Thursday, July 31, 2008

suburban life is fattening

Not that we didn't know this already, but recent research confirms this idea. An article on WebMd notes: "People in the study who lived in the most walkable neighborhoods weighed an average of 8 pounds less than people who lived in the least walkable areas." Dead end streets that lead nowhere -- who would have thought that they were unhealthy? (/sarcasm) Suburbs are places that have stop signs solely to slow people down and maybe to give a better indication of the right-of-way of traffic. Kids might play in the streets too, but adults spend their time in a commute to or from work and then find themselves too far away from anyplace where they could exercise. In my own time in suburbs, I rarely see people running or riding a bike on the sidewalks. Occasionally there are people taking a walk after dinner or something, but the most usage the sidewalks get is when kids walk on them when cars are driving down the streets. Making matters worse is that suburbs are often simply residential areas that don't have nearby restaurants or stores that people can frequent simply by walking. When I lived in the city I walked to some many nearby stores. Now I live in a small town (without sidewalks, for the most part) and can't walk anyway. It's upsetting to have to depend on my car to get anywhere -- even places that are a (hypothetical) short walk away.

As a counterpoint, suburbs don't have to be fattening. I've seen reports of where neighborhoods are building more sidewalks or bike paths so that people can exercise. Easy access to parks with loops for jogging and fields for kids (and older kids) to play soccer, football, or baseball are necessary. Let's not forget basketball and tennis courts either. Suburbs may be able to provide these amenities but another problem is not the suburb itself. In fact, suburbs may have the ability to provide greater opportunities to exercise should they invest in them. One, the air is probably cleaner than the nearby city since the factories are farther away. Two, in newer suburbs there are still fields and rural zones that allow for the creation of nice nature parks and trails. Given the higher tax base of suburbs compared to cities, they may have the funds to make this investment.

One problem that has nothing to do with the resources are the people who live there. By this, I mean to refer to the lifestyle of its residents. If the suburb in question is fairly affluent, its residents work hard and may not have time to dedicate to exercise, especially when they spend more time in traffic due to their longer commute to a job in the city. This aspect is perhaps the most negative influence of the suburb on modern life: it affects the environment with the creation of greenhouse gasses (especially since it probably doesn't have mass transit or its residents fail to take advantage of it where it does exist) besides the obesity or "excess baggage" of its residents.

The solution may be on the horizon: high gas prices have people reevaluating their priorities -- people are moving, driving more fuel efficient cars, rethinking mass transit, etc. and the overall population shift has had jobs move outside the city to the suburbs as well, making a shorter commute for those workers (of course, then there are people who have the opposite commute from the city to their job in the suburb; I don't know how common this is but I have met people with simliar commutes).

But in the opposite direction, obesity continues to rise in the US. I though I saw a headline that said that nearly every American will be obese at some point in the future. I think the opposite is happening: America is coming to be dividing into two groups, the fit and the fat. And the latter group will continue to grow unless several changes are made including: access to exercise, declining prices of healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables, and the promotion of overall healthy lifestyles. A byproduct of rising obesity rates is that fit people are considered "skinny" when they are actually healthy. This creates misperceptions as to what a "healthy" (by this, I mean someone with a reasonable BMI, an imperfect but apparently worthwhile indicator of a healthy weight) person looks like. For the record, I'm a few pounds over a healthy BMI, but I run races and do reasonably well in half marathons, where one finds a good turnout (always in the top 10% overall, recently as high as just outside the top 4% -- and I'm a few pounds overweight, according the the BMI index).
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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Where do ya draw the line?

Besides being a great Dead Kennedy's song on their swansong -- Bedtime for Democracy, Jello Biafra perhaps best states his political dilemma. "Anarchy sounds good to me / then someone asks 'who'd fix the sewers?'/ 'would the rednecks just play king / of the neighborhood?'" Of course, true anarchy would have a response for both of these problems: the sewers would either be maintained by those who were willing to self-organize to do it (especially in the anarcho-socialist direction) or sewers wouldn't exist, and it's a false problem.

The second point is perhaps more distressing to the anarchist project. Or maybe not. But it certainly reveals part of the anarchist impulse: its primitivism. B. Traven, a noted anarchist of mysterious origins (either Chicago of Swedish parents or the illegitimate child of a Polish countess seem to be the favored hypotheses), situates the arrival of government in his aptly named novel Government as something that subverted their Eden. If anarchy privileges small communities, the technological advances of the past two hundred years or so would not have happened. Unfortunately, many advances have come about due to international competition and wars. That doesn't mean, of course, that we're better off. Of course, we couldn't have this discussion in this medium without those advances. Maybe we'd be better off living a different life in a radically different society, but all that is merely hypothetical in any case.

Maybe Jello Biafra, a professed anarachist I believe, should have known better than to ask questions that seem to be voiced by someone less familiar with anarchy -- someone who associates anarchy simply with chaos rather than radical self government. Maybe he was having doubts about anarchy or was merely beginning to express his anarchist tendencies. Of course, the voice in the song doesn't have to be him and may be someone else, asking the more important question of 'where do you draw the line?' Where do we decide that someone should intervene in a situation -- be it a squabble between a couple kids at school, a couple having a fight (or just not getting along), some thugs getting together and running amok, some armed groups in a country fighting over their place in the government there. When should someone intervene and when should someone stay out of the situation and allow the participants to resolve their differences -- in whatever way they can or want to?

After numerous school shooting incidents it is clear that something has to be done about bullying. After witnessing the terror in Rwanda or ex-Yugoslavia or the Taliban in Afghanistan it is clear that someone should intervene. Dictatorships in all of Latin America (Somoza, Pinochet, et al) should not have lasted even half of how long they did, but geopolitical interests governed those and other situations. We know that abused women (and men) stay in relationships that are dangerous for numerous bad reasons. It is easy to say that individuals should stand up to bullies and should even be taught how (but how do you make sure that the bullies don't learn these techniques; how can you make sure that you aren't going to 'create' bullies in the process?), but that doesn't mean that those methods are going to work. Many dictators have been overthrown -- Somoza, Porfirio Díaz, and Bautista being just a few examples -- through popular insurrection (directly or indirectly). Others simply died and the death allowed for a transition to democracy, as was the case in Spain. Others faced humiliating defeats and disappeared -- Argentina after the brief war over the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). Other forged a gradual transition like Pinochet.

My main concern with an anarchic project is not the question about the sewers or even the rednecks. It's its primitivist component that disheartens me. The technological advances have enriched us in many ways, although they certainly have been bad for the earth and for those who live on it (witness the high percentage of individuals in advanced societies that have a bonafide psychological disorder -- about 25% for the US and almost as high in other places). Should we sacrifice our ability to move around this planet, to experience very different things, lest we create a climate that will force us to make radical changes in our lifestyle? As Jello put it, "I'm not telling you I'm asking you."
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