Thursday, December 29, 2011

Opening spaces for ourselves

Honestly, I am pretty tired (for now, at least...but I don't think I will be rejuvenated any time soon) of talking about the role of "government", "industry" and "education" to addressing the problems we face. We always hear from the industrial and corporate world, "Well, if the governments only did this, this and this, things would be okay," or "We need to deregulate," and so on and so forth. Government, on the other hand is dependent on the private sector more than ever before, whether it is for election campaign expenditures, taxes, war machinery, or whatever. Education seems to be the default answer to everything...and it's true. I do not disagree with that. Education (which to me means at bare minimum being equipped with knowledge and communication, cultural, analytical and critical skills that we can distill into critiques, appreciation, and wisdom to advocate for change, take action, tear down oppressive systems and forge ones, big or small, based more humane and ecologically sensitive values, and being able to live at peace with ourselves, our families, and communities...and not just something that provides us with a resume so that we can get a is clear that this isn't what our government thinks of the role of education) seems to be the default fallback for all conversations: "If we only educate people differently, or better, things will change." Well, no duh. But education and changes to it also take time to unfold, all the while while ecosystems are being destroyed, waters polluted, and more and more people getting obese by eating shitty food.

And so, I hear this government/industry/education discussion all the time...and barely anything changes. For example, let's talk about something that we all relate to--food. You all probably know or have heard of Jamie Oliver, the sustainable and healthy food advocate from Essex. His awesome work and efforts have won him great recognition and publicity--a TV show, and the 2010 TED Prize. I encourage you to watch his talk below.

Oliver is energetic and passionate. Watching his talk makes you want to jump up and do something. Oliver has done a tremendous job at figuring out systemic problems in food production and service in the US and elsewhere, and has talked passionately about how government and corporations need to change. In response, he gets something like this: "Tomato sauce on pizza is a vegetable, says Congress." Now, I don't want to hear about the lobbies, about government intervening in our lives, and such. We all know about this. And so given this mess, what can we do? How can we open spaces for ourselves to create movements, change or tear down "the system", find the chinks in the armor? I am inspired by JR, a photographer, graffiti artist, activist, and winner of the 2011 TED Prize. Watch his amazing talk below.

There seems to be something so unique and different and exciting about JR's approach to awareness and engagement. It seems that his approach touches at something deep and fundamental and raw. And clearly, he is changing communities, and the world. I wonder, how can we jump on a different wagon of engagement and activism, rather than the same, old approaches that always seem to get diluted?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A market for everything

When I was in Montreal for the ICAO Sustainable Alternative Fuels in Aviation, I met man, who I will not name, who is very influential, especially in the financial world and the powerful (and old school) Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. He told me something that I believe is both arrogant and unimaginative at the same time: "Look, the world economy is at around $60 trillion right now, and it needs to be [emphasis added] at $300 trillion in fifty years. In order to achieve that, the concept of waste cannot exist in fifty years; waste will not exist in fifty years. Every output of one process will serve as an input to another process."

I can admire such a statement, and can be repulsed by it. On the one hand, who likes waste? No one, really, apart from those who make their earnings from waste. On the other hand, it is an argument for continued technologisation of our world (something that Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger would gladly accept), and it signifies something that I've been feeling for a long time--that in our control of nature, we have continually striven to recreate nature itself, or create our own "nature", as autonomously operating as possible. But, I digress. This isn't the main argument of this post. I want to go back to what this man said, that the concept of waste doesn't exist.

I can understand that cultures change, and that things that existed fifty years ago no longer exist today, and things that exist today might no longer exist fifty years from now. But I find the issue of waste (and trash) fascinating, especially because there is a market for something that we are all repulsed by. As I have said previously, regardless of your politics, trash and waste are things that most all of us want to be away from, and therefore, we do send it away. But at the same time, as Vanessa Baird has argued, maybe our economy is based around the generation of waste itself. This shouldn't come as a shock, for waste is big business in this country, and likely the same abroad.

It's true that we have made efforts to lessen "waste" and "trash" by doing something termed "recycling". But this doesn't fundamentally change the fact in our efforts to be less ecologically degrading (one can argue whether recycling is less harmful on the whole), we still have competition from landfills. When I visited the Ann Arbor materials recovery facility with Caroline, where recyclable materials from many neighbouring communities arrive to be processed, the good many that was giving us a tour of the facility said that because of the recently increased capacity of the facility, and because the facility started accepting #4, #5, and #6 plastics, that the amount of trash going to the landfills has now decreased, so much so that the fees associated with dumping trash at landfills has gone down, creating an "incentive" for communities and townships to send material to landfills, rather than paying more for recycling. There is indeed a market for trash, and a powerful one at that. How do we fight the market? Hope that "consumers will change their minds"?

When we create markets for something, we (at least for a while), accept the presence of something in the world. And with something has unwieldy, large-scale, and commonly produced as trash and waste, the larger the market, the larger the power. (A similar analogy can be made for oil and gas.) But I think that this points to something deeply fundamental and flawed in our thinking, and that is that if money can be made, even by doing something bad, someone will do it, create or coax a market for it, and then say, "Let the market dictate its presence in the world. If the market says that it shouldn't exist, then so be it." Such thinking fails to recognise that some things are inherently degrading. It is based off of the same secular, amoral thinking that has resulted in massive ecological crises and the possibilities of things degrading. We seem to confuse the possibilities of our mental capacities with real, actual, physical existence and implications in the world. The creation of options and possibilities (a market) is thought to be amoral an not value laden, and responsibility is quickly dumped on politics to messily figure out (or not) whether something is acceptable. For example, only because there is a "market" for acts like war do the possibilities of war exist. If the atomic bomb can be created, Why not it be created? many think. Why not then let the political decisions be made off of the actual presence of nuclear weapons in the world? The fact that nuclear weapons have been used "only" twice in the past sixty five years doesn't take away from the fact that nuclear weapons have been used twice, and that they have created an arms race the world over. Again, the same analogy can be made for most all of the possibilities that have been introduced into the our world because of such thinking.

I believe that such thinking can be extremely harmful. It implies a blind faith in "possibilities". People will always say that with the "good" of these possibilities comes with the "bad". But then again, this doesn't change the way we've been conducting ourselves in the world a single iota. Some things, some behaviours just do not exist in an ecologically sustainable, just world. For us to think otherwise, for us to be lead down the path of blind possibilities, means that we have not gained any wisdom from the knowledge we have; we do not learn from history and our mistakes.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hope and courage overcome

So, we've been told that the war in Iraq is "over." While on my way home, I saw veterans, young men and women, in uniform, returning to the US--some maybe permanently, some who will possibly be deployed to Afghanistan (the active war engagement that seems forgotten) after the holidays. The US military presence in the world is overwhelming and unnerving; this year, the defense budget is on the order of $660 billion, a number that does not take into account the costs of active military engagements, and which I have a feeling does not take into account the cost of having around fifteen thousand military contractors still in Iraq in a "support" role.

Having grown up in India, and having been fortunate enough to visit different parts of the world, I have come to realise something very fundamental about the United States. For all of the hard work and kindness of its peoples, the country as a whole seems to be one that is fearful--there is a fear that seems to pervade people's day-to-day lives, a fear that if we do not do our best, that we will be left behind, a fear that there is always someone else to replace us (and given unemployment numbers, this is likely the case), and a fear that we are no longer the sole superpower (or hegemonic state) of the world. I see the same fear in the way the US conducts itself internationally (listen to the wonderful thoughts of Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, below), one which equates the opposition to or disagreement with US policy as an affront. I see the same fear, fear that has been draped with protection, that is keeping our government from taking bold and decisive steps in a direction towards a more just and ecologically sustainable world. I believe it is this fear that makes people defensive about the ways of life that have been cherished so far in this country--lives of materialism, lives of credit and debt, lives of benefits for us and costs for the rest of the world. And this is the very fear that dictates the lobbying of those on Wall Street, for if people really knew what was going on between the banks and the government, people may, just may figure out that we live in a house of cards and a culture without resiliency. A resilient culture is dynamic yet stable. Ours is one of bubbles bursting every few years with no visionary approaches to the massive problems at our doorsteps.

Indeed, fear can be paralysing. We are unable to present ourselves as whole before the world because we are unable to admit defeat or apologise for our mistakes, mistakes that we can all agree have been made. This fear must be replaced by hope and courage--the hope that living in fear can be something of the past, that we do not need militaries to fight for what we believe in, but rather that our actions, deeds, and words are respectful of this Earth and its cultures, so much so that we cherish differences, rather than burn and obliterate them. We must have the courage to face up to the fact that our individual ways of life, when aggregated, are causing massive amounts of ecological strife in our backyards, close and far.

Fear is paralysing, but hope and courage are liberating; hope and courage are the opposite of fear. Hope and courage allow us to stand up and speak out to changing social norms, to have difficult conversations with friends and family, to protest the cutting down of trees for new "housing developments," to get in the way of the large corporations that will blow the top of a mountain off with the drop of a hat, to be civilly disobedient. Hope and courage allow us to envision fundamentally different worlds for our individuals and collective lives to exist and participate in. The paralysis of holding on to ways of life we have taken for granted when social structures and the biophysical world are shouting for help must be and can be overcome.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Words of wisdom from Grace Lee Boggs

It is just a couple of days ago that I wrote about how special interest and vested interest blurs the wisdom of old age. One thing I hope for all of us is the courage to recognise, accept, understand, be introspective, and consequently outwardly changed when we are at fault. I know of several elders, professors included, who were more radical in their youth than in their old days, and one man who has receded so much in his idealism that the status quo seems more reasonable. I hope that we can continue to be as enthusiastic about our visions for a changed world as we grow in age, and not throw up our hands and say of the problems we've created, "Well, it is just human nature...things will never change." I hope we can all strive to be like Grace Lee Boggs, a ninety-six year-old activist and philosopher from the most fascinating of places, Detroit. Take five minutes and listen to her words of wisdom, and although they were directed towards the Occupy movement, they transcend the movement.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When special interest supersedes wisdom

I grew up in a culture that respects elders--their wisdom, their advice, their experience. I believe that certain ways of thinking and discerning only emerge with age, whether it is being able to see through people's arguments, being able to read between the lines of what people say and do. I realise more and more each day that much of the advice that my parents gave me when I was young was spot on. I just wasn't mature enough to understand what they were saying.

On the other hand, we have a world run by elder people that are stuck in their ways, whether it is neoliberal economics, cost-benefit analysis, American domination, and global competitiveness. We are also bound to national and international institutions and regimes that were founded in times when people had drastically different mentalities, institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and even the United Nations. Even in most all journalism that I read, in such media outlets like the BBC and the New York Times, the way in which situations here and abroad are analysed is one that treats the world as some sort of infinite reserve of material, a world in which a material and industrial economy can supposedly grow forever.

What has brought us to this point, ecologically, and consequently socially, and consequently economically, is a truly old way of thinking, further influenced by special interests. There seems to be a contradiction then between the wisdom that comes with old age, and the way in which special interests seem to supersede that wisdom. No old person in his or her right mind would say that the way we are treating the environment and ourselves is in the best interest of longevity of the ecosystems that comprise the biophysical world. But this seems to keep happening. We are constantly protesting decisions to go to war, decisions to let financial institutions off the hook, decisions to build a pipeline carrying tar sands across a continent. And that is probably why Abigail Borah, a student from Middlebury College, felt it necessary to take a stand in Durban a couple of weeks ago.

We can see clearly a generational gap, possibly one that existed in times of great change, like, for example, during the Civil Rights movement. This isn't to say that there aren't any elders who are thinking radically differently. But it seems that the world's environment and climate are changing faster than ever before, and that we cannot wait until 2020 for some "meaningful" climate commitment from nations. While the elders won't be alive in twenty or thirty or forty years, the youth will be, and they are the ones that will be faced with the difficult tasks of changing infrastructure, of adapting to a changing climate, of likely dealing with mass migration.

It is very difficult to sit back and hope that the elders running this country will change the way they think and behave. While working in the lab a couple of weeks ago, Scott said to me that it will truly take another twenty or thirty years for a generation of thinkers and actors to get into positions of influence to make meaningful changes in policy and culture. How do the youth navigate this? What might the youth be able to do to counter special interests? And how might the youth remain "youthful" in the future, open to changing ourselves in response to a changing world?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Change without change

I have always been asked what the most difficult thing about living trash-free has been. From a day-to-day standpoint, it has not been difficult at all; rather, living trash free is the least I could do to appreciate where I am living. I would be doing Ann Arbor a disservice by not living trash-free. If I live within walking distance of an amazing food cooperative and second hand store, what more could I ask for? But then again, I was raised in India in a vastly different culture. My life was admittedly simple--we had what we needed, like good food, and a soccer ball, but not much else. Discontinuing that way of life here in the US was a not up for debate. Simplicity is as important to me now as it was to my upbringing in India.

Honestly, by far the most challenging thing about living trash-free has been openly communicating and talking about it, and figuring out how different people understand what I am trying to do. And I have come to realise that many people's notions of environmentally-responsible living (which I do not claim to be living) are unfortunately simplistic. I cannot blame people for this, for the information and encouragement that is given to them through media makes it seem that small acts in isolation can make big differences. While I think small acts, individual lives of change are important, as I have said before, these small acts must lead down a path of deeper thinking and action--small acts must unfold into larger ones. Small acts that are viewed as ends themselves will do little to move us toward sustainability.

But for the outsider, it is not obvious that I am living trash-free. Unless he or she is involved in some trash-generating social interaction with me, one would never know. And so here is the dilemma: How do you send a strong message to someone about something important, something that must change in our individual and collective lives, without scaring them away? How "normally" should one behave? Again, communication is the key. We cannot leave people with the understanding that living trash-free (or whatever else you are doing) is about stuff going into a landfill. The message of living trash-free (again, as an example) is lost if it does not lead to people thinking about materialism, consumerism, capitalism, globalisation, social and environmental injustice, water pollution, chemicals, plastics, and so on.

Many people think that we can reduce our burden on the world without changing anything fundamentally about ourselves and our culture. Many think that buying "green" products, recycling, and investing in newer, more efficient technologies are natural steps towards environmentally-responsible living. These things are important, but only go so far. On the whole, I think that such behaviour dilutes environmentalism, and does little to respect the Earth deeply. Such behaviour implies that this culture itself is moving in a direction of deepening environmental concern, that if we just buy into it and trust it and still live consumerist and materially-laden lives, that things will be fine. I disagree with such thinking. I think that the changes we need to make are deep and fundamental, so much so that the culture we ought to be living in may look so different than the culture we currently operate in that it is unrecognisable.

Unfortunately, just to gain acceptance, it seems that you have to make changes look as "normal" as possible.

Monday, December 19, 2011

You plus me equals us

[Don't worry...this is a positive post. I promise. =)]

Another year goes by, and another unsurprising event--yet another round of climate talks have failed. This time in some other exotic location. Year after year, we are drawn into the process of international bargaining, negotiation, hardheadedness, and bullying. Year after year, we continue to find faith in "the process," hoping that the leaders of the world will come together, have epiphanies, realise that many of them have been wrong in the past, and will then suddenly accept guilt and blame for their actions, and resolve to do all in their power to stop raping our Earth. Year after year, universities and non-governmental organisations send students, faculty, and activists to these talks, as "observers." Year after year, I hear the same so-called "solutions"--we need newer energy sources, reduced pollution, "sustainable development", government regulation, government deregulation, and so on and so forth.

And it is our lives, the lives of the young, the lives of those who we hope will come in the future, to be founded on a deep bond and sacred connection to the biophysical world, the soil, the air, the water, and all sentient and non-sentient beings, that are at stake. Yet, it seems to fail each one of these supposedly "educated" "representatives" of ours in government that meaningful steps must be taken yesterday to address the increasing rape of the Earth. But hell, if an increasing number of people don't buy into climate change, then why would someone that wants to be elected by those very people believe in climate change? Shouldn't the representatives be just that..."representative"?

(Back home with my parents in Pennsylvania now, I smell the frackers coming. I know their type. They are the type that will pay the broke five thousand dollars, portray a sense of responsibility and humility, just to go to degrade aquifers, pollute soil and water, and leave when the job is done. I do not trust them. You shouldn't either)

As Wangari Maathai (and my father) has said, many of the problems we face are of our own doing, of our own making. While many of us may be forced into problematic situations at times, if we do not have the resolve within ourselves to extricate us from those situations, we find it easy to find reasons and excuses to just get by. Nothing changes then, other than the possibility of ending up actually believing that we aren't the cause or contributor to the problem, but rather that "the system" is the cause. We've lost at that point.

If we cannot envision our lives fundamentally differently, then there is no hope for a changed world. The possibilities of a different world, of different lives, of different relationships to people and place must be borne out in ourselves first. Wendell Berry wrote this many years ago. And with timeless problems such as the human-environment dichotomy, the solutions are exceedingly obvious, yet stupendously intractable. We must make the obvious the status quo. Action must be taken by us, now. Whether that is marching towards city hall and fighting fracking, whether it is standing on the street and having the conversations that must be had, whether it is reading books on industrialisation and capitalism and doing all that you can to extricate yourself from the complex, whether it is tending a garden and planting a tree, whether it is choosing to eat locally, whether it is deciding not to buy a new car, whether it is digging deep inside of yourself and questioning your long-held beliefs and assumptions, the change is you and me and us. We cannot be scared. We must be hopeful. We cannot be blindly optimistic. We must keep our eyes and ears open to explore issues from all angles. We must change the way we speak, change the way we use words. We must make degrading words and concepts obsolete, and we must make Earth- and relationship-cherishing words more common, or maybe even introduce some new ones.

You can do this. Yes you can. We can do this. Yes we can.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What are we being educated for?

Part of my dissertation work is about whether or not engineers think any differently about issues of the environment now than they did a century or so ago, and how these changes (or non-changes) affect technological development. But first, I must ask, What fundamentally drives technological development? The answers are not surprising--materialism, industrialism, and profit. Sure, many might say that technology and the role of the engineer is fundamentally for the good of human beings--to decrease mortality, to combat disease, to provide electricity, to supply clean drinking water. Okay...But, how did the profession of engineering come into being?

As David Noble paints beautifully in his book America by Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism, the engineering profession as we know it today stemmed from the rise of modern industrial capitalism, and the need for engineers to fill the matrix of large industrial bureaucracies and corporations. Noble writes:
Modern technology, as the mode of production specific to advanced industrial capitalism, was both a product and a medium of capitalist development. So too, therefore, was the engineer who personified modern technology. In his work he was guided as much by the imperatives that propelled the economic system as by the logic and laws of science. The capitalist, in order to survive, had to accumulate capital at a rate equal to or greater than that of competitors. And since his capital was derived ultimately from the surplus product of human labor, he was compelled to assume complete command over the production process in order to maximize productivity and efficiently extract this product from those who labored for him. It was for this reason that mechanical devices and scientific methods were introduced into the workshop. It was for this reason also that the modern engineer came into being. From the outset, therefore, the engineer was at the service of capital, and, not surprisingly, its law were to him as natural as the laws of science. If some political economists drew a distinction between technology and capitalism, that distinction collapsed in the person of the engineer, and in his work, engineering. (page 28)
Noble points out how engineering curriculum development was guided by the needs of industry and in antagonism to the classical colleges' curricula. I find today that the bulk of engineering education is still focused on the needs of industry, and not that of thinking about when technical solutions to problems are appropriate. In my engineering education, there is very little mention of what it means to be an engineer, and how we must deal with the responsibility and authority that is given to us. And so, I wonder, are we still being educated to serve as fodder for ecologically and humanistically violent corporations? I believe so, and Rebecca believes that corporations thrive on young blood.

But this doesn't necessarily concern engineering. It concerns all of "higher education." And so I ask, What are we being educated for? Are we being educated to be an informed citizenry? A citizenry that can be critical of policies and actions? A citizenry that will speak up when something critical will be said? Or, are we being educated to be consumers, free to speak only when nothing critical has to be said, free to have "jobs" when they are in line with the broader values of government and industry? What do you think your education has meant to you? Has it prepared you to be a leader, to change social norms, to fight injustice, to be peaceable, to be thoughtful, to be caring, to be holistic, to be critical? Or has you education prepared you to be another cog in a vast machine?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Some more thoughts on time

I have written several times about the notion of time. The importance of understanding time is fully encapsulated in a piece of trash. A piece of trash speaks to so many aspects of time--legacy, compulsiveness, convenience, instantaneousness, longevity, seasons, and cycles, and contradictions abound when thinking about time.

I have been felt time go by quicker and quicker each year, and people I have talked to that are elder to me tend to agree with this. But it also seems like time is moving ever more quickly nowadays, maybe because more and more is happening around us. We are constantly surrounded by messages of people trying to sell us things and surrounded by distractions. This is a fundamental feature of capitalism, as Marx, in his book Grundrisses, has pointed out:  
“While capital must on one side strive to tear down every spatial barrier to intercourse, i.e., to exchange, and conquer the whole earth for its market, it strives on the other side to annihilate this space with time…The more developed the capital…the more does it strive simultaneously for an even greater extension of the market and for greater annihilation of space by time.”  
Planned obsolescence means that we will always be anachronistic, and our culture demands being up to speed materially. On the other hand, I have realised the importance of being fully present (not materially), in the here and now, for mental and spiritual well-being, as well as to reduce our burdens on the world.

At the same time, I have been thinking about the importance of a 'pause' button for this culture, something that would make us all stop for a while, and think about what we are doing, something that would allow us space to breathe and to relax, and to reflect. I believe that one of the most valuable things to us in today's day and age are space and time for us to think, for ourselves, about whether we are living to the fullest of our capacities as empathic, conscious, mindful, and moral beings.

I say this knowing that time is not on our side in the fight to halt (or to lessen) the huge ecological crises that are presenting themselves at our doorsteps. I say this having the feeling that four or five years of doing nothing substantive towards the causes of environmental justice and sustainability is four or five years lost, four or five years of more infrastructure and inertia that will have to be overcome in four or five years time. And so, what does it mean to take a break from being active? I fully appreciate the importance of breaks, and the way breaks allow a more rejuvenated approach to our lives. But how can we hit the pause button for ourselves, when others (including the environment) are being continually subjected to harsh and violent treatment from the decadently materialistic and privileged? I don't have answers, and as always, would love your feedback.

Monday, December 12, 2011

It's still a veil of morality

I wanted to have a specific post to respond to Matthew's thoughtful comments on my post A veil of morality. (I do not mean for this post to be attacking of him in any way, although while re-reading it, it does seem a little intense. Matthew, I hope you understand :))

The dominant form of culture of today is that of materialism guided by industrial capitalism. This approach began in Europe and eventually migrated to North America, and slowly but surely has been implemented in other countries, either out of military coercion, "nation building" (the processes through which the politics of a country or group of people are controlled by controlling their economies, modifying their environments, or making them dependent on a system not traditionally theirs. This happened significantly during the Cold War, with the US building dams in countries in Asia to control the flow of water. For more, see "Containing Communism by Impounding Rivers: American Strategic Interests and the Global Spread of High Dams in the Early Cold War," by Professor Richard Tucker, in Environmental Histories of the Cold War (2010).), or through sanctioning, soft law, or customary international law tactics. At the same time, many of the large "aid" and "development" banks, while giving people access to things they otherwise would not have had, can also be construed as mechanisms to make groups of people reliant on powerful. As Richard Nixon said in the 1968, "Let us remember that the main purpose of aid is not to help other nations but to help ourselves." 

While it may seem that I am myself patronising by saying that a pristine environment is what capitalistically, Western-defined "poor" countries should have, I believe international economic and social pressures impose primarily Western culture on people and places that have not dealt with issues of pollution or contamination before. Many of the benefits of such impositions go to those that want to continue their lifestyles and ways of being, and not to those whose land, air, and water are being degraded. (See Curse of the Black Gold here and here) Of course, any "benefits" are measured in terms of how the dominating country or economy measures them. And so, we are to industrialise this countries for what? So that those countries too can jump on the bandwagon of ecological decline and capitalistic bureaucracy that will be difficult to dismantle, only to then be able to buy back what they lost, if at all?

Wealth, as defined by the West, is absolutely not needed to establish environmental standards, particularly if a group of people or a country chooses not to participate in ecologically-degrading economies such as industrial capitalism. If one is to think of industrial capitalism, then yes, monetary wealth is likely needed to establish standards, or to at least move away from places that have been contaminated by industry. (See, for example, this post on Delray.) The issue, as it seems to me, comes down to definitions. Who defines that is "ecologically sound"? Furthermore, why does every single place on the Earth have to be marred by industrialism?

If money is used as an indicator of wealth, then yes, many colonised countries and regions are likely more monetarily rich, especially because they now participate in a globalised, capitalist economy, most likely as a peripheral economy. There are issues of power that are at play here, and I think it can be dangerous to think that countries that practice violence against their own people and their own land can be any more altruistic to the people and land of other parts of the world. I also disagree with the statement that technology is what we need to adapt to a changing environment. This can easily turn into an argument for the continued investment in a way of thinking that has put us in the current ecological crisis in the first place. Technological development, and its drivers, have fundamentally not changed at all since the so-called "Enlightenment." (part of my dissertation)

I think we absolutely must envision a fundamentally different world. If we are so used to living longer and longer, with more and more perks, more and more decadence, then we will surely accelerate toward the cliff of ecological collapse. The standards of living that we have are decidedly not sustainable. The only ways of living that have proven to be sustainable over long enough periods of time are/were those of pre-agriculturalists and semi-nomads. Industrial capitalism, tradeoffs, neoliberalism, trade in waste and trash is just one way of being in the world. There are others. 

"A long life isn't necessarily a good life, but a good life might be long enough."
~Tony, the homeless man that stands at the intersection of Main and Liberty, featured here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A daily meditation

My lab life consists of a deeply satisfying ritual. While fully taking apart and cleaning my experimental facility after each experiment, I listen to The Story (or On Being if I've listened to The Story already). A couple of days ago, I listened to the story of Angela Walters, who has been collecting pictures of the lives of the people of Joplin, Missouri, the town that was demolished by a massive tornado six months ago (see video below). Her effort has been trying to get these pictures back to the people of Joplin, in an effort to preserve the history of the place.

Walters mentioned in her interview that the one thing that people regret most when some event like a tornado occurs is not the loss of their material objects, but rather of the memories captured in photographs. I found this to be so poignant, as obvious as it may seem.

We live our daily lives doing things that aren't really important to us, materially and spiritually. When it comes down to it, what we value most in our lives is not that we had an iPod or the latest computer, but the times we spent with other people. Why then, do we continue to invest vast amounts of time and effort doing things we do not want?

We are stuck in a mindless slavery and cycle of our daily lives. I find it disappointing that it must always come down to a calamity or some freak event that makes us reorganise our lives and our priorities. Think about how much more lightly we could tread on our Earth, how much more community we could build, if we constantly reminded ourselves that what matters most is not materialism, but rather good time spent with people we care about, not engaged in material exchange, but rather, just being? How might this unfold on the world that is beyond our immediacy, both in space and time?

I believe it would be powerful for us to have a daily meditation on what is most important to us, and act accordingly, as much as we can. The effects of such a meditation, of a change in our behaviour cannot be expected to be immediate, but they might be. We won't know if we don't try. If you are to tell yourself each morning that what is most important to you are your family and your watershed, then you will act accordingly. You may not buy that make-up or eye-liner or chemical bathroom cleaner if we think that those things will contaminate the water you drink. If you were to start all over again, as the people in Joplin may have had to, where would you start? How would you proceed? How would we proceed?

Friday, December 9, 2011

A veil of morality

In the last two posts, I did no writing whatsoever. Instead, I typed up a memo that Larry Summers had passed around to other World Bank colleagues about how polluting "poor" countries is in the interest of these countries, as pollution can be welfare maximising. In response, The Economist, calls Summers's arguments "morally callous," yet, in the end, agree with Summers's suggestion.

I find this very sad for several reasons. It is unfortunate that this is what we have been taught--that the environment, the biophysical world that supports our very breaths and lives, can and ought to be polluted, at least to a certain extent, for human "welfare." (This of course comes from the human-environment dichotomy.) But, as we've seen in the US and Western Europe, it takes massive amounts of pollution and burning rivers and acid rain for even slightly effective laws to be put in place that reduce pollution, at least in the areas where the laws are enacted.

As we know, however, if our demands for the things that cause pollution don't die down, the pollution just migrates elsewhere under neoliberalism. Under this economic framework (the economy that the United States and powerful organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank and most of the world subscribes to), the economic calculations that are the taken into account in these "environmental" laws result in the migration of polluting industry; such results are "logical," as Matthew and Andrew and Ethan have discussed with me. Summers wishes that pollution such as air pollution was indeed fully tradeable, just like "commodities" and material "resources." In neoliberal thinking, in a thinking that tends to maximise profit of money under a monetary economic framework, it is to the advantage of people to be able to trade as much as they can in the name of economic efficiency. Consequently, pristine environment and the value of human lives do not go hand in hand. Rather, the environment must be degraded to bring any value into the world, and, once we are rich enough, we will magically buy back what we've lost.

But what bothers me more, though, is The Economist's response. Indeed, it is patronising and debasing to anyone who truly cares about the Earth we live on. They go so far as to justify pollution, because the control of it is expensive. The response is industry's dream, and endorses wholeheartedly the legal and cultural framework we've created for ourselves. And if given all of laws in the US have only stopped three chemicals from being used, ever, of the many thousands, what chance would there be for the countries we dump these chemicals on to understand what they are trading away for their supposed "welfare"? In the end, from a neoliberal standpoint, it is the rich who stand to benefit, and the poor that stand much to lose--their clean air and water, their environment. Pollution is dangerous, especially because it is demonstrably unregulated, even in the so-called "rich countries," as The Economist calls them. (Think of the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Safe Water Drinking Act, and the toxins present in our bodies, which I wrote about here.)

The Economist's arguments are elitist, condescending, and patronising. When the magazine states that "Those who insist on 'clean growth everywhere' must either deny that there is ever a trade-off between growth and pollution control--or else argue that imposing rich-country standards for clean air worldwide matters more than helping millions of people in the third world to escape their poverty," they fail to recognise that it is the policies of imperialism and colonialism of the very nations that The Economist calls "rich" that have led to poverty and conflict in the global south.

What The Economist is arguing for is effectively a continuation of policies that have led to climate change and pollution and unsustainability, under a veil of moral superiority. The magazine says that we ought to be more humane and ethical, while at the same time promoting a way of thinking that systematically throws out ethical considerations. To Larry Summers's credit, at least he is unabashed and open about what he thinks: "I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A response to Larry Summers from The Economist

Below is the response of The Economist magazine to Larry Summers's memo to his colleagues at the World Bank, which I posted yesterday. I will write my thoughts in response to both Larry Summers's memo and The Economist's response to the memo in my next post.
If Mr. Summers is wrong, why is he wrong? Many greens would say his premise is false. They appear to believe that the only acceptable amount of pollution is zero--or which looks more sensible, but almost as daft--that all pollution above some arbitrarily low threshold must be stopped. This cannot be right. Controlling pollution is expensive (and many third world countries can ill afford the expense), and the benefits (especially when levels of pollution are already low) may be small. Greens and eco-sceptics may disagree about these costs and benefits, and thus about where the proper balance should lie. But the notion that such a balance should in principle be struck--and that, as a result, the "right" level of pollution is greater than zero and varies according to circumstances--ought to be uncontroversial. Without that idea, intelligent discussion of environmental policy is impossible.

But then Mr. Summers makes a further, crucial assumption. He supposes that the value of a life, or of years of life-expectancy, can be measured by an objective observer in terms of incomes per head--in other words, that an Englishman's life is worth more than the lives of a hundred Indians. This is naive utilitarianism reduced to an absurdity. It is so outlandish that even a distinguished economist should see that it provides no basis for World Bank policy.

Suppose then, that the Bank of and the other multilateral institutions regard the life of an African peasant as equal in value to the life of a broker on Wall Street--as they self-evidently should. What remains of Mr. Summer's arguments? The answer still is: more than most environmentalists care to admit.

The greatest cause of misery in the third world is poverty. This must guide the priorities of poor-country governments and aid donors alike. If clean growth means slower growth, as it sometimes will, its human cost will be lives blighted by a poverty that would otherwise have been mitigated. That is why it would be wrong for the World Bank or anybody else to insist upon rich-country standards of environmental protection in developing countries. Often, policies that favour growth (such as setting world-market prices for energy and other resources) will lead to a cleaner environment, too; such policies should be vigourously promoted. But when a trade-off between cleaner air and less poverty has to be faced, most poor countries will rightly want to tolerate more pollution than rich countries do in return for more growth.

So the migration of industries, including "dirty" industries, to the third world is indeed desirable. Not because life there is cheap; if anything, for the opposite reason. Those who insist on "clean growth everywhere" must either deny that there is ever a trade-off between growth and pollution control--or else argue that imposing rich-country standards for clean air worldwide matters more than helping millions of people in the third world to escape their poverty.

Environmental policy is immensely complicated. The debate over Mr. Summers's memo is ignoring many issues altogether: global, as opposed to local, pollution; the links between trade policy and the environment; the opportunities to promote growth and a cleaner environment at the same time; and so on. In working through all this, economic method--the weighing of costs and benefits--is indispensable. Mr Summers's morally careless arguments, intended seriously or otherwise, must not be allowed to discredit it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"...under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted."

I want to focus the next few posts on neoliberal economics--how skewed, despicable, and inhumane it is, how major media outlets and major political figures subscribe to it, and what steps need to be taken to bring it crashing down. Today, I will share with you a an old leaked memo, written by Lawrence Summers (ex-Harvard president, ex-chief economist at the World Bank, ex-Secretary of the Treasury, and, so sadly, a man that President Obama appointed to direct his National Economic Council), to his colleagues at the World Bank.
Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Lesser Developed Countries (LDCs)? I can think of three reasons:
(1) The measurement of the costs of health-impairing pollution depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

(2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low [sic] compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world-welfare-enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.

(3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income-elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one-in-a-million change in the odds of prostate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostate cancer than in a country where under-5 mortality is 200  per thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial atmospheric discharge is about visibility-impairing particulates. These discharges may have very little health impact. Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare-enhancing. While production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a non-tradable.

The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution is LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every bank proposal for liberalisation.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Overcoming uncertainty

As you probably know, the climate change negotiations for the year have been under way in Durban for the past week. And for another year, large, industrial nations will skirt the issue, citing economic downturns and uncertainty of how much the Earth will warm in the future because of greenhouse gas emissions. In the spirit of action, however, I continue to encourage action in the face of uncertainty. 

Why is Climate Sensitivity So Unpredictable?, written by Gerard Roe and Marcia Baker of the University of Washington, is one of the most fascinating scientific papers I have ever read. Here is the abstract (don't worry if you don't understand exactly what they are saying, just skip the next paragraph...for the science-minded, the paper is beautifully straightforward compared to other scientific papers):
Uncertainties in projections of future climate change have not lessened substantially in past decades. Both models and observations yield broad probability distributions for long-term increases in global mean temperature expected from the doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide, with small but finite probabilities of very large increases. We show that the shape of these probability distributions is an inevitable and general consequence of the nature of the climate system, and we derive a simple analytic form for the shape that fits recent published distributions very well. We show that the breadth of the distribution and, in particular, the probability of large temperature increases are relatively insensitive to decreases in uncertainties associated with the underlying climate processes.
(Resume reading here) The authors go through some very elegant mathematics to show, basically, that regardless of how much future work is done in reducing the uncertainties of how much global mean temperatures will rise because of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, the bounds of climate sensitivity (the increase in global mean temperatures resulting from a doubling of carbon dioxide emissions) will still be wide. To boil it down even further, even if we continue researching the climate system for another decade, or two, or three, we may still be stuck with saying, "Temperatures will rise between 3.6-8.1 degrees Fahrenheit." What does this statement mean? It means that we are uncertain how much the temperature will rise, but we are certain that it will rise to a number between than range. Indeed, the uncertainty surrounds the magnitude of temperature rise, not the actuality of temperature rise as a whole. Unfortunately, uncertainty allows the powerful, who don't understand the notion of it, to dither on decisive action. And for all of our efforts, we might still be waving the Maldives goodbye, regardless if some new paper comes out saying that climate sensitivity lies between 3 and 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

But there are ways to counter uncertainty, and that is through the tangibility of our choices. And to that end, I want to reiterate what I said last April:
How can we deal with the fear of uncertainty, knowing that we are degrading what it is that sustains us, but are so invested in the way it is, that we kick the stone down the road? This world has always been an uncertain place to most people, and yet to me, there is a beautiful certainty about it. Rather than think and worry about the future, we can all make decisions here and now such that tomorrow will be a good day. We all want to live in a world in which what we cherish is alive, healthy and sustained. To live in that world, we must act in such a way that we cherish, respect and sustain now, today. It is not complicated. If I respect and cherish my relationship with my friends and family today, those relationships will grow stronger and more resilient; tomorrow those people will still love me, and I will still love them. I do not have to live in the fear of a grudge or a toxic conversation. If I respect the tree and the river today, they will be healthy and full of life tomorrow. Now is easier to comprehend and experience and think about. Acting well now will save us much trouble tomorrow.
 I stand by these words more than ever before. Such choices in the face of uncertainty nip uncertainty in the bud, for we abstain from being complicit in ecologically degrading behaviour. There is nothing uncertain about that.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What will you not buy this holiday season?

Walking around Ann Arbor late Friday night, I noticed that all of the shops on Main Street were open until midnight...Midnight Madness they call it. Just when we think have enough in our homes, the stores are open so that in our drunken stupor, we decide to buy something else we don't need. Madness it seems to be, for it is a continuation of the materialistic binge that so definitively marks this time of year.

My family doesn't celebrate Christmas; we're not Christian. And so, we haven't given gifts to each other...not only because we don't celebrate Christmas, but because we never really did. But that isn't to say that gift-giving is wrong or bad. Gift-giving can be emotionally rich and thoughtful. Giving a gift can be giving a part of yourself. It can signify lasting bonds and friendship and love, and the knowledge that someone is there for you, no matter what. Thoughtful gifts don't have to cost anything, but they mean an infinite amount.

But from what I have observed as an outsider to Black Friday and Christmas traditions, gift-giving is far from emotionally meaningful during the holiday season. Are the gifts that many give meaningful for more than a few days? Gift-giving seems to be focused on the new, which will quickly turn into the old and unwanted, instead of turning into the cherished and storied. What is the point of "gifts" then, other than to merely acknowledge your existence? Is there anything more to gift-giving other than appeasement to the cultural norms of gift-giving and shopping to turn the crank of this ecologically-degrading economy?

Maybe people can give more meaningful gifts this year. What about non-materialistic gifts? Maybe little arts and crafts and drawings and poems. Maybe home-made candy and hugs and kind words. What about community gifts? If the Christmas tree is the center-point of your home, your family, your community, why then focus on individual gifts? Why not cherish the communal gifts of family and community and kinship more fully?
(If I am incorrect in this assessment, please point it out.)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Community objects

Homo sapiens sapiens has now come to mean homo faber--man that makes. We have for millennia made objects that have given us advantage over other people, that have asserted our power, that have asserted our "humanity." But as time has progressed, as we have decided that natural rights of freedom and liberty apply to (most) all of us (except those who we exploit so that the privileged can be "free"), we have grown more and more individualistic; libertarianism, while not explicitly stated, is rampant. But freedom has been conflated with doing whatever we want, and "owning" whatever we want. Indeed, we feel it a god-given right for each one of us to have access to all of the material possibilities that have been opened up because of technology. We feel that we must assert our individuality by owning as much as possible, by showing these objects off as symbols of status, by thinking that these objects mean we are "sticking it to the man."--that we do not need to rely on anyone for anything, that all of us can go to Home Depot, and do things ourselves. This individualism has resulted in the loss of human interaction--much of what we do now is mediated through object, rather than through physical contact with other humans. In our quest to own things for ourselves, in our assumption that each one of us is entitled to each one of the possessions we have, we have created an economy based on the collective rape of the Earth to satisfy our individual wants and purported needs.

But this is not the whole story. We have asserted our individuality in some ways, and given it away in another--in ecologically and socially degrading ways. While we assert our independence through materialism, we are watched by Big Brother, we are under constant surveillance, and we live in the fear of speaking our critically against our government and corporations that have constantly exploited this land and this earth to keep themselves alive. Liberty and justice for all are words spoken, but not internalised and acted upon. I wonder then, are there ways in which we can be human, without destroying the planet? How can we build communities and relationships with the Earth that are spatially close-knit, rather than destroy them? May one way be through community objects?

When I say community, I mean community among people, close-knit, within contexts of our local environments. Just like community spaces, like churches, markets, and parks, are there ways in which we can redefine objects such that they are owned by us as a collective, rather than us as individuals? What would that mean for the preservation of objects, and our compulsion to buy more and more? I do not know, but what I do know is that those things and spaces that are common to us all, we generally wish never to be degraded. Scale is important, and objects are for the most part on the human scale. Although we continually trash national parks and landmarks, no one would want a trashed church or a trashed local park. Rather, when the scale of our spaces, and our objects becomes more tractable, we seek to cherish them more and more. The Earth may be too big for each one of us to wrap our minds around. Another plastic bag in the ocean, another computer bought, another flight taken, we think is a drop in the ocean. But a plastic bag seen flailing in our neighbourhood park, an oil spill in our local river, a blighted home we are repulsed by.

I remember while growing up in India, the textbooks that I used, the uniforms I wore, were those that were handed down to me from my elder cousins and friends. Objects were saved and treated kindly, because they could then be bequeathed to the next generation. The textbooks were already marked up and written in, but that was okay, because I still learned from them. The clothes were worn, but that's okay, because it didn't matter how crisply new my shirt was, I still went to school. I feel as if community objects built community. So much of what we do now as individuals is because of a constantly temporary urge for the new. If you were to look back on your life, did it really matter whether you bought that new deck of cards or that new toaster? Or do you think your euchre night would have still been fun with an old deck of cards, your stomach still full and satisfied with a used toaster? And how much better off would the health of our Earth be because of such behaviour? Wendell Berry, in his essay A Statement Against the War in Vietnam writes,
In spite of our constant lip service to the cause of conservation, we continue to live by an economy of destruction and waste, based on extravagance and ostentation rather than need; we can see no reason to be saving, because we cannot imagine the future of the earth or the lives and the needs of those who will inherit the earth after us.