Sustainable Living

There are a number of graphs below. Not to worry this article will not involve a bunch of math. For now just look at the shape of the graphs. You could use a lot of words to describe that shape, but sustainable does not come to mind. Exponential growth can continue off into infinity in pure math, but no real world system can support it. The graphs show the growth in U.S. energy consumption, world wide species extinctions, and human population.

I am not a rabid environmentalist. You will not find me chained to a tree, standing behind a barricade, or carrying a “save the whales” sign. Recognition that our current path can not continue does not require extremest views, it simply requires a grasp of basic high school math. Any closed biological system must find a balance or it collapses and the living things within it die. Human beings are pushing our current system way out of balance in a time frame unprecedented in the Earth’s history. Greenhouse gases, coral reefs, rain forests, biological diversity, air quality, water quality, species extinction, erosion, we are pushing all of these factors and more in a negative direction. Every living system on the planet is in decline. A correction in these trends is inevitable.

But we recycle

The symbol has become pervasive. Blue boxes, bins, and bags are everywhere inviting you to recycle your unwanted mess. Doing so likely provides you with an unconscious little shot in the arm; a good “I’m doing my part” feeling. Except we are not really accomplishing much.

There is an argument against recycling: it’s short term thinking. It is a band-aid approach that accomplishes two basic things: First, it makes us feel like we are doing something. Second, it ensures that we do not really have to deal with the fundamental issues. By recycling we push the bubble forward. We do not need to fix our problems, we just need to delay the crisis until we are dead.

Evian anyone?

We sell water. So we have to be clever. – Jeff Caso, Nestle exec

Bottled water is a great example to illustrate my point. Bottled water is a completely unnecessary industry. No one needs bottled water. People over 30, like myself, can remember the birth of bottled water. If you had told most of us 20 years ago that we would eventually buy water in little bottles at more than twice the price of gasoline we would have rejected the idea as ridiculous. Yet here we are.

A huge industry like that producing bottled water has an environmental impact. Shipping, packaging, marketing, factories and plants, industrial water and air discharge. If bottled water disappeared tomorrow, the environmental benefits would be huge and the sum total effect on our general quality of life would be minuscule.

Canadians drink more than 700 million liters of bottled water . We spent about half a billion dollars on it. ((1999 figures)). We do so for a variety of reasons: perceptions of quality and safety, and convenience being high on the list. We drink our bottled water and feel OK about it because we recycle.

That is short term thinking. We have created a temporary container out of a permanent material. That plastic bottle will last, in one form or another, for hundreds of years. The odds of that material being constantly recycled and remade into a useful object for a few hundred years are zero. Whether you throw that bottle in a blue bin or not the material is eventually going to end up garbage. We are enjoying our comforts and pushing the problem further down the line.

We throw over 500 billion plastic shopping bags every year world wide ((Extrapolated from data released by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 on U.S. plastic bag, sack, and wrap consumption. Source: National Geographic News September 2, 2003)). Again, a permanent product providing a very temporary service. The average grocery bag must be in use for all of 30 minutes. Do you know what would happen to us if we simply stopped producing plastic bags? Nothing. Obviously we would find a way to get our food home. There is no reason why we can not simply produce permanent containers that are designed to be, well, permanent. Of course Grocery Store Inc. is not going to stop providing bags to their customers, and customers are not going to stop expecting them. ((This is no longer true. Lots of places have now stopped using plastic bags, like the grocery store in our neighbourhood, which underlines how often I am wrong.)) The bags are extremely cheap to produce which is why the dominate the market. Besides what is the big deal. We recycle.

Bottled water and plastic bags are just easy targets and visible examples of our disposable economy. We do this with everything. Our entire lifestyle is built on temporary things. Take out containers, coffee cups, paper napkins, and packaging. Do you think you are going to pass that bookcase you bought at IKEA down to your grand children? That stuff can only be moved twice before it breaks down into a loose jumble of particle board. How many objects in your home have been made to outlast you?

An Argument Against Recycling

The answer is not to recycle an object. The answer is to recognize that we don’t need to make it in the first place.

Ou addiction is not a sustainable concept. A plan to reduce consumption slowly does not change the ultimate result. It is a lifestyle that must be abandoned. We will eventually be forced into making fundamental changes to the way we interact with the place that keeps us alive, and no blue box is going to change that.

We need to hit bottom. Lets quit messing around and do it already. Throw everything out. Lets have plastic bottles up to our neck. Lets take those landfills with a 40 year life cycle and fill them up in 10. Lets push things to a point where throwing out a bag of garbage costs as much as your rent. Change created by altruism is lovely, but is is painfully slow. Change due to necessity is quick and decisive.

Environmental change currently appears optional. The environmental choices we make do not directly and immediately affect our health, our standard of living, or our pocket book. The effects are slow and easy to overlook. We need to make them immediate and pronounced.

If what we used and what we threw out really affected our lives there are all sorts of things we simply will not do anymore. We will absolutely refuse to support any product that produces waste. Starbucks is going to have to come up with coffee cups we can bury in our flower boxes as fertilizer. McDonalds needs to package their burgers in something our dog can eat. Grocery stores will have bulk items we put into containers we bring from home. We of course will buy a nice cup that will last our whole life and simply drink our water out of the tap.

We will eventually hit the realization that our lifestyles are not sustainable, but the longer we take to do so the more damage we cause. We are slowly destroying the place we live. We are going about it in such a half assed manner that we are fooling ourselves into thinking progress is being made. I propose a massive industrial orgy of one time use convenience products. Lets hit bottom and do it with gusto.

We have decided that a system that extracts oil from the ground, ships it to a refinery, turns it into plastic, shapes it into a spoon, trucks it to a store, sells it to a consumer, who uses it once and throws it out, is better than a system that requires you to wash the spoon.

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