Thursday, February 15, 2007

Why Love Is Our Most Powerful, Lasting Form of Activism

By Courtney E. Martin, AlterNet. Posted February 14, 2007.

Who you love and how you love them is as much a statement about your social conscience as the letters you write to Congress or the votes you cast. It's harder to be good to someone else. Tools
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People who want to see the world bettered -- made more just and honest and kind -- often set their gaze on the farthest horizon. Our instinct, as progressives with global perspectives, is to obsess over situations far afield of our own backyards -- Indonesia, Sudan, the Middle East. These situations stir a sort of Peace Corp romance within us, a love affair with that which might make us feel gallant and extraordinary for caring.

I am as guilty as the next bleeding heart of focusing the majority of my energies on problems I see as compelling in large part because of their strangeness to me. But when I sit with myself, quiet my righteous indignation, my whiny white guilt, my attachment to the idea that I am a humble truth teller among powerful fibbers, I realize that it is not the world outside of me that is in most desperate need of my world-changing instincts. It is the world inside of me, the world between me and my beloved.

We are so often wide awake about the decisions our elected officials make in the political, public realm and so asleep about our private choices. Our relationships can be sites of radical transformation but are so often soporifics. They have the capacity to tilt the whole world in the direction of ingenuity and kindness, and yet we are so often looking outside of ourselves for the tipping point.

Who you love and how you love them is as much a statement about your social conscience -- perhaps even a far more accurate and moving statement -- as the letters you write to Congress or the votes you cast. It is harder to be good to someone else. It has the potential to make them be good to others. And others are the fulcrum of social change.

Some of the ways in which love can be radical are quite obvious and tied to institutions. The choice of whether or not to get married in a nation where the status (and its tax benefits) is still doled out discriminatorily is a powerful one.

Reflections on ritual, commitment and partnership are quite radical in a world that is pushing you to link your love to a market, spend conspicuously, be a celebrity-for-a-day no matter what the cost, call it quits half the time. Muting the cacophony of outside propaganda about love and weddings -- and listening to your own inner answer -- is incredibly difficult and also morally necessary. What promises do you want to make in what ways before whom?

And, of course, beyond the obvious is the most critical -- what kind of relationship do you want to be in? What sort of partnership will push you to be your best, freest, happiest self? It is not just a matter of reversing roles or reacting to those models you have seen before, but wiping the slate clean and then imagining the most humane and transcendent of possible unions. How good could your love be? How fortifying? How honest? How can you create a love that reflects your values instead of parroting the culture's bottom line-driven definitions?

If you think that love is finite, think again. Just as your dollar has ramifications well beyond the taste of the organic, locally-grown apple you buy, your devotion can influence whole generations. Look at Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving -- the interracial couple that pushed Loving vs. Virginia all the way to the Supreme Court -- striking down the last anti-miscegenation law on the books and ushering in a new era of legally-sanctioned love across racial boundaries. June will mark the 40th anniversary of their courage as the Loving Day campaign reminds us.

Think about Barack Obama, the product of a short-lived, early 60s college romance between a black African exchange student and a white Kansan. His interracial identity, as he so beautifully explains in his first book, is the roots from which his political ideals have grown. Fifty years after his parents fell in love, they are both gone but their creation is changing the way America understands itself.

Anyone who doubts that our most intimate relationship can also be the site of our most impactful activism need look no further than the second wave of feminism. A generation of women insisted that the personal was the political, that they would only be in relationship with those who respected their full humanity, and we -- their daughters and sons -- are engaged in far more fair partnerships as a result. (Though we have much more work to do if we are to fully realize their dream of equal parenting.)

And, of course, decades of queer men and women have bravely come out to their families and friends, colleagues and clergy, and in the process, redefined family. Their challenge of notions of normality have freed us all -- gay, straight, bisexual, weary of labels -- to be more honest about our own complex sexualities. Lives have been lost in this quest -- Brandon Teena, Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard etc. -- but countless lives have also been saved.

bell hooks, the guru of love as revolution, wrote: "The moment we chose to love we begin to move towards freedom." I think she's wrong, but not by much.

It is not the moment we chose to love that we begin to move towards freedom, because love is so rarely a choice. Love is an instinct, an accident, an epiphany, a stomach ache. It can feel like incarceration and pardon, alienation and intimacy, tragedy and comedy. It so often grabs us by the collar and drags us in whatever direction it feels magnetized. We don't choose it. It harangues us.

It is the moment we critically and consciously choose how to shape our love that we move towards freedom. It is a critical response to our commercialized culture of romance, a rejection of that which feels outdated, a vision of a more inclusive, more authentic, more liberating relationship. In fact, the moment we choose to shape our love is the first, most critical step in shaping the whole God damn world.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Unhealthy Flowers: Why Buying Organic Should Not End With Your Food
By Jason Mark, AlterNet
Posted on February 13, 2007, Printed on February 13, 2007

In recent years conscious consumers have enjoyed a spike in the availability of socially and environmentally responsible products. Worried about sweatshop shoes? Try on a pair of Adbusters' Blackspot sneakers. Concerned that your clothes were made in a dismal factory where the workers are paid starvation wages? Go with an American Apparel T-shirt or a No Sweat hoodie. If pesticide residues on your vegetables and hormone-laced meat are your worry, then head for the organic section at the supermarket. Your morning coffee can easily be fair trade-certified, as can the bananas that you put on your cereal.

But what about the flowers on the coffee table, or the bouquet you were going to buy for Valentine's Day? Where were those stems grown, by whom and under what conditions? What are the sustainable and socially responsible options when buying flowers?

Until now, there haven't been encouraging answers to those questions. Conventionally grown cut flowers are most often raised in chemical-intensive systems that expose workers to toxins that can make them sick -- sweatshops in the greenhouses, you could say. Responsible alternatives have been difficult, if not impossible, to find.

That's about to change. This Valentine's season marks the first time that environmental- and worker-friendly flowers will be widely available to consumers in the United States. A new certification system called Veriflora has been set up to guarantee that your flowers weren't grown under abusive conditions. Most Veriflora-certified producers use organic methods; the rest are expected to provide a plan for how they are reducing chemical use and converting to organic. All must show that they are protecting the safety of their workers. Later this year, TransFairUSA -- the nonprofit agency that certifies fair trade coffee, chocolate and bananas -- is expected to release a fair trade seal for flowers.

But there is a huge obstacle facing these well-meaning efforts: Indifference. Here in the United States, there is not much public awareness of the dangers associated with cut flowers. Consequently, demand for sustainable flowers is almost nonexistent. Flower growers, retailers and activists agree that the desire for organically grown flowers is going to have to increase for the budding organic flower industry to succeed.

"There's a real gap out there in terms of thinking -- people think we should buy organic only if we are eating the product," Josh Dautoff, a sustainable flower grower in Watsonville, Calif., said. His company, Dautoff Exotics, used to be a chemically reliant operation when it was run by his parents. Now Josh, 31 years old, is converting his fields and greenhouses to organic. "It's ironic that people will pay more money for organic food for their dinner plate because they are afraid of chemicals. But then they will buy conventionally grown flowers that are covered in chemicals for the centerpiece of their dinner table. ... And those chemicals will catch up with people. Maybe not through their mouths, but through the water and air."

Greenhouse sweatshops

Cut flowers are big business. The U.S. floral market is a $20 billion-a-year industry that supplies all of our Mother's Day bouquets, condolence baskets and Valentine's roses. The vast majority of the 4 billion flower stems sold in the United States every year come from Latin America, countries such as Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, whose flowers have entered the United States duty-free since the 1980s.

Eliminating import taxes on South American flowers was intended as a way to encourage farmers in those countries to grow something other than coca leaf. An unintended byproduct of the off-shoring of the flower industry has been an increase in the use of chemicals. All flowers that enter the United States are closely inspected for pests and diseases. Because growers fear the high costs of having their flowers fail inspection -- and because consumers expect for their flowers to look immaculate -- they pour on the fungicides and pesticides.

The consequences are frightening, according to research by the International Labor Rights Fund and US LEAP. For example, a survey of workers on flower plantations near Bogotá found that employees were exposed to 127 different pesticides, three of which are considered extremely toxic. One-fifth of the chemicals used in flower production in South America -- products such as DDT and methyl-bromide -- are restricted or banned in the United States and Europe. Since environmental laws in South America are either lax or not enforced, chemical runoff into waterways is common, contributing to species decline.

Workers are often sickened after applying herbicides, fungicides and pesticides without proper protection. Two-thirds of Colombian flower laborers suffer from impaired vision, respiratory and neurological problems; still births and babies born with congenital malformations are disproportionately high among women who have worked in floriculture. When workers try to organize unions to defend their interests, their efforts are typically met with harassment.

"Over the years there have been many thorough studies, which I cite in the book, looking at abuses in the flower industry," Amy Stewart, author of the new book Flower Confidential , told AlterNet. "The flower industry's response has been, 'Oh things aren't that bad. That wasn't a typical farm.' What one of the labor organizers told me is that there are good farms and bad farms, but they all need to produce the same flower."

For U.S. consumers concerned about exploitation in the flower industry, there have been few options but to boycott cut flowers altogether. But in solidarity circles, boycotts are often a controversial tactic since they are likely to harm the very people they are intended to help -- the nursery workers whose livelihoods depend on robust flower sales.

To meet flowers lovers' desire for beautiful blooms, and to do so in a way that doesn't harm people or wreck the planet, a small group of environmentally minded entrepreneurs is trying to come up with ways to sell the American public on the idea of organic flowers.

Red, white -- and green

Organic Bouquet is one of the companies leading the move toward more sustainable flower production. Launched in 2001 by Gerald Prolman, a California businessman who previously ran a successful organic food business, Organic Bouquet set out to establish a niche market for organic flowers. It was a daunting task. Prolman lacked capital, a base of suppliers and even consumer demand. Essentially, he had to create not just a business, but an entire industry, from scratch.

"We began with a series of monumental challenges," Prolman wrote in a recent email interview. "The goal was to establish the market for organic flowers where commercial supply at that time was nonexistent and consumer awareness was minimal. ... Although we were able to start up with a few local growers, we did not have sufficient supplies or the breadth of product line to adequately build the company and supply customers year-round with their floral needs."

A key problem has been convincing flower wholesalers and retails florists that if they did start offering organic flowers, consumers would purchase them. Flower grower Dautoff says making this case has not been easy.

"We've found very limited interest from wholesalers to sell our flowers as certified organic," Dautoff said. "Last summer I grew thousands of bunches of chemical-free sunflowers. And the wholesaler wouldn't even label them as such. They told me that the reason why is that people don't care."

Recent visits to floral shops in the politically progressive San Francisco Bay Area confirm this. Not a single florist said there was customer interest in organic flowers. Why? Because, all the florists agreed, people don't eat flowers.

This apparent indifference on the part of consumers represents the biggest challenge for the nascent industry: Will people buy it? If you build the supply, will the demand eventually come?

Prolman is optimistic it will.

"No market? This is exactly what traditional retailers said 17 years ago about organic produce," Prolman wrote in his email. "Natural-product shoppers today are making purchasing decisions based on concerns about personal health, social justice and environmental sustainability. ... The reality is that the demand is inherent, and I base this theory on the notion of the basic goodness of humankind."

Global or local?

Beyond the question of conventional vs. organic lies another issue for consumers to navigate -- global vs. local. For even if a Colombian flower is grown under organic conditions, is it truly sustainable if it needs to be shipped thousands of miles wrapped in gobs of packaging? Some industry observers say that the globalized flower market, dependent as it is on plastic and petroleum, contributes to larger problems such as climate change. To compound the dilemma, there is very little local or regional flower production left in the United States; after WWII, most flower growing moved to California, and, as noted earlier, in the last 20 years has been transferred overseas.

"Try to find something that's locally produced," Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), said. (As part of its Valentine's Day shopping guide, the OCA is encouraging people to shop with Organic Bouquet.) "It's really not sustainable the way the market is set up now."

John Nevado -- a young Swedish businessman whose South American organic farms, Nevado Roses, are among the primary suppliers for Organic Bouquet -- says that he doesn't believe global flower production is necessarily unsustainable. He points out that most of the flowers are shipped in the bottom of the cargo holds of planes that are making the trip anyway. And he says his company uses recycled materials in the packaging for its flowers.

"As always, you are caught between providing the customer a well-packaged, sensitive luxury product and reducing packaging to the minimum," Nevado wrote in a recent email interview. "We are still trying to find balance here. ... We try our best and work hard to run our business in the most sustainable manner."

So what's a concerned shopper to do? Whenever possible, buy organically grown flowers. And, says author Amy Stewart, make sure to clearly communicate to the florist why organic is important to you. "People should ask where flowers were grown and how they were grown," Stewart said. "Florists are under the impression that these issues don't matter."

Even better, says Ronnie Cummins, go a step further and seek out flowers grown close to your home. "Buy organic, buy fair trade, and if at all possible, buy local and buy regional."

Either way, the key is send signals to the marketplace that reflect your broader values.

"If retailers get this message from enough consumers, they will eventually make changes and demand eco-flowers from their vendors," Prolman wrote. "The product is available today, and there is no justifiable reason for them to not do it. They just need to hear it from enough people, and when they act, millions [fewer] pounds of toxic chemicals will be used in floral production."

And if your neighborhood florist is not ready to listen? Well, then there's always organic, fair trade chocolate to give your sweetie this Valentine's Day.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Remember yesterday I talked about the little girl in the cold. Well this morning I ran into her and boy did she look different. She wore a scarf, a sensible pair of mitts, nice boots and she pulled her hoodie over her head. She looked like someone experiencing winter. I was quite pleased to see her and I smiled and told her she did good. She looked at me as if she did not understand what I was saying, of course I was wearing my red mask over my face and I must have looked quite scary to the child.

It was pretty cold today too. It was close to 45 degrees and I am proud to say that I walked to work. I walked for about one hour in that weather. Tough eh.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

It's Cold in Winnipeg, minus 45 with windchill. We are in the deep freeze and that's what everyone is talking about. It's cold but I still walk an hour to work. I dress for the weather so that I can enjoy it and not whine about it.
The other morning while I was working I saw a young black girl walking bareheaded with a flimsy pair of mitts and a pair of runners. I felt for that child and wondered if her parents saw how she left the house. I am sure she must have frozen solid before her bus arrived even if she had to wait five minutes for the bus.
The girls was obviously a newcomer. Sometimes newcomers look at the sun shining and think that it is warm. I was fooled by the sun when I was a newcomer. It soon dawned on me that the more the sun shone the colder the days were. I hope this little girl learn that lesson and fast.

The Talk around town is that Maiko Watson will be sining at the Winnipeg Legislative Building on International Women's Day. She will be the entertainment for the Manitoba Women's Directorate Annual Women's Day Luncheon. This is something you will not want to miss. Maiko Watson is one of Winnipeg's little Dynamo. She is working on her first album and a reputable local band is interested in working with her. You will hear more about this. I can't wait for that album. For a peek preview check out Maiko Watson's myspace site at
It's Valentines and Love is in the air but keep your head steady girls when it comes to marriage. Is a Prenup Necessary?
Why propose a prenup?
This controversial contract isn’t just for wealthy lovebirds any more. Women who are working more and marrying later need to protect their assets, too
By Sarah Scott
So you're in love? Getting married! I'm so happy for you, and you know I only wish you the best. But just as a light aside, have you considered a prenup?Not that you're planning for divorce before the wedding day. Just think of it as insurance. You insure your house, and it's not like you want it to be struck by fire. It's just a precaution.

Before you strike me off the wedding list, hear me out. The other day I asked my lawyer, Sharon Bond, about the issue, and she says that the perception around prenups has changed. They used to protect the wealthy from the people who think the quickest way to make money is to marry it. Now they've trickled down to the rest of us: women who've saved enough money to buy a house, accumulated a pension or built a business. Sharon says that people like us should have some legal security or we might be in for a very nasty surprise if the marriage tanks, as nearly four out of 10 marriages do – especially women marrying later, who face more risk than first-timers. "I'm astounded in this day and age that people are going into marriage two or three without a prenup," Sharon told me. "There must be a lot of people out there who still believe in happily ever after."

Like you, I'm an optimist, but the moment you marry, the family home is divided 50-50; essentially you're handing over half the value of your life savings. We all hope it's forever, but what if something goes wrong?

The law is slightly different in each province, but here's how a divorce settlement works in Ontario: You list all assets and their value both on your wedding day and on the day you separated. What you bring into the marriage, apart from the family home, is yours. But you have to share the increase in the value of those assets with your soon-to-be-former husband. So if your business flourishes during the marriage, you'll owe him half of the increased value of your business. Or, say your husband's stockbroker does a great job inflating the value of his retirement fund; you'll get half of that increase. You might have to divide your inheritances. Even your beloved family cottage could be split 50-50 if you and your husband use it on a regular basis.

In British Columbia, you might even have to split the stuff you acquired before you married, if your family uses it. A judge can alter the 50-50 rule if your marriage lasts less than five years, or if one of you racks up huge debts. But without a prenup, you could be in a position of sharing just about everything you have with him – the furniture, Air Miles points, the house, the CDs.