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Podur on Sustainability

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[This is an edited transcript of the keynote speech Justin Podur gave at the "Spirituality and Activism Conference," St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Austin, TX, March 29, 2008.--Robert Jensen]

by Justin Podur, York University

Over the past few years I have come into contact with several different indigenous movements in different parts of the world, including where I live, in Canada. One of these indigenous peoples are the Nasayuwe of Cauca in southern Colombia, and they describe our economic system as a ‘proyecto de muerte’, a ‘death project’. When they reclaim their ancestral territories or prevent paramilitaries from entering them, they say that they are defending life. What is rational from the perspective of defending life seems insane in our system, in our culture. Environmental problems are deadly serious, as serious as problems of war and peace, and to give ourselves a chance at survival we have to be willing to think in ways we might not be accustomed to and break taboos. I hope to break some taboos here, and I just wanted to warn you in case that happens.   


Taboos and irrationalities


An architect named William McDonough and a chemist named Michael Braungart have a book called “cradle to cradle”. It imagines an industrial system in which all of the things we use are reclaimed after we use them. You use a computer, say. But you don’t buy the computer. You just pay to use the computer for some amount of time, and when it’s done, you give it back to the manufacturer, who designed it so it can easily be disassembled and its parts used to make another computer, perhaps an upgraded one. We have ‘recycling’, but McDonough and Braungart don’t think what we have merits the term ‘recycling’. Instead, it’s ‘downcycling’. Cars are made of high-quality and low-quality steel, for example. But when they are ‘recycled’, these are all blended together. The resulting alloy can’t be used to make another car. High-quality paper is recycled into lower-quality paper. The way we ‘downcycle’, we are just creating a brief stop on the way to the landfill. And in any case, if you’ve seen ‘the story of stuff’, an amazing 20-minute movie you can watch online (just search for ‘the story of stuff’), you know that industry produces 70 tons of garbage for every ton produced by consumers. If we accept the “cradle to cradle” philosophy, there’s no reason there should be any garbage at all. No waste. Living systems, ecosystems, don’t waste. The results of natural processes are always food for other natural processes, whether it’s a carcass left behind after predation ultimately enriching the soil or a standing dead tree left behind after fire providing habitat for birds. But our economic system does waste, an awful lot. For that to be different, everything would have to be designed with its ultimate fate in mind.


We are very far from that, today. We have global industries producing massive amounts of stuff, planned for obsolescence, made of toxic petrochemicals that are mined, hazardous to workers and users, shipped across the world in tankers and trucks (using more petroleum), used very briefly before being dumped in a site where they will remain, leaking toxics into air and water and soil, for thousands of years. 


We come now to our first taboo, something not normally talked about in polite company: human waste. I recently read a book called “The Humanure Handbook” by Joseph Jenkins. He starts out by saying – there are two kinds of people in the world. People who defecate into bowls of drinking water and people who do not. In North America we have evolved very sophisticated technology for cleaning water that has been fouled by humanure (I am deliberately avoiding the word ‘waste’, following Jenkins). What we have not tried is not putting it in the water in the first place. Jenkins describes a very simple composting system that he says doesn’t smell (and he uses it), isn’t dangerous or toxic, and results in reclaiming the humanure for the valuable fertilizer that it is. He lives in the country and uses it in his own garden, but he describes, plausibly I think, a system that could work in an urban setting as well. Humanure creates very serious public health problems when it gets into water. But properly composted it is a resource for agriculture. This waste, and now we can call it waste, is a window into our agricultural system. I could imagine a system where food was organic, local, used these kinds of closed loops, in which people’s ability to think and design worked in concert with the self-design of ecosystems so that people could eat and drink very well, and even in cities take part in gardening and cooking, and without having to worry about toxins or genetic modifications in the food. There are such systems that exist, in Cuba, for example, where people in the city grow an impressive proportion of their own food using organic methods.


How does our food system work, instead? It is not based on farming so much as mining soil, pouring petrochemical fertilizer and mined nitrates into the ground and using pesticides to ensure that only one type of plant can grow – increasingly a type of plant that is genetically modified to better handle the pesticide. All this produces a massive amount of a single crop, harvested by machine and processed by people who we pretend don’t exist most of the time, people who work for less than minimum wage, have no protections or benefits, and are expected to do the work and disappear again. The crop is then sent off to manufacturers (on trucks, using petroleum) to process even more, with more petrochemicals, into syrups and starches and food that comes in plastic-wrapped packages and metal cans. And these workers are also insecure, poorly-paid, vulnerable to workplace accidents and unemployment. Then trucked off (petrol again) to stores or fast-food restaurants to be sold for very cheap – more processed food is cheaper than fresh food, and in many neighbourhoods fresh food just can’t be had at all. And people need to eat this stuff because they are working multiple jobs to make ends meet and don’t have time to cook, or money to afford fresh food, or time to seek it out.


Possibly, our second taboo, which is to say something negative about one of North America’s most sacred institutions: the automobile. I live in a city, Toronto, but I grew up in a suburb, called Mississauga. The suburb I grew up in looks like every suburb in North America. Subdivisions of homogeneous detached houses with lawns and driveways and cars, malls and plazas with parking lots around them, big, wide roads and lots of highways, and now plenty of big-box stores. These places were designed not for people, but for cars. The simplest way to tell is to try to meet someone else in the same suburb. How will you get there? You can ride your bike in the city, it’s not too far. Or take transit, it won’t take two hours waiting for the bus to go along a convoluted route that will get you there by the end of the day. It’s not different people who live in the suburbs, it’s just structurally impossible to get around without a car.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
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