Wednesday, June 18, 2008

bad economy = better earth

More good news today about our failing economy.  As I've written before, I don't mean to make light of financial hardship, but I'm pretty excited by how much the economic slowdown that America faces today is instituting a conservation ethic amongst many Americans.  Today's topic: bottled water.

On my way to work this morning I read an article about how Americans were turning away from bottled water, back to tap water, because the cost of bottled water is simply not worth it anymore.  You can read the same article here.  As people have begun to look for ways to cut costs in the face of a bad economy, many are waking up to the fact that bottled water adds up to a huge annual expense, especially if it's your main source of drinking water.  

The article only briefly mentions the environmental implications of this changing trend- but of course that's what I'm most excited about.  It's not just eliminating the waste of the plastic bottles, but also the production process of those bottles, toxic chemicals involved, the transportation of getting filled bottles from production to consumers, and the draining of certain water resources being tapped by major industry bottled water.  Household filters have become very easily accessible (yes, they've got their environmental footprint too) so Americans no longer have the excuse of their local tap water not being quality enough to drink.  The article points out that a reverse osmosis water filtration system that costs $200 every 18 months for maintenance is still much cheaper than an annual supply of bottled water. 

While I'm celebrating this small victory for the environment, I'm nervous that free and seemingly unlimited tap water does nothing to encourage water conservation. Despite the high cost of bottled water, I suspect it made water conservation habits worse by allowing people to disregard the quality of their local freshwater systems and believe that as long as there is safe drinking water somewhere in the world, they will always have access to it through their wallets.  With tap water, Americans are still largely allowed to take their drinking water for granted because they are so removed the original source of that water, and the process required to get clean water to their tap.  There is much work to do to ensure the sustainability of clean water for future generations and for the global population, but in the mean time I am thrilled to see hints of the beginning of the end of the bottled water market. Let's hope it lasts. 

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Oh, things.

I came across an article today in Time Magazine called How to Live With Just 100 Things.  As a self-identified anti-consumerist/pack-rat, I was naturally drawn to the title, which led me to the story of a guy named Dave, who has committed to narrowing down his possessions to just 100 items by November 2008, and will continue to live with only those 100 items for one year.  He counts some collections (like socks, or books) as one collective item, and has given himself permission to bend or break rules as needed down the line, and I don't blame him for that. Making your goals realistic is the most important part of setting goals, especially when your goals involve drastic lifestyle changes that need to last.  Even with these allowances, the 100 Thing Challenge is certainly a challenge, and it's left me looking around my apartment, wondering what number my many belongings add up to. 

A main goal of the challenge, as I understand it, is to change one's relationship with things. It isn't just about de-cluttering, as Dave explains, but about breaking a deep-routed addiction to stuff.  I can relate to that desire.  I might abhor shopping, but I still love things. I collect and save stuff more than most people I know, and I find great joy in the things I keep.  (Free things are the best, found things come in a close second, and sometimes, I'll settle for purchased things--preferably used, but that choice isn't always possible.)  There are many types of pack rats, and I'm the type who sees a usefulness in everything.  Everything is either a tool or a piece of art in my book, and my home functions as the tool shed/museum for these treasures.  

I admit, though, that things can be a great burden too. First of all, you have to find a place for all of them.  The more stuff you have, the more room you need or the more organized you need to be.  I'm short on space and organization, but puttering with my things is one of my favorite past times, like a puzzle that constantly resorts itself and is never quite finished.  Secondly, possessions can be a burden in their tendency to own you as soon as you give them more weight than they are worth. That can be dangerous.  If freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, then stuff is another word for something else to worry about.  

Materialism is fascinating. The relationships between people and their belongings develop from such strong feelings as desire, dependency, and love.  The appeal of consumption and advertising is both a product and a cause of those relationships, and a cycle is formed where things begin to fulfill 'needs' that are much more complex than survival, and the pursuit of those things leaves new emotional gaps, which evolve into new material needs.  As an environmentalist, mass consumption and materialism are some of the most pressing issues challenging sustainability and the environment. And as a pack rat, I am frustrated by how much I am attached to my things, and how seductive new things can be, despite their burden.  

During college, I studied abroad in Samoa to immerse myself in a culture with a wildly different take on materialism than the one I was raised in. For the most part, people don't really "own" things in Samoa.  They merely "use" things.  It sounds like a matter of semantics, but I assure you, this lack of material attachment was one of the biggest cases of culture shock that the group of Americans I was studying with had to tackle when we arrived in Samoa, myself included.   The Samoan word for "give" and "take" is the exact same word.  Wealth is not defined by what you own, but rather what you give away.  These were valuable lessons for an American who previously thought communal living was a thing of the ancient past, and that Western notions of materialism were universal.   

It is a life-long goal of mine to continue to address my love-hate relationship with materialism.  I wish Dave all the best with his 100 Thing Challenge, and I applaud him for taking this difficult challenge head-on. If I ever get around to counting my things, I'll be sure and let you know how this anti-consumerist pack rat stacks up.  



Saturday, June 14, 2008

Stimulating bad habits

I've been wanting to write a post about the economy, well, since before I even had a blog really.  Reports that the US was slipping into a recession early this year came to most Americans as bad news.  I don't mean to glorify financial hardship, but I was genuinely excited about the recession and what it might imply.  Predictions of the recession were based largely on statistics showing that Americans were shopping less.  The government's solution was to send stimulus checks to taxpayers, hoping the tax refund would inspire more shopping, and thus pump enough money back into circulation for the economy to prevent a true recession.  

My secret hope for the existing economic slow-down was that it had nothing to do with how much money Americans had access to, but that Americans were changing their shopping habits out of a growing awareness of the environmental and social repercussions of consumption.   My optimistic theory was supported by several news articles about generation YAWN (young and wealthy, but normal) who live well below their means for conscientious reasons.   I was hoping that stimulus checks would result in no visible increase in spending habits, and that we'd see further proof that Americans were finally learning the true meaning of "simple living."

But alas, the AP has reported otherwise this week.  The article says that consumers stepped up their shopping in response to the stimulus checks that were sent out last month, and that economists feel more secure as a result of the recent increase in retail sales.  

I'm a little disappointed that my theory about the economic slow down did not hold true, or at least has not proven to be true so far.  I'm still holding on to some optimism about high gas prices and the possibility that they might inspire lasting changes in American's energy habits; not just driving but electricity consumption and consumption overall.  I'll keep an eye out for other clues that support or deride my theory on the American economy and the possible rise of in environmental conscientiousness, and in the meantime I'll keep a little faith that consumption patterns can change based on environmental or social awareness.  

Sincerely, Amelia 

Saturday, June 7, 2008

There is no away, only a waste

The society I live in doesn't just waste- it fosters a culture of wastefulness; it encourages waste; and it profits off of waste-at least in the short term.  As for the long term, there isn't much concern for it when it comes to our habits with waste.  Consumer culture, from an economist's point of view, is much better off with waste in the picture.  And from the consumer's perspective, waste is out of sight and out of mind. 

The ability to profit off of waste is made possible by the concepts of planned and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is when something is produced in such a way that it will fall apart and need to be replaced for some functional reason. There is a careful balance of being well enough made that the consumer still trusts the producer to buy the same product again, but poorly enough that they feel the need to replace the original product altogether.  Kitchen disposables are an example, but this category has grown to include more and more types of products.  A lot of new clothes are made now to last just long enough to get you through a season, and by the time the style is out of fashion, the clothes have also started to fall apart. (Think H&M, a popular clothing store with essentially disposable clothes.) 

The style factor is what's known as perceived obsolescence.  Items that are in perfectly good condition might be considered garbage simply because they have gone out of fashion.  This allows producers to target the same consumers with new 'needs' constantly and indefinitely.  Clothes aren't the only thing that go in and out of fashion, though.  Cars, furniture, electronics, even houses go through phases of popular design changes, and consumers are encouraged to keep up with the ever-changing standards of what is 'in.'  

As long as every consumer is either forced by function or encouraged by form to shop more, the economy has little incentive to shift its habits away from this culture of wastefulness. What's worse, consumers are so far removed from the waste they produce that it is rarely even an after thought.  While proper waste management is an important aspect of the solution needed here, true sustainability calls for a shift in the world's mindset towards waste. 

From the producer's perspective, this means waste=food.  I don't mean eat shit, I mean recycle and reuse contents of old items to make new and improved items. It's been proven by many pioneers of industry (Ray Anderson of Interface, Inc. is one such hero), but it hasn't caught on by the mainstream just yet. I am optimistic that eventually it will be widely understood that this model of production is the only way humanity can sustain itself as we face new limits of nonrenewable resources. 

From the consumer's perspective, this means getting to know your waste, and changing your relationship with it.  Find out what happens to your trash after the garbage man takes it from your curb.  Find out what waste is caused by your consumption upstream from you, in the production, packaging and marketing process of the items you buy. Go visit your local landfill to see what "away" really looks like.  

The most fundamental way you can change your relationship with waste is to stop thinking of it as going "away."  Incinerated garbage produces toxic air pollution.  Landfill garbage piles up eventually, (look what happened to Naples, Italy) and puts chemicals into the ground and water. Toxic chemicals in my drinking water is not what I have in mind when I say waste equals food.  

Simply put, there is no away.   Our language about garbage should reflect this fact.  Rather than saying "I am throwing it away" imagine if we instead said "I am wasting it."  This shift in language habits would have a great impact on how we think about our trash, and eventually, how we act with trash.  A better awareness of the consequences of consumption and waste opens the door to new actions. Consumers have the ability (and the responsibility) to choose higher quality, longer lasting products, and products that follow the model of waste=food.  

If you'd like to learn more about this, I'd recommend the book Cradle to Cradle- check it out in my recommended reading list on the right.  

Another nice recap of this concept of closing the loop of waste and production is the video The Story of Stuff