Tag Archives: New York City

Moving Beyond Sustainability to Environmental Effectiveness

by Colin Beavan

The task at hand — to create a new reality; a new way of living with fewer
resources while providing a prosperous life for every member of our growing
population — is going to require more than even the best technology that money
can buy. It’s going to require imagination, open-mindedness, a willingness to
live and to understand life differently. With that significant challenge ahead
of us, is “sustainability” the best weapon we can bring to the fight?

To illustrate my point, let me ask: is sustainability an inspiring call to
action? Do you dream of a life that’s simply “sustainable?” Or do you
hope for something better, say, a happy life? One that’s full of meaning?

Who among us would be satisfied with living a life that can simply be sustained?
And if that’s not what we want for ourselves, then why is it the word we use to
pitch this lifestyle to the still-unconvinced? Sustainability, the way many on
the most recent wave of popularization have tended to think about it, is nothing
more inspiring than business as usual — adapted so that we can do it forever.
As usual.

I am aiming a punch straight for our “green” solar plexus. I want
to knock the wind out of our guts. I want us take a deep breath and think of
something better.

What I’m saying is that there are a lot of products and processes out there
that could be made in a way that’s arguably sustainable when, in fact, they do
no good for humankind at all. To my mind, even if resources are used
“sustainably,” if they are not being used to improve human life, they
are still, essentially, being trashed.

A new means of evaluating products and services in terms of their improvement
to human life will be a necessary step in the evolution of
“sustainability” — if we want to use that term — as an enduring
philosophy.

When our measure of sustainability asks only if a given activity is
something we can get away with doing — and fails to ask whether that activity
is worth doing at all — we fail to see the larger picture.

Imagine a soda can. Sure, it’s better for the planet if the can is both
recycled and recyclable; it’s even better if the local recycling program
ensures that the aluminum used to make the can continues to loop through the
process of use and re-use. At that point, the process of packaging soda becomes
arguably sustainable.

But when we view that product in the interconnected world in which it lives,
we still end up with obese kids buying sugary sodas from machines in their
schools. Another example: No matter how green a car we drive, unless the system
changes we
are still stuck with
suburbs and highways and spending 13 percent of our
incomes to service those cars.

Business. As usual.

“Sustainable” implies something can be done, but it says
nothing about whether it should be done. It says nothing about whether
our precious resources are being used for our betterment.

In order to change the paradigm, I believe that we need to begin to include
“life enhancement” as a measure of a product’s overall worth in the
world.

Consider, first, that reduced resource use and ecological lifestyles, on both
the cultural and the individual level, need not mean deprivation. Let’s assume,
in fact, that there are synergistic solutions that can help solve both our
lifestyle and our environmental crises.

Indeed, let’s assume that such solutions are better than what we call
“sustainable” because they have the added benefit of enhancing human
life. I’m going to call these solutions, for the purposes of this post,
“environmentally effective.”

Environmental because it is less harmful to the environment. Effective because
resources are effectively used to enhance human life. In other words, we get
joy or life, quality or health. Or something else good. That’s better than
boring old “sustainable,” right?

One simple example of environmental effectiveness on the individual level:
cycling. Studies show that bicycle commuters are happier than car and transit commuters.

Research also shows that, at the cultural level, people who live in
pedestrian-friendly areas tend to have more friends.

In both cases, the scenario that uses fewer resources results (directly or
indirectly) in better quality of life. The happiness of people, therefore, does
not depend on energy and material use. It depends upon whether materials and
energy are used effectively to improve well-being.

You can argue, therefore, that a transportation system based on biking is
not just sustainable, but actually environmentally effective.

In this next-gen version of ecological thinking, I’d like to propose that
the ecologically responsible designer of products and systems go beyond the
question of identifying the lowest possible energy and materials input. The
real question is whether use of those valuable ecological resources can be
justified in terms of quality of life improvement.

In mathematical terms, the “environmental effectiveness” (E) of a
product or system might be represented by an equation that looks something
like:

E = life enhancement / ecological resource use.

The more life enhancement (pleasure, health, contentment, security,
community, connectedness) delivered per unit of resource, the higher the
environmental effectiveness, and the more ecological the product. In other
words, even a conventionally-grown apple has a higher environmental
effectiveness than organically-grown tobacco.

And if you think about it, products like sugary sodas wouldn’t score so well
either. Carrot juice, even in the same throwaway container, would score better.

Here’s another example: a coal-fired power plant. If we were to build one
here in New York, say, where I live, we might be able to turn our air
conditioners up and keep our buildings a degree cooler. But if we built the
same power plant, say, in India, we could deliver electric light to villages so
kids could learn to read at night.

The same power station is more environmentally effective in one case than
the other. Though both examples have the same ecological resource use, the
Indian case delivers more life enhancement.

We have become so short on environmental resources that we can no longer
afford to be wasting them on things that don’t even improve our lives.

Environmental effectiveness goes beyond sustainability and challenges us to
ask whether or not we’re using our resources to enhance life; because if we’re
not, isn’t that the true definition of waste?

It challenges us to look deep into the environmental crisis not only for
opportunities to use less, but also for ways to use better. It
challenges us not to squander our limited resources on things that harm us or
others but to value our resources enough to insist that they are used for our
good.

That’s vision. That’s opportunity. That’s a chance to get better lives as
well as solving the environmental crisis.

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Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors

by Eliana Godoy and Nathaniel Curtis

Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors, the latest installment from the Ping Chong and Co. theater company, is a stunning exploration of childhood sexual abuse and its lifelong effects. Written and directed by Ping Chong & Co.s Associate Director, Sara Zatz, it depicts the personal experiences of five child sexual abuse survivors who share their stories in their entirety for the first time. In a question-and-answer session following a reading of this work in New York City in May, Project Coordinator and creator Amita Swadhin explained that, although sexual abuse is an epidemic problem in the US, most mass media representations of abuse deal with the issue at a safely fictional remove. Amita wanted to bring the intensity, diversity and prevalence of the problem directly to audiences while creating a space for other survivors to share their stories.

Secret Survivors, then, is a theatrical performance about sexual abuse told by the survivors themselves. A childrens song sets the stage, transporting the audience back to their own playground years. As childhood permeates this adult theater, the long talons of abuse are slowly revealed. Like a quilt, the monologue fragments are stitched together across the stage, cuttings of personal history sewn together by the chorus and the poignant music of one of the survivors.

A woman tells about the romance of her parents, both immigrants from India, in Ohio, hoping to build upon their dreams with their two daughters. At age four, the father would become her abuser. Her mother dismissed her story. The little girl blocked the abuse by creating her own world outside her home. Though she has struggled through it all, she excelled in her education. She shares, “I carry with me only one physical scar. Here on my lip, where he once bit me.”

Another shares, “I will never have any children.” Her well-to-do parents loved her, but their careers always demanded their full attention. Not until her childcare provider was arrested did they recognize the behavioral changes that accompanied her enrollment in the town daycare. Years of therapy could not unleash her deep-seated memories.

One man explains how he devoted his life to social justice issues because of his loving familys influence. Later in life he realized that he was losing jobs and friends because of his promiscuity with women. Exerting his masculinity, the way society showed him, was his own form of resistance. This is how he responded to the abuse he endured from a friend of the older son of his babysitter. He kept this a secret until a friend told him about her rape by an older boyfriend.

Next, a survivor shares how she found acceptance of her adopted family in Queens by making everyone laugh. Her older adopted brother abused her almost immediately upon her arrival to her new home. She found a voice in her music and poetry. Her life changed after being asked to become a part of an artists collective. This is how she finally healed. Midway through the performance, she sings a song to her adoptive mother, who had refused to confront the abuse by her birth son. The experience is gut-wrenching for the audience.

It is hard to describe the cumulative power of these stories. They thread through the surrounding contexts of structural violence, economic strata, racial tensions, sexual orientation and the intersections of the storytellers numerous identities. In fact, it inevitably speaks to the audiences numerous identities. Specific moments awake a different part of oneself – the instincts of a mother, a sister, a member of a family, the duty of a public servant, the experiences of a woman or person of color, the vulnerability and resilience of a child, the role of a friend, a teacher, a social worker. One will find themselves in deep reflection about broken systems and structures just as much as remember ones own closeness to sexual abuse or its prospects.

The stories serve as a reminder that child abuse can happen to anyone. One will walk away feeling like taking action so that it does NOT happen to another child. Yet one is struck, as the narratives pass, by an overwhelming truth. Despite the early trauma, despite the long and bitter influence these episodes of abuse can inflict on its victims, these survivors who are sharing before you have survived, have mastered the forces of destruction that might have overcome them, are, in the very moment of the performance, embodying hope, asserting with each utterance their liberation from the experiences that might have chained them.

Many artistic attempts to scale the cliffs of abuse, like other social justice motivated work, can feel like the art has taken a back seat to the message. This is not the case in Secret Survivors, partly because it falls under the Undesirable Elements umbrella of projects, which has since 1992 put on productions that deal with a wide range of oral histories. Secret Survivors has taken full advantage of the template developed in the Undesirable Elements series. Each survivor tells his or her own story in a series of linked monologues, and is bolstered in his or her telling by the choral participation of fellow actors. The choral element, a throwback to the Greek dramas, is particularly effective in at once highlighting these moments of high trauma even as it reveals the community of support these survivors have later carved out for themselves.

The power of an open conversation about such a taboo topic can often feel like a blow to the stomach. But, this unique performance has many layers. Though at times it leaves you hopeless, each narrative evokes a variety of feelings and emotions, for these survivors are real. They candidly share their multiple identities by voicing small vignettes of their lifetime journeys. “What is justice?” they ask — each one gives their definition. The audience is left to ponder on this question too; days, even months after experiencing the performance.
Secret Survivors is a wake-up call about an issue that is too often kept hidden, a cancerous monster that needs to be addressed. It is a remarkable work that must be experienced by everyone, because 1 in 4 female-bodied and 1 in 6 male-bodied people are currently victimized. It is an epidemic problem that survivor Amita Swadhin is committed to solving. The performance is only the beginning of what has turned into her life-long journey.

For more information on Secret Survivors, visit www.secretsurvivors.org.

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