“In the end, the biggest problem with green consumerism may be that it acts as a smokescreen, creating the impression that people are taking environmental issues seriously while allowing them to continue their lives as usual.” Lee and English 2011
While promoting the sales of building products for the construction industry, the greenproducts website features a seal that reads “Green America: Approved for People and Planet.” At buygreen.com the consumer finds an emblem that reads “1% for the planet.” The web-surfing consumer finds a wide array of specialty products for the home and the self at buygreen.com; choices vary from the ‘wooden utensil picnic pack’ to the fashionable ‘ceramic closed spiral earings.’ These sites and numerous others (a simple google search for green products yielded over 1,000,000,000 results) encourage consumers to buy more things and promote the conception that we can save the planet and be environmental while still having a highly intensified level of consumerism. But how “green” are many of these purchasing acts and can we really be making an environmental difference without changing how we live and the amount of energy and resources we consume? What on earth is this green moment we are told we are living in?
Justin Gillis, writing for The New York Times last week reported that “The level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, has passed a long-feared milestone…reaching a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years. Scientific instruments showed that the gas had reached an average daily level above 400 parts per million — just an odometer moment in one sense, but also a sobering reminder that decades of efforts to bring human-produced emissions under control are faltering.”
Affixing seals and emblems such as “Green America” and “1% for the planet,” are oftentimes contradictory. They contribute to greenwash — marketing techniques used to make the public feel better about their unchecked consumption and waste habits. Marcus Linder, in his article for The Centre for Business Innovation, writes that “there are many benefits to be gained for a firm by marketing its offers and brands as green.” While this may be true, I would argue that the emblems found on popular green product websites — and on product packaging — actually distract the buyer from the reality of the environmental consequences of producing goods (and climate change) by promoting an ethic of consume what you wish as long as it carries our tag. Green consumerism is usually anything but green. What makes most sense is to look past the veil of marketing, to challenge our own routines, and to think about (and act on) how we consume and waste.
In this short video found on the Boston University website, Professor Zaman explains how he and his students use discards to save lives. He is driven by a desire to connect knowledge to real-world solutions for those in developing countries.
As part of a classroom project, engineering students at BU sought to improve conditions for children in Zambia who fall prey to pneumonia. Together they developed a solar-powered charging device that recharges discarded cell phone batteries. This student-driven project moved from the classroom to Zambia and Pakistan where the results are saving lives.
A Black and Decker toaster oven, a pre-amplifier (and its sister amplifier), an electric hot water boiler for tea, and a monitor from an older computer — these are just some of the electronics and small appliances that have moved from inside of my home to the staging area known as the garage, to the football-stadium-sized parking lot of a local corporation where energetic volunteers accept and sort the electronic waste that area residents once owned.
Like the thousands of New Jersey residents that surround me, I’m usually done with these things once they no longer function, eager to move them out and to reclaim the space they inhabited. I want the objects to go wherever it is that they go, and most times I’m in the dark when it comes to where that is. Occasionally I read tales from places like the Ivory Coast, narratives of the toxic trails our electronics follow, journalistic accounts about poisoning the poor, human stories about the consequences of dumping e-waste, and I worry deeply about the health of the people affected by our e-waste. There’s oftentimes little environmental justice for those on the other end of the electronic waste stream.
Peter Mui, the founder of Fixit Clinics, has a different way of handling e-waste. He teaches people how to fix their broken stuff through a “collaborative process” that provides the “coaching and the specialty tools.”
In an interview published in the January/February issue of Sierra Magazine, Mui says:
“One woman brought in a beautiful vintage Sunbeam toaster that she had inherited from her grandmother. We started to tear it apart. And lo and behold, at the bottom there were actually adjustment screws. Whoever made it knew that it would go out of alignment eventually. It made me think about all the toasters of that generation sitting in landfills because no one knows about the adjustment screws.”
Mui enthusiastically gathers volunteers to put together Fixit clinics. I applaud his grassroots spirit. He sees a special kind of joy that people experience when they fix things others have given up on. The clinics can now be found in San Francisco, Boston, Knoxville and Minneapolis.
According to Sierra Magazine, 6.6 billion pounds of electronics were discarded in 2010 in the United States, creating enormous e-scrap piles. Fixit Clinics are making a big difference. “If enough consumers start opening things up,” says Mui, “we might be able to say to manufacturers, ‘You know, if you just made this one part more robust, the product would last a lot longer.’”
While we often post article alerts about new scholarship on garbage matters, I wanted to take a moment to re-visit Ellen Handy’s 1995 essay, “Dust Piles and Damp Pavements: Excrement, Repression, and the Victorian City in Photography and Literature.” First of all, thank you Ellen Handy for introducing readers to Thomas Annan’s enduring work (see “Dust Piles and Damp Pavements” on pages 111-133 in Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination).
Annan’s photographs exist as a stunning historical record for readers of Discard Studies. They bring us back to the Victorian streets of Glasgow, the most crowded city in Europe when he captured his images during the late 1860s and early 1870s. The photographs provide historical windows for us; through them we glimpse the back streets, courtyards, narrow passageways and dank alleyways that existed in the poorer quarters and slums of Glasgow.But what is missing in his work, as Handy points out, is the human excrement, the dungheaps, the stinking solid waste that so permeated these spaces. As much as “an unwholesome seeping moisture of unspecific origins is prevalent in Annan’s pictures” (Dust Piles and Damp Pavements 117), “Annan must have taken great pains to avoid including the dunghills in some of his compositions” (117). Handy argues that despite the ubiquity of human waste, certain artists and authors — Dickens included — practiced important “evasive strategies” that concealed or avoided what was ever-present.
Historical evidence abounds testifying to how cities such as London had “back streets…strewn with human excrements” (F.B. Smith qtd. in Handy 112), yet the “refuse of those slums were seldom, if ever, apparent in literary or or visual artistic representations” (112). The English health reformer, Sir Edwin Chadwick describes the alleys that Annan photographed, noting how “the dungheap received all the filth which the swarm of wretched inhabitants could give” (qtd. in Handy 115). Handy wonders where the staggering quantity of human excrement went? Where were the towering dungheaps in the literature and photography of the era?
Charles Dickens, writes Handy, referred to the mounds of organic filth as “dust.” He used “evasive, allusive terminology” (122). “Dickens,” argues Handy, “dessicated humid massy excrement through language” while “Annan diluted it through pictorial metonymy” (122). Both “transformed the unspeakable matter into other substances” (122).
By concealing this important dimension of the human and animal filth of the cities, Annan and Dickens left us with incomplete records of the living conditions of the urban poor.
This is Dutch photographer Bas Princen’s staggering panorama of the Zabaleen settlement in Cairo, Egypt’s capital. These residents, living in an area known as garbage city, store, sort and recycle trash to earn their living. The photograph was included in the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam and an exhibition at Storefront Art and Architecture in New York.
In the February 2011 issue of Dwell, as well as the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader, readers saw an unforgettable image of “one of the most efficient recycling systems in practice.”
Yes, that’s a painting!
Long ago (and on into today), explorers and anthropologists sought to capture images of the disappearing worlds they found. Similarly, Artist Valeri Larko memorializes (on canvas) the ruins and structures of the everyday disappearing urban/industrial landscapes around her.
Her bio records that she is “best known for her densely painted landscapes of the urban fringe…” Larko’s subjects include among others, old rusting dumpsters, the abandoned gas station, an obsolete oil terminal, and a discarded snowblower (see www.valerilarko.com).
From November 1st until February 22, 2013, Larko’s unique work will be on display at the Majestic Theatre Condominiums at 222 Montgomery Street in Jersey City. Her exhibit is called Tanks, Trash, and Graffiti and it’s well worth a trip to see it.
Here’s a tidbit from Scarlett Lindeman’s recent article in Gastronomica (reproduced in the Sept/Oct issue of the Utne Reader). She takes this fragment of dialogue from the Seinfield Show in 1994 (The Gymnast episode). Jerry sees that George has pulled an eclair out of the garbage dumpster:
New York’s High Line is a reclaimed, re-used place that attracts thousands of city residents and visitors to stroll in a park-like setting. The High Line was a defunct freight rail on New York’s west side. See their website for more on this fantastic case study in the transformation of neglected space into vibrant place.
“Founded in 1999 by community residents, Friends of the High Line fought for the High Line’s preservation and transformation at a time when the historic structure was under the threat of demolition. It is now the non-profit conservancy working with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation to make sure the High Line is maintained as an extraordinary public space for all visitors to enjoy. In addition to overseeing maintenance, operations, and public programming for the park, Friends of the High Line works to raise the essential private funds to support more than 90 percent of the park’s annual operating budget, and to advocate for the preservation and transformation of the High Line at the Rail Yards, the third and final section of the historic structure, which runs between West 30th and West 34th Streets.”
We have a modest fern garden on the side of our home. (Curiously, it is situated right in front of the plastic shed that holds my two trash containers.) I am the steward of the miniature garden; I take care of it, I tend to it. This year I’ve given it more time. It is flourishing.
Democracy needs “tending to.” Some people forget this simple fact. One of the things oftentimes forgotten is the need to protect the values of civil society in order to ensure their reproduction into the future. In lots of ways, we’re taught to forget, to look the other way.
We have the right to know about toxics and to demand transparency about what they are, where we find them, how they are being used, who is affected by them, and whether or not certain groups of people are disproportionately exposed to them. Similarly, we have the right to know about the true effects of fracking on human bodies, waterways, and ecosystems. Do fracking processes add to our toxic loads or not? [On another note, I was glad to see a discussion of genetically modified foods on the Bill Maher show last Friday]. Do these foods alter our bodies and our immune systems, do they make us intolerant or unable to digest certain food groups after we ingest them for a few years? Should these foods be labeled? We deserve the opportunity to discuss and debate these questions.
Discard Studies (and other similar corners of the internet) functions as an autonomous sphere in which ideas and problems can be freely discussed and disseminated. It is an example of the active part of philosophy, the vita activa, that enables the daily constitution of democracy. Democracy depends upon critique and philo-sophia, the love of wisdom.
As I read it, the notion that one’s life can be an “acting out” of philosophy, a reflection of one’s philosophical beliefs, lies beneath the surface of the film, “No Impact Man.” The film emphasizes day-to-day choices we make and asks us to think about how we make those choices. Do we use things, or purchase things, based on any particular principles? Do we make purchases merely because one item is less expensive than another (despite the hidden environmental and health-related costs)? Or do we pause to consider what Kopytoff has called the “biography of things,” the moral economy of things?
Making ethical spending decisions requires a moment’s hesitation. We have to be committed to actually thinking about our decisions. Freedom of choice requires freedom and it requires real choice. Choice can only be made on the basis of good, factual evidence. Too many times the playing field is loaded. Consider that the FDA is staffed with former Monsanto executives.
Socrates lived his philosophy. He saw life as philosophy. ”No Impact Man” represents an experiment in living in New York sustainably. It is a lesson for all of us.
Readers of Discard Studies are philosophical. Philosophy, as Socrates demonstrated, is critical thinking. The internet provides new opportunities for shaping and sustaining critical thinking (in our case around discards). The internet enables agency in profound new ways. To experience agency is to rub up against freedom in the face of determinative social structures (what Horkheimer and Adorno once called the “force of the collective”).
One’s life can become an active reflection of philosophy.
Anyone who has read widely in the literature of the environment recognizes that the phrase, “the balance of nature,” recurs throughout ecological texts and statements made by environmentalists over the past few decades. Even a cursory glance at the canon of environmental writing reveals a plethora of usages, both implied and implicit, of the controversial phrase. The phrase may even have roots in Alexander Von Humboldt’s attempts in the 19th century to understand man’s place in nature, not his dominion over it. For the curious student or historian of 20th century environmental movements, it is worth a short visit back to Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey.
Notable carriers of the balance flame include Carolyn Merchant, in the introduction to her ecofeminist text, The Death of Nature, who summarized how “[t]he vision of the ecology movement has been to restore the balance of nature disrupted by industrialization and overpopulation” (xx, xxi). An implied harkening back to a time of homeostasis resonates through Rachel Carson’s famous passage in Silent Spring: “It took hundreds of years to produce the life that now inhabits the earth — eons of time in which that developing and evolving and diversifying life reached a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings” (Carson in The Palgrave Environmental Reader: 168). And that ornery barnacle of a social thinker, Murray Bookchin, wrote in 1980 that “[t]ime is running out and the remaining decades of the twentieth century may well be the last opportunity we will have to restore the balance between humanity and nature” (Toward an Ecological Society 36).
It would be hard to argue that the balance of nature hasn’t become a “rhetorical structure” (Dobrin) woven into the fabric of the speech and writings of many environmentalists’ manifestos. But what is the balance of nature or “ecological balance” as Bookchin calls it? How does man live in harmony with nature? Do these questions make sense in the 21st century? I am looking forward to hearing from you.