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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.







Technology & Production Systems


Resource Conservation

Sandy Irvine & Alec Ponton*

1. Using Less
2. Relying on Renewability
3. Keeping Conversions Down
4. Keeping local
Some Strategies


The creation of a sustainable society will involve four main tasks in the field of resource use and waste disposal. Production and consumption would be brought into equilibrium with what the environment can provide as well as absorb indefinitely. Different terms have been used to describe this balance such as 'steady-state economics' or 'the materials/energy balance principle', but the essential purpose is the same.

1. Using Less

Reducing the throughput of energy and materials depends on a combination of factors. First, the only long-term way to reduce consumption is to stabilise and then reduce the number of consumers. The best resources policies are doomed to failure if not linked to population policy. Next, we must change our lifestyles to reflect values of 'enough' instead of 'more', and of quality instead of quantity.

Then we must dismantle the economic structures and means of production which cause excessive use of resources, and create waste. This would require an increase in production efficiency, and in the life of the product through better quality and design, thus permitting maximum re-use, repair and, ultimately, recycling. Finally we must find peaceful ways of resolving our differences. Wartime destruction and the resources devoured by insatiable military programmes will cancel out everything we may otherwise achieve.

2. Relying on Renewability

We cannot easily switch from non-renewable to renewable resources. We are currently as dependent on oil as heroin addicts on their drug. The by-products of oil are used at home, at work, at play, and especially in forms of transport. What we can do, however, is to discourage the use of finite and diminishing resources in all fields except where no alternatives are possible. As far as is practicable, resources which are more abundant should be used to buy time during the transition to technologies that harness renewable solar energy, biological resources and the changed living patterns to go with them.

3. Keeping Conversions Down

The third task is to minimise energy conversions and material processing, thereby cutting 'entropic' overheads. A wholefood diet and passive solar heating are good examples.

4. Keeping local

Finally, a conserver society requires a greater emphasis on local and regional self-reliance. Until recently 'vernacular' architecture used mainly indigenous materials avoiding wasteful transport and creating buildings of a variety and beauty that can only be envied.

Some Strategies

Ecological policies for conservation and equilibrium vary from the general to those that concern specific resources. The following discussion looks at the broad direction of policy. Taxing, true cost pricing, subsidies, regulations and public information together form the overall programme.

The first steps of any ecologically responsible government would be to review existing grants, tax allowances and other ways in which investment patterns are influenced. Those that undermine resource conservation-unnecessary 'improvements', the premature writing-off of equipment, or refurbishment to save tax-would immediately be ended. In the short term conventional government tools would have to be used. This would mean higher rates of value-added tax on resource-intensive products and correspondingly lower ones on activities that are labour-intensive, thus encouraging re-use and repair. Discounts for large users, especially of energy, would be stopped, while subsidies for energy conservation and recycling would be increased.

Upper limits for national consumption of the critical raw materials —oil, gas, and certain minerals— would have to be established. There would be an immediate general freeze at current levels, followed by a progressive reduction of the rates of consumption. A stimulating suggestion of how this could be achieved is provided by economist Herman Daly, with his idea of an annual public auction of the right to supply limited quantities of resources. Foreign imports would be subject to a similar quota system.

Maximum limits would be set on sales to individual enterprises to avoid an over-concentration of economic power in too few hands. Unused raw materials would, after a fixed time, have to be sold back to the government at the original price. Through quotas, the use of renewable resources could be contained safely within rates of natural replenishment. Technologies shown to threaten the regenerative capacity of fisheries, fields or forests would be banned.

Government support would be given to labour-intensive institutions and technologies rather than those that demand high physical and financial capital. It would end measures which penalise the employment of people and encourage mechanisation. In general, the burden of taxation would be shifted onto resource use. Performance standards, and an end to commercial secrecy about the projected lifespans of goods and components, would encourage quality and durability in products. Processes and products which frustrate re-use and repair would be penalised. Producers would be obliged to make available necessary spare parts and instructions for the repair of their products.

We need new regulations and specifications, particularly with regard to product design and component materials, to facilitate repair, reuse and recycling. Most consumer 'durables', for example, are deeply undurable and that situation will not change if the government sets higher standards. According to a study cited in Durning's How Much Is Enough, new fridges were less energy-consuming in use but did not last any longer than old models.

Policies for resource conservation would include the promotion of sharing. Instead of cutting back on public libraries, for example, we would be making them showpieces of a conserver society. VAT would be taken off building repair work to encourage the reconversion of old buildings rather than the destruction of green field sites.

Recycling would also play its part. Local authority and commercial waste disposal enterprises would have to provide the means for collecting recyclable materials separated at source, with lower charges for the customers of such a service. A necessary aspect of the programme would be to contain pollutants that contaminate otherwise recyclable materials, such as water and sewage.

Government policy would deliberately make virgin resources comparatively more expensive, as an incentive to reuse, repair, recycling and the careful management of the choice of resources used in products.

In a sustainable economy, every assembly line would be paralleled by a disassembly line as products come back in for recycling. There is also a need to control the use of complex chemical compounds which hinder resource recovery or create disposal problems. Minneapolis has passed a bye-law banning the use of non-recyclable plastic packaging while Portland, Oregon, has outlawed Styrofoam products.

Where necessary, all new equipment, for example photocopiers, must be able to use recycled materials. In the USA, newspapers have to be made from a minimum percentage of recycled fibre. More generally, all business could be required to hold what Canadian writer Guy Dauncey calls an 'Environmental Operating Licence, which is only given to firms which meet certain standards of waste reduction and recycling-after all the principle is well established in the field of health and safety.

Indeed, in some cases, we might have to sacrifice some convenient aspects of a particular item but the gains of greater sustainability will outweigh any losses. In the case of paper recycling, the costs of pollution from chemicals used to give the original paper unnecessary variations in colour or surface quality outweighs any aesthetic value.

Standardisation and simplification will often be necessary. Contrary to the traditional goals of the consumer rights movement, moves to a conserver society will set limits to consumer choice since many of today's products will no longer be on the shelves.

Mandatory deposit schemes can be used on many items, from paint cans to cameras.

Fees could vary with the rate of return achieved. 'Litter' charges levied on products such as plastic wrappings that generate extensive cleanups would stimulate a shift to greater recycling as well. Similarly, landfill charges could be made very expensive. All supermarkets could be required to offer non-wrapped bulk purchase facilities. There are many other possibilities. Shops could be required to accept back packaging and return them to the manufacturer for recycling (as is the case in Germany). The electronics giant Philips has been opening collection depots for used electronic goods. Often it might be necessary to specify that only recycled materials can be used in certain products.

Coordinated local and national government action is necessary to make it easy to recycle things. This is the only way to create a dense network of drop-off points. Guy Dauncey has suggested that Councils could also set up 'Community Resource Exchanges', with free listings of materials people have to sell or give away, linked to depots not only collecting waste and scrap building materials but also reselling it very cheaply.

All the evidence points to the depressing fact that most people do not bother unless recycling is made simple, easy and, perhaps, compulsory. However, if steady markets are not created, we will not escape the boom/slump cycle that disrupts many recycling activities at present. In the UK some £50 million worth of recyclable material is wasted for lack of a market. Certainly, public bodies should be required to use recycled products as much as possible.

Milk deliveries provide a simple illustration of what an integrated 'conserver' economy might be like. On present trends, even without possible EC bans on milk rounds, we may well end up buying most of our milk in cartons and plastic bottles from supermarkets. With considerable effort, some of those containers might get recycled. It would be far better, however, to conserve the traditional milk round. The glass bottles are much more likely to be collected and reused, instead of being smashed up and reconstituted via bottle banks. Furthermore, the system provides a free neighbourhood watch, particularly valuable for keeping an eye on senior citizens living by themselves. If the milk floats were powered by solar electric sources, it would not be a bad prototype for an ecological economy!

The use of taxation and regulation is only necessary because our culture is what ecologist Garrett Hardin called a 'squanderarchy'. The writer Karen Christensen once compared its habits to the phenomenon of binge eating. People first gorge themselves on shopping sprees which are followed by clear-outs to the dustbin to make way for the next round of novelties and new fashions. Of course, advertising plays its part in persuading people to be unhappy with what they've got. The wings of the persuasion industry must be clipped.

However, the problem goes deeper. After neither manufacturers nor advertising agencies can be blamed for the fact that the average household fails to recycle so much of its waste even when facilities are to hand. This suggests that the real task is an educational one. However, today's education system only scratches at the surface of what must be done to change our ways.

In a conserver society, people would have been educated so that modest consumption and maximum recycling were as 'natural' as personal hygiene. An aesthetic and ethic of old is beautiful' would shape perceptions. Such a society would be truly materialistic since it would avoid waste at every opportunity.

A Department of Resource Conservation would be a necessary agency to look after the measures that require government action. It would, for example, plan how much of a particular mineral was needed in a given year, while a Department of Land Use Planning would determine the best sites for extraction. A Department of Environment Protection and of Health could ensure this was done in ways which had the least impact on place and people.


Blumberg, L. & R. Gottlieb. War on Waste. Island Pr., 1994.
Carless, J. Taking Out the Trash. Island Pr., 1992.
FoE. The True Costs of Domestic Waste. FoE, 1989.
FoE. The Recycling Officer's Handbook. FoE, 1991.
Gandy, M. Recycling & The Politics of Urban Waste. Earthscan, 1993.
Irvine, S. Recycle: Not If You Can Help It? Real World, 2, Autumn, 1992: 4-6. Argues the case that demand reduction, followed by reuse and repair, must proceed the recycling option.
Kharbanda, O.P., & E.A. Stallworthy. Waste Management: Towards a Sustainable Society. Gower, 1990. A useful overview of the issues, not just waste treatment and disposal.
Young, J. Discarding the Throwaway Society. WorldWatch Institute, 1991.

* Used with permission of the authors.
See original at < http://www.realworld.u-net.com/EcoList.Technology.html >.

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