Archive for the 'Environment' Category

Planned obsolescence

August 12, 2016

When it rains, it pours, and this month one household appliance after another has broken down. I’ve spent more money than I normally spend in a year on electronics, replacing products that were only a few years old when they finally stopped working. I didn’t immediately blame planned obsolescence, the decidedly seedy side of capitalist consumerism, but I had to when it came to shopping for a new desk lamp.

It was nearly impossible to find a desktop lamp with a replaceable bulb! The shopping catalogues I browsed offered countless models of LED lamps with bulbs that were built in and could not be replaced – meaning as soon as the bulb dies, you have an expensive and oversized paperweight on your hands. Some of them even looked like paperweights – one had a pencil holder attached to it, and another was designed to look like an artificial plant. The angry and surprised customer reviews all harped on the same theme: the bulb had died, and the lamp was useless.

Looking at my outlays on high tech devices this month set me thinking about my ecological footprint, which has shrunk considerably since I became vegan. I took several quizzes to calculate my carbon footprint and “how many planet earths” it would take to support the world’s population if everyone shared my lifestyle habits. The results were surprising and encouraging.

According to a fairly comprehensive Earth Day quiz, most of my ecological footprint comes from the distance my food is transported, and it would take 3.4 planet earths to support my standard of living sustainably. According to the Islandwood quiz, it would take only 2.9, but most of my footprint in this calculation came from excessive water consumption, which the other quizzes don’t cover. According to Forterra, which sells carbon offsets to individuals and businesses, I produce 7.7 tons of CO2 a year, which is the equivalent of about 1.6 planet earths, and according to the Nature Conservancy’s calculator, the total is 6.3 tons of CO2 or 1.3 planet earths.


Taken together, it’s clear my lifestyle choices aren’t really sustainable. But I’m doing far better than the national average, and these calculators point to concrete ways in which I can improve my score. Shorter showers, purchasing green energy from the grid and buying more locally produced food would make a huge dent in my ecological footprint. The carbon dioxide can be offset with credits that would cost less than I spend on electricity and transportation already, which is very little. By not using heating or air conditioning, by walking to work and taking the bus on errands, and by avoiding meat and dairy, I’ve managed to do about 60% better than the local average.

Where food transportation is concerned, I’m lucky to live in the Pacific Northwest, where many vegan processed foods are locally manufactured. And finding local fresh produce isn’t difficult, although I can’t see myself giving up coconut milk ice cream any time soon. As far as other goods go, I’m not sure how to weigh the trade off between used books, which ship separately from scattered book sellers, and new books, which ship from Amazon’s amazing warehouses together. I buy quite a few of each, either way.

As low-end as my consumption level is relative to the American average though, I wouldn’t give up the luxuries that consumerism has to offer lightly. There’s something liberating about doing your own shopping out of your own income, and that feeling is mediated by the marketplace and the sheer variety of goods and services it has to offer. I have far more respect for markets now, also because I’ve started reading a few history books about life under communism, and the myriad incongruities of anti-capitalist social planning. I’ll probably write reviews of some of those books here later.

Frontier moralities

February 24, 2013

If Whitman is the poet of vagabonds fleeing the colonial conceit for a breath of fresh air at the edge of the wilderness, Virgil is the poet of colonists who garden for love of an empire, domestic dreamers who dwell on the past when they look at the stars, and threaten to rise up over “tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd.”

I feel that I have lost you now, evil
times have made of love pain without relief.
The world that has lost you will replace you,
a yellow leaf framing a cluster of grapes
will shine, grief will hide itself, hope of wine
remind us of sweetness in loss, belief
in rebirth console us.

Give me the splendid sun, the trellised grape,
take back the bitter medicine of time
and give me back my solitude – the nape
of my neck longs for your hand, and I mime
your presence with my own. No rhyme
or reason is enough to make this lack
a philosophical burden.

I haven’t read Virgil, but I’m curious. The book Strangers at the Gate held my attention on a day when I had been skimming all the other library books until I’d read it cover to cover, by mixing prosody with anecdote for modern South Africa’s Latin poetry fandom. Africa has more than great migrations to offer the 20th century, and can keep a writer busy doing things other than writing, while abroad.


Airports are also good, for writing foreshadowing to sequence.

A writer not writing will even listen enough to become a better writer without having noticed. Aspiring to something more than residence in Kenya, Karen Blixen kept too many found mottos not to be known for it, and could not refuse when Denys gave her his family’s motto, “Je responderay,” as a present – it means I will answer and give account.

She said this motto spoke to her, partly because “the Danish word for responsibility is plain ‘Ansvar.’”

She did not like to see frontier morality as an off-color idiom of polite sayings from home, about what is not intended to pass for justice so far from the courts.

“.. just the same .. and everyday, there comes a song ..”

Martha Nussbaum’s phrase “the frontiers of justice” resonates for just this reason – at the edges of the map we find an unconstructed society, where invaders and invaded have each begun losing their capacity to govern in good faith. Their ambassadors must be ready to betray the trust they cultivate at any moment, or be set upon by their own people instead.

What privacy the wild affords is false –
a public mind works on the natural world.
I can’t forget my oath, the flag unfurled
above our fort to give the weather’s pulse
an air of expectation. What promise
this overwhelming strange enchantment holds
for me teases my sentiments, but folds
before harsh terms for trade. There is but this:
the nourishment of the James River’s fish,
the closeness of the timber to the sea,
our access to the tributaries’ kings –
such circumstances dictate every wish
and govern blindly. “Subsistence first” brings
strength without warmth, our mere security.

Some people seek out the frontier with the wilderness, rather than with strangers whose laws are not their own.


Tomohiro Inaba

My grandfather retired as far from the nearest neighbor as he could without losing access to a grocery store. Maybe distance makes the heart grow fonder, of company in moderation. I remember my grandfather best for his hospitality, keeping house in the Oregon woods.

Farming trees in a black bear neighborhood called airplane ridge after a small plane accident, he never used a gun there, except to kill a porcupine that tried to eat his house. A salt lick in view of the breakfast table brought in morning guest lists of deer that would scuffle over the dirt it had percolated into, when it had washed down to nothing.

Coyotes could be heard singing there at night, though the wolves had been gone for generations. Listening for bugling elk, though, you are more likely to hear the cattle sounding in the dark. Coyotes inspire a healthy fear in ranch hands, and can sometimes be found crucified on a fence line where the range is being used for grazing. But coyotes have never been that easy to run off.

Coyote is the trickster hero, everywhere he’s known to storytellers, a savior everyone is loathe to turn to, but an acknowledged genius, sure to be rather brilliant when all else fails. A thief and a practical joker, he gave the world stars by stealing a bag of sacred white corn from a goddess of the Southwest, and carelessly spilling it in the sky.

A great basalt landmark in Oregon is all that remains of an all-swallowing monster he slew in the origin story of the Nez Perce people. Even the monster that swallowed every other living thing in the world hesitated to eat coyote, suspecting somehow that this could backfire.

But coyote bathed, and rolled in sagebrush, and persuaded the world’s enemy nothing could be tastier, so that he could roast the gorgon’s vitals from within, rescuing all the demoralized survivors languishing in stomach juices but not without humiliating the only marsupial known to him.


“Feathered” is from The Daily Coyote (Charlie, 2013).

Baby coyotes have big voices, and make for an eerie local caroling troupe. But it’s easy to fear for them, since the national forest on all sides of the tree farm is used for grazing. Ranchers don’t mind the cattle often while they’re there, or gather them efficiently, but they kill predators sometimes.

Things have begun to change. Even wolves are showing themselves lately, from the jogging trails of Boise to the meadows above Joseph, Oregon. A few weeks after my grandfather’s funeral, neighbors gave word a wolf pack had taken on his part of airplane ridge.

Freckles’ first fan reference

October 12, 2012

Those cranky postmodernists couldn’t have anticipated Freckles’ first fan reference, when they were prognosticating about the hyperreal. Yet I now know my dog is a Bruce Spence fan because she fished a sock out of the laundry basket just after we watched “Puppeteer” with the actors’ commentary on (her usual tastes in smelly clothes run more toward underwear).

I’d gotten used to her being a dog who takes no interest in television apart from to be annoyed with mine, and who finds life without squirrels boring and thunderstorms frightening every single time. I’d decided her consistently nervous reaction to an interrogation scene in The Recruit was a fluke.

I hadn’t noticed how unwelcome a common interest like fandom would be between me and my dogs. I used to be the one who enjoyed special effects in surround sound, and now kicking them out of my room just leads to a huddle across the hall openly plotting further intrusions on the life of my imagination.

Proud music of the storm,
Blast that careers so free, whistling across the prairies,
Personified dim shapes –

Would a beagle-border collie cross be taken in by the seduce-and-destroy ploys of the sort of dystopia imagined in Fahrenheit 451?


Or would she just disassemble their working parts to prove she knew where the wires were hidden in the walls?

When scapegoating modernism for alienation did nothing for our burdens of privacy, technology created “networked communities” with global reach for our search for sympathizers with our most idiosyncratic interests. The scholars of culture saw nothing reassuring about this, and ran to scapegoating postmodernism for our loss of intimacy.

They understated the case. We’ve progressed from deluding ourselves, each and every one, that we are popular, that being popular means being liked for ourselves and for “being ourselves” without remorse – and progress meant waking up to a habit of wallowing in the filth of isolation and self-pity in the extreme.

Apparently, awareness that no one was really looking had been dawning for quite some time.

They hadn’t expected us to start generalizing from our relationship with the television to our relationship with other household objects, with wild birds, with the attitude of the wind in a tree visible through the window, a pinwheel in the back yard.

They hadn’t predicted that we would ultimately find our household pets squarely in the middle of our own interpretive space, casually taking over. I suppose it makes sense as the next thing that would have to happen. Why wouldn’t they be smug and assertive about their status?

The pets inherited a realm so affected by hallucinogenic isolation and dread that they now seem able to use anthropomorphic sign language “better than we do” – or rather, with the directness of mid-sized children who haven’t tired of pointing out what adults do wrong according to their own standards.

In the manner of biology news announcers, naturalisms have been framing all such recently formalized observations about our own behavior as normative by default. There must have been a reason, and adaptative rationales don’t need to be self-evident to be discernible, when your commentators hail from a species with a special gift for rationalizing.

Should I fear the “performative” life that replaces privacy with unquiet daydreams about starring on reality TV, if my dogs stop playing tag whenever their audience stops watching?

Attention seeking could be natural; a lot of things are. But no one likes to meet the audience unprepared.

Please please please
No more melodies
Give me something familiar
Somethin’ similar
To what we know already
That will keep us steady
Steady, steady
Steady going nowhere

Access to “the big tent” audience is kept carefully in scarcity, an easily maintained regime once in place since broadcast media giants maximize profits by producing the work of the shortest list of performers capable of holding the crowd, reproduction and distribution being vastly cheaper than producing the content itself once infrastructure is installed.

This emboldens us with envy, if all else fails.

The internet, never short of forgettable embarrassments that make it easier for any of us to feel forgiven without asking, promises to help us each carve off a piece of the “long tail” of the attention economy. But the attention we crave can actually be even more fleeting than usual, in virtual space.

The duration and credibility of interest documented in a tracking statistics unit (a page view) can be thinner than passing hints that one might have been acknowledged somehow, look for look, by a fellow pedestrian on the street – whether for a shared mood in the same scene, or a confrontation held and released before you lost sight of each other’s faces.

So culture scholars warn against an excess of individualism, each locked in escapist personalized worlds of simulation, hiding from the social costs of neoliberalism.

But he’s been pretty much yellow
And I’ve been kinda blue

 And it’s dangerous work
Trying to get to you too

 I’ve been watching all the time
And I still can’t find the tack
And I wanna know is it okay
Is it just fine
Or is it my fault
Is it my lack

Having tried using denial as a resistance strategy for as long as we could manage, now we’re emotionally prepared to allow the scholars to give directions on another course of collective action: notions like reembodying the body, reasserting a politics of place, reembedding time in space.

We are told to try relating to the built environment – where it clings as a social convention of dress code on the skin, and where it casts a shadow the size of a skyscraper’s – as an expression of nature that we may or may not be satisfied with, but have the only means to modify among ourselves. Find a role to play.

If anyone could, in fact, do better using virtual space to reach out, to step forward, than they would using the front door, it would be clever to know the difference.

If scholars of culture have been trying to focus more of our collective attention on failures of love lately, and the pervasive anxiety about belonging to the ranks of “the working dead” spawns an entire zombie apocalypse genre, maybe the new fear is of stepping out, and finding out what people would really think if you had an audience.


Self-advancing technology certainly hasn’t always seemed like a good place to look for the love that would be needed to close the gap known outside family courts as affective inequalities.

But hype about the democratizing potential of the internet has done its best to change all that, and sideline the technology-as-enabler-of-evil discourse altogether.

The question is, how long will we want to live with autopilot on its own terms?

True Colors

August 25, 2012

The Black Stallion was the penultimate feature-length tribute to the camera’s affinity for horse action, and introduced me to the legend of Bucephalus first.

The performances given by horses in the Carroll Ballard film, including Cass Ole (with the bright star concealed), are easily a better reason to have a curiosity about the Alexander myth than that the boy king’s caravan “conquered the known world” even though he died in his youth.

In the Orient, some traditional art depicts Bucephalus like a unicorn with a peacock’s tail. But there are two horns, and Bucephalus is not described in profile for a reason.

Wings? They don’t even need bells on their feet.

I’m not the best at facial recognition in general. And I should know better than to look out for horse acting in the movies.

I can’t tell horses apart easily on a flat screen, even if their colors are barely similar. Maybe because I enjoy watching horses go about their business, not wishing all the time I were sharing the glory like a knowledgeable rider. I don’t even take sides on debates about the advantages English vs. Western tack, because I can’t lift a Western saddle or post at the trot.

But I find it a little alarming that Hidalgo reportedly had a stunt double. The paint horse can be as shameless as a beagle when it comes to hamming it up.

Made possible because of horse make-up?

One thinks twice about watching closely, convinced there is going to be an obvious wink. Steven Spielberg, on the other hand, likes to complain the horse acting was not theatrical enough when he filmed War Horse.

Mules like switchback jokes (“on the other hand, or the other foot?”), but mules are easily amused. In the pictures, for horses a scene is too easy a steal to overthink most days.