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Archive for the ‘American Culture’ Category

Yesterday came my monthly credit card bill, in the mail. I know I should switch to online billing, but the power of habits has been stronger than my green conscience. That’s besides the point anyway. No, instead I want to share my surprise when I opened the dreaded envelope. If you are like most Americans, you will know what I mean. What was the four digit number in the ‘Amount to be paid‘ box? Was it a one, or a two, or a three, . . . I knew I had been good, had not been out to shop like I used to. Still the old fear was there, and with it the prospect of maybe having to transfer funds from my savings account into checking. Don’t you hate that feeling? Makes you wonder who is in charge?

The good news is, I got rewarded for my good behavior. With a bill, half of the usual amount. And the satisfaction of feeling in control, again.

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This morning’s New York Times article, ‘On the Internet, It’s All About ‘My’‘, took me straight to the current world food crisis. Particularly troubling, are the following statistics:

Matthew Zook of ZookNIC, a business that analyzes domain names, said domains that start with “my” more than tripled between 2005 and 2008, to 712,000 from 217,000. According to the government’s Patent and Trademark Office, the number of trademark applications to register marks that include the word “my” increased to 1,943 last year from 382 in 1998.

As a nation it seems to me that we are stuck in toddler, ‘It’s mine’ mode. Our mothers must not have done a very good job at explaining the true meaning of ‘You need to share’. We are a nation suffering from maladaptive narcissism, unable to see beyond our own wants.

Of course, there are some hopeful signs with the popularity of the Obama, ‘Yes We Can‘ campaign, and Al Gore‘s attempts to rally people with ‘We Can Solve It‘. But then, one needs to question the scope of the ‘we’. There is a real arrogance in thinking that ‘we’ the Americans have the solutions, and can decide what’s best for the whole planet.

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A trip to the neighbors across the street is almost always a culture shock. A peak into the reality of American culture and its excesses. This time, was Russell’s one year birthday party. You could tell from the street, by the balloons and the SUV’s parked in front. To get to it, we had to make our way through the house, and all the plastic toys, strewn all over the floor. I did not remember children needing so many things to play with. More was in the wing. It was impossible to ignore the mountain of presents waiting in the corner of the living room. We found the crowd, outside, celebrating, with enough food to feed an entire block, and disposable plates and plastic cups, of course. Kids and adults kept coming in and out of the obligatory bounce house. I asked Prad what kept the thing inflated. He assured me it only took minimal energy. Plus everybody seemed to enjoy the jumping so much. Little Russell, oblivious to the occasion and a big smile on his face, was cruising around, playing with a plastic straw and picking at the grass. Life seemed so easy, and happy, and abundant. I should have been rejoicing.

Bounce House

Instead I felt unease. Displayed in front of me, was a graphic manifestation of unconsciousness, that did not sit well with my green conscience. Prad accused me of being a party spoiler. ‘You are going overboard now. You can’t stop people. They are celebrating the happy event with their community.’ I could not disagree with the community part. It was the ‘how’ that bothered me. Before the dawn of plastic, what did people do? I asked. Wasn’t the party for Russell anyway? The contrast between Russell’s happiness with so little, and the amount of stuff that seemed necessary for everybody else to have a good time, seemed so obvious to me.

Last week, Andrew Revkin asked the DotEarth readers to ‘Imagine Everyone Was Equal In Emissions‘. What would it mean, knowing that currently the average American is producing about fifteen times as much as a person from India or Africa? It means Russell’s parents would have to live a very different life. No brand new toys, or at least not so many. No SUV. No flat screen TV running while nobody is watching. No disposable plates. Less food. Less meat. It means adopting Kyle’s ‘One Tonne Carbon Lifestyle‘, recognizing that there are indeed limits to what we can do and consume. And that such a change is not the end of the world, but instead the beginning of a new, more conscious way of living.

Twice a week now, I commute to San Francisco for a consulting assignment. Instead of driving, I take the train. Altogether, I get in my one hour of exercise, walking to and from the train station, and two hours of work in the train. Carbon emissions: minimal. Personal efficiency: maximal. This is what Kyle’s One Tonne Carbon Lifestyle is about. Can you think of one way that you can change your life that is all benefit to you, and to your environment?

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Every French kid knows the story of The Grasshopper and the Ant, one of La Fontaine‘s most popular fables. I remember reciting it to my third grade class:

The Grasshopper having sung
All summer long,
Found herself lacking food
When the North Wind began its song.
Not a single little piece
Of fly or grub did she have to eat.

She went complaining of famine
To the Ant’s home, her neighbor,
Begging her to loan her
A few grains to subsist
Until the new season,
“I shall pay you,” she said
“Both interest and principal,
Before next August, on my word as an animal.”

The Ant was not so inclined:
this not being one of her faults.
“What did you do all summer?
Said she to the grasshopper.
“Night and day I sang,
I hope that does not displease you.”
“You sang? I am so pleased.
Very well! Go ahead and dance now.”

Are Americans like the Grasshopper in La Fontaine’s Fable?

La Fontaine‘s wisdom is more relevant than ever. How much longer are we going to keep on singing, and dancing, without worrying about the consequences of our irresponsible behavior? Merry Christmas is right around the corner, and the malls are full, the cars are out in force, and the light decorations are on every house. One day when the party is over, will we be like the grasshopper? Feeling sorry for ourselves, for not having planned and acted as better stewards of our resources?

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Black Friday, really is a black day. Andrew Revkin, from DotEarth, and Kate, one of the readers of this blog, both called my attention to a very sad case of corporate sponsorship. What’s involved? A TV ad from Adbusters promoting Buy Nothing Day:

Here is a reprint of the press release from Adbusters:

Now in its 15th year, the popular Buy Nothing Day is celebrated every November by environmentalists, social activists and concerned citizens in as many as 65 countries.

Timed to coincide with Black Friday (this year on Friday, November 23) in the United States, and the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season internationally (on Saturday, November 24), the festival takes many shapes, from relaxed family outings, to free, non-commercial street parties, to politically charged public protests. Anyone can take part provided they spend a day without spending.
Featured in recent years by the likes of CNN, USA Today, MSNBC, Wired, the BBC, The Age and the CBC, the global event has been gained mainstream momentum in recent years as the climate crisis drives people to seek out greener alternatives to unrestrained consumption.
Last week, the Adbusters Media Foundation attempted to purchase airtime from MTV for a 30-second commercial promoting Buy Nothing Day 2007. The inoffensive spot uses an animated pig to illustrate the voracious habits of the average North American consumer; it can be viewed online at Adbusters.org.
MTV Networks refused to air the spot in light of its social and environmental message, with MTV Advertising Standards representative Elisa J. Billis explaining that “The spot goes further than we are willing to accept on our channels.”

What saddens me most, is not so much MTV’s reaction, as what it symbolizes in terms of the American culture. Consumption is the engine that drives our country. Beaucoup dollars are involved, and the little pig is foraging where it shouldn’t. There are certain things in this country that cannot be questioned, and consumption is one of them. The pig is doing a good job of stirring the pot.

It is important to recognize however, that trying to fight consumption in this country, and other ‘developed countries‘ for that matter, is a lost cause. Nowhere was it more clear to me, than during my recent visit to the San Francisco Green Festival. As I suggest in ‘Green Festival or Celebration of Green Consumption?‘, a better question to ask, is how can we redirect consumption towards greener alternatives?

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Please check my new post on Groovy Green:

Halloween Horror

Halloween is not just about scaring people off. Once you start looking at it with a green lens, it is also pretty horrifying.

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One hundred ten minutes. For one hundred ten minutes, I was transported into gypsy magic, thanks to Gypsy Caravan, the new movie about the Roman people. So moved I was by their spirit, that I came out of the movie wanting to sing, and dance, and share the joy I felt from them.

And I was made conscious of what is cruelly missing in our American culture. It’s called soul, and passion. The majority of us lead empty lives, fed by an orgy of mediocrity. Britney Spears has become our tragic heroin, the malls are our new congregations, and the young people’s favorite past time is to ‘hang out’. In 1933, C. G. Jung wrote the book, ‘Modern Man in Search of a Soul‘. I believe most of us are searching indeed, although we may not necessarily know it. We are searching when we make ritualistic shopping trips. We are searching when we drink ourselves into oblivion. We are searching when we starve ourselves to death. We are searching when we can’t stop wanting bigger houses, and more cars. We are searching when we can’t stop taking in more and more food. We are searching when we sit for hours at end in front of the TV or video games.

In her post, ‘A radical rethink of our lifestyles is required to save the planet‘, Anja Merret, worries about what she sees as almost unsolvable, ‘the main problem will be to persuade the ordinary folk like you and me living with all mod cons in the developed world, to radically re-assess our lifestyles and go back to very very basic living. Can you see that happening?‘. Anja, I think I have an answer for you. Not an easy one, but an answer nevertheless.

I already touched upon it in ‘The King of Buthan‘. Tonight, the gypsies reminded me. Anja deals with the substractive part of the climate crisis solution. She is right to think that it is in our human nature to not want to give back some of what we have become entitled to. My big house, my three cars, all my things, my American way of life, I want it. I think I want it. Until I find something even better, that will truly satisfy me. That’s where the gypsies come in. Although very poor, by American standards, the gypsies are in reality very rich. Their lives are filled with community, soul, passion, nature, all the important stuff. If we start reintroducing some of that gypsy spirit into our lives, it won’t be so hard to give up the rest. We won’t even want it, anymore.

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Americans are clean freaks, that’s a well known fact. I want to address this part of the American culture specifically, because it goes contrary to some of the behavioral changes that will become necessary as the climate and water crisis worsen. Health magazine just published an article on ‘The Germiest Places in America’ . I am not going anywhere after reading the article. In fact, I am not even going  in my kitchen, or my bathroom for that matter. The world is a scary place they say, with germs lurking everywhere, about to ambush you, and we are told, ‘wash up people, and get ready to wage a bit of germ warfare of your own’.

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To reduce the risk of germs form wet dirty laundry, we are told, 1) ‘Run your washer and dryer at 150 degrees . . .’, 2) ‘Transfer wet laundry to the dryer quickly so germs don’t multiply, and dry for at least 45 minutes’, 3) ‘ wash underwear separately’. Forget all the green tips about running washer warm or cold, minimizing number of loads, and air drying your laundry.

To combat germs in the bathtub, ‘Once a week, apply a disinfecting cleaner to the tub.”You need to actually scrub, then you need to wash the germs down the drain with water and dry the tub with a clean towel. ‘ How about showering instead of taking a bath?

This American habit of washing, cleaning, sanitizing, germ killing, is costing beaucoup precious water and energy. Other, just as civilized countries are not so concerned, and they seem to do just as well. Of course this is coming from someone who used to let her little children explore floor surfaces to their hearts’ content. I am French, after all.

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Great article in the San Francisco Chronicle, today. ‘Nature Deficit Disorderdiscusses young people’s growing alienation from nature. After reading it, I sat wondering, and very concerned. The article hits close to home. Our children spend hardly any time in nature, although we live minutes from great hiking trails, and only 30′ from the beach, and two hours from the mountains. Shopping, driving to each other’s houses, hanging out, and staring at the computer, have become their way of life. It is not for a lack of an example on our part. Prad and I go for long walks every day. I hike up the trail behind our house. We go to the beach. No, the problem is not there, but rather in a combination of cultural and environmental factors. The article lists five possible factors:

  1. Urbanization: 80% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, where opportunities to connect with nature are much less.
  2. Virtualization: children 8 to 18 spend an average of 61/2 hours a day with electronic media, either on the computer, in front of the TV, playing video games, or on the phone talking or texting.
  3. Parental fears of letting their children loose in nature: fears fed by sensationalistic reporting of rare occurences.
  4. Overbooked schedules, with heightened pressure to take AP classes and enter prestigious colleges.
  5. Lack of opportunities to connect with nature, in children from lower socio-economic background.

My most favorite childhood memories are of the times I spent in nature. Playing hide and seek in the wheat field near my parents’ house. Summers at my grandparents’ farm. Making necklaces out of grass. Picking up mushrooms in the woods. Eight year old, maybe, and biking alone, along empty roads in the midst of the country, savoring my freedom. With friends, trying to catch fishes with a fork, in the stream outside our village. Picking up red poppies, and making a bouquet for my mother. My first discovery of the beach, I was twelve. Hiking in the French alps. Rolling down the meadows. Looking for snails after the rain. Picking up grapes in my grandfather’s vineyards. Afternoon spent in the fields watching the goats graze, some baguette with butter and pear as my reward. The smell of rain. It all felt so good.

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Just went on Technorati, to check on my blog. The first thing I see, is this head banner from Discover Card, flashing, ‘More is Better‘. I will leave it at that . . .

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