10 Myths That Keep Us From Creating The World We WantPosted: 9/22/11
Author, Diet for a Small Planet
From "Diet for a Small Planet" exactly 40 years ago, it dawned on me that humans are actively creating the scarcity we say we are trying to escape. Whoa! Why would our bright species do such a thing? Researching my new book, " EcoMind, Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want " (Nation Books), I discovered that it is the power of ideas. I learned that neuroscientists are increasingly finding that while most of us think that "seeing is believing," that, no, for human beings "believing is seeing." Our core ideas about how the world works determine, literally, what we can see and what we can't. From this groundbreaking science, I argue that some of our most common assumptions are perversely aligned with nature, including human nature. They block us from seeing possibilities emerging all around us--the solutions in front of our noses. Here are 10 of those ideas and ways that an eco-mind--one that thinks in connectedness and continuous change--might rethink them. I welcome your response.
Myth 1: Renewable energy would take too long. Our economy is hurting now and we can't afford to wait.
Really? Nearly fifty world energy forecasts have underestimated how fast renewable energy would spread. Globally, we surpassed--more than a decade early--the International Energy Agency's ambitious 2020 wind-energy goal. U.S. wind electricity-generation jumped fivefold in just five years, from 2004 to 2009. Texas utility companies gathered a sampling of citizens in the 1990s and listened to their energy choices, and by 2008 a surge in wind-farm investment in that state helped make the US the world's installed wind energy leader. All this while our tax dollars have mainly gone to dirty energy--imagine if we tried! And some people are. Today, 95% of Costa Rica's electricity comes from renewable sources, and Germany is set to reach nearly 40% of its electricity from renewable in a decade. Then visualize what's still untapped: The sun's energy reaching earth over just five days is greater than all proven reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas.
Myth 2: Our "best democracy money can buy" has sold its soul to corporations. So it's naïve to imagine laws actually protecting nature and people.
Really? Over 80% of Maine's legislators have been elected with no corporate money. Standing up to massive corporate lobbying, they passed "producer responsibility" legislation in 2006 that's kept one pound of lead out of Maine's beautiful environment for every citizen of the state--not to mention mercury, cadmium, and other toxic compounds. How? Maine has a Clean Elections law so candidates can run and get elected using "voluntary public financing." Today legislation in both the Senate and the House--with seventy-five co-sponsors in the House--could take this approach to the national scene. Check out Fairelectionsnow.org
Myth 3: Worldwide, almost a billion people go hungry, and the number is climbing, so let's face the hard truth--we've outrun the earth's capacity to feed us.
Really? Run out? Hardly. Half the world's grain doesn't even go to feed people directly--over a third feeds livestock, and now almost 40% of US corn fuels cars. Plus, a third of the world's food is simply wasted, says the UN. In the Global South, it's mainly because people are too poor to afford proper storage. Yet there's still more than enough food for every person on earth. Globally, the number of births each year stopped increasing almost a decade ago and food production has continued to stay ahead of population. Today there's about 30% more food for each of us compared to the late 1960s. In the US, the world's top agricultural exporter, more than one in eight Americans depends on food stamps. It's clear: hunger isn't caused by a scarcity of food but by a scarcity of democracy--by people's lack of power to access the food. Where citizens are gaining power, as through Brazil's Zero Hunger campaign based in food as a human right, hunger is receding.
Myth 4: With its poor soils and encroaching deserts, Africa is home to most of the world's hungry people. Foreign aid or some technical fix, like GMOs, is the only hope.
Really? More hungry people live in India than in all of Sub-Saharan Africa. And, "the prevalence of underweight among children in India is... nearly double that of Sub-Saharan Africa," reported the World Bank in 2005. On the positive side, small farmers in Niger have "re-greened" more than 12 million acres of desert-like land, establishing 200 million trees making their farmland more fertile and securing food for 2.5 million people. And three Sub-Saharan African countries--Sierra Leone, Angola and Mali--increased by half their per person food production from 2000 to 2009 alone. In thirty-nine African countries last year, grain production per person increased by more than 11%, way ahead of the global average. Agro-ecological farming--without costly chemicals or seeds--is making significant advances in Africa, too. It's true and tragic that African hunger is severe, but what poor Africans need is more power to build on these advances--including power to prevent "land grabs" by foreign interests, learn effective agro-ecological practices, store their harvests safely, sell their crops on fair terms, and purchase what Africa produces. Not more dependency on distant corporate suppliers.
Myth 5: Corporations and capitalism shower profits on shareholders and corporate chiefs, screwing everyone else, but, hey, they're all we got. So we've just got to suck it up.
Really? Globally, more people are likely members of cooperatives--based on one person, one vote--than own shares in publicly traded companies. And co-ops provide one-fifth more jobs worldwide than do multinationals. Think "jobs in India," and we imagine proliferating call centers, but dairy cooperatives employ over 12 million people--that's way more than high-tech, in-sourcing jobs. And small, independent farmers, not big corporate operators, produce two-thirds of what the world eats. In the US economy, profits are tightly concentrated, but when it comes to who produces, it's companies with fewer than 500 workers that generate about half our private, non-farming GDP. And US banking? Yes, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citibank and Wells Fargo control 40% of assets, but don't count out independent community banks. Sure, they hold only 11% of the assets, but they provide three times the value of loans to small businesses and farms compared to the four giants. So in Massachusetts the state treasurer got smart and is moving millions in state funds from megabanks outside the state to local community banks, with the proviso they lend to job-creating small business.
Myth 6: Forces multiplying billionaires and beggars are a steamroller we can't stop.
Really? There's nothing unchangeable here. Brazilians cut their poverty in just six years--from 2001 to 2007--by 25%, and maybe even more. And the US not long ago accomplished a similar feat: In just over one decade--the 1960s through the early 1970s--we slashed our poverty rate in half. If Americans had always believed in this "steamroller," we'd never have made the huge strides we did between the 1940s and the 1970s: The real purchasing power of the bottom fifth of us by income rose faster than any other group--more than doubling. Even where income is tightly held, democratic accountability can go a long way in making life experience less unfair: Costa Rica has largely kept corporate money out of politics, and today Costa Ricans enjoy universal health care that's worked so well that, with income per person only one quarter of ours, they enjoy a life expectancy almost exactly the same as ours. In 2008 Costa Rica led the Happy Planet Index--a measure that combines strong life satisfaction and light ecological impact.
Myth 7: People are selfish, materialist and competitive. But, however ugly, it's these traits that got our species to the top.
Really? For 90% of our evolution, human beings lived in highly egalitarian societies where food sharing was the norm. One the most distinctive features of our species is how cooperative we are. Now neuroscientists, looking at our brains when we cooperate, see neural pleasure centers light up like as when we eat chocolate! On average, over 80% of happiness, psychologists report, comes from relationships, health, spiritual life, friends, and work fulfillment: Only 7% is about money. Humans are so connected to the happiness of others that when researchers gave two groups of people a chunk of money--with one group instructed to spend it on themselves, and the other to spend it on gifts--those who spent the money on others reported feeling happier. And how we view ourselves counts! Ponder this sneaky experiment: Women in two groups were given a super-expensive brand of sunglasses, and one group was told they were wearing fakes. Then, on a self-scored math test this group "faked it" at more than twice the rate of the women who didn't believe they were wearing fakes.
Myth 8: Sure, the market can't produce a "fair" economy but at least it's efficient, and when we're running out of resources, we need that efficiency.
Really? We're efficient? Fifty-five percent of all energy in the US economy is wasted, reports Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. And that's a low-ball estimate: Other experts put the waste at 87%. Some waste of energy is unavoidable, but we lag far behind efficiencies in many other industrial economies. And then, we've got to ask, how efficient is an economy that depends on burning coal but then spends a third of a trillion dollars each year coping with the harm coal causes? And how efficient is an economy in which we each dispose of almost three hundred pounds of packaging each year, and that's without even counting a lot of soda and beer cans. Visualize it: almost a pound a day for every man, woman, and child in the country! No wonder Americans generate about a third of the world's trash. Then there's Edison's electric light bulb, which turns into light only 5% of the electricity it uses. We can drop the efficiency fantasy and go with what Thomas Edison really wanted: "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy...," he once said.
Myth 9: We're now so technology-addicted and disconnected from nature that it's pretty naive to think most people could ever become real environmentalists.
Really? And what if our connection to nature is so wired into us that a few decades of technology immersion can't knock it out? Just a view of a park or greenery from home has a positive effect on the cognitive functioning of children. And at work, "over long periods people working in rooms with windows have fewer illnesses, feel less frustrated and more patient, and express greater enthusiasm for work." Plus, nature helps us heal: In a Johns Hopkins Hospital study, one group of patients spent the hours before surgery listening to recordings of birdsong and a babbling brook; and looking at a large landscape picture. The control group had no picture, no sounds. The "nature" group reported significantly better pain management. Living near a green space boosts health so much that UK scientists say that the health gap between rich and poor might be cut by half through exposure to green spaces. We might "prevent or treat illness," says health advocate Howard Frumkin, "by prescribing gardening or pet ownership or vacations in beautiful places." Now that's health-care reform!
Myth 10: Democracy is a great idea, but it doesn't really work. Most people are too
self-interested--gullible--or just too busy trying to survive--to get involved.
Really? Could this be our ultimate illusion? We've absorbed the crazy notion that democracy is "voting plus a market"--a stripped down duo that's failing everywhere: From India and the Philippines to El Salvador, many nations have both, yet most citizens live in misery. Turns out that the old saying, "seeing is believing" has it backwards: Scientists now tell us that, actually, believing is seeing. So if we don't believe real democracy is possible we'll miss it! From local to national, "living democracies" are emerging. In Brazil, thousands of citizens participate in shaping part of their cities' budgets, shifting resources to where they're most needed. In Denmark, communities pushed to get rid of nuclear power and to bring in wind power, making the country a wind leader. In Iceland, people refused to bail out the banks after the big crash and the country is now writing a new constitution by gathering the input of citizens through social media. In India, 100,000 forest management groups--involving 10 million households--have democratic say in protecting their forests, and the country's forests are getting healthier and spreading. When we're included, seems democracy does work.