Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Save a Cow, Save the Planet

A while ago, I suggested that obesity and wrong food production is the core to our sinking economy. It seems to have resonated with many people and I feel a need to explain myself. In the first of two articles, I want to focus first on the effects on our planet and then on our economy.

However, allow me to begin with a disclaimer: While I was vegetarian or vegan for most of my life, I am not now. It is something I struggle with regarding my own health and have been eating fish for a few years. I have also been known to eat rather than cry fowl.

It’s not just the remains of the animal dead on our plates, but the energy and resources involved putting them there. As John Vidal, a reporter for The Observer in England, and the author of the McLibel case that The Accidental Activist is based upon, once said: “It’s time to think of waste as well as taste.”

When we look for major ways to lower the impact we are having on the earth, where to cut energy, and become sustainable, eating less meat seems to be one of the clearest and most attainable. Note that I said “eating less meat” and not becoming vegetarians. Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes of the veggie movement has been this all-or-nothing approach, meaning that those not ready to make such a radical switch are likely to dismiss it.

But there is a more telling reason to cut meat consumption. With a billion hungry people and three billion more mouths to feed in the next few decades, this argument is far bigger than being nice to animals. People are dying of starvation, our planet is exhausting its ability to feed us, and we have the knowledge and technology already to turn this around.

If we really want to reduce the human impact on the environment, the simplest and cheapest thing anyone can do is to eat less meat. Vidal says: “Behind most of the joints of beef or chicken on our plates is a phenomenally wasteful, land- and energy-hungry system of farming that devastates forests, pollutes oceans, rivers, seas and air, depends on oil and coal, and is significantly responsible for climate change. The way we breed animals is now recognized by the UN, scientists, economists and politicians as giving rise to many interlinked human and ecological problems, but with 1 billion people already not having enough to eat and 3 billion more mouths to feed within 50 years, the urgency to rethink our relationship with animals is extreme.”

Millions of hectares of trees have been felled for cattle ranching in the Amazon. Photograph: Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

Vidal lists 10 environmental concerns that curbing the meat industry would help turn the situation around.

1. Global Warming

2. Land Use

3. Water Supplies

4. Deforestation

5. Waste Management and Harmful Chemicals

6. Ocean pollution

7. Air Pollution

8. Pathogens from animals making humans ill.

9. Depleting the Oil Supply

10. Other Costs – This tenth point is what I will focus on in my next post. There is so much environmental information available now, one needs to make a conscientious effort remain uninformed!

The average American consumes about 200 pounds of meat a year – that is about 1/2 lb a day assuming that everyone eats meat. We don’t. About 7.3 million Americans don’t eat meat at all, while just fewer than 23 million eat a vegetarian-inclined diet. I am not sure what this means, but I doubt they eat vegetarians who are known to be lean and bad tempered when someone sticks a fork in them.

How does this effect our economy? That’s for another post.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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The New Normal, Abnormal Weather – Roger Ingalls

I’ve been following weather related news for the past few months and it appears we’ve hit the point of obviousness. It’s painfully clear to most open-minded Americans and the International community that something is amiss. It’s not unusual to have freakish weather in some regions of the world during a defined period, but it’s extremely abnormal for almost the entire globe to experience unusual climate events simultaneously and this is what we’re now seeing.

Research weather reports from China, Europe, North & South America, Australia, India, Africa, Korea, Russia or anywhere and you’ll see change and concern. Below are some reports and articles picked up yesterday.

Today’s post has no conclusion, no solution and places no blame; it’s just meant to point out the obvious.

GRAINS-Corn extends 2-day gain to 10 pct on Midwest drought

Crops to keep baking in dry heat for 2 weeks

Grower: Door County cherry crop has all but failed

Counties Asked to Begin Damage Assessments for Livestock, Crops

Options for crops damaged by hail

Global warming will push up sea level

Global Warming Seen Lifting California Sea Level a Foot by 2030

Global warming creates 600-mile flood ‘hot spot’ along East Coast

Hurricane Debby sets records: Early-season storm a sign of things to come?

Texas grid expects to set June power record again

Record heat hampers containment of wildfires

Both Koreas suffering worst drought in a century

As drought grips Great Plains, Wyo. ranchers look to rent pasture in North Dakota for cattle

Drought help sought for farmers, ranchers

Severe drought continues in the area

 Hot weather sets records in the Dakotas

Unprecedented Drought May Have Already Led To 20,000 Deaths In North Korea Since April

Drought leaves 800,000 people thirsty in China

I have been grappling with the diet issue and will post a couple of times on this topic over the next week. I thought this was a great article to kick-off.

A Terrible Modern Man – Tom Rossi

Those of you who know me or at least know some of my writings are probably wondering who I could mean when I say, “A terrible modern man.” Could it be George Bush? Dick Cheney? Newt Gingrich? No, no, no. Those are examples of terrible government officials… and maybe even terrible human beings.

No, I’m talking about myself. I don’t seem to be well adapted to life in this period. I think I would have done better in the paleolithic.

Modern life demands certain things, like that you make money. For most of us, this isn’t so easy because we have to make enough to pay rent or a mortgage, buy decent food, pay for transportation, pay for health insurance (or save up for the inevitable leg amputation after a Tiger attack), buy clothing, take care of the kids in various ways, pay for electricity and phones, etc., etc., etc.

Life in the modern world demands that a person find some niche in which to earn a living and then concentrate on that one thing to the exclusion of all else. Most Americans (like so much of the world) have an incredibly narrow, monotonous job, doing the same task, over and over. Whether it’s welding together an endless series of pieces of metal of the same shape and size, or it’s checking over insurance applications for errors, it’s SSDD – Same S***, Different Day.

There are, of course, jobs that have lots of variety, but those represent a tiny fraction of the jobs in America and they require either a lot of specific training, a special talent, or both. This in itself means developing some ability to the exclusion of other interests.

This is what I just can’t seem to do. There are jobs out there that I would love. But I’d have to pick an area to study and train – a much more narrow area than the broad studies I’ve done so far. I have this terrible fear that, once I’ve chosen and spent much effort, I’ll find out that there’s no demand for that specialty, but if I’d just chosen something a little different, I’d be fine.

This indecision is somewhat new to me since my brain got cut open by Dr. Spetzler a few years ago. He did a miraculous job, but something like that is bound to have some lasting effects.

These days, Oprah and others are always talking about “finding your true vocation,” or something like that. But I always feel like they’re talking to people who have worked for years at a very successful career and have $250,000 in the bank.

But the thing that bothers me about the modern world is that there seems to be no room for the generalist. Plenty of scientists, economists, and policy wonks have said that generalists – broadly trained in several different disciplines and capable of synthesis between and across many areas – are exactly what’s needed, now. But I see no job announcements for these (my) types. The jobs are always for someone who has drilled down in some super-specific discipline and is a stone-cold expert in something like the effects of soil calcium concentration on the growth of orange-skinned casaba melons in northwestern Zimbabwe.

That’s what you do in graduate school – drill down. Drill down because you need to do a study that can be completed in two years, all by yourself, and then write a dissertation all by yourself too.

But real life is all about teamwork. And this isn’t just my own brand of idealism… it’s a fact. I’m a great team-player, but I find it very difficult to do the solo work that might lead to the opportunity to be on a team, someday. I find it too difficult to choose because I want to be that generalist. But generalists in science and policy are only the people at the highest levels – those who have worked their way to the top of some organization like an NGO. And because the way these individuals have been successful was to be really good at something tiny and specific, they often see their new, generalist appointment from a narrow perspective that reflects the specific discipline that they know so well.

Oh well. Maybe my future is as a contestant on Jeopardy. But I just know they’re going to get me with that damn Shakespeare category.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Hand signals – a small/huge part of changing the world!

Nice insight into the ‘human’ aspect of the Occupy movement from Peggy Chinn.There is a lesson here far beyond those demonstrating.

Peggy L Chinn

There are several things about the Occupy movement that have intrigued me over the past several months, one of which is the practice of hand signals that has developed.  These hand signals are not totally unique to “Occupy” – some of them are familiar to folks in Quaker communities, hearing impaired communities, civil rights movements, and others.  Now, because of the world-wide use of these non-verbal signals that communicate in any language, and promote group cooperation and respect, these signals have a powerful potential to influence how “business” is conducted. Here is a video explaining the basics:

Of course part of my interest in this particular aspect of the movement is related to my long-standing commitment to create ways of working in groups that are based on principles of Peace and Power.  We have used a few hand signals in these groups, with the intention of turning away from…

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Who Are My Target Audience?

I recently asked readers of my elfwriter blog to help me define a target audience, a cornerstone of any book marketing plan. It occurred to me, almost two years after The Accidental Activist was published and a few months before Unwanted Heroes, that I still fumble over what my genre is and to whom I am marketing. Transformational fiction is a good topic when I give talks, and social justice-themed novels is rather a mouthful.

Twitter has offered an interesting insight into this. When looking to grow your following, you check out people who your target audience is following. Given the content of both Left Coast Voices and my social commentary orientated novels, I have looked into the Democratic Party, President Obama and Nancy Peolsi. I have also followed a number of publishing gurus hoping to attract other writers and authors.

I once wrote an elevator pitch about my writing: I write novels that highlight social injustices with everyday characters who discover they can make a better world.

If you read this ‘genre’ of novels, please take a minute and answer the following questions in the comments below:

1. How old are you?

2. Are you male or female?

3. Where do you live?

4. Did you finish High School / Bachelors Degree / Masters Degree?

5. What is your profession?

6. Are you active on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, read and comment on blogs?

7. What do you look for in a novel?

8. Do you read books on an eReader or as a hardcover/paperback? (if both, please assign a ratio).

9. How many books do you read a month?

10. What examples have you read of social justice themed novels? Why do you remember them?

Thank you for taking the time to fill out the survey. Please pass it on to anyone you think might share our interest.

 Alon

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

It’s OK to be Food Secure – Roger Ingalls

Have you seen or read the weather reports coming from America’s heart land? Heat and lack of rain are playing havoc with the crops. The prices for corn, soybean and wheat have jumped over the past two days (5.5%, 3.6% and 3.1% respectively). This may seem like a small increase but when you consider that 70% of everything we consume uses these three commodities in some way, it is a significant jump. Hot, dry weather is expected to stay with the nation’s breadbasket for awhile which may further impact crop yields and prices.

Picture from Standeyo.com

To those who understand our so-called modern food system, it’s obvious that we, the consuming public, have lost control of the basic necessities we need to sustain ourselves. The enticement of farm subsidies has created a corporate rush to drive out traditional local farmers. We now have consolidated and centralized mega-farms all practicing similar techniques. This lack of diversity exacerbates weather related events leaving the public at risk (food shortages and high prices). In addition, food prices are no longer solely established by supply and demand. Since deregulation under the Bush administration #2, it is now legal to speculate on food commodities in ways similar to stocks, hedge funds and oil which further drives the price of food. Yes, Wall Street is now gambling on our food. Lastly, corporatized or industrial farming is fossil fuel intensive so food prices are tied to oil and natural gas.

So how do we take back control of our food? This is really an economic and marketing question. We need to develop a substitute food system with value that will motivate consumers to switch.

It just so happens that an alternate food system does exist and has been successfully implemented in an American country very close to our border. Cuba had a farming system similar to the US, Europe and other industrialized nations but they relied on imports from the Soviet Union for oil-based pesticides, natural gas based fertilizers and diesel for transportation of goods from farm to city. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba’s supply of fuel and fossil-derived chemicals dwindled to near extinction. Fortunately for the Cuban people, their government saw what was coming and developed a smart strategy to replace industrialized chemical farming. They rolled out a farming system based on biological fertilizers, biological/cultural pest control and implemented it right in the cities. Essentially, they created organic urban farming out of necessity. Here are a few amazing statistics and other information:

1)       With a workforce of approximately 4.8 million, they’ve created 350,000 new jobs.
2)       Local production of fresh vegetables increased a thousand fold, yields per square meter increased from 1.5 kilograms to 25.8 kilograms.
3)       Food production is local so transportation is eliminated, food is fresh and harvested when ripe and not chemically gassed to ripen as with industrialized farming.
4)       Diets and health of the Cuban population improved, food is nutrient rich and free from toxic petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers.
5)       Urban farmers earn more than government workers and are as respected as doctors.

By duplicating something similar to the Cuban urban farming method we can take local ownership of our food, create jobs and enjoy healthier, tastier food. Just as important, we reduce the risk of shortages and high prices by decoupling food from the oil industry and speculative gambling by financial institutions. Urban agriculture is formed on multiple locations and managed by many small companies or sole proprietors. This creates additional diversity in produce and farming methods, thereby further improving food security.

Take a few minutes and really think about this organic local food system. It’s not a backward approach; it’s scientifically progressive with a thorough understanding of biology and how a living ecosystem really works. Imagine the positive benefits this would bring to your community: healthy food growing in every available space, people working and food secure, produce businesses or co-ops within walking distance for most everyone, a thriving self-made community.

It’s OK to say no to 1940s industrialized chemical farming practices, it’s OK to say no to market manipulation by financial institutions and IT’S OK TO BE EMPOWERED!

It’s Not About The Money

When I came to the US, I was told there are three subjects you don’t broach at a dinner, party or other social gathering: politics, money and eating habits. I don’t excel in small talk. I find it difficult to hear about the health issues of someone’s (who I might not see for a few months) great aunt (who I’ve never met). I crave meaningful interactions.

I can talk sports, but not baseball or American football – English soccer or cricket anyone? And I wonder why no one talks to me at parties? I love talking politics and can pass an evening enjoyably with an intelligent person further left or right of my opinion. But apparently this is on the no-no list and might explain why I’m not invited to many parties.

I am actually interested in people’s eating habits and their efforts to lose weight and stay healthy. Of course, I spoil it by sharing that I think most of the US’s problems would be solved if the entire country turns vegan. It might be that I’ve brought politics back into the conversation, but it doesn’t help my credibility that I’m holding a smoked salmon bagel.

And then there is the subject of money. I’m not sure if the guests at this dinner party have noticed, but we are in the middle of a horrendous recession. People are losing their homes, sacrificing medical needs, and losing their dreams of retirement with honor and respect.

People are hurting and chances are they are in this room. And I want to know so that I can be supportive, so that I don’t make things worse:

– I won’t offer to take your kid to Six Flags, knowing you have to cough up $40 for a ticket.

– I won’t suggest we go to a restaurant for dinner. I’ll invite you round to my house and fry up some sweet ‘n sour tofu. I have a two-buck Chuck that goes well with it.

– I won’t share my accomplishments at work when I know you are unemployed.

– And most importantly, I want to show that I care.

It makes me wonder. Do people really know what is happening if no one is talking. Sure we read newspapers (do we?), watch political TV shows (The Daily Show, anyone?), and peruse blogs. But all we hear about here are statistics.

It might be that 10% are unemployed and 13% don’t have health insurance, but the fact that 90% do work and 83% have health insurance alienates the minority in the room. It makes them ashamed and subconscious. Perhaps they didn’t even come to the party because they couldn’t bear to face the rest of us.

Money influences everything: our health, lifestyle, and the way we perceive each other. Moreover, it influences how we define our own self-worth. We need to smash this barrier of shame. We need for those friends who are hurting to know that we want them at the party because they are good people. They are our friends and family.

 I’m not sure the answer is talking about baseball.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Rodney King is Dead. Have We Learned Anything? – Tom Rossi

Rodney King died this past Sunday, June 16, 2012. His death brought back our collective memory of the riots of 1992 in Los Angeles. It brought back, for many, memories of struggles for racial equality (or just decent treatment without fear of unwarranted violence)… struggles that are far from over.

As I watched the replays, on the news, of the riots of 1992, a few things struck me. Riots are the temper tantrum of adult society. As I’ve said before, they happen when a group of people are frustrated, wronged, oppressed even… and realistically powerless to bring about real change through “normal” civilized methods.

But why are normal, civilized methods akin to banging your head against the wall? One reason is certainly money and the cemented power-structures it protects. However, another very important reason is fragmentation. African-Americans fight for their rights, Hispanics fight for their rights, gays fight for their rights, women fight for their rights, animal lovers, Asians, poor people, the disabled, older people, etc., etc., etc.

Each of these groups says, “WE are mistreated and downtrodden! OUR group must be treated better!”

What’s wrong with this picture? It would be as if my right arm started a fight while my left arm worked the remote control for the TV. Some of this fragmentation is encouraged and even instigated by the powerful, but some is completely and independently a matter willfull choice on the part of the disenfranchised themselves.

To a large degree, the Occupy movement has been the one to finally get the picture. When I have walked among Occupy protesters, I’ve always noticed the incredible diversity in their ranks. And it’s not just so-called minorities, but a heck of a lot of white people of all ages, many with good-paying jobs (I often ask, in case you’re wondering how I know).

The occupy movement is non-exclusive. The only thing most occupiers want to kick out is violence.

What we need is to get together and demand that people be treated… well, like people! This doesn’t mean that we should spread all the wealth out evenly. It doesn’t mean, “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.” It means that one person equals one vote. It means that we are all Americans and the color of our skin means nothing. It means that we are teammates – some stronger than others, yes, but we work together and not against each other. Community is what economists call “non-rival.”

If all of these so-called minorities (women are THE majority for cryin’ out loud) join together, they would make a truly formidable team – a super-majority. But this would require a Herculean sacrifice, at least in the minds of many people. This is what I ask: stop fighting for yourself and your own, and join the fight for us all. Give up your sacred little battles that you will never win by yourselves, anyway.

Working together, people can build something much greater than the sum of each of their work done separately. We must stop these little, pointless mini-movements that get nowhere and see a common goal.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Churning Out Books in the Digital Age

The world of publishing is changing rapidly and I think, for the most part, that is good. The industry was bloated, wasteful, expensive, and an environmental disaster. The move to eBooks, the competition from those who can now publish their own works or create their own boutique publishing company, means that even the best authors need to avoid complacency.

Ready to be pulped. A shame we can’t plant them and replace the trees.

But there are inevitable side effects to this new shift.  One such phenomenon was spotlighted by Julie Bosman, in an article entitled: “Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking.” Ms. Bosman gathered any quotes from other sources mentioned in this post.

In the previous model, writing a book a year was considered impressive and many A-list authors struggled to achieve this level of creative input. Now, however, with an audience thirsting for more, and having instant accessibility with eReaders and falling prices, publishers are demanding more from their authors, often in the form of short stories, articles, novellas, and often as not, another full length novel.

It is all about presence on the Internet and publishers are demanding that their authors are out there. It is not just books, but a social media presence. Authors are expected to be on twitter, blogging, Google+, Facebook, giving interviews and blog tours.

“It used to be that once a year was a big deal,” said Lisa Scottoline, a best-selling author of thrillers. “You could saturate the market. But today the culture is a great big hungry maw, and you have to feed it.”

Ms. Scottoline is now producing two books a year, doubling her writing output, and this is often fueled by a fear that readers won’t hang around waiting for the next book, but will move on to the next author.

Publishers are often demanding short stories to be published in between novels and prior to a launch, especially when a series is being produced over several years.  Lee Child, who writes the successful Jack Reacher thriller series, publishes these short stories in digital-only format.

“Everybody’s doing a little more,” said Mr. Child, who is published by Delacorte Press, part of Random House. “It seems like we’re all running faster to stay in the same place.”

Apparently publishers have discovered that a $0.99 short story will drum up support for a new eBook at $12-15 or $25+ for a hardcover. Given the impulsiveness in eBook purchases (if you like one book by an author, you will drop $20 to buy several of their older books) providing a welcome rise in sales of earlier books.  

That can translate into higher pre-order sales for the novel and even a lift in sales of older books by the author, which are easily accessible as e-book impulse purchases for consumers with eReaders.

But where is the balance between asking for more from authors and seeing a decline in the quality or level of creativity from authors? And are we going to see more burn-out from our top authors? And, I can’t help wondering, whether this is why we are seeing a rise in ghostwriting?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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