For the Bears
September 9, 2014
The Center for Philosophy of Science is powered by more than just the sugar and fat in donuts. It is also powered by the universal jet fuel of academia, coffee. They both come with a collateral cost.
For every donut eaten, there's a paper plate. For every coffee taken, there's a paper cup. This year, we decided that we should do something. We are quite limited in that we have no running water or sink in the Center. So we cannot wash dishes. And I'm not sure we want to have a massive dish clean-up after each event.
But perhaps there's some intermediate solution. Over the summer we decided that ceramic coffee mugs would be that intermediate. They are quite cheap to buy and can come with a custom logo. But which logo? Time and again, we huddled round Cheryl's desk picking at the most recent logo design. It was fun for us, but it might have been trying Cheryl's patience.
The challenge was to make sure that each mug owner took responsibility for cleaning his or her own mug. The solution was to leave a space on the mug specifically for owners to write in their name.
When the mugs arrived, they were in huge boxes with plenty of packaging. Each mug would need to be used quite a few times to offset the environmental cost just of the packaging. This was our first intimation that the plan may not run quite so smoothly.
We tried out various pens to find the type that would give the most permanent name. Felt tip pens that delivered a paint-like ink worked very well. We were ready.
As each new Fellow arrived, they were offered a mug and invited to write his or her name on the mug. It became a lighter moment. There are many choices. The silicone lids come in five colors and the pens come in many more.
Now it is time to spread the mugs farther. The first talk of the year is Nick Rescher's on "Oversimplification." Before introducing him, I wave a mug around, explain their purpose and announce that anyone can have one.
"There is a catch," I said, "you have to swear on a baby polar bear that you will use this mug forever more in the Center."
"Which polar bear, you are wondering?"
The moment had been set up. I reached down to a large envelope on the table and pulled out a cuddly stuffed toy, a baby polar bear. Joyce had attached a label to it that pleaded "save me."
Rather than hand them out here, I continued, everyone who wanted a mug was invited to go to our lounge in the talk break or after and claim one. In the meantime, Joyce had set up a collection of mugs in the lounge, with pens at the ready.
The little bit of pantomime with the cuddly stuffed toy was whimsy, but not merely whimsy. It was designed to ensure that everyone would remember the point. These mugs are to replace the paper cups.
The offer had been made; the invitation had been issued. Earlier, we had wondered what would happen. "I really don't know," I had said. "Perhaps no one comes for one. Perhaps we get flooded."
I was including the "no one at all" option just to cover the range. I didn't expect it. Moments after the talk had ended, I joined Joyce in the lounge, bringing the polar bear.
We sat. We waited. No one at all came for a mug. After a while, I left. Then, finally one person came in to claim a mug.
We are still wondering how to read that fact. John Earman's speech in response to mine in the talk may have been a factor. He pointed out that the cost of manufacture and transport of the mugs likely outweighed any environmental gain over paper mugs.
As I sit writing these words, I can hear Joyce offering a mug to someone passing down the hall. Her target explains awkwardly that she drinks water not coffee and so has no need of a mug. She continued--and I managed to write these words verbatim:
"If at some time I change my lifestyle, I'll come for one. Thanks for the offer."
We have learned something. The polar bears are on their own.
John D. Norton