“16 Steps to address the environmental crisis: Things you have already thought of!” (essay)

16 Steps to address the environmental crisis

Steps that you have already thought of, but that you have never seen written down anywhere!

Emanuel Pastreich

August 19, 2012

One of the great tragedies of our age is the ineffectiveness of efforts to address the environmental issues of our day. People are distracted from the problem of climate change by a specious debate about whether climate change is as dangerous, or dramatic, as some would claim, or whether it might be less severe, even a part of natural processes. That discussion is a remarkable waste of time. Even if you believed there was no climate change whatsoever (which is hard to argue considering that the Middle East was once fertile farmland), the crisis of overpopulation, water scarcity and pollution of ground water, the destruction of forests and ecosystems, over-fishing and damage to the atmosphere itself is more than enough to suggest radical change is taking place in our environment that puts us all at risk. The only response possible is radical change, but for ideological, institutional and cultural reasons we are not even capable of incremental changes.

The most criminal part of our hypocrisy is our blatant dishonesty to our children. Unable to honestly face the world that may be ahead of us, we try to hide the future from them as well. Worse than that, increasingly we use up resources for our enjoyment in the present day (our lifetimes) with little thought as to what we will leave behind for them (their lifetimes). Although I understand that the decision to change how we live is a difficult one, I believe that our youth have a right to know the truth about the future and we should join hands with them to try to change our culture.

Young people cannot perceive so easily that things that are green in color, feature pictures of rain forests, or are made of wood are not necessarily helpful to the environment. In many cases they are the opposite. Although the local “eco-café” may have wood moldings on the wall that make the consumer feel vaguely “environmentally friendly” that wood would have been much better used as living trees and the amount of disposable plastic and paper, even if it features eco-phrases, is totally unnecessary and damaging to the environment. Moreover, in the age of rapid technological change, images can be reproduced so cheaply that they cease to have much value and therefore the things they convey seem less meaningful.

I have put together a brief list of 16 steps to change our culture to keep in mind concerning our behavior towards the environment. Some suggestions are quite simple. As for the wasteful plastic and paper cups used at cafes, just require that everyone bring his or her own mug and be responsible for washing it—or pay a $5 fee for the rental of a ceramic mug cup at all cafes and the problems is solved.

I welcome further suggestions. Here is a general rule of thumb: If the policy debate you observe does not touch on these issues, then the policy debate is not all that serious or profound.

1)  Realistic sanitation

We need a new system for cheap and environmentally friendly sanitation in restaurants, in hospitals and other public places. We wrap, refrigerate and package foodstuffs, medical supplies and many other items far more than is really necessary and there is an overwhelming sense that somehow because of sanitation we must be wasteful. That assumption is doubtful. And I have never seen any thoughtful essays on this topic. It would not be a bad idea to start pouring billions of dollars into research on how we can main a germ-free environment without wasting resources. There are strategies for making sure much waste is never created in the first place. If we make up our minds, we can come up with strategies to avoid wasteful plastic wraps in the store or needless disposable medical equipment in the hospital.

2)  Recycling is the second best approach

We need to move beyond the illusion that recycling is the best strategy. Recycling is always a second-best strategy. In many cases, we recycle plastic and paper products that were not needed in the first place. What a waste!

We should not be deluded that such recycling is of much significance. After all, many materials can only be recycled so many times. I would better to set new norms and regulations that mean that we never make the product in the first place. That means redefining our lives and the entire manufacturing process.

3) Built to last

The highest priority, far higher than recycling, is creating products that are built to last. Shoes, clothes, notebooks, furniture should be built on the assumption that they will be employed for a long time. It might even be worthwhile establishing government subsidies that offset the increase the increase in cost for products that last. I bought a cashmere sweater in 1985 as an undergraduate. It cost me around $150—a fortune at the time. In 2012 I still have that sweater and it is still about as good as new. We can save an incredible amount in resourses if we subsidize the use of high quality goods for products designed to last 10-50 years. Incentives must be introduced at every level in society to make clothes and other items that last. A new culture that values such products must be encouraged as well.

5) Repair houses, clothes, bicycles and furniture

We need to make the tools to repair problems in the home, in clothing and furniture, in bicycles and other equipment, easy to repair at home. So often we end up throwing away perfectly good items either because our narcissistic culture does not allow us to use something old, or because we think we cannot repair it.

A few first steps would include: a) requiring that small replacement parts for all electronic and mechanical items be provided by law and that the standard parts of most items (bicycles, toasters, computers, cameras) be interchangeable and interoperable between all brands, b) creating a culture through education in which the skill of home repair is a virtue of great merit; c) offer ready education to all citizens as to how they can repair items themselves and offer benefits for those skills.

6) The Environmental crisis is an issue of Aesthetics, not economics or technology

The most serious problem for us is not a technological one, or an economic one, but rather an aesthetic one. We have been trained to think that buildings make of steel, glass and concrete are modern and glamorous. If we smell a rotten plant when walking down the street, or we step in a puddle we feel we are moving down a slippery slope to backwardness and poverty. Items made with injection molding seem more modern and trustworthy whereas things that could be made by a local craftsman strike us as inferior. The problem is one of perceptions and aesthetics: the rules by which we judge what is important, what has authority and what is beautiful.

The current, corporate-dominated aesthetic distain for the natural and the everyday is a major challenge for us. Much better that we learn to live with the smell of decay than that we insist on living in a sanitized world that causes unlimited damage to our ecosystem.

7) If it can’t be easily broken down into basic categories for recycling, do not sell it to consumers

The primary question regarding all products should be first and foremost convenience for recycling. Every product for sale should be easily recycled. If it is made of five or six materials that can be recycled, it should be designed so that it can be easily taken apart into the clearly marked parts and recycled. Locations for recycling should be prominently placed everywhere and detailed lists of what can be recycled—and how—should be readily available. If a product cannot be broken down into recyclable parts, it cannot be sold. If it is essential to create a product in a format that is hard to recycle, its sale requires a special license.

8) Learn to sit still

You want to save the environment? First learn to just sit still. If you can sit in a small room all day long and between exercise, yoga, meditation, reading and writing, as well as long conversations about what you read and what you do, you will be doing your part to save the environment. Just have more meaningful conversations, play with your children and enjoy your lives. You will save an amazing amount of energy.

Most of us simply lack the training to just be there, to just read and sit all day. But two hours of yoga and three hours of reading is much more valuable than driving to the mall to see an other movie and buy unnecessary products. If we start from preschool to create such a culture where we can sit in a room all day and live profound lives, we will have solved half the problem.

9) Restructure Consumer Culture

Consumer culture must be seriously restructured. The pressure to buy that permeates our society must be countered by an argument for environmental conservation and restraint. The problem of consumerism, which guts us spiritually, must be a central topic for discussion in school, from kindergarten. A competing “conservation culture” must be constructed.

10) If you must cut down a tree, you must plant three!

If you cut down a tree you must plant three trees. This is a simple rule, but we rarely follow it. We must remember that building a house in a forest is not a pro-environmental act. More valuable to make inner city spaces livable, to bring creeks and meadows into the center of our biggest urban spaces.

11) Establish a GDE (Gross Domestic Environment)

We need a realistic assessment of growth that includes the environment in its calculus. If the environment is damaged, the GDP cannot be positive. We need a system for monitoring and calculating the state of the environment, both globally and locally, that produces figures which can be posted on the daily news right next to the GDP or the stock market. The daily and monthly state of our environment should be calculated into all economic statistics so that no policy or practice that harms the environment can be perceived positively.

12) A Global System for Measuring the State of the Environment

We can only come up with a Gross Domestic Environment if we have a sophisticated global system for calculating the state of the environment and how it is changing. Although there are many factors involved in such calculations, they are absolutely essential if we are going to create awareness globally.

13) Slap a monitor on it

Every item, refrigerator, television, computer or toaster, must have a monitor on it that indicates how much energy it is using and the cash value of that energy. Monitors should also be set up that indicate how much energy is used in the home so as to create awareness of the aggregate use of energy as well.

14) We must become more materialistic

Although we commonly lament the growth of materialism in our society, we have not stopped to think very carefully about what that term really means. We may think of the madness of consumption as being a result of an obsession with the material world, but in many cases we are moving away from the material. We consume more because we pay less attention to the materiality of the object and more attention to its numerical value. We appreciate the taste of food less and therefore need to calculate satisfaction through the amount that we stuff in our mouths, or the cost of the food purchased. The solution can be found in a return to the material, everyday world, an appreciation of daily objects and simple food that relieves that need to consume without limit.

15) Make your own energy

Although the technology is not complicated, at present there is no way for the individual to add energy to the energy grid. We are passive consumers of electricity with no say in how that energy is consumed. It would be easy to set up a system whereby you can attach an exercise bicycle to the grid, or solar panels, so as to add energy back and make your home self-sufficient. In fact, if you could get back just $5 or $10 for the electricity you give back to the grid over what you employ, it might become a popular hobby to generate energy using solar or other means.  At present, such an approach is not even an option.

16) A Pro-environment movement aimed at the upper middle class is a non-starter

One of great farces of our age is the effort to advocate for environmental awareness from the driver’s seat of a Toyota Prius. Unless the environmental movement gains a significant following among working class people and its  value is made manifest  to those who struggle to get by, its influence will be quite limited indeed. The new green economy should not be even primarily for the upper middle class. Electric cars should be cheaper than petro cars and public transportation should be readily available based on need, not on the average income of the region.

5 responses to ““16 Steps to address the environmental crisis: Things you have already thought of!” (essay)

  1. Isaac August 19, 2012 at 5:22 am

    Thank you for being the one to write these all down. I appreciate that you actually explore the systemic causes of the ecological crisis and suggested solutions for them. I particularly like 6, 8, and 14, because they urge us to think a little differently, act a little differently, and see the world a little differently on fundamental level than the current mainstream technological society.

  2. Morton K. Brussel August 19, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    Our economic system depends on growth and many of the items you deplore. Many recognize now that Capitalism, even highly regulated, is inconsistent with environmentalism and sustainability of our natural and biological resources. Growing populations, and those demanding a “western” standard of living, will make all these problems more critical. Your list is useful to think about, and promote, but ignores the fundamental reasons why we are what we are.

    • Emanuel Pastreich August 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm

      So there are two ways to respond to your point. Firstly, you are absolutely correct that there are fundamental issues that undermine any effort to address the environmental crisis related to economic systems and ideology. However, one might argue that the only way to be successful is to present examples of what can be done, assuming that over time people will grasp the underlying issues through praxis.

      Secondly, the word “capitalism” is just ambiguous and not that helpful. What we are seeing today is something far beyond “capitalism” as it existed in the 19th century, and quite different from what existed in the 20th century. This new system is related to major technological transformations, and as I wrote in a recent essay, I fear it has more to do with the second law of thermodynamics than with human greed or ideology. In any case, I welcome a more detailed discussion, but I am not sure that the term “capitalism” helps–by the way, I am planning to write on this topic in honor of your question.

  3. Lorraine Bouchard August 20, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Bravo! A wonderful list, reminiscent of the inspiration I found in McDonough & Braungart’s book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaing the Way We Make Things.”

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