Fri 27 Feb 2009
Thu 26 Feb 2009
This is exactly wrong, and the writer points out why it’s wrong in the very first graph:
One idea that elite universities like Yale, sprawling public systems like Wisconsin and smaller private colleges like Lewis and Clark have shared for generations is that a traditional liberal arts education is, by definition, not intended to prepare students for a specific vocation. Rather, the critical thinking, civic and historical knowledge and ethical reasoning that the humanities develop have a different purpose: They are prerequisites for personal growth and participation in a free democracy, regardless of career choice.
I think reporters and editors sometimes conspire to concoct counter-counter-intuitive story ideas just to see if we’re paying attention (we’re mostly not). The idea that the dearth of importance given to the liberal arts and humanities didn’t have a great amount to do with the present state in which our society finds itself would be laughable on its face if it wasn’t dispicable by its implications. You can’t know what green means when you’re tangled in the artifice and complexities of business jargon and technical rationales. The extent to which the business and engineering vocations have not been more informed by the humanities defines their finite reach, their very lack of sustainability.
If you went through a four-year college, were awarded a degree and were not required to learn a foreign language, you got ripped-off.
If you went through a four-year college, were awarded a degree and were not required to take any history courses, you got ripped-off.
Same with economics, the social sciences, literature and art history. The whole fascination with value in education has been about as wrong-headed as little towns begging W*l-mart to come in and destroy their downtowns. What’s it worth? You tell me. What’s trading how little you know for all the emptiness that comes with things you can be sure about worth?
Thu 26 Feb 2009
With all the flap about Obama’s speech Tuesday night (good) and the response by Jindal (he’s surely clinging to anyone who might say it was merely bad), the convergence of greenwashing and politics gets wrapped into a neat bundle: talking to people like they’re children about very complex issues produces self-fulfilling prophecies of extraordinarily difficult-to-solve problems.
We can link this to many things, but much of the immaturity begins with advertising, where the sort of punkish, laughing at someone getting hurt or because something sounds funny is a bankable quantity. It’s adolescent appeal is its value, or so we’re told over and over. ‘People remember it because it’s stupid’ is also a mantra, even if its not on the side of a coin. This is the fertile, buy/sell marketing ether so far from reality that it almost begins to make sense, where super rich athletes eat soup from a can, a car has the name of a vanishing, nomadic African tribe and Exxon/Mobile is building the energy future. From here, the stupid=legit, intelligent=questionable paradigm can appear to be a sensible option.
Politicians take their cues from advertising norms – from their media training to their look to their belief in the wisdom that flows from a fictional heartland to the language the employ to describe it. But whatever its stripe, much of this amalgam goes back to an unflinching belief that Americans are children that should be treated and spoken to thusly; this suspicion-of-seriousness flows directly into policy positions and soon enough, policy itself. This is one of the reasons that Obama is such a breath of fresh air: despite the details of the bad news he’s sharing with us, at least he’s speaking to us like adults. [Including the costs of our wars in the deficit projections? Who knew you could even do that?] Our delicate sensibilities aside, suddenly everything’s on the level, even if that level is where it is.
This is opposed to the Kenneth the Page* take of our Republican brethren. It would be really funny, and much of it is, if we didn’t have to still imagine these people as legitimate negotiating partners with whom political horsetrading is a necessity. Elder stateman Newt Gingrich is all you need to know.
But even the resulting dissonance about green is a result of the caricatured responses to the climatic cataclysm. In advertising land, the only tools we have left are to keep doing the same things over and over again and hope for a different result.
* In another obscene coincidence, the brother of the guy who plays Kenneth the Page lives in our town, and is a twisted, comic librarian (and friend) in his own right.
Wed 25 Feb 2009
This story about a single nutrient that turned early humans into civilized man, but which has been – thanks to to the industrialization of agriculture – systematically stripped from our diets over the last half century, has too many other parallels to let pass without noting.
Omega-3 molecules are a by-product of the happy meeting of sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide in the chloroplasts of terrestrial plants and marine algae. Not long ago, these fatty acids were an inescapable component of our diet. Back in the early 1900s—long before the arrival of bovine growth hormone and patented transgenic seeds–American family farms were perfect factories for producing omega-3s. Bucolic, sun-drenched pastures supported a complex array of grasses, and cattle used their sensitive tongues to pick and choose the ripest patches of clover, millet, and sweet grass; their rumens then turned the cellulose that humans can’t digest into foods that we can: milk, butter, cheese, and, eventually, beef, all of them rich in omega-3s. Cattle used to spend four to five carefree years grazing on grass, but now they are fattened on grain in feedlots and reach slaughter weight in about a year, all the while pumped full of antibiotics to fight off the diseases caused by the close quarters of factory farms.
When critics talk about so-called Frankenfoods and the insidiousness of genetically-modified organisms in our food supply, they’re not necessarily being Luddites or anti-biotechnology, even if that’s how large agricultural concerns define certain prohibitions on what they want to do. Any particular prohibition amounts to an utter and complete infringement of their rights to do whatever they want in the service of maximizing yields and profits. It’s much the same concept by which the insurance industry construes any steps to improve the healthcare system as socialized medicine – change one element to the way we do business and you’ll ruin the whole thing. I think that’s why the term ‘laissez faire’ has stuck in our business culture – it’s a euphemism for doing whatever you want – only you don’t have to say that and can hide behind a french idiom.
Because we’re always going to be finding out things like this, that were perpetrated unintentionally to dire effect at the behest of some enterprise(s) to maximize profits and which require mammoth efforts to even attempt to undo.
Maybe Il y devrait etre une nouvelle devise de puissance publique?
Tue 24 Feb 2009
Here’s a follow-up to the smallholder farms I mentioned yesterday. Microfinance and it effects on the environment.
I was walking back from doing a radio interview earlier, thinking about some of the conversation. I often talk about walking or biking to work, and it’s become a little bit of a cudgel in some ways. And in some ways, it should be.
But I can walk to work because I live in the small town where my job is. I was thinking about an article I saw recently, about the ever-crowded planet and the difficulty of doing something about over-population without crafting laws that are inhuman. There’s something to that, related to my ‘walking to work’ idea that “we can’t tell people where to live.”
But isn’t that what we’ve been doing anyway? Encouraging people to live in certain places, and selling them houses and cars without including the prices of the negative externalities of living/driving there. That’s how they could live there. Otherwise – and now many are realizing this – they couldn’t live there.
Anyway. As you were.
Mon 23 Feb 2009
Smallholders, or smallholdings, refer to small farming operations, usually commercial and usually the work of a single family. According to the Guardian UK, some 450 million smallholder households earn their livelihoods from plots of three acres or less; with their families they make up a third of all humanity.
Most of these enterprises are scattered throughout what we commonly refer to as the Third World. As WE now have several generations between us and growing things, that’s simply not the case for many others and there currently exists a burgeoning economy of smallholder farms across the globe – not in the sense that we typically think of burgeoning or economy – but they are, or are nearly, self-sustaining, a term with which we are becoming increasingly familiar. I have a colleague of African descent who has initiated several excellent sustainable development projects there and elsewhere, targeted at seemingly minor technological innovations (solar powered, small-quantity refrigeration, for ex.) to increase the profits of smallholder farms without changing their way of life in ways that alter the social fabric of their community. It’s a tough line but also the essence of the triple bottom-line idea that gives equal consideration to people, planet and profit.
The connection of many of these farms and enterprises to the larger world is the Fair Trade federation, of which many are familiar. I bring all this up because today is the beginning of Fair Trade Fortnight, as good a time as any to familiarize yourself further with the ideas and practices of smallholder farms, their plights, fates, hopes and destiny. Who knows, there could be some overlap with yours.
Fri 20 Feb 2009
For the six of you out there who don’t already read him, I link to today’s column from the shrill one – who now seems of the more sane among us. Go figure.
I would like to pick up on a few things he points out.
To be sure, the Obama administration is taking action to help the economy, but it’s trying to mitigate the slump, not end it. The stimulus bill, on the administration’s own estimates, will limit the rise in unemployment but fall far short of restoring full employment. The housing plan announced this week looks good in the sense that it will help many homeowners, but it won’t spur a new housing boom.
My first reaction to this is, we don’t need a new housing boom – that was one of the problems in the first place. But even this, as green as I always make it out to be, is itself a little too facile. What we don’t need is the same kind of crazy suburban housing boom, centered on and driven by the automobile in every way, and that is a non-trivial distinction if there ever was one. We do have to keep moving forward, a consequence of which is a growing population, one that needs housing. All the many things we talk about as far as energy efficiency, conservation, and lowered carbon footprint need to be incorporated in a kind of new housing boom. One that takes place nearer central cities, one that s accompanied by a boom in SUPERTRAINS and SUPERTRAIN TRACKS and SUPERTRAIN STATIONS, connecting this kind of housing boom to these smarter, much smarter goals for development being hatched on sites and across lecturns the nation over.
So… when Krugman also lays out some of the seeds of our recovery being planted…
Consider housing starts, which have fallen to their lowest level in 50 years. That’s bad news for the near term. It means that spending on construction will fall even more. But it also means that the supply of houses is lagging behind population growth, which will eventually prompt a housing revival.
Or consider the plunge in auto sales. Again, that’s bad news for the near term. But at current sales rates, as the finance blog Calculated Risk points out, it would take about 27 years to replace the existing stock of vehicles. Most cars will be junked long before that, either because they’ve worn out or because they’ve become obsolete, so we’re building up a pent-up demand for cars.
…These should only re-enforce the critical importance of putting these opportunities to work in the service of less waste, less energy, more walking, biking and mass transit. It could be a golden era – when our sepia-toned nostalgia for street car days of yore combine with the wizbang advantages of our high-tech faggery to give us copious amounts of actual time to piss away on stuff that matters. But it will require a major re-casting of all the tools we use to build houses and cars, including the nuts and bolts and screwguns and the materials they fasten but most importantly their designs and the regulations that guide them. Different requirements yield different outcomes, and that, my smiling-because-it’s-Friday friends, is what we’re after.
Thu 19 Feb 2009
This Blackwater re-branding story reminds me of something that should be rolling around in the back of this blog practically all the time. Just because we might grow used to green-ry doesn’t mean it’s not still happening, moving, changing forms and back again. What is it the kids say – IM N UR INTERTUBZ?
Green washing, lest we forget, is all about branding, which is itself simply a way to identify a product with an idea that triggers ‘the buy’ impulse in consumers. The trigger could be vague and smoky, like sexual allure, or it could be the promotion of a specific sort of loyalty. Either way, the ends are largely the same.
On risk of repetition but begging your forgiveness, Green washing is the branding of a product with sustainability… ecological rigamarole… renewable-ishyness – you see, what cames after the first words, like the singing trees and chirping birds, doesn’t really matter. Though it matters that it doesn’t really matter, if you follow me.
Most people don’t want to go any farther than that, and advertisers know that most people – while they’re sympathetic to the idea of a sustainable world, powered by clean renewables (whatever that means) – don’t want to go any deeper than that. Too many questions arise too quickly about the entire house of cards. We’re the perfect targets for marketing based on self-preservation, basically because we’re afraid to look under our own skirts for what we might see.
Fear not. Go ahead and think of the worst thing you can think of; I’ll wait.
P.S. Dammit! I can’t help thinking that this digression has something to do with the talk by J.P. Witkin that I went to a couple days ago. Hate it when mediums I don’t like work on me anyway.
Wed 18 Feb 2009
by any other name. A friend of mine wrote this article about another one of those, shall we say, constructive dilemmas: build a new-fangled structure in a newish city, wait thirty years until they want something else cutting edge (ouch!) and new, then watch as they decide what to do about the old building. In this case the old building is the final structure of Modernist master Marcel Breuer. Take it, JL:
Breuer’s design sits closely surrounded by other buildings where Peachtree Street, a principal artery, touches a remaining patch of narrow, 19th-century street grid, about a half mile southeast of the proposed Centennial Olympic Park site. If the building could be viewed whole, from a greater distance, its sculptural power might be more affecting. As it is, Pitts and others don’t get it. “From a design point of view, it probably means a lot to those in the field, but for the average citizen who sees it, it’s just not there,” he says. “It’s dark, it’s not friendly, it’s not inviting.” Isabelle Hyman, a Breuer scholar at New York University, acknowledges that “the concrete architecture of that period is disdained right now. It’s massive, heavy, bulky, weighty, and it’s not appreciated.” Still, she insists, “You just don’t get rid of a good building by a good architect because it’s out of style.” Pitts would prefer a building with of-the-moment transparency. “I envision glass and color and water and openness,” he says. But can a shiny new building attract patrons to the library, and visitors to Atlanta?
So… there’s a thread here, connecting what they’re contemplating doing with this building and what has saddled them with an urban landscape largely indistinguishable from that of Dallas or Indianapolis or Phoenix. Can anyone guess what it is?
For another thing, why not let the building stand as a marker for the question of why we designed and built structures like this once upon a time? Could be instructive.
And what do you know, there even could be a fiscal upside to preserving the structure, beyond its architectural merits.
Jon Buono, a preservation architect, makes a compelling pragmatic argument for saving the building. “I’m clearly interested in the artistic and cultural value of the library,” he says. “But as a civic booster, I’m even more concerned with recognizing the financial and material value of that public investment.” He calculates that the energy embodied in the library and required for its demolition equals a year’s electricity consumption by some 4,000 households.
Hmm. Preserve cultural heritage. Save the city some money. Conserve a non-trivial amount of energy. Does this compute? Or is it a plan written in a book, shelved in a library that’s become obsolete?
Wed 18 Feb 2009
So here’s a nice idea from this guy in Norway about how to charge your batteries with the sun, complete with pictures. While the set-up is somewhat amateurish, I like the tone of we should be able to do this. Indeed we should. And not just this.
This was courtesy of this site, which was sent my way by mrs. green and is far more up our alley and not just because it’s in french. Poke around and see what you see. Don’t miss the two-year-old housekeeper.