Monthly Archives: March 2007

Colourful and confusing

My mother is retired. She surfs the net daily for things to read. Before the advent of the internet she would read from the “dead tree media”. Her favourite magazines were Time and Fortune. While these two magazines had some worthwhile things to say they were somewhat biased and popular in their opinion. And being young and stupid back then (instead of now being old and stupid) I read them and was persuaded by their arguments. We all have a time or an age when we do not question.

Recently she sent me this article. In it the author had wanted to point out that there are other arguments for the cause of global warming. One of these arguments is that the sun’s natural fluctuation is the main cause of our present situation. She had wanted me to read this and be convinced by its argument. But as a son who knows his parents all too well I understood her agenda.

Sure, the IPCC has made some pretty “solid” claims, and that the article I have mentioned here points out its decision making and presentation of the report have been somewhat unorthodox. The article continues by presenting a number of scientists whose views differ from the mainstream sustainability critics.

It has a point, but I do not completely agree.

I have no doubt that the sun’s natural fluctuation can be a cause of global warming. But in all probability it may not be the only cause. This argument again works exactly the same way as in the opponent’s argument. To say that our own actions are the only cause to global warming may be as shortsighted as saying the sun is the only cause. So, to me, both camps are in the wrong.

I can understand why the “blame human activity” camp feel they need to make it so black and white – to make the problem seem more urgent. But also the “it could be the sun” camp may want to highlight that its cause may be elsewhere.

Coming back to my mother’s agenda I mentioned earlier, I have to say that she has never been very green. She brought me up to be also not very green. But as I began to live my own life I realized just what and how exactly the non-green crowd works. In taking up this article my mother had wanted me to believe that it really all the sun’s fault, that the IPCC are lying, hiding an agenda of their own. But need it be this black and white?

Sure the IPCC may have failed in taking into account of the sun, and that they may have deceived us in believing it is all us. But equally people who think they can (mis)quote the article to absolve themselves of responsibility are wrong. That is not to say my mother was irresponsible. She and most of her generation had been persuaded to believe that they were doing right by progress. They use the argument to convince themselves their actions had nothing to do the problem, by becoming sceptical optimists or do-nothing optimists.

Personally, I think the article is a good reminder of the types of hidden agendas each group puts forward to “defend the utter fragility of [their] delicately constituted fiction” as Earnest Becker put it. And because we live in an age of information overload learning to filter and make sense of it all is not quite so easy. And that sometimes living away from loved ones and seeing them or talking to them again after a break may help us see the real picture which may be not be black and white at all but colourful and confusing.

What it takes to recycle all the cars in Japan

I had the opportunity to visit with my university the Ecotown Project in Southern Japan this week. Ecotown is an industrial zone in the town of Kitakyushu. The area was the site of Japan’s first modern iron steel works in the early 20th century and it was one of the most polluted industrial harbours in Japan.

But today, thanks to the efforts of the residents and industrial planners, the city of Kitakyushu is one of the cleanest industrial cities in the world. And it was honoured at the UNCED conference held in 1992 for its efforts.

I have to admit I had never heard of Ecotown prior to this trip. I had been to Kitakyushu before and have past through it several times en route to other places, but I did not know about its status as an environmentally friendly city until now.

Twenty-three industrial complexes within the industrial zone work to recycle as much waste products as possible. The range of recycled products includes:

  • paper
  • PET bottles
  • automobiles
  • office equipment
  • household appliances
  • fluorescent light bulbs
  • medical equipment
  • construction waste
  • non-ferrous metals
  • household waste

We were given an overview at the Welcome Centre (mainly on PET bottle recycling) and then given a tour of the automobile and office equipment recycling plants. But here I will focus only on the automobile recycling.

This automobile recycling plant was the first in Japan. It is perhaps the most efficient in that it recycles 95 percent of the car while the average in Japan 70-80 percent. The way it works is that it is similar to an assembly line but in this case it is a disassembly line. Disassembly is completely manually with the help of equipment. The disassembling is done in the following way:

  1. outer parts (bumpers, doors, windows, etc)
  2. liquids (oil, freon, etc)
  3. plastics (seat, carpet, etc)
  4. mechanical parts (engine, suspension, etc)
  5. non-ferrous parts (radiators, heater core, etc)
  6. crushed (in a compactor)

At the end of this process you have a lot of plastic and liquid which goes to other recycling plants, a bunch of parts which are cleaned to be sold and reused and a 600kg block of steel to be recycled. The five percent lost is basically the outer plastics of wiring in the melting process.

It takes on average forty-five minutes to disassemble one car. Our guide said 50-60 cars can be disassembled in a day. Assuming this to be the pace (minus weekends) 13,000 cars can be disassembled in a year at this one plant. And assuming the that we recycle all the 5 million (yes, that is the number of cars scrapped in Japan annually) cars scrapped is recycled it would take at least 300 such recycling plants to get rid of all disused cars in Japan.

Our guide couldn’t tell me how many such recycling plants existed in Japan. There are twenty-six “Ecotown-like” projects throughout Japan. And even assuming each one had one automobile recycling plant we still need to assume there are others outside such zones. A rough guess wouldn’t put it to be more than fifty. And even if we assume that a large bulk of the disused cars are sold overseas before scrapping (many vehicles are sold to Russia, China, and the Middle East) we still are falling short in terms of recycling.

While this was all very impressive – all this recycling and reusing – I had to ask our guide about the third ‘R’ – reducing. She said the city launched a project last year to reduce household waste by twenty percent. Kitakyushu was above the national average in their waste output. So they were trying to keep up the green image in this area as well.

This question I had posed to her during an earlier session on PET bottles so she didn’t answer it with transportation in mind. While it is important to recycle and reuse it is also necessary to reduce, at the same time, our use of anything including transportation and fuel consumption. To not maintain any one area of the 3 ‘R’s only counteracts the positive effects of the other areas. They need to be acted on as a whole. But having said this I still believe that reduction is the most important because reducing the numbers , in this case vehicles, will mean less need to be recycled and reused in the end.

Imagine if we could reduce the number of cars on the road by one-fifth, like household waste, what the roads (and air) would be like.

Low-tech is the answer… partly

In my last post I had neglected to mention another article in the Daily Yomiuri on the same page and day about how the spread of disease can be slowed simply by opening the windows. I had so much ground to cover (I covered too much) that I didn’t feel I could put that in. But I think it is important.

Technology – if you consider our literally rock-solid housing techniques as technology – runs counter to our desire to live. This, of course, is how the human species is today. We have chosen to live as far apart from the nature, to segregate “us” from “them”. Yet life’s four billion years in the making can end within our lifetime. Of course, it won’t. Humans are more resilient than we think, as are the “other animals” we share the planet with. But many will suffer unnecessarily for our lifestyle.

So open a window. Open the windows of your home, of your car, the bus, the train, the place where you work. Reconnect with the outside world again, not just to slow disease. Go beyond the city limits and remember the way man had lived for more than a hundred thousand years. Go beyond the forest and try to find a place where no human traces exist. It may feel “foreign” at first, but then again we must ask why it should feel foreign in the first place.

No, I am not trying to be mystical here. I am not trying on flower power. But neither am I saying we should take the other extreme and live so far from the reality that we forget how much of our life depends – has depended – on the entire fabric of the biosphere.

Stop this senselessness before it causes any more suffering. Say “less to technology” and more to living. Open a window instead of opening your browser.

Technology isn’t the answer

If you have been following this blog then you would know I dislike technology. You may be saying, “Well, if you dislike it so much then why are you using the internet?” A good question and one I will have to answer.

For me technology and science are not the same thing. You might be here thinking I am stating the obvious but I am not. Technology and science, of course, has a lot to do with each other. Many, if not all, of the great scientific discoveries have gone on to change our lives. But changing our lives can be done in many ways. A scientific discovery may help our understanding of our world. But there is a definite push, today, towards applying what we have learned and know to manipulate the world.

A while back I had read an excellent biography on Isaac Newton (of that title) by James Gleick. The feeling I get from this biography about the man (and the period) was that our concerns were – largely – about the knowledge and understanding of the nature of the world. While, of course, Newton was worried about credit due to him (he was a very secretive person) it was the knowledge that was important.

But this all seemed to have changed with the Industrial Revolution. Today in our concerns are on “how we can make the most everything”. Whether it is the money in our pockets, the time on our hands (or sometimes even the love that we receive). The word we use is efficiency. But our usage of it is misleading. We used to use the word to indicate little wastage. But before we can understand what we had meant by efficiency we will have to look at this word, waste, because this word also has metamorphosed over time.

It seems waste once had meant not using more than we need to. While we still use it in this sense we apply it to different values. The question is what? Not really that hard. I do not need to do an Z-score corpus analysis of the word to guess that “waste” these days collocates with “time”, “money” and “energy” (as in “a waste of time”). Otherwise it collocates with adjectives like “toxic”, disposal” and “radioactive” (as in “radioactive waste”). This second usage is interesting because it is now a product, a noun, and cannot be made into a verb. It no longer is an action but a thing.

I am just amused that no one actually has come out and say something like “All this waste is a waste”.

But coming back to efficiency. Waste and efficiency are not the same thing, though they are seen confusingly as such. Efficiency is about getting the most out of use. Waste (as a verb) is about using less of what is there. The philosophy is like the “half empty or half full” glass question. And the assumption with efficiency is that what is there is for us to use. And this way of thinking has rubbed off onto waste also. We can only see waste as mostly being about one’s time, money or energy.

No, the world around us is not there to be used indiscriminately by us. It may seem that way. But that is what the old fashioned capitalists, neo-liberalists and cultural imperialists want you to believe. Because it is about the money and the power to make the money.

I’ve strayed from the topic here a little.

If we use science to learn and understand the world we live in and how we should relate to it then we are on a safe and wise path. But we turn science into technology for profit and manipulation then we are losing our grip on the reality and respect for our home. The more I think about it the more that it is for money. The ability to manipulate the inanimate and animate world is for money.

Yes, with what I say, the livelihood of millions are at stake here. No, technology is not the answer. It is not even the real cause of all our woes (though it is the direct physical cause of the environmental problems). The origin is in the philosophy of technology which is manipulated by the philosophy of economics. This in turn has to do with our attitude. The story is complex and beyond a one thousand word post.

But let’s take a quick look at one recent article on technology and the environment. I found this in last week’s Daily Yomiuri – recordings of endangered species to use as cell phone ring tones to spread awareness. The creators of the ring tones, Center for Biological Diversity, believes that if people hear more of these sounds they will be inspired to do something about the environment.

But no, this isn’t the answer either. There are enough people out there, including me, who are getting people to notice. I wouldn’t say the message is falling on deaf ears. But rather we have dug ourselves so deep into this rely-on-technology hole that we cannot get out of it even if we want to.

That we have done without the mobile phones for a million years until now of human history, I think we can go without it for at least a day. And I certainly do not need a ring tone to know that the planet is in trouble.

So coming back to the internet. What am I doing online if I am so against it? Again, I am not against the internet as such but its indiscriminate use. I choose to use it not for entertainment but for learning and teaching (I can see the abuses coming in from this post now). Every person has a choice. I choose not to waste the tremendous energy required to run the internet for wasteful games, cheap laughs or loveless porn (no, there is no such thing as porn with love).

I choose to use it for the environment.

An Inconvenient Attitude

This month David Suzuki has kicked off a year’s schedule of talks across Canada. If you are fortunate enough to be able to get to one of the venues and hear him talk it is well worth the while. I saw a televised speech of his in Australia and I was changed by it. It is statements like this following one by him that made me understand what is wrong with the way we are living:

The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are our biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity – then we will treat each one with greater respect. That is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective. (From A David Suzuki Collection)

I think respect is the key word here. We simply do not treat the world with respect. He mentioned earlier in the same piece I quoted from that if we could see how the world has changed in four billion years to become a life sustaining planet for all life including ours then we will be humbled by what we have, and understand that is not for us to indiscriminately take as though we own it, but to share with all other life.

This week I also saw An Inconvenient Truth. It was a little late in coming to Japan (early this month, to my neck of the woods). I was also too busy with final reports to make the seventy minute drive to see it in town.

The film had stated much of what I already knew. So I do not think the film is there to convince people like me. But rather it was a film to preach to those yet to be convinced or have not heard the message yet. In that sense it is a necessary film. But why does it have to be from a former politician before we will listen? Anyone could have said it with the same evidence in hand. People are already saying it. People like David Suzuki have already said it. So it must necessarily say something about the culture of America, to whom much of it was aimed, that they will only listen if it is from someone important.

Mr Gore did make one point which I have always harped about here – that disinformation and deliberately confusing the public by false talk has prolonged the problem. We have not been playing on a level field when it comes to information dissemination. By scare tactics and other means the public has been split into two or more minds. And it comes back to the concepts of propaganda, advertising and commercialism.

So how do we deal with the agenda of others which are not the best for sustainability? In the West that is dominated by advertising, a kind of capitalist propaganda if you will, the highest bidder gets to persuade us that buying is good, not just their product but any product. This idea is therefore not about just one producer but about producers as a collective. I don’t want to sound Marxist but Karl Marx had a point. What scares me is not the fact we don’t have choices, but that we are only seemingly making free choices when we are not. So Capitalism is no better than Communism, if you look at it this way. Personally both systems fail. There are only two choices in our current paradigm so we must only choose between the two evils.

The pseudo-choice concept isn’t new of course, but it needs to be remembered or recalled. Those studies of the 1970s and 1980s on advertising have all but been forgotten. My favourite books from that period have to be Ways of Seeing by John Berger and On Photography by Susan Sontag. It has a lot to say about our use of images and imagery still relevant (if not more) to today’s advertising-polluted world.

And just a final note: the strategies used in Mr Gore’s “award winning” documentary also come from this same well-honed philosophical logo-technology (as in “logos” or “word”). It is slick, almost too slick, but you can notice its agenda if you look hard enough.