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World Made By Hand

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Harmony Community, Putnam Co., GA, May 28-June 1, 1941

This letter was published today at

I recently finished trenching and running a few hundred feet of irrigation pipe on land that has been in my wife’s family for a few generations. We are the proud recipients of this small farm in the Southeast US. My Mother-In-Law was helping, and getting various tools and such out of the 100 year old barn (still standing and strong). We found an old hoe that was worn so that over half of the tine was missing. She said that her father and grandfather had used this hoe to manually weed and till every bit of the 50 acres! This was a farm that didn’t have indoor plumbing until the early 1970s.

Here I was, exhausted from digging a trench (with a machine of course), and laying pipe (plastic with glue), and had been working “very hard” for a few hours. Slowly realizing, listening to my mother-in-law that her family worked this land without the aid of gas powered equipment until her father died in the late 1980s. For over 125 years this farm had produced an income and raised families. I was tired after working, but now had an understanding that in no way can I count myself in the same league as the men that had worked sun up to sun down by hand, these were true men. I whine when the lawn mower won’t easily start, or when the padded handle on the shovel gets too hard for comfort!

In the interest of preparedness, each of us should examine ourselves to see if we have it in us both physically and mentally to work at providing for our loved ones. After this experience, I am doing more to get myself physically in shape for what may come. No matter, I will be happier, healthier, and more humble than before! God Bless, – RJ in the Southeast US

This letter serves to remind us how much we’ve lost, how much we’ve forgotten, and how much we take for granted in our modern world.

For an imaginative view of life in a possible future world without abundant, cheap energy, I thoroughly recommend James Howard Kunstler’s novel ‘World Made By Hand’.


Written by Pete Smith

May 19, 2008 at 10:14 am

Safety In Childbirth

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Indian toilet baby

The comedian Robin Williams once famously described childbirth as “like passing a fucking bowling ball!”. Not from personal experience, presumably. Small wonder, though, that one pregnant passenger on an Indian train lost consciousness during a visit to the toilet. On coming round, she found to her horror that she had given birth and the baby had fallen down through the toilet onto the track beneath the train. The baby girl, born two months premature, was eventually found lying uninjured on pebbles close to the track, with the umbilical cord hanging at her side. She is now recovering in intensive care after suffering from exposure.

Express India ‘Pregnant Indian uses train toilet, baby slips out’

Meanwhile, with impeccable timing, The King’s Fund, an independent charitable foundation working for better health, has published a report on the safety of maternity services in England (‘Safe Births: Everybody’s business’) Mothers and babies in England could be facing unnecessary risks in some maternity wards. Most births are safe, but improvements are still needed. The review does not cover the quality or efficiency of maternity services, but simply their safety during birth, the time at which the risks are highest for mother and baby.

I’m sure the lady on the train would agree with that last part. When I last checked, UK childbirth guidelines didn’t include dropping newborns from a moving train down a filthy toilet. However, that incident shows that we humans are made of pretty tough stuff. I’m not suggesting that we go back to the days of squatting down behind a bush to give birth, then carrying on as if nothing had happened, although that is still commonplace in the developing world today. However, we do seem to be getting a little precious about safety, not just in childbirth but in health issues generally and in wider social matters such as children’s upbringing. A little bit of dirt and a few germs shouldn’t hurt anyone. Sadly, our obsession with sterile hospitals has backfired on us, to the point where a healthy adult going into hospital for a routine operation can come out feet first after contracting one of the exotically-named superbugs.

NHS operating theatre, or latrine number 3 on the 10:46 to Mumbai? There’s a choice.

Written by Pete Smith

February 29, 2008 at 2:47 pm

Eat Food

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Channel 4’s food season ‘Big Food Fight’ is about to start its second week. I’ve deliberately avoided most of the programs so far, because I know a lot of this stuff already and frankly I just get upset by yet more gory details about factory farming. Great bloke though Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall seems to be, I don’t need to sit through his faithful reconstruction of an intensive chicken farm. Although anyone who has cooked and eaten both roadkill and human placenta paté deserves our respect.

Be that as it may, last Thursday I found myself watching ‘The Truth About Your Food’, a Dispatches documentary about the £5 billion UK market in premium foods and ready meals that claim to be healthy and nutritious. Three families were given different collections of ‘foods’ from which to assemble their regular diet: premium ‘healthy’ products, e.g. Sainsbury’s ‘Be Good To Yourself’ range; bargain basement equivalents; and I can’t honestly remember what the third, quite health-conscious, family had, it may have been business as usual. That must have made them the ‘control’, although that would imply a level of scientific rigour for the program that it didn’t really deserve.

Between domestic reaction shots (“Mmmm, this is…. quite nice”) and nutritionist talking heads, we learnt a few things.

  • Foods that claim to be good for you very often aren’t.
  • Premium-price healthy products are often no better for you than their cheaper cousins, and sometimes worse.
  • The various competing food labelling schemes are confusing and pretty much useless, since people who don’t have time to cook their own food tend not to have hours to spare to decypher the figures on the packet.
  • Breakfast cereals are full of salt and sugar.
  • Concentrated fruit juices are full of citric acid which is as bad for your teeth as fizzy drinks.

And so on. I know that by the end I was past caring what the ‘results’ of the ‘experiment’ were. Each family was shown piles of salt, sugar and fat equivalent to what they’d consumed while on their ‘diet’. The relative sizes don’t matter, they were all scarily large. The one thing I took away from the program was recurring nausea at the thought of yet another Tesco chicken tikka massala or Waitrose chicken filo parcel. Chicken seemed to crop up quite often as an ingredient. I wonder where it comes from. My mate Hugh could probably tell you.

A feeling gradually emerged from all this that what these people were being fed wasn’t really food at all, but what Michael Pollan would call “foodlike substances”. In his book ‘In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating’, he describes how our eating habits have been formed, manipulated and controlled by a “nutritional industrial complex”. We have moved away from traditional food cultures where what we eat and how we eat it was determined by family influence and local ingredients, to a complacent acceptance of interference in our diet by scientists, marketing and governments. While nutritional recommendations change regularly, the end result is still that “much of the nutritional advice we’ve received over the past fifty years has made us less healthy and much fatter”.

So, what to do? Pollan’s core message is that we should return to eating “real food”, and offers some recommendations on how to find it and get the most out of it. It’s a long list, here’s a few to give you a flavour:

  • Don’t eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food. Going back several generations enables us to avoid the confusion of lengthy ingredient lists, most of which have dubious nutritional value and are included more for the food industry’s benefit than for ours.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims on the package. Anything with a package is more likely to be a processed than a whole food. And the whole issue of packaging and its environmental impact is another kettle of worms altogether.
  • Cook – and, if you can, plant a garden. Creating your own food chain, “from fork to fork” as Monty Don used to say, enables us to reclaim control from industry and science.

Pollan goes so far as to say that “cooking from scratch and growing our own food qualify as subversive acts”. This puts him firmly in the same camp as relocalisation groups such as Path To Freedom. It doesn’t matter how much or how little food you can grow yourself. If you can just grow some salad on a window-sill, that’s one less nitrogen-filled plastic bag of imported salad bought. After all, as Lao-Tzu said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Extracts from Michael Pollan’s book ‘In Defence of Food’, including his full set of rules-of-thumb, are published on the Guardian’s web site.

Consuming passion’

‘How to get back to real food’

Sustainable Food Laboratory

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Bio-fuel Health Hazard

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Ethanol is promoted as a sustainable, clean-burning and eco-friendly fuel that will reduce pollution and global warming. A study from Stanford University suggests that large-scale moves away from gasoline to ‘alternative’ fuels containing a high proportion of ethanol would lead to an increase in numbers of respiratory-related deaths and hospitalizations.

A series of computer model runs simulated atmospheric conditions throughout the US in 2020, with a special focus on Los Angeles, historically the country’s most polluted ‘airshed’. The models compared the pollutive effect of a vehicle fleet (i.e. all cars, trucks, motorcycles, etc., in the US) fueled by gasoline with that of a fleet powered by E85 (a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline).

E85 vehicles reduce atmospheric levels of two carcinogens, benzene and butadiene, but increase two others, acetaldehyde and formaldehyde. Consequently, cancer rates for E85 are likely to be roughly similar to those for gasoline.

However, E85 significantly increased ozone, a prime ingredient of smog and a factor in decreased lung capacity, inflamed lung tissue, aggravated asthmatic conditions and impaired immune systems. The WHO estimates that 800,000 people die each year worldwide from ozone and other chemicals in smog.

E85 increased ozone-related mortalities in the US by about 200 deaths per year compared to gasoline, with about 120 of those deaths occurring in Los Angeles. This represents increases of 4% nationally, 9% in Los Angeles, above projected ozone-related death rates for gasoline-fueled vehicles in 2020.

We’re all doomed. If they can’t get you one way, they’ll get you another. However, these findings are probably unlikely to influence would-be suicides’ choice of termination scenario.

“Effects of Ethanol (E85) versus Gasoline Vehicles on Cancer and Mortality in the United States” Mark Z. Jacobson, Environmental Science & Technology

Written by Pete Smith

June 23, 2007 at 10:54 am