Friday, January 19, 2007

Living Off the Waste of Industrial Society

My friend, MEA, inspires me a lot with her attention to the moral details of conservation. She has written eloquently on various groups we've both on about the impact of deriving secondary benefits from industrial society, and thus enabling it. And I think her ideas are important ones. Because the more dependent we are on the consumption of others to allow us to live sustainably, the harder it will be to maintain in the long term.

What am I talking about? Well, there's the fact that I've decided to cheat on my buy-nothing year this summer so that I can buy used clothing at yard sales for my children, particularly my oldest son. My reasoning is, of course, that it would be foolish to miss a whole season of yard saling and then have to buy retail in the fall to make sure he has enough clothes. Now this reasoning is absolutely correct - used items have a smaller environmental impact, by buying them we're keeping things from being wasted, etc... But it is also a way of making me dependent upon other people buying lots of stuff. Someone has to buy new clothes, and lots of them, in order for me to have anything to pass down. There's a whole movement, called "The Compact" in which people agree not to buy anything new. But how hard would that movement be if there weren't so many used things to buy. Amy Dacyzyn, of the _Tightwad Gazette_ observed that once, yard sales tended only to carry battered, poor quality items, but now times have changed - that is, they've changed precisely in relation to our lack of commitment to making do, using things up, repairing them and not buying many new things.

Here's another example - a recent paper came out of MIT, cautiously endorsing corn-based ethanol. The woman who ran the study pointed out that whether ethanol comes out as having any net energy benefit at all depends on how you define the product - that is, which energy inputs you count, and what value you give the co-product, that is, the fermented grain left over after ethanol is produced. Draw a small enough circle around what you'll include and ethanol is a net positive. Expand the circle enough, and it turns out not to be. David Pimmental at Cornell and Ted Paczek at Berkeley have done a number of studies saying no, the USDA (surprise, surprise), says yes. But what Tiffany Groote's MIT study did that was interesting was say, "you are both right." Her cautious yes on whether ethanol is a net energy positive, and whether its pollution consequences are lower depends on using the coproduct of ethanol production to feed to industrially farmed animals. But guess what? It turns out that feedlot meat is a bigger contributor to global warming than SUVs are - because feedlot meat is to incredibly toxic to the environment and consumes such a crazy amount of energy, using ethanol by products to feed cows, which seems like a good use for waste, turns out to be just a way of propping up a disastrous system and doing more harm.

On another group I'm on, there was a discussion of the rise in price in pellets for wood stoves. It turns out that a combination of the rise in recycled plastic lumber (which uses sawdust as part of its materials) and the decline of the new house boom has meant that there isn't as much sawdust around, and it is getting more and more costly to burn it in the form of pellets. Now this is kind of a problem for several reasons. First of all, that means people who have pellet stoves may burn more oil and natural gas instead. But second of all, it represents another way that the best of intentions (making good use of a waste product to reduce energy consumption), may come back to haunt us. Because when we're dependent on the by product of industrial, cheap energy, wealthy societies, a reduction in wealth and or cheap energy, or a desire to limit the environmental consequences mean that we're that much less able to shift over to a truly long-term system. If, for example, new home construction drops even further, there will be a whole lot of people with pellet stoves either paying more for pellets than they might have, or simply unable to maintain their backup heat system. And if it turns out that pellet stoves aren't such a long term good deal, because many require electricity and because the price and availability of pellets depend on the housing market, we'll all have wasted a lot of energy, and time and money on manufacturing, buying, using pellet stoves - and we'll still have to find another heating alternative.

It isn't that it is bad or wrong to make use of the by products of industrial society. The issue is that we have to start thinking more than 2 steps ahead, and our infrastructure needs to be adapted so that it is neither dependent on cheap energy, high carbon outputs and high consumption, but also so that it isn't dependent on its waste. That is, there's nothing wrong with me using other people's outgrown clothes for my family, but I need to be thinking hard about what happens when the cost of clothing and the economy mean that most people are hanging on to their discards? What happens when more people need to rely on waste, and fewer people can afford to waste things?

Books like _Planet of Slums_ document the millions, even billions of people who are now living, to a large degree, off the garbage and waste of affluent people. In Asia, Africa and Central America, there are now millions of people who live their whole life on the edge of giant dumps, being slowly poisoned by the toxins therein, scavenging wire, or food, or bits of plastic from the things rich people simply throw away. Our own scavenging is usually cleaner and safer, but on some level, those of us who derive our security from the discards of cheap energy and lots of carbon are both enabling and vulnerable to the day when it begins to ... stop. And we need to take care, both in a personal sense, that our security is not so dependent on waste that it collapses when waste lessons, but also that we are not enabling things to continue warming the planet and wasting our remaining resources. Because someday, unless we wish to make our livings from the dumps of the rich, it will indeed, have to... STOP.



RAS said...

I've been thinking along the same lines lately, and have been beating my head against the wall trying to figure out some way of changing over to a system where I'm NOT so dependent on other's discards. For now, I see the fact that others are so wasteful as a boon to me (even though a harm to the planet) in that it enables a grad student on a low budget to get things I need but otherwise wouldn't be able to. (Like mason jars through Freecycle.) On the other hand I'm trying to develop long term plans to make me more secure.

I'm also a member of The Compact and have been for about 8 months. It's not exactly about buying nothing new; underwear, socks, meds, food, etc, are allowed. As are local artisan products. The bigger purpose is to make us think about where everything we purchase comes from and what the impacts of that consumption on ourselves, others, and the planet.

Kristianna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristianna said...

I don't see it the same way. I see it as me and my family "cleaning up after industrial society". We use waste vegetable oil to fuel our vehicles and we feel like this is oil that will not be dumped into a landfill or poured into a city water system. There are other ways to recycle waste vegetable oil, but we are recycling it in our cars.

We talk about when the waste veg. oil will "dry up". We know it will eventually for any number of reasons. In the meantime, we are not dependant upon the oil industry, we are recycling, *and* we are making plans for how we can use less fuel/energy.

I do repair our clothing and make do with what we've got, but I see our purchase of used clothing as making certain that at least some clothing does not end up in a landfill. Again, cleaning up after other's mistakes and overconsumption.

I admit to worrying about creating the need for used clothing, but I worry more that a child in another country may have made the clothing my children wear. I cannot bear the thought of that to the point that I often make my children's clothing. But, then I am creating the need for new fabrics. And what about the wasted remnants of fabric from my projects? Scrap knits become underwear; wovens become quilts and other projects; flannels become cloth menstrual pads and cloth wipes for the bathroom; scrap fleece becomes hats and mittens and so on.

I guess I just feel that we can only do so much. We truly need more people out there to be as determined to "do the right thing" as we are.

There is so much more to say on this subject, but I am having a "foggy mind moment" here.

Great discussions, Sharon. You are really making me think (more).

awlknottedup said...

Speaking of unintended consequences and ethanol. For years I have argued against ethanol and bio Diesel because of two things outside of the usual energy invested, energy returned arguments. One is that replacing other liquid energy sources will encourage significantly increasing the amount of land torn under and planed into another monoculture crop.

The other is that we would then pit wealthy owners of personal transportation against the food needs of the less wealthy. From reading the news recently this last is starting to happen. Mexico has seen huge price increases of its low income staple, tortillas. The reasons are many and include local corruption taking advantage of a situation. Other major reasons are the demise of the local Mexican corn farmers who cannot compete with the energy intensive and heavily subsidized crops from the US and more of the US corn crop going into ethanol production.

This is our and their future as peak oil takes is slow but unstopping toll.

farmer, vet and feeder of all animals said...

I too have thought about this. I love your articles by the way.
I am not sure how to do the clothes thing though. I have no idea how to make a bra or underwear---nor do any locals that I know. Besides there is no organic/sustainable/local fibers being produced around me except my (and a few others) wool. O.K--great for a sweater but not my underwear thank you. And I know my kids will balk at it for pants :-)
This british link ( ) has some good books including: A CHINESE BIOGAS MANUAL by Ariane van Buren
Now that's sustainable energy and you aren't dependent on anyone else for it. You can use as much as you can make.

UNplanner said...

While I agree with the Ethanol comments, I disagree with the pellet arguement. Harvesting wood will always occur and in certain areas it can be done sustainably. Pellets burn more efficiently than wood stoves so strategically placed mini-pellet mills in heavily timbered areas may be able to sustainably supply a fleet of pellet stoves off of local lumber waste (sawdust)and smaller un-sellable virgin timber growth ground directly up into pellets. I have no doubt such a strategy will work in the Pacific Northwest and rural parts of New England. Obviously you would want to pick another heating strategy if you live in Nebraska or New Mexico, but you get the idea.

On the whole, pellets store easier, burn cleaner and better suited for urban (small town and city) locations. They can also be used to fire a boiler for heat and domestic hot water requirements. Plus their electrical consumption is relatively small compared to their heat output. Somewhere I read they are testing electricity free stove designs.

Again, this isnt a solution for everyone, everywhere. But it doesnt need to be solely dependent on the waste of industrialized civilization either.

Note, i am NOT affiliated with the Pellet Industry. I did own a pellet stove and was able to heat most of my home on a few pounds of pellets a day

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