Friday, February 7, 2020

it doesn't add up

Image result for triangle puzzle
A friend sent me this. I didn’t solve the riddle but it inspired a poem and reminded me of why I didn’t like math class. Although it was satisfying to swap out the right numbers for letters to solve for x, it also felt like an illusion. What did it actually solve?

I didn’t like math partially because I was a nihilistic, angsty teen. I wanted things to make sense and it didn’t make sense to be excited about solving problems in the abstract when the real world seemed riddled with problems: injustice, inequity, war, disease, rape, slavery. Catastrophic things happened to innocent people constantly. It just didn’t add up.

I think about this in terms of climate change solutions. Variable A produces B emissions. In order to maintain a habitable planet, variable A emissions need to decrease by X. In theory, this makes sense. For example, if current refrigeration methods emit 100 gigatons of HFCs (worse than CO2) and we need to get to zero, we plug technological changes into the refrigeration equation to get there. But this is an abstraction.

When we focus on manipulating variables to achieve a particular outcome, those variables are regarded as a given; we don’t question their existence within the equation. In the real life application though, we must interrogate variables.

Why does refrigeration top the list of climate mitigation strategies for  EGN (Environmentalists of the Global North)?

Refrigeration became an integral part of the lives of some starting in the early 1900s. For nearly 600,000 years, humans lived without. Further, according to a 2018 IEA report, the 300 million people living in the US consume more energy for cooling than the 4 billion people living in all of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia (excluding China) combined. Meaning, the majority of humans live without refrigeration. Either do the other 8.7 millions species we share the planet with.

Don’t get me wrong. I think ice cream is as necessary as water, sometimes more. Frozen pizza is manna on some days. And of course I turn on my air conditioner when it’s sweltering outside. 

But we are facing extinction. 

We are swiftly losing the ability to feed ourselves because of what we’re doing to soil, water and climate and other species. Worldwide access to potable water is jeopardized. We continue to degrade air quality. Why are we invested in revamping a variable that serves only a fraction of the world's human population and no other beings? 

We even sometimes compromise soil, air and water with our solutions.

HFCs are the industrial chemicals we adopted as a 'solution' to the previously used ozone depleting CFCs and HCFCs. We plugged in unknown entities into the refrigerant equation and claimed we solved for X without thorough testing. Now we're scrambling to clean up the mess HFCs cause.

Given the amount of HFCs refrigeration vomits, the material resources required and the ethical issue of disposal, we should question whether refrigeration is even compatible with a habitable planet. 

Now that I’m a nihilistic angsty old woman, I am still leery of fabricated equations and solutions because in order for equations to work, you must ignore some variables while privileging others. Our modern lives are built on economic equations that favor some who, what and where over other who, what and where, which become externalized costs. This reminds me of how Nazis used the word solution. There was a methodical abstraction in the execution of their solution, too.

Similarly, outside the purview of the refrigeration equation are the environmentally hostile and xenophobic government regimes surfacing worldwide during this ecologically dire time. We simply cannot ignore how they endanger nonnegotiable variables-air, water, and soil- for all as well as actively sacrifice lives. 

Externalized costs mount outside the purview of economic equations. It's why parts of the world suffer habitat and cultural destruction from extractive and manufacturing practices which fuel species extinction and create desperate people vulnerable to slavery and are ultimately rendered homeless. Consider the United States' decades long economic equation in Latin America and why there's a 'crisis' at the southern border of this country. 

I’m reminded of the oft quoted definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So here we are using equational thinking to solve the problems equational thinking ignores. Remember HFCs?

With this legacy, do we have proper regard for where the technological components come from and are manufactured to produce ‘greener’ refrigeration? How will our solutions impact air, water, soil and living beings? 

In the face of imminent extinction, who, what, where does better refrigeration serve? Who, what and where bear the externalized cost of my beloved ice cream? Will some who, what and where be externalized as collateral damage for other who, what and where?

Arguably there’s a worldwide appetite for refrigeration, explaining why it’s foremost on the EGN's agenda. Before refrigeration, people worldwide practiced food preservation and built structures in ways that fit cultural, regional, seasonal rhythms using the materials gifted to them by their particular habitat. I suspect they weren't nearly as wasteful and casual about what they worked to harvest, butcher, dry, pickle and so on, as we privileged few with our full fridges. I suspect too that shelters were built in ways more sensible than our thinly walled structures reliant on HVAC. Would lawns continue to be the most irrigated crop in the US without refrigeration or would we become more realistic, regional and seasonal in our dietary expectations of the planet? 

Of course giving up refrigeration is disorienting. But our building practices and food industries are incompatible with a habitable planet for all beings. Retrofitting refrigeration enables unsustainable industries, like landscaping. Refrigeration enables extractive practices complicit in habitat destruction. Refrigeration enables externalized costs. Refrigeration enables a dysfunctional, unjust and destruction relationship with our planet and its inhabitants.

Are we invested in maintaining fundamentally flawed industries or protecting earth's systems? We can't have both.

Instead, who can we be, what can we learn about ourselves, our habitats, cultures, histories, food and structures? Where will our inventive reimagining lead us if we start with the premise that air, water and soil are the ultimate nonnegotiable variables? We are called to transcend the artificial, abstract and destructive limitations of equational thinking to find solutions that benefit every living being. Herein lies extraordinary opportunity to evolve new systems. 

Refrigeration doesn’t add up.

Friday, January 17, 2020

climate change mitigation list: check your supremacy

Whenever environmental issues are discussed, overpopulation comes up. Specifically, educate brown and black females in the Global South to produce less offspring.

This is painful. It disregards the sovereignty of brown and black females who look like me and live in the part of the world I come from. It also sidesteps the issue of overconsumption by the Global North. Specifically, Americans. 

Since we tend to think of consumption as the purchase of material goods, we don’t see how it’s manifest in other forms or how pervasive it is. Entertainment, recreation, sports, fitness, travel, pets and pet care, amusement parks, water parks, cruise ships, skating rinks, lawns and landscaping, housecleaning services, horse and car racing, delivery services, refrigeration, health and medical care, escalators, elevators, work and school commutes, beauty salon and spa services, renovation, remodeling, plastic and cosmetic surgery, washing machines, dryers and so on are normalized forms of consumption.

Unless you’re desperately poor, many Americans live like a friend I recently visited. His beautifully decorated four bedroom, 2 ½ bath home holds at least two flat screen TVs and two personal computers. He and his partner sport smart watches and fit bits. Since they both love gadgets, their cats drink from a gurgling fountain while the food dispenser and litter box are automated. One of their cats recently suffered kidney failure and requires daily dialysis.

They each have their own vehicles as well as a motorcycle. They live in a house with a fenced in yard and a two-car garage full of toys: canoes, bikes, fishing and camping gear. When the weather is inclement they go to a gym to run, cycle or swim. They frequently travel for triathlons and vacation in other countries. Cleaning and landscaping services keep their green lawn leaf and weed free and their home spotless. For most Americans, this seems normal and desirable.

All of this requires a tremendous amount of materials and energy.

In fact, the average US citizen consumes 6.8 hectares of resources to everyone else’s 2.7 hectares (that’s 17 and 7 acres, respectively). We even consume more calories. If everyone on the planet lived like Americans, it would take over four planets to support us all. 

Yet whatever strategies Environmentalists of the Global North (EGN) come up with involve greening our opulent lifestyles. For example, on the micro level, use an energy efficient dishwasher then on the macro level, advocate for green technology to run said dishwashers.

We don’t, however, question these fundamentally unsustainable, unnecessary machines. Nor do we address the massive sports, lawn, fitness and entertainment industries or our increasing appetite for any of the aforementioned; all of which are uncommon in countries whose populations we want to control. Even though they are childless, my dear friends, mentioned earlier, do not live a lifestyle the planet can support. 

To advocate for solar panels to power automated litter boxes in the Global North yet urge citizens of the Global South to diminish their actual, literal existence is a form of supremacy.

Consider the tactics aimed at reducing carbon put forth by the popular, Project Drawdown. They focus on greening or retrofitting transportation, energy & city infrastructure with telecommuting, wind farms and rooftop gardens, for example. It’s quite startling to read through categories –energy, transport, buildings, materials—then to run into the category, women and girls.

To regard females as something to retrofit, along with refrigeration and insulation, is a form of supremacy. It is a form of green washing and even virtue washing to suggest that this agenda is about empowering females.  

To be clear, of course I want women and girls to be educated. Parity is a perennial issue for females. But let’s educate females because it is their right to be educated. Let’s educate females to have full sovereignty over their lives. To educate girls and women so they don't produce offspring is no different than forcing women to produce offspring. Both fit someone else's  agenda if the desired number of offspring isn't the woman's intention. Moreover,  since women and girls are disproportionally impacted by ecological collapse, empowerment-for women's own needs in their own context -is vital.

We feel entitled to speak into unfamiliar cultural and religious contexts to promote family planning but seemingly turn a blind eye to in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, fetal surgery or NIC unit heroics performed here--yet more forms of consumption. If indeed, overpopulation is at the crux of our ecological collapse, then are environmentalists protesting at fertility treatment centers on Fire Drill Fridays? I saw no mention of addressing the fertility industry in Project Drawdown or other climate change mitigation lists put forth by EGN.

Besides, here in America, the equal rights amendment hasn’t been ratified, the maternal mortality rate is rising, access to family planning is under siege, child marriage is a thing and there’s still a pay gap. In fact, the US ranks 51 of 149 countries in terms of gender equity. We could use a little female empowerment in our own backyards. 

It is form of supremacy to ignore what you need to fix but busy yourself ‘fixing’ others.

It is also in keeping with America and its allies’ geo-political pursuit of empire: virtue washing (fight for freedom and democracy) to support an unsustainable lifestyle (exploitation and extraction of resources, labor and energy).  It begs the question, what are EGN really after? Preserving the lifestyle of the Global North or fostering a habitable planet for all living beings? 

If EGN are invested in education, then let’s make a concerted effort to retrofit America’s educational system since the US has the highest percentage of climate deniers. Along with transport, energy, food and city infrastructure, let’s tackle the Department of Education. Let’s teach the millions of children, female and male, in America to be ecologically literate so that we can have a livable planet. Maybe then Americans and other Global Northerners will learn the impacts of consumerism that disproportionally endanger females worldwide. Maybe ecological literacy would empower us to consider sustainable, equitable lifestyles that do not require the erasure of brown and black people.

Maybe the infrastructure that needs to be retrofitted is the supremacist heritage of the EGN.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

beyond the holiday glare

I recently read a terrific essay by a friend about a Secret Santa exchange at work. At first she was super Scroogy. In her words, she had resigned from the holiday frenzy years ago, the stress shadowing the anticipated joy.

But then she got caught up in the fun. She discovered details about a long time co-worker she would not have known had she not randomly picked this woman’s name. Stealthy gift-giving became a gratifying challenge. She thrilled at her colleague’s surprise, which inspired more giving. My friend ends her tender story with this image: the two of them, after the reveal, knee to knee, in rapt conversation at the holiday party. Secret Santa connected them in way that may not have otherwise happened, the spirit of the holidays outshining the stress that had eclipsed her joy in previous seasons.

This captures what a Secret Santa exchange feels like: sleuthing, seeking perfect gifts, surprising the recipient, feigning innocence at their surprise. And conversely: finding gifts at unexpected times and in unexpected places. All that generosity wrapped in mystery.

I cradle my thoughtful friend’s experience in one palm. I cradle, in the other, what I know about the things that preoccupy us during the holidays: food, lights, travel, festivities, gifts. Did you know 99% of what is extracted, manufactured, shipped and purchased is trashed after six months of use? That singing flowerpot, the glow in the dark toilet bowl, the bluetooth hairbrush, even the cute sweater—all of it, junked.

I hold these both as I navigate my own holidays: decorate, cook, bake, send cards, buy gifts, wrap gifts, attend parties. Also, if you have kids like me, multiply these expectations by the number of offspring. Also, find meaning in it. 

I struggle to find meaning since the holiday rituals seem overly focused on consumption. Did you know the average American consumes 2X more today than 50 years ago while happiness continues to decline? In fact, Americans' life expectancy is also in decline as a result of several epidemics: guns, drugs, obesity and despair.

Think about that.

The United States is roughly 5% of the world’s population, consumes 30% of its resources and produces 30% of the waste yet Americans are in despair. 

What are we doing? Why do we keep doing it? And why do we start doing it earlier and earlier. Because of what I know about the ecological and human cost of our voracious yet unfulfilling consumption, I too want to resign from the holidays.

I write this during the night, December 21, our shortest day in the northern hemisphere. Holiday lights flicker along my street. It seems like every year more people put up lights; maybe in the words of Susan Cooper, ‘to drive the dark away…burn beseeching fires all night long to keep the year alive...’

I wonder at the lights. How we beseech them to dispel darkness of all forms. 

How our longest night is longest day in the southern hemisphere. Indeed, too, how the global North is inexorably linked to the global South, where the production of things that dazzle for barely six months darken other lives with an existential threat. May we understand how our own insatiable hunger for more things to dispel our darkness, spreads darkness. 

As days in the northern hemisphere lengthen, may too our understanding of our connection to those whose days we shorten beyond the earth’s rotation, for our fleeting wants. May we seek to understand their need like my friend learned her coworker’s wants. May we too provide for the wellbeing of the other, the stranger, who does not need to be among us for us to do so. May we consider how our lives, not what we purchase, can be Secret Santa. May we be knee to knee, in rapt communion with the unexpected, the unknown. The other.

During the holidays, I miss the stars. The constellations beyond our garish displays, beyond our garish busyness. Quiet steadfast light mapping darkness toward joy and peace. May we find our light, 'as promise wakens in the sleeping land.'