I am torn about the Cash for Clunkers stimulus initiative. As reported in the Chicago Tribune and calculated by the Associated Press using Dept of Transportation figures (in other words, sources that don’t have a particular environmental ax to grind):
“The total savings per year from cash for clunkers translates to about 57 minutes of America’s output of the chief greenhouse gas.” One billion of your tax dollars and mine for less than one hour of emissions savings is a very expensive program. Somehow, I think we could have used that money, and the lessons it could have allowed us to teach, better.
Such modest savings could be achieved, I dare say, by greater efficiencies, or everyone driving less, or adding a 5 cent tax to a gallon of gasoline (which fluctuates so violently anyway this would be almost invisibly swallowed up by the erratic market swings; quick, what is the price of a gallon of gas around you right now?), which gives us the added benefit of using those monies to invest in green energy research and development, or simply by giving America off one more day a year.
Even more, Cash for Clunkers reinforces the economic model that says only by buying more stuff can the economy thrive. But we know that the human appetite is infinite while the earth’s resources are finite. We simply cannot build a sustainable economy on the practice of buying more stuff. Yet, despite the current admonition that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” we are wasting this crisis. We should be using it to build a truly sustainable economy.
I realize that our car industry is “too big to fail”. And that this initiative was an economic stimulus gift dressed up in green clothing. But as others are saying, we will all go down if we continue to support a marketplace that allows companies and industries to get too big to fail.
The question we must continue to ask is this: how do we create an economy that is both friendly to people and nations, and healthy for the environment?
In 1996, Herman Daly, an economist who explores what sustainable economic development might mean, offers this definition of our goal: “Development without growth beyond environmental carrying capacity, where development means qualitative improvement and growth means quantitative increase.”
In other words, how do we build a better, healthier, happier world without increasing material amounts of stuff and waste? How do we do more with less?
Sustainable development economists increasingly are saying that companies should focus more on selling services than selling stuff . For example, I want to keep my food cool and extend its shelf life. Therefore I buy a refrigerator. Now, the refrigerator company is happy that I bought one refrigerator but will be happier when I buy another. So what do they do? One, they don’t worry about what happens to my refrigerator at the end of its life for any obligation or connection they have to it was likely severed after the warranty ran out. And two, while they build the refrigerator well enough so I will want to buy another one of their making, they don’t want to build it so well that I will die before it does. In other words, as soon as I buy one refrigerator, they want to sell me another.
The emerging green economy logic challenges the culture of buying stuff. They suggest that businesses offer services. By offering “a service instead of a product, a company profits by reducing its use of materials and energy, and providing that service at the lowest cost possible. Lovins argues, for instance, that air conditioner manufacturers should offer cooling as a service – not AC units as a product – so they’d have an incentive to make the systems highly energy efficient. In some green business circles, the idea of recasting a product as a service, often called “servicing,” is the holy grail of environmental innovation.” (Green to Gold by Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston)
An additional component to servicing is that the company is responsible for the disposal of the item (in this case, the air conditioner) at the end of its life. Inevitably, the company will begin designing a/c units whose component parts can either be easily disassembled, recaptured and recycled, or readily disposed of in the environment and naturally degraded. No more indiscriminate hauling and trashing.
Is this the silver bullet to solve all our environmental problems? Clearly not. All our needs cannot be met this way. But for those that can, let’s try it.
Judaism offers an imperative that can guide us in this work. It is the phrase bal tashkhit. Classically, this phrase means do not wantonly and indiscriminately destroy things. It comes from the biblical prohibition against cutting down fruit trees to build fortifications during a siege. It was expanded to include all unnecessary destruction.
In the 21st century, in an era when we now understand that in nature there is no such thing as waste, we can, and I want to argue should, re-cast bal tashkhit as not just a valuable admonition against inappropriate destruction. But rather, as the admonition which counsels: Create no waste! Waste itself needs to be seen as an anathema to healthy, sustainable living. Just as nature makes no waste, so humans must make no waste. Which means we cannot consume and discard in ways and amounts that overwhelm nature.
Will this harm the economy? On the contrary, the research, development, design, creation, manufacturing, servicing, reclaiming, re capturing, remanufacturing, re-selling, re-installing, fixing, maintaining, etc will create its own form of vibrant green economy, which, while utilizing the best of a global marketplace will also be powerfully grounded in local resources - both human and economic.
A no-waste, or at least low-waste, economy is the way of the future. Bal tashkhit is the way to the land of milk and honey.