Monday, February 28, 2011

Objects and materials: On cost and value (quasi-guest blogger #14 Marco Ceze)

Back to how we perceive the physical objects that we choose to interact with and buy. Marco called me today about some thoughts, and this post reflects his thoughts, with a sprinkling of mine. Actually, Marco and I had a wonderful conversation a couple of weeks ago that led to the Objects and materials series of posts. This post is (kind of) about costs and benefits/value, but as you can probably tell, I am in no way a proponent of cost-benefit analysis, particularly when carried out using neoclassical and utilitarian approaches. I tend to align with the thoughts of someone like Doug Kysar...but then again, make a convincing argument and I'll side with you =)

Life in today's world is full of trade-offs and making choices with a dearth of information. We never know fully the impacts of our choices given a complicated world. Under these circumstances, it is somewhat natural to think about the benefits or value of doing something compared to the costs. (When I say "costs" I am talking about the price you'll face at a store.) This is probably the simplest way to boil down tons of considerations, making choices potentially more tractable. (I do not necessarily advocate this) Furthermore, many people especially in the West tend to think about the short to near term, and so the benefits of making a particular choice need to be realised sooner rather than later.

Let's focus on the glass versus plastic debate. Imagine you are going to throw a party. Of course, a plastic cup costs you much less than one made of glass, especially when you go to a party store and buy a hundred of them. The value that those plastic cups provides you and the people coming to the party is immediate, as would the value of using glass cups - everyone will drink and enjoy themselves (but hopefully have a DD to take them home). The cost of a hundred glass cups, of course, would be much higher than the cost of a hundred plastic cups. Glass cups, however, will more likely be reused, because we don't think of glass cups as "disposable." (Glass bottles on the other hand would be considered "disposable" by most.) But there is constant uncertainty about the future? What are you going to do with all of these glass cups? Your lease is ending in three months and then you're going to have to move all of these cups, or donate them! What a hassle...A glass cup over its lifetime will probably provide much more value than a plastic cup, making its cost-to-value ratio smaller than that for a plastic cup. However, the issue is the lifetime. As soon as a benefit or value is realised, many times we don't think it worth keeping something to see added benefits, and who knows what those benefits may look like. Throwing plastic cups away is generally much easier than continually washing glass cups. This is also the point where the social learning about materials seems to kick in, and lend its hand in this cost-to-value valuation. Since the monetary cost is less (and we know that by looking at the price tag), and the benefits and values have been realised immediately and future benefits are uncertain and since the material is "disposable," people will likely choose plastic SOLO cups over nice glass cups. Hmmm...does this make sense?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Four weeks left, yet a lifetime still ahead

It is coming up on eleven months since this project has started, and since I have started writing about my thoughts through the lens offered by trash, waste and degradation. Of course, the project and experiment will not stop, even though at the onset I decided to do this for a year. Yet change is meaningful if it is durable, and I can in no way justify to myself or the environment behaving in the way I did previously, even though the "old me" was not that much different. =) I do think though, that thinking daily and writing almost daily about sustainability and the issues presented by natural resource extraction has made me think of things I never thought of, and I hope at least a few of my thoughts have been coherent enough for people to read. But now, in the build up to the one year anniversary, I am hoping to get your input on things you'd like me to write about. Here are some things I am thinking of writing about...
  • Spotlight some key events that have happened over the past year
  • Spotlight five pieces of the trash I have generated, and recount the stories of those experiences
  • Reflect on some of the posts that I think have been most meaningful to me
  • Boil down a year's worth of thinking and update the Tips and Recommendations page
  • Shortcomings and criticisms of the project
I am hoping that you will email me with your thoughts about your thoughts about the project, its scope and its shortcoming. I am hoping you might also consider being a guest blogger. The blog will absolutely not be ending, and I think that for a while to come, it will be focused on issues raised over the past months.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


Probably the biggest obstacle that people face when trying to address environmental issues, and sustainability in general, is the sheer magnitude of the problems. We have billions of people, trillions of dollars and countless quantities of time and energy that are invested in the status quo and the continuance of unsustainability. The powers of those people and corporations are much greater than you as an individual; a sense of hopelessness is not surprising. Furthermore, the timescales over which the issues have developed, and over which they may be resolved, are enormous compared to the length of human lives. It may take several decades for any change to be realised, culturally and ecologically. This is also bound to generate a sense of hopelessness. At the same time, there is a limit to our comprehension of our actions - we may not know how harmful the effects of what we are doing are. But also, we do things in the present that we know are bad, for our health, and for the health of ecosystems in the future. We have a tendency to say, "I'll deal with it later," or, "I know this is bad (for me or for the environment). Whatever."  Eating unhealthily is a wonderful example of this. Access and availability of good food aside, many people know that such eating is bad for them, in general, yet satisfaction now supersedes degraded health later - diabetes, cancer, obesity, etc. Maybe we don't want those future ill effects to affect us, but out of habit we accept the ill effects and live in a state of fear knowing that the day will come that bad diagnoses loom.

It is really hard to imagine what the future is going to be like - Will our efforts pay off? Who will be the next President? When will the next oil spill happen? Which will be the next fish species to go extinct because of overfishing? How might we be able to deal with the fear of living in such a state, knowing that we are degrading what it is that sustains us, but are so invested in the way it is that we kick the stone down the road? Rather than think and worry about the future, we can all make decisions here and now such that tomorrow will be a good day. We all want to live in a world in which what we cherish is alive, healthy and sustained. To live in that world, we must act in such a way that we cherish, respect and sustain now, today. It is not complicated. If I respect the tree or the river today, it will be healthy and full of life and love tomorrow. If I respect and cherish my relationship with my friends and family today, those relationships will grow stronger and more resilient; tomorrow those people will still love me, and I will still love them. I do not have to live in the fear of a grudge or a toxic conversation. Now is easier to comprehend and experience and think about. Acting well now will save us much trouble tomorrow.

Friday, February 25, 2011

More thoughts on ownership and "development"

I have been hearing the word "development" more and more recently, not only because I have been reading how the concept of "sustainable development" has co-opted more deeper understandings of sustainability, but also in class and in various discussions I've been having. When I say "development," I mean the human undertaking of modifying the environment, building buildings, constructing colonies, and producing products, necessarily involving the violent use of nature. I feel that many people my age also think about sustainability and environmentalism in terms of "development" - how might we be able to continue along trends historically dictated, but more efficiently? This of course is a natural tendency of our society, and does nothing to stem the environmental onslaught we've been undertaking for centuries now. I want to focus this post on human modifications of the environment, particularly by people who "own" that environment.

It seems to me that notions of ownership stem from notions of freedom, which allow us to do potentially ecologically degrading things, in general for personal, i.e. monetary benefit. While getting dressed yesterday morning, I heard a little story about Aubrey McClendon, the Chairman and CEO of Chesapeake Energy. A billionaire, McClendon owns several hundred acres of fragile dunes on Lake Michigan, in the postcard town of Saugatuck. (This is where the Kalamazoo River feeds Lake Michigan.) As I heard on the Environment Report, McClendon is planning a "development" of a marina, condos, houses, and a golf course. I don't know about the politics of this ordeal; there are people better equipped to understand the environment around Lake Michigan than I. But in all of the news stories I've read, McClendon is called a "developer," and Singapore Dunes is called a "development." 

As I have written about previously, it is fascinating how we feel like we can "own" things that have existed long before we walked the surface of the Earth. The political boundaries we have drawn for our communities and states and nations follow no particular boundaries of nature, except in the cases of mountains and rivers. Maybe more thoughtful boundaries may be watersheds. Regardless, the boundaries we define also bind us to place such that we can "own." But ownership is one thing, and doesn't necessarily imply ecological degradation. Ownership can in fact be leveraged to protect tracts of land and water from human influence. But when ownership is coupled with "development," the coupling necessarily involves modifications to the environment, which imply monetary gain. Very few people are interested in "developing" anything if it doesn't make them money. "Development" itself is a very anthropocentric concept. It implies that everything the "development" takes place on is useless and worthless, and bears no mark of complexity and time. It also presumes that humans know what is better than an undisturbed dune formation, or old growth forests. Yet, Lake Michigan existed long before Michigan was colonised, and the forces that have resulted in each grain of sand on those dunes of the Lake have been acting for much longer than we can comprehend, in ways we will never be able to know fully. 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.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Objects and materials: On creativity

My posts for the last few days have tried to explore some of the issues surrounding our interactions with objects that populate the world, and the materials they are made out of. Again, I am no expert on these issues, and it would be wonderful if I can get a designer to write about the psychology of objects and materials. But until then, I'll continue to muse and surmise.

There seems to be a massive social learning and association component to materials. It seems like when you are growing up, someone (say, a parent) may tell you, "That is a disposable plate." On asking why so, that person may say, "Because it is plastic." (or whatever...Styrofoam). Maybe the connections between materials and their fate are thus made, never mind the actual potential use of the object after its initial use. The next time you may come across something made of a particular material, you may not feel bad about throwing it in a trash can. And if you don't know otherwise, why would you feel bad? Everyone around you is doing so, and maybe your mum or dad, someone you trust and learn from, tells you that it is okay. What I am trying to say that is maybe the compulsion or tendency to throw something away has more to do with material than it does with the functionality of the object. Maybe...What do you think?

Maybe it is a lack of creativity, though, that plays a significant role in why we feel something can be thrown away, or gotten rid of. I can absolutely see this in the West, having grown up in India, where when I was growing up at least, you would see people make use of objects until they are able to be blown away and disintegrated by the wind (just like how men, me included, will wear underwear until each and every underwear molecule can't retain the properties of a turns into underwear vapour). Books are continuously handed down from older students to younger ones, as are school uniforms and shoes. Every morning, a "plastic bucket repair man" comes on his bike to your home to see if your plastic buckets need repairing. Once we eat a watermelon, we peel the skin of the watermelon off, thinly, and cut up the white part and curry it and eat it. Old flat breads are given to the cows that stand outside of the temple. There is a creativity of use. I guess that may be an outcome of the heretofore lack of abundance of objects, and it is actually sad to see how India has changed since I've moved to the US.

Creativity is something we lack in almost all aspects of our communities. A reductionist world necessarily devolves and doesn't consider things outside of the well-defined topical areas. A reductionist world can make us think that a bottle can't be used as a cup, because it just isn't a cup. But what exactly are we trying to do? If you're trying to drink something, a bottle can serve as a cup, and a cup serves as a bottle.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

LEAD Magazine

I want to sincerely thank Anny, Louisa, Ashley, Marissa, and one girl whose name I can't remember (I'm so sorry!) that wrote the cover story article about this project and some thoughts in LEAD Magazine. I guess they did my job for me, at least for today. =)

You can read the article here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Objects and materials: Shape and design

Glass bottles have been something that have constantly made me think, of course, not because I drink our of them (although I do at times enjoy those very liquids...draught), but because others do, a lot. Bottles have a lot of value in many ways. They hold liquids very well, and the fact that they have a small place from which to drink from means that they reduce potential opportunities for spilling. They are thick and feel heavy, and therefore, make you feel like you are actually holding something. In fact, they feel very much like pint glasses. But I think it is very interesting how two almost identical objects in function can result in two very different responses after use. (I guess I am talking primarily about Western countries in this post.) After using a pint glass, the natural thing one may do is put the glass in the sink, or in the dishwasher. After using a glass bottle, on the other hand, the tendency for one is to put it in the trash can or recycling bin. We think it okay to reuse one of the objects, but find it odd to reuse the other, in general. The only difference between the objects is that one of them has a curved, narrowing top, while the other opens or is the same area as the base. But if you can pour a liquid into a pint glass, you can pour into a bottle, just gingerly.

On the left is a picture of a big bottle. We can absolutely imagine popping the top and drinking the beer in the bottle, but very few would wash the bottle out and use it as a glass. But what if the top of the bottle didn't exist, as in the picture on the right? In that case, once we would have had a beer from the "bottle," we would probably think that we could reuse it, and then keep it as a glass, just like many people do with Ball jars. But again, we can easily use the bottle to fill water from a tap, and just use it as a glass. (You may know that in many countries, the tops of bottles are cut off; the bottoms then serve as glasses.)

Therefore, it seems that the difference is the social learning that one shape is acceptable to use only in certain ways, when in fact, there is very little difference between many of the objects we think are different. This raises several interesting questions about design and learning and behaviour. There are probably very small things we can do physically to common objects such that we might think they are multi-purpose. These changes can have huge consequences - reduced quantities of things going to landfills, reduced need for recycling, increased reusing, increased sentimentality, increased pass-me-downs, decreased natural resource extraction, etc. etc. etc. 

The other night, Marco raised the very interesting case of the bee in the urinals (here, here). Here's a picture of the bee.
What this simple little change has done (you can read why by clicking the above links), particularly in high-volume places such as airports and malls, has been to reduce the amount of cleaning required, the chemicals required for cleaning, the water used for cleaning, and on and on. Maybe it is worthwhile to think about how we can make just small changes to what surrounds us to change our perceptions of use. It would be interesting to see how the learning is passed between people with these changes.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Objects and materials: Who worked for it?

It should come as no surprise to you that a majority, if not most, of the objects and materials that we use daily have required that someone or something has expended effort and energy and time to make those objects and materials. Effort is expended not only in actually making those objects and materials, but also in purchasing them for home or for someone. I believe that our tendency to think of some things as "disposable" stems from who expends the effort in finally getting those objects and materials to you. It seems like the last exchange of resources (generally monetary) tells us to a great extent whether or not we would be okay with throwing something away.

I want to illustrate this tendency with the example of a plastic trinket. The hydrocarbons used in the plastic trinket were probably extracted from some oil field by several workers, then shipped or transported by several workers, then processed and made into the plastic trinket by several workers, then brought to a store by a driver, then stocked by a store employee. This trinket can finally be purchased by you for yourself or your family. On the other hand, you may purchase the trinket for someone else. If that person knows you, she might keep the trinket, at least for a while, recognising that your money (earned through hopefully "legitimate" ways) went into the trinket. There is a sentimentality that comes along with the trinket. If that person doesn't know you, she might not mind throwing it away if it is cluttering their lives. On the other hand, imagine yourself as the recipient of an object, say a plastic cup. You've chosen to use this plastic cup to drink water from, say during a talk or a seminar, or at a random fraternity party. Clearly, you have not worked for the cup. All you've done is pretty much shown up to the event, and there sat an unused plastic cup perfect for quenching your thirst. Now, I know people have a tendency to use "disposable" objects in their homes that they themselves have purchased, and have no qualms of throwing them away. I could of course go through the various permutations and combinations of scenarios, but that really isn't the point of this post. If you've sweat for something, you just won't feel as compelled to throw it away as compared to the case when someone else, especially someone unknown to you, has sweat for it.

We have the tendency to only think of immediacy - who was the last person that I associate this object with? We don't seem to think of everything done along the way by other people to make it possible to have the objects that surround us. These people are in no way different than you are. Their effort is every much as important to the object as is the last person's money. How might we better value these efforts? I guess this is the cause of most problems that face us - we only think of ourselves and our immediate ones in a world that is clearly a web of interactions.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Objects and materials: On availability

Marco came over to my home on Friday night after we went to a wonderful birthday party for Mariko. Marco is one of the smartest, most intelligent and thoughtful people I know; he is my friend. We were talking about my experience at Professor Michael Griffin's talk, and we were trying to think about why it is we are fine with throwing things away, and what compels us to do so. We came up with a list of issues, and I will write about them one at a time. Today, I want to write about availability, and I will focus on plastic, and compare and contrast it with rarer materials, like glass and diamond, but I do believe any of these arguments can be easily extrapolated to think about other materials, and other issues. Availability I mean as the way in which objects and materials surround us, ubiquitously or rarely, especially in ways in which we physically interact with them.

I am sitting in the Fish Bowl right now, and the keyboard I am typing with is made of plastic. The frame of the screen is plastic, as is the case for the CPU of the computer. There is a plastic bottle of alcoholic hand sanitiser near the Helpdesk, and the recycling bins are made of plastic. My cell phone is made of plastic, as are the interiors of passenger aircraft. Plastic has physical properties that make it incredibly "friendly" for things like computers or bottles. Furthermore since it is made from petrochemicals, I wouldn't doubt that plastic production is subsidised, although this is purely speculation. This allows plastic to be monetarily cheap (although it is far from environmentally cheap). Consequently, plastic is highly available. We have structured our world around plastic, and in fact the world we live in would not be remotely possible without plastic. During my day, I will probably come in more physical contact with plastic than I will with something like glass, even though I absolutely love glass. It seems though that the raw materials to make glass are as abundant as petrochemicals (have so far been). So, if we really wanted to make glass more available, it probably wouldn't be that difficult. Glass has its own advantages compared to plastic, and of course, is aesthetically much more pleasing. But since it is rare to go to a fraternity party and have them serve you beer in a pint glass, the decreased availability makes us feel as if it is more valuable, in whatever way you may define value.

At the same time, maybe plastic's incredible flexibility of use and consequent ubiquity has allowed us to view it as a limitless resource, just like forests and trees may have seemed before man started plowing through them. Ubiquity and high availability seem to drive down the value of this material, rather than allowing us to appreciate it for its properties. (I know plastic has its bad sides, too. Of course, I would never warm something up in the microwave in a plastic container.) I think this is an interesting contradiction of sorts - plastic is so amazing that so many things can be made of it, and for some reason, this inherent value of it allows us to devalue it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Objects and materials: What compels us to throw away?

The other day, Steve and I went to see Professor Michael Griffin, the NASA Administrator under President Bush from 2005 to 2009, give a talk about complex systems on North Campus. Although he is has made some quite naive statements about climate change as you probably know, the talk was nonetheless fascinating and story-like. I can write about his talk, which focused on the interfaces between engineering disciplines, at a later time. But I want to write a bit about something that stuck me particularly strongly during the whole experience.

Generally, when someone as important as him gives a talk, there are refreshments - grilled vegetables, dips, cookies, and drinks. In this case, the drinks could be had in these really nice plastic cups (I didn't use one, of course, but I did see others use them). They were thick and solid, unlike those SOLO cups you might have had your last frat beer in. The plastic was clear and the plastic was fully transparent. I wondered, "Why would someone throw this away?" It seemed to me that if you decided to keep this plastic cup, it would probably last you a while, until it cracked or got crushed. You could have not one, but several drinks from this cup. You could keep the cup at your desk, and when you wanted a drink, you could fill it up and drink from it. In all senses, the cup was such that it made me want to keep the cups, and it made me want to tell others to keep their cups. But the cups were inevitably thrown away, after single uses.

Here are two pictures of cups. Which cup do you think is the plastic cup, and which one is the glass cup? I have cropped the bottoms, because the bottoms will give the answer away.

I guess it is still easy to figure out which one is plastic and which one is glass, but if you closely look at the cups, they have similar thicknesses, they function in the same way - both have the capacity and ability to hold liquids such that they don't leak. But it seems like there is something within us, likely socially defined, that makes us think that throwing away one of them is okay - people might call that one "disposable" - while throwing the other one away just doesn't make sense. I will try to think about why over the next few days.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Guest blog #13: Jason Lai and The Joy of Waiting

I stand by the fountain, leaned against the elevator, watching kids toss pennies into the water, pausing every so often to crane their necks upward to marvel at the jets of water that shoot high above their heads. This is the Eaton Centre, the largest mall in Toronto, the day after Boxing Day, which means the mall is still overflowing with people looking for bargains. A woman walks by, weighed down by her spoils, that crash against other people as she wades through the crowd. Many, if not most, people in Toronto probably don’t celebrate Christmas; everyone, though, celebrates a day, now an entire week, devoted to hunting down a good deal.

People around me balance smartphones and shopping bags in their hands, standing still, killing time. Others are more adventurous as they walk around, their eyes only breaking focus on their phones to narrowly avoid collision. Briefly lamenting separation from my own phone, my mind drifts away towards recent events of the holidays: a high school pseudo-reunion; cooking Christmas dinner; a rum cake bake-off. These thoughts flutter away as quickly as they materialize, ever changing as I observe my surroundings. In a world of constant information bombardment, spending some quality time with my own thoughts is my new favourite past time.

There’s a certain serenity in this moment; worries about responsibilities and obligations melt away as I am singularly focused on anticipation, nothing else.

A young woman emerges out of the crowd and approaches me.

“Hey! Sorry to keep you waiting!”

“No problem,” I respond, “no better time spent than waiting on a pretty girl.”


Thursday, February 17, 2011

On the gaps in technology and obsolescence

I fail to understand where our society is headed. It doesn't seem to me that there will be a point at which we decide that we are at a happy place. Technology plays a crucial role in defining our society, as I have written about in previous posts. Here are some thoughts on why technology as we think of it today necessarily results in environmental harm and ever more amounts of waste and degradation.

There is a spectrum of technology, ranging from the simple machines like levers and wheels and pulleys, to the more esoteric and comlicated Blackberrys and iPads. These technologies necessarily allow us to do something we either couldn't do before, or allow us to do something we could do before, just differently, mechanically, electronically, or what have you. Technology allows us to go farther, faster. A widely diffuse technology, such as cell phones nowadays, defines a new norm. There is an internalisation of technology into social constructs, such that the newer social construct necessarily depends on the existence of that technology. But since technologies and products are designed and constructed by a thoroughly reductionist philosophy, there are always things that are not considered in design - failures between the interfaces of different subsystems, failures of fully comprehending the environmental and social impacts, and failures of understanding what happens to technology after it is obsolete. (These things/issues, I believe, constitute the risk of those technologies.) These are the gaps that are left unfilled by the technology. One of two things can happen now - a failure may result after which the technology is improved, or the gap is identified by a technologist and a new product is developed to make money selling the new technology. All the while, new social norms are being constructed; society moves away from where it was. Once society has a rudimentary understanding of the consequences of technology, the gaps and deficiencies are exposed, and the users of the technology want the newer version of the technology (or technologists convince people they want the newer technology). The huge issue with human technologies nowadays is that they necessitate virgin resource extraction. Old technologies are not, and at some level cannot be, designed for retooling, or upgrade. At the same time, since there are failures of designing for the end of life of the technologies, obsolete technologies are disposed of in unsavoury ways.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On rapid responses to technology

To clarify after having received some comments from my last post, what I mean by "technology" is the technology that has been brought into the world in the past few decades, the rate of whose further introduction has followed something like Moore's law. That rate is an incomprehensible one. This is the technology I will continue to talk about in the next few posts.

At our monthly Sustainability Ethics Roundtable, the topic was a timely one, for me at least: Technology, Risk, Ethics and Sustainability, and the discussion was led by Professor Andrew Maynard of the School of Public Health and the Risk Science Center. One of the significant issues with technology that he pointed out is that given the kind of technology being introduced, and the rate at which it is being introduced, we do not have even slightly adequate mechanisms in place to assess whether or not that technology is doing potential harm in the world; we do not have mechanisms in place to respond rapidly to the technology itself. This is somewhat related to what Jon Kabat-Zinn has said, where Kabat-Zinn speaks of an emotional and metaphysical understanding of technology. Regardless, the issue of response and understanding is kind of like the issue of water pollution or air pollution (of course, technology is intimately related to these issues) in which we know toxic chemicals are being released indiscriminately, and yet many laws in place do not allow for adequate protection of those natural gifts and human health. The way that our legal structure is set up, at least around environmental issues, is that significant evidence beyond an ill-defined threshold is required, gathered over a long period of time, before any judgement can be made about the toxicity of a technological process or output. (This raises the significant issue of time scales associated with negative outcomes.) During that time, people have made money, grown in power and grown in influence such that the end result is likely not a discontinuation of the technology, but rather maybe a Pigouvian tax on the technology. Such is the case with technologies that result in greenhouse gas emissions, but in this case, it is politically infeasible to even have a rudimentary tax on emissions.

It seems to me that there are several reasons why we don't have adequate mechanisms and checks on technology in our society, and I hope to elaborate on these in individual posts over the next few days.
  • We equate social prosperity with economic prosperity, but we can only achieve economic prosperity if we can consume, and we can only satisfactorily consume if what we consume is something different that what we have already consumed. Consequently, social prosperity boils down to an increasing reliance on technological advancement. This means we feel that more technology is always better than less technology.
  • We have convinced ourselves that if we don't do it, someone else will, so we should try to make a buck off of it.
  • There is always a vested interest in the development of new technologies, such that its development necessitates its use.
  • There is an increasing diffusion in those with access to technology.
  • The potential negative impacts have much longer time scales for their emergence and recognition, but the positive impacts (increasing amounts of money) is necessarily shorter term.
There are likely several other reasons, but I don't claim to be an expert in knowing them all. But what I do feel is that we are continuing to live in a world in which we don't learn from our mistakes. We therefore will continue in a world in which we can do no harm, and that the answer to any problem caused because of technology is a newer technology. The Watson computer (or the analytic methods) developed by IBM is touted as only a good thing. But if we tried to ask those very developers the potential negative outcomes of their system, will they have an answer? Will they have adequately assessed the risks (not only in terms of money value) of such capabilities? I hope so. How might we envision a future in which not more is the answer, but appropriate is the approach? Just because technology is good for one thing does not mean it is good for, on, or to something else.

Monday, February 14, 2011

What will we use it for if we don't understand what it means?

I want to follow up on my post from November, Ethics in research design and longevity of interest. I want to do so because I have been thinking about technology constantly over the past weeks - I am interested in understanding why humans are compelled to find technological "solutions" to social problems, especially ecological crises. Over the past few weeks, I have been reflecting on what it means for me to be studying chemistry, and why I am doing it, and what it may really mean for the world, if anything at all. But I have been further contemplative about technology after listening to Krista Tippett's conversation with Jon Kabat-Zinn on Being, as well as looking forward to tonight's upcoming Jeopardy! episode, in which Watson, a computer developed by IBM, will be competing against humans.

I have been trying to understand the unique position of humans to the environment, and this has allowed a great deal of introspection, both of my relationship to the world, and my responsibility to my neighbourhood and community and family and myself in living in a less destructive manner. What this has entailed has been to boil down my life to what matters to me the most, and what matters involves only in some small sense the technology I am surrounded by. Of course, you wouldn't be reading this if technology didn't exist. But I do feel that I have been allowed time to reflect through a purging of things, including technology. Kabat-Zinn made one of the most insightful remarks on our very rudimentary understanding of the influences of technology in an increasingly connected world. He said that, " is becoming more sophisticated than our understanding of ourselves as human beings without technology." With our technologies, we are able to have our phones ring in the middle of the night with the arrival of an e-mail, and we are able to ship apples from New Zealand to the US with just the burden of customs. Technology has become so second-nature to us that we now cannot envision a world without it. If we cannot envision a world without it, how does that affect our moral selves, and how does that affect answers to increasingly complex problems? Potential answers to questions of what it means to be human, and what it means to be good, and what it means to live in an ecologically sustainable world still feel as far as they have for millennia. By adding more complexity in the picture through technology, we obfuscate an already complex understanding of ourselves. At the same time, I am in no way taking a position in which I am saying technology is unequivocally bad.

Dale Jamieson and Wendell Berry write at length at the compulsion of applying what we know, even though we don't have a full understanding of the impacts. A great example of this is nuclear waste being used as ammunition in Iraq. But what might the motives be for developing the Watson? How does having developed the Watson answer pressing questions? How does this move us forward morally and ethically?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On change

I have tried to write over the past few weeks about the economy and its relationship to sustainability. My intention with this blog is to try to lay the foundation of understanding problems facing society and the Earth, with the hope that this rudimentary foundation will serve to guide introspection and action. Today's post is about both introspection and action. I want to talk about a word so incredibly overused in the recent past, and a word that is now bubbling to the surface again with the new election cycle - change.

In a recent episode on Being, Krista Tippett spoke with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Tippett articulated that we have placed incredible trust in something that we assumed was logical and rational, that is, the economy, which was in fact highly irrational. With the decline of the economy and staggering numbers of foreclosures across the country, people stood shocked that something like this could result from a free-market, deregulated financial sector. In fact, irrationality and unethical practices were paraded with the mask of profit and social good, especially with the mortgage crisis. With a declining economy, our government and financial institutions have tried to "reform" corporate behaviour to a certain extent, with significant backlash from those with vested interests in the economic system staying the way it is. Thus, the notion of change, the locus of President Obama's election campaign, has been highly tempered, such that dominant principles of conduct have gone largely unchanged. In this context, Tippett quoted Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist scholar and spiritual teacher, who said "Change and suffering are inevitable parts of life."

With ever increasing amounts of ecological degradation, change is at the very heart at the concept of sustainability. A true and radical change is necessarily at the opposite end of the status quo, and any tempering of the concept of sustainability means that meaningful and durable change will always lay beyond arm's reach. Unfortunately, the dominant discourse around sustainability has been around the concept of "sustainable development." In fact, "sustainability" has come to mean "sustainable development," especially within the circles of the governing elite, including the United Nations. The most commonly cited definition of "sustainability," the definition of the Brundtland Commission, is an elitist definition of "sustainable development." This definition in no way questions or changes current structures of governance and societal behaviour, but rather further embeds past behaviour in future visions of the world. Aidan Davison wonderfully critiques the notion of sustainable development, in his book Technology and The Contested Meanings of Sustainability. 

Do you have any thoughts on the concept of change?

Friday, February 11, 2011

How much choice should we have in a sustainable world?

What our "competitive" economy has done has offered people a lot of choice. If someone is making a product or a good for a certain amount of money, other people may try to enter that business and try to produce the product for cheaper, thereby taking business away from the other producer. The first producer may then try to cut their costs, and drive their prices down. Once their prices are fairly equal, you end up with two businesses making similar products. Then they might get into the business of differentiating their products, and sometimes this differentiation may make the price of one of the products go up. What we end up with then are two businesses, making two slightly different products, that may offer you slightly different services. Regardless, we now have two enterprises making two things. We have now two choices. It is not so difficult to see how this may result in several choices. All the while, resources are extracted, in higher and higher amounts, at higher and higher rates, resulting in environmental degradation. (Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, we have a monopoly, that of course, has its negative social implications, too.)

We live in a world in which we can choose between modes of transportation. I can fly to Chicago, drive there, or fly there. We feel (and it is justifiable) that it is important to give people the choice of these options. We now have the choice of eating tomatoes in the middle of winter, and oranges thousands of miles away from where they were grown. But what I think is that it is very easy to take choice to an extreme, and we end up doing things just because we can (you can read more thoughts about this here, here and here). This results in trash, waste, degradation and downright violence, against other people and the environment. What the problem of sustainability throws in our way is the issue of limits to consumption, which necessarily will limit the choices available to people. I concede that I do not have the answer to what the choices we have should be pared down to, but I do know that this is probably not the right direction to look in, macro to micro. Rather, we should look at ourselves first, and see what it is that we think constitutes a happy and meaningful life, given the constraints the natural world puts on us. I think this is a more tractable approach.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Guest Blogger #12: Amazing Alyssa's (Green) Artifacts

Consumers' changing behaviors and demands for “green” products have created an interesting challenge for today's designers. The challenge: how to make all the products we could possibly want, green.  Well, here are just a few solutions:

Packaging- Lee never wasted

Lee wanted more than a shopping bag made from recycled paper. Instead of looking backwards into the materials they would use for the bags, they looked into the future. What will the consumer do with this bag once he or she returns home? Designed by Happy Creative Services, Lee's new shopping bag literally takes on all different forms. It becomes a calander, a board game, bookmarks, a door hanger, shoe laces, a ruler, a black book, a book shelf, dice, a pencil holder, paper glasses, and a first aid chart-to name a few.

This bag was such a hit that in order to keep up with demand, the company had to produce 100 times more bags than they had initially planned for. This is great for Lee and Happy Creative Services, but seems counter productive when thinking about the actual environmental impact.

Clothing-Seeded shoes

OAT, a Dutch brand of footware, recently released their new line of shoes called the “Virgin Collection”. This line of shoes is meant to appeal to the individual who is both environmentally responsible as well as fashion conscious. Why have to pick between style and ethics? These shoes are made from materials that are easily broken down, and that contain seeds in hopes of one day growing plants where the shoes are disposed of.

Highly efficient, these bulbs last longer and act much more efficiently than normal Christmas lights.
This is just one product featured on, a green blog with an entire buying green guide.

Now, some designers have taken a slightly different route in terms of "green" products. This can include  DIY projects, and other times, cleverly recycled novelty objects.

Take this Do-it-yourself Tiffin box made from tuna cans.
(Don't underestimate these lunch boxes, they were the inspiration for my entire senior thesis, and represent an incredible lunch delivery system in India!)

Sites like Instructables and Wonder How To provide a wide variety of projects.
Another Inhabitat favorite: Oven transformed into lounge chair


Refreshingly clever "green"designs do exist, don't get me wrong, and I am constantly amazed and intrigued by my internet discoveries and those shared with me by friends. It's just that the challenge to please the eco-conscious consumer by providing him or her with sustainable options might be the wrong challenge to address. We are still producing more stuff whether or not its "sustainable", whether or not it's made from organic materials, its more stuff, and a lot of this stuff, still ends up in the landfills. 

By turning all the products consumers could want or need into "sustainable" products, we allow ourselves to continue living the same lifestyles that have brought us the environmental issues we face today. Instead of rethinking the system and questioning why we need these products in the first place, we just buy the greener version, and are content.

I am completely guilty of this! I buy organic, and I pick biodegradable or recycled materials over others. I admit, I feel better doing it, but I know it's not enough. People know it's not enough, and are changing their lifestyles and landscapes to minimize their impact. 

For consistant inspiration check out:,, Design for Good, and World Changing


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What came first and the wisdom from the world

I hope to tie together a few threads of thought with this post today. I mentioned in a couple of posts (here and here) the fallacies and deficiencies of the current framework of "sustainability" thinking. What the dominant framework does is the following - it puts "economic" sustainability on the same footing as "social" sustainability and "environmental" sustainability. The global North, i.e. the agenda-setter and dominant rhetorical force, has successfully morphed the concept of "sustainability" to mean "sustainable development," the foundation of which are these deeply ingrained notions of what "economy" means (and you can read about that in those posts I've linked). At the very heart of this "economy" is the notion of technology, and the new. The new has come thick and fast in our world, and not a month goes by without us being bombarded with advertisements and images of what other people think is "good" for us. New knowledge is being successfully marketed and turned into products so that people can make money. In fact, it is this notion of new knowledge that the global North, and increasingly the large nations in the global South, thinks will get us out of this "sustainability" bind. But, with this new knowledge has come constantly increasing environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.

This world existed long before humans arrived on it. Epochs and eons have passed, species have gone extinct, and new forms of life have constantly evolved and appeared. A tree is the outcome of millions of years of slow and steady and constant evolution. A tree is a beautiful example of the outcome of a dynamic equilibrium; the tree has responded to changes happening so slowly that you cannot see them in happening now. These responses are delicately balanced, guaranteeing the survival of the tree. Such is the wisdom of from world. This wisdom stems from the dynamism of population and the unforgiving forces of air, land and water, driven by the sun. This is the wisdom that has led to the adaptation and evolution of rivers, lemurs, bats and snow leopards. With this wisdom, we realise that how these creatures have behaved and evolved has allowed them to fill a role and fill a place, just perfectly. This has inspired the greatest human thinking. Countless people have wondered about nature, and I hope we all have. The wisdom from the world has imprinted on Onwas and the Hadza, who have survived successfully for thousands of years, and are in tune with place and time. Yet with our definition of "economy," we have moved away from this natural wisdom, and are now desperately hoping we can get it back. But this wisdom exists, and is lying dormant. Our "economy" we feel is the best driver of human action, and is the only raison d'etre for human life. Some hope that the "economy," based on new knowledge, can lead to "sustainability." In effect, we have tried to, in a couple thousand years, tried to accomplish what it has taken everything else on Earth much longer to come to - a dynamic equilibrium, constantly evolving, yet inherently sustainable.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On the human scale

The way our society is structured is such that we try to maximise "efficiency." (I, as well as a guest blogger, have written about this concept of efficiency, and what we lose because of it, here, here, here, here, here and here.) What this leads to, under current notions of economics ("free-market" capitalism with its baseless assumptions of perfect competition, no barriers to entry, perfect information, etc. etc.) and building, is called economies of scale. What this basically results in is the ability to produce the most amount of something for the maximised possible monetary profit. What this also ends up doing, however, is something that is a shared story across the country, and most of the world - the conglomeration of smaller entities into bigger and bigger and bigger and meaner entities - corporate takeovers, industrial farms, massive financial companies too big to fail, etc. We have "globalised" almost everything imaginable - companies, manufacturing, growing, and disease. What we end up creating are entities with "lives" of their own, so big and powerful that smaller humans can get trampled along the way, without redress and remorse. In many places across the country, our buildings have shown similar trends over time. Take a look at this picture of the built environment in downtown Detroit, and how it has changed over time.

Apart from the obvious increase in vacant land, we observe that the size of structures, in general, has increased over time. We have ended up building bigger and bigger structures that have a tendency to make one walking through it or standing beside it insignificant. Of course, many of these structures are visual manifestations of institutions and organisations I just described. What this tells me is that we value the lives of careless institutions and organisations over the lives of the humans, plants, animals and nature that guarantee their existence.

Such scales are seen in landfills, too. Here are some pictures and numbers about some of the largest landfills in the nation (you can read the articles here and here).

What I think is necessary to address when talking about issues of our impact on the environment is a look at scale. It is absolutely not possible to tread lightly with big things. Big tractors compact soil, oxen do not. Big power plants require massive amounts of fossil fuels, while living with less energy wouldn't necessitate the rape of mountains. Big buildings take a lot to erect, while smaller ones recognise our place in the world and the grander scheme of things.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

On the deficiencies of the law

I continue to seek to motivate individual action. Yesterday, I came across the notion of proactive law, which is a growing school of thought, particularly in the European Union. Proactive law is "a future-oriented approach where the goal is to promote what is desirable and ex ante maximise opportunities while minimising problems and risks." This philosophy of law has, it seems, primarily been applied to creating a better business environment for people, such that "an optimal mix of regulatory promote(s) societal objectives..." But it may not be terribly difficult to think about proactive law in the context of environmental law - given that we know there are environmental problems created by the way society functions, we may be able to pass enforceable legislation such that environmental harm is minimised through future societal actions. (There are of course issues with developing a dialogue with nature itself, unless people try to represent the views of nature.) Most environmental laws have been retrospective, setting legal boundaries of action because of past environmental harm. However, these laws do potentially grant authority to regulate future behaviour of people and businesses, just like the Clean Air Act (first adopted in 1970) was judged to be applicable to regulate greenhouse gas emissions a couple of years ago.

There seems to be an inherent contradiction between future-oriented law and the way humans have been behaving so far, because humans will likely continue to behave in the same way in the future. But with our behaviour, we have created over the past few hundred years a society whose understanding of its actions cannot be fully comprehended right now, and may never be. For example, what does it mean for our human relationships that we now have new forms communication that inherently limit time with other people? Such a question is hard to wrap our minds around, and we will not know the full consequences of such a change in momentum until many years have gone by. So how might we be able to create laws that bind us to a desired future outcome? Furthermore, the interesting thing about law is that it is made in the context of its time, given our sensibility of the issues facing us - the US Constitution was drafted in the late 18th century, and many of us know that there are significant issues surrounding the interpretation and validity of the Second Amendment today, which was adopted in 1791.

I write about this, because as I mentioned previously, the sentiments behind the law come out of the weaving of our collective moralities - in the end, the law may lose the force that a few of us might want it to have. But it is clear that personal actions now, in the present, can guarantee that at least our individual exoneration from the behaviour that may degrade the environment or trample on social justice now and in the future. We may never understand the outcomes of our actions given the complex web of interconnectedness today, but choosing not to participate in such behaviour guarantees that at least for us, such proactive law is superfluous and unnecessary.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

On the law and being retrospective

This post ties back to my post from yesterday about risk. I found out today that the US EPA is going to now try to write regulations for new toxic chemicals, such as perchlorate, that have now been found in water supplies around the nation. (I never really knew how toxic rocket propellants were until I learned about them in my propulsion classes, and a few classes on explosions, explosives, propellants and pyrotechnics. I guess we are all naive to varying degrees.) Much has been made of the "precautionary principle," which basically states that if we don't know what the effects of doing something will be, we shouldn't do it. It is likely that there are always negative impacts of our actions, especially when scaled to millions or billions of people. With climate change, it has been argued that since we don't know what positive radiative forcing feedbacks may kick in with increasing greenhouse gas emissions, we should avoid pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The precautionary principle makes sense to me, but it does not to many other people. (Similar arguments can be made for food and healthcare initiatives of the recent past.)

We live in a world where "freedom" of action is valued, especially if that "freedom" leads to job creation and profit for people. What this inevitably leads to is the acceptance of actions whose impacts are ill-defined and unknown. Once we grant this "freedom," it is hard to take that "freedom" back, or to regulate it, or temper it. (I can imagine how hard it must be to be a parent.) The "freedom" grows in magnitude like a chain reaction, rooting itself in our sensibilities and communities. Such rooting makes it difficult to move away the behaviour, just as it is difficult to break a bad habit. But we always realise that there are negative impacts to these "free" actions, and so we may therefore seek to regulate them, to temper them, through law. Such laws are by their nature retrospective, and not proactive. The goals of the regulators are then themselves tempered by the will of industry, and indeed we end up with weaker, retrospective law. Almost all of the environmental laws I can think of, including major pieces of legislation such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, were all put in place retrospectively. I wonder what it would be like if we had proactive law more widely practiced. (Definitely read this document - various legal facets are very well articulated, and not in incomprehensible legalese.)

I think there are issues with such forward-looking approaches that may be far-reaching. I truly question whether it is biologically possible for human mentality to have evolved to fully comprehend the long-term impacts of our actions. Not long a time, on an evolutionary scale, has passed since we were hunter-gatherers. Our ability to think and envision may in fact be limited to such short time scales that we are in fact still mentally hunter-gatherers - shooting from the hip and making decisions that are "good" in the short term, but are inherently against the tide of nature in the long term.