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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Doing Manual Labor for Sustainable Development Makes You Sexy

(or, A Hodge-Podge of Fact and Opinion)

By Josh Kearns

I’ve just returned from an arduous – but tremendously joyful – trip to a small village in the remote coastal mountains of Burma’s “Deep South,” Tenasserim Division.

The trip took two weeks and consisted of nearly four days of travel – each way – over very bad roads through rugged terrain and jungle, and a high-tide-dependent boat ride up the lush verdant tentacles of an estuary, to deliver colleagues and myself and our cache of tools and materials to Koh Bok, an ethnic Karen village of about 90 households and 450 individuals.

In a week’s work we installed (1) a small dam in a mountain stream and 800 m of conduction pipe delivering about 24 L/min, (2) two 5,000 L bamboo-reinforced concrete water storage tanks, and (3) a 600 L/day drinking water treatment system employing biologically-active sand filtration and adsorption with biochar generated from surplus local woodscraps.

“Whew!” is right!

It was a lot of fun. The villagers were amazing to work with. And they kept us very well fed, from a nearly 100% local diet of free-range meat, eggs, and vegetables grown locally and gathered from the jungle.

Pictures are posted on the Aqueous Facebook page: facebook.com/AqueousSolutions. Feel free to get in touch if you would like more details about this project and the components we worked on.

Them’s the facts; now on to the opinions.

My dear friend Avery Bang, CEO of the brilliant non-profit Bridges to Prosperity, recently posted an op-ed article entitled The White Tourist’s Burden on her Facebook page. The article trains a critical lens on “voluntourism,” its drawbacks, and the actual versus ostensible means it often serves. You should read it. Now. Go on – I’ll wait.

[…]

Ok, good.

Clearly the piece gives a lot to think about. As somewhat of a “career voluntourist” myself, I might ardently echo and extend, as well as argue counter to, some of the complexities that could be unpacked from this – and probably wind up quite uncertain, and unsettled, in the end. It definitely would make for a lively discussion among both aspiring and veteran Chemists Without Borders (hint hint…).

I won’t attempt a comprehensive commentary here, but just extract one morsel to gnaw on a bit.

The tone of the piece is consonant with my pet theory that various and sundry "sustainable development" marketers have finally cottoned on to the last consumerist niche left in WWLs (wealthy white liberals), namely, affluence-guilt assuagement.

Organizations that appear on the surface to be contributing to “sustainable development” are often actually in the business of selling indulgences – psychological products that allow people to engage in narcissistic and self-centered recreational activities while having their guilt expunged and replaced with the belief that they're actually helping poor people when they, say, go rock climbing or spend umpteen hours per week training for a triathlon.

The process is analogous to that of the medieval Catholic Church, which created a market for moral sin offsets allowing the rich to pay to have their various iniquities expunged. This convenient mechanism relieved the rich person’s conscience without the need for arduous activities of penance, and indeed obviated even the need to curtail sinning.

As ecological economist Clive Spash has pointed out, this system “replaced personal action to address wrongdoing with a monetary transaction allowing immoral actions to be justified. Sin would perversely increase because, for the wealthy, indulgences provide a lower cost alternative to lengthy penances.”

The same criticism has been levied by Spash and other analysts, such as Guardian columnist George Monbiot and The Economist magazine, to the modern practice of selling pollution credits to big dirty industries, and CO2 offsets to guilt-ridden air travelers.

I pick on the increasingly common practice by alleged sustainable development orgs of linking athletic leisure pursuits with doing good for the world’s poor because (1), I’m a bit of an outdoor/endurance activity junkie myself, and (2), I recently spent the better part of four years living in fitness-obsessed Boulder, Colorado.

During that time I was party to a number of WASH-org fundraising events that pandered to the subliminal desires of sporty, affluent (predominantly white) folk to indulge in self-centered outdoor fitness hobbies (that, not incidentally, generate substantial social cachet within that particular subculture) while congratulating themselves for the socially “enlightened” and “ecological” values they hold and the “good they do” in the world (presumably by extension?).

Yeah, I know, that smarts. To be fair, we all want to believe that we’re good people, that our sum effect on the world is positive and not negative. That basic human psychological drive is at the core of the “voluntourism” phenomenon. Full disclosure: I certainly appreciate the “psychological income” accrued through my work – actually, I value it far, far more than the monetary income foregone by not having chosen a more lucrative path in life.

In fact, this psychological income is substantial enough for me to have serious doubts about my own capacity for altruism. I may have just found a very sophisticated, back-door way to feel good about myself and garner the praise and respect of others, trading a modest amount of money-capital for a much greater sum of social-capital. It would be intellectually dishonest to discount this sizeable contribution to the overall constellation of motivations for what I do.

Accordingly, it would be obviously foolish to argue that morally pure selflessness is the only proper motivator for sustainable development work. Instead I propose a compromise.

As you can see from our project photos, the people we work with tend to be very fit – lean, strong, physically competent. The difference between them and affluent outdoor leisure-fitness nuts in places like Boulder is that the villagers’ enviable physiques are derived from community-oriented, cooperative labor activities – farming, forestry, carpentry, those sorts of things.

I’m certainly not the first to take notice of the salubrious side-effects of farm labor. Mephistopheles, for one, pointed out:

There is a natural way to make you young...Go out in a field 
And start right in to work: dig, hoe, 
Keep your thoughts and yourself in that field,
Eat the food you raise...
Be willing to manure the field you harvest.
And that’s the best way - take it from me! - 
To go on being young at eighty.

Based on these observations, I propose a bifurcated classification system for outdoor physical fitness activities: (a) self-centered, and (b) other-centered. Self-centered activities expend energy only to the benefit of the agent, and to no other useful purpose. Other-centered activities expend energy towards the advancement of common social and environmental goods, and benefit the individual simply as a fortuitous side-effect.

As an enthusiast for self-centered activities such as trail running, bicycle touring, open-water swimming, hiking and rock climbing, I’d be hypocritical to call for their complete abolition. Being an avid cyclist, I’m guilty of having scorched the roads of Rocky Mountain Front Range while blowing an astonishing volume of kilocalories towards nothing so much as the frivolity of well-muscled thighs, all while hastening the eventual heat-death of the universe. (My bad.)

What I do strongly advocate, however, is shifting the balance of self- and other- centered outdoor physical activities towards the more broadly beneficial.

Optimally, one should derive the bulk of one’s fitness from labor activities that directly benefit the local community, economy, and environment. A smaller portion of one’s time spent in physical activity, say ≤ 10%, should come in the form of hedonic leisure that burns energy only in service to the individual with no greater avail to society.

Perhaps the CSA (community-supported-agriculture) organic farms around Boulder can take the lead in driving this shift by marketing themselves as fitness clubs. Let’s all get ripped making compost!



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Monday, April 14, 2014

Another tool in the war against "superbugs"

Researchers have developed a new polymyxin-like lipopeptide to kill multidrug-resistant microbes (superbugs).  In the past, when facing bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, doctors could prescribe polymyxins.  Polymyxins are lipopeptides that kill bacteria by binding to a component of the cell wall and disrupting ionic and hydrophobic interactions.  Polymyxin-resistant bacteria have evolved so that they prevent polymyxins from binding with them and causing any disruptions in their cell walls.  By looking at where the resistance comes from structurally (changes in the lipid that affect hydrophobic interactions with the drug), they were able to determine modifications of the polymyxin that would stabilize the binding of the drug to the cell wall. 

We have one more tool in the war between humans and bacteria.  How long before the bacteria figure this one out and evolve yet again…who knows…probably faster than we would like...

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

I’ve Got a BEEF with Sustainability


By Josh Kearns

I’ve had a lot of unpopular ideas. Maybe the all-time most unpopular, though, is this one:

The relatively short trips made by international humanitarian science/engineering and sustainable community development professionals for fieldwork, particularly to far-flung destinations, are almost certainly futile from an environmental sustainability perspective.

Most of us in the international “humanitarian science and engineering,” and “sustainable community development” sectors are professionally concerned with environmental sustainability. We relentlessly flog the rhetoric of “sustainability” for grant seeking and fundraising, in outreach and promotional activities, and in our organizational and institutional self-assessments.

But most of us, myself included, do an awful lot of long-haul air travel for fieldwork, incurring substantial CO2 emissions. This has led me to wonder:

What if the good we do advancing sustainability in our fieldwork gets negated by the CO2 we emit getting there and back again?

I became worried about this after reading climate scientist Kevin Anderson’s article arguing that climate scientists and others who are professionally concerned with sustainability are often a bunch of hypocrites for engaging in so much air travel for conferences, fieldwork, etc., and ought instead to go by train and/or travel less in order to lead by example.

I used to work as a researcher in the development of the Ecological Footprint, a sustainability accounting tool that provides a quantitative metric of sustainability by comparing humanity’s demands for energy, resources, and waste assimilation with the planet’s biological capacity to meet these demands.

 A cartoon conception of the Ecological Footprint.

From my work on the Footprint, I know that people in the "developing world" have much smaller Ecological Footprints than we do in affluent countries such as the US. For example, the average Thai Footprint is about 1/3rd that of the average American. The average Ugandan and Peruvian Footprints are about 1/6th, and the average Haitian about 1/10th that of the average American.

So, recently I began to wonder: How long would a humanitarian scientist/engineer from the affluent world have to live at a local, developing community Ecological Footprint level in order to offset the CO2 they emitted getting out into the field and back home again?

It turns out that this is not too hard to calculate using existing Footprint data. I call the concept the Break Even Ecological Footprint, or “BEEF,” for short. It represents the minimum amount of time a scientist/engineer/development worker has to remain in-country, living with the local community, in order to begin to accrue a net sustainability benefit. Any trip shorter than the BEEF would be futile from a sustainability perspective, as the environmental costs of travel would outweigh the sustainability benefits of living at a lower Ecological Footprint level relative to the affluent home-country lifestyle.

The BEEF concept can thus be applied to gauge the net environmental sustainability benefit (or cost) of a particular work/study trip.

Many humanitarian science and engineering organizations are based in affluent regions and operate on college campuses through the activities of students, faculty, and with professional consultants from big private sector firms. The rigors of the academic calendar and limitations on professionals’ vacation time often greatly restrict the duration of travel by these groups for carrying out humanitarian projects. Trips are planned, for example, over winter break or for a few weeks during summer. Unfortunately, BEEF analysis reveals that trips of this short duration almost always incur a net sustainability deficit. In other words, from an environmental sustainability perspective, these would-be “sustainable development” practitioners should better have stayed home.

Now can you see why my BEEF idea may be record-breakingly unpopular?

If you’ve read this far and you’re still curious to learn more about BEEF analysis, including the calculation methodology and some sample results as well as consideration of criticisms and limitations of the methodology, see my article in Resilience.

You can also visit the Aqueous Solutions website and play around with our interactive BEEF Calculator. We encourage humanitarian engineering and science professionals from affluent countries who are planning to go abroad for fieldwork to use this calculator to assess their trips for potential futility from an environmental sustainability perspective.

And as long as I am pointing fingers, I may as well implicate myself, too.

My fieldwork is located in SE Asia, primarily Thailand and Burma. Using Footprint data for the US and Thailand, I calculate a BEEF of 2.2-11.7 months. That's a wide range, because it takes into account a couple of scenarios depending (1) upon how closely I approximate an average local lifestyle while in the field, and (2) whether a radiative forcing multiplier is applied for CO2 emissions at high altitude.

My current stint in the field is just shy of six months, so I’d better hope that my activities here produce demonstrable, lasting sustainability gains for the local individuals and communities I work with, extending well beyond my own professional life, in order to make it all “worth it” from a bona fide sustainability perspective.

Critically examining my own activities this way underscores the trenchant conclusion that:

If “sustainability” truly is among our most cherished values as professionals and not just a buzzword constantly trumpeted to expedite project funding and social ingratiation, then we must put our professional activities and contemporary lifestyles to rigorous (re-)evaluation, though the implications of doing so may be discomfiting.

What do you think?

*        *        *

Author’s note:        I will be taking a short hiatus from blogging for Chemists Without Borders for the next two weeks. I’m headed to the Kra Isthmus region of SE Burma to work with a small village on water projects and will not have internet access. When I return I hope to have lots photos, stories, and lessons-learned to share!


As usual, you can find me on Facebook, and please “Like” Aqueous Solutions!



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