Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Limits of the mind, science and society

Why is it we feel that we can "solve" all of the problems before us? I am sure you know about Einstein's saying that basically states that we can't solve problems with the same mindset and capacities that have created those very problems. How much and what do we need to know before we have all of our problems solved? We continue to feel that by just gathering more data, by investing just a few hundred million dollars in some technology, we will see breakthroughs that will allow us to continue our lifestyles, and will encourage others to change how they live so they can be more like us. Unfortunately, we cannot "solve" all of our problems through research.

Most problems are created because, given our limited capacities to envision and know what effects and side-effects, we just have no way of knowing how something that is being implemented or introduced into our world (consumer products, for example) will necessarily change and affect it. The scales of complexity explode when we start to factor in how a certain chemical will not only affect humans, but also how that might affect the fish and algae downstream, or the bear that eats the fish.

There was a wonderful episode of Radiolab (actually, they are all wonderful. Listen to them all.) on limits - limits of the body, mind and science. One segment of the show talks about a computer program developed by a couple of people from Cornell (Dr. Hod Lipson and Michael Schmidt) that can deduce mathematical relationships in nature, through simple observation. But the answers to the problems we tell it to evaluate are to questions that we haven't even asked yet, or don't have the mental capacity to understand.

I contend that we know all we need to know to address the issues facing us. What are needed, more importantly, are the humility and responsibility to accept that we are wrong, and that we are letting precious time slip by in trying to find "solutions," which will introduce their own problems. We must reduce our dependence on data and live with an understanding that the data don't help, that what is needed is more compassion for everything around us (for example, we've known all we needed to know about issues like climate change many years ago; but we can wave goodbye to Mauritius.), that we live with an understanding that whatever we do given our current ways of living has a negative impact on our air, water, relationships, land, sentient beings and non-sentient beings.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Social interactions without trash

Trash is borne out of, and is a byproduct of, our desire to control what we experience. This has led to the development of social interactions which necessarily involve the production of trash, especially because of sentiments like complacency, ignorance and carelessness, as well as notions of time. There are many simple and fundamental acts that we perform in which we allow trash to be generated. Take for example going to eat at a fast food restaurant. In that light, I am trying to envision a world, a region, a community, or an interaction without trash. I want your suggestions on situations in which you would think trash could not possibly be generated, but ends up being so. Then I want to take trash out of the picture. Say it wasn't even possible to generate trash - what would that interaction morph into? What changes in behaviour would be required to have that interaction? How is this then a critique of our social constructs? Please send in your thoughts. My wheels are turning, too.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Trash and the commons

A commons problem is a problem of over-exploitation of a resource, or of going along with something because no one really has an individual incentive to act otherwise. For example, fisheries are currently being over-exploited tremendously, because there are no incentives to fishermen to "under"-exploit the fish, because if one of them decides to, other fishermen will just come and catch those fish in the end. So what this fisherman has lost is a chance to support his family. In the end, fisheries collapse, as they are right now. I also think one more reason why commons problems exist is because people feel like they are entitled to whatever it is they are exploiting. It seems as if people feel they have the right to be irresponsible.

How might trash be a commons problem? Well, at least in the US, trash is collected promptly, generally. We don't have to trudge through piles of trash on the streets when you are walking to class. One upshot of this is we really don't know how much trash we are producing. Out of sight, out of mind. But trash is a commons problem in many other parts of the world. The most telling Western example of this is the trash crisis in Napoli, Italy, the birthplace of pizza. In 2008, a trash problem that started in the mid-1990s came into the international spotlight. The landfills in the Campania region of Italy were overfilled, and trash stopped being collected. Convolved with this problem were the mafia and the goverment. You can see the effects of this in this video, which is incredibly shocking, and in pictures here.

Once trash becomes visible, as it did in Napoli, all of the obvious aspects of the commons problem come forth. People continued to throw trash onto the streets. Apparently, more than a million pounds of trash per day were being dumped into the streets. I wonder whether people in Napoli considered fundamentally changed the way they lived and reduced the amount of trash they produced because of it. I would guess not (but I am looking into this), because one extra bag of trash makes very little contribution to the amount of trash being generated.

Let me know if you know anything about this story.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Un-self-sufficiency and convenience

We are constantly pushed to be "learning" and "consuming" and "doing something" nowadays. Further, our higher education system has created boundaries between disciplines, and created people that specialise and super-specialise in some topical area. We are being made to draw artificial boundaries in our interactions with people that are engaged in "other disciplines." Although there has been a growing voice around "interdisciplinary" and "multidisciplinary" research and education recently, by and large, higher education is teaching people to define themselves with single identifiers - "engineer," "doctor," "musician." We live in a divided, and un-self-sufficient society, in which time is of the essence - gone are the days of regular long dinners.

What does this mean for our day-to-day lives, resource use and trash? I take the example of food, because it is an easy one. Very few of us grow our own food, and very few of us take time to "make things from scratch." Indeed, we are constrained by spending most of our time in our "specialisation." You hear people say, "Oh, I don't have time to cook," or "I'd rather spend my time working." But say we want to make something simple - say pasta and sauce, the staple diet of most graduate students. If we wanted to make it "from scratch," we would need but a few ingredients - flour, water, salt, tomatoes, oil, garlic, maybe an onion, and some herbs. You can grow or buy most of these ingredients without packaging, and can re-use packaging for some if you are lucky enough. In the end, you have a little trash. But we are rushed for time, of course. What we resort to is premade pasta in its plastic wrapper, with tomato sauce from a can, which in general, you cannot reuse. The strive for convenience has resulted in trash. More broadly, we have made others do work for us, and that work is transported to you through trash.

Say you can't cook. How many of us would rather go to Jimmy John's regularly and buy a sandwich that is wrapped in waxed paper and tape (even though we may eat it right there) versus go to Sava's Cafe and "sit down and take time" to eat food that is served on a plate? Convenience generally supercedes.

Theses for this post:
1) Making others do work that you can do yourself is likely to result in trash.
2) Convenience and time constraints generally result in trash.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Being away from home

Wow. I just noticed a huge surge in followers. =)

I bought a bottle of hot sauce a few days into this experiment - I was going to account for it as trash when I had finished the bottle. But, I want to talk about this now. In hindsight, I cannot believe I caved to buy the sauce, or I mean, the bottle that contained the sauce. I regret having bought the bottle of hot sauce. I am going to try to ask why I bought the sauce - what was I thinking?!

We all come from somewhere, our home, and at some level have been raised to be culturally adapted to our homes, our communities and our heritage. Unfortunately, in the era of upward (and outward) mobility, i.e. leaving our homes for meccas of "culture" and consumerism, we are leaving where we are from, probably never to go back. Now, moving from anywhere to anywhere else is something in itself, but moving from say, India to the US is a much bigger move than from Flint to Boston. I truly would love to be surrounded by people that speak the same language I do, and cook and eat the same food I've been adapted to. But that is not the case - I am here, and India is way over there, and there are not that many Gujaratis or Indians here that do or can cook. So, I must continue to remind myself of where I'm from, and I want to. I miss hot, hot, hot food. I bought the hot sauce that day wanting to make hot Mexican food (and the hot sauce was totally not hot, so that sucks), so that my taste buds would feel like they are in a place where hot food is appreciated.

Thesis for *this* post - moving away from home, especially to a very culturally different place, will generate trash because of the longing for home.

Now, I haven't been to the Indian store at all in the past six weeks, and so I have avoided a lot of trash. But I did buy a bottle of not-hot hot sauce...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bubbles (again) and giving up...

I read this very telling article from the BBC a couple of days ago which talked about the impact of loss of nature, ecosystems and biodiversity on our economies, based on how they are currently structured. Here is a little summary:

What has compelled us to continue with such behaviour? Unfortunately, our ethics are to blame. Our human-centric ethics encourage us to do all we can to have knowledge and control over the forces of nature, and modify them in ways that are "convenient" to us. In the process, the rights of other sentient and non-sentient beings get trampled upon. Steiner's point is exactly in line with my last post - we view our society and humanity as the served, and nature as the servant, and in the process of separating ourselves from our servant, we have lost respect for it.

I want to congratulate the Student Sustainability Initiative for a hugely successful Provost's Teaching Seminar on Sustainability. The seminar had around 300 professors attend, the goal of which was how each discipline can and must incorporate environmentally-, socially-, and sustainability-related philosophies into the classroom. This success would not have been possible without SSI's enthusiasm and determination.

Think about what you do on a day-to-day basis. What do you eat? What do you drink? Where do you buy things from? Do you double-cup at Starbucks? Now, think of what you might be willing to give up to lessen your impact on nature. Is there anything you're willing to give up? Have you given anything up before? Tell me your thoughts...

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bubbles, proxies, responsibility and invisibility

Our societal bubble has been built around extracting energy and material from nature and the environment around us, and depositing degraded materials and energy back outside of our bubble, into nature. Our ethic is defined by doing what we want "in here," and not worrying about what happens "out there," as long as the flow of materials and energy in continues, and as long we can continue dumping what we want out there. We have created this disconnect in order to shirk responsibility in dealing with shortcomings of our philosophies and mental capacities, and in our humility. As Wendell Berry describes in his essay Total Economy, we have at the same time created proxies for the provision of essential goods and services - food, clean water, clean air - to people and corporations who have no connection to us. If we don't know where these essentials are coming from, who is providing them, and who is ensuring their existence, we are putting our faith in believing that no harm is being done to the nature, the outside bubble, the provider, along the way.

Trash is a telling example something we have created that we do not want to take responsibility for. Indeed, we have created a proxy for dealing with it. You just put your trash outside once a week, or every other week, and it goes away. Where? Who knows? (Do you know where your nearest landfill is? Who is incinerating your trash?) Since we cannot see where the trash is going, we lose the capacity to see how much of it is being produced (from yesterday's post, what does 4.5 lbs/person/day times 365 days times 300 million people look like? What does it feel like? What does it smell like?). We have faith that once the trash is out of the house, it has magically disappeared, and has no impact on nature. What if each one of us was responsible for our own trash? This American Life had a show a few years ago, "Garbage," in which garbagemen (or san men) in NYC describe our trash. I remember one worker mentioning how people have no respect for the san men who take their trash away, leaving boards with nails sticking out of them and shards of glass waiting to hurt someone. Hmm. Since trash doesn't have a name on it, we don't need to be responsible to the people that magically make the trash invisible, either.

Maybe you've heard of the trash crisis in Naples. Here's what it looks like if trash isn't collected.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Amount of trash - a primer

When talking about the scales of trash, it is good to get an idea of why trash is a problem anyway. The amount of trash being generated gives a good idea resources being used to create the things we throw away, and the amount of resources we need to keep the trash "away" from us. In that light, here are some graphs and a table from EPA's Municipal Solid Waste website. I have referred to the 2008 report. Click on the graphics to enlarge them. Ready to throw up?

We don't lose what we share or give away.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Scales of trash

It is wonderful to be constantly challenged and provoked by thoughtful people around you. Melissa is one such person that challenges me, and makes me think more about what I do. A couple of days ago, I raised the issue of becoming a social outcast/recluse if you did not generate trash. Melissa had a wonderful comment on this, which she thought of while having a coffee at Intelligentsia in Chicago -

"How do you account/control for trash generated by dining out or even getting a cup of coffee in a mug? Every business we patronize creates trash directly, meaning we are creating trash indirectly by even buying things like food and drinks. This gets me back to my original contention that it's impossible to live 100 percent trash-free and not become a social outcast. And if you start thinking about the life cycle analysis of everything you consume (even bulk food products), the equation gets even tougher."

Trash has so many dimensions, and it is generated at so many levels. Is trash a natural outcome of our society? Thermodynamically, it is likely. The flow of materials in our society on average, based on current social structures, takes into account only the extraction through throw away stages of the life of the material. In general, society does not care about what happens to the materials once they are thrown away. Yet unless all of the energy or mass stored in the material is fully consumed and reduced to heat, there will remain degraded forms of these materials in the form of matter. Regardless, in the end, trash generation increases entropy - i.e. it is a degradation of natural resources and nice, well contained forms of energy and raw materials. Further, we are constantly synthesizing and converting natural raw materials into forms that don't necessarily exist in nature (apart from all natural wood, water, gems, foods untreated with artificial pesticides, etc...Can you think of more?). Yet, generating say one plastic bag of trash is not as bad as generating two, or a million. Nature may (and does) have ways of dynamically responding to these forcings...

These incoherent thoughts lead me to some issues that I think I would like to elaborate on in future posts...

1) the view that nature exists "out there," and that we are somehow separate from it, and that we can somehow remove from our circles these degraded materials and assume that they won't affect us...
2) trash and the commons problem...
3) trash and its scales and dimensions - time, location, and amount (thanks Meg and Tim)...
4) trash and its potential inevitability...

Jennifer's sister-in-law Monica had a recent post (28 April) on her blog about how the reduced impact of her saving two plastic bags was instantaneously undone by the man behind her while checking out at a grocery store. Monica expressed her dismay - will we ever get enough people starting to do little things that will lead to bigger things? Who knows. Yet, my mother attested to me today that tides are changing in Bloomsburg, PA, where the cashier will no longer think you are a lunatic for having brought your own bag. So I guess that is a step in the right direction.

In my accounting of trash from the first month, I neglected to recount (and account for trash generated by me) an episode that Jennifer and I had at the Motor City Casino during her last visit to the great State of Michigan. I had won a pass to the Best of Detroit Party thrown by the Metrotimes. Jennifer and I had also gone to this party last year, and it was wonderful. The food was great, and there was an open bar for both desserts and drinks. Yet, we both recalled the amount of trash that we generated. So, in preparation, we took our own silverware (and now I regret not having taken my own plate, and cup). Our beer was served to us in these really nice thick plastic cups, and our food was served in paper. Jennifer and I used one paper plate each, and one cup each. We were wholly intending on saving my one plate and cup and bringing it home. We had to guard it with our lives. As soon as you were done with your food, someone would come by and whisk away your trash, and so people would constantly get new plates. Jennifer and I valiantly guarded our plates, but when we were both looking away and talking to a friend there, the plate was taken. On our way out, I was told that I could not take the cup out because the name of the casino was on it, and they didn't want to be responsible for irresponsible people drinking out of that cup post-party. Basically, I did not account for one paper plate and one plastic cup. Thank you to Jennifer for pointing out this egregious oversight.

On a similar note, when Marco, Anna, Jennifer and I went to Neehee's in Canton, I took a stack of glass plates and told them to prepare the food on these plates (because I knew that they served in paper). They did, gladly.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What is my "standard of living"?

While walking to ABC to fill up a growler yesterday, I ran into my wonderful friend Matt (who is chairing a committee that is developing greenhouse gas emissions standards for international aviation). He asked my how my project has been going, and asked whether or not my "standard of living" (however you define it) has changed. To me, the phrase "standard of living" is as subjective as terms like "environmentalism," "sustainable," "equality," etc. Anyway, you be the judge...

1) I know better than ever before where my food comes from, although I would like to know more.
2) All of my food is fresh. I have been eating as healthily as I was before I started this adventure. I feel great.
3) I am more aware of my surroundings, and more aware of simple things that will leave behind trash that will fill landfills for thousands of years (before people decide to start mining landfills, I guess). I am happy to know I am reducing my contribution to this.
4) This project has piqued the interest of many friends and family members of mine, as well as strangers, and has made them more aware. I have already had great discussions with them.
5) I have continued to enjoy an active social life without generating trash...as active as before.
6) I have become more confident.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A month in, and a continuing social experiment

It has been a month and a day since I've started this project, and here is the trash that I've generated...

...and here are the inevitable receipts (including a sugar mishap and a doily from Atlas in Detroit)...

That's it! Barely anything. Inevitables: cap from milk jar, stickers off of fruits, and receipts.

But here is a question. Is it possible to completely eliminate generating trash without becoming a social recluse? Or put another way, is trash generation (almost) a certain in social interactions? This is why I ask: I was over at my friend Kaylie's last night, celebrating her graduation with her family. We were all having a great time, when one of Kaylie's roommates brought out sparklers. She passed a few to Kaylie's brother, who was sitting next to me. He turns to me, and offers me one. I said, "No thanks, you go ahead." He replies, "No, come on, you have to have one," and he just hands me the sparkler. Now, this happened very quickly, and I basically didn't have the time to say, "Sorry, this would count as trash, and I'm living trash-free for a year." I lit the sparkler (in top picture, the thin rod-like thing on the top right), and was instantly transported back to India (Diwali celebrations).

I talked to Melissa today, who being a sociologist, is totally fascinated by how what I'm doing constitutes a quite interesting social experiment. The basic contention is this: Trash is inevitable in social interactions. I would say: Trash is (mostly) inevitable in current social interactions, under current social constructs. I will try to elaborate on this in future posts - I still need to think about it...

A clarification on my post from yesterday. Progress defined as moving towards freedom of the powerless to protect themselves from being hurt by the punches of the powerful is not the kind of progress I was talking about in yesterday's blog. This "progress," I view, as essential.

Poonam, a new board member of the Student Sustainability Initiative at the University of Michigan (congratulations!) has recommended I make a "how to" list of trash generation reduction. As she mentioned, the first thing is being aware of its existence, and accepting that it is a problem. Here's a list, in no particular order, of some of my thought processes, and "how tos"...

1) Think of what is embodied in what you buy. For example, plastic in the form of hydrocarbons/fossil fuels has existed for millions of years, and choosing to consume it within two minutes and throwing it away is not wise.
2) Think about easy cuts. You really don't need paper towels - carry about a piece of cloth in your pocket or purse if you don't want to wipe your hands on your pants (in the end, it's just water, though), or you need something to wipe you hands/mouth while eating. Ask for the waiter/waitress to bring you a fork and knife without being wrapped in a napkin.
3) Buy things in bulk. I did mention this previously, and this may be hard for people living in an area where bulk goods may not be available, but we already have all of the packaging we need to store what we want to buy. Say to yourself - I'm not going to acquire another piece of packaging, and I'm going to use and reuse and reuse and reuse what I have. The People's Food Co-op and the Farmer's Market are wonderful for allowing you this flexibility.
4) What do you really need? Bea has articulated this wonderfully in her blog. Simplify, simplify, simplify. This will save you money, too.
5) Carry around a folded-up bag with you wherever you go. This can fit in your pocket or purse.
6) The hardest thing may be being open about what you are doing, and being confident that it is the right thing to do. You will have to explain yourself sometimes. People may think you are crazy, but they may become more aware of the issue. Many will want to see someone else struggle with the challenges of social acceptance of a movement, and then once it is commonplace, they will cheerily join the movement. That's fine.
7) Try to avoid buying new things. You can get away most times with buying something used. You are doing two things - reducing demand for new things, and reducing the costs and wastes associated with new things.
8) Refuse.