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Sorry, we haven’t reached ‘peak stuff’

We gave a very personal talk about some very global issues last week at the London Design Biennale.

We opened with a special disclaimer: we are not designers, we are not economists, we are not ecologists. Our interpretations (and errors) are ours, as citizen activists. Our aim with this presentation is to share how we, as concerned people, have grown and learned to read the world.

Image by Flickr user sjrankin
Image by Flickr user sjrankin

Before talking peak stuff, we wanted to start by reminding of some environmental crises that formed the basis of our environmental consciousness. We were teenagers in the 1990s, the decade “Earth Day” went global. Around this time, we learned about acid rain and the ozone layer. (And the early nineties were the moment when Silicon Valley finally started to recognise its legacy of pollution and the clean up began.)

image by dotspotting user blech

The narrative is that they were overcome, that humanity prevailed. When in fact the ozone layer is only projected to recover to 1980 levels in the middle of this century, and acid rain has simply moved to East Asia. (And there is new research questioning whether heavy metals are reaching North America, from factories in China.)

When IKEA sustainability exec Steve Howard unwittingly coined the phrase “peak stuff” on a Guardian Sustainable Business panel earlier this year, essentially saying that the western market for household wares was reaching saturation, he was doing so against the backdrop of the offshoring of manufacture and its environmental impacts. Or at least the perception that we no longer deal with the environmental impacts of industry. His company uses 1% of the world’s wood production and 1% of the world’s cotton production – two materials we could call renewable, but when confronted with their human and ecological costs at scale, seem less so.

image by Flickr user yasuhirotao
image by Flickr user yasuhirotao

We asked who in the audience did not have IKEA wares in their house. Only one person of about 25 raised their hand. So our critique is not only of a company, which has afforded us with many utilitarian and interesting products, but of ourselves as a part of a system.

We returned to the notion of “peak stuff”. This narrative frame is particularly dangerous because it suggests we are overcoming a problem, like we *are doing* with ozone, or we think we already did with acid rain. It lulls us into a very false sense of complacency. Howard himself alludes to Europe and North America having reached “peak stuff”, and like many companies, IKEA’s projected growth is very much in “emerging markets”.

How can we have a “peak” in one part of the globe, while another is massively growing? At the same time, if we “peak” surely we cannot morally force others to go without.

But “peak stuff” as a notion is dangerous – and confusing – in other ways.

Why peak oil is no longer the focus

His phrase about consumer behaviour “peak stuff” is inspired by the phrase about resource scarcity “peak oil” that has sprung up numerous times over the past hundred years, most recently in the 2000s.

image by Flickr user Eyesofhorus
image by Flickr user Eyesofhorus

This phrase refers to the global “peak” production of oil, from which point production would only decline. Peak oil can occur – and probably will occur – but the general trend has been that every time there is a scare, investment and technological advances helped overcome what seemed to be shrinking reserves. In the time since the 2000s “peak oil” scare, which inspired groups like the Transition Network to form, new forms of production like fracking (yuck), advances in deep sea drilling have changed the picture dramatically.

The cycle of scare-and-relief around “peak oil” has the consequence of putting people off altogether, and seemingly discrediting real concern for resource depletion and scarcity. In any case, now, environmentalists are less concerned with peak oil, because they argue we should kerb the use of fossil fuels to save us from greenhouse gas emissions-driven climate change. They campaign to “keep it in the ground”.

Do global manufacturers and retailers plan on depleting every last resource, even those under our feet, like fossil fuel companies are planning to do? In any case, perhaps we should be thinking along the lines of “keep it in the ground” in relation to raw materials too.

Loops that are actually spirals – and resource depletion

But the phrase “peak stuff” had us curious, even though we know we are nowhere near a “peak” in our sector of consumer electronics, how quickly are we depleting raw materials globally? (For us this is extra pertinent, because only one third of electronics are currently recycled properly, so we are nowhere near having closed material loops.)

A recent blog post by Michael Bauens, referring to the work of ex-Veolia engineer François Grosse, really caught our attention recently (hat tip to John Thackara). Grosse attempted to model the impact of dramatically higher levels of recycling on resource depletion of a handful of non-renewable mineral resources, and he came to quite sobering conclusions:

In order to curb the soaring drain on non-renewable resources, an inescapable condition is to bring down the underlying growth rate of global consumption of raw materials to below 1% a year. A raw material which continues to be consumed at a rate significantly above 1% per annum cannot be subjected to any successful measure to slow down the depletion of the resource; the best that can be done, thanks to recycling, is to achieve a one-off time gain of a few years or a few decades.

In some sense, this is just common sense, that we need to slow the growth of consumption of raw materials, not just recycle. But his work raises some very serious – and challenging questions – about system changes we require to prevent resource depletion in the next couple of hundred years. (As people with no academic background in this area, we looked for critiques of his model, or alternative research and could not find any. Please share these if you have them.)

And what about carbon?

Corporate enthusiasts for the circular economy seem to focus on closing material loops, and mostly through recycling. But very few pay attention to the carbon emissions in manufacture of their products. We’ve written about the global impact of mobile manufacture – its global carbon footprint is roughly equal to Austria’s. The longer we use our battery-powered products, the less CO2 is released.

image from The Guardian
image from The Guardian

We notice even our national carbon accounting methods leave us off the hook for the carbon emitted in the production of stuff we import. So while the narrative is “the UK’s carbon footprint is dropping” (which can yet again lull us into complacency) – the picture looks very different with a truer accounting for the embodied carbon we consume in products we import, use and discard – carbon that is spewed out in China.

Intergenerational timeframes

Our solutions to these problems are simultaneously simple and complex at the same time. We need to take action at the local level as citizens, coming together to prevent waste and use what we have for longer, by creating dense networks of resource efficiency which include schools, businesses, makerspaces, materials commons and reuse centres. And at the local level, we need to be sensing and demonstrating where the barriers are, reporting upwards to regional, national and international levels, where policy change can help reinforce and at times help scale our efforts.

One of our big take-aways from Grosse’s work on resource depletion is that we also need to constantly be framing our efforts in terms of generations. His models discuss resource depletion in terms of >100 years, of 5-6 generations. Now surely one can argue with the number of generations, but with the basic time scale?

It’s true that the phrase “what kind of world are we leaving for our grandchildren” has become a cliché. But we need to start coming up with tangible imaginaries, of what life will be like two generations from now. We need to do what communities faced with depletion and degradation of land in resource-producing areas in Asia and Africa are forced to do right now: make plans well beyond the next quarter, the next election cycle or the next decade.

Restart Party in Havering, east London

The good news with the intergenerational frame is that in the mix of generations, there is much wisdom, creativity and energy. And this is where we can take our strength. Our Restart Parties – community repair events here in London – are a testament to this, as generations share their skills, critiques and visions for the future.

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  1. […] of populist dissembling by conspiracy theorists can spin the reality that humans as a species are over-consuming natural resources to such a degree that it will leave a scorched and harsh legacy for future generations.   Nothing less than a […]

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