Toward a Sustainable Materials Policy
Reviewed by TIM JACKSON / Nature 415, 367 - 368 (2002) 24jan02
Tim Jackson is at the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, UK.
The fallout from 200 years of industrial creativity must be dispatched.
Materials Matter: Toward a Sustainable Materials Policy by Kenneth Geiser MIT Press: 2001. 317 pp. $63, £49.50 (hbk), $24.95, £20.50 (pbk)
It is a wet and windy afternoon in 1934, and a DuPont laboratory assistant is stirring a beaker containing a mixture of dibasic acids and diamines. As she absent-mindedly pulls the stirrer from the glass, the assistant notices that it trails a long, ductile fibre which soon hardens into a strong, silk-like thread. A few years later, the same assistant was probably clothed from head to toe in the stuff. DuPont called the fibre Nylon. It was just one of a myriad new industrial materials to emerge from a chemical industry rampant. From synthetic fibres to organic solvents, from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), from Teflon to Kevlar to a thin surface film called Tyvek, the twentieth century bore witness to an extraordinary proliferation of new materials, new uses for materials, new markets for materials ? and new problems associated with them.
Kenneth Geiser documents this explosion of material ingenuity with grudging respect. But he makes it plain that his book is motivated more by concern than by professional admiration. Even as it was happening, there were those who bemoaned the exploding material lexicon of the new industrial age. 'Encase your legs in nylons,/Bestride your hills with pylons/O age without a soul!' wailed the British poet laureate John Betjeman in the postwar years.
By the end of the twentieth century it was abundantly clear that aesthetic losses were the least of our concerns. The fallout from 200 years of industrial creativity was a handful of toxic disasters, a host of minor calamities and a whole spectrum of environmental and health concerns that have, in retrospect, the aura of inevitability. We opened Pandora's box and paid little or no heed to the consequences. Short-sighted design criteria and endemic policy failure have bequeathed a legacy of toxicity and regret. Geiser is unequivocal in arguing that we must do better in the future.
This is not just hair-shirt environmentalism, however. True, the earlier part of the book is dedicated to the history of the material profligacy and policy failure that left us in this mess. But the second half is devoted to an exposition of the alternatives, an agenda for doing better, the guiding principles of a sustainable materials policy. Those familiar with the literature on resource productivity and reduction in the use of toxic chemicals will recognize at least some of those principles. Geiser highlights two main avenues for exploration: dematerialization and detoxification.
Dematerialization refers to a whole raft of measures ? from improvements in the efficiency of procedures to materials recycling; from component reuse to the leasing of products; from new, radical ways of delivering services, to simply making do with less. One of the profound errors encoded in the institutional architecture of the modern economy is the linking of revenues (and hence profit) with the bulk throughput of material commodities. Dematerialization demands that we question that strategy. It requires that we restructure the economy in a variety of ways ? some commonplace already, some radical in conception ? that decouple well-being from material dependency. 'Living twice as well on half as much' is one of the epithets coined by the Factor Four movement ? so called because it believes that a fourfold reduction in material intensity is not only possible but essential if we are to achieve sustainable development. Others have argued for factor 10 and even factor 100 reductions in material intensity. The important point is that this is a principle that should appeal even to narrow commercial interests: doing more with less ? simple efficiency improvement ? is, after all, one of the cornerstones of the market economy.
The fact that not everyone benefits commercially from this strategy ? typically, materials consumers benefit and materials producers suffer ? suggests that navigating these efficiency improvements may not always be a painless process. One of my few reservations about this book is the limited attention paid to the institutional and social complexity of materials policies. Compensating for the social implications of massive industrial restructuring has never been a strong point in modern market economies. But if the scale of structural change envisaged by the dematerialization strategy is ever to be fully realized, social policy may turn out to be as important as industrial or economic policy in guiding the way.
The detoxification strategy ? others have dubbed it the substitution principle ? speaks (more or less) for itself. Since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring first alerted the world to the dangers of dissipating toxic chemicals into the environment, public and policy concern has escalated. PCBs, CFCs, dioxins, lead, mercury, cadmium: these materials and many others have already been the subject of regulatory scrutiny. Some have been successfully phased out. Geiser argues ? and again he is not alone in this ? that we should be attempting to substitute wholesale for certain kinds of toxic chemicals. The release of toxic compounds into the environment should occur only at rates that are comparable with natural biological processes. Persistent synthetic (non-naturally occurring) substances should not be released at all. We should engage in a continuing search for inherently safer substitutes.
Nowhere is it suggested that either of these strategies is straightforward to implement. On the contrary, the book recognizes that both present enormous challenges to modern industrial society. Geiser's point is that, until now, we have had no integrated policy framework even remotely capable of pushing us in the right direction. The 'ecological' economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen once remarked that the fourth law of thermodynamics ought to be that "matter matters too". Geiser reiterates this theme, but he does more than this. He shows why it matters, where it matters and to whom it matters; and he makes a pretty good stab at figuring out what to do about it. This book should be required reading for industrial designers, materials scientists, chemical engineers and environmental policy-makers everywhere.
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