This week John Mulrow explores the importance of focusing on the proverbial forest of ecological change rather than the trees of individual actions.
If I show you this symbol, what do you think of? If you think of anything besides just “Windows 98”, perhaps you are reminded of the email post-script that was ubiquitous in environmental circles over a decade ago, “Please consider the environment before printing.” Maybe you still come across this symbol and phrase in messages from your eco-conscious friends and coworkers.
The Think before you print catchphrase has been around for nearly two decades and it has all the markings of eco-messaging that’s made to stick. It’s a simple ask; all you have to do is take a second and ponder what the environmental impact might be if you print off the email at hand. It’s emotional; the tree emoji (er, webding) reminds you that somewhere a living being stands ready to give up its life and its pulp for your urge to print.
And it’s a concrete message; the power is in your hands to help the environment by choosing between alternatives, one good and one bad. In this case, it’s electronic media versus print media, and you are reminded that one choice requires trees and the other doesn’t. The choice should be clear: keep reading electronically and save the forest.
However messaging-savvy the Think before you print campaign may be, it doesn’t seem to have delivered for the planet. If we look back on the massive expansion of internet reliance, which includes email replacing printed correspondence almost everywhere, do we see it accompanied by a flourishing of environmental responsibility? To answer this, we could just look at how demand for paper (i.e. tree bodies) has changed over the past twenty years. The short of it is paper demand has grown. More specifically, packaging—i.e. paper cartons and cardboard boxes—has almost doubled, tissue paper has grown slightly, and printed media did, indeed, shrink, but just a bit. These trends together drove global paper demand up from 350 million metric tons in 2005 to nearly 425 million tons today.
My interpretation of this data is that electronic media simultaneously displaced the printed word and opened up new avenues of consumption, especially via online shopping and, very simply, global economic growth. The slight gains we made for the Amazon by corresponding over the internet were completely overrun by global commerce conducted via internet. It even dared, in one particularly well-known case, to take on that famous forest’s name: a literal and figurative conversion of Earth material into human wants and needs, orchestrated behind a thin green veil conveying a lessened impact. Shopping on Amazon.com may feel eco-friendly on a per-item-purchased basis. No more driving around to sprawling shopping malls, and perhaps a more efficient way of searching for exactly what one needs. But a true accounting would consider its full effect, i.e. lubricating the wheels of an economic system that grossly ignores ecological boundaries.
The Eco-friendly Disconnect
The thesis of my reflection is that individual choices motivated by product-level environmental claims do not, and will never, add up to global-scale impact reductions. This is because comparing alternatives for their greenness a) distracts us from observing the greenness of emerging economic trends and b) keeps us from asking global-scale questions, which are the only ones of material significance to Gaia.
So much of what constitutes “eco-friendly” behavior follows the think before you print model: simple but emotional, and with a concrete choice between alternatives.* In addition to printed versus electronic media, this eco-messaging format has brought us familiar contrasts such as landfilling versus recycling, conventional versus organic food, and non-renewable versus renewable energy. All of these alternatives have a clear choice for environmental advocates. We’ll take the option that is less wasteful, less toxic, and more natural, of course.
This good versus evil framing of alternatives constitutes much of the sustainability dialogue today. And it’s not just individuals asking about products and daily behaviors. Corporations are conducting consequential Life Cycle Assessments, comparing the greenhouse gas and ecological footprints of manufacturing recipes and supply chain configurations. And policymakers are advocating for a transition of our energy system from fossil fuels to an array of alternatives.
All of these comparisons make the same mistake that the print versus electronic media debates made at the turn of the century: They assume that the two alternatives will be used for the same set of purposes and at the same rate of use. Communicating 500-words of information via bits and bytes is undoubtedly less energy and material intensive than the printed page and ink that would otherwise be required. But the internet was not created just to mimic the world of print media, it was created to greatly expand the volume of information shared and stored by humans across the planet.
So, while static product comparisons may be capable of providing a crisp, clean answer to one’s question, “what’s the more eco-friendly option?” they end up saying very little about reality. This is a lesson far older than email. Consider, for example, the choice of billiard ball materials once faced by pool hall owners: elephant tusk or tree oils? The plastics industry loves to point out its origins, which lie partially in this question.
Ivory or Plastic?
The story goes like this: Prior to the 1860s all billiard balls were made of ivory, linking them to the slaughter of elephants wherever they were found. Whether the elephant-origins of their tools bothered New York City pool hall titan Michael Phelan is unknown, but he was certainly concerned with rising prices. His guide to billiards states, “if any inventive genius would discover a substitute for ivory, possessing those qualities which make it valuable to the billiard player, he would make a handsome fortune for himself, and earn our sincerest gratitude”. Then, in 1863 his company offered a prize of $10,000 to anyone who could produce such an alternative billiard ball. This stoked competition among chemists who were already experimenting with various plant-based cellulose and oil compounds for material and industrial applications. So, despite the emergence of many synthetic organic materials at that time, Phelan’s competition focused attention on the billiard ball and the plastics industry got its origin story. J.W. Hyatt’s invention of celluloid, and the injection molding method for producing perfectly-shaped billiard balls, is recognized as plastic’s founding effort.
Celluloid became a cheaper alternative not just for billiard balls but anything that had been fashioned from ivory: combs, frames, jewelry, and piano keys. And its rise was soon accompanied by eco-claims that should sound familiar today. Take, for example, this bit of marketing language from the Celluloid Manufacturing Co., written in 1878: “celluloid [has] given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts, and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”**
The anatomy of a modern eco-choice should be apparent in this statement, written nearly 150 years ago. Go with ivory, on the side of ransacking the Earth, or go with plastic and save the animals? We now know that both options involve planetary pillage and that the latter—now an extension of the petroleum industry—is destructive not just to a single species, but potentially to life as we know it. Perhaps the eco-marketers of 1878 can be excused for overlooking the possibility of technological change and the Earth-scale consequences of economic expansion. But looking back at the anatomy of change should help push us beyond the simplistic framing of alternatives that is still prevalent today.
Saving the planet is not about your individual choices between products, it’s about the economic context in which those choices are made. An expanding economy, without ecological restraints, will find a way to mobilize those resources you have freed up via your eco-choice. Did synthetic pool balls open up room for elephants and corals to thrive? No. The ivory trade grew well into the 20th century when legal measures to protect elephants were finally enacted.*** And corals? We’ve dumped our petroleum-driven wastes (CO2 as well as microplastics) on them, destroying their homes. Even if the ivory trade was immediately displaced by the rise of plastic, humans’ need for ecological space (as land use or ocean-atmosphere carbon-dumping) would have continued to accelerate.
One individual action, or all of them?
We have to get our need for ecological space under control. And that requires economy-level restraint, since every economic action relies on some aspect of global ecology that would otherwise go to maintaining balance of climate, habitat, water flow, and resource distribution. Product-level responsibility gets us more ethical and more efficient consumption, but the macro-effect can still be disastrous. If we convert every consumer product available on Amazon to plant-based materials, manufactured with renewable energy, we will have given the atmosphere a respite, at the cost of massive new claims on Earth’s lands and oceans.
We need eco-conscious consumption and economic restraint. One without the other is just another ecological disaster in the making. But in a world flooded with ads for eco-friendly products and reminders to “consider the environment before you print,” it’s clear that we are avoiding the really tough question about economic scale and growth. And that’s why I’m asking us to stop considering the environment and make some space—mental, political, or spiritual—for global-scale economic restraint.
***British ecologist Clive Spinage said it well in his 1994 book, Elephants: “In 1863 the first plastic, celluloid, was invented, probably in the search for a cheap substitute for ivory, but although it was used as such it did nothing to reduce the demand… the result was simply to enable the less well-off to buy cheap imitations, leaving the demand for real ivory unabated.”