Post No.: 0244
When investigating the impacts of products, we must look at their entire product lifecycles, from the cradle to the grave – from extracting the raw materials, the manufacturing, the transport used at all stages, the use (or abuse) by the consumer, its disposal or recycling, and anything else. Something might seem ecologically friendlier at one stage but it’s false if the environmental costs have only been shifted to another stage along that lifecycle.
We also have to look laterally at things like soil degradation, pesticide resistance, pollinator insects, micro-plastics in the food chain, crop monoculture, CFCs, human rights concerns, local jobs, pandemics that start from livestock, industrial disasters (whether intentional like dumps or unintentional like spillages), and other by-products or side-effects too – not just the carbon footprint on the atmosphere and oceans.
This is a very rough correlation because there are many exceptions to this rule – but there’s a general, and somewhat logical, correlation between the price a customer pays for a good/service and its cost to the environment. For example, extracting rarer raw materials uses more energy than extracting less rare materials, more complex products use more processes and therefore energy to make, and things that have travelled from further away use more energy to transport – and all this energy consumption reflects in the resultant retail price (unless one is getting ripped-off or something’s being sold at below-cost price). Think of the price of beef compared to chicken, for instance.
However, market prices are still seldom true reflections of the costs of things for they don’t factor in the full costs to the environment i.e. they virtually assume whatever we pluck from nature is free apart from our own efforts to extract and process them. It’s as if they’re unlimited, when few things in nature are practically limitless. From a selfish and individualistic perspective, we also largely assume whatever we dump onto nature has no long-term costs either because these costs are passed onto the environment, onto other biological life, other people, including future generations of life and people. For instance, the price customers pay for cotton clothing doesn’t compensate nature enough for the amount of water that’s used in its production. A lot of clothes are also manufactured in the poorer parts of the world and so this industry uses up and pollutes a lot of the drinking water supply in these areas too.
In wild nature, one organism’s waste is another organism’s resource. But humans create so much waste that no organism, not even other humans, wants (e.g. degraded plastics or nuclear waste). In non-human nature, there’s no such thing as waste per se since one plant, animal or microbe’s expelled waste is another’s food; and in a balanced ecosystem that has taken many millennia to develop, no specie’s amount of waste overwhelms the rest of the system either.
But humans collectively waste so much food and materials. Some other animals may seem to waste food but where they drop e.g. their half-eaten fruit or meat, they sow seeds or fertilise the soil or seas, and other animals certainly don’t drop non-biodegradable waste anywhere. (There are things like landmines littering some parts of the world too!) Even when individual humans die, many choose to lock their or their loved-ones’ nutrients in coffins rather than return them back to the soil or seas to help create or feed new life. Cemeteries also take up land space so this practice isn’t sustainable forever. The Industrial Revolution brought so much progress and prosperity but was it also the point when humans really badly lost harmony with nature – when humans created waste that nature couldn’t make use of and in quantities and timescales it couldn’t handle? Nothing that’s good seems to stay good in extreme and unfettered amounts.
Humans also have some very strange priorities led by market forces. For instance, digging up vast swathes of trees just to get to the ground where gold is – gold that’s often merely used for purposes of tokens of currency, ornamentation or decoration, and this endeavour seems more important to humans than keeping those carbon-sinking trees healthy. There are many functional uses for gold, the wood from those trees do usually get used too and new trees may get replanted afterwards, but the loss of the fauna that once lived there might be permanent and it takes time for the flora to grow back to what it was like again too. And it’s all because, from a human and market forces perspective, decorative jewels are deemed more important and valuable than functional trees. We don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone! Woof.
This doesn’t mean that we should just start paying higher prices for products just to boost the profits of corporations – because, without sufficient regulation, they won’t pass this extra money onto fully recompensing nature, and nature doesn’t accept or want money as compensation anyway. We need to repair, replenish or better – individually and collectively consume less in the first place.
Now we mustn’t simply jump onto bandwagons – we must think critically if we really want to do our fluffy bit for the environment. For instance, there’s nothing intrinsically bad about palm oil for the environment (e.g. it doesn’t leach heavy metals or something like that into the soil) – it’s a victim of its own success because it’s versatile, an easy and efficient crop to grow and thus many farmers want a piece of the action; which in turn leads to deforestation and the other problems associated with palm oil. But if all manufacturers and consumers are doing is using alternative sources of oil (e.g. corn, soybean, rapeseed) then that contributes to deforestation in aggregate too! These alternatives will be worse for the environment because they’re less efficient to grow – although over-relying on only one crop would be bad too for the lack of biodiversity and risk of ‘putting all eggs in one basket’, as it were, and palm oil production uses tropical rainforest land.
It’s like a serial killer who kills 12 people will grab the national headlines for him/herself and become individually infamous, but 12 different people killing 12 people in total won’t likely garner national stories for any of those 12 killers – but the same number of people have died in both cases. Palm oil is like the former and its substitutes are collectively like the latter in this analogy. Or it’s like a certain model of car is so popular that it’s seen congesting the roads, but simply driving other models of cars won’t decongest those roads.
So we can relieve our own guilty consciences without actually improving matters because if consumption of all types of products (that use oil) is not reduced then the problem is merely being substituted or shifted elsewhere rather than solved. Thus to reduce deforestation, people must consume less in total – not merely consume other substitutes in the same amounts. Plus it’s naïve to bemoan other countries for deforestation when we’re the main ones demanding, buying and consuming the products those resources use.
I wish there was a way of compensating nature by replacing low entropy with low entropy rather than low entropy with higher entropy – this would create sustainable industrial and economic activities. But with the level of consumerism we currently partake in, we’re only dramatically increasing entropy and gradually reducing the useful resources we can obtain from nature. Energy itself can potentially be dealt with via totally using 100% renewable sources of energy, but things like raw minerals and land are still running out. This logically cannot last forever. New technologies may come to save the day, and I hope they do, but hope is not a strategy.
And what’s really bad about humans is that some people still think wastefulness is a status symbol i.e. conspicuous consumption or ‘look at how rich I am by how much I’m not bothered about wasting what I’ve got’! It’s like a peacock’s tail saying ‘look at how fit I am by how much I can drag this cumbersome thing around without getting killed’. (They might not get killed but a lot of them get captured and put in captivity(!) Silly birds.)
Antibiotic overuse is another global problem. Pharmaceutical companies want to sell and supply as many of their products as they can, and many individual patients demand antibiotics from their doctors even when they’re not necessary for minor bacterial infections (and they won’t help at all with viral infections such as common colds or influenza because viruses are not bacteria). This needlessly contributes to the rapidly growing bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Current antibiotics are becoming less effective, and the search for new types has stalled for decades (other avenues, such as bacteriophages, are concurrently being explored though). The meat industry in some parts of the world still uses antibiotics too because some antibiotics happen to make the animals grow faster, which is good for profit maximisation.
These examples show us that supply and demand, and profit maximisation, cannot be slavishly worshipped in all cases as forces and objectives that’ll lead the world towards an optimal utopia for humanity. Increasing consumption, rather than reducing consumption, is what profit maximisation desires. The tragedy of the commons occurs when everyone serving their own rational self-interests results in collective disaster.
Industries need to care about decades rather than a few quarterly returns down the line and the goal of maximising short-term shareholder value. However, if publicly traded companies do not maximise relatively short-term shareholder value then many investors will just transfer their money to a company that will because of the opportunity costs. A company’s current share price should incorporate everything that’s anticipated about the future of that company, but the value of very long-term returns are lower than more immediate returns of the same nominal amount due to discounting future returns or earnings and the greater uncertainty. Also, because a high percentage of trades nowadays are high-frequency algorithmic trades looking for gains from one microsecond to the next, rather than holding stocks for years, the financial markets are more geared towards favouring relatively short-term gains over long-term or deferred ones. And that’s another problem of the current capitalist system because caring about the environment involves the very, very long term.
So what if a business won’t last into the far future if it carries on as it is? The current CEO and major shareholders will have made themselves rich and will have personally retired by then! By the time these long-term problems truly reveal their impact, they’ve profited and moved on hence they’re not financially incentivised to care, and these problems will be passed onto future generations. And the CEO’s own children and grandchildren, etc. will otherwise be fine too because of their inherited wealth.
And as an example out of many that could’ve been selected – if water companies, up to a point, don’t find it economical to fix water leakages (to cut operating costs) compared to getting consumers to use more water (to increase turnover) then they’re obviously not accounting for the environmental costs. If these costs aren’t even accounted for in an industry or system that directly depends on the environment in the long-term (not just as life support but economically) then something’s seriously wrong with that industry or system! It’s not self-correcting for the environment’s sake.
Countries competing against each other economically, hence individualistically don’t want to curb their own emissions or resource demands since this would hamper their own economic growth, will lead to everyone eventually losing (and this isn’t just the fault of politicians but the people who vote for them and want to put ‘my job/wealth/country first’). There’s a conflict of interest between GDP and environmental protection/resource rationing. So the way global economics currently works is problematic too.
Something truly radical needs to therefore change about the way our economies work because things cannot carry on as they are without severe negative consequences.