Category Archives: wicked problems

25. Documentaries

We are up to Week 10 in my course and we have looked at all sorts of ways sustainability has been communicated, and currently the focus is on film and documentaries.

So, over the last few days I have watched my fair share of documentaries on sustainability issues and today I posted a small list of my favourites…so far… We were supposed to post one, but I put up six and they are:

AS AN OVERALL VIEW:

The Century of the Self (TRAILER: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_YLy6yZeaw)
The Crisis of Civilization (TRAILER: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7Oq_J__ouc)
 
ON FOOD:
 
ON WASTE:
The Clean Bin Project (TRAILER: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhBBziXFrNQ)
 
…and I am anxiously anticipating the release of Just Eat It (by the people who did The Clean Bin Project: TRAILER: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkASAZGIuu0)

There are many more that I want and need to watch including all of the Years of Living Dangerously TV series, The Economy of Happiness, The Corporation, Trashed, Baraka…and there are others…but I shall revisit those here, if warranted, as I get through them.

The documentary I watched today was The Age of Stupid (TRAILER: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZjsJdokC0s).

If I had watched it in 2009 when it was produced I would have been very moved and indeed probably agitated into commencing my sustainability journey earlier.

Two things.

1: What rock was I under in 2009 that I did not even KNOW about this movie?

2: We have done very bloody little in the past 5 years to seriously address climate change, and here in Australia we have probably retreated in our efforts to fight climate change in any meaningful way. This doco is well worth watching—pitched as if looking back to the turn of the 21st Century, it reports from 2055 as to how things unfolded, following a number of story lines in parallel from different parts of the globe.

I have to say I had total WTF moments where I just could not believe the irrationality of some of the real life participants. Highly commended, albeit a bit on the depressing side if you, as I, feel frustrated and cranky about how sustainability issues including climate change appear to still be without any tangible traction.

 

 

 


24. Plastics rant

My second assignment for Sustainability 202 was to create an info graphic. I could have stuck with my core faves (food and food waste, or coal seam gas) but I decided to branch out, push the envelope and do some research on plastics. I ended up in a world of hurt as I kept designing posters that were interesting and informative, but did not address the brief as an info graphic per se. I started with a timeline idea, progressed to a pseudo taxonomic classification thing and then ended up with a poster to help dissuade people from using plastic and encouraging the use of ‘no packaging’ (go nude with your food, I say!) or alternate packaging. I shall include all of the things I designed here, starting with the one I ended up submitting. A small rant follows…

The unintended consequence of convenience

1_CONSEQUENCE

It occurred to me that we are surrounded by plastic…every time you go to buy something, you get a free plastic bag, or your meat is popped into plastic and rolled inside a neat paper package, or it is pre-cling film wrapped onto a plastic tray. I do not wish to discuss the plethora of shampoo bottles and lotions and potions in either a ‘Chemist Warehouse’ type establishment or just the personal care aisle of your favourite supermarket. It is its own potential oceanic gyre singularity 😦

I remember as a young lass that meat from the butcher’s was wrapped in greaseproof paper and then maybe in butcher’s paper and then popped into a brown paper sack. I remember cheese was cut from a block and also wrapped in paper. I remember mum had string bags and we used those when we shopped, but I also remember that the fruit and veg man used to drive around and home deliver from a truck as did the milk man. Food was more local back then I guess and so packaging was not as necessary to keep food fresh for long haul distribution.

I found it fascinating that my mum was born in the year that they discovered/invented cellophane, but before that there had only been a handful of plastics developed—most notably Bakelite which had all sorts of industrial and then later, domestic applications. My parents had an old Bakelite radio that they gave to me and I cherish to this day.

Tupperware came out in the 1940s and was a bit of a hit because of its distribution method—AKA the party plan. I remember my mum bought into it—we had various configurations of Mr Tupper’s containers in the cupboards, and I recall being intrigued through my life, how Tupperware seemed to be timeless… The company survives to this day, but the iconic green sculpted jelly mould is a stand out in my memory. I can’t remember eating any jelly made in such a mould, but I knew several people who had that particular piece.

I was born in the year Bubble Wrap was invented. That made me smile. Like many people I love popping bubble wrap so that we share a birth year is nice, but for me it almost marks the beginning of the end, because around this time (the 50s and 60s) the first plastic disposable cups appeared and in the 70s plastic bags proliferated in supermarkets. Ah, convenience! In fact, there is an iconic article published in Life Magazine about ‘Throwaway Living’ (see: http://life.time.com/culture/throwaway-living-when-tossing-it-all-was-all-the-rage/#1). The key idea was that the convenience of plastic would obviate the drudgery of having to clean anything—you could just simply throw it away. The sad thing, on closer analysis is that there is NO away…(AKA this planet is a closed system…think about it).

Back at the timeline, CAD CAM made it possible during the 80s for the types, sizes and design of plastic bottles to only be limited by imagination. I blame CAD CAM for my least favourite aisle in the supermarket. That and consumerism…and marketing companies… Sigh.

In the mid 80s somehow we developed a love affair with being hydrated and what had been an exclusive line of water e.g. EVIAN in glass (and that IS naive backwards BTW!) was now available for us, the unwashed masses—in plastic bottles. Up until then we had bought many beverages in glass and aluminium and I guess soft drinks came out in plastic bottles as well, but at some point we started this insane obsession with water in single-use bottles. If you are at all vaguely interested in this, Annie Leonard and her crew do an outstanding animated piece on bottled water in the Story of Stuff  Project (see: http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-bottled-water/).

Don’t get me wrong, I think plastic is amazing and has been put to some incredible uses—prosthetics, all sorts of single-use medical applications which ensure better infection control; plastics has been employed in all sorts of commodities—from commercial and domestic use, including bits and bobs in cars, etc etc. BUT SINGLE USE PLASTICS? Arghhhh. Among these are the plastic shopping bags, the bin liners, the plastic coffee and drink cups and any and all plastic plate and cutlery combinations—NONE of which is recoverable or recyclable on any meaningful scale.

While I am on recycling, here’s my beef. You know that little trilogy of bent-arrows that indicates recycling. That has been adapted and adopted by the plastic industry in an effort to make plastics look more green—pretty much the best example of greenwashing you can imagine. The statistics bare out that most plastic waste is not recoverable. This can be down to contamination (contact with food, faeces or other—remember that baby and adult nappies have a high plastic component) or that the plastic itself is not recyclable (e.g. Vinyl at 0%). According to some sources, the highest recovery rate for this group is the PET plastics (1) that come in around 20% with all others at 10% or way less. Polystyrene (6) comes in at 0.8% (the American Chemistry Council’s figures are much higher).

The reality is that the plastics industry would prefer not to deal with degraded plastics, but some is recovered and reused and shows up as clothing and wood alternatives and in other imaginative ways. But, for the most part, plastic and plastic waste is buried or bundled. When buried, plastic can potentially last for forever as plastics don’t biodegrade like metal or organics—they incrementally break down under the sun (so photo degrade). When bundled, most of the plastic it seems gets shipped from countries that can no longer afford the space for a growing amount of waste as landfill, to poorer countries for ‘processing’. This is a disgusting thing to do—to strap into large blocks, squashed PET and HDPE bottles along with any and all contaminants to be picked through by people who earn less than $2 a day as a salvage operation. I sit here clenching my teeth in anger that this is some sort of acceptable ‘solution’.

When plastics escape (sounds like the title of a good horror movie), as they are lightweight, they tend to blow around and float. It should come as NO surprise that plastic has  become one of the biggest environmental hazards in our waterways and oceans. The statistics are shocking but there are various sites that are worth checking out (see: http://www.cleanup.org.au/au/http://www.plasticoceans.nethttp://www.marineconservation.org.au/pages/plastic-pollution.html; and http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/oceans/fit-for-the-future/pollution/trash-vortex/).

Two points worth a mention. 1: Plastics interfere with wildlife by either being mistaken as food and ingested, or as a choking/survival hazard. 2: As plastic floats in this marine environment and photo degrades to smaller and smaller pieces, these pieces act like mini magnets to any heavy metals and toxins in the environment. They become POPs (persistent organic pollutants) and, mistaken as food by fish, are ingested. These metals and toxins then become part of the food chain, and accumulate as bigger fish eat the smaller fish which have eaten the even smaller fish. This is one hell of a health hazard as you consider we are atop that food chain.

One other health issue is the potential harmful side effects of additives—specifically Biphenol-A (commonly known as BPA) and phthalates. These chemicals are used to harden or soften plastics for various applications. It has been shown that there is potential for these to leach into food and beverages from the plastic containers, and as endocrine disruptors, they affect the normal hormone function in humans. In peer-reviewed studies, BPA and phthalates have been implicated in the development of certain cancers. Another BIG sigh.

Statistics that I found on the United States EPA website are so interesting (see: http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/report-00.pdf). In 1960, plastics comprised 0.4% of the total volume (by weight) of municipal solid waste (MSW) in the USA—the grand total of all waste coming in at 88 million tons. By the year 2000, MSW had almost tripled in size (up to 232 million tons) but two things stand out to me: the population of the USA had, over the same time, only increased by just over 50% AND (here’s the kicker) the amount of plastic in this now even bigger per person waste load, had increased by a whopping 260% (from 0.4% to 10.7% in 40 years). This is even more gobsmacking when you consider that plastics, as they have been developed and refined over the years, have become lighter and lighter—one of their ‘selling points’, so the volume of that wasted plastic, as a physical blob, is incomprehensible to me.

So (rant almost over) what I guess I am getting at is that we just don’t think about this. To question the convenience that surrounds (most of us) from birth is to poke at our comfortable lifestyle and possibly question our own morality. Not knowing is a good place to be, because you don’t have to deal with it. Guilt is something most of us do not want to deal with. I even struggle with the concept of ‘guilt’ as on any one day, none of us would deliberately go out of our way to pollute the environment, endanger marine wildlife or increase the ever widening gap between the Global North and Global South countries. But by our simple ‘not-conscious’ actions we do…

I don’t feel like I am a bad person, and yet my house is FULL of plastic. I can’t change it overnight, but little by little I am changing my approach to what had become a lifestyle of plastic-wrapped convenience.

And to those of you who have read through this to the end and are concerned that I do go on these rant adventures, take heart that it is a cathartic process for me. I need to get it down and if in the process it helps someone else, or brings clarity to another then that’s a plus.

When asked by a friend recently, why I had to keep on about the things I am learning, my response was: ‘I can’t un-know what I now know’. I cannot un-see the elephant that now stands in the middle of my consciousness.

OTHER SOURCES (not an exhaustive list):

  • WEBSITES: My Plastic Free Life;  American Chemistry Council: ‘Plastics Make It Possible’; http://www.cleanup.org.au; http://www.environment.gov.au
  • MOVIES, BOOKS and RESOURCES also consulted in research: Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things (1997); Cradle to Cradle (2002);  The Story Of Stuff Project (2007); Bag It (2010); The Clean Bin Project (2010); The Men Who Made Us Spend (2014); various TEDTalks.

And to end…the other two ‘woulda-beens’ that I did not submit…I hope you find something of use among my words!

2_TAXONOMY

3_RPS

 

 

 

 


17. More on food…and waste…and…

For my final assignment (due in eight weeks LOL!) I am supposed to revisit my first assignment, which was a poster on Coal Seam Gas (and fracking). The final assignment is to take this information, and further research, and take it to a new level, and a new context and write a magazine style article, but I have decided to look at food and food waste instead—with permission of course!

I have been busy revisiting materials I had seen many moons ago, and indeed being drawn to look into new areas. It is a fascinating process. 😀

On food

I highly recommend hunting down and watching Food Inc by Robert Kenner. Here is a trailer for the film: see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rjh5aZKgtSY

While reviewing this I also happened upon an interesting interview with Robert Kenner on a channel called Bring Your Own Documentary. It’s an interesting format and a nice discussion about elements from Kenner’s documentary. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Oq24hITFTY

This led me to FixFood (I think also linked to Robert Kenner), a website that talks about many issues. Go have a look at: http://www.fixfood.org

I then got sidetracked (as I had read a fellow blogger’s comments about GM foods and Monsanto) and so spent a good hour watching a documentary called Percy Schmesiser—David versus Monsanto. Compelling viewing, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omtYlsG1P5U

On food waste

An interesting development on recovering home food scraps (the average person throws out the equivalent of 1 in every 5 bags of food they take home from the supermarket) has been tackled by the Leichhardt Council in Sydney, Australia. It’s a good interview, hosted by Natasha Mitchell on Radio National: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/food-waste/5375576

Dana Frasz has following her life’s passion to address the food waste issue in the USA. Here she talks to an audience as organised by Pachamama—it is well worth the listen. Honoring the Sacredness of Food by Reducing Food Waste by Dana Frasz: http://www.pachamama.org/blog/honoring-the-sacredness-of-food-by-reducing-food-waste-with-dana-frasz

Which bought me full circle to where I started at the beginning of the week, which was to watch a few online vids about William McDonough (under the banner of resilience, adaptive capacity and efficiency—for my course). McDonough is a very interesting character. To many he is a visionary, and he is … but from what I have read and watched, I would add that he is sadly misdirected, and very driven by the dollar—which is a pity. Anyways, go have a look at  http://vimeo.com/3237777 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IoRjz8iTVoo for a taste of the McDonough vision—a vision of ‘cradle to cradle’ design and turning waste into food.

What have I been doing in my spare time, you may ask?

I am also hot on the heels of all things plastic. I have found an amazing source and downloaded some technical data/information about packaging from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Worth a visit: http://www.sustainablepackaging.org/default.aspx

I had better get off the content bandwagon and spend more time on what I am supposed to be focussed on—in the coming weeks—social justice and the politics of neo-liberal economic theory! Woo-hoo! Bring it on! 😀

 


16. Resources and all that stuff …

Right at the very start of this journey of sustainability learning and understanding I went looking for information and came across this amazing graphic … (original source is http://www.sustainableplant.com/2013/10/infographic-how-long-will-our-natural-resources-last/)

ResourcesInfographic

Do I need to mention, at this point, that the endless pack of TimTams in that iconic ad is a fiction?

If we use up all of the above resources, yes, some of them can be recovered and recycled, but in doing so there will be losses in both the original element and because of the amount of energy needed in the recovery process. We must question the need for the latest gadget/purchase, and start demanding longevity in the things we buy. With technology and hope, we may be able to recover the materials already used, with minimal residual pollution.

The reading I had to do for class this week was entitled Economics in a full world, by Herman E. Daly. It was published in Scientific America in 2005. It has helped me to start on my journey of understanding the economics side of things—definitely a space in which I am not particularly comfortable. The abstract of the paper simply states:

“The global economy is now so large that society can no longer safely pretend it operates within a limitless ecosystem. Developing an economy that can be sustained within the finite biosphere requires new ways of thinking.”

But probably my favourite snippet from the reading is:

“Because establishing and maintaining a sustainable economy entails an enormous change of mind and heart by economists, politicians and voters, one might well be tempted to declare that such a project would be impossible. But the alternative to a sustainable economy, an ever growing economy, is biophysically impossible. In choosing between tackling a political impossibility and a biophysical impossibility, I would judge the latter to be the more impossible and take my chances with the former.

 


11. Stuff on the fly

Busy, busy, busy trying to read and keep up with things, but two items that came across my desk today that are worth adding (read: I need to get back to these/distribute to others):

… an excerpt (as supplied online):

What is your personal carrying capacity for grief, rage, despair? We are living in a period of mass extinction. The numbers stand at 200 species a day.[3] That’s 73,000 a year. This culture is oblivious to their passing, feels entitled to their every last niche, and there is no roll call on the nightly news.

There is a name for the tsunami wave of extermination: the Holocene extinction event. There’s no asteroid this time, only human behavior, behavior that we could choose to stop. Adolph Eichman’s excuse was that no one told him that the concentration camps were wrong. We’ve all seen the pictures of the drowning polar bears. Are we so ethically numb that we need to be told this is wrong?

There are voices raised in concern, even anguish, at the plight of the earth, the rending of its species. “Only zero emissions can prevent a warmer planet,” one pair of climatologists declare.[4] James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis, states bluntly that global warming has passed the tipping point, carbon offsetting is a joke, and “individual lifestyle adjustments” are “a deluded fantasy.”[5] It’s all true, and self-evi­dent. “Simple living” should start with simple observation: if burning fossil fuels will kill the planet, then stop burning them.

And something on the positive end of the scale: something that could well make an immediate difference for researchers:

  • The rise of citizen science via the Climate Council (see: http://www.climatecouncil.org.au/the-rise-of-citizen-science). I had a look at and indeed downloaded the link to BOINC: compute for science to allow the idle power of my computer to be used to run programs by whichever project I choose (Oxford University are running the climate prediction project)There is a stack of projects you can lend your individual computing power to, including astronomy, cryptography, chemistry, epidemiology … the list goes on! (see: http://boinc.berkeley.edu/projects.php)

9. NASA … now there’s a credible source!

I get so tired of some of the people in my circle of friends who deny that the climate is changing because of anthropogenic (human) input. They say that the science is not in, and that even though 97% of climate scientists say they are certain of the effects of humans and that there has been a significant increase in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, that is still not enough evidence. And then the go on to cite some totally un-credible site.

The science is not in?I am sure that if 97% of specialists had diagnosed them with a particular medical condition they would be accepting of it … and doing something about it … like maybe modifying their behaviour or working like hell to find a cure. I would.

I really like the comment I picked up when researching for my first assignment (Coal Seam Gas—a very ‘wicked problem’) that ‘the sky is pink’ by a the leader of Pittsburg City Council—a man named Doug Shields who managed to pass a ban on fracking (for gas) across his city. His criticism of the media is summarised thus:

Most of the journalism out there is not investigative journalism … it’s called ‘He said, she said’ journalism. So if someone is in the room with the media and they say: ‘The sky is blue,’ they report that the sky is blue. But if someone comes in at the last minute and says: ‘No, wait, wait, wait, the sky is actually pink!’ well, then the media report that day is going to be that: ‘The facts are going to be debated!’ (see: http://vimeo.com/44367635)

‘Debated’ … hmmmm…

For the longer (over an hour), and well-worth-a-watch documentary by Josh Fox, please spend some time to be gob-smacked by Gasland http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96AEzQYangE

Oh, and the link back to NASA? I received an alert in my email today from Fora.TV. In a small video snippet under the not-so-cheery banner of We’re Doomed: NASA Predicts Collapse of Industrial Civilization two NASA researchers discuss where we are up to, and name two important features that seem to be common across a number of societies that have collapsed throughout human history: ‘The stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity and the economic stratification of society into Elites and Masses.’

I like their comment about ‘growth’, and that even at 2% (which is a small and easily criticised growth level by anyone in opposition) this is still exponential growth!

No system or organism on this planet grows without limits, except cancer.

Hmmmm … humans as cancer. 😦

Here is the link (only 5–6 minutes): http://blog.fora.tv/2014/03/nasa-predicts-collapse-of-industrial-civilization/?utm_source=ForaSiteMaster&utm_campaign=7c582c1beb-Newsletter_3_26_14&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_de23702f3b-7c582c1beb-296027717

 


7. Climate Change recharge

So today, dear readers, I watched and completed the first module on Climate Change through Open2Study, as hosted by Dr Tim Flannery and Prof Lesley Hughes. Really, really informative and well presented. See: https://www.open2study.com/courses/climate-change

I encourage anyone who has even the vaguest interest in the concept that humans may be impacting on our climate to give this a bit of a go. It is totally free! And it won’t bite you!

I have also started collaborating with those in my group on the second task in my course. It’s a bit of a mind spin—I have never been keen on group projects: instinctively I like to run my own show, and having been in groups and having assessed group assignments I know that inevitably there are stronger and weaker contributors—although I think our group is pretty solid. We only have two weeks to come up with the report (on poor diets of Uni students in the context of sustainability), and using the tools, including a group think-tank area called the Wiki, is a new thing for this old dog.

Other interesting developments of today:

  • the interchange happening between me and my partner is amazing. He is a big Lean Thinking advocate and there are really lovely synergies in what I am studying and how he thinks about processes. In a lead-up to starting my study I did a bit of research to decide if this was going to be ‘it’ for me…and in the process I discovered aquaponics. Being the ‘can do’ kinda man he is, it was literally a matter of a week from talking about it, until we had our system up and cycling. 6–7 weeks into the experiment we are harvesting vegetables and watching with wonder how the fish (mostly Jade Perch) have grown from 1cm to 7cm and put on considerable bulk. He has now taken over my white board with ideas of a community based sustainability group, and this loops back to one of our original discussions about local, community-based aquaponic installations as a feature of future communities.
  • I read on the FootprintNetwork blog that Earth Overshoot Day was on my birthday last year 😦 Translated, that means that as I was celebrating my 52nd birthday, on the same day (approximately) humanity’s ecological resource consumption exceeded what Earth can renew. See more at:  http://footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/blog/#sthash.HOTQlC7i.dpuf
  • I have more books to read (thanks Lisa), including:
    • Lindsay Tanner’s Dumbing Down of Democracy;
    • Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees;
    • Jared Diamond’s Collapse; and
    • Juliet Shor’s The Overworked American

I think I need many more hours in a day!