Why Workplace Autonomy Is the Way of the Future

This is an edited excerpt from Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink, published by Riverhead Books. (c) 2009 by Daniel H. Pink.

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How You Can Train Your Brain to Help Reduce Stress

As Vicki Wyatt attaches electrodes to my scalp with a generous glop of slimy goo, I'll admit I'm a little skeptical about the calming effects of the treatment I'm about to experience. With newborn twins at home, I usually have enough slime in my life and on my clothes to push anyone over the abyss. But that, says Wyatt, is precisely why I could benefit from neurofeedback, a therapeutic tool that advocates claim can reshape our brains—and our lives.

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Is Hypnosis an Effective Replacement for Pain Killers?

Alexis Makris, a 19-year-old hairdresser's apprentice from Stuttgart, Germany, is jogging along a sunny beach in Greece. He's not interested in the cold steel hook poking around in his upper left jaw, or the latex-covered fingers of the dentist wielding the instrument in his mouth. He's too occupied with the smell of the salt sea air and the feel of the warm sand on his feet. When the tug of the wisdom tooth being pulled from his mouth becomes a little too insistent, he picks up his pace. As the tooth is finally yanked out, accompanied by a small gush of bright red blood, Makris is still running, oblivious to any pain.

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Is Chinese Pulse Diagnosis the Key to Preventive Medicine?

"Good news. We didn't find anything." The doctor delivered her verdict from the doorway of my room in the emergency ward of a hospital in Troy, New York, where I'd gone a few weeks ago for sharp abdominal pain. But after $700 in tests, I still didn't know what was wrong with me. Further examination by a gynecologist ($400) didn't turn up anything either. The next step would be to see a gastroenterologist ($200) for a CT scan ($500).

During a year-long search for the problem, I'd seen two family doctors, a naturopathic physician, a nurse practitioner and an acupuncturist, who in the absence of a diagnosis inserted needles into my hands, arms, feet, legs, forehead and solar plexus based on my description of the pain. Cost: some $1,000 and plenty of worry.

So, two weeks after the emergency room episode, I was relieved to find myself finally seated across from Leon Hammer, a master of the Chinese technique of pulse diagnosis, at his rustic cedar home down an unmarked driveway in New York's Adirondack Mountains. The 84-year-old Cornell University med school graduate enjoyed a long career as a psychiatrist, heading a child guidance clinic and studying with Gestalt founder Fritz Perls. But he was frustrated by the profession's inattention to the role of the body and physical touch in healing the mind. When he first met an acupuncturist in 1971, he recalls, "I'd always wanted to be a doctor, since I was a boy, and when I stepped into his consultation room, I knew this was what I'd had in mind."

Since then, Hammer has played the leading role in introducing pulse diagnosis, which has thousands of years of history in China, to the West. Modernized to incorporate the ills of the post-industrial age, contemporary Chinese pulse diagnosis (CCPD) enables practitioners to identify an extraordinary range of states -- mental, spiritual, emotional and physical -- simply by feeling a person's pulse. A typical session costs $50 to $100.

Pulse diagnosis can also find trouble before symptoms arise. So Hammer and other CCPD practitioners -- who only number in the hundreds in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand -- say that along with modern medical technology, acupuncture, herbs, exercise and a good diet, it's a crucial part of effective preventive medicine. "You can access any part of the body or function of the body and pick up where something is beginning to go wrong at a very, very, very early stage," Hammer says. "So in the hands of a skilled person, it's the best preventive medicine that exists. If I was in charge of the health-care system, I'd have every single person get their pulse taken twice a year."

Sounds great, but does it work? Hammer and I spent the next hour in an intimate silence, my arms stretched across a table in Hammer's upstairs office, his fingers playing across both wrists, then one, then the other, then both again. Could he find out what was causing my abdominal pain?

Two thousand years ago, during the Han Dynasty, everyone from rulers to peasants paid doctors to keep them healthy with the pulse diagnosis and treatments first described in the Nei Jing ("inner classic") circa 100 BCE. Eastern medicine, like Eastern philosophy, has always subscribed to the idea that the whole is found in its parts. In China, this is the basis of therapies like foot reflexology, tongue reading (in which the tongue's colour, texture and markings are attributed to conditions in the body) and pulse diagnosis. Acupuncturists trained in this subtle method say you can tell the condition of every body function by feeling the rhythm and qualities of the pulse at different positions on the wrist.

The spot on your right wrist at the base of your thumb, for example, reveals something -- though not everything -- about your lungs, especially their condition in the past. If a student of Chinese medicine feels a narrowing there, your lungs aren't expanding enough. If it feels slippery -- like pebbles rolling on a plate -- it may indicate evidence of a bacterial infection, past or present. And if it feels choppy -- like scraping bamboo with a knife -- there's probably some toxicity.

Typically, a doctor of Chinese medicine uses other tools of the trade, like tongue diagnosis, alongside pulse readings. Treatment involves regular stints on a massage table, with needles inserted anywhere from your eyebrows to the balls of your feet, and tonics brewed from herbs to strengthen the body's healing process. Western medicines and medical techniques are also suggested when appropriate.

Historically, these techniques attracted little attention in the West. But during the Communist takeover of China after World War II, some Chinese masters fled to the U.S. and Europe. One of these was John Shen, and Hammer knew when their paths crossed in 1974 that he'd found his teacher. For eight years, he spent weekends with the acupuncturist at his practise in New York City. There, he learned to lay his fingers on the wrist in 28 positions, varying the pressure to feel some 80 pulse qualities.

Shen died in 2000 at the age of 87. A year later, Hammer, then 76, published Chinese Pulse Diagnosis: A Contemporary Approach, an 800-page primer, and founded the Dragon Rises School of Oriental Medicine in Gainesville, Florida (dragonrises.edu), where he remains clinical director and principal instructor. It's the only U.S. school at which CCPD is taught. Students spend 435 hours covering the four areas of diagnosis -- asking, looking, listening and touching -- including 150 hours learning the pulse. Some students have gone on to teach. One of these is Scott Tower, who with colleague Sybill Hussein has introduced CCPD to thousands in Switzerland, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands.

If enough people learn the technique, Hammer believes it could be integrated worldwide. "Right now, the health-care system is designed to treat diseases," he says. "But let's say you come to see me first. I see a lot in your pulse that indicates cancer. I can't distinguish between the uterus and the ovary. I can't distinguish between a fibroid and a malignant tumour. Western diagnostic tools can refine mine. I can pick up what's wrong with you far before they can, and they have the tools to pinpoint the problem." Hammer would like pulse diagnosticians to replace general practitioners as the doctors you see regularly.

To illustrate the point, he tells the story of a 72-year-old friend who came for a reading. "It was very clear he was in imminent danger," says Hammer, who felt in his pulse qualities he terms "ropy," "leathery," "yielding-hollow" and "choppy." Hammer sent him to a cardiologist for a stress test. "They stopped the test immediately and put in a stent," he says. "The principle artery that goes to the left ventricle was 95 percent blocked. He's now seeing a very good acupuncturist who's dealing with the issues that caused the problem."

But not everyone is sure the West is ready for pulse diagnosis. While Ted Kaptchuk -- associate director of Harvard's Division for Research and Education in Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies and author of the Chinese medicine classic The Web That Has No Weaver -- calls Chinese medicine in the West "a whole emerging kind of health care" and Hammer "a great healer," he says that as with any treatment, before pulse diagnosis goes mainstream, we need scientific evidence that it works.

Hammer strongly opposes that perspective, arguing in a June 2008 article in Acupuncture Today that to measure Chinese medicine by Western standards of statistical significance and double-blind studies would be a mistake. "We're at a crossroad between embracing the everlasting mystery of the ancient medicine or escaping into the certainties of a Western-style paradigm that has taken the heart out of its medicine," he writes. Yet Hammer doesn't deny his satisfaction at the results of a recent study by one of his students, acupuncturist and Ph.D. candidate Karen Bilton, at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. After testing and retesting by different pulse diagnosis practitioners on 15 patients 30 days apart, Bilton reports preliminary analysis showing consistent results no matter who did the reading.

There's no shortage of anecdotal evidence in support of pulse diagnosis' effects, either. Just ask 67-year-old acupuncturist Anne Adams. After a series of classes with Hammer in her hometown of Columbia, Maryland, Adams flew to Florida last year for a pulse diagnosis. Hammer diagnosed a "retained pathogen," maybe from a bout of hepatitis years prior, dehydration, stagnant qi (the Chinese word for the body's energy), unusual activity in her lower abdomen and perhaps low levels of thyroid hormone. "The findings sobered me," says Adams. Not only did she take the prescribed herbs and get regular acupuncture, she began to exercise, changed her diet, slept more and took time for herself.

At her appointment this spring, she saw a dramatic change; she and Hammer were delighted. "The correlations Dr. Hammer makes from patterns he sees in one's pulse are borne out by lab work and patient experience," Adams says. "His background allows him to understand and make Western diagnoses, which as a physician he was trained to do, and Eastern diagnoses from another angle. He's built a bridge between Western health care and acupuncture and herbal health care, which is invaluable."

At Hammer's house after my pulse session, we go downstairs and he begins to prepare food: chicken soup, oven-roasted corn, chocolate ice cream. We sit in the kitchen, surrounded by his own paintings and pictures of his spiritual teacher, Indian mystic Meher Baba, to go over his findings. He knows nothing of my personal or medical history.

"Your digestive system isn't very strong," he begins. "Overall, that's the most obvious thing." This fits with the gastroenterology referral. I describe the ER visit. Could be the problem, says Hammer.

"There's a muffled quality in the area of the pulse corresponding to the large intestine that indicates neo-plastic activity," he adds. My heart sinks: cancer. "It doesn't necessarily mean you have cancer," he says quickly. It could be an early warning sign, like a polyp. But he suggests I have it checked out with a colonoscopy.

"Also, there's widespread toxicity in your body," he continues, "though that doesn't differentiate you from anyone else at this point." In the first edition of Chinese Pulse Diagnosis, he says, toxicity is listed as rare. Four years later, the revised edition identifies it as common. "Allopathic science has found between 50 and 170 substances in the blood that weren't there 50 to 100 years ago," he adds. "Most are from plastic. But there are ways of detoxifying with herbs and needles."

Then he pauses. "Now," he says quietly, "at the risk of scaring you" -- oh no! -- "your heart isn't as strong as I'd like to have it. In fact, I'm a little worried about it. You're someone I have to insist see a cardiologist for an evaluation."

He says more, but it doesn't register. I'm scared. I've seen cardiologists for heart pain since my 20s, never finding anything. Nevertheless, I hear Hammer say "treatable." He wants me to rule out heart disease, then address the problem with herbs and acupuncture. A cure could take a year or more. "We can get rid of symptoms quickly, but to deal with the underlying pattern," he says, "that's another matter."

He felt a quality known as "rough vibration," he says, that corresponds to the heart at the base of the left thumb, and it came through in bursts, suggesting unstable heart qi. The pulse on my left side was much stronger than on my right; that sent up the red flag about my digestive system. And the toxicity showed up when he pressed the radial artery down hard, as what he calls a "retained damp heat condition." He laughs. "It sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? What it means is the body has a way of taking certain pathogens that could kill you and hiding them in joints, muscles or other places where they do more gradual damage." Hammer points to arthritis or chronic headaches as examples.

It's overwhelming. Still, as I leave Hammer's wildflower-fringed driveway, I feel hopeful. I'll get the cardiogram and the colonoscopy, as well as a hair test for toxicity, see a Chinese medicine doctor who understands Hammer's findings and follow a course of treatment. In a year, maybe I, like Adams, will be delighted by the changes in my health. Already I see the benefit of supplementing the standard physical with this kind of in-depth diagnosis. As Hammer said over lunch: "The reality here is that everything is affecting everything else. The trick is to figure out how."

What Does Silence Really Sound Like?

The sky is bright and cloudless: another perfect day in the San Francisco Bay Area. But I'm about to spend part of it inside a windowless, soundless room called an anechoic chamber in an attempt to experience what silence is really like -- and to find out whether it even exists at all.

The word "anechoic" means "without echoes," and an anechoic chamber -- the walls of which are generally lined with wedges of foam to prevent reverberation -- is a room that prevents echoes of the sounds made inside it. Anechoic chambers are used to test microphones and other audio equipment, but the lack of reverb creates a peculiar effect on the ears. They feel stuffy and plugged because, in jarring contrast to the noise encountered throughout the day, the ears aren't getting any feedback from the environment. After sitting in a confined space devoid of echoes for long enough, some people report hearing their own heartbeats, respiration and other bodily functions, a phenomenon termed "auto-emissive noise."

I have to admit I haven't spent much time thinking about silence. With so much noise in the form of honking horns and ringing cellphones plaguing us in everyday life, who has the time -- or the opportunity -- to listen, to wonder what it would be like if the only sound you could hear were your own heart beating? Moreover, who really wants to experience complete silence?

I've heard from others who've spent time in anechoic chambers that it's creepy. It can make you kind of crazy.

So it's with a sense of apprehension as well as excitement that I journey across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to visit the laboratory of retired University of California, Berkeley psychology professor Ervin Hafter to see the anechoic chamber his team uses for research.

As I approach Tolman Hall, a building nestled among pine trees on a serene corner of the U.C. Berkeley campus, hordes of carefree co-eds spill out the door, finished with morning classes and on their way to lunch. I leave the pleasant sunlight behind and fight the stream of students to enter the building.

Descending a gloomy concrete stairway, I find myself in a grey basement. I'm buzzed into Hafter's subterranean laboratory, and a research assistant leads me down a hallway and into the main office, where a mess of computer equipment and piles of papers dominate the windowless room lit by fluorescents. I'm a bit taken aback by the sterile surroundings and the isolated atmosphere of the basement.

The assistant introduces me to Hafter, who's tall, with solemn brown eyes and wild, wiry tufts of grey hair sprouting from the sides of his head. His khaki-colored button-down shirt still has the fold marks in it. Since 1966, Hafter has studied auditory perception, spatial hearing and the effects of reverberant environments on users of hearing aids and cochlear implants. The anechoic chamber, along with a highly complicated set-up of computer programs and speakers, is required to test human subjects in his laboratory.

"There is no such thing as zero when it comes to sound," he explains as he leads me to the chamber. While zero decibels is technically demarcated as the threshold for the human ability to hear sound, some people can decipher sounds in the negative decibel range. The lack of echo in the anechoic chamber won't change that. The shaggy-haired research assistant, Swapan Gandhi, a musician, tells me he likes being in the chamber because "you hear things that you don't normally pay attention to," like the sound of your own pulse.

Such was the experience of the late avante-garde American composer John Cage, whose trip to the anechoic chamber at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, was the inspiration for his most revolutionary work -- 4'33'', in which a pianist sits silently before a piano for four minutes and 33 seconds. Cage later wrote of his experience that he "heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation."

In Cage's piece, not one musical note is played. Instead, the audience is left to revel in its own subtle sounds and to realize, perhaps, that silence doesn't actually exist.

I'm a musician myself, so Cage is on my mind as Hafter heaves open the door of the chamber, which is about six feet wide and resembles some sort of meat locker. Dim light emanates from two bulbs dangling on either end of the ceiling. My ears immediately feel plugged, as if they've been stuffed full of cotton, probably because the walls and ceiling are lined with rows and rows of fiberglass wedges that absorb all sound waves.

The floor of the chamber is covered in wedges too; we're walking on a springy suspended floor made of cross-hatched wire, with tangles of electrical cords and the same pattern of wedges spanning the actual floor of the chamber a few feet below us. I'm teetering all over the place on the wires, as my boots have kitten heels. I begin to hear a high-pitched ringing in my ears. It's eerie in here.

As I try to focus on what Hafter is telling me about the architecture of the chamber, I notice my chest starts to feel tight, out of nervousness. What surprises me is our voices don't sound muffled. For some reason, I've pictured our mouths moving but no sound coming out, like we're in some kind of a sound vacuum.

After a few minutes discussing his research, I tell Hafter I hope to hear some of the auto-emissive sounds I've read about. He's skeptical, because the anechoic chamber isn't completely attenuated, meaning that it doesn't totally shut out noises from the outside world, though it does come close. But if I stay still and quiet, he says, "You'll hear breathing. You'll hear stomach gurgles. You'll hear all kinds of stuff."

On that note, he leaves me to sit down in the lone chair in the chamber and promises I can stay inside the thing for as long as I want. The longest time he's ever been inside is probably half an hour, but it doesn't bother him. He's used to it. "Call me before you come out because I don't want you to fall," he says, concerned about my wobbly boots. "Light on or off?"

"Um, on," I say, giggling nervously.

Before I know it, the door has slammed shut and I'm alone in the dim light. Hafter can hear me from outside the chamber if I speak, but I can't hear what's going on in the rest of the laboratory. While it's comforting to know I can just yell and I'll be fetched immediately, something about the isolation feels disconcerting.

I try to remain still and quiet, as Hafter has instructed. I become conscious of my own breathing -- it sounds loud, clumsy, like Darth Vader. The tightness in my chest has increased and spread to my upper arms. I sit and wait for five minutes, 10 minutes, and still I've heard none of these so-called auto-emissive sounds. Why can't I hear my heartbeat? This is what it must feel like to do hallucinogenic drugs, I think, waiting for the effect to kick in.

After about 30 minutes, I realize I've zoned out into some kind of a meditative state, just listening to the rhythmic sounds of my own breathing. I hear an occasional single or double pulse in either ear; perhaps they're adjusting to the lack of noise? Or is it my heartbeat?

I'm hyper-aware of my body: the occasional gurgle from my stomach, the wheezing sound the air makes as I breathe in and out of my nose. I sense my body temperature has risen slightly, and think how good cool liquid would feel going down my throat.

Some minutes later -- at this point, I'm not sure how many -- I become a little dizzy. My ears are stifled, like I've put on a pair of fluffy earmuffs. I feel completely solitary, as though time has stopped. The scientists know I'm in here, and all I have to do is yell, I tell myself, but I can't help feeling paranoid. The ringing in my ears and the tightness in my chest are getting unbearable. The pulses in my ears are more frequent, my breath more wheezy.

Unlike John Cage, I don't feel inspired. In fact, I've never felt so alone.

Steve Orfield could probably tell me a thing or to about why the silence has made me so uncomfortable. At his laboratory in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Orfield conducts what he calls "perceptual market research"; in other words, the measurement of sound quality.

From the roar of a Cessna to the rumble of a Harley to the clicking noises coming from your computer's hard drive, every product makes some kind of noise. Dozens of Fortune 500 companies have come to Orfield Laboratories to figure out, through extensive consumer tests, how the sounds of their products can denote power, or quality, or expense.

But consumer testing is only part of the picture at Orfield Labs. On the grounds of his facility, complete with auditorium, acoustic simulation lab and reverberation room, is an anechoic chamber that Guinness World Records has deemed "the quietest place on Earth."

This dubious distinction wasn't something Orfield ever planned when he opened the laboratory as an architectural and lighting consulting firm in 1971. He stumbled into sound quality research during the dour economic times of the 1970s after realizing his business might not survive. Years later, he purchased the anechoic chamber from the Sunbeam Corporation in Chicago, Illinois. "It's as if you are sitting in a room that was lined with a foot of fabric on all sides -- the floors, the ceiling and the walls -- there's just nothing to create a reflection," Orfield explains.

But this particular anechoic chamber is special, and much more sound-tight than the facility in Berkeley. The six-sided room floats on springs in a concrete pit, which is surrounded by another chamber, which is surrounded by another concrete structure that's about three meters (10 feet) thick. When the manufacturer of the chamber took a sound measurement of -9.64 decibels, he decided to contact Guinness, and, well, the rest is history.

Orfield emphasizes that in technical terms, the quietest place on Earth, like Cage's symphony, isn't actually silent. It's really just a place where sound can't reverberate -- the opposite of, say, a cathedral or a sports arena. Still, the Guinness distinction warrants that people often want to come by and visit. If nothing else, it's a study in sensory deprivation. "We've offered to give anybody who will sit in there for 45 minutes in the dark a case of Guinness," Orfield explains. "But no one's ever taken us up. People are kind of frightened of the room." Even he won't do it. "If I sat in there for a half an hour, I would be uncomfortable. If I did it 10 times in a row, I would still be uncomfortable."

While I've beaten Steve Orfield's record time, I was no less frightened of the room for having stayed in it so long. Plus I had to leave the lights on.

Gerry Popelka, chief of audiology at Stanford University's School of Medicine in California, and inventor of the digital hearing aid, can explain why silence is so spooky. The ears don't make any kind of physical adaptation to it, he says. And people are so accustomed to excessive noise that it just feels odd to be in a place that eliminates reverberation or outside noise, like an anechoic chamber, because no one ever experiences it.

"We walk around in environments that are naturally noisy," Popelka says. "And as we live in more mechanized societies, there's even more noise. Now you remove all of that noise and you have a different sensation. But your ears didn't change at all. The idea of hearing your own blood rushing through your arteries is odd. It's only odd because you haven't listened to it before. But it's always been there."

Moreover, Popelka continues, there's an emotional and psychological reaction connected to such a dramatic change in the sensory environment. It's kind of like having a fear of climbing to the top rung of a ladder, only to practice it a bunch of times and find your bones didn't become less brittle as you practiced; you just became less afraid of falling and hurting yourself. The shock to my system, then, has to do with the fact that I'm not accustomed to this form of silence.

"Hearing is strongly associated with language and communication," says Popelka, "but it also connects us with the environment." Being cut off from that environment so completely is, well, scary.

Experts like Orfield and Popelka say young people today will likely suffer from more severe hearing loss than their Baby Boomer parents, simply because they've grown up in the era of the Walkman and the iPod. And the more damage to the ears that occurs from wearing ear buds or headphones, the more a listener will turn up the volume, rather than adjusting to a lower volume based on diminished hearing abilities. With advances in technology and a constant need for convenience, perhaps younger generations face a whole new concept of silence -- or, rather, a whole new concept of noise.

After spending more than an hour in the Berkeley anechoic chamber, I'm in a daze for the rest of my visit to the laboratory, until I'm able to bound up the concrete stairs and burst through the doors into the sunlight. As hyper-aware as I'd been of my breathing and the muted sensation in my ears inside the chamber, I feel equally aware now of the sounds of people's voices and cars driving by.

In fact, I've never been so thankful for noise, glorious noise.

Having come of age at a time when silence wasn't golden but a sign that your Walkman was out of batteries, maybe I'm less in tune with unheard melodies. However hard peace and quiet are to come by these days, I'd probably miss the hum and buzz of daily life even more. The beauty of silence is in the ear of the beholder.

Doctor Proves that Quality Health Care is Possible in the Third World

Cardiologist Ernest Madu sits in his office in Kingston, Jamaica. The walls are lined with framed diplomas and certificates. He hands me a leaflet showing a 4-month-old baby girl born with a disrupted valve in her aorta. The poster advertises a community campaign to raise $60,000 to fly her to Miami, Florida, for surgery. "I heard that she died," Madu says, a sombre look overtaking the usual brightness in his eyes. "If that child had been born in the U.S. instead of Jamaica," he adds, "she would have grown up to do what she wanted to do in life: Go to school, get married, have children, have a career. She died because she was Jamaican.

"Every life is valuable. A person in Indonesia is as important as one in Germany. Unfortunately, we live in a world now where if a person lives in a poor country, it's okay that their health is not as good. We need to find ways so that health and survival are equitable around the world."

For Madu, who is from Nigeria but practiced medicine for years in the southern U.S., access to medical care in the developing world is not simply an abstract issue of fate and fairness. It is a matter of life and death, which he faces every day in his work as CEO of the Heart Institute of the Caribbean (HIC). He and his wife Dainia Baugh, an internist, founded the HIC four years ago to prove it's possible to provide high-quality health care in a poor country like Jamaica. It's their hope that the hospital will become a model that spawns similar facilities throughout the global South.

This is a hugely ambitious goal. But when shaking hands with Madu, a powerfully built man with an even more powerful presence, you sense he possesses the charisma, determination and first-hand experience to make it happen.

People in developing nations die needlessly, Madu explains, because their countries lack basic medical services that patients in even the most impoverished or remote communities in North America and Europe take for granted. Before the HIC opened in Jamaica, there was no chance of receiving routine cardiology procedures like stress tests, electrocardiograms (ECGs or EKGs) or angioplasty.

"People have been indoctrinated to believe that good medical care can't happen in a place like Jamaica," Madu says. "It's simply assumed that ill people must go abroad for good treatment -- that is, if they can afford it and live long enough to make the trip. It's a mindset we have to get beyond if we want to improve health. Fifty percent of people having heart attacks die within 24 hours without the proper medical treatment. Even if you are rich enough to own a plane, it may be too late."

Patrick Walsh, a 47-year-old Kingston resident, declares he would not be alive today if not for the Heart Institute of the Caribbean. "I've come back from sudden cardiac arrest twice because of the defibrillator they implanted in me. It shocked me back to life." Complaining of swollen legs and shortness of breath, Walsh was referred to the HIC by his doctor. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and surgically outfitted with a defibrillator, a device incorporating a pacemaker that responds to a rapid or arrhythmic heartbeat with a shock so the pacemaker can continue to work. Such surgery was not available in Jamaica until the HIC opened.

"Dr. Madu assisted me by knocking off a balance of $9,000 from the bill," Walsh adds. "I am very grateful for that."

The hospital treats many poor patients, with a policy of not turning away anyone who needs help. "We charge only what they can afford to pay," Madu says. "Jamaicans are proud people, so many times the whole family -- the brother who is a cab driver in Los Angeles -- will send us money." Madu notes that the HIC provides more than $1 million a year in free or reduced-rate care.

The HIC does not yet have the capacity for pediatric cardiac operations, such as replacing the faulty valve in the little girl's heart, but Madu estimates that with the proper equipment and medical expertise, the operation could be performed in Jamaica for less than $10,000, increasing the chances for that little girl and others to live.

Another reason people in developing countries die needlessly is that medical authorities overlook the rising tide of so-called modern diseases -- such as heart disease and diabetes -- in these societies. It's assumed that malnutrition and infectious diseases like malaria or AIDS are the real threats. "Hypertension is a growing problem in Africa," notes Seyi Oyesola, a London anesthesiologist who regularly travels home to Nigeria on a volunteer open-heart surgery team. "Doctors don't detect hypertension when they are told it's not a problem and that they need to focus on malaria."

Fifty-six percent of hospital deaths in Jamaica are caused by cardiovascular disease, says Madu. Throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, it accounted for 31 percent of all deaths, a number that is expected to rise to 38 percent by 2020, according to a 2006 report from the World Bank's Disease Priorities Control Project. The report notes that cardiovascular disease is the second leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa after HIV/AIDS, and the leading cause for people over 30. "Africa made a huge mistake not responding quickly enough to AIDS," Madu says, "and I am afraid that is happening again with cardiovascular disease."

Reporting on the rise of cardiovascular disease in Africa with colleagues from Vanderbilt University in the journal Ethnicity and Disease in 2003, he concluded, "Unfortunately, at a time when Africa is dealing with an epidemic of infectious and communicable diseases, another pandemic is looming ... facilitated by the Westernization of indigenous cultures, increasingly sedentary lifestyles, high-fat Western diets, tobacco abuse and psychosocial stress from urbanization."

He calls this "the double burden of disease in poor countries," where the medical consequences of underdevelopment and overdevelopment coexist. Finding a solution to this impending crisis is what prompted Madu, 47, and Baugh, 38, to give up rewarding, comfortable lives as professors at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and come to Jamaica (Baugh's homeland) to become health-care entrepreneurs.

Skepticism was high in Jamaica about the possibility of receiving first-class cardiac care at home, but in just three years, the HIC has won a steady clientele of middle-class Jamaicans who don't want to travel to Miami for medical services, and poor ones who can't afford it. The HIC offers cardiovascular treatment for 5,000 to 12,000 patients a year at a fraction of what it costs in the U.S., due to lower expenses as well as donations from medical firms such as Medtronic.

Kenneth Baugh, a surgeon serving as Jamaica's deputy prime minister (as well as a distant cousin of Dainia Baugh's), says, "We are dealing with the common ailments of the past but now we have more chronic diseases as people live longer, so I am happy to see this kind of specialized health clinic in Jamaica, which shows we can create centers of excellence throughout the developing world."

New HIC branches now receive patients in Mandeville, Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands, with another institute set to open in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 2008. The following year, his Heart Institute of West Africa in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, is scheduled to open. The facility will also offer dialysis treatment, a diabetes clinic, nutrition counseling and a birthing center -- an acute need in a country with one of the highest maternal morality rates in the world. Madu envisions the day when hospitals in less wealthy countries will offer state-of-the-art care for other emerging diseases such as cancer and asthma.

Paying customers, including "medical tourists" from Europe and North America seeking high-quality medical care at affordable prices, will be the financial backbone of these institutions, making it possible to treat indigent patients for low or no fees. "The globalization of health care will eventually force medical costs down," Madu predicts.

"We've learned a lesson in Jamaica that we want to apply in Africa too," he adds. "If you improve the standards in a country, everyone else will eventually move up. We are already training a lot of technicians from other hospitals. When you show what's possible, you empower other health professionals to do what they do better. That's part of the plan."

Madu is also exploring offers to set up heart hospitals in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Madu is forthright in explaining that he became a doctor to save the world. His life has been shaped by childhood experiences in Biafra, a region of Nigeria that declared a short-lived independence in 1967, setting off a three-year civil war in which as many as a million people died.

"Most of my memories start with that war," he explains. "In school, we had bunkers where we had to go during bombings. Some students were killed. I wondered even then how responsible adults could throw bombs at kids. Seeing that violence and tragedy has driven my life. I have always felt that I should try to do whatever good I could in the world."

He was trained as a physician and surgeon at the University of Nigeria and moved to New York City for his residency, during which he volunteered at a hospital in Harlem. "What I saw there -- patients without access to care, with no insurance, who came to see doctors only at the late stages of an illness -- was a shock in such a rich country. It still doesn't make any sense to me."

Specializing in echocardiography and nuclear medicine, fields that employ cutting-edge technology to monitor heart health, Madu worked in U.S. hospitals for more than 15 years and taught in medical schools at U.S. universities in Tennessee and Florida, and at Vanderbilt. But he always maintained a keen interest in global health-care issues, and would return to Nigeria every year on medical missions to provide cardiac treatments that were unavailable in that country.

Madu's smile fades as he tells a story from one of these trips. A man suffering congestive heart failure was brought to see Madu in a wheelbarrow. Madu prescribed some medication. The man returned three days later, walking on his own, to say thanks. With a rueful pause, Madu says, "Without any follow-up treatment, I'm not sure he lived. These medical missions felt like putting a band-aid on a big wound."

Madu beams as he shows me around his hospital, a renovated office building in suburban Kingston, and points out equipment for procedures rarely performed in developing nations: echocardiography, electrocardiography, cardiac imaging, electrophysiology, radiofrequency ablations, carotid Doppler ultrasound scanning, stress lab testing, peripheral vascular interventions and percutaneous transluminal angioplasty. He's equally proud of his staff of 21 full-time and consulting physicians, many of whom trained in the U.S. or Canada. Jamaica saw a 75 percent leap in the number of cardiologists on the island when the hospital opened in 2005.

Even with all this up-to-date technology -- including a telemedicine platform that enables HIC staff to consult electronically with medical experts abroad -- there's an agreeably relaxed atmosphere to the place. The waiting room is furnished with cushy sofas from which patients and their families cheer on the Nigerian team in a soccer match with Germany on TV.

Madu is not bashful about walking into a physician's office with just a perfunctory knock to show me a new device ("This technology never existed before in the Caribbean. Look at it!") or introduce me to a colleague ("Meet Dr. Aldo Furlani, an electrophysiologist, trained at the Montreal Heart Institute, who is from Argentina."). As we pass one anxious-looking woman hooked up to a monitor, Madu carefully studies the screen and then reassures her in a deep, soft voice. "Your heart looks really good to me."

More than a hospital, the HIC is also an education-and-research facility that conducts medical studies on health factors in the developing world, trains professionals from public hospitals and sponsors public campaigns about healthy lifestyles. While the HIC is run as a private business so staff can be free of interference from bureaucrats or shareholders, a non-profit foundation supports its research-and-training programs and raises money to honor the pledge that no sick person will be denied.

"This is not a business; this is a social movement," notes Edwin Tulloch-Reid, director of clinical services, a Jamaican who came home after working as a cardiologist in Canada and the U.S.. "We make money but that is not our mission. We must be economically self-sustaining to show that this can be done other places around the world."

Madu and his staff are worried that the advance of Western-style development means Jamaicans and other people of the developing world are losing the few health advantages they enjoy compared to wealthier nations -- a way of life with fewer processed foods, lower stress, more exercise and a richer sense of community, all of which have been proven to affect wellness. "Obesity is becoming a problem in Jamaica and it's rising in Africa," Madu reports. "And smoking is rising too as tobacco companies intensify marketing efforts there."

In developing nations, where a desk job seems like a dream come true after generations of back-breaking labor, where cigarettes still appear glamorous and where an overflowing plate of food represents a triumph over malnutrition, people are not naturally inclined to worry about exercise, smoking or overeating. But as Western-style development slowly transforms these societies, unhealthy lifestyles have become a growing problem. The first sight I saw coming into Kingston from the airport was a huge banner strung across the highway advertising Kentucky Fried Chicken, and later when walking back to my hotel from the clinic, I asked directions from a well-dressed young woman on the street. She was shocked that I wanted to go that far on foot. It turned out to be only three blocks, but along a particularly grim stretch of road full of speeding vehicles and exhaust fumes that made me wish I had taken a taxi.

Madu and his colleagues are dedicated to preventing these looming health hazards, not just treating the cardiovascular problems that can result. One HIC study underway looks at the impact of a daily walk on preventing heart disease. "We want to create a new culture of walking in developing nations," Madu declares, "to let people realize it is an important part of the good life, of modern life, just as much as cars or restaurants. Not everyone has the time or money to go to a health club, but everyone can walk. I make sure that people see me walking in the park evenings at 6:30, so they might think: Here's a doctor, from America, and he's walking. I should be walking too."

The HIC has launched an ambitious education campaign in Jamaica to promote healthy living, which includes a weekly 15-minute radio show offering advice on preventing heart disease, a partnership with restaurants and school cafeterias to provide healthier meals and an annual three-kilometre (two-mile) Heart Walk that draws hundreds of participants and gets widespread media coverage. They've enlisted reggae star Rita Marley, Bob Marley's widow, to help spread the word.

Although not Jamaican by birth, Madu is fascinated by reggae music, and he is organizing a campaign to establish a Reggae Hall of Fame in Kingston. "Jamaica, this little island, has pioneered a music loved all over the world. This needs to be celebrated so people here can realize what they are capable of doing. You succeed because you believe. That's the biggest thing we need in Jamaica and developing nations. People need that sense of possibility. That's what Bob Marley accomplished. He started with something that bucked all the trends because he believed in his ideals -- "

His colleague, clinical services director Edwin Tulloch-Reid, cuts him short and with a teasing grin asks, "Say, are you talking about Bob Marley or yourself?"

Find out more: caribbeanheart.com

Is there a doctor in the country?

The medical crisis in poor regions is heightened by an exodus of doctors and nurses who have been trained in developing countries at public expense and now practise in Europe or North America. One out of 10 doctors in Canada, according to Toronto's This Magazine, comes from low-income countries with acute health problems of their own, notably South Africa and India. Sixty percent of doctors graduating from the University of the West Indies in Kingston are not working in the Caribbean, according to the HIC.

"Why do people leave?" asks Madu, who still splits his time between the HIC and Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. "For a lot of them, it's because there are no facilities for people to do their jobs well. Everyone wants to feel they are making progress in their field. It's not just the money. People want to feel they are doing some good.

"But if we build good hospital facilities in the developing world, then more nurses and doctors will stay, and health care will improve. If even 10 percent came back from the West, that would make a great difference for people, and encourage more of the next generation to stay."

Yet Madu has discovered, "it's easier to get money from the international community for non-profit groups that go into poor places three times a year to do medical missions than for a hospital that can improve the medical infrastructure in these countries." He and Baugh have raided their retirement accounts to help fund the HIC, Madu says, which is one reason they both still practise part-time in the U.S. "I'm poorer now," he says with a laugh, "but happier."

The Best Home Remedies May Be Sitting in Your Spice Cabinet

By the middle of the afternoon, Ellen Ryan was out of steam. A community organizer in central Maine, Ryan says her energy crashed every afternoon. To get through the rest of the day, she'd grab a chocolate bar or a handful of candy kisses. "But I'm 52," Ryan says, "and those explosions of calories are becoming harder to work off."

When a friend said cinnamon helped alleviate another health problem, Ryan decided to give it a try by taking two 500-milligram capsules in the morning. "I immediately noticed a difference," Ryan says. "My chocolate cravings went away and I no longer have that crashing feeling in the afternoon. I haven't talked to a doctor; all I know is that cinnamon is inexpensive, easy to take and it stops the crash."

Clinical studies support Ryan's experience. Just half a teaspoon of cinnamon a day lowered blood sugar levels in adults with type 2 diabetes, according to a study of 60 subjects carried out at NWFP Agricultural University in Peshawar, Pakistan, and published in Diabetes Care in 2003. The same study found that cinnamon also lowered cholesterol.

People around the world have been using spice cures for centuries, but now scientists are finding that spices can ease inflammation, activate the immune system, kill bacteria and viruses and even cause cancer cells to self-destruct. Although most studies are preliminary, some research suggests that compounds in spices might help fight everything from Alzheimer's disease and cancer to depression and diabetes. Here's an overview of the potential medicines lurking in your spice rack.

Turmeric: Asia's aspirin

This bright yellow-orange powder, common in Indian curries, may pack more healing power than any other spice. Turmeric is the aspirin of Asia, where it has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine to heal wounds and treat inflammatory illnesses like arthritis as well as at least a dozen other health problems. Made from the powdered root of a tropical plant closely related to ginger, turmeric contains curcumin, a compound that is both a powerful anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. It's also non-toxic.

Today, scientists are finding tantalizing clues that suggest curcumin might help prevent and treat Alzheimer's disease and cancer. Investigators at the University of California at Los Angeles, studying a mouse model of Alzheimer's, reported that the brains of animals fed curcumin had up to 80 percent fewer of the protein plaques associated with the disease than those of mice given a normal diet. The abnormal clumping of proteins in the plaques is thought to cause Alzheimer's. Teams at UCLA, Harvard and in Japan subsequently discovered that curcumin might fight Alzheimer's in several ways. First, curcumin forms a powerful bond with the amyloid beta protein associated with Alzheimer's that prevents the protein from clumping into plaques in the brain. Second, this bonding capacity enables curcumin to dissolve these plaques. Third, curcumin reduces oxidative damage and brain inflammation that contribute to the disease process.

It's still too soon to know whether curcumin can prevent or treat Alzheimer's in humans, says Sally Frautschy of UCLA's Alzheimer's Research Lab, where many of the studies are being carried out. "The animal models are not precise models of Alzheimer's, so these studies need to be replicated in humans," she says. Frautschy adds that a UCLA team led by John Ringman and Jeffrey Cummings has just completed a pilot clinical trial and researchers are now analyzing results.

Another challenge is finding a form of curcumin that's absorbed by the body, because it doesn't readily dissolve in water. Still, people in India have been getting their curcumin for centuries by cooking turmeric in ghee (clarified butter), which, like any fat, enables this compound to be absorbed. Indians also have some of the lowest rates of Alzheimer's disease ever reported, according to a 2001 study led by Vijay Chandra of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Could India's low Alzheimer's rate simply be a matter of genetics? Genes may well play a role, but research by Tze-Pin Ng and colleagues at the National University of Singapore also points to a diet rich in turmeric. A study of 1,010 people over age 60 who had no dementia found that those who ate curry "occasionally" and "often or very often" scored higher on mental performance tests than those who rarely or never consumed it. Ng, whose study was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2006, also notes that the most typical curry in Singapore is the turmeric-laden yellow curry.

Evidence is mounting that curcumin may help fight many cancers, says Bharat Aggarwal, a professor of cancer medicine at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. In addition to reporting that curcumin blocks most of the mechanisms by which prostate cancer cells survive and grow, he and his colleagues have listed nearly 40 animal studies that suggest curcumin may have a strong protective effect against common cancers, including those of the breast, colon, lung, prostate and skin.

"The potential is unlimited," says Aggarwal, who notes that small clinical studies are underway to investigate curcumin in treating colorectal cancer and multiple myeloma. "Curcumin suppresses most of the biochemical pathways that lead to inflammation -- and up to 98 percent of all illnesses are due to the dysregulation of inflammation." Research has shown that curcumin is likely to block a molecular "master switch" responsible for inflammation and many other processes, including the growth of tumor cells. Small clinical trials are also underway to give us a clearer picture of curcumin's potential in fighting Alzheimer's, cancer and other illnesses.

While we're waiting, should we start sprinkling turmeric into the pan every time we sauté onions and garlic? And, if so, how much?

The mice in Frautschy's study were fed the daily human equivalent of a gram, or about a quarter-teaspoon of turmeric. Aggarwal notes that clinical studies have found that a daily dose of up to 12 grams (about a tablespoon) a day for three months is safe. The basic rule of thumb? According to Aggarwal: "Eating turmeric is okay for every day."

Saffron: The priciest spice

This yellow spice comes from the dried and powdered stigmas of Crocus sativus, a fall-blooming purple flower native to southwestern Asia and cultivated in countries including India, Spain, Greece and Iran. The world's most expensive spice, saffron has been used for millennia as everything from an aphrodisiac to a remedy for colds and stomach problems.

It was also used in traditional Persian medicine to treat depression, a fact that inspired Shahin Akhondzadeh and colleagues at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences and the Institute of Medicinal Plants in Iran to test it in a modern clinical trial of 40 subjects. The researchers reported in Phytotherapy Research in 2005 that mildly and moderately depressed adults who received a daily 30-milligram capsule of saffron for six weeks experienced a significant improvement over those who were given a placebo.

Further research suggests that the ancients, who used saffron to treat about 90 illnesses, may have been onto something big. A series of recent studies in animals have found that saffron extracts blocked or slowed the development of colon, skin and soft-tissue tumors.

Chili Peppers: Kicks from capsaicin

All hot peppers, from cayenne to habaneros to the new, ultra-fiery Bhut Jolokia or "ghost chili," get their kick from capsaicin, a compound that triggers the body to produce more heat, and hence, burn more energy.

Teams at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and Laval University in Quebec, Canada, reported in Physiology & Behavior in 2006 that capsaicin and other compounds that trigger this reaction may help fight obesity. But don't cancel your gym membership just yet. Eating even the spiciest salsa will never beat exercise for burning calories.

You might still, however, want to add more spicy food to your diet. Scientists think capsaicin may cause cancer cells to self-destruct while leaving normal cells unharmed.

Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles reported in Cancer Research in 2006 that feeding mice doses of capsaicin equal to a human eating 10 habanero peppers three times a week dramatically inhibited the growth of prostate cancer cells. Another research group at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute investigated capsaicin in a mouse model of pancreatic cancer. In mice fed the equivalent of one spicy Indian meal a day, tumors shrank by nearly half after only three to five days.

Ginger: Not just for gingerbread anymore

This aromatic root has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic, Chinese and Tibb-Unani (traditional Islamic) medicine to treat health problems including digestive ailments, arthritis, infectious diseases, fever, high blood pressure, pain and muscle aches. Today, researchers are zeroing in on the biochemical effects of ginger in the body, which may not only help explain its benefits but also begin to lay the groundwork for new and less toxic treatments for a host of illnesses.

Two key compounds in the spice are gingerols, which gives fresh ginger its pungency, and shogaols, which gives dried ginger its zip. Some of the most convincing findings on ginger's health benefits in humans come from studies of morning sickness. A study of 70 women in the first trimester of pregnancy led by Teraporn Vutyavanich of Chiang Mai University in Thailand reported that women who received one gram of ginger per day had significantly less nausea and vomiting from morning sickness than a control group given a placebo.

Ali Badreldin of the College of Medicine and Health Sciences at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, along with colleagues in the UK and the United Arab Emirates, recently examined 91 studies on ginger conducted around the world over the last decade. In a 2008 review article in Food and Chemical Toxicology, the researchers highlight animal and test-tube studies that have found ginger can lower both blood sugar and cholesterol, contains pain-killing compounds that mimic nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with fewer side effects, eases inflammation from arthritis and protects against ulcers.

Badreldin and his colleagues also note the results of studies in rodents that found that ginger has powerful antioxidant properties that protect against the toxic effects of radiation treatment and skin diseases caused by ultraviolet B radiation.

These studies lay the groundwork for possible ginger-based treatments for diabetes, arthritis and other inflammatory illnesses, protection against radiation sickness from cancer treatment and even cancer itself.

Even if ginger proves effective, these treatments are likely years away. What is known is that ginger has been used medicinally for centuries, underscoring its safety. "Ginger is considered to be a safe herbal medicine with only few and insignificant adverse side effects," Badreldin notes. But he and his colleagues are also quick to say that large, rigorous clinical studies are needed to pinpoint ginger's efficacy in various illnesses and uncover any side effects from long-term use.

If you want to try ginger, how much should you take? The American Academy of Family Physicians notes that no specific studies of doses have been conducted, but clinical studies on nausea generally use between 250 milligrams and 1 gram of powdered ginger root in a capsule, taken one to four times a day.

Is it possible to overdose on spices? Like anything else, spices should be taken with a healthy dose of common sense. Pregnant women should avoid saffron, because in large doses it may induce abortion, and they should consult with their doctors when taking any herbal products. (That's a good rule of thumb for everyone). Ginger can cause stomach upsets. Some studies have found that too much capsaicin from hot peppers can cause stomach problems.

It will take further clinical studies to establish whether and how spices might prevent or even cure disease. Based on recent research, though, turmeric remains one of the most promising and safest condiments in treating a host of illnesses. So don't forget to add it to your next soup or main dish. If it really does help prevent Alzheimer's, it may well help you remember a lot of other stuff too.

Is the Hydrogen Age Just Around the Corner?

You may think hydrogen power is some futuristic fantasy, fit only for science-fiction writers. Or, at best, you might consider it a promising technology that won't be ready for prime time for another 40 to 50 years. If so, think again. In a special edition on "Best Inventions 2006," Time magazine praises the decision by Shanghai-based Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies "to design and market the H-racer, a 6-inch-long toy car that does what Detroit still can't. It runs on hydrogen extracted from plain tap water, using the solar-powered hydrogen station."

Hydrogen vehicles are not mere toys. More than 500 are on the road today. A BMW prototype with a hydrogen internal-combustion engine attained a top speed of 186 miles an hour. Mazda, Ford, Honda and GM are developing a variety of hydrogen-powered engines. Perhaps most exciting, Honda is now powering zero-emission vehicles with hydrogen derived from tap water in small stationary units that drivers can keep in their garages.

We believe the rapid pace of invention, testing and commercialization of fuel-cell technologies is a strong sign that we are entering the early stages of a hydrogen revolution. Instead of waiting half a century as critics suggest, the large-scale production of hydrogen fuel-cell cars could begin very soon. We have come to a crossroads where a single, courageous decision by a few world leaders could launch a new era of progress. That decision is, of course, to shift from our dependence on environmentally damaging fossil fuels to plentiful, renewable and clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

Not everyone sees the bright future of the hydrogen age. Some well-informed energy experts contend hydrogen will be viable only after 20 to 30 years of development. The respected environmental think tank Worldwatch Institute, cautions, "Despite recent public attention about the potential for a hydrogen economy, it could take decades to develop the infrastructure and vehicles required for a hydrogen-powered system." Joseph Romm, author of The Hype About Hydrogen, states that, "Hydrogen vehicles are unlikely to achieve even a 5 percent market share by 2030."

These predictions are needlessly pessimistic, based on common misconceptions about the cost, efficiency and technology of hydrogen. If we make hydrogen a national and international priority, as outlined below in a strategy for launching the hydrogen economy, we foresee the first affordable hydrogen fuel-cell cars coming to market starting between 2010 and 2012, and achieving 5 percent of the new car market share by 2020 or sooner.

Let's examine the critics' misconceptions about hydrogen.

Myth No. 1: A hydrogen industry needs to be built from scratch The production of hydrogen is already a large, mature industry, and the global hydrogen industry annually produces 50 million metric tons (50 billion kilograms) of hydrogen, worth about $150 billion. To put that into perspective, the current global output of pure hydrogen has the energy equivalence of 1.2 billion barrels of oil, or about a quarter of U.S. petroleum imports. The hydrogen industry is growing at 6 percent a year, thus doubling every 12 years. All this is happening without the incentives that would be provided by a growing fleet of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in need of fuel. If the hydrogen industry can expand so quickly "below the radar," it will have no problem expanding quickly enough to fuel the needs of hydrogen fuel-cell cars in the future.

Myth No. 2: Hydrogen is too dangerous for common use This myth begins with the hydrogen-filled German zeppelin, the Hindenburg, which blew up at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. Recently that event was revisited in a detailed analysis by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientist Addison Bain. He found that it was not the hydrogen that originally combusted, but the dirigible's outer coating, a highly flammable material similar to that used in rocket propellants. In reality, the hydrogen industry has had an excellent safety record for decades. In 30 years, liquefied hydrogen shipments have logged 33 billion miles. During all this time, no product losses or fires were reported. Gasoline, our automotive fuel of choice, is 22 times more explosive and has a dismal safety record in comparison.

Hydrogen, while flammable, is generally more easily managed than hydrocarbon fuels. If hydrogen is ignited, it burns with a clear flame and only one-tenth the radiant heat of a hydrocarbon fire. The heat that is produced tends to dissipate much more rapidly than heat from gasoline or oil fires. The bottom line is that hydrogen-safety critics should turn their fire against gasoline, and agitate for the rapid adoption of hydrogen on safety grounds alone! Myth No. 3: Hydrogen can't be distributed via existing pipelines The transportation of hydrogen, one of the most frequently mentioned concerns of critics, is easily accomplished through pipelines. Creating a new pipeline network to move hydrogen is unnecessary; we can use the one already in existence. Some existing pipelines are already hydrogen-ready. The others can easily be modified with existing technologies by adding polymer-composite liners, similar to the process used to renovate old sewer pipes. Using existing pipelines creates no additional safety concerns. Already, hydrogen-refueling stations are appearing in California, Florida and British Columbia. Other regions are sure to follow.

Myth No. 4: There is no practical way to run cars on hydrogen Hydrogen fuel cells have been used for space flights since 1965 and they were used in a passenger vehicle as early as 1966 (GM's Electrovan). Today, fuel-cell vehicles are undergoing rigorous testing and are far advanced. As of mid-2003, manufacturers had dozens of fuel-cell buses and upwards of 100 fuel-cell cars on the road. Fuel cells are being tested for military vehicles on land and sea; submarines have used them for years. Heavy trucks, which spend up to half their engine run time idling because they have no auxiliary power source, are also beginning to use fuel cells. FedEx and UPS plan to introduce fuel-cell trucks by next year.

With such a massive wave of research and trial, fuel cells are sure to advance quickly, as each successful application benefits from its predecessors' experiences. As a whole, mass production will drive down the price of fuel cells.

Myth No. 5: Hydrogen is too expensive to compete with gasoline Despite decades of U.S. policies favouring the use of petroleum, hydrogen technologies are already close to economic viability. When we consider system-wide life-cycle costs, hydrogen is already a desirable alternative to fossil fuel. The factor of greenhouse gas emissions makes hydrogen overwhelmingly preferable to gasoline. Even when hydrogen fuel is produced from natural gas, on a per-mile-driven basis, fuel-cell cars generate as little as 30 percent of the carbon dioxide produced by gasoline-powered cars.

Cost is the bottom-line factor for many consumers contemplating the adoption of new technologies. Research shows that small hydrogen generators could be manufactured by the hundreds and installed at service stations supporting a few hundred fuel-cell-powered cars using natural gas as a raw material at a cost of $6 per million British thermal units (BTUs). These would deliver hydrogen to cars at $2.50 per kilogram, since one gallon of gas is the energy equivalent of one kilogram of hydrogen. That is equivalent to $2.50 per gallon gasoline, less than we are paying now. Moreover, as current trends continue, we believe the days of $2.50 per gallon gasoline will be very fond memories.

Once these myths are dispelled, we can clearly see the environmental advantages of hydrogen power as well as the promising economic benefits. "Hydrogen could become a strategic business sector and an engine of global economic growth within the decade and for the remainder of the 21st century." That's the assessment of Julian Gresser and James Cusumano (one of this article's co-authors) in a 2005 report, "Hydrogen and the New Energy Economy," published in The Futurist.

It is well known that at critical times in history, certain industries have made key technological breakthroughs that have become dynamic engines of broader economic growth. Famous examples of the convergence of critical technologies and rapid growth include: the canals and railroads of 18th- and 19th-century England and, more recently, the convergence of computer hardware, software and Internet technology in late-20th-century America. Due to the tremendous public benefits realized through the success of strategic technologies and industries, governments have usually played a pivotal role in accelerating these technologies' development. California has already taken the national lead in implementing a "Hydrogen Highway Network Action Plan" to build 150 to 200 hydrogen-refueling stations, approximately one every 20 miles on California's major highways.

Similarly, Florida's state government has launched an innovative program to promote hydrogen as a strategic growth sector. Working within a broad alliance among private companies, state and local governments, universities and environmental groups, the Florida Hydrogen Strategy initially focuses on fuels cells, hydrogen storage and power-grid optimization. The strategy offers tax refunds, investment tax credits, performance incentives and enterprise-bond financing. Internationally, Japan, Germany, Canada and Iceland have major hydrogen programs underway. Leaders of these nations understand that, in addition to laying the foundation for independence from oil and creating a key industrial sector, the rapid development of hydrogen will accelerate innovation in related sectors, such as biotechnology, solar photovoltaics, ultra-light materials and nano-materials.

Given the urgency of the energy and climate crises, we urge development of a broad political consensus around a strategy for transitioning to a hydrogen economy. This strategy would apply regulatory, financial and other market-driven incentives while drawing on the best available technology and talent. Under the leadership of a non-partisan National Hydrogen Task Force, political leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere should convene the nation's leading hydrogen scientists, engineers and inventors, along with top environmental lawyers, finance experts and specialists in public/private enterprises.

Their mission should be the development of a draft "Strategic Hydrogen Alliance Reform and Enterprise Act" (SHARE) that would create the statutory framework for accelerating the development of the hydrogen economy as quickly as possible, on par with the urgency that accompanies a state of war or a natural disaster.

The main stages of this transition plan for the U.S. are outlined below and include the following milestones:

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Can the Victim and the Criminal Ever Reconcile?

When she comes in, the room is full of prisoners -- many of them doing time for murder, many already having served 25 years or more. She's very nervous and sits down without shaking anybody's hand. More than 10 years ago, her 12-year-old son was abducted, raped and stabbed to death. "I want to know," she says, "did he ask for me? Did he cry for me? I need to know what happened, so I can stop imagining."

But today, Maria -- a five-foot-tall woman in her fifties who works as a cashier in a supermarket -- will not be facing the offender. She's meeting a group of men dedicated to helping heal victims at California's San Quentin State Prison. That's what Maria is looking for: healing. Because she cannot live with the fact that she doesn't know anything about her son's last moments. "Perhaps I can ask them what I would have asked my offender," Maria reasons.

And so Maria, supported by another mother whose son was murdered, starts talking about her loss. She sheds her tears, collects herself and then asks the men, gathered in a circle of chairs, some tough questions: What went through your mind when you killed your victim? What do you remember about your victim at the time of the crime? Was it worth it? One by one, the men answer her. They don't get upset and don't turn away. They keep their eyes on Maria and tell her the truth, and nothing but the truth, without justifying themselves or evading her questions. This truth-telling slowly fills the room with an awe-inspiring power. Perhaps never before has the accounting of these horrendous acts been such a gift of healing to someone hearing it. "Thank you," Maria whispers, again and again.

Slowly, the room lightens up. One of the men asks Maria to share some fond memories of her son, and she responds eagerly. She also shares that while she is glad her offender has been prevented from causing further harm, she bears no ill will toward him. She knows a thing or two about the challenge unresolved pain poses. "I'm tired of coping," she says. "I want to live again."

Jacques Verduin, who facilitates this group process at San Quentin prison, has thoroughly trained these men to handle this kind of meeting. Ten years ago, he started the Insight Prison Project (IPP). Through it, some of these tough customers have acquired gifts they can share with other prisoners as well as everyone else: counselling; conflict resolution and mediation; victim/offender education; violence prevention; yoga and meditation instruction; parole planning and addiction recovery. As many as 300 inmates a week attend the programs.

Although Verduin hardly stops stressing the team effort inherent in his organization, you could say he has planted seeds of peace and reconciliation among people for whom that might seem impossible.

But in his case, the seeds were probably tulip bulbs, for Verduin is as Dutch as they come: blonde hair, blushing apple-red cheeks and bright blue eyes with the steadfast determination of Hans Brinker, the archetypical Dutch boy who stuck his thumb in a dike to save the country from flooding. And the 47-year-old Verduin, who calls himself a "recovered psychotherapist," has needed every inch of Hans Brinker's courage to deal with California's troubled prison system.

The inspiration to start self-rehabilitation programs in prison came when Verduin realized modern society was destroying its members' sense of community and connectedness. According to Verduin, the spirit of kindness, compassion and caring was gone. He resolved to build an organization that would hold up a lamp in one of the darkest places in our culture, a place where human beings are discarded, labelled as prisoners and forgotten. Where better to start than inside the walls of San Quentin?

Opened in July of 1852, the oldest of California's prisons is home to some of the most dangerous men alive. That's where the state's death row for men is located, as is its only gas chamber, now used to perform lethal injections. The cells in which the men live take up only 35 square feet (a little more than 3 square metres), and are double-occupied.

"It's a tough place," acknowledges Verduin as we wait for our IDs to be scanned at the prison gate. "When I started, it was just about as difficult to get into San Quentin as it was to get out. The first time I sat with a group of prisoners was quite intimidating. I was so green. One of the first things they said was, 'Hey man, what are you driving an ambulance for?' It took me a little while to figure out that this was slang for, 'Why are you trying to save us?' Then they wanted to know how much drugs I had used and of course, I could not impress them."

This cat-and-mouse game went on for a little while, but Verduin decided to stop playing when one of the inmates told him he looked pretty uncomfortable, sitting there trying to save their sorry asses. "At that moment I took a deep breath," remembers Verduin. "I said 'You know what? I am uncomfortable, but I want to make this a group where it is okay to be uncomfortable. Let's cut the bullshit and get real.' That did it! At that point they all started to buy in. That's how we started our first group."

If a rehabilitation program for prisoners sounds like a waste of time and money, consider this number: In California, almost 70 percent of those who leave prison return within 18 months of release.

For the past 30 years, in the wake of California's legislation asserting that "the purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment," rehabilitation has been largely absent from the state's penal system. Despite its recent comeback, the number of inmates in California has increased. The average cost to house, feed and guard an inmate in California exceeds $40,000 a year.

In other words: California's "punishment" system has been as expensive as it has been ineffective. Verduin sees signs of change, in San Quentin's new warden Bob Ayers, for example, who Verduin believes is one of the strongest proponents of programs to "support public safety and prevent re-victimization in society."

The property on which San Quentin stands is one of the most beautiful spots in the state, just north of San Francisco in Marin County. It must be hard for prisoners to see surfers and boats gliding by all the time, we conclude as we stroll along with Verduin into a large courtyard where prisoners are walking, talking and working out. "That's why the motto of our program is 'Leaving prison before you get out,'" he answers promptly. "It is the only way to stay sane in a place like this."

As a devoted practitioner of meditation, Verduin knows that being locked behind steel bars isn't the worst kind of prison. As far as he is concerned, getting out of the other prison -- the one into which we lock ourselves -- is the main priority. But breaking free from the chains of trauma and unresolved hurt has proven to be at least as difficult as breaking out of a maximum- security prison. The reason why many people, even those who have never been behind bars, don't attempt an escape is that their prison can look so good. As long as there are iPods, televisions, computers, houses, careers, money, food and drinks, why bother about freedom?

That is the difference between the prisoners inside and outside San Quentin. When you are inside the penitentiary, your world and your prospects don't look so good and not much distracts you from yourself. That is why Verduin loves to work with these men. "When they are 'sick and tired of being sick and tired' and want to heal, there is an immediacy, an urgency, that's hard to find outside, which is very refreshing."

Walking into the shabby building where IPP's so-called Katargeo Group "holds the space" is like walking into a monastery or an ashram. The atmosphere is solemn, sobering, humbling. No fashionable clothes, no cell phones, no pretense. The main purpose of the meetings is to "sit in the fire" and face the deep-rooted pain that led to crime and murder. The men come together to remind one another of who they really are, as human beings, humble and imperfect, but deeply soulful and wizened as well. Most men have been at it for several years and have become masters in their own right. When you've been to hell and found your way back, you conduct yourself with a natural authority.

They have learned the hard way how to look within. Verduin explains, "One of the main priorities in the trainings at IPP is on something called 'impulse control.' You do this by learning to be able to witness your own experience. That's why we make space for contemplation in each class. This technique can make the difference between committing a crime and not."

Today the group topic is forgiveness. One of the inmates, who prefers to stay anonymous, says he's willing to forgive just about everyone, except the guy who murdered his wife. The inmate was in prison when she was stabbed. He had been utterly powerless, not only to defend his loved one, but to be there for his 4-year-old son who witnessed the murder. "I'll never be able to forgive that guy. I will always hold onto that anger."

Another prisoner, Eric, has plenty of reasons to be angry too. As a kid, he was molested and raped by eight people on a regular basis. It had become so commonplace that he began to think the sole purpose of his life was to be used. One day all the anger exploded, which resulted in a tragic loss of life. Eric has learned to forgive, but, he explains, "I'll never assume I'm done forgiving and being forgiven."

Listening to stories like this, it becomes clear that each man here is a victim as well as an offender. In this light, it seems cruel that men like Eric are punished throughout their lives for something that happened in a few minutes. Of course, the victims and their families are dead or traumatized forever too. Still, in meeting these men, one can't help but think that if they could take their places in society and share their hard-earned wisdom with the rest of us, we would all be the better for it.

When we ask Eric, PJ and Ali after the session what they would do if ever they got out, their eyes begin to shine. They would go back to their neighbourhoods to help build community based on the principles they have learned in IPP programs and other classes. Stories of prisoners who have done this are told and retold, like the one about former group member Sterling Scott, who now works in juvenile detention facilities across California. Sterling had been behind bars for 23 years.

Meanwhile, Verduin dreams of raising enough money to set up what he calls "The Ambassador Initiative," in which former prisoners who have learned job skills on the inside go into their communities to serve as salaried youth counsellors and violence-prevention facilitators par excellence.

IN these victim/offender programs developed and taught by IPP Restorative Justice Manager Rochelle Edwards, inmates write about how they killed or hurt somebody, and learn to understand their own histories. Each class ends with naming the victims and doing something in their honour. Each prisoner also writes a letter to his victim. It does not get sent, but as Verduin says, "they still go through it." All this is done in preparation for a group dialogue with family members who lost loved ones in crimes like those perpetrated by these men.

One of the first such meetings, just before the program started, was with Radha Stern, a woman Verduin met at a dinner party and whose son had been murdered. "I asked her if she would talk to me about this. So we met a couple of times and she took me through the whole process: the pictures; the newspaper clippings; the poems the family wrote; how she lost all fluids when the sheriff came and told her that her son was killed, everything. She taught me about the other side of the crime. When we were done, she said, 'Now I want to see what you do.'"

Verduin asked the men if it would be okay to bring Stern in. They assured him she was welcome. "The first time she brought pictures of her son," he says. "The second time she brought a quilt, which she had made for every year of his life: his favourite food, his pets, his friends... All the men touched the quilt, which was very special. Imagine the hands that had taken a life touching this quilt that belonged to a mother whose son's life was taken." After a few meetings, Stern became like a mother to the members of the group.

Then, Verduin says, something beautiful happened. He managed to get approval for a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal, to be held in a dank basement that doubled as a classroom, just past urinals you could hear flushing. Verduin had asked all those invited to come in suits and fine clothes. "After all, who ever does that for these guys?" So Verduin bought a tie and Stern prepared a delicious meal.

"By the time all the food was cleared through security, it was cold," Verduin says, "but Radha had thought about this and brought a thermos bottle of hot gravy." He stops here to wipe the tears from his eyes. "Every time I talk about this it gets me, because that's love, right? Hot gravy!" After a moment, Verduin continues. "Everybody wept when they spoke of what they were thankful for. It was beautiful."

A couple of months later, when the 10-year anniversary of Stern's son's death was approaching, the men wanted to do something in honour of Stern and her son. They decided to make a quilt. "One of the guys," Verduin says, "used the pocket of his favourite visiting shirt -- the best piece of cloth he had. There were also napkins, and pieces of mattress. Some guys drew on it; some actually embroidered on it."

After Stern was given this quilt, she took her husband and daughter to meet the guys. She's now preparing for a dialogue with her son's murderer.

"Healing wants to happen," Verduin says, "if you let it."

11 Things We Can Learn from the Rest of the World

The world is becoming One. But the game is being played according to rules set by the West. Where colonialism ultimately failed at running the world, Hollywood and the stock market are succeeding. In the process, we are seeing material gain and progress for developing nations -- but also substantial loss. And Westerners may lose just as much in this as the rest of the world. The cultural richness and indigenous innovation that is in danger of being wiped out in Africa, Asia and Latin America by globalization could actually make Western societies healthier and happier. Here are 11 lessons the West can learn that would improve Western life and create a better future for all humanity.

1) Democracy (Ghana)

Ubuntu for all!
By Baffour Ankomah

Here's a surprise. What Africa has to offer the West is democracy! History says Ancient Greece invented democracy. But the Greeks took their inspiration from the other side of the Mediterranean in Egypt. "African democracy," which is practiced to this day in villages and towns across the continent -- where 70 percent of Africans live -- is very different from "Western democracy." It is based on the humanist philosophy called Ubuntu, originating in southern Africa, which teaches, "I am because you are." African democracy is focussed on including everyone, whereas Western democracy, with its basis in majority rule, divides people and nations.

Traditional African democracy doesn't involve organized opposition. Power is arranged like a pyramid. At the top is the king who exercises supreme authority, assisted by his council of elders and sub-chiefs. But the king or chief has no power except that which is given to him by the people. He is usually enthroned for life, but the actual duration of his reign depends on how well or poorly he performs. If he is a good king, he stays. If he is a bad king -- who oppresses the people, or acts against their interests and traditions -- he is overthrown by the people, using the constitutional means established for the purpose.

African democracy has a lot to teach the world about decision-making. Minor day-to-day decisions are made by the chief or king in consultation with the council of elders. But major decisions affecting the community are made by the people -- all the people. The job of the king or chief is really to implement the will of the people.

In the African system, for example, if villagers want to build a school, the chief calls the whole community together under the trees of the village square. The gathering of the villagers acts like a city council or parliament. Wide and passionate discussions are held that day on the subject of the new school. Everybody is free to voice an idea. There is no organized opposition, but opposing views are strongly and freely expressed. The chief or king is the last to speak, but that doesn't mean he has "the last word" as would be the case in Western culture. At the end of the day, a consensus is almost always reached. And -- most important -- the new initiative enjoys broad support, since even opponents feel heard and respected. This kind of democracy is not a struggle for power, but an organizing structure.

Baffour Ankomah, from Ghana, is the editor of the magazine New African.

2) Ingenuity (India)

Finding solutions for what's impossible
By Vijay Mahajan

In rural India, you may spot a rather unusual vehicle. Halfway between a cart and a tractor, it can carry maybe 12 passengers. It doesn't need a licence plate, but it does have a motor -- taken from a surplus water pump -- and can travel up to 40 kilometres (25 miles) an hour. That can be a problem, since the cart doesn't have brakes to speak of. When the driver needs to stop, the passengers jump off and drag wooden brake shoes against the wheels.

Jugaad is the name of this motorized problem-solving device, and it costs just 60,000 rupees (about $1,300). A jugaad is an alternative solution, an improvisation, a jury-rigged answer conceived by a creative culture in which scarcity and survival are constant challenges. While India makes headlines in the financial press as an economic force to be reckoned with, the real dynamism of its culture is in creations like the jugaad. It's their talent for improvisation that keeps a billion Indians moving forward into the future. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes -- an important lesson for the West. Indian farmers ride triumphantly on their homemade vehicle. It represents their personal victory over the hard reality they inhabit, in which nothing is certain. In their lack of possessions -- so unimaginable for Western souls -- lies the secret to fulfillment and happiness.

A jugaad is an adaptation; Indians are constantly adapting to their situation. If a train car is too full, they find ways to move over to make space for new passengers. Flexibility is a condition for survival and future success, evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin concluded from his study of nature.

In the West, with its long-established rights and all-powerful lawyers, this wisdom has been lost. If something doesn't work quite right, a Westerner throws it away and buys a new one. An Indian goes in search of a jugaad -- and often comes back smiling.

Vijay Mahajan is the founding director of microcredit institution BASIX in India.

3) Work (Nigeria)

Take the initiative
By Seyi Oyesola

Creating work. That's something the West could learn from the rest of the world. Asia, Africa and Latin America all host thriving cultures of entrepreneurship. People here constantly undertake new initiatives and create new jobs -- for themselves and for others.

You seldom see local entrepreneurship anymore in the West. People are more likely to be employed by large corporations and organizations. Of course small business pioneers exist in Europe and the United States, but they are relatively few when you look at the entrepreneurial boom we're seeing in China and India. Social-welfare programs have tended to work against entrepreneurship, especially in Europe. Initiative is smothered if you aren't challenged to take care of yourself.

Wherever you go in Asia, Africa and Latin America, you see people creating work -- and providing inspiration.

Seyi Oyesola practises medicine in London and is founding director of Global Medical Systems.

4) Yoga (India)

Bend it like a Brahmin
By Jagdish Parikh

Westerners should practise yoga. It's the best recipe for creating a healthier political system, economy and society.

Yoga? This may surprise you. In fact, you probably already know a lot of people who are doing yoga, right? Yoga studios are springing up everywhere in the urban West. They help people relax and stay in shape. But what on earth does yoga have to do with the functioning of society?

Real yoga is actually much more than the relaxation technique touted in the West. Yoga, an Indian life path that's been around for thousands of years, is about experiencing your self. Yoga points the way toward self-realization, which helps you see past identification with the ego to a consciousness more integrated with that of humanity and nature. Yoga is practised on eight levels. Hatha yoga, the physical yoga that's very popular in the West, is the first stage. Hatha helps relax you and promotes good health. These are nice side benefits, but not the core of yoga.

The other, deeper levels of yoga provide answers to a conflict that no economic model -- from communism and socialism to the currently victorious capitalism -- has resolved: the conflict between the individual as a human being and the individual as a tool for progress. In vain, people seek happiness and fulfilment in economic systems that are solely geared toward material growth. In the dominant Western model, an individual's private and professional lives are incongruent. Every activity is measured in money. Even the abundant supply of books and courses related to personal growth is mainly focussed on accumulating greater material wealth. No one can find happiness in such a model. We are not here to keep the economy going. Every individual comes to this Earth with his or her unique talents, and the true fulfilment of life is about developing those talents. This is why the economy and society must be reformed to allow people to develop and expand themselves through the work they do.

We can only really be happy if we can lead ourselves -- instead of being led by the drive for more and more economic growth. To lead ourselves, we must first get to know ourselves. That is the path of yoga. When we learn that we are connected to our fellow human beings and nature, we become capable of making the transition from the current social model based on competition to a harmonious society based in co-operation. That transformation begins within us. Then, based on it, we can reform the way in which work is organized in society. Work should enable us to develop our talents.

Books about what needs to change and why abound. We know. Lack of knowledge isn't the problem. What we're missing is the courage to convert that knowledge into a behavioural shift. That courage can only be found through inner experience. Which is why yoga is so important.

Jagdish Parikh is managing director of the Lemuir Group of Companies, and the author of "Managing Your Self."

5) Community (Kenya)

The real social security
By Kimanthi Mutua

The greatest value that Africa can teach is its culture of collectiveness. Centuries of individualism and materialism have destroyed most of this essential support structure in the West. Today's Westerners are trying to rediscover it on the Web. Social networking is the hottest new trend -- people bonding with one another in virtual reality. In Africa, people connect in the daily reality of their lives. They naturally support each other, which builds an experience of community and compensates for the hardships of their lives.

It is important and interesting to note that in studies by the World Values Survey, most people in Africa do not report feeling less happy than people in developed nations despite being the poorest people on the planet. Africa is a living example of the fact that more money does not bring more happiness. That is a mirror the West should look into. Happiness comes from connections, from hope for the future and from the sense that you belong to something bigger than yourself. And because of the support people feel from their communities, hope is always present in Africa. The strong ties within the community also support healing. Look how fast Rwanda is recovering from a ghastly genocide and compare that with another terrible chapter of history -- the Holocaust -- that still rips through individual lives and politics in the West. Rwandans are overcoming their disaster faster because they find healing in their communities. That is an inspiring message. The West could rediscover the spirit of community.

Kimanthi Mutua is managing director of the microcredit bank K-Rep in Kenya.

6) Raising Children (Kenya)

Families first
By Nthenya Mule

Raising a family is a full-time job. Without my extended family and close friends, I would not be able to take care of my two sons the way I want to do, given that I'm a single working mother. Not only are friends and family always available to step in and take care of my sons as needed, they also support me with advice about how to guide and educate them best. Without them I would not be able to do what I'm doing.

"Madness is genetic -- you get it from your children," goes the saying, but before I ever go to a therapist, I have spoken with at least five people in my immediate circle and the problem that initially seemed insurmountable no longer seems as daunting.

I think solutions for problems and conflicts that are found in my community are more suitable, because there is broad and permanent support for them. I can even accept critique more easily, because such advice comes from relatives and lifelong friends, who have my best interests at heart. I know they mean well and care about me. That social fabric supports our lives and those of our children. It's something the West seems, sadly, to have lost in the quest for individualism above all else. Generations -- even the world -- would benefit if the West could rediscover its own communities again.

Nthenya Mule is the Kenya manager of the Acumen Fund, a non-profit global venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of poverty.

7) The Village (Tanzania)

Someone looking out for you
By Zuhura Sinare Muro

My marriage was a challenge for our families. I am a Sunni Muslim woman. My father was a leader of the Muslim Council of Tanzania. I fell in love with a man who comes from a staunch born-again Christian family. This was at a time when evangelical Christians were decimating congregations of traditional Christian churches in Tanzania. Knowing the sensitivities of a civil marriage and the family profiles involved, we decided to request our families to allow us do a small wedding ceremony.

When we presented that idea, it caused an uproar. Despite the challenge of the anti-religious wedding, both clans decided to arrange for a big ceremony. The climax was the wedding reception, with 1,200 invited guests, members from both families. Including the pre-wedding festivities, the wedding day and the after-wedding party, more than 2,500 people showed up. This is a typical way to celebrate a marriage in our society. The whole village came because people feel connected and wanted to be part of the event.

These strong community ties support me as a working mother. I can leave my children any moment -- even unannounced -- in the care of a sister, a grandmother or an aunt. It's easy; it's normal. I don't need daycare, because my children belong to the extended family. I also know that I will be taken care of when I'm ill. When I die, my family will take care of my children. And I know my clan will bury me.

The flip side of that is I'm expected to take care of my relatives as well. I may serve on the board of an international company, but I cannot leave on a business trip abroad when my mother-in-law has to be taken to the hospital. I am supposed to nurse her day and night. I will be shunned by my family or community if I let a stranger bathe and feed her. I'm also expected to look after any orphan the clan feels will develop well under my care.

The village -- in the widest possible sense of that word -- supports me, and I support the village. We give and we receive. We are connected.

Zuhura Sinare Muro is a social entrepreneur investing in value-based education.

8) Happiness (Bhutan)

Boost your country's GNH today!
By Lyonpo Jigmi Y. Thinley

Governments usually aim to achieve the highest possible economic growth as measured by the gross national product (GNP), which is how the world looks at progress. In Bhutan, however, we believe this is a narrow view that traps people in cages of materialism. All that humanity sacrifices at the altar of materialist progress to appease insatiable wants has not been in the best interests of furthering human civilization.

The king of Bhutan introduced the concept of gross national happiness (GNH), which is based on the idea that true development of society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. That's why for the past two decades, happiness has been incorporated as a guiding principle in Bhutan's policies.

Over the years, we've made Bhutan greener than most countries and despite the advent of satellite TV and the Internet, the social fabric is still intact. These policies have also made Bhutan more secure than ever before. To us, these are all indications that our policies are beginning to realize the goal of making people happy. And that's what all of us want: to find more ways we can engage in the pursuit of happiness.

Lyonpo Jigmi Y. Thinley is the former home minister of Bhutan, a small kingdom in the Himalayan Mountains.

9) Non-violence (India)

One world, many truths
By Satish Kumar

The most important thing for the West to learn is that there is no one truth. There are many truths. You have a truth. I have a truth. Both could be true. Take a tree. A botanist sees a particular species. The carpenter sees wood for furniture. A religious person sees a sacred tree. A poet is inspired to write a poem and a painter sees a painting. One tree, many views. Many truths -- all equally true.

Truth is not important. Anekant -- "no one truth" -- teaches the Jain religion of India. Without fixed truth, there are no dogmas.

However in the West, and particularly in science and religion, truth is supreme. The West needs believers. Hence the disagreements, the fighting, the wars and the conflicts. The Jains don't need believers. They seek happiness and practise friendship, respect, tolerance and harmony. Nonviolence is supreme; truth is secondary. And seeking the impossible one ultimate truth, with all its divisive effects, is not the primary objective in life.

Believing is temporary. You may change your mind. Today's truth may not be tomorrow's truth. Truth changes. The practise of nonviolence is enduring and universal.

Satish Kumar was trained as a Jain monk in India. He is the editor of Resurgence magazine.

10) Food (India)

The cradle of local food
By Vandana Shiva

Western industrialized agriculture is not as productive as most people think. The extensive use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides requires a lot of water, harms soil fertility and poses a threat to biodiversity. Numerous studies have shown that the yield per acre at organic farms is higher than at conventional farms, but just as profitable and often more so. By going organic, farmers can get higher yields, while taking better care of the land.

The very essence of good agriculture is sustaining the land. That cannot happen with the intensive chemical and mechanistic farming methods that characterize Western agribusiness. Some people in developed nations are beginning to understand this, as witnessed by the growth of organic and local food, even though it's nothing new in the rest of the world. This traditionally efficient way of farming in developing nations needs to be protected from the incursion of Western farming methods -- so we can better feed our people, sustain our land and continue to offer inspiration to those in the West who understand the importance of these things.

Vandana Shiva is founder of Navdanya, a movement for Biodiversity Conservation and Farmers' Rights, based in India.

11) Humility (Sri Lanka)

Make a bow, receive a blessing
By Lalith Gunaratne

It was an emotional farewell for 24 boys and girls between the ages of 14 and 17 who had spent five days learning and sharing together. In keeping with South Asian tradition, most of them bowed down and prostrated themselves in gratitude and respect to the elders who had been their tutors. When they bowed to me, I got a sense of their innocence and felt genuine happiness for what we as adults had shared with them in their learning.

The youth were from six schools in the Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra states in India, participating in a British Council-sponsored experiential-learning program on leadership and teamwork through sports, held at a school in the city of Chennai. I was there supporting the lead trainer from Britain in working with these young leaders and six teachers.

The tradition of bowing to elders is one of the most beautiful acts of gratitude I encounter in Asia. Yet I had not always felt comfortable when someone bowed down to me. My urban parents had not brought me up in that tradition. A lot of hugging and kissing took place at my house, but no prostrating and bowing. So I had always felt embarrassed when anyone prostrated themselves in front of me. My Western beliefs led me to think that no one should feel so subjugated as to go down on his knees to anyone else.

I have come to realize that this is my Western notion of individuality coming out, even though I was born and spent my early years in Sri Lanka. My parents, both teachers, were part of a hybrid generation, having been English-educated in colonial Sri Lanka at Christian schools, but experiencing the Buddhist influence of humility and simplicity in their homes. So I did live in two worlds. The only time I bowed to my parents was at my wedding. My partner Samantha had been brought up in the tradition of bowing to her elders. Her German-born mother encouraged it as a part of her father's Sri Lankan tradition. I remember feeling awkward doing it, but then saw the tears in both my parents' eyes as I got up. It became a moment of great emotional significance for me.

Recently I discovered that in bowing, people are not only showing gratitude, but looking to receive a blessing from you in parting. When someone bows to you, the correct response is to touch the person with love and compassion, giving him a blessing for a happy future. It is a return gift of positive energy. Further, in bowing, a person shows you complete trust and abandons his ego as he puts his head down and takes his eyes off you. He is at your mercy. This show of trust strengthens the bond of our common humanity.

So now I see bowing to another in a different light. To bow to someone in gratitude and respect, in request of blessing, needs one to love and respect "self" first. If we can learn to bow to our self, to each other as the human family and to nature -- if we can learn to bow with love and trust, and to receive blessings -- we will have done much to keep our hope for humanity alive.

Lalith Gunaratne is a renewable-energy consultant in Sri Lanka and a Readers Blogger on odemagazine.com.

Reprinted from the October 2007 issue of Ode Magazine.

How Hospitals Systematically Harm People

The minute you're admitted into the hospital, you confront a disturbing paradox: Most hospitals aren't particularly healthy places. As a patient, you're likely to encounter toxic chemicals, eat lousy food, breathe unhealthy air and suffer stress triggered by an often-dismal and alienating environment. Even worse, you may find yourself at the mercy of drug-resistant "super bugs" or overworked staff members who make mistakes -- all in a place that's supposed to help you heal. It's enough to make you sick. And sometimes it does.

In the U.S. alone, an estimated 2 million people a year contract infections in hospitals, and nearly 100,000 are expected to die from them this year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although such statistics are deeply troubling, hospitals around the world also contribute to a subtler but equally insidious threat: They expose patients and staff to a host of substances and practises that can harm their health.

For example, hospitals use cleaners and disinfectants containing chemicals that can trigger asthma and other problems. A major study by Spanish researchers published in The Lancet last July hints at the extent of the problem. The study found nurses twice as likely as workers in other fields to develop asthma on the job, due to chemical exposure.

Needless to say, patients breathe the same air as the nurses. Fumes from disinfectants and other cleaners as well as pesticides contribute to indoor air pollution, a particular threat to patients with weakened immune and respiratory systems. These chemicals can also irritate the eyes, nose and throat, and trigger symptoms ranging from headaches to nausea to loss of coordination.

Another problem, perhaps the most obvious, is hospital food. Not only unappetizing, it was probably produced with pesticides, artificial preservatives, hormones and unnecessary antibiotics. To make matters worse, the usual alternative to a bland hospital meal comes from the fast-food joints encouraged to operate in many hospital lobbies. These sorts of things send people like Gary Cohen through the roof.

"About 30 hospitals have McDonald's restaurants in their lobbies," says Cohen, co-founder of Health Care Without Harm, an international organization that pushes hospitals to make changes that support the health of their patients, workers and communities. "Here we are with 60 million Americans who are obese and 120 million who are overweight and we're feeding people in hospitals food that contributes to obesity. Stuff like that just amazes me."

Many hospitals fail to recognize how their everyday choices, involving everything from food to chemicals to their physical and emotional environments, affect the health of their patients. Until recently, that is. Change is afoot in some of the most unlikely places.

Little more than a decade ago, most hospital administrators thought burning medical waste was the safest way to protect patients and communities from infectious disease. In 1995, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a wake-up call: Medical waste incineration had been found to be a leading source of dioxins, arguably the deadliest carcinogen.

"It was incredible that the very institutions devoted to healing people were actually poisoning them," says Gary Cohen. In the years since the report was published, more than 5,000 medical-waste incinerators have been closed in the U.S., as have scores more in Europe and elsewhere. Although the problem hasn't gone away (dioxins are found in everyone, including newborns), closing medical-waste incinerators was the first step for many hospitals toward beginning to examine healthier ways of caring for their patients and communities.

When Kathy Gerwig, vice-president for workplace safety at the Kaiser Permanente health-care network in the U.S., learned that burning the vast amounts of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used in hospitals produces dioxins, she and her colleagues promptly started looking for alternatives. They first reduced hospital waste and switched from vinyl to nitrile exam gloves. "That was a success because we learned something very important," Gerwig says. "Changes we initiated for environmental reasons often had other advantages."

It turns out that PVC intravenous bags and tubing also contain the phthalate DEHP, which can leach out of the devices and directly into the bodies of patients receiving medications and blood transfusions. Animal studies have linked this industrial chemical to birth defects, cancer and reproductive disorders, and the European Union has banned it from children's toys, cosmetics and personal-care products.

"We've known for more than 30 years that DEHP leaks out of the PVC devices in hospitals," says Gavin ten Tusscher, consulting pediatrician at the Westfriesgasthuis in the Netherlands and a researcher who has done groundbreaking work on dioxins in children. "We know that DEHP goes directly into newborn babies who have IV lines and receive blood transfusions -- and we can also measure exposure."

Until a few years ago, no alternatives existed, but that's no longer the case. Several manufacturers including Baxter and Hospira make PVC-free intravenous supplies, which are becoming more available.

The Westfriesgasthuis and Kaiser Permanente -- the largest non-profit health-maintenance organization (HMO) in the U.S. -- are among scores of hospitals that are replacing supplies made with PVC with safer alternatives.

"There is a steady stream of safer products becoming available for almost everything in the hospital setting," says Ten Tusscher. "Now, it's a matter of mindset. It's up to hospitals to make the choices."

So why don't they? Besides the oft-cited element of cost, hospitals frequently lack current information or the facts may simply not be available.

"One of the most difficult tasks is to identify toxic components of products and materials," says Kathy Gerwig of Kaiser Permanente. "Without labelling or complete disclosure about product content, it's hard to determine the potential for exposure."

In April 2007, the European Parliament approved new regulations that require manufacturers to label medical devices containing phthalates and other materials suspected of being carcinogenic, mutagenic or harmful to reproduction. No restrictions like this exist in the U.S.

The lack of effective laws, education and awareness may help explain why many hospitals still use a troubling number of toxic chemicals even though alternatives are widely available. In a national survey of 22 U.S. hospitals published in 2003, Health Care Without Harm found that every hospital used chemical pesticides and 36 percent used products no longer registered for use by the EPA. Pesticides can worsen allergies, chemical sensitivities and asthma, affect the nervous, reproductive and immune systems and cause cancer. In hospitals, a majority of the patient population is at particular risk from the possible health effects of pesticides: the elderly, chronically ill and chemically sensitive, along with children and pregnant women.

Perhaps the most outrageous missed opportunity for healing in the typical hospital turns up on patients' food trays. It has long been known that good nutrition speeds healing, yet many hospitals serve industrially grown processed foods -- typically lower in nutrients and higher in chemicals than sustainably produced meats, fruits and vegetables.

Numerous studies suggest industrial agriculture's reliance on artificial fertilizer is dramatically depleting soil minerals, and the results are showing up in our produce. Researchers have found, for example, that since 1985, mineral and vitamin levels in potatoes have plummeted 70 percent, beans 60 percent and apples 80 percent, according to studies cited in the UK newsletter What Doctors Don't Tell You.

How hospital food is handled can further reduce its nutritional value. According to a study published in the Journal of Food Service in October 2006, the common practise of overheating hospital food served to patients can reduce levels of Vitamin C, an important marker of nutritional content, by up to 86 percent.

So what does a healing hospital look and feel like? Hospitals in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere are pursuing answers, sometimes from the ground up. Among them is Clinique Champeau, a 116-bed private hospital in Béziers, France. One of the first things Director Olivier Toma noticed when he joined the hospital after a career as an hotelier was the condition of his employees' hands. "I was scandalized to see the hands of some of the nurses and people who clean in such a pitiful state," Toma says.

Toma replaced toxic cleaners with safer alternatives, a move that also reduced patients' exposure to chemicals. That was an easy step: Options are plentiful, such as the less-toxic cleaning products listed in the EU eco-label catalog or certified by the non-profit Green Seal program in the U.S.

But he didn't stop there. Toma has gone on to create an internationally recognized hospital that uses natural non-toxic materials. The paint on the walls is free of harmful volatile organic compounds. Thanks to a pioneering purchasing policy, everything the staff buys is screened for toxins.

Besides that, the hospital serves patients meals mostly prepared from scratch, while generous windows let in abundant daylight, which has been shown to help reduce patients' use of painkillers and shorten the time some people spend in the hospital.

On a larger scale, Kaiser Permanente is wielding its $6 billion annual purchasing budget to push for safer products and materials for patients at its 32 medical centres in the U.S. -- and to make these products more affordable and available for smaller health-care facilities. The HMO has also developed a new policy that calls for avoiding carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins as well as persistent chemicals that accumulate in our bodies in everything it purchases, from cleaning supplies to medical devices.

"We're targeting riskier products and doing everything we can to encourage suppliers to switch to environmentally preferable products," says Dean Edwards, vice-president and chief procurement officer.

The inroads being made at Clinique Champeau, Kaiser Permanente and other hospitals suggest administrators can no longer avoid making changes to clean up environmental problems. Signs indicating how this can be done are everywhere.

Looking back on the last decade, Gary Cohen of Health Care Without Harm says elimination of mercury is a prime example. Thousands of hospitals around the world have replaced mercury thermometers with safer alternatives and are working to eradicate mercury from health-care settings.

"We've shown that you can phase out toxic materials on a global scale," Cohen says. "If we can do that with mercury, we can do it with a whole set of chemicals and technologies that are destroying our planet and weakening our health."

Scores of hospital managers around the world have recently signed resolutions committing to implementing healthy changes on many fronts, from serving safe and sustainably raised food to reducing waste and ditching PVC. Still, signing a resolution or passing a law is one thing, and implementing it consistently is another.

And that, says Dutch pediatrician Gavin ten Tusscher, is where everyone comes in. "Consumers need to know that they're the ones who have the power," he says. "They're the ones who can influence change in their choices in health care. They can say, 'I don't want my child to receive an intravenous line with PVC,' and demand other healthy changes. The more people who do, the more governments and hospitals will listen."

Can Diet Help Stop Depression and Violence?

The best way to curb aggression in prisons? Longer jail terms, maybe, or stricter security measures? How about more sports and exercise? Try fish oil. How can children enhance their learning abilities at school? A well-balanced diet and safe, stimulating classrooms are essential, but fish oil can provide an important extra boost. Is there a simple, natural way to improve mood and ward off depression? Yoga and meditation are great, but -- you guessed it -- fish oil can also help do the trick.

A diet rich in vitamins, minerals and fatty acids like omega-3 is the basis for physical well-being. Everybody knows that. But research increasingly suggests that these same ingredients are crucial to psychological health too. And that's a fact a lot of people seem to find hard to swallow.

The relationship between nutrition and aggression is a case in point. In 2002, Bernard Gesch, a physiologist at Oxford University, investigated the effects of nutritional supplements on inmates in British prisons. Working with 231 detainees for four months, Gesch gave half the group of men, ages 18 to 21, multivitamin, mineral and fatty-acid supplements with meals. The other half received placebos.

During the study, Gesch observed that minor infractions of prison rules fell by 26 percent among men given the supplements, while rule-breaking behaviour in the placebo group barely budged. The research showed more dramatic results for aggressive behaviour. Incidents of violence among the group taking supplements dropped 37 percent, while the behaviour of the other prisoners did not change.

Gesch's findings were recently replicated in the Netherlands, where researchers at Radboud University in Nijmegen conducted a similar study for the Dutch National Agency of Correctional Institutions. Of the 221 inmates, ages 18 to 25, who participated in the Dutch study, 116 were given daily supplements containing vitamins, minerals and omega-3 for one to three months. The other 105 received placebos. Reports of violence and aggression declined by 34 percent among the group given supplements; at the s;ame time, such reports among the placebo group rose 13 percent.

Gesch is quick to emphasize that nutritional supplements are not magic bullets against aggression, and that these studies are just "promising evidence" of the link between nutrition and behaviour. "It is not suggested that nutrition is the only explanation of antisocial behaviour," he says, "only that it might form a significant part."

But Gesch is just as quick to emphasize that there is no down side to better nutrition, and in prisons in particular, the cost of an improved diet would be a fraction of the cost of other ways of addressing the problem of violence among inmates.

Still, the menu in British prisons hasn't changed in the five years since Gesch published his results, even though the former chief inspector of prisons in the UK, Lord Ramsbotham, told the British newspaper The Guardian last year that he is now "absolutely convinced that there is a direct link between diet and antisocial behaviour, both that bad diet causes bad behaviour and that good diet prevents it."

Yet the effect of nutrition on psychological health and behaviour is still controversial, at least in part because it is so hard to study. Our moods, emotions and actions are influenced by so many factors: everything from our genes to our communities to our personal relationships. How can the role of diet be isolated among all these competing influences? That's exactly why Gesch conducted his study in prisons. In a prison, there are far fewer variables, since all detainees have the same routine. Do the results of the inmate trials reach beyond the prison walls? Gesch thinks so: "If it works in prisons, it should work in the community and the society at large. If it works in the UK and in the Netherlands, it should work in the rest of the world."

Another place improved nutrition seems to be working is in the city of Durham in northeastern England. There, Alex Richardson, a physiologist at Oxford University, conducted a study at 12 local primary schools. The research examined 117 children ages 5 to 12, all of whom were of average ability but were underachieving.

Instructors suspected dyspraxia, a condition that interferes with co-ordination and motor skills and is thought to affect at least 5 percent of British children. Possible signs of dyspraxia may include having trouble tying shoelaces or maintaining balance, for example. The condition frequently overlaps with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), and is part of a range of conditions that include autistic-spectrum disorders.

Half the group of children in Richardson's study was given an omega-3 supplement for three months; the other half received an olive oil placebo. The results: Children given the omega-3 supplements did substantially better at school than those in the control group. When it came to spelling, for example, the omega-3 group performed twice as well as expected, whereas the control group continued to fall behind.

Richardson came to the study of nutrition through neurology. Her interest was sparked by the rapid rise of conditions like ADHD, autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia. The incidence of these disorders has increased fourfold in the past 15 to 20 years. "These disorders overlap considerably," she says, "but a real solution is rarely offered. A dyslexic child is assigned a special teacher. A kid with dyspraxia is sent to a physical therapist. One with ADHD is prescribed Ritalin. And you've got to learn to live with autism."

But as Richardson writes in They Are What You Feed Them: "There is always something that can be done. Don't ever believe it if anyone tells you otherwise." One of the things that can be done, according to Richardson, is to boost your child's intake of omega-3.

Of course, Omega-3 is not the only answer to ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia or other psychological or behavioural disorders, which also include Alzheimer's disease. Studies like Richardson's suggest, however, that it may play an important role in stimulating the brain, keeping it healthy and helping it ward off debilitating conditions.

And it looks like we need all the help we can get. Behavioural dysfuntions like ADHD are currently the fastest-growing type of disorder worldwide. Twenty years ago, no one had even heard of ADHD. Today, everyone knows a kid who is taking Ritalin.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the number of people with psychological disorders will double by 2020 -- and that around that time, depression will surpass heart and vascular disease as the No. 1 most preventable cause of death. The WHO adds that psychological disorders account for four of the 10 most common causes of disability and that a quarter of the general population will be affected by them at some point in their lives.

Diet could well play a central role in all this. The quality -- and quantity -- of the food we eat has increased dramatically over the past century or so. But we are eating more and more processed foods, which contain less and less of the essential minerals, vitamins and fatty acids that appear to be so crucial for mental health. Tomato juice, for example, contains 64 percent less vitamin C, 49 percent less carotene and 17 percent less niacin than a fresh tomato.

Gesch says we "seem to have made unprecedented changes to human diets in recent years with little or no systematic evaluation of the effects on our brain or behaviour." He wants to reverse "high-calorie malnutrition" by encouraging nutritionists, physicians and educators to concentrate not just on calorie intake but on the consumption of nutritional components like vitamins, minerals and fatty acids as well.

In our distant evolutionary past, we all had much more varied diets. Research among native tribes in remote areas suggests that our hunter-gatherer forebears consumed between 100 and 150 different types of plants during the course of a year.

Nowadays, our grain consumption is heavily dominated by wheat. Soy oil accounts for more than 80 percent of the fat Americans consume. Health authorities recommend a minimum of 400 grams (14 ounces) of vegetables and fruit each day, but lots of people don't even come close to that. And even those who do eat lots of fruit and vegetables often don't get the full nutritional benefit because intensive farming has depleted the soil of key minerals.

So what's a consumer to do? Eat fish. Working with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), American physician and psychiatrist Joseph Hibbeln compared data on fish consumption with figures on depression and murder in a large number of countries around the world. Fish are a rich and ready source of omega-3. In countries in which fish consumption is low, Hibbeln found the likelihood of suffering from depression was up to 50 times greater than in countries where it is high.

Some 6.5 percent of New Zealanders suffers from severe depression; these citizens also eat very little fish. In Japan, where fish consumption is high, 0.1 percent of the population suffers from depression. Manic depression (bipolar disorder) is rare in Iceland, which has the highest per capita fish consumption in the world, but is quite common in Brazil and Germany, where people don't eat as much fish. Hibbeln also found that, on average, the risk of being murdered is 30 times greater in countries where fish consumption is low compared to countries where it is high.

Cultural and other factors certainly influence these statistics, but the comparisons are nevertheless illustrative. Overall, in subsequent trials, Hibbeln found that depressive and aggressive feelings diminished by about 50 percent after taking fish-oil capsules for two to four weeks.

Based on this and other research, the WHO concluded in a report last year: "Certain dietary choices, including fish consumption, balanced intake of micronutrients and a good nutritional status overall, also have been associated with reduced rates of violent behaviour."

How can something like omega-3 have such an impact on behaviour and psychological health? Communication between the nerve cells in the brain depends on the circulation of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Low serotonin levels are associated with an increased risk of suicide, depression and violent behaviour.

Omega-3, a long, flexible molecule, appears to facilitate the circulation of neurotransmitters like serotonin in the brain, thus boosting communication among nerve cells. And nerve cells that talk a lot with each other make new connections in the brain, a process crucial for learning. Less flexible fatty acids than omega-3, though, do not as efficiently support the chatter.

Hibbeln's work has shown that the brain tissue of Americans is different from that of the Japanese. American cell membranes contain much higher levels of the less flexible omega-6 fatty acids; Japanese cell membranes are significantly richer in omega-3. Processed foods happen to be rich in omega-6, and Americans eat a lot of them. These omega-6 fatty acids seem to have displaced the omega-3 fatty acids found so abundantly in fish, of which the Japanese are so fond.

Other studies have found that depressed patients and children with ADHD and autism are deficient in omega-3. So some scientists speculate that this change in the fatty acids contained within our brains could be causing the modern rise in psychological disorders.

Although more and more research underlines the importance of nutrition for psychological wellness, these findings have not been widely translated into action. "Politicians, policymakers and business leaders keep asking for more research involving thousands of people, like the trials done for every new drug," Richardson complains. "But I say, We have done the uncontrolled experiments now [in the general population] for quite some time." Pharmaceutical firms have few incentives to organize their own studies, since omega-3 is derived primarily from fish oil -- and you can't patent fish.

This frustrates many scientists in the field. "Do we want to wait for more studies that confirm these findings, or do we want to do something today about the level of crime and aggression in our societies?" asks Stephen Schoenthaler, a sociologist at California State University at Stanislaus, in Turlock, California, who has studied the link between food and behaviour for the past 25 years and led several studies among prisoners and schoolchildren showing the social benefits of a healthier diet.

It's not all good news, though. Consumers should watch out for manufacturers that make exaggerated claims about these nutritional supplements. "Never use supplements as a substitute for a good diet," counsels Richardson. "The key thing that most people seem to have forgotten is that food is not just fuel, it is nourishment. Food is not just a source of energy that one can consume on the run. A healthy diet needs to provide a minimum of essential nutrients in a dosage recommended for daily use."

A multivitamin and mineral supplement is a good "insurance policy," Richardson says, and 500 mg of omega-3 every day is not a bad idea either. But buyer beware: Not all supplements are good supplements, so seek the advice of a qualified professional before deciding which supplement, if any, is right for you.

It almost sounds too good to be true, but research is beginning to confirm that vitamins, minerals and fatty acids can reduce aggression and improve psychological well-being. That could be a simple recipe for a more peaceful world.

The Worst Health Money Can Buy

One of the biggest myths about health care is that more is always better. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the United States, which offers a cautionary tale for other countries seeking health care reform -- including those in Europe looking across the Atlantic for inspiration. The American people spent nearly $2.1 trillion on health care in 2006 -- more than was spent on food -- yet Americans aren't exceptionally healthy or long-lived as a result. They have shorter life expectancies than people in Western Europe, Canada and Japan and are no less hindered by disease than their counterparts in other developed countries.

In spite of all this spending, nearly 47 million Americans have no health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And here's another irony: Although insured people often feel they receive too little medical attention, many are actually getting too much in the form of unneeded tests and treatments. This "overtreatment" is at the root of America's health care woes, according to medical journalist Shannon Brownlee, author of the upcoming book Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer. Brownlee contends that up to a third of health care dollars in the U.S are wasted on unnecessary care that doesn't improve people's health -- and may even endanger it.

A study of nearly a million Medicare patients (older Americans who receive government-funded health insurance) provides a compelling example of how too much care can cause harm. Medicare patients treated at hospitals that did the most tests and treatment and spent the most money were up to 6 percent more likely to die than patients at hospitals spending the least. In short, more spending, more hospitalization, more technology and more drugs do not necessarily equal better health care.

Why do doctors and hospitals provide too much care in the first place? They are stuck in a dysfunctional system driven by money. Doctors get paid for how much care they deliver -- not how well they take care of their patients. Meanwhile, hospitals are pressured to recoup the expensive investments they've made in pricey technologies and specialists. This means the more care doctors and hospitals provide, the more money they make.

Much of what doctors do is prescribe medications, some of which help save lives, like insulin for diabetics and cyclosporine for organ-transplant patients. But when it comes to medications, doctors are increasingly under the sway of drug companies. Brownlee observes that the pharmaceutical industry now foots the bill for at least 80 percent of clinical research (formerly funded by the federal government) and underwrites 90 percent of continuing medical education, wielding unprecedented influence over the content of medical journals and what doctors do and don't know about drugs.

When money drives every aspect of health care, from doctors to hospitals to the pushing of dangerous -- and often inadequately tested -- drugs, what can be done? Brownlee finds inspiration and solutions in one of the most unlikely places: the Veteran's Health Administration (VHA). A horrific shambles in the mid-1990s, the VHA has been transformed over the past decade into a model of effective, affordable and humane care. Today the agency, which cares for military veterans -- including many of America's oldest, poorest and sickest patients -- outperforms most other U.S. health-care institutions at a little more than half the cost per person. The VHA's prescription-accuracy rate is 99.9 percent and it has a lower rate of hospital-acquired infections than most other health-care institutions in the U.S.

In 1994, Kenneth W. Kizer took over the VHA as undersecretary for health. He introduced new information technology that helped lower rates of drug error and infections, while reducing unnecessary care. VHA doctors are encouraged to choose drugs carefully, based on scientific evidence rather than slick marketing, a step that has reduced costs and unneeded prescriptions. And patients report a high rate of satisfaction.

The perfect system may not exist, but the VHA story suggests that effective, affordable and compassionate health care -- publicly funded, no less -- isn't a pipe dream, but an achievable reality. Patients, policymakers and anyone concerned about the future of health care around the world would do well to read Brownlee's book.

Shannon Brownlee's book, Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer (Bloomsbury), will be out in September.

Can Ecology and Commerce Coexist?

Our small boat bobs along the unimaginably wide Amazon River, then heads up a fast-flowing tributary the colour of tea with cream, and finally turns onto a stream leading into the heart of the rainforest. Monkeys scamper in the trees above us as the motorboat chugs more and more slowly until the stream becomes too narrow to travel. This is where José Luiz de Oliveira and his 17-year-old son Alex live on a small farmstead alive with bird calls. Piglets frolic in the cool mud below their dock while ducks march in formation.

In many ways this boat ride feels like a trip into the past. The forest is largely untouched here except for the sunny clearing around the house (although we did spot an illegal lumber operation downriver). The de Oliveiras live as people have for centuries -- drawing their daily meals and livelihood from the land, the river and the livestock. It's an enchanting place if you can get used to the mosquitoes. Yet beauty and peace do not translate into prosperity. The tiny house has no electricity, no telephone, no fans, no screens in the windows.

The great debates about sustainable development being waged in government assemblies and at environmental institutes, corporate headquarters and street protests around the world are really about this place. Is it possible to bring the de Oliveiras some of the advantages of modern life -- like high school and shoes for Alex -- without destroying other valuable things in the process? Valuable things like the Amazon rainforest itself, which is crucial to everyone on the planet as a source of ecological balance and potential new medicines.

José invites us to sit under the thatched palm shelter at the end of their dock and we pass the time telling stories and spouting opinions. For them it's a welcome break from working in the heat as well as an opportunity to show off baskets of freshly picked açaí, which they gathered from the tops of palm trees surrounding their home.

Açaí -- a fruit slightly larger than a blueberry with a similar colour -- is the reason we have come up the river. It has recently been discovered outside the rainforest as a "superfood" -- a nutritious bundle of amino acids, fibre, essential fatty acids and more of the highly coveted antioxidants than either red wine or blueberries. People often report feeling a surge of energy after eating it -- I certainly did when gobbling some after a long day on the river without lunch. Now that açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) products are beginning to appear in health-food stores around the world, this berry offers new hope that development in the Amazon can become something more than a sad choice between environmental ruin and continuing poverty.

My boat mate, Travis Baumgardner, a 31-year-old Texan who came to Rio to study environmental geography and now runs Brazilian operations for the U.S. company Sambazon, believes açaí will prove to the people of the Amazon, in cold cash, that it's more lucrative to leave the rainforest standing than to chop it down to raise cattle or soybeans. That's why this boat ride is more than a trip into the past -- it's a journey toward a sustainable future.

Sambazon is part of a new wave of entrepreneurial companies seeking to promote ecological restoration and economic justice as an integral part of their business -- a concept known as "market-driven conservation." Together these firms -- which also include Guayakí (maté drinks), Manitoba Harvest (hemp foods), Adina World Beat Beverages (fruit drinks), Jungle Products (oils from tropical plants) and others -- hope to push the natural-foods industry "beyond organic." Rather than simply rejecting dubious practices like chemical pesticides and genetic modification, they are seeking to create products that actually make a positive contribution to the environment and local communities as part of how they are harvested and manufactured.

Launched in 2000, Sambazon sells açaí throughout North America, Europe and Brazil in the form of ready-to-drink smoothies, frozen packets, powder and capsules. The company was honoured last November with an Award for Corporate Excellence for U.S. businesses operating abroad by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The other winners were General Motors and Goldman Sachs. But Sambazon operates by quite a different set of principles than do most corporations. Company executives are proud to declare they purchase açaí from co-ops and growers at higher prices than those paid by the usual brokers and they pay workers at Sambazon's new fruit-processing plant in Macapá, near the mouth of the Amazon, three times the prevailing local wage. The firm also makes special efforts to help small farmers become certified as organic (an expensive and complicated ordeal for poor people unaccustomed to paperwork).

Sambazon founder Ryan Black, 32, a former professional U.S. football player for the Minnesota Vikings who first encountered açaí on an off-season surfing trip to Brazil, sees market-driven conservation as the next logical step for the booming organic industry. "We want to give something back as part of the production process. We want positive change to be engineered in how we do business."

He believes this can help bring democracy to the marketplace. "It means giving people what they want -- a chance to vote with their dollars. People can become policymakers, spending their money on the future they want to see."

That's an ambitious mission for any company, let alone one run by people who were not even born when Earth Day first dawned in 1970. But they are winning the support of respected figures in the fields of ecology and business. Meindert Brouwer -- a consultant working with the World Wildlife Fund and Hivos, the Dutch sustainable-development institute, who is the author of a forthcoming book about rainforest initiatives, Amazon Your Business -- says, "Sambazon is doing a great job. The açaí is harvested in an ecologically sound way. When they started they involved local NGOs, which has helped the local producers. These guys are quite young, and are an example of young entrepreneurs who are doing things differently. They represent a new generation of business."

Brouwer foresees this emerging "beyond organic" movement will become influential because it fits directly with a number of other business trends that he observes:

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Air Travel Is Killing the Planet

Global warming is now at the top of world concerns as scientists, politicians and everyday citizens ponder how to take immediate action against this slow-burning crisis. Yet British environmental activist Mark Lynas warns that all our success in conserving energy and using new fuels might be overwhelmed by a major greenhouse problem no one talks about: air travel.

"We could close every factory, lock away every car and turn off every light in the country," he writes in New Statesman about Britain's ambitious goals to cut carbon use, "but it won't halt global warming if we carry on taking planes as often as we do."

Lynas is referring to a report from the respected Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, which notes that if the UK's annual 12 percent rise in air travel continues until 2050, the resulting increase in carbon dioxide (a leading cause of the greenhouse effect) would overwhelm progress in every other sector. Indeed, factoring in the projected growth of air travel, carbon emissions would have to be reduced to zero in manufacturing, ground transportation and private households to meet the British government's 2050 green goals.

The story is the same in most other countries where the rise of budget airlines and globalizing businesses along with steady increases in tourism, immigration and people's innate curiosity to see the world add up to more air passengers every year. Globally, air travel has increased 9 percent annually for the past 40 years, notes the French magazine Alternatives Économiques.

I am, I confess, part of this problem. I never set foot on an airliner until age 23 but now I fly as many as 10 times a year for work and vacation. I think of myself as an environmentally conscious person -- riding my bike for most trips around town and trying to recycle every last scrap in the house. Yet a look at the Atmosfair website (www.atmosfair.de) is sobering. The round-trip journey from my home in Minneapolis to the Ode office in the Netherlands (which I make several times a year) creates 4,560 kilograms (5 tons) of carbon dioxide.

While that sounds bad enough, Atmosfair (a joint project of German environmental groups and travel agencies) informs me that this is equivalent to the carbon output for the entire year for five people in India. As for my conscientious bike riding, well, one transatlantic round-trip flight contributes to global warming at twice the rate of driving a medium-sized car 12,000 kilometres (7,500 miles) a year. And the U.S. green group Natural Resources Defense Council notes carbon isn't even the whole problem -- nitrogen dioxide and water-vapour emissions from jetliners also worsen the greenhouse effect.

What are travellers, especially ones whose livelihoods depend on frequent flying, to do? Atmosfair and other websites will calculate the carbon output of your flying (or driving or home-energy use) and offer you the chance to offset these environmental costs with a donation to various projects that eliminate greenhouse gases. Al Gore, who constantly jets around the world to draw attention to the problem of global warming, told National Geographic Traveler magazine, "I buy offsets for every bit of it... My wife and I put money into a project in India that substitutes highly efficient solar units at $300 (240 euros) a pop for very dirty kerosene burners, which verifiably reduces a lot of C02."

Climate Care, a British non-profit group, will offset the C02 of my U.S.-Netherlands trip for about $10 (8 euros). (Carbon calculation is still a new idea and there is some discrepancy on the price of my carbon "bill" between various websites; Climate Care came in the cheapest.) Its projects range from funding energy-conservation programs in Kazakhstan and South Africa to providing efficient cooking stoves in Honduras and Madagascar to backing reforestation initiatives in Uganda.

GreenSeat, a Rotterdam-based organization that also calculates carbon use and offers an offset program, is mounting an international petition campaign urging air carriers and travel agents to include a carbon-offsetting option as part of the standard ticketing procedure.

Meanwhile, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is cutting emissions by boosting fuel efficiency. By running engines only when necessary, reducing the weight of onboard supplies and other strategic measures, it now averages 28 kilometres per litre (66 miles per gallon) of jet fuel per passenger, which is better than other airlines and even tops most motorists driving alone in their cars.

Alternatives Économiques draws attention to the fact that jet fuel, unlike gasoline used in cars and buses, is not taxed anywhere in the world except the Netherlands. This means that other airlines have less incentive to improve fuel efficiency, and the price passengers pay for tickets does not reflect the environmental costs of flying.

Richard Branson, the brash entrepreneur behind Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Rail, hopes to make air travel more sustainable by investing up to $1 billion U.S. (790 million euros) in what he calls, of course, Virgin Fuel. "It'll be a clean fuel," he told Business 2.0 magazine. "And if we've got it right, it could be a very important breakthrough. We think this fuel will work in cars and trucks and trains within a year. And we're hoping that it might work in commercial jet engines within five years." Branson's Virgin Rail is also helping the situation with its new high-speed rail service between London and Manchester, which is luring many travelers out of plane seats, reports the Guardian.

While most people are not likely to stop flying, many in the environmental movement and even the travel industry question our overreliance on airplanes for trips that might more sensibly be made by other means of transportation. Mark Ellingham, founder of the popular Rough Guide travel handbooks, advocates that travellers "fly less often and stay longer." In the vacation-strapped U.S., for instance, surveys show that people now take many long-weekend trips by air rather than going on one- or two-week holidays. That obviously creates far more greenhouse gases.

Ellingham advocates a Slow Travel movement, along the lines of the Slow Food movement, in which people savour their vacation experiences. "Travelling slower gives you a sense of place," he told Sierra magazine. "Trains give you the chance to talk to people, to see a landscape unfold."

The growing network of high-speed trains across Europe, Japan, Korea and Taiwan offer a vision of the future in which planes are used mainly for overseas and long-distance journeys, not short hops from Amsterdam to Paris, or Toronto to Montreal. The world's high-speed rail leaders, France and Japan, are developing trains that travel 350 kilometres (220 miles) an hour. China has unveiled a maglev (magnetic levitation) train that reaches 500 kilometres (310 miles) an hour, whisking passengers between central Shanghai and PuDong airport 30 kilometres (20 miles) away. Construction is slated to begin soon on a 160-mile maglev line between Shanghai and Hangzhou.

Inspired by the success of the European and Asian trains, many other nations across the world, including Mexico, Brazil and Israel, are planning their own high-speed rail networks. Amtrak, the U.S. rail system, last year unveiled its Acela Express train, which hits a top speed of 150 miles (95 kilometres) per hour from Washington to New York to Boston.

Even the most time-pressed business travellers are finding that air travel is not so speedy these days when you figure in congested roads on the way to the airport and long lines at security gates. Flying has become increasingly inconvenient and uncomfortable in recent years so that now trains and buses, once regarded as old-fashioned and low class, seem luxurious in comparison. Airport hassles have spawned a new generation of comfortable, non-stop, intercity bus services such as Megabus and Lux Bus America in the U.S. -- a development no one saw coming a few years ago.

A picture of green transportation for the future would let us choose -- depending on our needs and the nature of our trips -- between clean-fuel cars, comfortable buses, fast trains and planes using less fuel and creating fewer emissions -- as well as the option for business travellers of not leaving home at all, and meeting instead by video conference.

Is Water the Best Medicine?

In 1979, when the ayatollahs in Iran seized power from the shah, the Iranian doctor Fereydoon Batmanghelidj -- like many other intellectuals -- ended up in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. One night, he found himself tending a fellow prisoner suffering from an acute and extremely painful stomach ulcer. Unfortunately, no medicines were available. In an effort to help, Batmanghelidj gave the inmate two glasses of water. Within 10 minutes, the man's pain disappeared. That incident would prove to be a turning point in Batmanghelidj's career.

After he was released, Batmanghelidj fled Iran in 1982 and immigrated to the United States. There, he began to write articles and books based on his belief that water might play a greater role in our bodies' health than anyone had realized. A summary of his ideas became the editorial article in the June 1983 issue of the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, and were reported on in The New York Times Science section. In his 1999 book Your Body's Many Cries for Water, Batmanghelidj explains that water regulates all body functions.

Our cells need water to transport proteins and enzymes to nerve endings. Water also acts as adhesive material between cells and transports sugars for energy. If the body becomes dehydrated, a water-rationing process kicks in. The brain is first in line to receive available water, followed by the kidneys and liver. After that, it's every organ for itself. Because of that, Batmanghelidj -- who died of pneumonia in 2004 -- thinks dehydration may be a cause of many types of degenerative diseases, like asthma, arthritis, hypertension, angina, diabetes (type 2), lupus and multiple sclerosis. How is it possible that wealthy Western people are dehydrated?

It turns out that most of what we drink -- tea, coffee, soft drinks and alcohol -- dehydrates the body. Coffee and alcohol in particular rob our bodies of fluids, which explains the dry throat we experience after a pub crawl and the advice we hear to drink a glass of water for every cup of coffee. According to the prevailing wisdom, a dry throat alone is not a good indicator of thirst. Batmanghelidj also believes the body lets us know we're thirsty by creating pain. His message is clear: Dehydration may be at the root of many sicknesses. And dehydration can be avoided.

Batmanghelidj is not the only one who believes that. Peter Ragnar, the American author of 17 books on health and longevity, supports the concept of "medicine water." He believes Alzheimer's disease could be the result of long-term dehydration of the brain. "People are not demented, only thirsty," says Ragnar. At least 80 percent of the brain is water. According to Ragnar, reducing the amount of fluid available to our brains by just two percent makes our short-term memory so muddled that we can't remember the names of friends or where we left our keys. Judging from the lifestyles of people in the West, Ragnar concludes that at least 75 percent may be dehydrated.

Under normal circumstances, everyone loses three to four litres (a gallon) of fluids a day. In order to replenish the supply, we have to drink some 80 percent of that (20 percent of the needed water generally comes from what we eat). Don't wait until we're thirsty, we are advised. Thirst, after all, is a sign that our bodies are experiencing an acute water shortage. Water straight from the tap does the trick, according to some. Others say we need filtered or distilled water to avoid flooding our bodies with toxins. The jury is still out. Polluted water obviously burdens the body, but so might water that has been completely purified and may lack key minerals. But wait: If disease can be prevented so easily, why hasn't the message reached the public? The explanation may be found in the way scientific research is conducted. The "random, double-blind, placebo-controlled" studies meant to establish the value of a particular medical intervention are expensive.

And who will finance this costly research into the potentially healing effects of water if water can't be patented and therefore is not commercially attractive to the pharmaceutical industry? No answer is in sight. In the meantime, the message seems clear: Drinking more water may be an inexpensive and painless way to safeguard our health.

A Court That Countries Have to Answer to

The plight of 5-year-old Tabitha Kaniki Mitunga sparked international controversy in 2002 when Belgian officials detained her alone at an immigration centre for two months. Tabitha was then deported back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she found no family members waiting for her at the airport. Imagine how terrifying all this felt to a little girl hardly old enough to read.

This sad story began at the Brussels airport when immigration officers determined Tabitha did not possess the appropriate papers to enter Belgian territory. She was traveling from the Congo with her uncle, a Dutch citizen, who was looking after her until she could join her mother, who had moved from the Congo to Canada as a refugee. The uncle soon returned to the Netherlands. After news of Tabitha's detention and deportation spread, the Belgian and Canadian prime ministers finally intervened so the girl could be reunited with her mother in Montreal. But this happy ending doesn't wash away the cold facts of the case. How could a small child be treated that way? We can only throw up our hands, and bemoan the lack of compassion and common sense shown by bureaucrats rigidly following their rule books.

But Tabitha's mother did something more than that. Because the incident happened in Europe, Pulcherie Mubilanzila Mayeka was able to bring her daughter's grievance before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) -- a special judicial body upholding the European Convention on Human Rights, a 1950 treaty now signed by 46 nations.

On a sunny morning this winter, Mubilanzila Mayeka sat quietly beside her Belgian lawyer at the European Court of Human Rights headquarters in Strasbourg, France, as judges from Cyprus, Norway, Azerbaijan, Luxembourg, Croatia, Greece and Russia considered her case. Tabitha's family charged that Belgian officials violated Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment), Article 5 (right to liberty and security), Article 8 (respect for private family life) and Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the European human-rights treaty. An attorney for the Belgian government wearing formal dark robes and accompanied by five colleagues nervously tried to explain why this case, although out of the ordinary, defied no sections of the treaty. Outside the courtroom, Tabitha -- in pigtails, white tights, and a bright new jumper -- bounced around the lobby with the energy that only an 8-year-old can muster.

Tabitha, her family and Belgian immigration authorities are now awaiting the court's decisions. So are government officials throughout Europe, who may need to revise their own regulations and practises in light of the court's findings in this case.

The European Court of Human Rights is like no other court in the world, starting with the building itself. While most courts aim to impress or even intimidate you with their dignity and decorum, the ECHR is brashly different. At first sight, it looks like a children's museum, with see-through walls and playful swirls of metal tubing painted bright red, blue and white. Glass is the court's overriding architectural theme; even the stairs are fashioned from thick blocks of it, obviously making a statement about transparency in legal proceedings.

Even more unique is the basic premise of the court: that individuals have the right to bring human-rights cases before these judges if they believe that justice has not been served in national courts -- even going so far as to challenge the rulings of their own governments. Equally startling is the way the court works: Judges from across Europe pass judgment on the actions or laws of a nation, and that nation must abide by their ruling. This seems astonishing in an era when the world's dominant power, the United States, acts as though it is not bound by any treaty or convention, and routinely defies judgments of international bodies.

The ECHR can actually set policy for all of Europe, as happened last year in the case of British environmental activists convicted of libel in UK courts for passing out a flyer at a McDonald's restaurant. Deciding the flyer's assertions that McDonald's exploits its workers and sells unhealthy food defamed the global fast-food chain, British courts ordered the activists to pay the corporation 40,000 pounds (59,000 euros; $70,000 U.S.) in damages.

After years of unsuccessfully contesting the decision in the British court system, the two activists brought their case to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in February 2005 that the McLibel case, as it came to be known, violated the European human-rights treaty's guarantees of freedom of expression and right to a fair trial. The British government was directed to pay the activists 57,000 pounds (84,000 euros; $100,000 U.S.) in compensation. But the impact of the ruling goes far beyond that. The ECHR's judges held that British libel laws restrict people's rights to criticize corporations. The UK government is now obliged to reform its laws, and so will any other of the 45 European nations with similar limits on free expression in their law books.

The European Court of Human Rights has jurisdiction over every corner of Europe except the Vatican and notoriously corrupt Belarus. It plays a powerful role in creating continent-wide minimum standards on a wide range of issues ranging from freedom of religion and election procedures to property rights and family law.

Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights can be credited with transforming European society on a number of issues:

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The Real Thing Is Getting So Hard to Find

Victoria Beckham, also known to the world as Posh of the Spice Girls, was giving a performance for fans in Birmingham, England, and accidentally dropped the microphone. Her voice, however, continued ringing out of the speakers as if by magic. But it wasn't magic; Posh was lip-synching to a pre-recorded track. As if that weren't insincere enough, the lip ring she wore also turned out to be fake. Posh hadn't really pierced herself like so many of her young fans... she just wanted them to think so.

It's difficult to know what's real anymore. Politicians deceive us. Corporations cover up misdeeds with frothy PR. Photoshop makes it simple to fake photographs. Breast implants and facelifts are as common as Band-Aids.

This is nothing new. The pages of history are filled with stories of fraud going back at least as far as the Trojan Horse. The difference today is that high-powered technology can manipulate reality and disseminate falsehoods on a scale never before seen.

In response to this onslaught, it's easy to become cynical about almost everything. Yet rather than throwing up our hands and accepting a world that feels faux, many of us are rolling up our sleeves to maintain what's honest in our lives. American social scientist Paul Ray calls this as a historic social development. "Authenticity is so much in demand today," he declares.

Ray became fascinated by the subject through his research on "cultural creatives"--a sizable segment of the population he has identified who share common values about the environment, social justice, creative expression and personal growth. After extensive interviews with numbers of them, Ray uncovered another trait cultural creatives hold in common: a drive for authenticity. This means living in a way that "your inner self matches your outer self," he says.

Veteran British journalist and trend spotter David Boyle also sees the emergence of a new social sensibility based upon "a determined rejection of the fake, the virtual, the spun and the mass-produced.

"There is an obsession on all levels about what is real and what is fake," he notes in a recent interview. "At its core it is a search for what's still human in business, in politics, in culture and in our own lives."

Boyle sees our growing yearning for authenticity as a factor in the recent boom of organic and local food, holistic medicine and socially responsible business. He also points to the worldwide success of the raw Detroit blues-rock duo The White Stripes, the resurgence of public poetry in the UK and the popularity of vintage fabrics from fashion designer Stella McCartney as precursors of a coming "authenticity revolution."

In his book Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life, Boyle describes nine kinds of values that inspire us to seek out what's genuine in the world: ethical, natural, honest, simple, unspun, sustainable, beautiful, rooted and human.

You see people everywhere making choices that once would have seemed surprising. Forgoing a fancy holiday to embark on an eco-travel adventure or a volunteer vacation helping out in a poor community. Skipping the mall in favor of funky furnishings and fashions from thrift stores or handicraft shops. Deciding against a new house on the edge of town to take part in revitalizing an older neighbourhood. Tuning out powerful entertainment conglomerates in order to discover avant-garde, locally made or exotic artistic alternatives. Steering clear of the high-flying corporate track for a lower-paying career with more satisfaction.

"People feel contradictions more sharply than a generation ago," Boyle explains. "They are less willing to work for a company they dislike, or invest their pensions there, or buy their products. Businesses know this, but it's hard for a company to actually be authentic when it is big, globalized and virtual."

As hard as it may be, embracing authenticity represents the wisest, brightest future for business, according to Neil Crofts--a former British publishing executive, race-car driver and corporate-strategy specialist who founded the Authentic Business website.

The key to authentic business, and an authentic life, in Crofts' view, is knowing that some things matter more than money. "If you are doing something you believe in passionately and it fits with your talents, you will always do it better and you will attract the support of others," he asserts. "You will not only make more money, you'll be happier."

Crofts sees Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and gear company, as a prime example. "Their customers are hardly customers; they're more like fans." He also singles out two rising British firms that graphically illustrate the rewards of authentic business -- Yeo Valley Organic yogurt and Cafédirect coffee.

Yeo Valley ranks fourth among UK yogurt producers with six percent of the market and spends 700,000 pounds ($1.3 million U.S. or a million euros) a year on marketing, according to Crofts. Muller, the top-selling British brand, meanwhile controls 36 percent of the market and spends 40 million pounds ($79 million U.S. or 59 million euros) on marketing. "That's almost 60 times as much money to sell six times as much yogurt," Crofts calculates, noting that Yeo Valley's good reputation and organic ingredients sell themselves.

Cafédirect -- which sells fair-trade coffee -- was seeking new investment recently and raised 5 million pounds ($8.8 million U.S. or 7.3 million euros) in just five weeks, all of it from their customers. Every one of these new shareholders, Crofts notes, signed a statement endorsing the company's social principles and half of them agreed to forgo any dividends in the short run. Imagine what great opportunities that kind of financial arrangement offers a growing business.

"Who said business has to be ruthless and competitive and corrupt?" Crofts asks. "Business exists to serve the needs of society. And this is not some kind of new message. It is part of the perennial philosophy of humanity. Look at Buddha. Look at Christ."

While the principles of authenticity are enduring, the concept itself is rather new. In researching a coming book on the subject, Paul Ray could trace the idea back no further than the 17th century. He credits Enlightenment mathematician and philosopher René Descartes with coining the term. Much later it was taken up by existentialist philosophers in France and Beat generation poets in the U.S., eventually being introduced into mainstream culture thanks to the social movements of the 1960s. "It first went public with the women's movement, which emphasized the need for authenticity in relationships and with the slogan 'the personal is political.' But it's easily traced back to the civil-rights movement, where they called it, 'walking your talk.'"

Some of the big debates of our era look different when viewed through the lens of authenticity. The controversy over gay rights and same-sex marriage, for instance, is not simply a moral debate but a question about whether a person should acknowledge or repress authentic feelings from within. The resurgent movements for human rights, global justice and ecological restoration are all inspired by people no longer willing to hide their feelings about what's going on in the world.

"After making its mark on psychology and the social movements, authenticity is now hitting business. The one place it hasn't hit yet is mainstream politics," Ray notes. "In fact, one reason why Al Gore and John Kerry lost [in U.S. presidential elections] is that people didn't perceive them as authentic." Ray, Crofts, and Boyle, in fact, all mention Al Gore's recent transformation. Now that he's speaking out boldly on global warming and other issues, Ray observes, "he comes across as convincingly authentic after seeming so inauthentic in his campaign."

"Humanity's continuing evolution," is how Ray explains the rising interest in authenticity throughout the modern world. "You have people now who want to keep developing through their whole lives. For most people through history the idea that you keep growing emotionally through your whole life was not known, except for maybe the upper classes. Authenticity is showing up now because we are ready for it."

Neil Crofts sees this growing quest for authenticity as a new form of spiritual expression. "There is a huge spiritual vacuum going on in our society, a crisis of meaning." This leads some people to throw themselves headfirst into consumerism. Others seek clarity and comfort in fundamentalism -- which gropes for a sense of authenticity by holding up the Bible, Koran or other all-encompassing philosophy as the supreme truth.

"But true authenticity is not based on dogma," Crofts says, " it's based on what's meaningful to you. It's based on our intuition. We know when we are doing the wrong thing. That's what guides us on our authentic journey."

The Untied States of America

Looking a half-century into the future, a maverick businessman warns that America may fall apart as a nation. He believes the U.S. can avoid this fate -- but that it will require some radical steps right now.

In 1950 the United Nations had 50 members. Today there are 191 U.N. member states. The vast majority of these new countries came from Africa, Asia and Europe. Only three countries (Surinam, Guyana and Belize) out of the 141 new ones came from the North and South American continents.

These are interesting facts to Juan Enriquez, an American businessman, bestselling author and former Harvard academic. In his new book, "The Untied States of America" (Crown, 2005), Enriquez warns of the coming disintegration of the United States and explores how that will affect the nation's status as the unparalleled superpower.

This is a challenging, controversial subject at a time in history when American power around the world appears supreme. The Soviet Union no longer stands as a military, political or economic rival now that capitalism has triumphed over communism. While America is increasingly affected by the fast economic rise of China, this challenge doesn't appear to threaten America's leadership in global politics. Americans dominate the world community today in the same way as the British did a century ago. But that comparison also contains a warning.

In the beginning of his book, Enriquez presents readers with an experiment. Imagine you're a member of the British cabinet in 1905. A world map hangs on the wall of the elegant conference room in Number 10 Downing Street delineating the greatest empire that has ever existed: an area encompassing nearly 30 million square kilometres (11.5 million square miles), 20 percent of the world's land and nearly one-quarter of the total human population. The question is: How will the world look in 50 years -- in 1955?

What would you have thought? Would Britain's territory expand? Stay the same size? Would there have been someone who could have conceived that the British Empire would completely fall apart between 1905 and 1955? That British territory would only comprise some 250,000 square kilometres (97,000 square miles) in 1955?

Imagine asking George W. Bush the same question now, in 2006. How will the United States look in 50 years? How many stars will the American flag have? Still 50? The chances of finding a prominent politician in Washington today who could imagine the disintegration of the United States seem miniscule. But readers of Enriquez's book realize it is in fact quite probable that America in 2056 will not be the same powerful country it is today. Based on a great deal of historical, financial, political and cultural data, Enriquez convincingly demonstrates that the future does not augur well for the unity of the United States.

While the title and the subject of his new book don't immediately indicate it, Enriquez is driven by his love of science. Enriquez set up the Life Sciences Project at the Harvard Business School, is chairman of Biotechonomy, a venture-capital fund specializing in biotechnology, and author of an earlier book on the same general subject, "As The Future Catches You."

That short biography explains why Enriquez was in attendance at the conference, "Celebrating a Decade of Genome Sequencing." This international summit on DNA research, genetics, biochemistry and biology took place in December at the University of California, San Diego, which heads global research in this area. Even the casual visitor quickly becomes aware that this is where the future of energy, food, health and computer science, and therefore of society itself, is generated, largely separate from politics, the media and ordinary citizens. The conference illustrates the crucial role prominent scientific research plays in a country's future success and its economic wealth. In the numerous PowerPoint presentations given by authorities in many fields, it becomes clear that technology offers enormous opportunities for the future, and that it is easy for some societies to miss the boat.

Enriquez knows that countries that emphasize the importance of science will be the future leaders. And he sees that the United States -- despite, for example, the leading position of the University of California, San Diego -- is increasingly losing ground. He believes this is a sign of America's waning strength. "The future depends on how you treat people today," he says, noting that the performance of the U.S. in this regard is not particularly great.

The U.S. national debt, topping $8 trillion, is a troubling illustration of the fact that the United States is squandering its future. "From time immemorial the last thing a government does is drive the country to bankruptcy," Enriquez observes. "You cannot spend five to six percent more than the country earns every year without serious consequences. It is not inconceivable that the U.S. will be running out of money."

It can be said that the U.S.'s per capita debt level, at around $27,500, is acceptable relative to that of other leading industrial nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). But the U.S. appears far different than other Western OECD nations when you look at other economic and social statistics. Enriquez mentions a few: The minimum wage has fallen by 37 percent since 1968 in terms of real dollars; 11 percent of Americans don't have enough to eat; in 2000 the federal government spent $2,106 on each American child while spending $21,120 on each person over age 65. Enriquez cites research indicating that if the U.S. government maintains its current policies, nearly half the budget will be spent on senior citizens by 2016. Hence his question: Do you invest in the future or in the past?

Within two generations, 40 percent of the American population will be comprised of African-Americans and Hispanics. Both groups continue to lag far behind whites and Asian-Americans in the educational system. Few graduate from college and even fewer get advanced degrees or become scientists. Countries like Finland, Iceland, Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Singapore are already surpassing the U.S. when it comes to scientific research. This causes Enriquez to say that without making significant investments in education for African-Americans and Hispanics, who will make up almost half the population by mid-century, America cannot maintain its current prominence in the sciences.

Not only is the U.S. failing to make vital national investments, it is allowing the national debt to increase as the Bush administration believes it can lower taxes at the same time as spending $200 million a day on the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Enriquez warns: "They spend everything trying to protect what they have today."

Enriquez is also seriously concerned about the conceit that characterizes current American politics. A lot of what the government does, he says, speaks of its conviction that "our way is the only way." This attitude goes hand in hand with an unhealthy blending of science and religion. "Religious beliefs are being manipulated to win elections," he observes.

A sound balance between science, religion and ethics forms an essential foundation for the healthy development of any society, Enriquez believes. And he is convinced that within this balance, attention to science determines a country's future level of wealth. He mentions that the British discovered DNA back in the 1950s and that British scientists laid the foundation for cloning. "But they failed to translate that science into business. They considered it inappropriate, unethical, to earn money on science. Just look where British science is now. Societies that make their football stars rich and their scientists poor are doomed."

A lot of large companies have broken into smaller units since the 1960s because they could no longer prove to their shareholders that the whole was worth more than the independent parts. Juan Enriquez predicts minorities will soon be asking nations the same questions. What is the benefit of this structure? Does this country represent our interests in the best way? "And those are questions that are hard to answer."

Borders are extremely abstract. You can't see them from space. Only islands have clear geographical boundaries. Countries are not natural structures and they are therefore kept together by flags and national anthems. Or -- in Enriquez's view -- by "myths." And the power of those myths goes as far as the next generation wants to believe in them. In other words: If the American dream comes true for ever-fewer Americans, the unity of the United States will come under increasing pressure. This is the point at which questions will naturally arise about whether there are other possible configurations that would give citizens a better shot at fulfilling their dreams.

But isn't America a stable country? Wasn't it founded based on one language and a clear set of principles? Enriquez delicately points out that the same was true for the United Kingdom, which is increasingly devolving into the separate nations of England, Scotland and Wales; and for Spain, where Basques and Catalans are hacking away at national unity. And, pointing to the history of the United States, he adds: "If the parents can split, the kids can split."

The early signs of American disintegration are already apparent, according to Enriquez. In the state of Vermont there is a small but serious separatist movement and a declaration of independence is being drawn up. States in the northeastern U.S. have formed an alliance to carry out the Kyoto climate agreement, which the Bush administration refuses to sign. And guess what's been the motto on Texas license plates since 2004? "It's like a whole other country." Texas earlier announced that all the state's schoolchildren would not only be saying their pledge of allegiance to the American flag, but to the flag of Texas. Finally, in an opinion poll, 42 percent of Texans came out in favour of more political autonomy for Texas as long as it could be arranged within the confederation of the United States.

Then there's California, the seventh-largest economy in the world, where a large part of the population -- including many Republican supporters of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- are extremely displeased with Washington's current conservative politics. California's independence is the subject of frequent jokes at parties and gatherings of the intelligentsia.

Native Americans are also stepping up demands for attention to the historical injustice that caused them to lose their land. Several current court cases are ongoing, for example, involving native peoples' claim to one-third of the land in the state of New York. Over the past 20 years, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have seen discussions about returning seized lands to native peoples as well as adjustments of the Terra nullius principle (that European pioneers appropriated no man's land). It's hard to imagine the United States will be spared a revisit of its history regarding Indian peoples. During his presidency, Bill Clinton already made excuses for the "illegal occupation" of Hawaii.

Enriquez adds another ticking time bomb in a P.S. to his book: "If slaves performed $40 million worth of unpaid labour between 1790 and 1860, reparations would be around $1.4 trillion."

In support of his thesis about American disintegration, Enriquez points to the example of the European Union. The economic umbrella of the EU makes it much easier for smaller entities to be independent. Broader trends of globalization also offer small countries advantages they didn't have. Despite their diminutive sizes, Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as Luxembourg and Switzerland, have been able to develop into extremely successful economic entities.

After making this sharp -- and when it comes to the United States, gloomy -- analysis, it is remarkable that Juan Enriquez writes at the end of his book that he doesn't want to be a preacher of doom. "My desire is simply that citizens ... realize what they have, what they are doing and what they might do differently if they wish to avoid what so many have already gone through," he writes.

Throughout "The Untied States of America," Enriquez offers suggestions for policy reforms which continually emphasize focusing on science and education for minorities as well as special-needs groups. Why should the Netherlands, for instance, be a leading global flower grower and trader when the climate is more suitable in other parts of the world? Dutch success stems from knowledge -- from specific, constant attention to science, and research and development. Enriquez points to Finland, which grew to become a digital superpower in the space of a single generation. And Iceland, which has expanded into a leading technological power thanks to massive investments in education. "You can build a great country when you change education and surf the waves of technology. You can make and unmake countries in months."

His most creative -- and most politically unfeasible -- solution for the United States involves a change in voting rights. In order to rectify the imbalance between the older and younger generations, Enriquez suggests giving parents voting rights on behalf of their underage children. This would mean that a family with four children and two adults would have six votes. The change would put an end to current policies that appropriate the most money to older people because they have the most votes. "If the votes of underage children counted, it would lead to investments in their interests. In good schools. The question is how much support there would be for going to war when the children would be sent off as soldiers."

That last suggestion embodies the bold message of "The Untied States of America." The future success of a country begins by paying attention to how we fulfill the long-term wishes and interests of its citizens today. These citizens of today determine the economic power of tomorrow. Economic power lies at the roots of the current superpower status of the U.S. Juan Enriquez points out that this economic superiority is swiftly being consumed with a policy of arrogant international politics and decadent consumerism. Such a policy has destroyed superpowers throughout history, Enriquez warns as the proverbial voice crying in the wilderness. But the information and ideas he outlines here do offer a pragmatic alternative to the Disunited States of the future.

One Is Not the Magic Number

Racism. Sexism. Terrorism. Fundamentalism. Totalitarianism. Individualism. Ask people what's wrong with the world and their answer will likely focus on some sort of "ism." Corporatism. Narcissism. Commercialism. Cronyism. The list goes on and on.

But I would like to bring up one more "ism," which I view as a huge source of our problems today: monoism. I don't think it's officially a word (Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia and my dictionary say no, while Google hints at some obscure religious meaning), yet I believe it's a powerful idea shaping and distorting modern society. Monoism, in my definition, means "the reckless and wrong-headed reduction of the intricate and often wondrous workings of the universe to a single factor, cause or outcome."

In other words, there's just one answer to any question. One solution to every problem. One happy ending for all stories. One genius behind every new idea or invention. The pervasive power of monoistic thinking leads many people to believe that the only point of business is profit. That the only purpose of education is to prepare kids for jobs. The only true god is the one in which they believe.

Even those of us who naturally resist oversimplifications like these are not free from the influence of monoism. It's been drilled into us since we were young -- at home, in school, all over the media. We've been trained to view the whole world with the same pinpoint precision as a scientist conducting experiments under carefully controlled conditions in a laboratory.

But a quick glance at some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the past century shows that, even in the clear-cut world of science, monoistic explanations -- a single sequence of events occurring in a measurable progression -- do not always describe how discoveries happen. Reality, it turns out, is often a bit messy.

Two research teams probing the mystery of DNA both independently came up with the double helix idea at nearly the same time. Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues at the Los Alamos lab barely beat Nazi scientists in developing the atomic bomb. And, as everyone knows, neither Al Gore nor any other single individual invented the internet. (To be fair, Gore never actually made that claim.)

Monoism can be traced back at least as far as the Enlightenment of the 18th Century, which instilled in the Western world the idea that the universe functions like a machine. And it probably goes way back to ancient times when monotheism first asserted there was only one god -- and anyone who thought otherwise was sinfully wicked. Monoistic thinking is destructive because it imposes an artificial one-dimensional structure of reality upon us, promoting the misconception that linear cause and effect can explain everything we need to know.

Take cancer research as an example. For 50 years, we've spent billions investigating what substances cause the disease, testing them in isolation for their carcinogenic properties. Yet there's strong evidence that cancer often arises from a combination of exposures, meaning the monoistic model of tracing the effects of one chemical at a time is inadequate in protecting us from the disease.

You need only look to nitroglycerine, an explosive created by combining two relatively harmless compounds, to see the fallacy of reducing things to their smallest parts in order to understand their impact. Or ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogen used by Indians of the Amazon in religious ceremonies that is made from the roots of two rainforest plants, neither of which has much effect when ingested alone.

Indeed, monoism can be found at the root of many other troublesome "isms" haunting our world, like racism (the single-minded focus on race as an indicator of human worth) or fundamentalism (a fixation on one set of beliefs as the absolute truth). All of these "isms" offer a narrow formulation of how the universe operates, blinding us to the diverse and fascinating glory of the world in which we live.

Taking the Bite Out of the Flu

Homeopathy may be more effective than flu shots. In the deadly flu outbreak of 1918, patients treated with homeopathy had much higher survival rates.

Not only is the avian flu front-page news, but clinics and doctors are warning us about the dangers of the common flu. Posters and leaflets, ads and articles urge us to get our shots, the pressure greater than usual with the ominous bird flu looming.

In Great Britain, a National Health Service leaflet says, "If you knew about the flu, you'd get the jab." But the British environmental magazine The Ecologist (October 2005) can't help wondering if that's really the case: "If people truly knew about flu, and the lack of effectiveness of the vaccine being offered as protection, would they really be so obedient about getting the jab?"

Last September, a report in the American Medical Association journal Archives of Internal Medicine dropped a bombshell: Although immunization rates in those over 65 have increased 50 percent in the past 20 years, there has been no decline in flu-related deaths. One reason is that hundreds of flu viruses can be circulating at any time.

Nevertheless, every February, scientists at the World Health Organization meet to define the three that are likely to cause the most misery the following winter. The viruses they choose are included in that year's vaccine. But in the months between formulating the vaccine and administering it, the viruses -- which constantly evolve and mutate -- may have changed, or new ones may emerge.

Flu experts often get it wrong. In 1994, for example, they predicted that Texas, Shangdong and Panama viruses would be prevalent, so millions of people were vaccinated against those strains. However, when winter arrived, entirely different strains were circulating through schools, offices and households worldwide.

Even if the vaccine contains the right strains, not everyone responds by producing the antibodies that fend off the flu. As many as 40 percent of people over age 65, for example, do not respond to vaccination. Last year the U.S. Centers for Disease Control funded research on health-care workers in Colorado. Results showed virtually the same percentage of people suffered from influenza-like illnesses whether they were vaccinated or not, leaving researchers to conclude that the vaccine "was not effective or had very low effectiveness."

Ineffectiveness is not the only thing to worry about when getting a flu shot. Alternative Medicine (October 2005) lists the typical ingredients in a vaccine: Aluminum hydroxide (associated with Alzheimer's and seizures), thimerosal (a mercury-based neurotoxin linked to ADHD and autism) and phenol (a human carcinogen) are among the substances added. This has caused some people to ask whether vaccines might do more harm than good.

Do we have alternatives? During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed up to 50 million people worldwide, homeopathic physicians in the United States reported very low mortality rates among their patients, while flu patients treated by conventional physicians faced mortality rates of around 30 percent. Dr. W.A. Dewey gathered data from homeopathic physicians treating flu patients around the country in 1918 and published his findings in the Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy in 1920. Homeopathic physicians in Philadelphia, for example, reported a mortality rate of just over 1 percent for the more than 26,000 flu patients they treated during the pandemic.

Today, a number of homeopathic remedies for the flu are available, including oscillo, or oscillococcinum, which has been shown to shorten the duration of symptoms when taken within 48 hours of onset. Homeopaths have been given this remedy since 1925. Interestingly, it's made from the heart and liver of ducks, which carry flu viruses in their digestive tracts.

"Based on clinical studies, homeopathy produces some of the fastest results in relieving flu symptoms," says Dana Ullman, MPH, the author of nine books on homeopathic medicine. In addition to trying oscillo, Ullman suggests considering influenzinum 9C, a homeopathic preparation of the three newest flu viruses obtained from the Pasteur Institute in France. Although not definitively shown to prevent the flu, it is a popular protocol in Europe. Finally, Ullman advises visiting a homeopath for a specific constitutional remedy in preparation for flu season. Other homeopathic flu remedies, depending upon one's symptoms, include gelsemium, bryonia, aconitum, monkshood, nux vomica, eupatorium perfoliatum, rhus toxicodendron (poison ivy) and arsenicum album.

While there's no evidence yet that homeopathic remedies can prevent the flu, they seem to be very useful in treating the flu. And they're less aggressive that the usual injections. The people now targeted for shots -- the elderly, young and immune compromised -- are those least able to withstand a systemic chemical assault.

Research also consistently shows that people of lower socioeconomic status are at higher risk for a wide range of infectious diseases. The Ecologist wonders whether "vaccines are endorsed as a remedy for so many things that are too complicated (like better hygiene) or too expensive (like winter-proof housing) for the government to fix."

So, now that the flu season is here, what should you do? Homeopathic remedies might help. But Alternative Medicine offers the most startling solution of all: Get sick. "From a naturopathic point of view, getting the actual flu may not be such a bad thing -- that is, if you are relatively healthy -- because it will make you more resistant to the flu later in life. Also, getting the flu is an opportunity for the body to detoxify."

For those who are less healthy -- with conditions like diabetes, asthma, pulmonary disease, emphysema, frequent pneumonia or impaired immunity -- less invasive, more natural ways to "fight" the flu might be prescribed. Sometimes the simplest preventive actions yield the most immediate results: Wash your hands, get enough sleep, eat your fruits and vegetables, exercise and avoid stress.

A Heretic for Our Times

Walking to the home of maverick scientist Rupert Sheldrake in Hampstead -- London's cozy but glamorous artistic village that's been home to John Keats, George Orwell, D.H. Lawrence and, more recently, novelist John LeCarre and actress Emma Thompson -- I am not surprised to find that his plain brick house looks out on Hampstead Heath. This famous (and still remarkably wild) expanse of grasslands and groves was the spot where Keats met William Wordsworth for long rambles, discussing the passions and ideas that would be immortalized in their Romantic poetry. Sheldrake, one of the world's leading spokesmen for a more holistic and democratic vision of science, might easily be grouped with the Romantics, except that his insights about the world are based on empirical research rather than poetic feelings.

Sheldrake's bold theories about how the universe works sparked controversy in 1981 with the publication of A New Science of Life. Actually it wasn't the book itself that brought Sheldrake's ideas to prominence but an incendiary editorial by the editor of the respected British journal Nature, Sir John Maddox, who fumed, "This infuriating tract…is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years." That was quite a lot of attention for a young scientist, especially one who at that time was working as a plant physiologist in India.

What so infuriated Maddox was Sheldrake's theory of "morphic resonance" -- a complicated framework of ideas proposing that nature relies upon its own set of memories, which are transmitted through time and space via "morphic fields". The theory holds that these fields, which operate much like electrical or magnetic fields, shape our entire world. A panda bear is a panda bear because it naturally tunes into morphic fields containing storehouses of information that define and govern panda bears. The same with pigeons, platinum atoms, and the oak trees on Hampstead Heath, not to mention human beings. This theory, if widely accepted, would turn our understanding of the universe inside out -- which is why Sheldrake has so often felt the wrath of orthodox scientists.

For the past 20 years, he has pursued further research on morphic fields even though no university or scientific institute would dare hire him. Much of his empirical explorations focus on unsolved phenomenon such as how pigeons and other animals find their way home from great distances, why people experience feelings in amputated limbs, why some people and animals can sense that someone is staring at them. He believes morphic resonance may offer answers to these questions.

His experimentation has been underwritten by freethinking funders like the late Lawrence Rockefeller and the Institute of Noetic Sciences, founded by Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell. Through the years Sheldrake has supported his family largely through lecture tours, which draw curious crowds around the world, and a series of books exploring various aspects of what is often called "New Science." He's written on ecological, spiritual, and philosophical themes, as well as a manifesto on how science could be democratized (Seven Experiments that Could Change the World) and a bestseller on animal behavior (Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home). His current research involves thousands of rigorously empirical tests probing the existence of telepathy. John Maddox nonetheless has continued to accuse him of "heresy," saying he should be "condemned in exactly the same language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo."

'Science is the last unreformed institution'

When Sheldrake answers the door, I find a tall, surprisingly youthful man in a golf shirt and Birkenstock sandals with socks who hardly seems a menacing troublemaker out to destroy civilization as we know it. He welcomes me into his home, which wonderfully fits my expectations of what a slightly bohemian biologist's house should look like: shells, antlers, giant pinecones, fossils and exotic-looking houseplants on display in comfy rooms also filled with books, art, musical instruments, oriental carpets and a few patches of peeling paint. Upstairs is his office, which overflows with scientific journals and papers, and a spacious library room crammed with books on every conceivable subject. A corner of the library houses a small laboratory, which was recently commandeered by his teenage sons as a computer center.

It's a gorgeous sunny morning and Sheldrake suggests we sit in the backyard, which looks to me like a mini-botanical garden. It turns out that I am visiting on a rather momentous occasion. His three-year appointment to an research post at Trinity College in Cambridge will be announced today. It marks a homecoming of sorts to the place where he studied as an undergraduate, earned a Ph.D. and was named a Fellow of Clare College for seven years, where he served as Director of Studies in Biochemistry and Cell Biology.

I ask if his appointment signals a growing tolerance of outspoken ideas in science. Not quite, he explains. It's a unique endowment created in the memory of Fredric Myers, a Fellow of Trinity College who was fascinated by psychic phenomena, although today it is generally awarded to researchers out to debunk the existence of such phenomena. "But it does mean I will be getting a salary for the first time in 25 years and money to do my research," he says with a sincere grin.. "But in the field of biology the holistic approach I advocate is more remote than ever. Funding drives most research toward biotech projects."

"Science is the last unreformed institution in the modern world today," he adds in a matter-of-fact rather than harsh tone. "It's like the church before the Reformation. All decisions are made by a small powerful group of people. They're authoritarian, entrenched, well-funded and see themselves as a priesthood."

Sheldrake's views are widely shared by many people -- indeed by so many that it's seen as a looming problem in Britain and Europe as the public increasingly looks upon science as a tool of corporations and big government, not an institution that benefits average citizens. Kids seem less inclined to pursue careers in the field and taxpayers are growing reluctant about financing research.

"If science were more responsive to democratic input, this would look different," he says. He points out that popular programs on television dealing with scientific themes focus primarily on four topics that interest people: 1) alternative medicine; 2) ecological issues; 3) animals; and 4) parapsychology. But very little scientific funding goes toward research in these areas. He wonders what would happen if people could participate in choosing the kind of research they fund with their tax money?

That's the idea behind Sheldrake's recent proposal to let the public vote on how to spend one percent of the overall science budget -- an idea greeted with even more horror than morphic resonance in some scientific circles. But other scientists are giving it serious consideration as a way to win back the public's trust.

More than a symbolic gesture, this would actually add up to quite a sum of money to initiate interesting new research that the scientific establishment won't sanction. Sheldrake notes that independent scientists, including Charles Darwin, have been responsible for many important breakthroughs because they probe for answers in ways quite different than their well-funded peers in universities, research institutes or corporations. But looking around Britain today the only other independent scientific researcher Sheldrake can think of is James Lovelock, who conceived the revolutionary Gaia Hypothesis, which posits that the earth is a living organism.

The power of public participation

Public participation is essential to Sheldrake's own research because otherwise he couldn't afford to do it. Right now he's enlisting people worldwide to study email telepathy ( the ability to know who's emailing before you get a message). His website (www.sheldrake.org) offers all the details necessary to conduct your own telepathy experiments and to report the findings.

Eighty percent of the population reports experiences with telephone telepathy (email telepathy's older cousin), he explains. In the controlled experiments he's conducted, where subjects choose which of four close friends is phoning, they're right 42 percent of the time -- significantly higher than the 25 percent that would occur by random chance.

"I think we all have a capacity for telepathy," Sheldrake notes. "But it is really a function of close social bonds. It doesn't happen with total strangers. At least not in an experimental setting. And of course some people have a better sense of telepathy than others, just the same as with the sense of smell." He hopes the on-line experiments can identify individuals with particularly strong telepathic skills, who can then be studied further.

"What I am interested in are the mysteries of everyday life -- a lot of these simple things are not being investigated," Sheldrake says staring up at the sunny sky with that "lost-in-thought" look you typically associate with scientists. A few moments later he pulls his attention back in my direction, smiles apologetically and continues. "I prefer to explore things that people know in their lives or the lives of their friends. I am interested in science that is rooted in people's experience. Indeed, the word empirical means experience."

By now the two of us have been talking in his garden for several hours and Sheldrake picks up a garden hose to water several tall exotic-looking plants. I meanwhile silently marvel at the tenacity he's shown in keeping his research going all these years and the gentle spirit he possesses in the face of hostility toward his work. John Maddox has said he practices "magic instead of science" yet Sheldrake brings up Maddox with almost fondness -- perhaps because the scathing editorial in Nature turned The New Science of Life into a bestseller and launched Sheldrake's career as an independent scientist.

It's time for me to go, and a taxi is honking in front of the house to take me to Paddington Station, but I must squeeze in one more question. "How do you refresh yourself, renew your creativity and stay calm in the face of so much criticism?" Sensing my anxiety about missing the train, he efficiently ticks off three answers in the methodical manner you'd expect from a former science whiz kid. "One. Playing the piano, usually Bach. Two. Meditating. Three. Taking walks, usually out on the heath."

After a hearty handshake I jump into to the cab and, watching Hampstead Heath disappear through the back window, decide that I sold Rupert Sheldrake short earlier today. Comparing him to fellow Heath hikers Keats and Wordsworth, I viewed Sheldrake as a cool and rational man of science while they were warm and passionate poets. But I can see now that, even as a dedicated scientist, Sheldrake possesses a poetic imagination in how he thinks about the world and how he lives his life.

Car Trouble

I am sitting in the back of a motionless taxi on the way from New York's JFK airport to a meeting in the city. It's a blazing hot morning. A preview of global warming, I wonder? I felt vaguely guilty about hailing a cab to research a story on innovative ideas in transportation, especially when I knew that a new train connection from the airport had recently opened, but I didn't want to be late for my appointment. Yet now here I am stuck in traffic, and it isn't even rush hour.

My taxi driver, recently arrived from India, knows a few tricks. He edges the cab toward an exit ramp and then barrels along city streets for a few blocks before heading back onto a slightly less congested stretch of the expressway. His radio is tuned to traffic reports -- a long litany of pile-ups, closed lanes, construction delays, or inexplicable slowdowns on most major roads. "It's one big parking lot out there," the announcer says, and I suddenly feel an exhaust-induced burning at the back of my throat.

"How's that new Air Train to the airport?" I casually ask the driver just after he'd swerved off the expressway again and nearly sideswiped a hapless pedestrian who dared to cross the street. "People don't want to take trains," he declares in a voice that clearly indicates this portion of our conversation is over. We fight endless tides of traffic all the way to Manhattan. Sixty minutes and $45 later, I arrive at the offices of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) 38 minutes late.

I sometimes find it hard to believe there could be any more cars in the world than there are today. Yet if economic forecasts are to be believed, auto use will rise dramatically in coming years as emerging middle-class households in China, India and even Africa achieve the universal dream of owning their own means of transportation.

People everywhere are enraptured by the idea of speedy personal mobility that automobiles seem to offer -- a love affair best evoked in an anecdote told by Song Laoshi, a teacher in Beijing, to a journalist from the Guardian: "When I was a child, we used to walk miles to the nearest road and then just stand and wait. You will never guess why. We wanted a car to pass so that we could breathe in the fumes. For us, that was really exciting."

"Of course everybody is fascinated by cars," says Walter Hook, executive director of ITDP, which promotes sustainable transportation projects throughout the developing world. "I am too. I just love those Cooper Minis. They're beautiful.

"But I don't buy this business that car culture is unstoppable," he adds. "Sure, people in the developing world dream of owning cars, but they also want beautiful public places, a metro, bike lanes, pedestrian zones and sidewalk cafes. What they want is to be Paris, not look like some American suburb."

Hook knows quite a lot about both suburban America -- where he grew up outside Washington, D.C., and at age 16 abandoned his bicycle for a fast car -- and the developing world, where he fell back in love with biking when working for an import-export firm in China. He now cycles through New York's heavy traffic most days, except when he's in Asia, Africa or Latin America advocating the idea of balanced transportation policies -- which means that governments invest in transit, sidewalks and bikeways, rather than pouring all their money into more roads.

Working with branch offices in Ghana and Senegal, an affiliate group in Berlin, and field staff in India, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil and Colombia, ITDP undertakes practical projects like equipping African health workers and tsunami relief volunteers with bicycles, promoting the rickshaw as a sustainable alternative to cars in Asian cities, and advising municipal officials everywhere on building 21st-century bus systems.

Hook emphasizes that sustainable transportation is not only an environmental concern, but a question of justice. "We need to remember that owning a car is out of reach for all but the upper 20 percent of people in the developing world," he notes. And when automobiles come to dominate a nation's streets, nonmotorists -- even if they comprise a large majority of the population -- suffer in terms of both mobility and safety. Walking and biking become too dangerous. Hook notes more than 50 percent of road fatalities in some developing nations are pedestrians.

"You can't just force people not to drive," Steven Logan, editor of Car Busters magazine, tells me as we sprint across a street in Prague where motorists actually seem to speed up when seeing us in the crosswalk. We are walking to the office of the World Carfree Network -- a collective of young Europeans and North Americans who publish Car Busters magazine and enthusiastically promote visions of a world with fewer automobiles.

"If someone in India wants a car, sure, I can tell them it's better to take a train," he adds, "But they can say, 'Yeah, you grew up with cars, and now you don't want me to have one.'"

Logan, 30, concedes he had his own car as a teenager in suburban Toronto and drove it to high school every day even though the school was only a short bike ride from home. But spending a semester abroad in Amsterdam, he discovered he could live a modern, fulfilling life without a car. "It was great. I biked everywhere," he recalls. "Then I went home to the suburbs of Toronto and found I was really depressed."

After several more harrowing encounters with Prague's burgeoning car culture, we arrive at the World Carfree Network office -- a cramped apartment in a modest neighborhood far from the picturesque center of the city that serves as the newsroom for Car Busters and world headquarters for a coalition of more than 50 sustainable-transportation groups in 27 countries on six continents.

"Our overall principle is that the automobile should not determine how we build our communities," says Network co-founder Randy Ghent, 32, a refugee from the auto-dominated suburbs of California. He detects signs of a post-car culture emerging from what's happening in Bogota, in the new virtually car-free neighborhoods created in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Edinburgh and Vienna, as well as a car-free community being discussed for the San Francisco Bay area, not far from his hometown. The internet, he muses, could easily replace the automobile as humanity's dream of unlimited mobility.

"We don't have to go back to the past and re-create the medieval city," Ghent explains. " If we can get more examples of car-free places, maybe by converting an old military base into a new town, then people can see a car-free community side by side with an auto-dependent neighborhood. That could lead to big change."

But what about Prague? I ask. It's got a world-class subway, trams going all over town and a breathtakingly beautiful car-free city center that draws visitors from all over the world. Yet it also sports one of the highest car-ownership rates in Europe. Lutra Lebrova, 27, World Carfree Network's co-director, who grew up in the Czech Republic, steps in to explain. "It was really hard to get a car under communism. People had to wait 10 or 12 years, and everyone now is so proud of their cars. People here see it as their special right to drive cars."

This helps me understand the scary habits of Prague drivers, and also sheds light on a broader truth about the powerful appeal of automobiles. In most cultures around the world, cars offer a potent symbol of privilege and progress. Motorists in these places think of themselves as the future.

The truth is that humans have an innate urge to increase their personal mobility, which cannot be deterred no matter how alarming statistics about traffic fatalities or global warming look. A world offering more car-free places will only happen when people come to realize that automobiles actually stand in the way of greater mobility and a better life.

It's helpful to remember that before there was Prague, with its fiercely reckless drivers, or Bangkok and Jakarta, with their horrendous traffic jams, the picture of a transportation nightmare in most people's minds was Rome, Madrid or London. In each of these places, autos represented something deeper than just a way to get around. In Rome of the '60s, car culture was a mark of Italy's arrival as a prosperous nation; in Madrid of the '70s, a badge of the modern consumer society that replaced Franco's dictatorship; and in London of the '80s, the supreme symbol of free-market freedom as defined by Margaret Thatcher.

But look at them now. London shocked the world with the huge success of its congestion pricing policy, which charges drivers a hefty fee to enter the city center. Madrid has tamed its famously unruly traffic with aggressive implementation of pedestrian streets and other measures to keep cars from ruining neighborhoods. And Rome, the butt of so many jokes about impossible traffic and insane drivers, has reduced traffic by 25 percent in its center -- an initiative that has become the model for Paris, a city usually looked to as the urban ideal.

Hazarding a guess about the future is always risky, especially when the outcome of your prediction directly affects powerful interests like the auto and oil industries, but I believe the feisty sustainable transportation movement is onto something big. "People say cars represent freedom, but how free are you when you have to drive everywhere?" asks Steven Logan of Car Busters, answering his own question. "Gas is expensive. The roads are congested. I find it very liberating to be out somewhere and know I can easily walk home."

Following in the footsteps (rather than the tire tracks) of Rome and Madrid and London, I believe people in Eastern Europe and Asia and someday even North America -- where car culture was born and remains stubbornly embedded -- will eventually discover an important truth: The auto is at its best and its most useful as just one of many ways to get around.

This revelation hit home for me that day I was stuck in the back seat of a New York taxi. I vowed then and there to try the new Air Train when returning to the airport. My train ride back to JFK, which cost a total of seven bucks, was smooth and simple, even at rush hour, and I arrived quite early for my flight. Car culture, I decided while relaxing over a meal and glass of wine in the airport lounge, no longer represents either privilege or progress.

A Holiday Classic For City Dwellers

Popular culture exerts a strong influence in how we view the world.

A lot of what we think and feel about any place comes from watching TV, going to the movies, and reading. A favorable impression of city life, for instance, could have been shaped by our excitement as kids watching Gene Kelly dance through the streets in movie musicals like An American in Paris and On the Town. A negative view might come from the fear we felt watching bad guys jump out of the shadows of Gotham City to attack Batman in comic books, TV shows and movies.

The power of TV and movies has actually played a role in turning many Americans away from cities and public spaces in general throughout the 20th century. Almost from the beginning, cars were portrayed as sleek and sexy while big houses with huge lawns were presented to us as the ultimate measure of success. Movies, of course, didn’t invent these things as status symbols but they did implant everyone’s minds with idealized images that fueled yearnings for a privatized version of utopia. One wonders how America would look today if Hollywood had romanticized trains, streetcars and bustling city streets with same fervor as it did speedy cars and rambling single-family homes.

The nature of filmmaking itself heightened these trends. Since Hollywood movies in their heyday were filmed almost exclusively on studio sets and backlots (or in vast empty places, which explains the popularity of Westerns), we were treated to many more scenes taking place indoors rather than out in the streets and parks. It’s exceedingly complicated, not to mention expensive, to shoot in busy public places. Movies made on location in real places did not become widespread until the 1960s. That was the same time we saw a resurgence of interest in historic preservation and revitalizing cities. Could there be a connection between what people were seeing at the moviehouse and what they wanted to see in their own communities?

Since the holiday season is upon us let me recommend a little known but delightful Christmas comedy—starring Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young—that stands as one of the best celebrations of the American city. The Bishop’s Wife hit the theaters 1947, the same year as the beloved and equally delightful Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street. It was the era when suburbs were starting to boom, and the decline of American cities was just beginning. But while Miracle on 34th Street was jubilant in its embrace of the suburban dream, The Bishop’s Wife celebrated the energy and humanity of old urban neighborhoods and lamented their downfall. (It was remade as The Preacher’s Wife in a worthy 1996 version with Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston and Courtney B. Vance)

The Bishop’s Wife begins with a gay scene of Christmas shopping on crowded city streets in an unnamed city, but there are ominous undertones of urban woes as a blind man, a baby in a stroller and an old professor are nearly rundown by speeding cars and trucks. The bishop’s wife is buying a Christmas tree from a colorful Italian shop owner, but she clearly lacks the holiday spirit. Bumping into an old friend—who laughs “What are you doing in this disreputable part of town?”—she breaks into tears, saying how much she misses this old neighborhood now that her husband has been appointed bishop and they’ve moved with their young daughter to a grand residence up on the hill. Indeed, we soon see that her husband’s old church, St. Timothy’s, is in danger of closing. “It can’t stand up to the march of progress,” the friend sadly remarks.

But, trust me, this is a comedy and much of the humor revolves around Cary Grant as the world’s most debonair angel, who is sent to help the beleaguered bishop (David Niven) but nearly botches things by falling in love with his wife (Loretta Young). Their budding romance plays out against a backdrop of vital urban scenes—kids playing in the snow at a park, a cozy neighborhood restaurant, a rundown but elegant apartment building, bustling shopping streets and a fabulous scene with everyone ice skating on a park pond. The Bishop’s Wife joyfully uses the magic of moviemaking to show us what’s great about living in a city.

It’s curious The Bishop’s Wife is so little known compared to Miracle on 34th Street, which came out the same year but takes a decidedly different view on the charms of city living—even though its plot centers on urban icons like the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade and Santa’s appearance at a Manhattan department store.

The story involves Susie (the young Natalie Wood), a little girl living with her divorced mother in an apartment right on Central Park. But rather than showing Susie running through one of the world’s most wonderful parks, climbing trees or swinging on the playground, it depicts her lurking in the unfriendly basement of the apartment building with her unhappy friends. At one point a kindly old man who is a department store Santa tells her, “You have this lovely apartment”. She snaps back “I don’t think it’s lovely. I want a house with a yard and great big tree you can put a swing on.”

This sets up the happy ending for Christmas morning when (warning: skip the rest of this paragraph if you are one of the very few Americans who haven’t seen the movie) Santa gives Susie’s soon-to-be-stepdad instructions on the best route back to Manhattan from a holiday party on Long Island, which just happens to take them past a new suburban home for sale with a yard, a big tree and a swing in back—"a real home" as Susie puts it.

Don't get me wrong. Miracle on 34h Street is a great uplifting movie and there’s nothing inherently wrong with the suburbs. But The Bishop's Wife is just as great a movie, and there’s nothing wrong about living in the city—even for kids. Indeed, these two films would make a great double feature. And that's my wish for this holiday season: that popular entertainment celebrating urban settings and public places could get equal billing in everyone’s imagination as stories that portray the American dream as an exclusively privatized world of cars, big houses and wide lawns.

Avoiding Everyday Toxins

Unexpected Toxins

Without knowing it, 35-year-old Jeremiah Holland lost a lot more than weight when he decided to start seriously exercising two years ago. His racing bike helped him trim down from 118 to 90 kilos (260 to 200 pounds). What Holland could never have suspected was that during that period, he was also ridding his body of something else -- something he never knew was there: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), perfluoroctane sulfonates (PFOS), phthalates and a host of other unpronounceable chemical substances that are stored in fat -- and that remain in our bodies for a long, long time. Holland would never have been the wiser if he hadn't been chosen as a test subject in a project conducted by the Oakland Tribune, which studied the effect of toxic chemicals in the human body.

So as not to create too much panic, the editorial staff chose a family that the newspaper's advisory counsel of scientists felt would be at low risk. The family eats organic food, avoids chemical cleaning products, has no carpeting in their house and doesn't buy lots of new furniture and electronic equipment: in short, the newspaper selected Jeremiah Holland and Michele Hammond and their two children Mikaela, age five and 18-month-old Rowan. But as responsible and healthy as their lives seemed, the tests proved that their bodies contained traces of numerous chemicals, some at levels exceeding the legally established maximums. The blood, hair and urine of each family member showed traces of dioxins, mercury, lead, cadmium and the chemicals used for coating pans with Teflon.

What was surprising was the presence of PCBs, which are used in products such as paint, ink, glue and plastic. PCBs can damage the skin and liver, are linked to cancer, birth defects and disruptions to the hormone system and brain development. The list of health risks led to a global ban on the production and use of PCBs in the 1970s, so why are they still showing up in the Holland family?

An even bigger surprise was the strong presence of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a flame retardant used in all kinds of products from plastics to cell phones. It is estimated that adults in the United States have 36 parts per billion (ppb) of this substance in their blood. Think of that as 36 grains of salt in 50 kilos [110 pounds]of mashed potatoes. But the father had 102 ppb, the mother 138, the daughter 490 and the son 838, more than what would normally be found in the blood of people who work with this substance on a daily basis. Scientists note that laboratory rats start exhibiting problems with their thyroid glands at levels of 300 ppb.

So what can the Holland-Hammond family do with this information? And what can you do? Are these substances in everyone's bodies? Just how toxic are they? How do they get into our bodies? How do we get rid of them? Let's start at the beginning. Yes, chemical substances are everywhere. In remote lakes in Finland, in the Himalayas, at the South Pole -- there's not an outpost in the world they have not reached. Including your body. The reason: poison knows no bounds.

Chemicals are carried along by air and water currents. The pesticides used on a banana plantation in Ecuador, the bleach used in a paper factory in Canada, the fluorine polymers produced in a chemical plant in France: they're spreading across the world, accumulating in the environment and ending up in the food chain. They are then stored in people's fat tissue and slowly released into the body. Admittedly, the amounts in question are miniscule. A couple of "parts per billion" of a substance in your blood means you're talking about pieces of a chocolate bar you're gradually spreading among the 740,000 inhabitants of San Francisco. That's not a lot of chocolate, but poison is still poison, even in such tiny amounts.

New technologies have made it now possible to detect chemicals in increasingly low doses. But the chemical industry reassures us there is absolutely no reason to panic. Fred vom Saal thinks there ís reason to panic. In a study of rats and mice, this Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri, proved that even minimal doses of a natural or synthetic hormone can have lasting effects on reproduction and fertility. And he showed how minimal doses of one of the most widely used chemicals -- bisphenol A, which is used in the production of plastic -- imitate or in fact block hormonal functions. Vom Saal reports, "The low doses are the hardest part of the story. We're talking about 0.1 parts per a trillionth of a gram in a milliliter of blood, and still we're seeing profound changes we can't explain in a different way."

Through his study Vom Saal discovered that a slight increase in the female hormone estradiol in male mice foetuses leads to an enlarged prostate. This may provide an explanation for the spectacular increase in prostate problems among men, and a surprising one considering that most medicines prescribed for prostate cancer contain estradiol.

Toxic Industry

This is also a story about the unparalleled success of the chemical industry. It's a story about our increasing dependence on synthetic materials in nearly every aspect of our lives. That has brought us a level of luxury our grandparents couldn't have imagined. We keep our leftover food in plastic containers in the refrigerator. We clean the floor without scrubbing. There are pleasing scents we can use on our skin and in our homes. We have computers, TVs, DVD players and mobile telephones. And if we accidentally spill a little of our red wine on the tablecloth, there is an arsenal of cleaning products that wipe away our concern, along with the stain.

Of course you may be the type of person that never wears a polyester shirt, but the "100 percent cotton" alternative was very likely made from cotton processed with synthetic pesticides. You may have wooden furniture at home because it looks so natural, but the manufacturers likely used solvents, glue and a finish containing toxic ingredients. It is our hunger for affordable and convenient luxury that has led the chemical industry to launch some 1,000 new chemical substances a year on the market. You might think that all those substances are methodically tested before they are used in everyday products. They haven't.

Of the many tens of thousands of chemicals used today, the U.S. environmental agency EPA calculates that fewer than 1,000 have been tested for their effects on the human nervous system and immune system. (Yes you read that right -- fewer than one thousand.) For some substances there is a legal maximum for levels considered acceptable in the body which has been established by scientists. That should offer some reassurance. However no legal maximums have been set for the vast majority of chemicals, and it appears that people are very rarely tested to measure levels in the body of those chemicals for which a maximum has been set. Moreover, it is not unusual for the legal norm to be exceeded and no scientist can tell you what that means for you.

The Repercussions

While it is not easy to show how the chemicals in our bodies affect our health (see "Chemical soup"), scientists point to two symptoms that regularly surface when it comes to the most notorious chemical substances:

  • Disruption of the hormone system. Chemicals imitate or block the effect of hormones. This can have a negative impact on our reproductive organs, reduce the number of sperm cells, affect their quality and impair fertility. This disruptive process has also been linked to developmental problems.

  • Impairment of the immune system. The chemical substances cause the body to become "confused," which means it is no longer able to recognize what is a foreign element in the body and what is not. That process is seen in auto-immune diseases such as diabetes, arthritis and lupus. According to the Environmental Working Group, an influential environmental organization in the United States, chemical substances in our bodies can also be linked to the following illnesses and complaints: cancer, birth defects, developmental delays, vision and hearing problems, hormone system malfunction, and disorders in the stomach, intestines, kidney, brain, nervous system, reproductive system, lungs, skin, liver, cardiovascular system or immune system, male and female reproductive system. (Be forewarned, however, before you storm off to your family doctor armed with this information. Most doctors have very little training in linking these complaints to the chemicals in our bodies. Moreover, they usually have little time to probe deeply into new areas of medical investigation. So be prepared for a resolute denial of any association between the products to which you are exposed in your daily life and your health.)

In an environment full of chemical substances, children appear to be extremely vulnerable. Children eat, drink and breathe more in proportion to their body weight than adults, which means the doses they take in are proportionally higher. Every day, babies and toddlers put things in their mouths and crawl over carpeting, both of which are major sources of toxins. Moreover, young children's immune systems are still developing and therefore more greatly affected by continual contact with chemicals.

Babies are even more at risk. The world was in a state of shock, recalls Ã…ke Bergman, when his 1999 study revealed that mothers' milk was seriously contaminated with PBDEs, the bromide-containing flame retardants that caused such a stir in the Holland family study. "PBDEs are hormone disrupters and affect the nervous system," said Bergman, head of the Department for Environmental Chemistry at Stockholm University. "While industry and politics were doing everything they could to reduce the manufacture and use of PBDEs, we showed that the amount of those substances in mothers' milk was doubling every five years."

A similar study was later conducted in the United States and the researchers discovered that PBDE levels were doubling even faster there: every 18 months. But the greatest risk is to unborn children. Because cell structures change quickly during the embryonic and fetus phase, exposure to chemicals can affect development. Although Bergman says we can only speculate about the effects of the "chemical cocktail in our bodies," as he calls it, the figures are just as shocking as they are unreal.

When babies are breastfed, they are exposed to higher concentrations of chemical substances than at any other time in their later life. More to the point, these babies are ingesting five times the tolerated maximum daily levels of PCBs according to the established international standard for adults weighing 75 kilos (165 lbs.). After six months of breastfeeding, a baby in Europe or America has ingested a level of dioxins considered as a lifetime maximum. And yet: breastfeeding still remains the best advice for mothers.

This is conclusion of many experts, including Gavin ten Tusscher, paediatrician at Amsterdam's Emma Children's Hospital, despite the fact that during his doctoral research he clearly observed that children who are exposed to higher doses of dioxins in the womb and through breastfeeding, often show disruptions to lung functioning, a compromised immune system, development irregularities and exhibit more behavioural problems. "Despite the chemicals in mothers' milk, it continues to be the single best thing you can give your child by far," says Ten Tusscher, who was involved in an internationally groundbreaking study that has been tracking a group of children since 1989. "Mothers' milk has clear advantages for babies: vital nutrients and essential antibodies are passed on. There are numerous studies showing the positive effects: a better immunity, a higher IQ, a better emotional connection, and so on. Our studies on dioxins mainly indicate that we must insist that politicians and companies take steps to improve the quality of mothers' milk and ensure that it is as free as possible from unnecessary chemicals."

So I’m toxic, now what?

How do we react to all this? Should you shudder at the presence of every product around you? After all, the exposure to everyday chemicals isn't exactly a theme that regularly appears on the agenda of health authorities. The World Health Organization, for instance, states that a whopping five million people die every year around the world due to the effects of smoking and that increasing numbers of people are overweight, meaning they run a greater risk of diabetes and heart disease. So how concerned should we really be about the packaging used for our frozen vegetables and the wallpaper in our living room?

"No concerns, I would say," says Colin Humphris, Executive Director Research and Science at CEFIC, the Brussels-based European Chemical Industry Council. "The proof for a link between the presence of chemicals in blood and health is extraordinarily tenuous. Many studies have been performed providing some information on exposure. That's interesting, but it doesn't give you any information about risks. Just the presence of some substance doesn't mean there is a health risk."

According to Humphris, there are many substances in our daily lives that are useful in small doses, but dangerous when we ingest too much. "Coffee -- which has thousands of chemical compounds -- is a perfectly reasonable drink which will help wake you up, six double-espressos in two or three hours will probably be sufficient to make you quite ill and ten double-espressos could be enough to kill you. The awkward thing here is that just about all chemicals are at a high dose dangerous. But you're not likely to get these high doses."

However, scientists, like Fred vom Saal, show that regular exposure to low doses also cause effects. According to Humphris their results are controversial. "It has proved very difficult to reproduce many of the experiments where these low dose effects are claimed." Growing public concern about safety seems to have had little effect so far on the chemical companies. New chemical substances continue to be introduced that critics say have not been sufficiently tested, even when the industry claims it has "investigated" them thoroughly. As a result, these critics say, we are using potentially dangerous products every day. Would Humphris board an airplane if he knew it had not been thoroughly tested in advance? "I think," he says after a few seconds of thought, "I would be relying on the judgement of the companies that are operating and their engineering services. How else would I have to make that decision?"

Chemical regulation

A basic question in all this is: don't consumers have the right to greater protection than simply trusting the judgement of the chemical manufacturers, whose primary focus must be earning a profit for their shareholders? This is exactly the premise of a groundbreaking draft law from the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, which may well bring on a revolution in the chemical industry.

According to the so-called REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) directive, new chemical substances will have to comply with more stringent safety measures. Those rules will also apply to some 30,000 chemicals that are currently in use without ever having been thoroughly tested for any potentially harmful effect to humans or the environment. Substances that are considered carcinogenic or damaging to the hormone system or DNA material, under the new tests would have to be taken off the market within 10 years. Information from these tests -- which chemical companies previously kept secret -- will be accessible to everyone. As a result, companies would be given great incentives to find harmless alternatives.

These regulations have drawn a strong reaction from the chemical industry and politicians in the United States. They claim the directive (based on the precautionary principle, which states that if anything cannot be deemed safe it should not be used) is too complex and impracticable, the financial burden is too high, that jobs will be lost and that it would hinder scientific and industrial innovation.

The chemical industry is waging an intensive campaign in Washington and Brussels to frustrate the plans. The American political weekly The Nation (December 27, 2004) researched the issue and revealed that the U.S. government is financially supporting the chemical lobby and that former Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a message to all American embassies in Europe stating that REACH could present obstacles to trade and innovation. The implications of the law could be enormous. After all, new testing might show that commonly used substances are harmful, and would have to be taken off the European market. That would be a big blow to chemical producers, who are concerned that they would then face further opposition in other parts of the world.

"All the chemical lobby's claims and suggestions are inflated," according to Nadia Haimama Neurohr, political advisor at the European division of Greenpeace in Brussels. "That's clear from scores of studies of the impact of introducing REACH. These studies suggest that a gradual transition to alternative, less harmful substances will in fact create jobs and reduce costs.

Meanwhile, the chemical companies are leaving a tremendous mark on the discussion and the American government is threatening to take legal steps at the World Trade Organization." Meanwhile in the United States, a bill to give the state of California the authority to regulate chemical hazards in personal care products has passed legislature, and is now on the Governor's desk awaiting signature. The disclosure of cosmetics would only apply to ingredients that have a clear and scientifically established link to cancer or reproductive harm. These chemicals have already been banned by the EU.

The future of REACH

The introduction of REACH -- policymakers expected to have completed a new, definitive version of the law early next year -- appears to mark the end of the era when chemicals were considered harmless "until the opposite was proven." The European Union's embrace of the precautionary principle signals a radical shift. But how radical, the REACH supporters wonder, is it to do something that really seems be common sense?

Vyvyan Howard, a professor at Northern Ireland's University of Ulster Centre for Molecular Biological Sciences stood next to Swedish EU Commissioner Margot Wallström when she launched the REACH proposal. Howard believes the emancipation of the consumer is finally taking shape when it comes to substances that can affect their health. He notes, "We must remain open to the possibility that the chemical soup in our bodies can be linked to all kinds of modern problems. We have no idea how we can prove the original connection, but meanwhile I would like to advise everyone -- not only politicians -- to adopt the precautionary principle."

The opportunities are there. Pioneering companies -- including ever-bigger firms -- are manufacturing products in ways that prevent your body from becoming a chemical dumping ground. Why should you wait until there's proof that substances in your cosmetics, furniture and electronics are (or aren't) toxic when you can maintain the same quality of life and convenience using alternatives that are clearly above suspicion? Look over our Organic Top 40 and you'll see there are many alternatives -- and this list is only a few of the many products out there. But isn't that expensive? Yes, making a healthier choice will cost you more now (although you may well save money in the long run by keeping yourself healthy), and yet the question you might want to be asking is: dare I run the risk? Only you can provide the answer.

You Do What You Eat

At first glance, there seems nothing special about the students at this high school in Appleton, Wisconsin. They appear calm, interact comfortably with one another, and are focused on their schoolwork. No apparent problems.

And yet a couple of years ago, there was a police officer patrolling the halls at this school for developmentally challenged students. Many of the students were troublemakers, there was a lot of fighting with teachers and some of the kids carried weapons.

School counsellor Greg Bretthauer remembers when he first came to Appleton Central Alternative High School back in 1997, for a job interview: "I found the students to be rude, obnoxious and ill-mannered." He had no desire to work with them, and turned down the job.

Several years later, Bretthauer took the job after seeing that the atmosphere at the school had changed profoundly. Today he describes the students as "calm and well-behaved" in a new video documentary, Impact of Fresh, Healthy Foods on Learning and Behavior. Fights and offensive behavior are extremely rare and the police officer is no longer needed. What happened?

A glance through the halls at Appleton Central Alternative provides the answer. The vending machines have been replaced by water coolers. The lunchroom took hamburgers and french fries off the menu, making room for fresh vegetables and fruits, whole-grain bread and a salad bar.

Is that all? Yes, that's all. Principal LuAnn Coenen is still surprised when she speaks of the "astonishing" changes at the school since she decided to drastically alter the offering of food and drinks eight years ago: "I don't have the vandalism. I don't have the litter. I don't have the need for high security."

The Problems with 'Convenience Foods'

It is tempting to dismiss what happened at Appleton Central Alternative as the wild fantasies of health-food and vitamin-supplement fanatics. After all, scientists have never empirically investigated the changes at the school. Healthy nutrition -- especially the effects of vitamin and mineral supplements -- appears to divide people into opposing camps of fervent believers, who trust the anecdotes about diets changing people's lives, and equally fervent skeptics, who dismiss these stories as hogwash.

And yet it is not such a radical idea that food can affect the way our brains work -- and thus our behavior. The brain is an active machine: It only accounts for two percent of our body weight, but uses a whopping 20 percent of our energy. In order to generate that energy, we need a broad range of nutrients -- vitamins, minerals and unsaturated fatty acids -- that we get from nutritious meals. The question is: What are the consequences when we increasingly shovel junk food into our bodies?

It is irrefutably true that our eating habits have dramatically changed over the past 30-odd years. "Convenience food" has become a catch-all term that covers all sorts of frozen, microwaved and out-and-out junk foods. The ingredients of the average meal have been transported thousands of kilometres before landing on our plates; it's not hard to believe that some of the vitamins were lost in the process.

We already know obesity can result if we eat too much junk food, but there may be greater consequences of unhealthy diets than extra weight around our middles. Do examples like the high school in Wisconsin point to a direct connection between nutrition and behavior? Is it simply coincidence that the increase in aggression, crime and social incivility in Western society has paralleled a spectacular change in our diet? Could there be a link between the two?

Stephen Schoenthaler, a criminal-justice professor at California State University in Stanislaus, has been researching the relationship between food and behavior for more than 20 years.He has proven that reducing the sugar and fat intake in our daily diets leads to higher IQs and better grades in school.

When Schoenthaler supervised a change in meals served at 803 schools in low-income neighborhoods in New York City, the number of students passing final exams rose from 11 percent below the national average to five percent above.

He is best known for his work in youth detention centers. One of his studies showed that the number of violations of house rules fell by 37 percent when vending machines were removed and canned food in the cafeteria was replaced by fresh alternatives. He summarizes his findings this way: "Having a bad diet right now is a better predictor of future violence than past violent behavior."

But Schoenthaler's work is under fire. A committee from his own university has recommended suspending him for his allegedly improper research methods: Schoenthaler didn't always use a placebo as a control measure and his group of test subjects wasn't always chosen at random. This criticism doesn't refute Schoenthaler's research that nutrition has an effect on behavior. It means most of his studies simply lack the scientific soundness needed to earn the respect of his colleagues.

The Prison Test

Recent research that -- even Schoenthaler's critics admit -- was conducted flawlessly, showed similar conclusions. Bernard Gesch, physiologist at the University of Oxford, decided to test the anecdotal clues in the most thorough study so far in this field. In a prison for men between the ages of 18 and 21 in England's Buckinghamshire, 231 volunteers were divided into two groups: One was given nutrition supplements along with their meals that contained our approximate daily needs for vitamins, minerals and fatty acids; the other group got placebos. Neither the prisoners, nor the guards, nor the researchers at the prison knew who took fake supplements and who got the real thing.

The researchers then tallied the number of times the participants violated prison rules, and compared it to the same data that had been collected in the months leading up to the nutrition study. The prisoners given supplements for four consecutive months committed an average of 26 percent fewer violations compared to the preceding period. Those given placebos showed no marked change in behaviour. For serious breaches of conduct, particularly the use of violence, the number of violations decreased 37 percent for the men given nutrition supplements, while the placebo group showed no change.

The experiment was carefully constructed, ruling out the possibility that ethnic, social, psychological or other variables could affect the outcome. Prisons are popular places to conduct studies for good reason: There is a strict routine; participants sleep and exercise the same number of hours every day and eat the same things at the same time.

Says John Copas, professor in statistical methodology at the University of Warwick: "This is the only trial I have ever been involved with from the social sciences which is designed properly and with a good analysis." As a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, Gesch emerges with convincing scientific proof that poor nutrition plays a role in triggering aggressive behavior.

Sugar's Not the Only Problem

Indeed, the study proves what every parent already knows. Serve soda and candy at a children's birthday party and you'll get loud, hyperactive behavior followed by tears and tantrums. It works like this: Blood-sugar levels jump suddenly after you eat sugar, which initially gives you a burst of fresh energy. But then your blood sugar falls, and you become lethargic and sleepy. In an attempt to prevent blood-sugar levels from falling too low, your body produces adrenalin, which makes you irritable and explosive.

But sugar can't be the only problem. After all, high blood-sugar levels mainly have a short-term effect on behavior, while the research of Schoenthaler and Gesch indicates changes over a longer period. They suggest it is much more important that you get the right amount of vitamins, minerals and unsaturated fatty acids because these substances directly influence the brain, and therefore behavior.

If these findings prove true -- and they do look convincing -- then we should be sounding an alarm about good nutrition. What are the long-term implications of the fact that the quality of our farmland has sharply declined in recent decades? The use of artificial fertilizer for years on end has diminished the levels of important minerals like magnesium, chromium and selenium, therefore present in much lower concentrations in our food.

The eating habits of children and young people also should be a cause for serious concern. Their diets now are rich in sugar, fats and carbohydrates, and poor in vegetables and fruit. Add to this an increasing lack of exercise among kids, and the problem becomes even worse. The World Health Organization (WHO) talks of an epidemic of overweight among children. Obesity, the official name for serious weight problems, is said to absorb up to six percent of the total health budget -- a cautious estimate as all kinds of related diseases cannot be included in the exact calculation. Think of what this situation will look like when the current generation of overweight kids hits middle age.

The link between food and health is better understood by most people than the relationship between food and behavior, so health has become the driving force behind many public campaigns to combat overweight. A discussion has arisen in a number of countries about introducing a tax on junk food, the proceeds of which would be spent on promoting healthy eating. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced in May he planned to spend an extra 280 million pounds (the equivalent of 420 million euros or $500 million U.S.) on improving school lunches after the famous television chef Jamie Oliver began speaking out on the issue.

Yet with crime a major political issue almost everywhere, it's surprising more leaders have not embraced the idea of healthy eating as a recipe for safe streets and schools. After Gesch published his findings in 2002 in The British Journal of Psychiatry, the study was picked up by European and American media. The newspaper headlines were clear: "Healthy eating can cut crime"; "Eat right or become a criminal;" "Youth crime linked to consumption of junk food;" "Fighting crime one bite at a time." Then the media went deafeningly silent.

Perhaps that's because the relationship between nutrition and violence continues to be controversial in established professional circles. During their educations, doctors and psychologists are given scant training in nutrition, criminologists provided little awareness of biochemistry, and nutritionists offered no hands-on experience with lawbreakers or the mentally ill. As a result, the link between food and behaviour winds up in no-man's-land. Even researchers interested in the subject are discouraged -- not least of all because you can't get a patent on natural nutrients like vitamins and minerals. Far more effort goes into pharmaceutical, rather than dietary, solutions.

The Netherlands currently is the only country where Gesch's research is being explored. Plans to test the findings about nutrition supplements and behaviour further are being set up in 14 prisons, with nearly 500 subjects. Ap Zaalberg, leading the project for the Dutch Ministry of Justice, remembers how he and his colleagues reacted when they first heard of Gesch's study. "Disbelief," he states resolutely. "This was surely not true. But when I looked into the issue more closely, I landed in a world of hard science."

Zaalberg knows diet is not the only factor that determines whether someone exhibits aggressive behavior. "Aggression is not only determined by nutrition," he states. "Background and drug use, for example, also play a role. Yet I increasingly see the introduction of vitamins and minerals as a very rational approach."

"Most criminal-justice systems assume that criminal behaviour is entirely a matter of free will," Gesch says. "But how exactly can you exercise free will without involving your brain? How exactly can the brain function without an adequate nutrient supply? Nutrition in fact could be a major player and, for sure, we have seriously underestimated its importance. I think nutrition may actually be one of the most straightforward factors to change antisocial behaviour. And we know that it's not only highly effective, it's also cheap and humane."

Cheap it is. Natural Justice, the British charity institution chaired by Gesch, which is researching "the origins of anti-social and criminal behaviour," estimates it would cost 3.5 million pounds (5.3 million euros or 6.4 million U.S. dollars) to provide supplements to all the prisoners in Great Britain. That is only a fraction of the current prison budget of 2 billion pounds (3 billion euros or 3.6 billion U.S. dollar).

Finding Safety Through the Stomach

It seems the link between nutrition and antisocial behaviour shows great promise as both political issue and human-interest story. How much longer will politicians concentrate on police and stricter surveillance as the answer to crime? When will they realize healthy food can help create a healthier society? After all, people would not only be more productive, but the cost of health care and of the criminal-justice system would decline. As is the case for a man's love, the way to safety may be through the stomach.

As Bernard Gesch notes, "Few scientists are not convinced that diet is fundamental for the development of the human brain. Is it plausible that in the last 50 years we could have made spectacular changes to the human diet without any implications for the brain? I don't think so. Now, evidence is mounting that putting poor fuel into the brain significantly affects social behaviour. We need to know more about the composition of the right nutrients. It could be the recipe for peace."

In Kids We Trust

While his peers at other schools were memorizing their multiplication tables, Ken Pruitt was lying on his back watching clouds, building tree forts with friends, or poking around in the woods. Pruitt was no juvenile delinquent. He was a student at the Sudbury Valley School near Boston, where children get to decide for themselves how they want to spend each day.

Come again? What does cloud watching or fort building have to do with learning? Everything, according to Sudbury Valley's founders. "Children don't know what they want to learn, they know what they want to do," says Mimsy Sadofsky, one of several original founders who still work at the school. What children typically want to do is play -- which cognitive scientists say is one of the main ways human beings learn.

 "Learning teaches us what is known, play makes it possible for new things to be learned," says David Elkind, Professor of Child Development at Tufts University, and most recently author of The Hurried Child, All Grown Up and No Place to Go, and Miseducation. "There are many concepts and skills that can only be learned through play."

Pruitt, who attended Sudbury Valley from ages six to seventeen, enjoyed a "Huck Finn childhood". "I spent hours by myself climbing trees, walking on the trails, sitting and observing," he says. He especially liked to perch on a tree leaning low over a swamp and peer into the tea-colored water, watching fish and insects, frogs and turtles go about their daily lives.

He recalls sitting perfectly still on a stone wall in the woods to watch for wildlife. A deer came so close he could almost touch it, and then a raccoon. Something stirred in him that never would have happened had he been sitting behind a desk. "Human beings, especially children before they're programmed by society, are open to seeing other living things in the world as equals instead of having the sense that we're their masters. That's what set me on the course to want to preserve wild nature. By the time I was fifteen, it was clear to me that I'd follow a career in wilderness protection." Today, at age thirty-five, Pruitt is Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions. In a state that loses forty acres a day to sprawl, his organization helps people in more than three hundred communities protect the kinds of wetlands he loved as a child.

A new survey of alumni from the Sudbury Valley School shows that such idyllic school experiences has not harmed or hampered them as adults. Eighty-two percent of graduates interviewed pursued further study such as college or trade school after Sudbury Valley. The others said they were ready to enter the fields they planned to pursue as adults. Alumni have become ballet dancers and farmers, physicians and circus performers, carpenters, teachers, lawyers, farmers, entrepreneurs, musicians, clerks, you name it.

But the most important measures of success seldom have much to do with college admissions or job titles. And that's where Sudbury Valley graduates like Pruitt tend to excel. Eighty-six percent of those surveyed said their lives reflect their values. That's what the founders had in mind when they started the school in 1968. Sadofsky and another founder, Daniel Greenberg, along with Jason Lempka, have just published a new book, The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni. Of the past thirty-seven years they write, "We believe that the school provides an environment that trains each individual to think for themself, and to lead an examined life that is fulfilling, meaningful, and fun."

Sudbury Valley is the oldest existing democratic school in the U.S. and the most widely imitated. It has no tests or grades and is run by a "school meeting" patterned after New England town meetings in which all participants have an equal vote on important matters. At a time when debates rage about education standards and testing, these schools offer an intriguing and controversial alternative: putting children in charge of their own education.

Although each of the more than 160 democratic schools around the world evolved independently, they generally share the practices of allowing students to choose how to spend their days, vote on important school matters, and participate in a community of equals, regardless of age. These practices raise many eyebrows in education circles, but advocates say democratic schools can teach more traditional schools a thing or two about helping children grow into happy adults, learn to navigate a complex world -- and participate in a free society.

In mid-December, the Victorian mansion that houses the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, bustles with activity. Some students rehearse music and dance performances for an upcoming show at the school. Others make gingerbread houses, play video games, read, argue, sew, study, or just hang out. There's nothing here that even remotely resembles a classroom. Just lots of rooms filled with comfy chairs and books, plus music studios, an art room, a woodshop, performance space, a darkroom, and kitchen.

Learning flows from the daily life of the school, which includes 160 or so students and 10 staff members. Students know each staff person's areas of expertise, and ask for help when they need it. "Although kids may never be in a formal class," says Sadofsky, "the adults here are models for them."         

Classes are occasionally offered -- but only when students initiate them or ask for them. And older students often "teach" the younger ones. During his teenage years, Pruitt took a few optional classes given by staff. "The classes didn't feel like classes, they felt like entertainment, " says Pruitt, who especially enjoyed Daniel Greenberg's European history class. Instead of droning on with boring facts, Greenberg sometimes dramatized his lessons.

One strength of Sudbury Valley's approach is in some of the things these schools don't do says Alfie Kohn, one of America's leading authorities on alternative education. "The excessive control of children, the use of grades and tests and textbooks, and a factory-like curriculum are all wonderfully absent," says Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve and What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated. Kohn adds that learning at these schools "often takes place outside of what most adults think of as a structured classroom environment."

Indeed. Just ask Dayna Kimball, who was on the verge of quitting school a few years ago. "I was bored," Kimball says of her junior year at a public high school in suburban Denver, Colorado. "I didn't like the time constraints, and the assignments seemed tedious and redundant."

Luckily, her mother, Jane, discovered Alpine Valley School (AVS) in nearby Wheat Ridge. Modeled after Sudbury Valley, the Colorado school offered Dayna Kimball the freedom she craved -- no tests, grades, or constraints. So what did she do when she got there? "I went to school every day and slept on the couch," she says.

No one bothered her. No one told her to wake up or asked what she thought she was doing. "They accepted every minute of it," Kimball says. "The slang there for it is 'deschooling.'"

After about a year, though, Kimball got really bored -- and that's when she began to wake up. She started learning a little Japanese, a bit of history, and dabbled in metalsmithing. As part of her studies, she decided to try out a few jobs in the "real world," including a stint at a toy store and another as a bank teller.

Meanwhile, subtle changes were unfolding in the time Kimball spent at Alpine Valley. Her fellow students, especially the younger ones, touched something in her. "I was standoffish at first, but they opened me up because they wanted to get to know who I was," Kimball says. As she continued exploring at Alpine Valley, she tried out another job as a para-educator in a public school. And that's when Dayna Kimball discovered her passion: working with autistic children. She says she wouldn't have found it without the freedom and flexibility of Alpine Valley. "Without AVS, I would have dropped out of school," she says.

Today, Kimball works as an intervention support staff person with autistic children at Creative Perspectives, a therapeutic center outside Denver. She also is earning her bachelor's degree in speech and language pathology. "AVS has a philosophy of people first, not grades or accomplishments," says Kimball, who's now twenty-three. "I now look at my kids that way -- kids first. It's not about their disability or their ability to accomplish anything. It's about who they are."

While Sudbury Valley gives children plenty of freedom to play and develop as individuals, it also requires them to participate in the community through school meetings, in which everyone votes on all decisions made at the school. The weekly meeting, says graduate Anna Rossetti, shows that, "democracy can be painful. You've got to listen to a lot of different crap before you get to a consensus." Students and staff sometimes spend hours hashing out every single issue.

Yet Rossetti acknowledges that the experience has often come in handy. "Participating in democracy at Sudbury Valley instills in you an incredible sense of empowerment," says Rossetti, who now works at a Whole Foods Market in San Diego, California, while finishing her bachelor's degree in social sciences. "That's something I take with me all the time."

And perhaps that's one of the most important lessons from democratic schools like Sudbury Valley. "I think it's hard to learn democracy when we make children prisoners until they're nineteen years old," says Sadofsky.  

Freedom is all well and good, but even progressive educators say kids need more pushing and guidance than they typically get at schools like Sudbury Valley. These educators say children also need structure and sometimes more, rather than less, adult involvement.

"I applaud Sudbury Valley's focus on freedom, but not what I take to be an inattention to community," says Alfie Kohn. "Sudbury has a libertarian bent, and the worldview seems to see all adult involvement as an authoritarian restriction of personal autonomy. Total autonomy is not developmentally appropriate. Kids need guidance and many of them need structure at the same time that they need the opportunity to learn how to make good decisions."

One opportunity for decision-making comes in the school's judicial committee, in which all students participate on a rotating basis, along with staff. This committee makes and enforces school rules. All grievances are settled here, with students meting out the sentences. And that process can go awry, says Kohn, in an environment that practices what he calls "an extremely individualistic sensibility." Kohn says kids can misuse the well-intentioned judicial committee by threatening to "bring up" other kids who are annoying them. "It's striking, and frankly a little refreshing, that kids sit on this committee and have the power to make decisions," Kohn says. "What is equally striking to me is this ... there isn't a sense of a community solving problems together, rather there's punishment for aberrant individuals."

Academically, Kohn says progressive education should emphasize not only following children's interests, but also challenging them to consider topics and problems that may not have occurred to them.

"Leaving kids on their own tends to flatten the slope of their improvement," concurs schools reformer Ted Sizer, whose latest book, The Red Pencil, offers a powerful critique of American education. Sizer, former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education says educators need to "shove great questions in front of kids" that challenge them to learn.

On the far end of the educational spectrum from Sudbury Valley, there are growing legions of people, including the Bush Administration, who firmly argue that schools need standards -- and standardized testing -- to make sure all students learn at least the basics like reading and math. In the U.S., each state sets these standards based on recommendations from educators and lawmakers, along with public input. Advocates say standards are essential to allocating money to public schools and the students who need the most help. According to this argument, education standards enable equity.

Ross Wiener, Policy Director of The Education Trust in Washington D.C. sees a general public consensus around certain core skills children need to know in order to become successful adults and find secure jobs that pay a living wage. But he adds that setting standards to ensure that kids learn the basics is about more than just getting a job. "To participate in a democracy, you certainly need advanced reading skills, critical thinking, logic, and reason."

But Sudbury Valley graduates like Christian Cederlund would argue that these are the kinds of skills he acquired, plus many more -- without suffering through rigid standards, testing, or cookie-cutter curricula. Cederlund says one of the most important lessons from his years at Sudbury Valley was not covered in any textbook: adapting to change.

An athletic kid interested in science, Cederlund started Sudbury Valley in 1969 when he was six years old and graduated when he was seventeen. When he was a teenager, a staff person showed him pictures of Mikhail Baryshnikov and encouraged him to try ballet.

Cederlund went on to dance professionally with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. But eventually his knees started giving out and he found himself a college freshman at age twenty-seven. He completed a degree, and went on to teach dance and neuroanatomy at the University of Washington. When he burned out on teaching, Cederlund took time off to play golf and discovered his next career -- running a golf touring business in Seattle.

At forty-one, Cederlund now has a family to support, which is prompting another career change. He hopes to blend his love of helping people and his fascination with anatomy and science into creating a new job, perhaps selling medical equipment or becoming an MRI technician. He credits his creative ability to shift from one career to another as a continuation of the life-long learning adventure he started at Sudbury Valley. "I still feel like I'm playing in my life," he says.   

Over the past few decades, Sudbury Valley has directly inspired the creation of thirty-nine similar but independent schools in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Israel, and Australia. Students come from many backgrounds -- rich, poor, liberal, conservative, black, white, you name it. Each school offers students an alternative that can help them discover paths they might not have otherwise found.

Among those students are Adu and Ben Sheppard, whose father, Derek, co-founded the Booroobin Sudbury Democratic Centre for Learning in the Australian state of Queensland in 1996. Both brothers say traditional schools didn't serve their learning or interests -- which have turned out to be quite divergent. But at Booroobin, located in the lush, rolling hills north of Brisbane, both brothers found freedom to discover and pursue their passions. While Ben set about rebuilding Land Rovers, raising chickens, and growing organic vegetables and flowers in the rich, volcanic soils surrounding the school, Adu spent much of his time indoors, happily playing computer games and learning simple computer graphics programs.

Since then, Ben has rebuilt two Land Rovers "from scratch," and he's starting on a third (a 1951 model). At age 18, he is also cultivating a reputation as an outstanding gardener. Adu taught himself computer animation and graphics programs and won a government scholarship to attend a games development course to study animation and graphics.

Today, Adu, who's 20, designs web site templates and computer animation graphics for businesses. He's also working on an independent computer game that he and his collaborators hope to publish worldwide. "My aim is to never end up in a repetitious, boring, and mindless day job, and I seem to be doing pretty well so far," he says. "Booroobin taught me that individuality and free-thinking aren't impediments. I've stuck to who I am and what I want to be in life, and I'm loving it!" One wonders, is there any better measure of a good education?

The Queensland government apparently thinks so. In 2003, the Queensland Minister for Education revoked Booroobin's accreditation because it did not meet state requirements. But Booroobin, which now calls itself a centre for learning, is still accepting students, and Derek Sheppard and others are determined to see it through, in spite of the challenges.

How can parents determine whether or not their children will thrive at schools like Sudbury Valley? "What makes a child a good fit is a desire to be in control of his or her time, and parents who can trust their child to behave with intelligence," Sadofsky says. "What makes some children a poor fit is an unwillingness, or inability, to control their behavior."

These schools don't work for children who need a lot of structure, or lack parental support. Beyond these basic issues, sometimes the school simply isn't a fit for a particular child. Both Rossetti and Cederlund have siblings who started at Sudbury Valley and later left.

Paying more than $5,000 a year to send a child to school to climb trees, nap, or wander in the woods demands a big leap of faith from parents. They can feel isolated, even ostracized. Ken Pruitt recalls family friends worrying that his parents were committing child abuse by sending him to a school with such an unstructured environment.

Mimsy Sadofsky acknowledges the challenges faced by Sudbury parents. "People are very worried that there will be some big gaps in their children's lives, which is the opposite of what happens here," she says. "It's a really hard thing when everybody in society is telling you that you have to measure your children all the time to say, 'I don't want to do that. I just want my kids to be free and have fun and grow up in their own way to be responsible.'"

Dayna Kimball's mother, Jane, is glad she took the chance. "Dayna had struggled for several years. I knew that she was wanting freedom more than anything and that she would resist anything less," Jane says. "I sensed that I had to let life be her teacher. Paying tuition for a place that required her to show up was much better than having her drop out of school. I am extremely grateful to AVS for Dayna's successes. I believe that the philosophy of these schools is in alignment with the way nature operates."   Even with their problems, Sudbury and schools like it are slowly catching on, and every year staff and students gather at the International Democratic Education Conference, which was held in India last December. Jerry Mintz, Director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, says each democratic school offers something valuable. He explains, "There is a spectrum of approaches within the idea of non-compulsory classes: some schools set a timetable, such as Summerhill School in England." Some, he notes offer classes every day, others only when students ask for them, as is the case at Sudbury Valley. "The bottom line is that these schools respect students' rights and the right to take control of their own education."

Ken Pruitt is now a father himself. He wants his two young children to have the same freedom he enjoyed as a boy. His daughter, Emma, starts school next year. The Pruitts would love to send her to Sudbury Valley, but it's a long drive. At a minimum, he says, the couple will keep a careful eye their children's education -- but not in the traditional sense "If we have them go through a traditional school system," Pruitt says, " we will observe whether or not their natural spark, curiosity, and desire to learn are being driven out of them. If that did start to happen, we'd take drastic measures and get them out.."

Human beings are born to learn. Democratic schools, which like every school have their flaws, raise provocative questions about the best way to allow our children to find their authentic paths, a sense of personal responsibility, and contribute to a free and thriving world.

The solutions might be simpler than we think: long afternoons of cloud watching. Days upon days to play with friends, dance or nap, read a book or muck around in a swamp. In a world where many kids' lives are overscheduled, micro-managed, and endlessly tested, perhaps more freedom is exactly what they need.  

These Not-So-United States

One hundred and forty years after the shooting stopped, the U.S. Civil War still rages on the battlefield of American politics. George Bush's narrow re-election and the Republicans' small gains in Congress were the result of his overwhelming popularity in the Southern states that tried to break away from the rest of the nation in the 1860s.

Bush won the 11 states of the Confederacy by 5 million votes, which means John Kerry won the other 39 by a million-and-a-half votes. Giving up on the South and concentrating Democrats' efforts on trimming back the Republicans' advantage in Western and Plains states (where Democrats saw a lot of good news in Colorado and Montana this year in congressional and state elections), seems the only productive course for rebuilding the Democratic party.

A lot of my friends are cursing Abraham Lincoln these days. The most revered figure in American history now looks a villain, or at least the architect of a great mistake, for his insistence that "the union must be preserved." Without the South, the United States would have turned out significantly different, probably resembling Europe or Canada with a more social democratic style of government. The South, meanwhile, would have endured slavery for a few more years but eventually would have undergone reform or seen a revolution that put the black majority in power. Perhaps a North American forerunner to Nelson Mandela in would have emerged to heal the wounds of slavery.

This is all, of course, idle speculation. But to a sizable number of my fellow countrymen it will sound treasonous. Patriotism is so thoroughly equated with the belief in bigness that any mention of a smaller United States seems to be interpreted as a wish for a weaker, poorer, less powerful country.

But is that really so? Looking around the world, it seems that small nations like the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, and the Netherlands have been able to deliver a good life to their citizens in spite of their size. Tiny Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are thriving since leaving the Soviet Union. Even tinier places like Iceland, Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands and Monaco are among the world's wealthiest nations.

Compare that to the failure of national behemoths like Russia, Brazil and Indonesia in fulfilling the promise of greatness that conventional wisdom says should be theirs. Germany, on the other hand, offers grim lessons. Once a patchwork of independent countries, it was a generally good neighbor for the rest of Europe until the late 1800s, when it morphed into a larger, unified country under the hand of Prussia. We all know the bloody results. That's why Nobel Prize-winning German author Günther Grass opposed reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The new Balkan nations seem happy to strike out on their own. Nostalgia for "greater" Yugoslavia seems to exist only in Serbia, and that's because they lorded over everyone else under that artificial arrangement. Some observers point to bloodshed in the region as a sign that small nations are a moral and practical disaster. But take a closer look. Things turned violent only when the rulers of larger political units wanted to block people from creating smaller ones.

All around the planet there seems to be a widespread belief that bigger is better – not just for nations but also for businesses and social institutions. But in reality this seems more faith than fact. We all have ample experiences of frustration or misfortune at the hands of huge, impersonal organizations. When it comes to schools, stores, buildings, neighborhoods, civic groups and many other aspects of life, small is not only beautiful, but more efficient and satisfying. The same likely holds true for nations. America might well be a greater, more equitable, more peaceful place if all the states were not united.

The Coast of Bohemia

John Reed, the definitive American bohemian of the 20th century, was described as a "Romantic Revolutionary" in the title of a definitive biography about his life. His fiery career as a writer and prophet of social transformation was sufficiently colorful that Warren Beatty made a Hollywood movie about his life in Greenwich Village during its non-conformist heyday before World War I. In both Reed's life and Beatty's great movie, bohemianism and radical politics were inalterably linked. Throughout most of the 20th century, in fact, it would be impossible to think of one without the other, no matter what the setting -- Paris of the existentialists and '68 rebels, London of Bloomsbury and punk rockers, San Francisco of the beats and hippies.

But the word "revolution" isn't likely to be found in the title of many bohemian memoirs and biographies of the 21st century. Politics in our era has been divorced from avant-garde lifestyles. That's the message from two new books that ambitiously chronicle the cutting edge of American culture: Bohemian Manifesto (Bullfinch) by Laren Stover and Hip: The History (Ecco) by John Leland, former editor of Details magazine and now a New York Times reporter.

It's not surprising that Marxism, which so intrigued Reed and other Greenwich Village radicals of the 1910s, is missing from these modern accounts of life on the wild side. Once a staple of bohemian philosophy, socialism has been in retreat almost everywhere since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But social change of any sort -- from environmentalism to helping the poor in the developing world -- is scarce in these otherwise comprehensive books.

Stover, who calls her book "a field guide to living on the edge," subdivides bohemians into five categories (nouveau, gypsy, beat, zen and dandy) and credits the zen crowd with at least some concern about animal rights and renewable energy. But that's about it. Her glimpses into la vie boheme today are entertaining, well-researched and surprisingly smart but the book resembles a fashion magazine more than a sociological study. There are chapters devoted to clothes, cuisine, hygiene, pets, books, astrology, cars, and even stationery -- but none to activism or social causes.

Leland is more serious in his approach to hip, which is closely related but not synonymous with bohemianism. Bohemians are rebellious, artistic and usually middle-class in origin, while hipsters cover a wider range that includes working-class communities, the criminal underclass and pop culture in its rawest forms. He authoritatively tracks the hip sensibility all the way back to African slaves adapting to a strange and cruel life in the New World, and pays a lot of attention along the way to music, drugs, and sex. This impressive book stands as a hidden history of the United States, celebrating the renegades and outcasts who embody the American dream just as fully as famous inventors, politicians and businessmen. Leland manages to be both thorough in his research and jazzy enough in his prose to do justice to the subject matter.

He tackles the issue of political engagement straight on, noting, "Though it likes a revolutionary pose, hip is ill-equipped to organize for a cause. No one will ever reform campaign finance laws under hip's banner nor save the environment."

Politics and the whole business of making the world a better place comes across as distinctly "square" in Leland's vision of hip and as a tad dull and not fabulous enough in Stover's manual on becoming a bohemian. But that's not always the case. The generation of 1968 in Europe and most anti-Vietnam War protesters in the U.S. were social as well as political rebels. So were the intellectuals and rock musicians who ignited the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and many of the millions worldwide who stood up against apartheid in South Africa.

The same holds true today. The sort of person who sees their mission in life as challenging the status quo is not likely to restrict themselves to art, fashion, and social trends. If prophetic ideas about global justice or ecological restoration arise some evening over espresso or absinthe, any bohemian hipster worth her salt is going to make a big noise telling the world about it. Leland and Stover show distinct blind spots toward the sharp political edge of so much contemporary art, theater, film, music, and dance.

The Iraq war and last year's American elections saw unprecedented numbers of artists and free thinkers around the world, many of whom previously ignored or disdained politics, call out for regime change in Washington D.C. In fact, George Bush's campaign made an issue of how John Kerry was the candidate of immoral un-American elements, including foreigners.

This, unfortunately, illustrates the limitations hipsters and bohemians face in trying to change the world -- not just in conservative America but everywhere. While their bold ideas and unconventional ways inspire some of us, much of the public is annoyed, aggravated or alienated by their fiercely non-conformist ways. It often happens that ideas and movements conceived on the scruffy, radical fringes of society are eventually carried out by less flamboyant sorts of people, who aren't averse to wearing a suit or editing four-letter words out of their conversation for the sake of the cause. Bohemia is the place where trailblazers break new ground and plant the seeds of change, but the harvest is often done by someone else. For all their fine work in researching and mapping out the cultural cutting edge, Stover and Leland seem to have missed that crucial point about the dynamics of social change.

But, curiously, Leland offers a poetic Walt Whitman quote, which he calls a "founding hipster manifesto," that could also qualify as the guidelines to political engagement as practiced by John Reed and other bona fide bohemian radicals:

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