Monday, September 27, 2010

At what point is something a problem?

While having dinner with Krista and Serge last night, Serge wondered, "Is waste and trash only a problem if they cause sickness to someone?"

This post is for the sociologists out there. I am wondering at what point something becomes a problem big enough that people feel compelled to take action about it. This seems to tie together a lot of threads I have been trying to articulate over the past few weeks - visibility versus invisibility of trash, broken cycles, problem definition, and the scales of trash formation. I thought about this because there is a potentially big problem we are in the process of creating, and it is likely to be significant in the near future - drugs, pesticides and hormones in water. These are of course, much more silent and invisible threats than real physical trash, yet are still another manifestation of the same fundamental problems we have in our society.

I went to a talk by Professor Tyrone Hayes of UC Berkeley a couple of years ago, in which he talked about the growing amount of atrazine being washed into drinking waters, and waters in which amphibians breed. This pesticide, which is used in large amounts for growing corn, has the potential to turn male frogs into hermaphrodites.

Below is a picture of various drugs and anti-depressants that are now commonly found in fish living downstream of sewage facilities (from the National Geographic).

Our sewage treatment facilities also do not clean our waters for birth control hormones, the concentrations of which have been increasing in drinking water.

I don't mean to sound all negative and pessimistic, but these are serious issues, and again, an indication that things just aren't right. Now, what does it take to get people motivated enough to realise that this is a problem of waste, degradation, and pollution? What does it take for us to make linkages in our minds and hearts between these problems, that on the surface may seem disconnected, yet are manifestations of the same problem?


  1. I enjoyed our conversation about this the other day Darshan.

    Today I received an assignment to answer a very similar question, posed by Mike Shriberg:
    In your reading for last week, Ray Anderson from Interface carpeting was quoted as saying: "Once one understands this (environmental) crisis, no thinking person can standly idly by and do nothing” Do you think this is true? If so, why are we still on an unsustainable path?

    I wanted to post my answer here (I apologize for the length but hopefully it speaks on the issue...)

    I disagree with the statement that “once one understand this (environmental crisis, no thinking person can stand idly by and do nothing,” a quote by Ray Anderson. Like many other devastating conflicts happening around the world (i.e. poverty, food insecurity…), the environmental crisis is not a concern in the minds of the average American.

    Technology is an amazing part of modern society, however, in my opinion, it has lead to unfortunate consequences. Communication technology has connected continents yet it has stunted real-life human interactions. With a electronic device acting as an interpersonal shield, there is a sense of individualism and disconnect from person to person.

    Also, one of the ultimate goals of new technological feats is to increase a consumer’s convenience, an asset that has become a necessity in many situations. For example, driving to a destination instead of biking because it cuts down on travel time though it increases carbon emissions, ordering delivery instead of baking a meal even though it will lead to unnecessary waste like plastic containers and utensils.

    I do believe that one of the main factors preventing an environmental revolution is lack of knowledge and education to the average citizen. Many people know that there is some sort of problem, whether its global warming or pollution, but beyond knowing certain buzz words, most are unaware.

    However, I have met peers who are well informed on environmental issues and are still taking no part in the solution. When describing my “sustainability goal,” a friend told me that I was making him feel guilty. This is where societal norms and expectations step in. In our industrial society, value is placed on growth, productivity, efficiency, and consumption. These values typically lead to a negative environmental impact though certain environmentalists can take advantage of this, i.e. explaining how a household can save money (not lower carbon emissions) by turning down the heat in the winter.

    I know of others who are simply overwhelmed by the size of the issue. It is sometimes hard to make a change when the impact on an individual level is miniscule in comparison to the problem. It is a daunting task to internalize the environmental crisis and not only ask what needs to be done? but what can I do?

    A step to engaging people to ask these questions and taking action, to making people realize that individual efforts make an impact and are possible, is to see others doing it themselves. If a peer takes on a personal challenge to produce zero-waste for a year, many become intrigued and ask questions about how such a lifestyle is possible and a seed has been planted, questioning of your own lifestyle is the outcome.

    In conclusion, I think that there are many individuals that understand the environmental crisis, however without knowledge of how individual efforts make a difference and peers who are changing their lifestyles and taking action, these people will remain idle.

  2. Samantha,

    It is extremely coincidental that as soon as you start thinking about something, many potentially disparate conversations and threads of thought seem to comment on the issue.

    I was listening to a conversation between Krista Tippett and Nicholas Kristof on Being (it used to be called Speaking of Faith). Kristof has traveled the world highlighting atrocities, but at the same time, he has made strong connections with "perpetrators" and those "persecuted." They were talking about exactly this issue - When is it that people decide to stand and take an action against something? His answer is very telling. He said that we need to speak to people's emotions first, develop empathy in them, and that then serves as a portal to numbers/facts/education playing a supporting role.

    You can listen to the whole conversation at