The European financial crisis has hit the Greek health care system hard.  “Healthcare in Greece is already at crisis point with hospitals running out of vital supplies and drugs. Digital Journal reported cancer patients are having to source their own prescriptions as pharmacies fail to stock vital drugs due to the government not providing funds to pay for them.”

The question is: could this happen in the US? I’m sure that most people shake with fear at the idea that they couldn’t afford to see their doctor or get their meds. But, might we be better off without our vaunted health care system? Would our time and money be better spent paying attention to the quality of the food we eat, eliminating toxins from the environment and working to moderate our lifestyles? Should we be planning ahead for a time when medical services aren’t so readily available (e.g. the  Greek example) by learning how to take care of ourselves using natural remedies and food for what ails us?

Here’s something to study and really think about: The Nutrition Institute of America claims “that conventional medicine is America’s number-one killer…” To make this claim the Institute mandated that every “count” in this “indictment” of US medicine be validated by published, peer-reviewed scientific studies.” They’ve put it all together in a report titled, “Death By Medicine which is published on the Life Extension Institute website. You can read the whole thing here . The skeptical reader might want to skim through the references at the end of the article to view the sources of the information.

A theater shooting in Colorado gets wall to wall cable news coverage. However, it is unlikely that you will see this headline—”CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE CAUSES 783,936 DEATHS PER YEAR.”
It seems unbelievable. But when you look at the data it all adds up: adverse drug reactions, medical error, infection, unnecessary procedures, surgical error. It’s pretty scary and again raises the question: “Would less medical service be a good thing?

My own issues with conventional or hospital based or pharmaceutical medicine are well documented in a book I wrote called Diagnosis Unknown, published by Hampton Roads Publishing in 1997 (now out of print). Our experience with the medical system was a genuine epiphany which led me to question the conventional point of view in every area: economics, politics, gardening, etc. I discovered that your AMA doc was pretty much clueless when it came to diagnosing and treating chronic illness but that when you entered the system they would milk you like a cow with tests and prescriptions handing you around from one specialist to another.

I realize it takes some fortitude to forego regular medical attention and that our treatment choices are almost always a case of “follow the money.” That is, we will go only where insurance takes us. If insurance won’t pay for it we will be reluctant pay out of pocket for modalities that are constantly attacked as quackery. (Steve Hall, an alternative MD from the Eastside of Seattle explains the insurance problem here)

Considering medicine from the Transition viewpoint it makes sense to me to take active steps to take charge of your own health and not delegate it to some doctor. And I get it about the flesh eating bacteria and the knee surgery. There’s a time and a place. But it’s not every time and every place. (Full disclosure: since 1989 when I had to get an insurance physical I’ve been to an MD once (I psyched myself into believing I had leptosperosis from a walk in a Hawaiian river) for the only course of antibiotics I’ve had since sometime in the early eighties and recently to a PA at an orthopedic clinic to see in a shot in the knee of Syncvisc-one would help with a bone on bone problem (it didn’t help much).

So, what should you think when you read that conventional medicine kills 700,000+ per year and would it be any better if the number were only 200,000 or 400,000? One’s reaction might be the same as hearing that government is broke or that there’s hardly any substantive difference between Obama and Romney or Clinton and Bush, or that we face a real health threat from Fukishima radiation or that we are on the downside of our oil supply. It’s hard to process this kind of stuff when you are trying to get dinner on the table, weed the garden or get the kids to school. Nevertheless, it seems to me that we ought to spend some time thinking about “what ifs” and make some minimal preparation.

In the area of health we actually have a lot of control if we decide to exercise it. We are in charge of what we eat and drink and ingest. There are protocols, for example, in alternative medicine for mitigating the effects of radiation. But it requires some time and study.

In the meantime, I personally will continue to be fearful of conventional medical practice and try my best to stay out of the system.

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Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America is an optimistic undertaking for a writer. She attempts to detail a history of positive thinking in our country and then concludes that such a mind set and philosophy is, in great part, responsible for the financial collapse of 2008.

Positive thinking is embedded in our culture, in the corporation, in certain congregations, in large parts of academia and has resulted in a huge positive thinking industry that promotes motivational speakers, life coaches, team builders, positive psychologists and a prosperity gospel.

Ms. Ehrenreich’s interest in the subject was piqued after her diagnosis of breast cancer brought her face to face with the “pink ribbon culture” which has the effect of using positive thinking “to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage—not an injustice or tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood.” Those who have had the experience of breast cancer might find this chapter interesting. Others will find it upsetting for she argues that positive thinking won’t have much to do with a cure. Cancer, in her case, motivated a study of the literature and personalities that have made positive thinking so pervasive in this country.

Reading her book I found that I had some resistance to her idea that so much positivity could be detrimental. After all, I consider myself generally speaking a positive person although I have been occupationally trained to be able to see the glass as half empty as well as half full. I’ve seen positivity at work in corporate culture at sales meetings and conventions. Positivity has it’s place.

I had an early exposure to positive thinking. My dad was a positive thinker from the school of Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) and later Normal Vincent Peale who in 1952 wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, the book that popularized the phrase. Carnegie was big on smiling and my dad smiled almost all the time. It was, he said, his “natural expression.” So, as kids, my brothers and I had to contend with a very powerful personality who was also positivity personified. If we demonstrated upset or a bad mood he would literally sing to us the following: “Smile and the world smiles with you sing a song. Don’t be weary just be cheery all day long,” until we affected to feel better. He wasn’t much of a singer and the song was excruciating to me at least. But, I learned to pretend to be positive which is what Dale Carnegie recommended in his famous book. Dad was famous for asking people his blood type and then telling them with great pleasure that he was, “B Positive!” However, uncomfortable the positive approach to life made me feel I had to admit it worked well for my father so I’ve never discounted it as a life skill.

But it’s clear that one can go overboard and I saw that as well. And this is the thrust of Ehrenreich’s book—that, as it’s developed we have seen positivity run amok. She discusses the teachings of such people as Mary Baker Eddy, the aforementioned Normal Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie, the best selling book The Secret, Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich), happiness psychologist Martin Segilman and mega-church pastor/CEOs like Joel Osteen who preach that God wants you to have things. Positive thinking taken to extreme is not realistic.

The author argues for vigilant realism. She points out that when we drive a car we don’t expect that everything will go smoothly. We are vigilant. Aware that something could go wrong and making certain we are ready for it. Sometimes things do go horribly wrong whether we are positive about it or not. Recently, positivity guru Tony Robbins was in the news when a couple dozen people who he had coached in firewalking got their feet burned after he had told them how to do it. Thousands have reportedly firewalked without injury. More thousands have bungi jumped and skydived. I am apparently not positive enough because I wouldn’t care to participate in any of those activities.

Back to the subject: how did positivity undermine America and why didn’t more people see bad things coming? If one is predisposed to only positive outcomes, e.g. housing prices will always go up, the possibility of unpleasant or even catastrophic outcomes won’t appear on ones radar. A number of commentators did predict the housing crisis pointing out that it was a bubble. They were deemed to be “doomers” lacking in a positive outlook. I actually saw that one coming myself when in around 2004 a close relative, then unemployed, was able to get a loan on a second house! It was like a mass psychosis with people  believing that real estate prices could go on forever and that so many people could afford million dollar homes.

Unfortunately, we are still locked up in positive thinking, believing that our economy is in a lull and will coming storming back. We are bright-sided which is to say we’ve been blindsided. It seems to me that vigilant realism makes more sense as the way to approach the future than just being positive that everything will work out, that the gas will keep flowing, that the food will be in the stores and that the ferry will be on time.

“A vigilant realism does not foreclose the pursuit of happiness; in fact, it makes it possible. How can we expect to improve our situation without addressing the actual circumstances we find ourselves in? Positive thinking seeks to convince us that such external factors are incidental compared with one’s internal state or attitude or mood.”

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I think that most people believe that science and engineering will come to our rescue with technological magic which will take care of our fuel supplies and allow us to keep roaming the freeways and back roads of this great nation.This belief in technology is too much magic in the view of James Howard Kunstler.

Kunstler might be described as a “futurist.” That is to say, someone who thinks about the future and the historical events, trends, ideas and attitudes that will take us there. Kunstler fans (I am certainly one for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Mr. Kunstler hooked our youngest son up with his literary agent which resulted in a four book deal with a major publisher and a number of foreign publishers) anxiously await his regular Monday morning diatribe/rant/essay which is loaded with imaginative metaphors and unusual language flourishes. He has written essentially the same essay a hundred different ways—to wit: we are running out of energy and must scale down. Before that happens we can expect some blood to flow in the streets.

In his several books elaborating on this topic his language is less hyperbolic, less entertaining than the Monday rant, but more convincing. His recent novels beginning with A World Made By Hand are very readable projections of what a future might look like.

Kunstler’s views on Peak Oil, the end of suburbia and the necessity to scale back are not well received by most people. They demand that he offer “solutions” to mitigate his views of the future. As Kunstler puts it, “They (are) clamoring desperately for rescue remedies that would allow them to continue living exactly the way they were used to living, with all the accustomed comforts ranging from endless driving to universal air-conditioning, cheap fast food, reliable electric service…They (don’t) want to hear anything that suggests we might have to make other arrangements for everyday life in this country.”

Well, we all want to continue our “way of life” don’t we? The general attitude of the island toward the ferry is a good example of this basic desire. The total impetus of PLIC during the recent ferry crisis was to maintain the status quo, regardless of the cost to the county based, on the proposition that Lummi Island deserved to be able to maintain its “way of life”, e.g. the ability to come and go at will at a somewhat reasonable price. Interestingly the current “way of life” on the island is quite different from the “way of life” here say 50 or 75 years ago before the island became a bedroom/weekend/retirement community with the requirement to get to Trader Joe’s and Costco as needed. I’m sure what Kunstler would tell the island would be to think this through a bit more. Consider what the future might bring as energy costs increase or as fuels are in short supply, as governments go broke due to a declining economy or as the country descends into some sort of economic and social abyss. Begin to think about how our transportation needs might have to be solved by the island population rather than by county politicians and bureaucrats.

There are no “solutions” to sustaining what is unsustainable. Kunstler suggests “intelligent responses” rather than solutions. But people insist on solutions and when it comes to energy look to technology as the way out. In most cases those solutions involve technology and Kunstler spends a lot of the book renewing his argument that 1) petroleum supplies are declining and, specifically, that export nations like Mexico with their own increasing demand for energy, will soon have to cease exports. 2) that shale oil is no solution because of the high cost of retrieving the oil and the immeasurable environment damage caused by the fracking process, 3) shale gas for the same reasons as shale oil 4) likewise, solar, wind, hydroelectric, biodiesel, algae-powered hydrocarbon fuels, hydrogen fuel, nuclear fission, thorium fission, atomic fusion.

We’ve had a lovely ride on the back of cheap, easy to retrieve petroleum-based fuels. “Unfortunately, the…expectation of most people in America is that all we have to do is switch from one energy system to another to keep everything going, and that the new replacement systems will appear magically as a result of the amazing synergies of creative innovation leading to new technologies.”

America imports more than two-thirds of our total fuel consumption. If we lose any part of this the affect will be dramatic and rapid. “We are a complex society and history teaches that such societies have a hard time contracting. We are geared for growth. In general, the only thing that complex societies have not been able to do is contract, to become smaller and less complex and do it in a programmatic way that reduces the pain of transition.”

Kunstler points out that we just can’t face the idea of contraction. We deny it and defy it. “All we’ve done is mount a campaign to sustain the unsustainable, to attempt to reflate the money supply, to try and ramp back up an orgy of borrowing that was insane in the first place…to bail out failed companies and socialize their losses at the expense of the taxpayers, and to run up new public debts so extravagant that they will impoverish generations to come.”

Granted, it’s hard to think about such things as not being able to get on the internet, not being able to drive to the store, not being able to fly across the ocean or talk on the telephone. We resist such talk. “People do what the can until they can’t.” It’s human nature.

Kunstler doesn’t feel compelled to describe our future except to suggest that it has to be more local, less regional, less national and international. In his novels, one finds an almost feudal arrangement developing with strong leaders emerging in localities. These novels are worth reading to stimulate one’s thinking about possibilities as is Too Much Magic to convince you that the game we’ve been playing is nearly over.

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Periodically, while reading The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, a book which I loved, I found myself thinking about Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, a book I hated for its solipsism.  The protagonists in each book are both writers, living the Yuppie life. Their paths diverged with Elizabeth Gilbert ending up as a famous author while Kristin Kimball, in an unbelievable life shift, becomes a farmer now helping to produce food for more than 200 families from a 600 acre farm in Essex, New York.

I’ll return in a minute as to why I think The Dirty Life is way more interesting and inspiring than Eat, Pray, Love. First, here’s Kristin Kimball’s story in brief:

A Harvard grad and NYC free lance writer, living the cafe life, dating a variety of NYC characters, feels a tingling to have a “home.” She visits a farmer named Mark, a tall, good-looking fellow with a Swarthmore degree, to interview him for an article on young farmers. Mark is busy and puts her to work. At the same time Mark, an impetuous fellow, decides that Kristin is the woman he must marry. From here the book spins out the details of their unlikely romance, Mark’s ability as a farmer/salesman, Kristin’s unexpected decision to give up NYC and join Mark in his quest for a farm, their stormy partnership and the struggles of their first farm year told season by season culminating in their chaotic wedding. Along the way we learn much about driving teams, animal husbandry, sugaring, pigs, milking, plowing, butchering and other subjects that make up a dirty life.

Mark had an unbelievably ambitious vision. He wanted to provide a full service CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). That is, he wanted to provide his members with all of their food: meat, foul, dairy products, vegetables, sweeteners (maple syrup) and even firewood. More than that, he didn’t want to limit his members but to let them have as much as they wanted, to encourage them to put food by. In addition, he wanted to farm using old methods, primarily with teams of horses.

Fast forward and check out their website which reports that they now have 222 members who pay approximately $3000 per year each for the privilege of sharing in the bounty. Essex Farm has nine draft horses, a few tractors and ten employees.

I’ve read a lot of back to the land memoirs in the last few years and this is the best one. The lesson is clear. The work is hard. The work is unrelenting. The work is satisfying. Clearly, the world needs more Mark Kimballs (who took his wife’s last name when they got married as she didn’t want to change hers). He comes across as idealistic, super energetic, charismatic, dogmatic, relentless, likable, visionary and invincible. We need to clone this guy.

In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert gives up home to find herself. I don’t know if she did or not because I couldn’t finish the book. The fact that Eat, Pray, Love resonated with so many people disturbs me.  My inspiration these days comes from people like Kristin and Mark who actually do things rather than just think about them and write about them. By way of comparison with Ms. Gilbert, in The Dirty Life Kristin Kimball gives up finding herself for a home and, in the end, offers a simple paragraph of explanation:

And this is the place where I’m supposed to tell you what I’ve learned. Here’s the best I can do: a bowl of beans, rest for tired bones. These things are reasonable roots for a life, not just its window dressing. They have comforted our species for all time, and for happiness sake, they should not slip beneath our notice. Cook things, eat them with other people. If you can tire your bones while growing the beans, so much the better.

Mark and Kristin have recreated an early twentieth century subsistence farm. Though it might seem unusual, the fact is that this type of farm operation was ubiquitous only two generations ago. Just over fifty years ago I was able to spend time on my own grandparents farm where they plowed with mules and produced virtually everything they needed and traded for what the couldn’t grow or raise. Two generations later many skills have been lost or gone dormant.

It’s comforting to know that here and there young people are working it out, getting down with the dirty life. (Julia Roberts would be good as Kristin Kimball in the film version).

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