November 2009 Archives

Vegans in Hummers or Beef Eaters in Priuses

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Michael Pollan dropped a one-liner at the recent PopTech conference that took me by surprise. He said, “I hope I’ve driven home the point that our meat eating is one of the most important contributors we make to climate change. A vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef eater in a Prius!”

So much of the chatter I read about greening has been focused on artifacts of one kind or another. Food kind of slips by unnoticed in the great green accounting system. I suppose that's because we tend to think of food as an essential and unavoidable part of consumption. In the most general of terms it is, but Pollan points out the huge contribution manufactured food, especially meat, makes to global warming. Meat-eating is deeply engrained in our culture and is started to permeate other cultures, like the Chinese, where meat has traditionally been a relatively minor source of nutrition.

Pollan takes pains to distinguish what he calls food from the bulk of the manufactured products we eat. He argues that all this stuff is not only not good for the environment because of all the energy it takes to bring it to the table, but because it is not healthful for us. The article from the Poptech conference reports much of what he said. I thought some of his closing comments were too good to leave to the link.

"I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to answer the supposedly complex question of what we should eat if we’re concerned about our health,” Pollan says. “I realized I can boil it all down to 3 sentences, 7 words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s easier said than done, he notes. Increasingly our supermarkets and restaurants are full of substances that “don’t deserve to be dignified” with the word “food.” Focus on quality rather than quantity, he says. And if all of America went meatless one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 20,000,000 cars off the road.

Three other revolutionary things we can do: 1) plant a garden. “If you invest seventy dollars in a home garden you can yield $600 worth of produce in a year.” Organic produce isn’t expensive if you grow it yourself. Our non-productive land could be feeding us and giving us exercise without using fossil fuels at all!

2) Get back in the kitchen and cook. “Corporations…don’t cook very well,” he says — they use too much salt, sugar, and fat. The only way to get control of our diet and our food system back is by cooking again and involving our families in that.

And 3) Eat meals! Eat food at tables with other people! “This doesn’t sound radical, but it has become that.” Twenty percent of our food is eaten in the car, in front of a screen, on the run. “Food isn’t just fuel; it’s about communion,” he says. “Bring back the meal as the sacred communal activity it is.”

Pollan is saying much the same thing in this last two statements as I say when I talk about the difference between having and Being. Our ordinary everyday eating habits are much more like having even if the product disappears into our bodies. Being shows up in the kind of "sacred communal activity" Pollan portrays.

Solid as a Rock

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I came across an article today on Alternet touting durability as a potential partial solution to the energy drain. The summary says, “The way to lower the quantity of energy required to make and distribute short-lived consumer goods is to make them durable, repairable and upgradable.” This is a lot more genteel than its headline, which read, “Our Lives Are Filled With Worthless Crap That's Destroying the Earth: Here's What You Can Do." In spite of the provocative headline, the article is well-done and draws on some excellent and authoritative sources. Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, the author, includes one of my favorite quotes which I used in my book.

The literature on planned obsolescence makes frequent reference to statements by industry analysts and strategists of that [post-WWII] era. “Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption,” retailing analyst Victor Lebow said in 1948. “We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing rate.”

While the article points to an opportunity to lessen the load on Planet Earth, it misses a critical point. One of the first people I met when I started to work in the world of solid waste management and recycling in the mid-seventies, before it was connected to sustainability, was Walter Stahel. Walter began to point to the need to close product cycles as early as 1976. He argued that by building longer product life into everyday artifacts we could reduce material consumption and create employment at the same time. The website of the organization, Product-Life Institute, he co-founded in Switzerland tells their early story.

In their 1976 research report to the European Commission in Brussels ‘The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy’, Walter Stahel and Genevieve Reday sketched the vision of an economy in loops (or circular economy) and its impact on job creation, economic competitiveness, resource savings and waste prevention. The report was published in 1982 as a book “Jobs for Tomorrow, the Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy”. Today these factors are commonly referred to as the three pillars of sustainable development: ecologic, economic and social compatibility.

Although Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart have popularized (and often claim exclusivity for) the phrase cradle-to-cradle, Stahel came up with the idea years earlier. Working my way through his website, I find references to many key events involving Stahel along the path to cradle-to-cradle, many happening in Europe, for example, the founding of the Factor 10 Club along with Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek in the early 80s. What strikes me as noteworthy is that it is now almost 2010, some 34 years later, and we are still acting as if this is an idea whose time has yet to come.

Concerns about sustainability have almost exclusively focused on technical solutions to our over-consumption and energy profligacy. We have had many solutions, albeit not perfect, emerge over the past several decades. Very few have been implemented, not because they were impractical or excessively expensive, but because they were culturally unacceptable. This example of extended product life is evidence that, without giving priority to culture change pushed perhaps by coercive rules, technical solutions even when known become adopted only with great difficulty. This historical fact is the foundation of my argument that almost all so-called greening efforts by industry only divert us from the real root cause of unsustainability.

Virtually all locate the root of the problem in some technical arena and either miss or deliberately direct attention away from our cultural consumption habit. Industry’s failures are compounded by the growth imperative of standard liberal market economic policy. Growth may be needed today to afford a decent living to those suffering from the recession because we have adopted policies that skew whatever economic output to those that are already well-enough off. If we shared our wealth fairly and decently and rebuilt caring communities, it might be possible to leave the impossible dream of eternal economic growth behind. No amount of technology-based efficiency increase can substitute for a fundamental change in the cultural underpinnings of the United States and all other nations that are like us or wish to become just like us.

Re-entry Blues

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I’ve been back from my travels to Turkey for four whole days and am slowly becoming re-immersed in the culture I passionately believe has to change if we are to find sustainability. I think my generation’s (grandparents’) chances to see a world where this possibility looms large are somewhere between very small and nil. I see signs, small and large, everywhere that shout wake up, but without much effect. It took just this short time back to tune into the current news and find this conclusion inescapable.

It shows up in little things, like trying to compensate for the serious side effects of a popular piece of technology with another. The New York Times ran a front page article last Sunday featuring a novel device that would cut off the mobile phone when a car is moving so that the driver cannot get distracted. The article is one of about a dozen in a series called, Driven to Distraction, each one highlighting the dangers of using an electronic device while driving, and various attempts to counter these with some additional technology. For some, mobile phones and texting are as addictive as any other dangerous habit.

Another place is the continuing touting of the wonders of the Sustainability Index being promoted by Walmart. They just don’t get it. Sustainability is a systems property. Phasing out products in favor of slightly less harmful alternates (even if we could be sure that they are, in fact, preferable) cannot possibly prevent the the system from collapsing under the weight of ever-increasing quantities of consumption. There is much evidence that changing buying habits will not change the world enough to make the difference it will take to attain sustainability.

The more successful Walmart is in the United States, the more money will flow to China where the bulk of their good are made. Not only Walmart but all establishments that offer goods and services to the domestic market. And what will then happen? The Chinese will consume more and more until they need a poorer country to supply the Chinese version of Walmart. All the while we are hell-bent to get the economy jumpstarted so we can get the consumption engine revved up. As Pete Seeger sings in his song, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, “Oh, when will they ever learn? Oh, when will they ever learn?”

It also shows up in big things. I returned just in time to hear cheers coming from the Senate that they were going to debate the health bills. Strange because I understood the purpose of the Senate was precisely to debate matters of national importance. This august body has fallen into the trap of finding technocratic solutions—procedures, rather than wisdom—to the challenges it faces. Sort of using a device in a car to counter the adverse effects of another device. Rather than examine the whole system called health that lies in an even larger system called society, they have come to play a game called heads I win, tails you lose. Society, as the glue that binds us together, needs to be nurtured, not played with. The real challenge of sustainability is to find ways to bring disparate values together, not on a battlefield but through honest dialogue and accommodation. Our political institutions need to heed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s comment that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” It is difficult to find any such intelligence among our lawmakers.

Thank goodness Thanksgiving comes in just two days. It is truly a holiday that offers a respite from the incessant chatter of daily life. For many it is just a stop along the way to the biggest shopping day of the year—the very next day. I imagine some getting up from the Thanksgiving dinner and heading for the nearest mall to be the first in line for the special “bargains” that await them when the stores open especially early for the occasion. For me, it is a opportunity to bask in the warmth of family, reflect on the meaningful aspects of life, enjoy a meal redolent with love and care, and imagine that the two generations that share the day with me will be able to do the same long after my time on Earth has ended. This is what sustainability means to me.

Turkey Is No "turkey"

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I am just back from a fantastic trip through Turkey. First thanks to my son, Tom, who filled in for me while I was traveling. I have invited him to continue as a permanent guest.

The pejorative sense of “turkey the bird” is absolutely not justified by any reference to Turkey the country. Admittedly short on the history of the region before I left, I was continually stunned by the richness of the civilizations that dwelled there over 6-7000 years or more. The first evidence of human habitation dates from around 20,000 BCE, and by 10,000 BCE settlements existing on agricultural production spread throughout Anatolia. Ephesus, the jewel of the ancient, but ruined, cities is mind-boggling in both the scope and the grandeur that must have exuded from it during its peak. The early great cities and monuments were largely situated along the coast adjacent to harbors that eventually silted up and destroyed their prosperity. We went along the coast on a small ship for several days and were dazzled by the deep blue, almost turquoise, color of the sea and by its clarity as well.

Although I was on a break from serious thinking about sustainability, I could not help but think about it. Many of the successive regimes that constitute the history of the region lasted for periods longer than the time the United States has been around. None, in spite of their relatively advanced culture and even engineering prowess, were able to last. Regimes fell before advancing armies and the devastation of plague and other natural enemies. Successive conquerers fought under the banner of largely religious “truths,” believing that they were the chosen messengers of the gods or, later, of God. Turkey is particularly interesting in this regard having played an important role in paganism, Christianity, and Islam. Abraham is said to come from the region. One could explain the demise of these various empires and polities on a lack of understanding of the whole system they were embedded within. Cultural beliefs of invincibility destabilized the systems and caused regime changes, one after another.

It is much the same today. Our cultural beliefs about the ability of technology to cope with upsets to the global life support system and our mistaken sense of what makes us a special species are potentially threatening to propel us toward the same fate that befell those ancient civilizations. Many of the failures then were due to peace treaties that were broken, even thought the parties recognized the importance of maintaining proper relationships with their neighbors. Although their early science was beginning to give them a sense of the world, it remained a mysterious concept. Today we know much more about that world, but still neglect our relationships with it. We know that victories on the battlefield have preserved cultures only for short periods, but act as if such power can preserve our nation forever. Although we know infinitely more than the ancient Hittites or Assyrians, I wonder if we have learned enough to create a resilient system that can produce flourishing for all life on the Planet. After being mostly out of range of TV or the Web for about three weeks, my sense upon returning home was that we have not, and, worse, we seem to be losing whatever understanding of what it takes to govern the very complex system we live within.

(The photo is of “Alexander’s” sarcophagus in the Istanbul Archeological Museum. One of the largest ever discovered, it depicts Alexander in the frieze, but its actual ownership is unknown.)

Pump Up The Volume

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How can we make consumption a more, not less, mindful experience?

That’s the question that came to me at a gas station pump this weekend. It was Sunday evening and I had stopped at a service area on the Mass Pike after dropping my oldest daughter off at college. I was a bit tired (like many drivers on these long interstate highways I would assume) and didn’t think much about the annoying din on the gas station pump as I filled up.

But then something about the moment sparked me—and I suddenly felt a crazy surge of anger and bewilderment when I realized that the top portion of the gas pump sported a small television set that was loudly broadcasting GSTV: Gas Station TV. When drivers on the Pike fill up they have no choice but to tune into this four and half minute loop of canned crap—the commoditized content culled from ABC, ESPN, and other entertainment sources. All of it interrupted by 15-second commercials.

What’s wrong with this picture? Never mind the resentment I felt about this private sector encroachment on a public byway. I had already paid my fee to use the Turnpike—a closed path mind you—and was now being rented out as a captive set of eyes to this fuel notwork.

What really bothered me about this intrusion was the complete disconnect between the new attention-grabbing noise in my face, and the real value that could have been designed in that space. In Sustainability by Design, John talks a lot about design, and problems. Let’s assume that new products and services are fundamentally responses to problems. They help close the gap between the current state of consumers, and the desired state of these individuals.

GSTV had nothing to do with a problem of mine—it’s not like I was sitting in my car and thinking “gee I wish I could find an abbreviated version of mindless tv somewhere close.” In fact, the intrusion of this material was itself a problem for me—it was annoying and distracting and unpleasant. All it did was distract me from a fairly important set of actions I was doing—which was filling my car, and in this case, checking my oil.

Once upon a time we had station attendants who helped you care for your vehicle as you traveled along. These experienced hands have been replaced by automated systems. The need for expert assistance persists.

What’s lost here? If the folks with the authority to rent out this space, to design the user experience at the service stations, had re-framed the problem, then I might have experienced something very different when I stepped out of the car. Here are a few things that come to mind:

  1. Real-time traffic conditions for the road ahead.
  2. Real-time weather conditions for the road ahead.
  3. Information about where frequent Turnpike users might be able to car-pool with others.
  4. Touch-screen videos showing people how to check their oil, trouble-shoot common problems, and so forth.
  5. Reminders to check their wiper fluid and anti-freeze and to replace the cap for the gas tank.

Wrong product. Wrong problem.

Towards Experienced Experts

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Thanks Dad for entrusting me with this space. A quick post today on a recent New York Times op-ed that had nothing to do with sustainability, and yet, to me, had a lot to do with sustainability. In this terrific article lamenting the end of Gourment magazine, Cook’s Illustrated founder/editor Christopher Kimball worked his way up to the following conclusion about the role of media and opinion-leaders in our all-too-cluttered world:
The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up. They can no longer be coronated; their voices have to be deemed essential to the lives of their customers. That leaves, I think, little room for the thoughtful, considered editorial with which Gourmet delighted its readers for almost seven decades. To survive, those of us who believe that inexperience rarely leads to wisdom need to swim against the tide, better define our brands, prove our worth, ask to be paid for what we do, and refuse to climb aboard this ship of fools, the one where everyone has an equal voice. Google “broccoli casserole” and make the first recipe you find. I guarantee it will be disappointing. The world needs fewer opinions and more thoughtful expertise — the kind that comes from real experience, the hard-won blood-on-the-floor kind. I like my reporters, my pilots, my pundits, my doctors, my teachers and my cooking instructors to have graduated from the school of hard knocks.

What’s relevant here? Kimball’s call for discernment in all things, for the voice of experience, for the process of creating not more and more but better—for finding the true and wise product in a loud and cluttered cacophony of consumption.

This reminds of a great phrase from the poet Tom Wayman’s What Good Poems Are For:

Over the noise

of the jukebox and the bar’s TV,

past the silence of the lake,

a person is speaking

in a world full of people talking.

Gourmet’s business model was based on an expensive, top-down, critical mass approach, where the magazine had to spend a lot of money to create a critical mass of readers so that it could in turn charge its advertisers premium rates. So much wasted money and effort to produce a product that could be so good when done right. Here’s hoping that the age of quality magazines are not gone, and that a new (and sustainable) model will emerge that enables experienced experts to delight a loyal community.