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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

All “Stuff” Is Not Equal, Part I

Books discussed in this post and post to follow (Part II):

(1) The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, by Paul Hawken (NY: HarperBusiness, 1993)

(2) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough & Michael Braungart (NY: North Point Press, 2002)

I’ll ask you to picture an old-fashioned construction site, the kind my friends and I used as playgrounds on summer evenings, a scene dominated by big, exciting piles of dirt to be run up and down, the “king of the mountain” remaining at the summit. See in your mind three such piles. All right, now instead of dirt see them composed of (1) natural resources, (2) “stuff” people have made, and (3) discarded waste.

The earth itself and everything on it and in it constitutes the first pile. Additionally, coming at us every day and adding to that pile, is energy from the sun. A star’s decay is our source of life.

Next the “stuff.” Everything in pile #2 was made from contents of the resource pile, but while the sun keeps coming at us every day, it can’t make oil fast enough to keep up with our use, and precious minerals aren’t formed quickly, either, so in general the resource pile gets smaller as the stuff pile gets bigger. But keep that “in general” in mind, because whether or not the resource pile shrinks depends on how and out of what we make our stuff. The best “stuff” we make and use can be returned to the resource pile for future use.

And before we go on to pile #3, we need to say something about the many ways we take away from the resource pile without adding anything to the stuff pile. Travel is a big category of resource use that doesn’t add to the stuff pile. Yes, trains and cars and planes are all manufactured and count as stuff, but more resources are used up in moving the vehicles and us from place to place. Frequent fliers don’t pile up miles in closets, but flying, like driving, makes heavy demands on the resource pile. By the end of the 20th century, Americans were consuming fuel for travel 40 times faster than they had done in 1900. Follow this link to read about changes in modes of travel through our history, where gains in efficiency were made and how different modes compare to one another. I’ll quote the bottom line here for those who don’t follow the link:
The increased travel (and increased population) in the 20th century not only canceled out the 5-fold gain in fuel efficiency but increased fuel consumption for travel 40 times. Thus, in addition to striving to increase fuel efficiency, it's even more important to strive to reduce the need for travel as well as to reduce population.

Moral of this part of the story: All use does not result in “stuff,” and all “stuff” is not equal.

Now, finally, on to the third pile—and here this whole mental exercise suddenly strikes me as a tour of Dante’s Divine Comedy in reverse, with the resource pile (wonderful gift!) as heaven, the stuff pile (glittering temptations!) purgatory, and the waste pile as pure hell, a horror growing even as we gaze. The waste pile is built up of stuff that was used and discarded, along with (perhaps an even greater portion of the pile) unwanted byproducts of the making of stuff. Some waste could be recycled and returned to the resource pile but hasn’t been. Other parts, tragically, are not recyclable at all and can never again in our lifetimes become resources.

Now, the Big Question (BQ): Is there any way to halt the ongoing depletion of the resource pile and to stop the waste pile from growing and still enjoy stuff? Put another way: Is the only way to achieve these goals to stop making and buying stuff? And does that mean that people already lucky enough to have plenty of stuff just kick away the ladder and tell the rest of the world to do without for the sake of the planet? This is the question of two books I want to highlight in today’s post and the one to follow. These books answer, basically, as follows: The problem with how we have been making things since the Industrial Revolution is a design problem. We need new designs. We need to design products for the life of their component materials, recognizing that (as my friend on Throwaway Blog says) “nothing ever really goes away, does it?”

McDonough and Braungart are in agreement with Hawken on many important points, and I’ll focus on those in this post, discussing mostly Hawken’s book. In Part II, spending more time on McDonough and Braungart, I’ll also highlight their differences from the Hawken view.

We Americans pay a smaller percentage of our income for food than people in other countries. We pay less for gasoline than any Western European country. As a nation we flock to big box stores to buy television sets produced overseas. But we get all this stuff “cheap” because—like maxing out credit cards or taking Incompletes rather than getting term papers written on time—we’re postponing true accounting, and future generations (not far down the line) will be handed the bill.
Markets are the place at which production becomes consumption, but at present they do not recognize the destruction and waste caused by that production. Because markets are a price-based system, they naturally favor traders who come to market with the lowest price, which often means the highest unrecognized costs.

Hawken gives cigarette smoking as an example, with lost wages and high health care costs not included in the price of the pack (though how anyone can still be smoking cigarettes when a single pack costs between $5 and $8 is completely beyond me) and goes on to say that
...this is true for almost all production/consumption systems, whether they involve the steel in your car, the wood in your house, or the food on your table. The problem is that these costs are shared unevenly, just as the profits from selling them are garnered disproportionately.

As a species, we human beings (unlike any other life form on earth) are spending the earth’s capital, eating our own and other species’ seed corn—use whatever metaphor makes it most vivid to you. Between the resource pile and the stuff pile, as we all know, comes transformation and reorganization of materials, but unfortunately most of what we transform ends up in the waste pile. Designing for the life of materials rather than for product life would create cycles of recovery and reuse in place of a dead end mountain.

Toxic waste is the worst, but disposal of toxic waste, as Hawken sees it, is not the root problem. Rather, it is the root symptom. “The critical issue is the creation of toxic wastes.” And that’s what we need to stop.
In the natural world, all processes, directly or indirectly, result in food for other species. Rot, rust, ants, worms, skunks, toads, pikas, voles, bats, moles, mites, alder, gentian, lichens and several thousand other plants, invertebraves, birds, reptiles and mammals make up a forest. ... In the forest, there is a competitive yet yielding relation....

The most sustainable agricultural practices mimic nature, returning “waste” (there is no true waste in nature) to the soil, whereas the least sustainable methods require heavy financial debt, reduce biodiversity and speed soil erosion. Other writers I’ve written on recently pointed to the industrial ideal of “efficiency” as a distraction from what really goes on in farming, and Hawken is in complete agreement:
What we call “efficient” in agriculture is usually a process that substitutes fossil fuel in its myriad forms for human labor, displacing workers and families while causing widespread and lasting ecological damage to soil, water and wildlife. ...The most truly efficient farm is the one that most effectively internalizes all of its costs. This is a farm that builds up topsoil, that uses water sparingly and thriftily, that uses pesticides rarely if at all, that understands that the secret to healthy plants is healthy soil, not deadly chemicals.

If price were reflective of all costs, Hawken says, you would not pay more for locally grown, organic produce than you pay now for chemically grown fruits and vegetables transported hundreds or thousands of miles. Set that “If” to one side for a minute. We will come back to it shortly.

Again, a BQ: Must an economy involve limitless growth, or can it be healthy without expansion? Classical economists answer the question one way, Hawken differently, by means of a distinction borrowed from Herman Daly, who puts it like this: “A growing economy is getting bigger; a developing economy is getting better.” Hawken describes the developing, or restorative, economy in this way:
Growing implies size for the sake of size, while the idea of development implies that the product or service supplied will actually help people use fewer resources in the long run, and at the same time will serve or improve their lives. In the restorative economy, a company is based on the idea that its products or services will improve people’s lives qualitatively, not quantitatively. It should provide a product or service that helps people develop their lives, and not merely increase the amount of their possessions. The smaller the business, the easier it is to internalize this distinction.

Two huge issues lurk here. One is jobs, the other motivation. Internalization of all costs in the production process, Hawken argues, would recreate jobs and put people back to work. Sounds good. Sounds great! But—and here we come back to that earlier “If”--what would bring about such a revolutionary change in our economy? What would motivate manufacturers to internalize all costs, to hire more workers, to redesign commerce so drastically that it would be paying its way in the world?

Hawken’s answer begins by noting that design is not limited to products. Systems and ways of doing things can also be designed. So prior to redesigning products we would design systems that would encourage new and better products to emerge. Motivation would come in the form of green taxes or green fees. More resources might be managed as public utilities. The whole idea is to design a marketplace that makes destruction of resources and creation of waste very expensive and that rewards ecologically restorative acts. From this would come “environmental restoration, economic prosperity, job creation, and social stability.”

End of Part I


Gerry said...

Margaret Atwood has been thinking about these matters too. I just finished The Year of the Flood, which I think argues that what we seem incapable of doing for ourselves, Mama Nature will do for us, in ways that we might not like so much. Maybe the issue isn't whether the planet will survive--it will--but whether there will be any people on it.

Susan said...

Excellent! I look forward to Part 2.

P. J. Grath said...

No doubt the rocky old globe will keep orbiting the sun, Gerry. I hope that even if human beings aren't always on it, lichens and moss and ferns and spiders and bees and such will be.

Thanks for stopping by, Susan. I'll post Part II this evening, and after that, Thursday evening or Friday morning, will come a whole post about printed books and e-books.

Perhaps I have too much time to think these days???