Thursday, August 28, 2008

Evils of Ethanol

I felt compelled to write and send a letter to the editor of the Lincoln County Journal while I was home, mainly because it is an accessible and locally important media outlet. I wanted to express my thoughts on the interconnectedness of my home and the world at large. Ethanol is not evil, but its recent popularity is misguided at best and is indicative of a larger economic and political system that benefits those in power while failing to improve the lives of the rest of the world. This is the letter that I wrote which will appear next week in the LCJ.

"Ethanol is Unethical"

It is great to see local agriculture improving. Farmers are finally getting
high prices for their crops thanks to increased commodity prices. This will
undoubtedly have a positive impact on the local economy, but unfortunately this
is overshadowed by another result of increased commodity prices - high food
prices. Global food prices have risen dramatically as a result of record high
prices for corn, wheat and soy beans. The situation is so alarming that
the United Nations has declared a “global food crisis” that threatens the lives
of millions of the world’s poorest people who cannot afford to buy enough food
for their families. The United Nations World Food Program reports that 18,000
children are dying each day from hunger related illnesses. World prices
for wheat, rice, soy and corn have all more than doubled since 2006, a
devastatingly sharp rise for half of the world’s population, 3 billion people,
who live on less than two dollars a day.

Why did farm commodity prices rise so dramatically and so quickly? Although there are many contributing factors, the primary cause is biofuel production. Converting corn to ethanol increases the demand for corn, thereby increasing its price. The increased value of corn has led to corn being planted in place of other crops such as soy and wheat. Decreased supply of soy and wheat has led to their price
increasing along with corn. Of course this increases the cost of raising
livestock because the feed prices have risen, thereby making meat, milk and eggs
at the grocery store considerably more expensive. According to U.S. News and
World Report, 25 percent of the 2007 corn harvest went to produce ethanol. The
use of so much of our harvest for non-food purposes has contributed to 75% of
the rise in global food prices according to the World Bank.

Many argue that biofuels are an important alternative for environmental reasons, but in 2007 biofuels replaced less than 2 percent of our total oil consumption and if all of our nation’s farmland were devoted to biofuel production, it would only replace
7 percent of oil consumption in the US. Obviously biofuels are not the cure for
our energy problems; energy conservation and solar and wind energy sources are
much more responsible and sustainable. Unfortunately politicians support
biofuels because they are considered “alternative” energy that will release us
from our dependence on foreign oil. Farmers love biofuel production
because it stands to make them money. Many others support biofuels because
they stand to save a few cents at the gas pump. Do any of these reasons justify
an increase in human suffering due to food shortages?

The entire biofuel frenzy is misguided. In the United States we are now converting food that could help to feed hungry people into gasoline. It would be considered criminal if we were to physically take food from starving people and use it to run our
expensive and inefficient cars, but since the effects of our actions are clouded
by economics, we are able to ignore the reality of the situation. In
today’s world it is extremely important to realize that globalization has
intricately linked us to the rest of the world. As the richest and most
prosperous nation in history, it is our responsibility to be conscious of how
our lifestyle affects the other 6 billion people on the planet. While gas prices
are high our primary concern is filling our gas tanks, but we need to keep in
mind that there are billions more who are concerned with filling their

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Charms of Lincoln County

I have been in Silex the past week trying to soak up as much of my home as I can before I leave. Sometimes I laugh at myself for wanting to leave in order to work on a farm and get closer to nature when there are plenty of farms and much natural beauty all around Missouri. However, driving a combine around hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans does not fit with my goal of "farming". I hope to learn more about the connection between the environment in which I live and the food that I eat. Unfortunately agriculture in the midwest is more industrial - using the land as a resources which can be manipulated to produce a commodity that will not be consumed by the local community. I guess by midwestern standards what I will be doing overseas is closer to "gardening" than "farming", which is OK with me.

Although the area's farming hasn't tempted me to stick around, the area's natural beauty is becoming more apparent as my departure nears. I have been lucky enough to notice Missouri's charms while boating in Mark Twain Lake, hiking around my grandmother's land, and fishing for catfish while watching the sunset with my friends. It helps that the weather has been perfect since I have been home; sunny skies, low humidity and a high near 80 degrees! Is this really Missouri in August?!?

I have also had many opportunities to reconnect with family and friends. I hosted an informal 6 year high school reunion BBQ at my Mom's house that turned out to be way more fun than I expected. Just take a look at the picture, it says it all. It may look like poor attendance, but in a class of less than 30 about half showed up; this picture is the crew at 1:00 A.M. It was great to see so many old friends and find out what they are doing with their lives - a lot of wedding rings and a few little ones too (luckily they went to bed before this picture was taken). I officially resigned as class president because my traveling makes it difficult to plan anything substantial. Besides, I think it is safe to say that our ten year reunion will be a more formal and calm affair . . . but you never know with the Class of '02.

I have a few more days to enjoy Missouri and spend some time with my college friends in Columbia. On Sunday I pack my bags one more time and drive to upstate New York with my Dad and Uncle Ken to spend time fishing with my Uncle Steve and Judy. It is all going by very fast, but time flies when you're having fun. I shouldn't end a post with a cheesy line like that, but so be it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Georgia on My Mind

Why is it that distant small countries are only mentioned in the mainstream media in the context of disasters, war and famine? This was again the case when the Republic of Georgia came into the spotlight over the last few days. As you may know, my plan is to travel to Georgia in October for about a month to work at the Temi Community Farm, but these plans may be interrupted by an overly aggressive neighbor to the north – Russia.

Georgia and Russia have had a contemptuous relationship since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Georgia has allied itself with the West and Russia has lost most of its influence in the small country. More pertinent to this conflict is the refusal of Georgia to let two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, become part of Russia. These regions have been struggling for independence from Georgia since the breakup of the USSR, but have only been granted regional autonomy. The rationale behind Russia’s attack on Georgia was to protect South Ossetia from Georgian aggression, but in reality that is not the full story. Russia was far more interested in displaying its military might and frightening its other neighbors and re-asserting its influence in the region. Luckily the Bush administration and other foreign leaders quickly denounced the military actions on Georgian soil as disproportionate and in violation of military law. As of this afternoon, a cease fire is being worked out that will hopefully end the conflict and establish a peace-keeping force to monitor the situation. A good report on the history and future of the conflict can be found on NPR’s website

My hope is that this conflict will be cooled off by the time I am set to arrive in October. Georgia is generally a safe place and the area in which I hope to travel is on the far eastern end of the country – a stable region many miles from the conflict with Russia. I would be greatly disappointed if I could not travel to Georgia – I have had a long-standing interest in the Caucuses and the Temi Community is a fascinating mix of self sustaining agriculture and social service. I’ll be watching the news closely in coming weeks and I’ll keep the blog posted with any pertinent news.

P.S. Why is do a distant Caucasian country and a US state share the name “Georgia”? Apparently the state of Georgia is named after King George II of England and the Republic of Georgia is named after St. George. (This is the most likely of many theories because Georgia was one of the first nations to adopt Christianity in the 4th century).

Monday, August 11, 2008

Wabun, Wabun, Wabun!

I just left the beauty of the great north, having spent five days at the Lewis family's camp - Wabun This was the 76th season that Wabun has taken 10 - 18 year olds into the Canadian North on wilderness canoe trips. The location of the camp could not be better - a beautiful island in the middle of Temagami Lake in Northern Ontario. The camp was started by Jessica's great grandfather, so there is a great deal of tradition and history on the island. Honestly, it was all a little overwhelming for an outsider such as myself (lots of cheering, insider lingo, and traditions), but I enjoyed my stay and everyone was very friendly.

I was present for the "paddle in", during which all of the campers paddle their canoes onto a beach full of parents and friends ready to receive their loved ones after 6 weeks in the wilderness. It was striking how healthy and fit the campers and staff were on their return, I wish I had the opportunity to participate in such a camp during my youth as it undoubtedly builds confidence, strength and self-reliance.

I was able to spend most of my time relaxing on the lake - eating, kayaking, napping, fishing, eating, swimming, and more eating. I met lots of Jess' family and friends, all of whom were kind and friendly despite my total lack of canoeing knowledge or experience :-) It was interesting to view the camp from the outside because over the past six years I have worked or volunteered at 10 different summer camps across the country. Without exception, the camps I have worked at have served either people with disabilities or at-risk youth, so observing a camp for the general population was very interesting.

Sorry for the total lack of pictures, I didn’t pull my camera out at all during my time at Wabun. I promise I will get better at picture taking once I get overseas! The photo above is from the Wabun website - there are lots more so check it out and who knows, maybe you know someone who would like to spend six weeks in the beautiful Canadian wilderness . . . .

Monday, August 4, 2008

Oh Canada

The journey has officially began. I hit the road on Friday afternoon following a difficult (due to exhaustion) and emotional day at ORI involving a delicious potlock lunch and too many goodbyes. The first night I made it to Billings where I stayed with a gentleman who lived in Kyrgyzstan and worked for the Alpine Fund!?!? How did I find someone in Billings who shares my interest in this little-known corner of the world and who has worked for the very organization that I plan on joining next year?, that's how.

Check it out - Jess and I have been members for about half a year and have hosted three people on our couch in Missoula while they were traveling. The idea behind the site is so simple that it is brilliant. You register your name and location and build a profile in which you give as many details on yourself as you care to divulge. The next step is either hosting or surfing. If you plan on traveling to a city, say Missoula, you just do a “Couch Search” and all the members with available couches in that city pop up, then you can choose a few that sound interesting and send them a message asking to surf on their couch (or floor as the case may be). The potential host will receive the message in their email and then can read the potential surfer’s profile before giving a yes or no. The three people Jess and I hosted in Missoula were super nice and interesting and so far my own surfing experience has been very positive. In addition to the Kyrgyz traveler in Billings, I stayed in an apartment in Fargo, ND belonging to a couchsurfer. No, I did not stay “with” him because he wasn’t in town – he actually trusted me enough to leave a key for me to stay in his apartment while he was out of town. We have never met and have no mutual friends, we spoke on the phone a couple times and he went through the trouble of leaving me access to his apartment. Despite having to climb the outside wall of his apartment complex onto his balcony (which made me feel 50% James Bond and 50% burglar) I had a very relaxing night watching movies from his excellent video library and sleeping for 10 hours on his comfy couch. has begun to change my view of the internet and how it influences human interactions and social systems. Most people, myself included, have viewed the proliferation of the internet as supplanting social relationships. We picture people sitting at home on their computer instead of socializing with friends. Although there are many people who use computers and the internet as a wall to block out other people, a larger number of people are using the internet as a means to connect with people in ways never before possible. Facebook, Myspace, Couchsurfing, Blogs, Email, Instant Messaging and other internet features are actually creating and enhancing social connections. People’s social networks are no longer limited by the people in their immediate surroundings; it is now just as easy to communicate with someone on the other side of the world as it is with your next door neighbor. I find this exciting because people are more likely to communicate across cultural and national boundaries. People with similar and very specific interests can now communicate effortlessly regardless of their physical location. Technology has a long way to go, especially when you consider the “digital divide” - the fact that only the citizens of the richest countries have widespread internet access. But it appears as though it is only a matter of time before the developing world catches up – just as my friend Kyle Gifford, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who just spent two years installing wireless internet in a Armenian village that has neither regular electricity or hot water.
On a more personal note, planning my journey would have been nearly impossible before the information age. Almost all of my research was conducted online using search engines and Google Earth (if you haven’t checked that out, don’t. It is extremely addictive – all of a sudden an entire afternoon can disappear after zooming in on obscure portions of the globe). I have put together a class reunion using Facebook and email. I arranged my farm stays using their websites and email. All of my plane tickets were booked online. I will keep in communication with everyone using this blog. I will keep tabs on my finances using online banking. So rather than the internet isolating people, it can be conducive to building social relationships and seeing more of the world.

So now that I’m done ranting about the internet, I’ll continue with my journey across the country. I had good stays in Billings and Fargo and then continued on to Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. I didn’t get to the Canadian border until midnight – I was exhausted and nervous because I have already had a bad experience crossing our northern border. I pulled up to the customs booth and the grumpy, overweight customs officer started firing questions at me; “where are you living?”, “how long will you stay in Canada?”, “Who’s car is this?”, and so on. The first question really threw me off because I’m not “living” anywhere right now. After stuttering and stammering for about half a minute I tried to explain that I am moved out of Montana but I am not moving into anywhere right away. I made the mistake of mentioning Bulgaria and organic farms, which really confused things. I knew it went badly when he went to get his supervisor and they told me to pull ahead to the canopy, which I know from experience as the place where they search your car from top to bottom. I had to get out of the car and they continued with their barrage of questions while they emptied the car – I mean tore it apart opening every box, baggie, and compartment they could think of. At this point I was extremely nervous, for no good reason because I was doing NOTHING wrong. After they emptied the fully packed car – which took about three hours to pack everything into – they gave me back my passport and said, “we’ll let you repack it, you’re probably better at it”. I asked if they were kidding, but as soon as I asked I realized that they had no sense of humor anyway, so they were obviously serious. Using all the sarcasm I could muster, I smiled and said, “Welcome to Canada!” Big mistake. The supervisor/captain/head honcho got in my face and told me that I was lucky they didn’t empty everything out onto the pavement and that I made the choice to leave my country when I crossed the bridge and when I did that I gave up my rights as a US citizen. I nixed the sarcasm and asked what I could do next time to avoid this from happening as I shoved things back into the car. They wouldn’t give me a straight answer, but I guess it was my sketchy answer to the “where do you live” question and the fact that my passport lists me as from Missouri, my driver’s license is from Montana, and Jess’ car is registered in Minnesota. The last time I entered Canada alone the same thing happened – apparently I’m not welcome up north. I just find it strange that of all the customs I have been through and all the borders I have crossed, I have had the most trouble getting into Canada. Weird.

I am now in one of the most dodgy hotels I have ever had the displeasure of sleeping in, but they do have a bar downstairs with free wireless. I spent the day recovering from three days in the car and tomorrow I am off to Temagami, Ontario to visit Jess’ ancestral home island – Wabun .