THE CENTER FOR THIRD AGE NEWSLETTER – AUGUST 2013
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
2. ERR IN THE DIRECTION OF KINDNESS
3. LOVE – THE ULTIMATE OUTLAW
4. THE HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO DEMENTIA
5. HOW TO BE MORE THAN A MINDFUL CONSUMER
6. STUDY TIES HIGHER BLOOD SUGAR TO DEMENTIAL RISK
7. WELCOME TO THE AGE OF DENIAL
8. THIS MONTH’S LINKS
QUOTE OF THE MONTH – MAYA ANGELOU
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
August Greetings, Dear Friends…
No Musings from the old man this month. I’m taking August off to recover from surviving our annual Family Week in New Hampshire and rotating among five other family homes in the remaining twenty-one days since arriving back in the US. Newest grandchild, Xavier William (born May 6) is gorgeous, and some of my other offspring can be attractive, too.
That doesn’t mean there are no Musings this month. George Saunders’ convocation speech to Syracuse’s College of Arts and Sciences is a as thoughtful a piece as I could want. Please enjoy it and a lot more good stuff…
Much love, FW
2. ERR IN THE DIRECTION OF KINDNESS
BY GEORGE SAUNDERS, http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/george-saunderss-advice-to-graduates/
On May 11 at the Carrier Dome, writer, professor and class of ’88 alumnus George Saunders delivered the convocation speech for the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University.
More than two months later, that speech has begun to cause ripples across the Internet.
Yesterday, the New York Times released a full transcript of the speech (available on the school’s website since May 20). It’s since been picked up and reposted by countless blogs and websites including the Huffington Post.
Saunders has been teaching creative writing at SU for more than 15 years. The New York Times bestselling author has won the National Magazine Award four times.
In his speech, he makes one critical request of the students in attendance: “Err in the direction of kindness.”
Complete text here:
Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).
And I intend to respect that tradition.
Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.
So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.
But here’s something I do regret:
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me.
So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?
Those who were kindest to you, I bet.
It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.
Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?
Here’s what I think:
Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).
Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.
So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?
Well, yes, good question.
Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.
So let me just say this. There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.
Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.
One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”
And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.
Congratulations, by the way.
When young, we’re anxious – understandably – to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can….
And this is actually O.K. If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.
Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.
Congratulations, Class of 2013.
I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.
3. LOVE – THE ULTIMATE OUTLAW
A MENTAL BREATHER FROM HOWARD HANGER, AUGUST 26, 2013
All you need is love! Ra-ta-da-ta-da! Easy to sing and fun to feel when you’re feeling it. Of course we all know the chance of feeling loved all the time is right up there with the chance of winning the lottery, having a Victoria Secret body or finding a good parking place when you’re in a hurry.
“Love is the ultimate outlaw,” writes Tom Robbins. “It just won’t adhere to the rules.” And maybe the Reluctant Reverend is right. Love cannot be contained or controlled by religion, romance or riches. Neither good intentions nor high moral standards nor even good sex can keep love from scooting off unannounced. Like any good sailor, love knows how to catch the wind and skim across the waters to some unknown remote harbor. And when or if she will return, no one knows – or at least, no one is willing to tell. Which means, of course, that sooner or later, everyone will feel unloved. Sooner or later every last stinkin’ one of us will feel jilted, dumped, ditched and pooped on.
Lots of religious folks will tell you that God loves you and will never stop. Which is fine and good when you’re feeling religious. But oftentimes, it’s hard to feel love from something or someone you’ve never seen. Something or someone whose hand you’ve never held. Something or someone who has never written, texted or Emailed you a single word of love.
But, maybe that’s the nature of the beast. Maybe outlaw love – like God – doesn’t just send out everyday run-of-the-mill messages of love. Maybe they’re disguised in sunrises and children’s laughter… in the harmony of morning coffee and birdsong… in a passionate kiss and rich belly laugh… in a sip of wine and a soothing, mellow memory.
So what do you do with Outlaw Love? “The most any of us can do,” the bawdy Robbins bard says, “is sign on as its accomplice.” And perhaps that’s our gig. It may well be the most important gig we will ever have.
4. THE HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO DEMENTIA
BY DR. AL POWER, CHANGING AGING, August 22, 2013
Like most people, I am subject to a regular barrage of media reports, coming from radio, television, internet news outlets, social media and daily RSS feeds. And here is what this information stream has taught me:
If I eat blueberries, I’ll lower my risk of Alzheimer’s. Or was that tomatoes? It now appears that yogurt lowers the risk as well—does that mean blueberry yogurt, or will any old flavor do? Maybe I should have coconut flavored yogurt, because apparently, if all that coconut oil doesn’t kill me with a heart attack, it may make my brain healthier.
And now it appears I may have to replace my plumbing, because a new study suggests that too much copper causes Alzheimer’s; though other medical studies have shown that a high copper intake actually lowers the risk. So which is it? And is lead involved? (I need to know because I tend to chew on my pencils when I do my daily Sudoku puzzles.)
And then there’s the glucose connection, the blood pressure connection, the inflammatory connection, the brain reserve connection, the mood disorder connection, the social connections connection.
And what kind of a teenager was I? Apparently, certain adolescent behaviors raise your risk. One of them is getting drunk; well, thank God, none of us ever did that! Also, it’s a risk if you have a history of adolescent antipsychotic use. (Tell that to the psychiatrists who are finding all kinds of new reasons to prescribe these drugs to young people, from depression to “oppositional disorders”.)
Another risk factor (cue Randy Newman) is being too short. Time to get out the gravity boots? And if that weren’t bad enough, now the folks in Manhattan say dementia can come from exposure to bacterial and viral infections. (Someone sneezed on me just the other day, and I swear my ADAS-Cog score dropped two points!)
Okay everyone, are you listening to me?? STOP! Just…stop. If there were a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Dementia”, the first words would still be: “Don’t panic.”
What we have here is a collection of illnesses closely tied to the aging process, and a sequence of changes that may begin decades before we show any outward signs. And we are dissecting all the minutiae of the millions of things we do, eat, drink or experience in our lives—trying to find connections, however tenuous, that we can shoot to the media outlets to fuel the frenzy.
There are a lot of people making money off of our hysteria and paranoia. But it’s much worse than that.
You see, the more we fuel this kind of panic, the more we demonize the condition; and consequently, the more we demonize and dehumanize people who live with cognitive disability. Folks like Dr. Bill Thomas have long warned us that those people who do less or produce less are devalued in our society. It is also now clear that a similar fate befalls those who remember less in our hyper-cognitive, technology-obsessed world.
Here are a couple of known facts to keep in mind: We all die. Many of us who live to a ripe old age will experience changes in various organ functions and capabilities. Many of us will become forgetful as we reach our later years. Those who do are not bad people.
There is so much emphasis on “successful aging” these days—what does that mean? Are you successful if you run marathons until you are 96 and then die in your sleep, or at the completion of some incredible sexual escapade? That’s romantic, but highly subjective and unlikely. More important, this fixation on how we end our lives not only threatens to devalue who we are in our last years, but also how we have lived all of the earlier days of our lives.
And if you don’t make it to the grave with all of your organ functions intact (an oxymoron in itself), what is that called? “Failed aging”? What about people born with developmental disabilities or congenital illness? They would be “failed agers” from the very start. No need to even give them blueberries and yogurt, I guess.
You and I will always be more than the sum of what we can do and what we can remember. So here’s the advice I would put in my “Hitchhiker’s Guide”:
No matter who you are or how you live your life, you have a chance of becoming forgetful as you age. You risk is never zero, but no one knows your exact “number”. You can almost certainly lower that risk somewhat if you eat well, exercise and do things that are good for your body, mind, and spirit; your risk will probably go up if you abuse any of those. But being obsessive about every little thing you do will likely not improve your odds to a greater extent than healthy moderation.
Find that “sweet spot” that gives you a life worth living. When we stop indulging the fear mongers, we can see the value in people of all abilities. This will help us to visualize a true path to well-being for all.
5. HOW TO BE MORE THAN A MINDFUL CONSUMER
BY ANNIE LEONARD, YES! MAGAZINE, August 22, 2013
The way we make and use stuff is harming the world—and ourselves. To create a system that works, we can’t just use our purchasing power. We must turn it into citizen power.
NOTE: You might want to watch Annie’s “The Story of Stuff” first – it is 21 minutes long, but it brilliantly presents the complexities of the problems our consuming habits have created. (Link is also at end of article)…
Stuff activist Annie Leonard: “Consumerism, even when it tries to embrace ‘sustainable’ products, is a set of values that teaches us to define ourselves, communicate our identity, and seek meaning through accumulation of stuff, rather than through our values and activities and our community.” Since I released “The Story of Stuff” six years ago, the most frequent snarky remark I get from people trying to take me down a notch is about my own stuff: Don’t you drive a car? What about your computer and your cellphone? What about your books? (To the last one, I answer that the book was printed on paper made from trash, not trees, but that doesn’t stop them from smiling smugly at having exposed me as a materialistic hypocrite. Gotcha!)
Let me say it clearly: I’m neither for nor against stuff. I like stuff if it’s well-made, honestly marketed, used for a long time, and at the end of its life recycled in a way that doesn’t trash the planet, poison people, or exploit workers. Our stuff should not be artifacts of indulgence and disposability, like toys that are forgotten 15 minutes after the wrapping comes off, but things that are both practical and meaningful. British philosopher William Morris said it best: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
TOO MANY T-SHIRTS
The life cycle of a simple cotton T-shirt—worldwide, 4 billion are made, sold, and discarded each year—knits together a chain of seemingly intractable problems, from the elusive definition of sustainable agriculture to the greed and classism of fashion marketing.
The story of a T-shirt not only gives us insight into the complexity of our relationship with even the simplest stuff; it also demonstrates why consumer activism—boycotting or avoiding products that don’t meet our personal standards for sustainability and fairness—will never be enough to bring about real and lasting change. Like a vast Venn diagram covering the entire planet, the environmental and social impacts of cheap T-shirts overlap and intersect on many layers, making it impossible to fix one without addressing the others.
I confess that my T-shirt drawer is so full it’s hard to close. That’s partly because when I speak at colleges or conferences, I’m often given one with a logo of the institution or event. They’re nice souvenirs of my travels, but the simple fact is: I’ve already got more T-shirts than I need. And of all the T-shirts I have accumulated over the years, there are only a few that I honestly care about, mostly because of the stories attached to them.
My favorite (no eye-rolling, please) is a green number from the Grateful Dead’s 1982 New Year’s Eve concert. To me this T-shirt, worn for more than 30 years by multiple members of my extended family, is both useful and beautiful, not only because I attended the concert but because a dear friend gave it to me, knowing how much I would treasure it. The label even says “Made in the USA,” which makes me smile because so few things are made in this country anymore, as brands increasingly opt for low-paid workers in poor countries.
WHO SEWS THOSE TEES?
And that takes me back to a day in 1990, in the slums of Port-au-Prince.
I was in Haiti to meet with women who worked in sweatshops making T-shirts and other clothing for the Walt Disney Company. The women were nervous about speaking freely. We crowded into a tiny room inside a small cinderblock house. In sweltering heat, we had to keep the windows shuttered for fear that someone might see us talking. These women worked six days a week, eight hours a day, sewing clothes that they could never save enough to buy. Those lucky enough to be paid minimum wage earned about $15 a week. The women described the grueling pressure at work, routine sexual harassment, and other unsafe and demeaning conditions.
Even “ethical consumerism” is generally limited to choosing the most responsible item on the menu, which often leaves us choosing between the lesser of two evils.
They knew that Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, made millions. A few years after my visit, a National Labor Committee documentary, Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti, revealed that in 1996 Eisner made $8.7 million in salary plus $181 million in stock options—a staggering $101,000 an hour. The Haitian workers were paid one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. retail price of each garment they sewed.
The women wanted fair pay for a day’s work—which in their dire straits meant $5 a day. They wanted to be safe, to be able to drink water when hot, and to be free from sexual harassment. They wanted to come home early enough to see their children before bedtime and to have enough food to feed them a solid meal when they woke. Their suffering, and the suffering of other garment workers worldwide, was a major reason the end product could be sold on the shelves of big-box retailers for a few dollars.
I asked them why they stayed in the teeming city, living in slums that had little electricity and no running water or sanitation, and working in such obviously unhealthy environments instead of returning to the countryside where they had grown up. They said the countryside simply couldn’t sustain them anymore. Their families had given up farming since they couldn’t compete against the rice imported from the U.S. and sold for less than half the price of the more labor-intensive, more nutritious native rice. It was all part of a plan, someone whispered, by the World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development to drive Haitians off their land and into the city to sew clothes for rich Americans. The destruction of farming as a livelihood was necessary to push people to the city, so people would be desperate enough to work all day in hellish sweatshops.
THEIR PROPER PLACE
The next day I called on USAID. My jaw dropped as the man from the agency openly agreed with what at first had sounded like an exaggerated conspiracy theory. He said it wasn’t efficient for Haitians to work on family farms to produce food that could be grown more cheaply elsewhere. Instead they should accept their place in the global economy—which, in his eyes, meant sewing clothes for us in the United States. But surely, I said, efficiency was not the only criterion. A farmer’s connection to the land, healthy and dignified work, a parent’s ability to spend time with his or her kids after school, a community staying intact generation after generation—didn’t all these things have value?
“Well,” he said, “if a Haitian really wants to farm, there is room for a handful of them to grow things like organic mangoes for the high-end export market.” That’s right: USAID’s plan for the people of Haiti was not self-determination, but as a market for our surplus rice and a supplier of cheap seamstresses, with an occasional organic mango for sale at our gourmet grocery stores.
By 2008 Haiti was importing 80 percent of its rice. This left the world’s poorest country at the mercy of the global rice market. Rising fuel costs, global drought, and the diversion of water to more lucrative crops—like the thirsty cotton that went into the Disney clothing—withered worldwide rice production. Global rice prices tripled over a few months, leaving thousands of Haitians unable to afford their staple food. The New York Times carried stories of Haitians forced to resort to eating mud pies, held together with bits of lard.
BUT THAT’S NOT ALL
Whew. Global inequality, poverty, hunger, agricultural subsidies, privatization of natural resources, economic imperialism—it’s the whole messy saga of the entire world economy tangled up in a few square yards of cloth. And we haven’t even touched on a range of other environmental and social issues around the production, sale, and disposal of cotton clothing.
Cotton is the world’s dirtiest crop. It uses more dangerous insecticides than any other major commodity and is very water intensive. Cotton growing wouldn’t even be possible in areas like California’s Central Valley if big cotton plantations didn’t receive millions of dollars in federal water subsidies—even as some of the poverty-stricken farmworker towns in the Valley have no fresh water.
We must stop thinking of ourselves primarily as consumers and start thinking and acting like citizens.
Dyeing and bleaching raw cotton into cloth uses large amounts of toxic chemicals. Many of these chemicals—including known carcinogens such as formaldehyde and heavy metals—poison groundwater near cotton mills, and residues remain in the finished products we put next to our skin.
Well-made cotton clothing—like my 30-year-old Grateful Dead T-shirt—can last a long time, providing years of service for multiple wearers before being recycled into new clothes or other products. But most retailers are so intent on selling a never-ending stream of new clothes to their targeted demographic that they quickly throw away clothing in last season’s style.
And here’s one more problem with stuff: we’re not sharing it well. While some of us have way too much stuff—we’re actually stressed out by the clutter in our households and have to rent off-site storage units—others desperately need more.
For those of us in the overconsuming parts of the world, it’s increasingly clear that more stuff doesn’t make us more happy, but for the millions of people who need housing, clothes, and food, more stuff would actually lead to healthier, happier people. If you have only one T-shirt, getting a second one is a big deal. But if you have a drawer stuffed with them, as I do, a new one doesn’t improve my life. It just increases my clutter. Call it stuff inequity. One billion people on the planet are chronically hungry while another billion are obese.
CITIZENS, NOT CONSUMERS
The problems surrounding the trip from the cotton field to the sweatshop are just a smattering of the ills that not only result from the take-make-waste economy but make it possible. That’s why striving to make responsible choices at the individual consumer level, while good, is just not enough. Change on the scale required by the severity of today’s planetary and social crises requires a broader vision and a plan for addressing the root causes of the problem.
To do that we must stop thinking of ourselves primarily as consumers and start thinking and acting like citizens. That’s because the most important decisions about stuff are not those made in the supermarket or department store aisles. They are made in the halls of government and business, where decisions are made about what to make, what materials to use, and what standards to uphold.
Consumerism, even when it tries to embrace “sustainable” products, is a set of values that teaches us to define ourselves, communicate our identity, and seek meaning through acquisition of stuff, rather than through our values and activities and our community. Today we’re so steeped in consumer culture that we head to the mall even when our houses and garages are full. We suffer angst over the adequacy of our belongings and amass crushing credit card debt to, as the author Dave Ramsey says, buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.
Citizenship, on the other hand, is about what Eric Liu, in The Gardens of Democracy, calls “how you show up in the world.” It’s taking seriously our responsibility to work for broad, deep change that doesn’t tinker around the margins of the system but achieves (forgive the activist-speak) a paradigm shift. Even “ethical consumerism” is generally limited to choosing the most responsible item on the menu, which often leaves us choosing between the lesser of two evils. Citizenship means working to change what’s on the menu, and stuff that trashes the planet or harms people just doesn’t belong. Citizenship means stepping beyond the comfort zones of everyday life and working with other committed citizens to make big, lasting change.
One of our best models of citizenship in the United States is the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It’s a myth that when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus it was a spontaneous act of individual conscience. She was part of a network of thousands of activists who mapped out their campaign, trained to be ready for the struggles to come, then put their bodies on the line in carefully planned civil disobedience. Consumer-based actions, such as boycotting segregated buses or lunch counters, were part of the campaign, but were done collectively and strategically. That model has been used, with varying degrees of success, in the environmental, gay rights, pro-choice, and other movements. But consumer action alone—absent that larger citizen-led campaign—isn’t enough to create deep change.
So yes, it is important to be conscious of our consumer decisions. But we’re most powerful when this is connected to collective efforts for bigger structural change. As individuals, we can use less stuff if we remember to look inward and evaluate our well-being by our health, the strength of our friendships, and the richness of our hobbies and civic endeavors. And we can make even more progress by working together—as citizens, not consumers—to strengthen laws and business practices increasing efficiency and reducing waste.
As individuals, we can use less toxic stuff by prioritizing organic products, avoiding toxic additives, and ensuring safe recycling of our stuff. But we can achieve much more as citizens demanding tougher laws and cleaner production systems that protect public health overall. And there are many ways we can share more, like my community of several families does. Since we share our stuff, we only need one tall ladder, one pickup truck, and one set of power tools. This means we need to buy, own, and dispose of less stuff. From public tool lending libraries to online peer-to-peer sharing platforms, there are many avenues for scaling sharing efforts from the neighborhood to the national level.
We can’t avoid buying and using stuff. But we can work to reclaim our relationship to it. We used to own our stuff; now our stuff owns us. How can we restore the proper balance?
I remember talking to Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, at the end of his year of living as low impact as he could manage in New York City: no waste, no preprocessed meals, no television, no cars, no buying new stuff. He shared with me his surprise at journalists calling to ask what he most missed, what he was going to run out and consume.
What he said has stayed with me as a perfect summation of the shift in thinking we all need to save the world—and ourselves—from stuff.
“They assumed I just finished a year of deprivation,” Colin said. “But I realized that it was the prior 35 years that had been deprived. I worked around the clock, rushed home late and exhausted, ate take-out food, and plopped down to watch TV until it was time to take out the trash, go to sleep, and start all over again. That was deprivation.”
Fortunately for the planet and for us, there is another way.
Watch Annie’s “The Story of Stuff” here:
6. STUDY TIES HIGHER BLOOD SUGAR TO DEMENTIAL RISK
BY MARILYNN MARCHIONE, AP, August 7, 2013
Higher blood-sugar levels, even those well short of diabetes, seem to raise the risk of developing dementia, a major new study finds. Researchers say it suggests a novel way to try to prevent Alzheimer’s disease – by keeping glucose at a healthy level.
Alzheimer’s is by far the most common form of dementia and it’s long been known that diabetes makes it more likely. The new study tracked blood sugar over time in all sorts of people – with and without diabetes – to see how it affects risk for the mind-robbing disease.
The results challenge current thinking by showing that it’s not just the high glucose levels of diabetes that are a concern, said the study’s leader, Dr. Paul Crane of the University of Washington in Seattle.
“It’s a nice, clean pattern” – risk rises as blood sugar does, said Dallas Anderson, a scientist at the National Institute on Aging, the federal agency that paid for the study.
“This is part of a larger picture” and adds evidence that exercising and controlling blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol are a viable way to delay or prevent dementia, he said.
Because so many attempts to develop effective drugs have failed, “It looks like, at the moment, sort of our best bet,” Anderson said. “We have to do something. If we just do nothing and wait around till there’s some kind of cocktail of pills, we could be waiting a long time.”
About 35 million people worldwide have dementia; in the United States, about 5 million have Alzheimer’s disease. What causes it isn’t known. Current treatments just temporarily ease symptoms. People who have diabetes don’t make enough insulin, or their bodies don’t use insulin well, to turn food into energy. That causes sugar in the blood to rise, which can damage the kidneys and other organs – possibly the brain, researchers say.
The new study, published in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine, just tracked people and did not test whether lowering someone’s blood sugar would help treat or prevent dementia. That would have to be tested in a new study, and people should not seek blood-sugar tests they wouldn’t normally get otherwise, Crane said.
“We don’t know from a study like this whether bringing down the glucose level will prevent or somehow modify dementia,” but it’s always a good idea to avoid developing diabetes, he said.
Eating well, exercising and controlling weight all help to keep blood sugar in line.
The study involved 2,067 people 65 and older in the Group Health Cooperative, a Seattle-area health care system. At the start, 232 participants had diabetes; the rest did not. They each had at least five blood-sugar tests within a few years of starting the study and more after it was underway. Researchers averaged these levels over time to even out spikes and dips from testing at various times of day or before or after a meal.
Participants were given standard tests for thinking skills every two years and asked about smoking, exercise and other things that affect dementia risk.
After nearly seven years of follow-up, 524, or one quarter of them, had developed dementia – mostly Alzheimer’s disease. Among participants who started out without diabetes, those with higher glucose levels over the previous five years had an 18 percent greater risk of developing dementia than those with lower glucose levels.
Among participants with diabetes at the outset, those with higher blood sugar were 40 percent more likely to develop dementia than diabetics at the lower end of the glucose spectrum.
The effect of blood sugar on dementia risk was seen even when researchers took into account whether participants had the apoE4 gene, which raises the risk for Alzheimer’s.
At least for diabetics, the results suggest that good blood-sugar control is important for cognition, Crane said.
For those without diabetes, “it may be that with the brain, every additional bit of blood sugar that you have is associated with higher risk,” he said. “It changes how we think about thresholds, how we think about what is normal, what is abnormal.”
Alzheimer’s info: http://www.alzheimers.gov
Alzheimer’s Association: http://www.alz.org
Warning signs: http://www.alz.org/10signs
7. WELCOME TO THE AGE OF DENIAL
BY ADAM FRANK, THE NEW YORK TIMES, AUGUST 21, 2013
ROCHESTER — IN 1982, polls showed that 44 percent of Americans believed God had created human beings in their present form. Thirty years later, the fraction of the population who are creationists is 46 percent.
In 1989, when “climate change” had just entered the public lexicon, 63 percent of Americans understood it was a problem. Almost 25 years later, that proportion is actually a bit lower, at 58 percent.
The timeline of these polls defines my career in science. In 1982 I was an undergraduate physics major. In 1989 I was a graduate student. My dream was that, in a quarter-century, I would be a professor of astrophysics, introducing a new generation of students to the powerful yet delicate craft of scientific research.
Much of that dream has come true. Yet instead of sending my students into a world that celebrates the latest science has to offer, I am delivering them into a society ambivalent, even skeptical, about the fruits of science.
This is not a world the scientists I trained with would recognize. Many of them served on the Manhattan Project. Afterward, they helped create the technologies that drove America’s postwar prosperity. In that era of the mid-20th century, politicians were expected to support science financially but otherwise leave it alone. The disaster of Lysenkoism, in which Communist ideology distorted scientific truth and all but destroyed Russian biological science, was still a fresh memory.
The triumph of Western science led most of my professors to believe that progress was inevitable. While the bargain between science and political culture was at times challenged — the nuclear power debate of the 1970s, for example — the battles were fought using scientific evidence. Manufacturing doubt remained firmly off-limits.
Today, however, it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact. Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.
Meanwhile, climate deniers, taking pages from the creationists’ PR playbook, have manufactured doubt about fundamental issues in climate science that were decided scientifically decades ago. And anti-vaccine campaigners brandish a few long-discredited studies to make unproven claims about links between autism and vaccination.
The list goes on. North Carolina has banned state planners from using climate data in their projections of future sea levels. So many Oregon parents have refused vaccination that the state is revising its school entry policies. And all of this is happening in a culture that is less engaged with science and technology as intellectual pursuits than at any point I can remember.
Thus, even as our day-to-day experiences have become dependent on technological progress, many of our leaders have abandoned the postwar bargain in favor of what the scientist Michael Mann calls the “scientization of politics.”
What do I tell my students? From one end of their educational trajectory to the other, our society told these kids science was important. How confusing is it for them now, when scientists receive death threats for simply doing honest research on our planet’s climate history?
Americans always expected their children to face a brighter economic future, and we scientists expected our students to inherit a world where science was embraced by an ever-larger fraction of the population. This never implied turning science into a religion or demanding slavish acceptance of this year’s hot research trends. We face many daunting challenges as a society, and they won’t all be solved with more science and math education. But what has been lost is an understanding that science’s open-ended, evidence-based processes — rather than just its results — are essential to meeting those challenges.
My professors’ generation could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement. My students cannot afford that luxury. Instead they must become fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.
During my undergraduate studies I was shocked at the low opinion some of my professors had of the astronomer Carl Sagan. For me his efforts to popularize science were an inspiration, but for them such “outreach” was a diversion. That view makes no sense today.
The enthusiasm and generous spirit that Mr. Sagan used to advocate for science now must inspire all of us. There are science Twitter feeds and blogs to run, citywide science festivals and high school science fairs that need input. For the civic-minded nonscientists there are school board curriculum meetings and long-term climate response plans that cry out for the participation of informed citizens. And for every parent and grandparent there is the opportunity to make a few more trips to the science museum with your children.
Behind the giant particle accelerators and space observatories, science is a way of behaving in the world. It is, simply put, a tradition. And as we know from history’s darkest moments, even the most enlightened traditions can be broken and lost. Perhaps that is the most important lesson all lifelong students of science must learn now.
Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, is the author of “About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang” and a founder of NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog.
8. THIS MONTH’S LINKS:
OCTOBER 1962: THE WORLD WAS LUCKIER THAN WE KNEW…
STUNNING AERIAL VIEWS OF THE ARTIC…
THE OWL & THE PUSSYCAT PLAYING FOR REAL…
ANNIE LEONARD’S “THE STORY OF STUFF”…
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