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.

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.

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 21, 2010

You say you want an Industrial Revolution (Cradle to Cradle, part 3)

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

Remember the assignment McDonough and Braungart gave?  To design a system that creates enormous amounts of waste, lots of pollution, and burying or burning the results?  (Summarized in Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.” (Cradle to Cradle, part 2)

To explain how such a system evolved, they summarize the history of the Industrial Revolution, plus consequences of development of new technologies, increase in urbanization, and the design decisions that accumulated over time. Focus on selling the greatest volume of goods to the greatest number of people.  Shift from manual labor to efficient mechanization.  Mass production (for example, of automobiles).

Industry and natural “capital”

Western society had conflicting views of nature.  On the one hand, nature was a source of natural “capital” that seemed practically bottomless, a “mother earth” that was perpetually regenerative and could absorb all things and continue to grow.  On the other hand, it was also viewed a hostile and dangerous, as something to be conquered and tamed.

The Industrial Revolution was linear—making products and getting them to consumers without thinking about much else.  We now have a much different view of the world, one that recognizes that ecosystems are delicate, complex, and interconnected, and more vulnerable than we ever imagined.

The Industrial Revolution brought about many positive changes such as higher standards of living, increased life expectancy, improved medical care, and more widely available education.  However, fundamental flaws in the infrastructure design have resulted in devastating consequences.

The industrial system was designed on a linear, one-way “cradle-to-grave” model.  In such a system resources are extracted to make products which are sold, then eventually disposed of in a landfill or incinerator.  (Resources that are extracted include coal, oil, natural gas, iron, and so on.)

Buyers are called “consumers,” but McDonough and Braungart point out that consumers actually consume very little.  Most things are designed to be thrown away.

But where is “away”?  Of course, “away” does not really exist.  “Away” has gone away.

And we’re not very efficient at using what we do extract.  According to some studies, more than 90% of materials extracted to make durable goods in the U.S. become waste almost immediately.  (And only about 5% of the raw materials involved in the process of making and delivering a product end up in the product.)

It just occurred to me that McDonough and Braungart’s use of the Titanic as a metaphor for our industrial infrastructure may been appropriate in another way.  Did the Titanic sink itself?  No, it hit an iceberg, 90% of which lies below water.  In other words, the waste and trash we see, the 10%, is just the tip of the wasteberg.

McDonough and Braungart note that “built-in obsolescence” is part of the design of many products.  In fact, reflecting on this, I realized that the selling point of some products is their disposability.  That is to say, our desire for convenience has been an important part in developing the linear cradle-to-grave model.  I believe this also drives our approach to many diseases.

Rather than deal with a problem at the source, we look for a silver bullet, or a magic pill of some kind, to get us out of situations.  In some ways, this brings to mind Aron’s discussion of the role of Highly Sensitive Persons in society.  She notes that immigrant societies like those of the U.S., Canada, and Australia tend to value sensitivity (awareness) less than more mature societies.

So we charge blindly forward, expecting to be able to figure out some creative way to get ourselves out of any situation we find ourselves in.  (This is reinforced by the TV shows we watch, where many problems are solved in 30 to 60 minutes.)

In the short term, it’s easier to deal with things after the fact.  Responding comes naturally to us.  To be fair, we need to be able to respond appropriately to all sorts of different situations.  We can’t prepare for every contingency.

But when we’ve gotten to the point where business as usual is slowly killing the planet we should realize that we need to rethink the way we make things.  For example, in a recently published review of the scientific literature on plastics and health risk [1] (press release), Prof. Rolf Halden points out that the 300 million tons of plastics  produced would fill a series of train cars encircling the globe. He notes: “We’re doomed to live with yesterday’s plastic pollution and we are exacerbating the situation with each day of unchanged behavior.”

There is also a growing consensus that plastics and their additives are not always the benign companions we once assumed them to be.  Bisphenol A and phthalates, used in the production of many plastics, are thought to present risks to human health.

In addition, for many years, scientists assumed that polymers like plastics would not be much of a problem in terms of chemical effects.  However, it was discovered that chemicals associated with the production of such polymers such as Teflon® are accumulating in people’s bodies.   So-called perfluorochemicals were listed in the CDC National Exposure Report for the first time.

Future post – More reasons why the old industrial infrastructure’s approach has gotten us where we are.

*********
Halden, R.  “Plastics and Health Risks,” Annual Review of Public Health, Vol. 31: 179-194 (March 2010) – Abstract | Full Text | PDF (183 KB) – full text costs $)

March 13, 2010

“Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.” (Cradle to Cradle, part 2)

Continuation of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Part 1), book by McDonough and Braungart.

One of the themes of Cradle to Cradle is that in nature there is no such thing is waste.  In their words,”Waste equals food.”  They note that ecosystems truly recycle materials.  (They seem particularly fond of cherry trees and ant colonies as examples of how nature operates.)

In contrast, what society calls recycling, they call “downcycling” since in almost all cases, the “new” product recreated from the old is of lower quality each pass through the recycling stream.

In Chapter One, “A Question of Design,” McDonough & Braungart describe the use the example of the Titanic as a symbol of how we perceive technology and how it is a metaphor for the industrial infrastructure on which our society is built.

In what I found an intriguing perspective on the Industrial Revolution and the infrastructure produced by it, McDonough & Braungart ask you as the reader to imagine being given the assignment of retrospectively designing the Industrial Revolution—with the following requirements for the system:

That it:

  • put billions of pounds of toxic material into the air, water, and soil every year
  • produce some materials so dangerous they will require constant vigilance by future generations
  • result in gigantic amounts of waste
  • put valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can never be retrieved
  • require thousands of complex regulations—not to keep people and natural systems safe, but rather to keep them from being poisoned too quickly
  • measure productivity by how few people are working
  • create prosperity by digging up or cutting down natural resources and then burying or burning them
  • erode the diversity of species and cultural practices

Intentional or not, that’s what we’re doing.  Not wanting this to be taken out of context, I should note that McDonough and Braungart do discuss how this whole system developed.  I’ll cover that in the next part.  (Wow, I’ve managed to get through the first two pages of Chapter One.  ;-)  )

Links to these posts, as well as posts from other blogs, will be added to the Cradle to Cradle page.

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