Reaction 8 for ECO/SOC 935

  1. Trash Inc.

There are various sustainability issues with the current Westernized consumption model. Some include the production materials, the methods of production, and the consumerist behavior. I shall now focus on the consumption of goods in the consumerist society and specifically on the production of waste. A defining point in this consumption is that, sooner or later, goods become no longer usable and must be discarded. There is a whole industry built upon this final stage in the pattern of consumption. It is a 52 billion dollar per year business in the United States. Here in the States alone, there are 250 million tons of garbage produced each year. This is enough trash to cover the entire area of the state of Texas twice. Some of this “throwaway” culture is promoted by manufacturing companies. For example, my family used to own a perfectly good vacuum cleaner that still used the vacuum cleaner bags. Yet, when the bags were no longer produced, we had no way of using it and therefore had to throw away the whole vacuum cleaner. Throwing away stuff creates the problem of properly discarding it at one end and of dedicating physical space to receive the discarded items at the other. The most efficient way of discarding an item would be to find a way to recycle most of it. However, it is quite evident that much of the fault lies with the consumers as well. In the documentary, it was mentioned that 80% of what is thrown away in the States is actually recyclable. Only 28% gets recycled and we cannot claim that there are no facilities.

Fortunately, there are some corporate efforts to support sustainability. Foss Manufacturing Company is a textile company in New Hampshire that recycles plastic bottles into synthetic fabric. The company produces goods ranging from t-shirts to carpets. Unfortunately, 70% of its raw materials – the recycled plastic bottles – comes from places other than the United States. Of the 51 billion plastic bottles used in the States every year, only 22% gets recycled.

Another manufacturing company making efforts to operate sustainably is BMW, Spartanburg, South Carolina. The documentary stated that “the cars [the x3, x5, and x6 SUVs] may run on premium, but the factory runs on trash.” In fact, as trash in landfills decomposes, it releases methane gas, which is then captured. This landfill natural gas is then filtered, cleaned, and pressurized. After the necessary safety procedures, the clean gas is pumped through a pipeline to the BMW factory. BMW’s decision to exploit trash is not only sustainable, but it also saves the company 7 million dollars a year. Bobby Hitt, the man who envisioned this idea, said that “you win on the environment, and you win on the balance sheet.” This seems like a great solution. Yet, one thing I would have liked to hear from the documentary is what happens to the remains of the filtered and cleaned landfill gas. Whenever something is filtered, the unnecessary or harmful part is usually discarded. I would have liked some reassurance from the documentary that these remains were ecologically dealt with.

  1. Bill Gates: Innovating to Zero

One issue on climate change that is continuously discussed is the increase of CO­2 and temperature. Gates argues that CO­2 emissions must be brought down to zero to stop increasing temperatures. To do so, one of the factors of the following CO2 equation must be brought down to zero.

CO2 = P x S x E x C  →   (P)eople, (S)revices per person, (E)nergy per service, and (C)O2 per unit energy

If any one factor is reduced to zero, CO2 emissions will be reduced to zero because any number multiplied by zero is zero. If each factor is examined, it can be seen that not one of the first three can be plausibly eliminated. The world’s population cannot be simply reduced to zero. The services per person constitute what most people call “civilization,” and energy must be expended to provide these services. The only remaining factor to be reduced is CO2 per unit energy. The problem is that much of the world’s energy comes from CO emitting fuels (mainly non-renewable fossil fuels). Gates suggests that, in his opinion, the most effective alternative energy sources are: carbon capture and storage, nuclear, wind, solar photovoltaic, and solar thermal. He stresses that by 2050, there must be an 80% reduction of CO2 emissions. To get there the developed countries will have had to shift their energy generation completely. He closes with some suggestions for innovating to zero.  Ultimately, there must be basic research funding, market incentives to reduce CO2, entrepreneurial opportunity, and a rational regulatory framework.

  1. Disruption

Climate change was publicly and scientifically announced in 1988. More than a quarter-century later, scientists and activists are still striving to push towards ecological energy-production and sustainability. This is not an easy task. Although various industrialized nations agreed to make substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in 1999 with the Kyoto Protocol, the immensely influential United States withdrew from the Protocol in 2001 under President Bush. Furthermore, the environmental situation is as urgent as ever. Most environmental experts agree that the highest survivable temperature increase is 2° Centigrade (3.6° F) warmer than pre-industrial times. A 2° increase is roughly equal to 1 trillion tons of burnt carbon. It sounds like a lot, but unfortunately, we are already more than halfway (600 billion) there in 2014. The documentary states that “at the rate we are going, we will have completely exhausted that carbon budget within 30 years.”

Part of the problem is that there is not enough regulation. The film notes that “these big, massive polluters get to dump megatons of carbon in the atmosphere for free” and that this “makes coal and oil and other fossil fuels more competitive against solar and wind and other sources than they deserve to be.” This goes back to the aforementioned market incentives to reduce CO2­­ emissions Bill Gates said must be provided. Without incentives, it is no wonder that these polluters act the way they do and are less costly to the public than ecologically efficient resources. The question is: if financial incentives will not be readily available, will there be enough political muscle to impose the necessary regulatory changes? In fact, another part of the problem is that there is a political problem behind the environmental issue. The film explicitly notes that environmental activists are “up against the fossil fuel lobby that has complete access to the political class and the ability to bribe through legal means and blackmail through the use of attack ads and so on. Even people who oppose them have trouble opposing them too strongly because they are on some ways economically dependent on them.”

Finally, the documentary argues that climate disruption is a social injustice issue. When climate change causes huge tidal waves, monsoons, or earthquakes, it is usually the poor and the people in undeveloped countries that suffer the most, especially those living on coastal regions. Most times they have no way to defend themselves from these “natural” catastrophes, and have a difficult time recovering if they do survive.

The film states that what we need is a vision for what the post-carbon age looks like that is “inspiring enough and delivers enough in terms of jobs, in terms of new opportunities, in terms of better health.” Additionally, it is suggested that a 100% renewable economy is within reach: “it’s not something that we need to keep researching because it’s always off in the distance. No, it’s here. It’s a question of political will.”

  1. Capitalism Papers

Mander starts the chapter by differentiating between real economy and virtual economy. Real economy is where “capital is used to find and process resources from nature, to transform them into commodities, or where direct services are provided to people” (94). Virtual economy is based on investments in financial instruments which have almost no connection to real production or services. Capitalism requires both economies to grow indefinitely. Yet, the real economy is based on resources, markets, and labor, none of which are continuously expandable on our finite planet. This unsustainable pattern inevitably depletes the planet. However, the most common measure of economic growth, the GDP, does not take this environmental damage into account. The example given was that “when Exxon Valdez spilled eleven million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, it appeared on economic ledgers as a positive event” (102) because the cleanup entailed job creation and capital redistribution.

A problem with the virtual economy Mender points out is that it has few positive effects on the real economy. First of all, it is only accessible to people with surplus capital, money they do not need for everyday living. Additionally, some politicians argue for lower taxes and tax breaks for ultra-wealthy investors engaging in the virtual economy, because supposedly, this gives the wealthy reason to reinvest the new excess money in the real economy in “job-creating productive activity” (105). Yet, events almost never unfold according to this theory.

Shifting focus back to the sustainability issue, there has been the quite outraging practice of financial speculation of food supplies I wish to touch upon.  This practice entails speculating on food-growing lands (especially in Africa) with no intention to actually grow food. This process is known as “arbitrage.” This is neither an efficient use of the land, nor socially just in my opinion. This land could be used to grow food to feed the many people experiencing starvation. Additionally, when the land is being used to cultivate food, the products are usually bound for wealthier nations, not for local communities (110). To make matters worse, when land is bought from African governments, many times, the thousands of farmers who had been living on these lands until this point are thrown off and considered “landless poor” (110).

In conclusion, there are various sustainability issues with the current economical habits of consumption and perpetual growth. Clearly, we cannot continue on this track. Fortunately, in addition to the environmentalists, there are some industries that make an effort to produce ecologically and promote sustainability. The problem is that these efforts have not yet reached a global scale while the threat is closing in. Economic incentives have not been evident enough to encourage a system change. In addition, we seem to lack a political leadership willing to back scientific evidence of the impending catastrophe. Hopefully, endeavors such as the 350 Disruption movement will convince governments, corporations, and populations that change must be implemented soon.

Works Cited

Trash Inc: the Secret Life of Garbage. CNBC, 2010. Film. Retrieved from: http://www.hulu.com/watch/184846

Disruption: Climate. Change. Kelly Nyks & Jared P. Scott. 350.org, 2014. Film. Retrieved from: http://watchdisruption.com/

Gates, Bill. “Bill Gates on Energy: Innovating to Zero.” TED Talks. 2010. Retrieved form: http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates

Mander, Jerry. The Capitalism Papers: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System. Berkley: Counterpoint, 2012. Print.

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