Total Environmental Cost
Second Edition2020-02-13
Minor edits2023-11-16
CategoriesBlog, Environment

John Valentine is a writer of fiction and physical sciences.

Total Environmental Cost

Changing behaviour through awareness and responsibility to the environment

Second edition, John Valentine, 2016, 13 Feb 2020

Photo credit: ESA/NASA

How can we be more aware of the environmental impact of our actions, be those actions transport use, energy usage, or purchases, and make good decisions?

When general advice is not clear, how can we know the true environmental cost of our actions?

What is the environmental impact of our actions?

As consumers, we are conditioned into concerning ourselves only on monetary cost: “That cabbage costs $x.xx. That’s a bit much, but I’ll still buy it.” We don’t think about the other measures of cost, like:

  • the human time that someone contributed to its making;
  • the negative contribution that the item made to the environment, both in manufacture, it active service life, and disposal;
  • the materials that we might never recover, and the future opportunities those material could have served.

Our capitalist economy likes to reduce these costs to money at the earliest opportunity, rather than deal with the impacts of these costs. Workers are paid money as compensation, to eliminate (or transfer) that debt. Carbon trading attempts to make environmental impacts appear to be zero, when the damage is still being done. Markets operate using materials that cannot be recycled, or public authorities do not invest enough in recycling facilities, which makes us fall well short of the possible recycling targets.

These efforts fail environmentally because they convert their burdens into money which then becomes a constraint that prevents the good work being done to help environmental issues and halt (or reverse) progress towards saving the environment that humans need to continue surviving. They also fail because governments, who may control money in interesting ways, do not want to weaken themselves in a competitive global market; they work against constraints in order to profit, be more efficient, or support the systems that preserve the status quo that enables their continuation.

Economics is failing the environment.

If our generating technologies (industry, finance, etc) cannot address the issue by themselves, then some areas of our society can apply pressure to change: consumer power can influence producers. This idea is probably doomed to failure, because the majority of humans will continue to ‘consume badly’, despite the compounded costs of their consumption.

I’m proposing that we adopt an information infrastructure that supports auditing the total environmental cost (“TEC”) of everything. It’s a terrible idea, because people will cheat and subvert it. However, there’s a small chance that a cultural shift might eventually support it, so allow my to paint the picture, where individuals, companies and governments make decisions on alternatives based on their TEC, and research strives towards lower TEC.

To arrive at a TEC for something, we need to dig deep, and keep asking questions. Those questions need to be answered accurately. The formula looks like this:

TEC of a thing = Sum of (all the things that contributed to that thing)

Keep going, subdividing the contributing things, without counting anything twice, until you arrive at sustainable origins that themselves have zero TEC.

The audit would be detailed and arduous, but at the end of it, we see that the TEC is, say, 80,000,000 kg of CO2. We might want to define TEC differently, because CO2 mass is a simplification, and only covers one stream of damaging emissions. We might want to audit other aspects.

I started on a simple example below, which I’m not pretending represents the possible range of things we could assess for TEC, nor am I pretending that I have the resources to dig deeply into the contributory ‘tree’ of TEC for these things.

Example: A turned wooden bowl, made by a local artisan.

Superficially, you might think of these contributions:

  • The artisan’s time,
  • The wood:
    • The tree was grown on their own land, possibly sustainably.
  • The tools:
    • A treddle turning machine of their own making,
    • Hand chisels.

While there are other contributions, let’s do a deep dive into the above.

Some items in that list are re-used, so we need to apportion their TEC to one instance of a bowl. This means that if a chisel is good for 1,000 bowls, then the TEC of the chisel is divided by 1,000 for each bowl.

Some of the items have associated running costs that contribute to the TEC. The chisel might be sharpened occasionally, using refined oils and sharpening stones. They have their associated TEC.

But we haven’t finished. Some items come from outside the business, or their production involved things that have their own TECs that need to be audited and apportioned.

Perhaps you’re already thinking how ridiculous this audit is going to be, even for an artisan operating out of their ‘sustainably-built’ log cabin workshop.

The workshop was built using wood from the property, but involved the hire of a logging machine, or the use of a sawmill. TEC of that might be four days’ work, as a fraction (0.06%) of its considerable lifetime cost. Imagine all the parts that contributed to the making, maintenance, and disposal of that machine. Then the factories where the machine was made, then the foundries that contributed the steel to building the factory, as a fraction of the total output of that factory. Do you see where this is going?

Further, there is another facet: the contribution of human effort, usually expressed in hours. Those people are living lives. They consume and they produce. We might need to audit all that, by analysing how much of their time contributed to the making of the machine, and expressing that as a fraction of their consuming activities. By consuming activities, we mean their journey to work, the food they eat, but then we have a decision to make in the way we audit: Do we consider their non-work lives in TEC of items they produce in their work: their leisure, the way they decorate their home?

The human manufacturing supply pyramids for even the simplest products are beyond the means of a single auditor to assess. For this to work, we need a network of audits, where the local TEC is known, and added to the contributions that are assessed elsewhere, to arrive at a TEC for a local product.

Perhaps then, knowing the TEC of an item, we can make informed choices about what we buy or use. If those choices lean towards low TEC values, then we have the means to motivate our producers into likewise making good environmental decisions. Ignoring TEC would then lead to economic failure.

How could it fail?

  • It never gets off the ground, because there are no competing examples of products that people can choose between on the basis of TEC.
  • We don’t agree on the auditing standards, or we fail to agree on the metrics (the facets of TEC that can be separably measured).
  • We become complacent, and declare a high threshold, below which we ignore TEC or guess it without measuring it. Given the width and depth of the contributing hierarchies, even a low threshold could skew TEC values unacceptably.
  • We lack the will to audit deeply, so TEC becomes unknowable.
  • Some parties deliberately refuse to publish, or lie about, TEC data, invalidating the TEC of resulting products.
  • Established interests sabotage the process, by creating noise around the issues, by deliberately lowering the quality of the data, by generating negative publicity, by appealing to non-environmental issues, or by failing to acknowledge the science behind the auditing as a true measure of environmental impact.
  • It is converted into monetary currency too early. TEC relies on the purity of the specific costs being maintained as it is passed up the hierarchy, to the end product. Offsetting facets of TEC will only hide them, and deceive consumers about true TEC.
  • TEC is proved to be an ineffective measure of true total environmental cost.

How could this work?

  • Convert the above list into positive actions
  • Is consumer pressure enough, or do we tax and subsidise based on TEC?