If we want to build a society which is both prosperous and sustainable, we're going to need to innovate ways of delivering the material goods which underpin that prosperity at a small fraction of the ecological cost they exact today. We must learn to live large while leaving tiny ecological footprints.
We have extremely huge footprints today. If every person lived as the average wealthy American does today, we'd need almost ten planets worth of resources to sustain ourselves, while the gap between our consumption and the capacities of the planet's natural systems has already crossed into overshoot, threatening mass-extinctions and catastrophic climate change.
If we're going to have a bright green future -- if we want to avoid living out the rest of our lives in one long emergency, a kind of constant Katrina -- we need to reinvent our lives now, immediately, on a radical scale. British researchers found that in order to reach sustainable prosperity, Londoners would have to shrink their ecological impacts 80% in the next four decades. For affluent Americans, the number may be more like 90%. And the more we learn about the extent of the damage we're causing the planet, the shorter our timeframes for change become. I suspect that we need to be thinking more along the lines of cutting our impact in half in the next ten years.
Impossible, you say? I think not.
I believe that three main barriers present themselves.
First, we must learn to see the damage we already do. Most of the ecological devastation we cause happens in ways and places which are obscured from our eyes. You might say it happens off-stage: when we turn the ignition key, we don't see the glaciers of Greenland melting; when we throw out our our old television, we don't see its toxic chemicals and heavy metals seeping from the landfill into the groundwater; when we install a new hardwood floor, we don't see the rainforest disappearing in a cloud of chainsaw smoke.
But we ought to see these things. We ought to know the backstory. I believe the next decade will see a lot of artists, activists and culture-jammers finding new ways of highlighting the negative backstories of the goods and services we buy (especially when other choices with better stories exist).
Observation changes behavior. Telling the history of the stuff in our lives is a great way to induce us to change, of course -- for instance, most people will never again want a fur coat once they know what happens to the animals who were wearing that fur before -- but there are even more powerful ways to harness the force of sustained observation. Congestion taxes, for instance, can dramatically alter driving behavior in a very short time. Simply installing home energy meters often leads to a drop in energy use: when we can see immediately the consequences of leaving a light bulb burning unnecessarily, we have an added incentive to switch it off.
Second, we need to make better things. We can shrink our footprints quite a bit through better design and engineering of the products in our lives, by making things which use no raw materials, function at near-optimal energy efficiency, are non-toxic and can be completely recycled or re-used at the end of their lives. That may sound utterly utopian, but we may actually be able to accomplish much of this redesign in the next couple decades, as better tools for designing more sustainably (like computer-aided design programs that take into account not only the strength and function of the materials a designer is playing with using, but their ecological and social impacts) meet emerging technologies and materials. Indeed, some of us are already much farther ahead in this race than others -- the Japanese, for example, have created an extremely prosperous society with an ecological footprint less than half as large as that of most Americans. And there are extremely encouraging signs that designers, engineers and architects around the world are taking the need for transformative change seriously.
Sometimes, we need to see the system in which that good is embedded in a fresh light. Take Netflix. Most of us don't think of it this way, but this DVD-by-mail service is actually a great model of sustainability innovation. Consider: when many North Americans want to watch a movie at home, they get in their cars, drive to a big box store, park in a huge parking lot, shop for an available title under the hot lights with the HVAC whooshing air around above them, pay for their film, drive home, watch their film and then repeat the process. When I watch a Netflix movie, though, I drive nowhere. The postal carrier is already coming to my house to drop of my other mail, so the added effort to get me my movie is negligible. I still get to see Lethal Smoking Gun With a Vengeance 4 or whatever, but my drives to and from the store, and even the store itself, have been dematerialized. The DVD itself is unchanged, yet my movie sits more lightly on the planet.
Third, we need a revolution in how we think about the things we have. We've focused quite a bit here on the concept of product-service systems, and for good reason: transforming one's relationship with objects from one of ownership to one of use offers perhaps the greatest immediately available leverage point for greening our lives.
Take power drills. Supposedly, the average power drill is used for somewhere between six and twenty minutes in its entire lifetime. And yet supposedly almost half of all American households own one. If you think of all the energy and materials it takes to make, store and then dispose of those drills -- all the plastic and metal parts; all the trucks used to ship them and stores built to sell them; all the landfills they wind up in -- the ecological cost of each minute of drilling can be seen to be absurdly large, and thus each hole we put in the wall comes with a chunk of planetary destruction already attached.
But what we want is the hole, not the drill. That is, most of us, most of the time, would be perfectly happy not owning the drill itself if we had the ability to make that hole in the wall in a reasonably convenient manner when the need arose. What if we could substitute, in other words, a hole-drilling service for owning a drill?
We can. Already there are tool libraries, tool-sharing services, and companies that will rent you a drill when you want one. Other models are possible as well, and such product-service systems are not limited to hand tools.
Car sharing offers a great example. With mobile phones, swipe cards and walkshed technologies. it's easy to find the nearest car, quickly make a reservation, walk over and swipe your way inside. Indeed, in sufficiently dense neighborhoods, using a shared car is significantly easier than owning your own car. It can also save you serious cash. It fits perfectly with an urban, high-tech lifestyle.
Even better, car sharing offers major ecological benefits. Because as much as half the energy ever used by a car (and almost all of the material resources) are used not in the operation of the car but in its manufacture and disposal, sharing cars has an immediate and major ecological benefit attached. If three people share one car to do the same amount of driving they used to do in three separate cars, they have roughly one-third the backstory impact on those trips that they used to.
And it turns out that a lot of people can use the same few cars. Zipcar founder Robin Chase told me that they have found that every efficiently-used shared car can replace as many as 20 private cars (that is, cars which users either sell or decide not to buy in the first place). That means that the backstory impacts of all those trips drops to as little as 5% of what it once was.
But the beneficial impacts of car-sharing don't stop there. Because car-sharers' driving time is limited and measured (most pay by the hour), they tend to use it more efficiently, making fewer trips and planning routes more effectively, all of which means that they tend to use less fuel to accomplish the same tasks. Also, because the cars are being used more, they spend less time sitting in parking lots, and as car-sharing becomes more common, we can slash the number of parking spaces in our cities [anyone have a good number for parking-spaces-per-auto in the U.S.?], greatly reducing the amount of space we need to cover with asphalt (if shared cars and carpools were given priority access to the remaining spaces, this would have the additional advantage of disincentivizing people driving alone. We may not go car-free anytime soon, but we could go car-sensible tomorrow.) Perhaps the PARK(ing) kids have the right idea after all. Overall, though it may not be right for everyone, car sharing delivers most of the comfort and utility for less money and a fraction of the footprint of driving one's own car around.
What's more, why stop with drills and cars? We already share exercise equipment (gyms), books (libraries), outdoor space (parks) and short-haul rides (taxis); what kind of a scenario might present itself if we took the concept one step further?
Like many people, I want less clutter and hassle in my life. I already have too much stuff I have to store, too many things I have to maintain and keep track of; I even have, I've decided, too much space (despite loving my home, the first I've ever owned, I find that I could easily, perhaps even more happily, live in half the square footage). All of these things take up much of the time, energy and money I might otherwise apply to having the experiences I want in my life. I want an institutional tool for owning less and doing more.
Let's call it a use community. Imagine a member-owned facility located in the heart of a dense urban neighborhood where I could not only access a tool library, a laundry room, a gym and a shared car, or what-have-you, but access a whole suite of services designed to outsource my responsibility for owning or buying things.
For instance, I love to entertain, and so it is a real pleasure to have a dining room and a decent kitchen. But the reality is that I entertain more than a couple guests at most once a month. And I am told that in New York a company already offers studio dwellers access to a professional kitchen and well-appointed dining room, for a fee. If I had access to a place I could throw bigger dinner parties, I could easily live in a much smaller home and not worry that my kitchen stove only has four burners (and two of those don't work so well).
In a similar way, I have a home office. Now that Worldchanging is both so all-consuming and headquartered in a great, funky space, I spend almost no time working at home, but as someone who's often made my living freelancing and consulting, a home office was long an essential. Or was it? Already there are some amazing groups out there offering shared offices: WorkSpace in Vancouver is a fabulous example (they hosted our Vancouver book tour event), but there are other cool models as well, like the Hub and Aula.
Like a lot of urban people, I love third places like cafes, bars and art spaces, but often wrestle with the discomforting reality that in most third places I have limited ability to influence my surroundings. This is the problem rich people solve by joining exclusive private clubs and our grandparents solved by joining fraternal organizations (like Fred Flintstone's Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes), but those aren't the only models for sharing social space. Take for instance the McLeod Residence, an experimental project here in Seattle which aims to create a member-driven art/social space where everyone can have a voice in creating something cool out of the raw materials of square footage and fun allies.
One could also over-lay this basis of shared space and shared objects with systems for informal sharing -- like Sharer! or RentAThing, even a place-based FreeCycle -- so that me and my fellow members could function as one large, informal, distributed product-service system on top of the formal program. Heck, we could even go the whole nine yards and host various neighborly technologies like yellow chairs.
Combined purchasing power and shared facilities could also make the best available sustainable products more accessible. Services like CSAs would be a snap, but that's only the beginning. If I as an individual buy a super-green washing machine, it may take years to "earn out" (to have saved me more in water and energy costs than the difference in price between the green machine and cheaper, more wasteful alternatives). Ten people using that same machine, however, would earn out much more quickly (as well as reducing their individual backstory footprints), meaning they could live more sustainably, more cheaply. Similarly, with a shared facility, pushing the building itself to reflect cutting-edge best practices would become more cost-effective. Why shouldn't my use community's facility be something like the Jubilee Wharf? The money we saved would be our own.
I'd bet that a comprehensive survey of both my ecological impact now and the life I'd like to be living would reveal a ton of ways in which I could give up things I now own or purchase, replace them with things I use and share, and in the process not only greatly reduce my impact on the planet but actually get more life through the energy and money I'd save. (Indeed, an interesting subject I won't pursue here is the sudden explosion of financial models through which people can act to their mutual benefit -- not only what are called Mutual Benefit Corporations here in the US, but Tenancy-in-Common arrangements, joint ownership agreements and various forms of time-shares and cooperatives. Wealthy people already understand this principle well, creating corporations to share things like hunting lodges and golf courses -- what if a community of users did the same? I am pretty intrigued by the possibilities such mechanisms offer people looking to create innovative new systems of sharing.)
Building passion for such an institution would take creating some serious service envy, but that might be easier than old school marketers might think, especially if the execution of the idea lead visibly to the bright green trifecta of having cooler stuff, more money and less impact on the planet.
The impacts might be broader still. One of our goals here must be the redefinition of stylish affluence, not only because the affluent of the Global North are directly responsible for a fairly large share of global pollution, but because it is their lifestyle which is being emulated and adopted by the affluent in the emerging economies. If we can change the way we deliver affluence here, we can share affluence there without losing the great wager. That seems worth some experimentation.
Living in suburbia, I despair of shared use ... everyone has to have their power tools +.
Your point about observation leading to changes in behavior is a vital one. I think you are right to assume that the future will see more and more culture jammers and artists creating visual representations of our "invisible" impacts. However, I wonder if we need only rely on people from outside the system to create and disseminate these images.
A recent study showed that on cigarette packaging, health warnings made up of pictures are much more effective than those that are only words. Right now we can go to the lumber store and choose board that are branded with various assurances about sustainable harvest practices and such, but these rely on words. Words that tend to have competing and debated definitions. What if the hardwood flooring at Home Depot had a picture of a clear-cut on it? What if our electric bill came with a picture of mountain top removal or coal smoke stack? What if all lumber, all electronics, all products came with labels that represented the impact of producing and disposing of it?
We have gotten cigarette manufacturers and alcohol producers to label their products, we have gotten nutritional information posted on our foods, now we need an ecological labeling system. In a country where it has been hard enough even to get GMO products labeled, this could be a long effort, but with a profound impact.
Speaking of labeling products with imagery, why not use product placement in mainstream entertainment? Plenty of futuristic movies have portrayed slick, sustainable urban landscapes, complete with zero-emission vehicles and wildly popular mass transit, but what about right NOW? Imagine if a contemporary sitcom featured a group of young people, struggling to make it in the big city, actually using a car sharing service, or NetFlix, or a tool library.
Hell, you wouldn't even have to center plotlines around these things--just the fact that they are being portrayed would be an enormous leap forward. Don't poo-poo the value of product placement. This would be ENORMOUS.
How many Apple laptops have been sold because of short, subtle, almost inconsequential cameos in movies and television? How many people thought "well, if they can use an Apple I can use an Apple," or, "I never even considered that before!"
We don't need more Discovery Channel specials on sustainable living, we need sustainable living to make it on to the prime-time networks.
Think of the World Changing that could happen if Jack Bauer screeched around L.A. in a Prius, if the cast of Grey's Anatomy used a car-sharing service, or Dunder-Mifflin installed sun tunnels in their Scranton branch and offered discounts on 100% post-consumer content recycled paper?
(Actually, you could probably center a really funny episode of "The Office" around boss Michael Scott becoming a super-intense advocate for the environment. But it doesn't even need to go that far.)
I agree with your point about sharing v.s. owning. But I am surprised that power drill was used as an example. I own one and I use it all the time, both for drilling and as a screw driver. I recommend it to all home owner/dwellers. Though I'm looking for a lot more from the battery technology.
May I suggest a different example, say an expresso machine? I owned one as a gift. I have used it about 2 times over the years. There is simply too much clean up afterward to justify to use it to make a single cup of cappuccino. When I want one I would simply head to our shared commerical machine, aka the coffee shop, just around the corner from my house. (Or from Starbuck that is never far away). Yet the retailers would endlessly push these things as lifestyle necessities. We really need a cultural change to renounce these sort of consumerism.
Community-sharing networks have been around for a while: they're called housing co-ops.
I live in a co-op that offers all the shared services you mentioned above:
-shared tools and paiting/plastering/plumbing supplies
-shared eco-friendly washer and dryer
-shared kitchen supplies, such as commercial 6-burner stove and professional-strength KitchenAid mixmaster
-shared labor at insulating and weatherizing the house each fall
-shared wireless internet, computer, and cable
I notice that some Worldchanging posts seem to wince at the shared housing concept (hence Sara Rich's reference to co-ops and carob raisins in a Feb 8 post). Those of us who actually live in co-ops know that they have changed with the times along with the rest of society. They are modern. They can even be hip. They are fun and easy to live in. And there is not a trace of carob to be found.
That's why I found it odd that this entry, which went as far as mentioning shared office space, stopped short of embracing housing co-ops.
I know that living in a cooperative house isn't for everyone. (But neither is car-sharing or tool-sharing.) However, many people who originally think co-op life isn't for them find out that they LOVE it after eating dinner at our coop a couple times. If you truly want to live with a small footprint in this country, urban co-op living is an easy way to do it--much easier, MUCH cheaper, and even more ecologically friendly than co-housing.
I just wish that co-ops could shake off their carob-and-granola image of the past and market themselves for what we truly are: green, urban, and hip.
I feel compelled to chime in and say that I lived in a co-op for 6 years, they were some of the best years of my life, and I still live in a shared house with former co-opers. I love co-ops, with or without carob (I even like carob in small doses!).
I think the point may have been missed in the piece I wrote about cohousing. My point was exactly the same one that others are making in seeming contradiction of me, which is that most people take a stereotypical view of shared housing. MOST people think it's all carob and macrame. I know it's not and so, apparently, do many of you. And I was arguing in favor of seeing that co-ops have indeed evolved to be modern, urban, and absolutely current with the time.
But Wai Yip Tung, I use my espresso machine every day to make my own espresso with organic, shade grown, fair trade beans, and the one time I needed to use a drill I borrowed one from my sculpture artist girlfriend. I don't think the point of the drill is necessarily a bad one. The point is that we all purchase things that we really don't need that much and would be better off borrowing. The specifics of what these things are can be different for all of us, but for a great majority of us there are many things that we can all share and never feel that we are being left out.
Some interesting "Alexicons" - 'Dematerialize', 'But what we want is the hole, not the drill', and 'earn out'. My favorite is dematerialize and that single word covers the full gamut of solutions needed to relieve us partially of 'one long emergency'. I say partially because I learnt only a week ago that in the mid ninties our honest-faced Clinton signed changes to the rules of nuclear engagement to "launch on warning". Given that 40,000 Russian nuclear warheads are hunkered down by rusty control systems and not withstanding that Bush yanked out the small fund designated to help the Soviet nuclear industry to cope with the safety issues, we live in the shadow of this instantaneous 'kiss it goodbye' scenario.
But pressing on with "the tools, models and ideas for a better future", one of the many ideas covered by Alex in this post is the "tool library". It is a seminal idea on par with the origin of the current worlwide postal system and the older concept of libraries for books. I propose two action items to the worldchanging community, if some of them are so inclined.
(a) To design a suitable word to mean tool library. The etymology of the word library (for books) is (thanks to google) "c.1374, from Anglo-Fr. librarie, from O.Fr. librairie "collection of books," noun use of adj. librarius "concerning books," from L. librarium "chest for books," from liber (gen. libri) "book, paper, parchment," originally "the inner bark of trees," probably a derivative of PIE base *leub(h)- "to strip, to peel" (see leaf). The equivalent word in most Romance languages now means "bookseller's shop." Librarian is from 1713; earlier form was library-keeper (1647)." [the modern Home depot]
A tool library word will be circa 2007 to mean a collection of tools to be shared by the community. So if you are a worldchanger with knowledge of Greek, Latin and the science of roots and word formation, kindly help out to create this important intellectual asset on behalf of worldchanging.com.
(b) A more difficult second action item is to create a pilot facility as a clearing house for sharable tools in a dense urban area and New York city is one ideal location. The owners of tools can put their tools at the facility and have the potential of getting 50% of the nominal rental charged. The other 50% goes to the servicing of the transaction including the space, staff and all other overheads and yet leaving behind a small profit (for this "Low profit" enterprise). A small profit is essential to ensure financial viability to function in a 'fair market' economy and nobody has to loose and everyone wins. One headache that comes to mind is when a renter damages a power tool especially when using a tool beyond its designed capacities. Insurance may be the answer but the entire risk cannot be insured away. Of course this action item begs the question - Who is going to run the clearing house? The answer to that question will surface quickly if there is an electrifying and overwhelming support from the worldchanigng community.
Full disclosure: I have a garage full of tools that I hardly use. I love them all dearly and cannot bear to imagine some "borrower" might ruin the tools. I will promise to go to talk therapy to deal with it if a clearing house should materialize.
Well, staggering sums of money are spent every year to convince us that satisfaction lies in the possession, rather than the use or service, of stuff.
And many of us are attracted to the benefits of cooperation, but very wary of the obligations.
As Pogo said, we have met the enemy, and he is us.
Alex has written a great article, because it's encouraging a Copernican Revolution in our attitude toward possessions and self-determination. That's World-Changing at one of the highest points of leverage. The change in view needs to be near-universal. After that, the techniques and particulars will be local and varied, but relatively easy - if we so desire. But that's the rub.
One small problem: More people using machines more frequently just means they wear out faster. By constantly running the washer and dryer, etc., no matter how new and "Green" they are, you'll just end up having to buy new ones sooner. Net gain: zero.
The idea of the songwriter, John Mayer, may not be sufficient. It may not be adaptive or even make good sense to be found â€œwaiting for the world to change.â€?
On the other hand we could surely benefit from looking carefully at the words and actions of one of our greatest leaders. And, yes, it pleases me so that he is one of my generation of elders. He is not like most of us, however, the ones who have fallen into fatuous complacency, mortgaged our childrenâ€™s future to promote our patently unsustainable lifestyles et cetera. This great human being understands the value and signiticance of cultural change when that becomes necessary. He is a 1990 Nobel Laureate and his name is Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.
Not so long ago he called for a shiftâ€¦......for cultural change. The words he used to describe the needed behavior change among the people he represented were GLASNOST and PERESTROIKA.
Perhaps a shift in human behaviors among those in todayâ€™s predominant culture has at least something to do with the kinds of change proclaimed by Mr. Gorbachev. At least to me, this great man called for changes in human behavior that he realized were maladaptive and destructive of the community he served. For people to choose to ex-change unsustainable behaviors for ones that are sustainable would plainly and transparently lead to greater adaptability and survivability of the human community, I suppose.
I would like to invoke now the words of another great person and, also, and outstanding scientist by the name of Dr. Russell Hopfenberg. â€œGIVEN THE PSYCHOLOGICAL, SOCIAL, BIOLOGICAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS THAT OUR â€˜INCREASE CULTUREâ€™ HAS PRODUCED, IT SEEMS A CULTURAL SHIFT WOULD AMELIORATE THESE CONDITIONS.â€?
"Already there are tool libraries, tool-sharing services, and companies that will rent you a drill when you want one"
Yeah... but the cost of renting tools is so high that's it's like throwing $ away to rent rather than buy, and tools that are shared rather than owned will be trashed in no time because people don't take care of things they don't own... take a look at a rented DVD sometime and compare it to one you own if you need proof.
Radical departures are a difficult sell. The best way to make a change is to provide a service that is cheaper and more convenient than existing options. For these solutions to be sustainable- they will be different for every place, person, and situation- thus there is no single cultural change, or single solution, but a manifold of local technologies, business processes and traditions need to be developed.
Living better- fewer work hours, more free time, more available cash, and more options is what people find appealing. Post-Industrial sustainable technology can achieve this through increased communication technologies and revolutions in sustainable agriculture and energy generation. The technologies exist to make it work today- applying these to your place in the world is what needs to be achieved.
Itâ€™s a fantastic idea but really depends on the details of the service design, especially the user interface at the point of borrowing and returning. Car sharing organisations like StreetCar have thought very carefully about these things, and it makes for a great user experience.
Of course there will be different scales of Use Community, some small and informal where people are familiar to each other and some larger formal networks where people wonâ€™t know each other at all.
IT systems will underpin such Use communities, again at different scales. Large formal systems for communities which donâ€™t know each other so you can verify identity, establish trust and so on, and smaller systems for informal networks. The exciting thing is that the technology exists to do this now, even for small systems without lots of investment money. I've written about the potential for community applications here: http://citynoise.blogspot.com/2004_06_01_archive.html referencing Clay Shirkey's ideas on situated software.
These ideas have great potential, but it comes back to the question of what is appropriate for sharing? What will work? In a greenfield site, what could you introduce that would work? It will be fascinating to see where and how it succeeds.
are there any Tribes (tribe.net) or other resources that talk about how to effectively set up tool-sharing and other resource-sharing groups such that no one takes advantage of the system and no one feels taken advantage of? that is one of my main concerns in setting up a resource-sharing coop. i participate in an art community here in austin, and i've heard many voices over the years that would support shared tools; however, it's never happened, and i think several reasons are the fear of equipment damage, unequal access and responsibility, etc. it seems like the rules to ensure equity might get long and heavy. thoughts, anyone?
"One small problem: More people using machines more frequently just means they wear out faster...Net gain: zero."
Well, here in America, we believe in *many* reasons to buy new tools, the least of which is that the tool is worn out. Ironically, even that a newer tool is "greener" is an excuse to buy a new tool (let's trade the 2005 Honda Accord for a 2007 Toyota Prius - it's greener!).
I've just been introduced to your site thanks to a friend.
I'd like to know if anyone has any thoughts on the one factor I feel contributes to all ecological problems we face; human overpopulation.
How do we deal with such a sensitive subject and what, if any, solutions exist to convince people that adoption or foster homing children can be as rewarding and fulfilling as creating another human being.
Thank you for any thoughts you may have on this subject.
"One small problem: More people using machines more frequently just means they wear out faster. By constantly running the washer and dryer, etc., no matter how new and "Green" they are, you'll just end up having to buy new ones sooner. Net gain: zero."
As Cathy pointed out above, this is only true if one assumes that people use cars, tools, and other machines until they simply no longer function. But that's not how we currently use them. Instead, we often (though admittedly not always) buy newer and better things when we feel we need them, not when the older and slower ones wear out.
With 10 people sharing a washing machine, that washer is more likely to go through its full useful lifetime before being replaced with a newer one. This model of use captures more of a machine's operating lifetime than the one we currently use.
This theme was highlighted pretty well in the article, especially when shared cars came up and it was remarked that people tend to plan their trips more efficiently and drive less when they pay for a car by the hour.