An open letter to Michelle Obama

To the First Lady
August 22, 2011

Dear Michelle,

Hello again from a classmate from Princeton '85. You might remember me as a roommate of Malcolm Brock. I wrote to you once before, about two years ago, on health issues and vitamin D, and I would like to supply more information on health issues that have helped me overcome obesity, as well as some related information about socio-economic transformation that would help deal with the current employment crisis. I know you probably won't have time to read this personally, but I hope your staff or others might read it and find things of value in it.

First, thank you for all you have been doing for our country through Let's Move and your effort to get more people involved with gardening in the sunshine. What great things to be doing.

To build on that, if you contact people like Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Dr. Douglas Lisle, Dr. Alan Goldhamer, Dr. John Cannell, Dr. Andrew Weil, Dr. Mark Hyman, Thomas Moore, Dr. Bruce Levine, Dr. James Levine, and the people at BlueZones and GrassRootsHealth, you will get a lot of proven effective advice for dealing with difficult health issues, including related to maximizing the health of children from an early age. Of those, Dr. Joel Fuhrman would be the most important to talk to first (he has been on PBS and other programs, has authored several book, and is in general a very reputable source, and has a practice near Princeton, NJ). I have no connection to these people other than having benefited myself from their work. I had to sort through literally thousands of documents about health to find these gems.

Following their collective published advice, over the last year an a half I have lost fifty pounds (moving from borderline obesity to a healthy weight), kept the weight off, and also reduced my blood pressure by about twenty points back into a normal range. I've done that all without medication or even substantial exercise other than using a treadmill computer workstation sometimes. Even as exercise is essential for overall good health, but it is a mixed bag for weight loss because when we exercise a lot, that tends to stimulate our appetite. Ultimately, eating a lot of vegetables, fruits, and beans is more effective for reliable weight loss and keeping the pounds off. But to do that easily, we need to reset our taste buds and break out of "the Pleasure Trap" through either some form of fasting or through a few weeks of will power of eating different foods.

Here are some links related to these people that I found helpful:

On the food pyramid:

On the pleasure trap and overcoming it by resetting our taste buds: (Douglas Lisle)

On vitamin D:

On mental health and nutrition and vitamin D:

On bigger picture issues: (Thomas Moore) (Bruce Levine) (James Levine)

If you look at the link on the subsidized food pyramid, or think about the implications of the problems Blue Zones tries to address, you will see that our current economic policy helps create these problems. In general, there is large profits in addiction, treatment, and palliation, but little profits in recovery, prevention, and cure.

Here is a suggestion I made to OpenPCAST on the need for better social media software tools for making sense of this all:
"This suggestion is about how civilians could benefit by have access to the sorts of "sensemaking" tools the intelligence community (as well as corporations) aspire to have, in order to design more joyful, secure, and healthy civilian communities (including through creating a more sustainable and resilient open manufacturing infrastructure for such communities). It outlines (including at a linked elaboration) why the intelligence community should consider funding the creation of such free and open source software (FOSS) "dual use" intelligence applications as a way to reduce global tensions through increased local prosperity, health, and with intrinsic mutual security."

These are difficult issues to think through as the sort of "wicked problems" that the Institute for 21st Century Agoras talks about (and who I have been talking with recently about doing a collaborative project):
"People the world over aspire to participatory democracy. Yet the democratic planning and design of social systems, from local urban projects to national health care, is threatened by our institutional inability to engage stakeholders in dialogues that result in effective collective design and commitment. The Agoras Institute promotes a democratic transformation of civil society and government by empowering the capacity of client organizations and educators to produce breakthroughs in the collective confrontation of multidimensional wicked problems. Our immediate mission is to establish and nurture new Agoras of the 21st century – global centers of democratic participatory design and education – in areas of critical socio-political importance or demand."

They are one example of an organization encouraging dialog about these kind of issues, although there are also many others.

As you know the USA is currently in the midst of a vast economic crisis, for many reasons including ones that Elizabeth Warren talks about in "The Two Income Trap", and we are seeing related crises in other parts of the world (including the recent looting problems around London). I have put together a presentation to help understand the underlying related issues:
    "Five Interwoven Economies: Subsistence, Gift, Exchange, Planned, and Theft"
"This video presents a simplified education model about socioeconomics and technological change. It discusses five interwoven economies (subsistence, gift, exchange, planned, and theft) and how the balance will shift with cultural changes and technological changes. It suggests that things like a basic income, better planning, improved subsistence, and an expanded gift economy can compensate in part for an exchange economy that is having problems."

Here is a knol I wrote that goes more in depth into these issues:
    "Beyond a Jobless Recovery: A heterodox perspective on 21st century economics"
"This article explores the issue of a "Jobless Recovery" mainly from a heterodox economic perspective. It emphasizes the implications of ideas by Marshall Brain and others that improvements in robotics, automation, design, and voluntary social networks are fundamentally changing the structure of the economic landscape. It outlines towards the end four major alternatives to mainstream economic practice (a basic income, a gift economy, stronger local subsistence economies, and resource-based planning). These alternatives could be used in combination to address what, even as far back as 1964, has been described as a breaking "income-through-jobs link". This link between jobs and income is breaking because of the declining value of most paid human labor relative to capital investments in automation and better design. Or, as is now the case, the value of paid human labor like at some newspapers or universities is also declining relative to the output of voluntary social networks such as for digital content production (like represented by this document). It is suggested that we will need to fundamentally reevaluate our economic theories and practices to adjust to these new realities emerging from exponential trends in technology and society."

Here is a more general appeal to rethink economics by others:
    "Appeal of teachers and researchers: Renewing the research and teaching in finance, economics and management to better serve the common good"
"The authors of this appeal are deeply concerned that more than three years since the outbreak of the financial and macroeconomic crisis that highlighted the pitfalls, limitations, dangers and responsibilities of main-stream thought in economics, finance and management, the quasi-monopolistic position of such thought within the academic world nevertheless remains largely unchallenged."

Here is more information about me that also talks about these economic issues, and in general, the issue of transforming our society into a post-scarcity one in a healthy way:

In general, related to the spread of technologies of abundance like computing, robotics, biotech, better design, and advanced energy, we also need to rethink US national security to be less ironic through emphasizing mutual security and intrinsic security. We need to move past ironically using the tools of abundance (including nuclear energy) to fight about scarcity fears, when the tools of abundance could alleviate scarcity if we used them more optimistically (like using advanced technology to create solar panels and space habitats instead of building more nuclear missiles to fight over oil and land). Exploring the above suggestions related to health and economics would be a good first step. Here is an essay I wrote related to that:
"Military robots like drones are ironic because they are created essentially to force humans to work like robots in an industrialized social order. Why not just create industrial robots to do the work instead? ... There is a fundamental mismatch between 21st century reality and 20th century security thinking. Those "security" agencies are using those tools of abundance, cooperation, and sharing mainly from a mindset of scarcity, competition, and secrecy. Given the power of 21st century technology as an amplifier (including as weapons of mass destruction), a scarcity-based approach to using such technology ultimately is just making us all insecure. Such powerful technologies of abundance, designed, organized, and used from a mindset of scarcity could well ironically doom us all whether through military robots, nukes, plagues, propaganda, or whatever else... Or alternatively, as Bucky Fuller and others have suggested, we could use such technologies to build a world that is abundant and secure for all. ..."

I've spent decades thinking about these issues since Princeton and Professor Steven Slaby's class on "The Technological Imperative of the Arms Race", where I developed the theme of "technology as an amplifier" (although it is also true that technology can be an brake too, so either wings or chains). Problems can grow exponentially, but so can solutions. There are technical solutions (even as there are also technical mazes). It comes down to finding the social energy to put good solutions that we already know about into place. I have a related essay I wrote here:
    "Getting to 100 social-technical points (was Re: a Change)"
"Imagine abundance for all takes a society earning 100 "social-technical" points. :-) These points come from the multiplication of the "social" points times the "technical" points.
So, 50 * 2 = 100.
Or, 2 * 50 = 100.
or, 10 * 10 = 100. "

Unfortunately, as you know, substantial improvements in policy sometimes require going against some very powerful interests that are driving this country off a cliff in their greed, fear, and ignorance. But, I guess, like dealing with mildew, that has been a perennial problems of the human social condition. Physical obesity is not pretty, but then neither is financial obesity.

A related book by Amory and Hunter Lovins from our college years:
"Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security is a 1982 book by Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, prepared originally as a Pentagon study, and re-released in 2001 following the September 11 attacks. The book argues that U.S. domestic energy infrastructure is very vulnerable to disruption, by accident or malice, often even more so than imported oil. According to the authors, a resilient energy system is feasible, costs less, works better, is favoured in the market, but is rejected by U.S. policy. In the preface to the 2001 edition, Lovins explains that these themes are still very current. "

Basically, renewables have been cheaper than fossil fuels and mainstream nuclear since the 1970s, it is just that externalities are not accounted for.

But, thankfully, even without the social innovation there, technical innovation is making PV solar soon cheaper than fossil fuels and mainstream nuclear, even with a playing field tilted towards problematical solutions. We have been seeing the exponential growth of solar energy as a solution, and by 2020 the USA will likely be mostly renewable energy even just by Julian Simon market-style forces. But it is sad it has taken so long given the unaccounted for externalities like pollution, disease, risk, and defense costs related to fossil fuels and nuclear. Still, this is a very hopeful turning point:
"“Solar power may be cheaper than electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear reactors within three to five years because of innovations, said Mark M. Little, the global research director for General Electric Co. (GE),” Bloomberg reports."

That's an example of technical innovation overcoming social inertia. But it would have been better to have overcome the social problems directly. Here are some words from IMHO a great Democratic president who may not have been re-elected, but he was trying to do the right thing:
"We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure. All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem."

We made took the wrong path 30 years ago with the election or Ronald Reagan. If Jimmy Carter had had four more years, I can hope he would have set our country on the right path, even though it was a difficult one.

While I voted for Cynthia McKinney in the general election, we really need to pull together as US Americans, regardless of who we voted for -- a lesson I wish some Republicans could take to heart.

You and your husband have a tough job. If I can help by explaining the above further so you can better act on it, feel free to call me.

All the best in difficult times.

--Paul Fernhout

The biggest challenge of the 21st century is the irony of technologies of abundance in the hands of those thinking in terms of scarcity.