Tuesday, June 18, 2013

With knowledge comes responsibility

What is the point of learning about the world if we live for ourselves?  What the is point of research and of generating knowledge if we do not take what we learn to heart?

Scientists and engineers occupy a unique and powerful position in this culture, and they always have.  While kooks and quacks no doubt exist, scientists and engineers do important work in chemistry, atmospheric sciences, biology, physics, ecology, building and designing.  But if you're a scientist or engineer reading this, it is likely that you have been educated to (or at least told to) just doing the science and engineering, and leaving the decisionmaking that stems from it to others--policymakers, lawyers, businessmen, and politicians, many of whom do not have the best interests of people and nature at heart.  Scientists and engineers thus leave it to others, others who many not fully understand the implications of this knowledge, to decide what should be done about what we know, so scientists and engineers do not lose their "objectivity," so they do not cross the supposedly strict boundaries between scientific, reductionist research and the murky world of "values."

But in this glacier-melting, toxic tresspassing, obesity-inducing, mass-species-extinction, large corporate culture, scientists and engineers can no longer sit on the sidelines of decisionmaking.  Traditional means of scientific communication have led, for example, to politicians undermining and denying climate science (although in this episode of This American Life, it becomes clear that many politicians fully accept climate science, but just do not admit it).  Instead, given the incredible diversity of thought, skill, and knowledge they possess, scientists and engineers must take full responsibility for what they know and do, and that is to become front and center the faces of the radical social, political and economic change needed to align this culture and its laws with ecological holism and peace.

Fortunately, there are a handful of such brave men and women out there already, and Sandra Steingraber heads the list of courageous scientist activists.  A poet, essayist, author, environmentalist and ecologist, Steingraber has written extensively (in Orion magazine, among other places) about the links between industrial chemicals released into the environment and human health impacts, specifically cancer.  Recently, she has been intimately involved with the opposition to the extremely destructive practice of fracking, for which she was jailed.  In a conversation with Dick Gordon on The Story, Steingraber says,
In the absence of a powerful human rights movement behind the science, I don't think we can move this forward.  The world's most powerful industries are standing in our way.  And so I think science needs to be coupled with a kind of activism, similar to what we saw with [the] Civil Rights [Movement], similar to what we saw with the Abolitionist Movement.  And so, I feel inspired in the work that I do not just by the power of the data, whether it's on climate change, or on the growing evidence that we have linking childhood asthma to crummy air, [but also by how] Martin Luther King Jr. did what he did, and how my dad, at age eighteen, had to go off and fight global fascism even though at the time it looked like an overwhelming task...People under very desperate circumstances rose and said, "This is wrong." 
I carry around this German name, Steingraber, and my dad [was] also German...and what I learned from my dad was to not be a "good German."  If you see something is wrong because you have evidence, whether it is the kind of evidence that the French partisans had or whether it is evidence like I have as a biologist, we have a moral obligation to make sure that that evidence [leads to change].  You don't just say, "Here's the evidence," and that's your job, you're done.  But if nobody is coming to take the evidence and turn it into change, then you have to do that yourself.  It becomes your own responsibility. 
I hope to continue to develop these thoughts on the blog over the days and weeks to come; they formed an important part of my dissertation, and continue to be something I write about more academically.  I hope to translate more of that writing here.  I am sure many of you have thoughts on this very important issue, and I welcome them in the form of comments and even guest blog posts.  Until then, I encourage you to listen to Gordon's full conversation with Steingraber, which I have posted below.  You can also find the conversation on The Story's website, here.

Part 1 of Gordon's conversation with Steingraber.

Part 2 of Gordon's conversation with Steingraber.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Guest blog #29: Minimalist parenting by Crystal Thrall, part 2

I left off yesterday writing about elimination communication and breastfeeding and baby-led weaning.  Today, I finish off writing a little bit about co-sleeping and babywearing.

I am going to take away all the fun of preparing for the arrival of a baby by suggesting that a nursery is simply not practical.  The nursery: an entire room and furniture to fill it suited to the first year of a baby's life.  Sure, that crib probably converts to a toddler bed, but I really think that even a crib is unnecessary.  Why not skip the tiny mattress entirely and buy your child a proper mattress she can use throughout childhood?  For that matter, why bother with a nursery at all?  Why not make a fun room suited to your child's interests, when they become apparent, as she ages?  Yes, I am implying that you share your bed with your child during the infant, and probably the toddler stage of her life.  To make co-sleeping practical for us, we bought another mattress to increase our effective bed size, and we put our bed on the floor.  I can hear you quietly thinking, "How do you ever have sex when you share a bed with your child?"  That's a fair point to which I respond: it is possible to be intimate with your partner without having your bed available. 

I was given many things by very well-intentioned friends and family that would help me put my baby down: an infant seat (a.k.a a Bumbo); colorful play mats with exciting toys that could stimulate many of my baby's senses; a swing and a bouncy seat--both of which played soothing music or simulated noises from the womb; and a stroller.  I happily and gratefully accepted these gifts and hand-me-downs thinking it would be nice to put my baby down every now and then to have free hands.  Little did I know not all babies willingly accept any distance from a warm body.  Call them what you want: high-needs, fussy, colicky...I was/am the proud mother of one of these babies!  It wasn't long before I realized each of these items was practically useless to me, and I thought I would never be able to put my baby down without having to listen to her scream.  I knew that baby carriers existed, but the options overwhelmed me and I couldn't decide on one. 

One glorious day, a friend of mine introduced me to a local babywearing group.  I was honestly quite intimidated by the vast library of carriers and the babywearing proficiency demonstrated by these wonderful moms and dads...but mostly moms.  Nevertheless, I knew this was the solution that would work for my husband and I.  My carrier collection started with a simple ring sling crafted by my mother.  I quickly learned how easy it was to just pop my daughter in and out of the sling and carry her hands free anytime, anywhere.  Finally, I was liberated from my stroller!  The burden of my baby gear load decreased significantly, and I would no longer be forced to awkwardly maneuver a stroller around any store.  I didn't realize how much I loathed the stroller concept until I acquired my ring sling.  You can see a picture of me and a passed out organic baby in yesterday's post.  Here is one of my husband, Brian, with baby Rae awake.

Brian, organic baby, and a ring sling on Main Street in Ann Arbor
Now that I could leave the house with a happy baby, my next babywearing goal was to free my hands for domestic duties.  I had to learn how to wear my daughter on my back, and for this I would need a wrap which is essentially just a very long piece of fabric.  Even more overwhelming than choosing a specific type of carrier was selecting a wrap!  There are various sizes, colors, fabric blends, and brands, and in the end I learned many people choose their first wrap based on the color.  After buying a wrap and learning how to back-carry, I could resume many of my pre-baby activities while providing entertainment for my baby.  My daughter especially enjoyed watching me sweep the floors as I wore her on my back.  She still does, but she would prefer to sweep the floors herself (especially after she's involved in a mishap...not really, but maybe some day!).  

That leads me to the semi-babywearing-related topic of toys.  In the first year, a child needs few, if any, toys.  At this age, babies can be entertained by things you already have in your home, or better yet, outside.  What's even more entertaining than things is mom and dad and the activities they do. 

Final thoughts
I must confess that I have simply summarized the concept of "attachment parenting" from a different perspective.  Attachment parenting is what works for our family.  Coincidentally, this parenting style achieves another goal of ours--minimizing our impact on the environment. 

While putting together this post, my husband said that I should discuss his perspective throughout this process.  Here goes: Initially, he was opposed to co-sleeping, babywearing, and elimination communication.  He reluctantly followed my lead, but became more accepting as we progressed into a routine.  When he observed how happily our daughter would eliminate on a potty, he was no longer an EC skeptic.  He also appreciates doing less laundry and going out with less baggage.  When he started wearing our daughter, he appreciated the increased closeness and interaction he didn't get with the stroller.  And he quickly learned that co-sleeping gave him the ability to sleep more during the night.  Eventually, his entire view on what parenting should look like changed, and he will not do it any other way now.  (Now, on to conquering the world!)

Attachment parenting is probably not the only environmentally friendly parenting style, but this is what works for us.  Ultimately, you have to do what is best for you and your family.  I am quite satisfied with how relatively little clutter there is in my postpartum home and how my daughter doesn't require much baggage when we go out.   If minimizing the baby gear in your life is your goal, then you might want to consider wearing, breastfeeding, pottying, and/or sleeping with your baby!

There's a ton of used baby things out there!  And always remember, craigslist is your friend!

Elimination communication
The Diaper-Free Baby: The Natural Toilet Training Alternative by Christine Gross-Loh
EC Simplified: Infant Potty Training Made Easy by Andrea Olson
Andrea Olson's EC website: godiaperfree.com

Breastfeeding and Baby-led Weaning
Lactation consultant directory
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by Diane Wiessinger, Diana West, and Teresa Pitman
So That's What They're For!: The Definitive Breastfeeding Guide by Janet Tamaro
Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby To Love Good Food by Gill Rapley

Find a babywearing chapter near you here
Babywearing blog from my local Babywearing chapter

There are also plenty of instructional youtube videos available!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Guest blog #29: Minimalist parenting by Crystal Thrall, part 1

Crystal Thrall, queen of the Diva Cup, is back, and this time, she writes about her new baby girl, and her efforts to minimize the ecological impacts of infancy. 

My parenting journey began unconventionally by planning a home birth, but I followed the mainstream idea of what babies need: diapers, a crib, a stroller, a car seat, and so forth.  As someone who lives a relatively minimalist life, I was troubled by the thought of adding all of this child-related baggage to my clutter-free home.  Over time, I realized that most baby gear is wasteful, unnecessary clutter, especially in the first year.  I know, you probably think I am nuts.  "How can you live without a stroller?"There is no way I am going to carry my baby everywhere!"  "And diapers?  Come on, babies certainly need those!"  "What about entertainment?  My baby will get bored!"  I admit that these ideas did not come naturally to me; however, I learned from other parents with similar interests.  All parenting philosophies aside, if your main goal is to minimize your environmental impact, the following topics might interest you: elimination communication; breastfeeding and baby-lead weaning; co-sleeping; and babywearing.  Today, I write about the first two.

Elimination Communication
The guiding principle behind elimination communication (EC) (also known as natural infant hygiene, infant potty training, or gentle potty training) is that people are born with the instinct to not soil themselves.  Babies communicate the need to eliminate just as they communicate other basic needs, and as parents it is our job to understand when that need should be met.  By exclusively diapering a child, the child learns that caregivers will not meet this particular need and that the appropriate place to eliminate is in his pants.  Imagine how confusing it must be after two or three years of eliminating in your pants to learn that you are actually supposed to use a toilet!  I won't go into the details about how to establish this sort of relationship with your baby, there are plenty of references out there that do a much better job than I ever could.  But I will share my personal experience.  

While I was pregnant, I thought I was doing my environmental due diligence by committing to cloth diapers.  Knowing that I would save landfills from a large volume of solid waste while protecting my baby's bottom from diaper rash made the additional laundry burden worth it.  For five months, we happily cloth-diapered our child until a friend and fellow new parent introduced us to the concept of elimination communication.  From the day her son was born, she started putting him on the potty.  I admit that I was skeptical at first, but after reading Diaper Free Baby, I knew that I had to at least try introducing my infant to the potty.  It wasn't long before my daughter refused to poop in her pants, and what an exciting accomplishment that was for us.  At this point, I was completely sold.  Now our daughter is 16 months old, and while she still has accidents, she doesn't wear diapers during the day and spends most of her time dry.  She directly communicates her elimination needs with either a hand signal or words.  Our experience has completely changed my perspective and opinion on diapers, and we are fully committed to respond to any future child's elimination needs in this way from birth.  

Some people would say that "elimination communication" sounds wonderful, but isn't practical for a child with two working parents.  The beauty of EC is that it can be accomplished part time and with zero stress.  Anything that ends up in a potty results in fewer diaper changes, and therefore less waste, so why not try it?!

Breastfeeding and Baby-led Weaning
Breastfeeding is a sensitive and controversial topic for many women.  Personally, I never questioned whether or not I wanted to breastfeed.  And while my breastfeeding relationship was easily established with my baby, I have met numerous women who have struggled for weeks, even months to exclusively breastfeed their babies.  I have also known women who, despite their best efforts, were unable to maintain breastfeeding for physical or psychological reasons beyond their control.  Breastfeeding is certainly not something women can take for granted, but even if it takes blood, sweat, tears, and a lot of time, the benefits to both mom and baby are well worth it.   

Well that's great, but my main point is to minimize "stuff consumption."  Obviously, if a baby receives his meals exclusively from mom, infant formula and the waste associated with it is completely unnecessary.  If mom stays at home, the need to bottle-feed is also unnecessary.  However, many moms work in which case bottles and breast pump supplies are probably necessary.  In the end breastfeeding can still lead to waste, but less so than formula-feeding.  
Breastfeeding is probably the obvious environmentally-friendly choice to many people, but what about the weaning process?  When I was pregnant, I had every intention making my own pureed baby food.  It could be organic, I could make my own concoctions suited to my baby's tastes, I would save money, AND I would contribute less waste by not buying packaged baby food!  This sounded like a great plan until I learned about baby-led weaning (BLW) which makes it even easier to avoid packaged baby food.  It's quite simple: let your child feed himself.  This means that the child eats finger foods rather than purees.  For us this means our child generally eats what we prepare for ourselves.  Honestly, BLW probably lengthens the path to weaning, so you have to be willing to commit to an extended breastfeeding relationship with your child.  As a mom who has been breastfeeding for 16 months, I know that it isn't always easy.  However, I didn't go into parenting thinking it would be easy, and I know she won't be breastfeeding forever.  

Come back tomorrow to read part 2 of Crystal's guest blog!

Crystal, a nuclear engineer, and her organic baby.

Brian, Crystal's husband, also a nuclear engineer, with his organic baby.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"Sustainability is illegal."

I find law fascinating, and I would love to write about it more.  But for this blog post, I would rather you spend your time listening to Thomas Linzey, Esq., co-founder and executive director of the Community Environmental Defense Legal Fund, which intends and works on "Building sustainable communities by assisting people to assert their right to local self-government and the rights of nature."  In the audio clip below taken from the fantastic radio show Making Contact, Linzey talks about ways to morph the current regulatory and property rights framework of environmental law to one that affords nature rights and better protects the rights of citizens in the face of ever-growing corporatization and pollution.  As it stands however, according to Linzey, "Sustainability is illegal.  The hammer comes down on you when you attempt to actually to prohibit something in the interest of building sustainability in [a] community."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Guest blog #28: Scott Wagnon's thoughts on population

(My last post generated a lot of activity on Facebook.  I also received an email from my labmate Scott Wagnon, whose detailed response to the post is below as a guest blog post.)
I feel as if Darshan downplayed the role population plays on environmental issues.  Where I wholeheartedly disagree with the unnamed professor (and I know Darshan does, too) is that race is a factor in the interconnection between the environment and population.  Environmental impact is something that is caused and felt by all age, race, gender and socioeconomic demographics.  I know and recognize that certain slices of the demographic pie contribute and/or are impacted more significantly than other slices, as Darshan mentioned in his post.  
From any perspective, it is just and right to advocate on behalf of people whose rights have been impacted, whose voice cannot reach a broad audience, or whose voice may not have the same impact as ourselves as wealthy, "educated" people.  But the simple fact remains that we--all of humanity--cannot have tens of billions of people consuming a few resources, as much as we--all of humanity-- cannot have a few people consuming tens of billions of resources.  Population control via family planning through various birth control options, abstinence, and education (see Darshan's post on the "entitlement" of having children, and the short discussion generated); increases in efficiency; and reduced consumption of resources are three equally important ways to reduce the impact of the choices we make.    
Those of us, such as Darshan and myself and likely you, who have been empowered with the means to make and enact such choices, should especially look at every aspect.  As Darshan pointed out in his post, wealthy, "educated" people--us--often consume the most.  (On a side note, I use "educated" because I wonder how smart we really are based on certain decisions that we make as a society... having to look no further than our collective treatment of the environment.)  If we--the large consumers, including myself :/--choose not to have large families, use less resources, and use resources more efficiently, we're fostering a culture where the environment is valued not as a commodity, but as something for all of humanity to enjoy.  We live in a finite world, so barring our expansion beyond this beautiful planet, all of humanity must always remain mindful that Earth can only sustain a finite population at even the smallest necessary levels of resource consumption.  We are all effectively one family altering our common home, for better or worse, through the choices we make.  I hope we all continue to make better choices.
~Scott Wagnon

Friday, May 24, 2013

Thoughts on the population issue

I just returned from a trip to the US National Combustion meeting in Utah, which was perhaps my last hurrah in combustion for the foreseeable future.  Here is the beginning of a conversation I had with a professor who shall not be named at the Sunday evening reception:
My advisor: This is my student, Darshan.  He just graduated a little while ago.
Unnamed professor: What are you doing now?
Darshan: Traveling, and then headed to the US Environmental Protection Agency in August.
Unnamed Professor: What are you going to do there?
Darshan: I will be working on issues of environmental justice and sustainability both within and outside of the EPA.
Unnamed Professor: To be blunt, the issue about environmental justice is just about a bunch of black people having too many children and choosing to live in polluted places. 
Perhaps one of the most insightful thoughts I have heard about the population issue in a long time comes from a 2008 conversation that Jeff Goodell had with James Gustave Speth, published in Orion Magazine and Change Everything Now.
Goodell: ...And you can say--as you do--that we consume too much, and that our economic system has become a slave to the idea of an ever-expanding GDP.  But you could also just say, "Look, there are too many people on the planet--"
Speth:  Well, I think a lot of people believe that.  I actually have a law, Speth's Law, and it is that the richer you are, the more you think that population is the world's problem.  But the scale of the impact is really derived from the phenomenal amount of economic growth in rich countries, not from the phenomenal population growth. 
Several facts bolster Speth's claim.  In case of climate change, for example, the majority (~60%) of historical emissions of greenhouse gases has occurred in just the handful of industrialized countries in the US, Russia, Germany, UK, Japan, France, and Canada.  Sticking with climate change (an issue laden with environmental justice issues), much of the greenhouse gas emissions in industrializing nations such as China are caused due to emission from the production of objects for industrialized countries.  Even though the populations of China and India are increasing, the slowly increasing population of the US and the decreasing populations of Western Europe still have much greater ecological impacts.  (I suggest taking a look at this [and this!] incredibly cool interactive graphical tool to visualize how the poorest are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and how blaming population increases in industrializing countries is misleading.)

Enough about climate change broadly.  Let's get into the specifics of population.  I will not deny that the world and many nations face massive challenges of population.  But blaming population growth occurring today for past ecological degradation that has caused injustice today is to deny culpability, to shrug off any responsibility for our actions.  There is no way to buy most electronics or textiles or food that has been manufactured or produced without degrading impacts.  Our electricity comes from coal and fossil fuels, which require mountaintop removal and tailing ponds and people to cut down forests.  By buying what we do, by using energy and electricity the way we do, we link ourselves to socioecological injustices of pollution and degradation elsewhere.  Environmental injustice is about people being socioeconomically or politically forced into living in degraded places, most times to serve the wants of the rich and powerful.  It is built into and a necessity of our economic and policy structures.  The population growth occurring all over the world only serves to expose these injustices. 
As you expect (and while I am sure he had to work hard to be where he is), the unnamed professor is not a poor person.  He is a rich and now privileged person living in an industrialized country.  I am, too.  All in all, the per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in industrialized countries, the demands of heavy metals and plastics and chemicals, are still several times higher than those in industrializing countries.  Therefore, individual action to reduce ecological impacts on the part of people living in industrialized countries is the equivalent of several people in industrializing countries doing so.  Population is part of the issue, but individuals are, too.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The jagged edges of the Keeling Curve

This time it made the headlines.  Something as vague and intangible as an invisible, odorless gas is encapsulated in a concrete number.  400 parts per million, a level of carbon dioxide not seen for the past three to five million years.

The number is in fact not intangible.  It is very real, real because sea levels are rising millimeter by millimeter, submerging island nations such as the Maldives and heavily populated coastlines.  The number is real because the summer of 2012 was the hottest summer on record in the United States.  The number is real because of the acidification of oceans and coral bleaching; because of drier forests fueling larger fires; because of the ever-shrinking amount of polar ice; because entire villages in Alaska are needing to be moved because of thawing land, to the tune of $380,000 per person.  

In spite of all of this very real evidence of the effects of climate change, nothing new is being said that can wash away the line that have been drawn in the sand that divides the "believers" from the "skeptics".  (If you don't "believe" in climate science, perhaps you might question your beliefs in most any science that you rely on in your daily life.)  Perhaps it is time for a new story about climate change, a new story that connects old facts.  Perhaps our sole focus on the emission of greenhouse gases as a technological deficiency is distracting us from the real issues; framing climate change as a “carbon” problem is “possibly the greatest and most dangerous reductionism of all time: a 150 year history of complex geologic, political, economic, and military security issues all reduced to one element.” [1]

As a postdoctoral researcher, I wonder if Charles Keeling thought about the symbolism of his scientific endeavors in the thin air of Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawai'i.  The jagged edges of the Keeling Curve are symbolic of the sharp divides and fractures in our politics, and under our feet in the fracked Marcellus Shale.  The jagged edges show how cruelly we continue to cut and lacerate this earth, just as is being done in the forests of Canada to access tar sands.  The curve is symbolic because not only does it show that carbon dioxide levels are rising, but that also our hubris is, too--the hubris of thinking that we may be able to engineer ourselves out of this problem.
From The Scripps Institution of Oceanography
[1] Thomas Princen, “Leave It in the Ground: The Politics and Ethics of Fossil Fuels and Global Disruption” prepared for the International Studies Association International Conference, Montréal, March 16-19, 2011; to appear in State of the World 2013.  

Friday, April 26, 2013

Let it go

Barry Schwartz, in his book Paradox of Choice, talks about the confluence of freedom and choice.  He says (and you can see this in his TED talk, which I have added below) that one of the central ideologies of Western industrial society is that freedom is inherently good (well, it depends on what kind, right?), and that today this freedom is manifest in expanding choice for individuals.  Our supermarkets host hundreds of kinds of cookies and salad dressings (even though crop diversity has been on the decline), and electronics stores have every single combination of processor speed and physical memory and screen type you can hope for.  Yet, as Schwartz claims, increased choice doesn't lead to satisfaction or happiness.  Rather, we are crippled with regret or anticipated regret that we could have made another or better choice because we expect too much from our choices, and in the end we blame ourselves for our lack of satisfaction.

To be more specific, though, Schwartz's talk is broadly about how material choice relates to our happiness or satisfaction, and to extend Schwartz's thoughts, regret and anticipated regret and self-blame can make us continually buy things with the expectation and hope that we will feel better about ourselves.  This ties us into the bind of continually buying material products that are decidedly not socioecologically benign;  the new phones we buy are still made of heavy metals and rubber and plastic by people who are treated poorly.  

This is not to say that we should live non-material lives; cutting ourselves completely from this culture will do very little to change it.  We live in a material world and I hope that all of us want to do something about its socioecological destructiveness.  Finding that balance, that is, being able to participate in this culture while advocating for and acting toward change requires participation and engagement, not isolation.

Making a choice and being satisfied and/or happy with it requires letting go of the perceived benefits or costs of your choice.  Letting go is about making choices and not being affected by comparisons of what we have to what others do, and not being affected by imagining our lives had we made another choice.  Rather, we must stand by the choices we make to free our minds towards the positive, the constructive, rather than remorse, regret, and self-blame.  Letting it go opens up space to recentre and redouble our efforts on what must be done about social injustice and ecological degradation rather than tethering ourselves to choices that cause injustice and degradation.  A phone is a phone, and if my phone can't look up Wikipedia, big deal.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Overview Effect

Our capacity to switch back and forth between scales of time and place--to understand the global, to acutely observe the local; to learn from the past and act compassionately for the future--is what seems to be in short supply with coming to terms with burgeoning and intricate problems such as climate change and sustainability.  We constantly narrow our focus when the problems at hand are large, and we blame structures when it comes to changing what goes on in our households.  And so, on this Earth Day, I wanted to share a video with you (which I found posted on my friend's Facebook page a few weeks ago) that helps us make connections of scale, that helps inspire wonder in our minds and activism from the heart.  On this Earth day, Overview inspires the aerospace engineer in me, and, more importantly, provides all of us with boundless meaning to the word and the notion of our home, Earth.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Traveling at home: Annie Clark and her cafe

Since it has been so long since I have written a traveling at home piece, here are some older thoughts on why I do it.

I feel like the notion of traveling at home falls squarely in line with attempts at reducing trash. When we appreciate what we have, and where we are, we may start looking for beauty, pleasure and wonderment here and now. We don't have to pine to travel to some far out corner of the world, although that would be nice sometimes. We don't have to pine for something from somewhere else, although that would be nice, too. This may seem like some sort of "localism," and maybe it is, but I think it is more. I have not read much about localism but what I hope it means is more than just a patronising of businesses and groups that are close to you. I hope it means that there is a satisfaction with place with a full understanding of what needs to be done environmentally, and consequently socially, to lessen our burden on this planet...I would like to find out what it is that people appreciate about the places they are in, and when and why they decide to call it home

Café Mooset recently reopened in Bloomsburg right next to Art Space, and right across from the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble.  I have been going there religiously when in Bloomsburg, for the quietness of the space, the art on the walls, and the company of Annie Clark, owner and chef.  My interview was cut short by customers, and so it didn’t come to its tonic, but here is a part of her life and her thoughts on home.

Cafe Mooset

Art always
Where do you live, and where do you call home?
I live about three miles east of Sunbury on Sawmill road, on the side of a mountain overlooking a beautiful east-west valley.  I live on the dark side of the mountain.  But, I grew up in the northern part of Pennsylvania, close to the New York border, in Silver Lake.  Silver Lake is nine miles north of Montrose, and I still call Silver Lake home.  We used to move twice a year from our home in Silver Lake, though, because it wasn’t weatherized for winter.  So, we moved twice a year.  In that way, home had to be wherever I was, just like for a military family.  Fortunately, we moved in the same area, and so I maintained relations with the same kids in the same school. 

How has home changed over time?
It has been developed.  It was once rural, and actually remote, given its proximity to a city and a town.  I just drove there the other day, and where there were once trees are now houses dotted all around.  There used to be a lot of farmland, too, but the houses used to be clustered in small areas.  The other kids in school used to live five or ten miles away, and so when I wanted to see them, we had to plan the visits.  Nothing was walking distance.  The cottages in my area were populated in the summer, and then no one would be around.  I loved it.

What did you at home?
Well, my brother was a boy.  I was closest to the sons from the next farm, and we would always go to the water together.  I used to do a lot of stuff on their farm, and as I got older, a horse got involved.  My father was not a farmer, but a French teacher.  After teaching, he spent the rest of his life in Binghamton, working on flight simulators.  

How has the environment at home changed over time?
During the late fifties and early sixties, there was a drought in the area.  You couldn’t make it farming, and so everyone got other jobs, or they would try to farm during the day, and then have a 3-11 pm night shift job.  The farmers of the smaller farms that were less productive started selling parcels of their land to give way for more houses.  I still remember the dwindling size of the grass and hay bales.  Then again, everything goes back to the way it was when you stop doing what you do.  

There was a rule about the number of cottages that could be along the lake, and there was never supposed to be two rows of them along the lake.  Because it was a mountain lake, all the runoff ended up in the lake, and it began to suffer from pollution.  They fixed it all though, but I am not sure how. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Three years, and traveling (at home, too)

While preparing yesterday's post, I remembered how much I loved traveling at home, and so, I decided to talk to Annie, part-owner and manager of Cafe Mooset in downtown Bloomsburg, PA, where my parents live. When she asked me how long I have been writing on this blog, I looked to the bottom right of my computer screen (for some reason left open), and I realised that that day, the 29th of March, 2013, was the three year anniversary of when I started living trash-free, although, as I will write about below, the past few months have been anything but that. (I have recently been saying that I used to live trash-free, because saying otherwise would be like saying I am a vegetarian when I eat non-vegetarian food, even occasionally.) Regardless, the 29th of March still holds weight for me.

When reading my blog posts from the one year and two year anniversaries, I see pictures of the trash and recyclables I was (partly) responsible of introducing into the world. The pictures also make me think about all the choices I made that aren't captured in those pieces of paper, plastic, or metal. I have no record of that for most of this year, mainly because I no longer live in Ann Arbor, and living trash-free is essentially impossible when you are on the road. Since I finished my dissertation in late August, I have been traveling--first, a road trip across the country, primarily out to the western states; then out to the east coast; then back to India. 

I cannot say that I have gained any new insights into individual activism and social change over the past year, apart from this: I cannot stress how important it is to be diligent about and attentive towards anything and everything we do. When it comes to trash, for example, I have found at times myself being lax when on the road, knowing that even if I could have saved a small fork or paper bag from being used and immediately discarded, I found myself biting my tongue or not speaking up.

It is quite timely for me to be traveling at home given the amount of traveling I have been doing recently. I consider it a privilege to be able to travel. (I do not take travel lightly.) I have found this country, in particular, to be stunningly gorgeous. Then again, the garden is everywhere, as Barron Wormser writes. I have continued to wonder, though, what it takes to appreciate home, and to have that sense of directed attention towards it as you do when traveling some place new. This is an ongoing project and lesson, and ties into what I am thinking for the year ahead.

Year four will hopefully be influenced by another project that is in the works right now--one which I wrote about a year ago--that I am tentatively calling Dissolved, which is focused on what divides people and opinion, and how we can focus on the things that unite us rather than the things that divide us. Mohammad, my labmate, and I are working on this survey-based project, and I really, really want to get the ball rolling on this.

I would love to have more contributors to this blog, and I thank people for continuing to read it.

Friday, March 29, 2013

"Why isn't the green world enough for us?"

(There is nothing I can add to the poetry of this short essay, The Garden Remains by Baron Wormser in the current issue of Orion, but I have trimmed it for this post.  I feel as if he has condensed most of my blog posts into a few short paragraphs, and so, I've provided links to those posts.  The essay decorates my last two posts.)

..."There is no shortage of answers--the specter of mortality, sheer restlessness, cupidity and anxiety.  To reside in the pagan world of celebrating the harvest god is to acknowledge the difficult truth that life is cyclical rather than linear (1, 2, 3).  It is to give primacy to what is in front of us rather than what is behind the scenes.  And it is to lay to rest a degree of our inherent uncertainty about this world.  The seasons come and go; so do we.  That is that. The excitable news of the linear world is so much palaver.

"I tend to think that once human beings entertained notions of the infinite, it was all over.  Such a scale had nothing to do with the human race and, in its imaginative potential, everything to do with the human race: it dealt with overwhelming, impossible questions like, Why are we here? and Where are we going?  Overwhelming questions tend to call for overwhelming answers.  The garden answers those questions, too, but in a very different manner, a much milder one.  The garden tells us that we are here as part of all that lives and dies and that where we go is at once plain--back to the earth--and mysterious.  We can celebrate both ends.

"Alas, the human race never has been very good at appreciation (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).  We're active and forgetful creatures who tend to be glib.  To build a culture of appreciation for the finite and reside there may be the largest task facing the human race.  It certainly won't be accomplished by being busier and creating more labyrinths of money.  Weeding and hoeing are much more important.  So is cooking.  So is any imaginative endeavor that makes us feel at home on earth.

"When the song "Woodstock" proclaimed that "we've got to get ourselves back to the garden," it wasn't as hippie-foolish as it might have seemed.  The backers of the blind certainty that perpetually afflicts human affairs and demands blood sacrifices in the name of ideologies, nation-states, and ethnic hatreds might ponder the peace that resides in that line.  We may have left something very crucial behind; yet the good news is that anyone can see the garden any day on earth.  It's called grass or tree or fruit or flower.

"Maybe the gift of the green world is more than we can bear.  Maybe that is the legend of the garden.  Maybe the shame and guilt that go with our exile are more real than any of us can bear.  We blew it and continue to blow it.  Do we have to?  I don't think so, but the image of two stricken, cowering people is what it is.  In one unforgettable sense that is the human race.

"Today is beautiful, one of those I-can-feel-everything-growing days.  I will go outside and affix pea tendrils to the fence.  The tendrils know what to do, but I can help them.  I can stand there and linger for long, fulfilling moments and simply take in.  It seems the best of all worlds."

~Baron Wormser
The Garden Remains
Orion, March-April 2013

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

More on care and affection

In talking about places worth caring for, Kunstler is basically asking the question, "What do we care about?"

While some people call him a doomer and someone that does not have the "expertise" of an oil economist, there is stil a tremendous amount of sense in what James Howard Kunstler says in his TED talk from 2004 (see previous post).  In making places worth caring about, we inherently forgo individual and community actions that degrade place; the built environment guides choices that cherish and nourish place instead.  This spirit of place can thus be incredibly empowering.

Care necessarily makes abstract concepts of urban planning and of daily choice more real, tangible, and concrete.  Care is not about numbers and statistics (although, I guess, care can be informed by them).  Rather than listening to news of ecological doom and gloom here and far away, building (not only materially) and living in places worth caring about actually empowers us to use an emotion so rarely put into action in our daily lives.  Today, many of us live in places where we do not know our neighbours or the local ecology, we work in places without sunshine and stare at screens.  The massive changes needed in all spheres of our civic and daily life grow from caring.

This care ties in intimately with the affection that Wendell Berry talks about so wonderfully in the 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities) he delivered: 
Obviously there is some risk in making affection the pivot of an argument about economy. The charge will be made that affection is an emotion, merely “subjective,” and therefore that all affections are more or less equal: people may have affection for their children and their automobiles, their neighbors and their weapons. But the risk, I think, is only that affection is personal. If it is not personal, it is nothing; we don’t, at least, have to worry about governmental or corporate affection. And one of the endeavors of human cultures, from the beginning, has been to qualify and direct the influence of emotion. The word “affection” and the terms of value that cluster around it—love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence—have histories and meanings that raise the issue of worth. We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful. When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong. A large machine in a large, toxic, eroded cornfield is not, properly speaking, an object or a sign of affection.
(Take the time to read the whole lecture.  It is worth absolutely every moment of your time.)

Places worth caring for are absolutely everywhere, and right outside our doorsteps (and inside, too).  They don't need to be a thousand square miles big or Glacier National Park.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Places worth caring about

I recently returned from a trip home to India.  These homecomings have been occurring every two to two-and-a-half years, and each time I have been back home over the last nine years, I have traveled to a new part of the country.  I have in time been to Darjeeling and West Bengal, Gangtok and Sikkim, the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra), Goa, and now, Kerala, known more recently due to tourism advertising as “God’s Own Country.”

Kerala is truly magnificent.  Lying slender on the western coast of Southern India, it is shaped kind of like Chile.  The coasts are chock full of gorgeous beaches, and the hillside and mountains, just a few kilometers in, are the site of tea plantations that supply 20% of India’s tea production.  But perhaps the most beautiful parts of Kerala, I think, are the backwaters that hug the shoreline.  This is where coconut trees droop over marshy lands and freshwater making its way to the sea.  Here are some examples of what I am talking about.

But as I, and others more productively and prolifically, have written about, there is something that has invaded waters both in Kerala, the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, and the Pacific Ocean—trash, and in particular, plastic.  Plastic was abundant in the backwaters, and these are only larger fragments that I found at the surface.  

There has been a supposed campaign for a “plastic-free Kerala.” What this means is very unclear.  Does it mean no plastic at all?  Plastic bags were rare there, but account for just a fraction of all the plastic used and thrown.  What about bottles, like this one?  Here is my dad posing by a "Plastic-Free Zone" sign, with plastic calmly worshipping the posts.  In the backwaters, I actually saw a man clean some sort of plastic off of the propeller of his boat by nonchalantly throwing the plastic back into the water.  

In his TED talk from 2004, James Howard Kunstler, a wonderfully foul-mouthed urban planner and critic of suburban sprawl, spoke about places worth caring about.  He talks about how form and design of places influences people’s behaviour in these places, and how "public spaces should be inspired centers of civic life and the physical manifestation of the common good."  He contrasts public spaces and buildings and homes in America with the tight courtyards you find more commonly in Europe.  Indeed, places worth caring about make us want to protect them, to nurture them, and to make changes to them only so intentionally.  And I think his sentiments translate directly to man and caring for the spaces that nature has created. 

As I wrote about when I returned from India two-and-a-half years ago, does cleanliness mean anything to a country desensitized to public trash heaps?  Indeed, are these places worth caring for?  And if we do care, does that care result in us just hiding away trash as we do in the West, or asking deeper questions such as "Why trash?" or, as Kunstler makes us ask, "Where we are going?"

More on places worth caring for next time.