Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Think Waste Before New Technology

In a natural ecosystem, energy flows from organism to organism.  Plants feed animals which feed other animals in the food chain.  Decomposition replenishes plants and the cycle continues in a closed loop.  There is no waste in nature, only different forms of useful energy that is shared and transferred.

Man is not separate from nature but we have struggled to be separate in some sense.  We struggle to keep the elements, predators, hunger, disease and decay at bay in an effort to extend our lives as long as we can.  We build things to endure the destructive forces which play such a key role in making the ecosystem of planet Earth work so well.  We are self-aware and we can anticipate threats--because of this we have thrived.

Our success is becoming our undoing however.   In the spirit of progress, we've created materials, chemicals, structures and even new elements with little regard for how these new things fit into the balance of life on Spaceship Earth. In fairness to us humans, we don't view ourselves as a hive of interchangeable or even disposable units working for the greater good.  We struggle individually in a symbiotic relationship with other humans but ultimately for our own welfare.  We now know that our relationship with other Earthlings is much less mutually beneficial and our own survival is now at stake due to natural corrections.
My point to this post is to highlight that a single-minded focus on new technology to solve our environmental, economic, and social issues we face today needs to be balanced by paying even more attention to the waste stream that we create.  Heat escaping from a building in the winter, concentration of toxins from the exhaust pipe on vehicles, creation of single use, disposable items and the harvesting of vital materials faster than the replacement rate are examples of in-balances where new technology may not be the best solution of the problem.

Linear design philosophy created plastic water bottles; the producers of the bottles had no concern for what happened to the bottles once they served their purpose.  Under a growth economic paradigm, linear design is preferred since it encourages consumption and economic activity.  Cradle to Grave design accounts for all the energy inputs required to make something and considers how these inputs will be recovered at the end of its useful life.  Not only is energy conserved but externalities like pollution & solid waste are mitigated.

Unfortunately life-cycle analysis does not fit well with our current economic model.  The very nature of money relies on growth.  Einstein may have called compound interest the "most powerful force in the universe" but we are now realizing that economic forces invented by humans don't trump the finite physical resources that we have to work with here on Earth.  We can't unlearn what we now know about human impact on our ecosystem.  We need to tap into our self-awareness and ability to plan ahead to modify our social structures to accommodate better ways to mitigate our impact and not just wait for a new gadget to come along to save the day.  More solar panels are great but not needing more solar panels is even better.