Monday, January 31, 2011

On the fallacy "economic" sustainability

Thoughts on the notion of sustainability have grown exponentially it seems. Everyone is talking about it, whether they mean it or not. As you may have found odd, massive resource extraction companies talk about it and promote it, when their very existence is in opposition to it. In all honesty, I am not really sure what "sustainability" means fully, and probably no one can really put it fully into words without writing a tome. My notions of it are challenged day by day. What I do know is that such companies mentioned above do not practice it at all, whatever sustainability truly is, apart from "economic" sustainability - they are making absolutely sure that their viability and legitimacy as entities stays intact, and they are "sustained." They have all too easily kidnapped the word, and made it mean what they want it to mean.

If you know a little bit about "sustainability," you'll know that the world has basically defined three pillars of it - environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability. The way the problem of sustainability is currently set up is such that goals and targets must be met for all three pillars - environmental, social, and economic. A "sustainable" outcome is some sort of optimisation of the three pillars. What this means is that there are some compromises that need to be made, and one or two of the pillars will be compromised more so than the others; there are conflicts and tensions between these pillars. Our world has a tendency to compromise on the pillars of environmental and social sustainability, because there is very little willingness to change the economic foundations of how we live our lives, the foundations that have gotten us into this mess in the first place.

The way sustainability is currently defined involves the considerations of economic structures that are counter to the notion of sustainability, just like the economics practiced by corporations. The economic structures I am talking about are those such as capitalism, communism, or any mix of anything of that sort. Such economics are by their very definition destructive to both the environment and people. In fact, there is no way you can have equality in any capitalist or communist framework - there are losers, human and non-human, always. There is never a Pareto-optimal decision if you also consider the environment and justice.

The issue is this: the problem is over-constrained, because we have decided that our current economic structure trumps people and the environment. We have limited our conceptualisation and imagination of sustainability by limiting the options we have available to us, because we are unwilling to change our economies. (In order to maintain the economic viability of our nation, jobs are being created in sectors that necessarily involve violence against the land, air and water. Such jobs are clearly not sustainable.) There is no way you can be remotely sustainable unless you define a new economics. Economics should in fact not be its own pillar at all, but should rather be a fluid, moving and dynamic outcome of our definitions of society and the environment. Such economies might better be able to address chronic problems that face our society today, such as bad food, homelessness and poverty. The goal of any social structure should involve justice and equality. In this light, society itself should be dynamically defined based on environmental constraints and environmental sustainability. There is no getting around it - we live on Earth.

More to come.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Nature vs. necessity

As I was talking to Mike today at lunch, we talked about my research work, on chemical kinetics. I told him what I do is basically this: I take a single molecule, bring it to a certain temperature and pressure state, and see how it decomposes. As it decomposes, there are various intermediate chemical species that are formed, and I measure those species using various analytical techniques. I am primarily an experimentalist. I do all of this work physically. On the other hand, you have can have a computational chemical kineticist. The goal of the computationalist is to develop a mechanism that predicts how this single molecule breaks down. The computationalist comes up with intermediate chemical species, many of them radicals, 99% of which you can never measure, or even know whether or not they exist. In the end however, the mechanism is compared to my measurements of those measurable species. For example, I am about to pick up again the study of this large chain hydrocarbon, a single hydrocarbon molecule. With this actual molecule, I have been equipped with a mechanism that predicts its kinetics. This mechanism consists of 2200+ intermediate species and 8000+ reactions. Hmm...

I want to add a few words to several previous posts on the limits of the mind and research (of course inspired by a simple comment by Wendell Berry). Much of our current research work, we like to think, is done because we have to. There is an urgent necessity to know how exactly things happen in nature. In this process, we inquire, we spend, we invest, and we consume. In trying to recreate natural phenomena, we use natural resources. But the manner in which we use natural resources is not the same way it happens naturally, in nature. If something is done by nature, which means naturally, there is a most beautiful use of land, air and water, in just the right amount, to create something magical. Think of an orange. How does it create those delicately skinned juice clusters that are the surrounded by a delightful peel? The tree uses the nutrients in the land, the nutrients in the air, and the nutrients in the water, and magically converts them to thousands of complex sugars and acids and who knows what. It is the nature of the tree to do so. And it does so perfectly. It uses exactly what it needs, to produce exactly what it wants.

If humans tried to recreate this process, out of necessity, we would need lab gloves, petri dishes, pipettes and temperature baths. We would need lab coats and burners and paper and pencils and computers and plastic and metal and all of these other things that the tree doesn't need. We would need these things because it is not in our nature to produce oranges. It is not in our nature to travel five hundred miles per hour. It is in our nature, however, to walk and talk and think and love and respect and care and eat and drink and be happy and be sad. These are things that don't necessarily require mountaintops full of resources. These are things that don't require trash and waste. Because it is our nature.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Feature: Waste Land, Vik Muniz, and consciousness

(Potential spoiler alert!) There has been much written about trash and waste, and it seems like there are several documentaries and books about this issue. I have been almost saturated with thinking about trash, with my creativity being challenged day by day in trying to write about trash from different perspectives. I am not the most creative person out there. But other people are much more creative, and have different backgrounds that lends them different ways of viewing the exact thing I have been thinking about now for ten months (ten months today!). It is always wonderful to come across these thoughts, visions and projects, and I came across one just a couple weekends ago.

Matt and I made it to The Detroit Institute of Arts for the Detroit Film Theatre, where they show beautiful movies, documentaries, and shorts, on the 16th of January. What caught my eye was a screening of the documentary Waste Land, which is about an art project (turned out to be way more than art) by Vik Muniz on the people how pick through trash at one of the world's largest landfills to collect recyclables that can be sold. Here's a synopsis from the website:

"Filmed over nearly three years, WASTE LAND follows renowned artist Vik Muniz as he journeys from his home base in Brooklyn to his native Brazil and the world's largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. There he photographs an eclectic band of “catadores”—self-designated pickers of recyclable materials. Muniz’s initial objective was to “paint” the catadores with garbage..."

Vik's intentions are clear - he wants to change people's lives with the objects they are surrounded with on a daily basis. There is no better group of people to work with than those that work at a landfill. As I've mentioned previously (here, here and here), trash is visceral and tangible, so much so that we don't want to be around it, although some people are around it continuously. Some people are around it so much so that they are desensitised to it, just like people that work at one of the world's largest landfills, where objects and discards of humanity flow in like an unabated wave. Vik initially went into the project thinking it was just going to be just that, an art project - as a photographer, he was going to make multimedia photographs of the workers, with recyclables in the trash defining the human features of his subjects. He formed connections with some of the workers there (extremely thoughtful people), and had them work on their own photographs. Please click here and go to "Pictures of Garbage (2009)" to see their incredible work.

What ended up happening changed both Vik and the workers:

"However, his collaboration with these inspiring characters as they recreate photographic images of themselves out of garbage reveals both the dignity and despair of the catadores as they begin to re-imagine their lives. Director Lucy Walker (DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND, BLINDSIGHT, COUNTDOWN TO ZERO) has great access to the entire process and, in the end, offers stirring evidence of the transformative power of art and the alchemy of the human spirit." 

I am not going to talk much about the movie, because you should really just watch it (and you can read about it here), but what Vik essentially did was raising into consciousness, at a level higher than visibility, the objects and problems that surround us. This is indeed what the message of this blog so far has been: raise into consciousness and awareness the knowledge and problems that our world is facing, and think about how this problem is just another manifestation of deeper issues - disrespect for Earth and disrespect for people, present and future.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Paragraphs on patience

With the urge to fill your time with other things, you can buy microwave dinners every time. You can convince yourself quite easily that your time is better spent doing other things. In fact, cooking can take a while, especially if you don't do it often. If you lose your touch, or never had it, it can be intimidating to enter a kitchen. Sharp knives surrounded by heavy metal. Hundreds of potential ingredients, more than a thousand degree difference between the flame temperature and the room temperature, and infinite combinations of amounts of ingredients. What do caramelised onions look like? When is the pasta al dente? When are the beans done? When will the beans be done?! It just seems like it would take a lot of effort to make a meal. A meal just fills your stomach. A meal just takes your mind off of hunger. On the go, there are things to do. There are other things to experience.

In fact, a meal sustains. A meal heals. A meal brings you close. Cooking brings you closer - to your friends, to your family, and to your food. Why not be patient and learn? Why not be patient and cook? Why not see how long it takes for pasta to go over the edge? Why not see how long it takes for water to soak into beans? Why not wait to see the dough rise? There is much to be experienced through patience. You don't have to be idle. You can observe, and learn. You can learn, and impress. You can impress, and be full. Patience reveals nature. And you won't have to throw away that microwavable container.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

On ownership

One of the defining concepts of our society is the notion of ownership. This goes far beyond the territorialism that animals may display to mark and guard their places of habitat. Human notions of ownership stretch beyond the bounds of their habitat. We have a system in place which monetarily values places other than habitat in a way that drives humans to "own" or "buy the rights" to those places. For example, much of the land in the US is actually leased to oil and gas companies for drilling (and this has not stopped those companies from trying to drill offshore, in virgin waters). But we also want to stretch our influence to the habitats of other humans, too. Fracking for natural gas is a great example - people from elsewhere are trying to buy off people from elsewhere because those people are unfortunate enough to have natural gas bound up in geologic structures under their land. In fact, our knowledge revolves around how we can own what nature hides - physical laws, chemical reactions and photosynthesis. In this sense, ownership leads to another sort of exploitation - how might we use nature and modify how it works such that we can derive the most monetary gain? Our need for ownership stretches far beyond land on Earth. Here is a woman that claims to have bought the rights to the Sun (thanks for this, Sherri!), and she fully intends to charge all users of the Sun.

It is fascinating how humans, that live individually on time scales of decades, can "own" something that has existed long before they did, and will continue to exist long after they are gone. Notions of ownership have in fact produced just the opposite of what we would want - what we would want is for our nature to sustain us for as long as possible, but in our quest to own, we have degraded. Just the reverse of how we think is what might be more logical- we are owned by this land, this air and this water, and our fate is tied to our respect to those forces.

Ownership also plays a significant part in our daily lives, and its influence also leads to much waste and trash. My laptop computer is now seven years old; it hobbles along, and at times sounds like a jet aircraft at full throttle trying to take off. I have not yet bought a new computer. In fact, I have used the computer just a couple of times in the past four or five months. Many of you might say, "How have you been living so long without a computer?" My answer is simple - there are computers in my lab, and all around campus, and so I don't need one of my own. I guess it would be more "convenient" to have one of my own, so I would not  have to bug my housemates to look something up every now and then (although I think I may have asked them just a few times in the past few months). Had I felt the need to own a computer of my own, I would have had to acquiesce to all of the trash and violence associated with such a purchase. (I know there are tons of people who hoard used computers and sell them - that may be an option.) But in general, there are things that all of us don't need to have, and maybe we can make due with just one lawnmower for a row of five homes, or and older family may be able to hand toys down to a younger family. A refusal to have one's own may in fact lead to stronger, more resilient social bonds.

We have everything we need

One of my messages so far has been the following - (related to physical objects) let us appreciate of all what we have before we think about investing ourselves in more. I believe that when this thought is adequately applied to our lives, we may move from being a forward-looking society to one that observes and learns from the present, and hopefully, learns from the past. We will start noticing the vast amounts of human effort that have gone into building what we have today, as well as the vast tolls that this effort has inflicted on other humans, our environment, our Earth. What this may also mean is that instead of trying to "answer" questions, through research, of complicated systems, let us take a step back and fully internalise and understand what we've learned so far. Many arguments can be made for the continued investment of vast sums of money for more research, but I truly believe that we know all that we need to know to make huge strides towards "treading lightly" on this planet (thank you Jackie for that phrase), and leading less impactful, yet completely meaningful and happy lives. Not only can we be happy, but we can also reduce the huge stresses that we put on our ecosystems. For example, we've known about climate change since the 1960s, and developed a very mature understanding of it since the 1980s. In fact, Arrhenius, in the late 19th century, calculated the rise in global temperatures from a doubling of carbon dioxide emissions, and his estimate falls squarely within the bounds of what sophisticated climate models today predict.

I went to a talk today from a prominent scientist. She has been all over the world, and spent her life immersed in the learning of oceans. She gave a very thoughtful and eloquent talk about our impact on water systems of the world, but one message of hers bugged me - she said that humans need to further explore the depths of oceans and find new forms of life, so that we can know fully what our impacts on them are. She said, "How can we know what the solution is if we don't know what the problem is?" This thought gave me a strange feeling. To a certain extent, I understand why she would make a statement like that. Maybe knowing the plight of a species allows us to develop sympathy towards it, and maybe that will help us come together and stop what we are doing. But there are very few examples, if any, of humans doing something like this. On the other hand, as Wendell Berry points out in Life is a Miracle, learning about a new form of life will only drive us to find ways to use it, and therefore it will consequently lose its freedom. Interrogating it, rather than allowing us to be more mindful, in fact leads to its degradation and decimation. I struggle with this, being a "graduate student" myself, doing "research." How much more do we really need to know? How much will we continue to invest in things we may never know?

Rather than continuously looking for a new answer, why don't we raise what we know into consciousness, and actually let that act affect our decisions and choices?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On goodness (and kindness - replace goodness)

Problems of the environment, social justice, and sustainability inherently cut through traditionally defined boundaries of thought, discipline, and government. Much of the cause of these issues is just that, an artificial compartmentalism and reductionism put in place because of a willingness and penchant to see things in isolation, rather than in a whole. At the same time, we have grown to rely so heavily on this compartmentalism that addressing these problems seems too big for any one group of people or any one organisation to tackle. Many, especially those with power, argue that addressing these problems will only affect other problems our communities face, such as unemployment. What many realise now is that traditional modes of thought and behaviour may not be those we wish to pass to future generations. But the question remains - how might we address large problems like sustainability?

As I have tried to point out over the past ten months, personal responsibility is a necessity in envisioning a world less impacted by humans, in which nature thrives and is not toxically contaminated by human activity. Many may say that personal responsibility in the face of large problems can be deflating. Trash continues to pour into the streets and into the oceans, and greenhouse gases and toxins continue to pour into the air. Yet action begins with me, action begins with you, and action begins with us. I have been thinking of ways to adequately communicate responsibility to different people - indeed, there is no common language for the problems of sustainability we face. (Hopefully Sam and I will be starting a project on this soon.) What I am proposing, which is just a thought that passed through my mind today, is that maybe it is easier to motivate action around sustainability by thinking about goodness.

Our schools and colleges, it seems to me, are woefully inadequate in creating good citizens and stewards. Most of us can pass through college without engaging ourselves outside of our major, and it is obvious that the goal of many universities is to create workers to feed a natural resource-based economy. But goodness is something that is more basic and fundamental than a college-level education - it is something moral. Goodness is a moral trait that we all can relate to, understand, and apply to each and every aspect of our lives. Goodness is something that is lacking in our societies, but if adequately incorporated into our thoughts, can have large impacts on everything from our families to mystical ecosystems. When adequately thought about and acted upon, goodness can lead us to ask and answer questions about people's feelings when we disagree with them, the impacts of our choices on people we've never seen, and the fish in deep waters unexplored. Goodness is extremely personal, and works in magical ways - goodness begets goodness. Goodness is a positive energy that can make us feel good, while actually doing good. I know that this concept is incredibly vague and I am definitely just starting to think about it related to the environment. I recognise that many times, we are faced with choices in which just being good may not lead to easy answers. However, that does not take away from the need to be good, for our sake, as well as the environment's. 

Please send me your thoughts.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

On peace, spirit and the environment

After having written a little bit about war and its relationship with the environment last week, I want to write a little bit about peace, spirit and the environment. I was particularly prompted into thinking about this after having read Hendrik Hertzberg's comment in this week's The New Yorker, "Words and Deeds," which talked about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. In it, I found out that one of the fundraisers for the opponent running against her, Jesse Kelly, was gun-themed, and one of his posters actually shows him holding a gun.

In all that has happened with this shooting, which of course, is sad but not at all surprising, I find clear parallels between how we view and treat ourselves and how we interact with other people with how we view ourselves within the environment, and how we treat the environment. We seem to find it tasteful and necessary to portray ourselves as manly, fully capable and willing to use violent force to make sure that our point gets across. Brushed aside are our abilities to show care, concern and kindness, and brought in are justifications to resort to war as a "last resort."

It seems to me that there is a lack of peace within us. In fact, being peaceful and thoughtful is made to seem passive and subservient. When we find it tasteful to use guns against other people, and use guns as a sign of power and control, we will no doubt find it tasteful to use bombs to blow tops off of mountains to reach for coal - indeed this is a sign of power and control, not over people in this case, but the environment. What may be hindering our cause to find harmony and peace with nature is the violence we are able to perpetrate against our own kind. Or maybe our ability and willingness to perpetrate violence against nature, beautiful and delicate, is standing in the way of finding peace with our own kind. In the end, if we cannot find peace within us, we cannot find peace without us. 

I believe that if we find peace within ourselves and where we are, we can radically redefine notions of "progress" and "community." When I say peace, I in no way mean complacency. When I say peace, I mean that we recognise, understand and internalise our place in the world, our place in our communities, our place within our families, and our place in our own minds and bodies. Being at peace doesn't necessarily mean being satisfied with where we are ethically and morally; clearly, given our increasingly complex world, much of the complexity of which is man-made, there are ways in which we need to be redefining what it means to interact with each other, what it means to be a good citizen and a good steward. As a society as a whole, we are far from the ethical, moral and spiritual heights we need to be at to fully understand our impact on other humans, as well as the environment. There is no way we can envision a sustainable future when we find peace in violence. But if we can find peace in where we are materially and in physical place, we will have reached some level of peaceableness with the environment. Peace with the environment allows us the time to think and appreciate about its marvels, of which humans are one. Such a peace will not allow us to use violent force against any aspect of our environment, humans included.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

On my declining faith in government

I was at the EPA National Vehicle Emissions Testing Facility the other day when it was announced that there would be a new "public-private" partnership between the EPA and Chrysler to develop hydraulic hybrid technology for light duty vehicles such as minivans. The EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, was there along with Chrysler Chairman Sergio Marchionne introducing a "new model relationship" between the government and corporations - one in which the government and industry will work hand-in-hand. I was particularly surprised at how many times Jackson called residents of the US "consumers." The newly elected Lieutenant Governor, Brian Calley, was there as well, speaking about how his "family of five consumers" would benefit greatly with this new product. I got the feeling, along with my friends who agreed, that the tone of the government, represented through Jackson and the EPA, was markedly subservient to Chrysler and "other corporate partners." That seemed to rub us the wrong way, given that the EPA is a regulatory agency, whose job it is not to compromise and work with industry, but to set "acceptable" (yes, a loaded word that I will talk about in another post) standards within which industry can operate. Jackson also said the following: "Hydraulic hybrid vehicles represent the cutting edge of fuel-efficiency technology and are one of many approaches we’re taking to save money for drivers, clean up the air we breathe and cut the greenhouse gases that jeopardize our health and prosperity. The EPA and Chrysler are working together to explore the possibilities for making this technology affordable and accessible to drivers everywhere. This partnership is further proof that we can preserve our climate, protect our health and strengthen our economy all at the same time.” (emphasis added by me)

President Obama, in his weekly radio address to the nation, today declared that the United States can "outcompete any other nation on Earth," in what The New York Times called a "pro-growth, pro-trade message that is likely to be at the heart of the State of the Union speech he gives to the Congress on Tuesday." Obama went on the say (with emphases added by me), "We’re living in a new and challenging time, in which technology has made competition easier and fiercer than ever before. Countries around the world are upping their game and giving their workers and companies every advantage possible. But that shouldn’t discourage us, because I know we can win that competition. I know we can outcompete any other nation on earth. We just have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to unlock the productivity of American workers, unleash the ingenuity of American businesses and harness the dynamism of America’s economy." He went on to say, about his trip to Schenectady's GE steam-turbine plant, “This plant is manufacturing steam turbines and generators for a big project in India that resulted from a deal we announced around that trip — a project that’s helping support more than 1,200 manufacturing jobs and more than 400 engineering jobs in Schenectady,” Mr. Obama said. “Good jobs at good wages, producing American products for the world.”

(I will stop short and not talk about new Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's announcement during his State of the State speech this past week about the new bridge between Canada and the US.) I have written at length in other posts about how the government has been as complicit in environmental harm and degradation in the past; these recent announcements do not change my viewpoint, but rather lend evidence that indeed, the government is as short-sighted as corporations are. The government views us, people, people with thoughts, emotions and feelings, as consumers. We are viewed as consumers that only do our rightful duty when we consume and produce and grow, not thoughts, emotions and ethics, but physical products whose presence almost inevitably degrades the Earth's capacity to sustain those very governments. We are at a point in time when simplicity of thought and rhetoric and broad brush strokes cannot allow us to comprehend the full impacts of our actions. More fuel-efficient cars do not mean lesser environmental impact. The economy, the way it is currently defined, cannot protect our health and climate if it grows. There may have been a time when we could have used simple equations such as "more = good." Unfortunately, ecology, the environment, people, emotions and spirit cannot be reduced to an equation.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

On paper and communication

One of the rules I set for myself at the beginning of this project is that any trash that is generated because of someone gifting something to me will not be considered my trash. When someone gives you something as special as a gift, it is hard to say no to accepting it. To me, a gift is given to convey thought, love, spirit and appreciation. Not accepting a gift, I imagine, can hurt someone's feelings, especially if they didn't know that I was trying to create as little trash as possible. It may be a different story if the person gifting knew what I was trying to do, but that is a different story. In the end, I have made a trade-off, a significant one; I have traded in trying to not create trash, whether it is mine or someone else's, for the appreciation and kindness someone is willing to show me. This is by no means an easy trade-off, and such situations always make me think and reconsider my stance. The point is that, as a conversation between Matthew and I alluded to, we make trade-offs every day, as resolute we may be in our stances on issues. Many times, especially when making choices related to the environment, it is difficult to know what may be the lesser of two evils. I would say, in general, that if you are in such a decision-making place, it is probably better to avoid anything in which you have to make such a decision. But here now arises a quite difficult question - how do I feel about paper vs. a computer?

As many of you may know, I am technologically challenged, but this is not a bad thing. I have definitely been able to get done what I have needed to get done, especially in the laboratory, with the little skill I may have. I much prefer paper and pencil over computer screen and keyboard when it comes to reading and writing. Much of what we read and learn nowadays is on a computer screen, and that includes personal messages from other people and pictures from the National Geographic. The University of Michigan has been on a quest to digitise its entire library, which consists of millions of books, and billions of pages. I envision a future in which people grow up readings solely on their Nook or Kindle, without ever touching a piece of paper. But there is something wonderful about receiving a letter in the mail, or opening up your favourite magazine, especially if the magazine is beautifully edited and laid out. When taking notes in class or during a discussion, there is a definitiveness and uniqueness in the act of putting pencil (or pen if you please) to paper - no one in the world has my handwriting (although my sister's is very similar), and no one will be able to replicate exactly what I have written down. (With computers, Times New Roman here is definitely Times New Roman there.) There is a bond with the paper, and although it is not scientifically measurable, I contend that emotions are more adequately conveyed by paper than by computer.

But what about the environmental impact of paper? Paper can be made from trees that haven't been grown ethically or sustainably, and bleaching paper produces dioxins. This is an extremely difficult consideration, made more difficult by the fact that by 2014, as David Owen wrote in The New Yorker about Jevon's Paradox, the amount of energy used by the US computer network each year alone will be equivalent to the amount of electrical energy consumption in the entire country of Australia each year. This is besides the continued environmental and social impacts of resource extraction. So there is clearly a significant decision to be made - paper or computer? I vote for paper.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

War and the Environment - Analogies to trash

A few weeks ago, Serge asked me to define the words "trash" and "waste." I had a hard time doing that on the spot, probably because definitions can start getting blurry over time. It is interesting, how in many walks of life, when you start prodding for answers, you just end up with more questions. One definition of "trash" that I can think of is that trash is a byproduct of human activity in which natural resources have been concentrated and modified so much so that they cannot be re-introduced into the environment in a (close to) non-impactful way. 

 It is interesting to think that with most of the objects we use in our daily lives, it is the concentration of natural resources that makes that object useful to us - a few molecules here and there of iron oxide is utterly useless to us from a material standpoint, but when concentrated and modified, it can form solid iron, which can then be tempered and modified to form high-strength stainless steel. Such a concentration of material, resources and power is necessary in the age of modern warfare. One molecule here and there of a dioxin is harmless to the environment, but concentrated amounts of dioxins, such as in Agent Orange, when sprayed on vast swaths of land, can maim, disfigure and kill ruthlessly. Natural radioactivity from the heavy elements is natural, and radioactivity from our life-sustaining force, the Sun, is too, natural. But when concentrated, natural radioactive materials can be forged into forces of monstrous environmental, social and psychological harm. In the same manner, trash is generally made of resources that exist in diffuse natural states. These materials, when violently extracted and modified and treated, are morphed into objects that are functional in our society. Such a modification changes the inherent properties of the material in its natural state, either making the end product toxic or deadly to us, or to something else in the world.

It is also interesting to think of concepts of the "justness" of trash, in the same way people conceptualise "just wars." The concept of proportionality, which (somehow) dictates and regulates the amount of force that is "right" to be applied, can also be applied to something like trash. It seems like significant amounts of trash are created for objects of mostly little ethical or moral value, as is the case in a consumerist society. I contend that the value of many of the objects we create, which also end up as trash or waste, cannot fulfill the requirement of proportionality of use. Yet in spite of such violence, for most people, it is difficult to imagine a world without objects that end up as trash. The remains of both modern warfare and trash are degraded natural landscapes, degraded human landscapes, polluted air, polluted water, and injustice served to people least deserving of it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

War and the Environment - Depleted uranium, a radioactive waste

While talking to Matt the other night, the topic of depleted uranium came up. Depleted uranium is a byproduct, in essence a waste, of uranium enrichment processes for nuclear fuel and nuclear arms. I am sure you would not be terribly surprised to hear that the US and other nations produce vast amounts of depleted uranium, given that nuclear reactors are now commonplace. What I am sure you will find shocking, just as I did last week, is that depleted uranium, a radioactive waste substance with a physical half-life of 4+ billion years, and a biological half life of 15 days, has been used as ammunition in Iraq, as well as in Serbia (please click here, here, here and here). Depleted uranium is denser than lead, and therefore can more readily penetrate armour, making it particularly useful to violence. While making it much easier to blow the "enemy" up, it can also be aerosolised into sub-micron size dust that is easily inhalable. The US has used several thousand tonnes of depleted uranium in Iraq. I do like to think that I believe in the precautionary principle - if I don't know whether or not something is harmful, especially considering my judgement and gut instinct, I won't do it. (Of course, the world has thrown the precautionary principle out of the window with most environmental and public health harms.) Any level-minded person would think that any sort of radioactive substance, which is a byproduct of human activity, is likely to be environmentally damaging and toxic to both humans as well as plants and animals. (Of course, there is natural radioactivity.) It is therefore not surprising to me that investigative reports by the BBC (do not click there if you are queasy) have shown that depleted uranium has caused increased levels of cancer in new born babies in Iraq. Efforts to make toxicity information public were, of course, stamped down upon.

I think it is particularly telling of the morality and ethics of a government and state to use obviously toxic materials in war. What is more toxic than these materials is the fact that war itself is accepted and condonable. These last few posts have been dealing as much with peace as they have been with the environment, and these two issues are not mutually independent. A society and culture that condones violence to the environment, to the land, air and water that sustains it, is likely to use violence as a means to an end in dealing with other creations of our environment, namely humans. Peace with humans will only come out of a sustained and thoughtful peace with our environment - an environment that is thought of as a life-sustaining force, greater in emotional and spiritual value than any priceless monetary value we may be able to comprehend.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

War and the Environment - Non-war time

Mark Woods, in his piece "The Nature of War and Peace: Just War Thinking, Environmental Ethics and Environmental Justice," mentions several impacts of war operations, including

  • "the compaction, erosion, and contamination of soils by bombs and missiles and their hazardous and toxic residues and by the passage of military vehicles,
  • other forms of land pollution ranging from latrines and garbage dumps to landmines, unexploded ordnance, and radioactive dust,
  • defoliation, deforestation and land degradation, 
  • contamination of surface waters and groundwater,
  • atmospheric emissions and resulting air pollution from military equipment and vehicles,
  • direct and collateral killing of animals and plants and loss of habitat, 
  • degradation and destruction of protected natural areas, and
  • noise pollution."
These impacts are truly gigantic, and several real-life examples of the environmental impacts of war can be found here and here. But I think Woods leaves out the most environmentally and ecologically aspects of war - the preparation for war. I refer to these times not as "peace" times, but rather non-war times. Since many governments are always constantly preparing for war, and looking forward to the next war, such interludes between war cannot be justly called "peaceful" times. During these non-war times, it is not as if the military machine stops. Instead, it is doling out contracts to companies like Lockheed Martin and Dow Chemical to produce the next-generation fighter jets, and the next-generation toxins. During the research of these toxins, during the production and testing of these jets, natural resources are constantly extracted violently from the earth. Pollutants are released into the air and aquifers. Given that significant effort is expended on such work during non-war times, and that nations have always been in non-war states longer than in war, I am absolutely positive that the cumulative impacts of these activities far outweigh the impacts during war. In fact, any effort to "green" military operations during war are laughable. (Using a compact fluorescent bulb in Afghanistan? Might as well just use an incandescent and stop insulting the environment. Please stop greenwashing.) If you are just looking at greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts, let alone other environmental impacts, the Department of Defense's operations in fact account for a huge amount of emissions - only 35 countries use more oil per day than the Pentagon itself (not including contractors). At the same time, the Department of Defense has won several exemptions for environmental law and regulations to conduct its training, research, and preparation. (Click here and here if you want to explore various military bases in the US that are Superfund sites.) "The earth's environment is battered by war, its preparation, practice and aftermath.

Friday, January 14, 2011

War and the Environment - Just War Theory

I want to state clearly that I am resolutely against violence of all kinds - towards all living and non-living beings. Provoked by a discussion with Professor Richard Tucker, I will be writing for the next few days on the environmental impacts of war. (When I say "war," I mean the use of violent force.) I will be writing about environmental considerations during war, the environmental impacts of the military during non-war times, the environment as a non-combatant, the use of nuclear materials in war, the waste of life and environment because of enriched nuclear materials, as well as the current use of nuclear waste in Iraq as munitions. I believe this has several connections to waste and trash, which I hope to address implicitly and explicitly over the next few days. I start off in this series by writing a bit about what is called "Just War Theory," (JWT) which is a body of thought that has been built over many centuries, and how the environment can be considered in this. This post is based off of the writing of Mark Woods, "The Nature of War and Peace: Just War Thinking, Environmental Ethics and Environmental Justice."

JWT talks about circumstances in which the use of war is "justified," and how so. There are two important sets of considerations that have been elaborated on now for a long time. The first is jus ad bellum, which lists a set of considerations that must be taken into account before engaging in war - just cause, proper authority, right intention, reasonable hope for success, proportionality, last resort. The second set of considerations is jus in bello, which lists a set of considerations that must be taken into account while engaging in war. This involves asking questions like "What will do the least harm to X if I need to accomplish Y, given that I am already in the war?" It is important to note that many of these traditions and considerations come from customary international law, as well as international treaties (although these treaties have "very little legal bite," as Woods notes). Woods notes that these traditions and treaties attempt to regulate the conduct of war through outside enforcement, which of course, is close to impossible. Further, these theories and treaties have never been invoked to protect the environment before, during, or after war, even though the Geneva Conventions as well as ENMOD expressly prohibit means of warfare intended or expected to "cause widespread, long-term and sever damage to the natural environment." In fact, such actions are viewed as war crimes. Woods extends JWT to incorporate the environment. Woods argues that since "the jus in bello criteria of discrimination and proportionality can be used to regulate military force against civilian targets, it seems possible to regulate the use of military force against environmental targets." In fact, it would be extremely useful and powerful to think of the environment as a non-combatant. He makes a very interesting observation by noting that many military conflicts have been started because of mistreatment of unarmed, non-violent communities and groups of people. If JWT holds, is it justifiable to have armed environmental interventions to protect the Amazon rainforest from deforestation?

My thoughts on this are the following: I do not think it is possible to "expend all other possibilities and options," which is a reason why states may go to war. But if they do, it is close to impossible to regulate conduct during war. (This can be clearly seen by the use of white phosphorous by the Israeli forces during its recent war with Gaza.) The environment is always degraded during war, and whether we like it or not, people's lives and their outcomes are based on the fact that we live on the land, we drink water, and we breathe air. Modern chemical warfare necessarily degrades these things - no nation has ever gone to war to beautify the nature of the enemy territory. Destruction of structure, man-made and natural, is an incontrovertible outcome of war. It is absolutely not possible to understand the lasting consequences of chemical warfare on the environment. Furthermore, the preparation for war itself necessarily degrades the environment. More thoughts on this next time.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Guest blog #11 - Dr. Jack Edelstein's thoughts on conservation and entropy

"What do we mean by the term ‘energy conservation’ or more generally ‘resource conservation?’  At first thought, the answer seems obvious:  conservation means using less stuff, thereby making a smaller environmental footprint than would have otherwise been made, and avoiding a certain disruption to the resource base (e.g. biodiversity) that would have otherwise occurred.  What, exactly, is it that needs to be conserved, and how does conservation actually work?

From a practical point of view, absolute conservation would completely preserve the current status of the earth’s biodiversity -- by neither depleting any natural resource (e.g. wildlife, trees, water), nor by depositing any man-made matter onto the environment (e.g. trash, smog, and carbon).

There are four ways that we can conserve energy, and any other [non-renewable] resource -- 1) consume less, 2) eliminate waste, 3) increase efficiency, 4) substitute renewable.  We will describe each of these four conservation methods through the simple example of a shower. 

The first way to conserve is to actually consume less water by reducing the shower time, and/or by reducing the flow of the showerhead.  Another way to consume less is to lower the water temperature, thereby reducing the amount of energy used (in heating the water).

The second way to conserve is to eliminate or reduce waste.  We distinguish waste from excess by defining the former as the act of consuming resources without deriving any value -- as in the case of a dripping showerhead. Excess is much more subjective than waste -- e.g. taking a very long shower is not wasteful in the strictest sense (since some marginal benefit or utility is being derived), but at some point it becomes excessive in that the derived benefit is miniscule.

The third way to conserve is to increase efficiency by utilizing less resources in the creation of a given unit of output.  In the case of a shower, improved efficiency can be a low-flow showerhead, or a more energy-efficient water heater.  However, efficiency by itself does not lead to conservation, due to the Jevon's paradox (as explained in an earlier post by Darshan).

The fourth way to conserve is to substitute renewable resources for non-renewable ones.  An example is utilizing solar collectors to heat the water (instead of fossil fuel), and harvesting rainwater instead of drawing water from an underground aquifer.

                    Reduce         Eliminate     Maximize      Substitute   
               consumption        waste         efficiency      renewables   
Cost               Zero             Low       High          ???    

The expenses associated with these four conservation strategies range from zero to high cost -- depending on the level of technology required. Reducing consumption costs nothing since it is entirely a behavioral strategy.  Similarly, eliminating waste generally entails a behavioral approach augmented by a low input of technology. The ‘efficiency’ approach is generally technology-intensive and therefore expensive, and often risky.  Finally, the cost of substituting renewable for non-renewables is quite variable.  It is generally high in that it usually involves an advanced technology component, but it can also be low, as in the case of rain-water collection discussed above. 

A review of the academic literature as well as the general media reveals a strong bias toward energy conservation strategies that are based on the efficiency and renewable options -- the two more expensive options.  In other words, the two conservation approaches that cost the least and could have the most immediate impact -- i.e. to use less and to eliminate waste -- are the ones that are least supported, and often outright ignored. (There are a number of reasons for this, which will be addressed in a future post)

The power of Darshan’s project is that it represents by far the most cost-effective approach to conservation --  simply using less (though it may not actually be that simple to do).  By using absolutely less matter, Darshan is impacting the entire production chain associated with the consumption of physical goods.

Perhaps that’s why the name of this project is “Entropy”. If I understand the 2nd law of thermodynamics, one of the ideas it posits is that the physical world is constantly seeking a state of equilibrium, through a process defined as entropy.  As an outcome of the forces of entropy, the planet attained a state of equilibrium many millions of years ago, and this equilibrium was maintained until homo sapiens started roaming the earth.  The activities of humanity are increasingly disturbing this equilibrium, and the newly resultant equilibrium may become (or already is) inhospitable to sustained life.

The essence of conservation, then, is to understand that the equilibrium into which humanity entered was ideally suited to the evolution of homo sapiens and all other life.  Conservation entails respecting that equilibrium, and reduces our interference with it. Using less is the most powerful way we as individuals can conserve the planet."

~Dr. Jack Edelstein.

I love his last paragraph.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What we lose through "efficiency" - Jevon's Paradox and complexity

My previous posts (here and here) focused more on the less quantifiable aspects of "efficiency," such as taste and flavour, as well as balance in nature. Today's post is a more technical post, primarily focusing on energy and economics, following up on my last two posts. Humans have always had a tendency and will to make things more "efficient" - we would rather our shopping be done at one place, we would rather a computer simulation take half as long as it currently does, we would rather pay half of what we do for our heating bill. What we believe is that making things and activities more efficient will allow us time to do other things, or allow us to do more for less. In practice however, this has a perverse feedback associated with it - we may end up using more by making things more "efficient."

A recent article in The New Yorker by David Owen was titled, "The Efficiency Dilemma: If our machines use less energy, will we just use them more?" Owen writes about Jevon's Paradox, which was first written about by a young English economist, William Stanley Jevons, in 1865. The paradox states that instead of using less by making things more efficient, we end up using more. This phenomenon is called "rebound." When the savings through efficiency are canceled out and overwhelmed by increased consumption, the phenomenon is called "backfire." When something becomes more efficient, the implicit price of it drops from a neo-classical standpoint (and we all know that the world runs, unfortunately, on neo-classical economics), thus spurring increased demand.

Owens gives a most wonderful example about refrigeration and air-conditioning, both energy-hungry processes. As refrigerators have become more efficient, refrigeration capacity in the world has increased multi-fold. Furthermore, the effects of better refrigeration are not limited to refrigeration only. We are tempted to buy more food to store in refrigerated conditions, and by the time we get to eating them, much of the food is spoiled anyway. Here, not only do we waste the energy going into refrigeration, we waste and throw away all of the energy, chemicals and resources that went into food production, through transportation, storage and agriculture. In fact, (and this was incredibly shocking to me), one quarter of US freshwater use goes into food that is eventually thrown away. As you may be able to tell, after a certain point, it becomes difficult to know what the true effects of efficiency gains are when moving to studying small systems to larger systems; issues only become more complex, becoming much more difficult to address. (I have written about complexity here, here and here.) Owen makes the point that, along with advocating for "efficiency," there must be other measures adopted simultaneously to make sure gains are not canceled out by increased consumption. Indeed, without further measures, you may be left in the boat of the United Kingdom, which has seen marked increases in "efficiency," but only increased greenhouse gas emissions.

There are several questions worth thinking about here: Do we need things to be more efficient? What is so wrong with things being inefficient, especially from a personal time standpoint? What are we going to do with any efficiency gains that will come our way?

Trash, to me, seems like a natural outcome of this "efficiency," "centralisation," and "convenience" mentality.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Guest blog #10: Mrs. McMullen-Laird's three-year journey

"In April of 2008, I read an article about the North Pacific Gyres and the floating continent of plastic formed there.  I felt so ashamed of us all that we could damage the ocean in this way by our heedless disposal of trash.  The fact that plastic never goes away and that the trash hurts animals gave me even more shame.  I decided at that moment that my family would purchase all of our food in non-plastic containers or wrappers.  (Of course, I wouldn't let my family starve.)  I felt like that was the least I could do.  My family had mixed reactions to this declaration!  One felt like it was spitting in the wind and would do nothing in the face of the mountains of plastic water bottles in landfills and in the plastic continent.  Another one was angry that he could not buy a yogurt or a bag of chips or breakfast cereal.  Off I went armed with determination and several bags of plastic bags (saved from the prior purchases and washed), glass containers and my reusable shopping bags.  Over the years I have learned all about the bulk sections in our local stores.  I reuse even the paper bags, crossing out the number and adding the new one.  I bet I use them twelve times!  Accidents were expected - once, farina got through a hole in a paper bag and dusted my broccoli.  Sometimes it is hard to get things you are so accustomed to having. For me, yogurt is a good example. Yogurt always comes in plastic packaging, and so I couldn't buy it.  I wanted yogurt, and after three months of not having yogurt, I decided to start making it myself. Now I routinely make my own yogurt.  Bread is available from the bakery shelf, most pasta and grains can be purchased in the bulk section, produce is easy, and the stuff we shouldn't eat like snacks and prepared foods are no longer in the running for us.  It has actually made my shopping easier since I eliminate about ninety percent of the offerings in a typical grocery store.  Cheese has been difficult because even if I ask them to wrap it in paper for me the paper they use often  has a plastic lining!  Cheese just doesn't do well in paper I have discovered. So, it has been almost three years, it is more work.  Sometimes the cashier notices that nothing in my order is in plastic.  Then we have a little conversation about it and they always say, 'more people should do what you are doing.'"
~Mrs. McMullen-Laird
We should be incredibly proud of what Mrs. McMullen-Laird doing, but not let her be the only example. (And I like the way she made the executive decision for the family.) I believe it is incredibly important to address issues of environment, justice, and ethics in family life, with parents serving as role models. We may be in for some kind of generational change, but who knows to what extent...

Monday, January 10, 2011

A personal experiment in feminine hygiene

"The average woman in Western society will throw away between 10,000-15,000 tampons/pads away in her life."

Over Christmas break, my sister and I were talking about my project, and she wondered how it would be possible for me to create (close to) no trash if I was a woman. Clearly, there is trash associated with modern feminine products (aside from the usual cosmetic products that females buy), including tampons and pads, as well as the plastic and cardboard boxes they come packaged in. My sister said that growing up in India, she used cotton cloths during menstruation, but having lived in the US for seven years now, she has become accustomed to using tampons. "They are just way less gross and much easier." My instant response to her was to say that if I were her, and were living trash-free, I would of course use cloths. "Oh yeah? Well do it," she said. "Take a piece of cloth, like a wash cloth, wet it, and stick it between your legs, for the whole day. Do it." So, I did. I took a wash cloth (it was pink, to be all feminine about it, although I love the colour pink), folded it up, soaked it, and put it in my underwear between my legs. My sister said, "Well, actually, it should be need to put ketchup on it. AND you need to make sure your pants don't get wet because you don't want the whole world to know that you are going through your period, and you have to periodically wet it to simulate some flow. AND you have to do it for three or four days" Now, I admit I didn't put ketchup on the cloth, and admit that I didn't periodically wet the cloth. I figured that the cloth was going to stay wet for the rest of the day. I mean, it was a cold day, and the saturation vapour pressure of water is pretty low, and there is very little convection down there, generally. I was therefore thermodynamically confident that the cloth would stay wet for the day. So, I spent the day (not three or four) with a wet cloth between my legs. It wasn't really awkward at all, honestly. I first felt it to be a little cold, but that's because the water I wet the cloth with wasn't 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit. But it was alright. The temperature equilibrated with that of my body pretty quickly. I did everything with a wet cloth between my legs. I sat, I ate, I walked around, and I can't remember, but maybe we had some guests over that day. I admit that the simulation was far from true to actual life, but I was not afraid of trying it. I think I might have to try it out again, closer to real life, to calm those women who will surely comment on this post. I will. I promise. I would have to say though that if you truly were going to live trash-free, or close to it, this would be one source of it that would be absolutely necessary to eliminate.

This experiment has made me dig a little bit into the history of feminine products, particularly menstrual products. There are significant environmental concerns with menstrual products, as well as medicines such as birth control that are used to alter the menstrual cycle. Here are some findings...

"Tampons have been used by women for thousands of years.  The ancient Egyptian women made tampons from softened papyrus.  In other countries early tampons were made of lint wrapped around lightweight wood, wool, vegetable plant fibres and in Equatorial Africa women used rolls of grass. The earliest commercial tampons were available in the early 1900s. Whereas pads have undergone quite a lot of transformation over time from bulky reusable rags to disposable cotton worn attached to a belt, from bulky rectangular sponge-like things to ultra-thins with wings and adhesive backing, tampons have always been either sponges or wads of cotton or rayon fibres, usually attached to a cord. Disposable products started to be made in the 1940s, firstly with belted pads and then in the 1960s with adhesive-backed pads.  The 1990s saw the use of absorbent gels built into pads. The menstrual cup has been in use for at least 150 years, being first used from rubber collected in India.The history of the menstrual cup appears to be relatively recent.  There is a record of a patent being granted in 1867 for a cup that was to be worn in the vagina and attached by cord to a metal belt.  A later patent for a menstrual cup in the 1930’s more closely resembles the cups of today.  It was made of vulcanised rubber and didn’t gain much popularity because it was hard and heavy. Modern cups are made from softer rubber, silicone, and medical grade silicone that is latex free.  Although menstrual cups have never gained mass support in the past, women are currently turning to cups as an alternative to conventional pads and tampons because of health, ecological, economic and practical reasons."

(for a more detailed and well-researched history of tampons in America, click here)

Here are some things you may not know about menstrual products, and some suggestions on how to reduce the ecological impacts of your menstrual products..

"Conventional products may contain a mixture of rayon and cotton. Rayon has been implicated in Toxic Shock Syndrome, particularly for super-absorbent tampons. Cotton is highly pesticide-intensive; twenty-five percent of the pesticides used globally are devoted to growing cotton. To look as white as possible, conventional pads and tampons are usually bleached with chlorine, a process that can create dioxin, a known carcinogen. (click here for more detail on changes in manufacturing advocated by the Women's Environmental Network)"

There are alternatives.  Washable menstrual products are making a comeback in the form of cloth pads, reusable menstrual cups, and sea sponges.  This is another example of the cycles of tradition that exist – all these products were around 100 years ago. We have ended our madness and fascination with disposable, convenient, and fast, and are moving towards reconnection with our bodies, our lives, our communities

It is not just the chemicals from bleaching or from attempts to increase the absorbency of the material, that are toxic to our bodies and the environment, pads usually contain a plastic layer, and adhesive as well. Washable pads offer women a positive, healthier, and ecologically sound alternative to traditional disposable menstrual pads.  They are soft, absorbent and comfortable to wear.  Since one of the reasons to use non-disposable as opposed to disposable is to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals, it is important to choose washable pads made from organic fabric if you can.  Different manufacturers use different organic fabrics, with the most popular being chambray cotton, hemp, linen, jersey, and wool.
In one form or another, tampons have been around for thousands of years.  The traditional tampon works by expanding inside the vagina to absorb blood flow and prevent leaks.  Tampons are typically made of cotton or rayon/cotton blend.  Most come with an applicator made of plastic or cardboard. Tampons of any kind remove up to 35 percent of healthy vaginal secretions. The use of conventional tampons has some personal and health effects.  Most current tampons are rayon and rayon/cotton blends, which have been chlorine bleached and contain dioxins and furans.  Rayon tampons also carry with them a greater risk of toxic shock syndrome.  Tampon use is also associated with an increased risk of vaginal dryness and vaginal ulcers, especially with the more absorbent tampons. Most tampons come with plastic or cardboard applicator.  Despite all the entreaties of manufacturers and building managers, these applicators continue to be flushed down toilets in alarming numbers.  Not only are these a problem for sewage treatment plants they also end up in the ocean and washed up on the beach. Enviro- and health-friendly tampons are made of non-GMO, organic cotton, hemp or other fibre that is grown without the use of herbicides, pesticides, are free of dioxin and furan residues, and are chlorine free.

The menstrual cup is a type of cup or barrier worn internally like a tampon but collects menstrual fluid rather than absorbing it.  Cups are reusable, and will typically hold 30 ml of fluid, which is roughly one third of the average total produced each menstrual cycle. It is recommended that the cup is emptied every 6-12 hours.  The frequency is an individual decision based on the volume of fluid released, and each woman is different.  Correctly inserted the cup is comfortable but it may take a little practice to find the angle and position that is right for your body. There are two main kinds of menstrual cups currently available.  The most common kind is the bell-shaped cup made of latex rubber or silicone.  These cups tend to last approximately 10 years depending on how they are cleaned and stored.  The second kind of menstrual cup is more like a contraceptive diaphragm.  This product is designed for single use only. Originally cups made from rubber were too hard but today rubber cups are soft and have a feel like the baby bottle teats that are made from rubber. The cup forms a light seal with the vaginal walls allowing the menstrual fluid to pass into the cup without leakage or odour.  Its use does not interfere with the healthy vaginal environment, and its use has not been associated with toxic shock syndrome.  Some women find, due to anatomical differences caused from childbirth, that there can be a very slight leakage.  If this is the case, women can use a light cotton pad on their heaviest days. Menstrual cups can be emptied, rinsed or wiped and then reinserted.  They can be cleaned by washing with soap and water and by boiling in water for 20 minutes after each cycle.

There are more than 4500 varieties of sea sponges.  They are plant-like animals growing in colonies on the ocean floor.  The softest ones are the Atlantic and Mediterranean Silks.  Harvesting sea sponges can have a disastrous ecological impact.  For these reasons the use of sea sponges as menstrual products cannot be endorsed.

You can find natural, less ecologically-degrading products here.

Happy, guilt-free menstruating for all!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

On morality and individual action

After meeting with Professor Victoria Johnson on Friday, I have been thinking about the role of individuals in being able to drive organisational change surrounding the environment. And so I apologise if this post, as well as yesterday's, seem out of place, and unnecessarily weighty. I do want to emphasise that I have experienced only positive energy since starting this project, and that is unequivocally encouraging. Yet at the same time, it is hard not to notice the constant lethargy and inaction on scales larger than those I currently operate in and influence. I am hopeful for action, but that does not mean that I do not speak out against what I see as a continuation of behaviour that has inevitably led to the dire state and inertia of society today. As I mentioned yesterday, the failures of government to protect its people and the Earth that feeds them are plain to see. The almost invisible walls between government and private corporations have allowed governments to advocate for the legitimacy of existing large, environmentally destructive corporations. At the same time, corporations have used the minimal (and appeasing) governmental regulations that do exist to operate without consciousness. Consequently, they have been successful in degrading, polluting, and wasting away the precious and mystical gifts nature provides for us and all else. Corporations have defined the details of acceptable ways to live, only to serve themselves, their hollow egos and deep pockets. What is lost through corporate mentality is the understanding of nuance - of place, of people and of feeling. But here we are, in a world of ever-increasing "knowledge" and ever-increasing environmental degradation. It is easy for me, and for us, to blame large corporations and politicians for the situation that faces us at the steps of the future. What we forget is that it is us that lend legitimacy to these organisations, institutions and corporations. The moral fabric upon which they operate is defined through the collection of our moralities. However, in the process of the weaving of the fabric, individual moralities are averaged out, resulting in a destructiveness that was from the outset unthinkable. Regardless, our continued patronage lays the foundation for their continued existence. While I do not argue for violent anarchy, I do stand for action according to the highest moral ideals. These ideals may never be reached, yet we should never be satisfied with where our moralities currently lie. Such action, introspection and self-exploration will allow us to present ourselves as "whole before the world."

Saturday, January 8, 2011

On individual action

I started this project close to ten months ago now and thought it would be a project for myself, not in any selfish way, but rather a way to see how far I could go, and to see how much further I needed to go, to be a responsible citizen toward both nature and people. Such individual actions are prevalent throughout the world, and many people undertake adventures involving sacrifice out of religious belief - Catholics give up for lent, and many people in India fast once a week to understand and appreciate food. These actions aren't necessarily undertaken for the environment, although everything has an impact. Rather, these actions are for self-learning and exploration, and to understand and internalise the value of what we have. It is easy for us to get devalue what we have when we have. Real value is felt when we are deprived. At the same time, individual action and sacrifice can be undertaken to show some things are not valuable, but rather degrade the value of everything else because of their existence.

What this project has turned out to be is a commentary on how we have continuously degraded, pillaged and plundered this Earth, a home not only for us, but for fish, microbes, animals, air, water and land. Saying no to trash has meant that I am saying no to consuming objects, and saying no to the extraction of materials that has gone into making those objects, and saying no to how the lives and ecosystems those materials have been extracted from have been negatively affected. It is plain to see these things; you do not need a degree in aerospace engineering to understand ecological harm, social harm, disrespect and tyranny. Sure others will say that good is coming out of our actions, and maybe to some extent there is, somewhere, for someone. But the world we live in is unequal, and where there is a winner, there is a loser. Maybe this loser doesn't have a face, a name, or a home, to you, and maybe this loser lives several thousand miles away. But that doesn't take away from the fact that there is a loser. Governments and organisations shy away from large-scale, sweeping action, because "we don't know all there is to know about what the problem is, and what the end impacts are going to be." In response to this, I would say that I do not need to continuously try to reduce uncertainties in our understanding of negative impacts - all that matters is that there is a negative impact. Negatively affecting the life of even one ecosystem or even one individual is still a negative impact. What if the person affected was you? What if you were the one that wasn't "fortunate" enough to be born in the most powerful nation in the world?

We live in a world where other people tell us what is good for us. Advertisers, marketers and corporations convince people that they are worthless if they do not buy into the frenzy that drives a capitalist society, and an increasingly capitalist world. At the same time they stamp on the voices of those who feed the frenzy - those working in the sweatshops, and those whose homes and forests are demolished so that we can live the way we do. To take a stand against this flies in the face on everything our society is founded on - excess, greed and violence. But how can one person's actions affect the machine of extraction, consumption and degradation? How can one person's actions change the mindset of organisations, institutions, governments and countries whose foundational ethics necessarily result in ecological harm? What is the least one person can do to affect the behaviour of these entities? The ideas that now commonplace and accepted, such as democracy and civil rights were once novel and lambasted. It is the action of individuals, most unnamed, that have forged societies that accept these values. Individual activism has always affected communities of people. We live in a world today of bitter political divide, with lofty rhetoric and little action. Barriers have been erected between people that cannot even guarantee the civility of discussion. Corporations add continual weight to these barriers, because their existence depends on the maintenance of the status quo. There can be no faith put in the supposed "goodwill" of corporations and large organisations, and there is continuously declining faith in the ability of our government to do anything at all. So who is left? You, me, and our idealism.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On practicality, reality and idealism

(This post is inspired by The loss of the future, an essay in The Long-Legged House by Wendell Berry.)

As I have written about previously (1, 2, 3), trash is borne out of convenience. Trash can in fact be viewed as an outcome of "solutions" to "problems" like decomposing food and cracked computer screens. Without trash, we would be unable to enjoy getting to places like the top of Mt. Everest (1, 2), we would be unable to transport food to famine-stricken areas of the world, and we would be unable to perform medical procedures on people. Depending on how we weigh the outcomes, positive and negative, of what we do, trash is a natural outcome of solutions to problems, which may be ill-defined. I use the word natural because the way we currently think makes it close to impossible to do anything without degradation, waste and trash. As a society, we claim to think "practically." We do not address problems if the solutions are "impractical." Or, put another way, the only solutions we come up with are those that are "practical." What does "practical" mean in today's world? It means doing something that will, at the most, only slightly nudge the status quo. If a few people will lose their jobs, or funding for a program will get cut, or the vast machine of the US military will be affected, a solution will be deemed "impractical" - impractical because the people you will have to convince to change their ways of being are members of the National Rifle Association, or because they sleep with the board of directors of large oil corporations, or because they claim to advance US interests abroad. Concisely, such solutions are "impractical" because those that need to be convinced wield power - the power of money and the power of violent force. Also, people are not ready to "spend the money" that it would take to make biodegradable materials, or less harmful products, unless it is "economically viable," and unless China will do it, too. What is lost in this "practical" way of thinking is the idealism that needs to be incorporated into our thoughts. An idealism that will address the reality of the situation - of ecological degradation, of social and environmental injustice - is badly needed now. It is easy to lose faith in "practicality," and I have. Indeed, it was "practicality" - of time - that led to the BP-Macondo well blowout (1, 2, 3, 4). "Practicality" has held back climate change talks for more than a decade now. "Practicality" has inflicted serious harm on the nature that feeds us.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Feature: Dandelion Communitea Cafe

I apologise for not having written in a few days - I have been in Orlando, Florida at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference. Talk about trash. Ugh. I have managed to be almost trash-free here, except receipts and a newspaper that was left at the doorstep of my hotel room. On the flights, I have remained close to trash-free, too, with nothing apart from my boarding pass being generated. I don't drink or eat anything served on the plane; I take my own water bottle (empty through security check-in), and fill it up at the water fountain at the gate and just drink that on the flight, and I just bring my own food (they don't serve anything other than peanuts or pretzels, anyway...)...

But in stark contrast to the AIAA conference, this post is about a place that is extremely positive. There are very few places that are truly genuine in their energy, their aura, and their mission. (Comet Coffee, Cafe Japon and Crazy Wisdom Tea Room are three places in Ann Arbor that I feel are genuine and thoughtful, but many places seem to have a facade up, and have furthermore been morphed into "cool hang out spots" or super hipster places.) Dandelion Communitea Cafe is one of those genuine places. Here is their mission and philosophy:

"At Dandelion, our mission is to Save the World, starting with ourselves, by:
  • Cultivating an enlightened, vibrant and healthy community;
  • Nourishing bodies, minds and spirits; and
  • Promoting the mindful practice of simple, honest and sustainable living.
We accomplish this through delicious, organic, vegetarian food and beverages, legendary atmosphere, sustainable sales growth, conscious cost controls and manifesting prosperity with compassionate regard for the way we conduct ourselves in relation to people, planet (and all it’s creatures) and profits.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Mahatama Gandhi
At Dandelion, we practice a zen blend of Conscious Capitalism, Sacred Commerce and Common Sense.

We believe in social and environmental responsibility. We source organic, fair trade, local, cruelty-free and eco-friendly products from vendors who include love of people, planet and animals in their bottom line whenever possible.

We believe in the power of community. We are part of and beholden to the community we live, work and play in and continue to experience the joys of being supported by and for our community.

We believe in a local living economy. We proudly think of Orlando as “OurLando, Locally Made,” a statement which taps into the independent, progressive and community-minded spirit of a wide diversity of locally owned, independent enterprises and we strive to nurture and promote these concepts by working in harmony with other businesses, artists and entrepreneurs. (We co-created & co-founded the non-profit Progressive Local Alliance for Community Enrichment in January 2009).

We believe in the concepts of Slow Food. Slow Food envisions a future food system that is good, clean and fair and focuses on sustainable agriculture, regional food traditions, the pleasures of the table, and a slower and more harmonious rhythm of life. (For more info on Slow Food, visit"

I have been eating almost exclusively at Dandelion, trash-free. The people that work here are truly thoughtful people, and they have been fully supportive of trash-free living. I believe that in general, the biggest hurdle to overcome when going to a new place is being honest and open about what you are doing. People will be receptive and helpful. I also believe that anywhere you go, you will find little pockets of goodness, no matter how bad you might think the place is. When people think of Orlando, and Florida in general, they think of Disney, Universal and Sea World. But Florida really is much more than theme parks and paved-over land. There are spectacular nature reserves and wildlife refuges. And there are also people that are truly committed to being the change they wish to see in the world. All we need to do is just scratch below the surface, find and support these people, places and communiTEAs.

I have been thinking about several topics to post about, and I will resume regular posting starting tomorrow. I wish you a happy, ecologically- and socially-friendly year ahead.