Sunday, August 26, 2007

Just Stop Breathing

Summer in America is almost over. The reason we know this is that Labor Day is only a week away. Of course it has nothing to do with labor, only celebrating the end of summer, as well as children reluctantly returning to not so rare mediocre schools.

Speaking of mediocre, a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll claims that we adults don't read much. One in four adults, according to the poll, didn't read any books over the past year. One of those polled said reading just made him sleepy. He preferred relaxing by his swimming pool.

And speaking of education, did you know that the Grand Canyon is big enough to hold the entire population of the world? What about the fact that the fertilizer-choked dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi is larger than New Jersey? These facts and others can be found in Alan Weisman's book The World Without Us.

What would our planet be like if we humans just suddenly vanished? This is the theme of Weisman's intriguing book. The good news is Earth would likely recover from human depredation. Of course the bad news is that this is only a "what if" question. If we do manage to do ourselves in, it will likely not be with a whimper. A good nuclear holocaust, for example, might just turn our entire world into a floating asteroid.

But in fairness to Mr. Weisman, he suggests that some positive changes might result even if humanity didn't completely disappear. The catch, however, is that we'd have to make some drastic changes in both our behavior and, yes, in our population. Weisman believes we would have to reduce our population by 2100 to where it was in the 19th century, less than 2 billion people. How do we begin?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Poor Rich

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote an article about his government payment of $588 a year for not farming some land he owns in Oregon. The article is not about his small payment but about the American farm subsidy program, which is more often than not corporate welfare for agribusiness.

Ken Cook, president of Environmental Working Group, said a few months ago that, "America's farm subsidy system is broken." This has been stated before but up until recently the average person would have had difficulty gathering information on these programs. They were shrouded in mystery and unclear as to what the rationale might be for passing out taxpayer money.

Something like two-thirds of U.S. farmers do not receive any subsidy payments. Farm program benefits have been highly concentrated and have often not rewarded land stewardship and improving the environment. But now there is a web site called MULCH.

You can find out what your congressional representatives are doing in terms of approving farm subsidies and who is receiving them. It's a step in asking some basic questions like why or why not are we subsidizing certain commodities, why or why not are certain farmers (or pseudo-farmers) receive payments, and what is the "nonpolitical" reason(s) for making the decision.

At its worst the billions spent on the farm subsidy program are the kind of welfare capitalism that America increasingly can no longer afford. It's in our self-interest in knowing who is doing what and for whom, especially in terms of food and the land it is grown on.