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Archives for June 2009

Looking back over an action-packed odyssey

Justin Rowlatt | 17:51 UK time, Wednesday, 24 June 2009


You want an idea of the scale of the challenge global warming presents? A friend who works for Operation Noah put it like this: invisible gases produced by everything man does are allegedly affecting people on the other side world in ways that have not yet become clear. The problem is that by the time they do become clear it will be too late.

And, of course, what makes it even more difficult it that lots of people say this is all nonsense.

This blog, indeed the entire Ethical Man Reborn in the USA project, has been about exploring how one country, the United States, is trying to rise to this challenge.

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We've covered some amazing stories on this journey - forget the pig swill (which was featured on Have I Got News for You!), the billion dollar car, the wind turbines, the Hollywood stars - because what our journey was really all about was the issues.

We explored the psychological and technological hurdles to change we face.

We asked how might we begin to change the behaviour of a whole society.

We found one answer in Muskegon, Michigan, where our journey began. We asked Muskegonites what would make them use less fossil fuels. The answer they gave? Cash!

Indeed, President Barack Obama came to the same conclusion just as we were leaving for Washington DC.

The idea is to set a carbon price - to charge polluters to emit carbon dioxide. Now carbon pricing may excite economists, but are voters going to support it?

There is no question that a lot of Americans are sceptical. One congressman described the carbon pricing mechanism proposed by Mr Obama to me as "anti-American".

Attitudes like that may explain why we saw the Obama administration wooing an army of eco-activists to lobby for legislation.

But, as we travelled round the country we found a surprising range of people, from environmentalists to industrialists, who do support the idea. They included big companies as well garage inventors.

At one point I became convinced that I was watching a historic change, nothing less than a revolution in attitudes to climate change.

But I'd only been back in Britain for a couple of weeks when that optimism dissolved.

I would like you to go back and read some of our blog entries, if you haven't already, and tell me what you think. Because this is a crucial time for the US and the world. There are a selection of photos from journey here too.

What the US does on the climate will be crucial in determining whether a global treaty to limit emissions can be concluded as planned at Copenhagen in December.

In the meantime you can sign up to my Twitter feed here and I'll keep you posted about all my ethical activities and any interesting environmental developments I spot.

For those of you on Spotify, we have made a playlist of all the great music that's been featured in the Ethical Man: Reborn in the USA series. Everything from Gwen Stefani to Wynton Marsalis and Simian Mobile Disco.

And by the way, there will be one last Ethical adventure from America. It includes a genuine television first - footage of an Amish man yodelling with a horse! We'll post up a trail as soon as we can.

What do Las Vegas' all-you-can-eat buffets say about America?

Justin Rowlatt | 18:35 UK time, Wednesday, 10 June 2009

What do Las Vegas' all-you-can-eat buffets say about America?

The answer is not what you think but, before you read on, check out the latest Ethical Man film. It will give you a completely new perspective on gluttony.

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Now, everyone knows the US has an issue with portion sizes but the Las Vegas all-you-can-eat buffet takes greed to a whole new level.

"I probably ate $35 in lobster tails alone," one diner boasts after a typically lavish buffet.

"Menu included salmon, swordfish, oreo dory, crab legs, and stuffed crabs to name a few of the selections. For meat lovers, they also offer prime rib, BBQ beef ribs, and chicken dishes. To top it all off, the buffet has one of Las Vegas's best selections of high-quality desserts," they add.

What, no starters?

In Vegas you can eat till you burst from tables stacked with tasty treats like these for as little $5 a head. These buffets have helped swell Las Vegas' status as the official symbol of American profligacy and excess.

But it is my contention that the Vegas buffet is actually not really about food at all.

Las Vegas is all about gambling, and gambling - contrary to what most people think - is all about losing.

No-one wants to be a loser and, as a punter slides his or her first dollar into the slot, or their first chip on the table, of course they are hoping for a jackpot.

But the hundreds of dollars that follow are chasing that first one. Those dollars are spent in a vain effort to win back what they have lost.

Needless to say the casino owners know this. Their job is to try and ensure that the first dollar a punter loses is lost in their casino, because they will almost certainly lose all the ones that follow there too.

That is why the casinos subsidise those groaning buffets. They are nothing more than a lure, nothing more than peacock feathers.

It is also why casino owners build pyramids, volcanoes that erupt on the hour, life-size replicas of the Eiffel Tower and all the other extravagant nonsense on The Strip.

In a town with more than 183 casinos (according to my unscientific web search) your lure needs to be pretty extravagant to attract attention.

So, to understand Vegas' buffet culture, we have to ask why Vegas exists at all.

To understand the buffets, we have to understand why the least environmentally sound city on earth is flowering like some monstrous, water-loving orchid in the heart of one of the driest deserts on earth.

Now that does say something about America.

In the puritan 1930s Las Vegas was on the verge of extinction after the railroad that served it went bust.

It needed another source of income. At the time most states were clamping down on gambling - Nevada saw an opportunity, and issued the first casino licenses in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas has prospered because Nevada has remained the most liberal state in the Union when it comes to casino gambling.

It can only flourish because most states have very tight controls on what they consider an immoral activity.

So, in answer my original question, what Las Vegas buffets say about America is not how excessive American culture is, but actually how conservative American culture is.

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