Thoughts on Systems Change

Writing can be so much like exercising.  I used to keep my mind sharp through intervals of reading, writing, then reading and writing again.  When you’re fit to write, it can be uplifting.  When you haven’t been writing for the fun of it, it becomes quickly laborious.

I’ve been playing around with the idea of writing a book.  In starting a manuscript, I find myself incredibly intimidated by the process.  But I’m also looking towards a thesis in my Masters program and the possibility of a PhD in the future.  It’s making me consider the ways I hope to use writing and art to communicate, and how that might intersect with my research into environmental issues, indigenous rights, politics, and the general intersectionality that sits right in front of us but which not everyone prioritizes to analyze, thereby perpetuating the very frameworks and systems we are allegedly fighting to dismantle.

I’m investigating the theory of shock doctrines, power, and how liberal movements unintentionally buy into the very chaos they are reacting to.  It’s a challenge I’m glad to take on, although I have severe doubts the article I write will help me win a trip to the climate negotiations I’m attempting to compete for.

Sitting and thinking about history, time, space, and how none of those aforementioned concepts are tangible or possibly exist at all.  I began to wonder how this world perseveres at all.  I also wondered, had I designed the world, would I have thought to make clouds?  Fluffy, alien bodies of mist that float just the right distance away – and closer than we think – until the moment they condense and preserve life.

What if one day the clouds fell from the sky?

So much talk about biopolitics and bioengineering… conversations of Neoliberalism and Foucalt… restorative justice and learning from ancestors… Yet we speak in these terms and concepts so elevated that our language is beyond reach for those impacted the most, those with the solutions we could actually implement.  The research feels sterile, especially when you consider the numerous communities who understand the concepts of power and the impacts of co-opted systems but whose way of communicating them may be completely incompatible.

Maybe the clouds won’t fall out of the sky, but the air will thicken with smog and then that might as well be the same thing.  And, as we continue to criticize the problems right in front of our face, we will continually fall victim to the systemic chaos that cripples any effort for restorative justice.  It truly is an accurate saying: Systems Change, Not Climate Change.  And, as Naomi Klein puts it, it’s not a transition – it’s a “Corporate Coup”.

continua and the familiar.

What is it with change that can be so scary? Or how time can so gradually alter our feelings or view of something that it no longer is or affects us like what it used to be?

I feel like our emotions are always so closely related to our survival instincts and that we have to remind ourselves of that occasionally. Fight or flight. Fear of the unknown. Being blindsided or not being able to fully grasp a situation causes our defensive instincts to kick in and startle us. Deep down, we are just animals trying to survive. But our complicated brains, hormones, overwhelming emotion…those can cloud our perception and cripple us.

Yesterday, I was thinking a lot about the universe. About being small again, and about changes and choosing better in my life. Those personal emotions are scary because they make me feel vulnerable yet grounded. That’s instinct. That’s my body fearing danger and susceptibility even when I’m sitting safely in a work tent, surrounded by friends, help, and the necessities.

But what about the universe? I also began thinking about what I am and where I come from. I thought about religion. I thought about how so many people answer my questions about life with “Well, God.”

But I think explaining a question about life with an answer of religion…well that’s answering a question with the same question.

Where does matter come from? What are quarks? Are they made of something? Is this an infinite loop of smaller elements?
Well, God.
But what is God? What is God made of? If he’s the answer to where matter came from, then what is his matter and where did that come from? Who made God?
Well, God. He’s God. He does whatever he wants, and he’s God.

I’m sorry, but that’s not an answer. Maybe God made this that and the other thing – but that’s answering my question with more questions. Celebrating God may keep him from destroying you, but using him as an answer for the origin of life and where the universe comes from… Well he would still be part of that universe, so I’m not buying it.

God is such a catch-all.

As humans, we hate the unknown. We seek solace in the familiar. We want to have answers for everything and, when we can’t find an answer, we turn to a god.

You’re single and sad. Well, embrace God’s choice for you.

The cancer is taking your mom. Well, it’s God’s choice and you have to trust him.

That huge storm that just killed a bunch of innocent, technology-less people? That’s not global warming, God’s just angry at us.

No, no, no. I don’t believe that at all.

I believe we have free choice, that using God as an excuse is turning a blind eye to our character flaws or how we are destroying the planet. Saying, it’s all good, Jesus will return and God will save us.

When we can’t explain something, we turn to God, to a familiar, to a continuum. Like with me trying to explain matter as being made of infinitesimally small pieces, or thinking maybe atoms are small universes and the cycle never ends… Picturing death or the end of the world… WE CANNOT PERCEIVE THOSE THINGS, so we transpose the familiar onto a continuum. Continua keep the answers we want comfortably within our knowledge and potentially within our control.

But they’re lies, making up reasons and putting faith in them. Denying our faults. And we refuse to learn from it.

This reminds me of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. God seriously loves Israel and keeps showing the people grace despite their insubordinate behavior and continuous disobedience of his clear laws. They repeatedly turn to Baal and other gods despite his keeping them safe and alive and guiding them and warning them not to do just what they’re doing. His solution is to send a judge to the people.

Joshua has died and the people of Israel are without their strong leader, so they go astray and risk defeat by the Canaanites. God sends a judge to fill Joshua’s void. The people idolize the judge, win wars, celebrate their lord, and all is well. The judge lives his (or her) life out, dies, and it’s history repeating. This happens about twenty times and God keeps forgiving and trying again.

This story is thousands of years old, but we do the same thing to this day. We are inspired, like when America became patriotic after 9/11, and then we forget. Is it that the Israelites didn’t know danger? That God was always there for them? That they couldn’t see failure and knew, subconsciously, that he would be their catch-all and always save them?

The judges became a familiar and a continuum. God was the continuum of Israel. No one could picture defeat and they took advantage of it.

That’s like our excuses today, our passive concern. Because, without comfort of a familiar, we continuously revert to the next best safety net for our emotions. We can’t stand the vulnerability of change and the heaviness of responsibility.

Well, I think we all need to start owning up, on a personal as well as environmental scale. To start acknowledging our flaws, our faults, and our susceptibility to the uncontrollable unfamiliar. To realize the gravity of not having a safe continuum to rely on. To recognize the signs of history repeating, whether it’s in a personal relationship or on a large, international level of respect.

Out with the old, in with the instincts and the common sense. Let’s pull it together, folks.

Taken for Granted.

ImageI’ve been reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  The story focuses on an extended family and surrounding people living rather isolated and somewhat primitive in Colombia.  The patriarch of the family is transfixed with the ideas of science and invention.  In fact, he founds his own village, Macondo, on an island so he can spend his life entertaining his curiosities.  What’s particularly interesting about this man and his village, though, is the fact that the both are so isolated in only the familiar and with little contact to the outside.  For example, some gypsies bring in a large piece of ice to the village as a “demonstration” – not of science, but of magic.  The man is transfixed by this enormous diamond and pays for him and his sons to touch it.  Because he sees things in one light and one light only.

I’m still reading the book, but that was the gist of what I’ve gotten from summaries of it and what I’ve read so far.  But what really stuck out to me was that ice scenario.  I started thinking about the life that family had, isolated in one of the last regions to be explored.  In fact, Colombia is still heavily avoided, perhaps due more to violence than environmental concern such as the Amazon in Brazil.

But…ice.

I see ice every morning during this time of year.  There’s ice on my windows, ice hanging from my eaves, and ice on the sidewalks.  We go to the restaurant and we’re served water with ice.  We buy bags of ice for coolers to pack samples in the lab.  We have ice for injuries whenever we need it.

But, ice.

There are people in this world who have lived their whole lives without ever seeing, feeling, tasting, knowing ice.  They might know steam and not recognize it as water.  If they saw ice, they surely wouldn’t first guess water, would they?  Could they say ‘diamonds’ if they knew diamonds?  And how could you ever explain that feeling of such coldness?  So cold, it seems boiling hot if you have only ever known boiling hot.

I’m not just thinking about the materialistic things we take for granted in our daily lives, like heat and air-conditioning.  I’m not just talking about the people we take for granted in our daily lives, like friends and family.  I’m talking about the science we have come to know and how it has changed our lives as we’ve learned to manipulate it.

Medication.  Transportation.  Entertainment.  Those are some of the big ones.

But even something as simple as ice.  Phase change.  Think of how many things we have that rely on phase change: cooking, engines, pumps,…a lot of little things that make up much bigger things.  Science, knowledge….the ability to share that information – it can so easily be taken for granted.

How different would your life be if you lived in a place where no one knew ice?

The High-Fructose Corn Syrup Debate

I’ve always avoided high-fructose corn syrup.  But I’ve also always avoided sugar, period.  I was never sure if I should avoid one more than another.  Instead, I aim to choose items that are in their whole forms, like bulk nuts and other fresh ingredients that I make into something with my own hands.  However, avoiding the topic couldn’t last forever.  I decided to organize my own thoughts on the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) debate.

What is sugar?
Before we can attack HFCS, let’s think for a minute about what sugar is and what it does to our bodies.  First of all, sugar as we know it today generally translates to beet sugar or sugarcane.  The key to the definition is that these food sugars are monosaccharides (simple carbohydrates) such as glucose and fructose.  Simple carbohydrates chemically break down quickly for sudden energy release from the split bonds.  Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are known to be more complicated to break down and therefore release energy more slowly but steadily.  Sucrose is a disaccharide, with one glucose linked to one fructose.  Sugars are carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen based.

Sugar in America.
Sugar has a bad association in America with diabetes, obesity, and other health problems.  We’ve been consuming sugar globally for hundreds of years and, in some cultures, for thousands of years, but the consumption rates in America have skyrocketed.  This article demonstrates the drastic increase of sugar consumption per person per year in America over the last two centuries.  Most data indicates a steep rise in American sugar consumption with the closure of the Civil War with two dramatic drops at the time of the World Wars.  Some studies have predicted that, based on the current trend line in consumption data, Americans will be consuming essentially ‘100% sugar’ by the year 2606 (based on a 95% goodness of fit and an assumed average caloric intake).  And while Americans are told they should be consuming no more than 100 to 150 calories per day of added sugar, they may not realize this includes sugar naturally found in food products.  For example, dairy products have lactose.  Fruits are actually very high in the sugar fructose.  Yet, while obesity continues to rise, it may not actually be sugar consumption that is to blame.  Studies find a more intense correlation between lifestyles and weight gain.  It is likely that sugar, high in calories and added to the vast majority of American foods, has a way of bloating one’s calorie count without much detection.  I guess the argument can be made that it’s in everything, so we eat it in place of healthier alternatives, and so we get fat.  But we don’t have to buy the sugary stuff!  We do because we crave it.  No one made you buy that candy or that dessert or even that stew that had nearly undetectable added sugar – it’s just what your tastes are accustomed to!  Because we actively partake in activities that maintain a sugary demand in our country.  Sugar doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but we have diverged from the evolved eating habits of our prehistoric ancestors.  Besides, anything is bad in excess.

What is high-fructose corn syrup?
HFCS is, chemically-speaking, essentially the same product as table sugar.  The difference is the glucose and the fructose in HFCS is unbounded, whereas it’s bonded in regular sugar.  Sugar can only be grown in the more tropical climates, thus its production is highly limited in the US and its tariffs for importing are high.  HFCS, on the other hand, is extremely cheap, very obtainable in a corn-dominated country, and highly soluble.  So what’s everyone complaining about?

Debunking accusations agains HFCS.
There are a number of studies that show HFCS is no more obesity-causing than regular sugar, but none of them deny that Americans eat too much sugar.  That’s the main source of the issue.  But people tend to blame companies for slipping HFCS (the cheap alternative to sugar) in everything to make the products taste better.  That means they sell more for less investment.  But does that mean using sugar instead would change anything?  The price.  Our tastes?  No.  Our sugar cravings?  No.  Therefore our obesity problem?  Probably not, unless some actual lifestyle changes were made.  So what other arguments are out there?  Well, there’s the one about the creation of HFCS being synthetic and artificial and therefore bad.  Well isn’t anything we make or do technically unnatural?  What is baking bread or scrambling an egg?  It’s just inducing chemical reactions.  I used to be opposed to “chemicals” until my friend pointed out that everything is a chemical.  And because the two kinds of sweeteners are chemical twins, what is the problem?  Another argument is that our brains being unable to register HFCS as sweet and therefore we consume more than we would of sugar.  In this article, a study is reviewed about the hypothalamus in the brain which detects consumption, calories, and other levels and which would be responsible for detecting sweeteners.  The study concluded that glucose and fructose do affect the brain differently, but that the boundedness or unboundedness does not have a proven affect on how they do this.  While reading this article, I couldn’t help but notice the author’s reference to carbonyls like they were some obvious health threat.  Carbonyls are a type of carbon monoxide ligand; ligands are directly connected to receptors in the body.  Some ligands are antagonists that block receptors.  Metal carbonyls are notorious for their toxicity and ability to block important oxygen bondings.  The carbonyls found in HFCS have a bad rap simply because a connection is believed to exist between the carbonyls present and diabetes.  That doesn’t necessarily mean obesity, now does it?  But what I find even more interesting (and explained extremely thoroughly in this article) is that these carbonyls and this unbounded property of HFCS doesn’t mean anything, as far as sodas are concerned.  The carbonation in soda in fact hydrolyzes up to about 90% of the bounded sugars so that they are now unbounded and, quite frankly, now identical to HFCS before you’ve even opened the can.

Conclusion
HFCS is overdramatized without people fully understanding the facts first.  There is also not enough conclusions about the topic, especially considering the amount of conflicting data from animal studies, etc., that currently exists.  Maybe non-carbonated products are worse in HFCS than in regular sugar, but I simply don’t know and not enough long-term data exists yet on the health effects.  I do, however, stand by the fact that we consume too much of whatever you want to call it (any combination of fructose, glucose, sucrose, lactose,…) and that Americans need to become more active.  That is the problem leading to the obesity epidemic: CALORIE CONSUMPTION >> CALORIE EXPENDITURE.