Friday, February 29, 2008

Thoughts from "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan

Jo Hunter Adams

Rather than go through what In Defense of Food says chapter by chapter (and make it no fun for you to read in the future), I'm going to be mentioning thoughts that the book had that it might be easy for readers to remember.

Calories and feeling full
We may feel hungry way after we've already consumed enough calories for the day, because the calories we consumed did not give us all the nutrients we needed. We may not sense our own bodies needs very completely, because we may feel generalized hunger when, in fact, what we need is a particular mineral or vitamin, and we're already "caloried out".

Pollan describes this (U.S.) experiment where people were given bowls of soup, and unbeknown to them, the bowl was being filled from underneath the table as they ate. The people who had their bowls filled more tended to just keep on eating. And they ate massive amounts. This experiment revealed that many people, particularly in the English-speaking West, are out of touch with their nutritional needs. We feel full based on external, rather than internal, cues.

Other Book-related Posts
(1) Collapse: Haiti and the Dominican Republic
(2) Collapse: The Rwandan Genocide
(3) Collapse: Introduction
(4) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Huh, what's a Locavore?
(5) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: How Much Energy was used for that Carrot: Vegetarianism and Energy
(6) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Local Abundance and Variety
(7) Botany of Desire: Stories of Potatoes

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Why Make Food from Scratch

Jo Hunter Adams

People in the U.S. spend much less on groceries than people in other countries. That said, we can't spend more without trimming expenses elsewhere, because many, many people in the U.S. are also living way beyond their means. This presents many challenges.

I am convinced that buying food as locally and seasonally as possible, and buying food as fresh as possible, is far better for the environment and far better for me and my family. Apart from the time commitment, there's no downside here, because we do not need to spend more money by transitioning towards less processed foods. The process of spending time cooking from scratch and eating is, as proposed by Slow Food, vital for connecting us to the producers of our food.

I'm torn when it comes to organic food. It's expensive, and my taste buds just aren't the most well-developed things on the planet. The challenge presented by some writers is the idea that I could eat less organic food because the food would satisfy me more. Slowly and steadily I'll try it out.

But poor Americans (which we are not) are malnourished because real food is so expensive. The question is whether to make from-scratch food gradually more widely available by being willing to buy very expensive produce that tastes better, or whether it's more important to live as simply as possible (maybe by keeping Whole Foods at a distance) to free up our finances and become more generous. There is a third option-- to buy organic or close to organic by joining CSAs (Community-Based Agriculture) -- for the summer season.

I am attracted to the second and third options, because we're just starting to get out of the restaurant eating mindset, because buying produce from the regular supermarket (Market Basket is the cheapest supermarket in our area) is affordable for us, and because I think if supermarkets become the store of the poorest only, the food there will get even worse. CSAs are valuable for a few months, and because you can plan for the cost ahead of time. Trader Joe's is a great middle ground for a few foods-- they're affordable and fresher than other chains-- so I go there for just a few luxuries, and am planning to start to buy meat there.

How to Choose your Yogurt

Jo Hunter Adams

I like yoghurt, especially yoghurt with small pieces of chocolate. Yoghurt has been credited with all types of things-- boosting immunity, providing protein and calcium, repopulating your intestines with good bacteria, amongst other things.

Recently, however, I've been realizing the yoghurt I eat contains a whole lot of ingredients. The ideal yoghurt only has milk and live cultures. Since I've been trying to reduce the number of ingredients that I eat but don't recognize, and also reduce the number of processed foods I regularly consume.

Dannon has a marketing page where it describes the ingredients used regularly in their yogurt. These include (in addition to milk, bacterial culture, and fruit) sucralose, aspartame, corn starch, fructose, gelatin, malic acid, maltodextrin, pectin, phosphates and sodium citrate. Quite a mouthful, right? There's nothing necessarily wrong with any of these ingredients in tiny amounts, or when they occur in nature. The question is, if I am eating them every day in my yoghurt, do they act in consonance or dissonance with my yoghurt's healthy properties? I'm not sure anyone really knows.

It is clear that yoghurt that's been heat treated after culturing is not as good for you, because some of the live cultures will have been killed.

The conclusion? Look out for yoghurt that only has milk and live and active cultures (Eg, Stonyfield, Ronnybrook)

Looking Back
(1) Making Gnocchi from Scratch
(2) Making Berry Crisp from Frozen Berries
(3) Stuffed Mushrooms
(4) The Greatness of Pure Cranberry Juice
(5) Simple Natural Pesto
(6) How to Make Dumplings

Looking forward
(1) Thoughts from "In defense of Food" By Michael Pollan
(2) How to make pizza from scratch
(3) Thoughts from "How to Pick a Peach" By Russ Parsons

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Trying Out New Seeds

So far, I'm waiting on last years seeds before deciding what to buy in the next few weeks. I was looking at some sites that offered hitherto unknown species of common vegetables. For example, you can get 75 different types of tomato seeds from Seed Savers Exchange-- each with different strengths. What better way to try new things?

(1) Johnny's Seeds

(2) Seeds of Change

(3) Seed Savers Exchange

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Infrastructure of Racism is Still Intact

This is an article recently published in the Mail and Guardian.

By Andile Mngxitama

The poverty of understanding racism in South Africa was recently exposed by the Skielik killings. The four murders were depicted by the media as being caused by the temporary insanity of a troubled young man. The murdered victims simply disappeared into the sprawling squatter camp, as we were bombarded with psychosocial profiles of the perpetrator proving that he was the actual victim.

There were of course ritualistic sterile condemnations from our political parties. After the funerals we all went back to our lives. This lack of understanding around racism and how it can be fought and defeated is strange but understandable in this country. Strange because we remain a country the very fabric of which is deeply determined by racism. Understandable, because 1994 didn’t signify a break with the racist structures which define life; instead 1994 gave South Africa its first black president. In a sense South Africa had its Obama moment in 1994. It will give the tormented black world a nice fuzzy feeling.

The late Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael) has argued that there are two interdependent elements to racism -- individual and institutional racism. Individual racism occurs when individual white people exercise power to discriminate or hurt black people. For example the Skielik case, where a singular white person acts out his racism. This type of racism is easy to see and condemn, but actually it’s not the real deal, despicable as it is. Individual racism survives on the back of institutional racism. Here we are talking about the totality of white power. For instance when the story of hundreds of black babies dying in Frere Hospital broke, there were no calls for the head of the minister of health; instead, that story died out very quickly. The issue here is that black suffering can’t be seen or heard, not so much by whites (that is to be expected) but more so the institutions which matter in society, our government included.

It is institutional racism which made it possible for the Skielik killer to attack black people for the second time. As a white person one takes it for granted that one could do certain things to blacks with no consequences. Blacks mostly share this belief too. See how farmers get away with murder, literally, in a black country. White superiority is a state of mind. But this state of mind is not just a figment of the imagination. It’s real.

What happened in 1994 is that black political leaders, eager to prove that blacks are human too, had to forgo any notions of justice or revenge. Justice is what humans have demanded since the beginning of time -- at times they even resort to revenge. The Nuremberg trials are one such example. But for blacks to demand justice is to ask for an impossibility. How can subhumans demand justice? Nelson Mandela had to show whites that we are human beings too and are fit to govern. They let him share the Nobel Prize with a man who represented the tormentors of blacks.

It would seem that humanness can only be conferred to blacks by the white world. This is the only way we can be human, but because we are being accepted in a human family overly determined by whiteness, we never really become human. Of course some blacks can achieve something akin to humanness through association, assimilation, money and education, and denial -- but our humanness remains skin deep. And we know it. So most of us, especially the middle classes, go into a “nervous condition”, the perpetual terror of being found out. Hence, occasionally, our politicians and intellectuals are seized by outbursts and sterile insults against the white world. This utter helplessness leads to unexplained obsession and antipathy towards whites.

The absurdity of trying to deal with racism while preserving the structures that reproduce racism was recently displayed by Jimmy Manyi, the vocal champion of transformation and racial equity in the workplace. It was a sad spectacle to see him defend the right of the bread company to take bread away from the hungry mouths of blacks. He provided a black cover for white capital’s attack on the black body. This is the end result of BEE, really, for it seeks to preserve the inherited racist patterns of production and consumption.

Understanding racism requires much more than occasional condemnations. Racism lives in the very fabric of our society. The day we think it abnormal for blacks to be sent to state hospitals to die or to be mis-educated in state schools, the day we think a squatter camp is an abomination and that an RDP house is an insult, only then shall we begin our quest towards understanding racism. To clamour to be human, when to be human is over-determined by whiteness, is to fall into a trap.

Andile Mngxitama is the national organiser of the National Land Committee

Past articles
Thinking Through International Understanding in the UWC Movement
Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma: Thinking Back and Looking Forward

Coming Soon
The Food Project
Beginning the Growing Season: Seeds in Boston
Snapshots of In Defense of Food

Slow Food International

From Slow Food's website:

"Slow Food is good, clean and fair food. We believe that the food we eat should taste good; that it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health; and that food producers should receive fair compensation for their work.

We consider ourselves co-producers, not consumers, because by being informed about how our food is produced and actively supporting those who produce it, we become a part of and a partner in the production process."

I discovered Slow food in Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and was interested in what they do. They focus on preserving biodiversity,and also linking producers and co-producers.

A great idea behind much of their practice is that if you consume plants that are at the edge of removal of modern agriculture, you create a demand and actually increase the presence of a plant by consuming it. They emphasize collaboration between "producers" from around the world to share ideas and best practice (Terra Madre).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Snippets from Australia and China

Jo Hunter Adams

I'm trying something new with The Concrete Gardener: Posting once a day. I'm not sure how it will work, but please bear with me in the process! It does mean that occasionally I will post something random and disjointed, which I think might be just part of the process of learning to express the topics I am learning about better. For those of you who check Concrete Gardener regularly, I'm hoping to reciprocate with content once a day.

Today, I wanted to share two very brief snippets from Collapse (Jared Diamond) but have returned the book to the library so the stories are just what stuck from the book.

One story came from Australia-- there were two intersecting stories really:

1) When British colonialists arrived in Australia, they brought rabbits and foxes, principally to make the countryside look more like their homeland. As a result, the rabbits completely decimated the Australian landscape (for a view of this, the movie Rabbit Proof Fence is really excellent). Rabbits simply didn't belong in Australia.

2) To make most crops profitable in Australia, as things currently stand, you actually have to over-use the land. For example, to keep a sheep farm profitable, you have to have more sheep than the land can sustain. This means, over time the land is more and more depleted (as it was even before colonization. Yet at the same time, the need to export items leads to expensive transportation costs. Diamond argues that Australians may be the first people in the world who may make a conscious decision to decrease their standard of living in order to secure their future. An amazing, revolutionary thought because as a collective, I think a lot of us measure how worth by seemingly never-ending increases in standards of living.

One snippet from China.

Even though the one child policy in China dramatically reduced the growth of the population, the number of households (and thus, roughly speaking, the impact of these households) did not decrease as significantly, because the household size was decreased by the policy.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Making Cheese from Scratch

Ideas from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Jo Hunter Adams

Remarkably, it's possible to make cheese at home. I haven't tried it yet but it's a really exciting possibility, because it is one thing I thought of as terribly complicated. In fact, I found that you don't need all that much to give it a try. Right here in the area is New England Cheesemaking Supply where you can get the cultures you need to make good cheese from scratch.

One challenge in New England is that most milk is ultra-pasteurized to last longer, which means it cannot form the bonds needed to make cheese. Look for whole milk that has not gone through this process. Below is a really simple cheese recipe. I'll try out the process soon.

Cottage Cheese Recipe

2% milk

Put a gallon of 2% milk in a pan and heat to 190 degrees F - this will be just before the boiling point.
Add one half cup of vinegar to the milk and let the mixture cool.

This will produce the curds that are so well-known in cottage cheese and these will be mixed in with the whey. What you want to do, is drain off the whey so that you just have the curds and you can do this by putting the whole mixture in a colander or strainer. once you have the Kurds separated you can add salt - usually about a teaspoon but you can add to taste.

(Printed with permission, courtesy of Lee )

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stories of Potatoes

Jo Hunter Adams

I recently read Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire, that tells four stories of how plants and human desires come together. The apple fulfills a desire for sweetness and so perpetuates itself, the tulip our sense of beauty, marijuana our desire for intoxication, and the potato our desire for control. The stories were interesting, compelling and fun, and I learned particularly from the story of the potato. I'll give you glimpses of these stories below. Please forgive my simplification.

As those of you who know me know, the potato is probably one of my favourite things. Growing up my dad always had a section of potato plants in the garden. I wish I had appreciated them (instead I was living in utter fear of the weeks when mielies or pumpkin would be harvested and we'd just be eating one thing for weeks on end). Some years they would do very well, other years moles would have eaten all the potatoes before we even came near.

The potato came to the Andes around 1588, and became popular because it grew so much better on the island than typical grains grown across the way in Great Britain. It revolutionizes Ireland, actually bringing people from the brink of starvation. Because of it, couples could marry younger and have more children. According to Pollan, this lead to lower demand for wage labour and therefore decreased wages, forcing people back to the land even as there were more people needing to be supported by it. This was taking place against the backdrop of English imperialism, and Irish experiences were deeply impacted by exploitation taking place at the time.

Families became completely dependent on one particular type of potato. This potato was vulnerable to attack by a fungus that could destroy an entire field of potatoes overnight. In 1845, when families were large and completely dependent on just one vulnerable species, the blight hit. It caused starvation so severe that it's estimated that one in eight Irish died during the blight.

During the blight, eventually Europeans had to seek out a resistant potato to try to end the famine. They found it in the Andes mountains, the original home of the potato. The potato was originally domesticated from a poisonous root by farmers in the Andes. Literally hundreds of different species of potato evolved over thousands of years, so that, by natural selection, potatoes that were resistant to common problems became dominant when a problem was dominant, and farmers were never in a situation where they would lose all their crop.

Farmers kept wild potatoes as the perimeter of potato fields, so that variation would be introduced over time. If this variation resulted in a particularly good potato, the new variant would be brought towards the center of the field.

Potatoes, the foods of Kings
Pollan describes suspicion in Europe around this new staple. Families preferred what they knew: bread. But people were still extremely vulnerable to starvation in much of Northern Europe. In France, the king decided to plant a bed of potatoes to convince people of their value. He placed guards around the bed to try to make people believe that the potatoes were worth stealing, then made sure that the guards were away just enough for people to come and steal the potatoes. And so, the potato spread!

Coming Soon
A Look at the NewLeaf Potato
More on Seeds
Views from Collapse, Australia and China
Making Cheese at home

Local Abundance and Variety

Ideas from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Jo Hunter Adams

Abundance and Deprivation
For Barbara Kingsolver and her family, eating locally (and healthily) was not an exercise in deprivation, it was an exercise that revealed abundance. I think this abundance is something very real for many of us in the U.S., but sometimes it's hard to be very aware of it, or take note of where the abundance becomes excess. Finding the excesses may be a key to being aware of how to share without feeling majorly deprived.

Helping to facilitate variety
The book introduces Seed Savers Exchange, a means of growing a very wide variety of seeds. Variety in domesticated species is one key to supporting a type of farming that is not as vulnerable to pests or changes in weather (and so may not require pesticides or chemical fertilizers). For more on this, I'll describe some of the ideas introduced in The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan in a future post. I was really excited by the huge variety of seeds available at this site, and the ways they can help me understand exactly how different species of the same vegetables may have completely different strengths and vulnerabilities.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How Much Energy Was Used For That Carrot: Vegetarianism and Energy

Ideas from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Jo Hunter Adams

One general theme discussed in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral is the concept of the energy used to make processed food and transport food overall. She sets this energy use against the backdrop of the vast amounts of energy used to raise and transport animals, as well as the moral implications of actually killing animals for food. The Kingsolver family is not vegetarian, but during the year actually raised her own turkeys, chickens, and only bought meat raised free-range by virtual neighbors.

She responds to vegetarians who accuse meat-eaters of sanctioning violence in order to feed their need for a luxury: she argues that one causes suffering in many different ways-- not least by having a highly fuel-needy lifestyle which fuels violence and even war in oil rich countries-- but that animals, when raised with respect, can be an excellent and otherwise difficult to find source of nutrients.

I was a vegetarian for several years, but am not right now, for practical reasons and because it just wasn't as important to me as earlier in my life. Although I hope that my meat eating will eventually exclude factory raised animals, that's not where I am right now. Thus I appreciated learning how much energy it takes for my food to reach me, and simple ways I can decrease my fuel consumption without making changes that I'm not yet ready to make.

One way to decrease my fuel consumption is to reduce the number of ingredients in foods that I eat. For example, carrots only have carrots but a processed food may contain twenty different ingredients, each shipped to the manufacturing factory. Personally, this was a simple way to decrease the distance the food I eat has been shipped, particularly as this method is also generally healthier. Making our own bread has been one small step in this direction, and there will be more such steps in the future.

A second way to decrease fuel consumption is to eat less meat, particularly less meat raised in regular US factory environments. I certainly can't take the high ground on this, as I very rarely buy organic or free-range meats. I would like to consider this in the long-term, and as a start gradually decrease our portion sizes of meat.

A third way to decrease fuel consumption is to buy local, or grow your own food. I'll definitely be doing this this coming year, and will talk about it here.

The overarching disjoint between food production and food consumption was clear in the book. The concept that our relationship with what we eat-- our realization that everything that we eat was once alive and should be treated as such-- is largely absent from day-to-day American life. Reclaiming this link is a key to decreasing our consumption.

These concerns can appear as "the concerns of privilege" which I think they actually are. But I think there is no problem with acknowledging this, as I hopefully will not impose these concerns on people who have other (more pressing, more difficult or more overwhelming) concerns. The point is, I recognize my privilege and my consumption can directly increase the problems of other people. To me, this does not mean that I decrease my consumption to the point that I fail to appreciate and be grateful for what I have. That doesn't seem to make sense. Rather, because small changes are relatively easy for me and don't significantly decrease my engagement with other pressing issues: they become a means to be more consistent.

Coming Soon

More thoughts from Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Thoughts from The Botany of Desireby Michael Pollan
Thoughts on our bread machine
Our Plants

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

How to Clear a Clogged Drain without Using Draino

We've been having problems with our drains clogging up, and found a great solution online.

I boiled a pot of water, adding about a cup of vinegar and (near the boiling point) about half a cup of baking soda (bicarbonate of soda). This fizzes a lot so go slowly to make sure nothing explodes.

Pour the mixture down the drain, stirring before you send it down(if you're clearing a shower drain, try to get as much hair out as you can, first).

The cost of this solution is significantly less than draino-- about 25c max for the whole mixture. It's also a lot better for the environment, and for you. I was doubtful that it would really work, but so far it's been amazingly clear since this treatment.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Huh, What's a Locavore?

Ideas from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Jo Hunter Adams

For one year, the Kingsolver family lived on food produced by them or by those in the immediate vicinity. The term evolving for this kind of life is locavore. They did this for health and wellness, and to learn how they were connected with land that produced their food. They also did this to drastically reduce their impact, by only eating food that was grown/produced in such a way that it did not use resources in a non-sustainable way (that is, overuse the soil, etc).

Over the next few days, I'm going to be looking at ways that I learned from this book. How does it apply to life in Boston? How would it apply to life outside of the U.S. context, particularly in South Africa?


Coming Soon

I was really encouraged that the Kingsolver used a breadmaker during their experiment in local eating. Because, well, so do we. I'm going to be sharing some of my experiences in bread making.

I recently re-watched Sometimes in April with Eug, and I wanted to think a bit about it with you. Sometimes the things I am thinking about on this blog may not seem relevant to much larger problems, but I think they're connected. I'll be venturing to make the connection this week.

Collapse by Jared Diamond Part 3: Haiti and the Dominican Republic

Jo Hunter Adams
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Diamond contrasts the Dominican Republic and Haiti, two countries largely sharing one island. Haiti is one of the most overpopulated countries of the New World, "much more so than the Dominican Republic, with barely one-third of Hispaniola's land area but nearly two-thirds of its population (about 10 million), and an average population density approaching 1,000 per square mile" (p330). Per capita income in the Dominican Republic is five times higher, although it is also not a rich country. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Why the difference?

One difference is environmental. Hispaniola's rains come mainly from the east. As a result, the Dominacn side is far richer environmentally. However, this is only part of the picture.


To suggest another answer answer, Diamond looks back on Hispaniola's history of imperial conquest. While France was exploiting Haitian resources, Spain neglected the Dominican Republic. Haiti did not develop commercial agriculture, and "sought mainly to extract wealth from the peasants." (p340). As a result, far more of Haiti's was "used up" without any view for sustainability or the long-term impact of actions taken on the land.

In the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo was elected president in 1930 and proceeded to become a dictator, killing all his possible opponents while claiming to act in the country's best interest. However, although he held national monopolies on most of the country's economies, he also developed the economy, infrastructure, and industries. In the 1950s, Trujillo began to lose support. In 1961, he was assassinated, apparently with CIA support.

Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier

In 1957 in Haiti, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier took power after a series of unstable political regimes. Like Trujillo, he took absolute control of the country and its citizens by force. Unlike Trujillo, however, he did not develop the economy.

After the Duvaliers in Haiti, Haitians continued to be politically unstable, and it's economy has not had an adequate opportunity to develop.


After Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Balaguer dominated Dominican politics. During his presidencies, his final presidency ending in 2000, according to Diamond, he rescued the country's natural reserve system. He placed strict controls on the use of resources, particularly on wood.

I was struck by the reality that a colonialism of neglect might--in this case-- be preferable to a colonialism of rabid exploitation. At times, in the African case, it seemed that when there was a strong desire to exploit natural resources, it led to greater creation of basic infrastructure. However, in Haiti resources could be "used up" without creating real infrastructure-- leading to both nothing built, and nothing to build with.

Coming Soon
The Cost of Transportation and the [human] cost of Pesticides
A look at Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Beginning the Growing Season Indoors!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Collapse by Jared Diamond Part 2: The Rwandan Genocide

Jo Hunter Adams

I was unsure of how best to read Diamond's section on the Rwandan genocide. It's really hard to write about the genocide, because it's very easy to [perhaps unintentionally] write in such a way that either minimizes the lives of those who died, minimizes the role of either Rwandans or of the French colonizers in causing the genocide, or somehow makes the genocide seem inevitable, leading to a sense of fatalism. As such, I've never really known how to write about it, and admire those who try. I give some suggestions below for further reading, on a few of the most accessible and insightful sources about the genocide.

Those South Africans that are reading, I think we always remember that while we were reveling in our new democracy, and in the incredible first elections of 1994, the genocide was beginning in Rwanda, and collectively turned a blind eye. Most people would have predicted genocide in South Africa, not Rwanda. At the same time, there were plenty of warning signs if people had been watching more closely.

Diamond focuses on the notion of overpopulation in his chapter on the genocide. He also looks at the genocide from the lens of an agricultural community that was almost completely Hutu. He explains how the land has a much higher population density than all of Africa. Historically, people supported themselves by subsistence farming but increasingly, population density pressured out this way of life. [as a side note, many people who study the genocide emphasize the role of unemployment, people with absolutely nothing to do and nowhere to go to improve their situation, were hanging around in Kigali]

One of the most shocking things about the genocide was that family members killed eachother. Diamond presents the context of small plots of land being seemingly infinitely divided, making each plot too small for subsistence. He explains this as causing increasing tension amongst family members, as disagreements evolved about how the land should be divided.

The snapshot is not complete, and Diamond does not claim it to be so. Those who read this chapter only may feel that genocide was inevitable or that no-one was to blame/no-one was responsible. Nevertheless, I think it was valuable in two ways: it emphasizes the ways in which a basic need for certain resources can create deep tensions that would otherwise not have been an issue. It also emphasizes that genocide was not just about Hutus killing Tutsis, which I and others strongly agree with but which was not always adequately conveyed in media portrayals.

The challenge in reading about the genocide is the questions that evolve:
1) What are our responsibilities in similar circumstances as random people in America or South Africa; is it arrogant to believe we have a role to play as part of a global human community?
2) Do our actions contribute to a similar lack of resources somewhere in the world, or on our doorstep?

Please do comment and think about this with me, because I know I have only raised the issues in a superficial way.

Further Reading on the Rwandan genocide:
We Wish to Inform you that Tomorrow We Will be Killed WIth Our Families by Philip Gourevitch.
When Victims Become Killers by Mahmood Mamdani

Also watch: Sometimes in April

Coming soon
Collapse Part 3
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Insights from "Collapse" by Jared Diamond Part 1

Jo Hunter Adams

This is the first of three posts about Collapse by Jared Diamond. The question I asked myself when reading this book was "how are the choices we are making similar to the mistaken choices that other societies made, and what can we do about it?"

By the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse is a view of societies that have failed because of the way their resources were managed. Like Guns, Germs and Steel the scope huge but the message is straightforward. He argues that it is not all that shocking that states used up all their resources, and that it is conceivable that many of today's societies, particularly in the west, may similarly use up all their resources, even though they are not nearly as limited by the landscape as many of the ancient societies he describes.

Rather than giving a full review, which is available elsewhere, I will choose some key themes and explore these further.

Diamond starts off with a snapshot of Montana, a society for whom there seemed to be a long-term, successful economic foundation in agriculture and minerals. As the chapter moves forward, you begin see cracks in this picture. One major thing I learned was that regulation of mining has traditionally been very limited in the U.S., and a mining company can declare bankrupcy rather than clean up their mess (a cost borne by the state). He pointed out that it was not only that this kind of approach was possible, but that the culture of the industry made this an acceptable option.

This was contrasted with the obligations placed on an international oil company in Indonesia, where safety and the conservation of the natural landscape are paramount for the government. Why? because, if the company cuts down a tree, they must pay compensation for that tree. If that tree was a likely habitat of an endangered birds, the cost is greater. As a result, there is an ongoing incentive to keep operations efficient, and to organize in such a way that minimal damage is done to the surrounding environment.

Many of you have heard of the mystery of the stone heads on Easter Island-- weighing up to 80 tons and transported miles across the island to where they now stand. The bigger mystery is why the people of Easter Island were all but extinct a few hundred years later.

The question evoked by this story is powerful: what was the person cutting down the island's last tree thinking? Why did they do that, knowing that their ability to get to neighboring islands depended on carving trees into kayaks, and knowing that topsoil needed to be grounded by trees. Easter island could not draw on the resources of other islands because of it's isolation. Today, Diamond argues, the whole modern world, as a unit, has something in common with Easter Island. Like those on Easter Island, there is no other planet were earthlings can run if things get worse in our world.

Did you know that there was a Norse settlement in Greenland before the Inuits arrived? Everyone in a settlement died one winter because resources were so scarce. The Inuits and the Norse had a bad relationship, and while the Inuits seemed to adapt their lifestyles to use a few of the Norse tools, the Norse did not use any Inuit tools or strategies for surviving the winter. The Norse lifestyle was carefully adapted to fit the harsh winter, and they lived in Greenland for many hundreds of years, yet these adaptations were within certain bounds. This meant that, when trees and shrubs were depleted, they were left with very few options. Despite the fact that cows could only live outdoors for three months of the year, the Norse prized cows so much that they kept cows even though it meant that resources would be depleted and the cows really couldn't contribute as much as sheep in that landscape. They relied heavily on wood for keeping warm, so once the trees had all been cut down they could not keep warm. Contrasted against the Inuit, who lived in Igloos and burnt whale blubber and so were not faced with the same constraints. The Inuit were also able to go out in kayaks to hunt whales, because kayaks were made with stretched seal skin.

Yet the Norse never considered adopting any of these means of survival. It struck me because I can totally imagine sitting there in the cold thinking "how can I keep warm and fed" but limiting my view to my lifestyle and what was acceptable and normal in my corner of Greenland.

Check back soon for Part 2, tomorrow.

Also coming soon
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Preparing for the growing season in Boston

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Snapshot of "Out of the Darkened Room"

by William Beardslee

The light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out John 1:5 Philips Translation

When parents become depressed, they bear a double burden. Even as they wrestle with the darkness that clouds their lives, they must struggle to maintain their role as guardians of their children's future.

As part of a project at work, we've been working with Dr Beardslee, the author of this book, to think about depression in a specific Boston population, and as part of this we read Out of the Darkened Room. For me, it was a great source of insight: both in understanding depression in the Boston area, and understanding depression in the context of the family.

I wanted to mention this book's message here because I think depression is a part of every family, albeit in different ways. Our purpose was to think through how family conversation about depression might be adapted to help Somali families work through depression, or even other kinds of mental illness. The premise here is that different families, and different cultural contexts, may need a different approach.

This book does not offer clear-cut simple solutions to depression. It says, some families suffer terribly from this disease. It says, the depression of one person can have profound consequences for those near that person. It says, things don't always work out well. But it also says, do not be afraid of working through this because you feel so hopeless. It says, things are never hopeless, there is always opportunities to make even tiny piecemeal changes that will positively impact your family.

Dr Beardslee describes the fears of families under his care. He respects that, in the midst of depression, a parent may not feel up for much and says "that's ok"! What he does suggest is preparing family conversations that speak explicitly about the fears, feelings and experiences of family members about their parent's depression. This conversation may look very different depending on the age of the children and the preference of the parent, but what is important is that it happens, that the conversation continues, and that the parent who is depressed prepares exactly how s/he believes they may best help the family move forward.

He found in his work that those families who had these conversation were much more likely to have children grow up free from severe clinical depression. This made his work unique: it is about preventing
depression amongst those with close family members who suffer from the disease.

He also found that those who spoke about depression in the family explicitly, explaining what bothered them most and reassuring them, were able to experience a unique closeness because of what they had had to expose and work through in themselves. Beardslee also uses a lot of examples so that families need not feel as though their case is too extreme or too impossible.

Depression should not be something that remains in the shadows. I highly recommend this book for discovering some of the ways that a family can better work through clinical depression, or even for thinking about how to have more empathy for a family you know.

Coming soon, views of:
Collapse by Jared Diamond
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

The Media and the Making of Rebels by Gladys Onyango

We have heard the dreaded “R” word and seen its associated images for as long as we can remember. Thanks to their activities from Somalia to Sierra Leone, from Chad to Mozambique they have claimed their rightful, indelible place in Africa’s landscape.

The instantaneous effect of the chopped limbs, gangrenous wounds, burnt homesteads, mass graves, and other bold images that usually accompany rebel stories in the media is usually to send us reeling with disgust, grateful pity, and righteous indignation. At these moments when the tranquil sanctuary of our living rooms has been invaded, we are usually quick to side with the States’ official truths…that of rebels as violently-predisposed, idlers armed with weapons and illegitimate claims and deserving of no less than death for their unwillingness to concede to reasonable terms than could only lead to end of suffering and peace to all.

The lone voice in our heads that thirsts for the rebels’ stories is at these times deftly assigned to academia, religion and other forbidden spaces to be neatly tucked away under all-explaining theorems and black & white moral compasses. It is never too long before our minds find themselves again in the familiar, the comfortable. After all, some things are beyond our control, beyond the horizons of our permanent concerns, beyond our borders.

This time we cannot afford to play unwilling spectator. The classic, rebel script is the same only that this time the action is right in our backyards and swiftly posing a real threat to the sanctuary of our living rooms. After an instinctual grasping for the familiar, we have settled upon the multipurpose “tribal factor”.

Amidst all the violence, there’s been a flurry of rainbow-esque salvos for peace. Spearheaded by the Kenyan media, these glossy appeals are almost always accompanied by the national anthem & flag, or better still, by the now-all-too-famous Eric Wainaina ballad for the extra patriotic touch. Kenyans are invariably asked by media personalities and an assortment of well-meaning groups to lay aside their tribal differences and break free from the tentacles of selfish, ambitious, politicians.

Not surprisingly, the mainstream print and broadcast media have paid little attention to other realities underneath the blanket tribe factor. They have been at their most efficient in frantically (at the beginning of the post-electoral crisis) and then jadedly yet steadily covering the violence, internal and external displacement, injuries, body counts and other horror stories arising from the crisis. The recipients of these images and stories have been mostly the middle and upper class in Kenya (seeing as the poorest of the poor are too busy fighting for their lives and lack the time and resources to watch or read the news). By so doing, the media have unknowingly been complicit in changing the collective middle and upper class sentiment from one of initial shock, to helplessness, to the now unabashed apathy, which inevitably translates to a deep desire for business-as-usual.

As if vying for the highest medal in non-controversialness, the fourth estate has opted for self censorship manifest in the general keenness to stick to the realm of the politically-correct. “Communities” has become one of the most-used words in this latest fashion. Heaven forbid calling a spade a spade. In typical news coverage of the ongoing skirmishes, one is more likely to hear of “warring communities along the Burabu-Sotik border” as opposed to “Kisii and Kalenjin people fighting”. Reality check. We will need more than linguistic correctness to detribalize Kenya. If anything, the media’s refusal to acknowledge the ethnic dimensions that the post-electoral crisis has taken is akin to the proverbial ostrich with its head deeply buried in the sand.

What the syntactically-correct local, mainstream media has danced around CNN, AlJazeera, BBC and other international media giants have been quick to vocalize and over-simplify in their quintessential style. The post-election violence has been canonized as a “spectacular” (media thrives on the superlative) display of violence pitting the all-powerful Kikuyu versus the Luo, the Luhya (pronounced as Kikuyu, Luuoooo & Lahaya in those fantastic foreign accents) and other Kenyan tribes. The fighting and demonstrating Kenyans on the streets and in the neighborhoods have become the avatars of that age-old, anthropological phenomenon; Static, African minds trapped in ancient, age-old rivalries and unwilling to embrace the harmony of a dynamic, rainbow world. Without putting it into words, the local, mainstream media has repeatedly proved to all and sundry that they share similar sentiments.

If we bothered to solicit the opinions of the anti-government demonstrators, and machete wielding youths beyond the occasional one-liners and placard signs, If only their words carried as much weight as those of the verbose, university-educated political commentators (who the media ironically stopped featuring at a time when they were most needed to make sense of the happenings), we would be surprised at the commonalities that would emerge, the most recurring of which would be structural marginalization.

Kenya is flagrantly a class society. Our rich vs. poor gap arguably rivals that of any other country in the world. The salaries and allowances our MPs earn every month for dozing and drooling on the backbenches do not even come close to what George Bush Jr. takes home every month. Welcome to a land where those who have stolen billions from tax-payers’ coffers walk free with their empires intact and hold ministerial positions while the petty thief who steals a phone to survive promptly receives the justice of angry mobs on the streets. If you are still not convinced, turn your dial to the morning breakfast shows of Nairobi’s most-popular fm stations. Here you will meet Nyambane, King’ang’i, Filgonas, and an assortment of fictional Kenyan characters from different “communities” all united by their low caste. Unlike their savvy, cultured co-presenters, these characters share a happy-go-lucky attitude and lack the proper English accent, cultured humor, sophisticated thought and other signifiers associated with their co-presenters who are ultimately portrayed as more human. I present to you a nation that has made parody out of harsh, class realities.

December 27th witnessed an unprecedented election turnout in Kenya’s history. The fact that few civic and parliamentary candidates were re-elected bore testament to the simple truth that a vast majority of Kenyans from all walks of life, regardless of their ethnicity, wanted change. To reduce the opposition supporters to a group of Raila and Pentagon sycophant is to insult their common intelligence. Despite intense debates on the genuineness and feasibility of ODM’s manifesto, it was very clear to the visible eye that promises of accountable leadership, ethical governance, decentralization of government and development, progressive taxation, state welfare, and redress for Goldenberg, Anglo- leasing, and past economic crimes greatly appealed to the ordinary Kenyans.

These are the Kenyans who had seen a self-seeking upper class rise, like a phoenix from the ashes of the burnt dreams that fuelled the independence struggle. The post-independence political elite and their cohorts turned the country into their personal fiefdoms and made amassing indecent amounts of wealth for their families and cohorts and placing their communities in strategically beneficial positions their chief preoccupations. Under progressively, visionless regimes, Kenyans were turned into putty in the hands of foreign capital and political interests. Here is a leadership that shrugged off widespread poverty and inequality as unavoidable collateral to their primary quests for macroeconomic indicators without real development and patted themselves on the backs after reports of increased GDP growth.

Supporters of the opposition were therefore eager for a generational as well as ideological change in leadership. When this was denied to them, the same media who had the machinery to communicate their frustrations at being gagged by the live-ban broadcast conveniently avoided any discussions on the freedom of assembly and expression that was denied opposition supporters all over the nation when they attempted to protest their discontent with the botched election results. This is what led to the escalation of violence in the writer’s humble opinion. Kenyans denied their constitutionally-mandated channels of expression turned on one another.

Through it all, the mainstream media have repeatedly failed the people of Kenya by deliberately refusing to move beyond the passive observer persona to the next layer of analysis. There has been a glaring lack of incisive features exploring why, for instance, the most action has been witnessed in the so-called ‘slums’, ‘rural areas’ and ‘informal settlements’, with the more affluent residences seemingly ‘naturally’ predisposed towards peace. Other than the propensity of the young towards meaningless violence and destruction, the media has offered little other explanation as to why most of the protagonists in the skirmishes have been the youth, or why they have targeted roads, railways, and other symbols of economic wealth.

Even more shocking has been the media’s silence on the clearly differential access to police protection, relief assistance, evacuation, and other essential humanitarian services during this period. Despite the media’s silence on the glaring class contrasts of experiences in the midst of the crisis, it is not lost on the ordinary Kenyan that the Private Secondary schools and Universities attended by the children of the rich all over Kenya are operating as normal, somewhat of a luxury to many Kenyan families all over the country. I guarantee too that it is crystal clear to the ordinary mwananchi that the deaths of two opposition MPs in less than a week makes the phrase ‘coincidental crimes’ the understatement of the century.

And the violence continues in the background as the peace talks, the Africa Cup of Nations and other more important events gradually take center stage in the mainstream media. Nothing evidences this more than the cliché end-the-violence message being screened as a streaming caption at the bottom of the screen on KBC (state television) during the widely-syndicated Ghana-Nigeria football match, a dot of guilt to add the dash of conscience to what is quickly being erased by middle and upper class amnesia.

Behold the historically, economically, and politically justified wrath of three generations of Kenyans wronged. They might be silenced this time with machetes, live bullets, teargas, and other state machinery with the complicity of the media’s back-to-normal attitude. But unless we lift the carpet to address the injustices that have accumulated over the years, unless we start channeling national discourse the right way by asking the right, unsettling questions, they will rise again and again, like rebels with a cause, their rage incrementally intensified each time. Till we seek to find the stones that caused the ripples in the pond, there will be more stones thrown, leading to bigger ripples of threateningly seismic proportions that will sooner or later (to use the infamous verb of the former minister of internal security, he of the shoot-to-kill order), “rattle” the sanctity of our living rooms. Who more suited to lead this challenge the fourth estate?

-The Author, Gladys Onyango, is a Pan-Africanist and a freelance writer. She believes the material equality and dignity of all people as a goal worth striving for-

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Blue Hills Massachusetts

My friend Sheila took me hiking on Saturday. I haven't seen much of forests near Boston, so this was a pretty amazing trip for me. It was the first time for me to see the skyline of Boston from the South.