Crash Course on the Ethics of Consumption

Pratt’s Center for Sustainable Design Strategies (CSDS) kicked off Green Week 2016 by offering its 6th annual Crash Course in Sustainability. Over 400 people registered for a full day of panels, workshops, screenings, and discussions. Faculty, students, and industry experts shared their passion and expertise for sustainability. For those who missed out, the whole event is available on the CSDS YouTube channel.

My talk was titled “Crash Course on the Ethics of Consumption.” I had the pleasure to present on a panel discussing Axiologue with one of its cofounders, Matt Nishi-Broach. Axiologue is a group dedicated to building an free, crowd-sourced, completely transparent ethical shopping app. You can download their Chrome extension Mindful Click from the Google Play store.

Watch video of the session below or view my Prezi slides and script at your own pace.

Mass shootings and collective responsibility

A portion of President Obama’s charged response to the recent mass shooting in Oregon invoked a collective, political responsibility. (Full transcript here.)

This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.

He goes on to draw a parallel between different types of laws that save lives, such as seat belt laws:

When Americans are killed in mine disasters, we work to make mines safer. When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer. When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities. We have seat belt laws because we know it saves lives.

When a source of harm emerges as part of a predicable pattern — even ‘routine’ as Obama puts it — then the proper response is structural; laws have to change. The issue is no longer about individual responsibility, but a collective and shared responsibility. There is a slight difference, however, between seat belt and gun laws. Someone who refuses to wear a seat belt doesn’t harm me. Someone who owns an assault rifle can very easily harm me, my friends, my family, my colleagues, my students…

The President urged the press to publish facts that compare gun violence with other perceived threats so that American’s can make informed decisions when they elect their leaders.

[…] I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save lives, and to let young people grow up. And that will require a change of politics on this issue. And it will require that the American people, individually, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican or an independent, when you decide to vote for somebody, are making a determination as to whether this cause of continuing death for innocent people should be a relevant factor in your decision. If you think this is a problem, then you should expect your elected officials to reflect your views.

I think that this is the correct direction, but only partially so. I want my neighbors, friends, and community to know — not only the ballot box — why I believe we would all be safer with less guns. In other words, we should be talking with one another as well as our representatives. Bad arguments should be addressed and flushed out. This is not merely a matter of personal choice or freedom when it affects so many lives so drastically and so routinely.

It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic.

Australian comic, Jim Jefferies, does a good job of humorously addressing some bad reasons that float around for owning assault rifles. Laughter, I think, is not in disrespect of the victims or their families. This laughter comes from ridicule, and ridicule is often an effective, and even appropriate, response to poor reasoning that obstinately clings to itself despite the now routine mass killing of our fellow citizens.

Save some for the whales

whale-304823_1280“Hey, save some for the whales!” When I was recently getting ready for bed, this is how my partner playfully informed me that I was taking too long at our only bathroom sink.

You probably heard this saying frequently in grade school, most often around the water fountain during recess. Hearing it again made me reflect on how I first began to imagine my actions affecting the environment. I was a very literal child, so I recall a vivid image of a large tank of water slowly draining, with an unhappy whale circling around. (You know, I’m surprised I used drinking fountains at all. Who drinks whale water?)

Of course, this isn’t how it works at all. We have plenty of misconceptions about how our individual actions add up to make a significant impact on the environment. Often, these misunderstandings cause us to expend a great deal of effort without much payoff. Many times, a complicated calculus is involved in estimating the trade-off between, say, bags made of paper, plastic, or cotton grown with heavy pesticides.

Aside from this complex calculus, there is an aesthetic element — a way of imagining or representing impact in an intuitive way. This reflection inspired an idea for a new assignment in my environmental ethics class.

Pratt students excel at exercises involving visualization. They also have access to a great deal of resources regarding material life cycles and other sustainable design strategies, thanks to the rapidly growing interdisciplinary sustainability program (here, here, and here). My environmental ethics class provides them with an overview of several major ethical paradigms, and how they identify and assess value in nature. The plan is to combine all of these elements and ask students to create a visualization of environmental impact in a way that makes the ethical commitments transparent to the audience.

Antony Gormley and Peter Clegg calculated that a kg of CO2 takes up roughly the same space as a coffin, which they have carved into arctic ice. (Image source:

We’ll review a few infographics, charts, and other visualizations. Carbon footprint calculators are a good place to start. Some convert all impacts into land use and offer a “number of Earths” that would be required if everyone lived as you do. Is this a Kantian gesture? Clearly not everyone does live a carbon-intensive lifestyle, which is evident in the disparity between per capita emissions broken down by state.

The documentary, Art from a Changing Arctic from the Cape Farewell Foundation, which we watch in class, shows a number of artists from different mediums and genres struggling with a similar questions. But what’s going on here? The art is spectacular. However each of them only briefly reflect only on the ethical concepts they had in mind when creating the art, if they reflect on them at all.

I’m excited to see how the students will respond. Check back at the end of the semester for results. In the meantime, if you have ideas or links to relevant infographics, articles, images, artworks, etc., please post them in the comments.