Monday, August 18, 2008

Dead Sea consumerism

This weekend, my wife and I took our son for his first outing to a National Park. The logistical gymnastics of navigating a stroller, managing all of the baby-paraphernalia, and wrangling two basenji hounds bent on mischief meant that the camera stayed home on this jaunt.
In between seeing thistles and aster, watching half a dozen species of dragonflies and damselflies patrol the canal, and spotting a lizard I was taught to call a chameleon (but which is almost certainly actually some kind of skink), I saw a plastic toy floating in the water. Its owners lost interest almost immediately, and despite the fact that it would not have been an enormous effort to retrieve it, simply decided that it was a loss and moved on. When it finally washes up to a bank, someone will no doubt pick it up like the plastic litter I collected there yesterday, grumble about stupid yuppies leaving trash for others to deal with, and then blog about the indignity of the situation.
Having spent the last several months reading about the supply-chains for various toys, I began to think about the general flow of all of this stuff. It begins as some kind of petroleum source-product coming out of the Arabian Peninsula or its environs, or Canada or Brasil or Russia. Here and there it undergoes some intermediate processes of change and winds up in a factory in a boomtown in China. Manufactured bits are married to other manufactured bits, and they take a long trip to a port in the land of baseball and apple pie. The toy is loved or perhaps simply accepted for a brief time- it may enjoy a second life after a stint in a thrift store- before it finally winds up in a landfill.
What begins to emerge is a picture of products (and the raw materials and embodied energies thereof) following an economic path of least resistance until they reach the US. These products move like water flowing through a watershed, small streams coalescing into larger and larger ones, collectively moving toward the same end. Unlike a watershed, there’s little analogous to evaporation and transport, the processes that keep the water cycle- well- cycling. Instead, there’s a meandering line that ends just out of site from our homes, slightly mitigated by some recycling. Instead we’re simply accumulating waste and the long term costs of owning and caring for hoards of thrown-away junk. How long can we keep this up?


Sue said...

We must be thinking in the same channels. Just yesterday I ran across the "Story of Stuff" narrated by Annie Leonard an interesting animated/live action lecture with humor. It's talking about the same thing, only with much more detail. Just a warning -- even I think the message is a little heavy handed!

Motherhussy said...

I can't answer the question of "how long can we keep this up," however, I am proud to say that I'm raising my kids to be minimalists. This lifestyle began as necessity to the fact that we are living in a very small space, but I have become accustomed to the clarity that comes with less clutter. It's addicting. I'm addicted to not shopping. :)

The baby has only a handful of toys, which he doesn't seem to get bored with--I've even made him a toy out of a used baby snack container. It looks really funny, but he loves it!

The older boys have learned to purchase not in volume, but in value. What they own, if taken care of properly (or else!), should last them years.

Well, now that I've inflated my ego for the day...maybe I'll go take it for a float in the ocean.

Still lovin' the Blue Island blog--keep it up guys!

E. R. Dunhill said...

It's funny that you bring up the Story of Stuff. The AAG-ers were just talking about it (and its ilk) about a month ago. It seems I really do need to make time to watch it. The warning is duly noted. Thanks.

E. R. Dunhill said...

It's good to see you. Thanks for reading and commenting.
I'm glad to hear that simplifying is working for you. I've known a number of people who gave up before getting to the point where it brings major returns. Having less stuff is a great way to focus on relationships, learning, community, and getting the rest we need to live and enjoy our lives. But, it's an investment that requires a little time and thought at the beginning.
I'm also thrilled to read that someone else is making their own toys. I have a few projects (all toys for when he's a little older) that I may well work into the blog.
Also, are you familiar with the Green Hour? If not, fear not. I'll be writing about it in the relatively near future.

Pat Jenkins said...

erd who do you think holds more power or standing in the heavens, mankind or earth? i say if it is mankind, he shall "consume" of much of the earth as he is meant... and as far as i know our consumption has never led to an overrunning waste problem....

E. R. Dunhill said...

To start with your question: Respectfully, I think the question involves a couple of faulty premises, first that this is an either/or proposition. In Genesis, the Creator declares over and over that some aspect of Creation (both human and non-human) is good. The creation story shows the Creator honoring Creation with a day of rest. It's clearly important. Beyond this, people are included among the other things that are created, not as some afterthought, nor under more auspicious circumstances. Much of the rest of Genesis (and indeed the Bible on the whole) suggests that people are of greater value than other aspects of Creation, but this doesn't mean that these other aspects are without their own worth to the Creator. I would argue that their worth to God is not ours to decide.
The second place I think the question is a little off is with respect to stewardship. In the creation story, the people are charged with "ruling" or "tending" creation. Rule and dominion are not synonymous with being wasteful or despotic; some translations make the point that "defense" or "management" fall within the original connotations.
Beyond this, if we accept the premise that Creation was given outright to all people, we have a responsibility to maintain it for our children and future generations. Creation is then intended not just for you or for me, but for all of those people who came before us and all of those people who will come after us. If we clear-cut a forest that ensured a functioning estuary that supported fishermen's livelihoods, haven't we chosen (even if through ignorance and carelessness) to harm or rob someone else?
To address the second part of your comment: People's consumption has many times and in many places led to serious waste problems. A famous example in recent US history is the Love Canal incident. Consumption without sufficient provision for managing waste resulted in years of miscarriages, birth defects, and kids with cancer in Niagara Falls, NY. Another infamous example is that of heavy metal waste in Hinkley, CA. Again, failing to look seriously at long term waste management meant high rates of cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects. More generally, the US Department of Justice maintains an office of environmental crime. There are enough such incidents to kind to keep roughly 40 fulltime prosecutors busy, and there are analogous offices in state governments. A comprehensive list of significant incidents would be enormous and would include not just the sort I cited where a few hundred or thousand people got sick or died, but would include cultural and economic collapse, such as what happened to the people of Easter Island.
Waste has costs, both dollar-costs, and costs on human health and on the health of the natural systems we need. Since our current system of waste management requires us to pass off some of our waste management costs to other people- in essence expecting a handout from our neighbors' and our children's (and their children's) taxes- I think we should strive to minimize the amount we produce and make the waste we must produce as benign as possible.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Apologies, all. I've written entirely too much.

Pat Jenkins said...

erd you are right in saying God has a "pecking" order, with mankind the top of that order, so my only complaint is that many are trying to alter that or swith that around. now again i will say i am all for responsible behavior, but we have different people who are trying to come up with different definitions of responsible. my definition will fall in the vain of being able to use all resources.....

E. R. Dunhill said...

Using a resource does not necessarily mean exhausting it. Also, the use of some resources causes significant problems. In some cases, the cost of those problems is greater than the value of their benefits.
People used to use the resource lead as an additive in gasoline. It made engines run smoother. However, lead causes heart-disease and mental retardation in children, and it interferes with a technology called a catalytic converter, which reduces poisonous smog-forming chemicals produced by engines. Lead is still available. Lead is a useful resource in some respects. However, continuing to use it as a fuel additive would be a foolish decision.
Resources are neither good nor bad. They simply have potential and actual uses, and potential and actual side-effects. We need to continually weigh the pros and cons of their use to avoid making problems for ourselves and our children.