Tag Archives: consumerism

Green Consumerism Fail: Carbon Fiber Hybrid Yacht

Carbon Fiber Hybrid Yacht is Decked Out With Wind Turbines: “The tang generates energy using propellers located under the sail, which turn a pair of 18-kilowatt propulsion motors that send electricity back to the batteries. Not only can this energy power the yacht’s propulsion systems, but also the luxurious interior, which features a 37 inch flat screen TV, a Bose entertainment system, LED lighting, a café-size espresso machine, two refrigerator-freezers, a dishwasher, and a water maker, among other amenities… (via Inhabitat.)

The tagline for the website Inhabitat is “Green Design Will Save the World.” This “carbon fiber hybrid yacht” shows the shallowness of that philosophy.  But I don’t want to rail against Inhabitat, which I find consistently interesting and informative.  And I’m sure (I hope) they don’t see their tagline as more than a catchy slogan – which it is – don’t mistake it for a complete solution. So, instead what I want to focus on is this yacht itself, what its creation and celebration seem to me to indicate – which is simply green consumerism at its worst.

The term “green consumerism” can cover a wide range of phenomena, may of them positive. We all need to be “green consumers” when we shop. But really greening our world, achieving some sort of sustainable, permaculture life(style), is going to be a bit more complicated than swapping out all our batteries for rechargeables, our lightbulbs for CFLs or LEDs, and making sure that our snacks come in compostable bags (hopefully quiet ones). Or sailing in hybrid luxury yachts rather than regular diesel ones.

Greening our consumerism, if it is to lead to a genuinely sustainable future, will have to include a fundamental rethink of consumerism, of the kind of things we think we need or have to have. And also of how those things are produced and distributed.

A wind-powered luxury yacht? The technology might be sweet, but there’s nothing green about this. To take just one example, our addiction to toys like that “37 inch flat screen TV” means that the United States’ energy consumption is the same now as it was 30 or 40 years ago, despite all the Energy Star-type improvements in efficiency. What we’ve saved with our refrigerator and washer, we’ve blown on our TVs and toys.

On a deeper level, yachts have always been emblems of wealth and privilege, and this “green design” yacht is no different. The structures of money and power that are driving us to ever increasing income inequalities are the same structures that are driving much of the climate change. They may enjoy driving us in hybrid vehicles, but that is the wrong direction to go if we want to save the world. Some people may see “green” when they look at this hybrid yacht, but all I see is the yacht, the privilege and waste. I see red.

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“Are air fresheners bad for the environment?” – Do you really need to ask?

Yes. Of course. What did you think?

Are air fresheners bad for the environment?: “I like having air fresheners around the house, but the other day it occurred to me that I don’t know what exactly they’re puffing into my living room. Am I despoiling the planet by freshening my air?” (via Slate Magazine.)

Slate’s environmental guru, The Green Lantern (in this instance, Brian Palmer), does a bit of background on old-school air fresheners – those aerosol cans with their ozone-depleting CFCS – before tackling the current crop of air fresheners – which work in a variety of ways, the plug-in ones mostly by heating substances to release an in theory pleasing odor into the room…

manufacturers don’t have to reveal exactly what’s in their fragrance recipes, and some of them don’t even know the ingredients themselves. Many purchase their scents from a half-dozen or so major fragrance houses worldwide. The fragrance houses often make their customers promise not to chemically analyze their super-secret blends, or at least not to disclose the recipe.

Palmer goes on to discuss some of the chemicals found in these air freshers and some of the health and other issues associated with those chemicals – phthalates (hormone-disrupting), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and acetaldehyde.

But are health impacts really what people have in mind – the first or main thing they have in mind, anyway – when they talk about environmental impact? The original question posed to “The Green Lantern” – about “despoiling the planet” – would seem to have more to do with issues like air and water pollution, resource depletion, carbon footprint and so on than personal health impacts.

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The truth is, though, that we don’t need to think too hard to answer that question. Just look at them sitting on the shelf at Walgreen’s and Safeway:  little plastic containers of chemicals, in cardboard boxes, probably made in China or Indonesia or someplace like that, shipped halfway around the world… Do we really need to ask if they are bad for our environment?

And even when it comes to the individual health aspect, it doesn’t take a medical degree to figure out that devices that heat chemicals to release fumes into your breathing air are probably not such a great idea…

I don’t like stink any more than anyone else. (Though clearly I am less fussed about it… I prefer the smell of my sweaty underarms to using chemicals to stop the sweat or mask the smell.) I particularly dislike the smell of the cat litter. That and fly-blown rotten potatoes – though that seldom comes up in my current situation.

But artificial air fresheners (as opposed to, say, DIY potpourri) are, generally speaking, one of the many, many products that we really could live without, and should seriously consider giving up. All of these products – even if they are locally made and not stuffed full of harmful chemicals – are going to have an impact on the planet. Energy and water are going to be used in their manufacture, if nothing else – and we now need to face the fact that we are over-extended, that we have overshot the carrying capacity of the planet, that we are using up resources too fast – and for what? For plug-in air fresheners?

Air fresheners and a huge percentage of the vast array of products that line the shelves of our supermarkets, big box stores and Wal-Marts are part of a whole culture of consumerism that is consuming the planet. Make no mistake: I blame corporate capitalism more than the individual, and I think the answer to the crisis we face is going to have to be more profound than changes in our shopping list. But shopping lists are one of the places that change is going to have to take place.

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Completely trivial and off-topic: Did Slate Magazine have to get permission from DC Comics to use the name “The Green Lantern”?  Whatever the answer, the use of that name in this context inevitably recalls the famous Dennis O’Neil-Neal Adams-created Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up from the 1970s when a variety of contemporary political and social issues – including ecology – were taken on. The graphic novel release of those classic comics is out of print, but keep an eye out for its reprinting.

Site of the Week: The Billboard Liberation Front

Billboard Liberation Front

The Billboard Liberation Front has teamed up the Wachovia Bank and the Treasury Department to bring you a new stimulus package for the long cold recession ahead, Money to Burn.

We offer a broad range of black-bag operations and cultural jam services, from project management and subversion consulting to media manipulation and thought placement. The key to our success is developing a true collaboration with our clients, and by caring as much about the working relationship as we do about the final execution. Our philosophy and track record has resulted in roster of long-term, satisfied clients in a diverse range of industries, from Fortune 1000 companies to local entrepreneurs.

(via The Billboard Liberation Front.)

Labor 2.0: Supply-Chain Sickness

As reported in The Guardian, after exposure to the toxic solvent n-hexane, at least 62 workers involved in preparing Apple components, including iPhone touch screens, have been hospitalized, many for months, and at least one may have died.

Despite its known toxicity, n-hexane was used as a cleaning solvent at a factory in Suzou, China, owned and operated by the Taiwanese electronics giant Wintek, which supplies components for a number of well-known brands including Apple.

Chinese workers link sickness to n-hexane and Apple iPhone screens: “Prolonged over-exposure to n-hexane can cause extensive damage to the peripheral nervous system and ultimately the spinal cord, leading to muscular weakness and atrophy and even paralysis, said Paul Whitehead, a toxicology consultant and member of the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry. It can also affect male fertility. Recovery can take a year or more.

The chemical’s potential risks are well-known in industry, as are safe exposure limits. But the Wintek manager who decided to switch from alcohol to n-hexane for cleaning – apparently because it dried more quickly – did not assess the dangers. It was used without proper ventilation.

(via World news | The Guardian.)

It seems pretty obvious that the manager made the switch to boost productivity – and profits for Wintek – perhaps to meet the insatiable demand for iPhones (and now iPads). Given the absence of unions independent unions, the exploitation common in Chinese factories, and the minimal level of occupational health and safety rules and enforcement, it probably seemed like a no-brainer. After all, the factory wouldn’t have to pay any medical costs.

A large percentage of the workers at comprador factories such as this are migrant workers from rural China – part of the largest wave of human migration in the history of the planet – who, because of Chinese laws on residency (see, eg, hukou – though I am informed this entry is pretty poor), are often effectively illegal immigrants in their own country. As such they have limited recourse to things like official housing and medical care – and are regularly subjected to exploitation by employers and crackdowns by the authorities.

These workers seldom try to complain through official channels about things like working conditions, since they have no legal right to work where they are, and in any case there are a million more rural migrant workers just waiting to take their place. A subjugated workforce, prey to exploitative practices, with few avenues for complaint or redress. The only thing unusual about this case is that the seriously injured workers are getting medical care and that the story has received some international coverage.

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GM’s Electric Pod Car

Get a Closer Look at GM’s Electric Pod Car: “No one’s talking about taking away your SUV or sportscar. But Borroni-Bird says the little electric runabout addresses six issues facing urban mobility in increasingly dense cities: energy use, environmental concerns, safety, congestion, parking and affordability…”

(via Autopia | Wired.com.)

First impressions: Cool! The future finally arrives! I want one!

But… on reflection, I have to raise a few issues.

For starters, why aren’t we talking about “taking away your SUV or sportscar”?

I suppose Wired meant this to be funny, but in fact they are deploying, subtly, a notion that is fairly problematic for efforts to address climate change – this notion that the green movement is going to take away your toys. There are two aspects to this. One is that of losing your toys, of having to do without, and the other concerns heavy-handed greenshirts forcing change on people – taking those toys (by force).

The problem with the first of these – of “losing your toys” – was raised very intelligently a couple of years back in a critique of “Earth Hour” – of getting everyone to turn off all lights for an hour. This critique raised two related problems for this widely popular event: it focuses on environmental change, or change to prevent environmental disaster, as requiring hardship and sacrifice; and with the darkness, it puts people into a situation that has associations with fear and danger and death.

I think that critique was spot on, and much more relevant than another criticism of the same event, which points out that switching off all those lights actually doesn’t reduce power consumption at all, because the power is still generated, has to be generated because of the way our electrical grid works – it is just not used. This is absolutely true, but misses the point of the event – which is to raise awareness, create solidarity and empower (no pun intended) people to see (again, no pun intended) that they can work for change in their daily lives.

But the point I want to make is simply this: we are indeed going to have to give up some of our toys, and more generally alter our attitudes towards consumption, if we are going to find a way out of this mess, and into a just and sustainable future for everyone on this planet.

(Regarding attitudes, consider the psychological factors that are behind the purchase of an SUV or sportscar – including the connotations of the word “sport” – as opposed to a more “sensible,” “family” or “compact” car. And consider how cool they make this Pod Car look – but maybe that is just the sci fi geek in me.)

We need to find events and publicity stunts that focus on positives rather than negatives – as that critique of Earth Hour suggests is the problem with that event. And we also need to think about rhetoric like that of this Wired piece, that likewise paint a negative picture of change.

But the rhetoric of that first sentence is a fairly trivial matter – there are much more serious problems here that I want to raise.

This Pod Car looks awesome. I’m a geek and a gear nut, I read science fiction, I lust after cool future tech – so of course I want one. But…

But the answers for a just and sustainable future will not come from such bandaid responses to the problems we face. The Electric Pod Car tries to finesse the problems of over-use of oil, of pollution and crowding by coming up with a smaller, cleaner private vehicle. It is, to use a phrase that I deploy quite often, business-almost-as-usual, when what is needed are more fundamental changes

Planners everywhere and cities throughout Europe have already addressed the problems of “energy use, environmental concerns, safety, congestion, parking and affordability” in much more sensible, sound, sustainable ways – through, for example, public transit, bicycles and sensible urban design (often the result of history as much as any conscious planning).

GM’s Pod Car and the other (mostly less sci fi) electric cars that are starting to come out seem to me fallback positions that try to preserve the power and profits of the automotive industry and its ancillaries by continuing the emphasis on the private car – a disastrous addiction that has been a major factor in getting us into the mess in which we find ourselves. And the Pod Car looks to be intensely privatized – not just a private automobile, but an automobile for one, and for one without any (or much) space for luggage, groceries, etc. And it is precisely when you need to shift goods, and kids, that a private car starts to see like a real need; on your own, it is relatively easy to get around in big cities by walking, riding the bus or biking. So even with a Pod Car, you are likely to want a second vehicle – maybe that SUV that they are not talking about taking away from you.

And it’s not just suburbs that have resulted from our addiction to the private automobile, though they are a huge part of the resulting dysfunction.

Even after the energy crisis of the 1970s, and the long lines at the petrol pumps, we continued to make changes that increased our dependence on the private automobile. Consider the changes in San Francisco in the last few decades. The City used to be dotted with corner grocery stores – every few blocks, in every neighborhood. Some still remain, but most have disappeared – turned into flats or offices. Of those that remain, too many have degenerated into little more than outlets for booze, cigarettes and junk food. Likewise, the neighborhood pharmacies and hardware stores are mostly gone – wiped out by big corporate chains and the real estate boom.

They’ve been replaced by supermarkets, big box stores and large corporate chain outlets – with easy parking, which they need because you pretty much have to drive there.

Like the suburbs, which shift people far from the places they work and shop, this move to big shopping outlets, mostly located on the fringes where land is cheaper, increases our dependence on private cars.

There are other impacts as well. A shift from family businesses that are an organic part of their communities to large corporate entities. An increased reliance on packaged, processes and frozen foods – which are less healthy and require more chemicals and packaging. With a corner store, you can pick up small amounts of fresh food every couple of days on your way home. If you are making the trip to the supermarket, you buy for the week – so packages, preservatives, frozen, etc.

At the end of the day, perhaps, there is something like a “clash of civilizations” emerging here. On one side, you have a world of suburbs and office towers, of multinational chains, shopping malls and “big box” stores, and the private car. On the other, neighborhoods with corner stores, medium to high-density living mixed in with local businesses, where you can walk most places, ride the bike or take public transit.

To a very real extent, the push for electric cars – along with a number of other “green consumer” developments – seems to me deluded, head-in-the-sad, desperate – a case of trying to have your cake and eat it to – of trying to hang on as much and as long as possible to the old ways – to GM and the private car – while making a few concessions to the crisis that is emerging. But too few, I think. Because to make more would begin to affect the power and wealth of the people who, right now, we are letting run the show.

Media Literacy: Teaching Kids to Read Advertising

The New York Times is reporting on a new government website designed to teach advertising literacy to kids in grades 5 and 6:

Teaching Youngsters How to Read Advertising: “A federal agency is undertaking an effort to school youngsters in the ways of Madison Avenue.

The Web site, Admongo.gov, will include several such ads in an effort to teach children to think through what an advertiser is trying to get them to do. A poster … will be distributed in classrooms to encourage children to visit the site.

The initiative seeks to educate children in grades four through six — tweens, in the parlance of marketing — about how advertising works so they can make better, more informed choices when they shop or when they ask parents to shop on their behalf.

(via NYTimes.com.)

A quick look at the site – Admongo.gov – shows that the main section consists of a Flash game – very much like other Flash games that my kid (and probably yours) plays. There are also separate sections, accessed through links in the top left, for parents and teachers.

Over the coming weeks, I hope to undertake a thorough exploration of this site to see just what the Federal Trade Commission and its partner in this project, Scholastic, think our kids need to know to be “ad literate.”

For starters, I’d like to know what they have to say about the above sample ad – used as an illustration in the New York Times article and apparently drawn from a set of sample ads provided by the site. Looking just at the text on this made-up ad, I would imagine that the ideas of a “Next Big Thing” and an “eco-flag” might be things they discuss. But what struck me most forcibly about this ad was its use of the sexualization that has become such a problem in ads aimed at children. We will see if this is an issue they address – if not, I will have some serious issues to raise with Admongo.gov and the Federal Trade Commission.

I would love input from other people about the site – if you check it out, be sure to let me know what you think.

CatEye Commuter – A Carbon Footprint Fail

Wired Magazine‘s “Spring Test 2010” roundup of the latest gadgets for geeks and toys for tycoons includes a new kind of bicycle computer that will not only compute your travel time, but also the amount of CO2 emissions you’ve saved by bicycling rather than driving.

Fail.

On a couple of counts. First, if I were going to have some sort of trip computer on my bicycle, I’d want one with GPS and links to optimal bicycle routes, as well as all the standard features you expect from bicycle trip computers – in addition to these time and CO2 features.

But more importantly, this CO2 emissions calculator would only make sense to me if it included in its calculations all the CO2 involved in producing, packaging, shipping and powering this useless piece of consumerist gimcrackery.

Nerdy Number Cruncher Makes Biking a Blast

There are two pressing questions every bike commuter faces: How long until I get there? And how self-righteous should I feel? CatEye’s new Commuter bike computer answers both.

Program in your trip distance, and the Commuter uses current speed to calculate your ETA. Slow down and watch the number and progress bar grow. Speed up and you’ll know how much time you can waste in GameStop on the way to work.

As for quantifying self-righteousness, the Commuter tells you how much CO2 you’re keeping out of the atmosphere by not driving. Using 2008 averages for gas-powered cars as a baseline, the unit calculates how much CO2 you would have produced for the distance you’ve pedaled. It gives you totals for the day, week, month, year and life of the computer.

(via CatEye Commuter | Wired.com Product Reviews.)

Earth Day, at the Mall

More indications of the way “green consumerism” is causing us to lose sight of the fundamental issues.

Somehow Americans manage to turn every holiday — from Christmas to Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, the 4th of July, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, so-called President’s Day and the rest — into a shopping opportunity.

Perversely, this is now happening to Earth Day, as companies try to persuade us that we can shop our way to a cleaner, greener planet.

via Earth Day, at the Mall | Business | GreenBiz.com.

So strong was the antibusiness sentiment for the first Earth Day in 1970 that organizers took no money from corporations and held teach-ins “to challenge corporate and government leaders.”

Forty years later, the day has turned into a premier marketing platform for selling a variety of goods and services, like office products, Greek yogurt and eco-dentistry.

via On 40th Anniversary, Earth Day Is Big Business – NYTimes.com.

Watch the Growth of Walmart and Sam’s Club Across America

“Walmart (blue) started slow in 1962 and then spread like wildfire in the southeast, starting in 1970, and then made its way towards the west coast. Sam’s Club starts to sprout up in the 1980s with bursts up to present.”

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Event: Sharing Solutions Workshop « Ecology Center, Berkeley

Finding new ways to integrate sharing into our homes, neighborhoods, transportation, food, and other realms of life is one of the most powerful things we can do toward creating a more sustainable, equitable, and enjoyable world. At the same time, sharing brings interesting, yet worthwhile challenges. Figuring out what to share and with whom, sorting out sharing agreements, grappling with legal issues, planning for changes, and communicating collaboratively are some of the skills necessary to successful sharing arrangements. Please join us for a Sharing 101 workshop led by attorneys Janelle Orsi and Emily Doskow, authors of The Sharing Solution: How to Save Money, Simplify Your Life & Build Community (Nolo 2009). The workshop will explore ways of sharing cars, homes, yards, food, household goods, tasks, family care, work, and more. Bring your sharing ideas for discussion, or just come to explore the bold new world of sharing!

Time: 10am – 1pm.
Location: Ecology Center, 2530 San Pablo Ave, near Dwight Way, Berkeley.
Cost: $15 general, $10 Ecology Center members, no one turned away for lack of funds.
Info: 510-548-2220 ext. 239, register@ecologycenter.org, http://ecologycenter.org/.

Kids and Kommercialism – The Boob Tube, pt 1

I wanted to return to the topic of “kids and kommercialism” that I discussed in a number of earlier posts (cf, hereherehere), and in particular to talk a bit more about some ways of addressing problems associated with the pervasive marketing aimed at kids.

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The Story of Bottled Water

The Story of Bottled Water

This rocks – hard. Check out other Story of Stuff films:

Bookstores and the Recession Blues

Studies during the current and past recessions show that when they feel their wallets under siege, consumers tend to switch from premium, name brands to cheaper brands, generic and shop brands, and from high-end retailers or regular stores to discounters – in other words, from Advil to generic ibuprofen or a store brand; from Macy’s (USA) or David Jones (Australia) to Target and Wal-Mart.

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The Anti-Fridge

fridge photo from edible geography blog

artificial refrigeration has radically redefined our relationship with fresh food, and not necessarily for the better.
via The Anti-Fridge.

This post/article by Nicola Twilley in edible geography has a fascinating discussion of the impact of refrigeration on our understanding of freshness, as part of a larger discussion of designer Jihyun Ryou’s project at Design Academy Eindhoven, Save Food From The Refrigerator.

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Spectacular Times

The Spectacular Times is a series of pamphlets written/produced by Larry Law in the late 1970s/early 1980s that took the often abstruse ideas of a group of French radicals called “situationists” and explored them in concrete ways and easy(er) to understand language. They are generally considered to be one of the most accessible introductions to situationist ideas available.

The situationists were a loose group of (mostly) French activists and intellectuals, very active in the events of May 1968, who tried to formulate a revolutionary theory applicable to daily life (speaking very loosely here) under what we would now term postmodernism. [As usual, see Wikipedia for a more extended introduction.]

While interest in the situationists themselves is fairly limited – confined mostly to radicals of various anarchist tendencies and academics in the humanities – many of the ideas put forth by the situationists have been much more widely influential, particularly their exploration of the politics of “everyday life” and their critique of a consumer-oriented, mass-mediated social order. Their analysis of these topics is directly applicable to many of issues raised in my discussion of “kids and kommercialism.” Continue reading