costs both hidden and obvious

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I wrote before about how I enjoy playing coasterville because I break everything down in my mind – a quest isn’t really a quest, it’s a matter of eight clicks, three clicks from a friend and two clicks at two hour intervals. Well my same love of breaking things down makes me fascinated by looking at what goes into creating real things. What all goes into feeding a family? Occasionally I keep track of what my family eats for a week and occasionally I think about laying out an equivalent amount of food in the style of the What the World Eats Photo Essay.

When I was a teenager, I spent quite a bit of time with two of my friends trying to design a space colony. I remember pouring over my dad’s square-foot gardening book trying to figure out from that if we could figure out how much indoor greenhouse space the colony would need. In a futuristic setting one could imagine optimal environmental conditions. On the other side, one would want to have extra just in case, right?

I try looking at people’s gardens and am curious as to what portion of their annual food the garden provides. One year I used about eight square feet of garden space for growing dried peas. That made two pots of soup, so in effect, the two pots of soup cost me that space. I try to picture what size of garden I would need to be able to keep my whole family fed for the year.

Besides space, there is the question of water. How much water do we need, not just for drinking or washing with but for producing what we use? Virtual water is the water embedded in the production of food or resources and countries that would never think of exporting water in its liquid form will use up the precious resource in order to grow foods to export. Cotton costs more in water use than synthetic fabrics.

There are other calculations besides water and space. There’s also work or effort. How much time does it take to maintain something? How many hands would have been involved in stages of production? Sometimes there are trade offs in which we could use something that takes more physical resources (like a food processor) in order to save time cutting vegetables. We value different people’s time differently and that always still seems weird to me. How can one person’s time be worth $40 an hour and someone else’s worth $10.25? How can we talk about having equality while viewing each other’s time as worth less. An hour is always a 24th of the person’s day, given up for whatever task.

If time, space, water and earth are in some ways the basic elements around us that we can use to create our lives, they do not exist waiting out of context in some imaginary bank somewhere. Everything is already part of some system. Everything has context.

I look around at the things around me. How much time went into making the furniture or toys? How much time went into the clothes? (Whose time, and in what conditions, I wonder?) I remember reading a list of “Things Individuals Can Do About Homelessness” that included making sure to keep their own homes maintained and when I read that I suddenly pictured how our home isn’t just our home. Our home is this physical structure into which energy and resources are put and someday it could be someones. Clothing, too, involves someone’s energy invested into preparing the cloth and sewing it. Clothing could go on to be of use to someone else or it could be thrown in the garbage.

Life is so wonderfully complicated and I love thinking about the complications. I do have to be a little careful when I start thinking about the costs of things, not to start seeing myself as just a burden to the world. I have to look also for the ways in which I can help be creative. How can I help improve life? Can I bring joy to others?  What skills can I cultivate so that I can put them to use. We are interconnected. Our reach (both in what we use of the world and what we can give of the world) always extends way beyond our view. We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world but we can do good too, taking care of the resources we have and offering to others what we can.

There are people that I admire incredibly for the time and effort they put into improving the city we live in. They have painted fish on the roads next to drains, reminding people that the water there flows into our lakes. They try to bring awareness to the problems of cigarette buds, and they are fundraising to raise money to build rain gardens to capture the overflowing water and allow it to soak naturally into the ground. (I think that all new parking lots should have to be built of water permeable material or surrounded by rain gardens but that’s just my uninformed opinion and there are other people out there actually working on getting feasible yet environmentally sound rules in place.)

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