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Making Sense of Mandela’s Death

The death of Nelson Mandela has taken me aback, simultaneously draining and energizing my spirit. His death is unsurprising – the 95 year old man had been enduring illness in recent years, taking a turn for the worse 6 months ago. Nonetheless, his seemingly sudden death profoundly affected me. 

For the first time in my life, my heart sank – deeply, into my being. The unfamiliar feeling was not sadness nor fear, not anxiety nor despair. What I felt and still feel, is mourning. True mourning of a man, who struggled for something larger than himself. Mourning of what this man represented – a force for good in this uncertain world. Mourning of a real-life superhero, who rose above all else, against all odds, to achieve what many believed impossible – if not illegal.

Nelson Mandela was a living, breathing ethical balance. And losing this balance… hurts. Mandela served as the moral compass for our race, the human race. A compass that guided our similar yet diverse group towards equality, acceptance, forgiveness, strength, and justice.

Lost. Perhaps that is another way to describe my heart ache. Losing a compass most literally begets becoming lost. Throughout the tumult that occurred as Mandela made his mark on our world, he stood as a constant of hope and clarity. If there was a truly serious issue that took one man to see above all the clutter and make sense of the mess, Mandela would rise. Whenever we might veer off course, Mandela would be there to center our ship. If extraterrestrials were to set foot on Earth, undoubtedly Mandela would be the human race’s chosen ambassador.

All jest aside, feeling lost – the absence of direction through the fog of our daunting human experience – can be utterly paralyzing. Mandela showed us a glimpse of this direction – How must we go on?

Fortunately for us, we remember. Through our history, we can share this great man, and the values for which he stood. We re-member him. Through our stories, we recall his spirit and his clarity to join humanity’s journey once again. From these stories – this history – we will piece back together that compass and follow Mandela’s footsteps just as if he were with us, helping to lead the way.

So, as a personal request, let each of us tell a young child a story about Nelson Mandela.

Remind him or her that reconciliation trumps retaliation, love trumps hate, and in the end, be not selfish nor selfless – be just.

Don’t have a story? Read, listen, watch stories about Mandela – so you, too, become a piece of our collective compass.

Joining together in remembrance is how we find each other – it’s how we find him again – it’s how we become unlost, it’s how we mourn. It is what Mandela would have wanted.

Rest In Peace, Nelson Mandela. You fought hard. You, of all people, deserve to rest.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

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A Different Russia

I returned from Russia just as Edward Snowden and his panoply of leaks became world news, after traversing the largest nation in the world from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Russia exists in a delicate space economically, politically and culturally. Russia’s history is convoluted, though the last one hundred years offers a narrow yet telling lens of its current state.

Out of the steady, monarchal grasp of the Romanov Empire, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 promised stability for all Russians, regardless of economic status. As the 20th Century progressed, this ideology deteriorated into corruption and ineptitude at the state level, yet successfully raised the standard of living for the Russian (then Soviet) citizenry. There were mouths of no-longer-serfs to feed, roads to build, and jobs to create. Upward mobility and freedom of expression notwithstanding, basic needs of food, water, shelter for all citizens were met.

From my experiences discussing with Russians today, this recent history is not to be overlooked. Vladimir Putin is, for all intents and purposes, a tsar. Politically and economically the Russian President, Head of KGB turned President turned Prime Minister turned President again, owns the country. The fall of the Soviet Union and Communism in the early 1990s spurred a widespread wealth grab by a select few holding unique monetary advantages. In not-entirely-fair dealings, industries such as natural resources, manufacturing and other lucrative sectors were privately consolidated by individuals accumulating government-issued vouchers, essentially stocks of government-turned-private assets. Quickly these select few, whom we now refer to as ‘oligarchs’, amassed enormous wealth.

Simultaneous to this wealth grab, Russia was mired in political instability. Boris Yeltsin was elected President in 1991 and became a symbol of a new Russian Federation. However, Yeltsin’s guidance led to hyperinflation, rising crime and overall instability throughout the country. What the Russian citizenry had come to depend on from their government – a standard quality of living and security – had vanished.

It is sensible, then, to see the welcomed rise in power of Vladimir Putin, former Head of KGB. Putin campaigned on stabilization. Putin, one of the mega-rich wealth grabbers, succeeded in reigning inflation, crime and fears of instability – a calming relief for the majority of Russians.

But would the citizenry remain supportive as Putin paired success with abuse of political and economic powers to advance his own standing? Most signs point to yes. Despite complete freedom of political expression and widening wealth disparity (where else isn’t that happening?), Russia is in a fairly solid position, both internationally and domestically.

Internationally, Russia continues to exert influence in the developing world and in relations with the United States, the Snowden issue an example. Putin has handled the situation quite admirably, cooperating with the United States yet refraining to kowtow at the expense of his state’s sovereignty and international political standing.

Domestically, tech is booming, lesser-known cities such as Novosibirsk and Vladivostok are showing signs of revitalization, attracting younger populations similar to the Rust Belt’s attraction to America’s youth.

Overall, stability has returned to Russia, albeit at the expense of some liberties and the disparate success of the ultra-rich. An upper-middle class friend in his early twenties, living in Moscow working in the burgeoning tech industry provided me this thought, “[Complete] Democracy as it exists in the U.S. will never work in Russia – It’s not our primary interest.” Russians simply may have a different value system to that of ours, and as a result heavily value stability over swift change. Looking at their country’s history of dynasties, serfdom and political-economic upheaval, this value system seems justified. It’s up to us to recognize and accept the difference.

Weis Markets Closes Loop

This Spring, fifty Weis markets throughout Pennsylvania will roll out a new composting program. Customers will be able to purchase “Weis Choice Compost”, which is made in part from Weis’ food scraps and yard trimmings.

Partnering with American Biosoils & Compost, Weis Markets hopes to create “a coordinated, fully integrated, decentralized, recycling loop.”

Supermarkets waste millions of tons each year in compostable materials. To my knowledge, this is the first initiative in which customers will be able to buy compost soil amendment at the store from where the organic material originated.

As of this moment, unknowns include the location of the composting facilities to the individual Weis markets, as well as consumer cost for the end product. If Weis can cut down transportation costs (both monetary and environmental) and offer a high-quality, affordable compost for consumers, the idea will gain significant traction. 

For supermarkets like Weis, a composting initiative is a great way to boost a CSR/Sustainability image. But what this program hopes to achieve is a monetary incentive in the form of a marketable end product, which is hugely important in enticing board members.

On the surface, Weis seems to have developed a win-win model to divert waste from landfill and shift funds from traditional waste hauling to a system with a return on investment. In addition, this may prompt more gardening and food production near Weis markets, as well as nourishment of Pennsylvania soils. 

Stay tuned for updates as this exciting new program gets underway.

View the Weis Markets Sustainability Director’s press release, here.

Do We Really Need Industrial Agriculture to Feed the World?

Watch this video to find out why we don’t:

Fun Fact: Humans consume only 1% of the corn grown in the US.

Honoring Dr. David Suzuki

Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend a symposium at Case Western University in Cleveland, OH honoring Dr. David Suzuki with the Inamori Prize for Ethics & Excellence.

For those who are not familiar with Dr. Suzuki, he is a world-renowned environmental activist, sustainable ecologist, and Doctor of Zoology.

I’d like to share some of his thoughts through these quotes:

"Thinking we can bioengineer our planet is madness"

This thought came on the subject of innovation. For decades, the dominant American ideology has been that no matter the obstacles in our way, we will innovate a solution. With regards to carbon emissions and climate change, many believe we can simply innovate solutions to sequester or nullify the negative effects on our biosphere that we have caused. For Suzuki, this is indeed madness. The biosphere (Earth) is the most resilient, complex, and beautiful solution to providing life - so much so that the majority of its networks and capacities are unknown to humans. Why force our inferior engineering onto an extraordinary, bewildering system that is Earth?

"We are animals"

Suzuki says this is the most important idea we should take away from his talk. On Earth, we are a part of a greater network of living creatures. Human quest for superiority stems from human’s inherent inferiority within our biosphere. We have learn to manipulate and navigate our planet through a perfect combination of luck and skill. Apart from that, humans lack in nearly every other attribute to many of our fellow animals. We are not the fastest, not the strongest. We have a limited vocabulary for expression, we engineer with tools instead of making them biologically. Once we dethrone ourselves from exceptional status, our home - Earth - becomes the ultimate priority for human survival and prosperity. Suzuki believes this humility is a necessity. 

"We ARE air, we ARE water"

We are all connected. The air we breath, the water we drink, is forever conserved. In this way, we are connected to every part of our planet - to flora and to fauna, from the deepest ocean to the highest mountaintop. Suzuki tackled the false dichotomy of “humanity” and “environment”. This dichotomy, he believes, is a fundamental failure of the environmental movement. By advocating for the environment, we ‘other’ the environment as something other than ourselves, something removed from human society. He argues, we must fundamentally change the way we view the biosphere and our place within - not outside - it.

"We can’t change nature, but we can change what we’ve created. Economies aren’t the laws of nature, we can change them!"

Since the advent of capitalism and possibly before, economics, its academic study, and the ‘economy’ exist as an omnipotent force that humanity must obey, less it run the risk of acting in an ‘uneconomic’ way. The fear of lacking economic growth penetrates near every aspect of modern human society and it sadly blinds us to the real truth. Economy is a man-made structure in order to value items of perceived worth. And as such, rewards actors who value self-interest over the complex connections within human society and within the biosphere. It is absurdity to equate economy with nature. 

"Wealth is not quantified by stuff but qualified through shared experience"

Dr. Suzuki ended with a heartfelt anecdote. His father was dying. An old man now, his father had come to terms with his death and was just a few weeks from passing on. Luckily for Dr. Suzuki, he and his father were able to spend his last days together. They laughed, they cried, reminiscing about old friends and telling stories about shared experiences. Reflecting upon these final days, Suzuki realized they hadn’t mentioned the material items - their favorite Oldsmobile or the clothes on their backs. The things we remember most are stories and memories of the ones we love - friends, family, and acquaintances. We should prioritize what little time we have by making memories with loved ones, and yet-to-be-loved ones. 

David Suzuki’s talk was throughly enjoyable - a breath of fresh air. By melding ideas of science, spirituality, humanity, and common sense, Suzuki eloquently advocates for a holistic perspective towards our life on Earth. 

For more information on Dr. David Suzuki, visit his foundation at http://www.davidsuzuki.org/

Find a collection of his books here 

Romney’s Head in the Tar Sands

Thursday, Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced his ‘bold’ energy plan to achieve North American Energy Independence by 2020. 

In his speech, he proposes the following:

  • Continued production of energy from “conventional” means - that is already established wells, drilling sites etc. 
  • Expansion of offshore drilling
  • Procurement of “Tight” oil, obtained through fracking and other means
  • Opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling
  • Utilizing tar sands from Canada, and completing the Keystone XL pipeline
  • Natural Gas Liquids - byproducts from Natural Gas production
  • Increase in Biofuels, specifically Ethanol - using corn as an energy source
  • Relaxing environmental regulations on U.S. Coal industry

Right off the bat, this policy is drill-centric. In the vein of “drill baby, drill” Romney believes that drilling for oil is the only answer for our energy future. 

Sadly, his view is misguided.

First off, increasing production of ethanol would be disastrous. Ethanol, produced from corn, rewards large-scale corporate farming, which perpetuates the financial robbery of smaller, organic farming and the continued use of GMOs, pesticides and herbicides that ruin our fields and health.

But mainly, there is zero mention of alternative energy - wind, solar, etc. - in his energy plan. Forget the obvious conflict with our need to combat climate change, the green energy sector exists as an enormous opportunity for American job growth, investment, and innovation, all while maintaining a commitment to energy independence and recouping our environmental losses from a century of dirty energy. Neglecting this industry is the most lethal blow we can give to America’s economic health.

Many opponents to alternative energy argue that government involvement in growing a new energy sector is asinine - against our country’s free-market principles. But a brief view into the oil industry’s relationship with our government tells a different tale. In the last five years alone, the oil industry has received around $300 Billion in subsidies from the U.S. government (via NRDC). These corporations - ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, some of the richest corporations on the planet - are propped up by government investment. Compare that to President Obama’s much-maligned American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which pledged a mere $36 Billion to American renewable energy projects. 

What’s more, job growth will not be sustained if we only commit to drilling. It is irresponsible to depend on a single energy stream, albeit from slightly different sources. With this plan, Romney seeks to reap immediate job growth by opening new drill sites and pipelines, but what happens when those new wells dry up in 10 or 20 years? What happens when the price of oil rises so dramatically as it becomes cost-ineffective to scour the planet for the remaining drops, that the American people are abandoned with shallow pockets and an increasingly deteriorated environment.

Jobs are creating in burgeoning industries full of innovation and passion to change the ways we produce and consume as a nation. These jobs will not come from soon-to-be antiquated technologies but from the frontier of technological development. And crucially, green energy requires local employment, because wind, solar, and geothermal cannot be imported. 

The future of energy is not an extracted, polluting, nonrenewable resource. The future of energy is clean, efficient, renewables that provide local jobs and lessen not only our dependence on foreign oil, but also lessen our impact on the planet, whom we have so successfully neglected.

While renewable energy is not an immediate panacea, it is a crucial chunk of our energy that cannot be sacrificed for continued subsidization of dirty, soon-to-antiquated energy solutions. As such, Romney’s energy policy is backwardly irresponsible to the American taxpayer and our planet’s future. 

Response to CNN’s “The war over coal is personal”

http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/17/us/embed-america-energy-war/index.html

An excerpt:

"If all coal mines shut down," Amanda Sedgmer paused, "we would struggle … we would definitely lose our house. "

Sedgmer voted for President Obama in 2008 and she is not a particular fan of Mitt Romney, but she’s voting for the Republican because she believes he is the only chance the coal industry and her community have to survive.

Romney hopes all this concern helps him in the Buckeye swing state and in other coal communities. He has told crowds at campaign speeches that President Obama “sure doesn’t like coal.” The president has vigorously disagreed, saying he is for “clean coal.”

Environmentalists believe the EPA rule and the increasing closures of coal plants are breakthroughs that are overdue and will do dramatic good.

Les Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute, points to studies that coal emissions, including mercury and other pollutants, cause more than 10,000 deaths a year.

"It’s a war for survival," Brown said, sitting in a Washington office filled with piles of reports and papers about the environment. "Saving lives, not just a handful of lives, but thousands of lives. But more broadly, saving the planet."

Would he like to see all coal plants closed? “Yes,” Brown responded, “It would be cleaner, it would be safer and it would help stabilize the climate, which is the big threat to our future. I mean it’s even difficult to put a price tag on that.”

Brown sees the problems with coal and climate change as a very human issue that could lead to droughts in some places, including the American Midwest, and floods in other places, like the American coasts. In either case, Brown fears loss of crops, homes and lives.

But the same issue is personal to Amanda Sedgmer. Every day as Ryan prepares to go underground, he checks a bulletin board listing the latest coal closures.

The Sedgmers’ five children are still young, aged 16 months to 10 years. Those old enough to speak already talk about coal. When asked what he wants to do when he grows up, 4-year-old Ben Sedgmer blurts out, “Coal miner!” But his parents don’t know if there will be many, or any, coal mining jobs waiting for him in Hopedale when he’s old enough.

For both sides, the war over coal is personal. And it is happening this election year. 

I have no idea what it’s like to have a family to take care of, though I understand her grave concern. But, the fact of the matter is that if we continued the same practices we practiced four generations ago, our country would undoubtedly suffer.

Evolution, progress, innovation take their fair share of victims. However, that progress is not only inevitable over the course of history, but it will improve the well-being of generations to come - her children’s and their children’s.

The war over coal is personal, indeed, but unfortunately not a reason to protect a flawed and dirty industry. 

Vermont’s Waste Management Advancement

Two weeks ago, Vermont legislators passed a law requiring all waste generators (commercial and residential) to recycle both traditional recyclables (plastic, paper, glass) and organic matter (yard and food waste). The first of its kind at the state level, the law requires, at first, high volume organic matter generators to separate their waste into three streams: landfill, traditional recycling, and organic recycling. However by 2020, “any person generating any amount of food residuals will be required to manage on site or arrange for their transfer.”

This law follows other municipalities around the country, such as San Francisco and Seattle, which demand full recycling by law. 

Haulers and processors of solid waste will be greatly affected. According to a timeline in the law, by 2017, any state-certified solid waste collection facility must collect and properly process mandated recyclables, yard waste, and food waste. As such, haulers and waste managers will need to shift operations accordingly.

In addition, municipal and county solid waste plans must implement variable rate pricing for collections by 2015, which may support economic viability for the state, solid waste processors and generators. 

The State of Vermont has always been on the cutting edge of sustainable and green practices, and this law supports those aims. However, the ambitious law will cause restructuring of the Vermont waste management system and the upheaval certainly will not be without growing pains. Nevertheless, these types of laws are instrumental in making large-scale recycling and composting viable for citizens. Still in other states, cheap landfills, lax waste management policies, and lack of education prove roadblocks to environmental advancement. Let’s hope the rest of the country strives to follow Vermont in taking on our urgent waste management issues. 

View the law - Vermont Legislative Bill H.485 - here

For the Greater Good?

There are so many ways to digest today’s Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Obama’s healthcare reform. 

Spin artists, on both sides of the aisle, attempt to claim victory or incite anger in defeat, rallying support for November’s election. 

Surely though, the average American will rejoice this ruling, as it brings us a step closer to a country that enables all of its citizens to live a healthy, prosperous life.

But I believe this day begs a broader question: Are we, as a society, willing to sacrifice a small amount (of ‘freedom’ or money) to benefit our greater world?

Re: today’s topic, are you willing to allow our government to enforce a law, a law that helps to ensure your own personal health, so that citizens less fortunate can ensure their own health?

If you are a wealthier American, are you willing to pay more in taxes so that you can give back to your country and support programs and projects that fuel American prosperity?

Are you willing to relinquish the idea of marriage as one man and one woman, to ensure the happiness of a same-sex couple?

Are you willing to seek out and purchase a locally-produced food product, perhaps organically grown, to support your local economy and reward an environmentally necessary practice?

Are you willing to bike, walk, or ride public transportation to take cars off the road and lessen your climate impact?

Each day, there are so many instances in which we can decide to make a small change for the betterment of our society and our planet. Alex Steffen, one of my favorite writers, earlier wrote,  ”The decision is a small victory for the idea that equity, foresight, and prosperity are symbiotic. Our interdependence means that if we want a prosperous nation, we need to think ahead and think about everyone. The same, it turns out, is true for the other species who coinhabit our planet and on whom we depend. In the end, it’s all one big community on one small rock. Perhaps PlanetCare can come next?” Alex is spot-on.

I do not believe this Supreme Court decision will be a landmark that propels our society’s paradigm shift. However, it may take situations like today’s ruling to understand the gravity of our actions, no matter how big or small, political or economic, easy or difficult they may be.

Each time we, both as individuals and a society, choose the collective over selfishness, the closer we come to sustaining prosperity on this small rock.

We all have agency in this life. Choose leaders who stand up for others, and policies that support those aims. Interact with strangers like a friendly neighbor. Be conscious of the environment - in all that you do. Actively seek peaceful resolution. Leave a place better than you found it.

Let’s hope ObamaCare’s victory kick-starts this realization for us all.

Pain Worth the Gain?

The juxtaposition of the three events in the NFL over the past week calls into question the future existence of pro football.

The timing of the NFL Draft, the year-long suspension of Jonathan Vilma, and the suicide of Junior Seau, point to a increasingly difficult juggling act of sustaining a business based on the dehumanization and sacrifice of its athletes.

Football finds itself in a precarious situation.

Publicly, we glorify tough athletes, who risk their bodies for the sport. These warriors of the gridiron provide the ultimate physical entertainment and drama, which makes the NFL the most profitable sporting league in the world. There is no greater spectacle than the NFL Draft process, which culminated in New York City last Thursday. After months of physical and mental testing of amateur players, scouts and general managers commodify the athletes they covet in order to engineer a successful and profitable team. The younger the player, the faster and stronger he is expected to be – the bar raised ever higher. Lucrative contracts in hand, these new professionals ply their trade on orders to run fast and hit hard, to win games and attract fans.

Away from the public eye, though, football exists as a violent and painful business that risks hurting its employees each year. Through controversies involving player safety and evolving concussion research, it seems that football’s innate violence, coupled with the increasing athleticism of its players, may be slowly killing its players, and driving some to take their own lives.

Early Thursday, the NFL announced four New Orleans Saints players would be suspended for their roles in the bounty scandal, including Jonathan Vilma for one whole year. Along with previous fines for helmet-to-helmet and ‘unsportsmanlike’ hits, these punishments attempt to create a safer playing environment. But with the ever-increasing speed of the game, these fines may serve better as a band-aid than a permanent fix. It also must be acknowledged whether a permanent fix to the football’s violence is in the best interest of the sport itself. In the short term it looks to harm the sport more than help. These new rules and fines inherently go against its entertainment value – fans and players alike are outraged by the game’s dilution. But the long term?

Enter Seau: Later in the day, news of Junior Seau’s suicide emerged. The former Pro Bowl Middle Linebacker shot himself in the chest, most logically to protect his brain for concussion research, similar to former Pro Bowl Safety Dave Duerson’s choice last year. Seau made a clear decision – to abruptly end, and warn others about, his traumatized post-football life.

As more research continues to suggest that illness and disease caused by repetitive brain trauma associated with a pro football career emerges, the NFL’s elephant in the room becomes evermore difficult to ignore – football may be directly debilitating and in some cases killing its athletes. The warning signs are visible. Now the NFL, its players, and its fans must acknowledge them.

Herein lies the NFL’s dilemma. They are a sport, and a business, faced with a financial incentive to please their customers, and a moral responsibility to keep their players safe. Unfortunately for the future of football, these options may become mutually exclusive.

Until then, as long as young men are willing to play and the fans are willing to watch, pro football will remain as profitable and popular as ever. Only time will tell if the pain is worth the gain.