Solid as a Rock

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I came across an article today on Alternet touting durability as a potential partial solution to the energy drain. The summary says, “The way to lower the quantity of energy required to make and distribute short-lived consumer goods is to make them durable, repairable and upgradable.” This is a lot more genteel than its headline, which read, “Our Lives Are Filled With Worthless Crap That's Destroying the Earth: Here's What You Can Do." In spite of the provocative headline, the article is well-done and draws on some excellent and authoritative sources. Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, the author, includes one of my favorite quotes which I used in my book.

The literature on planned obsolescence makes frequent reference to statements by industry analysts and strategists of that [post-WWII] era. “Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption,” retailing analyst Victor Lebow said in 1948. “We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing rate.”

While the article points to an opportunity to lessen the load on Planet Earth, it misses a critical point. One of the first people I met when I started to work in the world of solid waste management and recycling in the mid-seventies, before it was connected to sustainability, was Walter Stahel. Walter began to point to the need to close product cycles as early as 1976. He argued that by building longer product life into everyday artifacts we could reduce material consumption and create employment at the same time. The website of the organization, Product-Life Institute, he co-founded in Switzerland tells their early story.

In their 1976 research report to the European Commission in Brussels ‘The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy’, Walter Stahel and Genevieve Reday sketched the vision of an economy in loops (or circular economy) and its impact on job creation, economic competitiveness, resource savings and waste prevention. The report was published in 1982 as a book “Jobs for Tomorrow, the Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy”. Today these factors are commonly referred to as the three pillars of sustainable development: ecologic, economic and social compatibility.

Although Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart have popularized (and often claim exclusivity for) the phrase cradle-to-cradle, Stahel came up with the idea years earlier. Working my way through his website, I find references to many key events involving Stahel along the path to cradle-to-cradle, many happening in Europe, for example, the founding of the Factor 10 Club along with Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek in the early 80s. What strikes me as noteworthy is that it is now almost 2010, some 34 years later, and we are still acting as if this is an idea whose time has yet to come.

Concerns about sustainability have almost exclusively focused on technical solutions to our over-consumption and energy profligacy. We have had many solutions, albeit not perfect, emerge over the past several decades. Very few have been implemented, not because they were impractical or excessively expensive, but because they were culturally unacceptable. This example of extended product life is evidence that, without giving priority to culture change pushed perhaps by coercive rules, technical solutions even when known become adopted only with great difficulty. This historical fact is the foundation of my argument that almost all so-called greening efforts by industry only divert us from the real root cause of unsustainability.

Virtually all locate the root of the problem in some technical arena and either miss or deliberately direct attention away from our cultural consumption habit. Industry’s failures are compounded by the growth imperative of standard liberal market economic policy. Growth may be needed today to afford a decent living to those suffering from the recession because we have adopted policies that skew whatever economic output to those that are already well-enough off. If we shared our wealth fairly and decently and rebuilt caring communities, it might be possible to leave the impossible dream of eternal economic growth behind. No amount of technology-based efficiency increase can substitute for a fundamental change in the cultural underpinnings of the United States and all other nations that are like us or wish to become just like us.

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