Sunday, July 31, 2011

On debt and indebtedness

It is clear that the current debt talks that are going on in the US have serious implications for the future of the economy that this country, and much of the world, chooses to subscribe to. I can appreciate that. Honestly, though, I have avoided following much of the media and discussion surrounding this issue. Because regardless of the outcome of the talks, whether the US Congress extend the debt ceiling or not, what has been reinforced to me is that we have chosen to live beyond means, financially, and of course ecologically. The wheels for living beyond our means were set in motion a long, long time ago. But it doesn't matter when it started, what matters is what has happened as a result.

How the notion of debt has been playing out is fascinating and sad, particularly when it has such massive ecological ramifications. When you are in debt, it seems logical that one must be and feel indebted. What does it mean to be or feel indebted? It means that you have an appreciation of what has been offered to you by others - other nations, the air, the water, the land - and you show gratitude. It means that there a responsibility to repay the debt, at some point in the future (a massive sticking point, it seems!). It is difficult to pass through a contemporary life now and not be indebted to anyone or any institution at some point. We are all indebted.

Are we acting in a way that expresses our indebtedness? It doesn't seem so. If we were indebted for what we have, we would be led down of a path of thought known as "sufficiency". Rather than looking to the new and to the next, we would be grateful for what we have, and we would cherish and respect. On the contrary, rather than appreciate what has been given to us, we choose to want more. Of course we have tamed many segments of the natural world, and can continually abuse them, but we also demand more and more from other nations of the world, and they choose to subscribe to this system of operation, for some reason, and give us what we want. (I guess "choose" is a loaded term.)

The ecological implications of this debt are severe. If we live beyond our means financially, and the only way to bring value in to the world is through natural resource extraction (or the Federal Reserve just adding zeroes into the economy), that means that we are continuing to "borrow" from the environment. We continue to use and degrade what we cannot justify as "ours," while at the same time hoping that we can somehow repay the debt in the future. How is it possible to repay such an ecological debt? What does it even mean to be in ecological debt?

The mortgage crisis of three years ago stemmed from the exact same mentality - people choosing to accept debt, and people willing to offer others a debt-ridden situation. This may be obvious and cliche to say, but it bears repeating - we must live within our means. Living means that we should not take more than what we need, we should not borrow more than we can repay. In the end, it is impossible to wrap your mind around what fourteen trillion dollars of debt means. If you cannot understand what the debt means, how do you repay it? Does this just mean that we can continue to borrow? The types of debt we should take upon ourselves are those that we know we can repay, whether in kindness or community.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Guest blog #22: Julia Petty on expanding the definition of "waste" in food

Our nation’s food system produces more waste than simply trash and food scraps.  Avoiding food packaging is still a valuable step in alleviating some of the negative environmental impacts that consumptive choices can make, but there are more factors to consider when grabbing your midday snack or preparing your next meal.  Although this may evoke a higher degree of responsibility, it should come as somewhat of a relief, especially to those who live in cities where food packaging is unavoidable; it means there are other ways of reducing your impact.  For instance, suppose we expand the definition of “waste” to include, in addition to packaging waste, all the other harmful byproducts that are created in the ways that our country produces food, as well as the wasted resources that go into the process. We, as a nation, rely heavily on industrial agriculture – large, highly specialized farms that run like factories, completely dependent on large inputs of fossil fuels through the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2008). Although this system has been considered highly “efficient” because of the mass amounts of food it produces, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “A new awareness of the costs is beginning to suggest that the benefits are not as great as they formerly appeared.”

Industrial agriculture creates a multitude of unintended, long-term costs. Take, for example, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Michael Pollan describes these cattle feedlots in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pokey Feeders, the CAFO that Pollan visits, is home to 37,000 cows. CAFOs serve two main purposes: to make meat cheap and abundant, and to help dispose of America’s corn surplus.  Although these may seem like positive goals, they have caused some alarming effects.  As Pollan learns from animal scientists, virtually all cows in feedlots are sick to some degree or another.  Because cows are naturally grass-eaters, all health complications can be linked back to their corn diet. Not only is it unnerving to think of eating meat that came from a sick cow, but those same cows are fed a slew of liquid vitamins, synthetic estrogen, and antibiotics to counteract the high incidence of illness.  In addition to these inputs, Pollan reports that, with the summation of all the fossil fuels (in the form of pesticides and fertilizers) that go into growing the corn that feeds the cattle, each feedlot steer will have consumed the equivalent of thirty-five gallons of oil from birth to slaughter weight.

Not only do feedlots require deleterious inputs, but the outputs can be just as harmful. Manure, usually a source of fertility for crops, becomes toxic.  Farmers don’t accept it as fertilizer because the nitrogen and phosphorous levels are so high that it would kill crops. Instead, it sits in waste lagoons throughout the property. From there, the toxic manure, also laden with heavy metals, hormone residues, and strands of E. coli ends up waterways downstream causing reproductive deformation in fish and amphibians.  What’s truly unbelievable about all these heinous CAFO effects is that they are completely avoidable through alternative ranching methods:

"Raising animals on old-fashioned mixed farms…used to make simple biological sense: You can feed them the waste products of your crops, and you can feed their waste products to your crops. In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological loop…One of the most striking things that animal feedlots do…is take this elegant solution and neatly divide it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical fertilizers) and a pollution problem on the feedlot (which seldom is remedied at all)." From The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

Is Pollan calling all readers to become vegetarians? No. And neither am I. What’s important to understand is that somewhere in the search for “efficiency” and maximized production, concern for the actual effects of the way we grow our food has been lost, especially when it comes to the environment.  

~Julia Petty

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Every decision is moral

When one thinks of morality, generally one thinks of conduct with friends and family, and conduct within social constructs. One might think that the decision to steal something or not is a moral issue. It is; it is a deeply moral issue. But when it comes to buying fruit sprayed with pesticides, or deciding to invest in a car, or flicking on the light switch, are these decisions moral? I would argue that these decisions are as much about morality as they are about anything else. Indeed, most every decision we make in this world is a reflection of our morality and our values. Unfortunately, we've been told constantly (probably subconsciously) that when it comes to every day living and every day choices, morality can take a back seat. And given all we know about the massive problems that face us, it is this behaviour - a dichotomy between what we think is moral and our daily choices - that has perpetuated these problems. I want to write today a little bit about supposedly amoral or neutral aspects of our life - science and technology.

Many scientists and technologists practice their trade thinking that the results produced of their work are amoral or neutral - there is no moral baggage associated with the findings. Just because F = ma doesn't mean the result has moral implications. This is decidedly untrue. There are four reasons that come to my mind (and there are likely more):
  • First, because we know, we can use. Laws of science can be used to do many tasteful and distasteful things (like cook a nice meal, or develop a chemical for war). 
  • Second, data have import for people's lives, especially in cases like climate change. 
  • Third, the processes of scientific and technological development rely on what is available. Technology is not possible without science, but science is also not possible without technology. Where does technology come from? Technology is not made out of thin air, but is rather constructed through the same violent processes that we like to blame for causing ecological and social degradation, like mining and burning fossil fuels. And is this technological development that further allows us to investigate science, and so on, and so on...
  • Fourth, just because we cannot see or immediately feel the effects of many of our choices does not mean that the effects are not present. This culture has done a wonderful job of separating ends and means, with technology playing a key role. As Aidan Davison has written about in Technology and the Contested Meanings of Sustainability, the flipping of a light switch just to illuminate a room invokes massive technological and social infrastructures that we cannot see, and therefore, it is difficult to assign a moral value to the action.
In the end, there is no way one can deny the interconnectedness of oneself. It is true now that every choice one makes has had the hand of others in it, and will (unwillingly, at times) affect others, although unwillingly.

What does that mean for our daily lives? It means that we must try to take as much accountability as possible for our choices. It means that decisions cannot be made in isolation, but ought to be made with a full respect for forces at play. It means that we must question what is thrown at us, regardless of how "neutral" something may seem. Assigning moral values to our choices and decisions may allow us a much needed introspection.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Money - Scott Russell Sanders on the paradoxical nature of money

For today, I wanted to share with you a paragraph of an essay I just read by Scott Russell Sanders, called Breaking The Spell Of Money, in Orion Magazine. I encourage you to read the whole essay, eloquently and thoughtfully written, by clicking here.

"The accumulation of money gives the richest individuals and corporations godlike power over the rest of us. Yet money itself has no intrinsic value; it is a medium of exchange, a token that we have tacitly agreed to recognize and swap for thins that do possess intrinsic value, such as potatoes or poetry, salmon or surgery. Money is a symbolic tool, wholly dependent for its usefulness on an underlying social compact [emphasis added]. It is paradoxical, therefore, that those who have benefited the most financially from the existence of this compact have been the most aggressive in seeking to undermine it, by attacking unions, cooperatives, public education, independent media, social welfare programs, non-profits that serve the poor, land-use planning, and every aspect of government that doesn't directly serve the rich. For the social compact to hold, ordinary people must feel that they are participating in a common enterprise that benefits everyone fairly, and not a pyramid scheme designed to benefit a few at the very top. While the superrich often pretend to oppose government as an imposition on their freedom, they are usually great fans of government contracts, crop subsidies, oil depletion allowances, and other forms of corporate welfare, and ever greater fans of military spending."

Monday, July 25, 2011

We cannot fight it

We are living in an ever scarcer world, of that there are no doubts. Water is becoming scarcer, as are fuels, as are clean air and nutritious land. We know of the possibilities that climate change will present - flooded coasts, changing weather patterns, hotter summers, and destabilised communities. It should be no surprise to us that in the coming years, not in our grandchildren's lifetimes, not in our children's lifetimes, but in our lifetimes, things are going to get tougher. We cannot fight it.

So what does this mean for our daily lives, particularly of those of us living in the West, full of convenience? Increased expenditures reflective of scarcity? Absolutely. (If you think gasoline is "expensive" now, wait a while. If you think water is "expensive" now, wait a while.) But more importantly, it is now clearer than ever that we have a broken relationship with what sustains and nurtures us. And so we are faced with choices. We are faced with the choice of doing nothing (or continuing to do what we are doing, and continuing to degrade), or grabbing the bull by its horns and doing something. Just as with a broken relationship, we can do nothing, let it worsen, and then feel the emotional effects for longer, or we can mend the relationship, apply bandages where the wounds are open, and care for and nurture to make whole again. For this, we must be able to admit fault and guilt. We cannot fight it.

Of course each one of us individually cannot solve the multitude of crises that are before us. But what we can do is our part. I like to think thermodynamically in these cases. Thermodynamics is a description of large-scale averages. The temperature you are feeling on your skin right now not the temperature that is shared by all of the molecules constituting the air. Rather, it is an averaging of many different individual temperatures - some of the molecules that are hitting your skin have a higher temperature than others, and some have a lower temperature. But if we are to shift the bulk, the whole, the average, things need to shift individually. We cannot fight it.

It is clear to me that the changes in our lives will need to be significant in order to address the array of issues before us - poverty, injustice, climate change, biodiversity loss (all, of course, just different manifestations of the same ethical and moral problems). While "significant" may mean to some as driving less, the significance that I am talking about is a radical reconstruction of our societies, of our daily lives, of our ethics, of our morals. This will be needed, because a factory painted green still pollutes. There must be a peaceableness that we find with this new existence. If this for some of us means driving less, then so be it. But if this means for some of us thinking about how our individual lives affect our neighbours, down the street, and in India, the birds, the rocks, and the river, then so be it. We cannot fight it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Further thoughts on activism in science

The philosophy of science, and of the technologies stemming from that science, assume that science is dispassionate, that there are irreducible laws of nature, and that science in itself has no morality. What this has come to mean is that in order to practice science and have any credibility in the community of science, the scientist should generally not speak out about the application of science to society (unless, of course, the science or technology has positive implications for the economy, which technology at least always seems to have).

Unfortunately, this view is flawed - science and technology are deeply moral. They both have massive implications for human thought and behaviour. Technologies are applied within the context of communities and the environment those communities exist in. Therefore, it is fallacious to think that the job of the scientist is done with the discovery of a theory, or the provision of data. In fact, that is where the job of the scientist begins. As I have mentioned in previous post, data do not speak for themselves, but are interpreted and internalised by different people differently. It is up to the scientists to maintain the integrity of the data, and to make sure that only the well-intentioned outcomes resulting from those data are pursued.

And so I wonder why I hear of only a few prominent scientists speaking up about what should be done socially given the data we have (1, 2).

Through irreducibility, science has come to distance itself from the context within which is it pursued. Distractions such as human emotion must be left far away from science. But once we know what the data can say, there must be an emotional response to the data. If this were a different time, I could maybe respect the role of the scientist as a dispassionate provider of data and theory. But things need to change here and now. So why not it begin with those that know the outcomes of human behaviour?

Friday, July 22, 2011

On activism in science

I have written a little bit about science and technology philosophy on this blog, and their implications to society. But one thing I haven't really touched on much (apart from this one previous post, What if scientists quit?) is what the role of scientists ought to be given what we know.

Much of science is based on incrementalism, and very little about the process of science itself is about disrupting the status quo in it. Scientists build upon the work of other scientists. The process feeds on itself. Of course, there are many brilliant people that have come and gone before us, and to discredit their work doesn't At the same time, science has done an acceptable job at describing, to a great extent, the world around us. Planes fly, computers send email. But it seems to me that this mindset of incrementalism, of not disturbing the status quo, of being the geek with limited social skills that sits at a computer, does a tremendous disservice to what the potential of scientists can be.

In his book The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, Robert Pielke Jr. elaborates on the various roles scientists can play in informing the governmental policy process. Scientists (and engineers, of course) can
  • solely provide data, and leave the answer of what to do about the data to the "decision-makers,"
  • be "stealth advocates," and fly under the radar while secretly helping some group's cause, or
  • be "honest brokers," and openly discuss data, and take public stances on what the data should mean for action.
Unfortunately, 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. Again, the status quo.

As I mentioned in a previous post, for those who know about ecological degradation, we cannot let others not know. I believe this to be a responsibility of knowing (to a certain extent) and understanding (to a certain extent) what it is that causes ecological degradation. This knowledge and understanding has philosophical and consequently scientific and technological dimensions to it. It therefore allows us to be empathetic with those who have borne the brunt of ecological degradation. So why aren't scientists out there protesting and shouting on the streets, other than a few here and there (James Hansen chief among them)?

Further thoughts tomorrow.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Some more thoughts on responsibility

The notion of responsibility seems to go hand in hand with the notion of proxies, which I have written about previously. As this culture, this society has moved forward in time, we have continually given up responsibility and given proxies to others - we rely on others to make sure our water is safe to drink and that our food is safe to eat. Much of this responsibility has been delegated to large government, which has in turn relied on industry to maintain minimal standards of conscience and morality. In the end, our individual responsibilities have been boiled down to being "consumers" and "contributors to the economy."  Consequently, all of our daily activities, our actual being and the physical world have been interpreted within this ethereal economic framework. (Did you know that your life is worth around $8,000,000? I understand where such a number comes from, but I would never buy it.) These responsibilities are extremely passive - the basic premise of micro and macroeconomic theory is that we as individuals are unable to affect change. We are unable to act, even if it is in our best interests to act.

At the same time, the delegated responsibility (and the outcomes of this delegation) has diffused in many ways. When it comes down to actually taking action, we are unsure of where to apply pressure - is it better to get government to pass policy? Or do we get those CEOs fired? And as opposed to Fick's Fist Law of Diffusion, the influence of our behaviour -spatially and temporally - has only increased over time, even though you would think that a diffuse delegation of responsibility would lessen our influences. The point is, we need to assume responsibility, to take it back. We can no longer rely on "elected officials" to take care of what matters most in the world - the environment and everything that it represents. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, even good government is no excuse for us not to practice self-government.

In the penultimate chapter of Derrick Jensen's book, What We Leave Behind, Jensen quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said "...action comes from a readiness for responsibility." Most all of us know that action needs to be taken, here and now. We cannot wait. And we will only be driven to action if we are willing to assume responsibility for what this action represents - taking down of this ecologically and mentally destructive culture. If we are willing to take responsibility, action will flow.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On the power of story

I had a wonderful talk with Brett last night about how to convince people, to grab their attention, and to really push them in a direction that is against the mainstream, especially environmentally. In the end, what is required is a fundamental restructuring of our interactions amongst ourselves and our environment, guided by a new ethics. A complete restructuring of someone's ethical foundations is indeed a difficult task, and many of the changes we need to make in our lives as individuals, and our lives as a collective, will involve much sacrifice. But talking esoterically about sacrifice and philosophy only goes so far in nudging people to move against the grain. And so what I want to do today is elaborate a little bit on is the importance, as Brett mentioned, of story, and the power of real, live examples of people and communities doing things to make their communities, this world, a truly better place.

[For such stories, you need look no further than the recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize, which celebrates grassroots environmental efforts...

"The Goldman Prize views “grassroots” leaders as those involved in local efforts, where positive change is created through community or citizen participation in the issues that affect them. Through recognizing these individual leaders, the Prize seeks to inspire other ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to protect the natural world. 

I heard about these awards from my favourite radio show, The Story. A couple of years ago, I heard Dick Gordon talk to Hugo Jabini, who along with Wanze Eduards was the winner of the 2009 Prize. From Suriname, Jabini and Eduards are members of a Maroon community originally established by freed African slaves in the 1700s. They "successfully organized their communities against logging on their traditional lands, ultimately leading to a landmark ruling for indigenous and tribal peoples throughout the Americas to control resource exploitation in their territories." In order to win the legal battles, Jabini actually went to law school to become a lawyer just to fight the loggers. How amazing. (You can listen to more of their conversation here.)]

Stories do have the power of encouraging and inspiring us, leading our normal, daily lives, to take extraordinary actions. Cliche, of course, yet powerful nonetheless. The fact that there can be a protagonist in the person you least expect makes the power of story all the more effective. Of course, a story is a story only when it is off-white, when it is odd and surprising, when it is slightly counter to what you would expect or extrapolate. More importantly though, I believe that stories allow us to assess the ethical dimensions within which the protagonists and the opponents are making their decisions, and allow us the possibility of placing ourselves in such situations, and wrestling with the dilemmas. So, I encourage you to take a look at these stories, listen to these conversations, spread the stories, and be inspired to be your own activist.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The conditions lived and worked in

I want to address a comment that I received on a previous post, On a lack of honesty. What I said in that post, and in most other posts, is the fact that our choices and this culture result in ecological degradation, and that this ecological degradation leads to living and working conditions for people that are hard and toxic. It is not only the production and mining that leads to toxic conditions, but also the things that happen to what we produce once we've rejected them. The comment suggested instead that today, working conditions are much better overall, and that ecological degradation and working conditions are "inversely related." I wanted to counter that by providing a few examples, and by reemphasising a point I made in another post - our attitudes toward people are reflected in our attitudes toward nature, and our attitudes towards nature are reflected in our attitudes toward people. The nature and people negatively affected may not be present in our immediacy, but they may be present elsewhere.

This blog started off by exploring trash, an outcome of our choices, and there's no better example of poor working conditions and living conditions than viewed through trash. Whether it is electronic waste being sent to Asia, or petrochemicals being dumped in Africa, or the landfills on the outskirts of cities, the working and living conditions produced because of what we reject are horrifying and degrading. In his book The Lake of Sleeping Children, Luis Alberto Urrea describes these conditions that people live in and work in at a Tijuana dump. On the production side, it is very easy for us to be unaware of poor working conditions that exist in far off countries. I am sure you heard of the exploitative conditions at Foxconn (here, here), the chip manufacturer in China.

This culture has been successful at exporting and externalising the negative outcomes of our choices. Wars aren't fought here, they are fought elsewhere. What does it mean to go to war? What does it mean for the land and air and water? What does it mean to live in a war zone? We don't really know. Similarly, what does it mean to export production and mining? What does it mean for the land and air and water? It may mean that the conditions here are pristine and clean, but there is no way that such conditions exist in the places the actual production and mining are taking place in. We may be able to mechanise most every job here in the West, and create "good working conditions," but there are actual people doing those jobs in the industrialising world, a world that this Western culture has created and exported.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Money - Donald Worster on commodification

"The most fundamental characteristic of the latest irrigation mode is its behavior toward nature and the underlying attitudes on which it is based. Water in the capitalist state has no intrinsic value, no integrity that must be respected. Water is no longer valued as a divinely appointed means for survival, for producing and reproducing human life, as it was in local subsistence communities. Nor is water an awe-inspiring, animistic ally in a quest for political empire, as it was in the agrarian states. It has now become a commodity that is bought and sold and used to make other commodities that can be bought and sold and carried to the marketplace. It is, in other words, purely and abstractly a commercial instrument. All mystery disappears from its depths, all gods depart, all contemplation of its flow ceases. It becomes so many "acre-feet" banked in an account, so many "kilowatt-hours" of generating capacity to be spent, so many bales of cotton or carloads of oranges to be traded around the globe. And in that new language of market calculation lies an assertion of ultimate power over nature - of domination that is absolute, total, and free from all restraint."

Donald Worster in Rivers of Empire, page 52

What I believe Worster is talking about is an inherent devaluation of something when we try to value it for commodification, especially if that something as essential as water. Such commodification seems to be possible only if a money value is assigned to it. At the same time, just because something costs the same amount as something else doens't mean both of them are of the same value. This is particularly true for the valuation of the basic necessities of life - food, water - compared to those that are comparatively non-essential - say nail polish, or a computer.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Guest blog #21: Matthew Mejia on the power of shared experience

Matthew is a student who accompanied me and others to Detroit in May for the class that was focusing on sustainability and social justice issues in Detroit. I have written at length about this experience - see the posts under the thene "Sustainable Neighbourhoods in Detroit."

"I have been thinking a lot lately about the power of shared experience. There is beauty in solitude but comfort in company. In my mind, the greatest experience is a shared experience, where all involved are of the same mind, all experiencing as a single entity. The example that comes to mind is a concert experience. All go in knowing what the music is, how they will act (to a degree), and have a general outline of expectations for the event. Because of this, the audience can experience the surprises and let downs and emotions invoked by the music together, as one – a shared experience. What it means to be there at that concert requires no explanation to fellow concert-goers. That is what our time in Detroit felt like: two weeks of inexplicable shared experience.

When I am asked what my time in Detroit entailed, I just smile, laugh lightly, and say, “I did some community work and checked out the bar scene.” In reality, that is all most care to hear about the trip, and to try to explain beyond that is futile. I blame either my lack of poetry and vocabulary or the limits of the English language. I do not know how to convey what it meant to spend every moment with these thirty people for two weeks in a totally different environment. And the fact that the different environment was Detroit makes it all the more difficult. It is not an East Asian spiritual journey or an escape to nature, but rather a trip to urban sprawl and failed industry.

People often already have their minds made up on what “Detroit” means, and they don’t always care to hear me tell them of the city’s character and the citizen’s spirit. Those two weeks changed me, fundamentally, for the better. Since being back in Ann Arbor, I enjoy its luxuries and hidden treasures more than ever – something I did not think to be possible. I am suddenly dissatisfied with my custodial job in South Quad. I want to be back in Detroit, out helping people. I know I am not doing all that I can to that end right now. I could be doing so much more. Perhaps that is okay for the time being.

If my time in Detroit was my experience alone, I would not have lasted through twelve-hour days, bar hopping most nights, and averaging four hours of sleep per night. I made life-long friends. I met an amazing girl. I discovered a land known as Detroit. For two weeks, the world was ours, and the world consisted of a city; our new home town, the Wayne State dorms; our houses, shared quads. To no one else can I relate the greatness of lilacs in my face, of giving other people’s food to the homeless and hungry, of assessing the entire DIA in a French accent, of taking Avalon bread from an alleyway dumpster full of freshly tossed loaves. I miss rotating people through the kitchen and trying whatever the next person was cooking that night. I went days without needing to cook or find food because my friends took care of me. And when I had food, it was everyone’s food. It was a shared experience, through and through. I grew accustomed to the lifestyle, sights, and sounds (and smells) of Detroit.

As we drove in to Ann Arbor upon our return, we were shocked to see the extravagance and wonder that we left just two weeks earlier. Everyone just kept saying, “Who lives here? This is ridiculous.” It is ridiculous that such different worlds are only a short drive apart. Life in The D is real living. You gotta make it. It is the “everyday struggle” that Biggie talks about. And although I haven't truly lived the struggle day in and day out, my classmates and I did struggle.

I miss the struggle."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Money - An exploration

I have been told time and time again that economic arguments to action are those that are most convincing to people of all sorts - individuals, neighbourhoods, cities, governments, and corporations. In the end, and in the beginning, the economy we talk about ends up representing our values through amounts of money. Much of this blog has been devoted to the choices we make in our lives, and what drives those choices. Money is a key determinant of our choices, and therefore, I will be exploring the notion of money - what it means, how it functions, how it shapes our thinking and collective action, and what this means for the air we breath, the water we drink, the food we eat, the land we stand on, and all sentience and non-sentience on this Earth.

I started writing down some of my thoughts about money last night, and I realised that just like my other threads of thought, my thoughts on money are rudimentary. I am no economist, but I do use money, as do most people around me, and therefore, each and every one of us is in the position to think about what it represents to our lives. I will start off this series with just a few thoughts, which I hope to build upon in the coming weeks.

We feel that money is a good representation of our value to society, and the value of society. The government feels that as long as the pot of money in our country continues to grow, this is good thing. But while those that earn a lot of money may be nice people, just because money exists somewhere out there, and is continuing to grow, doesn’t mean anything for those that are continuing to face continued degradation – the poor, the environment. What has Wall Street done for you lately? On the other hand, what has the ever-present volunteer added to your life? Maybe with time and compassion, the impact of the volunteer is much more meaningful to you than an investment banker that is trying to add to the country’s GDP. In the end, maybe the most valuable experiences we have are dictated more so by the true connections we make with people and place, not by a dollar value we can assign to them. The notion of traveling at home is just one example of this. Many of us can spend a few hundred dollars to constantly go somewhere, and be a stranger. But we can also choose not to spend the money, and instead be a neighbor, a community member, a volunteer, an organizer. Of course, these choices don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but you know what I mean.
I hope to hear your thoughts on this series.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I apologise for not having written for a few days; I haven't had the chance to sit down and write. But I have a few minutes now, and many thoughts running through my head.

I spent the past few days in Manhattan; I arrived at the Port Authority last Thursday, and exited the bus to see the following...

Okay, I'll admit it. Manhattan is fun. There's a lot to do, and a lot to experience and explore. But from the exuberance and ostentation you are surrounded by in New York City, it is easy to forget that the rest of the world doesn't look like this. When you're caught up flashy lights, night clubs, and exotic foods, you wouldn't be able to tell that the world's forests are being demolished, that the climate is changing, that entire villages in Alaska are being moved as we speak because of land loss due to ice melting, that there will be a displacement and migration of hundreds of millions of people within the next few decades. Why wouldn't we be able to tell? We wouldn't be able to tell because the oldest parts of our brains are fixated on the near and short, spatially and temporally. And while we do know now the extent of the damage we've done, and the extent of the damage we should expect, and that our actions and the consequent reactions are what are responsible for this damage, we are not willing to accept this.

Why pick on New York City? Apart from the fact that it is where I was last, New York City represents the very foundation of the behaviour that has led to extreme ecological degradation. While to some New York City represents progress and prosperity, to others it represents greed for money and power, it represents domination of people and of the skies, and it represents a lack of concern for those who have been left behind because of this economy. Yet the image that it has created for itself is immense and immovable in our minds and culture - industrial, "free-market" capitalism will solve all ills (let's just give it a few more years...and a few more...and a few more...), banking and finance and insurance cannot be tinkered with, no matter how morally depraved they may be. But then what are we going to do about sea-level rise and coastal flooding? Are we just going to hope that we build massive barriers to keep the water out of Lower Manhattan (pages 108 and 109 in this Obama Administration report)? Will we continue to think that we need to dominate nature to live in it?

And so going to a one-acre rooftop farm called Brooklyn Grange (although it is in Queens) run by Ben Flanner and others, does give me hope.

It represents a step in a direction, a direction away from here. It represents a gathering of people not to talk about profit, but about community; it represents life, and not the destruction of it, it represents nourishment, and not continued extraction.

New York City is a home to the sort of economic mindset that makes us think of continued "free-market solutions" to climate change or to poverty (again, different manifestations of the same problems). What we've been trained to think is that climate and the environment must conform to the rules of free-market economics, that it is this economy first, then the environment, that this economy is more important than environment. Yet an economy is founded only within the context of an environment, be it local, be it regional, and be it in our minds. What we cannot mess with is our environment. What we must mess with, then, is the economy, this destructive and degrading economy. While carbon taxes or cap-and-trade represent a step, they are not the step. Let's have no illusions about this.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Secularising the mystical

I am in New York City for a few days before going to a conference in Boston. I am here visiting my sister and some friends. It is not difficult to see here the investment that humans have made in taming nature, providing themselves with a tempered climate in which to work and spend their lives, in which fluctuations are averaged out, in which the ebb and flow of nature is beyond the daily experience. At the same time, we've done a tremendous job at secularising nature, by reducing it down to numbers, algorithms, cells, and DNA. This secularised knowledge we are always compelled to use, no matter what the outcome.

While I agree with Richard Feynman in that a knowledge of the world only adds to its beauty, it seems to me that science and its resultant technology have secularised the world that allows us to to not view it mystically, but many times only through the lenses of our science, our technology. Maybe it is safe to say that even with a few hundred years of industrialisation and secularisation under our belts, we are no where nearer to understanding the meanings and complexities of life and nature, so much so that people continue to flock towards organised anthropomorphic religion to find "answers" to life's "questions." Of course, while there are positives to such religion, the negatives are plain to see. In a sense, it seems that anthropomorphic religion also tries to secularise the world in trying to provide universal answers, just like science - of right and wrong based on some conceptualisation of a human-looking god.

The only thing that seems universal to me then in nature is the uniqueness of each place, each species, each river, such that they cannot be binned or secularised or dammed, but can only be well cared for and protected if we recognise graciously what they give us - a ground to stand on, water to drink, and food to eat. Therefore, the uniqueness of environment and place resists secularisation. While we can appreciate the understanding that science gives us of the world, it gives us only a partial understanding. The rest will not be known, and cannot be known. Altogether, the powers of nature are as mystical as ever, and it would be prudent for us to recognise and behave with such understanding.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Guest blog #20: Jason Lai breaking it down

"I’ve written before about and alluded to the problems that the inherent complexity of the issue of a sustainable future presents to society (in some ways, this current post will be redundant in that context). In the context of environmental activism, those dedicated to sustainability often propose action with uncertainty. When we promote, for example, action to combat climate change, the effects are largely uncertain. This uncertainty allows those with antithetical agendas to easily create resistance (in this context, we remain stuck at identifying climate change as a problem). The most successful environmental campaigns (in my admittedly uninformed opinion) are those that have tangible goals and clear solutions, for example utilizing CFL light bulbs, or phasing out CFCs. These examples also have the advantage of minimally disturbing the status quo.

Ultimately, this is a long way of stating that small gradual changes are an effective means of affecting change towards sustainability. Of course, this statement is likely obvious, but perhaps important to keep in mind in the context of breaking large paradigm-altering shifts down into smaller bite-sized chunks, fit for public consumption."


I do believe that steps, at times baby steps, are necessary in moving us towards a less ecologically degrading future, which is diametrically opposite to the current status quo, indeed a paradigm shift. It is important, however, to realise that these are steps, steps towards a goal, and not ends in themselves. While we can be satisfied with what we've done, we cannot let that make us lose sight of where we need to be.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

When can personal change result in social change?

Many people try to live their lives against the grain of this ecologically degrading society. Many people have justified it to themselves, through observing the experiences of others, through looking at an interpreting scientific data, and more importantly through broadening their ethical imagination, that massive changes must be made, personally and socially, for us to live more harmoniously with people and our environment. Yet for many such environmentalists and activists, it is hard not to be upset by the continued pillaging of our planet and continued injustices towards peoples.

All of us can make changes in our lives and feel good about those changes. But many times, the good work done by committed individuals is completely overshadowed and undone by either careless behaviour by others or the massive inertia of the most degrading aspects of our society - raping, mining, polluting, disrespecting. A single hour's worth of increasing production at a factory is continually negating all that I have tried to do over the past year to lessen my burden on the world. What does this mean for the committed activist and environmentalist? How can we move beyond ourselves?

Personal change can result in social change only if we are willing to communicate openly, to be exposed publicly, to feel overtly challenged, and to face the consequences of our actions for change. While others may point fingers at you, call you a tree hugger or job killer, it is the continued perseverance that will result in social change. Sometimes I think that personal change just to remove yourself from contributing to a problem is like running away, and may be just as selfish as degrading the environment for your personal pleasure - without communication, how will you convince the billions of others that ought to think about what you are doing? For those who know about ecological degradation, we cannot let others not know. For those who have experienced the injustices of such degradation, we cannot let others go without the experience.

Monday, July 4, 2011

On a lack of honesty

We always talk up the benefits of the way of life we preach, our economy - people will become richer, they will lead lives with more choice, they will grow the economy, they will make our country strong and powerful. Wonderful. That sounds hunky dory. Sign me up. What isn't said much, or what end up being treated as anomalies, are the costs of this way of life. We always act surprised when something goes wrong egregiously - "A massive oil spill happened?! Oh, my gosh!" "Sweatshops in Indonesia?! Oh, my gosh!" "Millions of people displaced because of the damming of a river?! Oh, my gosh!" (While massive and tremendous, climate change maybe doesn't count as something egregious.)

This has been going on for a while now, while all along there has been a continual, and exponentially rising degradation of our environment, and a continued and exponential rising of the injustices that come along with such behaviour. It seems that we have now accumulated enough data now that we can be honest to ourselves, and to others about what our way of life entails.

But we have blinders on our eyes and our psyches. We are still bound by our immediacy.

There is a lack of honesty about how we conduct ourselves. And so when we export our way of life to other places, our rhetoric is mired in dishonesty. We are dishonest about what it actually means to continually extract from the environment, and what this means for lives and communities of people that have survived without this way of life that we are imposing on them. But what does this dishonesty mean for those who are being dishonest? It means that we think that this is the only way things can be, this is the only way things should be. And so the bounds of our imagination are fixed on the status quo.

I propose something simple, yet powerful. The next time we make a choice in our lives, the next time we tell someone else to make a choice for themselves, or the next time we try to sell someone on an idea, be honest about the outcomes of those choices. If I decide to buy another computer, will it help me now? Yup. Will it help me grow my business? Totally. What will it mean to where the computer came from? Hard labour conditions and strip mining? Hmmm...okay. On the other hand, what does it mean to love and care for the environment? It will mean a preservation of what sustains us. Are we doing that now? Not really. What will that entail for you, me, our families, our communities? It will mean an upheaval, a change in our attitudes, and it will be difficult. To be honest seems to more difficult than being dishonest, then. But anything of true import is always difficult.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Leading twenty-first century lives with Stone Age minds

When it comes down to living, we live because of what is around us, and we are less influenced by what is far away. The water that I drink needs to be here for me to drink it, and although the water in the Aral Sea was probably once here, it is not here now, and therefore, in some sense, I am unaffected by it.

It is likely that most of us think that our immediacy is most important to us - spatially, temporally, and emotionally. We generally care more about where we live than where we don't live, now as opposed to the future, and those closest to us, our friends and family, than those we've never met. Just a few hundred years ago, the bounds of our influence were defined by our immediacy. If we couldn't interact with people that lived thousands of miles away, or even just a hundred miles away, there was likely no way to influence those lives.

But today, the extent of our influence is the entire world. We have this influence, whether we like it or not. This influence has led to many great things (say maybe the spread of various rights for humans), but many destructive things, things that we have trouble even wrapping our minds around (like global poverty, like climate change). Unfortunately, our ethics and behaviour, which have caused the massive problems that face us, are wholly inadequate when dealing with these problems. We still end up focused on our immediacy; we still don't sympathise with people in the Maldives, whose home will be under sea in just a few years.

It is likely that over the past few hundred years of industrialisation and globalisation, our brains haven't changed much - evolutionarily, a few hundred or a few thousand years is nothing. While we have new knowledge about the world, while we have built planes and trains and automobiles and buildings and bridges, our ability to really and truly conceptualise the problems that face us and do anything about them rarely takes us further than our immediacy. And so, as Jon Kabat-Zinn has said, we lead twenty-first century lives with Stone Age minds. 

This means that what we need to do is limit our influence on those (people, trees, fish) we aren't able to sympathise with by expanding our ethical framework to encompass everything in this world. What this likely results in for our lives is an intense localisation - of space, of time, of emotion. We need to bring back the bounds of our influence (influence that results in ecological degradation) close to home, so that we see it and feel it, here and now. And that'll really make us think about and do something about our influence.