Making Trouble — The Year of Peak Waste

Craft & Design Energy & Sustainability Science
Making Trouble — The Year of Peak Waste
Recession power: Historical data implies that we reduce energy consumption during economic downturns. The question of our times is how we reduce energy consumption while retaining a vibrant and interesting economy.

Yes, we are all depressed. It appears to me that everyone I know is working harder than ever before, scrambling in this strange new world that was thrust upon us while the Global Economic Crisis took hold of our little monkey brains and made our primate instincts do the worst: panic.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s the best news ever.

Perhaps it’s actually fantastic. Let’s look at some data: in terms of energy use and, consequently, carbon output, the only proven technology humanity has for reducing CO2 output at the global scale is economic crisis (see graph). The data is not yet in for 2008, though given that OPEC slashed production multiple times in the latter half of 2008, it looks as if, once again, recession has provably reduced our “reliance” on carbon-based fuels.

So while you sit there contemplating employment uncertainty, take solace in the fact that the dolphins are probably doing backflips of joy, and polar bears are likely hibernating in a slightly more secure Arctic, dreaming of a few extra years of viable ecosystem ahead. The reality is that all of our economic activity, whether it be buying gas to fill our cars, or buying stuff to fill our houses, or even food to feed our stomachs, uses energy from one source or another. This is why, knowing how much money you spend, you can estimate with reasonable accuracy how much energy you use, and how much CO2 you are responsible for putting into the atmosphere.

This equation is why there is a conversation in the circles of people who think about climate change and energy about “decoupling” the economy from CO2. Simplistically, there are two ways this decoupling can be achieved. The first is by swapping clean energy sources for dirty ones. Electric cars run on solar-power electrons instead of oil. Wind power instead of coal. Geothermal instead of natural gas. The second decoupling happens when we achieve the same quality of life and service, at much lower energy or carbon output. How can this be realized?

In the last decade or so, efficiency gains in the steel industry mean that we can now produce steel with 10%–20% less energy than previously required. Better refrigerators use less energy per unit of food kept cool and fresh. This side of the energy equation is often called efficiency. Efficiency can get us a long way, but for many things that we do, or find “necessary” in modern society, we already do them surprisingly efficiently.

Globally, the best models suggest we need to reduce the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere by 80%–90% by 2050. That’s a lot. It looks incredibly unlikely that we’ll figure out how to make steel with 80%–90% less energy or CO2 produced. That’s also true for aluminum, plastics, paper, and most modern materials. What does this mean? It means we need to use less of all of those materials, which means making products that last longer. It means repairing those products. It means maintenance.

Let’s try and imagine the beautiful version. Children will play with beautifully engineered wooden toys without toxic additives in small plastic parts. The wooden toys will be repaired as necessary between generations. You will have handsome shoes, repaired by a cobbler. Instead of dealing with a website or superstore, you’ll interact with someone who is interested in the weather that you share, how your shoes are performing, and whether you are using beeswax treatment often enough to keep the shoes soft and waterproof. Rather than unflattering Ikea generics, you’ll own beautiful furniture, handmade and well oiled and polished.

Why would I bring this up now? Isn’t this the steampunk issue? Let me give you a glimpse into my thoughts right now. I’m writing in December of 2008. We are in the midst of the economic stupidity. Twice this week there were blackouts on my street. They hit me with an overbearing relevance: I was reduced to candles, there was no wireless internet, and my house was quiet. Peaceful, actually. I made soup on my gas stove and used two tea candles each night to light my endeavors. I actually had time to sit and think. Just a notebook, a pen, and some candlelight, all sprinkled with calm quiet — real thinking time.

I had just been in London with a friend, Matt Webb. We discussed consumerism, and the economy, and the environment in combination. He posited that 2008 would become known as the year of “peak consumption.” I liked the term and the concept, but

I think that “peak consumption” implies a diminished quality of life. This made me think about peak waste, which is essentially the same, but with an important nuanced difference. We all, it seems, want to know how to live better, and how to live in a way that’s less damaging to the environment. Peak waste seemed to encompass this idea better, the idea that we should strive for a higher quality consumption through lower waste.

All these things seemed to tell a larger story to me. When I think of steampunk, I think of a movement that glorifies the period of the new industrial revolution, that first moment when people really started to enjoy fossil fuels. At the same time, steampunk is also nostalgic for the craftsmanship and brass-and-walnut engineering that was typical of that period. “Lost knowledge” seems to typify what we lost after that early mix of craftsmanship and the new industrial revolution. I’m sure I’m glorifying the moment, and historians will prove me wrong, but I see an opportunity in the concept of steampunk.

It appears we can worship the new and embrace it, but by reducing our consumption of the old, being more careful and thoughtful about what we waste, we could have quality consumption. A consumption that considers the human element, and doesn’t outsource it. A consumption where you know the person who made your bicycle or your music player. Not a consumption where all you know is that your shiny iPod was made in foreign lands and magically teleported to you in a pristine and hygienic retail store using unknown amounts of CO2-producing energy. The economics of this clearly need some ironing out, but we’ve managed to create an incredibly complicated credit system for buying a lot of poorly made things, so it should be possible to use it to instead buy a few well-made things.

So, as we sit, unemployed and fearful of the unknown future, perhaps there is something beautiful to occupy makers. We can do the Fahrenheit 451 of making, each of us picking up a legacy trade or skill and learning it to a degree that it can be taught and passed on, and introduce a more human face to the technology we take for granted. We can even make that technology “green.” Let’s make sure 2008 was the year of peak waste.

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Saul Griffith

DR. SAUL GRIFFITH is founder and principal scientist at Otherlab, an independent R&D lab, where he focuses on engineering solutions for a clean energy, net-zero carbon economy. Occasionally making some pretty cool robots too. Saul got his PhD from MIT, and is a founder or co-founder of,,,,,,, and more. Saul was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007.

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