Dec 252017
 

Downsizing, the film by Alexander Payne, which follows Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) as he decides to shrink himself to 5 inches tall and moves to the downsized colony of Leisureland, had great promise as a conversation starter about sustainability, and in some ways it succeeded, but in many ways it reinforced the same myths society regularly perpetuates.

The film starts as Norwegians successfully shrink living things to just a percentage of their size. Why? It turns out—as the lead scientist Dr. Andreas Jacobson explains in his lecture “Human Scale and Sustainability”—the experiment was conceived in the 1950s in order to deal with overpopulation. They determined that downsizing was the “only practical and humane solution to humanity’s greatest problem.”

Any time sustainability and population play a lead role in a movie—I’m excited. But the film failed in several key ways. Let’s explore how:

Rebound Effect

First off, there’s the classic problem of the rebound effect. If a person moves to an area where he can sell off his car and get around by bike, his ecological footprint will shrink. Except, now that he spends less on transportation, he ends up spending those savings on other goods, and in the end may have an even larger ecological impact. This is known as the rebound effect.

In shrinking down to 5”, we’re talking about a reduction in consumption by a factor of 14, assuming Paul Safranek started at about 5’ 10”. This is even better than the Factor Ten reduction called for in the 1990s. Of course, that’s the ideal, not the reality. As people shrink down, their desires grow significantly—in part primed by the marketing of becoming small in order to live large.

On a tour to Leisureland, Paul and his wife see a presentation where one of the residents shows off his McMansion and talks with his wife about the new designer jewelry she just bought. If the majority of middle class Americans shift to these nouveau riche consumption patterns, their footprints will quickly creep back up. Perhaps not to their starting points, but certainly a large chunk of the eco-efficiencies of shrinking people down would be lost to expanded luxury consumption.

Paramount Pictures

So wouldn’t it be better to just get people to consume differently in the first place?

In an early scene, the researchers show the one bag of garbage produced by the first colony of 36 volunteers that was produced over 4 years. But later, when we see that colony, it is an ecovillage—consisting of green roofed traditional Scandinavian houses, horses (shrunk down) for transportation and agriculture and very much a low consumption living model. How much garbage would this community have actually produced at full-scale? Not much more, in all likelihood. Probably 14 bags (since we’re talking a factor of 14). So it’s not about size at all, but sustainable lifestyles.

Of course, the question is how do you market a sustainable lifestyle? In our consumer culture, we tend to consume our solutions—whether to environmental challenges (renewable energy not degrowth); to obesity (diet drugs or bariatric surgery not giving up ultraprocessed foods); to mental health (Prozac not purpose); and so on. Telling people to live a simpler life, in a smaller home, with less stuff and more shared goods sounds like a major step backward—and worse, doesn’t make anyone any money.

Perhaps if we could convince builders to set up more ecovillages and cohousing communities and persuade people to move into them (supported with the same budgets dedicated to Leisureland marketing), declines in consumption might actually be more significant than gained from downsizing people. For example, in Germany’s Sieben Linden Ecovillage, residents produce just a quarter of the CO2 emissions per capita as a typical German.

Indeed, there is nothing inherently unsustainable about humans, depending on how they consume. Of course, our sheer numbers now probably make the sustainable consumption level so low that very few would voluntarily accept that way of living, thus requiring us to not only reduce consumption but our numbers to get back to a sustainable scale.

Treating Symptoms Instead of Root Causes

Along with the rebounding of consumption, if the downsizing transition succeeded, it could enable a larger population before Earth systems started to break down. Ultimately, if the sustainability crisis was the challenge that the Edvardsen Institute was trying to overcome, they should have been investing in cultural engineering, rather than scientific engineering—researching how to normalize a one-child family; how to make it feel natural to live a low-consumption lifestyle; and how to reorient economic and political systems to tolerate zero and negative growth. But of course, that wouldn’t make a very interesting movie.

As repeated often in the film, few people chose to downsize for the planet (at least in the American context). Most just want to live a luxurious lifestyle where each of their dollars had 82 times the buying power. The consumer culture—combined with our still-growing population (now at 7.5 billion people)—are the root causes of our sustainability crisis. If we can’t address these, technologies (magical or otherwise) will never save us from collapse.

Path Dependence

One of challenging aspect that the filmmakers did attempt to address was what downsizing would do to the global economy. One bar patron provokes Paul on the night before he’s to downsize whether as a small person he should have full voting rights or just a quarter of a vote. He complains that downsizing is undermining the American economy: suppressing property prices (as people move to downsized colonies and no one fills the vacant homes), and as demand for cars and other consumer products decline.

But the filmmakers don’t go far enough. As the movie ends, about 11 years after the successful experiment was announced to the world, about 3 percent of the world’s population has downsized. If this effort succeeded beyond this level—let’s say 10-20 percent—what would it do to our growth-dependent consumer economy? Would any political leaders dream of encouraging downsizing if it impeded economic growth?

Some might, like those whose countries were doomed to drown (Bangladesh or the Maldives perhaps?). Other governments might shrink their prisoners—which happened to Paul’s romantic interest in the film. I could see some countries trying to shrink all prisoners—or perhaps giving them all a choice: shrink and live in a free downsized colony (Australia-style) or serve in jail (in much poorer conditions). But in reality, the growth question is at the center of the dilemma—both within this imaginary universe and in our world. Climate change and other ecological changes are driving us over the cliff, but our economic system drives us to grow ever more. And hence, over the cliff we go.

Truthfully, at best, this downsizing model requires a functional growth economy to sustain it—manufacturing new downsized homes, cars, gadgets. If too many downsize, the full-scale system breaks down and the Ponzi scheme folds. (And of course, 100 percent downsizing is impossible as someone has to take care of things in small-world. Plus, those countries that waited longest could suddenly wipe out the small populations and conquer the world—a point the movie never brings up.)

But the inverse of this societal lock-in is even more frightening/interesting to me. Individuals in consumer cultures are already deeply dependent on a fragile complex system for their well-being—a system run by profit-maximizing entities that tend to put their own interests first (to put it gently). Consumers are minimally resilient when systems fail (look no further than Puerto Rico). What happens when an economic crisis hits the companies that run Leisureland or too many people downsize and the global economy tanks, or a natural disaster hits one of these micro-communities? These tiny people are completely at the mercy of external forces—considering they live in their little isolated bubbles of reality. And that brings me to my biggest critique of all.

Anthropocentrism to the Extreme

There’s a scene where Paul’s neighbor is fascinated by the “real rose” on Paul’s table, which of course is the size of his chest. And there are moments when people mention how they miss birds or butterflies. But there is little discussion of the reality that 5” humans would be relegated to bubbled-living, otherwise they would be rapidly consumed by animals that had suddenly become dangerous predators. Squirrels, hawks, owls, rats, snakes, raccoons (not to mention our loving companions—cats and dogs!): they could all end our lives in an instant. Mosquitoes could probably drain a significant amount of blood and make it really hard to enjoy a ‘normal’ life in many climates. Again the filmmakers try to address this at one point, where the Norwegians luckily settled their colony near enough the water that mosquitoes stay away and the birds like “the lemmings better.”

Paramount Pictures

But, of course, that wouldn’t be the case for the majority of settlements. Living life on planet Earth would suddenly resemble life in the time of dinosaurs (or an unfriendly alien world), where perils hid behind every rock. What are the options? Kill everything? We could only go so far, even if the goal was to eliminate every potential threat. (And if we did, surely, crows, gulls, or starlings would evolve to fill this niche, growing bigger or perhaps learning to hunt collectively.)

More important than that though, is that already today, the majority of humans are completely disconnected from nature. Urbanites may see a few species of birds, grasses, and trees (in some cities) but the majority of people minimally understand their deep connection with and dependence on nature. Imagine if they lived their whole lives in artificial worlds (in the film, babies were being born in downsized colonies). There’d be no interest, or even an ability to comprehend Earth’s systems and our dependence, with the exception of the most motivated.

What’s our Purpose?

Ultimately the movie winds down with (slight spoiler) the Norwegian colony heading deep into the Lithosphere to live for 8,000 years until the Earth’s systems restabilize (as methane has bubbled out from the permafrost, thus guaranteeing runaway climate change and, according to Dr. Jacobson, human extinction).

It’s an interesting turn—and a very doomy and gloomy way to end this film. It also reinforces the same myths we believe now: a technical solution will save humanity from our past mistakes. But that of course is ridiculous. We can’t grow or invent our way out of a crisis that is rooted in too much growth in population and in consumption.

What I left with, as the lights came back on and I found myself in a movie theater for the first time in years (and sitting in a reclining, cushioned chair that my wife said reminded her of the world of WALL-E), was a contemplation on purpose.

Through his relationship with Vietnamese activist, Ngoc Lan Tran, Paul finds a purpose, becoming a social service provider to the poor and exploited of the downsized world—helping them to survive as the end of humanity creeps closer.

That is where we find ourselves today. The collapse of consumer civilization is coming, and it’s hard to see any smooth way through the transition at this point. The question only is how do we prepare now? As I’ve argued here and there, we need ecomissionaries that can help those in need—the casualties of the consumer culture—while bringing about an ecological cultural transition.

Can we model a different way—complete with an ecocentric value system that puts Earth back at the center, while also slowing down our current damage, e.g. normalizing smaller family sizes and lower consumption levels? Can we spread a philosophy that does all this and provides people with the skills necessary to survive the collapse? If we’re lucky, we can make it through the ecological transition and even grow an ecocentric culture from the ashes of civilization as Gaia and human civilization stabilizes.

Of course, an ecomissionary movement will take more than serving meals in to-go containers to poor people, but it certainly stands a greater chance of success than shrinking people, or even our current fantastical plan: shifting to a renewable “green growth” economy.

Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, sci-fi fan, and director of the Transforming Cultures project.

 

 December 25, 2017  Posted by on December 25, 2017 Tagged with: , , , , , ,  No Responses »
Jul 182015
 

peachesI made jam with my son yesterday—from a mass of little peaches and crab apples we gleaned from a local school garden (it was either us or the squirrels as few urban dwellers connect fruit on trees with fruit in their bellies).

And I have to say that this jam was delicious. I’m sure if I bought it in a store I’d think it’s just pretty good. But knowing that I made it, and that it was essentially free—both in the ecological and financial sense (minus the little bit of electricity, lemon and sugar I used)—made this jam some of the best I’ve ever eaten! Plus the fact that my son, Ayhan, helped me cut the fruit (his first attempt with a knife, albeit with my hand on it too) and pour in the sugar, added some fun to the process too.

My recipe is based closely off the advice and instructions in this great blog post for making a small batch of jam from The Kitchn, but I didn’t follow it very meticulously, figuring there was a lot of room for improvisation in jam making.

cutting fruitIn short, I cut up about 10 small peaches, leaving the skin on (I didn’t want to waste anything), grated 12 very small crab apples (I grated them as they were too small to easily cut), threw in half a cup of sugar (the recipe suggested more but I wanted to err on the side of too little rather than too much) and squeezed in half a lemon (half of what the recipe called for but was still too much as there’s a lot of natural pectin—and sourness—in crab apples).

I then cooked it—in a wide pan—on a medium high heat until the fruit boiled for about 10 minutes and was thick in consistency. Towards the end I added some shakes of some ground cinnamon (this blog post from Northwest Edible Life has a great flavor guide on what spices to add to enhance jam). Then, once it was finished cooking, I pureed the jam with an immersion blender to make it a bit smoother and break up the skins better. And that’s it! I filled up a big jar with jam and put it in the refrigerator (I didn’t glean enough to consider the challenges of true canning—but put most in the refrigerator and froze a bit for later. As I can already attest, the jam is perfect for toast, pancakes, or even straight from the jar. Enjoy!

Step By Step (for next time I make it):

cooking fruit1) Glean a few pounds of fruit

2) Wash fruit

3) Cut fruit into small pieces removing damaged bits (or grate in the case of really small fruits)

4) Put in pan and add 1/3rd cup of sugar and mash with a potato masher

5) Squeeze in a quarter of a lemon

6) Bring to boil on a medium heat and boil for about 10 minutes (until a thick jam-like consistency is achieved)

7) Add cinnamon (or other preferred spices) while jam is boiling

8) Let cool and put into jar. Enjoy!

 July 18, 2015  Posted by on July 18, 2015 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
 
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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 »
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.

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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 042013
 

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Tent city at University Congregational United Church of Christ, October 2010. (Photo by Jenna Montgomery)

As the human economy moves back within the limits of Earth’s systems—whether through proactive degrowth or unplanned economic contraction—the residential housing market in overdeveloped countries like the United States will surely evolve.

Without planning it could take a similar tack as the former Soviet Union, where the poor were priced out of the increasingly valuable urban core. Or it could look more like Las Vegas or Phoenix during the housing crisis, where people just walked away from mortgages that were suddenly larger than the worth of their homes. Second homes could be abandoned, larger homes traded for smaller manageable homes, and the poorest could end up in tent cities like the one documented in Tent City U.S.A.

But hopefully, instead, we’ll work now to make residential neighborhoods denser so that they don’t become unnavigable without cars and cheap gasoline. What strategies could we use to do so? Should we work to add additional generations into family homes, or perhaps build smaller rental homes in backyards like many towns and cities in the Pacific Northwest are doing? Clearly not an either/or strategy. I explore both possibilities in a new Guardian Sustainable Business blog. Read more there.

 December 4, 2013  Posted by on December 4, 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 »
Nov 072013
 
Ayhan going to do the laundry

Ayhan going to do the laundry

The Amish supposedly have a saying that children should ‘break even’ by age 7, contributing as much to the household as they’re getting out of it. That’s a great saying, and certainly my hope with my son Ayhan (now 17 months old).

Just because my son is young doesn’t mean he should be treated like a receptacle of entertainment—given ever more stuff (toys, TV shows, toxic snacks) to keep him pacified. The concept of child as consumer is a recent and modern concept that will be dismantled as soon as the excessive wealth is squeezed out of the system and households need children to be active participants once again. (More on the artificiality of modern childhood another time. For now check out this New York Times article.)

So with that in my mind, my wife and I have been training Ayhan from the day he learned to walk to start helping with chores. So far he sweeps, helps picks up his toys (and often then dumps them back out again—that’s the fun part after all), helps to load and hang laundry, wipes down the table with a sponge, and pretends to cook. He even tried his hand at vacuuming recently! Hopefully one day he’ll do all of these and more, contributing in a real and significant way to the functioning of our household.

Obviously I’m not advocating for the return of 12 hours a day of child labor in dangerous conditions, but active engagement in all the aspects of running the household is a valuable part of a child’s education. Plus, it can be helpful, fun (he’s enjoying chores so far at least) and provide valuable skills.

Ayhan's first experience vacuuming.

Ayhan’s first experience vacuuming.

I certainly did some chores as a kid—I still remember when my dad would wake me up early many Saturday mornings with a loud bang on my door to join him outside and help him rake leaves or whatever needed doing. But in retrospect I could have done much much more, if I hadn’t been so busy watching TV or playing video games. And I probably would have benefited from this additional work too. For example, I wish I had learned to cook when I was a kid—to the point I actually became comfortable with cooking—as that would have been very useful when I finally needed to start cooking for myself after college. And it surely would have taken a bit of the burden away from my mom. (For those of you with kids old enough to cook, here’s a good New York Times article about one mother getting her 10 and 14 year old sons cooking in the kitchen).

Enough said on this: engage your toddler with chores now before he has any sense that adults might not actually find these activities fun (this is not intuitive to kids, especially considering the frequency with which adults do chores!). It worked for my mom; she got me vacuuming young and by the time I realized I hated this activity, it was too late, it was my role in the household. I plan to do the same with Ayhan with a whole slew of chores, but hopefully my son will fully grasp how essential his role is in keeping the household running, and not just think I’m a mean old dad. And without TV and other distractions, hopefully he’ll have more time and inclination to devote to those duties, and fewer distractions to pull him away.

 November 7, 2013  Posted by on November 7, 2013 Tagged with: ,  No Responses »