Business & Biology

Silkworms: Where Does It End?

unrequited MURDER

If we use the hands and the feet to protect the head, does that mean that we go too far in treating them as less important?

—Wang Yang-ming, Neo-Confucianist philosopher, 15th Century

The garment industry is riddled with ethical dilemmas. Most people today would agree that selling humans into slavery and forcing them to pick cotton is immoral, but clearly, that was not always the case. As society evolves, so too does its morality. Slavery gave way to sharecropping, which was replaced by gainful employment. As the world grew more global, we were increasingly reminded of sweatshops, child labor, and their moral implications. Now, as machine manufacturing appears to be on track to solving some of our clothing concerns, there is still the question of a fabric’s origin.

Silkworms, for example, create large quantities of silk for harvest, but according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), those silkworms are slaughtered by the 3,000 per pound of silk. And because the silkworms feel pain, we’re left with yet another moral quandary. But don’t despair, there’s hope!

The latest method of silk production involves yeast, in much the same way that synthetic insulin is produced. By using recombinant DNA from silk-spinning spiders, yeast colonies can create industrial quantities of silk matrix. It’s like brewing beer but for clothes.

“That’s great,” I hear you exclaim. “We’ve finally developed an ethical way to produce natural fibers. Case closed. Huzzah!” But what happens when we discover that the silk-brewing process results in a certain number of yeasts dying? What if part of the yeast colony must be killed off as production demands slow? How many lives would be at stake? Millions? Trillions? More?

Most living creatures have negative response mechanisms. Even single-celled organisms have receptors that warn of external danger. If “sentient” microorganisms are being “killed” in a textile-making process, is that acceptable? And if society decides that it’s not acceptable, then where does this ethical argument end? What about the quality of the yeasts’ living and working conditions? Free-range microbes, anyone?

The ethics of textiles is one example of a broader, ever-changing morality. Over the course of history, what is ethically acceptable has evolved as societies have evolved. Behaviors once thought to be unimaginable become commonplace (ex. Divorce), and common practices become unthinkable (ex. Slavery). The unethical becomes ethical, and vice versa—the dynamic cycle is in constant flux. This is why judging the transgressions of the past is somewhat futile.

The ethical question here is one of finding harmony—a balance between our individual wants and needs and the consequences those may have on the rest of the world. Take this quote from 15th Century Neo-Confucian philosopher, Wang Yang-ming:

We love both plants and animals, yet we can bear nurturing animals with plants. We love both animals and men, and yet we can bear butchering animals to feed our parents, provide for religious sacrifices, and entertain guests. We love both parents and strangers. But suppose here are a small basket of rice and a platter of soup. With them one will survive and without them one will die; there is not enough to save both parent and stranger. We can bear preferring to save the parent instead of the stranger.

Ethical dilemmas are about our place in the world, our interconnectedness. We’re each connected in different ways—our parents are different, our friends are different, our preferences, experiences, and strengths are different—and those connections are unique to us. With each person coming from a somewhat different place, all pulling in slightly different directions, we must trust that a harmonious balance will be reached.

Throughout history, making textiles has often pitted people’s ethical standards against their economic incentives. When taken to extremes, modern ethical arguments can seem absurd; however, having stricter ethical standards is a sign that society has become more inclusive, more interconnected. The fact that some people feel connected enough with the natural world that the fate of a small moth larva has become an ethical dilemma is encouraging (albeit slightly comical). How different this is from the subhuman status assigned to slaves less than two centuries ago.

It may be hard to believe that human slavery could have ever been widely accepted, but let’s go back to that example. Slaves have now been largely replaced by machines. Is it possible that humans may one day begin to see machines, not as appliances created for singular purposes, but as mechanical slaves? As those machines become smarter and more aware, will there be a moral obligation to grant them freedom? Or is that taking morality too far? Where does it end? (Or does it?)

In Fashion: “What will people wear in the future?” The Economist. Film (2019). https://films.economist.com/infashion/ (Source)

“What’s Wrong with Silk?” PETA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. FAQ online, Accessed: June 2019 (Source)

Lent, Jeremy. The Patterning Instinct. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2017. (Amazon)

Pollack, Susan H., et al. “Child Labor in 1990: Prevalence and Health Hazards.” Annual Review of Public Health 11.1 (1990): 359-375. (Source)

Robo shield

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cartoons

Opposite World

opposite world (again)

Do you have any preconceived notions that you clearly know are unfounded? How does our culture decide what “matters” and what doesn’t? And most importantly, is a male ballet dancer actually called a “ballerino”?

In a different universe, under different circumstances, ballet is the rule-breaking pastime of rebellious youth, and skateboarding is the respectable practice of a well-mannered, cultured aristocracy. At the highest levels, both activities require finesse, nuance, and the potential for artistic expression. Each can have a soft touch or emotional vigor, be smooth and graceful or forceful and punchy. The difference is our historical expectations—highbrow artists vs. lowbrow rebels. What if their roles were reversed?

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cartoons

The Modern Woman

PrioritiesWhat’s do you see? What comes to mind when looking at the image above? Is it a celebration of the modern woman’s accomplishments—breaking down gender barriers while juggling life’s many tasks? Or perhaps it’s an example of mansplaining—a message from yet another male critic of the “feminist agenda”? Does the image endorse multitasking or condemn it? Liberal or conservative? Sexist or feminist? An attack on contemporary activism, consumerism, and technology or a recognition of the modern world?

Yep.

Last week the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced that she was pregnant. Her first child will be born during her first year in office. News outlets had a field day. Social media immediately flooded with opinions. And I… well… I drew a cartoon.

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Merry Christmas! (from the Southern Hemisphere)

Santa Hammock

It’s warm here in New Zealand—a Christmas experience I’m certainly not accustomed. Growing up in the American Heartland, we often enjoyed a traditional white Christmas—chill in the air, snowmen on the front lawn, festive decorations with vibrant light displays. Now that we’ve moved to the other side of the world, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas. But I can’t complain.

Warm weather in December has it’s benefits (outdoor barbecues, swimming at the beach, and going on hiking trips, to name a few).  That being said, living in a different country can be a mind-bending experience. Every day is Opposite Day.

There are the more obvious differences between the United States and New Zealand: The seasons are reversed so summer is winter, spring is autumn, and so on; the people drive on the left side of the road rather than the right; they speak English (or what seems to be English) with an accent; and the timezone change means it’s tomorrow, today. But there are also some less obvious distinctions.

In New Zealand, light switches flick up and down, but down is “on” and up is “off.” The moon’s surface has craters, but there’s no illusion of a man’s face from this angle. Appetizers are called entrees, and entrees are called mains. Circumcision for baby boys is the exception not the rule. Pick up a jar of “mayonnaise” from the supermarket and you might find a sweet, gloopy sauce made without eggs. And when comparing political parties to the U.S., New Zealand conservatives are liberal, and their liberals are, well, even more liberal.

It’s a world of small differences—differences that add up to create a largely different experience. This holiday season, as families celebrate Christmas across the globe, they do so in different ways. We may agree on the name for this season, but the details can get a bit a hazy.

Does Santa get milk and cookies or biscuits and bourbon? Is it Santa, Saint Nicholas, or actually an old witch named Befana? Real tree, synthetic tree, or no tree at all? Stockings or shoes? Christmas ham, lamb, or deep-fried caterpillar?

Whether celebrating at home, traveling to visit friends and family, or moving halfway around the world, I hope you enjoy what makes your Christmas different—what makes it special to you. Happy Holidays!

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Being A Follower Is Hard Work

follow the leader

Most organizations assume that leadership has to be taught but that everyone knows how to follow. This assumption is based on three faulty premises:
(1) that leaders are more important than followers,
(2) that following is simply doing what you are told to do, and
(3) that followers inevitably draw their energy and aims, even their talent, from the leader.

—Robert Kelly, “In Praise of Followers” (1988)

Life is a balance between doing and observing. Leaders generally preoccupy themselves with the former, while followers tend to err on the side of the latter. But whichever role we find ourselves, both taking action and stopping to listen are required for success. That being said, being a follower is hard work. Despite the common misconception that following is a passive, submissive process, effective following is an active and demanding challenge. In fact, being a good follower is arguably more difficult than being a good leader for at least three reasons:

1.) There is far less glory in the role of a follower. Take movie awards for instance: Each year the Academy Awards honors the best and brightest of film with twenty-four categories. An overwhelming emphasis is placed on individual participants—actors, directors, composers. And even second tier awards (categories like “Best Visual Effects”) are received by only a few people representing a team of hundreds. This is not to mention the financial disparity between follower roles like special effect teams and leader roles like individual directors.

Our culture celebrates the individual, the star, the hero, relegating the many hands behind the scenes to tiny, scrolling names after the audience has already left the theatre. However true the phrase, “Behind every great leader you will find a great team,” followers are not adequately recognized for their efforts. We must instead take pride in what was accomplish overall, not the acclaim we received in the process.

2.) Also, being an effective follower may require more energy than being a leader. In the world of unmanned flight, drone aircraft often fly in groups with one drone leading the rest. These unmanned aerial vehicles expend various amount of fuel (energy) depending on their position within the group. A problem with managing these groups is that follower drones burn more fuel, especially during quick maneuvering, than the aircraft they follow.

Not only do followers have to spend time and energy performing their own duties, they must be constantly monitoring their team and proactively assess what’s next. As followers, we must preempt and adapt to the changes our leaders make. The more influence someone else has on our lives, the more likely our efforts will be duplicated, changed mid-project, or scrapped altogether.

3.) Followers also run the risk of becoming overly dependent. Unlike leaders who often act independently, followers have the dangerous opportunity to abdicate responsibility and opinion. This can lead to unhealthy dependence on outside leadership. Unfortunately, lack of agency can cause feelings of apathy, resentment, powerlessness, and depression, which followers must mange accordingly.

Over-dependence can also leave us directionless in times of change—aimlessly wandering when we are without something to follow. There are times when who or what we follow (be it our children, spouse, career, religious leaders, etc.) disappear suddenly (empty nesters, widows, retirement, scandals, and so on). Some of these drastic changes are inevitable patterns of life, but some changes are unexpected. And whether we’re anticipating a change or taken by surprise, we need to have a plan. We need an opinion and a direction we’d like to take.

Followers must constantly fight the urge to defer our opinions and decisions to whoever’s in charge. Simply due to the nature of the role, it is more difficult as followers to take responsibility and decide the direction of our lives than it is for the leaders who influence them.

So why would anyone be a follower? If being a follower provides fewer rewards for our efforts, requires more energy, and puts us at risk of apathy, resentment, and aimlessness, then why would we choose to follow? Why not look to lead instead?

Well for one, we do it for love. We allow our children, our spouses, our desire to change the world outweigh our personal gain. We follow because we must, because there’s no other choice. No person has the capacity to lead every moment of every aspect of his life (nor would it be healthy). And most important, we follow, because when it comes down to it, there’s really no such thing as followers and leaders; there are only arbitrary labels and titles that we assign one another.

Each of us vacillates between following and leading, sometimes switching from one role to the next in an instant. A dirty diaper leads us to the changing table, after which we lead an infant to the park or the grocer or a bike ride. A boss gives us an assignment, in which hours later, we find ourselves “managing up”— guiding them through a proposal.

Every relationship we have, every goal we’re trying to accomplish, is a constant give and take. We must find a balance between totalitarian rule and total apathy, between doing and observing. We may not be the lead dancer at any given moment, but we also cannot go limp—dead weight for our partner to lug around the dance floor. No matter which role we find ourselves—whether leading or following—life is not a passive process.

Kelley, Robert E. “In Praise of Followers.” Harvard Business Review. (November 1988) 142-148. (Source 1) (Source 2)

Dubner, Stephen J. “No Hollywood Ending for the Visual-Effects Industry.” Audio podcast. Freakanomics Radio. freakanomics.com, 22 February 2017. (Source)

Choi, Jongug, and Yudan Kim. “Fuel efficient three dimensional controller for leader-follower UAV formation flight.” International Conference on Control, Automation and Systems, Seoul, Korea, 2007. (Source)

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cartoons

Diversity

diversity

This is not an essay. I started writing an essay; it was on cultural differences, what makes us the same or different, the difficulty of defining ethnicity/diversity/race/culture and how they relate to conflict, Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences,” the American melting pot, and various other ideas along those lines. But with so much written on these topics, they are still ambiguous concepts that change with time. Rather than failing to convey my thoughts clearly with an essay, I’ve elected for a simple cartoon—a three panel summary.

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If We Were Like Trees

Tree TabooIf trees could read, would they? Or would the fact that books have been printed on mulched up tree guts for centuries be a barrier to literary exploration? And while books may last for years, what would trees think of magazines? As silly as personification is, this line of questioning leads us to the real topic of today’s discussion: If we were like trees, would we live our lives differently?

Most of who we are is invisible. Humans are visual creatures with as much as two-thirds of our brains associated with vision. We use this ability to observe our three dimensional world, yet there’s a fourth dimension—time—that makes up the majority of who we are. Our experiences, our long years of life—the more diverse these are, the larger we “grow.” But it can be difficult to sense the enormity of a large life.

If we were like trees, we could stand in awe of the expansive lives of one another. We could marvel at the large trunks and broad canopies of our elders. We could see one another—our branching, our scars, our history carved into the physical embodiment of our years.

As much as we try, the material world does not provide an accurate representations of who we are. The cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the jobs we have, the photos we post—these are poor substitutions for the real thing. Even our bodies don’t tell the whole story. Wrinkles, blemishes, thinning hair—these might give away our age, but to accurately tell our life story? Impossible.

Unable to directly observe the experiences of others, we settle for sensing the shape of a person’s life through indirect measures—their demeanor, their stories, their stuff. Material wealth is often (mistakenly) used as a proxy for life worth. If we were like trees—if our bodies were a physical representation of our experiences—there would be less need for ancillary metrics. Just by looking, we would see the complexity and worthiness of even the poorest among us.

Also, unlike humans who reach a mature size a fifth of the way into our lives, trees continually grow larger over time. And not only that, they actually accelerate their growth as they age, meaning older trees are better at being trees (i.e. removing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). Imagine a life where your years of “peak performance” are always ahead of you, a life where you’re always getting better.

As humans age, our bodies become frail, small, and insignificant. There is no visual representation of all that a person has accomplished, all the people they’ve influenced, loved, and touched. The vastness of their experience is easily overlooked and under-appreciated. Yet the lives of our aged population are like the trees—enormous amounts of time and energy to be marveled.

We must be careful not to under-appreciate our elders—those people we call parents, grandparents, or great grandparents. We may not be able to see the immensity of their time here on earth, but we should be able to sense the scale of their lives and what they provide us.

When an old tree dies in the woods, it falls to the ground. It lies there like a giant among new growth, leaving a large space for smaller trees to fill. It decomposes providing nutrients for the next generation. That’s the circle of life. And the larger a tree’s life—the larger, physically, that tree was—the more it provides after death. To quote Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Perhaps humans too can embody the grand scale of a long life. We cannot see it directly, but it is still there, like the massive size of a fallen tree.

Many of us fear death, because it represents the end. We are afraid of regret, afraid of not having done or experienced enough. But what if we were like trees? Perhaps death would be seen as just the beginning—our large lives giving back to the small, the young, the future.

Stephenson, Nathan, et al. “Rate of Tree Carbon Accumulation Increases Continuously with Tree Size.” Nature 507.7490 (2014): 90-93. (Source)

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