Naturally Single Use
August 11, 2018
Author: Bianca Yang
Update (8/15/2018). Jevons Paradox: Increasing efficiency doesn’t necessarily reduce consumption.
Can you think of any naturally occurring resource that is single use? The only ones that came to my mind were oil and natural gas. They take so long to regenerate that they are effectively one use.
Every thing else in the world, from animals to water to trees to carbon, has been designed to be consumed and reproduced in a cycle. We humans have disrupted that cycle. We have caused the extinction of many species, destroyed natural landscapes to fuel our growth and technical interests, erased languages and cultures from the current consciousness, and completely mismanaged the earth we were given to steward.
There are gallant efforts in chemistry and materials science to shift our resource dependencies away from non-renewable sources like petroleum onto more renewable resources like plants. Many restaurants now eschew plastic in favor of plant-based, compostable plastic-like utensils and to go boxes. Plastic shopping bags have been banned in LA, but the rise of reusable shopping bags made of plastic, most likely, probably offsets the “gains” we hoped for. We want to make our automobiles more fuel efficient, but their sheer size and the public’s desire for big, powerful, AWD SUVs is cramping environmental chemists’ styles. We think we can reverse the trend by planting trees, but we don’t think about the cost of acquiring a tree, raising the tree, maintaining the tree, and preventing carbon release upon tree death or harvest. The trees are a part of the natural resource renewal cycle. They cannot reverse they trend; they can only maintain the current status. We want to reduce water usage, but nobody in the US seriously cares enough about water usage to track it, enforce water policies, and really help save the earth.
This problem of consumption levels and the futility of these carbon neutral, efficiency efforts is an idea that really struck me recently. Is the fundamental human misbehavior that is causing climate change not our egregious consumption?
Does anybody remember the 3R’s of recycling? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. If you follow the link, you’ll see that the first priority in the waste hierarcy is PREVENTION. The second? MINIMIZATION. All my life, the only piece of the 3R’s that has been emphasized has been recycling. Granted, the recycling logo is a loop, so there is no real beginning or end, but the hierarchy makes it clear that again, “prevention is the best cure”. We are so far beyond prevention that we should have moved to the next rung, MINIMIZATION. Instead, being the self-gratifying, hedonistic, low-willpower, consumerist, materialistic pigs we are, we decided to go further down the hierarchy and make everybody take the easy action of disposal or recycling. You have lots of trash? Just buy a bigger trash can and recycling bin and pay a slight larger nominal fee. We’ll still take care of it for you. You still go to Costco and buy way more food and cups and everything than you need? No problem, the trash that you produce, food and otherwise, is all hidden somewhere safe, so you’ll never know just how bad your contribution is.
This statement will tie into a future post I’ll make about interfaces, especially human-computer ones, but I think we’ve thought completely wrong about disciplining the populace (and companies, but let’s talk about the people for now) on environmental concerns. It’s surprising to most people that being strict about principles and rules makes other people have more respect for them. The librarian who asks the rowdy after-school crowd to quiet down and to not abuse library resources gains not only the respect of the other library users but also the respect of the after-school crowd. They know she is a person of her word and know not to try pushing the boundaries with her. We respect people who have been through the Army because we know of their loyalty and their persistence. Because they have been through such grueling training, we know we can rely on them to give multiples more back to the civilian communities.
This is exactly the line of reasoning we should be taking with environmental issues. We have no respect for the government and related efforts because every year it promises more and achieves less. Everything costs more and does less. (Note that tech is the exact opposite. We would be appalled if last year’s gadgets cost more this year.) We have no respect for energy companies or the countries which hold oil reserves because they have demonstrated their political wiliness and self-interest. And, the public has no respect for movements like no-trash or homesteading because they’ve been given so many free passes on dealing with trash and waste. They’ve been encouraged to consume, consume, consume, endlessly. If we were stronger about people toeing the line with respect to consumption and waste production, people will respect the movements more. People can deny these issues because of all the free passes they have been given. They aren’t really affected, is what they think. Hippies are the only ones who are deluded enough to care and live on a farm or trash-free. How can they raise their kids like that? I think that, as I’m sure people have anecdotally discovered, that the more they put into achieving low-waste, low consumption, sustainble lifestyles, the more they get out of their lives. Analogously, the more you put into exercise, the more you get out of it. Let’s help people create these positive feedback cycles and realize that growing their own food sustainbly can be fun. Living no- or low-waste can be equivalent or better than living high-waste. Using less water doesn’t make you miserable. Riding your bike rather than commuting by car makes you more happy (endorphins!). Being outside rather than using electricity to light your indoor office keeps you awake better, fixes sleep issues, and helps you bond with nature.
Humans are the only species to try to improve their lives. Beavers build dams they way they always have. Birds sing the way they always have. Fish swim the way they always have. Humans have taken their curiosity, ingenuity, and ability, and created higher standards of living every decade. But the costs of those higher standards is crippling the earth which has given us the opportunity to continue improving.
So let’s rethink everything we’ve been taught about how to live a good life. Let’s take care of our earth the way the natives did and are still trying to. This planet is, as far as we are concerned (the universe probably thinks otherwise), a non-renewable resource.
I know people are probably going to hate me for not citing any papers or scientific, data-based results for the above claims, but I think some of my claims are not too controversial or wrong. I will either find some articles and put them in to beef up my argument or link to a completely new argument so I can preserve the history of my blog.
Three degrees is all it takes for disaster to ensue. I’m sure you can feel theh heat, especially if you don’t have air conditioning. What will you do about it?
Here’s a nicely terrifying gif of human population growth to keep you entertained.