Sunday, October 31, 2010

Choice and political consumption

As you know yourself, we are faced with a multitude of choices each time we try to change our lives in some way - Which of the 23 beds that IKEA sells would be the best bed for me? Should I get 70% cocoa chocolate, or 75%? What wine will my parents like? A late harvest Chardonnay, or a Riesling aged in stainless steel? In the end, we can get flustered with the 93 kinds of cereal available in the cereal aisle of a big grocery store. How can we ever be satisfied with the cell phone we have purchased, knowing that there were 20 other models available at the same or lower price, and that in two months, the newest, most advanced G4 phone ever will be brought into the world? Brett pointed me to The Paradox of Choice in his comment on my post Doing things because we can. He said,

"...sometimes the more choices we have, the less happy we are. "Hey," one thinks, "this is a cool [fill in the blank], but it's not as cool as my friend's. Maybe I should have gotten the other [emphasis added] one at the store; maybe I should get a new [emphasis added] one." This often creates not only an endless stream of needless consumption but also a continual lack of satisfaction due to actual and anticipated buyer's remorse." 

This lack of filling our satisfaction yet continues to fill land, water and air with waste and pollution.

There is another way we can view the issue of choice as related to consumption, and that is what Ethan, another Graham Fellow, is studying by looking into what is termed as "political consumption." Generally, consumption and choice are studied in isolation, not in relation to politics. Generally, we are not thinking politically when we buy a certain product. But about 5-10% of people consume with politics and ethics in mind - how do the choices we make reflect our values, beliefs and morals? For example, many of us choose to buy locally grown, small-scale farm organic foods because we are against the political forces driving the industrial agricultural engine. So here is a loaded question that Ethan posed as a part of his dissertation work: 

When and how does the issue of choice and consumption turn into a political matter? 

Friday, October 29, 2010

The history of recycling

Recycling is something most semi-pro-environmentalist groups advocate as a means to reducing environmental impact. Although I think recycling is a way of avoiding the issue of waste and trash, I see some merit in it. Matthew, who I met at Sameer's wedding, started telling me a little bit about the history of recycling, and how it came to be recognised. So, here's the lowdown of an online search:

"In the 1930s and 40s, conservation and recycling became important in American society and in many other parts of the world. Economic depressions made recycling a necessity for many people to survive, as they couldn't afford new goods. In the 1940s, goods such as nylon, rubber and many metals were rationed and recycled to help support the war effort. However, the economic boom of the postwar years caused conservationism to fade from the American consciousness. It wasn't until the environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s, heralded by the first Earth Day in 1970, that recycling once again became a mainstream idea. Though recycling suffered some lean years -- due to public acceptance and the market for recycled goods not growing -- it has generally increased from year to year. The success of recycling traces to wide public acceptance, the improved economics of recycling and laws requiring recycling collections or enforcing recycled content in certain manufacturing processes.

One of the main reasons for recycling is to reduce the amount of garbage sent to landfills. Landfill usage peaked in the 1980s, when Americans sent almost 150 million tons (136.08 million metric tons) of garbage to landfills each year. Today, we still dump more than 100 million tons (90.719 million metric tons) of trash into landfills annually."

Click here for an interesting booklet made by the California Environmental Protection Agency.

From Wikipedia:
"Recycling has been a common practice for most of human history, with recorded advocates as far back as Plato in 400 BC. During periods when resources were scarce, archaeological studies of ancient waste dumps show less household waste (such as ash, broken tools and pottery)—implying more waste was being recycled in the absence of new material.

In pre-industrial times, there is evidence of scrap bronze and other metals being collected in Europe and melted down for perpetual reuse. In Britain dust and ash from wood and coal fires was collected by 'dustmen' and downcycled as a base material used in brick making. The main driver for these types of recycling was the economic advantage of obtaining recycled feedstock instead of acquiring virgin material, as well as a lack of public waste removal in ever more densely populated areas. In 1813, Benjamin Law developed the process of turning rags into 'shoddy' and 'mungo' wool in Batley, Yorkshire. This material combined recycled fibres with virgin wool. The West Yorkshire shoddy industry in towns such as Batley and Dewsbury, lasted from the early 19th century to at least 1914.

Industrialization spurred demand for affordable materials; aside from rags, ferrous scrap metals were coveted as they were cheaper to acquire than was virgin ore. Railroads both purchased and sold scrap metal in the 19th century, and the growing steel and automobile industries purchased scrap in the early 20th century. Many secondary goods were collected, processed, and sold by peddlers who combed dumps, city streets, and went door to door looking for discarded machinery, pots, pans, and other sources of metal. By World War I, thousands of such peddlers roamed the streets of American cities, taking advantage of market forces to recycle post-consumer materials back into industrial production."

"Recycling has a history that dates back to the historic times. As early as 400 BC (and even earlier), people have been recycling. For example, archaeological evidence indicates that glass from the imperial Byzantine times were being recycled in the ancient city of Sagalassos, located in current day Turkey. There is also evidence that early Romans recycled bronze coins into statues that could be sold at a higher monetary value than the original coins. In hard times (eg. wartime), metals from everything like jewelry and coins were being melted for weapons or other necessary goods. Pottery recycling operations have been uncovered as well.
Archaeologist also deduced from waste remnants about the history of recycling – that recycling was a popular practice during times of distress. For example, less waste remains were found where there were also other indicators of distress such as famine, war and widespread illness. During these times of distress, new materials might have been scarce, making the recycling of waste necessary."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A natural course

While I was sitting in the lobby of a La Quinta Hotel in Canton, Ohio, last week, a debate between candidates running for a Senate seat in Florida was being broadcast on CNN. Marco Rubio, one of the candidates said, "The natural (emphasis added) state of the economy is to grow. If it is not growing, there is something hindering its growth, and we need to find out what that is and fix it."

This is in stark contradiction to what Professor Princen, in a panel discussion at the Law School last year, talked about. He laid out the idea of sufficiency. He gave the example of human growth and viewing the Earth from space. He said that humans only grow (generally) to a certain size, and over time, we go from being small children to fully grown adults. Our growth stops (maybe not girth); we are fully developed, maybe mentally and physically definitely. When we look at the Earth from space, what we see is not an overflowing, unbound teeming of life, but the finiteness of the space in which all life as we know exists - the thin layer of atmosphere, the brown of the land and the blue of oceans. Yet for some reason we think that within the finiteness of our Earth, we can grow, materially and monetarily, unboundedly.

A comment from my post On definitions and development said,

"Your comment on the meaning we put in the word "development" made me think of human development, as in a baby developing into a child, teenager, and then adult. That kind of development is following a line of growth that is already put into place, natural, and essential for that human to be able to explore and manifest all of his or her individual gifts, traits, and qualities. If only we thought of the world this way - development is not to get all we can out of it, but rather to cultivate it along the lines of what it is naturally made to be - and in so doing experience all the wonders it can produce - just as, I assume, a parent experiences when seeing a child enjoy and excel in one of his or her natural talents."

Is there a natural course of our existence, with all that we have invested in "humanity?"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Soap is waste

Here is a comment that I received from Matthew the other day about my post about Catherine Mohr's TED talk in which she challenges potential gut instincts on environmental action:

"For this post I agree with your reasoning in the ideal world but I think the world we live in is not so simple. I believe everything we use eventually loses its value to us and that value needs to be re-estabilshed somehow. In many cases materials that have lost value to use may have value to other organisms, which regenerate their value to us. It is interesting to me that you think of a sponge as something that does not become garbage. For example, I wouldn't use a sponge for a year. Also the soap that we use to clean the sponge is not re-usable and I would consider it garbage. So in my mind every comparison always becomes "what is the lesser of two evils." In many cases I believe we agree, if the material cannot be easily utilized by other organisms for something useful then we have thrown a wrench in the works. From a garbage perspective I would be more frightened of a sponge and soap than paper. A sponge is non-biodegradable in most cases (many are made from plastic: The soap has a number of negative effects in aquatic systems. Paper is easily broken down in the environment and can easily be composted. So it again is an issue of what question you ask"

Matt singles out the issue of value as a determining factor in what is considered waste, and what isn't. It is the value of something that makes us re-use it. (Maybe this is part of what TerraCycle uses as its fundamental philosophy.) The generation of entropy is fundamentally a degradation of value - a loss of useful, organised materials to chaos, the degeneration of many forms of energy to heat. Minimising it tries to retain the inherent value of something for longer. But soap is a one-time use good. Its value is gone after water has been added to it, and the suds are on your skin. It is then washed away, and you never see that soap again. So it seems like I have not been accounting for an important item in my waste budget - soap.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Definitions and redefinitions

Paul Coseo, a Graham Doctoral Fellow, had a wonderful idea the other day: look at how the Oxford English Dictionary defines waste. He wrote - 

"...I thought I would look up some definitions of waste from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to try to understand how we have defined waste over time and in what different ways the word is used.  It may provide indications for the different ways we think of waste and provide conceptual paths for how we might look at reducing the different types of waste by individual or collective (policy/legislation/regulation) action.  Also to understand the “cultural baggage” words have such as waste and trash.  Waste is used as a noun, adjective, and verb.  As a noun the OED lists five different categories of waste.  Waste (in reference to land, water bodies or earth, e.g. desert land as a waste land).  Waste as a process or action.  Waste as matter or refuse. Combinations of words with waste (e.g. waste-collecting, waste-preventing, waste-diposal).  And a new addition in 2006 was a “waste of space n. fig. colloq. a useless, inadequate, or contemptible person or thing” (OED, 2010). I believe the definition we are using for this discussion is trash or refuse, which is a subcategory of the larger concept of waste.  The full definition of this kind of waste is “[r]efuse matter; unserviceable material remaining over from any process of manufacture; the useless by-products of any industrial process; material or manufactured articles so damaged as to be useless or unsaleable” (OED, 2010).

Trash or refuse is defined as “[a]nything of little or no worth or value; worthless stuff; rubbish; dross (Said of things material or immaterial)” (OED, 2010).  I will not go through all the categories or definitions for trash, rubbish, garbage, or refuse, but will say that many of these words also serve to describe people in a negative light as well as inanimate objects.  Waste, trash, or refuse have negative connotations in our culture and I know there are many authors aiming to show and argue for viewing waste as a positive “resource.” Bill McDonough arguing for cradle to cradle cycling of waste.  Herbert Dreiseitl designing landscapes using “waste” stormwater as a resource.  What these authors and designers may teach us is that a part of the effort (in addition to individual and collective action) in getting a larger movement of refusing, reducing, reusing, and recycling waste is to reframe the “objects” as a positive resource."

I think that this is a very powerful and thoughtful exercise. Understanding the definitions of words, and how they change over time, can shed light on our perceptions of objects, places and events, and allow us to conceptualise what was important to people, and when. It is interesting to note that until the late 19th century, waste was a noun used to describe desert landscapes, although somewhat rhetorically. Nowadays, we know deserts serve as ecosystems in their own right; their existence is righteous. Similarly, we continue to redefine cultural norms - people's acceptance of homosexuality is steadily increasing over time (although, unfortunately, some are compelled to remain steadfast in opposition to it), for the most part due to generational change. Indeed, a true definition is subconscious, accepted, and unsaid. This ties in with yesterday's post by Michelle. She further elaborated on her post today, saying that closing the gap between the "effort required" and the "effort expended" would serve as a redefinition of a cultural norm; it must be a subconscious thought, feeling and emotion that waste and trash should be reduced. I am not sure whether I would want trash or waste to be viewed in a positive light, as advocated by Bill McDonough in his book Cradle to Cradle, since it seems to me that this would only serve to further commodify trash. (This is an oversimplification of McDonough's argument, which I will comment on later.) However, I share Paul's sentiment that it is important to understand where we've come from to understand where we might go.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Guest Blog #4: Michelle Price - Closing the gap

The Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute Doctoral Fellows have been having a wonderful discussion about trash, waste and society, and Michelle Price, a PhD student in Applied Physics, posted a provocative thought the other day, which I wanted to share...

"Reading through the many weighty points made in the previous posts, I think we can all agree on two main points. First, a sustainable society of the future requires the majority of individuals to embrace [zero-waste] lifestyles. Second, today’s society makes this type of lifestyle inaccessible to most people without extensive effort, and most people will not make this effort. If our goal is to minimize waste generation on a massive scale, the question our generation has to answer then becomes, “How do we close the gap between the effort required to reduce waste and the effort people are willing to put into this?”

In a cursory attempt to identify a solution framework, I tried to think of something in our society that the vast majority of people do, even if it takes extra effort. The most relevant example I came up with was littering (probably since I’ve been thinking about trash so much lately). With just a few exceptions, when someone in our society generates trash, he or she will hold on to the item until they find a trash can to throw it in. In a discussion about how to minimize trash in the first place, this may not seem very impressive; nevertheless, it represents a societal norm that was successfully developed by closing the “effort expended” vs “effort required” gap (emphasis added). Without having studied the issue in any depth, I can identify two things that made this possible: first, just about every little kid in America learns the phrase “Don’t be a litterbug!” in grade school. Second, in most public places you’re generally never more than a handful of steps from a trash can.
So how can we get people to do things like flip light switches, sort garbage, and choose trash-free options without any more thought than holding onto a paper cup until they find a trash can to throw it in? Do we have to add an “environmental impacts” requirement to mandatory public education that already includes standards on reading, writing, mathematics, science, sexual education, foreign languages…? Sponsor external programs to come to classrooms and educate children about environmental issues in the same way visiting police officers reach out through the DARE program? Perhaps the more difficult obstacle will be, how do we decrease the effort required to go waste-free? Part of this will certainly necessitate changes in how we shop for groceries, order food and keep our rolls of toilet paper from getting wet or contaminated between the time they’re produced and the time they’re sitting safely under the bathroom sinks in our homes. How do we handle these issues in a way that doesn’t oppress society with large expenses, require vast energy inputs to collect and sort re-usables as opposed recyclables, and maintains our society’s high degree of hygiene?"

~Michelle Price

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The commodification of trash and a four day sabbatical

Our societies revolve around natural resource extraction. The only way to generate any "monetary" value in this world is to produce something, from materials that were at one time in our Earth. It doesn't seem to me that just being good people and doing any good generates any monetary value. Even if you are a high school teacher, the money you receive was "brought" into the world because somewhere, at some time, alumina was extracted from the earth, or an oil rig was set up. Currently, there is no way for us to value something untouched, unharmed, and unviolated.

Laura (Smith) raised an interesting point during our discussion at Crazy Wisdom Tea Room about commodification of resources. The commodification of resources makes someone money, because of the demand that they create for it. The fact that someone is currently making money on a resource, and currently paying an overspending government taxes on the money that they make creates a vested interest in being irresponsible about that resource. Conservation is instantly booted out of the door when people want to make as much money as possible in the shortest time possible and people of the future can deal with the depleted resources with the "knowledge" we will have gained through the resource depletion. Trust me, some people think in this way.

I wrote recently about the vested interests in trash; trash is big business. People want there to be trash, so that they can make money and support their families by dealing with it. Trash is commodified, and the more we produce, the more money landfill owners make through tipping fees. The commodification of trash allows us to be irresponsible about its generation. We don't see landfill owners coming out and saying, "Geez, these trucks just keep coming. This can't be good for our air, water or soil. STOP THE TRASH!" Indeed, that would be a strong criticism of our society. Instead, as long as the cash is flowing in, landfill owners, petroleum companies and utilities would love to satisfy your commodity needs.

I am going to Sameer and Christy's wedding in Ohio, and will not be able to blog for the next few days. Expect an update on Sunday evening. Please keep the thoughts rolling in.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

To sacrifice is to make sacred

I have been asked several times about what I have had to "give up." People wonder whether it is it even possible to have a fully functioning social life by living trash free, or even trying to. Am I an annoyance to others around me, with my constant requests? I would like to think not, and I can attest to you that this project has not negatively impacted my social life the slightest bit. In fact, it has made interactions more interesting, more provocative and more meaningful.

Back to the conversation at Crazy Wisdom Tea Room with Laura, Laura, Sherri and Katherine. The issue of sacrifice was brought up, and Laura (Smith) said one of the most profound things I have ever heard. She said, "To sacrifice is to make sacred." It is hard for us in a culture of consumption and excess to take a step back, pause for a moment, and think about what is truly important to us. Many of us don't have the time to reflect like this, as we move from one instant message window to the next, multi-tasking while eating dinner. But there are some people, that every now and then, especially around religious holidays, that do think about sacrifice. Indeed, I would like to think that traditions such as Ramadan and Lent exist to make us realise the importance of what we choose to give up. Being hungry or thirsty, even if for a day, makes us realise the importance and sanctity of food and water. It is hard for one to have these realisations if they haven't gone hungry or thirsty. But once someone does have a realisation, I would hope that it is so impactful on them that they cannot tolerate food or water being wasted. (Of course, I am not talking about leaving a little bit on your plate if you are full...)

We are constantly surrounded by news of ecological degradation, oil spills, miners trapped underground (not only in Chile, mind you, but also in China and Ecuador) and fish being caught in plastic bags. To sacrifice the things that are causing these harms is to recognise that our Earth is sacred.

People think of sacrifice as a negative word. But many fail to think about all we have to gain through sacrifice. Sacrificing watching TV allows one more time to talk with my housemates. Sacrificing fast food makes one eat healthier, and feel healthier. Sacrificing a little bit of sleep allows you to go to a late night showing of your favourite movie. It all comes down to what one thinks is important. If you say to yourself, "Soccer is one of the most important things to me; I will do everything I can to play for an hour everyday," then you make other things in your life flexible, and sacrificial, because you have recognised the importance of something (maybe something else) in your life.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Canadian waste in Michigan, and Michigan's waste infrastructure

Maybe you have heard that Canada ships a lot of solid waste to Michigan. According to this Congressional Research Service report, the entire city of Toronto ships its waste to Michigan. Here are some excerpts of the report.

Private waste haulers and Canadian cities — including the city of Toronto — ship large quantities of waste to the United States. About four million tons (as many as 400 truckloads a day) have been shipped annually since 2004, according to receiving states. Nearly three-quarters of this waste has gone to two large landfills near Detroit. The influx of waste has been highly controversial, in part because the ability of state and local governments to restrict it is limited. Under court rulings concerning the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause, only Congress can authorize restrictions that discriminate against foreign waste.

it appears that more than 90% of the solid waste that Canada ships to the United States has gone to Michigan. The remainder has generally gone to the states of New York and Washington.

While somewhat controversial throughout the 1990s, Canadian waste imports have received much greater attention since late 2002, when the city of Toronto — Canada’s largest city — announced that it would close its last landfill and begin shipping all of its waste to Michigan. Canada’s shipments of waste to Michigan increased 83% between then and fiscal year 2006. In FY2006, Michigan reported that it received 12,084,907 cubic yards (an estimated 4.03 million tons) of nonhazardous waste from Canada. Canada accounted for 19.5% of all the waste disposed in Michigan landfills in that year. Canadian waste imports decreased 9% in FY2007, to 10,982,984 cubic yards (about 3.66 million tons), but still accounted for 18.9% of the waste disposed in Michigan landfills.

As always, there is a trade group, representing some interest, having a vested interest in importing trash and waste generation. It seems to me that the Michigan Waste Industries Association this this state trade/lobbying group. Here is some Q&A from their website.

Q: How many landfills are there in Michigan?
A: There are 53 regional solid waste landfills in the State of Michigan.
Q: How much waste is landfilled each year?
A: Each year, more than 57 million cubic yards of solid waste is added to landfills in Michigan. In 2003, approximately 11.5 million cubic yards, or 20 percent of all solid waste, was imported from other states and Canada.

Q: Why is waste moved in or out of other states or Canada?
A: Different state regulations, varying landfill capacities, and financial considerations often encourage the import and export of different types of solid waste. This practice has been ongoing for decades with no negative environmental or safety impact.

Q: Does Michigan export any waste?
A: The state sends about 106 million pounds (53 thousand tons) of hazardous waste to facilities in Canada. Michigan also ships significant quantities of hazardous, low-level radioactive and medical waste to other states and relies on Canada to process all types of electronic scrap and a large percentage of recycled paper collected in Michigan is sent to Canada for processing and re-use. Solid waste from Michigan is sent to Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin from areas in Michigan that border those states. This raises an important point. If Michigan were to close its borders to Canada’s municipal waste, Canada might retaliate by closing its borders to hazardous waste and, electronic scrap from Michigan. Michigan hazardous waste generators would be forced to find more expensive alternatives, an unintended and undesired consequence during this tough economic period.

If you want to feel good about the trash we produce, check out this video, also from the Michigan Waste Industries Association.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Wedding ring

Here is the packaging my good buddy Sameer's wedding ring came in.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sacrifice and trust

On 4 October, 2010, a reservoir holding millions of gallons of toxic sludge from an alumina plant in Kolontar, Hungary burst, sending this caustic waste flowing through fields, towns and homes. You can see pictures here, and read about it here and here. The plant has re-opened (of course), but people haven't been able to move back home; and if history is any guide, I don't think people should be living there anymore, and definitely shouldn't be drinking the water or eating food grown off of the land.

"Next Tuesday, production will be up to full capacity," the new manager of the facility says...

The Story just ran a show yesterday in which Dick Gordon talked to two residents, Mickey and Nina McCoy of Inez, Kentucky, where a reservoir holding toxic slurry from the Martin County Coal Mine burst this week, ten years ago this week, releasing 300 million gallons of sludge into the land and watershed. (Mickey went to a field recently, stuck his shovel in the ground, and there, three inches deep, he found the sludge, ten years later.) They immediately got involved in the battle to have the government and Massey Energy (the parent company of Martin County Coal) take responsibility for what happened. The EPA soon thereafter said that the water was safe to drink, but it later emerged that the coal companies were the ones that had done the testing on the water supplies, with the EPA just signing off on the tests. Jack Spadaro, of the US Mine Safety and Health Administration, was one of the only government officials that raised alarm about the issue, citing criminal negligence on the part of Massey Energy. Of course, Spadaro was forced out of his job. This is when the Bush administration decided to have regulatory agencies, like the EPA, forge closer connections with industry.When the McCoys went to a town hall meeting where a coal industry executive was present, the executive told them, "Coal mining is dirty business." What he actually meant was, "Coal mining is dirty business. Get used to it. You are just going to have to sacrifice your landscape."

How much are we to sacrifice our land, water and air to those that don't care? At the same time, we would hope that our elected (and appointed) officials stand up to abuse and injustice, but how are we to trust them? We must put the trust in ourselves. Indeed, we must sacrifice...sacrifice our dependence on people who show contempt and disrespect to those of us that care about more than money.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Trash as water

Water, untamed, travels along the path of least resistance. Rivers flow downhill, with the helping hand of gravity, spilling eventually into reservoirs, our lakes, seas and oceans.

While talking to Laura, Laura, Sherri and Katherine the other day, we talked a bit about the CNBC documentary Trash Inc.: The Secret Life of Garbage, from which I summarised a few posts ago. We talked about so-called "traveling trash," trash that is whisked away to somewhere else, taken out of sight, out of mind. New York City's trash travels to Ohio, Virginia, South Carolina, and New Jersey. When you are on the highway, many of the eighteen-wheeler trucks are actually just full of garbage. There seem to be parallels between the flow of water, and the flow of trash. If it gets too expensive for some reason to dump trash in one region (a more resistive path), a cheaper place (less resistive) is where the trash flows to - some place poor, most likely. It seems like with instances like the Trafigura case (when petrochemical wastes were dumped in Abidjan), this is exactly what is going on. That is what our current economic philosophies are based on - cheap labour, work and materials flowing to places with potentially more lax social and environmental laws and regulations, to satisfy those of us who don't want to know what it takes to live the lives we choose for ourselves.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Time capsule

Sherri, Laura, Laura, Katherine and I were talking trash (I like the sound of that) last night at Crazy Wisdom Tea Room, when Sherri mentioned how people, scientists/researchers I assume, once took a core of a landfill, similar to how ice cores are taken to study paleoclimate. She mentioned that they found a phone book from forty years ago, that was remarkable still a phone book; it had not degraded, decomposed, or anything of that nature. (If you want to know how McDonald's Happy Meals don't go bad or decompose, check this out - Sally Davies photographed a Happy Meal everyday for six months, with very little about the "meal" changing...) This got us talking about legacies we would like to leave behind. This is a post I have been thinking about for a while - trash as a time capsule.

I would assume that most of us want to be remembered, at least for a generation or two, for being good people, for being positive influences on our families and communities, or at least for not being, for lack of a better word, bad. We want to be remembered for being there when people needed us, for being a good listener, for being responsible, thoughtful and kind. Indeed, there are social and legal pressures for us to be this way, if we want to live in "civilisation." Word spreads about people's karma; our criminal records just don't seem to go away. Our credit scores follow us whether we like it or not, and so it is better for us to pay off credit card debt on time. We don't want our name sullied with accusations of misconduct, driving under the influence, or indecency. We are held accountable and responsible for our actions, and we "suffer" the consequences of our actions. Now say we were held accountable for the environmental harm we've caused, or more tangible yet, the trash we've produced...

Imagine if we had to write our names, hometowns, and dates on each piece of trash we produce. As we know, most of our trash doesn't decompose over human and multi-generational time-scales, especially in landfills, as Sherri can attest to. Imagine if fifty years from now, people dug up your trash, and saw what trash you produced, and made judgements about how you chose to spend your money, time and effort. Imagine if they made judgements about you as a person, responsible or otherwise. Why did she have to buy that knick-knack from the dollar store that came in a lot of packaging? Didn't she know that Styrofoam is harmful to the environment, both its production and its after life?

How can we be held responsible or accountable for our actions? Indeed, it is the unaccountability that is cause of environmental and social harms. Clearly, if there are rules for behaviour, rules of engagement, people try not to break them, because there are consequences. You pay a fine, you get sent to jail, you are shamed in your community and family. Carbon dioxide molecules don't have the names of those that caused their formation attached to them, and neither does our trash.

What would you like to be remembered for?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Refuge in change, and questioning authority

I have so many thoughts running through my mind that I hope I can convey them coherently and concisely.

This post is a continuation of a thread of thought I've been writing about over the past few posts about defining ourselves and personal responsibility. I just finished reading an incredibly complex and beautiful book by Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.  In the book, Tempest Williams interweaves the story of her grief of the loss of her mother to breast cancer with the changing nature of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah. The book is about spirituality, genealogy, geography, archaeology, feminism, Mormonism, naturalism, and engineering, to name a few themes. I was having a discussion with some professors and students today about the book, and one professor mentioned how, in our redefinition of our interactions with our environment, it is essential that we seek refuge in change. It is very easy for us to find comfort in what we recognise the most, and in what we feel most familiar and comfortable with. For Tempest Williams, this thing turned out to be the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Over the course of her learning and dealing with the fact that her mother is dying of cancer, Tempest Williams reinvigorates herself for the fight (a personal one, too. She was diagnosed with breast cancer as well.) through spending time with birds. Tempest Williams seeks refuge from her grief in the migratory birds that land in the Bird Refuge. However, changes in Great Salt Lake leave her trying to find refuge in a changing environment. This speaks more broadly to sustainability and our ethics. Whether we like it or not, our future cannot look like the present. We cannot continue to sit back and allow people that do not live in our communities to define what is good for us, and what it means to live a meaningful existence.

It turns out the Tempest family lived close to nuclear testing facilities, and a potential cause of the cancer in the family was the nuclear ash. Various judicial decisions, in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court granted immunity to the US government over the nuclear fallout. In Tempest Williams' religion and faith, Mormonism, she says:

'...authority is respected, obedience is revered, and independent thinking is not. I was taught as a young girl not to "make waves" or "rock the boat." "Just let it go," Mother would say. "You know how you feel, that's what counts." 

For many years, I have done just that -- listened, observed, and quietly formed my own opinions, in a culture that rarely asks questions because it has all the answers. But one by one, I have watched the women in my family die common, heroic deaths. We sat in waiting rooms hoping for good news, but always receiving the bad. I cared for them, bathed their scarred bodies, and kept their secrets. I watched as beautiful women became bald as Cytoxan, cisplatin, and Adriamycin were injected into their veins. I held their foreheads as the vomited green-black bile, and I shot them with morphine when the pain became inhuman. In the end, I witheness their last peaceful breaths, becoming a midwife to the rebirth of their souls. 

The price of obedience has become too high. 

The fear and inability to question authority that ultimately killed rural communities in Utah during atmospheric testing of atomic weapons is the same fear I saw in my mother's body. Sheep. Dead sheep. The evidence is buried.'

I take this as inspiration to question what it is we are being handed and by who, and question why we have defined our lives in the way we have. This affects greenhouse gas emissions, dioxins released into waters, trash, and cancer.

I would like to thank James Dickson for his article in about my project. 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Incinerating as a "solution," creating other problems

Incinerators are used to reduce the amount of material that needs to be put in a landfill. Basically, the trash is burned, and energy may be recovered from the combustion process to produce electricty. The first waste-to-energy facility was operational in Hamburg, Germany in 1895.  In the end, after the waste materials are burned, the leftover ash, significantly smaller in volume compared to the original volume of waste, can be dumped in a landfill. This ash may contain heavy metals and toxic compounds. If that is not concerning enough, of course burning the trash creates pollutant emissions. There are the usual suspects, carbon dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, but there are some smaller, toxic (scary toxic) compounds, like dioxins and furans. One of the most famous uses of dioxins was Agent Orange (don't click on the link if you are queasy), which was sprayed on fields during the Vietnam War as a part of herbicidal warfare methods. Dioxins are generally formed in the smokestacks of incinerator facilities, where temperatures drop to less than 650 degrees F. There are several methods of cleaning this emissions of heavy metals and dioxins, but I haven't found anything that talks about how these concentrates of dioxins are dealt with.

It is interesting that the argument for either inaction or lessened regulations on action due to large uncertainties in our understanding is not only used in the climate change debate. Apparently, the World Health Organisation says that the impacts of dioxins on human health are uncertain, and therefore "exposure should be limited." Clearly, Agent Orange caused birth defects, but we still allow dioxins to be released into our air and water. Indeed, are we willing to curb our use of products if dioxins are formed when they are incinerated after we throw them away?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The business of trash

Trash Inc: The Secret Life of Garbage is an investigative documentary that just aired on CNBC. Here's a summary for those of you who haven't watched it yet, and may be followed with some thoughts...who knows how this post will pan out...?

  • The US produces 250 million tons of trash per year, and the trash industry is a $52 billion per year industry in the US alone.
  • New York City produces 22 million pounds of trash a day, and 4.2 million pounds of recyclables a day.
  • The New York City Sanitation Department uses 1,500 trash trucks, each costing approximately $250,000.
  • The budget for the garbage section of the New York City Sanitation Department is $1.3 billion per year.
  • New York's landfills are close to being full. Trash is therefore sent to sites in Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, and New Jersey. This trash is called "traveling trash."
  • Apex Landfill outside of Las Vegas is the largest landfill in the US with a size of 2000 football fields. It earns $160,000 a day in "tipping fees," the cost for a dump truck to "tip" its load into the landfill.
  • There are 2300 landfills in the US.
  • China produces the most garbage in the world.
  • Beijing produces 36 million pounds of trash per day.
  • By 2014, all 10 of Beijing's landfills will be filled to capacity.
  • There are more than 461 illegal landfills in Beijing.
  • 80% of what Americans throw away is actually recyclable; only 28% is recycled.
  • Americans use 51 billion plastic bottles per year, with only about 20% being recycled.
  • There is approximately 7 billion pounds of trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
One conspicuous word that the workers in New York used continuously was "sanitation." Taking trash away is an issue of sanitation for them. As long as from a public health standpoint the trash is being dealt with, the entire issue of trash is being dealt with. Indeed, in the US, trash is not generally considered a public nuisance, or a public health worry. However, trash and toxins may be leaching into the water and soil (the most expensive part of a landfill is its lining, made of plastic, clay and dirt, and they are technically meant to last forever), but maybe too small to be a public health worry, yet.

A man from Fox Township, PA was interviewed about the Veolia (a French company) landfill site that is literally a mountain. This man protested, many decades ago, against the issuing of permits to start the landfill in Fox Township. Now, Veolia pays the township $2.5 million per year to stay running in the township, half of the annual budget of the township. Veolia has tried on two occasions to dump low-level radioactive ash waste in the landfill. What was necessary to avoid this dumping was in his words, "constant vigilance."

Over the next few days, I will be highlighting issues of trash in China. the toxins produced when waste is incinerated, and plastics that have entered the food chain.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Reductionism and trash

If you look at the titles of Ph.D. theses today, you wouldn't be admonished for thinking that a lot of the work academics do can have no bearing on things outside of their sub-discipline. We have created walls and artificial boundaries between fields of study, and created specialised languages that we within specific disciplines use to communicate with others in "our" field. Also, we have given proxies to invisible companies and men in suits to provide us with essential services such as food, clothing and shelter. We have centralised the production and distribution of the necessities of life. Although we would like to think our world is "globalised" and "flat," I believe the world we inhabit is highly specialised and centralised. This specialisation is at some level (obviously from a neoconservative economic standpoint) semi-defensible given assumptions of "economies of scale," but arguments cannot hold water from a moral and ethical perspective.Wendell Berry likes to call this phenomenon "reductionism."

We have defined these boundaries for two reasons...
  • It is impossible for us to know all of the variables of a given system or problem, and so in order for us to stand any chance of coming up with an elegant solution or number, we need to reduce the number of variables; we need to define limited boundaries so that we can still capture the basic dynamics of interactions between various parts of a system, without overburdening our computers and calculating gadgets.
  • We seem to think that we can know how complex systems work, and that given enough time and resources, the outcomes of such endeavours are believable
The latter point can be defended, but only within the context of an individual discipline or sub-discipline. When we try to optimise a system or try to maximise some outcome of a system, we can continuously tinker with the variables we choose to work with. However, what we fail to recognise sometimes is that just because a system is optimised for one particular situation, it isn't necessarily optimised for another situation or system. The output of our narrowly defined system will always have an impact on the variables that were left outside of its boundaries. A great example of this is trash. Trash is the result of an "optimum" solution to a very narrowly and myopically defined system, and that system is our pleasure and convenience. The variables that can play a role in our pleasure and convenience are time, money and place. The boundaries of the system are defined as such, and we consciously or subconsciously defend the definition of those boundaries when we accept the formation of trash. If I am in a rush to grab a bite to eat, the optimum solution is for me to microwave a microwave meal that came in a box with a plastic bowl and thin plastic cover, or to run to Jimmy John's and buy a sandwich wrapped in wax paper, along with a drink in a wax/paper cup with a plastic lid and straw. However, this is not the optimum solution for the Earth that provided the resources to produce the plastics, papers and boxes. The outputs of our pleasure and convenience are too much for nature to handle.

We cannot continually overlook the impacts of our actions on nature by defining the boundaries of our systems for our "ease" and "convenience."

Monday, October 4, 2010

Defining ourselves, ourselves

(Disclaimer: I am just using high fructose corn syrup as an example in this post.)

Did you know that the corn industry is trying to rebrand high-fructose corn syrup as corn sugar? Nutritionally, HFCS may not be too different from sugar, but environmentally, it may be.

It is easy to find comfort in the branding and marketing ploys of today. We don't necessarily have to think for ourselves. Someone else can define what is good for me, my family, and my community. Someone else can make the tough decisions of what ingredients to include in our foods, soaps, toothpastes and lives. These outsiders make it seem that if I don't own what it is they want me to own, I am just not a cool person. I mean, going for a jog without an iPod? Lame.

It is much more difficult to be vigilant and aware and conscious and present. If we are not, we can be fooled into thinking that corn sugar is something completely different than what it is, or used to be called. We can be fooled into buying a product that caused significant environmental harm in its production, and trash that will not go away. We cannot be fooled by companies, like Coca Cola, that use this product to tell us to be conscious of our environment. It is important to realise that outsiders and people in boardrooms cannot understand the issues around Midland, MI, and they shouldn't be allowed to define the outcomes of our lives.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Compassion, "networking" and activism

It is funny how you might start thinking of something, and then realise that there are so many conversations going on pertaining to your thoughts, that you can't believe it is coincidence...

The other day I was wondering at what point people feel compelled to take action against a problem. Since then, I have listened to a wonderful conversation between Krista Tippett, the host of Being, and Nicholas Kristof (a journalist for the New York Times), about compassion and journalism. Also, in this week's New Yorker, I read Malcolm Gladwell railing against the ability of new social media and "networking" sites such as Facebook and Twitter to galvanise real support for essential activism and dissent. Both of these speak to the question I was thinking of...

Nicholas Kristof has traveled the world documenting various atrocities, in particular social ones. He had been writing for many years about "missing" girls in China, up to 40,000 per year, but stories such as the booting out of a red-tailed hawk from a building in New York City (which is still of course a legitimate story) seemed to be getting the page space he was vying for. He started looking into the neurology of compassion and empathy, and realised this: as long as people cannot make an emotional connection to a problem, they are not going to do anything about it. This may seem trivial and obvious, but it is something that all of us trying to get people to be vociferous and active, especially in the environment and social realms, have to grapple with, and probably are not doing a good enough job at. Once we make an emotional connection, we can use that as a portal to bolster our cause with more "rational" information, like numbers and facts. But another interesting part of the conversation dealt with "compassion fatigue." Kristof and Tippett spoke about this fatigue in relation to social problems, but it is easily extrapolated to any problem. Broadly, compassion fatigue is the point at which people feel the problem is too big for them to make a real impact. In one study, people were shown a picture of a starving young girl in Mali, and asked to donate money to help her. People gladly did. When shown a picture of a young boy, also starving, people gladly donated money to help him. However, when shown a picture of both of them together, donations dropped. It was at this point, the problem affecting just one more than one person, at which people felt the problem to be too big. Imagine donating for millions of starving people...

Many of you know that I am not a proponent of technology and "networking," and never have been one. Well, I guess there is more than one person other than Wendell Berry, that shares (partially) similar sentiments, Malcolm Gladwell. The subtitle of his recent piece is "Why the revolution will not be tweeted." He contends that social media cannot provide what social change has always required. Gladwell takes on the example of the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the Woolworth's sit-in that took place on 1 February, 1960. The sit-in movement in the South generated such a crescendo that it was impossible for the perpetrators of racism to continue their ways. The Civil Rights Movement, which was full of high-risk activism, was based around "strong ties" and true personal connections to the problem and activism. Social media "activism," on the other hand, is always based around "weak ties." Although it might be much easier to spread the word about something nowadays, the connections made with people are much more superficial. That is why 1,282,339 members of the Save Darfur Coalition may not accomplish much. Gladwell contends, "Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro." Further, social media activism is diffuse, with very little central authority, in stark contrast to the almost militant activism of the Civil Rights Movement. Where is the individual responsibility when you are a member of a Facebook group? And if you really feel something is a problem, how come I am not hearing about forceful action being taken? Gladwell feels that there is but very little "high-risk" activism taking place today. David Helfenbein of the Huffington Post disagrees.

I do tend to agree with Gladwell that today's "activism" is digital, diffuse, unemotional and unconnected. I know someone very high up at the University that feels the same way.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The ecologically noble savage

The Hadza appeared in the December 2009 issue of the National Geographic. In the wonderfully scripted article, Michael Finkel writes about one of the surviving hunter-gatherer tribes in Tanzania, the Hadza. This is a group that lives in the present. They do not have words for numbers greater than three, they "work" (i.e. hunt for food) four to six hours a day, and sleep when they want to. Finkel contends that they haven't adopted agriculture because it is so contrary to their present state of mind. Agriculture requires planning, and is inherently future-oriented. Yet, this group has survived for tens of thousands of years, and the Hadza speak an "isolated" language, Hadzane, one that has no relationship to any other language that exists in the world. Everyone eats the catch, and so the group can support no more than thirty or so members. The group is non-hierarchical. Members are free to leave and join other groups, and members of other groups are free to join theirs, but there seems to be population control as a function of the catch. Below are photos (by Martin Schoeller) I grabbed from the National Geographic's website. First is Onwas, the eldest member of the group. Next are some women working with baobab fruit, more important than the catch that men get. Last is Sangu, a young girl in the group. It seems to me that if these so-called "living fossils" are still surviving, tens of thousands of years on, eating bountifully and diversely (more so than say the average American), they have an understanding of their landscape, not only ecologically, but also as conservationists. The Hadza seem to fit almost all of the characteristics of a non-impactful people, or should I say a "non-trashing" people. Without a worry in the world, they don't have control over tomorrow, and don't want to think about tomorrow. If they want honey, they get honey from the beehives. If they want to eat a baboon, they find one, and make full use of it. They have resisted attempts by the government to "educate" them, and give them housing and "normal" jobs. Indeed, people from outside the bush have come to spend time with them during times of famine in Tanzania.

While having a conversation with Melissa last summer, I wondered out loud whether people of the past (or even of the present, like the Hadza) conserve the nature around them. Melissa mentioned that these people, that are potentially a figment of our imaginations, are termed "noble savages." Of course, it is clear these noble savages are/were more in tune with a particular landscape than a non-native, but does this understanding of their complex ecosystem compel them to make sure future generations enjoy the same bounty? We would all like to think so, and think of days when humans were one with nature. However, in the case of Native Americans, it seems like there is no evidence that they were any more conscious of conservation than the Europeans that killed them off. Krech claims that Native Americans were ecologists, but not conservationists. Indeed, the only conservation that did happen was "epiphenomenal," or conservation because people didn't have the means to not conserve. Since natives know (or knew) more about their surroundings, they used less of more, while non-natives used more of less. Yet once technologies from Europe, including guns, were introduced to Native Americans, they started over-harvesting, decimating local animal species, excluding beavers.

What do you think?