Books: Moby-Duck

April 14, 2011

Moby-Duck is my favorite sort of book to read – hard to describe because it does not fit easily into established categories, both educational and enjoyable, challenging me to think about things in new ways but not heavy-handed about it. It covers topics as diverse as the history of plastic, changing views of childhood, the history of Arctic exploration, oceanography, toy factories in China, environmentalism, and the business of maritime shipping.

Throughout, author Donovan Hohn skillfully weaves his various themes with the story of his own travels in search of the thousands of bath toys lost at sea nearly twenty years ago. He brings each scene to life, full of fascinating detail and interesting people, so that even the deployment of scientific equipment from a research vessel reads like an adventure. I doubt I’ll ever go to sea as Hohn did, either for pleasure or education (and certainly not as a job), but I have a much better idea what it is like now – which is one reason I am not likely to go there.

One thing you can’t miss as you read this book is Hohn’s concern about how human behavior is harming the environment. He touches briefly on issues such as global warming and nuclear waste, but primarily it is about plastic in the ocean. One thing I like about his approach is that he doesn’t lecture the reader. He tells what he has learned from his research and what he has seen for himself, and lets the reader draw his own conclusions.

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Ubiquitous plastic

April 12, 2011

 When most people think of the dangers of plastic, they generally have in mind common disposable items such as plastic grocery bags and water bottles. (Of course, there’s also the danger of “using plastic” as in credit cards, which is a whole different problem – though one that no doubt has contributed much to the production and sale of so many consumer items made largely of plastic.) Certainly those items can be a problem, and are often one of the most visible signs of pollution by consumers.

But the book I’ve been reading, Moby Duck, has made me more aware of just how much plastic I use every day. (It’s a fascinating book, part travelogue, part quest, part history, part science, and I’ll review it once I’ve finished reading it.) I’ve known for a long time that we use more plastic today than people did when I was growing up, and that we used more plastic then than when my parents were growing up. But the increase has been gradual enough that I haven’t really paid much attention.

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Green or greenwash?

October 2, 2009

I learned a new word recently. I was reading a weekly intracompany letter, or at least skimming through it to see if there was anything interesting. My work in IT, reviewing software change documentation for compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley, is so far removed from both our products and our customers that discussions of marketing campaigns, customer satisfaction surveys, and quality or safety initiatives are so remote from my daily work that it’s hard to get really interested.

But somewhere in the middle of the letter, I noticed the word “greenwash.” It was mentioned as something we don’t want our company to do. It went on to talk about a genuine commitment to doing what is good for the environment. But I wasn’t really paying attention. I wanted to find out where this word “greenwash” came from.

I thought I did a decent job of keeping up with major events and issues, so I was surprised to learn that Jay Westerveld coined the word “greenwash” over two decades ago. There are even entire websites devoted to combatting it. The word really does convey the idea so well – whitewashing the corporate image to make it look green.

I’ve been aware of greenwashing going on, though I never gave a lot of thought to the subject. I was taught, growing up – both at home and at school – to be skeptical of most advertising, assuming that most of it was about image and very little about genuine benefits from using the product or service. Particularly when it comes to health benefits, product claims need to be taken with a lot more than just one grain of salt.

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Dueling headlines

July 12, 2008

After reading an article in the Wall Street Journal with the surprising news of environmentalists supporting offshore drilling, I decided to explore the topic further. After all, that would be pretty big news, especially in this season of $4/gallon gasoline. (Though I was one of the fortunate ones who got gas for $2.99/gal yesterday during a 4-hour special sale at the gas station across the street from my workplace.)

What conclusion you draw will probably depend on which headline you read. There is Santa Barbara learns to live with offshore drilling in MarketWatch – which is part of the Wall Street Digital  Network and could be expected to have a pro-business approach. It reports mixed feelings among the residents: “All are wary of spills, but some say it could prove to be a positive in the long run.” The Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, reports that Santa Barbara fumes over McCain drilling plan. Like the WSJ article, it acknowledges (briefly) that recent poll results show support for offshore drilling, but focuses primarily on opposition to it.

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Red, white, blue, and green

June 25, 2008

I don’t generally pay much attention to the election year political conventions, especially as the outcome seems to be a foregone conclusion these days. I don’t know yet whom I will vote for (though yuesterday’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal about Obama’s plans for Social Security makes me think perhaps I should vote for McCain just to keep Obama out of the White House), but I doubt either major party’s convention will do much of anything to influence my vote.

I did find yesterday’s article about the Democrats’ plans for “the most sustainable political convention in modern American history” very interesting, however. Sustainable, according to Merriam-Webster, means “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” Living in Iowa I have learned something about the measures farmers take to keep from depleting their land. But the sustainability desired by the planners in Denver is much broader, encompassing so many goals that they are finding it difficult to locate products meeting their requirements.

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Getting a handle on grocery bags

June 18, 2008

I brought home my groceries today in a free bag provided by the supermarket. Nothing too surprising there, except that it wasn’t either paper or plastic. Hy-Vee was distributing free reusable cloth grocery bags today (one per customer), to promote their use in place of the nearly ubiquitous plastic bags.

I happily accepted it, and as I carried it to the car (filled with two boxes of cereal, three bags of frozen vegetables, a bag of frozen tortellini, and still plenty room to spare), I thought how much easier it was to carry than the paper bags of my childhood.

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