Covetable

Mar. 31st, 2016 09:38 am
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
A couple of nights ago, I reached a chapter in Thinking, Fast and Slow where Kahneman talks a bit about his involvement in the beginnings of the field of behavioral economics, which involved some work with Richard Thaler in addition to his ongoing collaboration with Amos Tversky. As Kahneman put it, Thaler had been collecting examples of instances where people's economic behavior was irrational, as a study of where neo-classical economic ideas failed.

The example listed in the book was about an economics professor in Thaler's department who collected nice bottles of wine. This professor would never pay more than $35 for a bottle, and then at the same time he would be extremely reluctant to part with a bottle for anything less than $100. What could explain this huge gap between his buying and selling prices? Long story short, after a series of experiments to try and puzzle out what's going on, this phenomenon got labeled the endowment effect. In short, humans tend to assign more value to objects when they own them.

So then, yesterday, I squandered spent a bunch of time reading articles from a special issue of the journal Nature about The Circular Economy. This is something that I tend to think about often, in an abstract sense, in relation to how I exist as a human being on this planet, because I find it more aesthetically pleasing to perceive myself as a participant in a series of cycles rather than as a consumption machine.

[I will point out that this is an idealized perspective, however, because there are a number of large-scale biological/biogeochemical/astronomical processes that we humans can't experience as cycles. The one that sticks out for me is phosphorus, which becomes available through weathering or mining, and gradually travels out to the oceans, where it eventually sinks to levels where it's basically inaccessible to living things. That said, there are many places where there are untapped opportunities to slow the rate of linear processes, and we humans need to keep working on them.]

One of the articles, in the Books and Arts section, talks about the history of the circular economy concept and recent revivals in things like the cradle-to-cradle design movement. Frankly, I've always found this notion a little too high-level and abstract. The historical piece also points out some problems with this perspective. Here's the paragraph of interest:

There are problems, too, with the circular model itself. Martin Charter, director of the Centre for Sustainable Design at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, UK, notes a “lack of overall clarity over the concept. Perhaps just 100 companies worldwide have adopted a true circularity mindset as a core strategy.” As for the circular mantra of switching to the digital, data centres waste an average of 90% of the energy that they consume (30 billion watts, equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants) and account for 17% of technology's carbon footprint. Although the circular 'business case' looks remarkable (global management consultants McKinsey and Company estimate that it could add US$2.6 trillion to the European economy by 2030), the fact that business remains central to the vision is a vulnerability. The growth economy impedes sustainability. In 2014, for instance, Chevron and a number of other big oil companies retreated from investments in renewables because of poor returns. Business competitiveness and 'disruption' can hinder the collaboration that is central to eco-design. UK design engineer Chris Wise has noted that the practice of using 'least materials' is at odds with the construction industry's prime aim of selling more materials (C. Wise et al. Nature 494, 172–175; 2013). The 'rebound effect', in which designed efficiency leads to greater use or consumption, is a related conundrum.

Another article, however, takes a different angle on things. Entitled "Make recycled goods covetable," it comes back to some key points about ownership and materialism, and the aspects of human psychology that humans have to grapple with if we are to do a better job of managing the rate and nature of flow of material goods. It begins, "Humans are unique in the animal kingdom in their capacity for materialism. We make, use and trade objects for their symbolic value as much as their functionality," and carries on from there. The crux of the argument is that human biases towards valuing exclusivity and authenticity undermine principles of recycling and reuse. I think you can probably see how this whole line of reasoning might also be related to the endowment effect, described at the beginning.

But for me, these lines of thinking caused a big flashback to the Alien She exhibit at the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft, in particular to the display of handbags from the Counterfeit Crochet Project. The Nature feature also includes a piece on a related phenomenon, the growing popularity of Repair Cafes.

I bring these things up because I have to wonder about how humans value and relate to handmade items compared to designed/manufactured goods. Contemporary life calls for a mixture of the two types, but I have this feeling that general aesthetic satisfaction would be higher and waste production would be lower if peoples' priorities shifted towards the handmade. This is one way of achieving the "exclusivity and authenticity" outlined in the article on making recycled goods covetable.

The other way is hinted at in the Japanese art of Kintsugi, a thing which keeps popping up for me as an "Oh, that's clever!" thing on social media. The act of working to repair an object, whether the repair involves gold dust or otherwise, changes one's relationship with that object.

I have this sense that I might be wired to respond more strongly to these things than many people, just based on my creative impulses (and most definitely my upbringing! Especially my mother's wonderful influence). But I also think these are aesthetic qualities that can be drawn out of other people, too, under the right circumstances. There is great satisfaction to be derived from creation and repair, as well as from ownership of well-made and unique items.

Interestingly, the article on reuse notes that the endowment effect appears to be stronger in individualistic societies where there are more rather than fewer possessions, suggesting that possessiveness may be driven by gaps between those who have and those who have-not. Thus the endowment effect is enhanced when there's hightened awareness of inequality in individualistic societies. The author thus suggests that, for economic harmony, ignorance and/or greater equality are important factors to consider.

While I find some of the extremes of minimalism to be unrealistic and silly (Guy Who Owns Five Things!!), I do find reasons for hope in the movement, as in the DIY movement in the US and the raging popularity of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. They are signs of cultural changes in how people relate to their stuff and what's important in this whole experience of life.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
Somehow or another this book came up in some discussions with my mother during the period when I had broken up with [livejournal.com profile] scrottie and was trying to sort through a bunch of emotional stuff. I was interested in the book not so much in the context of that immediate relationship situation, but more in general because I've felt for a long time like I haven't entirely understood the concept of forgiveness.

This actually stems back to my Catholic upbringing. One of the important rituals (sacraments, actually) in the Catholic church is the ritual of Reconciliation. Depending on who you talk to, you will hear different stories of what Reconciliation is and how it goes. The earlier versions of it were what you know of as Confession, with the private chambers where the priest hears about your sins, tells you to do some penance, and you go on your way. Growing up when I did, Confession had taken on a different tone that involved face-to-face meetings with a religious figure, but at that time I often felt like I was supposed to be coming up with a list of bad things that I had done so I had some basis for asking for forgiveness. I think this is in part because I didn't really understand the sacrament, but in part because I only received half-explanations of how it was supposed to work. I had this understanding that it was an important ritual, but that was the extent of it.

Fast-forward to graduate school. Two or three years into grad school, I hit something of a crisis point in the time right after Zack disappeared. One of those phases of, "What am I DOING with my life?!" I came to feel like I couldn't trust some of the people I had thought of as some of my closer friends, in good part because I didn't like who I became when around them. For instance - they found me funny when I was drunk, where I experienced a profound sense of alienation from myself and other people.

After certain things happened, I instinctively needed to push away, hard. Pushing away from those friends was more about who I was than it was about them, but regardless, it was a big rift. Breaking up with friends is incredibly hard.

But after some time had passed and I reached a point where I felt like I had re-aligned my sense of self, I started to experience another thing: I had this incredibly strong urge to forgive those former friends, but I also had this awareness that I really didn't know how. Ever since that point, the whole concept of "forgiveness" has been high on the radar as something I want to understand and practice better. For instance, this piece talks about teaching children to do a better job of reconciling wrongs.

I also copied out a quotation from a friend: "Forgiveness is for the forgiver and not the forgiven. Personal power arises from the ability to transcend the need for acknowledgement of our personal work. Let the action be the reward."

And when I encounter incredible stories of forgiveness, like this Holocaust survivor forgiving an Auschwitz guard, I listen.

What is going on here?

It feels like Desmond and Mpho Tutu hit some pretty big nails squarely on the head in this department. The Book of Forgiving contains some utterly horrific stories of the awful things that human beings do to each other, but it also makes a crucial point about human connectedness. The point is this: when another person hurts you, you have two options. You can retaliate, which will extend into a cycle of revenge, or you can choose to enter a cycle of forgiveness. There's a strong human impulse to retaliate, which is why the Tutus take a step back to ask, why and how can we choose to do something different?

Their perspective on humanity resonates deeply with my perspective, which is that we all need to recall our shared humanity even when faced with acts of extreme depravity. Towards the very end of the book, they talk about the distinctions between restorative and retributive justice. I deeply believe in the capabilities of human beings to become better, even while recognizing that we still live in a flawed, hurtful world. Tutu does not shy away from talking about some of the very worst things that humans have done to each other, including genocide, over the course of the book, and this is part of what makes the book so powerful.

As such, I would highly recommend the book, and I would be interested to hear your perspective, too.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
Yesterday, I skimmed through a blog entry about minimalism that made an important distinction between "minimalism" and "voluntary simplicity." The need to distinguish between the two has stuck with me, because I identify much more strongly with many of the ideas behind voluntary simplicity than the ideas behind minimalism.

For example, where someone interested in minimalism might start keeping all their lists on an iPhonePadBook-indle, someone interested in voluntary simplicity might just as readily keep lists on the backs of envelopes that would wind up in the recycling bin otherwise.

I remember when voluntary simplicity started to take off. It was sometime in the 1990's, and I think it coincided with the re-release of Duane Elgin's book on the topic (which I haven't read). For me, a lot of the ideas are associated with things emphasized by the church I grew up in, and in particular that church's focus on social justice issues (what I'd rank as THE most valuable thing I've received from a Catholic upbringing, and NOT to be confused with any air of colonialism). These were strongly reinforced by my visit, in 1994, to our church's sister parish, Nueva Trinidad, in El Salvador (they've just recently had a celebration of this continued relationship, which was great to see!).

There I was, at the beginning of high school, visiting a country that had been ripped apart by civil war. We witnessed evidence of the consequences of civil war firsthand. Our sister parish, for example, was located in a part of the country that had been decimated by the war; people were forced to flee across the border into Guatemala to escape the violence. There were buildings riddled with bullet-holes, and few animals anywhere. When I visited with the youth delegation from our church, the community was attempting to rebuild (physically AND emotionally), and community members welcomed us with open arms. They gave us a place to stay and things to eat, and hosted a dance party and other celebrations for us. We had so much fun playing with the kids there.

El Salvador was my first trip outside of the US, aside from brief excursions into British Columbia. While part of the purpose of the trip was to bring supplies to our sister parish, another purpose was to give us a chance to witness, firsthand, what life in another country was like. It becomes much harder to take opportunities in the US for granted after one sees what people have to do just to survive in other contexts - for instance, kids desperate to sell candy or wash car windows on busy roads, just so they can make a few pennies to be able to survive until the next day. People washing their clothes in a river flowing with trash and raw sewage. But people who are generous, full of life and ideas and interests and with a thirst for knowledge and experience.

All of this means that some elements of this Minimalist movement make me queasy at times. People who smugly pack just a credit card and laptop for their next plane trip to Italy, for instance. Sure, that's minimalist, but it isn't simple living. Simple living is choosing to travel locally instead, taking the bus, walking, or riding a bike. It's checking books out from the library instead of buying a Kindle. It's buying used things instead of new ones, figuring out how to repurpose them, and sharing with others. It's hauling things by bicycle every day instead of showing off a brand-new, flashy fixed-gear bike. It's not as glamorous as those fancy transformer apartments that are being constructed for small spaces in New York City, but I'd hope the intentionality of simple living gives it more meaning and makes it more fulfilling in the long run. And it's not about buying that magazine Real Simple (which is just so hilariously ironic).

There seems to be some confusion on this topic in the Tiny House movement as well. That makes me want to ask, is it really better to build a new, freestanding structure, instead of living in an apartment or retrofitting a home so it's shared? Altogether, it makes me glad to see things like that interview.

Mining.

Jun. 24th, 2010 06:05 pm
rebeccmeister: (Default)
I should be eating some food and going to ceramics, but I have to write a few words first instead.

I'm reading an article that was passed along to me by Ms. [livejournal.com profile] gfrancie, about the state of affairs of the sustainable agriculture industry in the US these days. Clearly, the perspective is biased, but it's also got some seemingly well-researched information about key players in the whole extravaganza, and their connections to Industrial Agriculture.

I've just read a section on some of the US goals to export crops, and it's making me think back to what I've learned about different native American groups who have resisted and protested against mining on their reservations. Reservations were established before anybody had any clue about the value and location of oil deposits, and as soon as those deposits were mapped out on reservation lands, people started getting greedy about them. I'm not sure of the particular native nations involved, but a lot of native groups don't want to have resources mined from their lands because they see this as a violation of the sacred nature of the land. In a way, they are right - once a precious resource is removed from the land, there's no going back. Mine tailings, the consequence of selective extraction of a resource, are a terrible sight.

So how does this tie in to food? Perhaps you are aware of worldwide problems with soil erosion. In some time, I think the public will become more aware of this problem, as the public has become aware of the problem of global warming. Those who pay attention to soil erosion issues have noted that it is becoming a much larger looming crisis than global warming.

For although plants gain some important nutrients from the air, such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen, they are also critically dependent on important nutrients that are non-gaseous, like phosphorus. In fact, my university (the one that makes me grit my teeth) has launched a Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative to foster discussion about this particular biologically important player. Where does this phosphorus come from? Well, it must come from young soils, or it must be mined. Old soils, such as the weathered soils that underpin tropical rainforests, are often very low on phosphorus, which affects the plants that are capable of growing there. The water cycle eventually pushes all phosphorus towards the ocean. Though the recent oil spill is causing massive problems in the Gulf of Mexico, you may be unaware that there has been a longstanding "dead zone" at the gulf of the Mississippi River, due to nutrient runoff from all of the agriculture along the river.

So, when this country decides to export agricultural goods en masse, I have to stop and think of it as sending off mined resources. It's such a different situation than what's faced in Australia, where the human population is relatively small compared to the mineral resources, and where mining can thus be more readily justified. I just don't think that, in the long run, the US will get enough bang for its buck if it continues to pursue the strategy of exporting food.

Many of the key players involved in structuring agricultural policy in the US have ties to biotechnology. The problem is, people who study biotechnology are typically not biogeochemists or ecologists. So they have a myopic view of the best way to grow food.

---

I don't know that my perspective has anything unique to offer - the original article is probably more informative. But I do know that Americans need to stand up and speak up about this issue if we are to have any hope to make real change to how our country's agricultural system operates. No one can pretend to have the right answers to this one, but there's certainly a lot that could be done to more effectively address the situation.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Last Wednesday evening, D, L and I attended an event put on by the Phoenix Permaculture Guild. It was a presentation by a guy named Scott Kellogg, who is a co-founder of an Austin-based organization called the Rhizone Collective.

Do you ever have one of those experiences where at first you feel like the information that is presented is relatively simple and straightforward, and only later realize that actually learned a whole lot? Well, that was kind of what this presentation was like. It was a presentation/workshop called Radical Urban Sustainability Training, where the overall idea was to teach us about cheap and innovative methods to make urban living more sustainable.

One of the most interesting aspects of the whole thing was how it incorporated knowledge about microbiology and other living systems into design plans. Kellogg pointed out, for example, that drinking water is chlorinated to kill bacteria/harmful microbes, but that this also affects beneficial bacteria in soil ecosystems. So when people irrigate with chlorinated water, they often do as much harm as good. He also said that one of the main reasons why worm castings are so great for gardens is because worms don't kill microbes during digestion, so their castings are still rich with all sorts of delicious bacteria.

But Kellogg also talked about the opposite side of dealing with microbes, particularly the case of composting human waste (which can be pretty dangerous if done incorrectly) and also simple systems for water sterilization. And I should mention that he also described some systems that can be used to treat most types of household wastewater, keeping it from unnecessarily undergoing the extensive municipal treatments that are designed for treating everything from household wastes through industrial wastes.

One subject that he commented on towards the very end of his lecture really stuck with me. Someone in the audience asked about the application of many of the ideas/methods to other countries, and Kellogg said that, based on his experiences, such applications won't be nearly as cheap/simple in developing nations as they are in the United States. That's mostly because of the amount of excess waste that Americans produce--companies here pay to dispose of still-valuable resources, which makes those resources cheap/free for people who can creatively repurpose them. In contrast, landfills in so-called developing nations are thoroughly picked-over, so that little reuseable material is ever left behind. The described technologies could certainly be applied, but they won't be nearly as cheap as they are here.

And the last aspect that I want to mention is Kellogg's perspective on alternative energy, because it's in marked contrast to the emphases that are receiving a lot of public attention these days (systems that seem designed to line the pockets of corporations inasmuch as they provide alternative energy sources). He pointed out that alternative energy sources that are heavily technology-dependent will never become very widespread, because they are dependent on advanced technology for their manufacture. For example, even if we could get solar panels shipped out to some place in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, they would eventually become difficult/impossible to repair. And such technologies often break before they manage to pay for themselves in purely monetary terms anyway.

No, the energy solutions will have to come from elsewhere. Instead, Kellogg said that the Rhizome Collective has been focusing on low-tech alternative energy sources. For example, they created a solar water heater by taking a regular water heater, stripping it of its insulation down to its black iron core, and placing it into a stripped-down refrigerator. When this system is kept in the sun, the dark metal does a fantastic job of capturing energy from the sun to heat the water. The refrigerator insulation then keeps the water warm enough through the night so that one can take a warm shower in the morning. At present, old water heaters and old refrigerators are abundant in the US of A, and here's a system that's cheap and simple to build (=also simple to repair) and could replace one of the devices that consumes the most electricity in many households.

And all of that is probably just the tip of the iceberg. I believe that we need more people capable of this kind of thinking/innovation/inspiration if we truly seek to create a sustainable future.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
It has been difficult to go from reading The Omnivore's Dilemma (Michael Pollan) to reading Planet of Slums (Mike Davis). In the first book, I read about how the United States' agricultural policies have led to the production of a tremendous surplus of corn, amounting to an increase in available calories. And then, in Planet of Slums, I am reading about tremendous global inequalities in wealth that, according to the author, have been the result of/exacerbated by aspects of the economic policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. As Davis describes it, many cities around the world contain two extremely different populations: one population seeks to emulate Southern California lifestyles, while the other barely clings to life at the edges of cities.

I have a hard time even facing this information sometimes. On the one hand, Americans are at a point where they force-feed themselves more than they should eat, and overconsumption is is a rampant problem. On the other hand, Americans and affluent people in other parts of the world try so very hard to isolate themselves from the face of poverty and inequality (a certain border fence comes to mind). Reading a book like this one makes me look harder at my lifestyle, comfortable and complete with fancy computer and other technological gadets, and try to consider what I can do in the context of my circumstances. At the moment, I don't really know.

I just wish for a better economic education, and for better community support for a less consumption-driven lifestyle; for a more conscientious way of life.

Bookses

Jul. 26th, 2005 09:51 am
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Well, I finished Nickel and Dimed on Sunday, while watching ants, so I wanted to give ya'll my final opinions on the book. Although I'm still tired of investigative journalism (try saying that ten times fast!), Barbara Ehrenreich does make some good points. The sections about her work in Portland, ME, were particularly interesting--she works in a nursing home and for a housekeeping service. Her pointed remarks about the disrespect that members of the middle- and upper-classes show towards those they perceive as lower-class are worth noting; Ehrenreich observes that she sees the same distribution of intelligence levels among those working in the service industry as she sees in her other life as a middle/upper-class journalist, and yet employers and customers alike often treat service workers with so much disrespect. Higher-income Americans have achieved an unprecedented level of material well-being because they rely on underpaid laborers who produce the material goods and services.

My mother has been involved in a group at her church that's exploring the idea of social justice in everyday life. Namely, they are considering how their day-to-day decisions and behaviors affect the well-being of other people and the planet. The social justice aspect of the Catholic church is one of its most valuable aspects, in my mind. I don't often hear people discussing similar subjects outside of the context of the church, and this saddens me greatly (actually, [livejournal.com profile] boolean263, discussions with you have been an exception to this (: ). Sure, people will speak of wanting to save the environment, but what are you really saving it for, anyway?

I think that everybody should spend at least some time working in the service industry, because such jobs can reinforce the need to always have respect for others, and to be patient so you don't end up on [livejournal.com profile] gfrancie's hit list (although I really enjoy reading about the ridiculous people you meet). I was lucky enough to work for 4 years at a small-business dry cleaner's, where we could pass along the disgruntled customers to the owner, who would deal with them appropriately. She had no qualms about firing bad customers and telling them to never come back. It was an empowering workplace in that respect, but I also learned a lot from the regular customers who were courteous and pleasant, and from my boss, who spent every day performing hundreds of small kindnesses that her customers only rarely noticed, and only more rarely acknolwedged and appreciated.

Since finishing that book, I've picked up The Tapir's Morning Bath, a book about Barro Colorado Island, which is a research station run by the Smithsonian Institute that's located in the middle of the Panama Canal. I visited BCI last summer after finishing the tropical field biology course in Costa Rica, and reading the book is making me miss the tropics all over again. Meanwhile, my housemate T, who's in Costa Rica right now, can't wait to get back to the U.S. and a comfy bed and good food.

Well, I think I've been lounging around in my pajamas for long enough for today. I hope you all have splendid days!

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