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Tag: sustainability (page 1 of 9)

walmart: socially just or just plain evil?

Talking recently with my friend Michelle, the topic of corporate/consumer responsibility and social justice came up, and before long we turned to Walmart as a case in point. (I know, right?)

Michelle’s question/statement to me went something like this:

Many do not necessarily have a need to shop at a place with such low prices like Walmart, but some do. Walmart may help them provide for their families. With the economy the way it is and job security a scarcity, Walmart allows many families to make [singlepic=1073,275,275]it here in the US. Walmart also supports many organic farms, has green LEED certified buildings or has green features that save energy in many of their buildings, and the foundation gives millions to support women-owned businesses, farms and factories, job training and education, hunger relief, military, education, disaster relief, and gender diversity. But there is a cost for Walmart’s low prices. Manufacturing plants around the world that supply to Walmart pay workers unfair wages, demand extremely long work days with few to no breaks, often provide no weekend breaks, employ children at a very young age, have shown documented cases of employee abuse and rape, and have disgusting working conditions. So how do we deal with having stores like Walmart that seem to support people in need, but also foster abuse in so many others? Is there a way to balance out the social justice issues of a place like Walmart?

This is an interesting question and of course one that throws a monkey wrench in some people’s tendency (and perhaps desire) to see the world in dualistic terms. The notion of Walmart as socially just or just plain evil, itself, suggests a kind of faulty dualism. Of course, we know this is a false choice; it’s not that easy, and this is damn disconcerting.

I don’t and won’t shop at Walmart. I recognize their angels and devils, but being in a position to opt out of Walmart, I will every time, even if it means paying significantly more. Of course, as Michelle is quick to argue, Walmart may provide economical alternatives to those who otherwise could not afford certain goods. (Although, this idea of a “good deal” may also be false and more about marketing and perception than anything else.) For me (privileged enough to opt out of Walmart), I think this “affordability” they provide makes them that much more evil. There are costs to the goods they hawk–even if these costs are externalized and carried on the bruised backs of sweatshop laborers. The reality, too, is that they do not provide an alternative option; rather, they aggressively work to remove buying options by monopolizing small town economies all across this country.

Ahh, but there we were at that moment, in the shadow of Walmart, with our own devil and angel.

Ok, I lied earlier. Of course I’ve been in a Walmart and have given them my money at least once or twice in the past. Last fall my family and I were camping outside a very small Wisconsin town. The weather was unseasonably cold, and so we went in search of a blanket to buy. We drove up and down every little street that made up that town looking for a shop or shanty to pedal us a blanket and, to our disappointment, every road led back to Walmart. So we, with heads hung low, shuffled through florescent-lit aisles of a Walmart warehouse in the middle of corn field, bought our blanket, and left swearing to take the amount of money we gave to Walmart that day and donate to a social justice organization.

Ahh, but there we were at that moment, in the shadow of Walmart, with our own devil and angel. We cannot right these injustices by making reparations. It’s impossible to undo damage done–to ruin one person’s life, buy a gift for another, and then call it even. It doesn’t work that way.

The real challenge, as I see it, is working through the difficulty and the thinking and the making of hard choices–the idea of how to know what to do when every choice seems like a bad one. It’s overwhelming having to think about it all. Thinking about it all, though, is critical consciousness, isn’t it? This is what I, as an educator, hope to cultivate in my students and, as a parent, in my son–the willingness and desire to ask critical questions, to pursue informed decisions, to do the work, and to live deliberately–but never off the broken backs and blood of other human beings. I’m just sayin’.

a real world few students wanted

I teach the first year composition sequence at a community college. These are required writing courses for all transfer students–the majority of the students who pass through the institution. With very few exceptions, I would say that these two courses are probably the least looked-forward to by students of the entire gen-ed curriculum. Many just don’t want to do it and see the composition requirement as shear drudgery. Now, I love this course. Heck, I pursued graduate studies in composition in large part so that I could teach it, and I’ve always enjoyed writing and working with the power of language. So, needless to say, there is a bit of gulf between my and my students’ motivation when it comes to this course.

One complaint I’ve heard in the past–usually related to the more theoretical aspects or the critical readings of the course–is that it seems “irrelevant” to student lives. What teacher hasn’t heard this–you know, the proverbial “when-am-I-ever-gonna-use-this-stuff” argument? As cliché as this perennial student remark is, I am sensitive to it to a degree. Much of what is forced upon us in school is taught without context for our contemporary lives or without enough attention to practical application. Again, I can understand where these remarks come from, but I also find it demoralizing that many of my students see education as little more than practical application or a hoop to jump through to get to whatever is next. Curiosity and an openness to see a world beyond their own is severely lacking. But I digress…

As part of our personal education, theory is valuable as it is the conceptualized knowledge that informs our ongoing practice. It’s what prevents us from having to relearn the same lessons again and again and repeating the same mistakes again and again. It’s what allows us to live deliberate lives rather than merely accidental ones. This I believe. However, I also agree that sometimes in academia the balance tips a bit too far, and we end up with an educational experience that privileges thinking over doing. In a world rife with problems in dire need of immediate action, hundreds of my students sitting in desks listening to a pontificating professor (or gazing out the window) for hours each semester plus maybe three times that outside of class meeting time (approximately 25,000 person-hours each semester in all) seems downright irresponsible. We can and should do more with our time. At least that was my contention at the start of last semester.

i give you the real world

I kicked off the semester with an enthusiastic explanation of how this first-year writing course would be one of action–one where we all worked together to effect some real-world change; that’s right–real world work, the stuff my students had been asking for. As I explained how we would learn about research and writing by engaging in activism and service work, my energy was met with ennui; students sat there just as listless as always. I could feel the air rushing from my balloon.

I explained how students would work together in groups to figure out what was really important to each of them. Something they felt needed to get done in their community, something of interest and concern to them. I was wide open to all ideas from groups. There they sat. Not knowing how to proceed. Was no one, in fact, interested or concerned about anything? This was an authentic opportunity to get some important work done (to change the world, yes I said it), and no one could think of anything they felt like doing. I was starting to get depressed.

After some nudging and prodding and a week or two, groups turned in their project proposals. Great, I thought. Now, I’d see the commitment, the enthusiasm, the hope and willingness to work for change. My enthusiasm surged again as I began talking about next steps to move from ideas to action. Then the hand went up; “You mean we’re actually going to do this stuff?” It took me literally 20 minutes (and much longer for some) to help the class understand that each group, in fact, was expected to do what they proposed. The majority of the class thought it would end with the proposal. A small handful thought we would run a “simulation;” but not a one believed we would actually get our butts out of the chairs, go out into the community, and do the work that needed doing. Once I painstakingly got students to understand this simple concept, my classes got conspicuously smaller and smaller and smaller. Apparently this whole “doing” thing didn’t appeal much to these students clamoring for “real world” relevancy.

anti-intellectualism, selfishness, apathy, inertia

Despite the mass exodus the class experienced once the reality of the experience to come settled in, a few students stuck around. I couldn’t help but think, though, that a good portion of those who stuck around were simply too lazy to go through the trouble of dropping the class. I was witnessing in large part human inertia–bodies sitting still, unable to get moving. This really was the case for many of even the best intentioned students. Considering this carefully, I suppose it might have something to do with being overwhelmed with the challenges they set out for themselves. I suppose I can relate to this slowness in getting started when facing what might feel like an insurmountable task. Is it better to do nothing than try to and fail? I wonder if this is what stops most people from getting active and from working toward change–the fear of being ineffective in the face of big challenges. I tried to remind students that they only need to take small steps and make small changes–that this could make all the difference. It was tough. Feet were dragging.

For some the challenge may have been inertia; for others, the problem had to do with qualities much less forgivable–anti-intellectualism, selfishness, and apathy. This is a strong indictment, I know. Maybe it’s unfair. Maybe what I was observing in my students as they complained about how they were too busy to make time for service work, how they just didn’t care much about the experience and would just prefer to write a couple of lame papers and get on with it, or how uncool they thought it was to show any real intellectual engagement in the work of our course, was really just immaturity. These kids (who I thought were young adults) were a childish bunch. I don’t mean that as an insult but an observation of how severely hampered they all seemed to be when it came to doing real work of real importance in the real world. The consensus was that I was expecting too much of them. At this point, I was really starting to lose faith.

social anxiety and communication incompetency

The students in this class had the option of collaborating in groups on their service/activism project, and while initially students jumped at this, they soon proved incapable of working in groups. Strangely enough they had the hardest time communicating with one another–most likely due to the self-imposed constraint of limiting all communications to texting. Seriously. I had one group with five students in it, and not once had they met in person, talked on the phone, or even e-mailed. They attempted all collaboration and group decision making through text messages. This, they told me, was how people their age communicated. It was the easiest and, get this, most effective way to communicate they thought. Well, based on the miserable failure of their collaboration and project overall, I would have to disagree with the statement that it’s the most effective way to communicate. I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon here, but I was once again shocked at the misguided beliefs my students had about working in the so called “real world.” I’m open to learning new ways (jeez, I’m not that old), but clearly effective communication is not something I was about to learn from my students.

tapping intrinsic motivation

Despite the challenges in getting many of my students on board with this activism/service learning project, it wasn’t all bad. Actually, I’m probably losing sight of the successes amidst all the failures. Several students did very well with this project. Interestingly, though, these successful students who embraced the project were non-traditional “returning adult” students and most of them were in my online sections of the course. These students were probably 25 years or older, most worked full time, and all had families and children of their own. These folks were legitimately busy people juggling many obligations. And yet they complained very little about what I was expecting of them. (The students who complained most of being busy were the 18 year olds students, living at home, and maybe working a part time job. I guess it’s all about perspective.)

The returning adult students who embraced and succeeded with this project worked really hard–beyond what I expected of them. They had organized community events, talked with classes of children in schools, participated in volunteer training courses in order to get more involved in their service projects, interviewed county officials, raised money and awareness for important causes, and committed a great deal of their time to getting the work done. It’s funny, one student who had proposed a multi-faceted action project mentioned to me how time consuming it all was. I reminded him that everything he proposed was not required–that perhaps his plans were a bit too involved for the requirement of the course. He thought about that, acknowledged how this was likely true, but then said he wanted to follow through with it anyway. This attitude emerged as a pattern amongst my older students as the semester progressed. Many proposed far more than was really required of them in terms of our course, and they spent many hours making good on their proposed actions–sometimes even at the expense of their other work and assignments in the course. It was as if suddenly the “real world” work became the driving priority for my students regardless of what the course asked for. It was as if the project succeeded in tapping a well of intrinsic motivation in these students–where they wanted to do this work because it was important to them and to others–work worth doing regardless of any course or grade. This was what I was hoping for–if only it was this way for all my students and not just those nearly my age.


The question is how can I get the level of involvement and engagement in this service project that I saw in my older students with all of my students–30-year-olds and 18-year-olds alike?

I’ll be giving this service/activism learning approach another whirl with my online classes this summer. I’m hoping that we will enjoy good successes given the usual summer online student–older, highly-motivated, reverse transfer. But for the fall, I’ll need to make some serious adjustments if I hope the course to finish with more than a small handful of students. Perhaps, I’ll need to “scaffold” more–set up ready-made service experiences to get my students interested in doing this kind of work without the initial shock of having to plan it all on their own. After a few shared brief experiences that I set up, maybe then they will be more ready to pursue service projects of their own design. I’ll also have to spend some time teaching collaboration, organizing and planning, and skills of social engagement, all of which seem severely lacking in today’s traditional-aged freshman college student.

not your typical water park

Some kids go to Wisconsin Dells to ride the water slides. Others take an afternoon to consider where things go when you flush them down the toilet, where our drinking water comes from, and how these water systems work together. This past week, our Earth Scouts group looked at water in a different kind of way.

Many of us living in developed nations don’t give it much thought, but clean water doesn’t come easy to many people in the world. According to the Water World Council and the World Health Organization, approximately 1.2 billion people suffer from lack of access to clean [singlepic=890,300,300] Black Road Water Treatment Plantdrinking water and nearly 2.5 billion live without improved sanitation systems (i.e. no toilets). The World Health Organization reports that more than 10 percent of people worldwide consume foods irrigated by untreated wastewater. The international non-profit organization Water.org reports that more than 3.5 million people die each year from water-related disease; 84 percent are children. Nearly all deaths, 98 percent, occur in the developing world. Water.org puts it in these terms: “The lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children at a rate equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every four hours”–enough to give one pause, to turn off the lawn sprinklers, and take a little field trip. And so we did.

The lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children at a rate equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every four hours.

Realizing the dire world crisis before us, our group decided to look a bit more closely at our own fresh and wastewater systems. To do this, we turned to the City of Joliet, IL where we were graciously welcomed to tour their combined fresh and wastewater treatment facility. The facility is one of three in Joliet; while it is their smallest plant, it is the only one that has both fresh water and wastewater treatment at the same facility, so we thought this would be a good chance to see both ends of the spectrum.

to the black road plant

The Black Road water treatment plant is located just outside the city limits on the far west end of town. It’s mostly open land out that way as you drive west on Black and watch the fringes of suburbia fall away one treeless subdivision after the next. In the middle of nowhere, we take a left down a gravel path and spot four low-lying silos in the distance–the water plant.

Once inside the small nondescript administration building, we meet Plant Operations Superintendent Harold Harty–a small-statured man in his mid-fifties wearing stonewashed jeans and a button down shirt. Greeting us with a smile he waits as our group of 24 filters in from the brightness of the day to gather around a work table beneath the buzz of fluorescent lights. There he introduces us to Jay in charge of fresh water treatment, Wayne in charge of wastewater operations, and Nick the chief water operator overseeing the entire plant–our tour guides for the afternoon.

fresh water treatment

To move things along we break into three smaller groups and head out walking south down the perimeter access road. First for our small group is the fresh water treatment area. Jay talks to us as we walk. Joliet has the largest complete municipal water and sewer treatment system in the state, serving approximately 170,000 people in 4 communities. The fresh water system includes 26 active wells, 10 water treatment plants, 8 pumping stations, and 12 water reservoirs, not to mention 450 miles of water main. Jay goes on to explain that this plant is unique in its Hydrous Manganese Oxide (HMO) treatment process. Back in 2007, the city was cited by the EPA for elevated levels of radium in the drinking water. Since that time, the city has upgraded its treatment plants to make use of the exorbitantly expensive HMO process designed specifically to remove radium from the water. Jay tells us, however, that in his opinion the radium level prior to HMO conversion was harmless, but the EPA forced the changes. As we approach a rectangular brick building, Jay swipes his key card and invites the children into the windowless structure. The first thing we see is a gigantic green tank filling the room. This is a filtration tank where water from the 1800 foot bedrock well is pumped and filtered through layers of activated charcoal, sand, and gravel. He informs us that security is tight and that the “system” knows at this point that we have entered the building and exactly how many people are in the group. The only reason an alarm is not sounding, Jay says, is due to the key fob he holds in his right hand. Apparently, he is authorized and the “system” knows it. Pointing at a computer console mounted on the wall, our friendly authorized tour guide explains how he can control and monitor everything from this station–pumps, chemical injections, levels, security, and so on. Data is sent from this station directly to the EPA on a daily basis.

We move slowly to the adjoining room, as Jay continues to talk to us about water plant vulnerability in a post 911 era, and I begin to wonder how secure this place really is despite Jay’s claim that the “system” knows. The next room contains several large chemical tanks. This is the heart of the very expensive “HMO” process designed specifically to remove naturally occurring radium from the water. Computer controlled pumps control the injection of Hydrous Manganese Oxide–a black sticky compound–and other chemicals to remove certain elements from the water, as well as to add chemicals ranging from fluoride to chlorine to anti-corrosives to keep water lines coated and clean. While I recognize water treatment is important, I can’t help but be disturbed by the amount of chemical put into the water for whatever reason. Jay talks further about fail safes and the benign nature of most of the chemicals used in the water, but at one point he does allude to the horrible things that could happen if chemical lines were rerouted and so forth. As we begin to move on, Jay pauses at an open cabinet to explain that not all the chemicals in the vicinity are benign. He holds forward a small vile and has me read the label–cyanide–apparently used to sterilize small water samples for certain testing. I guess we just have to trust the people who work with our water.

wastewater treatment

The Black Road plant is the only water plant in Joliet that houses both fresh water and wastewater treatment facilities. So after some time in the windowless confines of the fresh water treatment buildings, we exit to a sea of dandelions under a bright sun and blue sky to meet Wayne for the second part of our tour.

Across the field we walk. Wayne asks if we got to see any water with Jay. Being on the wastewater side of the operation, he’s not too familiar with what the setup inside those windowless buildings looks like. We explain that it was mostly tanks and pipes and vats of scary chemicals. He assures us that we’ll see some water in his area.

He takes us for a walk to another concrete structure on the northwest corner of the compound. When the wastewater enters this facility, this is its first stop. As it flows in, it goes through a bar screener to remove debris, trash, as well as gravel and sand. The debris is bagged and hauled to the landfill; the gravel is collected for reuse. After this initial straining, Wayne explains, the black wastewater flows into a small maze of aeration tanks where it is physically agitated by spinning metal tines which introduce air into the water–an essential ingredient to speed the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms which consume harmful organic matter in the wastewater.

Wayne leads our group up a set of metal stairs and onto a catwalk suspended over the aeration tanks. There we stand looking over pools of churning sewage–fascinating–and a bit gross. Lying on the metal grate just ahead, I spot a round foam life saver with a nylon rope tethered to it. I can’t resist, so I ask Wayne if anyone has ever fallen in. Laughing, he says no, not here, but at his previous plant he recalls one guy who managed to fall into the aeration tank. He points to my beard. “He had long heard. You should have seen it when he crawled out. There was all kinds of stuff stuck in there.” Nasty. The kids are getting a kick out of this. There’s nothing funnier than poop.

From the aeration tanks, we head over to what Wayne calls the secondary sedimentation tank. This is where the grease and sludge is skimmed from the water by slow circulating mechanical arms. Some of the activated sludge is returned to the aeration tank to further aid the growth of microorganisms for the breakdown of harmful organic matter. (Harmful organic matter? Err, I think he’s talking about poop.) As we stand there under the dome of the sedimentation tank watching the slow methodical work of the skimmer arms, Wayne points out the water spilling over the outer rim of the tank into a lower reservoir. This water is just about clean, he says. It does look clear, but still it’s so close to that black sludge. Hmm.

We exit the sedimentation tank and head over to one more open tank. Wayne reminds us that no chemicals are used in this treatment process–just aeration and skimming. In this last tank, a set of ultraviolet lights shine down into the water to kill dangerous active bacteria before the water is finally released into the Dupage river. Wayne instructs us to stay where we are as he climbs down the stairs to the lower metal grate covering this final reservoir. He takes a long metal pole with a plastic cup attached to the end of it and dips it down into the tank. Carefully he brings this to the top of the stairs. We crowd around and look into that plastic cup. It’s clear. Crystal clear water. As he pours this water out onto the sidewalk in front of our feet, Wayne tells us the water is cleaner than the river where it will be released. It poses no threat to wild life he says. “But still I wouldn’t drink it,” he’s quick to add. So that’s it, wastewater treatment. Black sewage comes in and just about nine hours after churning around a few tanks it leaves crystal clear.

Behind Wayne are two black silos that we will not visit. Those contain poop he says. (Err, I think the industry term is “cake.”) The city of Joliet pays farmers to take these biosolids for use in certain crop fertilization.

water and responsibility

As the tour winds down back by the administrative building and the kids wander about the green field picking dandelions, I reflect on the significance of what we’ve just seen. On this earth, we have more or less a fixed amount of water; it just keeps moving through the cycle. What I drank from the tap this morning may have rained down over the Amazon last year, been flushed down a toilet a decade ago, been blown as steam from a kettle somewhere in Asia two thousand years ago, or been locked in a glacier a hundred million years ago. Our water is with us on this globe always. We have to take care of it, and we need to find a way to share it equally. It’s a basic right and a deeply fraught responsibility.

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