Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Taking matters into their own hands

(A little tired to type much, but I wanted to share with you some inspirational things going on in Haiti.)

Peter Wenz writes in his essay Environmentalism and Human Oppression, that 
[s]pecialization and the division of labor make people more interdependent, as they depend on others to meet needs outside their own specialties. Carpenters, for example, depend on farmers and butchers, as they in turn depend on carpenters.

Vulnerability is the other face of interdependence. People on whom we depend for life's necessities are people who have power over us. Foragers, for example, depend on others in their group for cooperation in life's basic tasks. But because everyone has similar skills and available natural resources are adequate, no subgroup can control or limit the rest of the group's ability to accomplish their goals. Dependence does not make individuals vulnerable when cooperation and needed resources are so widely available. In addition, foragers know personally and individually the people on whom they depend. This fosters interpersonal bonds and builds confidence that needed cooperation will be forthcoming.
Our culture has tended to specialise more and more, brand us, bin us, reduce us to numbers and statistics. Indeed, our economies are based on specialisation. And when we specialise, we give proxies--we rely on others to fulfill needs. As soon as we give proxies, we lose our ability to have adequate control over what is done with our confidence. (Bruce had some interesting comments on specialisation that you can read here.)

We can all agree that Haiti has been thoroughly screwed over by colonialism and imperialism and the resulting poverty. Haiti has had to rely on foreign "aid" for a long time now. But, in places that are destitute are found the most inspirational individuals and collectives--individuals and collectives that need no charity, individuals and collectives that are taking matters into their own hands. It is us that should be learning from them. Watch this slideshow, narrated by photographer Bear Guerra, about the essay Peasant Bounty by Ruxandra Guidi, from the July/August 2011 issue of Orion, which is about a communitarian peasant movement in rural Haiti, called the Mouvman Peyizan Papay, in which farmers address issues of food sovereignty in addition to food security. (You ought to read the essay, too.)

Bear Guerra — "Peasant Bounty" narrated slide show from Orion Magazine on Vimeo.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A chink in the armor may have been found

The recent Occupy movement has meant more to me than just financial reform. It has exposed to the public the incredible greed of corporations and wealthy individuals, and an inhumane lack of compassion on part of the government and private sector for those that are most vulnerable, those that are caught in the circles and tentacles of poverty and injustice and degraded environments. I hope you see the threads and connections, too. It is hard to deny the omnipresence of corporatism in our lives. Our conversations are mediated through their gizmos, our politicians are influenced by their monies, our food is "produced" in their labs, our life savings are eaten up in instants.

In class one day, Professor Parson, the most brilliant person I have met, was talking about an experience that he has had several times over. He has the in in policy circles; he has the in on meetings in which the head honchos of major corporations, these powerful, rich people, get together and discuss policy issues regarding the environment. After days of discussion, many of them end up hanging their heads in defeat, saying, "We just need to educate the next generation to make better choices."

I am a student (and employee?) at the University of Michigan. Each year, a couple of large student groups and the Career Center in the College of Engineering hold Career Fair--a two-day long event that brings recruiters to campus. You see tons of engineering students, dressed up in business-casual attire, lined up waiting to be told impersonally to apply for any positions "on the company website." You can assume who is doing the recruiting...all the big guns--defense contractors, oil exploration corporations, mining companies.

And so it is particularly defeatist, ironic, and hypocritical of these very rich men and corporations, who (corporations are people, too, right?) have their sway in policy circles, to say that we should leave it to the next generation to solve the myriad of issues that face us. But, it is true that the lifeblood of these large corporations is the young; corporations prey on the young to continue their legacies, to continue to buy their products. The young can be lured by six-figure salaries and quick repayment of their debts. Having been through an undergraduate engineering degree at the University of Michigan, I know that engineers are not made to think about the consequences of engineering. And so, many undergraduates may have never heard about Engineers Without Borders, or the phrase "appropriate technology." Indeed, the government-industry-military-university complex does not train these engineers to be activists. Rather, they train them to be passively engaged in violent and Earth-raping activities.

Furthermore, the way large bureaucracies are set up, there is very little individual blame or responsibility put on engineers. Write Martin and Schinzinger in their book Ethics in Engineering,
Large-scale engineering projects involve fragmentation of work. Each person makes only a small contribution to something much larger. Moreover, the final product is often physically removed from one's immediate workplace, creating the kind of "distancing" that [Stanley] Milgram [who conducted the famous experiments in which he concluded that people are willing to abandon personal accountability when placed under authority] identified as encouraging a lessened sense of personal accountability. (pg. 94)
Such lack of accountability allows young people to easily convince themselves that what they are doing is benign, and allows their moral compasses to be swayed by hierarchy. While talking about corporatism and having dinner with Rebecca the other night, we talked about the chink in the (corporate) armor that Professor Larimore had brought up in August. She said, "Corporations feed on young people. They are always looking for new, young recruits." There are many reasons why, it seems.

It is ultimately clear to me that these corporations must be brought down, or at least their structure--where they are no longer allowed and privileged and encouraged to endure forever--must be restored to "the original an association granted temporary privileges for the purpose of carrying out some socially useful task, with charters that must be reviewed and renewed periodically by state legislatures," as Scott Russell Sanders writes in his essay, Breaking the Spell of Money, in Orion.

But I really do think Rebecca has found one of the weaker spots of corporatism--the need for new blood.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rich people problems

Just because there is inequality in the world doesn't take away from the fact that each and everyone of us is human. And because we are human, most (not all) of us just have problems. (Ok. I was trying to find the link to a picture of a man from Vanuatu, who is probably one of the "happiest men in the world," but I can't find it. I can see his face in my head. Instead, you'll just have to deal with this person problem...) And, for those of us in the industrialised, agriculturally-based, "civilised" world, we still have our fair share of "problems" the ones below.

In our day-to-day lives, it seems then that we end up complaining about the mundane, the inconsequential, the meaningless. Indeed, the meaninglessness of our complaints is embodied and epitomised in our constant unappreciation of what we have. Because, if we appreciated what we had, we would not really complain about anything, and if we didn't complain about anything, it would mean that we are content, and if we are content, we wouldn't want more, and if we didn't want more, another gold mine wouldn't have to be dug in Peru, disrupting indigenous lives and pristine ecosystems; another mountaintop wouldn't have to be blown to smithereens to satisfy our constant urge for energy.

Rich people problems are addressed by rich people solutions, comprised of domination, violence, disrespect; the technologies that have stemmed from our abilities to be able to devote vast amounts of time and effort and nature to them--because of our "richness"--have resulted in vast inequalities, and have resulted in violence and disrespect amongst people and towards nature, maybe just too far away in space and time for us to really care or take notice. One might say, "Darshan, those brutes in [insert name of "developing" part of the world here] are those that use violence, that disrespect human rights, that have authoritarian regimes. Not us. We are the morally sound. We deal with things legally here. We promote peace and justice and fairness and equality." Well, we just exemplify domination, violence, and disrespect in different ways, that's all.

For continued thanksgiving, here's to individual and collective contentment, appreciation, satisfaction, and happiness.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Are you happy now?

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone. What were you thankful for? What are you thankful for?

I find Thanksgiving to be a particularly ironic holiday, because it comes right before Black Friday, the complete opposite of what Thanksgiving (ostensibly) represents--contentment, happiness, and thankfulness for what we have. Instead, we are distracted by the "deals" offered to us by companies and corporations that could care less about you and your families. Indeed, why would the stores want to open up at midnight the night of Thanksgiving? Do they really not want us to spend Thanksgiving evening at home? Do they really want us to start waiting in line at ten pm outside the "local" Macy's?

Well, they succeed, every single time. They get what they want, and we get what we "need."

I find striking parallels between us "consumers" and those that are in abusive relationships for extended periods of time. Even though we, the "99%," are fighting against the injustices presented by capitalism and corporatism and materialism, we go back--crawling, waiting in line, pepper-spraying others, trampling, grabbing, ripping, tearing, breaking--to those that abuse us. We go back to the abuser, because either we know nothing else, or because we are not willing to change ourselves, and rather point the finger at "them," those that comprise "the system."

This year, I heard that there were going to be 153 million shoppers on Black Friday. To put that into perspective, the population of the United States of America is 312 million. So basically, one in two people decided to spend their time buying stuff on a weekend when many travel large distances to go home.

We continue to satisfy our ephemeral urges of materialism, like hard drug addicts taking one last hit.

So, did we get our last hit?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Understanding privilege

In several posts from the recent and not-so-recent past, I have been writing about inequality as a driver not only of sad human conditions, but also as a driver of ecological degradation, which comes full circle to negatively affect the human condition. (Please do not take me as an anthropocentrist.) Where there is inequality, there is privilege, and recently, I have been thinking about where I stand, where I come from, where my thoughts stem from...and that is a position of privilege.

I live in the uber-rich city of Ann Arbor, with access to information, data, nature, people, and thoughts found in only a handful of places in the world. I am "educated," come from a rich family, and am Indian. (As you probably know, as an ethnic group, Indians in the US are some of the most privileged people in the country.) My education, and the privilege it bestows on me, are things that cannot be glossed over. I wonder how my privilege affects how the unprivileged view me. This is complicated further by what I am thinking of doing after I am done with graduate school--do I do a post-doctoral fellowship at another elite institution? Or do I go into the streets? I have tried so far to balance my privilege with grassroots activism and writing, but I feel I must constantly think about the tensions between the two in order to be more effective in helping create lasting change.

Institutions of higher education--for all of the tremendous work being done by academics there about social injustice, inequality, and ecological degradation--can cut us off from the actuality of the world in two ways. First, many of them, like the University of Michigan, are located in economically rich parts of the country. Poverty and inequality are far away. Second, for all of the knowledge that academics have about science, society, and culture, I find that I see very few of them interacting in activist circles. Many are of the mindset of, "We'll do the academic stuff, and let that speak for itself." This, as I have previously, this can be dangerous and counterproductive to movements of change.

And I think privilege also adds another layer of complexity. Many of us have become so used to privilege that we cannot see what it is like to be unprivileged. If money lends itself to privilege and human worth, we do all that we can to earn it, spend it, and show it off. And so, if there is to be any significant progress towards dealing with ecological crises, we must recognise that the privileged must be ready to recognise their privilege, give it up, open themselves up to criticism, become the vulnerable. As Jean Vanier, the founder of the l'Arche movement has suggested in his conversation with Krista Tippett, we must form our society by taking into consideration the needs of those most vulnerable among us to be paramount. It is these people that need protection, not the powerful, who will spend millions of dollars just so that they can continue to earn billions of dollars, wasting our Earth, poisoning it with their toxins, and walking away from the scenes of crime as if they were entitled to our Earth's bounty, and no one or nothing else.

I believe that the first thing that we, the privileged, must do is to try to stop doing things just because we can. Therein lies a deep challenge. Just because I can buy a new iPhone every time a new one comes out doesn't mean that I do buy a new iPhone. Just because I have the luxury to travel far distances wherever and whenever I want to doesn't mean that I do take advantage of that luxury. Recognising the privilege in our lives, and understanding that this privilege is what contributes to the destruction of the Earth's capacities, this is what is important; this is what is necessary.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Some thoughts on inequality

We have equated the worth of people with the money they have. This materialistic, consumeristic society has done a tremendous job at equating the worth of a human being with the amount of money he or she has. Those with money get better public services, those with money are looked at more favourable under eyes of the law, those with money can get away with ecological catastrophes by paying the government or the people. Money opens doors to those that have it, and stands as an oppressive barrier to those that do not have it. For those caught in the vicious cycle of poverty, inequality, and discrimination, capitalism's lack of compassion provides no hope. This isn't the case only on an individual basis in "rich" countries like the US, but it is also the case between the "rich" global north and the "poor" global south.  Inequality furthers ecological degradation, particularly because of the vested interests of the powerful, and their unwillingness to deal with the impacts of their choices. The poverty created by industrialisation and globalisation leave only one option to the poor--either industrialise, or be left behind. And this industrialisation takes advantage of industrialising nations' willingness to participate in the game of globalisation, as well as the fear of retaliation from industrialised nations.

In a powerful episode of Speaking of Faith (now called On Being) titled Seeing poverty after Katrina, Krista Tippett talked to Dr. David Hilfiker, co-founder of Joseph's House in Washington, D.C., about urban poverty in the US--its causes and its rootedness in our economic system--in light of Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina brought to the national spotlight the massive discrimination against the people that have borne the brunt of our economic system. The shocking treatment of the poor in New Orleans was followed by an even more shocking statement when then FEMA Director Mike Brown said, "Katrina has shown us people we didn't know existed." How people in national government didn't know the inequalities that the economic system creates is inexcusable. Many such elites are either sheltered, or are unwilling to admit the existence of such inequality, because they are the ones that have benefited most from the rigged system.

How might we deal with such inequality? Dr. Hilfiker provides guiding advice and wisdom on how to deal with the issues of inequality in our daily lives, which is the exact way in which we must understand and deal with ecological degradation. We must confront these issues head on by not denying their existence, and by accepting fully that our privileged lives contribute to their existence. If we confront their existence, we will be better suited to understand the causes behind their existence. Dr. Hilfiker explains this by talking about how he took his young daughter to a homeless shelter to meet and talk to a particular homeless person, after she was saddened by seeing a homeless person on the street. Realising that the homeless are those that have been left behind by the very same forces that offered her privilege made her less fearful of the homeless, first of all, while making her understand the unjust economic system we have founded our society on.

We must get real about inequality.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Filling our days

People that care about issues of the environment and social justice have a way of despairing over the dire state of affairs at our doorsteps. We hear constantly of oil spills and species going extinct and pipelines being built to carry crude from Alberta to Texas. People also continually ask, "What can I do to make a difference?" I will say that action is needed on all scales, spanning our individual lives and spirits, to our communities, regions, nations, and indeed, our cultures. But fundamentally, the change we wish to see in the world can come from nowhere else but our own lives. I wonder then, what do we choose to fill our day to day lives with?

I can understand that many people are employed, and are at some level forced to be, to pay bills and support families. Yes, we are tired by the end of the day, and want nothing more than to not think about how messed up everything is. But the energy to create change must come from somewhere, and I believe that energy can come from paying adequate attention to our spirits that have been so crushed by the drudgery of daily routine.

Plant a tree. Tend a garden. Talk to your neighbour. Go to the market and cook a meal. Go on a bike ride. Understand why someone is homeless, and buy him a hot drink. Think about what each of these activities means. Planting a tree can maybe make up for some of the carbon dioxide emissions released through burning coal. Tending a garden teaches us how delicate life is, and that without proper consideration, we are bound to obliterate the capacities of this Earth. Do you even know who your neighbour is? Going to the market introduces you to people that care about the Earth as much as you do, and are doing their part of extricating themselves from industrialisation. Going on a bike ride allows you to explore where you live, and bond with your loved ones, as well as where you live. Talking to the homeless will hopefully make you think about this unjust, unequal system of benefits to some, costs for most. 

These activities are decidedly simple, yet extremely powerful. They make us realise that this world isn't only full of consumerism, planned obsolescence, corporate media, and tyrannical government, but also filled with beings that want to care and protect and preserve and conserve and live lightly on this world. Such activities invigorate our spirits and lend a hand to supporting our communities, care for our land and water and air and biophysical world. Maybe then these individual reflections unfold into grander and grander acts of activism, of subversion, of care, on larger and larger scales.

The other day, my mom told me that if we fill our lives with good, we will have no time for bad. A truer statement has not been said. (I don't want to get into discussions of what "good" and "bad" are, but if you are a regular reader of this blog, you can probably make out what good and bad mean to me.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Capitalism's lack of compassion

Karen Armstrong, TED Prize winner, a powerhouse of a thinker, and the driving force behind the Charter for Compassion, says that when we see suffering, we become compassionate, and we inherently lose our ego. We lose our will to be competitive, and rather, we become empathetic and think to ourselves, "That could be me." Rifkin says that this is exactly how our brains have evolved to function through the development of mirror neurons. We are social beings, just like ants and bees and the great apes. Then why have we built a culture and society based on competitiveness, expertise, centralisation? Why intellectual property? Indeed, why inequality?

We have been sold on the cultural traits of capitalism, competitiveness, and individualism. We have been given very little space and time to think for ourselves, and think for the collective good. This can seem like a ploy then, because if we are kept from thinking, we are kept from being observant, and we are kept from being compassionate and empathetic. Instead, many of us want to be the one percent.

Christopher Ketcham's, in his essay The Reign of the One Percenters from the current issue of Orion, writes:
The literature of the psychosocial effects of status competition and anxiety, to which Wilkinson’s work is only the latest addition, points to a broad-stroke portrait of the neurotic personality type that appears to be common in consumer capitalist societies marked by inequality. I see it all around me in New York, most acutely among young professionals. The type, in extremis, is that of the narcissist: Stressed, to be sure, because he seeks approval from others higher up in the hierarchy, though distrustful of others because he is competing with them for status, and resentful too because of his dependence on approval. He views society as unfair; he sees the great wealth paraded before him as an affront, proof of his failure, his inability, his lack. The spectacle of unfairness teaches him, among other lessons, the ways of the master-servant relationship, the rituals of dominance, a kind of feudal remnant: “The captain kicks the cabin boy and the cabin boy kicks the cat.” Mostly he is envious, and enraged that he is envious. This envy is endorsed and exploited, made purposeful by what appear to be the measures of civilization itself, in the mass conditioning methods of corporatist media: the marketeers and the advertisers chide and tease him; the messengers of high fashion arbitrate the meaning of his appearance. He is threatened at every remove in the status scrum. His psychological compensation, a derangement of sense and spirit, is affluenza: the seeking of money and possessions as markers of ascent up the competitive ladder; the worship of celebrities as heroes of affluence; the haunted desire for fame and recognition; the embrace of materialistic excess that, alas, has no future except in the assured destruction of Planet Earth and of every means of a sane survival.
Capitalism's failings are evident now more than ever. Yet, we still take it to be some god-given dictum of being--that creative destruction, hoodwinking, and greed are completely natural things. This is decidedly not the case. We can combat this culture through compassion and empathy.

I want to be surrounded by people that care, not people that "want to make it." In a culture of capitalism and creative destruction, though, I get no sense of community, no sense of regard, or frugality, of compassion, of limits. Rather, the epitome of this culture, New York City, is the hotbed of abundance, of arrogance, of centralisation, of power and wealth, and inequality. There is nothing in our economic structure that speaks towards the common good, towards the setting aside of our egos.

So, what society do you want to live in? A society in which destructiveness of communities and place can be painted as green? Or a more resilient, thoughtful, caring society?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Jeremy Rifkin and the empathic civilisation

A quick thought today based off of my recent conversations with Nick in Illinois, Scott and Mohammad here in Ann Arbor, as well as the above talk by Jeremy Rifkin. The manner in which we valuate our world--through money and materials--does nothing to satisfy deep human urges to belong, to be. "Competition," vague and destructive notions of "progress" and capitalism allow very little room for empathy and compassion. More in the next post. For now, enjoy the video.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Moving towards idealism

NYPD (New York Pizza Depot) always brings out the best in conversation. Get a pizza, get some buds, eat and talk. I did that yesterday with Mohammad and Scott, two of my labmates and close friends, and we ended up talking for four hours. Scott is a fan of Bill Maher, and in a recent discussion, Maher asked his guests whether or not the US Constitution should be torn up and rewritten. One of the panelists, a conservative, said that he would have reservations with doing so, especially because of the prized Second Amendment, which, for those of you who aren't from the US, gives citizens the right to bear arms. The Second Amendment is still hotly debated, and rightly so. Times have changed since the 1770s and 1780s.

Talk of the Second Amendment brought up the possibilities of uprising against the government, and how and if changes in regime can be peaceful, or if peace is just a dying ideal. The issues of peaceful protests and movements are particularly apt right now, given the very peaceful Occupy movement, as well as the peaceful uprising in Yemen. (I am so fortunate to have been in the presence of Tawakkul Karman, Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2011, just this past Monday.)

I have written about the issues of peace and violence several times, although I have not written about them in contexts of environmental action. Indeed, there are many that do advocate for using violent means, such as the Earth Liberation Front, not against people, but against infrastructure that confines us to this ecologically degrading and oppressive culture. Derrick Jensen, the philosopher, writer, and activist is well known for voicing his belief that things like dams must be taken out through forceful means. He says, "Every morning when I awake I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam. I tell myself I should keep writing, though I'm not sure that's right."

When I saw Jensen, an amazing speaker, last winter, I asked him about such sentiments, particularly since violent force is something oppressors use, and this makes me nervous. I can see his point, but it is impossible to deny that once a culture of violence is overthrown with violence, you still have violent means present as an option in the end--an option in debate, an option in action. Violence breeds violence, and arming breeds arming. Just take the example of the most horrific Cold War. Violence is a deep manifestation of our insecurities. Because violence is overtly forceful, it gives us a sense of domination, and of power. We can bulldoze lands, blow the tops off of mountains, frack rocks for natural gas, or electrocute someone for a crime with no remorse. All of these actions in no way preserve the sanctity of life (which many death-penalty-loving, gun-toting people love to talk about), or speak highly of us as ethical and moral agents. Violence for peace makes no sense. Peace, on the other hand, is decidedly peaceful. There can be no violence in peace. Peace may be forceful, steadfast, determined, resolute, and intentional, but in no way can it be violent.

To my mind right now, violent force as a means to a sustainable world sounds eerily similar to the US military's perpetual war for perpetual peace. If we want to live in a world in which something does not exist, do we accept its existence now?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Living with all of our capacities

I have realised that this blog has, at times, taken a markedly spiritual bent. I have realised that in my efforts to try to tread more lightly on this planet, in my conversations with people about environmentalism and being, it is not that only the planet is being transformed, but ourselves. Not in any superficial way, not in a consumerist "Oh, I will buy this instead of that" way, but rather a deeper, more durable way. This durability, this inner reflection, I believe can allow us to live more consciously no matter where we are, to be more open to experience, to be more open to the present, to a be a more satisfied people.

As an engineer, I am taught the ways of western scientific traditions. Data are obtained, and they can be reproduced, given the same conditions, elsewhere on Earth. Of course, these data are reproduceable given the right conditions, given an understanding of the methodologies of "science," given the so-called "laws" of nature. But then again, we are stuck with a culture that is destroying this Earth's capacity for life. There is no doubt about that. And in this secularisation of our worldly experience, we seem to lose track of what makes us human. I am in no way differentiating humans from non-humans, but rather speaking to what makes us human regardless of what the rest of the natural world is like. 

From an evolutionary standpoint, yes, we are "animals," we compete, we fight, we try to pass on our genes. One may think of everything that we partake in, culture, capitalism, industrialisation, education, as just a manifestation of evolution. We want to dominate so that we can survive. But, as linguistics pioneer Jean Berko Gleason says, we also have consciousness. We contemplate, we have an understanding of presence, and it is this consciousness that allows us to reflect on our experiences. I believe then that we temper the evolutionary forces at play, our biological urges, with this consciousness.

So then what is it about this secularised culture and worldview that allows such destruction? Physicist Arthur Zajonc, a contemplative of the Western tradition influenced by Rudolf Steiner, believes that we are not fully engaging ourselves when we try to face the challenges before us. Indeed he says, there are various levels of experience. And these various levels affect what we bring to the table. The only level we deem fit right now is that of secularism and science, devoid of emotion, emotion that is brought up through observing the world in different ways. How do we get to different levels of experience, then? Well, we must calm ourselves, direct attention, sustain that attention, and open up to what is normally invisible. Things then show themselves to you, deepening our human experience. Zajonc says profoundly, that
"[i]f we are committed to knowledge, then we ought to be committed also to exploring the world with these lenses, with this method in mind and heart. And otherwise, we are kind of doing it half way...when we go to solve the problems of our world, whether they are educational or environmental we are bringing only half of our intelligence to bear...we have left the other half idle, or relegated it to religious philosophers. But if we are going to be integral ourselves, from a perspective that is whole, then we need to bring all of our capacities to the issues that we confront."

My mum has always talked to me about such spirituality. A few years ago, I didn't really think twice about it. I had a full faith in science and its secularism when conducting myself. But I have now realised, through this journey, that in any action that takes a stand for something other than oneself, that tries to make a durable change in the world, more must be brought to the table. that our consciousness, our capacities for compassion and empathy play as much, if not a bigger role than science, data, and numbers.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Guest blog #23: Adrianna Bojrab on GoodGuide and choice

While making any sort of transaction in the American marketplace, everyone must inevitably make decisions between competitor companies and products. There are so many elements to consider! I consider energy efficiency, whether or not the manufacturing company supports the American economy and labor force, whether environmentally sustainable practices are employed, the content of ingredients--organic and non-toxic...etc. These make up a portion of the criteria I use to evaluate competitor products and companies while making a purchase, ensuring that my purchases reflects my ethical concerns, preferences and values, specifically health and environmental impact. These are also the elements that make up my personal filter on

GoodGuide is a relatively new (it started in 2008) online database that aids consumers in making more informed decisions in the marketplace, providing an easy, comprehensive and novel approach to product review. University of California-Berkeley Professor Dara O’Rourke, the co-founder and chief sustainability officer of the company, has said that his mission is to make it “easier to find products that are safe, healthy, green and socially responsible.” GoodGuide is funded by social venture investors, traditional venture capitalists and partnered with an extensive network of NGOs, academics and largely traded companies.

How does GoodGuide work? Researching products and their origin can be an incredibly lengthy and time-consuming process. GoodGuide employs a crew composed of chemists, nutritionists, environmental life cycle assessment experts and toxicologists, who have analyzed over one hundred and twenty thousand products (household, personal, food, etc…), and the companies behind the product. They also use information based on over a thousand different sources--the companies themselves, governmental databases about the policies and practices of big publicly traded firms, private research firms, NGOs, policy practices, political partisan endorsement, media sources, and academics.  

Once analyzed, the product analysis is broken down into three main sub-scores: 
  1. Human health impact (how the product affects the physical body)
  2. Environmental impact (how the product is produced, manufactured, supply chain, potential consequences, raw material origin, distribution, sale and disposal of product), and
  3. Social responsibility (impact on society the product or company has).    
The product is then assigned a rating ranging from 0-10, the highest score indicates superb performance, and the lowest indicates subpar performance.

GoodGuide doesn’t stop there; now available is a transparency toolbar that you can install onto your browser free of charge, and utilize your personal filter and GoodGuide ratings on e-commerce sites in the online marketplace. Thus, when you are browsing, the bottom portion of your screen will show how the product matches up to your personalized filter, the GoodGuide rating, and a suggestion of alternative products that can better meet your standards, along with pricing and consumer ratings. Additionally, the new, cost-free Smartphone app (iPhone and Android) scans the barcode of a product, and retrieves all of the online information straight to your phone. Your preferences and filter can virtually be used wherever you go.

Impact.  GoodGuide empowers consumers by showing exactly what their capital is supporting, leading to smarter, healthier and more environmentally friendly purchases.  Why does this matter? Essentially, as more and more consumers start to employ GoodGuide into their daily lifestyles, we will see a gradual change in the marketplace. Consumers’ preferences will become more defined, and large retail and manufacturing companies will feel the pressure and incentive to supply and meet the standards of this new market demand, by “making more environmentally sustainable [products] and producing them using ethical sourcing of raw materials and labors,” say's O'Rourke. O’Rourke sees GoodGuide as “a more transparent and sustainable marketplace that cuts through marketing and advertising,” revealing the truths through the multilayer process and numerous players that go into the raw material, production, labor, politics, supply chain, manufacturing, distribution, marketing and sale of a product. O’Rourke hopes to see GoodGuide send a signal to companies to “business as usual means business as sustainable."


Click here for more thoughts on choice, and here and here for more thoughts on the political consumption that Adrianna writes about. You can find previous guest blog posts from Adrianna here and here. Also, she writes wonderfully for The Michigan Daily.  

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A few thoughts on sustainability

While some people continue to deny or belittle ecological issues, others have realised that the Earth we live on is reaching its carrying capacities for this culture we've created for ourselves, which is one of degradation, extraction, greed, rape, injustice, and violence towards people and place. Many people have consequently started talking about "sustainability," and I have written about this concept many times. So many of us have started reacting to the growing crises we see around us--great efforts have curbed pollution, set in place laws that industry must comply with, and created international laws of all kinds (customary, soft, conventions). But at the same time, we have based many of our actions on the assumption that we can still continue to extract from this Earth, produce, manufacture, technologise. Indeed, very few have openly fought out against large-scale centralisation of governance structures and economies. (Although, thank goodness that the Occupy movement has threads of these messages running through it.) We all come across that Brundtland Commission definition of "sustainable development." This definition has monopolised the world's thinking on sustainability. Indeed, sustainability has come to mean "sustainable development."

But wait, wait, wait. It seems that we have lost track of the question we are trying to answer. What is sustainability? How does this question, and its framing, dictate outcomes? (When you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail.) What is the world we envision for ourselves, and how do we value the world we live in now? More generally, what is the value of the world to us? Does the world in itself have intrinsic value, or is that value only a human value that we prescribe to it? (Of course there are aesthetic values we place on everything. Aesthetics are what makes a mountain beautiful, even though it may have very little commercial value otherwise.) The reason I am asking these questions is because I want to hear your thoughts.

Jason, who always provides me with inspiration, told me how thinking about sustainability quickly leads him down a path of existentialism. But maybe that is the path of inquiry we all need to take. What is the point of living in this culture, which we are made to believe is continually trying to emancipate us from the bonds that hold us back in the past and allow us to do things more "efficiently," "without effort," "abundantly," if we don't have time to think for ourselves?

I went to a talk today given by Dr. George Crabtree, a pretty famous materials scientist from Argonne National Labs in Illinois, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In the beginning, he mentioned how geopolitics, along with climate, affect the supposed costs conventional sources of energy, like crude oil. He then transitioned to talking about the movement away from these conventional sources by talking about the potential sustainability of the usual suspects of sustainable energy production--hydrogen, solar energy, batteries, biofuels, nuclear. But I wondered, Where are you going to get the materials needed to make your batteries and magnets and solar panels? Where will you get the lithium, lanthanum, neodymium, and other rare earth elements? Well, the largest deposits of lithium lie in Bolivia (but also in Afghanistan, now!), with an indigenous President who threatens vested interests by instituting land reform (read/listen here and here), and says "Either capitalism dies, or Planet Earth dies." At the same time, the largest deposits of rare earth metals lie in China (here's something for the techies). What will a country like the US do to get access to large reserves of lithium or rare earths? Well, maybe they go to war or assassinate those whose views are markedly different than their own.

Please do not get me wrong and call me a neo-Luddite. It seems to me, though, that if we cannot take a step back and hit the pause button for a second, that any conceptualisations we have of sustainability will be made to look like a nail because of the hammer we have in our hands. 

Wabi Sabi, the aesthetic of decay

Globalisation and industrialisation can be understood to unfold in two diametrically opposite ways (as with any politic)--their proponents view them as ways to produce things more "efficiently" and bridge cultures, while opponents view them as mechanisms of ecological and cultural homogenisation, mechanisms of disregard for people and place. What cannot be denied, though, is that mass production of anything leads to a uniformity of outcome. Assembly lines strive to make the same exact car, and forks and spoons and jeans and computers are all made to be the same. On the other hand, you have the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi, so wonderfully described by John Flowers, a philosophy graduate student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, at the Building Bridges conference on philosophy and waste. Just as I did yesterday, I would like to quote some passages from John's paper first.
Whereas the western potter would see the cracked, imperfect pot as a wasted effort, a Japanese potter, enmeshed in the aesthetic of wabi would have little qualms with the display of this vase as an epitome of his aesthetic craft. That is, wabi, as an aesthetic, seeks to find and represent the beautiful in those things that are imperfect, withered, or even damaged by the passing of time. Wabi then seeks the beautiful not in the perfect symmetry prized by western ideals of beauty, but in the asymmetry and irregular structure evidenced in the natural world that surrounds us: it is an ideal that elevates imperfection, as representative of impermanence, or mujou in the Zen Buddhist lexicon, to the highest levels of beauty and thus finds the beauty in those things whose form has long since deteriorated.

Thus, wabi, as an aesthetic, takes objects ravaged by time or imperfect in their creation, and finds within them a conspicuous beauty that surpasses the material. More than that, wabi takes objects which, under other aesthetics, would be discarded for their worn or irreparably damaged appearance and elevates them to a position of high art: it re-values decay and forces the connoisseur of art to re-evaluate their perspective on beauty itself...In the modern sense, wabi is often paired with sabi, which is a qualitative principle of feeling that refers to the specific quality of the emotions of the artist or the perceiver that arise in response to imagery. the Shinto conception, those things which most accurately reflect the natural order, that is constant flux, are the most valued. In this sense, a cracked and faded porcelain vase, an iron kettle rusted from use or a sword whose chipped edge shows its age are considered the highest forms of art. It is through the contemplation of these objects, that the appreciator of sabi art begins to sense the ebb and flow of nature...

...under wabi, beauty can never fade: it only grow deeper with the passing of time and the accretion of subtle qualities of impermanence that serve to deepen the beauty of the object by reminding us, through the feeling of sabi, of the evanescence of all life, that we should savor each moment as it comes, rather than longing for it to last forever.
Therefore the "imperfect" tea cup, the changing landscape of a garden, and the sculptures constantly affected by weather are all wabi art. Their beauty is in their ever-changing uniqueness. (Images taken from Kevin Taylor's commentary on John Flower's paper.)

I find these thoughts to be extremely fascinating, for several reasons. I have written many times about the appreciation of place and time that is so essential if we are to make any meaningful attempts at sustainability and combating ecological degradation. I believe that the arguments for an such an appreciation of art and object can easily be translated to our surroundings, our most mundane possessions. If we appreciate what we have, we will not want more. If we do not want more, we refuse to tolerate harm being done to the Earth and its people in the name of production, industrialisation, and materialism.

(Nick, Farid, Cara, David and I made our own wabi sabi art. =))

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Eating trash: putting the thingness back into food

Today, I want to share with you the beautiful writing of Farid Rener, an electrical engineer, musician, and bike mechanic from Montreal, Canada. Farid's paper at the Building Bridges conference, titled The apple has expired: The poetry is in the trash, is one of the most thoughtful and wonderful papers I have come across. Influenced by the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Bruce Foltz, Farid talks about how a trash receptacle can instantaneously take away all of the appleness in an apple, and how dumpster diving actually serves as a restoration of the appleness into the apple, giving the apple a fuller appreciation of its thingness. Farid writes (with a little bit of restructuring and editing for the purposes of this post),
The apple is only an apple if its essence is revealed, which can only be done if the apple is used in a proper manner: “only proper use brings the thing to its essence and keeps it there.” (Foltz, p.161) The apple, through use, is no longer simply an object, nor simply a resource–it is a thing. Allowing the apple to thing is a conserving act...: "Conserving is a looking after and a caring for that frees a thing into its essence and safeguards it there, precisely through a use that is in accord with its essence." (Foltz, p.162).

Our waste receptacles are given more power than most other things in our homes – somehow everything that we place in them is transformed from thing to waste no matter what it is. Treating the apple as garbage, challenges the apple out of its thingness, and draws out its very essence, its "whatness" (Foltz, p.128), removing from it any appleness, and instilling in it a complete uselessness [beautiful]. Through our action of discarding, we do not allow the apple to thing, and since "Thinging is the nearing of the world," (Heidegger, p.179) we put the apple at a distance, removing it from our world, contributing to the “worldlessness of [our] technological epoch.” (Foltz, p.118)

Dumpster-divers, however, bring the apple near again. Freeing the apple from the destiny of the landfill spares the apple and returns it to its own being: “To free really means to spare. The sparing itself consists not only in the fact that we do not harm the one whom we spare. Real sparing is something positive and takes place when we leave something beforehand in its own nature, when we return it specifically to its being, when we “free” it in the real sense of the word into a preserve of peace” (Heidegger, p.147). The reclaiming of the apple is thus poetic since, “to be a human being… means to dwell,” (Foltz, p.157) and “poetically man dwells upon the earth.” The fact that it was seen, and respected, for what it was, an apple, brings the apple back into appleness.

Divers are the resuscitators of these things that have not yet perished. Seeing past the veil that the technology of the trashcan places on these things, the freegan reveals the underlying nature of the thing, recognizing the life that still permeates many of those items that others deem waste. Reviving waste is a direct denial that the earth is a “stockpile or inventory that is constantly available”–gleaning resources from those things that no longer fit within our technological frameworks allows the nourishing character of the earth to reveal itself. This is in contrast to those things which technologically characterize nourishment: expiry dates, intactness and cleanliness—a bruised and dirty apple is still delicious.
Farid further writes about how consigning the apple to a landfill also prevents the apple from revealing itself, for an apple is not only an apple to us. Rather, it also serves as nourishment for the soil it decays into, which is not possible in landfills. In essence, Farid talks about how mindlessly we tend to discard things, objects, food, because of socially-constructed norms of what things "should be." In these acts of discarding we signify that the thing is not fit to exist in the intimacy of places dear to us, and that some other space, assigned a zero value in our minds, is where the object is fit for non-existence.

In conclusion, Farid writes, go eat trash.

Foltz, Bruce V. Inhabiting the Earth: Heidegger, Environmental Ethics, and the Metaphysics of Nature.
Atlantic Highlands, N.J: Humanities Press, 1995.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Perennical Classics, 2001.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Building bridges: philosophy and waste

“It is almost as if philosophy — and most of all the great, deep, constructive philosophy — obeyed a single impulse: to get away from the place of carrion, stench, putrefaction. And just because of this distance, which gains its depth from that most wretched place, philosophy is no doubt in perennial danger of itself becoming just as thin, untrue, and wretched.” (Adorno, “Metaphysics and Materialism”)
I have been out of town for the past few days, attending the most wonderful conference I have been to: Building Bridges - philosophy and waste. Originally scheduled to be held on the campus of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, it ended up being (for the better) at a small art space in downtown Carbondale. Over the next few days, I will talk about what I learned from this conference, one replete with intimate discussions about aesthetics, privacy, activism, human cognition, communities, metaphysics, and anarchy...Adorno would have been proud. As I have come to appreciate, the role of any critical thought, such as in philosophy, must be to stimulate action, both of the self, and in the other. We cannot expound on discussions about being and ethics without changing ourselves and our presence in the world.

I will discuss the papers presented (including mine), the discussions had, and how my imagination has been opened to consider far more than what I have so far in my discussions about trash, waste, materialism, ethics, and environmental justice. I am hopeful that your imagination will be piqued and provoked, and that you, too, will be driven to act after you have pondered. For today, I leave with the motivation of the conference, written by the most brilliant Nick Smaligo, a philosopher who is more a spirit, an energy, a force, than a human.
Today, we “know” that “there is no away.” Reflecting on the concept of the “away,” and tracing its impossibility, leads to what Timothy Morton calls “the ecological thought”: that all beings (and not just living ones) exist in a mesh, where no divisions can be strictly upheld.  The thought is a moment of enlightenment, of consciousness raising, that corrodes the phenomenal boundaries and holes that shape our world.
Nevertheless, we still act as if there is an “away” —  a place where thought need not go, where things lose their thingness and blend together into quiet, motionless nothing; a black hole from which no effects can escape, and thus no thoughts need enter.

This is likely a major form of repression today: we must subdue our knowledge of the interconnectedness of all beings in order to participate in a lifeworld which is built on the idea that we can “get away from the place of carrion,” etc. And, clearly, this repressed is returning in the material forms of ecological crises, an Anthropocene age where our activity returns to shake the ground on which we act. The psychic forms in which this repressed is returning are perhaps even harder to detect.
Conference flyer
Nick Smaligo

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Leaving negative cycles and entering positive ones

A cycle is something that perpetuates itself, when one action or thought leads to the next, which leads one back to their original thoughts and actions, making one act on them again, differently or otherwise. David Trombley, who I met a few days ago at Occupy Ann Arbor while traveling at home, said that there are two such cycles--positive and negative. David described a positive cycle in his life, poetry, like so:
My advocation, however, is poetry. I have been writing for five or six years now and also teach with the Ann Arbor Free Skool. I write about my experiences, my worldview. You can do what you want with poetry. It helps me stay centred in the here and now. It is about creative ways of approaching life. It is a positive cycle, an inspiration cycle, an exercise in mindfulness. If you are mindful, you open yourself to inspiration. Once inspiration comes, you can get poetry out of it. Poetry leads to more inspiration, making you stay more mindful.
Mindfulness, inspiration, an appreciation of the here and now are powerful things we should all be thinking about and acting on to tread more lightly on this planet. Negative cycles, though, are those that not only harbor ill-will and ruthlessness and violence in our daily lives, but also when scaled up can cause us to be burdens on other people and the world. David talked about how greed, the violence perpetrated because of greed, and the personal gains because of greed lead to more greed, in a never-ending spiral towards inequality, injustice, and unsustainability. The negative cycles of the world result in some people making a lot of money, resulting in them wielding enormous power and influence, and then setting the system up such that it continues to benefit them at the expense of human dignity and the environment.

At the same time, whether we like it or not, many of us as individuals are stuck in negative cycles that now are social norms. We are compelled to spend our lives working on things that do not interest us, just so that we can pay for a car and a home that will provide us a roof over our heads just so that we can get back into the car, be stuck in traffic, to earn money so that we can pay for gas when we have to next. We are stuck in a mindless drudgery, in an economy that does not care about our feelings, emotions and effort, bur rather about how much time you can spend trying to prop it up, so that it can perpetuate itself, get ever larger, and ever more unstable. We are stuck in negative cycles of inadequacy, in which what we have is never "good enough," compelling us to trash what we have just so that for a while, we can have something that will in a few months be "not good enough" again. The pressures to stay within such a negative cycle is enormous, for everyone we are surrounded by, everyone we see on TV is participating in it.

Positive cycles are those (which on the surface may not seem related to sustainability and the environment, but in all actuality are deeply related to them) that lead to contentment, appreciation, introspection, and then an outward manifestation of those thoughts into actions that will allow us to tread lightly on this planet. Once we start down a line of thinking and doing, like David talks about, we inspire ourselves, pushing ourselves to do more to try to break the negative cycles of existence and replace them with positive ones. We inspire others around us to think for themselves, to rid themselves of the shackles of this mindless drudgery of "the economy," to do something more meaningful for ourselves, our communities, our neighbourhoods, for our world. Positive cycles are exemplified by features that do not need laws or regulations to keep them in check. Rather, they can be let lose in the world without restraint. Who could ever say that inspiration and appreciation and mindfulness should be tamed and regulated? On the other hand, violence, a negative cycle, must be tamed, curbed, enforced.