Audiobook Orgy Part 4: American Theocracy

usa-001Kevin Phillips has a grand, sweeping thesis: three interrelated factors are bringing America down. First there is oil. The energy that drove the unlimited aspirations of the American Century is showing its limits in the 21st. Second, there is religion. In particular fundamentalist Christianity, which has taken over the Republican Party and defines the national conversation on every major issue. Finally, there is debt. The triumph of financial services over manufacturing foreshadows America’s reduced role in the global economy.

Mr. Phillips uses previous world empires – nineteenth century England, seventeenth century Holland, and sixteenth century Spain – to demonstrate a pattern wherein the dominant ‘energy’ of empire (coal for England, wind for the Dutch, and New World gold for Spain) fueled economic behemoths with righteous moral views. Each of these empires lost their energy edge, either because it dried up or the rest of the world caught up. As that happened, these affluent societies also lost the manufacturing edge that triggered their rise. They supplanted making things with complex financial instruments that they convinced themselves were as economically valuable. Then they let their inflated morals draw them into costly wars that ultimately diminished their stature.

imgres-9The most fascinating aspect of American Theocracy‘s discussion of oil is that it makes a convincing case that our oil-based future is limited without even delving into the issue of global warming and climate change. There is simply not enough oil to sustain our consumption habits beyond a generation. Sure, there are new sources to be found, but they are increasingly hard to extract and have diminished EROI (energy return on investment – the difference between the energy a source will generate minus the energy it takes to get it). Where oil isn’t physically difficult to extract, it’s often politically difficult to extract. Just look at Iraq.

images-5The outsized influence that the religious right plays in politics, especially in the Republican Party, especially in the administration of G.W. Bush, isn’t news. But Mr. Phillips’ analysis of how that administration’s policies gave religious institutions’ a leading role in our supposedly secular government connects seemingly disparate acts into a frightening whole. I never understood how environmental stewardship could be construed as a license for human plunder until I overlayed the Biblical perspective that man has dominion over all the earth. Nor did I realize that the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East is welcome for people praying to experience Revelation first hand.

images-8If we KNOW we are better than everyone else, and we KNOW God has blessed us with the right to plunder, going into debt to keep our system afloat is a no-brainer. Besides, when we put our national actions on credit, we can hide the true cost of the ongoing wars that will eventually spell our economic and political doom.

The statistical analyses in American Theocracy are daunting. Although Spain, Holland and England provide templates for demise, the scale at which the United States has drunk oil, promoted its exceptionalism, and gone into debt makes those previous empires minor players in the game of hubris.

imgresMr. Phillips does not offer any bold recommendations to steady our path. Yet I did not come away from his tome as discouraged as I might. First, because the book was published in 2005. Although many of his comments are more relevant now than ever, some are not. And second, because the empires Mr. Phillips analyzed – Spain, Holland and England – may have lost their former glory, but they are still pretty fine societies.

In the past ten years our dependence on oil has remained supreme. We have made good strides in finding more domestic sources of energy, but fracking and Arctic drilling only prove Mr. Phillips point that exploration is getting extreme. We’ve fallen behind in developing the next big energy source – renewables – because we continue to subsidize oil. Right now Germany is technically the leader in renewables, but once China decides to conquer that market, it will be all theirs because their centralized economy can actually respond much faster than our supposedly free-market one. And once we finally get on the renewables bandwagon, we’ll have farther to go than any other nation, because cheap oil has encouraged us to have the most dilute development patterns on the face of the earth. It just takes a heck of a lot more per-capita energy to survive in the U.S.A.

imgres-10The religious right still has too strong a voice in setting the national debate, but they don’t always win. Look at gay marriage. Look at the Occupy movement. Look at states raising the minimum wage. Look at #blacklivesmatter. I don’t understand why the right still sets the agenda, perhaps because a black/white view of the world is so appealing and a message of fear is easy to sell. But I believe there is more counter debate in 2015 than there was in 2005.

With regards to debt, the answer is as simple as it is boring. We have to start living within our means. At a national level, at a state level, and at a personal level. And we have to recognize that making money by shuffling money is not the same as making money by making things. That idea is starting to percolate, as Gretchen Morgenson described in Smothered by a Boom in Banking (NY Times 3/1/2015).

We like to think that human progress is an ascending line. Yet history is littered with societies that recede. Europe in the Dark Ages. Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Afghanistan under the Taliban. Societies where ignorance triumphed over knowledge and fear trumped hope. True; Spain, the Netherlands, and England are less powerful today than they once were, but they’re more balanced then at their zenith. I believe the United States will be a better place when our citizens are more equal and we treat our neighbors with greater understanding and respect.

images-7The real fear I take away from American Theocracy, is that our lifestyle is so unsustainable, our beliefs so blind, and our debt so enormous that we won’t slide into gentle comfort like our European cousins. Instead we’ll crash like a 21st century Rome. Let’s stop striving for global domination that we will never achieve and does no one any good. Let’s all pull together for a smooth landing.


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Counting Every Step

vitruvian_man-001I’m a good little doobie. When the voice of authority tells me do something, I do it. Even when that voice is distant (I never call anyone after 10 p.m., per my mother’s directive circa 1966). Even when that voice is discredited (I still make the sign of the cross when I’m flustered despite leaving the Catholic Church 35 years ago). Even when that voice is electronic. When Apple reminds me to upgrade my software, I log in and load up.

I don’t like upgrades. They shuffle my icons. I have to go into Settings and learn all over again how to make them squiggle, so I can push all the new ones I don’t want to the back and retrieve my favorites to the main screen.

searchTwo upgrades ago a small white icon appeared with a little red heart in the upper left corner. “You need that one, it monitors your health,” my friend Chuck told me. I didn’t think I needed anything to monitor my health. I ward off Prozac by exercising twice as much as anyone I know and then eating twice as much dessert. However, since Chuck has a deep, authoritative voice, I tapped on the heart. Up popped requests to input my weight, my sleep, my calories. No way was I going to insert the calorie count of the pint of Talenti Sea Salt Caramel Gelato I had just devoured after yoga into my permanent electronic memory. But one set of statistics required no input. My new app counted my steps and then gimagesraphed them by the day and week. No input, cool data, I was hooked.

I’m familiar with the 10,000 steps a day strategy to health. Given my weakness for ice cream I decided to aim for that mark. Forget that every week I already go to the gym three times, take seven or eight yoga classes, and teach two more. I just added a new objective: 10,000 daily steps.

In less than two days, casual counting became an obsession. I began charging my phone overnight so it could rest in my pocket all day and never miss a movement. I analyzed my most frequent walks. I take almost 2,000 steps a day just inside my house, the benefit of an old Victorian with a zillion stairs. It’s only 800 steps to ride my bike to yoga, but 3,000 if I walk. Cycling to the gym registers 2,200 steps. Harvard Square is 4,000 steps away; but it’s over 5,000 when I walk all the way to the Y.

images-3All of this step counting was crazy, especially since so much of it happened to and from places of exercise, but I was in the thrall of my app. During our harsh winter I couldn’t bicycle for weeks, so I walked everywhere. I logged 14,000 step days, even 18,000 step days. When my son Andy and I walked Plum Island for his research project, I took over 22,000 steps.

In no time the idea of 10,000 steps a day evolved from an average to a minimum required. One night, when my pedometer indicated 9,236 steps, I paced the second floor thirty or forty times while brushing my teeth so I could pass the magic five-digit mark. I made it past 10,000, but later, in bed, reckoned that I’d gone too far. Walking no longer had anything to do with moving from one place to another. It wasn’t even about health; it was just an exercise in counting. The next day I rebelled by only walking 6,000 steps. Slouching off made me sluggish.

imgresLast week I volunteered to be part of an Alzheimer’s study. I filled out questionnaires and took baseline memory tests, which will have follow-ups every few months. In exchange for my participation I received a free membership to digifit MVP. More advanced than my Apple health app, it can give me fitness assessments, advanced heart rate analyses, and compare me against others. I perused the app, wondered whether it monitored a control group of others who ate ice cream by the pint, and closed it out. It wouldn’t make me any healthier, just more neurotic.



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Audiobook Orgy Part 3: In Defense of Food

usa-001“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” These seven words address everything Michael Pollen has to say in defense of food, but seven words does not a book make, and so he continues on for 200 more pages.

Mr. Pollen spends most of the book addressing the second word: food. Somehow our superior culture has lost its connection to this basic, natural substance of life. In our zealous desire to analyze, we’ve turned food into a science, reduced it to proteins, carbohydrates, fats, nutrients, and vitamins; reconstituted these component parts into processed entities whose value – whether measured by nutrition, flavor, or associative satisfaction – equals less than the sum of its parts.

images-4One of the most amusing, and truthful, lines of the book is, “You are what what you eat eats.” We have to pause, dissect, and reassemble the words to discern their meaning, by which time we realize the meaning’s grim. The additives, supplements, and machinations required of Big Food to produce the bounty that leaves us simultaneously overweight while less satisfied requires tinkering up and down the food chain. What we’ve gained in creating foodstuffs with long shelf lives doesn’t compensate for what we’ve lost: balance, variety, and understanding human’s natural role in the earth’s cycle of energy and nourishment.

imgres-8In Defense of Food is the practical compendium to Mr. Pollens’ opus, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is both more entertaining but less applicable (I can’t see myself ever hunting my own dinner.) But I can envision following at least some of Mr. Pollen’s suggested guidelines in defense of food:

  1. Eat food, not substitutes.
  2. Shop beyond supermarkets.
  3. At supermarkets, shop the periphery; avoid the middle aisles.
  4. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
  5. You are what you eat eats too.
  6. Pay more, eat less.
  7. Stop eating when you’re 80% full.
  8. Eat meals, not snacks.
  9. Cook your own food.
  10. Eat it with others.
  11. Grow a garden.

In general, I am very good at number 3 and 8, okay at 1, 5, and 9. I could use improvement on number 2, 4 and 6. I’m lousy at number 7, terrible at number 10, and can’t imagine ever embarking on number 11. I suppose each reader has his or her own habits that could use improvement.

From a broad perimgres-7spective, any real change in our food system is going to require a shift in how we think about number 6 – Pay more, eat less. Americans pay less for food than any people on earth (less than 12% of total income). We also have more food than everyone else. But it’s no coincidence that as the cost of our food goes down; the cost to our health goes up. Over the past generation our relative food-to-healthcare expenses have flipped. Although we cannot attribute all of the increase in healthcare costs to poor eating, the collateral cost of obesity, diabetes, cancer and other food-related conditions is staggering.

imgres-1Mr. Pollen doesn’t offer any panacea that will change the course of our unhealthy food system. He simply outlines what each individual needs to do to improve eating habits. In almost every case, this requires that we choose foods that are more expensive to obtain, take more time to prepare, and offer satisfactions beyond immediate gratification. These are difficult choices in a world inundated with cheap and easy shortcuts. But the only way to turn Big Food into real food is with small steps.




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Hampton Inn Art

usa-001I know, I know, it’s a cookie cutter hotel chain with ubiquitous facilities. When I wake up in a Hampton Inn, which I have in half-dozen cities, it takes a few minutes to remember where I am. However, among its peers Hampton Inn has a terrific art program.  The small image next to each room number provides a tiny sense of place, while the framed prints in each room are simultaneously striking and soothing.  Here are some images from my recent stay in Room 413 at the Hampton Inn in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where snippets of rural Americana line the corridors and bold zebra graphics illuminate each room.


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Audiobook Orgy Part 2: Green Metropolis

usa-001What is the most sustainable place in the United States? Boulder, Colorado? Davis, California? New York, New York? David Owen, New Yorker writer and master of counterintuitive arguments advocates for the latter. Per capita energy use in New York City is 13% lower than the American average – low enough that if spread across the entire country we would instantly surpass the Kyoto Protocol benchmarks.

How can this be? New York is a teeming mass of bright lights, elevators, hard surfaces, and subways. All true. But what it doesn’t have – at least in proportionate numbers – are cars. And no matter how many solar collectors we mount on our roofs, how many incandescent bulbs we replace with fluorescent, or how many inches of insulation we put in our attics, if we drive to and from our homes, our lives will never be sustainable. The amount of fossil fuel it takes to support a car-centric environment surpasses whatever efficiency of its destination structure may possess.

Sustainability is bimgres-5uilt into the fabric of New York. People are so dense it makes more sense to walk or take the subway than to drive; dwelling units are smaller so people have less stuff, and they’re stacked, therefore easier to heat and cool. This portrait of sustainability is anathema to our American penchant for tackling a problem by augmentation (i.e. buying stuff) rather than simplification. There are no sacred cows in Mr. Owen’s enviro-sphere: self-satisfied Prius drivers, showcase homeowners heating 7,000 square feet mansions by geothermal, and even prickly locovore’s come under his hair trigger. He demonstrates how there’s less embodied energy in lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped to England than lamb raised in England for local consumption since the energy required to pasture feed sheep in England (high latitude, less sun) far outstrips the energy plus transit costs of serving New Zealand lamb in London.

images-2Green Metropolis is a survey course of my graduate education. I doubt the merits of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities ever shared the same book jacket with U-value analyses of glass construction. I must admit to enjoying the pot shots he takes at traditional zoning, which actually prohibit synergistic living; and the Green Building Council’s LEED program, which raised public consciousness for energy efficiency by turning sustainability into a cafeteria menu of add-ons that require extensive (and expensive) professional technical expertise.

imgres-6A few of his targets made me winch. I can accept his logic that Central Park is too big, that it creates a giant barrier from East Side to West Side and that few people use its interior areas. But I am so accustomed to thinking of Central Park as the psychic counter-soul of New York; I can’t imagine tinkering with it.


Similarly, I find it difficult to believe that his rationale for living in Northeast Connecticut rather than in Manhattan (that his house is old and someone will be living there) ever made it past his editors. Truth is, he lives there because he can afford to and he seeks the same low-density living as most Americans. More useful than his lame explanation would have been insight into what might induce an affluent, educated, middle-aged white American male like himself to relocate to a denser locale.

Some arguments in Green Metropolis are stretched to the extreme. It seems right to argue that we should not build more roads and highways as a step toward reigning in development and increasing density, but I don’t see the point of arguing against making existing roads more efficient. Mr. Owen is realistic in assessing that, given the option, people will drive and they will sprawl. He harps on making driving less attractive, but doesn’t champion thimgres-2e counter argument: how can we make alternative forms of transport more attractive. A sustainable life must be different than our current model, since it needs to be car-independent, but I don’t believe it has to be meager. In fact, I believe it can be richer. Density needs to be touted as a desirable trait that offers convenience, variety, sociability and solitude, rather than as a punishment.

Green Metropolis convinced me that we will never achieve anything like a sustainable environment with our current ‘accessorized’ approach, and that radical urbanization is required. As such, the book starts an important discussion. Mr. Owen should write a compendium that puts forth concrete suggestions toward that end, but I doubt he will. There’s no pizzazz in that effort. No one else is likely to write that book either, since no vested interest group stands to gain from a simplified, coordinated approach to sustainability. The best line of the book, attributed to Thomas Freidman, is, “If it’s not boring, it’s not green.” So true. So unprofitable.

However, since I am beholden to no one, here are a few talking points – from the expedient to the futuristic – that can move us in a sustainable direction.

imgres-4Zoning. Mix up land use and make it dense.



Cap and Tradimages-1e – Everything.

– Land Use. Set the sweet spot at eight units per acre, where public transportation becomes efficient and effective. Tax less dense development; incentivize more dense development.

– Automobiles. Tax gasoline to fund improved public transit.

– Air Travel. Tax air trips to improve rail travel.

imagesImprove ‘virtual’ interactions. If people really love living far apart, let them interact from that distance so they can stay put in the exurbs.

imgres-3Make James Bond a Reality – Seriously, can’t we develop jet packs that are safe and efficient? 98% of the fuel used to move an SUV is used to move the SUV, only 2% to move the person inside. Let’s shed the SUV.

Think about these, pass them on, dispute them, and add to them. Let’s start a discussion.




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Spring Forward Yoga

awkward_pose_3-001We set our clocks ahead for spring on Sunday. But with the ground covered with several feet of snow, the roads covered with black ice and temperatures below twenty degrees, I couldn’t bike to yoga. So I walked. A single car occupied the lot as I approached the studio; then a second and a third. But no sign of our 8:00 a.m. teacher. I kept warm by perambulating Fresh Pond Plaza’s back lot. I discovered a Cambridge Police car hangout behind a dumpster and checked out the thirty foot mountain of snow scraped against the railroad tracks. On the far side of the Apple Theater complex, a second run joint with gummy seats and $4.75 movie specials, I spied an auto garage in a deep corner. Thirty years in Cambridge and I’d never seen this place.

IMG_1472I approached. This is no ordinary auto repair shop. Tall steel sculptures sit before the concrete block box. There’s an array of signs between the two garage doors: Aladdin Auto; Notary Public Service; Spiritual Advice Service. Detailed text spilled under heading ‘In the Name of the Above’ all capped by a graphic of a mullah,

IMG_1474I took a few photos. The tree-like sculptures are impressive. As I read the bullet points describing who thelighter will marry – most anyone with that inclination – a vintage Toyota station wagon rolled across the barren blacktop. Out stepped a man in a turban who resembled the guy on the wall draped in patterned scarves and vests. His face was weathered though handsome. He reached out to shake my hand. I slipped off my mitten. His grip was oven hot. Energy pulsed through me.

IMG_1473Mahmood Rezaei-Kamalabad introduced himself. He had stopped by to check the heat, apologized for not welcoming me inside, and invited me back during the week for tea. He explained the symbolism of the sculpture before us – a Christian cross supporting a menorah inscribed with the name ‘Allah’, all coexisting within the outline of a ten foot tall light bulb. I thanked him, returned my warm hand back its mitten and walked back toward the studio.

Still no sign of a teacher. The few others, tired of sitting in their cars with heaters on and exhaust flowing, shifted into gear and left. I lingered in the feint hope that someone would show, and then realized that I didn’t need to do any asana today. I had already experienced good yoga.

IMG_1475You can see Mr. Rezaei-Kamalalabad’s sculptures and read of his philosophy at Or stop by far end of the Fresh Pond Plaza parking lot any weekday between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. for tea. I may see you there.


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Audiobook Orgy Part 1: Road Trip!

usa-001I went on a road trip – 2400 miles through 11 states in 8 days. Along the way I visited family and gave a few book lectures. But mostly I drove. And listened to audiobooks. I’m drawn to center-left history and analysis, so David Owen’s Green Metropolis, Michael Pollen’s In Defense of Food, and Kevin Phillip’s American Theocracy were my copilots. Thirty-eight hours of policy-wonking that I’d never have the patience to read in print.

Books of this sort share several things in common.

First, they are too long. Each needed an editor who weighed the manuscript and sent it back with the simple directive: “Cut this in half”. Their theses, though important and sound, get lost in mountains of detail and a habit of paraphrasing an idea to make it seem fresh. These aren’t academic works, so I don’t understand what compels the authors to insert mile marker after mile marker of minutiae. Perhaps they’re modern day Dickens – paid by the word.

imgres-2Second, the analytical power of these books fizzles when it’s time to make conclusions. Is the liberal worldview so beaten down that we can enumerate problems ad nauseum but offer no viable solutions? David Owen presents a clear case for high-density living but doesn’t offer any economic or policy guidance to move us in that direction. Any spin master knows that, “We have to make driving less attractive” is a non-starter. Toss us a few positive examples, Dave, to illuminate the way. At least Michael Pollen never pretends that his response to buck Big Food by growing and cooking our own has broad applicability; he embraces his audience of Whole Foods transcendents. And by the time Kevin Phillips completes his 15-CD exposition, I’m not only convinced that American dominance is in retreat, I’m too exhausted to care that he offers no uplifting way out or our demise.

But the most bizarrimgres-1e aspect of these books is how I consume them, which is at complete odds with their message. In my ordinary life I drive little, eat well, and don’t participate in the oil-drenched, fundamentalist debt-cycle Mr. Phillips cites as our doom. But on a road trip, I fill up my tank every six hours; I consider the merits of the waffles versus doughnuts offered at my economy motel breakfast, and then gobble down both; I accelerate past miles of MacMansions inhabited by fellow citizens simultaneously burdened by debt and liberated by their certain faith.

It is disingenuous to listen to Mr. Owen extol the sustainable virtue of Manhattan as I barrel along I-80 in rural Pennsylvania. It is poor form to chuckle at Mr. Pollen’s sage advice, ‘never eat the same place your car does’, as I fetch a power bar and Diet Coke at a truck stop in Ohio. It is heinous to absorb Mr. Phillips’ litany of triple omens in the South. I motor through 50 miles of continuous development between Huntington and Charleston West Virginia as he describes our government’s deceitful acts to ensure cheap oil, wondering why I always thought West Virginia was rural. He rants against the religious right’s takeovimgreser of the Republican Party – and our national discourse – as I pass anti-evolution billboards in Virginia. He outlines the conspiracy of eternal debt that spells the end of American hegemony as I drive through New York City. Like I said, it’s a long book; begun in Kentucky, completed in Connecticut.

Still, I find value in listening to these books. What they say needs to be said, even if they repeat themselves too much. The author’s arguments motivate me to consider next steps: how can we address the big issues of food, energy and personal freedom in a world parsed into narrow sound bites.

My audiobook orgy inspired me to provide a service to all my awkward pose readers. Over the next few weeks I’ll post Audiobook Orgy Parts 2, 3, 4: short synopses of each book and potential actions that we, as individuals and as a society, can take to move in a healthier direction. It will save you hours of reading or listening. Unless you want the deep dive. For that, I recommend a car trip from Cambridge to Kentucky.

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