Author Archive

Sampling the local-foods debate

A recent post, “The Eat-Local Backlash,” has stirred up some good conversation over on (thanks to BALLE for tipping me off to the blog entry). I encourage you to read both the post and the comments to sample the debate that is emerging over the local foods movement.

The author addresses specific efforts to debunk the claim that shorter distances between food and plate — “food miles” — mean fewer carbon emissions. The commenters take the discussion in numerous other directions, including whether it is better to buy local non-organic versus non-local organic or whether it is immoral to stop buying food from impoverished African farmers in favor of growing and buying locally. I agree with the guy who writes:

“I do think we’re going to be seeing more and more clashes over competing ‘goods’ (reducing carbon emissions and alleviating poverty).”

Speaking of the local-foods movement, the blog author thinks the visible criticism it is getting now in places like the Economist and NY Times is a good sign:

“Just as you’re not really famous until you’ve been rumored to be gay or on drugs, a movement hasn’t come into its own until it’s drawn a formidable entourage of detractors.”

Just getting high-profile media to openly examine the tradeoffs between localized and globalized food economies is indeed a sign of progress. I am optimistic this argument will expand into a much broader mainstream conversation around the merits of turning to local producers for not just food, but for an increasing share of all the goods and services we consume.


Global warming? No, things are just peachy in Georgia

Not to belabor my post from yesterday, but if you really want to see what a completely empty green cup looks like, check out the Georgia Legislature. While most other states are asking how they can slow or prevent climate change, a Georgia House committee this week held a hearing titled “Global Warming: Debunking the Myth or a Need for Climate Change Policy.” And the majority conclusion?

“Climate scientists and environmental activists like former Vice President Al Gore are alarmists. They use flawed statistical models to predict a catastrophic future of thawed glaciers, super-charged hurricanes, swamped coastlines and scorched crops.”

Turns out three of the four panelists invited by the Republican-led committee are among “the nation’s leading skeptics on climate-change science.” So no one could be too surprised by the testimony. As the debunkers convened in their cool majority, legislative reporters took note of Tuesday’s weather: “a 98-degree day during a record-setting heat wave.”

Friday, August 24th, 2007
Posted in Climate Change, Politics | No Comments »

The half-full, half-empty view from Oregon

Opinion makers at The Oregonian today offer differing takes on Oregon’s green reputation.

A self-described “glass-half-empty kind of guy,” columnist Steve Duin (URL unavailable) cites Oregon’s toothless Department of Environmental Quality, befouled Willamatte River and wind turbine opponents in the Columbia River Gorge. Then he concludes, “Green? Us? Please. Smug? Definitely. But as far as Oregon’s reputation as an environmental pacesetter? Way overrated.”

If Duin wants to find additional evidence for his case he need look no farther than one of his paper’s editorials today. The editorial board sees a green lining in a report by Joe Cortright. The Oregon economist dispenses with the notion that Portlanders are making financial sacrifices because of the city’s environmental protection policies. On the contrary, Portland’s economy is the richer for these policies, Cortright argues. The editorial writers like that, and — one might say, smugly — conclude, “And the other upshot — sigh — is continued stardom for Portland. It’s not easy being a green celebrity.”

I assume Duin is including Portland when he lashes out at Oregon’s “laziness and neglect” toward the environment. Portland, in particular, continues to haul in accolades across the country and globe for its green ethic. As far as Oregon overall, one of Duin’s sources laments that the state continues to “rest on our laurels.” Agree. Just look at the Willamette River. How can a so-called green state continue to tolerate such a cesspool for so long?

Still there’s no denying we’re making progress on many fronts, particularly in Portland: bicycle usage, renewable energy legislation, light rail, streetcars, green building. At the citizen level, I see widespread passion toward green issues. That’s the half-full view.

But to look through Duin’s eyes is to see that it was also the citizens who passed Measure 37, that ominous threat to our land-use laws. And you see unwillingness among state political leadership to fully fund DEQ and ensure that it enforces the environmental regulations in place.

Half full, half empty? It doesn’t really matter. In either case, the green glass is still not full. Until it’s overflowing, we can be optimistic or cranky, but not satisfied.

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007
Posted in Oregon, Politics, Sustainability | Comments Off on The half-full, half-empty view from Oregon

The ‘ism’ that rules America

Got a book you must read if, like me, you’re wondering how it is consumption came to rule our lives. Check out “An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America,” by Gary Cross, a history professor at Penn State. It isn’t exactly hot off the presses, having been published in 2000. But it’s no less relevant now, as the urgency to build a more sustainable economy grows each day.

As a long-time marketer (previously in high tech), I’m well aware that marketing, advertising, public relations and the like are big reasons why, in Cross’ words, “Consumerism was the ‘ism’ that won” in the 20th Century. But, as Cross shows, it was hardly just the power of advertising that explains why this ism prevailed.

“Consumerism,” he writes, “succeeded where other ideologies failed because it concretely expressed the cardinal political ideals of the century — liberty and democracy — and with relatively little self-destructive behavior or personal humiliation.”

Cross considers consumerism one of the “meaning systems for human life.” Among his keen observations is that 20th Century critics of mass consumption on the Left and the Right failed equally to create credible alternatives. Those on the Left who advocated simple living and downscaling “all too readily ignored the deep psychological and cultural meanings of goods.” Their counterparts on the Right, meanwhile, decried the threat to “family values” by an overly permissive consumer culture. And yet they also stood with conservative politicians (most importantly Reagan) who worshipped the free market and tore down “the walls that held back the market from seeping into every corner of the American psyche and society.”

Unlike many writers of history who would let the facts speak for themselves, Cross couldn’t resist closing with a chapter on the need to confront the social costs of unleashed consumption. He calls on the Left and Right to find common ground. “A society that reduces everything to a market inevitably divides those who can buy from those who cannot, undermining any sense of collective responsibility and with it, democracy.”

Consumerism has provided meaning for Americans unlike any other alternative system. Cross isn’t optimistic we can replace it anytime soon. Americans, he said, perfected 20th Century consumerism. Now we have to figure out ways to control it.


Hopeful signs in a global economy

I’m certainly not a champion of economic globalization. Nor am I among those who believe globalization is the root of all evil. The issue is simply not black and white for me. This piece in the Washington Post today helps explain why.

The global economy is giving opportunities, albeit slowly, to India’s lowest castes. The article touches on one young woman from India’s Dalit caste – the so-called “untouchables” – being hired for a well-paid job at a Philadelphia child social services agency. Her father, when he learned of her hiring, said, “I’m so happy and so proud. I never dreamt of such a thing for our family.”

Ideally, no one would have to travel half way around the world to find good work. But for now, American employers can offer hope for a better life to people who have only known discrimination. Of course, this country also has its own long history of prejudice, a fact not lost on Dalit activists, who, according to the Post, “have even lobbied the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus, with whom they see common cause and a shared experience in discrimination.”

Yes, a globalized economy can offer hope and opportunity to the oppressed and poor. Now imagine if that were actually the rule and not the exception in global commerce.

Monday, August 20th, 2007
Posted in Business & Economics, Current Affairs | No Comments »

Newspaper’s green pages worth the read

If you’re not among those regular readers of the Portland Tribune’s SustainableLife section, I suggest you become one. The staff there is doing a terrific job every couple weeks of bringing a cross-section of stories on all things green and sustainable, especially around these parts. I especially liked this week’s look at Cotton vs. Polyester.

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007
Posted in Oregon, Sustainability | No Comments »