This post is the second part of my thoughts on the Great Horse Manure Crisis. It is better to read it after the first part.
So, back then, when horses were completely replaced by cars, it sure seemed like pollution was something of the past. But knowing what we know now about greenhouse emissions and combustion engines, we wouldn’t be so quick to clap. It’s now the 21 century and pollution by cars has become a big health and environmental problem.” According to recent reports, in at least 15 cities air pollution has now become so dangerous that the expected health impacts of half an hour of cycling outweighs the benefits of exercise altogether. Virtually all diesel cars produce toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx) leading to at least 38,000 annual premature deaths due to heart and lung disease and strokes. Most of the deaths are in Europe, where highly polluting cars are the main culprit, and in China and India, where dirty trucks cause most of the damage. In the US, air pollution causes about 200,000 early deaths each year. Emissions from road transportation are the most significant contributor, causing 53,000 premature deaths, followed closely by power generation, with 52,000. Our over-reliance on cars is becoming too costly in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, we are thus called to use our genius in order to find alternatives.
Frankly speaking, if you substitute manure with air pollutants and horses with cars, we are getting close (or maybe we already are in) to a modern “horse manure crisis”. In practice, as it has happened so many times in human history, we resolved one problem (the horse manure crisis) by delivering an innovative solution that gradually created a new problem that, initially was unknown and unexpected, but finally it might be harder to be resolved! “Zero horse manure” it turns to be different than “zero pollution”. There is no free lunch out there, there are no magical solutions. When we talk about the environment and the human health, each and every choice creates impacts, independently of our ability to forecast or understand them.
I guess this will be the case with the Fourth Industrial Revolution too. It will deliver great innovations that will resolve hard problems, but they will finally create new, more complex problems. Let’s take the example of the electric car. Electric cars are great for eliminating oil from transportation, but electric cars may or may not help combat climate change—and it all depends on where the electricity comes from. Whilst the cars themselves have close to zero emissions, the coal-fired plants from which they are charging probably have much above zero. And, what it will happen with the billions of old EV batteries? Let’s talk about wind power, the last resort for the eco-friendly civilisation. Sadly recent research points out that roughly 43 to 47 million tons of wind turbines’ blades will be added to the world’s landfills within the next few decades.
Will someday our future generation be lost into the huge, multidimensional and continuously expanding plastic matrix? The more we are able to produce more plastic products with less resources and lower costs, the more the consumption is stimulated and the more plastic waste is created. Recycling markets are both problematic, due to their close linkages with the commodity markets, and seriously disrupted by the emergence of new materials.
When it comes to waste management, the dialectics of technology get tricky for two main reasons; first, there still isn’t much to do with the already existing stocked waste pilling up in the world’s dumpsites or the incredible amounts of contaminated and consequently useless plastic in the ocean’s most remote places. Second, we keep on producing more and more materials, more complicated, sophisticated and personalized materials that are harder to be reused and recycled. The idea that “matching the production with consumption within global, as well as the local environment, would be achieved thanks to deep and progressive data mining and work with big data” is quite optimistic, but in the current financial scheme there is hardly any profit for industries in matching production with consumption; only in augmenting both. Producing the exact amount people actually need is fundamentally incompatible with the concept of “growth”. On the other hand, the circular economy model – which aims to use closed-loop production to keep resources in play for as long as possible – might seem as an almost magical fix for our environmental woes, promising to ease climate change, resource depletion and waste, economic growth and expansion in new markets.
By now it should be clear enough; the dialectics of economic growth are incompatible with the dialectics of a sustainable planet. One of the tenets of the circular economy is the idea that closing material and product loops will prevent primary production. But recent research published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology concludes that circular economy activities can actually increase overall production, partially or fully offsetting their benefits. This suggests that the circular economy suffers from a similar rebound effect to energy-efficiency strategies. Just as more efficient coal plants can lead to lower coal prices and therefore higher demand for coal, more efficient use of materials can make products cheaper and therefore more appealing. While technical changes succeed in lowering the per-unit impact, overall the environmental benefit is largely offset by economic growth. Corporate interests are served by the circular economy in other ways too. Circular Economy can be implemented by delivering more wealth and prosperity but it can also be achieved driving more inequality and leading to more impoverishment. Take one of its most widely hailed features, the business trend towards offering services rather than selling ownership. Sharing underused items, like children’s shoes or DIY tools, may save money and materials. But a “sharing economy” put in place and dominated by large corporations also increases corporate power and can exacerbate inequalities and dependencies. Just consider the precarious working conditions of Uber and delivery drivers.
Despite the high ambitions and the realistic possibilities for a radical shift, unfortunately, the mainstream thinking about circular economy seems to ignore a well-established fact, that environmental, economic and social problems are interwoven in each and every country, region and community of our world (for those who are not familiar with the concepts, please have a look at the environment – poverty nexus concept and read a representative World Bank paper). As a consequence, each and every intervention in resource management, and especially worldwide interventions related with global supply chains, will result in very specific social and economic impacts. If we want to boost circular economy, we need to dig deeper and discuss more the economic and social impacts. We are often inundated with problems we cannot identify, and we come up with solutions impregnated with different sets of unidentified problems. Sometimes our solutions become problems in themselves, but science and knowledge can be used to rethink and reinvent our social and economic systems on the base of sustainability, even though there is no historical guarantee for succeeding a wasteless future. Sustainability, after all, is not simply an objective fact articulated from a planet reaching its “natural limits”, but first and foremost a human and humanitarian request for justice, health, access to basic living standards around the globe.