imaginary family values presents

yesh omrim

a blog that reclines to the left


Beyond recycling

27 April 2009

One of my pet peeves is hair-shirt environmentalism.

Since (at least) the 1960s, whenever policy-makers propose some change in environmental law (to reduce air pollution, to increase fuel efficiency, to retard global warming), a parade of grim corporate lobbyists descend on Washington to warn that if this law is passed, prices of essential goods will rise, factories will close, the economy will shrink, and millions will breathe clean air while standing on the unemployment line.

Environmentalism as it is popularly understood plays into this attitude by focusing our attention on how we should save the planet by limiting our own behavior. We should drive less, eat less meat and less conventionally-grown food, wash with less water, put up with less heat in the winter and less cooling in the summer, etc. Bummer!

I believe that the tradeoff between environmental quality and economic growth is false, and that as long as environmentalists are trapped into arguing against economic growth, then progress towards a cleaner and safer world will be, shall we say, glacial. So I am always interested to read stuff by environmentalists who show ways out of the tradeoff—people who can teach us how to tell the grim lobbyists, “this is not a death knell for the economy, although it might be a death knell for your client’s business plan.”

William McDonough and Michael Braungart are in this camp, and their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, is their manifesto. The gist of their book can be divided into two parts: bad news and good news.

The bad news is that practicing “reduce, reuse, recycle” will not, all by itself, save the planet; it will just ensure that we trash the planet more slowly, putting not so much toxic waste into the air and water supply, using not so much irreplaceable fossil fuel. (And sometimes it’s not clear that we have even that benefit. Recycled paper, for example, has to be bleached in order to be usable, which requires chlorine, creating a different sort of environmental problem.) Trashing the planet slowly is better than doing it quickly, but in the long run, we have to shift to a more radical change in the economy, one in which waste is not just minimized but eliminated entirely.

The good news is that this is possible, if the people who design industrial processes take care that every “waste” involved in producing their product (including the product itself, when discarded) can be “food” to make something else, of equal or higher quality. (A key term they use is “downcycling”—the form of recycling where the next-generation product is of lower quality than the original. Turning bright crisp virgin paper into dingy recycled paper is downcycling. Growing vegetables in compost is not.) One of their case studies involved an upholstery fabric for a Swiss textile mill; because they selected their raw materials carefully, the fabric can be thrown into a compost heap when the user doesn’t want it any more, and the effluent from the factory was as clean as the water going in.

McDonough is an architect and Braungart is a lawyer; while they bring their respective professional backgrounds to the book and the combination is useful, it’s a shame they couldn’t bring in an economist or political scientist as a third co-author. In economics, pollution is the classic example of a “negative externality”, a cost that you impose on other people and don’t have to pay for yourself. If every textile mill on the planet had to pay the full cost of making its effluent as pure as rainwater, then closed-loop processes would be the industry norm, not a niche market. Would this kind of regulation be feasible and enforcible? Is there another system, easier to implement, that would achieve the same result? Given that we can’t impose such a regime on all the world’s economies at one stroke, what would be some useful transitional steps, measures that prevent regulatory arbitrage? McDonough and Braungart don’t address these questions; they imply that we can make the world a sustainable place by making more virtuous choices as consumers within the existing capitalist economic system, and not by acting as citizens to change the rules by which that system operates. (Such an implication treads on another one of my pet peeves.)

But all in all, it’s a good and thought-provoking book. Nature is profligate: a tree produces hundreds of blossoms and fruits, and even though a tiny minority sprout into new trees, the rest are not “wasted”. We can be profligate, too: we just need to learn how to be profligate in the right way. It sure beats the alternative.

PS: In keeping with the authors’ principles, their book is printed on a plastic that can be melted down and reconstituted in perpetuity. (The authors say you can even wash the ink off the pages in hot water and reuse the paper directly, although since my copy is a library book, I didn’t try it.) Given how much paper is truly wasted in the publishing industry, it’s an interesting concept, although I suspect that e-books will become mainstream before plastic books do.