Friday, April 30, 2010

On Freedom and Progress

One of the important concerns I have with large-scale, broad, and fundamental concepts is the problem of defining what these mean. "Sustainability" has come to mean so many things to so many people. For example, companies like BP and Anglo-American have kidnapped the word to mean things that legitimise what they do to consumers of their products. People may think that simply changing their incandescents to compact fluorescents makes them "sustainable." As I mentioned in the last post, it seems imperative that we have some common notions of what these issues, sentiments, and values mean, in order to have more than adequate solutions to them.

I have read some wonderful articles in Orion recently, one talking about freedom (by Jay Griffiths), and one about progress (Derrick Jensen). Griffiths elaborates on human freedoms, and how freedom has become a justification for opposing any sort of environmental restrictions. Freedom is defined as the rich and powerful people and corporations define it; they are free to throw punches, but freedom is not the freedom of the powerless to protect themselves from being hurt by those punches. Further, our current notions of what is good, i.e. values like ambition, pride, speed, and success are what Griffiths calls unfettered traits or emotions. These are contrasted with fettered emotions - " honesty you are bound to tell the truth. You are tied by respect, you are linked by love, you are tethered by kindness to kinship with nature, and restrained by a sense of justice and law." Further, what are the rights and freedoms of our rivers, watersheds, trees, air and rocks? They indeed have the freedom to exist. They have the right to not be treated violently by humans. Our unfettered emotions and traits fall squarely against these rights and freedoms. Yet, progress is defined by our unfettered emotions and traits. The current notion of progress is beautifully articulated by Jensen. He asks, "Why have we come to assume that "progress" is always good?" There are always at least two sides that judge whether progress is good. Those that think the progress is good, and those whose rights and wishes and culture and history may be trampled upon by those who think progress is good. Example given: "For the perpetrators of the United States Holocaust, the development of railroads to move men and his machines was "good" and "useful" and "helpful." From the perspective of the Dakota, Naajo, Hopi, Modoc, Squamish, and others, not so good. From the perspective of bison, prarie dogs, timber wolves, redwoods, Douglas firs and others, not so good." Wendell Berry contends that the notion of progress necessarily implies a hatred of where we are - we need to be somewhere else. Furthermore, progress (of science, technology, and "knowledge") takes away the freedom of the thing we study and learn about, from the perspective of that thing. In the end, we will just find a way to categorize it, and possibly exploit it. Jensen cites Lewis Mumford (1970) - "The chief premise common to both technology and science is the notion that there are no desirable limits to the increase of knowledge, of material goods, of environmental control; that quantitative productivity is an end in itself, and that every means should be used to further expansion."

What do you think?

Monday, April 26, 2010

"Efficiency" and problem definition

Catherine Mohr's TED talk on "Building Green" started a wonderful discussion between Arnab and I regarding this project of mine. In the talk, she gives an example of wiping away yogurt with a paper towel (that you later throw away) versus a sponge (that you wash), and says that the amount of energy it takes to wash the sponge (water, heating, etc.) is more than the "embodied" energy in the paper towel. This gives the impression that using the paper towel, and throwing it away, may not be as bad as you think it is. Maybe. But maybe not. Here are some of my thoughts and concerns.

1) It seems where this leads to is saying that if we reduced the amount of energy it took to produce the paper towel, we can continue to use paper towels. Optimising production of paper towels (and other products), or "efficiency" makes us feel better about what we do, and allows us excuses to continue using the products longer.
3) These issues become very technocratic, data/number driven, and confusing because at times, it can be unclear as to how energy accounting can be done - in the end, whose numbers are more convincing? Also, how do you account for things that cannot be quantified? Social impact? Environmental impact? What may be more easy to agree upon is the philosophy of the issue.
4) This leads to what I think is the most salient issue at hand - problem definition. Depending on where in the flow of problems/responses/thoughts/outcomes we define where the underlying problem is will influence how well we address the problem. I think defining the problem as "using X is alright, let's just find a more efficient way of making them" is defining the problem downstream of defining it as "the fact that we use X may be the problem." Defining the problem upstream allows us potential solutions that would not have been possible had we defined the problem downstream.

Does this make sense to you? What do you think?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Overdue thoughts

It is close to a month now since this started, and I have generated about a tenth of a pound of trash. The average American generates between 3 - 4.5 pounds of trash per day, equaling 90 - 135 pounds in a month. This has actually been very easy to do, given reasons mentioned in earlier posts.

There is trash generated everywhere, and even in places that you least expect it. Example - Jennifer is in town, and two nights ago, we went to Atlas in Detroit for Detroit Restaurant Week. Everything was going well in our three course meal, until dessert was served. The crème brûlée, served in glass, had a doily between the bowl and the dish.

The eternal debate: needs vs. wants. Wendell Berry has said that our needs are "educated needs." We have been "educated" into turning wants of life into needs, and institutes of higher learning are especially guilty of this. The easy example is technology, and this is such an easy target. Maybe a less obvious example is the need of educated people to travel and have diverse experiences in order to have legitimacy and acceptance of their views, opinions, and social standing. Being an educated person, or academic, or graduate student, you need to and must travel to be accepted into respective communities.

What do you think?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Weekly challenge #1

I've been recommended by Jennifer to have a weekly challenge for those of you that may be reading this. This is a great idea (thanks JMH).

Weekly challenge #1:
No paper napkins or towels for a week (toilet paper excluded)
Difficulty level: Relatively easy/straightforward.
Tips: An easy cut is the paper towel that you might use in the restroom. Just use your pants or clothes, or just let evaporation do its thing. What may be more difficult to those who are accustomed to having a napkin while eating is cutting the napkin. You might have to display exemplary hand-mouth coördiation, and skills with your tongue. When you go to a restaurant, you'll have to be sure to ask your waiter/waitress not to give you a napkin.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Early realisations, thoughts and links

Here are some other rules (and a couple questions) that I have:
6) I am going to keep every piece of trash/recyclable material that is inadvertantly (and I guess sometimes on purpose, e.g. plastic top of glass milk container) generated by me for the entire year, except magazines that I get that other people can use (some may ask me, "Why not cancel your subscriptions?" I am currently receiving National Geographic, The New Yorker, Paste Magazine, and Orion)
7) There are some things I cannot control - even if I pay at the People's Food Co-op in cash, the frickin' machine still prints a receipt. These items will be saved.
8) Travel to India...hmm. I mean, it's home, right? I have to go...right? What do you guys think? Should/can/is it even possible for this period count towards the one year?

I've already realised that this project would not be possible if I lived in a town or city that was not like Ann Arbor. Having talked with Ashlea, I realised that there are very few places like the People's Food Co-op or By the Pound in most places. So, I guess I am only able to undertake this no trash business because (and now I'm going to sound like a natural resource extraction guy) the resources for me to do so are available already. I am sure it would be really difficult to do so in a place like Huron, OH. Maybe impossible?

Another thing I realised is that the way I was brought up in India already led me to not use many of the "conveniences" available here, so I guess there is much less for me to give up. Also, I realised it is important for me to tell people (especially waiters/waitresses) what I'm doing so I don't get stuck with three straws as I did at Charley's a couple weeks ago, watching Arsenal play Barcelona.

I have some questions for people reading this blog. Let me know what you think:

1) Does free literature (for example, The Corporate Examiner's "Losing Faith in Economics" issue that I got at an ecological economics panel discussion) count towards trash/recyclables that I accumulate over the year? What about the Michigan Daily? These things are free, and so in the traditional economic sense of the word, am I consuming something that would somehow affect the larger "market"?
2) Why is sustainability important to people and students of this day?


I was talking to Brett Levy about whether or not it is possible to disaggregate between conducting yourself in a more ecologically/sustainability-conscious way because you really mean to, or because it is the "cool thing to consume today." We were talking about this because the words "green," "sustainable," "sustainability" are being used by so many people, companies and corporations today (the homepages of Rio Tinto and Anglo-American talk about how "sustainable" they are), and at the same time, I am getting the feeling that somehow being "green" is the hip thing to consume for younger people my age. Brett thinks this disaggregation may not be possible...

What do you think?

Next time, I'll post pictures of what trash I guess I've "generated" in these past two weeks. Until then...

Voyage to study plastic 'island'

Warning on plastic's toxic threat

Monday, April 12, 2010

A new me

On the recommendation of quite a few of my friends, I have started this blog to share my experiences and thoughts over the next weeks, months and years. I'm producing no trash for a year (so then why not for the rest of my life?), and this quest started on 29 March, 2010. The basic rules of this conquest were determined with my housemate Tim, based on my philosophies of consumption. But of course, this is an evolving project, and new situations will throw new dilemmas in my path. The rules will evolve, too.

Here are the first few rules and philosophies off the top of my head:
1) Packaged things that I already had prior to 29 March, 2010 (like canned mango pulp) do not count to this. I should and must use whatever I had and not let that go to waste.
2) Apart from food for myself, and the occasional gift for whatever occasion, I am buying nothing new this year.
3) Recycling is the *last* option. Reduce first, reuse second.
4) Ongoings in my laboratory do not count. Trash is produced in heaps in the lab, with no end in sight. The costs of research? Hmm.
5) If for some reason trash is generated (say the waitress at a restaurant sticks a plastic fork in my food for some reason), I will keep it for the year, and let everyone know about this unintended trash.