Invisible Bridges: How Everyday Products Connect Us to the World

by Marti Crouch

Central Ohio River Bioregion

This piece was originally published in Perspectives in Bioregional Education, edited by Frank Traina and Susan Darley-Hill, North American Association for Environmental Education, copyright 1995.

The development of a more complex society is the result of increasing specialization. Our knowledge about even the bare necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter is diminishing as the degree of specialization in our culture grows. As raw materials and their processing are further and further removed from consumers, it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals to make informed choices which allow them to live more lightly on Earth.

Crouch, with the help of her students, developed a course where the invisible histories of selected products would be investigated. She discusses the evolution of the course, describing the pitfalls and successes of the investigative process. This type of project is well-suited for students at the secondary level. Students develop skills of inquiry, knowledge about manufac­turing and transportation, and an understanding of the interdependence which exists not only in the technological world, but, more importantly, in the natural world.

Introduction to the Project
Modern humans are ignorant about their daily lives.

As a college student, I wanted to take a course called Basketweaving 101. Although such an offering was hinted at in disparaging remarks by fellow classmates, as far as I could determine, no such course existed at my university. In fact, very little was taught about practical aspects of daily life. Courses that were given—in home economics, for example—tended to be sneered at by those engaged in serious academic pursuits. The thoughts of dead poets were apparently of greater importance than the elements of nutrition.

The average citizens of the modern industrial world know less about the workings of their lives than people at any other time or place. I am a person who has always been curious about where things come from and how they work, and yet I cannot even begin to tell the stories of the clothes I am wearing right now, or of the foods I ate for breakfast. My tennis shoes, for example, are a mystery to me. What are the materials, where did they come from, and who made them? Each part is different: eyelets, laces, insoles, soles, uppers and so on. And there are dozens of kinds of tennis shoes available at the time of purchase. Even single ingredient items—coffee or sugar—have complex histories. Each of the thousands of items I interact with in the course of a day has a history; the histories are invisible.

I do not need to know about the history of a T-shirt to slip it over my head and wear it today. The degree of specialization that characterizes modern life ensures that I don’t need to know much at all. As long as I can perform some task to make money, I can then exchange that money for all the other things I need. In a sense, money replaces individual knowledge.

If the knowledge of tennis shoes is somewhere in the system, why is it important for me to know? After all, system-knowledge frees me as an individual to specialize. I can spend my entire adult life examining the structure of DNA. Or I can become the world’s expert on modern short stories of the American South. Perhaps I am the person who knows all about tennis shoes, but not mittens. The system-knowledge increases with specialization, allowing the development of a more complex society. This is, of course, how our civilization has been progressing for a long time.

Aspects of our current civilization need to be reexamined. The way the system is structured is resulting in widespread damage to air, earth, water, and large numbers of people and other organisms.

One of my ideas about why environmental degradation is systemic is that individual ignorance makes it difficult for people to be responsible members of society, even if they want to be. How can I decide whether something as common and simple as eating canned tomato soup is good or bad, environmentally speaking, if I have no information? Where and how are the tomatoes grown, what effect does processing have on water quality near the cannery, what kind of fuels are burned during canning, and so on? If the history is invisible, then I have no basis for being responsible. On the other hand, if I can see all of the connections and consequences, I have the opportunity to respond by changing what I do. Such knowledge is a prerequisite for responsible individual action. I would also argue that a democracy cannot function well unless people, in general, know a lot about their lives.

Of course, knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for making good choices. People are still free to decide to engage in environmentally damaging practices. My wish is to make it easier for people to do the right thing for the environment.

A college course designed to investigate common products

I don’t know how to weave baskets, and baskets have lost their preeminent technological role anyway. As a professor, what kind of course could I design for college students to help them uncover the invisible histories of items they interact with every day?

My plan was to assemble a team of undergraduate students to investigate common products from their origins as raw materials, through processing or manufacture, to transportation, marketing, purchase, use, and disposal. We would attempt to trace the flow of material, money, and people: what were the points of contact of our products with the world? Although I doubted if we could actually determine all of the ramifications of each item, the journey promised to be as instructive as the destination.

At Indiana University, the Honors Division encourages experimental courses initiated by faculty for freshmen and sophomore students. They gave me the opportunity to implement this course. I called it “Ecological Investigations of Daily Life”, wrote a description of goals, and hoped that some students would sign up. Six students agreed to form the group.

It was important to me that the course be structured to foster cooperation, participation, and a sense of adventure. Although I had a vision of how to accomplish our goals, I had no more experience than any of the students. Therefore, we designed the course together, as a group, during out first class meetings.

First we chose which item each person would investigate by making a list of commonly used products, then narrowed the list to reflect a range of materials: metal, plastic, paper, cloth, foodstuffs. From this short list, each participant chose a project for the semester. It seemed odd to me that most of the students chose products they didn’t use themselves. Also, I had envisioned investigating basic items of food and clothing, such as T-shirts and shoes. Although some students did choose the basics, others were drawn to things that are common but that people could do without, such as lipstick or chewing gum.

We then developed a set of questions to which we would attempt to find answers. This was a frightening exercise, because it soon became apparent that in order to accurately determine the impact any product had on the world, we were going to quickly butt up against the entire infrastructure of the industrial system. Deciding upon limits was more difficult than asking questions. For example, most things get to Bloomington, Indiana on trucks, so each transported item carries the legacy of the interstate highway system, the parts of the truck, truck stops and gas stations, country music—where do we stop? In theory, there is no end to the chain. In practice, we decided to limit our analyses to the main ingredients in the product and the machines, chemicals, people, and processes that interact directly with those materials. We would not attempt to follow the trail beyond this primary level, although we would acknowledge the existence of multiplying ramifications.

Our questioning scheme was based on thinking of the project as the creation of a “birth-to-death” story for each item, tracing what materials were used, where those materials were found, how they were obtained and processed, and who was involved. We wanted to know how much and what kinds of energy sources were used for heat, electricity, and transportation. And although difficult to assess, we also were interested in identifying important social and economic factors, such as amount and types of advertising, profiles of consumers, how profits were used, and how labor was treated.

After delineating the kind of information we hoped to obtain, we jumped in, not knowing which strategies would be most successful. Most of us decided to start by investigating the company via information available at the business school library. Right away, the public service departments of the companies were called and asked for brochures and articles about their products. Also, interviews were conducted over the phone, working through our set of questions. I decided to try a different approach, probably because as a biologist I felt most comfortable thinking first about physical materials. I began by investigating the properties of the raw materials in my product.

Class sessions consisted of describing how our searches were progressing and discussing what to do next. We decided to invite outside speakers who could provide additional insight to our projects. For example, a professor from geography was invited to tell us about general aspects of transportation of goods. A journalism professor described how one of her classes worked together to produce a publication on local environmental issues. Various librarians showed us how to use reference books and computer programs.

The class was just the right size for each person to fully describe their results and plans during one class period. I became involved in all of the projects, and looked forward to hearing more each week. Often, one of us would run across material in our own search which was of value to someone else and would bring it in for their use. Different talents emerged: one man had business acumen, one woman had a knack for finding just the right books. We developed a definite sense that the group functioned as a team with greater benefit than as individuals working alone. Because the group was small enough that each could easily learn vicariously what the others were learning via research, the knowledge became group property. We spent a lot of time being amused and laughing. We were having fun!

To further decrease the competitive atmosphere of college classes, I suggested that all of the students receive the same grade, and that if a particular student was not participating fully we could deal with it as we went along. As it turned out, everyone worked hard. The class rose to the challenge of the project, and became involved to the extent that “wanting to know” became a motivation.

Approximately a third of the way through the semester we were well into the information gathering phase, and certain patterns began to emerge. First, upon calling the companies, many of us were passed from person to person for answers to our questions. People knew their own little bit and little else about the workings of their organization. The questions were often met with considerable suspicion, as if we were spies trying to uncover secrets for the competition. Of course, the knowledge and attitudes of individuals varied considerably, with many cooperative employees helping as best they could. Still, we were surprised at the hostile, rude replies of some of the people in public service departments. We had thought that such employees were required to attend charm school before taking such jobs: apparently not.

Information related to our questions had to be sifted from reams of data of marginal significance. Occasionally, one of us would find a book that was written in the spirit of our investigation, and would thus get useful information in abundance. Considering that there are literally thousands of manufactured products that cross the path of an average “industrialized” human each day, the probability of finding a book devoted to the history of any one randomly chosen item is not high. Thus, students commented on how much time they spent in fruitless search.

In particular, information about various practices was not coupled with the description of the process. In wet processing of coffee, for example, the description in the book on coffee mentioned that large amounts of water were diverted into the factory, but did not say where the water came from or what happened to the water upon its release. What had been added or removed from the water? Did this affect the fish, people living down-stream, and so on? To find this kind of information, if available at all, would require going to a different library, looking at books about water pollution, environmental effects of various industries, indigenous fishing problems, and so on. Such information is likely to be too general, or too specific (about papermaking, for example) to be of use.

Another impression is that even the most simple products are much more complicated than originally thought. Product labels only tell part of the story. And of the ingredients that can be determined, some come from distant lands and have been processed from methods ranging from harvest in the jungle and drying in simple sheds, to chemical synthesis in sophisticated laboratories. Even a stick of gum turns out to be a complicated item.

We also uncovered in just six products a remarkable degree of interrelationship between corporations. Companies with very different images and agendas may be subsidiaries of the same parent company. Members of the board of directors of an independent company may sit on the boards of several other companies, too. In some cases, vertical integration was evident in the control of everything from the raw materials through transportation by one company. Had we investigated a dozen items, our views of company interactions may well have covered the whole range.

Transportation, packaging, and advertising were common among all of our products. These processes have a great impact on many aspects of our lives, and because they are the points of intersection for much of consumerism, environmental literature is a wealth of information about their consequences. We did not leave enough time to accurately summarize these impacts on our air, water, landfills, and psyches. Were we to continue this project, we would add a chapter for each of these parts of the story.

In general, I thought the project was a success. We did uncover the hidden histories of a handful of products, and in the process learned about the amazing web of interrelationships between ourselves and the rest of the world. The class functioned well as a team, with full participation by all of the students.

Although no one ended up charting all of the ramifications of their product, the process by which one would do so is more clear to us. Doing the project did change our sense of connection to the rest of the world. To see differently at the end of the project, to have new vision, is a goal of education. We thus educated ourselves in this class. The type of knowledge obtained was interdisciplinary, and we attempted to adhere to the following guideline, articulated by Prof. David Orr, Oberlin College, in a commencement address:

“Knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world…. Whose responsibility is Love Canal? Chernobyl? Ozone depletion? the Valdez oil spill? Knowledge of how to do vast and risky things has far outrun our ability to use it responsibly. We cannot say that we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities.”

Martha “Marti” Crouch is a biologist and former professor. After earning her Ph.D. in developmental biology from Yale, she ran a cutting-edge plant research lab at Indiana University, but quit in 1990 after learning that corporations were using her research for profit and natural destruction. She is currently working on development of sustainable agriculture.

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