Friday, January 21, 2005

Friday Optimism Blogging

Inspired by the venerable tradition of Friday Cat (and Nudibranch!) Blogging, many bloggers are consecrating their Fridays to similar innocent amusements.

Some people post ten random songs from an iPod or mp3 player. I actually did that once (on another site), and felt kind of uneasy afterwards. I'm not what I listen to, and I no longer have any appetite for conspicuous or competitive consumption. Never again!

Other folks are doing a Friday blogroll add: pick a blog you like, and write a post about why other people should read it. I like that idea, although it may invite some uncomfortable speculation about whether one expects anything in return. And eventually, I imagine, you'd run out of blogs to promote, or space to blogroll them.

Instead, I think that from here on out, I'll post positive stories on Fridays...things that give me a bit of hope for the future. I wouldn't mind if the idea caught on; I think most of us could stand to go into the weekend with a bit of good news, or at least not-so-bad news.

Accordingly, here's a heartening article on the trend towards cradle-to-cradle (C2C) design at some of the world's largest electronics manufacturers. Among other things, it's a good example of how government regulations - or even the threat of them - can encourage innovation.

Before the Panasonic SD Video Camera was born, designers planned for its death....it has no lead, no mercury and no brominated flame retardants — all hazardous substances that make consumer electronics such as personal computers, digital cameras and televisions dangerous to bury in landfills and difficult to recycle. The camera's aluminum casing can be smelted and made into other products. When its lithium ion battery runs out, it can be dropped off at one of 30,000 retail stores nationwide.

"We wanted to eliminate hazardous materials and make it easy to recycle," said David Thompson, director of corporate environmental affairs for Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., which owns Panasonic. "This is a design objective that's being built into all of our products."
Good for them. One trend the article mentions is the use of metal in place of plastic, which I applaud. Among other things, recognizing that there are high external costs to certain plastics gives designers leeway to work with nicer materials. A world in which plastic could be replaced by bamboo and stainless steel is, I would argue, a somewhat more gracious and bearable world. The materials that surround us have real psychological effects on us, just as strip-mall architecture does. By freeing us from an illusory economic imperative, acknowledging external costs allows us to make things that are both sturdy and pleasing to the senses. I really don't think that's a frivolous thing to desire.

One thing the article doesn't mention is the new advances in biodegradable corn-based plastics (and other bioplastics) which companies like HP are using for printers. Another is the increasing use of bamboo, a beautiful and eminently renewable wood which grows almost as fast as you can cut it down, and is ideal for flooring and countertops. (I have a bamboo cutting-board...the best one I've ever owned! It's as hard as a rock, easy to clean, and lovely to look at.)

Anyway, the last few paragraphs of this article are music to my ears:
Disposing of old electronics traditionally has been the customer's problem. After Jan. 1, though, California retailers are required to collect a $6 to $10 recycling fee for every television and computer monitor sold. The fee will fund payments to private recyclers, who are paid 48 cents a pound to dismantle and recover reusable materials in old monitors.

European countries go even further. Germany requires electronics manufacturers to take back their products when customers are finished with them. Next year, the rest of the European Union will have similar rules. And by 2006, the European countries will ban sales of equipment containing lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and brominated flame retardants.

At the heart of these regulations is an economic notion that the best way to deal with pollution is to build its cost into the product. If companies must pay to dispose of their own products, they would have an incentive to design their products to be easier to recycle or more environmentally friendly and, thus, less costly to clean up.
If I could change careers, I'd go into industrial design. It's a wide-open field with endless possibilities, now that conventional economic concepts are finally being redefined or discarded. That's a perfect example of why government regulation can be a good thing for business. Far from being an enemy of free enterprise, regulation is often a necessary catalyst for innovation and productivity.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

That is good news -- straight out of Cradle to Cradle and The Ecology of Commerce.

On a similar note, I recommend a book called The Rebel Sell, available in the US as Nation of Rebels. It's by a pair of Toronto philosophy professors, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. The original article which sparked the book is here: http://www.thismagazine.ca/issues/2002/11/rebelsell.php

The main point they make is that counterculture is really not anti-consumerist, it's just really a restatement of the old 1950s "critique of mass society" argument, and in fact countercultural products paradoxically drive competitive consumption in a kind of "arms race" of people trying to maintain their distinctiveness and individuality.

One's choice of running shoe brand will not really change things in the long term: instead, they recommend old-fashioned legislation, regulation and economic incentives as the best way to instigate and enact benevolent social change.

Markets are very efficient at supplying us with products, but only goverments can set the rules under which markets operate. The California electronics recycling initiative is smart and easy to implement.

Similarly, switching to true-cost accounting that includes what are now externalities (for example, the cost of poisoned water from overuse of fertilizer and pesticides, or the health costs of pollution from cars) means goverments have leverage to bill those costs back to the polluters, who then have an economic incentive to clean up their operations.

Anonymous said...

That is good news -- straight out of Cradle to Cradle and The Ecology of Commerce.

On a similar note, I recommend a book called The Rebel Sell, available in the US as Nation of Rebels. It's by a pair of Toronto philosophy professors, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. The original article which sparked the book is here: http://www.thismagazine.ca/issues/2002/11/rebelsell.php

The main point they make is that counterculture is really not anti-consumerist, it's just really a restatement of the old 1950s "critique of mass society" argument, and in fact countercultural products paradoxically drive competitive consumption in a kind of "arms race" of people trying to maintain their distinctiveness and individuality.

They argue that Buy Nothing Day changes nothing, unless you go to the root of the system and decide to Earn Nothing as well. Buying a Black Spot running shoe from Adbusters will not bring down Nike; it just establishes a new cool brand.

In any case, these "lifestyle ethics" choices do not really change how markets work in the long term. Heath and Potter recommend old-fashioned legislation, regulation and economic incentives as the best way to instigate and enact benevolent social changes.

Markets are very efficient at supplying us with products, but only goverments can set the rules under which markets operate. The California electronics recycling initiative is an example of that in action, and it's smart and easy to implement.

Similarly, switching to true-cost accounting that includes what are now externalities (for example, the cost of poisoned water from overuse of fertilizer and pesticides, or the health costs of pollution from cars or coal-fired power plants) means goverments have leverage to bill those costs back to the polluters, who then have an economic incentive to clean up their operations.

AJ

Amanda said...

Hey! Don't pick on Friday Random Ten! Music snobbery and competition is a healthy outlet for those feelings, you know. Better to be a record collector than a Republican, I say.

Phila said...

I'm sorry, Amanda! I wasn't thinking about you when I wrote that..I was thinking of a couple of other sites!

I was being kind of...well, not all that serious, anyway. There's nothing wrong with it...I just can't get into it, myself. Although it's kind of neat when a bunch of people are doing it on one thread, and you see the wide variety of stuff people are into...

Rexroth's Daughter said...

i like your positive friday post idea. i recall a news piece about mercedes benz making cars that were easy to recycle. oh, maybe it was volkswagen. the everywhere problem of landfill dumps full to capacity, and leaking toxic sludge, is pushing for a recycle solution. my previous hometown of santa cruz, ca has a fairly ambitious program of separate waste streams to deal with the icky stuff in technocrap, and paint and poison. my new homeplace in port townsend, wa also has a good recycling operation and a hazardous waste facility.

bad news about bird flu tho.

dread pirate roberts