Saturday, July 31, 2010

Limits, of another kind

I have mentioned in a few posts that there are limits to the human mind. There are limits on cognition, understanding, complexity, interconnectedness, scale and intricacy. Nature is truly complex, truly interconnected, truly intricate and of a magnitude of scales. We cannot comprehend everything, and we will never understand everything. At some level, it isn't worth trying to. We want to know things so we can control them. We want to know various laws of physics and chemistry such that when we want to make a computer or atomic weapon, we'll know how to do it. But there is also a loss of freedom, as Wendell Berry states, of the living species we try to know and understand. Knowing more species of plants and animals, although will give us a clearer understanding of our negative impacts on the planet, can lead to exploitation of their skins and bones, blood and enzymes.

But there is a limit of another kind I'd like to talk about. I started thinking about this after my friend Lydia sent me this picture:

Lydia is a Geology PhD student, and her work takes her to Tibet and Western China. This photo was taken in town of Xidatan in the Qinghai Province of China. She said to me, "This, I would say, is probably one of the cleaner towns we saw. I'm not sure if that truck actually dumped a pile of trash in the middle of the town, but that's kind of what it looks like." Well, Lydia, I think you're right. That looks like a pile of trash to me, in the middle of pristine Earth.

Clearly, our ethic for living on this Earth has been dominion, domination and anthropocentrism. This has left us with no where on Earth that is untouched, unscathed, unchanged or unmodified. Wherever we go, we must leave our mark - our mark through trash. Is there a way to define our limits to dominion? Is there a way to say we will leave a pristine patch of creation (for the religious readers out there), Earth, soil, water and air to itself and the forces of nature? The problem with our communities and societies is that we don't live in a place anymore. We are on the move, always looking for something new, something different, something to change, something to extract. Indeed, if we defined our boundaries, we would have to have greater moral, ethical, social and cultural imagination to make sure our Earth in a particular place can sustain us, the frogs, the fish, the birds and the trees of that place.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Developing an ethic of trash

This project has so far tried to understand the reasons we accept and condone trash creation. I have tried to describe what it might take to create a paradigm shift in how we relate to people if trash creation was not an option. A problem such as trash is created based on where we define our "center of the universe." What is it we value? Do we value our time over others' time? Do we value our lives over the lives of other creatures? Do we value our lives over the lives of mountains, watersheds and the atmosphere? Do we value our wants over the wants and needs of others? What is evident to me, which may be fairly obvious, is that as with most environmental problems, trash is a problem of anthropocentrism. As soon as we take a step back and look at how we have conducted ourselves, we will realise that our anthropocentrism has led to a lack of respect for things that we deem "extraneous" to our daily activities. Why care about the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch when you have a job, that although is extremely boring, is paying to keep the fridge stocked with food? I know everyone says that of course we think only about ourselves in our day to day lives. But creating trash seems like the one tangible (visually, and in smell) environmentally damaging thing that we do daily and everywhere near and dear to our places of living, working and being human. We store trash in our homes, garages and backyards. There are trash cans on the corners of streets, overflowing with double-cupped Starbucks cups and plastic wrappers. Yet our valuations of efficiency, convenience and life deem trash creation legitimate and almost necessary.

But this is how the "industrialised" and "developed" countries conduct themselves. How about "underdeveloped," "Third World," "developing" countries? What must they be going through? Well, let's take the example of Tuvalu, the paradise-like island nation in the Pacific. Tuvalu is a nation that may not exist in a few years, because of rising sea levels due to you know what. But apparently, another environmental disaster seems like it will beat our rising levels - trash. seems like they are having the same problems that we in the West are having. I just came across an article from Radio New Zealand International saying the following about Tuvalu: "Discarded waste is strewn everywhere: plastic, metal, old appliances, rusted out cars, fridges." If I am reading this very recent article correctly, their drive to have the "luxuries" that the West has - plastics, appliances, and cars is what may result in their demise. (Why would people need cars on an island of 10 square miles?) So it is indeed a Western-derived ethic of anthropocentrism that leads to trash. I can attest to the fact that the amount of trash in India has increased (geometrically? exponentially?) in the past 10 years, and this has coincided with a marked Westernisation of India and its culture, customs and mindsets.

The one way we can adequately address the issue of trash is by redefining the "center of our universe," not by building more incinerators that pollute our air and water, not by digging more landfills. We must ask the question - What is it that we stand for?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Food packaging and trash

"For 365 days, every time Tim Gaudreau threw something away he photographed it...Everything photographed was his average, daily consumption. And most of it was food packaging (emphasis added)."

As I mentioned a while ago, I quickly realised, after starting the no trash-ness, that most of the trash I generated came from food packaging. As I also mentioned, the People's Food Coop and the Farmer's Market has been instrumental in allowing me to live trash-free. Another way to go trash free is to just grow your own food. I am most glad to say that the bumper harvest from Krista and my little farm yesterday has greatly contributed to my project. Take a look! Arugula, lettuce, radicchio, jalapeno, habanero, serrano, thai basil, sweet basil, and lemon basil...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Trafigura update

A few posts ago, I recalled the story of Trafigura having dumped tons of petrochemical waste in the capital of Cote d'Ivoire, Abidjan, in 2006. Well, a Dutch court has found Trafigura guilty of exporting the waste from Amsterdam, and concealing the nature of the waste. This decision does not comment or judge upon what happened in Cote d'Ivoire, however, and it seems like Greenpeace may push for further litigation against Trafigura for the incident.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

My issues with TerraCycle

Last year, at the Net Impact forum, I learned about a company called TerraCycle, whose motto is "Outsmart waste." Tom Szaky, the founder of the company, gave a lively and engaging talk about what his company is about. Here's what the website says:

TerraCycle makes affordable, eco-friendly products from a wide range of different non-recyclable waste materials. With over 50 products available at major retailers like Walmart, Target, The Home Depot, OfficeMax, Petco and Whole Foods Market, TerraCycle is one of the fastest growing eco-friendly manufacturers in the world. Our hope is to eliminate the idea of waste by finding innovative, unique uses for materials others deem garbage.

Founded in 2001 by a 19 year old Princeton University freshman named Tom Szaky, TerraCycle started as an organic fertilizer company and has grown into a multi-category, eco-friendly powerhouse. Tom’s dream was to find way a new, more responsible way of doing doing business that would be good for the planet, good for people and good for the bottom line! TerraCycle has won many awards and accolades for its environmentally responsible business model from Inc. Magazine, Red Herring, The Home Depot, The Environmental Business Journal, The Social Venture Network, Zerofootprint and many other highly regarded organizations.

TerraCycle also runs free national collection programs that pay non-profits and schools TerraCycle has exclusive partnerships with major CPG companies such as Kraft Foods, Frito Lay (Pepsi), Stonyfield Farm, Mars Wrigley and many more. The partnerships create free collection programs that pay schools and non-profits nationwide to collect used packaging such as drink pouches, energy bar wrappers, yogurt cups, cookie wrappers, chip bags and more! The collected materials are upcycled into affordable, high quality products ranging from tote bags and purses to shower curtains and kites. In addition, TerraCycle works with these partners to find innovative uses for all of their waste streams and, by making products from these various waste streams, TerraCycle prevents 1000’s of tons of waste from going to landfills.

It even says on the website, "Get paid for trash." At first thought, the idea of turning throwaway packaging into "products ranging from tote bags and purses to shower curtains and kites" may seem like a good idea. I mean, this is material that is going to go into the landfill, anyway. Why not just save the materials from going into the landfill and derive more utility from them? Well, here are my issues with the concept, and with the paragraphs (unedited) that I copy-pasted from the website:

1) The "upcycled" products (I have one - a pencil/pen case that was given away at the Forum) advertise in full force products like Kool Aid, Oreos and Pepsi. This sends messages and advertises to younger people that consuming products created by these companies is "good" and "cool" and maybe even "good for the environment." (Remember that post a few days ago about Coke encouraging people to recycle?) The creation of such products in no way reduces the amount of material that will continuously be extracted from our earth to produce the packaging for these artificial "foods." It will only encourage people to continue to buy food that comes in packaging that just can't go away.

2) How many tote bags and shower curtains and pencil cases do we need? The pencil case that they gave me is pretty durable - I expect it to last me a lifetime and more. Oh right, it is made from sturdy plastic that will take decades to ever "go away." So, say we come to a point where 6 billion plus pencil cases are made, and everyone in the world gets a pencil case, Barack Obama's daughters included, will TerraCycle keep producing the pencil cases? Well, as long as people continue to drink Kool Aid, more pouches will be discarded, and more pencil cases will be made. Hmm, the trash just seems to be cramming into our space above ground, now...

3) This is further exacerbated by the fact that this company is totally for profit. It is in TerraCycle's interest that people drink Kool Aid, eat Oreos, and continue to increase diabetes and obesity in the world.

But there may be something to learn from TerraCycle. The website claims that there are more than 10 million people that are "trash collectors." (TerraCycle relies on the consumers themselves to sort out the packaging such that it is hyper-separated into streams.) To get that many people to do something in concert is laudable. But in the end, it seems to me that the company is of the same ilk as Pepsi, Hollister and Coach - make people think that they are cool, hip, concerned, aware and with the times by making them buy your product, to fill the pockets of a few.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Food from trash

Have you ever been dumpster diving before? I certainly have. One winter, I ate like a king every day - I dumpster dove at the local Trader Joe's. Wine, lemonade, cheeses, breads, micro-greens, oranges, cereals, flowers and so much more were freely available to anyone that cared to just wait until midnight when the last employees of Trader Joe's left after cleaning. That winter, I reckon I spent only $100 at an actual store (i.e. the People's Food Coop) on things like milk and butter.

I am reminded of this winter because yesterday, on the best show on the radio, The Story, Jeremy Seifert talked about his recent attempts at trying to reduce food wastage in America. He mentioned that more than 100 billion pounds of food are wasted each year in USA alone. I'm sorry, did you read that correctly? 100 billion pounds. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation tells me, very conservatively, that that is enough food for more than 60 million people (assuming 180 lb people, eating their own body weight every 40 days). Well, that's a shame. On average, we throw away approximately a quater of the food we buy. Did you read that correctly? A quarter. What is it about the culture in USA that allows it to be morally and ethically acceptable to waste so much food? I can think of several reasons.
1) We don't know where our food comes from. Food just seems to magically appear in the grocery store. We don't know about the effort it takes to create food.
2) We have lost touch with nature and with the capacities of our bodies. Why would we throw away a whole head of broccoli if just one little part of it is bruised? Why do most people just superficially eat an apple and not just the whole thing (maybe barring the seeds), core and all? In the end, it is just all food, and your body can handle things being me.
3) We have a skewed understanding of what food is supposed to look like. This is similar to the previous point, to some extent. But further, who really cares if the carrot is two-pronged, or if the tomato is not a perfect ellipsoid? Your body doesn' me.
4) We love laws. In the name of "public health" and "cleanliness" we have standards for what sorts of food are acceptable to be eaten and served and sold, and what not.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What we have already

Here is an email that Monica sent to me yesterday:

I never buy plastic bags for sending sandwiches in lunches, but the Wrap-N-Mats I've used for Greg and Maddi finally wore out. I bought them maybe five or six years ago, when Maddi was in grade school. They're fabric on the outside and thin plastic sheeting on the inside, sewn together, and they closed with a small piece of Velcro. After a few years of use, the plastic started getting tacky and sticking to itself, and I was worried about chemicals in the plastic that might leech out into the food. Since the time I bought those, a lot of new products have come out (see the lunch section at, and I was shopping that site yesterday to see which ones looked best, or to see if I could make something myself. Then, last night after having looked at that site, I found this in a magazine I get . . .

I had one foil coffee bag, so I just tried it, and it works pretty well! I don't have good luck with pre-sticky Velcro staying put on anything (the hook and loops hold together better than most glues to non-porous surfaces, so you end up pulling one side or the other off with the hook and loops still attached), so I think I'll just close the coffee-bag sandwich wraps with a rubber band. So now I'm thinking I'll buy maybe two of the ones from the web site, just to have a couple that are super-sturdy, but then make a new one every time we finish off a bag of coffee! :)

This email made me re-realise how important my base set of packaging has been to me to undertake this project. As I mentioned a while ago, although I have not acquired any new packaging materials since this started, I decided to make full use of all of the packaging that already existed around me. This point, however, speaks to much larger issues of what we have already. We have already committed ourselves to a certain amount of natural resources, e.g, plastic bags from oil, cardboard boxes from trees, wires from copper, pots and pans from iron. We have also used natural resources to make gadgets and gizmos like computers, which today do much more than most people could have ever imagined, and much more than what we "need." However, we have the tendency to forget what we have already. We are always on to the next thing, in its new shiny waxed box, with thin plastic packaging around it, styrofoam peanuts preserving such a new marvel. As Wendell Berry has written about, we don't want to be here; we want to be somewhere else; the future is better than the present; it always will be better. But what we necessarily commit ourselves to then is not using what we have already, but extracting more, consuming more, removing more mountain tops, clearing out more rainforests, leaking more oil into waters, breathing more pollutants from air. Indeed, we commit ourselves to more trash. A simple question is this - given all that we've done so far, all that we've extracted and used and created, all the computers we have already, is this enough for our needs today? Is there enough that we have today to be satisfied with our lives from here on out?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The legality of trash and waste

The upper middle class has centred lives around orderliness of their surroundings and public health. Government institutions have been created to maintain that trash will be picked up and "disposed of" in timely fashion, leaving no trace of plastic or degrading organic matter. In Madrid, the government cleans the streets every night, it seems. Further, people are legally bound to create trash. If you go to a fast food joint where people serve you in "disposable" packaging, asking for something to be handed to you without the packaging is at some level against the law. This is because in order to maintain "public health," clean packaging and latex gloves must be used for every new customer. We have therefore placed human "well being" above the damages to our mountains, watersheds and land.

The Trafigura incident I raised in the last post also serves to shed light on another facet of waste, pollution and degradation - it is legally alright to harm the lives of those "undeveloped," "underdeveloped," and "savage" people below our class, if you can get away with it. Imagine dumping that petrochemical waste in Los Angeles.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Inequality, globalisation, trash and waste

My last post was about Vanessa Baird's 1997 article from the New Internationalist, which talked about the world's ecological classes, the "under-polluted" South, and countries either incinerating their trash, or just simply exporting their trash to other places. As much as technocrats would like to have us believe that inequality across the world is slowly being erased, you should think otherwise. It is absolutely true that the gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider, not only in places like India, but also in the US. This has serious implications for trash generation - who produces it, and who deals with it.

As you may have gathered from previous posts, trash is an environmental justice issue. Most of the trash and pollution of the world is produced by so called "rich" countries, regions and locales through industrial processes and private consumption, and this trash is exported to poorer countries, regions and locales. In most cases, I would think the "rich" will pay a nominal fee to the "poor" to keep the trash away from the "rich." An absolutely wonderful and shocking example of this is the 2006 dumping of toxic petrochemical waste in Cote d'Ivoire by a Swiss multinational company of the name Trafigura. I will copy-paste some sections from the Wikipedia entry on it here:

In 2002, Mexican state-owned oil company Pemex began to accumulate significant quantities of coker gasoline, containing large amounts of sulphur and silica, at its Cadereyta refinery. By 2006 Pemex had run out of storage capacity and agreed to sell the coker gasoline to Trafigura. In early 2006, Pemex trucked the coker gasoline to Brownsville, Texas where Trafigura loaded it aboard the Panamian registered Probo Koala tanker, which was owned by Greek shipping company Prime Marine Management Inc and chartered by Trafigura.

Trafigura desired to strip the sulphurous products out of the coker gasoline to produce naphtha which could then be sold. Instead of paying a refinery to do this work, Trafigura used an experimental process onboard the ship called "caustic washing" in which the coker was treated with caustic soda. The process worked, and the resulting naphtha was resold for a reported profit of $19 million. The waste resulting from the caustic washing would typically include highly dangerous substances such as sodium hydroxide, sodium sulphide and phenols.

On August 19, 2006, after balking at a €1000 per cubic metre disposal charge in Amsterdam, and being turned away by several countries, the Probo Koala offloaded more than 500 tons of toxic waste at the Port of Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. This material was then spread, allegedly by subcontractors, across the city and surrounding areas, dumped in waste grounds, public dumps, and along roads in populated areas. The substance gave off toxic gas and resulted in burns to lungs and skin, as well as severe headaches and vomiting. Seventeen people were confirmed to have died, and at least 30,000 were injured. The company has claimed that the waste was dirty water ("slops") used for cleaning the ship's gasoline tanks, but a Dutch government report, as well as an Ivorian investigation dispute this, claiming this was toxic waste delivered from Europe to West Africa, after the ship had previously tried to offload at the port of Amsterdam, but was rejected there. During an ongoing civil lawsuit by over 30,000 Ivorian citizens against Trafigura, Trafigura, following an investigative report by the BBC's Newsnight programme, announced on 16 May 2009 that they will sue the BBC for libel. a Dutch government report concluded that in fact the liquid dumped contained two 'British tonnes' of hydrogen sulphide.

Indeed, the "rich" nations are sweeping dust under the rug. It is wrong to believe the "rich" are clean, and that the "rich" live impeccably by consuming. Since many "poorer" nations are in the "rich" nations' "debt," (however you'd like to define debt - "rich" nations giving loans to "poorer" nations via the IMF, World Bank, or "charitable donations" or "humanitarian aid") it would be easy for "rich" nations to take advantage of the situation by offloading the harmful byproducts of their way of life to the "poorer" nations, and pay them a fee to basically keep them quiet.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The rich create it, the poor deal with it

I found this wonderfully written article by Vanessa Baird, who writes for the New Internationalist, called "Trash: inside the heap." In the article, she argues that creating trash is big business, and it is the rich who create it, for the poor to deal with (although cities in "poorer" nations are pretty badly trashed and polluted). The rich who make trash are generally considered "clean," and the poor who deal with it are considered "dirty." This seems true of most environmental justice related problems. The rich create it by their want of products and goods, and it is the poor who are left with dealing with poor water quality, exposure to chemicals and the like. This article is so interesting, I'll have you read it by posting parts of it here. Everything posted below is by Vanessa Baird (keep in mind that the article was written in 1997, but nothing has really changed since then). Take the time to read it - it is totally worth your time.

One could wax lyrical about the rubbish pickers and scavengers of this world. How they are pioneer recyclers, the greenest of the green. And in a sense it's true. But such romanticism obscures other truths.

The people who build their lives and homes out of other people's refuse are not viewed as eco-heroes by the societies they live in - no more than people who rummage in dustbins are in the West. They are, for the most part, regarded as little better than the trash they handle.

They don't do this work because they want to, or because like middle-class Californian "dumpster divers' they `believe in recycling'. They do it because poverty and social inequality has given them a pitifully narrow range of options.

The sociology of trash is simple: the rich make it, the poor deal with it. The rich who make it are generally considered `clean'; the poor who deal with it are considered `dirty'.

It's a topsy-turvy sociology.

But then the whole issue of trash is pretty much upside-down and back-to-front.

For a start, there's the economics of waste.

We tend to think of industrial production as being mainly about manufacturers making things we need - or just want - which we then buy. This is what keeps money circulating and the economic roundabout going round.

Think again.

What if, for instance, it weren't production that led to economic growth, but waste? Garbage. Trash. Pollution.

Now that seems crazy.

Not so crazy though, if you take the example of the United States.

For every 100 kilograms of products manufactured, 3,200 kilograms of waste is created. `We are far better at making waste than at making products,' concludes Paul Hawken, author, business person and environmentalist.

Meanwhile the US economy appears to be growing. According to GDP or Gross Domestic Product - the conventional means of measuring growth - it has grown at 2.5 per cent per year since 1973. Yet there is little evidence of improved lives, better infrastructure, higher wages, more leisure or greater economic security. Quite the contrary.

This is because GDP doesn't really measure growth in any meaningful sense. It measures money transactions and calls them economic growth. It is blind to whether this is harmful or beneficial to people and their environment.

So we end up with an insane situation, exemplified by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, where a disaster that causes long-term suffering to people, animals and the natural environment shows up as highly profitable because the clean-up and the insurance pay-outs involve lots of money changing hands.

If GDP were to exclude keeping people in prison, pollution and every bit of litter on the streets, then it's quite conceivable that the US economy would be shown not to be growing at all. What's growing is its production of waste - and its capacity to lay waste.

Hawken proposes that, to remedy this, governments need to subtract such negative impacts from revenue. But, he says, `unfortunately where economic growth is concerned, the Government uses a calculator with no minus sign'.

What happens to it all?

A trip to a major landfill site is not everyone's idea of an excursion. But what you see there are the most amazing mountains of the stuff, much of it plastic-seeming, but still a veritable picnic for scavenging birds. Moving ominously and noisily around the heat and stench, like strange prehistoric beasts, are bulldozers, headlights glaring like eyes.

This is where most waste goes in the industrial world - holes in the ground that no-one wants in their backyard. With reason: landfills are fraught with danger. They emit methane, they overheat, they leak - which becomes increasingly ominous as the quantity of chemical products dumped into landfills in the industrial world is expected to double between 1990 and 2005.

Countries which are short of land, like Japan or Belgium, favour incinerating rubbish. This is no better; many experts say it's a lot worse. It creates air pollution, releasing toxins and dioxins into the atmosphere. More sophisticated incinerators have filters, but still leave residues of toxic ash that need to be buried somewhere.

A few years ago the US raised the alert. The big country had run out of landfill sites. This was in spite of its exporting waste to Canada and Mexico and, of course, many parts of the South. In this the US is not alone. Most developed countries export their waste.

What's more serious is that the North now produces more hazardous and toxic waste than it can accommodate on its own territory.

Lawrence Summers, World Bank Chief Economist, gained notoriety in 1991 when he suggested that Africa was under-populated and `under-polluted' and so the West should send toxic waste there. But he was only reflecting on what was already happening. Since then the former countries of the Soviet Union have been added to the list of favoured dumping grounds.

Most serious of all is something that was brought home to me recently in quite a trivial way when my nephew opened the back of my defunct smoke-alarm to find a label saying: `Contains radioactive material'. `Why?' he innocently asked. I could not answer. The label did not indicate how one was to dispose of the thing.

The reason is, nobody knows. Today the total accumulation of used nuclear fuels in the world stands at 130,000 tonnes - more than twice as much as in 1987. Most of this will be buried hundreds of metres below the earth's crust, although scientists recognize it will make its way back to the surface at some point.

The Basel Convention, which with some success is trying to stop exports of toxic and hazardous waste from rich countries to those of the developing world, does not, significantly, cover nuclear waste. It's too big a problem for the nuclear countries. They want to keep their options open, which is very bad news indeed for people living in impoverished countries like North Korea.

The "under-polluted" South

Lawrence Summers got it wrong, though, when he suggested that the countries of the South were `under-polluted'. Visit any big city in the South and you can see it, feel it, smell it. The piles of garbage in Dar Es Salaam have become a major health hazard. Shanghai, Lagos and Mumbai aren't much better. Air quality in Taipei and Bangkok is the pits. In such industrializing countries of the South, water is rendered undrinkable due to chemical pollutants.

It's not just the North's rubbish that is being dumped on the South but also its dirtiest industrial production. With globalization, more and more companies have their goods made in the South where wages are lower and environmental controls are more lax.

And this is the rotten core of the matter.

For the main problem with trash is not its `back end', as it were. It's not so much what we as individuals throw away, but the waste that has been incurred making the things we so abundantly consume. The focus is almost always on what we see - the garbage cans, the refuse heaps. Not what we don't see.

According to Robert Ayres, an expert on industrial metabolism, about 94 per cent of materials extracted for use in manufacturing become waste before the product is even made. More waste still is generated during manufacture. Overall, he claims, US industry uses as much as 100 times more material and energy than is theoretically required to deliver the goods.

One way of tackling this criminal inefficiency is to bring in tougher legislation that encourages cleaner production and penalizes the waster and the polluter. Sometimes this works even before the laws come into force, as happened in certain parts of German industry. The idea of `extending producer responsibility' is also gaining ground in other parts of Northern Europe.

Another way is to try to convince business that it can save money by being more efficient and creating less waste. This is the line taken by Amory Lovins, L Hunter Lovins and Ernst von Weizsacker in their new study called Factor 4: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use. It tells us how we can live twice as well, using half as much. If that doesn't sell the idea nothing will.

Either way, something is going to have to happen. According to the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, arresting global warming and environmental degradation will require a 50-per-cent reduction in worldwide material consumption, and to do that industrial countries need to aim for a 90-per-cent reduction in their throughput of materials.

The main part we, as individuals, can play is as consumers.

The world's ecological class system

The world's poor - some 1.1 billion people - includes all those households that earn less than $700 a year per member. They are mostly rural Africans, Indians and other South Asians.

The 3.3 billion people in the world's middle-income class earn between $700 and $7,500 per member and live mostly in Latin America, the Middle East, China and East Asia. This class also includes the low-income families of the former Soviet bloc and of Western industrial nations.

The consumer class - the 1.1 billion members of the global consumer society - includes all households whose income per member is above $7,500. They live mainly in North America, Europe and Australasia.

Category of    Consumers       Middle             Poor
Consumption (1.1 billion) (3.3 billion) (1.1 billion)

Diet meat, grain, clean insufficient grain,
packaged water unsafe water
food, soft

Transport private cars bicycles, walking

Materials throwaways durables local biomass

Source: Worldwatch Institute
It's not a comfortable role to face up to. When environmental thinker and writer Alan Thein Durning split the world into three ecological classes - 1.1 billion poor, 3.3 billion middle-income class, and 1.1 billion consuming class - he caused quite a stir in some quarters. People who did not consider themselves rich by their own standards were miffed to find themselves defined as part of a global consuming elite (see box). But there's no avoiding it. If you live in the rich, industrialized part of the world your consumption - and the polluting wake you leave behind - is tremendous. A person living in the industrial world will consume 19 times more aluminium, 14 times more paper, 13 times more iron and steel, 10 times more energy, 6 times more meat and 3 times more fresh water than their fellow humans living in the developing world.

The question Alan Durning asks, in his book of the same title, is one we need to keep asking: `How much is enough?' The majority of people living in the South manage with limited resources. They use and re-use many of the things that people in the North and Australasia would automatically throw away. Bottles, bags, cans, rags, old rubber tyres.

People living in the North have limited resources too, though we don't recognize it half the time and certainly don't behave accordingly. As economist Herman Daly has pointed out, we are facing an historic juncture in which, for the first time, the limits to increased prosperity are not the lack of human-made capital but the lack of natural resources, or what is now sometimes called `natural capital'. Plenty of sawmills, not enough trees, in other words.

Many people are responding by trying to alter their personal habits. Recycling is on the increase - though it varies widely from region to region. In parts of Britain recycling has crept up to 5 per cent of household waste; in parts of Australia it's 15 per cent. But in some areas in Canada it's closer to 80 per cent. The greening of politicians and local authorities in some countries - and Britain is a case in point - is happening at a painfully slow rate. Other countries, like Germany, have galloped ahead and made mistakes, but there is at least a commitment to trying to create a different, more sustainable kind of economy.

Throwaway world

The British dump 2.5 billion nappies/diapers a year.

The Japanese use 30 million `disposable' single-roll cameras annually.

North Americans annually discard 183 million razors, 2.7 billion batteries, 140 million cubic metres of Styrofoam packing, 350 million pressurized spray-paint cans, plus enough paper and plastic ware to feed the world a picnic every other month.

(Source: Alan Thein Durning, How much is enough?)

Inevitably, when you look at trash you end up talking about values. Currently most industrial economies are still geared up to using as few people as possible, and thereby creating as little employment as possible to produce as much stuff as possible, much of which is trash or soon becomes it.

In other words, we have been trashing what is really of value - people and their natural environment - in the pursuit of things that have little real value: consumer items we mainly don't need.

There are practical things that we, as individuals, can do - like recycle, re-use, consume carefully and generally consume a lot less. But there also needs to be quite a major mind-shift in the way our economies and our societies operate. We need, metaphorically speaking, to take the lid off the trash-can and turn it on its head. Only then will we get down to grappling with the beast in the bin.


(1) Paul Hawken, Natural Capital, article in Mother Jones, San Francisco, March/April 1997.

(2) Michael Redclift, Wasted, Earthscan, 1996.

(3) Lester Brown, Nicholas Lenssen, Hal Kane/Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 1995/96, Earthscan, 1995.

(4) Ernst von Weizsacker, Amory Lovins and L Hunter Lovins, Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, Earthscan, London, 1997.

(5) People and the Planet magazine, Vol 4, No 1, 1995.

(6) Alan Thein Durning, How much is enough? Earthscan, 1992.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Guest Blog #2: Dr. Forbes and Levels of Analysis

One of the first questions a good social science researcher asks before starting a new project is, “What level of analysis is most appropriate to study this problem?” Should I focus on individuals, organizations, nation-states, or global dynamics? This question is also relevant to activists and change agents who want to solve social or environmental problems (social scientists don’t get tenure for that). These change agents must ask themselves where they should focus their attention and activities to have the biggest impact.

While I find Darshan’s trash experiment interesting, it raises the question of whether the energy required to become a “near-zero waste” person gives you the most gains in behavior change at an aggregate level. As a student of organizations, though, my bias is to focus change efforts at the meso rather than either the macro or micro-level. Anyone who has read the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein can tell you that if you want to change individual or aggregate behavior, you first have to focus on the “choice architects” who both intentionally and unintentionally shape the way we make decisions about waste. These people range from city council members, government program managers, project managers in package design at major corporations, and even University presidents. What they all have in common is they make decisions within governance systems that affect the way citizens, students, and consumers behave.

As Darshan mentioned in a previous blog, the differences between the choice architecture around waste in Chicago compared to Ann Arbor are gargantuan. Whereas my old office at UM had a tiny waste basket inside a huge blue recycling container and the streets were filled with recycling containers, few people think twice about throwing paper or plastic or glass into the trash in Chicago. I believe much of this behavior can be attributed to lack of cognitive reminders (like the UM trash bin) to be more conscious. The choice to recycle or discard is still left at the discretion of the individual at UM, but we’re “nudged” to opt-in to recycling since it’s so easy to do. For me, it’s impossible to talk about motivating individual waste reduction before addressing the infrastructure in place to promote it.
It’s true that extraordinary efforts by single individuals (like Darshan’s trash experiment) can inspire change in others around them, but in the case of waste and resource use, I’m not optimistic that even the most well-intentioned person living outside of places like Ann Arbor and San Francisco have the infrastructure at hand to be successful in such an endeavor. I don’t want to end on a pessimistic note, though. All hope is not lost. There are small groups of sustainability-minded citizens in almost every community (I’ve met some inspiring ones in Chicago). I encourage these passionate collectives to focus more of their efforts on partnering with local choice architects if they want to see greater change.

~Dr. Forbes

Friday, July 2, 2010

Decisions and "Solutions"

The factors influencing traditional decision-making have been narrow
and focused - will a particular policy create jobs? will the use
particular pesticide get rid of a particular disease? What have not
been considered, however, are the many influences individual decisions
and policies have on aspects of our world we thought were disconnected
from that particular issue. We must recognize that we cannot make a
decision in isolation. Our decisions will continue to influence a
complex and intricate web of factors. We cannot think of using
alternative fuels as solving a singular "energy issue." We must think
about how the use of alternative fuel will change landscapes,
communities, and ecosystems. Brazenly cutting down rain forests to
plant palm oil trees is not a solution to the energy problem. It
itself is a problem-creating solution. One thing we must also
recognize is the limitation of the human mind and ability to forecast
the problems that will necessarily arise from any solution we propose.