and garbage in different cans, but I doubt he knows where they go from there, other than that two different trucks takes them away.)

But his mother and I certainly haven’t encouraged him to hug any trees, nor has his Uncle Ty or Aunt Rita—the other two adults Ayhan sees regularly. So where did that impulse come from?

I don’t even know of any books we’ve read where people hug a tree. The closest we’ve come is a ridiculous book Paper Crunch, designed to encourage 3rd graders to recycle paper and that has somehow captivated Ayhan. “WAIT! Don’t throw away that piece of paper. Do you know where that paper comes from?” Lots of trees in that book—many felled and in depressingly large piles—but not a single picture of someone embracing one.

Chipko-wikicommons-moi moi

“Chipko” by moi – moi. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So what explains my son’s tree hugging?

Is it an innate connection to other species? Children’s senses are stronger than ours. Perhaps he smells or hears or feels something more than we do when he passes by a tree?

Is it an extrapolation? My son likes trees, we interact with them often (I pass his head through the leaves when I carry him along the streets—much to his amusement—and this summer we’ve been gleaning cherries, peaches, and apples from street trees). So does he feel a camaderie, thus expressed with a hug and a kiss just as with the humans he cares about?

Or is it just a coincidental behavior that has become stronger through conditioning? I admit I expressed a positive reaction when I saw Ayhan hug a tree the first time and times since. How could I not!?!

Whatever the case, the good new is he’s already a tree hugger. Now I just need to make sure he grows up to understand the deep importance of keeping those trees safe—just as the original tree huggers did, those who hugged trees in the Chipko movement in India to prevent loggers from cutting down those trees, putting their own bodies in the way of the chain saws.

 August 18, 2014  Posted by on August 18, 2014 Tagged with: ,  No Responses »
May 262014
 

A few weeks back I attended an “Accelerating Sustainability Forum” at the US Chamber of Commerce. While there was lots of rosy talk about sustainability, in truth, most of the focus was on growth, even though it’s becoming increasingly clear that true sustainability is going to require a massive scaling back of human enterprise. In the Guardian’s Sustainable Business blog I tried to grapple with that conundrum.

You can read the full article there though I’ll leave you a few tidbits to ponder here:

While climate change was discussed openly in the Chamber’s Hall of Flags – a feat in its own right, given the state of the climate conversation in America – many of the businesses in the room were clearly still drinking Jeffrey Immelt’s “Green is Green” Kool-Aid.

It’s hard to fault people who are searching for the right lexicon to convince corporations to prioritize sustainability, but perhaps the business case is not the solution. Because, let’s be honest: as the world goes to hell in a hand-basket, there will be huge opportunities to profit off the decline, whether on skyrocketing food and energy costs, private security services, or ecosystem services no longer freely provided by nature, such as water treatment and pollination (robotic bees anyone?).

I then try a different frame, one focused on survival:

Let’s explore an alternative way to frame sustainability, one that might have better outcomes when appealing to companies’ sustainability officers. Rather than focus on the profits that could be reaped in the pre-end [of the world] period by businesses and investors that plan appropriately today, let’s consider that, even for the best planners, the end will still be filled with unimaginable horrors, ones that they, their families and their companies probably won’t survive.

A nice coat of greenwash if I've ever seen one (photo courtesy of Jen Bojan via flickr).

A nice coat of greenwash if I’ve ever seen one (photo courtesy of Jen Bojan via flickr).

However, in truth, I don’t think this type of far-sighted planning will succeed–as the example on the paint company Benjamin Moore I discuss in the piece reflects–so I conclude with the obvious point that regulation (or perhaps I should say “governance” and give a shout out to State of the World 2014) will be essential to save companies from themselves.

So does that suggest that the only way to save the free market is to make it less free? Do companies need regulators to proactively step in to make the sweeping changes necessary to organize the economy as a subsystem of the Earth system, rather than assume the inverse? Probably. But in truth, the only way that will happen is if some really smart companies enable that political leadership, using their influence to shift the focus to stopping the end of the world rather than just profiting in the pre-end stage.

So in other words, we’re in a Catch-22 that may stymie any real progress toward degrowth until its far too late. But there may be a silver lining, as I note in the piece by quoting Bob Mankoff’s comic punchline:

“And so while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.”

Enjoy it while it lasts!

 May 26, 2014  Posted by on May 26, 2014 Tagged with: , , , , ,  No Responses »
Dec 242013
 

On this Christmas Eve, just a reminder of the current state of the world: it’s bad enough that even Santa and his global HQ are threatened, as this Guardian article about the speedy melting on the North Pole reveals.

With that in mind I thought I’d recruit our love of Santa to describe a revolution in the toy industry that would get us a ways closer to a sustainable future. Fewer toys, shared toys, and toys that teach ecological wisdom rather than a love of war, the joy of consumptive lifestyles, and how cool earth-ravaging construction equipment is. Even toys that we grow instead of make out of toxic fossil fuels.

Read my full wishlist of demands to Santa at The Guardian Sustainable Business blog, but you can read a few highlights below:

First, recognizing how full our planet is, why keep producing so many new toys? Instead, why not facilitate ways to better share toys amongst more families? The average toy is only played with for probably less than an hour a day, then discarded rather quickly. So perhaps it would be better to have toy libraries where families could borrow toys instead of buy them. In 2010, there were 4,500 toy libraries distributed across 31 countries. Each of these libraries results in fewer parents buying fewer toys and instead borrowing them – reducing the total number of toys produced, as well as helping children learn the valuable lesson of sharing. If you could put your support behind the global toy library movement, I’m sure it would really take off….

So please Santa, revamp your workshop. Create new product lines that celebrate living in balance with Earth, that are made completely sustainably and sold in ways that encourage borrowing instead of buying. I recognize this is no easy gift to grant, but for someone who can deliver over a billion toys in just one night, I have no doubt that if anyone can do it, you can. And hopefully, once you and Rudolph light the way, other toy companies will follow.

3124443099_368a2915fe_b-santa-wanted - Copy

Perhaps when ecocide becomes illegal this will be Santa’s fate? (Photo by kevin dooley via flickr)

 December 24, 2013  Posted by on December 24, 2013 Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »
Dec 012013
 
Bowl full of crickets--before they were added to the guacamole (Image by Erik Assadourian)

Bowl full of crickets–before they were added to the guacamole (Photo by Erik Assadourian)

The media is now regularly filled with articles about how insects are part of the future of our food. And for good reason—the Earth is rapidly changing, population projections are being revised upward, there is no real progress on curbing runaway climate change, and our future is looking more and more like a dystopian science-fiction novel.

Grain prices will almost certainly go up in the future and so will the price of meat, as livestock depend on these grain supplies. Insects, though, offer a good alternative—healthy, easy to raise, and much more efficient in processing vegetable matter into animal protein (crickets use one-twelfth the feed that cattle use to produce an equal amount of protein). The United Nations even released a report this year advocating an accelerated shift to bug consumption in the west.

But typically when discussing bugs, media stories are served with a large portion of amused disgust. (Just look at the picture from the above-referenced Sierra Club magazine and BBC News articles: a Lice Cream truck, seriously?!?) Part of this is cultural, another part is smart business: shock and entertain the audience and they’ll keep reading.

Jenny Dorne of WJLA filming Alida Maandag while preparing bug cuisine. (Photo by Erik Assadourian)

Jenny Dorne of WJLA filming Alida Maandag while preparing bug cuisine. (Photo by Erik Assadourian)

So it was funny to see the creation of this disgust first hand at a bug-eating reception at the Dutch Embassy this past summer. One journalist, Jenny Dorne of WJLA, couldn’t fathom eating bugs and was captivated by Alida Maandag, the wife of Dutch entomologist Marcel Dicke—a leading proponent of incorporating insects into the western diet. Maandag quietly ate several crickets for the journalist while she videotaped the whole thing, scripting each bite to get the most shock value. Meanwhile, Mrs. Dicke stood there complying with a bemused look on her face, clearly thinking “what’s all the fuss?”

Perhaps this will be the way that bug eating gets attention and eventually goes from strange eccentricity to fun food event to normal part of the diet. It certainly was interesting to watch how people reacted to the insect cuisine at the event—the cricket guacamole, the cicadas and asparagus on a stick, the mealworm pancakes. Again mostly with good-humored disgust, but as most guests realized when they tasted the bugs (if they tried them—Ms. Dorne outright refused), bugs don’t taste like much when integrated into a complex recipe.

As Dr. Marcel Dicke and others have pointed out, the easiest way to integrate insects into the western diet will be through processed foods where the distinct crunch and taste of bugs is lost and just the healthful and sustainable source of protein is preserved.

And that has already moved forward to some degree in the Netherlands—at specialty grocery stores shoppers can buy freezedried bug patties (like other frozen burger patties, whether hamburger, soy, Quorn, or chicken). At the event there were even samples of Chapul, a new energy bar for sale in the U.S. that has cricket bits in it. And it was pretty good—though no bugs could be seen or tasted at all, which was probably the point.

All of this imagines a factory farmed bug future where agribusiness grows and sells insect protein at a large scale to fill the processed foods that now mostly have ground up chicken, pig and beef bits in them. Certainly an improvement, ecologically speaking, but considering how unhealthy processed foods are—filled with salt, sugar, preservatives and artificial flavors and served in unsustainable and often toxic packaging—maybe not so large a step forward as we could take.

Bowl of mealworms, awaiting being added to the pancakes made by Daniella Martin of www.girlmeetsbug.com (Image by Erik Assadourian)

Bowl of mealworms, awaiting being added to the pancakes made by Daniella Martin of www.girlmeetsbug.com (Photo by Erik Assadourian)

During the event there was long discussion of a future of factory-farmed bugs—which Dr. Dicke assured the audience was just fine as insects like crowded conditions and their diseases don’t easily migrate to humans like the diseases that affect current livestock do. But can’t we do better? Massive amounts of waste will still be created—will it pour down rivers like chicken, pig, and cow manure currently does?

In colonies of millions of bugs, conditions will be ripe to spread new insect diseases, which may in turn mean continuing reliance on huge amounts of antibiotics or fungicides for our new livestock (even if there’s no risk of these diseases spreading to humans). And perhaps worst of all, the industrial model, with its concentration of profits, will continue—where Big Ag can employ small numbers of underpaid laborers to maintain their billions of bugs.

The most exciting moment for me at this event came when Dr. Dicke mentioned in passing that 20,000 households in Thailand make part of their living from raising crickets or other bugs. Now THIS is the future I’d like to see. Everyone can raise a fish tank full of crickets off their own food scraps and rotting plant matter found near their house and probably generate a free pound of animal protein every month or so—just enough to live healthy and to lower overall household costs (while having a positive ecological effect as factory-farmed meat is displaced by freegan crickets). This report details small-scale insect farming in Thailand at length. I could imagine as the US consumer economy implodes, lots of American entrepreneurs will turn to small-scale farming (as is happening in Greece today) and bugs may become part of their crop mix.

It is an intriguing question: how does one go about raising a small quantity of crickets for personal consumption: what are the hours of work time needed to sustain your flock? The inputs? Will food scraps and foraged bits of yard waste from your and neighbors’ yards or local parks be enough or like larger-scale cricket farmers would one need to buy chicken feed (which would change the financial equation dramatically)? With hamburger at just $3.50 a pound, small-scale production of crickets probably can’t pay for itself right now (not if time costs are factored in and environmental externalities aren’t), but once food is no longer easily or cheaply purchased at the local grocery store, bug farmers may be some of the best equipped to survive food shortages. That’s food for thought, even if you have to catch it first.

 December 1, 2013  Posted by on December 1, 2013 Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »
Dec 012013
 

My sister sent me a wonderful gift not long after Ayhan was born: a used Little People Noah’s Ark. A fun toy with lots of parts that I can imagine my son playing with for several years. The only issue is that I don’t really want to call it “Noah’s Ark” and embed that Biblical story in Ayhan’s subconscious from so early an age. It’s fine as a cultural story and literary reference, but not as a founding myth. So let me introduce Little People’s newest playset:

Bob and Brunhilde’s Boat of Biodiversity

boat of biodiversity2

Bob and Brunhilde’s Boat of Biodiversity (Bob is behind the camera)

Meet Bob: a master carpenter and permaculture expert living in an ecovillage on the coast. As climate change hits 3 degrees and scientists reveal positive feedback cycles have accelerated–with massive amounts of methane hydrates now burbling up from the deep oceans–Bob takes things in his own hands. His ecovillage is doomed to sink under the rising sea, so he builds a large boat and then raids a small local zoo where he steals a pair of each of his favorite charismatic megafauna species: pandas, lions, leopards, zebras, giraffes, and so on.

He puts them on his boat, and he and his wife Brunhilde, the famed German zoologist, care for their new menagerie until the storms and floods come, and as the ocean swallows up the ecovillage, off they float in search of higher land.

Of course, with such large animals they quickly debark once higher land is found (a week later), as there’s no way to keep 40 days of food for such giant beasts on such a little ship. But fortunately most of them make it to their new home. (Food did get scarce so the elephants were sacrificed for the greater good–but by that point their total population had shrunk so far that there was no longer enough of a gene pool to keep them a viable species anyway).

And life began anew. At least until the other hungry environmental refugees who had also been displaced from the coast came searching for food. Most of Bob and Brunhilde’s flock got away, but the giraffes, not surprisingly, had difficulty hiding from hunters.

And while that might seem a pretty gruesome story to tell a kid, is it as tough as the original? After all, God wiped out the entire human population except for one family, and pretty much all the rest of His creation too–which is far worse than what happened to Bob, Brunhilde and their menagerie.

Have fun Ayhan!

 December 1, 2013  Posted by on December 1, 2013 Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »