Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"Do something local and do something real."

The fundamental question that this blog has primarily dealt with is this: Given the structural forces that are causing ecological degradation, social injustice, and unsustainability, what can we do, as individuals, to combat these issues?

It is abundantly clear that the problems that I just listed are large, systemic, structural, cultural. We rely in large infrastructures such as roadways for our food. Our banks take our money and invest it unsavory ways without telling us. Advertisements and "beauty" magazines try to make us feel worthless unless we take part in the latest fads. The federal government doesn't deal with climate change even if it is in its best interests. So, of course we need change at the highest levels. Of course we need policy changes. Of course we need cultural change. But what does this change look like? Is the fear of change, of a new culture, in large measure what is holding back change? Or perhaps is change not coming quickly enough because the problems are so large and daunting that we sit back in submission?

I write about this because I got some flak from my last post, which said that we must be personally responsible with our choices, without mentioning that problems are structural. But the fact that the problems are structural is the founding premise of this entire blog, and I have written about the issues of capitalism, large government, corporatism, education, and so on.

Our actions do not exist in isolation. As I have pointed out time and again, if we live in societies and collectives, and what we do as individuals challenges social norms, then actions that challenge the norms are both starkly exposed and starkly expose the norms. This, for some, may seem like some kop-out way of legitimizing and overstating the impact of individual change. Some might go so far as to say personal change is far easier than achieving structural and cultural change. In some ways, it is. It is because you don't necessarily have to deal with anyone else, a libertarian's dream. But in some ways, it is not. It is not because personal change challenges oneself to truly imagine and live in the world one wants to live in. On another hand, Melissa, in one of the very first guest blogs, wrote that if you want to achieve structural change, pressure must be put on "choice architects" who have the power to change systems.

But, as Mike Wolf writes in his essay In Anticipation of the Next Leap of Faith in Deep Routes,
There is a video clip on YouTube of Bill Moyers interviewing Grace Lee Boggs. In response to the question, "What is to be done?" her answer is simple. "Do something local and do something real." When I examine my life and the people who I admire, whose work is inspiring, also when I examine the most rewarding work I have been a part of, it all follows this simple directive. It is self-conscious of its place and its relationships, and it puts something on the line, takes risks. It is not fixed in the conceptual, the virtual, as a mere amusement...There is no traction and no consequence if the work doesn't make itself vulnerable.

Vulnerability is something I'll address soon. Until then, here is that video clip to inspire us to be the architects of our choices.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Why would you want to do jury duty?!"

My sister was selected for jury duty a few weeks ago.  The case, it turns out, was going to be a massive one--one about companies withholding information on the risks of asbestos exposure.  Due to some improper questioning by a prosecuting attorney, my sister and a few other people, who were close to being the final jury members, were dismissed.  But the jury selection process itself lasted a couple weeks, and could have lasted potentially longer, followed by six weeks of testimony.  But that is besides the point.  My sister was going to be given a massive responsibility.  She could have been part of deciding whether there was corporate misinformation and whether workers deserved massive amounts of compensation for their mesothelioma.  And all anybody asked her was, "Why would you want to do jury duty?!"

We tend to think that we have a right to almost everything, and that if something goes wrong, it is someone, somewhere who is not doing their job.  All that we, as individuals, are responsible for are our lives, our paychecks, our homes.  We want the right to vote, but not the responsibility that comes with voting.  We want clean water to flow from our faucets, but not the responsibility to make sure that our water is not polluted.  We want free access to information, but not the responsibility of action that comes from knowing.

Our family watched Twelve Angry Men the other night, a tremendous movie from 1957, and what is depicted in that movie rings true to my sister's experience with the reactions she faced.  Jury duty is an inconvenience because "I'm going to miss the baseball game!" When it comes to a fair trial, being selected for jury duty is something that is an inconvenience.  How could anyone even suggest that jury duty is inconvenient?  As flawed as the legal and justice system is, isn't it our responsibility to make sure that we are ready to serve to make sure that people aren't wrongly convicted?  Now, people can have very important reasons why they would not want to do jury duty, especially if a day's labor is essential to feed your family.  But these are not the people that expressed their surprise that my sister was not lying to get out of jury duty.  No.  It was the well-off...and not just one person...several people.  Indeed, a quick search online will elucidate you on the thousand ways to get yourself out of jury duty.

We live in a world in which responsibility is so distributed that it is difficult to point fingers or make certain claims.  Is a particular chemical in his water that caused his cancer?  Is China causing climate change?  Not sure.  I mean, they are contributing heavily now, but what about all the decades and centuries of ecological degradation and greenhouse gas emissions caused by the America and the West?  Hmmm.  Let's avoid responsibility for that.

Responsibility ties in intimately to our daily choices, whether we agree to it or not.  Thinking that small things don't matter is, in essence, a shirking of personal responsibility.  What if we were responsible for our daily choices?  Not in the sense that one shouldn't do anything "illegal" so as to not get thrown into prison.  But I mean really responsible for every choice.  Is it responsible towards the Earth to want to be highly materialistic?  Is it responsible to my neighborhood to not get to know my neighbors?  Is it responsible of someone who is well off to lie just to get off of jury duty?  When we are all responsible, we have much to gain.  When we want our rights and act irresponsibly, we have much to lose.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thoughts on ecology, reductionism and capitalism

I have spent the last few days with my parents and submitting applications for different after-school positions. No, I'm never going to have a job...I hope. I haven't sat down to write recently, and I'm not sure why. But, I have been reading. Deep Routes: The Midwest In All Directions is a book I picked up recently, one that my friend, Sarah Lewison--an artist, activist, and professor at Southern Illinois University--has contributed to, along with other community organisers, academics, and artists from the Midwest. The book is about radical activism based in the Midwest, and a key theme of the book is territoriality and connection with place. Connection with place is something deeply lacking in a world in which we constantly seek upward mobility. While "settling down" is something I don't agree with, I wonder how our constant mobility obscures our ability to see connections between the our daily choices and their multidimensional outcomes. Indeed, what is the ecology of choice? 

Reductionism is the foundation of current expertise, education, and capitalism. Reductionist thinking gives us only thinly cut slices of complex pie. In a globalized world, we know very little about the roots of the products we buy, or the roots of the food we eat. Instead, we are made to think of dollars and cents, and when we valuate using the great reductionism of money, we tend to undervalue. Writes Claire Pentecost in Deep Routes,
Capitalism is deracinating: it must separate anything of value from its roots in order to convert it into a sign that can be efficiently circulated and exchanged. It reduces both needs and desires to a system in which the fungible and often proprietary signs of value trump the organic ecology of values. In this deracinated circular flow, the universal equivalent--the sign that makes all commodities exchangeable--is money. Whatever we need and love may have inherent value, but under capitalism, anything and everything is reducible to a monetary sign of value. This is efficiently paralleled by informationalism, a paradigm of knowledge in which value is reduced to an isolated register that can be exchanged as pure sign. In these ways capitalism and its companion informationalism are constitutionally deterritorializing. 
Ecological thinking is a powerful antidote to reductionism, even when not applied to the "environmental" reduction; it allows us to see connections and understand the roots of the choices available to us socially, politically, and economically, whether at the voting booth or in the aisles of supermarkets. Our capacity to think ecologically fully appreciates and takes advantage of our vision, foresight, and creativity. Yet we are stuck by constantly narrowing and reducing the scope of our questions and investigations into the failures of capitalism and public policy in public health and the environment. Pentecost continues by writing,
...our food paradigm reduces the value of a food to those elements that can be easily read as quantifiable information. We are trained to think of nutrition in terms of a handful of vitamins and minerals. So we grow acres of corn, which are deemed to be all the same in quality, process them to extract their exchange value as oils, starches, sugars, and materials that can be used industrially for glues and plastics, reconstitute some of those ingredients by adding certain readily identifiable vitamins and minerals--and voila! It serves a food. But it ignores the complex nuances of human digestion, and does so tragically in the light of the misery and disease propagated by the "American diet."
How can we pour millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into our environment and not think that we will be poisoning ourselves, as well as all that makes our existence possible and palatable?  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Guest blog #27: Adrianna Bojrab's thoughts on little city nudges

Nestled in the heart of a culturally rich and active local community, the University of Michigan’s goals seem to mirror the objectives of local Ann Arbor.  Ann Arbor is a buzzing hub of innovation; start-up entrepreneurial enterprises, and cutting edge technology and research firms seem to make up the nucleus of the local economy. As such endeavors prove costly, efficiency seems to be a priority amongst local people, a primacy that is reflected in their business approaches.  Efficiency can be achieved on a variety levels: capital allocation, minimal time and energy expenditure and strategic business structures that minimize costs and boost profits.  Such efficiency standards can be met with numerous approaches; however, Ann Arbor companies seem to set the standard by equating efficiency with green sustainability, and considering local options and mindful environmental practices to reach the bar.

While residing in Ann Arbor for four years, I noticed incentives for reducing waste around the city.  Many food businesses receive base ingredients from local farmers, and donate leftovers to the homeless population.  Local farmers' markets are highly publicized and well frequented by students and locals alike.  Clothing and product drives reallocate excess, and a noticeable shift towards biodegradable materials for disposable products has become widespread in University and local business food and product packaging. A new wave of businesses promoting increased accessibility to public transportation has emerged.  Through the means of more expansive bus routes and initiatives to provide larger capacity cabs, Ann Arbor is moving more people and burning less fuel simultaneously.  Within the community, there is a strong biking population and more recently, an emerging skateboard culture.  Governmental regulations have rejected proposals for increasing parking accessibility, and this has proved to deter individuals from driving--a positive for fuel conservation.  Additionally, the physical layout of Ann Arbor makes walking or alternative transportation an easy, viable and reasonable option, along with the construction of new dormitories, co-ops and apartment buildings on Central Campus; people are being brought closer to their destinations.  Ann Arbor makes it easy to be environmentally conscious by providing the means to promote desired actions.  

Recently, I have moved to a neighborhood just north of downtown Chicago, Illinois.  My fascination with urban living and sustainability was redefined.  Generally speaking, subways and buses are the predominate mode of transportation for many city dwellers.  As a graduate student, I have the option to purchase an unlimited public transportation card for six months.  My commute to school on the subway has opened my eyes to the amount of fuel, finances, energy and time allotment that is being saved per person. Calculate $2.50 per one-way ticket, the price of a car, gas, parking and time in the context of city, and number is likely astounding. Chicago utilizes public transportation in a way unlike most other big cities, by utilizing both above ground and underground subway transport.  By doubling the expansive public transportation network, Chicago transports more people and employs more individuals to service and maintain the tracks and trains.   Read: Public transportation is quick, efficient, expansive...and arguably entertaining. 

Additionally, the state of Illinois encourages and provides a number of incentives for renewables and efficiency efforts--a mixture of grants, shorter permit process timelines and tax cuts.  These opportunities are available for commercial, industrial, residential, educational and institutional interests, and help to further the employment and adoption of new technology and environmentally beneficial practices.  Some of these practices involve: green building designs, geothermal heat pumps, solar space and water heaters, photovoltaics, hydroelectricity, LED lighting, renewable fuels and biomass.  The implementation and employment of new technology through state and federal incentives encourages a healthier environment and provides a financially feasible way to reduce operation costs and conserve valuable resources, materials and energy.  Such information for your own city is available through DSIRE, an online database funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

On a smaller scale, I have noticed a number of changes within my two short months of residence: public restrooms are beginning to remove paper towel dispensers and replace them with strong air current dryers. Inner city farmers markets are extending their hours of operation to weekdays, specifically lunch hours, providing an alternative for the working world’s lunch break and grocery run.  Recycling containers are found on every corner and clothing dispensaries for the needy are numerous.  Water bottle fillers that provide a “number of bottles saved” to users are engineered into many of the public water fountains, becoming a city norm. By providing such numbers for users, individuals are tangibly made to feel as though they are furthering change, thus encouraging usage.   A number of restaurants provide cloth napkins, regardless of their level of formality.  Chicago provides easy ways for people to minimize waste and reuse or reallocate resources.  Small incentives and practices add up, and the collective result could be major.   

We are the generation that will turn the tables.  We will change and revitalize the American culture by using innovative ways to introduce and implement sustainable and efficient business regimes into our communities.  Our health, safety, and happiness derive from our atmosphere.  If we focus on sustainability, and intentionally challenge ourselves to reuse materials in innovative ways, we will revitalize our communities.  Look at your lifestyle, identify the source of waste, start small scale and take an active role within your community to further new practices and become a catalyst for reform. 


For more of Adrianna's thoughts on this blog, click here, here, and here.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Wait a while

One question that I am asked frequently is something along the lines of, "Well, what if you want to buy something?" or "What if you need to buy something?" My answer to these questions, which seems a little Buddhist, is that I just wait a while: "I wait a week, and I think about whether I still need to buy it. If I still feel that I want to buy something, I wait another week."

Time is one metaphysical concept that has been at the forefront of everything I have written over the past few years, whether in the shape of legacycompulsivenessconvenienceinstantaneousness, longevity, seasons, and cycles, or contradictions. And it is a form of time again that is at play with materialism and purchasing, too.

Our fast-paced lives and the ever-quickening pace of technology make it very difficult to wrap our minds around how ecological degradation itself is quickening because of our choices. The steps we take in our daily lives are taken faster and faster. We used to saunter, now we are constantly out of breath. If we need to relax to bring our minds at ease, why not also relax before we impulsively acquire?

Waiting is not an exercise in austerity or abstinence, but rather an investigation of need and want. Waiting opens up the mental space to more fully evaluate the impacts of choices on our wallets, on this culture, on our Earth. It also gives us more time to understand and appreciate what we have already. Waiting to get something automatically makes you appreciate it more than if you bought it on a whim. How do you know the importance of something if you don't really understand what it is like being without something? And if you have been without something until now, have you fully appreciated your life without it? Thinking about these questions and acting on the answers is a form of slowing down our fast lives. It is a form of cultural criticism and self-reflection that has very real and tangible consequences. 

I admit to buying two new things in the last year--two pairs of football/soccer shoes, one for turf, and one for outdoor use--and I bought them after about a year of waiting to buy them. Of course, it is unreasonable to ask people to stop buying. But it is wholly reasonable to ask them to wait, and to see what happens.

See what Jason has to say about waiting.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What is human nature? Part 1

I have just visited some of the most spectacular and humbling natural landscapes anywhere. Rocks and soil possessed colours in combinations I couldn’t imagine. Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert was one of those places. The park is incredibly fragile; petrified wood and fossils lay exposed to humans to walk through (and climb on, sometimes). Taking petrified wood out of the park is a big felony, and signage repeatedly warns people not to take any wood out of the park. Yet, people still do. The park ranger we talked to called people’s trip to the park people’s “Me, me, me experience: my first trip to Petrified Forest, my first crime, my first time in jail.” Why do people do things they ought not to? Is it human nature? This is something I want to explore in a little greater depth over the next few weeks, for what we consider human nature can make or break efforts to protect ecosystems from destruction and efforts towards social justice.

Human nature seems to be an excuse to condone almost anything. If someone steals something, it is human nature to want something you don’t have. If life is an evolutionary battle, competition is the name of the game, and it is human nature to want to cut costs and pay low wages to stay ahead of the pack. And if the outcomes of our behaviour are destructive on place and to people, are we just following our human nature and instincts? This is the way the world works, we are made to believe. Things can be done in any which way is acceptable at the time, and if something goes wrong, well, it was human nature at fault.

At the same time, human nature is not only an excuse post facto, but it is also reason for why we behave socially. We see acts of kindness and tenderness, acts of heroism and altruism, acts around which reason cannot be wrapped in a neat bowtie. According to the Dalai Lama, gentleness is the basic tenet of human nature. There is a clear dichotomy that has emerged here. Human nature can be individualistic, pro-social, as David Sloan Wilson (who in fact uses his training in evolutionary biology to understand how neighbourhoods function well or poorly) would call it, or somewhere in between.

Everything, including competing notions of what human nature is, gets naturalized if enough people believe it. Humans are individualistic and selfish, and that’s how they ought to be, according to Ayn Rand. Yet selfish, individualistic human beings probably didn’t do so well in hunter-gatherer communities that we all descended from. Just like language, just like compassion, human nature is learned through social behaviour, through context, through relationships. If someone has been burned time and time again, he or she will believe that human nature is to fend for oneself…don’t trust anybody. Yet if someone has been shown kindness and compassion, even the hardest of hearts crumbles and melts and morphs into one that fundamentally reconsiders what human nature is, or ought to be.

What do you think?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

On break

I haven't forgotten that I have a blog. I'm just on a six-week road trip across the country, and will be back to writing regularly when the road trip ends. Things I have seen have given me plenty to write about.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Transforming the obligatory passage point

As you’ve probably noticed, the frequency of posts on this blog went from five per week to one (maybe two) per month over the past few months; I have been working on my dissertation, which I am glad to tell you I have just completed. (Well, it is bittersweet, really, because my not-so-well-kept secret is that I have loved graduate school; my advisor is an amazing woman.) And speaking of school, I wanted to elaborate a little bit more on the role and power of higher education in creating a changed culture, one that is aligned with being more ecologically holistic and socially just. As I have written about at length previously (here and here), the current higher education system continues to create students with cognitive bias those good at one thing and not many, all the while making vast amounts of money.

When we think of universities, we think of them as bastions of critical thinking and academic freedom. The (wishful) goal is that college is a place where na├»ve youth are transformed into active and engaged citizens…the University of Michigan modestly calls its students and alumni “The Leaders and Best”. But while my experience at the University of Michigan has served me well, I also feel that the University, and the higher education system more broadly, is doing a disservice to the families and students that are paying out of their noses to obtain a college degree. Grade inflation and not-too-rigourous course requirements basically mean that it takes a motivated student to get a valuable experience. Within the higher education system, it seems as though universities compete on the front of how employable to large industry and Wall Street their students are, how much corporate funding the universities receive, and how large their endowment coffers are (Michigan’s stands at several billion dollars). When it comes to graduate school, recent unionization efforts of graduate student research assistants have uncovered a whole host of unseemly student-advisor relationships; the point of research seems to be the professor’s ability to get more grants. Each one of these points I can elaborate on at length, which I will spare you from now.

During my defense, Andrew asked me about recommendations I had on how young engineers can align their work with the causes of social justice and ecological soundness, rather than with extractive industry and militarism…a complicated question for a dissertation defense…Of course, the first thing I thought of is…higher education…In reality, that’s how many debates end: “We’ve screwed things up, and it will be up to “the next generation” to get out of the messes of today. We must educate the next generation differently.” While it may seem that many of these words are empty and used lightly, I do believe that education reform stands the best chance of culturing people to be more concerned about social justice and ecological soundness. 

People from all over the world gather in a place like Ann Arbor; sprinkled and scattered widely, students, faculty and staff are now concentrated, and they are shaped and morphed by the education and educating process. The diploma students walk out with symbolizes the transformation. And once students leave, they leave for elsewhere; the students are scattered and sprinkled again. (Unfortunately, it is my impression that most students from Michigan go to one of four places: Chicago, San Francisco, Manhattan, and Boston, and not back to where they came from.) The best place for intervention in production is the factory. (How sad that mass production is an apt metaphor for higher education.) Higher education is an obligatory passage point in the modern world—without a degree, life can be difficult (and it may be difficult with a degree, too). In social science theory, an obligatory passage point is essentially a node in a social network of actors--in the creation of federal policy, the House and the Senate are obligatory passage points; in approving drugs for use, the FDA is an get the gist. Therefore, one of the best chances the world stands for transformation is through the transformation of higher education. As students, I believe that we must demand an education that allows us to transform the structures that support unjust and ecologically degrading outcomes, not an education that keeps us entrenched in those structures. Indeed, that may be the best thing we as students can do for the next generation.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

(unsuspecting) Guest blog #26: Eric Bumbalough in Vienna

This is the entirety of an email my friend and labmate Eric sent me from his first trip to Europe. His thoughts encapsulate so many themes that have emerged on the blog over the past two years, including memories, sentimentality, and consumerism. I love it.

I'm writing this from Vienna because I have a story to tell you about trash.

My friend Louise and I took the subway away from the tourist center of Vienna to have dinner on the bank of the Danube River. I brought my plastic water bottle that I have been refilling for weeks. When we got back to the subway station, we realized I left my water bottle and backpack at the restaurant. We went back and retrieved it just fine.

As I was taking a drink on the walk back over the pedestrian bridge on the Danube River, I dropped the cap and it rolled into the river. Now I have this useless water bottle with no lid that reminds me of my time spent in Vienna. I think I might bring it back as my souvenir rather than some insignificant piece of trash from a tourist trap store.


Eric Bumbalough
Graduate Research Assistant
University of Michigan
2293 G.G. Brown Laboratory
2350 Hayward
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-4256

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Making yourself irrelevant

In the ideal world, there would be no "environmentalists" or "activists" or whathaveyou.

Activists and social workers frame problems. More often than not, they are the ones on the ground witnessing ecological tragedies such as an oil spill unfolding, witnessing poor decision-making that leads to a group of people being disenfranchised, witnessing human rights violations caused by fracking corporations tainting aquifers forever. It is the activist that is aware. It is the activist that fundamentally questions the nature of our choices and actions. But being aware is only the first step in creating change. Possibly the most important step for the activist comes next: How does the activist frame the problem? Is the problem the oil spill itself? Or the political complex that leads to oil being pulled out of the ground in the first place? Is the problem that people don't have food to eat today? Or is the problem really how oppressive economic structures leave people struggling to make ends meet? In framing what the activist observes, in framing the problem, the activist creates, frames, and dictates the response. The framing of the problem connects the activist with people that have goodwill, filling them with empathy and compassion. But what happens with that empathy and compassion? In the end, are people made to feel that their monetary donation is enough? Or are they made to get off of their seats and actually do something about the problem?

The goal of the activist is to take down systems of oppression, not navigate them with integrity, would say Derrick JensenThe very need for police states, for environmental monitoring, for refuges from oppressive places must be diminished. In my mind, the goal of the activist is to create resiliency. It is to instill ways of thinking and being that allow for critical self-reflection, and action based on that reflection. Sure everyone sees the world different, and there are an infinite number of means to an end. But are those means socioecologically degrading and unjust? Are those means creating disparities between people? Or are they guided by a sense of constantly putting oneself in another person's shoes? Are they guided by fundamentally creating peace rather than ending war? 

When the privileged go to a place like Africa (because it is more exotic than going to rural Kentucky or a decaying urban core in the US...or even the street corner where the homeless person spends time) it is easy to see that people are starving. Okay...That lets USAID dump buckets of food on them covered in American flags, making the Americans look good but in no way empowering Africans to make them resilient. That is not to say that food should not be given to those that are hungry. But does the donation of food come along with an understanding of why they are hungry? Does the donation in any way empower the people other than giving them energy to survive another day? 

These questions go deeper than mere policy tinkering that still maintains power dynamics, that still keeps dragging the carrot just beyond arm's reach. In framing the problem, the activist must not create more work for herself. The fundamental goal of the activist is to make herself irrelevant. The activist should not, as Wendell Berry would say, be a specialist--one that beats the same drum again and again. In the ideal world, the activist won't need "a seat at the table". Rather, the work of the activist is accomplished when a changed paradigm of decision-making, of politics, of being, comes around. The activist, or environmentalist, or whathaveyou, must go to bed every night thinking, Have I done work today that will diminish my need tomorrow? If the answer is yes, the activist is on the right track. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Numbers to obfuscate

(I'm still alive; I've just been working on my dissertation, which is due in two and a half weeks.)

If you are familiar with climate change regimes such as the Kyoto Protocol, or even the tenuous Copenhagen Accords, you'll know that there is a differentiation between the countries of the world. (We do this anyway, calling parts of the world "New" and others "Old", "developing" and "developed", "North" and "South", "capitalist" and "communist".) In the Kyoto Protocol, countries are either Annex I (industrialised, OECD countries) or non-Annex I (industrialising) countries. The responsibility of a country to scale back its greenhouse gas emissions depends on what bin the country is placed in--Annex I countries tend to have greater responsibilities than non-Annex I countries. There has been great debates about some of the countries placed in the non-Annex I bin--countries like India, China, Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa--because these countries, while spewing tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases and pollutants into the atmosphere, will have fewer responsibilities. Countries like the US, Canada, and Australia fight tooth and nail to have such countries assume greater burdens, while at the same time not really wanting to do much themselves.

As you can tell, it matters what you are binned as and called. Being called a "small employer" allows you tax incentives and loopholes. Being called an engineer allows you to do engineering things that non-engineering people, who may be fully experienced and qualified, cannot do. Calling oneself an "individual" is the first step to throwing your hands up in the face of systemic problems. So people will go to considerable lengths to come up with ways to obfuscate responsibility. Divide the population of the country with some non-sense economic statistic, multiply that number by some other made up metric, and raise that to the power of some voodoo polynomial, and WALA! Your country is no longer responsible for its actions. The number says it, not me!

This is exactly what two researchers, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and  Sustainable Worldwide Transportation have just done in the widely circulated and read American Scientist magazine. Their piece, titled Accounting for Climate in Countries' Carbon Dioxide Emissions (which also appalled my advisor) is exactly the kind of work that will continue to allow people, institutions, and organisations to get away with ecological degradation and environmental injustices. They found a way to use the number of days people in various countries have to use heating and cooling to live comfortably. These, they claim, are a sort of sunk cost. (Fair enough, I might be able to agree only to a certain degree with that.) But the key to their findings is the following figure:

The rankings for countries by their carbon dioxide emissions can shift considerably when the variable of climate is incorporated. The first column above shows the 15 lowest (top) and highest (bottom) emitters in a set of 157 countries based on emissions per capita. The second column shows the rankings that result when each country’s emissions per capita are divided by that country’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita; countries that move into the top or bottom 15 under this index are shown in yellow. The rankings for the third column are calculated by dividing the results found for the second column by the average number of heating and cooling degree days each country experiences, a measure of how much typical temperatures vary from a set point. Countries that move into the far ends of the spectrum when all three factors are included are shown in purple. Under this measure, Jordan (which has a relatively mild climate) joins the heaviest emitters, and Sweden (which has a relatively cold climate) joins the countries with the lowest emissions. The numbers in parentheses show each country’s relative emissions, normalized to the lowest emitter. For instance, when population, GDP and climate are included, South Africa, the highest emitter, produces 60.8 times more emissions than does Chad, the lowest emitter. From here.
As you move from left to right, you see that the countries that are initially the highest polluters slowly disappear. You start with the Canada, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Luxembourg (all countries that the United States has close ties to) and the United States, and you end up with Libya, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and South Africa. These are the countries that must be held accountable! Not the US or its cronies! And it is toward the end of the article where the authors make their crowning remark:
Our results suggest that taking climate into account makes a significant difference in how countries fare in carbon dioxide emissions rankings. Because people respond to the climate they live in by heating and cooling indoor spaces, an index that incorporates climate provides a fairer yardstick than an index that does not. We hope that our approach will stimulate others to further refine this index to reflect even better the complexities involved in ranking countries on emissions (emphases added by me...of course).
Let's feel good about living the lifestyles we do! The Earth and its oppressed peoples be damned!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Is abundance enough?

John Paul Lederach, a Menonite theologian, activist, and professor of peacebuilding at the Joan B. Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, has said that the main reasons why peacebuilding initiatives undertaken by the US military don't succeed is because we do not keep in mind the nature of the peace we want when waging war. Rather, we are caught trying to end what we feel are injustice and tyranny without a regard for what might come because of our disruptions. This is evident in the way the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are protracted, in the way we will be leaving behind unstable places while claiming rhetorically that "the mission has been accomplished".

These are deep thoughts reflective on the culture we live in. For given all of the knowledge we've accumulated, our focus is always the immediate next step, and not the outcome or the impact. When everything is linear and pointing upwards, we lose track of the end, and all that becomes important is a movement away from the past. So we feel compelled to take down dictators by going in and taking down a statue, with little regard for cultural history, ethnic tensions, religious diversity, political aspirations, and ecological conditions. What if the peace we wanted to build in the Middle East was durable and resilient, and such that the need to arm various groups in the future would be non-existent? What institutions would we need to build? How might we leverage what already exists? How would people need to behave?

The same influence of ends on means is translatable to thinking ecologically. We have this notion that ecomodernism, the "greening" of technology, the "free-market" will solve our ecological problems. (When it comes down to it, the powerful nations still can't decide whether to help out nations that will be severely impacted by climate change caused by the powerful.) All we need to do is create an abundance of everything, especially of "clean" energy, and everything will be okay. Limitlessness in the face of finiteness. But in an abundant world, will abundance be enough? And if so, do the steps we take today change in any measure? I would argue that they do, and drastically.

The fact is that many of us already lead abundant lives. (Of course much of that abundance has come from degrading other places.) We are very privileged. We are surrounded by an abundance of information, an abundance of energy and fuel, an abundance of food, an abundance electronics, an abundance of opportunity. But our abundance has led to an abundance of landfills. It has led to an atmosphere abundant with greenhouse gases, and waters abundant with fracking waste. Abundance comes from an unappreciation of what we have, with the added blow of then degrading the world we live in. As I have written previously, we then try to "buy" back what we lost already. A simple reflection on these realities would suggest that, if the end--an abundant future--justified the means--ecomodernism--then many of us are there already. We just need to be satisfied. Maybe then we'll leave a little more room in the world for others to meet their needs. Maybe then we'll open up a little more space in our lives to be more reflective, and be more helpful to others--the non-human world included--rather than oppressive.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Conscious abstraction

While I was sitting on the grass by some swings across from my home with Katie the other day, I noticed one of the cars on the road slow down. The driver was letting a squirrel pass. It was difficult for the driver of the car in the next lane to know why the car to its right was slowing down, and so, the driver maintained the car's speed. But just as the squirrel made it past the first car that had slowed, it got pummeled by the next one. It probably died on impact. But the impact unleashed a sound. It was the sound of a low pitched rumble you hear when a wheel passes quickly over a bump. It was the sound of a bass drum. And then the squirrel, already dead, got run over again...and again. Katie ran across the street, stopped before it, and cried, "I'm so sorry," as she picked it up by the tail and moved it off of the road.

I wonder what was going on through the squirrel's mind as it was crossing the road. Maybe it was on the way to eat something or hide it, or maybe it was about to climb up a tree it spotted. Maybe there was some other squirrel waiting on the other side for it. It is summer, after all. Maybe it was the one that casually walked up to me a few days ago while I was having dinner on the porch. I don't know. It is hard to tell with squirrels. Most of them look the same to my eyes. But I know that they are all individuals.

I had never seen any animal that large get killed in front of my eyes before. I thought to myself, "And this squirrel is another cost we accept as we drive cars that take us to where we need to be." That squirrel probably now forms part of some statistic somewhere. I can just see the title of the statistic. It is probably something like "Roadkill in the US." It probably has a breakdown of what kinds of animals are killed on the roads, and how many of them, every year...deer, chipmunks, and birds included. That statistic easily equates one squirrel is with another squirrel. A squirrel is a squirrel, and a squirrel killed on the road by a car is one of thousands, tens of thousands. In the end, their lives are boiled down to numbers, which we accept as a "cost" of our need to drive cars. It is a "cost" of our advances.

It made me think about the Herman Daly passage I quoted at length in a recent blog post. We are constantly fighting this battle of abstraction. We just don't seem to be able to grasp the abstract. Climate change happening slowly, unboundedly, over the next one hundred years? What does that mean? What does it mean if someone in Detroit is breathing toxic air? These things are far. They are abstract. And that abstractness seems to debilitate us from showing an inkling of remorse or care.

But, abstraction is an excuse, for we actively pursue abstraction when we need it to fit our goals. If I were to pick a squirrel out and tell you I was going to run it over, or if you saw a specific squirrel get run over--and had any inkling of emotion--you'd be horrified. I definitely was. But when we read a number or hear about squirrel roadkill in the US, we are less affected. The abstraction of a squirrel killed to a number takes away the essence of what the squirrel was, its entire life, and what it was on its way to doing when it was killed. The abstraction allows us to distance ourselves from our actions.

I can hear people thinking to themselves, "So is he really suggesting that we should we not drive cars just because squirrels and deer and chipmunks and flies and bees are killed by them?" The point is that most all of the choices we make we make with an understanding of the potential outcomes. Some outcomes are acceptable. The others--the violent, the distasteful--we abstract. Given that we are now being confronted with important choices that will affect our land, our water, our air, take fracking, for example, will we continue to make choices in the abstract? Or is there a way to bring our choices closer to home, to be aware of the squirrels that populate our land and the fish the water?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tailoring the message

One of the most important things that I have learned over the past two years is that everyone comes from somewhere different. People come with their own languages, their own ways of thinking, their own wants, their own penchants and proclivities and dislikes. People are culturally molded to espouse particular beliefs and not others. This is wonderful and beautiful. A world full people that thought and acted in the same manner, with the same ethics and morals would be no fun at all and barely resilient; it would indeed be a world exactly like the one that is taking shape in this age of what Charles Mann calls the homogenocene.

I think that one of the fundamental challenges that I think needs to be overcome in homogenocene is the division we've created between "right" and "wrong". You are either pro-life or pro-choice, a capitalist or America-hater, someone that believes in the "free market" or the "welfare state" are an "tree hugger" or "job creator". In trying to advocate for changed relationships to people and the environment, I have realised that it is important to navigate these dichotomies by meeting people where they are. There are ways in which we can talk to people that don't agree with what we say. All it takes is the capacity to change languages, to make arguments that make sense to those that think differently than you.

We see these dichotomous camps most starkly in the public responses to climate change. It is abundantly clear that climate change is occurring, and that it is anthropogenic. But there are people that still vehemently deny these realities, that believe it is a hoax or conspiracy, that believe responses to it will take away "freedom". One is either a believer or a skeptic. That's it. But how come given all of this knowledge of the causes of climate change and the empirical evidence of our daily lives do people not believe in climate change? It seems as though it comes down to cultural differences--the politics of knowledge and opinion.

According to Dan Kahan and others at Yale University, it is who you are around, the culture you are in, and the culture you are from, that affects most your beliefs in climate change. It is actually not about scientific comprehension. Here are excerpts from Kahan et al.'s paper from the current issue of Nature Climate Change.
Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension. The public knows too little science, it is claimed, to understand the evidence or avoid being misled1. Widespread limits on technical reasoning aggravate the problem by forcing citizens to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk2. We conducted a study to test this account and found no support for it. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.

[Therefore, a] communication strategy that focuses only on transmission of sound scientific information, our results suggest, is unlikely to do that. As worthwhile as it would be, simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict so long as the climate-change debate continues to feature cultural meanings that divide citizens of opposing world-views.

It does not follow, however, that nothing can be done to promote constructive and informed public deliberations. As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups22. Perfecting such techniques through a new science of science communication is a public good of singular importance25.
There are two important conclusions that I have come to, for now, through experience and Kahan's work. It is that the message we deliver to advocate for ecologically responsible living must be tailored for the audiences receiving it. In drawing lines in the sand, in saying that there is a "right" and a "wrong", that one way of communicating is the best and the other is not, that "free market capitalism" is "free" and "socialism is un-American", we perpetuate the differences that fundamentally divide us.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

FRACK YOU: "Get used to it."

Jeff Dick is the Chair of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Youngstown State University, and a proponent of fracking. His past with the oil and gas industry has led him to trust them so much so that he has leased his own land to a company to frack for natural gas. He believes that the environmental regulatory agencies of Ohio are doing a good enough job to keep him safe from the potential ill effects of fracking. In fact, he believes that fracking causes little to no ecological harm or pollution. To those people who oppose fracking in rural Ohio, in what Dick has called his little "patch of paradise", he says, well, "Get used to it."
...[J]ust like in those other states [like Texas] where the culture of the people is very accepting of it, I believe with time, the culture of people here in Ohio is going to shift to where they say this is acceptable. Obviously to a lot of people it won't be acceptable, but probably...a good number of people, and I'd suggest probably...a majority of people, because that's where we're at right now, I believe, are accepting of this industry. You have to keep in mind, and this is very important, that eastern Ohio has been economically depressed for a very long time. And so, this is a big opportunity for new industry to come into this area and provide new jobs and all sorts of economic growth opportunities. And that's quite frankly why the majority of people throughout this region are behind this oil and gas development.
So, let us take sand from Leopold's Sand County in Wisconsin so that those in Ohio and North Dakota and Pennsylvania and New York can shove it, mixed with proprietary chemical blends, deep into the ground so that we can the energy we want today. Let us take so much sand away that sand no longer remains in Sand County. The lure of temporary jobs paying eighteen dollars an hour that result in nearly permanent geologic and ecological degradation can be too much for county boards to resist. And be sure to know that your wastewater treatment facility is doing all that it can to keep your drinking water safe from the chemicals.

You see, it just takes getting used to. Just like people in Delray eventually got used to noxious fumes from an incinerator in their backyard. Just like the people in the Maldives will get used to their country being submerged bit by bit into the ocean because of climate change. It'll be a few years before their country is entirely gone. By that time, they will have gotten used to it, because when it comes down to it, oil and gas is here to stay.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

When specificity is a roadblock

For today, I will just quote a passage that I came across in the remarkable book, Steady -State Economics: The Economics of Biophysical Equilibrium and Moral Growth (1974), by the ecological economist Herman E. Daly. Please let me know what you think.
Why do we insist on ignoring the ethical character of so many major economic decisions? Why this compulsion to substitute mechanical calculation for responsible value judgment? Perhaps it's because our mechanistic paradigm has reduced values and ethics to mere matters of personal taste, about which it is useless to argue. Quality involves difficult judgments and imposes self-definition and responsibility. Quantity involves merely counting and arithmetical operations that give everyone the same answer and impose no responsibility. Thus university deans make promotion decisions by counting words published and number of citations rather than by attempting a qualitative judgment about the true worth of a scholar's work, which is bound to cause some disagreement. Counting is an easy way out--a retreat from the responsibility of thinking and evaluating quality.

An especially important role in the quantitative short-circuiting of responsibility is played by randomness. Randomness is, in fact, an excellent moral scapegoat. Consider that some 50,000 Americans are killed annually by the automobile. Suppose that the specific identities of these people were known in advance. To save 50,000 specific individuals, we might lower speed limits drastically and return to bicycles for local transportation. To save 50,000 unknown, randomly determined individuals, we do nothing. If a soldier kills specific women and children at close range with a rifle we are horrified; if a bomber pilot kills many more women and children, whose numbers are predictable but whose identities are unknown before the fact, we are only vaguely upset...'Thou shalt not kill thy specific identified brother, but mayest murder random persons at will, in order to achieve thy 'progress,' however shallowly defined.' How much economic growth is based on this expanded version of the shorter, less sophisticated commandment?...We cannot throw responsibility for such collective existential decisions on to the moral scapegoat of randomness with its phony numerical calculations.

The way in which these phony calculations work is via "economies of ignorance and scale," as John U. G. Adams ("...And How Much For Your Grandmother?" Environment and Planning, Vol. 6, 1974) has scathingly illustrated. Consider what happens when we apply the concept of Pareto efficiency to the cost-benefit analysis of a project involving the predictable loss of life. Let Vj be te compensatory money payment to individual j to make him indifferent to the proposed project. That is, if j is to be hurt by the project, then Vj is what he must be paid to accept it, and it carries a minus sign.; if j is to be benefited, Vj is what he must be paid to forgo the project, and it carries a plus sign. If the algebraic sum for all individuals is positive, then there is a potential Pareto improvement; that is, the winners could compensate the loser and still be better off.

Suppose now that individual j would be killed as a result of the project. Consistency with the Pareto criterion requires that he be compensated for the loss of life according to his own valuation. Since most people would put a very high or even infinite cash value on the remaining years of lives, the result is that any project involving predictable loss of specific lives would fail the test of Pareto improvement and could not be justified by cost-benefit analysis. This is so even if more lives are saved than lost by the project, since there is no way for those saved to compensate those killed, and any cancelling out by the analyst of lives saved against lives lost violates the Pareto rule of no interpersonal comparisons.

It is obvious that many projects justified by cost-benefit analysis do result in the predictable loss of life. This is true for any projects that increase air or ground traffic, radiation exposure, or air pollution, for example. What allows cost-benefit analysts to "justify" such projects? It is essentially the fact that we never know in advance the identities of the specific people who will be killed. Th result is that we never have to compensate anyone for his certain loss of life but instead we must compensate everyone for the additional risk to which he is exposed as a result of the project (E. J. Mishan, "Evaluation of Life and Limb: A Theoretical Approach," Journal of Political Economy, July/August 1971). If the population is large, the individual risk becomes very small, perhaps below the minimum sensible, so that everyone is indifferent to such a negligible risk and no compensation at all is required, and the project passes with honors.

Note that in theory we have passes from a case requiring infinite compensation to a case requiring zero compensation, simply by throwing away information, that is, by remaining ignorant of the specific identities of the victims. This is odd, to say the least. In practice, of course, we never have the specific identities of victims beforehand, but that fact does not resolve the theoretical anomaly. The population subset most at risk could often be specified but usually is not, so that the risk often appears more diluted than it really is.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Being dismissed

No Impact Man is a documentary about Colin Beavan, who, along with his family, tried to live for a year in New York City with no impact on the environment. The Beavans lived practically trash free, without running electricity, ate food that came from only a 250 mile radius, and traveled around using only human power, among other things. Many people felt that Beavan undertook the project solely for searching for a topic for his next book, that the project was just a self-indulgent, privileged, power trip. Others thought he was sincere in his efforts. Some people changed their opinions over the course of the project.

Regardless of your opinion of Beavan and his efforts, what was undeniably surprising was the amount of media coverage he received. The blogosphere was abuzz. The New York Times, WNYC, media outlets from Japan, Italy, France, and elsewhere interviewed him and covered his efforts. Good Morning America followed his family around for several weeks.

The part of the movie that I found most fascinating was Beavan's relationship with a long time community activist and gardener, Mayer Vishner. In an effort to be more connected with the food he ate, Beavan helped Vishner work the land in a small community garden. Vishner looked exactly like someone who rallied during the sixties and seventies--long hair, bearded, with simple clothes. He and Beavan would sit in the kitchen and talk about how the project was going, but also about the larger issues that were being raised by the project. What must be done about American corporate capitalism? What about the fact that your wife writes for Business Week, which promotes this corporate capitalism? And what should be made of all the media coverage that Beavan was receiving?

Dorothy Day has said, "Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily." Yet, Vishner believed that this was exactly what was happening to Beavan. All of the attention Beavan was receiving seemed to mean that he wasn't a threat to the system. That his advocacy would be viewed as extreme, impractical, unhygienic, and profoundly anti-American. This was apparent when Beavan was being interviewed by Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America. In one scene, she asks people in the audience whether they could ever do something like this. It sounded more like a parent asking their child, "Will you ever put your hand on the stove?", seeming to goad an answer of no. And that's exactly the answer that she got from the audience.

It is clear that Beavan has been able to reach a wide audience with his efforts, which to me seem sincere. In trying to affect larger policy issues, he has chosen to run for US Congress, as a Green Party candidate, to represent central Brooklyn. But what about his efforts to show people what might need changing in their daily lives?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Where neoliberalism ends and community resiliency begins

You've heard the news from Detroit (or even from Cleveland, Hartford or the Bronx for that matter). People living in certain parts of the city continue to be subjugated to toxic living conditions. 48217 is the most polluted zipcode in the state of Michigan. Industrial complexes larger than neighbourhoods provide nothing but suffocating air and brownfield land to the people living in their vicinity.

The government--federal, state, or city--provides no favours to these people. It can seem that all the government cares about is tax breaks to the rich and preserving their elite status. That is why public school teachers are continually laid off, and funds for basic city services such as law enforcement and fire protection are hacked. The New International Trade Crossing, the publicly-owned bridge being proposed between Ontario and Detroit, will provide a handful of temporary construction jobs, and even fewer permanent jobs, while cementing the relationship of this culture on large-scale manufacturing and ecologically degrading industrialism. Money laundering, corrupt politicians, government kickbacks run rampant in the City of Detroit, where until recently, city council members were elected at large, thus holding them accountable to no one other than their colleagues and cronies. At the same time, as Ulrich Beck notes in Risk Society, industrial modernity makes it close to impossible to link long-term human health impacts to the slow violence of pollution. People do suffer, the environment does suffer, at the hands of this culture. Regardless of your position on these issues, people such as those in Delray, and our Earth are being continually oppressed and polluted.

In response to these issues, I have wondered whether it is possible to develop community resiliency, which I conjure as a reliance not on changing who is in office or expending energy on failed politics, but rather on dealing with issues at a more tractable level, a level at which community members can participate directly and are appreciated, while at the same time creating small institutions that directly address complicated problems. Recently, urban gardens in Detroit and other cities across the country have provided wonderful models of how community-based, community-scale projects can foster neighbourliness and provide healthful food opportunities for youthful engagement with the land. Are there other ways in which communities of oppressed people can address the problems they face themselves?

In some sense, such community resiliency may seem like a form of the libertarian and neoliberal agenda...People doing it for themselves. YEAH! Screw government. YEAH! Screw regulation. YEAH! (Followed closely by, Lower taxes. YEAH!) However, I see stark differences between the neoliberalism of industrial, corporate capitalism and the community resiliency I describe above. People that have bought into the neoliberal agenda believe that the government hinders their ability to earn money for themselves. They believe that only if the government got out of the way, they would create long-term employment for people and "economic growth", while changing global standards will in time address the massive ecological issues we face. (I haven't drunk that warped Kool-Aid.) On the other hand, community resiliency, like that fostered in the urban gardening movement, first and foremost recognises that the lines between government and the private sector are blurred, that indeed they rely on each other for stability, that they do not care about you or me, let alone oppressed peoples. A government guided by neoliberal principles is not interested in community development or neighbourliness or the capacity of people to endure changes themselves. Community resiliency is the antidote to such principles. Community resiliency is about what we can build for each other, not for our individual selves. Collective, small-scale action allows us to imagine and live new possibilities without reliance on misguided economic and social philosophies.

Of course politics need to change. Of course we must fight corruption and get politicians at every level of government to care about the people they represent and the environment we live in. But who knows, maybe those oppressed know best about what is oppressing them, making them best people to address the problems head on.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Imagining the possibilities

On our way back from Detroit a few nights ago, Kristin, Ethan, Marwa and I got into a discussion about something that has come up time and again over the past two years: What does it matter whether or not individuals do anything about the problems we face? For, if things don't happen on a larger scale, nothing matters in the end.

I have written about this many, many times before, as have others on this blog, but each time I think about this particular issue, I feel as if I am thinking about it anew. It seems that with each passing day, the power of taking matters into our own, individual hands--not in the sense of doing whatever we want with our world to destroy it, but imagining new possibilities for our own lives--seems more and more complex, yet more and more compelling.

When it comes down to it, the only way in which possibilities of any kind are envisioned is if someone actually does something, if someone brings the possibility into the world. Take, for example, new technologies. Radically new technologies can have the capacity of outmoding older ones, depending on who backs them. We grant all sorts of protections to such "entrepreneurs" and "innovators" who "invent". They get intellectual property rights and patents. They can make money off of their ideas by selling them. They are seen as visionary, and they are seen as essential to creating a utopian world. It doesn't really matter, though, what one does as long as there are social structures and institutions that support what you do. Our social structures, as they stand, cheer and laud such people.

Many people would claim that the lives that we live are based on all that we know. I disagree. There are things we know that fundamentally question everything we do--from driving to work, to eating food that has travelled fifteen hundred miles before arriving on our tables, to being able to buy the latest electronics from China by clicking a mouse in Ann Arbor. So, what about imagining possibilities that are counter to the grain of culture? First of all, most social institutions that exist in this culture are not built to accept their demise. (Take, for example, corporations, which are social institutions and organisations that we think must grow ad infinitum.) But more fundamentally, my sense is that people are fearful of new possibilities because they will make outmoded what they have held on to dearly--we have built our entire lives on assumptions; on "experts" that know what is "best" for the economy, for the environment, for public policy; on stories and myths about industrialism, growth, and efficiency that we have to tell ourselves to make us feel good about what we are doing in our day-to-day lives. Therefore, for someone to come along and question all of these foundations will make most anyone throw up their guards.

The uncertainties of large scale policies on our daily lives make people uncomfortable with accepting them. What would it mean if everyone had to have health insurance? Well, there are a group of people that are scared of such possibilities because they think "government will take control of Medicare", that there will be loss of "freedom" and "liberty". Their opponents may think that these fears are unfounded, but actually, they are real, for they are felt and voiced. And so when it comes down to actually doing something new, in creating a fundamental change, it cannot start from anywhere else but our own lives. Understanding the scale at which new possibilities much be introduced is essential. The scale of individuals, of our daily lives make possibilities more tenable. Talking about possibilities and trying to live them openly allow others to be engaged in shaping these possibilities. For example, when Rowena said that learning primitive skills made her feel more peaceful, it was very easy to accept this, because I could feel and sense her peace. This made learning primitive skills more compelling to me, as I am sure it did to anyone that spent any amount of time around her. It was clear that she wasn't a "hippie" or "crazy". She was just doing something new. She was imagining new possibilities.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A changed relationship with materials

I have spent the better part of this past semester thinking about technology and materiality. We live in a material, dualistic world, one in which we think of ourselves as separate from the world we inhabit, and one in which materials are a source of happiness. We have structured entire cultures and economies on this philosophy, and while it would be wonderful to live in a culture that was non-dual and less materialistic, it is difficult to see inroads into how that culture would be spawned. Such a drastically different culture is necessary, although it may not be possible.

Humans are no longer only homo sapiens sapiens. We are now homo faber--man that makes. We make little toy trinkets for children and we erect mega dams that can block silt and water from following gravity. We build infrastructures, some in space like the GPS system, and some under ground and under water like the oil distribution network in the Gulf of Mexico. We technologise and we valuate materials.

But these technologies and materials are not valuable in and of themselves. Rather, it is how we perceive them, the politics imbued in them, how we are sold on them that lends them their power. These materials and technologies shape our world, our views of the world, and our views of ourselves as human beings. They lend many people a great deal of power, and allow people to affect politics in their interests. For example, no one can disagree that fossil fuels have lent the Western world a great deal of power, many times to the detriment of those people living in the Middle East. It is clear then that our cultural identities are tied to materials. We will go to any length to gain access to these materials. We will wage all sorts of wars, physical and those guised under "diplomacy". A competitive material world is the race to nowhere of megalomaniacs.

A similar picture can be painted for our individual lives. A broad survey of television advertisements and street corners during move out days in a college town seems to say that the value of our lives is proportional to the materiality of them. We are judged by our materials--the more the better it seems. We thus fill our homes and fill our lives with stuff we buy from our weekly trips to the mall. We line up to get the newest cell phone just because our service provider says that we are "eligible" for a new one. We brag about the time we will spend suspended off of the slide of a shear cliff with a new set of modular crampons from Petzl. Materials lend us status and power in small and intricate ways, whether it is bragging rights or whether it is climbing a rock.

It is difficult to separate ourselves from our materials. It seems that everywhere you look, you find someone interacting with some manufactured material. While we did interact physically with the world millenia ago, power and control now form the foundation of material use in our daily lives, and for our governments. And so, I understand that our views of ourselves are shaped by what we have--infrastructures such as roads just cannot be done without now, it seems, for everything from our daily commutes to our food makes use of such an infrastructure. Our cell phones become tied to our capacity to communicate with loved ones.

But I still feel that there is something we are forgetting about ourselves in all of this--that our fate cannot be tied to our ability to constantly change our world materially in the way that it currently does. My contention is that no amount of solar energy or wind energy or new efficient technologies will address ecological problems. They will indeed create their own problems of an even larger magnitude, of that I am certain. Our demands will change from wanting wind energy in the first place to wanting wind energy to provide enough energy so we can drive our Hummers.

Can we imagine a different relationship with the materials of daily life? How might this unfold in our communities and in our governments? Part of it surely comes from changing the framework from thinking about how newer things are more efficient to how newer things out to be more sufficient. But can this be taken a step further to make what we already have sufficient?

Monday, April 9, 2012

A little break

As you probably have noticed, I have been a little delinquent over the past few weeks about posting. As I said in my last post, it is not for a lack of things to write; rather, school work has had to take a priority, and will so for the next three weeks. But, I will be back to writing, and there are some new projects that I will be working on that I am excited to share with you.

First, I will be moving to the Motor City, Detroit, next month, it seems. I will be there without a motor to wheel me around. I am sure this will be something that will get me thinking about how our lives have been laned by roads, and about the contradictions of having mobility only if you have something to be mobile with. Roads and transport have not only shaped our lives, but their presence, and their influences, have been reflexively bolstered by our newly shaped lives.

Second, I will be starting a project something that I am tentatively calling Dissovled, which will be focused on two things--dissolving the boundaries between 'us' and 'them', be they political, cultural, material, monetary; and dissolving the mind-matter divide, that power dynamic that is a source of ecological and spiritual tensions.

I will be back later this month. Peace.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Two years

I apologise for not having written much this past month. Part of me has been focusing on trying to complete my dissertation, while part of me felt that I needed a little bit of a break from writing, not because there wasn't much to write about, but because I was in need of some inspiration to maybe take my thoughts in different directions. I am glad to say that I have found such inspiration, albeit a sort of academic inspiration that can easily be erudite. I will try my best to interpret what I have been exposed to, through my discussions, to a language that is simpler.

Today marks two years since I began living trash free. The 29th of March has become more of a marker of the year than either New Year's Day or my birthday, because I feel that New Year's Day is a fairly arbitrary day in general, marking not much, and my birthday is something that doesn't necessarily signify a defining moment in my life to look back on. I am generally with friends partying or something anyway.

Here is a picture of most of my trash from year two--just a few pounds, less than six. (I am yet to quantify the recyclables in the white bag and the non-recyclables in the beige bag.)

In the first year, I was able to get by without buying almost anything. Of course I bought unpackaged second-hand things when I felt that I needed to, but on the whole, I definitely did not have the urge to buy anything new. Things changed a little bit this year, not dramatically, but substantively.

During my first year, I did not have to maintain and upkeep what I already had. The material things I had did me well. But this year, I bought a new cycle tire because one tire, which was at least six years old, was dry rotting. A different motivation, that of protection, led me to buy as a pad lock in Montreal for a locker to keep my passport and money in. The most difficult, yet most satisfying purchases of the year, however, were two pairs of soccer shoes--one for indoor soccer, one for outdoor. I had been meaning to buy some shoes for about a year now, because my old ones barely kept themselves together. That is all I bought.

Things haven't been challening on the whole, though. I must admit that at times I have been a little more lax with my behaviour, but I have not caved. Part of me feels like I have come to a fork in a path. I am at the point where I need to make another big step, another change in direction, a direction that will build off of the past. The other day, I was talking to a few engineering undergraduate students, part of the student group BLUELab, about engineering, the environment, and individual action. I want to write just a little bit about what two students asked me, and my responses to them.

Zach asked me, "Why wouldn't you live, say, carbon-neutral?" In the past, I had told people that the lens under which we think about our actions isn't necessarily that important; power dynamics and violence present themselves under each lens, whether it is oppressive working conditions or polluting someone's drinking water. Furthermore, since everything is inherently connected, one can follow the philosophical and moral paths that are created by an inquiry into this power dynamic and violence. While saying exactly this to Zach, I realised that maybe that isn't neccesarily the case, and that different lenses allow different insignts into how much this culture, and I, have to change. Because even though I have been living trash-free, I have still hopped into a car at times, and I have still taken a few flights to get to conferences, all of which have spewed greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. I live in Michigan, a state that is heavily reliant on coal for its electricity, and I have bought food that has been transported some distance. There is room for continual change.

On a very different note, Adam challenged me by saying that to him, living trash-free seems not that impactful, and that more systemic changes are needed. I have written about these issues of individual action in the face of large problems at length, and I have spoken about it elsewhere. But I take Adam's comment very seriously, because it reminds me about the importance of the public nature of the intimate and personal changes that need to be instantiated. Culture doesn't change if we don't. But we cannot be satisfied with "doing our part" by living off-the-grid, by living trash-free, by being advocates for peace in our own lives. Our lives must unfold on others around us.

Year three begins, and I am hoping to challenge myself in different ways.

Friday, March 16, 2012

What do we do with what we know?

Eric Goode, a wealthy New York restauranteur and conservationist of extremely endangered chelonians (turtles and tortoises) found himself in thickets of Madagascar with Miguel Pedrono, a French conservation ecologist, and Lora Smith, an American herpetologist, trying to rescue the extremely rare plowshare tortoises, which collectors are willing to pay upwards of a hundred thousand dollars for--an example of "the perverse economics of rarity". William Finnegan, who accompanied Goode, documented this episode in the January 23 issue of The New Yorker,
Would defacing the shells discourage smuggling?

"Marking them won't fix much," Pedrono said. "Marked animals can be bred."

Goode asked about the Durrell Trust.

"They should stick to captive breeding," Smith said, diplomatically. "They have been having success with that."

Goode said, "I know the best thing to do sometimes is nothing." This is a core conservationist truth. But Goode isn't really built to do nothing...
The wild population (of plowshares) was clearly in decline. To get an accurate count, Goode wanted to mark every plowshare with big numbers and letters engraved into the carapace with a Dremel tool. But had the species already passed the point beyond which it could self-replicate?
The best way to find wild tortoises to mark was with trained dogs. But, if Goode brought a team of dogs and their handlers here, the poachers would quickly see the efficacy of dogs. For that matter, it might not be doing the plowshares any favors to hunt them all down for the sake of an accurate census and to mark them--too many local onlookers would also learn where they were. The poaching had been accelerated by the Internet, which connected the Asia market with local suppliers. If the goal was to help the plowshare survive, it really might be best to do nothing.
The other day, while talking to a group of undergraduate students, I was asked about how to remain positive and enthusiastic in the face of large the messes we face. I was left a little speechless, for I would be lying if I said I never feel cynical. But my mind jumped to something that I try to constantly ask myself and act on...What do we do with what we know? Sure, there are things we don't know, but do we really need to know them in order to do something? We know that dioxins are cancerous. We know that mountaintops are being blown off to burn their guts and spew their insides. We know that the most abundant thing this culture has produced is junk. We know. And so, maybe that something we need to do is nothing. But maybe that something is...something. We can suffuse our world with positivity. We can take simple, meaningful steps.

As a researcher, I am always surrounded by the anticipation of newness. Newness brings with it hope and optimism and the opening of new possibilities. Yet, there is a determinism that is deeply embedded in newness. That the directions we take are to be expected, needing no justification. There is a linearity to everything. Once it begins, it doesn't end, and the next step taken is the only possible step that can be taken. Many people make their lives and careers in aiding this determinism. Determinism is what guides most every technologist's and technocrat's thinking. It is as if a deterministic evolution has taken over all forms of inquisition and moral reasoning.

If you are reading this, you are probably very privileged with access to most basic things in the world. You have a roof over your head, food on the table each evening, and maybe some expendable money for a beer or two here and there. You probably have a decent education--you can read and understand and think about what you read. You also probably read the news, and observe violence and ecological degradation all around you. So then, I ask, what are we waiting for? What are you waiting for? What am I waiting for? Are we waiting for the never-to-come silver bullet that will wipe away power imbalances? Or are we willing to have agency, and recognise our privilege, and take a non-deterministic step?