An inconvenient quandary

I walked into an offtime discussion yesterday between super engineer RJ and super tech writer CB (the other CB) about pollution and solutions. They were talking a bit about kyoto and exchanging credits and all that, and the conversation kinda of shifted into possible environmental solutions. I’m of the opinion that this is a majorly difficult issue; it’s not as black and white as the environmentalists would like and it’s too important to ostrich away.

The root of the problem is that we need and want things. We have a culture of desire and desire creates manufacturing and manufacturing creates pollution. The knee jerk reaction is to say stop using petroleum fuel based products. But it’s not that easy. Look around where you’re sitting and see how many things you can find that are NOT petroleum based. Take it a step further and consider which of those you could do without or could be alternatives. About the only thing I can see would be my desk itself, which could be wood instead of pressboard and arborite. Maybe my pens could be pencils. Everything else is plastic based. I suppose my keyboard and monitor could be metal, but that’s not really practical.

In the course of our discussion, RJ commented how in some European countries they control usage of things (ie electricity, gasoline) via tax rates…need to cut down on hydro electric, raise the taxes. We all know how well that would work here…it would last until the next election at best, and cause a civil uprising at worst. So I don’t know that that’s the answer. CB suggested everyone use transit or bike to work and get rid of the two car family. That’s impractical too…where we live, cost of living is such that many families require two incomes, and transit is fallible enough that it doesn’t work for the majority of people. My personal suggestion was stop being slavewhores to the oil lobby, and let the alternative fuel engine be developed. For 50 years we’ve had the technology, yet the oil industry has bought and buried everything that looked reasonable. Again, not practical…we are an economically driven society and the oil industry has the money.

The common thread is that all these solutions put the onus on the end user. I think that’s where environmentalism has and will continue to fail. We can’t expect the mass population to have such a fundamental shift from convenient consumerism to conscious pragmatism in a short period of time. People don’t do that. Everybody will not buy 6 dollar energy saving light bulbs when they are sitting next to 60 cent standard bulbs. Some will (I do, but mainly cuz they last longer and being a short guy afraid of heights i HATE changing lightbulbs 🙂 )…most won’t. People will not buy a 500$ solid wood desk when it’s next to a $100 pressboard and plastic one (again, in most cases…obviously some buy the wood or else stores wouldn’t sell them).

The problem has to be solved from a governmental and manufacturing level. It will take years at best, but there are ways we can make changes, and the end user will eventually buy in. Very few people bought an alternative fuel car for 40k when the same car with a standard small internal combustion engine was next to it for 15k less. But, as gas went up and economies of scale have brought hybrid cars down, they are becoming a bit more prevalent. This theory could be moved into all manufacturing. If governments could find ways to help manufacturers shift their facilities eventually the consumer would solve the problem by doing…exactly what they do now. If the lightbulb manufacturers all shifted to purely energy saving bulbs, eventually we would only have one choice in the store. Over time the economies of scale would bring the price of the energy saving bulbs down, and frankly after a while customers wouldn’t even notice the difference.

Likewise with packaging. There is no need for tons of plastic encasing things, and frankly consumers don’t care if they are or aren’t packaged environmentally soundly, really. An example: I use D’Addario guitar strings. I have for 10 or 15 years after much experimentation, and until i find a brand that sounds better and lasts longer, I won’t change. Several years ago, D’Addario stopped putting their strings in plastic packaging and put them in recyclable cardboard boxes. Did it change my purchasing habits? Not in the least; i already used their strings and will continue to. If D’Addario hadn’t switched from plastic and Ernie Ball had would I have switched manufactures? Absolutely not. This is typical of consumers…at the end of the day how it’s packaged doesn’t influence my buying decision. Either way.

If we had regulations on this, or some kind of benefits for manufacturers to make similar shifts, customers of all products would (for the most part) be the same. If some guys change and some don’t, the majority of people will not change brands to the guys that do. If it becomes pragmatic to switch, eventually all the manufacturers will. Eventually what we’ve done is removed a bazillion tons of waste by product use, without forcing any habit or value changes on the end user. So guess what… a fundamental change in how society treats our environment, and the typical citizen didn’t even notice it happening.

We can take this into the other aspects of our life; if the non petroleum based engine could be developed to work well, we could almost overnight remove the vast majority of our pollution problems. The obvious one is cars, but virtually everything that requires a motor requires an internal combustion engine of some kind. So manufacturing, hydroelectric plants, all of these things…eventually the pollution caused by power consumption would shrink, the pollution from manufacturing would shrink, etc etc.

Now, obviously this isn’t just a question of replacing all the engines with an alternate fuel engine. It’s not the fuel alone… it’s the by-products and exhaust too. So there needs to be massive development on ways to solve that. That may take years…by nature a power generating device creates by products and exhaust. But I believe that until these developments happen there is really no way to solve these issues. People will not start taking transit because it’s right, they will do it only because they have to.

I guess what i’m saying is that this theory of everyone do their part for environmentalism just won’t work in the long run…because people won’t.  People won’t change a brand of breakfast cereal for another because of the packaging, they’ll change because of the taste.  So fix the packaging and for all of them and then it doesn’t matter.  Take the onus away from the end user and the problem will be easier to solve.

Just my opinion…


4 comments so far

  1. Megan on

    Well – actually – some of us do choose products based on things like packaging and environmental consciousness. I know it seems unfathomable that people can experience a shift in worldview to accomodate for more than just themselves… but it’s true… some of us at least try. I don’t disagree with your premise that government should do more… this is fundamentally correct… but in the meantime, we are all responsible.

  2. twitchy67 on

    Yes, I wasn’t saying that no one does the right things, what I meant is that society as a whole will never do the communal right thing; it’s just not possible. Obviously there are many people who strive to be conscientious and green, but as a whole society will never buck up until they have to.

  3. Duane on

    Several comments here.. People will not spend a lot of time investigating alternative technologies if the attitude is “we can just keep using this even if it’s bad.” So as long as people say “we have no choice but to use petroleum products,” then yeah, nothing will probably change quickly. Someone needs to say “we are going to stop using petroleum products in 10 years, so let’s get started.”

    I had a discussion the other day about how it seems entirey unfair that in a world with a global economy, that countries still can’t agree on how to best the planet. Everyone is focused on their own little sphere. And that applies to politics just as much. For example, the United Nations will never work properly as long as five countries have veto power. Every country should have an equal seat at the table, since at the end of the day, we’re all involved.

    I think we’re going to hit a major problem with consumerism sometime in the next 100 years. Everything is tied to resources at the end of the day, and as they start to expire or are threatened, the economies of those countries will start to collapse. Smaller countries will fail, and larger ones will consume the smaller ones to “protect its people.”

    I know communism doesn’t work, but I argue that capitalism is just as busted too. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I read that 90% of the wealth in Canada is owned by 5% of the people. Somehow that doesn’t seem right.

    That’s it for me. Sorry for rambling.

  4. Hybrid Cars Rock on

    We could all do our own little part of being Eco-Friendly. The cars we drive, the foods we eat etc..

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