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Archive for the ‘consumption’ Category

Nidaros Cathedral

I had the chance this week to attend to a lecture given by a lecturer in Industrial Ecology, that is currently member of an NGO, as well as a member of the City Council of Trondheim. Prior to this job, she took a degree in Industrial Ecology and spend time both in research within this field and applying this knowledge. The political aspects of this subject and the implementation of measures have therefore been addressed. In this post, I will comment on a more philosophical aspect our generation and behavior as a group of 6,7 billions (and still growing) individuals.

Education is a key point in succeeding to change this society and our system based on endless consumption of non-renewable resources, ecosystem destruction and purely monetary values. Our lecturer was trying to expose us the dilemma politicians have to face. In a first step, let us try to conceive politicians motivated by the common good, not by greed or power alone. Admit this is feasible for a while. As a matter of fact, politicians are only humans, and their vision of life is as restricted as ours to a limited amount of decades; therefore, their conception of success is based on personal achievements, impact on their communities, recognition by their peers. But most importantly, and due to their limited time in a position of leadership, they are inclined to secure their reelection at whatever cost. And to win elections, one has to suggest socially, morally and ethically accepted proposals (although these concepts and values can evolve with time. Take slavery for example, which was completely accepted a couple of hundred years back in time).

A direct consequence is that the one willing to act for the good of society as a whole, maybe the one thinking further than a couple of years, the one advocating changes that will secure next generations well-being at the cost of some (relative) sacrifices of ours; this one has little or no chance to see his wishes fulfilled. Implementing them, passing laws can be done, even if the majority of the population is against the measures, since the bills are not passed based on a democratic vote, but on the vote of representatives of the population, which are, once again, only humans and not robots, acting according to their beliefs and values. I have never seen any politician asking to his voters advice prior to a voting session. Incidentally, the only times I have seen politicians speaking to common persons were during the election periods.

But let’s go back to our core discussion: laws can be passed. If they are not accepted by the majority of voters, then the following elections will be bound to throw away the enlightened leader who had chosen to act for the good of the human species and not for the satisfaction of his community (notice the difference, which is fundamental in the following). This way, laws can be voted and later rejected. This is the principle of democracy, representing only a certain fraction of the population (spatial dimension) living in certain economical and sociological conditions (time dimension).

So the enlightened politician has to face this hard dilemma: “should I pass a law which I know will never be accepted, or should I give up and forsake the coming generations because of my fellows’ blindness?” The solution found was to call for help those who would share these ideas but are politically neutral: NGOs. Of course this solution cannot be always chosen; actually this option might only seldom be taken. But in the case of education, then it can be relevant. Because NGOs can simply teach a message that would never be accepted if coming from the political sphere. Let us consider the Global Warming issue, and the non-popular actions that must be undertaken in order to effectively affect our GHG emissions. These include radical changes in our consumption patterns; for a simplicity purpose I will consider here only two of them: car driving and vegetarianism.

Which politician would forbid the use of private cars in a city? Which one would put a ban on meat? Even though we all know that these are two steps to take, no one is ready to accept these bans. Simply because it would be considered as a violation of our “freedom” to choose, our freedom to act as we want, staying within the framework set up by law. Our lives would not be deeply affected though: it is just a question of re-learning what to eat, and a question of efficient public transportation networks. In spite of these extra efforts which would require maybe a couple of years to be integrated in our daily lives, nobody or so few are willing to act when it comes to effective measures for climate change mitigation, although recognizing that something has to change. And we are reluctant to upheaval, we resist changes that imply less “freedom”. Take the case of oil prices for example. A growing number of scientists now acknowledge that world production has peaked; therefore oil prices can only increase, the demand continuing to rise while the offer diminishes. We will have to accept higher oil prices, or change technologies; despite this reality we still keep on burning fuel for no reason. Recently, fishers in France went on strike because they could not afford any longer high fuel prices, and were hereby asking for subsidies. This is useless; subsidies will never suffice on a long time scale, deeper and more radical changes will be required. But we still keep on burning oil instead of wondering on how to save it.

These unpopular measures have then to be implemented through another way. This has to be education. Everything goes back to it. Education shapes us. It makes us the way we behave, enhances curiosity or passiveness, ethics or disrespect, altruism or individualism. And as Joel Bakan has depicted so well in his book, the Corporation, we have become more individualists because we have to be in order to consume more. The less we care about our fellows, about what happens in the world, the better it is because the less we see the effects of our actions. And the less we care about the consequences of our actions. So living in bubbles is exactly what corporations would like to see. Communities are a danger to those who decide to rob local resources. And as one must admit, they have remarkably succeeded in this goal. Today, few care about how our clothes are made, be it in sweatshops or in ethically acceptable conditions. Nobody knows how our food is produced, with which chemicals; what the impacts on the global environment our purchases have. And obviously, the one willing to break from this state of ignorance rapidly realizes the extent of the inflicted damages. Because our education has been supplemented by an omnipresence of corporations and other actors that have, little by little, turned us into passive, consuming individuals.

So here we are: we have never been so many on this planet; but paradoxically, we have never been so far from our neighbor, from our fellows. We do not care about the one dying down in our street, we do not know our neighbors, seldom speak to them, except when there is a problem requiring help or special cases. The time of the central plazza where people were meeting to speak and discuss; these times of public debates, of knowledge sharing; this agora that was the core of the ancient Greek daily life has disappeared from our lives.

Could we gather and act as one, forget our individualist lives, our selfishness, and achieve something that we could do before? Could we build another cathedral? Could we dedicate our life to the construction of a single project, explicitly knowing that we will never see its achievement? It took sometimes centuries to complete the construction of such edifices. Could we build something for generations to come? Could we spend our lifetime to one cause, the reconstruction of a salvaged world? Could we understand that we are, because of our limited sight and our numbers, each one of us destroying unconsciously the world we live in? Could we accept constraining measures that would require us to loose a bit of this “freedom”, for the sake of our children? I would like to believe it. But the truth is different. Everything goes back to education.

Picture: Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim. Its first construction began in 1070 and finished in 1300. Photo: Jesús Rojo Martinez, 2007

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Weird that sometimes the same news is revealed simultaneously in several countries. The latest I have noticed deals with those little, insignificant appliances that we leave on stand-by instead of unplugging them (or switching them off). It might be nothing, one could think. After all, what does a diode consume? Almost nothing… Right. This reminds me the donation principle. Give a small amount, and by the end of the day your association, if successful, has enough funds for a year , simply because adding small amounts alltogether leads to huge amounts.

That is the same with these electronic devices we carelessly leave on the plugs. These timers that we never check (cause we have wrist clocks), these phone chargers forgotten so many times. But this goes further than simply forgetting something; sometimes the industry makes us consuming more. Who remembers those old phones without any display that we used in the late 80’s, early 90’s? They didn’t need more than a couple of watts to function during the conversations. Nowadays, a phone has to have a wide display, memory, sometimes even a real screen, and so on. Impossible to find normal and simple phones anymore… And multiply this power consumption by millions of users, so that you can get an idea of the energy waste we are responsible for. A quick search on the web shows that it is pretty easy to get an idea of how this scale effect can lead to huge environmental benefits, or should I say avoided emissions. On a swiss website, the author computed that by saving 88W in each of the 3,5 millions swiss households, a nuclear power plant could be shut down (300 MW in reality).

Take the 26,4 millions French households (2005 figure) for example. Let them save 20 W by simply unplugging the TV, radio, CD player and all this stuff that can be so easily unplugged without loss of any performance or uncomfort (when not in use): that yields more than 500 MW savings. EDF (the French electricity provider) recently announced the construction of some new gas-fired power plants. 500 MW is large enough to avoid the construction of one of them; let us suppose that the households can save 40 W each (is that so hard? I wouldn’t say so) so that our total savings reach roughly 1 GW. Translated into CO2 emissions, based on gas-fired power plants, and supposing that we switch off our appliances 80% of the time, the 20% left being for use, we save 7 TWh energy per year. Producing 1 kWh of electricity from gas leads to direct emissions of 600g of CO2; meaning that by switching off their appliances instead of leaving them in standby, the French households could avoid the emission of 4,2 million tones of CO2 per year -and more importantly, avoid the construction of these 2 power plants. Considering a country that produces its electricity from coal instead, this would lead to 7 million tones less per year… Impressive, isn’t it? Greenpeace has a nice webpage dealing with the consumption of your appliances and how you can save energy by small changes.

This week, two articles in the press reveal that the UK and US households could avoid this order of magnitude of CO2 emissions by switching off their electrical devices. So next time you wonder how you could participate somehow in a reduction of CO2 emissions… Flick off!

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We are just another animal species, unfortunately given the ability to master fire and technique. I write unfortunately, because it is this gift that is going to cost us our disappearance. And not satisfied enough to put an end to our short period of existence on this world, we will also bring with us to the abyss some thousands of species which never hurt us, never asked anything from us, never attempted to steal us our “territory”. Maybe we will destroy so much this planet that no life as we know it today will be left after our era.

Deforestation by fire (Wikipedia)

We are burning our lungs. Today the Guardian environment publishes an article about the Amazon rainforest being once again burned and chopped down. After reading, a feeling between hate, despair and revolt fills up my mind, and these feelings for my fellow humans is bound to leak here. We are destroying our world, for the sake of growing soy, for the sake of making money. And this soy will, ironically, not feed us humans, but the chicken farms of Europe. What is the effect of eating meat? Here you have the answer: in each piece of chicken you buy, you could see some tropical trees. And if we could hear them, I guess they would cry of hate, despair and revolt. I am myself a criminal: I eat meat.

Why are we burning and chopping this forest? Because, as the article relates, we need to feed ourselves, we need to earn money to survive. And because we are endlessly more on this planet, we will have to feed even more impoverished people. And because rainforest is located in developing countries, where the governments do not have enough will or strength to enforce laws, it is easy for locals to break or violate these laws, set fire to the forest, and plant crops instead. Our thirst for development will lead us to the point where no turning back will be allowed, when we will be left witnessing, powerless, nature taking its rights again, destroying what our civilization has built. Indeed, when there will be no plants left on this planet to produce the oxygen we breathe, nobody will be left claiming “put your faith in the market, it will solve our problems by itself”.

When I read such articles, I realize that my generation will experience something none has lived before. We will witness climate change, resource depletion, while the world population will reach its higher levels ever, thereby requiring even more resources. Get me right: my generation will live what we could call an environmental nightmare. And I am not speaking about the wars that will inevitably follow. Do our children have some hope? I would really like to say so. I would like to believe in Humanity, in our ability to gather and act as one. But I know this is a dream, an utopia. Because there is too much selfishness in human beings. In order to save us all, we would need more than worldwide unity; we would have to sacrifice something. Give up our comfort and grasp on nature. Who would accept this? A couple of individuals who realize what the reality is? Would we accept to give our lives to the reconstruction of a world? No. Would we accept to forget any concept of “the one who works the harder earns the most”? No. Because this concept is based solely on monetary rewards. This is the American Dream: through hard work, sweat and personal involvement, anyone can succeed in life. Unfortunately, to make it brief, the American Dream has two flaws: first, we are no longer in the early industrial age, when corporations were left to create. Second, this dream is based on a materialist and monetary description of what a successful life is. Both points are outdated. The American Dream is virtually dead, but still alive in many people’s mind. We live in a dream.

Human kind has no altruism. That is what makes us different from the other species: our egoism leads us to our self-destruction.

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No matter what we can say, we are all addicts. And we ask even more of our drug every single day. Let’s first examine the characteristics of a drug and what makes you addicted, to finally draw this amazing conclusion. Usually, you do not like taking drugs because of the action to take them, rather because of the effects that these molecules provide you. When you are under the influence, then the world seems different, more comfortable, nicer, your life goes smoothly without problem, etc… So this brief introduction can allow for demonstration of our addiction to fossil fuels. That’s no news for some of you, but it never hurts to repeat it here. In this post, I will concentrate on oil.

7 a.m., you alarm clock rings. It is made in China from plastic, requires metals that have been extracted with the help of cranes, trucks, etc… You take an oil shot by switching it off, thinking that this day is gonna be another bad one. Then you wake up, go and maybe take a shower; hopefully your home sweet home is warmed and the water feels good. You use most probably electricity to warm your house; if it is generated from renewables your intake of drug will be reduced though. Your country relies on nuclear to generate electricity, that’s bad in spite of what they tell you: uranium has to be extracted, treated, shipped, and you will appreciate to take an extra oil shot for your day.

You like breakfast. If you buy organic food, then don’t forget it might have been shipped from another country; if you don’t then agriculture has relied on pesticides and fertilizers to grow you food. Take one more oil shot. You begin to forget that you woke up angry and feel better. Nevertheless you have already taken way too much oil during your life, and the effects are no longer felt during the morning. Time to go to work.

The public transportation system is too crapy, you can never sit down in overcrowded busses. Moreover it stinks and has no comfort. You forget that 50 years ago it would have been a luxury, and prefer to take your car. Double oil shot for you, but you feel so good in it, with powerful sound system and the freedom to go wherever you want to. Well, it might rather show up to be the freedom to get stuck in a traffic jam, and breathe particles increasing you risk for cancer, but you feel so well right now, why should you bother about your future? At work, you arrive and realize that someone (you?) forgot to switch off the lights the day before. And the whole building has been kept warm thanks to electricity. You indirectly take another oil shot. As the day goes, you take some more shots: the food you eat, the office furnitures you use, every single item you see and manipulate is made of plastic, or has been somehow requiring oil for its manufacturing or production.

At the end of the day, you feel stressed. 22.49, you take a pill to calm down, made thanks to by-products of the oil industry. But it does not seem to have any noticeable effect on you, you only think about your problems and how you could, for a while, avoid them. Yes, you have the solution: go on holidays far, far from your home country. Take another shot and good night.

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An introduction to Industrial Ecology (two terms which, in my opinion, are hard to put together) will certainly expose this equation, which describes easily the current problems our civilization has to face:

I=PAT

I is the total impact on the environment. P is the population, in capita. A is the affluence, or consumption level per capita, expressed in unit GDP per capita. Finally, T is the technological factor, expressed in impact on the environment per unit GDP. This formula has been expressed by Ehrlich and Holdren, and one could of course object its simplicity; but I find it gives us a good starting point from which we can develop.

To minimize our impact on the environment, there are thus three ways to proceed, according to this equation:

  • reduce population
  • reduce our consumption
  • improve technology so as to increase materials and resource efficiency

Of course this equation has some flaws. For example, what stroke me first was that the notion of “impact” is totally subjective. What does it mean? Impact on which time scale? Indeed, by taking the example of CO2, what we emit today will have effect in some time; so the impact right now is zero, but delayed. And impact on what? Can we reduce the environment to one single system, without distinguishing different sub-systems? And how can we pretend that the technological factor is only function of money? Can’t we change our impact without relying on new technologies, just by developing the existing ones?

Well, of course this model is ultra simple. But it has the merit to be easy, and some of the questions above can find answers. Life Cycle Analysis theory uses also the notion of “impacts”, to make the results more comprehensive to the reader. In fact, the impacts come from different “stressors”, or “emissions”: for example, emissions of CO2, CH4, CFC, SO2, volume of natural gas burned, etc… A typical LCA can include several thousands of different stressors. Nobody could sort them out and get a grasp of what these stressors mean; so they are grouped into impact categories, such as Global Warming Potential, Acidification Potential, etc… So in the end, only a dozen of impacts can be considered. This might be a way to solve one question. The other ones can find similar answers, which are in fact just methods to model a complex system.

What is striking is that we are nowadays only concentrating ourselves on the last parameter, T. We are speaking of “fuel efficiency”, electricity savings, etc… “Change your light bulbs!” is a typical example. And the business sphere obviously puts this factor on the forefront of its communication plans. Energy and materials efficiency is their leitmotiv. But well, in fact we have two other factors which are more important to address.

Some others are trying to take into consideration some changes in their lifestyle: drive less, take the public transportation instead of your car, buy organic; but these are really small changes that are not bound to reverse the global trend: GDP grows faster than population in our OCDE countries, meaning that the A factor increases as well. And as long as our policies will be based on achievement of an exponential growth of GDP, we will not be able to change A. To achieve such a goal, we would need to consume otherwise, but most of all, consume less.

Finally comes the big taboo, P. We have a tendency to consider it as fixed, an external variable that nothing and nobody can change. Indeed, I believe this is the major factor that we actually can do something about, besides A. Simple measures are education, empowerment of women, family planning, etc… World population has doubled those last 40 years, and plotting the world population vs. the time on a large scale has something frightening.

World population evolution those last 12000 years

And a closer look at the population evolution during last century gives this:

World population evolution during the XXth century

A look at the scale shows that our numbers have been growing at an unprecedented rate.

So here we are, the three factors have been introduced… What is weird is that we see a shift from the right hand side to the left one. We are now trying to convince us that some technological fixes will help us to reduce our impact on the environment. With the aspirations of 80% of the world population to reach a western standard of living, “efficiencies”, and even a shift to greener technologies will not be enough. Some are understanding that reducing our consumption of goods is critical to sustainability, but these individuals are still considered as marginals and dismissed by the capitalist system, whose philosophy is based on an infinite growth of consumption. And too few are understanding the remaining factor, which is perhaps the one we should all be concerned about.

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