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November 30, 2005

It's people! Green business is people!

I don't know if people see what I write in terms of sustainability and environment as "negative" or "pessimistic" or not. In fact, I was just setting out to sanitize my blog tonight, taking away anything that might be "mis-construed" by anyone who may find the time to google my name after a conference I am working at tomorrow related to IT and sustainability. (I actually gave up after re-reading the posts which I was a little worried about and realizing that what I wrote was not especially negative or pessimistic at all)

But that's not the point of this post.

The other day high-up from large organization somewhere in Europe stopped by the office. His organization is in the process of writing their first CSR report. In fact, I am told that it's the first CSR report ever published in that particular industry.

Now, the psychopathically pessimistic and negative Kevin would have thought "yeah, right... a lot of little cosmetic changes and all of a sudden you are 'socially responsible'."

But what struck me was that this visitor *really wanted to be responsible*. He wanted his organization to be responsible. He talked about how he was surprised to find that some of the things he had never thought of as effecting his industry, such as work-place safety, actually *did* matter, and there were real issues that needed to be addressed. He talked about how even though his organization does not actively produce ecologically harmful products, he was surprised to find how much of a "passive" or "second-hand" impact they have on environmental issues.

I have to say again though, that what struck me most was how much he really seemed to *want to be responsible*.

When I was in Sweden, my thesis group's project centered on applying a sustainability framework to the life of the individual (or family unit as the case may be). My reason for choosing this was two-fold. One was that I was trying to figure out my own roll in creating a better future, and trying to figure out what I could do, and the other is that I felt that although we are currently locked into an unsustainable system, it's not by choice. Most people, on an individual level, *want* to do good. Conservatives, liberals, capitalists, communists, terrorists, whatever... we all *want* to do the right thing. Sure, we all have different ways to go about it, but for the most part, it's the system we have grown to depend on forces us to act against our will. I mean, who really thinks that the suicide bomber would willingly kill himself just for the fun of it? Or, that the CEO of an oil company really wants his or her decisions to destroy the lives of people in Nigeria or anywhere else?

It's not the people that are broken, it's the system. As much as I made fun of my thesis partner every time she said "We just have to get to the people's heart", it's true. And the visitor this week reminded me (or taught me) that if we as people want to, we can take control of the system that has been controlling us for way too long.

* * *

And on a somewhat to very related note (although I am still very skeptical). WorldChanging reports that

on Monday, BP announced the launch of BP Alternative Energy, a new business unit that will manage BP's investments in solar, wind, hydrogen, and combined-cycle-gas-turbine power generation, which could amount to $8 billion over the next decade, the company says.

November 27, 2005

The Waste "Stream"

It's interesting about that term, the "waste stream." It sanitizes the idea of discard, it's like, it's just this "stream" ... it's just an innocuous thing that's sort of naturally occurring. The levels of waste that we produce in a free market system are by no means the natural outcome of some organic process.

Wait... did I just post a lame tid-bit about droopy eye syndrome? I must have forgotten about a the interesting (all-be-it pre-recorded) segment on this week's Science Friday.

Ira talks with Heather Rogers, filmmaker and author of Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, and Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network

The radio show is interesting, a lot of talk about e-waste, and how so much of the old computers from the US, filled with toxic chemicals, end up being "recycled" in Nigeria or China where they extract the valuable materials by burning the dangerous ones away in a hand-held wok over a coal fire and pouring the waste into the river.

What was a little surprising to me, was that this is still happening. While I know that the toxins don't just disappear, I was under the impression that there was by now at least an effort by most companies to be socially responsible, and that such blatant outsourcing of death and decease was a thing of the near past. This is one of the points she raises in the book as well, as she said in an interview on AlterNet:

there's been a decline in the recycling rate. People's attention and the political pressure on companies like Waste Management to recycle is waning because people do think our wastes are being handled in an environmentally sound fashion.

I know Europe and Japan have more regulations than the US regarding the export of waste, although I am not sure to what extent this keeps their shit out of China or some other impoverished country. This is something I am researching for work too, so I should be more in-the-know soon.

Fifteen years ago, a UN treaty called the Basel Convention was adopted to regulate the movement of hazardous materials across international borders. Since that time 166 countries, including seven of the G-8 nations, have ratified it. The United States, along with Haiti and Afghanistan, have yet to follow suit. (The Nation: An E-Cycling Nightmare

And National Geographic reports:

Forty-five percent of the junk that's coming in [to Lagos] is coming from the United States. Another 45 percent comes from Europe, and the other 10 percent from Japan and Israel.

The quote at the top of this post is from the same AlterNet interview. Here are some other interesting excerpts from the program and elsewhere:

QUESTION:can technology solve the waste problem or is it just exacerbating it? We thought that when we had computers we would use less paper and it turns out we use more paper.

ANSWER:Technology never creates less waste.

But then she later says:

[W]hy can't we change the production process so that it's less wasteful? I do think that industrial production can be made better. I do think that it's incredibly wasteful the way that it operates now. There's so much room for improvement. But I don't think that we have to get rid of industrial production.
I think it's important to acknowledge what's happened on the cultural level in terms of indoctrinating people to disposability. A lot of effort has been made to teach people to throw things away. It's not something that that comes natural to people.
with just 5 percent of the global population we generate 30 percent of the world's trash

From The Nation: An E-Cycling Nightmare

In the United States alone, an estimated 100 million computers will become obsolete next year, contributing to what is the fastest growing waste stream in the industrialized world--e-waste.

From National Geographic: Toxic "E-Waste" Gets Cached in Poor Nations, Rep

Reduce, reuse, recycle. This familiar environmentalist slogan outlines an approach to minimizing how much trash ends up in landfills, incinerators, and waterways. ...

Much of the waste ends up being discarded along rivers and roads. Often it's picked apart by destitute scavengers, who may face dangerous exposure to toxic chemicals in the broken equipment.

But when it comes to e-waste...

"A lot of these materials are being sent [to developing nations] under the guise of reuse—to bridge the digital divide," said Richard Gutierrez, a toxics policy analyst for the Seattle, Washington-based Basel Action Network.

Anyway, I could go on and on, but I wont. I have to go buy that new iPod I have been wanting so I can listen to Living on Earth pod-casts as I ride my bike to work.

ptosis

Just a note to any friends or family who use contact lenses. There was a disturbing article in the Nikkei Shinbun the other day about a woman who had droopy eyelids that just wouldn't stay open. It was discovered that they were caused by pulling up her eyelid every day to insert her contact lenses. Eventually, the muscles that held her eyelids just wouldn't open past half-way. She was a bank teller, fecing customers all day, so I guess it had some effect on her work, with the customers loosing focus and unable to concentrate on the transaction because they are distracted by her eyes and all...

As you can see, I am really struggling to find something to write here.

November 25, 2005

Tired in Shinjyuku

Tired of Shinjyuku

November 22, 2005

Flea Market

The fact that I am not writing doesn't mean I am working all the time, just that work takes up too much of the day, so no time left for playing with the web when I get home. This is from a flea market Tomoe and I stopped by Sunday in Shinjyuku Park.

Tomoe is the proud new owner of the sweater you see below.

November 16, 2005

Generations

No, this isn't my grandpa. This is just me wasting more time playing with photoshop.

Actually, this started as an attempt to emulate one of isherwood's photos that I have in my "favorites" list. Somewhere it took a different turn, but so be it.

The original photo can be seen below:

The Super Friends

Yesterday, aside from spending waaaaaayyyyy too much time on Flickr (I have no idea why I never checked that out before... I guess I'm just a crumudgen), I spent some time sorting trough my bookmarks -you know, all the stuff I am going to come back to and read later.

Well, I actually did read some of those yesterday. One of them was Warriors & Heroes Twenty-five leaders who are fighting to stave off the planetwide catastrophe, a Rolling Stone article about the most visible and politically astute defenders of the environment, including CEOs of a "company [that] is one of the world's biggest polluters", as well as anenergy company, NASA scientists, vice-presidents, prime minsters, church ministers, barbarians, and more.

Aimed at people who don't really spend much time reading about this stuff, it was high on drama and low on specifics, relying mostly on some great one-liners. For some reason though, I found myself reading through all of them. Maybe it's because it almost make it sound like the good guys are winning....

My favorite to read was about former CIA director Jim Woolsey. Partly because, since watching Alias last year, I have been wondering what, if anything the CIA is doing to prepare for the "business as usual" future. It's validating to see that the head of the CIA also sees this as a priority. I also enjoy reading any article that uses the words "airy-fairy".

NOTE: If you are offended by an anti-bush slant, be forewarned. As much as I would like to be fair to the authors, recognizing that it is difficult not to be somewhat anti-bush administration when seriously discussing environmental protection or climate change, this article makes it sound like the an epic battle of their Heros as The Super Friends Vs. The Bush administration as The legion of Doom.

Never the less, here are some of their prize winning one-liners.

"Formal business attire is to Japanese executives as shitkickers are to Texas oilmen."
Thompson dismisses skeptics who contend that the current warming trend is due to a natural cycle. "Name one who has ever really studied climate or collected data," he says. "I bet you can't."
"Their denial is stupefying. Here we have an administration that invaded Iraq on sparse and even bogus evidence, and yet they claim to be unconvinced by the overwhelming data on climate change -- despite a bigger scientific consensus than most any we've ever seen in history."
In one of the most memorable sessions, McCain shot down fellow Republicans who were brandishing a statement signed by "experts" on climate science -- pointing out that Perry Mason and a Spice Girl were among the signatories.
"My grandchildren are pretty damned important to me," he says. "I can't sit here saying, 'Take action,' when I didn't take part in the action time. I don't want to leave a legacy that I didn't do my damnedest to try to slow this down as fast as we could."
"Millions of poor people could die in this century because of global warming, and millions of others are at risk of hunger and malnutrition. The poster child of global warming is a poor child. And Christians are supposed to look out for the poor, because God loves them."
He has instituted a five-minute limit on showers at his home, downsized the fleet of Hummers that he has been collecting since his Terminator days and worked with GM to develop an SUV that runs on hydrogen.
The irony, he notes, is that a president who boasts of his business degree is bucking the industry trend. "Everyone predicted that George Bush was going to be the 'CEO President,' " Lash says. "But if he truly had business savvy, he'd be following the path of these trailblazers."

November 15, 2005

It's time to start a low-carbon diet

Wow. Apparently there is a new add running (in some far away land) from BP.

It's time to start a low-carbon diet.

Whether in coal, oil or gas, carbon is the essential ingredient of all fossil fuels. When these fuels are burned to provide energy, carbon dioxide (CO2), a "greenhouse gas", is released to the Earth’s atmosphere.

And offering a link to their nifty Carbon footprint calculator

That makes me happy.

Unfortunatly this calculator is targeted at people in the US and UK. I'm waiting to hear my family's results.

Via worldchanging

Getting to the other side

World-Changing's regular feature The Week in Green Design writes about green roofs this week. The article focuses on both the economic benefits (which would also translate into environmental benefits).

The heat trapped by dark, flat roofs elevates city temperatures as much as ten degrees Fahrenheit

...

The easiest and quickest solution to combat the urban heat effect is simply to turn hot dark roofs into "cool roofs" by painting them with a basic coating of light-colored water sealant. ... If all the roofs in New York City were "cool roofs", the city would save some $100 million dollars per year in cooling costs.

An even better alternative to cool roofs (albeit one that requires more time and effort) is to turn waste roofs into landscaped Green Roofs. Green roofs having the same cooling effect of white roofs, with the added benefits of:

  • Providing amenity space for building users ó replacing a yard or patio
  • Increasing roof life span
  • Reducing storm water run off
  • Providing noise insulation
  • Filtering pollutants and CO2 out of the air
  • Providing locally grown food (with roof-top vegetable gardens)
  • Increasing wildlife habitat in built up areas
  • Reducing heating (by adding mass and thermal resistance value) and cooling (by evaporative cooling) loads on a building
  • Reducing the urban heat island effect




Strangely, they don't mention psychological benefits, although they write much about the aesthetic aspects. Unfortunately, what they present as good aesthetics looks like a dreary fake lawn to me.

While rooftop lawns are almost as depressing for me as endless pavement. A rooftop garden is a different story. Even "tending to" (looking at, touching, watering, and petting the caterpillars) the "green roof" I have built outside our kitchen window -just a planter with some beans and spinach- does wonders to raise my spirits each day.

If I have to spend my days surrounded by gray drab buildings, it would be great to have a little garden plot of my own that I could work on in my lunch hours. I have reason to believe that thirty minutes of "farming" each day while at work would greatly increase my productivity through an increase in positivity.

In the recent past there have been a few articles about rooftop gardens popping up in the Nikkei (which I didn't clip out), but I don't recall them mentioning anything around my new office.

November 14, 2005

Nakano Sakaue Photo Walk

In a last ditch effort to enjoy my the freedom of being retired, before I have to untire again (which I assume is the opposite of re-tire. ha. ha. ha. ha.), I have spent the last two days doing nothing but playing with photos. Both looking around Flickr at other people's photos, as well as playing around with Photoshop on my own.

It has been a long time since I took a walk with the sole intent to take photos. I did just that today, although I started a little late and mostly missed the late afternoon light. These two are some of the results. (I also have some more photos of Tomoe, but she insists that people are getting tired of seeing her)

November 13, 2005

Happy Salary-man

Only a few days left before I join the world of happy salary men. I am officially supposed to start Wednesday, but they needed me a bit earlier, so I went in Friday for a half-day as well. The job is good, it sounds like it is going to get even better. Sometimes I can't believe my luck. The one thing I am not sure of yet is how I am going to make the office more appropriate for a human being. Maybe I can bring my birds and plant a couple radishes on my desk. But this does not solve the problem of those horrible florescent lights, lack of sun-light, and lack of fresh air.

Ahhh, maybe I have just been out of that type of environment for too long. Maybe I will just get used to it and accept it as "how it's supposed to be". Maybe I have just been spending too much time working on the farm under the sun (or clouds) in the breeze, with my hands in the dirt, feeling the green...

Or, maybe I should be a farmer.

I had to get up extra early Thursday to go to a farm that was a bit further than normal, but all the "It's too dang early" feelings melted away when I got out in the field. That has never happened before in all my office work experience.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining about the job. If it was not interesting and somethign I wanted to do, you can bet I wouldn't be doing it. I just wonder how we can make office environments more... humane.

November 12, 2005

What the world (and I) eats

This was my idea. Well, almost similar.

All Things Considered interviews photographer Peter Menzel and writer Faith D'Aluisio about their new book, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats

Imagine inviting yourself to dinner with 30 different families... in 24 countries. Imagine shopping, farming, cooking and eating with those families... taking note of every vegetable peeled, every beverage poured, every package opened.

...

Each chapter of their book features a portrait of a family, photographed alongside a week's worth of groceries. There's also a detailed list of all the food and the total cost.

(also check out Peter's Environmental photo gallery: . special note:Mom, look at this one... )

To prove that this "taking pictures of what you eat" thing was originally my idea, you can look in my archives to see the results of some past shopping trips: 2004/04/16, 2003/02/08

And, because it's interesting for me to look back and see how my chopping habits evolve, I have uploaded my most recent grocery list with photos.

The pictures here are not necessarily a week's worth of groceries for us. Some will last longer (like the two big cans of sesame oil), some will be gone sooner (like the beer). There are also some things which we have an existing stock of, like rice, beans, and tamago pan. This is just what was in the weekly Wednesday delivery from the Tokyo coop.

The items listed below are in the same order as the items in the photos above, from left to right, top to bottom.

Item Price
Yen (US$)
Notes
kouji (a kind of yeast): 350 ($2.96) Used to make some special fermented delicacies. (also can be used to make sake. This is the first time to buy this. It's just something I wanted to try out.
Sesame seeds: 200g 126 ($1.06)
Baby Cheese: 360g 470 ($3.98)
Raisin Cookies: 2pkg 294 ($2.49)
dashi (dried fish flakes for soup stock): 250g 417 ($3.53)
Regular flour: 900g 155 ($1.31) We make a lot of bread.
Apple Juice (2 liters) 198/liter ($1.67) 100% Japan grown apples. The imported juice from the corner store is only about 50 yen cheaper. Should have bought more because I can go through a liter per day, but to make it last longer I dilute it with water and heat it up so I have to sip instead of gulp. No, I have no self-control.
tororo soba (noodles): 300g 207 ($1.75)
Mochi rice (special rice for making sticky rice cakes): 1kg 698 ($5.91)
Strong Flour 285 ($2.41)
Takana 158 ($1.33) Pickled leafy thing. Tastes great in a stir-fry or just on top of plain rice.
Shirataki (noodles made from konnyaku): 300g 100 ($.84)
Vegetable Juice (12 bottles) 1680 ($14.24) This should last more than one week I hope.
Eggs: 10 433 ($3.67) free-range, no growth hormone. This is obviously very expensive. We contemplated getting the cheaper ones where the chickens are raised in little pens, but considering that we buy eggs so rarely, we figured we can pay more when we do. (Also, Awii and Klee voted for the bird-friendly eggs)
Sesame oil: 2liters 3000 ($25.42) This will obviously last longer than a week, but we tend to use sesame oil for all our oil needs. The reason we got so much is that it is either buy the big bulk cans, or a lot of tiny little bottles. Bulk is better.
Vinegar: 500ml 144 ($1.22)
Natto (fermented soy-beans): 150gX2 141/pkg ($1.19)
happoshyu (cheap beer substitute): 6x500ml 1,200 ($10.17) This will probably be supplemented with some Yebisu beer from the local booze store.
Oatmeal: 500g 504 ($4.27)
bread: 1/2 loaf 207 ($1.75) Usually I make our bread, but every once in a while I like to get this bread. It is most delicious. (somehow it missed the photo)
enoki (long thin white mushrooms): 200g 144 ($1.22)
Coop Support Veggie 210 ($1.77) The coop throws in whatever the farmer has a surplus of. This time it was XXXX
komatsuna (leafy veggie): 200g 198 ($1.67)
Cabbage: 1 head 144 ($1.22)
Onions: 1.5kg 298 ($2.52)
Slimy mushrooms: 150g 148 ($1.25)
Broccoli: 1 head 105 ($0.89)
Mikan (organic oranges): 1kg 458 ($3.88) A little more expensive than the non-organic ones. Aside from being better for the overall environment, we can also give the peels to the birds to chew on without worrying about what is on it.
Sweet Potatoes: 800g 312 ($2.64) non-organic are slightly cheaper, but not much.
Nira (leek; scallion): 200g 186 ($1.57)
naganegi (long onions) 0 ($0) The farmer at the organic farm I helped out at Thursday gave these to me along with some Sweet potatoes and carrots.

Worked-over or over-worked?

Not wanting to do more self-portraits, I started looking through my old photos for someting to work on. This is a classmate from last year. The photo is well-worked over. Is it too much? Not enough? I often wonder how much of the work I did could/should have been done when I took the photo. If it was a film camera, how much of this would have been controlled by the kind of film? How much would have been done in the darkroom?

For the original photo before I worked it over click the link below.

One thing I noticed tonight was that I was sitting in the dark as I worked on the photo. After I uploaded it, I turned on the lights and it looks a little different. This is meant to be viewed in the dark.

November 11, 2005

I see a problem

I see a problem. This photo is one that I uploaded to Flickr yesterday, and am just now putting on my blog. Basically, I guess I should expect my blog readership to drop drastically if I start putting my photos on my Flickr page. Anyone looking there will have no reason to come here.... I mean c'mon guys, fess up. No one really reads because I write... "too much"... ;P But really, anyone who is subscribed to my Flickr updates as well as my blog will only be seeing the same pictures twice... unless i make a new Flickr account under some other secret name...

Not that it matters that much who looks at the blog of course...

UPDATE: I have added the pre-photoshopped version of this photo for reference. Check the link below

This is the pre-photoshop version

November 10, 2005

Me, me, me, oh beautiful me

Playing some more...

Tomoe wrote to me from work complaining that there are too many photos of her in the last post, so I am trying to balance it out. Also, there is no one else in the house to take a photo of and play with, so here are some self-portraits.

Usually I don't spend much time working on each photo posted here, so although I do notice some loss of quality when uploading it to my Gallery installation, it was never as obvious as it was today. When I uploaded the photo below to my own gallery (below), I noticed that the resized version was clearly different than the one I worked on. I uploaded the same one to my little used Flickr account (above) and you can really see the difference. I guess I will have to switch to flickr (maybe making use of the gallery2flickrscirpt Paul commissioned). -although I am really leery about having my site dependant on someone else staying in business.

The last two photos are also on my flickr account. I love how they are so clear that even my nose hairs show up.

Taking Time

Taking time to play a bit, promising myself that I wont worry about wether or not it is beneficial

UPDATE: After discovering just how big a difference flickr makes when compared to Gallery in terms of loss of quality, I have uploaded all of these photos to my flickr account and updated this post to show them in their intended brilliance

November 09, 2005

Selling out

As much as I would hate to see more people manipulated into buying Sony crap unless they really need it (and who really needs a new TV?), I gotta love this ad. via Randomwire (photos too).

Insecurity

So I didn't sleep well last night. Every so often I get restless, filled with anxiety about one thing or another. I mean come-on, you would too if you were 31 and have never written a famous book, started a company (and sold it for millions), or even found what you want to do with your life.

I have been studying a lot lately. Various topics, filling in the gaps left over from my very quick and "inter-disciplinary" (that's a euphemism for "not very detailed") one year masters program. But since I became a "master of strategic leadership toward sustainability", I have successfully led myself, or anyone else,... nowhere.

I'm also studying things that are not directly related to the new direction I chose just over two years ago. Not directly related because it is the basic foundation that everyone is already expected to know -and have known since they were in high-school. I mean, I'm reading a college Biology 101 textbook and finding it fascinating -it's changing the way I look at things, but I realize that if I had just payed attention when I was supposed to, if I would have been smart enough to see how it is relevant... or if I would have diversified a bit more when I was in University instead of taking so many of those courses related to my major, I would have been looking at things differently long ago.

I'm following a new interest, spending time helping at some local farms, trying to tell myself that by learning what I am learning I am somehow helping my future... then I open the newspaper to see a group of kindergartners helping out at a farm too. So I guess I am just catching up to them. And it's not even like I spend a lot of time there. I want to, because that is what I am "into" now, but the more time I spend reading about agriculture, organics, farming, etc... the more anxiety I feel that it is doing nothing for my future. After all, I'm not planning to be a farmer, and even if I was to get a job somehow related to agriculture, I would need many more years experience than just a summer picking pumpkins and planting peas.

I spend some time writing in this blog, trying to justify my "going nowhere self-study" by pretending that I am perhaps influencing other people in some way. Yet, at the same time, I look at so many web-sites that are much more popular, filled with articles by writers who are much better than me, and I think to myself... why don't they stop writing about it and do something about it. And then I sit down and write some more.

I have some big ideas, too many in fact. Ironically, while I have too many ideas, I have too few actual "plans". And none of the ideas move forward. Many of them simply live in my own mind, some of them I have made known to others, and some of them I have even asked others to help with... And none of them are moving. I wonder how many open responsibilities I have hanging over my head now.

I just watched the movie Envy the other night, which probably has done a great deal to cause my sleepless night. In it, Jack Black is told, in his regular performance review, that he lacks focus. I immediatly perked up... it's me! But then he got an idea and ran with it, making it happen... the birth of Vapoorize. "Oh wait, it ain't me", I thought. Apparently I lack even more focus than he did... at least he had enough focus to make his idea into a billion dollar sensation.

Maybe the anxiety is because I will be starting a new job next week, which I am really excited about, and humbly consider myself perfect for, but upset about the fact that I am relying on someone else's company (NPO actually)... that I couldn't "do it myself" -because I lack the focus.

Or maybe the cause of this anxiety lies in this blog.

I don't open everything I am feeling and thinking, but I do my best. I often write ideas and viewpoints that I myself don't necessarily agree with, knowing that I don't have all the facts, that they sound a bit crazy and un-informed (forget about the spelling and grammar), but I try not to edit my post topics because I find that I am most self-critical about the ideas I make "open" on the blog. After my little marketing trick last week, I realize that I have quite a few more readers (people who do more than just look at the photos) than I thought. That means there are quite a few more people out there forming opinions about me based on my ramblings that, if I didn't know better, would make me call myself and idiot.

I also write about some ideas or projects I have planned would like to make happen... of course I never finish them, and what does that say about me?

Would just not posting anything up here solve my anxiety problems? Would it help me sleep better at night knowing that at least no one else knows what an ill-informed, non-self-starter I am? Or, is there a way to banish these foolish anxieties without giving up the blog?

* * *

And that was "Insecure Kevin". It would not be fare to refuse "Secure Kevin" his chance to respond.

He'll have his day... but he is needed elsewhere at the moment (he is much more active than "insecure Kevin"). Perhaps you will hear from him soon.

November 08, 2005

Organic Motherload

After a lot of searching for more substantive information about organic farming, and finding mostly blog posts or news articles about either the debate surrounding certification, or the bullet-point merits or demerits of choosing organic, I finally came across the mother-load of information about sustainable agriculture and, in particular organic farming.

I certainly have not read all of the documents they link to, but I have wasted enough time for today. One in particular that I thought was the best overview of organic farming I have seen yet. Not as detailed as the actual regulations, but much more helpful to actually understand what it is all about than any Grist article I have seen yet. If you care even a little about promoting or buying organic it will be worth time to read it and understand just what you are talking about.

Reading it cleared up a lot of the questions and misconceptions I had, as well as raising some new ones (questions that is -but probably misconceptions too). Maybe I'll get into that later though.

Poop, roaches, turning heads, making love

Living On Earth interviews Amy Parish, an anthropology and gender studies teacher at the University of Southern California and scientific advisor to the Bonobo Conservation Initiative. The bonobo (wikipedia entry) is related to the chimpanzee, but a little more "make love not war"-ish as you will hear/read in the interview.

Here is my favorite excerpt.

I used to collect fecal samples on all of the females so that I could analyze the samples for estrogen and progesterone.

...

So Lana had a sample in her hand that I really needed because I knew she was approaching ovulation, and so I held out my hand and wiggled the ends of my fingers, which is a typical bonobo begging gesture. And she knew I was begging for something but she couldn't figure out what it was – she was turning around in circles and looking on the floor. And finally she looked at her hand, and looked at me, and looked at her hand, and then she just held it out and I took it from her. And I thought, 'oh, this is wonderful, I'm going to have to train the bonobos to just give me their samples.'

Well, the very next day I came in and she handed me a sample. And by the end of the week, all four adult females were just giving me these fecal samples, which was very heartening. As a biologist, it made my job a lot easier.

* * *

I learn something new every day. I had no idea that my new friend (now seemingly gone for good) is actually related to my old friends, the cockroach. Of course, we as humans tend to like the praying mantis much more than a cockroach, or most other bugs for that matter. One reason is that we identify with them simply because they, unlike most other insects, can turn their head -this makes them appear more "human" to us. My how simplistic the human thought process is!

Via a Science Friday interview with Piotr Naskrecki about his book The Smaller Majority (newly added to my "really, really wanna read and hope I get to it list").

Ninety percent of the known species on Earth are smaller than a human finger. We'll talk with zoologist and photographer Piotr Naskrecki about the Smaller Majority the title -- and subject -- of his new book.
* * *

As regular readers may have deduced, I am a strong believer in the idea that there is not much difference between humans and animals other than the fact that we are "human" and they are "non-human", which contributes to an "us vs. them" human-centric viewpoint. Of course, the phrase "not much" is very subjective. Sure, we may have more developed brains than other creatures, and we are shaped differently than most, we can't run as fast as some, but we can jump higher than others, etc... I don't consider that as "much" in the grand scheme of things.

What I mean is that, when reduced to the fact that we are living creatures, composed of organs, composed of tissues, composed of cells, composed of molecules, composed of atoms, we are the same. Where we differ is in what emerges from the many possible combinations of atoms into molecules into cells into tissue into organ into species. But those differences between me and Awii are no more significant than the difference between Awii and the praying mantis. We are all emergent beings... complicated wholes which have emerged from simple interactions between less complicated parts.

What's more, contrary to what I was taught as a young school-boy, the evidence just keeps pilling up to support (what I feel should be obvious for anyone who takes to the time to observe) that that other creatures inhabiting this planet do have feelings, and wants, and desires. That the only difference is in our shape and physical and mental capabilities... and that these differences are an incredibly minor in comparison to the human-centric box we have trapped ourselves in, the real reason we think we are so "different".

Some may argue that my bird running over to the computer to trying to wedge his head between the keys and my fingers is an "instinct", that he is simply an organic robot. I, on the other hand, think he knows, through learning, that my fingers on his head feel good, and that the keyboard is a place where my fingers often are. Watching him attack the keyboard, I think he feels jealousy toward it. Although his brain is not as developed as mine (in so far as we humans define "developed"), he recognizes that the keyboard is getting the attention he
wants.

But there are those who will always believe that humans are somehow different in a "superior" way, as opposed to a "just different -yet equally as different as cats are from birds" way. Maybe the fact that we have it within our ability to destroy them more effectively than most of them can destroy us is what causes us to think this. (of course, by that definition, the pending flu epidemic would suggest that a simple virus is "superior" to humans despite not having equivalent mental capabilities).

What is the most puzzling to me is that, although I was tought, through all my years of school, to believe that humans are "better" than the rest of the creatures on earth, and despite the fact that I once, for lack of critical thinking, believed that, I can't for the life of me remember how I justified such a belief. I have lost the ability to empathize with my former self.

November 05, 2005

The spirit of organic

My last post (a few minutes ago) was a little long-winded. Upon re-read, I think that these excerpts make the point I feel is most important.

From what I can gather, organic agriculture was originally about living in harmony with the environment, taking a holistic view of the biological system in which we live and get our food from, recognizing that our health is dependent on the health of the system. As such, we would naturally want our food production to be a positive part of this larger system we depend on, rather than a negative, destructive force.

As far as I can tell, there are three main reasons that people choose "organic".

  • environmental / sustainability concerns
  • health / nutrition concerns
  • flavor / freshness concerns

Based on this, is it fair to assume that people assume "organic" means all three of these?

In the beginning, when buying "organic" veggies meant you were buying them from the farmer down the street, they were pretty much guaranteed to meet all three of these conditions. Because you knew the farmer, you presumably knew her philosophy and methods, you could be sure that she was not pouring on chemical fertilizers that would drain into the nearby river endangering the ecosystem. You could be sure that the veggies didn't contain pesticide residue, endangering your and your families health, and since you were buying it from the farmer down the street, you can get fresh-picked veggies which have been grown for their flavor instead of their shelf-life.

Now that the "certified organic" food on your super-market shelf might be shipped from around the world, the consumer has to decide which of these three reasons is most important. Say you are looking for potato chips. If you buy organic for environmental concerns, it may still be better to buy non-organic chips that have been grown, processed, and packaged locally. If you are most concerned about health and the dangers of the pesticides, you may still choose the imported organic chips. If your major concern is flavor, the processing of the organically grown, "fresh" potato probably did away with any noticable flavor difference, so you'll probably just buy Pringles.

If these three are what people look for when they buy organic, how capable can the certification guidelines be in protecting such a wide range of interests?

What does "organic" really mean?

As a consumer, one of my biggest, and most easlily controlled, impacts on environmental health (as well as my own) is the foods I choose to eat. As such, I have been completely sucked up in figuring out just what this whole "organic" thing is about, spending way too much time looking into it -and I still know way too little. Perhaps one day I will know enough to write an intelligent post or two about the topic. But for now... random bad logic is the rule of the day. I make no claim that the initial thoughts I will be posting over the next few days are worth a hill of beans (organic or otherwise). If I am wrong, tell me. If I discover latter on that I was wrong, I will tell you.

* * *

As I started looking into this, I jumped right to the specific regulations regarding what can and can not be labled "organic". Later, when that proved confusing, I retreated back to a simper, broader question. "What is organic?". This is really three questions however, and the most important thing for me so far, in terms of framing how I view the specific details of organic certification, has been to consider not only the answers to these three questions, but how they relate to each other .

  • What is the original meaning of organic?
  • What does certified organic mean?
  • What do people think organic is?

Why are these questions important? On the one hand, I only use the "organic" label as one indicator that a product might meet my criteria, so I am less likely to be tricked by loosened labeling standards. On the other hand, because I often use the word "organic", it is incredibly important that I understand what I intend it to mean, and what other people think it means, so I can better communicate.

What is the original meaning of organic?

Yeah yeah, "organic" just means "carbon-based". OK, now that that's out of the way...

From what I can gather, organic agriculture was originally about living in harmony with the environment, taking a holistic view of the biological system in which we live and get our food from, recognizing that our health is dependent on the health of the system. As such, we would naturally want our food production to be a positive part of this larger system we depend on, rather than a negative, destructive force.

One description I read a while back (forgot the name of the book) of the difference between organic and conventional agriculture highlighted how the goal of the organic farmer was not to feed the plants, but rather to feed the soil, and that good crops are a natural side-effect of healthy soil. In conventional farming, dirt is just a temporary holder for plants. Instead of paying attention to the health of the system, conventional farming is a reductionist, reactive approach, attacking one problem at a time without regard to upstream causes, or downstream effects of that action.

Or, in the words of Wikipedia:

Wikipedia Definition of Organic Farming

Organic farming is a way of agriculture that relies on ecosystem management rather than external agricultural inputs. This approach excludes the use of synthetic inputs, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, veterinary drugs, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and usually subscribes to the principles of sustainable agriculture. Its theoretical basis emphasizes soil health as the foundation for successful production.

An important point to make, I think, is that the main point of organic farming is not "No pesticides or chemical fertilizers". Rather, the exclusion of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers is simply a natural result of following the holistic philosphy of sustainable agriculture.

Somehow this seems important to me when the issue of certified organic comes up...

What does certified organic mean?

I'm not going to get into any specifics regarding the official regulations set by USDA in US and JAS in Japan (I'll intend to get into that more later). Instead, I'll just give you the short version from the USDA:

USDA Definition of "Organics"

Effective 21 October 2002, all agricultural farms and products claiming to be organic must be guaranteed by a USDA-approved independent agency to be meeting the following guidelines:
  • Abstain from the application of prohibited materials (including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge) for 3 years prior to certification and then continually throughout their organic license.
  • Prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms and irradiation.
  • Employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management and crop rotation practices.
  • Provide outdoor access and pasture for livestock.
  • Refrain from antibiotic and hormone use in animals.
  • Sustain animals on 100% organic feed.
  • Avoid contamination during the processing of organic products.
  • Keep records of all operations.

What seems more important to me at this level is that in creating the label, and a set of guidelines, the focus seems to have shifted from a holistic view of agriculture and food production, to a system whereby the goal is simply not to use products on the USDA list. The actual role that the product plays from a whole-systems perspective no longer matters, so long as the product doesn't violate the rules.

Certainly the regulations do lead to less environmental damage, and may even change some conventional agricultural practices that aren't explicitly regulated. For example, the USDA Certification does not specify that cattle may not be raised in tight quarters which causes tremendous stress not only to the cattle, but the ecosystem as a whole. Such environmental stress (for now we'll assume that no one cares about how the cow feels) is somewhat controlled however, by restricting the use of hormones and anti-biotics. Without pre-emptive use of anti-biotics to keep disease at bay, the rancher may be forced to "revert" to methods causing less stress and opportunity for disease to spread, such as keeping fewer cattle in a more open space.

Anther difference between the meaning of "Certified Organic", and the original concept of organic agriculture, is that processed foods are also referred to as "organic". Please make note as well, that when I say "processed food", I am not only talking about the packaged food you buy in the supermarket. I also consider a home-baked apple pie to be "processed". I would no more consider that such a pie can be "organic" as I would that a bottle of Heinz ketchup can be "organic". They can, however, be made with organic -i.e. organically grown- apples or tomatoes.

In the case of processed foods, the certification is presumably meant to let consumers know that the product lives up to their demands and expectations... but in order to determine if the certification really helps in that sense, or if allowing ** violates those expectations, I have to know what the consumer definition or expectations of "organic" are.

What do people think organic is?

I don't know what people think "organic" means. As far as I can tell though, there are three main reasons that people choose "organic".

  • environmental / sustainability concerns
  • health / nutrition concerns
  • flavor / freshness concerns

Based on this, is it fair to assume that people assume "organic" means all three of these?

In the beginning, when buying "organic" veggies meant you were buying them from the farmer down the street, they were pretty much guaranteed to meet all three of these conditions. Because you knew the farmer, you presumably knew her philosophy and methods, you could be sure that she was not pouring on chemical fertilizers that would drain into the nearby river endangering the ecosystem. You could be sure that the veggies didn't contain pesticide residue, endangering your and your families health, and since you were buying it from the farmer down the street, you can get fresh-picked veggies which have been grown for their flavor instead of their shelf-life.

Now that the "certified organic" food on your super-market shelf might be shipped from around the world, the consumer has to decide which of these three reasons is most important. Say you are looking for potato chips. If you buy organic for environmental concerns, it may still be better to buy non-organic chips that have been grown, processed, and packaged locally. If you are most concerned about health and the dangers of the pesticides, you may still choose the imported organic chips. If your major concern is flavor, the processing of the organically grown, "fresh" potato probably did away with any noticable flavor difference, so you'll probably just buy Pringles.

If these three are what people look for when they buy organic, how capable can the certification guidelines be in protecting such a wide range of interests?

I don't think it can -at least not if the certification is used as the only criteria for buying the product. It seems that the whole organic movement took off so fast, that it lost it's most important aspect... the underlying philosophy. The thing that made it appealing in the first place, and what still makes it appealing for me, is the concept of knowing about the food and the philosophy behind which it is produced, not the specific list of methods. If I trust the farmer to follow his philosophy (or, in my case, trust the coop and other members, who like me, visit the farmers from time to time to talk about their philosophy and see how they put it into action), I don't care so much if they are certified.

* * *

I sound pretty negative on the whole organic labeling thing eh? Well, this does not mean that I don't think "organic certification" can play an important role in moving toward a more sustianable society. I have still not made up my mind about that.

As rudimentary as this may be, now I am ready to go a little deeper into issues of what specific ingredients and methods are and are not acceptable by USDA or JAS, as well as contemplate wether or not the resulting label fits my needs as a consumer. It also helps me to better understand the various debates that are always going on about organic labeling. All of which are some topics that I may get in the near future.

November 04, 2005

Throat Ulcer

I now have a throat ulcer. It's worse than when the doctor stuck that camera down my throat to check out my stomach ulcer. At least the effects of that only lasted about twenty-four hours (the mental trauma will take much longer to heal).

"Throat ulcer" is just a scary name for an open soar on the back of my throat, but it hurts just the same. How did it get there anyway? It's not like I have been swallowing thumbtacks or anything.

* * *

So an hour or two ago I was late for a deadline (yes I do do some work), and needing to look something up on google. I couldn't get google.com, and was eventually was redirected to some international google page (I didn't look to see what country it was). Intrigued, I temporarily forgot about my work, and started wondering what was going on. My first reaction was to google "google down". When I realized I couldn't do that, I was completely lost. After a while I thought I could try Yahoo, but I hadn't used Yahoo for years, and even though I did find an answer to question, I felt uneasy, wondering if it was the "best" answer... i.e. the answer I would have found at Google. I never realized how reliant I am on Google, and many times I actually use it in a day. From now on I'm going to I should start counting.

* * *

Having calibrated my external monitor with the monitor calibration application that comes with my ibook (the built in display broke a few months ago of course) I thought thought that I was viewing my photos "correctly". Recently however, I started receiving emails telling me that the photos look like crap. I looked into it, and found that I was not seeing the photos the way most people do. This caused me to literally destroy them with photoshop. They looked good on my screen then, but now that I have re-calibrated my monitor using something other than the Apple software, I can see my photos for the true dark and murky mess that they are.

I'm way too lazy to go through and re-edit them, so these last few months will have to be known as my "dark period".

Even the ones I did in black and white look a lot different now that I can see how they really appear.

November 03, 2005

The "Organic" Skinny

It was meant to be a simple post that I could link back to when I use the word "organic", describing how I am referring to "organically grown", as opposed to simply "certified organic"...

* * *

I spent Sunday helping out a farmer in Chiba who grows produce for our local coop. It was nothing "exciting" really, just the monotonous, yet strangely satisfying and interesting, work of planting onion seedlings. As we worked we chatted about various things, including his farming history (he quite his job two years ago to start farming) and farming philosophy. One topic that naturally came up was the concept of "organic" and "non-organic" foods and certification. Based on this conversation, and some previous reader comments, I began to realize that I have been lax, if not down-right irresponsible, in terms of making clear what I mean with my references to "organic".

Now, as you may know, one of the things I have been trying to do (beside gardening) to waste time, instead of becoming a productive member of society (i.e. get a job), is to learn more about the food I eat, where it comes from, how it is grown and processed, and how that effects me and everyone else.

* * *

...What was to be a simple three paragraph post has entered the "groan zone". I soon realized that if I were to write it today, without the help of an editor it would be one very looooooong post, filled with incoherent ramblings.... and I'm not even done searching and surfing yet.

And so, since I have used up all my "ok to waste on blogging" time for the past three days, I request a deadline extension as I research further. I also ask for any additional questions I should be asking myself in terms of "organic food and labeling"

Here are some that I am currently trying to summarize into the requisite three paragraphs.

  • What is the "spirit" of organic labeling?
  • What are peoples reasons for buying organic?
  • What is the difference between "synthetic", "artificial", and "natural"?
  • What are the actual regulations (both in the US and Japan)?
  • How do these meet or not meet the spirit?
  • Is this "spirit" something that should be considered regardless of wether or not it makes scientific sense?
  • Why do I care?
  • Is "organic" a broken or meaningless concept?
  • Given it's shortcomings and possibly diluted meaning, does it's gaining popularity pose a threat to a sustainable future? Or, is it still beneficial in order to move the market demand slowly in the right direction?
  • What is acceptable to me in terms of the food I eat? And why?
  • What is the basis for this decision? Science? Personal values? Both? Simply because it's trendy and cool?
  • What is the whole confusion about organic labeling, and what about this most recent brew-ha-ha?

November 01, 2005

Another New Friend (gosh I'm popular these days)

A few days ago I was disappointed to find that my little garden guardian was gone. I cried for a few hours, got over it, and went about my business. Every time I looked out onto my little garden over the next few days, I fondly remembered the good times we had together, until... either she came back, or was just hiding really well (she does have a knack for blending).

Two days ago I looked out to find a new friend (in the photos above and below). Other than taking a few minutes to get some photos, I didn't really spend much time getting to know him. I figured it would be too painful to find my old friend eating my new friend.

As of this morning, I don't see either of them. Maybe they fell in love and had to run away to a place where their relationship would be accepted.

Last week (or was it two weeks ago) I went to a local meeting of dorks like me with blogs. Having been in Sweden for a year, I hadn't seen them for a while. When one member (who obviously doesn't read my blog) found out I'm not doing anything now (i.e. don't have a proper job), she jokingly asked "So how do you spend your time? Gardening?"

Little did she know.

Smoking Crow

Awii was trying to show off for the camera by attempting to balance on one foot. Despite his collection of this and other amazing tricks, he is really no match for crows.

In terms of body to brain ration, crows are way up there with dolphins, chimpanzees, and really close to us.

All things considered talks with Candace Savage , the author of Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys, a book I have on my "want to read but probably never will" list.

The interview contains a little story of how crows not only know what kind of tool is useful in a given situation, but they actually build these tools from available materials.

Although, I have had to wonder about crows intelligence since I caught this one smoking a cigarette.