Tag Archives: consumption

Superfluous Fluids

We’ve had a number of Wrongest Product Award nominations for kitchen concepts: the waffle batter dispenser, the breakfast sandwich maker, a duo of products intended to increase the efficiency of our  banana consumption (here and here), and for the dog owners among us whose canines start slobbering while watching us consume the perfect waffles enabled by our waffle batter dispenser: the pet treat maker.

So it seems only fair that we give bathroom products some equal time.

Those water-proof shower radios dangling off the pipe have always seemed pretty amateur looking, more evocative of soap-on-a-rope than 21st century cloud-stored digitized music. Kohler has the upgrade with their Bluetooth-enabled “Moxie” shower head/speaker. Now you don’t have to interrupt your morning serenade as you make your way from bedroom to bathroom and back. And lest you think this dual-function gizmo is too single-purpose, the speaker can be removed and played anywhere near its wireless source, which you presumably have not dropped in the toilet.

Kohler shower headI guess the sunglasses make sense with the dance moves?

And you really don’t want to do that, because then your smartphone-controlled toilet (also, by the way, equipped with speakers) will revert to a dumb piece of porcelain like the one you grew up with and most of us still have. The “Satis” toilet comes to us from Japan (of course). With its app, you can raise and lower the seat, flush the toilet or control the bidet. But wait, there’s more, and I’m not just referring to the built-in speakers. You can monitor its water and electricity consumption (I guess that makes it “eco”) … and “you can also record your daily bowel movements with the app’s “Toilet Diary,” and provide your doctor with a detailed account of your dirty business.” A steal at $5,686. I think I have john envy.

satis toilet
I think this image says it all.

There are other mashup plumbing inventions we could include here, like the Axor “Waterdream” portable combo light fixture and shower.  Currently still a prototype, Waterdream is intended to bring “bathing into the living room, with all of its emotive, sentimental objects suggestive of home.” It sounds more like a water nightmare to me, especially for the inhabitants of the apartment below it. But maybe it’ll distract Fido from the pet treat maker.

axor shower lightBest reader comment: “Once in a while we see true genius at work.  Minds that take us to creative heights and make us ask “why has it taken so long”. This isn’t one of those times.”

Previous Wrongest Product Award nominations

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.

Countering the EcoPessimist

pessimist

According to New York Magazine and economist Robert Gordon, the good times are over. Forever. In “The Blip,” we learn that the dramatic and unprecedented improvements to our standard of living over the last 250 years or so are a historical aberration. Over the span of the Industrial Revolution, following all of previous human existence in which, relatively speaking, nothing much changed, “human well-being accelerated at a rate that hardly could have been contemplated before.” Plumbing, electricity, medicine, cars, planes, telephones, computers changed almost everything and the result was an era of economic growth that altered civilization to a degree, the article says, we won’t ever see again.

Gordon believes “we can no longer expect to double our standard of living in one generation” as occurred in recent times, and “the rate of improvement [going forward] will be no faster than it was in the dark ages.” The significance of inventions and the resulting growth in productivity cannot possibly continue.

Here at EcoOptimism, I think it’s fair to anoint Gordon the EcoPessimist.

The thing is: Gordon is right. In fact the data already tell us this is happening.  Many have lamented that this is the first time in recent history that current younger generations cannot expect their standard of living to be better than their parents’. Stories of grown unemployed or under-employed children returning to the parents’ empty nests abound, and the inexorable rise of the cost of college education seems set to pave the way for the trend to continue.

Environmental economics predicts this, too: you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet.

But here’s the other thing: Gordon is also wrong and, depending on how we define growth, so is the previous sentence. Actually, it more specifically depends on how we define standard of living and quality of life. As EcoOptimism and many others have noted, the conventional definition has been based on GDP, which is a deeply flawed measure of economic growth and even more deeply flawed as a measure of quality of life. In fact, it was never intended to be used for this purpose (it was developed as a gauge of wartime production in WWII) and it’s been criticized for almost half a century, going back to a speech by Robert F. Kennedy. Once a basic living standard has been reached – in the case of the US, this occurred in the mid-twentieth century — increases in GDP no longer signal increased well-being. In fact, it begins to work in reverse. Indicators show that quality of life in the western world has gone down since then, even while GDP continued to grow.

GDP-GPI

This would seem, at first, to bolster Gordon’s pessimism. Not only is GDP destined to remain low – perhaps zero – but our well-being is diminishing even faster. We’re on the downside of “the blip” and “it would be crazy to expect something on the scale of the … industrial revolution to ever take place again.”

OK, but what if something else could follow? Could we have a different kind of revolution – a Human Revolution – in which inventions, developments and policies focused not on improving production and consumption, but on the human qualities of our lives: our self-development, our relationships, our contributions. In the western world, generally, people are housed and fed and live in relative comfort amid a plethora of material goods. We don’t need bigger houses and cars or more meat or more choices of deodorant and televisions. Instead, we need those “things” or, more accurately, lifestyles that will let us – encourage us – to interact with and enjoy each other and ourselves. Quality time as opposed to productive time.

A core part of achieving this is getting off the “hedonic treadmill,” the cycle of working more to buy more within an economic system that falters if we don’t consume enough. The answer is buying less, at least materially, and instead consuming in ways that truly better our lives. Consuming things that aren’t in fact material things, like entertainment or vacations or continuing education.

So that’s how Gordon can be both right and wrong. We can’t have continued growth, economically or materially, as we’re used to defining it. But that’s not at all the same thing as saying we can’t continue to improve the quality of our lives. (And I’m talking here about people in both the rich and poor parts of the world.)

For material and environmental reasons, we can’t have another industrial revolution. But we also don’t need or want one. Yes, there are still people lacking some very fundamental needs like food, shelter and water, not to mention health and education. But we have smarter ways to provide access to those, without expanding and repeating the mistakes of the sometimes crude ways we here achieved them. We need the next revolution, let’s call it the Human Revolution, in which the quality of our lives, beyond survival and beyond comfort, is addressed. Eudaimonic pleasure versus hedonic pleasure. Flourishing versus sustaining.

Gordon says “we need innovations that are eight times as important as those we had before” in order to maintain a growth rate similar to that of the last couple of centuries. Again, right and wrong. We need innovations that are of a different nature from the material-based inventions we’ve grown to expect, courtesy of Moore’s law, every few years. Those innovations have the potential to alter, to improve, our lives at least as much as indoor plumbing and refrigerators did, but in ways that are less material (that’s a good thing both socially and environmentally) and will supersede and surpass the goals of the American Dream (as if others can’t partake in that dream).

Gordon doesn’t deal much with environmental questions. His bleakness, his EcoPessimism, is based on the not incorrect observation that the Industrial Revolution has probably run its course, and therefore we can never have the same expectations of growth as did the past few generations.  Environmentalists would add that the Industrial Revolution, based as it is on an economy of consumption, can’t continue also because we are running out of materials and fuel and creating a climate that will be unconducive to survival, let alone growth.

These viewpoints are consistent with each other and with the prevailing pessimism that says life in the near future will involve sacrifice, for economic or environmental reasons or both, and a diminishment of our quality of life.

EcoOptimism rejects this and says we can simultaneously and symbiotically solve our economic and ecological problems — AND improve the quality of our lives. One revolution, one era, replaces another.

Holy (grass-fed) Cow, It’s Been a Year

tag cloud2

First anniversary gifts are traditionally supposed to be made of paper. That seems thoroughly inappropriate, though, for celebrating an eco-blog’s one year mark.  Which is, in EcoOptimism’s case, today.

I suppose it might be interesting to look at how much paper would have been used to create, edit and distribute the year’s worth of posts were this a pre-digital age. (68 posts, not counting this one! And, for what it’s worth, the only paper consumed was a handful of in-office recycled pages and a few Post-Its. Electrons sacrificed, though? That’s another thing entirely.)

I think a different kind of tally is more interesting — and more useful as a type of gauge indicating where the focus and direction has been. To do this, I had to go back and set up something that, had I known, I should have been doing from the outset: creating “categories” and “tags” for each post. SEO is not one of my strengths.

Turned out that having to reread each post in order to create the list of categories and tags, and then analyzing the stats on tag usage was a great way to do a bit of a mission check or, in the famous words of the late Mayor Ed Koch, ask “How’m I doin’?”

In the blog-as-book metaphor, categories are sort of like the table of contents. Creating tags, I learned, is somewhat akin to creating an index – something I was spared in my book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, where the publisher thought a glossary would be more useful for readers. (FYI, a glossary is much harder to do, but also much more fun. Creating definitions is a bit like playing God.) Once I’d created the “index” and logged which posts referenced the topic or person, the blog software kindly gave me the stats indicating how many occurrences there were for each entry. The software also provided me with a “tag cloud” – apologies if you already know this stuff – that graphically renders the stats by type size.

So here’s what I learned. I have a tie for the number of posts referencing “win-win-win” and “consumption.” That first one is a decent indicator that I’ve been pretty good about staying on topic since win-win-win is a reasonable synonym for EcoOptimism. (I didn’t index the term EcoOptimism, by the way. That seemed a little redundant, since pretty much every post includes it, not to mention it being a bit self-referential.) The tying term, consumption, is more useful to ponder. In the post “Answering the Wrong Question,” I discussed the formula I=PxCxT, which says environmental impact is a result of population, consumption and technology. (The formula is more often rendered I=PxAxT, where A stands for affluence, but the term affluence strikes me as both judgmental and not as accurate as looking at consumption.) This post started out addressing the flawed (as I see it) argument for nuclear power, but then went on to discuss the demand for energy and its relationship to consumption. That, in turn, brought up a point I often drill into my students: “It’s not just about climate change.” Quoting myself further (hey, it’s my anniversary so let me indulge):

[S]imply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources … won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from industrial farming …. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Thinking about this some more, that last point seems to indicate that something is missing from the I=PxCxT equation. It doesn’t take into account the sources of energy consumed and their relative effects. Environmental impact may not be only about climate change, but climate change as a result of using carbon-based energy is certainly a major – if not the major – factor. Perhaps then a better formula would be I=PxCxTxEC, where EC is short for energy from carbon. (Anyone got a suggestion for a single letter instead of EC? Maybe F for fossil fuels?)

Hmm, I thought this post was just going to be self-reflective. Now it seems to have expanded to propose revising a basic tenet of environmentalism. As my mother-in-law would say: “Go know.” My slightly more current version is “who’d a thunk.”

Returning to the stats on tags, the next tie is a neatly correlated one between “happiness” and “GDP.” Actually, the correlation between happiness and GDP is not a “neat” one, but is more like diminishing returns. As a poor country’s GDP increases, happiness in the form of wellbeing tends to increase with it. Basic needs like food and shelter become more available as do education and medicine. But that doesn’t continue to hold true. After a point, one which we in the US have surpassed, rising GDP fails to accompany increased wellbeing and, in fact, has the opposite effect. Gauges of Western wellbeing and happiness show decreases since roughly the middle of the twentieth century. Often this is explained in terms of the “hedonic treadmill.”

I’ll spare you a line by line further analysis of the tags; you can get a visual idea from the tag cloud above. Of note, I think, is that so many of the highest ranked tags relate not to design, but to economics. In addition to the ones already noted, there’s carbon pricing, ecological services, externalities, free market, economic growth, and true cost. As an architect and ecodesigner with a background in economics, I’d like to see more emphasis here on looking at the relationship of the quality of our built environment on environmental impact as well as the quality of the environment on human wellbeing.

It’s worth noting that Superstorm Sandy rates a large font in the graphic above, ranking only slightly below the top two ties. Perhaps relatedly, if you were to tally the categories (as opposed to tags) that each post falls under, the clear leader would be “Messaging.” Several of the 68 posts thus far have pondered why environmental issues and causes are having such a difficult time garnering public support: is it a matter of taking the wrong tactics to communicating the problems? How we approach this question goes to a core of EcoOptimism’s purpose. One way that climate disruption or other eco topics will rise to greater attention is when the reality, the fear, sets in. Sandy was seen by many as a harbinger.

But clarion calls may come too late. The disruptions set in motion by then may, like the proverbial train, take too long to stop, let alone reverse. EcoOptimism says, rather than build the demand on fear, build it on desire by establishing that the actions we need to take are actually steps that we want to take because, aside from the environmental benefits, they will improve our lives.

Jolts That Last Too Long

Image; Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Wrongest Product Award nominations fall roughly into two categories. One is those in which the product itself is a contender: something that isn’t needed or perhaps goes about fulfilling a need using questionable materials or method. See banana slicers.  In the other category, the products themselves may be perfectly reasonable, but their packaging qualifies them as award fodder. More bananas, this time peeled and wrapped.

Coffee offers us examples of both. One could argue whether coffee is actually needed, but some would say much of the Western world’s productivity would be in jeopardy without it.  One wonders whether the debate could even occur without being fueled by caffeine.

More questionable might be the methods we utilize to fulfill the “need” for coffee. The way most coffee beans are grown and roasted, for example, causes a great deal of environmental and economic damage. A relatively easy solution, if you can remember all the criteria, is to buy organic, shade-grown, fair-trade, bird-friendly (am I leaving anything out?) beans.

That leaves us with packaging. Disposable coffee cups and lids have long been the scourge of the environmentally minded. The focus on them has gotten to the point where it’s no longer unusual for even non-Treehuggers to use refillable containers.

But a relatively new plague in the form of single-serving coffee pods has befallen us in the last 15 years. K-cups from Keurig were the original, but they’re now emulated by many other manufacturers. In case you haven’t seen them because you’re not one of the 10% of households that have them, they are all-in-one pre-packaged and sealed measures of coffee grounds for one cup with a filter built in. So all one has to do is drop the thing into the coffee maker, talk to your office mates for a minute (or to yourself if you work at home or are antisocial), and off you go, infused with new-found vitality, hopefully at least in a reusable cup.

My first exposure to these was at a large brunch at a friend’s home where he went on at length about how great they were while several guests in succession made their own servings (and the trash piled up). I elected to not deflate his balloon with my ever-helpful greenie insights.

The problem, of course, is all that packaging. Eight of the pods comprise many times more material than would result from a standardly-brewed 8 cup pot of coffee (even one pod may be more compared to a pot brewed with a reusable filter), and the leftover is a difficult to recycle composite of things making up the vessel, the filter and the air seal, along with the used grounds.

A few recycling programs have been started, but they usually involve shipping the stuff long distances and then downcycling them into lesser materials. As my favorite cut-through-the-BS writer, Lloyd Alter, puts it “This is the worst kind of phoney feel-good environmental marketing, designed for the sole purpose of assuaging the guilt about consuming overpriced and unnecessary crap.”

(Or you can make batteries out of them.)

Refillable and reusable pods (mini filters, essentially) do exist, though I have a suspicion they’re encountered far less frequently than their sealed-for-freshness brethren. If I didn’t already have a coffee maker, I might even go that route for my own home and office where, for the most part, I’m the only consumer and brewing a pot can be a waste of water, electricity and beans. But I’d be sure to have locally-purchased, multi-hyphenate, politically and environmentally correct beans so all the bases are covered and my caffeine jitters can be offset by a peaceful conscience.

Image credit: ZeroWasteEurope

Image credit: ZeroWasteEurope

Previous Wrongest Product Award nominations

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.

From Our Factory to Your Kitchen. Then the Landfill.

What are the odds of two Wrongest Product Award nominations dealing with bananas? It’s not like bananas are iconic fruit as, say, apples are. Apples have played a part in the Bible, in William Tell, in American patriotism, in New York City branding and in computers and cellphones worldwide. Bananas? Aside from slapstick comedies and the occasional bad R-rated joke, their lore is lean. But I guess bananas are, um, compensating with their prolific progeny.

The second Wrongest Product Award nomination (following the inaugural nominee, plug-in air fresheners) went to a grocery chain that pre-peeled and then plastic-wrapped bananas. Presumably, it’s too much trouble to peel your own banana, and then you have to protect it because it no longer has a peel.

This nomination addresses the next step: the burdensome ritual of cutting the banana into slices for your morning cereal or for your Elvis peanut butter and banana sandwich. For my own part, I’ve perfected the method of partially peeling the banana, leaving one side unpeeled so I can hold it in one hand while safely slicing through the peeled part with the other. But I guess others are not so adept and hence the Hutzler banana slicer had to be invented.

Banana Slicer

Banana Slicer

Lloyd Alter of Treehugger.com first brought this emblem of modern convenience to our attention over a year ago when he reviewed it as another one of the “marginally useless things that fill our drawers and bloat our kitchens.” But then he was forced to withdraw the criticism (at least he says he’s withdrawing it; his mea culpa, I suspect, is more than a little tongue in cheek) when the many pages of Amazon reviews were drawn to his attention. The ingenious comments must there comprise some sort of gauge of both the human intellect and our capacity to waste time (while writing reviews of time-saving items).

Kitchen accessories seem especially ripe for both unnecessary and humorous (intentionally or otherwise) designs. You know, the stuff of late-night infommercials. Or Saturday Night Live spoofs. From Gizmodo, we recently received a digital gift basket of Wrongest Product Award nominees in a post titled “15 More Insanely Specific Kitchen Gadgets.” Among them, the hot dog gets its version of the banana slicer in the “dog dicer” – provided, I assume, so that, in case you don’t have a can of SpaghettiOs handy but you do have spaghetti and a hot dog, you can make your own.  Calamity averted.

Eggs must be a very inconvenient form of food. How else to explain the numerous egg devices in the Gizmodo post: hard-boiled egg molds, egg boilers and egg crackers? (Store them with your Egg Topper Cutter, also available in a more phallic and less threatening version, and your egg slicer.) Then there are several items to ease our constant battles with produce: cucumber and apple slicers to add alongside the banana guy — all stored, of course, in your drawer devoted to specialty slicers — an orange peeler thingie, a mushroom cleaner and, yes, a pomegranate “deseeder.”  My favorite, though, has to be their headliner, the s’more maker, bringing you the rewards of camping (or at least of getting the fire in the fireplace started) without the hassle, via your microwave.

Form follows function: “Arms prevent marshmallows from over expanding and overcooking.” Image: Amazon

Form follows function: “Arms prevent marshmallows from over expanding and overcooking.” Image: Amazon

 

We have a rule in our house that anything we want to own has to have been needed at least three times and anything we keep has to have been used at least once in the previous three years. (Don’t hold me to it, though; we do break the house rules sometimes, as some of my wife’s many collections will attest.) Yes, we actually have used our fondue maker (itself purchased used) more than three times, and perhaps we’ll make s’mores at home more times than our self-imposed pre-purchase minimum. But I prefer my s’mores made with both less convenience and less plastic.

Previous Wrongest Product Award nominations

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.

A Tale of Two Trade Shows

A few years back, I attended the GreenBuild expo when it was in Boston. I try not to incur the footprint and cost of travelling to conferences (not to mention the discomfort that only begins to describe air travel these days), but this was a relaxing train ride from NYC. While there, I walked a few frigid (and empty) blocks to a meeting that was being held at the coincidentally scheduled Build Boston expo. As I entered that show’s exhibit floor, I noticed an immediate and distinct difference. There was a strong smell of new materials – akin to that new car smell – that was totally absent from GreenBuild. The eco-materials and products at the green show were devoid, according to my discerning nose at least, of the telltale scents that probably indicated the presence of volatile organic compounds and assorted endocrine disruptors.

GreenBuild 2008 in Boston

GreenBuild 2008 in Boston

I was reminded of that experience when I attended back to back trade shows this past week. On Wednesday, I spent the day at LEDucation 7, an industry show and conference revolving around the advances in LED lighting. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of the group that organizes LEDucation.) Then the next day I walked the Architectural Digest Home Design Show.

I looked at both through the lens of ecodesign and found both encouraging and discouraging points.

LEDucation, obviously, is about LEDs and, hence, concerned with energy efficiency. Having attended that show in each of its seven years, watching the growing number of exhibitors and attendees is itself an indicator of the level of interest. With the evolution of LED technology, some of the attention is shifting from displays of raw technology to more sophisticated characteristics like color rendition and control of glare – qualities that affect public acceptance of the mysterious new guy who’s trying to replace the familiar light bulbs we’ve grown up with and that have been the worldwide standard since the late nineteenth century. Not an easy task.

The evolution of LEDs has been exciting to see, and the emphasis is broadening from a singular goal of energy efficiency to embrace some of the wider goals of comfort: how does the lighting look and make you feel? How well does it do its job from both a technical and a perceptual gauge?

What was missing, with perhaps the sole exception of one of my favorite new companies, Little Footprint Lighting, was any attention to other ecodesign criteria such as sustainable materials and finishes, future upgradability or disposal/recycling.

Little Footprint’s LED desk lamp (at right) is made from recycled plastics from electronics (shown in bowls from left)

Little Footprint’s LED desk lamp (at right) is made from recycled plastics from discarded electronics (shown in bowls from left)

This is not entirely the industry’s fault. One rationale is that the biggest environmental impact of lighting – by far – is in energy consumption.  (I’ve personally confirmed this by creating LCAs or Life Cycle Analyses on some of my own lighting designs.) Another factor, at least until relatively recently, has been that LEED (the de facto eco-rating system for buildings) did not count eco-materials and finishes used in mechanical equipment including lighting.

So there is a narrow eco focus within the lighting industry. The cutting edge research and development at most companies is in new light sources, without involving the wider picture. On the other hand, there are inventive, usually smaller, companies producing light fixtures from recycled and renewable materials. Unfortunately, they tend to not incorporate light sources other than those incandescent “toasters,” as I call them, or problematic compact fluorescents. Until recently, I could lay claim with my Fire & Water designs to being the only company tackling both energy efficiency and ecodesign. Happily, with the presence of companies such as Little Footprint, that is no longer true.

But the separation between design and ecodesign remains; products, by and large, are either categorized as ecodesigned or “regular” design. I’ve posited the disappearance of this division in my “Green Design as (Un)usual” sequence. Prior to the 1960s or so, we had “Design as Usual,” in which environmentalism was not a concern.  To be more accurate, Design as Usual before the Industrial Revolution necessarily meant designing to accommodate nature because there was no other choice. The advent of modern building techniques and systems, like central heating and air conditioning, changed that dependency – for both better and worse – leading to the globalization of architecture; the same split-level or glass tower could be built anywhere, regardless of climate.

Image from the author’s book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide

Image from the author’s book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide

The sixties and seventies brought us “Green Design as Unusual” – experiments in ecodesign that, more often than not, were far from the mainstream. Earthships, adobe huts and the like. (That’s an unfair overgeneralization, of course.)

Our present period, with perhaps just a bit of rose-colored vision, could be called “Green Design as Usual” in that we’re beginning to see ecodesign included more frequently and in more (I hate to use the word) ordinary projects. On the near horizon, is a return to Design as Usual, redefined now to implicitly included ecological goals.

But we’re not there yet, as was made very apparent by my second trade show tour of the week, the AD Home Design Show. I went in expecting to find a growing emphasis on green design, with much of it falling into the category of greenwashing as businesses attempted to cash in on the movement. While I didn’t find as much greenwash, it wasn’t for the reasons I would have liked. Rather, there was appallingly little evidence of green design – not even the lip service green leaf signs that were sporadically displayed in previous years to flag the “earth friendly.” At one of the few booths that outwardly wore its green colors, Listone Giordano, I asked whether their product literature included information on their renewably sourced woods. When they answered no, I thought they were going to explain that their clients no longer needed it spelled out. Instead they said that their clients were not interested. Not a good indicator of our potential to achieve Green Design as Usual, let alone progressing beyond.

In fact, if there was a discernible theme to the show, I would have to say it was “excess.” Not what I would have expected amidst just the barest hints of recovery from the Great Recession (in which the building and design industries were among the worst hit). Stashed incongruously within the over-the-top and out-of-the-budget appliance displays, there was a lone small booth showing pervious paving. My bet is that no one outside of a few fellow greenies noticed it.

Perhaps the best (or is it the worst?) example of this excess was a display of color glass, flower-shaped urinals. Yes it’s a desirable goal to better integrate nature into our buildings. As the study of biophilia tells us, it generally makes us feel, work, learn and heal better. And there’s also the science of biomimicry: studying how nature does things in order to improve our own methods. But making a urinal look like a flower could constitute only the shallowest definition of biomimicry. (As opposed to a urinal that maybe used natural enzymes to break down the waste into nutrients.) You might say that, rather than learning from nature, these designs piss on it.

glass urinals

The observation is not an inaccurate metaphor, unfortunately, for the state of far too much design – even these days, more than 40 years after the first Earth Day. We still regard nature as a resource that we can endlessly take things from and dump things into. My complaint about lighting had to do with seeing light fixtures only in terms of their energy consumption and not as part of a larger system of flows of materials and energy, constrained by the finite limits of a planet. There’s only so much aluminum or oil or neodymium (a rare earth metal used in electronics) to be had. But if the LEDucation displays are any indicator, the lighting industry is at least addressing a part of the problem. Purveyors of brass encrusted commercial-style ranges for homes can’t even make that claim.

stoves

I know this isn’t exactly an optimistic observation for a blog called EcoOptimism, but it does no good to be blind to reality. The positive take-away is that there are still many eyes to help open, many businesses (and their customers) who do not yet realize that green business is (or can be) good business. What we’re seeing is not so much a direction that’s failed as one that is still finding its footing.

 

 

 

Answering the Wrong Question

On the Colbert Report Monday night – if you’re keeping count as I am, that’s two weeks in a row that Colbert’s “forced” me write a post – environmental policy expert Michael Shellenberger advocated for nuclear power as a necessary energy source. His rationale is that energy demand is going to double by 2050, efficiency and conservation notwithstanding, so we really have no choice.

The new e-book he and co-author Ted Nordhaus have edited is called Love Your Monsters and in the Colbert interview, he explains we need to love our problematic children, our monsters, rather than abandoning them.

As I’ve mentioned before, I hate metaphors because it seems you can always find one to make any position sound right. One of our monsters, he says, is nuclear power and we simply haven’t been good parents. Were they my children, I’d give nuclear reactors a really really long time out.

SimpsonNuclearSafety

I could go on about the major issues of nuclear energy, from the fact that it isn’t economically feasible without massive government subsidies and insurance, to the not-so-small question of what to do with the leftover radioactive waste for the next few thousand years or so. But there’s a bigger point at work here. Shellenberger and other pro-nuclear environmentalists like Stewart Brand are committing the ecological sin of not thinking in systems. They’re looking at the energy issue as if it’s independent from our other environmental and social dilemmas. In fact, there are at least two larger pictures that they are ignoring.

That doubling of energy demand prediction is predicated on an assumption of the status quo: that the population will continue to grow until we reach 10 billion of us sometime mid-century and, perhaps more significantly, that our patterns of consumption will continue along the paths we’ve been following for the last century.

It’s somewhat understandable that they follow the population growth predictions. Slowing population growth, to put it mildly, is a difficult issue. (Though, as I mentioned in “Less is More, More or Less,” it’s been pointed out that annual population growth is roughly the same as the number of unwanted pregnancies.) Altering our rates of consumption, however, is a much more achievable – and desirable – goal.

There’s a fundamental mathematical formula that calculates our environmental impact. It goes like this: I=PxCxT. Environmental Impact is determined by the Population, how much we Consume and the resource or Technological intensity of those things we consume. So the ways to reduce impact are by reducing population, reducing consumption and decreasing material and energy intensity. That predicting doubling of energy demand assumes we can’t do much or anything about the first two and we can perhaps eke out some mildly increased efficiencies in the last one.

It also assumes, as most conventional economic theory does, that those increases in C and T are a good thing because growth is assumed to be good. Sort of a tautology. But as has been mentioned here in EcoOptimism and elsewhere, more consumption and more technology do not automatically lead to improved quality of life. In fact, once basic needs have been fulfilled, the opposite is true. Many studies have found that people in developed countries are no happier now – and may be less happy – than they were a generation or two ago. Of course, indoor plumbing and antibiotics made life infinitely better and many of us would find it hard to live without Starbucks drip coffee makers. However, the digital revolution, for all its amazing abilities and benefits, doesn’t seem to have improved quality of life or happiness. Some would say it’s done the opposite.

So that’s the first missing element in the pro-nuclear argument. The path it assumes is not actually the path we want. And the paths that would really make our lives better happen to also require less energy.

The other part of the big picture that they are missing is due to a narrow concept of environmentalism that focuses almost exclusively on energy. One of the first slides I often show my classes shouts out “It’s not just about climate change.” Yes, climate change chaos has the potential to do to us what that asteroid did to the dinosaurs. At the very least, adapting to it is going to be very expensive and will in all probability involve a lot of human suffering. Superstorm Sandy brought that point home. A seemingly relentless series of other atypical storms, heat waves and droughts are making the point elsewhere.

But simply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources, whether it be through “too cheap to meter” nuclear power or a more likely blend of renewable sources, won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from the industrial farming that barely feeds 7 billion people today. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Here’s the thing: we can’t approach this (nor should we) with only the goal of weaning ourselves off fossil fuel. We need to dramatically reduce the demand for energy and – happily — that can go hand in hand with some very positive changes in our patterns of consumption and in our lifestyles. And then we wouldn’t have to deal with creating more misbehaving monsters in our nuclear family.

The Growth Panacea

In The New York Times “Room for Debate” column last week, the topic was whether growth is a good goal. Until recently, it’s been an assumption in both political and economic circles that growth was unquestionably good and essential. It’s a rare politician who will dare to say otherwise. So it was somewhat refreshing that, in the Times debate, only one of the four participants, Diana Furchtgott-Roth, supported the idea. And her point of view, as a former chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor, was both surprisingly and typically old-school in its conventional but outdated approach. Here are some quotes from her statement (in italics), with my responses:

Economic growth raises standards of living for rich and poor countries alike.

This is the old “rising tide lifts all boats” line. I can think of plenty of unlifted (and some sinking) boats in the developed world where the tide has supposedly risen. While the argument for economic growth in the developing world is stronger, it’s still true that economic growth does not equal human growth and, as we’re finding out in the US, the opposite becomes true after a point.

And what happens when the rising tide (to continue the awful metaphor) is actually caused by rising sea levels?

The more growth, the better.

This is just fundamentally wrong because, aside from being incorrect in economic terms, it is physically impossible (unless growth is decoupled from consumption). Assuming we don’t start importing resources from other planets, we live in a finite system, technological advances notwithstanding. No matter how often the growth mantra is repeated, it cannot violate the laws of physics.

The finitely-supplied Earth seen from the Cassini probe as it passed Saturn

The finitely-supplied Earth seen from the Cassini probe as it passed Saturn

In developing countries, higher G.D.P. growth results in lower infant mortality, running water, sewer systems, electricity, better schools and education for children, as can be seen from comparative World Bank data.

So how does this explain the sad standing of the US in most of those categories?

As electric power plants replace wood stoves, the air is cleared of smog.

Sure, the localized air inside the home may be better, but replacing it with coal and other fossil-fueled plants just relocates and, by some measures, worsens air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Stringent Environmental Protection Agency regulations do not come cheap.

This is a particularly old-school defense, or rather offense, against regulation. In far more cases, regulations prompting efficiency and limiting pollution result in greater profits, new technologies, new industries and more jobs.

Her post is titled “Only Growth Can Sustain Us.” She has a curious idea of sustainability.

The good news is that she represented a minority view and, judging from the comments below it, a growing number of people are realizing that economic growth is not the panacea that Wall Street and most politicians continue to believe it is.

Here Comes the Stuff

Don’t buy me any gifts for the holiday season.

Not that you were planning to (I assume!), but that’s not the point. I’m “consumed,” as it were, by the quantity of things surrounding me and by emotions like garbage guilt. I look around at most of the stuff in store windows and catalogs, and realize that, not only do I not need most of it, I don’t even want a lot of it. Our place is full. If anything, we need to shed possessions. Clothes we rarely wear. Books we rarely read. (Why is it so hard to get rid of books?) Sentimental things we’ve been given but don’t know where to put. Unthinking things we’ve been given and would rather not find a place for.

I’m happy that we have no hamburger-patty-maker type kitchen appliances, and not only because we don’t have anywhere to store them.

When I look at those things, I can’t help it: I see all the materials and energy that went into making them, and I see the space indefinitely occupied in the landfills that they’ll end up in, often sooner rather than later. That’s what I mean by garbage guilt.

Yeah, I know that’s no way to look at a festive season, or at the well wishes and good intentions of those who give gifts. Bah humbug, Grinch and all that. But really I’m happy with – and prefer to have – those well wishes of my relatives and friends, just without the material encumbrances. Let’s have a meal or go to a movie together. Or send a donation to a charity.

Plus I’m picky and hard to buy for, but that’s another topic entirely.

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. ~Dr. Seuss

 

 

 

Our apartment is decent sized by NYC standards, though tiny, I’m sure, compared to many a suburban home. It’s certainly much larger than Graham Hill’s Life Edited apartment ten blocks away or many of the other micro digs featured these days in TreeHugger and Inhabitat. But it’s overflowing with stuff, as is our storage space crosstown. Factor in that I’d much rather be a minimalist, and it really doesn’t (or does!) add up.

And this is without venturing into the even more guilt ridden point that there are others who need things far more than I do. So I don’t think I’m being a killjoy in dampening the consumer wave.  (You know, the one that’s supposed to rescue the economy.) What’s the point in having (or being given) something you don’t need – or worse, don’t like? Actually, I think the concept is quite positive.

When you start looking at stuff this way, it quickly becomes a weight on your shoulders. I don’t want go all Buddhist or something on you, but I truly think I’d be happier with fewer material things. I’m not alone in that either. On Grist.org this week, a post is titled “Married father of two seeks Best Christmas Ever. No presents allowed.” But Greg (the author of the post) and I are apparently far from the norm. His idea was deemed so unusual that it warranted not one, but two, film crews and interviews.

Like Greg, I grew up with a mountain of gifts, piled in our case beneath a “Hannukah bush.” (In my teen years, we developed early eco traditions of using the Sunday “Funnies” for wrapping paper and buying live trees, which I would lug out the patio door and plant in the back yard on New Year’s Day – having dug the hole at Thanksgiving.) I remember not being able to sleep on the Christmas Eve when I strongly suspected there was a train set awaiting me on sawhorses in the basement. For theoretically Jewish kids, we made out great. Of course the holidays should be joyous for kids and gifts are part of that. But let it be things with meaning, not plastic throw-aways. I loved that train set and spent many a weekend building elaborate landscapes for it. There were many other gifts, though, whose longevity could be counted in hours.

Fortunately I don’t work in a company where we have Secret Santas. If I did, would it be acceptable for the wrapping to enclose a card acknowledging a charity donation? Or perhaps a gift certificate to a local business? I’d be plenty happy receiving either.

However, if you’re still unconvinced, there are of course things I covet. (That enlightened I’m not.)  But they tend to be expensive and electronic, so I’ll settle for a fun dinner at a local joint.

Less is More, More or Less

Thanksgiving, the celebration of bounty, seemed a completely appropriate time to contemplate the corollary concept of enough. Hence one of my tasks for the weekend (why do I always think a day or two off, or even a long plane flight, will give me the time to catch up on everything?) was to read the advance copy of Enough Is Enough sent me by co-author Rob Dietz. A bit overoptimistic I was. I’ll blame the lingering L-tryptophan effect. But I’ve only missed the goal by a bit.

Dietz is the executive director of an organization called CASSE or the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, a mouthful as large as the (first) slice of leftover pumpkin pie I had for breakfast on several of the days following the feast. “Enough Is Enough” rolls off the tongue much more easily (than CASSE, not pumpkin pie), and the strong, memorable title makes me almost wish CASSE would change its name to accompany the book.

The basic tenet of the steady state economy (or SSE) is an observation that makes complete sense: you can’t have infinite growth in a finite system. Unfortunately, conventional economics – perhaps in an attempt to defy its characterization as the dismal science – says otherwise. Its faith in unending growth portrays it as both possible and desirable.

EcoOptimism, though based (obviously) in optimism, doesn’t subscribe to this delusional belief in the virtues of growth. In another post, I’ll discuss how that self-serving faith is actually more akin – as faith-based ideas tend to be – to a religion than it is to a science. So much so that, in attempting to escape the “dismal science” moniker by being less dismal, conventional economics may have instead lost its reasoned science aspect.

What’s in a name?

Part of the politically untouchable faith in growth derives from the positive nature of the word growth. How could growth possibly be bad or undesirable? And, even after proving that it is, finding an appealing word or phrase to convey that idea is a difficult task, yielding less than positive terms. Ungrowth? Uh uh. Degrowth? No better. Is the opposite of growth diminishment? Nothing appealing in that. Another suggested term, post-growth, gets warmer, but still doesn’t quite make the cut for me.

And so we get to steady state economics. Though it ain’t exactly catchy ( as noted above) SSE at least doesn’t succumb to easy connotations of negativism and survives the first round of sound bite tests. Steadiness, especially when compared to the booms and busts of recent history, has much to be said for itself.

Going Steady

But the goal of SSE is not so much to steady the rough ride of economic cycles as it is the creation of a path for continuing human growth within the constraints of an amazing yet finite planet. And it’s also more than (merely) achieving sustainability. It is the decoupling of economic growth from human flourishing. It is the enabling not just of a future, but of a positive future.

We already know that happiness (yes, I know that’s a mushy subjective quality, but there actually are ways to define and measure it) does not correlate with economic growth, at least not in the long run. In the richer nations (the “developed” world), where essential needs have largely been met, the acquisition of more material things does not lead to happier or more fulfilled lives. And acquiring things is, after all, an integral part of material growth and its measure, the appropriately named Gross Domestic Product. But even with this knowledge (which is not nearly widely enough known), how is the iconoclastic case against growth made? And accepted?

I have nearly the same image in my book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, but this is from Enough Is Enough

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s been a plethora of books on this topic of late. I’ve written about some of them before: Prosperity Without Growth, The End of Growth, Plenitude, eearth, et. al. But in virtually every case, what’s been missing from the iron-clad arguments has been an accompanying roadmap. We have a general idea of where we want to go, but no idea – especially not a convincing one – how to get there.

Indeed, this shortcoming is a major part of the purpose behind EcoOptimism. Along with the lack of concrete steps, I’ve been positing that we need verbal descriptions and perhaps graphic illustrations (I must still be in a Thanksgiving state of mind because that made me think of the “twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and the paragraph on the back of each one” from Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant — but I digress) depicting what our un/re/de/post-growth future will look like.

Happily, Dietz and co-author Dan O’Neill have brought us much closer to answering the how-the-hell-do-we-get-there question. Each chapter in the section “Strategies of Enough” as well as most of the chapters in the third section “Advancing the Economy of Enough” begin by asking “What Are We Doing?” and proceed to “What Could We Do Instead?” Then they move to the part I devoured each time: “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Dietz and O’Neill are, of course, thoroughly familiar with the concepts of a Steady State Economy. But, they write, “we had been asking ourselves for some time how a steady-state economy would work in practice.” What are “the policies and transition strategies that would turn [a SSE] vision into a reality?” Those questions, as it happens, are the same ones I’ve been asking since I started focusing on the “New Economy.”

They’ve done a terrific job on the second question. First they demolish the conventional argument that growth is the solution to poverty, poor education and unrepresentative rule as well as pollution (the argument proffered by groups like the WTO and mainstreamed by Bjorn Lomberg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist). Toss out the convenient and misleading metaphor “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Our economic history strongly declares otherwise.

Responding to the Econ 101 tenet “Market prices give no reason to believe that natural resources are a limit to economic growth,” they almost literally scream “This statement may be true, but it reveals more about the failure of markets than the absence of limits!” This is the core of an argument many of us have been making in various forms for years: a “free” market can work only if everything is priced accurately. And our current markets, which consider almost every resource and service provided by nature to be free, are far from that point. “Prices often fail to capture the effect of resource depletion, waste generation, and loss of ecosystem services. As a result, the market sends improper signals—if it sends any signal at all—regarding the sustainability of throughput levels. We need to eliminate this market failure….”

What’s Enough?

Making economic growth the measure and the goal does humanity a huge disservice. Growth, in the gross unqualified version that we currently reflexively strive for, is a false god asking us to sacrifice everything (our lives, our planet) in search of a future nirvana that cannot possibly be the result. The problem, putting aside such relevant constraints as physics and, yes, economics, is that we’ve set our goal on the wrong sight. “More” is not only unachievable; it is undesirable. And the opposite of more is not less; it’s enough – provided that what we achieve enough of is what we in fact need to grow qualitatively. This becomes a two-part question: first, what is “enough,” meaning what sates us and leaves us better off than we started and, second, how do we get to that state?

We can continue the overly obvious Thanksgiving analogy here. For most of us, the quantity of the food leaves us with that content but overstuffed lagginess and perhaps the feeling that we overdid it. We certainly could live without it, though most of us would choose not to. Why? Because we enjoy the ritual, the company … and the food. What, more precisely, is it that makes the holiday so valued to so many? It’s not the amounts of food that we often wish we had exercised a bit more willpower to resist. It’s the circumstance, the associations and the experience (both social and sensorial), not the amount of food. In a crude way, this sums up the difference between the economy of growth and the economy of enough. Economic growth, after a point, does not translate to improved well-being. And after that point – the point at which basic life needs have been met — our economic and social goals should change course.

This does not by any means signify stagnation, which is perhaps the main problem with the term steady state – it’s vulnerable to being misinterpreted as a call to sacrifice. In reality, it’s the opposite of sacrifice; it’s finding the true value and measure of progress. As Dietz and O’Neil more succinctly put it: “the economy can develop qualitatively without growing quantitatively.”

It’s People!

Environmentalists all know that our problems stem from the combination of too much consumption (or rather, unnecessary and inefficient consumption primarily by people in the rich nations) and too many people (who, increasingly, are in the poorer nations). And therefore any real solution has to address both problems.  While the first part is certainly key, the second part – population growth – is the elephant in the room. It’s an incredibly delicate and laden topic. To its credit, Enough Is Enough doesn’t skip over it, as most such discussions do. “We need smaller footprints but,” they emphasize, “we also need fewer feet.”

The authors underscore the point that the number of unintentional pregnancies in the world each year (80 million) is equivalent to the annual growth of the human population. This means we don’t need to dive into heavy-handed intrusive programs like the Chinese one-child-per-family rule. We can achieve steady population through education and voluntary birth control.

The Role of Wall Street

When I discuss ecodesign in my classes, I emphasize that there are two ways to approach changing the environmental impact of a product. One is the “tweak,” which involves one or more relatively small and incremental changes to the design. The other is the “innovation,” which demands rethinking the problem (often by rephrasing the question) to find alternative ways of achieving the result the product provides. Often this leads to what has come to be called disruptive technology, a fancy phrase for a new way to do something that reduces the old to history. Think Internet versus encyclopedias. Or 3D printing replacing mass production.

I found myself categorizing the suggestions within Enough Is Enough the same way. Many of their proposals required minor alterations to our current ways of doing things. Others, though, are more like the “square one” approach. For instance, in the chapter “Enough Debt,” they propose some fundamental changes to how the financial world operates, ranging from the technical (requiring reserves on loans to be 100%) to the structural (decreasing the size and power of financial institution below the “too big to fail” level and – here comes the part that will elicit protests of socialism – democratizing the means of production).

Instead of hailing and idolizing the financial arena as the source of investment and growth as we currently do, the authors say we should be viewing it as a cost. “The fewer resources needed to accomplish this service [helping money to flow where it’s needed in the economy], the better off society is. So we should aim to minimize the cost represented by the financial sector—it should account for as small a percentage of total economic activity as possible.” We’ve come to see the financial world as an end in itself (how’s the market doing today?), forgetting in the process that its purpose is to be a means to the improvement of our lives. “Instead of focusing on using money to make more money, financiers should be focusing on serving a stable economy, an equitable society, and a healthy biosphere.”

Enough is (Almost) Enough

Enough Is Enough does an admirable job of making the off-putting topic of SSE much more approachable and enticing, but (ironically) leaves me still wanting more. The authors fully understand that “for people to embrace the concept of a steady-state economy, they need to understand how it would work and why it would be preferable to what they’ve become accustomed to.” They’ve brought us much closer to this point, but I came away still wanting to know what it will feel like and look like and how we will experience it.

This shortcoming – and I’m nitpicking through an exceptional book – strengthens the underlying need for what I see as a primary mission of the EcoOptimism blog: providing that visceral taste of a positive future. Enough Is Enough lays the policy groundwork. Now we need to make it concrete and present it in a form people can relate to in order to convince an understandably skeptical populace.  This requires the merging of policy wonk-dom with the visioning and communicating designers can provide (with perhaps some added oomph from the PR and advertising worlds).

Dietz and O’Neill write “An enlightened transformation to a steady-state economy is a profoundly hopeful prospect.” Not one of doom and gloom or involving sacrificing the “American way of life.” The overriding need is to develop and successfully present this thoroughly desirable future so that we will pursue it, not because we have to but because we want to. Enough Is Enough is a major step on that path.

Enough Is Enough will be released by Berrett-Koehler Publishers on January 7, 2013