I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

August 7, 2010

Ecological Intelligence

I recently began reading Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, who  is probably best known for his books on Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence.  He puts ecological intelligence in a different category that some of the other intelligences identified by Howard Gardner in that ecological intelligence has to be developed because the activities, and the impacts they have, are beyond our awareness and occur at such slow rates that there was no need for humans to develop that type of intelligence.  Climate change is one such example.

The subtitle is “How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything.”  He focuses on many of the same issues that William McDonough in Cradle to Cradle and Annie Leonard in The Story of Stuff do.  I found it delightfully surprising that a book by an author known for books on issues like emotional intelligence starts right off with a discussion of Life Cycle Assessment and industrial ecology.  (In fact, he refers to William McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” approach in several places.)

His discussion of why “green” isn’t always as green as it seems is useful for anyone wanting to make ecologically responsible purchases.

Goleman argues that one of the best ways to increase our ecological intelligence is through full disclosure of the impact of the products we buy, the notion of radical transparency.  He cites examples such as companies being required to disclose their financial workings as examples of how that disclosure helps investors make better decisions.

He weaves together stories about the effect of synthetic chemicals on our bodies, especially on our immune systems, and discusses how inflammation and oxidative stress could be at the root of all sorts of diseases (going well beyond cancer).  Body burden, toxicology, epigenetics, and green supply chains are all covered, even if only briefly.  He weaves together these topics in a very readable, understandable fashion.

Postscript: Just checked out his website for the first time.  His latest blog post is entitled “Leading sustainability” and discusses how consumers can use resources like GoodGuide.com to make more informed choices.  And I’m encouraged by the fact that he is working with folks like Peter Senge, a management guru.

May 5, 2010

The Product-Life Institute’s approach to ‘cradle to cradle’

Perhaps getting ahead of myself here (that is, I haven’t gotten close to finishing my summary of McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle), but I wanted to include this because of Walter Stahel’s  role in the creation of a “cradle to cradle” approach (as opposed to a “cradle-to-grave” approach.

“Cradle to grave” is simply a marketing upgrade for gravediggers, because it still relies on end-of-pipe solutions.

The Product-Life Institute was founded in 1982 by Orio Giarini and Walter R. Stahel, who were joined after a few month by Max Börlin.  The main focus of the Product-Life Institute is on practical strategies and approaches is to produce higher real wealth and economic growth with considerably lower resource consumption. Create more manual and skilled jobs with greatly reduced resource consumption. Promote the business concepts of the Functional Service Economy that focuses on the performance of goods and services, the utilization value as its central notion of economic value and private-sector initiatives to finance public works.  (from its website)

Cradle to Cradle at the Product-Life Institute

http://product-life.org/en/cradle-to-cradle

From the website:

In their 1976 research report to the European Commission in Brussels ‘The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy’, Walter Stahel and Genevieve Reday sketched the vision of an economy in loops (or circular economy) and its impact on job creation, economic competitiveness, resource savings and waste prevention. The report was published in 1982 as a book “Jobs for Tomorrow, the Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy”. Today these factors are commonly referred to as the three pillars of sustainable development: ecologic, economic and social compatibility.

In 1982, Stahel synthesized these ideas in his prize winning paper “The Product-Life Factor” and identified selling utilization instead of goods as the ultimate sustainable business model of a loop economy: selling utilisation enables to create sustainable profits without an externalization of the costs of risk and costs of waste.

In their 1987 report “Economic Strategies of Durability – longer product-life of goods as waste prevention strategy”, Stahel and Börlin demonstrated that economic actors in a loop economy can achieve a higher profitability than their competitors in the throughput economy. Using 30 case studies, the report showed that for a loop economy to be fully successful, a restructuring of the industrial economy and its framework conditions would be helpful.

As a reaction to this report in 1987, some experts put forward the idea of a product responsibility “from cradle to grave” as an alternative to a circular economy, with the advantage that cradle to grave was compatible with the existing linear economic model.

Walter R. Stahel, by training an architect, countered this idea by pointing out that “cradle to grave” is simply a marketing upgrade for gravediggers, because it still relies on end-of-pipe solutions. Stahel insisted that the really sustainable solution was to use durable goods in a loop from “cradle back to cradle”…..

The main objectives of the Product-Life Institute are to open new frontiers of economic development towards a Functional Service Economy that focuses on selling performance (services) instead of goods (product liability), internalizing all costs (cradle to cradle), product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities and waste prevention.

The vision is a sustainable economy and society resting on five pillars:

  1. Nature conservation
  2. Limited toxicity
  3. Resource productivity
  4. Social ecology
  5. Cultural ecology

Includes a link to the article, Product-Life Factor (Mitchell Prize Winning Paper 1982), which describes the impact product-life extension could have on creating more sustainable economies.

Also includes an announcement of the publication of The Performance Economy: Second Edition (Spring 2010) by Walter Stahel in which he “looks at the role of entrepreneurs and other innovators and how the dominating business models of the current ‘industrial economy’ are changing to those of a ‘performance economy’.”  A performance economy is one in which goods are not sold, but are provided as services.

Other resources

The Product-Life Institute’s blogs

Links to other resources on sustainability and eco-design

Includes links to conferences, websites, and a list of companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) the Product-Life Institute works with.

A link to the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) is included under “Courses on sustainability.”  SAGE is a research center in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  While it does offer coursework in a wide variety of environmental studies, the only thing I found on the site (admittedly after a very brief scan) was the Roy F. Weston Distinguished Global Sustainability Lecture Series, a limited number of which have PowerPoint presentations or QuickTime audiocasts.  However, it does have information for anyone interested in pursuing studies in sustainability and environmental studies.

April 23, 2010

An all consuming world?

Following the theme of yesterday’s post, I’ve included links to another video on waste and consumption (this one about McDonough’s & Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle concept), food consumption (includes a striking map), and creating green economies.

Rethinking how we make things

Waste = Food (Documentary on 49:23 min.)
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3058533428492266222#

An inspiring documentary on the Cradle to Cradle design concept of the chemist Michael Braungart and the architect William McDonough. Winner of the Silver Dragon at the Beijing International Science Film Festival 2006.

Sustainable consumption

Can Consumer Culture Be Transformed?

http://earthsky.org/human-world/state-of-the-world-2010-can-consumer-culture-be-transformed

Deborah Byrd of EarthSky looks at consumerism and its repercussions.  The quiz was interesting (I scored worse than she did). She also discusses the State of the World 2010 report on moving from a consumerist society to a sustainable one (see link below).

Quiz – Consumer Consequences: Find out if you are living a sustainable life
http://sustainability.publicradio.org/consumerconsequences/

State of the World 2010: From Madison Avenue to Mad Max? (Press Release) –  January 12, 2010
http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6359

Report websitehttp://www.worldwatch.org/sow10

Excerpt from press release (emphasis added):

The report examines the institutions that shape cultural systems. Business has played the leading role in shifting cultures to center on consumerism, making an array of resource-intensive products such as bottled water, fast food, cars, disposable paper goods, and even pets seem increasingly “natural.”

Government has also promoted consumerism as a lynchpin of policy, often making it synonymous with national well-being and job creation. As the global economic recession accelerated in 2009, wealthy countries primed national economies with $2.8 trillion of new government stimulus packages, only a small percentage of which focused on green initiatives.

Food consumption

Where The Buffalo Roamed
http://www.weathersealed.com/2009/09/22/where-the-buffalo-roamed/

Includes a map of the contiguous United States, visualized by distance to the nearest McDonald’s.

This site contains a number of other fascinating maps and graphics on a wide variety of subjects.

Food, Inc., the future of food, and waste = food
http://earthsky.org/agriculture/food-inc-the-future-of-food-and-waste-food

Transforming Cultures Blog – WorldWatch Institute

http://blogs.worldwatch.org/transformingcultures/retire-ronald/

Creating a sustainable economy

Green Economy Takes Centre Stage at UNEP 2010 Champions of the Earth Awards

http://www.eco-business.com/news/2010/apr/22/green-economy-takes-centre-stage-unep-2010-champio/

UNEP Green Economy Initiative

http://www.unep.org/greeneconomy/

The New Green Economy Conference Conversation

Part 1 – http://dirt.asla.org/2010/01/21/the-new-green-economy-part-1/
Part 2 – http://dirt.asla.org/2010/01/21/the-new-green-economy-part-2-what-d…
Part 3 – http://dirt.asla.org/2010/01/26/the-new-green-economy-part-3-what-i…

CleanSkies: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson Calls For Green Revolution at NCSE Conference
http://greeneconomy.ning.com/video/lisa-jackson-calls-for-green

National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE)

http://ncseonline.org/

NCSE Green Economy Blog

http://greeneconomy.ning.com

Note: While this looks like it might contain some good information, they seem to have a little problem with spam.

April 22, 2010

The Story of Stuff (in honor of Earth Day)

Since today is Earth Day, I thought The Story of Stuff would be an appropriate topic.  EPA is also celebrating its 40th anniversary.  More info on EPA events on its website:

The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute animated film narrated by Annie Leonard about the “materials economy” (that is, the traditional process of extracting materials, manufacturing products, distribution, consumption, and disposal) and how we need to move to a sustainable economy, which is the message behind Cradle to Cradle.

Stephen Colbert said that more than 10 million people have viewed the film.  (You can see a short interview he did with Leonard on the Story of Stuff website.)

If you can’t view the video there, it’s also posted on YouTube.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLBE5QAYXp8&feature=player_embedded#! (among others)

There’s also a short excerpt from the video in her interview with Stephen Colbert (5 min 30 sec) on the Story of Stuff website that discusses what we do with our leisure time and how that helps drive the cycle.

Consumption drives the whole cycle

One thing that really struck me was a quote Leonard provided from Victor Lebow, a 20th century economist and retail analyst.  (There’s more from this quote on the Wikipedia page on Lebow.)

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats—his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies….

We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.

According to Wikipedia, “Modern authors disagree as to whether Lebow was encouraging and prescribing conspicuous consumption or grimly acknowledging and critiquing its prevalence among American consumers.”

Still, it’s pretty scary!  (Could consumerism be viewed as one big Ponzi scheme?  After all, at the rate we’re going to run out of stuff to make stuff from.)

Leonard notes that after 9/11 George W. Bush didn’t advocate grieving, he said something along the lines of “Go shopping!”  (I’ll have to go reread Brave New World.  If I remember correctly, the society in that book is based on mass consumption.)

The Story of Stuff: The Book” provides more information about the effects of the traditional extraction and production process.

More info on the effects of resource extraction

For more information on how people’s health and the environment are affected by the extraction of coal, oil, natural gas, gold, and other  resources, see the EARTHWORKS website and blog.

March 31, 2010

More industrial infrastructure problems (Cradle to Cradle, pt. 4)

McDonough and Braungart.  Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

Design problems with “universal” design solutions

  • One size fits all
  • Products are designed for worst-case scenarios (guarantees widest possible market–also reflects assumption that nature is “the enemy”)
  • Logic of brute force – make universal solutions “fit” local conditions through chemical brute force & fossil fuel energy

Natural systems rely on energy from the sun, but people extract and burn fossil fuels without energy of harnessing local natural energy flows.
Burning fossil fuels leads not only to greenhouse gases and global warming, but production of particulate matter, which can cause respiratory and other health problems.

You wouldn’t want to depend on savings for all of your daily expenditures, so why rely on savings to meet all of humanity’s energy needs?

Culture of monoculture

  • Diversity is treated as a hostile force and a threat to design goals
    “Brute force and universal design approaches to typical development tend to overwhelm (and ignore) natural and cultural diversity, resulting in less variety and greater homogeneity.”
  • Modern urban areas replace natural land cover with asphalt and concrete
  • Conventional agriculture

Native plants help prevent erosion and provide habitat for insects and birds, some of whom are natural enemies of crop pests.  Loss of pests’ natural enemies results in an increase of pests (and monoculture can become vulnerable to widespread destruction if the wrong pest gets introduced, whether that be insects, fungi, etc.)

Increase in pests has led to increase in use of pesticides, which in turn has led to increase in pesticide resistance.

Super weeds

Here’s a link to the ABC News story on pigweed, “Super Weed Can’t Be Killed” (Oct. 6, 2009):
http://abcnews.go.com/Video/playerIndex?id=8767877

(The pesticide industry’s basic reaction: “You dumb farmers!  You need to use additional herbicides and not just Roundup.”)

Glyphosate-Resistant Weeds: Can We Close the Barn Door? (Weed Science Society of America)
Researchers say cost-competitive management techniques can slow weed resistance to the herbicide and improve crop yields

And Monsanto’s take on this – http://www.monsanto.com/pdf/science/weed_management.pdf

And now there are reports that Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bt cotton (Bacillus thuringiensis) is failing because pink bollworms in India are developing Bt resistance as well.

Hmm, maybe if Monsanto hadn’t bred glyphosate-resistant plants (Roundup Ready!), thereby encouraging farmers to use more Roundup, we wouldn’t have this problem.  It kind of infuriates me that they’re now saying, “We knew this would happen!  We tried to warn people!”  If they knew that, why did they go ahead and develop genetically-modified (GM) plants in the first place?

The problem according to McDonough and Braungart?  Simplified systems actually require more maintenance because they can’t survive without intervention.

Economics

Activity equals prosperity

McDonough and Braungart note that the 1991 Exxon Valdez oil spill actually increased Alaska’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).    They note that GDP only takes one thing into account, economic activity.  They note that:

…if prosperity is judged only by increased economic activity, then car accidents, hospital visits, illnesses (such as cancer), and toxic spills are all signs of prosperity.

They note that loss of resources, cultural depletion, negative social and environmental factors, and reduction of quality of life can all be negated by a simplistic economic figure.

Crude products

The authors define these as products that are not designed particularly for human and ecological health because they are unintelligent and inelegant.  Because little attention is paid to the design of products, we end up with what they call “products plus.”  You get the item or service you wanted, plus additives you didn’t ask for and didn’t know were included.  For example, examining a number of high-tech products, they discovered that during use they off-gassed carcinogens and/or chemicals that cause birth defects.

They claim that high-tech products are usually composed of low-quality-materials, including cheap plastics and dyes that would be banned in Europe or the U.S., but are used in materials made in developing countries where their use has not been banned.

As a result of emissions from these “crude products,” indoor air quality is often more contaminated than outdoor air.  They cite a Scientific American story by Wayne R. Orr and John Roberts, “Everyday Exposures to Toxic Pollutants,” Feb. 1998, that notes that levels of toxic chemicals found in households were high enough to trigger a formal risk assessment at a Superfund site.

They note that even products designed for children can contain high levels of toxic chemicals which can be absorbed.  Not only can these include carcinogens, but they can also include chemicals that stress children’s bodies and also weaken the immune system, making children more susceptible to cancer-causing chemicals and other stressors.  Citing Our Stolen Future, they note that many of these chemicals can also disrupt the endocrine system and that only a small fraction of industrial chemicals have been tested for their effects on living systems.

They say that it might be tempting to try to turn back the clock, but that

the natural materials to meet the needs of our current population do not and cannot exist.

Also, even “natural” products are not necessarily safe and healthy.  (Some of the strongest poisons are natural in origin.)

A Strategy of Tragedy, or a Strategy of Change?

McDonough and Braungart argue that the poor designs created by today’s industrial infrastructure are not sustainable.  They say that most industrial methods and materials are unintentionally depletive.  (That might be true for agricultural practices, but I don’t actually see how they can say that about resources like petroleum and coal.  We clearly know that we’re depleting such resources.)

So how they propose we get out of this cycle of what they call intergenerational remote tyranny?

At some point a manufacturer or designer decides, “We can’t keep doing this. We can’t keep supporting and maintaining this system.” At some point they will decide that they would prefer to leave behind a positive design legacy.  But when is that point?

We say that point is today, and negligence starts tomorrow.  Once you understand the destruction taking place, unless you do something to change it, even if you never intended to cause such destruction, you become involved in a strategy of tragedy, or you can design and implement a strategy of change.

They then note that many people probably think such a strategy already exists.  After all, don’t a number of “green” and “eco-efficient” movements already exist?

Isn’t such a strategy viable?  (The short answer, No.)  In the next chapter, they make an argument for “Why Being ‘Less Bad’ Is No Good.”

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