Golden Arrow of Consumption

The fury over Black Friday and Cyber Monday has made me think of the Golden Arrow of Consumption in the materials economy so cleverly and concisely illustrated in The Story of Stuff. The sales encourage consumers to purchase more of what they don’t need – or even really want – to participate in the ritual of shopping and to take advantage of the deal.

I saw some organizations asking people not to shop, but to spend time with friends and family on Friday. There is also the Buy Nothing Day campaign. I’m not sure those campaigns had the same momentum as the shopping weekend. I did find myself running to the grocery store on Thursday, before our dinner, to pick up some ingredients I’d forgotten earlier in the week. Though grateful my local store was open, I felt a significant amount of guilt that the workers were missing out on their families’ celebrations for my convenience. I was also very cognizant of the strikes by Wal-Mart workers to raise awareness of their abysmal working conditions.

I myself was overwhelmed with hundreds of emails promoting sales from Thursday through Cyber Monday. Even though I know better, I found myself caught up in the mental trap: but if I don’t buy it, I’m missing this great deal! I forgot to ask myself if I actually wanted the product advertised, not to mention if I needed it. (No, and no.)

Our frenzied shopping cannot bring us happiness. Even worse, laborers at home and abroad, animals, and the environment suffer from our consumer culture. A significant percentage of municipal solid waste comes from packaging (14 million tons of plastic packaging in the United States alone, according to the EPA).

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t shop. I certainly am not saying I’m done with shopping. However, I resolve to be mindful about what I purchase. I hope you will, too. Please watch The Story of Stuff  so that you understand all that precedes and follows the act of consumption.

Energy Problem

Only the most blindly optimistic deny the existence of an “energy problem,” and nostalgia for the golden age of cheap fuels has already begun.

Sounds familiar, like something you might hear an environmental activist or political pundit say on the cable news channels? You might be surprised to learn that this quote came from a 1979 book about the Kerr-McGee Corporation. At the time, oil was $20 a barrel and gas $1 a gallon. Now, we see those as the golden days.
We haven’t seemed to learn much in the time since Innovations in Energy was published. We still lament the costs of energy – and the damage convention fuel inflicts on the environment – but fail to change our behavior. Fossil fuels have significant subsidies from the U.S. government, while renewable energy programs gain only a fraction of support. The military, realizing that dependence on foreign fuel is a security issue, has attempted to increase its use of renewable energy sources, but is stymied by Congress (Ashbrook). Instead, we drill in ever more delicate areas, such as the Arctic region, or we pump hazardous fluid into the ground in the attempt to extract fuel sources. I wonder when things will be bad enough we will change our ways.

Ezell, John Samuel (1979). Innovations in Energy: The Story of Kerr-McGee. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, p. xi.

Trash Walks

Walter and Norman

When Walter, Norman, and I take our twice daily walks, we usually find and pick up lots of litter along State Street. Some of it is from careless drivers and pedestrians who throw trash along the road, but other comes from inefficiencies in the waste management system. (I found a piece of mail we’d put in recycling down the street the other day.)

During IABS in Asheville, I spent an afternoon working with Asheville Greenworks to help clean Hominy Stream with a few other IABS volunteers. Some of us helped remove invasive plants; others walked the stream to take out trash. Embedded in the creek bed, we found a carburetor, part of a car’s bucket seat, and a plastic raft along with numerous aluminum cans.

One of the volunteers, Melissa, had once lived in Cincinnati, and she said that she had on occasion taken her sons on “trash walks” in the city. The walks served a number of purposes: they got to spend time together, they engaged in physical activity, they learned about the city, they saw the negative effects humans can have on the natural and urban landscapes, and they contributed to a solution. While I don’t think Walter and Norman get the same philosophical perspective on our trash walks, we do try to make a small positive impact.
Remember not to litter, pack up your trash and recycling well before putting it out for collection, and take your kids, dogs, or friends on trash walks in your area!

Connect the Dots

Photo by Adrian Williams

I participated in Climate Impact Day, a project of, to help raise awareness of the effects of climate change. Our group was photographed at Six Mile Creek with debris from recent storms in the background. I have to admit that I was busy grading and tempted to stay at home to finish my work, but I was glad I put away the student papers, got outside, and joined with others who are worried about the health of the planet.

Groups all over the world got together to “connect the dots” and show how climate change is related to abnormal weather, storms, droughts, changes in the sea level, and wildfires. You will be touched, if not inspired, by the the images if you visit the gallery of photos.