Hope and cynicism and Barack Obama

As readers of this blog know, I tend to follow politics fairly closely. I have done so for as long as I can remember. In Sri Lanka, politics was our national pastime and you could always strike up a good political discussion almost anywhere, and it was easy to become a political junkie.

As I have got older, my feelings about politics have become more ambivalent, a mixture of hope and cynicism. My hope has arisen from my increased awareness that most people seek justice and fairness at a very fundamental level and so I have always been in favor of efforts to increase participation. The more that ordinary people get involved in politics, the broader the participation, the more likely we are to have good results in the long run.

This does not mean that in the short run people will not make terrible decisions. We are, after all, the products of our history and upbringing and carry with us all kinds of relics of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other prejudices that will influence people in negative ways. Those factors can subvert the underlying drive for fairness.

While my sense of hope springs from a belief in the essential desire for fairness that people have, my cynicism comes from awareness that the structures of politics are designed to shut ordinary people out from any meaningful decision-making, reserving it for an elite and wealthy group that will serve its own interests, while preserving merely the façade of democracy. The way that is being done in the US is by making the election process so complicated and expensive, and the decision-making processes so obscure and arcane, that only those who have deep financial resources can hope to devote the time and energy to influence policies. These elite groups want to make change hard to achieve unless it serves their own interests, and they have largely succeeded.

But despite the odds, significant changes do occur and have occurred. We have seen the end of slavery, increasing rights for women, and major civil rights victories. We have seen the elimination of child labor, the right to unionize, the introduction of the 40-hour week, and more protections for the health and safety of workers. All these were important.

There are three major areas where I think we are on the verge of major changes for the better, although there are still obstacles facing us. These changes will come about irrespective of who gets elected to what position, though those elections can affect the speed of developments.

One is the fight for universal, single-payer health care. (For my previous posts on this, see here.) This will definitely come about fairly soon, though I do not know exactly when. The present system is too unfair, wasteful, corrupt, inefficient, exasperating, and infuriating to not collapse under its own contradictions. What both candidates are currently proposing are like plugging holes in a dike, short-term fixes to preserve the unseemly profits of the health insurance companies, pharmaceutical industry, and some health professionals. It will not last.

The second is equal rights for gays. This, I believe, will come very soon. The now routine and bland acceptance of gay people in most communities, the lack of controversy about gay marriage in Massachusetts, and the likely defeat of the anti-gay marriage referendum in California, are all signals that we are seeing the final gasp of homophobia.

The third is greater concern for the global environment and health. Those who think that we can treat our environment and ecosystem cavalierly are increasingly being seen as religious or free-market extremists.

Why do I think these things will happen, even though they are all currently opposed by entrenched influential and powerful groups? Because those issues are on the right side of history and such issues always win in the end.

As readers know, I do not expect much from Barack Obama as president. I expect him to be a cautious and centrist leader, careful not to rock the boat, someone who will follow the largely pro-war, pro-business agenda adopted by the current one-party/two-factions system. This is not necessarily a reflection on his personal beliefs. People from under-represented groups (such as women or minorities) who are the first to achieve prominent positions always carry the extra burden of having to prove their competence. Failure will not be interpreted as an individual thing (as is the case with that of a member from the majority group) but as their entire group members being incapable of the task. In order to not ruin things for those who follow them, such people become conventional, ultra-cautious, and risk-averse.

But at the same time, I expect Obama to be thoughtful and informed and intelligent in his decision-making, and much better than John McCain, who strikes me as a reckless and hot-headed warmonger in the Bush mold, completely under the baleful influence of the neoconservatives. Somehow I cannot see Obama doing anything rash or stupid or dangerous, the way McCain might. In fact, it will be a real relief to have a president who will act with the dignity that the office deserves.

The absurd charge that the Republicans are trying to make that Obama is ‘elitist’ is really a charge that he is too cerebral, and that what we need is someone who talks tough and makes decisions based on his ‘gut’, like the present incumbent, the worst president ever. We need to educate the public that it is not a weakness to take the advice of Carl Sagan who said, “I try not to think with my gut. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.”

Although I rarely watch highly scripted political events, I made it a point to watch Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. It was a powerful one, extremely well delivered. I could appreciate the excellent craftsmanship that went into it and his rhetorical skill even as I disagreed with some points, especially concerning foreign policy.

There is no denying that in seeing a black person accepting the presidential nomination of a major party, something very significant was happening, a pivotal moment, and one that I am glad to have witnessed personally.

It aroused in me strong emotions similar to the ones I felt when Nelson Mandela was released from his South African prison in 1990, a sense that I was witnessing an important and uplifting moment in history. At that time, I had my daughters (then just 6 and 3 years old) sit on the sofa and watch with me, telling them I wanted them to be able to say later that they saw it, even though they did not understand the significance then.

All the major positive changes I described above had to be fought for and obtained against strong vested interests. But once achieved, such changes are irreversible. And Obama’s nomination and, I hope, victory in November will be another major irreversible step in America putting behind its ugly racial history.

Come November I will be voting for Barack Obama but not because he is black. I will be voting for him because he is by far the better candidate of the two major parties.

But I will be taking extra pride in that vote because I will feel that I am contributing to a positive and irreversible change in history.

POST SCRIPT: Race in American politics

There is no doubt in my mind that this presidential campaign is going to be ugly with race forming an unpleasant subtext. Yesterday Terry Gross of Fresh Air had an excellent and thoughtful discussion with political scientist and author Mark Q. Sawyer who runs the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics at UCLA, on the role of race in American politics with reference to Barack Obama’s candidacy and what a tightrope he has to walk.

It is well worth listening to.

The politics of food-6: Corn and obesity

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

The abundance of corn has made the economics of food shift towards unhealthier foods. If you have a limited budget, you can buy more calories based on corn-based fast-food products that you can from healthier foods. $1 buys 1,200 calories from potato chips and cookies vs. 250 calories from whole foods like carrots; 875 calories from soda vs. 170 calories from fruit juice from concentrate. (p. 108) Is it any wonder that poorer people, in order to feel satiated, are more likely to eat potato chips and follow it up with a soda than they are to eat carrots and follow it up with juice, since the cost of a calorie is five times as much for the latter meal?

In fact, an article published in the January 2004 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Dr. Adam Drewnowski (director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition in the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine) and Dr. S.E. Specter (research nutrition scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, Calif.) reports that the correlation of obesity with income levels is striking. Unlike in the developing world where obesity is often the result of wealthy people eating a lot of rich and fancy food, in the US, obesity afflicts a lot of poor people trying to save money on food.

The study says that:

Energy-dense foods not only provide more calories per unit weight, but can provide more empty calories per unit cost. These foods include French fries, soft drinks, candy, cookies, deep-fried meats and other fatty, sugary and salty items. The review shows that attempting to reduce food spending tends to drive families toward more refined grains, added sugars and added fats. Previous studies have shown that energy-dense foods may fail to trigger physiological satiety mechanisms – the internal signals that enough food has been consumed. These failed signals lead to overeating and overweight. Paradoxically, trying to save money on food may be a factor in the current obesity epidemic.

What are ‘empty calories’? This Wikipedia article explains:

Empty calories, in casual dietary terminology, are calories present in high-energy foods with poor nutritional profiles, typically from processed carbohydrates or fats. An “empty calorie” has the same energy content of any other calorie but lacks accompanying micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, or amino acids as well as fiber as found in whole grains but less so in white flour. Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, coined the term in 1972.

Generally, unnecessary calories are converted in the body to fat. However, if calorie intake is limited for the sake of reducing weight, insufficient vitamin and mineral intake may lead to malnutrition. Dieticians recommend in every case that nutrient-dense food such as fruit and vegetables be substituted for empty-calorie food.

Drewnowski adds that the drive for lower costs is replacing nutrition-rich calories with empty calories:

It’s a question of money. . . The reason healthier diets are beyond the reach of many people is that such diets cost more. On a per calorie basis, diets composed of whole grains, fish, and fresh vegetables and fruit are far more expensive than refined grains, added sugars and added fats. It’s not a question of being sensible or silly when it comes to food choices, it’s about being limited to those foods that you can afford.

As result of policies designed to produce more and more corn, corn has been on a silent and unseen rampage though our diet, resulting in a whole host of undesirable effects. The massive output of corn has led to the “rise of factory farms and the industrialization of our food, to the epidemic of obesity and prevalence of food poisoning in America.” (p. 62) Since the explosive growth of corn production and cheap food containing mostly empty calories in the 1970s, obesity has risen since 1977 and the average American’s food intake has risen by 10%. (p. 102)

Since what we eat ends up being the source material that goes into creating the tissues in our own bodies, it is now possible to analyze human hair to see how much of us originates in corn. It turns out that the US diet contains so much of corn in various hidden forms that our bodies are becoming increasingly made up of tissues that originated in corn. As Professor Todd Dawson (Director of the Center for Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley) who has analyzed the corn component in food and in our bodies, says, “we North Americans look like corn chips with legs”. We have a greater component of corn in our bodies than societies like Mexico that ostensibly seem eat more corn. (p. 23)

POST SCRIPT: Nuns beauty pageant cancelled

Two days ago, I reported on an Italian priest who had organized a beauty contest for nuns to show off their looks, and asked prospective contestants to send in photos.

He now says he has had to cancel his plans because of objections from his superiors in the church. I can’t imagine why.

The politics of food-5: Tracking the corn in our food

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One of the surprising things I learned is that it is possible to track corn as it proceeds through the food chain, even as it is transformed into other things.

One thing that many people do not realize is the amount of a plant’s weight that comes from the air. If you ask people where most of a plant or tree’s mass comes from, they will likely say that it comes from the ground, absorbed through the roots. But most of a plant is carbon, and this carbon was initially in the air as carbon dioxide. During the photosynthesis process, plants absorb this carbon dioxide, retain the carbon, and release the oxygen back into the atmosphere. Some of the water the plant absorbs also comes from the water vapor in the air. Pollan says that in the case of corn, 97% of the plant comes from the air and only 3% from the ground. (p. 22)

Carbon atoms in the atmosphere contain two kinds (called isotopes) of carbon atoms: those containing a total of 12 protons and neutrons (called C-12) and a much rarer isotope that contains a total of 13 (C-13). The chemical properties of these two isotopes are almost identical so that they are usually equally likely to take part in the chemical and biological processes of life. But not always. It turns out that the photosynthesis process is one situation where they differ slightly and this enables us to distinguish the carbon in corn from the carbon in almost all other plants.

It turns out that most plants during photosynthesis create compounds that contain three carbon atoms. Such plants are called C-3 plants. But a very few plants (corn and sugar cane are examples) make compounds that contain four carbon atoms (C-4). It turns out that C-4 plants have a larger C-13/C-12 isotope ratio than C-3 plants, and this signature can be used to identify the amount of carbon in plants and animals that originate in corn (or sugar cane). Thus we can track the amount of corn-based carbon in our food. (p. 21)

The way corn has dominated our diet so that we have become a nation of corn eaters can be seen in how much of the carbon content of a typical McDonald’s meal originates in corn: soda (100%), milk shake (78%), salad dressing (65%), chicken nuggets (56%), cheeseburger (52%), and French fries (23%). (p. 117) Since one in five of all meals in America are eaten in the car (a number that I found to be disturbingly high), we can see how the corn in fast food is dominating our diet. (p. 110)

Perhaps the most telling marker of the power of corn has been the rise of the now ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup, which has become the sweetener found in almost all processed food. It is surprising to learn that high fructose corn syrup did not even exist until 1980 but now about 530 million bushels of the annual corn harvest is turned into 17.5 billion pounds of it. (p. 103)

But all this corn production and subsidies does not necessarily mean that corn farmers are raking in the dollars. It turns out that most of this money goes to the big agribusiness giants like Archer Daniel Midland (ADM) and Cargill, and food processors like Coca-Cola and Kellogg that turn the corn into finished products like high fructose corn syrup. For example, for every dollar consumers spend on eggs, 40 cents goes to the producer. But for every dollar spent on corn sweeteners, only 4 cents goes to the grower. ADM, Coca-Cola, and Kellogg get most of the rest. (p. 95)

So we have this situation where American farmers have incentives to grow as much corn as they can, while the government tries to keep the prices high, either by subsidies or by mandating the use of corn in fuels (in 2007, nearly 20% of the corn harvest went to ethanol), and food processors find ways to replace other ingredients in our food with corn-based products that can provide high profit margins.

Recently the price of corn has risen sharply but the relationship of the price of corn that the farmers get to the price we pay for food is not simple.

When there are cost shocks in the food production system due to changes in the commodity or farm product market, most retailers respond by passing on a fraction of their higher costs to consumers. Among factors affecting this pass-through rate is the level of processing and value-added services that take place between the farmgate and the grocery store aisle. Products that require more processing and packaging are usually less directly linked to changes in farm prices, while the price of less processed foods more closely follows the changes in farm prices. For example, changes in farm prices for eggs, fresh fruit, and fresh vegetables show up in more volatile retail prices for these less processed foods.

What people may not realize is that most of the cost of the food we purchase has little to do with the actual food.

For example, an 18-ounce box of corn flakes contains about 12.9 ounces of milled field corn. When field corn is priced at $2.28 per bushel (the 20-year average), the actual value of corn represented in the box of corn flakes is about 3.3 cents (1 bushel = 56 pounds). (The remainder is packaging, processing, advertising, transportation, and other costs.) At $3.40 per bushel, the average price in 2007, the value is about 4.9 cents. The 49-percent increase in corn prices would be expected to raise the price of a box of corn flakes by about 1.6 cents, or 0.5 percent, assuming no other cost increases.

So despite the dominance of corn in the food chain, the price of almost all our foods are do not fluctuate as widely as the prices that farmers get for their corn.

POST SCRIPT: Darwin talk

David Quammen, author of the biography The Reluctant Mr. Darwin will be the featured speaker at CWRU’s fall convocation at 4:30 pm in Severance Hall on Thursday, August 28, 2008.

The event is open to the public and more details can be obtained here.

The politics of food-4: The dominance of corn

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One of the things that I had not fully appreciated was how dominant corn is in our diet. Like most people, I am only rarely conscious of actually eating corn, usually during the summer months when it appears in the produce section of the supermarket or when I eat tacos. But it turns out that we all consume a vastly greater amount of corn than we perhaps realize. In fact, corn is the colossus in the American food chain, dominating everything.

To get a sense of the magnitude that corn plays in our lives, here are some numbers. The annual harvest of corn in the US is about ten billion bushels (p. 85). . One bushel of corn is defined to be 56 pounds exactly. This is for shelled corn, after the husks and cob have been removed. The number of kernels in a bushel is approximately 72,800.

The amount of corn we eat directly as corn is less than one bushel per year person or less than 3% of the total. The rest has gone into the production of beef, chicken, pork, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, snacks, citric and lactic acid, glucose, fructose, matodextrin, ethanol (for alcohol and for cars), sorbitol, mannitol, xanthan gum, MSG, etc. (p. 85, 86)

So how did we end up growing so much corn anyway?

Part of the growth in production came with the development of new hybrid seed varieties in the 1930s followed by the introduction of synthetic chemical fertilizers in the 1950s. Then in 1973 the government began establishing a ‘target price’ for corn that makes up as direct payments to the farmer for some of the difference between the target price and the sale price. The later explosive growth of corn is the direct result of this new system of farming subsidies that exists to this day and encourages farmers to grow more and more corn.

Instead of supporting farmers, the government was now subsidizing every bushel of corn a farmer could grow – and American farmers pushed to go flat out could grow a hell of a lot of corn . . . Iowa State University estimates it costs roughly $2.50 to grow a bushel of Iowa corn; in October 2005 Iowa grain elevators were paying $1.45 . . . Yet the corn keeps coming, more of it every year. (p. 53)
. . .
This is a system designed to keep production high and prices low. In fact, it’s designed to drive prices even lower, since handing farmers deficiency payments (as compared to the previous system of providing loans to support prices) encourages them to produce as much corn as they possibly can, and then dump it all on the market no matter what the price – a practice that inevitably pushes prices even lower. (p. 62)

Corn production went from a 1920 average of 20 bushels/acre to a present output of 200 bushels/acre. (p. 37) This massive production increase now placed demands on finding ways to dispose of the corn. A human being can eat about 1,500 pounds of food per year in all its forms. (p. 94) You cannot force people to eat more food, let alone more corn. The only way to increase corn consumption is to use it to replace, directly or indirectly, other things in our diet, and even in our energy supplies.

Moving that mountain of cheap corn – finding the people and animals to consume it, the cars that burn it, the new products to absorb it, and the nations to import it – has become the principal task of the industrial food system, since the supply of corn vastly exceeds the demand. (p. 62)
. . .
To help dispose of the rising mountain of cheap corn farmers were now producing, the government did everything it could to help wean cattle off grass and onto corn, by subsidizing the building of feedlots (through tax breaks) and promoting a grading system based on marbling of beef that favored corn-fed over grass-fed beef. (The government also exempted CAFOs [Confined Animal Feeding Operations] from most clean air and clean water laws.) (p. 200)

Thus the government and researchers have deliberately tried to switch the diet of cattle from grass, which they have evolved to eat, to corn, since animals can be made to grow faster on a corn diet than on grass and growing grass requires more land. As a result of this push, about 60% of the commodity corn produced in the US goes towards feeding livestock. (p. 86) Federal mandates have also pushed for corn surpluses in the form of ethanol to be used to dilute gasoline. (p. 111)

And yet, the corn keeps coming, more and more, like an overflowing dam that will eventually drown us.

Next: How corn dominates our diet.

POST SCRIPT: Beauty contest for nuns?

An Italian priest, annoyed by what he feels is the unfair negative image that nuns have, has organized a beauty contest to show off their looks and asked prospective contestants to send in photos.

But he says that they will not be required to pose in swimsuits. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Why Darwin scares people

(The text of a talk given at CWRU’s Share the Vision program on Friday, August 22, 2008 at 1:00 pm in Severance Hall. This annual program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on this year’s common reading book selection The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen.)

Welcome to Case Western Reserve University!

You are fortunate that in your first year here you are going to part of a big year-long celebration, organized by this university, to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of his groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species.

In my opinion, Darwin is the greatest scientist of all time. You have no idea how hard it is for me to say that because I am a physicist and had long thought that the only competitors for that exalted title were Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. But the more that I have learned about the theory of evolution over the last decade, the more I have to concede that Darwin has had the most impact on our thinking.

As you have heard today, the Share the Vision program at Case is part of the university’s commitment to create a welcoming and unifying environment for people from all backgrounds. Darwin’s ideas should be warmly welcomed by those who share those goals because one important implication of his work is that all of us are biologically linked because we all share common ancestors.

If any two of you in this auditorium could trace your ancestors back in time, it will not be long before you find that you share a common ancestor. In fact, we would find that everyone who lives in the world now shares at least one common ancestor who lived only as far back as around 1500 AD. So around the time of Copernicus and the Renaissance, some one was walking around who is the common ancestor of each and every one of us.

If that doesn’t boggle your mind, then listen to this. If you go back to just around 3,000 BC, of all the people who lived then, about 20% have no living descendents. Their lines died out. But the remaining 80% are the shared, common ancestors of all of us. Think about that for a minute. This is quite amazing. We are all, literally, part of one big family. We are all cousins under the skin.

It gets even better. If we go back even further, we find that we are cousins with all the nonhuman animals as well, and going back further still, with all the plants and even bacteria, all of us tracing our ancestors back to possibly a single ancestral organism. All of life that presently exists and ever existed is connected by this tree of life.

No wonder that Darwin was moved by this stupendous insight to end his book On the Origin of Species, by saying, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

But, sadly, not everyone is as delighted as I am with the idea that worms are our cousins, and that we are both part of one big family with every organism that ever lived. Those who want to believe that humans possess some unique and special quality not possessed by other animals have found Darwin’s idea deeply disturbing, and this is the source of much of the antagonism to him. Even the cautious Darwin himself, aware of this problem and the hostility it would arouse, only obliquely hinted at the linkage of humans to all other species in On the Origin of Species, leaving a full treatment to a subsequent book The Descent of Man published twelve years later.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the tree of life is not only eminently plausible, but has been put on a rigorous mathematical footing and has abundant evidence in support of it. So why does the theory still arouse such strong opposition?

The superficial answer is that Darwin’s theory goes against the religious belief that each species, and especially humans, were the result of a special act of creation by god. That idea seemed plausible at a time when it seemed obvious that every complex thing needed an even more complex designer to create it. But with Darwin, for the first time we had a scientific theory that showed how complex things could emerge from simpler things, without any outside intervention or agent or intelligence or design. Once the first primitive replicator, an early ancestor of DNA, had been created in the primeval soup, it multiplied and diverged, under the action of purely physical and algorithmic laws acting mindlessly, to eventually become the wide array of life we have now.

What is even more unnerving to some is that Darwin’s theory reaches into every aspect of existence. As philosopher Daniel Dennett says, it is like an immensely powerful acid that once created cannot be contained by any boundaries because it can eat through any wall. People first tried to restrict it to nonhuman life but it broke through that barrier. They then tried to restrict it only to the human body but it broke through that too. Darwin’s theory is now being applied to explain the origins of language and altruism and morality and other aspects of behavior, and to the workings of the brain and mind and consciousness.

Even intelligence, the feature that humanity prizes itself upon and which had been thought to be a precursor to creation, we now know occurred much later in life’s evolution and came into being as a result of the same non-intelligent, undirected, natural selection mechanism that produced our arms and legs.

There seems to be no quality that we humans possess that could not have come into existence by the evolutionary processes described by Darwin and his successors.

Darwin’s theory has extended even to what used to be considered purely philosophical questions. Paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson said that all attempts before the publication of On the Origin of Species to answer the question of what does it mean to be human were worthless and that we would be better off if we ignored them completely. Such is the significance of Darwin’s work.

People who are wedded to the idea that human beings must possess some unique, non-material, and possibly divine quality, and that there must be some externally imposed purpose to their lives and the universe are highly uncomfortable by these developments. As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says, “People desperately want Darwin to be wrong . . . because natural selection implies there is no plan to the universe, including human nature.”

But the fact that the theory of evolution causes unease for some is hardly grounds for its rejection. The test of validity of a scientific theory is not whether it is perfect or whether it explains everything or whether it makes us feel happy or satisfies some deep emotional need, but whether it works better than any of its competitors. And there is nothing that comes even close to replacing the neo-Darwinian synthesis as the explanation of life’s diversity.

As you will have read in the book, Darwin was nervous about where his ideas were taking him, even though he was increasingly convinced that he was right. He knew that in science just having a good idea isn’t enough, however beautiful the idea is. You had to have evidence to support it and to that end he doggedly spent most of his life, observing, experimenting, and collecting data from all over the world, despite ill health and recurring headaches and vomiting attacks and personal tragedy.

Since his death, the evidence in favor of his theory has increased with other revolutionary discoveries like genes and DNA and continental drift and fossils. The evidence in support of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the resulting interconnectedness of all life now exists in abundance.

This has not stopped the critics though. But they have been reduced to merely trying to find problems as yet unsolved by the theory of evolution because no alternative theory has been able to produce the kinds of evidence necessary to be taken seriously as a competitor. But as Herbert Spencer pointed out as long ago as 1891, “Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution as not being adequately supported by facts, seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.”

This year, you will all be able to be part of the Darwin celebration as eminent scientists, philosophers, and legal scholars from all over the world come to Case to discuss all the ramifications of his work. You have a unique opportunity to be part of that exciting year and I hope you take full advantage of it.

POST SCRIPT: Teaching evolution in high schools

Florida has just introduced evolution explicitly into its science standards. This story illustrates one teacher’s efforts to teach it to his high school students.

The politics of food-3: Organic illusions

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One thing the book did was rob me of much of the illusions that I had about organic food production. Somehow, I had developed a romantic idea of organic food as being produced on multi-crop family farms with animals roaming freely. This pastoral idyll can still be found, but rarely.

While most such small farms are actually more productive than the big factory farms of the industrial food system, buying food from a large number of small suppliers is too cumbersome for the big organic food supply and marketing chains. Most organic food production, by virtue of its very success and subsequent growth, has been forced to adopt many of the undesirable features of the industrial food chain, such as its creation of a monoculture system and huge energy-intensive transportation networks. Giant organic chains like Whole Foods prefer to deal with a few suppliers to meet all their needs, rather than a large number of small organic family farms. Martha Rosenberg highlights some of the awful practices of factory farms including Whole Foods.

But that small family farm image is so appealing to consumers who purchase organic food that the industrial organic system fosters what Pollan calls the ‘Supermarket Pastoral’ narrative for its produce, encouraging customers by its labeling to think that the food they are buying comes from such places, so that they would be more willing to accommodate the higher price. He describes how the eggs he bought came from ‘Judy’s Family Farm’.

The Judy’s label had always made me picture a little family farm, or maybe even a commune of back-to-the-land lesbians up in Sonoma. . . . Who could begrudge a farmer named Judy $3.59 for a dozen organic eggs she presumably has to get up at dawn each morning to gather? (p. 171)

The reality of organic farming is different from the pastoral narrative. It turns out that Judy is the name of the wife of the owner of Petaluma Poultry, a giant organic factory farm.

Pollan found that “some (certainly not all) organic milk comes from factory farms, where thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced “dry lot,” eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milk machines three times a day. The reason much of this milk is ultrapasteurized (a high heat process that damages its nutritional quality) is so that big companies like Horizon and Aurora can sell it over long distances. I discovered organic beef being raised in “organic feedlots” and organic high-fructose corn syrup.” (p. 139)

What about the “free-range chickens” label, which gives the impression that the chickens spend their time clucking happily in grassy open spaces? Pollan found that these too are often grown in factory farms where in any given facility you might find about twenty thousand chickens in large sheds that, apart from eating certified organic feed, live lives almost identical to any industrial factory farm. What allows them to be called “free range” is merely the existence of a little door in the shed that leads to a small grassy yard. But since that door is open only from the time when the chickens are about six weeks old until they are slaughtered just two weeks later, and since most chickens do not take advantage of the door to take a stroll, the labeling hardly matches the image created. (p. 140)

The reason that the chickens are not allowed or encouraged to go outside is because of fears that they will get an infection that, because they are organic, cannot be treated with antibiotics, and this is part of the problem with trying to grow organic food within the framework of the large scale industrial production model.

Maintaining a single-species animal farm on an industrial scale isn’t easy without pharmaceuticals and pesticides. Indeed, that’s why these chemicals were invented in the first place, to keep shaky monocultures from collapsing. Sometimes the large-scale organic farmer looks like someone trying to practice industrial agriculture with one hand tied behind his back. (p. 221)

So while the industrial organic farms are undoubtedly better than their non-organic counterparts, the best solution to these unavoidable problems of both industrial models is the sustainable mixed farm that supplies food locally. Pollan argues that we should seek to buy our food from farms practicing such sustainable agriculture because it benefits all of us in many ways.

[T]here are good reasons to think a genuinely local agriculture will tend to be a more sustainable agriculture. For one thing, it is much less likely to rely on monoculture, the original sin from which almost every other problem of our food system flows. A farmer dependent on a local market will, perforce, need to grow a wide variety of things rather that specialize in the one or two plants of animals that the national market (organic or otherwise) would ask from him. (p. 258)

Until I read Pollan’s book, I had not fully appreciated the negative aspects of monocultural farming. It arose with the use of chemical fertilizers on crops and new hybrid varieties that enabled farmers to get huge yields out of a single crop.

The extensive production and use of chemical agricultural fertilizers began right after World War II when the US found itself saddled with huge surpluses of ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient of explosives, and the factories to produce it. Shifting its use to crop fertilizer provided new uses for the product and a way to keep the production factories running. “The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes.” (p. 41)

Next: How we all became walking corn chips

POST SCRIPT: Social Security

Many people have been frightened into thinking that Social Security is going bankrupt soon. This article from the Economic Policy Institute argues that these dire predictions are overblown and that young people have little to fear.

The politics of food-2: The benefits of sustainable farming

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

The previous post examined the four kinds of food production systems in existence.

The sustainable farm model is easily the best one for animals, people, and the environment, and if widely adopted could have hugely beneficial effects on us all in many ways. But unfortunately it is very rarely found in practice. This is partly because the cost of the food produced this way is more (though not a lot more) than that produced by the industrial food chain. This discourages many consumers who have been conditioned to think of price as the determining factor when making food choices. In supermarkets, the only information we are usually given is the price, weight, and price per unit weight, not under what conditions the food was produced, so we have no basis for comparison other than price.

Another reason that such farms are not more widespread is that they cannot be scaled up easily to meet changing demands. In the industrial farm model, if the demand for eggs (say) goes up, one simply builds new coops, purchases more chickens and chicken feed, and thus produces more eggs. But sustainable farms, because of the interdependence of the various components, cannot simply change one of the components in the cycle. As a result, such farms tend to be smaller and cater to a limited number and geographical range of customers.

A third reason for the relative scarcity of sustainable farm practices is that because it supplies just a limited geographical range, the food it produces is largely seasonal and determined by the climate of that region. But we have become accustomed to treating as a right to have whatever food we want all year around, even if it involves having grapes in winter. This results in creating vast international transportation networks to airlift and truck huge quantities of food from place to place, which consumes huge amounts of energy resources.

The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do). Today it takes between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate . . . All told, growing food organically uses about a third less fossil fuel than growing it conventionally . . . though that savings disappears if the compost is not produced on site nearby. (p. 183)

The claim can be made that the price of food produced by sustainable farm practices, although higher, reflects the actual cost of food. In the industrial food chain, the direct cost to the consumer is lower but there are uncalculated indirect costs to society due to the damage it does to the environment and to the health of the consumers. So what we save as individuals in the supermarkets, we pay collectively as a society in health and cleanup costs.

As sustainable farmer Joel Salatin says: “[W]ith our food all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water – all of the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap.” He says that the choice for consumers is simple: “You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.” (p. 243)

But there is another important reason that the kind of sustainable farming practiced by Salatin does not get much support. It does not feed an economic mindset that advocates consumption:

It isn’t hard to see why there isn’t much support for the sort of low-capital, thought-intensive farming Joel Salatin practices: He buys next to nothing. When a livestock farmer is willing to “practice complexity” – to choreograph the symbiosis of several different animals, each of which has been allowed to behave and eat as they evolved to – he will find he has little need for machinery, fertilizer, and, most strikingly, chemicals. He finds he has no sanitation problem or any of the diseases that result from raising a single animal in a crowded monoculture and then feeding it things it wasn’t designed to eat. This is perhaps the greatest efficiency of a farm treated as a biological system: health.

I was struck by the fact that for Joel abjuring agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals is not so much a goal of his farming, as it so often is in organic agriculture, as it is an indication that his farm is functioning well. “In nature health is the default,” he pointed out. “Most of the time pests and disease are just nature’s way of telling the farmer he’s doing something wrong.” (p. 221)

For those of us who prize conservation, this lack of need for outside inputs is a good thing. But in our present society of warped values which urges people to consume more and more, a sustainable farm in which most of the input comes from the energy of the sun does not ‘stimulate the economy’. All it does is produce healthy food and protect the environment, and ‘the market’ does not value such things.

POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher on Larry King Live

Discussing politics and religion:

The politics of food-1: The four food production systems

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

The series of posts on the ethics of food was triggered by a remarkable book that I recently read that caused me to re-think the whole question of my relationship to the food that I eat. Food was not something that I had thought much of before. I am not a gourmet by any means, and food for me is an incidental item in my life, not one that looms large.

But Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) has made me see food in a whole new light and raised some interesting new issues that I had not considered deeply before. It made me realize that what I choose to buy and eat is, whether I like it or not, a deeply political act and that I should pay more attention to it. The book gives a fascinating account of the role of food with all its full political, economic, and moral complexity. The next series of posts will examine some of these issues.

Pollan examines four different food supply systems. The first is what he calls the industrial food chain, which is the source of most of the food that is available in the developed world. This food is produced by large factory farms and distributed nationwide (and even worldwide) and is based on an assembly-line model. It seeks to produce large quantities of food at minimum direct cost to the producer, and considerations of the negative impacts on the environment, the health of the consumer, and animal welfare are of minimal concern, except insofar as it affects the image of the company and the profitability of the enterprise. It encourages monoculture farming, where each farm specializes in a single crop or product, and keeps its animals in cramped conditions in large pens called feedlots.

Then we have the organic food chain. Although it is definitely an improvement on the industrial food chain, a major part of it can better be described as the industrial organic food chain, since it very much resembles the industrial food chain in many of its features. The organic food supply chain is dominated by large companies like Whole Foods that have adopted the assembly line model of its non-organic sibling. Its main improvement, and it is a big one, is the absence of pesticide use on its crops and not giving growth hormones or antibiotics to its animals.

A third system described by Pollan is based on the forager model, where one lives off the land, eating only those plants that can be found growing wild in nature, only the fish that one catches oneself, and only meat from wild animals that one personally kills. Of course, this lifestyle is not feasible for most of us (I personally would not last in the wild for more than a couple of days) and this part of the book seemed like a romantic conceit on the part of the author, trying to recreate the experience of our hunter-gatherer past. It is not a viable model nowadays and I will not discuss it further.

The last model is the sustainable farming model, These farms are carefully planned, mixed systems, which grow a variety of crops and animals, and can best be described as creating a closed system whereby the ‘waste’ products of the plants that are grown (the parts that humans don’t eat) are fed to animals and the ‘waste’ products of animals are fed into the soil as fertilizer, thus eliminating the waste problem and reducing the need for external inputs. (I will describe how this works in more detail later).

As a result, one has a cycle that very much resembles what occurs in nature. This contrasts with the largely monocultural industrial farm model (both organic and non-organic) where one has to obtain animal feed and fertilizer from outside to grow the food, and then find ways to dispose of the huge quantity of waste that is produced.

Raising animals on old-fashioned mixed farms . . . used to make simple biological sense: You can feed them the waste products of your crops, and you can feed their waste products to your crops. In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological lop – what in retrospect you might call a solution. One of the most striking things animal feedlots do (to paraphrase Wendell Berry) is to take this elegant solution and neatly divide it into two new problems: a fertilizer problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical fertilizers) and a waste problem on the feedlot (which seldom is remedied at all). (p. 67)

So given all these benefits, why are sustainable farming practices not more widespread?

POST SCRIPT: Sunday Morning Coming Down

The late, great Johnny Cash singing one of my favorite songs.

The South Ossetia/Kosovo parallel

The more accurate parallel for what is happening in South Ossetia is not Iraq but Kosovo.

But mention of Kosovo is largely absent from the current discussions because the parallel between what happened there and what is happening in South Ossetia undercuts the basis for the west’s anger at Russia. So Kosovo must be made to disappear. As Aldous Huxley said, “Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth. By simply not mentioning certain subjects… totalitarian propagandists have influenced opinion much more effectively than they could have by the most eloquent denunciations.” Justin Raimondo, in an essay that traces the origins and resurgence of Russophobia says that “Official censorship simply isn’t necessary in the West, because everyone knows what to say – and, more importantly, what not to say.

John Pilger looks back at the propaganda that was used to justify the military action against Serbia by NATO forces.

Yugoslavia was a uniquely independent and multi-ethnic, if imperfect, federation that stood as a political and economic bridge in the Cold War. This was not acceptable to the expanding European Community, especially newly united Germany, which had begun a drive east to dominate its “natural market” in the Yugoslav provinces of Croatia and Slovenia. By the time the Europeans met at Maastricht in 1991, a secret deal had been struck; Germany recognized Croatia, and Yugoslavia was doomed. In Washington, the U.S. ensured that the struggling Yugoslav economy was denied World Bank loans and the defunct NATO was reinvented as an enforcer. At a 1999 Kosovo “peace” conference in France, the Serbs were told to accept occupation by NATO forces and a market economy, or be bombed into submission. It was the perfect precursor to the bloodbaths in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The warmongers in the Clinton administration (many of whom are now resurfacing in the Obama campaign and Democratic leadership and trying to pretend they are antiwar) were the ones who, along with NATO and the European Union, destroyed Yugoslavia with a merciless bombing campaign that killed and displaced thousands of people and led to the carving out of Kosovo as a separate state.

George Friedman, the head of Stratfor, a private intelligence company, explains on NPR why Russia’s use of force to separate South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia can be justified by them using the same arguments used by NATO to separate the province of Kosovo from Serbia, which was trumpeted by then President Clinton and the western media as the moral thing to do.

In February 2008 George Szamuely described in detail the way that Kosovo was carved out as a separate state, and said that Russia had warned where this was leading.

Unlike 2003, however, the Russians this time have a card up their sleeves. If Kosovo is to be permitted to secede, the Russians have argued, then why not other nationalities or ethnic groups living as minorities within someone else’s state? As examples, President Vladimir Putin pointed to South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. But he could have mentioned innumerable others: the Hungarians in Slovakia and Rumania, the Basques and Catalans in Spain, Corsicans in France, the Flemish in Belgium, Russians in Estonia and Latvia, the Turkish Cypriots.
. . .
The West’s entire approach to Kosovo has been marked by sordid dishonesty and bad faith, supporting national self-determination and the right to secession in one place and territorial integrity in another, cheering on ethnic cleansing by one ethnic group and demanding war crimes trials for another, trumpeting the virtues of majority rule when it’s convenient to do so and threatening to impose sanctions and penalties on majorities when that’s convenient.

Paul Craig Roberts argues that the warmongers in the US are urging that the US make a strong response to Russia’s actions (i.e., use force) although it is obvious to the rest of the world that the US simply no longer has the military, diplomatic, economic, or moral power to do any such thing. All it can do is bluster.

(As a digression, I came across the truly excellent news website Antiwar.com, an indispensable source for world news and analysis, during the campaign for the NATO war against Serbia. I was disgusted with the cheerleading for that war and tried to find more balanced news sources and came across the site which was started in 1995 to oppose that Clinton war. Since then, Antiwar.com has been consistently trying to expose the propaganda of both Democratic and Republican warmongers. The people behind the site can briefly be described as principled libertarian-paleoconservatives and they are refreshingly open to a spectrum of views across the ideological spectrum. The site is currently holding a fundraiser. Please donate something if you can.)

POST SCRIPT: Escape clauses

It is left to the comedy shows to highlight the verbal contortions currently on display in the US response to the conflict in South Ossetia as a result of trying to find an argument that condemns the Russian action while not automatically condemning similar US actions.

The Daily Show has a clip of US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad trying to dance the dance. He says that “The days of overthrowing leaders by military means in Europe, those days are gone.”

So that’s why the invasion of Iraq by the US is good and the invasion of Georgia by Russia is bad. It depends on where it happens.

But then what about Kosovo? That was in Europe. But since that was in the 1990s, a formula has been found: What is wrong is invading other countries in Europe in the 21st century. Yes, that it.

But John McCain, gung-ho supporter of the Iraq invasion, tends to get confused and forgot to add the vital in Europe clause, saying stupidly that “In the 21st century nations don’t invade other nations.”

The fact that Bush, Rice, McCain, and the neoconservative and other warmongers are not ridiculed for these obviously contradictory and self-serving justifications is a telling indication of the subservience of the mainstream media to the government line.

The conflict in South Ossetia

The coverage of the conflict between Russia and Georgia over the region known as South Ossetia reveals once again the reflexive adoption by the US media of the perspective of the US government and its pro-war supporters in its reporting of the events.

Having completely abandoned any semblance of allegiance to principles of international law and morality in its invasion of Iraq, the US government is now scrambling to find a basis to condemn Russia’s military actions while excusing its own similar actions. In this they are aided by the collective and convenient amnesia of reporters who obligingly don’t ask awkward questions about obvious historic parallels.

It is not necessarily the case that journalists are deliberately and knowingly distorting the facts, although some do. What is the case is that they have internalized the tacit understanding that all foreign policy issues have to be understood in such a way that the US government’s actions are viewed as good and those of the enemy country are bad. Once you have accepted that framing, it requires you to view the US government as at most guilty of ‘mistakes’ or ‘bad tactics’ or even incompetence, but never of bad intentions. Bad intentions are the exclusive domain of whoever the enemy du jour is. To think and say otherwise is to commit career suicide, as far as the mainstream media goes. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The task of exposing this hypocrisy is left largely to the alternative media and comedians. As Robert Parry points out:

Apparently, context is everything. So, the United States attacking Grenada or Nicaragua or Panama or Iraq or Serbia is justified even if the reasons sometimes don’t hold water or don’t hold up before the United Nations, The Hague or other institutions of international law.

However, when Russia attacks Georgia in a border dispute over Georgia’s determination to throttle secession movements in two semi-autonomous regions, everyone must agree that Georgia’s sovereignty is sacrosanct and Russia must be condemned.

U.S. newspapers, such as the New York Times, see nothing risible about publishing a statement from President George W. Bush declaring that “Georgia is a sovereign nation and its territorial integrity must be respected.”

No one points out that Bush should have zero standing enunciating such a principle. Iraq also was a sovereign nation, but Bush invaded it under false pretenses, demolished its army, overthrew its government and then conducted a lengthy military occupation resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
. . .
On Monday, the Washington Post’s neoconservative editorial writers published their own editorial excoriating Russia, along with two op-eds, one by neocon theorist Robert Kagan and another co-authored by Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke.

All three – the Post editorial board, Kagan and Holbrooke – were gung-ho for invading Iraq, but now find the idea of Russia attacking the sovereign nation of Georgia inexcusable, even if Georgia’s leaders in Tblisi may have provoked the conflict with an offensive against separatists in South Ossetia along the Russian border.

“Whatever mistakes Tblisi has made, they cannot justify Russia’s actions,” Holbrooke and his co-author Ronald D. Asmus wrote. “Moscow has invaded a neighbor, an illegal act of aggression that violates the U.N. Charter and fundamental principles of cooperation and security in Europe.”

As far as most of the world is concerned, the US has lost all credibility when it comes to appealing to international law. They have not forgotten all the lies that have justified past US military invasions. In fact, those policies have encouraged the emergence of a lawless world in which any regional power can feel comfortable asserting its will militarily over its neighbors.

This article that appeared in the Russian newspaper Pravda illustrates the contempt in which Bush is held. It repeatedly tells Bush to ‘shut up’, language which the US media gleefully approved of when Spain’s King Juan Carlos used it against current US enemy Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. The article justifies the Russian actions in South Ossetia using almost the exact words used to justify the US invasion of Iraq:

Do you really think anyone gives any importance whatsoever to your words after 8 years of your criminal and murderous regime and policies? Do you really believe you have any moral ground whatsoever and do you really imagine there is a single human being anywhere on this planet who does not stick up his middle finger every time you appear on a TV screen?
. . .
Do you really believe you have the right to give any opinion or advice after Abu Ghraib? After Guantanamo? After the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens? After the torture by CIA operatives?
. . .
Suppose Russia for instance declares that Georgia has weapons of mass destruction? And that Russia knows where these WMD are, namely in Tblisi and Poti and north, south, east and west of there? And that it must be true because there is “magnificent foreign intelligence” such as satellite photos of milk powder factories and baby cereals producing chemical weapons and which are currently being “driven around the country in vehicles”? Suppose Russia declares for instance that “Saakashvili stiffed the world” and it is “time for regime change”?

This is what we can expect to see in the future – the US government’s own words and actions flung back at it by every country that decides to take military action against another or abuses its prisoners or kills civilians.

Next: The South Ossetia/Kosovo parallel

POST SCRIPT: Al Jazeera coverage of South Ossetia

Al Jazeera has a interview with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvli that lasts for 15 minutes followed by four minutes of good analysis by their correspondent in Tblisi