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Blog Archives - October, 2010

Accounting for What Matters – October 31, 2010
I had an “aha” moment in 1989, when I read Marilyn Waring’s book Counting for Nothing (which was later re-issued as If Women Counted). Waring is a former New Zealand cabinet minister and now professor of public policy at the Institute of Public Policy at Auckland University of Technology. Her book helped me begin to understand why my work as an advocate of unschooling life learning and women-owned, home-based micro business found so little mainstream traction. I already knew that work done by women at home – including childcare – was scorned by the women’s movement, so I wasn’t surprised that my work was denounced or ignored by academic feminists. But Waring took things a step further, pointing out that economists and governments also don’t value work done in the home, largely by women, although she figures it’s the largest sector of the economy. She was among the first to demonstrate how the tools used to measure the economy – Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and its cousin, the Gross National Product (GNP) – are badly flawed if one thinks social and environmental issues are important.

As I’ve written a few times in Natural Life Magazine, because the GDP is designed to measure economic growth, it makes no distinction between transactions that add to well-being and those that diminish it. As long as money changes hands, the GDP increases. For instance, environmental pollution ends up being a positive because it creates economic activity – and is even counted positively twice: once when it’s created and again when it’s cleaned up, ludicrously making it more valuable than if it had not happened. And the result of that pollution, which is often illness such as cancer, also ends up on the plus side of the ledger because it, too, creates economic activity. On the other hand, unpaid caregiving of one’s own children or elders isn’t counted. Nor is other work done on a volunteer basis in the community. Shouldn’t a true set of indicators include a way to debit the accounts for the cost of degradation of wetlands and the depletion of the ozone layer and oil? Shouldn’t it adjust for factors such as the value of household and volunteer work, which are invisible in the GDP because no money changes hands?

Since the GDP is really not a true accounting of what life is like in our families and our communities, a number of alternative economic indicators have been developed by progressives around the world, including the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). It’s a project of a California think tank called Redefining Progress, which puts it this way: “We believe that progress is not measured by the quantity of goods we consume, how fast our economy is growing or how much financial wealth is being amassed. We believe progress is measured by how well we equitably distribute wealth, income and access to cultural amenities; diversify and stabilize our economic base; protect and restore native ecosystems; and advance social, economic and environmental sustainability.”

Management guru and author Peter Drucker famously said, “What’s measured improves.” So it bodes well that the GPI has been used in a number of countries to measure the success of social programs and the well-being of citizens. But we’re still a long way from real change – especially as conservative governments around the world, in the wake of the recession and in the name of recovery, hack away at things like environmental standards and funding for women’s advocacy and social programs. (And here in Canada, the government plans to eliminate census questions on unpaid work, so there will be even fewer tools with which to measure problems and progress.)

Meanwhile, I believe that positive change will continue, as the economic meltdown has reminded people in this part of the world of the virtues of frugality, community, and self-reliance, and the threat of climate change has convinced at least some people to reevaluate their carbon-heavy lifestyles. And if all of this results in the rejection of the idea that success is only about money, we can forge new attitudes toward what’s important in life.

The life learning movement is ahead of the pack in this realm. In an article on this topic that I wrote last year for Natural Life Magazine, I quoted something I wrote in my book Challenging Assumptions in Education, about how our public school systems perpetuate social hierarchies, disempower and coerce children, and encourage a destructive level of consumerism and consumption. School teaches submission to power, based on size, age, intellect, and sometimes ability to bully, and there are race, gender and class biases there as well. The very structure of schools delivers a hidden socioeconomic curriculum of standardization, competition, and top-down management by experts.

Nevertheless, schooling seems to be where I part ways with so many academics and feminists, including Waring and others like Toronto’s Andrea O’Reilly who are concerned about legitimizing the work of mothering. The persistent denial of the realities of school – and rejection of family- and community-based education as an alternative has complex roots, including the vested interests of the educational industry. And it causes problems not only here but in countries to which we export school. (I wrote a review of a new film Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden for Life Learning Magazine’s November/December issue. It addresses the sometimes negative impact of our well-meaning insertion of western-style schooling into relatively intact traditional cultures.)

In a keynote speech given recently to The Economics of Mothering conference hosted by Andrea O’Reilly’s Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (formerly the Association for Research on Mothering), Marilyn Waring reminded the largely academic audience that the word “economics’’ comes from the Greek word for “managing a household.”  (Here is an article about the conference by Toronto writer Antonia Zerbisias.) That Greek word “oikos” is also the root of the word “ecology.” And that ties my work up into a nice package – one that helps keep me motivated to continue in spite of its lack of financial reward and slow adoption by the mainstream.

Aside from allowing academic and personal freedom, life learning is about living more mindfully – acting altruistically (instead of earning gold stars or the approval of authority figures), respecting individuals for who they are rather than how much money they make or how many degrees they have, overturning discrimination, working cooperatively, and learning about and improving the world by living in and acting on it. The kids who are growing up in that way should be able to solve many problems.
Posted: 2010/10/31 3:32 PM


Going Rogue About Education – October 24, 2010
The academic environment is not one that takes well to coloring outside the lines. Innovation, inquiry, intellectual discussion, and even dissent used to be cornerstones of education, but now schooling has become a way to get a job. And valedictorians of graduating classes are among those supposed to be the most disciplined – presumably they’ve been good (obedient) students in order to graduate at the top of their classes. However, two young people have recently opened a window and let in a breath of fresh air with their cheeky yet principled use of the podium to state opinions that weren’t too popular with the establishment.

In July, Erica Goldson graduated as valedictorian from high school in New York State. She gave a zinger of a speech criticizing the institution of school as she experienced it. She cited John Taylor Gatto and other deschooling writers as she urged that everyone to rethink education and to work together to revolutionize it.

And, more recently, a valedictorian at the University of Winnipeg has made political waves. Graduating student Erin Larson used her speech at the fall convocation to protest the awarding of an honorary degree to a federal politician whose right wing views she said compromised the university's integrity. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has been criticized by many people for public statements he has made about crime, immigration, and same-sex marriage.

Both young people have been praised and derided for their speeches, with some critics saying they abused their platforms and even made people “uncomfortable.” But I think that is just the sort of time and place to make political statements and congratulate these brave and principled valedictorians. I am heartened to see that there remains passion, insight, and intellect among young people, in spite of the dumbing down of schools at all levels. Imagine what will happen once we allow young people to direct their own lives and learning! (And I do believe that time is coming.)
Posted: 2010/10/24 6:20 PM


Who Is Directing Our Lives Anyway? – October 11, 2010
When we fall into a habit of accepting what the “experts” tell us to think, we lose the power to think for ourselves. That is why so few people challenge the thinking behind Columbus Day, the mainstream medical monopoly, nuclear power plants, “the war on terror,” junk food, reality television show, corporately funded universities, or schools. And that’s too bad because these things have not come about as the result of us thinking about what would make our own lives – and those of our families and communities – better on a day-to-day basis. They are received ideas from corporations, governments, or others who have their own interests at heart, not ours. For instance, the received idea (or assumption) that children need to go to school to learn protects the vested interest of the school industry. As we begin to challenge that assumption, we realize that what is really required is a variety of accessible ways for people to learn, which may not be in the best interest of the school industry.

This training to pay attention to what others think – this belief that others know best what is good for us – results in what sociologist David Riesman has called “other-directed” people. Looking to one’s peers for direction is an inauthentic way to live. Yet most of us allow peer pressure to affect everything from our working lives, to how we spend our leisure time, to our consumption habits. Rather than deploring this lack of trust in our own opinions and feelings, we accept peer pressure as an inevitable part of modern living (except when our adolescent offspring follow us into accepting peer pressure and we encourage them to think for themselves!).

People who submit to others’ standards to measure their own growth and that of their children have allowed themselves and their children to unthinkingly be placed into assigned slots. In turn, they put others into their assigned slots, so that everything fits nicely together for the others who are directing the show. Because this school-induced transfer of responsibility for what we think is important starts early in life, few people question why the slots exist in the first place or why we let peer pressure rule our thoughts and our lives. We are encouraged to accept the assumption, from the day we start nursery school or kindergarten, that other people know better than we do how we should spend our time. And it is a long climb out of the slot.

You can read more about this assumption of received ideas in my book Challenging Assumptions in Education: From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society.
Posted: 2010/10/11 1:45 PM


Let’s Stop the Pinkwashing – October 5, 2010
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Of course, you probably already know that, because it has a pretty high level of – well, awareness. But amidst the walks and runs, the infantilizing teddy bears and pink everything from cheap jewelry and a Microsoft mouse to Campbell Soup cans and alcohol, it looks to me like it’s mostly about corporations – some of which produce products that could contribute to cancer – cozying up to a good cause. In fact, some of the bigger contributors to breast cancer awareness activities could be some of the bigger contributors to cancer, including the cosmetics industry. You might call it “pinkwashing.” As Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink website asks, “Why would the makers of a product that raises the risk of breast cancer promote it as if it’s part of the solution?” Why, indeed. Did you know that the whole pink symbolism thing began in 1992, when Estée Lauder cosmetic counters gave away loops of pink ribbon?

There is definitely some awareness that needs raising, but it’s about why the incidence of breast cancer has risen steadily over the past fifty years. Experts say the increase is at least partly due to increased mammography screening (which is, itself, controversial, perhaps unreliable and part of the problem). But there is evidence that the increase is also due to our society’s environmental and corporate excesses coming home to haunt us. Laboratory studies suggest that many of the chemicals that have been pumped into water, air, soil, and our bodies may cause breast tumors, hasten their growth, or leave mammary glands more vulnerable to carcinogens. But that’s not information with which most corporations – with their history of minimizing risks and being secretive about their ingredient usage – would want to be associated. Pink champagne is much more palatable to their bottom lines.

Unfortunately, some mainstream cancer charities readily enable this pinkwashing rather than address the dirty secret of environmental causes of cancer. The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, on its pink website, lists four factors for cancer prevention: exercise, eat a balanced diet, limit alcohol and avoid exposure to cigarette smoke. Nothing else (although to their credit, they have apparently funded some research into dangers of chemicals in occupational settings). It’s website lists sixty corporate partners, which include a paint company, a plastic manufacturer, some purveyors of prepared foods, and a cosmetic manufacturer.

The Canadian Cancer Society has a section about dispelling “myths” on its website. It seems to discredit research suggesting that parabens, preservatives found in many pharmaceutical, food, and cosmetic products, can mimic the effects of estrogen, which can promote breast cancer tumor growth. On the other hand, seemingly not to alarm people, there is silence about what substances can be carcinogenic. Again, a long list of donors and sponsors.

It’s easy for such positions to be seen as credible, at least at first glance, which is all most people take. After all, the government has safe levels for chemicals in consumer products, right? Well, there aren’t exposure guidelines for many of these potential toxins. Those in the know about such things say that no comprehensive list of endocrine disrupting chemicals exists, and most of the nearly 100,000 chemicals in use have not been tested to determine whether they affect hormone systems. And the regulations don’t take into account the interactions among the many different chemicals that we are exposed to every day. Or that they can linger in the environment for years after the safe level guidelines are lowered or the chemicals are phased out.

In spite of all the pinkness – or perhaps because of it – few studies have investigated the effects of modern chemicals on women’s breast health. Fortunately, activists for women’s health and the environment are beginning to change that. One notable example is the Breast Cancer Fund, which has just published the sixth edition of its State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment. It catalogues the growing evidence linking breast cancer to synthetic hormones in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and meat; pesticides in food; solvents in household cleaning products; BPA in food containers; flame retardants in furniture; and radiation from medical treatments.

This report comes just months after the President’s Cancer Panel’s report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, whose lead authors, Margaret Kripke, Ph.D., and LaSalle Leffall, Jr., M.D., found that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. The report includes a hefty critique of failed regulation, undue industry influence, and inadequate research and funding. It also found that the government has been locked in a cancer-fighting paradigm that has failed to look at the complexity of cancer causation.

In other new research, the community activist Silent Spring Institute found that women who report greater use of cleaning products may be at higher breast cancer risk than those who say they use them sparingly. Researchers reported in the journal Environmental Health that they had asked more than 1500 women about their cleaning product usage and found that those who reported using more air fresheners and products for mold and mildew control had a higher incidence of breast cancer.

A much older research study was conducted by the same organization and published in 2003 in Environmental Science & Technology. The The Household Exposure Study took indoor air and dust samples from 120 homes and measured the concentrations of chemicals identified as endocrine disruptors, which mimic or interfere with human hormones, sometimes affecting cell growth and development. The investigators’ selection was based on the chemicals’ wide use in pesticides, detergents, plastics, furniture, and cosmetics. They detected a total of 67 endocrine disruptors in the air and dust in womens homes.

“The growing scientific evidence compels us to act to prevent breast cancer,” says Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., president of the Breast Cancer Fund. “This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, our message is clear: we must move beyond awareness to prevention.”

We have begun to do the research that could lead to prevention. Activist organizations like Breast Cancer Action and Women’s Healthy Environments Network are pushing companies – notably in the cosmetics industry – to remove some of the nastier ingredients from their products. Now, what’s needed is to remove the hypocrisy and stop the pinkwashing so women have some tools to make healthier decisions and governments can be forced to regulate industry.
Posted: 2010/10/05 4:45 PM


Protecting Our Children From Hurt Teaches Them Fear – October 1, 2010
When I was a child, my parents went to great lengths to protect me from things that they thought would hurt me. I don’t mean things like sharp corners and scissors – I had more than my fair share of skinned knees, stitched chins, and bruises, in spite of them telling me to walk not run, and dressing me in white skirts. I mean things that they thought would hurt me emotionally.

My beloved grandfather lived with us in a house across the street from the school. When I was six, he died. But I didn’t know about it for awhile. When an ambulance was called to take him away, it was recess time at school. My mother phoned the school and arranged for me to be called into the school building on some pretense so that I wouldn’t see the ambulance. They waited until after dinner that night to tell me he had “gone.” Then they cleaned out his bedroom, painted the walls, and moved me into it, for which I was grateful because I’d slept on a cot in the living room until then. But we never talked about him much after that.

When I was fifteen, my father died. He had a heart attack while lying on our couch. I didn’t know that’s what was happening and was sent to bed so I wouldn’t see the ambulance arrive. He never came home. I wasn’t allowed to visit the funeral home or attend the funeral. My mother wouldn’t talk about him much after that.

Aside from my mother’s difficulty with emotions, keeping me away from those life experiences didn’t protect me at all; it taught me that there were things I wasn’t capable of dealing with. I’ve dealt with – and accomplished – a great deal in my sixty years. And I’m proud of that. But sometimes I wonder what life would have been like if I’d found my spirit and my voice earlier. I wonder how much more I could have done, and how much stronger I’d be, with more confidence in my abilities, without fearing the unknown, and if I’d done something else with all those minutes in which I imagined and worried about what might happen next.

Naomi Aldort just sent me her column for the November/December issue of Life Learning Magazine. She wrote: “Shielding a child from reality does not help her grow up emotionally stronger. On the contrary, it teaches her fear of life.” Somehow, I didn’t make that mistake with my own daughters, who are both strong, fearless women. But I wonder about the kids today whose parents are trying so hard to keep them safe from all of life’s emotional bogeymen. Will they grow up wishing their parents had allowed them to more fully experience life?
Posted: 2010/10/01 4:21 PM


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