Thursday, August 27, 2009

On the Other Hand...

Tevya, from Fiddler on the Roof, talks things over with his Constant Companion. "On the one hand..."

I struggle philosophically over the tension between the need for adequate food supplies to feed the vast underfed of our planet, versus the impacts of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified foods/organisms (GMO), etc. on the health of humankind and the planet. I have been holding off on an article about Monsanto and GMO for quite awhile because I have trouble writing it. I just am so torn. (Sorry, cousin Marcia, friends Nona, Gail, etc. I just march to my own drummer and it's been years since I've been fully onboard with any ideology. The world just seems so complex to me.)

Today I read an article called "The Omnivore's Delusion" in, by Missouri farmer, Blake Hurst. The title is a take-off on Michael Pollan's excellent book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," a must-read book decrying the harsh environmental and health consequences of prevailing agricultral and eating practices. Hurst is a conventional "industrial farmer," very aware of the movement toward organics, and the strong outcries against GMOs. This article doesn't quell my struggle by any stretch of the imagination, but it does do a good job of explaining some of the things we may give up by going organic, and some of the actual physical, scientific - yes natural - challenges that have given rise to some of today's modern farming practices. For example, poultry is raised in sheds (instead of "free range") because otherwise they are felled by the weather instead of the butcher. Another example: naturally occurring fertilizer will, apparently, support crop production for about 4 billion people, whereas there are just under 7 billion of us occupying the planet now. Hurst (citing Pollan citing geographer Vaclav Smil) notes that "[forty] percent of the people alive today would not be alive without the ability to artificially synthesize nitrogen."

One of the things I've come to realize over the years, working from the inside on policy matters, is that ideology must sometimes give way to reality. In this situation, I am both deeply concerned about our capacity to farm adequately to provide food to the hungry masses around the world, and about the health and environmental implications of the science that allows us to, in fact, make sure less people go hungry.

What do you do with intractable, oppositional facts? One thing I don't do, and we as humanity must stop doing, is to take sides, dig our feet in, and become part of the screaming and shouting going on around us. That screaming and shouting makes it nearly impossible to hear ourselves think through these problems. Instead, it is critical that we begin to think outside the box, to look for workable "third solutions."

The other day, I delightedly blogged about Ben & Jerry's search for an ice cream formula that isn't frozen. It's this kind of "who'd-a-thunk-it?" thinking that is going to get us past these predicaments. Another example: my friends at Montemaggiore Winery are not only organic, but biodynamic, and when they couldn't adequately keep the weed population down but didn't want chemicals, they brought in sheep. The sheep, of course, brought their own issues. They stripped the bark off young olive trees, ruining an entire newly planted orchard. The vinyard owners, the Ciolinos, have worked that through and now pasture their sheep away from the olive trees. It wasn't painless, but they did not give up.

I don't know all the ways that we might be able to think outside the box about healthy alternative practices without lowering food production levels. Maybe it has nothing to do with farming. Maybe we rethink all the non-food corn products (e.g. fuels, absorbents, adhesives, alcohols, building materials, cleaning products, coatings, de icers, drilling supplies, lubricants, oil products, packaging, paper- and plastic-making supplies, textiles, solvents, proteins, pharmaceuticals and more*) and ask ourselves, "what other substance could be substituted for corn?" so that we can return some of those fields to food production.

Of course, that begs other questions: corn prices rise when corn is used for fuel and not food. Would farmers fight a move that would lower their own incomes? Unlikely. And what might the environmental and health implications be for corn substitutes? Nothing is easy, clear or painless, or we'd already be doing it. But believing in, and rewarding, "third solutions" is going to get us farther than entrenching ourselves in political rhetoric and shrieking at each other at Town Hall meetings or in the halls of Congress or even on facebook.

Anyway, my point: We have to be innovative. For many of the world's poor, it's not a choice between eating organic or not eating organic. It's a choice between not eating organic or not eating. That is not an acceptable set of choices.

It may be - as we are often told - that our finite planet can only support so many people by methods that are both healthy for our planet and for ourselves. But since we have apparently already surpassed that number by a couple billion people, any solution that advocates for organics over feeding the hungry is a solution that advocates blindly walking away from the hungry among us.

And any solution that advocates for feeding the hungry at any cost to our environment and our health is a betrayal of our own physical integrity and our quality of life - and of the planet's integrity as well. Surely either alternative, played out to its ultimate conclusion, will lead to the same bitter end - unnecessary illness, disease and death.
Yes, each idea we come up with will bring it's own set of new challenges. But we must keep thinking. We must stop pitting ourselves against one-another - our worst and most useless behavior - and instead gather our best minds together to seek out exciting new ways to resolve these problems. Let us stop fighting and keep searching for "third alternative" solutions.,

Additionally, here is a response to Hurst by Greg Plotkin, in a blog on the website:
* from the National Corn Growers' Association,

TIME Magazine GETS IT!


Time Magazine gets it! We're going mainstream.

Read the entire article (link below). Comment. Thank them for running it.

Here's a snippet:

"We don't have the luxury of philosophizing about food. With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil — which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills — our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later. As the developing world grows richer, hundreds of millions of people will want to shift to the same calorie-heavy, protein-rich diet that has made Americans so unhealthy — demand for meat and poultry worldwide is set to rise 25% by 2015 — but the earth can no longer deliver. Unless Americans radically rethink the way they grow and consume food, they face a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs — and bland taste. Sustainable food has an élitist reputation, but each of us depends on the soil, animals and plants — and as every farmer knows, if you don't take care of your land, it can't take care of you."

America's eating habits are so hard to break, especially when industry benefits from maintaining them. But this is a wonderful development!


Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food - TIME

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Now That's Thinking Outside the Freezer!

Now this is stretching the imagination!

Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream is working to develop a room-temperature product that you can freeze into ice cream when you get it home. That will significantly reduce the carbon footprint associated with production and storage, both at the manufacturing facility and at the grocers.' I'm so impressed that these guys are thinking outside the box. GO Ben & Jerry!

Read more here: Freezer-free: Owner of Ben & Jerry's launches room-temperature ice cream project: Scientific American Blog

Saturday, August 22, 2009

What's Luke Got to Do With Tikkun Olam?

In this beautiful painting by David Friedman, three levels of soul are displayed. The bottom level is "nefesh," the mortal or animal soul. Next up, "ruach," spirit or breath of life. Finally, "neshama," or higher soul, sometimes said to be the extra soul that joins with us on the Sabbath.

Remember me mentioning a blog named "Luke 10:27"? I noted that, being Jewish, I was unfamiliar with the content of that New Testament passage. Well, it's been bugging me, so here it is:

Luke 10:27

27 He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'[a]; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'[b]"

Luke 10:27 Deut. 6:5
Luke 10:27 Lev. 19:18

So it turns out that Luke 10:27 contains two quotes from the Old Testament (aka, the Torah to Jews), something I do know rather well. The first quote, from Deuteronomy 6:5, is part of a larger and very central section of Jewish litergy called the Ve'ahavta, which means "and you shall love."

Deut 6:5

"5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might..."

It's not my intent to get preachy, religious or anything weird on this blog, but this selection coincidentally has been most inspirational to me as a Jew taking seriously my responsibility for tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of healing the world - of which my environmentalist bent is a part. As long as the passage has made an unexpected appearance on my blog, I guess I want to explain the connection. As a whole, Deuteronomy 6 contains instructions for loving God. But I find value in extrapolating that to loving all that God created and stands for. So, if something seems like it fits this category, I apply these instructions. In a nutshell, the instructions call for us to pursue this love with every talent and capacity available to us - a life rule I try to live by (to the occasional annoyance, I'm sure, of friends and family). Here is the key portion of Deut. 6:

"5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. 6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; 7 and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. 8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. 9 And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates."

I love the idea that, when a cause is good in God's sight - or if you don't do God, then what's good for the Planet, the force, the infinite all-soul, or whatever your personal conception of a higher power - we need to keep the cause front and center. Maybe a cause like cleaning the air we breathe and the water we all rely upon - yes? Think of the change we could make if we could keep the cause firmly in our hearts as a passion. If we could impress the importance and holiness of the cause upon our children, caretakers of the future. If we allowed ourselves to talk about the cause to the guests around our dinner table. I don't mean bludgeon guests to death, but to be honest about these values. And to the people we meet as we go about our business. What creative innovations could we imagine if we strategized upon these causes in the quiet of the night, and with the renewed energy of the morning?

And what does it mean to bind them as a sign upon our hand and as a frontlet before our eyes? To me, that means the acts of our hands should carry out these holy goals, and that our eyes should be ever on the end game.

And to write them upon the doorposts of our house, and upon our gates? Today, to me this means....

Talk about them on Facebook, tweet about them on Twitter.. and of course....

BLOG it right here!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

More Rant and More From Docs...

Please pardon me for veering so far off the green path, but... honestly, aren't we part of the flora and fauna? Isn't it all one? Doesn't caring for the ecosystem and all of its creatures include caring for humanity? And isn't the health care reform debate a perfect opportunity to visit the way we've botched and commercialized our health care system, and in doing so violated our own human integrity, displacing much of our personal health, longevity, and well-being in the name of healthy corporate America (e.g. pharma, insurers, hospitals, medical equipment manufacturers, not to mention fast food enterprise)? Side-tracked so much of our time, money and energy into dealing with unnecessary illness, job disruption, family stress? We need a balance between preventative care, like accessible prenatal care, well check-ups and nutrition counseling, and treatment for illness. We need completely accessible up-front care, which although not as profitable for health care purveyors over-all, is far more profitable from a human ecology perspective.

Before I go on, please, I beg you, spend the 2 minutes and 58 seconds listening to Woody Tasch simplifying the reality about how the economy uses us for its benefit, instead of the other way around.


Please understand: I know not all economic activity is destructive, but economic growth is not synonymous with well-being. Part of what's happened to our health care system is that people being sick is conducive to the economic growth of the health care industry. Conducive to profitability of all those businesses that serve the medical market. Like war - always tragic - is economically healthy for ammunitions and weaponry manufacturers. We should make war only as a last resort, and we should never let the weapons industry drive us toward war because it is good for their profitability.

From an absolute Gross National Product (GNP) perspective, human illness is a good thing. It contributes to economic growth. But from a moral perspective, even if you believe economic growth is a good thing, the health care industry must serve the health of America, not the profitability of the health care industry. Where it cannot - where it's not profitable for private insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions, or people who cannot afford insurance premiums at all - government must step in. It is immoral, even if practical, to determine health care policy based on what is good for the health care industry. We need to put the kabosh on immoral drivers.

Oh, I warned you it would be a rant!

Now, yesterday's post, wherein I shared the personal experiences of my doctor friend Howie and videos from other docs on the impact of current insurance practices on their patients, led to something of a vigorous debate on my facebook page.

Loving honest debate (as opposed to the screeching we've witnessed in some of these town halls), I've presented a couple more views from the medical arena. They don't jive with each other. But in the name of issue dissection, and for what they're worth, I offer them up.

First up, the First Doctor, David L. Scheiner, M.D., a practicing physician in the state of Illinois and once personal family doctor to President Barack Obama, originally published on Thursday, July 30, 2009 by

"I write today because years ago I was practicing medicine in an office on the South Side of Chicago with my partner and friend, Dr. Quentin Young, when a young community organizer came to see me as a patient. I became his personal physician for 22 years and he became president of the United States. I support and admire him and consider him to be the most promising president of my lifetime, which stretches back to 1938. But I respectfully differ with him on his approach to health care reform.

I speak to you today as an advocate for the single-payer approach to health reform, an expanded and improved Medicare for all, but I am hoping that President Obama and Congress will hear me also. As some of you may know, I was supposed to be at the recent town hall meeting at the White House where I was to ask a question of the president, but my visit was cancelled at the last minute, presumably to prevent the national airing of my views on health reform. Is the single-payer message so dangerous that it cannot even be discussed by Congress and the administration?

Yes, there are parties who stand to lose out under a single-payer program - the private, for-profit health insurance companies and their multimillionaire CEOs in the first place. The head of Aetna, for example, received $18.6 million in compensation last year. That's obscene.

Investor-owned, for-profit hospitals won't benefit from single-payer either. Neither will the big pharmaceutical companies, who will no longer be able to sell their drugs at such outrageous prices. A single-payer system will be able to buy drugs in bulk and negotiate prices.

Some critics attack single-payer, arguing that under such a program, government bureaucrats will be between the patient and the physician. In the 40 years I have been practicing under Medicare, I have never encountered an instance where Medicare has prevented proper medical care. On the other hand, insurance companies frequently interfere and block appropriate care.

There are multiple problems with the present congressional health reform proposals, but allowing private insurance to continue being involved is the most egregious. The insurance companies actually like many of the proposed reforms, including the requirement that every American purchase insurance or suffer a tax penalty, which would be a windfall to the insurance industry. That alone should be a warning.

I mentioned who will lose out under a single-payer program. But who benefits? The American people. But do they matter? Do we really care about the 50 million without health insurance as long as the rest of us have our own coverage? Do we think about the additional tens of millions who are underinsured, who face economic hardship or bankruptcy when serious illness strikes? Single payer will offer secure, comprehensive and quality care to all.

A single-payer program could be implemented comparatively easily, without disruption, as was the case with traditional Medicare. And there are other advantages: with single payer, we can discontinue Medicaid, which is bankrupting states and treats a large number of individuals as second-class citizens.

This is a moral obligation, and we are all responsible for seeing that health care is a right. That's the view of Physicians for a National Health Program [1].

Opponents of single-payer say that if the government pays for health care, the system will deteriorate. But we have two single-payer programs already operating that work superbly - Medicare and the Veterans Administration hospital system. Medicare overhead is 3 percent. Private insurance overhead is five times that. Forty years ago, I worked in a public health service hospital in Boston, which delivered excellent care to all comers. Sadly, the system was closed down.

I grew up as a child during World War II and loved my country then as I do now. I grew up revering the ideals of this country. Although there were unsettling periods, our country remains a beacon of hope for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I believe that quality universal health care falls under these watchwords.

Our nation is at a crossroads. We must not squander the opportunity of this momentous time. We must not give in to the insurance and drug companies and instead do what is right for all Americans. Please, Mr. President and Congress - enact an expanded and improved Medicare for all."

I basically agree with Dr. Scheiner, but I will make this point: It would be devastating to the economy generally if we were to suddenly dismantle all the Aetnas of the country, and replace them with a single payer sytem. In the same way that AIG was too big to fail, the economic size of our health insurance industry is enormous. We can't immediately move to single payer without creating a vast new pool of unemployed, and without taking another tragic blow to our economy. If we want single payer, we will have to phase out the Aetnas of the world, actually probably buy them out and convert them, maintaining as much of their structural assets and employees, if not their programs and product, as we possibly can, in order to avoid wholesale financial wreckage.

(I should probably note, for the record, that, as a Ph.D student, I happen to have Aetna insurance through University of Missouri, and I have been extremely happy with my plan. But...aren't I lucky? Student premiums are averaged across a lot of young students, so my premium unbelievably low for someone my age. My coverage is excellent, and as far as I can tell, Aetna isn't even asking about pre-existing conditions for students. I'm one of the lucky "haves.")

My second letter today, with a different message altogether, is from Dr. Zane Pollard, a pediatric opthalmologist working in Atlanta. I lifted his words from a website called "The American Thinker," which invites Americans to put forth their views on a variety of topics. Dr. Pollard's story is, like Dr. Scheiner's and Dr. Bernstein's, intimately personal. All three docs seem genuinely dedicated to providing their patients with the best possible care. You immediately understand how their own professional experiences have colored each of their political perspectives. For example, Dr. Scheiner notes that Medicaid has never interfered with his practice, while Dr. Pollard's story is entirely the opposite. But for Dr. Pollard personally stepping up to the plate with financial resources, many of his young patients would be sightless today - and he places the blame squarely upon the Medicaid system. I've excerpted the flavor of Dr. Pollard's article. My comments follow. I also encourage you to go to the site to read the whole article,, and the comments that follow it.

Originally published August 06, 2009
ObamaCare and me
By Zane F Pollard, MD
* * *
I have taken care of Medicaid patients for 35 years while representing the only pediatric ophthalmology group left in Atlanta, Georgia that accepts Medicaid. For example, in the past 6 months I have cared for three young children on Medicaid who had corneal ulcers. This is a potentially blinding situation because if the cornea perforates from the infection, almost surely blindness will occur. In all three cases the antibiotic needed for the eradication of the infection was not on the approved Medicaid list.

Each time I was told to fax Medicaid for the approval forms, which I did. Within 48 hours the form came back to me which was sent in immediately via fax, and I was told that I would have my answer in 10 days. Of course by then each child would have been blind in the eye.

Each time the request came back denied. All three times I personally provided the antibiotic for each patient which was not on the Medicaid approved list. Get the point -- rationing of care.

Over the past 35 years I have cared for over 1000 children born with congenital cataracts. In older children and in adults the vision is rehabilitated with an intraocular lens. In newborns we use contact lenses which are very expensive. It takes Medicaid over one year to approve a contact lens post cataract surgery. By that time a successful anatomical operation is wasted as the child will be close to blind from a lack of focusing for so long a period of time.

Again, extreme rationing. Solution: I have a foundation here in Atlanta supported 100% by private funds which supplies all of these contact lenses for my Medicaid and illegal immigrants children for free. Again, waiting for the government would be disastrous.

* * *

Why, you might ask, did I not give Dr. Pollard's entire letter the same space I gave the others? I hoped you'd ask. It is a fair question. I did not publish the remainder because it exhibited more fear and extrapolation than fact - fear that we would end up with long lines for health care, like he has heard anecdotally about Sweden. Fear that oldsters will be denied life-saving measures like heart stints, as he has heard happens in Great Britain. Fear that people over 65 will be victimized by the reform bill. Fear that doctors will quit because they will be paid less, and fewer medical students will go through extra training to become specialists if docs all receive the same rate of pay, no matter the number of training years invested. He has personal stories. His wife was not well-served by the V.A. Hospital while he was in Viet Nam. He also claims that we are being lied to about the uninsured. Pointing to the fact that he, personally, provides free surgery to a handful of illegals and uninsured poor (two this year), he feels everyone is, in fact being served. However, I personally know multiple uninsured or under-insured people who avoid health care until their situations are dire, for financial reasons. There is no Dr. Pollard in their lives to take up the slack. So Dr. Pollard's story is personal to his experience. His behavior is laudable, but it is only part and not the whole story of the national healthcare experience; it is his personal experience.

On the other hand, it may be true that Sweden has long lines for health care. It may be true that oldsters in England have to escape to other countries to get cardiac treatment (you'd think the protests would be loud enough to hear across the ocean). Or these may be anomalies in basically sound systems. As much as I love to google, I don't have time to chase down those facts right now. And it is impossible to say, at this point, whether his fears would become America's reality under a new system - as Dr. Pollard himself points out in his statement, the law in its final form is not yet written! But even though we don't know, one thing I don't want to do is to delegitimize his fears. His fears are useful. They help us know what we don't want in reform. They should guide our program development.

Listen: Today in America we have a very rare opportunity to reform our health care system. The momentum is higher than it's ever been. So, everything should be on the table. We should acknowledge the good and bad of both private and public examples. We should find and follow good foreign and domestic program examples, and forego exeriments that have been tried elsewhere and failed. We should not equate failure, propensity to mistake, or horror story with "public-run." For every horror story in a public facility, there is an equal story in a private facility. Millions of oldster Medicare recipients appear to be satisfied with their socialized medicine program, and we've heard from an equal number of dissatisfied Veterans Administration patients. The problem isn't who runs the facility - public or private enterprise. Hundreds of private enterprises go under every month. Private enterprise doesn't have a monopoly on good management practice, and public enterprise doesn't have a monopoly on bad management practice. No, the issue is whether patients have access, whether patients' needs are front and center, whether the facility is well-managed, whether the patient, his or her family, and their doctor have control of the patient's care. Under the current health care system, some of us have some of that, maybe some of us even have all of that. But that level of care is not available now to every American under the current health care system. We need to move toward that.

And if ever there were a time, it is surely now.

By the way, I found the first photo on another blog, called Luke 10:27, and being Jewish (no New Testament handy), I have no idea what passage that refers to. But the blogger posts two more contrary doctor statements on health care. Debate, if nothing else, is alive and well! Read it here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Letters from Doctors.

My friend Howie (ok, ok, it's actually Howard), an emergency room physician practicing in the system for over 20 years, wrote a succinct letter to his senator. But more than succinct, it is personal. My first urge was to share it. Then suddenly I realized we could benefit from hearing more from the professionals to whom we trust our lives and health. So, first Howie's letter. Then a couple of moving YouTube videos featuring others from the medical profession, talking about the patients whose care has been compromised by the current health care system.

From: Howard Bernstein
Date: August 19, 2009 10:28:27 AM MDT
Subject: Health Care

Dear Senator Bingaman:

I wish to express my strong support for the Democrats' efforts to pass some sort of Health Care Reform bill. I say "some sort" because as a health care professional (I am an Emergency Room physician in Albuquerque who has been practicing for 20 + years) I believe anything you might do in good faith to fix our health care system would be better than what we have currently. I find it unconscionable that so many people delay getting care or get no care at all due to lack of coverage. Personally I do not see why health care needs to be a for profit business, and although I think a single payer system would be better, I hope you will at least support a public option bill.

Another related, and in a way as concerning an issue, is the tenor of debate that is occurring in the public forum. I understand that what we see on the news may not reflect what is actually happening, but in this instance, perception is reality. I truly worry that the extreme views and willful ignorance being demonstrated is a threat to our civil society. The currents of racism are impossible to ignore. I expect to see you come out forcefully against the boorish behavior we see, insist on certain truths and stand up for our American values. Please do not pander to the right wing to save a few votes in the next election. You will lose my vote without question if you do not support a) health care reform with a public option and b) I do not see evidence of you speaking out against the hatred and ignorance of the right wing.

Please speak the truth. You know as well as I that: VA health care is a type of socialized medicine and it works quite well. Medicare and Medicaid are socialized medicine programs and work as well as most private insurances. Rationing of care already exists and should not be vilified necessarily but be examined for the risks/benefits involved. End of life discussions should not be shelved simply because you allowed the right wing to hijack that debate by invoking "death panels" It is disturbing that the Democrats have found it so hard to stand up and be honest, forthright and insistent on their convictions. Please lead the way for your fellow Senators and let us see you out front and center.

Howard Y. Bernstein M.D.

If Dr. Bernstein's letter moves you, consider writing your elected officials with your own personal story. Here is a link where you can find the names and email addresses of your Senators and Congress folk by clicking onto your state on a map of America. Easy peasy!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Free Webcast Debate Cap-and-Trade

Don't know what to think of cap-and-trade versus carbon tax? Confused because Exxon and Al Gore are on the same side of this debate (both prefer a carbon tax)? I'm not going into this topic today, but I will pass along an opportunity to hear it debated by experts on a FREE WEBCAST put on by Earthscan, a publisher focused on environmental issues. Here's their blurb:

"Join the authors of Carbon Markets and Voluntary Carbon Markets for a debate on the effectiveness of market based mechanisms in helping to mitigate climate change.

Nicholas Howarth from the Oxford University School of Geography and Environment, Arnaud Brohé from CO2logic, Kate Hamilton from Ecosystem Marketplace and Ricardo Bayon from EKO Asset Management Partners will be analysing the current state of carbon markets, discussing possible future trends and fielding your questions on the issue."

The debate is happening tomorrow, August 19th, so don't waste any time signing up:

More reading, either to prep for the webcast, or just because:

On Being A Great Communicator

Remember Ronald Reagan, "The Great Communicator"?

Ran across an interesting blog called "Indications: Environmental Communication & Culture blog." Its shtick has to do with how and how well we communicate about environmental matters. The blog's self-description says this:

"How well we communicate with each other about Nature and environmental affairs will determine how well we address the ecological crisis."

I think this idea has merit. If you recall back to great moments of communication, you will realize just how words can stick, can change the way the world views an event or a person. Examples that come to mind: Neil Armstrong's moon landing, "One small step for man, one giant step for mankind," is not only memorable for its turn of phrase, but for the way it cemented America's pride in its space and science programs, Martin Luther King's "I have a dream," was not only a powerful speech in its moment, but became a guiding light for generations of civil rights seekers, Or consider George H.W. Bush's "Read my lips. No new taxes." It went down as a rare example of a politician meaning what he says, And to this day, the phrase "Read my lips" is evoked when a politician wants you to believe he means business.

There is even the occasional turn of phrase so powerful that history reassigns it a favorable memory, despite its context. For example, Ronald Regan's exclamation, "There you go again," during the presidential debate with Walter Mondale, has been associated favorably with Reagan's strength as a communicator, while Mondale's retort laying out Reagan's disingenuous past promises has been entirely forgotten,

Of course, it swings the other way too. President Bill Clinton made himself into history's fool with his impeachment testimony, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," Or check out this YouTube clip full of political gaffs,

Don't you just love YouTube?

Anyway, getting back to the blog, Indications: Environmental Communication & Culture, I like what they are doing. Mixing it up, the blog takes a look at various forms of communication, and the impacts on society's thinking about environmental matters - everything from a serious piece on "America's Scientific Illiteracy" to this week's presentation of a series of film clips of families trying to be more environmental, a stream of eye-openers, humor and all-round entertainment along with a great message. I've embedded one of the trailers here, in case you don't have time to watch them all, but I strongly encourage you to visit this blog, enjoy the entertainment, and explore the rest of their posts about communication and the environment.

By the way, I couldn't resist the poster of President Ronald Reagan - the Great Communicator - considering how timely its theme ("speaks out against socialized medicine) is. I found it at yet another blog, "More or Less Bunk," by Colorado State University history professor Jonathan Rees, who used the photo for a great post entitled, "In which I write two nice things about Ronald Reagan." I may have to use it again, the next time I go into a digressive health care rant.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Carcinogen in YOUR Shampoo? Yup. Pretty Much.

What if I told you that your shampoo almost assuredly has a "probable human carcinogen" in it, and that's likely true even if you use a "natural" or "organic" product? That's what I discovered quite by accident, when I landed at Green Reality Check [GRC], a blog by Debbi Mack. In a blogpost titled Green Reality Check: What the F*ck is This Stuff in My Organic Shampoo?, Mack talks about the substance, 1,4-dioxane - a cosmetic manufacturing by-product - that causes liver cancer in rats, and in humans is at a minimum a proven irritant. It has been identified by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen.
Here's the finding, from Agency for Toxic Substance & Disease Registry [ASTDR]

"The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers 1,4-dioxane as reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.The limited number of studies available does not show whether 1,4-dioxane causes cancer in humans. However, laboratory rats and mice that drank water containing 1,4-dioxane during most of their lives developed liver cancer; the rats also developed cancer inside the nose. Scientists are debating the degree to which the findings in rats and mice apply to exposure situations commonly encountered by people.

"The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers 1,4-dioxane as reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

When you turn your own shampoo bottle around to see if you've been shampooing in a rat carcinogen along with body, volume and color-protectant, don't bother to look for 1,4-dioxane as a listed ingredient. The substance to look for is sodium laurel sulfate, something you've no doubt noticed as a primary ingredient on every shampoo, bubble bath, liquid soap and detergent label you've ever read because it's the ingredient that creates suds! Through a regulatory quirk, because 1,4-dioxane is a by-product of producing sodium laurel sulfate rather than an added ingredient in its own right, the FDA doesn't require it to be listed. Other damning watch words on the label are ingredients containing the clauses "PEG," "xynol," "ceteareth," and "oleth." These, too, indicate the probable presence of 1,4-dioxane.

I've barely scratched the surface of this topic, so I hope you'll go read the rest of Mack's article.

To make this more distressing, it turns out that many of the so-called "natural" products also have 1,4-dioxane. So how do you know which products contain 1,4-dioxane, and which are toxin-free? Well the Organic Consumer's Association released a study in 2008 listing several products it had tested, and their trace levels of the toxin, which are graded from a low of "not detectible" on up. Here's the list. Click on it, and it will get almost big enough to read. A link to the actual report, with a more legible chart, is below.

This list is over a year old, and it's possible that some of these manufacturers have found substitutes since the report issued. I've learned, for example, that Seventh Generation has plans to put out a 1,4-dioxane free dish detergent this fall, but I don't believe it's in the stores yet.

If you want to know more technical data about 1,4-dioxane, like information on human exposure pathways, and about animal research on the impacts of the toxin, there's a great resource page at the ATSDR right here,

Here is a link to the Organic Consumer's Association study, where you'll have a clearer picture of the chart, as well as additional explanatory information about 1,4-dioxane., and here is Seventh Generation's response to the OCA report, along with the Seventh Generation community's comments,

If you use a 1,4-dioxane free product, why not let us all know in the comments section?

Cute baby shampoo picture is lifted from, an article that says you don't need to shampoo your hair every day. Until you find a 1,4-dioxane substitute product, I think I'll be taking the Consumerist's advice.

Friday, August 14, 2009

All About Fair Trade & Some Cool Beads...

Hi all! I'm so thrilled today to give my space to guest blogger Amanda Judge, founder and designer of a line of jewelry called "The Andean Collection." No, I haven't turned the blog into a fashionista site. Amanda's work excites me because she is part of the "fair trade movement," a movement to ensure that workers who make the imported goods we love so much are treated with the same dignity and respect, and paid with the same equitable considerations as we afford our domestic workers.

As I'm sure most of you know, one of the reasons we love imported goods so much is because they are often much less expensive than similar domestic products. One reason for this is the cost of labor. In many developing "third world" countries, workers are so poor that a very small paycheck seems like a fortune. Many businesses take advantage of low wages by moving factories to foreign soil, or purchasing goods and services from outside our country. Another reality of the foreign work environment is that they often lack the safety and health regulations we have here, e.g. OSHA, child labor laws, etc. The fair trade movement seeks to encourage firms who do business in these countries to create safe, healthy and equitable workplaces for their laborers, and to pay them fairly. When you buy fair trade certified goods, you are supporting this cause too. By the way, you are also helping to equalize the cost disparity between foreign and local goods, and thereby helping our U.S. workers. Though, of course, not as much as purchasing domestic goods, which is also good for our carbon footprint.

You can learn more about Fair Trade here, You can find Amanda's beautiful collection here: And thank you Amanda for sharing your story and your wonderful photos with us.

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The fair trade movement in North America is certainly gaining momentum, and with due reason. Fair trade products are becoming quite stylish, and are invading retail stores (Macy’s, Anthropologie) that had until recently never carried fair trade products. This mainstreaming of fair trade is wonderful exposure for this burgeoning field, but also poses problems as manufactures jump on the fair trade bandwagon. So what does fair trade really mean, and how can you tell what is really fair trade?

Fair trade has a long history in North America and can be traced back to 1947 when Edna Ruth Byler, a volunteer with the Mennonite Central Committee, started to import artisan goods from Puerto Rico and sold them out of her car. The Fair Trade Federation defines fair trade as “a system of exchange that seeks to create greater equity and partnership in international trading system” through ethical business practices. But that’s pretty vague too. But instead of reciting textbook definitions, I’ll tell you what fair trade means for me, as the founder of The Andean Collection, a line of eco-friendly and fair trade jewelry.

First a little background. About a year ago I was researching rural poverty in Ecuador for my masters thesis and I fell in love with the eco-friendly materials used in jewelry making such as tagua, pambil, açaí, huayruro and jabon, which are all seeds that can be transformed into beads, All of these materials are indigenous to the lowlands and rainforests of South America and are an amazing alternative to the synthetic materials that plague the modern US jewelry market.

Not only were the materials amazing, but also the indigenous women of the villages completely stole my heart. They were so hard working, but they couldn’t make a decent living as their precarious existence relied on finicky tourists and dishonest middlemen. It seemed to me that this problem was simple enough to fix. They needed decent and constant work in order have hope for a better future.

In order to get these natural materials into the hands (and onto the necks) of smart, chic women everywhere, I began to work with the artisans to utilize their native materials and transform their designs into fashion forward jewelry. And so, The Andean Collection ( was born as a fashion forward, eco-friendly and fair trade line of jewelry.

Personally, fair trade means treating the artisans with whom I work with the same decency and respect that I would give any employee. That I would ask of any employer. In doing so, it is absolutely imperative that I take into account the fact that these employees are at a significant disadvantage, both economically and academically.

When determining pay rates, we look at their costs and help the artisans understand their own businesses. After working with the artisans it became immediately clear that they weren’t aware that they had previously been losing money on certain designs they sold in their local markets. They just didn’t understand all the costs that went into their micro-business.

When searching for suppliers, we help them take advantage of quantity discounts and negotiate favorable terms that they would not have otherwise have been able to obtain. Additionally, the artisans are given shares in the company so that they truly share in our success.

This is not altruistic, but is just good business. Happy, successful people make better employees. This is no earth shattering development.

I have found that the most important thing that I can give an artisan family is constant and steady work. Projects, even if they are fair trade, that enter a community for a couple months and then leave, can often do more harm than good by raising expectations and upsetting the natural balance of power within a community.

As a consumer, you can there are certain labels that you can look out for, but often smaller organizations can’t afford the certification process, although they still may be operating under fair trade principles. Raw materials, such as coffee or cotton, can be certified as fair trade through a fairly well established application and subsequent monitoring process. Defining fair trade in jewelry on the other hand poses additional problems. As opposed to raw materials, which are made up of a single product, jewelry is a composite product, containing little bits of many different materials. Determining where each tiny input comes from is an ongoing task; one that certification agencies are not able to easily monitor. Organizations that work in developing countries in jewelry making can alternatively become a member of the Fair Trade Federation. This process is mostly self evaluatory and less stringent than the certification process for raw materials.

Eco-friendly and fair trade products often, but not always, go hand in hand. In order to be a truly green consumer it is important to think about the environmental and economic impact of your purchases. Ask questions not only about the materials, but also about the people who have poured their heart into making your latest find. The world is changing, and forever the optimist, I think it is for the better. At the very least I know that the world for our artisans is improving, and sometimes those small victories are all we need to get through the day.

- Amanda Judge has a masters in economic development and is the designer & founder of The Andean Collection. The Andean Collection is a fashion forward line of ecologically friendly & fair trade jewelry made from seeds and nuts that are native to the lowlands and rainforests of South America. Their jewelry can be found in numerous retail outlets or online at When Amanda is not in Ecuador, she resides in Manhattan’s East Village.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

REMINDER: No Fee Weekend at All National Parks!

REMINDER: August 15-16 is no-entrance-fee weekend at all national parks! Pack a picnic and get yourself into nature!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Teach Your Children Well

Our kids take their cues from us. I was reminded of this recently, while poking around a TwitterBlog I occasionally follow, The Good Human. Below is a list excerpted from the article suggesting a few key points we should all be putting across to our kids. The rest of the discussion is at the link below the list.

1. The planet is for everyone and no one should take more than their fair share.

2. Future generations will need to live here, so we should clean up after ourselves.

3. Everything we put down the drain, in the toilet, or in the landfill ends up in our drinking water eventually. Explain the process of wastewater and aquifers and why we don’t put toxic ingredients or pharmaceuticals down the drain.

4. Healthy, natural, organic foods are better for them, the farmers, and for the planet than those grown using toxic fertilizers and pesticides.

5. The choices we make and our day to day behavior can negatively affect people around the world, so choose wisely.

6. Electricity doesn’t just show up in the house in an endless supply - explain where it comes from and why we need to reduce how much we use.

7. There are millions of people who go hungry every day and who live in terribly unsanitary conditions, and who need our voice to speak up for them whenever we can.

Set An Example Of Planetary Stewardship For Your Kids. | The Good Human

Photo from Safe Kids Kansas Website,

Monday, August 3, 2009

Aug 15: Entrance Fee-Free Saturday at our National Parks!

Whatcha doin' Saturday, August 15th? The National Park Service is holding an Entrance Fee-Free weekend. What better excuse do you need to put on your hiking shoes, pack a picnic and head out? I'm so there!

U.S. National Park Service Fee-Free Weekends in Your National Parks