Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Boycott - strategies and effectiveness

There have been several studies of the effectiveness of boycotts, primarily from the standpoint of consumerism and corporate targets. Pruitt and Friedman (not Milton), in 1986, wrote that, "...consumer boycott announcements appeared to have a highly significant negative effect on the stock prices of the target firms. Not only was there a significant statistical decrease in these prices following the announcements, but the overall market value of the target firms dropped by an average of more than S120 million (this is 1986, mind you) over the two-month post-announcement period."

A more modern academic, Brayden King from Northwestern, has pointed to the effectiveness of targeting a company's image, and not necessarily aiming to affect or decrease sales. His work speaks to the confluence of corporate standing, media attention and declining sales. He finds that a boycott will exert the most influence when there is a lot of media attention on it. However, declining sales have an insignificant bearing on the success of the boycott. The most important thing to target is corporate reputation. A company with a weak reputation is more likely to cede to boycott demands, whereas a company with a strong reputation is not likely to be affected, regardless of sales levels.   

Here is a laundry list of items to think about when organising a successful boycott:
  • Have a clear issue - keep them cognitively simple and emotionally appealing
  • Have a visible target - like...BP! Or not...??
  • Have clear alternatives to the boycotted products - when the Rainforest Action Network boycotted Burger King because of their "rainforest beef," people not only boycotted Burger King, but supported their competitors McDonald's and Wendy's. (I know, it's still sad.)
  • Make sure the violations are visible - Violations are visible in our kitchens, sidewalks and countrysides, and on highways. Check!
  • Have an organised effort - although many personal boycotts can have the effect of an organised one
Here is where I think my personal cultural boycott of trash rates with the laundry list. I think the issue is pretty clear, as I have delineated over the past eight months with pictures, guest bloggers, anecdotes and ethical and philosophical reasons. My targets are "consumerism" and "culture." Hmmm, these seem incredibly vague. Maybe I need to work on the visibility of the target. Since trash has been raised into consciousness, it is clearly visible to me. Although it is clearly visible to other people as well, they are desensitised to it. I have found incredible success in just talking to people, no statistics, no facts. Everyone knows trash. As I have mentioned in several posts (here, here, here), the alternative is to make use of what we have already - I am still alive, and I am still happy. I am still waiting to hear from people about their no-trash stories.

What does a pile of plastic bottles from just one section (of about 33) of a UM American football game look like?
 but Samantha is super cute.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Boycott - different flavours and kinds

(Today marks the start of month nine in my project.)

Boycotts can have multiple targets and have a spectrum of instigators. According to Boycott City, a primary boycott is one in which people or employees boycott a company or employers by not providing their services to it, or not buying their products. Examples of primary boycotts would include the boycott of Whole Foods after its CEO publicly opposed "ObamaCare," or the boycott of BP after the Macondo well blowout. A secondary boycott is one in which employees, labourers, or people try to persuade other entities to join a boycott against their target, or when people target the suppliers or contractors providing services to a target. Examples include the secondary boycott of Israel by the Arab League and the United Farm Workers boycotting grocery store chains in their effort to affect California agribusinesses.

During dinner last night, Krista observed that the targets for boycotts have changed over time. It seems like boycotts nowadays focus on particular businesses or corporations, when in the past, government policies were also part of the mix (the Stamp Act of 1765, Gandhi's boycott of British-made textiles). (I wonder if people, i.e. Tea Partiers, will be boycotting hospitals and medical providers in opposition to ObamaCare.) In today's day and age, it seems like people's purchasing power is what is used to make a point, either by patronising other businesses, or by withholding purchasing entirely.

It seems to me that not consuming at all and not creating trash is more of a cultural boycott. I will write more about the effectiveness of boycotts and examples of famous boycotts next.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Boycott - what is it?

During the Graham Fellows discussion from last week, several important and thoughtful questions were raised about what constitutes political consumption. As I mentioned in a previous post, the fact that I choose not to create trash, and consequently not consume products is a political consumption choice, under Ethan's definition of political consumption (not only having in mind your immediate family and friends when making a consumption choice, but also people [and I would add creatures, nature, ecosystems, land, water, air, rocks, etc.] outside of your immediacy.). But the fact that I am not creating trash and consequently not consuming makes me think that I am boycotting trash and consumption. Over the next week or two, I will be writing a series of posts on boycotts about their history, types, effectiveness, and also examples of famous boycotts and how my project fits into this framework. Today, a little history lesson of what a 'boycott' is.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word 'boycott' was first used in 1880 in The Times ('They also do not feel warranted in regarding the threat of ‘Boycott’ as one which comes within the Act.') and in 1885 in the Pall Mall Gazette ('Those who have continued to hire Chinese labour and patronize the same since the Boycott.'). Although the word was first used in the 19th century, I am sure that boycotts have been taking place for centuries (anyone want to find out when the oldest recorded boycott took place?). The word comes from the name of Captain Charles Boycott.

"Many British absentee landowners in late 19th century Ireland took advantage of famine conditions in Ireland to evict tenants from their property and to lower wages for field work. One of the worst offenders was Captain Charles Boycott (1832-1897), estate manager of the Irish lands of the British Third Earl of Erne. In 1880, Boycott evicted undesirable tenants from the Earl's estates and paid laborers only half the day wage for field work. An American journalist in Ireland and an Irish priest came up with a fitting word to describe the Irish Land League's tactic of encouraging the peasantry to stop working and producing for oppressive landlords, coining the term "boycotting." Irish peasants "boycotted" the estates of absentee Earl of Erne, forcing Charles Boycott to harvest the crops. The boycott was extended further: no merchant would service the Boycott family, and their servants disappeared. This collective social and economic ostracism forced Boycott to stop his abusive tactics.

The example of the Irish Land League and the rise of organized labor in the United States encouraged the use of boycotts as never before. Hitherto the most famous "boycott" in the U.S., before the word was invented, was in 1765, to protest the Stamp Act. As a result, Parliament repealed the act."

Next time, I will write a bit about types of boycotts.

I am trying to boycott trash and consumption.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A no-trash thanksgiving meal

Here is a post I just wrote for my dear friend Samantha's blog. She is trying to live the year solely on local foods, a low carbon diet. She is thoughtful, intelligent, beautiful and creative. Check out her blog to see what she has been cooking so far.

I wanted to share some recipes with you this Thanksgiving and to tell you how much I enjoy cooking, especially for and with other people I cherish. Samantha and I made miso soup for breakfast the other day, on a misty weekend morning, and it was a beautiful morning indeed. I feel like cooking can be a very intimate experience, especially because taste and smell are so primal, and also because you want to make sure that the people you are cooking for enjoy what you've made for them. Food for me is primarily about sharing. At the same time, as students, it is easy to forget that food can taste good, and it doesn't need to be elaborate. In any case, just like Samantha, I take food seriously.

I come from a family of people that love to eat and cook - my parents and sister are amazing cooks. I have learned much of what I know from them. Also, being Indian, cooking is something I tend to feel out - recipes serve only as a baseline (except in baking, when proportions really do matter for things like developing the right amount of gluten in bread dough or fluffiness of muffins). Proportions are tinkered with. If you asked me how many teaspoons of turmeric I add to a pot of fried okra, I honestly couldn't tell you. Cooking can and should be creative - we all have different tastes, and it is fun to explore and expand your own tastes as well. Also, I think that it is important to imagine what things taste like - this will allow you cook in your mind, and make changes that you think will make things different or suit your tastes.

Here are some things I made for my friends (and myself!) this Thanksgiving. I found a great list of Thanksgiving recipes on Well's Vegetarian Thanksgiving on the New York Times website. All of these recipes were made trash-free, too! Here's what I made, and my thoughts on them. The NYTimes website calls for what is in black, and any changes/substitutions/additions I made are in green or the NYTimes ingredient is struck through:

1) Pumpkin dumplings (with my own addition of onion apple topping)

1 15-ounce can pure pumpkin puree (I had a can of this from a year ago, before I started my no-trash project, and so I used it. You can easily make your own pumpkin puree by peeling a pie pumpkin, steaming it, and then blending it)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup store-bought gluten-free flour blend (I used flour with gluten)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (Don't be shy - you can definitely use more oil than this. I love oil.)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 small head radicchio, sliced into 1/4-inch strips (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (I used dried parsley)
Two apples - they can be tart or sweet...whatever you'd like! You can also use pears.

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In a large bowl, combine the pumpkin puree, eggs, flour and 1 teaspoon salt to make the dough.
2. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and red pepper flakes and cook until softened, about five minutes; remove from the heat and set aside. I added apples to this to give it an added fall flavour. 
3. When the water comes to a boil, use a teaspoon to scoop up the dough and form a dumpling, then carefully slide the dumpling off the spoon and into the boiling water. Continue forming dumplings until half the dough is used. Cook until the dumplings float, then simmer for about two minutes; remove with a slotted spoon and add to the saucepan with the onion. Repeat with the remaining dumpling dough. Don't worry if the dumplings break slightly and make the water murky. That is totally fine!
4. Return the saucepan with the onion to medium-high heat. Toss in three-quarters of the radicchio and stir gently until just wilted, about two minutes; season with 1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste. To serve, divide the dumplings and sauce among four bowls and top with the remaining radicchio and parsley.
Yield: Serves 4.

I think that this recipe could have used some more spices and/or herbs in the dumplings (to satisfy my Indian taste buds), but I also appreciated the simplicity of tastes with the NYTimes recipe.

2) Roasted Vegetable Galette with Olives
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt (could definitely use more salt)
1/3 cup water (needed a few splashes more than this to make the dough come together)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped pitted Kalamata olives
1 1/2 cups diced peeled carrots (3 medium)
1 1/2 cups diced peeled parsnips (3 medium) I used Daikon radish instead
1 1/2 cups diced peeled butternut squash (1/2 medium)
1 cup diced peeled beet (1 medium) I used both red beets and golden beets
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided (definitely used more than this)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon dried (didn't have this and so I think I used some oregano instead, although you could also use sage, thyme, ginger, lavender, black pepper or paprika, I'd say)
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 head garlic
1 cup crumbled creamy goat cheese (4 ounces), divided (It is hard to find goat cheese without packaging)
1 egg mixed with 1 tablespoon water for glazing
You can definitely add in or substitute in various kinds of potatoes, peppers or squashes. Express yourself through your choices.

1. To prepare crust: Combine all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a food processor; pulse several times. Mix water and oil; sprinkle over the dry ingredients and pulse just until blended. Add olives and pulse to mix. (Alternatively, combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add the water-oil mixture, stirring until well blended. Stir in olives.) I did this by hand. When you make doughs, it is important to know what they feel like. I also added a few hand fulls of water to make the dough come together at this point.
2. Press the dough into a disk; if it seems dry, add a little more water. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer. The unbaked crust will keep, well wrapped, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
3. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Coat a large baking sheet with cooking spray. Just use some oil to coat the sheet.
4.To prepare filling: Combine carrots, parsnips, squash, beet (or whatever else you added or substituted), 1 tablespoon oil, rosemary, salt and pepper in a large bowl; toss to coat. Spread the vegetables on the prepared baking sheet. Cut the tip off the head of garlic. Set on a square of foil, sprinkle with a tablespoon of water and pinch the edges of the foil together. Place the packet on the baking sheet with the vegetables. Roast, stirring the vegetables every 10 minutes, until they are tender and beginning to brown and the garlic is soft, about 35 minutes. (The garlic may take a little longer.)
5. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl. Unwrap the garlic and let cool slightly. Squeeze the garlic cloves into a small bowl; add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and mash with a fork. Add the mashed garlic to the roasted vegetables and toss to mix. Add 3/4 cup goat cheese and toss to coat.
6. To assemble galette: Roll the dough into a rough 14-inch circle about 1/4 inch thick. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray and place the dough on it. Arrange the roasted vegetables on the dough, leaving a 2-inch border all around. Fold the border up and over the filling to form a rim, pleating as you go. Scatter the remaining 1/4 cup goat cheese over the vegetables. Stir egg and water briskly; brush lightly over the crust. (It would make it look nice, the egg glazing, but I totally forgot to do this!)
7. Bake the galette at 400 degrees until the crust is golden, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes. Serve warm.
Yield: Makes 8 servings.
This was so good. Again, I'd add more salt to the crust, and you can also try to add some herbs/spices to the crust.
Alsatian Pear and Apple Kugel with Prunes

5 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 pounds ripe Bosc pears You can also use D'Anjou or any other pear
an apple or two
2 small onions (about 1/2 pound), peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
Salt to taste
1/2 loaf bread (about 7 ounces), cubed
3/4 cup sugar
8 tablespoons butter or pareve margarine, melted I just used vegetable oil instead of butter. It is hard to find trash-free butter. And if you notice cake recipes, they are just full of oil!
2 large eggs
2 cups pitted prunes
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Juice of 1 lemon

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch springform pan with 2 tablespoons of the oil.
2. Peel the pears and cut all but one of them into 1-inch cubes. Don't peel the pears - their skin is already delicate. I did peel the apple though.
3. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of the oil over a medium-high heat in a skillet. Lightly sauté the onions until they are translucent. Remove from the heat and salt lightly, allowing them to cool slightly.
4. Soak the bread for a few seconds in lukewarm water and squeeze dry. Put in a large bowl, and, using a wooden spoon or spatula, mix with 1/4 cup of the sugar and the butter or pareve margarine oil. Stir in the eggs, onions and half of the diced pears, setting aside the remaining pears for the sauce.
5. Pour the batter into the spring form pan and bake for 2 1 hour 40 minutes or so hours.
6. While the kugel is cooking, make the sauce. In a heavy saucepan set over medium-high heat, put 1 cup of water, the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar, the prunes, cinnamon, lemon juice and the remaining diced pears. Cook this compote mixture uncovered for 30 minutes.
7. Finely grate the remaining pear and stir it into the cooked compote. (I didn't grate the pear, although this would have been better. I thought that the pear would disintegrate, just like apples do when you boil them. I was wrong! No harm done, though)
8. When the kugel is done, remove from the oven and set on a rack to cool for about 20 minutes. Unmold from the pan onto a serving platter, and spoon half of the compote over it. Serve the remaining compote on the side.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

The onions give this an extremely savoury taste - very different than what we expect cake-like things to be. I loved it.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Baking soda made my teeth sensitive (but I still have never had cavities!)

Therefore, I bit the bullet and bought packaged toothpaste. I am sorry Mother Earth.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More thoughts on political consumption

At our monthly Graham Fellows meeting today, we further discussed Ethan's dissertation research on political consumption. What Ethan defines as "political consumption" is any consumption that is done with not only yourself or your immediate friends and family in mind, but also people outside of your immediate circle. Examples of political consumption include buying sweat-free clothing to support workers rights, buying organically grown bananas so that labourers don't go sterile by using dibromochloropropane to spray the crop, or going out to eat at a restaurant that is locally owned and run rather than a Denny's. In all of these cases, although the individual consuming their good of choice might as well have done so without taking others into account, the act of thinking beyond themselves is a political choice.

There were several threads of thought that were raised in today's discussion, and all are pertinent to social change, environmental justice, trash and sustainability. I would like to pose these threads as food for thought, not only for myself and for future blog posts, but also for you to think about and send me your thoughts on.
  • Many people consume politically because of the perceived benefits of doing so. These benefits may range from social to environmental and economic, and many times, people will make the same choice for different reasons. For example, some people may choose to buy food from the local farmer's market because they would like to keep their money within a certain locale, while others may go to the farmer's market because the other large grocery chain doesn't have a big selection of organic products. What are motivating factors for political consumption?
  • It is interesting to see how far people are willing to go to act politically. The most explicit example of this is the price of consumption. Say the organic apple costs $1 more than the conventionally grown apple, would you buy it? Some would say yes. How about if it was $2 more expensive? Would you buy it now? How about $5 more expensive? I think this plays a lot into people's need for convenience for doing anything environmentally related ("The recycling bin was too far away, so I just decided to throw away this aluminium can in the garbage."). How much are you willing to spend to do the right thing?
  • People's emotions play a significant role in political consumption. Their choices depend on whether or not they think their choice can make a difference. What communities are people capable of benefiting through their choices?
  • One of the most interesting points that came up today was the effect of consuming politically vs. not consuming at all. I would argue that not consuming at all is a political choice, too. But what is the effectiveness of not consuming vs. consuming politically? Maybe political consumption will drive people, companies and governments to adopt new standards that you think should be the norm. Also, money plays no role in not consuming. It doesn't matter whether you are rich or you are poor, you can choose not to buy. What about boycotts? How effective are they in making political statements?
  • How much does people's disposable income affect whether or not they consume politically? Preliminary results from Ethan's work show that the emotional mechanisms behind political consumption are the same for those with and those without money. 
  • Somewhat tangentially, how does a company's reputation change if they are found to violate social and environmental norms and standards? Apparently, GAP has been in a lot of trouble over the years because many of their suppliers had terrible working conditions. But always, their reputation bounces back...

Monday, November 22, 2010

When is it right to start criticising our ethics?

Now it is Ireland that has to be bailed out by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Why does the country of Ireland need to be bailed out? Here's what a BBC article reads:

"Put simply, the seriousness of the situation it finds itself in with regard to the debts of the Irish banks.

As several of the banks have been part-nationalised, most of their massive debt is now actually government debt.

And the great majority of this debt is owed to foreign lenders, which the Irish banks, and therefore the Irish government, simply cannot afford to default on.

This is because the Irish Republic, as a small country, is greatly reliant upon this overseas investment. And to default on their overseas loans would make it very difficult - and far more expensive - for Irish banks to borrow from their foreign counterparts in the future.

More importantly, if Irish banks could not pay back their overseas debt, it would have a knock-on impact on the Republic's overall credit rating.

This would make it more expensive for Dublin to sell government bonds, as it would have to offer a higher rate of interest to more sceptical institutional investors."

House values have fallen by between 50% and 60%, and bad debts - mainly in the form of loans to developers - have built up in the country's main banks. This almost wrecked the institutions, leaving them needing bailing out by the government at a cost of 45bn euros (£39bn; $60.1bn).

This has opened a huge hole in the Irish government's finances - which will see it run a budget deficit equivalent to 32% of GDP this year."

I don't claim to be any sort of expert on banking, international debt and investing and the proportion of GDP that a country's debt is. What I do see, however, is a confluence of events across the world, that although seem disparate to most people, are fundamentally connected through their root cause(s). I think two graphics that are particularly telling are those two below, that I have pulled from here:

What the two graphics together tell me is that most Western countries (including the US) live well beyond their means - services are promised to people that the government takes loans out (from other countries or the IMF or the World Bank) to provide, and these loans are used to create vested interests in those services, ones which people will absolutely not do without. Then, when a problem does arise, say that too many people are starting to default on their mortgage payments, or people's pensions are lost because an airline goes bankrupt, we address the problem by band-aiding it, and addressing it with even more complexity than that which caused the problem in the first place.

Let's take the case of the automobile. We realise that we can use high-energy-density fossil fuels to power internal combustion engines that will propel people from place to place. We don't think of the consequences of sprawl, fluctuating gasoline prices, or greenhouse gas emissions. Now the world is in a bind. We have all of these people that live incredibly far from the places they work and shop, and think of an automobile as an expression of freedom. With "growing" environmental and climate change concerns, there are several options proposed - 1) let's cap carbon dioxide emissions and have companies duke it out to not be the ones paying to pollute, 2) let's tax those entities that pollute based on the amount they pollute, 3) let's find a way to continue driving cars and extract resources from the Earth, just this time let's not let it be fossil fuels. Okay, so we will drive....electric cars and have wind turbines. What do electric cars and wind turbines need? They need batteries and magnets. What are batteries and magnets made of? Lithium, lanthanum, neodymium, and other rare earth elements. Well, the largest deposits of lithium lie in Bolivia (but also in Afghanistan, now!), with an indigenous President who threatens vested interests by instituting land reform (read/listen here and here), and says "Either capitalism dies, or Planet Earth dies." At the same time, the largest deposits of rare earth metals lie in China (here's something for the techies). What will a country like the US do to get access to large reserves of lithium or rare earths? Well, maybe they go to war or assassinate those whose views are markedly different than their own. Also, did you hear about more coal miners stuck underground in New Zealand?

It seems to me that the foundational causes of these problems lie not in that the coal is too deep, or the oil is too far away, or that the rare earths are reserved in a country whose Communism we don't like, but rather in our ethics that compel us to want access to these resources so we can continue to live lives on debt and deficit. We are taking debt at the expense of those people, creatures and ecosystems that will come after we are gone, and we live in a world full of moral, ethical and spiritual deficit.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A new kind of Pareto optimality

Given any policy or allocation of resources, if one were to make a change to this policy or allocation, making at least one person better off without making anyone else worse off, the change is a Pareto improvement. If we keep making such Pareto improvements, we will reach a point at which no more improvements can be made. This is the point of Pareto optimality. In practice, it is likely that a person that is made worse off through a change in policy will be compensated monetarily, given some quantification of their worse position. This is how a lot of public policy is made. This may make sense from a neoclassical economic perspective, but it is such thinking that leads to people wanting to be compensated for interests that are clearly environmentally and socially harmful, or leads people to compensating other people with money for a harm that is incalculable. For example, monetary profits made from having a landfill close to people's residences might be divided in some part to people at those residences, to compensate for their distress at having the landfill close by.

But given continuing environmental harm, burgeoning populations all over the world, and the ever increasing size of human interventions in nature (larger dams, larger swaths of forest cleared for reaching oil sands, deeper mines), there is a likelihood that any choice that is potentially harmful to the environment and communities may have much larger consequences than in the past. However, it seems as if powerful interests are willing to increase monetary compensations so long as they can function viably. For example, the BP-Macondo Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico led to BP setting aside $20 billion to deal with settlement claims and cleaning the oil.

On an episode of Speaking of Faith (now known as Being), Jean Vanier talked about how it is essential that we lives our lives and make decisions with those most vulnerable among us at the centre of the decisions. Vanier gave the example of a new born child - the child is the most vulnerable member of a family or group, and once it exists, our decision making must accommodate the needs of this being. It is fascinating how this creature, although completely incapable of doing anything on its own, can control an entire group, its minds and hearts. This seems to throw a huge wrench in the Pareto way of thinking. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to how our governments and corporations make decisions today, it is the interests of not the most vulnerable among us, but the interests of the most powerful among us that are front and centre. Indeed, the Pareto condition is centred around those that are already well off compared to most of the rest. And then, there are the silent - nature and other living beings, who are potentially more vulnerable than the most vulnerable humans. What if we were to consider the interests of nature and ecosystems in the Pareto condition? If we are to constantly improve people's lives, can we do so without making the provider worse off?

V. Pareto

Friday, November 19, 2010

Guest Blog #6: Jason Lai - What does a sustainable future mean to you? (with added commentary from me)

"The struggle in trying to integrate sustainable practices into an entrenched social paradigm is that to most, thinking about sustainability is like reading a Salman Rushdie novel, filled with both dubious prophecies of environmental doom and fantastical technologies that promise to save the world. The problem of sustainability, like a work of fiction, is inherently open to a multitude of interpretations. We don’t know definitively how the global environment is going to change, nor do we know how our actions will shape the future. Varying perceptions of this uncertainty leads to, in the most extreme case, conflict between those who prefer to turn a blind eye to increasingly hazardous environmental consequences, and those who champion ostensibly ‘sustainable’ alternatives. Environmentalists may appear as arrogant and pedantic, while conservatives may appear as obstinate and short-sighted. Both parties have legitimate beliefs and have important roles to play in an open discussion of our society’s future.

I personally believe that we are on the right track, and can approach a more environmentally sound future systematically, by continually making sustainable choices that affect individuals in palpable ways. Being from Toronto, I have lived through many garbage strikes and watched massive piles of trash build up on baseball diamonds and playgrounds throughout the city. I have watched traffic build up on highways in spite of skyrocketing gas prices. We may not know how to live sustainably from a holistic standpoint, but we can try to make the problem more tractable by addressing specific issues.

Before action though, we must make sense of the problem. Both overzealous environmentalists as well as obstinate conservatives push their respective agendas. Moreover, to many people, the overwhelming and grandiose nature of these issues may lead to confusion, apathy and inaction. Ultimately, the first step in overcoming this inertia is the collective answer to this question: What does a sustainable future mean to you?"


Jason speaks to the issue of problem definition and conceptualisation. Clearly, issues of environmentalism, social justice and sustainability cannot be addressed by people focused on their individual disciplines alone. However, we live in a reductionist world, where most of us are trained to think of breaking problems down to smaller components and attacking each one systematically. This is how many of us are trained as engineers, too. (Jason and I have backgrounds in engineering) Yet this is the sort of thinking that has created such multi-dimensional problems. Any sort of criticism of reductionism leads people to become defensive, and to some extent, it is understandable. Their livelihoods are founded on reductionism. It is definitely worth starting to approach sustainability from a reductionist perspective (we are still starting from scratch), but it concerns me that this is will just delay much needed holism. It is unfortunate that even at progressive places like the University of Michigan, there are significant institutional and organisational barriers to such holism, as Kate was mentioning today.

I think Jason's question is deep and thoughtfully stated. It states the the present is clearly not sustainable, and that the future is not necessarily a rosy place. It is not a given that the future will be better than the present or the past. Each one of us will be affected differently, and any change is an analysis and criticism of the legacies of our families, communities and neighbourhoods. Please comment on this post and answer the question Jason posed:  

What does a sustainable future mean to you?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Guest Blog #5: Sarah 'GiGi' Herman - My Leap into the World of Local Food

"I first learned about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in graduate school, during a class attempting to navigate the science and sociology of climate change.  This notion of buying “shares” of food from a local farmer to invest in his business, while reaping the nutritional benefits of farm fresh produce, while ALSO drastically reducing your carbon footprint seemed too good to be true.  Even more, it seemed like one of those crazy ideas that only hippies bought into – how could such a system be sustainable?  I wrote it off as a nice idea, one I’d consider once I was older and had more time for such pursuits. Then I went home that weekend and learned that my parents had recently become CSA members.  My parents?  Buying into a local farm share?  Eating farm fresh veggies?  These were extremely practical people buying into what I thought was a crazy idea, so I decided to reassess my opinions and see what I had missed the first time around.  What a surprise I found!

Community Supported Agriculture is so much more than a fringe idea only capable of supporting a small group of people.  When I relocated to Austin, Texas I did some research to find some local farm share programs.  Not only did I find several different options in the area, but the farm I ended up joining had a thousand members buying into the farm, receiving farm fresh veggies every week.  Even more impressive, this farm started out of the owners’ backyard and expanded until they had to buy an entire plot of land several miles outside of town!  This was obviously not a small group of people trying to make this idea work – it was a successful business.

I quickly signed up for my 10 week share subscription ($30 a week for two reusable bags chock full of farm fresh, just-been-picked produce)  I am 30 weeks into my experiment with local food and I can happily say that this experiment has turned into a lifestyle.  There are so many benefits and perks of being a part of the farm share community, but the most important, in my opinion, are listed below:

  • Food is Fresh.  I don’t really know what I used to eat before, but now the sight of most processed foods repulses me, and I really think about what I’m consuming in ways I never had before.  You can truly taste the difference between farm fresh veggies and those that made their way from thousands of miles away.
  • Food is Green.  A majority of my food comes from nearby.  This means more nutrients for me, less carbon spewed into our atmosphere during transport, less waste generated (nothing is packaged), and less fertilizers and pesticides clogging up our waterways. (My CSA is all organic)
  • Food is not Meat (most of the time).  Too scared to take the vegetarian plunge just yet, joining the CSA has made my meat consumption go down to only once or twice a week, which leads to significant carbon and water waste reductions. And now that I’m more aware of the world of local food, I’ve started to make decisions about eating only meat that was raised outside of the horrors of the American Meat Industry.
  • Food is Community.  When I go to pick up my farm share, I get to chat with the farmer.  He tells me all about the crops, and suggests some new ways to prepare the veggies currently in season.  I know where my food comes from now.  I know who grows it.  I go to pick up my food with a sense of excitement and happiness, not the typical dread that I used to have when I’d go to the large grocery store.

Local food has changed the way I live, and how I perceive the community around me.  The mantra “Think Globally, Act Locally” is my new personal slogan.  I join you to take the Local Food Leap with me, you’ll never look back!"


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why do we choose not to be surrounded by beauty?

Ralph Williams, in his last lecture at the University, spoke of beauty. He said that something is beautiful when two conditions are met - 1) you never want that thing to die (or go away), and 2) you want to tell other people about it. "Look at this flower!" "Look at that tree of a thousand colours!" You want your bed to be made of them, and you want to be showered in that beauty. But how many of us would say that the structures we construct for bodies and our minds, and the places we choose to spend our lives in are beautiful? If you take a drive along any highway or thoroughfare, especially in the US, the roads are engulfed by objects of humanity that are truly not beautiful - box stores and strip malls, flashy neon lights and billboards, and advertisements for personal injury lawyers with cheesy pick up lines of sorts. These objects are square, drab, plastic and ungraceful. Indeed, these structures are built for our "convenience." These structures are not constructed for our appreciation and pleasure. Just take a look at the buildings on North Campus, or the hallway of GG Brown.

How many of us would say that the trash we create is beautiful? Would I want to show people the trash I was responsible for? No! That's why we enclose the trash in containers that are opaque. We want our trash to die (or go away). If you look at a pile of trash, or a wrapper torn to reveal the granola bar inside, would anyone say that the wrapper is beautiful? The contrast between this wrapper resting on dewy grass with a crunchy leaf bearing witness could not be more stark.

Is this Styrofoam container with Panda Express inside of it beautiful?

What about this plastic bag? 

We must remember that the landscapes we inhabit were not square and full of plastic before they were bulldozed and modified. These tracts were beautiful and vast, and lives were lived here, in beauty. I don't think anyone could describe anything that happens or exists in nature as ugly. Indeed, something may be devoid of life and barren, but maybe lonely or uncompromising would be adjectives we would use. Do we have to give up beauty to live in today's world? Our understanding of what it means to exist in this world and our observations of it are defined by what we create as people, rather than what is defined by nature. And for all of our efforts to replicate nature, we will never come close to making anything physical as beautiful as a prairie or a tree. If we did want to incorporate more beauty in the objects and spaces we create, how would that affect the things we choose to throw away, like trash?

Here are some words from Lia Purpura's piece, There Are Things Awry Here, from Orion.

"The flags are frozen. They're fifty feet high but don't move in wind and they carry no sentiment, like "these we hoist high over our small town/farm/ranch to keep alive spirit, memory, fervor..." The flags have names: Ryan's, Outback, Hooters, IHOP, Waffle House. Wal-Mart on a far - I'd like to say hill but that's out of the question, the hill's been dozed, subdued into rise."
What was here, that a body moved through it?
Back in my room I can't shake the sensation (despite my dandelion in a plastic cup, curtains wide open, basket of apples to naturalize things). A strangeness, an insistence is hovering. The strangeness makes me say aloud to myself - something had to be here, something had been.
Real land is never sad in its vastness, lost in its solitude. Left alone, cycles dress and undress it, chill-and-warm so it peaks, hardens, slides, swells. Real land hosts - voles, foxes, cicadas. Fires, moss, thunder. Rolls or gets steep. Sinks,sops, and sprouts. But this land didn't read. It babbled the way useless things babble - fuzzy bees with felt smiles, bejeweled and baubley occasional plaques, ConGRADulation mugs/frames/figurines. Capped, crusted, contained, so laden with stuff - how can it breathe?
Here, near the Cobb, is the land where Mac wrote, in Fins and Feathers, a little piece called "Our London":
I remember the sun setting over the last rugged corner of Britain in a blaze of crimson magnificence, that we saw when the ship sailed in August. I remember seeing the lights of Toronto start to blink from a small island on Lake Ontario. But best of all—I remember London.

Though I am many thousands of miles away, I see her constantly, not as she stands now, bruised and battered, but as she was when I spent my adolescent initiation within her walls; and I am sorry that I was not able to appreciate her then as I do now. For in those days, Regent Street just signified to me the roads that led from Piccadilly Circus to Oxford Street. Charing Cross was just a station that served my purpose in going south. The same applied to Fleet Street, Cheapside and Soho, and a host of other fine places . . .
I knew in this vacancy something asserted. Something strange—that is, real—and insistent was here. The land didn’t mean to be torn and tar covered, wasn’t meant to sprout stock farmers, farm women, and ranchers. The land asked to be considered, and seriously. The land wanted to speak—past the bunkers of rolled insulation, past the earth-eating backhoes and yellow concoction my farmer (okay, working stiff, bare hands in the poison, then wiping his nose) force-fed the grass. Here, the land must have been green by the runways. Some of the big trees still here must have seen it. Yes, it must’ve been lush once, before hotels started turf wars along Marriott/Hilton lines, and thick vines choked the trees, and the tractors came and the hot blacktop poured, so the SKUs of Big K—hundreds of thousands—might take root and flourish.  

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Gulf Between Us

It is fair to say that I am pissed for the second time that I can remember. Yesterday, I read Terry Tempest Williams' horrifying essay, The Gulf Between Us, which was published in the current issue of Orion Magazine. Instead of writing about "the facts" and "what we've been told" of the BP-Macondo Gulf Oil Spill, she centres her writing around the personal stories of people affected by the spill, from Louisiana to Florida. Accompanied by stunningly, beautifully sad images by J Henry Fair (you must click on this link and watch and listen to the slideshow), she witnesses and listens to people whose lives have been turned upside down because of the spill. She talks about people being mistreated, bullied and threatened by local government and BP for speaking up, the untold stories of hundreds and thousands of dolphins, whales, birds and sea turtles killed because of the spill - because of oil being set alight on the blue surface of the ocean, and the mainstream media's ineptitude and thoughtlessness in covering the spill. This post is about BP, Corexit (the dispersant used to "get rid of the oil"), perceptions of the problem, and the ineptitude of people we elect to office.

As many of you might be constantly thinking, it is so unfortunate what we are doing to other people, animals, plants, and ecosystems.We would think that environmental disasters and suffering can change human perception of problems, and mobilise people to rid our world of the fundamentals that cause these problems. Unfortunately, maybe only war (the kind in which people use missiles and guns to kill other people) is something that can mobilise people consistently today.

It seemed to me that addressing issues like climate change and sustainability would inherently be a difficult task because of the almost imperceptible changes that point to problems in our society. It seemed that it would take something visceral and explosive to mobilise people. That explosive event, for our generation, was the BP-Macondo Oil Spill (I don't mean to discount the countless environmental+human disasters that take place every day in South America and Africa and Asia, but the BP Spill was one of the only events covered by media from all over the world in which the environmental+human impacts of the spill were focused on. The Chilean miners being trapped underground was portrayed as more of an issue of the bravery and courage of humans, a redemptive story, rather than one of asking the question - Why were they trapped down there anyway?). Unfortunately, it seems to me like the opportunity to truly get people acting has come and gone. The Obama Administration's tepid response along with an almost collusion-like effort between regulatory agencies like the EPA and companies like BP to make it seem like the efforts expended were yielding incredible results, and their success in keeping personal accounts of the Spill out of the minds of people has lost us a chance to forge true change. In the end, issues will be settled in the courts, with Judge Carl Barbier, who will oversee about 300 lawsuits, owning corporate bonds in Halliburton and Transocean, two of the other defendants along with BP. People will be paid off, settlements will be made, and "the most complex litigation" in US history will soon be forgotten.

Yet lives, sentient and non-sentient, torn apart because of the spill cannot be easily mended together by money. Who will be there to defend the dolphins, who are choking at the surface? Apparently, dolphins have been illegally killed and have either been trucked down to Mexico to serve as food or dumped in landfills. Corexit ("corrects it, get it?"), which has been dumped by planes over land and water during the night, will continue to have toxic impacts on people and animals, yet it seems like it fulfilled its intended purpose perfectly - as long as the oil is not on the surface, as long it is spread vertically in the water column, who cares? Corexit contains 2-butoxyethanol (yes, carcinogenic) and a "proprietary organic sulfonate." I guess people have no right to know what they are breathing in and drinking, in the name of intellectual property.

I was talking to Kevin last night about the outcome of the midterm elections. Democrat or Republican, I couldn't care less for most of them in the Congress or White House. All of them need to be kicked out, and some of them need to be sent to jail. Their generation is one of the major contributors to the problems we face today - war, terrorism, environmental disaster and poor healthcare - we need to be the ones that show no mercy for their vested interests, and create what Laura Smith calls "durable change."

 I constantly think back to Graham's comment in September, "We've generated a lot of "knowledge" in the past two hundred years, but we've gained very little wisdom." Our problems are not being effectively addressed by technocrats and lifelong academics. It seems like Margaret agrees - "“We might not be the most educated people schoolwise, but we know more about nature than any PhD. We know. We know what’s goin’ on.”

Monday, November 15, 2010

Trash in Japan

After reading John's comment on trash in Japan, I thought of looking at the trash problem as a function of place, geography, culture and time. I have written a few posts that fall under this mindset, including about Tuvalu, Western waste in Africa, Michigan (here and here), Chicago, New York City and India (here, here and here). But what I might try to do now is compare and contrast how trash is dealt with specifically in different parts of the world. Japan seems like an apt place to start - an Eastern consumerist society with an old cultural and philosophical heritage.

John (which John?! I don't know who this is, but I really want to know!) said, "Japan has some of the most stringent policies on product end-of-life that I know of, due to their high population, small land area, and lack of places to put trash. So it seems, on some level, they are starting to face their reality. And yet! if you buy a few items in a store, they will often wrap each one in tissue paper before putting them all into a bag."

Japan incinerates 80% of its garbage (with 1,400 incinerators), whereas America sends 80% of its garbage to landfills. Japan is the size of California, and has vending machines for almost everything, including underwear! Check out this photo!

You can probably guess that there is consequently a lot of material that is used and trashed in Japan (for some statistics, you can go here). What John said is at some level correct - local governments in Japan have their citizens hyper-sort their garbage, just like how TerraCycle wants its citizen suppliers to do. Here's what a New York Times article from May, 2005, says (with italics and bold emphases added by me...definitely check out the audio slide show on the left of the page),

"YOKOHAMA, Japan - When this city recently doubled the number of garbage categories to 10, it handed residents a 27-page booklet on how to sort their trash. Highlights included detailed instructions on 518 items.

Lipstick goes into burnables; lipstick tubes, "after the contents have been used up," into "small metals" or plastics. Take out your tape measure before tossing a kettle: under 12 inches, it goes into small metals, but over that it goes into bulky refuse.

Socks? If only one, it is burnable; a pair goes into used cloth, though only if the socks "are not torn, and the left and right sock match." Throw neckties into used cloth, but only after they have been "washed and dried."
Indeed, Yokohama, with 3.5 million people, appears slack compared with Kamikatsu, a town of 2,200 in the mountains of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands. Not content with the 34 trash categories it defined four years ago as part of a major push to reduce waste, Kamikatsu has gradually raised the number to 44.
The environmentally friendlier process of sorting and recycling may be more expensive than dumping, experts say, but it is comparable in cost to incineration.
For Yokohama, the goal is to reduce incinerated garbage by 30 percent over the next five years. But Kamikatsu's goal is even more ambitious: eliminating garbage by 2020.

In the last four years, Kamikatsu has halved the amount of incinerator-bound garbage and raised its recycled waste to 80 percent, town officials said. Each household now has a subsidized garbage disposal unit that recycles raw garbage into compost.
At the single Garbage Station where residents must take their trash, 44 bins collect everything from tofu containers to egg cartons, plastic bottle caps to disposable chopsticks, fluorescent tubes to futons.
On a recent morning, Masaharu Tokimoto, 76, drove his pick-up truck to the station and expertly put brown bottles in their proper bin, clear bottles in theirs. He looked at the labels on cans to determine whether they were aluminum or steel. Flummoxed about one item, he stood paralyzed for a minute before mumbling to himself, "This must be inside." Some 15 minutes later, Mr. Tokimoto was done. 
...enter the garbage guardians, the army of hawk-eyed volunteers across Japan who comb offending bags for, say, a telltale gas bill, then nudge the owner onto the right path.
One of the most tenacious around here is Mitsuharu Taniyama, 60, the owner of a small insurance business who drives around his ward every morning and evening, looking for missorted trash. He leaves notices at collection sites: "Mr. So-and-so, your practice of sorting out garbage is wrong. Please correct it."
He stopped in front of one messy location where five bags were scattered about, and crows had picked out orange peels from one. 

"This is a typical example of bad garbage," Mr. Taniyama said, with disgust. "The problem at this location is that there is no community leader. If there is no strong leader, there is chaos."
Ms. Miyano said she now had 90 percent compliance, adding that, to her surprise, those resisting tended to be "intellectuals," like a certain university professor or an official at Japan Airlines up the block.
One young couple consistently failed to properly sort their trash. "Sorry! We'll be careful!" they would say each time Mr. Kawai knocked on their door holding evidence of their transgressions.

At last, even Mr. Kawai - a small 77-year-old man with wispy white hair, an easy smile and a demeanor that can only be described as grandfatherly - could take no more.

"They were renting the apartment, so I asked the owner, 'Well, would it be possible to have them move?' " Mr. Kawai said, recalling, with undisguised satisfaction, that the couple was evicted two months ago"

Here is a first-hand account of a Navy wife's experiences in Japan; I found it on her blog! A fun read. Gomi is Japanese for trash...here are some excerpts...

"We were issued a large gomi packet upon signing our lease, containing 120 bright yellow peel-and-stick trash labels, and an instruction booklet (a large instruction booklet!) in English and Japanese detailing what to do. Each family is issued these stickers for free at the beginning of the year--60 stickers per family member.

You may not leave the bags out the night before. You must leave them between 5:00 and 8:00am. If you leave them out too early, dogs or cats will tear them apart and strew the trash...and our neighbors will KNOW it's our trash all over the street, especially if it has stuff with English labels!
They won't take trash without the right labels, or in the wrong bags, or in the wrong place. If you run out of labels before the end of the year, you have to PURCHASE more--and the purchased ones are very vivid green or purple, so everyone in the neighborhood knows YOU were a wasteful person and a bad citizen. 
Recyclable trash is picked up twice a month, and can go in any transparent bag...no stickers required. However, it has to be separated into one of 12 (yes, that's twelve, as in a ten and a two) different categories. I won't go into the extreme details, but I'll give a few examples. Drink cartons must be cut open, rinsed, laid flat, and tied into a bundle. Yard waste must be cut into lengths of no more than 80cm, and of a diameter of 10cm or less, and must be tied into 80 x 30cm bundles of no more than 10kg each. You are requested to brush all dirt from fallen leaves before bagging them in transparent bags (I am not making this up!!) You may put out no more than two bundles of sticks or two bags of leaves at a time. Dry cell batteries go in a special pail at the gomi collection point. Even cloth is recycled! And soiled or "dirtied" paper, like pizza boxes, are supposed to go with combustible trash, not recyclables (there's a whole list of specific kinds of paper that should not be recycled.)
(I love this part) It's all pretty bewildering, and we've had several people (including several of my American teachers during the Intercultural Relations class) tell us "Oh, don't worry about all that stuff. Just bring your garbage to the dumpsters on base. We do!" But if our neighbors can all sort their trash properly, so can we. We'll be better stewards of the earth...and our Japanese neighbors will be less likely to see Americans as selfish pigs! Besides, I bet we'll meet some people when making our treks to the gomi station!
I also never realized how much trash one or two people can generate. It's really a revelation, and embarrassing, too! New goal...to produce less waste.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Realising change in reflection

If you observe much of what happens in nature, there is a spectrum of timescales. There can be abrupt events that occur over the course of seconds and minutes, like earthquakes - a quick release of energy. We have events that happen over the course of days, like hurricanes - a slow buildup of energy release from latent heat, and a movement across water, potentially hitting land. Some events happen over the course of weeks and months, like seasons and the falling of leaves - there is an almost imperceptible change from day to day, just like the changing height of a child. Changes in climate and population occur at an even slower timescale; it takes many decades for the radiative effects of carbon dioxide to be felt, and unless for some reason there is an extinction, masses of fish can slowly grow or decline over time. In general, though, it seems that nature operates at timescales that are too slow for us to flow with. It seems as there each day and week is a new local, momentary equilibrium. What happens in most natural phenomena, except say earthquakes, volcanoes and bombardment by coronal mass ejections, is that there is a constant feedback between various forces. There is a constant tug and push of daily influences of solar radiation, changing vegetation patterns, changing ocean acidity, and, whether we like it or not,constantly rising carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions. Depending on the year and the ocean capacity, fish populations may rise slightly one year, but then the next year, because of say, a decline in plankton, the populations may drop. Feedback is at play, and natural systems respond according to the sum of the positive and negative feedbacks; systems are dynamic and ever-changing. 
I am reading a draft of an article by Professor Princen, in which he talks about feedback in our social constructs. He mentions that in economies that are centred around resource extraction (our economy), during boom times, positive feedback is immediate and clearly tangible - we get 8% return on investments, gasoline prices drop and everyone is happy. Positive feedback makes us think that more of the same can never be bad. (And regardless of whether we have Democrats or Republicans in office, we have more of the same.) Negative feedbacks in our society are either one of of two: diffuse (slow rates of cancer rise because of petrochemical release into waters) or abrupt (like earthquakes, miners getting stuck underground for more than a day, huge oil wells blowing out). Unfortunately, our society is adept at avoiding the internalisation of negative feedback. In the end, it is difficult for us to recognise, realise and admit that the sum of these feedbacks is changing the landscapes we, and other living and non-living beings inhabit. For all of our instant access to information today, we have to reflect back on vast amounts of time to make any meaningful decision about where we are headed and what we should do. Yet at the same time, the signs pushing for change are constant - miners continue to die, thousands per year (you just don't hear of them), constantly increasing rates of obesity and cancer, and year after year of record high temperatures and seasons.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ethics in research design and the longevity of interest

Dale Jamieson's article on Ethics and Intentional Climate Change speaks to the ethical considerations that need to be seriously looked into before we deploy large-scale interventions to combat global warming. It seems as if more and more people are resting their hopes on some geo-engineering breakthrough that will combat, virtually instantaneously, decades and centuries of environmental neglect. It seems unlikely that these approaches will be foolproof; it is likely that there will be significant unforseen impacts of such interventions. Indeed, there seems to be a sort of arrogance if we solely rely on geo-engineering to get us out of such a huge mess. Regardless, there is a huge community of people that are looking at geo-engineering options. Research is being done constantly.

Does everything that can be research need to be researched? There are consequences to research that many researchers would not like to admit. Jamieson points out that:

"In many cases, research leads unreflectively to deployment. There are at least two reasons for this. The first is that we seem cultural imperative that says if something can be done it should be done. For whatever reason technologies in this society often seem to develop a life of their own that leads inexorably to their development and deployment. Opposing the deployment of technology is seen as 'Luddite' - an attempt to turn back progress that is doomed to failure. The second impetus to move unreflectively from research to development is well-documented with respect to medical technology. A research program often creates a community of researchers that functions as an interest group promoting the development of the technology that they are investigating. Since the researchers are the experts and frequently hold out high hopes for a rosy future if their technology is developed, it can be very difficult for decision makers to resist their recommendations. In many cases the social and ethical issues created by the deployment of the technology are explored only after we are already committed to it, but by then it is too late."

It is difficult to know what drives research - are we looking into things the world really needs, or are we trying to find out things we think the world needs? From a corporate standpoint, research leads to the development of newer technologies, potentially (only potentially) less environmentally harmful than current ones, and often with perverse incentives of an increase in use of resources (as things become more efficient, people use more of them, negating any efficiency gains). At the same time, to remain "competitive" requires competitors to constantly "innovate," and get newer and newer products out before others can. Further, there is a sort of hegemony that advertising and consumption has on our society; there is very little longevity of interest in one particular thing, because the next thing is out before you can make full use of what you have already. This incentivises resource extraction and trash.

In all of this, corners can be cut everywhere, resulting in poor worker conditions and environmental harm. There are reasons why industrial production is done far away from where many of us choose to live. What is guaranteed currently, however, is that ethical considerations of product deployment - asking who is affected, positively and negatively, what is affected (nature, birds, water, air, archaeological sites, etc.), and how they are affected - are left to be determined later.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


This post is about words, meaning and language. Yesterday, I received an email from someone whose thoughts I value. He raised a couple of issues about my article in The Michigan Daily from the 10th of November, 2010. This post is in no way intended to be an attack on him or anyone who feels the same way he does, absolutely not; the points he raises are legitimate, and I want to address them and provide clarification and context to the article. Hopefully we can have conversations about this.

First, he raises the issue of my usage of words. If you've read the blog, you might have noticed that I have a tendency to use quotation marks around some words, for example words like "developing country." I would like to explain why. In talking to many professors, students and others about concepts and issues "sustainability," people's perceptions about what that word means, or even at a lower level, what the word "environmentalism" means, changes from person to person. Many of the words used do not have set  meanings, leaving them ripe for, for lack of a better word, kidnapping to mean whatever people want the word to mean. It really bugs me how people use the word "sustainable" or "green" in whatever way they choose to use it. But what this means is that definitions are fuzzy, and are constantly evolving. In fact, many of the conversations I've had with various people, from urban planning to natural resources, have revolved around developing a common language that we all can relate to and understand.

On the other hand, you have words that the world has for some reason come to accept, which I have not. In the article from yesterday, in the third to last paragraph, I used quotation marks around "modernization." This may give off the impression that other people use the word incorrectly, that the word doesn't or shouldn't mean what it is generally accepted to mean. Other examples, again, are words and concepts like "developed country," and "developing country." These words are loaded with value judgements, and have been defined by people who wish to place their values on others not like them, particularly in the context of imperialism of all sorts - cultural, economic, etc. I used quotation marks because I don't like how "modernization" is used. I want to point out that if you use "modernization," the average person will say that this means increase in income, owning a TV, car, and computer (necessarily involving trash in the case of the article in the Daily). What some people might also say is that it also relates to changes in social structure. But modernization to the world is absolutely a Western-style modernization. I think there can be other sorts of modernization, like living harmoniously with nature, place and people, without necessarily violently extracting resources from the Earth and leaving degradation behind. That is the modernization I wish to see. This is at some level why I do use quotation marks - to point out that there can be alternate definitions to those widely accepted.

The second issue he raised was about my explanation of sacrifice. I mention that when we sacrifice, we choose to make something sacred. With my no-trash project, I have sacrificed new clothes, and an iPhone. But I would like to think that what I have made sacred are the Earth, people, and natural resources sacred. In her mind, what I am doing is not sacred, and that talking about sacrifice could make people think that I think I am a martyr. I absolutely don't consider myself a martyr, and I hope those reading this blog don't, either. Here is why I talk about sacrifice. An example is worthwhile.If someone has been smoking and realises that it is bad for them, they quit smoking. What they have chosen to do is consider their body sacred, directly, and the bodies of others around them sacred, directly or indirectly. I have absolutely sacrificed things and experiences with trying to live trash-free. Any choice we make involves some sacrifice, what economists would like to call "opportunity costs." I don't like the use of technical jargon for stuff like the Michigan Daily, so I choose to use the word "sacrifice," because at least in this case, it fully encapsulates what I'm trying to get at. Further, it is something we all can relate to. We all, well many people, sacrifice, all the time. I am not insisting that everyone go trash-free, although that would be nice. What I am indirectly saying is that if there is to be any change in our society, sacrifice of all kinds will be a must - sacrifice of coal, sacrifice of rare Earth metals, sacrifice of "convenience," etc.

Lastly, he questions why I chose to talk about philosophy, rather than provide concrete examples of how people can themselves reduce their trash. I think that for any sort of durable change, change which people internalise and think constantly about, there has to be more of a connection than saying, "Don't use plastic bags." Therefore, I chose to explain why I am doing what I am doing. I know everyone doesn't share my philosophy, but I think it is important to explain myself before people make their judgments about what I'm doing.