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Archive for April, 2008

Mental health issues are a bit off-topic for us here at EarthQuaker. But we are interested in ideas that, to quote the Preamble to the US Constitution, ‘promote the general welfare.’

So here’s an interview with Charles Barber, author of the new book Comfortably Numb, which argues that too many American doctors now view mental states that are part of (and essential to) normal life as illnesses to be treated with psychotropic drugs.

When it comes to treating mild depression, Barber recommends following a European model:

The clinical guidelines to the National Health Service for mild depression recommend watchful waiting, diet and exercise, self-help and counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and then if all those things don’t work, to try antidepressants. Our de facto practice in the United States is pretty much the opposite.

But feelings of unhappiness or mild depression brought on by identifiable life circumstances (divorce, losing a job or moving house) are not, Barber argues, mental conditions at all.

Says Barber,

our American sensibility is to be uncomfortable with unhappy feelings and root them out as quickly as possible. I want to be very clear not to romanticize suffering, but there can be a utility to some difficult emotions.

The right to pursue their own happiness is something that Americans rightly hold dear. And yet that happiness has also proven elusive, despite the nation’s enormous success in building its citizens’ wealth.

We’ve noted elsewhere that shopping doesn’t seem to do much to make people happy. And plenty of researchers have found that happiness fails to keep increasing after we reach a certain level of material comfort.

So is taking drugs the solution? It seems fairly obvious that however much those drugs might keep us ‘comfortably numb,’ they won’t do much to change whatever circumstances limited our happiness in the first place.

More broadly, it might also help to rethink our expectations of what can make us happy. In that context, Barber says, it’s ironic that

if you set happiness to be your primary goal, it tends not to work out very well. The late Canadian novelist Robertson Davies said that happiness is a byproduct, and that you become happy when you’re engaged in productive activity or when you’re in a relationship with someone you love. So this idea that we have to be happy is a highly American thing and highly problematic concept.

If our relationships are poor, and if we find that the activities that motivate our lives are more destructive than constructive, we can choose to stay unhappy and self-medicate for it. Or we can seek to be constructive, and to redefine the relationships we enjoy with our fellow planet-dwellers, and our planet.

Imagining what such a redefined-life might look like — and asking what we can do to achieve it — is very much our topic here.

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We almost decided not to mention this story, since it really amounts to nothing. But in case you missed it, yesterday US President George Bush called for a halt in the growth of US greenhouse gases by 2025. And he said US power plant emissions should peak in the next 10 to 15 years.

And he pretty much left it at that. To quote the SF Chronicle’s Zachary Coile:

But the president proposed no new regulations or legislation to ensure that his new targets are met, and his proposal falls far short of the cuts in greenhouse gases that scientists say are needed to avoid the worst effects of rising temperatures and sea levels.

Call it cynical; call it trying to add to a little burnish to the President’s many reputational tarnishes, or call it, as many Democrats have done, an attempt to undermine an upcoming Senate bill with real regulatory teeth (which calls for emissions to be reduced by 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and by 66 percent by 2050) — but it’s certainly not going to be any kind of a force for change. Which is almost certainly the President’s intention.

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Scotland used to have native moose, wild boar, brown bears, lynx and wolves.  Now “landowner Paul Lister aims to bring back long-vanished species to his 23,000 acre Alladale estate, north of Inverness,” the UK’s Independent tells us.

Lister’s already installed the wild boar, but his neighbors are less than excited about the bears, wolves and lynx to come.

Fencing the estate could officially make it a zoo, interestingly, where it would be illegal to put predators and prey together.  Watch for worms and other invertibrate prey to petition for the expulsion of robins from all fenced gardens — er, zoos — in the UK.

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For those of us alarmed by the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder that has wiped out swathes of the American, and now European, honey bee population, here’s a new potential cause: cell phones.

The evidence so far, though, seems slim. Geoffrey Lean and Harriet Shawcross write in this weekend’s Independent on Sunday that “German research has long shown that bees’ behaviour changes near power lines.” Now, they say:

a limited study at Landau University has found that bees refuse to return to their hives when mobile phones are placed nearby. Dr Jochen Kuhn, who carried it out, said this could provide a “hint” to a possible cause.

Dr George Carlo, who headed a massive study by the US government and mobile phone industry of hazards from mobiles in the Nineties, said: “I am convinced the possibility is real.”

That ‘hint’ and ‘possibility’ leave us, unfortunately, still a long way from knowing what’s really been going on.

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That seems to be the message from two stories published today, one on each side of the Atlantic.

In a news analysis, the New York Times notes that:

a reaction is building against policies in the United States and Europe to promote ethanol and similar fuels, with political leaders from poor countries contending that these fuels are driving up food prices and starving poor people.  Biofuels are fast becoming a new flash point in global diplomacy, putting pressure on Western politicians to reconsider their policies, even as they argue that biofuels are only one factor in the seemingly inexorable rise in food prices.

Officials from both the UN and the World Bank have recently voiced concerns about the impact of biofuels on the price of food.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Independent reports that, “the production of biofuel is devastating huge swathes of the world’s environment” and asks why the UK government wants its citizens to use more of it.

The Independent’s Cahal Milmo also mentions the impact that biofuel production is having on world food prices.  But of equal concern is the environmental damage that careless encouragement of biofuels can cause.  British campaigners, reports Milmo, this week

condemned as “disastrous” the absence of any standards requiring producers to prove their biofuel is not the product of highly damaging agricultural practices responsible for destroying rainforests, peatlands and wildlife-rich savannahs or grasslands from Indonesia to sub-Saharan Africa to Europe.

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If tree owners and solar power generators have already spawned the age the eco-feud, just wait until suburban homes start sprouting domestic wind turbines on top of 60-120 towers.

The New York Times today surveys the incentives available for home wind turbines around the USA.  While reporter John Casey says there are no reliable numbers to tell us how many of these there are, he states that:

Experts on renewable energy say a convergence of factors, political, technical and ecological, has caused a surge in the use of residential wind turbines, especially in the Northeast and California.

Casey notes the unreliability of wind power and then adds in something of an understatement, “Even if the wind is strong, zoning and aesthetics can pose problems.”

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Scientists at this week’s general meeting of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna have been worrying about water.

Some see ‘melting mountains’ (to use Reuters’ headline) as a “time bomb” set to explode established patterns of global water use.

That snow melt will raise world sea levels much more than previously predicted, say others.

If we’re looking at a world with less land and less water to support our living on it, perhaps we need to think about taking up less space. As we do that, the New York Times tells us, the wealthiest of us can rely upon a new breed of advisers — downsizing specialists.

“People who are about to shed personal belongings, by necessity or choice, may find the task overwhelming and emotionally painful,” notes writer Elizabeth Olson.  She sees plenty of future opportunity for those with skills in “organizing, psychology and plain old hand-holding.

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San Francisco journalist David Curran has an odd article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.  Under the title “Eco Worriers,” Curran describes an environmentally-aware neighbor whom he fears — without having ever spoken to this person.

The simple fact that this neighbor sports a cute license plate (‘ECO BRAT’) on his or her Prius, it appears, sends Curran and the neighbors with whom he does speak into paroxysms of guilt.   “We fear his opinions,” Curran writes, although those opinions seem entirely imagined on his part.

It’s obviously an attempt at humor.  The neighbor stands in as a scold to his conscience whenever Curran does something that is less than environmentally friendly.

Since the neighbor doesn’t appear ever to have actually been a scold, though, the humor falls rather pathetically flat.  But the rhetoric is interesting.

“I’m trying and I want some credit for it,”  seems to what Curran is saying.  Fair enough.  Changing your lifestyle is no easy thing.  But inventing what could be called an eco-scold as a form of self-justification is something else.  As tensions over climate change start to impact political decisions, can we expect this figure to become a rhetorical favorite of anyone who’s seeking to push back against what they perceive as (to coin another term) ‘eco-correctness’ ?

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It’s good to see critiques of consumer capitalism getting more common and attracting more attention.

Here’s a smart analysis of the idea that consumer cultures reproduce — indeed require — addictions. In talking about Sally Erickson’s 2007 documentary What a Way To Go: Life at The End of Empire, writer Charles Shaw says:

industrial civilization — and its end product, consumerism — has disconnected us from nature, the cycle of life, our communities, our families and, ultimately, ourselves. This unnatural, inorganic, materialistic way of living, coupled with a marked sharp decline in society’s moral and ethical standards — what the French call anomie — has created a kind of pathology that produces pain and emptiness, for which addictive behavior becomes the primary symptom and consumption the preferred drug of choice.

Shaw references the connection that environmentalists (and spiritual leaders) are increasingly making between the drive to consumption and spirituality. He sees it as the main hope we have against self-annihilation as a species.

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if we want to encourage people to produce their own food, here’s a great idea:  tax breaks for gardeners!

It’s the idea of Maine gardener and sustainability advocate Roger Doiron.  He says:

There are different breaks that local, state and federal governments could offer home gardeners. Sales taxes on seeds, seedlings, fruit bushes and trees could be removed. Better still, an income tax break could be administered as is done with home offices where people measure and deduct the square footage of their houses used for business purposes. The bigger your garden, the better the tax break. Those with no yard could deduct the rental fee for a community garden plot.

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