Going to the lakeside ’cause we’re gonna get married

walkingup

If you’re sneaky, you don’t need permission to use one of the best venues in town

It’s been four years since our flashmob wedding at the lake in St. Louis’ Forest Park. Bapre how lucky I was that she said yes.

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Cycling isn’t free; we’ve got to pay for it.

Sweaty riding on a stationary trainer

Sweaty riding on a stationary trainer

Yesterday evening I set up my bicycle on a stationary trainer outside the most popular pizza restaurant in Berkeley. The line always stretches out the door in the evenings, so it offered an opportunity pedal and sweat (lots of sweating) and talk to people about cycling and explain why I’m riding 320 miles in June to raise money for cycling advocacy. I’m slowly learning the importance of creative fundraising, so that was pretty easy math: good pizza + quick-moving but never-ending line = captive audience.

So I set the trainer resistance to roughly the equivalent of riding up a three-percent grade and just pedaled. I barely got off the bike for 2 hours and 43 minutes. As I said, lots of sweating.

All the while, hundreds — literally — of people waited in line patiently for their pizza and most of them read my sign about how giving money would make cycling easier for them and for all. If someone really stared, then I’d engage them in more conversation. I took brief breaks when kids (or one man) wanted to pedal my bike for a bit.

And I raised $52.

I’m thankful for the generosity of strangers, but I of course overheard some dismissive comments. For example, one young man remarked to a friend, “I don’t know why he thinks I would give to that. Like, why should I pay money for something that’s free?”

I wasn’t there to argue so I let that one go; but it’s worth a bit of discussion, because, well, cycling is not free.

First, and most obviously, cycling infrastructure requires significant funds to pay for planners, architects, engineers, constructors, etc. plus the actual materials. No one thinks that road (re)construction or parking garages are free; neither are lanes, trails, bike racks, bus mounts and all manner of other facilities for cycling. Second, behind all of that material development of cycling as transportation is another expensive process — the education, advocacy, debate and discourse that create cycling as a viable, safe, equitable and sustainable form of mobility. That’s the cost of the work done by NGOs like Bike East Bay, for which I’m raising money.

Of course, that all seems reasonably obvious. But the fact that cycling development does cost money and yet a fair number of people treat it as essentially free is problematic for a few reasons.

First, and this is most obvious, it means that cycling infrastructure will rarely ever been provisioned privately. This stems from cycling infrastructure’s role as what social scientists would call a public good. It’s difficult to exclude or privatize cycling infrastructure (though certainly not impossible) and there is not a clear consumption that takes away from someone else’s consumption. In other words, the “market” will almost always undervalue it precisely because it profiteering is difficult. In property regime theory, that guy on the sidewalk — the one who said he wouldn’t pay for cycling — becomes a “free-rider.”

A second problem compounds with the first, because cycling as a whole — not just material infrastructure like lanes or racks — constitutes a public good. That’s because there are tremendous spillover effects of as more people cycle. In short, society as a whole benefits from cyclists. Cycling improves individual health, reducing burdens on a stretched healthcare system. Cycling also improves public health — primarily through a lack of pollution-based transportation — so that air we all breath is improved. Cycling of course reduces climate change causing emissions — burn fat not fuel! — which will otherwise have cascading detrimental effects on ecological, social, economic and political systems. Cycling also can improve communities by literally increasing the number of eyes on the street moving at speeds slower than the auto-transit car; cyclists are more able to notice when something is “wrong” from a pothole to a home invasion. Cycling is actually fun and can serve as a critical if overlooked source of individual and social happiness, through activity, parks, adventures, etc. Cycling often benefits conservation and preservation in that trails and parks tend to provide additional motivations and protections for green spaces. Cycling benefits also multiply more-than-linearly — i.e. they snowball — as ridership increases, because the more people that ride, the easier it is for others to ride.

A third problem exists in the social inequity that arises when cycling as treated as free. Of course, it is not and so often more affluent people, groups and communities will inevitably find ways to pay for cycling; they may have more political pull and will draw disproportionately more from limited government funds. They may also be able to contribute to private initiatives in their immediate area. Cycling is sometimes intertwined with gentrification as new developments treats cycling infrastructure, active transport and other new urbanisms as luxuries that attract premiums. In short, poor and political marginalized neighborhoods are often less cycling-friendly precisely because they have less ability to pay or advocate for this thing that people treat as free even when they can see it isn’t.

Finally, because the “market” is unlikely to fully value all these benefits of cycling and because we live in an era of government defunding and retreat — a political project of the free-marketers — the development of cycling culture and cycling as acceptable mobility is held back in ways the chief “competitor” to cycling wasn’t. Consider that the automobile became widespread amid government spending projects over decades such as the unfurling of the interstate system and suburban development models, aided by governments; even today massive amounts of federal infrastructure dollars go to projects that benefit drivers to the exclusion of others. Cheap fuel is an official and historical government policy. Car manufacturers are treated as too big to fail. But cycling is trying to come into its own precisely at a time the government is pushed by political ideologues to not spend on other public goods, Parks and public lands are under assault; sustainability and climate change mitigation are black listed topics; research on spatial inequity is actually something the government is trying to disallow. Simply put, cycling has a steep hill to climb.

So while it’s a critical and long-term political project to grab back the reins of government and refocus taxing and spending priorities on projects and programs that can serve so many, in the meantime civil society is desperately needed to fill gaps and fight for all the good that cycling can provide.

And that’s why I’m raising money for Bike East Bay and the cause of bicycling and sustainability. Because, no, in truth, the benefits of cycling are not at all free. They MUST be paid for, by us all.

To support me in this, click here.

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I lean on the shoulders of women

I lean on the shoulders of women. And, yes, as a man in a White patriarchy too often I stand on the shoulders of women. That must be shouted (or blogged) at minimum. More to the point, that must be fought now and for all time to come.

I say this today, because it’s International Women’s Day. This day has meaning and history rooted in socialism and a fight against capitalism; this day is a reminder of the contributions and power of women. Unfortunately, it also gets washed over in international institutional liberalism — as though the U.N. celebrating a day for women (or refugees or water or parrots) is at all sufficient to make deep structural change to a patriarchic capitalist world system that systematically devalues women (and refugees and water and parrots).

In the contemporary conjuncture globally and locally with the rise of alt-right, alt-fact, White Male, Pro-West, fascist (and fascist allied) Trumpian politics, International Women’s Day has particular import as women globally have called for a strike. And that should be a big fucking deal. For more on why, check this.

(In my current home of Berkeley amid my radical and feminist and Marxist and non-categorizable geographer circle, a women’s strike of course resonates. I’ve certainly been party to discussions about the meaning of the strike, what is the best way to observe its spirit, what good it will do, logics, modes, justifications, etc. That there is a strike and that it may have some meaning for some is not in question. I don’t know if that’s the case elsewhere. I suspect that calls for a strike will reverberate less or may be heard less in places where one is, for example, further removed from the Jacobin (read: self-critique of academia’s more than occasional echo chamber). That said, I grew up and worked quite far from academia for many years and I still have friends well outside my current academic bubble. I also suspect there will be some critical, awesome strikers in those places as well.)

In recognition of this — that women widely are hearing and responding to a call for a strike — I want to highlight, mostly for other men, the ways in which I, as a man, lean and stand on the shoulders of women.

Sure, I stand on the shoulders of men, too. But by and large, those men are recognized for it. They are often paid, and paid better than their female counterparts, for it. They are more likely to be heard and listened to. Less likely to be judged in myriad ways. Less likely to be frowned at or be told they’re being bossy or high strung or up tight. No one will ask if it’s their time of the month. People will make misogynist jokes and not worry if they might feel slighted. No one will try to grab their pussies. No one will dismiss them when someone tries to grab their pussy. Those men are less likely to be asked to labor without pay, to raise children, take on burdens, to cook or to clean, to be professional and domestic, to be told to look nice/look sexy/watch your weight/sit up straight, to always be everything/and. They are less likely to told be to play by the rules of another. In our world historical society, they — men — will be more respected and valued and that respect and value will spool upon itself. The world will remains built for them, men, me included.

To my critical, radical, feminist friends deserve more and yet are given less credit: I know this blog post — a stupid little vain blog post — changes very little. Maybe it allows me a few tears out of debt and love. But I have to add my voice some how. So this is a start. In that regard, I apologize if I’m mistaking or reducing or essentializing or otherwise poorly critiquing the patriarchy. I’m trying but I will always need your help, which is to say, I will still ask for your labor.

In recognition of the world historical rigging of the game — LISTEN, MEN! — I’m incompletely cataloguing the women who I have known personally who deserve some fucking credit. (This remains a fraught exercise as I’m going to forget plenty of folks in my scattered brain. And that forgetting is sign of patriarchy. See how insidious it is.)

To be clear, this isn’t some happy, warm, fuzzy, Mother’s Day, Hallmark card sentiment. This as an angry shout out to the women who in tangible ways and through close proximity have propped me up and supported me — a man — while being systematically devalued and challenged at every step of the damn journey, in ways that I never will be.

That includes my mother, Deborah Jadhav; my sister; Anna Jadhav Gimeson; my grandmothers, Mohini Jadhav and Helen Hopper; my godmother, Mary Rader; legions of aunts, mausis, chachis, fuas and mamis, both by blood and love.

That includes my teachers from way back but certainly the particularly encouraging and enthusiasm-coding high school teachers Linda Machroli, Barbara Fuson and Judith Rooney. And Ms. Crow, my chemistry teacher, whose first name I cannot now remember (see, I forget in part because I’m allowed to forget).

That includes my undergraduate journalism professors including Jennifer Follis and Nancy Benson and not the least one who took me under her wing even when I was just a high school upstart, Dana Ewell.

That includes my editors and senior journalists who gave me chance after chance, taught me ever more what it meant to ask questions of power and put words into sentences with meaning. Even as an intern: Peggy Bellows, Doreen Marchionni, Niki Dizon, Kathy Best, Judy Rakowsky. The big shots at my first job: Ellen Soeteber and Cynthia Todd, and a little later Pam Maples who broke the world of journalism open for me. And especially Jo Mannies who blazed a big giant trail through sports journalism and then political journalism when it was still only boys on the damn bus. Jo, especially, who gave me undue respect as wide-eyed “new media” punk on the campaign trail and then still would bake me zucchini bread without walnuts. Because of course being one of the best political reporters of your generation was never labor enough for Jo, who with such a loving heart, stepped into an old gendered role of den mother.

That includes American University professors, who gave me the respect owed a colleague and told me time and again that I could think (while also teaching me to think) — Judy Shapiro, Robin Broad, Rachel Robinson, Eve Bratman, Garrett Graddy, Karen Knee, Malini Ranganathan (in some kind of chrono-semester order with a little post grad school). And I won’t even start now with professors here at Berkeley, people with whom I read, with whom I have dinner, with whom I struggle to write or think fast enough to keep up.

That includes the legion of women friends and colleagues who have stood with me, argued with me, shut up so I could yammer, shut me up to drill insight into my brain, rode bikes, raised glasses, cried, hugged, protested, played ninja, gave silly nicknames and faced down life with me. Those who also have written and studied and analyzed and taught with me (also often teaching to me). Those who do so even now. Already have done today.

That includes my best friend, the love of my life, my female partner for life, Ishani Sinha.

The list could go on and on. And of course it doesn’t include the countless women who came before and those who are still here today, but who I don’t know personally, who I only read or read about or will never read or read about.

The list will go on and on. Into the future. For the rest of my life. Because I — like every man — will continue to lean and stand on the shoulders of women.

And I pray and will fight — today I will strike as well — so that they, the women I have known and still know, also might now and then lean and stand on mine.

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Help! I’m biking 300 miles to fund sustainable cycling and transportation advocacy

A photo stop during a 42-mile training ride in October

A photo stop during a 42-mile training ride in October

Dear family, friends and strangers:

This summer I’m going to cycle 300 miles for a good cause, and I need your help. Let me explain:

In August 2016, I began a PhD program in geography at the University of California at Berkeley. I study human-environment relations in cities and the ocean. On the side, cycling forms a personal and intellectual pet project.

Most of you know that before I moved to California, I lived in India and witnessed some of the great environmental challenges of our time. I have seen first-hand the devastation of both wilderness and urban greenscape, on which people depend for life and livelihood. I have biked and jogged in smog-choked cities where life expectancy drops by years because of toxic air quality. I have sweltered in drought made worse by climate change and walked in villages and neighborhoods where wells continue to run dry. And I have worked for small NGOs that fight for sustainability, conservation and protection of livelihoods linked to the environment.

These issues are hardly limited to the Global South. Industrial pollution weighs heavily on neighborhoods in U.S. cities and even the countryside (often disproportionately hurting minorities and the marginalized). Close to my home in California, drought threatens both farmlands as well as urban drinking water. Of course, most of us, urban or rural, practice lifestyles that generate staggering amounts of waste and greenhouse gases. And now, the current political turn in the U.S. threatens to set back environmental protection by decades.

I try to confront mounting environmental challenges through a personal commitment to cycling — for my daily commute, for exercise, to run errands and for fun. I know I’m lucky in that my circumstances permit me to primarily cycle everywhere (with some supplementary public transit). I don’t have children. I don’t play a string bass or carry power tools. My work is flexible, and no one expects me to wear a suit. I have large thigh and calf muscles.

To make it easier for others to ride a bicycle, I’ve now joined a national charitable campaign called Climate Ride. In June 2017, I’ll be pedaling close to 300 miles along the California coast, all the way from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo, to raise money and awareness for bicycling and sustainability.

I’m asking for your encouragement, support, and, yes, sponsorship. I’ve set a personal fundraising goal of $7,001 and I’m going to need help from a network of family, friends and even strangers.

I’ll be riding on a team funding Bike East Bay — an important NGO that works toward sustainability and active transportation around my home, the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay. Money I raise helps Bike East Bay educate and advocate for better bicycle infrastructure and protections on the very roads that I ride.

You can make a secure online donation on my personal fundraising page (here). You’ll automatically receive an acknowledgment, and I will be notified of your support. If you’re not comfortable donating online, you can also donate to me directly and I’ll contribute on your behalf.

What do you get by donating?

  • First and foremost, you make a real impact. Climate Ride donations constitute Bike East Bay’s single largest funding stream. Your dollars mean more cycling lanes, more education, more advocacy, more protection. Again, Bike East Bay quite literally makes my life safer every day.
  • You also get a chance to participate with me through my sweat. I am incredibly lucky to have the flexible life needed to dedicate time and energy to months of training. I’ll happily endure muscle pain or an inevitable crash on our behalf. Your contribution means you ride vicariously. See the above photo from my first-training ride in October
  • Regular updates from my training, adventures and snafus. Laugh when my cycling shorts split open; be ready to write a lawmaker when you hear about my crash because of horrendous traffic signaling.
  • As a special bonus, folks who contribute $50 or more will receive a set of high-resolution, print-quality landscape photos from my ride through coastal California. Think iconic Highway 1!
  • Finally, you can answer my own challenge to donors. If I reach my fundraising goal, I promise to turn one of my big ride days into a full “century,” voluntarily tacking on about 30 more miles. That’s 100 miles of sweat and tears in a single day!

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me (see the upper right sidebar of this page).

Thank you, in advance, for your help. Let’s do this together.

Adam

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Thinking through lineage, family and politics

faminbeason

Those glasses were boss. Big boss.

Today, fourteen years ago, Dad died. I’ve been thinking about him of late, though to be honest, the anniversary completely snuck up on me.

Rather, I’ve been considering my Indian immigrant father — and my lineage and family in general — because I mostly grew up in small towns in Central Illinois. These are places that voted earlier this month for Donald Trump to be president.

Though I was born in Decatur, a city of 74,000 people today give or take, we shifted before I have memories to Avon, population: less than 800. When I was 5, we spent a year in Quincy (41,000 people) but moved again to the country. Those earliest years are indistinct in my brain.

Beason, Illinois, in 1988, represents the real start of my remembered childhood. That’s where the above photo was taken. Beason is barely even a village, an unincorporated census place. Which is to say it had a Post Office and a single soda vending machine. As of the 2010 Census, 189 people lived there. Beason’s primary reason for existing was a grain elevator and a grade school. The latter has since been razed.

I spent ages 6 through 9 in Beason. My family wasn’t a farm family, but I certainly grew up in that circuit. Dad was the town preacher. So many friends and neighbors also attended our church. In the school, there were about 80 kids in grades K through 8. I was often babysat by one or more church families, often on their farms. I taught myself to ride a bike in a country gravel driveway. I played with my babysitter’s children (my friends and school mates) in hay lofts. I developed my still-existing fear of cows in barns and pastures, where I also learned to ride a horse.

In the Methodist tradition, preachers are itinerant. They typically relocate every several years. So after four years, we shifted to Henry, Illinois. Population: 2,600. This felt like a big city, compared to Beason. The town had industry (a fertilizer plant and a tire factory). There was a community swimming pool. A grade school AND a high school. Grocery stores (two, as I recall) and a Dollar General. County fairgrounds. Gas stations. The Internet showed up when I was 12.

But there were still farm (or country) families, whose kids were my friends. I learned to drive on country roads. My neighbor’s dad took me mushroom hunting. My first W2′d job involved detassling corn during a summer. My second legal employment: Stocking shelves for one of those grocers. We lived there six years, before shifting back to Decatur when Dad got transferred again.

These memories of childhood in conservative rural America — with my immigrant father as a figure in those communities — have been in my head for a week and a half, since it became clear that indeed Trump would be the next president of the United States.

Today, I sit in a beating heart of so-called liberal America, a PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley. My primary research focuses on capitalism, India, fishers and the oceans. In the last decade, I’ve spent as much time out of the country as in it. I read and generally agree with a fair bit of Marx. I embrace the majority of left, liberal, progressive causes. The Democratic Party is usually to my political right.

From the perspective of many places where I grew up, I’m a neo-hippie. Or a communist. Or out-of-touch coastal elite.

In my current circles, there’s a lot of head scratching at how an openly misogynist, racist, elitist, egotist, fascist like Trump could get himself elected. Why did so many of those folks in the “red” counties — places like where I grew up in — vote for Trump? Is that really the political fabric of a not-quite-majority of our nation? This concern among progressives is echoed hyperbolically in media and many late-night TV shows.

There are lots of assumptions embedded in things “liberals” say about conservatives, but many are grounded in real fear, justified by some of Trump’s outspoken and openly misogynist, racist, elitist, egotist, fascist voters. But this rendering of conservatives doesn’t fit neatly with my own upbringing.

To understand, look again at the family photo above. Dad was brown. My sister and I are mixed race. To be clear, we certainly met racism. My father especially. Family lore says he received death threats at different moments (though in Decatur, which is not actually the most rural of places). In Henry, I didn’t understand the term “sand nigger” the first time it was directed at me. I’m not denying that rural conservative America is not always welcoming of diversity.

But race hardly framed my upbringing in these communities. I’m sure my parents sheltered me somewhat (and my sister probably had a different experience), but discrimination wasn’t the overriding theme of my childhood. My family also knew kindness from at least some of the same people who probably also voted for Trump. In Henry, after the parish fundraised a few thousand dollars with a community shrimp boil, the church turned around and surprised our family by paying for a trip for Mom and Dad to go back to India so they could visit his parents. Dad performed baptisms and marriages and funerals for many people in these places. He counseled and prayed with and ministered to many people, some of whom today might be labeled as racist.

(There are also “blue” voters in majority “red” places. Thirty percent of Marshall County, where Henry sits, voted for Hillary Clinton.)

And in every church my father pastored, I had umpteen adoptive grandparents, who might have feared a person of color but nonetheless treated the preacher and his children like their own. I was given advantages in school — bumped up in math class, taken to state journalism conferences, pushed to be a good student. The local grocery store hired me before I was 16 (and did adhere to child labor laws); the owner hired my sister, too. Even an old man in the community, who I believe was probably a bigot, once paid me to teach him to use his computer.

The point of these anecdotes: The political, social, economic (and even ecological) reality in the rural America I knew was complex. I do not give racism, xenophobia and other bigotries a pass. But I also have sympathy for conservatives that is rooted in my own upbringing. I honestly do believe that progressives today engage in Othering conservative America as a place that is mysterious, irrational and sometimes — in a rather colonial logic — inferior.

I’m following political geographers here, who describe Othering as a process of distinguishing people and places hierarchically, of drawing boundaries between who/where/what is included in a collective identity and those people, places and things that are excluded as the Other. Think Edward Said’s history of denigration of Asia by European colonizers. More recent application of the process of Othering can be found in Derek Gregory’s analysis of the way Islamic people have been Othered as barbarians, particularly since the Bush years.

As a youngish geography scholar, I want to explore a deeper why behind the conservative vote, to overcome this process of Othering of conservatives by liberals. I’m now looking at voting patterns and economic data, for example, for Henry. The county last voted Democrat for president in 1992 and 1996. Before that? Johnson. Meanwhile, the county has also watched inflation-adjusted median income fall from 1990 to 2010 by 20 percent or so. Farm jobs are down. Population is flat. The tire factory? Carved up into units, one of which is owned by a global equity firm. The fertilizer plant? Now under control of the Koch bros.

These are material happenings that deserve consideration alongside socialpolitical reality. I suggest they need to be approached, perhaps by scholars with sympathy and method rooted in autobiography (even autoethnography), or at the very least transparent consideration of subject position. In this regard, I’m thinking of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas as well as Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land.

And today I’m remembering my father mostly because he lived as a brown man, raising family amid these places, and actively ministering to the emotional and spiritual needs of this Other. And I’d desperately like to talk to him about that.

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Reports of the demise of neoliberalism have been greatly exaggerated

An undead British politician/matriarch was spotted roaming the streets of the Bay Area.

An undead British politician/matriarch was spotted roaming the streets of the Bay Area.

Loves Adam Smith but infinitely more so Hayek. Reagan had a huge crush on her/it. Studied and theorized by luminaries from Harvey to Foucault. I particularly like the thinking of Brown and Peck on this “subject.”

Wait, is this a person? Or a concept? Both. I forget. Or we can’t tell. Actually existing? British? Chicago? Everywhere, in all of us? Failing, but failing forward, to be sure.

Zombie neoliberalism

Thus a Halloween costume was born out of my PhD research (part of it, anyway).

Exploiting crisis conditions, we must remember, has been a hallmark of neoliberal governance, even if the recent pattern of events seems less and less like a ‘normal crisis’. But again, the jaded and discredited project threatens to lurch haphazardly onward (if not forward)—that is, unless concerted political opposition blocks its path, and until an alternative sociopolitical program begins to fill the attendant vacuum. ‘Dead but dom- inant’, neoliberalism may indeed have entered its zombie phase. The brain has apparently long since ceased functioning, but the limbs are still moving, and many of the defensive reflexes seem to be working too. The living dead of the free-market revolution continue to walk the earth, though with each resurrection their decidedly uncoordinated gait becomes even more erratic.

Happy Halloween!

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Is Raymond Williams speaking to me? To you? What is the nature we seek to conserve?

To the conservationist, the naturalist, the nature enthusiast, who embraces conservation as a defensive strategy against the intervention and interference of man on supposedly external nature, of capitalism on the land and sea…

Some people in this defence are those who understand nature best, and who insist on making very full connections and relationships. But a signficant number of others are in the plainest sense hypocrites. Established at powerful points in the process which is creating the disorder, they change their clothes at week-ends, or when they can get down to the country; join appeals and campaigns to keep on last bit of England green and unspoilt; and then go back, spiritually refreshed, to invest in the smoke and the spoil.

— Raymond Williams, “Ideas of Nature,” p. 81 in Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays (1980).

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Third anniversary of one of our weddings…

me-ishani-sky

It’s a lot more fun to celebrate multiple anniversaries. This June 29 is the third anniversary of our St. Louis wedding (above).

Three years down, the rest of our lives to go.

Love you, darling.

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Miss you, dad

I, too, was a kishmish

I, too, was a kishmish

Dear dad:

I am still sad that you’ve missed a lot of recent years. At least you were still there for so many of the early ones.

Remembering you at Father’s Day.

By the way, I just heard the story “about the time you fell off the donkey.” Sam Uncle likes that one. Nice to know you did stupid things, too, when you were 11.

Also, that’s a pretty soul patch.

Love,

Adam

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Dear urban green thumb, eco-friendly types: You don’t actually need more shiny tech to compost!

Newly planted kale, bokchoy, dill, oregano, coriander and spinach, partially using homemade compost

As per usual, Treehugger.com’s too-frequent love affair with technology has me annoyed. So rather than work on the fisheries governance paper that is my primary looming task, I’m sounding off here.

Dear would-be urban composters and other people who wish to adopt more sustainable lifestyles by composting:

Please try to not get sucked into the Zeitgeist of techno-eco-consumerism. I support most anything that moves individuals, communities and societies toward more sustainable lifestyles, but Treehugger.com’s periodic zeal for the shiny-package, the new-fangled gizmo or the uber-high-tech is unlikely to be sustainable in the long-run (or even the short).

(E.g. I think Lloyd Alter is a smart dude, but his drooling over a “phase change” shirt from a few years ago still sticks in my craw.)

The primary fly-in-my-soup today is this “attractive” but suspect Bono countertop composting system. Essentially it’s a prettily crafted system that aims to be a fill-it-and-forget composter that magically pumps out fine humus (mixed with a bit of soil).

After swooning for a while about materials and design with very little critical review of feasibility and likelihood of success, TreeHugger’s Kimberley Mok ends with this:

While one can also use any old container to start composting, even as a prototype Bono is admittedly quite an attractive alternative to a regular plastic bin. The extra clever features, such as the liquid collection dish, are a useful bonus. No word on whether it’ll be commercially available soon, but easy-to-use, compact composters like this one may win reluctant composting converts over much sooner.

That is TreeHugger’s defense of these kind of short pieces highlighting a new product — that attractive and convenient will win the “aspirational” eco-citizen and convert them to a more sustainable path. I’m not sure that holds up in general and in this case particularly.

I’ll start with an acknowledgment: Composting is not the absolute easiest practice and requires accepting a few basic precepts: You will get a bit dirty. You might touch a maggot. Rotting food smells sometimes. I’m also admit I am lucky to have even a modest bit of outdoor space at my apartment in Bangalore. That said, it’s also not rocket science or even adapting to a new pointless iTunes update.

Another sort of disclaimer: I disagree with those cost-benefit sustainable-ists who remarks, “Why should I compost? I don’t have a car and that makes me more green than you’ll ever be.”

I, too, don’t have a car but I still compost. This sustainability tradeoff game is a childish debate. It too often compares apples to kumquats or makes a reductionist policy argument that everything sustainable can and should be counted in carbon footprint decreased.

Simply put, I agree composting has benefits for individuals, households, neighbors, communities and the earth. Full stop.

So of course I support efforts to bring more people into the let-it-rot fold. In that, TreeHugger.com and I are on the same team.

But, but, but… I pray that would-be urban composters don’t fall so easily for the another-thing-to-buy-that-will-make-it-all-easier logic. Especially when that additional thing you hope to buy is a prototype that is unlikely to satisfy.

First, let’s be honest with ourselves. It’s simply not sustainable to believe we can adopt sustainable lifestyles by buying new-fangled crap in the hope that we don’t actually need substantive lifestyle changes (and, in this case, accepting reality that our garbage smells foul). Maybe this counter-top composter is attractive, maybe it wins hearts and minds, but we should at least stop and question: Is it actually a good thing to try to invent the microwave popcorn or K-cup version of composting? Short-term, seems elegant/convenient, long-term, a sustainability fail.

Another analogy: Is this something like a Diaper Genie for compost? The diaper genie alleviates the odor problem of piling up disposable diapers and hides them from sight, eliminating one practical disincentive to using ever-more disposable diapers. I imagine that more honestly confronting the baby-poo-dilemma might encourage realistic problem solving (including regular washing to reusable cloth diapers). I submit that a counter-top composting model aims to alleviate the discomfort of odor or devoting space to a rotting tub of garbage, which allows us to avoid the reality of our waste. Worse, if it fails to work even moderately well (as I suggest below), then it may not even encourage composting in the short-term.

So let’s consider the attractive “tech” critically.

I’m estimating here, as this fawning is all over a prototype (i.e. no long-term demonstration or specs I can see). That jar looks approximately like the depth and diameter of my terracotta pillar system in India. Based on experience with two people consuming a moderate amount of vegetables, a jar this size will fill up in two weeks, long before even the bottom layers have matured. In a healthy US diet, which probably includes more fresh vegetable consumption, that will load up even quicker. If it truly is no-turn composting (just layering), the top, most recently added layers will of course take longer even as the bottom finishes. If you’re aiming to avoid messy compost, that means the “couple months” minimum is from the point at which the bin fills.

So far, this doesn’t make a lot of sense (or a lot of compost). But I admit the demo video is more promotional than explanatory and it is subtitled in a language I don’t speak. I could have misunderstood.

This turn around of well-formed compost assumes ideal conditions re: moisture, air circulation to the core, small grain of organic matter (i.e. chop those rinds, peels and waste bits) and a well-tuned carbon/nitrogen ratio (~25 C to 1 N). Which you won’t get if you’re only adding kitchen scraps and maybe a bit of newspaper. Critiquing the “compost” that the hand model in our demo video appears to take out of the bucket, I think that’s not actually finished compost. And for the record, good soil for growing actually requires more than just compost.

To get more rapid and better-finished compost, you’d need to add even more carbon-heavy materials on a regular basis (to get to that sweet spot of ~25 C to 1 N). Which would of course fill the shiny bucket faster. Which would mean opening the contraption more, which would again release smells, a legitimate composting deterrent for the aspirational. Plus, from a fair bit of experience, to get really broken down humus you’ll need maturation, which means a second vessel to “let it rot” some more. So much for self-contained.

Also, perhaps you could periodically mix the compost in situ (maybe you’re supposed to?); that still seems to defeat the purpose of this shiny, self-contained contraption. That in turn leaves me asking if there’s not a better active solution.

A low-priority nit would be that the hideway juice tray is likely to tip when you first lift it out, spilling compost tea all over the places you don’t want it. It might look “clever” but a spigot (which already exist in other bucket systems) would do you better.

By the way, those smells of rotting vegetables are going to be more pungent and last longer in a no-turn system. Well-turned and managed compost quickly smells like the forest floor. Breath deep. Meanwhile, soaking wet compost with too much nitrogen (what a mix of mostly unturned kitchen scraps will get you) will turn to an anaerobic digestion process that could eventually smell like rotten eggs.

If this is aimed at the tyro composter who is less committed to the cause or someone who has more constraining conditions (e.g. renting a room in a compost unfriendly household or a Japanese pod apartment), then I don’t see it fulfilling its supposed evangelizing mission. The cracks in the powdered spun aluminum veneer —  it fills up too quick, takes too much time, still smells bad, doesn’t produce fully formed compost — become gaping.

I’m envisioning a lot of partially finished compost getting dumped back down the sink disposal or into the trash bin. After that, look for used-but-still-shiny bins on Craiglist.

This adds up to a big function fail that is just overlooked in the name of fashion. It’s too small. It’ll take too long. It’s not a reasonable composting system to generate a yield.

High probability of the opposite of success doesn’t bode well for winning “people who think about going green, stuck thinking that they will have to give up their style and design philosophy,” as a TreeHugger.com moderator responded to my (I admit) unnecessarily snarky original comment on the above article.

That suggests a counter-top composter (as opposed to a temporary storage jar, collector or “keeper” with say a charcoal filter) is trying to force a function where it doesn’t belong. Toilets go in bathrooms for a reason; I don’t have one next to my bed no matter how superficially convenient that might be.

In the same line of reasoning, the counter just might not be feasible for your actual composter.

Look, I think green-trends blogs like TreeHugger are indeed important. I’m on the daily e-mail list. But I also believe appropriateness of tech/design should be prioritized over aesthetics.

Note: I am certain the writer of the TreeHugger post is smart. And yes, this is probably appealing to a certain set of consumers. I’m even willing to concede that there is probably a narrow margin of users who could make this Bono system work OK (though these same users are probably quite expert and would opt for a more practical, useful and productive system).

But there must a middle ground between catering to aspirations and espousing reality. Aspiring to change our lifestyles as little as possible isn’t aspiring to much at all (and actually may be part of the problem).

Bonus material:

Even as a nascent urban permaculturist, I can brainstorm many other suggestions to address problems of the aspirational composter (and maybe bring about a little system change while we’re at it). In that, I’m certainly not the first or the smartest. I’m not claiming to be an expert or industrial-strength composter (though I grow things on my terrace with homemade compost). Even TreeHugger has various posts relating to the range of DIY composting methods that exists; many of those solutions can be adapted.

If you’re really committed to the urban waste reuse project — or aspire to be — here are some suggestions (I’m not the only one saying this) that could actually make composting (or composting-like activities) work for you:

  1. Don’t care what the composting-takes-too-much-space-crowd-says: A small rotary drum composter won’t take up much space on any balcony, terrace, etc. Certainly no more than your bicycle, patio chair, grill, etc. Well maintained, it also will hardly smell. Check Craigslist for a used one. Or adapt a DIY design if you have even a modicum of initiative.
  2. Not everyone has even that outdoor space. OK. Let me rephrase: A small rotary drum composter won’t take up much space in that unused corner of your apartment. Certainly no more than your bicycle, arm chair, DVD stand, etc. Well maintained, it also will hardly smell. Put a plastic mat underneath and sweep now and then. Check Craigslist for a used one. Or adapt a DIY design if you have even a modicum of initiative.
  3. See points 1 and 2 about terracotta (or DIY) towers with collection, maturation and storage tubs — another way to go.
  4. All of the above essentially require some amount of active compost management — aerating, turning, getting appropriate proportions of ingredients. But even moderate management will deal with most of the smell and unsightliness, if that’s the real problem.
  5. On a more philosophical note, active compost management recognizes that waste is a problem to be actively confronted (as opposed to repacked in a shiny jar).
  6. Getting the right ratio of ingredients could also help cut down your other household waste, as you’ll start adding more cardboard packaging, shredded paper, etc.
  7. I mentioned this already: Well-maintained maturing compost smells like the forest floor. So wonderful!
  8. Also, I bet some used books will teach you plenty more and make you a better, happier composter / urban gardener than a powder-coated aluminum jug. This for composting, and this for the world of soil health beyond composting.
  9. You can DIY additional amendment (say, growing a bit of lemongrass if you have the right light and temp) as a pest prevention additive layer after compost turns. Google “DIY compost amendment.” Voila!
  10. You could make DIY pseudo-EM by fermenting some cooking water (I do it with water left over from soaking chickpeas; water drained from rice or even cooked pasta should also work).
  11. If you do have skeptical/annoyed neighbors, housemates or family members, have you honestly tried discussing it with them upfront. I think I won a neighbor over re: our messy terrace garden by offering him a tomato plant. Agree to pool resources (kitchen scraps and/or “browns”) and share rewards (humus or grown produce)? Now we’re aiming at system change.
  12. Does your residential building have outdoor space? I know enough people who say their landlords/managers/association would never agree to composting in a common space but how many have actually tried it? Can you (and maybe your neighbors) petition for permission?  Parking garages, alleys, garbage rooms, etc. already smell of one fume or another and rooftops have this thing called wind. Also, more system change.
  13. Of course, you need not be limited specifically to composting. A popular tested intermediate tech option for the urban, space-conscious, aspirational, would-be organic waste-repurposer would be the bokashi bucket fermenter (or the DIY version). I don’t actually like it that much, but I get its usefulness. Extract the ferment tea all you want. Then when the bucket fills (since we’re assuming you don’t have land in which to bury semi-finished product), find people at a community garden who would almost certainly be happy to bury your fermented waste to help their garden grow.
  14. The earlier point about community gardens really applies to most organic waste. Buy a cheap air-tight bucket or a filtered compost keeper. Periodically drop off waste for someone else who will put it to good use. I bet you could even trade uncomposted waste for healthy soil.
  15. While you’re at it, try for a community garden plot.

This has turned into a long missive about combining appropriate tech philosophy with a love for green, urban thumbs and living. Skeptics (or perhaps the folks at TreeHugger who are poked a bit) could call it a tirade. Fair enough. Excessive techno-eco-consumerism really gets my goat.

To be clear, I do want to be on the same team as others who encourage the aspirational green people to become formerly aspirational green people. But I also think that a heavy dose of critical evaluation has to be applied; lifestyle change does actually require lifestyle change.

In other words, dealing with excessive waste may actually require smelling the rotten vegetables.

Composting experts out there can surely advise me on where I have gone astray. TreeHugger can feel free to respond as well.

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