personal, ruminations

Writing is Wasteful

This is the first part of a two-part argument that I seem to be constantly having with myself. The second half, Writing is Useful, will be posted on Thursday.

D’arcy NormanLandfill

If this site exists for one reason, its for me to write. If it exist for a second reason, it’s so I’ll be listened to. If it exists for a third reason if so I can make a few dollars. If it exists for a fourth reason it’s so that’ll I’ll eventually get to appear on a late night talk show. If it–it’s clear we’ve hit the point of diminishing return on this game, let’s move on.

I have a sometimes-tenuous relationship with this blog. Once I was convinced it would help me change the world. Once I decided that it proved I was an egomaniac. Once I decided that I could do whatever I wanted with it. Once I decided that it was the magazine I’ve always looked for but never found.

Those are just the opinions about it I remember having. I don’t doubt there are more, though they probably either weren’t expressed here, or weren’t expressed very clearly.

But if the variety of the ways I’ve looked at this blog prove nothing else, they make a point of this: I’m wasting words all over this blog. I’ve regularly disagreed with myself–see these divergent thoughts on ignorance for example. What I’m doing, in short, is wasting words and adding to the noise. And we all know how I feel about noise.

My hypocrisy proves this essential point: my writing is wasteful. Even more, writing done in most places for most reasons is wasteful. People elsewhere have said it better, more eloquently, with a larger vocabulary, or greater modesty. There is, in short, no point in your writing anything.

For a less personal example, consider all the strained remakes that Hollywood has made in recent years. Few were memorable, except as reminders of how good some old movies are. In their averageness, these remakes made the most widely-watched case for a complete moratorium on writing by anyone but journalists–who must be allowed the privilege to convey novel events from around the world.

And consider the soon-to-be-forgotten strike by the Writer’s Guild of America. Though doom and gloom seemed to be the picture that emerged when the strike began, the rather quiet resolution proves how little the scribes were actually missed. The late-night comedians proved that not having writers doesn’t make what they’re doing much better or worse.

The simple fact is, with all that you’re thinking of writing, going to write, or would like to writ, someone somewhere has said it better, thought it better, or written it better. Your words do little more than take up space on hard drives across the internet. Few read them, and even fewer would notice their absence. There’s no sense in writing anything.

personal, ruminations

On Dog Poop, Again

memespringDog Poop in Water

About seven months ago–wow, has it really been that long?–I instructed:

So next time you’re walking your dog, and someone asks you if you’re going to pick that up, do the right thing. Say yes and walk away. Leave the excrement where it falls.

And even when I wrote that, I wasn’t nearly so certain as it sounds. I expect I was mostly just excusing the fact that I didn’t pick up dog poop at the time.

Soon after that I had a change of heart. Though it would be useful to have a nice transformational moment when I realized how foolish my old logic had been–how I accidentally stumbled into a large pile of dog feces while walking in shiny new shoes–there is not one.

The simple reality is that at the time I was proudly declaring that one shouldn’t pick up dog poop, I was really just scared of the stuff. And reasonably so. Excrement of all kinds carries more bacteria than just about anything else we regularly encounter. And it’s certainly the most unsafe thing our bodies–and dog’s bodies–regularly expel.

But, I realized one day, it’s safer for everyone if I pick that stuff up with a layer of plastic between me and it, and then wash my hand before it goes anywhere near my mouth. It’s safer there than on a third grader’s shoe. Or a 67 year old’s. Safer too than having a mistaken toddler play with it. Safer than it having it leach into the water supply–an odd claim I’d never heard until I saw the above picture.

I still have reservations about the whole thing. Mostly it’s this: I’m sealing biodegradable waste inside a painfully-slow-to-erode plastic bag, where it will take up landfill space for hundreds of years. Now the plastic bag may have well ended up in the landfill anyway, but the poop could be, as I suggested last time, reasonably good fertilizer.

Were there to be a reason to leave those feces where they fall, that would certainly be it. But forced to choose, as a dog-walker regularly is, between leaving it and sealing it, I’ll now choose sealing nine times out of ten. (And that tenth time is probably hidden in high grass where it’s rather unlikely that anyone will walk within the next three months.)

american society, lists, world

Ten Reasons to Avoid Bottled Water

Bottled water has been getting a lot of bad press recently. And though I tend to pity those is unfortunate situations, in this case I say “pile on.” So here they are, ten good reasons to avoid (not purchase, not imbibe) bottled water.

All quotes on this list come from the July 2007 issue of Fast Company, in Charles Fishman’s “Message in a Bottle.” It’s a really great piece, and I would suggest reading the whole thing.

Also, this list is not meant to deny the usefulness of bottled water. When the safety of your water supply is an honest concern, I say you’ve got good reason to drink from sealed bottles. And when you can’t take another swig of the foul water you sometimes find in rural Nebraska, that’s okay too. But if can reasonably avoid the stuff, please do.

  1. Think of the kittens. Every time you break the seal on a bottle of water, God kills a kitten. Please, think of the kittens.
  2. But seriously… It’s not safer or healthier. I sometimes find it difficult to believe that anyone would believe this. Municipal water in the “developed” world is always free of anything we count on nutrition labels. It’s free of vitamins, it’s free of essential minerals, and its free of calories. There is nothing different whether it comes from Fiji, Maine, Los Angeles’s municipal water supply, or your own faucet.
  3. You’re paying too much. Look at it in these simple terms, “If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35. Put another way, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000.”
  4. You’re creating more waste. Even though water bottles are made with easy to recycle PET, they are often sent to landfills. “Our recycling rate for PET is only 23%, which means we pitch into landfills 38 billion water bottles a year–more than $1 billion worth of plastic.”
  5. Even if you do recycle, you’re still wasting energy to dispose of the bottle. Recycling isn’t free. Citizens pay for it, and they pay because it is not industrially efficient. Cleaning, processing, and reselling the recovered materials is not a cheap process, and it requires energy both from people and from machines. Much more energy than it takes for you to wash your own water bottle.
  6. Transport is waste. Where you have no safe or readily available drinking water, this may be untrue. But for most people who would read this, you’re wasting excess energy to get water of roughly equivalent quality. You can’t ignore the fact that shipping water from Fiji, or anywhere else, uses more energy than using the water that (probably) naturally arrives and is used by your local water utility.
  7. You may well be getting tap water anyway. Both Pepsi and Coca-Cola (or Aquafina and Dasani), sell municipal water back to consumers. Those two alone account for 24% of the bottled water sold in the United States. Municipal water being sold back to you should be good reason to use that water yourself.
  8. It doesn’t even taste better. Though I wouldn’t deny that some people can truly distinguish a difference, “in blind taste tests, with waters at equal temperatures, presented in identical glasses, ordinary people can rarely distinguish between tap water, springwater, and luxury waters.”
  9. You can filter your own. Though you don’t have access to some of the more advanced (and more wasteful) filtering technologies used by the industry, there are many options for filtering your water at home. These will not put it in sealed bottles for you, but they can improve the taste of the water for less cost than a bottle, and with less waste.
  10. You can do better. Says Princeton’s Peter Singer, “we’re completely thoughtless about handing out $1 for this bottle of water, when there are virtually identical alternatives for free. It’s a level of affluence that we just take for granted. What could you do? Put that dollar in a jar on the counter instead, carry a water bottle, and at the end of the month, send all the money to Oxfam or CARE and help someone who has real needs. And you’re no worse off.”

I think Mr. Fishman deserves the last words on this topic:

Packing bottled water in lunch boxes, grabbing a half-liter from the fridge as we dash out the door, piling up half-finished bottles in the car cup holders–that happens because of a fundamental thoughtlessness. It’s only marginally more trouble to have reusable water bottles, cleaned and filled and tucked in the lunch box or the fridge. We just can’t be bothered. And in a world in which 1 billion people have no reliable source of drinking water, and 3,000 children a day die from diseases caught from tainted water, that conspicuous consumption of bottled water that we don’t need seems wasteful, and perhaps cavalier.

That is the sense in which Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, and Singer, the Princeton philosopher, are both right. Mackey is right that buying bottled water is a choice, and Singer is right that given the impact it has, the easy substitutes, and the thoughtless spending involved, it’s fair to ask whether it’s always a good choice.