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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Thoughts on Boxing Day
December 27, 2008 - 5:56am

I'm not sure when or why December 26 became Boxing Day but it always has been, at least in my experience. It's always been the day we gave presents to the postal carrier, and the newspaper delivery person, and tradespeople whom the family frequented and depended upon. Nothing like the presents key people in the auto trade or the financial services trade gave themselves, of course, but tokens of appreciation nonetheless.

This Boxing Day, though, I was struck by the juxtaposition of two logically unrelated bits of information.

First, I saw mention of shipping a single pair of shoes in a cardboard box 19" x19" x19". (No, the shoes weren't size 47-EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.) On one hand, it's just mildly amusing. On the other hand, it's a fairly extreme example of overpackaging, an inherently unsustainable practice. Still, on the other other (?) hand, it's something I'd probably commend an employee for doing were I the internet retail business owner, shortly before Christmas, presuming we were out of all other (more appropriate) sizes of box. The conventional e-tail paradigm puts customer service ahead of sustainable packaging.

Then, I read Tom Friedman's column about how America needs rebooting. He truly wants to be smart and insightful and all that (almost as much as he wants to be rich and famous (meow)), but he just doesn't get it. He's complaining about the way government money is being invested in American industry, and yet wanting Washington to create productivity-enhancing infrastructure, with absolutely no sense of irony or shame. How can you both be a neo-liberal capitalist and push the idea that government should do all the heavy lifting both up front and afterwards, so that private businesses can merrily come along and skim off the profits? How can that be described as a sustainable, much less a superior, economic system? How can anyone claiming economic savvy meaningfully talk about productivity or efficiency, without defining the denominator -- productivity of what? efficient use of which resource(s)?

What struck me is that is definitely thinking inside the box (sorry!), but it really doesn't matter very much. Tom Friedman is thinking even more inside his respective box, and the potential damage he's doing is far greater. Friedman's brand of laissez-faire capitalism is what got us into the current economic mess, and more of the same is hardly the way out of it.

Still, at the same time I found myself fuming about in-the-box thinking, I stumbled across a couple of encouraging examples of the alternative: An engineering professor at UAB is designing homes make from sustainable materials, which survive hurricanes, monsoons and the like by the simple technique of flotation. Not houseboats, but on-the-ground homes which, when the water rises, rise too. And a business professor at Middlesex University (London) is part of a group proposing that large sheets of reflective material be spread over desert areas to increase the reflectivity of (and thus cool) the planet.

Look, I'm not saying that either of these is necessarily a great idea -- I can see downsides to both of them. Last I knew, typhoons in Southeast Asia (where the floating homes are being piloted) tended to destroy boats just as they do houses -- being able to float doesn't seem to avoid the destruction problem very successfully. And increasing the reflectivity of one part of the planet -- in desert areas, nearer the equator than the poles -- (1) doesn't functionally offset the loss of reflectivity from ice melt in polar areas, and (2) seems likely to create a whole host of other impacts both on the climate and on the local ecologies.

And I'm not a big fan of the "you know, that's just crazy enough to work" theory of success. For every fluke that comes through a winner, there are a million dumb ideas that die a deserving death.

What I am saying is that we can't solve the biggest problem we face with the same sort of thinking we used when we created it. Not every idea that's outside the box (nor even any large percentage of them) is going to help us get sustainable. But it's a pretty safe bet that absolutely no possible combination of ideas from inside the box will do the job. (Not even if the box is WAY too big.)


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