My road to becoming a health activist: How I became aware of the damage the American food supply does to our health, and why I began looking for a way to get the money out politics.
Originally published 2004
First I became health activist. Then I became a political activist. It all started because of my interest in nutrition. In my TreeLight.com Health pages, I have a paper on partially hydrogenated oils that was Google-ranked #1 for a good 10 years. (Last I checked, it was #3, behind a Wikipedia article and one by the Mayo Clinic.)
That paper explained how partially hydrogenated oils make people sick, and how they make people fat. Basically, eating a bag of french fries is like smoking a pack of cigarettes — it won’t kill you immediately, but over the long term it will surely do you in — and blow you up like a balloon, in the process.
Keywords are highlighted in bold in this article, so I can use them as notes for a talk.
Then I found out that high fructose corn syrup does a number of evil things in the body as the fructose breaks down, and that it depresses the thyroid — which lowers energy and makes you fat. These things weren’t in the food supply when I was growing up — but they’re in nearly everything our children eat. Meanwhile, obesity levels have skyrocketed, especially among our kids. It’s not a coincidence.
When you start reading labels, you’ll find out just how ubiquitous those ingredients are in American foods. You name it: Bread, cookies, cake, candy, chips, dairy substitutes, soup, and more — one of the two is in practically everything. Many foods have both. If you look hard, you can find a few brands in each category that don’t have it, but you generally have to look pretty hard, and find stores that carry the healthy versions. I began wondering why these ingredients are so ubiquitous.
As part of my martial arts training, I had gone to Korea with my Grandmaster, and I had seen “soft drinks” that are real juice, with real fruit in them. (I get them from the Korean store, now. They have pictures on the labels so you know what you’re getting without having to read the language.) And their foods generally have 3 to 5 ingredients–all of which are edible.
I began to realize that American food producers and agribusiness corporations are essentially the same as tobacco companies. They put profits ahead of people. They’ll sell most anything, as long as it doesn’t kill people so quickly that it interferes with profits or causes legal problems. For example, hydrogenated oils and genetically modified foods are outlawed in Canada and Europe. We can’t even get them labeled accurately here.
I spent the next several years asking myself what we could do about that problem. In 1998, I started a boycott of partially hydrogenated oils. I was just another voice in the choir, of course. But it still took another 5 years before the FDA managed to push through a relatively weak ruling that requires labeling of trans fats–it’s better than nothing, but that law has loophole so big that corporations are driving their trucks through it .
Considering that science was known in the 1950’s, and that it took until 2005 for labeling requirements to be enacted, that fact is that took took some 50 years to raise awareness about trans fats. In the meantime, incalculable harm has been done. And even then, government action is what’s producing results, not the boycott. (To be successful, a boycott needs a well-financed, sustained campaign — but it is only corporate advertisers who have the wherewithal to do so.)
Clearly, “informing consumers” is not the answer. It takes too long to raise sufficient awareness, people are getting too much conflicting information, and they have too many demands on their time. And in the absence of any serious ability to inform the consumer, the notion of personal choice is a joke.
And guess what? As as soon as we fix one problem, corporations will find some other way to generate profits, at the expense of people. And the one thing you can be sure of is that when they find that way, your health won’t be the uppermost concern on their minds.
In other words, a consumer boycott addresses a symptom, rather than the deeper, underlying problem. After many years as a nutritional health advocate, I knew that addressing symptoms is inadequate. I began looking for a way to address the real issues.
It was very clear to me that government action is required to restrain corporations. In effect, government is the referee, and corporations are the players. The idea is to keep them on the playing field, so they don’t run roughshod over the fans in pursuit of their goals.
But it was equally clear that corporate money dominates the political process, so government is not acting as a effective restraint. The number one problem to solve then, is how to get the money out of politics, so we can make and enforce the laws that benefit people, rather than profits.
In The Path to Creativity, I describe the only technique I know to solve a difficult problem, and show why it works. That technique is to ask the question over and over again. The way the mind works, an answer eventually appears. (It’s rather miraculous, really. But cool.)
I spent many years asking the question, “How can we get the money out of politics?“, before an answer finally appeared.
My first real insight began with a concept for a system of delegated voting. But that solution wasn’t really feasible. It required a massive system that would be very hard to administer, and it would be very difficult to audit, so you could be sure your vote was counted correctly.
Out of that, though, came the idea for a Voting Advice System. Unlike delegated voting, it would leave existing election mechanisms untouched. And as I began to think out its implications, I saw that it had the power to transform democracy.
That’s when I began writing a book on the subject.
How I Became a Health Nut
I was in my formative years, around 8 or 9 years old, when my mother began doing exercises and working on her health. That was a novelty. In the 50’s, in northern New Jersey, nobody did such things. A couple of years later, she took seriously ill. She was in and out of the hospital for a year or so. For the next year or so, she was there all the time. (I had to go to the hospital to visit her. I hated it. I liked seeing her. But I hated the hospital. And we didn’t get to do a lot — not like when she used to take me for long walks.)
Then she died.
I was never told that she was seriously ill. For that matter, I was never told what she died of. So her death came as a sudden, shocking surprise. I remember that day with crystalline clarity. I also vividly remember the day she made me promise that I would never smoke. So I deduce that she died of lung cancer.
I was unaware of it at the time, but that series of events would create a lifelong interest in health. Mostly, that interest centered around preventing disease. I began researching nutrition in high school, when Adelle Davis’ books opened my eyes to the power of vitamins. I studied Yoga, as well. I took a look at herbs, and other supposed healing modalities like acupuncture and homeopathy, but nutrition struck me as being the only one that had a real capacity for scientific validation, because there are cause-and-effect relationships we can eventually understand, if we learn enough.
How I Became a Health Activist
My research into the nutritional causes of health and disease bore fruit in 1998, when I wrote my seminal article, What’s Wrong with Partially Hydrogenated Oils?. With the advent of that article, I began seriously thinking about the impact of corporations on the health of individuals and of society. In 1999, when I wrote Killing for Profit: Who’s Worse, Tobacco Companies or Food Producers?.
I also attempted to launch a boycott of partially hydrogenated oils, and identified ways in carry out an effective boycott of food products. I’d like to think those efforts made a difference. Or maybe it was coincidence that the FDA began the program to require labeling of trans fats 4 years later. But in any case, I did what I could.
How I Became a Political Activist
The more I thought about how long it took for the public to become aware of the dangers — and how much damage had been done in the meantime, the more worried I became about the potential corporate response to such activities. After all, it taken 30-40 years for the public to become aware of the hydrogenation danger. And corporations need only to change the name of the profitable ingredient to create another long gap between information availability and widespread dispersal.
Clearly, the government needed to be involved much sooner! But how to make that happen, when so many politicians were taking so many campaign contributions from corporations, and listening so intently to their lobbyists, as result? In all, I spent 5 years asking that question before an answer finally dawned.
In college, I had looked for ways to harness computer technology in the service of mankind. That goal was reawakened in 2000, when I participated in a colloquium that Douglas Engelbart held at Stanford. His goal, throughout his history, has been to use the computer to augment mankind’s ability to solve complex problems. It was a collusion of interests that I found appealing and invigorating.
Some outgrowths of Engelbart’s investigations include the mouse, hypertext, computerized outlines, online graphics, remote workstations, and multi-processing. It’s an impressive list. For me, the result was the idea of a Voting Advice System, in a brainstorm that finally arrived in 2004.
In college, I had studied General Systems Theory — a new science, at the time. It held the promise to make sense out of complexity. As soon as the idea for the Voting Advice System struck me, I began writing a book that uses General Systems Theory to explore the interlocking network of forces that are producing our health problems: health — nutrition — the food supply — corporations — financial markets — and politics.
Along the way, I began to appreciate the impact that giant international corporations are having on society,as well, most particularly in the areas of globalization, the environment, economic deterioration, human rights, and standard of living.
As the election loomed, it became clear that I could not possibly pull the book together in time to influence the outcome, so I put together the Money Out of Politics series to summarize the main ideas and introduce them to a wider audience.
At the moment, the web site outlines the solution — a Voting Advice System — explains the motivation for it, and outlines a possible implementation. The web site does not currently implement any of the requisite technology. But the good news is that much of the technology we need already exists!
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