Saturday, February 17, 2007


Use Community: Smaller Footprints, Cooler Stuff and More Cash

Alex Steffen

If we want to build a society which is both prosperous and sustainable, we're going to need to innovate ways of delivering the material goods which underpin that prosperity at a small fraction of the ecological cost they exact today. We must learn to live large while leaving tiny ecological footprints.

We have extremely huge footprints today. If every person lived as the average wealthy American does today, we'd need almost ten planets worth of resources to sustain ourselves, while the gap between our consumption and the capacities of the planet's natural systems has already crossed into overshoot, threatening mass-extinctions and catastrophic climate change.

If we're going to have a bright green future -- if we want to avoid living out the rest of our lives in one long emergency, a kind of constant Katrina -- we need to reinvent our lives now, immediately, on a radical scale. British researchers found that in order to reach sustainable prosperity, Londoners would have to shrink their ecological impacts 80% in the next four decades. For affluent Americans, the number may be more like 90%. And the more we learn about the extent of the damage we're causing the planet, the shorter our timeframes for change become. I suspect that we need to be thinking more along the lines of cutting our impact in half in the next ten years.

Impossible, you say? I think not.

I believe that three main barriers present themselves.

First, we must learn to see the damage we already do. Most of the ecological devastation we cause happens in ways and places which are obscured from our eyes. You might say it happens off-stage: when we turn the ignition key, we don't see the glaciers of Greenland melting; when we throw out our our old television, we don't see its toxic chemicals and heavy metals seeping from the landfill into the groundwater; when we install a new hardwood floor, we don't see the rainforest disappearing in a cloud of chainsaw smoke.

But we ought to see these things. We ought to know the backstory. I believe the next decade will see a lot of artists, activists and culture-jammers finding new ways of highlighting the negative backstories of the goods and services we buy (especially when other choices with better stories exist).

Observation changes behavior. Telling the history of the stuff in our lives is a great way to induce us to change, of course -- for instance, most people will never again want a fur coat once they know what happens to the animals who were wearing that fur before -- but there are even more powerful ways to harness the force of sustained observation. Congestion taxes, for instance, can dramatically alter driving behavior in a very short time. Simply installing home energy meters often leads to a drop in energy use: when we can see immediately the consequences of leaving a light bulb burning unnecessarily, we have an added incentive to switch it off.

Second, we need to make better things. We can shrink our footprints quite a bit through better design and engineering of the products in our lives, by making things which use no raw materials, function at near-optimal energy efficiency, are non-toxic and can be completely recycled or re-used at the end of their lives. That may sound utterly utopian, but we may actually be able to accomplish much of this redesign in the next couple decades, as better tools for designing more sustainably (like computer-aided design programs that take into account not only the strength and function of the materials a designer is playing with using, but their ecological and social impacts) meet emerging technologies and materials. Indeed, some of us are already much farther ahead in this race than others -- the Japanese, for example, have created an extremely prosperous society with an ecological footprint less than half as large as that of most Americans. And there are extremely encouraging signs that designers, engineers and architects around the world are taking the need for transformative change seriously.

Sometimes, we need to see the system in which that good is embedded in a fresh light. Take Netflix. Most of us don't think of it this way, but this DVD-by-mail service is actually a great model of sustainability innovation. Consider: when many North Americans want to watch a movie at home, they get in their cars, drive to a big box store, park in a huge parking lot, shop for an available title under the hot lights with the HVAC whooshing air around above them, pay for their film, drive home, watch their film and then repeat the process. When I watch a Netflix movie, though, I drive nowhere. The postal carrier is already coming to my house to drop of my other mail, so the added effort to get me my movie is negligible. I still get to see Lethal Smoking Gun With a Vengeance 4 or whatever, but my drives to and from the store, and even the store itself, have been dematerialized. The DVD itself is unchanged, yet my movie sits more lightly on the planet.

Third, we need a revolution in how we think about the things we have. We've focused quite a bit here on the concept of product-service systems, and for good reason: transforming one's relationship with objects from one of ownership to one of use offers perhaps the greatest immediately available leverage point for greening our lives.

Take power drills. Supposedly, the average power drill is used for somewhere between six and twenty minutes in its entire lifetime. And yet supposedly almost half of all American households own one. If you think of all the energy and materials it takes to make, store and then dispose of those drills -- all the plastic and metal parts; all the trucks used to ship them and stores built to sell them; all the landfills they wind up in -- the ecological cost of each minute of drilling can be seen to be absurdly large, and thus each hole we put in the wall comes with a chunk of planetary destruction already attached.

But what we want is the hole, not the drill. That is, most of us, most of the time, would be perfectly happy not owning the drill itself if we had the ability to make that hole in the wall in a reasonably convenient manner when the need arose. What if we could substitute, in other words, a hole-drilling service for owning a drill?

We can. Already there are tool libraries, tool-sharing services, and companies that will rent you a drill when you want one. Other models are possible as well, and such product-service systems are not limited to hand tools.

Car sharing offers a great example. With mobile phones, swipe cards and walkshed technologies. it's easy to find the nearest car, quickly make a reservation, walk over and swipe your way inside. Indeed, in sufficiently dense neighborhoods, using a shared car is significantly easier than owning your own car. It can also save you serious cash. It fits perfectly with an urban, high-tech lifestyle.

Even better, car sharing offers major ecological benefits. Because as much as half the energy ever used by a car (and almost all of the material resources) are used not in the operation of the car but in its manufacture and disposal, sharing cars has an immediate and major ecological benefit attached. If three people share one car to do the same amount of driving they used to do in three separate cars, they have roughly one-third the backstory impact on those trips that they used to.

And it turns out that a lot of people can use the same few cars. Zipcar founder Robin Chase told me that they have found that every efficiently-used shared car can replace as many as 20 private cars (that is, cars which users either sell or decide not to buy in the first place). That means that the backstory impacts of all those trips drops to as little as 5% of what it once was.

But the beneficial impacts of car-sharing don't stop there. Because car-sharers' driving time is limited and measured (most pay by the hour), they tend to use it more efficiently, making fewer trips and planning routes more effectively, all of which means that they tend to use less fuel to accomplish the same tasks. Also, because the cars are being used more, they spend less time sitting in parking lots, and as car-sharing becomes more common, we can slash the number of parking spaces in our cities [anyone have a good number for parking-spaces-per-auto in the U.S.?], greatly reducing the amount of space we need to cover with asphalt (if shared cars and carpools were given priority access to the remaining spaces, this would have the additional advantage of disincentivizing people driving alone. We may not go car-free anytime soon, but we could go car-sensible tomorrow.) Perhaps the PARK(ing) kids have the right idea after all. Overall, though it may not be right for everyone, car sharing delivers most of the comfort and utility for less money and a fraction of the footprint of driving one's own car around.

What's more, why stop with drills and cars? We already share exercise equipment (gyms), books (libraries), outdoor space (parks) and short-haul rides (taxis); what kind of a scenario might present itself if we took the concept one step further?

Like many people, I want less clutter and hassle in my life. I already have too much stuff I have to store, too many things I have to maintain and keep track of; I even have, I've decided, too much space (despite loving my home, the first I've ever owned, I find that I could easily, perhaps even more happily, live in half the square footage). All of these things take up much of the time, energy and money I might otherwise apply to having the experiences I want in my life. I want an institutional tool for owning less and doing more.

Let's call it a use community. Imagine a member-owned facility located in the heart of a dense urban neighborhood where I could not only access a tool library, a laundry room, a gym and a shared car, or what-have-you, but access a whole suite of services designed to outsource my responsibility for owning or buying things.

For instance, I love to entertain, and so it is a real pleasure to have a dining room and a decent kitchen. But the reality is that I entertain more than a couple guests at most once a month. And I am told that in New York a company already offers studio dwellers access to a professional kitchen and well-appointed dining room, for a fee. If I had access to a place I could throw bigger dinner parties, I could easily live in a much smaller home and not worry that my kitchen stove only has four burners (and two of those don't work so well).

In a similar way, I have a home office. Now that Worldchanging is both so all-consuming and headquartered in a great, funky space, I spend almost no time working at home, but as someone who's often made my living freelancing and consulting, a home office was long an essential. Or was it? Already there are some amazing groups out there offering shared offices: WorkSpace in Vancouver is a fabulous example (they hosted our Vancouver book tour event), but there are other cool models as well, like the Hub and Aula.

Like a lot of urban people, I love third places like cafes, bars and art spaces, but often wrestle with the discomforting reality that in most third places I have limited ability to influence my surroundings. This is the problem rich people solve by joining exclusive private clubs and our grandparents solved by joining fraternal organizations (like Fred Flintstone's Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes), but those aren't the only models for sharing social space. Take for instance the McLeod Residence, an experimental project here in Seattle which aims to create a member-driven art/social space where everyone can have a voice in creating something cool out of the raw materials of square footage and fun allies.

One could also over-lay this basis of shared space and shared objects with systems for informal sharing -- like Sharer! or RentAThing, even a place-based FreeCycle -- so that me and my fellow members could function as one large, informal, distributed product-service system on top of the formal program. Heck, we could even go the whole nine yards and host various neighborly technologies like yellow chairs.

Combined purchasing power and shared facilities could also make the best available sustainable products more accessible. Services like CSAs would be a snap, but that's only the beginning. If I as an individual buy a super-green washing machine, it may take years to "earn out" (to have saved me more in water and energy costs than the difference in price between the green machine and cheaper, more wasteful alternatives). Ten people using that same machine, however, would earn out much more quickly (as well as reducing their individual backstory footprints), meaning they could live more sustainably, more cheaply. Similarly, with a shared facility, pushing the building itself to reflect cutting-edge best practices would become more cost-effective. Why shouldn't my use community's facility be something like the Jubilee Wharf? The money we saved would be our own.

I'd bet that a comprehensive survey of both my ecological impact now and the life I'd like to be living would reveal a ton of ways in which I could give up things I now own or purchase, replace them with things I use and share, and in the process not only greatly reduce my impact on the planet but actually get more life through the energy and money I'd save. (Indeed, an interesting subject I won't pursue here is the sudden explosion of financial models through which people can act to their mutual benefit -- not only what are called Mutual Benefit Corporations here in the US, but Tenancy-in-Common arrangements, joint ownership agreements and various forms of time-shares and cooperatives. Wealthy people already understand this principle well, creating corporations to share things like hunting lodges and golf courses -- what if a community of users did the same? I am pretty intrigued by the possibilities such mechanisms offer people looking to create innovative new systems of sharing.)

Building passion for such an institution would take creating some serious service envy, but that might be easier than old school marketers might think, especially if the execution of the idea lead visibly to the bright green trifecta of having cooler stuff, more money and less impact on the planet.

The impacts might be broader still. One of our goals here must be the redefinition of stylish affluence, not only because the affluent of the Global North are directly responsible for a fairly large share of global pollution, but because it is their lifestyle which is being emulated and adopted by the affluent in the emerging economies. If we can change the way we deliver affluence here, we can share affluence there without losing the great wager. That seems worth some experimentation.

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