Many years ago, smart environmentalists already recognized two entirely different ways of handling problems associated with pollution and resource conserving.
They gave the name end-of-pipe (EOP) to the method that was being urged by lazy polluters who wanted to make no basic changes. Imagine a pipe with chemical waste that is discharging pollution into a river. Do you add a treatment box onto the end of the pipe and try to mitigate the worst features of what is pouring out, such as filtering it or treating it with additional chemicals. Or do you go back to the process that produces that pollution and research why it is being produced, then change the process so that the discharge no longer occurs? The government and industry just assumed that treating what came out of the pipe was easier, so they forcibly took what seemed to them the lazy, profitable way out. That’s what all of the regulations were about. Billions of dollars were made available for every kind of post-discharge treatment. I was watching this carefully as it all developed, so I can state from personal experience that not one dollar in grants or research money was ever made available for stopping pollution at its source. In California where I was working, the California Pollution Control Authority had hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to give out but every dollar had to be spent on end-of-pipe methods.
Of course one of the biggest end-of-pipe methods to get support was recycling, since the garbage companies correctly perceived a threat from anything more effective.
Let’s look at few more cases of end-of-pipe thinking, showing that fixing problems after they have begun to fester, is actually the way our society prefers to handle many of its problems.
The differences are fundamental. Should we simply accept all the worst aspects of the inhumane, greedy world we are handed or should we seek new designs for that world. The broad outlines of the world we are handed are usually summed up as Liberal Democratic Capitalism. In its most prominent manifestation, it elevates free markets into a religion and personal greed into the most admired motivator. Some thinkers have tried to imagine a more cooperative world to which is often given the name of Socialism. One values property and money above all else and the other values human beings above all else. While neither one can totally exclude the other, the gulf is wide and impassable in practice. In the one case, the state is used to suppress individual rights, health and happiness while enforcing rights of property ownership. In the other case, the state is used to insure individual self-realization and care for all people while actively downplaying the enforcement of property rights.
These same distinctions are at the heart of the divide between recycling methods and Zero Waste methods. Recycling adopts the reigning capitalist model of overarching greed and damn the planetary consequences. Let every social, political and industrial practice remain in place but at the very end, when a particular outcome is about to arise (dumping, destruction) do the very least possible to make a change at the tail end of the process. Recycling threatens nothing in the status quo unless you happen to own a dumpsite you are hoping to fill up with garbage. Even then, as shown by the enthusiastic embrace of recycling by the garbage industry, the threat is minimal.
Zero Waste asks without embarrassment or tentativeness, which parts of the reigning system are so unproductive and wasteful that they need to be eliminated. Intellectuals throughout history have asked this same question, and provide many answers. What is different about Zero Waste is that it tackles an arena mostly ignored by all other liberal social thinkers. They (without even realizing it) assumed that the wasting behaviors of modern life are intrinsic and essential. Very little in all academic writing suggests any change in the patterns of waste and discard. Zero Waste attempts to update liberal, social engineering by pointing out that there is no need to assume that any such pernicious behavior as discard must be assumed to have a life that will outlive the worship of greed and continue unchanged into a more humanistic future, if we ever manage to get there.
The father of EOP methods is probably Alvin Weinberg, nuclear physicist and former director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In 1966, he wrote an article in the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists in which he “explored the extent to which social problems might be ‘circumvented by reducing them to technological problems. ‘ Although they appeared to be ‘crisp and beautiful’ solutions, Weinberg realized that what he labeled ‘Technological Fixes’ were likely to become ‘incomplete and metastable’ answers whose existence created yet more problems. ” (1). Even though he was in love with some of his fixes, they are quintessentially EOP methods, a concept that was not prominent at the time, Yet Weinberg and followers were able to see that fixes made new problems. What they didn’t realize was that fixes cost money, leading to public subsidies and investments, then create new problems which lead to new fixes which once again generate subsidies and profits. Technofixes are a pernicious cycle of problem generation designed to scratch the itch but never to find the reason for itching. It is precisely their inability to solve problems that makes them so attractive to big business.
There is another reason why end-of-pipe approaches are favored by every government and private program. If we create pollution and garbage, we have a problem. If we spend money to solve that problem, we have a company and jobs that are working and making money. This economic activity gets added onto the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which includes all the goods and services made or offered in the country. A rising GDP is an index much desired by politicians and economists. If the sources of that GDP are spurious, it still makes good press and the politicians are thumping each other’s backs in congratulation. When the GDP falls, so do the faces. If the pollution is avoided before it ever occurs, there is no cleanup and no technical cleanup jobs. The GDP plunges. We live in a world of unimaginable amounts of capital, searching for an investment. A cleanup is a good investment that the government can easily be convinced to subsidize because the public never looks behind the curtain. If pollution is avoided, is there any benefit? Yes, but it is distributed among everyone who would have suffered from the pollution. There are beautiful skies, healthy trees, fishes in the rivers and healthy people without cancer. But what’s missing? A single company making a profit is what. A company that can contribute to political campaigns. An electoral message for a gullible public telling them what a great job their representative is doing for them. When everyone benefits, it’s like no one benefits.
There are a number of efforts to change the definition of the GDP so that it only includes socially positive contributions. The group Redefining Progress in San Francisco is one such.
End of pipe cleanups are like solving an unemployment problem by hiring half of the unemployed to smash windows and hiring the other half to repair broken windows. Create a problem on purpose and then add to employment and the GDP by fixing it.
Now in the twenty-first century we encounter a brand new twist on the end of pipe cleanup approach. What if we totally allow pollution or planetary despoliation but we pay someone else, somewhere else, to keep their backyard cleaner than they would have in the absence of our payment. These schemes go under many names. In the climate field especially the names are Cap And Trade and REDD (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). Both claim that pollution and degradation can continue unabated (usually in the developed, industrial world) but that a portion of the profits from business as usual can be directed to buying up Moral Goodness Credits, usually in the developing world. Often the Moral Goodness is merely speculative – some algorithm calculates how much pollution would have been emitted without the purchased credit and if there is any argument why the pollution there will be less, that is worth a credit. Often the calculation is based on questionable assumptions rooted in the very thinking that created the first world pollution in the first place. It would be better to uproot those assumptions and expose them for fraud everywhere. An example is the assumption that garbage dumps have to be filled and have to create methane so if the methane is burned instead, pollution is putatively “avoided”.
REDD is a highly suspect theory that claims that carbon dioxide can be created in manufacturing and coal burning power plants but if a forest on the other side of the world is protected from deforestation, the carbon content of that forest will “offset” the carbon dioxide from coal burning. Once again, the assumption is that the normal fate of forests is to be exploited, clearcut and destroyed for timber. What if forests are inhabited by indigenous peoples who hope to continue maintaining their forest home in good condition in perpetuity if only outsiders will leave them alone? Somehow this is not allowed as a “normal” fate. Only exploitation is “normal”. What if the indigenous peoples are essential to the health of the forest but the REDD based purchase of the forest preserve (using questionable land titles) forces those peoples out of their ancestral home and the result is overgrowth and decay of the forest being “preserved”?
How much better would it be to stop the desperate attempt to pour pollutants out of the end of a pipe and bite the bullet – adopt the civilized tools and redesigns that would eliminate pollution at its local source, not by some legerdemain a half a world away.
We have seen that one of the greatest socialist experiments of all time, the rise of the Soviet Union, created unimaginable environmental disasters. At least in part, this was because waste and discard and planetary despoliation were considered to be beyond reform. Discard was embraced like a plague without regard for its consequences. This should never again be found in any social or socialist experiments.
It may be worth noting that recycling does not in itself support or depend on the greed of capitalism. It could just as well support the greed of centralized socialism. But it offers no social alternative to wasteful, polluting, greedy behavior. Zero Waste does just that.
Note 1 – Science, 14 Jan 2011, p. 148, Book review by W. Patrick McCray