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Elegant Technology

Chapter Ten
Do Producers Have a Plan?

The best way to predict the future is to go ahead and invent it!
Anon. (Nominated for "Official Producer Slogan")

When the economy turns sour, concern for nature and the environment evaporates like the morning dew. Far from having lasting impact, most environmental actions fade from public consciousness faster than a bad advertising campaign. Compared to the problems of daily survival in times of economic hardship, environmental activism seems like a hobby for the idle rich.

If environmental action follows the strategy of the old conservationists, modern industrial economies and their workers are considered targets. Industrial activity, according to these first-generation environmentalists, is the problem.

Conservationists believe nature must be preserved. Royal hunting estates became the model for a more democratic American incarnation: national parks. If American wetlands are saved, it will be thanks to the duck hunters. The extremely important work of saving species biodiversity is the shining star of the conservation movement.

This is still a strategy of the hunting rich. Nature is more important than people--the spotted owl is more important than the jobs and futures of timbermen. This produces genuine class bitterness. The rich, who want the parks of old growth timber preserved, forget that the houses they own were built with lumber from such forests. Likely, the rich hunter has taken far more than a fair share of the resources of the earth. To the woodcutter, the lifestyles of the urban rich will kill those forests with acid rain anyway, so why not cut down trees while they may still be used for lumber?

Conservation stands charged with elitism. It is guilty as charged! Conservation techniques deserve the mantle of elitism because it is an elite idea--in all the varied meanings of this word; however, so long as conservationists understand that their strategies will solve but a vital fraction of the environmental problems--they are but niche players, their status is assured. If the rich do nothing in their lives but preserve biodiversity, they will have justified their very existence. Yet it is essential that conservationists support an industrial environmental strategy or their very best efforts will fail.

Conservationism has its excessive manifestations. There is a "deep ecology" movement in Scandinavia that proposes to limit production practices to those in existence before the nineteenth century. As the planet could only support about 15,000,000 people using these methods, deep ecology fails as a philosophy because it does not discuss what is to happen to the rest of us. As Europeans are understandably sensitive about any plans that involve large population reductions--having heard enough of those sorts of plans for one century, deep ecology unfortunately has been tagged with the label "Eco-Fascism" unfortunate because deep ecologists have much to contribute to environmental thinking.

In the division of labor necessary for an environmental solution, conservationists must understand that while they maintain and expand the nature preserves, educate the young, and collect specimens so as to preserve biodiversity, they must support the human needs of production. Anyone who has heard trade unionists and environmentalists shout at one another understands the need for a truce in this class warfare. If production promises to support the agenda of conservation, conservation must promise to eliminate the economic impediments to the production and design of an environmentally correct new industrial infrastructure. The truce must be permanent because this job will be large, time-consuming, and very expensive.

With truce in hand, the attention shifts to the producers and the question, is a new industrial order possible? The question is a valid one. Fordism is the economics of production, and Fordism's internal contradiction is environmental destruction. Leave aside the philosophy of Fordism and concentrate on Fordism's model product--the automobile. The fossil-fuel burning car and the urban sprawl it made possible is the single largest extant environmental problem.

In Europe, where the concept of Fordism has a specific meaning, the early results of an industrial-environmental truce are in, and the signs are positive. The modifications to Fordist philosophy are collectively termed post-Fordism. In its primitive forms, post-Fordism is strictly a production philosophy. Industrial design is still absorbing the radical new possibilities and power available to them through the marriage of machine tools and the computer. Tools are ahead of imagination in this phase of thinking, but imagination is catching up.

Because industry is so important to German existence and self-definition, the Germans never considered deindustrialization as a solution to environmental problems. Die Grünen, which shares most political assumptions of the Social Democrats (SD), was forced to develop an environmental strategy compatible with the SD economic principle number one--workers must prosper, therefore industry must prosper. If post-Fordism has a political dimension, it is the early industrial-environmental philosophy forged in the Green-SD compromise.

The Germans have a history of this sort of social contract. When Martin Luther was drawing up the doctrines of his new creed, he specified that each good Lutheran home have a Bible and hymnal. Early German printers were important to Luther--in many ways they saved his life and started his movement. The economics of Luther was simple--stop sending money to Rome to build big churches and spend it at home on the products of German printers. Mandatory literacy became an article of faith. German printing prospered. A technological improvement gave distinction to the new social order.

With today's industrial reformation, the sequence is similar. The new technological capability came first and then the question was asked, "now that it is possible to produce anything conceivable in any quantity, is it possible to produce a modern society without destroying nature?" No one knows the answer to this question but simply contemplating the possible answers has producers muttering happy phrases--hundred-year projects--the pyramids will be forgotten--watch my motion.

Producer enthusiasm for this post-Fordist industrial truce is tempered by a realization that their human needs may not be considered. Producers know that building the pyramids was no day at the beach. They do not want to be slaves. Post-Fordism is fine if it retains a Fordist paycheck.

Environmental Fordism requires a change in social and economic assumptions. Building something better than a Fordist technological infrastructure will be a difficult task. Producers cannot afford to be distracted by unemployment or failing businesses while inventing the sophisticated pieces of the new industrial order.

The timing could not be better, for a transformation to post-Fordist economics, than the 1990s. All rational minds agree that current industrial practices are environmentally unsustainable. Many believe that a new industrial order is possible--that the tools have already been invented. The end to the cold war has caused thousands of highly skilled producer specialists to lose their jobs. The economics invented to justify the cold war is in disarray--no possible good can come from flogging that dead horse again! New tools must change the old economic assumptions. The time is now!

The promise

Almost any serious observer of world events knows that something is clearly amiss. The economic and monetary problems reflect the industrial crisis. Even though the monetary problems have as their root causes the industrial crisis, wrong economic decisions have made the industrial crisis infinitely worse. It might even be argued that the economic policies caused the industrial crisis, although that would be giving economics more credit than it is due.

At the root of the industrial crises is the worst of all possible assumptions: that geometric growth rates in any endeavor can be maintained in a finite ecosphere. This assumption is in error although most people act as if it were not. The language of geometric growth surrounds the discussions of business, finance, and government. Any time growth rates are expressed in percentages such as for a population growth of two percent per year or an accrued interest rate of twelve percent per year, the intrinsic assumption of geometric growth is built in.

Geometric growth presents two important challenges. First, any geometric curve eventually reaches the stage where the growth line is essentially vertical which, for all intents and purposes, means that the rate of growth is infinite. Second, the area under a geometric curve for the final doubling time equals all the other areas under the curve combined. Problem one leads to collapse for the simple reason that infinite growth of anything in a finite biosphere is impossible. As growth rates approach infinity, a collapse, usually catastrophic, is inevitable. Problem two explains how soon the catastrophic collapse will occur as it gives a picture of how fast a finite resource is being used up.

This industrial limit will be faced in one way or another. The choice is between a valid set of assumptions or the four horsemen of the apocalypse. In an economy, such as the United States', assumptions of geometric economic growth are built into a host of forecasts from budget projections to future Social Security payments. But economic growth must be based on some form of meaningful activity. Economic growth means more than bigger numbers; it means greater outputs of tangible goods and services. Economic growth is founded on industrial growth. Without growth in the industrial sector, larger numbers are merely a form of papering over the problem.

Industrialization, in its current realization, cannot grow at geometric rates. In many areas, industrialization has already reached its resource limitations. Domestic United States oil production peaked in 1972. Geometric growth rates in oil consumption would only exacerbate the balance of trade problems. Forms of agricultural production are unsustainable. Row crops, such as soybeans and corn, consume, in the form of erosion, about a ton of fertile topsoil for each ton of crop produced. The resource of topsoil can be renewed but never at such rates.

Industrialization destroys resources by rendering them unfit for human consumption. Water is plentiful, but fresh water is not plentiful, comprising only about one percent of the total, and water that is healthful for humans is a fraction of that one percent and shrinking daily because of pollution. If growth means pollution, then growth will soon encounter the limitation of a finite supply of clean air and water. As the industrial system is currently organized, not only is further growth virtually impossible, but also creates the danger of catastrophic collapse. Flogging the current system into further growth, even at past historic rates, is an exercise in futility. Business as usual is clearly out of the question.

One of the most common variants of the business as usual solutions to the industrial crises is a future of high-technology and information. As the industrial system grows more troubled, high-technology solutions become increasingly discussed. There are many problems with the high-technology solution beginning with a working definition of high-technology; it means almost anything. It could be defined as anything that is on the leading edge of human knowledge. If that is true, then high-technology as a solution for the future encounters the reality that all the problems are not yet known.

Early discussions defined high-technology as high profit, young enterprises such as the computer industry was from 1950 to 1980. This definition is appealing because there are very successful models to emulate. In 1982 when the great industrial giants such as automobile and farm equipment makers were staggering under the policies of monetarism, a group of young Senators and Congressmen in Washington took to calling themselves "Atari Democrats." It was a simple matter of the aging process of industrialization, they reasoned: the new computer-based industries would replace the old smokestack industries. No sooner had the press latched on to the name of these "forward-thinking" representatives, than the real Atari announced huge layoffs of domestic workers and a large-scale shift in employment to East Asia--so much for the Atari solution.

High-technology could also be described as any industry related to defense or medical supply. These are growth enterprises, to be sure, but they are not good examples of industrial growth. Unless the military is used to seize the wealth of others, investment in military high-technology is merely an exercise in waste. Medical high-technology, for whatever good it may do, is also from a purely social investment point of view, wasteful, because much of it merely prolongs the agony of dying.

Military and medical high-technology are enterprises entered into by societies that are already rich. These are not the means for getting rich in the first place. It is not meaningful to discuss solutions that replace the methods of becoming wealthy with enterprises of the already rich. If this is high-technology, then high-technology is no solution for the industrial crisis. Behind most talk about growth in high-technology are the same assumptions that have always misguided industrialization.

If high technology is a slippery concept to nail down, the promises of the information age are even more elusive. Computers are fascinating devices, filled with the promise of greater wisdom through greater information. Having a machine with perfect memory is very appealing to humans with imperfect memories. Connecting computers to tools may be the most significant industrial advance in the past fifty years.

While information and wisdom are clearly related, the possession of information guarantees nothing because perfect information does not mean that the right questions were asked. Computer buffs have given this phenomenon the name of GIGO, which means garbage in--garbage out. Faith in the powers of computers must not be overdone.

While information is valuable in plant agronomy, architecture, and textile manufacture, information, by itself, never fed, housed, or clothed a single person, for work must still be done, decisions must be made, and assumptions constantly reviewed. This work must be done by humans. The increased information available to humanity, brought about by thirty years of computer manufacturing, has unfortunately done very little to increase human wisdom. Computers can help answer some of the great industrial questions but only when the real problems are addressed.

The information age is not an end in itself, but only a means to an end. Those who take comfort in the possible growth in information processing at the expense of the basic life-support function of industrialization have obviously mistaken means for ends. This confusion means large increases in the bureaucracy and overhead sectors of the economy will continue to be treated as economic growth, which in turn, masks the industrial decline and makes getting to the heart of the problem that much more difficult. As a result, while the promises of the high-technology and information scenarios seem to be real solutions for the future, they are really only mutations of the business-as-usual scheme.

Alternatives to the business-as-usual scheme have been proposed. If industrialization has caused so many problems and is unsustainable, one proposal is to scrap industrialization and go rural. This alternative goes by many names: intermediate technology, sustainable growth, the solar alternative, and the like. These alternate schemes are unlikely to solve much because it is impossible at this stage of human development to go backward to a more simple time and lifestyle. Anyone who believes that going back to an earlier stage of industrial development is the solution should, of course, be encouraged to try on the odd chance that they might learn something from the experience. Those who have tried are astonished at how difficult such a move is.

Industrialization is not the result of some well-orchestrated conspiracy by narrow vested interests who set out to create disaster, hardship, and misery. Most often, industrialization was the product of human efforts to make life easier. The simple life was very difficult. It still is.

The Mother Earth News, a monthly manifesto extolling the virtues of the rural existence, is illustrative of the problem. The key ingredients of the Mother Earth philosophy are a devotion to simple tools, simple foods, simple occupations, and simple dwellings. The Mother Earth philosophy is replete with contradictions. The magazine will write about homes built by slopping stucco between short logs stacked like cordwood. Not only is the stucco mix a product of advanced technology, which calls into question the purity of such a scheme, but the resulting home is an extravagant energy waster. An article appears that tells readers how to make lawn furniture out of poly-vinyl-chloride (PVC) tubing for fun and profit. PVC tubing is the product of very sophisticated and environmentally hazardous industrial processes. Building lawn furniture, or anything else, from PVC tubing, is a simple task, but hardly a back-to-nature enterprise. To complicate matters, selling PVC lawn furniture or organic honey, or any of the other Mother Earth suggestions, means that these plans are contingent upon someone else becoming a customer who has not dropped out of the industrialized, monetized economy.

The back-to-nature movement is a harmless diversion. It is an expensive hobby for the terminally nostalgic that runs aground on its own inconsistencies rather than a solution for the problems of industrialization. When even small disasters, such as an appendicitis attack, strike the practitioners of the primitive philosophy, purity flies out the window and the rush back to the twentieth century is on.

It would be easy to dismiss the back-to-nature crowd as a group of cranks, except for their fascination with solar power. According to them, solar power will solve everything from acid rain to excess concentrations of political power; and they would be correct except for one glaring problem--harnessing solar energy does not involve primitive technology. Nor, for that matter, is it particularly cheap.

If high-technology can be described as a young technology that humans do not know very much about, and are in the process of understanding, then solar power is properly considered a high-technology endeavor, though it is rarely treated as such. Humans know a great deal more about powering their industrial societies with nuclear fission than with solar power. For all the real advantages of solar power, very few successful examples of its use have been built.

Amory Lovins, the author of an excellent book on the potential for solar power called Soft Energy Paths, built an experimental house in Colorado that would demonstrate, he claimed, that properly built, a house could become a net energy exporter. Lovins should be congratulated. Very few people have the courage to put their money where their beliefs lie. It should be noted, however, that Lovins's house is not the success expected. It cost more than $600,000 to build which means that it is hardly the kind of solution that has mass appeal.

Current photo voltaic (PV) cells, devices that convert sunlight directly into electricity, are still very expensive. Many people are seeking a way to make PV cells efficient from the standpoint of energy consumed in production and costs. PV cells in sunny areas hold great promise.

Even energy conservation, a most laudable goal of the back-to-nature crowd, is not a primitive technology proposition. The Swedes, easily the most advanced people in the area of energy-efficient housing, have found that making homes energy efficient involved such sophisticated technologies as CAD/CAM manufacturing, landscape influenced microclimates designed by computer modeling, microfine production tolerances, and custom extruded synthetic rubber seals.

Saving energy is not simple if a person wishes to remain warm in a cold climate. Quadruple-glazed windows are not simple to make or cheap. Wood stoves that are not grossly inefficient and polluting are expensive and sophisticated. In reality, primitive technologies and temperate climates are incompatible. Primitive or intermediate technologies may have a role in the industrial development of societies in warm climates, but as solutions for the industrial dilemmas of the already industrialized societies, their use is limited.

Another solution to the industrial crises could be called "spread the wealth around." It is argued, that all the real problems with industrialization have been solved. All the great discoveries are behind us and only the political considerations of distribution remain. Humans have harnessed electricity; extracted, smelted, and fabricated virtually every metal on the periodic chart; made tools so sophisticated that further development is a waste of time; and made synthetic compounds to meet any known need or want. Instead of making a faster car, the argument continues, the time has come to make a more durable one, that could be used for transportation needs in developing areas of the world. The current level of technology is high enough: What purpose is served by going for a little final increment. In fact, real needs are being sacrificed to planned obsolescence

Like most proposed solutions for the industrial question, the plan to spread the wealth around has been treated seriously because there is a very large element of truth in it. There is something a little silly in the amount of engineering devoted to making a Mercedes go 143 instead of 139 m.p.h.especially those to be marketed in the United States where the speed limit is 70 m.p.h. There is some truth to the notion that the major discoveries in industrialization may have already taken place. It is also true that while the junk yards of industrialized nations fill up with cars that have died before they had to, major transportation needs in the underdeveloped world go unaddressed.

Unfortunately, the wealth-spreading solution is a utopian fantasy. The political and economic problems inherent in the proposals to spread the wealth are enough to scuttle them. Industrial nations have not been very generous in giving away their acquired industrial wealth and there is no reason to believe this situation is soon to change. This leaves trade as a distributor of wealth--another less than ideal model based on past experience. The nonindustrial nations have only natural resources and cheap labor to trade for industrial goods. Under current arrangements, trade only to makes debtor nations out of nonindustrial ones.

Even if the utopians could alter the hearts and minds of those who arrange foreign aid and trade so that the nonindustrialized nations could enjoy a better economic arrangement, the problems would not go away. The current realization of industrialization is a demonstrable failure in the industrialized nations. Exporting such industrialization means exporting the problems. Making vehicles durable and available to more locales worldwide may seem like a noble objective, but everyone must compete for the same source of fuel--and petroleum is a finite and diminishing resource. Virtually all industrial technologies require the consumption of fossil fuels. Making such technology available to more people does not solve anything--it makes matters worse.

Moreover, some technology is intrinsically dangerous. Exporting a chemical industry does not spread much wealth around. Ask the people of Bhopal, India. Spreading the wealth around is a wonderful idea. Unfortunately, the burdens of industrialization are not a real form of wealth. When the problems of industrialization are solved, spreading the knowledge around may be worthwhile. In the meantime, spreading the wealth is impossible because it is mainly the costs and burdens that are spread, seldom the benefits.

There is a real solution for the industrial crises that has been proposed--often called redirected research. If research and development could be directed at the problems of industrialization instead of projects replete with waste, real progress could be made. Thousands of items from automobiles to weapons, from computers to airliners, are as good as they need to be. In five seconds a computer can process information that a human could not read in five years. Do computers really need to be faster? Airliners could be made faster, but what would be the point? They could be made larger, but what would that solve? Weapons are already beyond human comprehension and automobiles are at the limits of hedonism. Are there not better spots for industrial talent?

Redirected research has an enormous drawback: it is a solution that requires a widespread consensus as to the nature of industrial needs. It also requires direction and planning. Planning, the heart and soul of industrial enterprise, is treated as an evil. In the United States, planning is often seen as a "commie plot!" Central planning is seen as the very antithesis of democracy, the name given to United States industrial capitalism.

Interestingly enough, this irrational cry is often raised by the industrial class in pursuit of its own interests. Those who produce anything are in mortal terror that some bureaucratic clown, a known industrial illiterate, is going to make decisions for them. From farmers to scientists, they believe that though the government may be a suitable collector of funds, it is a very inept supervisor. "Look at what central planning did to Russian agriculture, or science, or product distribution and quality," they say and all the nation nods its head. Moreover, the industrial class can make the point that directed research almost precludes the possibilities of accidental discovery. The whole modern chemical industry can trace its roots to the accidental discovery of an artificial dye found while the researcher was looking for a way to make synthetic quinine.

Accidental discoveries are rare, and the industrial types know it, so this is just another diversionary tactic to keep as much supervision as possible from their lives. They know that only about 5,000 scientists in the United States get to name their projects. Obviously, most research is already directed. Furthermore, accidental discoveries are usually related to the original focus of inquiry. The first artificial dye was found while a man was exploring in chemistry. Dye was not found as a spin-off of the attempts to fly. Directed research is a valid notion for one reason; answers are more likely to be found if people are looking for the answers. In truth, the arguments about directed research are merely arguments about who will do the directing.

If the argument over directed research is essentially a nonargument, the debate over industrial planning is similarly specious. The question is not whether the United States will or will not have industrial planning, but what form it will take. Currently, what industrial planning exists is done by the military. One typical Department of Defense guideline specifies that production must be done in such a manner that at least one work shift is totally automated. The reason given for this requirement is, not surprisingly, national security. Even a treacherous strike by workers would not threaten supplies in time of war.

This argument is total nonsense but everyone has agreed to assert it with a straight face. If there ever had been an East-West conventional engagement, the destruction would last a few weeks, maybe a few hours before World War II would look like a hiccup. Further production, even at current rates, would not be enough to change the outcome of the battle. Of course, if the war had gone nuclear, the ability of robots to make battleship shells would have been irrelevant. The reason the military made automation a requirement was that the robotics industry needed research money and that was the easiest way to get it. The argument of national security is a very good sales close.

Industry uses the military shamelessly to pick up its bills by having the military require what industry can make to be made. The military is a very good customer in that way. If someone wants to produce something in the United States' commercial sector, life can be very difficult indeed. Product errors, even if accidental, can bring enough lawsuits to bankrupt the company. The military is not so picky. If a building contractor misguesses on the cost to build a home, he eats the loss. Not so with the military. The military knows it is buying products that are not fully developed and expects to pay the costs of development. Best of all, if the product fails to work, the military does not seem to mind. The representative of industry stands next to the general, who is supposed to see the project through to deployment to be promoted, watches the same missile miss the same target, pats the general on the shoulder and says, "But that's the way it's supposed to work." The general merely nods in agreement.

After all, if it comes to that, will it really matter if 30 percent of the nuclear warheads fail to explode? Industry puts up with military direction because it is easily manipulated and comes with funds for development. If industry tries to sell civilian projects to the government, the projects are called pork barrel, perpetually fought over, and frequently underfunded. Being paid well and called a patriot is a better alternative for most people.

Redirecting research and the industrial path to which such research would lead, is really the only hope for solutions to the industrial crises. The dilemmas of redirected research, however, must be addressed and the most important one is that of direction. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how one views these things, the industrial crisis is so advanced that the direction of research and development is becoming obvious. The time has come to finish the industrial revolution and close the industrial loop.

Closing the Loop

If industrial design has one great fault, it is linearity. Industrial processes are begun in the mines and end in the junkyard. This earth to earth movement encompasses a whole host of varied steps that have direction as its common denominator. A modern automobile contains as many as 20,000 individual parts. Each of these parts is the product of many separate manufacturing steps. To make a simple part like a piston, for instance, bauxite must be mined and processed into aluminum, the aluminum must be correctly alloyed and either cast or forged into an approximate shape, and the final shape determined by machine tools.

Pistons may be very simple but they have required the expertise of mining engineers, mining equipment designers and manufacturers, shippers and shipbuilders, metallurgists, smelters, machinists and machine tool designers, in addition to the automotive designers. According to Marx, all these people have been adding to the value of the original material of bauxite by adding their labor. When the piston has reached the end of its useful life and is discarded, the reality is that these people have been engaged in the process of converting precious natural resources into garbage. This is not to denigrate the piston while it is fulfilling its design function. The fault lies not with the piston or the people who made it, but with the one-way path to its final disposition.

Humans throw things away because they do not know what else to do with items that no longer fulfill their design function. Aluminum in the form of a worn-out piston has the advantage of being more valuable than the bauxite because the processing necessary for its conversion has already taken place.

Yet, worn-out pistons are not considered valuable because the resource is too scattered and almost inextricably entwined with other end products of technology. To mine aluminum as pistons requires that engines must be disassembled. Thousand of disassemblies would be required to obtain the aluminum contained in one big scoop of high-quality bauxite. Even the recovered pistons would not represent a supply of pure aluminum. Alloying, the process of introducing minute quantities of impurities to alter the working characteristics of the basic metal, is not easily reversible. It is much easier to introduce exact quantities of impurities than to remove them, especially if the nature and quantity of the alloying impurity is unknown.

The second law of thermodynamics states that energy always moves from a more organized to a less organized state. The flame from natural gas (methane) burns hot enough for industrial processes. This flame is used to heat homes, an easy requirement for such a hot flame. The heat in the home eventually escapes outdoors where in a large city an urban heat island is created. The flame is about 1500 degrees Celsius hotter than the surrounding environment. The home is about 30 degrees Celsius warmer than the outdoors on a cold day. The urban heat island may be 2 degrees Celsius warmer than the countryside. From 1950 degrees to 2 degrees is a large drop in concentration of heat but since energy can be neither created or destroyed, the lower temperature difference is matched by the increased dispersion of heat to a whole urban area. These are the workings of the second law in action.

In many ways, industrialization has applied the principles of the second law of thermodynamics to everything. From the mines to the junkyards, the materials become less concentrated, more jumbled up with other materials, and spread far and wide over the face of the planet. If energy cannot be destroyed, no material can be destroyed. When an industrial product is thrown away, it only disappears from a common line of sight because in truth, there is no "away."

Linear industrialization creates problems at both ends of the industrial process. High-quality resources are being depleted at one end of the process and waste products are piling up at the other. Every industrial problem of importance is a problem either of resources or waste.

What is worse, the economic systems in industrial countries put a clock on the time it takes for a resource to become waste. Gross National Product (G.N.P.) is a measure of how fast natural resources become waste. At the very time when industrialization is confronting the problem of resource limitations and waste disposal, the economists are proposing solutions that only accelerate this process. This will only serve to make the global dilemmas so much worse.

The solution is obvious. The waste outflow must be converted into a resource asset. Sometimes this process is called recycling--a term that should be deliberately avoided because it conjures up pictures of Boy Scouts on newspaper drives. Newspaper drives may be a perfectly fine thing for children who must learn the concepts of waste management, but recycling on that scale is not a win situation from an environmental standpoint when the burning of fuel in the scout leader's station wagon is factored in. The ugly truth is that after fifteen years of recycling talk in the United States, the most effective recycling mechanism is the garage sale. Converting the wastes of industrialization into industrial assets is a problem far beyond the grasp of the Boy Scouts or garage sales.

Closing the industrial loop is a project of similar magnitude to the industrial revolution. Undoing the damage is an even bigger problem than industrialization. About one-third of the world's population has been beavering away at the creation of the industrial infrastructure of the planet for the last 150 years with occasional setbacks from warfare. A problem larger than that should mean one thing: unemployment will cease if the resource-to-waste loop is closed because there is plenty of work that needs to be done--so much work, in fact, that it boggles the imagination.

Take the problem of toxic waste. Americans are currently producing such waste at the rate of 300 pounds per person per year. The military, medicine, and the chemical industry are primary villains in this tragedy but no one is innocent. Small businesses such as dry cleaners, print shops, refinishing shops, repair garages, and photo studios are guilty of putting solvents and other hazardous chemicals in to the water system. The computer industry, supposedly a clean industry because it does not have the belching smokestacks of the steel industry, uses chemicals that are so dangerous that belching smokestacks suddenly look like a minor irritant.

Some protest that they are not a part of the problem, but even on an individual scale, it is almost impossible to be a part of an industrial society without being a part of the toxic waste problem. A homeowner paints some woodwork, cleans the brush with solvent, and rinses the solvents down the sewer with the leftover paint. A car owner removes the bugs and tar from the vehicle with a petroleum-based cleaner and hoses it down the gutter. The average homeowner has dozens of materials in the house that have no known disposal method that does not add to the problem of toxic waste. Most waste, unfortunately, ends up in the global water supply: groundwater, creeks, rivers, bays, and the oceans.

These are examples of direct contributions to the toxic waste problem. Many problems are indirectly caused. Buy a car and the paint job, the metal pickling, the rustproofing, and a host of other toxic waste problems have been incurred in the car buyer's name. A person who uses a bicycle for transportation has caused less environmental damage than a car owner, but there is still damage. Bicycle manufacture involves smelting, solvent use, rubber processing, painting, and plastic fabrication--all processes that cause toxic waste. It is literally impossible to avoid being part of the toxic waste problem and live in an industrial state.

More importantly, toxic waste problems are out of proportion to the sheer amount of waste being generated. One gallon of gasoline spilled into the water supply will render 750,000 gallons of water unfit for human consumption. The multiplier effects of toxic waste are scary. Remember, it is the water supply, one of the most basic requirements of life, that is threatened by such waste.

Proposed solutions to the toxic waste problem have been, to put it mildly, inadequate. Humans have only begun to understand the magnitude of the problem. Talk of cleaning up toxic waste dumps means digging up the barrels of waste and putting them somewhere else. The fallacy of such a solution is that not all the waste is recovered from the original site and the second site is typically no more ready to contain the waste than the first. Such clean-up efforts mean that instead of one hazardous waste site, we now have two. The real solution to the toxic waste problem has two parts. First, undo the damage already done; and, two, stop the practices that create the problem.

Undoing the damage that has already occurred is a huge subject clearly beyond the scope of this discussion. Moreover, it is futile to discuss fixes for problems of the past if the industrial state is going to proceed at an even greater pace to create more problems for the future. If humanity can stop the problem from getting any worse by creating new industrial practices, solutions will grow from this effort that will be applicable to undoing the sins of the past.

An end to the economics of waste

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin said many intelligent things. None is more applicable to the twentieth century and its industrial problems. The real solution for the problems of waste is to refrain from making waste in the first place. Unfortunately, this seems at first to be impossible. Efforts to stop the motion toward a fuller realization of the throwaway society have failed because too many people vote for such a lifestyle in their patterns of consumption. Moreover, the problems caused by paper and bottles and cans are not really that important. Paper is more or less biodegradable, bottles are environmentally much the same as sand, and cans have enough value to be picked up. The real problems are caused by the waste that is harmful in the sense that there is no safe disposal method. These wastes, which will ultimately doom humanity, are the leftovers from products and processes that support human life. Such processes cannot be stopped, they may only be altered and redesigned.

Since it is impossible to stop toxic waste by stopping the industrial activity responsible, the only reasonable solution is to redesign the industrial process so that the waste itself is addressed. There are many ways to do this but each method has one common theme. The industrial process must be redesigned to eliminate whatever waste is generated.

Redesigning the industrial process to eliminate waste has been tried in many industries. Waste usually lowers profits and the economic incentive to eliminate waste is very strong where this is applicable. Basic industries such as plywood manufacture and meat packing are models for this form of efficient behavior. In such cases, the raw materials enter one end, finished goods emerge from the other, and very little is lost in the process. Meat packers claim that the only part of a hog that is not used for commercial ends is the squeal. One plywood maker claims the only thing lost is a little smoke which is mostly activated charcoal and he is looking for a way to market that. Meat packing and plywood manufacture are very mature industries--some of their processes are centuries old. It stands to reason that by now most waste in the process has been eliminated and almost no toxic refuse is produced. Younger industries have no such advantage. Large industries, such as the chemical industry, which have the political clout, avoid the toxic waste issue by getting a license to pollute. Individuals or small businesses, such as the dry cleaners, quietly dump their waste improperly and hope that their small size keeps the concerned authorities from noticing them. Both have taken the action because the costs of proper waste disposal are beyond their means or will.

Ignorance and poverty are reasonable excuses for the behavior of small businesses and individuals. No such excuse exists for large-scale operations. A chemical plant has many chemists on the payroll who have all the expertise necessary to determine whether a form of waste is hazardous and what can be done about waste. The problem with the chemical industry is that many of their commercial products are toxic substances with a high probability for improper use. Even if a substance such as acrylic enamel catalyst were to come with detailed instructions for environmentally benign use, most auto body shops are not equipped to follow such instructions. This example of catalyzed acrylic enamel is apt. Flawless paint jobs are more than an aesthetic pleasure. Paint makes a car last longer.

Since the automobile will be a necessary part of the transportation system for the near future in North America, and it is virtually impossible to make a car without making an environmental mess, then it follows that making fewer cars that last a longer time is in the interest of biosphere. Getting the paint job right at the factory is a relatively simple task, although the painting equipment is very sophisticated. Lasers are used to assure uniform paint thickness throughout the entire coat. Fixing a slightly bent car is harder. The paint on the car may have faded and will be hard to match. The work must be done in dirtier, more primitive surroundings. Although the paint in the factory can be baked on under very high heat which causes the paint to level, such heat cannot be used in repair work. The assembled car has plastic parts, both inside and out, which will melt if heated.

Not to worry, the chemical industry has responded with a host of very sophisticated products to make possible the job of body repair. Acrylic enamel is the paint of choice for this work. It has the advantage that small errors, such as runs or sags, can be corrected before, or even after, the customer notices them. Enamel is only glossy on the surface that dried in the air. Carefully rubbed-out mistakes can be waxed to look shiny but they have microscopic cracks that can become rust spots over time. Since avoiding rust is the real reason to paint the car, this is unacceptable.

Cracking is solved by using a catalyst that makes the paint cure chemically instead of losing solvents into the air. This means a shine can be had at rubbed-out levels beneath the original surface.. Once the catalyst is mixed into the paint, the process begins. Paint not used becomes like hard rubber in the bottom of the can, even if the can is sealed properly and the paint is three inches thick--great, if somewhat spooky stuff. The catalyst is so toxic that inhaling a few breathfuls can make a person very sick. The can is clearly labeled "FOR USE BY PROFESSIONAL PAINTERS ONLY" on the tenuous assumption that everyone in the body shop has been briefed on how to handle catalyzed paint. If the auto painter has been trained in a vocational training school and was not sleeping the day it was brought up, he might know that he must have more than a particle mask. He must employ a complete face mask with outside air, but the nature of his work means that even equipped with a proper mask, the body painter is about to become an ecothug and has no choice in the matter.

The painter first turns the paint into a very fine mist and sprays it into the air. The better his spray gun, the finer the mist. The target, of course, is the car but about 40 to 50 percent of the spray misses, bounces off the surface, or otherwise enters the atmosphere. The spray is caught by the filters in the spray booth but many of the volatiles go right through the filter and out into the air where they are eventually washed into the water supply by the rain. What does the body shop do with the filters when they are full? They can be burned which puts toxic chemicals into the air and back into the water. Or they can be buried where eventually the chemicals trapped in the filters will leech into the groundwater. The body shop is trapped. It is doing the public a service, which extends the useful lives of their automobile, but the body shop is an environmental disaster happening on a daily basis.

There are only two routes out of this dilemma. First, the chemical industry could reformat the catalyst and other materials so that they are both functional and environmentally benign. This is the preferred strategy since it is easier to cope with the problem in a central location such as the chemical works than to try to enforce sound environmental practices in hundreds of thousands of body shops. Second, the chemical industry could come up with a second chemical that would neutralize the effects of the first. This is sometimes the only solution that works and environmentally aware companies have begun such practices. Chemicals for printing pictures include acids and other poisonous substances. The environmentally conscious photographer can purchase chemicals with neutralizing agents that are added to solutions before they are washed into the sewers and into the water supply. What percentage of people buys these chemicals and what percentage carefully neutralizes solutions is anyone's guess, but it is a solution that is at least possible.

These two approaches illustrate the difference between upstream and downstream design. Upstream solutions are always preferable because problems are solved before they are created. Downstream solutions, by which waste products are treated before disposal, are available but rely too heavily on humans becoming sinlessly perfect. Unless this is a possibility, downstream design solutions should be avoided, but both approaches represent improvements over current practices.

Permutations of the notion of upstream design solutions are the first real light to shine on this litany of disaster. Upstream solutions include the notions of permanence, recovery, and fit.

Upstream design is manifest in a desire to build permanently. There is an economy of the well-designed and well-built. Beautiful buildings and other forms of permanent structures built by humans are endowed with a form of life. They can almost take care of themselves because they attract people who wish to see them preserved. From Notre Dame in Paris to the Brooklyn Bridge, great structures are almost immortal because mortals will rise up to preserve, rebuild, and protect them. Tearing down old structures and building new ones consumes more resources and creates more waste than maintaining a structure through the centuries. In the rush to settle North America, this lesson was left behind in Europe. Permanence is the most basic form of upstream design in that building well the first time is the simplest way to save resources and eliminate waste. Thinking that something is to be built as a permanent fixture has a profound effect on how a building is built. Permanence is industrial immortality. The thought is sufficient to alter every effort from the first line on the paper to the last swing of the hammer.

Permanence is a function of design. Design as beauty is essential to permanence. Committees are rarely formed to save eyesores. Design as function can assist in the goal of permanence by making maintenance easier. Design as beauty is the easiest to explain because everyone can think of an example. Builders for centuries have known this trick. Design it to be beautiful and the powerful will insure access to premium materials and labor. Build with good design, premium materials, and skilled labor, and the result is the Acropolis in Athens, the Vatican, or the Eiffel Tower. Apply this principle to a city and you get Paris, Prague, or Copenhagen.

The only reason to restate such an obvious notion is that one cure for industrial waste must be permanent structures. No law has been found that says a power plant, or sewage treatment plant, or waste recovery center must be ugly. Humanity must arrive at the conclusion that this is the only planet for light-years in any direction that will support human life. Structures necessary for human survival will be with us for a very long time and we are going to have to look at them. They may as well be beautiful.

Of course, not everything can be made for permanence. Permanence is an elusive goal and not everything made can be made for extended life. Everything is subject to deterioration. Quality materials can slow this process but cannot stop it. The real secret to permanence is maintenance. Europeans understand this but North Americans have trouble grasping the concept. Maintenance is considered low class work, though the skills necessary to rebuild a structure are more varied and difficult to master than those necessary to build new structures. Most cities, roads, bridges, water systems, and other industrial installations in America are young. As these permanent installations began to show their age in the 1970s and 1980s, Americans responded with surprise and annoyance. Worst of all, money was cut for planned, routine maintenance. At the very time when a maintenance ethic should have begun to emerge in the North American industrial cultures as their societies matured, maintenance became a dirty word.

Maintenance is not culturally entwined with American culture. Quality, if it is referred to at all, is taught in the context of the poem called "The Deacon's One-horse Shay." In the poem, there is a vivid description of all the pains taken to make the perfect shay. Every part was fussed over. The resulting shay was quite wonderful and it lasted 100 years when all the parts failed simultaneously.

It would probably be better to inform children that George Washington's ax may be on the second head and the third handle, but it is still George Washington's ax. The shay example demonstrates no maintenance: the ax example glorifies it.

Modern examples of this cultural phenomenon are easy to see. From car batteries to power tools, the notion of a maintenance-free product is routinely cited as a form of quality. With batteries this may be true, with power tools the issues are not so clear. European tool makers design their tools to be easily disassembled for repair and maintenance--a fact that troubled the North American buyer when such tools were first marketed. Europeans were forced to redesign their tools to be "maintenance-free" for the North American market. The American buyer was questioning the quality of a product designed to be repaired.

(Keep in mind that maintenance-free, as understood in this context, means that the whole product is disposable for a smaller failure.)

The truth is that a product which can be repaired easily has a much greater chance of permanence because only the part that fails must be replaced. The quality that comes from premium materials and careful construction is no match for a similar product to which the quality of maintenance and ease of repair are added. The failure to glorify maintenance may be the most difficult cultural barrier to permanence in North America.

Upstream design can manifest itself in industrial goods that make no pretense toward permanence when they are designed for recovery. If bridges, water systems, and highways are the industrial products most likely to be designed for permanence, packaging is the industrial product least likely to be so designed.

According to current design definitions, packaging is intended to protect something more valuable than the package itself. Packaging is supposed to be as valueless as possible and still do the job of protection. When the job of protection is finished, the packaging has lost its design value and is valueless and disposable. It should come as no surprise that packaging is a major contributor to the waste problem.

The packaging industry is more sophisticated than the definition of protection would indicate. Because packaging has become a form of marketing, the notion that packaging is protection is very often overlooked. Colorful, eye-catching bubblepacks must still be less valuable than what is under the bubble or the economics of packaging fails to apply.

There are some rare exceptions to this principle. Parents will buy an expensive toy that the child found totally uninteresting compared to the box it came in. Rest assured, however, that from the manufacturer's point of view, the box cost less to produce than the contents. Even so, the point is made that although the package may have less value than the contents, it is not totally valueless. Many forms of packaging are pressed into further service after their initial design use has ended. Homeowners have found thousands of uses for empty coffee cans. I know from childhood experience that a generator packing crate makes a terrific treehouse.

Modern industrial existence owes much to the packaging industry. Medicine owes much of its success to the possibilities of sterile packaging. Fragile electronic goods from all over the world can be bought almost everywhere because of packaging. Most importantly, the food distribution system with its freezing, bottling, and canning has allowed for huge cities to exist far from the sources of food. Modern life without modern packaging would be primitive.

Packaging is not an innocent actor in the environment. It is the source of much of the solid waste generated by industrial societies. It is an environmental problem of the first order. The solution to this waste problem is to remember that packaging is like many other forms of waste in that it has value. Recovering that value should help pay for the recovery efforts in an industrial and economic sense. Already, aluminum cans have become worth recovering because of the cost of making aluminum from bauxite. Smelting aluminum takes a great deal of electricity and rising energy costs have made recycled aluminum cheaper than the aluminum from ore. As the costs of throwing things away become known, it is economically clear that is not only high-value metals such as aluminum that can be recovered, but that everything currently considered waste must be recovered.

The industrial loop will be closed when humans figure out how to recover all waste products. In this respect, industrialization must mimic the ecosystem. The study of the environment is the study of one system which feeds off the other. That the planet is a closed ecosystem is both fascinating and frightening. That the millions of plants and animals can be organized into a loop where one species' waste is another's food is more than an interesting phenomena, it is an industrial mandate. Until this closed loop organization found in nature is copied by industrial design, the planet is doomed. As both are necessary for human survival and both are internally interdependent, both must be similarly maintained. A planet organized so that every waste product must be accounted for in the environmental books cannot tolerate one species that believes it can continue to operate in a linear fashion where the process is glorified and plunder and waste are counted as externalities. Human industrialization is only half complete and doomed as a system until it copies the natural processes.

What makes recovering all waste an upstream design imperative is the notion of fit. The difference between a skilled billiard player and the first-time player is the ability to control the cue ball. The novice player is so concerned about making the shot that the path of the cue ball after the shot seems unimportant. The skilled player has learned that when the cue ball stops in the right place, making the next shot is easy. Modern industrialization can be likened to the first time player. Because it is so engrossed with manufacturing and marketing the product (making the shot), industry rarely concerns itself with environmental problems (worrying about the path of the cue ball). The concept of fit can be understood in the context of the leave in billiards. The difference between industrialization built on a closed loop system that mimics natural systems and the current form of industrialization is as great as the difference between the two billiards players.

Waste can be recovered in many ways. Waste can be recycled as in the case of aluminum cans. Waste can be burned for its heat content. Then there are the imaginative ways. The digestive systems in cows can process cellulose. Hay has cellulose which makes milk and eventually hamburgers as it is consumed by the cow. Interestingly, so does cardboard. Ground packaging could be fed to cows as food, except for one problem. The ink used in printing labels, and the residual chemicals from the process of making the cardboard, render milk and meat from cattle fed such waste unacceptable for human consumption. If nontoxic packaging could be printed with chemicals and inks that could be safely processed by cattle into meat and food, the day could come where humans will drink the milk and feed the carton back to the cow, who in turn would make more milk and fertilize the earth. The decision to use a vegetable-based or some benign ink in the packaging would be the key to making such a closed loop system possible. If packaging were designed so that it could become food for animals, it would be a perfect demonstration of the concept of fit as the waste of one product neatly dovetails into another.

Closing the industrial loop will be a very complicated and difficult undertaking. The path from wasteful and plundering linear industrialization to a system where all raw materials and waste products are accounted for will be long. Because the current system of industrial organization is a failure on the verge of collapse, a solution is necessary and a closed-loop industrialization scheme will solve the problems. Moreover, closed-loop industrialization will require generally the same organization and skills of linear industrialization.

A solution that requires a violent military revolution is not a solution. Closed-loop industrialization, or industrial environmentalism is a solution which requires the smallest change in human behavior. The problems of industrialization are so severe that there is not time to fool around with revolutions. The essence of industrial environmentalism is total resource recovery. When total recovery becomes the goal, permanence and fit are the guiding strategies. The enormous size and scope of such a conversion to industrial environmentalism should not be viewed as a liability, but the prime asset. Building the way out of the absurd and damaging legacy of linear industrialization will provide employment for several generations.

GO TO--Elegant Technology: Chapter Eleven

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