I’m not a big fan of catch phrases, though like a lot of people I’m susceptible to current speech habits (Buffy-speak, much?). And I’ve always been puzzled by the use of the word “transparency” to mean “clearly seen” when what it means is “invisible.” Still, I understand its current use, indicating a lack of obfuscation if you want to find out how something is being done.
I hadn’t been familiar with the work of Daniel Goleman until watching a recent Bill Moyers’ Journal. Ecological Intelligence (this is not a review; I have the book on order but haven’t read it yet) discusses a subject I’ve been looking for a book about for a long time: the true cost of “stuff.”
Stuff doesn’t just appear magically on a shelf and disappear magically when you’re done with it. It has a lifetime path and each step along the path has costs, effects, and consequences. All these steps and consequences have costs, though oftentimes the costs can be pushed off into the future.
Nuclear power, for example. I’m not as anti-nuclear power as a lot of fellow knee-jerk liberal tree-hugging friends and colleagues, though I think that governments and other proponents of nuclear power have been so appallingly dishonest about it, so careless with it, over the past several decades that they’ve probably shot themselves permanently in the feet about it.
But one thing is clear: it was developed without sufficient attention to the disposal of its waste products, as the continued fighting about those waste products makes clear. We pushed all those costs off into the future, perhaps without even noticing we were doing it.
The same is true of ordinary household goods — what we usually think of as “stuff” — though the consequences of not thinking about where that used paper towel may end up are perhaps not as scary as where we’re going to put nuclear waste. Still, there are a lot more used paper towels, and plastic bags, and building demolition trash, and garbage and junk in general than there is nuclear waste.
A lot of resources are bound up in the creation of stuff, too, as well as its disposal.
“Radical Transparency” is the idea that you should be able to find out and compare the cost of similar classes of stuff over the lifetime of the stuff, and make reasonable choices about what to buy (or whether to buy some stuff at all).
The example I’ve been using over the years, when trying to persuade the occasional nonfiction-writing friend to tackle the sort of project that Goleman’s book addresses, is china mugs compared to paper cups.
It seems intuitively obvious that it’s better to use a mug and wash it than to use a paper cup and throw it away.
I believe it’s better to use a china mug than a paper cup.
I would be surprised if it weren’t better to use a china mug than a paper cup.
But I don’t know it.
I have no evidence for my intuition… and intuition is often wrong. With a paper cup, I notice right off the bat that I use it once and throw it away, and I know that it takes energy, trees, and water (paper costs a lot of water) to create a paper cup, and landfill space to put it in when I’m done with it. But on the other hand, a china mug requires digging clay out of the ground, making the mug, firing it at high temperatures, creating the paint and the glaze and firing it again (and for my favorite mug, firing it still a third time because it has gold decoration), and getting it to the store and to my house.
Does it take more or less water and resources to wash a china mug than to create, use, and dispose of a paper cup?
And after it’s made and I buy it, I use it — and it isn’t (alas!) entirely immortal. Does it stand in for a thousand paper cups? Two thousand? Or does its maintenance cost more than two thousand paper cups?
What are the comparable costs of these two products? I’d really like to know.
Goleman mentioned a website, www.goodguide.com, as a place where one could find out this sort of information.
I visited it, and your guess is right: the first thing I looked up was paper cups.
The website is very obviously a work in progress. Items that don’t show up in a category list may show up if you search for the brand name. Similar items from the same company may have wildly different ratings, sometimes based on judgments I found insufficiently explained or downright incomprehensible. For example, a brand of instant oatmeal was given the lowest rating available because it was (eek!) fortified.
Fortified with what? Iron? Niacin? Preservatives? Insect parts? Rat poop? Heavy metals? Nuclear waste? It was impossible to tell, and I would make quite a different decision on the product depending on what exactly had been added to it. (Not that I’d buy it; I did once, by mistake [I meant to buy the regular variety, to take on a trip, and got the flavored kind], and I’d give it a 0 rating because it tastes nasty. That quality wasn’t factored into the equation.)
Still, I think the website will be a good research tool, if one keeps an open mind, checks for how the ratings are created and who sponsors the site, and keeps one’s woo-woo antennae well tuned.
The site doesn’t, yet, have anything about paper v. china.
But one can hope.
I blog here every Sunday, and irregularly otherwise as the spirit takes me.
My novel Dreamsnake is now available at Book View Cafe, serialized by the chapter on Sundays. You may buy the complete ebook for $4.99. (Current formats: Mobipocket/Palm, html, PDF).
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