A Cornucopia of Consumption on Thanksgiving

Three things for our readers this Thanksgiving Day.

First, it's somehow befitting of Thanksgiving's origins that the cornucopia on many tables of today consists of food that would be virtually unrecognizable 100 years ago, let alone 400. Turkeys nowadays will be over two times bigger (an average of 28 pounds) than their "ancestors" of the 1930s, thanks to genetic modification. And the turkeys of today freeze faster, too, thanks to the airplane de-icer they are sprayed or immersed in. And the turkey's tablemate, the potato, has also been susceptible to industrialization's easier-faster-more fix. Mashed potatoes are easier to prepare, thanks to the potato flake, the making of which involves a lye bath. Read more in Wired Magazine's article "Industrial Thanksgiving."

Second, (and this goes against many unspoken recycled minds guidelines) let's give thanks to the people who showed up for Sarah Palin's book signing, and to New Left Media for filming them, as they brought to light their blind consumption of racist, xenophobic, and anti-intellectual rhetoric:

Lastly, let's not forget Thanksgiving's younger, sister holiday, Black Friday, and its modern-day incarnations: Chicago's McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade, Philadelphia's Ikea Thanksgiving Day Parade, Minneapolis' Target Holidazzle Parade, New York's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade... a veritable cornucopia of consumerism.

Photo: mdpny on flickr

In Honor of the Food (System)

On this day of traditional thanks-giving in the US, we thought a post on food would be fitting - and we'll keep it short. It seems appropriate that on a day when people across the US are eating some of the hundreds of thousands of turkeys slaughtered for this yearly family-centered meal, we should offer this short video that reminds us that all is not well with the food we eat and the system that produces it. Check out this fun video from USC Canada that details many of the issues:

So give thanks for the food you enjoy today, but remember, the urgency of the problems associated with the world food system make it likely that fewer and fewer people will be able to enjoy such meals in the years to come - and most can't even enjoy such meals today!

Fissures in the Globalized World: An Interview with Alain Bertho

by Lana Lynne on 11.22.2009

A recent interview with anthropologist Alain Bertho lays out some key points from his new book, Le tempes des émeutes [The Riots Period], which brings together his ongoing documentation of insurrection, of "popular anger," or riots. Despite the lack of a clear political or social objective, the riotous eruptions around the world seem to Bertho to indicate we have entered an era of mobilization akin to momentous ones of the past. He likens the innumerable riots happening worldwide to "fissures of the globalized world." "Every fissure has its own history," he says, "but it's the whole house that's wobbling."

Here is the excerpt from the interview:

Is the riot a symptom of youth's relationship with politics, the "striking sign of its absence?"
It's primarily a symptom of the contemporary world's relationship to its youth. The failure of the twentieth century's revolutions and the ecological threat have abolished the modern idea of historical progress, whether political or social. Youth is no longer considered the world's future, but as a threat to its present. Vis-à-vis youth, there is no longer any political discourse except for a disciplinary one. Youth reacts in consequence. In the whole world, college and high school student mobilizations, such as festive or sport-related demonstrations, are turning into ever more violent confrontations with the authorities. The same gestures and the same rage are present on every continent.
Although we have seen protests of different calibers in the U.S., I wonder whether the U.S. makes it into Bertho's ethnography on riots. Without sounding too pessimistic, it seems as if people here have too many other outlets for their rage -- outlets which most certainly don't threaten the state.
Read the original interview by Jean-Marie Durand on lesinrocks.com. Read the translated interview (by Leslie Thatcher) on truthout.com. Check out Bertho's website here.
Image: scrapetv.com

Death-Dealing: Giroux's Zombie Politics

by Lana Lynne on 11.19.09

In seeking to understand the contradictory, regressive, oftentimes nonsensical, sometimes outright false, skewed perception of the impact of big corporations and their non-values on people -- both those who are "othered" and those who traditionally are not -- Henry Giroux offers the popularity of zombies as a way to talk about the confounding politics of the U.S.

In his article Zombie Politics and Other Late Modern Monstrosities in the Age of Disposibility, Giroux sees the popular infatuation with zombies as speaking to the "shameless lust" of corporate titans. If these captains of industry are the life-feeding monsters, in his analogy, then the minions seduced by them are vamping up for a senseless, violent, baseless revolution.

In this excerpt, he discusses how the Age of Disposibility molds people into death-obsessed commodities:

Not only do zombies portend a new aesthetic in which hyper-violence is embodied in the form of a carnival of snarling creatures engorging elements of human anatomy, but they also portend the arrival of a revolting politics that has a ravenous appetite for spreading destruction and promoting human suffering and hardship. This is a politics in which cadres of the unthinking and living dead promote civic catastrophes and harbor apocalyptic visions, focusing more on death than life. Death-dealing zombie politicians and their acolytes support modes of corporate and militarized governance through which entire populations now become either redundant, disposable or criminalized. This is especially true for poor minority youth who, as flawed consumers and unwanted workers, are offered the narrow choice of joining the military, going to prison or being exiled into various dead zones in which they become socially embedded and invisible.
While Giroux's argument does well to describe the current state of affairs, it would be interesting to extend his line of reasoning even further (in a direction admittedly off of his topic). But, why have zombies, vampires, and ghosts risen in popularity over the past decade? After all, it is not just zombies who are invading media screens, it is seemingly an all-around fascination with death. Some might argue it is less an obsession with death than it is with our own mortality -- with life -- a permutation of certain religious ideologies emphasizing the afterlife. Whatever the origins, it would be interesting to explore the relationship between the dead/undead of pop culture and political issues as a real connection rather than as an analogy -- as perhaps a recognition of problems, rather than a blind submission.

In any case, read Giroux's excellent article over at Truthout.

Healing History's Wounds: Health Care and the U.S.'s Indigenous

Health care reform means many things to many different people -- to the indigenous people of the U.S., the issue is perhaps even more weighted. An article recently published on Truthout by Frank Joseph Smecker lays out the ugly truth behind the Native American struggle with federal government health programs.

Native American and Alaskan peoples suffer from some of the worst poverty-, unemployment-, cancer-, diabetes-, obesity-, infant death-, and age-adjusted death-rates in the country. The bankrupt state of their government-funded medical centers have only exacerbated these economic and medical problems.

But looking back on the history of U.S. government involvement in Native American affairs, it comes as no surprise that the article's author reached the conclusion that in any health care reform act that is passed today, Native Americans and Alaskans will surely be left behind. Evidently, with the outbreak of contagious diseases in the 19th century, the federal government began a program aimed to "prevent disease and to speed Native American assimilation into the general population by promoting Native American dependence on Western medicine and by decreasing the influence of traditional Indian healers" (Kuschell-Haworth, qtd. in Smecker). From 1859 until 1976, the program continued under various names and in various governmental departments, eventually ending up as part of the Department of Health and Human Services as the Indian Health Service (IHS). Along the way, in 1948, one of the most appalling attempts at (literal) assimiliation took place: an involuntary sterilization program that affected 40% of Native American women who were childbearing age.

Smecker continues to relate the history of wrongdoing and delinquency on the part of the federal government: the lack of funds, the unrealistic appropriation of services, and the toxic mining and dumping occurring on reservations. A slim ray of hope glistens at the end of his report: two state representatives (from New Jersey and New Mexico) have spoken out about including a provision in health care reform to cover Native Americans. But, as Smecker points out, any truly respectful amendment would also embrace traditional methods of healing.

Read the entire article on Truthout.
Cartoon by Eric J. Garcia from fNewsMagazine.com

Biopiracy in Africa

by douglas reeser on 11.11.09

Biopiracy has been a part of human history for centuries. Columbus is rumored to have brought sugar cane to the Americas on his second voyage. Rubber tree seedlings were smuggled out of Brazil and retooled to maximize yield in Southeast Asia. Great scientists like Charles Darwin and Richard Evans Schultes collected plants throughout South America and brought them home with no concern or consequence. Today, however, we call this biopiracy, and the consequences for taking and using plants from countries are becoming increasingly stiff.

The simplified story is this: Many pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and food companies have made millions on plant species that have been used for generations by indigenous groups. Often times, the "discovery" of such money making plants was made by conducting research with the very indigenous groups who had always been using them. Collections are then brought back to corporate, government, or university labs where active ingredients are isolated, products created, and patent claims made - not only on active chemicals or their combinations, but on the plants themselves. The problem here is at least two-fold. Once a patent is granted, indigenous groups can be cited for violation of said patents if they attempt to sell or share some form of those plants - something they may have been using for generations or longer. Second, as can be imagined, the corporate interests stand to make millions and more on their "new" products, without so much as a thank you for the indigenous communities from where those products originated.

Of course there is an argument to be made for the legitimate claims of unique and novel creations using active compounds of traditionally used species. Many would argue, however, that there should be some revenue sharing in place even in these instances. Of course, the corporate interests didn't stop there - they have consistently attempted to put patents on actual plant species. Michael Gollin shares:

"For example, a 1995 patent, “Use of Turmeric in Wound Healing,” was cancelled in 1998 after an investigation instituted by India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. The new evidence established that use of turmeric to promote wound healing had been known for generations in India."

That's just one ridiculous example of many, and because of examples like this, nations around the globe are increasingly restricting plant collecting within their borders. Gollin details a number of the consequences for biopiracy across the globe, including: loss of profits, blacklisting of researchers, loss of access to materials, and even legal penalties, including jail time and heavy fines. Despite the development of such actions aimed at discouraging the practice, biopiracy is still alive and well.

A new study the South African NGO, the African Centre for Biosafety, just released details of seven major cases of biopiracy that have recently occurred across the continent. An article on the Third World Network summarizes the study and presents some of the key
"The seven new cases of suspected bio-piracy in Africa are based on a preliminary study of patent applications lodged and patents granted in the US, EU and elsewhere. Further investigation is merited by African governments, the report states, to determine conclusively whether bio-piracy has occurred and what action to take.
The seven cases include claims from universities, government departments as well as small and large companies. The claims relate to a wide range of products including for anti-aging (for example, by luxury goods maker Louis Vuitton under its Christian Dior label), skin-care, sexual dysfunction, viruses and vaccines, insect repellents and possible cancer treatments."
In each case detailed by the article, plant species used in traditional medicinal practices throughout Africa."
For instance, one
"case involves a patent application by Dicotyledon AG (Sweden) on extracts from Neobeguea mahafalensis, a tree commonly called "handy" which extracts, it claims, have a "sexual enhancing effect" and can be "used for treatment of sexual dysfunction". The report states that Dicotyledon may want to claim it as its own but it has long been used as an aphrodisiac in traditional Malagasy medicine. There is no indication in Dicotyledon's patent application or on its website that it has any intention of sharing its bounty on equitable terms or otherwise.
However, the application does make the concession that N. mahafalensis is already used as an aphrodisiac in Malagasy traditional medicine and lists at least eleven citations of traditional use for sexual functions in the scientific literature. The report states that Dicotyledon advances its patent novelty argument by insulting the holders of the knowledge of the plant: "Dicotyledon states that Malagasy traditional healers use so many plants for sexual enhancement that not all of them could possibly work." And further claims that Malagasy healers provide inaccurate information to researchers and that they lack scientific rigour in identifying and characterizing plants.
It attacks traditional medicine by asking patent examiners to ignore documented traditional use by stating that "reports on presumed medical effects of plants based on indirect information obtained from local traditional healers and alike is highly unreliable and can't be used in any practical sense for treatment of medical conditions."
This example shows that there is a clear attempt to discredit traditional medicinal practices, while using their remedies to develop products for profit. Despite growing international efforts to curb such practices, the offenses continue, allowing the wealthy to continue the pillaging and profiteering off of the poor, a legacy of capitalism that will go down in the annals of history.

Reasoning behind increased legislation on biopiracy and some of the legal consequences can be found in an excellent article by Michael Gollin here >>>

Also read this story about an accused Amazonian biopirate sentenced to 14 years in Brazilian prison - from Wired >>>

And if you remain unconvinced of complexity of traditional healing, check out this recent article from MongaBay.com - How Rainforest Shamans Treat Disease >>>

10 Things (+1) to Reduce Incarceration

Always watchful for alternatives to the "out-of-sight, out-of-mind," "eye-for-an-eye" indifference toward the prison system and those trapped in it, I recently came across law professor Paul Butler's list of ten things the everyday person can do to reduce incarceration, published for The Nation. Here is an abbreviated version of his recommendations:
1. When serving jury duty, acquit on principle (jury nullification) when it comes to non-violent drug offenses.
2. Work with a community group that pays at-risk students to graduate. Turns out money talks louder than the toughest sentencing.
3. Speak openly about your own drug use to counter the reefer-madness stereotype.
4. Employ someone who served time. Chances are much greater that they won't return to jail.
5. Vote for politicians who realize that longer, tougher jail sentences do not equate to lower crime rates. Compare the U.S. to Canada, France, and England.
6. Don't be scared. Enact your right to say no to police when they ask to search your vehicle.
7. Urge a stop to professional snitching. More than half of wrongful convictions have been attributed to people paid to testify.
8. Realize that most dealers live at home, and could find a much more lucrative career in a trade.
9. Support "Open Discovery" laws, which allow criminal defendants to "discover" the evidence against them.
10. Learn about the communities most affected by the prison system by listening to political hip-hop.
I would add to this list: Support community garden programs that work with prison inmates. For instance, Grid Magazine recently ran a feature about the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's City Harvest program, which works with the Philadelphia Prison System, food distribution network SHARE, and the Health Promotion Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania. The program offers people convicted of non-violent crimes the opportunity to lparticipate in the city gardens. The food they harvest is then distributed to neighborhoods in the city that often do not have access to fresh fruit and vegetables. The program promotes the idea that through cooperation and responsibility, people will learn invaluable life skills.

Read Paul Butler's article here.
Access Grid Magazine's article here.

Image Credit: PA Horticultural Society's Philadelphia Green

Book Review: The Wayfinders by Wade Davis

by douglas reeser on 11.3.2009

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Wade Davis. Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press, 2009. 262pp.
In a time when the topic of climate change continues to make headlines while remaining a hotly debated subject (Nguyen 2009), Wade Davis has presented a refreshingly new way for the western world to address the problem – by turning to indigenous cultures that have maintained unique means of interacting with and preserving the environment around them. The Wayfinders is the most recent book from Davis, an anthropologist and ethnobotanist who trained under the famed ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes at Harvard. Davis left the world of academia but continued with his anthropological research, and he has produced a number of best-selling books for a more popular audience. He is currently Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, where he continues to research, write, photograph, and make films.
In The Wayfinders, Davis uses his highly readable and detailed prose to describe unique examples of indigenous knowledge as it relates to local environments around the world. He begins the book by describing the intensity of language loss around the globe and explains how language loss also threatens indigenous knowledge and cultural diversity. His argument echoes the statement on the subject previously put forth by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (2008:4):
Indigenous languages are treasures of vast traditional knowledge concerning ecological systems and processes and how to protect and use some of the most vulnerable and biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. It is no coincidence that the areas where indigenous peoples live are the areas that contain the greatest biological diversity. In fact, biological, linguistic and cultural diversity are inseparable and mutually reinforcing, so when an indigenous language is lost, so too is the traditional knowledge for how to maintain aspects of the world’s biological diversity. The protection of indigenous languages is therefore not only a cultural and moral imperative, but an important aspect of global efforts to address biodiversity loss, climate change and other environmental challenges.
This statement forms the basis of Davis’ argument, wherein he uses specific ethnographic examples to detail the complexity and depth of indigenous knowledge held by groups from such diverse regions as the rain forests of Malaysia, the mountains of Colombia, the deserts of Africa, and the islands of the South Pacific. For instance, one of his first ethnographic stories details the knowledge of a Hawaiian ‘wayfinder’, a traditional navigator of the Pacific. “The navigator must process an endless flow of data, intuitions, and insights derived from observation and the dynamic rhythms and interactions of wind, waves, clouds, stars, sun, moon, the flight of birds, a bed of kelp, the glow of phosphorescence on a shallow reef” (Davis 2009:60). This information is not recorded by the wayfinder, it is stored and recalled from memory, and is thus passed orally to the novice. The wayfinder is but one example of the complexity that indigenous knowledge can take, built from generations of interaction with particular environments.
With each example of indigenous knowledge that Davis uses, he also shares a brief historical background to underscore the threat to survival that exists for each group and its associated knowledge, yet his argument could be stronger. He often notes the destructive nature of colonization, and he discusses the present day pressures faced by each group. These pressures are often a direct result of capitalist-based globalization that is expanding to the most remote corners of the globe, the very locations of many of Davis’ examples. This is perhaps where The Wayfinders could be strengthened. It is not until chapter 4 – halfway through the book – that Davis explicitly discusses the contradictory nature of the capitalist endeavor with what may be characterized as an indigenous worldview. Still, Davis falls short in what could be an exceptionally strong argument. He uses a discussion of a proposed Canadian mining project on traditionally indigenous-held lands to critique the capitalist worldview as linear and short sighted, and one that destroys for profit as opposed to preserves for future generations (114-119). He finishes this critique: “As long as there is a promise of revenue flows and employment, it merely requires permission to proceed. We take this as a given for it is the foundation of our system, the way commerce extracts value and profit in a resource-driven economy” (2009:119). While this is a fine argument against such capitalist projects, Davis could further strengthen his critique with a more fully Marxist discussion of how such projects might affect the indigenous people involved. Will they be brought into the exploitative system of wage-labor? Will their living conditions and health deteriorate? Will they be forcefully assimilated into the capitalist culture, yet remain a marginalized population therein? Davis critiques these types of capitalist ventures, and explains how they are ultimately harmful to the environment and contradictory to an indigenous worldview, but he falls short in conveying to the reader the all-too-often negative effects that result when a population is forced to transition to the capitalist economy.
Throughout the second half of the book, it is clear that Davis sees the effects of a capitalist society on indigenous groups as consistently negative or harmful, and it could be argued that his is a Marxist point of view. Yet he fails to fully detail the form that these negative effects often take. For instance, in a section discussing the coca plant and traditional Andean groups in Peru, he touches on distinctly Marxist points: “The real issues of land distribution, economic exploitation, and the persistence of debt peonage challenged the foundations of their own class structure, so they [the Peruvian middle and upper classes] settled on coca as the culprit” (2009:125). He fails, however, to discuss these issues in further depth, and instead the text moves on to detail the history of coca use and its nutritional benefits.
He continues this approach for the rest of the book. Later, in chapter 5, Davis critiques capitalist development policy (2009:171):
Ethnocide, the destruction of a people’s way of life, is in many quarters sanctioned and endorsed as appropriate development policy. Modernity provides the rationale for disenfranchisement, with the real goal too often being the extraction of natural resources on an industrial scale from territories occupied for generations by indigenous peoples whose ongoing presence on the land proves to be an inconvenience.
This makes for a compelling argument; however there is little mention of what disenfranchisement means for the people who experience it. Here Davis is taking a distinctly political-economic stance in his analysis (Roseberry 1988); however he only glosses over what this means for the indigenous people themselves, besides a loss of their culture and cultural knowledge. While this is a critical point that Davis is making, it may leave his audience disconnected from the resulting experience of the very people he is discussing, which could be just as crucial a point.
In the end, Davis argues that increasingly intense climate change events are the critical reason why the western world needs to consider indigenous knowledge as an important resource for humanity and for its insights into an alternative approach to living on the planet. Throughout the book, indigenous peoples’ relationship to the environment around them is detailed as drastically different from how most in the west view the environment. Davis shows that a deep understanding of the natural world in its minute details is often crucial to the well being and success of indigenous groups around the world. The Wayfinders is an engrossing read, full of ethnographic experience, and accessible to a wide audience, and it ties two vital issues of the day together. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the book – the under-discussed issues of language, knowledge, and cultural loss is directly implicated in the headline-grabbing issue of climate change. If this book is as widely read as some of his others, Davis may succeed in bringing wide attention to the importance of preserving the alternative systems of being that still exist around the globe.

References Cited
Davis, Wade
2009 The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press
Nguyen, Dong-Phuong
2009 Rising seas could be worse than expected, scientific group says during stop in Tampa. St Petersburg Times. October 22. Electronic Document, http://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/water/rising-seas-could-be-worse-than- expected-scientific-group-says-during-stop/1046077. Accessed October 22, 2009.
Roseberry, William
1988 Political Economy. Annual Review of Anthropology 17:161-185.
United Nations Economic and Social Council
2008 Report of the international expert group meeting on indigenous languages. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Seventh Session. New York. 20pp.