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Nina's Blog

Monday, March 9, 2009

stuff and us

Let me say at the outset that I believe in stuff. You know, the whatever we pull out of the ground, get from growing things and shear off live animals to make up the things we own and use. I believe we need houses to live in, chairs to sit on, clothes to cover us. I believe we need sinks and pots, pillows and pans, knives and pockets, shelves and shoes. I believe also that we need tchotchkes of some sort and to some degree, for it is our choice and display of unnecessary (discretionary) stuff that defines and expresses who we are even more than the styles and design of our necessary (essential) stuff.

So while I may be a minimalist when it comes to stuff (except books, and most recently their distant cousin, pocketbooks), I believe in stuff. Which is why watching now how we are learning to deal with our stuff, or more accurately, our loss of stuff and our limited ability to accumulate more stuff, offers a fascinating study of raw, radical human identity.

What happens when we can't define ourselves by or drape ourselves in new stuff? What happens when all we own is all we have to express our selves by? Who are we when we are stripped of the proclamation of self through stuff? The answer seems to be, "I" is increasingly found in "we". That is, "I" find myself less in my things and more in my people; less in my accumulated symbols and more in my collection of community. We seem to be turning to each other, our past and our present close circles of family and friends. They are enduring, and hopefully do not size us up and measure us by our stuff, but by our being.

So in hard times the old becomes golden, and the home becomes haven. Family become friends again and we find companionship and entertainment in the close, cheap and mundane. And that is good!

Video games, for example, have been selling like hotcakes. NPR reported in December 2008 that "overall video game sales are up 43 percent from this time in 2007". (Hotcakes, btw, were a hot commodity in America in the 1700s. Made of cornmeal and fried in animal fat, they were good home-cooked food sold at church functions and county fairs. They were a way to bring home-ness to the public domain.)

The movie business is booming, too. Despite netflix, movies on demand, downloads and the old-fashioned rent a flick, in these trying times, more people than ever are plunking down $10 or so to sit in a dark room with strangers and friends to share an experience that sometimes takes them far away, and sometimes powerfully hits home. Ticket sales are up sixteen percent over last year, according to the NYT. We may no longer be a nation united by broadcast tv or Sunday night's The Wonderful World of Disney, but we are still united by the movies.

I am far from the first to note that in tough economic times we turn toward each other and away from the ephemeral limitations of stuff. Our senses sharpen and we reject the veneer of modern sociability for the more durable, real pleasure of people and stories. Having little money, or worrying about whatever money we have, makes use realize that we are so much more than the numbers on our ledgers. We are not worth less, nor is our value diminished, because our accounts are lighter.

Rather, we realize, we are worth more. Our costly gifts become ourselves, our time, our attention and affection. So much more valuable than that expensive bag. For that gift, that jewel, that momentarily joy-making closet fodder will most likely cease to bring joy once the warmth of its transaction has fled.

So, it is here we learn that less-is-more, and enjoy the presence of each other.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The environmental dilemma

Here is one way to state the problem:

we humans have to fit our infinite appetites into the contours and confines of a finite world.

One of the glorious aspects of being human is that we are blessed with urges, desires. We are curious; we are inquisitive; we are daring; we are hungry for meaning, purpose, exploration, answers. We want to know more, do more, see more, possess more. That is what makes us human and that is what makes us just a little divine. Our drives make us worthy of being God's partner in creation. People who are lazy or satisfied don't build, discover, or grow. They just sit. How wonderful that Eve, way back in the Garden, dared to take the fruit and eat it.

But it is this very seeking and turning and digging and wanting that causes us to trash the earth. Our current linear, one-way path of consumption: dig up, transform, package, transport, sell, throw out, is a model of our expectations of endless resources. It functions as if there are infinite resources, infinite money, infinite dumps. But of course, there are not.

We need instead to build and use the model of cycles, the eternal return of stuff from earth to earth. (for an amusing, if sometimes edgy, portrait of what we do wrong and how we can do it right, see www.storyofstuff.com) We need to make things that from their inception, know how they will end up.

This has begun, elsewhere in the world. Elsewhere they are asking: What if manufacturers were required to dispose of, reuse, or recycle their products after their lifecycle was done? What if computer manufacturers, vacuum cleaner companies, car companies, etc had to take back their products and recycle or reuse or else pay to have the stuff hauled away and dumped?

Nations and companies have begun implementing, or exploring, take-back and recycle programs. Canada is exploring implementing an Extended Producer Responsibility (“EPR”), at least for electronics, mercury-containing lamps, batteries, packaging and printed materials.

The idea is that if manufacturers had to bear the responsibility and cost of managing the waste their products created, there would be much less waste.

This is one large way of extending our finite resources into a more infinite loop. And it is one way to help all of us understand the true lifecycle, and costs, of the goods we consume. Hurrah.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

extended producer responsibility

The way things work today is this:

A manufacturer creates and markets a product.

When things are working right, the manufacturer is responsible for the waste that comes out of the factory, either through chimneys or sludge or pipes.

But the manufacturer is likely not to be held responsible for much of what happens before and all of what happens after that:

where the packaging goes; how the product is disposed of; the environmental harm or costs of disposal of their products; or the proper education of the seller or consumer regarding the future handling and disposal of the product.

Instead, local governments pick up the tab for disposal; hazardous waste management; green clean up; public education. Without financial incentives or implications for the design and proper disposal of their products, it is no wonder that the manufacturing industry is slow to green their ways.

Enter Extended Producer Responsibility.

Here is the way it is explained on the Waste to Wealth website:

"Extended producer responsibility (EPR), based on the "polluter pays" principle, entails making manufacturers responsible for the entire lifecycle of the products and packaging they produce. One aim of EPR policies is to internalize the environmental costs of products into their price. Another is to shift the economic burden of managing products that have reached the end of their useful life from local government and taxpayers to product producers and consumers.

The concept of EPR was first formally introduced in Sweden by Thomas Lindhqvist in a 1990 report to the Swedish Ministry of the Environment."

This is the way of the future. Researchers, material scientists, producers, manufacturers even distributors all need to be part of the solution of sustainability. Everyone along the economic food chain is responsible for the environmental impact of the products that they design, manufacture, and sell. That way, real costs can be embedded in the product costs, and consumers will do their part in buying, and disposing of things, responsibly as well.

Check out this short and enlightening explanation of EPR:


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Sunday, August 10, 2008

No There There

Thursdays are magic days. We usually call them trash days, but they often feel like magic. Thursday mornings, my neighbors and I dutifully, and gratefully, shlep our trashcans, full of decaying, odorous debris with seven days’ worth of personal waste, to the bottom of our driveways. We leave it there, and walk away. Poof, when we return, that trash has disappeared.

Our world is once again clean, clear, and more to the nose. Out of sight, out of mind. Gone. Away. And so, in our world of magical thinking, all is good.

That is what we used to think. But today we know this to be wrong. We know now that what goes around, comes around. There is no “away”. There is no there there. No place on earth is unaffected by the detritus and debris that we create through the consumption of our lives. It is reported that the Alaskan Inuit have the world’s highest levels of DDT and PDBs in their bodies – though they live thousands of miles from the sources.

Many of us have begun to respond. We try to limit our waste. We recycle everything from plastic bags to banana peels. And yet, as conscientious as we may be, we still have garbage bags every week to set out on the corner. Commercial packaging is part of the problem. Non-recyclable plastics is another. I suppose unnecessary purchases is a third. And while we can control the last, we cannot personally control the first two. Which is why living an environmentally friendly, or sustainable, life, is not something we can achieve only by our personal behavior. We need to move the movers, the makers, the manufacturers, merchants and money-lenders. We need to promote and support legislation that requires reduced waste and proper disposal.

Anthony Cortese, a former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and now president of Second Nature (www.secondnature.org), tells us that as Americans, we “consume the equivalent of our body weight in solid materials daily, over 94% of which goes to waste before we ever see the product or service. It takes about 2000 pounds of material, most of which went to waste, to make a laptop computer.”

The stuff that we personally consume represents only a small portion of the overall waste we are responsible for.

What to do about it? Yes, keep recycling, reducing, reusing. Keep learning and encouraging others to do the same. And, just as much, when you do go shopping, make your purchases make a statement. Buy products from manufacturers who work to reduce the waste stream they create from production, to packaging, to transportation to disposal.

Watch this fun 20 minute video to learn about moving from a linear, unsustainable production model to a cyclical, sustainable production model. The Story of Stuff (www.storyofstuff.com).

Then before you make your next purchase, check out the most environmentally friendly products available. For more information on a world of green products, visit www.coopamerica.org. Get their Green Pages. Let your purchases help change the world.

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Monday, June 30, 2008

Staying at Home II: Closets

Closets are full of contradictions. They coddle the things we wish to keep safe, and, somewhat conspiratorily, swallow up the stuff we wish to throw away (but can’t). They hold at the ready our quotidian matter, and absorb into their deepest recesses the stuff we want to hide. They are our best friends and our most dangerous informants.
We love them and hate them. One thing is for certain, we never have enough of them.

Most of the time, we take them for granted. Things go in and things come out, and as long as this exchange remains uneventful - no bats, for example, clinging to our sweaters, and no sinkholes gobbling up our shoes, that is, no unexplained disappearances, or re-appearances – life goes merrily on.

But life inside a closet is anything but uneventful. Two black sweaters emerge where one used to be; shorts vanish; strange coats materialize; ties multiply obscenely; toys spontaneously whir and burst into motion; and don’t even bother talking about the sock drawer. Sometimes closets seem to have a life of their own.

If pressed, we would have to acknowledge: closets are not all that benign. They are not just recesses in the walls where our material stuff resides. They are more accurately citadels that harbor our hopes, dreams and fears; a refuge for all the emotional detritus our souls stir up that our minds cannot readily deal with, so we put out of sight. And of all the places in a home, we know, therefore, that it is our closets that lead to the land of imagination.

As wife and mother, I moved into two different houses, seven years apart, each with a linen closet on the upstairs landing. Both houses were adequate to the needs of our family. Both seemed perfectly serviceable when we moved in. And yet, within a month (I want to say a week) of living there, I had the same dream: I was exploring my new house and found myself on the upstairs landing. I looked at the linen closet door and remembered thinking, ‘Funny, this wasn’t here before.’ So I approached the door and opened it (this dream door opened inward, on a hinge; the “real” door slid from side to side).

And as I opened it, I was flooded with bright light. Through the light, I saw a staircase, which I ascended. At the top was an enormous empty room, practically doubling the square-footage of our new house. I thought, How fortunate are we! And how amazing that we didn’t know about this door and this room til now!

I am sure Jung and company would have many things to say about this dream. I always took it to represent the new adventures, the unwritten story, the space to grow that awaited my family. It was a symbol of possibilities, of expansiveness, of not being trapped. And while it was triggered by a radical change of place, it holds a message that continues to serve me well, no matter what my station in life, and no matter how long I have lived in my home.

As children, we knew that leaving the closet door open at night was reckless. No one told us this. We just knew. Neglecting even the tiniest of openings was tantamount to inviting Armageddon. Word would travel like lightening throughout the monster world: Security breach in Matthew’s bedroom, 114 Maple Drive. They would begin to gather in our closet, slip through that crack and terrorize us in bed.

If there weren’t monsters in our closet, there were at least secret doorways to enchanted places through the darkened inner walls. The closet, of course, denied all this. It masqueraded as a passive, inanimate receptacle oblivious to our visits. But we knew better. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Indian in the Cupboard; even what happened to us when we closed ourselves in with our flashlights proved us right. Things came alive in there, and they plotted and planned and played when we weren’t watching.

Closets, like attics, both reveal and conceal a storehouse of our psychic energies. And every now and then, we have to clean them up. Both for their sake, and for ours.

A great Staying at Home adventure is found in this most avoided of all chores: cleaning the closets. When I was a grad student, I knew who of my colleagues were married and who were not simply by listening to them describe their winter vacations: those who said they were going skiing or to Cancun were not married; those who said they were cleaning their closets, were.

So, wait for that rainy day, when a trip to the neighborhood pool or nature hike have to be postponed, change into comfortable clothes, and attack your closets. The question now becomes, which one? First, be sure you have permission to enter said closet. If it is spouses or a child’s, permission is essential. One never knows what one might find there – and it is better off keeping it that way.

Second, to model good behavior, to set the household standard and to give others time to clean up their own, it is always a good idea to either start with yours, or a very public closet. These are two different experiences. The public closet requires public engagement: clarification of who owns this baseball glove and who still fits into this jacket. Or who got this game for their birthday and does it belong here or in their bedroom. Cleaning public closets is an exercise in boundary setting and lessons about the Commons. Things left in the Commons are governed by the rules of the Commons. At some point, these need to be clarified and witnessed by all. Things that are of private use should be stored in private space. Cleaning the public closets is a family, as well as quasi-legal, affair.

Cleaning one’s own closet is a different matter. Waiting til everyone is out of the house, or at least gainfully occupied elsewhere, is not inappropriate. The dread with which we approach this task is often offset by the discoveries, sweet - sad and achingly powerful - that await us. Or overtake us. And sometimes we just want to be there, alone. Uninterrupted.

At this point you might be wondering why this topic is an entry on my blog. That is a good question. For the moment, I have two inter-related answers.

(1) Everything we do contributes to our global footprint. Finding great ways to discover more and be more while consuming less and wasting less (fuel, money, stuff) is essential if we are to sustain sustainable lifestyles. Nobody sticks with an unsatisfying diet.

(2) Most of us have too much stuff. If we go through it regularly, we can reduce our off-site storage; recycle our unwanted housewares that can be of great use to others; reduce the clutter in our homes; shed our redundant clothes and shoes; dampen the desire to keep purchasing more; recapture bits of our personal history that we tend to forget; make room for those objects with greater personal resonance; and otherwise construct a more satisfying life that enriches our children while fulfilling us.

And, I love thinking, talking and writing about homes.

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

one percent non-solution

I often wonder how much energy it takes to make a bag that I may use for 10 minutes. Let's say I go to the drug store, get shampoo, vitamins and make-up and check out. The cashier puts that stuff in a bag. I drive home - 2 miles - take the stuff out of the bag and then throw the bag away. That return trip, with the brand new bag, took about 7 minutes. So, this bag that took oodles of resources and energy to make and get to me, went from treasure to trash in 10 minutes.

Okay, so let's say it don't throw it away, but recycle it. I put it in my "bag of bags" and take it to Giant next time I go, and put it in their bag receptacle. Now, there is a difference of opinion as to where this Bag-of-Bags goes. Some folks - including workers at Giant - say it is thrown in with the trash. But even assuming it gets recycled, I am still not so happy.

After all, there are, we are told, five [linear] stages of merchandising and consuming: extraction (getting the materials out of the earth), manufacturing (making the resources into the stuff we use), merchandising (selling it to us), consuming (using it) and disposal (getting rid of it somehow). In between, by the way, is all the transportation and trucking and shipping and driving that moves the stuff from place to place.

Recycling only affects the first and last. Manufacturing, merchandising, consuming and transportation remain. Which is why we say the first step in limiting pollution and waste is Reducing what we use. So even if all the plastic bags were biodegradable, we should still make it a habit of shopping with cloth, reusable bags.

But there is more. I just watched a piece on the lifecycle of stuff - you can see it at http://www.storyofstuff.com/

There is an astonishing, horrifying, piece of information there: Guess how much of the stuff that is made today will still be in use six months from now. The number is horrifying: 1%.

Now, even if she - the narrator of the Story of Stuff - is off by a factor of ten, and even if "in use" is a big vague as a category, it is still an astonishing figure. But think about it: all the food we eat, and the packaging it comes in. The candy, the tchotchkes we buy, the paper and ink and pens and napkins; the cups and covers and other disposables we use at McDonalds and Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. The batteries, the cleaners, the oil. The newspapers, cardboard boxes and styrofoam peanuts. So much more than I can even imagine right now.

And it points to a great truth. We use more stuff than we need to. Imagine if all that money we spent on stuff went to fair wage salaries and rebuilding our nation's infrastructure. (I have written of this before so I will spare you now.)

We focus so much on recycling, and that is not bad. But we also need to focus on the other two "R's": reducing and reusing.

Maybe that should be our next big push. The world seems to have begun with reducing (or banning) plastic bags and water bottles. Let's keep the momentum going!

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