Rachel’s Official Guide to Learning More About Shit Going on in the World

Quite frequently, I get people who ask me for recommended reading lists or a list of books they can read to be better informed about stuff going on in the world. After a number of friends from my study abroad program asked me to make a reading list for them so they could be more on top of politics and other news, I started thinking. While I do read a lot of nonfiction, the books I’ve read aren’t the only source of my knowledge about stuff. I spend at least as much time reading articles online, following people on Twitter and doing other things to stay informed. So rather than make a book list, I made this: Rachel’s Official Guide to Learning More About Shit Going on in the World. It’s a booklist with article links, recommendations for people to follow and stuff like that, vaguely grouped by topic, but generally sort of free form. It’s based on my personal experience and is thus completely subjective, noncomprehensive and biased. Hopefully this is helpful to everyone who wants to understand where my brain picks up the information it does. Comments, questions, criticisms and additions are highly appreciated/encouraged. I will also make additions as I encounter and remember more cool stuff. (Disclaimer: I am pretty damn far left of center, a fact which I make no apologies for, but which certainly informs my news sources and the things I choose to read. I think being better-informed is a nonpartisan activity, but my Twitter feed also doesn’t contain a single political commentator who self-identifies as conservative except the National Review Online. Just sayin’.)

a general note about finding cool stuff to read online

I get my online news primarily four ways:
1) Twitter. I follow a group of magazines, newspapers, journalists, bloggers, people who are paid to think, etc. My timeline thus usually somewhat reflects what’s going on in the world of lefty politics, environmental news and the like, without me having to individually check the websites of everyone cool who I try to pay attention to.

Some people I would highly recommend for having a well-rounded feed:

Pro Publica (nonprofit indie investigative journalism)
Grist (environmental news)
Feministing (awesome feminist blog)
Mother Jones (my favorite nonprofit journalists ever)
Colorlines (racial justice analysis and news)
RH Reality Check (reproductive and sexual health and access news)
AlterNet (leftist news)
GOOD (a magazine covering a variety of topics, generally into highlighting cool stuff people are doing)
Naomi Klein (author of The Shock Doctrine, commentator on various issues)
High Country News (news about the American West, strong environmental coverage)
Wikileaks (they open governments, apparently)
Al Jazeera English (great global coverage)
2) Reddit. If you’re unaware, reddit is a social news site grouped by topic. Basically, users can subscribe to different sub-reddits focusing on different subjects, which can be general (politics, environment) or very specific (Occupy Wall Street, guerrilla gardening). Users submit links to different sub-reddits, which are then voted up or down by other users. So the front page of any given reddit displays links that are the most well-liked by the community as a whole. And your personal front page displays the same for all the sub-reddits you subscribe to. It’s a pretty cool way of finding weird articles you otherwise might not about stuff you’re interested in. Plus, you can comment on links and generate discussions with other interested people.
3) Longform.org and longreads.org. These two sites collect submissions of longform journalism–generally articles that take at least 10 or so minutes to read. They both post a few new articles each day. Longform has articles organized by topic, so if you want to learn a lot about a particular country or issue, it can be a great source. Longreads lets you search all their articles for keywords of interest. Both sites will also post content that’s timely, such as collections of articles about Steve Jobs right after he died. In general, they’re best for going deep into interesting or random things, or for people who just appreciate good writing, and less good for keeping up on current events.
4) The New York Times. While somewhat vanilla, it’s a damn good all-around general news source. If you’re not a subscriber, you can get access to something like 20 articles online per month free. Articles you click on links to (for example, via Twitter, Facebook, or email) don’t count against this limit. Another good daily general news sources is the BBC. Also The Economist.
One other thing: more than being about following the right people on Twitter or reading the best articles out there, being well-informed is mostly a choice. You have to decide that you’re going to dedicate a certain amount of time every day, whether it’s ten minutes or three hours, to figuring out what’s going on in the world. By all means, go for what you’re interested in. I follow reproductive healthcare issues very closely, because it’s something I care deeply about. I didn’t pay as much attention to the Arab Spring as I probably should have, because it just didn’t grab me. There are far too many things going on in the world for you to ever know all of them. Don’t let it stop you from getting started.
Now then, here are some specific topics I care about with books and articles that I think are especially helpful for understanding them.
food and food politics
1) books
The Omnivore’s Dilemma—Michael Pollan
The classic explaining what’s wrong with our industrial food system, especially industrial meat and corn, and how we might go about fixing it. Not a great analysis of some key food justice issues, like food deserts and access to healthy options, but a great introduction to what’s out there.
Fast Food Nation—Eric Schlosser
I actually like this a lot better than Omnivore’s Dilemma. It explores the history of fast food and looks at industrial potato farming, flavor additives, slaughterhouses and a whole bunch of other related issues. My favorite part is the fact that he looks at industrial meat production from a labor standpoint, not just from a this-is-gross-and-unethical perspective.
Animal Factory—David Kirby
For people interested in factory farms, this book is a nice break from the usual literature focused on animal torture and gross health violations. It focuses on the efforts of local activists in rural areas (all self-identified Republicans) to stop factory farms near their homes because of human health and odor concerns. It’s a refreshingly personal and unique perspective.
Stuffed and Starved—Raj Patel
This is an awesome book about global food politics. It’s a bit academic in tone, and has been criticized for being one-sided with regard to the causes of poverty in developing countries. But I think it has a ton of interesting perspectives about government food policy, genetically modified crops and a bunch of other important topics.

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit—Barry Estabrook
The title of this book is somewhat misleading, because the majority of it is actually about the slave labor used to grow most Florida tomatoes and the way undocumented immigrants are exploited for cheap fruit (which, in my opinion, is even more interesting). Though it also talks about tomato genes, organic producers and a few other things. But anyway, it’s an awesome book, whether you’re into good food, social justice, immigrant rights, or whatever.

Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement—Janet Poppendieck
This is an awesomely thought-provoking book. The author essentially argues that food banks and other food giveaway things have done more harm than good in addressing food insecurity in the US. She discusses how American values, such as not wasting food, inform the kinds of actions being taken to address hunger, and how the concept of “poverty” has been almost completely redefined as an issue of “hunger”.

Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda—Carolyn de la Pena
A great cultural history of artificial sweeteners, including where they came from, how they were marketed, how gender and a desire for “control” played into their popularity and how efforts to regulate or control them have been resisted.

2) articles
On Racialicious, an awesome essay about growing up in a food desert.
My own blog post from this summer: what I learned about food justice and food “choice” during two years behind a checkstand.
How Goldman Sachs gambled on starvation.
From Foreign Policy magazine, the new geopolitics of food.
The Seattle Times explores what quinoa’s rising popularity in affluent countries has done to Bolivia and other exporters.
3) blogs and sites for news
Tom Philpott, food blogger for Mother Jones
Raj Patel’s blog

financial crisis
In general, there are a few great journalists who have covered the collapse very well from different angles.
Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone has some great articles explaining how we got here and ranting about the moral bankruptcy of Wall Street. He’s also written a few books about the crash, most recently Giftopia, which would be good for further reading. Among his articles, these are my favorites:
-Is the Securities and Exchange Comission (SEC) covering up Wall Street crimes?

Michael Lewis of Vanity Fair has also written extensively about the collapse, focusing more on the Euro Zone. His article on Greece, “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds“, is a great explanation of the state of Greece’s economy. He’s also covered Ireland and what all these failing Euro countries will mean for Germany. He’s written several books as well–The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, which explores the housing market/derivative crisis through the eyes of people who saw it coming; and Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, which looks at the economies that have been collapsing around the world.

Bethany McLean, also with Vanity Fair, has covered investment baking for a while (she was one of the journalists who broke the Enron story). She has an excellent article exploring the disconnect between how we see Goldman Sachs and how the company sees itself, post-crash, and another piece on the history of Merril Lynch and how its corporate culture contributed to the mortgage crisis.

A German paper, Spiegel, did an excellent, if somewhat dry, series explaining the collapse of the Euro Zone very clearly. (Parts one, two and three.)

Mother Jones, my favorite magazine ever, has a timelinefrom 2008 tracing the history of the housing/financial crisis.

American society/culture/labor
Reefer Madness—Eric Schlosser
By the Fast Food Nation guy, this book explores the underground economy in the US by looking at three markets: marijuana, porn, and illegal immigrant labor. It’s a fascinating history of drug wars, obscenity laws and a bunch of other random things.

Methland—Nick Reding
One of my favorite books ever. It explores what the meth epidemic has done to small-town America, which means that in addition to being about drugs, it talks about the crippling effects that job loss and industrial agriculture have had in rural areas.

Nickle and Dimed—Barbara Ehrenreich
A classic from the mid-90s. The author goes “undercover” and works a variety of minimum-wage jobs to see how hard it is to survive. Not the most eye-opening today if you pay attention to the real world, but it puts a face on problems that can seem abstract.

The Working Poor—David Shipley
Kind of a more modern updated of Nickle and Dimed, the authors goes around and interviews a bunch of working poor people. It’s a nicely balanced book—the fact that some of the individuals he profiles have made bad choices or have problems like drug addiction isn’t glossed over, but Shipley also looks at structural factors that have kept working people in poverty.

The single best summary I’ve ever read of Ayn Rand’s crazy libertarian/”Objectivist” philosophy, why the right is infatuated with it, and why it’s completely wrong.

environmental stuff
Cadillac Desert—Marc Reisner
A classic looking at the history of dam building in the US, mostly the American West. It examines the politics that led to so many stupid dams getting approved and some of the financial and environmental ramifications.

Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming and the Future of Water in the West—James Powell
A more updated book about Western water politics, looking at the future of the Colorado River Basin as global warming starts diminishing water supplies.

Chasing Molecules—Elizabeth Grossman
An environmental chemistry exploration of biologically pervasive molecules (like flame retardants and dioxins) and the health effects they’re having on people. Informative and easy to read.

Endgame (Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization and Volume 2: Resistance)—Derrick Jensen
This is by one of my favorite authors, the anti-civilization activist Derrick Jensen. He’s very radical, and I disagree with him on several key things, but his writing does a beautiful job of tying together seemingly disparate problems like pollution, sweatshop labor, the prison-industrial complex and rape. Other good books of his to check out are A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe and Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos.

If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front
An awesome documentary about ELF which raises great questions about what kinds of activism are effective, what should be considered terrorism, etc. Available on Netflix Instant as well.

FLOW: For Love of Water
A documentary looking at corporate privatization of the world’s water supplies. Also on Netflix Instant.

US-Mexico border/immigration
The Devil’s Highway—Luis Alberto Urrea
The story of the Yuma 14, a group of 26 Mexican migrants whose story started with a journey across the Arizona desert and ended with fourteen of them being flown home in bodybags. A great examination of the way US border policies contribute to deaths in the desert, beautifully written.

Amexica: War Along the Borderline—Ed Vulliamy
The most comprehensive border book I’ve ever read, tying together the drug trade, illegal immigration, the rise of maquilas, the effects of free trade agreements, the murders and violence in Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere, poverty and everything else you can think of. He’s also written an article for The Nation, As Juarez Falls.

Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields—Charles Bowden
Bowden has covered the border for at least 20 years, and his latest book looks at the violence in Ciudad Juarez as a phenomenon that has gone beyond a simple explanation, like drug wars. He argues that Juarez has reached a tipping point where violence is part of the social order and that the breakdown of Juarez tells us a lot about the future of global capitalism.

The New York Times Magazine looks at the relationship between the border cities of Ciudad Juarez, the murder capital of the world, and El Paso, Texas, one of the safest cities in the US.

Business Week examines the labor market in the US in the wake of Alabama’s strict immigration laws. Turns out a lot of Americans don’t want to do the jobs left behind.

development, aid, international relations, global issues
The Shock Doctrine—Naomi Klein
If you want to read one book to learn as much as possible about the world, read this one. It’s a history of the way neoliberal economic theory (privatization, deregulation, etc.) has been applied all over the world by the US, the IMF and the World Bank, for the benefit of private corporations and wealthy/powerful individuals, usually with disastrous consequences for the people actually living in these countries. Even if you believe that neoliberal policies have benefited these countries in the long run, it sheds light on the complete lack of democratic process which often accompanies Chicago School economic policy.

Half the Sky—Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
A look at the ways women are oppressed around the world, from sex slavery to maternal mortality, which highlights NGOs and initiatives that are making a difference. Focuses more on local, grassroots groups than on big NGOs like CARE and Heifer International, which I like (though those guys are in there too).

An awesome interview with Michael Maren, a former Peace Corps volunteer and aid worker, analyzing why aid has been completely useless for developing countries. (Another book, The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly, also argues this thesis. I haven’t read it personally, but it’s supposed to be pretty good.)

GQ has an awesome three-part series on the international sex trade. Part one is about sex clubs in the Philippines, part two is about sex trafficking and part three looks at sex tourism in Costa Rica.

My hometown paper, the Seattle Stranger, has a series investigating why cocaine showing up in Seattle was being cut with levamisole, a cattle deworming drug that can kill you. On the way, the author uncovers a bunch of interesting information about the global cocaine trade. Part one looks at the levamisole-tainted cocaine in Seattle, part two investigates the global trade and part three looks at the death toll from the last 100 years of US drug policy and argues for legalization as the best solution.

Although I often take issue with his conclusions, Malcolm Gladwell’s essay Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted is a great look at the limits of social media inspired activism.

Generation Why? One of the best essays I’ve ever read. It’s a review of The Social Network, a critique of Facebook and a plea for our generation to do something better without being condescending.

How Google Dominates Us: a much-needed synthesis of the most recent books about Google exploring privacy, their search algorithms, and the ubiquity of Google in our lives

Wired on Amazon’s increasing domination of the Internet.

A profile of Sheryl Sandberg, the Google VP who left to become the Chief Operating Officer for Facebook. Also one of the few women in Silicon Valley.

The Great Tech War of 2012: Apple vs. Amazon vs. Facebook vs. Google.

I read way too much about the future of journalism on the internet, but this Columbia Journalism Review piece is one of my favorites. It calls into question many of the agreed-upon solutions for the future of news, like that news organizations will become less prominent and we’ll see more “citizen journalism”. It argues that specialized knowledge and expertise is still important for news to serve its watchdog function.

feminism, gender, sex, LGBTQ
Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape—edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It goes way beyond rape to look at the ways society constructs female sexuality, issues of consent, and how we can go about building a better model of sexuality that will help everyone have more fulfilling sex lives and relationships.

The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science—Julie des Jardins
Using Marie Curie as a starting point, the author looks at the role women have played in scientific discoveries, and the ways narratives of women in science are constructed to fit in with society’s standards for “acceptable” roles for women.

Dan Savage, America’s sex columnist, on the virtues of nonmonogamy for saving marriages.

Teaching Good Sex: a novel sex ed class at a high school in Pennsylvania.

A good overview of feminism and its history from Bitch magazine.

Savior vs. Savior: Looking at the murder of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider by Scott Roeder, an anti-abortion activist.

Schrodinger’s Rapist: A Guy’s Guide to Approaching Strange Women Without Getting Maced

Queering Ecology: Orion Magazine looks at queer behavior in the animal kingdom

Feministing: general feminist news and commentary
Feministe: general feminist news and commentary
Savage Love, Dan Savage’s sex advice column, which is awesome
Microagressions, a Tumblr which looks at people’s daily experiences with sexism, racism, etc.


Veganism and the myth of individual choice

I just came across this video via GOOD magazine. It’s a Mercy for Animals tape of pigs inside a factory farm, and though it’s incredibly hard to watch, it’s also really important.

I’m cynical and jaded. It’s hard for me to get truly angry or upset about the abuses of industry and the destruction of the natural world, because it’s so ubiquitous. But this video had me in tears. Climate change is distant and species extinction is abstract, but pigs screaming in terror and pain is awfully, disturbingly real.

I went to the Mercy for Animals website and clicked on their “Get Active” page, which made me even angrier. Here are their suggestions for getting involved in this issue, in the order they’re listed on the site.

1) Go vegetarian, or better yet, vegan.
2) Educate others about the horrors of factory farming and the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism.
3/4/5)Join Mercy for Animals by sending them money, volunteer for them and attend their events.
6) Spread the word about vegetarianism via Facebook, Twitter and your email signature.
7) Hand out leaflets about vegetarianism.
8) Organize a video screening.
9) Veganize local restaurants and cafeterias.
10) Write people in power about these issues.

Look, I get that individual actions are important. Feeling personally invested in an issue is an important thing, and many people get into broader forms of activism because they started out being vegetarians and then choose to look into food production more (oh hey there). So by all means, go veggie or vegan if you want to and spread the word to interested parties. But we all know that individual vegans are never going to end factory farming, and as a movement, we do a disservice to ourselves by pretending otherwise.

Most people will never be vegan. Selling people on reducing meat consumption is feasible—it’s probably healthier for them anyway. Selling people on vegetarianism is challenging, but doable. Selling people on veganism is really hard. Veganism, as far as I’ve seen, has a popular perception as a movement of ascetics who are interested in self-deprivation and having moral high ground. This isn’t completely accurate, obviously (I have vegans friends, I swear), but like most stereotypes, it contains grains of truth. Being vegan isn’t easy, and it isn’t practical or realistic for many people, especially people who are low-income.

I don’t believe we can sell the world on veganism, but I think we can sell them on not torturing animals. Pretty much any decent human would be saddened, angered or shocked by watching that video, or one of the many others documenting similar practices in the industry. I believe we do a disservice to those who will never be vegan when we list that as the first action step a concerned person can take. Individual choices can be powerful and empowering, but they won’t change the status quo. Framing the solution to factory farming as veganism disempowers people who aren’t willing or in a position to make that choice. It frames people unwilling to give up animal products as part of the problem. It emphasizes personal choice over political action, even though the latter can produce results on a much larger scale.

Existing power structures will not change or give up power without a fight. No one has ever stopped clear cutting because a bunch of people from the Sierra Club asked nicely. They stopped because radical Earth First and ELF people were busy chaining themselves to trees and monkeywrenching machinery, and suddenly a compromise with the Sierra Club seemed like a perfectly reasonable middle ground. And existing power structures have made factory farming a necessity for feeding the world, especially poor Americans.

Ending factory farming requires radicals and compromisers. It requires activists willing to break into slaughterhouses and film conditions inside of them. It requires people to build and support alternative meat suppliers, and policies which allow equality of access to those alternatives. It requires people who want to lobby Congress to pass more stringent regulations on factory farms, and it requires vegan anarchists who want to liberate pigs from their prisons. There’s no reason you should have to be a vegan to care about animal suffering or to be an anti-factory farm activist. We need as many committed people as we can get to fight back, and pretending that our individual choices are the most important tool we have won’t get us very far.

Local isn’t about the carbon footprint

I just posted my problems with the local movement, namely that a focus on choosing local foods can ignore the fact that the same crops have very different environmental impacts when grown in different places. That said, I’m a huge believer in eating locally. I’ve heard some criticisms of the local food movement recently that have bugged me because they seem incomplete, so I want to address them.
The most common criticism of local eating that pops up on various blogs has to do with carbon emissions. Some people claim, as the Freakonomics blog crew did a while ago, that the efficiencies of large-scale agriculture can mean that stuff shipped in from really far away actually has a smaller carbon footprint than local food. They tell you to picture one large steamship or cargo plane compared with dozens of inefficient diesel pickups driven by individual farmers.
The other carbon footprint argument is made by people comparing the transportation footprint of food to the production footprint of meat. Because of the huge amount of greenhouse gases released by animals, particularly cattle, eating meat and dairy gives you a much bigger carbon footprint than eating food shipped halfway across the world to your plate. Sometimes, this argument ends with the claim that if we really care about saving the world and reducing our impact, we should go vegetarian or vegan instead of worrying about local food.
I have two big problems with the carbon footprint argument. One: it’s not uniformly accurate. The generalizations that are relied on to make claims like, “x produces more carbon emissions than y” mean that those statements have to be taken with a grain of salt. The carbon footprint of a piece of food depends on literally thousands of factors—what it is, where it was grown or raised, where the water to irrigate it came from, how power is generated in the area it’s grown, how it was shipped and how it was packaged, just to name a few. Cows can be managed in such a way that they increase the organic content of soil, meaning the soil sequesters carbon and the beef being produced has a greatly reduced or negative footprint. I’m willing to concede that most of the time this isn’t the case, but to generalize about “the carbon footprint of beef” ignores the reality of farmers who are working hard to do it right. There’s simply no accurate way to know the exact footprint of anything, especially if you don’t know the person who produced it.
Secondly, these arguments are assuming that the only point of eating local is reducing your carbon footprint. A lot of foodies care about that, but most of us have other reasons we want to eat locally too. I personally don’t care much about my individual carbon footprint—I’m much more worried about the Keystone XL pipeline and stopping coal plants from being built than agonizing over how many cow farts it takes to destroy the planet. For me, local foods are about community. Buying directly from farmers keeps money in my area, where it has a greater multiplier effect. It supports hardworking average people, rather than shareholders and executives at big supermarkets. It allows me to have the awesome experience of strolling through the farmers’ market with no shopping list and buying weird-looking vegetables on impulse because the farmer who grew it was right there and told me how she cooks it at home.
Local foods are a function of privilege and wealth, and they’re yet another indicator of the sad fact that low-income people are much less likely to have access (geographically and financially) to healthy, fresh food, much less the time and knowledge required to cook it. As far as I’m concerned, this is the biggest problem with the local food movement. Choosing local can’t be called a choice if most people aren’t in a position to make it.
Ultimately, though, we need local. If we’re going to live on this planet well into the future, we’re going to have to do a better job of building resilient communities where members support each other. We’re going to have to grow more food closer to where we eat it and pay better attention to taking care of our soil and water. Local isn’t about carbon footprints. It’s much, much bigger than that. It’s about nothing less than reshaping our entire relationship to food.
Sometimes, this sounds like a daunting task to me. But then I remember that the current food infrastructure hasn’t been in place for very long. My great grandma knew how to can food. My grandma remembers what real tomatoes taste like and doesn’t want to buy the ones in the supermarket because she says they’re just not the same. Another world is possible, and its close relatives have existed in living memory. Industrial food on this scale is a post-World War II invention, and the seeds of resistance began sprouting a few decades ago, when organic food became a thing. I spent much of my time hopelessly depressed, lamenting the state of the world and politics and social injustice. But food is one thing that leaves me smiling. We’re up against the biggest, most entrenched special interests in the history of civilization. But time, dedication and ecology are on our side. It’s going to be hard, but we’ll get there. And when we do, there won’t be bloggers asking questions about whether local food makes sense, because local will be the new normal.

Beyond local

Note: This is a column I wrote for the Pioneer last fall while I was on Whitman’s Semester in the West program. The column can also be found on the Pioneer website. I’m planning to post in the next few days about some common reasons people argue against local food and why they’re missing the point, but I thought it would be relevant to post my own critique of the local idea, as well some thoughts on the shortcomings of food package labels.

The importance of eating local foods has been a prominent theme in the environmental movement for the past few years. Eating local makes sense for many reasons—buying close to home is a way to connect people to the farmers who grow their food, and a shorter transportation distance generally means fewer carbon emissions. As we develop local food systems, however, it is critical to remember that not all crops are created equal.
Consider California. About half of our nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown here, mostly in irrigated valleys which rely on the importation of water. In Southern California, much of this water comes from the Colorado River, which has been dammed dozens of times to provide cheap water for the desert farms and metropolises of the American West. California has the largest share of the Colorado’s water, and it uses about 80% of what it takes to irrigate crops. Unfortunately, the Colorado is overallocated—shared between seven states and Mexico, depended on to feed the growth of Las Vegas and Phoenix and subject to increased water loss as climate change warms the West. With water shortages looming on the horizon, California’s farmers may move to mining groundwater, pumping it from underground aquifers at rates that will take centuries to replenish.
A concerned environmentalist living in Los Angeles could easily find local produce to eat. Go to the supermarket, and you’ll find California-grown avocadoes, tomatoes, oranges, carrots and artichokes. But how sustainable is it to eat vegetables grown in a semi-desert with water pumped to them from hundreds of miles away? If local eating requires taking so much water from the Colorado that its waters have failed to reach the ocean for the last three decades, what are we accomplishing?
This is not to say that local foods aren’t a worthwhile goal. On the contrary, some degree of local food production is essential for solving climate change. But locovores need to do more than look at the distance their food has traveled to get to their plate. The same food produced in two different climates can have dramatically different environmental effects. Cattle grazed on Virginia pastures, where it rains, are good for the land and can easily be rotated between pastures to allow grasses to regrow. Cattle grazed in the desert canyonlands of Utah trample biotic soil crusts, increase soil erosion and allow non-native plants to take over the ecosystem. If you live in Utah and want to eat beef, getting it from Virginia might be the more sustainable choice.
Environmentalists are used to screening food by labels. If something is organic, local, grass-fed or all-natural, it’s automatically assumed to be better for our health and the Earth. If we want to succeed in building a more sustainable food system, we need to move beyond these labels and look at the actual impacts our food has on the land it’s grown on. If a crop can be grown in the area where you live without pumping a river dry, building a dam to divert subsidized irrigation water or permanently depleting the soil of its nutrients, it’s a good candidate for sustainability. If not, get it from somewhere that can grow it sustainably or go without it.
Obviously, this approach is not universally applicable—many crops are unsustainable no matter where they are grown, and there isn’t enough choice or transparency in our food system to answer all of these questions. Being in a place to consider your food choices this carefully is a function of education, environmental awareness and affluence, all of which are privileges many people don’t share. But to the extent it’s possible, everyone who cares about the health of the planet needs to ask difficult questions when they to go the store or sit down for dinner. Looking at the package will never tell you everything you need to know about your food. Talk to the farmer, learn what grows well where you live and pay attention to what you’re supporting when you buy food. Our existence on this planet depends on its ability to produce food for us. We need to start taking better care of it.

Fat acceptance

I’m five feet, five and a half inches tall, and I weigh 150.7 pounds. This gives me a body mass index (BMI) of 24.7, just a hair below the cutoff for overweight (25).

I used to be skinny. I had no breasts to speak of until well into seventh grade. I had bony knees tiny legs and ribs you could count, if only just. By freshman year of high school, I had developed a bit. I ran cross country that fall, stopped running once the season was over, kept eating four meals a day and gained ten pounds that winter. In my first two years of college, I’ve put on another fifteen pounds.

By American standards, I’m an average weight, probably even below average. I’ve always loved my body–especially during the two or three years when I had a respectable chest and still held on to my flat stomach. I’ve never felt “fat”, or had any particular desire to lose weight. But over the past two years, as I’ve gained more weight, I’ve found it harder to look in the mirror and feel proud. Initially, I thought this was because of the way I looked–the rolls of fat on my side that appeared when I bent over, or the way my cheekbones didn’t stick out quite as much as they used to. I told myself I wouldn’t always look like this, that it would get better when I didn’t have school and three jobs to keep me busy and stressed.

After a year of feeling this way, during which I stayed about the same weight, I realized I wasn’t mad at myself for the way I looked. I was mad because I wasn’t taking care of my body. With an all-you-can-eat meal plan, I’d been eating more than I was used to, and I felt worse for it. I wasn’t exercising regularly. I made some choices to change this. I signed up for aerobics classes, got off Whitman’s meal plan so I could cook healthy food for myself and tried to limit my binging on chips and cookies a bit.

Guess what happened? I stayed exactly the same weight. I might have even gotten bigger. And I do not care anymore.

My parents, like many well-meaning people, have fallen into the skinny = healthy trap. When I told Mom I hated cross country and was quitting junior year of high school, she was concerned about my health without a regular source of exercise. The way she chose to phrase this concern was, “Aren’t you worried you’ll get fat if you don’t exercise?” This summer, I proudly declared that I didn’t care about my stomach fat anymore, because I had more important things to worry about and I wasn’t “overweight” anyway. My dad’s response: “Don’t you think you are, a little bit?” I responded with a vehement, “No!” Later, I had another thought. What if I was? Would it even matter?

Since then, I’ve thought about fat a lot. Here’s my non-radical reasoning about why fat is the wrong question:

Americans (and other people, to be fair) eat terrible food and don’t exercise. Many people could stand to be more healthy. But healthier doesn’t mean skinnier. People can be healthy at tons of different weights. Some obese people eat very little and exercise regularly. Some skinny people can eat whatever they want without gaining any weight. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. So sure, encourage people to be healthy, eat well, lay off the junk food and exercise regularly. Maybe they’ll lose weight in the process. Maybe they won’t. But either way, they’ll certainly be healthier, and better off. There is absolutely no need to shame people for their weight or teach them that they are disgusting or unworthy of love or some other awful shit like that.

And here’s my more radical reasoning (thanks to the amazing Lindy West at The Stranger for giving me some of these ideas in her awesome essay Hello, I Am Fat, which you should go read right now.)

Being healthy is an admirable trait, but it’s not the be all and end all of human existence. What if someone wants to eat fried food all the time? That’s their right as a person. What if someone has absolutely no desire to lose weight? That’s absolutely their prerogative, because it’s their body. Not yours. Not society’s. Not everybody has to be healthy, just like not everyone has to be well-read or fluent in three languages or able to cook five course meals or pilot fighter jets. These are all traits that make for pleasant, well-rounded people, but they’re not essential to live a happy, fulfilling life. If someone wants to be unhealthy, that’s completely their choice. If someone happens to be fat, there’s no guarantee that they are unhealthy at all, and either way, you don’t have a right to tell them how to live their life.

People berate and ridicule fat people, tell them that they’re imperfect, half-formed people who just need to lose a little weight before they can find love and happiness. People who do this claim to be concerned about health and people’s well being, which is bullshit. As Lindy points out, health includes mental health, and there are literally millions of fat people who’re tried to lose weight to no avail.

For people who are concerned about public health, I would like to point something else out. I’ve previously quoted Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, who argues that obesity is a symptom not of “an impoverished faculty of choice” but “an impoverished range of choices”. Obesity correlates with poverty, because poor people are more likely to live in food deserts and to not be able to afford fresh produce, gym memberships and a host of other things that keep the rich looking like covergirls. So if you’re really, really concerned about health and people’s well being, you’d be much better off pushing for food system reform (an end to corn subsidies, better social welfare programs, subsidized produce, etc.) than you would shaming fat people.

Obviously, that’s what I want to do. But I’m making a promise to myself. Starting today, I promise to take good care of myself–regular exercise, not too much junk food. I promise to love myself no matter how much I weigh. I promise to never try to lose weight, because that’s so not the point. I promise to remember all the amazing things my body can do, like hiking up ridiculous hills. I promise to never encourage anyone else to lose weight or shame them for their body size or appearance. I promise to be aware of thin privilege. I promise to fight with everything I have to build a better food system, and if I happen to have stomach fat rolls while I’m doing it, I promise to not care at all.

Sustainable agricultural development

Over the past two weeks, I’ve read a bunch of articles written by African agricultural experts, and talked to government officials and NGO representatives about the best way to develop Ghana’s agricultural sector. Most of the experts seem to agree about a few basic points, namely that Ghanaian agriculture suffers from low productivity due to low soil fertility and farmers using sub-optimal practices and insufficient inputs for their crops. Common problems include a lack of irrigation (which restricts growing to the rainy season), the small/inefficient size of farms (85-90% of cultivated land is on farms of two hectares or less), lack of fertilizer and pesticide use, and farmers using saved seeds rather than hybrid, improved varieties. (Improved seeds, incidentally, are not the same thing as genetically modified seeds. They’re just seeds bred for certain climatic conditions; GM seeds are effectively illegal in Ghana due to government regulations and the amount of time it takes to get new seeds approved by the government.)

With problems defined this way, most agricultural strategy I’ve come across, both from the Ghanaian government and assorted NGOs, seems to focus on building a more industrial agricultural system. Publications point out that the vast majority of Africa’s farmers are subsistence level (1% of the US population farms, and these farmers grow a surplus of food; meanwhile, 70ish% of Ghanaians farm and the country still imports staples like rice). As far as I can tell, this is seen as a bad thing. Most strategies for agricultural development suggest that the way forward involves larger farms, fewer farmers, more efficient distribution, irrigation, increased fertilizer use and improved seed varieties.

Certainly, the desire to increase agricultural productivity makes sense. The world population continues to grow, and more and more people are thinking, talking and writing about the coming food crisis and what it will mean. The world needs to grow enough to feed everyone who’s here, plus the 3 billion people who are coming by the end of the century. Inequality of distribution is a huge part of the picture, as are the inefficiencies of meat production (industrial/factory farmed animals, which account for virtually all meat production, are fed about nine calories of soy or corn for every calorie of their meat we end up eating).

I’m not convinced, though, that the agricultural strategy being pursued by the international development community is the best way to do this. Some inefficiencies in Ghanaian agriculture are well worth addressing: farmers could make better use of organic fertilizers if they were priced more affordably and distributed more efficiently, for example. But the tone of the policy documents I’ve read seems to suggest that Ghana (along with other African countries) needs to modernize quickly and move people away from farming if it wants to lift its people out of poverty. This isn’t a bad idea in moderation, but if you take it to its logical conclusion, you’re going to end up with a food system like the US. Which, to my mind, is not a good thing.

American agriculture is incredibly efficient. It’s very good at getting cheap food to people, and has allowed us to grow into a country where poor people are often obese. Many American diets are deficient in critical nutrients, but almost all have enough calories to keep people from starving.

This is the success story that the architects of American agricultural policy like to tell, but it comes with a lot of external costs which we’re becoming increasingly familiar with. E.coli, bird flu, cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, animal torture, substandard agricultural working conditions and identical tomatoes which can be shipped across the country but don’t taste like anything—these are all costs we pay for cheap food. We don’t pay consensually, or often knowingly, but we do pay, sooner or later.

There’s a huge debate about whether or not cheap food is worth it. Industry and government reps have been known to defend the system, saying that these risks are exaggerated and the alternative—starving masses—is worse. I believe we have other choices, and there’s been a good amount of research showing that organic farming techniques can produce as much or more food than their industrial counterparts. But ultimately, it’s a pointless debate to have. Cheap food is built on oil. Agricultural chemicals are petroleum- based, synthetic fertilizers require oil to produce, and huge transport distances are unsustainable in a world with finite oil reserves. There’s debate about how long we have left, but we’re using up a finite resource, which means we’re going to run out eventually. And when we get close—when oil prices go up, and instead of spiking, they keep climbing—food is going to be expensive. This has already started to happen around the world, and I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon.

So in a world of uncertainty, with rising food prices, it makes sense to grow more food. But it also makes sense to be cautious, to build models that are resilient and sustainable in addition to being high-yielding. For Ghana, it will probably mean improved seeds, better irrigation technologies, more organic fertilizer and fewer farmers. But that doesn’t have to mean emulating the US’s industrial system. It doesn’t have to mean growing cash crops for export, like cocoa, at the expense of crops which are consumed locally. Right now, I can walk two blocks from the Burro office to the Koforidua market and buy pineapples, cassava, yam, tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, oranges, limes, lemons, eggs, peppers, lettuce, carrots, cucumbers and eggplant, all of it grown locally by small farmers. You’d be hard-pressed to find this much local variety in any American supermarket, even in California. I believe that Ghana, and other developing countries, will be able to figure out a way to meet the challenges facing their agricultural producers. But I also hope that the changes required won’t replace the Koforidua market with something that looks like Wal-Mart or Safeway.

Grazing: learning to see

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Escalante, Utah
context: During this week, we were working with Mary O’Brien, an ecologist with the Grand Canyon Trust. Mary was one of several ecologists we met who believed that cattle grazing on Western public lands was an environmental nightmare and is working to reduce the amount of land that’s grazed. Today, we went out on an actual grazing allotment to count cows and see what the land looked like.
I think today, I get it. I’ve seen Suzanne cry and Mary rant about riparian habitat and grazing. I’ve seen cows and incised channels. But today, wandering across a few miles of moonscape covered in hoof marks and cowpies, I saw a bit of what they see. The fence, built perhaps to keep cows away from part of the stream and the juniper bushes, was in decent shape, but the cows had access to the stream on both sides because they’d managed to erode a path down into the gully. The water was muddy and trampled to death.
I’m still having trouble being angry about it. Maybe because it’s hard to pinpoint a source. I don’t fault the individual rancher trying to make a living, though I have no sympathy for absentee billionaires or giant corporations who run cattle. Cows are far too docile and placid to be the objects of anger. And the political and bureaucratic clusterfuck seems difficult to pin on any particular person, law or agency. It’s a beast of its own, independent of individual human desires, although a product of them.
But I know it needs to change. I’m not as strident as Mary, though I feel the truth in her statement that some jobs or lifestyles cannot be justified because the cost to the earth is too high. I know absolutely that a rancher should be able to graze fewer cattle than an allotment allows for and should be able to sell it for conservations purposes if both parties are willing. But beyond that, it’s so hard to untangle. I worry about imperialism and outsourcing of negative consequences. If we eliminate the 2-3% of beef grazed on public lands here (and 2-3% of American beef is still a ton of cows), demand won’t follow the drop in supply. So we’ll import from Argentina or Brazil and eat cows with a huge carbon footprint grazed on pasture that used to be Amazonian rainforest before it was clearcut. We’ll have our land back and some smug satisfaction or feeling of grand victory, but I worry we’ll just be outsourcing the problem. So what, ethically, should I be eating? If I add a no-public-grazing clause to my vegetarian meat-eating ethics, I might as well just go back to no meat at all. I want to be healthy, which means no more tofu if I can help it, and I’m not the kind of girl who can live off of lentils. I love dairy, but that’s a curtain I’ve barely started to pull back, and I know I won’t like what I find. Someday, I want a house in Seattle with a backyard big enough for chickens and a goat. But until then, I still think I’m doing better eating cheese, raw milk and Thundering Hooves beef.