Our world is increasingly built upon a pile of junk. In fact, ever since the onset of the mass-production and mass-consumption era, with its mass-marketed brands and the onslaught of cheap, readily available synthetic materials, the world has become increasingly inundated with junk.
We are aware that factories, cars and power plants pollute, but seldom take into account how much of this is directly contributed to by us as consumers. We crave goods, go out and buy them, rip off the inevitable plastic layering, consume or use the product and eventually dump it somewhere.
Not knowing where it all ends up, we happily dump and defer responsibility to the manufacturers, who defer responsibility to our political leaders, whose only solution is to hold environmental conferences once a decade, impose new taxes and raise the charge for collection of said rubbish.
The fact is, we all want to produce, earn and consume, but no one is willing to deal with what is fast becoming a mountain of plastic, glass, silver foil, tin, etc. And so it spills into our soil, water, the seas, animals and eventually even into our own food chain.
All talk, no action
The fact is, we are producing junk much faster than we’re processing it, so it is collecting at an ever-increasing rate. It’s everywhere now, not just in the oily, plastic-ridden rivers of industrial areas, but even in so-called pristine landscapes. Look at the amount of rubbish collected at the roadside, or peer at the plastic bottles and tin cans sprawled across the forest floor and realise that somewhere, in an ocean on the other side of the world, plastic from a floating island the size of Great Britain is washing up on once-idyllic tropical beaches. Nowhere is too remote these days.
The root of much of the problem seems to be excessive packaging. Do we really need all that plastic? People talk about global warming, carbon footprints and pollution in general, but we’re using and dumping more plastic now than we did ten years ago. A movement against plastic bags is slowly gathering pace, which is good, but it’s countered by those people who seem to live in a world of their own – people like the Health & Safety moguls, who’d like to cover the world in a protective layer of shrink wrap. Likewise the wine connoisseurs, who are happy to destroy the cork industry in favour of plastic caps.
The reality is that the plastics industry, a by-product of the petrochemical industry, is huge and immensely powerful. They dump their products on the market, forcing their synthetic gadgets and packaging upon us as if plastic were the only commodity on earth that’s free.
Many suggest we simply consume less, recycle, don’t fly or drive but walk, that kind of thing. Few listen, though, as the main drive in our society is still towards consuming more and more. Others suggest we use technology to produce more efficient engines or power stations, or recycle old tyres into downgraded products such as rubber soles, but who really wants to cut back and feel guilty every time you board an aeroplane or start up your car? As a result, many of us pay lip service to environmental issues but otherwise stick our heads firmly in the sand.
There are, however, people who combine environmental concern with a more positive and energetic message; people like William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the authors of Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way We Make Things. In their book, the American architect and German chemist take a refreshingly different approach to the environmental challenges that we have created for ourselves, challenging the very way we produce, work and consume, to ‘think out of the box’ and come up with solutions that are altogether more palatable to the man in the street – and therefore more likely to produce lasting results.
‘Less bad’ is no good
According to Messrs. McDonough and Braungart, concepts such as consuming less, making more fuel-efficient cars and recycling by downgrading products is no good. Trying to be ‘less bad’ is the wrong approach, they say; it’s doomed to fail, as it goes against the grain of everything else we do.
According to them, it’s a question of production – or ‘design’ – to use their terminology. Much of the industry and technology upon which we build our way of life is ultimately unsustainable because it fights our natural world, depleting and polluting it. We may seem omnipotent, but our lifestyle is built upon a shallow foundation. By disrupting the balance of nature we may unleash its forces in ways that we’re just beginning to see.
Our wasteful form of production and consuming is not a model designed in harmony with our needs and surroundings, as any sustainable system would have to be, but rather a system that has grown haphazardly out of the roots of the industrial revolution. The thousands of rules and regulations that ‘manage’ the system have evolved equally haphazardly, in reaction to by-products and problems created by such new systems.
The drive for more
Thanks to this we now live in a world where we create prosperity by digging up or cutting down natural resources and then burying or burning them. We pollute our soil, water and air, eroding the diversity of species and cultural practices, and measure our productivity in terms of how few people are employed to achieve all of this.
Not only are we harming the world we live in, but the way our economies are structured they always need more: more growth, more production, less cost, more profit, fewer workers, more consumers, more efficiency, more market share, more outlets, new markets, more take-overs and acquisitions, less competition, less diversity, more profit, more economies of scale, etc, etc.
The problem is, this requires more land and more raw materials and puts us on a collision course with our resources, which are mostly finite. In a world where resources are diminishing, population exploding and consuming is the Holy Grail, just improving the efficiency of industry, cars, energy production, etc, is not enough.
The philosophical question is: what is it ever going to be ‘enough’? Just look at the motor industry. The Ford Focus has been the top-selling car in the world for years now, shifting millions upon millions of just one model, yet Ford is closing factories and cutting back tens of thousands of jobs. The need for economies and scale continues to drive the need for more economies and scale until it becomes too expensive to produce anything. Maybe we should follow the advice of Paul and Anne Ehrlich and ‘Convert the economic system from one of growthism to one of sustainability…”1
A new way of looking at things?
Although we are starting to see the effects created by our industrial heritage, where engineers, designers, businessmen and policymakers work in abstract and try to submit the natural environment to their individual needs and wills, human nature is such that we will probably only change our ways when there really is no other alternative.
Until that happens, however, people like McDonough and Braungart will continue to urge us to look at things in a new way, which means focusing not only on the issue of producing a certain product or service, marketing it and making a profit out of it, but also places that situation within the wider context of society, economies and the environment. In other words, until manufacturers begin to look at the process from beginning to end, designing products that close a circle from resource collection, manufacture, packaging, distribution and sale all the way through the cycle to waste disposal, recollection and recycling.
Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough & Michael Braungart and published by North Point Press: www.fsgbooks.com