Thursday, March 31, 2011

What motivates us? A call for thoughts

I received an e-mail a few weeks ago from Donna LeGrand, a retired lawyer living in Raleigh, North Carolina. She said that she wanted to try to move towards living trash-free! How amazing! She later called me, and we talked for about an hour about her life and her thoughts. I asked her what motivated her to think about doing something like this. She said that she had been doing much to decrease her environmental impact and trash production. But one fine day, just like any other day, she opened her kitchen pantry, and saw this....

She thought to herself, "Look at all of this stuff I have to throw away." I am not going to write more of her story here, because her story is best told by her, and I hope she will write a piece to share with everyone. But I wonder what it was that day that made her say that to herself.

I have tried to think about what motivates and encourages us to make changes in our lives. There are of course incredibly thoughtful people that have thought about these things before, and have made efforts to make other people change their behaviours. This can take the form of little signs or thoughts, as has been done at Georgia Tech. It seems like the motivations or the triggers exist all around us, yet we are sheltered, and we live overloaded lives. Motivation can also come from people we love, people we respect, and people who we don't agree with. What is interesting is that we are surrounded by all of these potential triggers and stimuli all of the time.

One time occurrences, such as weather events, of course at the other end of the spectrum, and are the most vivid cases that may result in behaviour changes, particularly because they can etch themselves in people's minds. Events, such as weddings and birthdays and parties and concerts can do that, too. But with environmental issues, particularly those with large characteristic times for their unfolding, such as climate change, it is hard to point to individual events as outcomes of our behaviour. It would be hard to convince people in the US that they are being oppressed because of climate change, especially because climate change isn't as visceral as an F5 tornado.

But the problems exist, and people need to be motivated to act on issues that they may or may not be affected by. This is a difficult question, and I cannot say I have much to say at this point, or today. (I will think about this and share some more thoughts if I think of anything.) Therefore, I am hoping that you will be willing to share your thoughts with on what motivates you. I will leave this question open ended, and you are encouraged to write about most anything. What would be particularly interesting to share are those key events that impacted you and your beliefs and your behaviour. If it is something environmentally related, that will be awesome. If you have pictures to share, that works, too.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A life of its own

I just arrived here at the Fishbowl after listening to a talk by Dr. Condoleeza Rice. Yes, the Dr. Condoleeza Rice. (A wonderful way to get you riled up! Try it for yourself!) She mentioned how Japan will not be able to "grow [economically] unfortunately" for a little bit, because of the earthquake and tsunami. Along the same lines, I was reading an article from The New Yorker, Aftershocks, by Evan Osnos, in which he describes how the Japanese have dealt with the recent natural events that have impacted their country. He wrote at length about his interactions with Yukio Okamoto, a former diplomat and high-ranking adviser to Prime Ministers of Japan, who now runs a political and economic consultancy called Okamoto Associates. Osnos asked Okamoto how he thought the events would alter Japan's sense of self. Okamoto replied,

“We were not humble enough to Mother Nature. We were building reactors on the basis of the most hideous earthquake in the Edo period, which was magnitude 8.5. Many experts expected a large earthquake would come, but not 9.0. Nobody said 9.0. Japan was in a euphoric slumber for two decades. Our life has been so comfortable, we became introverted. We forgot the need for struggle, during which time many top positions were taken over by Chinese and Korean companies. It’s too soon to say, with us still facing the threat of nuclear reactors, but perhaps, eventually, this sense of crisis will be the push to the back of many Japanese, and we will regain the strength of the sixties and seventies, when we had a concrete goal. So no doubt our economy will slip down, but then we may bounce back.” (emphases added)

I found it incredibly fascinating how Dr. Rice almost exactly shared Okamoto's viewpoint - that the Japanese are defined by their economy. Well, it may not be shocking that in fact most people and countries of the world are defined by their economies, and their abilities to "compete" in this "globalised world." Our identities as individuals have been tied to large, ecologically destructive social constructs such as economy.

There seems to be a tendency to let our lives slip beyond our control. Of course most of us are a part of society, and we are in a way bound by our emotional and physical relationships to people and places. In a sense, the defined social norms and the constraints put upon society by external factors (like weather, for example) are thrust upon us as individuals, and we are obliged to partake in collective effort, particularly if we want to be accepted. At the same time, society has created constructs, such as economy, that have allowed different sorts of interactions among individuals and smaller groups of people in society. We have somehow been taught or told that it is a duty to participate in the economy, that shopping is the only way we can make change, and that we "vote by our dollar." It is telling how we have let a completely man-made construct take on a life of its own, such that it is this vague, ill-defined, and irrational construct that defines who we are as individuals and collections of individuals. (Many people have placed immense faith in concepts such as economy, and have been let down, not surprisingly. What has happened over the past few years, especially with "bubbles," is now being better understood by terrific journalists and investigators.)

I believe it is important to realise that it is not me, or you, or us, that are defined by such constructs. At an even larger scale, the value of the environment and our relationships to it are not defined by such constructs. Our value in this world, and the value of the world, is not set by people at the Federal Reserve or some government agency. Rather it is you, me, and us that lend legitimacy and credence to these constructs, and it is you, me, and us that define these social constructs, and the bounds of operability and validity of these constructs. It is not surprising then that something like the economy is only a small part of our society, and that it cannot be placed at the same level as society, the environment, or as us, as individuals. Japan is more than its economy, and its ability to make cars. It is a land with a culture, with a history, with nature and trees and flowers.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

One year

Recyclables = 7.15 pounds
  • 1 broken Calder Dairy bottle + 1 broken Pyrex dish + 1 beer bottle = 4 pounds
  • 1 plastic bottle = 2 ounces
  • Receipts + miscellaneous paper = 3 pounds
Non-recyclables (Ruffles bags, straws, stickers off of fruits, Calder Dairy milk bottle caps, etc.) = 0.5 pounds

Total trash from one year = 7.5 pounds or so.

The blog will continue with more thoughts and new sections.

Thank you to everyone.

Monday, March 28, 2011

On the building of community

It is clear that as important as individual actions (1, 2, 3, 4) are, the scale of the issues facing us are vast and dark. Addressing these issues will require the mobilisation of the hearts and minds of more than just a few people. Indeed, the importance of community cannot be understated.

On the day before the one year anniversary of this project, I hope that this project has been worthwhile for you to read about, because it has been an extremely wonderful journey for me. It is my sincere hope that I have not been forceful in imposing my views on other people, and if I have, I apologise. My hope is that this is just the beginning of a conversation, the building of a community. I was talking to Melissa yesterday about the new section to the blog, Traveling at home. She was excited about it, particularly because one of the important aspects of it is the building of community. She felt though, on the other hand, that this current project could have the potential of alienating people. I wanted to speak to the building of community that can arise out of individual actions that stand in direct opposition to the status quo.

I fully understand that my thoughts on this subject are naive, but I have experienced nothing short of wonderful positive energy and thoughts over the past year. Many people don't believe or do what I do, and that is okay. I think there are two ways to go about living, particularly if you are trying to induce a change in behaviour - with whatever you do, you can alienate people, or you can encourage people. Any behaviour either reinforces norms, or speaks out against them. It is plain to see that there are vast organisations, companies, neighbourhoods and communities that are invested in behaving a certain way. Many of these behaviours are ecologically degrading. Given these vast investments, any behaviour that stands in opposition to them is sure to affect large numbers of people, or at the very minimum, speak out against them. At the same time, I am surrounded by friends and family, people that actually have faces and names to me, and people whose facial expressions and words affect me immediately and directly.

I believe that it is easy to alienate people even when if message comes with a clear conscience. As cliche as this may sound, the conversation is important, not the antagonism, and a convincing argument followed up with steadfast action is a steady rock. Any new course of behaviour must come from somewhere. And I can only hope that the combined power of words and actions will serve their purpose of growing some communities, speaking out against others, while at the same time maintaining civility and respect.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Guest blog #16: Crystal Thrall and her DivaCup

Back to the eternal debate - tampons vs. pads vs. cloths vs.......THE DIVACUP! Crystal has officially thrown her name in the conversation with something to say...

"Ever since getting married, my husband and I have been more cognizant of our environmental impact.  We started making changes in our daily lives by tackling the low-hanging fruit, buying local food for example.  Despite feeling good about the improvements we made, I was always plagued by the large amount of waste produced as a result of my monthly period.  If I had simply performed a quick Internet search on keywords such as ‘reusable feminine hygiene products’ I would have found a solution, but feeling overwhelmed and slightly apathetic towards the problem, I failed to do anything.  Regardless, this was one aspect of my life for which change was very welcome, but I apparently needed a little information and motivation.  During one of our Pierpont lunch dates with Darshan, I mentioned my personal struggle and of course Darshan had a suggestion—The DivaCup.  He described it to me as he understood it, but I was somewhat skeptical of a man’s perspective (no offense, Darshan!).  

Now that I had the information, I started polling my girlfriends to get the motivation.  Conveniently enough, my best friend heard a testimony from a mutual friend and was on day one of using her menstrual cup (The DivaCup).  She assured me that her experience with it was comfortable and quite convenient, but I didn’t stop polling my friends.  I discovered that another friend of mine had been using the same menstrual cup (also The DivaCup) for almost three years.  So I learned that not only do these women like it, the reusability factor is high!  

For the first time ever, I was excited to start my period (!) so I could try using a menstrual cup.   There are multiple brands of menstrual cups and other alternatives to sustainable feminine hygiene, but I decided to go with The DivaCup since that is the product for which I had data.  I ended up purchasing mine at Whole Foods for $36.  Upon purchasing, I discovered that The DivaCup comes in two sizes, the larger size being for women who are over 30 or have given birth (both the same price).  

The DivaCup comes with useful and easy-to-understand instructions...
  • “Step 1: Prior to insertion, thoroughly wash your hands and The DivaCup for 15-20 seconds with warm water using The DivaWash or a mild, unscented soap.  Press the sides of the cup together and then fold it in half again forming a tight “U” shape.  OR place a finger on the top rim of the cup and press it down into the center of the inside base to form a triangle.”  Okay, that’s reasonable.  
  • “Step 2:  With one hand, hold the folded sides firmly together with your thumb on one side and your four fingers on the other side just below the top rim of the cup.”  Easy.  
  • “Step 3: Take a comfortable position: standing, sitting on the toilet, or squatting.  Relax your vaginal muscles.  Gently separate your labia with your opposite, free hand.  Insert The DivaCup into the vagina aiming it horizontally towards your tailbone.  The DivaCup will open before it is completely inserted; however, continue to insert towards the tailbone until the stem is even with the vaginal opening and does not protrude.  DO NOT push the tip of the stem further than ½ inch into the vagina.  Inserting The DivaCup too high may cause leaks, and may also make removal more difficult.” Okay, so there is a slight learning curve.  
  • “Step 4: Grip the base of the cup (not the stem) and turn the cup one full rotation (360 degrees) in either direction or insert the cup about half way, turn the cup one full rotation and then push it in the rest of the way.  It must rotate easily as this ensures that it is fully open and that it is positioned horizontally towards your tailbone.  You can also make sure the cup is completely open by inserting a finger into the vagina and gently pressing on one side of the vaginal wall to create space for the cup to fully open.”    
These directions are very utilitarian.  I especially like the part where they inform me that one full rotation is 360 degrees =).  I should also mention that it is recommended that you use a pad or panty liner in the event of user error.

The entire average monthly flow (according to The DivaCup instructions) is approximately 1 to 1.4 ounces, and The DivaCup holds one ounce.  My period is heavy the first two days, so to be conservative I checked it whenever the opportunity presented itself (when I was in the bathroom).  For convenience, my friends suggested wiping the cup with toilet paper if I happened to be in a public restroom.  This idea appealed more to me than washing the cup in a public sink.  I would like to share some lovely prose from the instructions on how to remove the cup because I doubt that I could provide such a wonderful mental image.  “Before removing the cup, you should thoroughly wash your hands and then in a comfortable position, either standing, sitting on the toilet, or squatting with your buttock resting on your heels, bear down in a series of gentle downward pushes with your abdominal/pelvic floor muscles (as if you were having a bowel movement).”  Next, you pull the stem horizontally until you can pinch the base of the cup, and squeeze the cup gently to release the seal.  Honestly, I was nervous that I might spill the contents everywhere and leave the bathroom looking like a crime scene, but this turned out to be surprisingly easy.  I simply flushed the contents down the toilet and continued on with my day.  

Overall, my experience with The DivaCup was positive.  I found it to be comfortable and quite convenient, and I did not experience any leakage (another one of my concerns).  The instructions answered the remainder of my questions.  Because it is made of silicone, the cup is very durable.  The lifespan of the cup varies depending on factors that vary for each woman, but a general guideline is to replace it once a year.  Also, women using IUDs should consult with their physicians before using The DivaCup.

Switching to a menstrual cup was a major routine change since I had used pads and tampons from the age of twelve.  I am more than happy to accept this change in my life, and my only regret is that I didn’t make more of an effort to learn about my options earlier!"


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Traveling at home - Initial thoughts and feedback

Pardon the short nature of this post, for my mind needs a bit of rest. I just wanted to share some initial thoughts I had about the newest part of the blog - traveling at home.

I feel like the notion of traveling at home falls squarely in line with attempts at reducing trash. When we appreciate what it is we have, and where it is we are, we may start looking for beauty, pleasure and wonderment here and now. We don't have to pine for traveling to some far out corner of the world, although that would be nice sometimes. We don't have to pine for something from somewhere else, although that would be nice, too. This may seem like some sort of "localism," and maybe it is, but I think it is more. I have not read much about "localism," but what I hope it means is more than just a patronising of businesses and groups that are close to you. I hope it means that there is a satisfaction with place with a full understanding of what needs to be done environmentally, and consequently socially, to lessen our burdens on this planet; we are a burden it seems.

I would like to find out what it is that people appreciate about the places they are in, and when and why they decide to call it home. It would be interesting to see how observant people are about their surroundings and neighbours. To that end, I am hoping to have a list of three or four questions that I may ask any people I encounter during my "travels." I want your feedback on these questions, and please let me know if you have any questions you'd like to add or subtract from this list.
  • Where do you call home?
  • Where do you live?
  • What do you appreciate about where you live?
  • What is your favourite spot close to where you live (25 mile radius)?
  • What are some observations about the place you live?
I might also have people volunteer to ask other people they might meet these very questions. It would be interesting to see how this grows.

Your thoughts?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Reflections on the year: Time and the contradictory "now"

Over the last year, I have realised that trash has much to do with the notion of time. Because of its physicality, and because of the nature of the materials that constitute trash, trash can make time stand still for many centuries. Indeed, I have wondered what it is we would like to be remembered for - trash is a time capsule. It provides an archaeological record for those that will come along generations for now. They will be able to see how we indulged ourselves, what we thought was important, and what we thought wasn't important. They will soon realise that what we thought was important was gratification through the degradation of and violence against nature. They will realise that what we thought was unimportant was nature itself, the very land upon which our feet rest, the very air we inhale and the very water that permeates our body.

I have mentioned how trash can transcend space and time. Trash is a result of our wanting to be somewhere else (1, 2), spatially and temporally. Eating Indian mangoes grown in summer in Ann Arbor during Michigan fall will absolutely result in trash and ecological degradation, and there is just no way around it.

We also live in a world of now - we want the future now. We always look forward to the next, the new, the untouched. There is a deep dislike of what it is we have now. These ideas are not my own, but have been influenced by the writings of people like Wendell Berry and Derrick Jensen and Jay Griffiths.

It is rather interesting though that even though we want to be in the future, even though we want to "progress," we are always unsure of what the future looks like, and we can be indecisive now because of uncertainty. Many times, we are unwilling to make essential decisions now because we don't know how those decisions might affect the future. Government policies are a prime example of this. Such indecisiveness now can lead to dire outcomes later. Many of our actions we will never know the outcomes of, but many we will. As I wrote about at length a few days ago, now is easier to comprehend than the future, and we can all be making important decisions now such that the future is not mired in political and environmental mess.

Having given up the ability to do many of the things we think are important to our lives, we have put ourselves in the position of reliance. The best example of this is food. We rely on others to provide food for us now, and we will continue to rely on them into the future. This has the potential to result in trash and degradation, as I've written about here. Trash is borne out a lack of preparedness to deal with its generation. 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. 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.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

New adventures: Traveling at home

With a year coming up next week, I was hoping to embark on adventures that will get me thinking about different things over the next year. I read Wendell Berry's Traveling at Home a while ago, and the concept of exactly that has very much intrigued me and affected this last year's project. It has shaped my thoughts about the at times contradictory notion of now. We want to live in the future now (1, 2, 3), yet such pining has led to incredible ecological devastation. At the same time, this past year's experiences has made me think that maybe a good way of combating ecological degradation is to let now affect our behaviour, such that the future will be a good world for everything that constitutes it. I will write more about "now" tomorrow. =) Today, I want to tell you about something I am thinking of adding to the blog, something that everyone can partake in, something that can allow truly significant strides towards treading lightly on this planet, and something that will hopefully open our senses in such a way that we can be affected meaningfully.

We live in a society that seems to value upward mobility as defined through having been everywhere, and having had "interesting" experiences elsewhere. But we fail to recognise everything it is that surrounds us that subconsciously and viscerally shapes us. Many times, we fail to recognise beauty that exists outside of our windows and just down the street. What I am proposing is this - each week, I will go to a different part of the place I live in, Ann Arbor, and talk to people there, observe those spaces, and tell you about my experiences. I am hoping to appreciate much more fully this unique place, the only place like it in the world.

Each place we live in is unique. Rather than look to exploring places far away, maybe we can all explore the places we are in and appreciate them. Along the way, maybe we'll realise that meaningful action can be taken here and now, in the places we are in. We'll save some money along the way, too...that's always a good thing, right?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On encouragement and reinforcement

It is natural for us to want to be told that what we are doing is good - hopefully, we want to be viewed as responsible, caring, loving and respectful to (at least some part of) this world. Some people will take this to mean that they will do whatever it takes to support their families, some may take this to mean that they will do whatever it takes to combat social injustice. Regardless, people want to be told that they are right, that they are doing good for themselves, their families and their communities, and hopefully our world. I would think that those interrogating new technologies want the encouragement of their peers and colleagues, even though to some of us those technologies as environmentally degrading. But it is clear that many if not most of our actions and behaviours are degrading the environment. How is it that people should be told that their actions are actually not in the best interest of the greater world outside of their families? How is it that we can change how people behave and change the social norms of what is acceptable?

Trash is a wonderful example of this. Many people may think that just making sure that your trash is thrown in a receptacle is good enough, and that that is the responsible thing to do. Putting trash in a receptacle means that you aren't littering, and that the containment of trash doesn't aesthetically degrade the surroundings. But trash is not a good thing, and the act of trashing is not a good thing. Poonam had the wonderfully simple idea of changing signage on trash cans - instead of having them say "Trash," she proposed that they should say "To Landfill." It seems like just a change of words would have a huge impact on people's behaviour and perception of their actions. I arrived at Georgia Tech just a couple of days ago, and one of the first things I noticed was this...

How wonderful! Not only are words being used, but pictures, impactful ones, are being used to hopefully get people thinking about their actions. I contacted the building manager, and he has now put me in touch with the administrator in facilities and operations to see what it took to do this, and how this change has affected behaviour of people using the receptacles.

I do believe that it takes "negative" images and thoughts and problems to encourage us to action. That is not a surprise. But how might we be open to criticism in our responses to these problems? This is a fundamental issue with environmentalism. In a technologically driven world, in a world based on natural resource extraction, our approaches to solving environmental and social issues are founded on these very principles. By encouraging these approaches and making people "feel good" about them, we reinforce ideas that just aren't sustainable. I struggle with this, and I wonder where the balance lies between the positive forms of encouragement ("What you are doing is good.") to negative forms of encouragement ("What you are doing is not good."). How do you tell people? How do you convince people? 

First of all, of course, I must be open to such criticisms, and if you have any, please, please tell me.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Reflections on the year: The importance of the journey

There has been much to write about for the past two days, and I apologise for not having done so. I am on a small trip to Georgia Tech for a conference, a trip which Paul and I decided to do by car; we decided not to fly.

We arrived in Atlanta last night, after taking a couple of days to do the drive through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and the northern part of Georgia. Along the way, we stopped in Dayton and had sandwiches in the Oregon district. We stopped in Lexington and explored the University of Kentucky; the campus was quiet because all of the students were on spring break. But Paul and I decided to throw a Frisbee around and see where the Frisbee took us; it took us to little nooks with wooden benches and daffodils, large expanses of lawns, and a beautiful wide pit in front of the library. As we continued to drive south through Tennessee, we saw weeks of spring progress in minutes and hours right before our eyes.

I feel like Paul and I could have missed all of this very easily had we decided to fly down to Atlanta. Yes, we would have "saved" six hours of travel time each way and we could have "gotten on" with our lives. But it seems nowadays we have become so accustomed to flying over small and vast expanses of the country, rather than exploring it and observing the gradients and differences. The drive gave me a better understanding of the landscapes this country is made of. The journey is as important as the destination.

Oregon District, Dayton, OH
Where will you take us?
University of Kentucky
Spring in KY
Library, University of Kentucky
Beautiful tree
The drive made me think about this past year. We live in a world where many want answers and solutions now, and to do that, we build ever faster computers with greater and greater computing power, we try to maximise the efficiency of everything we do. The challenges that face our world socially and environmentally, however, have no quick fixes. It would be nice if we were to come up with quick and easy ways to empower people everywhere to put all of these problems behind us. We may be able to cope with top-down approaches to solving these problems and understand them. But maybe not. Any durable change that fills our lives cannot come from anywhere else but from within. I feel that if people aren't involved in the journey of struggle and learning, any quick fix will not be a durable one. The journey allows a deeper understanding of the fundamental issues that can be easily overlooked when we look for quick fixes. We shouldn't forget that our quest to make each one of our lives less impactful is a journey. What is more important to realise though is that such a journey doesn't require being an engineer or doctor or social worker. We have all been endowed with all we need - hearts and minds and souls. All we need to be is open to the possibilities that will present themselves along the way.

I can't believe it has been three hundred and fifty-eight days since this my project started; it has been the start of a wonderful journey, a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain (one thousand points to the person who figures out which movie this is from). 

Friday, March 18, 2011

"We would use a steam shovel to pick up a dime if we could."

I want to revisit a previous post with today's post, and talk about doing things just because we can. I went to CC Little bus stop this morning after parting ways with Joe. This bus stop, or the "Central Campus Transit Center," as it is now called, is the main bus stop on Central Campus at the University of Michigan. Over the fall, this bus stop and the roads around it were renovated (using funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) to make it a grander presence on campus; earlier, it used to be a few little brick structures that would maybe house thirty students all squeezed together. Now it has a long and dramatic roof, and several hundred people can get some roof over their heads while waiting for a bus. What they also added, hanging from the roof, are these giant screens that display moving text. These screens have been up and running for more than a couple of months now, and my impression was that they would display information on the next arriving buses, the route details, and so on. Wrong. Here's what they actually show.

I waited at the stop for long enough today (and have previously as well) to see that no timing information was being put on screen, ever. In the first photo, we see that the sign is directing students to a website to see when the buses will be arriving. I especially like the second photo a lot - above the screen, you have the "analog" version (thanks, Joe!) of the The Ride above the digital one. Hahahahahaha.

I went to to see how much money was spent on this project, and although I am not sure which exact project on the website corresponds to this renovation, I am almost certain that several hundred thousand dollars were spent on the whole project. These screens (there are probably more than five of them) likely cost many thousands of dollars. Their purpose? To show that the University of Michigan has awesome screens to direct you to a website to find out when the bus will come...Why not just save those thousands of dollars and put up a sign with the website on it and put several of them up so that they are conspicuous? What's the point of the screen? This isn't the only place I've noticed screens being used as nothing more than signs. There's a new restaurant in town, called Squares, and there, they have their menu on screens, just like at Mujo Cafe on North Campus.

This points to a fundamental issue I have with technology - the loss of appropriateness. I have continuously advocated for making full use of what we have already. But there is some deep draw we have to developing new technology, and then being compelled to use it because we can think that is the best and only way to do something.

"We would use a steam shovel to pick up a dime if we could." ~Wendell Berry.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

It is spring. It is St. Patrick's Day. Don't just wear green.

Did you smell the air today in Ann Arbor? Did you hear the birds going absolutely nuts? For those of you who are not in this area, the air smelled sweet of mud and grass and melting snow and evaporating water. The birds are back in full force, ready to grace a new spring in song and energy. It is spring, the time when white and shades of gray give way to the spectrum of colours, from red to green. It is also St. Patrick's day, a day in which the only right colour for beer is green (eww), and the only right colour for clothing is green, too. Let's unpack this colour, this word. (Shout out to red-head Smitty!)

Much of this blog has been devoted to the understanding of words that we use to describe the environment, our interactions with it, and our interactions amongst ourselves. There are several important ethical assumptions we make when we use words like "developed countries" and "developing countries." I believe in the importance of using words only if you mean them, particularly if there are non-negligible implications of those words. (I hope I don't sound like a sour guy.) The more freely we use words, the more chance we give people to usurp the word to make it mean what they want to. This can lead to very tough situations in which you may be talking to somebody about something, and they may be understanding something completely different. "Green" is one more such word. It has been now used to describe cars and computers, air travel and tourism, extractive industries and new clothes. "Green" has been turned into a fad, just like "sustainable" has. To me, the true essence of the word in normal communication has now been lost. Call me masochistic (A very thoughtful and cool person has called me that. You know who you are =)), but many of the things people advocate aren't green, but are less brown.

I sometimes wonder whether the motive behind action really matters, as long as the desired outcome is achieved. People can decide not to pollute because they don't have to pay clean-up costs, or they may not pollute because they love the environment. But when push comes to shove, what are we willing to compromise on? Well, if something is going to cost money, many people will shy away from it, even though it may be less brown...just like Krista feels. Is the environment something we can compromise on to make the other kind of green?

I hope we can all think about this difficult issues, and not just use words (or dress a certain way, on a certain day) to make ourselves look good or feel good. Let's mean what we say. Maybe then we will mean what we do.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My medical waste

I have only superficially touched on the issue of medical waste, and the huge amounts of waste and trash that is generated through it, not to mention the amounts of resources that go into medical and pharmaceutical research, and how medicines and wastes are dealt with, whether used or not. Bryan and John, both medical students, mentioned to me independently the inherent contradictions between medicine the way it is currently practiced and sustainability. I have not needed any medical attention for a really long time now, not even a band-aid. My streak came to a crashing halt these past few days.

Act I
The time: Friday night/Saturday morning, two am
The place: My kitchen
The event: Environmental harm through medical waste
The people: Darshan, Matt, Ashlea, Alex

After a fun night out going to see Theo Katzman and Love Massive, and Hannah Winkler at The Ark followed by a good time at 8 Ball, Matt and I came home with hungry stomachs. Very few things are better than late night breakfast. I have enjoyed making hash browns of late, and with a couple eggs, who needs to go to Fleetwood Diner? I make us breakfast with some of my dad's wonderful mustard-marinated hot peppers on the side. We sat down at the dining table, and I wanted to turn on a lamp rather than keeping all of the kitchen lights on. It seemed like it wasn't plugged in, and so I ran my hand along the cord, and when it got close to the fridge, I felt a very clean, very deep cut through my ring finger on my right hand. I take a look at my finger, and blood is gushing out, but luckily, I was able to keep the top of that finger on and pressed. Turns out I almost took off the top of my finger (really) with the top of a tin can that was lying on the floor, held down by the fridge, right along the path of the cord. Alex came out with a band-aid, and we stemmed the flow of blood. The band-aid was not getting soaked, and so even though the cut was very deep, I didn't need stitches. Ashlea and Matt were queasy.

Did I need a tetanus shot? I didn't remember the last time I got a shot of any kind. It is likely therefore that my last shot was in India, at least eight years ago.  By the next morning, everything seemed to have sealed up alright, and the band-aid and medical tape held my finger shut. My finger did not seem infected. The debate raged in my mind for a few hours. My dad said that I probably didn't need a shot if the cut wasn't infected by then, but he recommended getting one. But a shot?! What about the single-use needle and syringe? And what about those huge vials of vaccine from which they only use a small amount? I am sorry for all of this, Mother Earth. 

I waited a couple days, so I didn't have to go to the ER. UHS seemed like a much more low-key place...

Act II
The time: Tuesday morning, nine am
The place: Clinic 1A, University Health Services
The event: Further environmental harm through medical waste
The people: Secretary X, Dr. Y, Nurse Z, Darshan

I caved. I went to UHS, and set up a walk-in appointment. Out came a bundle of papers, and I filled in a sheet. They put the papers in a red folder, and put this little yellow zip tie kind of thing to ensure that no one tampered with the records. I trudged over to Clinic 1A, and handed the folder to the Secretary X, and she cut off the yellow zip tie and threw it away. (Heart sinks.) I wait to see Dr. Y, and take off the second band-aid I had put on since the cut. He takes a quick look (~5 seconds), and says the wound is healing well. He takes a band-aid, and puts it on, and hands me several more band-aids. I get up and see Nurse Z to get the shot. She makes me fill out a form stating the risks of the shot, and show her my upper arm. In goes the needle, and injected is the liquid with the syringe. She puts a little round band-aid on my arm after wiping the spot with a little bit of cotton. I don't ask for the needle or syringe, although I really should have.

It is interesting how we've surrounded ourselves with essentially non-reusable objects that can cause such physical harm (e.g. concentrated sharp metals) such that getting hurt because of them warrants the use of more non-reusable objects.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On framing: consumption vs. trash

Having been involved in environmental activism on campus for years now, the issue of the framing of issues is never too far from my mind. Framing the issue in the right way without compromising on your values can lead to more persuasive arguments. Today's post is on the issue of framing. Case study: consumption vs. trash.

Consumption is complicated. As defining a feature as it is in our behaviour, consumption is vague in its physicality. Consumption is solely an action. It is not something that we can touch or smell. The fact that we can't feel consumption, but rather that its existence is conveyed through the exchange of physical objects, makes it more of a mental and emotional characteristic. At the same time there is indeed a spectrum of consumption, and some consumption must occur to stay alive - with each breath I am taking I am consuming oxygen. Furthermore, many of us think that consuming leads to a happier and more meaningful life, and maybe it does - I can buy a cell phone so that I can keep in touch with my family. At the same time, we live in a society in which people are judged by their consumption habits such that they have physical objects to show for them. Therefore, it may seem very difficult to persuade people to stop consuming.

Yet the dire state of our environment is plain for all to see, and consumption has played an all too heavy hand in this state. There has been ever-increasing talk about how we live in a "materialistic" and "consumerist" world, and that we need to "consume" less if there is any hope that we avoid catastrophic climate change, or if there is any hope that we move to a more sustainable world. Probably more often than not though, we have been told that we need to consume "differently" - we are now being persuaded to buy "green" cars and "environmentally friendly" computers, which are, of course, purely oxymorons. The issue of consumption has been skirted to make us feel less guilty about what we buy. All of this increased consumption is to aid "progress" and "development;" I've written about previously, the concept of sustainability has been consciously morphed into that of "sustainable development," or in a sense, "sustainable consumption."

On the other hand, we have the problems that are borne of consumption, trash being on of them. "Trash" is both an action and an object. Trash isn't something vague or unnoticeable; it is not emotional or mental (although for me it has become so). Rather, trash is a physical manifestation of a mental and emotional construct - consumption - just like the objects we consume are physical manifestations. The objects we consume may be adding some "value" into our lives, but unless you are dealing in the business of trash, trash adds no value to what it is you consume. Instead, trash is a nuisance. Trash is felt and experienced viscerally; the fact that trash is visceral therefore makes it a wonderful metaphor of ecological degradation perpetrated by humans.

To me, the problems of trash, consumption, climate change and unsustainability are one and the same. Yet in order to have a broader impact, and in order to motivate individual action to aid the environment, what may be the appropriate framework to help guide more people? The connotations of consumption may not be wholly negative. In a sense, there is no way I can stop consuming physical things in existence in nature, particularly air, water, and food. But trash has only negative connotations associated with it. More importantly, adequately addressing trash necessarily addresses the issue of consumption - minimizing trash and waste minimizes consumption automatically. Gone are the issues of deciding whether or not to buy product X because it may be greener than product Y. The fact that trash is the result of that consumption choice obviates any need for further thought.

(Thank you to Professor Johnson and Dr. Shriberg for planting these ideas in me.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Put yourself in their shoes

This project isn't just about trash, yet trash is a most visceral manifestation of the fundamental problems our societies have created. I just re-read Vanessa Baird's fantastic piece from the New Internationalist, "Trash: inside the heap." Baird articulates the social injustice of the world as viewed through trash and waste. She writes, "The rich make it, the poor deal with it. The rich who make it are generally considered 'clean;' the poor who deal with it are considered 'dirty.'" How true.

Visiting the recycling plant a few weeks ago provided me with the most up-close view of the world of trash processing. The plant accepts materials from all over the region, and the material keeps coming in waves. Entire warehouses are filled with the materials, and as soon as those materials are sorted through, the next roomfull of materials is waiting to be sorted. To me, those materials have lives of their own (in a sense) and stories associated with them. Those materials are other than the air that we breathe and the land we stand on. This means that those materials have human lives associated with them, too. Not just the lives of the people that used those materials, but the lives of people that were involved in both material creation and fate after use.

After the tour of the facility, Caroline and I were wondering about the stories of the people that worked at the recycling plant. We wondered how they might be feeling given the cold day, the loud noise, the putrid smell, and spending their time in the constancy of refuse. We wondered if they were appreciated at all, and whether or not they even wanted to be there. Are they there because they could find nothing else to do? Do they have the choice not to be there? The founding documents of our nations proclaim how people are born equal, yet nothing could be further from the truth. This world has always been a world of haves and have nots, and most every material thing in our lives depends on this inequality, whether it is diamonds, oil, plastic, rare earth minerals, recyclables, trash or wood. We have founded our lives, the lives of those people with choice and power and money, on the bodies, hearts, minds and souls of those less fortunate.

I wonder whether we are willing to do what it takes to provide ourselves with what we want. How wonderful it would be if each one of us, in our upbringing, was made to fully carry out the tasks, at least once, of the people who really make our societies functional. I am not talking about investment bankers or engineers or doctors (the "clean" people), but rather farmers, sanitation men, electricians, plumbers, and people in countries less powerful than the US (the "dirty" people). Maybe if we put ourselves in their shoes, we'll see that not only are we degrading the environment, but we are devaluing the existence of these fellow humans.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reflections on the year: Three kinds of "action"

I hope one of the key things I have been able to convey in the past year is the importance of individual action (1, 2) and our obligation to act (1, 2). Many of the writings so far have tried to motivate us to be introspective about what we are a part of, and to understand that our actions have major implications for beings, sentient and non-sentient, all around the world. Having chosen to focus on trash was honestly a naïve decision in some sense, but as always, things generally happen for the best. I honestly didn't know what I was getting into when I decided to undertake this project, not because I didn't think I could do it, or it would be difficult, but rather because I had no idea of the various ways in which I would be able view the world, and ways in which I would act. Furthermore, the lens of trash has been easily relatable to other people - our experiences around trash are shared experiences. At the same time, a focus on trash is necessarily a focus on everything resulting in ecological degradation.

The other day, Professor Johnson and I were trying to distill the year down to a few take home messages that may be useful for other people to think about and implement. As a sociologist focusing on environmental issues, individual action and organisations, she has only words of wisdom to share. She said that in the efforts of the past year, she saw three kinds of "action" - refusal, inaction, and preparedness.

Refusal - There are two kinds of refusal. The first is refusal in the face of other people telling you to do something or offering you something. Examples may be refusing to drink beer from a bottle, or refusing to take that free t-shirt that comes along with opening a new bank account. More fundamentally, refusal speaks to a deeper want to not be a part of the ecologically degrading culture we live in. Refusal is of course more impactful than reduction, reuse, or recycling.

Inaction - Refusal leads directly to the conscious action of inaction. You can think of inaction as non-participation, or boycott, which I have written about previously (here, here, here, here). You can choose not to buy a new cellphone, for example.

Preparedness - Whereas inaction may be seen as a passive stance, preparedness is the action of thinking about what you may encounter, and taking conscious efforts to combat those potentially compromising positions. For example, if you carry around your own container, you can easily put any leftovers you may have in a restaurant into that container. Carrying around you own water bottle or thermos is another act of preparedness. (I have also talked about preparedness in some sense using the word vigilance.) As I have mentioned previously, once I am prepared, mentally and physically (with objects), producing no trash has been not difficult at all. 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.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The recycling conundrum

Back to the flaws of our neoclassical economy and its detrimental impacts on the environment.

A few years ago, I learned that recycling is a business. To be honest, it really shocked me then, and still at times I cannot wrap my mind around this fact. Many people recycle out of the goodness of their hearts, and take the time and effort to be responsible recyclers because they think they are truly being lighter on the environment. And so it might be shocking to them to comprehend this fact. But giving this fact a little more thought, I understand why it may be a business - in a consumerist world, we always need materials to make things. You can of course extract virgin materials or synthesise them, which requires its share of energy, water, fuel, human, time and other spendable resources. All of these resources are then assigned a money value. On the other hand, you can take already existing materials and reform them into the same, or similar materials (likely downcycled, not recycled). This, too, required its share of spendable resources. A money value is assigned to these resources. If the cost of the virgin material is cheaper than the recycled material, people may just choose to use the virgin material. People will only use the recycled materials if the cost of using them is competitive with the cost of the virgin material. Recycling is probably (?) less bad for the environment, but cost triumphs, always.

It was a wonderful experience to go to the recycling plant just south of Ann Arbor with Caroline. A complication about the future of recycling in the region was raised by our tour guide. He said that recently, the contracts that allowed Ontario's trash to be imported into Michigan expired. This may likely reduce demand for landfill space, and landfills may decrease the fees it costs to actually dump something in the landfills (called "tipping fees"). It may therefore make it cheaper for cities and municipalities to just pay the tipping fees rather than the City of Ann Arbor to accept their recycling refuse. This could cut down on recycling. But Caroline raises an even more salient issues in her post from a few days ago. She said,

"...we forget that recycling is actually a business, and the Ann Arbor plant is run by a corporation.  Ann Arbor is unique in her recycling ways.  Due to the fact that the city owns the plant, and that it is in close proximity to the city and the other locales that feed it materials, it is actually more profitable to recycle than trash our waste.  But would the city really try to motivate us if it wasn’t earning a profit?  Sadly, probably not.  Instead of dwelling on a pessimistic view, it does say something that A2 creates an environment conducive to recycling.  However, if we used less resources all together, there would be less to recycle, and profits would fall.  So even though the idea of recycling is usually linked with consuming less, a revenue threshold exists that needs to be maintained.  What I therefore struggle with is the contradiction between business and the environment.  From a recycling plant perspective, are we supposed to stop consuming?"
I wonder what the ideal world for the people that actually process the recyclables is. As an environmentalist, the ideal world would be one in which recycling the way we do just doesn't exist - we just wouldn't have so many products in the first place. In that case, the very need for recycling is nil. Yet it doesn't seem to me that the recycling plant is run out of the goodness of a corporation's heart. (Of course corporations are people and are living...right?!) If they can't make money, who cares about the environment?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reflections on the year: Who I am surrounded by

Experiences come in two forms, shared and personal. Yet it seems to me that unless you live in solitude, even the most personal experiences are necessarily shared. There is no way to stop all of the external forces that influence your thoughts and your actions. There is also no way to stop your influence on those around you. In some sense, no experience is personal. To me, the only experiences worth having are those that are common, shared and mutual.

I started this project close to a year ago with little idea of what it might mean to me. I undertook it solely as a way to see how far I could go in walking my talk, or to see how much further I needed to go; I thought this a personal project. But the credit for the birth of this blog goes to others - Andrew and Margo, who convinced me to start writing late last spring during a conversation on a beautiful day on the Diag. Furthermore, most of what has been written about has in some way been sparked by conversations with other people about at times seemingly unrelated things. I can therefore in no way take credit for everything that you may have read - the people that surround me that have provided constant encouragement and meaning and provocation. Clearly, there is much further to go in though and action, because I realised things and learned about things that I didn't think existed. Writing about this project has really made me more aware of my surroundings, and the ways in which humans influence their environment.

If you are thinking of a project of your own, don't hesitate to get it underway. You will be surprised by the enthusiasm others will share with you.

I am hoping that you will continue to share your thoughts with me and with others. And thanks.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reflections on the year: Where I live

It is coming up on a year now since this project started, and I want to reflect on what has made this project possible. I have had the continued support of friends and family and colleagues, and discussions with them have been the largest source of content for these writings. Yet I cannot help but wonder what it would have been like had I been living in another part of the country, or even five miles away from where I live right now. I live in a place where a river flows one hundred yards from my room window, where the farmers' market and the food coop are just a good golf drive away, where I can walk to go out with friends, where accessibility is not an issue. Everything caters to living such a life; the options have been all around me since I moved here seven years ago, I just had to choose to make the leap into this project. I live in Ann Arbor.  How I am so lucky to be here, I do not know.

Reality is what we make of what surrounds us. One can choose to look at a tree and think, "Oh, that will make a nice table to replace the one I have already." Or one can think, "This tree is the home for the woodpeckers and the sparrows, and even though its leaves have graced the soil, they will come back next spring harboring new life." Many people have mentioned to me about how the town is too small, how there isn't anything going on, how they can't wait to leave to a bigger city like Chicago or New York. Yet in my experience, this town is full of vibrancy and vigour. Natural beauty is embedded in it, just as Ann Arbor is embedded in the natural beauty of Southeast Michigan, and is surrounded by the Great Lakes of the world. (Okay, the first colonisers clearly messed up a lot...but let's forget about that for now.) At the same time, this town provides each one of us the option of choosing to live experimentally and experientially. This town makes it easy to live so. Undertaking this project has been incredibly easy. This is the reality that Ann Arbor has shown me.

Yet other places just down the road are not like this. I don't know how I would live in such a place, and only my embedding in those places will allow me to make my reality there. I would hope to learn about those places from others. I am not in those other places. For now, I am here. Given what Ann Arbor offers, I can have no excuse to live any differently, and any encouragement that I may provide is grounded in my being here and having experienced here. But most importantly, it is essential to believe you can undertake a project mentally. If you do, the reality you create for yourself instantly changes its nature.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On rights, conveniences and obligations

I want to continue my thoughts from my last post on obligation. I particularly want to focus on the obligations that we must assume given our rights and conveniences in this world.

I am no expert of history, and no expert of international affairs. I know little of the governance structures that exist in many parts of the world. Yet it is is undeniable, to me at least, that as time has moved on in our societies, the rights granted to people by their governments have on the whole increased. (Libertarians may not think so.) Women have the right to vote in most parts of the world now, and much of the world has adopted some form of democracy. The list of human rights has increased over time, it seems, and for good reason. I find it difficult to comprehend and swallow the many violations against the sanctity of the world propagated through war and similar crimes. Increasingly, rights have the character such that they are applicable to all people living in a jurisdiction, and that is an absolutely wonderful thing. These are rights that confer upon all of us the access and ability to partake governance, which affects our daily lives. (Many of us do not exercise these rights, but that is a different story.) At the same time, we have had a proliferation of "convenience" in our lives. We have made it a priority for ourselves to make convenience more convenient, to give more and more people more and more access to more and more things. We have become so accustomed to convenience that we think it a human right to have access to these conveniences. In fact, many people have said that access to the the internet has become a fundamental human right. 

The right to open a business that violently extracts natural resources exists for all of us, and although there are laws such as NEPA that do require us to "consider" the environmental impacts, the environment has been continuously degraded over time. In fact, as long as there is a "just" compensation to the affected people for pollution and environmental harm, such activities can go on. Our legal system is set up such that we have obligations to people, but no obligations to the water they drink, or to the land they stand on, or to the air they breathe. As long as the impacts of our actions can be monetised to a value that other people accept, those impacts can be made to occur. Given extremely toxic amounts of pollution, people may reach a settlement and leave to find a new home. But what about the old home? What about the river in which was dumped PCBs? Our right to compensation has come at the expense of the environment. Many of our rights and conveniences have come with increasing detriment to the environment.

As we have moved through time, we have continued to provide others with proxies to provide us the basic necessities of life - our rights and increasingly our conveniences. As the number of these proxies has increased, we have lost our connections with the elements that provide for us and sustain us. These proxies have been provided to the government and companies, and we feel that their only job is to serve us and to secure our rights and conveniences. Yet I do not believe that the list of our obligations, as citizens, has grown in proportion with the list of our rights and our conveniences. The right to vote has not come with the obligation to vote, at least in the US. No one can deny that the convenience of a new laptop is benign on the environment, regardless of whether or not we feel it is a human right to have access to the internet, and still we have no obligation to make sure it isn't harming people before we buy it, or after we are done using it. As I wrote a couple of days ago, our increased mental and emotional capacities place on us the burden of obligation. We must expand the scope of our obligations with every increasing right, with every increasing convenience. Rights exists only because there is land beneath our feet, water to drink and air to breath. Conveniences only exist because nature provides us the materials for them. Obligations will allow us to fully realise the impacts of these rights and conveniences.