Quick shout-out

Annie Leonard lectures at a sustainability conference. (Creative Commons photo from the Flickr account of Kevin Krejci)

Annie Leonard released a long-anticipated followup to her “Story of Stuff” video, called “The Story of Cap and Trade.” It’s more complex than the first (I, an environmental reporter, had to rewind a couple times), but it does a better job than anything else at simplifying this really hard topic.

Which is to say, get on over there and spend 10 minutes learning about the so-called “solution” our leaders have proposed to attempt to save our planet.

And the Pursuit of Happiness review

What a name for a blog, And the Pursuit of Happiness.

The blog’s beautiful, but it’s not really a blog. It’s a place that, once a month, displays a new piece of written and visual art—created by author and illustrator of children’s books Maira Kalman. It was one of the most popular items on New York Times‘ website recently, which is how I found it.

Here’s another thing the blog isn’t: it isn’t focused on people pursuing happiness. Its name is more a reference to its decidedly American focus, and also its storyline that there is happiness here, despite the myriad and potentially devastating problems inherent in our system.

I like Kalman a lot. She acknowledges the problems, but lets the columnists deal with them. She’s resolved her little corner of the Times is gonna be about the good people are doing and trying to do. It’s not reckless promotion but, rather, she realizes that sometimes journalism means telling, simply, the happiness people have and bring to others. Kalman’s a good journalist.

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Consumerism as conspiracy (and I believe it!)


The interior of the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street. In the Victorian style, it's cluttered with stuff. (Creative Commons-licensed photo from the Flickr account of practicalowl)

Here’s an article written by a professor in my academic department, Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin. I haven’t yet had her in class; she’s on sabbatical this semester.

In this she’s written the most complete, historically accurate magazine-format depiction of planned obsolescence I’ve ever read. And I’ve read several great ones.

Planned obsolescence is, in my own words, designing something to wear out, give out, or otherwise become unusable or out of style after a certain amount of time. Which prompts the consumer to buy another.

It hasn’t always been around; in fact, it has only governed business practices in the last 80-90 years, and, arguably, the vast majority of it has popped up in the last 40 years.

In my opinion, it’s dishonest. In most cases, we (well, industrial engineers) know how to make stuff last, say, ten or a hundred times as long as it “normally” lasts in our experience. Why don’t we? People like to make money.

Obviously it’s destroying our planet, and to a certain extent, our souls, if you believe in that kind of thing. I like good product design as much (and probably a lot more) than the next guy, but what happens to our humanity if we’re never satisfied with what we have?

One man asked that and came up with the “100 Thing Challenge,” where he sold, donated, or put into storage all his possessions except a carefully-chosen 100 things—for one year. He got coverage by Time magazine online and now has a book deal with Harper Perennial.

My sister today said something like “I’m against the production of new stuff.” She thinks the world has everything it needs, and if we just passed it all around—Freecycle, that sort of thing—we’d all be better off.

I’m not there yet, but I’m on my way.

Best of Twitter 5: Links to others’ green stuff part I

Flickr CC photo from susiepie.

Flickr CC photo from susiepie.

Contest: What’s the “greenest” concept you can think of? Mine is the “100 Thing Challenge.” Only 100 personal possessions. Could you do it? 2:11 PM Feb 20th

And visit betterworldshopper.com— a site (and book) that ranks companies for responsibility. Almost all products have a better option. 11:01 AM Feb 25th

Cell phone radiation harmful? Who knows, but I won’t take chances. This low-rad cell list is constantly updated: http://tinyurl.com/akxu3t 12:19 PM Feb 26th

“How am I gonna find these local farms to sell to me directly?” Excuses, excuses. Almost everyone has one nearby. http://www.localharvest.org 10:15 PM Feb 27th

I may not have mentioned The Story of Stuff here. Shame on me. Ever wonder where your stuff comes from and where it goes? storyofstuff.com 10:22 PM Feb 28th

NPR’s Morning Edition today had a story on my friends’ green economic development coalition. http://tinyurl.com/djkkz 86:31 PM Mar 3rd (See next tweet, also)

As a matter of fact, I’m a guest blogger on their site, energizecc.com. Remember Wilmington, Ohio from 60 Minutes? Yeah, that’s us. 6:32 PM Mar 3rd

You’d think someone would have come up with this a long time ago: postage for sending AND returning – http://tinyurl.com/anh7ho 9:26 AM Mar 6th (See next tweet, also)

In case it wasn’t clear, two-way postage eliminates the need for envelopes inside envelopes. Death to the SASE! 10:12 AM Mar 6th

Planning for a speech about organic food. Using Ann Cooper’s “Lunch Lessons” and George Pyle’s “Raising Less Corn, More Hell” 2:21 PM Mar 28th

My ideas on organic food line up closely with Mark Bittman’s when he wrote a week ago: http://tinyurl.com/ctlobd 2:47 PM Mar 28th

Do you read Orion? It’s the artistic, philosophical side of the environmental movement. A brilliant and beautiful magazine. 9:41 PM Apr 1st

Toxics now, IRE conference later


Since right now I’m technically still on vacation, I’ll delay my stories about the IRE conference until Thursday or Friday when I get back to Ohio. Right now I’m in Boston seeing what there is to see, eating and drinking what there is to eat and drink, with a friend who just graduated from MIT.

But this morning I ended up making posts to Facebook and Twitter about a(n apparently) favorite subject of mine lately, toxics. Why not share with readers here, as well?

This is a thrilling find for me: The Toxic 100.

Compiled by investigators at a UMass think tank, the site provides raw and analyzed data from the EPA and can help you find whether your beloved hometown company is really a dirty scumbag.

Along the same lines, I encourage you to visit The Smokestack Effect, a USA Today report I learned of (at the IRE conference) by the project’s editor, Blake Morrison.

It overlays EPA data about toxic and carcinogenic air emissions with the locations of just about every school in the country — and you can add your own if you don’t see it on there. It ranks each of the 128,000 schools by percentile of how polluted the air is, around (and likely in) them.

The project got started when USA Today heard of a school closing in Cincinnati and obtained data from EPA to rank air quality in different areas around the country. Quickly the paper found that something like 435 schools actually had worse air quality than the one that closed in Cincy. Not many of those 435 have closed yet, and a large percentage of them are in low-income areas.

But if your child or small sibling attends a school in the top 20 percentiles, it’s generally harmful to health, said Morrison. Personally, I wouldn’t send my (future) children to a school in the top 30.

Last but not least, remember the Better World Shopper book that gave us information about products’ impacts on society and the environment? Now it’s hit Web 2.0.

I’ve been fascinated by bar-code scanning technology and its potential for us to retrieve information from the Internet about products — really about any object in the “real world.”

Now the concept behind the Better World Shopper (although not the same group) is fueling a living website called GoodGuide. According to this New York Times article, the site’s 3Gs iPhone (That is, the new iPhone model to be released Friday) application will be able to scan bar codes to get you info about products on the fly.

Talk about awesome. Think of the impact on society if we all shunned products that destroyed us and the Earth. As long as good investigative journalism is retained, compaies won’t be able to keep that stuff a secret in order to make windfall profits.

I had shied away from replacing my current phone with an iPhone out of distaste for consumerism. But if the iPhone itself battles unchecked consumerism in all other areas of my purchasing, doesn’t that justify it? Maybe. Short of Wendell Berry’s idea of a “local economy,” I think this is the best device yet for making the world a better place. Annie Leonard would be proud. (See her Story of Stuff here and on the left sidebar.)