Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Generating "knowledge," but gaining little wisdom

I had an absolutely wonderful time at Earthfest yesterday, where I talked with residents of Ann Arbor, students, administrators and staff about how trash speaks to larger environmental and social concerns. People were extremely curious about how to reduce trash generation, and were surprised to see how little trash I've created in the past six months. I am looking forward to more conversations and questions tomorrow on North Campus. Here is a picture of my table...

I met a truly fascinating man yesterday, Jason Bishop (picture below). He had absolutely fascinating stories of trash collection and recycling at the University Northern Texas, which is in Denton, TX. That's exactly where he's from. He was paid $75 per week, by a man who was interested in the plastics people threw away, to go through all the trash there and collect these plastics. He was allowed to keep the metals and cans, which added to his weekly wage. He also spent two years working on a garbage truck. Once when he was picking garbage up, he ran into a lady that was getting rid of a stereo, in mint condition, a brand new Sony system. She said that her daughter wanted a better brand, and so she was throwing this system away. Of course, Jason took the system...

Probably the most insightful comment of the day came from Graham, the outgoing (tears) head of the Student Sustainability Initiative. We were talking about whether our present state of environmental affairs was inevitable. We were also trying to think of decisive moments in our recent history that has led us to where we are. We both agreed that the development of the modern car and assembly line was one of these moments. Speaking to industrialisation more broadly, he said, "We've generated a lot of "knowledge" in the past two hundred years, but we've gained very little wisdom." This comment blew me away with its weight. We would hope our experiences, failures and accomplishments would define paths of greater wisdom. As time moves forward, so should our thoughtfulness, care and respect toward our world and its diversity grow. When we listen to the elders, we expect words filled with meaning defined through experience. Yet for all of the experiences of mankind in the past centuries, we behave as if every new problem we face has come from out of nowhere, and has no bearing on our future decisions. The Cuyahoga River catching fire, methyl isocyanate being released in Bhopal, petrochemicals being dumped in Cote d'Ivoire, birds being drowned alive in crude in the Gulf of Mexico, World War II...these are experiences we should have learned from, and should learn from. Where is wisdom? Does it only reside in the teachings of Confucius, Gautam Buddha and Mohammad, from centuries ago?

A day worth of trash from the Angell Hall complex being sorted.


  1. Reference Western medicine: don't look for the cause of the problem, only come up with a cure.

    I can think of countless problems in our society that follow this equation.

  2. Darshan---when will you have a meeting for people interested in doing a zero waste week or month?