Confessions of a Paper Fetishist
Confessions of a Paper Fetishist: Critique, Diversity, and Sustainability
Published in All About Mentoring (36), Fall 2009
Kate Forbes, Central New York Center
One of the interesting things about being at an institution that is sparsely populated with ecologists (unlike the land-grant institutions of my upbringing), is that colleagues are consistently seeking my input on “green” ideas. This is reasonable, given that sustainability and environmentalism are culturally synonymous with ecology. Still, I always feel a bit sheepish that I, an ecologist, have relatively little to contribute to the discussion. My academic training to date has focused on abstractions, on models, on the hypothetical co-existence of species, on the role of variation in shaping the whole. Ecologists, while unable to agree upon what it is that they do[i] (say, examining the abundance and diversity of organisms[ii]) do seem reasonably unified in their tendency to not directly address issues of sustainability.
Sustainability is an inherently interdisciplinary concept. Most definitions of the term (and there are many) focus on how a practice relates to three criteria[iii]. Sustainable practices must not degrade the environment; that is, we should be able to conduct them indefinitely, despite the finite resources that are available to humans at any given time. There’s a degree of practicality to sustainability; if practices aren’t economically feasible, they’re also not sustainable. A practice that requires continuous economic inputs may not be in one’s long term interest, particularly if those running the show are hoping to turn a profit. Lastly, sustainable endeavors promote social justice (or at the very worst, do not create further injustice[iv]). It’s considered uncouth to claim sustainability by virtue of efficiently hoarding communal resources.
Only one of the three criteria above is tied to the science of ecology. Worse yet, the environmental criterion is, in my biased opinion, the most-straightforward. There are rules to making money (having money in the first place and disobeying other rules may be a good start), but these are more guidelines than anything; lots of intelligent people have failed spectacularly at obtaining economic sustainability. Sadly, the path to social justice is a question for the ages. Humans have a spotty record of sharing economic and natural resources, or generally refraining from conflict for extended periods of time, much less refraining from oppressive practices. In this context, the science of not damaging the environment seems straight-forward. Dumping poison into rivers leads to poisoned rivers. Cutting down a forest destroys the habitat of forest-dwelling animals. Granted, there’s room for nuance and non-linearity in this discussion (the question of just how much poison we can dump into a river before various bad things happens comes to mind). However, the first principles of ecology as applied to environmentalism and sustainability seem fairly basic.[v]
As I laid out above, we’ve already got two-and-a-half hurdles to jump over if we’re going to “be sustainable,” so how do we accomplish this? Fixing society is an overwhelming task. There are too many problems at too many levels. It’s easy to focus on seemingly distant issues, rather than personal issues. Someone is poisoning my drinking water. It’s tempting to start using the passive voice and just go home; sulfur oxides are being released into the atmosphere. How unfortunate.
At this point, I should admit that I have a problem. I have an unhealthy attachment to paper. I find it aesthetically pleasing. A clean, crisp sheet of paper holds endless possibilities. Paper is also an essential tool for academics. Thanks to technology, these days writing paper is a fairly low-brow product, readily obtainable by the masses. Still, it is (figuratively and literally) the currency of the academic realm. Unlike pixels, words on paper seem real to me. There’s something unseemly with ideas locked inside my computer monitor, crossword puzzles not folded, papers unsketched upon.
You’ve probably realized by now that my attachment to paper isn’t particularly rational. To give you an idea of the extent of my sickness, I enjoy the smell of distant paper mills. Growing up in Minnesota, and having spent extensive time in Wisconsin and Finland, the thick, acrid, yet not entirely unearthly smell makes me feel at home. Paper mills smell like vacationland, like “up North” (although employees of Georgia Pacific may disagree with me on this one). I’m also susceptible to completing the disingenuous emotional connections that people are prone to making to natural resource extraction. Paper’s a part of my heritage! My grandfather grew up a logger in the Pacific Northwest (never mind that most of what he cut down was far too valuable to be wasted on paper, let alone that he left the logging industry the first chance he had, resenting the tremendous human and environmental costs). Other relatives grew up in the logging towns of Northern Wisconsin (having visited the area recently, it would appear that they were fortunate to have retired and/or moved by the time the forests somehow disappeared).
I am a realist, however, and there are very good reasons I said that I loved the smell of distant paper mills. On the one occasion that I found myself far too close to a massive Stora-Enso facility in Ostrobothnia, I recall making a hasty retreat, nauseous and mortified to witness children playing in their yards across from the plant’s gates. It’s best not to live next to a paper mill, nor downwind or downstream from one. It takes massive amounts of chemicals to turn pulp into paper—including bleaches and other chloride compounds that give new paper its smooth feel and bright shine. Sulfur oxides are released into the atmosphere. The massive machines inside paper plants (which a fellow graduate student in Wisconsin confided in me aren’t terribly fun to operate) require a lot of industrial lubricants. Carbonless copy paper once contained PCBs, too– it is not a coincidence that the Fox River, in the heart of Wisconsin’s paper country, is notable for hosting more than its fair share of the toxins.[vi]
The imperative to use less paper should be obvious to anyone else who has smelled a paper mill. Still, people are stubborn. People keep insisting on using paper. I keep insisting on using paper. Altering established behavior requires an external nudge, if not an outright leap of faith. I’m not used to getting ideas electronically. Granted, I read and occasionally participate in the blogosphere, but “new media” are new—they aren’t “real” (which may be one of the biggest things they’ve got going for themselves). I’m in the habitat of printing out academic ideas; properly reviewing manuscripts involves ink and sketching.
I brought my print first, think later perspective to my work with the Center for Distance Learning. I didn’t like the challenge of reading upright words. Words should be flat. Above all else, I knew that words should never, ever, scroll. This paradigm meant that I needed to print out every assignment I received prior to marking it up with pen and ink, and subsequently rewriting these comments electronically. This process killed trees and poisoned waterways, which was unfortunate. That wasn’t the real killer though—it readily became apparent that doing my job twice over was horribly unproductive. A few assignments into the term, I resolved that harnessing the wisdom of over a dozen years in academia, I would begin to grade electronic assignments electronically.
Unsurprisingly, my foray into electronic grading was a resounding success. Perhaps this is the scale at which real environmental progress occurs. While it may not be productive to try to overhaul all of one’s habits at once, this “try it you’ll like it” version of sustainable living has the promise to deliver real change to real behaviors. As citizens and professionals interested in promoting sustainability, picking our battles may prove to key to our success. Moreover, “saving the Earth” may not be the sole motivation behind individuals’ changing habits.
Academics are strangely positioned when it comes to changing society. On the one hand, our careers are based upon critique. We seek to challenge our students’ assumptions. On the other, as celebrated, learned individuals, we are prone to taking our own assumptions for granted. As much as any other group, we engage in a constant process of critique. However, when it comes to changing the habits of others, we need to ask ourselves when (and if) our culture of critique is productive.
Having spent ample time in queer and feminist circles, I’ve witnessed critique backfire on a daily basis. Countless times I’ve seen strangers and colleagues judge other peoples’ lifestyles against arbitrary standards. Who is “really” queer? Who is “really” a feminist and who is a tool of the patriarchy? I find these sorts of questions tiresome and offensive. It’s clear to me that they’re premised on the false assumption that all people share the same values. Either a failure to understand diversity or a hostile rejection of it in favor of one’s own superiority likely lies behind such shaming.
The problem this discussion raises for discourse on sustainability is that when it comes to the environment clearly “we[vii]” are right and “they” are wrong. It is imperative that all people live sustainably. Anything else would be, well, unsustainable. However, being right isn’t enough to carry the day, particularly when faced with other people with different views that are also right. The danger, I fear, with critiquing each other’s lifestyles is that it may lead those on the receiving end to run in the other direction.
As much as “we” pride ourselves as part of the solution, we need to resist smugness. Showing off our priorities with appropriately sustainable lifestyle accessories may raise awareness of green living, but it may also reinforce other people’s sense of otheredness. Ultimately, we need to use diversity as the backbone of a movement towards sustainability. Just as different people have different personalities, different living situations, and different priorities, there are multiple routes to sustainability. Rather than convincing people of the need to “do the right thing” (as defined by “us”), we should allow for the reality that different people have different motivations. We should also look to address the diverse limitations to sustainable living that people face. Our aim should be to listen and cooperate, rather than to compete and judge.
How do we critique without critiquing? In my mind, this is where science pays the biggest dividends. Yes, there is room for research (i.e., how much poison is too much, and what do we do if we’ve crossed that threshold). However, I think that society greatly underestimates science’s ability to bound discussion. Science is merely logic applied; there’s a limit to what any scientist is investigating at any one time, and half the trick of science is bounding and defining just what exactly that is. An ecosystem ecologist spends much of her days drawing boundaries around ecosystems and measuring inputs and outputs within these systems. In the applied field of industrial ecology, practitioners study the consequences of specific products and processes. What are the qualitative results of our inputs and outputs, and how might we redesign systems to make things more balanced?
A scientific approach to discourse on sustainability yields two main benefits. The obvious advantage is that a quantitative approach yields quantitative results. Rather than pitting “good” against “bad” and conflating “bad” with “cataclysmic”, we can collect information that will help us set priorities. For example, we know that heavier airplanes use more fuel, but how does the ecological cost of heavy-set travelers compare to the costs of air travel in general, inefficient aircraft engines, inadequate mass transit, or pineapples on Long Island? A second benefit of taking a scientific approach is that we can bound which personal choices, priorities, and realities are up for debate, and what’s off the table. Should we really be debating the merits of fat people on airplanes?[viii] In my opinion, such a debate is beyond the pale; I’m simply not willing to put every person’s every attribute up for debate. The where and why of where to draw the line is still problematic, but not nearly as much as the absence of a line altogether.
People all have different paths to sustainability. I’ve found change one step at a time. Though it wasn’t made for the right reasons, my shift away from paper has the same impact as a more righteously driven choice. Focusing on diversity in sustainability has already begun to pay dividends. For example, acknowledging and challenging the reality of the underclass has led to programs that allow some recipients to use public assistance to purchase locally grown farmers’ market produce.[ix] Thanks to these programs, the poor can get affordable, nutritious food, local growers can expand their markets, and our planet can see the benefits of reduced fossil fuel use and otherwise sustainable agriculture. In some cases, everyone can win, whatever their motivation.
[i]Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Defining Ecology, http://www.ecostudies.org/definition_ecology.html.
[ii] H. G. Andrawartha and L. C. Birch, The Distribution and Abundance of Animals (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1954).
[iii] Andrew W. Savitz, The Triple Bottom Line (Jossey-Bass, Somerset, N. J., 2006).
[iv] I would argue that failure to adequately promote social justice constitutes an injustice in-and-of itself, but I’m feeling charitable and that’s a different essay.
[v] At least one scholar has gone on record questioning whether science is really the biggest roadblock to sustainability: Julian Agyeman, Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Social Justice, (New York University Press, New York, 2005), 40-41.
[vi] Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, PCB History- Fox River, http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/water/wm/FoxRiver/pcbhistory.html.
[vii] I have no idea who this refers to either, although presumably it’s people interested in creating a more sustainable society.
[viii] Edwards and Roberts recently calculated the energy costs of obesity, conveniently ignorant of my two suggestions about the responsible use of science and critique: Phil Edwards and Ian Roberts, “Population Adiposity and Climate Change,” International Journal of Epidemiology (Advanced Access Published on April 19, 2009).