Thursday, March 22, 2012

The National Discourse

" The national discourse is a circular kabuki, with heroes and victims exchanging masks in an elaborate choreography moving left to right and back again."
   Re-entering the United States after a 4-month hiatus to saner parts of the world, we are struck by how even Alexis de Tocqueville underestimated the pathology of the population here. Coming back is like putting on x-ray spectacles, maybe the pair passed to Joseph Smith by the Angel Moroni. USAnians, particularly the Republican variant, are truly warped.
   Tocqueville observed that USAnians possessed a tendency for each to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and to withdraw into the circle of family and friends. “[W]ith this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look for itself.” In such conditions “we lose interest in the future of our descendants... and meekly allow ourselves to be led in ignorance by a despotic force….”
   Tocqueville said this condition would lead to the government playing the role of all-wise parent and the citizenry that of “perpetual children.” The hook was entrepreneurial opportunity; the chance for beggars to become kings. Europeans in the early 19th Century held no such illusions, Tocqueville argued; they knew full well that the lower classes had no hope of gaining more than minimal security, while the upper classes had scant chance of losing their hereditary advantage.
   Frankly we cannot remember a point in our lifetime when the national discourse has sunk to a lower level. That is saying a lot, because although we were not around for the sinking of the Maine or Lusitania, or the“surprise” at Pearl Harbor, we grew up with the Red Scare, first from Truman, then from Eisenhower; the Missile Gap Kennedy used to flank Nixon; the Tonkin Gulf incident that LBJ crafted to fund the Vietnam War; Nixon; Reagan; Bush Sr.’s Operation Just Cause that left a civilian body count on the sidewalks of Panama City comparable to New York City’s on 9-11; 9-11; and Obama’s Af-Pak drone wars, the omnipotent terror from above. These were and are deceptions that conduce our “sheeple” to trust their all-knowing parents to protect them.
   The bobble head news cycle is carried along on well-trod framing crafted by long-in-the-tooth Republican strategists who seem to think the iPhone generation can be motivated to vote for an evangelical prophet of infinite prosperity by 5-second bytes of coded epithets and saber-rattling against Mexican job-stealers or Moslem jihadists on our doorstep.
   Mitt Romney said of Obama in Alabama, “This is a president who thinks America is doing better. He should go out and talk to the 24 million Americans who are out of work or stopped looking for work or are unemployed.” That is correct as far as it goes; until you get to his promises to put people back to work and build a prosperous economy by opening up new energy horizons like the Keystone XL Pipeline and hydrofracking. Newt Gingrich promises to return gas prices to $2.50 per gallon, the lowest in the Western world. Drill Baby Drill.
   It isn’t any better on the other side. Democratic Governors Association spokeswoman Kate Hansen told reporters, “If Republican governors would focus more on job creation and expanding opportunity instead of hard-right sideshows like attacking workers’ rights, suppressing voter turnout and mandatory ultrasounds, perhaps their states would be able to close the gap with Democratic-led states, which are creating 21st century jobs at a higher rate and making the investments a modern economy needs to promote continued growth.”
   On March 17, in his blog post for the New York Times, “Follow the Money, Follow the Sacredness,” Jonathan Haidt wrote:
  The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism - all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”
  This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.
  Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”
  This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred - hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.
   The problem, Haidt observed (as did Olympia Snow a day later), is that it is immoral to compromise if you are confirmed in this faith. You have to be uncompromising. Whether you are defending against the “War on Christianity” (as a Mormon, no less), or the war being waged on trade unions, minority voters, immigrants and women, you are not permitted to compromise. It is war.  
   The current president is waging his own war on immigrants (deporting twice as many as his predecessor), civil liberties (claiming powers of indefinite detention and to execute citizens without trial) and international law (the drone wars, Gaza, climate change), which leads us to wonder which tribe’s sacred principles he pledges allegiance to? Probably neither. Can pragmatism be sacred? Hardly. Being the stepchild of compromise, pragmatism is profane.  
   What the tweedledum/tweedledee political parties seem to be agreed upon is that the USA should harken back to 19th Century Europe, where the lower classes have no hope of gaining more than minimal security and the upper classes have scant chance of losing their many advantages. That is a formula for an Occupy Everything resistance movement, but one easily diffused and co-opted by the material wealth and equality promises USAnians are suckers for.  
   The national discourse is a circular kabuki, with heroes and victims exchanging masks in an elaborate choreography moving left to right and back again. Confused? We are. Rome is burning. The barbarians are at the gate. This theater is on fire, and no one is yet moving toward the exits. Is the stage play THAT good?  
   Remove the masks and what we see are nearly identical actors: one black, one white; one bought and paid by the 1%, the other from the 99%; both doing everything they can to return us to the status quo ante — the way things were when oil flowed easily from the ground, the atmosphere had plenty of carbon parking space, the population could be fed, housed and amused cheaply on the backs of immigrants, and vast empires-for-the-taking stretched out over the horizon if our military was mighty. Casting spells of frontier colonies on Mars, near-infinite deposits of creamy energy under the Dakotas, and other fantasy utopias passes for reality now. Voters and investors alike are swept up in a nostalgic frenzy. And as they fantasize, so their tiny boat drifts closer to the falls, and is encircled by the current.  
   For, as Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “The inhabitants of the United States may retard the calamities which they apprehend, but they cannot now destroy their efficient cause.”

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bumping Through Belize

"If all capital is eventually backed by natural resources and ecosystem services, how can a country so rich in those elements, a country that has hosted monumental (solar-powered) civilizations in past centuries, find itself so intractably desperate and deprived?"  


Riding the bus from Cancun to Belize City we noticed something so quintessentially Belizian we knew for certain we were in the right country. On a small concrete home, painted bright yellow and orange, there were two beat-up wooden doors. Above one, in large brown letters, were the hand-painted words, “Lose Fat Gym.” Over the other was written “Burritos.”

In many respects Belize ranks with the poorest nations in the world. The per capita GDP, according to the most recent IMF report, is $4,275. Compare that with $50,200 in the United States or $34,300 for the average of the EU. The Belizian economy ranks 163rd of 183 nations. Average wage is $10 per day. Average annual income is about a third less than GDP per capita because that missing third goes to foreign banks and businesses, which is what makes elections so interesting.

Belize has a nominally 2-party system — the governing United Democratic Party (UDP) and the opposition People’s United Party (PUP). In actuality, there is hardly any discernible difference between the two. Both promise more jobs and economic growth, a fair shake and an end to corruption. Once in office, all of the opposites to those promises prevail. And, since whichever party is in power can siphon off the most graft and kickbacks, a lot of money gets spent on elections, which are premised on the absurd and unrealizable myths of growth and jobs.
Gomier and PDC arrivals watch political parade from the restaurant in Punta Gorda
Sitting in Gomier’s restaurant, we watched first the PUP caravan of schoolbuses, then the UDP caravan of schoolbuses parade noisily down the street in Punta Gorda. Each of the farmers, students, or workers who were on the buses wore new t-shirts of their party and had been paid $100 for that day — a ten-day wage. There were parades like this nearly every day we were in Belize. In that two weeks, a nimble laborer could, by showing up at different rallies, changing t-shirts and being paid, make half a year’s salary just by riding buses and chanting slogans. In the end, the UDP retained control by the narrow margin of 17 seats to 14 for the PUP. The PUP outsider, Oscar, beat the UDP’s insider, Juan, in Toledo West, in a nasty smear campaign that makes Newt Gingrich's look tame.
Why is Belize so intractably poor? If all capital is eventually backed by natural resources and ecosystem services, how can a country so rich in those elements, a country that has hosted monumental (solar-powered) civilizations in past centuries, find itself so intractably desperate and deprived?
Permaculture Course at Maya Mountain Research Farm
Belize is overbrimming with natural capital. While population expansion is now making steady inroads into the back country, Belize, at the core of the great neotropical migratory corridor, boasts 566 species of birds. Traveling the river to our permaculture course by dory, we saw a river otter, a pair of collared aracari (similar to a toucan), a boat-billed flycatcher, a rose-throated becard, and the violaceous trogon. A villager we met had a pet peccary boar.
The sad thing is that between climate change and the embedded poverty of the steadily growing population (36.8% are below 14), Belize’s real wealth, and the hope for any true recovery, is now endangered more than ever before. The biggest symbol of that was the wide, paved road to Guatemala being constructed through the southernmost district. It will pass straight through the middle of previously roadless and inaccessible highland biodiversity sanctuaries, home to Howler monkeys, jaguar and tapir. This is destruction of wealth on a scale that can barely be imagined.

Gomier’s vegetarian restaurant, which makes its own soymilk-seaweed smoothies and tofu fritters, displays a rare exception to the standard fare in Belizian restaurants which is always stew beans, rice, fry bread and fry fish and bake chicken (served for breakfast, lunch and dinner). In most homes and restaurants the fish plate is the local catch of the day, but as the reef and rivers grow more depleted from overfishing, industrial tilapia is the new normal, and escaped farm tilapia are devouring their ways through Belize’s rich river ecosystems. 
Looking at Belize’s population more closely, 26.43 live births per 1,000 people seems like a lot (the US is 13.8, China 12.1, Germany 8.1) until you consider that the infant mortality rate is 22.95 neonatal deaths per 1,000 live births (the US is 6, China 16, Germany 3.5). That high mortality rate for babies is a function of lack of access to medical services, unsanitary living conditions, and a number of diseases endemic to the wet tropics: bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, dengue fever and malaria. These diseases are compounded by the cheap, subsidized concrete block that is replacing traditional elevated wood buildings. A block building seems more hurricane and termite resistant, and probably is, but it clings moisture to its surface and cultures black molds to be inhaled or ingested by its occupants.
 One of the films we always like to show the first night in a permaculture course is Albert Bartlett’s lecture on Understanding the Exponential Function. Bartlett displays two columns of solutions to the population dilemma. The left column shows things that people usually consider valuable pursuits of civil society – food security, sanitation, and medicine, for instance. The right displays things society abhors — war, disease, murder, and famine. Bartlett asks a straightforward question: if we want to bring down population, which column should we favor? He also observes that choices of measures like abstinence, contraception, and abortion — political punching bags in the US political scene, as they are also in largely Catholic Belize —are obviously less painful than letting nature decide.
The story is a familiar one, repeated often in the Americas over the past 500 years. A “wealthy” and industrious country (in this case England) arrives seeking trade goods (sailing masts, cacao, spices, and dyes made from native plants). In place of the local form of agriculture (in this case the carbon-endowing milpa system of long-rotation agroforestry that we described in The Biochar Solution), the Europeans impose the plow and irrigation style that desertified the Middle East, where it originated, and was steadily doing the same to the soils of England in the 18th Century, forcing the fleets of exploration. After the invention of the Haber-Bosch process and the development of Round-Up and terminator seeds, this process accelerates to bolster corporate profits in London and other trade centers. As a result, the thin tropical soils are ruined, chemical dependency established, food security demolished, and poverty embedded.
In Belize the Royal Navy was especially keen to harvest two types of trees, samwood and bloodwood (Haematoxylum var.). Samwood grew straight and dense and was ideal for tall ship construction. Bloodwood (Palo de Tinto in Mexico) extracts are used as remedies by indigenous peoples and were included in the London Pharmacopoeia of 1740, which listed bloodwood tea as being effective against tuberculosis and dysentery. More significantly for the woolen mills in England, the heartwood is used to produce dye for cloth and a pink coloring still used today in pharmaceuticals and toothpaste.
The new southern road cut a swath between the farm of Burton Cadiz (left) and his neighbor
Pirate log cutters gave way to permanent settlements and by the late 18th century, an oligarchy of relatively wealthy British settlers controlled the political economy of “British Honduras.” These settlers claimed about four-fifths of the available land; owned about half the slaves; controlled imports, exports, and the wholesale and retail trades; and levied taxes to economically enslave the free population. When the indigenous Caribbean Garifuna migrated out of Honduras and founded Punta Gorda in the mid-19th century, slavery had been abolished in English colonies but the economic tricks of enslavement remained, and they quickly ensnared the Garifuna. In order to pay their taxes to the Crown, they had to earn sterling, and the only way to do that was to produce an export commodity or labor for an English plantation. The 1872 Crown Lands Ordinance seized the family lands of the Garifuna and the Maya and established reservations. Nonetheless, Belize, with its relatively stable system of British control, became a sanctuary for Mayan and Garifuna populations fleeing war zones in southern Mexico and Guatemala.

By the end of the 19th century, the ethnic pattern that has remained largely intact to the present was in place: Protestants largely of African descent, who spoke either English or Creole and have clustered in Belize City; Roman Catholic Maya and Mestizos who speak Spanish and Mayan and live chiefly in the highlands; and Roman Catholic Garifuna who speak Creole English, Spanish, or a native dialect and live on the coasts or inland at Stann Creek. Sprinkle into this some Protestant Mennonite clans and a wave of recent Asian immigrants and you get the modern mix of Belize. In Punta Gorda you can get by on any of four languages and most people speak them all. 
As rich as this cultural diversity is (and wasn’t that also a reputed source of the wealth and innovation of USAnians?) the country is still enslaved. Large plantations — citrus, habanero, rice, banana — dominate the agricultural economy. Rather than learning from the Mayans, who still grow mixed age, mixed species tree and understory crops, albeit with an unhealthy dose of annual maize for sale to pay taxes, the Mennonites and Asians arrive with the same methods, tractors, and chemicals that the British brought in earlier. Instead of food security, what is being harvested is food insecurity. A drop in the price of maize or rice, a banana blight, or just a financial collapse that takes out the local banks, ruins people and more children die.
As we reached the dory landing in San Pedro Columbia we happened upon some village boys playing a game they had devised using an old tire and a football. One boy rolls the tire down the hill, another boy catches it, a third tries to throw a football through the tire hole at the moment of greatest speed or bounce. Then the boy who got to toss has to push the tire back up for the next thrower. This is low cost entertainment, and more exercise than an X-Box.
PDC students Reginia (Humana People to People) and Raneesha (Plenty) learn to swale
Belize is a tropical paradise, and its people should be some of the happiest and healthiest on the planet. That they are not thriving is through no obvious cause, such as indolence, alcohol or bad education. They are not thriving because they are wedded to a food production system that is destroying their underlying wealth, and they are suffering the consequences of that system and its financial prerequisites. Voting UDP or PUP won’t change that, the parties are just there for entertainment. Both UDP and PUP advocate staying with the program. So do the government agencies, schools, churches and most aid agencies. 
This is why the work being done by groups like Plenty Belize, Humana, and the Maya Mountain Research Farm are so important. If children and young people can learn the difference between living nature’s way versus fighting her each step of the way, Belize could prosper the way it is meant to.
Mark’s Serre
Serves 2
In Belize coconut oil and coconut milk are ubiquitous ingredients in both Belizean Kriol/Creole and Garifuna cuisine. Coconut adds flavor to stew beans and rice, often accompanied by the rich umami of pigtail. Coconut oil and milk may help explain how life expectancy at birth, despite the obstacles, is 66.5 years for men and 70 for women. The oil is used to fry everything from plantain chips to fish and chicken. Crab soup, conch soup and fish serre are the coconut equivalent of a cream-filled chowder; rich, tasty and filling, without cholesterol.
Fish: about 2 pounds of mackerel, barracuda, culibri, any firm fleshed fish, steaked or cut into other bowl sized pieces.  
Coco yam about 1 lb (or dasheen or taro root, found in most well stocked produce sections, in the "exotics" section. Ask your grocer, or substitute potatoes if you absolutely have to)  
Cassava root about 1 lb (again, most well stocked produce sections in a grocery store will have this around.)  
Onion (about two medium, finely diced)
Bell pepper (about two medium, finely diced) 

1 can (2 cups if fresh) Coconut milk
Water (normally not listed as an ingredient, but you need good water here)
Garlic (plenty, finely minced)
Black pepper (fresh ground, to taste)


1. Peel cassava and coco yams (collectively known as ground-food in Belize because they come from the ground), cut into big chunks. The brown skin of the cassava will come off along with a white thin layer of underlying flesh. Finally chop onion, bell pepper. Crush black pepper, salt. Cook all vegetables and ground food in a pot with coconut milk, plenty of minced garlic, pepper, a little cumin, salt and enough water to completely cover the food. Cook until tender. Add minced cilantro to taste. People often include breadfruit, ripe plantain or green plantain fu-fu (cooked mashed green plantain dumplings) in this stage of the serre.
2. Once fish is cut into steaks or pieces, fry until browned in a little coconut oil.  
3. Place fish in pot, on top of the stew of tender ground-food and vegetables, simmer until fish is done. This won't take long, test with a fork if need be.  
4. Serve with pepper/onion sauce.  

Pepper or Onion sauce: 

This is an essential accompaniment to the Serre. The acidity of the lime and vinegar and the heat of the habanero cut the richness of the coconut milk and create a perfect balance of flavor. Whether you call it pepper or onion sauce depends on the ratio of onion to habanero. Go with what works best for your taste buds and heat preference.   

Habanero pepper
Lime juice


Mince an onion and add to taste a quantity of finely minced habanero pepper. Remove the seeds and white internal membrane if you want to tone down the heat even more. Add minced cilantro, lime juice, vinegar and salt to taste. Some people like more vinegar, some like more lime juice. Experiment and see which you prefer. Let the whole concoction sit in a glass container. You can leave it covered on the counter for several weeks and it will stay perfectly fresh as the onion and pepper pickle themselves in the lime juice and vinegar. Serve with Serre and other heavy stews, with refried beans at breakfast, on top of guacamole or anytime you need some hot pepper flavor. 




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