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Collaborative Consumption

February 3, 2012

What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption by Rachel Botsman and Roo RogersA few days ago I talked about politics and food choices: how deciding not to give your money to a company that may well be poisoning you, and instead supporting a healthy food economy, is a political act that empowers you to react against what you feel are harmful practices.  While that post was specifically about food, it should be obvious that this idea extends to everything you spend your money on.  When you purchase clothing will you buy new or second hand?  Will you purchase a local designer’s offerings or a sweatshop-made garment?  Will you purchase synthetic or natural fabrics and will those fabrics be organic or made from pesticide-laden crops?

The questions are complicated and there are no right answers, but making informed decisions that align to your sense of justice should at least be an option.  When information is hidden from the consumer and people feel like they have no choice (or in fact HAVE no choice), often we find ourselves supporting things we didn’t realize.  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are a perfect example of this.  There are no regulations for labeling foods containing GMOs in North America and a startling number of products contain them.  Anything containing corn or soy (high fructose corn syrup qualifies as corn) almost certainly contains GMOs and while they are consistently touted as “safe” for human consumption, they provide no benefit to the consumer and introduce a level of risk to the safety of the food chain.  GMO seeds are patented, and cross-pollination with non-patented seeds has resulted in lawsuits against unsuspecting farmers.  GMO crops are routinely sprayed with large doses of harmful chemical herbicides.   The corruption associated with the production and marketing of GMOs is reason enough to avoid them, and buying organic (the only way to ensure you aren’t supporting and ingesting GMOs) is a bold political statement indicating your support for a just and fair economy.

Okay, so that took a tangent that I hadn’t intended, but the point is that choice is important when it comes to consumption and sometimes it takes more effort to make a choice you feel good about than one you are at best indifferent about.  And today there are more choices than ever (which can be overwhelming, but that’s a different topic entirely) and more “non-traditional” choices that promote sharing and a decreased overall consumption-footprint.  For example, when I travel to Montreal, I almost always stay in a short-term rental apartment rather than a hotel.

Giving my money to an individual rather than a corporation and staying in a more energy efficient space where I can make my own meals and do laundry when I feel it appropriate is a more attractive alternative in my mind than staying in a hotel, which I see as an inconvenient, expensive, and wasteful option.  There are many people who see hotels as their only choice, but there are others who are increasingly becoming aware of and embracing the cost-effective model offered by vacation rentals.  One need only look at the success of website airbnb for an example.  While the big hotel corporations are of course trying to stamp out this business model, it is going strong in many vacation destinations and I will continue to support it.  This idea of lending out or borrowing items that go unused for a good portion of their lifetime is taking off in multiple consumer segments, including automobiles, tools, and gardening, and is related to swapping of items that are in good condition but no longer useful to the present owner, such as books, DVDs and clothing.

This way of consuming has actually emerged with a name, called “collaborative consumption”.   It stresses that the experience or results achieved by the use of an item is really what consumers want, so that’s what they should pay for.  They shouldn’t buy a car to have it sit in the garage the majority of the time, they should pay for the ability to get where they are going.  They shouldn’t buy a DVD to have it sit on a shelf for the rest of eternity, they should pay to watch a movie and then perhaps keep trading that movie for others indefinitely, only shelling out the money for the medium once.  Services like NetFlix that offer viewing of films for a subscription are also in this vein with the difference being that finding a swap partner is no longer required.

Collaborative Consumption’s benefits are numerous, including a decreased environmental footprint (less raw materials, less waste, less shipping), lower cost to the consumer, and in some cases, increased interactions among members of a community in the case of sharing land for the purposes of gardening.  It promotes an environment of trust and penalizes those who try to scam the system by not keeping up their end of a bargain.  This inspiring TED talk by Rachel Botsman explains the phenomenon and its benefits perfectly:

I have been practicing Collaborative Consumption unknowingly for some time now, buying and selling used or unwanted items on eBay, swapping makeup on Makeup Alley, finding homes for unwanted stuff through FreeCycle, attending clothing swaps, purchasing used books and CDs, subscribing to NetFlix.  I’m sure most people have participated in a swap or bought a used or “antique” item at some point, and the idea is not really all that novel.  What is novel is the change in perspective associated with embracing Collaborative Consumption as a philosophy.  It means moving away from owning and possessing, and moving toward experiencing and sharing; moving away from competition and greed, recognizing that these values are destructive.

Wouldn’t it be nice if connecting with people and sharing experiences were more important than having the most expensive car?  Think about the last movie you watched at home.  Do you think you would have enjoyed it any more or less if you watched it on a bigger or smaller television?  A more expensive or less expensive one?  What about the last book you read – would it have been better had it been printed on gold leaf?  I think not.  And I think we are all waking up to these facts at a time when we really need to.  Collaborative Consumption is easy, fun, and smart.  It is an opportunity to enrich your life and reduce your dependence on loans, corporations and the burden of possessions in general.  If nothing else, think about how much easier your next move would be.  😉

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Félicitations Are In Order

February 1, 2012

Over a week ago I posted about Philippe Falardeau’s film Monsieur Lazhar and its official-entry status for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.  The next day it was announced that Falardeau’s film is now an official Oscar nominee (félicitations!)  This news is now stale and I apologize for even mentioning it (apparently stale news is ever so annoying to savvy interneters).   However, I feel that I can be somewhat forgiven, since this post is now about giving props to Canadian filmmakers past and present, as it was announced yesterday that another Quebecois film-maker, Michel Brault, will be honoured with the Outstanding Achievement award at this year’s Hot Docs film festival.

Brault (who had a hand in September 5 at St. Henri) has had a long and illustrious career in film-making, a good part of it spent with the National Film Board of Canada where he was instrumental in formulating the “Direct Cinema” style of film that the Board became known and well-regarded for in the 60s.  While Direct Cinema’s aims were to present subjects objectively and truthfully, some of Brault’s best films had narrative elements that combined the real with the fictional.

Pour la suite du Monde is a documentary that follows a group of men from an island village in Quebec who agree to be filmed while attempting to capture Beluga whales by employing traditional methods used by their ancestors.  The scenario is constructed, but the action is not.  It is a fascinating look at a group of men who, through rediscovering their past, are taken on a journey that brings them face to face with progress (they journey to New York to bring their captured whale to an aquarium).   On the other hand, Les Ordres is a scripted drama presented in documentary style and written about an actual event: the October Crisis.  Once again the line between fiction and reality is blurred and the results are stunning.   Les Ordres is probably Brault’s most well-known and celebrated work, and for good reason.

Michel Brault is a pioneer of Canadian cinema, and the recognition of his films by Hot Docs is well-deserved.  His work and the work of others have created a strong foundation for Canadian film that continues to evolve, producing impressive results, as the example of Philippe Falardeau’s recent achievement demonstrates.  I’ll be looking forward to the Oscars, as well as the Genie’s (the Canadian Oscars, if you will) where many of the nominated films this year are pretty durn great.  It’s nice to see Canadian film in the spotlight and I wish all the nominees the best of luck.

Slow and Steady

January 31, 2012

Today marks the renewal date of my Slow Food International membership.  Slow Food is a global organization with a mandate “to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” This statement aligns to my own feelings about food, and its importance to the health of individuals, communities, and the environment.   Sadly however, healthy food and the time it takes to prepare meals are becoming luxuries few can afford.

Organizations like Slow Food are trying to raise awareness of these facts and promote change that will result in a more equitable, healthier food production and delivery system.  A recent article in The Atlantic outlines Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel’s change of organizational focus from one of food appreciation to social justice.  Now that Slow Food has brought attention to the importance of good food to a healthy, happy lifestyle, Viertel proposes that action must now follow.  He sees the rights and security of food producers and consumers as a top priority and hopes that Slow Food can play an instrumental role in creating a food system that benefits both farmers and eaters.

While the topic of social justice as it relates to food is a complicated issue that has no simple solution, as the Atlantic article suggests, the mere act of eating and the choices we make can have political implications.  Backlash against companies that use highly processed ingredients in their products is on the rise, as are sales of local and organic produce. Groups seeking to limit the use of chemicals, antibiotics, and genetically modified organisms in food production are finding increased support.  Individuals and businesses alike are taking up the cause of promoting and funding an economically and environmentally sustainable food chain.

Local Kitchen & Wine Bar is a Toronto restaurant in my neighbourhood that puts Slow Food’s philosophy into practice.  They serve handmade pasta and salumi made from local ingredients, using traditional techniques.  Realizing that it is a privilege to be able to eat in such an establishment, I have endeavoured to try my hand at making similar versions of some of Local’s delicious offering.  The first thing this undertaking has taught me is that Slow Food made in your own home is a whole new level of slow.  It’s Suh-loooooooooow.  But it is also fulfilling and serves to empower the individual with knowledge and skill, enabling them to make informed choices.

I’ve made homemade pasta a few times in the past and it has always turned out pretty great, although don’t get discouraged if your first attempts aren’t perfect – you’ll get the hang of it quickly, and the results are well worth the time and initial frustration.  This weekend I made Squash Lune with Butter and Sage from Mario Batali’s Babbo cookbook.  It was my first “stuffed” pasta (I have always made long flat noodles in the past) so I was a bit nervous.

Making Lune on a Sunday Afternune

Luckily there was not much to worry about; the recipe was in fact quite simple.  However, it took a looong time to execute from beginning to end.  I first made the pasta dough and while it was resting, I roasted the squash.  Once the squash was cool I then mixed the filling, rolled out the pasta sheets (I use a manual pasta machine but it’s possible to roll the dough by hand) and cut each sheet into rounds.  Assembly of each lune was the most time consuming aspect, as ensuring each one was sealed took a bit of time, and the recipe made over 30 pieces.  I would most definitely make this again, however, as the results were extremely satisfying: delicious, impressive, and also relaxing.  I feel like I could make pasta all day every day if someone were willing to hire me to do so.  (Anyone?)

The finished product

Eating “politically” might sound difficult or pointless, but the ripple effects of merely committing to making more food at home can be significant. The more I experiment with new recipes, the more I try to respect the limits of seasonal produce, and the more I support farmers and producers who are concerned about the well-being of their customers and not just profits, the better equipped I feel to make other decisions big and small.  I feel just a little more self-sufficient and therefore just a little more confident.  Yes, it sounds corny, but it’s absolutely true, and I can only imagine what an organized group of confident, capable, committed people like those within the Slow Food organization can do when they set their minds to fixing a system very much in need of repair.

Only Connect

January 23, 2012

The Toronto International Film Festival recently celebrated the best Canadian films of 2011 with their annual Canada’s Top Ten program.  In total I saw five of the top ten films, three of them during the festival.   One of those films was Monsieur Lazhar, a complex story covering themes such as coping with death, the immigrant experience, and the inability to express ourselves as a result of language degradation and fear of demonstrating emotion.  The film is Canada’s official Oscar selection for the category of Best Foreign Language Film (it isn’t yet nominated but is part of a short-list of entries… fingers crossed!) and is well deserving of the recognition.

But this post isn’t really about Monsieur Lazhar or Canadian film, it’s about a book.  The book was featured in Monsieur Lazhar and was read by the film’s title character during his quest to learn more about Quebecois culture (he is an Algerian refugee).  And since learning more about Quebec culture is an interest of my own, I couldn’t resist the temptation to track down a copy of the novel.

Dragon Island by Jacques Godbout follows Michel Beauparlent as he attempts to defeat William T. Shaheen Jr., an American businessman whose company is responsible for constructing Controlled Atomic Dumps in pristine, “poetic” environments.  Shaheen’s company has a record of displacing people from their communities, destroying landscapes that connect people to history and to nature, and offering precarious employment in return for self-sufficiency, and dignity.

First published over 35 years ago in 1976, the novel’s themes seem all the more relevant today.  The proposed Keystone XL and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline projects remind us of the dominance of commerce over the environment, and recent disasters such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown and the BP oil spill serve as sober reminders of the consequences of reckless consumption and blind trust in technology.  While this book’s themes stem from anxiety on the part of post-Quiet Revolution Quebecers about losing their culture, language, land, and identity to outside corporate interests, this book is topical and will resonate with anyone who recognizes that greed and rampant consumerism are leading to a wealth of problems, including environmental destruction, and income inequality.

Interestingly, as I endeavoured to find out more about the book and its author, I ended up serendipitously finding my way back to Monsieur Lazhar.  Jacques Godbout contributed to a 1962 NFB film about the St. Henri neighbourhood in Montreal (a polluted working class neighbourhood described in the film as being surrounded by “the industrial wealth of other men”, demonstrating thematic similarity to Dragon Island).  Hubert Aquin was also a contributor to September 5 at Saint-Henri, and Aquin’s novel Next Episode happened to be another of the books read by Monsieur Lazhar whilst learning about his adoptive culture!  I’ve demonstrated this cycle in the below (hastily-assembled) diagram.

One of the offshoots in the diagram is a “remake” of sorts of September 5 at Saint-Henri called Saint-Henri, the 26th of August, which was filmed in 2010 and shows a gentrifying Saint-Henri; a Saint-Henri where rich live next-door to poor, and where the fate of the poor in the neighbourhood is uncertain.  I have also included in the picture The Tin Flute, a novel by Gabrielle Roy, which portrays a Saint-Henri similar to that displayed in September 5.  While the people of Gabrielle Roy’s novel may have positive attitudes, they do not ultimately control their own destinies.  They struggle to maintain their dignity and look for meaning in religion, the armed forces, degrading relationships, and dangerous work that tears them from their families but in their minds, gives their lives purpose and hope.  That desperation can spur such actions is not surprising, but the portrait Roy paints of a simple, hard-working, well-meaning family and the hardships that befall them through little fault of their own is simultaneously heart-breaking and thought-provoking.

I have read or seen all of these works and love that there are all of these connections among them.  The works themselves each provide a look into a specific time and place and present their own themes and ideas, but taken together they tell an even bigger story about the human condition that transcends boundaries.  The specific becomes the universal.  Our world-view changes.  Art illuminates life.

Maybe this post isn’t about a book, afterall.