ethics


To challenge some easily held notions and convictions I like to read ‘Adbusters’. They write very provacative articles about consumerism, materialism, branding and our culture in general and the often unrecognized ill affects they have on us as individuals and as communities. Sometimes some of their messages would seem more at home being preached from pulpits than coming from people with little or no faith background as they are truly seeking to be counter-culture and ‘strangers in the world’ (1 Peter 1:1).

I got an email from them recently asking their readers to post and forward a visual meme. A meme is a unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. They contest that the predominant ‘memes’ in our culture are brands that are put forward by corporations and businesses with only their own interests at heart.

This is one of the visual memes they are asking their readers to forward:

Most people will look at this image and think the people at Adbusters are wack jobs. I look at it and notice a number of companies whose logos are shown that I have in the past been loyal to, or are still loyal to in some ways. There are others that I have little or no repect for because of their products, image and business practices. What I can agree with the Adbusters on, is nearly all of the companies whose logos are shown have little or no long term vested interest in anything other than their bottom lines. When you also factor in that by the age of 2, 10% of toddlers vocabulary is composed of brand names (James Twitchell, Branded Nation, p. 2), that the way in which businesses and corporations intentionally advertise to young children, are the people at Adbusters being overzealous in labeling it as ‘Organized Crime’?

Sometimes I’m just not that sure.

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The other night I watched a really interesting show on BBC. The Great British Waste Menu was designed to reveal two things, 1) just how much food gets thrown out everyday and 2) just how good the food is that usually gets thrown out. They did this by having four top flight english chefs compete to create dishes to for a banquet dinner for 60 VIP guests, most of whom were food critics, broadcasters and TV show presenters.

If you want to see the show you watch it on the BBC iPlayer, it’s 90 minutes and it’s pretty fascinating and depressing at the same time. If you can’t watch it because you live in the wrong region or can’t be bothered to watch the whole thing, check out this clip on youtube.

I had already read somewhere that about 20% of all food produced, sold and bought in the UK goes to waste and gets thrown out, but this show put some hard numbers and images to it to help understand what 20% actually looks like. 3,500 potatoes a minutes get thrown out in the UK…every minute! The show also tried to make the point that a significant amount of fruit and vegetables gets thrown out because it doesn’t match a very specific set of requirements in regards of size, color and texutre that the supermarkets set, in part because the ‘consumer’ only wants perfect looking food. A tomato must be a certain size, be perfectly round and the perfect color, for example a courgette (zuchinni in America) can be no longer than 30cm, so farmers are screwed if they actually have a better than usual growing season and their vegetables are too big!!! If it doesn’t match it is thrown out. None of these factors affect the taste, but it is deemed un-sellable and therefore un-eatable. The additional point of the show was to not throw out any food because it is not only still eatable, but can be used to make a very delicious dish.

An even greater point the show could have and should have made was that as ‘consumers’ we need to begin buying less food to begin with. A significant portion of the food that gets thrown away is food that sits for too long in the backs of our fridges and ‘expires’ before we remember that we even have it. If we bought less food, we would actually be able to eat all the food that we actually buy. In addition to throwing out less food, as families, we’d save quite a bit of money as well.

In addition, the show points out ‘best before’ dates, ‘sell by’ dates and ‘eat before’ dates actually have little to do with freshness, quality and taste. They are marketing techniques used by supermarkets to get us to buy more food, to increase their sales…so if something is a day or two passed the prescribed date, then give it a sniff and use it if still smells good.

The bottom line is we could stand to have a bit less of everything, decrease our footprint, decrease our usage, decrease our waste.

The average American family will use more energy created by fossil fuel between the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve and dinner time on January 2 than a Tanzanian family will use all year long. (New Economic Foundation, Real World Economic Outlook 2003, p. 61.)

I’m not ok with this…too often we assume that this is simply a right we have because of where we live, but this is an example of economic injustice. The solution isn’t just to increase the quality and standard of living in Tanzania (in this case) but to also decrease our energy consumption so that it is more consistent with the average usage of people in other first world countries (like the United Kingdom which uses less than half the energy per person as the United States does: 166BTUs per person vs. 350 BTUs per person annually).

A failure to do so is arrogant, prideful, selfish and deeply unstewardly.

Doesn’t need much comment does it?

But it does beg the question of what constitutes ‘a better world’?

On the way home from a short holiday we stopped in Bristol for lunch. We went to some deli and weren’t exactly blown away, but it wasn’t horrible.

What made it really interesting was the bag they gave us to carry our lunch outside of the deli. See the picture below.

In case you can’t read it the bag says ‘Bins get hungry too, please feed them.’ Right next to a recycling logo.

Maybe I’m being really picky, but this bag presents very contrasting messages. England has a garbage, litter or rubbish problem. People just have little problem littering where ever they feel like. It’s very frustrating, really depressing and frankly shocking to see someone be so cavalier as to through junk mail on the side walk or finish their McDonalds and just throw the wrapper on the sidewalk/pavement. So I’m sure the message on the bag is telling people to throw their garbage/rubbish in the bin and not on the ground, sidewalk or pavement.

But how do you put that message right next to a recycling symbol on a bag that can clearly be reused and recycled? Is the recycling logo on this bag there just because it’s culturally acceptable to have a recycling logo on things that can be recycled so that it gives the business giving out the bags environmental cache?

This bag is a good reminder to me that I must work towards consistency in terms of my use and consumption. I must work harder to reduce the amount that I consume, to reuse what I do use and recycle everything that can’t be reused and to constantly ask myself it is something I need to begin with.

It’s also a good reminder to me to be consistent in the beliefs that I hold to be true and that I project. I can not believe something and act on it only when it’s convenient, which is the message of the bag that says ‘Recycle if you’re really committed, but otherwise just bin it.’

And in the meantime, I won’t be frequenting a resturant/deli that passively encourages people to throw away things that can be reused and recycled.

I love coffee. I drink about 4 cups a day. I only french press at home…the way God intended coffee to be brewed. Even though brewing it this way only costs a few pennies a cup, I love coffee enough to pay a few pounds ($4) for a cup of coffee at a good shop.

I also will only buy Fairtrade beans and drink Fairtrade brew…thisworld-fair-trade-day-logo often challenging especially when living in a country where the majority of people, when visiting them in their home, will offer you a cup of coffee, instant that is, and think they are doing you a favor. Instant coffee? Are you kidding me? That’s an abomination for which God should reserve the right to revoke your salvation should you choose to serve instant coffee. It takes months and months to grow the beans, long hours to pick them, dry them, roast them…and then you’re going to brew instant coffee? Blech.

Instant coffee, however, is actually a perfect example of just how little we are willing to pay for a cup of coffee and as a result just how little we think about the people who work so hard to provide us with this heavenly brew. Would you pay just a few pennies a cup for a glass of ‘instant beer’? How about ‘instant wine’? (I guess wine in a box is pretty close). What if they had ‘instant steak’ or ‘instant Ben & Jerry’s’. Ok, taking the thought a bit far.

But the crux of the question is important. How much would you pay coffee_beansfor a cup of coffee? Not because of the quality of the cup of brew…but how much would you be willing to pay to ensure that the person or persons responsible for your beverage were paid a fair wage?

In a Times.com article on Fair Trade coffee, that question was posed in a round about way. A woman, who willingly and regularily spent $4.15 on her frappacino was asked if she would be willing to spend $4.50 or even $5.00 to ensure that the coffee grower would end receiving a fair wage for his/her efforts. The answer was “Wow, these days, that’s a tough one.”

It’s a tough one, because in the midst of paying $3.00 or more a gallon to drive our SUVs for every trivial errand, paying $8.00 or more for a theatre/movie ticket, paying $2.75 or more to have each shirt dry-cleaned, and paying $10.00 or more to have our car washed by a machine so we don’t have to get out of our big SUVs, it is hard to pay an extra .50 cents for our coffee to ensure that coffee growers around the world might be able to make more than $2.50 a day…barely above the world poverty line.

From my standpoint, this issue of how much we are willing to pay is fundamentally about justice. It is about how much we value people and their efforts and the services we provide. The tendancy is to want anything we want at the cheapest possible price. In the pursuit of justice and quality, I personally am making a move towards having less, but what I have is of higher quality and exhibits a desire to be about justice for the poor (Proverbs 29:7).

Less truly becomes more when we think and live a little more like this…the more just happens to be in the pockets of people who need it alot more than I do.

How much would you pay for a cup of coffee?

Lately I’ve been trying to spend a little more time reading stuff I know that I’ll disagree with or is on the more ‘radical’ side. The hope is to sharpen some of my thinking and help me be more reflective about what I actually think.

Two periodicals that meet this criteria are ‘New Scientist’ (some interesting ideas but tend to ridicule anything that is faith based) and ‘Adbusters’ (more great ideas, but pretty out there). I like reading New Scientist because they have some very progressive ideas of how to deal with ecological degradation creating global warming and I read Adbusters because I think in some ways they are emblamatic of the ‘in the world but not of it’ thinking that Paul emplored Christians to have.

Reading Adbusters the other day in the most recent issue ‘The Virtual adbustersWorld’ I read a quote that made me question my hope for a natural solution to the problem of global warming because of the truth in the statement. The author (not known to me) wrote ‘For all the talk about the environment these days, I don’t think human beings have ever been so distanced from nature. And much as I hate to say it, I don’t think this trend is going to reverse itself. It just seems inevitable that people will continue to live more and more through technology.’ How can we realistically expect people to be committed to finding a solution to the problem of global warming (whether you think it’s real or not) when our culture is relying on advancements that distance ourselves from the problem more and more?

newscientist
If that weren’t enough, in New Scientist magazine James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis and scientist, is quoted as saying, ‘Climate change is happening and will shape the future world. It is unlikely that we will slow the pace of change, mainly because we are too slow and unable to make effective responses in under 20 to 40 years. More than this, the Earth itself will soon be in the driving seat and aiming at a 5C hotter world. I think that our best course of action is to spend as much effort adapting to global heating as in attempts to slow or stop it from happening.’

HUH? Really? Sounds to me like some very forward thinkers believe we can’t get the job done? This isn’t good enough for me and it is theologically unacceptable. Based on Genesis 1 we have a responsibility and simply finding an easier solution to avoid the real problem isn’t an option. If technology is ultimately causing us/me to lose touch with the creation that God made and with each other, then I want less of it (yes, I see the irony in making that statement on a blog on the web).

Rather than taking the same rather pessimistic view of things that these two authors have taken, I prefer to be optimistic, hopeful and action oriented about the problem of global warming and isolation, lonliness due to an over-emphasis on technology.

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