mfioretti: sustainability*

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  1. They conclude that “If Americans reduced their mean beef consumption from the current ~460g per person per week to ~200g per person per week, the US beef industry could become environmentally sustainable by the narrow definition of this paper.” Easy. Just have one weekly burger instead of two.
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  2. From 1900 to 2010, the amount of materials accumulated in buildings and infrastructure across the world increased 23-fold. We are depleting our resources at unprecedented rates. Instead of extracting dwindling raw materials from nature at ever-increasing cost, the time has come to start re-using materials from buildings and infrastructure in our cities.

    We have been working on identifying the material resources in cities that could be “mined” for re-use. In a case study, we modelled more than 13,000 buildings in central Melbourne, Australia. We estimated the quantities of construction materials as well as the embodied energy, water and greenhouse gas emissions associated with constructing these buildings (if they were built today). We also modelled the replacement of materials over time and into the future.

    Further reading: The 20th century saw a 23-fold increase in natural resources used for building

    The extraction and transformation of resources have broad environmental effects. These include resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, soil and water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, which drive climate change.

    Adding to these challenges is the amount of waste generated, especially by the construction sector due to construction, renovation and demolition activities. Every time a construction material is discarded, all the embodied energy, water and emissions that went into producing it also go to waste.

    In our two recent studies, we propose a model that can help us “mine” our cities and quantify the environmental benefits of this urban mining.

    These maps allow us to start thinking of cities as urban mines and places of material production (supply), rather than just consumption (demand).

    We can imagine how a new construction project could survey what materials would be available at its start and how it can best re-use these and incorporate them into the design. This would save large amounts of energy and water, while avoiding greenhouse gas emissions and further ecosystem degradation from raw material extraction (usually far from the city).
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  3. How much longer can we sustain the high-consumption lifestyle we are used to?
    Who’s consuming? And what happens to the waste?

    To get the full picture on consumerism we need to understand inter-connected global systems of production and consumption.

    Globally, consumption patterns are unequal and wasteful. It has just 5% of the world’s population, but the US consumes 30% of the world’s resources and creates 30% of the world’s waste. It is not alone in wastefulness: a small slice of the world’s population consumes most of the resources and produces most of the greenhouse gas emissions.

    Material resources are depleting at such a rate that we are likely to soon face shortages in materials we currently dump in landfill - lead, copper, cadmium, wolfram (tungsten) and zinc, to name a few.

    In this context, plastic waste and toxic e-waste are another ticking time bomb. Why are electronics breaking so fast and why are they cheaper to replace than repair?

    In 1960, cultural critic and consumerism theorist, Vance Packard, published in his pioneering book The Waste Makers, a critique of planned obsolescence.

    He pointed out that consumers who learn that the manufacturer invested money to make the product obsolete faster might turn to a producer (if any exists) that offers a more durable alternative. We need to support a move towards more single-material, recyclable components in all industry sectors.
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  4. The sustainability movement has been charged with being elitist—and it most certainly is. You need a fair amount of disposable income to afford ethical and sustainable consumption options, the leisure time to research the purchasing decisions you make, the luxury to turn up your nose at 95% of what you’re offered, and, arguably, a post-graduate degree in chemistry to understand the true meaning behind ingredient labels.
    Choosing fashion made from hemp, grilling the waiter about how your fish was caught, and researching whether your city can recycle bottle caps might make you feel good, reward a few social entrepreneurs, and perhaps protect you from charges of hypocrisy. But it’s no substitute for systematic change.

    Beyond making big lifestyle decisions such as choosing to live in a dense urban area with public transportation, cutting red meat out of your diet, and having fewer children (or none at all), there are diminishing returns to the energy you put into avoiding plastic or making sure your old AAs end up in the appropriate receptacle. Globally, we’re projected to spend $9.32 billion in 2017 on green cleaning products. If we had directed even a third of that pot of money (the typical markup on green cleaning products) toward lobbying our governments to ban the toxic chemicals we’re so afraid of, we might have made a lot more progress by now.
    “It’s a gesture,” Brown says of fretting over these small decisions. “Well-meaning signals that you care about the environment. But the action itself makes no difference.“

    Instead of buying expensive organic sheets, donate that money to organizations that are fighting to keep agricultural runoff out of our rivers.
    Instead of driving to an organic apple orchard to pick your own fruit, use that time to volunteer for an organization that combats food deserts (and skip the fuel emissions, too).
    Instead of buying a $200 air purifier, donate to politicians who support policies that keep our air and water clean.
    Instead of signing a petition demanding that Subway remove one obscure chemical from its sandwich bread, call your local representatives to demand they overhaul the approval process for the estimated 80,000 untested chemicals in our products.
    Instead of taking yourself out to dinner at a farm-to-table restaurant, you could take an interest in the Farm Bill and how it incentivizes unhealthy eating.

    On its face, conscious consumerism is a morally righteous, bold movement. But it’s actually taking away our power as citizens. It drains our bank accounts and our political will, diverts our attention away from the true powerbrokers, and focuses our energy instead on petty corporate scandals and fights over the moral superiority of vegans.
    So if you really care about the environment, climb on out of your upcycled wooden chair and get yourself to a town hall meeting. If there’s one silver lining to the environmental crisis facing us, it’s that we now understand exactly the kind of work we need to do to save the planet—and it doesn’t involve a credit card.
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  5. CNNMoney spent a week in the Detroit metro region talking to current and former manufacturing workers. Almost all said the same thing: It's not the robots that took U.S. jobs, it's NAFTA.
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  6. The 20th century fossil-fueled economic growth spurt happened not because the energy industry created many jobs, but because it created very few jobs.

    For most of human history, providing energy in the form of food calories was the major human occupation. Even in societies that consumed relatively high amounts of energy via firewood, harvesting and transporting that wood kept a lot of people busy.

    But during the 19th and 20th centuries, as the available per capita energy supply in industrialized countries exploded, the proportion of the population employed supplying that energy dropped dramatically.

    The result: instead of farming to provide the carbohydrates that feed humans and oxen, or cutting firewood to heat buildings, nearly the whole population has been free to do other activities. Whether we have made good use of this opportunity is debatable, but we’ve had plenty of energy, and nearly our entire labour force, available to run an elaborate manufacturing, consumption and service economy.

    Seen from this perspective, the claim that renewable energy will create more jobs might set off alarms.

    As Morgan makes clear, energy sprawl is not at all unique to renewable energy transition – it applies equally to non-conventional, bottom-of-the-barrel fossil fuels such as fracked oil and gas, and bitumen extracted from Alberta’s tar sands. There will indeed be more jobs in a renewable resource economy, compared to the glory days of the fossil fuel economy, but there will also be more energy jobs if we cling to fossil fuels.

    As energy sprawl proceeds, more of us will work in energy production and distribution, and fewer of us will be free to work at other pursuits. As Klein and the other authors of the Leap Manifesto argue, the higher number of energy jobs might be a net plus for society, if we use energy more wisely AND we allocate surplus more equitably.

    But unless our energy technologies provide a good Energy Return On Energy Invested, there will be little surplus to distribute. In other words, there will be lots of new jobs, but few good pay-cheques.
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  7. The solution, according to economists, activists and many in the design community, is to get smarter about both the design and disposal of materials, and shift responsibility away from local governments and into the hands of manufacturers.
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  8. Not only is 3D printing taking off and shaping the economy, but it may also be a much more sustainable technology – particularly when it comes to manufacturing. While there are several environmental benefits to 3D printing, one of the most prominent is the ability to manufacture products locally and with significantly shorter supply chains. 3D printed objects rely on a design that can be downloaded to a 3D printer anywhere – even your own home – and printed domestically. Printing this way could cut down on the energy and materials regularly used in transportation and packaging. 3D Hubs CEO Bram de Zwart believes “3D printing accelerates a future of local and on-demand manufacturing,” saving travel time and the need for excess inventory.

    Some first movers are already leveraging this aspect of 3D printing. 3D Hubs, for example, is growing the largest localized 3D printing network in the world to catalyze more local production. With more than 28,000 printers scattered across the globe (447 in New York, 354 in Los Angeles and 322 in London, for example), designers and newbies alike can print prototypes, replacement parts or customized products close to home.
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  9. Researchers such as Smith have traced the democratising tradition of these sites back to 1976, when Lucas Aerospace workers created a Nobel prize-nominated plan for “socially useful production”. The aim was to democratise manufacturing by uniting workers with activists, trade unionists and scientists at community technology networks across London to inspire innovation that prioritised social use over private profit.

    Many of today’s shared machine projects manifest this ethos. Things Manchester, for example, builds local infrastructures across the city that provide a free Internet of Things for anyone to use. In London, the Restart Project’s workshops help people repair electronics. “When we maintain and resell,” says co-founder Janet Gunter, “we create value locally in an otherwise throwaway economy where things are manufactured far away. We reduce environmental impacts while bringing people together who might never have met otherwise.”
    Co-opting the grassroots

    Despite such potential, UK shared machine shops have much to fear from the fate of similar movements across the pond. Writers Evgeny Morozov and Cory Doctorow, along with others, warn of the deterioration of making subcultures in the US.

    They argue that the grassroots nature of the maker movement is increasingly being co-opted and that the commercialisation of such projects detaches them from their community roots. Tim Bajarin, for example, points out in a Time article that the maker movement has “caught the attention of many major players in the tech and corporate worlds”, including Intel, Ford and Nvidia.
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  10. “While it’s way too early in the development of 3D-printing for auto-making to know about the plastic waste issue, one thing is for sure: If Local Motors can fully scale up its processes to meet its audacious goal of having 100 “Microfactories” around the world in the next ten years, as well as a number of “Mobifactories” (mobile factories, naturally) for maintenance and sales of its vehicles, it may very well be the artisanal car manufacturer we’ve been waiting for. And perhaps it could spur on the more rapid adoption of electric vehicles at the same time.

    “With sustainability at the core of the design, parts can be manufactured directly from digital files at ‘Microfactories’, reducing the costs and carbon footprint associated with molding, casting and machine use. Users could recycle parts indefinitely, replacing damaged bodywork or upgrading as newer parts are developed — the idea is that owners would only need to buy one basic car body for a lifetime. Local Motors will launch a crowdfunding campaign in 2016, and continue development towards a 90 percent 3D printed car, with safety standards that exceed current guidelines.” *
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