Guide to this site

This site is the main home and information source for the Green Stars Project. The goal of the project is to encourage you, the reader, to consider the social and environmental impact of the products and services you use by rating them on a scale of 1 to 5 green stars. The reviews should be posted on any website that you normally use (Amazon, Yelp, Google, TripAdvisor, etc.) so that the green star rating will be visible alongside the conventional gold star rating.  ( *****  = quality and price ; *****  = social and environmental impact)

The Green Stars Project (GSP) is a simple idea for dealing with unethical corporate practices by impacting companies at their most sensitive point: their revenue.

GSP schematic V3

You are welcome to post a review as a comment here, but the key is to post your reviews on commercial sites such as those listed above so that they reach the widest possible audience. The goal is to increase awareness on the social and environmental impact of our choices as consumers and to discourage corporate practices that are detrimental to our planet and society.

Once the idea gains traction we will contact internet retailers (like Amazon) and review sites (like Yelp) to formally instate a green star rating scale.

For information about the idea, start with About and also take a look at FAQs. If you want to see what a typical green star review looks like, go to Example Reviews or just take a look at the posts below. Thanks for visiting!

Green Star Reviews from the Garden Island

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I’ve been posting quite a few product reviews over the last two years. At first I posted them only on amazon.com, partly because it’s an obvious place to start (as the largest internet retailer and major resource for product reviews) and partly because it provides a good means of tracking progress. People vote on Amazon reviews (helpful or not) and this has been a very useful metric for me to judge what kind of information people respond to. The number of reviews, number of votes, percentage of helpful votes, and a few other factors are converted by Amazon into an overall reviewer ranking. When I posted my first green star review on Amazon in 2014, I was perhaps a typical reviewer, having posted only three reviews up until then, earning me a reviewer ranking of around 21,000,000 (i.e., there were almost 21 million reviewers ranked higher than me, and it looks like there are over 40 million reviewers in total on Amazon.com).

First GSP review - 05.19.14
First Green Star Review – May 2014.

After two years, over 100 reviews and 1500 helpful votes, I am now in the top 1000 reviewer list (current ranking: 845). You can see my profile here and scroll through the reviews – please excuse the duplicates, each product is normally listed several times on Amazon. Please vote for any you find helpful!

Amazon Profile - Aug 2016
Current amazon.com profile and reviewer ranking

Nowadays, I’m posting each new review on every site that accepts product reviews (Vitacost, Thrive, Amazon.co.uk, even Walmart!). But this month I’m taking a bit of a break from that and I’m going to focus on reviewing restaurants, cafes, stores, etc. I’m posting these reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Google  – please click any of these links to see my reviews and vote if you find them helpful. By the way, the aim of accumulating votes is purely to gain more coverage for green star reviews. Reviews that don’t receive votes become less visible over time.

Oh, and I’m fortunate to be writing these reviews in Kauai too 🙂

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The Kalalau valley, Kaua’i, as seen from the Pihea trail in Koke’e State Park.

Living (and writing reviews) on a small isolated island can really heighten one’s awareness of certain issues, like where the stuff we eat and use comes from and what happens to it (or its packaging) afterwards. There is the huge problem of marine plastic, perhaps most evident on the Big Island’s Kamilo beach and in the tragic scenario at Midway of albatrosses feeding their young with plastic, mistaking it for squid. On isolated islands, the consequences of unsustainable practices are often much more severe and rapid than on large land masses. It’s also much harder to ignore (or to be unaware of) these consequences – for example, a consumer buying corn in California would surely think harder about the impact of the Midwest farming practices on the Gulf of Mexico if the U.S. mainland was shrunk to the area of Kauai (500 square miles).

One of the first things I noticed in Kauai is that milk here is dominated by one brand – Meadow Gold, marketed by Dean Foods in Texas. I was a little surprised that there weren’t more brands available, and perhaps some local organic milk. Well, the reason for this goes back to the 1980’s, when there were indeed more dairy farms in Hawaii and it was common practice to feed pineapple tops (“green chop”) to dairy cows. It all went pear-shaped in 1982 when it was discovered that many of the local milks were contaminated with heptachlor, an organochlorine pesticide that was sprayed on pineapples. The safety of heptachlor was questioned as far back as 1962 by Rachel Carlson in her book Silent Spring, but was not banned in the U.S. until 1988. Drinking this milk probably was a bad thing – a 2016 paper in Neurology shows that neuron density was significantly lower (and this is linked to Parkinson’s disease) in men who drank milk during this period, and also found heptachlor epoxide in 9 out of 10 of their brains.  

So, back in 1982, the milk contamination story hit the news and created an immediate scare – milk was withdrawn everywhere and replaced by powdered and evaporated milk. Then in 1984 Safeway opened Pandora’s Box and started importing milk from the mainland. The number of local dairy farms dwindled until eventually Dean Foods had a monopoly on processing local milk, which was supplied by the only two remaining Hawaiian farms (Dean also imports milk from the mainland). In 2015 Dean Foods threatened to stop buying milk from these local farms since it was no longer competitive with milk imported from the mainland, unless the state changed a law supporting a minimum price on milk (to protect dairy farmers from exploitation by milk processors, which is exactly what was happening). Last summer, Ed Boteilho, owner of Cloverleaf Dairy was forced to petition the state to allow his dairy to sell its milk to Dean Foods at below the legal minimum price, taking a 23% cut as the only alternative to shutting down the farm and letting his workers go.

But hopefully that’s the low point in this story. There are smaller dairy farms opening up again, and this month Ed Boteilho (aged 72 and having suffered a heart attack recently) decided to sell Cloverleaf Dairy to Mauna Kea Moo, a new dairy that plans to sell organic cheese, yogurt and butter. I’m heartened to see that the majority of small businesses that I’ve visited here are very conscious of sustainability – the benefits of organic farming, the importance of supporting local producers, and the need to reduce our use of plastic (avoiding it or replacing it with compostable alternatives). From the bakeries and restaurants that use local veggies, fruit and goat cheese to the non-profit café that provides coconut milk for your Kona coffee and the store that specializes in everything bamboo, Kauai seems to be on the right track. I hope to post more reviews soon – once again, you can find them on Yelp, TripAdvisor, or Google.

Mahalo nui loa.

IMAG2016
Mount Wai’ale’ale – one of the wettest spots on earth – as seen from the Kuilau Ridge trail. Average annual rainfall: 450 inches (11,400 mm).

 

Do It Yourself (part two – energy bars)

Almond Cranberry Coconut bars

In part one I took a look at the trend of gaining independence from large corporations by making our own stuff. Here, I’m going to take the specific example of making your own food bars (i.e., energy bars, granola bars, fruit and nut bars, or whatever you want to call them).

Why would you want to go to the trouble to make your own bars anyway? Well, it’s a step towards independence that’s easy to take – you can make a month’s supply of bars in about an hour of prep time. You can control exactly what goes into them so that you don’t have to compromise on either nutrition or the social and environmental impact. And, even if you use higher quality ingredients, they still work out cheaper than buying commercial bars. They will also be fresher, allowing you to include ingredients like ground flax seeds* and walnuts that are not as commonly seen commercial bars for fear of rancidity (since they have to be stable enough to sit on a shelf for a year or two). I’ve found that making bars is a great way to work things like seeds, nuts, and dried berries into your diet. (By the way, whfoods.com is a great resource for checking the nutritional benefits of ingredients you might want to include, for example, sesame seeds or walnuts.) Finally, it’s a good way to use up items that are flirting with their expiration date. My chia seeds, bought during a bout of health-consciousness, had taunted me daily from their cupboard for about a year until I started making bars.

(*commercial bars sometimes contain whole flax seeds, but they should be ground before adding to your bars – otherwise they pass through your body largely undigested.)

If you’re not into this idea of making your own (or even if you are) I’ve provided scores for some of the commercial bars I’ve reviewed below – you can click a product name to bring you to the full review on Amazon. (Disclaimers: these are just my opinions; the point of the GSP is to encourage others to begin weighing in with their own opinions; I receive no revenue for this; and finally, apologies for the lack of more international products – send me a message if you want me to review anything, or better still, review it yourself and share the review!)

Clif Bar – Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch: 5/5 gold stars, 5/5 green stars.

Clif Organic Trail Mix Bars (various): 4/5 to 5/5 gold stars, 5/5 green stars.

Kashi Chocolate Almond and Sea Salt: 3/5 gold stars, 3/5 green stars.

Kashi Organic Blueberry Almond: 4/5 gold stars, 4/5 green stars.

Kellogg’s Nutri Grain Blueberry: 2/5 gold stars, 3/5 green stars.

Kind Cranberry Almond + Antioxidants: 5/5 gold stars, 2/5 green stars.

Kit’s Organic Fruit and Nut bar (various): 3/5 to 5/5 gold stars, 5/5 green stars.

Larabar ALT – Chocolate Chip Macaroon: 3/5 gold stars, 4/5 green stars.

Luna Protein – Chocolate Coconut Almond: 4/5 gold stars, 5/5 green stars.

As you can see, they vary quite a bit in terms of social and environmental impact (green stars) as well as quality/price (gold stars). Of the bars I reviewed, I thought Kind bars deserved the lowest score for social and environmental impact (2/5 green stars) but at the same time I gave them the highest rating for taste (5/5 gold stars). That’s sometimes the way with processed food – some of the tastiest and cheapest products have a negative social/environmental impact – and this applies to many non-food products and services too. This dissociation that sometimes exists between “quality” and social/environmental impact is one of the reasons we believe it’s important to have a separate green star rating (more on that here).

It’s worth saying a little more about Kind here. Not to single them out – I’m pretty sure there are worse options out there – but they serve to illustrate an important point about marketing versus reality. Kind bars have come to dominate food bar sales in the U.S. over the last few years, and there’s no doubt that they are well made and generally delicious. But I’m pretty sure that they owe a good portion of their success to the “Kind” image that they have carefully developed and nurtured. Much of the publicity and reputation that Kind Snacks have generated comes down to their Kind Causes program – they give out a $10K grant every month, based on whichever cause get the most votes. To put that into perspective, Kind’s sales were close to $120 million in 2012 and $200 million in 2013. They donate $10,000 per month, so that’s $120K per year, or 0.06% of their sales revenue for 2013 (probably about 0.02% of 2016 revenue, judging by their growth rate). This is a very small fraction of the amount donated by companies that have joined the 1% for the planet program, for example Clif Bar. Even to take a random example of a large multinational food company, Kellogg’s donate around 0.3% of net sales to charitable causes each year (source: their 2014 CSR report).

Another way of looking at it is that Kind Snacks donation of $120K represents 0.2% of 2012 pre-tax earnings (calculated at $47.6 million) while the average U.S. company donates 0.8% of pre-tax profits to charitable causes. You could say it’s great that they are donating anything at all, even if it less than the average U.S. company, but the fact is that donations are more or less the icing on the cake, the cake being a company that’s socially and environmentally responsible. In comparison to many of the other companies I’ve reviewed, there is little evidence that Kind Snacks rate well for social and environmental responsibility (ingredient sourcing, certifications, energy use, etc.). Hopefully that will change – they need to improve transparency on their corporate practices for one thing.

Another reason for making your own bars is to avoid the issue of packaging waste. Food bar sales are projected to reach $8.3 billion by 2016 in the U.S. alone, which translates to around 8.3 billion bar wrappers going to landfill every year (about 26 per person). I calculated how far a year’s worth of wrappers in the U.S. would stretch if placed end to end and was shocked to find that it works out at almost a million miles!! That’s enough to build four strings of wrappers to the moon every year! If a year’s worth of wrappers were laid out side by side they would completely cover four lanes of highway stretching from San Francisco to New York.

Highway
Imagine this highway entirely covered with plastic wrappers and stretching from San Francisco to New York. That’s how many energy bar wrappers we generate every year in the U.S. alone.

You can actually collect and send your wrappers to Terracycle where they will be recycled (or upcycled) into anything from a backpack to a park bench, and over 30 million wrappers have been processed in this way. But the vast majority go to landfill – at best – some will end up in our parks and oceans and along the sides of highways from SF to NY:/  It’s also worth mentioning that the plastic wrap is made from oil as are most of the inks used to print packaging labels. I won’t get into the inks here but many of the solvents and inks used to print packaging labels pose environmental threats and are also under study for risk of potential interactions with the food itself. It’s likely that this might change – Mule Bars in the UK are packaged in compostable wrappers – but whether or not a company will switch to biodegradable wrappers depends almost entirely on consumer demand.

So, finally, here’s a quick guide to making your own energy bars at home. For some of the ingredients and materials, I’ve added links to green star reviews that are posted on Amazon. It’s actually quite simple: basically, you combine 4 ½ cups of a selection of nuts/seeds/grain/dried fruit with up to one cup of your preferred sweetener (I would suggest 1 cup of sugar syrup such as brown rice syrup or ¾ cup honey, which is sweeter). Then you pack this mixture into baking tray, lined with parchment paper. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight, and then cut into bars. I’ve found that the easiest way to start is to use solid honey as a sweetener (the kind that’s completely solid and opaque at room temperature, for example this one) since you only need to heat it enough to melt it and then it will naturally return to a solid state after you mix with the other ingredients and refrigerate. For other sweeteners, see the instructions below the recipe. So here’s one example:

Almond Cranberry Coconut bars.

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups almonds,

1 cup dried cranberries,

1 cup coconut flakes (toasted, preferably),

¾ cup rice puffs

3 tbsp ground flax seeds

¾ cup of solid honey

½ teaspoon salt

One teaspoon of vanilla extract (optional)

¾ teaspoon of almond extract (optional)

Method:

  1. Line a baking dish that’s around 8” square (or the equivalent area) with parchment paper.
  2. In a large glass or metal bowl, combine 4.5 cups of whatever mixture of dry ingredients you want to use. In this case it’s 1 ½ cup almonds, 1 cup dried cranberries, 1 cup coconut flakes (toasted, preferably), ¾ cup rice puffs, 3 tbsp ground flax seeds (or some variation on this).
  3. In a small saucepan combine ¾ cup of solid honey and ½ teaspoon salt and heat this until it just melts. I have metal measuring cups, so I just melted the honey in the cup itself. I also added a teaspoon of vanilla and ¾ teaspoon of almond extract, but these are optional. You can also reduce or omit the salt if desired.
  4. When the honey is melted, pour it over the dry ingredients and use a metal spoon or fork to quickly toss everything together so that the honey is distributed evenly. Continue to mix for a couple of minutes to ensure everything is well coated.
  5. Transfer the mixture into the lined baking dish and spread it out using the spoon or fork. Now begin to press it down firmly into the pan – this is a key step. Use the flat bottom of mug or bottle to tamp it down as much as possible, and continue to do this for a few minutes. If you don’t pack it firmly the bars will not hold together.
  6. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight in the baking pan. You can pack it down a little more after it has been refrigerated for an hour, if you wish. After refrigeration, carefully grasp the parchment paper on both sides and carefully pull the solid block out of the pan and transfer the whole thing (including paper) to a chopping board.
  7. Use a very sharp knife (I sharpen mine on the day) to cut the bars into fingers. If your block is 8’ square then I usually cut this down the middle into two 4” wide rectangles and then slice these into fingers around 1” wide.
  8. You can store the bars either in containers, re-using the parchment paper to separate layers, or wrap them in wax paper either individually or in pairs. Store in the fridge for several months (you will eat them before a month is up).
IMAG1517
Almond cranberry coconut bars

As far as dry ingredients go, you can really use anything you like. I’ve made a few varieties, using various mixtures of nuts, rice or millet puffs, seeds, coconut flakes, and dried fruit. Next, I want to experiment with spices and herbs. Even using organic / sustainable / socially responsible ingredients, each 40 gram bar worked out a lot cheaper than a store-bought bar with lower nutritional value and a poor social and environmental impact. (Total cost of ingredients: $11.85, if all of them are organic. Final weight was around 600g = 15 x 40g bars. Cost per bar: $0.79).

As far as the sweetener goes, I’ve used honey, brown rice syrup, simple syrup (sugar and water), and also mixtures such as brown rice syrup combined with maple syrup or date syrup. If you’re using a sweetener that’s not solid at room temperature (i.e. anything except solid honey) then you need to boil it for a few minutes so that crystals will form and it’ll solidify once cooled. If you happen to have a sugar thermometer, then you are aiming for just over 250 °F (121 °C) – known as the hard ball stage. I don’t have a thermometer so I just winged it by bringing to a boil and then keeping it on a full boil for 3-5 minutes.  To check for the hard ball stage without a thermometer, follow the instructions in this video. Basically, you sample a little of the boiling sugar in a metal spoon, and pour it into a bowl of cold water (it should be thick and ropy when you pour it) and then, after allowing it to cool for a few seconds, scoop it from the bottom of the bowl with your fingers (if you can’t scoop it up, then the sugar not ready yet) and see it will form a ball that doesn’t collapse, but which you can change the shape of if you squish it between your fingers. You can read more about the different stages of sugar here.

If you want to make bars with chocolate then add small pieces of chocolate to the top of the block after you tamp it down in the pan, or drizzle with melted chocolate. Don’t mix the chocolate in with the dry ingredients – the hot sugar will partially melt it and you’ll end up with a hot mess – I know this from experience! However, even if something goes wrong and your bars don’t hold together, you can still eat it as a trail mix or granola.

A final note about a couple of the main ingredients used here – honey and almonds. Did you know that California supplies 80% of the world’s almonds, and pollination of the trees requires 60% of the managed honeybees in the US? Having read about possible reasons for the widespread colony collapse disorder (CCD), I’m making an effort to use only organic almonds and organic honey. I’ll hopefully write a separate article about CCD later, but very briefly, modern practices have put several stresses on honeybees and it’s most likely that several factors are contributing to the phenomenon. For example:

  1. Large honey suppliers typically remove all of the honey from the hives, and give the bees sugar syrup (such as high fructose corn syrup) to survive over the winter. Bees depend on many of the more complex nutrients in honey / propolis / pollen for their health and also upkeep of the hive. Removing all of the honey can increase susceptibility of the bees to pathogens and reduce their ability to detoxify pesticides. Organic honey producers are required to leave some of the honey in the hive to get them through the winter and they are happy to do this since they care about the bees.
  2. Many studies have looked at the impact of the pesticides (such as neonicotinoids) and adjuvants on bee immune systems and also their learning ability. Adjuvants are additives that (in this case) increase absorption of the pesticides by the plant, and since they are considered trade secrets they are not disclosed by companies that make the pesticides. To take one example of the huge amount of research that has gone into CCD, researchers from Penn State University demonstrated that some adjuvants, particularly the newer, more potent organosilicones, have a significant negative impact on olfactory learning (the older plant oil adjuvants did not have a negative affect). Bees, of course, depend upon smell and navigation skills to forage for nectar and also to find their way back to the hive. Hives affected by CCD are not full of dead bees – they are usually devoid of bees – suggesting that impairment of navigation skills may be a factor in CCD.

When people talk about organic products (honey, veggies, nuts, etc.) it’s assumed that the main feature is the restriction of chemical pesticides. That is a big factor, and one that carries a huge impact. But organic farming also goes beyond this, and truly sustainable farming is carried out in harmony with the soil, our water, and the creatures such as the bees that we depend on – often more than we know.

Proteinaholic / Integrity in Science

Diet Books! How many do we need, really? I have to admit though, when I see a shiny new hardback in the local bookstore with an eye-catching image (a big stack of sinister-looking bagels, or a piece of broccoli in the shape of a brain) and an author with credentials – Dr. Mitch Somebody, M.D. – it’s hard not to get sucked in. Especially when you throw in the endorsements on the back cover by a host of other authors (who have all invariably written their own diet/nutrition books): “This book changed my life!” – Dr. Chad Betterman, M.D., author of N.Y. Times bestsellers, My Diet will Change your Life! and The Betterman Way. What’s kind of amusing is that we tend to automatically trust the opinion of doctors for advice on nutrition when in fact they receive, on average, less than 24 hours of nutrition-related training during med school, and only 2 hours in some cases. Having said that, there are of course several good nutrition books out there, some of which are written by M.D.s. The point I’ll hopefully get to later is that you need to be wary about what you read and vigilant enough to do a little fact-checking of your own.

So, I just finished reading a book called Proteinaholic, by Dr. Garth Davis, M.D., and it brought up a couple of interesting points. (By the way, he had Howard Jacobson, Ph.D., to help him read and interpret the 669 research papers and keep him on the straight and narrow – Jacobson has also researched science for two of T. Colin Campbell’s books and runs an interesting podcast called Plant Yourself). You can read my review of the book here – I’m only going to go into one aspect of it right now. But briefly, the main thesis of the book is that we are eating too much animal protein and this can lead to low life expectancy, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. The fact that a diet rich in meat is not good for you shouldn’t come as a huge surprise at this point. It’s also well accepted by now that switching to a predominantly plant-based diet is one of the single biggest things (probably the single biggest thing) you can do to improve life on this planet. So, why is our protein consumption increasing?

Proteinaholic

Dr. Davis believes that we consume too much animal protein in part because we’ve received decades of conditioning from so many sources that protein is good for you – that in fact you can never get too much protein. When it comes to the other two “macronutrients”, fats and carbs, we’ve vacillated over their virtues and dangers for decades, opting eventually to split them into “good” and “bad” versions. But during all of these food fights, protein has maintained an untarnished halo around its little globular head. This reputation has been nurtured by decades of lobbying, advertising, and manipulation of the truth (aka deception and lies) by politicians, government agencies, industry boards, and special interest groups, all with vested interests in selling meat and dairy. There are several examples given in the book, including an account of Kansas Senator Bob Dole’s interesting reinterpretation of the recommendations of the 1977 U.S. Select Committee on Nutrition and Humans to eat less meat and dairy while consuming more fruits, vegetables, and grains. Apparently, following pressure from the National Livestock and Meat Board, Dole summarized the findings with a recommendation that we should to eat more lean meat (the “more” satisfying the Meat Board and the “lean” included as a nod to the Committee – hey, it’s not quite fruits, veggies, and grains, but how do you expect me to get reelected in Kansas if I’m touting a hippie rabbit food diet?)

I think that by now we are used to the fact that corporate associations and boards do their best to manipulate us. When evidence emerges that something they are selling is bad for us or harmful to the environment their wheels of public relations quickly kick into motion. However, over the last few years there has been a concerning trend that these manipulation tactics are creeping into the discipline of Science. In medicine, it’s well known that doctors take the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, and although scientists take no oaths, it’s understood that their loyalty should always be to the Truth. But there have been several high-profile cases over the last decade of individual scientists falsifying data, and there has also been a lot of focus on failure to replicate work published by the pharmaceutical industry.

In Proteinaholic, Dr. Davis makes the point that if you are getting enough calories then you are getting enough protein. Any diet that consists of a reasonable mix of foods, even if 100% plant-based, will include enough protein. The question then becomes: is there a benefit from ingesting more than “enough” protein? In the U.S., the recommended daily allowance for protein is 56 grams per day for men and 46 grams for women (or around 0.8 g/kg body weight). The WHO/FAO recommendations are a little lower at 0.68 g /kg. Endurance athletes (who need more protein than bodybuilders) may benefit from a protein intake of 0.9 g/kg – that’s 67 grams for an endurance athlete who weighs 75 Kg. However, average protein intake (across a largely sedentary population in the U.S.) exceeds all of these levels, reaching around 109 grams per day in young adult males.

I wanted to double-check on our average protein intake and came across this paper that provided just the information I was looking for.

Current protein intake in America

And that’s when things got weird. The paper looks innocuous at first – it simply charts data from a survey on protein intake in the U.S. But it’s really not a research paper at all – in fact it has virtually nothing to say – the entire paper appears to be a set up for the conclusion that:

Given the positive benefits of higher protein intake on satiety and other physiologic functions, efforts should be undertaken to help Americans consume the recommended amounts of protein.

This conclusion is reached without any references to back up the author’s vague claims on the “positive benefits of higher protein intake.” In fact there are only 11 references in the paper and none of them are references to research papers – the majority are just links to websites that describe the USDA food pyramid. So, basically, the paper lists data on protein intake and, even though this data shows that intake levels are above both the WHO and U.S. RDA values, the author goes on to conclude that we should really increase our protein intake.

So, the paper is really a thinly disguised advertisement for consuming protein, masquerading a science paper. The sole author is not associated with a university – he’s basically running a one-man-show consulting firm called Nutrition Impact.

Nutrition Impact is a small consulting firm that specializes in helping food & beverage companies develop and communicate aggressive, science-based claims about their products and services.

His funding source for the paper:

An honorarium for preparing the manuscript and reimbursements of travel expenses for attending the Protein Summit were provided to VF by the Protein Summit sponsors. VF has also received research grants from The Beef Checkoff through the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The Journal that published the paper? It’s not, as you might expect, a virtually unheard of trashy journal – The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has an impact factor of 6.8 (quite high)  and claims to be the most frequently cited journal in nutrition and dietetics.

Marion Nestle and others have been pointing out for several years that many of the journal’s board members are heavily associated with the food industry and their conferences are looking more and more like advertising sessions than scientific meetings.

So perhaps it’s a sign of the times that Dr. Davis felt the need to devote an entire chapter of Proteinaholic (Research Truth and BS: How to Speak Science) to guiding readers on interpreting scientific papers so that they can develop an instinct for when they are being manipulated. The way things look right now, the problem seems to run deeper than a few isolated papers – an entire Journal appears to have been compromised.

I think we have to fall back on the advice offered by Jon Stewart in his final episode of the Daily Show.

 

Do It Yourself (part one)

When it comes to reducing our global footprint and avoiding corporations that we disapprove of, one of the most encouraging trends is that of DIY, or the culture of makers, to use a more hip parlance. This can involve anything from converting your car to run on biodiesel to knitting a scarf. For projects that require specialized tools and equipment, there are hundreds of spaces popping up worldwide where you can drop in and work on your thing. You may not be likely to need access to a 3D printer or laser cutter anytime soon, but chances are that you engage in some kind of creative activity (even the White House hosted a Maker Faire in 2014). Many consider the trend to be a very human response to the loss of connection to the world around us and also the loss of control over the nature and origin of the things we use. This lack of connection and control has largely come about as a result of the rise of mass production and the industrialization of our world. I think one of the reasons so many people enjoyed reading The Martian was that the central character, Mark Watney, was a very creative maker. And whether you’re trapped on Mars or on Earth the same truth applies – every little step taken towards independence can be highly rewarding and empowering.

Of the many varieties of making, probably the most timeless and accessible are those that provide for our most basic human need: food. This could entail the artisan pursuits of making your own bread, cheese, wine, beer, etc., or the very everyday act of simply preparing a meal from fresh ingredients. You might say that we’ve always prepared food and it’s nothing special, but the reality is that a large portion of society lost its connection to food, particularly in the decades following WWII. The 1950s brought convenience food to the world. Advances in food processing, together with strategies adapted from the military, enabled the wonders of frozen food and mass-produced shelf-stable edibles. This convenience was hailed as a wonderful way to free up time for the average person, allowing them (when they came home from their job at the food processing plant ) to fully enjoy the other marvel that took hold in the fifties – and one of one of the most powerful drugs known to humankind – the television.

TV dinner 2

Processed Food. Typically more energy goes into processing food than is required to grow it in the first place. In some cases, such as a frozen food container, more calories can go into making the container than is contained in the food itself.

Advertising right up to the present day emphasizes how much time the wonderful conveniences of modern life will save us, allowing us to get on with our real lives. A busy parent doesn’t have time to be faffing around with food when they could simply slip a plastic container into the microwave and then settle down with the kids for some quality time in front of the TV, catching up on ads about more ways they can save time. Ads showing buffoons cutting their fingers or making gigantic messes trying to do everyday activities – don’t be a sucker, buy this instead! After a generation, we were in danger of growing up with no practical skills at all – our hard-earned cash going to corporations who mass produce the things that we can no longer make ourselves.

Lamb and dasies

                          <Soothing music>

The point is that we’ve started to wake up to this loss of power and control. And we’re increasingly coming to the realization that it’s actually more fun and rewarding to do some things ourselves than to have them done for us. The connection to nature that comes about through simple activities such as growing or cooking food can be extremely restorative, sometimes helping people to turn their lives around. For example, gardening programs in San Quentin State Prison and around the Bay Area (operated by Planting Justice and the Insight Garden program) have met with remarkable success, while the Delancey Street Foundation’s restaurant in San Francisco provides a fresh start for former convicts and drug addicts.

On a personal health level, there’s no doubt that the increased prevalence of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer owe a lot to our switch from fresh ingredients to processed food. Recently the WHO released data showing that regular consumption of processed meats (i.e. meat processed in ways that extend its shelf life, such as adding preservatives) significantly increases the likelihood of developing colorectal cancer. And even that’s a fairly minor development compared to some of the travesties that the food industry has been responsible for over the last few decades, from trans fats to high-fructose corn syrup. Things that you would never consider or just don’t need when cooking at home are commonplace in the food industry: stabilizers, preservatives, artificial colors, etc. It should also come as no surprise that the food industry is very focused on getting consumers to eat or drink as much of their product as possible. Michal Moss, in his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, charts the lengths to which the food industry has gone to increase sales, overcoming “sensory-specific satiety” (the temporary decline in pleasure derived from consuming any particular food) by systematically tweaking and testing their product formulations. Extensive corporate research into what addicts us to food has led to the discovery that avoiding any one predominant flavor will encourage more consumption (Moss gives the examples of Doritos and Coke), and also the importance of formulating food to achieve an optimum trifecta of salt, sugar, and fat.

Besides the health benefits, preparing our own food gives us much more control over the social and environmental cost of what we consume. And this is true of the maker movement in general – it’s about sustainability as much as independence. It’s pretty well understood by now that convenience and fast food often carries a high cost to the planet and to society. The widespread use of palm oil as an ingredient is a good example – I’ll be brief for the benefit of those suffering from palm oil fatigue. In order to create the desired “mouthfeel” (an unsettling phrase in itself), food processors used to use large volumes of partially hydrogenated oil. When the trans fat generated during hydrogenation was found to be a leading cause of heart disease the companies had to change tack, switching to palm oil, which is solid at room temperature (and cheap). The high demand for palm oil has resulted in deforestation and burning of peatlands on a massive scale. This situation was both unfortunate (massive understatement) and avoidable – palm oil itself is a very high yielding crop and if grown sustainably can be perfectly fine – it was the sudden increase in demand and lack of supply-chain responsibility that created the problem. Preparing food at home circumvents many of the problems that result from high-volume centralized food processing. For example, at home it’s very unlikely that you’d choose to use partially hydrogenated oil and likewise it’s easy to avoid ingredients that you’re not comfortable with, such as palm oil. You also save a lot of energy – in most cases it takes more energy to process food than it does to grow it in the first place – and it’s also cheaper to cook your own food. Here are a few of the other things we don’t have to worry about if we prepare our own food:

  • High volume demand for certain ingredients from single suppliers that results in unsustainable or inhumane conditions. You can chose to buy eggs from a small local farm but Giant Corp can’t do that because they need so many eggs – they will choose the cheapest bulk producer that matches their needs.
  • Chemical preservation of food. Preservation rarely maintains the food’s nutritional content – even just the process of reheating pre-cooked food destroys many of the vitamins. And the preservatives themselves (TBHQ, anyone?) are often suspect.
  • Artificial colors, “flavor enhancers”, and other ingredients that would be more at home in a chemical plant.
  • Transportation and refrigeration of your food once you prepare it.
  • Packaging of the food into single-use plastic containers, printing of labels, etc.
  • A large portion of your food budget going to advertising or political campaigns rather than to farmers.

 

You have to have noticed the rise of the food bar over the last decade – these bars occupy an entire aisle in some supermarkets, ranging from traditional granola / cereal bars to newer energy bars that many use as meal replacements. I’ve nothing in particular against granola or energy bars – I’m just using them as an example of a processed food that most of us eat these days. It would be too easy to show that a dinner made at home from locally-sourced fresh ingredients is better socially and environmentally than food bought from a fast food joint or a frozen meal in a plastic tray – energy bars are a little more of a challenge because they’re not all bad. And yet, now that I know how to make them, the advantages on almost every level are so apparent that I’m rarely going to buy them again. In Part Two, I’m going to take a look at a few of these bars, discuss some of the reasons for making them yourself, and finally describe how to make some healthy and sustainable versions at home. Happy Thanksgiving!Wonka and Sleeper 3The future of food? Willy Wonka presents a pill to replace a meal, while Woody Allen tackles a troublesome pudding.

 

 

Water

Nestlé continues to bottle water in California during the worst drought on record. Many of you are well aware of this, so I won’t go into too much detail – you can catch up on it here. Rather than a session of hand-wringing and frustration I want to understand the company’s perspective on the situation in order to address it.

So, briefly, here are a few quick facts and figures on the situation:

On their website Nestlé say that halting bottling operations will not significantly help the California water crisis because it’s only a small percentage of the amount that Jerry Brown wants to conserve by imposing water restrictions.

If Nestlé were to shut down all of its plants in California the resulting annual savings would be less than 0.3% of the total the Governor says the state needs residential and public users to save.

Following that logic, individuals might wonder why they are letting their grass die in order to save a few gallons when Nestlé doesn’t think it’s worth saving 700 million gallons. The State believes it’s worth cutting off the water supplies in beaches and parks to save one fortieth of what Nestlé removes for bottling.

Arrowhead water, bottled by Nestlé from various springs in California including Strawberry Canyon in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Arrowhead water, bottled by Nestlé from various springs in California including Strawberry Canyon in the San Bernardino National Forest.

And that’s not even taking into account the true cost of bottled water – the energy and water that goes into packaging and transportation. Drilling and refining the oil that’s converted into plastic bottles or burned in trucks that haul the water bottles across the country actually takes a whole lot of water. From Ertug Ercin of the Water Footprint  Network:

“Packaging makes a significant footprint,” he says, adding that three liters of water might be used to make a half-liter bottle. In other words, the amount of water going into making the bottle could be up to six or seven times what’s inside the bottle.

So the 700 million gallons turns into almost 5 billion gallons when the true cost of water is considered. And that’s besides the energy use and climate impact of bottling and transporting the water.

And it’s also important to note that by the amount of water Nestlé removes from the San Bernardino National Forest is a significant percentage on a local level.

In 2014, we used 95 million liters (25 million gallons) of water, which represents less than 10% of measured flow by the US Geological Survey monitoring gauge located at the base of two canyons – Strawberry Canyon where our springs are located, and neighboring Coldwater Canyon.

Their permit for water bottling expired in 1988 and it turns out that no state agency is monitoring the amount of water taken or the ecological impact of its removal.

According to Steve Loe, a biologist who retired from the Forest Service in 2007, removal of the water from the forest has impacted the ecosystem significantly, likely contributing to the disappearance of native fish species.

It’s sadly ironic that, a four hour drive northwest of the San Bernardino forest, the wells in the small Californian town of East Porterville are running dry and an increasing proportion of the population rely on bottled water. The town’s water needs (population ~ 7000) would be met several times over by the amount that Nestlé takes from aquifers and bottles into plastic.

So, what was the response of the Nestlé Waters North America CEO Tim Brown to all of this? In a radio interview on AirTalk, Mr. Brown was asked whether he would ever consider moving bottling operations out of California. His response:  

“Absolutely not. In fact, if I could increase it, I would.”

“If I stop bottling water tomorrow,” said Brown, “people would buy another brand of bottled water. As the second largest bottler in the state, we’re filling a role many others aren’t filling. It’s driven by consumer demand; it’s driven by an on-the-go society that needs to hydrate.”

The two Mr. Browns
The Two Mr. Browns. Left: California Governor Jerry Brown, who called for necessary statewide water reductions. Right: Tim Brown, CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, who said that if he could increase bottling of CA water during this drought he would.

So there you have it. And Tim Brown is not alone in assigning blame to consumers. Following an evaluation by Oxfam of the social and environmental impacts of the “Big 10” food and beverage manufacturers, the response of the companies was summarized as follows:

The problems of the food system, they say, are caused largely by governments, traders and consumers.

To sum up the situation of Nestlé bottling California water: They are doing it legally (although their permit did expire 27 years ago); so far the state government hasn’t stepped in to stop the practice (nor are they monitoring it); Nestlé doesn’t have plans to stop, reasoning that “it’s driven by consumer demand.”

Logically, although protests and petitions may also be effective, the most effective means of action is to cease the consumer demand. This can be done in several ways:

  1. Make a personal commitment to stop buying bottled water and perhaps other products from Nestlé if you feel strongly about the issue.
  2. Publicly voice your opinion though product reviews (for water or other Nestlé products) and briefly explain why you are awarding your green star rating.

That’s just my opinion and the whole point of the Green Stars Project is to establish a democratic rating system for products and services, based on social and environmental impact. You may be perfectly fine with Nestlé’s practices or the idea of bottled water in general. So please cast your vote by including a green star rating in whatever you review next!

Attack of the Microbeads!!

It turns out that certain companies have been putting little plastic beads into products such as toothpastes and exfoliating scrubs. These “microbeads” are made from polyethylene, the same kind of plastic that’s used to make most beverage bottles. Why on earth would they do this, you might ask? In the case of scrubs they are used as a cheaper alternative to natural exfoliants. In toothpaste, believe it or not, the plastic was added purely for appearance. P&G added little colored plastic balls to several varieties of Crest toothpaste as a marketing ploy. Have we gone completely mad?!

Livin’ the dream – microbeads in your toothpaste.
Livin’ the dream – microbeads in your toothpaste.

Besides the unearthliness of cleaning your face with little plastic balls, or swallowing them when you brush your teeth, does it cause any problems? Well, yes. For one thing they are too small to be filtered out by municipal water treatment plants and have been found to accumulate in water systems such as the Great Lakes. Several groups (e.g., Chelsea Rochman at UC Davis) have documented the accumulation of microplastic in aquatic habitats and shown that the tiny fragments of plastic adsorb organic compounds that can affect fish fertility when ingested. 

Organic chemicals such as pesticides, flame retardants and petroleum hydrocarbons and metals such as lead and copper are found sorbed to plastic material globally. As a result, plastic debris in aquatic habitats is associated with a “cocktail of contaminants” that may be hazardous to aquatic animals upon ingestion.

Ingesting microplastic in your toothpaste is not a hazard to the FDA but I can’t say that makes me completely fine with the idea. Dental hygienist Trish Walraven has documented the accumulation of microbeads in patients’ gums and there is some concern over whether the beads will enable bacterial growth and hence dental decay. However, the fact that we even have to find evidence that it’s harmful before avoiding it seems somewhat nonsensical. Would you knowingly endorse having plastic beads in our toothpaste knowing that all it does it add little specks of color? Or in your skin products, knowing that the only advantage is that they are a little cheaper (for the company, not necessarily for you) than natural exfoliants?

By now, companies and governments are responding to pressure to phase out microbeads but let’s just think about the chain of events that led to this point. It’s a process that we’ve repeated over and over again; the case of microbeads is just one example. A company introduces a new process or a new ingredient into some of its products (either to boost sales or reduce material costs) even though they probably have an inkling that there may be social or environmental costs involved. This new product is launched and, if everything goes well, sales will increase and the company benefits (the consumer may or may not benefit – the primary target is the company’s bottom line). Then, some scientists think this all looks a bit dodgy and decide to investigate the impact of this new ingredient, spending millions in taxpayers money in the process. Then, after years of research, there may be direct legislation to ban the item or, more often, consumers begin to reject the product and seek alternatives. So the burden of proving that something is adversely affecting our planet or society rests firmly on the shoulders of the population at large, not the company.

Current cycle for response to new products with negative social or environmental impact. This timeline normally takes 10-20 years.
Current cycle for response to new products with negative social or environmental impact. This timeline normally takes 10-20 years.
If vigilant users post reviews expressing their concerns then this cycle can be cut short at step 2. Word spreads quickly through reviews; and the company will respond quickly by withdrawing or changing the product if sales revenue does not meet their targets.

Of course, a company rep will tell you that they have to meet very strict environmental and safety regulations with any new products or formulations. Well, it doesn’t look like anyone tested whether microbeads can evade the filtration systems in wastewater plants and end up in our lakes and oceans. You would think someone would have thought of this. Or that someone at the company might have objected to the idea of adding plastic to toothpaste when it’s completely unnecessary.

I was going to imagine the scenario of P&G product managers and market researchers briefing their seniors at on “Project Sparkle” where they plan to jazz up their toothpaste with little colored plastic balls. But (as hilarious as this vignette was going to be) we need to take a step back from this way of thinking. It’s easy to smugly point the finger at the corporations. I’m not saying that the senior managers at these companies are not responsible – they are. But they are also part of a system, quite likely doing a job that’s quite far away from their childhood or even college-age dreams, probably making compromises in their ethics in order to pay the bills. (George Monbiot says this more eloquently in his advice to recent college grads).

“Oh, boo-hoo,” I hear you cry… and yes, perhaps it is hard to feel sorry for them and their 6-figure salaries. But in other ways (when we’re feeling sanctimonious) we might feel sorry for the people who compromise their ethics in return for a fat paycheck. However, aside from the company execs who introduced the idea, the focus groups apparently liked it and then lots of people went out and bought it. So society at large doesn’t appear to be free of blame.

So, if we think about a way out of this recurring cycle of events, finger-pointing does not constitute a long-term solution – that is merely our ego’s way of making us feel superior in some way. Morpheus would say that “there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path” and assigning blame only covers the first part (that’s right – I’m quoting Morpheus). To walk the path, or to “be the change that you wish to see in the world” as Gandhi might have said (perhaps he didn’t literally say this but that’s not important right now) is quite simple really.

In this case, just avoid microbeads and in general be vigilant about the products you buy. Product reviews (on Amazon and other sites) that pointed out that polyethylene (plastic) is not an appropriate ingredient in toothpaste or facial scrubs have received a very positive response. Without significant sales revenue, a new product will not take off – it’s as simple as that. And consumers have the liberty to decide that if they’re just not comfortable with a particular process or ingredient they can simply not buy it (without any burden of proof or justification).

You can find various lists of products that contain microbeads online (here and here; they are not exhaustive) and also just avoid toothpaste or cosmetics that contain the ingredient polyethylene. There are several good brands of toothpaste that are socially and environmentally responsible –  I’ve posted reviews (here and here) for two of them that received high gold and green star ratings. I haven’t reviewed any exfoliants, so please post a comment if you’d like me to review a particular product, or better again, share a review that you’ve written. After all, the whole point of this site is to encourage you to write green star reviews!

Sociopathy and Kindness (part two)

In part one, I took a look at Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door which examines the prevalence of sociopaths who, unhampered by consciences, may rise to positions of power at the expense of others. Milgram’s experiments on obedience together with studies on the psychology of killing during warfare show that most of us will obey authority, even when this goes against our better judgement, our conscience.

So, in the context of a company that profits through exploitation of people or the planet we tend to believe/hope that they are not really causing harm because: (1) we wouldn’t, and (2) we are conditioned to obey authority and not question the situation. The solution is to learn to no longer accept authority (which is happening for some) and to share information on corporate impacts, both positive and negative. Practical solutions that translate into concrete actions are often the best way of dealing with seemingly overwhelming problems, i.e. we need to know what are the best (and worst) options when we want to purchase anything from a bar of chocolate to a phone to laundry detergent, etc.

But how motivated are we to care?

The second book, On Kindness, by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor (2009, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) examines the history of our behavior as a society when it comes to caring about the welfare of others. Kindness here is considered in the broad sense, meaning compassion, empathy, humanity, altruism, or as the Victorians called it, “open-heartedness.” I think it’s natural to ask the question: How much do we, as a society, care about each other these days? When I say “each other,” I’m including the people we come in contact with and those far away that we’ll never meet; our habitat; our fellow animals; and the fate of the planet as a whole.

The book investigates why the idea has come about that “as a species—apparently unlike any other species of animal—we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other, that our motives are utterly self-seeking, and that our sympathies are a form of self-protection.”

The authors mention studies on “what makes people happy” which show that kindness registers much higher on the happiness scale than self-focused behavior. This has become a fairly popular topic these days – a good example is Happy (2011), a documentary on happiness that looks at cases where interdependence and sharing has improved the quality of people’s lives and their happiness level. Here’s the director, Roko Belic, talking about community life in Okinawa, and here’s a clip on the problems of emphasizing extrinsic rather than intrinsic values.

“We mutually belong to one another,” the philosopher Alan Ryan writes, and the good life is one “that reflects this truth.” Today this truth has gone underground. Independence and self-reliance are now the great aspirations; “mutual belonging” is feared and unspoken; it has become one of the greatest taboos of our society. Why?

The German critic Theodor Adorno “suggested that even though our alienation, our distance from other people, may make us feel sage, it also makes us sorry, as though loneliness is the inevitable cost of looking after ourselves.”

A large part of the book focuses on the history of our attitude towards kindness (/compassion/empathy, etc.), starting in classical times. The Stoics (not an indie band – you might be thinking of The Strokes) considered kindness to others to be an extension of self-love, radiating outward from the family circle to local community and then humanity at large.

Stoics were aescetics: the pleasures they endorsed were not appetitive or sensual but “soul states” that enhanced the goodness of the individual by bringing him into harmony with the oneness of nature. The naturalness of kindness, its roots in early childhood affections, made it a font of happiness that “expands the soul.”

Cicero argued that warm friendships extended throughout human society, and warned that people who cared more for their fellow citizens than for foreigners threatened to “rend apart the fellowship that unites mankind.”

Cicero, who brought stoicism to Rome
Cicero, who brought stoicism to Rome. (Also notable for having the lower body of a chess piece)

I agree with this and believe that it’s one of the great hurdles that we face if we want to make a harmonious global society. From a consumer point of view, there’s almost certainly a lower barrier to accepting slavery, child labor, poor working conditions, environmental destruction, etc., if it takes place in a different country.

The authors of On Kindness suggest that the Christian-era association of kindness with self-sacrifice was a miss-step in thinking, since it removed the aspect of personal joy and the idea that it expanded the soul. Perhaps this association of kindness with self-sacrifice is one of the reasons why it has come under such fire over the last 500 years.

Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651)—the urtext of the new individualism—dismissed Christian kindness as a psychological absurdity. Men, Hobbes insisted, were selfish beasts who cared about nothing but their own well-being.

Hobbes considered human existence as dog-eat-dog, or a “struggle of each against all.” Over the next century, there were several major works that disagreed with Hobbes’s sentiment, David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) and Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). In the former, Hume compared the transmission of feelings between people to the vibration of violin strings, with each individual resonating with the pains and pleasures of others as if they were his own. Smith, widely considered the father of modern economy for his treatise on the benefits of a free-market, describes it as follows: “We become in some measure the same person… this is the source of our fellow feeling.”

Smith’s book was followed closely by Rousseau’s most famous work, Emile or On Education (1762), which imagines a boy educated to follow his natural inclinations rather than social conventions. Rousseau disagreed with his predecessor, John Locke, on the inherent nature of children.

“We see Children,” Locke wrote, “as soon almost as they are born, cry, grow peevish, sullen, out of humour, for nothing but to have their wills.” In Emile, Rousseau sharply criticized this description, arguing that the egoism Locke attributed to children was not natural but socially induced. Children are “naturally inclined to benevolence,” but society thwarts this innate disposition, replacing it with competitive egoism.

Less than forty years later, things changed radically when we were introduced to the idea of uncontrolled population growth by Malthus, a concept that is still widely taught in schools and universities.

In 1798, as the [French] revolution moved towards its close, the political economist Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population, one of the most influential texts of Western modernity. Malthus was determined to show that any society governed by benevolist principles was doomed to poverty and misery. Human beings procreate as fast as their income permits, he argued. Therefore, any attempt to improve the general condition of society was demographically doomed.

Just prior to this, in the middle of the decade-long revolution, France was “dechristianized” and briefly replaced by the cult of reason, culminating in a celebration of the goddess “Reason” in the Notre Dame cathedral in 1793. When Malthus released his essay a few years later perhaps the time was ripe for purely rational view of humanity’s path, somewhat free of the, albeit flawed, version of compassion that the church had nurtured. In any case, Malthus’s thesis that the human population will grow as fast as it is it can until eventually growth is limited by availability of resources (food, water, land) has influenced our thinking greatly since then.

Thus, by the opening of the nineteenth century, the long quarrel between kindness and egoism had begun to turn decisively in egoism’s favor. Nietzsche wrote in The Genealogy of Morals (1887) that he “regarded the inexorable progress of the morality of compassion which afflicted even the philosophers with its illness, as the most sinister development of our European culture.”

Malthusian political economy, the Thatcherism of its day, was a particular bête noire of the benevolists, condemned for its mechanical approach to human affairs and its ruthless attitude to the poor and vulnerable.

“Poor-peopling,” as Florence Nightingale dubbed women’s philanthropic labors in slum neighborhoods, began to fall from fashion, and many welcomed its passing, looking instead to trade unions and governments to eradicate poverty rather than softening it.

It’s interesting that Robert Reich (for example, in the 2013 documentary, Inequality for All ) cites the decline of trade unions in the 1970s, helped by Reagan in the US and Thatcher in the UK, as a major factor in the opening up of the wealth gap between the 1% and the 99%. The fact is that we can’t separate the people in power from the rest of us—whatever trends we adopt as societal norms will pervade us all, it’s not possible to assign such a core, inherently human trait such as kindness and social responsibility to those in power so that the rest of us can abdicate responsibility.

Phillips and Taylor go on to cite the program for voluntary blood donation to the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK as a case in point.

Richard Titmuss, one of the NHS’s most influential champions, described as the universal human impulse to “help strangers.” Why should anyone care whether a person entirely unknown to them gets the health care he or she needs?” He published a famous study on the motivation behind blood donors (The Gift Relationship).

People, according to Titmuss, were simply enacting a “fundamental truth” of human existence, that “to love oneself, one must love strangers.”

The good society was one that built on this truth, creating welfare systems based on the recognition that all people are dependent creatures, needing each other for support and comfort. A bad society was one that, in the name of freedom and independence, denied people the “right to give.”

The private market is profoundly coercive, he argued, forcing people into situations that thwart their natural altruism.

To digress for a moment; last year I was at a meeting where a senior officer of a large (and controversial) agrochemical company gave a talk which he introduced with a statistic that new projection for the human population just came in from the U.N., and it looked like we’d be at 8 billion by 2020 (or something like that). His concern then quickly changed to a kind of somber relish as he told everybody we must use their products or we’re all screwed.

This is not far from the Malthus rationale: we have to continue the way we are going with destructive agricultural practices at the expense of the planet in order to support the growing population. The irony is that our reckless way of life is probably going to curb our population growth: insecticides that wipe out essential pollinators like bees; endocrine disruptors reducing human fertility; monoculture food crops that could be wiped out by a single virus or pest; and climate change taking care of the rest.

There are parallels between the scare-tactics used by some corporations and the post-9/11 anti-terror propaganda (for example, see Martha Stout’s analysis of George W. Bush’s “paranoia war”). The point being that fear mongering is a very common approach used when companies or organizations want to manipulate you (just think of advertisements for household disinfectants where the baby is in mortal danger of being consumed by germs), and population growth is a very convenient excuse for bad behavior.

There’s no denying that the global population has increased for centuries, but the rate of population increase has peaked in the 1960’s at 2.2% and is now only half that (1.1% in 2012). Therefore, some models predict that the global population in 2100 will actually be 6.2 billion, lower than the current number. It’s also relevant that population growth is generally faster in developing countries (e.g. Ethiopia and Indonesia) than affluent countries (e.g. Germany and Japan where growth is zero or negative), suggesting that Malthus’s reasoning that we should not help the poor or hungry is not even rational from a strictly population control point of view. In agreement with this sentiment, the U.N.’s main recommendation is to increase funding to family planning programs, particularly in developing countries.

Malthusian Limits. Population growth may play a large role in the rise of individualism and competitiveness. The graph shows projections of the world population according to different scenarios (U.N., 2010). However, research at the Autonomous University of Madrid (2013) predicts that our population in 2100 will actually be lower than today, in agreement with the “low fertility variant” above.
Malthusian Limits. Population growth may play a large role in the rise of individualism and competitiveness. The graph shows projections of the world population according to different scenarios (U.N., 2010). However, research at the Autonomous University of Madrid (2013) predicts that our population in 2100 will actually be lower than today, in agreement with the “low fertility variant” above.

Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to kindness, in Phillips and Taylor’s view, can best be summed up as follows:

Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable.

Everybody is vulnerable at every stage of their lives; everybody is subject to illness, accident, personal tragedy, political and economic reality. Bearing other people’s vulnerability, which means sharing it imaginatively and practically… entails being able to bear one’s own.

We are still heavily influenced by Malthus’s views on population growth, but the fact that there are more of us on the planet now than ever before shouldn’t be an excuse for maintaining Hobbes’s 350-year-old philosophy of dog-eat-dog. In fact, that way of life is almost certainly not the path to saving our society and our planet, and it’s most definitely not the path to expanding our souls.