adj. salt·i·er, salt·i·est

1. Of, containing, or seasoned with salt.
2. Suggestive of the sea or sailing life.
3. Witty; pungent; earthy: salty humor.
(def. 1-3 courtesy
4. Embarrassed; wishing to turn back time to before the incident of mild humiliation; appearing ‘a fool,’ especially in front of one’s peer group. Often heard in the Chicago and Milwaukee regions from the mid-1990s onward.

Scientists at the University of Iowa studying rats have concluded that salt (sodium chloride, good old NaCl) may be a natural anti-depressant, which would explain our tendency to consume a lot of it. The article, published on the website Science Daily, explains that the rats, when deficient in sodium chloride, did not engage in activities they normally enjoyed, “like drinking a sugary substance or pressing a bar that stimulates a pleasant sensation in their brains.”

Huh. It seems that, for these lab rats, their usual pleasurable activities are pretty much the same as those that amuse us humans.

I certainly know quite well the pleasurable trifecta of munching a salty snack (like Doritos or McDonalds food) as I drink a sweet beverage (like Coca-Cola), while having my brain stimulated artificially (in this case by TV, computer and movie screens).

But for the lab rats, these decadent amusements are quite clearly artificial – a wild rat would not have regular access to either sugar substance or a pleasure bar – but must have an element of attraction to the little guys. When these pleasurable, artificial stimuli are introduced, the rats accept them with relish.

Sound familiar?

So here’s that old sore spot on the psyche of the many who shudder when a rat scurries noiselessly across their path on the way from the trashcan to the sewer: rats and humans have a lot in common. That urban rats (which along with pigeons, squirrels and cockroaches are the main animals the flourish in the wild among urban-dwelling humans) are so despised is a sad testament to the alienation we feel from the nature – in whatever form – that chooses to live among us.

Of course there’s troubled history – the bubonic plague, to name just one incident – of rats being the carriers of damaging phenomena into human society.

Another more recent (and fascinating!) rat-related catastrophe was profiled in “Rat Attack” on PBS’ science program Nova. In this case, the critters in the bamboo forests surrounding a remote Northern Indian village experience a population explosion when they gain access to the bamboo fruit (which appears only every 40 years). Once this food supply is exhausted, the rats overrun the rice fields, threatening the villagers with hunger.

Such human/rat exchanges stoke the fires of animocity. And urbanized rats can be certainly be mean, dangerous and hungry, making them (understandably) incredibly unwelcome guests.

But damage is wrought on both sides, and perhaps an objective observer would side with the rats on this one. Rats are subjected casually on a daily basis to myriad, often life-threatening scientific experiments for our ostensible benefit.

This salt/sugar/brain stimulus-related glimpse into the psychological and recreational behavior of rats brings an ugly truth to light – we are linked by our artificial modern tastes. As much as we reject one another, it appears that lab rats and humans are being conditioned by the same system.

(For more on the fascinating history of human societies’ control of salt, check out Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky.)

What’s Your Coltan Footprint?

We hear all about our “Carbon Footprint” – a person’s total greenhouse gas emissions, determined by things like the amount of petroleum we use through car and airplane trips, and the distance our food travels to arrive on our supermarket shelves. But there’s another footprint that we in the Global North would do well to examine: our Coltan Footprint.

Coltan is the colloquial name for columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore found in deposits all over the world. Twenty-five percent of the world’s coltan supply is located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. From coltan is extracted the elements niobium and tantalum. Tantalum is a major component used to create consumer electronic devices, such as cell phones, computers and DVD players.

Profits from coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been one major funding source of the ongoing armed conflicts in the region, according to the Danish organization DanChurchAid, in their report “Is There Blood on Your Mobile Phone?”:

Much of coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is done by children, and by hand, under extremely dangerous conditions, as this video from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting shows.

As the number and type of consumer electronics grow exponentially, there is a direct impact on the situation on the ground. For example, as documented by the website Toward Freedom, the year 2000 saw the launch of Sony’s PlayStation 2, as well as increased sales of cell phones, DVD players and other portable electronic devices. The increased demand for tantalum caused the price to jump from $49/pound to $275/pound and this led to a rapid acceleration of mining in the coltan-rich regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That this boom coincided with the Second Congo War (1998 – 2003) in which over 5 million civilians were killed indicates the extent to which armed conflicts in the African continent are fueled by the desire for control of resources.

To find your coltan footprint, add up:

1) The number of cell phones, laptop computers, gaming systems, DVD players you have owned in the past 10 years.

Mine is about 8.

If yours is above 0, you are part of creating demand for this mineral and should think about your responsibility for the nature of the resource wars still tearing apart the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

So, dang. What to do?

The point is that it’s not just carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses that we have to reconsider, but all of our globalized consumption habits.

Consider this scene:

An H.G. Wells-style time traveler from 1850 visits a busy 2009 street corner the middle of New York City at 5:45pm on a Thursday. What the traveler will no doubt notice is streams of people walking down the street, chattering happily into small plastic devices. As one woman passes the traveler, a snippet of her conversation is heard:

“I love you” she tells the plastic device.

The time traveler may conclude that in this future, it is small, shiny, plastic robots that are the object of a good deal of our emotional attention.

When our jobs and personal lives in the U.S. are more and more knitted to electronic devices and equipment, can we imagine breaking free? Sidling up to that grungy phone booth with a roll of quarters in the pocket in our handbag designed for a mobile phone? Banging out letters to our friends on a typewriter, as opposed to clicking up an instant message?

Can we go back and create a different future?

What the World Eats

This is a photo essay taken from the book Hungry Planet by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio, which documents the weekly food supply of several families in different countries around the world.

This photographic journey is much more than an interesting sociological study; in this globalized world, food and eating habits are quite literally a matter of life and death. In the words of the authors:

“Today we are witnessing the greatest change in global diets since the invention of agriculture. Globalization, mass tourism, and giant agribusiness have filled American supermarket shelves with extraordinary new foods and McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Kraft Cheese Singles are being exported to every corner of the planet.”

From the preponderance of packaged foods consumed by the family in the U.S. to the meager rations available to the family in the refugee camp in Chad, Menzel and D’Aluisio’s work casts much-needed light on the insane imbalance of the global food system.

Another indispensable work is Raj Patel’s 2007 book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. Patel tracks the bounty lining the supermarket shelves of the Global North to its often disturbing origins, examines the corporate tyranny of global crops like soy and maize, and comes to the conclusion that people in both the Global North and South are trapped within the same dysfunctional system. On one side: the 1 billion people worldwide who are classified as “obese,” on the other, the 800 million starving people throughout the world. In the middle, a relative handful of multinational food companies with the leverage to control both the markets.

Just as people used to whisper tales of the streets paved with gold in the U.S., these days the streets and store aisles of the Global North are full of cheap, unhealthy, mass-produced, genetically modified foodstuffs. The result has been a public health crisis of diabetes and heart disease. At the very same time, food has become increasingly scarce throughout the Global South – here, you can read about the food riots that ripped through several countries in 2007-2008.

It’s clear that something drastic has to change about the way we obtain one of the most basic necessities for life: food. Patel details several movements across the world – from the Landless Movement (MST) in Brazil to Europe’s Slow Food movement, the South Central Farm in L.A. and farmers’ organizations from South Korea and India to Mexico who have had enough of being starved off their land by policies set in boardrooms half a world away.

What doesn’t seem to be helping is the fetishism of food that has emerged in the U.S. Ever since Norman Rockwell painted the rosy-cheeked family preparing to enjoy a giant turkey in “Freedom From Want,” Americans have enjoyed images of our bounty reflected back at us. This is apparent from any given hour on the Food Network – tantalizing images of delicious food being prepared are part of the nightly entertainment for millions.

I have to wonder about whether the 800 million people in danger of starvation throughout the world know about Food Network, Top Chef and the general cult of foodie fascination. Then again, when the number of families using the Food Bank for New York City has doubled from 4 million to 8 million from 2003 to 2008, the cognitive dissonance is alive and well in our own backyard.

Don’t get me wrong – I am one of the many who enjoy watching food on TV. I appreciate the skill of cooking and am fascinated by the rituals of food preparation and believe that a lot can be learned from studying food. But when placed in the context of the inequality of the global food system, we should challenge ourselves to look at food in a deeper way than encouraged by the current slew of popular TV food programs.

The gap between the haves and have-nots is not a new phenomenon. What is relatively new is how gigantic this gap is – and the staggering rate at which it is growing.

As the U.S. economy staggers under the weight of the still-unfolding crisis, this is the time to ponder possible paradigm shifts in the way we consume just about everything – and our relationship to food is a good place to start.

There are many steps that we can take towards the goal of breaking free from the current food system: local and seasonal eating, rejection of GMO and highly processed foods, support for farmers markets and urban farms (such as Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), widespread education about the conditions under which our food is grown in the U.S. and abroad – are all crucial strategies. The thing to remember is that the situation is absolutely as dire as Menzel and D’Aluisio indicate. We can no longer turn our back on the slow-motion apocalypse gripping the starving people of the Global South.

It grows more and more apparent that if we can dismantle the system stuffing us and starving them, the lives we save will include our own.