Friday, May 11, 2012

My Refrigerator

A journalist from a Swiss newspaper wanted to interview me for a new Sunday column called „My Refrigerator“ and seemed dismayed at my refusal. She asked if I was no longer committed to reducing food waste. I suppose I'm not. I'm not committed to fighting symptoms while underlying problems flourish unchecked. The fight against food waste in industrialized countries vastly avoids acknowledging central problems.

Last December I was on Swiss television speaking out against food waste and going dumpster diving in front of the cameras. Twice. Since then all “my” dumpsters have been locked with a chain and padlock. I expected this. I expected confrontations and even legal consequences, which I did my best to avoid by obtaining second and third opinions from lawyers advising me on the legality of dumpster diving in Switzerland. What I didn't expect was my own disillusionment.

Legal problems didn't materialize. Retail managers didn't call my telephone making idle threats. People in my small town didn't wrinkle their noses at me. Everyone was interested and supportive. At the same time, the organization against food waste that I co-founded was taking off with a mighty force. I was busy. But I was not happy.

There is something unnerving about becoming a public figure. I started seeing myself how I expected others might view me. I began placing ever-higher standards on myself. If I let a lemon go moldy in my refrigerator I would surge with self-accusations. I would streamline my discipline, eating wilted outer leaves from a head of lettuce and vegetable peels others would discard. And I could never blur out the consequences of food waste, the consequences of my oversized European footprint. In all my actions I considered the other half of our Earth's population living on mere dollars a day and the billion people suffering malnourishment and starvation. I had two billion hungry eyes watching me choke down a dinner I had burned.

I couldn't live with the knowledge I had gained. There is almost nothing worse for the environment and more threatening to the sustainability of our human race than the meat and dairy industry. It is in and of itself the epitome of food waste. I stopped drinking milk (which naturally required that I give up coffee) and became vegan. And since my dumpsters were all locked and I could no longer just “rescue” food that had been discarded, I had to make ethical shopping decisions. No tomatoes in winter. For months we lived on cabbage, potatoes, and beans. And still I couldn't be satisfied with myself. An adopted Swiss calvinistic discipline merged with the hearty Catholic guilt I had learned as a child. Anything I did “right” wasn't enough and every slip in my behavior (I really needed a coffee sometimes) became a moral infringement. I knew the right way to live and consume for a sustainable future, yet still couldn't manage to change my behavior enough. I was miserable. I had to stop thinking, had to deregulate the self-control. I had to turn away from the two billion hungry eyes that always watch me.

I dedicated my whole winter to co-founding an organization against food waste. But day by day I lost the sense in what I was doing. I learned the Number One Goal of an NGO: sustainability. That basically boils down to money. A good idea isn't sustainable on its own, though we had lots of good ideas. We needed to turn our concept into a business plan. I had to think about marketing and target audiences, about finance plans and fund-raising. Budgets were debated and salaries contemplated. Figures rose from tens to hundreds of thousands to millions. And the whole time I had those two billion hungry eyes watching me. I realized that self-sustainability made our NGO into just another capitalist money churner. I was elected president and quit the next day.

I had come to the conclusion that I was living in self-deception. There was no justification for raising money for a public awareness campaign about food waste when that same money could be used for direct fundamental interventions for maximizing crop yields and storage in developing countries. Campaigning governmental organizations to pass regulatory legislation while the food industry simultaneously lobbies for deregulation is merely an exercise in endurance, an exercise I could not endure for long. The master's house must be dismantled and I had used the master's tools for renovation. As long as we see food waste as a problem we are renovating the master's house. Food waste is a symptom for a completely dysfunctional food industry. And our completely dysfunctional food industry is a symptom for a vastly dysfunctional society. New tools – not just new methods, but new attitudes – are needed for dismantling the master's house and building a new model of society.

Well over 40% of the food that is wasted in Switzerland is wasted at the consumer level. We throw out old bread and lettuce every day, yet have the false perception that we never waste food. In fact, 47% of us think we almost never waste food. We are blind to our own waste. The rest of the wasted food happens at retail, production, distribution and agricultural levels. Yet consumers could greatly influence and help reduce this waste by buying food from local farmers. It is quite simple: buy whole foods, not processed, canned or frozen; buy local, seasonal foods; and eliminate retail by buying directly from farmers. Europe Parliament suggests goals to slash food waste in half by 2025. But if we stopped fighting food waste symptomatically we could slash food waste by 90%.

Media plays an important role in facilitating the ideological change needed for people to redefine their place in the farm-to-fork food structure. If I could stand being a public figure then I would open my heart and my refrigerator to a voyeuristic public, keen on seeing a 41-year-old housewife feeding her children food from a trashcan. But I cannot stand playing pawn in a game of greenwashing – market-strategizing and developing corporate social responsibility models are just renovating the master's house. Sensational articles are written, newspaper subscriptions are sold, and Christoph Blocher can still sit upon his fortune. Nothing will change because of a Sunday column called “My Refrigerator.”

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mindesthaltbarkeit führt zu unnötigen Lebensmittelabfällen

Wenn überhaupt in den Medien die Mindesthaltbarkeit von Lebensmitteln ein Thema ist, so geht es meist nur um die Frage “Was bedeutet das Wort „mindesthaltbar“? Viele kommen zum Schluss, dass keine Änderung der Terminologie nötig sei, weil „mindesthaltbar“ korrekterweise bedeute, dass Lebensmittel mindestens bis zum aufgedruckten Datum haltbar wären. Und damit haben sie auch Recht. Die Problematik des Mindesthaltbarkeitsdatums darf nicht auf eine sprachliche Ebene reduziert werden. Das verbreitete Argument jedoch, dass gut die Hälfte der Bevölkerung nicht verstehe, was mit Mindesthaltbarkeit gemeint sei, stimmt wahrscheinlich. Um dieses Unwissen zu korrigieren, braucht es allerdings eher Öffentlichkeitsarbeit und Kampagnen, als eine Änderung der Terminologie, die im schlimmsten Fall sogar noch mehr Verwirrung verursacht. Dazu braucht es Zeit, Geld und gut organisierte Anstrengungen. Nur wenn von Anfang klar ist, was wir ändern müssen, damit das Mindesthaltbarkeitsdatum nicht mehr so viele Abfälle verursacht, können wir gezielt handeln.

Sensibilisierung auf Konsumentenebene

Auf Konsumentenebene muss gezielt sensibilisiert werden. Durch Kampagnen soll den Konsumierenden beigebracht werden, dass Zucker nicht an einem bestimmten Datum verdirbt. Durch Kampagnen werden Konsumierende ermutigt, ihren eigenen Sinnen wieder zu vertrauen und mehr Selbstverantwortung zu übernehmen. Mit gezielter Öffentlichkeitsarbeit ist es durchaus realistisch, dass die Gruppe mit der grössten Lebensmittelverschwendung – die Konsumierenden – zu einer Kehrtwende fähig ist. Die Schweizer Bevölkerung hat es nämlich auch geschafft, Europäisches Vorbild im Rezyklieren zu werden. Das ist nur durch starke Kampagnen und koordinierte staatliche Aktionen möglich gewesen.

Eine Verbesserung ist aber nicht nur auf Konsumentenebene nötig. Auch auf den vorgelagerten Stufen der Nahrungsmittelkette führt das Mindesthaltbarkeitsdatum zu unnötigen Verlusten. Obwohl Mindesthaltbarkeitsdaten oft als hilfreich betrachtet werden, weil Transport und Verkauf darauf abgestimmt werden können, bergen sie gesetzliche Risiken, die keine Firma eingehen will. Darum werden Lebensmittel vernichtet, sobald sie dieses Datum überschreiten. Die Produzenten legen nämlich die Mindesthaltbarkeitsdauer meist so fest, dass sie vor Ablauf des Datums hochwertigste Qualitätseigenschaften garantieren können, die weit über die Ansprüche der Lebensmittelsicherheit hinausgehen. Ist das Datum aber überschritten, so trägt der Handel plötzlich die Haftung für das ganze Produkt, also auch für die Aspekte der Lebensmittelsicherheit. Weil sogar Grosshändler diese Haftung nicht übernehmen wollen, ist es bequemer, die Lebensmittel zu vernichten, als sie an Bedürftige zu spenden.

Im Handel geht man sogar davon aus, dass es illegal ist, „abgelaufene“ Produkte zu verkaufen oder gar zu verschenken. Wenn der Lebensmittelinspektor im Laden vorbeikommt und nur ein einziges abgelaufenes Joghurt im Regal findet, so wird in seinem Bericht protokolliert „abgelaufene Joghurts“. Wiederholte Vorfälle kann er nicht tolerieren. Doch ist das ein Gesetz?

Mindesthaltbarkeitsdaten nach wissenschaftlichen Kriterien festlegen

Wenn die Gesetzgebung Mindesthaltbarkeitsdaten reguliert, so müsste unsere Regierung wohl auch daran beteiligt sein, die Mindesthaltbarkeitsdaten nach wissenschaftlichen Kriterien festzulegen. Davon sind wir aber weit entfernt. Es obliegt der Industrie, wie lange sie die Haltbarkeiten festlegen möchte. Gewisse Produzenten legen sogar kürzere Haltbarkeitszeiten für die Schweiz als für das Ausland fest. Ist es, weil wir höhere Qualitätsanforderungen haben als die Konsumierenden anderer Länder? Weil wir Schweizer mehr Geld haben und es uns leisten können, mehr wegzuwerfen? Wollen vielleicht Produzenten aktiv mehr Verluste provozieren, um mehr Ware absetzen zu können? Sicher altert ein Produkt nicht rascher in der Schweiz als in Deutschland!

Staatliche Anreize, Besteuerung und gesetzliche Haftung

Wie können wir den Handel und die Produzenten dazu bringen, ihre überschüssigen und „abgelaufenen“ Lebensmittel mehr an Bedürftige zu spenden oder gratis wegzugeben? Bestimmt braucht es ein grundsätzliches Umdenken weg von reinem Profitdenken. Vielleicht braucht es auch staatliche Anreize für Spenden oder eine Besteuerung von Nahrungsmittelabfällen. Letztere würde auch eine transparentere und effizientere Produktion fördern. Ein anderer wichtiger Schritt wäre eine Änderung der Haftungsgesetze. Firmen sollten weniger stark haftbar gemacht werden können, ohne dass die Lebensmittelsicherheit aufs Spiel gesetzt wird. In den U.S.A. gibt es seit 1996 ein Gesetz, welches Firmen schützt, wenn sie Lebensmittel spenden möchten im guten Glauben, dass die Produkte noch gut und sicher sind. Der Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act schützt Privatpersonen, Firmen und NGOs. So eine Gesetzgebung könnte auch in der Schweiz viele Lebensmittel vor der Vernichtung bewahren. Firmen hätten weniger Angst vor einer allfälligen Klage wegen einem gespendeten Joghurt, das beim Konsumierenden Bauchweh bereitet haben soll, und würden folglich ihre leicht abgelaufenen Joghurts problemlos spenden.

Spätestens wenn alle Ausreden von uns Konsumierenden, Produzenten und Händlern widerlegt worden sind, werden wir lernen, sorgsam und pflichtbewusst mit unseren Lebensmitteln umzugehen.  

Lebensmittelverschwendung: Eine Containertour am Stephanstag

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Waste

Christmas shopping and consumerism is a hot topic. Even those who might be doing less Christmas shopping like to make sure they're stocked up on food for the time when the stores are closed. But how much are we consumers actually stocking up? Some years December hits a 25% increase in food purchases over the other months of the year. And while many of us may be fearful of the increase of our waistlines we had better be looking at another Christmas bulge – our trash bins aren't just bulging with Christmas wrapping paper and gift packaging. They're bulging with food.

25% Spike in Food Waste

At no other time of year do consumers throw away so much food. End consumers are responsible for over 40% of all food waste in industrial countries. During the holiday season this number spikes. It is estimated that we throw away an additional 25% of our food during and after Christmas. All that extra food we buy for Christmas drifts directly to the trash.
But Christmas is a time of charity, of compassion. Many of us donate money to the less privileged of this world. Half of all financial donations to charitable institutions are made between the end of November and the New Year. We might better help the poor of this world, however, by ensuring that there are less poor in this world. We can do that by ensuring stable grain prices so that people with low incomes can continue to afford their daily bread. The more that food is being thrown away, the more food is being produced and purchased. This drives up global food prices. Of course additional factors, like commodities speculation and ethanol production, play a role in increasing grain prices. But avoiding food waste is an area where each of us can contribute to making the global situation better.
Stabilizing Global Food Prices
Christmas will soon be over this year, but we can still make use of the extra food we purchased before the holidays began by eating it instead of letting it go to waste. By doing this we may not be directly inviting an impoverished person to join us at our table, but we show our solidarity by ensuring that more people can afford the food they need to eat. And a year of food is one of the best gifts that we can pledge to give for next Christmas.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Today we are launching our new website addressing food waste in Switzerland: This is a fantastic project that I have collaborated on with João Almeida, Markus Hurschler, and Claudio Beretta. João wrote his masters thesis in Sustainable Development at Universität Basel titled “Food Waste and Losses in Switzerland: A Quantitative Assessment for Switzerland.” Markus is involved in CSA (community supported agriculture) in Berne. And Claudio is also finalizing a thesis on food waste at ETH Zürich (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich). Together we have built a platform introducing food waste in Switzerland just in time for the publication of two articles about food waste (and us) in Tages Woche today.

In the first article, “Tag für Tag wird Brot zu Abfall,” author Beat Grossrieder introduces the concept of food waste and some of its financial implications. Although it doesn't go into any detail about either ecological or social aspects of food waste, it provides a good introductory overview of the situation, concentrating mainly on cultural perception and the shear magnitude of food waste. If you're not a German reader you still might enjoy the six pictures of me, even featuring my literal “dive” into a dumpster. I suggest using Google Translate in order to get the gist of the content.

In the second article, “'Die Preise sind zu tief',” João gives insight into socioeconomic aspects of food waste, focusing on one of my favorite observations: we are wasting food because we can afford to waste food. In developing countries where the majority of the population spends between 80 and 90 percent of their disposable income on food there is very little food waste at the consumer end. In industrial countries, however, 45 percent of the avoidable food waste is contributed by the consumer. Why? We in industrial countries spend much less on food; in Switzerland we only spend 11% of our disposable income on food. That makes it very easy to throw away. João also does a good job mentioning the concept of externalized costs. If the food we ate really included all social and ecological costs accrued – such as land erosion, water depletion, or the high costs of the consequences of using cheap energy – it would be much, much more expensive. And then we might think twice about throwing away such a precious resource.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

15 Minutes of Fame

I just found out a couple of days ago that I'll be featured on national Swiss television in several weeks. Jürg Brandenberger, a reporter from the Schweizer Fernsehen Rundschau wants to interview me for a special on food waste that will be broadcast around Christmas time. I'd love to think this is for my work I've done on food politics, especially food waste, but that would be a bit naïve. The fact is he wants to film me dumpster diving. How often is it that we see a middle-class Swiss housewife lean into a dumpster to pull out discarded food from big retailers and serve it to her three children?

I started dumpster diving for food last March and brought it to a peak around June – about 80% of what we were eating came from the dumpsters. As I grew more and more interested in food waste I needed to see for myself how Switzerland compared to other countries: how much was being thrown away and what was the quality of the food compared to what one sees on the internet from the United States, from England and from Germany, for example. Are we throwing things out a week before the expiration date? Or the day of the expiration date? What fruits and vegetables are especially likely to wind up in the dumpster? And, most importantly, what's not making the cut for donation to organizations who deliver retailer discards to the needy?

Within the first couple of weeks I had determined to write a book about this. I devoured the English language books on the subject and was miffed to find nothing highly relevant in German. Luckily this August the first German language book on the subject came out: Die Essensvernichter (in English, “The Food Annihilators”), which I just picked up today. It was published in Germany, but the Swiss will do well having a journalistic work on the subject, even if it's from over the boarder. My book, I had decided, would be something quite different: a semi-autobiographical tale of the path I'm walking from being a mainstream consumeristic housewife to a dumpster-diving political food activist. We'll find out in December how much airtime I get on the Rundschau. I'm guessing Schweizer Fernsehen will also find that semi-autobiographical element interesting.

I doubt if I'll be getting 15 minutes of fame but I thought I'd try to crystalize what I'd like to say on the subject if I get one or two or five minutes. So here are some of my most essential thoughts on food.

We currently have enough food to feed the world and are throwing half of it away. With the famine on the Horn of Africa intensifying how is it that we don't begin to draw parallels? Why is it that global economics is an area of expertise reserved for businesses? Why don't politicians know enough about global economics? And why doesn't the general public, for that matter? Our consumption has a direct influence on global food prices. If we consume more by throwing away more we are driving up the global price of food for billions of people who use the majority of their income – often 80 or 90% – to buy food. These people are threatened by malnourishment. Statistically all of the roughly 1 billion undernourished and malnourished people in the world are only missing an average of 250 calories per person per day. This is referred to as the “depth of hunger.” And while the internet provides many links for Westerners searching for weight-loss advice with 250 kcal meals and snacks combined from abundant and often strange foods, for most people in the developing world that depth of hunger could be stilled with the equivalent of one cup of rice. Famine would be so easy to solve. There are 11 million people and counting who need emergency help in the Horn of Africa now. But we could ensure that future hunger disasters are often minimized by keeping the global prices of grains stable. This would require international trade legislation, a ban on food commodity speculation, and a reduction in Western over-consumption, most easily achieved through stopping food waste.

Closer to home, in Switzerland, nearly 10 percent of the population lives under the poverty level. One doesn't see them in the streets begging (since begging is illegal) in this rich country and most Swiss believe those less fortunate to be well looked after by our social public welfare system. The fact is, however, that many people have a lack of money that threatens their survival. Organizations like Tischlein Deck Dich and the Schweizer Tafel realize this. They receive a certain amount of food items that have been donated by the largest retailers and distribute that food to poor people. But there still isn't enough to go around. The sad part of the story is that most Swiss, if they even give a thought to food waste, will name one of those two organizations and with a clear conscience declare that Switzerland doesn't have a food waste problem since all food that isn't sold at the grocery stores is distributed through these organizations to the poor. Well, I beg to differ. I've seen what's thrown away. It's food. Perfectly edible food. Tons of it. Actually 250,000 tons of it per year. Although many would claim that only a portion of that wasted food was still edible, I again would beg to differ. I've been in the dumpsters. I've eaten what they consider trash. Just because Switzerland might do a good job with combating food waste doesn't mean we Swiss have a right to self-satisfaction. We're not doing a good enough job yet.

I guess I won't get a chance to say any of that which I've written so far because that's just part of good journalistic research and I imagine the narrator will rattle off these statistics. What I guess they won't say is this: I wish every viewer might realize he's not only part of the problem, but also part of the solution. My highest priority is to communicate to people their own strength. I want to enable people to see themselves not only as consumers but also as citizens. This is the most intrinsic element, crucial to any change. We've come to accept our label as consumers by a capitalist system that wants us to do nothing more than consume. And we're taught that the only way to make change is to consume differently or, more rarely, to consume less. In terms of food waste this means blaming the consumer for retail food-waste woes, since it's the consumer that demands fresh bread at six o'clock in the evening, when stores all close at six-thirty. It's a retail cop-out. I don't deny that we have many obligations as consumers and I'm thrilled to motivate people to reflect upon and change their patterns of consumption. But I'm even more excited to motivate people to realize their citizenship. Vote! But don't stop there. Organize the community you want to live in. The world is made up of nothing more than a whole bunch of communities.

I'm choosing the community of Switzerland to organize a Swiss-wide grass-roots movement against food waste. Grass roots means anybody can get involved. We're planning to use this media wave to get people interested and active on food waste. Both as consumers and as citizens. How as citizens? We want to put pressure on manufacturers and retailers. And more importantly we want to influence legislation. That means we need a lot of people working together to become one very loud voice.

But what is there to say? – you might think. Everybody knows we shouldn't throw so much food away. So we should just throw less away. It's not that easy. And that's why change isn't being made because it's not easy to change. Some companies, for example, make improvements in their food-waste practices and find it difficult to get motivated to make more improvements. Biogas is a great example here. For about one decade Swiss retailers have started diverting organic food-waste from the incinerator to the biogas facility. A great improvement, but not good enough. If you want to know what they're burning to make biogas go to your local supermarket and ask them if you could have produce scraps for your rabbits. I don't have rabbits but I did this experiment for a few months and brought home bags of edible salad and vegetables every week. With the exception of some outer wilted leaves everything was still fresh. It's not old, moldy, bug-ridden food. It's merely food that is deemed too old to sell. But it is far from too old to eat. And this is what is producing our biogas.

I'll sing a retail praise now to balance the picture. In the last five years retailers have begun marking down prices for produce as the produce starts to look a bit wilted. Even the big retailers are doing this. This is a great step. Of course a consumer would choose a fresh salad over a wilted salad (only the outer leaves are wilted, by the way, the inside is still fresh) any day. But as the food-waste scandal becomes common knowledge, people will realize that two half-price salads have more good edible salad in them than one full-priced salad. Marking down wilted produce or older food items is a great example of the retail industry working together with consumers to combat food waste. At the end of the day, however, what doesn't sell goes to biogas.

There are logistical problems involved in getting already wilted produce to the non-governmental organizations that distribute food to the hungry. These organizations are already doing a magnificent job in terms of timely redistribution. But it would be great if – in addition to these NGO's – there were other alternatives. I'm inspired by New Zealand. There they opened two so-called “free stores” within the last year. It's wonderfully non-bureaucratic. Everything the store “sells” is for free and those who shop there have what's called “self-determined” need. So every time somebody's in a pinch financially he can go and pick up the food he might need to get him over the hump. It's not a rare occurrence in life that we get in a financial pinch, right? But those tight spots, for most of us, don't mean that we go to the welfare system to get by them. But for some people it means that they don't get enough to eat. Even in Switzerland. My very non-bureaucratic suggestion for Switzerland would be that retailers could offer their unsellable food on a rain-protected shelf outside the store for people with self-determined need to take as they see fit.

But now we come to legislation. In Switzerland retailers are not allowed to even give food away for free if it is over the expiration date. They are obliged to discard it. There are important safety issues involved with meat and fish, of course, and for these highly perishable foods we have a separate labeling system than for foods with a long shelf-life. That's common in many countries: the “use by” date. It's the other date that I find so highly problematic. Although in English speaking countries we often see a “best before” date, in German speaking Switzerland it's called “Mindestens haltbar bis” which translates directly to “at least nonperishable until” for foods like pasta, dried beans, and canned goods. Statistics show that both in English and German a very large percentage of people don't know how to interpret these dates. This is shown in the wide-spread choice of using the word “expired” to define food that is... indeed, well, over the “expiration” date. But nothing expires in pasta or dried beans. And canned goods are good as long as the can still has a tight vacuum. (Don't even open a bulging can, as botulism can make us sick by even breathing in airborne bacteria.) So why do we even call these foods “expired”? The sad fact is it's not just the consumers at home who often throw away food that is over the “expiration” date. Even the retailers do. And they have to. They are not even allowed to give it away. If a food inspector makes a random check in a grocery store and finds even one yoghurt on the shelf on the day of “expiration,” he writes in his report that the store was selling expired yoghurt. Not one yoghurt, but a general statement, as if the store would only be selling... well, trash. Then the retailer is required to undergo further checks and hassles, costing time and money, in order to maintain their certification. This is why retailers are often generous with pulling things from the shelves sometimes days before their due date is up.

So we really have to ask what food is even going to these NGO's that distribute unsellable food to the needy? Carton du Coeur, another of these NGO's, doesn't accept food donations if the food has less than one month before the “best before” date. I'm specifically referring to a collection box they have in a big retail store not far from the village where I live. And produce, like my rabbit food, is going straight to the biogas facility, if not straight to the trash. These NGO's are mostly getting bulk items. When a retailer sees, for example, that a product isn't selling well and wants to swap it for something else. There are exceptions, of course. But the majority of food that is already too old for the stores to sell is not going to the poor. And the reason why is legislation. In America, Clinton passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996, enabling retailers to donate food without needing to fear legal consequences. In Switzerland there's no such protection for retailers. In fact, a friend who works in a local grocery store gave me some dried beans for free the other day and told me, “if you get sick you have to tell the authorities that you insisted upon taking this food.” The beans were a day over the “expiration” date and will hold on my shelves for years, if not decades.

There is no governmental regulation for the making of “best before” dates in Switzerland. It is something to be decided by manufacturers and is left fully in their hands. Do I believe manufacturers shorten the “best before” dates in order to sell more products? You bet! And yet Swiss legislation is based upon these branch-specific dating policies. Our government is telling retailers they have to discard food that has been dated by the food industry, when the government wasn't involved in that dating process to begin with. So in effect we're not only trusting corporations to make decisions about our food, we're having our own government blindly follow and enforce the corporate will of consumerism on the public. If we're going to have laws that bind sellers to certain practices with food dating, then we need to have the government involved in the food dating itself. It becomes a futile effort to sensitize the public about food waste and pressure retailers to adopt better practices if our very laws are hindering advancements.

Before I go into the nitty-gritty of dumpster-diving, which I'm sure the Schweizer Fernsehen Rundschau viewers will be so happy to hear, I'd like to communicate a concept that needs wider recognition. It might be well known in food-waste circles but the general public would do well to hear and understand it. It's called the food-waste pyramid, which is a spin-off of standard waste hierarchies, and follows this order: source reduction, feed hungry people, feed animals, industrial uses (anaerobic digestion or biogas), composting, and landfill / incineration. We can't be reactive with food waste. It's not enough to do composting or even produce biogas. We need to be proactive. Here's where that citizenship awareness should come into play. Industries have the logistical technology these days to achieve the first point and highest priority in fighting food waste: source reduction. But they're often not doing it because they want to sell more. They need to learn (and this education needs to be supported with proper legislation) that it is more economically advantageous to stop wasting. This incorporates a warehouse of restrictions and incentives that can only come into play with a strong and active community that strives to make change.

Okay, you've waited so long: here's the dish on dumpster diving. Is it gross? Sure, but not too bad. Is it illegal? Not in Switzerland, as long as you don't break a lock or jump a fence. Is it dangerous? For your reputation, maybe, but for your health, no. I always call to mind the studies on allergies and immunology. One study found children who grow up on farms – surrounded by animals and hay and dirt and dust – to have the lowest rates of allergies among Swiss children. And a European study found Albanians to have the best immunity on the continent. Albania's a pretty poor country, not widely reputed for high sanitary standards. So I figure getting packaged food out of a dumpster is not a problem at all. And the unpackaged food, like produce? I take that, too. Just to boost my immunity.

I remember the E. coli scandal in Germany from last May. My husband warned me that I shouldn't take any cucumbers from the dumpsters since they might have the E. coli bacteria on them. I went on the internet and found out that thousands of tons of produce were being destroyed. Especially cucumbers were hit hard since the German authorities put the finger on Spanish cucumber, although that later turned out to be a faulty connection. People on chat groups weren't feeding their children any fresh produce any more. Even Swiss farmers were destroying their crops, although there was no federal mandate to do so. I certainly regret the number of people who have died from this outbreak. But they weren't dumpster divers. My point is, life is full of dangers and we cannot protect ourselves from everything. Not even if we destroy thousands of tons of produce. Many dumpster divers claim that one is far more likely to get food poisoning by eating in a restaurant than by eating food from a dumpster. I believe I have become far more aware of food safety issues than in my earlier blind-consumption days. I use my senses combined with common sense to determine the safety and quality of food. Are we safer if we use these innate skills or if we blindly follow date-labeling developed by the food industry?

Not everyone who wants to get involved in the food-waste movement is going to rife through food in retail dumpsters. In Germany and the USA it's illegal, which would make it rather a deterrent for me, too. But there's far more that we can do as consumers than just eat our leftovers (although I would agree that that's a good start). Besides supporting local farmers by signing up for a produce subscription that guarantees you a box of the freshest, most seasonal, ecologically sound food you can eat there's another rarely mentioned variation. Shop at your local, community store if you still have one. Local grocers have very little food waste. Just like the retail giants, they are reducing food prices on food that nears it's expiration date. And what doesn't get sold usually gets taken home by the employees. Big stores fire employees that take home even so much as a slice of bread without paying. But a small store is thankful to avoid waste. The store in the village where I live is a cooperative. I and many other active residents have paid good money to buy shares in our store in order to keep it from going under as more and more people turn to shop at the big retailers in the suburbs. I had a talk the other day with the manager about food waste and found out that she not only takes unsellable food home, she also still pays full price for it in order to keep the store alive and running well. Shopping at local grocers is good for the community, good for the environment, and one of the best first steps I can think of to combat food waste.

And when you're shopping at that community store you might bump into somebody you know and strike up a conversation about food waste. The more people that talk about it, the more this media movement will turn into a movement of the people. At your local grocer you can make the transition from being a consumer to a citizen. This is the forum where we can learn debate again. This is the place, in our little communities, where we can look for answers to big problems.

It's said that we crossed the 7 billion mark yesterday, and we're expected to have a world population of ten billion by around the middle of the century. With one billion people already hungry now I think we all need to start thinking about how we can solve the even bigger problems of food sustainability that we'll be facing in the future.

Synergistic Cooperation

I've been working on an exciting project in the field of food sustainability over the last few months. Together with my husband, founder and CEO of element, a scenographic company in Basel, Switzerland, I developed a concept for the Swiss Pavilion at the World Expo in Milan 2015. He designed and realized the scenography for the Swiss Pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010 and turned to me for collaboration in content development, knowing I've been actively researching and writing about food politics. Our concept for the first round of the competition can be viewed on element's website, where pdf links to both the concept and the concept text are listed.

The theme provided by the organizer of Expo Milano is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” and it is divided into seven sub-themes, the majority of which are highly relevant to food sustainability. The organizer poses a crucial question, which Expo participants are expected to answer: “Is it possible to ensure sufficient, good, healthy and sustainable food for all humankind?” My instant reaction was, “No, not without structural change.” We did a problem analysis and mapped out the most important goals that should be met in order to achieve food security. A crucial moment came in our concept development when we had to ask ourselves a fundamental question: how could we turn that “no” into a “yes”? We came down to three possible conceptual directions and realized that one stood above and incorporated all others: cooperation. If we're going to achieve anything in this world it will only be through cooperation. I had to think of my blog in that moment, my goals of “faying” people together and stimulating defragmentation in society. It became clear to me how important those goals are for finding solutions to the broad and far-reaching problems we face with society and our environment.

Synergy, then, became the model of cooperation we chose. We realized it wasn't enough for all the special interest groups in the food and agriculture industries to be working alone, or worse, often against each other. We need a new model of interaction and cooperation; relying on some kind of a democratic vote wouldn't be enough. We need the dynamic consensus-building of a synergistic cooperation. And dynamic consensus can only come about through debate. But how could we bring different opinions together to a debate in an exhibition? We realized we needed visitor participation to guide onsite and web-based debates. And we needed to do some clever juxtaposition of rival theories in order to enliven this debate. It was profound to be doing research about genetic pollution and then run across the permaculture maxim that pollution is energy in the wrong place. I realized that if we just search long enough and rearrange the pieces in the puzzle we can get a whole new picture. What kind of new food security solutions could we achieve if genetic pioneers would incorporate permaculture practices and permaculture advocates could guide and oversee GM food development?

In writing the content for this exhibition I realized the importance of communicating complex issues like food sustainability three-dimensionally. Often, in other media forms, a linear communication structure can only be grasped in a limited way by the viewer. Exhibitions – especially those incorporating visitor participation and scenography 2.0 – allow for a far deeper emersion potential than traditional media can offer. This is especially important for controversial and complex topics. In our concept the viewer becomes part of the exhibition. I describe the participation we so desperately need in order to achieve food sustainability in my concept text: “We facilitate a necessary shift in paradigms, enabling visitor empowerment, not only as consumers, but as stewards of our ecosystem and citizens of our global community.”

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Great Waste

Julia Hofer wrote a very good three-page article on the subject of food waste called “The Great Waste” (German “Die grosse Verschwendung”), published in the October issue of Annabelle, a Swiss women's magazine. I'm featured in a side-box at the end of the article as a dumpster diver. It's a relatively fair report but it seems that she misunderstood me a couple of times (and perhaps didn't receive my e-mail correcting her draft). I certainly don't decide if I'm going to make tiramisu based upon the “taste” (or even the smell) of an egg, then again I don't ever make tiramisu and rarely consume raw eggs. If I did, however, I would rely on the lay date that is stamped on every egg in Switzerland in addition to my knowledge about the form of a fresh egg yolk. The second error is about money. I certainly don't save over a thousand francs a month by dumpster diving (although one could, I'm sure). I started saving a thousand francs a month in food costs by becoming a vegetarian one year ago. We now eat a lot of beans and legumes for our protein and even organic beans are extremely economical. We also consume almost no convenience food. That quickly accounts for my savings of a thousand francs! I'll be doing a calculation about costs of food waste, including my own detailed dumpster diving experiences, in a future article.

I found it very difficult to translate Julia Hofer's work from German to English because she pieced together some of my words and statements out of an hour-long telephone conversation. So there's a lot taken out of any context and pieced back together. It's hard not to try to correct it or fill in missing information. But I'll bind myself to my duties – herewith a direct translation of what I (more or less) said:
Mmmh... trash?! 
Fay Furness, a resident of Basel-land, feeds her five-person family with food that she finds in the trash – about 50% of what they eat is found in containers. She says, “It takes courage to lift the lid of a container in broad daylight and fish around for food. Once a grocery store employee wanted to send me away. I explained to her that I'm not breaking the law as long as I don't break open any lock. A lot of people are embarrassed or shocked. But we eat extremely health consciously. I've learned how to judge the freshness of food. I'll decide whether I'm going to make a tiramisu or an omelette based upon the form or taste of an egg yolk. What's really changed is the way I cook. I need to be flexible and cook ripe tomatoes or fruit promptly. On the internet I exchange experiences with other dumpster divers. I go dumpster diving three times a week and save over a thousand francs every month. But I don't just do it for the money. I want to work against the trend of food waste. Yesterday evening I found the following foods in two dumpsters: 200 g Nescafé Gold, 500 g green beans, a can of cat food, 6 onions, 7 red bell peppers, 4 lemons, 36 taco shells, 18 chocolate rolls, 250 g potatoes, 5 eggs, 300 g grapes, and 57 plums.

Cancer of Life

A week ago my big, huge Furness family celebrated a reunion in Las Vegas. I couldn't get a chance to join them – my parents, eight living brothers and sisters and their spouses, and a slew of nieces and nephews and grand nieces and grand nephews. But they brought me in via Skype to make a toast to my parents on a big screen.

My mother at age 82 is surviving cancer and a stroke wonderfully. My sister Robin died of breast cancer five years ago, one day after her 54th birthday. In the following speech I address a seldom take on cancer. I close with a poem from Robin, which she wrote to her cancer shortly before dying.
I would like to propose a toast to my parents, Jack and Dory Furness, who will be celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary next Thursday. 
When I left your bedside in Mexico nearly 18 months ago, I didn't think I'd be getting a chance to see you again, Mom. And I'm so happy to be seeing you again (even if only by Skype). I didn't expect to see you, yet here you are. What a gift! I sort of expected to see someone else at this reunion, but she couldn't make it. Robin died five years ago. And she is sorely missed. How strange our expectations can be.

Some of us have walked miles or donated money, many of us have pushed buttons, lit candles, and prayed for a cure for cancer. Sometimes I think we need to start seeing cancer as the cure, though. Cancer is a cure for our expectations. Cancer is a cure for our tendency to take so much, even life itself, for granted. Cancer is a cure for us thinking we've got everything in our own control. Cancer is a cure for us thinking it's a problem if we're stuck in traffic or late for a meeting. Cancer is a teacher, teaching us patience, strength, and love. Without cancer we have one more reason to think we're invincible, one more reason to think we're right, to argue, to wage war. Without cancer we might lose our compassion, our faith, our gratitude. 
Marriage is kind of like cancer... Sometimes it hurts almost as much as chemotherapy. But it's also as beautiful as the smell of a newborn baby. When I lie my head on my husband's chest and hear his heart beat and feel grateful that his heart is still beating, knowing it won't beat forever – that is the cancer of marriage. Putting out fires together, cleaning up floods together, racing to the emergency room together – that is the cancer of marriage. Even if you operate it away, you always feel that missing organ. Marriage, so like cancer, teaches us patience, humility, gratefulness, love... and more patience. 
Mom and Dad, you have survived your marriage for 60 years! I remember you telling me, Mom, that you wouldn't divorce Dad, but that you might kill him. Thanks to the patience your marriage has taught you both, you still haven't killed each other yet. We're grateful for that! We're grateful for your dedication. We're grateful also for the many examples you have set us. You taught us to work hard. You taught us how to make the best stuffing in the world on Thanksgiving. You taught us to look words up in dictionaries. You trusted us to climb trees and catch fish and stand at railings atop high cliffs. You trusted us to be out of sight at a playground, knowing we would come running at your whistle. You made us ice cream and cake and hotdogs that could snap in two. You taught us to clean and to sew. You taught us how to paint houses (well, half-way) and fix electrical plugs. You cleaned our fish and our shoes. You set an alarm in the middle of the night to give us penicillin, so many times. We didn't have pepper mills, garlic presses or bottled milk and the only bubbly water we drank came from the ground near Devil's Post Pile. But we had Perry Mason jello and we always had a full belly. You taught us to be good – “the goblins'll get you if you don't watch out!” You taught us to reuse plastic bags until there were more holes than plastic in them. You fed us leftovers and taught us “waste not want not” long after frugality had gone out of fashion. You taught us independence and became a great example of independence for us in your bold move to Mexico. And I know we'll be learning a lot more from you in the years to come. 
I'd like to close with a poem from a great teacher and friend. It's called “You Bring Out...” by Robin Furness. It was written five years ago at the Furness reunion in Asilomar, on  July 24, 2006. 
“You Bring Out...” by Robin Furness 
You bring out the Harpo Marx in me

Silent goofy in me
Quiet watching

Blow that bicycle horn

Smile wide innocent in me.
The monk meditator

Joyful prayerful

Trusting believer in me.
The life loving

Live wild ‘til I’m ninety

Don’t give a rip what

Anybody else thinks

Eccentric in me.
The Gandhi peacemaker

Inside and out in me.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ostentatious Austerity

I got an e-mail recently that has been eating at me. It was forwarded to me by a conservative colleague of mine. It's a really nice visualization, portraying the U.S. national debt. I've copied it's contents below. But before you worry that I've gotten Tea Party on you, read down to my comments below all these pictures of money!


One Hundred Dollars $100 - Most counterfeited money denomination in the world.

Ten Thousand Dollars $10,000 - Enough for a great vacation or to buy a used car. Approximately one year of work for the average human on earth.
One Million Dollars $1,000,000 - Not as big of a pile as you thought, huh? Still this is 92 years of work for the average human on earth.

One Hundred Million Dollars $100,000,000 - Plenty to go around for everyone. Fits nicely on an ISO / Military standard sized pallet.

One Billion Dollars $1,000,000,000 - You will need some help when robbing the bank. Now we are getting serious!

One Trillion Dollars $1,000,000,000,000 - When the U.S government speaks about a $1.7 trillion deficit - this is the volumes of cash the U.S. Government borrowed in 2010 to run itself. Keep in mind it is double stacked pallets of $100 million dollars each, full of $100 dollar bills. You are going to need a lot of trucks to freight this around. If you spent $1 million a day since Jesus was born, you would have not spent $1 trillion by now...but ~$700 billion - same amount the banks got during bailout.

15 Trillion Dollars $15,000,000,000,000 - Unless the U.S. government fixes the budget, U.S. national debt will top $15 trillion by Christmas 2011. The Statue of Liberty seems rather worried as United States national debt passes 20% of the entire world's combined GDP (Gross Domestic Product). In 2011 the National Debt will exceed 100% of GDP, and venture into the 100%+ debt-to-GDP ratio that the European PIIGS have (bankrupting nations).

114.5 Trillion Dollars $114,500,000,000,000 - U.S. unfunded liabilities. To the right you can see the pillar of cold hard $100 bills that dwarfs the WTC & Empire State Building - both at one point world's tallest buildings. If you look carefully you can see the Statue of Liberty. The 114.5 trillion dollar super-skyscraper is the amount of money the U.S. Government knows it does not have to fully fund the Medicare, Medicare Prescription Drug Programme, Social Security, Military and civil servant pensions. It is the money the USA knows it will not have to pay all its bills. If you live in USA this is also your personal credit card bill; you are responsible along with everyone else to pay this back. The citizens of the USA created the U.S. Government to serve them, this is what the U.S. Government has done while serving The People. The unfunded liability is calculated on current tax and funding inputs, and future demographic shifts in U.S. population.

Wow! This is a fantastic visualization. I am particularly stunned by the statements under the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th pictures. They follow: 
$10,000 - Approximately one year of work for the average human on earth. 
$1,000,000 - 92 years of work for the average human on earth. 
$100,000,000 - Plenty to go around for everyone. 

Now why is it that the majority of individuals against government spending in light of the horrendous national debt seem to overlook these three above statements? Namely, that there would be enough money to go around for everyone and that the majority of people aren’t getting to enjoy their fair share. Nobody yammering about the public debt seems to care about a realistic distribution of wealth. Merely that government spending must be stopped. 

Well, I don’t like debt. It makes me less able to enjoy the illusion that I am free. Must be the same for everybody. And I think the U.S. Government had better take a look at its spending and its income and create a balanced budget. Everybody must think that, too, right? 

The funny thing is that the people who complain loudest about bad budgeting are unanimously ready to fix the budget problems at the costs of the people who have to devote 92 years and more of their lives working in order to survive. This is called "austerity" and implies that all citizens of a nation as individuals forgo luxury goods and tighten their belts for the benefit of all, for the common good. That sounds good to me. But modern application of "austerity measures" isn't targeted to all individuals equally. Only to the poorest individuals. Big Business still goes home with the tax breaks (like the 2009 Exxon Mobil $156,000,000 tax rebate - can we make a visualization of that pile of money, too?) 

The United States Government was created by the Founding Fathers of our nation, not, as the text in this message suggests, by the “citizens" of the USA. (Let’s not forget that only the white males were citizens...) In fact, that guy with his face on the picture above, Ben Franklin, didn’t think very highly of citizens. He even stated, "I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people, if well administered; and I believe, farther, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” 

Wow, Father Ben, you really explain well why the government of the United States of America was created as a republic! No illusion there about democracy! People unavoidably corrupt need despotism. 

Well I guess I’m not unavoidably corrupt because I don’t need the despotism of the government you created, nor the despotism of that piece of paper with your picture on it. You predicted the fall of the American government but you were wrong about the people. We are capable of another. The United States is not the only government in debt. The majority of the governments of the world are in debt. (see below) The entire global economic system is functioning on money that is not there. And it will collapse. 

And at least 2 billion people will die (can we get a rendering for that, too, please?). 

There are alternatives. But we need to create them ourselves. Before it's too late.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

What the Right is Doing Right

Sarah Palin is deservedly the butt of many a good joke. But it's irresponsible to underestimate the qualities that she represents for the American people. This Jane of all Trades (and Master of Populism) gets herself tangled in her words again and again, and the Left stand waiting for her to fall. I've read comments from liberal writers claiming that “we should just let Sarah Palin keep talking [and] Obama will be guaranteed a win at the next election.” Will it be as simple as that?

We need to have a closer look at the Tea Party movement, an unbiased look, in order to understand some of the political structures in the U.S. today. The movement erupted in 2009 as a result of the economic crisis. Right? I'd like to suggest that it's a result of the 1960's. And a result of the failures of the Left.

Although most modern liberals would view the 1960's as a time of breathtaking achievements, it was also the birth of a splintering of ideologies. The New Left of the 1960's turned away from labor unions in favor of a broad-based, anti-establishment crusade for civil rights. The worker was replaced by the student as the new leader in social activism. Minority rights and, after that, women's rights and gay rights (in the 1970's), were accompanied by the birth of modern environmentalism. The workers who organized were replaced by activists who protested. The issues became more controversial. The controversy became more wide-spread. Collectivism was replaced by individualism. And the government, as the father of all establishments, became the enemy.

Ironically, the New Left was extremely opposed to Roosevelt's New Deal and saw in it a missed opportunity to turn away from capitalism. Any Post-Depression success the Left had gained in terms of social security was abandoned step by step in favor of libertarian radicalism. This is where liberal ideologies crossed paths with those of the neoliberals. But in bemoaning the failings of government, they neglected to envision new models of social solidarity. Diversification led to fragmentation. And as the Left found themselves targeted in their own controversies, they neglected to develop a proactive plan. Politics became reactionary.

Meanwhile the Right, superficially entangled in leftist controversies, found much freer rein for implementing capitalist ideologies and advancing anti-regulatory trading practices. Fear, although very often a divisive sentiment, empowered the masses to move in one direction: toward freedom. McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the Bay of Pigs left Americans terrified. Literature, too, from Orwell's “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to Rand's “Atlas Shrugged,” helped solidify fears that any government regulation ultimately leads to a failed socialist state, wherein personal liberties are fully absent. Freedom became the common fertile ground of the Left and the Right. The seeds of the Tea Party movement were planted in this freedom.

In the 1980's the seeds sprouted. Reaganomics was the hot house in which the little saplings thrived. And even under the Democrat Clinton the saplings could begin to bear fruit. Indeed, conditions were good. Clinton passed NAFTA, the economy was good, unemployment was down, fiscal responsibility was on the agenda, there were even fantasies about paying back the public debt. Government wasn't exactly limited, but even welfare was overhauled. Aid to Families with Dependent Children was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families with a cutoff point after five years. A Democrat had torpedoed the welfare system.

But history brought an Autumn upon the land, and the fruit of the saplings fell to the ground in the State of Emergency of 9/11. A new fear of a new loss of freedom crossed the country like the first frost of winter, freezing the fruit where it lay rotten beneath the trees. After a hard winter of wars and recession the sun came out unexpectedly on a January morning in 2009. Change was in the air and a new hope that Obama could bring relief. But winter has never ended in January. And the sunshine proved ill for the trees' branches, which snapped in the ensuing ice storm. The Spring of 2009 brought about the Tea Party movement, yes, but only in terms of revealing what was already there.

But what is the Tea Party really? What are their unifying characteristics? Is it about “Guns, God, and Guts,” as one of my favorite Tea Party slogans states? Or, less comically observed, is it a new form of identity politics? The older, middle-class, white male swinging back on the pendulum of civil rights with one fist in the air screaming, “Don't Tread on Me!” That may indeed play a role, but it's not the whole picture. Unifying characteristics of the Tea Party movement are a fond attachment to concepts like freedom and aversion to big government and over-taxation. At the same time, however, they have no distinctive, systematic fight against all government involvement. Indeed, they are not against certain government action or against taxation in general. They want “less” government and that “less” is arbitrary. Just as arbitrary as the adherence to the Constitution, which is interpreted with varying and sometimes ambivalent degrees of strictness.

The most unifying characteristic of the Tea Party movement is a sense of threat. The threat of a government that takes more than it gives back to its citizens. The threat of an economy out of control, the fear of personal and even national ruin becoming more than just a vague tremor on a sleepless night. The threat of displacement, of a scorching drowning in the melting pot. The threat of bureaucracy run amok, with laws hampering every liberty and encroaching on more than just the ideals of autonomy. The threat of shame, of being belittled by an intellectual elite, of being portrayed as red-neck or backwoods by coastal snobs, of being trapped into failure by ever tightening demands on social behavior. The threat of being voiceless for so long that one can only throw open the window and scream, “I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more.”

The Tea Party movement is the voice of protest from the Right. And the sense of threat has served to not only unify, but also provide a framework for a common value system. This is solid ground won in the political tug-of-war with the Left. The Left lost their solid ground when they lost their solidarity. They became progressive and focused on issues instead of people, all the while playing the ventriloquist's puppet espousing the capitalist's morality of growth and progress. Each social issue was like a new rope laid across the line and advocates went to tug full force on their policy of choice, abandoning the primary liberal principle of the state insuring a minimal economic and social standard for all. The Left diversified, complicated, fragmented, became riddled with infighting. The Left lost their answer, destroyed their own common value system.

The value system of the Tea Party rests heavily on moral responsibility. Even when their path doesn't always cross with that of the Evangelical Christian's, the sense of moral responsibility is equally dominant. There is the moral fiscal responsibility, the moral adherence to the Constitution, and the morality of the free individual rendering anything more than the most limited of governments redundant and counter-productive. There is the morality of entrepreneurship, of free-trade, of rewards for those who are worthy. There is the morality of nationalism, the nation again taking the dominant role in a common means of identification. And there is the woven system of morality, taken almost one-to-one from the Christians: charity, protection of the weak (at least if the weak are not yet born), traditional family and social structures, and a faith that God is on “our” side.

It is exactly this morality, this structure, this consensus, that speaks to Americans. Americans want change; with good reason. And the change they've gotten with Obama? Well, another favorite Tea Party slogan: “$11 Trillion – Now That's a Lot of Change!” Hope quickly turned to disenchantment for many Americans and Obama's victories became far too often eclipsed by a nebulous mass of doubt. The far Left doubt that Obama is doing enough, see his bipartisan diplomacy as a missed chance. Change? Not the change they had hoped for. The poor and (un-) working classes couldn't see change come fast enough to qualify as real or better their plights. And the political middle and middle-right witnessed the first year of Obama's presidency as if watching the ocean's water level drop and feeling that sickening sensation of remembering that it's a sign for the coming tsunami, before bolting for higher land. “The Audacity of Hope”? Better to return to a more cautious, more reserved plan, even if it means trading in on a little of that hope.

This is the America of the Tea Party movement. This is the America of threatened Citizens, grown up from their virgin naivety. This is the America, willing to overlook the impairments of a Sarah Palin, conscious that she is only a small part of a bigger picture.

The Left is not in the position to ridicule the Tea Party. And in less than two years the Left might not be in much of a position to do anything any more. If Obama fails to win the next election, it will take a very, very long time for the Left to define their solidarity again. It will take a new movement, a movement that remembers how to organize instead of how to demonstrate, how to incorporate instead of how to isolate. This new movement will need a comparable, and well-structured value system; a morality beyond nationalism, beyond religion. A morality built up upon the fundamental liberal principle that no one – no individual and no group – can fall beneath a minimum social and economic standard. No one may be left behind.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Straight from the Farmer's Mouth

I have a friend who is an organic farmer. Since he is an organic farmer and he is my friend, I buy my eggs from his farm. We had a chat about organic egg production that might make me less of a valued customer, however, and will play a role in my upcoming decision whether or not I will go from being a vegetarian to a vegan.

The chicken stall was empty today and undergoing revisions when I came to visit. I asked if the chickens were on vacation and my friend told me they had been picked up in a truck last night to be transported to the slaughterhouse. I was surprised to find out that the entire chicken population was slaughtered at once, but then again, many things in this conversation surprised me. Here's the dish on eggs.

Egg-laying hens can lay for about 14 to 16 months. They produce about 320 eggs per year during this time, almost one per day. Of course they can lay much longer, upwards of about 5 to even 10 years, but their capacity for egg production diminishes down to about 120 eggs per year and less. There is no more profit for the eggs; in short, the hens can no longer pay for their own room and board by laying. So in a capitalistic sense, they are not valued as a commodity after 14 to 16 months and are slaughtered. However, due to the very high demand of eggs at Easter, a 12 month slaughter rhythm is kept. Organic and free-range farming standards only effect quality-of-life issues for the chicken, but have no impact on the quality-of-death, i.e. how often and under what conditions they are sent to slaughter.

My friend used to slaughter his own chickens. But to slaughter 50 chickens, including feather removal, is a whole day's work. He keeps 2000 chickens and estimates that it would take him a good 3 weeks to slaughter them all. Since this time investment is not feasible, he outsources. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the opportunity to have the chickens slaughtered in Switzerland to the same conditions as in Germany, so he has the chickens exported via truck somewhere across the border, which is a half hour away. How far into Germany the live chickens are transported, he does not know. In Germany, the meat of his slaughtered hens is made into Lyoner (the equivalent of Baloney in America) or Fleischkäse (this would be translated as meat cheese – you'll find a Wikipedia definition of Leberkäse in English on the internet). I asked if this was done because the costs at the slaughter house are cheeper (which would be a standard EU vs. Swiss situation) and my friend could make a more reasonable profit. But he responded that Germany was the only taker of his chickens. In Switzerland there is no demand for soup chickens any more (which is all a spent egg-laying hen is good for) and all laying hens are “gassed and put on the compost.” I was surprised that even organic soup chicken meat had no value and was told that there are too many laying chickens in Switzerland and no demand for the soup chicken meat, even if it is organic. Swiss demand a plump broiler chicken and, indeed, since the prices for such broiler chickens are so reasonably low, can afford every plump chicken on the market. Even for their soups.

I asked about these succulent, plump chickens (missing the fatty flavor since deciding to become vegetarian, for reasons of sustainability). For the broiler chickens, only males are used and they are slaughtered at 5 weeks. Five weeks after birth, they have gained enough weight to not only be a tasty meal, but also to often no longer be able to walk and support their own weight (that observation was also expressed by the farmer, not internet propaganda). Organic chickens cannot be fed so intensively, but reach a similar weight at around 6 or 7 weeks after birth. Swiss regulations, however, only allow organic chickens to be slaughtered at 8 weeks. After birth.

I asked my friend, the farmer, if it weren't possible to have just one type of chicken that is a laying chicken in the beginning and a meat chicken after their laying capacity has been overstepped. He said, no, that the chickens are bred especially one way or the other. Therefore, for a breed of laying hen, all male chickens are “thrown away” (direct translation from Swiss German) upon birth. For a breed of broiler chicken, all female chickens are “thrown away” at birth. One only needs to watch one of those nasty PETA videos on YouTube in order to get an idea of how that procedure works, I suppose. The causality question of the chicken or the egg gets a whole new depth of meaning; today, it is not so important which came first but is crucial in consumer analysis. We eat the chicken or the egg. Waste management, even in small-scale, subsidized, organic agriculture, still has more of a focus on economic efficiency (wasted man-hours and consumer comfort) than on food waste or wasted life. Somewhat lower consumer standards for food quality and higher consumer standards for food production and waste minimization could inspire new trends in (non-genetic) breeding innovation. For those who remain carnivores: bring back the soup chickens!

In my village Rothenfluh in Switzerland, we have a population of just under 800 people. Such a lovely, small, farming village, surrounded by rolling hills, fields and forests. We have a practice every Easter called “Eierläset,” wherein the different sport clubs in the village, of which we have many, compete to transport and throw raw eggs in a sportive way. For the event, everyone gathers on the main street of the village, which is closed off especially for the event. A year doesn't pass that I don't hear a bystander complain about the waste of food as all the eggs are thrown around the village center. I suppose they couldn't have been counted upon to donate eggs for the event; the sport clubs collect egg donations each year from all the village residents some days before the event. At about the same time that my friend's chickens are loaded onto the truck for transport to the slaughterhouse.

Happy Easter to everyone!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Chess, Tsunamis, and the Fall of the Queen

I teach my 6-year-old son never to put his queen in danger. It doesn't matter if you cover her with another piece or not, I tell him, I would send any of my pieces to their death in order to kill your queen. Except my queen. The other queen-rule I tell him is this: if you threaten my queen and I have no chance to escape or save her in any way, I will take your most valuable piece before you kill me. It still shocks him when he corners me with his queen, his queen being covered, and I strike at him, killing his queen first, knowing he will take my queen in the next move. He always feels like there is something unfair in it, “but I had my queen protected!” he cries.

My 10-year-old daughter already has these queen-rules internalized. She now beats me almost every day. She knows: if you have the queen, you have the game.

I stood on the rocks near Cap Rhir in Morocco and put my hood up as rain drops again started to fall. My husband and kids went back to sit in the car. I stood looking out at the ocean, thinking about chess. Thinking about the queen. Two days before, we had sat with hair and shoes caked with dessert dust in a café in Agdz, watching the arabic news of the tsunami which had just hit Japan, understanding no word but gleaning the extent of the catastrophe from the repeating film footage. Now on the rocks, the rain pattering upon me with regularity, I watched the waves as they crashed at my feet. The rain and the spray were quickly drenching me. I saw the fish that were left in the ocean swimming amidst the plastic bags and wayward sandals. And I saw a battle scene, the queen poised at the edge of the cliff. The rain came down so hard that visibility was reduced. There was a spray of rain and mud and sweat and blood. In combat she slipped and fell over the cliff. As she fell, she grew, she grew to the size of a mountain. And the cliff rose to heights of eternity, the ocean below being sucked out to one huge tsunami on the horizon. And the queen grasped at the cliff, at the mud, at the blood. Instead of clumps of grass and roots and branches and twigs, she grasped at lions and elephants and rivers and rainbows. Clumps of cities and slums ripped away in her clutch. Icebergs and glaciers slit her skin but melted, giving her no grip. They all pulled away from the cliff and the queen threw them down into the unimaginable depths in her frenzy. Humanity, nay, the entire world as we know it was being pulled over the cliff, like a tablecloth being pulled from a table. And the queen and everything we knew fell into the abyss and was smashed to nothingness from the tsunami.

The waves crashed around me and the torrential rain filled my ears. I wished the waves were just a bit higher. I wished they would rip my body away, carry my sins of existence back out to the ocean. I wished the fish could eat my eyes, that my body could be ripped apart by sharks. I wished I could give something back.

But I teach my children how to win. How to win a game of no consequence. I teach them what I was taught, what we are all taught, what society teaches us: to do whatever you have to do to win and if there is a threat of loosing to take out all that you can on your way out. Never fall empty handed over the cliff.

I turned away from the ocean. The fish would have to wait for their meal until another day, if there were any fish left when I chose to throw my body empty handed from the cliff. And I walked back to the car, to my children, to society, and to this game of no consequence that we play to the death.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Communicative Capitalism

As a new blogger I have to ask myself a hard but simple question: why am I doing this? The sun is shining, my legs ache to again go jogging in the forest, flowers are blooming in my garden, and I sit behind a closed window, sifting through information on the internet, each day learning more how little I knew the day before. Sure, I love writing. And “having” to publish keeps the discipline in line. But what am I trying to achieve here? Clearly I want to do my part in saving the world, but the world can hardly be saved through writing texts that nobody reads.

It was on a day with thoughts like these that I discovered Jodi Dean's theory of Communicative Capitalism. Jodi Dean is a political theorist, Zizek expert and writer of the blog I Cite. She has a refreshing pessimism for a sunny day and, thanks to a sick-day in bed (indeed, when the sun was shining), I was able to read through her 34-page article on communicative capitalism. The link to her blog is directly to an excerpt from her article and if you want the full 34 pages, you can download them via her blog. Herewith I'll just give you a few excerpts and comments with no claim of capturing her whole theory.

Dean basically argues that all of our talk about politics is keeping us from being political. But I'll let her speak for herself:

Struggles on the net reiterate struggles in real life, but insofar as they reiterate these struggles, they displace them. ...participation in online communities often provides a sense of satisfaction that actually dampens a willingness to interact with the real world.

When you’re communing with like-minded souls, you feel like you’re accomplishing something by arguing out the smallest details of your perfect future world, while the imperfect and actual world takes no notice...

Communicative capitalism designates that form of late capitalism in which values heralded as central to democracy take material form in networked communications technologies. Ideals of access, inclusion, discussion, and participation come to be realized in and through expansions, intensifications, and interconnections of global telecommunications...

The proliferation, distribution, acceleration, and intensification of communicative access and opportunity, far from enhancing democratic governance or resistance, results in precisely the opposite...

...the more opinions or comments that are out there, the less of an impact that any given one might make (and the more shock, spectacle or newness that is necessary for a contribution to register or have an impact). In sum, communication functions symptomatically to produce its own negation...

...the intense circulation of content in communicative capitalism forecloses the antagonism necessary for politics...

Instead of engaged debates, instead of contestations employing common terms, points of reference, or demarcated frontiers, we confront a multiplication of resistances and assertions so extensive that it hinders the formation of strong counter-hegemonies.

A contribution need not be understood; it need only be repeated, reproduced, forwarded. Clay Shirkey summarily puts it, “Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality” (Shirkey 2003). an age celebrated for its communications there is no response...

Well, Jodi, I'm sure your points are arguable. I'm sure there are statistics out there showing the benefit of all of our communications. I'm sure that NGO's can boast better philanthropic results in our socially networked era. For that matter, so many more NGO's have been founded! There is so much engagement! And in light of the demonstrations in the Arab world today, which, everyone knows, are the direct result of networked media, one could really dispute your theories.

But I think I won't be the one to argue with you on this sunny day. I'm beginning to sense that all this activity – all this talk, all this analysis, all this networking – is just a nebulous metamorphosis of the good-old bystander effect. But instead of the cries of Kitty, we are ignoring the cries of billions. Because we cannot hear anymore with this din.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Fundamentalist

The political left demonizes the fundamental far-right and fundamental Islam takes a beating from representatives throughout the political spectrum. But what is fundamentalism? Or better yet: what has fundamentalism become? And is it productive to use this terminology or is it yet another example of divisive language?

A little over a hundred years ago, fundamentalism was seen in a positive light, at least within the conservative Christian movements which used the term. Theological fundamentalism was born shortly after scientific naturalism and modern evolutionary theory posed threats to what was considered to be core, or fundamental beliefs. Fundamentalism was a mere reaction to modernity. It wasn't until Western media hijacked the word in the late 1970's, for the first time referring to the zealousness of Ayatollah Khomeini as being Islamic Fundamentalism, that even most Christian fundamentalists began to distance themselves from this term. The fundamentalist became the extreme version of the “other.”

In several of my previous essays I have referred to the exponential fragmentation of society that we are facing today. A method of combating this fragmentation, in my opinion, is to understand the symbiotic relationship between social structures and the commentaries, which serve not only to explain, but also to influence those very structures. The interdependence is far-reaching; it's short-sighted to think that politicians and media are the only influence on social structures today. Every Tweet, every Facebook status update, every “like”, every blog and re-blog are contributing to the formation of our society. I think most of us still try to see society as something outside of ourselves and power as something that doesn't concern us. We seem somehow incapable of comprehending the shear vastness of this social system into which we are inextricably woven. Only when we can begin to grasp this vastness and understand the discourses which form every involvement between “society” and “us,” and “us” and “them,” can we begin to realize our responsibility that we bear as an active part of society.

It is, therefore, not only indicated to work for social change but also for conceptual change. Just as I advocated questioning ideologies in my essay “Where's the 'Common' in 'Common Sense'?,” I see an urgent need for self-regulation in the realm of perception and expression. When we become aware that our comments contribute to the very structures that we may be fighting against, for example, we need to vigilantly control what terminology we are using and why. And more importantly, realize how terminology is symbiotically influencing our perceptions.

In the twentieth-century a reduction in the use of pejorative racist terminology backfired in the culmination of the concept of “political correctness” in the 1990's. Every attempt to minimize social offense was sarcastically called PC, the abbreviation of “politically correct,” and demonized as over-regulatory. A goal of society in the twenty-first-century in trying to steer away from the Culture Wars which have seeped past the boarders of America and which threaten to take on the magnitude of a Cultural World War should, therefore, be to recover from this embarrassed blemish of political correctness and fear of over-regulation and move to a position of self-regulation and responsibility.

In this light I would like to rehabilitate the concept of fundamentalism. The word “fundamentalism” contains an accusation. If we call someone a fundamentalist it has little to do with how they might refer to a holy text. Much more, we are suggesting that they are radical, extreme, closed-minded. Calling someone a fundamentalist might be descriptively valid, but it doesn't make a person less radical, less extreme, less closed-minded. Much more important than avoidance of the use of “heated rhetoric” (see my essay “REVOLUTION NOW!”) is avoidance of divisive rhetoric. Calling someone a fundamentalist serves to widen the gap between “us” and “them.” And as with any accusation, it not only says something about the object of the accusation but also the person saying the accusation. When we call someone a fundamentalist we are showing that we are unwilling to work with that person and we expose ourselves as being more closed-minded than we would like to admit. In essence, more like them. And when blaming the fundamentalist for a given political situation, we are in fact shirking our responsibility for contributing to the fertile ground in which fundamental ideas take root. (I will be addressing this in more detail in a future essay.)

Although I would never propagate eliminating words from our vocabularies, I am keen to understand words and the consequence of usage. And I also advocate the dynamic development of language. If we want to turn down the flame heating the Culture Wars we need to not only redefine our positions but also our terminology. Instead of eliminating fundamentalism we can redefine it.

Let's look at the word architecturally. The majority of permanent housing structures are built upon a foundation, a fundament. As different as the housing is, so different will be each fundament. But every fundament has one thing in common. It's not just the thing that holds up the house. Far more it is a mode of communicating between the landscape and the house. A major aspect of the fundament is, therefore, to take in the language of the terrain and translate that information into a level surface.

There is something in the universality of a fundament, therefore, that seems to often be overlooked. The Protestant Fundamentalists of the late nineteenth-century addressed the term within their given theological structure, seeking to define that which was fundamental to their beliefs. That's like analyzing one fundamental structure in terms of one specific type of topography. But what if we examine a fundament globally? What if we carry over the idea from architecture that a fundament is a mode of communication between a given terrain and that which is built upon it? Then the idea of fundamentalism in a global sense could refer to a universal search for basic values, common to all cultures or religions or schools of thought. What is it, therefore, that we all build upon, that leveling base? What is it, therefore, that, regardless of terrain, brings us all to a point in our beings, both individually and collectively, that is flat, solid, and determining?

This is fundamentalism. And in this respect we should all see it as a goal to become the fundamentalist. Only when we broaden our view and realize that the details that we are fighting about, however important they may be, are still just details, can we acknowledge the fundament, the common ground upon which we could build together.