RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Stories That Will Change Our Lives

Every year, there are one or two orphan calves at Rhonda's place. Then Roger brings them into the house to nurse them in a pen by the wood stove. Those that live become wonderful connections between us and the four-leggeds we depend on.

But when the bums don't make it, they die with an explosion of icky goo. "There's no way you can imagine how much stuff there is inside a calf," says Rhonda.

Sort of like 2004.

Much of the icky goo has been reported and analyzed, but some stories hid out in the back pages, if they made the news at all. Here are the 2004 stories that will change our lives:

10) GW's Election. Some see emerging fascism; others see emerging Puritanism. From mid-Missouri, it looks like emerging monarchy, complete with control of the workplace and markets and a royal disdain for the underclasses. The political-industrial power holders are designing laws and rules that benefit themselves as if to ensure that their power will continue. Ha!

9) It's Lonely at the Top. Royal families have problems that begin with their own isolation from reality. And in the US war on Iraq, GW's problems are too numerous to list. For example, news reports around the world have featured Iraqi women and children as victims of US assaults instead of focusing on heroic young soldiers and toppled despots. It's hard to get recruits if you can't glamorize war.

8) Angry Troops. Members of the Army Reserve's 343rd Quartermaster Co. in Iraq refused to get into their vehicles to make a delivery. Supporters have said the warriors felt in danger because of inadequate equipment. More recently, a few soldiers have questioned the stop-loss policy that keeps them in Iraq. Is it just me, or is it getting drafty around here?

7) Angry Allies. The US invasion was so ill-planned and unpopular that protests follow the commander-in-chief. Among the many examples: When GW visited Canada in November, protesters met him with an "unwelcome mat" and placards.

6) Angry Economy. In the next four years, we'll know if the sliding dollar puts America into Third-World status. The dollar's decline makes our products (if any) cheaper for citizens of other countries. So a New York dinner costs less than dinner in London. This encourages trade and tourism. But when investors buy bonds to finance our debt, it's harder to pay back the money. This is the fix Third-World countries find themselves in. Stay tuned.

5) Angry Nature. In the next four years, we'll know if climate change is a reality or if the hurricanes and typhoons this year were an aberration. In the meantime, ice caps are melting and desertification is displacing people. China's Gobi Desert is growing by 4,000 square miles a year. In Iran, more than 200 villages have been abandoned because of lack of water and in Nigeria, 1,350 square miles converted to desert last year.

4) The Other White Meat. Smithfield foods, the world's largest pork producer, has moved into Eastern Europe where there are no pesky environmental regulations and lots of cheap labor. In Poland, Smithfield gobbled up Morliny, the largest processor. They've bought two plants in Romania. Will we know if we're eating Eastern Europe's misery? No. Food labels don't list country of origin.

3) Bad Corn. Monsanto, a giant chemical company, campaign contributor and biotech supporter, is buying seed companies and now controls 14% of the seed business. Monsanto puts genes from other plants into corn so that the new, genetically-altered seeds (also called GMO, biotech, transgenic or GE) acquire traits not usually found in corn. For example, they perform well with Monsanto-created chemicals. Are they good for you? Good for the earth? Don't ask. Nobody knows.

2) Literacy in Crisis. In July, the National Endowment for the Arts released a survey revealing that in the last 20 years, the number of Americans that read books has declined by 10%. NEA chairman Dana Gioia reacted: "Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life ... To lose this human capacity -- and all the diverse benefits it fosters -- impoverishes both cultural and civic life." Amen!

1) Don't Despair. The top story of the year is the under-reported but undeniable slippage of the corporate paradigm. Solar and wind-generated electricity production is up, farmers' markets are thriving and there's even some car-sharing news. When you join Zipcar or Flexcar, you share vehicles with other members, a great solution if you can get by mostly with public transportation or other alternatives but need something larger now and then. Since about a third of a car's lifetime energy use goes up the stack when the vehicle is built, car-sharing helps you take control.

And to take further control, consumers abandoned the biggest shopping day of the year. Even Wal-Mart has lowered expectations for the annual spending spree. Proving once again: We're not pawns. We're citizens.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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