Friday, April 29, 2011

What "development" means for sustainability

I have written about the family of notions surrounding "development" on several occasions. Previous posts have talked about how the word is used as an adjective, e.g., "developing" countries, how tracts of land should be "developed," natural courses of "development," and how sustainability has come to mean sustainable "development" (here, here). I want to elaborate today on the arrogance of the word "development" when used in the context of describing countries, communities and just groups of people, and what this means for sustainability.

As you probably know, the meanings and connotations of words have a way of changing over time. The term "Third World," was initially used to describe countries that were neither leaning towards capitalism (and NATO) or communism (and the Soviet Union). Nowadays, many people in the West use that phrase to describe a country that is (according to Western standards) "undeveloped" or "developing." Furthermore, these "Third World" countries have economies that are "developing," according to Western-defined Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) standards.

There are several issues that come to mind because of these words and their connotations. First, it implies that Western standards are those that should be met. Since the standards on which countries want to be judged are these standards, it means that countries would prefer to graduate from being "developing" to being "developed." What does this mean for sustainability? What it means is that since the standards to be met are economic standards first and foremost, countries may lower their environmental standards so as to attract investments from "developed" countries. This most likely leads to the rapid and unthoughtful industrialisation of these "developing" countries. What it also means is that if there is any hope for a sustainable future, that necessarily comes from being "developed," i.e., if you are not developed, there are no standards on which a country can be judged to be "sustainable." This seems to me a different approach under which to view "sustainable development."

What the word "developing" connotes today is backwardness, and the sense is that there isn't much in these countries, and the people living in these countries are less fortunate than those that are in the "developed" world. But what this word masks, however, are the problems that come with being "developed," particularly under a capitalistic, competitive mindset. In my mind, there are very clear threads of reasoning that trace social issues such as the fracturing of families and declining neighbourliness and increased mental illness back to the very foundations upon which the country claims itself to be "developed." If you were to go to most any of these "developing" countries, I am sure you would find integrity in family life, and a greater spiritual and material contentment of the people. What does this mean for sustainability? It means that maybe these definitions aren't as clear cut as we think they are. Of course, while many "developing countries" are very polluted, many of them are not, and do not have to deal with toxic chemicals in their water; the serious environmental problems that we face here in the US, because of say, fracking (here, here), are just completely non-existent in these places. More importantly, what it means is that we shouldn't propagate the connotations of these words by using them in the manner that we currently do. It also means that maybe we shouldn't be using these words nonchalantly, and that we should be mindful of the full implications of using such words.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

FRACK YOU - A toxic child worsens a toxic legacy

Fracking seems like the dirty lovechild of mountaintop removal (e.g. for coal) and drilling for oil, a child that is just way crazier than what the genes of its parents would make you imagine.

Like drilling for oil, the natural gas that fracking tries to reach is stored underground, thousands of feet underground. But rather than having the pressure of the oil well pump oil to the surface (think of how the Macondo well spewed high-pressure oil into the Gulf), to get the natural gas, you have to fracture the rock structures in which the gas is trapped. This fracturing requires significant amounts of water, and of course, toxic chemicals (I mean, it just wouldn't be fun without toxic chemicals, right?!). This is a trait inherited from fracking's other parent, mountaintop removal. Just like mountaintop removal, we basically need to blow apart rock to release what it is we want. Mountaintop removal exposes coal, and fracking releases natural gas. What mountaintop removal is capable of doing, and has done to wonderful effect, is contaminate streams and on-land water sources (while at the same time potentially burying them altogether, drastically changing ecosystems). Fracking takes this a step further; fracking contaminates surface water and ground water and aquifers. The toxic brew of chemicals and water from the fracturing of rocks is either stored in containment ponds (basically a liquid landfill, actually just like the storage of sludge from mountaintop removal! Like parent, like child!), or released into streams and rivers. Of course, water treatment facilities are not equipped to treat water for the chemicals used in fracking.

Hmmm, so we're told that fracking is different, that it is safe, and that it is "better" for the environment. Well, it is hard for me to see the difference between what we've done in the past, and what we're doing now. Indeed, a toxic child is continuing and worsening a toxic legacy, just with a different face, a doe-eyed face. So in the end, while natural gas is "cleaner burning" than coal or oil, and releases more energy per unit mass of fuel, it still doesn't address the issue of what it is that is driving ecological degradation - a constant thirst for energy at any cost, a constant appetite to dominate nature, a willingness to treat air and water as dumping grounds. I would hope that people that are pressured into leasing their land for fracking can understand this. And I hope that my parents and their neighbours can fight the companies trying to get their land to frack it up.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Traveling at home: Can we love nature simply?

There's this store in Ann Arbor called Bivouac. At this store, one may find a whole array of things, including shoes, sweaters, coats, and gloves. These are absolutely essential objects, of course. Especially in Michigan, you'd freeze if you didn't have anything to keep you warm. There's more you can find at this store, too. You can find objects, such as carabiners, ice picks and mountaineering equipment of all kinds. You can find anything and everything you'd need if you wanted to go camping or get into the wilderness. These things are well and good, and it is nice to be able to explore and see what is out in the world. Yet on a number of occasions, I have come across self-professed "nature lovers" who just cannot wait to buy the next new thing from Black Diamond or Petzl, and cannot wait to go on the next trip to use this new equipment, which will allow them to scale some mountain that wasn't possible without it. As I've written about previously, much of this sort of travel degrades what it is that makes us want to go to these places; Mt. Everest is basically the world's highest dump (you can read about this here and here).

Many times, when you look at adventure sports, you see people climbing to the top of a mountain or swimming to the depths of the ocean or what have you. I do not see a difference between those who choose to travel half way across the world to be an "eco-tourist" from the business executive that has to fly half way across the world for a meeting. People need to be more honest with themselves about the impacts of their choices, whether you "love nature" or not. Furthermore, there is a sort of masculinity and dominance that I see when I see people "conquering" mountains or faces of rock. Of course there is an appreciation of the challenge, and it is always amazing to see what humans are capable of doing, but still...maybe I am missing something.

Now, it is nice that people love nature (although the sincerity of these emotions may be questionable at times), but something I have always wondered is, Can we love nature simply? Indeed, the world is beautiful, and what exists here in Ann Arbor, the nature here, is not the nature that exists elsewhere. Similarly, what exists in the Hebrides or Fraser Island does not exist anywhere else in the world. Each place is unique, each place is different. It is that uniqueness and exoticism that I am sure is part of the reason why people travel to these places. Yet it is important to recognise the uniqueness of where we are, in time and space. The Huron River is beautiful, no matter what time of year, no matter whether the sky is cloudy or it is blue. The water lilies in the summer or the barren trees coated with snow, all beautiful, all only here. I can choose to spend an afternoon sitting by the river and seeing the herons, or I could day dream about being elsewhere.

This desire to travel to experience nature, or conquer it through adventure, is in contrast to what Wendell Berry has written in his essay The Long-Legged House. It is some of the most beautiful prose I have ever read. He says,

"There is a great waste and destructiveness in our people's desire to "get somewhere." I myself have traveled several thousand miles to arrive at Lane's Landing, five miles from where I was born, and the knowledge I gained by my travels was mainly that I was born into the same world as everybody else.

Days come to me here when I rest in spirit, and am involuntarily glad. I sense adequacy of the world, and believe that everything I need is here. I do not strain after ambition or heaven. I feel no dependence on tomorrow. I do not long to travel to Italy or Japan, but only across the river or up the hill into the woods."

How wonderful.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Are we fighting the right battles?

The impacts of human behaviour are felt throughout the natural world. If you just scratch the surface of the ecological issues facing us, you'll see that there are issues of all sorts regarding air and water and land degradation, biodiversity loss and persistent organic pollutants ending up in breast milk. Places that we have never even been to are now feeling the repercussions of our collective choices. And more likely than not, there are scores of environmentalists focusing on these issues. There are people that are trying to make sure that the air is clean, that our waters are unpolluted, that the soil isn't eroded. There are people trying to get certain plastics banned, and there are people that are trying to get coal-fired power plants reduce mercury emissions so that they don't end up in tuna that their children it.

As environmentalists, it seems that we're always fighting battles on many different fronts. Yet, as soon as one battle is won, the next one rears its head. There is no time to catch your breath. Oil spills are happening all the time. Once we've dealt with one toxic chemical being released into our waters, industry comes up with another chemical that we soon realise is toxic, too. Then we have to fight to ban that chemical. (Such is the same with human rights violations, which are, to me, the same issues as environmental issues.) There's something wrong here.

It seems as if we are tackling important issues (albeit slowly), but we are missing the most important point. We are saying, "Stop using chemical X," and then we quickly trust and hope that chemical Y that will end up in bottles will be benign. What we aren't doing with our approach, is taking down the systems of oppression, systems that will inevitably result in the constant abuse and mistreatment of our Earth and its people. I don't have to name these systems; it is plain to see what drives ecological degradation and injustice.

I believe that those who are vested in the current norms would have it no other way. They would rather have us fight these individual battles, have us compromise on these single issues, and not have criticise and reform what it is, truly, that results in the multitude of problems facing us. They are probably sitting in their offices and boardrooms, disconnected from the issues, not seeing the faces of people affected by an oil spill, not seeing the birds choking for air.

What we need is a radicalism that drives at the very heart of the crisis they face us. Our societies are founded on inequality and disrespect. We treat the Earth as inferior to ourselves, and we disrespect it. We "use" the Earth to provide us with rare earth metals for computers. We probably blasted a big hole in the ground to get to those ores. We treat those in "developing" countries, or those in places less powerful here in the US, those whose "natural resources" we're using here as inferior to us by disrespecting their lands and mountains and water.

The other day, I wrote a post titled I am not extreme. Indeed, our behaviours, different than those defined by the norms today, need to be those that would be normal in the world we want to live in - a world of equality, humility and respect towards everything. Yet that does not mean that our efforts today should not be viewed as different. In fact, our efforts and thoughts today do need to be radical. We cannot be satisfied with just keeping our oceans clean. If we commit ourselves to such a battle and see satisfaction in that, we will have allowed those that polluted the oceans ample opportunities to find new ways of degrading the land.

Our efforts and thoughts do need to be radical today, and we must reconcile this radicalism with the hope that there will be no need for such radicalism in our world. And we must always remember that we cannot hope for others to think and act radically unless we think so and do so ourselves.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

What if scientists quit?

As any person that does research would tell you, any probing into nature and complex systems always raises more questions than answers. As a chemical kineticist, I can assure you that people haven't even agreed on the kinetics of hydrogen+oxygen, the simplest group of reactions physically possible in combustion. (I am at times worried that fist fights will break out at conferences over peoples' differences in the understanding of these simple kinetics.) As humans, we are curious, and it is nice to "know" more about how things and the world work. But inevitably, the rise of more questions makes us think that we should find the answers to those questions, which inevitably leads to more research. In no way am I saying that all research is bad, but I believe that there comes a time when more research is not the best use of our time, of our energy, of our emotions.

Climate change is a fitting example of this. We have known for decades now that greenhouse gases are responsible for climate change, and that it is humans that are responsible for the emissions of these greenhouse gases. Yet, there is more and more research being done into climate change, and more and more articles and assessments being published, and more and more grants being written, and more and more time and effort and money being expended. We are never going to know how the climate works totally, but we do have a good enough understanding of how it does. And more fundamentally, we know (we know, we know, we know, we know!) that our behaviour, our ethics, are driving us to release more and more greenhouse gases. What should we do about this knowledge? (Of course the techno-optimists will say, 'We need better technology.' Well, we know how well that has worked out...) More research is probably leading to more lost time.

What if scientists said, 'Enough is enough! The best use of our time is to actually mobilise and act on our findings, not to beat a dead horse and learn more about the nuances of climate.' What if scientists quit? What if they boycotted "research" and became activists? Many of you might say, 'Well, scientists are socially awkward, and they'd be terrible organisers.' Okay. But think about the power that they have. They are the ones bringing in money to institutions of "learning." They are the ones that are teaching the youth about the issues. And they are the ones that know full well how our behaviours are leading to ecological degradation. We know all that we need to know to make huge strides towards treading lightly on this planet. We just need to take those steps.

Many people have talked about the role of scientists and engineers in public policy. Robert Pielke Jr. does a good job at delineating those roles in his book The Honest Broker. But the roles that he talks about assumes that scientists rest within the current structures of society that lead to much inertia - the government-university-industry complex. Only a handful are out there, writing more publicly, trying to organise and mobilise.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Guest blog #18: Catherine Baxter living's normal...

"Today wasn’t so bad...

I woke up a little late so I couldn’t really figure out what I was going to do for breakfast. I didn’t have time to go to the food co-op this weekend, so I was a little worried about my first meal. Luckily for me my roommates left out muffins, so I ate one! Thank god for roommates who bake. I went to class and did some work and then it was time for lunch. I brought a plate, silverware and a cloth napkin with me. I didn’t have time to go home to eat lunch, so I decided to get Subway. I asked them to put the sub on the plate with no paper. They were really confused at first. They didn’t understand why I didn’t want it wrapped, but they agreed to my request and I got my sub without any wrapping. Also, I paid in cash so I didn’t need to sign or receive any receipts. I am not done with the day yet, work is next. But so far this is going well.

When I brought my plate back with my sub on it, my friends laughed. I don’t think that they were laughing at me necessarily, but they were laughing at the fact that I was able to do something so different than them in their normal subway experience. But isn’t that what people normally do? Laugh at things that are unexpected or make them uncomfortable? The men working at subway laughed at my request, my friends laughed at the result. I certainly do not think that they were being spiteful, but I think these are things that I am bound to encounter when doing something that others aren’t used to seeing. Seeing something they don’t see as normal.

What is normal today anyway? We are raised to be an individual. It will suit you best when applying for colleges, looking for internships, and getting jobs. If you are a unique applicant, you will stand out. Except being unique in this sense isn’t looked at in the same way. Why do people look at unique experiences or talents as positive but unique social or political views as strange?
I went to work this afternoon, and my boss, Holly, was really great. She wanted to hear all about what I was trying to do and was giving me all the tips she could think of. She suggested using the giant green reusable gloves instead of the latex disposable ones. She also said that when I was dealing with dirty dishes I didn’t have to use gloves like the other employees. Instead I could just put on the green gloves when I was carrying clean plates and bowls.

Also, since today was my first day of trying to limit my trash, she let me be the card swiper, and I didn’t have to wear gloves at all! I’m really lucky that in a job where this could be nearly impossible, I have a boss who is very understanding. We’ll see how my other boss is tomorrow…"


Thursday, April 21, 2011

I am not extreme

(I want to apologise for some heat of the moment typing in yesterday's post.)

I have had several people say that what I am doing is "extreme." Many think that what I am doing is "impractical" for them to do, that it isn't having much of an impact, that I should spend more effort in trying to get systems to change. (With that last point, I agree, and I'm trying.) I can see how how this last year is different than what people are used to seeing and being told, but I believe that that is the extent to which adjectives can be used. I am not extreme. I am trying to be normal.

As any linguist will tell you, words shape and define our experiences and what we make of them. They also shape and limit and expand our imagination. Much of this blog has been devoted to language - the language of defining the problems that face us, and the language that can help us move away from ways of thinking that have caused those problems. I believe that we need to be using new words, or different words, to describe the actions that need to be taken, individually and collectively, to move us to an ecologically sustainable world. I think we can all agree that the world we live in, influenced by society, is not that world. There would be no oil spills or hydrofracking in an ecologically sustainable world. There would be no rape of animals and land and mountains in an ecologically sustainable world. The ecologically sustainable world in which we want to live in is in fact radically and extremely different than the world we currently live in. In an ecologically sustainable world, trash wouldn't exist, and behaviours that would lead to trash would be unacceptable. This project, in an ecologically sustainable world, would not be "extreme," it would be the normal.

What I am trying to say is that for us to live in an ecologically sustainable world, we must act in the ways that would be normal in that world. My actions now are moving me closer to those less devastating behaviours.

It is interesting how the perceptions of our actions depend on who or what those actions affect. I am going to use a stark example here, because it is in fact what we're doing. If I was a serial criminal, say a rapist, I would be an "extreme" of sorts. For me to be "normal" and not be a rapist, I would have to make an extreme change. In our ideal world, there would be no rapists. There would be no war. There would be no violent acts. Well, we are raping we are violent, and we are warring...right now...we're doing that to the Earth. (It's just that maybe using the example of raping people is something we can relate to more than raping the Earth.)

We live in a world where other people - advertisers, marketers, corporations - tell us what is good for us. Those who stand to fill their pockets are the ones defining the current "normal." Yet, given all that we know about the state of the natural world, we know that our current behaviour cannot be the normal. And so what I am doing is not extreme. I won't accept that adjective to describe me, and I won't let it deter me, and you shouldn't let such adjectives deter yourself from making bold choices, either.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

One year after the spill, who can we trust?

I pray for Earth. 

On this one year anniversary of the BP-Macondo well blowout, which was the largest oil spill in US history, and if I recall correctly the largest marine oil spill ever, I have been trying to think about what has transpired over the year. As is always the case, the memory of such disasters is always short-lived for those not directly affected by the disaster - how long do we remember those killed ruthlessly through acts of violence in the Middle East? How long do we remember the woman raped here in Ann Arbor? In this world of constant "progress" and constant stimulation and excitement for the next, it is easy to quickly move on to the next thing. It is difficult to think about the past. What ends up happening, however, is that the past repeats itself. It is almost as if as a society, we have a collective cultural amnesia of sorts, even though we're better than ever before at documenting and recording what transpires on this Earth. We have satellites and cameras on cell phones and video recorders and Twitter and instant messaging. But does the constancy of all of this information obscure what it is we are doing to ourselves and the planet? It seems so. Boy, when those videos of the oil gushing through the well head were broadcast on TV, I thought, "THIS IS IT!"
As much as I was heartbroken by what happened, I felt this optimism of something big happening..something good...something positive. The public and myself, complicit in ecological degradation, would realise the risks of our individual and collective behaviours, and would make sure those risks would not be taken ever again...wrong.

Although the Minerals Management Service has been restructured so that the department issuing permits for drilling is different than the department receiving the revenues from issuing those permits, we have congresspeople like Doc Hastings saying, "Drilling is safe." As someone who isn't involved in the decision-making going on, I can still safely say that this is an overtly false statement. The risks of undertaking such drilling are almost too difficult to calculate. And, just like Weitzman's fat tails and dismal theorem, if the risks of calamity are adequately factored into risk assessments, we would realise that it is just too risky to do something like drill in deep oceans. Yet, many like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal have said that the permit granting process should be quickened up. It is not surprising that many people that "represent" us in Congress are actually supported by groups like the American Petroleum Institute. How can we trust agencies and bureaus whose guidelines are written by those in industry?

My mom told me the other day, "Darshan, if those in government really cared about people, the people, a lot of problems that exist today just wouldn't exist. Now do you understand why your dad doesn't vote?" My parents are amazing and prescient and keen.

Here are things that you can read and catch up on, if you are interested...

Nil, Baby, Nil: Congress Fails To Pass A Single Oil Spill Law 

One Year Later, Congress and Industry Do Nothing to Make Drilling Safer 

Gulf Residents: Please Take our Dolphins and Turtles Away 

Ken Feinberg, BP Not Independent According To Judge 

BP spill: Life in Gulf of Mexico one year on

BP oil spill: The environmental impact one year on

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

FRACK YOU - Not learning from our mistakes

The issue of hydrofracking has all of the essentials of a prime example of how we treat the environment and other humans. It is a most visceral example of ecological degradation, too, because of the potential and already existing impacts it has resulted in. More on that later.

As with much environmentalism in this country, environmentalism is viewed under the lens of energy. There is a sense that if we can just find "clean energy," all our environmental woes will be things of the past. It is this mentality, coupled with our tolerance of high-risk corporate behaviour, that has led to the acceptance of hydrofracking as a way to find "clean energy." Add on top of this that this energy is not coming from the Middle East, and many have a reason to smile. Of course, it has helped the hydrofracking establishment that the hydrocarbon obtained from the process is natural gas, basically methane. As someone who has a little understanding of combustion, if you did want to burn something, methane is probably your least bad choice in terms of flame characteristics and the simplicity of the chemistry. What people are not thinking about is that the companies that are involved in the fracking are the very companies that have acted irresponsibly to people and the environment so far.

I think the issue of hydrofracking is less about these companies and their behaviour, which will not change as easily as we would hope, and more about what we think about what our lives need, i.e. energy. Many people are "techno-optimists" - they believe that these "breakthroughs" in "clean energy" will come; we just need to sit tight and believe. Given this techno-optimism and our inability to function without copious and excessive amounts of energy, we are willing to give free reign to those who will provide us the energy. But we are then shocked that they would take part in actions that lead to contamination of aquifers and rivers and pools full of radioactive wastewater and seas full of leaked oil. It is easy for us to tell these companies that "...hydraulic fracturing must be done in a way that protects the environment and public health,” but it is much harder for us to accept our complicity in their behaviour. Each and every one of us can reduce our patronage of these degrading entities. We can show that it is possible not to be defined by their existence and by what it is they sell us.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The data don't speak for themselves

One thing I have constantly thought about is, How do I get my message across? Over the past year, it has been interesting to observe how people react to the trashlessness. With something like trash, a visceral action and outcome, one would think that it would be easy to convince people about the impacts and tolls of their choices on society and the environment. Yet, it is never easy to convince people that their choices have an impact for several reasons. One, of course, is that people feel that their choices, in the grander scheme of things, are inconsequential. Two, they might agree with you, and choose not to act out of indifference. Three, they might agree with you, but choose not to act because changing their behaviour goes against everything they have been taught. There may be a resistance to change because that behaviour is deep-rooted culturally, and because people may see that everyone else is doing what they are that can't be wrong, right? This last reason is particularly challenging to address because true environmental activism does fly in the face of most all cultural norms and how we've structured our interactions amongst ourselves and the environment. In that light, Katie recently sent out an interview of Professor Andy Hoffman in The New York Times. He has worked for a while now with a dear friend of mine on climate skepticism. (I recommend you read this interview; it's really, really fascinating.) One thing Professor Hoffman said that struck me was, "So when I hear scientists say, 'The data speak for themselves,' I cringe. Data never speak. And data generally and most often are politically and socially inflected. They have import for people’s lives. To ignore that is to ignore the social and cultural dimensions within which this science is taking place."

Climate change is something we all have to face. But for the reasons described above, people may not want to change their behaviour, which directly contributes to the problem. The verdict on the veracity of climate change, or global warming, has been out for decades now, and yet, many people just don't believe in it. Thousands of papers and much effort has been invested in international assessments. But, it just is so damn hard to convince people (Act II) that have made up their minds. What is particularly interesting is how people choose to believe some things, and act on them or use that beliefs, and choose not to believe other things. For example, let's take the jet engine. Many decades, people are still trying to figure out how to get those things to work better. Most times, we don't even know the complex fluid mechanics going on in the engine. Yet, the understanding about the combustion and fluid mechanics and control of engines has come, not surprisingly, from the same process, social and political, that has proven that climate change is real and human induced. (I am talking about the "scientific, peer-review process.") But people will very readily put themselves on a plane, and "trust that the engineers and scientists did their job in assuring their safety," while at the same time not believe that those very planes are ecologically impactful. This is exactly what Professor Hoffman is getting at. Traveling on a plane to visit a foreign land or see relatives is important to people, but anything that will change or take away the ability to do so will be fought till the very end.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

FRACK YOU - A series on the rape of the Earth and its people

"I have come to believe that extracting natural gas from shale using the newish technique called hydrofracking is the environmental issue of our time. And I think you should, too." ~Sandra Steingraber in Orion

I didn't expect to be writing about the toxic process of hydrofracking, which I have read about over the past months, until I read this horrific article by Ian Urbina, "Millions of Gallons of Hazardous Chemicals Injected Into Wells, Report Says" in the NYTimes today. The article was written as a part of their Drilling Down series.

I do not want to go into the details of how hydrofracking is conducted right now, apart from saying that toxic chemicals, and a lot of them, are pumped into the ground at high pressure to crack rock formations underground, releasing natural gas. (You can read more about the entire process through a fantastic multimedia graphic here.) In the end, we end up with wastewater at the surface that contains obscene amounts of radioactive materials, carcinogens and corrosive salts. (You can look at a detailed interactive graphic of contaminated sites in Pennsylvania here) Sometimes, this wastewater is sent to normal treatment plants that do not have the capacity to treat for this toxins and radioactives; nonetheless the water is released into rivers. At the same time, there is contamination of groundwater and aquifers and wells with these chemicals. There has been so much talk about hydrofracking recently, and recent episodes of the The Story (here, here, here) have discussed the issue in various parts of the country, from various perspectives. You can also find documents about the politics of this process here.

Over the next few days and weeks, I will be writing about hydrofracking, in a series I am titling FRACK YOU. I will be tying together various threads of thought that have emerged in this blog over the past months, including rape of the Earth, risk, vulnerability, government regulation, corporate competition, care, respect, proxies and anecdote.
"A sign warns against swimming in a holding lake in Texas, where Fountain Quail Water Management separates and cleans hydrofracking water." From

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Traveling at home: Ypsilanti with Tim

I have been to Ypsilanti, the home of Eastern Michigan University, several times before. It is has a different pace and atmosphere compared to Ann Arbor, although it is just a few miles away. There is much culturally going on there, and its Riverside Park is home to the Michigan Summer Beer Festival. I went there today, this time in travel mode, with Tim. We had a quite beautiful time there.

As you enter Ypsilanti via Washtenaw Avenue, you are greeted by one of the more phallic water towers of the world. Nadia even told me it was known throughout Germany! We started off at the Ugly Mug, a cool coffee shoppe within walking distance of Eastern's campus, close to the historic Depot Town.

There, I met Linda, who was sitting at the bar. She got a BFA in photography, and loves doing creative things. She manages a gallery and art store in Ann Arbor, actually, the one right across the street from Conor O'Neills. Our conversation focused on Southeast Michigan, which is where she's spent her life so far...
Where do you live and where do you call home?
"I was born in Plymouth-Canton, and moved to Ypsilanti when I was eighteen to come to school. I actually lived right across the street from here, on Adams, when I was in Ypsilanti. My boyfriend is still active in local theatre here. Now I live in Whitmore Lake. I consider Whitmore Lake home. I moved there in 2006 because the schools are a better fit for my son. It is a quieter and safer place. My sister is out there, too." Whitmore Lake is a small community just a few miles north of Ann Arbor; it is a wonderful bike ride away.

What do you love about where you call home?
"I love how you can move between the city, the suburbs and the country in a short time. I also love the people here. There's a great mixture of people, some I get along with, and some I don't. There are people of all social and economic statuses, a lot of unexpected people. Like you. I never expected to be talking to a stranger today."

How has this area changed, culturally and environmentally, over time?
"The area has become a lot more liberal over time. There's a lot more art and music, not just in Ann Arbor or Detroit. There isn't a big gap anymore. Maybe it is the technology, maybe the people...There is definitely a lot less of the environment visible today. When I was growing up, between Plymouth-Canton and Ypsilanti, there were only dirt roads and farms. Now there are subdivisions and car dealerships and box stores everywhere. I am not a huge fan of sprawl. There are definitely fewer farms and woods. I feel like in that sense, this place has lost its character. Canton just sort of blends in now, and has lost its uniqueness. Ypsilanti, though, seems to have held together pretty tightly. There's not a lot of corporate stuff in this town."

What is unique about this place? What should I definitely check out? What should I observe there?
"The river. And the park area...Riverside and Frog Island. Not a lot of places have a river running through the middle of them. There is a bridge under a bridge. Anywhere on that bridge, just stand there. There's also an outdoor amphitheatre in Frog Island that should be used more...Definitely go to La Fiesta Familia, the Mexican restaurant just up the road. I've been going there for years and have gotten to know the family very well. I always order the same thing every time..."

Tim and I walked over to the bridge under the bridge. I had never noticed it! Nor have I seen anything else like it. It is beautiful; the river is flanked by Depot Town and a beautiful old women's dorm on either side. The river was gushing with rains on the watershed. We saw the amphitheatre, too.

Tim and I also walked into Depot Town. It definitely seems like history stares you more in the face in Ypsilanti than in Ann Arbor. Both Tim and I felt that we were kind of walking back through time in Ypsilanti. They've done a wonderful job at creating little spaces, and there are signs and plaques everywhere talking about the history of the town. There are little nooks hidden in the peace of the town. I know that most students that pass through Ann Arbor never make it out to Ypsilanti, which is just ten minutes away. Tim and I had a wonderful afternoon there.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Reflections on TEDxUofM

I want to follow the footsteps of Jameson Toole and talk about a fantastic event that we were at recently. Last Friday (a week ago, already!), I was invited to speak at TEDxUofM, an independently organised TED event. TEDxUofM was completely student organised and executed. They did an absolutely amazing job. I want to thank Tom Crawford, Alex O'Dell, Kelsey Rhodes, Poonam Dagli, Alyssa Ackerman, Jane van Velden, Lia Wolock, Peter Kovits, and especially Victoria Johnson for all of the help and encouragement that they gave me leading up to and during the conference. I wouldn't have been able to do it without them. It turns out that it was the largest TEDx conference, ever. I am grateful for the opportunity they gave me; it was a wonderful experience, and the biggest honour I could imagine. The theme for this year's conference, staged at the Michigan Theater, was "Encouraging Crazy Ideas." Here is a beautiful video speaking about the event.

 Also check out the amazing intro video, all hand drawn, that was played at the beginning of the conference.
Michigan Theatre (from
The speakers were absolutely amazing - doctors and musicians and illustrators and humans rights advocates. Donia Jarrar was one of the speakers. She's a musical composition student here, and she talked about her efforts in translating voicemail messages of people in Egypt during the recent revolution there. 
Donia Jarrar
Chris Van Allsberg talked about the story of the woman who decided to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Chris Van Allsburg
Jared Genser talked about his efforts to free prisoners of political dissent, all over the world. All of the speakers were current or former University of Michigan students or professors. Everyone had a connection to this incredible town, Ann Arbor.

I personally spoke about the power of individual action in combating large problems. Here is a picture that was put in The Michigan Daily. The "crazy idea" that I tried to communicate was that we don't need crazy ideas. We know all that we need to know to make huge strides towards treading lightly on this planet. (I will post the video as soon as it comes online.)
What was interesting about the topic of the conference, "Encouraging Crazy Ideas," is that each and everyone one of us is empowered to make the choice of truly committing to changing the status quo. This was reflected by all of the other speakers that spoke at the conference. Hopefully, such sentiments are the seeds that will grow into meaningful change in our world. As Erik Torenberg reflected in The Michigan Daily today,

"A completely student run event [like TEDx] is a crazy idea. Their phenomenal performances show what can happen when you put talented students from diverse backgrounds together for a common goal. There are more people who would like to make amazing things happen. Some were in the audience, some weren’t. 

At the reception following the lectures, I realized I wasn’t the only one who was inspired. Some friends and I talked about exciting things we could do within our organizations and on our own. We kept building off each other’s ideas, offering enthusiastic support and feedback. The energy was palpable. 

But what will happen next week when exams and papers consume our minds? What will happen when people tell us to be practical, and play it safe? Will this rekindled belief in our abilities to make something great happen fade? 

My friends and I spoke about this with some of the speakers and organizers of the event for more than an hour. How can we maintain this community of students, professors and alumni who want to make a big difference? Should it be organized formally or should it continue organically? How will we look back at TEDx in a few months? Will we see it as a genuine, perhaps revolutionary, call to action? Or merely a one-day performance?"

All I can say is that if you are willing to live the change, you will always find support, especially in a place like Ann Arbor.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Further thoughts on choice

I have written about the issue of choice in a couple of contexts, including "political consumption" (here, here, inspired by Ethan), doing things just because we can, Pareto optimality, and just the choices available to us in an ecologically sustainable world. I would like to expand a little bit more on these choices that may (should) or may not (should not) be available to us in an ecologically sustainable world.

As with everything, I want to bring this down from a macro-scale issue to a micro-scale issue. At yesterday's Student Sustainability Initiative Roundtable, the last one of the year, Ryan talked about the successes in reducing waste and trash from athletic events on campus. There is hope then that these successes will be built on, and maybe a day will come in which people may be able to bring their own water bottles to Michigan American football games, because plastic bottles of water will just not be allowed to be sold there. In response, someone said that she would rather allow people the option of bringing in their own bottles, rather than banning outright plastic bottles. She felt that limiting choice is not the right approach; rather, we should add choices.

I can see what she is trying to say, but I would have to totally disagree with her. Some things just don't exist in an ecologically sustainable University of Michigan campus. Plastic bottled water is one of those things. The only way to make that happen is through either phasing them out, or banning them. If we think about this issue a little more broadly, it isn't as if we have all of the choices available to us right now.

Much of the clutter of the world has come through a continual expansion of choice, as I've elaborated on previously; at the same time, many choices just are not available to us. Whether I like it or not, if I live in Michigan, when I charge my phone, electricity that has been generated by using coal is something I have to deal with and accept. If you don't live next to a Farmers' Market, and don't have a way of growing your own food and don't have a place where you can buy things with minimal packaging, highly packaged food or fast food may be your only options. This raises some complicated issues of how we've invested so much in making sure that we degrade our environment and health, but I don't want that thought to distract me here.

I believe that our current choices need to be replaced, and current choices just should not be available to us if we want to tread lightly on this planet. If you think in terms of "free-market capitalism," that would mean that the price of doing something ecologically degrading would just be so high that you wouldn't be compelled to do it. But say you did have enough money to do something bad to the environment. Well, we can make it a "criminal activity" of sorts to do something like that, i.e. the social norm encourages us to think otherwise. The choices for us to have Hummers, to degrade the health of individuals and water and air by citing an incinerator next to where they live, and to be able to freely trash the environment just don't exist in an ecologically sustainable world. No amount of "monetary compensation" can be used to justify those actions. Those choices must be taken away.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Guest blog #17: Laura Smith on durable change and rethinking incentives

"I should preface this post by saying that what you are about to read is 100% my interpretation on the writing and teaching of my adviser in the School of Natural Resources, Raymond De Young. He teaches a course on the Psychology of Environmental Stewardship, and has written articles with such titles as “Changing Behavior and Making it Stick.” So, in writing this post, I find myself in what I refer to as another “channeling Ray” moment.

When we talk of scaling up environmental behavior change, the question of incentives inevitably arises.  It is a commonly held belief that monetary incentive, in particular, is the only way to insight individual change on a massive scale. There is no doubt that financial payoff for do-gooding has magical powers. However, as a behavior change strategy, it has its pitfalls, not least of which is durability. But I will get to that in a moment.

Perhaps the first question regarding financial incentives or disincentives is this: who pays? Incentives for going green are often temporal in nature, and the kitty eventually runs out. Recent politics around budgetary issues suggest that these pots of money could be even more rare in the coming years.  Disincentives, on the other hand, force the consumer to pay up, which is perhaps a dicey proposition in "economic hard times."  From a purely economic standpoint, there are good reasons to rethink monetary incentives to drive environmental behavior change.

There is another compelling reason – behaviors driven by reward have a notorious “back to baseline” effect when the incentive is removed. In other words, materially incentivized behavior typically goes back to previous unsustainable levels when the rewards go away. Research has shown this effect time and again with a multitude of environmental and health-related behaviors. So, unless someone is willing to pay the price indefinitely, we can hardly expect durable change.

Disincentives are a slightly different story, since these can be put in place for lengthy periods of time, perhaps yielding the desired trend over time (think gas tax). Like incentives, this is a technique of coercion, and because of that, it poses some interesting challenges. Psychological reactance is a common one, and describes the behaviors of people who go out of their way to mess with the system.  

The driving law in Sao Paulo, Brazil illustrates well some of some issues with disincentives. To reduce its daunting pollution and traffic problems, the South American mega-city put a law into effect that allows license plates with odd numbers to drive on certain days of the week, and even numbers the other days. Unfortunately, the city did not simultaneously provide reasonable alternative transportation choices. As a result, many people ended up changing the times they drove to skirt hours of enforcement, and in some extreme cases, bought a second car so that they could legally drive every day. Neither behavior was an intended consequence of the law that was supposed to curb unnecessary driving and encourage carpooling.
So, the behavior change goal can’t conflict with needs basic to one’s livelihood. But say we are dealing with behaviors more benign.  How do we encourage durable change?

Change from within
One alternative to techniques of coercion (change from the outside) is helping people to construct their own internal motivations for the behavior in question (change on the inside). This can be spurred through our relationships with inspiring people, time in nature, time spent learning about environmental issues, and the list goes on. Personal change is ideally bolstered with a supportive social network. So, in some ways, the strategy implies an incentive program that is individually tailored, and maintained, by each person…in their own heads…and supported by a loving community. 

Durable change, in this light, may take effort to get people started, but becomes self-maintaining over time. 

Now, if you need to change behaviors of a lot of people and fast, and you don’t necessarily need the behavior to stick, get out your wallet! There is no doubt that incentives and disincentives have a valid role to play in environmental behavior change. But isn’t it nice to know that they’re not the only way?"
~Laura "Smitty" Smith

This post on durable change dovetails wonderfully with some of the thoughts from a recent post. I have written about durable change a few times (here, here, here), too. Laura raises some very interesting points, some of which I have been trying to articulate over the past year. The notions of "incentive" and "disincentive" in our world almost always seems to boil down to a monetary issue, and money viewed under the economic structures of today has different powers than maybe another framework you might conjure up. I personally believe that when it comes down to it, the talk about things being "economical" and "efficient" must be moved away from, particularly when viewed under our current framework, and especially because of the nature of the compromises that this framework results in. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Peace and the deficiencies of anthropocentrism

I was struck by this painting by David Ward, a prisoner here in the State of Michigan, whose work Ode to a dying ideal was showcased along with the art and writing of many other prisoners in Michigan at one of the best events that comes through this University. The Prison Creative Arts Project does wonderful things.

I was struck so much that I put a bid on it (click on the photo to see the detail of the border), and won, without even thinking once about my "not buying anything" policy...different issue, one that we can talk about later. What I wanted to write about today was exactly what Ward is getting at with his painting. We cannot go a minute now without listening to people being killed, either people in Iraq or Afghanistan (where it is almost certain that more people have been killed than has been reported in the media here), or people that are being killed so that their voices can be silenced, i.e. in places like Yemen and Libya. People are being silenced here, too. 

I have written at length about peace and the environment, initially provoked by a discussion about Just War Theory with Professor Richard Tucker (more here, here, here), and then subsequently by a piece written by Hendrik Hertzberg about Gabrielle Giffords' shooting. I re-read what I wrote a few months ago, and my mind has not changed. 

It is interesting how all ecological degradation has stemmed from our anthropocentric ethical structure, which dictates that we will do whatever it takes in the interest of humans, more likely than not at the expense of the environment. There are a couple of deficiencies of this ethical framework that I can think of off the top of my head, which I want to discuss. Firstly, I find it amazing that we think humans are the greatest thing in the world, but when it comes down to our differences, we will resort to violence to make sure that power stays concentrated with certain people. There is a clear discrepancy, it seems then, between doing all that we can to keep humanity alive (anthropocentrism), and then resorting to violence to kill humans when we don't agree. Of course, someone that has power might say then that it is in the interest of the broader humanity that their power is being used as violence against others, but that is unjustifiable. In this case, we don't act anthropocentrically.

Secondly, although it may be more manageable for us to think that we should act in the best interest of humans, particularly from an "evolutionary" standpoint, we inevitable degrade what it is that sustains us. We want to protect our own, and if that means that we need to blow off the top of a mountain to get coal so that our homes can be heated in winter, so be it. But if we think about the longevity of humanity, certainly blowing off of the top of a mountain and consequently polluting streams and rivers is in no way protecting our ability to further ourselves. Anthropocentrism, in this case, just has the ability to cave in on itself, particularly when it comes down to an ever-burgeoning population and the struggle to keep ourselves alive in the future. The future that we have envisioned for ourselves, full of batteries and gizmos and computers, is no less violent toward nature than our present society.

The very act of war itself is unsustainable in the truest sense of the word, while at the same time flying in the face of anthropocentrism. Peace does seem to be a dying ideal.

Monday, April 11, 2011

We cannot wait

I do not intend this post to be in any way discouraging. Rather, I hope it lays out, to some extent, why it is that matters need to be taken into our own hands, yes, yours and mine.

I had a wonderful day today, which was spent talking with Patrick about the issues raised because of individual action and the arguments for it. One of the major questions that has come up during this past months is, Why focus on individual action? Getting organisations that have impacts much larger than my own to decrease their environmental impact by even 0.01% will dwarf anything I have been able to do over the past fifty-four weeks. I agree. That would be wonderful to do, and I encourage all of us to continue our efforts to do so. The obvious way to get such organisational change is government policy. People might think that we should focus our efforts on getting some national or regional policy passed. Yes, we should, and I encourage all of us to continue our efforts to do so. People have told me that there need to be "incentives" to change behaviour, or at least some policy that pushes people to change their behaviour. Yes, that is needed.

However, my questions in rebuttal are these - Who is going to get the government to enact policy, and what exactly is the nature of that policy? What ethical (and consequently legal and economic) foundations are those changes in behaviour going to be adopted on? Any change that stands a chance at truly addressing the nature of the problems that face us will necessarily require a fundamental rethink of our ethical structure. Furthermore, "incentives" are introduced all the time in our country, and are as quickly taken away - take for example production tax credits for renewable sources of energy. Given the magnitude of the issues that face us, "incentives" that have the potential to be taken away are in some sense a waste of time in trying to get passed, particularly how the sausage factory of the government is adept at watering policies down to be mere lip service. The changes that are required in our society need to be durable.

As I have written about previously, any durable change (here, here, here) that comes can come from nowhere but from our own lives. It is our choice. It is through the collective projection of our lives outwards that we currently allow the existence of ecologically destructive organisations and governments. Also, I highly doubt that a large fraction of people in the US will be willing to do something because the government forces them to, particularly when it comes to the environment. As Professor Andrew Hoffman said, "There’s a segment of the population that sees environmentalists as socialists, trying to control people’s lives."

It is clear to me that not everyone thinks that environmentalists are trying to control people's lives. What that means is that each one of us can be that example, to these people, at least, that shows that making the meaningful changes in our lives is not only necessary, but also doable.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Traveling at home: Where I live

I figured that my first excursion on this Traveling at home journey (here, here) should be an exploration of where I live, High St. in Ann Arbor.
Where I live
I am fortunate enough to live right by the Huron River, overlooking the Gandy dancer (which used to be the old Ann Arbor train station), within walking distance of the Farmers' Market and the historic Kerrytown Market. But I wanted to bring it closer, and wanted explore the immediate block around me. First, I wanted to explore one of the most beautiful structures in Ann Arbor - the St. Thomas The Apostle Church. This church was initially built in the mid 1800s, and there is a Catholic school that goes along with the church. It was evening, and the Church was locked, when a man called out,  "Sir! Would you like to go in?" Perfect. I met Mark, a man born in Ann Arbor in 1948, a man full of thoughts and stories. I didn't even have to ask him much. He just started talking. We talked just outside the main entrance of the church.
St. Thomas The Apostle
School next to the church
Part of St. Thomas school
Part of St. Thomas school
Where do you live?
"I live in Plymouth, MI, but I grew up just two blocks away, at 206 N. Thayer. It's an old home, Greek revivalist. There's an addition on the back. It was built in 1885, I think. There's a Victorian house right next to that, that was built in 1853. That modern apartment building next to it was built in the 1960s. They tore down Mr. Roby's Rug - they used to clean rugs and carpets there."
206 N. Thayer (I've actually been to a party here! Haha)
Where do you call home?
Before I even asked him this question he just said, "This is home. This church." Right then, we heard a train pull into the station. He said, "Did you hear that train? That is home. That station. When I was three years old, I remember going to bed to the sound of the steam engine. It made that chuck-a-chuck-a-chuck-a-chuck-a sound. That sound made me sleep. I didn't realise it, but over time, my sleep changed, and when I was a teenager, I figured out that the engines had changed to diesel engines. They had a sort of drone to them, totally different sound. My dad used to be a professor here, in the Mechanical Engineering Department, where the Math building is now. He helped people in the machine shop. A lot of the people that got their PhDs here thanked him in their dissertations."

What do you love about this place?
"Everything in the church is just close. You aren't far from the alter, or the crucifixes. When I was young, I just liked being able to get on campus. I realised I saw things that I didn't know that I liked at the time. This town is clean and safe. There's just so much diverse architecture here. And the trees. There are just so many kinds of people here. You just get to know people of different cultures, you know? You know this building? This used to be St. Joe's Hospital, I think. And that building that's now the lawyer's practice? I think that was St. Joe's property, too. Have you been to Plymouth? You have to come to the Ice Festival. The sculptures are just beautiful. They are so intricate. How do they have the time to do all of that? You know, the individual threads on the rope, and everything..."
Ferguson+Widmayer, an old St. Joe's property

How has Ann Arbor changed since when you were a boy?
"This place used to be very conservative, now it is very liberal. I guess the Vietnam War was that tipping point."

I am addicted. This was such a wonderful experience, meeting Mark, and getting to know where I live. I believe that an appreciation of place can help each one of us realise that where we live is constantly in flux, yet incredibly fragile. The Earth that supports us must be treated with kindness and care and respect and humility. I am traveling at home. I am here, and today is beautiful.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Changing the system, or navigating it with integrity

"The task of the activist is not to navigate current systems with integrity. The task of the activist is to take down systems of oppression." ~Derrick Jensen

I keep coming back to Jensen's talk the other day, because it was just full of fascinating ideas, thoughts and encouragement, but also replete with cynicism and a sense that we are just running out of time. I must agree that we are running out of time, in the biggest sense, first and foremost. With something like climate change for example, it doesn't seem like the world is gung-ho on making sure Mauritius doesn't drown. There are other deeper issues that do need to be dealt with, though, such as a redefinition of norms and ethics, which I think Jensen is trying to get at, too.

(When I say "technology," I mean the technology that has been brought into the world in the past few decades, the rate of whose introduction has followed something like Moore's law.) As I have alluded to with several posts on technology and progress (here, here, here, here, here), while I am not against technology altogether, the trend of techno-optimism are rather worrying, particularly because it has redefined what "sustainability" means. It has now come to mean "sustainable development," which fundamentally assumes that a Western-derived ethic of technological development will free us from our current society's ecologically-degrading behaviour. Instead of actually questioning our behaviour and what drives it, we come up with geo-engineering solutions that are just bound to make things worse. Now, it seems that much of our education system is set up such that it produces people to further entrench this technologically-driven, ecologically-degrading economy as the norm. And while it may be possible to engineer our way out of environmental disaster (I do not believe so), what Jensen is saying that it would be a major breakthrough if we were to take a step back and realise that our quest for ever-increasing technology has led us to where we are.

There are two ways then that Jensen says we could use our power - either we could all be techno-optimists, and make technologies that are "efficient" and "less harmful" to the environment, rather than come up with technologies that will have a degrading influence on nature and people, or we can say that the problem is our dependence on technology itself. We can get a job with BP, and try to "green" it from the inside, or we can make BP obsolete. We can try to convince people in the Department of Defense that we should have weapons that target only the intended target and minimise collateral damage, or we can stand in solidarity against everything that drives us to use violent force, and make the need for something like the Department of Defense a thing of the past. These are difficult things to do, but things that each and every one of us can influence. By saying no, we do not patronise, and we do not in any way insure the future of the system.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

On the importance of problem definition

I have written at length (more than thirty posts) on the issue of problem definition. I want to come back to this issue now, particularly because I was made to think about this during a wonderful discussion that I had yesterday.

I gave a presentation yesterday titled Why do we waste? An ethic of trash, waste, pollution and degradation to a group of mechanical engineering graduate students. (I had given this same presentation last semester to the Graham Doctoral Fellows.) In this presentation, I talk about the perceptions of trash, and whether trash is a natural outcome of "modernisation."

"Modernisation" has given us many, many things, including this keyboard I am using to type this blog, as well as pharmaceuticals and drugs. Various tensions are brought out when the issue of medicine is raised...always. The medical field is probably the most environmentally impactful field of all, with copious amounts of radioactive materials, chemicals, gloves, plastics, metals and paper used. A few of my medical school friends have mentioned this, too. We got involved in a discussion about whether there is "beneficial" trash and waste, i.e. the trash and waste that is produced in making a machine that detects cancer, or the trash and waste that goes into making drugs. This is of course a difficult issue, and one that people may come to loggerheads to. It all comes down to our ethic, whether we place humans at the center of our ethic (anthropocentric), or whether we place the environment and everything that constitutes it at the center of our ethic (biocentric, for example). If we say that humans are the most important thing, period, then it is not surprising that such an ethic will lead us down a path that may result in blowing apart a mountain or damming a river to save a human life. Would we drain an ocean to save a life? Where is it we draw the line? This question is overwhelming, and there is no answer to it. But, I believe it is important to think about, because the outcomes that result from our ethic have major implications.

When we think of medicine, we think of the human impacts of the endeavour. But just as with everything else we do nowadays, guided by anthropocentrism (and Western elitism), we undertake the endeavour at the potential expense of that which sustains us - the rivers, the land, and the air.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Instantaneous" trash

I apologise for the non-thought-out nature of this post; there's just a lot going through my head and for once I can't wait until it is the weekend! 

One kind of trash I am particularly struck by is the sort of "instantaneous" trash, i.e., the trash that comes out of an activity so small on a time scale, that it is truly meaningless and avoidable and selfish. (If you have a better name for this kind of trash, please let me know.) I am talking about how at BTB (formerly Big Ten Burrito), the worker will put a burrito in a paper bag, followed the person that ordered the burrito instantly taking it out of the bag, sitting down literally two feet away from the register, eating the burrito, and throwing away the bag. I have seen this numerous times. Another example is the trash that comes out of just a moment or an event. This past Saturday was the annual Hash Bash in Ann Arbor, which left the town literally drowning in trash, as you can see here.

This touches on a previous experience I had in Chicago, as well as on some things I thought about a long time ago about why we trash - we honestly don't think about more than just ourselves or the small group of people around us.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Further thoughts on risk

I have written about risk previously (here, here, here), which stems primarily from our limited mental capacities and a carelessness toward potentially disastrous outcomes. People take risks only if the desirable outcome provides much more "good" for them than "bad." Yet the way we have structured our society is that the potential good, or profit, is always concentrated, and the risks are diffuse and spread out over everyone else. The way corporations and government is set up is that those that make the decisions are furthest away from the non-desirable outcomes of an action, i.e. the risks. For example, after the BP-Macondo Well oil spill, their ex-CEO Tony Hayward, although having been battered in public, got a huge severance package, and millions of shares in BP. What about the risks of oil and exploratory drilling? Well, the Gulf of Mexico and the people and nature there will be bearing the worst outcomes of risk for many years to come. In this case, the risks of drilling exploratory wells were made evident by the spill. But do you know what? Even after the most disastrous oil spill in US history, Transocean, the rig operator, gave bonuses to its top executives for its "best year for safety in the company's history." Here's what an article from The New York Times says...

"Transocean moved on Monday to contain the damage from its description of 2010 as a good safety year, which appeared in a securities filing on Friday disclosing that its top executives received about 45 percent of their targeted performance bonuses for the year. 

Ihab Toma, Transocean’s executive vice president of global business, said in a statement on Monday that 'some of the wording in our 2010 proxy statement may have been insensitive in light of the incident that claimed the lives of 11 exceptional men last year and we deeply regret any pain that it may have caused.'"

When a nation decides to go to war, the risks and non-desirable outcomes of such a decision - potentially increased taxes, deaths of men and women, ecological destruction - are thrust upon the people of the nation, particularly the nation in which the war is being fought in. Those that made the decision to go to war do not ever go to the front lines; they are probably playing golf while others risk their lives for someone else's ego.

We've all heard about the precautionary principle - if an action is potentially dangerous, don't do it. Such is the argument made to stop using the atmosphere, the land and the water as dumping grounds, but to no avail. But it isn't that we aren't implementing the precautionary principle at all. Derrick Jensen argues that the way the precautionary principle is currently implemented is that if any action harms the profits of corporations, that is deemed potentially dangerous, and we don't do it. What if we were to, as Jensen suggests, move the burden of the risk is moved from everyone else to the one who is actually making a profit? People may argue that we have laws in place that "hold people accountable for their actions." Well, it is never the richest or most powerful person that gets into trouble. The less well off does, however. In fact, many leaders have immunity, and that immunity exists because no one would be willing to make decisions that are risky unless the immunity existed.