The Zero-Waste Case for Littering

You see the title of this post and probably think to yourself: “That’s it, they’ve finally lost their marbles. How could anyone, let alone an anti-trash advocate, endorse littering?? The transporter must’ve glitched!”

I haven’t grown an evil beard– I can assure you that this isn’t the mirror universe.

Being pro-litter is actually highly logical, as I will soon argue; even a Vulcan couldn’t disagree by the end of this post. Why? Well, it comes down to two things: one, the history of litter laws in the West (specifically the US), and two, a concept called direct action.

The History of Litter Laws in the West (Specifically the US)

Littering, like most everything else, wasn’t always criminalized. In fact, for the vast majority of human history, there was no need for it: litter was, up until very recently, almost always biodegradable natural waste, and in the case of tough-to-decompose materials like bones and ash, some of it was even saleable. But the sea change happened at a very important part of US and world history. What else was going on at the time? Well, WW2 had ended, for one thing. Plastics were being mass-produced for the first time, and the concept of disposability was just entering into the social consciousness; the USian public had 20 years of pinched pockets after the stock market crash of ’29, and during WW2, they had strict rationing. It’s little wonder how the allure of cheap and disposable goods captured the imaginations of so many as soon as the opportunity arose.

In 1953, Keep America Beautiful was founded in response to the trash accumulating along the roads of the country’s brand-spankin’-new interstate highway system. In 1955, Britain had its own campaign: Keep Britain Tidy. Australia founded Keep Australia Beautiful in 1968. Other countries have similar initiatives, though not usually on a national scale; for instance, in Canada, it appears most anti-littering organizations operate on the provincial or municipal level, and very few of these smaller movements go back further than the 90’s.

But those campaigns are good, you might be saying. They are, it could be argued, on paper. In reality, Keep America Beautiful, obviously the first and most influential of the anti-littering movements, was founded by a group of key players in the beverage industry, who were beginning to see bad publicity when their products were turning up on roadsides and in ditches all over the country. Some of these names you might recognize: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch, and Phillip Morris. From Bottle Bill Toolkit’s history of Keep America Beautiful:

In the aftermath of magazine ads promoting beverage cans as “throwaways”, Keep America Beautiful (KAB) was founded in 1953 by a group of businessmen from the beverage and packaging industries. Their purported interest was to curb the growing problem of litter. Coincidently, 1953 was the year Vermont passed the nation’s first bottle bill, banning the sale of beer in non-refillable bottles.

Litter was a visible problem nationwide and the bottlers and packagers were concerned that government would make them responsible for solving the litter problem by regulating their industries. That concern was the catalyst for founding KAB. The organization launched its first campaign theme, “Every Litter Bit Hurts” and the most visible environmental organizations joined KAB’s war on litter.

So like any good capitalist, these businessmen sought to hand the responsibility over to the unwitting public, rather than deal with the repercussions of their manufacturing practices, or–god forbid–face government regulation. According to them, “People start pollution, [and] people can stop it.”

Surely Keep America Beautiful has gotten better since then; after all, the goal is admirable, right? Again, it only sounds great on paper. From the previous link:

In 1972 Oregon and Vermont enacted the nation’s first bottle bills requiring a 5-cent deposit on beer and soft drink containers. By 1974, when the California legislature began to debate whether to enact a container deposit law, KAB made a strategic decision to publicly oppose the bottle bill. Roger Powers, President of KAB testified against the California bottle bill before the state legislature in Sacramento. […]

The final blow to environmentalists was dealt during a speech at a July 1976 KAB Board of Directors meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, when American Can Company chairman William F. May labeled bottle bill proponents “Communists” and called for a total KAB mobilization against the four bottle bill referenda on the ballot in November. Present during the speech were KAB’s Advisory Committee members, many of whom were the subject of May’s attack.

The story was picked up by Jack Anderson and aired on his national television show. On August 12, 1976, the EPA resigned from KAB’s board and by October 1976 more than a dozen environmental and citizen groups, including National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, League of Women Voters and Sierra Club disaffiliated from KAB. In November of that year voters approved bottle bills in Michigan and Maine. […]

In the 1990’s, KAB adopted yet another campaign slogan – “Let’s not waste the 1990’s” – which stressed the need to encourage citizens, municipal officials and civic leaders to “re-examine recycling’s capabilities and limitations.” The new campaign presented a 5-pronged solution to solving the problem of solid waste – source reduction, recycling, composting, incineration and sanitary landfilling.

KAB’s 1990’s slogan was new, but the message had changed little since Iron Eyes Cody warned that “People Start Pollution – People Can Stop It.” The promotional materials made no mention of policies such as recycled content requirements, mandatory recycling rates, bottle bills or other measurers that shift the burden of waste management and waste reduction from government to the producers of waste. […]

In an article in Biocycle , Former President of NRC and Manager of Market Development for Weyerhaeuser Recycling, Pete Grogan, wrote, “I find myself questioning the agenda behind the [$400k report funded by KAB which reached the conclusion that recycling and composting aren’t effective waste management methods]. . . The report reminds us that it is ‘cheaper’ to send solid waste to the landfill. Well, I can easily argue that tossing solid waste in the river is even cheaper.”

Keep America Beautiful may have little clout these days (though it is still affiliated with Waste Management, a company that owns and operates many of the country’s landfills), but the bulk of the damage has already been done. KAB is responsible for inventing and disseminating the picture of an all-powerful consumer in whose hands alone rests the health and future of the biosphere, and it’s been working at maintaining this fabrication for more than 60 years with the help of many an anti-environmental corporate sponsor. The image of Iron Eyes Cody shedding a single tear has been widely recognized by marketers and historians alike as one of the most successful ad campaigns ever conceived. We are living in the aftermath of this great lie.

Whether we like it or not, Keep America Beautiful was the beginning of modern conscious consumerism, eco-friendliness, and greenwashing. This is the heritage of the Zero Waste lifestyle movement. It’s founded on a NIMBY moral aesthetic where beautiful = good and ugly = bad. We gotta get away from this childish and reactionary way of thinking; it’s getting us nowhere fast. This brings us to the next part.

Direct Action

Direct action can be loosely defined as a political act that doesn’t rely on any outside system or institution to direct and sponsor it, and whose goal is more than just “raising awareness”. For instance, planting a community garden can be a direct action; so can smashing in the windows of a bank branch.

Martin Luther King Jr. can be quoted as having a definition:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

– Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Wikipedia has a less poetic and broader definition:

Direct action occurs when a group takes an action which is intended to reveal an existing problem, highlight an alternative, or demonstrate a possible solution to a social issue. This can include nonviolent and less often violent activities which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the direct action participants. Examples of non-violent direct action (also known as nonviolent resistance or civil resistance) can include sit-ins, strikes,workplace occupations, blockades, hacktivism, etc., while violent direct action may include political violence, sabotage, property destruction, assaults, etc. By contrast, electoral politics, diplomacy, negotiation, and arbitrationare not usually described as direct action, as they are politically mediated. Non-violent actions are sometimes a form of civil disobedience, and may involve a degree of intentional law-breaking where persons place themselves in arrestable situations in order to make a political statement but other actions (such as strikes) may not violate criminal law.

The aim of direct action is to either obstruct another political agent or political organization from performing some practice to which the activists object; or to solve perceived problems which traditional societal institutions (governments, religious organizations or established trade unions) are not addressing to the satisfaction of the direct action participants.

Non-violent direct action has historically been an assertive regular feature of the tactics employed by social movements, including Mohandas Gandhi’s Indian Independence Movement and the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

In other words, direct action is necessarily confrontational.

The question is this: do we, as zero waste advocates, recognize the injustices of pollution, waste, and consumerism as being enough to warrant confrontation? Personally, I think so.

Littering as Direct Action

I argue that littering is a legitimate form of resistance against misguided litter laws, the influence of the waste and landfill lobby, and industrial-consumer-capitalism itself, which created this whole mess to begin with.

First of all, litter laws have only ever been about one thing: appearances. Maintaining the appearance of a clean and healthy world for those who can afford to live in areas where these laws are enforced, and where waste and recycling services and facilities exist; and maintaining the appearance of pollution being a problem perpetuated entirely by irresponsible consumers rather than the capitalist system that produces and pushes these products. I suggest that littering, by making trash and pollution visible, instead of hiding it in landfills, developing nations, Superfund sites, and the ocean’s gyres, we can ensure that it becomes more and more difficult for the average Westerner to ignore the problem. We can ensure that the elephant in the room is harder to forget.

If cloud computing is really just storing files and accessing them from someone else’s computer, then capitalist waste disposal methods are simply a form of “cloud” trash management: storing them on someone else’s land and polluting someone else’s ecosystem. Don’t make the mistake of believing that there is less polluting going on– it’s just harder to see.

So I say let every discarded coffee cup be like a gravestone: a reminder of all the casualties in this battle we’re waging against the natural world and our own health. Let plastic wrappers and crumpled foil be reminders that these artifacts exist, that it’s only a matter of where they will exist. Inspire a conversation not about where the trash ought to go, but why it was made in the first place; who sold it to us; whether it was truly useful or not; and what might it take to keep this from happening altogether.

Because cleaning up here means just putting the mess someplace else. And that’s not right.

Little Things

Some little things I’m learning.

1. Save seed from the (viable, non-hybridized, non-GMO) fruit and vegetables that you buy. Give the seeds away or plant them.

2. Grow some kind of edible or medicinal plant.

3. Regrow your green onions.

4. If it can be rooted in water, take a cutting home.

5. With careful maintenance, many trees can be matured in a container and grown from seed.

6. Japanese maples cost a lot of money for some reason.

7. Don’t buy granola bars; you can make them for a fraction of the cost in minutes.

8. Don’t use the ramen packet. Make your own powder or dashi broth; that way, you’ll know exactly what you’re eating.

9. Nutritional yeast is good in almost everything.

10. Raw desserts are just as good as baked ones. Save some time, energy, and electricity, and let those cookies set in the fridge instead of the oven.

11. Don’t let anyone convince you that cold-brewed coffee is any more difficult than hot. All you need to make some is a lidded jar, ground coffee, water, and a few hours.

12. Shop the discounted/old produce section first. You never know when you might walk away with a dozen very ripe avocados for $3.

13. Brush with baking soda. The toothpaste industry is a racket and it’s no harsher on your teeth than anything else you’d brush with.

14. You’re never too old to dumpster dive.

15. Visit your local community gardens and mini free libraries often.

16. Bokashi bran can be sprinkled onto cat litter to help with smells.

17. Apply tea tree oil directly onto blemishes before bed time. It’ll dry them out and reduce the redness.

18. Play more card games.

When Soap Makes the Difference

Originally posted on Raxa Collective:

Sundara is a soap making operation in Mumbai that collects bar soap waste from hotels and recycles it for underprivileged children who cannot afford to buy soap. PHOTO: Sundara Sundara is a soap making operation in Mumbai that collects bar soap waste from hotels and recycles it for underprivileged children who cannot afford to buy soap. PHOTO: Sundara

Ever wondered what happens to the barely used soaps that you leave behind in hotel rooms? Think they get reused? We’ve got bad news – they don’t. In fact they are normally tossed away, cluttering our already crowded landfills. Sundara, a soap making operation in Mumbai has a neat solution to this problem. They collect bar soap waste from hotels, sanitize and recycle it and distribute the new soaps to underprivileged children and adults who cannot afford soap. To date they have regular soap distributions reaching over 6,000 underprivileged children and adults in Mumbai slums. They have also saved thousands of kilograms of waste from going to landfills in the process.

And it started with a University of Michigan graduate…

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Tidying, Japanese-Style

Well, I’m in Canada. Finally. Sort of. For the most part.

Some of my stuff is here, but most of it is still kind of en-route… basically it’s at an uncle’s house in Oregon and I plan on making small trips to get up here bit by bit. The hubs had only sorta moved in back in April, mostly waiting for me to come so that we could both really settle in together.

Not surprising, though, is that a few spats have occurred regarding the number of things we own (though mostly him) and how much space we now have to put them. This sort of thing has happened plenty of times before with us, but this time we mean business: this is basically the apartment of our dreams, and it’s the last place we plan on living before buying up our land and heading off the grid, and we don’t expect that to happen for at least another 10 years down the road.

How did we get here?

Well, I married a collector; he collects toys and memorabilia from his favorite franchises (mostly 80’s stuff). And when we met, I was a collector too. Or at least, I was trying to be… sort of hard when you’re in college and wind up moving 6 times in as many years, having to almost start over every time for a number of reasons, some legitimate, and others not so much.

And in a roundabout way, global warming happened. The BP oil spill. The disappearing Greenland Ice Sheet. Memories of the weather patterns in winter being different back home, growing up, than what they are now. Memories of hail storms and Santa Ana Winds that don’t seem to happen anymore. Bisphenol-A happened too. And rising gas prices. Then, the dawning realization that humanity was making a huge mess and refusing to clean it up. And then after that, the understanding that only certain, special, parts of humanity were predominantly responsible for that mess.

So I started doing a lot more reading about all sorts of subjects that an environmentalist might find useful. The waste stream; food production; conservation; green tech; social alienation; advertising; capitalism; colonialism.

And like my about page says, I eventually found Bea’s Zero Waste Home via an episode of the How Stuff Works podcast, in which they talked about refrigeration, and the feasibility of living without it. Her book was mentioned more or less in passing, but after doing a bit of my own research and happening on a copy at a local bookstore, I bought it and was hooked.

It spoke to me as someone who was deeply unhappy, and was for a long time. I was diagnosed with major clinical depression in 2012, which validated many, many, years of feeling just slightly “off”. Not sad, but distant and somewhat hopeless; I was prone to bouts of explosive anger, was a chronic complainer, and sometimes found myself so inexplicably mad, frustrated, and self-loathing, that I would cry myself to sleep and wake up despondent.

Ever since I could remember, I’d felt like a square peg in a world full of round holes. Very little about the outside world or the dominant hegemony of society ever made any sense to me, and I had a very hard time imagining myself as an adult navigating that world. Not being able to imagine any kind future for yourself takes its toll, and as a child and teenager I roamed around in some very dark places, flirting with self-harm and suicidal ideations. What’s interesting to me is that I was never in a place of despair and trying to escape by hurting myself or ending my life; I think for me, those were some of the only ways I knew how to reconcile my lack of an imagined future with the real world. If you’re 12 or 13 years old in the US and can’t picture yourself being 30, or having a job, or a household, then what is there to imagine? I couldn’t picture myself existing under those terms. So, nonexistence, death, is what’s left. In a sad and twisted way, that was the only way (along with artistic self-expression) that I could prove to myself that I was a real person that was capable of having a future, even if that future was truncated by something terrible– that terrible thing was something that I at least knew could probably prove my realness when it seemed nothing else would.

In the years since my diagnosis, I’ve come a cross a lot of literature, academic and non-, theorizing about what depression and anxiety really are. But one of the proposed explanations that has always stayed with me is that depression is a symptom of the alienation that our capitalistic society has constructed. Without which we wouldn’t have such a need for things like self-help books, beauty products, drugs, and countless other products designed to capitalize on that inexplicable gnawing emptiness that seems to characterize and propel so much of Western civilization.

The author of the piece, The Problem With Society Isn’t Greed. Greed Is a Symptom of a Deep Need Going Unfulfilled, nails it:

All aspects of our culture conspire to strip us of our connection and belongingness. Let me name a few more:

– Religious indoctrination into self-rejection.

– Schooling that keeps children indoors, fosters competition, and accustoms them to doing things they don’t care about for the sake of external rewards.

– Hygienic ideology that fosters a fear and rejection of the world.

– Immersion in an environment composed of standardized commodities, buildings, and images.

– The alienating effects of living among inorganic shapes and right angles.

– Property rights that confine us most of the time to our homes, commercial environments, and a few parks.

– Media images that make us feel inferior and unworthy

– A surveillance state and police culture that leave us feeling untrusted and insecure.

– A debt-based financial system in which money is systemically scarce: there is never enough money to pay the debts.

– A legal culture of liability in which everyone is assumed to be a potential opponent.

– Patriarchal belief systems that oppress the inner and outer feminine, confine intimacy, and make love a transaction.

– Racial, ethnic, and national chauvinism, that makes some of our human brothers and sisters into Others.

– An ideology of nature-as-resource that cuts us off from our connectedness to other beings and leaves us feeling alone in the universe.

– Cultural deskilling that leaves us as passive, helpless consumers of experiences.

– Immersion in a world of strangers, whose faces we don’t recognize and whose stories we don’t know.

– Perhaps most importantly, a metaphysics that tells us that we are discrete, separate selves in a universe of Other.

18 months after hungrily devouring Zero Waste Home, I know now that what I was sensing in its pages wasn’t an asceticism, but this.

The book came into my life at something of a crucial period. I was a few years out of school, living with a relative for very little rent, in a neighborhood I practically grew up in, and most importantly, I had a job. Like, a real, grown-up job. It still didn’t feel quite real, thanks to the aforementioned depression, but having a good-paying job was half the equation of adulthood. Moreover, I could afford practically whatever I wanted. I was  beginning to surround myself with furniture that wasn’t made of plastic, clothes that didn’t come from Target or H&M, foods from health food stores. I was acquiring so many nice, quality, things that I’d previously only been able to dream of owning.

So why was I still unhappy?

Bea’s book hinted at the answer in living her life for experiences, not things.

But as someone who had gone so long with so few meaningful possessions, how would getting rid of all my stuff help? Wouldn’t I feel just as transient and place-less as I did in college with all that moving around? I wanted to feel grounded!

I quickly learned that weighing myself down with stuff is not a substitute for having a sense of place.

I know that in my bones, now.

The problem is, how to reconcile this new understanding with finally cohabiting with my husband?

Well, I happen to have a friend who has a problem with acquiring junk; actually, both she and her fiance do, and they have for years, but it’s something they’re making a concerted effort to work on. So I told her about the issue, and she told me to get a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and OrganizingAnd wow, I could not have gotten a better recommendation.

The author, a life-long organizing and cleaning aficionado, came up with a method called KonMari (based on her name), that she swears has worked for every single one of her clients since she came up with it. It is both rigid and subjective at the same time, and basically is as follows:

1. Going through your things category by category, and everything within those categories all at once, get rid of everything that “doesn’t spark joy”

2. Once you’ve gotten rid of the excess, put everything back in its place

I love this, and the hubs does too. There’s no endorsement of fancy, expensive, organizing gadgets and systems. (In fact, she actively disparages them.) There’s no emphasis on meeting quotas or other rigid systems that require you to take inventory of the number of X things you have. In fact, she encourages readers to think of our possessions’ feelings as we go about our day, and to talk to them.

That’s because the book is heavily rooted, intentionally or not, in Shinto philosophy, something both the hubs and I found to be very refreshing. We don’t want to get rid of stuff because we hate stuff, we want to get rid of stuff because we want to love that which really means the most to us, all the while giving us room to breathe in our own home, and fewer reasons to stay inside on a beautiful day. We want to respect our things. It’s win-win-win.

I feel like this is a big deal for someone like me. For the first time, I have a sense of who and where I want to be in the future; I can imagine it. I can picture myself living my ideal life, and I can know for certain that such a life will never again involve mindless consumerism, clutter, things that weigh me down, things that would tear me apart if I were to lose them. There’s a lot more to being alive than any of that!

I have so much hope for this new life, in fact, that I can see myself not being on anti-depressants at some point in the foreseeable future. If only I’d known sooner that my lifelong depression was caused in no small part by the culture and society that I live in; if only I’d known there was a way out.

But hey, at least I figured it out at all, right? And at 26 no less?

I thought that I’d done all the purging that I needed to do, that it was up to the hubs now. But reading Kondo’s book made me realize that I still had a ways to go; not just in terms of number of things, but psychologically as well. I’ve got some emotional housekeeping to do, you might say.

My mom is flying up to visit at the end of the month for Canada Day (and to bring my cat for me!), so I expect that hubs and I will have started “tidying” the KonMari way in preparation before that. I would love to do something of a “house tour”, Apartment Therapy style,  at some point after all the purging and organizing; that way you all can see our zero waste systems and decor aesthetics in action.

If you’re interested in reading Kondo’s book but don’t have the money to buy a copy, email me and I might be able to work something out for you. ;]

A Zero-Waste Case Against Proprietary Software and Surveillance

For a long time, I wasn’t sure how to feel when I read about self-professed minimalists and zero-wasters talk of decluttering their life thanks to the cloud. In a more or less direct way, these authors and lifestyle gurus were singing the praises of companies like Netflix and Google, Spotify and Pintrest. And at first it might make sense, right? Think of all the DVDs or CDs that won’t end up in the landfill thanks to streaming services. All the magazines and books that wont be taking up room on your shelves. All the burned fossil fuels saved by avoiding shipping them to the local big box store where you would have bought them.

What you, and honestly most people, don’t realize, though, is just how fundamentally dirty proprietary software, cloud services, and the associated information-gathering, really are. Let’s start with the most obvious: server farms and data centers.

What does over one billion monthly active users look like when projected onto material reality? Almost 50 thousand Google searches per second? How much physical space and energy do our online activities require? According to Paul Wallbank, who was asked to research this for an ABC radio show way back in 2012, one can only guess:

Figuring out how much data is saved in computer systems is a daunting task in itself and in 2011 scientists estimated there were 295 exabytes stored on the Internet, desktop hard drives, tape backup and other systems in 2007.

2007? That’s ancient history as far as technology is concerned. We’ve likely quadrupled that amount since. He goes on:

In 2009 it was reported Google was planning to have ten million servers and an exabyte of information. It’s almost certain that point has been passed, particularly given the volume of data being uploaded to YouTube which alone has 72 hours worth of video uploaded every minute.

Facebook is struggling with similar growth and it’s reported that the social media service is having to rewrite its database. Last year it was reported Facebook users were uploading six billion photos a month and at the time of the float on the US stock market the company claimed to have over a 100 petabytes of photos and video.

According to one of Microsoft’s blogs, Hotmail has over a billion mailboxes and “hundreds of petabytes of data”.

For Amazon details are harder to find, in June 2012 Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos announced their S3 cloud storage service was now hosting a billion ‘objects’. If we assume the ‘objects’ – which could be anything from a picture to a database running on Amazon’s service – have an average size of a megabyte then that’s a exabyte of storage.

The amount of storage is only one part of the equation, we have to be able to do something with the data we’ve collected so we also have to look at processing power. This comes down to the number of computer chips or CPUs – Central Processing Units – being used to crunch the information.

Probably the most impressive data cruncher of all is the Google search engine that processes phenomenal amounts of data every time somebody does a search on the web. Google have put together an infographic that illustrates how they manage to answer over a billion queries a day in an average time of less than quarter of a second.

Google is reported to own 2% of the world’s servers and they are very secretive about the numbers, estimates based on power usage in 2011 put the number of servers the company uses at around 900,000. Given Google invests about 2.5 billion US dollars a year on new data centres, it’s safe to say they have probably passed the one million mark.

How much electricity all of this equipment uses is a valid question. According to Jonathan Koomey of Stanford University, US data centres use around 2% of the nation’s power supply and globally these facilities use around 1.5%.

The numbers involved in answering the question of how much data is stored by web services are mind boggling and they are growing exponentially. One of the problems with researching a topic like this is how quickly the source data becomes outdated.

It’s easy to overlook the complexity and size of the technologies that run social media, cloud computing or web searches. Asking questions on how these services work is essential to understanding the things we now take for granted.

Facebook users were uploading six billion photos per month back in 2011. How many photo albums, how much film, would that translate to? Ah, but it would never be a direct equivocation; according to the Jevons Paradox, that number only exists because it’s so easy to deal with photographs in this way, compared to the relative “inefficiency” of dealing with film and photo paper of the pre-digital era.

Okay, so, 2% of US energy goes directly to processing search queries, broadcasting tweets, and generally keeping the internet alive 24/7. According to The New York Times, that 1.5% worldwide 2012 figure is equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants. According to that same article:

A yearlong examination by The New York Times has revealed that this foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.

Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews and documents show. Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found.

To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust. The pollution from data centers has increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations, documents show. In Silicon Valley, many data centers appear on the state government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory, a roster of the area’s top stationary diesel polluters.

Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants, according to estimates industry experts compiled for The Times. Data centers in the United States account for one-quarter to one-third of that load, the estimates show.

“Its staggering for most people, even people in the industry, to understand the numbers, the sheer size of these systems,” said Peter Gross, who helped design hundreds of data centers. “A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town.”

Energy efficiency varies widely from company to company. But at the request of The Times, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analysed energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6 to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations. The rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations.


“This is an industry dirty secret, and no one wants to be the first to say mea culpa,” said a senior industry executive who asked not to be identified to protect his company’s reputation. “If we were a manufacturing industry, we’d be out of business straightaway.”

There you have it, folks, and straight from the horse’s mouth. Data centers, from the coal fueling their substations to the rare earth metals in their equipment, are downright toxic operations, and no amount of green-washing can change that. It is the nature of the digital beast.

“That’s all very interesting,” you might be thinking to yourself. “But what does this all have to do with proprietary software and surveillance?”

Good question! Now that I’ve established that data centers, the powerhouses behind our social media, our search engines, and our entire modern online existence, are fundamentally antagonistic to an environmentalist way of living, we can start talking about the ways that those data centers are used and identify the myriad ways that they are misused from an eco-justice perspective. Fasten your seat belts.

The title of this post names the two biggest problems in the centralized world of technology that the vast majority of us currently live: namely proprietary software and surveillance. Proprietary software can be defined as any kind of program that runs on any kind of electronic device that is not open-source. describes open-source products as “something that can be modified because its design is publicly accessible”.

While it originated in the context of computer software development, today the term “open source” designates a set of values—what we call the open source way. Open source projects, products, or initiatives are those that embrace and celebrate open exchange, collaborative participation, rapid prototyping, transparency, meritocracy, and community development.


What’s the difference between open source software and other types of software?

Some software has source code that cannot be modified by anyone but the person, team, or organization who created it and maintains exclusive control over it. This kind of software is frequently called “proprietary software” or “closed source” software, because its source code is the property of its original authors, who are the only ones legally allowed to copy or modify it. Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop are examples of proprietary software. In order to use proprietary software, computer users must agree (usually by signing a license displayed the first time they run this software) that they will not do anything with the software that the software’s authors have not expressly permitted.

“Computer users must agree that they will not do anything with the software that the software’s authors have not expressly permitted.”

To most people, this is a given. After all, if you rent a car from a rental company, there’s a reason you have to sign a contract outlining all the ways in which you won’t abuse this vehicle you’re borrowing. The car is not yours, after all; the car’s owner, the rental company, gets to make the rules, and if you don’t like it, then tough. But software isn’t actually anything like a rental car– or anything else that you can physically own that has restrictions put on it. In fact, it’s not even like a car that you bought and paid for yourself and that you own outright. used a similar analogy to explain a disturbing trend in video game publishing and distribution. This was back in 2011, but things are still on this path:

Imagine if every time you drove your car, you had to first check in with the car manufacturer to confirm that it’s you behind the wheel. Let’s say that this relies on an Internet connection, and if the connection is down, you can’t drive.

With a car, you can paint it, swap out parts, and fix it yourself all you want. You’re even allowed to take off the maker’s mark. You can’t do that with proprietary software, even if you did pay full price for it and own a physical copy. It’s against the law. Why is this?

Well, it’s the same argument against digital piracy. Firstly, digital media piracy is a misnomer– traditionally, a pirate was someone that committed theft and violent crime at sea, stealing physical goods and inflicting physical harm against victims. But associating the term with those who violate copyright laws has been in practice since before there even were copyright laws; since at least the early 1600’s, and modern copyright-holders have been quick to jump on the bandwagon when it comes to describing peer-to-peer sharing. This practice of equating copyright infringement with theft and piracy hasn’t been permitted in US courts since the mid-80’s.

So if software isn’t comparable to a physical product, but is something that you are forced to purchase in order to “own”, then why are there restrictions on what you can do with that product, who you can give it to, how you can give it? Even though there isn’t even a physical, material original of the thing that can be stolen, gifted, and generally moved from one place to another instead of reproduced indefinitely with no harm done to the original? If you’re not allowed to modify your car, or let someone borrow it, or in some cases, even look under the hood, would you say that you truly owned that car? Probably not.

Richard Stallman, creator of the first open-source computer operating system, GNU/Linux, recalls the history of software since the 80’s to describe why this is a problem:

In 1983, the software field had become dominated by proprietary (ie nonfree) programs, and users were forbidden to change or redistribute them. I developed the GNU operating system, which is often called Linux, to escape and end that injustice. But proprietary developers in the 1980s still had some ethical standards: they sincerely tried to make programs serve their users, even while denying users control over how they would be served.

Does anyone remember Ello? It was that new, hip, social network that was supposed to be a Facebook-killer. It was in the spotlight for about 2 months late last year and I haven’t heard from it since… maybe that’s because I left Facebook at the time and headed for Diaspora* instead, and most of the discussion about Ello was happening there. Or maybe, it’s because Ello was doomed from day one, and has already fallen into obscurity. The thing about Ello was that it was trying to be Facebook… except without all the stuff everyone hates about Facebook; its selling point was that it was going to be the “first” ad-free social network out there, that its users weren’t a product to be sold to advertisers. But advertising is only just one of the problems with Facebook–and indeed all centralized social media platforms–and this was an uphill battle for the burgeoning website. In other words, they were trying to make a new kind of fire that only burns slightly less hot than normal fire, and brand it as safe to touch.

How would Ello make money, people asked. Servers don’t run on social capital and positive mentions on twitter, programmers and designers don’t get paid and venture capitalists don’t get rich off of an adoring userbase alone. So amid the vocal criticisms taking over the blogosphere, Ello announced that it had finalized a manifesto. Ah, yes, a manifesto! Because we know that companies always keep their promises. Not.

Stallman continues (oh and hey, here’s more for that car analogy):

How far things have sunk. Developers today shamelessly mistreat users; when caught, they claim that fine print in EULAs (end user licence agreements) makes it ethical. (That might, at most, make it lawful, which is different.) So many cases of proprietary malware have been reported, that we must consider any proprietary program suspect and dangerous. In the 21st century, proprietary software is computing for suckers.

What sorts of wrongs are found in malware? Some programs are designed to snoop on the user. Some are designed to shackle users, such as Digital Rights Management (DRM). Some have back doors for doing remote mischief. Some even impose censorship. Some developers explicitly sabotage their users.

What kinds of programs constitute malware? Operating systems, first of all. Windows snoops on users, shackles users and, on mobiles, censors apps; it also has a universal back door that allows Microsoft to remotely impose software changes. Microsoft sabotages Windows users by showing security holes to the NSA before fixing them.

Apple systems are malware too: MacOS snoops and shackles; iOS snoops, shackles, censors apps and has a back door. Even Android contains malware in a nonfree component: a back door for remote forcible installation or deinstallation of any app.

What about nonfree apps? Plenty of malware there. Even humble flashlight apps for phones were found to be reporting data to companies. A recent study found that QR code scanner apps also snoop.

Apps for streaming services tend to be the worst, since they are designed to shackle users against saving a copy of the data that they receive, as well as making users identify themselves so their viewing and listening habits can be tracked.

The Free Software Foundation reports on many more cases of proprietary malware.

What about other digital products? We know about the smart TV and the Barbie doll that transmit conversations remotely. Proprietary software in cars that stops those we used to call “car owners” from fixing “their” cars. If the car itself does not report everywhere you drive, an insurance company may charge you extra to go without a separate tracker. Meanwhile, some GPS navigators save up where you have gone in order to report back when connected to update the maps.

Amazon’s Kindle e-reader reports what page of what book is being read, plus all notes and underlining the user enters; it shackles the user against sharing or even freely giving away or lending the book, and has an Orwellian back door for erasing books.

What’s to stop these proprietary developers from encroaching on our privacy and freedom even more than this? Well, nothing, really. Nothing except the resources necessary to take these guys to court and compel a judge or jury to side with the user. And even then, it would be too little too late: the whole reason proprietary software exists is so that its code can’t be audited. And if it can’t be audited, then you have no control over what happens to you and your data when you use that service, let alone know what’s happening to it.

But wait, there’s more!

Closed-source software is protected by copyright law the world over, and many components of software falls under the category of intellectual property. (And these laws are getting tighter and tighter with every new international trade agreement that gets passed.) So unauthorized distribution and modification are prohibited. An incomplete answer to this has been the Creative Commons, which allows content producers to specify a custom license for their works that may permit modification, derivation, redistribution, etc. Having those options spelled out in easy-to-understand language is helpful, sure, but I argue that all unfree creative works, and in this case, unfree, closed-source software, is bad.

Above, it’s already been proven that un-auditable software creates an environment that is at best ambivalent to, and at worst encourages, abuses of users by both the companies themselves and third-party exploiters. But proprietary software also undermines the integrity of:

Creativity and Innovation

The legal structures that allow proprietary software to exist, patent and copyright law, do much more to stifle creativity and innovation than they do to encourage it. Thanks to these practices, Apple has ownership over rounded corners on phones, for instance. Many hurdles in the history of the electric car can be blamed on patent misuse as well. But as one user on points out, when it comes to software:

Software is mathematics. Mathematics is not patentable. The whole current process is irrational because the lawyers and judges and legislators WANT software to be patentable and so they keep trying to argue that some mathematics is mathematics and other mathematics is not mathematics. It is inherently contradictory and the current disaster is what we have.


Who does proprietary software, copyright law, and patent law protect? In theory, it’s supposed to level the playing field for everyone, but in practice, it accomplishes quite the opposite. Large companies can go out of their way to put their smaller competitors on the defensive, and in some cases, acquire their patents once they’ve got them facing bankruptcy.  The innovations that might have changed the industry for the better, and put the bigger company out of business, get buried.

Or what about the case of individuals who have come up with a creative work, a piece of art or software, only to later find out that a larger company had appropriated their work and are now making money from it on a mass scale? This has been the case with the development of large, highly-visible projects like Minecraft, and happens all the time with hobbyist artists across the web as they go to war against entities that run the gamut from random Chinese Etsy stores to Urban Outfitters. Many of these creators are young, low-income-earners, and sometimes even minors; none of these people have the ability to shut down all instances of “art theft”, or even any of them. Sometimes all they can afford to do is send emails. Going to court is completely out of reach, and most of the time, the bullying company in question would be able to spend circles around their nobody prosecutors in court and legal fees anyways. In other words, there is often no recourse for the very people copyright and patent law is supposedly designed to protect the most.

I’m imagining it right now: “What in the heck does this all have to do with the environment? With zero waste??” you must be thinking. I know, I’ve been covering a lot of ground that looks irrelevant, but don’t worry! I’m just about there. But let’s summarize first:

  • The physical infrastructure of digital goods and services is a disaster for the environment
  • The legal infrastructure of digital goods and services is disastrous for humans’ natural inclination to be creative and innovate
  • The principle of prioritizing complete control over digital goods and services is disastrous for the needs and safety of users
  • Proprietary = surveillance

Let’s revisit the legal thing again.

Take a moment to think about the legal process, the machine, that allows proprietary software to exist: patent and copyright laws; intellectual property laws; private property laws; the judicial system to rule on these laws; the police and FBI to enforce these laws; the prison-industrial complex to deal with those who break any of these laws with sufficient frequency or severity; lawyer fees; court fees; consulting fees; resources to issue DMCAs and takedown requests; resources to file patents and copyrights; resources to file lawsuits; resources to defend against lawsuits; the physical and human infrastructure required to process all of that filing, all of that suing, all of that patenting.

Now, imagine what life could be like without copyright and patent laws. Okay, let me revise that; imagine a life without copyright laws and patent laws in a world with no profit motive. People would make things for the sheer joy of making things, just like how we all did when we were children. Somewhere along the way, though, we started being told not to copy other people, to produce things that were useful and not “frivolous”, to be happy with what we get when it comes to proprietary innovations and products that other people make.

But no. We live in a world where smart phones are put together using glue instead of screws because planned obsolescence is more lucrative than creating a product that’s built to last and easy to fix.

It’s wasteful.

Enforcing laws that protect private property, that protect profits, are wasteful. This system eats up unimaginable amounts of paper, energy, e-waste, fossil fuels. It squanders the creative drives of individuals who are yoked, willing and unwilling, to the pursuit of profit. It punishes innovations that don’t please the right people at the right time, and paves the way for what some argue to be a grand, digital, plan. With so many casualties in this war for the “right” to spy on users, the “right” to shackle users to toxic software, and the “right” to abuse users, all with impunity, shouldn’t we start seeking out alternatives? And if there’s one thing I know zero-wasters are really good at, it’s finding alternatives for wasteful products.

So where do we start?

Well, the first obvious solution is to make the switch to as much free and open-source software (FOSS) as possible. Use Diaspora* instead of Facebook and Twitter; use VLC instead of iTunes or Windows Media Player; use Libre Office and Etherpad instead of MS Office and Google Docs; use Firefox and Tor instead of Chrome, IE, and Safari; use Calibre to manage your e-book collection; use Thunderbird to manage your emails; use Amaya or KompoZer to manage your websites; use Pidgin/Adium for instant messenging; use Jitsi for VoIP voice and video calling; use DuckDuckGo for your browser searches.

And so on. Simply by removing yourself from the ecosystem of profit-driven software and technology, even if just a little, you’ve reduced your footprint. Surveillance tech and data miners have one less opportunity to log information about you to store on some server farm someplace. One less opportunity to sell you something or sell you to someone else. One less opportunity to bully you using a rigged legal and judicial system if you fall out of line.

It’s useful to think about the future that I want, I believe; to think about that future in vivid, painstaking, technicolor detail.

I imagine it because I have to. I owe it not just to myself, but to the world around me, the ecosystems and species we’ve crippled, and my brown and black neighbors living on far-flung continents. I owe it to their children, too. Because if I can’t imagine the world that I want to live in, then I definitely can’t work toward it, and if I can’t work toward it, it will never become a reality.

Does that world involve the internet, though? Honestly, I don’t know. Without an oil industry, I’m not sure if there’d be enough motivation to keep manufacturing plastics and silicone. Who would want to mine and refine coltan without a warlord holding their village hostage? I know I wouldn’t. I’ve got a million other things I’d rather do than dig pits looking for gray rock so that I could give that gray rock to someone else, who will give it to someone else, who will give it to someone else, who will eventually give it to someone who could then make a smartphone out of it?

It may surprise you to hear that my ideal world doesn’t really have any need for smart phones. Or server farms.

It may also surprise you to hear that the internet doesn’t need either of those things to survive. (That is, if it’s meant to survive.) The key concept here is decentralization.

A decentralized system is always more resilient than a centralized one. As an example, look to biology. A human is a very complex organism; we have a brain, the command center, that controls the rest of the body with exacting detail. If something goes wrong with that brain, say, head trauma, then the rest of the system can suffer tremendously… or be lost altogether. A head injury can easily be fatal, even if the rest of the system is perfectly healthy and undamaged. A tree, on the other hand, is tremendously resilient in terms of damage. Lopping off the crown or any individual branch will rarely ever spell death for a strong tree. In many species, cutting down an entire specimen may not even be permanently fatal as the roots will often send up new leaves around the stump.

Of course, trees aren’t quite as complex as human bodies are. But who said complexity is a good thing? Trees are remarkably good at what they do; that is, communicate between its different parts, make and distribute nutrients, and figure out the best way to survive given its location.

Shouldn’t that be what the internet does? Or rather, shouldn’t that be all the internet needs to do in an ideal world? Using the word “should” is always tricky when you’re an anti-authoritarian, but I do have to draw the line where the environment is concerned. Right now, the internet looks a lot more like a human body than a tree, and that needs to change if the internet is to survive in the future as a tool with a neutral carbon footprint. It has to be easily disassembled, easily fixed, lightweight (in terms of code), and less complex. Unfortunately that complexity currently manifests as cloud computing, as streaming services, as proprietary software that pulls strings from inside black boxes. Sorry, Netflix fans. I don’t think there’s any way to make your smart TV carbon-neutral.

When I do my imagining of that ideal future, the most technologically “advanced” communities look a lot like that of post-civilizationist thinkers. Computers and video games made with 100% reclaimed materials, powered with maybe reliable, maybe not, renewable energy from local wind turbines and water wheels. I imagine a society where the internet is used more like a telephone or ham radio; that is, intermittently, peer-to-peer, and only when needed. Maybe it’ll resemble the newsgroups and message boards of the early days of “internet 1.0″. Maybe it won’t. Maybe we’ll have figured out how to fit much more meaningful information and communication into a smaller, simpler network of servers and terminals, winking on and off the map as the sky gets cloudy or the wind picks up, depending on where you are and what time of year it is.

Mostly, though? I long for a future where computers aren’t necessary, where internet access isn’t the only way to be truly present in your community. Pretty funny to hear this coming from a millennial who worked in video games for a while, huh? I honestly think that disconnection is the neurosis of the digital age. We’re disconnected from ourselves, from the people in our immediate communities, from our bioregion, from the plights of others far away.

We need that immediacy and presence back in our lives; our brains and bodies evolved to thrive on it, hundreds of thousands of years before the first drive wrote the first bit. The internet, as a concept broader than most folks, techies and laymen alike, care to imagine, isn’t wholly incompatible with that reality. I believe that there is hope for an internet divorced of industrial infrastructures and resource extraction. But the internet as it exists is for now, sadly, mired in it.

 “When somebody says ‘I’m going to store something in the cloud, we don’t need disk drives anymore,’ — the cloud is disk drives,” Mr. Victoria [a professor of electrical engineering at at the University of Minnesota]. “We get them one way or another. We just don’t know it.”

Whatever happens within the companies, it is clear that among consumers, what are now settled expectations largely drive the need for such a formidable infrastructure.

“That’s what’s driving the massive growth — the end-user expectation of anything, anytime, anywhere,” said David Cappuccio, a managing vice president and chief of research at Gartner, the technology research firm. “We’re what’s causing the problem.”

Further Reading

Beyond the View of Plants as Mere Machines: on Plant Sensation, Perception, and Awareness

Originally posted on hastenthedownfall:

I’ve always found plant behavior intriguing. Over the last six years of casual reading on it, starting with a college research report on the ill-named “Plant Neurobiology”, I learned more than I had imagined possible about the agency of plants (even after debunking misleading works such as The Secret Life of Plants). I learned that while plants do not possess a central nervous system, they nevertheless possess remarkable abilities of sensation, perception, and awareness. While these facets of life of course differ between plants and animals, plants nevertheless possess capacities for vision, olfaction, tactition, thermoception, and for detecting location, direction, and motion. Plants possess some forms of procedural memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. They signal, communicate, and network with other organisms and species. They even wield a vascular system of awareness which some contrast to a central nervous system. All of these points serve to debunk the notion…

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