Friday, September 13, 2013

America's Two Cultures

Back in 1992 when James Davison Hunter published Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law and Politics in America, he was careful to note that America was not really divided into two distinct cultural camps, but rather what he was writing about were culturally extreme minorities (the "orthodox" and the "progressive") at either end of the a continuum in which most Americans fell on a middle ground.

Several excellent pieces of sociological research, as well as personal observations, lead me to think that today's America is far closer to a "culture war" today. There is less middle ground and more polarization. Facebook has been a fertile ground for observing that culture war. Between my husband (also a sociologist) and myself, our combined Facebook circles encompass significant numbers of people on both sides of the culture war. 

One striking example of the differences between the two cultural camps are two quite different apocryphal stories (below) currently circulating on Facebook. Both have been posted by people on my personal Friends list (with well known political and cultural biases) in 2013. The persons circulating these stories appear to believe them to be true stories.  However, a quick search of debunking websites such as TrueorFalse and Snopes make it clear that both stories are considered fiction or hoax.  There is no basis in a fact (no recorded incidents) for the conservative version of the story on the right below. The progressive version of the story on the left below is a variation of a story that has been circulating on the Internet since 1998. The original 1998 version places the incident on a British Airways flight out of Johannesburg and may possibly, but not necessarily, be based in fact. But the current version presented as a contemporary story in the United States is fiction.

Liberal Apocryphal Story
Conservative Apocryphal Story
A 50-something year old white woman arrived at her seat and saw that the passenger next to her was a black man. Visibly furious, she called the air hostess. "What's the problem, ma?" the hostess asked her "Can't you see?" the lady said - "I was given a seat next to a black man. I can't seat here next to him. You have to change my seat" "Please, calm down, ma" - said the hostess "Unfortunately, all the seats are occupied, but I'm still going to check if we have any." The hostess left and returned some minutes later. "Madam, as I told you, there isn't any empty seat in this class - economy class. But I spoke to the captain and he confirmed that there isn't any empty seats in the economy class. We only have seats in the first class." And before the woman said anything, the hostess continued "Look, it is unusual for our company to allow a passenger from the economy class change to the first class. However, given the circumstances, the commandant thinks that it would be a scandal to make a passenger travel sat next to an unpleasant person." And turning to the black man, the hostess said: "Which means, Sir, if you would be so nice to pack your handbag, we have reserved you a seat in the first class..." And all the passengers nearby, who were shocked to see the scene started applauding, some standing on their feet. SHARE IF YOU ARE AGAINST RACISM A 50-something year old Muslim man arrived at his seat on a crowded flight and immediately didn't want the seat. The seat was next to an elderly white woman reading her Bible. Disgusted, the man said, "I cannot sit here next to this infidel!" then summoned the flight attendant, demanding a new seat. The flight attendant responded, "Let me see if I can find another seat. "After checking, the flight attendant returned and stated "There are no more seats in economy, but I will check with the captain and see if there is something in first class. "The flight attendant returned, stating "The captain has confirmed that there are no more seats in economy, however there is one in first class. It is our company policy to never move a person from economy to first class, but being that it would be some sort of scandal to force a person to sit next to an UNPLEASANT person, the captain agreed to make the switch to first class." Before the irate Muslim man could say anything, the attendant gestured to the elderly woman and said, "Therefore, m'am, if you would so kindly retrieve your personal items, we would like to move you to the comfort of first class as the captain doesn't want you to sit next to an unpleasant person." Passengers in the seats nearby began to applaud while some gave a standing ovation. I say, can I get an Amen to that!

The two stories share the same structure. As a liberal social scientist I see them as carrying quite different messages.  From my perspective the story on the left decries racism, while the story on the right reinforces negative religious stereotypes.  However, as a sociologist I am also fully aware that the conservative friends would most likely interpret the meaning of the two stories quite differently. Conservative friends would be likely to say that the story on the left reinforces negative racial stereotypes (all elderly white people are racists), while the story on the right decries obvious religious bigotry on the part of Muslims. 

The two cultures in America not only tell different stories, but we interpret each other's stories in very different ways.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Alternatives to "Zombie America"

I was asked to come up with some additional material for the chapter of a textbook that I've been writing. The chapter is for an introductory sociology textbook and concerns the relationship between societies and their environments. This is something of a first in sociology; up until now the environment has been either ignored or given a few sections under some other topic (such as population or social change).
Sociology, unlike it's sister discipline anthropology, has not until recently paid much attention to how the environment affects culture and society.

I was so pessimistic in my last post, that I wanted to provide a little balance, particularly because I found the books I read for this additional material so interesting (list of references at bottom of post).  So here is the additional material written over the past week:
Where does this leave us? On the one hand, as long as our world economies are organized as they currently are failure to grow will have devastating economic and social consequences; on the other hand industrialization and economic growth have brought us to the point where the human ecological footprint has exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth. Are we doomed to either slide into economic recession with increasing unemployment and poverty while we protect the environment, or to prosper economically while we destroy our environment? No, we are not so doomed. The choice between economic growth and environmental sustainability is a false dichotomy. 
A growing number of environmentally aware economists (Daley and Farley 2003, Dietz and O’Neill 2013, Heinberg 2011) point out a crucial flaw in the economic growth versus environmental sustainability choice. That flaw is that environmental problems such as global warming, food and water scarcity, and the depletion of non-renewable resources like oil are fundamental roadblocks to economic growth. If human societies do not address the environmental problems we will have no choice at all, economic growth will grind to a halt because of intrinsic limits imposed by the natural environment. 
This is not a new idea; it was first systematically put forth in the classic The Limits to Growth a research study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists commissioned by the Club of Rome in 1972 (Meadows, Rander and Meadows 2004).  The conclusions of this study have been reinforced by careful analysis of the actual environmental and economic trends of the intervening forty years (Daley and Farley 2003, Dietz and O’Neill 2013, Heinberg 2011, Meadows, Randers and Meadows 2004). If the world’s nations persist in pursuing the goal of economic growth, the result will be both environmental destruction and the failure of economic growth. Once environmental limits bring economic growth to a halt, the economic system would most likely crash in catastrophic fashion (Heinberg 2011). 
This is not necessarily the doomsday scenario it might seem at first. Most people are “pro-” economic growth because they assume that prosperity and economic well-being are dependent upon economic growth. Using detailed social and economic data environmentally savvy economists have demonstrated that economic growth is not necessarily equated with economic prosperity and security, and that the increasing size of economies undermines the prosperity of the average person (Daley and Farley 2003, Dietz and O’Neill 2013, Heinberg 2011). 
Economic growth is a matter of size, of quantity not quality and is generally measured by the expansion of the gross domestic product of a nation (GDP).  Growth is about more but not always about better. GDP increases when we drill and sell more oil, but it also increases when we spend millions of dollars on cleaning up oil spills. If the number of people smoking decreases and sales of cigarettes fall then GDP goes down, while if the number of cancer cases increases and we spend more money as a society treating cancer patients than GDP goes up.
Measures of economic growth also pay no attention to how wealth and income are distributed (Heinberg 2011). Between 1975 and 2012 the Gross Domestic Product of the United States increased nearly nine times (from 1.8 trillion to 15.7 trillion). During that same period the amount of income and wealth inequality increased with the gap between the top wealthiest individuals and everyone else growing substantially. Median wages and household incomes in the United States stagnated and fell – even as corporate profits and gross domestic product rose (Packer 2013). There were other qualitative declines in standards of living in the United States that were not included in measures of economic growth: the percent of the workforce holding part-time and temporary jobs increased, as the percent receiving health care, sick leave, retirement and other benefits declined (Packer 2013). The conclusion: economic growth has not translated into economic prosperity or security for increasing numbers of people both in the United States and elsewhere. 
There is an alternative one that promises both economic prosperity and security and environmental sustainability. The alternative is the steady-state economy which maintains a stable level of resource consumption and a stable population, while providing sufficient resources for the sustenance and satisfaction of people. The goal of a steady-state economy is improving quality of life within ecological limits. 
What would a steady-state economy look like? The first defining characteristic of a steady-state economy is environmental sustainability. There would be strict limits on the use of materials and energy, and on the production of waste materials (Heinberg 2011). Built environments – roads, bridges, housing, factories – could not expand into new land; existing agricultural and natural lands (whether forests or deserts) would be protected from encroachment. Environmental sustainability includes an overall reduction in the scale of economies with a shift from far-flung global supply lines to localized production and exchange of both food and manufactured goods (Dietz and O’Neill 2013). Stabilization of world population numbers would be an essential element of environmental sustainability (Assadourian and Prugh 2013). In a steady-state economy humans create sustainable environments in which natural ecosystems and human development are blended to design healthy communities, economies, and ecosystems over the long term. 
The second defining characteristic of a steady-state economy is fair and equitable distribution of resources: food, housing, employment, health care, transportation, leisure time, educational opportunity and economic security (Daley and Farley 2003). Everyone would have access to meaningful jobs and full employment would be the norm (Dietz and O’Neill 2013). Fair distribution of resources would apply within and across societies and across generations (McDonough and Braungart 2013). The result is a world in which everyone is prosperous and extremes of wealth and poverty are muted. 
A steady-state economy is one in which the quality of life is measurably enhanced. People are healthier with fewer of the diseases of poverty (cholera, dysentery) and those of affluence (obesity, heart disease). They work less, have more leisure with time for creativity and hobbies, time to spend with family and engaged in their local community (Heinberg 2011, Dietz and O’Neill 2013). 
How is a steady-state economy achieved? The title of this section of your text suggests that the alternative to “growth” is “restraint,” but restraint is not how one completely transforms the world’s economies to avoid environmental and economic disaster. The project of creating steady-state, environmentally sustainable before environmental problems such as global warming and resource depletion become irreversible requires a mobilization effort similar to the one that helped the United States ready for war in 1942 (Assadourian and Prugh 2013). Major transformation of economic, political and social institutions and a substantive shift in individual and societal values is required. 
There will remain a role for markets in a steady-state economy, but markets must be balanced by the state and civil society (Dietz and O’Neill). The current ruler for market success is profit alone, which must be replaced by a triple metric in which people and the planet are placed in line ahead of profit (McDonough and Braungart 2013). New priorities that focus on long term outcomes measured in terms of sustainability, equity, employment and quality of life, rather than simply profit will have to be set for economies, and only governments can do that (Daley and Farley 2003, Heinberg 2011). But governments can only set new priorities if the people who elect and support them develop new, sustainable rather than growth oriented values. 
How do you, the student, meet this challenge?  The first thing is education. Understand why growth is problematic not only for a sustainable environment, but also for a sustainable society and human quality of life. Learn what it takes for a sustainable environment and a steady-state economy.  A good place to start is the books such as those cited in this section including: Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources by Robert Dietz and Daniel W. O’Neill (2013); The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality by Richard Heinberg (2011); State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? organized by Erik Assadourian and Tom Prugh for World Watch (2013); and The UpCycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2013). 
Finally it is important to use your knowledge by becoming involved with local and national organizations that promote change. Every geographic locality has a variety of local groups that concern themselves with sustainable development. The numbers are so great and the types of organizations so varied that one cannot even begin to list them.  You can begin by searching on the internet for both local and national groups using search terms like: sustainable communities, Transition, permaculture, renewable energy, and appropriate technology (Heinberg 2011). You can also talk to others around you—fellow students, instructors, neighbors, local government leaders—to find people who share concerns about the environment and the need for sustainable development.

Assadourian, Erik and Tom Prugh, Project Directors. 2013. State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? Washington, DC: Island Press. 
Daley, Herman and Joshua Farley. 2003. Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. Washington, DC: Island Press. 
Dietz, Robert and Daniel W. O’Neill. 2013. Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 
Heinberg, Richard. 2011. The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers. 
McDonough, William and Michael Braungart. 2013. The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance. New York, NY: North Point Press, Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 
Meadows, Donella, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. 2004. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company. 
Packer, George., 2013. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. London, England: Farrar, Staus and Giroux.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Zombie America - Installment 4

A year and a half ago, as I was thinking about the state of things economic, political and environmental in this country, the phrase "zombie America" popped into my head. What is a zombie? The original use of the word is for a dead body, devoid of real life and soul, that is reanimated and caused to walk around by witchcraft or dark magic. In the ever popular science fiction of recent years, the concept of zombie has evolved to mean a person who has as the result of infection or exposure to unspecified substances been robbed of their humanity - of their personality, intelligence, soul and will - and transformed to a monster that kills and feeds on uninfected humans (especially their brains). Those that are not killed also infected and become themselves zombies.

Zombies are variously referred to as the "undead" and the "walking dead," phrases that I think can be applied to American economy, politics and society at large. The nation is still lurching and weaving about, animated but no longer truly alive, dead (or dying) but because still animated, so that many observers still imagine it to have life. Pretty pessimistic stuff, right? 

Personally, right now, this week, this month, this past year, my life is pretty great. I have a job I really like (most of the time), enough income for current needs, and few debts (just my house). Since I have tenure I'm unlikely to lose my job any time soon, and I'm over 62 and not far from full-retirement age with (I hope) adequate retirement savings. So unless the entire U.S. economy and government break down completely, and civil disorder and anarchy overtake us I'm in pretty good shape personally.  The problem is that as a sociologist, I believe that such a break down with ensuing disorder and anarchy due to environmental problems, the inherent contradictions of capitalism and the cultural/political divisions of U.S. society, will occur before I die - or alternatively, attempts at repressive totalitarianism to maintain order will prevail in places for a while (think NBC TV's "Revolution") as an attempt (futile in the long run) to contain disorder.  

Most of the time I function happily and contentedly within my personal present. I enjoy the lovely woods and hills that surround my home, I enjoy my conversations with my husband, playing with my dogs and cats, interactions with friends, television and novels, and artistic activities. But, ugly reality intrudes through news stories, articles friends link on Facebook, and most of all through my work as a sociologist. Because it is my job to teach students about society and the environment, about social problems and about inequality. 

I do learn or discover many positive things as I do the research necessary to be an good instructor in these fields or just simply in interacting with the world. There are whole states, whole communities taking wonderful positive actions. There are many non-profit organizations and even more individuals engaging in positive actions towards an environmentally, economically, and politically sustainable future. Occasionally there are even political decisions at the national level that are positive (two from the Supreme Court in just the last few days - striking down the right of private companies to patent naturally occurring human genes, and striking down Arizona's discriminatory citizen test for voter registration). But the bad stuff just keeps coming as large corporations seem to be able to do whatever they please to make the profits they crave regardless of their human and environmental consequences. The rich get richer and the rest of us (not just the poor) and the earth get poorer, more beaten down and more broken. The good things seem like band aids placed here and there on a body gone septic throughout with drug-resistant infections. 

The sad thing is that in an absolute there are solutions. The problems with our economy, our political system and our environment are not written in stone. These are all humanly created institutions and they can be changed.  There are other countries that have made changes or are making changes that could cushion them from the worst of the fall-out from the United States spiral into chaos. But as a society we do not have the political will to change, largely because a huge percentage of voters and their representatives refuse to see our institutions as humanly created capable of being modified or even ditched for something better, insisting instead that they are "God" given, unalterable, sacred institutions. 

But there is something horribly wrong, horribly broken with a society and an economy that has more empty houses than it has homeless people (, governors can sell off highways, colleges, prisons and other public resources rather than tax the rich (, and people in eastern Kentucky where I live think that the way to save their community is to bow down to everything the coal companies want, even if it is leveling the mountain behind their home. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Summer Weight Gain for Children

Ran across this article in our regional paper this morning: "Students get dumber and fatter during the summer."

While we probably can blame the decline in academic performance to being out of school, the increase in weight would probably occur in the summer regardless of whether school was in session or not.  Unlike the summers of my childhood in the 1950's, current summers are hotter (yes, climate change), and unlike the homes of my 50's childhood, most people's homes are cooler via the miracle of air conditioning, making outdoor play unappealing.  Unless you have a pool, the attractions of the sedentary indoor life are greater than those of the outdoors in today's summers.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Are We Heading for a New Minimum?

The Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis provide nearly real time (about a 24 hour delay) data on the extent of ice at the poles. After a winter of nearly "normal" (close to the 20 year mean of 1979-2000) ice extent, the spring melt began to pick up speed in May and early June, and the ice extent has already dropped well below the previous record minimum extent of 2007.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Modest Proposal for Arizona

Arizona House Bill 2625 will allow employers to reject insurance coverage for contraceptives for their employees if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 Monday to endorse SB 2625 which would allow Arizona employers the right to deny health insurance coverage for contraceptives based on religious objections. Arizona House Bill 2625, authored by Majority Whip Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, would permit employers to ask their employees for proof of medical prescription if they seek contraceptives for non-reproductive purposes, such as hormone control or acne treatment.
“I believe we live in America. We don’t live in the Soviet Union,” Lesko said. “So, government should not be telling the organizations or mom and pop employers to do something against their moral beliefs.”
I propose an amendment for Arizona’s SB 2625. I am not aware of any Christian religion that officially states that men can have sex outside of marriage and/or for non-reproductive purposes while women may not. [There are many religions that not only allow but encourage non-reproductive (marital) sex by both men and women]. In practice there may indeed be such a double standard – but that standard is not found in actual official Christian religious doctrines. Indeed, the Old Testament reference usually used to justify the anti-birth control position refers only to men and their “seed,” and not to women at all.

Therefore to more truly meet religious objections to non-reproductive sex both outside and inside marriage, I propose the following: Any employer who wishes to deny medical coverage to any woman engaging in non-reproductive sex on religious grounds, must also deny medical coverage to any man engaging in non-reproductive sex.

In order to qualify for health insurance coverage of Viagra or other anti-impotency drugs, a man must 1) be married, 2) to a woman who is medically certified to still able to bear children (has not passed menopause, not had a tubal ligation, a hysterectomy, and does not have any medical conditions that cause infertility), and 3) who does not use contraception; additionally, 4) the man must have medical certification that he does in fact suffer from impotence due to physical causes that are treatable by anti-impotency drugs such as Viagra.

No employer is required to deny men health insurance coverage for anti-impotence drugs, UNLESS they deny women health insurance coverage for birth control on religious grounds.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Zombie America - Installment 3

"Where's the work that'll
set my hands, my soul free,
Where's the spirit that'll
reign over me.
Where's the promise from
sea to shining sea,
Where's the promise from
sea to shining sea."
by Bruce Springsteen
"We Take Care of Our Own"
Wrecking Ball 2012.

What is "Zombie America"? It's an America that has lost its spirit, its promise. It's a nation that is a hollow shell of itself, walking around going through the motions, but the spirit has flown. Zombie America is a place that no longer dreams, that has drawn in upon itself, and is retreating into the past as fast as it can.

In the first installment in this series, I wrote about the derelict and demolished towns and urban landscapes of America and Europe. That destruction is powerfully evoked in Bruce Springsteen's "Death to My Home Town" on Wrecking Ball (2012). A destruction not wrought by cannon balls, or bombs, but silently and stealthy by "robber barons" and "greedy thieves."

The second installment spoke of the unpaving of the roads, the retreat of water and sewer systems.

Today I speak of another retreat, the retreat from commitment to universal phone service. Today, in Frankfort, Kentucky, the Senate Committee on on Economic Development, Tourism and Labor approved Senate Bill 12, a bill drafted by AT&T, that if passed by the full legislature would further diminish state regulation of the telephone companies and allow them to end basic phone service in less profitable parts of its service areas.  AT&T also has been pushing similar measures in other state capitals this year. [Read more here:]

From the 1890's to the 1960's, the push in America has been to extend basic phone service to more and more people. To that end both federal, state and local governments have provided tax breaks, grants, and subsidies to telephone companies to make sure that the poor and elderly could have the basic life-line of a phone in their homes. Kentucky's SB12 is the smoking gun of our retreat from basic services, and our retreat into the past. Should SB12 pass the Kentucky Senate and House, it represents the wholesale abandonment of the communicate needs of poor and rural (poor or affluent) people.
In January of 2011, during the period of time (nearly 2 weeks because of incompetence by AT&T) when my AT&T land line service was disconnected from my old house, but not yet connected to my new house, we were dependent upon alternative voice communication options. Cell phone communication would not work in either of our houses (old or new).  The only spot I could pick up a signal was in the middle of the road  by our house. So I stood outside in 15 degree weather in two feet of snow, making cell phone call after cell phone call. Luckily due to the 2 feet of snow, I didn't have to worry about some one running me down in the middle of the road. On more than one occasion, during long complicated calls, where I'd been shunted from one department to another my cell phone battery would go dead.  I'd have to stop, go back in the house, and warm up while my cell phone completely recharged.  Except for the one day that we also had a power outage (due to that 2 feet of snow), and then all I could do was sit in the snow bank and cry over my dead cell phone.

The thought that this might be our future here in the Kentucky mountains is overwhelmingly depressing. And it makes me wonder...The electric utility company constantly chafes at the expense of maintaining electric lines in the mountains, chafes at the high costs of restoring power after storms bring down trees and electric lines. How long before they too decide that they no longer want to be obligated to provide power to widely scattered rural residents? How long before we stop being a Zombie nation and simply become a dead one?