Monday, 29 December 2008

Modern Muckraker


Originally published in Pulse magazine, February 2005.

Palagummi Sainath reports from Hell. One of India’s most respected journalists, Sainath is one of the few reporters to cover the several hundred million poor farmers of that country—perhaps the poorest people in the world, a population greater than that of the entire United States.

With no formal training, he began reporting for the Times of India, receiving the news agency’s highest individual award. In 1993 he began writing about India’s poorest districts, describing for the newspaper’s upper-class readers the crushing poverty, lack of basic health care and mass suicides of the region. Public outrage over the series is credited with the Indian government’s creation or reformation of public services in the area, and his articles became a regular feature.

In a typical column, written in July 2004, Sainath described his visit to an area where many villagers were dying and unable to get health care, already in debt to the system’s exorbitant fees. One villager, Gunala Kumar, committed suicide rather than pay his medical debt, as his father had done the year before. One villager, named Janreddy, was dying and unable to get help until his previous health care bills were paid. His daughter was in enforced servitude until the debt of 500,000 rupees —about $11,500—was paid. He died a few hours after being interviewed.

Some of Sainath’s articles were published as a 1996 book, “Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts,” which chronicled Sainath’s journey across 100,000 miles of India, 5,000 of those on foot. The book became the world’s top non-fiction best-seller by an Indian author in 1997-98, according to his press release. It also won 13 awards, including the European Commission’s Journalism Award, and is being used as a teaching aid or textbook at over 100 universities worldwide.

After finding that government data on poverty in the region was sketchy, Sainath began a project in which newspaper journalists gathered and compiled information themselves and assembled the data into a “human poverty database,” according to various articles. The project also measures poverty more comprehensively than the government, according to Sainath’s biography on the Asoka Fellowship website.

Sainath became the first journalist to win Amnesty International’s Global Human Rights Journalism prize in 2000, as well as many other international awards, and was the subject of a 2001 documentary, “A Tribe of His Own: The Journalism of P. Sainath,” from Bullfrog Films. Ordfront publishing company included one of Sainath’s articles in the compilation “Best Reporting of the 20th Century,” putting him next to writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Studs Terkel and John Reed.

For 18 years he has taught journalism students, both in colleges and in the field. In articles and lectures he has harshly criticized the “McJournalism” of the elite media, urging his colleagues to instead get out among the people and focus on giving a voice to the voiceless. Many of the Sainath’s protégés have themselves gone on to win major national awards.

Sainath has been described by venerated Indian journalist Nikhil Chakravartty as “the conscience of the Indian nation,” by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen as “one of the world’s great experts on hunger and famine” and in various articles as “the bad boy of Indian journalism.”

KALLER: Talk to me about where you will be touring and what you hope to do [in the United States].

SAINATH: I will be visiting quite a few journalism schools here. I have taught journalism for 18 years, and I teach two very different groups of students—one group in classes at two universities, and the other by giving hands-on training in the field as rural stringers.

I’m rural affairs editor of the Hindu, a very large newspaper in the south of India, and I spend most of my year, say 270 days a year, in the countryside, in the villages. Because that’s my view of journalism, I stay with the people I write about. And I write about agriculture and deprivation among poor people. That’s what I write about. So like, say, if you took the last 250 days since I joined the Hindu, out of those 250 days I have spent about 210 to 215 in the field.

When I work in the field, I teach a different kind of journalism; I work with stringers who did not have any formal journalism school, just as I did not, and they are a very different kettle of fish than the students I teach in the formal institutions.

KALLER: How?

SAINATH: They have a totally different class perspective. The ones you would get in the universities generally belong to the upper class. And the stringers in the rural areas are from the rural middle class, a much, much lower strata of society.

They are very smart and very dynamic, but they have a lot of trouble negotiating issues like politics and law. But they are far more connected than the urban upper-class journalists to what’s really happening among the people. So when you are a working-class journalist in district X, you know what the hell is going on there, and you are plugged in to the politics of the region.

I learn a hell of a lot from hanging around with them. They are dynamite, they get into places most people from the outside cannot and, while I train them, they act as my network.

KALLER: It seems like much of your work has focused on writing about the worst areas in the world. What conclusions have you drawn from your reporting?

SAINATH: For my book (“Everybody Loves a Good Drought”) I chose the 10 poorest districts in India, which meant the poorest in the world. I look at poverty in terms of deprivation: a lot of old words have been forgotten these days, and one of them is exploitation.

Poverty is not a natural state. It is not a disease. It happens because of what human beings do to other human beings. It happens because of the corporate monopolies, because of the great number of resources in the hands of a few, because of the relationship between landowner and peasant, between the people who own the land and the people who work it. And it’s not something that will be solved by housing projects or by teaching people to sew baskets for tourists. A lot of the energy put into what is broadly being called “development” around the world consists of trying to find technological fixes for what are really political problems.

KALLER: What political changes would have to take place for there to make a real difference in the Third World?

SAINATH: Any political change would have to address the complete absence of resources among the poor. But far from doing that, worldwide the last 15 years has been the period of the fastest-growing inequality in history—worldwide, not just in India—resulting in the greatest inequality since the Great Depression. In India there has never been a greater period of inequality since the British Raj.

There are two reasons why this has happened. First, there has been a complete collapse of restraint on the power of corporations, and second the elites in most countries have captured most of the power. So if you wanted to do something about the massive poverty in India, for example, you would have to have some very far-reaching land reforms.

KALLER: When the mainstream media here talk about the changes that have happened in most of these Third World countries, it’s talked about as being a good thing —that these countries are “opening up,” that they are becoming more “free.” Inequality is rarely mentioned, and when it is it’s usually as the inevitable outgrowth of freedom.

SAINATH: It’s the same way they talk about India. It’s an old scam to conflate unrestrained markets with democracy. Singapore is a very free market. You will not find anyone on the planet who will describe it as a democracy. There is a free market in Iraq right now for Halliburton and other corporations, but not for Iraqis. How many Iraqis own anything there right now?

Take the gap between the richest fifth of the world and the poorest fifth. In the last 20 years, the gap between those groups more than doubled. In 1998, the top fifth consumed 86 percent of all goods and services. The bottom fifth had to make do with 1.3 percent.

It’s very simple—when you have gross inequality in any society, you do not have democracy. You cannot have democracy when a huge section of society’s best hope is to become the servants of another group. If you are absolutely poor and absolutely incapable, people stop treating you as a human being. You are a subspecies.

That is the natural consequence of the free market. Just look at that gap: the world’s wealthiest 200 people in the country more than doubled their net worth in the four years leading to the millennium. In four years, they more than doubled their net worth to $1 trillion. The wealth of the top three billionaires in the world is more than that of all the least developed countries in the world and their 600 million people put together.

Let me say that again: The wealth of the top three billionaires in the world is more than that of all the least developed countries in the world and their 600 million people put together.

KALLER: I sometimes wonder why people aren’t more outraged about that, and think perhaps the numbers are too big—we are just incapable of understanding it.

SAINATH: The numbers are huge, but there is also a choice whether we want to comprehend it or whether we want to evade those facts and feel better.

I’ll tell you a story. If you want to provide basic food, clean water and sanitation to everyone in the world who doesn’t have it, it would cost us about $40 billion a year. On the plane here I was reading USA Today, and their cover story was about people spending about $34 billion on the pet industry in this country alone. That includes buying beds with dressers for the dog, hip replacements for older dogs, low-carb diets for overweight dogs—all coming to about $34 billion. I think that’s obscene.

We want to find and solve the problem, but we don’t want to face the problem, even as it worsens. I’ve covered poverty most of my life and I’ve never seen the kind of wealth and poverty that I’ve seen in the last 10-15 years.

KALLER: What are some of the changes you have seen in the Indian countryside in that time?

SAINATH: The availability of food has fallen to World War II levels—in 2003, the amount of food available to the average Indian was less than it was during the Bengal famine in 1942. What misguides a lot of people is that, even if you are looking at India’s top 10 percent—as American correspondents always do—their lives are improving. And that 10 percent is not a small number—10 percent of India is half of the European Union. But if the top 10 percent is consuming fabulously more than ever before, and the overall cake is shrinking, it does raise the question, doesn’t it, what the heck are the bottom 90 percent eating?

So worldwide there is more wealth in the world than there has ever been, yet there is more poverty than ever. There is a really easy way to measure this. Just take the 13 years or so that the U.N. Human Development Report has existed. Look at the earliest reports of 1991, and look at the reports of 2003. You will find that, whatever has grown for the better, inequality grows. And that’s a look at 170-odd nations.

In the case of my own country, India, the more we were being praised the more we were sliding down their index. The concept of the market right now is the leading religious fundamentalism in the world right now. It’s a very religious idea—you will either be punished by God or by the market.

KALLER: Recently I spoke with American author Thomas Frank, who has made similar observations.

SAINATH: Yes, his book, “One Market Under God,” was brilliant. He got it exactly right.

KALLER: I noticed this in our own country, where people describe the economy only in terms of how the big corporations are doing. There is a business section, but the people section is about fashion and food, not the economy. I remember a few years ago an expert saying that the economy was doing great, it’s just that the people weren’t.

SAINATH: You’re right. The amazing achievement of the corporate media in the last 20 years has been to completely diverge how an economy is doing from how a people are doing.

And the people can be dying. In India since 1997, we’ve had tens of thousands of farmers commit suicide. I’ve written about some of them. How much of a success story can you be when your farmers are committing suicide? And yet the party goes on—there’s something very obscene about it.

In India now, we have something called the Sensex—the sensitive index of the Bombay stock exchange. It is watched with the fervor and passion of ancient religious cults watching for portents. The entire Indian economy is now being conflated with the Sensex. The total number of people having any money in the Sensex is 1.15 percent of households. That’s the figure of the Confederation of Indian Industry, which would be the most conservative figure. And how they are doing is supposed to be how India is doing.

Sixty-five percent of rural Indians don’t have a bank account. So when the media says that cell phone sales are booming in India, they are, but mainly among households that already have cell phones or land lines.

KALLER: I know lots of people in the anti-corporate movement, and it’s heartening to see things like the WTO protests in Seattle. But these ideas often seem stuck in a marginal subculture, a campus clique whose hobby is complaining about corporations. I don’t see many people explaining to the general public about how these issues affect them, or coming up with things people can do in their everyday lives to make the situation better.

SAINATH: I think there are a lot of things people can do in their everyday lives, and there are many people, including some Americans, already talking about that—just not being given much media attention. I also would not underestimate what happened in Seattle and elsewhere. I will also tell you that I think right now you are beginning to see the unraveling of the game.

The way the media and elite businessmen are talking about the market now is very different than how they were 10 years ago. You have people on the business pages saying that we shouldn’t exaggerate the power of the market, backing off from what they used to say, feeling the backlash.

There are right now very successful campaigns against corporations. To take one little example, take Venezuela. This is one tiny country with all the power of global corporations and the United States government attacking it, but people went out and elected the government they wanted. They fought back, and no one expected it—and then there was an attempted coup, and that failed. All over the world, there are similar agitations that you don’t read about because your media doesn’t publicize them.

Something similar happened in India, with a movement against Coca-Cola. Coke and Pepsi are draining farmers’ water in India, so that the farmers are dying. But you know that in parts of India, Coke now cannot put up a sign, because it will be firebombed?

KALLER: I reported a few months ago about one such protest in India that included a Minneapolis man, Jim Fasset-Garman —he acted as a liaison between the Indian march and sympathetic protesters in the United States. After he came back from India I met him at a house party for this cause, and I was a little disappointed to see so few people there. But then there could be many such gatherings going on, all over America, and it’s not like we would hear about them.

SAINATH: We should not go to the other extreme of not kidding ourselves—the power of corporations is greater than that of any power people have ever faced in recent times. The power of corporate media today was unimaginable prior to World War II. In the corporate media, you can sell the most horrifying things as normal and vilify the most normal things as obscene, and the sheer reach and power that the global media has really colors a lot of things.

I don’t believe there are a lack of protests, but that the protestors have been incoherent and isolated. But they keep going, and sometimes they work.

Right now in east India there are huge battles going on against mining companies, which having been kicked out of 20 or so other countries for obnoxious practices, who now turn to India because the government will accept them. They know they have perhaps 20 years to do their thing in a country before it becomes so polluted that their con game becomes clear and people rise up against them.

I don’t see any victories for us ahead, but remember that most great movements started as only two or three people. That’s how things always start.

And unexpected things happen that give us hope. In the last elections in India, in May 2004, all the media and experts predicted a sweeping victory to the ruling NDA coalition, led by our right-wing fundamentalist Hindu party. Every discussion on television was undertaken as though the election were over—it was only a question of who would get this or that government post.

The Western elite’s favorite journalist was a guy from my own state on Andashpuresh who was hailed as a “techie genius,” a successful businessman named Chandra Babunaidu. He doesn’t actually know anything about technology, he was just built up by the U.S. media. There was a piece written about the race by a New York Times journalist that was the biggest bunch of bullshit I have ever seen, about how this guy is going to win because he has “modernized” my home state. This was the state where I reported 3,000 farmer suicides.

This article predicted that this guy, running in my home state where people speak Telugu, had a natural advantage because, they said, he speaks Telugu. All the other candidates were from the same state—did they all speak Esperanto?

This is the kind of stuff a lot of U.S. journalists write about other countries. Did he bother to find out what the other candidates spoke? Can you imagine someone saying that Tony Blair had a natural advantage in England’s elections because he was the candidate that spoke English?

Despite all this, while all the polls predicted one result, the people of India went out and gave them a different one.

I cannot despair: all my life I have things suddenly change dramatically, both for good and bad. People have a way of hitting back, and millions upon millions of people living a subhuman life can hit back hard.

KALLER: When you speak here, you will be speaking to some of the minority of Americans familiar with these issues. What would you have them read or do in their daily lives to help change things?

SAINATH: I’m a little reluctant to give people a list of a few simple things they can do, because it reminds me too much of the self-improvement book culture—books with titles like “Seven Easy Steps to Spiritual Success.” The world is a complex place, and solutions are rarely simple.

But you are right, a lot of people are concerned about these issues but don’t know what to do about it, and there are certain principles that can guide us. I think addressing corporate power is a crucial thing to do right now, and boycotts are one good way to do it—it is the one thing that really scares them.

It is extremely important that Americans look critically at their own media. This is a media-saturated society, and you have to wonder that Americans can have the world’s largest media and some of its least-informed public.

But I find that the world works in curious ways, and sometimes people you don’t expect to want to make the world better, people you don’t think of as being on your side, will come to a realization. People can surprise you.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Mummers



Yes, this is actually a photo of men walking through the forest near our home today dressed like haystacks and carrying clubs.

They were some of the mummers taking part in the annual Wren Day festival in the Donadea woods, where hundreds of locals gathered to sing, dance, hear stories and gather as a community after their family Christmas obligations. A pavilion was set up in the clearing next to the old castle, with a few microphones and speakers – the only bit of modern technology in the whole event – and a speaker described some of the history of the festival.

The wren, say the speakers, was sacred to the Celts – the old Irish name for it, dreoilin, means “the Druid bird.” One day a year, local “straw boys” hunted the wren as a prize, in a custom that is said to be thousands of years old. It was Christianized about 1,500 years ago to incorporate St. Stephen, whose feast day this is, and in some eras the ritual had to be carried out in secret, but it survived.

After the opening speeches, local bands launched into some rousing Irish folk music and all the children were invited onstage to dance, and many of the adults around the stage joined in. With a nod from me, my girl leaped onstage, and copied the big kids until she was halfway to Riverdancing.

As the musicians played, the children danced and the adults chatted, two groups of mummers milled about the crowd hiding from each other. The “straw boys” in the picture wandered about thumping their clubs in unison, chanting menacingly for the wren. Another group dressed in sackcloth, the “Wren boys,” carried a metre-long carved wren through the crowd, hiding it from the straw boys.

I missed the part where they confront each other – four-year-old, potty, you know – but when we came out again, the straw boys and wren boys were shaking hands to the cheering of the crowd. Both sides agree the wren would be caught but not killed, and the wren sculpture was crowned the King of Birds.

A friend of mine, who is a walking library of folklore, tells me that the slaying of the wren was the slaying of winter, a symbolic king sacrificed to save the community. I’ve been sent lyrics for two separate Irish folk songs about the hunting of the wren, and I’m sure there are more.

I like knowing that I just attended a ritual that may have been practiced by locals, in one form or another, for thousands of years, without any attempt to tie it to globalised consumer culture or to put it on as a show for tourists.

In America we don’t have any special traditions around the day after Christmas, which is a shame. The British have Boxing Day, which, while not ancient, is also a charming custom: utilities like postal service start up again, and people give little gifts to them. I admire a holiday that pays due respect to the armies of people who make sure our drinking water is not toxic, our deliveries reach us, and that our electricity stays on, and who we spend most of our lives taking for granted.


Add VideoAdd Video

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The moment of darkness




Almost vibrating with excitement, my four-year-old carefully carried ornaments to the pine sapling in our living room last night, cradling each one like they were diamonds. We have decked our halls with literal holly from our land, bought a Christmas goose, and are planning a quiet and intimate family Christmas here in rural Ireland.

Holiday cheer, though, struggles against the long winter darkness in this place – we are less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, and today there will be seven hours of dull daylight -- and this year, more than most, it also struggles against the world news.

“Papa, Father Christmas lives at the North Pole!” my daughter announced with the confidence of a four-year-old.

Yes he does, I said, wanting her to experience this magic while she can. What is the North Pole like?

“Well, it is covered with ice and ... snow ... all white and cold ...and …”

But by the time she stops believing in a few years, I think to myself, it might not be. The 2007 ice shocked everyone, shrinking so much that the sea drew near the Pole. That year the IPCC had predicted a new ocean there by 2070. Two months later a new projection said 2030. Two months later they said five years. I'm already talking about Santa Claus; what else should I pretend?

What animals would Santa see at the North Pole? I ask.

“Well,” she begins, “there are polar bears, and seals, and ...”

Perhaps not for long. The polar bears eat the seals that eat the fish that eat the plankton, and the plankton are dying – 73 percent down since 1960. Half the plankton – almost half the animal mass of the Arctic – have disappeared since the Simpsons’ first episode. Maybe it’s because the oceans are growing warmer, maybe because they are getting more acid, maybe it's the plastic and chemicals we've poured into the oceans in my short lifetime. We just don't know.

Reality intrudes into other arenas of childhood. I consider showing her Bugs Bunny cartoons with the Tasmanian Devil, and think: the real one is almost extinct. I introduced her to clips of Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly, and she asked, “What is a firefly?”

Fireflies, I explained, are little bugs back where Papa grew up in America, and they light up the night ...

Except not any more. They flickered yellow-green across the grass in my Missouri hometown – you could find your way in the dark by their light. I went back there last year and the nights were black – only a few flickers, and then deep in the Ozark woods.

We put together her jigsaw puzzles of the continents, and I am surprised to see Asia depicted, accurately, without Lake Aral. My childhood maps of Asia are now wrong – that massive lake, the fourth-largest in the world, disappeared in a few decades. Her map of Africa does not show Lake Chad, either – maybe the toymakers are thinking ahead.

We live a strange life, those of us who follow closely the breaking of the world. We look at our kitchens and offices and bus stops and see products of petroleum-powered machines on the other side of the world, transported here in petroleum engines. We flick past the mainstream media every morning and go straight to BBC Science, the Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin, scroll through the allied blogs and listen to podcasts on the bus – all while working regular jobs, paying mortgages and caring for children and elderly, each week filled with the burning usual.

In my case, I am also a father, and I want my daughter to have a decent life in a strange time. I am in my 30s now, but I knew five of my great-grandparents, all born in the 19th century, and my daughter, if she is lucky, may live to see the 22nd. Her life might span humanity's most important decades, and before she is even an adult, the world could grow much more difficult – energy shortages, food shortages, economic collapses and a Malthusian crush. I want her to be able to realize what is happening, and not to be bewildered by a domino line of solitary unthinkables –you can't drink the water here, the power went out, it's not safe there anymore.

As a journalist, I know this is how the mainstream media usually show the world. Civil unrest broke out. Congressional leaders said. Troops encountered heavy fire. Our history books show us where we came from in the same tedious way – Black Tuesday followed by the Smoot-Hawley Tarriff followed by the CCC followed by Lend-Lease. In both cases, the story told is the story of federal policies, generals and brokers, far removed from the details of life, from the millions of activists who pushed change through, and from the ebb and flow of resources that drove the national engines.

As news events unfold in her life, I don't want her to accept them as a string of disconnected troubles – I want her to see that the price spike in oil is connected to the food riots in Haiti, that the plastic wrapper on the celery is tied to the Texas-sized floating garbage patch in the Pacific.

And – while no father wishes grief for his daughter – I want her to be able to grieve for the vanished pieces of our world, not because it is fun or useful, but because it is the right thing to do. Older people are sometimes shocked at what is no longer common knowledge – to high school graduates today, the world before September 11 or Google is as remote and theoretical as Vietnam was to me, or as Pearl Harbour was to my parents. I’m not sure how I feel about the disappearance of two of the world’s largest lakes from the jigsaw puzzle – I want her to learn, when she is older, that they used to be there.

At the same time, I don’t want her to be overtaken by grief. At a peak oil conference in Cork last year I met a man who had journeyed there from Australia on behalf of his teenaged son. His son, Tasman McKee, learned about peak oil in 2005, read the works of the most dire peak oil prophets, joined list-serves that pore over details of a coming die-off, and he became more and more convinced that nothing lay before him but a desperate and despairing future. After a year of this, he vanished, and only after reading his computer files did his parents learn of his obsession. His body was found on a remote mountain two months after his suicide.

I have been getting back in touch with old friends from environmental campaigns, and many have also fallen off the map. Few went as far as Tasman, or as far as a church pastor and Green activist I knew who killed himself a few years ago. But many feel defeated. They had warned of peak oil, climate change and economic collapse for decades – now, some say, it’s started. It’s too late.

I want to spare my daughter this. I want to instill, to whatever extent a father can, the high and driving Spirit, the sanguine craving to restore. Of course it is too late to change everything, and always has been. Everything is too big. But each of us can do something where we are, and there are millions of us.

We could look at the world's troubles and sink into grief, as we could when a fire sweeps through a forest or a flood wipes away a city. But forests and populations generally come back, sometimes better. We can mourn for the already extinct species, lakes and forests as we mourn our dead, but as long as we remain alive we are greater than grief. Nature will return, and with our help can return in time for our species to appreciate.

And for most of the world, it is not too late. Just a few years ago peak oil and climate change were obscure ideas, and they rapidly spread until they broke into the mainstream. We are trying to return to a simpler life, and so are millions of others – the largest movement ever, happening in every part of the world. I want her to know that we are not trying to turn the tide, for tides are natural. What is happening to the world was done by men, and will be undone. I want her to know, as Tasman McKee did not, that she is not alone.

So I try to teach her, in small and playful ways, how the outside world works, and the basic skills she might need someday. The lullabies I sing to her are old folk songs, because unlike pop songs today, they are meant to be sung by ordinary people together, and we might need such things again. When we pick weeds for soup I tell her what little I know of the plants that can be eaten and plants to avoid. I am proud that, when she was only two and was stung by a nettle, she immediately found the nearest dock-leaf in the grass and rubbed it on the sting – she had absorbed that one heals the other.

She loves animals as much as any child, and we talk in detail about where they live, what makes them mammals or birds or bugs, what they eat and what they do for us and each other. For now, it is just a game, but over time, perhaps, she will make connections.

She knows, in recited pieces of theory at least, how to cook, how to make yogurt and sourdough starter, how to compost. In time, I want her to learn how to ride and bridle, speak different languages, hunt, be sceptical, think logically and organize people. I can’t completely predict what she will face, nor can I plan her life, but I can show her a beginning.

But right now she is four, and is waiting for Santa. She patiently takes a single treat out of her Advent calendar each day, she helps make supper and she will fall asleep listening for reindeer hooves on the roof. Christmas is at this time of year for a reason, and not because we know when Jesus was born. It is just after the weakest day and the longest night, when the world prepares to be born again, when we take our first steps away from the darkness and ready ourselves for the arduous season ahead.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

St. Nicholas Day



I was going to sleep in Sunday morning, but this metre-high blond person jumped up and down on me shouting, "Look what St. Necklace brought us!" I liked the "us" - she was as happy for me as for herself.

My daughter got chocolate coins and a few other goodies. In my family -- and this part seeems to be unique to us -- the grownups get seafood in their shoes. My wife knows what I like, so in my size-13s I found tins of spiced octopus. Yes, everyone thinks it's strange, but it's our tradition.

The Girl sometimes still refers to St. Nicholas as "St. Necklace" -- she got a necklace on this day a year or two ago, and the name stuck.

For those who aren't familiar, St. Nicholas is a German custom -- on December 6, he steals one of your shoes and leaves treats in it. Only in recent years did his Dutch version Sinter (Nic)Klaus gravitate toward Christmas. The modern American version seems to have come from the Dutch that once ruled New York, and maintained a presence even into the 19th century -- read "Rip Van Winkle" for more of a background.

It seems that the flying reindeer, the fur coat, the chimney and many other details came from the 19th-century poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Even then the character could come in different forms -- green, thin, whatever. A 1930s Coca-Cola advertising campaign fleshed out the rest, and now we think of Santa as older than time.

Many people would be surprised to find how new most Christmas carols are: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was invented as a marketing gimmick for Montgomery Ward stores in 1939, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" in 1944, "The Little Drummer Boy" in 1957, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" in 1962. Christmas trees are also fairly new, dating only from Victorian Britain. Only a few generations ago, "Christmas" customs would have been almost unrecognizable to us -- how many of us have gone wassailing, or singing around the beehives on Christmas Eve?

Many of the other holidays are similarly recent inventions. Many of my countrymen think of Thanksgiving as an unbrokeen tradition dating back to the Pilgrims and Indians, as in the annual school plays with their construction-paper costumes.

Of course, almost everything about the Thanksgiving legend stems from some hoax or advertising campaign. The United States wasn't founded by the Pilgrims -- it wasn't the first settlement, or a historically important one. Most of the settlers there weren't religious separatists, and the separatists weren't called "Pilgrims" until 200 years after their demise. They didn't land at Plymouth Rock -- that was a local story created for tourism.

November is a little late for a harvest festival -- it was placed there in the 1930s to boost the Christmas shopping season. But most people have had harvest thanks-giving feasts of soem kind, so Thanksgiving is both older and newer than the early settlers. Only a century or so ago was it attached to the Massachusetts settlers, in the same way that St. Nicholas began to be attached to Christmas. It would be as though, starting in 2012, people began to believe that Abraham Lincoln's Halloween parties were "the first Halloween."

I don't bring all this up to mock the holiday traditions most of us love, or to claim that ours are any more authentic, or to say that customs are better for being older. I do think, though, that we feel enormous pressure to follow the usual rituals every December -- buy too much, eat too much, drink too much, sing "Jingle Bells," watch "It's a Wonderful Life." It helps me, at least, to know that I can pick and choose, to realize that you're not the only one tired of Christmas carols, that many of these customs were invented to sell you something, and that they are not actually holy.

Other things are holy.




Photos: pumpkin just before being made into soup, and my daughter at forest Donadea.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Aging Gracefully

Originally published March 3, 2001

Elspeth Odbert hardly epitomizes the typical 71-year-old great-grandmother.
She has been touring the country off and on for 25 years as a storyteller, writer and lecturer, currently traveling in a powder-blue converted school bus. Speaking in Columbia last night as part of a 10-city tour, she discussed the myths she said Americans hold about old age - what she calls "our last taboo."

"We all know to prepare ourselves financially for old age," she said to a crowd of about 30 at the Unity Church on Broadway last night. "I hear 25-year-olds say they’re taking a job because of the retirement benefits. That’s pretty horrifying - to lock ourselves into a pattern for 45 years so there will be money at the end of it."

People do little to prepare themselves emotionally, physically or spiritually for getting old, Odbert said. With life spans increasing, people will spend much of their lives as senior citizens, but they will rarely picture what they will do with those years, she said.

Odbert said such attitudes stem from the way people think of the senior years as a time of helpless dependency. "The image our culture presents is one of people who are diseased, disabled and senile," she said in a soft southern accent. "To be useless, a failure, with no purpose."

Americans are geared toward youth, she said, and "put the elderly away, in places far from the mainstream," in contrast with more traditional cultures that venerate the elderly.

The message resonated with some of the audience members, many of whom appeared in their thirties.

"Part of thinking about aging is learning to embrace change," said Lisa Bruce, 33. "I live in a college town and already the students look young to me."

"Start now to alter things in your life that will give you a longer, healthier old age," like staying physically fit and eating healthier, Odbert said to the younger members of the crowd. She urged young adults to start thinking early about growing in their older years.

Odbert maintains that many of the common problems of aging, like senility and chronic disease, can be avoided. "I firmly believe that much of what we think of as the inevitable result of aging is actually neglect," she said, and that a change in behavior would allow people to live not only longer, but better.

"Most people seem to get to age 50 or 60 and just stop learning anything new," Odbert said. "They don’t make new friends; they don’t broaden their world."

Noting that the number of Americans over 50 who return to college rises every year, Odbert said the senior years should be a time to "go about becoming a whole person." She describes old age as a time when people can concentrate on personal growth, free of the pressure to please parents and peers and the responsibilities of making a living.

"If you’ve always wanted to be a ballet dancer, take ballet," Odbert said. "You won’t join the New York Ballet Company, but you can have fun."

"This has really helped me get away from the feeling of being limited," said Rain LeClair, 63. "I came away thinking there were so many things I could do."

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Worst case


Right now I'm reading Six Degrees, by Mark Lynas -- one of the best books on climate change I've ever read.


When climatologists say that global temperatures could rise six degrees, that doesn't sound like much to laymen like us -- it sounds like everything getting six degrees warmer, which sounds pretty good in Ireland. In the same way, sea levels rising ten meters doesn’t sound like much either – the beach itself is only ten meters across, isn’t it?


But such a rise in ocean levels would not be ten meters up the shore, but ten meters straight up – putting almost all of Dublin under water. In the same way, a rise of six degrees would not merely boost the temperature by that small-sounding amount; it would put the world and everything in it into a state of high fever.


Let’s put it this way: the last time the Earth’s climate was six degrees from what it is now, it was six degrees colder, creating an ice age. Ireland lay under a kilometre of ice, as did the United States down to Kentucky, with winter temperatures as low as -40 degrees Centigrade.


As Lynas describes, a few steps in the opposite direction could create serious problems for the natural world. Pollution from our cars and factories has boosted the climate more than half a degree. At one degree the Greenland ice sheet melts, raising the sea by about seven meters. At two degrees, the Amazon rainforest would begin to burn; they depend on a humid environment, and have no resistance to fire.


At three degrees, the situation falls out of our hands, as the massive greenhouse gases locked in the tundra flood the atmosphere, as the Arctic disappears, as the middle of the world burns away, we would see “an entirely new planet comes into being - one unrecognisable from the Earth we know today.”


The last time the planet got six degrees hotter, geologists believe, was 250 million years ago, when early life on Earth was almost wiped out.

All of which makes the recent Channel 4 documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle” more tragic. The problem with the documentary is not that it relies on scientists who disagree with the other 99 percent, but on scientists who have been proven wrong again and again.


Just as the governments are waking up to climate change, as George Monbiot put it recently, millions "have been misled into believing there is no problem to address.”


The film’s main contention is that the current increase in global temperatures is caused not by greenhouse gases, but by sunspots, based on a 1991 study that found agreement between temperatures on Earth and sunspot cycles. More scientists followed up on the study, however, and in 2004 found it completely wrong; sunspots have nothing to do with climate change.


The programme also used research that the researchers themselves have disavowed. Channel 4 used as evidence the work of Dr. John Christy, who initially found that temperatures were not rising. Dr. Christy followed up his own work and discovered he was mistaken, and now believes that climate change is real – but the film keeps using his old data, against his wishes. Oceanographer Carl Wunsch, also, says he was “completely misrepresented” by the programme, and “totally misled” by the people who made it.


Finally, let’s say for the sake of argument that the programme is right, and humans are not the ones causing the climate to change. If that were the case, shouldn’t that be cause for even greater concern? Human-caused climate change can be averted or solved by human action; unknown cosmic forces destroying our planet really would be a cause for panic.


If the century-old global expert consensus on climate change is completely overblown, we will gain by preparing anyway. The things we need to do to prepare for climate change -- restoring local communities, public transit, restoring a more traditional world -- are the same things that will help us with peak oil, with democracy, with family, with community.


And if all the experts are right by even a single percent, then everything in our lives -- literally --- depends on us taking the lives we live now and destroy them, and replace them with something that works.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Happy Holy days




Amy Dacyczyn, author of “The Tightwad Gazette,” made an interesting observation about children on Christmas morning: the first present is magical, she said, but the fourth or fifth means far less, and by distracting the child, destroys the magic of the first present. Moreover, by the time the child receives the fifth present, they are anticipating the sixth, and will be angry and disappointed when it doesn’t arrive.

We notice it most in children, but we all do this to an extent – we become caught up in a circle of buying and receiving that -- most people confide to pollsters -- brings nothing but stress and depression. Christmas has become an annual extravaganza months in the making, when everyone is expected to eat too much, drink too much and spend money they can’t afford to lose buying people things they don’t need. This year, consider cutting out all unnecessary gifts and obligations and taking more time for yourself and your family.

Think about whether home-made presents are possible – pictures made by the grandchildren, home-made wine or jams, canned tomatoes, a knitted scarf. They will cost little but time, and that is time spouses and children could spend together.

When you do buy Christmas presents, remember that we are entering lean years, and consider giving your friends and family practical items that will be useful in a time of outages and shortages. It doesn’t have to be survivalist gear, but maybe hand tools, a flashlight, a solar-powered or crank radio, gardening supplies, seeds and water filters. Consider gifts that are durable and do not need electricity: a wind-up clock, board games, musical instruments and cast iron pots.

Most of all, take some time for yourself – catch up with an old friend, take a walk, ride a bicycle. We don’t have an endless number of Christmases; make sure this one has some good memories.