Rethink: Turning the Lights On

Rethink: Turning the Lights On

When you were little, did you ever leave all of the lights on in the house? Perhaps leave the refrigerator door open? Maybe leave the door wide open on a cold winter day? I did, and I remember for all of these events my father commenting with lines such as ‘I am not paying to heat the outside’.

But what did I care? I was not paying the bill. In fact I had no concept of what things cost. It was all free and plentiful to me, and as such I used it without thought.

Isn't this our very nature? If it is cheap (or free) we value it less. If it is abundant, we value it less. This is troubling when one of the predominant driving factors of our society is to make things cheaper and more abundant. 

I imagine if I had to pay for everything I used as a child, I would have not been so care-free. Yet today, so much of what we have we don’t pay the real cost of, and I suspect true to our nature, it leads to us being far too care-free.

When you see an item in the store selling for $3 and stop to think about how is it possible this item can only be $3, it sinks in. Who or what is carrying the real costs of our products and our lifestyles? This is perhaps hard to say, as we do not account for many of the real costs. Instead we have allowed a linear production-consumption model, which focuses on continual growth, to drive our economy – a model of continual growth based on consumption of finite resources.

How sensible is that? How sustainable is that?

In Sense and Sustainability, Ken Webster and Craig Johnson write about the need to close the loop – to create a circular economy. To do so, we need to look at things differently. For example, they present the Tata Nano – the $2500 car that almost everyone could afford. Taken in isolation, the car is environmentally friendly because of its size and fuel economy. Taken holistically however, it might not be. What is the outcome of a globally massive increase in the number of cars on the road, no matter how efficient they are? Just to maintain a global status quo, they point out that if we double the global fleet of cars, we must also double their efficiency. To the ‘growth is good’ way of thinking, the car is a success. To a sustainable way of thinking it is not. 

Cheap and plentiful does not necessarily make our world a better place and in fact can make it worse.

I agree with the concepts of a circular economy. It is modelled on natural systems which generate no waste. So how do we do it?

Perhaps the answer is with providing services rather than goods.This idea of leasing or renting goods rather than selling them is put forth in 'Sense and Sustainability'. The argument is this places responsibility for the life of the product with the producer. Profits are maximized by building machines that do not fail. When a product is retired, the producer needs to see to its recycling. This would lead to product design that accounts for end of life. The concept of product design accounting for a product’s next life was deemed cradle-to-cradle by Walter Stahel.

But should it stop there?

Upstream accountability – that responsibility for products extends back to the source material suppliers – appeals to me. When I was young I heard a talk on how to solve the problem of industrial pollution discharge into rivers that is so simple it has stuck with me. The solution: require manufacturers (or other users) to discharge their waste water upstream from their intake points. Researching the circular economy combined with this notion of full upstream accountability led me to contemplate a different kind of resource management.

Imagine taking the process of upstream accountability all the way back to the raw resources.

What kind of world would it be if rather than mining and selling resources, miners extracted and leased resources? What if a mining company made its money not on the sale of a resource, but the ongoing income from leasing what the land provides? This would hold miners responsible for the resource through its entire life. Parties that lease these resources would ultimately be responsible for their return to the miners. This would continue down the line to the end user. We would have a complete cycle – resources would move in both directions. The full cost of products could be carried through the cycle as well.

What if the better use of the land was not mining? Could mining companies become holistic natural resource stewards? If we come to value human, environmental, and economic health equally, mining companies would be positioned to care for the land and its resources in a manner that provides the greater good, rather than simply the isolated resource worth.

Could we see a resource industry that operates holistically? Could we see an industry that retains responsibility for resources in perpetuity? Could we see an industry and a society that carries the true costs of resource usage?

It is possible, if we rethink how we do things, if we turn on the lights of ingenuity today to solve the problems of tomorrow. 

But such broad changes as I am suggesting are not going to occur overnight, so how do we get from here to there?

One place to start is to improve our management of the resources we already have, in particular metals. According to the UNEP International Resource Panel’s report ‘Assessing Mineral Resources in Society, Metal Stocks & Recycling Rates, there is clearly the opportunity for improvement in our reclaiming of metals when products reach their end of life. What was found is that while more traditional metals, such as steel, have high recovery rates (70-90%), metals that have only become more important in the last few decades, such as indium and gallium, the recovery rates are quite low (<1%). 

Improving our metal recycling rates provides many benefits. To begin, it reduces our need to find and mine new sources. Recycling also presents less of a demand for energy than mining new resources. Lastly, mining, even by the best practices, still has a local environmental impact. This is not to say mining is going to stop being a major part of our metal supply chain. As the UNEP report indicates, with ever growing demand for materials, we will continue to depend upon mining to meet our needs. What we do need to do much better though is to see mining as fulfilling the difference between what we need and what we can reuse and recycle. If we don’t, it may not be too long before our next mines will be our own garbage dumps or other anthropogenic sources (such as old bridges and buildings), for one way or another we are going to need these resources. The question is how are we going to approach it – proactively or reactively? Are we going to turn the lights on or are we going to stumble around into the dark? 

The views expressed by the author(s) of Rethink are not necessarily reflective of the organization and are provided as ideas for consideration in context of a changing world view.