"Dead Reckoning": Cross Cultural Risk Part II

Second of 3 holiday blogs on Cross Cultural Risk Comparison, Assessment. 

 Peter Stackpole, 1955
These Thanksgiving posts on "Dead Reckoning" Risk Assessment were originally part of the "Broken Arrow" series.  I decided to split them out, in part because it remains dicey to name the names and actions that led the State of Vermont to engage in a battle of friendly fire on its own recycling infrastructure.

It is Sunday, November 30.  A few minutes ago I went to the kitchen, where I had to make an "executive decision" on holiday leftovers.   My wife and I have a system, I cook turkey dinner and we invite 2-3 friends over for Thanksgiving.  It's a 14-15 lb. free range Vermont turkey (leaner and tastier, well worth the $10 extra), and generates a lot of leftovers.  After the meal, as I was taught in the Ozarks by my hillbilly parents and grandparents, I salvage.  That means stripping the turkey of all the meat and putting the carcass in a pressure cooker to get out the remaining nutrients.   We have an open house pot-luck on Friday where many more friends come over and are encouraged to bring their leftovers, and I make a "second edition gravy" from the pressure cooker...

Unfortunately, I just had to throw away about a pound of turkey meat.  We had left it out (room in the fridge issues) all day Saturday.  This morning, I opened it and caught a slightly spoiled whiff.   Definitely something I would have still eaten in college, after rinsing and washing the pieces, which I started to do.   But definitely something my wife would not keep if she had opened it first.   I started the process of re-cooking it, hillbilly style... Then I reconsidered.  Rather than debate the risk/benefit analysis of food-borne-illnesses, I decided then to throw it away.

What are the ethics of serving, or disposing of, leftover food?  Here and now?  And how can the weighing of risks of these decisions be analyzed to provide insight to environmental policy today?

Grandpa Clarence Fisher 1934
After giving a few pieces to the cats, I was wrapping the rest into an old plastic grocery bag (put in the freezer so it doesn't stink the garbage pail).   I thought about the Risk and Benefits of this post.  My kids bear neither a very strong risk of food-borne-illness, nor of starvation.  Sooner or later, like me, they will get ill or make a bad choice over something they eat.  But protecting them from that might make them less resistant to some future grub.   As Americans become less and less willing to eat "expired" food, rates of food-borne illness have not declined.

If I had spiced up the turkey pieces well, I'm sure I could have "pulled it out of the fire".   A hundred years ago, or even 50, no one in my family would have thrown out this meat.  But I know my wife, who grew up in urban Paris, would make a different choice.   Deferring to her likely decision, I earn trust benefits.

My suspicion is that my wife has been "educated" to avoid foods with date labels.  In September the Natural Resources Defense Council (Time/CNN link) published findings that food labels are serving a "planned obsolescence" role, and people are throwing away food they didn't need to.  It creates more waste - the focus of NRDC.
A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School's Food Law and Policy Clinic says Americans are prematurely throwing out food, largely because of confusion over what expiration dates actually mean.

But in the end, my kids have a higher risk of divorce than of starvation.  So I won't train them to eat spotty food.   The ultimate calculus is to do unto others as you would have others do unto you.   So as much as I like to save leftovers, I decided to "step over the body" and focus on a next meal (something that goes well with gravy).  

We analyze risks like these every day.  The "five second rule", the levels of toxics, the GM food, the aspartame... and we use media to decide which risks are worth taking.

We compare the risks we've evolved to fear (nauseous odors in spoiled food) against the risks we've been taught to fear (expiration dates on labels).  But there is also a cultural evolution, weighing what we have been taught by our elders to keep, or to throw away...

Growing up, I spent almost every thanksgiving at my grandfather and grandmothers homes in the Ozarks.

We face a different set of risks today than our great-grandparents faced.  I'm not reckless for ignoring some of the dangers they warned me about.  But I do not judge myself as a "safer parent" than the people in the past who didn't have seat belts on the kids in the car, often four or five in the back.   Nor a better parent than those in the hot climates of the world, who don't have refrigerators, and who cannot afford to throw out protein.  Many moral decisions about risk belong in their own social and geographical contexts.

Throwing out the turkey is not a moral decision, even though it creates waste.  Redressing or spicing the turkey to eat (at least on my own) is not a moral decision. These are economic decisions.  In Africa, food isn't wasted, even though the means people have to refrigerate it are less.  These are not moral decisions, or safety decisions.   But for an American to tell an African what food to keep and which food to throw away seems tin eared.

My mother always kept the bacon grease.  I don't even know what she used it for.  But she taught me to save every calorie.   And you know what?  My grandfather (photo), a subsistence farmer and carpenter, who repaired everything and built or made do, passed away and left his wife over a million dollars.  He never accepted debt.  He bought his cars with cash, and only bought a car when he'd saved enough money to buy one.  (go to bankrate.com and enter in saving 4.9% vs. paying 4.9%, over 7 automobiles - 9.8% accrual - for 60 years, and you know more than half his secret).

In Africa, I ate "achu" (spicy tripe soup in a pounded manioc yam bowl) at least once a week.   Like the necks and wings I cooked in the carcass soup, which Sanford and Son idealized, I learned to love it.  I think my grandpa enjoyed paying saved cash for his cars.  And I enjoy eating leftovers and butchers seconds.

So do many others.  Zimbabwe alone imports $65M per month in chicken parts.  In Ghana, according to WSJ, they prefer the neck, gizzard and wings, and re-export the breast meat.

Actually, I went shopping for the extra gizzards and livers I usually add to my gravy this year, and couldn't find any at the two stores I went to.   It seems the rest of the world is importing, frozen, America's gizzards (and chicken feet)... see Alibaba.com listings for gizzards and feet.  It's a billion dollar trade.  Someone is eating our Sunday lunch...

So "let them eat cake" is the English translation of the French proverb, describing someone who has no clue about the risks (starvation) that the poor face.  The French princess' (not Marie Antoinette, btw) logic?
"Let them eat cake" is the traditional translation of the French phrase "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche", supposedly spoken by "a great princess" upon learning that the peasants had no bread. Since brioche was made from dough enriched with butter and eggs, and those ingredients were even more scarce and more costly than dough, making brioche even more out of the reach of the peasants than bread, the quote supposedly would reflect the princess's obliviousness as to the condition of the people.
The morality of disposal is defined by the risk of wasted resources plus the risk of exposure to harm..   Traditionally, the risk was "your family might need it" or "someone you might meet may need it".   There is no measurable associated risk with the turkey I tossed away this morning, and in fact it's a greater risk to my family if I undertake a liability (I could get sued for serving the turkey I threw away).  Or I could be breaking health care laws, or regulations on food sale and distribution.

Granny Woman
Rose Ellen Barbara Delilah Ingenthron
There's an evolution of risk assessment.  We hope someday that most of the people in the world have a standard of living which protects them from the risk of starvation, and we hope that does not come at such a huge cost of resources that future generations, yet to be born, are left without.

Without species.  Without genetic diversity.
Without energy.  Without oil.
Without safe food and clean water.

We are thankful for what we have.

And it all starts at childbirth.  The letter below, sent to me by my Granfather when I was living in Bukavu, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), starts with his birth in Taney County, Missouri.   His father put his pregnant mother on a horse, and rode two miles on dirt roads to his sister's cabin, where his sister played midwife (a career my great Aunt Ella Ingenthron Dunn became famous for, as Granny Woman of the Hills).

Like many communities in the hills of the Ozarks, Forsyth is relatively isolated. In the 1890s, the closest hospital was nearly 50 miles away in Springfield. Trained physicians were few and far between, and rarely well-educated. Gordon McCann is a lifelong resident of the Ozarks, well-known cultural preservationist, and local historian. He says Granny-women were vital for rural populations that had little to no access to modern medicine or doctors.
And that's where we are headed in Part III of the blog.  The number one risk to peoples health in Africa is childbirth.   So it's odd that environmentalists have chosen to celebrate the arrest of Africans who buy working computer monitors for hospitals.  It is true that we are more enlightened about the environment, species protection, sustainability than pollution.

A.  Because we can afford to
B.  Because we have evolved to worry, and will find something to worry about if the pressure is taken off.
C.  Because we don't really respect the priorities of the people who want to buy our used goods.
D.  Because we are really MIS-educated, despite our "educational attainment", when it comes to assessing the "dead reckoning" of people a continent away.

First, for the record, here's the letter my grandfather sent me about his childhood in Taney County.  If we are close historically to the difference in choices and risk assessments of our grandparents and great-grandparents, it can help us, culturally, to weigh the risk-benefit decisions of people who live in other demographics and geographies.

Not that I would agree with every Risk Assessment they made.   Most Americans, an extreme majority, opposed FDR joining the Allies to fight in World War II.   And letting a woman, like pilot trainee Slade (1943), on the cover of Life Magazine, pilot an aircraft was "controversial".   I married a strong and liberated woman, and am better off for it.

Women should have been allowed to enter the Air Force, despite their position in society.  And geeks of color in developing world markets should also be allowed to choose a trade which is "good enough" for me.

In most societies, the "golden rule" is in the form of a negative.  "Don't do unto other people things you would not want them to do to you."  Making rules about what other people are allowed to eat, do, read, buy, sell, etc. is something that requires more than just peoples opinions on the risks of those decision.

Part III:   Dead Reckoning across demographics study

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