I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

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.

April 2, 2010

Are PET plastic bottles a source of endocrine disruptors?

PET (or PETE) bottles are the ones with the recycling number “1”.  (For a list of all the numbers and a description of the various plastics (and what they’re used for), see the Resin Identification Codes chart at the American Chemistry Council.)

Polyethylene Terephthalate May Yield Endocrine Disruptors

Leonard Sax, Environmental Health Perspectives, 118(4) Apr 2010.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the material most commonly used to make the clear plastic bottles in which bottled water is sold. PET bottles are also in widespread use as containers for soda beverages, sports drinks, and condiments such as vinegar and salad dressing. PET bottles are also commonly used for the packaging of cosmetic products, such as shampoo, particularly when such products are sold in clear plastic bottles.

From the Editor’s Summary

Sax suggests that the phthalate content of PET bottles, if present, might vary as a function of the acidity of the product and the temperature and duration of storage. Sax also makes the observation that other nonphthalate chemicals such as antimony, which is used as a catalyst in the polycondensation of PET, might also contribute to the endocrine-disrupting activity of products stored in PET containers.

Note: McDonough and Braungart comment on the use of antimony in the manufacture of polyester in Cradle to Cradle.

Article contents

Cites “Exposure to endocrine disrupting compounds via the food chain: Is packaging a relevant source?” by Jane Muncke, Science of the Total Environment, Volume 407, Issue 16, 1 August 2009, Pages 4549-4559 doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2009.05.006.

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.”

March 12, 2010

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Part 1)

I’ve decided to try to summarize Cradle to Cradle over a series of several posts.  (And I’ve created a Cradle to Cradle page where I’ll post links to my posts, as well as posts from other blogs.)

I won’t be able to do it complete justice, but I think it’s an eye-opening approach to a critical problem.  Having been published in 2002, a lot of progress has been made in the last eight years and many of the ideas are starting to be recognized as a better approach.  Green chemistry, design for the environment, pollution prevention, and sustainable design and materials management (and lots of variations on those terms and concepts) are starting to catch on as being better approaches.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart.  Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.  North Point Press, 2002.

Going beyond “reduce, reuse, recycle”

McDonough and Braungart argue that this approach to waste actually perpetuates the one-way “cradle to grave” approach of traditional manufacturing.

As co-authors of The Hannover Principles (PDF) (Wikipedia article), design guidelines for the 2000 World’s Fair that were issued at the World Urban Forum of the Earth Summit in 1992, they state that foremost among the guidelines is eliminating the concept of waste.  (For more background on related issues, see Agenda 21 documents from the Agenda 21 Global Programme of Action on Sustainable Development from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development–aka the Earth Summit.)

This book describes the steps society can take to do that, as well as why the reasons our current approach will ultimately fail.

The limits of scientific research (my term, not theirs)

Braungart notes that “science as a whole is more invested in research than in implementing strategies of change.”

The scientific community is usually paid to study problems, not solutions; indeed, finding a solution to the problem under study usually brings an end to funding for research.

That, Braungart notes, puts an odd pressure on scientists since they must, like everyone else, make a living.  Which is part of the reason we keep making products containing chemicals that we know are toxic.  We’ve been unable to think of a better approach.

Rethinking the question

Well, as they ask on the back cover of the book, “Why not challenge the belief that human industry must damage the natural world?  In fact, why not take nature itself as our model for making things?”

More on The Hannover Principles

From the Foundation for P2P Alternatives.  (I found this interesting because of this statement on the Foundation’s home page: “We study the impact of Peer to Peer technology and thought on society.”)

[Summary of] The Hannover Principles, 1992

Originally posted on the U.S. General Service Administration (GSA) website (link on the Mindfully.org website no longer works)

Note: GSA is responsible for purchasing or managing many tangible assets of the U.S. government.

Copied from Mindfully.org’s Hannover Principles page (unfortunately the Mindfully.org site does not appear to have been updated recently, but it does contain links to older articles on plastics, sustainability, etc.)

Developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the Hannover Principles were among the first to comprehensively address the fundamental ideas of sustainability and the built environment, recognizing our interdependence with nature and proposing a new relationship that includes our responsibilities to protect it. The Principles encourage all of us – you, your organization, your suppliers and customers – to link long term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and to re-establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity. When you make decisions in your organization, remember these essential Principles:

  • Recognize interdependence. Simply put: everything you do personally, in your organization and through your work interacts with and depends upon the natural world, at every scale, both locally and across the globe.
  • Eliminate the concept of waste. Are you considering the full, life-cycle consequences of what you create or buy?
  • Understand the limitations of design. Treat nature as a model, not as an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled

Next installment: “Nature doesn’t have a design problem.  People do.”

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