Tuesday, May 31, 2011

$2/day - Further thoughts on appreciation

Event though I have been trying to limit my environmental impacts by living trash-free, I never felt a...shortage, for lack of a better word...of anything. That is probably because living trash-free didn't really involve me purging much out of my life - I was close to trash-free from the outset of this journey. The things that I did thought were important to me - good food and good music as two prime examples - I have continued to surround myself in. I have never had a lack of money for these things, so much so that I haven't really cared about money whatsoever. In fact, I have a lot of money especially, even as a graduate student, because I haven't had the need to buy new things, like new electronics, at all. And while only a part of this trash-free-ness has been about showing people that it is possible, in retrospect, maybe trash-free living wasn't a big enough challenge for me. That's okay, though, because this has still been a tremendous learning experience, and it is easy to add onto this experience with other experiences, like living on two dollars a day (or thereabout).

It hasn't even been three days yet living on two dollars a day, though, and I can feel a change in thoughts in my mind. While I have always tried to appreciate everything I have been granted - by my family, friends and mentors, these past three days have made me appreciate even more the luxury I live in - being able to drink tea whenever I want to, being able to meet a friend for a cup of coffee, or going out for pizza in the middle of the night with Amit. I continue to recognise day after day that I am fortunate for being born where and when I was.

I think a lack of appreciation is one of the fundamental drivers of our behaviour in the industrialised world. We are made to feel wholly inadequate about almost everything - women aren't "beautiful" enough, our smiles aren't "perfect" enough, our shoes and bicycling parts aren't the "latest." Very little of what we have already is appreciated. That makes us look to the next. In satisfying the wants driven by this lack of appreciation, we have created economies that support themselves on the backs of people least powerful to defend themselves. This cycle perpetuates itself, and has gone on so long now that we've lost sight of what the actual problems actually are. We now think that charity will help the poor out of their plight, or that a continuation of the current economies will trickle down and magically raise everyone from their poverty. However, it is fair to say that the lifestyles of people in the industrialised world have led to poverty both here, like in inner cities, as well as elsewhere, in places like Africa and Asia. What do these lifestyles entail? They entail high amounts of products, of services, of new things. No "value" is brought into the world without new things, and the process of bringing this "value" into the world is highly extractive and highly violent, towards both nature and the poor. Poor people have to deal with bridges cited in their neighbourhoods, landfills in their backyards, and petrochemical wastes in their cities.

So if there is only one thing that each one of us can do to combat issues of environmental injustice and poverty, it would be to more fully appreciate and be thankful for what we have, and lessen our wants for things that other people tell us we need.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

$2/day - Some food, many thoughts

I met up with Paul (ultra-cool guy) this morning, and broke into a light sweat while sitting with him under the sun outside of Big City Small World Bakery. I told him about this week long project I started on, and he recommended making a trip out to By The Pound, another bulk food store in Ann Arbor. We went there, and I bought some groceries that should keep me going for the next few days...roti flour, cranberry beans, black turtle beans, and rolled oats for $3.63. I then made my way to the People's Food Co-op to get some vegetables, and I ended up getting some cabbage, carrots, onions, a lemon, and some rooibos tea for $4.42. Let's see how far these eight dollars go. (Now that I think about it, I didn't even realise that the carrots and lemon need to be kept in the fridge!)

As you may have thought to yourself already, the number of two dollars is largely symbolic and doesn't mean much to us here in the US. Really living on two dollars a day in the US is impossible, I would think. The poverty line in the US is about fifteen dollars per day per person (however that line is determined). What this means is that what fifteen dollars means to us here is not what fifteen dollars means to people elsewhere. This is obvious. What I feel though is that maybe the issues people face, regardless of whether they are poor here or poor elsewhere, are similar, the inability to stand up against the causes of their poverty, and the consequent feeling of powerlessness. Yet there are some differences, particularly when it comes to food.

Having grown up in India, I observed that the food poor people eat, if available, is actually nutritious. They eat hardy grains, rice and fresh vegetables; they just don't get enough of this healthful food. Many of the poor in India are not obese, but they suffer from being underweight or from malnutrition diseases like beriberi, pellagra, scurvy, and rickets. This is in stark contrast to what many of the poor in the US face - a lack of access to healthful foods at all, and an increased availability to processed, highly salty foods leading to obesity and other health risks. And so even though the social manifestations of what it means to be poor may be similar, the outward, bodily manifestations influenced by food, a basic necessity of life, change from West to East.

On that note, let's see what the rest of this day presents to me.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

$2/day - Expectations

I have realised that empathy is a difficult emotion, particularly when it comes to expressing it verbally to other people. While working with Professor Larsen on our class in Detroit, it was extremely important that we heard what the people of Delray felt about their situation, and the recommendations that they had for what Delray should look like. But even though we were from thirty miles away, we were outsiders. Of course, I do know we were sincerely trying to empower the residents of Delray. Yet it is easy to talk down to these people, to tell them that we know what is good for them, to tell them that they are not doing enough to ameliorate their situation. We may not feel as if we are being condescending or intentional in that way, but just like sexual harassment, many times it is not what you intend that is important, it is what they feel that matters.

From tomorrow, I shall try to live on two dollars per day, for a week. I am doing so out of my own volition, on the invitation of my friends Lisa and Ingrid, who maintain a blog called Half Of The World, which I wrote about previously. Now I know that I won't even come close to living on fourteen dollars for the week, because one day's rent is more than that. Yet, I will do what I can, with food, electricity, energy and such. I will write about the logistics over the next few days, and I am sure Lisa and Ingrid would love if you wanted to try doing it for a week and write about it.

I expect it will be easy for me to live on two dollars a day. I have a solid home to come sleep in, and have a nice work environment to go to. I will not be straining myself manually, and even if I have to in the laboratory, which is sometimes the case, I know all well that I am being paid, that I am not living in the fear of crop failing, that I will be able to come back to living on more than fourteen dollars per week. Some of you may feel that it is arrogant for me, or for us, to undertake a project like so, because we have the support and the knowledge that we can just decide not to live the project. We are therefore still outsiders, and we do not know what it is like to actually live in poverty. Outsiders yes, arrogant I hope not. Yet I do expect to learn a lot through the experience, and I am positive that this will add more layers of thoughts that I have not thought yet, and draw evermore parallels between the problems that face the environment and the humanity that inhabits it. As is my intention, Lisa and Ingrid hope for us to be more mindful of our choices, to see how our choices impact the environment, and consequently human relationships. I hope to be more empathetic to the struggles of living in poverty, and see things from the side of those we depend on to live the way we do.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Engineering and sustainability ethics

One thing that I hope has become clear from this blog is that our decisions and choices have impacts far greater in scale, in space and time, than we think they do. This is of course quite obvious given global issues like climate change and biodiversity loss, but I have tried to link these global issues to our individual actions. With the added physicality of trash, which serves solely as a lens, I am hoping that people are encouraged to take actions themselves, not only for themselves, but for their neighbourhoods, their communities, their regions, our world.

To elaborate just a little bit more, with trash, for example (again, as a lens), much goes into making what we throw away (greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, mountaintop removal, fracking, processing), and then the trash itself is transported to places where those least (and not) capable of defending themselves - poor people, future generations, nature, etc. - are disrespected and treated unjustly (landfills, incinerators, their cities, etc.).This of course, calls for a new ethic, an ethic of a wider spatial and temporal scope, as Hans Jonas argues in The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological Age.

As an engineer, I am wholly aware that the engineering profession is complicit in this degradation of nature. We build bridges, missiles, cars, buildings, planes and nanoparticles, all of which have significant negative impacts on nature, regardless of whether they "serve the public" or not. The position of engineering in the society is an interesting and complicated one. As P. Aarne Vesilind and Alastair S. Gunn have written about in Engineering, Ethics, and the Environment, the public's perception of engineering is much different than engineer's perceptions of engineering. Engineers look at the net benefits of their actions, diminishing the importance of harm to the individual. Engineers tend to be utilitarians. That is the reason why cost-benefit analyses are frequently used in making engineering decisions. Yet engineers end up building things that do affect individual lives negatively. Engineers also tend to ignore or dismiss considerations that are unquantifiable. Engineers are positivists. Yet the objects that engineers build interact with people and groups of people. They consequently interact with minds and collections of minds, the emotions of which are unquantifiable. These interactions also might occur over long periods of time - bridges are built to last several decades.

As an aerospace engineer studying biofuels and air pollution, these thoughts are constantly on my mind. Therefore, part of my doctoral work will focus on sustainability ethics and decision-making using biofuels in aviation as a case study. While I am interested in why we choose to have technological solutions to social problems, I will specifically focus on how different ethical frameworks guide and change decision-making. And here is where I need your help. My advisors, Professor Wooldridge and Professor Princen, are interested in having this work open-source, easily relatable, easily understandable, and directed toward both younger and older audiences. Ideas of having this be a part of my blog, of being a magazine piece, of being an editorial piece, of being a Wikipedia page, etc. have been thrown around. What do you think would be an interesting and modular venue for this work? What do you think are important questions to be addressed? Please send me your thoughts. I really appreciate it.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

War and the Environment: Schizophrenia

"The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, operating since 1999, is the boneyard for detritus from nuclear weapons and defense research. It can handle 6.2 million cubic feet of waste, the equivalent of about 156,000 55-gallon drums. In fact, much of the plutonium-drenched scrap it receives is packaged just that way.

WIPP isn't designed to store spent fuel from nuclear [power] generating plants, which in the United States alone increases by 3,000 tons each year. It is a landfill only for the so-called low- and mid-level waste - stuff like discarded weapons-assembly gloves, shoe coverings, and rags soaked in contaminating cleaning solvents used in fashioning nuclear bombs. It also holds the dismantled walls of machines used to build them, and even walls from rooms where that happened. All this arrives on shrink-wrapped pallets containing hot hunks of pipe, aluminum conduits, rubber, plastic, cellulose, and miles or wiring. After its first five years, WIPP was already more than 20 percent full.

The first site to begin shipping to WIPP was Rocky Flats, a defense facility on a foothills plateau 16 miles northwest of Denver. Until 1989, the United States made plutonium detonators for atomic weapons at Rocky Flats with somewhat less than a lawful regard for safety. For years, thousands of drums of cutting oil saturated with plutonium and uranium were stacked outside on bare ground. When someone finally noticed they were leaking, asphalt was poured over the evidence. Radioactive runoff at Rocky Flats frequently reached local streams; cement was swirled into radioactive sludge in absurd attempts to try to slow seepage from cracked evaporation ponds; and radiation periodically escaped into the air. A 1989 FBI raid finally closed the place. In the new millennium, after several billion dollars' worth of intensive cleanup and public relations, Rocky Flats was transmuted into a National Wildlife Refuge."

From The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On the relationship between adaptability and what we have

With a changing climate and growing scarcity, I wonder how adaptable we may be to what nature throws in our way. In the future, maybe we will have more hurricanes of more and more power. Maybe precipitation will increase, and the banks of the Mississippi will burst with more frequency, with more exuberance. As I mentioned in a previous post, much of what we have done to nature has been against its tide. We have held back waters that want to flow. Furthermore, we have invested much of our energies, time, and spirit into creating objects that constantly seek our attention to be maintained, while also changing our present such that we can imagine no future without them.

I cannot speak for the past, and would not know how different the past was, but I think that today, the man-made, physical objects that surround us have become so much a part of our existence that our fate is inextricably tied to their fate, not to mention to the complexities of increasing unwieldy social structures such as large government. We have created for ourselves a world of dependencies and proxies. What is not difficult to notice, however, is that with large government, important actions that do need to be taken are almost always held back by inertia. With physical objects we cannot comprehend how life was possible without them. We have become less adaptable to change, in a sense, or to a world without those objects. (This is not to deny the changes that we've experienced in the past few months because of things, dependent on physical objects such as computers and power lines, like Facebook and Twitter.) But it is fair to say that these physical objects are the cause of much ecological degradation, and our continued dependence on them will continue to degrade nature, especially because of a lack of durability. More fundamentally, however, I believe that we must face up to the challenges of a scarce future by changing our decisions today.

I wonder how adaptable we are given all that surrounds us. If we had to live with fewer hours of electricity, could we? Of course, many do not want to envision such a scenario, and then of course prepare for the scarcity by trying to invent something new. While this is possibly an argument for minimalism, I believe more fundamentally that we need an understanding and mindfulness that the more we invest in static, stationary, physical objects, the less and less adaptable we become to our lives without them. For example, the more reliant we are on GPS, the less aware we become of direction such that we may lose our way without GPS. I raise the issue so because what we have today is what we present to tomorrow, yet it is hard to deny that the future is full of scarcity, of fights over water, of fights over minerals. We can avoid this, I have no doubt.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On inequality, poverty, and ecological degradation

I have written just a little bit about the issues of poverty and inequality. My first foray into this issue was inspired by Vanessa Baird's piece Trash: Inside The Heap. Today, I would like to revisit these issues and promote a very interesting project. A couple of my friends, Lisa and Ingrid have started a blog called Half of The World. The blog is about how poverty and inequality are driven and perpetuated by neocolonialism and transnational organisations, but more fundamentally the way we in the most powerful nations on the Earth, each and every one of us, choose to behave. Our behaviour is deeply ingrained and self-serving, and results in calamities such as the dumping of petrochemical wastes in Africa, or the shipping of electronic wastes to Asia, or the degradation of environment in Delray, Africa, and Asia being far less financially and politically fortunate.  

The blog challenges people to live on $2/day for a week, and the purpose is threefold - 
  • Highlight the disparity between the disparities between standards of living in industralised nations and unindustrialised nations - By forcing ourselves to make the sorts of calculations and sacrifices that are common for most people in the world, they wish to gain some understanding of how the Majority World lives, and how radically different our own lives are.
  • By forcing ourselves to live with less, they hope to question our own taken-for-granted habits and think about the types of choices we have been making. They want to discover what we have become dependent upon, what we can actually live without, and what viable alternatives exist to reduce our daily consumption patterns. When making routine purchases, they desire to more frequently ask ourselves, “Do I really need this?”
  • Most importantly, they wish to use this project as a springboard to share information and increase awareness about the nature of global poverty. They believe that one of the most decisive needs in the struggle against global poverty is a critical mass of people who are willing to substantially alter their lifestyle and work together to challenge the systems of inequality that both sustain their way of life and simultaneously produce mass starvation among the rest of the world.
There are striking parallels between what I have been writing about for the past year, and the motivations that have guided Lisa and Ingrid. Trash had provided a wonderful, although not fully adequate, lens through which to view the impacts of our choices. Although poverty may be a little more difficult to grasp, images of poverty surround us, even here in Ann Arbor, or just forty miles away, and this poverty results from the exact same choices that we make that result in trash, and ecological degradation more broadly. Rather than frame the issues through trash, they choose the lens of consumption, the differences I have written about here. This further reinforces to me that issues such as poverty, inequality, greenhouse gas emission, toxins in water, fracking, and trash are just different manifestations of more fundamental problems plaguing our societies. We cannot, and should not, think that we can address one without addressing them all; this is something we all need to accept.

Gap Between Rich And Poor Named 8th Wonder Of The World

Monday, May 23, 2011

Traveling at home: It's in your backyard

I have not written about traveling for the past few weeks, and that is because I have been involved in helping a group of students understand the complexities of urban planning, justice, and sustainability. I am back in Ann Arbor now after having spent an incredible two weeks in Delray and Detroit, away from the privilege of this town. How the experiences of these past two weeks have changed me I am unsure of. What I do know is that I have changed. In-depth conversations with the residents of Delray and animated discussions with the students in the class have provided me much to ponder about, much to mull over.

Travel is about time and space, just like trash. I feel as if I have come back from a long voyage of two months, not a two week trip to a neighbourhood forty miles away. Caleb had a reason why. He told me, "Time is a measure of change." It seems that a much longer time has passed because much has happened in my life (and the lives of the students taking the class - I can attest to that...I've been reading their journals) and I have learned much in these two weeks...all of this in our backyard, our backyard of Southeast Michigan

When we think of traveling, we think of faraway places, we think of exoticism, and we think of new people. Fundamentally it seems then that most traveling comes down to new experiences. Traveling takes you away from the routines many of us have become used to; traveling provides us a fresh look at the world and our neighbourhoods. What we learn on our travels impacts the choices we make and the way we live. What these past two weeks have further reinforced to me is that traveling can happen right here, right now. A new destination is in your backyard, on your street, and possibly in your own room. It is just a matter of perception.

This may be quite obvious to say, but the difference we can make in the world depends on how we choose to be affected by and respond to what surrounds us. It is possible to walk down the streets of Ann Arbor, or wherever you live, go on the same walk you've been on many times before, and have it change your world view, or at least modify it slightly. As I have mentioned before, reality is what we make of what surrounds us.  Now while I am not saying that people should not go to faraway places, what I am saying is that despite all the pressures of being "upwardly mobile" and gaining "social capital," traveling, and learning and action more broadly, consists solely of opening up ourselves to the possibilities that constantly surround us. Such a mindfulness will hopefully make us consider the ecological impacts of our choices.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

On the unsustainability of tradeoffs

We're always faced with situations in which we have to choose one or the other. Many times, especially in politics in the US, we choose between two politicians. More often than not, these choices are between two options that are both terrible, and we end up in a bind in which we guarantee a bad outcome, no matter what.

It seems to me that when culture existed in a much different state (say, groups of thirty or forty humans truly living off of the land and in tune with nature), tradeoffs were likely not a problem at all. I may be completely ignorant to the tradeoffs that they were making, but the scale of tradeoffs they were making were nothing like the tradeoffs we deal with today - going to school at a large public university or a small liberal arts college, building a publicly-owned bridge across the Detroit River by displacing many residents or having another privately-owned bridge that won't displace residents. I wonder what the first tradeoff that was ever made was. The most ecologically-impactful tradeoffs probably began when man sought to modify nature in ways that would make things "efficient" for himself. Tradeoffs are complicated issues, and are, to me, one of the fundamental features of decision-making today that leads to unsustainability.

When we say tradeoff, what we are really saying is we are willing to make the choice of doing one thing at the expense of another thing. Take mountaintop removal, for example. Many people have decided that coal is the way we want to power ourselves. What we are doing is powering ourselves, our lives, at the expense of the mountain, the river, the atmosphere. We do this because, to put it in neoclassical (cartoon) economic terms, the "benefits" of powering ourselves through coal are much "higher" than the "costs" of ecological harm. What this necessarily entails, however, are costs, regardless, and someone, some nature, somewhere, is going to feel the negative effects of this choice. There is no skirting this issue, I think we can all agree with that. 

As I have continually written about in the blog, what we do then is we address the "costs," the negative outcomes of our choices, with the very same tradeoff mentality, which results in other "costs." Indeed, it seems like the costs of every decision then have some sort of asymptotic character (basically, the costs are never fully addressed), in which any proposed remedy to those costs has its own asymptotic character. 

How can we live in a world in which the decisions we make don't require tradeoffs? I want to live in a world in which spending time with my friends or family doesn't require nature to be harmed. Here and now, I can make choices in which I respect the existence of nature and the people around me. I feel as though rather than exclude things like trees and rivers from my ethic, my bubble of stakeholders in my decisions, it is easy to include them in my ethic, and make decisions accordingly. What this translates to is meaningful, impactful choices that respect both nature and people. If I want to spend some time with my friend, I can choose to drive out of town with that person, or choose to walk along the river right outside of my home with that person. What I would do in the first instance is pollute the atmosphere, at bare minimum, while spending time with my friend. I will have chosen to spend time with my friend at the expense of the atmosphere. What I would do in the second instance is respect the atmosphere, not pollute it, while at the same time spending time with my friend. These are small choices that each one of us can make, that are easily expanded in scope, easily extrapolated, that truly do have immeasurable, yet profound implications for our world.

Trying to buy back what we've lost

I had trouble deciding on what the title of this post should be. I will try to articulate why.

There is a model of environmental thought (of course, Western) which basically says that in the "development" of countries or communities, ecological harm necessarily grows, up to a point at which they have "developed enough" that they are somehow "satisfied" and can now start "caring" for the environment. What this explicitly means is that no matter where in the world you may be, ecological harm is necessary for you to be "prosperous," and for the citizens of that place to have a "high standard of living."

As I mentioned in my last post, there is a prevailing ethic that something is valuable only if it is assigned a dollar value. Something can be cared for only if we can quantify to ourselves what it is worth. Of course, such quantification is impossible and reckless in nature. Such quantification leaves in its wake uncountable losses to the wholesomeness of nature and the spirits of the people living there. What we do is the following - we convert the most important thing, our environment, into something expendable and movable (money), through degradation, and then use that expendable thing we've created to buy back the most important thing. Or at least we expect to. Speaking of entropy, there are losses here. There is something so profound about this second law of thermodynamics. In most every physical act, we can never fully realise a full potential, but rather a potential less than full. What this consequently means is that there is no way to fully recover the original conditions of a state by investing the same amount of effort we used in disturbing it. We have to invest more, and more, and more, and more.

Now, the people of Delray have been struggling with this very issue for a very long time - they have been surrounded by industry which has propelled the US as a leading superpower. This means that they have been surrounded by the effects of that industry - pollution and a degraded environment. As counter-intuitive as the second paragraph actually is, you might think that the people of Delray were then pretty well off...industry = money = clean environment. You would be sorely wrong for thinking so. The people of Delray have no other choice but to bear the consequences of such careless thought, and to be exploited by heretofore not being provided any sort of remediation, reparation or compensation, money, or anything else.

Now, I wondered about what the title of this post should be. Should it have been 'Trying to buy back what we've given away,' or 'Trying to buy back what has been taken from us'? Of course, it is a matter of perspective and of introspection. Maybe we haven't done enough to protect nature, and maybe we've faltered and disagreed, and we've just given it away, or in some sense allowed that. Or, on the other hand, maybe we've been oppressed into being subservient, into having absolutely no power in opposing the powerful forces of capitalism and economy from taking pristine nature away from under our feet, around our skin, and in our lungs. I would speculate that people from the past allowed it to happen, and that the people of today, say of Delray, feel that it was taken from them a long time ago, that this is a legacy that cannot be moved away from, that it is a legacy that will influence all decisions now and into the future. They might feel that there is no other choice but to live in a degraded environment.

There is a "community benefits agreement" (CBA) that is being proposed to compensate the people of Delray for the massive new bridge that is likely going to be built there. (...a joke, to me. "Benefits" is a cozy term to hide all of the costs of such violent behaviour.) They are contracts between citizens and those proposing to change their environment to ensure that some of the "positive" outcomes of change be passed along to the citizens. CBAs have only been a recent phenomenon, as Caleb told me last night. Yet in no way does the list of benefits, which I went over over the last week, fully address the dire state of affairs in Delray.

It is a matter of perspective. We can focus our attentions on the "state" or "country" as a whole and see that it is doing "well," or we can zoom in and focus our attention on the little parcels of the country and see that some of them are fine, while some of them are being exploited at the benefit of the "country." What we forget is that people, yes people, live in these small parcels, and they are the ones breathing in the noxious air, living on toxic soil, and cutting their limbs off for the "benefit" of the "state" and "country."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Specific concerns about the bridge in Detroit

This post is a continuation of yesterday's post, which was inspired by comments from Matthew. I will address some specific concerns he had about another post from a few days ago. But before that, I want to mention the specific reasons why the bridge is being built.

Many of you probably know that the Ambassador Bridge, owned by Matty Maroun, is the largest trade crossing in the US. This bridge is privately owned, and the monies from the crossings go directly to Maroun's Detroit International Bridge Company. The State has basically been missing out on money for the longest time; the Ambassador Bridge is basically a monopoly. Therefore, they've decided to have their own bridge. On looking at the environmental impact statement (EIS) made by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), the reasons for the new bridge are to:
  • provide safe, efficient, and secure movement of people and goods across the U.S.-Canadian border in the Detroit River area to support the economies of Michigan, Ontario, Canada and the United States
  • support the mobility needs of national and civil defense to protect the homeland
  • provide new border-crossing capacity to meet increased long-term demand
  • improve system connectivity to enhance the seamless flow of people and goods
  • improve operations and processing capability in accommodating the flow of people and goods 
  • provide reasonable and secure crossing options in the event of incidents, maintenance, congestion, or other disruptions
Given these reasons, I will address Matthew's specific concerns...

Yes, the bridge will undoubtedly cause more local air pollution, this is true of all development not just the bridge. 
This is an interesting point of contention. There are various perspectives. One is that Delray has been a heavily industrial area - cement, paper, steel, coal, waste water, oil refining, etc. - for many decades, and zoning laws have allowed industry to move in right next to residences. Now, the bridge can do one of two things for industry - by taking up a one hundred and sixty acre footprint, there are that many fewer acres left to fill industry in. This is the position taken by MDOT. So maybe some air pollution is being mitigated? Whoe knows. On the other hand, industry may want to be closer to the bridge, given that there will be easier access to Canada. This is the position of Southwest Detroit Business Association. This may increase air pollution in the area. My position is that people should not be living in Delray at all, and while localised air pollution many be diffused because of the bridge, the cumulative and global impacts of the pollution cannot be neglected.

You suggest, but have not shown, that not building the bridge will be better for the environment overall. Not building the bridge may mean that the net number of miles that goods are transported is increased, which would mean each of your concerns would be amplified not reduced (i.e. it seems unlikely that the alternative is mostly local production of goods). 
I looked into this, and MDOT does a wonderful job at skirting these issues. In the detailed EIS statement, MDOT says, 

"...With respect to global warming, to date no national standards have been established regarding greenhouse gases, nor has EPA established criteria or thresholds for greenhouse gas emissions. But, on April 2, 2007, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Massachusetts et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency et al. that the USEPA does have authority under the Clean Air Act to establish motor vehicle emissions standards for carbon dioxide CO2 emissions. However, the Court’s decision did not have any direct implications on requirements for evaluating transportation projects. Further, because of the interactions among elements of the transportation system as a whole, project-level emissions analyses for greenhouse gases are less informative than those conducted at the regional, state, or national level. Because of these concerns, FHWA concludes that CO2 emissions cannot be usefully evaluated in this EIS in the same way as other vehicle emissions. With With respect to health impacts, the “Interim Guidance on Air Toxics in NEPA Documents” indicates that presently there is not adequate science to reliably include exposure modeling or risk assessment in the air quality analysis. The Interim Guidance explains that modeling tools to generate air pollution emissions cannot be properly used at the project level because they are based on certain assumptions with regard to trip length and amounts of congestion and were based on a limited number of tests of mostly older vehicles. Dispersion models that would indicate how much particulate matter and air toxics are in the air were developed to deal with carbon monoxide, which is relatively non-reactive, and their intent was to determine maximum, not more typical levels. Further, little is known about background pollution levels in many areas. Even if emission levels and concentrations could be estimated, exposure assessment and risk analysis have their own shortcomings, due to extrapolation to annual levels, for example, let alone multiple years."

There are a few things I'd like to mention regarding this. First, and the most obvious, is that the environmental impacts have not been addressed at all with this study - I will save you the pain of having to go through this terrible assessment. I don't understand why it is called an environmental impact statement at all. Second, even if the assessment was conducted, the reasons why the bridge is being built would still completely supersede the environmental impacts. MDOT would say, "Deal with the impacts." Third, such life-cycle assessments can be tailored to give you the answer you want, based on the variables you choose to include in the assessment. My stance is this, the impacts are debatable, what is not debatable is that these impacts are negative.

Having more local revenue could increase peoples salaries which may be more positive than the air pollution is negative. It is not reasonable to assume that people’s lives won’t be dramatically improved by having additional money (e.g. better healthcare, education, healthier food, more money for environmental remediation, etc.). 
I don't think that there should be a tradeoff between salaries and pollution. As I have written about before the choices we've made so far have always pit one important thing against another. What such behaviour connotes is that a degraded environment is necessary for people's lives to be "better." What this also means is that we convert the most important thing, our environment, into something expendable and movable (money), through degradation, and then use that expendable thing we've created to buy back the most important thing. Speaking of entropy, I think there are losses here...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Broad concerns on the bridge in Detroit

I want to address some very broad and very specific and fantastic questions that were raised by Matthew in response to my previous post on the new bridge being proposed between the US and Canada, the focus of our time here in Detroit. Matthew and I generally agree on most things, yet there are differences in approach that makes discussion with him great...

His broader concerns are the following:
Most of your specific criticisms seem to be condemnations of our society as a whole more than specific problems with the bridge (i.e. choose your battles wisely so you can be sure that you are addressing the main source of the problem). 
Agreed. My criticisms are condemnations of our society as a whole. The main source of the problem as I see it is the very foundation of society that leads us to make choices that do result in injustice towards the environment, and consequently towards people. Ours is a society of tradeoffs and compromises, in which those that lose lose, and those that gain gain. What I mean is that many times, regardless of how you might do the accounting of "costs" and "benefits," the costs are born by people who have no other choice. What the bridge is is a manifestation of such an ethic.

I think the best strategy for building momentum in the environmental movement is to attack the very worst offenders first. By choosing battles that most people can agree on we get to solve some of the most important problems without giving fuel to distracters who accuse us of being anti-progress. 
Absolutely. There are so many easy targets for this - polluting incinerators, mountaintop removers, fracking companies. The list goes on and on. There are so many targets, though, that rather than providing a hit-list of entities to take action against, we are overwhelmed by how ingrained ecological degradation is in our behaviour, and how our choices encourages and patronises their existence. We may also convince ourselves that we are trapped with their existence, that there is no way out. For example, many people probably don't like sitting in traffic for many hours each week along their fifteen-mile drive to work, but we have do bear it because work is fifteen miles away. Now, we can try to take down the very worst offenders, of course. As much as I support it and advocate for it, I feel that this won't adequately address the foundational problems that result in such industries. It will only allow others to come up with new ways to harm nature, and consequently people. I agree with Matthew that maybe my writing can serve as fuel to distracters who accuse us of being anti-progress; I am hoping that by trying to address his concerns, I may be able to straddle this line a little bit better than I do.

I will address more specific concerns of his in my next post, with some very interesting material from a discussion with Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision and Southwest Detroit Business Association today. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The engineering of modification

I apologise again for not having posted yesterday - class is leaving little time to write.

I want to add on to previous posts on objects and materials (here, here, here, here, here). In my last post, I wrote about the modification of engineering. One thing that current design, engineering and building education don't really address is what can be called modularity. We think of objects as single use, and they are built for single purposes. Vast amounts of energy and materials are invested in such objects, and significant ecological harm comes from the manufacturing. When one thing becomes "obsolete," (here, too) there is very little chance that the same components will be reused to make another object. Now, I have written many times that the most significant steps towards decreased ecological harm will come through behavioural and ethical changes, not newer objects. Yet, I understand that we have created objects and structures that surround our lives, and become part of them; I can appreciate that. Modularity, or adaptability is a better word, may help us design objects to be taken apart easily, put back together in a different manner, and still provide the change that is needed. Several issues arise from this, that I will address.

If we do create objects and spaces, how might they be modular? One interesting idea I came across the other day was at the art opening of Andy Kem (who we found out about on a random trip to Russell Industrial - a space for artists and craftspeople). His designs feature interlocking pieces, not pieces that are solidly put together. This means that you can take them apart easily, and put them back together, without tools. Here's an example of a rocking chair.

Now, of course, many things we have, like furniture, are built in this way. But many things are not, including the spaces we inhabit. Laura Smith mentioned how interior design is additive. In design, most time designs are not meant to be taken apart to conform to changing wants/needs. Therefore, we need to make things from virgin materials. But I wonder if we built simple, basic things in a modular way, whether we would be happy with what those objects can provide. For example, if we have an object that is placed one way, would we be able to change our perspective and bring some freshness to it by placing it another way? Maybe just tipped over? I know I might be sounding like some artist here, which I am not, and I am not compelled to always be surrounded by new objects, but many people are.

One issue that may arise in this is that it is difficult to design something for a purpose if we can't envision what that purpose may be. This I have addressed in some posts about limits of the human mind. But I do think that given all the physical things we have, we must conform our wants to fit the limitations and capabilities of these objects.

Ecological degradation stems from the way in which we physically modify the environment, violently extracting materials and killing trees, driven by ideologies and ethics that dictate such behaviour. But in the end, we are making the choices to physically modify the environment in destructive ways. If we just thought of such destruction, and didn't act on the thoughts, much of nature would still be intact.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The modification of engineering

As an engineer, we are taught to "solve problems." These problems are generally created by 1) a perceived lack of functioning of a system ("build another road so traffic can be mitigated"), 2) the never-ending quest for improved efficiency, 3) a social myopia that leads to the creation of objects that just don't fit context and are thus destructive (many examples of this are evident in health care). Yet in the end, what engineers do is create objects - objects that try to defy gravity, objects that span nature, objects that destructively use nature, and objects that have serious social and cultural implications (just like the bridge that is being proposed here in Detroit that I have written about in these past few days).

There are a couple of key issues that go almost completely unaddressed in the traditional engineering curriculum - 1) problem definition and 2) the implications of the approach used to solve the problem. Generally, when working for a big company, the orders for what to do come from above. It is the young engineer's job to obey and work on the given problem, many times without context. Indeed, the definition of what the problem really is is generally narrow and focused, and much of the writings on this blog have been about this reductionism. 

In the general engineering curriculum (you can see the University of Michigan's undergraduate aerospace engineering curriculum here), you can see that there is little if any thought about the implications of engineering, and the responsibility that comes with being given the power of such knowledge. In my time at the University, not a mention has been made of the ways in which knowledge can be or should be used. Without an understanding and thoughtfulness of what it means to create and modify, young engineers can be swayed easily into creating destructive objects - people are involved in the creation of toxic chemicals for warfare and polluting industrial processes. Furthermore, many engineers are given very little skills in seeing what they can do with what we have invested in already. The work environment always pushes towards the use of the new and the untouched, which results in destructive extraction from nature. 

Now while some work is being done to address these issues at the University, it is my experience that engineering is a very conservative field. Students are not taught to be critical readers or radical thinkers. If we are to move toward a more sustainable future, several things will need to be done. Engineers must be taught to see underlying themes to the issues facing us, rather than superficially addressing problems arising far downstream from the source. Ethical considerations must move beyond just the professional - issues of justice must be considered. Engineers should design and build only in the situations that necessitate them and should design and build by thinking of how what they are building may be disassembled easily and reassembled to meet any future needs - this might be called "the engineering of modification."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What does it mean to be a "pragmatist"?

I apologise for not having posted for the past few days; time with a computer has been minimal (awesome!) over these past few days.

We have been in Detroit for around a week now, and we have had a wonderful time exploring Delray, Boynton, Hubbard-Richard, Southwest Detroit/Mexicantown, and Springwells, all neighbourhoods in southwest Detroit. The neighbourhoods range from burgeoning, cohesive and lively (Hubbard-Richard and Mexicantown) to fragmented, downtrodden and terribly polluted (Delray).

During this time, we have also been able to listen to and learn from people that live in Delray and the surrounding neighbourhoods through two community meetings. The community meetings have been powerful experiences for the students and I; the rawness of people’s emotions is evident, and the love of their neighbourhood nuanced by their understanding of history is plain to see. What we have tried to do is get these people’s input on what they would like to see happen after the new trade bridge between the US and Canada goes through (which more likely than not will). As I mentioned in my last post, this new bridge will not only displace people living in the one hundred and sixty acre footprint of the bridge plaza and onramps, but will also significantly degrade the already degraded environment in Delray, and southwest Detroit in general. This bridge will carry tens of thousands of trucks per day, and (who knows?) may increase trade of unsustainability. As reparations, the State of Michigan would like to “help” the residents by planting a few trees here and there, and “minimise” the pollution breathed in by people by placing filters on trucks and homes.

We have time to reflect on our experiences every day, in a group, and what has been on my mind, and the minds of some of the students, is that the bridge should not be built. Reasons in my mind are of course that fundamentally, it represents, legitmises, and propagates the current ethic of dominance of nature and consequently less-than-fortunate people. However, some people feel that the time to oppose the building of the bridge has passed, and that it is our job now to empower the people affected with information that will allow them to mitigate the impacts of the bridge. This job is the job of the “pragmatist.”

This argument, “the time has passed,” seems to be the hegemonic mindset of elites that will of course, make money off of a project like the bridge. With everything related to the environment, as evinced by the action around climate change, society has chosen to skirt the issues by saying that “we’ve invested too much in our structure to let it go.” And the ways we’ve invested in the way we’ve modified nature necessitates the continued investment of nature, time and energy in the maintenance of these structures. The book I am reading, The World Without Us, speaks to just this.

What I have felt is that the position of our students and instructors is a difficult one, but a position that other people find themselves in, too. It seems to me that our role is kind of the role of the disinterested scientist - we find out information people, come up with some neat theory, and then leave it to them to make the choice of how to use that information. Of course, information about pollution and injustice is empowering. But what is truly sad is that it is only the people that are benefitting most from the bridge that have the power to tell people to leave (i.e. the people who live within the proposed footprint of the bridge plaza). Yet us, who sincerely care for the wellness of those people, and the people who will be left behind, do not have the authority or the position to tell people to leave.

So “pragmatism” as many interpret it means at times bowing to pressure that continues to demand the violent destruction of nature, and consequently continued injustice towards people. Yet to me, the “pragmatic” thing to do is to nurture what nurtures us. In no way does degrading air quality sound like a “pragmatic” thing to do, particularly because it is difficult to trust any change in how these people have been treated for the past five decades. Of course, as Professor Larsen has mentioned, we mustn’t trample on some people’s choice to live in Delray, given its history and their ties to it. Yet there is absolutely no evidence to me that the government will “think” of the people it has neglected to far. I hope I am wrong, I really do, but I do feel terribly conflicted in my role right now; rather than empowering citizens to take a stand against the bridge, I am empowering them to accept the bridge under certain conditions.

I met Mary Szawala the other day, an eighty-four year-old activist, who has lived in southwest Detroit for her whole life. She has run for city council (losing by just six-hundred votes to I. Henderson), and has constantly advocated for the people affected by projects like rail lines and bridges. She said to me that the stress of moving because of the bridge is too much for senior citizens to take. She said, “Rather than building them homes, might as well get their grave plots all lined up. The importance of one life is greater than any bridge.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The results of arrogance - our first days in Detroit

There is a disconnect between those that profess and work towards the "greatness" of this country, and those who are truly affected by these words and policies. After having driven around southwest Detroit for a couple of days now, it is clear that there is a spectrum of issues we have allowed to grow over time, through insensitivity, carelessness and arrogance towards nature, and consequently people.

Yesterday, the class conducted a fairly thorough plot and housing inventory in Delray. We saw the results of years of neglect in blighted neighbourhoods and downtrodden people. Here are some examples.

Yet these pictures are not representative of the energy, vigour and thoughtfulness of the people that reside in these neighbourhoods. What we have noticed, though, is a disenchantment and powerlessness in these peoples' thoughts and emotions. What Delray represents, as Lydia mentioned, is the failure of "The American Dream." This dream has resulted in people being forcefully surrounded by factories and toxic industry that the privileged choose not to have in their backyards, yet choose to patronise because of their arrogance and willing ignorance.

Now how might we be able to address this unsustainable state of being? Well, what is being proposed is no cause for hope. As you may know, there is a second, publicly-owned, bridge between the US and Canada that is being proposed, the landing plaza of which is going to be in the heart of Delray. Of course, the people that are being displaced by this are in no position to leave, especially because of the insignificant amount of money that is being offered to the people. For those that do want to continue to live in Delray, well, twenty-six new "energy efficient" homes are going to be built. But these people, and those not being displaced, will have to deal with the more than fourteen thousand trucks that will pass over the bridge every day.

So these people have been continuously mistreated and trampled on for decades, they have degraded health, and will now be exposed to even more air pollution. On top of that, a bridge is in no way a short-term investment. In every way I can think of, this bridge is the hallmark of unsustainability, and a continued arrogance on the part of politicians and corporations and governments by having faith in the very frameworks that have led people, living, breathing people, and trees, living, breathing trees, to be surrounded by violent and degrading industry. 

On a lighter note, Wayne State University has a quite unique campus in the heart of Midtown Detroit, with 1960s style modern buildings with beautiful triangular windows and lighting. There is this beautiful modern Gothic building and sculpture garden in the middle of campus, too.

Monday, May 9, 2011

"In being forced to do what is right...

men lose the dignity of being right." ~Wendell Berry

Laura Smith and I were talking last night after a long and thoughtful day in Detroit. Laura is a PhD student in architecture and environmental psychology, and is an interior designer, too. We talked about environmentalism, ethics, and personal motivation. Laura knows a lot about personal motivators for action related to the environment. She said that the two biggest drivers for positive environmental feelings are time in nature, and having a role model to look up to. Of course, what are not motivators for people to change their behaviour are policies, governmental or private, that are enforced top-down, particularly because most all of these policies are based on incentives (here, here, here, here), which don't convince people that the flaw is something deeper than where they choose to spend money, or something like that.

But what may be more of a barrier is the forcefulness associated with policies and law. In no way am I saying that environmental law is not necessary, but the pride of individuals rests in their ability to make choices for themselves. An apt example is the raising of kids, particularly in their teenage years. Deep down, most parents do know what is best for their kids, and they do tell their kids what to do and what not to do. But in being told what to do, there is almost an automatic reaction on the teenager's part not to listen to advice or orders, even though it is in their best interest to listen. That begs the question, How is it that we may have a world in what people choose to do themselves is what is the right thing to do? I know some might think that "right" is a subjective word, and there may be many "rights." Yet, it is clear that most all ecological and social harm has arisen from people doing the "right" thing, be it for themselves or their families. When I say "right" choices, I mean choices that respect and dignify not only people's immediate families (other people), but others (including nature), too.

This drives at a fundamental ethic in which tradeoffs, something I will write about in a day or two, are a thing of the past. Of course, a changed education stemming from a changed ethic seems like a way in which minds can be shaped from the very beginning. There would be no need for laws governing the sanctity of a river or of the air. What this necessarily results in is a reduced goverment, a reduced oversight, and a reduced need to be forced to do something. These are all things that all of us can agree are good.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Guest blog #19: Ashwin Salvi at the airport

Here is a little piece that Ashwin wrote the other day, which goes in line with previous posts on the issues of travel and choice. He talks about the issues of waste in airports and in planes, aside from the considerable atmospheric, and consequently climate and ecological, impacts of air travel.

"The issue of trash and waste really didn't sink in until I was at the airport the other day and was sipping on my coffee (of course, from a disposable cup).  I took a look around, people watching, when I realized almost everyone at my gate had at least one, if not more, disposable items with them.  Items ranged from coffee cups, plastic bottles, plastic food containers, wrappers, etc., all things we have become accustomed to expect when shopping at the food/drink stalls.

If this is what I experienced just at my gate, I can only imagine it is approximately the same at other gates. And other terminals.  And other times through out the day.  And at multiple other airports.  

I did some research into the trash airports generate, and although many trash reducing steps like recycling (though some still consider that waste) have been implemented, the data presented in a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council is startling.  In 2004, the U.S. airline industry discarded enough aluminum cans each year to build 58 Boeing 747 jets! (A Boeing 747-400 is made of 147,000 lbs of high-strength aluminum.) In addition, 18,000,000 lbs of plastic were also discarded and enough newspaper and magazines thrown away to fill a football field to a depth of more than 230 feet.  The report also stated that from the 10 airports reporting, 1.28 lbs of waste was created per passenger, about 1/3 the total amount of waste Americans generate in one day.  Considering that an empty 20 fl oz plastic bottle weighs approximately 2 oz, 1.28 pounds is considerable.

While these numbers are seven years old and many measures have been implemented to reduce waste from airport, it still highlights the severity of the problem.  There will be a point soon that this drastically high rate of waste production is going to directly impact the liberties and comforts we enjoy in life.  While airports have become stricter with what you can bring through security, there are still ways to reduce your waste generation. For example, bring a reusable empty water bottle and fill it up with water/tasty beverage of choice after security.  Instead of purchasing food with lots of packaging or getting food to go, get something freshly made (pizza comes to mind) or eat at the store if that replaces the use of boxes/styrofoam with a reusable plate.  

I encourage everyone to think about all the things you throw away and how you can reduce your waste footprint.  Simple changes like replacing paper towels with a cloth towel can go a long way to reduce waste, energy consumption and the factors that contribute to larger problems like climate change."
Post script
More on aviation and ethics as part of my dissertation...it's going to be exciting!   

Friday, May 6, 2011

To more sustainable neighbourhoods in Detroit

Some of you know that I have been involved in teaching and coordinating a class on Detroit this semester. It all started last year when Laura Sherman and Krista, two other wonderful graduate students that are in the same fellowship cohort as I, decided that it would be fun to put together a place-based class on sustainability together. There are a couple of such classes that already exist, but the places are foreign - one teaches and takes students to Kenya, the other Chile. We decided to focus on some place close to home, a place to me that is home - southeast Michigan. What better place than Detroit? An awesomely fascinating place with a huge cultural history and an increasingly vibrant collection of individuals wanting to turn the corner on a not-so-pleasant past.

We got a bunch of extremely talented undergraduates to sign up for the class, which began in January. After teaching in Ann Arbor for eight weeks, and taking three trips to Detroit, the whole class is now fully prepared to spend two entire weeks in Detroit. We will be living at Wayne State University, and focusing our studies and energy on southwest Detroit, particularly the neighbourhood of Delray and the surrounding neighbourhoods of Hubbar-Richard, Springwells, Mexicantown, and Boynton. We are fortunate enough to be working with Professor Larissa Larsen, who has long-standing connections to Delray and its residents. She has been actively involved in helping the residents face the challenges of living in Delray. In this place live people much less fortunate than most, particularly because of discrimination, segregation and zoning laws.

Fortunately enough, the residents of Delray want us there (nothing is worse than going to a place and telling people what they should do, especially if they don't want you there. This has been a struggle facing many places like Detroit.), and want us to help them re-envision their neighbourhood in the light of the New International Trade Crossing, a publicly-owned bridge that is being planned in competition to the privately-owned Ambassador Bridge, which spans the Detroit River to Windsor, Canada. The landing for the new bridge is proposed to be in Delray. What this means though, is that there will now be several thousand trucks passing through Delray now, worsening an already degraded environment. It will be the supreme responsibility of our students and us to come up with culturally- and historically-sensitive plans, based on neighbourhood input, that will hopefully serve as templates for a new Delray.

Over the next couple of weeks, from 8 to 21 May, I will be writing about our experiences in Delray. This will be one of the most challenging things I have participated in, particularly because of the present tensions between culture, race, history and environment. The challenges of sustainability will be front and centre.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

FRACK YOU - Innocent until proven guilty

There a couple of themes from previous posts I'd like to pull together with this post, namely proactive law, the precautionary principle. I just read another article in Orion about fracking, When Cowboys Cry, by Sandra Steingraber, in which she talks about the continuing efforts of oil and gas extraction companies, like Halliburton, Chevron, and Exxon to frack in places like plains of Montana, the south of France, the vales of England, and the forests of Poland. More disturbing, however, is the part when she writes,
That was the week that stories about fracking broke in the international press, and the European environmentalists were scrambling to figure out what laws in the European Union might apply to this new technology. Like the sons and daughters of Montana's cowboys, the sons and daughters of the Allied Forces were having a hard time finding legal traction.
The British journal The Ecologist reached a similar conclusion in an investigative report about the European plans of Halliburton, Chevron, and Exxon and others. Although fracking in the United States is linked to toxic pollution and social conflict, notes The Ecologist, the technology is being rapidly exported. Fracking "exceeds the government regulatory process." It is "set to continue." It is, perhaps, "too powerful to oppose."
My former lab mate Paul, who graduated just last week, and I would talk many times about socio-environmental issues. He always has insightful things to say, and he said one thing that put a different perspective on things I've written about previously (here, here), including trust and faith in large organisations such as government and corporations, I believe on the day of the one year anniversary of the BP-Macondo well blowout and oil spill. He said, with regard large companies and corporations, "The companies are innocent until proven guilty." This statement puts a twist on a commonly held legal dictum, particularly because companies are not just "potential" criminals - they have been implicated and proven guilty time and time again. Each time, they have paid a small fine, and have moved on to commit the next crime. These companies are serial criminals, manic criminals. The statement also lends credence to how the precautionary principle operates in our society today - it is not that a law is implemented if a bad socio-environmental outcome is possible; rather a law is not implemented if it maybe possible to hurt the profits of companies. Society and environment be damned.

It is clear that regardless of the future applicability of retrospective law, those with power have the ability to subvert the law. Indeed, it doesn't matter what the sentiment of the law is, loopholes in law are treated as not an overlook in the law, not a space in which the sentiment of the law can pervade, but rather a space within which detrimental activities we thought would be regulated against can operate freely and without conscience. It is as if the outcome is not criminal or regulated against, but rather the mode of crime. This is contradictory to how the law operates in other (related) arenas. When someone commits first degree murder, it doesn't matter how the murder was committed, but what is important that the crime occurred. There is no legal loophole that says, "Oh, you used a stone to commit the crime rather than a gun. You're okay. You're free." But with ecological degradation, it is not the first degree crime that is illegal, rather it is just the manners in which the crime is commited that are deemed to be acceptable or not. There is then a legal discrepancy, a cultural schizophrenia, that is obvious.

What might be an approach to prevent this from happening, given the legal system we have? I heard a provocative Speaking of Faith episode from a few years ago, Reflections on the Death Penalty in America, in which a guest said that we must look into laws that maintain the dignity of humans. This can be easily extended to the environment. Rather than have a legalistic framework that is full of loopholes, why not have a legal framework that is inherently holistic and inherently proactive. Given the arguments made for and against even well-worded laws, why not have debates on the heart of the problems?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Some thoughts on violence

I get nervous when I see a gun. I get nervous because of what it represents in our and of our society, and the power it gives to the one that owns it, and the fear it instills in the ones that don't. I see a gun as a manifestation of our deep insecurities, and a manifestation of an understanding that what we do is not in the best interest of people and nature. A gun is a symbol of a life being forced upon us rather than a life lived in peace with what is environmentally, and consequently socially, acceptable. I don't want to get into a debate over what is acceptable; indeed, all of this blog has been dedicated to drawing these boundaries and extending our imaginations. Yet, as Jay Griffiths has written about beautifully and sadly in the current issue of Orion, guns and violence have been used against people and nature in West Papua for decades now. These unarmed people have fought to preserve their way of living and their mountains from the onslaught of the violence of mining. This is just one example of countless examples.

These past few days have been interesting. They have been days in which masculinity and dominance has been celebrated, ones in which introspection and asking "Why?" have been superseded by the thoughts of retaliation and revenge. Regardless of your stance on the issues,what I can say is that the events of the past few days have changed absolutely nothing, but rather they have further entrenched us in a continued violence that will to wreak havoc on lives, human, non-human and non-sentient. The environment, the ground and air and water that sustains us, will of course be impacted on negatively, despite the "just war theory," which I have written about previously. I can see that in the flag-waving of recent days, many lives and minds and hearts have fully accepted the manner in which we choose to end the fear that pervades our daily lives.

The world I want to live in is one without guns and violence, toward nature and people. It is of course something that has been written on and acted upon by countless, yet violence still surrounds us and pervades our minds. When we look at and make objects themselves with capacity to harm, we are compelled to pull a trigger or push a button that will blow someone or some place up.

I hope to have conveyed over the past months that there is actually no difference between environmental issues and social issues. They are one and the same. Committing violence against people is the same as committing violence against the land, air and water. Violence towards land, air and water is the same as violence towards people; it does not take a logical leap to make the connections. The world I want to live in is one without the fear of consuming toxins in my drinking water.

Monday, May 2, 2011


(There may be some economic jargon in this post.) In a world full of products and gadgets and materials extracted from nature, we use the word "goods" to describe anything and everything that can be moved around for personal profit or utility - food, fabric, metals, and electronics. There are of course public goods (say, something like clean air) and private goods (say, a car). Public goods are those things that we all need (and now want), the existence of which we hope will be taken care of by large organisations we've created, like governments. Private goods are those that are available primarily to those who have the ability to buy them. Generally, like in the US, depending on what you think the right approach is to deal with large scale problems is, you might think that the problem should be privatised, or should be made public. We can make things private goods, or public goods. There are of course several issues that arise because of this, but I don't want to delve too much into them. What I do want to focus on is the word "goods."

As you can tell, we have used the word "goods" to describe those objects we've become so accustomed to in our lives, many of which we feel are indispensable. Yet, it is hard to deny that in the creation of "goods," we've done significant harms to everything that allowed us to produce the "goods" in the first place. I think it is particularly ironic that we use that word, because it obscures what actually happens to make those objects. In fact, many bads, by most everyone's standards, have to happen to make these "goods" for us. We may trample on the grounds of indigenous peoples to extract metals, we may dam their rivers to produce power, and we may cut down rainforests to produce timber for furniture. The military is a wonderful oxymoron that typifies this issue - we want "security" and therefore we must produce weapons that necessarily make others insecure.

There may have been times when the "goods" were produced at a scale that didn't disturb nature and culture locally that much, let alone globally. But given the ever-increasing production of "goods," we of course step over limits of nature and ecosystems and the abilities of people to cope with these interventions. We have overstepped limits to such an extent that it is indeed ironic to say that some gadget is a "good." How might we be able to redefine what a "good" means? Is there another word that we can use that adequately captures the essence of our choice? Clearly, "commodity" does no better. Rather, it encourages us to view objects and nature as things to be "consumed."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Against the tide

As you may have come to realise, one of the main reasons why we face such dire ecological crises is because contemporary societies have designed themselves to be "outside of nature" with the desire to control our experiences. Our interactions with it have been minimised, and our bubble has been built around extracting energy and material from nature and the environment around us, and depositing degraded materials and energy back outside of our bubble, into nature. Our ethic is defined by doing what we want "in here," and not worrying about what happens "out there," as long as the flow of materials and energy in continues, and as long we can continue dumping what we want out there. We have created this disconnect in order to shirk responsibility in dealing with shortcomings of our philosophies and mental capacities, and in our humility.

I am reading this fascinating book by Alan Weisman, called The World Without Us, in which he envisions how nature might take over human structures and landscapes such as houses and cities. We have many times fought against nature in creating spaces for us to live, eat, and sleep. In having done so, we constantly struggle to maintain what it is we've invested in. For example, in having "reclaimed" land, like in The Netherlands, we are compelled to keep the forces of water at bay by constructing something like Maeslantkering.

Weisman describes the fascinating case of what it takes to keep the New York subway system running smoothly. Everyday, those running the subway must keep 13 million gallons of water from overpowering the tunnels. Because there is little soil and vegetation to absorb rainwater and groundwater, subway tunnels funnel the water into themselves. There are 753 pumps, maintained by crews, that have to pump water uphill constantly, because of the depth of the subway tunnels, and natural groundwater that gushes up from bedrock. Weisman writes, "Following the World Trade Center attack, an emergency pump train bearing a jumbo portable diesel generator pumped out 27 times the volume of Shea Stadium. Had the Hudson River actually burst through the PATH train tunnels that connect New York's subways to New Jersey, as was greatly feared, the pump train-and possibly much of the city-would simple have been overwhelmed." Pat Schuber, superintendent of Hydraulics for New York City Transit continues, "When this pump facility shuts down [because of no electricity], in half an hour water reaches a level where trains can't pass anymore."

There seems to be an ethic, prevalent throughout our interactions amongst ourselves, and with nature, of domination and competition. We want to dominate other people and their principles (leading to armed conflict), and we want to dominate the forces of nature by creating structures that nature wants to topple, and by demolishing violently natural areas for things of monetary "value." What if we were to live our lives not forcefully against the tide of nature, but rather with it?