Friday, December 31, 2010

Guest blog #9: Adrianna's back with ideas for parties tonight!

"Every year around December-January, the holidays and New Year roll around again, spurring invitations to a handful of festive and colorful soirees, gatherings and celebrations. If you are the lucky hostess of such an elaborate event, I have compiled a list of limited waste décor.

  • Limit or eliminate plastic ware at the party, if plastic or paper cups are to be present, be sure to have every guest use different colored paint pens to creatively decorate their name on the side of the cup, so they can be entitled to their cup the entire evening
  • Use cloth napkins rather than paper napkins, even using saved pieces of ribbon to hold utensils and cloth napkins together, giving your table an eclectic and modern mismatched feel
  • Old jam or jelly jars as drinking glasses- guests will be impressed with your witty recycling trick; these jars can also be used to hold tea candles to line walkways or stairs for party decorations
  • Make homemade confetti with pieces of used colorful wrapping paper, simply shred and throw
  • Wrap presents with colorful magazine advertisements, the comics page in the newspaper, maps or brochures
  • Save wrapping paper, and old books for box stuffing, when wrapping delicate pieces, simply run recycled paper products through a shredder and use as box stuffing rather than throwing away!
Enjoy your holidays with limited waste! Celebrate 2011 with a clear conscious intact (along with stylish décor)."


Thursday, December 30, 2010

On corporations the corporate culture

"When Salt Lake City was established, the Temple of Latter Day Saints was built to be the tallest building in the city. Then, when strong government was established, the Salt Lake City Capitol Building was built to be taller than the Temple. Now, you see financial, commercial and corporate buildings that are taller than the Capitol. What that tells me is that in the beginning, people treated their religion as the entity that exerted the most influence and power on society. Then, strong government overtook that influence. Now, it seems that people feel that corporations are the most influential segments of society. And if we want to deal with large social issues, maybe corporations will exert the most influence on the outcome."


I was watching Frontline on PBS last night. The show, titled "Flying Cheap" explores the complex relationships between airline carriers and their regional contractors, as well as with government regulators, around issues of aviation safety. (I encourage you to watch it online, for free, on the Frontline website.) In an effort to make flying cheap, it is quite evident that safety has been compromised upon, and a sad example of this is the crash of Continental flight 3407 in Buffalo. In fact, Continental had contracted this flight out to Colgan Air (a regional carrier), and at the same time were not to be held responsible for the safety of the flight. Colgan Air was being paid for the completion of flights, incentivising flying when it was probably prudent not to do so. Behaviour of captains was affected to the extent that first officer calculations on gross take off weight were modified and forged to make it seem that flights were conducted safely and responsibly, when in fact, they were not. Complaints of the first officer were dismissed, while in Congressional hearings, Colgan Air defended the integrity of the captain. Regional airline trade groups have stressed that safety has not been compromised upon, ever. In speaking to a family member advocating for improved security and safety of regional carriers, the President of a regional carrier had the temerity to say, after one of the first Congressional hearings, that "It has been fixed." Of course, this is a lie. How do you fix a corporate culture?

It has been shocking to me to read about the events leading up to and following the BP-Macondo well blowout, as have been chronicled through in-depth interviews of survivors of the rig explosion. (Click here to see interactive maps and graphics of the blowout.) In a presentation by Professor Winter, who is heading up the federal disaster commission looking into the investigation, and a recent National Geographic article by Joel Bourne, I became aware of the hasty, reckless, careless and insensitive decisions that were made by BP, Transocean and Halliburton with the Macondo well. Furthermore, regulatory policy for oil drilling is primarily set by the industry itself, with much of the expertise in drilling and oil recovery lying in industry, and with the (of course) huge number of former industry officials now in government. (The same is true for the Federal Aviation Administration and regulatory policy for airlines; the FAA works for the airlines.) In the end, corporations work for themselves. 

In a friend's experiences dealing with the aviation industry in heading up the effort to set a greenhouse gas emissions standard for international aviation, in fact, corporations and companies crave regulation - a regulation will set a legal limit within which corporations and companies can operate, often, almost always, to the detriment of society and the environment. Furthermore, when we patronise corporations, we patronise also the regulatory structure and government institutions that hold corporations accountable. Unfortunately, even though we want the government to work for the people, it is quite often the case that the government works for industry and profit, with revolving doors between government and industry. Indeed, the corporate culture can permeate government culture. What this means is that we must be responsible ourselves, and take up the cause to fight such collusion, while at the same time reducing our reliance on this culture.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On preparedness

I have come to realise that in order to try to live trash-free, a constant vigilance is of utmost importance. What that means is that with trash being such a dominant status quo, there is no way of avoiding trash if you are not paying attention to the fact that trash is going to be generated unless you make conscious efforts to reduce it. In addition to the fact that trash comes out of un-self-sufficiency and our having given up the ability to do things ourselves, I have been thinking that trash is also borne out of a general lack of preparedness to deal with its generation. For example, many of us do cringe when we see piles of trash at a fast food restaurant, and we acknowledge our role in it, but we are always in a hurry, in between class, or in between appointments. We end up telling ourselves that we won't do it again, or we will try to be more conscious next time, which, of course, we seldom are. (It is kind of like trying to sip hot tea and burning your tongue, or eating hot pizza. Yes, we burn our tongues and the roofs of our mouths peel, and we tell ourselves, "Never again. I'll wait next time." But the next time you see a hot pizza, it is hard to resist the temptation to dig into it.) I have dealt with this project by trying to constantly think about what I may encounter, and being able to express to people my thoughts to people. Once I am prepared, mentally and physically (with objects), producing no trash has been not difficult at all. In cases where I have not been prepared, it has been easy to see the inconvenience I may have been on others around me. At the same time, it is also easy to see that trash can be borne of preparedness. Many of us may think that we will need an afternoon snack, and will therefore pack a packaged granola bar. The difficult thing is to reconcile preparedness with what we choose to be prepared for, and with what. I can be prepared for the afternoon hunger pang, but with something other than a packaged granola bar. It is not difficult, but there is always room for improvement and a heightened preparedness. In a world of now, it is important for us to consider the future.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The environmental impact of cities

In preparing for the course I will be teaching with a few other graduate students next semester, I have been reading a lot about the changing landscapes of urban areas. Some urban areas have declined (but are now being reborn) significantly, such as areas in the US Midwest (Detroit, Cleveland, Youngstown, Buffalo), some have been well bounded from the outset (Portland), and others (New York) have continued to grow in population. By 2050, half of the world's population will reside in urban areas. There is a line of thinking, from an environmental standpoint, that concentrating residents in urban environments allows for a more efficient use of resources - energy, water and electricity can all be used more efficiently.

This is a continuation of a previous post on cities - I started thinking about cities again because I am visiting my sister in New York City; she lives in Manhattan and is a fashion designer. In an article in the New Yorker from 2006, David Owen explains why everywhere should be more like New York. Manhattan is a place where you can have multi-million square foot buildings, with tens of thousands of people working in them, with per capita use of energy being much lower than in more decentralised and sprawled urban environments. Mass transit can be used to move scores of people with the same reasoning. What is interesting, however, is the emphasis in the article on energy. (In fact, many people narrowly think that the bulk of the environmental problem today is about energy.) What is not talked much about, which Bettencourt and West from the Santa Fe Institute point out, which is evident when you visit most any urban environment in the US, is the confluence of money and ideas from elsewhere. Ideas can include culture, food, drink, art and music. When you combine multicultural resources with people who have the ability to consume those resources, you have added a whole new layer to the environmental impacts of cities. This struck me when I went inside Eataly, a 50,000 square foot complex that cooks and sells everything Italian. 

I am not going to lie - I eat Italian food, and I love food from all over the world. But it is important to recognise the environmental costs of doing so. (Sam has, and she has gone local. Since I have been buying unpackaged foods, I have also been eating almost exclusively locally-grown foods.) Cities have now become dependent on other cities to provide resources for consumption, and therefore the impacts of the city are no longer contained to the region that the city exists in. This is a key feature of globalisation. Cities now have huge ecological footprints. A study by Folke et al. shows that large cities in the Baltic region of Northern Europe require inputs from land areas between 500-1100 times the land areas of the cities themselves. How do we reconcile growing and rejuvenating urban environments with diversity and environmental impact?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Some links on the Deepwater Horizon and BP-Macondo well blowout

I just came across some links from the NYTimes website about the oil spill in the Gulf. I wanted to share them before I continued writing about the spill.

Deepwater Horizon's final hours
How the rig crew responded to the blowout

On appreciation

It's that time of year when the past, present, and future surround us and when many of us are around our family and old friends. These are people that we've known all of our lives, and have influenced significantly who we are today. It is important we appreciate their efforts, past, present and future. Our lives are a summation of past experiences, emotions and thoughts that have made us who we are in the present, and primed us for the future. The future beckons, and this time of year is also marked with new - a New Year, new commitments and resolutions, and importantly (from an environmental, emotional and economic standpoint), new things - toys, phones, electronics and appliances. (And along with the new objects come old tales - of injustice, of environmental degradation, and of trash from wrapping and packaging.) But as Lia mentioned in her post last week, what can be lost in the excitement of the new, of the untouched, of the virgin, of the forthcoming, is a reflection on what we have already, and an appreciation for it. The emotion of this time of year can help us here; it easy to take a look - inward and outward - at the accumulation that has put us, our families, our communities and our environment, in the positions they are in today. It is important to be grateful for and appreciate the investments of time, money, effort, love and natural resouces that have gone into the many objects we take for granted, and to make full use of them before we look to the new. I do believe that we can continue to develop mentally, emotionally and ethically with these objects, before needing to move on to the next fad. It is time to reflect, and it is time to appreciate.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Chewing gum is forever

Although chewing gum was initially made from natural chicle, it is now made from synthetic rubber, the same rubber used in tire tubes. (Nice. Here is a picture of Niyati admiring years worth of chewing gum deposits in the NYC subway.) In fact, chewing gum is also made with some toxic materials, potentially carcinogens.  Furthermore, the switch from natural chicle to artificial rubber makes chewing gum non-biodegradable. Even though it doesn't stick to your teeth, it sticks to the ground, and costs a lot of money to clean up, if you wanted to.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On compromise and the environment

(I have changed the Comments settings so you don't have to register to post comments...)

Compromise is a part of daily life for most of us - we compromise on where to go to get a beer with friends, we compromise on what experiments to try in the lab, we compromise on who cleans what room of the house. These are not compromises on values and ethics and approaches to life, per se, rather these are personal compromises, the effects of which really don't extend beyond a few people, are not consequential for a long period of time. On the other hand, there are compromises at the other end of the size-of-the-effect spectrum - government decisions and international relations decisions. Such compromises sometimes throw competing cultural norms and values at each other, and can lead to sanctions and war, or peace and resilience. Such decisions can lead to lasting peace, bringing to an end years of conflict, or can lead to lasting war, bringing to end years of threadbare stability. Our governments are founded around the notion of compromise and inherently affect the lives of broad swaths of people - just take a look at the health insurance debates over the last two years. We can all agree that health insurance, and health care in general, is important. But there are vastly different approaches to how people think such large problems can be or should be addressed. What is interesting about compromising is that in general, one side gets more of what they want than the other side. Say there are two competing sides, one that argues that mountaintops should not be blown up to mine coal (zero units of removal, the no side), and other side that does advocate for mountaintop removal (say, 100 units of removal, the yes side). If one were to adjudicate a debate like this looking for a compromise, they may recommend 50 units of removal, or maybe even 25 units of removal, maybe even 10. (This is the sort of adjudication that has been happening in Appalachia for many decades now...) But the true outcome of such a compromise is that the no is lost completely, and even though the yes side gets less than what it wants. The yes side still gets what it wants, and the no side gets nothing at all. (It is sort of like the riddle from La Vita e Bella, where a patron at the restaurant asks the protagonist of the movie, "If you say my name, I am no longer there. What am I?" The answer is 'silence.' As soon as anything said, no matter how softly, the silence is lost completely and totally.) Such have been compromises with the environment. As Matt has been telling me over the past few days about regulation of emissions from aviation and shipping, even though companies would prefer no compromise over regulation, any regulation sets them a non-zero limit to do exactly what they want, and the side that loses out is the one that pushes for a zero limit. Such a compromise is vastly different than a compromise on how high to set interest rates given long-term economic performance, because a compromise on the environment necessarily compromises the long-term ability of our planet to provide for our society. Compromises on mountaintop removal in Appalachia have led to significant and extremely sad environmental and cultural degradation.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why not trash Yellowstone?

It is fair to say that most of us think that trash is worthless; trash is indiscriminately thrown “away” and banished. It is rare to see someone adorn spaces with trash, the objects in our lives we choose to discard. Landfills are located in remote areas (both geographically and from those with the most power - instead they are located closest to people who are treated as worthless). Our society have become desensitised to the existence of trash, and have condoned its production for the sole aim of “moving forward.” Fully extending this line of thought, however, leads us down paths our society refuses to consider. When we say trash is worthless to us, that means that the places that the trash ends up are also worthless to us. This means that land, air and water are worthless to us, or can be minimally respected, as long as they can continue to provide services to us unimpeded, or through human intervention and “ingenuity.” A second thought will not be given to a piece of land, any piece of land, as long as industrial agriculture can produce monocultures of crops that can provide people with “food.” As long as it continues to rain, we are fine with trash ending up in our oceans. As long as we can breathe, incinerators can continue to spew toxic chemicals into our air. 

Trash continues to flow as a fluid, down paths of least resistance, ending up degrading the sources of our existence – land, air and water. Let us focus on trash and the land and landfills. Trash continues to fill landfills unabated, with complex politics and policies now surrounding their operation. But what is forgotten, or not considered in these politics and behaviour, is that a landfill is actually a piece of land. This land, unfortunately, has been so "undervalue" that people have chosen to take some of our most "worthless" objects, our trash, and store it there. Some may say that the land we use as landfills wouldn’t have been used any other way. That land would be a "waste" of space; indeed, given our ethic of man over nature, this space must be used to take full advantage of what we as humans have been granted by nature – ample space to spread our influence. Such a space, desolate and uninhabitable in some cases, now can bear scars of our humanity, and become a place that is no longer left untouched. Yet, just because a tract of land is not being used by man, or cannot be used by man does not mean that it is of no value. Now one might ask, "What is the difference between this land, converted to a landfill, and another tract of land, say Yellowstone National Park?" I would say there is no difference in their values as pieces of land that make up this Earth. Each is mystical, each cannot be comprehended fully through science, numbers and technocratic, money-minded thought. The only difference is the difference in human perception through the assigning of monetary value to something purely aesthetic to human senses – we have monetarily valued one piece of land to be much greater than the other. Some may argue that, actually, Yellowstone is invaluable culturally and represents the pinnacle of human conservation of nature, that it represents the grandiosity of nature, its rugged, uncompromising terrain, and the complexity of ecosystems and the geological activity the Earth can support. (Yet this thought has not stopped people from blowing up the tops of beautiful mountains to reach coal laying below the surface; land is "valued" monetarily. If rare earth elements were to be discovered below Yellowstone, Krishna/Allah/Buddha/Science forbid, I am positive the mining industry would line up outside a Congressman’s office seeking approval for mining plans.) But I argue that this land being used as a landfill is as valuable as any other space on Earth, including Yellowstone. A landfill is a piece of land that is made of Earth. It is a piece of land that has been exposed to the weathering elements of rain and wind, that supports complex ecosystems of organisms and the magnificent creations of nature that we barely comprehend. Each piece of land is unlike any other piece of land on Earth, and has been exposed to the forces of nature in a different way than any other place on Earth. 

Now we have two vastly differently valued pieces of land before us - a storied national park, where people from all over the world come to see, to experience and to feel connected to nature, and a landfill, a place valued by humanity so insignificantly that we have no qualms with sending what we value the least, the trash of our culture, to sit there. But if we were to value the uniqueness of each piece of land (as well as each square mile of ocean, each parcel of air), there is no reason that we should send our trash many miles away. Indeed, if we were to produce trash anyway, why not trash Yellowstone, or our backyard?


Here is a post about experiencing nature, and the trash borne of it.
Also, here are two links (1, 2) that Arnab shared with me regarding the trashing of Mt. Everest.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Guest blog #8: Lia Wolock - A tour through my apartment and memories

"Let’s take a visit to my apartment.

I know.  We just met.  Things seem to be moving too fast.  But don’t worry.  This is just a social (/environmental justice) visit.

I admit, I have a fairly liberal take on what is appropriate in terms of decorating.  Things don’t, you know, match exactly.  But everyone who comes over finds my house cozy.  They feel like they’re in a home.  Sure, there’s a part of me that would love to have a house full of well-orchestrated, tastefully chosen IKEA furniture in a classy color scheme, but, there’s so much more to consider when we create the spaces in which we live.

My house is full of memories, full of love.  Come this way.  Wait.  Could you take off your shoes?  It’s very snowy outside.  Thanks.

Now if you look just to your right, here’s my jewelry box.  Cute, right?  Deep brown wood with stained glass doors.  It sat in my parents’ house for years, gathering dust in the room my 4-years older sister, Rachel, hasn’t used in years but never manages to fully vacate.  Really, though, it belonged to Jana, the oldest of us three daughters.  I don’t know where she got it from.  Bat Mitzvah gift maybe?  I can see it, sitting just so in my childhood memories, on the dresser that used to seem so tall to me.  Then it seemed to be full of adult things, magically so.  Anyway, lately I was getting really frustrated trying to keep my necklaces organized and untangled.  I was home over a break, saw it sitting there, considered how Rachel hasn’t really lived there in years, and decided to just ask her if I could take it.  Now it sits near my bed, holds my jewelry, anchors me back to those childhood memories.

The art?  Yeah.  This one was an old print my friend Angie, now a graphic designer, did for an undergrad art class.  She was going to throw it out because she said this line here was a mistake during the printing process, but I think it’s beautiful.  I think it’s fire the woman is walking through; it’s supposed to illustrate an old fairy tale.  The piece next to it?  I found it in my parents’ basement.  I think it was my Aunt Lillian’s.  She was an artist, but she didn’t make this piece.  She worked mainly in basketstowards the end of her life.  But I like the reminder of her, of having here something that she chose and liked.

These boxes, these book cases, all the art, they used to belong to my friends, my family.  The stories that linger in their curves and angles, their material existence—stories of their acquisition, the lives they led before they came to live in my house, the objects they held or sat on top of—they fill my home with a sense of context, of meaning.  Sure, I have new things, too.  And some of this furniture belongs to the company from which I’m leasing this apartment.  And those new things have stories, too.  These are stories of how they were made, the resources that went into their process, the mental power that went into their planning and execution, the humans who produced, packaged, shipped, and sold these items.  But I much prefer the texture of the stories that accompany these objects that used to live with the people I love.

Every time a new product is made, as you well know, a great deal of waste is made.  Waste we have the luxury to forget about.  Then it is packaged in more waste, travels halfway around the world eating up fuel, is sold to us, handed over with a plastic bag and a receipt, or a big box.  Sure, I’ll recycle whatever I can from all that mess, but why not use what we have?  We have SO MUCH.  So many new objects made without rhyme or reason.  Do they add to our lives?  I’m not saying I’m innocent; I love objects, too.  Sometimes these are newly made and utterly pointless objects.  But what could happen if instead of valuing newness in our objects, we valued their stories, the way they connect us to other humans?

Let’s reorient ourselves. To see the waste that a new product makes rather than its glitz and glamor.  To see the land where we dug our landfill in as just as precious as Niagara Falls, or the redwood forests on the west coast.  Let’s think about the amount of energy, etc. it takes to recycle an item as itself a precious, finite resource.  Let’s begin to appreciate objects less for their fetishistic capacity—the sense of magic we have about them that they will somehow make our lives better—and more for the tree that grew so that it could be cut down to be turned into the object, for the friend who used to love the object, for the way objects can reflect not only the human ingenuity that allows us to imagine and build objects, but also for how they can reflect human responsibility to this earth.

You can have all the objects in the world.  So what?  Is your life so much better (than someone who has no objects) because you have an adroid phone, or a big screen TV, or this season’s newest sweater that you will only wear 5 times?  You are the one that gives them meaning.  You are in control of that choice.

There is so much unused stuff in this world.  Why not try and use it as much as possible?  Why not find and appreciate these objects, build that meaning?  Human ingenuity gives us the power to make objects, but I don’t think that’s what makes us human.  I think it is instead our human capacity to appreciate, to build webs of meaning, to be responsible, and clever, and artistic with the raw materials of life.

I’m sorry.  Here I am babbling away, and I didn’t even offer you anything to drink.  Did you want some tea?  I’ll bring it to you in a silly mug with a festive palm tree design.  They used to belong to Alana."


Saturday, December 18, 2010

What we lose through "efficiency" - feedback

Tim told me this morning that in yesterday's post, I have confused industrialisation with efficiency. He says that we choose and want to be efficient in everything, including non-industrial agriculture and food production. I see what he is saying, and I agree with him. Maybe I have confused or not delineated between the two concepts thoroughly enough. What I am trying to get at is the notion of trying to get more for less (or more for the same amount of input), which is exactly what industrialisation is, and which is exactly what efficiency is. When we choose to apply fossil-fuel based energy and chemicals to agriculture, we think that we may be able to increase "yield," or the amount of output per area of land (which, I emphasise, is not true in practice). But the concept of "efficiency" is also the foundation behind genetic modification and the development of seeds and crops that are better able to survive given inputs of industrialisation. Through this process of increasing "efficiency," we deplete the natural balances of nutrients in soil and water, resulting in poorer tasting food. What is then lost is the experience of food - no one can deny that better tasting food makes you feel better, mentally and physically. If the notion of "efficiency" is to be applied to non-industrial agriculture, it would entail treating the land and what feeds it in a way that doesn't overburden it (exactly the opposite of industrial agriculture), and respecting the land enough so as to get the best tasting food.

To Eleanor's point that efficiency and industrialisation has allowed us to taste foods that only exist in other parts of the world, and that industrialisation feeds the world. There is a grain of truth in what she says, but I think what industrialisation is good at doing is underestimating the costs of itself. "Economies of scale" applied to industrialisation are good at providing "low-cost" food to people, but the costs, especially environmental and social, are completely neglected. When we go to Wal-Mart or Kroger, we do not pay for the costs of petroleum or lost livelihoods of small farmers. (Those costs are indeed covered by subsidies.) Furthermore, even though Americans have continued to spend less and less on food, and it is possible to get entire "meals" at fast-food restaurants for $2, the number of people going hungry locally and globally is still remarkable, and nothing that industrialisation "promises" can address that. It is also undeniable that industrialisation leads to a decrease in the quality of food, and it is debatable whether you can call industrial, fast food "food."

With the issue of flavour, I am speaking to the mental and social impacts that good tasting food can have. Maybe people will eat bad-tasting food if a gun was put to their head, or that was all that was available on a particular day. But once you have tasted good food, the smell, flavour and experience stay with you lifelong. I do not believe we have to sacrifice the quality of food for quantity - Cuba has resisted this sacrifice since petrochemical exports to the country stopped with the fall of the Soviet Union, through innovative approaches of biodynamism and organic urban agriculture.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What we lose through "efficiency"

As an engineer that works in a combustion laboratory, I am constantly surrounded by the miracles of modern machinery. Let me tell you about some of the things around my lab. There exists a vacuum pump that can pull a large volume to near vacuum, to a pressure lower than exists at the higher reaches of the atmosphere. There exist fast-acting solenoid valves that have an open-shut cycle time of 2 milliseconds to capture with high accuracy and precision small volumes of gas to understand how fuels break down. There exist computers that can solve systems of very stiff differential equations to understand chemical kinetics. There exists lasers that emit photons with high spatial and temporal coherence. All of these gadgets, gizmos and machinery are made to operate as "efficiently" as possible - use the least amount of energy to get a certain amount of work out. This seems wonderful - planes now fly on 40% less fuel per kilometre than they did 40 years ago. Efficiency can work marvels with engineering, and in some sense, "save" the environment. But it can also wreak havoc on the environment and more primal attributes of our world.

My thoughts are flowing at this moment primarily through food, but one may apply this thought process to other forms of human behaviour. In our attempt to increase output of food, we have turned to fossil fuels and chemicals and genetically modified seeds to allow increased yields (although this is completely debatable, and more likely than not false) given the size of a plot. Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan eloquently speak to the degradation of land, the waste of farming operations, and the lives of ecosystems that are ruined because of industrial agriculture. But Chef Dan Barber lends another perspective to the voices speaking out against industrial agriculture. On Being, he speaks to something food has lost over time due to excessive chemical and biological modification - flavour. Indeed, flavour, an essential quality of food, is nowhere talked about amongst large scale agribusinesses and farmers. As I have written about previously, food, when cooked with love and thought, using the right ingredients, can open up minds and hearts, and remind people of days gone by. In our quest to produce large amounts of food for increasingly lower costs to the customer (although the true costs are not billed, nor are calculable), the social aspect of food surrounding thought, smell, taste and emotion has been systematically neglected and carelessly snipped out of the DNA, both of the food and of our culture. With the loss of native species of crops, plants and animals, these things no longer survive in our collective memories. In the end, bland tasting tomatoes are shipped thousands of miles to be served as poor substitutes to the miraculous tastes of nature...generating trash along the way.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

We are not materialistic enough

Wendell Berry argues in Home Economics that our Western culture is not over- "materialistic," but rather not materialistic enough. This is because materials, "the stuff of creation," are cheap, and therefore, we don't value them. He argues that the way our economies are set up, we cannot afford to take care of things, because labour is expensive, time is expensive and money is expensive. But because materials are cheap, they are disposable and fungible, and it is not worth labour, time, and money to take care of them. Furthermore, in a capitalistic economy, an economy of transience, there is an inherent drive to make more money by selling more. Consequently, there emerges two kinds of materialism, one which values materials (cultures built and centred around low to middle-class income earners), and the other that does not (the world's rich and elite, which includes us, in the US). Indeed, we can think of cultures and communities that don't have that much, and therefore are more likely to take care of objects, respect them, and repair them to prolong their use and existence, as more materialistic. The world's middle income class, which earns between $700-$7500 per family member, like the poor, are frugal, use many objects that are antiquated by Western standards, and continue to use them through repair and recycling.

To serve our desire for new things, products that companies and manufacturers make are diseased with planned obsolescence. Tim Hunkin cites an anecdote of Henry Ford, who noticed that the crankshaft of his Model T was the only part that remained very much intact after the car had died. He therefore told his workers the make the crankshaft not as sturdy, therefore beginning the practice of planned obsolescence. However, thoughts on planned obsolescence date as far back as the mid 1800's. By reducing the time between repeated purchases, long-term sales can be somewhat guaranteed. The additional sales more than offset the additional costs of research and development, opportunity costs, and the labour required to maintain and service broken objects.

Alan Durning, in How Much is Enough?, argues for an economy of permanence, a throwback to the 1940's and 1950's, in which objects and products are created with durability in mind. Although sales will drop, and consequently the flow of physical resources and materials through the economy, the money value  of the services that people enjoy may fall little. Indeed, we don't buy cars just for the sake of having a car, but rather for the service that the car provides - mobility and accessibility. Indeed, a car then can be made a durable good. Furthermore, Durning argues that the total amount of work in such an economy is not likely to decrease at all. That's because the most ecologically damaging products and forms of consumption also usually generate the fewest jobs. In fact, high labour intensity goes hand in hand with low environmental impact. (One simple example is industrial agriculture versus community-based agriculture.) Repairing and servicing don't generally necessitate exorbitant amounts new natural resources, but they do require people to be employed. Of course, you can argue that such low-impact industries would "grow" less than high-impact ones. But you can't argue that continual growth is good. It is a matter of perspective - how do you generate value?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Frita Batidos - a harrowing experience

Last night, on my way to do a bit of reading with Ryan at Sweetwater's Cafe on Washington St., I walked past Frita Batidos, a new Cuban-inspired restaurant opened by Eve Aronoff, who owns eve the restaurant. From the outside, you see big park benches on the inside (I should have taken this as my first clue), which are painted entirely white, to go along with the white walls. (In retrospect, it made the place seem super sterile.) When you walk inside, you notice oddly that in the far corners of the restaurant sugarcane hugs the walls. There seemed like a lot of options to order from, which you do at a counter. (I should have taken this as my second clue) On the menu were listed Cuban-inspired burgers, fries, shakes and coffee. It was a cold night, I tell you, and the sound of a thimble-sized shot of espresso sounded really good. They said that it was brewed with "demerara sugar," which I thought was intriguing. (It turns out that demerara sugar is just brown sugar. Talk about exotic advertising.) So, I order the thimble-sized coffee (which was $1.06), and I realised I had no cash. Crap...I paid for it by card, and got a receipt (trash!). But this is just the beginning of the ordeal. I walk to the side, where there is a fancy looking Mirage coffee machine, which surprised me, because (not to be judgemental) it didn't seem like anyone there was...into coffee. When I looked at the top of the machine, where baristas generally keep the mugs and espresso cups to warm, I notice only plastic and paper cups. OMG. (Here is a picture of the thimble. The mouth of it is a little bigger than a quarter. It seems that two thimbles would make one nice sized shot of espresso.)

Me: Are there any glass cups you can serve me in?
Girl: No, we just have these plastic thimbles.
Me: I just don't want to throw anything away. That's all.
Girl: Why not?
Me: I just don't like throwing stuff away...
Girl: Well, this is made of corn and is recyclable, or compostable, whatever.

Crap. She proceeds to open up a little packet of "demerara" sugar (a packet of Sugar in the Raw), and pours the sugar into the filter, and fill it with coffee grounds. I was surprised with the amount of coffee she put into the filter; it seemed like that was enough for two whole shots of espresso. She tries to fit the filter into the machine, and she can't. (It was just a little misaligned, that's all.) So she throws out all of the coffee and sugar. "Hmmph," she goes. She opens another packet of sugar in front of me (I'm flipping out inside) and puts in another bunch of freshly ground beans. She tries to fit the filter in, AND CAN'T! So she throws THAT sugar and coffee away too. "This stupid thing," she goes. She opens a third packet of sugar, fills the filter with beans, and finally gets the filter fixed into the machine. She puts a glass beaker under the mouth of the filter, and two whole shots of espresso come out, as expected! I am thinking, "Oh man, this isn't boding well." She takes the little thimble, fills it up, and throws the rest of the espresso, three thimbles worth down the drain! I was close to having a seizure.

The coffee in the thimble was gone in a second. It was good. But I was left with a receipt, a corn-based thimble, and take responsibility for three packets of sugar, and enough coffee for a small family.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Harming nature and creating trash in the name of medicine and health

Health is a concept I think about frequently: What does it mean to be healthy? What does it take to be healthy? How do other people influence one's health? How do nature and the environment influence health?

It is easy to look up the standard definition of health, written by say, the World Health Organisation (WHO): "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." What is striking about this definition is its anthropocentrism. What this definition implies is that health is contained within a human or a group of humans, and one is well when all is in sync within oneself and within a social group. When you ask someone what it means to be healthy, more likely than not they will reply that health ends with her. As long as she eat wells, mind absent of stress, and are surrounded by good people she can have a beer with, she is healthy. Unfortunately, we live in a continuous world (at least macroscopically). Air and water and nature begin where the human body ends, contained in its skin. Health includes our surroundings. It is not only that our environments influence our health, but we influence its "health," too, and consequently are influenced in return by it. Yet, because of how medicine is practiced in many places around the world, our conceptions of what it means to be healthy, and what it takes to be healthy, are firmly at odds with the natural world. Consequently, we cannot define health that ends merely in a healthful mind and healthful body.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, medical waste (and trash) includes bandages, gloves, syringes, surgical instruments, culture dishes and glassware, etc. This list also includes "highly hazardous, mutagenic, teratogenic and carcinogenic chemicals, such as cytotoxic drugs used in cancer treatment and their metabolites," as well as nuclear wastes, and chemicals that aren't metabolised in our bodies.

The common perception of the problem of medical waste is not that waste itself is a problem, but how this waste can spread disease and harm other humans; indeed medical waste is thought of as a public health problem. Here's what the WHO says: "Health-care waste is a reservoir of potentially harmful micro-organisms which can infect hospital patients, health-care workers and the general public. Other potential infectious risks include the spread of, sometimes resistant, micro-organisms from health-care establishments into the environment...Wastes and by-products can also cause injuries, for example radiation burns or sharps-inflicted injuries; poisoning and pollution, whether through the release of pharmaceutical products, in particular, antibiotics and cytotoxic drugs, through the waste water or by toxic elements or compounds such as mercury or dioxins."

But the medical industry is a disposable industry. The value of the human life is worth more than the value of all it takes to produce the chemicals, plastics, metals, and elements to provide health - and we end up "disposing" these materials, either incinerating them, or landfilling them. Patient care generates, on average, 5 to 6 kg of waste per bed daily, or about 750 to 800 million pounds of waste annually in the United States. Of this, about 6% constitutes biomedical waste while the remainder consists of general waste, i.e., paper, plastics, and food (full text here).

Brian shared some thoughts with me a few days ago: Is avoiding the spread of disease fundamentally at odds with reducing waste? It just struck me when working on the ambulance: for the care of one patient, we create more waste than you do in a year. I'm not sure it has to be that way. We already autoclave and reuse a ton of equipment, but some seem impossible to circumvent. Gloves are a good example.

Can we be healthy in full harmony with nature?

Sunday, December 12, 2010


I am currently reading Alan Durning's (currently at the Sightline Institute) book How Much is Enough? in which he tracks over time the societal changes that have led to increased consumption of energy, water, metals and materials and paper, and the ecological impacts of living in one class (low-income, middle class, upper class) in different parts of the world. He talks about changes in the household economy that have led to an increased reliance on "conveniences" such as packaged foods. He also points out that "disposable diapers (typically 3000 of them in the first year) have displaced cloth ones." This post is not about the merits of cloth diapers over "disposable" ones or vice versa, but instead about the word "disposable."

Much of the blog so far has been dedicated to defining the problem of trash, and developing a new language with which to think about ecological and social problems like trash (for example, here and here, among others). The word "disposable" is a common word in our vernacular, and it basically means "something that can be used once, and then can be thrown away." That means that the ubiquitous red #5 Solo cups at college parties are "disposable," as are the flimsy containers given to you when you order take-out Chinese food. I would propose instead that the word "disposable" means something that we have paid little for, and therefore has little value to us, and consequently allows us to throw it away without feeling bad about it. Just because something is "disposable" doesn't mean it just disappears once it leaves the trash can in your kitchen. Plastics take many centuries to degrade, and can be easily added to your very own time capsule. In the same way we choose to throw plastics away, we are fully able to throw away a beautiful pint glass; it is "disposable" too. We can throw it into a trash can. But we don't, because it is more valuable to us than a red Solo cup, and therefore is not disposable. The point is, under current definitions of the word "disposable," everything is disposable, including people.

One day, while I was walking to the bus stop, I ran across a trash can overflowing with books, lamps, TVs and furniture. It was one of those heaps of stuff that you see during college move out. Along came a homeless man, and he mentioned to me how he has found several computers, iPhones and other expensive electronics, "especially from those Chinese and East Asian people. They just throw everything out when they move back home." So, to them, these things are "disposable," too.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The laws governing the world's largest dump - an introduction

Can you guess what it is? It is 139 million square miles in size...

Fluids have taken up a significant portion of my life, and I am not sad about that fact. Fluids are beautiful (example 1, 2). We breath fluids, drink them and use the word as an adjective of praise and beauty. I want to talk a little bit about one essential fluid of our Earth, water, which comprises the hydrosphere. In particular, I will focus on oceans and the seas.

The fundamental property of fluids, i.e. flow, is something that our society has been taking advantage of for a long time now. We can dump things into a large fluid body, knowing all well that pressure gradients driven by energy received from the sun will cause motion to that body, and effortlessly carry away whatever it is we dump into it. It comes as no surprise then that the atmosphere and air (another essential fluid) and the oceans and seas have been violated, and are continuing to be violated through reckless behaviour.

You may have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which I have mentioned previously (here, here, here). Ocean gyres have basically been concentrating trash either dumped into the ocean, or through carelessness has ended there over decades. The boundaries of these gyres are far removed from the pretty beaches and coasts of island nations and those with coasts...although trash does wash ashore (Unfortunately, no major nation can exist in the middle of a gyre. If the Midway Islands were a major nation, I am sure people would be up in arms about trash washing up on the nation's shores). Regardless, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country's responsibility, or conversely, the area of sea that is under the country's responsibility extends out 24 nautical miles (12 nautical miles of territorial water, 12 nautical miles of contiguous zone). It is only within these 24 nautical miles that a country can enforce regulations regarding taxation and pollution. Beyond this region, is the high seas, water under no one's responsibility or legal reach. This has proven to be very convenient for nations under the International Maritime Organisation, the UN body that oversees the world's shipping, to avoid much responsibility of their actions over the high seas. Who do you assign blame for marine degradation to? The country where the ship was docked? The country of destination? The country the ship was registered in? But wait, there were citizens of twelve nationalities on board. Also, the marine harm happened over the high seas...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Haiku #2

In the woods
Berry's pioneer still thrives
When the sunshine wanes

Institutionalising zero-waste at UM

It started last year, with a zero-waste (almost) tailgate for two thousand alumni. The Student Sustainability Initiative (thinking about you Melissa!), the Alumni Association and a dedicated group of volunteers helped divert more than 500 pounds of trash from going to the landfill, by sourcing compostable materials for the tailgate and sending the compost to Tuthill Farms near Brighton, MI.

The next step was a zero-waste (again, almost) basketball game (Michigan vs. Michigan of the East, a.k.a Harvard), which took place this past weekend. A fully-attended basketball game results in more than 2000 pounds of trash - this one resulted in 137 pounds (granted Crisler Arena was half full...but still). Congratulations to the Student Sustainability Initiative. =)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Haiku #1

quiet misty morning
on a lawn unfrozen
wrapper snuggles leaf

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Guest blog #7: Adrianna Bojrab Unplugged

"There is one foe we all have in common, utility bills.  The (groan) we-just-paid-the-last-bill time of the month when we are put in check, again, for how much energy and money we waste on utilities - mindless shelling out of money on necessary but over-abused resources.  In the college town of Ann Arbor, MI, we feel the wrath of the cold early in the year, forcing us to raise the temperature on our thermostat. However after two months of growing agitation of our mounting bills, my housemates decided to unplugEven when a machine is turned off, but plugged in, energy is being wasted. And so our unplugging movement began.  I began to notice the microwave unplugged when not in use, and so the next time I saw the microwave plugged in but not being used, I nonchalantly pulled the plug.  This caught on quickly between my six roommates and I, yet was never spoken about. ‘Unplugging’ began as someone’s intent to diffuse our high monthly bills but caught on like an obsessive game.  What else could we unplug?  Our game moved from the kitchen to the blow dryers in the bathroom, and spread to the lamps in the living room, even creeping into the television and cell phone charger in my own bedroom. It became second nature.  We continued our little game throughout the month, and were shocked by how much our utility bills decreased.  By trying to reduce our bills each month, we can find an incentive to save energy.  Whether you’re in it for the reduction of your bills or saving energy, you will find that by decreasing your energy use, you are benefiting your world, and even your life." 


Waste and trash don't only apply to physical, macro-scale objects. They can also apply to electrons and cotton fiber paper that is green and white. I like the title she chose...unplugged...makes it sound all media-esque.

Monday, December 6, 2010


I spent a little while today organising my posts into theme areas - I have added a new page to the top. This will hopefully help me and you keep track of what I've been writing about, and also help you quickly access posts with certain themes. I am sure I could have done a better job. Let me know if you like this idea, or if I should change it.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The effectiveness of boycotting - point/counter-point

Back to boycotts. As I mentioned previously, it seems like boycotting trash means boycotting consumption, which means, in a way, boycotting popular culture and trends. It means much more than just boycotting some company because I don't like how they treat their employees. Many people have asked me whether what I am doing can make a big difference. Probably not, but I am sure that at least come people have been affected by it, hopefully positively. I wonder if you have any thoughts on how to measure "success" of this boycott. Let me know. But for now, I would like to present a point/counter-point on the effectiveness of boycotts. The match up: Geov Parrish (Seattle Weekly News) vs. Todd Putnam (a guy that wrote a response to Parrish's article on

First up, some passages from Parrish: 

The Futility of Boycotts  
Planning to boycott Microsoft? Get in line.

The flamboyant pastor of the Eastside's enormous Antioch Bible Church, Ken Hutcherson, has announced a nationwide boycott of multiple corporations. Microsoft, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, and Nike are among the companies that signed a letter this month supporting a statewide gay-civil-rights bill, legislation that conservative Christians virulently oppose. Hutcherson says he is launching a boycott campaign targeting the letter's signers.

I'm glad that progressives aren't the only people who waste their time with this crap.
Boycotts can be successful. But it's very, very rare. For every success story—grapes, Nestle, South Africa—there are many thousands of failures.
Political activists of all stripes are often eager to find a handle with which to influence the perceived sociopathic actions of big corporations. The problem is that when you target a company as large as Microsoft or Boeing—both of which have earnings greater than most of the world's countries—even if their retail products can be boycotted easily, it's virtually impossible to imagine a circumstance in which enough people join the boycott to cause a perceptible drop in earnings. Even then, unless participants tell the company what they're doing (which most don't), sales fluctuations can and usually are attributed to a thousand other factors first.
Boycotts are almost always a waste of time. So, alas, are minority shareholder resolutions. Corporations are not democratic institutions, and by definition, they do not have a social conscience. They exist solely to make money for their owners or shareholders, and they spend far more polishing their image than any boycott campaign does tarnishing it.

It's fine and well to shun a product or company because of dislike for the company's policies...But don't expect to influence the company's behavior.

This is why the growing economic and political power of big global corporations is so dangerous. With government, there's not much accountability, but at least there's a little. By contrast, the number of times big companies have been held accountable by ordinary consumers for social policies can be counted on two hands. And even then, after the campaign closes up shop, the behavior often resumes.

This is why, noxious as it is, for left, right, or center the only institution powerful enough to consistently influence corporate behavior is government. That's one of the reasons corporations work so hard to influence governments.

What can ordinary consumers do? Buy local. Get involved in the political process. Create alternative institutions. By all means, use your hard-earned money to patronize big companies only when you want to support them. It'll make you feel better.

But usually, they won't feel a thing.

And now in response, Putnam.
Geov Parrish’s speculation that for every boycott success there are many thousands of failures is a baseless, ridiculous and an irresponsible assertion. During the 10 years that I tracked boycotts for the National Boycott News, it wasn’t one in a thousand boycotts that succeeded; it was more like one in two. Of course, in those days boycotts tended to be launched by organizations. Today with the internet in full swing, anybody can simply post their call for a boycott. And they do, by the hundreds.
...Geov states that boycotts are almost always a waste of time. I think it would be more accurate to say that with boycotts, what you get out of them tends to correspond to what you put into them. Nobody can really expect Microsoft to stop its donations to Republican politicians because a handful of webpages has endorsed a call to boycott Microsoft for its past donations to Bush. It obviously takes much more than that. Successful boycotts require campaigns, strategic planning, coalition-building, persistence and patience.

Contrary to Geov’s assertion, that more than a dozen boycotts he listed had “absolutely no effect”, in fact, some of the cited companies (McDonalds, Shell, Starbucks, Mitsubishi) gave in and met boycotters’ demands, while others on Geov’s list suffered notable economic repercussions...

By the early 1990s, about half of all boycotts eventually succeeded at getting the primary changes they were demanding from the targeted corporations. For serious boycott campaigns, I doubt this ratio has changed much.

Boycott failures can’t simply be blamed on the tactic of boycotting, but rather, other factors such as message clarity and simplicity, the level of public interest or sympathy, creative and effective publicity, media coverage, and the availability of comparable substitute products are all critical factors in determining the success or failure of a boycott.

Also, boycotts have proven an excellent way to help educate and involve the public about issues –particularly because people are slow to inform themselves about issues where they have no impact. Instead of sounding like whiners, boycotters top off their complaint with action –not buying a product, which in itself can feel empowering and thereby lead to an increased level of personal involvement.

As corporations have grown evermore enormous the strategy for boycotting them has also evolved. Instead of being fixated on the company’s bloated bottom-line, sophisticated boycotts target the all-important corporate image as a means of exerting leverage. These days, most smart corporations settle long before they begin to feel the pinch in sales. They simply look to see which way the trend seems to be moving, and if it looks as if over time their image might suffer from a particular campaign, they take steps to settle before much harm can be done. Protracted boycott standoffs against Nestle and Coors in the 1980s did such lasting damage to the companies’ images that now most companies don’t wait until their image begins to get tarnished. After only 2 years, Heinz sat down with boycott organizers to discuss how it could avoid becoming forever labeled the “dolphin-killing” company, and quickly implemented measures and verification to make its Star-Kist brand tuna –and all other Heinz foods-- the first major brand to be certified as “dolphin safe.” As a result, Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee, feeling vulnerable, quickly followed suit.

Heinz had guessed the change to dolphin-safe would cost them a nickel on each can of tuna. But even when their polling indicated that the public was only willing to pay two cents more for a “dolphin-safe” brand, they saw the trend moving in that direction and took proactive steps to stop any more negative publicity.

...I utterly disagree with his view that the government is the best and proper arena for dealing with issues of corporate behavior. Boycotts have historically served as an important tactic when political options proved fruitless or were nonexistent. The numbers of boycotts exploded in the 1980s during the Reagan years, when there was no way to get government to address corporate behavior. Growing frustration and cynicism with government led groups to go directly to the public to address social issues and corporate misbehavior. (During that same period, boycotts began succeeding in greater numbers and in less time than ever before.) In the years since, government has only grown less responsive.

Ironically, I’ve found that when you complain to corporations about their behavior, in addition to extolling their many virtues they typically tell you that they are not the appropriate target for such concerns, and to instead contact your government representatives.
In an often-cited survey of business leaders, boycotts ranked at the top as a major headache for a corporation; even a greater concern than class action lawsuits.

The greatest drawback of boycotting is pervasive myth that it is ineffective. By badmouthing boycotts, Geov has done the corporations’ work for them.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Self-Repair Manifesto and proxies

I have written a few times (here, here and here) on the notion of proxies, i.e. how we manage to have other people do for us many of the things that either we should know to do ourselves (What does it take to grow the food we eat? What does it take to mend a torn shirt?), or how we manage to have other people take care of things in such a way that we lose sensitivity to them (Where does our trash go? What happens to it?). What ends up happening is that we lose control over things that should be under our control, because the people and entities we give proxies to (many times) don't make decisions for our (and our planet's) well-being. They make decisions for their well-being (Who thought it would be a good idea to plant monocultures? Why can't we stop other people's trash coming into our backyards?). It is time to take back these proxies, so that we can live knowing confidently that no carcinogenic chemicals are applied to our foods and that no e-waste has to dealt with by poor people.

One way of doing this is knowing how to fix things ourselves. Indeed, if we know how to fix things, we don't have to rely on mechanics and companies to do the jobs for us, with at times exorbitant costs that make it cheaper (monetarily) in some sense to buy a new item. Arnab introduced me to the Self-Repair Manifesto, which is a free repair manual anyone can edit. There are instructions on how to repair computers, game consoles, phones, vehicles, cameras, and household appliances. Here is what the website says:
  • Repair is better than recycling - making our things last longer is both more efficient and more cost-effective than mining them from raw materials.
  • Repair saves the planet - Earth has limited resources and we can't run a linear manufacturing process forever. The best way to be efficient is to reuse what we already have!
  • Repair saves you money - fixing things is often free, and usually cheaper than replacing them. Doing the repair yourself saves you serious dough.
  • Repair teaches engineering - the best way to find out how something works is to take it apart.
  • If you can't fix it, you don't own it - repair connects people with devices, creating bonds that transcend consumption. Self-repair is sustainable.
The point of this Manifesto is self-empowerment and encouragement. We can do things ourselves, avoiding waste and trash and environmental and social harm. Furthermore, as the last bullet item states, investing in something connects you to it, and makes it less likely that you will trash something, which may increase in value to you the more you invest in it. (Lia will be writing more about this soon - objects, sentimentality and trash.) 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

(close to) no trash fashion

I met Stephanie Thompson around two and a half years ago at the Shadow Art Fair at the Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti (Arbor Brewing Company's sister beerhouse, where they do the actual brewing of the beer.). She runs her own clothing and accessories line, Always the Forest, which she has been doing since high school. Super cute stuff. She mentions at the bottom of each design whether or not the piece is made from recycled materials or not. Here is what her website says:

"Stephanie has been designing her own clothing since high school, and has decided to take her passion for fabrics and sewing to another level with Always the Forest. She is in charge of finding the fabric, designing the clothing, drafting the patterns, and sewing them up! The designs incorporate both comfort and style, while her attention to the detail of each one ensures a well-made garment. She tries to recycle fabric as often as she can, so that means your garment will be made of high quality material from an estate sale, her grandma's basement, or remnants from other designers."

No trash doesn't mean no creativity or novelty.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How we undervalue

I am taking a break from writing about boycotts to make sure I can capture in words some fleeting thoughts. Much of what I have been writing about over the past eight months has been about value - how we value objects that have embodied in them tremendous amounts of effort and resources, how we value the resources that provide us the capacity to make these objects, and how we value social interactions (here, here, here, here for starters). Trash lies at the heart of each of these valuations; indeed, trash is the result of our undervaluation of these things. An undervaluation of these things allows us the liberty to treat people and nature as we please, without care and respect.

We have a tendency, almost a knack, to undervalue almost everything that surrounds us - people, place, object, and nature. We undervalue the kindness and love of our parents, we undervalue the smile and eye contact of people we walk blindly by, we undervalue the beauty of a snowy morning, and we undervalue an untamed river. We think of everything in the world as fungible, people included (That is why people deem it fit to kill other people or put other people in harms way, especially in conflict. To such people, a person is just a person, and there is nothing more to him. Not all of the experiences that that person has been through, or the conversations and friendships that that person has had. Nothing. Especially in conflict, people are fungible.) That's the only way we can assign monetary value to all of these things - a well raised child can provide $X more for our economy than one that was raised in the inner city and grew up with gangs, a snowy morning (like the one recently in Seattle) probably caused us to lose a lot of economic value (gosh, if people can't go to work, then, then, gosh, we are losing money!), a mighty river, if tamed, can provide jobs to many hundreds or thousands of people, and generate economic gain. The only reason why Transocean did such a inept job at drilling the BP-Macondo well was because they (and the government) undervalued the impact a blowout would have on the ocean, the fish, the birds, and the people of the Gulf.

What is the value of this fish and the water around it? (Photo by Joel Sartore from here.)

Indeed, due to the complexities of systems around us, both natural and man-made, we will never be able to assign any accurate value to anything in this world - we will continue to undervalue everything, because no one is willing to say that a life, or a river, or a rock, or an experience is priceless. What if we had the humility to not assign monetary value to something? What if the only way we could value was through observation, feeling and emotion? I must admit, at times it is overwhelming to me now to see a neatly stacked pile of plastic containers, knowing full well that within the day, they will be on their way to a landfill.

(Speaking of value, here's an article about how much of what investment bankers do is socially worthless.)