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.