Monday, April 12, 2010

What about the Environment?

     Most of the popular the articles I have read on environmental responsibility have recommended one or more of four courses of action: reducing our standards of living, recycling, using the power of government to force “someone else” to behave more responsibly, and using the government’s tax-and-spend powers to subsidize supposedly “green” alternatives (such as the now-discredited biofuel crops).
     The latter two approaches have generally done more harm than good (if any) because government is not reason but force. Government controls are the handiwork of people who have the most control in government; and taxpayer subsidies tend to go to those who have the most power to obtain subsidies. If it were otherwise, we would not have unjust wars, which destroy resources—human, financial, manufactured, and natural—to the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.
     The two former approaches would be sufficient to protect the environment only if men were angels. The biggest problem with enlightened self interest is that, too often, “self” stands in the way of enlightenment.
     I favor a few other approaches. By going green, individuals can improve their standards of living, governments can allow more freedom, and businesses can increase their profits. (Yeah, I know: Not even Amway salesmen are as grandiose in their promises, but bear with me) Here I will address only the business end of environmental responsibility, and I will mention only the steps that have been taken and proven for over ten years. They include but are not limited to loop-closing, energy recaptures, whole-systems thinking, down-cycling, and a new species of “service industry.”
     New technologies presently in the pipeline may make some of the following examples obsolete in a few years. I therefore will give examples only to illustrate general concepts that have countless applications.
     Loop-closing has been practiced for thousands of years, but only in the past generation or so has it involved high-tech engineering. Think of the farmers who use cow manure to fertilize the soil that grows grain for cattle. It's a cycle, isn't it? Many businesses in Northern Europe, North America, and Japan have boosted their profits by applying this principle to their respective value chains, from raw materials to the finished product, then back to some earlier point in the value chain.
     The loop can be closed at points all along the chain, creating not just one but several loops. The further back in the value chain the loop is closed, the greater the profits, resulting in less pollution and fewer lost resources.
     We also have the option of energy recaptures. When a train rumbles into a subway station, that rumbling is the result of lost energy that is transferred to the tracks, the walls of the station, and to the outer environment. That's energy consumed without value received. In Northern Europe, some companies have boosted profits by recapturing and using this otherwise wasted energy. To give another example, when a train conductor applies the brakes, he’s sacrificing energy that had been generated to make the train go forward. Even that energy can—and has been—recaptured and used.
     Much waste results from business structures that separate construction budgets from maintenance budgets. Typically, energy savings appear in the maintenance budget, even if they are the result of decisions made by the building contractor. If the energy savings come at the expense of slightly higher construction costs, the building contractor (who probably was the lowest bidder) has no incentive to use the energy-saving plan in his design. Both the business and the environment lose something unless someone in the company looks at the whole system and incorporates the energy-savings plan into the specs offered for bidding.
     Down-cycling is another environmentally friendly, cost-saving measure. We all practice it to some degree, such as when we convert scrap paper into notepads before recycling the paper. In thousands of ways, businesses can, and often do, practice down-cycling. Carpet manufacturers, for instance, have taken worn-out carpets and down-cycled the fibers into insulation material for buildings or jackets.
     Many small businesses in America today specialize in deconstructing buildings rather than tearing them down. As a result, over 90% of their materials are often reused, recycled, or down-cycled—saving money on all sides, lowering consumer prices, creating jobs, and saving landfill space.
     A new type of service industry is coming about. Why buy an air conditioner when all you really want is comfort? Using whole-systems thinking, some companies have successfully contracted to sell benefits rather than products. Sometimes the product is needed; sometimes not; sometimes a smaller version of the product is needed. Sometimes the client's building must be altered for benefit maximization. When the product is used, the manufacturer retains ownership and responsibility for that product.
     This, in turn, has often resulted in new product designs allowing appliances and other products to be dismantled more easily. After all, why replace an air conditioner when all you really need to replace is a small element within the air conditioner? That's one fewer appliance headed for the landfill, fewer toxic emissions from the production of a new one, less natural resources used, more savings and comfort for the client, and more money for the company. You can't beat it with a stick.
     These are only a few of the many ways that businesses can (and often do) help to make our world safer and healthier. In the article “Reclaiming Our Agrarian Heritage” I'll describe ways that we, as individuals, can improve our living standards by going green. Environmental protection is everyone's responsibility—not because of what we fear, but because of what and whom we love.

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