Today’s economic engine is fired by stuff. It is the production, manufacturing, and distribution of stuff that keeps our marketplace humming. That is what this economic downturn is reminding us. When we stop buying, the economy starts tanking. But to buy more stuff degrades the environment. More stuff equals more mining, more manufacturing, more housing, more land development, more stores, more driving, more shopping, more throwing away, more waste.
To save the economy, then, we have to buy more stuff. To buy more stuff, though, is to harm our world.
Which forces the question: How do we break this cycle? If we wish to save the environment, ourselves, and our finances, what will drive tomorrow’s economy?
There seem to be two possible solutions: (1) either we should make stuff more-efficiently, ie, more sustainably; or (2) we should build an economy not based on stuff. Or both.
Few of us want to envision a future built on “less.” We live in a world that imagines that more is more, more is better. Almost everyone, from the most developed lands to the least ‘emerging markets,’ want more. And how can we say no to that? It would be both mean-spirited and fruitless for us Americans, who are but 5% of the world’s population and yet consume 25% of the world’s resources, to tell others they cannot aspire to the quality of life that we live here.
In this vision, then, if world consumption grew to match US consumption, we would need multiple earths to meet that demand. Since we don’t carry around extra earths in our pockets, we will have to think of something else.
One suggestion is to make more stuff than we do now in better ways. Efficiency and recycling, cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, is one suggested solution. In this view, we dare to imagine that no matter how many of us there are, and no matter how big our appetites, if we can devise cyclical, sustainable, waste-free ways of manufacturing and consuming, all will be well. Done right, there will be enough money and resources for all.
I do not doubt that efficiency is a critical and necessary piece of the puzzle. Doing more with less is almost always advisable. And we know it is achievable to some extent. Years ago, California instituted energy efficiency procedures. In response, over the past 30 years, its energy consumption per capita has plateaued, remaining flat at just under 8,000 kwh per person, while the US average per capita usage has soared to 12,000 kwh. At the same time, California’s average per capita GDP has surpassed the US average. (source: California Energy Commission; via Congressman Bartlett’s power point).
And yet the question remains: is this sufficient?
First, there is the challenge by some that GDP is not an appropriate measure of a country’s health, indeed that a country’s quality of life can be sinking even as the economic indicators are rising . (For more information on this, and the alternative measure of GPI, check out Redefining Progress at http://www.rprogress.org. I will write more on this in another entry.) To be fair, the cradle-to-cradle view leans more to GPI than GDP. Still, is that enough?
Second, no matter how efficiently we live, no matter how creatively we stretch the natural laws of the earth’s carrying capacity, we will eventually bump up against its limits, and be constrained by them.
And third, even if there were no natural limits to expansion and growth, are there not spiritual limits? Don’t we need to ask at some point: Are we there yet? Isn’t this enough? One quick example: over the last 30 years, America’s average house doubled in size. Doubled. What was acceptable and sufficient, and perhaps even comfortable thirty years ago, is small and tight and unacceptable today. Yet today’s households - the number of people living in these houses - are smaller. One report says: “As household size has decreased, the floor area per capita has increased by more than a factor of 3, from 286 square feet per capita in 1950 to 847 square feet per capita in 2000.”
Of course, this trend may be temporarily reversing itself during this recession, as family and friends move in with family and friends. But that may be just the point: larger houses, representing our overall bloated consumer habits, didn’t make us happier. In fact, one could argue that because we pursued more than we needed, we ended up with less than we had. And as the AIG bonus fiasco has shown us, those at the very top of the mess have developed a tin ear to the ethics of money. Do we really want people running our economy who only or mostly think of money and short-term profit, regardless of risk, rectitude, righteousness or social justice?
According to some happiness or satisfaction surveys, even before this recent economic downturn, Americans were no happier than we were decades ago (and perhaps a little less so). Nor are we the most satisfied nation on the planet.
Spiritually, then, even if we could have ever more, without cease, is that what we would want? Is that what would make us happy? Is that what our purpose in life is?
Once we pass a threshold of comfort, health and viability, how much do we need? At what point do we say, enough?
Which takes us back to our question: what will fire the enginen of our economy if not stuff?
Can we build another model?
Can it be driven by the services we provide one another: teaching, nursing, protecting, research, companionship, repairing, fixing, developing, curing, entertaining, transporting, etc. instead of making unnecessary stuff?
It is reported that Americans spend $2.6 billion on wrapping paper a year. What if we put our gifts in reusable bags (saving both the earth and our money) and instead, took the savings and with it, renovated our schools, and created community gardens, retrofitted old factories into green manufacturers, and increased and improved our social work, police and home aide work force?
Stuff will continue to be made to the extent that all these services, and our needs, require it. But wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t make stuff just so we can make a living but rather made a living with a minimum of unnecessary stuff. A quote in the Baltimore Sun business section on Tuesday, March 17, page 10, talking about the hard times an up-scale clothing store is going through, reads: “You have to try and encourage a ‘wants’-based shopper in America and give people a reason to go out and make that purchase.”
Is that really what we want to do? Waste our money on things we don’t need so it can go to who-knows-where, instead of using that same money to do all the things we as a society say we need to do but can’t afford? At what price is such a “want-based” society? What does it cost us in children who go to bed hungry, families without support systems and an environment that continues to degrade?
What would a healthy society, and a healthy economy, not based on wants and stuff really look like? I would love to know the answer.
We need to see this recession as a game-changer. It is not just something we need to get through so we can return to the good old days. We need to use this crisis to see the underlying ills that brought it on and build a new, renewable, economic model, to heal the earth, protect our bodies and enrich our souls.
Then, all the pain we are all going through will have been worth it.
I attended a gathering at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health last week and walked away astonished. Not the good kind of astonished, but the awed, where-do-I-begin, how-could-we-let-it-get-so-bad kind of astonished. The gathering only tangentially had to do with climate change. But it had everything to do with the resources of this precious earth and how we handle them.
The gathering was on Peak Oil, a name that definitely calls for the overhaul of a media specialist. For the name is not only vague, but has a slight nuance of goodness. At best, even if the overwhelming darkness that is foreshadows is evident, it only tells us where we are when what it needs to do is alarm us for where we are inevitably and ineluctably heading. (Check out http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/ and other google search sites for Peak Oil.)
Peak Oil - which most scientists agree is occurring now - is the state of maximum extraction of the world’s oil reserves. Which means that after only 125 years, modernity has managed to raid and consume half of the earth’s stored power from “ancient sunlight” that took 300 million years to create. The gathering explained some things we all know, but ignore, and some things most of us don’t realize. We all know, and ignore this: that oil is limited resource. That someday, relatively soon, access to oil will begin to decline and the cost of oil will begin to soar. That will make our current standard of living almost impossible for most of us to afford.
We usually think of the cost of oil as it relates to filling up our gas tank. That is troubling enough. The shortage and cost of oil will force us to rethink where we live, reduce the value of our homes in our sprawling communities, affect how - and if - people get to work, where our children go to school. Our dependence on oil, and our sudden weaning from it, will create financial nad social upheaval as we struggle to re-orient and redesign our resources, land use and living spaces. There will be some winners, but most of us will be losers as society rearranges itself.
Personal travel is not the only issue. Almost all of our food and goods travel by truck. So if gas prices soar, so will the cost of food, and all our household and business commodities. In addition, much of our “stuff” is made with the energy from oil and made from oil products themselves! Increased production and transportation costs will lead to vastly increased purchase prices.
As if that isn’t scary enough: Our food today is not only moved but is largely grown with the assistance of petroleum-based fertilizers, necessary due to the overuse, over-plowing and harsh land techniques of factory farms. Cheap food comes from cheap oil. When oil prices begin to rise, so will the cost of food, and the incidence of hunger.
Petroleum is also the source of cheap plastic, the magical product that makes safe, lighter containers, toys, auto parts, computers, bags, you-name-it. Try going through a day, or even an hour, without touching or benefitting from plastic. Of most concern, perhaps, is the role plastics plays in medicine, from instruments, to IV tubing and bags, to pill containers, orthopedics and other untold devices.
In short, we are running out of cheap oil, and the world is heading for a petroleum crash that will alter the foundations of our civilization. This liquid fuel is powerful. One barrel of oil does the work 12 able-bodied people can do in one year. One barrel = 12 people-years’ worth of work. Which means that the cost of one barrel of oil, say $1.90 as it is today, buys you the work of 12 people for one year. Where else are we going to get that kind of dense, inexpensive power?
And even if some day we are able to extract that kind of power from the sun or some unknown remarkable physical property of the universe at such a reasonable expense, we are nowhere near doing that now. So, in the short run, we are heading for a global upheaval at best and catastrophe at worst. And the thing is, this would be a problem even if petroleum and fossils fuels weren’t fouling the earth and driving it to destruction. No matter how you look at it, then, we need to move away from fossil fuels of all kinds as quickly as possible.
We need to do two things immediately:
1) support private and public funding for research and development of alternative ways of fueling our society. No matter what the economic climate, we cannot afford NOT to do this. Life will only get unimaginably worse if we don’t get a handle on the cost and availability of energy that supports our daily lives.
2) conserve energy now. Estimates are that 30% of our current US oil consumption today is discretionary. Simply by altering our current habits and patterns, we can “produce” 30% more oil tomorrow. Nothing will be simpler, or cheaper, or buy us the necessary time to find solutions to this crisis that we are speeding towards.
On Sunday, March 8, at Oheb Shalom, BJEN ran its first (and hopefully not its last) electronic recycling program. Using the services of CDM recycling, we offered to take “anything with a plug” that you no longer wanted. The idea is to get that volume of trash out of the landfill, the toxins safely removed and tucked away, and save money for all of us (landfill management costs taxpayers money).
Thank you to all 150+ who participated in this remarkable day. We are still waiting for a final accounting from CDM about the volume we collected, but as you can see from the photo attached - which is just what we collected in the first hour or so - we were all overwhelmed by the turnout. It took two large (!) trucks to haul it all away. (The numbers just came in. We collected 20,301 pounds! Ten tons. Extraordinary!)
Thanks to everyone who helped to coordinate this, and to all our synagogue liaisons who got the word out!
Special thanks go to Audrey Rothschild, who spearheaded this project and whose organizational skills helped it run as smoothly as it did; and thanks to our volunteers who guided traffic and unloaded trunks and generall kept things in such good humor: Stuart Stainman, Donna Brown (and her gracious daughter), Larry Kloze and especially Sidney Rankin! And many thanks to Oheb Shalom (Rabbi Fink and Syn Exec Ken Davidson) for allowing us to use their outdoors during a most busy time of the year. Thanks to Joan Plisko for the suggestion to do this!
With the help of all you, we kept tons of dangerous and reusable waste out of our landfills.
One thing we learned for next time. Many of the items we collected still worked. Some were so outdated that very few people would find them useful. But other items, such as fans, clock radios, cassette players, etc. some folks might like to have. So, we had a few folks scavenge for goodies among the piles. And that was fine too! So next time, we are considering dividing our piles into two: the broken and the still-working, and invite you to come both to give and possibly to receive!
We will get back to you with information when we do this again.
Meanwhile, when does April 8th come only once every 28 years? This year! when it is also Birkat Hahammah. For information about this rare event, Blessing of the Sun - Birkat Hahammah, the every-28-year, thrice in a lifetime experience (if we are blessed with length of years), check out BJEN’s website http://www.bjen.org and http://www.blessthesun.org.
And join us at sunrise at Pearlstone for a not-to-be-forgotten experience!
Let me say at the outset that I believe in stuff. You know, the whatever we pull out of the ground, get from growing things and shear off live animals to make up the things we own and use. I believe we need houses to live in, chairs to sit on, clothes to cover us. I believe we need sinks and pots, pillows and pans, knives and pockets, shelves and shoes. I believe also that we need tchotchkes of some sort and to some degree, for it is our choice and display of unnecessary (discretionary) stuff that defines and expresses who we are even more than the styles and design of our necessary (essential) stuff.
So while I may be a minimalist when it comes to stuff (except books, and most recently their distant cousin, pocketbooks), I believe in stuff. Which is why watching now how we are learning to deal with our stuff, or more accurately, our loss of stuff and our limited ability to accumulate more stuff, offers a fascinating study of raw, radical human identity.
What happens when we can’t define ourselves by or drape ourselves in new stuff? What happens when all we own is all we have to express our selves by? Who are we when we are stripped of the proclamation of self through stuff? The answer seems to be, “I” is increasingly found in “we”. That is, “I” find myself less in my things and more in my people; less in my accumulated symbols and more in my collection of community. We seem to be turning to each other, our past and our present close circles of family and friends. They are enduring, and hopefully do not size us up and measure us by our stuff, but by our being.
So in hard times the old becomes golden, and the home becomes haven. Family become friends again and we find companionship and entertainment in the close, cheap and mundane. And that is good!
Video games, for example, have been selling like hotcakes. NPR reported in December 2008 that “overall video game sales are up 43 percent from this time in 2007”. (Hotcakes, btw, were a hot commodity in America in the 1700s. Made of cornmeal and fried in animal fat, they were good home-cooked food sold at church functions and county fairs. They were a way to bring home-ness to the public domain.)
The movie business is booming, too. Despite netflix, movies on demand, downloads and the old-fashioned rent a flick, in these trying times, more people than ever are plunking down $10 or so to sit in a dark room with strangers and friends to share an experience that sometimes takes them far away, and sometimes powerfully hits home. Ticket sales are up sixteen percent over last year, according to the NYT. We may no longer be a nation united by broadcast tv or Sunday night’s The Wonderful World of Disney, but we are still united by the movies.
I am far from the first to note that in tough economic times we turn toward each other and away from the ephemeral limitations of stuff. Our senses sharpen and we reject the veneer of modern sociability for the more durable, real pleasure of people and stories. Having little money, or worrying about whatever money we have, makes use realize that we are so much more than the numbers on our ledgers. We are not worth less, nor is our value diminished, because our accounts are lighter.
Rather, we realize, we are worth more. Our costly gifts become ourselves, our time, our attention and affection. So much more valuable than that expensive bag. For that gift, that jewel, that momentarily joy-making closet fodder will most likely cease to bring joy once the warmth of its transaction has fled.
So, it is here we learn that less-is-more, and enjoy the presence of each other.
we humans have to fit our infinite appetites into the contours and confines of a finite world.
One of the glorious aspects of being human is that we are blessed with urges, desires. We are curious; we are inquisitive; we are daring; we are hungry for meaning, purpose, exploration, answers. We want to know more, do more, see more, possess more. That is what makes us human and that is what makes us just a little divine. Our drives make us worthy of being God’s partner in creation. People who are lazy or satisfied don’t build, discover, or grow. They just sit. How wonderful that Eve, way back in the Garden, dared to take the fruit and eat it.
But it is this very seeking and turning and digging and wanting that causes us to trash the earth. Our current linear, one-way path of consumption: dig up, transform, package, transport, sell, throw out, is a model of our expectations of endless resources. It functions as if there are infinite resources, infinite money, infinite dumps.But of course, there are not.
We need instead to build and use the model of cycles, the eternal return of stuff from earth to earth. (for an amusing, if sometimes edgy, portrait of what we do wrong and how we can do it right, see http://www.storyofstuff.com) We need to make things that from their inception, know how they will end up.
This has begun, elsewhere in the world. Elsewhere they are asking: What if manufacturers were required to dispose of, reuse, or recycle their products after their lifecycle was done? What if computer manufacturers, vacuum cleaner companies, car companies, etc had to take back their products and recycle or reuse or else pay to have the stuff hauled away and dumped?
Nations and companies have begun implementing, or exploring, take-back and recycle programs. Canada is exploring implementing an Extended Producer Responsibility (“EPR”), at least for electronics, mercury-containing lamps, batteries, packaging and printed materials.
The idea is that if manufacturers had to bear the responsibility and cost of managing the waste their products created, there would be much less waste.
This is one large way of extending our finite resources into a more infinite loop. And it is one way to help all of us understand the true lifecycle, and costs, of the goods we consume. Hurrah.