Cradle To Cradle  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The Guardian has an article by comedian Robert Newman on the topic "It's capitalism or a habitable planet - you can't have both" which makes the case that dealing with peak oil and global warming is impossible in a capitalist society.

Much discussion of energy, with never a word about power, leads to the fallacy of a low-impact, green capitalism somehow put at the service of environmentalism. In reality, power concentrates around wealth. Private ownership of trade and industry means that the decisive political force in the world is private power. The corporation will outflank every puny law and regulation that seeks to constrain its profitability. It therefore stands in the way of the functioning democracy needed to tackle climate change. Only by breaking up corporate power and bringing it under social control will we be able to overcome the global environmental crisis. ...

If we are all still in denial about the radical changes coming - and all of us still are - there are sound geological reasons for our denial. We have lived in an era of cheap, abundant energy. There never has and never will again be consumption like we have known. The petroleum interval, this one-off historical blip, this freakish bonanza, has led us to believe that the impossible is possible, that people in northern industrial cities can have suntans in winter and eat apples in summer. But much as the petroleum bubble has got us out of the habit of accepting the existence of zero-sum physical realities, it's wise to remember that they never went away. You can either have capitalism or a habitable planet. One or the other, not both.

I tend to think blaming capitalism (and even continuous economic growth) for the state of the environment is a little misguided and is somewhat beside the point when it comes to the mitigation of peak oil and global warming (plus I've yet to see a meaningful alternative proposed - its not like the communist model was any better at avoiding environmental destruction, other than it generally didn't grow as fast - but it compensated for that "positive" by being less able to adapt once the consequences of various rapid industrialisation programs became apparent).

There is a fairly simple solution to the problems of global warming and peak oil that doesn't involve discarding capitalism entirely - introducing carbon taxes and steadily increasing them.

It is true (and unfortunate) that fossil fuel related industries do currently dominate the political systems in the anglo saxon world, which is largely the cause of our refusal to do anything about global warming or peak oil, and that this does tend to make the process of introducing carbon taxes a bit difficult. Its worth reading Joel Bakan's "The Corporation" to get some ideas about how the system could be adjusted in order to stop this sort of thing happening.

However, these industries aren't the only ones that exist in capitalist societies and at some point all the other industries are going to realise that their profits and ability to survive are being compromised by the effects of global warming and ever increasing energy costs as a result of peak oil. So we can probably expect to see some sort of shift as these problems become obvious to everyone, with political parties that propose dealing with the problems getting more funding from those who don't have an interest in continuing the fossil fuel economy.

The Viridian idea is that you can have capitalism and a sustainable, workable world at the same time - it just requires a restructuring of the way things are done.

Part of this is basically marketing (if you make green / sustainable ideas and products "cool" then the market will shift towards providing them) and partly by adopting processes like the ones described in Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart's book "Cradle to Cradle".

I won't try to describe the whole book (click on the link and read their description) but in summary the book describes a second iteration of the industrial revolution that concentrates on "eco-effectiveness" rather than the traditional industrial system of converting natural resources into waste, or slightly greener ideas of "eco-efficiency", which slow down the process but basically just try to reduce the amount of damage rather than rethinking the process.

Eco-effectiveness involves creating prodcuts in such a way that they can be fully recycled once they are no longer required (and this means recycled into the same quality of product, not "downcycled" like paper waste is for example). The book discusses closed cycles for "biological and technical nutrients" - keeping organic materials that can be returned to the natural environment seperate from synthetic or mineral materials that can be fed back into the industrial cycle.

This involves a lot of changes to the design process in particular but results in an industrial economy which is no longer as subject to the limits to growth, as it tends to be able to reuse a lot of the materials it needs.

Of course, this doesn't apply in the case of non-recyclable resources, such as oil. There is a section that talks about energy called "Brute force" which I'll quote below:
If the first Industrial Revolution had a motto, we like to joke, it would be "If rute force doesn't work, you're not using enough of it". The attempt to impose universal design solutions on an infinite number of local conditions and customs is one manifestation of this principle and its underlying assumption, that nature should be overwhelmed; so is the application of the chemical brute force and fossil fuel energy necessary to make such solutions "fit".

All of nature's industry relies on energy from the sun, which can be viewed as a form of current, constantly renewing income. Humans, by contrast, extract and burn fossil fuels such as coal and petrochemicals that have been deposited deep below the Earth's surface, supplementing them with energy produced through waste incineration processes and nuclear reactors that create additional problems. They do this with little or no attention to harnessing local natural energy flows. The standard operating instruction seems to be "If too hot or too cold, just add more fossil fuels".

You are probably familiar with the threat of global warming brought about by the buildup of heat-trapping gases (such as carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere due to human activities. Increasing global temperatures result in global climate change and shifts of existing climates. Most models predict more severe wqeather: hotter hots, colder colds, and more intense storms, as global thermal contrasts grow more extreme. A warmer atmosphere draws more water from oceans, resulting in bigger, wetter, more frequent storms, rises in sea level, shifts in seasons, and a chain of other climatic events.

The reality of global warming has gained currency not only among environmentalists but among industry leaders. But global warming is not the sole reason to rethink our reliance on the "brute force" approach to energy. Incinerating fossil fuels contributes particulates - microscopic particles of soot - to the environment, where they are known to cause respiratory and other health problems. Regulations for airborne pollutants known to threaten health are growing more severe. As new regulations, based on mounting research about the health threats of airborne toxins resulting from incinerating fossil fuels, are implemented, industries invested solely in continuing the current system will be at a serious disadvantage.

Even beyond these important issues, brute force energy doesn't make good sense as a dominant strategy over the long term. You wouldn't want to depend on savings for all your daily expenditures, so why rely on savings to meet all of humanity's energy needs ? Clearly, over the years petrochemicals will become harder (and more expensive) to get, and drilling in pristine places for a few million more drums of oil isn't going to solve that problem.

In a sense, finite sources of energy, such as petrochemicals derived from fossil fuels, can be seen as a nest egg, something to be preserved for emergencies, then used sparingly - in certain medical situations, for example. For the majority of our simple energy needs, humans should be accruing a great deal of current solar income, of which there is plenty: thousands of times the amount of energy needed to fuel human activities hits the surface of the planet every day in the form of sunlight.

One novel aspect of the book is that is made using a special type of plastic - this is described on the book's website:
In addition to describing the hopeful, nature-inspired design principles that are making industry both prosperous and sustainable, the book itself is a physical symbol of the changes to come. It is printed on a synthetic 'paper,' made from plastic resins and inorganic fillers, designed to look and feel like top quality paper while also being waterproof and rugged. And the book can be easily recycled in localities with systems to collect polypropylene, like that in yogurt containers. This 'treeless' book points the way toward the day when synthetic books, like many other products, can be used, recycled, and used again without losing any material quality—in cradle-to-cradle cycles.

As a result of this approach, the book is a little unusual - it looks and feels great, but is heavier than it looks. The plastic pages themselves feel a little different to paper but on the whole its a high quality look and feel.

The common (or garden) paperback book has a number of natural enemies in the wild, such as the sun (which can make books discolour or curl up), water (by and large very destructive), small children (which tend to chew on the corners, bend the covers and rip out pages) and your more extreme type of conservative individual (who may want to ban or burn the book).

Once I finished reading it I decided to see how well it stood up to some of these tests of endurance. As I don't tend to hang out with book burners (and I doubt it would survive that sort of treatment), the book avoided trial by fire. However I did give it to a small child, who has a bad track record when it comes to book destruction, and the book survived completely unscathed, in spite of repeated tests.

The sun wasn't quite as easily dealt with, with the front cover curling a bit after some exposure. The book did handle water well though - I took it into the ocean for a while and made sure it got thoroughly soaked. The plastic pages really don't absorb water - though they did get a bit salty and sandy, and I eventually had to wipe each page individually to get rid off all the excess moisture and grit. Once this was done the book was as good as new again. I'm not quite sure if it can actually be recycled into another book and I think I'd prefer to keep it on my bookshelf for now in any case.

6 comments

You mean the Grauniad made the claim that capitalism is incompatible with a good environment.  That's different from making the case.  The experience of Soviet Bloc residents through 1989, and Chinese today, says otherwise.

Hmmm - well - I think if you read the whole post I say much the same thing.

But if you're just quibbling over my choice of word then fair enough - maybe "case" is too strong - though I wasn't using it as a word that indicates he was correct...

You're right, my bad.  I hadn't had time to read the whole thing and see that you'd already addressed that.

Then again, you do tend to use lots of loooong quotes. ;-)

Yes - I'm guilty of some long quotes - I figure it saves people clicking on links if they are feeling lazy.

Plus some articles disappear so its hard top tell what caught my eye without a quote.

And lastly it adds extra food for Google to decide when to send searchers by way...

The thing that is absolute incompatible with the environment is GROWTH. Our form of capitalism is based on unending exponential growth. Thus they are incompatible. A market system (where people trade goods and services) is different from capitalism as we know it. I believe there is a rock-solid case that capitalism as it exists today and a habitable planet cannot coexist (but I'm not going to make that case right here).

Thanks for the comment Pat, but I'm not sure (even at the risk of being branded a heretic by the PO world) that I even agree that ever increasing growth is impossible.

We certainly can't continue exponential growth of resources which are finite, particularly those which are non-renewable, such as oil.

And we certainly can't continue exponential growth of population.

But we can have exponential growth of the economy.

How ? Well - not by continuing bussiness as usual, thats for sure.

But if our industrial systems are designed to function in a "cradle to cradle" fashion, then we can keep recycling materials through a variety of different (and hopefully ever higher value) products, which lets us avoid many of the limits to growth.

You should also consider growth in services (particularly ones delivered virtually) that don't require any resource consumption. While some commentators think a service based economy is a bubble waiting to burst, maybe if you have closed loop industrial cycles providing the physical basis of the economy, then you can build the rest of it entirely on services...

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