If Thomas Edison was alive today, would he chose to be carbon neutral?
This post takes a conceptual look at the issue of a carbon neutral way of living. See also the Carbon Neutral template for a practical look at how we can achieve the dream of living carbon neutral.
Thomas Edison was a giant, a genius who set the tone for the modern technological development of the Twentieth Century. His invention of the electricity grid was a monumental shift in thinking for mankind from stand alone machines to enormous interlinked systems that delivered us the electricity grid and paved the way for our modern convenience society. Of possibly even more significance was how his thinking influenced his employee and then later best friend Henry Ford to think of systems of manufacturing when he implemented the first mass production lines to produce affordable products for the masses. The Electricity grid also set us on a path towards a fossil fuel instead of a carbon neutral economy. There was no choice at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Today there are many choices and we know a lot more about the effects of the various technologies on the environment.
What is the big deal with being carbon neutral? There was none when Edison and Ford set up their progressive new systems of providing affordable benefits to millions of people, but 250 years of industrial development and the constant quest to extend these benefits to all of mankind have led us to the point of understanding that our endeavors have grown so big that they are having an incredible impact on the environment. But saying it this way makes it sound benign and somehow distant.
Natures design ensures that every living organism has the right to enjoy the abundance that it provides while alive, but also has a responsibility to contribute to the ability of the planet to support and improve the conditions to support life while they are alive. We humans, have not yet fully acknowledged our responsibility to further improve the ability of the planet to support life. So far, in 250 years of industrial development, we have chosen to believe that we have a divine right to take resources from the earth and give back whatever waste outputs they produce from pollutants to the depletion of natural environments to trash which can take thousands and in some cases even millions of years to decay. Since Rachel Carson pointed out in the early 60’s that we are in fact affecting the ability of the earth to support life through our industrial activities, the awareness has grown to the point where in many surveys today, over 80% of people say they are concerned about or aware of the impact we are having on the environment. In the big scheme of things, the 3.5 billion years of life on the planet, that is already a long way to have traveled in understanding in 50 years.
The design of nature did not include the burning of fossil fuels and the resultant addition of CO2 and other substances to the atmosphere. A carbon neutral lifestyle describes one in which we as a species do not add more carbon to the environment than already exists, or if we do, that we find ways to reduce or remove it in order to restore the balance to what it should be for nature to continue it’s cycle of life. So what does this carbon neutral cycle look like? Vegetation and the oceans act as filters converting and therefore regulating the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by converting it into carbon contained in sugars or glucose and oxygen. That carbon is stored in the wood of trees leaves and vegetation after it dies and is eventually absorbed into the soil. Carbon itself is not the enemy! It is one of the building blocks of life! But like everything else in the miracle that is life, it needs to be kept within balanced limits.
Balance is the concept that man struggles with the most!
We understand concepts like progress,dominate, win, own, empower and control very well, but balancing our needs with those of the other living creatures and organisms has so far been beyond most of our understanding because it is so difficult to get a real grasp of the complex system that we refer to as nature and to conceive of the complex inter-relationships between our actions and their eventual consequences.
This is why such a simple concept as a carbon footprint is such a giant leap forward for us to have got to the point of being able to describe in a simple single dimensional number the magnitude of the impact that our lifestyles have on the environment or better restated as the ability for the world to support life over the long term.
Before the industrial revolution, man participated in nature in a carbon neutral manner, taking only from nature what could be replaced by nature. Wood, food, oxygen, water, nutrients from the soil.
Today we have the ability to produce technical or man made materials such as plastics, chemicals and petroleum that nature did not produce. The problem is that we have only designed the top half of the cycle. The creation and use of things made from man made materials, not the return of the component parts of these things to nature or the ability to remake new things as nature does. In order to become carbon neutral, we have to design the lower half of the circle to create a return path back to new products and services instead of just disposing of our used products and expecting nature to take care of it. William McDonough refers to this as a Cradle to Cradle economy (like nature), rather than a Cradle to Grave economy, which is what our system looks like today.
It is a simple concept to grasp, but the trigger to make the change has so far not been there for most people meaning it always seemed that being carbon neutral would result in entities or a way of life that was less profitable than being carbon neutral. However, Ray Anderson, an incredible visionary business leader took it upon himself to provide the example of how we can align business goals with the goal of living carbon neutral and stated towards the end of his life that by providing an example of how this is possible, that it would therefore by implication make it feasible for all. His company, Interface, a carpet company that makes it products from petro-chemicals is already almost 80% of the way to becoming carbon neutral and is on a path to be there by 2020. The example is there and exists in many other examples from Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors to the Toyota Prius to the Nike Considered range of foot ware to the latest developments in LED lighting to Coca Cola’s plastics, aluminum and glass recycling efforts. The revolution to become carbon neutral is already well underway!
It has also been possible for a few decades to have a carbon neutral home. Building consume about 40% of all energy and about 34% of all water and are therefore a prime target for reductions in carbon consumption when aiming for a carbon neutral lifestyle. The technologies to have a home that does not use grid supplied electricity, gas or water exist, but have not been turned into convenient, affordable mass produced systems for homes yet in the way that Edison and Ford did for Electricity and transportation at the beginning of the twentieth Century.
As the new green or carbon neutral economy starts to emerge, many of these technologies are in that phase of transition from one-off, almost hand crafted products to mass produced low cost commodity products. You can see the evidence of this in our Green Home Gallery where there are many examples of carbon neutral or zero energy homes.
The dream of a carbon neutral economy is slowly morphing into a reality. In his ever to thoughtful and practical way, Ray Anderson referred to it as a mid course correction on our journey to becoming an advanced species.
Consider what that means for a moment. scientists talk about the next step in the development of our civilization as being the shift from being a single planetary species to becoming a multi-planet species. In order to achieve that, we will need many things, but primarily, we will need to understand how to create the conditions for and nurture the conditions for life and that means getting to grips with our carbon habit and excessive use of the earths resources such as water! We are already past the point of imagining it and are actively on the road towards solutions that will change how we live and consume.
Read the articles on this site for practical things you can do to progress your journey towards a carbon neutral lifestyle.