What’s the Tipping Point for Our Mess

By Susan Lutz

A growing problem in the United Kingdom, and worldwide, is what is called fly-tipping. The intriguing name drew me into the video. Clip after clip showed cars pulling up to spots around the U.K. and dumping their trash, couches, plastic roofing, recycling, and one group of people even dumped dead sheep. All the mess, stink, and trouble left for someone else to clean up. After seeing the video, I felt I’d tipped, as if it was one too many videos about terrible things we’re doing.

I want to care about all our troubles. The disturbing election in the U.S., the terrorist attacks, the rape victims, the dolphins slaughtered and captured, the sharks butchered for their fins, the children taken from their families. After so much, I feel numb, no longer seeing, or feeling, the pain. I only look, a voyeur just scrolling by.

The heavy load of the constant barrage of information weighs me down. Though, it’s not visible on the outside, on the inside, I think my soul is suffering from so much “much.”  The fact that people are dumping trash on other people’s property and country roads and national lands enrages me. I want to scream, donate money, judge, yet, where do I go with that anger? I find myself lost. I feel the whole grow bigger.

I remember those campaigns against littering in the 70s. The roads were dotted with trash, cigarette butts, everything we could toss out a car window or discard while walking. Then, we rallied, we educated, we recycled, and now we find we’re fly-tipping? Letting others take care of our problems passes the buck to no end. There might not be a difference in fly-tipping and creating little plastic coffee cups by the billions to pollute the land for a one-time thrill. The consciousness behind all these acts is meant to quickly satisfy and satiate- to not take responsibility for our choices.

When I lived in Central America, I often heard tourists or expats talking to each other about the shameful way the citizens polluted their lands. Yet, everyday I saw hard working men and women sweeping the streets, earning probably less than $400 a month trying to change things, keeping the land clean. I saw things change. I see them change here too. Then, I see on-line what seems to be this unearthing of non-stop hideous behavior of people hurting each other and the environment. I needed to ask: why keep looking? Is it ever going to change?

I look because in the mess of our humanity, I see warriors of peace, love, kindness, and smarts, all trying to make the world a better place. Just recently, I read France will be banning plastic cutlery, “to promote a ‘circular economy’ of waste disposal, ‘from product design to recycling…’” A rescue organization in India finds desperate animals in dire condition in the street. In a few moments, I can see a transformation from near death to salvation – this with the power of social media.

There’s good out there, a lot. There’s bad too. Staring at it, looking for too long takes away the time we have in front of us to take responsibility for the little and big issues we all face. By keeping our heads tucked deep into our phones and feeds and likes, we miss the opportunity to create a connection standing, sitting, flying, flapping, or wagging right in front of us. I’m the first to raise my hand and say I am guilty of too much. I’ve even wondered if the beeper wasn’t such a bad idea. The number came up, we had time to look, find a quarter, a phone….all that time….all that time to think about what we were doing.

 

 

 

The Olympics: The View from Here

By Susan Lutz

Warming up to these 2016 Olympics took awhile. All the reports of the toxic water, Zika threats, and displacement of people from their homes made the Summer Olympics seem superfluous – an extra we might be able to live without or at the very least change?

But the games began. I’ve plopped in front of the television so many times over the years to watch the athletic phenoms, it felt odd to ignore it. The hype is hard to ignore. With kids, I grapple how we can understand what the tradition these games are, yet bring in a balance of the very real costs to the environment and world it can cause.

From the nightly news to social media, reporters highlight the trash in the water or the post a picture of the protests in the street. I want to cheer them on, stand up and do a fist pump when a swimmer gets another gold, and marvel over the mind-boggling gymnasts. Yet the images of cost both environmentally and socially linger in my consciousness while I watch. The hour broadcast delay also adds to the disconnection the larger powers have with the people who play and support the athletes.

Because it is about the athletes, the coming together of nations for a few weeks, in the hopes of putting down hostilities and instead playing some hoops (and all other games). As an athlete that competed at the collegiate and national level, I found inner strength, trained to break barriers (especially my own), and came together day after day with teammates for the purpose of a higher goal. That feeling in the gut, from throwing that pitch, making that shot, nailing that dive, or winning that sprint, those moments represent a long path of people working together and can translate to a deep connection to others. I see it when my son takes a shot in soccer or gets back out there after falling down – he’s rallied around, supported, and finds a strength to continue on. I truly believe these skills help him in his daily challenges.

Yet, we can’t play our games and shoot down others in the process. When the Olympics leave Rio, how will the country change? How will we change? What will happen to the neighborhood once the torch is extinguished? So many Olympic villages rode into town and left behind an empty land. What will we do differently before the next summer – and winter – Olympics return? Maybe it’s time to have one permanent spot for the Olympics. Or a guaranteed plan that the immense building that takes place due to the creation of the Olympic village has a useful, environmentally effective, re-purposed to move a city, state, and its people forward.

I’ve also lived in a country where the site of trash in the waters and along the road was tough to stomach, sometimes literally. Shaming a country from our the screens of our phones casts a quick judgment on the deep challenges a society faces from budget to resources to societal norms. We can embrace the change and ignite other nations by working at change in our homes and villages.

I’m still drawn in by the bottom line of the Olympics. I tell both stories to my children, the challenges and the successes, with the hopes of opening their awareness to the cause and effect we have on our world. I am not sure the world today is better or worse with the Olympics. The cost seems awfully high, but it won’t disappear in the next years. Cities will bid for the right to host until we all decide to change. The Olympics, like us all, are in a process of growth. What I hope is that looks to the future with an eye for making the world better for us all.

 

 

 

 

 

Digesting Our Politically Correct Food

By Susan Lutz

Eating well means we must understand what healthy ingredients are. Then, we must find, prepare, and finally consume them. In each one of these steps, a pile of information, contradictions, and blockades pop up like a viscous video game, trying to keep us away from our goal of optimum health.

I find it hard enough to battle my own appetite in the quest for good health. Sugar tastes really good. So does salt. Between the battle of calories between chips and candy, I think I’m doing well for my health by choosing vegetables, fruits, and organic products. Yet, I fall short and cave in occasionally. Something I notice when I chew on a chip or down some ice cream is how much cheaper it is to fill up on this stuff.

I started reading food labels back in college when the idea of health and watching what we ate and what it was composed of became more mainstream. I focused on trying to avoid food additives, food coloring, and sugar. Every year since then, it seems another ingredient is added to the list of things-that-are-horrible-for-you. When I was a kid, doughnuts were thought of as kind-of healthy. (I mean they had wheat in them.) We’ve probably all, at times, thought we were “wholesome” products such as granola, cookies, or pizza only to find out that they’re loaded with corn syrup or low-grade industrial cooking oils, or refined grains.

Turns out, many of these not-so-healthy ingredients are subsidized by the government. And if we aren’t eating soy, grains like wheat, corn, rice, our livestock are. Even if we make a huge effort to stay away from these foods, we probably eat them at some time or another. According to this New York Times article:

Between 1995 and 2010, the government doled out $170 billion in agricultural subsidies to finance the production of these foods, the latter two in part through subsidies on feed grains….Most are used as feed for livestock, turned into biofuels or converted to cheap products and additives like corn sweeteners, industrial oils, processed meats and refined carbohydrates.

Trying to avoid these foods seems impossible. Fill up a bag with organic foods and a comparable bag of “regular” food. Feeding a family with the former is really difficult for most budgets. In addition, the government wanted to allow the non-labeling of food.

The Dark Act, a bill to stop labeling of GMO food, failed in the Senate in March of 2016. Free to move forward, the Vermont’s law requiring food to be labeled took effect July 1, 2016.  Those opposed to GMO foods, claim victory only for now, yet still fear a reconstructed form of the bill could come forth in the year to come.

Information drives a consumer to make choices. Price can be the final factor. When choosing to feed a family, many of us must opt for those products because they are cheaper. And then, we get hooked. Our diet is constructed around these products. Changing my eating habits and information took years. Stopping for an organic, grass-fed, dairy cow’s ice cream could be out of the budget and often out reach, literally, for many families. Frozen ice pops in the local market’s freezer in fun-filled flavors are always ready, available, and priced to sell.

Get the Lead Out

By Susan Lutz

Tests came back from our school’s water samples. The results indicated elevated levels of lead and copper in faucets throughout the system. Drinking fountains were shut off; signs posted. Our school initiated testing, something they did voluntarily. Many samples were “first draws,” from the water sitting in the faucets during the night. Fixing water supplies is a difficult and expensive task. I threw extra water bottles for my son into his backpack. He’d been in some of the rooms that tested positive. Water fountains are located right in many of the rooms. He loves drinking fountains. I’ve watched kids saunter up to fountains after a good romp on the playground. They are empowered, quenching their thirst on their terms and rewarding their body and mind for a job well done. Clear and cold, the water tasted great and at the same time, full of toxins.

Flint, Michigan. Once the words meant simple a town, now they spell a disaster. Many schools around the country report problems with their water supply. Old buildings mean aging pipes. Schools struggle with budgets to keep up everything from teachers to infrastructure. The story in Flint raised a flag of the dangers in our waters supply across the country.

I’ve always worried about toxins in water. When I lived in Central America, water was checked for the levels of cockroach droppings in it. Chlorine was a regular addition to many water supplies. I tried keeping up with buying bottled water, but news reports showed even that supply was tainted, and, the price kept going up. Bottled water adds yet another dimension to the environmental impact that fills the land with plastic. Many of the brands of bottled water are not better than the water from the tap and the cost can be 2000 times more than tap water. Yet, now what? Does bottled water now return as our water source? What do we do?

My son runs to a water fountain with such glee. The water flies out, and he takes a sip. I can’t always stop him. Even in school, signs are posted to not drink out of certain fountains. My child can’t read those yet. At the library, the shopping center, or any other public places, water now makes me worry. We make messes that become so hard to clean up. From the little plastic, disposable coffee K-cup, to the use of plastic bags, to glow-in-the dark plastic wands, I have a choice to consume these or not. Though not always easy to avoid, I feel maybe I have a fighting chance. With water, however, we as a nation must deal with it. We start with schools, and then we must move on to open our eyes and not ignore the problem that most likely is flowing everywhere we drink.

Star Power

By Susan Lutz

Looking up to the sky, I seem so small. “100 Billion Galaxies each with 100 Billion Stars,” said Carl Sagan in the Cosmos episode 7, “The Backbone of Night.”

The power of his message grew with the rise of his own star. Today, many stars lend their voice to our star, planet earth, in hopes of fixing the mess we find ourselves in.

That smallness continues as the dawn breaks, I look around, and wonder how we can do anything to create change. We’re choking on plastic, dumping toxins in rivers, and spewing harmful gasses into the atmosphere. This is just the short list. Again, I look to the stars.

There are a lot of people doing important, tough work for our environment. I’d have to Google their names though because I can’t remember them. The moment a star, a film or literary or political star, begins talking about the environment – that I remember. I sit up and listen, or at least pause, when a star speaks about the work we need to do concerning the environment.

The reality is, a familiar face brings attention to the issue. Leonard DiCapprio spoke to the Pope about the environment. He has his own foundation called, The Leonard DiCapprio Foundation, dedicated to protecting the world’s last wild places. Julia Roberts is Mother Nature in a gorgeous, short video, “Nature is Speaking.”

Woody Harrelson hosts “Ethos,” a documentary looking “into the flaws in our systems, and the mechanisms that work against democracy, our environment and the common good.” Jeff Bridges narrates the video for the Plastic Pollution Coalition, “Open Your Eyes.”

Either I am starry-eyed or I am truly hearing the important message these spokespersons relate. After I saw the video narrated by Jeff Bridges, I felt nauseas at all the plastic I used. And I consider myself an aware person. Though the practice could seem cliché, I see a twinkle of light and hope as perhaps the message breaks through the atmosphere or our messy minds for just a moment. And funny, after hanging with Julia, Leonardo, Woody, Jeff, and even Carl, I feel like a bit of a bigger star. I feel inspired to do more, to and to help, even if it is the smallest of things.

 

 

 

The Fight for a Decent, Fair Cup of Coffee

By Susan Lutz

One week coffee gets a bad wrap, the next a good one. Which is it? Is coffee good for us? Killing us? Destroying the environment? Causing cancer? Delightfully tasty? Or all of the above? From the deep grind of espresso to the convenient, light fair of the K-Cup, we love it. However, are we taking care of the earth and the growers as we sip down our brew and satiate that morning, afternoon, and even evening desire?

One day with a few minutes to spare on an errand run, I stopped in Dunkin’ Donuts. When I was growing up, the brand stood for doughnuts – lots of them. It was a sinful, delightful treat and soon became a sign of too much. Yet, Dunkin’s found a way to turn the focus more on coffee and a bit less on the doughnut part. In part, getting a sugary latte-something will replace a hole a doughnut is waiting to fill. When I approached the door, I saw a Fair Trade sticker on a poster advertising that Dunkin’ Donuts buys Fair Trade beans for espresso. I was thrilled to get my double espresso over ice knowing it was Fair Trade. The joy goes down a notch when I’m handed the disposable cup – a glitch in all take-out facilities. The cup I received wasn’t Styrofoam, though I know Dunkin’ was famous for those white cups. NYC banned Styrofoam take-out containers. Dunkin’ says it’s working on phasing out the material all together.

On the other side of the block, Starbucks takes on the same issues: the material of the take-out cups, the origin of the coffee, and the treatment of the people who grow and pick the beans. Starbucks purchases from Fairtrade International and other sources, including the company’s own Coffee and Farmer Equity Program called Ethically Sourcing. Starbucks claims 95% of their coffee is ethically sourced:

The cornerstone of our approach is Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices, one of the coffee industry’s first set of sustainability standards, verified by third-party experts. Developed in collaboration with Conservation International (CI), C.A.F.E. Practices has helped us create a long-term supply of high-quality coffee and positively impact the lives and livelihoods of coffee farmers and their communities.

On the other side of taste and quality comes the K-Cup. Sales tripled just a few years ago. The convenient one-cup brewer tripled, making an increase of over 200% and over 31 billion in sales in 2011. Perhaps campaigns to kill the small plastic cups with just a one-time use put a dent in sales.

Today, the outlook looks a bit bleaker for the convent cup. Holiday sales reported a sixth straight quarter loss in sales by Keurig. The sale of the little cups is down too. Consumers are heading back to the barista and other traditional ways to make coffee. The first time I saw one of these machines, a natural “yuck” look came across my face like I’d just sucked on a lemon. Instinctively, I imagined that all that plastic making one little watery cup of coffee was just a bad idea. Today, I notice the machines pushed further back into the corners of offices, the dying K-Cup tossed asunder, forgotten, and ignored. Keurig’s slow response to changing the plastic cups into something recyclable by 2020 must not have sat well with coffee drinkers. Really? 2020? (Read my article on The Many Shades of Green for more information). The consumer has spoken.

This year, the Dietary Guidelines for the U.S. looked at coffee and health. They concluded that coffee was part of a “healthy lifestyle.” Not just one or two cups of coffee but up to five.

“Strong and consistent evidence shows that consumption of coffee within the moderate range…is not associated with increased risk of major chronic diseases.”

Eating five celery sticks is healthy; five glasses of water is great, but five cups of coffee? Studies like this succumb to our coffee desires. We will continue to get reports about the good and the bad of coffee. I’m waiting for more studies to look at the high level of pesticides used to grow the crop and the effect this has on workers and consumers.

Though sales go up and down, the desire grows and the consumers of coffee get younger. I watch kids order from coffee houses with ease and authority. They sit at tables with a steamy cup of joe. Coffee hooks us with the smooth image of connection. At the coffee house, neighborhood store, coffee machine in the corner, we’re drawn towards getting along for that sweet amount of time it takes to brew a cup of coffee.

mapCommodities inherently demand we get along on a global scale. We can’t drink, eat, and wear things when we have no idea where they came from. We can’t ignore the people planting and picking the crop. A simple map quickly shows who wants the coffee and who grows it.

We can no longer take for granted whether or not a product is good for us, environmentally sound, and treats the farms well just because it’s packaged well or the latest scientific study says it’s healthy. We’re smarter than that. We have the power to demand more from the giants who sell us our daily grind.

Women Farmers Turn Over the Land with Success

By Susan Lutz

The roles of farmers often seem to go to men. Perhaps rooting from generations of roll assignments – the men work the land, the women raise the children and support their husbands. My family’s roots stretch back to farming. I remember the stories of my grandmothers supporting their husbands, doing the chores, and feeding the family and the extra farm hands. Without these women, the farms wouldn’t run. As times change, the farm is changing, too.

Organic lifestyles are creating demands for less pesticides, more local crops, and food grown without GMOs. Farms used to rely on the next generation of children, usually the son, to step up and take over. As large corporations took over acres, they created a mass production and marketing system and small farms couldn’t compete. We watched family farms collapse in the ’80s. Today, women are finding ways to farm with new insight and success.

The US Department of Agriculture reports that, beginning in the 1980s, women farmers were the “fastest-growing sector of the country’s changing agricultural landscape” and they will continue to be well into the next 25 years. The number continues to rise and women farmers are gaining visibility. The economic challenge for farmers has shifted from the tradition of turning the farm over to their children, especially to the boys, to the unknown. Many families turn away from the farm for work, but today more girls and women are choosing to stay. Some enter farming for reasons such as wanting to raise children in the rural lifestyle while others may see it as a profitable way to live. Some simply want to promote organic living. Some women choose sustainable farming and some undertake a larger scale.

Where does a woman, either working alone or with a partner, turn for resources? The growing number of women farmers has created new opportunities in education, management, production, and financial resources. The Internet, blogging, and social media have opened up a new avenue of community to women farmers. With a quick click, any woman can look up how to attack a cucumber beetle without pesticides or when the best time to plant a certain crop is, and they can share stories and develop friendships with other farmers.

Women are taking back the earth. Not from men, but together as partners. My grandmother and grandfather left the farm even before the economy suffered. Over time they gravitated closer to factories and industries offering steady pay. I wonder, if the resources today were available to them, would they have had a chance to grow their farm and adapt with help rather than flee in the hopes of just staying alive and making ends meet. The organic movement is so important to so many women I know. One farm at a time, we may see the land and its caretakers turn over a whole new leaf.