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.

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