Last night, as I huffed over yet another change in outrageously expensive, but compulsory, school PE kit for Maegan, we talked about whether it’s also being wasteful – why should we buy yet another white polo shirt, just because it has the Canterbury brand logo on it, when we have a cupboard full of perfectly serviceable polo shirts from Land’s End?
I like to think that the children’s formal education today will prepare them for the problems that will face us all. But they are starting to realise that it’s not always easy to work out what is the right thing to do, let alone do it. Role models in the real world (us parents included) don’t often follow what is taught in the current school curriculum, creating confusion for our little sponges. “Why do people do that Mummy?” they ask. They are also starting to learn that even when we do know what’s right we don’t always realise how important it is to do it. Or maybe we just don’t believe that our small contribution is worth the hassle? Could Mummy have raised her hand and pointed out the obvious, rather than unquestioningly dashing to the Canterbury shop and buying ¥20,000 worth of brand new kit, because that’s what everyone else does?! In hindsight, I think so!
The children looked around as we drove home through Omotesando’s crazy shopping district (yes drove, I know, it was raining, Maegan announced just before dinner that she absolutely had to have her new PE kit before school tomorrow and I was still dealing with an infestation of fleas in the house – poor excuses!). Their little faces got sadder and sadder – “I told you we are the worst thing that has happened to the Earth Mummy” said Maegan. More than a tinge of desperation came into Logan’s voice as he asked “but if the ice melts in the arctic, where will all the ice animals live?”. Their mood reminded me of the statement one of my lecturers made when we started a course in ‘Education for Sustainable Development’. He said, “we are educating for hope, not for despair”, which, after 8 months of totally depressing courses on the million and one ways we are trashing the planet and ourselves, this was such a welcome relief.
So we talked about hope, a need for having a vision, a need for endless learning and improvement, never giving up and ‘fighting’ for what you believe in – heavy stuff for a Monday evening with a 7 and 11 year old.
It’s important, but obviously difficult, to maintain a sense of hope for our children – for us too. So I was looking for some inspiring material, as much for me as the kids. To quote from a speech given by Paul Hawken (author of “The Ecology of Commerce”) to the graduating students of the University of Portland in 2009:
“If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”
“The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.”
I’m sitting here going through the latest news, comment and analysis online, checking e-mails, Facebooking-ing, with Gary Barlow serenading me in the background. Courtesy of my beautiful MacBook, my trusty iPhone 4 next to me. I’m a gadget girl, I admit it. But I now spend my days fretting over the impact of everything I/we do or buy, including technology. It’s quite soul-destroying at times (…my heart is numb, has no feeling…), but figuring out a path to ‘enlightenment’ helps me to deal with feelings of impending doom!
So I’m going pseudo cold turkey with technology. Personal gadget purchases at least.
I still love it and what it can allow us humans to overcome. But I’ve moved on from my training as a physicist/engineer. In the UK we specialise very early on in our education, so to me everything was very logical and ultimately controllable – but I had huge gaps in my understanding of the world around us. Fortunately or unfortunately, I no longer believe that technology can save us from all evils, and marvel that I could have ever been so naive to assume that we could, or should, be superior to nature! Selfishly we just buy ourselves time, unselfishly we should also have a responsibility to those who can’t stand up for themselves – the rest of life, present and future.
In terms of the use of technology, I do accept that there is ‘appropriate’ technology and sometimes we don’t know whether it fits the ‘appropriate’ tag until it’s been released from its box. History is littered with terrifying examples of our over-optimistic mistakes, and recent history suggests that the precautionary principle is still difficult to adopt (geo-engineering and nanotechnology spring to mind).
Despite the apparent benefits of the right technology, I never consciously believed that its marvels could justify being ignorant to the environmental and social impact of the natural resources extracted, or destroyed, the energy used in product creation and its unforeseen side-effects. Sadly, I just never really thought about it seriously enough. Luckily I no longer believe that the price of the gadget is the only cost to be considered in my decision making. I can no longer walk happily into the Apple Store, with it’s ambience that seems to plug into my right brain and drug me with the seductiveness of every product in the store – promising me that my life will be better, more organised, more beautiful, quieter, more fun……more in control….
Yes, I get that. But at what ‘real’ cost? It’s not that I think that Apple is particularly worse (or better) than most other manufacturers. If I was having a techno-affair with Sony I’d be thinking the same thing. As Profs Toby Miller and Richard Maxwell reported in the UK’s The Guardian online last week, (“What is the human and environmental cost of new technology?”):
“One person’s cloud is another’s pollution, and one person’s mobile is another’s enslavement. From electronic waste to conflict minerals, the new media leave an indelible mark on bodies and the Earth they inhabit.”
I just don’t know the answer to that real cost question yet, and until I know a lot more I’m forcing myself to resist. Realistically, for any purchase decision the scales should obviously be tipping in the direction of the real benefit side, preferably more than just for ‘me’, and the lifecycle costs should be fully accounted for. Ultimately, the only zero impact high tech product is the one that is never conceived of, let alone produced or bought – unless you count offsetting (carbon, biodiversity…) as a legitimate mechanism to go zero, although how do you offset against use of a rare earth metals? Even if using fully recycled resources, the manufacturing process and transportation expends energy and likewise can any energy supply be truly impact free? Without use of new natural resources, without impact on ecosystems and their biodiversity, and of course without a negative carbon impact. We live in a complex web of inter-connected technologies, it can seem impossible to really unravel the true cost, but easy to be blinded by the promises.
So that iPad Mini purchase is shelved, for now at least. And the phone upgrade will just have to wait until this one is dead, or doesnt work wherever we move to…or…do I even need a phone? Well maybe that’s expecting a bit too much from this Mummy with responsibilities. I’m relearning the long lost skills of making do and patience, that my Grannie seemed to do so naturally.
And yes, I’ll be using that wonderful pseudo-appropriate technology of the internet to find out what I need to know to be able to sleep well at night – and accepting for now that there is probably lots of unsustainable energy usage going into accessing this fantastic source of information.
In this fight for a sustainable lifestyle, it’s so easy to get tied up in knots and to be ironically hypocritical. Surely I can only climb one mountain at a time? When I have the niggling feeling that I need to learn how to scale multiple mountains at the same time, then I worry. So for now I’ll go as fast as I can, whilst trying to scale it patiently.
Update, 20th November 2012:
Since this post, summer has been and gone, our whole family has visited and volunteered in Ishinomaki/Funakoshi, and another winter has arrived. Thousands of people are still in freezing cold temporary housing in Tohoku. The electric blanket drive has ended, but volunteer groups are still in desperate need of support to help the reconstruction efforts – both physically and through projects to rebuild communities, individual livelihoods and self-esteem.
All financial donations and offers of support would be gratefully received by these groups – one group which we particularly recommend is “It’s Not Just Mud”. They are a registered charity, working from a base in the tsunami affected zone in Ishinomaki, but supporting projects throughout the Tohoku region. You can check out their work and make donations through their website:
Note that they have just moved location, although just down the street in Watanoha, Ishinomaki.
In February 2012, Maegan and I went up to Tohoku with friends from Maegan’s school. Our aim, to help out wherever we could in the post tsunami recovery efforts.
We stayed with the It’s Not Just Mud (INJM) group based in Watanoha in Ishinomaki. The house has no heating, except one free-standing heater in the kitchen, and a bit of insulation. We felt frozen, sleeping in minus temperatures for 2 nights.
But we were lucky. We learnt that thousands of people displaced by the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami are living in temporary housing or the remains of their own homes, with no heating and little or no insulation. And this will be until the spring comes to Tohoku from around May.
In an attempt to make life more bearable, our host Anna at INJM has put out a plea for electric blankets, as an efficient form of heating that may help people to sleep at night. They can be good quality 2nd hand ones, or new ones.
If you would like to help out there are a few options:
– buy the following blanket directly from Amazon Japan: – pledge money through this ChipIn account that I’ve set up:
– contribute directly to INJM for various projects, via bank transfer, credit card or paypal:
Any blankets need to be sent to the INJM house here: Its Not Just Mud – NPO