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I can’t say enough about this video and web site, The Story of Stuff. Environmental activism isn’t about signing petitions, changing lightbulbs, holding signs and joining Greenpeace. It’s examining our consumer behaviors and gullibility:

The Story of Stuff
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Fashion Ladies; http://www.sxc.hu/photo/895970I’m reading with utter fascination this article, Dress for Excess: The Cost of Our Clothing Addiction. In trying to do our part to lessen the acceleration of climate change, shopping less is definitely a virtue, and may make as big an impact as becoming vegetarian. So voluntary simplicity and opting out of consumer culture less definitely covers unnecessarily buying new threads. Here are some eye-popping figures and pieces of info:

To clear out closet space for the new purchases, the average American discards 68 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

(To be honest, I wonder if the figure is bigger in some fashion-mad industrialized Asian countries.)

Cotton is grown on less than 2 percent of U.S. farmland but accounts for one of every four pounds of pesticides sprayed. Currently in the global south, estimates suggest that half of total pesticide use is on cotton.

(Alas, this hardly means synthetic materials are preferable, since their manufacture is unsustainable and the products nonbiodegradable.)

Bleaching the cloth for a single shirt generates as much as 15 gallons of polluted wastewater.

Before being shipped off to a big factory or backroom sweatshop, most cotton thread or cloth is dyed. With the world textile industry using 10,000 different dyes and pigments, it’s little wonder that environmental agencies have some difficulty keeping up with dye pollution.

Dyeing does more environmental damage than any other manufacturing step, and it’s hard to hide. Villagers living near dyeing plants in southern India have reported that drinking water flowing from their taps can be red one day, green the next.

Booming demand for brightly colored cotton shirts and dresses has led to increased use of so-called “fiber reactive dyes” that bind to the cotton fiber, keeping it color-fast. Many such reactive dyes are toxic and can pass right through water-treatment facilities untouched.

The health effects suffered by people working with textiles is also alarming, as is the toxic pollution produced by the industry.

The whole article is a must-read.

Playgreen.org has a good idea — it’s a community wiki about sustainable and green living. The site seems to be in its early stages, but that just means that there’s more for everyone to contribute!

For a little more action, Blue Egg is a magazine and website with beautiful and clear articles about green living — with style. Their blog is here and the entry entitled “iSorry” is a good and funny read for those joined at the hip to their electronic gadgets…

Clouds of SmokeCheck the ingredients list of your personal care products, and it’s usually a long list of polysyllabic chemicals you’ve never heard of that are usually petroleum derived. (When in doubt, don’t buy, or check the Cosmetic Safety Database first. And start shopping organic!) Another thing to watch for: products claiming flame-retardant or crease-resistant properties, as these are usually treated with phthalates and other environmental pollutants. The pollutants don’t just go away, they affect human and animal health, get introduced into the food chain, and their concentrations get compounded the higher up the food chain you eat. (Yet another good reason to adopt a vegetarian diet.) Dioxins and contaminants from industrialized countries have already been found in polar bears… meaning the damage is spreading.

Silicone contaminants could drift north: researchers

Shopping cart…we did things that put your “green habits” today to shame, and uphill both ways! Our Grandparents: The Real Environmentalists?

I do love doing a lot of things the old way… making tea with real leaves (no tea bags) so I can compost them, boiling water on the fire, finding new uses out of old things. I have to say though… older generations probably did not have to deal with so much packaging and disposable plastic. I have no idea what even a grandmother can do with 1,000 plastic bags. And how does one reuse, say, plastic items that break? (Yep, I’m kinda plastic-obsessed. I’d love to live in a home that didn’t have it and didn’t need it!)

The Straits Times today reprinted an LA Times story on the health effects of Bisphenol A (commonly used in plastic and paper) on human health (link to LA Times story: Scientists issue warning on chemical).

I have to admit I got a little depressed reading this one. The list of women’s illnesses most possibly caused by BPA reads like a family and personal history. I am wary of canned food and plastic anyway, but now this really takes the cake.

Salon.com has a longer story: Two words: Bad plastic
Scientists now fear a chemical used in baby bottles and CDs, food cans and dental sealants, can disrupt fetal development and even lead to obesity.

Can a person live without plastic? There was a time plastic was not so prevalent in our lives. Now it’s given so much trust and lauded for being so hygienic and convenient, I find it hard to communicate to people why I hate it and want to avoid it as much as possible. It’s hard keeping my mouth shut so I don’t look like cuckoo to my gynae. But right now, my resolve to eliminate plastic as much as possible from my life is renewed.

That said, I think I’m still going to have a hard time of it. It’s damned impossible to buy food or groceries without plastic in Singapore. Something about East Asian and Southeast Asian modern society loves plastic; everything is packaged in it! So many household good are made from it! We eat off of it! In fact, I think this blogger, Living Plastic Free in 2007, even for all the challenges she has faced, has it easy.

I must be careful not to get upset with my aversion to plastic, but it’s really tough when I can see its effects on human and environmental health. Perhaps the only thing I can be thankful for is that its adverse effect will mostly just affect those with the largest carbon footprint on the earth…? Depressing, indeed!

Water rippleIt’s information already known to investigative journalists and environmentalists, but Aquafina will finally bear labels that its water is simply tap water (story at Alternet). But Pepsi’s Aquafina is far from being the only culprit.

Previous entry on bottled water:
Bottled water – what we get for a product marked up 3000%

Honestly, I had had no idea the Singapore government could be so gung ho on environmentalism. I didn’t see so much enthusiasm here even in October last year, much less four years ago before I moved abroad. Waste reduction, solar panels, green roofs (at NTU), Bring Your Own Bag day… like, what? My expectations of environmentalism in Singapore have been shattered – but in the best way possible. It’s a 180-degree turn from the mealy-mouthed greenwashing talk from the Bush administration (latest news: Bush wants to slash funds from the NASA departments monitoring global warming).

I still think educating the populace and local businesses could go further – but at the rate things are going, I’m hopeful. My wishlist of upcoming developments is to see more recycling bins in public areas (and more education of what can be recycled), more information and services regarding hazardous household waste (grr, I’m still holding a can of artist’s fixative that’s probably 10 years old), less pesticide use, easier battery recycling, wind power, composting, more green roofing, urban organic food gardening… hey, even if it doesn’t happen soon, I might as well put this out onto the Net and into the idea ether, right?

Styrofoam cupThe latest effort is getting local F&B companies to rethink and redesign their packaging to produce less waste by using less packaging material and/or more recyclable materials. It’s great to see, and I hope as many parties as possible jump on board. I wonder though – will this initiative change the amount of polystyrene (expanded or not) used by hawker stalls for serving and packaging their food? A recent visit to NTU made me see that the crockery used in Canteen A and Canteen B was styrofoam – aurgh! If they have to use disposable crockery (which they don’t), perhaps local university students should be challenged to come up with something better! Methinks the trash in Singapore could be greatly reduced by the reducing the widespread use of expanded polystyrene in Singapore’s most ubiquitous places – the places where Singaporeans eat.

AP: Children Face Exposure to Pesticides

There’s a nonchalant attitude I know that exists with some people about organic food – as in, they want to believe it’s a scam to make silly worry-warts pay more for produce, and they’re not stupid enough to fall for that, no no… after all, they feel fine after their non-organic meals and they have for years. It’s all about washing the produce, isn’t it? In some places there’s even a media-fueled image of the organic shopper who’s a pale, picky eater who gets sick at even the slightest breeze.

In the larger picture, I feel that this nonchalance is systemic in an environment that has seen much technological progress in the last few generations – technology after all has made millions of lives more comfortable, we depend on technology for farming, energy, affordable consumer products and so forth… all this has been great! Where’s the down side?

There’s an unspoken, sometimes unconsidered assumption, when we laud technology and progress for our comfortable lives that the companies, systems, and institutions selling us the means for the comfortable lives do it out of altruism (sometimes, not always), and with a long view toward sustainability (often, no), fairness to their customers and employees, and that they are providing their customers with the best, safest products they can. Toxic environmental pollution, of which some toxins and dioxins will persist in the atmosphere forever, is a necessary evil that comes with capitalism because these companies do not know better and can do no better.

I find that that is a lot to assume. And I find it contradictory for the same people who would be blasé about organic food and environmentalism to have so much trust in corporations and systems that basically evolved to make their participants money – not to keep the environment or end customers safe. There is a sad yet funny idea being put forth out there (the “Asshole Theory of Governance”, pardon the french) that works perfectly fine in economics as well – as in, there will always be entities out there in pursuit of wealth and/or power that will do whatever they can get away with, no more. It is the world of buyer beware, and in this age, there is a lot to be wary of, and in the growing complexity, it’s getting harder for the average person to understand and keep track of the systems in which they participate as passive audiences or buyers.

And therein lies the best moral reason for voluntary simplicity.

But sorry for the side rant – back to organic food. Please read the link above – the consequences of pesticide poisoning through air pollution alone is quite horrifying. That, for me, sums up the other reasons to support organic food and farming that do not get discussed enough – that switching to organic farming is better for the planet and for farm workers and all beings living near non-organic farms – though of course, companies selling chemical/petroleum pesticides and fertilizers will vehemently disagree. But that is the topic for another post another day.

Later!

Well, by now I’ve been here a week. This country does change very fast; whole buildings can disappear on you and take on new forms – so every few kilometers, I can see new buildings and developments on the landscape that were not there for me before.

On the other hand, some things remain the same – the proliferation of food and shopping, and the presence of local men who can be a little rough around the edges! On the flight between Tokyo to Singapore, I sat behind a talkative man, who, in a mixture of English, Mandarin and Hokkien, enlightened all his surrounding fellow passengers on what money his children made, how much money was in his bank account (I’m not fooling), and (in Hokkien) what he thought about all the fair-haired, fair-skinned travelers on the plane. While it was sometimes amusing to witness, there were times I really wanted him to give us a rest! A couple of days later, my mum, hubby and I had a near-accident on the road, and had an altercation with a man who tried to blame us for the near-miss, when he had been the one driving carelessly. To make matters worse, he stalked our vehicle for a couple of miles after our argument, nearly causing more accidents with other cars on the road.

I’m quite sure I’ll run into more interesting people, but this reminds me that in my life I’ve run into many Singaporean men who give me memorable (and less than desirable) experiences that are somewhat exclusive to this country. They are a minority (thankfully, for the sake of the people around them!) but my goodness! They do manage to surprise me. All I can do after the run-ins is to laugh.

The local (English) newspapers have been interesting to read. I can also understand some bilingual (English and Mandarin) publications – which is nice because my Mandarin had never been stellar (only good enough to scrape by in my A-levels). I’m happily surprised to see climate change issues covered quite prominently – turns out Singapore is the “13th most worried about global warming” country, and most people are aware of the problem and trying to do their part by saving water and electricity. (Hmm… could Singaporeans ever be encouraged to curb their shopping?) Just today it’s being reported that wind energy may be a reality in Singapore soon, and the government is dedicating financial resources to clean-energy research in Singapore. Hoorah!

I’m also getting a feel for the local conservation/environmental groups and resources, and hoping to read the back issues of Eco Express!, which so far may be the only environmentally-centered local regular publication I’ve found. If it isn’t, I welcome any new information.

Overall, I’m glad to be back somewhere with an efficient public transport system (even if it’s getting a tad crowded). The shopping malls have been almost overwhelming and remind me more and more of Hong Kong now than Singapore 5 years ago.

But, cool as this city is, the growing commercialization, urbanization and consumer culture here makes me a little worried about the effectiveness of conservation efforts in Singapore – and with so much emphasis on “cheap”, and how, unconsciously, “cheap” easily equals “disposable”, Singapore may be a society (if it isn’t already) where the environmental repercussions of a consumer society will be hard to explain. $1 goods are so easy to pick up everywhere, plastic and styrofoam goods and packaging so ubiquitous and “convenient”, it’s a little difficult even impressing on my relatives that these conveniences have environmental costs that exist and that they are protected from seeing. On a Buddhist meditation retreat here in October 2006, I was a little disappointed when the vegetarian lunches had be served in (aurgh) styrofoam boxes! Le sigh!