Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A genuine imitation

I have never understood the appeal of fake fur. Most people in civilized society--including, perhaps, those who shop at Neiman Marcus--do not need the warmth of fur, or can get the same warmth evisceration-free, from sources that do not squeal or bleed through the production process. It is with good reason that, for anyone who cares deeply or even marginally about unnecessary animal suffering, fur should symbolize not only decadence or wealth but human willingness to tread heavily on the earth.

So I have never understood the desire to achieve the look of being selfishly comfortable at the expense of other life forms, without actually flaying anything to get that look. Now, it turns out that even fake fur comes at a heavy price.

A series of recent investigations have uncovered widespread mislabeling of fur sources at a variety of clothing retailers. The latest report tested 25 coats that were labeled fake and found real fur in 24 of them. And not just fur, but dog fur. While I'm not thrilled about fur of any kind, it is certainly most disturbing to imagine the family dog being skinned alive to trim your hoodie. As high end retailers scramble to deflect blame and avoid fines by pulling the fake fake fur from their floors, it seems that the only way to be sure you are not wearing Spot is to avoid fur of all kinds.

What to do when a child doesn't fit in

Another entry from the annals of government parenting by proxy. A mother in England is facing the possibility of losing custody of her son if he doesn't lose weight.

The boy is 8 years old and 218 pounds, making him three times the average weight for a child his age. His weight makes him prone to a number of health problems, and already he is unable to take part in certain school activities and stays home from school frequently due to weight-related illness. His mother seems to feel helpless to stop the boy's eating. She says he eats three times what is normal for his age, complains if he doesn't get as much to eat as he wants, and will steal and sneak food.

Health services says taking custody of the child would be the worst-case, last resort scenario, but that it is a possibility. They cite evidence that the boy's weight is a health risk. They say they have tried to intervene, but that the boy and his family have missed appointments. They say allowing the boy to continue to eat and grow the way he has would amount to child abuse and neglect.

Since becoming a parent myself, I often bristle at the thought of government authorities reigning over my parenting practices. All too often, it seems the authorities meddle in parenting choices they simply disagree with. In Texas, a one-year-old child and his older brother were taken from their mother in 2002 and kept in foster care for several months after their parents tried to develop photos of the younger child nursing. Authorities called nursing an 18-month-old "performance of a sexual act", demonstrating a tragic misunderstanding of shifting societal norms. Although the norm in the United States may now be to nurse for mere weeks or months, until formula became an accepted and a relatively acceptable substitute for breast milk, nursing for several years was as normal in the United States as a whole as it still is among a subculture of mothers in this country and in many other parts of the world. Health practitioners widely endorse nursing into the preschool years. Researchers are now even urging HIV-positive mothers in Botswana to nurse, considering the risk of transmission to children less than their risk of contracting a deadly gastrointestinal illness from the water in formula. The standard WHO recommendation is for a minimum of two years of nursing for all mothers. The idea that a young, nursing child could be taken from his mother because authorities do not understand a relatively normal parenting practice is deeply disturbing.

Of course, lines may be reasonably drawn in different places in different societies. In the United States, we agree that a certain level of physical punishment is unacceptable and that parents who cross the line can lose custody of their children. We agree that children under a certain age are unable to consent to be married or to have sex. Though children of the same age in other times and places might already have families of their own, and though these children might be perfectly fine and happy within their time and place, it is basically good that we set socially agreed-upon standards. We do this out of concern for the mental and physical health and well-being of the child, and out of an understanding for what is acceptable for the majority of people who live here and now. We must also, however, remember that current standards are relative and fluid, and that there is a large grey area at their boundaries.

In the case of the overweight child, concern for the child seems to stem from a growing obsession with healthy eating practices, and frustration with a child and parent who haven't jumped on the bandwagon. This particular child's weight problem is extreme, and there are valid concerns at the heart of health service intervention. But though I think the case of the 218 pound 8-year-old is tragically close to the line, I don't think it has crossed into custody-rights territory, and hope extreme government interference does not become typical in such cases.

The main concern in this case is that the boy's lifestyle choices are dangerous to his current and long term health, and that his mother is enabling unhealthy choices. I agree. Let me be clear that I feel sad for this boy, and hope he and his mother will make some changes. The boy seems unhappy and unhealthy, and my heart goes out to him. I feel frustrated by the parenting choices his mother is making, and feel she has a responsibility to help him maintain his health.

But I don't see the risks here as objectively much worse than those taken, for example, by children whose parents allow them to be involved in extreme or Olympic-level sports. Young figure-skaters, for example, are at risk for incuring severe injuries during practice and for severe chronic pain in later life, as well as for crippling conditions such as early onset osteoporosis, not to mention the effects of emotional stress during competition. Yes, the young boy in this case is unhealthy now, and may develop serious conditions such as diabetes and heart problems if he doesn't lose weight. But our willingness to accept certain health risks while deploring others stems from the value we place on athleticism, strength, and being thin at all costs, and the apathy and even disgust we feel towards people who lack those qualities.

Does the possibility of fame, fortune, and a crowd full of fawning fans really make calculated health risks acceptable for child athletes, while our recent societal obsession with "healthful" eating means a boy whose health is at risk because he is eats too much could be taken away from his home, mother and sister? Beyond expressing their disapproval and encouraging changes in behavior, how far should the government go to intervene here?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


On Saturday, from Russian President Vladimir Putin's mouth spewed a bilious critique of American global policy. While speaking at an international security conference, Putin accused America, basically, of provoking global instability while striving for political domination.

In response, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took a softer approach; as reported in the NY Times, Gates joked that "old spies have a habit of blunt speaking" and that Putin's speech "almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time." Gates dismissed the content of Putin's speech outright: “All of these characterizations belong in the past. The free world versus those behind the Iron Curtain. North versus South. East versus West, and I am told that some have even spoken in terms of ‘Old Europe’ versus ‘new.’ ”

But Gates--and the rest of us--should not be so fast to brush off Putin's words, or to underestimate the suspicion felt worldwide toward the U.S. government. In a recent survey, 68 percent of Germans agreed with Putin. Ignoring the opposition may work at the political level, but does nothing to quell broader fears of American arrogance and irresponsibility.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Fashion ecology

Here's a questionable benefit to poisoning one link on the food chain: the vultures of Nepal are getting their own restaurant. The daily daily special is diclofenac-free cow. Apparently, the vulture population in South Asia is threatened by the widespread (though illegal) use of the drug diclofenac to treat inflammation in cows. Drugged cow carcasses poison and kill vultures. The restaurant managers are attempting to boost the dwindling vulture population by collecting sick and dying cows that have never been treated with the drug. Once dead, the cows are presented for local vultures to snack on.

In unrelated news, a popular London restaurant is currently offering up free meals to models threatened with an unhealthy Body Mass Index. Minus-sized models can present an identification card with their clothing size on it to receive the grub. The restaurant is getting some good press for the program; whether they save any dwindling models is another matter. Skinny models may find eating to be so detrimental to their livelihood that offering the cow (or, if they prefer, "charter pie containing leeks, chicken, and bacon") for free may be insufficient incentive to fatten up.

In Madrid, a larger carrot is being dangled. Models there can now be denied runway access if their BMI drops into carrion territory. The policy was set after a rise in eating disorder-related death within the modelling community; recently 5 models were barred from appearing on the Madrid catwalk until they "fatten" up.

Though other fashion capitals are talking about adopting a similar policy, unhealthy body and body image has poisoned the water, and it could be some time before cultural obsession with the unnatural evaporates. In Spain, for example, plastic surgery, often with walk-in appointments and financing plans, is so common it was recently added to the monthly inflation equation.

(Sadder still is what is being dropped from the equation. Apparently money once spent on cloth, upholstery fabric, and most appliance repair has been diverted for the repair and maintainance of a certain corporeal aesthetic.)

But it is not just our wallets that are affected. A recent study highlights the deep inner reach of body image consciousness, and the detrimental effects negative self-image can have on our physical and emotional wellbeing. Dr. Lora Park, of the University of Buffalo, New York, developed the appearance-based rejection sensitivity (ARS) scale to measure "the extent to which people anxiously expect to be rejected by others based on their looks." People with a high score are those most likely to think of themselves as unattractive and to base their general self-worth on their appearance. In Park's study, a high ARS score predicted that subjects were also likely to be anxious, neurotic, insecure, and to not eat well.

These results are disturbing given the current push for heightened image consciousness. The question is whether kicking a few models off a catwalk will do for the general human population's body image what the diclofenac-free cafe has done for South Asia's vultures.

Update: GE's ecocon

GE is negotiating with the EPA to weaken proposed railroad locomotive smog control rules, the Wall Street Journal is reporting.

As a spokesperson for GE puts it, they are discussing with the EPA "how to achieve attainable and sustainable emission reductions"--a politic way of saying they are negotiating just how much money the EPA's reductions will cost them. The sticking point, it seems, is the technology that would have to be developed to meet the reductions guidelines, which would take effect between 2011 and 2017.

GE, you will recall from my previous post, is currently in the midst of its "ecoimagination" ad campaign, through which it is promoting its ecologically innovative technologies, and portraying itself as an ecofriendly company. The campaign itself, as I previously argued, misses its mark. Now it also seems GE is misplacing money to hype their ability to take salt out of ocean water while they haggle over their desire to lower locomotive emissions by six tenths of a gram less than the EPA would like in the next ten years.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fish out of water

GE has an underactive "ecomagination". In their new commercial, which is titled "fishing" and can be viewed at ecomagination.com, a fishing boat hauls a net overflowing with clear and fresh bottles of water from the ocean. The fishermen excitedly sort through their catch; one proudly displays an impressive four foot long bottle. A voiceover boasts that GE technology is turning saltwater into drinkable water.

The practice of making ocean water safe for human consumption is less ecological and innovative than it is disturbing. If there is a need for this technology it is because we are depleting and damaging our freshwater resources. GE's "ecomagination" campaign suggests we should solve a problem we have created not by learning from our mistakes but by stepping on as-yet untapped, undepleted, and less damaged resources. It suggests that if the water around us is disappearing or dirty, we should drink up and pollute away. GE will come to the rescue.

But beyond being troubled by the underlying message of the ad, I question the efficacy of the ad itself. If the "ecoimagination" campaign is meant to appeal to the eco-conscious, it is a sure misfire. Not only might GE's desalinization technology be unimpressive to this demographic, but the imagery used in the ad will likely evoke thoughts opposite those intended by the execs who conceptualized the ad.

For example, the ecologically aware tend to be concerned about the resources used in bottling water; seeing hundreds of plastic bottles hauled out of the ocean could bring to mind waste and environmental destruction rather than joyously clean and bountiful harvest. Furthermore, recent research suggests the ocean's fish supplies will largely disappear by the middle of this century at current fishing rates, so likening exploitation of the ocean's water to that of the ocean's fish is more likely to disturb than impress anyone who is thinking beyond what store their next Dasani will come from.

Less stuff, more birth control

A recent study (summarized here) concludes that the biggest contributors to our ecological footprint are population size and consumption.

The ecological footprint is a rough and somewhat abstract measurement of the impact humans individually and collectively have on Earth. It is, as defined in the aforementioned article, "a quantitative measurement of the stress placed on the environment by demands for available lands and resources to meet the need for food, housing, transportation, consumer goods and services." There is strong evidence that we are currently overstressing the planet by leaving an ecological footprint that is larger than the productive area of the poor overworked planet.

The study is rather optimistic, suggesting, for example, that it is within the realm of possibility that we will reach the Millineum Development Goals of the UN. I won't pretend to know what that means. But I will suggest that this news should not encourage us to sink comfortably into our SVUs and go about our Sunday shopping. Right now the U.S. has a footprint of 1.4, that is, 1.4 times the sustainable level. It is the country with the largest footprint, and though the study's authors do not expect that to be true in 2015, this is not because the U.S. is expected to dramatically reduce its footprint by then. Rather, China and India are expected to outpace the U.S., and to help bring our global footprint to 1.6. This is depressing. Even bringing our global footprint down to 1 means we would be using exactly the land and resources our environment can sustain. Meanwhile, the population grows and global warming reduces the amount of land we have to live on.

I am, however, encouraged by one aspect of the study: the two most significant contributors to our downward-spiraling global environmental dilemma are the two things we can each easily contribute less to on an individual level, by simply reducing our daily consumption and limiting our procreation.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A compact Superbowl?

We've been watching the Superbowl this afternoon/evening, and, as I often do when I watch big productions, I feel depressed by the enormity of resources used for each second of this thing. Personally, I wouldn't care that much about giving up the football (kind of like the Bears, apparently), but there are other big productions that I enjoy more, and they all take up so much time, energy, and material. So I've been sitting here thinking about what it would take to make the Superbowl compact-friendly. Used material for uniforms and costumes? Compostable food and packaging? A souvenir-exchange program? Native plant-based and drought-resistent turf? Ban all those commercials? Make the tickets cheapest and easiest to get for locals or people who will walk or bike or drive fuel-efficient cars to the game? I don't suppose those spotlights are CFLs?

Even as I watch Prince kick ass, I'm thinking, how many brightly-colored suits does a man need?

I'm only sort of kidding. There is something to be said for the importance of sports and the arts and all that, and I respect the time and energy people expend to do something well or make something beautiful and/or thought-provoking and/or entertaining. At what point, though, do the costs outweigh the intangible benefits? Is big necessarily bad?