Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Saving Water, a Drop at a Time

Lately I have been saving water. I don’t let the water run while I’m doing dishes. I turn off the shower when I soap up. I don’t pour water down the drain when I can use it for feeding my plants. If I save a gallon a day, that’s 1% of my monthly usage.

Americans use more water per capita than any other nation. Every time we flush the toilet, we use as much water as the average person in the developing world employs for an entire day's cooking, cleaning, and drinking. In parts of our own country, water shortages are an increasing problem. Maybe I can learn new habits to reduce my daily water usage, and make a personal contribution to a national problem.

But I also have been wasting water. I forget to turn off my sprinkler. I put a small load into the washing machine. Probably I squander 10 gallons for every gallon I save. Besides, most water usage in the US goes for the production of electricity and agricultural irrigation. Only about 10% of the water used in the US goes to our homes. Now my attempt to save water seems like a drop in the bucket. How can my puny efforts to save a few drops make any difference in the global problems of resource shortages?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that saving a few drops of water, or gasoline, is a waste of time. But that’s the wrong way to think about the bigger issue of conserving resources. Just because I haven’t figured out how to stop wasting water, is no reason not to reduce where I can. We cannot demand that industries and farmers reduce their usage unless we also are prepared to make changes in our lifestyles. It’s not just a question of fairness – we need to understand how our daily lives are based on the consumption of resources at a level which cannot be sustained. Whether we are considering water or petroleum or electricity, we will not be able to keep using the world’s resources as we do today. If we don’t find ways to reduce consumption gradually, our children and grandchildren might be faced with critical shortages.

We don’t know how to do this. In fact, American per capita usage of both water and gasoline has declined very slightly since 2000. But it’s not enough to just stop increasing, we have to begin serious reductions. My experiences with water usage show me that it’s not easy.

Our use of resources is a set of daily habits: how we wash dishes, how we buy vehicles and drive them, how we turn lights on and off. It’s also about how we consume products. It takes twice as much water to produce the food for a meat diet as for a vegetarian diet. Every pound of beef requires over 1000 gallons of water to produce, while a pound of potatoes or apples needs less than 100 gallons.

I’m not suggesting that we all become vegetarians. I don’t want to give up my morning shower. But if we learn more about water usage and begin to change our habits, we will be better able to figure out how to bring our consumption in line with our resources. Meanwhile, a few simple steps can make a difference: turn off the tap while brushing teeth; wash fruits and vegetables in a bowl, instead of running the water; sweep, rather than spraying down, the driveway and sidewalk; wash only full loads.

If we begin to think about what we pour down the drain, what we toss into the trash, we can gradually develop less wasteful habits, as families and as a nation. Then our grandchildren will still have fresh water and we’ll be better stewards of our beautiful earth.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal Courier, July 27, 2010

Friday, July 16, 2010

We’re In This Together

The other day I gave another driver the finger. He had sped up so he could cut me off as we were merging. For a moment we were deadly enemies. When I play racquetball, I focus on beating my partner. I want him to lose, so I can win.

Most of the time we spend in our cars, we share the road with many drivers moving in the same direction. Most of the time, my racquetball partner and I hope for the best for each other. Moments of conflict and opposition represent special circumstances, not normal life.

You wouldn’t know that from the media. Television especially concentrates on conflict – defeating opponents or arguing with friends on reality shows, encouraging politicians to criticize other politicians’ ideas, playing up athletic contests. Even cooking is portrayed as competition. In the TV model, life is a zero-sum game: for every winner there is a loser. Human happiness never grows, it just gets shifted around. So get out there and fight everyone else for your share.

The media feasts on confrontation, but that diet is not healthy for us. Anger raises our social blood pressure, but solves no problems. In fact, we constantly meet situations which prove that human happiness can increase. Just give a child some praise, share something with a friend or stranger, help someone in need. Everyone walks away feeling better.

I believe that as a society we are moving away from a desire to solve problems cooperatively toward a single-minded motivation to defeat opponents. Political conflict has spread into “culture wars”, in which other people’s choice of newspaper or dinner beverage, or their attitude toward recycling or marriage makes them our enemy. Science is no longer a set of questions to discover more about, but another club with which to beat opponents over the head. If the facts seem to favor my opponent’s arguments, I’ll just deny them. Truth becomes a mere tactic, rather than a goal. When President Obama speaks, the Republican goal is find some phrase which can be turned to their advantage, rather than to think about whether his policy suggestions might work.

I was startled when Rush Limbaugh said right after Obama’s inauguration that he hoped Obama’s effort to promote economic recovery would fail. Would he rather have people continue to suffer than see a liberal be successful? It turns out that Limbaugh was only expressing a spreading political model – fixing problems is not our goal, it’s defeating the hated enemy, which means other Americans. That’s the essence of partisanship.

I don’t mean that we should stop criticizing the ideas of people with whom we disagree. We need to stop demonizing the opposition. I think the Tea Partiers are wrong about liberals. I think Sarah Palin is uneducated about difficult political issues. But I don’t think they are bad Americans. We should be able to debate the facts and argue policies without calling each other traitors or anti-American. If they offer an idea with potential, I need to be able to say, “Bravo!”

For politicians electoral contests may be a zero-sum game – if one wins, the other loses. But for the rest of us, political polices might make all our lives better. If oil spills can be prevented by better regulation or banks can be stopped from risky games with our money, we are all winners. We can resist the media effort to make our lives into a game of Survivor.

The extreme partisanship which characterizes our conversations about national issues is making America a worse place to live. I didn’t feel good about yelling at that other driver and he’s not any less likely to cut off his next automotive adversary. We are giving in to our baser instincts, encouraged by self-indulgent politicians and a cynical media. If we recognize what we have in common, we might be more able to find solutions to our common problems.

Jacksonville, IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 20, 2010

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Spinning the Truth

Spinning is sweeping the news. I don’t mean the healthy new exercise of riding a stationary bicycle. I mean the profoundly unhealthy practice of twisting the truth to mislead us into supporting the spinner’s political agenda.

Of course, spinning is just a new label for an age-old strategy of persuasion. We have always expected TV commercials, carnival barkers, and door-to-door salesmen to exaggerate, hide or otherwise mangle the truth in order to coax us to spend our money on their products. More recently, we have learned to expect our political leaders to adopt partisan positions on every possible issue, subordinating facts to ideology, truth to political advantage. We can no longer believe even the basic biographical “facts” that they claim qualify them for office.

Pitchmen and politicians make their living by selling themselves or their products. We expect to discover a few liars and frauds, like the investment crook Bernie Madoff or Illinois Senate candidate Mark Kirk, and to be skeptical about what the others say. But I find the increasing drift of media news away from factual reporting into constant spinning to be dangerous to our national health.

Until very recently we could rely on television news to deliver information that we need to make our own decisions. Journalists were professional reporters, seekers after the truth and tellers of the true stories they found. The division between news and opinion was always clear. I don’t believe that complete objectivity about controversial political issues is possible, but we consumers of news could at least expect that those who delivered the news were trying their best to communicate truth.

Those days are over. Cable networks vie for audience share by promoting political agendas. Fox News in particular has succeeded commercially by openly promoting a biased, often misleading, sometimes deliberately untruthful version of the “news”. Keith Olberman of MSNBC is on his way toward the same destination, news as entertainment, journalist as partisan persuader.

I want to raise my small local voice against these trends. In today’s complex globalized world, we need reliable news more than ever. We need objective information on science, politics, the environment, and the economy. We expect sports reporters to tell us the scores of last night’s games, not to openly promote their favorite team as the best and denigrate another team’s players without ever giving us the results. Why shouldn’t we expect the same thing in our more important national news?

Even opinion columnists like me have a public responsibility to seek the truth. We abuse our privilege if we make up evidence, do shoddy research, or pretend that our opinions are facts. We should seek less to persuade than to offer one person’s perspective based on accurate data and logical thinking.

That’s the only way for the media to recover the trust of Americans. I sat next to a lady on an airplane who said that all newspapers told lies, that nothing they published could be believed. I think she’s wrong, but the media are to blame for their own unbelievability. If most Americans decide just to believe whatever they want, or whatever some radio ranter or cable commentator says, we’ll never be able to solve the real problems we face, or even know what they are.

Jacksonville, IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 13, 2010

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Did We Cause the Big Crash?

Why did our economy crash, plunged into disaster by the market in mortgages for our houses? Lots of skilled economists and loud ideologues have proposed explanations for the Depression of 2007 - 2010 (as good a name as any). Democrats and Republicans have offered party lines and some individual interpretations.

I know I can’t grasp the complicated writings of the experts and I get bored by political propaganda. But there’s lots of writing for the rest of us, and I have read some of it. We American home-owners appear as co-conspirators in many judgments about what caused the crash. In these interpretations, many of us were greedy for wanting bigger homes than we deserved, foolish to have then bought larger houses than we could afford, and stupid for agreeing to the low interest/low payment scams of mortgage sellers.

What a crock! It is easy to reply that right up to the crash, the American desire to own a home was constantly being bragged about by American politicians as proof of our democracy, and applauded by bankers, manufacturers, and workers in the building trades. Unscrupulous mortgage brokers targeted people who must rely more on trust than on understanding of high finance. Then many other bankers, the “scrupulous” ones, played even stupider and riskier games with our money. Meanwhile, government regulators and politicians stood on the sidelines.

Veiled accusations by the political-economic power structure that it’s all our fault are partly to blame for our vile mood about them. But it’s worthwhile to put aside such defensive replies and wonder what role we Homeowners of America played in the crash.

Here’s what I think from my own life. I never want to go back to living in someone else’s home or building. Being able to afford your own home is one of life’s great privileges. When we finally bought our first home, I was happy to mortgage 30 years of my future, and thought that was a wise financial choice. Now in a bigger and more interesting home than I ever thought I could live in, I still want to improve it. That very common desire might mean moving for some people; for me it means pouring money into restoring our Victorian house. It all adds up to the same thing: going into debt to live in our own place seemed like a no-brainer.
But many people used huge risky mortgages as speculative investments, assuming that house prices would never stop rising. They contributed to the housing bubble, whose explosion put all of us at risk.

Those of us who see our houses as homes, not money-makers, also took risks. Too many Americans, myself included, want too much. The highest standard of living, including the biggest average house size, in world history is still not enough. We went into debt to finance unnecessary luxury.

Not planning for the biggest international economic disaster since the 1930s doesn’t make us reckless or foolish. Many homeowners could, however, have been better risk planners. But we need assistance from the people we pay to advise us on matters beyond our knowledge. Bankers, media financial commentators and our elected officials could have been much more helpful in warning us and protecting us.

The idea that American homeowners are at fault for our country’s economic problems happens to come from the very people who I think were the real problem: bankers and other financial wizards who championed their right to operate just as they wished. Some of them lost their jobs, but only after raking in more money than I’ll ever earn. The rest are still “earning” big bucks playing with our money.

Our biggest mistake – putting our lives in their hands.

Jacksonville, IL
published in he Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 6, 2010