J500 Media and the Environment


After all’s said and done

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when beginning a class on Media and the Environment.  Those are two very broad things that obviously have a relationship, but finding an interesting way to discuss that relationship in a semester-long college course could be difficult.  In order to really understand the way that mass media  and the environment are connected, the right way to do it in such a time frame is to focus on a specific area, and as I quickly discovered, that is what we were doing.  Admittedly, it is not one which I considered myself well-versed in.

I always hear about the importance of buying local, for the economic reasons if nothing else.  Buy local food, and you support people in your community, while reducing the power and influence of corporate giants like Wal-Mart.  Having once won $50 for making a poster making fun of Wal-Mart (their smiley-face logo had dollar signs for eyes, and the slogan became “Everyday Low Morals”), I’m obviously quite enthusiastic about this.  What I got a grasp on from reading about the various aspects of local foods was that there are many more affects to take pride in, beyond simply malicious joy at harming a chain store.

Local food systems provide the potential for work, community bonding, and healthy diets in places they otherwise would not be.  Food producers with a smaller market to worry about do not need to take such a concern with mass-production, and thus have less problems with animal cruelty, overuse of pesticides and antibiotics, and disruption of nearby communities.  I found it strangely appropriate that the Pitch, a Kansas City-based free magazine, published a story about  a major pork-producer in Missouri losing a court case regarding how the smell from its plant disrupted the lives of the people living nearby right after we discussed major meat producers in class.

That brings us to the “Media” aspect of this class.  While the focus of in-class discussions was often on local food itself, everything was prompted by an article either on a blog or a major media outlet.  Having briefly flirted with becoming a Journalism major early in my college career (I happily went with Political Science instead), the role the media plays as a gatekeeper in any subject interests me.  The semester previous to this one, I took a class on Media and Politics, and got to examine how media outlets, both big and small, portray people and issues.  I started this class curious about the kinds of rhetoric I’d hear regarding the environment within mass media, though my attention sort of shifted to simply WHO was covering food systems.  I mentioned the Pitch, a decidedly alternative publication before, and have noticed that most places which give food the time of day are also smaller, “alternative” sources.  When a major outlet like NPR or the New York Times pays attention, it is in the form of a special interest story, or a response to something else (like a critical NPR review of “Food, Inc.”, from somebody who soon learned had yet to actually see that film).

The sole promotional image from my short-lived campaign for Governor of Kansas.

As a small player in the news media myself, I’m going to be looking with more interest having taken this class at how food is portrayed from here on.  And as a wannabe politician, maybe I’ll get to have a say in the things that make the news someday.  Time will tell.

~Ben C.



Earth Day: yer doin’ it wrong.

Earth Day is great.  For one day a year, even the non-environmentalists can get together and say “You know what, I kind of like the planet.”  For forty years now, Earth Day has provided people a brief respite from being called tree huggers (at least in a derogatory way).  The problem is, when a lot of people only pay attention to sustainability on special occasions, they can get it wrong.

I first thought about this point a few years ago when the story came out that Sir Paul McCartney, an avid environmentalist when not busy being the guy who wrote “Hey Jude”, had some kind of especially green automobile delivered to him in England from Japan.  Now, no matter how it was transferred, getting a car from east Asia to the (for them) far end of Europe would take a lot of money and a lot of energy.  Apparently the plan was that the car, a Lexus L600H, would be transported by boat.  Sadly, the news broke quickly that this didn’t happen, and it was delivered by airplane. The estimate given for how much this increased the carbon footprint of the car: about 100 times.

"Know what gets great mileage? My yellow subma-" "Don't even start, Ringo."

I roll my eyes when celebrities try to take up a cause and occasionally fail miserably, because no matter how insignificant they are supposed to be to a movement, inevitably the media will focus on them, and the ironic situations that frequently arise from the attempted mixing of two different kinds of green lifestyles.  One of those is the kind of “green” that traditionally gets the label, that of somebody who tries to lead a sustainable life, in The Cute One’s case by buying an awesome, really expensive hybrid car.

I am reminded by the occasional poor attempts at encouraging the right thing on Earth Day this year.  During an Earth Day celebration at KU’s Kansas Union, where different environmental groups passed out literature and hosted educational games, there was one booth that got my attention.  After picking up a reusable water bottle from them, I noticed that they were the source of a t-shirt I had seen with some frequency that day.  It was green, and read on the front “My shirt is green.  Are you?”

While a little condescending, my biggest problem with the shirt wasn’t what it was, but how people acquired it.  You see, the whole Earth Day fair was sponsored by Coca-Cola, which has a corporate partnership with the University.  Needless to say, they liked having their name on something positive, and also wanted a good way to make money off of it, which I don’t begrudge them.  Back to the t-shirts: you got one by buying two bottles of soda.  Buy more of an unhealthy product packaged in a non-biodegradable object, and get a free t-shirt (made of organic cotton!), without even a note to be sure to recycle those bottles.  In related news, authorities still have not located Irony’s body, though have assured us that they will continue searching around the clock.

In fairness, I later asked somebody working at the fair who assured me that the exchange was a mix-up.  The plan was that the t-shirts would be a new line made out of recycled plastic, but this fell through, and they hoped using organic cotton would be sufficient for people.  For me, it wasn’t.  For everyone I mentioned it to, it wasn’t.  There’s a difference between supporting sustainability, and giving it lip-service on a holiday, and this was cleanly the latter.



Zoos: Sources of wonderment or “Pitiful Prisons”?

I open myself to teasing sometimes, and I’m perfectly fine with that.  When I received an onslaught of jabs from friends about a month ago over Facebook for my fascination with the application/game Zoo World.  For the uninitiated, Zoo World is like Farmville, but for cool people, but I digress.

I and most kids I knew growing up loved the real life zoo.  When you are nine years old, a zoo seems like a magical place with strange creatures that you don’t get to see anywhere else.  With that sense of juvenile wonderment, you don’t really consider that the place with the animals is still run by people who are prone to mistakes and bad habits.

Even I tended not to consider this fact, having not been to my hometown’s self-proclaimed “World Famous” Topeka Zoo in several years. The zoo had clearly lost its luster some time ago, having lost national accreditation almost  a decade ago due to mistreatment of animals, something which was supposedly rectified a few  years later.  Sadly, one of my occasional trips to the Topeka-Capital Journal’s website (nostalgia, I suppose) revealed this to  not be true.  A few offenses listed include poor safety procedures to both keep people protected from dangerous animals, and vice versa; elephants not having their feet examined on a regular basis; and a hippopotamus not being allowed in its pool for periods of up to eight hours, extremely difficult for an animal that has no sweat glands and is accustomed to spending most of its time in or near water to keep cool.

I thought this picture, purportedly from a zoo in China, was awesome at first. Lately, it's occurred to me that it's rather sad.

Environmental stewardship can mean a lot of things.  We tend to think about recycling, energy use, land conservation, etc. as ways of protecting our planet, but we all have to learn the value of it sometime.  To give somebody, a child or otherwise, some sense of a connection to the world outside of their hometown, it is well and good to stir their imagination with examples of the wondrous things they can find hidden in the trees.  This is why I still believe in zoos as valuable to communities, and why I would like to see the one I used to love as a kid hold a higher standing than it apparently does now.  It infuriates me to no end that PETA might be on to something when they refer to zoos as “pitiful prisons“, partially because PETA in general annoys me, but if we can’t maintain the wildlife (a term I suppose I’m using loosely here) we use to exemplify the more amazing aspects of nature, we really can’t expect people to understand the value of protecting it.

~Ben C.



A story about a guy who doesn’t believe in recycling
April 9, 2010, 2:37 pm
Filed under: J500 Week 11, Society + Media, Waste + Recycling | Tags: , ,

“Recycling is a lie”, said somebody in my Scientific Principles of Environmental Studies class about a month ago.  While the rest of the class, and the GTA who was leading the discussion in place of our absent professor, raised eyebrows and uttered a collective “Seriously?”, this person explained that recycling centers did not actually dispose of waste, but rather shipped it all off to China to be burned or thrown into landfills.  This was in reaction to a video we had just watched depicting this very thing happening with e-waste.  At least one recycling center was shown to have merely sent its recycled phones and old computers to a dump in China, where parts were either stripped off or destroyed.

I have turned over the comment that “recycling is a lie” this video elicited ever since.  I thoroughly disagreed with the assessment then, and continue to do so, but it got to me in that I realized how easily somebody was swayed by one video of an unethical business.  The point of the feature was not to criticize the practice of recycling so much as it was an expose on how the exportation of e-waste is handled, both domestically (a recycling center which ships its waste abroad), and internationally (entire communities in China portrayed as being based around e-waste dumps).

Levels of waste are going up constantly, with one report estimating that e-waste just from cell phones will increase in China sevenfold by 2020 (from 2007 levels).  If you take the tons of space taken up by all of the waste in the country, and then factor in gas from all the melting plastic, you get… filth.  It’s probably not the most scientific calculation ever devised, but then I also don’t have a calculator on hand.

But, with all that in mind, my classmate’s reaction wasn’t “They are abusing the practice of recycling for money all over the world”.  It was “recycling is a lie”.  Different studies have come up with different results for how many people in America actually recycle.  A Harris poll in 2007 cited by Jasmin Malik Chua of treehugger.com stated that 23% of Americans did not recycle.  Honestly, when I saw this number, I thought it was encouraging, given all the people I’ve known who think not throwing an empty aluminum can in the trash is something hippies do.

And they'll come after you if they find out you're not doing it. From rowthree.com

Another report, this time from 2008, stated that around 40-50 percent of Americans recycle all the time, and one taken shortly before that had 25% of the country not recycling at all.

I’m not great with numbers, but that last one is not a number I have a hard time wrapping my head around.  Somewhere around a quarter of the country’s population either agrees with my classmate that recycling is a “lie”, or they are just apathetic to it.  I’m not actually interested in preaching the values of recycling right now.  Those kinds of rants are so common they are almost cliche.  Rather, I’d just like to dwell on the the fact that so many people are desensitized to said rants.  Some think it’s a lie, some don’t understand it, some just don’t care.  That crying Native American from the old commercials would be sad.

~Ben C.



Learning what to pass over during Passover

"Hey Timmy, I'll trade you my pudding for your shank-bone!". From, ironically, the evangelical blog Dwelling in the Word.

When I was little, I dreaded the holiday of Passover.  Being Jewish, I was required for a week every year to cut out breads and any leavened foods (generally interpreted as anything with yeast, and any pastas).  I thought it would be impossible to survive without cookies, pizza, sandwiches, and all the other basic components of a grade-schooler’s diet.  The school cafeteria certainly wasn’t accommodating, leaving me to regularly bring a lunch-bag with matzoh, some macaroons, perhaps some fruit, generally stuff that my friends weren’t going to touch when they could have the rectangular globs of ingredients we were told was pizza.

Over the years, eating during Passover has gotten significantly easier, both as I’ve learned that one can survive without PB&J for a week (unpleasant as it may be), and as I’ve discovered how many other options there are to consume in general.  As a kid, I knew little about variety in my diet because two of the three meals I’d eat a day became standard very quickly.  Cereal in the morning, something frozen and from a plastic bag for lunch at school (along with the requisite tiny carton of chocolate milk or half-cup of condensed orange juice).

Generally, breaking out of a dietary routine at that age is impossible.  A few kinds of cheap, processed foods are going to be regular sights at public school lunches, and there is little that will last in a paper sack in a kid’s locker for four hours before they eat that is actually healthier than the aformentioned pizza blobs I ate in my early years.  With government funding to public schools being cut on a regular basis, they really can’t splurge on nicer products, and even the awareness raised by a few well-meaning projects like British television chef Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” isn’t going to do more than raise eyebrows and get a few kids a few better lunches.  I really admire the mission statement that “every child in America has the right to fresh, nutritious school meals, and that every family deserves real, honest, wholesome food”, but culturally, I have to look at what factors have brought about the epidemic of poor nutrition which Oliver is concerned with.

I’ll go far enough, cynical as I tend to be, to disagree with another British TV star, Ricky Gervais, who criticized Oliver’s campaign by saying that American children “know why they’re fat, and they like it.”  The problem has been increasingly recognized, and the USDA is becoming more involved in fighting the problem, but parents without the time and schools without the money aren’t going to change how they feed their children.

So, while I now shop for myself, and went to a Seder this year that, to my surprise, served baba ghanoush, somewhere there is a Jewish kid, probably growing up in the Midwest like I did, who dreaded the beginning of Passover this year because they don’t know how easy it is to cut a few things out for a week.

~Ben C.



Escape from Egypt, Blow out candles

The end of March is a very special time for me.  The weather is nice, mid-terms are finished, and, most importantly, it is when I celebrate my birthday.  On Tuesday, March 30th of this year, I will turn 23.  This will be my first prime-numbered age in four years, and will also be the first time I can remember my birthday coinciding with Pesach.

Take away the diapers, and this was surprisingly accurate. Image found on Google (the search engine, not my hometown).

What is “Pesach”, you ask?  It is more commonly known as Passover, one of the most significant holidays in the Jewish faith.  I grew up celebrating this holiday (“holiweek” would be more accurate, though it sounds tremendously awkward) every spring, a difficult feat in a place like Topeka, KS (known today as “Google, KS”).  It is challenging because, like most observances in my religion, it involves a dietary restriction.  In this case, to recognize how Israelites escaping Egyptian bondage did not leave time for their bread to rise when leaving, we do not eat anything leavened.  Mostly, this means avoiding bread products.  In elementary through high school, this was extremely challenging, because school cafeterias in a community with very few Jews tend not to accommodate us too well.  Lunch every day featured rolls, or pizza, or pasta (considered leavened because of the effects boiling water has in the cooking process), and I couldn’t touch one of them.  In high school, I had the alternative of a salad bar, but it was of incredibly poor quality.

This year, with Passover and my birthday happening at the same time, I am presented with an even greater conundrum.  I am used to not having a traditional birthday cake, as tradition in the Cohen household has been, for many years, for my mother to prepare one of her famous cheesecakes, but this still puts a limit on what else I can have on March 30th.  It will be the second night of Passover, meaning there will be a Seder (a combination of a meal and service), and while I am not always the best Jew in the world, I try not to miss those.  My preference on my birthday is generally to meet friends at a favorite restaurant, then go out for drinks.  Sadly, beer includes yeast, the most well-known of leavening agents, and if I were to stick to the rules adamantly, this would be off-limits.

I already know that I am going to play a bit loose with the rules for this unusual occasion.  I’ve never kept kosher, so I try to follow guidelines for holidays, basically as a way of compensating.  Even then, I find the occasional loophole.  A favorite over Passover is to invoke the small amount of Sephardic heritage in my family, which frees me up from avoiding starches all together.  There is always a little bit of guilt involved (cue up any stereotype you want about “Jewish guilt”, because you probably heard it from one of us).  But even if it’s just to have a few beers and some chips on my birthday, I am making a special exception to the rule.

~Ben C.



I thought I was grainy, but apparently I’m just boring.

Jokes can be made all day long about the old axiom that “You are what you eat”.  Most of these, as the title of this piece, are not actually good jokes, but I digress.  Somebody’s lifestyle really can be judged by their diet.  One of the most popular documentaries of the first decade of this century (annoyingly referred to at times as “the Aughts”) was Morgan Spurlock’s “Super-Size Me”, detailing his experiment with eating nothing but fast food for a month.  The changes in Spurlock from the opening of that film to the end were dramatic.  He began as a vegan, in apparently good physical shape, and ended chubby and constantly exhausted.

I bring this up because it gives new credence to the “you are what you eat” proverb.  That famous film showed somebody healthy and vibrant to reflect a thought-out lifestyle, only to become fat and slovenly when switching to a diet oriented around food that is quick and easy to obtain without much effort.

I’m not a big McDonald’s fan, myself.  Sadly, I do have a weakness for Taco Bell, their Tex-Mex counterpart.  It, like the infamous Golden Arches, is cheap and easy to access, not even requiring getting out of one’s car if so desired.  And when I go through phases where I frequent “The Bell” (as the cool kids call it), I’m usually feeling a lot lazier as well.

I’d like to say that my food habits only occasionally display somebody not interested in the experience of cooking a nice meal.  The part of the pantry I claim (I share with four other people) consists mostly of sliced bread, bagels, soup, canned chicken breast, and cereal.  Nothing I eat at home makes more than four minutes to prepare.

According to the “What does the food you eat say about you?” quiz hosted on ProProfs Quiz School, my eating habits are “Plain”.  My habits, which range anywhere from dipping carrots in ranch to enjoying cereal.  I am assessed as this kind of person:

“You definitely enjoy the simple things in life. You don’t make a big deal out of things and you’re not full of drama. You would be equally happy whether you were riding a bull in a bar or staring at your pet cat Fluffy for three hours. You’ve never really been dissapointed (sic) in life, but then again you’ve also never really won anything.”

My corner of the pantry.

This, of course, is mostly tongue-in-cheek.  The thing is, I don’t entirely disagree with it (other than I am a dog person).  So what does this make me, really?  Lazy?  Impatient?  Or just generally apathetic about what deeper meaning my diet has.  I’ve always assumed the latter, but then I usually don’t analyze the collective food that I keep in my house at any one time.

-Ben C.



Looking Into Chipotle

What happens when a company makes a concerted effort to lead the charge in going green AND encouraging local agribusiness?  Sounds great, but probably on a small scale, and this is how I imagine it usually is.  But what if a national company is the one in question?  Chipotle, the fast-food chain that is responsible for preventing starvation amongst most American college students, has proudly advertised their ties to small farms and food producers for years.  If you get a drink at one of their locations, the cup will have a story printed on it about one of their favorite affiliates.  You could hear about cattle farmers who don’t use antibiotics, or the sustainable practices of Tobasco, the giant that supplies them with hot sauce.

I hate for my food to be lazy and dishonest, so this is a relief.

How does this work?  I was curious how a major fast-food chain, even one as beloved as Chipotle, could make good on their claims to support local businesses throughout the country, and was pleasantly surprised at what I found.  The thing that struck me first was that half of the links on the chain’s main page are for things like the benefits of cycling,  information about the movie “Food, Inc.”, and how some of their new locations are being LEED certified.   This was nice to see, but I remained skeptical until locating the “Food” tab, and discovered guides to where they ship all of the foods at their restaurants from, and on the section about meats, a legend indicating how much of their pork, beef, and chicken is naturally raised (tying back to those proud cups mentioned earlier).

Assuming the contents of Chipotle’s website are honest (and I found nothing saying otherwise), they do seem to make a concerted effort at supporting small farms and businesses, and to spread green awareness.  This doesn’t make the burrito mavens perfect, of course.  The site Chipotlefan.com offers a calculator to give you the nutritional information of any combination of ingredients at the restaurant, and I was only mildly shocked to learn that my favorite item, the barbacoa burrito with black beans, served up 890 calories, including 90% of a daily amount of sodium.

So, the lesson learned is a simple one.  The fast-food burrito masters are apparently trying to make good on their claims of sustainability.  Sadly, making them a staple of one’s diet, as I and many of my friends have flirted with at some point or another, would probably not  be good for you.

~Ben C.



Composting: Getting the Young Folk to Try
February 11, 2010, 10:10 pm
Filed under: J500 Week 4, Society + Media | Tags: , , ,

I had an unusual experience last year after volunteering to help with a green fair at KU.  Having attended several early planning meetings for From Blue to Green: Conserve KU, I thought I would have free reign to set up whatever sort of thing I wanted at the green fair which would serve as one of the committee’s main programs.  While attempting to throw together a guide to holding “green events”, I was told that I was expected all along to put together a small set-up about the values of compost.

Yes, compost, the delicate art of putting degradable trash into a large pile for later uses.  It was about two weeks before the green fair that I found out that I and my friends would be putting together something about this compelling subject.  As it turned out, I had somebody make a tri-board with pictures of and factoids about compost.  It would have been a bigger hit at the green fair, but we were situated next to a thing about local agriculture, and they were giving out free apples.  Free food always gets more love.

I was reminded of this recently, as I caught up with a friend who, by some circumstance or another, has found herself teaching a class about composting in Kansas City.  While discussing the actual curriculum of the class (it covers both the benefits of composting and how to properly do it), she lamented to me that her students tend to be at retirement age.  “Composting”, I observed to her, “does not play well with the young people.”

Courtesy of the Washington Department of Ecology

As beneficial as this practice could be, both as a means of disposing of certain bits of refuse, and for replenishing topsoil (there are a lot of avid gardeners out there who care about this), it’s one of the least sexy things one can do to go green.  Composting takes sorting through garbage, piling garbage somewhere, and, um… waiting for garbage to degrade into dirt.  Yes, there are practical benefits and applications to this, but on paper, it’s hard to get excited for it.

I considered joking to my friend that her students could spread the lessons they learned to their grandchildren, but it felt kind of mean.  I learned about compost when I was in grade school, from karate teachers and field trips to conservation centers, and I still don’t do it.

So what now?  I’m interested in knowing what people think about not just about the practice of composting, but what can be done to get younger people more interested in it.  My idea: a movie where Ellen Page and Jack Black  run a compost class (I’ll contact my friend to see if she knows anybody who can be played by Black), and somehow teach us lessons about togetherness.  Hollywood, I’m waiting for the call.

But really, throw some ideas out.

Ben C.



Local: It’s all the local rage. Locally.

Local agriculture and business are reaching new levels of popularity right now.  Part of the modern sustainability movement is, for a variety of reasons, increasing consumption of local products.  Part of this has to do with reducing the carbon footprint of the agriculture industry, by increasing demand for items that do not have to travel as far to be sold.  Economically, it also supports the efforts of smaller farms and merchants, reducing the stranglehold that large producers and distributors have on the food industry.  And from a health perspective, foods produced with a smaller market in line do not typically have the horrendous amount of preservatives, growth hormones, and other strange things that foods produced for a massive distribution do.

The only major knock against local foods that I give any credence is that they are popular now because it is trendy.  You sound so much healthier and more conscious of the shady practices of major food producing companies, and some people will find that out and use it to feel cool.  That being said, this is one of those cases where I have to say “So what?”

Like any trend, the cultural shift in the favor of local foods (one which is still taking place, slowly but surely), can be exploited not just by those demanding to be cool at all times, but by business interests who know that those same people often have a lot of extra money to shill out for things with words like “local” and “organic” plastered on the packaging.

Also, by whatever diabolical genius grew this guy.

Regardless of the motivations some people have in supporting local food producers, and who finds the easiest way to make a buck off of them, the truths about locally-grown and distributed foods, the benefits mentioned earlier stand.  Economic uncertainty pervades our culture, so knowing that we can help our neighbors succeed is comforting.  Obesity is the great new American stereotype, so finding foods that don’t contribute to that is always exciting.  And then there are people like the contributors to Lawrence’s own Localvores blog whose passion for local food production just makes me feel bad for passing it over sometimes.

So for those reasons, I hold back the cynicism.  Time will tell how much this effects our health, economy, and indeed American culture in the long run.  In the short term, the trend really can’t hurt too much.




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