Radical transparency

I’m not a big fan of catch phrases, though like a lot of people I’m susceptible to current speech habits (Buffy-speak, much?). And I’ve always been puzzled by the use of the word “transparency” to mean “clearly seen” when what it means is “invisible.” Still, I understand its current use, indicating a lack of obfuscation if you want to find out how something is being done.

Daniel Goleman -- Ecological IntelligenceI hadn’t been familiar with the work of Daniel Goleman until watching a recent Bill Moyers’ Journal. Ecological Intelligence (this is not a review; I have the book on order but haven’t read it yet) discusses a subject I’ve been looking for a book about for a long time: the true cost of “stuff.”

Stuff doesn’t just appear magically on a shelf and disappear magically when you’re done with it. It has a lifetime path and each step along the path has costs, effects, and consequences. All these steps and consequences have costs, though oftentimes the costs can be pushed off into the future.

Nuclear power, for example. I’m not as anti-nuclear power as a lot of fellow knee-jerk liberal tree-hugging friends and colleagues, though I think that governments and other proponents of nuclear power have been so appallingly dishonest about it, so careless with it, over the past several decades that they’ve probably shot themselves permanently in the feet about it.

But one thing is clear: it was developed without sufficient attention to the disposal of its waste products, as the continued fighting about those waste products makes clear. We pushed all those costs off into the future, perhaps without even noticing we were doing it.

George Carlin: All My StuffThe same is true of ordinary household goods — what we usually think of as “stuff” — though the consequences of not thinking about where that used paper towel may end up are perhaps not as scary as where we’re going to put nuclear waste. Still, there are a lot more used paper towels, and plastic bags, and building demolition trash, and garbage and junk in general than there is nuclear waste.

A lot of resources are bound up in the creation of stuff, too, as well as its disposal.

“Radical Transparency” is the idea that you should be able to find out and compare the cost of similar classes of stuff over the lifetime of the stuff, and make reasonable choices about what to buy (or whether to buy some stuff at all).

Vonda's Favorite MugThe example I’ve been using over the years, when trying to persuade the occasional  nonfiction-writing friend to tackle the sort of project that Goleman’s book addresses, is china mugs compared to paper cups.

It seems intuitively obvious that it’s better to use a mug and wash it than to use a paper cup and throw it away.

I believe it’s better to use a china mug than a paper cup.

I would be surprised if it weren’t better to use a china mug than a paper cup.

But I don’t know it.

I have no evidence for my intuition… and intuition is often wrong. With a paper cup, I notice right off the bat that I use it once and throw it away, and I know that it takes energy, trees, and water (paper costs a lot of water) to create a paper cup, and landfill space to put it in when I’m done with it. But on the other hand, a china mug requires digging clay out of the ground, making the mug, firing it at high temperatures, creating the paint and the glaze and firing it again (and for my favorite mug, firing it still a third time because it has gold decoration), and getting it to the store and to my house.

Does it take more or less water and resources to wash a china mug than to create, use, and dispose of a paper cup?

And after it’s made and I buy it, I use it — and it isn’t (alas!) entirely immortal. Does it stand in for a thousand paper cups? Two thousand? Or does its maintenance cost more than two thousand paper cups?

What are the comparable costs of these two products? I’d really like to know.

Goleman mentioned a website, www.goodguide.com, as a place where one could find out this sort of information.

I visited it, and your guess is right: the first thing I looked up was paper cups.

The website is very obviously a work in progress. Items that don’t show up in a category list may show up if you search for the brand name. Similar items from the same company may have wildly different ratings, sometimes based on judgments I found insufficiently explained or downright incomprehensible. For example, a brand of instant oatmeal was given the lowest rating available because it was (eek!) fortified.

Fortified with what? Iron? Niacin? Preservatives? Insect parts? Rat poop? Heavy metals? Nuclear waste? It was impossible to tell, and I would make quite a different decision on the product depending on what exactly had been added to it. (Not that I’d buy it; I did once, by mistake [I meant to buy the regular variety, to take on a trip, and got the flavored kind], and I’d give it a 0 rating because it tastes nasty. That quality wasn’t factored into the equation.)

Still, I think the website will be a good research tool, if one keeps an open mind, checks for how the ratings are created and who sponsors the site, and keeps one’s woo-woo antennae well tuned.

The site doesn’t, yet, have anything about paper v. china.

But one can hope.

— Vonda


I blog here every Sunday, and irregularly otherwise as the spirit takes me.

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Radical transparency — 13 Comments

  1. Vonda,

    On the nuclear waste issue, my writing collaborator is a health physicist at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. He was involved in the new project that turns nuclear waste into glass. It’s still radioactive, but it no longer leaks. They used to transfer stuff from holding bin to holding bin hoping the transfer would dissipate radioactivity like heat when you pour liquid from one vessel to another.

    Since it doesn’t dissipate they need better containment. Hence the glass bars.

    I’ve also seen a demo on the Discovery Science Channel that surrounds a nuclear device with a special foam within a tent. The bubbles absorb the radioactivity and contains the fallout from the explosion. Sweep up the small amount of dust and place it into the glass making furnace. Very rudimentary experiments on very small devices, but still promising.

  2. You make a good point on waste disposal in general. While I work in the nuclear industry I’m agnostic on whether it is our future. (We can have any energy future we want – each one has benefits and drawbacks.) I have noted that reporting on nuclear waste almost never contrasts it with the various noxious chemicals we put in landfills. Both are awful. Radioactivity does one advantage – it is very easy to detect compared to dioxin, etc. Small comfort, perhaps.

    One of the difficulities with nuclear power – or any energy source – is that the population has little “gut feel” for how it works, how much it produces, what the risks are, etc. In general all they’ve got are bad TV and movies and fluffy science news pieces, unless they want to dive into an academic book. Even these provide only the barest look at the daily nuts and bolts of cranking out the gobs of electricity the country demands.

    Having worked at a reactor for over twenty years, I’ve witnessed much silliness in the public square and some inside the industry as well. To give a broader audience a chance at a more realistic energy perspective, I’ve written a novel that covers the good and the bad of nuclear in an entertaining style. “Rad Decision” is available at no cost to readers at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com and is also in paperback. (I get no royalties.) Reader comments at the homepage have been very positive. Stewart Brand, the noted futurist and founder of The Whole Earth Catalog thought enough of it to say “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.”

  3. Hi Phyllis,

    Is there a fuller description someplace of what on earth they were trying to do to “dissipate” radioactivity by moving it from one tank to another? That wouldn’t work under any understanding of radioactivity, and the half-life of radioactive elements, that I have.

    Non-leaking radioactive storage is a good thing. Where to put the stuff once it’s glassified, I think, is still something of a problem.

    Hi James,

    That’s an excellent point about the comparable dangers of radioactivity and other toxic stuff. I’m spacing out the name of the book that compares dangers — things that really might kill us, quickly (not using seat belt) or slowly (smoking), v. the various fashions of “be afraid! be very afraid!” dangers like air travel and cell phone “radiation.” The everyday stuff is a lot more dangerous. But there’s something about the scale of one airplane crash, and possibly the lack of control if one’s a passenger that makes the possibility of being in an airplane crash feel much scarier. I expect also we all convince ourselves that our driving skills are such that we’d always be able to keep out of an accident, which is a ridiculous assumption — but I bet we all do it to some extent or other. Riding in a commercial airplane, you’ve got no control, so your own abilities (whether imaginatively enhanced or not) have nothing to do with what might happen.

    I wish science reporting in general were better. The recent hoo-hah about an early primate fossil is a good example, with reporters one expects better of blathering about “missing links between humans and chimpanzees” and “one of the earliest known fossils” (!). I wish I didn’t think it was a case of needing to sensationalize the news for the purpose of ratings, but when I (rarely) look at the local news stations, which used to be pretty good, and their endless visuals of horrible car accidents and house fires, I despair.

    You’re right about the “gut feel,” which can so often be wrong no matter what the subject. When we hear the phrase “biofuel” we all (or anyway us liberal tree-huggers) get the warm fuzzies. And then somebody points out that it takes a lot of petrofuel to produce all this biofuel, and we go “eek!” On the other hand, it also takes fuel to produce petrofuel. So what’s the comparison, what’s the balance point? And then another element crops up, which is that some biofuel is produced by chopping down rain forest to free up more agricultural area, which more than negates whatever carbon footprint we’re trying to erase from the sands of time.

    Thanks for the pointer to your novel. I’ll check it out.

    Best,

    Vonda

  4. Hi Vonda,

    I make a similar point about risk and control in my novel.

    My impression of the generally poor science reporting is that its a combination of “parachute-in, parachute-out” for most journalists (who have many assignments), a need to keep everything short, and a perceived need to dumb everything down that I suspect is only accentuated by the higher-up editorial staff at most news outlets The in & out method is especially problematic when trying to cover complex, insular, secretive areas like my own. I also see an increasing problem with news journalists starting their reporting with a preconceived narrative. (Perhaps we’re all novelists at heart.)

    As someone from a corn-producing state, the sight of big equipment in the fields in the spring and fall made the idea that ethanol was greatly energy-efficient always seem a bit questionable (though I still don’t know the real answer to that).

    Keep asking questions on energy – simple certainly isn’t a good adjective to apply to this topic.

    Regards,

    James Aach

  5. David MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air” has a chapter (and technical appendix) on the energy costs of “stuff.” He’s all about hard numbers and getting past the woo-woo to discover the true energy cost of things. The book’s available in the US now, or you can download the whole thing from http://www.withouthotair.com/.

    Also, there’s a video you may be interested in, aimed at school kids and with a strong POV but providing a good grounding in the issue: http://storyofstuff.com. It’s definitely an anti-consumerist piece, and in some places I think spins the facts a bit to make its point (average time stuff lives in our house only two days — maybe, but does that include things like soap and food, which would skew the time radically shorter?

    Evidently some people are shocked and appalled that someone would make a video for school kids that propounded a point of view, as this article talks about people protesting their children being shown the video: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/11/education/11stuff.html. Next thing you know, those radical teachers will be asking their students to think and ask questions. We can’t have that, now can we?

  6. On a completely different note, I looked up definitions of “transparent” both in my (old) Shorter Oxford and online. The first definition in the OED is “Having the property of transmitting light, so as to render bodies lying beyond completely visible.” The more I think about it, the more I think it might actually be the right word for the job, “open” having been in use long enough in government (“Open Meetings Act”) to have lost a lot of its meeting. I confess I would like to render a lot of bodies lying beyond completely visible.

    Searching for “transparent” online, however, shows that it’s been used in some odd places too. There’s a company called the Transparent Corp. that sells programs for “brainwave entrainment” that are supposed to improve your focus, increase your creativity, etc. Their site wasn’t as transparent as I would have liked — too much about what the product was supposed to do, too little about how and why it works.

    And then there’s a movie called Transparent, which turns out to be about the experiences of a group of women who gave birth to children and then became men. It focused on how things went with their children. It actually sounds quite fascinating, though it does not seem to be widely available at this point. Of course, it’s really a completely different word, perhaps best understood with a hyphen: Trans-parent. Lovely play on words, though.

    Not about seeing how the sausage was made, however, which is something we all need to pay greater attention to.

  7. Thanks, James. I don’t think it helps that places are getting rid of their science reporters, either. Everybody can’t know everything so a little specialization here and there wouldn’t hurt.

    Glaurung_quena — thanks for the reference, I’ll check that out.

    I’m trying to think of anything that stays in my house just two days. Junk mail? (If putting it in the recycling bin counts as getting it out of the house, as the recycling only gets picked up every two weeks.) Maybe I’m misunderstanding the statement, or I just don’t shop enough…

    Nancy Jane — I do understand how the word is being used, but I’m still not convinced it’s the right way. Oh, well, it’s late even for me, and Must… Resist… Straight… Line from your last paragraph, so I’m shutting things down for the evening.

    Vonda

  8. I knew you understood the usage. You just made me curious about the definitions. And once I started reading them, I came up with more ways to use transparent rather than fewer. I’m with you on buzzwords, but I think I approve of the way they’re using transparent in this case. Of course, it will soon degenerate into something as meaningless as “Open Meetings Act.”

    And please don’t resist any straight lines that I feed you! Not that I did this one on purpose. I’m just following the Texas Legislature and can’t seem to forget the old adage about how it’s better not to watch either sausage or law being made.

  9. Hi Nancy Jane,

    I’m getting used to it, but what would have been the matter with “visible”?

    As for the sausage, the double entendre was just too easy.

    Vonda

  10. I’m sure some consultant got paid a lot of money to come up with transparent as the perfect word. Visible is perhaps too, uh, clear. It might imply that we got to see all the inner workings of government. (Inner workings and sausage seem to be connected.)

    I was just glad your comments inspired me to go look up transparent. Interesting word.

  11. The Story of Stuff is . . . good stuff! A link worth passing around. (After watching.)

    I’ve been carrying around a china mug since 1982, and i will be heartbroken if anyone ends up convincing me it would have been lighter on the landscape for me to use disposable cups. Plus i just like the mouthfeel of drinking out of ceramic, versus foams or waxy paper.

  12. Hi Jeff,

    I completely agree. I would hate to give up my favorite mug for (yuk) styrofoam.

    Seems like a lot of calculations about stuff leave out any aesthetic consideration, like the oatmeal mentioned in my original post — it has a low rating because it’s “fortified” but there’s no mention of the fact that it tastes absolutely disgusting.

    And what’s the value of the aesthetic consideration? If it’s art, it’s enormous. If it’s, say, a tomato that has a long shelf life and doesn’t get bruised in shipping (and is picked so unripe it’s white inside, and served that way, and tastes like cardboard)… not so much.

    Vonda