BY SAUL GRIFFITH
The Year of Peak Waste
Yes, we are all depressed. It appears to me that
everyone I know is working harder than ever
before, scrambling in this strange new world
that was thrust upon us while the Global Economic
Crisis took hold of our little monkey brains and
made our primate instincts do the worst: panic.
But maybe, just maybe, it’s the best news ever.
Perhaps it’s actually fantastic. Let’s look at some
data: in terms of energy use and, consequently,
carbon output, the only proven technology humanity has for reducing CO output at the global scale is
economic crisis (see graph). The data is not yet in for
2008, though given that OPEC slashed production
multiple times in the latter half of 2008, it looks as
if, once again, recession has provably reduced our
“reliance” on carbon-based fuels.
So while you sit there contemplating employment
uncertainty, take solace in the fact that the dolphins
are probably doing backflips of joy, and polar bears
are likely hibernating in a slightly more secure
Arctic, dreaming of a few extra years of viable ecosystem ahead. The reality is that all of our economic
activity, whether it be buying gas to fill our cars,
or buying stuff to fill our houses, or even food to
feed our stomachs, uses energy from one source or
another. This is why, knowing how much money you
spend, you can estimate with reasonable accuracy
how much energy you use, and how much CO you
are responsible for putting into the atmosphere.
This equation is why there is a conversation in the
circles of people who think about climate change
and energy about “decoupling” the economy from
CO . Simplistically, there are two ways this decou-
pling can be achieved. The first is by swapping clean
energy sources for dirty ones. Electric cars run on
solar-power electrons instead of oil. Wind power
instead of coal. Geothermal instead of natural gas.
The second decoupling happens when we achieve
the same quality of life and service, at much lower
energy or carbon output. How can this be realized?
In the last decade or so, efficiency gains in the
steel industry mean that we can now produce
steel with 10%–20% less energy than previously required. Better refrigerators use less energy per unit
of food kept cool and fresh. This side of the energy
26 Make: Volume 17
equation is often called efficiency. Efficiency can
get us a long way, but for many things that we do, or
find “necessary” in modern society, we already do
them surprisingly efficiently.
Globally, the best models suggest we need to reduce
the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere by
80%–90% by 2050. That’s a lot. It looks incredibly
unlikely that we’ll figure out how to make steel with
80%–90% less energy or CO produced. That’s also
true for aluminum, plastics, paper, and most modern
materials. What does this mean? It means we need to
use less of all of those materials, which means making
products that last longer. It means repairing those
products. It means maintenance.
By being more careful and
thoughtful about what we
waste, we could have quality
Let’s try and imagine the beautiful version. Children
will play with beautifully engineered wooden toys
without toxic additives in small plastic parts. The
wooden toys will be repaired as necessary between
generations. You will have handsome shoes, repaired
by a cobbler. Instead of dealing with a website or
superstore, you’ll interact with someone who is interested in the weather that you share, how your shoes
are performing, and whether you are using beeswax
treatment often enough to keep the shoes soft and
waterproof. Rather than unflattering Ikea generics,
you’ll own beautiful furniture, handmade and well
oiled and polished.
Why would I bring this up now? Isn’t this the
steampunk issue? Let me give you a glimpse into
my thoughts right now. I’m writing in December of
2008. We are in the midst of the economic stupidity.
Twice this week there were blackouts on my street.
They hit me with an overbearing relevance: I was
reduced to candles, there was no wireless internet,
and my house was quiet. Peaceful, actually. I made
soup on my gas stove and used two tea candles