Archive for September, 2009



Let’s look outside of the bubble now

So far I’ve used this blog to talk about the way the U.S. is changing: What are we thinking, doing and creating differently in a post-Bush world? How has the economic crisis affected us?

For a moment I’d like to take a giant sidestep out of this bubble and ask, How has the economic crisis affected the rest of the world? We’re not the only ones changing, and it’s important to recognize that changes here translate into changes abroad, that decisions made by our government — and decisions made by us — affect workers and families abroad. (Again, watch this video for more inspiration — we’re all connected!).

I turned to my El Salvador correspondent, Alia Malik, for some insight.  Alia made a reputation for herself at The Baltimore Sun, where she wrote stellar stories about neighborhood tree disputes. She now lives in what she calls “the pineapple capital of El Salvador.” She’s 23 and in the Peace Corps. (Read her blog)

Have salvadoreños changed their views of the U.S. in the past year? I’m particularly interested to know if you’ve noted a difference since Obama’s election or since the crisis hit.

Salvadorans in general have a positive view of the states, considering literally a third of their citizens are there now.  Actually a positive view might be an understatement; a lot of them tend to think of it as El Dorado and are surprised to hear there are poor, unhappy gringos too.  A lot of the Salvadorans I talked to were very happy that Obama was elected, just because of his race, even though they don’t know much about his opinions.

The economic crisis in the States has affected El Salvador hugely. People’s remittances from their family in the States have plummeted, and a lot of Salvadorans who risked their lives to immigrate illegally have voluntarily returned because they can’t find work in the States after all.  So they move back home and start farming again and it’s kind of sad.  If there has been any change in the general impression of America here, I would say it’s that Salvadorans have realized that the U.S. is not El Dorado or the answer to all their prayers.

How has your life been affected by the economic crisis? What have you rethought?

My life has been completely changed by the economic crisis. I am re-thinking my goal to be a journalist, which previously never faltered in the face of great odds, because almost none my friends who graduated from j-school with me have managed to keep a job in journalism, even though they were stars in school.  I always joke that I’m better off economically in a Third World country right now, but it’s true.  I am toying with the idea of going to grad school for multimedia journalism when I finish up in the Peace Corps, but no even sure how I’ll afford that.  So in other words, I’m kind of panicking.  The upside is that I am here until November 2010, so maybe things will have turned around at least a little by then.  I know too little about the economy to make any kind of intelligent prediction, but that at least is my hope.

I’d like to make a note about the point of this blog. As much as I throw out the term economics, this blog is not about money or finances — it’s about people and ideas. How is a changing economic reality transforming the way we view ourselves? How is it changing our expectations, our immigration patterns, our families, our lifestyles, our ideals?

So, for those of you living outside the U.S. how has the economic crisis affected your country? And on a somewhat related tangent, have views of the U.S. changed since Obama’s election?

Julie.

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News roundup

“One Man’s Trash …” Kate Murphy, New York Times

This will be the only time I post something from the “Home & Garden” section of a newspaper. But this is just fascinating — Dan Phillips a former Army intelligence officer,  college dance instructor and syndicated cryptogram puzzle maker (what?) has spent the last 12 years building low-income housing out of “trash.” In Texas.

He’s used wine corks for flooring and old picture frames to cover ceilings. Check out the photographs here.

“You can’t defy the laws of physics or building codes,” Mr. Phillips says, “but beyond that, the possibilities are endless.”

“Urban Chickens: The Latest Trend in New York City” Huffington Post/MSNBC

Chain smoking hipsters are no longer the only creatures in Brooklyn — now the chickens are moving in.  New Yorkers are buying their own chickens and keeping them at home, really taking “eat local” to a new level. Watch the video.

I’m curious — you urbanites out there, have any of you seen this? My roommate in Buenos Aires made her own yogurt (hi Mechi!), but I never saw any chickens in the city …

Julie.

How’s the crisis affecting you? Pt. IV

I received some thought-provoking comments yesterday from a college friend. I’ll call him Jake. He’s one of those rough-and-tumble journalists who will do anything for a story, and I know we spent at least one evening speeding around in my Civic, chasing crime in Chapel Hill. I promised him anonymity, although I’m pretty sure he’d never grant it to a source. He’s 23.

At first I was lucky: I got a job just before the worst of this recession, or depression, or whatever the hell it is, hit. And so, while I’d been pretty poor in college, I became broke at a much higher level, which was lovely. Eventually, though, the economy caught up with even the rural little town I was holed up in. There was a sharp pay cut for everyone who still had a job, and I went back to being just plain broke.

I didn’t like that very much, though I don’t think anyone does, really. I started looking for a better job the day they announced the pay cut, and it took me three months. I’m now in a nicer town, making a little bit more than I did when I first started out, though everything here costs more, too.

I’m doing alright, but I’ve had to sweat and run a bit to hang on to what I have. That said, I eat plenty of meals out, buy booze each week and generally have the sort of life I want to live. What’s a little sweat?

I like “Jake’s” attitude — What’s the big deal if we have to work a little harder?

Julie.

PS. Read Ben’s comments on “Changing our habits.” Thanks Ben!

How’s the crisis affecting you? Pt. III

People are sending great comments about the way economic changes are shaping our nation and our habits.

Samantha Newcombe, an Alaskan who helped me survive the sixth grade (Hi Sam!), responded to the previous post about changing our consumer habits. She’s 23 and dislikes the sound of styrofoam (me too, Sam, me too).

I use my Mike’s Lemonade six pack holders for all of my paints and classroom glue. I just paint over them. And I reuse a ton of stuff in the classroom (like plastic bags, and newspaper, and toliet paper rolls and egg cartons). I agree, too much goes to waste. I bought a pack of gum the other day and someone asked me if I wanted a bag for it. A plastic bag for something that I can carry in my hand? It seems a bit extreme!

Rachel, who lives in L.A. and once slept in a U-Haul in the middle of Tennessee (or was it Ohio?), also wrote in. She’s 22 and spent the summer in Hong Kong.

How do you think American culture will change because of the economic crisis?

I think conspicuous consumption and the oh-so-American greed and overindulgence will decline and those who continue to live lavishly will be held accountable and scrutinized for such a lifestyle. Being frugal will become more trendy. I think it also fits into the trends of environmental conservation and being green is cool — people are beginning to look outside themselves, and are seeing the impact that they make in the world. I think as this economic crisis is really shaking people up and forcing them to reprioritize how they live their lives, especially in terms of consumption.

I also might go as far to predict that our generation will become the frugal savers after this experience. While the baby boomers were the big spenders, I think our generation may be more conservative in spending, make less risky investments, definitely have less trust in financial instituations, government, business, industry (we’re already seeing this skepticism in full-fledge), be more responsible with credit, shore up savings, retirement, education funds, etc.

But, America is fickle. And stupid. We’ll probably all buy hummers and eventually relocate to the moon.

Here’s an issue that’s come up in the comments I’m receiving: Some think the economic crisis will have a permanent impact on our generation’s psyche, and that we will become a less consumption-oriented, more fiscally responsible, more environmentally aware group of individuals who will pass these values on to our children.

Others think that when (if?) the economy bounces back, we’re going to return to our old glutonous ways and drown ourselves in massive amounts of air conditioning while watching televisions the size of football fields.

Thoughts?

Julie.

Changing our habits

Before dinner the other night, I picked a napkin out of the napkin holder, ripped it in half, saved one part for myself and gave the other to my mom.

My mom, who uses compost coffee grinds in her garden and saves old cereal boxes to package leftovers, rolled her eyes. I was taking my “no-waste” kick too far.

Or was I?

(I should add that these were ridiculously large napkins.)

I’ve been astounded lately by the amount of paper and packaging around me, and somewhat repulsed by the amount of unnecessary waste that gets used and thrown away each day.

When I returned from Argentina, I took a trip to Costco and nearly threw a fit as I stood amidst floor-to-ceiling aisles of goods wrapped and rewrapped in miles of plastic and cardboard.  As I stared, paralyzed, down the seemingly endless bread aisle, I wondered When did plastics start to give me the heebie jeebies? When did I start getting nervous around any product that isn’t reusable?

(The sheer multitude of bread choices only exacerbated my plastics anxiety. Would my family prefer Honey Wheat and Oat, All Natural Whole Grain, Original Oatnut, Original Multigrain, Multigrain Plus, Healthy Eight Grain, Whole Grain Whole Wheat or Split Top Whole Wheat? And why is everything double-bagged? I grabbed a white loaf and ran.)

Josh mentioned this in an earlier post: The economic crisis hit at the same time people really started thinking about living green. Or perhaps people really started thinking about living green because of the economic crisis. Somehow, the two are intertwined. People are changing their consumption habits, not because it’s trendy or crunchy, but because it makes more economic sense.

In the past, we could buy, throw away, and then buy again, emptying our wallets and filling our landfills. But a new economic reality has caused U.S. citizens to examine their purchases and their habits more carefully.  It now makes more sense, monetarily speaking, to dry your clothes in the sun, turn off the air conditioning, using less toilet paper, drive less often, buy fewer clothing items and purchase more durable goods.

Coincidentally, these habits are also good for the environment

(According to this article, we each use 60 pounds of tissue paper a year. Germans use 33 pounds a year. Are we dirtier or just more wasteful?).

Perhaps the upshot to the economic crisis is that it will serve as a painful hangover in the morning-after stage of the “frat years” of U.S. consumption. It will force us to stop seeing the green movement as a cause for liberal granola-eating elitists, and to start changing our habits out of pure necessity.  Going green — or light green — doesn’t mean we eschew all plastics, live in tents and wear burlap sacks. It simply means that we are aware of the ecological and economic impact of our lifestyles.

For me, it’s also a realization that the products I use are created somewhere else in the world, by other people (perhaps in South America, where I just came from!) and that my life impacts their lives. But that’s a discussion for another post.

If you want to think more about environmental sustainability and its connection to our consumer habits, watch this life-changing video: Story of Stuff. I also recommend “Usélo y Tírelo” a short book by Eduardo Galeano (yet to be published in English, I’m sorry!).

Question: Have you changed your day-to-day consumption habits in light of the crisis?

Julie.

A note on language

Who’s American anyway? And when should we use the label?

As a North American who spent a year living in South America, I’m constantly doing a linguistic tap dance around the word “American,” trying not to use it to refer to something strictly from the U.S.

North of Mexico, many casually employ “American” as a noun or an adjective that refers solely to a person or item of the United States of America.

To others, though, particularly those in Latin America, “American” is a more encompassing label that describes any person, thing or idea with roots in the Americas — from Canada all the way to Argentina. The idea that United Statesians can claim “American” as ”ours” is a bit, well, self-important.

The problem is this:  Without the word “American,” English speakers lack a one-word noun that describes a citizen of the U.S., and we lack a simple adjective that describe items from the U.S.

If I don’t use the word “American” in this blog, I’ll be doing syntactic tangos all over the place.  (The AP stylebook has yet to sanction the use of “United Statesian”). So bear with me in my occasional and reluctant employment of the word “American” as a noun for “U.S. citizen” and as an adjective to describe something that is “of the U.S.” (American society, American culture, etc.).

Have a suggestion for how to approach this issue? Leave your comments.

Julie.


What is this blog?

The "Unstatic Blog" documents the changes going on around you and me. It will ask and answer — and then ask again — how is your world changing? Read and participate in the conversation.

stat⋅ic

/ˈstætɪk/ –adjective 1. pertaining to or characterized by a fixed or stationary condition. 2. showing little or no change: a static concept; a static relationship. 3. lacking movement, development, or vitality
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