Suppose you are driving, and the fuel gauge of the car is hovering just above zero. You don’t know how far you’ll need to drive before being able to top up.
How do you drive?
If you want a future, you should always drive that way, as if every drop was precious. Because it is. Every molecule of carbon you burn turns into a greenhouse gas. The way to have a future is to minimise your contribution to this ongoing tragedy.
But the same logic applies in all areas of life. What about paper?
Paper could be made entirely from waste or recycled fibre. It could be made entirely from annual plants. Instead, it is the graveyard of forests. Big money is tied up in equipment, so it stays that way. I live in the middle of this battle. Forests in my area are among the best carbon sinks in the world — as well as being beautiful, the home of intriguing plants and animals, and the regulator of Melbourne’s water.
Some days, thirty huge logging trucks roar through the little township of Healesville, as Vicforests do its best to sell it all off at a loss to taxpayers before we succeed in protecting it with the Great Forests National Park.
So, paper should be used as if it was made from the last tree there is. Because, otherwise, it soon will be.
What triggered this rave?
For the past several months, I’ve returned to physical labour, renovating the house that was my nest for over 30 years, so it can be the loved home of another family. The current task is painting interior woodwork, and a nice young man worked with me for a day.
I do my best to avoid accidentally painting glass, because that’s a waste of paint, and extra work cleaning it off (preferably straight away, otherwise by scraping when it is dry). I use a special little glass-edge brush, and take care. When I do get some paint where it shouldn’t go, I clean it off with a wet cloth I wash out before the paint on it dries.
My young mate Tom and I worked in different rooms most of the time. Toward the end of the day, I noticed that his technique was different. He just used the one brush, being efficient with time. Inevitably, he got lots of paint onto the windows. He cleaned this off with toilet paper. In a day’s work, he used up about two rolls, and filled a large bin with painty scraps of forest. Also, he probably used about 15% more paint than I did, and paint is also made from fossils. (Currently the raw material is propylene, which is made from oil or natural gas.)
Here is something else. Suppose all toilet paper was 100% post-user recycled waste. Would his technique then be all right?
Waste paper and other materials for recycling need to be collected, transported, stored, processed, manufactured into paper, distributed, and then formed into the final product. That again needs to be stored, distributed, stored again, sold and transported. All this takes energy.
That’s why I said, we should do everything as if we were using your last drop of fuel. Because we are.
But isn’t it an annoying, self-imposed hardship to think of the long-term consequences of everything we do?
It is a different way of thinking, and while it is foreign to the dominant culture, it is no more difficult than any other. Once you have formed the habit, it is just… natural.
Thinking with long term consequences in mind saves you lots of money in the long term. (Paint is expensive. My 15% less use compared to Tom, multiplied by a thousand activities of many kinds each involving a saving, adds up.)
Everything we do uses energy, depletes resources, adds pollution, attacks nature. Some activities have a payoff that justifies this. For example, growing your own vegetables more than pays off the environmental costs of the activity. But if you can grow your vegies with less environmental impact, then you are better off still. Solar panels have environmental costs of many kinds, but the payoff is reducing the burning of coal to generate electricity. All the same, choosing not to have power-using appliances, and reducing your need for electricity, is far better environmentally than buying a few more solar panels.
I’ve had the honour of editing a major work in economics: Sufficiency Thinking: Thailand’s Gift to an Unsustainable World.
An essential part of sufficiency thinking, as set out in this book, is to think and act as if the planet mattered. Because it does.