Saturday, November 28, 2015

Most Interesting Thing You Will See Online November 28, 2015

Climate change and disease from the National Science Foundation...

Climate Change and the Spread of Disease

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There is an interesting article in today's Washington Post by Joby Warrick on the geographic changes in vector-borne diseases as a result of climate change. Check it out here. Some areas of the world are already seeing changes in the distribution and timing of some diseases as warming temperatures and widespread surface modifications have caused disruptions in the life cycles of insects that carry diseases. The article highlights the West Nile outbreak in Dallas, Texas that took the life of 19 people in 2012. This outbreak occurred after an unusually warm winter in which mosquitos, the vector for West Nile disease, survived without a killing freeze. Now, West Nile is showing up in unexpected places and showing up earlier and staying later in the season.

The article underscores that global climate change is not just about sea level change. It is about a fundamental geographic shift in climate. This shift will have unexpected consequences, including the expansion of tropical diseases, such as dengue fever and chikungunya, into the U.S. In recent years, both diseases have already started showing up in places in North America where they were never found before.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Black Friday Consumption Quiz

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Here's a special On the Brink Black Friday Quiz on consumption. The answers to the quiz are in the comments section. Links to other On the Brink Quizzes follow the Consumption Quiz.

1. On average, which country has the most number of televisions per household? How many televisions are owned per household in this country?

2. On average, which country has the most number of computers per household? How many computers are owned per household in this country?

3. Each person in the U.S. produces 4.38 pounds of waste per person each day. Is this number increasing or decreasing with time?

4. Approximately 34% of the U.S. household garbage is recycled. Is this number increasing or decreasing with time?

5. The Department of Labor studies how Americans spend their monthly pay. After housing, what is the biggest expenditure for Americans each month? Is it entertainment, food, or transportation?

6. While waste production is slowly decreasing in many developed countries, it is expected that global waste production will actually increase due to the growth of consumerism in developing countries. According to the World Bank, world garbage production is expected to increase by _____ percent by 2025 (fill in the blank).

7. On average, how much do Americans spend on holiday gifts each year? Is this number increasing or decreasing?

8. On average, how much do Americans give to charity each year? Is this number increasing or decreasing?

9. Over the holidays, Americans buy lots of gifts. Americans spend most money on clothing and accessories. What is the second most common item for gifts? Is it books and CD's, electronics, or gift cards?

10. There has been a global movement to try to limit consumption due to the impacts consumerism has on the environment and world cultures. One group focuses on trying to encourage people to limit consumption around the holidays. This group organizes Buy Nothing Day on the Black Fridays after Thanksgiving celebrations around the world. Where and what year was the first Buy Nothing Day organized?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Best Thing You Will See Online November 26, 2015

In follow up to today's post about Black Friday...

5 Ways to Spend Black Friday

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Happy Thanksgiving to all the On the Brink readers out there in the Interweb!

Since tomorrow is the annual craziness that is Black Friday, I thought I would provide some alternative suggestions to the madness. For those readers from outside of the U.S., Black Friday is the official start of the holiday shopping season in the U.S. Stores provide large discounts and consumers rush to take advantage of the sales. People often wait in line to get into the stores. Plus malls and stores are very crowded and the event brings out the worst traits of American consumer culture. Many in the anti-consumer world counter Black Friday with Buy Nothing Day. If you are like me and find Black Friday a bad thing for American culture and sustainability in general, you might find my suggestions useful.

Five Ways to Spend Black Friday:

1. Cleaning your closets and repairing clothing. By the end of November, winter sneaks up on us. Black Friday is a good day to go through the closets to find things that you can donate to clothing drives and to find garments that may need a new button or a quick sew. Take advantage of the day off to repair winter clothes for the season.

2. Visit that park you always wanted to visit. Bundle up and head out to that off the beaten path park you always wanted to see but haven't yet taken the time to visit. Pack a lunch, bring a friend, and walk the trails.

3. Cuddle up with a novel. I have read most of the classics, but I've never read The Brothers Karamazov. It's on my home office bookshelf next to the short stories of Herman Melville. Both of the books are calling to me. What's on your bookshelf waiting for you, a cup of tea, and a nice warm afghan?

4. Game day! Grab some games, your family and friends, and play some games. If you feel a bit of capitalist guilt by not participating in Black Friday, you can always play Monopoly. If you are enjoying the shopocalypse alone, grab a jigsaw puzzle.

5. Neighborhood photo safari. I love taking photos. I'm not a great photographer, but I love to head out in my neighborhood on the occasional photo safari to grab photos of nature, interesting cultural features, and beautiful downtown Port Washington, NY. It's surprising how many great images I have gotten while out on walks. Some of the photos I've used in books or publications like this blog. If you don't want to go outside, take a photo safari of your home or take photos of your friends or family.

What other suggestions do you have? Leave them in the comments and enjoy a quiet day away from the madness that is Black Friday.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Best Thing You Will See Online November 25, 2015

In follow up to today's food, a 13 year old farm worker shares his perspective on his life...

Hipsters Discover Ugly Vegetables, Farm Workers Shrug

Minority entrepreneurs have been selling ugly produce long before San
Francisco hipsters made it fashionable. Click for photo credit.
The New York Times published an interesting article this week by Jennifer Medina about a start up in California that is selling ugly fruits and vegetables to consumers for $13 a box. One of the assumptions in the article is that consumers only want to purchase perfect looking produce and reject the ugly looking stuff which goes into garbage.

This assumption is somewhat correct but is also misleading.

The U.S. wastes about 40% of the food that is produced. Tons of edible produce and meat are taken to landfills because it passes a sell-by date, farmers reject the stuff because it is ugly, or we waste it in our refrigerators by not cooking or eating it before it goes bad.

The problem with the 40% statistic is that it is used broadly to encompass all food waste and there are not good reliable statistics on how much of the waste is from the ugly produce problem. I am not sure that farmers are all that wasteful with ugly produce based on my experience. Much of the ugly produce is used for other purposes such as animal feed and much of it makes its way to farmers markets via minority entrepreneurs.

Here's how this works.

Farmers often give or sell at a discount the ugly produce to farm workers and others who sell it at local farmers markets. Throughout the agricultural regions of the U.S., farmers markets and roadside stands set up by Hispanic and African American entrepreneurs (who work on the farms or who have connections with farm workers who help them with access to the produce) sell ugly fruit and vegetables at greatly discounted prices. Many of my Florida readers will know about these markets. One in Tampa on Hillsborough Avenue is a heavily trafficked spot where one can buy boxes of ugly farm produce for a song. You can get a dozen tomatoes or peppers for a few dollars. The produce isn't perfect, but it is completely edible.

That is why I found myself scratching my head a bit about this ugly produce startup in San Francisco. In some ways, it is an appropriation of a niche market established by minority entrepreneurs with connections with farms. The startup entrepreneurs are selling the ugly produce with a feel-good marketing plan to middle and upper class San Franciscans within the context of food sustainability. However, lower income folks were accessing the ugly produce at cheap prices for decades from minority entrepreneurs before hipsters made ugly produce cool by boxing it up with a food sustainability ribbon.

Don't get me wrong. I think it is great that the startup is finding ways to reduce food waste. What bothers me is that the article represents this startup group as innovative and impactful. If the Times was really interested in finding out how entrepreneurs are impacting the ugly food problem, they would talk to the hundreds of Hispanic and African American entrepreneurs who find ways to make a living or supplement their income by selling ugly produce. They've been doing it for decades. But I suppose they are not as cool as a San Francisco startup boxing up "cosmetically challenged" produce within the context of the very modern, urban, and upper class construct of food sustainability.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

This Blog Post Is All Natural

Rick Barrett, a reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an interesting article this week on efforts to seek better definition of the term natural when applied to food. The piece is worth a read if you are interested in food and sustainability.
Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

As the article points out, the term natural is almost meaningless when speaking about food today. The term has been misused by some food companies. Certainly all food is in some way natural, yet companies that produce food that falls somewhere between the precisely defined organic food product and the less defined processed food product are seeking a way to brand their food as somewhat different from the two end points on the spectrum.

Consumers are more and more interested in food issues. The organic food market is doing very well. Yet organic is so precisely defined and regulated that some food products that are of high quality cannot achieve the organic label. These products must compete with lower quality products that can utilize the same natural appellation since the term is not regulated in the food industry.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Most Interesting Conversation You Will See November 23, 2015

More about that NOAA study...

NOAA Science Article Gets Congressional Treatment

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For anyone interested in global climate change science and public policy, today's Washington Post article on a recent NOAA study is worth a read. A Texas Congressman has been making a number of accusations about a report in Science that looked at large data sets on surface temperatures that suggested that the surface of the planet was not in a pause on climate change. The authors' analysis suggests that surface temperatures were warming over the last several years.

Certainly this article has led to some debate within the scientific community. However, is it worthy of all of the drama of a Congressional hearing? Accusations about this research have been flying for months from the global climate change denial community. To me, this research is one of hundreds of scientific research reports that have emerged on climate change in the last year. Why were these authors singled out for Congressional oversight? Why are accusations coming out of Congress that are based on innuendo or gossip? Clearly, the accusation that Science magazine rushed the publication of the article was refuted in today's Post article.

In our present era, there are whole journals dedicated to climate change science and policy (this is one of several) and many hundreds of scientists study climate change and publish their research in a number of journals. Why are these authors and this one particular study being singled out for Congressional hearings? Certainly NOAA is a federal agency and the work of individuals working in that organization are representatives of the government. So in many ways, it is fair, although unusual, for congress to bring their work into question. However, I think that the intent of any investigation or hearing to discredit this work will probably backfire and shine a light on the slow and steady work undertaken by scientists around the world and thereby provide greater understanding on the science of climate change.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Best Thing You Will See Online November 22, 2015

More about Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement...

Wangari Maathai Quiz

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Dr. Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was one of the most influential women in the history of the modern sustainability movement. She was the first person to win the Nobel Peace Price for work on environmental issues. Below is a short quiz to test your knowledge on this important woman. The answers are in the comments.

1. She is very closely associated with the promotion of human rights and democracy in this African country. Name it.

2. She was selected to study in the United States through a foundation set up to educate African students in the U.S. by this future president. Name him.

3. She earned her undergraduate degree in biology from Mount St. Scholastica College. She also earned a masters degree in biology from this university. Name it.

4. Although Dr. Maathai is most closely associated with forests, she was the first woman in her country to earn a Ph.D. in this field. Name it.

5. Dr. Maathai formed this important movement in 1977 that focused on planting trees and empowering women by developing economic activities in regenerated forests (such as bee keeping and sustainable firewood collection). Name the movement that resulted in over 51million planted trees with 30,000 women engaged in the project.

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6. Dr. Maathai and her team fought against the destruction of forests and parks for development. She was beaten senseless and hospitalized when she tried to plant a tree in an area of a national forest that the President of her country wanted to turn into a golf course. One of the most important projects she stopped was the construction of Africa's tallest building on a public park in her country's capital city. Name the capital and the park she saved.

7. Her activism led her to have significant problems with leaders in her country and she experienced times when she was beaten and jailed. Many world leaders came to her assistance during times when she was imprisoned or had threats on her life due to her environmental work. These individuals probably saved her life by pointing out the human rights abuses taking place against environmentalists in her home country. Her nemesis during this period was the leader of her country. Name him.

8. In 2006, Maathai, along with seven other women such as Sophia Loren, Isabel Allende, and Susan Sarandon were part of the 2006 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony. How were they featured?

9. Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize, in part because she was one of the first to broadly speak and act on the linkages between protecting the environment, green jobs, cultural sustainability, and women's rights. In what year did she win the award?

10. Dr. Maathai, like other women environmentalists before her, was attacked by male detractors as being crazy, too bossy, and uncontrollable. What influential American woman environmental writer was attacked in the 1960s using similar language?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Best Thing You Will See Online November 21, 2015

From the 2013 Vision Long Island Smart Growth Awards...

Long Island Smart Growth Summit Redux

Photo by Mario Gomez.
Yesterday I was the annual Long Island Smart Growth Summit. It is a full day event organized by Vision Long Island. We always have a big group from Hofstra University that attends. Vision Long Island focuses on smart growth issues--a key theme in suburban sustainability. I have attended this event each year I have been at Hofstra and yesterday was my 5th year in attendance.

The event has a distinct structure. There is a morning panel of local officials. During this session, they provide updates on smart growth projects throughout Long Island. After this, with the exception of a lunch speaker, the rest of the day is divided into breakout sessions that focus on a number of different topics such as financing for smart growth, complete street projects, parking challenges, building coalitions, water quality protection, and the significance of walkable communities.

Older suburban landscapes like those on Long Island have challenges with the needs and realities of the present. The smart growth summit helps to build political, community, and business coalitions to promote projects that improve suburban sustainability.

Perhaps the most impactful Long Island Smart Growth Summit I attended was right after Superstorm Sandy. I wrote about that event here. There, local officials and the rest of the attendees looked shell shocked from not only the magnitude of the storm, but also the magnitude of the problems that emerged after the storm. There were still some people in attendance at that event that still did not have power. Long Beach was still trying to get their streets cleared of sand and debris.

This year's event was much more positive. 

Local government officials in the opening session were all able to note some significant improvements in their communities. Perhaps the most significant one that will impact Hofstra University is the redevelopment of the Nassau Coliseum (sometimes called the Nassau Hub) that will include bus rapid transit from Hempstead to the Coliseum with a stop at Hofstra. Anyone who has tried to navigate Hempstead Turnpike via bike or foot should be grateful for the improvements that are coming to this roadway.

One of the biggest challenges on Long Island is workforce housing and affordable housing for young people. The average price of a home on Long Island is about $400,000. Plus, there are few apartments available in most communities. While there are exceptions, we are a landscape of expensive single family homes. Plus we tend to have limited infrastructure for mass transit, bikes, and pedestrians. Our communities are not well connected. Politically, the population doesn't want change. Few places want to add apartments or population density. 

Yet this is changing. 

In the five years that I have been attending, I have seen a greater interest by political, community, and business leaders in changing the status quo of Long Island. More smart growth projects are moving forward than ever before. As was pointed out in the morning session yesterday, the projects have been tax positive in the communities. There are still challenges. In the Hamptons, where it is very difficult to find workforce housing, a smart growth project was challenged in court by a community group who did not want the project. Right now, it is extremely difficult to find labor in the Hamptons because there are few places where workers can live. 

But these challenges are starting to become the exception. More and more communities are realizing that they need to change in order to thrive.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Best Thing You Will See Online November 19, 2015

Laboratory chimps caged for 30 years released to a sanctuary...

National Institutes of Health Stops Chimp Research

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An article from the Washington Post by Darryl Fears notes that the National Institutes of Health is ending its research on chimpanzees. This may sound like a sudden move, but there hasn't been any research on the government population in years. Maintaining the chimps in labs was a financial, personal, and ethical burden for the government. The chimps are being sent to sanctuaries.

This doesn't mean that research on chimps is over. There are still chimp populations in private labs and universities all over the country. In addition, much animal research has gone offshore to places were animal rights are not a significant cultural issue. So while the U.S. government is out of the business of keeping a research population of chimpanzees, animal testing is alive and well throughout the U.S. and around the world.

It is worth noting that animal rights activists have been challenging the right of universities and other organizations to maintain laboratory chimpanzees. Just this year in at Stony Brook University, the Nonhuman Rights Project sued the university to give 2 chimps that they held in captivity the same rights as humans. The Nonhuman Rights Project lost the case, but the university decided to move the chimps to a sanctuary.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Why I Am Not a Fan of

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Okay, I admit it, I do pop in to to see what they are up to every once in a while. If you are not familiar with Grist, it is an online magazine that seeks to bring environmental news and commentary with a bit of humor. Being a strong environmentalist with a sense of humor, I completely buy into Grist's mission.

However, I am not a fan.

Why? While some of their articles are funny, they tend to poke fun at alternative visions and they also infantilize some really important and complex issues. In other words, much of their humor is very base and the site tends to divide us rather than unite us.

Let me give you an example of their infantilization of the news. When I popped in today, one of their headlines was, New Hottie Canadian Prime Minister Essentially Kills Northern Gateway Pipeline. Without quibbling over whether or not the word essentially was needed, I do wonder what the Prime Minister's looks have to do with the issue. Plus, the first sentence of the article was, Environmental and First Nations groups are celebrating recently elected Canadian Prime Minster Justin "Hair Model" Trudeau's decision to ban crude oil tanks from British Columbia's northern coast.

Just imagine if Prime Minister Trudeau were a woman. Would Grist refer to her as a hottie hair model? If it is wrong for women, it is wrong for men. Also, how does referring to the Prime Minister as a hair model contribute the Grist's mission of bringing environmental news with a sense of humor?

Or how about this headline, Raise Awareness about the Paris Climate Talks by Talking Like a Rude French Person. Really? That's all you've got in your humor wheelhouse? Particularly at this moment?

The sad thing is that Grist has a revenue of millions dollars to post hyperbolic headlines and articles that are as funny as an alcohol free vegan open mic comedy night in a church basement in Boca del Vista Grande--not that there is anything wrong with a vegan open mic comedy night in a church basement in Boca del Vista Grande.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Best Thing You Will See Online November 17 2015

Tropical pumpkin garden in Florida:

Pumpkins Nearly Went Extinct 10,000 Years Ago

Photo by Bob Brinkmann
When you enjoy your pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving, you have early American pioneers to thank--and by early American pioneers, I mean Mexican settlers who 10,000 years ago domesticated the cucurbita genus that includes pumpkins, gourds, and squashes. According to John Bohannon in Science Magazine, this group of plants almost died out during the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna at the close of the ice age. Giant sloths and mammoths ate the cucurbita plants and dispersed the seeds in their feces. When the megafuana went extinct, there was limited seed dispersal and thus a general decline in cucurbita.

These Mexican settlers are also famous for their domestication of corn. The combined triumvirate of beans, squash, and corn served as the foundation of the Mexican and Central American diet for hundreds of years.

In Florida, there is a "native" Seminole pumpkin that served as an important part of the Native American diet. People call it a native plant in Florida, although it certainly was domesticated by Native Americans over time. If you live in Florida, you can purchase seeds online. They actually climb trees and will take over a garden pretty quickly. I grew them and found them to be quite productive. The fruits make amazing pumpkin pie.

Many people assume that pumpkins were largely domesticated by Europeans. Check out this article about the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin here. It notes that the pumpkin is one of the oldest domesticated pumpkins--it dates back from the 1800's. Since the first cucurbita were domesticated 10,000 years ago, this is quite a cultural appropriation. I also hazard a guess that the Cheese Pumpkin is also a cultural appropriation and that it was grown on Long Island for centuries by native peoples. Indeed, if you poke around the Internet to try to find native pumpkins in your area, you will probably find that there are local varieties native to your region that were domesticated by Native Americans hundreds of years ago. The range of native domesticated pumpkins extends throughout most of the Americas and Caribbean.

So as you enjoy your pumpkin pie or pumpkin latte this fall, you are eating a food that evolved when Native Americans started to grow the plant after giant sloths and mammoths no longer distributed the seeds in their poop. No wonder pumpkins grow so well in compost piles.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Seasons of Living - A New Poem by Stan Brunn

Photo by Bob Brinkmann

                                                         Seasons of Living

Spring is for beginning
                  Summer is for maturing
                  Autumn is for ripening
                  Winter is for retiring
Some seasons in life are shortened
                  Some seasons are prolonged
                  Some seasons are absent
                  Some are omnipresent.
Some seasons are predictable and eternal
                  Some filled with sadness and very personal
                  Some filled with anticipation and events cyclical
                  Some completely unexpected and geographical.
Seasons come in many configurations
                  Birthing, wedding, parenting and family reunions
                  Schooling, holidays, shopping and celebrations
                  Farming, gardening, sports and religions.
Some people in life experience eternal spring
                  Some an eternal winter
                  Some a shortened summer
                  Some a truncated fall.
Some seasons we can prepare for and plan
                  Some seasons come with unplanning
                  Some proceed with the calendrical regularity
                  Some the reverse calendar.
All groups gathering represent a mix of season experiences
                  So do people we greet and those we meet
                  Members of choirs, orchestras and bands are experiencing different seasons
                  As are sports teams, churches and clubs we belong.
The seasons of life are indeed many and varied
                  Often we experience many seasons in the same day
                  And in the same place and in the same time
                  And also in the same year.
The mysteries of seasons are confounding
                  For prisoners and deep space travelers their lives are season-less
                  For the visually impaired their seasonal experiences are different
                  For the physically and mentally ill their anguish may be eternal.
Seasons can be times of new expression
                  Great anticipation or deep depression
                  Learning, creation and re-creation
                  Or some unexpected artistic expression.
Our lives encompass more than weather seasons
                  Perhaps a few or a dozen during a year
                  Perhaps far too many to count
                  Including those we can do nothing about.
Seasons can be in one place
                  In our mind or extraterrestrial space
                  In a time of predicted regularity
                  And in spaces of unpredicted spirituality.
All seasons are for living and celebrating
                  For giving and forgiving
                  For sharing and for caring

                  For healing and for loving.                                                                                                                             

                            Stan Brunn, 11 November 2015

Saturday, November 14, 2015

France Strongly Supports the New Sustainable Development Goals

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France, arguably one of the most beautiful countries in the world, experienced a significant tragedy yesterday. I thought a good way to honor the country would be to focus on some of the great things it is doing with international sustainability.

Today, I want to highlight France's very strong support for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were recently implemented by the United Nations. 

I've written about the new SDGs many times. I even gave a mini lecture about them here. In a nutshell, the goals evolved from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which have been used for the last 15 years to assess key international development goals--mainly poverty, health, and education. The new SDGs are much more comprehensive.

The French government published this document that summarizes the goals quite nicely. In the brief report the government notes that the new goals provide an opportunity for all countries to participate in improving global sustainability. This is an important distinction because in the past, the MDGs only focused on developing countries. 

What is perhaps most significant about this document is that France's government is committed to addressing national sustainability issues within the context of the SDGs. From the document:

In France, the Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy (MEDDE) has the task of coordinating national implementation of the 2030 Agenda on sustainable development, in consultation with the appropriate civil society stakeholders. The national strategy for the ecological transition towards sustainable development (SNTEDD) is an invaluable tool that complements other national policies and strategies which must be adapted to help achieve the SDGs. 

France is one of the countries in the developed world leading the way on international sustainability issues. While many countries support the SDGs, France is one of the few developed countries to focus considerable national attention on achieving the goals outlined in the SDGs.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Best Thing You Will See Online November 13, 2015

More chickens...

Dallas Has First in Country Chicken Coop Tour

Cluck for photo credit.
The Dallas Morning News published an interesting article today by Karel Holloway on a chicken coop tour that is taking place in the suburbs of Dallas. As far as I know, this is the first ever chicken coop tour in the country focused on backyard chicken ranching.

I've written quite a bit on this blog about suburban agriculture with a few posts on the backyard chicken movement (check them out here, here, and here).

What is interesting about the Dallas tour is that it has a keeping up with the Jones cultural feel to it. People seem to be creating chicken coops that have an artistic or luxe vibe. Instead of competing over which house has the nicest car in the driveway, residents are competing over the quality of their chicken coops.

I think this is wonderful. It shows how much the backyard chicken movement has grown in recent years. I wish there was a tour like this in Long Island. Hmm...maybe I can make that happen...

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Most Interesting Thing You Will See Online November 12, 2015

A follow up to my Thanksgiving post today...

6 Thanksgiving Facts Worth Remembering--With an Update!

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Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Getting together with friends and family for a wonderful meal while also giving thanks to all of the blessings in our lives is a wonderful annual American tradition.

Yesterday, November 11, was not only Veterans Day, it was also the 395th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims in North America (in 1620). On that day, the Pilgrims developed a governance document for the colony, called the Mayflower Compact, that is considered the first important document in the development of democracy in the United States.

In many ways, Thanksgiving is culturally similar to many traditional fall harvest festivals and some suggest that Thanksgiving is a very old institution that dates back hundreds of years. However, in the United States, tradition places the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts. For Americans, the Thanksgiving story is a familiar one--the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock and were welcomed  by the Indians. They shared a meal that included the fruits of the Pilgrim's first harvest in peaceful harmony. While elements of this story are true, the overall tone of the story is certainly a bit simplistic.

I recently read Nathaniel Philbrick's book, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, that details the time leading up to the Pilgrim's voyage, the founding of Plymouth, and the decades after the first Thanksgiving. The book is a page turner for those of you who like history. It provides a solid and fascinating glimpse into the world of the English colony and the native peoples of the region in the 1600's.

Upon reflection, it is easy to be critical of both the colonists and the native peoples given what happened in the 100 years after the settlement of Plymouth. But these were different times--ones that we have a hard time understanding in today's fast-paced world. Therefore, I think it is important to highlight some facts about that era of the first Thanksgiving.

1. Diseases brought by European explorers prior to the settlement of Plymouth killed many of the native people living in New England just before the settlement of Plymouth. The site that the Pilgrims selected to settle was an abandoned native village. In some areas of Cape Cod, the Pilgrims found many unburied human remains that indicated that death occurred rapidly in some communities.

2. Some of the first things the Pilgrims did upon landing on Cape Cod was desecrate graves of the native population and steal their corn.

3. The Pilgrims were fundamentalist Christians and they would punish people for violations that they thought were unholy. A common punishment was tying hands and feet together. They tried to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Those that were converted were often called the Praying Indians and were seen by many Native Americans as traitors.

4. The Pilgrims made sophisticated long-term land purchase deals with the native peoples using wampum (beads) and other items in trade. The native peoples did not fully understand the implication of the land deals and this led to long-term conflict in the area that resulted in King Philips War, the first major war between colonists and Native Americans.

5. While the Pilgrims quickly made friends with local Native Americans (a friendship that would deteriorate with time), they did not get along all that well with other groups. In 1622 Myles Standish set up a meeting with some of the leaders of a group that was causing some trouble with the Plymouth Colony. While sharing a meal, Standish attacked and killed two native unarmed men. They brought one of the heads of the men back to Plymouth and displayed it on a pole to scare other native peoples. Many of the native peoples left the region after this attack and many believe that this act of brutality started a cycle of violence that lasted for years.

6. After the Standish attack noted above, the Plymouth Colony and other Massachusetts colonies grew considerably. By the 1670's the native population came to realize that they lost most of their property to bad land deals and that the English colonists were quickly changing their home in ways that were unpalatable to them. The native population decreased due to disease to about 10,000 while the English population in the 1600's grew to 80,000. The Native American Population realized that they had to fight or lose their identify. Several skirmishes ensued with unthinkable brutality on both sides. By 1675, all out war broke out between the native peoples of New England and the colonists. It ended with the death of the native leader, King Philip, in 1678. This war presaged the conflict that would occur across the frontier when a union of the French and the Native Americans fought the English in the French and Indian Wars which lasted almost 100 years (1688-1763).

So while the English Colonists and the native people of Massachusetts did have a moment in 1621 when they shared a meal at the time of the first harvest at the Plymouth Colony, the relationship of the Pilgrims with the Native Americans in the region set the stage for hundreds of years of conflict. So while you give thanks this Thanksgiving, take a moment to recognize all that was lost and all that was gained.


An update...

A bit more detail on #2 above. The graves and corn were discovered by a scouting party while many of the colonists remained on the Mayflower. The desecration and theft did not go unnoticed by the native population on Cape Cod and created distrust that led to future conflict.

Upon reflection, I realized that I didn't give enough background on why #3 above was important. While the Pilgrims came to Plymouth for religious freedom, they did not hesitate to deny religious freedom to others. Rhode Island was established when Roger Williams left the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts in 1636 to establish the colony as an area of religious freedom. The oldest synagog in North America is found in Rhode Island. The Puritans regularly exiled or punished individuals who did not buy into their extreme form of piety. Thomas Morton, who in 1628 established the community of Merrymount near Plymouth, sought to create a utopian society that brought together Native American and English culture within a loose Christian foundation. When Morton built a maypole, the nearby Plymouth Pilgrims were scandalized. Myles Standish and his troops attacked Merrymount and stranded Morton on a barren island off the coast of New Hampshire. Morton barely survived the ordeal, but made his way to England where he successfully sued the Massachusetts Bay Company, the organization responsible for the Plymouth expedition. It is also important to note that Native Americans who did not convert or who were deemed as dangerous were regularly sold into slavery and shipped to the Caribbean.

Also, a quick afterthought on number 6 above. When King Philip was killed at the end of King Philip's war, he was drawn and quartered. His head was brought to Plymouth where it was on display on the town fence for 20 years. In addition, one of the soldiers involved with Philip's death kept a severed hand and made a living by displaying it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Best Thing You Will See Online November 10, 2015

Orcas in the wild...

SeaWorld Tries the Reset Button

Killer whales in the wild. Click for photo credit.
SeaWorld is trying to remake its image after the impact of the devastating film Blackfish (which was released in 2013). If you didn't see the movie, it focuses on SeaWorld's orca shows and on one particular orca, Tilikum. As many of you know, the movie did not show SeaWorld in a good light. Since the film's release, SeaWorld has been under pressure from many to change its approach to the way it operates. According to The Guardian, SeaWorld's profits are down 84%. Investors want the organization to change.

According to this article by Robert Trigaux of the Tampa Bay Times, SeaWorld is seeking to refocus its efforts on protecting the environment. There are questions as to whether or not the public will come to a theme park without the well-known killer whale shows or other attractions that utilize trained animals.

As my dedicated readers know, I spent some time volunteering at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. This facility was dedicated to the release and rehabilitation of marine organisms, particularly dolphins and sea turtles. The aquarium attracted many visitors who sought greater knowledge about marine life in Florida. Today, it is a very successful nonprofit organization and it has been featured in many films and media reports. There are aquariums all over the world with similar missions. In many ways, SeaWorld will be getting into the kind of territory largely managed by nonprofits. Perhaps this is a good thing, although I am concerned with the commitment of a publicly traded company to truly have rescue and rehabilitation of marine organizations as a central core. Where's the profit in saving the marine world in today's consumtainment theme park world?

But at least there is change afoot at SeaWorld. I am encouraged by this effort, but it feels as if the reset button has not been pushed hard enough. I have never liked seeing animals in captivity for entertainment and I have always found SeaWorld distasteful. The change noted in the Tampa Bay Times article is a step in the right direction, but perhaps SeaWorld needs to rethink its policy on the captivity of healthy animals.