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May 30, 2006



Although it may be unconventional to begin a comment with some general praise, I want to say that this blog is one of my favorites on the internet. I am keenly interested in the divide between mission-driven environmentalism and efficient capitalism, and I find your writings to be some of the absolute sharpest on the topic.

That being said, I think it is unsatisfactory to place “reduce” at the top of these hierarchies. I agree with your point that people should not be so quick to think that as long as they are doing SOMETHING (recycling or remedying, to use your examples), they are doing enough. However, “reduce” (for energy or solid waste) has never struck me as a very appropriate goal to occupy the top spot.

“Reduce” does not describe an attainable goal, but rather an ever-moving goal. Makes it hard to gauge whether or not someone has achieved success at reducing. As with recycle/remedy, focusing on reduction risks creating a false sense of accomplishment such that if someone trades in her Escalade for a Prius and swaps out her incandescent bulbs for CFLs (or even LEDs), she might think she’s doing enough. Other people would argue the converse. Yet, it would be difficult to convince this well-meaning soul to further reduce her consumption by turning up her thermostat in the summer when people are still driving Escalades. She would no doubt wonder why should she, quite literally, sweat out the summer when other people are driving SUVs.

The problem with having “reduce” occupy the highest position on the hierarchy, and thus be the first option, is that it is up to each individual to voluntarily decide when she or he has reduced enough, without any way for that individual to measure accurately whether that is in fact true.

A more satisfactory primary goal towards which we, as a society, ought to strive, is to figure out how we can be consumers without actually generating any waste (in the form of solid waste, persistent toxics, GHGs, etc.). The person whose house’s power is derived completely from the solar panels on her roof and the mini-turbine in her back yard should not be scorned for failing to reduce her energy needs. She should be able to use all the energy she wants. Leave the lights on. Crank up the air conditioning. As long as she is using no more energy than the renewable clean energy she is generating herself.

I am not giving my blessing to indiscriminate consumption. Clearly, in our current take-make-waste paradigm of doing business, causing less harm is less bad than causing more harm, and thus making people aware of the need to reduce is a very necessary, if unfortunate, reality. My only point is that “reduce” should not be the highest goal towards which we strive. Rather, working to create truly closed-loop systems for consumption, in which the only inputs that get used up are inexhaustible forms of energy (e.g., sunlight) and any waste from one part of the system is utilized productively in another part of the system, should be the highest goal towards which we strive. Lofty as that goal is, at least we would know when we have attained it.


I think there should be an R in the beginning that stands for something else - Reorganize.

I'll clarify. In the business world, one often hears the dictum "Restructure your business processes first, apply technology on these more efficient processes next". The idea being, technology is of no use if the underlying processes are wrong. In many ways, I think the world needs to re-organise the way they use their energy to begin with, and then perhaps look at reducing, rei-using & recycling.

Take transport, for instance, which is one of the biggest consumers of energy. In the US most people use cars for most of the travelling, and big cars at that. This is an extremely inefficient process of using a resource. People in countries like India ( where I live) unfortunately copy the wrong ideas from the US while ignoring so many other valuable ideas that US has to offer ( its spirit of initiative for instance has few takers in India). Thus, the world today has ended up with an extremely inefficient process of personal transportation...in my unqualified opinion, process change needs to take place first, all the others next. And the govt needs to be a key player in making this process change - perhaps by introducing disincentives on inefficient car usage, or incentives given to travellers of public transportation etc...

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