Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Two Steps Towards Being Slightly More Sustainable

In order to cheer myself up from the unbroken stream of bad news arriving through the air waves - from more killing in the Middle East to economic carnage just about everywhere and a meltdown of the very media bringing us all the other bad news, I decided to pursue two strategies towards making life a bit more sustainable.

Firstly I went round (by bicycle) to the local cafe to read and listen to the ukulele class. And very charming it was too, and pretty much free of greenhouse gas emissions, as far as I could tell. It turned out that they were rehearsing for a concert, and the teacher was determined that they would play all the songs one after the other without a break so that he could time the whole thing in advance. No-one broke ranks, even to go to the loo. I fancied that Frederick Taylor would have been impressed.

Some of the songs were in Hawaiian and some were in English. After making myself a cup of non-Hawaiian Earl Grey tea (using fresh boiling water from the coffee contraption), I listened to the gentle strumming and singing for about an hour, while learning from my book that buttons made from the tagua nut tend to explode if washed and dried in the wrong way.

Another chapter in the book - Strategies for the Green Economy by Joel Makower - talked about sustainable consumption. It's quite true that the rest of nature must have been sustainably consuming for about the last 3.5 billion years, but obviously not at the rate we homo sapiens are doing it. Also I think there are some differences in the way we are doing it too. The fossil record does not support the thesis that dinosaurs drove Hummers or built large coal-fired power stations.

One of the most intriguing things that the author mentions is that, paradoxically, the more one owns, the less one wants to share or lend things. In fact, it seems that coveting other people's things actually appears to increase when you have lots of stuff already, leading of course to owning even more stuff. It would seem that some circuits in the human brain get bootstrapped into unfortunate positive feedback loops when it comes to increasing ownership. There is undoubtedly more to it than this, but it's an interesting notion.

So I came up with a potential remedy that is both simple and free (at least at the point of use), which I immediately put the test. I pedalled off to the library (located conveniently nearby) and firmly set about borrowing some books, music, films and even a couple of talking books - one by Adam Smith (some ancient history about the wealth of nations - not actually read by him of course) and Stephen Pinker talking about how the brain works, appropriately enough.

And voila! It worked. I had no desire to go and consume anything else and there is no point in covetting most things in a library, since you can borrow them anyway. Well that was the experiment, now all I have to do is come up with a hypothesis. Yes, I know this is the wrong way round and we have no idea whether I was going to consume or covet beforehand, but all that Hawaiian music had put me in a rather mellow and less rigorous frame of mind.

So my conclusion is that the way to avoid the drumbeats of news gloom and covetous consumption and be at least slightly more sustainable is to play the ukulele and go to the library. Not sure about how sustainable Earl Grey tea is, but it tasted jolly nice.

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