Monday, July 02, 2007

Occupied and Oblivious?

As I continue reading texts on sustainability, specifically applying it to business operations, I am beginning to recognize common themes among the books. Besides the technical and design elements of sustainability; systems thinking, thermodynamics, operational excellence, lean manufacturing, ISO 14000, industrial ecology, closed loop manufacturing, accounting for externalities, etc., there is an element of social commentary involved. This commentary is sometimes overt, but more often than not, is subtle and hidden. Generally, the authors convey a sense of collective consumer activity that numbs us to the world that we inhabit. Combined with never-ending advertising and peer pressure, the daily exercise of "buying stuff" helps make the collective realization that the path we are treading through 4 billion years of natural capital is unsustainable never happen.

It is easy to see why we have become so disconnected from where "stuff" comes from and therefore our impact on our surroundings. It is "the way things are". As an example, we drove 5 hours from the Boston area to Mt. Desert Island in Maine for a vacation. We packed the bikes in the back of the car to take our recreation with us. We joined thousands of other seasonal tourists that descend upon the island in the summer months to bask in the glory and peace of nature and then head back to our "real" lives, wherever that may be. The act of vacationing is another consumer experience. We go somewhere, consume resources and experiences, perhaps bringing something of that place back with us in the form of a T-shirt or coffee mug that was no doubt manufactured along with thousands of others for Hilton Head, SC Hollywood, CA somewhere in China. The mug is used as a reminder of our time away, only to be replaced by another from our next adventure, and perhaps lost in the back of the cupboard, given to the Salvation Army, or simply thrown away. When we have no concept of what goes into that mug, our simple decision to buy it is simple and meaningless.

The purpose of my rambling here is not to cast us all into the fires as environmental destroyers, but to highlight all the little things that we do add up to a lot of externalities. As I sit here in an Internet cafe in Bar Harbor, listening to us all clack away on keyboards made of refined petroleum, I wonder about the "system" that is the economy of Mt. Desert Island. It is a simple mass flow calculation, a secondary measure of energy flow. Resources are brought in, used, and thrown out. How would we model the island as a system? Imagine coming up with a way to help the island a "close the loop", or at least reclaim as much as possible. Imagine if island visitors "got it", taking actions that help preserve the very nature they come to see and that supports the island economy. It's not that far-fetched, in 2005 civic leaders came together to discuss ecotourism for the region including Mt. Desert Island.

An article from Fast Company I recently heard about from Greenbiz, entitled Message in a Bottle, does a fabulous job of illustrating our collective ignorance of our acts of commerce. It's worth the read. Here's a brief excerpt:
Every bottle of Fiji Water goes on its own version of this trip, in reverse, although by truck and ship. In fact, since the plastic for the bottles is shipped to Fiji first, the bottles' journey is even longer. Half the wholesale cost of Fiji Water is transportation--which is to say, it costs as much to ship Fiji Water across the oceans and truck it to warehouses in the United States than it does to extract the water and bottle it. That is not the only environmental cost embedded in each bottle of Fiji Water.

The Fiji Water plant is a state-of-the-art facility that runs 24 hours a day. That means it requires an uninterrupted supply of electricity--something the local utility structure cannot support. So the factory supplies its own electricity, with three big generators running on diesel fuel. The water may come from "one of the last pristine ecosystems on earth," as some of the labels say, but out back of the bottling plant is a less pristine ecosystem veiled with a diesel haze. Each water bottler has its own version of this oxymoron: that something as pure and clean as water leaves a contrail.

San Pellegrino's 1-liter glass bottles--so much a part of the mystique of the water itself--weigh five times what plastic bottles weigh, dramatically adding to freight costs and energy consumption. The bottles are washed and rinsed, with mineral water, before being filled with sparkling Pellegrino--it uses up 2 liters of water to prepare the bottle for the liter we buy. The bubbles in San Pellegrino come naturally from the ground, as the label says, but not at the San Pellegrino source. Pellegrino chooses its CO2 carefully--it is extracted from supercarbonated volcanic springwaters in Tuscany, then trucked north and bubbled into Pellegrino.
The author does a good job of investigating multiple sides of the story, and as with any item produced in an industrialized production method, gets at some of the issues surrounding embodied energy and local economic development.

When we start looking at things as a system, and the true costs of items are revealed, our decisions will be much different, since we will be acting in our own economic self interest.

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