A Minimalist Experiment

What would life be like if you set completely different priorities? Here’s one answer:

If someone told me seven years ago, in my final year of a business and economics degree, that I’d now be living without money, I’d have probably choked on my microwaved ready meal. The plan back then was to get a ‘good’ job, make as much money as possible, and buy the stuff that would show society I was successful.

For a while I did it – I had a fantastic job managing a big organic food company; had myself a yacht on the harbour. If it hadn’t been for the chance purchase of a video calledGandhi, I’d still be doing it today. Instead, for the last fifteen months, I haven’t spent or received a single penny. Zilch.

The change in life path came one evening on the yacht whilst philosophising with a friend over a glass of merlot. Whilst I had been significantly influenced by the Mahatma’s quote “be the change you want to see in the world”, I had no idea what that change was up until then. We began talking about all major issues in the world – environmental destruction, resource wars, factory farms, sweatshop labour – and wondering which of these we would be best devoting our time to. Not that we felt we could make any difference, being two small drops in a highly polluted ocean.

But that evening I had a realisation. These issues weren’t as unrelated as I had previously thought – they had a common root cause. I believe the fact that we no longer see the direct repercussions our purchases have on the people, environment and animals they affect is the factor that unites these problems. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased so much that it now means we’re completely unaware of the levels of destruction and suffering embodied in the ‘stuff’ we buy.

Very few people actually want to cause suffering to others; most just don’t have any idea that they directly are. The tool that has enabled this separation is money, especially in its globalised format.

Take this for an example: if we grew our own food, we wouldn’t waste a third of it as we do today.

If we made our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior décor.

If we had to clean our own drinking water, we probably wouldn’t shit in it.

So to be the change I wanted to see in the world, it unfortunately meant I was going to have to give up money, which I decided to do for a year initially. So I made a list of the basics I’d need to survive. I adore food, so it was at the top. There are four legs to the food-for-free table: foraging wild food, growing your own, bartering and using waste grub, of which there far too much.

This guy is no doubt busy, but in a good way. I don’t know what our culture and economy would look like if everyone tried to live like this. But I do know that there is probably a hybrid somewhere in between a system of consumerist capitalism and this sort of minimalism. And I think it mostly could be catalyzed if the costs of everything reflected their environmental and social costs as well as their production costs. We’d produce less, earn less, consume less. And production and marketing would be completely transformed.

The Case Against “Busy”

Writer Tim Krieder offers a bracing and insightful rebuttal to the idea that we should measure our lives by how busy and productive we are:

My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love.

Naturally, as a person who has long valued time over money, he is singing my favorite hymn. But I am convinced that changing the way we value time and money (and how we spend our time; I prefer outdoors, with people, away from the electronic assault), is the key to reinventing not only how we live and seek happiness, but how human culture impacts the Earth. The current formula–work, earn, consume–is a disaster for the planet and doesn’t deliver happiness. A different approach that values time over money, nature and outdoor activity over manufactured entertainment, and personal relationships over consumption, I think, would go a long way toward bringing humanity into balance with the planet. Throw in an emphasis on compassion, tolerance, and selflessness, and you start to imagine a wholly different, and wholly more appealing, future.

Does The Reality Of Climate Change Preclude Hope?

David Roberts (hey, I thought he was unplugging!) is not hopeful, but tries to make the case for holding onto hope:

Though it may seem odd, I find comfort in chaos theory. For all our sophistication, we remain terribly inept at the simple task of predicting what will happen more than a few years out. All our models fail. That means those who predict a steady extension of the status quo will be wrong, too.

The outcome of the climate crisis depends not just on physical forces but on human beings, complex economic, social, and technological systems, and complex systems are nonlinear. We forget this; our instinct is to think the future will look like the recent past, only more so. We don’t anticipate the lateral moves, the lurches, the phase shifts. Because of this, the Very Serious thing to do is always to predict that things will not substantially change. If you say, “There will be a series of brilliant innovations that make clean energy cheap,” or, “There will be a sea change in public opinion on climate,” or, “Young people will take over and revive politics,” you sound like a hippie dreamer. Those aspirations are a matter of faith, a triumph of hope over experience.

And yet: things change! History unfolds along the lines of what Stephen Jay Gould called “punctuated equilibrium.” Things can appear stable for years and years while tensions gather beneath the surface, hairline fractures develop, and the whole system becomes highly sensitive to small perturbations. (The butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane, etc.)

We do not know what those perturbations will be or when they will emerge, but we know from history that Don Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” are inevitable. The North American natural gas boom, the precipitous decline in solar PV prices, the financial crisis — none were widely predicted. And there will be more like them.

Will unexpected, rapid changes in coming decades be good or bad, positive or negative? That depends on millions of individual choices made in the interim. Some of those choices, if they happen at just the right moment, could be just the perturbations that spark cascading changes in social, economic, or technological systems. Some of those choices, in other words, will be incredibly significant.

Personally, I don’t have much hope. I think that climate change is happening faster than humanity can develop wisdom, or make the political, economic and cultural changes that will blunt its impact on the Earth. We are by evolution a self-interested species, and that is not something that is easy to change. Sure, a miracle is always (remotely) possible, so why utterly abandon hope. And, in any case, because doing more to mitigate the full impact of climate change is better than doing less, we do have a responsibility to keep learning and to try to find ways to live that are more in harmony with the planet and all its other species.

Anatomy Of An Online Burnout

David Roberts at Grist is unplugging for a year:

It has been a dream job. I’ve loved it. I still love it.

But I am burnt the fuck out.

I spend each day responding to an incoming torrent of tweets and emails. I file, I bookmark, I link, I forward, I snark and snark and snark. All day long. Then, at night, after my family’s gone to bed and the torrent has finally slowed to a trickle and I can think for more than 30 seconds at a stretch, I try to write longer, more considered pieces.

I enjoy every part of this: I enjoy sharing zingers with Twitter all day; I enjoy writing long, wonky posts at night. But the lifestyle has its drawbacks. I don’t get enough sleep, ever. I don’t have any hobbies. I’m always at work. Other than hanging out with my family, it’s pretty much all I do — stand at a computer, immersing myself in the news cycle, taking the occasional hour out to read long PDFs. I’m never disconnected.

It’s doing things to my brain.

I think in tweets now. My hands start twitching if I’m away from my phone for more than 30 seconds. I can’t even take a pee now without getting “bored.” I know I’m not the only one tweeting in the bathroom. I’m online so much that I’ve started caring about “memes.” I feel the need to comment on everything, to have a “take,” preferably a “smart take.” The online world, which I struggle to remember represents only a tiny, unrepresentative slice of the American public, has become my world. I spend more time there than in the real world, have more friends there than in meatspace.

There’s a lot more here, and while I have never stayed that plugged in, that intensely (okay, I do admit that I often read my phone while I pee), I do wonder often about how much time social media and “being online” consumes, and what the opportunity cost of that time is. So much of what happens online is trivial and ephemeral, even thought it may feel vital and important in the moment. And it is so easy to get stuck in, and suddenly come to your senses hours later and wonder what you have achieved. At the same time, there are nuggets of truth and extraordinary connections that sometimes emerge. So it’s a dilemma.

I haven’t figured out an answer yet. But Roberts apparently has. It will be interesting to see whether he really will come back. I wonder.

Grist’s List Of 16 Things Climate Change Is Screwing Up

On the one hand the list is interesting (sort of) for the diversity of things on it (from fireworks to the Tour De France), which drives home the point that climate change is almost infinite in its impacts.

On the other hand, the list is mostly about how climate change will affect us humans and the things we like. Wine, for example:

In 2011, former U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan delivered the keynote address at the the third Climate Change and Wine Congress in Spain. What he knew, and the attendees knew, is that wine is particularly susceptible to a changing climate. Most crops find increasing heat waves, flooding, and droughts difficult to endure, but wine is special. Grapes are grown in specific fields for hundreds of years because that particular place is particularly good at producing a particular varietal of wine. When areas get warmer or drier, the grapes change, and then the wine’s taste and color changes. Some vineyards are trying to move uphill to take advantage of thinner, cooler air, but it doesn’t always work. Some varietals are simply trying to move north, and a few vintners have already planted “champagne” vineyards in England.

Here’s the problem: Until the way we look at the climate stops being all about us, until the way we look at the planet and life on the planet stops being all about us, there isn’t much hope of addressing climate change. Because addressing climate change means starting to care less about ourselves, and our own needs and desires, and more about the rest of the species on the planet and the habitats they live in. This list suggests we aren’t quite there yet.

Saving The High Seas


James Cameron and Richard Branson want action:

An important opportunity to begin responsibly managing half the planet lies before us. The United Nations will hold meetings this week to discuss the future of the high seas. Led by Brazil, the European Union, Argentina, Mexico, Monaco and others, a coalition of developed and developing nations has proposed an international agreement to modernize governance of the high seas.

The agreement would provide for high seas protected areas, and require countries proposing to engage in destructive activities to assess and manage their effects. It would also deal with the lack of any rules governing how revenue derived from developing genetic resources in international waters will be shared, an important bar to commercializing new products derived from international waters. Most important, such an agreement would begin to bring to the high seas modern management as practiced in the U.S. and elsewhere since the 1970s. Such an agreement has been discussed and debated for years at the United Nations. It is time to move beyond words to action and begin negotiations.

The United States has been the single most significant obstacle to a new high seas agreement, with the State Department citing potential opposition from members of Congress who are critics of the United Nations. Possible opposition from pharmaceutical, biotech and/or cosmetics companies involved in marine genetic research has also been mentioned, although no such opposition has surfaced in the more than six years these issues have been widely discussed.

Sure hope they succeed. But if they really want to make an impact they will need to address the fact that modern human culture (energy consumption, materialism, self-gratification, food fetishism, etc., etc..) is what is really destroying the oceans (and the dry parts of the planet, too). Better regulations and protections for the high seas are great, though it’s hard to say that even regulated waters are thriving. More important, ocean acidification, and warming, are the real existential threats. So hopefully Cameron and Branson will next look deep at their own roles, and the industries they are in, in promoting a culture that is destroying the seas they love.

What sacrifices to their lifestyles or business income are they willing to make?

The Pros And Cons Of Pesticide Use

Are pesticides causing bee colonies to collapse? We don’t really know for sure, and that is the problem with how we approach technology.

Well, while we know most of the pros, there are plenty of cons (like maybe wiping out out bee populations) that we don’t really yet understand.

Here’s a good summary of what we do and don’t know:

Pesticides have become an enduring feature of modern life. In 2007, the world used more than 5.2 billion pounds of weed killers, insecticides, and fungicides to do everything from protecting crops to warding off malaria.

And that’s led many researchers to wonder what sorts of broader impacts all these chemicals are having. They’ve helped feed the world, yes, but they may also be causing health problems elsewhere. To that end, the latest issue of Science has a fascinating special section on the world’s pesticide use.

This is a great example of how we push technology forward because we can (and we can see immediate benefits, and profits) without always grasping the net cost on health or the planet. And the thing that has always troubled me is that instead of the burden of proof being on those who want to develop and use a technology (to prove it is safe and a net benefit), the burden of proof tends to fall on those who suspect there are problems (to prove it is not safe or a net benefit). Smoking is another great example.

Sometimes, of course, we can’t assess the full impact of a technology, pesticides in this case, until it has been field tested on the planet (and on us). But it would be nice if the system was set up to better monitor and assess the balance of good and bad any technology does. And it would be nice if the environmental and health impacts of any given technology were priced into the actual cost. Right now, the industries that reap the benefits of using potentially harmful technologies have too much influence over how the technology is assessed (and regulated).

Here, for example, is what science is starting to show about pesticides:

Three long-term cohort studies now suggest that certain chemical pesticides can interfere with brain development in young children. And some experts suspect that a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids are at least partly responsible for the recent collapse in bee populations (though this is still disputed).

There are other, lesser-known impacts as well. Australia’s wheat farmers are now dealing with one of the worst weed infestations in the world — an issue caused in part by overuse of herbicides, which led to resistant weeds. And some 300,000 people kill themselves each year by ingesting pesticides, largely in Asia. That’s one third of the world’s suicides.

And those are just the effects scientists know about. A notable paper from Heinz-R. Köhler and Rita Triebskorn points out that researchers still don’t understand the full impact of many chemicals on broader ecosystems. “Although we often know a pesticide′s mode of action in the target species,” they write, “we still largely do not understand the full impact of unintended side effects on wildlife.”

It’s the unintended side effects that get you every time.

The Ongoing Meat Bomb

It’s just a graphic, but it captures a big problem.

Growth in meat-eating is just one more reason a global culture that celebrates consumption is a disaster. At some point human values need to emphasize stewardship over self-gratification. But getting there is a big challenge.


Nonhuman Rights Will Start With A Chimp

Do I look like property? Or like a thinking, feeling, nonhuman being?

For years, the Nonhuman Rights Project has been mapping the legal terrain, state by state, and animal by animal, to try and find the best case it can make on behalf of winning some legal rights for a nonhuman animal. According to the Boston Globe, the first case sometime later this year, will be on behalf of a chimpanzee:

In the next few months, an animal advocacy group called the Nonhuman Rights Project plans to file a case on behalf of its first animal client. It has already chosen the plaintiff, a captive chimp, on whose behalf it plans to file a writ of habeas corpus and ask a state court judge to grant the chimp’s liberty.

Their goal is to win animals a toehold in the world of legal rights—a strategy that is the culmination of more than two decades of writing and legal work by lawyer Steven Wise and an allied group of attorneys, scientists, and animal activists. They hope to have an animal declared a “person” in a court of law, breaking down a legal barrier between humans and other species that has stood for millennia.

Over the last century, animals have enjoyed a steady march in legal protections. Once treated no differently than inanimate objects, today they can’t be abandoned, beaten, or deprived of food, shelter, or veterinary care. Despite these protections, however, animals are still legally considered property. And for Wise and others, given what we now know about the biology and inner lives of animals, this is no longer a tenable distinction. It is time, they argue, to grant at least some species fundamental rights such as the right to life and freedom from captivity—and the surest way to accomplish that is for those animals to join human beings as legal persons.

How NHRP got there, and how the campaign will unfold, is also interesting:

Their choices were limited to a handful of species known to score high on practical autonomy, which included elephants, chimpanzees, cetaceans (dolphins, orcas, and other marine mammals), and African gray parrots. But there were other considerations, too. For instance, they’d have a stronger case with a charismatic animal being kept in what Wise calls a “dire” living situation, so that pretty much ruled out the parrots. In addition, they would need to have a wildlife sanctuary lined up to adopt their plaintiff if they prevailed. The lack of such sanctuaries for cetaceans ruled out dolphins and orcas. Likewise, while they were zeroing in on an elephant plaintiff this spring, neither of the two elephant sanctuaries in the United States had any more room. That left chimps.

To avoid tipping off the chimp’s owner, they won’t disclose the identity of their plaintiff until they are ready to go to court this fall. Armed with affidavits from scientists, including Jane Goodall, about chimps’ capacities, they will argue that their plaintiff deserves a right to liberty, and that its captivity is a violation of that right.

Win or lose, they plan to bring more habeas petitions on behalf of other animals, hoping to win enough small victories to lay a foundation of precedent for animal personhood. It’s unlikely to be a quick and easy fight, but Wise says he accepts that he’s in the animal-personhood game for the long haul. “This is a long-term, strategic, open-ended campaign,” he says.

The Globe does a nice job of looking at the legal and philosophical debate over Wise’s strategy. But at least Wise has a strategy, and any toehold he can win for animals will be a long overdue start to changing the exploitive and destructive relationship humans have with many nonhuman species. 


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