Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

What many environmentalists haven’t learned: economics says personal action drives change

Lester Brown, if you ever read this, it is not meant to be a personal attack. I find you to be an exceptionally influential person in the field I care so deeply about. However, I felt compelled to use what I noticed about your visit to AU to talk about an issue that I have wanted to express for a while, and that is the importance of personal responsibility and individual action and how those coincide with one’s future aspirations.

I wrote this blog entry a couple weeks ago

…but never posted it because I wanted to cool down and look back on what I wrote a little later to see if I was just fired up or if I was maybe on to something.

And I think I was on to something.

The purpose of the following entry is not to bash the Baby Boomer generation, although it does hint at that in places. It is not to say, “Hey! You got us into this mess! You help us figure it out!” Far from this, it is meant to serve as a way to empower members of my generation, it is meant to help us understand that we each, in our own lives, hold more power than any corporation and any politician does. We have a wallet, we have knowledge, we have the freedom to use both as we wish. But most important of all, and forgive me for sounding trite, but we have each other.

As Barbara Kingsolver said in her commencement address to Duke in 2008, during what I consider the greatest piece of advice that someone could give our generation:

“You can be as earnest and ridiculous as you need to be, if you don’t attempt it in isolation. The ridiculously earnest are known to travel in groups. And they are known to change the world.”

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And so this a variation of what I had written that night, when I came home downtrodden and–I’ll admit, almost near tears (OK, maybe I was just having a rough week…):

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Lester Brown and the Dasani bottle and why I got so mad

Last night, I heard Lester Brown speak on campus. For those of you who don’t know who he is (I didn’t until the event) he’s the author of over 50 books on global environmental issues, he’s the founder of the Worldwatch Institute, the Earth Policy Institute, and basically the inventor of the term “sustainable development,” (evidently, a legacy he wishes to renounce, saying that we have a “language problem” in this movement and instead should use the phrase, “saving civilization.”)

And guess what? He’s 86 years old, which is pretty impressive.

But here’s a couple other things about his talk:

  1. He drank from a McDonald’s cup during the first half of the presentation.
  2. He drank from a Dasani bottle the second half.
  3. He quietly slipped away to take a cab home (he lives in D.C.) after answering three questions out of swarms of students who were dying just to shake his hand.
  4. He appeared to have done so partly because his books, which were meant to be at the reception after for people to buy, never arrived. (Which appeared to have been some sort of dealbreaker?)

(First, let me just say he isn’t the first environmental activist who I have seen speak who does all of these things, so I’m not singling him out. I am merely using him to make a point. And yes, I am sure he was just given the Dasani by someone at KPU or whoever. But if you were speaking on such a topic, wouldn’t you have said, “Sorry, I have my own bottle–mind refilling it at that water fountain?”)

These four seemingly innocuous actions stood out to me more than anything he said throughout the hour he spoke.

We, (and by we I mean the younger generations, say, everyone under forty or so)—we, the ones born into the “Age of Irony,” are the ones that quite literally must change things. We must pick up the pieces of the broken systems our grandparents left us with. Our lives, and most certainly our children’s lives, depend on it, according to statistics. A couple such statistics:

“By 2025, there will be no glaciers left in Glacier National Park.”

“Our population may only stabilize before 10 billion people because at that point the mortality rate will begin rising steadily due rising levels of hunger.”

I could rattle off others, but you’ve heard them all before.

Brown raised a point in his talk about how economists need to learn ecology. He said, “The World Bank uses all kinds of economic models to predict and explain trends. Why haven’t they looked at our growing population and asked, ‘How will we feed these people?'”

I don’t disagree, but there are also way too many ecologists out there who don’t understand basic economics. And I mean, basic. They might understand advanced economic theories. But they don’t seem to understand the concept that communities bound by solid belief systems, even just one, can change things. Living by a principle, when that principle is shared by a group, can change things. We’re currently seeing an example of this in one New Jersey community who is setting a precedent with a group of businesses who are pledging to stop selling and using products that have the endocrine-disrupting chemical triclosan in them (OK, maybe I used this for-instance because I wrote the press release and pitched the press conference that announced this to the media…) But, this is just one for-instance. There are countless others.

We can use a basic law of economics to create social change and influence more environmentally beneficial behaviors. It’s quite simple:

  1. people refuse to buy products that harm the environment
  2. they tell their friends
  3. issue campaigns promote education even further
  4. companies must create products that don’t harm the environment
  5. those that fail to evolve based on consumer demand can’t keep up in the marketplace.

The environmentally-conscious companies thrive, the environment thrives, humans thrive. It’s basic economics and it’s basic environmental morality.

If you participate in the easily avoidable actions that are driving our problems (ahem, drinking bottled water), you are subscribing to the idea that your actions don’t mean as much as some other person’s. In reality, it is the sum of our individual actions that drive change.

It’s easy for people like Lester Brown to stand before an audience of twenty-somethings and say to them, “Look at these problems which were set on course over a hundred years ago! They must be fixed! Here is this puzzle, please solve it and while you do, I am going to tell you about all the statistics of this dire situation.”

And yet, with a Coca-Cola bottle in hand. Talk about taking Ghandi’s everlasting, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and just tossing it right in the garbage.

How can the leaders of this movement expect to inspire us to change if they are still doing the same old messy things? And perhaps more importantly, how can we expect the people who scream, “You’re a crazy fascist for threatening to take away my bottled water” to take this movement seriously when its leaders are drinking bottled water as they speak before us, preaching principles of conservation?

Final point: This wasn’t all just about a Dasani bottle. If you thought that it was, I apologize for not having been able to make my point clearer through this extended metaphor of sorts.

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My take-away message

I submitted a speech to AU’s School of Communication for our commencement ceremony a couple months back. I wasn’t chosen but they seemed to like mine and a couple others enough to have our messages up as runners-up (take a look if you love that mushy stuff…self-promo #2…reaching my limit, aren’t I?).

But, here is what my advice would’ve been more like if my speech didn’t need to be SOC-oriented:

“Don’t think about thirty years from now in terms of where you will be career-wise. Don’t think about which organization you will be working at, trying to fix our broken world. Instead, think of the organizations that will have wrapped up their work because there is no longer a need for them. Dream up a world where there is no Worldwatch Institute, because our commonly held beliefs finally came to unite us, so we were compelled to take up different efforts on our own, to watch out for the world and each other in our own lives, no longer requiring an institute to facilitate. Imagine a world where we don’t need organizations to rattle off statistics. Imagine there were no statistics to report.

Even better, imagine living out these statistics…

  • living modestly, in a neighborhood where you grow most of your food within a few miles
  • being part of a community that is self-sustaining because that is what makes people happiest and because that is what makes the most sense
  • having a child who learns about what your generation endured and how it was able to turn things around
  • writing a book, and then having it available online (or whatever the current technology called for! On the current “iPads”?)
  • being part of a generation, a community, that was constantly learning to evolve.

And imagine how much better life would be.”

I know we’re not there yet, remotely, but these “far-fetched” dreams are important. They keep us positive and positivity restores our faith that what we do, here and now, actually matters. It all matters.

How positively overwhelming that is. How positively empowering, too, right?

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Bill McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle” redesigns how we think about sustainability

Rewriting our design assignment

“And to use something as elegant as a tree?
Imagine this design assignment:
Design something that
makes oxygen,
sequesters carbon,
fixes nitrogen,
distills water,
makes complex sugars and foods,
changes colors with the seasons,
and self-replicates.
…and then why don’t we knock that down
and write on it?”
~ William McDonough

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Here is what Bill McDonough proposes is our ultimate design assignment.

Circles & triangles

Last night was a bit of a “full circle moment” for me, not only as a student learning about environmental issues and sustainability, but as a citizen of the world. I got to meet a hugely influential person in my life, Bill McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle (co-authored by Michael Braungart). I first read this book when I was 19 years old and staying on Nantucket with a family I nannied for. I went in a bookstore in town with the kids and they were giving away copies of it for free.

Hm. I thought. Well, that’s interesting. And I’m not one to turn down anything that is free. This book was also so smooth, pretty, different from other books (it’s made of polypropylene paper, is 100% recyclable, is more durable, has pages that don’t wrinkle/tear, and iswater-proof). I read it in three trips to the beach and ever since then, I’ve been interested in sustainability. I had never read anything like it before. It taught me the backstory of why we are where we are today (a rudimentary concept—the industrial revolution brought us here—but at the time, I knew next to nothing about this.) But it also made me think. It made me look around and see the way we do things and ask myself, “But wait, why don’t we do it this way, and then we don’t have to this problem or that problem AND we get this benefit and that benefit.”

Basic case in point: You can carry your groceries home in reusable bags, because they reduce unnecessary waste and buildup of plastic in our landfills and ecosystems. But you can also carry your groceries home in reusable bags, because carrying heavy objects over your shoulders makes your life easier and prevents loaded plastic bags from cutting off the circulation in your fingers as you carry them.

Just that story of how I came upon this book sort of mirrors exactly what Bill is all about: for me, a free book changed my life. Cradle-to-cradle design isn’t about making things more expensive or more difficult or less fun or less aesthetically pleasing or less loving. It’s not even about creating equitable and ecologically friendly ways of doing things in ways that fail to promote economic growth. He believes in the importance and power of the economy, equity, ecology as they can co-exist and work together. This is a relatively well-known concept in the field of development and the first thing we talked about in my Environment & Development class this year, but it’s not a balance often achieved in design.

Benefits of a cradle-to-cradle approach within food systems

ECONOMY

  • More local agricultural jobs, less power concentration in hands of CEO’s/more in hands of people => more jobs, more money in the hands of people
  • More vibrant local economies => less hunger, less sickness, less violence
  • More vibrant local economies => more vibrant cultural activity => thriving people

ECOLOGY

  • Less soil nutrient depletion and erosion
  • More places for species to live and thrive, instead of less
  • Less waste, less use of packaging, less transportation/fuel needed, less carbon dioxide emitted => more up-cycling => best use of natural resources => healtheir ecosystems => survival of all species

EQUITY

  • Better food security and food access due to independence from industrial food systems elsewhere & less disparity between the have’s of fresh, local food and the have-not’s with processed, unhealthy foods
  • Better tasting, healthier, less processed, more nutrient rich, less pesticide/harsh chemical-laden food
  • Healthier people => happier people


Drawbacks to a cradle-to-cradle approach within food systems

Yeah. Cost-benefit analyze that one. Which is sort of the whole idea. If there is a drawback, it’s not really cradle-to-cradle design.

“The God is in the details”

The really fabulous thing for me and other American University students, is that Bill is the architect that designed our new School of International Service building. And he did so in a way that combined these three benefits, saying that, “the God is in the details.” Meaning that all of the parts that make up the whole of this transparent, innovative, progressive building, “where people can dream,” are working together in their own way, in a good way, to make things “more good,” instead of “less bad”. From the 100% recyclable carpeting and other building materials to the waste management system, from the rain collectors and solar panels on the roof to the underground parking garage that gives priority parking first to cyclists (and has shower rooms available for them), then motorcyclists, then hybrid vehicles, and last, other vehicles.

I had a few questions I would have loved to ask Bill, but I chose something specific, “Are there any plans in place to evolve other buildings on campus?” The short answer from the dean was basically, “There sure will be. We need funding first.” Which gets back to that triangle corner of economy. If it’s not economically viable, it doesn’t fit the cradle-to-cradle design question:

But the economic viability aspect is also a huge asset to cradle-t0-cradle design, and to agribusiness in general, simply because this is what businesses and corporations are solely interested in. So in order to convince them, all the “cradle-to-cradle minded” designer needs to do is convince them that they will save money, or that they will be able to make more money, and then they are basically obligated to embrace it. It would go against the basic law of capitalism not to.

Cradle-to-cradle is the sort of design model that we need to use for our food production AND our food waste upcycling in our cities, because one cannot exist in a well-designed system without the other. Local food production via green roofs, composting in homes and buildings, using that compost on the green roofs of the homes and buildings–this isn’t rocket science, it’s just, as Bill would say, interesting.

In one of my next entries I will go over some of these “details” in more detail, and talk about how they can work together to encompass sustainably designed and developed food systems within cities and habitats for humans and all other life.

Evolving design

The most important thing to remember is that that doesn’t mean cradle-to-cradle design is ever perfect. In fact, McDonough recognizes it is not ever perfect. Really, design must be constantly evolving as different methods and technologies become more economically viable and approaches are made more equitable while still remaining ecologically beneficial. What works now will have to work better in the future.

Just like all organisms must evolve to survive, so must humans, and so must the systems that we create and rely on.

After all…

“Sustainability takes forever. And that’s the point.” – William McDonough

Let’s be philosophical.

Something “philosophical” occurred to me this weekend, as I left Food & Water Watch early, at 1pm, as per the federal government’s orders. As technologically advanced as we are, as “advanced” as our society is, we still don’t stand a chance against Mother Nature. I know, this isn’t revolutionary as far as new “thoughts” go, but, in a sense, it is. Because we always think we can out-think nature, but when it comes down to it, we have to work with her, not against her.

In this case, here in the Washington, D.C. area, we don’t stand a chance against the monster snow storm that is upon us. Snowpoclypse. Snowmageddon. SnOMG. SnOMGasm. Etc.

Also, sometimes, you want to eat things that aren’t local. Today, I was craving tomato soup, but tomatoes are grown in the warm weather. And we don’t have warm weather right now. And the only time I want tomato soup is in the cold weather. So, a predicament, which I will explore more tomorrow.

Anyhow, this is going to end for now. Tomorrow, I will elaborate upon my musings. Because, let’s be real. It’s snowing, and we should enjoy that.

tomato soup yum.

Twenty-four hours.

I met with my independent study advisor, Terry Sankar, who is my life-coach/green-guru/inspirational-professor. Previously my Practical Environmentalism professor, Dr. S has agreed to take me on in my journey to learn as much as I can about sustainable food production and draft some sort of paper that will detail how we can make it a reality. A practical reality. Like, one that will make everyone happy (except corporations like Monsanto but I’m actually quite positive they aren’t real people. Or at least, they lack souls.)

Dr. S actually thinks I will be able to get this paper I write published. I laughed when he said this and he looked me dead on and told me he was being serious. Then he reminded me of this one class last semester where we had gotten off on a tangent (typical but always enlightening) and he said to us all, “Everyday, you wake up and you’ve got 24 hours of your own time to spend here on Earth. It’s entirely up to you how you are going to spend it.” One girl in the class put her face in her hands and then burst out, “That’s so depressing!!” (I believe she felt this way, because we have only so many hours on this Earth, and the thought that we end up “wasting” so many of those precious hours is sort of frightening.)

“But why?!” he replied. “I find it so liberating!” He told us how the thought that he is in complete control of his life, what he does, how he spends his 24 hours, one day after the next, makes him feel so powerful and free.

So he reminded me of that moment and told me to go into this independent study, to sit down to read and write, knowing that this is something I can eventually contribute to the world. To sit down and write with the intention of having my words read by others. With the intention of enlightening others, and making a difference in some small way.

While the idea of this happening makes me feel so giddy and lit up inside, I’m not confident enough to think this is possible. But if Dr. S, (who designed this wind turbine, by the way) thinks that I can, I might just have to as well.

So you’ve got 24 hours, how are you going to spend it?

This post dedicated to Mr. Martin Luther King Jr., who for sure spent his time here on Earth making a difference.