Friday, August 27, 2004

Shortening grace

I’m not a religious person, but several of my close friends and relatives are. So from time to time, I have the occasion to witness, or even to say Grace before an evening meal. In most cases, this has been a general ‘give thanks to the lord’, but in some circles it has involved a heartfelt thankyou to the people who made the meal possible -to the cook, the farmers and to the truckies who brought us the food. And of course to nature for her endless abundance. It is an opportunity to appreciate where our food really comes from.

But what would Grace look like if we really did appreciate all of the hands that played a part in creating our evening meal? Maybe something like this…

We give thanks to Mum for cooking, and the farmers for growing the food. We give thanks to the supermarket for setting up the distribution and retail system. We give thanks to the checkout chicks. We give thanks to the truckies for doing all that driving. We give thanks to Cargill for setting up the grain handling systems and the crushing mills. And the contract haulers and harvesters for getting the grain from the farms into the silos. We give thanks to the banks for lending farmers the money so that they could buy equipment and finance planting. We give thanks to the insurance brokers for providing crop insurance. We give thanks to the seed merchants for selling the seed. And the research labs and seed companies for developing the seed varieties. Oh, and of course, We give thanks to the hundreds of generations of subsistence farmers who developed the crops in the first place.

We give thanks to the chemical companies for designing the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. We give thanks to the petroleum industry for providing the raw materials for the chemicals, and for providing fuel for transportation. We give thanks to the agricultural engineers for designing the equipment that has helped to mechanise farms. We give thanks to the agronomists for helping farmers to understand the complexities of new chemicals and seed varieties.

We give thanks to neighbours for not complaining too much about spray drift. We give thanks to the waterways for quietly accepting all of the nutrient and chemical run off. We give thanks to the atmosphere for dealing with all of the CO2 emmissions from the petrochemical use. We give thanks to the frogs for being OK about being born with 5 legs because of Atrazine run off into their habitat. We give thanks to the parents of children with leukemia in agricultural areas for not causing riots. We give thanks to rural communities for being willing to die slow and silent deaths as farmers gradually sell up, and businesses close down. We give thanks to future generations for subsiding the cost of our food so that we can continue to ship food all over the world in one of the most irrational and wasteful systems ever devised - without paying any of the environmental costs.

I could go on, but have stop at this point because half of the table is asleep - face down in their soup. Bored or depressed into submission.

Maybe we can come up with something shorter?

Monsanto are giving it their best shot. So are ADM (Archer Daniels Midlands), Cargill, ConAgra and a few other agribusiness giants. In their vertically integrated vision of food, we’ll just be able to rattle of a quick… “We give thanks to Monsanto for providing the seed, the chemicals, the agronomists and for funding the research institutions. We thank Hastings Deering for the fully automated, driverless tractors and farm machinery. We thank ADM and Cargill for owning the entire distribution system. We give thanks to Kraft for processing and to Woolworths for delivering it to our door. Thanks to Miele for the microwave oven. Oh, and a quick thanks for future generations for you know what.”

There that was better. Only half as long at the most. At least most people are still awake.

But an increasing number of us are trying to shorten grace in a different way. In a way that takes out the bits about future generations paying the price, and puts people back into the story. There are lots of options, but it goes something like this…

We give thanks to nature for the incredible gift of food that grows on trees. We give thanks to the seed savers for protecting our common heritage. We give thanks to our garden for providing what it can. We give thanks to the Ernst and Gertie and the other farmers in the district for growing our food. We give thanks to the producers co-op. We give thanks to the farmers union. We give thanks to the food buying group. We give thanks to Kristen for picking up our veggies this week. We give thanks to the farmers market and the community supported agriculture scheme…

You see, there is another vision of food that is growing around the world. It is about people knowing where their food comes from. It is about locally produced food. It is about food grown without artificial chemicals. It is about an end to monocultures. It is about food grown in harmony with nature, rather than an industrial food system that treats nature as an obstacle to be overcome.

Something urgently needs to change about the way that we do food. In the affluent countries of Europe, North America and Australia, the shift is being led by consumers who are demanding to know where their food comes from, and who are demanding that it meet high environmental, health and ethical standards.

In the majority world of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, the shift is being led by producers who are standing up to the structural adjustment packages of the World Bank and the IMF. They are demanding that food be grown to feed local people rather than for export cash crops. They are demanding the biotech companies be disallowed from patenting seeds and traditional knowledge. They are demanding that their future be determined by them, not by agribusiness corporations.

So, next time you sit down for your evening meal, think about what kind of Grace you need to say if you are really being honest and grateful for your food. And then imagine what kind of Grace you might like to say instead…and then join the millions of other people around the world in making it so.

By definition, this change will not be led by experts, corporations or politicians. It will be led by individual people like you…people like your mum, your brother, your sister, your neighbour, Like all exciting journeys, reclaiming our food culture and shortening Grace starts with the first step.

Friday, August 06, 2004

The New York skyline from Central Park. Posted by Hello

A day in New York in a time of “Orange Terror”

It feels like a stinking hot Brisbane summer morning. Lying on the soft foam mattress in the hostel, my skin is sticky with sweat, the sounds of the street drift in through the window. I had no idea New York could be this hot.

Out on the street, you can feel the pulse of the city. Harlem is alive. Traffic honking like there’s no tomorrow. Commuters streaming into the subway. The start of a new day in the biggest, craziest city in the world.

I venture underground into the famed subway system – vaguely thinking about all the movies I’ve seen about muggings in the New York subway. Don’t be stupid, I say to myself as I awkwardly try slip my credit card into my shoe.

The subway is insane. Worms couldn’t have devised a more elaborate subterranean system.

I catch the blue line down to the World Trade Centre. How could I come to New York and not visit ‘ground zero’? But when I get there it just looks like a big ugly parking lot. There are some peeling billboards with the partly obscured names of people who died on September 11, others showing the history of the site and how amazing the buildings were.

I expected to feel something…inspired, hopeful, depressed, guilty, moved? something? anything? But mostly it just feels like unproductive urban space. A work in progress. A momentary lapse amidst the swirling commerce.

There were signs saying ‘no selling of merchandise allowed’, and occasionally passers by would tell the people selling merchandise to stop. You could tell they were half-hearted though. The spirit of capitalism is strong here.

Next stop - the Statue of Liberty. I can vaguely make out it’s shape across the smoggy Hudson Bay, but can’t be bothered spending 10 bucks and 2 hours on the ferry trip out there. Looking at it does make me wonder why nobody talked about sending the statue back to France at the height of the ‘Freedom Fries’ incident. Maybe people forgot that’s where it came from?

As I get off the subway at Wall Street, outside the New York Stock Exchange, I glance at a newsstand…”New York on Terror Alert”. Apparently plans had just been uncovered that showed Al Quaeda were planning to attack the Stock Exchange and other prominent New York landmarks. The Terror alert had been increased from ‘Orange’ to ‘Rose Magenta’ (or some other colour more serious than orange) and many people had deliberated about whether or not to come to work today.

I can see the next headline in my mind…’Dumb Australian Tourist Stumbles into Terror Attack’. Brilliant! If only my mum could see me now.

I quickly fumble around in my pocket. Damn! I knew I should have brought John Howard’s anti-terror fridge magnet. (They were sent to every Australian household to help ward off terror attacks) It was probably stuck on the fridge back home, and here I was, in the midst of a terror zone. I repeate the mantra silently under my breath – stay alert but not alarmed.

I amble up to the stock exchange and proceeded to walk towards the entrance. The whole area is cordoned off. There was a row of black mirror windowed vehicles and police carrying automatic weapons. Somehow I think that all of this isn’t relevant to me, so I keep on heading for the door until one of the security dudes steps in front of me. “Where do you think you’re going’, he grunts.

I said, “Hi, I’m from Australia and I’m only in New York for the day, and I’m keen to see the inside of the stock exchange”…silence….”That’s the entrance over there isn’t it?”… more silence …”Can I go in?”…”Not today” was the terse reply. This crack operative isn’t about to be disarmed by my naievete.

I hang around for while, taking photos, waiting to see if anything interesting will happen. Mainly just serious looking men wearing black and carrying guns, standing around chatting to each other and smoking cigarettes.

I get a copy of the paper. It turns out today’s ‘terror alert’ was triggered by some guy getting caught in Pakistan with copies of plans of various New York buildings. My irreverence towards the whole thing remained intact. As if this had any connection to anything TODAY? The politics of terror are clear enough. The need to be seen to respond greatly outweighs any rational response.

The only other thing in the paper was the ongoing reporting on the upcoming election - ever percolating in the background like bad American coffee. Weak, tepid, indescribably bland…leaving a slight bitter taste in your mouth. Nobody bothers reporting about the actual issues. All you ever hear about is the campaign - kind of like a ‘meta’ election. The shrill voice of the CNN ‘face’ droning on and on…”And today in the campaign, Bush said blah in reponse to Kerry responding to Bush’s response to Kerry saying blah blah” …zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…hmphh..zzzz. You could be excused for nodding off if the future of the planet wasn’t at stake. But then it’s hard to get excited in a contest between between Brand X right wing fundamentalist and Brand Y right wing ideologue, both of whom want to increase military spending.

I’d had enough of politics and high finance. Time for some Art.

The Guggenheim Museum has both kinds of Art. Flat and lumpy. I normally prefer lumpy art – but flat art can be good too sometimes. There was an exhibition by some European guy, I can’t remember his name. He claimed to be inspired by nature. “Fair enough”, I thought to myself. I can relate to that.

There were a couple of great sculptures. And some good photos. And paintings too. But then there was all of this weird stuff. There was a painting that obviously had been inspired by the wall of my flat back home. A plain white canvas no less. When I looked closer, I saw that it’s inclusion in the exhibition had been sponsored by such and such a foundation. “I wonder if they knew what they were paying for?” I thought to myself. Oh. Well. Whatever. At least it doesn’t kill people.

When I get back to Harlem, ‘the hood’ is buzzing. People are hanging out on the streets, kids running around like mad, old folk sitting in deck chairs chatting with their neighbours, homeboys hangin out. There’s something about having so many people living so close together that creates an amazing sense of community. I feel tempted to just hang out on the street in Harlem, soaking up the vibe of the street. But I was am of place - an outsider with a digital camera and wearing hiking boots. Safer to head back to the anonymity of the city.

I get out of the subway at 42nd Street near Broadway, and feel like I’ve stumbled onto the set of Blade-Runner, except the cars are still on the ground. It was then that I realize Sydney is actually a small, boring country town. Rockhampton, where I grew up, is off the scale.

I joine the throng of people just hanging out in the street…taking digital photos of people taking digital photos of people…taking digital photos. What is this obsession with photos anyway?

I head for the most gawdy and offensive advertising sign I could see. Toys R Us! I don’t have kids, but I’m interested in the future, and toy shops are a great place to learn about it.

Our kids will shape the future. And our Kids are shaped (at least to some extent) by the toys that they grow up with. In a bizarre self referential twist, toys, in turn, are shaped by some marketing executives idea of the future, or what they think kids think the future will be. So, the latest generation of toys often ends up being a pretty good window into what our future will be like. Ok, maybe not an accurate window – but at least an interesting one.

Walking into Toys R US!, I’m greeted by a full size fairis wheel inside a 4 storey toy shop, complete with a life size, robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex that, had I been 4 years old, would have scared the life out of me.

The ‘Nano building system’ display, alongside the ‘Bionicle’ creatures makes me wonder if I’ve been reading the right books. I’ve just finished reading a report by the ETC Group into the convergence of Nano and Bio technologies and what it means in terms of democracy and environmental risk. But it didn’t mention any of this stuff!

I’m lured to a salesperson touting the amazing capacity of “ROBOSAPIEN!”. The websites I’ve been browsing about cybernetics and genetic engineering in humans didn’t mention anything about this either. Maybe I should hang out in toyshops more often?

I lie to the salesperson about having a son, and asked how “ROBOSAPIEN!” could be used as a learning tool. “It’s easy”, he said. “You just press this button and it does a karate move. Or you press that button and it does a little dance.” “Yes, but I’m really looking for a toy that is also useful as a learning tool?”. “Well, it’s not really a toy”, he replied. “It’s actually a robot using the same technology as NASA and Microsoft use. And it’s got 67 different routines!”. Yes, but how do kids learn anything, or actually engage with this toy? “It’s got 67 different routines, and…blah blah blah”. I began to wonder if there wasn’t a 2nd model of ‘ROBOSAPIEN!’ out on the shop floor that evening.

After a quick spin around Times square on an 6 seater bicycle (an octagonal bike with 6 people facing inwards – all geared together), I head down to Union Square. I could only live in the shadow of a 50 metre high flashing image of David Beckham for so long.

It seems like Union square is the place to hang out if you like hanging out in the city but aren’t obsessed with taking digital photos. It’s an eclectic collection of people skating, skipping (with two ropes!), busking, reading, watching, just hanging out breathing…breathing life into the city.

There’s a circle of guys doing a rap thing. I remember in highschool in Rockhampton in the 1980’s we used to call it ‘breakdancing’. I wonder if they still call it that? These guys are really good - like they could have been in some hip hop or gangster rap video clip. I often wonder how people get to be good at things like hopping up and down on one hand in time to music.

Just for a joke, I go into a café and ask if they have anything that fits with the Atkins diet. They take me seriously. As a vegetarian I am offended by my own sense of the ridiculous.

I wander into an internet café and do a search for “new york poetry slam monday”. Sure enough, there is a slam going down at club 13 just around the corner.

The $8 entrance goes towards a prison activist group who for some reason are concerned about why 1/3 of all black American men end up in jail at some point in their life and in some states there are more black men in jail than in college. I’d met a guy in Minnesota who is the food director for one of the state prisons there. He said that it costs the government $88,000 to keep a person in jail for a year. They could create jobs for half the price. As usual, ‘rational’ or ‘fair’ obviously don’t play much of a role in policy making.

The poems come slick and fast…emotionally potent tirades about life, love, politics and prisons. How can there be so many amazing poets in one place? I said the same in San Francisco. I wonder if Sydney would reveal a similar poetic genius if there was an outlet? Or Brisbane? Or Rockhampton even?

Around midnight I head back down into the subway – feeling like New York is bigger, faster, stranger and more exciting place than I could ever have imagined it to be.

The guy standing accross to me on the train leans over out of the blue and says, “You know what? You gotta learn from your mistakes brother. People who don’t learn from their mistakes are stupid!”

I thought about prisons. I thought about ROBOSAPIEN!. I thought about George Bush. And I thought about John Howard and the fridge magnet.

“You’re spot on brother”, I said. “You’re spot on”.

New York Stock Exchange. I can't believe they didn't let me in. Posted by Hello

Welcome to Broadway and Times Square - New York city. I expected to see Harrison Ford shooting androids... Posted by Hello

Signs of resistance during the height of a 'code aubergine' terror alert in New York Posted by Hello

Military recruitment centre under the watchful eye of the NASDAQ - New York Times Square. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

The unity of Freedom and 'overwhelming force'

OK. So what is wrong with this statement? General George C Marshall's words of infinite wisdom are carved into Washinton's WWII Memorial. George Bush presided over the opening of this Monument - and he no doubt wouldn't have picked up on the obvious absurdity of this statement. Of course, when was there ever a contradition between 'freedom' and 'overwhelming force'?

I'm getting concerned that the world is becoming a parody of itself. Soon there will be nothing left to ridicule. Satire will die a lonely, tragic death, wallowing in obsolescence in the face of of a society whose absurdity reigns triumphant. Posted by Hello

citizens instead of women?

It goes from the bizzare to the absurd. Colonel Ovet Culp Hobby obviously wasn't a liberal. Fancy that, women being considered citizens of the nation instead of as women? Interesting idea...George didn't pick this one up either. Maybe 'W' doesn't stand for 'women' after all? Posted by Hello