by April Dawn
Our concept of economic health is in need of swift revision if we are to live sustainably.
Tying the “Cradle-to-Cradle” Concept into Economics
Many efforts are currently underway to revise the way we think of economics. Most importantly, there is the recognition that the current economic system does not take environmental limits into account. Since much of the economy relies on physical resources and these physical resources have limits, current theories and equations are not adequate portrayals of the system as a whole. Environmental economics is a movement attempting to tie in environmental and ecological concepts which are known to limit the growth of populations (Harris, 2006). This, along with other environmental movements, is one of the many pieces in our efforts to live sustainably so that humanity may continue to survive indefinitely.
The “cradle-to-cradle” concept began as an attempt to revamp recycling. McDonough (2002) recognized a problem with the consumer mentality of the United States- that we are thinking “linearly”. We take resources from the land, use them to create the products and foods we need, then waste whatever is left. Since the total amount of matter on the planet is relatively constant, following such a linear pattern to its completion would eventually leave us with a world filled with waste and no resources- “cradle-to-grave”. An acceptance of the “cradle-to-cradle” concept in our culture would eliminate the “grave” or waste from our thinking. Instead of a linear system, we need to create a cycle of resource use, mimicking the many cycles of the environment.
To fully integrate “cradle-to-cradle” into economics and reshape our thinking, we will need to remake the way we make things, so that everything is “reusable”. Instead of waste being sent to a landfill, any worn-out and overused materials would be sent to a facility that could “remake” something else of use. Instead of expecting a continuous exponential growth of the economy, we must determine our economic capacity and cycle our goods and resources around the globe.
If we were to integrate McDonough’s “cradle-to-cradle” system into our economy, we would need to make two major changes. To turn our linear economic system into a cycle, we would need to a) alter the production of our goods to make everything more reusable, and b) revamp our “waste” disposal system into another production line. Making these changes to both the start and finish would create a continuous, renewable cycle and bring our production and use of resources into a balanced economic system.
Much of what we currently put into the production of our goods is in no way reusable. We use synthetic chemicals that cannot be easily broken down which become toxic as they build-up in higher concentrations. This has resulted in the need for pollution cleanup projects that are not always successful, as well as regulations being placed on companies in efforts to maintain an “optimal pollution level” (Harris, 2006). Some pollution is unavoidable, but the “cradle-to-cradle” concept would have us alter production to completely cut-out all unnecessary pollutants. Toxic products that cannot be naturally broken-down or reused would need to be eliminated completely. This would require the EPA to place bans on most toxic chemicals, and would result in unprecedented changes to our system.
DDT is the most well-known banned chemical, due to the attention Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) drew to it. The excessive use of DDT as a pesticide was having adverse effects on wildlife, in particular weakening the shells of birds’ eggs and severely disrupting their reproductive success. Silent Spring made the public more aware of our role in the disappearance of bald eagles and brought immediate change. DDT was banned, and without its presence, the bald eagles began to recover, eventually being taken off the endangered species list in 2007. Yet, DDT is not the only chemical to have such drastically dangerous effects on the environment. If we were to ban all such chemicals, the world’s ecosystems could be restored to a health lost to our memory.
What would such an action cost us? What would it mean for the economy? Companies that are heavily reliant on the use of toxic chemicals would suffer, and many might possibly even go out of business if they could not adapt to the change. However, the idea of maintaining an optimal pollution level is not a strange one. If the change were not so drastic and instead came gradually the economy could easily adapt, companies able to find alternate ways to ensure the longevity of their products as they slowly cut-out these chemicals. A cap and trade system, with the cap slowly decreasing, would allow companies to seek out the most economically effective measures to make the necessary changes without destroying their business viability (Harris, 2006).
There are, however, some toxic chemicals that have important uses that cannot be replaced. Chlorine, for example, is extremely corrosive and dangerous in concentrated levels, but this is a very important component of bleaches and water treatment facilities. Instead of banning such chemicals, these would need to be more heavily regulated so that they are always used and disposed of properly to prevent pollution problems. Regulations on these chemicals are already in place, so this would not call for much of a change. Minimizing their use so that the natural “sink” function of the planet can prevent the build-up of dangerous concentrations would be the key with these chemicals (Harris, 2006).
Some pollutants can even continue to be useful, if properly recaptured and utilized. Take, for instance, agricultural run-off. Unchecked and unregulated, all excess fertilizers and pesticides make their way into rivers and lakes and eventually the oceans (Leeds, 1992). The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the result of this continuous buildup of agricultural run-off carried down the Mississippi River. Yet these pollutants would not have such detrimental effects if not in such a concentrated state and could even be reused to continue fertilizing crops. Developing a system to capture and redistribute agricultural run-off would reduce fertilizing costs, as farmers would get more use out of the fertilizers they purchase (Salzedo, 2011). This could, in fact, greatly reduce the impact of pollution, as non-point source run-off is the greatest contributor to water contamination.
With the elimination of toxins, all “wastes” would have the potential to be reused. Landfills would be no more. Instead of sending assorted wastes to a dump to be shoved underground and “out of sight, out of mind”, these products could be recycled. Recycling facilities would become the norm, and we could even begin the process by “mining” current landfills (Fisher, 1995). As we continue mining for raw resources and it becomes harder and harder to find materials that can be feasibly processed in a costly manner, we may soon be approaching the time when it would be more economical to turn our landfills into mines. Already, most landfills are being equipped with sorting facilities to send recyclable materials back into processing. The cost to employ the necessary man-power would not be all that different from digging another mine.
Landfills, without toxins, also present the perfect opportunity to utilize the earth’s sink function. Decomposition is a slow and steady process with breaks down the molecular composition of any viable resource. The physical and chemical form is altered through varying methods of erosion, leaving behind a cornucopia of ready-to-use basic molecules in the form of soils and underground gasses. Methane, in particular, is one such gas commonly released from the earth in landfill locations and some facilities have equipped themselves with the means to capture and utilize this gas (Power Partners, 2009). This can be directly used as a generator for the landfill, cutting down energy costs- and any excess energy production can be sold to surrounding households and companies for additional revenue.
Methane is also a product of digestion in cattle (Laur, 2010). Attempts to capture and utilize this possible energy source are currently underway in the many efforts to find alternative energies and limit our impact on climate change. In fact, this methane is perhaps the leading contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions fueling global climate change. Possibly our greatest folly in linear thinking is that which we leave to the air. We as human beings tend to forget about the things we do not see, and the air we breathe is all but invisible. We have been feeding “pollutants” into the air from the time we first made fire, without any thought to where it was going. The depletion of the ozone was the first major eye-opener to the problem we have ever so slowly been creating, and since then we have been striving to better understand the impact our actions are having on the air.
The earth works in cycles. It is a virtually closed system. Nothing is ever lost to us- it only changes form. The most well-known and influential cycles are the water, nitrogen, and carbon cycles. Each of these pass from earth to air and back to earth again. These cycles found a natural balance, without our influence, that allowed life to thrive. We upset that balance by speeding one end of the cycle. We are sending products into the air faster than the earth can naturally “recapture” them. This is altering the environment and proving detrimental to our own economy. If we continue using and depleting resources faster than the earth can replenish them, we will eventually be left with nothing to use.
Oil is one of the slowest resources to be replenished. It was naturally refined beneath the earth’s crust over millions of years, and we are depleting it at an ever increasing rate. As the standard of living the world around increases, the need for the energy to fuel our homes, industries, and vehicles also increases. Yet such a living standard cannot be sustained indefinitely. Estimates for the point in time that we will reach “peak oil” are in the very near future (Aaron, 2011). This is the point where we will have maximized our output of oil and will begin to see a decline. With that decline, prices will rise as oil continues to disappear and demand to increase, until there is no more.
To fully implement a cradle-to-cradle system the world around, this practice will need to change. Our linear mindset needs to become a cycle. If the earth is not replenishing its resources as fast as we are using them, then we need to speed the replenishing process. One of the major components in oil is carbon, and it is carbon we are releasing into the atmosphere. Essentially, we have been taking the “sink” of trapped carbon under the ground and releasing it into the air. Without a return to the earth, the cycle is incomplete.
Doing nothing would not only be irresponsible, but would sign our own death warrant. The human population has grown dependant on the utilization of these resources. To continue using them at our current pace while doing nothing to ensure a sustainable future would result in a population completely incapable of survival once these resources are depleted. Island populations, like that of Easter Island, that developed too quickly for the island resources to recover are perfect examples of what lies in store for us- extinction (Rodgers, 2011). This leaves us with two possible options- a) slow our release of carbon emissions so that the earth may replenish what we release naturally, or b) speed the replenishing process to match our output.
Economically speaking, a financial resource remains viable when we are able to live off the accrued interest (Harris, 2006). If we take more than the interest, we begin degrading the value of our resource. The interest becomes less and less as our money slowly disappears and is eventually gone. Our physical resources work in much the same way. Every resource can eventually be replenished at its own unique “interest rate”, and as long as we are living on only the interest our environment remains healthy. However, many of these interest rates are so small and accrue so slowly that reverting to a life-style that would maintain the viability of these resources is simply unfeasible.
Option two, speeding the earth’s ability to return these resources to their sink and thus “increasing” the interest rate becomes more and more feasible as we develop more technological advancements. Increasing forest cover is one very simple possibility, but would not make enough of a difference fast enough. So efforts to pull carbon from the air and return it to the earth’s “sink” have been underway since we realized the reality of global climate change. Carbon capture technology is now a reality, though currently more costly than the continued use of fossil fuels. GoNano Technology (Azonano, 2010) is one of the leading developers, and Carbon Recycling International (Olah, 2007) has gone straight from carbon to gasoline, turning motor vehicles into their very own energy cycle.
As we continue attempting to refind the equilibrium of earths many cycles, we will eventually reach a point of balance. Everything has its limits, and we will have to live within those limits if we wish to survive into any foreseeable future. We simply cannot continue growing indefinitely. Instead of an economic model deemed healthy only when growing, we need to determine what the limits to our growth are and live within them. To put it simply, finding our “carrying capacity” is an important component of implementing the cradle-to-cradle concept. This removes us from the idea of continuous infinite growth, and finds health within the bounds of a balanced existence.
All living things have a carrying capacity, and that capacity is dependent on a variety of factors- population density, density dependent or independent growth, reproductive capacity, longevity of life, but of all these the most important factor is available energy sources. Take, for instance, a herd of deer. The single greatest indicator of what the carrying capacity may be for any given herd of deer is the availability of grass and other foods (Gilbert, 2001). When more food is available, there can be more deer. When less food is available, fewer deer will be present. Energy is the major limiting factor in the growth of any species.
Carbon has been our main source of energy since fire. The burning of wood, and then coal, and now fossil fuels all utilized different carbon “sinks”. As long as we continue to rely on carbon for energy, our growth will be limited by the availability of that resource. Whether we pull it from wood, coal, oil, or the very air, there will always be the same amount of carbon on the planet. The total amount of carbon never changes- only the location does. Determining the total amount of carbon available to us, then allocating how much is needed per person around the globe would give us the most accurate estimate of our own carrying capacity.
The amount of energy each person uses, however, varies greatly. Industrialized countries utilize far more energy than others. Developed nations have a far greater impact or “footprint” on the global environment than do undeveloped nations (Unknown, 2011). Reducing our wasteful practices and exercising greater energy efficiency could change this. As we strive to find ways for people to reduce their “footprint”, we can increase the number of people that can sustainably survive on the planet. As each person uses less energy, more energy becomes available for others to use.
The cradle-to-cradle concept can be much more far reaching than simple recycling. Fully integrated into our economic system, it can change the globe. We can remake the way we make things, minimize our wastes and pollutants, and transform our “waste” facilities into true recycling centers. When we start thinking in cycles instead of lines, we can start finding ways to change the system all around us- in our buildings, our clothing, our packaging, our electronics, our vehicles, our furniture… everything!
We need to turn our linear model into a cycle- instead of an economic system that grows indefinitely, we need to determine the constant maximum level we can sustainably maintain and keep products cycling around the globe. The efforts to make this change will be costly up front, as are any “green” efforts. In examining the feasibility of alternative energies or any other change to more “green” technologies, the up-front cost is always far greater than current systems. However, they always pay themselves off and even start paying back in over time. When looking at the long-term, how can we not see the wonderful savings of a system that works WITH the environment?
The real question is how long will we wait? Economic shifts only come naturally when current practices are no longer as cost-effective as the proposed change. When mining becomes too costly as it becomes harder and harder to find usable metals, when the use of fossil fuels becomes too costly as we pass the point of peak oil, when the continued wasteful practices in use of water and run-off becomes too costly as population continues to grow and these resources become more scarce… that is when we will see the changes. In a world that follows the money, people will always go with the cheapest option, and being wasteful is cheap when there is excess. Being environmentally conscious becomes cheaper and “smarter” as resources become scarce, and since there is always the same amount of everything- this happens as we continue to displace our resources by offsetting the cycle and as our population continues to grow.
The shift to a cradle-to-cradle economic system will eventually come of its own accord, unless we wait too long… If we overshoot our carrying capacity and find ourselves unable to regain a balanced state, we could find ourselves facing the same fate as those of Easter Island. We need to carefully consider all the factors in play, as the natural economic change typically comes past the point of environmental need (Harris, 2006). We need to put some of our own limits on the system, to help it into the change before it is too late. Just how soon the shift needs to take place is uncertain, but with the many environmental problems we are now facing it will most certainly be sooner than later.
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