There is no doubt that we need to transform our entire consumer process. The question is: How? Most of the focus is on simple reductions in the amount of consumption, but folks like Michael Braungart of Cradle to Cradle fame are imagining a different path.
There are many ways to look at this issue but the first step is understanding the scale of problem we are dealing with. The environmental impact of our consumption is staggering, but rather than bury you in the raw data on our depletion of global resources and our poisoning of the planetary ecosystem, I will simply point to some of Chris Jordan’s photographs- among the most effective means of communicating the terrifying scale of our impact that I have seen anywhere. I’ve posted these before on this blog, and if you have visited the offices of Urban Green you’ll see some of these hanging on the walls.
Again- the above looks like colored pixels but is actually a composite of 38,000 shipping containers- the number that move through U.S. ports every 12 hours.
It’s clear, I think, just from looking at these images that something has to give. The planet simply can’t produce enough precious metals, fossil fuels, wood pulp and other raw materials to sustain this wild orgy of consumption. If the photographs aren’t compelling I recommend you spend a few minutes with Annie Leonard’s short movie, The Story of Stuff.
So what do we do? Those of us that care about this subject spend most of our time getting people to use less- a simple message of conservation. It’s a natural response to the problem of over-consumption- but maybe there’s another way to frame the problem. As William McDonough (co-author of Cradle to Cradle) has said, being “more efficient” with resources is like a driver whose destination is Mexico finding that he is heading north toward Canada and responding by driving slower. You haven’t really corrected the fundamental problem. You need to turn the car around, 180 degrees.
In terms of our material cycle this would mean rethinking what we mean by “resources” instead of simply displacing a small percentage of raw materials with down-cycled product waste. (The classic example here is turning copy paper into newsprint and newsprint into cardboard and . . . . cardboard into landfill waste. You’ve spared using raw wood pulp twice, which is great, but that is all.) In nature, these questions have been answered. Millions of years of evolution has produced almost perfectly balanced ecosystems in which all waste is essentially food for the rest of the system. A tree falls in the forest. Whether anyone hears it or not, it is now food. The tree is not sent to a landfill. It is not shredded into 10,000 tiny pieces and distributed around the globe so that it is unrecoverable as a nutrient.
Along these lines, Michael Braungart has an article on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation website encouraging us to treat CO2 emissions, that bogeyman of global warming, as a valuable resource. Now, the message from Braungart isn’t that we shouldn’t be trying to curtail our CO2 emissions- but that in the absence of federal and global leadership in this arena there is no reason we shouldn’t be finding ways to encourage industry to use those emissions. And there are uses for CO2. Examples Braungart provides include industrial greenhouse agriculture that introduces huge quantities of CO2 as a nutrient for plants, and similar applications of CO2 to support the growth of algae for biofuels. As our political system remains ineffective in the face of such a complicated set of problems, reorienting our thinking along the lines promoted by McDonough and Braungart might be just what is required.