Reflecting on No Impact Week: Economic Growth and Sustainability

LM flotsamEver considered going on a weeklong carbon cleanse?  On October 18th, in partnership with the Huffington Post, the No Impact Project launched No Impact Week, a seven-day guided experiment in sustainable living.  Each day focuses on a different topic:  Consumption, Trash, Transportation, Food, Energy, Water, and Giving Back.  The goal is to help the average consumer, not just “tree-hugging, bicycle-riding, canvas-bag-toting, eco-warriors,” explore the benefits and reflect on the challenges of reducing his or her environmental impact.

Biking from my house to downtown Oakland, I bore witness to the purged flotsam of the recent downpour.  Floating in gyres at the perimeter of Lake Merritt was a stinking, oily, sludge soup of polystyrene instant noodle cups, to-go boxes, and countless coffee cups.  As I reflected on the first four themes of No Impact Week–consumption, trash, transportation, and food–I realized that they were all swirling together in that rotating constellation of trash, inseparable from one another and indistinguishable from the mess.

The Bay Area is one of the most progressive regions in the country when it comes to addressing consumption, trash, transportation, and food.  We have recycling bins scattered about public places, plastic bag and polystyrene legislation, and curbside compost pickup.  We have a strong local food movement, year round access to fresh local produce, above average levels of consumer awareness, and some of the best public bicycling infrastructure in the country.

And yet, we still have lakes full of trash and sludge.


The problem is that our economic system is designed to reward behaviors and decisions that are not only bad for the environment and detrimental to human health, but also ultimately bad for the economy itself.  We subsidize regressive industries (e.g. oil, corn, the auto industry), hide the true cost of consumption from consumers (e.g. the cost to society of pollution, economic impact of carbon emissions) and strip them of their ability to make rational choices–the ability upon which capitalism is supposedly built.  We are essentially eroding the very ideological foundation of our economy by not internalizing the true cost of goods into their prices, and in the process we are making a huge mess of the environment that some suckers (and by that I mean our children) are going to have to pay a lot to clean up.

Growth Imperative

Capitalist economies depend on growth for their survival.  Fractional reserve banking, interest, and seigniorage are all mechanisms that, defying the laws of thermodynamics, make money out of nothing, and demand exponential growth in the real economy to keep up.  What gets us into trouble is the real economy depends on the throughput of natural resources, which unlike money, happen to obey the laws of thermodynamics.  Bummer.

The question is how do we reconcile the growth imperative of capitalism with the principles of sustainability?  How do we reduce throughput of natural resources and boost the economy?

Having Less Impact

The solution is complicated and requires a multi-faceted approach, including changing consumer behavior, shifting cultural values, and creating national and international policies to promote sustainable prosperity.  No single approach can solve all of our problems, hence a trashed lake in the most progressive region in the country.

No Impact Week is targeting the grassroots level of individual consumer behavior, methodically guiding more than 4,000 volunteers through daily experiments on reducing their impact.  The themes of buying locally, boosting local economies, eating seasonally, not driving as much, and eliminating waste run throughout the topics.  What the founder of the No Impact Project, Colin Beavan, discovered when he and his family went off the grid and bought nothing new for a year was that they weren’t suffering as a result of reducing their impact.  In fact, they were actually happier.

Maybe the real solution to creating sustainable economy is understanding what really makes us happy.

Carly has a BA from Stanford and recently finished her MBA in sustainable management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Her interests revolve around sustainable food production, sports, renewable energy, finance, and sustainable business consulting. She lives in Oakland where she spends her spare time cycling, home brewing, gardening, cooking, and surfing (when she can make it over the bridge).

4 responses

  1. We need more articles like this. The public needs to be informed about biodegradable, compostable solutions, like NatureWorks’ PLA foam for meat/vegetable/fish trays like the ones found in your supermarket. We have the technology to manufacture them. Most do not want to pay more for “green” … but as your excellent articles points out, how much is the “real” cost of polystyrene vis a vis the cost of pollution, quality of the air, water, and its carbon footprint relative to PLA. Not to mention we all can help reduce foreign dependency on oil. The big polystyrene producers are addicted to polystyrene and will stay that way until the public demands other wise. Sometimes, a demand has to be met with a challenge … we can make it, but are you willing to buy it? (p.s. it’s only 15% to 25% more expensive than polystyrene on a traditional “cost” basis).

    1. Great insight, Carly. In response to what makes us happy I recently attended a seminar at the Bioneers Conference where Staci Haines, founder of Generation Five, spoke about how studies on human happiness have time and time again proved that what makes humans happiest is connectivity with other people. How can we build a sustainable economy from that?

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