Tag Archives: consumption

We Need to Dispose of the Word Disposable

I’ve often written here [1, 2, 3, 4] about how word choices can affect how we see things. Problematic connotations can sometimes arise by stigma and sometimes by subtle associations. A classic environmental example is how we refer to global warming. In the 90s, the Republican strategist Frank Luntz encouraged rebranding it as climate change because it seemed less frightening and would therefore make it less of an issue. (The irony is that it’s actually a more accurate term. But because it minimizes perception of the problem, as Luntz desired, many of us prefer to call it something more emphatic like climate disruption.)

In a similar vein, years ago, before the advent of LED lights, when improved fluorescent lights were the most energy-efficient technology, I wrote in a guest column in a lighting industry magazine that the word “fluorescent” had too many negative associations with its older, uglier versions. So, to get people to come around to the newer, more pleasing fluorescent bulbs, I wrote that they needed to be renamed.

The impetus for this current thought about words that can have misleading connotations occurred as I was sitting in a waiting room that had a coffee station. In need of caffeine – I had forgotten my coffee travel mug – I grabbed a cup. As I finished making my fix, I looked at the counter and saw the disposable Styrofoam cup, the disposable “K-cup” coffee pod and the tiny – you guessed it, disposable – milk container. My “garbage guilt” set in.

Those little ketchup squeeze tubes are another pet peeve. My order of fries inevitable needs a half dozen or more of them. They make a messy pile of garbage that can be neither recycled or composted. Plus they get all over your hands. They’re a rare example of something both disposable and inconvenient.

The litter atop that coffee station caused me to ponder the word “disposable.” For many people, disposability connotes convenience (finger-coating Ketchup pouches aside). You don’t have to bring stuff – containers, utensils, plastic bags – with you and you don’t have to worry about cleaning or taking care of them. Just toss it. No problem. Disposability is seen as a positive thing, reinforced by the “able” suffix.

The word makes the use of disposable things and the resulting garbage seem OK. They’re meant to be guiltlessly thrown away because that’s how they’re designed and perceived.

When I advocated for renaming fluorescent bulbs, I couldn’t come up with a replacement term. I’d like to do better here, especially as single-use plastics are being increasingly recognized as a major problem. (The issue is being addressed in part by bans and fees – see my “Status of Plastic Bans” list – but even then, there’s pushback by both users and producers.)

So, how can we retitle disposability? My first thought was an obvious one. Just call it what it is: “landfill.” But that doesn’t work as an adjective in front of “cups” or “bags” (or with the current fixation on straws).

Next, I attempted to channel Stephen Colbert’s coining of “truthiness” with “disposiness.” But I’m not as clever as Colbert and it didn’t feel like it solved the problem.  There was, though, some, er, truth to it as the garbage never really gets disposed of. It’s still here, just relocated. When we throw things away, there is, as Bill McDonough is fond of saying, no “away.”

I’ve concluded that our new term needs to have that suffix “able” in it, but with a prefix that drives the point home. Garbagable? Trashable? Wastable? They still imply, though, that because something has the ability to be thrown out – e.g. it’s trashable – it’s OK. The word needs to communicate that single-use stuff that doesn’t decompose or effectively recycle is NOT okay. It’s wasteful and it’s a problem so it needs to be discouraged. But I don’t usually advocate for guilting people into environmental action. That’s been repeatedly shown to not work. Better to play upon self-interest and desire. “Wasteful” (I rejected “wastable” even though I like creating new words) heads in the right direction – who wants to be wasteful? – but still doesn’t quite get us there.

We need to somehow say you really don’t want to do this. Not an admonishment that you shouldn’t do it.  And it needs to be “sticky,” meaning the word will attach itself to the item the way disposable does.

I’m reluctantly left for the moment with “garbagy.” But it still doesn’t fully meet my criteria. Plus, the English language being what it is, you wouldn’t be sure how to spell or pronounce it.

Maybe I should ask Colbert.

Wrongest Product Awards nominee

It’s been quite a while since we posted a Wrongest Product Award nomination. Our self-appointed mission to publish positive environmental news has, since you-know-when, become both more important and more difficult, and has pushed the nomination of award recipients to the back burner. But, still, or perhaps even more so, we all need some diversions.

And so a recent – not tongue-in-cheek, I should note – post in Gizmodo (a blog that serves up a surprising amount of environmental news) prompted this new nomination.

In our hyper-partisan world, many of us have felt the need to sharpen our knives. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. But sharp knives – the real kind, not merely for verbal jousting – can, obviously,  be dangerous to users. That must be the impetus for this product: the JosephJoseph 8515 Blade Brush Knife and Cutlery Cleaner Brush. (Yes, it has “Joseph” and “brush” twice in its name. Just to make sure, I guess.)

As I see it, this falls in the same category as egg slicers and bagel slicers. You can do the same job perfectly well without accessory gadgets. (Is an accessory gadget akin to an accessory to a crime?) I slide a sponge – or a rag if you’re being more eco – along the knife with the edge pointed away and my fingers safely away from the edge. No problem.

On the flip side, I have to mention that, for reasons I still haven’t quite figured out, we were recently given a hand-me-down hamburger patty maker and, yes, it actually does do a better job than my two cupped hands can. Maybe it’s significant that the people who gave it to us also have a bagel slicer.


The
Wrongest Product Awards will go to those products (and their designers) that embody the least amount of redeeming value while incurring the use of unnecessary, often gratuitous, materials or energy.

How is this relevant to EcoOptimism, you might ask? Easy – it shows how extraneous so many products are, often in a “what-were-they-thinking” sense.

Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at) EcoOptimism.com.

Plastics: A Combined Distillery and EcoOptimism Post, Part 2

Beyond the Ban:
Plastics Alternatives and Mitigation

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.


In just the short span since our recent post on the scourge of plastics, there have been more announcements of new or proposed bans on plastic straws and other types of plastics. (This week, Starbucks announced it will stop using plastic straws.) Rather than keep enumerating these individually, I’ve created a page, “Keeping Tabs on Plastics Bans,” with a list organized by type of entity – country, locality, company –  and type of plastics – bags, straws, packaging, microbeads. The list provides an easily graspable view of the extent of the movement, and will be updated as additional bans are set.

 

As promised in that previous post, we’re going to focus here a bit on some alternative proposals and materials. Dealing with plastics – as with most environmental issues – can be broken down into two approaches: what to do once the problem is happening versus how to prevent the problem in the first place. These are commonly referred to respectively as adaptation versus mitigation. Years ago, I also heard this described as “front of tailpipe” and “back of tailpipe,” the metaphor being pollution from cars, which can be dealt with either by filtering it in the exhaust pipe (that would be the “end of tailpipe”) by, for example, a catalytic converter, or by modifying the engine so that the pollution is prevented or at least diminished before it occurs. As you can imagine, heading off the problem is preferable to fixing it afterward.

In the case of plastics, we have a combination of damage already done along with a continuing stream of new plastics adding to the damage. Where plastic refuse has accumulated, such as in ocean gyres, the only remedy is to somehow, laboriously, retrieve it. Another adaptive after-the-fact approach is recycling. That at least keeps it out of the waste stream. (In theory, anyway. Less than 10% of plastic in the US is actually recycled. And, as others have noted, recycling shifts the responsibility – environmental and economic – from the actual producers of the plastic onto us, the consumers)

Image: Ocean Cleanup Project via EcoWatch

EcoOptimism’s take: Whether this type of ocean plastic reclamation would actually have a significant impact, given the scale of the problem and size of the oceans, is a topic of debate. But in any case, upstream prevention would be a much better solution, at least in terms of addressing a continuing problem.

The better solution would have been to not produce the plastic in the first place. We’re well beyond that option, obviously. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to avoid further exacerbating the problem through mitigation, meaning let’s not make more plastic if we can avoid it.

Plastic is so ubiquitous at this point that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. But there are indeed alternatives, both mitigative and adaptative.

Some of those solutions exist right in front of us, or at least in other places we can adapt from. A well-known one in some environmental circles is the Indian tiffin box. The tiffin involves a system in which lunches for workers and school children are packed at home in the morning and then distributed through a remarkable system by dabbawalas. The relevant idea here is that the home prepared meals arrive in tiffin boxes made of stacked metal dishes rather than disposable take out containers and, after the meal, are picked up and returned to each family’s kitchen for reuse.

Two dabbawalas in Mumbai delivering meals packed in tiffin carriers. Image credit: Wikipedia

This system has found a modern interpretation in Brussels where the city has introduced the Tiffin Project. People sign up for the project, purchase tiffin containers and bring them when they purchase take out foods. They even get a 5% discount on their orders.

From Treehugger
April 13, 2018

“Brussels has an ingenious solution to wasteful takeout containers”

EcoOptimism’s take: as optimistic as we like to be, it’s hard to imagine such a system succeeding here. As the Treehugger post notes, the system works best with small, local restaurants and “helps people discover new places to eat.” Takeout food in much of this country tends to come from large chains with familiar menus.

Tiffin boxes, if not the delivery system, have found their way west. You can even buy them on Amazon and elsewhere, with a Western interpretation:

A better-known example of a plastic substitute is, of course, the reusable cloth bag. They’ve become so ubiquitous that you’ll find them for sale (branded, of course) in all kinds of stores – not just the eco-oriented ones like Whole Foods, but conventional stores, too. And they’re an almost inevitable part of events. We have a (reusable) bag full of reusable bags that we’ve accumulated from fundraisers, trade shows and promotions. Too many, in fact.

Image credit: David Bergman

But there are times when a cloth bag just won’t cut it. For those, there are forms of plastic that are not made from oil and that can decompose after use.

The first plastics invented were made from plants. (The word cellophane refers to the fact that it was made of cellulose: plant fiber.) A famous photo shows Henry Ford swinging an axe against the bioplastic trunk of a Model T to show the material’s strength. (The axe was actually covered with fabric but made for an impressive display nonetheless.) As the story goes, he wanted to make his cars with bioplastic, but the steel industry had other ideas about that.

Image from HemmingsDaily

Bioplastics are getting renewed interest for applications such as plastic utensils made from potato starch. The main caveats here are how well they decompose or recycle and that the plant starches not be taken from foods. The solution to the latter is to use crop byproducts such as wheat chaff as opposed to the grain.

Image credit: www.ecoproducts.com

EcoOptimism’s take: In addition to the points above, bioplastics, for now, are not quite as versatile as synthetic plastics, but applications are broadening and have wide potential. 

But there’s now a renewed interest in bioplastics. A case in point:

From Engadget:
March 2, 2018

“Lego will soon make bricks out of sugarcane bioplastics”

EcoOptimism’s take: While it’s exciting to think that all those future Lego creations might not end up buried forever in landfills, this announcement is a bit misleading because, for now, it’s only Lego’s landscape elements, comprising about 1% – 2% of their production, not the iconic bricks.

But it’s not likely that all synthetic plastics can be substituted with bioplastics. And that leads us to a back-of-tailpipe types of mitigation. Among them are technologies that break down plastics.

From The Guardian:
April 16, 2018

“Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles”

Credit: Still image from video in The Guardian

From Grist:
March 2, 2018

“Mealworms munch on Styrofoam without dying, shock scientists”

Image credit: Geek.com

EcoOptimism’s take: In our Parsons School of Design Sustainable Systems course, we have the students try this out. Though they tend to be grossed out by the mealworms (see photo above!), they get to see that it actually works.

Still, these last two are after-the-fact approaches and, not to belabor the point, we’d be much better off not incurring the problem of more plastics on the first place.

Plastics: A Combined Distillery and EcoOptimism post

I’ve been meaning to do a Distillery post on plastics for a while but, like plastics, the news has been accumulating faster than I can keep up with….

They barely existed until Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite in 1907. In the 60s, they were the future, at least according to the advice Dustin Hoffman was given in The Graduate. Now, of course they’re everywhere. Literally. This thoroughly unnatural human-made detritus has been found in the deepest trench in the ocean.

Plastics are no longer the future. But they’re definitely the past in the sense that all the petroleum-based plastic ever made is still here. And will be for a very long time since they break down excruciatingly slowly.

What’s so insidious about plastic is that it’s in virtually everything. So much so that we don’t even notice it anymore. And it’s perhaps the egregious example of take, make and waste, especially since we tend to use plastic – which essentially lasts forever – for things have only a fleeting life of usage. Consider take out containers. The food goes in and gets consumed, often in a matter of minutes, but then the plastic container may end up in a landfill for hundreds of years or more. Or it may end up in ocean garbage patches of unfathomable size, killing fish and animals that mistake it for food.

The newest topic in plastics is straws. They weren’t on anyone’s radar until now. Among all the other things around us made of plastic, they seem insignificant. But it turns out they aren’t and it just takes some simple visualization to get it.

We could say something like “if you put every straw end on end it would circle the Earth a million times.”  Never mind the actual number; it’s too abstract. Like the national debt, it’s so big that we can’t grasp it. It’s unrelatable. But make it something we can see, and everything changes.

But the Distillery and this blog are about positive “EcoOptimistic” news and topics. And on the topic of plastics, amidst all the bad news – indeed because of it, which qualifies it as “good news disguised as bad news” – there’s been a strong, almost startling, movement by governments and companies to address this scourge. In Facebook terms, it’s trending. So let’s look at the extent of this overdue but amazing trend.

As evidenced by these posts, the UK seems to be a leader in the movement to eliminate plastics. The “Together We Can” pact involves governments, businesses, local authorities, NGOs and citizens and is described as “is the only way to truly transform the UK’s plastics system.”

From EcoWatch
April 26, 2018

“More Than 40 Companies Sign Onto Historic UK Plastics Pact”

From Treehugger.com
April 19, 2018

“UK could ban single-use plastics as early as next year”

From EcoWatch
February 12, 2018

“The Queen Declares War on Plastic”

That last one also touches on one of the topics “du jour” in plastics, straws, as do the following posts. The first is, again, from England, but the second is from Taiwan and the third lists a number of American cities.

From Treehugger.com
February 27, 2018

“Is the UK about to ban plastic straws?”

From EcoWatch
February 15, 2018

“Taiwan Sets Aggressive Timeline to Ban Straws and Other Single-Use Plastics”

From The New York Times
March 3, 2018

“Bans on Plastic Straws in Restaurants Expand to More Cities”

Grocery store packaging is also one of the biggest culprits:

Source: EcoWatch

From EcoWatch
February 28, 2018

“World’s First Plastic-Free Supermarket Aisle Debuts in the Netherlands”

From CNN
February 28, 2018

“World’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle debuts as momentum builds to reduce waste”

From The Guardian
January 11, 2018

“Theresa May proposes plastic-free supermarket aisles in green strategy”

Amidst this, companies other than supermarkets are getting the message, too. McDonalds is trialing eliminating plastic straws in the UK. There have been many reports about this, but as perhaps a sign of its wide support, here’s one from – get this – Fox News.

From Fox News
March 29, 2018

“McDonald’s working to remove plastic straws from UK restaurants”

McDonalds in the UK, however, is more enlightened than the mother ship here in the US, where the board of directors is fighting a stockholder initiative to get rid of plastic straws.

And then there’s the issue of plastic bags. They, too, have a fleeting useful life, usually less than an hour (unless you reuse them – and the dog-poop excuse doesn’t count). One stat says “Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, nearly 2 million each minute.”

Source: Wikimedia

Plastic bag bans have been instituted in various locations around the world, but of course the US is lagging behind. And also, of course, California led the charge last year by becoming the first state to ban them. An effort to curtail usage in NYC by charging five-cents per bag failed last year, but almost exactly a year later, Governor Cuomo is proposing an outright ban rather than a fee. Washington, DC’s five-cent charge imposed in 2010, it should be noted, is credited with reducing usage by 87%.

From The New York Times
April 23, 2018

“Cuomo Announces Bill to Ban Plastic Bags in New York State”

And the most comprehensive approach yet is from a tiny island it the South Pacific, known for its beaches and coral reefs – now being marred by plastic debris.

From EcoWatch
May 14, 2018

“Vanuatu Soon to Outlaw Plastic Bags, Drinking Straws, Foam Containers”

Upcoming soon in the Distillery: some EcoOptimistic solutions

Fake Growth

(or, The Gross Domestic Product is Gross)

The last time I wrote about the problem with making economic growth a national goal, it was February 2013 and Obama was president. It seems sooo long ago.

EcoOptimism is a bit obsessed with the concept of growth (here and here, as well as the link above) and its misplaced and misleading focus on Gross Domestic Product. It‘s a contender for the most frequent topic here, up there with “win-win-win,” which is the essence of EcoOptimism.

In one of the other posts on this topic, I wrote that a major problem with economists’ and, especially, politicians’ attachment to the supposed necessity of growth – and particularly growth as measured by GDP – is the attractiveness of the word itself. Who can argue with growth? Who can oppose it and survive attack?

So I looked at ways to get around this by using a different word – a word or phrase that sounded as positive and appealing as growth. I mentioned “post-growth” as a phrase that many growth critics favor. I suggested “regrowth.” I brought up a less familiar term, “plenitude,” employed by Juliet Schor in her book by the same title.

But I wasn’t overwhelmed by any of them. I’d written in one of those previous posts: “how [can we] make a counterintuitive idea appealing? Facts and figures we have aplenty. It’s the sound bite we’re missing.”

While reading yet another book that criticizes focusing on conventional economic growth, I started getting worked up about a new way of putting it: “real growth.” Aside from its simplicity, its strength is that it makes conventional growth sound the opposite of real.

But from there, I jumped to thinking about things unreal and, in our current political climate, the word “fake” seemed an obvious synonym. I’ve been, shall we say, annoyed about the co-opting of the phrase “fake news.” It was originally used, back in the beginning of the campaign we wish we could forget, to refer to social media posts that we now know were planted by Russia and had a major influence on the election. But somehow, in an example of brilliant PR, the phrase got adopted by the right wing and by the man I’ve referred to as SCROTUS (so-called ruler of the United States) to malign any news they didn’t like. So, much as I hate that, I have to admire its success.

Which brings me back to growth and, specifically, the potential of “real growth” as its counterpoint. By implication then, conventional growth is not real. It’s FAKE. (Putting it in ungrammatical caps as SCROTUS does somehow makes it more effective.)

So I hereby propose, using all the powers vested in me, this combination of terms: real growth vs fake growth. Can “fake growth” make the point? Can it provide the sound bite in a social media world, where other terms haven’t?

Let the tweets begin.

Take My Computer. Please. (The Case Against Ownership)

I was looking at a photo of an old telephone the other day – one from before cellphones and even before cordless phones. It was a classic Henry Dreyfuss table top phone from the days when Ma Bell – the original AT&T – was the only game in town and, for that matter, the only game in the entire country. The phone model choices back then were only slightly better than Henry Ford’s policy of allowing customers to “have a car painted any color so long as it’s black.” Slightly better because you could, in fact, get this phone in an assortment of colors and in three styles. (Remember the “Princess Phone?”)

Henry Dreyfuss designed telephone, Model 500, 1953. source: Cooper Hewitt https://www.cooperhewitt.org/2014/11/07/model-500-telephone-henry-dreyfuss/

But that’s not my point.

Back then you didn’t buy a phone. When you got a phone number and account for your home, it came with a phone, or maybe a few. They were sturdy things, well-made and designed. They almost never broke and, when they did, all you needed to do was tell the phone company and they would come over and either repair or replace it. At no charge, if I recall correctly.

Our kitchen table phone once stopped working. The repair guy came out to the house, pulled the top off and water came pouring out. One of my little sisters, you see, had decided it was dirty and needed cleaning – by pouring water over it.

That memory may have become slightly embellished over time, but the point is that the telephone guy replaced it. No questions asked. Imagine Apple or Samsung doing that. He just unplugged it. (Actually, I don’t think they were attached by plugs back then. The wires were screwed into the wall jack.) And then just attached a new phone. More likely it was one that had been repaired, but just looked new. It didn’t matter; it worked.

Here’s the real point. Could this old-fashioned system make more sense than ownership? There’s a good case for this from both the consumer and manufacturer points of view, and environmentally as well.

I don’t really want a computer. I want what a computer can do. I don’t really want to own and be responsible for the maintenance of a washer and dryer. I want clean and dry clothes. (Yeah, I know I should use a clothesline instead of a dryer, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.)

I don’t even want a car. I want mobility. And ideally I want to be able to get around with different types of cars for different tasks. Some days a bigger car to carry a lot of stuff and maybe some friends, but on other days it’s just me going a short distance.

I realize my needs are undoubtedly different from someone not living in a city. But as a city dweller, I was overjoyed when Zipcar came to town and I could get rid of the clunker city car I kept for occasional errands and excursions, and whose insurance and maintenance were ridiculously expensive for the little bit of driving I did each month.

This is all part of the “sharing economy.” An old example of this might be a laundromat. A newer example is Zipcar. Newer still is the concept of “tool libraries.” A few years ago, a study found that a cordless drill purchased by a consumer had an average usage time of under 10 minutes. Typically, someone went to a hardware store to buy one, maybe to hang some shelves, and then the drill spent the rest of its life in a closet. Hardly a good use of either money or materials. An answer to this gross inefficiency is being able to go to a tool library and check out a drill (or a circular saw or a tall ladder) for a few days.

Berkeley Tool Lending Library. source: Berkeley Public Library https://www.berkeleypubliclibrary.org/locations/tool-lending-library

You might complain that it’s inconvenient to have to go that library for a ladder. But it’s also inconvenient to go to Lowes or online to Amazon, select which one you want, spend a hunk of money and then store it as dead weight for most of the rest of the time.

On an entirely different level, this is beginning to happen on a commercial scale. There’s even precedent. Back when copiers were big, expensive and prone to breaking down, offices usually didn’t buy them. They rented or leased them from Xerox or a competitor, who frequently charged them by the copy. Maintaining it was Xerox’s problem, not the office’s. (Which was a good thing because they broke down a lot.)

Philips Lighting recently signed with Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to provide “lighting as a service” rather than the more typical method of selling light fixtures and bulbs. For the airport, this means that not only do they not have worry about maintenance, they also will always have state-of-the-art lighting. What’s more they won’t have to worry about how to dispose of it later on.

Therein lies one of the not-so-obvious environmental benefits. Because Philips retains ownership of the lighting, when it comes time to replace it for remodeling or demolition, they will have to deal with its end of life. That means they will need to design that in – how the lighting can be dismantled for least cost recycling or reuse. Previously, when they sold the lighting, they didn’t have to be concerned with the end-of-life. It was someone else’s problem.

Imagine now that this was true for all your electronics – that Dell or Apple or Samsung had to take it back when you were done, and then had to deal with disposal. Suddenly, they’d be concerned with how to design so that products could be easily taken apart. And, by the way, that would also pave the way for easier repairs, which the company would be interested in since repairs and maintenance would be their responsibility.

But how does such a company make money in this arrangement? Yes, they lose the sale, but they gain a stream of income as their customers effectively rent instead of buying. And that stream of income is steadier, more predictable, less susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy.

True to the ideals of EcoOptimism, it’s a win-win-win deal.

Here are some things I’d rather not own, but still want to use:
Cellphones
Computers
Anything else that quickly becomes outdated technology
Anything that requires a lot maintenance.
Cars
Home Appliances
Homes
Formal Attire (I’m lucky to have a hand-me-down tux, but if I didn’t…)

Spied at Parsons School of Design:

Flyer at Parsons School of Design. photo: David Bergman

More Wrongest Product Nominees from Skymall

cat pod

A recent flight home from New Orleans where we attended Greenbuild provided another excuse to plunder Skymall for Wrongest Product Nominations. The winner by unanimous acclamation (that is, my wife and me) was the “Serenity Cat Pod.”

The primary photo on the page was for the people version: The “Serenity Pod Bed.” Looking like something from a low-budget SciFi film, the description boasted “you’ll float away … into a blissful state with calming color changing light, relaxing music and soothing vibration.” (Sort of like our flight. Not.)

Almost the nominee

Almost the nominee

While this alone could qualify as a Wrongest Product, the dog and especially the cat versions take it to another level of wrong. We could, I suppose, be convinced that the cat would appreciate the circadian rhythm benefits of the color changing LEDs, but what really got us about the $1000 pet toy was the question of how the cat would get in and out of it. The trauma of being stuck inside is sure to necessitate years of pet therapy.

Skymall abounds with pet product potential nominees including the heated cat house and the dog umbrella.

Skymall abounds with pet product potential nominees including the heated cat house and the dog umbrella.

The Wrongest Product Awards will go to those products (and their designers) that embody the least amount of redeeming value while incurring the use of unnecessary, often gratuitous, materials or energy.

How is this relevant to EcoOptimism, you might ask? Easy – it shows how extraneous so many products are, often in a “what-were-they-thinking” sense.

Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at) EcoOptimism.com.

Laser Schmaser

laser pizza cutter

I’m picky about pizza. I’ve lived nearly all my life in New York City — home to pizza meccas John’s, 109 year old Lombardi’s, and block long lines in Brooklyn for newcomer di Fara’s – along with hours logged in New Haven, another pizza culinary center. Back here in NY, we not only have a favorite local pizza joint mere blocks away, but know and love Sal, the incredibly colorful only-in-NYC character who owns it.

It was at his place, where the tables are no-nonsense Formica but the eggplant on his slices escapes deep frying, that we taught one of our nieces the right way to eat a slice. I’m waiting for her pizza-off with Donald Trump on The Daily Show.

Folded and forkless (and laserless).

Folded and forkless (and laserless).

 

I try not to get too tied up in traditionalism with my food. I’ve openly accepted the outlier cinnamon raisin bagel as legit. (Hey, even Russ and Daughters sells them.) Blueberry, though, is another story. Similarly, I don’t turn in elitist disgust from most pizza toppings — so long as “most” doesn’t include pineapple.

Nor do I knee-jerk reject modern improvements. I make my knee wait a bit past the initial reflex until my head can tell it what it really should do. (I’m getting to the point. Promise.)

Add to this acceptance and open-mindedness to technology that lasers, are really, really cool. I get off on using my laser “tape” measure, especially as it’s an extremely handy tool when you happen to be an architect. But here’s where things cross the (uncut) line: a Tactical Laser-Guided Pizza Cutter.

Now a tactic is, more or less, a means to achieve something. Since the laser doesn’t actually divide the pizza into equal size pieces, which I could see as a valuable goal in some competitive or jealous families, I’m not sure this device is actually tactical at all. Unless the goal is simply some sort of nerdy coolness.

Alongside this object’s nomination as Wrongest Product nominee, I wonder if a better version might be a Strategic Laser Pizza Cutter. Its mission: to disintegrate by laser any wayward pineapple bits. That I could get behind – although, really, a fork would still do.

The next step? Illustration by Lori Greenberg

The next step?
Illustration by Lori Greenberg/Bergworks

The Wrongest Product Awards will go to those products (and their designers) that embody the least amount of redeeming value while incurring the use of unnecessary, often gratuitous, materials or energy.

How is this relevant to EcoOptimism, you might ask? Easy – it shows how extraneous so many products are, often in a “what-were-they-thinking” sense.

Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at) EcoOptimism.com.

 

Space Missions: the ultimate disposable packaging?

I love the space program, having grown up steeped in it. (Those of you who know me, know it’s “in my blood.”) But it occurs to me on this anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission – and the Blue Marble photo*  that has been credited with increasing our environmental awareness of the Earth’s fragility and loneliness in space – that space missions are an unintentional analogue for our methods of manufacturing and consumption.

*OK, that was really Apollo 17, but Apollo 8 was the first time humans saw the Earth from a distance as an entire sphere.  And the Apollo 17 photo’s anniversary was December 7. Image: NASA via Wikimedia

* The Blue Marble photo was taken during Apollo 17, but Apollo 8 was the first time humans saw the Earth from a distance as an entire sphere. And the Apollo 17 photo’s anniversary was December 7. Image: NASA via Wikimedia

If we focus on the Apollo lunar missions, they started with this:

Image credit: http://www.boeingblogs.com/randy/archives/2009/07/

Image credit: http://www.boeingblogs.com/randy/archives/2009/07/

Mere minutes after launch, the majority of the “stack,” as the Apollo capsule and lander sections combined with the Saturn 5 rocket were called, was ditched into the sea after the stages of the rocket had done their work — a lot like the packaging that many of our products arrive in: used briefly and thrown out after shipping is complete.

Saturn 5 First Stage separation. Image: Wikimedia.

The three stages of the Saturn 5 were jettisoned after each did its job in lifting the Apollo spacecraft into orbit. Image: Wikimedia

The Apollo components of the stack were encased in a protective housing for launch. Inside it were the Command Module, the Service Module and the Lunar Module. Think of it as that little packet of critical parts that comes inside the Ikea package.

Image: Wikipedia

The housing was left in Earth orbit and the modules rearranged for transit to the Moon.

Image credit: http://www.joecodegood.net/blogs/?p=49

Upon arriving in Lunar orbit, they separated again and the Lunar Module descended to the Moon. To return to the Command Module (which remained in orbit with one astronaut aboard), the Lunar Module Ascent Stage blasted off from its landing base Descent Stage. The base remained on the moon as, essentially, discarded waste. (I’m imagining a Moon alien with a tear running down one – his only? – eye.)

Lunar liftoff. Image credit: Wikimedia

Lunar liftoff. Image credit: Wikimedia

The Ascent Stage, meanwhile, was abandoned after the two astronauts transferred back to the Command Module. (Except in the case of Apollo 13, where it served as the survival craft.) Lunar Modules were then either sent into solar orbit or crashed into the Moon, and only the Command and Service Modules remained for the transit back to the Earth.

Finally, when the crew prepared to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, the Service Module was jettisoned and all that remained and returned to the Earth was the tiny Command Module.

Base diagram credit: http://www.hq.nasa.gov

Base diagram credit: http://www.hq.nasa.gov

If you want to look at this in an even more extreme sense, you could think of the whole thing, from the Saturn 5 booster stages down to and including the Command Module, as packaging for the round trip of three people to the Moon and back. Almost makes you see that UPS package, the one that contained a single Christmas tree ornament within a gallon of foam peanuts in a shroud of cardboard bound together with plastic packing tape, as efficient.

The final frontier of garbage. A depiction of debris in low Earth orbit by NASA

The final frontier of garbage. A depiction by NASA of debris in low Earth orbit

More relevant to my somewhat dramatic point, though, is the comparison to our modern industrial manufacturing methods combined with our often non-essential consumption of short-lived products: the processes by which raw materials are crudely excavated out of the Earth, then subjected to “heating, beating and treating” involving energy and more materials to transform them into a product that may be used for only a brief period before being discarded itself.

The difference — because I don’t want to equate the Apollo program with a disposable razor blade — is that the space program yielded immense amounts of knowledge while embodying the optimistic nature of humanity. The products in our landfills and in the recesses of our closets and garages, and the industrial waste created along the way, do neither. They may seem optimistic in their moment of purchase – that brief sense of happiness and fulfillment we get from, say, that new cellphone, before it becomes old hat and we want a newer one – but they aren’t actually optimistic, let alone EcoOptimistic, in their legacy.

If Overpopulation Isn’t the Problem, What’s the Question?

Overpopulation in the future? (image from Star Trek)

Overpopulation in the future? (Image from Star Trek)

In a commercial for Doritos some years back, the consumption-encouraging slogan was “Eat all you want; we’ll make more.”* That guilt free line, with some minor alteration up front, could also be the subtitle for Erle C. Ellis’s New York Times Op-Ed “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem.” Basically he says we can have as many people on the planet as we want because we’ll always find ways to make more food.

Sounds like music to the ears of an EcoOptimist, or at least an optimist: evidence that centuries of fears of overpopulation have been wrong and the idea of a “carrying capacity” is irrelevant. Problem is it’s neither correct nor an example of EcoOptimism.

In a previous post, I refuted an EcoPessimist. Now I need to refute a false optimist.

Since the end of the 18th century, when Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, there’s been controversy regarding the concept of “carrying capacity,” or the maximum population that an ecosystem (or the planet as a whole) can support indefinitely. Carrying capacity can refer to any species, but what we’re usually talking about is humanity – how many people the planet can support.

Malthus and his followers concluded that, largely because the Earth is a finite system, there are only so many people who can be fed by its resources. The 1972 book The Limits to Growth expanded upon this and predicted, as population and consumption grew, we’d run out of other necessary resources as well as food.

When the estimated dates passed without the shortages and human calamities the authors described, opponents claimed that it proved the concepts of finite resources and carrying capacity were wrong. Economists had an economic explanation – that scarcity would drive up prices which would, in turn, create demand for more expensive or alternative sources. This is, in fact, what is happening with fossil fuels; “unconventional” fuels like tar sands used to be too expensive but now are becoming viable as cheaper sources of oil run out. The problematic assumption here is that there will always be interchangeable alternatives. Some resources are simply not replaceable. Try living without oxygen or water.

Other opponents had a different take. Scientific and technological advances, they said (and still say), will continue to bring us new solutions which will allow us to increase efficiency as well as find alternatives. Natural resources may be finite, but that doesn’t matter because our intelligence will always yield new ways around those limits.

This in short is Ellis’ thesis. “There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity,” he writes.

The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future…. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.

This inherently optimistic and appealing view has, though, a couple of fatal flaws. It is based on a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude that technology will always come to the rescue. While it’s true that human history has largely been one of advances leading to immense growths of population (as well as living standards), it’s a huge leap to assume that, unlike natural resources, our potential to think our way out of problems is limitless. Yes, technology has in the past changed the planet’s carrying capacity for humans (provided, that is, we ignore the long and continuing history of famines and overcrowding). Banking our future on this, however, is a form of blind faith.

But let’s take that leap and suppose that technology will always come to the rescue and provide ways to ever increase the amount of food we can eke out of the planet. Food is not the only limit on human population growth. The technologies that comprise modern industrial food production, and that have allowed us (or perhaps encouraged us) to increase the human population from 1 billion to 7 billion in little more than 2 ½ centuries, demand vast amounts of not just land, but other finite resources, most notably fossil fuels for energy, fertilizers and pesticides, along with fresh water. (Let’s leave the highly debated question of whether organic agriculture can feed us to another post.) Sure we’ve figured out how to make land more productive, but it’s involved adding a lot of additional energy and resources. Plus there are the crucial issues of pollution from the runoff of those fertilizers and pesticides, and soil degradation from intense monocropping.

And then there’s the not-so-small point that Ellis’ entire outlook concerns only human carrying capacity, not the ability of any of the other billions of species on the planet to survive. This isn’t just an altruistic concern; many of those species are essential to the functioning of ecosystems – the same ecosystems that enable human survival. Even in this newly-crowned Anthropocene Age, it’s not just about us. We may have the unique ability to alter the planet, to “transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves,” but that doesn’t mean we have either the right to do so for our sole benefit or the intelligence to do so with enough foresight.

Ellis’s rationale is both hubristic and dangerous. He’s betting that an historic pattern will continue, without acknowledging that the game has changed so the pattern no longer applies. A strong competing view says that the Industrial Revolution and the agricultural revolution that resulted from it were a once-in-a-species-lifetime event, enabled by a world that had a combination of relatively few people and plentiful, easily accessible resources. Neither of those conditions exists anymore and the latter will not happen again in any conceivable human future.

It’s not that we, the anthros of the Antropocene, are powerless. We have the ability to alter both the planet’s path and our own. On that, we agree. Is he advocating, though, that we should continue increasing the human population because, well, we’ll always have the ability to innovate and “make more” so it’ll all work out?

That’s an incredibly huge gamble and, furthermore, begs the question: why should we take it? Even if he’s correct in his wildly unsubstantiated claim that “There is no need to use any more land to sustain humanity — increasing land productivity using existing technologies can boost global supplies and even leave more land for nature,” why would we want to continue to increase the population? What’s the upside? Wouldn’t it be much wiser and more beneficial to not go down that questionable road and, instead, apply our unique innovating abilities to ensuring that future generations can not only exist, but be better off?

Overpopulation may not be the problem, but it certainly is a part of the problem. The famous (in some circles, anyway) equation I=P*A*T states that environmental impact is a function of the population times the amount and types of things people consume. What we have now is a rapidly growing population with a rapidly growing per capita consumption rate. Whether or not the planet’s ecosystems can sustain the exponentially increasing levels of environmental impact we are inflicting on it – and I can’t believe Ellis would say they can – diminishing that impact has to be a good thing. Maybe, maybe we can manage to figure out ways to feed everyone, but what about all the additional demands that accompany a larger and more affluent species.

If we extrapolate from history as Ellis claims we can, it’s obvious that the demand for “stuff,” whether it be basic food and housing or designer jeans and the latest electronic gizmo, is increasing at least as fast as the number of people demanding that stuff. How that can possibly be construed as anything sustainable or “not the problem” is incomprehensible. The two-fold solution involves reducing both consumption and population growth, resulting in a wholly desirable scenario that, as EcoOptimism espouses, leaves us all better off and happier.

As with the Doritos line, Ellis says we’ll just “make more.”  He’s almost certainly wrong — we can’t continue infinitely to make more, no matter how imaginative and innovative we are – but moreover, making more is the wrong response. It’s not the route to “creating a planet that future generations will be proud of.” We need to make better – better things, better food, better education, leading to better people — not more.

* Fact checking this slogan, it appears that it may have been “crunch all you want”, not “eat,” but hordes of people including me remember it as “Go ahead. Eat all you want. We’ll make more.”