Why is Socialism So Scary?

Why is everyone so afraid to be called a socialist?

A lot of the knee-jerk, frothy-mouthed repulsion to socialism can still be attributed to fallout from the red scare. Americans have been programmed to worship the virtue of capitalism and lump socialism in with communism, fascism, and other “scary” political systems that are incompatible with capitalistic ideals. But even Americans who aren’t completely brain washed and dried by past propaganda and fear-mongering media outlets often still cringe at the mention of the “s” word. So what’s the deal?

With the rising popularity of self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders comes a debate about what his ideas mean for the United States. Although the U.S. is a country with social safety nets on paper, these programs often fall far short of lifting citizens out of poverty and homelessness. In a country where the minimum wage hasn’t been adjusted for inflation, housing prices continue to climb, and universal healthcare is in its troubled, complicated infancy, more people than ever struggle to make ends meet.

Yet voices from the right call for further constriction of the social safety net. Welfare encourages people to live on the taxpayers’ dollar they say. Hardworking people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so to speak, and escape poverty with that good old-fashioned American ingenuity, not help from Uncle Sam.

In stark contrast, there exists the Nordic model of government. Scandinavian countries, often cited as some of the most statistically happy in the world, have much more robust welfare programs. They have a free-market, capitalist economy like the United States, but tax rates between 30-50% (some of the highest in the world) that support healthcare, education, public housing, and other social services. Wikipedia calls Scandinavian countries “welfare states.” While to many Americans this may sound like an insult, it’s actually just a highly logical and intelligent way to ensure citizens in a society have their basic needs met.

I could spend years writing about what socialism actually means to me philosophically or what Bernie Sanders does and does not stand for. I could also delve into the facts that show Denmark’s form of capitalism to be more successful than ours. But in the interest of brevity and relevance to everyday conversations, I’m going to focus on the main arguments I hear from people who hate the idea of socialism or welfare states, and how I might verbally (but in most cases mentally) respond.

 

  1. The Robin Hood Economy

Why should we take one person’s hard-earned money and give it to another? In the words of every 4-year-old ever, “That’s not fair.” People with large incomes generally work very hard to bring in that money and forcing them to pay higher taxes to support those who don’t work as hard is wrong.

 

This objection is based on the flawed assumption that people who earn less do so because they work less. It ignores the existence of privilege, institutional racism, cycles of poverty, and education inequality. It conveniently forgets that college tuition in this country has increased 1,120 percent (for comparison, food prices have only risen about 244 percent due to inflation). Overwhelmingly, those with advanced degrees, thus greater opportunity and earning power, are those who could afford to go to school; not those who worked the hardest to. It also forgets that if everyone had the ingenuity or risk-taking personality to be a entrepreneur, we’d have a bit of trouble functioning as a society.

Those who did overcome all odds and adversity to succeed often don’t help the situation. People who pulled themselves out of poverty by working four jobs, starving, or abandoning the idea of sleep throughout college in order to be successful and debt free are shockingly not the first to speak up for social safety nets. In fact, they’re often some of the strongest opponents. “Well I worked hard for my success, why should someone just get it for free?” They miss the point completely that they shouldn’t have had to jeopardized their health or sanity just to ensure they didn’t spend their life in government housing while their peers’ parents simply paid for tuition. They also seem to suffer from the delusion that if things get better or a little easier for people around them, or in the generations below them, it somehow invalidates their success. It doesn’t. And their insecurity over their own self-worth is hurting people.

 

  1. Competition is King

Natural selection dude. Some people succeed, others don’t. It’s “natural” to have poverty, homelessness, and income inequality.

 

Wow, there are just so many things wrong with this one. Where do I even start? First, as I’ve already said several times in this blog, just because something is “natural” does not mean it is right, desirable, or appropriate. Infectious diseases are natural, yet we generally try to stave those off. Reproduction is natural, yet most (sane) people support the use of birth control. The provision of a social safety net is meant to ensure that all people enjoy basic human rights. It’s not so someone can afford a new video game console, it’s so they don’t have to sleep in a tent under an overpass every night. To me this is an ethical no-brainer.

 

  1. But won’t everyone just become lazy?

Giving people stuff for free will just discourage them from getting a job. We’d be encouraging people to sit around all day.

 

Who cares? Take a second to think about all the people you know. Now think about their occupations. How many of them are actually engaged in maintaining or bettering society? Are they working in healthcare or public service? Are they generating products or services people actually need? Are they working for the common good in politics or research? Or perhaps creating beautiful works of art? On the flip side, how many are just busy? Busy pushing paper around in an office, doing a job a robot could do, or hocking stuff no one needs.

Chances are, many of the busy people would choose to leave their soul-sucking jobs if their basic needs were met. Could they choose to then pursue more worthwhile careers that benefit society? Yes! Could they also choose to sit around on their asses all day, living on food stamps and jerking off? Probably! However, I would bet both my kidneys the number of healthy, functional people who would choose option B would be comparatively very low. The number of people who would choose to pursue more worthwhile careers would more than make up for the “tax burden” of the few who chose to live on government money.

Furthermore, needing to work more than full-time just to stay alive creates a desperate populace that falls right into the hands of unscrupulous and socially irresponsible businesses. Personally, I’d rather someone stay home than spend their time selling sweatshop-made items at Wal-Mart* or convincing customers to upgrade their Comcast plan.

*The three largest private employers in the U.S. are Wal-Mart, Yum Brands (Taco Bell, KFC), and McDonalds. Still glad everyone’s employed?

 

When you really take some time to look at it, you can grind this whole issue down to a very simple dichotomy. There are those who believe life should be a lottery, and if you’re unlucky enough to draw a shit number (for example by being born poor or disabled), you should have to work harder your entire life to get the same things others obtain easily. Then, there are those who believe the playing field should be leveled to the best of our ability, and all people should be given relatively the same chance to succeed.

I’d like to reiterate again that arguing the first option is right because it’s natural is absolute, unrefined bullshit. Society itself is not “natural.” Nothing humans do in 2016 meshes with the normal order of the world. The economy does not exist, country borders are imaginary, and your job is made up. But even at a fundamental “natural” level, the whole point of animal social structures are to benefit the various members of the group. If we are going to insist society function in a dog-eat-dog fashion, I’d prefer to just not have one frankly.

The hilarious thing to me is that proponents of the first model consider themselves to be “anti-entitlement” and “against handouts.” Yet, for some reason, they ignore the fact that life is just one big handout for those who were lucky enough to be born into a privileged setting.

“Well, rich people don’t cost anything to support, while government handouts cost the taxpayers money,” they say.

Wrong again. The tendency of rich people to soak up more resources than most other human beings absolutely costs something. The very wealthy can afford to consume more, produce more waste, accrue more land, and even pay off pollution disincentives. Our modern economic system places an infinite growth model on a planet with finite resources. The result is that anyone who can save up enough intrinsically worthless paper currency can buy unlimited amounts of the most precious substances, such as water, land, and food. Make no mistake, concentrating large portions of the resources needed by all of humanity into the hands of just a few people costs a great deal on a much larger scale. Mitigating the water crisis in Flint will now cost millions in state and federal government assistance; investing in insuring all citizens had access to safe water from the beginning would have cost far less.

To me, there are really only two reasons why someone might be vehemently against social safety nets. The first option is pure ignorance. People don’t understand where our tax money actually goes, what privilege and institutional racism are, or what degree luck has played in their success. Or, perhaps, they really just don’t understand the scope of the problem in the first place. If you’ve never lived in a big city and seen the struggle homeless and impoverished people face, you may never truly understand.

The other option however is much more depressing. If you understand how unlevel the playing field really is and how much a country, as a whole, can benefit from evening this playing field, yet you still don’t think people should pay into a system that supports others when they fall, you might just be an ass hole.

There, I said it.

You might just be the kind of person who thinks so lowly of your fellow human beings, that you’d rather believe they’re lazy than misfortuned. You might be the kind of person who attributes all your success to yourself and ignores those who helped you along the way.

Regardless of the genetic, developmental, and environmental factors that led to you feeling this way, I can’t help but see you as someone I do not like.

At the end of the day, if you can look at another human being and say “you should be homeless while I should be warm and well-fed,” I just honestly don’t know what to do with you.

 

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Praise San Diego for Renewable Energy Commitment

Finally some positive news! Here’s to hoping San Diego’s actions spread like wildlife in a drought-ridden state. (too soon?)

San Diego is the first major American city to make a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy. Thank the city’s mayor for working to enact such an ambitious energy plan.

Source: Praise San Diego for Renewable Energy Commitment

Categories: Activism, Environment, Sustainability | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tiny Vampires

Hello my lovely 20-something followers! It’s been a while. But don’t worry; I have a whole new cornucopia of excuses to justify my lack of commitment to my blog. First and foremost, I’ve started actually getting paid to write (not a lot, but enough to motivate me to choose the gig over blogging). Second, I’ve had a whole host of life changes recently that kind of threw my routine (if I ever had one) out the window.

The most interesting of those is the subject of this post. After quite some time deliberating on the subject—and getting over some embarrassment and mild PTSD—I decided I am comfortable enough to share my experience. Don’t you feel lucky?

So here it goes.

Over the summer, my life was almost destroyed by a creature the size of a flax seed.

Those who’ve been victimized by this agent of Satan probably already know what I’m referring to. For the rest of you lucky, bright-eyed, blissfully ignorant bastards, I’ll elaborate (and ruin your night’s sleep): I’m talking about bed bugs. Sounds creepy right?

Well…

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When I first heard of bed bugs it was probably whilst combing travel websites. Bed bugs are often mentioned in the realm of hostels, dorms, and cheap motels, especially those abroad. I believe I checked for them half-heartedly a few times while staying in hostels in Costa Rica, not really even knowing what I was looking for.

However, everyone seems to forget to mention some very important information about bed bugs, predominantly that they are FUCKING EVERYWHERE. That’s right kiddos, nowhere is safe. Since the 80s, bed bug infestations have exploded in developed nations. Bed bugs aren’t just in hostels or motels, but in high-end apartments, restaurants, laundromats, and even libraries—yes they hide in books, and yes you can get them from these books. Commence psychotic breakdown.

Most attribute this rise to an increase in travel and pesticide resistance as well as a lack of education and the stigma surrounding infestations. Well, I’m going to do my share to tackle the last part of that sentence and school anyone reading this about these little vampires:

 

Bed bugs don’t give a shit if you’re dirty or clean, poor or rich.

Anyone and any place can be infested by bed bugs. My apartment definitely wasn’t what I would consider “high-end” but it also wasn’t a slum. Bed bugs may seem to plague poor areas more than affluent ones due to larger amounts of clutter, less responsive pest management practices, and the circulation of second-hand furniture. This doesn’t change the fact that the evil little shits will live anywhere, hitchhike on anything, and feed on anyone. Anywhere they can find warm bodies is good place to settle down. Oh, and they can also wait around for months without a meal. Like I said, nowhere is safe.

 

Bed bugs aren’t just annoying.

Some sources refer to bed bugs as an “annoying pest.” People who write things like this should try waking up to the feeling of something snacking on you, and then dealing with the knowledge that said something has actually been living in your bed frame for weeks, living off your precious life energy and shitting in your bed the whole time. Then they can tell me just how “annoying” that is. It’s not annoying, it’s fucking horrifying. This is the stuff of nightmares. Though they don’t spread disease, bed bugs can turn normal human beings into paranoid, anxiety-ridden insomniacs. So not exactly a great experience for someone who already suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Now I have the added delight of experiencing a mini heart attack any time I see something vaguely reminiscent in shape or size of a bed bug or feel an itch while in bed. For more on “Bed Bug Madness”, check out this article.

 

There is hope. Kind of.

The internet and brazen honesty are our friends in the fight against bed bugs. Through my research I found that in addition to professional extermination services, the most valuable weapon against bed bugs is plain old heat. You can purchase a product called the “Bug Zapper.” It’s basically just a portable oven that will heat your possessions (in a much safer and more effective manner than a conventional oven) to a point that cooks the tiny vampires alive. You can also freeze possessions to kill bed bugs, but this takes a lot longer and is less reliable. Most importantly people need to stop acting like this is something that only happens in the third world. All apartment complexes should warn tenants about bed bugs. Parents should teach their kids about bed bugs. President Obama should deliver an address and turn national attention and full military power towards bed bugs. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Oprah should be solving the bed bug crisis.

 

So maybe I’m just a little bent out of shape about this. But the reality is not that bed bugs ruined my life but that they took something sacred away from it. The second most devastating loss of my bed bug infestation (the first being my sanity, naturally) was my love for second-hand items. I hate buying new things in a world full of unwanted stuff and I love the character of used books, furniture, and clothing. But now that I’ve peered into the rabbit hole of lunacy, desperation and paranoia that is life with bed bugs, my zeal has been replaced with fear. I still buy used clothes, but I throw them immediately into the wash on hot and dry them for 60 minutes to set my mind at ease. I’ve also bought a few used books after flipping neurotically through the pages. But my love affair with used furniture has officially ended. I feel as though my innocence has been taken. I find it tragic that I must pass up a perfectly good futon on craigslist, or a unique end table with a turkey on it at the thrift store for fear of another infestation.

I’m not sure what the answer to the bed bug epidemic is, other than spreading the word to avoid curbside castaways and inspect hotel beds. I don’t know if throwing infested furniture in landfills or using new pesticides will do anything but prolong the inevitable: a hostile takeover of human society by nefarious bed bug overlords.

Ok obviously I’m kidding but it’s still pretty frightening, don’t you think?

 

So for anyone with something important to do today, here’s the ANGTFT (Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That) version of the last six months of my life:

Just when I was starting to really love my new tiny apartment lifestyle, it was unceremoniously demolished by demonic arthropods. My cat and I moved in with my boyfriend, almost infested his place as well, and I salvaged what possessions and sanity I could. Despite all this, we still managed to escape Michigan just before winter truly set in. We now share a small apartment in downtown D.C. where we are hoping to find work before our modest savings run out.

Thanks for reading friends, and may you never wake up in the middle of the night to find a tiny vampire hiding in the pages of your scifi novel.

Cheers.

Categories: About me, Lifestyle, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Protect Utah’s Vulnerable Desert Ecosystems

I’ve started writing for ForceChange! ForceChance is a political activism site that works to enact positive change in animal welfare, environmental, human rights, and social causes. Although my focus will typically be environmental and animal welfare issues, I’m open to covering just about anything. So if you have a cause you would like to see a petition created for, please send me a message (you can find my contact info in the “About” section of this site) and I would be happy to attempt to cover it!

Below is my first petition. Sign to support the protection of fragile desert ecosystems!

Utah

Valuable conservation areas neighboring national parks in Utah are at risk of losing protection. These areas provide habitat to vulnerable species such as the endangered Mojave Desert tortoise. Urge the Bureau of Land Management to place conservation above land use and protect these fragile desert ecosystems.

Source: Protect Utah’s Vulnerable Desert Ecosystems

Categories: Activism, Environment | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Make Your Life Better, Right Now

Alright bare with me folks, I promise I’m not selling essential oils, shake weights, or sex toys (but if I was going to suggest any of the three for making life better, I would definitely go with the sex toys). I’m also not touting “4 Ways To Fix Your Life and Be Happy”. Anyone who tells you they’ve figured out how to be happy is either lying or assuming you’re an identical person to them. Either way run.

I have simply observed the power of certain tasks to improve my life and I’d like to share them. Some of these tips may seem obvious, but I encourage you to take a look at those around you and determine how many of them actually do these things regularly. I’m guessing not many. The selling point of these tips is they require almost no time, money, or changes in philosophy, just perhaps a little dedication. So, for anyone who needs a little pick-me-up, here are 5 EASY ways to make your experience on planet earth a little better, almost immediately.

  1. Drink water.

It feels so silly to have to say this but after seeing people day in and day out drink nothing but coffee, soda, and alcohol I feel the need to remind the human species that we RUN ON WATER. While coffee and soda don’t dehydrate your body as per a common myth*, completely replacing water with them in your diet brings several other ill effects such as increased sugar intake and serious caffeine dependency. Water is the ultimate refreshing beverage and hey, if you’re fortunate enough to live in a developed nation it’s usually cheap or free! Aside from just generally keeping your body a nice, squishy, well-oiled machine, the most shockingly beneficial thing about water to me is its ability to ward off headaches. I used to get a lot of headaches and now not so much. Although some of this is likely due to improved stress reduction and management, I actually believe most of it is just hydration. I tend to get headaches when I leave my water bottle at home, but days I keep it on me and sip periodically are typically smooth sailing. Now, I’m not saying you need to drink the absurd amount of water some health gurus recommend, in fact sources say even the oft-repeated “8 glasses a day” is bull (see same article I cited above). Judging by the size of my water bottle, I probably drink around 35 oz of water on an average day but much more on a day full of strenuous exercise.

  1. Start monitoring your sleep.

As most of us know, sleep makes a world of difference in how you feel each day. However saying, “Hey, you should just get more sleep!” to someone who works two jobs to pay rent or is getting their phD is a dick move. I’m sure most people would just LOVE to “get more sleep” but their schedule and responsibilities do not allow that right now. Therefore, a smaller and more tangible step for someone feeling tired or sleep deprived all the time is to start monitoring your sleep in some way. This could range from just keeping a journal on your nightstand to buying a fancy activity tracker wristband such as a Jawbone or FitBit. I personally use a $1 app for my iPhone called Sleep Cycle. The app (supposedly) uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to track your movements while you sleep to judge what phase of sleep you are in at all times throughout your night. It then uses this judgment to try to wake you up at an “appropriate” time—aka when you’re not in a deep, dark, tar pit of a sleep coma. Although according to current research, the sleep stage you’re awoken in doesn’t affect cognitive performance**, I for one believe it affects my mood and immediate feelings about how my day’s going to go. Most people I talk to agree getting woken up during deep sleep or an intense dream is pretty awful.

Although I won’t say the app works perfectly, I certainly prefer it to my old alarm and the data it provides are where the real usefulness lies. Whether using an app, journal, or device, the goal is to take note of the factors each day that may be affecting your sleep length or quality, and matching those up with feelings and behaviors you observe in yourself. Do you often eat a large dinner close to bedtime? Start writing down when you do or don’t and you may begin to notice a correlation with the way you sleep or wake up. Once you start to pick out these patterns, it often becomes clear that small and easy changes could make a huge difference for your sleep quality. One of the most important things I found was that I sleep much better when I read before bed than when I spend time on my phone or computer. Although this pattern is statistically validated, the push for me to stop reading on my phone before bed came from my own data instead of from real science. Go figure.

  1. Do something to improve your space.

Do you find yourself sitting at home sometimes feeling frustrated yet not sure why? Perhaps it’s just me but this tends to happen a lot. I discovered some time ago that all I need to quell this restlessness is a change of functional scenery. I say functional scenery because I don’t believe just decorating can produce this affect. Aesthetics are important and feng shui is great but I’m all about maximizing the utility of a space. A functional space improvement adds a new, usable dimension or property to your environment, specifically the one you see every day. An example of this could be moving your furniture into a more “social” arrangement, perhaps facing each other instead of a TV. Another could be de-cluttering and organizing a table so the top can now be used as a workspace. Often, you don’t even need to buy anything for this; it’s just a small, seemingly obvious change you just never thought to try. Sometimes you won’t notice the difference or even dislike it. But most of the time it improves your space in a way that allows you to be more of something desirable to you: organized, social, creative, hardworking, sexually devious, whatever!

  1. Do something for someone else.

My final and sappiest tip is to be selfless in some small way. Or big way. That depends on your passion, time, and resources. However, I believe all of us are capable of doing something at least small for someone just about every day. Now make no mistake; just as in the natural world, altruism is not the warm, fuzzy act it often appears. I don’t consider myself a bad person but I’m not Mother Theresa. Obviously I care about people and want them to be happy. But often, I do random acts of kindness predominantly because they make me happy. I would even wager that I often get more reciprocal happiness than the act was even worth. For example, giving a homeless man five dollars may make his hour better but it will probably make my whole day better. Perhaps this is why a study a few years back found spending money on other people is the best way to “buy happiness”***. So donate ten dollars to charity, share your lunch with someone who doesn’t have one, go play with the animals at a shelter, or at the very least smile at someone (sometimes this is all I can muster). I promise you won’t be disappointed.

* http://www.huffingtonpost.com/monica-reinagel-ms-ldn-cns/dehydration-myth_b_1080956.html

** http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/dream2.htm

*** http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88682320

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Loon Lacrimosa: North Manitou Island

Although seemingly irrelevant, the title of my blog actually has meaning to me beyond just an oh-so clever play on the common name for a Michigan bird. When I was about four years old, my parents purchased a small cottage in Mecosta, Michigan. Mecosta is a city most would consider within the catchall distinction of podunk nowhere. The “city” consisted of two bars, a gas station, and a combination laundromat and video rental store. Yes they were attached. Yes we used both of them. Anyway, the cottage was on a tiny but pristine body of water appropriately named “Pretty Lake”. My family had this cottage until they made the difficult decision to sell it during my freshman year of college, so about fourteen years. Thus the majority of my childhood summers were spent swimming, playing outside, getting bit by mosquitoes, and most importantly, pestering wildlife in every possible way. I am under the impression my career pathway (if you can even call it that at this point…maybe “life focus” would be a better choice) was hugely influenced by the amount of time I spent outdoors looking at, listening to, and wrangling wildlife during my youth. One of the more illusive creatures that could be found intermittently on Pretty Lake was the common loon (Gavia immer). The loon’s unmistakable, haunting call is as much as part of Michigan lore as drowsy mother bears and cryptozoological dog men. If you haven’t heard a loon’s call, take a second to Youtube that shit right now. I’ll wait here.

Perhaps this bizarre, eerie sound is the origin of the second dictionary definition for the word loon: a crazy or simple-minded person.

In addition to their unique vocalizations, loons are also just gorgeous birds. Breeding adults boast striking plumage of black and white and fiery red eyes. I wouldn’t go as far as to say loons are my spirit animal, especially since I’m not generally a bird person, but I’m a pretty big fan of these guys. Unfortunately loons, like many other threatened species, are dying in droves at the indirect hand of man. The mechanism is complicated, so much so that it requires an entire DNR poster in state parks and national lakeshores to explain it. The simplified version is this: humans introduced two non-native species to the Great Lakes and inland lakes of Michigan, zebra mussels and round gobies. Zebra mussels are filter feeders, meaning they eat by filtering tiny organisms out of the water they live in. Zebra mussels are so good at being zebra mussels that they have actually begun over-filtering Michigan waters, creating clarity levels that are not natural for these ecosystems. The clear waters allow for increased light penetration, which allows for increased algal growth. The algae grows at such a rate that it creates mats in which algae becomes smothered, dies, and begins to decompose within the mat. The rotting algae is a prime breeding ground for the Botulism toxin, a bacterium that causes a dangerous disease by the same name. This is where the second exotic, the round goby, comes in. Gobies swim among the algae beds, eating worms and other small organisms that have consumed the rotting algae, and they thus contract the Botulism bacteria. When loons and other shorebirds eat gobies containing the toxin, they contract Botulism and die.*

Recently I went on a short backpacking trip on North Manitou Island, one of the two “cubs” off the shore of the Sleeping Bear Dunes (if you don’t know the Native American tale about Sleeping Bear, it’s worth checking out). I had a fantastic time exploring the island and was met with breathtaking beauty at every turn. That is, until I encountered at least seven dead or dying loons in a row along the southwestern shore. I say dead or dying because two of the loons I encountered were still alive, suffering from what appeared to be paralysis and “limberneck”**. This was extremely difficult for me to see, especially since I knew there was nothing I could do to help the suffering birds. The enthrallment of backpacking in rustic, backwoods beauty became painful, lingering guilt for the damage our species is causing to the others we share this planet with. My boyfriend and I hiked back to our camp feeling sad, angry, and defeated. Even here, what felt like a million miles away from civilization, we could not escape blatant signs of ecological degradation. I was having flashbacks to Playa Llorona in Costa Rica.

Although this may seem like a downer of a post (probably because it is) I feel it’s important to talk about these experiences. If every person was forced to walk pass a suffering animal on a beautiful beach, knowing full well its suffering was caused by the actions of man, the world might look a little different. In the words of Gretchen Wyler, “we must not refuse to see with our eyes what they must endure with their bodies.” I want people, especially those who spend time enjoying natural resources, to understand our actions do cause real, observable consequences. It may seem a hopeless plight for loons and other species affected by invasives (such as ash trees, a species I work with every day). After all, the invaders are already here. What can we possibly do at this point? Yet it is always advisable to educate yourself. It amazes me how often people come upon our research in state and metro parks and have no knowledge of emerald ash borer or have even noticed ubiquitous death of ash trees across the state. These are people who have chosen to spend their day hiking, fishing, or otherwise enjoying a natural area, yet they are completely out of touch with forest health.

When you see something strange, like thousands of dead trees in an otherwise healthy stand or several dead birds along a pristine shore, ask yourself why and then go find the information. In my opinion, the most important thing we can do for our ecosystems at this point is just to give a damn. To have a sense of stewardship for the lands we inhabit. And not to turn a blind eye to the environment five days out of the week only to enjoy the fruits of nature, conversationalists and wildlife managers on the weekends. The Internet is a powerful tool and no one needs a degree in environmental science to be a steward. If you’re interested in learning more about the species I mentioned or how the average person can prevent or inhibit the spread of invasive species, check out the links I’ve shared below.

* http://www.annarbor.com/passions-pursuits/great-lakes-loons-dying-in-record-numbers-from-botulism-outbreak-spurred-by-ecological-disturbance/

** http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10370_12150_12220-26493–,00.html

Learn about invasive species:

Zebra mussels: http://www.protectyourwaters.net/hitchhikers/mollusks_zebra_mussel.php

Round goby: http://www.protectyourwaters.net/hitchhikers/fish_round_goby.php

Emerald ash borer: http://na.fs.fed.us/fhp/eab/

Stopping invasives: http://www.fws.gov/invasives/what-you-can-do.html

On a brighter note, here are some nice shots from the trip:

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Categories: Animals, Environment, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fuck Your Selfie (and other thoughts)

There’s nothing cute about being obsessed with your own reflection. There is nothing endearing about obtaining your entire self worth from the opinions of others. There is nothing commendable about narcissism. I’m the furthest thing from religious, but I think pride was one of the “Seven Deadly Sins” for a reason. Yet we spend hours each week, perhaps even each day, looking at or posting self-serving images, videos, and announcements on the Internet. We reward each other for this behavior regularly with comments and “likes”…and the portion of our ever-shrinking time on this earth it costs to post them.

Although the phenomenon can hardly be called the most troubling characteristic of modern humanity, I still find it rather disconcerting. One of my favorite podcasters, Dr. Christopher Ryan, the author of a fantastic book called Sex at Dawn, recited an interesting story on an (old) podcast I listened to the other day. He described a friend who had traveled to Africa to live with a small village of hunter-gatherer/subsistence farmers. At his departure, he wanted to give a gift to the people. He took great care to select the finest ox for sale, inspecting it for all health aspects and spending a large chunk of change. However, he was devastated to receive nothing but ridicule from the villagers. “That ox is a bag of bones!” “We won’t have enough meat for the whole village, we’ll have to hunt still.” “You don’t know anything about buying meat, do you?” Seeing the friend’s disappointment, a man pulled him aside and told him not to be so offended. “This is just how we are” he explained “we can’t let you be proud of your gift, because when people get proud, they start telling people what to do and then they end up killing somebody!” Now as dramatic as this explanation may seem, take a second to really consider the man’s point and see it might not be so far from the truth. Pride can be the root of all sorts of nasty behaviors. Ryan went on to point out “this is the exact opposite of how our society works” in reference to Western, or perhaps more broadly to “civilized” culture as a whole. For generations, our society has been built on the hallmarks of “hard work” and “success” (instead perhaps on cooperation). The definitions of both these phrases are subjective, yet they are treated as defined, measurable qualities with certain sets of rules. As a result, people compete to meet these definitions and become proud of their accomplishments, especially as they triumph over others.

Though the tendency of individuals in a competitive, free-market, individualistic society to be self congratulatory is relatively long standing, it has become particularly apparent in recent popular culture. Announcing your accomplishments via small blocks of text directed at large groups of acquaintances (and/or strangers) is a part of the average person’s day now. Seventy-four percent of online adults use social networking sites* and there are now almost as many people on Facebook as there are in China.** The craze of announcing your presence to the world beyond your immediate, physical location became even more involved when people became obsessed with posting photos on social media. Vacation photos, baby photos, workout photos, yoga photos, food photos, “selfies”. Selfies. Let’s take a second to address the term. The term “selfie”, for those living under an html-based rock the last couple years is a picture a person takes of his or herself, generally with a phone camera, for no specific reason other than to share their physical appearance with their “followers” (be those friends, social media acquaintances, “fans”, or other). A recent study found the taking a lot of these photos to be linked with callous-unemotional traits in individuals such as narcissism and psychopathy***. Yet most perceive this behavior as a “normal” use of social networking sites.

I speak of this phenomenon as a participator, not an observer. I recognize the value in sharing my life and accomplishments with those not in close physical proximity to me and I too am guilty of the occasional “selfie”, albeit almost exclusively when I am in the company of my cat (because she’s just so CUTE) or have dyed my hair a shiny new color. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the competitive, self-congratulatory, “look how GREAT I’m doing” culture we’ve found ourselves knee-deep in isn’t doing more to our psyches than we realize. Is social media just dragging our species’ preexisting narcissist tendencies into the light or is it breeding a wicked new strain of egotism, like antibiotic-resistant bacteria breeding in the harsh landscapes of human bodies.

The argument for heavy social media use as a normal part of our interaction however has, in my opinion, large support from primate evolution. Humans have evolved to be highly social individuals, interacting with our peers to accomplish almost all daily tasks. It is imperative to our primate brains to consider the impression our actions leave on others. When you can no longer beat up the largest chimp in the group to gain respect, you have to prove yourself more worthy than him in other ways. That could include making it as apparent as possible that your life is important, your appearance is alluring, and your accomplishments are noteworthy. Perhaps instead of evolving to be cooperative and empathetic, we managed to take a page out of bird survival strategy and evolve to be showy. However, just because something comes naturally, does not mean it is positive. The consumption of fat-laden foods and infidelity come quite naturally for most as well.

Additionally, I believe there is a not-so-fine line between sharing your life with others and electronically shoving it down their throats. For example, if I could gather 50 of my closest friends and family members in one room, on one day and show them pictures from my most recent trip abroad or my new hula hoop tricks, I probably would! However, I think I’d be a lot less inclined to sit them down and demand they look at my face for no reason. “See my face? Isn’t it nice? Why don’t you all just look at it for a bit. I got new sunglasses or something.” This is how I see selfies and why I find them embarrassing and disturbing. You also probably wouldn’t show a room of 50 friends the meal you ate last Tuesday or tell them three separate times how in love you are. But you might tell them you’re moving to Chicago.

I think the take-home of all this is to maybe not spend quite so much time seeking or feeding praise. Social media can be a beautiful, convenient tool for keeping in touch with those who matter and sharing your life with them despite physical limitations. However, if this is truly the goal, feedback shouldn’t be needed and the information shared shouldn’t be shallow or mind-numbingly pervasive. Give credit where credit is due, but try not to contribute to a culture that puts people on pedestals for images that are not objective, but self designed at best and manipulative at worst. Just as they say don’t feed the trolls, don’t feed the egomaniacs. You don’t need to shit all over their choice of oxen…but please don’t like their selfies either.

P.S.
Please do check out the sources/links below, they’re interesting!

* http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/social-networking-fact-sheet/
** http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/29/almost-as-many-people-use-facebook-as-live-in-the-entire-country-of-china/
*** https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/close-encounters/201501/are-selfies-sign-narcissism-and-psychopathy

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Categories: Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why humans run the world

ideas.ted.com

History professor Yuval Noah Harari — author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind — explains why humans have dominated Earth. The reason is not what you might expect.

70,000 years ago humans were insignificant animals. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were unimportant. Their impact on the world was very small, less than that of jellyfish, woodpeckers or bumblebees.

Today, however, humans control this planet. How did we reach from there to here? What was our secret of success, that turned us from insignificant apes minding their own business in a corner of Africa, into the rulers of the world?

We often look for the difference between us and other animals on the individual level. We want to believe that there is something special about the human body or human brain that makes each individual human vastly superior to a dog, or a pig, or…

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Checking in: Six Months of Tiny Living and Carlessness!

So remember that time I said I was going to try to write a little bit each week instead of waiting and then doing a massive thought dump? Well, I did try.

I’m not very good at keeping routines and as much as I liked writing regularly, it didn’t take long for me to become distracted by various other things. You see there are just too many fun activities out there to occupy my time. I have far too many hobbies and not enough (free) hours in the day. So much like meditation, yoga, and waking up early, my newfound habit sort of fell by the wayside. Furthermore since the golden, short time of summer is finally upon us Michiganders, I spend 90% of my day riding my bike, hiking around in woodlots and fields at work, and otherwise recreating outside. Thus, I’m not exactly sitting in front of my computer frequently.

Me, every week.

Me, every week.

Now that I’ve got my excuses out of the way, let’s get to the main purpose of this post. I am officially into month six of my simple living lifestyle design experiment, or whatever the hell you want to call it. It’s not so much an experiment as it is just my life…but since it’s all kind of new to me and more or less uncharted territory as far as my peers go, I’m taking note of the results. I have to say, so far things have gone remarkably well. I’m smitten with my tiny apartment, my job at the university is enjoyable, and the majority of the time I love being car-less. In the interest of organization and keeping up with themes, I’m going to construct this post much the same way I did my pre-move in post. Yup, cliché internet list style. Enjoy.

6 Triumphs and Failures of a Simplified Lifestyle

1. Living a 10-minute bike ride from work is amazing.

If you’re a sane human being you hate commuting to work. Who the hell wants to get early up just to sit in traffic with thousands of other miserable people? Getting to work is basically just like an extra punch in the face on top of the drudgery of the average 8-hour workday. However, biking or busing to work in 10-20 minutes has basically taken all the stress out of this experience. I find that I actually show up to work in a decent mood most days (well, now that it’s above 45 degrees in the morning that is).

2. Living in a small space has helped me prioritize my needs and wants.

When your kitchen is the size of a walk-in closet you really start to learn which cooking implements are really necessary. Spatula? For sure. Strange contraption that peels an orange for you? I’ll pass. I’ve gotten rid of a fair amount of stuff, from video games to clothes to toiletries and it honestly feels fantastic. Not only is a small living space incentive to purge (or not purchase in the first place) unneeded things, it’s a great (and valid) excuse as to why you can’t accept unwanted gifts or giveaways. “Sorry, I literally do not have room in my apartment for the most wasteful coffee maker known to mankind Karen but thanks for the biodegradable K-cups.”

3. Not having a car is surprisingly liberating.

You would think not having a car would be a hindrance, almost impossible depending on where you live. However, due to the fairly reliable bus system in my area, my love of biking and moderate distaste for driving, I’ve found it predominantly enjoyable. Finding parking, paying for parking, rush-hour traffic, wondering if I’d had one too many drinks to get my car home tonight…these are all things I miss worrying about literally 0 percent. My bike is also helping to keep me in great shape, even when I don’t bust my ass at work or take time to exercise. It’s nice not having to think about exercising, instead it’s just part of my existence. If my bike is reading this, I love you!

4. Not having a car is predictably constraining.

For out-of-city needs and adventures however, not having a car is undoubtedly frustrating. Things like the Greyhound, Michigan Flyer (basically a nicer Greyhound), and Zipcar are definitely better than nothing and I’m so glad they exist…but they don’t exactly close the gap. Zipcars get pricey when you need them for more than a few hours, and getting to and from a bus station can be an adventure in and of itself. Thus, I haven’t seen my out of town friends or traveled around Michigan nearly as much as I’d like and I do a lot of mooching off my boyfriend to get to metro Detroit. By far the worst part of this however is getting to medical appointments. My insurance blows and many of the doctors I need or would like to see are 30 minutes or more outside my city. It essentially makes the ordeal of seeing a doctor even more annoying, which I didn’t even know was possible honestly. Still though, I would take these relatively infrequent annoyances over stress and astronomical monthly payments any day.

5. Having more free time is a blast.

Until recently I was only working 32 hours a week. Due to my low rent and lack of car costs, this was more than enough to cover my expenses. However, due to my need to save for my impending move and the increase in workload that comes with field season, I am back up to full time. I was blissfully happy working 32 hours however. That extra day before the weekend hit was just what I needed to do the things I wanted to do, but was always too tired or burnt out to do during a normal 40-hour workweek. I found the extra free time gave me space to be creative, functional, and reflective, as well as relax. Saving money by living simply speaks volumes when it allows you to have this freedom. It’s unfortunate there aren’t more jobs out there that allow 32-hour workweeks.

6. Having less money to spend during it is a drag.

Chances are if you live 10 minutes from where you work and you take the bus everywhere, you live in a city. And chances are if you live in a city, you’re not exactly in range of a lot of free recreation options. Compared to the hiking, swimming, snorkeling, coconut husking free time of Costa Rica jungle living, free activities in the city are a little less enthralling. The ironic thing is that my lifestyle is what allows me to have this free time, yet that same lifestyle limits what I can do with it. Luckily I’ve found a few great low-cost hobbies that I genuinely love, like hula hooping in parks and hanging around campus on nice days. But the glory of sitting on sunny patios, drinking long islands and eating seasoned fries still beckons. Hence why I’ve eaten or drank about a third of the money I was supposed to save this month. Whoops.

So there you have it folks, a quick run through of the pros and cons of my lifestyle. I may also post some pictures of my tiny apartment (if I ever get around to taking them) in a future post, because I think it’s pretty rad. If I had to give the past six months a rating, I would probably say eight out of ten, do recommend. However, I’m still more than ready for a change…and I have a feeling fall is going to sneak up fast. It’s becoming increasingly important for me to save money and focus on how I’m going to get my ass from Michigan to somewhere warm…but that’s for another post. Till next time, Pura Vida!

Categories: About me, Lifestyle | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Judge Me: Why Judgement is Both Unavoidable and Healthy

Judge me. No really, seriously, judge away. And don’t keep those thoughts to yourself, please share what it is about me that bothers you in some way. These phrases may sound like snarky text messages from your 13-year-old sister, but I actually expect them to be read as literally as possible. I am almost 100% in favor of judging.

Of course, to explain an opinion like this I need to do a bit of refining of terms and meanings. To me, being judgmental and being an ass hole are not the same. However, passing judgment where it is neither constructive nor warranted can turn you into an ass hole quite speedily. Furthermore, using judgment as a pretext for malice will seal the deal. I’d like to pull a quote from a book I just started reading, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. This is my first foray into the ideas of Stoicism, a philosophy developed in Ancient Greece and popular in Rome that bears some similarity to Buddhism. Although I’ve only read a few pages, and thus have gained only minimal insight into the inner workings of the late Roman Emperor’s mind, I am already stumbling upon useful ideas:

 

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I, who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it is in the same intelligence and the same potion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are all made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

 
 

Taking a second to ascertain the meaning behind ancient Rome’s longest run-on sentence, I sensed within it the same opinion I’ve harbored for years: It is not inherently wrong to judge someone. This is a rather unpopular stance in modern culture, where the phrase “don’t judge me” is a favorite mantra among the overly defensive, the ill advised, and guests of Maury. Yet as Aurelius hints at the beginning of this “meditation”, we all go through life each day encountering people whose beliefs and actions do not align with our personal code of conduct. We judge them against this code. To call for a society in which no individual passes judgment on another is not only impossible, it’s actually just a terrible idea. The goal is not to abstain from judgement, but to abstain from irritation, anger, and cruelty. Having said that, are there still millions of petty circumstances in which a person has no business sharing their opinion of another’s choices? Certainly. But are there also circumstances in which a healthy dose of judgment is not only warranted, but desperately needed? I say hell yes.

I judge the person who refuses to acknowledge their privilege, the person who thinks animals are ours to torment, or the person who lives upon the planet with no regard for the greater Earthly community just as Aurelius judges the ungrateful, the arrogant, and the deceitful. Simultaneously I judge myself for being “unsocial”, for being quick to anger, and for being overly concerned with self image. Without judgment there is no reflection; without reflection there is no progress. Do those who announce that no one has the right to judge another still reserve the right for a person to judge his or herself? If so, why is your own person so vile that you would do unto yourself what you should never, ever do to another? And if not, then how do they expect individuals to grow and mature? Loving yourself really does lead to loving others, but loving yourself so much that you never question your own beliefs is a recipe for disaster.

The problem is not judgment, but dickishness. The personal codes of ethics that exist (hopefully) within each of the 7.something billion human beings on this planet will never “synch up”. There will not come a day when we all collectively wake up and realize hitting your kids is wrong or that mayonnaise is just gross. Barring some terrifying, Brave New World-esque overall in which humans become standardized from birth, difference in developmental pressures, culture, and perception will always produce individuals with different neural maps, thus opinions. To decide someone is less deserving of your kindness based on your judgment of his or her behavior is the folly. Ideally, I should judge people in much the same way I judge myself. I should see the ways in which a man’s actions negatively affect himself, those around him, or the planet and think to myself that he is wrong for those things. Yet just as I do not berate myself, I should not go over and push the man in dirt.

Although I see the righteousness of Aurelius’ Philosophy, I still struggle to live true to it. A couple weeks ago I beckoned to any of my Facebook friends who supported Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration” act to promptly lose my number. “Anyone who believes it is ok to treat a fellow human being this way has absolutely no place in my life!” I internet-screamed to the masses. I felt it was necessary to both judge and act against those who had acted against others in such a grotesque way. Simplified: I was being a dick to the dicks. This is the kind of behavior I have trouble avoiding. The better approach is obviously to judge silently, forgive ignorance, and should the issue ever come up in a civil environment, do my best to explain why their behavior is unacceptable to me. However, I am just not a big enough person yet. I feel compelled to be a dick to dicks. In this case, fundamentalists hating on gays irritates me in and of itself, but I am able to stay respectful and silent until something they do actually affects people.

I recognize that in order for us humans to have the type of beautiful world we’d like, we must learn to love and accept each other unconditionally. However this is the definition of “easier said than done”. Just how do you love the racist, the homophobic, the animal abuser, or the misogynist? I haven’t figured it out yet and am open to suggestions. Perhaps getting through the rest of Meditations will give me the tools I need to bridge the gap…but it’s an awfully short book.

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