The Culprit of Mass Consumption

E-boken Planerad föråldring av massprodukter. Pris 29kr.

E-boken Planerad föråldring av massprodukter. Pris 29kr.

The human population has passed the point where resource consumption is no longer sustainable. Whether we like or not we are fast approaching peak-everything, not just peak oil. In my papers I discuss how we ended up in this situation and what the solutions may look like. My departure is a strong belief that we can invent our selves out of this. The important thing though is to recognize that technological inventions spur social change and it is social and behavioral change that we most pressingly need.

Our personal clothes, gadgets and other objects of consumption lie at the very root of the environmental- and resource crisis that is towering on the horizon. We can see and feel and touch the caues, yet understanding how it all works is extremely remote and hard to grasp. As individual’s there isn’t much we can do about it either. Our personal belongings break or becomes obsolete all by them selves. Aware of the crisis we recycle and buy Priuses and there isn’t much else we can do.

In this respect we are all in the hands of international corporations. But why is big business acting the way they do? They are on the market to make money thats true, but surely there must be ways to stay in business in a sustainable way.

I am totally convinced that there are such solutions runs through the core of my thesis and was what plunged me into a several year long study on the markets for mass produced consumer durables. Today I have a few suggestions on how those markets could work in a different and sustainable way.

That we are still in mass production/ consumption society is totally caused by political cowardliness, entrepreneurial laziness and a lack of creative vision.

It’s soon 100 years from the advent of mass production. A past century that has been truly wonderful years to the human race, but It’s also a century that has been forced to experience an explosion in the exploitation of natural resurces, as well as an uncontrolled diffusion of man made chemicals. The proportions of these two adverse effects of the modern society are truly disastrous to the planet. It’s quite intriguing when you realize that the human population will suffer severely in the future, if this generation can’t find a departure from the route of the 20th century. Continuing business as usual will ruin the possibilities to sustain a large population on this planet.

So what can we do? Lets rule out a couple of options first: Going back to a mediaeval economy is not an option. The goods we have today is extremely important to the human race and we wouldn’t want to be without it. Conclusively, if we are to live on this planet for more than a few hundred additional years it’s imperative that we come up with solutions to make the production/consumption machinery work in a sustainable way.

The amount waste from scrapped cars each week are equivalent in weight to 25 super carriers, such as this one, The USS Nimitz. Yes, twenty-five!

So, what can we do about it? Well, for one thing there are a thousand bugs (viruses if you like) in the economic laws, the business models etc on how to make money to sustain ourselves and our companies. These bugs needs to be corrected in order to create a global human culture that is compatible with not only safe global conditions but also enhances the biosphere to make our planet healthy and bubbling with life. So there is a huge amount of work that needs to be done!

An important field where we cling to old habits that’s just as bad for humanity as eating candy all day long would be for your teeth, is the field of consumption. The bugs in this field are huge! They are the ones that makes us blind to lucrative sustainable opportunities while at the same time making us short sighted and egoistic, forcing us to make erroneous decisions, harmful to ourselves and other life forms only because we think we have no opportunity to do otherwise. As a group we tend to cling to obsolete economic behaviour, shopping habits that are not god for us and political ideals that’s benefitial for our own personal short sighted good. Even though we as individuals know that these choices are futile in the long run and/or cause bad effects somewhere remote from ourselves we tend to continue to make the same choice over and over again. Unless of course, we encounter an eye-opener, or are presented a better choice. Consumption is a field of human activities where we really need to grow up!

Had enough of this? Photo: "Stuck in Customs" via flickr.

Had enough of this?Photo: ”Stuck in Customs” via flickr.

Many know this and many work to try to help the human race to new levels of awareness. However, traditionally many of those working for this are doing it by presenting negative images of the present conditions. How many pictures of spewing sewer pipes and factory chimneys have you seen? I bet a lot, but what is the remaining feeling inside of you after seeing these pictures? That of “Yes, I can make change!”? Hardly. I would say it leaves a trace of we and them, of despair and of feeling small and powerless. By working from the negative side we are fighting from below. We are not presenting a better alternative and will have a hard time leaving a we/them or good/bad way of thinking which is not very productive to our cause.

What I want to push for is the power of the positive. In order to successfully change something as large as the our economic behaviors it’s crucial to work with positive energy towards a mental image of where we would like to see our selves in the future. An image of what we may achieve. It’s a quite different approach compared to being negative towards the present conditions. Of course, in principle there is nothing wrong with using pictures of undesirable conditions. Those are necessary too. But it’s very important to be aware of what we are doing when we use them.

In my thesis I focus on how the needs met by consumer durables have developed historically and how they may be changed in the future. In particular I focus on the automobile because it’s is the number one consumption object when it comes to resource extraction and energy use in utilization and production. It’s also the number one consumption object considering the fact almost every human on this planet aspire to own one. If we are doing the math the numbers are staggering: In 2005, 750 million people owned a car. Seven hundred and fifty million! That’s huge, but it’s still just 14 percent of the human population!

A cautious projection of car ownership for 2020 is 1.100.000.000 cars (1.1 billion). A parking lane around the equator where all these cars would fit would be so long it would would stretch 131 times around the globe! Can the world sustain that number of automobiles?

Well, if we junk them after 7-14 years of service as we do today, the answer is no, the world cannot sustain that many cars for long. And that is regardless of whether they are propelled by fossil fuels or sunshine. Why not? Average life-span of a car varies around different countries, but say it lasts 10 years. Divide those ten years with 1824 kgs which was the average weight of automobiles and light trucks sold in the US 2003 (4,021 pounds). Do the math and you will come up with almost exactly 0,5 kgs of materials consumed each day, or 3,5 kgs per week. Doesn’t sound like much? Imagine earths 750 million car-owners taking their weekly load of 3,5 kgs to the recycle bins – thats 2 625 000 000 kgs or in metric tons more than 2,5 million tons of trashed materials per week. I think that’s still hard to grasp, so lets shred the cars and put the junked weight on a freight train. A standard freight train wagon has a payload of around 50 tons and a length of about 21 meters. That transfers into a train that’s 1050 km long! A train that each week is filled with junked cars. I think it’s fair to say that this problem is gigantic! Thinking of gigantic. the worlds biggest aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz weigh just over 100.000 tons, so another way of thinking about the scale of the scrappings is comparing it with 25 scrapped USS Nimitz – a week.

What the re-cycle symbol would look like if it where to accurately represent the "re-cycle" process.

Down-cycling. What the re-cycle symbol would look like if it where to accurately represent the ”re-cycle” process.

So, what about recycling? Well, recycling is not a solution either. As a matter of fact ”recycling” is a rather misleading word since 100 percent of an automobile can’t be recycled to 100 percent of a new automobile. Neither is anything else by the way. Read this article on recycling on TreeHugger for example. Most of the recycled materials is down-graded to produce other things, and when those things in turn are recycled even less of the materials can be salvaged. Eventually 100 percent of all automobiles will end up in landfill, its just a matter of one, or a couple of, ”re-cycles“ before they do. This means we have an enormous flood of materials going from the crust of the earth as virgin raw materials to landfills where they are deposited because they have been rendered useless.

We need the services we gain from cars and other consumer durables, and for obvious reasons it’s critical that we solve this issue before it becomes acute.

Vacuumcleaners has an average life-span of 6-7 years or about 700 hours of duty but it would pose no technical problems to make them last five times that long at roughly the same manufacturing cost.

Vacuumcleaners has an average life-span of 6-7 years or about 700 hours of duty but it would pose no technical problems to make them last five times that long at roughly the same manufacturing cost.

When I began my studies in the late 1990s I dove into the question of why the life-spans of consumer durables is constant, in many cases even shrinking, when they really should be increasing. Moore’s law is definitely not applicable on the life-span of consumer durables it seemes. Well, I wasn’t surprised. I was already familiar with the term ”planned obsolescence” since I used to work as an engineer at Electrolux experimental workshops where designing products with life-span targets is an everyday toil. Think that’s a big deal? Well, I think not – everyone knows. Electrolux isn’t shy to admit so in public either (See article below in Svenska Dagbladet). Their arguments stipulate that ”the right longevity” is a rational thing for the producer, for the consumer, for the economy and for the environment. Not true of course but their very same arguments are seen for cars and every other consumer durable. This issue therefore is universal. Come up with working solutions for automobiles and you will see a domino effect over a whole range of products.

In the first parts of the thesis studies I use empirical historic data to analyze the interaction between the producer side and households. These initial chapters lay out an empirical foundation where we, considering the questions I set out with, will let us better understand why consumers and producers act the way they do regarding to the life span of these products. In the last chapters of the thesis I will be discussing possible market solutions that makes long life-spans a desirable feature of consumer durables. Those are the really juicy bits no manufacturer of durable goods would want to miss!

The average private car is parked 95% of the time. Shared cars are not. Car sharing is great way too free up resources.

The average private car is parked 95% of the time. Shared cars are not. Car sharing is great way too free up resources.

Sharing is another way to achieve a considerable increase in resource use. Take automobiles for example! The average car sits idle for around 95 percent of the time. Decrease the idle parking time to 50 percent and we would only need 10 percent of the number of cars to do the same transportation work. On the global scale that would mean we would only need 75 million automobiles. 675 million automobiles would never have to be produced! Decrease idling time to 40 percent and we would have the same service with only 8 percent of the car fleet of today or 60 million units.

Now, we can’t decrease the idling time without sharing the vehicles so that other may use the car when we don’t that’s obvious but how to do it? There are a number of ways to do it and since the 1990′s we have been witnessing a lot of different approaches to this.

One of the latest is also one of the biggest. Hertz, a large car rental firm recently (Dec 08) started three car sharing systems simultaneously in Paris, London and New York. In an interestesting interview with Hertz CEO Mark Frissora talking about the launch. He says Hertz can make this investment because it’s a such a huge market for car sharing but he also says they want to differentiate their business and thats interesting because it means he doesn’t think car sharing will compete with their own rental services. That in turn means that car sharing systems recruit customers from those who previously owned a car and those who didn’t own car but didn’t rent either and that is not a very big group. Enjoy the video as long as it lasts on the internet.

Even though Hertz and many other car sharing companies are expanding into car sharing, the problems with car sharing are many and they are well known. First and foremost there is an insurance problem which in risc-analysis is called ”Moral Hazard” - a fancy word for the fact that people doesn’t care much for stuff that’s not theirs. There are also quite large technical-organizational problems. All of these are however, possible to solve and I am pretty shure we will see an increasing number of households selling their automobiles to join a car sharing service in the future.

It’s important to recognize that car sharing does not offer a solution for increasing the longevity of automobiles and until we solve this ”incentive problem”, they will continue to produce automobiles with a life span as short as their final customers would possibly accept, wether they are households or car sharing enterprises matters little.

Free downloads:
Svenska Dagbladet Näringsliv.

Publications:
Images of the Future City, Springer Verlag 2010 (ed)
Bekvämlighetsrevolutionen, Stockholmia förlag 2008 (ed)
Bilder av Framtidsstaden, Brutus Östlings förlag Symposion 2007 (ed) – out of print.
..and more.

Related links:
The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard
WorldChanging: Bright Green
World Resources Forum
Wuppertal Institute
World Watch Institute

Comments

  1. Petemimo says

    I need ´bout 10 millon buck to find the market för The! carpool of the universe. Everybody from Tasmania to Kiruna should use the same interface for finding the ride they need.
    Could you please start selling some T-shirts so that you could lend me the money I need?

  2. says

    As I have understood it, you are already on the way with that project. That’s really good because it’s going to take a while to raise the needed ten million dollars from my t-shirt business. Too bad! Anyway, I wish you the best of luck!
    // Björn

  3. says

    Björn – what an interesting and challenging blogpost, both as to innovative content and as to length (!). I met you mostly as as a neighbour in our ‘kollektiv’/bofaellesskaeb/living community, where we mostly not do job talk. And as a creative web designer. Now that you moved to another appartment, and have created my website, I look forward to keeping in touch still as a friend, and as a university colleague. I look forward to following the completion of your thesis – and I am sure you will continue doing fun things on the way… Good luck /Åke

  4. says

    … hello again! my mistake, I tyhought I was reading your last blog post – while I was really at your section ‘our planet’; serendipity is fine!

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