Over the last few days I have noticed several people daring to think about - and this really is rather daring - where all their stuff comes from.
It started with food in general, in the context of an appearance on the Today Programme. My basic argument was that our sense of what is wasteful depends on our perception of scarcity, and we don't experience scarcity, mostly because we are so far removed from the provenance of the things we rely on: food, water and energy. I am beginning to think that the core problem is that such things are kept relatively cheap only because we don't factor in their true environmental, social and health costs, and an excellent editorial in Sunday's Observer: "There's a price to be paid for our cheap food" seemed to share this view.
Image via www.gulawweekly.org
Then I noticed a tweet from Public Understanding of Science supremo Alice Bell this morning: "Those last two tweets posted from my phone. Which is amazing. But I want to know more about the materials, people & injustices that made it." She probably already knows this story about phone materials, but it is pretty shocking. A line from the feature captures the core problem- there is a huge demand for tin due to our insatiable appetite for new phones, but the kinds of tin we need are not easy to extract, and cause a great deal of harm along the way: "Tin mining is a lucrative but destructive trade that has scarred the island's landscape, bulldozed its farms and forests, killed off its fish stocks and coral reefs, and dented tourism to its pretty palm-lined beaches."
(Image via thehindu.com)
On the same Twitter stream there was a report about Tea plantations being threatened by Climate Change. My colleague Dr Emma Lindley has a charming biographical line "Manchester-based drinker of Yorkshire tea" and I'm partial to Yorkshire tea myself, but you don't need to pause for long to realise that Yorkshire tea is not actually grown in, y'know, Yorkshire. It seems there is now a consortium of tea companies "Tea 2030" supported by Forum for the Future who are realising that some of the places most likely to be impacted by climate disruption (by the way, I think that's a much better term than 'climate change' HT Ian Christie). If the idea of Polar bears swimming in search of ice until they drown didn't get your attention, perhaps waking up without access to a good and affordable cuppa might do it.
(Image via touristindia.org)
Finally(for now at least) I remembered the absolutely wonderful RSA event "Eating Animals" featuring Jonathan Safran Foer. I strongly urge you to listen to the full audio podcast which includes his considered answers to some tough audience questions. I loved this talk because I don't think people should wear the term 'vegetarian' as some sort of self-righteous badge of honour, and then cross-examine people for their consitency of their practices (milk? eggs? leather?). I fully agree with Jonathan's point that making it a moral binary, an either-or, just doesn't help. People are attached to meat for lots of reasons, not just taste but various valued cultural and spiritual practices that involve it.
(Image via guardian.co.uk)
The key is first to recognise the harm involved in the process, and to take responsibility for your actions with as much awareness as you can. And that's the reason the talk was so brilliant. The main take-home point for me was his simple observation that the meat industry relies on ignorance about food production and guards it very carefully. The corollary (note to self: at some point it's worth digging out the exact quotation) is that Jonathan says something like "It only goes in one direction. The more you know about where it comes from, the less you want to eat it."
The same point applies to ethical behaviour and sustainability more broadly- much of it is about who owns and protects information. More about that on Friday.