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Sweden versus America

What can we learn from each other?

Sweden vs. America: What can we learn from each other?

Sweden vs. America: What can we learn from each other?

Every country, every culture has something to teach. Dating a Swede for the past two years has led to numerous conversations contrasting our two countries. What is better about Sweden? What is better about America? In the ideal world, people would cherry-pick the best customs and laws from every culture to create a more optimal human society. Unfortunately, people are stubborn and change is slow. Yet conversations and sharing can plant seeds of change that take root over time. This essay compares and contrasts six broad areas of personal interest, revealing opportunities to improve quality of life in both our countries.

Sweden, along with many European countries, recognize allemansrätten, “everyman’s right” to roam the open countryside.

Sweden, along with many European countries, recognize allemansrätten, “everyman’s right” to roam the open countryside.

  1. Land of the Free, or Not?

America is often championed as a land of freedom, yet Americans are among the least-free peoples in the developed world. We are everywhere confronted with “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs that effectively lock us out of our own country. In comparison, Sweden, along with many European countries, recognize allemansrätten, “everyman’s right” to roam the open countryside. The public is allowed to hike, camp, and forage on private land in Sweden, provided that individuals are respectful, don’t trample crops or harass livestock, and don’t intrude on the landowner privacy, such as by pitching a tent near a home.

Similarly, although one cannot legally drive on a private road in Sweden, it is perfectly okay to walk, bicycle, or ride your horse down that same road. Swedes naturally respect private property and maintain positive relationships with landowners. (Click here for details and exceptions.) America would be a much nicer place if we emulated allemansrätten here, as detailed in my more extensive essay, Posted: Please Trespass.

Counter-intuitively, the Swedish right to roam doesn’t include the right to hunt or fish. Hunting and fishing rights largely belong to private landowners, who typically participate in regional cooperatives to manage leases. For example, we did a week-long, 116 km (72 mile) canoe trip on Sweden’s largest river, the Klarälven, which crossed through three different cooperatives. Each cooperative issues a separate fishing license, which must be purchased in person at different towns along the way, from stores that may or may not be open. (Click here for details.) In the U.S., hunting and fishing is managed by individual states. A fishing license in Montana, for example, is good throughout the state. If you can legally access the water then you can legally fish there.

Overall, Swedes enjoy more freedom than Americans. However, Americans recognize other basic rights that Swedes do not. For example, the need for a toilet is dictated by bodily functions, making it a basic human necessity and a fundamental right according to American customs. Free public toilets are often abundant in the states. Americans also expect free access to toilets in most private businesses, including grocery stories, office supply stores, and banks. Free toilets are comparatively rare across most of Europe. Public institutions, such as museums, are often vastly underserved for the number of visitors, and many public places, such as train stations, offer only coin-operated toilets. In Sweden, the typical cost to access a public toilet is 10 krona ($1.30). Swedes can ask to use toilets in private businesses, but it is culturally uncommon to do so.

Swedish houses.

New houses in Sweden averaged 893 square feet in 2009, compared to 2,164 square feet in America, trending towards 2,700 square feet today.

  1. Everything is Bigger in America

It is well known that portion sizes are smaller in European countries than in America. A “large” cup at a fast food restaurant is equivalent to a small cup in the states. For better or worse, Americans typically have bigger houses, bigger trucks, bigger stores, bigger containers, bigger portion sizes, and bigger bellies.

Family size has shrunk over recent decades, yet house sizes have significantly increased, at least in the states. Current statistics are hard to find, but new houses in Sweden averaged 893 square feet in 2009, compared to 2,164 square feet in America, trending towards 2,700 square feet today. Americans possess more indoor space, often chock full of toys ranging from treadmills to pool tables.

Ditto for recreational vehicles. Few Swedes own campers, preferring to rent camper vans as needed, offering about 80 square feet of living space. In comparison, many Americans park oversized RVs and motorhomes in the driveway, with larger models exceeding 400 square feet and some new models exceeding $200,000.

Cars and trucks are also larger on average in the states than in Sweden. I had one neighbor who drove an oversize, 12 mpg pickup with a one-ton haul capacity, which she used to haul her 50-pound child 15 miles to school and back (four trips x 15 miles daily). Not surprisingly, Americans consume 50% more oil per capita than Swedes.

America has vastly bigger stores than Sweden, including numerous “big box” stores such as Walmart, Costco, or Target. Aside from Ikea, Sweden’s own big box chain, most Swedes shop at smaller, specialized stores.

Container sizes and portion sizes are also larger in the states. Coming from Sweden, my girlfriend is astounded by our 60-ounce peanut butter jars and 3-pound bags of M&Ms, all at affordable prices. Before going home, she stops at the grocery store, filling empty space in her suitcase with peanut butter, oversize cans of beans, pancake mix, brownie mix, and anything else she can squeeze in the load.

On the surface, bigger seems better. But is it really? Americans are plagued by more square footage to heat and cool, vacuum, paint, and organize. Americans are vastly wealthy in possessions, yet often unfathomably indebted. We pay less for fuel, but buy more of it. We “super size” our meals for a bargain price, yet we pay for it with bigger bellies, reduced mobility, and arguably a lower quality of life. Not surprisingly, Swedes live an average of three years longer than Americans.

Swedish Coins

The loose change pictured here, leftover from my travels, adds up to 47 krona or approximately US$5.77. Similar denominations would add up to 47¢.

  1. Money Matters

Although Sweden is a member of the European Union, the country has thus far retained its own currency, the krona, rather than adopting the Euro. As with the Euro, the krona has substantial value for loose change. For example, 1 krona, the Swedish equivalent of a penny, is worth approximately US12¢, while the 10 krona coin is worth about $1.25. The loose change pictured here, leftover from my travels, adds up to 47 krona or approximately US$5.77. In other words, loose change has real value, unlike the U.S., where similar denominations would add up to 47¢.

Traveling in both Sweden and Italy, I noticed that coins were convenient for cash transactions. Larger denomination coins are common in either country, such as the 20 krona coin ($2.46) in Sweden or a 2 Euro coin in Italy ($2.35), so a handful of pocket change might add up to US$10 or $20, making coins at least as convenient as paper currency.

In comparison, American coins lack sufficient value to make ordinary purchases, consuming an enormous amount of time for customers or vendors to count out worthless change. Coin currency could be greatly improved in the U.S. if we discontinued the penny and nickel and potentially the dime. The U.S. Mint would greatly prefer that Americans use $1 coins, which cost less than shredding and reprinting worn out $1 bills. Adding a $2 coin and possibly a $5 coin would simplify coin transactions and likely make $1 coins much more popular.

On the other hand, while coin transactions are easier in Sweden, the nation is actually leading the world transition towards a cashless economy. Overall, cash transactions are rapidly declining. Checks are virtually unknown and unimaginable in Sweden. I received incredulous stares when I described using checks in the states. People prefer to pay via online payments and credit cards. Even credit card use is beginning to fade as commerce transitions to all-digital payment systems.

Visby Medieval Festival

At the Medieval Festival in Visby, Gottland, the juxtaposition of customers wearing centuries-old clothing while buying lunch with smart phones created a strangely incongruous scene.

This trend towards digital commerce was especially evident at the Medieval Festival in Gotland. As might be logically expected, cash still circulated at this old-time market. Yet most vendors also boldly displayed SWIFT code numbers for digital payments. Standing in line at a Medieval food vendor, the juxtaposition of customers wearing centuries-old clothing while buying lunch with smart phones created a strangely incongruous scene. In comparison, few vendors at the festival accepted credit cards.

The downside towards adopting a cashless economy is that older generations are slowest to change, creating inconvenience for many, especially now that the country has begun dismantling ATMs due to declining use.

Cut finger.

Like most countries with socialized medicine, Swedes like their healthcare system.

  1. The Great Healthcare Debate

The most common comparison between Sweden and America regards our vastly different healthcare systems, for which Americans have strong opinions, typically with little actual experience or knowledge to back it up. In Sweden, going to the doctor costs 200 SEK or about $25 per visit for a maximum limit of 1,100 SEK ($137) per year. All subsequent appointments are free. As if that isn’t free enough, healthcare is entirely free for minors in Sweden. Like most countries with socialized medicine, Swedes like their healthcare system.

Knee X-Ray

Medicine in America is a more terrifying prospect. Americans typically avoid doctors and hospitals when possible, and many people suffer debilitating ailments for years or decades because they cannot afford treatment.

Medicine in America is a more terrifying prospect. Americans typically avoid doctors and hospitals when possible, and many people suffer debilitating ailments for years or decades because they cannot afford treatment. Visits to the emergency room are avoided except in dire situations. Instead of seeking immediate help, patients must debate the severity of an issue, and when possible, delay treatment long enough to schedule an appointment with a doctor days or weeks later to avoid emergency room or hospital rates.

My girlfriend, for example, had an allergic reaction to a bee sting in my front yard, which is 30 miles from the nearest medical clinic. To a Swede, it is a no-brainer to go directly to the hospital or even call an ambulance to ensure expedient care. Being in America, however, the same issue requires more extensive monitoring and evaluation. How bad is the allergic reaction Can we control it with Benadryl? How fast is it spreading? Can she still breathe? Will she still be breathing if I drive to the emergency room instead of calling an ambulance?

These are serious questions that must be cautiously addressed. Responding too conservatively can be dangerous. Over-reacting can be fiscally crippling. In our case, I brought her to the emergency room myself, sans the ambulance, yet still paid $580 for emergency services for a mere bee sting. American healthcare lacks any safety net to compensate for the loss. Coincidentally, this incident happened just as Mylan jacked the price of the Epipen up to $800 each, which industry analysts estimated cost the company only $30 to produce. Janeth went back to Sweden and purchased an Epipen for approximately US$40.

Knee Surgery

ACL Knee Surgery: With my “bronze” insurance plan, I paid “only” for the insurance, plus the $5,600 deductible, while the insurance company covered the balance of $20,300.

The Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare,” was intended to help fix the American system. However, instead of addressing root causes of outrageous healthcare costs, Congress merely passed legislation requiring citizens to purchase costly health insurance or pay a tax penalty. Obamacare led to my first-ever health insurance, which I needed for surgery and physical therapy to replace a torn ACL, the tendon in the middle of the knee. With my “bronze” insurance plan, I paid “only” for the insurance, plus the $5,600 deductible, while the insurance company covered the balance of $20,300. I was fortunate that the operation and physical therapy fit in the same calendar year, so I didn’t have to pay the deductible twice. In Sweden, the clock starts after the first appointment, so the total cost would not exceed $137, even if it the appointments were split over January 1st.

Americans worry that adopting socialized medicine would result in vastly higher taxes like Sweden. Although Swedes pay as little as 29 percent of their wages towards income taxes, other taxes and employer payments push the effective tax rate up to 40 – 60 percent, depending on income levels. In comparison, the American cost for federal, state, and local taxes, plus Social Security and Medicare withholdings, adds up to an estimated 30 percent average tax rate.

Swedish taxes are higher, but not necessarily due to socialized medicine. Ironically, Americans pay more taxes ($5,960/person in 2013) to subsidize healthcare in our privatized system than any other nation, including countries like Sweden that offer universal healthcare.  Free enterprise should theoretically lower prices and improve healthcare, yet we have among the most expensive healthcare and poorest life-expectancy of any developed nation. We could probably learn something from the Swedes, whether or not we precisely copy their healthcare system.

Stockholm Central Station

Within Stockholm, a single magnetic stripe card can be used to jump from bus to subway to commuter train or even boat to travel quickly to any part of the city.

  1. Beam Me Up

Public transportation in Sweden is truly one of the wonders of the modern world. Sweden is slightly larger than Montana with a population equivalent to Georgia, yet with comprehensive and thoroughly integrated public transportation that includes busses, subways, trains, boats, and “bicycle highways.”

Within Stockholm, for example, a single magnetic stripe card can be used to jump from bus to subway to commuter train or even boat to travel quickly to any part of the city. Stockholm is sometimes described as the “Venice of the North,” being spread out over many islands, hence the necessity of including boat travel for shortcuts in the city transportation system.

Stockholm Subway

Although not cheap, at approximately $14 for 72 hours or $106 monthly, the Swedish system is efficient and the subways, trains, and busses are mostly new or in like-new condition.

Stockholm Central accesses layers upon layers of subways, with the newest platforms located three, three-story escalators below the surface. Although not cheap, at approximately $14 for 72 hours or $106 monthly, the system is efficient and the subways, trains, and busses are mostly new or in like-new condition.

Train and bus service is available to towns big and small throughout the country, and local busses are pervasive. In the small town of Höllviken (population 10,000) for example, sparkling new busses continuously crawled the streets for passengers to transport across town or to local hubs to connect with larger cities.

Highways in Sweden seemed thoroughly adequate, yet Swedes also found the resources to develop a parallel system of bicycle trails and “bicycle highways” along most highways and main roads throughout towns big and small. Rather than sandwiching bicycle lanes between traffic lanes and parked cars, as is common in the states, the Swedes largely built a separate system, providing safe and separate tracks and underpasses for cyclists and pedestrians. Consequently, bicycling is so popular in Sweden that bike racks for 500+ bikes are common. The town square in Uppsala, a college town, included a bike rack complex filled with several thousand bicycles.

Bicycle Rack in Uppsala, Sweden.

Bicycling is so popular in Sweden that bike racks for 500+ bikes are common. The town square in Uppsala, a college town, included a bike rack complex filled with several thousand bicycles.

Many sidewalks are texturized into separate lanes for pedestrians versus cyclists, and standing in the wrong lane can be hazardous to unaware foreigners when cyclists expect pedestrians to be in the other lane. Swedes extend their coding system to the blind, providing specially-textured lines down many sidewalks, even through many public buildings, that can be navigated by feel underfoot.

In comparison, the entire state of Montana has fewer bicycle trails than any moderate-sized town in Sweden. Only the largest cities in Montana offer city busses, mostly underutilized and too few and far between to be of much use anyway. Bus service to small towns is largely nonexistent. The nearest train station is a six-hour drive away, and since it is more expensive than flying, I’ve never yet been on a train in America. Being a rural state, we have no subways or commuter trains whatsoever. If you don’t have a car in Montana, “public transportation” largely requires hitchhiking.

BART Subway System

Coming home from Sweden through Oakland, California seemed like going to a third-world country. The BART commuter system was old, ugly, slow, and too loud to carry on a conversation.

Coming home from Sweden through Oakland, California seemed like going to a third-world country. The BART commuter system was old, ugly, slow, and too loud to carry on a conversation. Some passengers plugged their ears to endure the journey. A one-way trip across the Bay cost almost as much as a 72-hour citywide pass in Stockholm, yet didn’t include bus fare beyond BART. Outside the windows, the Bay Area was heavily covered in graffiti, litter, and old, decrepit cars. I felt like I just landed in Mexico, except that I was in Mexico City earlier this year, and their subway system was vastly superior.

Many American cities have better public transportation systems than the Bay Area, but no city or state compares to Sweden’s comprehensive, futuristic network covering all facets of transportation. How does a tiny country fund a public transportation system that is more elaborate than anything Americans could conceive of funding? Higher taxes are unquestionably a factor. In addition to funding free healthcare for all, the Swedes heavily subsidize public infrastructure, and as we shall see, many other public perks as well.

City Library in Stockholm

The City Library in Stockholm. How can a small country on top of the world afford to provide free education and free healthcare for all, plus family subsidies, a first-rate public transportation system, and scores of other perks? Even with higher taxes, the math doesn’t seem to add up.

  1. Magical Math

In Sweden, the numbers don’t seem to add up, even with higher taxes. It isn’t just free healthcare or the expansive public transportation. Its also free higher education, and at times, seemingly free everything.

In the states, college students often graduate $100,000 or more debt (the national average is $37,000), even while working through school, with no guarantee that they will get a job with their degree. In Sweden, college is free. Students must pay for textbooks (or borrow them from the library), and they need to cover living expenses, but tuition is 100 percent free. Swedes can enroll in school full-time, part-time, finish in a few years, or take classes continuously for life.

Nevertheless, student loan debt is surprisingly high in Sweden due to the high cost of urban living and a Swedish tradition for children to become self-supporting a couple years after high school. Students can obtain school loans for up to 12 semesters worth of study before age 54. The debt incurs low interest, presently about 0.6 percent. Students are expected to begin repaying the loan six months after receiving the last payment, according to each person’s ability to pay. Any remaining student loans are forgiven when a Swede reaches 65 – 68 years old.

The government also heavily subsidizes tuition for Swedes at other universities throughout the word. Until recently, Swedes even offered free education to international students schooling within Sweden.

In addition, the government subsidizes families of all income levels with a modest 1,050 SEK (+/- $130) monthly stipend to help offset childcare expenses. Families with six children are paid the standard 1,050 per child (6,300/month), plus an additional 4,114 SEK family supplement to help defray expenses (Source).

Parents are granted 480 days paid leave from work to split between them when they have a baby or adopt a child. Employees can claim an additional 120 days paid leave per child per year up to twelve years old to care for sick children. In addition, Swedish employees enjoy approximately 25 days of paid vacation, plus 16 paid holidays every year, varying by profession and age.

Brownie with Swedish Flag

America once offered a beacon of hope to the world. Yet, in 2016, Sweden topped the U.S., with 163,000 refugees seeking asylum there, compared to 101,000 refugees and asylum seekers admitted in America.

To top it all off, Sweden accepts more refugees in proportion to its population than any other developed nation. In the 1990s Sweden accepted 100,000 refugees from the Balkan Wars, mostly Bosnians, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Since then, Sweden has accepted refugees from throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, recently including vast numbers of Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians fleeing Middle East conflict. In 2016, Sweden topped the U.S., with 163,000 refugees seeking asylum there, compared to 101,000 refugees and asylum seekers admitted in America.

Fifteen percent of Sweden’s population is now foreign-born. Immigrants often lack the higher education, language, and job skills necessary to find employment in Sweden, leading to years of welfare dependency. Yet, the Swedes have somehow provided transitional funding for food and housing expenses, plus ongoing child subsidies and the similar education and healthcare perks enjoyed by all Swedes.

How can a small country on top of the world afford to provide free education and free healthcare for all, plus family subsidies, a first-rate public transportation system, and scores of other perks? Even with higher taxes, the math doesn’t seem to add up. To a certain extent, it doesn’t, which is why Sweden is necessarily trimming services to citizens and re-evaluating its immigration programs.

Nor does the math add up in the states, where Americans spend as much on national defense as the next eight countries combined, including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany. Including direct and indirect costs, sixteen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, have cost the U.S. an estimated $5 trillion, with little tangible improvement on the ground. (Indirect costs include interest on the debt and long-term healthcare costs for veterans.) Sadly, the national debt stands at $20 trillion, meaning that we could have significantly reduced the debt if had not gone to war. Americans may not pay as much in taxes today, but we are billing war expenses to future generations while settling for second-rate services and crumbling infrastructure.

Old Visby City Wall

Throughout history, civilizations have funded civil works projects to consume surplus wealth. Projects such as the City Wall around Old Visby, Gottland, served as an early form of defense spending, arguably to fend off outside attacks, but also useful for taming civilian unrest.

  1. Surplus Wealth

All industrial nations struggle with the misunderstood problem of surplus wealth. Due to industrialization, only a fraction of the population does real work to provide houses, roads, cars, schools, hospitals, food and medicine to the masses. All other people must be employed in pseudo jobs that serve the dual function of spreading wealth throughout the populace while keeping everyone too busy chasing their own tail to complain about or revolt over the status quo. Call it an unconscious conspiracy. We worry about the unemployment rate and strive to create new work whether it produces anything useful or not.

The American economy nurtures many inefficiencies that consume resources without producing anything, but effectively redistributes wealth and keeps unemployment rates down. For example, American households and businesses collectively spend 8.9 billion hours per year on accounting and paperwork associated with filing federal income taxes. That’s the equivalent of 4.3 million people employed full-time to do nothing but tax paperwork. In dollar terms, that works out to about $409 billion/year for no tangible return.  In comparison, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) survives on only $19 billion/year.

NASA Logo

NASA’s budget of $19 billion/year is miniscule compared to the $409 billion/year in time Americans spend complying with federal tax paperwork.

Instead of paying engineers and astronauts, we dedicate resources towards paying accountants and tax consultants. Millions more people are employed to provide their computers, tax software, office buildings, janitorial services, and espresso. Even logging and pulping interests benefit as trees are cut and converted to paper to print copious copies of paperwork. Switching to an automatic, fixed tax, such as a carbon tax, would virtually eliminate the labor cost associated with paying taxes and eliminate millions of jobs, or arguably free those resources to work on something else, such as public transportation or the space program.

Comparatively, Sweden’s tax system is largely automated, Skatteverket, the Swedish Tax Agency, sends annual tax forms to citizens already completed, requiring only a cursory check for accuracy. The more efficient system allows resources to be directed towards public works projects.

Nevertheless, the Swedish economy nurtures other inefficiencies that consume resources without producing anything. As any Swede will testify, authorities regulate nearly everything. As one Swedish friend discovered when applying for a building permit, the government mandates that a new house must have baby-proof drawers for knives, trash, and medicine before you can move into your home—even if you have no children.

Flock of Sheep

Just owning a flock of a dozen sheep requires government oversight, and authorities can show up any time for an inspection to insure that the animals are being properly cared for.

Just owning a flock of a dozen sheep requires government oversight, and authorities can show up any time for an inspection to insure that the animals are being properly cared for.

The difference between the Swedish and the American systems for consuming surplus wealth is that the Swedes consume resources and provide free education, healthcare, and subsidized public transportation, while Americans consume resources and produce copious paperwork and lots of bombs. Overall, the Swedes arguably get a better return for their investment.

Socialism vs. Capitalism

Tom and Janeth Canoeing

Americans are deathly afraid of socialism, yet we are in many aspects a socialist country.

The difference between America and Sweden is often viewed as the difference between capitalism and socialism. Strikingly, while Americans are deathly afraid of socialism, we are in many aspects a socialist country. Visiting most national parks, we can be grateful to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression for building the infrastructure we enjoy today. In America, we enjoy toll-free roads, toll-free bathrooms, and millions of acres of toll-free public land for recreation.

Comparatively, at the central station in Malmö, Sweden, as is true across most of Europe, there are no free public bathrooms. Leaving the espresso shop in search of a toilet, there isn’t one in the food court as it would logically be placed in the U.S. Five minutes of wandering around the station tracking signs finally revealed the centralized bathroom, with the desk clerk waiting with an outstretched palm to take 10 krona ($1.25) to enter the restroom. That is the capitalist model we idealize in the states, yet it is not the reality we earnestly desire.

In conclusion, there is much that Americans can learn from the Swedes, and much the Swedes could learn from Americans. No country on earth is perfect, yet we can emulate the best that each nation has to offer to improve quality of life, prosperity, and sustainability for all.

Elpel.info logo.Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit.

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Russian Roulette with a Bottle

"Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky."

“Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky.”

The True Cost of Drinking
      One gun. One bullet. Spin the chamber. Pass it around. Each person puts the gun to their head and pulls the trigger. One person dies. The others live and call it entertainment. Sound barbaric? Americans play the game on a daily basis, but we don’t use a loaded gun. Instead, we use a loaded bottle, and it is just as lethal.
      Almost any adult can name at least one person they have lost to alcohol. A parent. A sibling. A cousin. An aunt or uncle. A childhood friend. A neighbor down the street. For some, it was drunk driving. For others, it was binge drinking or cirrhosis of the liver. Others never tasted alcohol, but were mowed down by someone who did. Many who lost their lives are not dead. But alcohol cost them their job, their marriage, their family, and their dignity. Some lost their mobility and dreams to a beer-belly and never regained their freedom. Controlled by alcohol, the bottles and cans stack up into great piles for the dumpster, or hang on wires around the garden to scare away the birds. Nearly everyone can think of someone who lost their life to alcohol in some way or another, but strangely that knowledge doesn’t stop people from drinking.
"The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents."

“The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents.”

      Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky. The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents.
      Statistics vary from source to source, but according to the Council on Alcoholism, about 85,000 Americans die from alcohol-related issues every year, including about 16,000 from drunk driving or drunk drivers. Alcohol is also implicated in about one fourth of all emergency-room admissions, one third of all suicides, more than half of all homicides, and half of all incidents of domestic violence. Alcohol is associated with unplanned and unprotected sex, sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, and abortions. About 1,700 college students are killed in alcohol-related incidents in the U.S. every year, but they are generally considered expendable because they are someone else’s children, not ours. It is part of the cost of roulette. We accept their loss as necessary in order for the rest of us to have a good time.
      That is the reality of Russian roulette. It is a game. It requires winners as well as losers. The odds are pretty good for any one individual. It is only a question of whom we are willing to sacrifice for our entertainment. Point the bottle around the room at friends, family members, and strangers.
"Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we willingly gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle."

“Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle.”

      Alcohol will ruin the life of one out of every thirteen people in the room, whether or not it actually kills them. Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we willingly gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle.
      In the effort to make roulette safer, people are encouraged to “drink responsibly.” Put the bottle to your head. Just don’t get trigger happy, or at least don’t try driving after you’ve blown your brains out. Responsible drinking works great for the winners, not so great for the losers. How many people have been seriously maimed or killed in a drunk driving accident after attending a funeral for someone who died driving drunk? Sadly, it happens all too often.
"Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior."

“Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior.”

      Drinking alcohol is a mimicked behavior, and participants are recruited early into the game. Give alcohol to a child, and they will likely recoil in disgust the first time they try it. But adults act like alcohol is special, fun, and tastes good. Drinking and partying is glorified in television and movies. Drink it enough times, and a child learns to like it. Some families are so alcohol-oriented that every party and family reunion is a drinking escapade, as if they wouldn’t know how to interact with each other as authentic human beings without alcohol. Children learn that it is necessary to drink in order to have fun, fit in socially, and play the game. In my home state of Montana, drinking is a way of life, indoctrinated early.
On July 14, 2011 Megan turned 20 years old, and only 2 days later on July 16, as she celebrated her birthday with friends by floating the river and drinking, Megan thought she was okay to drive. She crossed the center lane and was hit by on-coming traffic and she died instantly.

On July 14, 2011 Megan turned 20 years old, and only 2 days later on July 16, as she celebrated her birthday with friends by floating the river and drinking, Megan thought she was okay to drive. She crossed the center lane and was hit by on-coming traffic and she died instantly.

      In rural communities, the bar is often the town center. Kids flow in and out of the bar as they grow up. They play pool while the adults drink. But teenagers drink at the bars, too. I stopped by the town bar one lively night this past summer to check out the music and street dancing. My recently graduated son’s eighteen-year-old classmates were also at the bar, drinking beer and totally smashed. The adults knew they were underage. The cops knew it. Nobody cared. As one of the boys said when he went on a camping trip with us, “I’ve never been in the woods when I wasn’t drunk before.” It is a way of life here. Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior.
      I was fortunate to grow up in a family where alcohol wasn’t particularly important. It wasn’t celebrated, and it wasn’t a game. Nor was it consumed in sufficient quantity to change anyone in that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde way that is often encouraged by other people. I’ve tried alcohol, but never drank enough when I was younger to acquire a taste for it, and at this point, probably never will. I don’t mind when other people drink, unless they make a big deal out of it and carry on like they are mimicking some party scene they saw on television. I would rather socialize with real human beings.
      As a nondrinker, it is perpetually incomprehensible to me why anyone would desire to drink until they puke their guts out, then engage in behavior that results in a trip to the emergency room or an unplanned pregnancy, only to suffer through a hangover the following day — all in the name of “fun.” There are a million ways to have fun without getting wasted and feeling lousy. It is a sad commentary on the quality of life in our culture that people find it necessary to get drunk on the weekends to forget for a moment how dreary their lives are the rest of the time.
Beer bottles discarded in a dumpster... by the recycling bin.

Beer bottles discarded in a dumpster… by the recycling bin.

      Roulette is not so great for the planet, either. Beer commercials often highlight beautiful scenery, but there is a direct connection between getting wasted and wasting the planet. Beer cans and broken beer bottles are strewn along millions of miles of highways. They can be found littered along most floatable rivers. They accumulate in fire pits and around the parking lots at campgrounds and outdoor recreation sites. We would be lucky if litter was the beginning and the end of the problem, but it isn’t. It is fundamentally an issue of self-respect. People who lack the self-respect to take care of their own bodies are less likely to respect other living beings and the environment. Here in Montana, for example, beer and guns are a common combination, as people drink while blowing away ground squirrels for entertainment. Those who lack respect for themselves are more likely to work meaningless or environmentally destructive jobs. Getting wasted on the weekends only ensures continued entrapment to destructive behaviors.
"People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment."

“People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment.”

      That is perhaps the great irony of the great escape. People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment. It is an imaginary escape that leaves a person enslaved to meaningless or destructive employment to pay for a meaningless and destructive addiction. Perpetuating the game is good only for padding corporate profits. True freedom requires breaking free from the game to play life by one’s own rules.
      Unfortunately, no one can legislate freedom or end the game. Alcohol is a cornerstone problem linked to broken dreams, broken marriages, broken families, domestic violence, homicides, and wasting the planet, and yet, there is no person or entity on earth powerful enough to outlaw the game or enforce such a law if it were passed. Prohibition was an utter failure, and arguably only glorified alcohol even more.
      What we can do is lessen the impacts to the greatest possible degree. For example, states with deposit fees on cans and bottles have higher recycling rates and far less litter and waste than states without deposit fees. We can also hold corporations responsible for their part in encouraging addictive and destructive behavior. For example, the bags of cans and bottles that pile up at an alcoholic’s home typically come from only a couple major corporations, such as Anheuser–Busch (Budweiser) and MillerCoors. Ditto for most of the cans and bottles littered along our highways and rivers. These companies profit at the expense of individual lives and should be required to do more to rectify the problems caused by their products, or taxed sufficiently to fund treatment and counseling for everyone who needs it. Local microbrews, on the other hand, are not usually associated with destructive behaviors and should be exempt from such requirements. Beyond that, the best that any one individual can do is to refuse to play the game and set an example for our children, our families, and our friends, that drinking isn’t particularly interesting or important.

      Thomas J. Elpel is the author of six books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit. He has often dreamed of getting into politics and making a positive difference in the world, yet recognizes that it might be difficult to get elected if he cannot sit down and drink a beer like a “regular guy.”

Drinking

Hi Tom,

You wrote an article last year on the destructive elements of alcohol and it’s been really helpful to me quit drinking. I find myself going back to it frequently. It’s been a recurring problem for me but I’ve been fortunate not to get into any serious trouble. Your work is very inspiring to me, thank you.

When you have a lot of Native American blood like me, the odds are really against you. But I’m determined to keep positivity in my life as a focus. Groups like AA don’t take the attention off the problem and can keep someone overly identified with their problems… in my experience anyway.

–Max H.

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