The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “waste”

The Coca Cola Conundrum

It seems hardly possible that some businesses have budgets larger than some countries, such as Wal-Mart, whose revenues in 2009, exceeded the respective GDPs of 174 countries.  And what seems hardly possible can be easily overlooked, while the significance of the changes brought about by the growth of the super-business can be easily missed.

The returnable glass bottle is just one example of this.  Younger generations, particularly in the UK and US, may never have seen one.  Older generations may remember them with a little fondness but assume they could never make a comeback.

Yet throughout Central and South America they still exist, mainly in the many small shops and cafés that abound in these countries.  Only in some of the larger chains, and those promoting a ‘modern’ image, has the plastic bottle taken over completely.

Why this international difference and does it matter?

Even if you do not subscribe to the view that the planet is in immediate danger of collapse due to global warming, there is some logic in the view that the world’s resources are finite in the face of an ever growing population in many parts of the world.  Enough people believe this to ensure that scientific advances are being made in the development of alternative power sources, such as wind farms which have sprung up on land and at sea all around the world, instead of continuing dependence on fossil fuels.

The use and recycling of plastics remain the subject of much debate, not least due to the difficulties involved while websites such as ‘My Plastic Free Life’ have growing followings.

Cynics might (reasonably) see governments’ promotion of the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” message as pandering to the whims of the electorate, yet it indicates that the conservation movement has sufficient following for those dependent on elections to sit up and take notice.

But this doesn’t answer the question as to why the international difference?  The answer to that question is much more important and just one small indicator of the root of many of the ills of modern society.

The role of big business.

Some of the largest businesses in the world are linked to the manufacture and distribution of food and drinks.  Kraft, Tesco, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Costco, are among the best known, although often under several names so the extent of their operations are not always immediately realised.  In most cases they are seen as positive, at worse a necessary evil.

In the so called advanced economies people have grown used to supermarkets dominating our High Streets and our shopping malls.  On the positive side, larger businesses are usually able to command bulk purchase discounts and introduce economies of scale that result in cheaper shopping for the average person.  For many years shoppers have been able to go to just one store or shopping mall and find everything they need, and more, in that one place.  It has meant convenience, easy parking, less hassle.  It has suited those with busier lifestyles, often travelling to work further from home or working longer or more irregular hours, trying to fit in children’s social commitments alongside greater expectations to visit aging parents who increasingly live alone.

Sometimes older generations might pause to think about all the small traders who used to provide haberdashery services, tailoring, butchery, greengrocery services, as well as a host of other trades.  Now they are hard pushed to find an independent butcher in the High Street, or a greengrocer who knows their produce.  Occasionally they might find small independent stores providing up-market jewellery, or art, or occasionally fashions, but these are few and far between.  Apart from products such as gourmet teas or handmade sweets these rarely include everyday goods and foodstuffs.

Yet this is not the case everywhere.  In Eastern Russia, the capitals of Kazakhstan and Mongolia and much of Central and South America we found most supermarkets were often no larger than the supermarkets of England in the 1960’s, maybe 10,000 square feet.  There are a few exceptions of course but most are tiny by comparison to modern superstores.   Elsewhere small ‘corner stores’ abound, selling everything the big supermarkets sell but in smaller quantities.  Here large packets can be opened and you can buy your cigarettes, sanitary towels and even painkillers and chewing gum, one at a time.  In garages all sized bottles of car oil can be opened so you can buy the amount you need, not the amount that is deemed the right size by the manufacturer.

Coca Cola delivery lorries are a common sight in Central America

Coca Cola delivery lorries are a common sight in Central America

In Mexico, Central and South America another notable difference is evident, as Coca-Cola delivery vehicles collect empty glass bottles at the same time as delivering the refilled bottles for resale.  It hardly seems likely that Central and South Americans have banded together to demand this ecologically friends service from Coca-Cola, when other nations have not been able to achieve this.

More likely it is the infrastructure of a vast network of small shops and café’s selling small quantities of products spread out over a relatively small geographical area where road conditions favour the use of smaller delivery vehicles, makes this still a commercially viable option for Coca-Cola.

By comparison, the vast wastelands of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Siberia have also seen the demise of the recyclable glass bottle.  A cynical view might be that the huge distances between shops, café’s and even towns, would significantly increase fuel consumption if the delivery vehicles collected the empty glass bottles for returning to a depot and refilling, making plastic much more economically viable.

In small shops, finding somewhere to store empty returnable bottles is not difficult, they take up the space vacated by the sold products until the next collection and delivery is made.  In the vast superstores and supermarkets that predominate in the UK and the US, every inch of space is carefully calculated to be turned over to profit.  Here, the storage of returnable glass bottles would take up precious space.  In the UK and US, where huge trucks or lorries are on a tight delivery schedule, collecting the empties would add to the time and therefore the costs.  The additional weight of the glass bottles being carried over long distances between vast warehouses and delivery points would add to fuel costs.  All these additional costs would then undoubtedly have to be passed on to the consumer, something many would not want to accept.

None of this fits well with the cut-throat supermarket industry, where profit margins have been historically tiny, reducing the incentives of other large corporations, such as Coca-Cola in the case of the returnable glass bottle, to offer the customer a genuine choice.

Conclusion: None of this is of itself bad.  It is, however, unfortunate, when we, the public, take on board the messages of big business and assume they have our best interests (and that of the planet) at heart.

The assertion of this article is that this may not always be the case and it is our duty as consumers to question, discuss, analyse and respond to big business to hold even them accountable.

Green Social Work

Green Social Work: From Environmental Crises to Environmentl Justice, is the title of a 2012 book by renowed social work academic Lena Dominelli.  Polity. ISBN 97-0-7456-5401-0. Paperback: £15.99 (www.politybooks.com)

How could social work be ‘green’ I wondered as I approached this book.

Starting with the historical foundations of social work up to identifying it as the weakest (and progressively weakening) player on the professional stage, Green Social Work is a rallying cry for the re-politicisation of social work.

Dominelli uses examples from the impact on the poor and disadvantaged caused by international ecological disasters, and the role played by big business and the ruling elite in both the cause and response to those disasters, and the disenfranchising of the world’s poor, thus linking social work practice and values to ecological values and a possible solution to the profession’s “crisis of confidence”.

In doing so she demands the practitioner think beyond the micro level of day to day practice with individuals in their immediate circumstances to the role and responsibility of social work to make a difference at the macro level and reclaim the strengths of the profession.

Practical case studies, particularly from community social work, along with suggestions as to how social workers could be involved in environmentally related politics, illustrate how, with a little application, these concepts can be incorporated into everyday practice.

What is not clear is what impact societal and government expectations, employment criteria and current funding of community social work in particular will have on the ability of the profession to apply the green social work values.

As an academic work the book is not always light reading, but is of especial relevance at a strategic level and to those with an interest in the ‘bigger picture’.

The profession is in crisis and this is one voice among a growing number that wants to see social work rekindle its early political roots.  I look forward to following up more of this theme in future.

Light pollution kills

I happened to see a film the other night, all about light pollution.

Light Pollution over Las Vegas – seen from 100 miles away, with our car in the foreground

We were staying at a campsite in San Pedro de Atacama and the film was being shown in the open air in the town square as part of a local campaign to reduce light pollution.  Hardly surprising as the Atacama Desert in northern Chile is one of those parts of the world where it is still possible to see the stars at night.As the film began by demonstrating how in much of the world it is no longer possible to see the stars or even the plants of our solar system in the night sky, I was reminded us having left Las Vegas a year previously, driving maybe 100 miles, and looking back to see the lights of Vegas glowing in an orange dome in the distance.  That scene was such a contrast to the nights we have been enthralled to see the stars in the night sky in places far from the city lights.

As I watched the film I reflected on my childhood in England in the 1960’s, when the street lights in our home town would go out at 11.00 pm. Then in the 1980’s that became 2.00 am. Now they stay on all night, often in the guise of ‘security’. As children and young adults we could see the stars in the night sky. Today’s city and town dwelling children hardly know that the stars are there.  They have no experience of the wonder of seeing the night sky.

But it’s not just aesthetics, the price of progress: the film went on to describe some more of the effects of a growing obsession with light.

It is believed that migrating birds use the stars to navigate and light pollution in the worst affected areas is affecting their ability to migrate. In some cities, particularly in the US, it is known that birds often crash into the tall buildings, falling injured to the ground, with broken wings and broken beaks. There is a whole army of bird rescuers who go out and pick up and look after as many fallen birds as they can find.

Young turtles have evolved to hatch at night and head towards the brightest horizon as soon as they hatch. As the sea reflects the moon and starlight this means they can head straight to the safety of the sea. However in some places, where electric light pollution is creeping in, the young turtles are often found heading in the wrong direction, towards the wrong light.

On a human level, recent research has indicated a link in the progression of some cancers in humans, particularly breast and prostrate cancers. Melatonin in the body apparently suppresses the growth of cancerous tumours but melatonin levels only rise during periods of darkness. Sleeping in a lit room, whether lit internally or by bright street lights, reduces the body’s production of melatonin. Shift workers, who work by electric light at night and sleep during sunlight hours much of the time are particularly at risk.

In many places street lighting is chosen for its appearance rather than its practicality. Light globes appear attractive to the modern eye but 60% of the light goes upward into the sky rather than down to where it’s of more use. The cost of that is twofold: increased light pollution and waste of resources by using more energy than is necessary.

As the industrial revolution developed through the 1800s and 1900s, a sign of the wealth of a town was seen in the number of chimney stacks belching smoke into the atmosphere. Today we no longer aspire to have those chimney stacks, seeing them instead as polluters of the world’s environment. Today how brightly we light our cities is seen as a sign of progress and wealth.

In how many years, the film asked, will light pollution be seen as another type of polluter, one that is affecting the health of humans, plants and wildlife alike?

We ask, should we be worried by this; should we try and have some influence on this problem, not just for the aesthetics but for the health of the planet and the people and wildlife that live on it?

Check out this website for links to further information about light pollution.

Asking Questions?

Whatever we like to think, we all live in the confines of our own experience, finding it hard to imagine how others might live.  For those who live in countries that consider themselves to be the most advanced and richest nations, it can be hard to even recognise that the rest of the world is actually in the majority.  And their priorities may be different for good reasons.  Certainly, we all need to love and be loved, eat and have somewhere to sleep, but we don’t all approach these needs in the same way.  Or the other things that occupy our minds and time, which can vary enormously.

Taking time out to travel around the world overland has brought me into contact with ways of life that I would not have seen by simply going on holiday.

In Mexico we have seen life lived in ways we have not seen outside of our history books.  Oxen pulling the plough in small fields, followed by an old man hand sowing seeds from a bucket.  These are Biblical illustrations, not modern farming methods.  Yet, quite logical when you see the size of the fields, small spaces that are cultivated in the natural rocky mountains, even, in some cases, the almost impossible forty five degree angle mountain slopes on which some fields have been created.  These are not the spaces for large tractors and other farm machinery.  The old methods are sometimes still the best.

In Mexico we have also seen and heard small lorries carrying pigs, three tiers high.  In England this was outlawed many years ago, the legal achievement of animal rights activists.  Should those activists be working to save the suffering of pigs in Mexico?  In a country where animals are looked after because they are a valuable resource, not out of sentimentality.  In a country where donkeys are still kept and used to transport wood from the forests for the fires at home.  And, where donkeys are not available, on the backs of men, women and children.  In a country where dogs are kept not out of sentimentality but because they provide an early warning system in the event of intruders and help with the herding of other animals.  It is undoubtedly true that not all animals are well cared for but in countries that pride themselves on caring for animals there are plenty of people who are still prosecuted for the suffering they cause dogs and cats, for cruelty to wildlife, often for no reason other than the fun of it.  I suspect the majority of Mexicans eking out an existence in the mountains would consider the concerns of the animal rights activists to be rather bizarre.

In Mongolia there is little agricultural farming, the land is far too unproductive to bother.  Animals again have an important role to play in the daily life of the Mongolian.  His family will probably have a horse or two for transport, alongside a small motorbike.  Several nomadic families may share the use of oxen and cart, or even a small tractor, to move home every two months.  The family will also probably have a couple of cows, sheep, goats, or yak or camels, depending on where in Mongolia they live.  If their livestock is undernourished it is because the weather has been cruel this year and the land has not produced enough of the sparse vegetation their animals feed on.  In this case, the Mongolian nomad and his family may well face the real risk of starvation themselves.

In other respects the animals’ lives are much better.  There is comparatively little factory farming.  Cows in Kazakhstan and Mongolia are left to wander around during the day, finding grazing where they can, returning home through the village on their own as dusk falls.  Pigs, turkeys and chickens living in fishing villages along the coast of Mexico have the run of the beach, or at least the run of the beach outside the home where they live, for the dogs of other homes do their job and chase them off if they wander too far from their own territory.

The obsessions and worries of the so called ‘advanced’ nations are often of little or no concern here.  Children and teenagers are left alone caring for animals, each other, livestock, and elderly relatives.  They are trusted and trustable.  If chores need to be done they do them, and occupy themselves in play in between times.  Responsibility is given at a young age, but only to the degree that responsibility can be handled.  Life, human and animal, is too precious to entrust it to the not yet trustable.

Two young men work together in Mongolia.  They harvest the marshland for grasses for winter feed for their animals.  They work as part of a group of maybe twenty men, the oldest of whom is probably in his fifties.  One young man is sixteen, sometimes shy and a little childlike in unfamiliar company and the older men cover for him at those times.  But he is also strong and well-built and able to work as well as men much older and more experienced than he is.  In the fields he is listened to as an equal by his colleagues when he has something to say.  The other boy is a little younger, maybe fifteen.  He is shy and childlike in all his dealings.  His thinking is not as quick and he says little.  Physically he does what he can but he is slim and with little muscle on his frame.  His uncle, one of the group of men, watches over him and protects him.  No-one seems to mind the difference.  Both have a role to play in this society.  Both are equally accepted.

In the majority world childhood is a transition from infancy to adulthood where responsibility and duty are learned through being a part of a community.  Chores may be a chore to some but for most they are just the way of life.  To what extent are we doing our children a favour if we protect them from the hardship of chores and responsibility?  How will they learn to be trustable contributing adults if not by experience?  Or do we leave this learning until adulthood has been attained?  If we think childhood is lost in the majority world to what should be adult responsibilities, I wonder what the parents of those children think of the alternative of childhood being lost to early sexualisation in the ‘advanced’ nations.

Material poverty is real in these countries, but they still have family and community.    But there are changes.  In the bigger towns and cities, where the influences from the west are greatest, the beginnings of a move away from dependence on community and family can be seen: children are more likely to group together in Internet cafés, the young and the old don’t mix together so much.

Global warming and recycling have become mainstream concerns in the advanced nations, where councils and governments have introduced legislation to force people to recycle their paper and plastics in their weekly waste collections.  This works well in countries with highly developed waste collection systems.

However in countries such as Mongolia and Mexico waste collections are non-existent in many areas.  At a micro level this is not such a problem as it might be in England.  People buy fewer goods that come with lots of packaging, vegetables are bought from local markets and shops, not wrapped in several layers of plastic.  The same goes for meat.  There is not the dependence on tinned or packet foods, or pre-prepared and packaged ready meals outside of the main cities.    What little rubbish is produced is easily burned, and in both countries people in the rural areas do just this.  The Mongolian burns his rubbish behind his ger before he packs up to move to a new site every two months.  Where there are villages or small towns there is often a collective site on the outskirts of the settlement.  On such a small scale there is little thought or concern for the risk this might cause to the ozone layer.  Better surely to burn the rubbish than leave it for the rats to make nests in right outside their kitchens.

In Kazakhstan there is a growing problem with waste plastic bottles.  The water is largely poor quality and not good for drinking and it is possible to buy lemonade, colas, and other sweet drinks as well as water in various sizes of plastic bottles.  But in such a vast country there is little in the way of organised waste collection and these empty bottles are increasingly littering the countryside.  A similar situation could exist in Mongolia, except in this even more sparsely populated country the continued nomadic culture sees these bottles added to the periodic fires in which waste is burnt.

In Mexico there continues an otherwise outdated system of using returnable and recycled glass containers.  Coca-Cola in particular has many small delivery vehicles moving around the country, taking advantage of the good road infrastructures that do not exist in Mongolia.

In England and America there are no more returnable glass bottles. It is all plastic bottles and cans.  There Coca-Cola have fallen in with the market needs of the big supermarkets.  Huge outlets requiring massive deliveries to central warehouses.  Customers who travel to centralised locations or shopping centres.  The big supermarkets do not operate in a system that is conducive to collecting returnable bottles for individual manufacturers.

In England there is a plethora of campaigns to support, whether it be related to global warming, destruction of the rainforests, food waste, recycling, child or animal welfare, the obesity and health crisis in the west, medical research such as for the treatment of cancer, reduction of poverty or provision of resources such as clean water and sanitation for those who do not have such things.  We each choose our own causes to support based on our interests and experiences.  And it’s right that we do so.  Yet for the most part we only see what’s under our noses, what ‘our’ media pick up on, which in turn is largely the campaigns of those who shout loudest or have the most famous patrons.  It’s good that social media is now able to bring international support to bear on issues that affect the world, and Facebook has done just this, yet so often this gives us yet more causes, campaigns and concerns to worry over and spread our support to.

It seems that every issue of concern, every campaign, has a value.  But there are so many.  How to choose the ones that are worthy?  Perhaps one way to help make that decision is to step back and view the issues as a whole.  Perhaps as the leaves on the branches on a tree.  The leaves are the causes and the campaigns.  The branches are the problems that are to be resolved.  The trunk and the roots are the human greed, selfishness and lusting after power, that are behind so many of the problems the world faces today.  These are the causes of the problems mankind face.  The reasons there are wars, poverty, starvation, inequality, global warming, and concerns about diminishing resources.

We plough the fields and scatter – in modern day Mexio

transporting live pigs in Mexico

Sea Sick

In her book ‘Seasick’ Alana Mitchel opens with a statement that if all life on land were to vanish oceanic life would continue, but if the oceans cannot sustain life then life on land will also end.  In a manner accessible to the layperson, Mitchel goes on to present some pretty compelling scientific evidence that our seas are pretty sick at present:

Since the end of world war two there have appeared ‘dead zones’ in our oceans, areas of water where there is no oxygen and, consequently, no fish.  The number of these zones have doubled every decade since 1960 and are currently running at over 400.

The alkaline levels of the sea have been reducing back towards neutral PH – the figures don’t sound huge but many creatures could not survive in neutral PH or acidic waters and no-one quite knows yet the point at which the sea will become uninhabitable.

Much of the carbon dioxide mankind has emitted into the air has been absorbed by marine life and is now trapped at the bottom of the oceans.  Unlike the ozone hole (now patched) this is a less visible effect of carbon emissions.  Scientists believe the seas cannot absorb much more carbon dioxide.

Many species of fish have been over fished for human consumption and are now nearing extinction.  Coral reefs, the lifeblood and nurseries of the oceans, are dying.

Changes are happening much more quickly than scientists previously believed.  Predictions are coming true sooner than expected.  The pace of change is speeding up.  Ocean scientists have a very real concern that there could be a ‘tipping point’.  A point at which, rather than seeing continued deterioration, change becomes abrupt, a point of no turning back, a point at which, to all intents and purposes, the seas cease to be able to support marine life.

Mitchel ends with a note of hope – if we can only listen to the evidence and take action.  Whether mankind can do that in time, only time will tell.

As I read this, the following comes to mind.

“Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find money cannot be eaten.” attributed Cree Indian prophecy.

Compare this to the development of Green Social Work (book review to follow).

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