As I witness the expansion of the ‘green’ movement, I see that the main message being sent to consumers is one of individual responsibility, i.e. if you buy a metal water bottle or a reusable bag, you will save the planet. While the message of sustainability is an important one for everyone to understand, people should know that it is not the individual consumers who create the most negative impact on our planet. In truth, it is a small number of corporations and agricultural producers who create a disproportional amount of waste and pollution before a product ever reaches the shelves of your local mega-mart.
If you have ever had the pleasure of taking professor William Freudenburg’s Environmental Studies 1 class, then some of this information may seem familiar to you, but if you haven’t, then sit tight. According to economist Robert Ayres’ 2001 book chapter, “Industrial Ecology: Wealth, Depreciation, and Waste,” for every one ton of product that reaches American consumers, six tons of durable materials are wasted by the manufacturers. In the same study, he found that 90 percent of America’s total waste occurs pre-consumer, before the products even get to the shelves. Our post-consumer recycling programs only target 0.4 percent of America’s waste.
Now, I don’t mean to say that we as citizens should ignore recycling or sustainable practices, because I believe every single person should be striving for zero waste in every facet of our society, even if that is an unachievable ideal. Furthermore, being a sustainable individual could help you future CEO’s translate that mentality into your own business, or whatever venture you care to pursue. But it is important to be informed about the fact that we are being told waste is the consumer’s fault, when the truth about waste is hidden from view. The reality of waste and environmental damage is not limited to physical waste either; it also characterizes air pollution and water usage.
Professor Freudenburg uses an interesting metaphor to compare cows grazing to humans polluting; it goes as follows: If you remove 10 percent of cows from a grazing herd, then 10 percent of the field will be spared. However, if you removed the top 10 percent of industrial air polluters, then you remove 90 percent of the air pollution that is released. Pretty crazy, right? In fact just a few years ago, one single fertilizer production facility, IMC-Agrico (St. James, LA), accounted for 4.55 percent of America’s toxic releases. Another shocking example is water prices for the agricultural industry; agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of California’s overall water consumption, and the government has long subsidized the cost of water for farmers so that they could pay just $3.50 for one acre-foot of water (325,851 gallons). When is the last time you bought a bottle of water? How much did you pay?
Obviously one can make the argument that agriculture is necessary and is the basis for much of our state’s wealth. True, humans need to be fed, but agricultural revenue makes up only 2 percent of the state’s economy. Of course it is essential to maintain our industries, including agriculture. But how many times have you driven on the 5 or the 101 and seen sprinklers spraying water into the air while it is 100 degrees outside?
The fact of the matter is that good farming practices and responsible industries can help prevent much of the waste that our country produces. It is an issue that the government usually avoids, because of political ties to the very same wasteful corporations. As informed citizens, we can vote for politicians who advocate accountability for corporations, as well as applying our environmental knowledge when we ourselves take the spots of the corporate execs and political elites.
good topic, great class!
Thanks for a well-written article on a topic that too many people don’t know about. I took this class a while ago and loved it :)