Saturday, October 16, 2010

Changing the System (Part 2)

I promised a second post on changing a system. Some of this may be redundant but I hope it's helpful - especially for those of us hoping to see more positive movements like those being advanced by this group.

Let’s say I wanted to make a change in my life.

I would be wise to try to understand all the ways that I was being pushed to continue doing what I am doing currently. There must be reasons, or I wouldn’t still be doing it, right?

So, I begin by understanding that actions have reasons. This is not to say that they are necessarily good reasons… Just that they are reasons. Smokers smoke because of the habit, because their bodies crave the nicotine content, because they enjoy the rebellion, because of placebo effects, and past positive memories, along with other reasons as well.

The same could be said for any number of habits that have serious side effects.

Take our dependence on other countries’ oil for instance. Almost nobody likes it, almost everybody sees that there are negative consequences that go along with it, but there are reasons that we stay dependent.

One of the most powerful of these is the energy available in oil. I read recently in Yes! Magazine that one liter of oil contains an equivalent amount of energy to 5 weeks of human labor. Amazing isn't it? It’s no wonder that we have found so many uses for this substance. I’m certain when oil was first discovered it seemed like a tremendous benefit to humanity, with little or no down-side. The fumes were probably seen as mild compared to the smells emitted from tanneries and coal furnaces. Plus, there were very few applications for oil machines, so the eventual situation of an entire world dependent on oil would have seemed unlikely.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see how the gradual accumulation of decisions brought us to the place we are in today. The invention of the gasoline engine led to wars won through the aid of gasoline powered armor and airplanes, led to industries founded on the cheap power useful in many applications. As we see over and over again, if there is a useful resource in the environment, we humans are extraordinarily able at finding a way to make use of it. Especially under a system such as capitalism – where individual efforts are rewarded.

Capitalism, the system as a whole, excels at finding uses for useful things. Land is put to the highest and best use. Fat pigs are bred with other fat pigs to make fatter breeds. Cattle are bred to put on weight more quickly, requiring less feed, less heat, and less space until processing. Chickens are bred to lay more eggs. Tomatoes are bred to be redder in color, to stay red longer, and to stay firm during transportation so they don’t squash. All of these things are done in the name of a quality. Often, the quality that is enhanced is the quality of profitability, but there are other qualities that are enhanced as well. When we consumers decided that we wanted lean meat, pork was bred to be leaner. When we decided we wanted cheap chicken and beef, farmers produced cheaper meat.

There is a sort of Catch-22, merry-go-round quality to discussions about the changes in our lives that come from the systems we live within – tempting us to ask which came first, a more profitable chicken, or the demand for cheaper eggs?

On one side of the equation, corporations might like to point fingers at consumers and say – “If people demanded higher quality chicken, we would give it to them. We would have to!”

On the other side of the equation, consumers might be tempted to point back and say, “It’s your responsibility as the producer to make sure that the chicken is more wholesome, nutritious and flavorful!”

Producers might reply “We tried that, and people bought the cheaper chickens from our competitors! We’d love to produce nothing but free range all natural birds, but most people won’t buy them!”

And consumer groups then might say “Well then we need laws that require chickens to be free-range and all natural, so that all the chickens are the same quality, and businesses are on a level playing field!”

In step the politicians, who might say “But people vote us out of office when we try to pass laws like that. They say, who are you to make me pay more for chicken? What is this, Russia? If I want to buy cheap chickens that taste crummy and are raised in factory farms, who are you to tell me I can’t? Who’s more important, a chicken (that tastes fine to me), or my family's welfare?”

And there we may find angry citizen groups, lobbyists, corporate ad campaigns and politicians all fighting each other – because the truth tends to get obscured in these sort of debates.

So what's the solution? Is there a solution?

One thing we can probably all agree on is that all parties would need to work together to find a real, lasting solution – but we can’t do that until all sides have access to all the information.

It might be helpful to ask, what are the secrets that each side is hiding, or not acknowledging (including my own side)? What secrets cause me to look at others with distrust, and keep us from building a truly cohesive agreement?

Farmers like to say that their mass produced birds are just as good as any other bird.

Is that true? Most people agree that the majority of mass produced birds have less flavor. Cooks Illustrated did a taste test on this subject, and found that to be largely - although not entirely - the case. We also find that in mass produced slaughter operations, there is often a much higher possibility of ammonia contamination as well as bacterial contamination

Many people also find that mass production operations are more cruel to animals

Citizen groups like to say that mass produced birds are completely inferior, and actively dangerous to our health

Is this true? There are benefits to cheap food that we would be foolish to deny. Single mothers straining to feed their family can not be blamed for purchasing low cost ingredients - especially when they choose a mass-produced chicken over a meal of fast food.

Also, it is important to acknowledge that there have been cases in the past when the negative health effects of mass produced foods have been overstated by citizen advocacy groups.

Politicians like to say that people have all of the power, and that it is the politicians job to listen to the people.

But how true is this really? Wouldn't it be more true to say that there is a give and take between politicians and their constituents? Wouldn't most political office holders acknowledge that their office carries with it a responsibility to try and educate the voters about what is best for them?

It is also important to acknowledge that political officials are responsible to the people who elect them to office, and that it is occasionally necessary to create rules that protect the powerless.

Consumers like to say that they make well informed purchasing decisions

In truth, we consumers can become overly reliant on government programs like the USDA to ensure our food is safe. It was actually discovered during the egg recall that government regulators had never visited the operation that produced the contaminated eggs. We consumers need to be aware that our reliance on USDA stamps may be hiding dangerous situations from our conscious awareness.

It is also important for us as consumers to be honest about the fact that we can often become overwhelmed by the masses of conflicting statements about health and food. From fad diets, to overly hyped new products to miracle supplements, to the dangers of fast food and eggs, It can be very difficult to tease out the relevant, important information, and keep it top of mind when we go wandering through the grocery store aisles. It is important to find unbiased sources of information we can rely on.

Food businesses like to say that consumer demand drives corporate decisions

Is this always the case? There may be many decision that are not driven by consumer demand. Once a corporation gains the majority of market share, they begin to gain pricing power and can dictate terms to grocers, shippers and farmers. These effects are most clearly seen in monopolistic situations, but it's important to realize that they exist in many other situations as well - when just a few major players hold the majority of the market. These effects may be known as cartel effects, and they can result in grocers being forced to remove competing products from shelves, shipping companies being prohibited from transporting competing goods, and cost prohibitive USDA or other local or federal government regulation being enacted to keep smaller operations from entering the marketplace. (To become a USDA certified dairy, for instance, and offer products in most markets would cost an astounding $100,000 - well beyond the reach of most family farmers).

Additionally, corporations may often hide profit driven decisions from consumers . For example, consumers still aren't being told that genetically modified corn is being used as an ingredient in many of their purchases, and were initially unaware that bovine growth hormone was treating their dairy cows until legal actions were pursued.

Consumers, for their part, like to say that Corporations are corrupt, and that they don’t care about our health or the environment.

Let's be honest though, corporate executives are people too - I was one - and many of us have relatives, parents or spouses who work for large corporations. There is nothing inherently evil about a corporation - and almost no one wants to think of him or her self as evil. It is important to remember that the problems that come from corporations are structural and can - with great effort and understanding, be changed.

Additionally, we should realize that consumer demand does drive a number of corporate decisions - this a great source of strength, and makes it possible for us as consumers to influence the decisions of large corporations that we feel most strongly about. Voting with our dollars, educating others about important issues, and speaking out against injustice are powerful allies.

Ocassionally, a consumer, or political group will say that a truly free market will take care of everything.

Unfortunately, we don't have a truly free market. People need information to make good decisions – and our laws allow important information to be hidden from consumers.

Additionally, monopolistic practices create massive opportunities for bad behavior. And when corporations funnel billions and billions of dollars into changing the laws to better benefit their shareholders, the system can become dangerously unballanced, or even corrupted. It is important to realize that as long as markets are not free, we need to keep a watchful eye over any entity that controls massive amounts of resources.

Sometimes we may see communities fighting for employers - even when they have been treated poorly by those same employers. Often, these community members don’t want to lose their jobs.

This is a difficult situation, and a moral individual must acknowledge these fears. It is imperative that anyone seeking to make a change in a system, also takes action to anticipate and assist those who may be hurt. Remedies may include bringing in new jobs, providing for community assistance, or helping to relocate those willing to move. Ideally, living conditions will dramatically improve for all affected in the area, but in the short term, those who will be hurt, must be helped.

None of the statements above are revolutionary. None of these ideas are new. The difficulty in creating sustainable change – change that continues after the initial push is over, and after the good work of understanding the problem has been done, lies in changing the underlying system itself. This includes helping people and organizations to change their self-destructive beliefs as well.

Each side must be listened to. Each side must be respected. Each side’s opinion must be seen as important by all the other members committed to creating a change.

When we see, we see from our own perspective. This is right, and good – for no other person can see from our perspective. But that’s only a part of the responsibility. Everyone should be aware that each person who is engaged in a system – who works there, who shops there, who makes money there, who is elected from there - is important and owns a part of the solution.

Most of us agree that it is wrong to force someone to do something he or she doesn’t want to do. If we want to change a system, before it comes to a place of violent or destructive disagreement, we must have the courage to face our own fears, admit our own weaknesses, and listen to others. We must listen to the fact that we might be wrong – we must accept that our solution will need to be amended.

And we must have the courage to bring the other members of the decision to the table.

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