Friday, August 28, 2009

I Know, I know

I said I was going on hiatus, but then I read some controversy-producing blog posts and articles and I can't help but comment on them. Also, I'm trying to stretch out the three hours of dissertation work I have left as long as possible for maximum crankiness.

Beth recently posted a link to an article by Derrick Jensen in Orion Magazine entitled "Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change." The first couple sentences of his piece are pretty abysmal actually. I mean he invokes the NAZIS for crying out loud. And unfortunately those sentences do Jensen a great disservice because the rest of his article is actually quite thoughtful and insightful.

What Jensen is arguing is not that an individual's actions don't matter; rather, he's arguing a very specific point: that individualist environmentalism is not particularly helpful. By individualist environmentalism, I mean environmentalism that is not part of a broader linked-up action, but is done on a personal basis in the home.

Now, recently, one of my friends A got her landlord to put in a gray water tank into her bathroom. Which is pretty awesome, right? Anyway, she was telling us all this, and my friend J interjected and pointed out what a small difference one gray water tank is. Not that he didn't think it was worthwhile, but what's one gray water tank when there are wide swathes of residential lawn, golf courses, and water intense agriculture all over California? And the truth is, my friend J is right as is Jensen who also points out how small residential water usage is in comparison to agriculture and industry.

The point Jensen is making is ... well ... It's the Institutions, Stupid. (Seriously, I HAVE to get tee-shirts made saying that.) Given the crisis we're in, individual action isn't going to cut it. It's kind of like taking an Advil when your appendix is bursting. What is needed is institutional reform.

So, basically, ludicrous and easily refutable first few sentences aside, I completely agree with Jensen. But, in my mind, Jensen doesn't go far enough. Pointing out that individual action isn't enough ... that's the easy part. Look, we all KNOW individual action isn't enough. But as Jensen points out, we're in a double bind. One can give up, and go with the status quo, or one can participate in semi-meaningless individual action. There aren't really many other options for most people.

I think the point is, that individual action can result in two things. One: it can result in complacency. Oh, I recycle and bring my own bags to the grocery store, so I'm doing my bit and I can just sit back.

Or, two, it can propel people to action.

The thing is, if it weren't for individual environmentalism, I would probably not be here in London procrastinating my dissertation. I became individually involved and then became part of a political movement LATER. So I think the real question is, how do we motivate more people to take individual environmentalism one step further? How do we harness the energy from the individual environmentalist movement and use that to change institutions? Those are the real questions that need to be addressed, and it would be great if a few journalists put their thinking caps on and started working on that instead of trying to just shit on personal environmentalists.

Speaking of sh*tting on environmentalists, Elizabeth Kolbert goes after a few in her recent New Yorker article, specifically Colin Beavan and Vanessa Farquharson. Basically, she accuses them both of participating in one-year eco-stunts in order to gain publicity.

To which my response is, "Yeah ... so?"

Did Colin and Vanessa engage in eco-stunts? Sure. But what's wrong with engaging in stunts? Participating in stunts is valid political behavior to attract public attention. Again, speaking from personal experience, I was motivated to change my lifestyle because of people like Colin and Vanessa. And as someone who has arguably participated in her own stunt (though I never wrote a book about it), I can testify that you don't come out the other end an unchanged person. Although my year of strict non-consumerism is over, I shop much, much less than I used to and my entire life philosophy has changed greatly. And knowing Colin and Vanessa as I do, I know they have been transformed as well.

The most ridiculous part of the article is where Kolbert talks about how Colin needs to engage in more political behavior instead of personal environmentalism. I ... kind of don't understand how Kolbert completely missed that Colin is ALL political environmentalism ALL the time these days, what with his new organization, and his protesting, and his meetings with politicians. In fact, Colin has had his ass handed to him by his readers several times because they MISS the personal stories. So if his book, which I haven't read yet, is heavy on the personal anecdotes, that's probably just because Colin knows his audience.

In the end, Kolbert accuses Colin and Vanessa for missing the forest for the trees, but really it's Kolbert who misses the personal transformation because she's too busy criticizing Vanessa for flying places and getting laid.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

While I'm On Hiatus....

Read this.

Posting Hiatus

I guess you all are used to this by now, since it is basically the bajillionth time I've had to take a posting hiatus in the past year. Sorry folks!

But I have to finish my dissertation (due Tuesday), pack (moving out Wednesday), spend time with my family in India (flying there Wednesday), and then move to New York (going there in two and a half weeks.)

Needless to say, the next two and a half weeks are looking kind of hectic.

But there are posts that I have in my head that I want to write, so ... we'll see. But if you don't hear from me for a little bit, you know why.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Your Opinion

Seattle recently failed to enact a fee for plastic bags. What does it mean for the larger climate change debate? This is what I think. What about you?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Re-quitting soda

About a year and a half ago, I began the difficult process of quitting soda. I was fairly successful. Fewer chemicals in my body, fewer costs to the environment. Everyone is happy.

Then I went back to university, and all hell broke loose. I now have a bad, bad soda habit.

So today when my friend B said that she was quitting soda September 1st, and I should too, I readily agreed.

Me: Yeah, I'll quit all soda. Oh wait, except for mixers. I'm not quitting soda in mixers.
B: Okay that's fine. Wait. We might need to define this further. You can't be like, drinking a rum and Coke just for the Diet Coke.
Me: I wouldn't do that!
B: Yeah, I know you. No drinking a mixed drink at 3pm just for the soda.


So anyway, re-quitting soda September 1st. Let's see how I do.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Clearing up some confusion

I leave London in two weeks. This sucks, dude. Even though I am really, and I mean REALLY excited to move to New York, I am really sad to leave London. And also to leave Britain's NHS which is, let me tell you, pretty damn awesome. I don't necessarily want to spark yet ANOTHER healthcare debate, because that's what my Facebook status is for, apparently. But I have to tell you, it is just a little bit odd that I have had wonderful health coverage for absolutely free here in Britain (I guess I do pay VAT, but it's only 5% more than the sales tax in LA) and now I have to buy stupidly expensive health insurance when I move back to my native land.

One of the worst parts of this whole debate has been the scare-mongering that has occurred wherein people who have never ever lived abroad invoke Canada or Britain's health care system and are like, "OMG IN BRITAIN EVERYONE DIES BEFORE THEY ARE 40 BECAUSE GORDON BROWN KILLS THEM ALL WITH HIS DEATH GAVEL TO SAVE ON HEALTH CARE COSTS!!!"

It's irritating to me as an American, and it's even more irritating to Brits, who ... okay. Here's the thing about Brits, and I don't claim to be an expert, but after living here for a year, I have learned a little about the people.

They aren't a very patriotic people. Not like Americans. Once when I told a group of Brits about the Pledge of Allegiance they kind of freaked out about how all Americans are obviously brainwashed. Brits don't natter on about how they're proud to be British. There isn't a Union Jack flying from every corner. They aren't obsessed with being number one. In fact, the Brits are charmingly self-deprecating about how they lost the empire.

Brits save their patriotism for football and tennis when Andy Murray is winning. (When he is losing, Murray mysteriously goes from being "British" to "that Scot.") Outside of sport, the Brits are pretty mild-mannered.

Until you attack the NHS.

Let me try and explain this in American terms. Britain doesn't have a constitution. But the NHS does. To attack the NHS, is in a sense, to attack Britain at its core. It's like attacking the Bill of Rights. And the NHS continues to be one of the most popular institutions in Britain. One of the studies I read for my exams rated its popularity at 80%.

I can't think of anything with an 80% popularity rate in the United States.

Institutions are not so beloved if they are crap. The NHS has its faults, no doubt, but many of the charges being levied against the NHS in America are beyond ludicrous. Which makes the Brits angry, which makes them attack us, and it becomes a vicious trans-Atlantic cycle that is REALLY, REALLY annoying for those of us Americans living in the UK who might want to do something that doesn't involve arguing about healthcare in the pub and whether or not the Pledge of Allegiance has turned Americans into zombies.

So, please. I implore everyone. Stop the madness. Nye Bevan did not kill Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking, is, by the way, BRITISH, not American. The Queen does not preside over a death panel. Even waiting times have been greatly reduced.

I don't think, ultimately, the NHS is the right system for America for various reasons. But just because it's not the right system for the United States doesn't mean we need to hurl unnecessarily invectives at a system that has done a damn good job in Britain for the past 50 years.

God Bless the Queen, the NHS, and the inventor of Pimms. I'm gonna miss you all.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On Being Neighborly

I've been pondering this post for over a week now. I almost decided not to write it, but in the end, the oh-so-arduous part of me won out. So here goes.

About a week ago, there was a really thought-provoking and incredibly interesting guest post at the Green Phone Booth. The writer's family owns a local restaurant, which happens to be a franchise. She argues that though their restaurant may be seen as a "chain," they still support the local economy by buying local food and supporting local vendors. She implores us all to open our minds and to not simply assume chain=bad.

I was happy to read this post, because I happen to agree with the woman. In fact, I've written about this issue before. While yes, there are some evil chains out there, there are also chains out there that are using their clout to improve environmental, health and labor conditions out there for many, many people. Just as there are small businesses out there that are exploitative. Hell, I've worked for a couple exploitative small businesses in the past!

My feeling is that it's silly to label small as good and big as bad. Most big chains started out small, and grew because they were successful. Why should we penalize success? Sometimes, buying a franchise instead of striking it out on your own is just more business savvy. Considering the rate at which new restaurants close, what new business owner wouldn't want some help with marketing?

So, like I said. I really appreciated the post and the perspective. And most of the comments were fairly sympathetic to this woman. But one comment, fairly cut me to the core.

This commenter argued, "I will also point out that, here in [redacted], most franchises are owned by foreign interests. I do not want to send my money overseas or support foreign business any more than I can help. I mean, would you want to support Indian businesses by choice, when US-owned businesses are doing it hard? Or Chinese? Most people would support their own first."

I can't really express the range of emotions I felt after reading this. Sadness, a lot of sadness. Frustration, anger, more sadness.

I've always been sort of reluctant about the locavore movement. On the one hand, I completely agree that local food usually tastes better and is often better for the environment. I love shopping at farmer's markets, I love supporting local farmers, I love finding the abundant variety of English apples.

But I've always been nagged by the idea of what happens when you take the local movement to its logical extreme ... protectionism, nativism, xenophobia.

It seems odd to me, that in this digital age, we still insist on placing such importance on geographical closeness. I mean, why? I recently went to a lecture given by Amartya Sen. And he was talking about this issue of neighborliness. He said that some people say that you should only help your neighbor. But what does that mean, really? Let's say you were in a car accident and some stranger from far away helped you? Well, he argued, that person would BECOME your neighbor.

For what are our neighbors but those willing to lend a helping hand when we are in need? In that case, I have neighbors in California, in New York, in Illinois, in Turkey, India, all across the world. I also have neighbors right next door to me. But just because some are geographically closer to me doesn't make them BETTER.

Yes, by all means, support local food. Buy from the farmers' market. Strike up conversations with the local farmer. Patronize restaurants that use local produce and local vendors. But if that restaurant is owned by someone in China, well, so much the better I say! Because then, you'll not only be supporting your local community, but your global community.

In this era of increased globalization, migration, and inter-ethnic, faith, and race marriage, it's meaningless to talk as if there are some people who are our own, and some people who are other. At the end of the day, we are all humans. And if we are to build a better world, well, we can't just focus on our local communities. We need to make the world better for all people, everywhere.

As some of you may know, my dissertation spends a lot of time examining the conflicts between Northern (i.e. industrialized) and Southern (i.e. third world) countries as it pertains to climate change negotiations. Anyone who has followed the coverage of the pre-Copenhagen summits knows that this is a thorny issue. The sad thing is, these issues have existed in much the same form for over 15 years.

I believe that we will never, ever solve our current climate crisis as long as we maintain an attitude that places greater importance on our geographically local community. We are right now caught in a cycle of selfishness and blaming others. The global North bemoans China and India for their large populations and their new coal plants. The global South demands reparations from the North for the North's past carbon emissions. Each side refuses to bend, insisting on protecting "their own."

Meanwhile carbon emissions continue to ratchet up.

Consequently, when applied to global warming, the slogan "Think Global, Act Local," has gone from stupid to downright dangerous. As we all try to deal with a global phenomenon by focusing on our own geographical back yard, we have produced stalemate after stalemate after stalemate.

What we need is more dialogue. More willingness to help others. Even those far away. Especially those far away. More empathy and less blame. We need to be just as furious about a starving child in Africa as we would be about a starving child in our back yard.

Because, as Van Jones pointed out, climate change is going to affect those already vulnerable countries most. Land locked African countries, small island nations, those are the ones that will feel the greatest suffering. We need to be charging to their aid, not dragging our heels.

I still remember after Hurricane Katrina, how countries around the world big and small offered to help the United States. Even Sri Lanka, which was still recovering from the great tsunami, offered aid. Sure, the US didn't really need Sri Lanka's aid, but the point is, they were happy to give it to us. They were willing to come to America's side when disaster befell us.

In other words, they were our neighbors.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Green Collar Economy

I'm not exactly sure what I thought the Green Collar Economy by Van Jones was going to be about, but I had a feeling I was not going to be that impressed. Because, you know, I'm now, Arduous, the eco-cynical grad student and all. Plus, we've been hearing about this Green Collar Economy for what seems like ages, and sometimes it's hard for me not to feel like the whole green economy thang is just a ploy to get people to consume more.

So imagine my surprise when I realized, that contrary to my expectations, Green Collar Economy is not about how you can cash in on the green bubble. Instead, Green Collar Economy is fundamentally about environmental justice and equity. This is a book about how we link concern for the environment with concern for human welfare. It is in fact a book that is right up my alley.

Van Jones, an African-American who is both an environmentalist activist and human rights activist, is a powerful and incredibly important addition to the environmental movement. Which lets face it, is a bit too white and a bit too male. Consequently, his perception of the environmental crisis is different. While others ignore the inequitous consequences of climate change, Van Jones confronts them head on. He notes that Katrina was most disasterous for the poor, the black, the vulnerable. Jones argues:
The guiltless will bear the brunt and suffer the wrath of an enraged Mother
Nature. People in wealthy countries can cushion the blows. That's why, as the
1999 edition of the World Disasters Report concludes, about 96 percent of all
deaths from natural disasters happen in developing countries. Our actions- and
refusals to act- in the wealthier nations are funneling more disasters and death
toward the poorest people on Earth.

Van Jones also discusses the class conflicts and racism that has been part of the environmentalist movement for the past 100 odd years. While many environmentalists would rather sweep these conflicts under the rug, Van Jones argues that we cannot hide from these injustices. However, even here, Van Jones is amazingly diplomatic. He acknowledges the successes of environmentalist conservationists, while also noting their failure to address the needs of Native Americans. He understands the importance of the zero population growth campaign while also uncovering its racist implications. In other words, Van Jones doesn't throw the baby out of the bathwater, but he doesn't feel the need to cover up the past either.

I didn't necessarily agree with all of Van Jones' policy proposals, though I do share his vision for a new Green New Deal or Apollo Project. In particular, Van Jones' proposal "Hoopties for hybrids" provides a very tangible reminder of how a good idea in theory can result in bad policy in practice. But overall, this is a smart and important book with a refreshing perspective on the crises we face.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Be Careful What You Ask For...

I'm finishing up the second draft of my dissertation today, so here's a guest post from Megan, formerly of Fix fame and fortune. Megan spent a year doing essentially what I did, which was to not buy any new stuff for a year, only I'm pretty sure she one-upped me and nixed going to restaurants as well. Here are some reflections from her, over a year after her challenge ended.

In response to the question, does Megan ever shop recreationally?, I’ll reply with a little anecdote. Recently, pondering some big decisions and an overwhelming to-do list, I found myself with a couple of hours to kill in the heart of SoHo, the land of crushing crowds and soul-crushing stores. I brought a book of required reading but instead of finding a coffee shop to sit in, like a distractible kid I drifted into an international chain with CHEAP CHEAP clothes. Now, I’ve said goodbye to H&M (except I keep getting gift certificates from work that I can’t politely turn down!), I felt sad for one second, knowing this was exactly the same thing – and said hello to the retail smell and freezing air conditioning. Almost immediately, I convinced myself that if I just had a little dress my summer in NYC would be sooooo much better. And it’s on special for 10 dollars!

What I really needed was to make some decisions and prioritize my to-do list, but it was so much easier just to buy something. Control over retail actually produces some sense of control over life, at least for a second. And it feels good. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory – I know I need to generally cut myself more slack, not less. Still, advertising – which includes commercial movies, television, magazines, and music, in addition to the actual commercials and advertisements appearing in each of these media – tells us that buying produces real control. And neglects to tell us about the costs (social, environmental, personal) of this postmodern happiness. Blah blah, we know all of this. But I’m always surprised by how primal it feels, how specific the feeling of clarity in the moment of decision to buy. I haven’t owned a tv or listened to commercial radio in over a decade, yet when I’m sick or depressed or overwhelmed, this beast comes out and overrides all of the critical thinking I’ve done in recent years about consumption and its costs.

What can we do to give ourselves the instant gratification we crave and perhaps need in these moments? Do a dance, sing a song, have sex, eat a chocolate? I guess if I stay in major cities I can eat a chocolate basically anywhere – but I’d rather it be local, organic, fair-trade, etc. and that is not yet basically anywhere. When I’m sick I don’t necessarily want to put on my favorite music and dance around. Clearly building up friends and connections who can provide me with a special smile or a funny joke or words of encouragement are part of the answer, but sometimes I’m alone and Anthropologie seems like a better friend than the one who hasn’t called back in days. So I’m open to suggestions – any ideas on better ways to fill these momentary holes, or eliminate them in the first place? Is it possible to eliminate them altogether?

If the world was filled with ethical local enviro stuff, we wouldn’t have to. But for now, I have to buy new things here and there, and while I try to use Etsy and local fairs, and the greenmarket, I can’t always. Plus, I am ashamed to say that occasionally I absolutely love eyeing someone’s bag, asking where she got it and if she thinks it comes in pink, and going straight to the store to get it. My other purchases from that restless day included shoes replacing a pair I’ve had since 2004, and a t-shirt and shorts from a local designer. When I moved a couple of months ago, I got rid of about two-thirds of my worn-out and stained clothes obtained from swaps, the thrift store, and H&M. It turns out, I actually need to wear clothes when I leave the house, and I wanted a couple of new summer uniforms. I can’t get too upset with myself when I view it this way, but I still wish I had the patience to wait and go thrift store shopping, or the skills to immediately repurpose the things I’m tired of.

I’m also transitioning to a fixed income for the next few (SEVEN?!) years, so in the face of, I bought two of my favorite bras and two of my favorite flip-flops – both a little on the pricey side. They aren’t produced by companies with any “green” credentials, but they are comfortable and they fit, so there’s no risk of them going unworn; I will throw them away in tatters. In anticipating what I might need in the next year or two, I have purchased another pair of shoes, a backpack, and some books. I know that one’s “needs” expand to the money available, so I am justifying the shopping by expecting not to buy much of anything in the coming years. By the end of Fix, I determined that not buying anything is also not sustainable, displacing the need to buy by a certain period depending on how much stuff you already have. I try to keep my loves, my life, and my interests very active, so I’m busy doing and learning and creating – and don’t feel the need to buy. But, as you know, it happens.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Swag Here?

Last week, I got an email from a marketing representative from a company saying that he loved my blog and wanted to know if I was interested in reviewing a product for him, or hosting a giveaway, or having him guest post. I get these emails neither regularly nor frequently, but I have gotten emails like this in the past. Most of the time I simply delete the emails without thought. Frankly, I always sort of assumed the emails were scams, because why on Earth would someone want me, the girl who is constantly blathering on about non-consumerism, to review their product?

But I have to tell you, all the recent discussion about SwagHer BlogHer had me intrigued. What if I responded? It could be a teaching moment!

So I sent the nice marketing representative back an email saying that while I appreciated his email, I'm an eco-blogger who aims to avoid wasteful consumption. And having looked over the website of his company, I couldn't really see much of an environmental angle, and anyway current levels of consumption in the developed world are unsustainable. Then I told him to let me know if his company moves in a more environmentally friendly direction.

Well, the next day I got an email from the nice marketing representative wherein he thanked me for getting back to him, and pointed to a few products that his company sells that are made with sustainable materials. And then, and this is the kicker, he said if I wanted to review one of his products, he could send me anything worth up to a hundred dollars. For free.

Okay, some of you probably think this is funny, but I was completely shocked by this. Like ... for reals? A $100 product?! And all I'd have to do is write one lousy review? That's incredible! Who needs ethics when you can get free stuff!!

Okay, fine. I like my ethics. But, all the same, the offer was pretty enticing and I can completely see how others get sucked in to this product sponsorship vortex. Because blogging is hard work, there is little recognition, and it's cool to feel like you are on the cutting edge, reviewing the latest products on the market.

But ... at the end of the day, as a blogger, I am responsible to you, my readers. And frankly, I am not comfortable accepting a $100 product for free because I believe that that would compromise my ability to review said product impartially. Hell, I worried a little about accepting a free copy of Vanessa's book, but then decided that, frankly, my blog crush on Vanessa and her hair was more actually more problematic in terms of my impartiality.

Like I said before, I get it. I understand why some bloggers accept free products. I understand why some bloggers put advertising on their blogs. I too have considered advertising, and frankly, if a company that fit within my ethical standards asked to advertise here, I would probably think about it. It isn't entirely fair to castigate greedy bloggers; the issue is that media, as an institution, is typically funded through advertising. Which puts us non-consumeristic types in a bind. We can have principles or be paid for our work, but we probably cannot have both. And until anyone comes up with another means of earning money for web content, we'll continue to have bloggers promote companies for free stuff.

So, I have never before found it necessary to formally articulate ... any policy really, here at this blog. But things change, and I want to be as straight forward with all of you as possible. I will never accept money to review a product on this blog. Ever. While I reserve the possibility that I may occasionally accept a free product for review (such as Vanessa's book), I will henceforth make that crystal clear in my post. And I will never accept a free product for review that goes against my relatively non-consumeristic principles.

I haven't written the nice marketing representative back yet, but I plan to. While it would be nice to get some free stuff, the reality is that I blog to build a community. And as it turns out, this community? Is worth a whole lot more than a hundred bucks.