Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Elephant-shaped teapot dilemma

The SL is hijacked from something I heard on the radio the other day, and it seems to fit the subject at hand. The other evening Dulcie launched into a tirade about the amount of money people spend on pointless "crap" (as she refers to it) at Christmas. "Why are they doing this?" she rails. When in these moods, Dulcie can become a terrifying figure; grown men have been known to crumple into gibbering ruins before her onslaught. Fortunately I am largely immune, partly because I am not a fully grown man.

Anyway, her tirade brought me round to something I had been thinking about regarding carbon footprints: "virtual" carbon and its significance. If the carbon footprint of America was adjusted for all the carbon that was emitted in the production of the goods purchased by Americans, then it would be colossally higher. Concomitantly, the footprint of China, adjusted for the carbon emissions involved in producing goods for export to America, would be something like 30 % lower.

So, this means that America is even badder than generally thought environmentally wise. But wait, is this really fair? I mean, the analysis suggests that somehow the poor Chinese are being exploited by the nasty Americans and being forced to manufacture all that stuff against their will. Surely they derive some benefit from all this manufacturing? Like earning tons of money and becoming a fantastically wealthy nation that has totally transformed itself from the nation of "re-educated" peasants that Maoism had created.

So, I put the point to Dulcie about what would happen if we (collectively the nation, not just us two for we buy no crap) stopped buying stuff. What would all the Chinese do then. Oh, they could just go back to doing what they used to do and be happy she returned cheerfully. I don't think so.

The radio discussion from which I stole the SL was very much along the same lines, though perhaps a little more intellectually profound than ours. The dilemma is one of personal financial responsibility versus the needs of the larger economy. In difficult times it is individually fiscally responsible to leave the elephant-shaped teapot (the crap in Dulcie's more Saxon vernacular) on the store shelf. However, if everyone did the same, the economy would (has) frozen up. In other words, we should all do our bit and buy elephant-shaped teapots by the truck-load. Even better if said teapots were fabrice en U.S.A. Fat chance there though.

In an even bigger picture, the dilemma of the SL is probing the prevailing philosophy of society depending on economic growth. Ultimately, growth and sustainability are on a collision course. To achieve the latter, at some point the former goal must be moderated. We could start by not buying the elephant-shaped teapot.


Anonymous said...

Personally, I do not believe that we humans, given the course that we've been on for at least the last several thousand years, can achieve a sustainable relationship with the environment. I can only hope that we will be able to make our natural resources (in the ground, on the ground, and above the ground) last as long as possible. To that end of making a "livable" world last longer, reducing the demand for "pointless crap" makes enormous sense. However, the definition of "pointless crap" is the linchpin in the argument. Take food, for example. I think it's safe to say that home gardening is no longer a viable option for everyone in the world to feed themselves (although there is certainly room for expansion of community-supported agriculture). Therefore, one is forced to buy or barter for food. But where can (or should) the line be drawn between "necessary" and "pointless" even with respect to something as basic to life as food? Should we avoid resource-intensive beef and focus instead on pulses and grains to make resources last longer? And when we accept that we must buy or barter for food and other goods, whether necessary or pointless, then the very real, and often nightmarish, issues surrounding wealth accumulation and economic sustainability arise locally and globally. What are the definitions of "not enough," "just enough," and "too much," and should they be the same or different around the country and around the world? These are not questions that confront us only at Christmas, as you well know. In this country, they are just blaringly more obvious at this time of year. And there are no easy answers. Even the compromises don't come easy: define "livable" world.


Aylwin Forbes said...

Dear "Anonymous:"

Thank you for your cheery, optimistic outlook for our world, so appropriate for the season I think, as I do my part to consume resources. Though in truth I largely agree with your sentiments. After reading the series of desperately optimistic articles in New Scientist about the future of a growth-less society, I was left with the distinct sense of futility. As some policy wonk revealed in his patronizing response to some green-inspired proposal, "That's all very well but let's talk about something real." or something along those lines, ideas about sustainability are the first to get dumped when hard decisions have to be made.

What you say about food has long troubled me. As quality as the Wholefoods concept is with its grass-fed beef, artisanal cheese, organic white asparagus, line-caught salmon and so on, it is hardly a model for feeding the world at large. It is a plaything for the affluent; and the affluent became that way how...?

We are told that farm-raised salmon is bad because it uses so many sand eels to make the salmon. The wild ones presumably eat the same amount. So let's eat the sand eels instead, and the grass rather than the cows that feed of the grass.

And should we still patronize "fine dining" restaurants? These seem more and more to represent excessive, irresponsible consumption even as they promote themselves as sustainable and socially responsible. Does offering a video of your entree being reeled in on a boat in Alaska really make it more environmental?

It's all very confusing.

Anonymous said...

Central to a consideration of future sustainability (whether economic or environmental) is the way in which humans historically have undervalued resources that are naturally, technologically, or economically difficult, sometimes impossible, to replace or recycle (be it clean water, fertile soil, fossil fuels, wildlife, you name it). If a naturally-occurring resource can be captured initially with relatively little expense of time and/or money, then people will consider it a cheap commodity with low conservation value. Only as a resource becomes increasingly difficult or expensive to obtain or maintain do humans place a higher value on it. But in the eternal quest to keep economic costs low, the response to a dwindling resource is often, for example, either the abandonment of a mine and the development of a new extraction site (with concommitant disruptions to social communities), or the development of a replacement technology; and then the cycle begins anew.

Seldom is a consideration of the probable finite availability of a resource, or the impact of its extraction on the environment, factored into its value and the schemes for its utilization from the outset (e.g., lithium-based batteries, tantalum-based high-dielectric capacitors). Confounding exponentially this problem of how to value resources in a way that promotes sustainability is the "tragedy of the commons"--it factors into almost every resource-utilization issue that arises locally and globally. Once one party decides to promote its own interests over those of its contemporaries (and those of future generations), then efforts aimed at resource conservation or sustainability are seriously compromised. Humans are likely the only species on the planet capable of forecasting multiple scenarios. But our collective-decision-making efforts using this capability seldom result in making resources last longer. Those few efforts that do seem to have a shot at success should be valued, protected, and propagated.

WRT eating lower on the food chain: In principle, it supports resource sustainability. In practice, it can have pitfalls, obviously. Consideration of agricultural and wildlife-harvesting methods is key, but agreement on "acceptable" methods is difficult, and public access to this information wrt foods offered in stores and restaurants is limited. Along with eating lower on the food chain, consuming fewer calories and wasting less in well/over-fed societies are equally important in the quest to make resources last as long as possible. (Among the most efficient users of resources are some rural communities in southeast Asia. They are omnivores (rather than vegetarians or hunter-gatherers), who grow their own crops and manage a few livestock, usually pigs, that are fed scraps and the human-inedible parts of crops and then are infrequently slaughtered for human consumption.)