August 2008 Archives

A Fish-wife's Tale

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Stanley Fish, writing his occasional column for the New York Times on August 3, 2008, devoted all ten inches or so of his column space dissing environmentalists in his typical erudite fashion. Kind of surprising as he usually turns his critical eye to modernists, ideologues, and all sorts of rigid thinkers. Headlined, “I Am, Therefore I Pollute,” the article apologizes for his disinterest in doing anything explicitly designed to help out the Planet. I usually applaud his work, but this time he pointed his critical finger at people like me.

His wife gets it, and has been making a valiant try to get him to join her in replacing simple things around the house like toilet paper and light bulbs with less polluting, more efficient things.

Things reached something of a crisis point a few days ago when my wife asked me to read a communique from Greenpeace. (She thought, she told me, that if I read it rather than hearing about it from her, my unhappiness would be directed at the organization.) It said that Kimberly-Clark, the maker of the paper towels, facial tissue and toilet paper we buy, does not use recycled fiber and instead “gets its virgin wood fiber clear-cut from … the North American Boreal … one of the world’s most important forests.” And that meant, she told me, that we would have to give those items up and go in search of green alternatives. But we had already done that once before when it turned out that the manufacturer of the paper products we used to buy — Procter and Gamble — engaged in research on animals. That’s when we found Kimberly-Clark. So it seems that the pure were not so pure after all, and who’s to say that the next corporation won’t have an ecological skeleton in its closet, too?

Reading further, I got the sense that Fish was not attacking the idea of environmental care, nor those that were doing something about it; he was making his frequent argument against rules of all sorts, even those that he might agree with in principle.

Categorization being what it is, there is no end to the subcategories that can be devised, each of them bringing with it a new set of strictures and a new opportunity to be inadequate and delinquent. Michel Foucault made a career of observing that modern techniques of regulation are more far-reaching and consequential than the old way of keeping people in line with guns and clubs, especially when they are imposed for your own good and for the good of society. He would have had a field day with recycling and would no doubt have written a book (maybe he did and I missed it while sorting the garbage), entitled, perhaps, “The Archaeology of Waste.”

He misses the point here. He does, at least, acknowledge his contribution to the burden that waste lays on the Earth. The title, as cute as it is, points to the inevitable tie between life’s processes and pollution and waste. Yes in simply being, we all pollute. But he goes astray when he opts out of any responsibility for doing anything about it. Maybe there is no grand narrative on which to frame ethical rules, as Fish so often claims, but it is undeniable that we all live in a complex, interconnected system where sustainability for any individual depends on the actions of everyone else. If it cannot be argued that taking care of the world is an ethical imperative, it is, at least, a matter of self-interest. C’mon Stanley, pay attention to your wife.

Nothing Man-made Is Ever Eco-friendly

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When stalwart cheerleading sources like WorldChanging publish articles skeptical of the effectiveness of small green steps is producing sustainability, people working to create sustainability should sit up and pay attention. Here’s the lede.

Do small steps actually lead anywhere? We all know the theory that small steps lead to bigger steps, which lead in turn to real change. And there are certainly a lot of small steps on offer these days, from the latest home energy tracker to the solar bikini. But it’s not at all clear that the ready abundance of small steps is actually making any difference. Indeed, between greenwashing and green fatigue, emphasizing little behavioral changes may actually be hurting.

Until recently, suggesting that “going green” in this fashion wasn’t a correct path was a quick route to condemnation. But now, some of the world’s most prestigious environmental advocates are beginning to call for a whole new approach.

The article is largely a review of a recent report from the WWF arguing that changes in values are the key to sustainability while questioning the impact of small changes in behavior towards buying and using “green” products. Green or eco-friendly are presumed to point to products and services that will 1) help move the world toward a more sustainable state, and 2) induce new, more responsible patterns of behavior in the users. Both claims, even when made in good faith, are misleading and, as the academic authors of the WWF report argue, can have perverse consequences.

Nothing man-made is ever eco-friendly, Some goods may create lower impacts than others, but the notion “friendly” as OK with Mother Nature is misleading and leads to a false sense of responsibility if any values change at all. Almost all green or eco-friendly products fit the strategy of eco-efficiency promoted by global business and many government policies. While it is critical to lessen the load on the environment, this strategy can at best reduce the unsustainable state of the world. Eco-efficiency, giving more value at less environment impact, may work for a while, but in the long run gains will be overwhelmed by economic growth.

Taking small green steps is what system dynamicists often call shifting-the-burden, focusing on short-term apparent solutions while neglecting to find and address root causes. If the process goes on too long, it can and does become an addiction. In this case damage to the addict spills over to the Planet. Sustainability is a positive flourishing state of the world including humans and the rest of the Planet. Consumption driven by today’s dominant cultural forces, now incorporating green behavior, is ultimately unsatisfying.

The aura of responsibility that comes from following the green line is most often only superficial as it is a response to an outside context, not a result of a change in beliefs and values deep inside. It is certainly possible that greening one’s purchasing habits will cause changes in values and induce responsibility towards the Earth and other people, but it is not likely in the absence of reflection and a critical examination of one’s internal state and of the deeper causes of unsustainability. Leaving this quest for understanding to others is quite the opposite of shouldering responsibility.

Uncovering the Subversive in Wall-E

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Wall-E.jpegFew of the reviewers of Wall-E I read noticed the film’s deeply critical and socially relevant underlying message. Most focused on the Hollywood summer-film story of love and happiness—here between a sloven waste compactor and a svelte extraterritorial robot. I saw a wake-up call to a society that has become so unquestioning of its immersion in a consumerist, technocratic culture that everyday life shows many signs of addiction. The first step in recovering from addiction is to acknowledge your dependence on whatever controls you. But in order to do that one has to step outside of the familiar and reflect on the consequences of your habit. Often it takes a shocker to do this. Reflective awareness can also come subtly and subversively. Ron Dreher, writing a review of the movie, Wall-E, in a conservative blog, Crunchy Con, says “Philosophically, this is one of the most subversive movies I’ve ever seen.” His not-so-hidden critique focuses on technology as the addiction.

Technology emerges as a villain here — but it’s a complicated villain, as I’ll explain. Technology allowed for the development of the consumer economy, and the creation of the fantastic spaceship [the Axiom] that allowed humanity to escape an earth it despoiled with technology. But technology also shaped the consciousness of the humans. It led them to break with nature (Nature), and to think of technology as something that delivered them from nature. As humanity became more technologically sophisticated, the film argues, they became ever more divorced from Nature, and their own nature. They developed a culture and society that was mechanistic and artificial, versus organic and natural (the grotty little Wall-E robot is an instructive contrast with the sleek, ultraclean robots on the Axiom). Consequently, they’ve become slaves of both technology and their own base appetites, and have lost what makes them human. They can’t even talk naturally to each other. Two people lying on lounges next to each other communicate via computer. People on the Axiom live their days moving around from mindless entertainment to mindless entertainment. They are the perfect consumers.

The critique itself was not surprising to me as I have followed the same path in my book. Seeing it as political can lessen its universal potential impact because politics has become a black and white, zero-sum game these days. Dreher says of the film that it “argues that rampant consumerism, technopoly, and the exaltation of comfort is causing us to weaken our souls and bodies, and sell out our birthright of political freedom.” I see the film more as an existential comment probing beyond politics, exposing what we are doing to ourselves at the level of being. In any case the film is remarkable and a must-see. Having struggled with the process of putting these same ideas in a book, I am both jealous and awed by the extraordinary power of visual parables and film to tell the same story.

Every Journey Begins with the First Step

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Welcome. This is my very first post to this new website where I hope can convince you to start thinking about sustainability in an entirely new way. By way of introduction, I am a former MIT professor, who, after 30 years of using my MIT PhD in chemical engineering to solve environmental problems, followed by a presidential appointment to plan water policy for New England, has now focused my energy on how to produce long-term sustainability. I am building on and leveraging my past experience with several foci: environment, sustainability and technology. I have spent almost all of my now very long professional life doing research connected with the environment and applying whatever I learned to improve the way businesses and governments act towards it. Also, as a parent, and grandparent, I can’t but help become increasingly concerned about the long-term human impact of current trends, and am more personally committed to making change for future generations. In these last few years, having much more time to reflect, I have put my thoughts into a book, which, of course, you can purchase through this site.

Now that the book is soon to be available, I plan to use this website to continue to talk about these ideas as they mature and change. Some of the themes that you will read about repeatedly might appear as being critical and negative about the very subject I care most deeply about. That is definitely not the case. I am being critical in the philosophical or sociological sense, digging deep into those beliefs, values, and norms that drive our individual and collective societal activities, always trying to understand why so many of these underlying cultural forces fail so badly to get us what we strive for. My hope in this undertaking is to open up our thinking to wholly new ways of addressing the continually worsening unsustainability manifest in both the state of the natural world and our own human condition. I have been inspired to undertake this route by Einstein who said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

For me sustainability is not the same as sustainable development. My definition of sustainability

Sustainability is the possibility that humans
 and other life will flourish on Earth forever.

invokes a positive vision in place of the process-based notion of sustainable development. Flourishing in the key. It is a metaphor for all of the attributes humans have been aiming towards from our earliest times on Earth: health, goodness, loving relationships, authentic satisfaction, and many more. In our misdirected efforts to get there, we are merely putting Band-Aids on the wounds to nature and ourselves that are being created by the very ways we live in our modern world. The Band-Aids are important steps towards reversing the ominous trajectory we are on, but only can reduce unsustainability. Doing less damage is necessary, but is not the way toward sustainability.

In periodic posts to this website, I will continue to comment on my own ideas as well as those showing up on the web, in news media, and elsewhere. You may find some “answers” here, but that is not my intent. Many other websites offer up such answers. I believe it is the questions that are key. If one does not ask the right questions, the answers that float into view are very likely to be ineffective or worse: they may make the situation at hand more problematic and difficult. Another variation of Einsteins’s insight above. Again welcome to the world of sustainability as flourishing. Your ideas and comments are always welcome.