Friday, March 05, 2010

Two New Levels of Government

Up the Neighbourhood Revolution

By John Taylor; 2010 March 05, Ala' 06, 166 BE

Structural changes would be the most effective way to allow us all live in full harmony with our environment. The problem is that many of these changes seem to cut to the jugular of the state capitalist system as we now know it.

For example, we have few if any restrictions on the chemicals that we can buy for household use. We are encouraged to buy pretty much any chemical that industry and marketers decide is profitable to them as we clean our houses and keep up land and our automobiles. When we are done with them, disposal of these exotic formulas is left entirely up to us.

The recycling and disposal of the packaging of consumer goods are relegated to the average person. Doctors prescribe drugs without any regard all for what will happen when it passes through the body and enters the environment. Predictably, traces of everything from Viagra to heroin are now detectable in lakes, rivers and our water supply.

Food is perhaps the most wasteful of all.

It has been calculated that for every salad that is eaten in Britain, two are thrown out. A system designed around convenience, it turns out, sweeps basic considerations like economy and efficiency under the rug. Nor is it so convenient. In order to be functional consumers we all have spend inordinate amounts of money, time and energy researching, shopping, comparing and purchasing, while enduring a never-ending flood of advertising.

Meanwhile, new dangers and health risks turn up every day. Most we ignore because there is little we can do about them without major changes that would be expensive and usually even more dangerous. For example, one study found that cooking smells are surprisingly toxic. What could we do about that? Even more studies suggest that the alternative, eating out in restaurants, especially fast food, is even worse for our health, for a thousand reasons, including greater chances of obesity.

Yesterday, my daughter bought in her high school a stubby can of Pepsi and took it home for her brother. Unlike most pop cans, this had the calories in it printed in large letters on the front, 100 calories. Since there are 15 calories in a spoonful of granulated sugar, there is by our calculation the equivalent of 6.66 spoonfuls of sugar in this can. And this can is half the size of a normal pop can. I had been primed for this reality by food author Michael Pollan, so I explained to the kids that this is the same as if they had taken a cup of tea and dumped almost seven spoonfuls of sugar into it. Even Tommy, who likes three teaspoonfuls in his calico tea, does not go to that excess. In fact, this can is smaller than most cups of tea, so that is a lot of sugar. She got this from her school, which I hear has a ten-year, unbreakable contract with Pepsi, who rule their whole food distribution system. No doubt, this small can, half the normal dose, and the calorie information on it, is their concession to the fact that they rule an educational institution. Finally, we are raising what is quite literally the "Pepsi generation."

Nobody in their right mind would design such a grossly unsustainable distribution system. Nor do I think that anybody ever planned that everyone be obliged to spend half their lives sifting out advertising and shopping, and the other half cutting through packaging and disposing of a mountain of plastic.

Through the years my resentment at insidious consumerism has gradually built up. I put much thought into the causes of this wasteful setup. One cause that almost always turns up is corruption. The sort of corruption that pushes even a public high school to sign their kids' lives away to Pepsi. Which is why I am writing an essay series on corruption.

What is corruption? One good definition is this: a tendency to divide in order to conquer. This is why consumerism and other corrupting philosophies treat us completely as individuals. They do that to ensure that we wallow in our own limited time horizon. Extreme individualism is the unspoken philosophy of materialism because if we gather together and consider longer term matters, we would threaten the economic dominance of the few. A ten-year contract is enough to break the limited time horizon of every individual who might sporadically oppose their plans.

In a long conversation with one of the most environmentally activist teachers in my daughter's high school, I suggested for their food concession what would have seemed obvious a hundred and fifty years ago -- educational reformers like Booker T. Washington did it routinely. Just set up gardens in their courtyard and on the flat roof of the school. Incorporate gardening into the curriculum and have the kids eat what they grow in the cafeteria. It would save money for everybody, the food would be local, far more healthful, better for the environment, less packaging, and on and on. No way. There is a contract with Pepsi.

My friend the teacher and a local doctor have set up an innovative program designed to involve students in changes like this. They have sponsored a film series, including one I attended called "Food, Inc." Tomaso watched it with me, and it disgusted him so much that he has decided to become a vegetarian like me and his sister; I advised him to wait a couple of years until he is twelve or thirteen for that, though, and he agreed. I hear this group are even starting a program for cooperative community gardens, which is a very good idea. But the problem is that, just like short-sighted politicians, with the best will in the world the students are restricted by the limited amount that they can do in the brief time they attend the school. A maximum four years of involvement before they leave.

The solution to all this that I have been advocating on the Badi' blog I call hillside housing. It would give families and households a leading role. Since the family is by nature more concerned with both past and present than individuals are, I think it would enable projects to succeed like the locally-supplied cafeteria idea suggested earlier. It would also rid us of other dangers that I mentioned above.

For example, cooking fumes. A basic aspect of hillside house is the use of communal kitchens; here local gardens would supply the food, local talent the labour and meals ready to eat are distributed at mealtime to local dinner plates. Since the cooking is done in a central kitchen, the fumes would be disposed of safely, and local households would save the space usually devoted to a kitchen. Other ills of commercialism would also be relieved. A local purchasing committee would do the shopping for hundreds of local residents, saving them untold hours comparing, researching and buying food. This time could be invested in volunteer work in the local garden or kitchen. Gardening especially is so fulfilling that it, by all reports, it also saves on fees for gymnasiums and psychotherapists.

Hillside housing kitchens would also eliminate the problem of unregulated cleaning products, drugs and other chemicals entering the environment. All cleaning can be done under professional supervision using best practices. Myself, when I look at the shelves full of cleaning products being foisted on the public, I wonder, what happened to vinegar? It cleans better than most of them and is benign to our surroundings. There should be a good reason and a license to use such powerful concoctions.

As a large, communally-run coop, a hillside housing development would have the means to hire a nutritionist to control and supervise everybody's diet in the neighbourhood. Local doctors can monitor both diet and exercise, since as is well known many, if not most, of the ills that prompt people to take medications and ingest controlled substances are the result of poor diet, lack of exercise and meaningful contact with nature.

All of this can be tweaked in a properly designed neighbourhood.

One study found that patients in a hospital recover far quicker when they are exposed to a beautiful, natural setting with trees and other plants surrounding them. So locate in every neighbourhood, even those without full-scale hospitals, a tranquil place in a natural setting for therapy and quiet reflection. One effect, few people on drugs. Although the therapy area would be separate, there are also good reasons to locate louder, more boisterous recreational activities in local woods. Another study in England suggested that a walk in the forest can be more effective for some than antidepressants.

Places of worship in a hillside housing development would earn there keep (that is, their tax exemptions) by seeing to it that all residents have access to their facilities at certain times. This is because regular exposure to holy places also has a highly effective therapeutic effect for many.

In a hillside housing development farmers and gardeners would have more power over decisions about land use than any other profession, except perhaps doctors and teachers. These big three professions would choose representatives from among their ranks to work with local families to be sure that the health of local residents is optimal. This committee would also have the right to restrict the chemicals that enter the area, for any purpose whatsoever. This revolutionary power shift would end the hegemony of drug companies who, at present, dictate our medications without reference to what happens to as the drugs enter the environment. The same goes for the corporate decision that we endure mountains of packaging for their convenience. If they want to sell to a neighbourhood or family, they will just have to make sure that it comes in an environmentally acceptable cover.


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