Monday, December 3, 2012

When being a luddite is a point of misplaced pride

I arrived at IRES four years ago with a shiny new white MacBook. Now, I often look around a meeting or lecture to find myself in possession of the oldest technology in the room. When I find myself in this position, three things happen: first, the small hipster inside me says ever so suavely “Awesome! I am so vintage!” Second, the small self-righteous environmentalist inside me gets up on my high horse (“I resisted buying shiny things the longest! I am so green!”) and feels all smug for not consuming as much as everyone else.

Then, third, my smugness explodes and I feel like a jerk, and I promptly fall off my horse. The small thinky person inside me yells “WHAATT??!?!?” – because I am no anti-consumption superhero (I am pretty sure an anti-consumption superhero would not have equipment for seven sports in her closet, or own a dog and a car), and because I have a huge respect for the people I work with. So I start thinking about why a room full of people who are dedicated to making the world more sustainable, both in their daily lives and in the work they do for a living, might have traded their old computer-friends in for the latest model – even though that generates e-waste (a big problem for environmental sustainability (1)) –, and why many keep replacing them with Macs, built by a company that is thought to be promoting consumption through in-built obsolescence, and whose ethics are questioned – despite Apple being in a position to lead industry social and environmental standards.

Many of the people I work with, like me, think it’s important to limit our consumption.  But we also share a desire to do our work as well as we can. Having a tool that works well, and is well-suited to the job is important. Unlike other computers I met during my fieldwork in Uganda, my Mac stood up to tropical temperatures and inhaling large quantities of red dust, an important consideration given there is more fieldwork in my future. At the same time, keeping my old computer alive and happy - taking it apart to clean the fan, upgrading the ram so it could handle the latest operating system, troubleshooting software glitches – has taken time and effort. Better technology can help us to do things better or more efficiently, and time and effort spent keeping old technology going is time not spent on our work.

So, how do I balance my desire to limit my consumption with my desire to do my best work?

Having to prioritize between different things that are important to us is not unusual. But this particular conflict is one that often weighs on me heavily, as I know it does on others I work with, I think because both our desire to limit consumption and our desire to work well are ultimately driven by the same overarching desire we share to make the world more sustainable. It’s hard enough to figure out how to make sense of these conflicting objectives to make the best decision for sustainability overall; on top of this, there are many other influences pulling us in different directions. I feel the pull of a society that tells me it’s desirable to consume and that I can’t really live life to the fullest or work most efficiently without the latest gadget. I feel the pull of Apple’s ingenious advertising and beautiful design that makes me covet their sleek and shiny technology. I feel the pull of an academic culture that tells me that more consumption is ok, as long as it helps me to work more efficiently and productively. And, I feel the pull of an environmental culture that lures me towards my high horse with promises of virtue for having the oldest computer in the room, even when it starts becoming questionable whether that computer is a good tool for my work. Given that, even with the best intentions, people have trouble making rational decisions – e.g. a friend’s parents buying a shady time-share condo, apparently to justify a whole morning of their vacation wasted listening to the sales pitch (a phenomenon researchers call cognitive dissonance), my own seduction by Apple gadgets (affective factors like emotions and values), and Kai’s obsession with big sales, even when he knows rationally that these sales aren’t always as good a deal as they seem (based on logic that implicitly uses the original price of the sale items as a reflection of their worth—anchoring) - it's no surprise that these decisions are hard, and we’re not always going to get them right, or even know when we have.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. My computer is still ticking, but it is showing the first signs of senility (5 minute startups, periods of confusion) and fragility (persistent fanning). I don’t relish having to decide when to replace it, with what, and how to balance my desire to limit my consumption with my desire to do the best work I can. But I suspect I will have the best chance at making a good choice for sustainability if, rather than judging myself against others in the wonderful communities I belong to, I instead go forward guided by their support and insights to help me to both find good information about my options, and most importantly, to be more aware and mindful of how I am being pulled and influenced and when my pride may be out-pulling my desire for sustainability – i.e. by staying away from horses.

1. Widmer, R., H. Oswald-Krapf, D. Sinha-Khetriwal, M. Schnellmann and H. Boni. 2005. Global perspectives on e-waste. Environmental Impact Assessment Review 25(5): 436-458.

Emily Anderson is a PhD student at IRES and a collaborator in CHANS Lab. She quite likes horses in real life, when they aren't being used to make a point in a blog post.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Reaching and Reveling in a Ripe Old Age

What’s your ikigai? In Okinawa, Japan, ikigai is that which gets you out of bed in the morning, that which makes life worth living. Being able to articulate your ikigai is associated with adding years—maybe even a decade—to your lifespan according to a team of academics and Dan Buettner, an adventurer, author and TED-talker. This National Geographic writer traveled the world to document communities where people tend to live longer, healthier lives than most everyone else. From Okinawa, Japan, to Ikaria, Greece (see The Island Where People forget to Die), Buettner, in collaboration with demographers and gerontologists highlight nine lifestyle characteristics of people who live a really long time.  

Genetics plays a surprisingly small role in longevity; genes dictate ~25% of how long we live. Rather, a web of lifestyle characteristics woven together with cultural threads explains much of why people in certain communities live longer than others.

What else did I glean from their insights?  Not only can I happily relish a glass or two of wine (or sake) every night, but I should embrace napping when I need it.

The vigorous centenarians interviewed in this research don’t run or pump iron or do exercise as most urban folk think of exercise. Rather, they live in places that nudge them to move. In many of their communities, people have little choice but to walk up and down hills to visit friends and do the shopping. Most tend large gardens full of fruits, vegetables and herbs that sustain their health. Dieting, as promoted by the diet industry, does not work in the long term. Instead, longevity studies reinforce Michael Pollan’s simple food guideline: “eat food, mostly plants, not too much.”

Stamatis Moraitis tends his crops.
According to official records, he’s 97
but Moraitis thinks he’s 102 years old. 
Photo by Andrea Frazzetta, New York Times

Communities where people tend to live 90 to 100+ years have routines or rituals that shed stress including meditation, prayer, napping or happy hour. Most belong to a faith-based community. Critically, these folks live in social circles that support and reinforce their lifestyles. Multiple generations tend to live in one house or close to each other. With their bright eyes and tanned skin, I want to look like these 90+ year olds when I’m that age (perhaps without the plaid shorts, pictured left). 

As I mentioned, consciously recognizing and giving voice to your ikigai is strongly associated with living to a century-long age. What’s my ikigai? As a graduate student in a sustainability program, my ikigai is figuring out how to enhance human well-being while also supporting the rest of life on this planet (marine renewable energy is my current focus). In my personal and professional life, I want to be part of creating places where people have ample life-enhancing food, love, purpose and a sense of humor (as evidenced in this priceless anecdote about Moraitis, pictured above, who outlived his American doctors after moving back to his Greek island from the US where he got sick).

One of the most encouraging findings of this research is the overlap of living sustainably, living well and living for a long time.  These food-secure communities are in developed countries with functioning public health and sanitation systems. They have a basic but adequate standard of living. When I read about these vigorous centenarians, I was struck by what I see as the relatively low environmental impact of their lifestyles. Buettner’s case studies give us insight on potential ways to refocus and redefine quality of life, and re-create our lives and communities accordingly in ways that are better for our minds, hearts and the planet:
  • We can improve our transit systems. Many of the elders interviewed have primarily walked or cycled to get around rather than fully relying on motorized vehicles. We need to make the walking or cycling options easier and more convenient. 
  • We can design better food systems. The elders in these studies consume mostly locally-grown food and grow much of it themselves. I’m getting more involved in community gardening and farmer’s markets with my friends, especially since I think it’s associated with living longer!
  • We can consume less. Large houses, expensive health care products and procedures, non-essentials like fancy gadgets and other forms of conspicuous consumption are largely absent from their way of life. Enjoying modest, secure, and stable lives does not require high levels of consumption.
  • We can help others and ourselves experience a greater sense of belonging. These 90+ year olds prioritize time with family and friends, who live near them and take care of them when they need it. I have no doubt that prioritizing relationships over accumulating material things is better for my happiness and the planet. Time to plan more neighborhood potlucks. 
Although I lack quantitative data to support this speculation, I bet these elders have very small carbon footprints over the course of their lives. I speculate their carbon footprints are likely considerably smaller than the average North American’s, so, despite living longer, the average environmental impact of their lives is likely less than the shorter-lived average impact of a North American’s.  If we want to stabilize our climate and also help more people live longer, satisfied, healthy lives, we have a lot to learn from their communities and lifestyles.

Sarah Klain, a PhD Student at University of British Columbia, hopes that her fondness for pragmatic idealism, friends, family, cycling, gardening and red wine will help her live to at least 90 years old. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Worth of Water

Protecting our Watersheds - a message from Mexico

Bowen Island is blessed by water, but do we value it accordingly?
Photo credit: Robyn Hooper
By Robyn Hooper 
MF and MSc Candidate (UBC and SLU)

What would we do without water? Clean drinking water, specifically, is something we take for granted on Bowen Island and British Columbia. Our wild environment provides the important service of cleaning and filtering our water. The lower mainland boasts of having world-class drinking water quality, thanks to the “ecosystem services” provided by our natural environment, which purifies our water for safe human consumption. All we need to do is “turn on the tap” so to speak. In Saltillo, capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila, people voluntarily put money towards the protection of Sierra mountain area where their water comes from. Would such a program maintain our local water supplies into the future and protect against threats to water quality?

Payment for Watershed Services Program in Saltillo, Mexico
The “Payment for Watershed Services” program in Saltillo started for the city residents to pay - voluntarily - for the Sierra catchment area to be protected. Although the catchment area is technically a reserve, increasing agricultural and human developments threaten the watershed. So, a group of NGOs started the program in 2003 as a scheme to encourage “local guardians of the watershed”. The first challenge of the program was educating locals about where their water resources come from, which initiated a campaign entitled “Por una razón de peso (a reason of one peso)”. Values from the watershed not only include water resources, but recreation and educational services as well. The program has been successful in gaining contributions from 14% of the population, but in small amounts, such as around ten to twenty five cents annually on their water bill. However, the small donations add up - about $6,000 USD was donated in 2008 alone. These donations are managed by a respected citizen support group with expertise from organizations such as the WWF. Project proposals by land-owners are submitted and analyzed by a panel of experts. Also, projects are not only about complete protection of the forest, but include conservation and restoration activities. 
Where our water comes from - the 7 Bowen Island municipality
water systems. Source: Bowen Island Municipality website.

There are many interesting elements to the program in Saltillo, Mexico that contribute to its success. Primarily, the voluntary payment scheme means that people are choosing on their own to protect the natural environment that provides them with services. In addition, the donations are kept by the local communities for projects as opposed to management by larger organizations or companies. However, the expert and global NGO involvement ensures that the projects are useful and worthwhile activities.

Payment for Ecosystem Services on Bowen Island?
Bowen Island residents currently do not have a program to pay for the services our ecosystem provides, such as water resources. However, this is because we are lucky to have clean water resources and abundant forest Crown land. In the long-term with growing population how can we develop programs to ensure water quality? While our context differs considerably from Saltillo, Mexico, payments for ecosystem services programs are springing up in more- and less-developed countries all over the world. Now that we have put off the idea of a National Park on Bowen (a conservation scheme that might have added more security to our water resources), it is important we consider how our land is managed to ensure protection of our water resources. Voluntary payments and protection schemes would be a concept to consider in the long-term. The message from Mexico is this: we are blessed with our clean water, so let’s ensure the protection of the land that provides that service.

Robyn Hooper is a graduate student at the University of British Columbia and candidate for a Dual Masters program (Masters of Science and Masters of Forestry). She has a background in conservation science and international issues. Robyn grew up on Bowen Island and continues to visit her family there.