5 - the Source of Stuff

cranes at Port of Miami, photographed from across the water of Biscayne Bay

   This one seems so elementary that you might think it’s an item we don’t even need to talk about. The further something has to travel while it’s being made and sold, the more energy it usually consumes. And common sense tells us that we should be saving energy, not using more energy to make the same stuff. So the most sustainable source of stuff should therefore be nearby, right?

   Our recent track record, however, says that we have other priorities. Try this test: Turn your head and look around the room. Most of the things you’re looking at have traveled thousands of miles to get to you, from the places where the resources were extracted from the earth to the places where the parts were made to the factory where the whole thing was assembled to the warehouse where it was stored to the shop where you bought it. Common sense tells us that being green is a pipe dream if nearly everything we touch has thousands of Embodied Miles. Some complex things like cars may actually have more Embodied Miles than it takes to go all the way around the world.

equipment at Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, Alabama

   I read recently, for example, about a particular make and model of car that happened to be from Japan. Or at least the corporate offices were located in Japan. The resources were extracted in mines around the world. Many of the parts were made in Japan, but then the parts were shipped to a factory in the United States for assembly. Finally, some of those cars were shipped back to Japan and other Asian nations to be sold.

   In recent years, Everyday Low Prices have been the most important things in commerce. We’ve voted with our wallets, and Everyday Low Prices are more important to us than the countless small hometown businesses we’ve lost because they weren’t quite so cheap. Everyday Low Prices are more important to us than the millions of jobs that got offshored because we wouldn’t work for so much less. Nobody wants to waste money when they’re buying toilet paper, even if we’re wasting towns and wasting our fellow-citizens’ jobs to do it. But because we don’t want to waste money, this may just be one of the only items in this chapter that takes care of itself. Here’s why: As fuel costs rise, as they must certainly do as tens of millions more cars get on the road every year in China and India alone, and as oil supplies dwindle, it’s obvious that the cost of shipping stuff around the world to get to us simply can’t be sustained.

equipment at Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, Alabama

   What does a sustainable future look like? Sustainable things are things which we can keep going in a healthy way long into an uncertain future. There are many things we don’t know about an uncertain future, especially including what the cost of transportation will be, so the only certain sources of stuff in an uncertain future will be those that are nearby. And it’s not just the cost of transportation. The world has painfully seen recently how wars can start over resources like oil.

   One thing we must do if we want to keep things going in a healthy way is to quit throwing so much stuff away. The Story of Stuff tells an incisive tale of the consequences of our consuming ways in recent decades. The Story of Stuff deals mainly with consumer goods, but we throw other things away, too... like buildings. Including factories... remember the term “Rust Belt”?

equipment at Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, Alabama

   But that’s not all... if we want to keep things going in a healthy way, then our sources needs to be close enough that we can keep an eye on them. Making things in distant lands means that we can’t see the horrible conditions people (including children) must endure in the sweatshops, but that’s only the beginning. Making things overseas also means that we can’t see how bad the environment is being trashed to make our stuff until the effects go global.

   How close is close enough? That depends mainly on two things: the weight of the item versus its value and the complexity of the item that’s being made. The heavier stuff is, the closer the source should be to where it’s used because heavier stuff requires more energy to ship than lighter stuff. Long before the gasoline engine, people shipped spices from one continent to another because the spices were so light enough and valuable enough that a chain of camels could deliver a lot of value on each trip to the traders that owned them. Bricks, on the other hand, were often made from clay dug up in the back yard. That may be a bit extreme today, but you get the picture.

equipment at Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, Alabama

   The complexity of the item matters because its possible to have a cabinet shop on every corner of a town center, but it’s not possible to do the same with a car factory because while the cost of setting up and equipping a simple cabinet shop might be less than the cost of a car, the cost of a car factory is hundreds of millions of dollars. The more complex things must be made more centrally and shipped further in order to eventually pay back their investment... just not as far as we’ve been shipping them in recent years.

   It’s not yet apparent how far is too far, but the best rule is: the closer the better. The best policy would be to live within the same region as most of our sources of stuff. Kind of like living within our means.


   ~Steve Mouzon

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   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #5 in the top 10 items we can do.


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