Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Saving the World [or not]

This seems like a fitting last entry to make before heading off to Spannocchia to work on a farm for three months. posted an article titled, "5 Ways People Are Trying to Save the World (That Don't Work)." Of course, I thought it sounded interesting and I was curious not only what the five things were, but what the justifications were behind them, and if there were any solutions mentioned. The article begins,

Between the hybrids, the reusable canvas shopping bags and cloth diapers, everybody's doing their little bit to save the world. Entire industries have sprang up to cater to us socially-responsible types who want to leave behind a better world for the robots to inherit once they take over.
But, most of the time, making you feel better is about all it does.

How ominous. There's certainly been a lot of press about how many of the "green" or "eco-friendly" products out there don't really work, and as it tends to do, corporate greed managed to capitalize on the earth-conscious trend by making crappy new products that weren't any better than the old ones— effectively diluting the meaningfulness of the movement to the average consumer. People realized that buying eight thousand cloth bags didn't really help the environment at all, especially when they forgot them at home anyway.

So what are the five things, you ask?

#5 Buying Organically Grown Food
The gist of the argument here is that organically-grown food hasn't been proven to be any healthier for you, and it actually might be worse for the planet because farming without chemicals makes the process less efficient. And since it's in short supply it gets shipped over long distances.

I've discussed my thoughts on this issue here before, and as I prepare to head off to an organic, sustainable farm, rest assured that I will be exploring this subject a lot more. Obviously, if Walmart is selling "organic" food, something has been lost. The estate I will live and work on for the next few months was occupied by the Spannochi family by the early 1200s. I will be working among established vineyards and olive orchards, drinking wine and cooking with olive oil made on-site by previous interns. I'll be eating whatever comes out of the garden and eating meat that I will have the responsibility of... how do I put this delicately... harvesting? So if this farm can sustain its staff, interns and guests, and can stay in operation for upwards of 700 years, they must be doing something right.

People seem to delight in cutting down organic food, and again, buying it from Walmart is a lot different than buying food— of any kind, origin or chemical content— that was grown locally by a farmer.

#4 Rejecting Vaccinations
Science and modern medicine tell us it's probably better to get a vaccine with as-of-yet unknown effects than it is to die from the Plague. Seems reasonable. Interestingly though, through the MSU Traveling Chautauqua student/professor dialogue group I was involved with, we had one presentation on bio ethics. They talked about all sorts of things, and at the end of the presentation we could ask questions. So I asked about the Gardasil vaccine that recently entered the market for HPV/cervical cancer. It's brand new, and I'm concerned about having a vaccine that hasn't been around for very long... so I asked the 4 students, three men and one woman, their opinion on it.

The men immediately started talking about the benefits, why this vaccine should be used and that it can help prevent some of the strains of HPV and etc. A few minutes in, I stopped them. Not to discount your expertise, I said, but I'd like to hear what a woman has to say about it. Have you had the vaccine yet?

She got quiet, looked at her hands, then admitted that she hadn't had it yet. She wanted to wait longer to see what, if any, long term effects there were.

#3 Recycling
Just because "we're not in danger of walking through streets of garbage" as the article says doesn't mean you shouldn't recycle. As my materials engineering friend Lindsay says, glass is the most easily recycled material, followed by metals and then plastic. I just don't think there's any excuse for not recycling, ever.

There was one part in the article I liked though: "Just like those douchebags who drive to the gym to run on a treadmill but still hop in the car to go the one block to the corner store to pick up their pork rinds and soda, it's not clear just how much benefit there is at the end of the day." Exactly. It's all about choices.

#2 Using Antibacterial Soap
People still do this? Antibacterial soap was probably thought up by the same people who decided that bottling 2 cents worth of tap water and selling it for a dollar was a great idea. Regular soap and water works just fine... just like tap water is subjected to more rigorous testing than bottled water. Mmmm delicious.

#1 Buying Carbon Offsets
I agree with the general slant of this part, which is that carbon offsets serve as a way to clear consumers' guilty consciences. There needs to be regulation. One idea I've heard about through my ECO student group is the idea of a limited amount of carbon credits internationally, period. Let's say climate scientists, or whoever, got together and decided that there would be 10,000 carbon credits available to all the companies in the world. That would mean that large, polluting companies could offset their activities by buying credits from smaller, cleaner companies, but only to a certain point. There could never be more than 10,000 credits spread among all the companies of the world.

Would it actually work? I'm not sure, and I know that industries would have a cow over something like that. But wouldn't it be cool? And what if average people, or groups, could actually pool their money and buy a credit? Then there would only be 9,999 credits for all the companies in the world, and someone, somewhere would have to figure out a way to run their operation more efficiently and cleanly. Wouldn't be half bad... except for companies who operate by dumping toxic chemicals and wastewater into rivers and wherever they think they can get away with it.

But at least, since consumers can buy healthyhealthyHEALTHY organic food from Walmart that gets shipped in from all corners of the world, we don't have to worry about those sorts of spills in our own backyards and watersheds. That problem belongs to someone else.

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