Too little, too late” or “Too much, too soon”: the complex balance of Earth

Talking about climate change, environmental or health matters, the corrective measures which are actually taken by politicians and authorities are often described as “too little, too late”. Those measures should have been taken already decades ago indeed; the climate, and more in general the balance of the planet, is an extremely complex Colossus, which one can not simply push around at will.

On top of that comes the fact that the physical planet and the fossil and mineral matter on it has its limits. Plant and animal stuff can be grown again and again, they are renewable and their volume can be expanded or shrunk within large boundaries. But even then, one can really wonder where the economists picked up the silly idea that growth should go on forever. Did you ever see a tomato of 60 kg? A baby of 70 years? Or a woman with 80 children? We laugh our heads off with such examples, as we see them as complete nonsense, but we accept thoughtlessly the same ideas in an economic area: unlimited growth.

It should therefore be obvious – and environmentalists spread this word since the sixties – that we have to deal the limited stock of available raw materials on this planet with a forever growing number of inhabitants. That means that there will be somewhat less for anybody, but everybody will have some. Since we turned mainly to mineral and fossil sources for our goods some 200 years ago, we have nearly consumed their available stocks. Obvious again, as especially the fossil sources, such as mineral oil, are limited. We will have to find solutions to substitute all of the fossil and a lot of the mineral matter we use for our actual products.

On top of that it has been documented that fossil derivatives are not really compatible with life processes and with living nature. A few drops of paraffin oil may be a good help for my sewing machine, but I don’t want to put it on the skin of my baby grandchildren.

The growing scarcity of fossil sources, combined with the rightful search for substances which are compatible with living nature and with human health leads us to the plant and the animal kingdom. However, there we have to take in account limitations as well. The arable surface of the planet is limited; we have to give priority to the growing of foodstuff. If on top of food we need to grow and breed our garments and all other consumption and technical products on the fields, we simply have not enough surface of arable land available on the planet.

That puts us before a first dilemma: we would very much like to use renewable – plant or animal derived – raw materials and their derivatives as ingredients for our products, but switching to them on a large scale and on the short term would cause an unacceptable burden on the environment. It would also seriously increase the prices of goods; not because these renewable ingredients are more expensive, but while all others are far too cheap! Non-renewable, unsustainable raw materials do not pay the real price of the pollution and the shortages they generate. They are artificially and wrongfully subsidised by an irresponsible form of economy.

There is a second dilemma which has been generated by well-meaning campaigners for sustainable products. They want all fossil derived ingredients completely banned, rather tomorrow than next week, and replaced by plant based ones. At the same time, they want all such ingredients banned which they lump together under the term “synthetic”. Unfortunately, they do not define the term “synthetic” and therefore it is mostly misused: in case it is meant to cover substances which are not occurring in nature, than pasta, wine, cheese, beer and bread are “synthetic”. “Synthetic” does not mean more than “put together” or “composed” and, as always, it matters what is put together and how it is done. An ingredient is not just bad because it is “synthetic”, composed by human intelligence.

Wanting to switch to raw materials from renewable sources for any product in the market is a laudable objective; wanting to fix that next year is a bridge too far and would cause tremendous problems. The material flows we have created the last two centuries are still running in the opposite direction. A lot of ingredients we use cannot be replaced one-on-one by so-called “natural” ingredients because they have not the same characteristics. And no, the argument ‘we used them in the past’ is not valid either. We hadn’t the same expectations and we were not with 8.000.000.000 on this planet.
Not taking the time, and doing everything simultaneously without consultation would be too much, too soon, not a solution for our needs.

The expert

Peter Malaise

Ricercatore belga e consulente per la sostenibilità dal 1972, è fondatore e Amministratore Delegato di Meta Consort Partnership, che aiuta le imprese e le ONG a livello mondiale nello sviluppo pratico di prodotti e servizi su base sostenibile. Nel 1976 Peter ha co-fondato Meta Fellowship, organizzazione no-profit per lo sviluppo e la promozione di “soluzioni…

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