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Mainely Tipping Points

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Mainely Tipping Points 27: Sprouting Awareness, Growing Change

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Mainely Tipping Points 27

SPROUTING AWARENESS:  GROWING CHANGE

 Up on Howe Hill, the paths around our house are banked by shoulder high snow.  Nevertheless, spring is coming.  Daylight is growing longer day by day and will bring an end to the quiet stillness of winter.  Sprouts will soon appear and will grow into a new covering for the earth and into new food for us to eat.  Babies will be born who will replace their parents eventually.  These seasonal cycles nourish the earth and its creatures endlessly. 

Sometimes, ideas that organize society, or paradigms, recede, like green life in winter. Now, the unsustainable market economy paradigm is breaking apart even as its proponents try to intensify their grip on it.  This paradigm is extractive, and we are running out of what can be extracted.  There are limits to what the earth can provide, and we have reached them.  There are only so many mountaintops that can be removed and dumped into valleys, only so many nutrients in the soil to be used before nature-dictated replenishment must occur, only so much oil and water to be pumped.

This exploitive paradigm is harming the earth and its creatures.  For instance, Greenpeace is circulating a petition claiming that this year one American will die every minute from cancer created by the known toxic chemicals allowed in so many of the products and foods we use or eat every day  (https://secure3.convio.net/gpeace/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=787&s_src=taf&JServSessionIdr004=i4hx4u4rh1.app331a).  The President’s Cancer Panel released in April 2010 said 41 percent of people would be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes, that children are especially at risk, and that our degraded environment is a key factor (http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualReports/index.htm).  Wiki answers says 50 percent of us will get cancer in our lifetime (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_many_people_get_cancer_in_their_lifetime).  And, Sandra Steingraber, in LIVING DOWNSTREAM, published in 1997, or 14 years ago, explained that the incidence of cancer in the United States rose 49.3 percent between 1950 and 1991 and that cancer was the leading cause of death for Americans aged thirty-five to sixty-four (40).  Cancer striking between 40 and 50 percent of the population can only be called an epidemic. 

But, what new paradigm could emerge?  We could take part in the sprouting of something wonderfully sustainable, if we, first, sprout awareness of this moment, and, then, act positively out of that awareness.  We could, as a community, become part of growing an Associative Economy paradigm based on 21st Century agrarian values that build and sustain healthy land, healthy community, a healthy economy, and healthy people.  Cooperation, not competition, is a hallmark of this new paradigm. 

Steven McFadden’s THE CALL OF THE LAND:  An Agrarian Primer for the 21st Century is a “sourcebook exploring positive pathways for food security, economic stability, environmental repair, and cultural renewal.”  McFadden lists and describes many of the individuals, organizations, and communities who are implementing models of how to live sustainably.  It’s comforting to realize that there are so many people “out there” who are working hard to make this new paradigm fully emerge.      

People are becoming Locavores, who buy food grown close to their homes; are turning their grass into vegetable gardens; are forming neighborhood cooperatives to share garden produce; are saving seeds; and are forming organizations to create change.  Communities across America are working to build regionally based, self-reliant food economies that include urban gardens, both public and private; Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) programs, including those which “share” products from multiple producers; food cooperatives, some of which are organized by farmers; school gardens and wholesome school lunch programs; land trusts that put willing young people on farms; and community commercial kitchens.  Counties across the country are creating self-reliant food systems within their borders; many of these are all organic.  In Maine, our regional coops and our small stores carrying local, often organic foods are, already, important hubs for this new paradigm as they are generating a local associative economy where farmers and consumers can meet daily on a common terrain.

McFadden, like Will Allen in THE WAR ON BUGS, addresses the justification myth created within the post World War II liaison of academia and agricultural and chemical corporations in order to foster industrial farming methods.  Termed the “green revolution,” this myth promised that it could feed the world and argued that small organic farms could not.  McFadden writes:  “But that argument has been proven wrong.  Nearly half the world’s food already comes from low-input farms of about one hectare (2.5 acres).  That scale can be worked efficiently and wisely, then progressively networked with modern technology.  Acre for acre, small, organic farms use less energy, create less pollution, offer more satisfying work, and produce more clean food from the land” (72).  McFadden notes that Iowa State University has established the nation’s first tenured organic agriculture faculty position and that some of the land grant schools are establishing sustainable agriculture programs (88).   

Paradigm change can begin with the choices we each make about what we eat.  Each choice we make is a vote.  We can vote for members of our own community, for access to clean food filled with nutrients, and for building community resilience that will support us in the, likely, difficult future we face.  Or, we can vote so that our dollars leave our community and enrich a few, already deep pockets.  We can vote for industrial food that is lacking nutrients, is grown with toxic chemicals, and that is tired and old from the polluting practice of being shipped across the country or across the world.  We are voting, then, for a splintered community where individuals have not built fully realized relationships with each other. 

Shannon Hayes, in RADICAL HOMEMAKERS, charts the historical progression that moved households from being centers of production standing alongside other such centers to being isolated units of consumption.  She discusses her family’s decision to not only question received cultural knowledge about how “to be” in the extractive economy, but to make changes that freed her family and gave it a more fully lived life—one with values strongly rooted in the health of the land.  She writes:  “What is our economy for?  Isn’t it supposed to serve everyone?  Are our families truly served by an economy where employees are overworked, where families do not have time to eat meals together, an economy that relentlessly gnaws at our dwindling ecological resources?  In David Korten’s words, a true, living economy `should be about making a living for everyone, rather than making a killing for a few lucky winners’“ (37).  (David Korten published AGENDA FOR A NEW ECONOMY in 2010 which is in my “to read” pile.) 

Shannon addresses the myth of local, organic food being unaffordable for any but the rich:  “…a farmers’ market meal made of roasted local pasture-raised chicken, baked potatoes and steamed broccoli cost less than four meals at Burger King, even when two of the meals came off the kiddie menu.  The Burger King meal had negligible nutritional value and was damaging to our health and planet.  The farmers’ market menu cost less, healed the earth, helped the local economy, was a source of bountiful nutrients for a family of four, and would leave ample leftovers for both a chicken salad and a rich chicken stock, which could then be the base for a wonderful soup.” (12).

McFadden, too, addresses this myth by quoting the legendary Vandana Shiva, physicist, environmental activist, and author:  “`The most important issue is to break the myth that safe, ecological, local, is a luxury only the rich can afford.  The planet cannot afford the additional burden of more carbon dioxide, more nitrogen oxide, more toxins in our food.  Our farmers cannot afford the economic burden of these useless toxic chemicals.  And our bodies cannot afford the bombardment of these chemicals anymore.’” (74)

Shannon makes a strong plea for restoring our lost democracy:  “When women and men choose to center their lives on their homes, creating strong family units and living in a way that honors our natural resources and local communities, they are doing more than dismantling the extractive economy and taking power away from the corporate plutocrats.  They are laying the foundation to re-democratize our society and heal our planet.  They are rebuilding the life-serving economy” (58). 

If you want to help build a sustainable, life-giving paradigm rooted in your local area, start with food.  First, insist on and buy local, organic food.  Consider joining a local CSA; shop at a local farmers’ market and at local stores carrying local food.  Second, begin asking for what you don’t find.  For me, it’s more local winter greens, please.  And, more winter farmers’ markets.  Third, buy foods in their seasons and learn to cook and to preserve some of them for the coming winter.  (Few things are as delicious in winter as tomato sauce spiked with garlic and basil, all taken from the garden on a hot August afternoon and cooked down in a bit of olive oil and frozen.)  Finally, every day, sit down and, together, eat the tasty, nourishing, clean food you have prepared.

Tipping Points 2: Winning the Cancer War

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Tipping Points 2

April 2, 2010

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Winning the Cancer War

In June 2001, my niece and godchild Catherine, at twenty-seven years of age, died.  An aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma took her down in thirteen months.  She left behind her eighteen-month old daughter; a not-yet-thirty-year-old husband; and an extended family and a network of friends who all had tried, as she had, to move heaven and earth to preserve her life. 

Catherine’s death created a black hole in the fabric of the lives of those who loved her.  And, her death was most likely a casualty of the careless, heedless pollution of the land, water, and air on the rural Eastern Shore of Virginia where she lived.  There, the commercial chicken industry grows, slaughters, and dumps waste onto the fields and into the Chesapeake Bay.  There, large commercial agriculture grows vegetables for nearby urban markets, using, of course, the full array of agricultural chemicals.   

Catherine’s cancer and death is a metaphor for what is wrong in our society.  It was not until my early forties in the 1980s that I started noticing how many people around me were dying of cancer.  How many Americans, I now wonder, have to experience the kind of horrible death Catherine endured before we wake up, stop calling cancer “normal,” and insist that the poisonous practices causing cancer be stopped? 

But, when will this BIG tipping point arrive?

Catherine’s death produced a fork in the road for me.  I could continue to live life as usual.  Or, I could realize that life is precious and sometimes much shorter than we expect, and I could answer a deep longing to return to a quieter,  rural life lived closer to the earth, to its seasons, to nature.  That’s how I got to Maine. 

And, once in Maine, some time after I passed out at her dinner table from a food reaction, my neighbor recommended I read Dr. Sandra Steingraber’s book, LIVING DOWNSTREAM.  Steingraber is a scientist (biology) and an heir to Rachael Carson, who died of lymphoma.  Steingraber’s life choices have been made from the “watchful waiting” platform of one who had bladder cancer in her twenties.  She studies, and now shares, what she has learned about cancer and the connections between cancer and environmental degradation.

Steingraber demonstrates that we have no comprehensive national cancer registry.  The National Cancer Institute (NCI) “does not attempt to record all cases of cancer in the country, but instead samples about 14 percent of the populace” (37).  This sampling comes from five states and five specific metropolitan areas and has only been in place since 1973.  Other factors further complicate this sampling:  different states collect data differently, some are years behind in analysis, and the data cannot account for people who move around the country.  Some states, like Vermont, not in the NCI registry, have only had cancer registries since 1992 (41-42). 

Regardless of this vexed statistical terrain, Steingraber says it is possible to determine that “the incidence of cancer in the United States rose 49.3 percent between 1950 and 1991,” that “40 percent of us…will contract the disease sometime within our lifespans,” and that lymphoma is one of the cancers that has “escalated over the past twenty years” (41-42).  Indeed, the cancer that killed Catherine, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is one of three cancers “ascending most swiftly in the United States,” tripling since 1950 (47, 51).  Lymphomas are “consistently associated” with the phenoxy pesticides and herbicides which are used widely on crops, lawns, gardens, timber stands, and golf courses (52).  And, lymphomas occur in higher rates in agricultural areas (52, 64-65).  

My mother died in July 2009 from the same type of cancer that killed Catherine.  She lived in rural Georgia across the road from a young peach orchard posted with scull-and-crossbones poison signs and still reeking of chemicals many weeks after spraying occurred.  Even walking down the road next to the orchard drenched our clothes with the chemical odor.  Steingraber explains that when a chemical is sprayed, “less than 0.1 percent” stays on the target; the rest, or 99.9 percent, drifts “into the general environment (179).”  So, it is logical that lymphoma cancer rates are growing.

Now, in Georgia, where once there were dozens of peach farms in every little town, only about five companies control the commercial production of peaches—which means the connection between peach growers and those who live with their poisonous practices is broken.  This kind of distance is occurring all across the terrain of food as consumers, too, are distanced from the production of their food, which allows heinous practices to occur, from the spraying of poisonous chemicals, to the torture of animals, to the production of fake foods.      

Steingraber traces the history of the shift from a carbohydrate-based economy to a petrochemical-based economy after World War II when the chemical industry needed a new use for stockpiled war-produced chemicals.   After 1945, “between 45,000 and 100,000 chemicals” came into common use and only “1.5 to 3 percent” or “1,200 to 1,500 chemicals” have ever been “tested for carcinogenicity” (99).  These petroleum-derived synthetic chemicals “easily interact” with our bodies and, thus, interfere with our life processes.  Many are soluble in fat and collect in animal tissues high in fat, like human brains, breasts, bone marrows, and livers, all of which are sites where cancer is increasing.  Additionally, many of these synthetic chemicals are often not biodegradable, so they do not decay as does organic matter.  But, they are not static:  many shed, or, “off-gas,” the “smaller, more reactive molecules from which they are made,” producing new chemicals that remain largely uninvestigated, let alone monitored or regulated.  Further, when burned, many of these substances can create new reactive chemicals, like dioxin, which is poisonous (91-100).          

In totality, American industries and we, ourselves, are, every day, putting tons of chemicals into our environment without considering the implications for humans or for the earth itself.  In the early 1990s, in Steingraber’s home state of Illinois alone, “54 million pounds of synthetic pesticides” went onto agricultural fields annually and in 1992, Illinois industries “released more than 100 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment” (5-6).  We are, Steingraber argues, “running an uncontrolled experiment using human subjects” (270)—an experiment that has had deadly consequences since the World Health Organization has concluded that “at least 80 percent of all cancer is attributable to environmental influences” (60).  Thus, cancer cells, Steingraber argues, are “made, not born” (241).    

So, cancer is NOT caused by having bad genes or not getting enough exercise.  Cancer is being caused by the cocktail we have created, which includes at least the following ingredients:  environmental poisons; fake, highly processed foods; the overuse and mixing of dangerous prescription drugs; and the stress of modern life. 

Cancer is a creature of corporatism, of unregulated industries which are not held accountable for the harm they do.  Cancer is the blowback from a society that puts profit ahead of people and individuals ahead of community.  Cancer itself is an extremely profitable industry.  Cancer is a metaphor we can and must change.

We can start by strengthening ties in our own community.  Begin buying local products from those who follow sustainable practices.     

 

Written by louisaenright

April 2, 2010 at 10:52 pm