Tag Archives: pollution

Man, the Rubbish Maker

167-6734_IMGBruce Sterling wrote that our current civilisation would be best described as ‘Man, the Rubbish Maker’ if we were to be judged by our efforts that will best survive the passage of time.  Paleontologists have found flint-knapping workshops more than two million years old that have out-lasted any record of the speech, culture or beliefs of the craftsmen that laboured in them.  Pollution and waste is not consumed and hence tends to persist while useful things wear out.  In a short story called ‘Daughters of the Moon’ published in 1968 as part of his third collection of Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino describes a world in which cars wear out more quickly than the soles of your shoes.  He goes on to describe a region where the road petered out in a hilly area created by ‘the layers of things that had been thrown away: everything that the consumerist city expelled once it had quickly used it up so it could immediately enjoy the pleasure of handling new things’.  Calvino was imagining a future world but we are rapidly approaching his vision, or perhaps we are already there.  Our junk, rubbish, and trash, is a form of entropy – an increase in the level of disorder created by the processes that provide our man-made lifestyle and required as a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics [see my post ‘Unavoidable junk‘ published on January 14th, 2013].  And ‘entropy requires no maintenance’, to quote Sterling, so much of our rubbish will still be here long after we have disappeared.

If we want to avoid Calvino’s vision of cities surrounded by layers of discarded things, then we have to learn to love old but serviceable belongings.  They are good enough and will suffice.  If they break then we should have them repaired, preferably locally in order to stimulate our economy and reduce our ecological footprint rather than replacing them with something made abroad.  This will require engineers to think more about repairs when designing artefacts and consumers to learn to appreciate the patina of age and usage as a virtue, something of beauty.


Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things, Boston: MIT Press, 2005.

Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics, London: Penguin Books, 2002.

Edwin Heathcote, Make and Mend, Financial Times, 30/31 March, 2013.

New Year Resolution

I started 2014 with a post on January 1st about the ‘Knowledge Economy‘ in which I extolled the virtues of knowledge-based rather than energy-based agriculture and engineering.  At the end of the year, oil prices have dropped from $110 to about  $60 per barrel, making it likely that in most countries the energy-based economy will continue to dominate.  In the USA, sales are rising of huge gas-guzzling cars, such as the Escalade, which is 5.15m (17ft) long, weighs 2.59 tonnes and only manages an average of 17 miles per gallon!  Fossil fuels account for approximately 80% of world energy consumption and are responsible for most greenhouse gas production.  During 2014 it was reported that greenhouse gases were rising at the fastest rate for 30 years but still the countries of the UN meeting in Lima before Christmas only agreed that those countries who were ‘ready to do so’ should submit national pledges on cutting emissions in the first of quarter of 2015.

The global average temperature is within one degree of the maximum temperature in the last million years, and a 2 degree rise would be equal to the temperature three million years ago when the sea level was 15 to 23m (80 to 130 feet) higher.  A 1 metre rise in sea level would displace 145 million people, and there is evidence that it has been  rising at 3.5mm per year during the last 20 years which is twice as fast as during the previous 80 years.

How bad does the condition of the planet need to get before effective action is taken?  How many more islands, like the Carteret Islands, will have to disappear?  How many more people than the 7 million in 2012 will have to die prematurely as a consequence of air pollution? Cities such as Beijing are beginning to be described as ‘almost uninhabitable’Kofi Annan has suggested that grass roots action is needed because our leaders will not take action in time. So tonight make it your New Year Resolution to reduce your carbon footprint in 2015 by 15%.

Estimate your current carbon footprint using an on-line calculator and starting working out how to reduce it.  If you want to find out the carbon footprint of your organization then the Carbon Trust has useful information and services.


Inside Beijing’s airpocalypse – a city made “almost uninhabitable” by pollution‘ by Oliver Wainwright in The Guardian on Tuesday 16th December, 2014.

Blockstein DE, Wiegman L, The Climate Solutions Consensus. Island Press, Washington, 2010.

Links to previous posts:

Year of Air:2013‘ on November 20th, 2013 or ‘Mass-produced nuclear power plants?‘ on November 12th, 2014.