In Natural Capitalism (Amory Lovins), Lovins argues that just as it was impossible 250 years ago to conceive radical labour productivity, it is equally difficult today to imagine radical resource productivity. But then what about this lightbulb?
Professor Al Bartlett begins his one-hour talk with the statement, “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” He then gives a basic introduction to the arithmetic of steady growth, including an explanation of the concept of doubling time. He explains the impact of unending steady growth on the population of Boulder, of Colorado, and of the world. He then examines the consequences steady growth in a finite environment and observes this growth as applied to fossil fuel consumption, the lifetimes of which are much shorter than the optimistic figures most often quoted. See also: Legend of the chessboard (IBM’s Mathematics Peepshow).
A documentary showing a chain of factories in Denmark that use waste from one industry as raw material for another (industrial ecology/symbiosis). The concept of Industrial Ecology has been criticised on the following issues:
- It assumes that declining volume of raw materials used per unit of gross national product (GNP) constitutes a process of dematerialisation, that is, to an overall reduction in material consumption and therefore pollution. However, others have argued that over time, dematerialisation has not reduced the amount of matter/energy extracted, waste/emissions released. Dematerialisation contributes to reducing unit costs of production, which accelerates the circulation of capital, cheapens and thus intensifies the appropriation of material and energy from nature, and therefore exacerbates the global environmental impacts of industry. See: Bunker, S. G. (1996). Raw material and the global economy: Oversights and distortions in industrial ecology. Society & Natural Resources: An International Journal, 9(4), 419-429.
- Current linear economy starts with high quality materials (fossil fuels, ores) extracted from the earth, and returns them to nature in degraded form. To achieve a ‘closed’ material cycle requires:
- Material cycling to help reduce, or at least slow the growth of, dissipative material throughput.
- ‘Entropy cycling’ that refines high entropy wastes back into low entropy raw materials. See: O’Rourke, D., Connelly, L., & Koshland, C. P. (1996). Industriai ecoiogy: A critical review. Int. J. Environment and Pollution, 6(2/3), 89. Entropy cycling is generally ignored in the Industrial Ecology literature. E.g.: Ehrenfeld (1994) ”The loop is closed by routing waste materials from the source of those wastes to other entities that use them as feedstocks”. For descriptions of the concept of entropy, see: Second law of thermodynamics (Through the wormhole) and more elaborately Entropy (Caltech).
An interview with Amory Lovins on the concept of Natural Capitalism. It has received the following critiques:
- Herman Daly said: “Some folks, like Amory Lovins, think that GNP could grow 10 fold or more with a constant throughput. I tend to doubt it. I believe the coupling is stronger than that, but if Amory is right that’s fine with me. Let GNP grow forever as long as throughput is constrained and held constant.” (see also Sustainability and the scale of the economy (Herman Daly))
- Lovins argues that just as it was impossible 250 years ago to conceive radical labour productivity, it is equally difficult today to imagine radical resource productivity. It is not hard to imagine: what about the 110 year old lightbulb? Others argue that the problem is not technological, it is with our focus on quantity instead of quality. See: Pyramids of Waste (Cosima Dannoritzer) and in Moving Forward (Zeitgeist).
- For another critique of the concept, check out: Trainer, F. E. (2001). Natural capitalism cannot overcome resource limit. Minnesotans for sustainability
A documentary on the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) design concept of Michael Braungart and William McDonough. It present ideas about how to ‘close’ cycles in our production/consumption systems. They have received the following critiques:
- C2C states that “biological nutrients” will easily reenter the water or soil without releasing synthetic materials and toxins. Other argue that increased emissions or ‘wastes’ consisting of ‘biological nutrients’ are in fact not ecologically irrelevant. They participate in biogeochemical cycles, but can still have negative effects if inputs increase in those cycles. E.g. nutrient enrichment causes eutrophication (stimulates the growth of one species (algae) at the expense of the overall biodiversity). See: Reijnders, L. (2008). Are emissions or wastes consisting of biological nutrients good or healthy? Journal of Cleaner Production, 16(10), 1138-1141
- C2C states that “technical nutrients” will permanently move as pure and valuable materials within closed-loop industrial cycles. Others argue that the laws of thermodynamics aren’t fully addressed in C2C: “waste as food” is not a loop, more of a very slow downward spiral. Also, a growth-based C2C economy still relies on growing energy inputs. See: Reay, S. D., McCool, J. P., & Withell, A. (2011). Exploring the feasibility of cradle to cradle (product) design: Perspective from new zealand scientists. Journal of Sustainable Development, 4(1), p36. For posts explaining thermodynamics, see: Entropy (Caltech) and Second law of thermodynamics (Through the wormhole).
Video clip on ‘intrinsic obsolescence’. See also Pyramids of Waste (Cosima Dannoritzer) on ‘planned obsolescence’.
Common arguments against the idea of intrinsic obsolescence:
- You won’t build a table using the best materials (just strong enough, with best materials you can afford, with the time you have).
- Consumers decide how long they want things to last, some consumers decide they want to buy a cheap watch that won’t last as long.
- Cost efficiency mechanism is ignored. Regardless of your intent, you can’t produce the best quality from an environmental perspective in the market system.
- For some products (disposable bags and cups) the inferior quality is clear, this is what you buy. Is there a strategic need for a cheap watch? What about the resources and waste?
Documentary on planned obsolescence. See also Moving Forward (Zeitgeist) that talks about the economic roots of planned obsolescence, which they call ‘intrinsic obsolescence’.
Manfred Max-Neef is a Chilean economist who focussed on ‘development alternatives’. After teaching economics at Berkeley in the 1960s, he served as a Visiting Professor at a number of US and Latin American universities. He has worked on development projects in Latin America for the Pan-American Union, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Labour Office. In 1981 he wrote the book for which he is best known, ‘From the Outside Looking In: Experiences in Barefoot Economics’, published by the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, Sweden. It is concerned with practising ‘economics as if people matter’ among the poor in South America. In the same year he set up in Chile the organisation CEPAUR (Centre for Development Alternatives). He was Rector of the Universidad Austral de Chile in Valdivia and currently teaches and lectures globally. He received the Right Livelihood Award in 1983.
There is evidence that economic growth in the last 50 years is positively correlated with:
– increasing inequity (based on UN and World Bank data)
– environmental degradation (based on Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center data)
Is attempting to solve these problems through further growth like the cat chasing and biting its own tail?