Welcome To Earth Overshoot Day

National Deficit? How About the Global Deficit?

A lot of people have been complaining about the deficit lately. But while they are expending so much energy worrying about hypothetical numbers representing possible outcomes in a budget that never comes to fruition, another, far more serious deficit has been accumulating.

Welcome to Earth Overshoot Day.

This year, Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 20th and on that day the human race began using more resources than the planet can replenish in a year; including CO2 mitigation. You read that right, in eight months we used up a year’s worth of what the Earth can provide in self-sustaining natural resources; and then we kept on using.

This data comes from The Global Footprint Network and is an estimate based on time and recourse trends. Still, anyone but the most far right leaning conservatives must recognize that we are on an unsustainable path and anyone but the most fanatical religious zealots awaiting the rapture should care that we are leaving a really messed up place for our grandchildren to live.

While we squabble over “rights” and “entitlements” and a whole bunch of other garbage that really doesn’t matter, we are turning this planet into a husk. Future generations will have to wage wars over clean water while wearing masks with air scrubbers because we were too busy fighting about gun control and the President’s birth certificate to notice that we squandered everything this world had to offer us.

You may shrug this off as a paranoid delusion. You may look around and see plenty of land for new homes and rolling hills overflowing with a cornucopia of fresh crops and think to yourself, “Where’s the problem?” Well, this is America and it’s very different from the rest of the world. Some of the biggest offenders are Japan, Italy and China, which would need two and a half Chinas in order to keep up with their resource demands.  And I hate to tell you this, but their problems are becoming our problems. When looked at on the global scale, it would take 1.5 Earths to support our current levels of consumption and waste production. We can no longer afford a policy of isolationism. We can no longer afford to pretend that this isn’t a very real catastrophe bearing down upon us.

Maybe the next few generations will realize that we are all going to have to work together if we want to fix this. In order for that to happen, all the other stuff that we all think is so important, the stuff that causes us to all hate each other, that stuff is going to have to take a back seat.

Additional Reading

Can Education Stop Terrorism?

By now the identity and background information on the two Boston Marathon bombers is old news. There are still many more questions than answers about the case. Tamerlan Tsarnaev is dead and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will most assuredly be tortured to find out why they did this and if they had assistance. None of the answers will provide enlightenment.

In the aftermath of the explosions, before we had official suspects and while the media scrambled to keep people glued to their channels by releasing any information they could scrounge up, accurate or otherwise, I found myself wondering how anyone could get to a point that they would commit such a heinous act to “make a point.” Killing innocent people does not seem like a good method of communication to me.

In fact, it seems insane to us that someone would use these kinds of measures to try to get some kind of message across or draw attention to an issue whatever it may be or however desperate they might feel. These kinds of actions do not endear anyone to your cause. Quite the opposite in fact.

I had, and still have, a theory that lack of education plays a large role in the creation of terrorists. Typically these people come from backgrounds in which a real education is withheld from them and is replaced with a rigid, extremist religious and/or political ideology. This programming starts at an early age and is a part of a systematic and deliberate dumbing down of entire groups of people by those in power.

A good education system gives people the ability to have and encourages the use of an open mind and critical thinking. A good education system gives people knowledge of the world around them, not just the region of it they live in. A good education system not only teaches people to read and write but also how to employ those and other communication skills to express themselves in a rational way and to discuss their issues in a reasonable manner with other people. A good education system teaches people that there are other ways to air your grievances besides violence.

When that kind of education is substituted with a radical belief system from which the individual can not ever stray and any contradictory information is withheld, people are easily manipulated. And without communication skills to fall back on, acts of terrorism can seem like a real, viable option.

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But here, in the Tsarnaev brothers we have two seemingly well-educated young men. They attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, although neither seemed to be applying themselves academically. Their parents do not seem to share their extreme views so the indoctrination didn’t start at home. They did apparently spend a lot of time on extremist websites and discussion boards. Somehow, somewhere a spark was generated in their minds and they used like-minded people they encountered online to reinforce their developing point of view.

Essentially they self-radicalized.

The internet can be a powerful source of both positive and negative energy. I don’t know if the education system failed them or if they turned their backs on it and chose to embrace the extremist message they wanted to hear. I suspect it was the later which blows a small hole in my theory because this means that even if you provide the education to everyone, some people won’t take advantage of it.

There are no easy answers. There is no one reason why people do these things. But I do believe that the more educated people we have in the world, the fewer terrorists we will have in the world.

Capitalism is Broken

A few weeks ago I talked a little bit about the “American model of Capitalism” and its obsession with infinite growth.  Truth be told, it’s not a problem unique to America.  It is in fact a major failing of Capitalism in general.  Today I’d like to take a look at how Capitalism encourages behaviors that are detrimental to society at large.

Citizen A starts a small business.  For the sake of this exercise let’s say it’s a barbeque restaurant.  He provides a quality product and excellent customer service and the business is quite successful.  He hires some employees and is able to serve a nice segment of his community.  Now he’s got a solid, stable business that earns him a comfortable living and employs several people in the area providing them with a decent wage and a enjoyable standard of living.

Now he has a choice.  He can be happy with what he’s accomplished and enjoy his success.  Or he can want MORE.  Unfortunately the Capitalist model encourages entrepreneurs to want more.  In fact it creates an environment of competition and greed in which wanting more ad infinitum is just a natural part of the system.

So citizen A opens a second restaurant across town.  Only now his restaurant competes with citizen B’s barbeque restaurant.  Maybe citizen A’s restaurant has better food and better service and they crush citizen B’s business, taking all his customers.  Citizen A opens more restaurants all over the country until he has cornered the market on barbeque.

“Well, what’s wrong with that?” You might ask.  “The market decided who was successful and citizen A won.”  Yes, you could say that, except that citizen A never really needed to expand into citizen B’s territory.  What was the point other than to increase his own wealth?  That growth was not only unnecessary but more importantly, it comes at the expense of everyone else.

At some point, in the name of profit and growth, citizen A will begin reducing wages and benefits to his growing number of employees.  He will begin cutting corners on his product and services because delivering quality goods and services to an increasing number of customers is expensive.  His growth destroys the potential for other citizens to own their own businesses leaving them with no alternative but to enter the workforce as an underpaid employee of someone who has fallen into the infinite growth paradigm.

Again you might say, “Who are you to say how successful I can or can’t be?”  Well how do you define success?  Citizen A was already successful before he decided that he needed to have five barbeque restaurants in every city.  Greed is an inherent human trait and Capitalism rewards greed.  In fact, the fundamental nature of the system is to reward a select few in exchange for exploiting the majority; especially when left unchecked and unregulated.

What’s the alternative then?  We’ll discuss that next time.

What No One is Saying About the Steubenville and Torrington Rape Cases.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve surely heard about the Steubenville rape case.  Just when that case seems to be reaching some small measure of closure comes the news that two more high school football players have sexually assaulted a thirteen year old girl in Torrington, Connecticut.  And just like in the Steubenville case, many of the young adults who go to school with the alleged rapists have rushed to their computers in order to vilify the victim on social media outlets.

These “intelligent,” young kids who undoubtedly have bright futures ahead of them are painfully oblivious to two facts.

First, they seem to have forgotten that their peers who conducted themselves similarly in Steubenville were looked upon with pretty much unanimous disgust by the American media and public for their attitudes and actions.  When you post something on the internet it’s there for the entire world to see and your character, or lack thereof, will be revealed to everyone in no uncertain terms.

Second, they do not seem to understand that a thirteen year old girl says she was raped by two eighteen year old boys. RAPED.  Rape is not sex as some of the comments posted by other students seem to indicate they believe.  Rape is a physical attack upon another person that totally destroys their sense of autonomy and it causes permanent damage, just as surely as a knife to the chest or bullet to the head.  Kids posting on twitter to defend rapists and accuse the victim of being the one who did something wrong is absurd and people all over the country are shaking their heads while asking, “What is wrong with these kids?”

I submit that another, far more important question needs to be asked.

What is wrong with these kids’ parents?

Not one media outlet reporting on these events has had the courage to ask how entire communities of parents can apparently fail so completely and miserably at raising their kids to be decent human beings.  It is our job as parents to teach our kids to respect their fellow humans, to treat each other with kindness, and when someone is injured, abused or violated, to extend a helping hand; not a slap in the face.

Well, I say to the parents in Steubenville and Torrington, you have done a terrible job. You have raised despicable children who are well on their way to becoming despicable adults. In the Steubenville case, a girl laid helpless on the ground while other kids urinated on her.  Not one, single young adult who witnessed this had the decency to say, “Hey, stop what you are doing.  This is wrong.”  I can only hope that I am doing a better job of teaching my son to care about other people.

When a community places male privilege and sports above the well being of its children, there is a problem.

And I say, not only to the parents of Steubenville and Torrington but to all the parents in America, this problems is ours.

Let’s own it.

Let’s fix it.

Growth! What is it Good For?

I’d like to tell you a story. I’ll preface this story by saying that I am a huge video gamer and as such I read a lot of video game news in addition to current and world events. Many of my ideas for writing in this blog are spawned from video game-related news stories. The tale I’m about to tell you is one such story.

Once upon a time there was a game developer called Visceral Games. In the world of video game creation there are two kinds of developers: independent developers who have to find a publisher to release their games to the public and “in-house” developers that are owned by publishing companies and are beholden to them to do their bidding. Visceral is owned by Electronic Arts, one of the biggest publishers in the business.

A few years ago Visceral made a game based on a new intellectual property called Dead Space. It was a science fiction horror game. Games based on new intellectual properties are very hard to get made or published because publishers know it’s safer to give gamers experiences that are familiar to them staring characters they already know and love. Electronic Arts took a chance on Visceral Game’s idea and it paid off in spades. Dead Space was a huge success and sequels were planned.

Over the course of two sequels the game “evolved” from the atmospheric, tension filled, fright-fest of the original game into a more action-oriented game. According to sources from Visceral Games this was done at the behest of Electronic Arts to “reach a wider audience.” You see, the publisher wasn’t happy to have a runaway success on their hands. It wasn’t good enough for them that they had a quality product that resonated with a niche market of the gaming community. They wanted MORE.

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As the game changed, they drove away the players who had enjoyed the first game by changing the core experience and failed to bring in any new customers to the series because, let’s face it, if you didn’t want to play a game about an alien lifeform that assimilates and reanimates dead tissue to attack the living then you probably still won’t want to play that game regardless of any changes that are made to the game mechanics.

Now comes this news. Electronic Arts is apparently so unhappy with the lackluster sales of the latest installment that they are shutting down further development on the title and have had sweeping lay-offs at Visceral Games. Since the original report, Electronic Arts has denied it all, which is unsurprising since their business practices have made them one of the most despised companies within the gaming community. Naturally, they would want to squash any story that makes them look like the money grabbing, bean counters they are. Whether or not the layoffs were done over low sales of Dead Space 3 or not, the facts are that people at Visceral Games have lost their jobs and while this story is about the video game industry, it could have happened anywhere.

The American model of capitalism has this strange concept of never-ending growth. Companies don’t seem to be happy unless they are doubling or quadrupling their profits year after year. At what point do you say, “You know, we have a great product that people love. We are making money hand over fist. I think we’re good.” No company, especially publicly traded companies, ever says that. They feel compelled to continue to grow exponentially until they dominate the market they are in.

Some might even say they are forced to follow that path because of the shareholders. Shareholders are by their very definition people who have no real interest in a company, other than a financial return. So companies really have no choice but to grow, grow, grow; until you have Walmarts and Starbucks on every corner and no one else has an opportunity to create a similar business. You also get situations like the one at Electronic Arts in which the original product is changed in an attempt to sell more.

This greed ends up screwing over the people doing the actual creative work because they are forced to change their vision and then take the blame when the change fails. It screws over the consumers who are given a product vastly different from the one they originally loved. And it screws over the greedy people behind the forced changes as they ultimately sell less of the product instead of more, essentially defeating the purpose of making the changes in the first place.

It’s pretty easy to see who loses the most though. It’s certainly not the CEOs at Electronic Arts. They will just start this process over again with another development team. It’s not really the consumers who will complain on a few discussion boards and then move on to another distraction. It’s the people pouring their blood and sweat into their creations. They are the ones who lose their jobs when those driven by greed think they know best and make poor decisions. I fear this routine will not change while we have a small minority who create nothing but control all the capital and the people who do all the real work are at their mercy.

America needs a new kind of Capitalism, one where everybody has a chance to own some capital.

What Sequestration Really Tells Us About Our Government

Well, it seems that sequestration is inevitable at this point.  Our broken congress is unable or unwilling to come to a budget agreement and now automatic spending cuts to the tune of 85 billion will go into effect tomorrow.  People will have their hours cut back or lose their jobs, schools will lose funding and many services that people depend on will become less efficient causing major headaches for Americans everywhere.

I’m not here today to talk about whether increased taxes or spending cuts or, heaven forbid, a balanced approach, is the right way to balance the budget.  I’m here to talk about the larger issue that this whole, nasty sequestration affair brings to light; our dysfunctional government.  We have two ideological parties who are willing to play games with the lives of every person in this country.  These politicians have proven time and time again that the very people who elected them are nothing more than pawns in their sick kabuki theater.

How long will we continue to elect people who treat us with nothing but disdain?  The only thing that seems to matter anymore to the American politician are the big corporations with billions of dollars.  The rest of us apparently are incidental.  It makes no difference if you are Republican or Democrat, work for a private company or are on the public dime, an immigrant or born in the U.S.A.  If you are an average Joe American our current government does not work for you.

It’s up to us to change that.  Until we get a viable third party and actually support it, the two big bullies on the playground will have no reason to change their ways.  I don’t see that happening any time soon because too many people in this country are perfectly fine with their party’s ideological platform and will blindly follow them, even if it’s right over a cliff.  A simple thing like term limits would help shake things up immensely.  Until we get a few more colossal mishandlings of management responsibilities like sequestration that negatively impact the majority of Americans, congress will continue to put on their makeup and perform their dramatic scenes while ignoring what’s happening to the American people they are elected to serve.

You may be tempted to say, “But they are doing the best job they can and its hard work.”  I ask you to consider the huge salaries they are getting paid and the nice retirement they will get when their stint in Washington is over.  Then think about how your wages and retirement plans have shrunk, largely due to their lack of competent governance and poor oversight of the moneyed corporations they serve instead of you.

Shed not a tear for John Boehner.  He’ll shed plenty of his own.

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Video Games, Poop, and Poverty

When was the last time you thought about your excrement? Or more specifically, where your excrement goes after you flush the toilet? If you are like most Americans you probably don’t give much thought to your excrement at all. You push the lever on the side of the tank, the poop is taken away in a rush of clear water and that’s the last you have to deal with it. It is needless to say a modern convenience that most Americans take for granted.

Like you, I hadn’t really thought much about poop until the other night when I was playing a video game. That’s right, a video game called Max Payne 3. It’s essentially an action movie in which you play the part of the main character, the titular Max Payne. He’s an alcoholic ex-cop, riddled with guilt from his past failures, now reduced to taking private security jobs for wealthy people. Like many action heroes he’s not a particularly likeable character. He ends up in São Paulo, Brazil, protecting a family of socialites. The plot unfolds in such a way that you end up caught in the middle of a gang war in the favelas outside São Paulo.

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We’ve all seen these shanty towns on television and in movies, but this was different because in the game you are the main character, and you are there navigating the destitute areas of the city. The game developers did an outstanding job of recreating the abject poverty these people live in and putting you, the player, in the middle of it. You find yourself walking through narrow alleys tucked between ramshackle homes built out of concrete block and corrugated metal. The buildings are piled on top of each other in a seemingly makeshift manner with a total disregard for any kind of logical design or planning.

Eventually you are robbed by gang members and thrown into a concrete ditch that you quickly realize passes for the area’s sewer system. As I continued to play through the game, I began to wonder if this was an accurate representation of South American favelas, so I did some research. Indeed, there are places in the world — including but certainly not limited to South America — where an entire community’s human waste material goes into extremely primitive sewage systems or, even worse, flows right into the center of the roads, where it sits and festers with nowhere to go. People walk through it. Children play in it. I can only imagine what the stench must be like.

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According to this paper entitled “Living without Sanitary Sewers in Latin America – The Business of Collecting Fecal Sludge in Four Latin American Cities”, published by The World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Project, most governments in South America leave it to the individual households to assume responsibility for the construction of conventional sewage systems. The problems are amplified within the favelas which act as transitions between urban and rural areas. They are very densely populated, have no sanitary improvements to speak of, relying mostly on dry latrines, and they have little to no legal standards for cleaning, collection and disposal of fecal sludge. Individual household latrines often overflow into backyards, public walkways and roads. The public health hazard this situation creates is enormous, including bacteria, parasites and contamination of drinking water.

“So,” you may ask. “What can I do about this problem?” A good place to start is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  One of the many great things this foundation does is examine water, sanitation and hygiene problems all over the world and attempt to address them through safe and affordable solutions. One of their current major projects is to reinvent the toilet to create a cheaper, safer and more efficient way to collect, dispose of and even recycle human waste. Take a look around the website. Learn how you can make a donation of time or money. Do SOMETHING. People should not have to live in their own feces.

I felt compelled to write about this as it is an issue that most people are either not aware of or turn a blind eye to. Being motivated to take action begins with awareness.

And speaking of awareness I also wanted to take a moment and commend Rockstar Games, the developer of Max Payne 3 for making me aware of this issue. The favela levels are not just a dispensable backdrop for the action in their game. They went out of their way to draw attention to the conditions the people there live in every day and elicit empathy from the player. It was clearly a point they wanted to drive home through both the detail of the environments and the voice-over narration by the main character. Rockstar is one of the premiere game makers out there who continually strive to write stories that offer some kind of social commentary and create characters with depth and complexity. I commend a game developer for putting socially conscience subject matter into what could have been just another mindless game of shooting anything that moves.