Suburban Seeker

There beneath the blue suburban skies

Month: March, 2013

The Story of Bottled Water

Good video to watch on manufactured demand as it relates to bottled water, one of the biggest scams around.

One of the videos claims is a bit specious – bottled water often does taste better than tap water. But to that I have two responses: 1) get a filter if you must, and 2) just suck it up. Water’s primary function is to keep us alive. The water from your tap will do that, and, for the overwhelmingly vast majority of communities in America, it won’t make you sick.

It boggles my mind that we have defeated one of nature’s biggest obstacles to survival: we have a steady, reliable source of clean water that is continuously tested for pollutants and pathogens. We use this water largely to piss in and keep our yards green in the summer.

Drink water from the tap. If you don’t like the taste, quit whining and drink water from the tap. You’ll get used to it, and you’ll be doing the planet and your wallet a favor.

A Modern Religion

I am an atheist. Fortunately I live in the United States where that is a statement I am free to make. (Unless you live in the South.)

To put it more accurately I am an agnostic.  I dislike this term, however. I see no evidence in the universe for a “God” so I see no reason to posit one – Occam’s Razor and all that. (Prior to the Big Bang there was either something or nothing, neither of which make any sense to a brain like mine that evolved to seek out food, shelter, and opportunities for reproduction. If you want to say It came from God or It came from nothing, go ahead. Neither, as I said, makes any sense. How can something come from nothing? How can you have an uncaused cause?)

Where I differ from my fellow atheists is that I see value in religion. I do not like its political application (see: the entire history of the Catholic Church) but I do think it is important to get together regularly – once a week, say – to marvel at our lives and discuss how to live good ones knowing that our time is fleeting.

This is what draws me to Buddhism. Of all the religions I have found, it seems to be the most flexible and adaptable. It’s most famous spokesman has recently written a book wondering if “religion” as it has historically been defined is even necessary or desirable anymore. Compare that with pretty much every major religious figure in the world today.

Buddhism posits no God. It doesn’t require one to believe that the creator of the universe (a universe which every day we learn to be exponentially more amazing than we can ever conceive) cared an awful lot about a tribe of nomads living in the desert of a small planet in the corner of a relatively insignificant galaxy a few thousand years ago.

It requires an honest appraisal of our human situation, namely this: everything changes.

And the more we learn about the universe, the more profound this statement becomes. Everything we have yet discovered, does change. God, as the notion has traditionally been defined, provides a constant we can take refuge in. Buddhism starts where western religions have feared to tread.

Everything changes. We will get sick. We will age. We will die. Yet amid this, we can find a way to lead good and happy lives. This is where you find true beauty. Not in hiding from the facts of life, but in facing them head on and finding solace and comfort among your fellow humans.

I will probably write more about the details of “Buddhism” in the future, but for now I just want to say that though I am a Godless pagan, I firmly believe in the power and value of religion. I just think that religion needs to evolve.

Diabetes and No-Self

An article from The Week caught my eye today. As it turns out, we Americans are now drinking “58 gallons of water a year, a 38 percent increase from 1998’s average of 42 gallons. Back then, the numbers were reversed: Americans quaffed 54 gallons of soda a year, 23 percent more than the 44 gallons we drink now.”

I don’t know about you (actually, according to the statistics, I might) but even 44 gallons of soda a year seems insane. I’m assuming these numbers are skewed by the “heavy users” of soda, but they are still staggering. Everyone knows that soda, though delicious, is bad for them, and yet we continue to indulge. Why might this be?

Keith Wagstaff at The Week attributes our high levels of soda consumption to the Cola Wars of the 1980s, during which Pepsi and Coke tried to out-advertise one another to increase market share. This effort to give our kids diabetes will soon look as vile as selling cigarettes to kids.

Fortunately, there is an upside to these two historically diabetes-based corporate titans slugging it out: “Following a concerted push by beverage companies to convince consumers to buy water in a bottle, as opposed to turning on the old tap, the consumption of bottled water has skyrocketed to 21 gallons a year per capita.”

What does it mean to be a human being in an age where advertising causes behavior change? One can argue for the importance of free will all you want (and I do) but facts don’t lie. Corporations (and politicians) spend money on advertising because they know it causes people to change their behavior and even their opinions.

The argument can always be made that companies (and politicians) are only giving people what they want. But when “what people want” can be changed through advertising, this becomes a tautological absurdity.

My personal solution is to watch less television, mute the commercials when I do, run Adblock when online, and whenever I am confronted with an ad, figure out who the demographic is, why they are being targeted, what cues are being used in the ad to get their attention, which human psychological traits are being preyed on, etc.  Basically to distill it down to its core, which is always to convince people to spend their money or votes on a particular product.

This is exhausting, and in all probability ineffective. If more people began to do the same thing, advertising executives would follow the trend and develop advertising that caters to it. Call it anti-advertising.

On the one hand, this is unsurprising. The Buddhist notion of no-self fits quite nicely with the idea that who we are as human beings is determined largely by factors outside our control, and that a completely autonomous human being is impossible. It’s either nature or nurture, but in either case it’s external to you.

That said, it is possible to change who you are, to exercise free will, especially by changing the things that shape you. If you exercise, you get in shape. If you associate  with poets and read poetry, you can become more empathetic. If you associate with scientists and read science journals, you can become more knowledgeable and discerning.

But change of this sort takes a concerted effort over time. And those of us who do not liked being shaped by excessive consumerism, fight a difficult battle, because people who want to sell us things are making a concerted effort over time to get us to give them our time and money.

So enjoy your soda, everyone. You have been convinced that consuming a can of soda a day is perfectly normal by companies that do not give a damn if you get diabetes or heart disease. In an age of plenty, the people with the strongest willpower, the best developed ability to say “no” to passing pleasures, to ignore the persuasive power of mass media, will thrive. Good luck.

All of the Information

This good read from The New York Times came across my Twitter feed today from their Gray Matter blog (which tends to be interesting). It is a discussion of reader comments on web articles and how they can color readers’ perceptions of things they had already read and it got me thinking.

I love the internet, and I love having it in my pocket. I love having access to nearly all the information there is in the world. It is truly mind boggling to think that to children being born today, this is the default.

But I worry that, as is so often the case, we rush into the technology without taking the time to see how it affects us. This is a theme I am sure I will return to – I can’t help it. Despite my recently professed love for the internet, I can be very much the luddite.

It is wonderful that we can access so much information. But the flip side is that there is simply too much information for any one human brain to handle and so it becomes necessary to filter the information we do consume.

This leads to the kind of dialogue we currently have in the world where people aren’t even speaking from the same set of facts when trying to solve problems. Where one’s views never need to be challenged and where you can always find an expert with a website to validate your preconceived notions about the world.

What this requires, I think, is a new sort of Renaissance Man. One who knows where he stands in the world, but is not afraid of broadening his horizons. One who visits TricycleThe Longing Soul, and Richard Dawkins. One who reads the editorials in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The world is a bigger and more complicated place than we will ever know, and that is fine. It is bigger and more complicated than any one ideology, philosophy, or religion can encompass. It is certainly bigger and more complicated than you think, no matter how sure of yourself you may be.

Best to explore it a bit. Seek out uncertainty. And be nice to one another in message boards. Because, as with all technology, it will be a force for good or bad depending on how we use it.