This post is the first in a new series that will revolve around consumption. And, because I was lucky enough to be in Chicago this past weekend (and it has been on my mind the past few days), the marathon will serve as the entry point for this series.
Let's start with the fact that 45,000 runners participated in the race. Yes. That's a lot of bodies moving over a long distance. A quick estimate of the energy required to move that many people across that much distance is about 100,000,000 Calories.
Let's break that down: In terms of snacks: that's a million hundred-Calorie snack-packs. In terms of electricity: that's about 120,000 kWh —the amount of energy required to power the average American home for 11 years!
That’s the beautiful thing about energy, it comes in many forms: the chemical energy in the snack packs and the athletes’ bodies; the kinetic energy of everyone moving toward the finish line; the heat energy given off by all of the contracting muscles; the solar energy from the sun that made for a race that was a little on the warm side; and the electrical energy powering the clocks on the course and the watches on the athletes’ wrists (to name a few).
One thing that dawned on me—as I’m sure it did on many runners and spectators— was the enormity of supplying over 40,000 runners with energy and hydration along the course.
When I first laid eyes on the mass of runners moving through an aid station, I was astonished at the fact that most of them didn’t trip over each other or the volunteers handing them cups. In the next moment the focus of my astonishment turned from the magic of controlled chaos to the number of cups and gel packets on the ground.
Doing my best to extrapolate to all the runners moving through all the aid stations I was immediately struck by an image of a heaping pile of waste. Hopefully you’re envisioning the sticky mess yourself (it was really REALLY sticky).
But, then the importance of the sign that I had seen at the race expo came rushing over me.
This is a big deal. An event of this magnitude produces an enormous amount of waste. The fact that all of the cups, plates, napkins, and banana peels can be composted makes a difference. The fact that there is accessible recycling for paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum makes a difference. The fact that additional recycling mechanisms are in place to use of the heat sheets makes a difference.
Running, like many other industries is becoming much more geared toward short-term use. All of the waste produced just on the day of the marathon is a testament to that. So, having procedures in place to reuse what we are consuming is vital to the sustainability of the sport, and the Chicago Marathon has started us along the path of doing just that.
Thinking about consumption in this way allows us to answer a very important question: How can we continue to do the things we love to do?
That's the question I will continue to grapple with in this series on consumption.
 To get this rough estimate I assumed an average of 100 Calories per mile multiplied by the number of runners and by the 26.2 miles they completed.
I want to talk to you today about appreciating differences. I want to do this because I think it is important in laying the foundation of our sustainable journey together. My inspiration for this is the Pope’s encyclical: Laudato Si'. If you’re reading this (thank you!) you’ve noticed that I’ve waited a week and a half for the original excitement around the encyclical to die down. As such, I’m hoping we can achieve a more sober and measured understanding.
With that said, in the days following the release of the encyclical, there have been many commenters making claims about science, economic policy, faith, morality, etc. Some of these claims have been insightful, but many of them have been quite crass. So, before tackling the encyclical head on I want to consider some key differences that will help provide us with some valuable context.
Between Science and Progress
When we think of science and progress it seems to me that we think they go hand-in-hand. We think of science as the process of testing hypotheses through rigorous experimentation to better know the world around us. This increased understanding then makes things better for humanity.
On its face, this seems quite plausible. It’s not foreign to us either. When new scientific discoveries are made its consequences become the subject of much media attention. We are eager to hear how such and such new discovery will affect our lives. We talk about the discovery as an "advance." Indeed, along with scientific breakthroughs have come tremendous gains in decreasing infant mortality and increasing lifespans (among many other examples). These are the kinds of things that come to mind when we think of scientific advances and progress for humanity.
While these things have more or less coincided with one another, they are not the same thing. The scientific method gives us a better understanding of the way the world works, but that understanding must be applied in order to bring about progress for humanity. Thus, science by itself cannot provide progress.
Between Technology and Progress
What about technology, then? Science is not the only requirement for progress because it merely aims at understanding, not application. Because technology is aimed at application maybe it can provide the basis for human progress. Perhaps we could say that technology and progress go hand-in-hand?
I think it is right to say that technology does contain the element of application that is missing from strictly scientific investigation. However, the question still remains: does this mean technology and progress go hand-in-hand?
When we consider even simple examples of public sewage and electricity the progress for human societies seems clear. However, I think we can come up with plenty of other examples of technologies that are counterexamples. Automatic firearms are a clear example. We don’t necessarily decry their use in war, but their application in any form away from the battlefield seems to constitute a regression rather than a progression. Even on the battlefield, their use doesn’t clearly constitute progress. I don’t think we would say that war is now better because of automatic weapons.
These examples and counterexamples cause many to conclude that technology is neither good nor bad, merely useful. The takeaway, then, is that in order to constitute progress for humanity, there must be a good use. So, if technology merely relates to the “use” part, then we need something more to give us the good part—to make it beneficial for us. We need something more than technology to constitute progress for humanity.
So far I’ve tried to bring out a moral element that I believe is inherent in the notion of progress for humanity. In my view such progress is impossible if we are oblivious to how we treat one another. To reduce progress to mere science or mere technology is to miss a lot about who we are.
It seems to me that what the Pope is attempting to do is to bring some of those elements of humanity to bear on the discussion of our future. For the Pope, that means understanding ourselves not just as clever and resourceful. Pausing on the term “resourceful” reveals quite a bit. When I describe you as resourceful it means that you are able to use what is at your disposal to accomplish whatever aims have been set (either by yourself or others). It has nothing to do with how plentiful the resources around you are. It merely has to do with accomplishing your aims. What if our environment itself, our world, is becoming less resource-full. What if we look away from our aims to the creatures around us? The plants and animals? What if we consider their well-being? What if we consider being part of an ecosystem?
What we have to realize is that we cannot consider ourselves to be making progress if we leave a wake of destruction everywhere around us.
Politicians Respond to the Pope
I must admit here that while I do not want to be swept up in the hysteria that has been the response to the Pope, I have been contemplating the responses of others. Particularly, I want to draw our attention to the responses or our elected officials, our politicians. It does not matter your party affiliation. There is something in this encyclical for every politician to be uncomfortable about. If you are more liberal, you are no doubt very troubled by the Pope’s connection between “throw away” culture and abortion. If you are more conservative, you are no doubt troubled by the Pope’s critique of laissez faire capitalism. I have not come across any politician who firmly endorses every claim in the encyclical.
I want to pick on two of those politicians in particular, both of whom are Catholic. Here are their comments regarding the encyclical:
“I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.” – Paul Ryan 
“I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.” – Jeb Bush 
The point both of these men are making is that the Pope is an expert on neither climate science nor economics. Therefore, the Pope should not make claims about such things. The point I find particularly interesting is the way they both want to be sincere about their Catholicism (or at least want the appearance of sincerity) and the way they want to dismiss Catholicism’s relevance to these issues. Of course any sincere religious practitioner will tell you that this is contradictory at best (deceitful and faithless at worst). There is an attempt by both of these men to keep their faith in one compartment of their lives and keep their politics in another compartment.
Ryan’s words entail that each person must stick to only one field (or perhaps two closely related fields), and Bush’s words imply that while people might be involved in different “realms” we must keep economic reasons separate from moral reasons.
What both of these men have attempted to do is to point out a difference. In particular they have attempted to say that there is a difference between politics and philosophy, a difference between economic policy and morality. While this is an attempt to mark a difference I believe it is a failed attempt. Let me explain.
Even if we focus only on one issue that the Pope addresses in Laudato Si we can address it in many different ways. If we choose to speak of commerce only from an economic perspective then we have missed a tremendous amount of what it means to do business. In the United States we are always consuming products and messages from businesses. These companies reach numerous corners of our lives.
We would have to delude ourselves to reduce everything down to basic market decisions. To say that I merely need item x, go to marketplace y, and engage in transaction z would mean missing a great deal about participating in a marketplace. We are not people whose marketplace interactions are unrelated to our identities. The ideal of laissez faire capitalism is to have a harmony in the marketplace that achieves an optimum balance between producers and consumers. What this leaves out, though, is the way in which our lives take place in relation to the marketplace.
The Pope views this type of reduction of the marketplace as absurd. He sees a community of people who live and work in the same area. What they produce is their livelihood. This term “livelihood” captures the way in which our lives are closely connected to the way we trade with others. When Pope Francis says that we have placed a false trust in market forces, he means that this connection is becoming more and more tenuous.
Specifically, in the eleventh paragraph Francis turns our attention to the Saint from whom he gets his name: “Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.”
This is precisely the point that Ryan and Bush have missed. In our attempt to understand the world better we have had to differentiate between the disciplines of mathematics, biology, economics, morality, etc. However, these categories merely reflect categories of investigation. They do not reflect different classifications of human existence. We are not collections of interfaces with the world. We are not people who have economic concerns only during business hours, theological concerns only during religious services, and political concerns only when in front of a group of people we want to win over.
Back to the Marketplace
I have the privilege of working for a locally owned small business. At that business I often interact with customers who come not only for the products but also for the customer service. When I work with clients I do not understand them merely as economic means. I get to know them. Of course I ask questions relevant to their interests as a consumer, but I also ask about other areas of their lives. We all do it. Not only because we value our customers and their patronage, but because we enjoy having a sense of community at the store. That makes for the lively part. The store doesn’t just provide a livelihood for the owner. It provides a livelihood for all the employees.
There is a stark depiction to think of a person as a collection of interfaces (I interface morally now, I interface economically now). To think of oneself as this hodgepodge of exterior factors and conditions is missing a large part of what it means to be a person. To investigate the way in which we organize our lives around trade necessarily involves questions of morality, sociology, history, ecology, chemistry, etc. This question is multidisciplinary because it affects us in so many ways. So, to think that we can come up with appropriate solutions by merely considering it as a matter for economic policy is to drastically limit our potential solutions right from the start.
These different disciplines don’t reflect inherent differences in the ways we exist. They reflect the need to draw distinctions in order to undertake investigation of the world. Different disciplines arise only in order to allow us to go into greater depth in our understanding. To understand a real world problem as only economic is to miss entirely many valuable perspectives that can shed more light on that problem.
Diversity of Discipline
A friend of mine refuses to shop at Wal-Mart. When I asked her to explain to me why that is she said that she had a problem with their economics. She believes that Wal-Mart does not make good economic decisions. I pointed out to her that her problem with Wal-Mart is not based on an economic reason. It’s not the case that she thinks Wal-Mart is making financial decisions that are too risky and unfounded. Those would be economic reasons to dislike Wal-Mart. Instead, it seemed to me that she had moral reasons against Wal-Mart’s economic policies. She believes that it is wrong for Wal-Mart to have so many part-time employees who work for such a low hourly wage while at the same time lacking any benefits.
This is only one specific example of how morality and economics can engage with one another. But, there are so many more possibilities for disciplines to engage with one another. In the last example Wal-Mart has a certain economic policy, and we saw that it is possible to take a moral position against that policy. We could also have an economic position that is taken in opposition to a moral requirement. Consider the moral obligation to “give charitably to those in need.” Someone could argue (and many have) that charitable giving creates a cycle of dependency, and therefore, we should not give charitably. Additionally, we could perform a history of charitable giving over the past millennium. Anthropologists could give accounts of charitable giving in various cultures. Psychologists can perform studies on the processes that occur in the brain when someone contemplates making a charitable donation. There are many ways in which different disciplines can interact to give added perspective to an issue.
And when it comes to issues of humanity’s sustainability on this planet for the next thousand years, I agree with Pope Francis that, “an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.”
A Different Tradition?
Never in the history of humanity have we had to plan for more than a generation or two into the future. Our traditions and customs have provided the continuity that has allowed us to grow and prosper. However, now we find ourselves with a tradition that is heavily dependent upon the waste and destruction of the natural world. We have the challenge of overcoming those elements of our tradition. This presents us with many challenges we have never seen before. To create a new tradition we will have to get down to specifics. I promise that next time I will get into some of those specifics. But, I also promise to continue to make connections with this much broader context of long-term sustainable transformation.
Your companion, ep
 The word progress (and its variants) is used thirty-eight times in Laudato Si. Pope Francis’ main goal seems to be to outline what it is that constitutes this progress of humanity in relation to other types of progress. I have merely given my own account of science and technology here. I believe my own presentation is applicable to the Pope’s, but I do not presuppose that he would endorse what I have said here. Moreover he considers additional arenas for progress (in morality, in ecology, in preservation, in combatting corruption, in the workplace, in biodiversity, in diplomacy, in production and consumption, in global development, in culture). All of these are considered in relation to the progress of humanity as stewards (curators, guardians, custodians) of the earth.
Why? My favorite question. Perhaps yours too. It’s been my favorite since I was a few years old—just old enough to know that when I asked it, my parents had to struggle to come up with an explanation that would satisfy my curiosity.
For such a simple question it can still be quite useful. When I tell people I have a degree in Philosophy they often respond in one of a few ways. They might ask this question outright: Why? Why study philosophy? Or, sometimes they'll give my favorite response. That is, they won't ask the question. Instead, they'll tell me a story about the question: Why? The story is about some aunt or uncle, or perhaps a cousin or friend, who took a philosophy course once.
And, yes, they all tell me the same story. It goes like this:
The hero (the relative or friend) shows up to the final exam ready to reason through all the arguments she learned throughout the semester. She is ready for anything. Or so she thinks. The final exam is handed out, but the exam is mostly blank. There is only a single question. The question, of course: “Why?” The narrator pauses for effect. This is the make-or-break moment. What will our hero do? She boldly scribbles down two words “Why not?” and turns the test back in. Our hero confidently strolls out of the room to the astonishment of the rest of her peers. The kicker? She earns an A!
If you’ve ever taken a philosophy course or if you know someone who has it’s possible that you’ve heard the same story. It is part of the lore and legend of undergraduate philosophy. I’d like to believe that one of these family members or friends was indeed the person who wrote, “Why not?” How poetic!
At this site, though, our chief concern will not be poetry (this is of course not an affront to poetry; I actually plan to feature some poetry on the site; it just won’t be the primary focus). To retort “Why not?” will not be good enough. If we ask why, it won’t be open-ended. If we ask ourselves why we should transform the way we produce and consume energy, we will not answer with, “Why not?” We won’t be able to use it as a defense-mechanism. We will answer in a way that will shine a light on things.
In this way light will provide our first analogy. To say nothing of vitamin D, we are completely dependent on light. All the food we eat exists because of the light from the sun. All the fossil fuels we burn are decayed organic matter which was nourished by the energy from the sun. The ecosystems we inhabit are wholly dependent upon the light from the sun. So, for us, light is a simple consideration. Without light humanity and all the life we are familiar with would end.
Light is so important to us that to “shed light on something” is to make it clearer, to understand it better, to bring it into comprehension. So, while it is quite easy to see the extent to which light is an integral part of our world, our ecosystem, our daily life, it might be less clear how dependent we are on other things that are essential to our industrial way of life.
You probably know that it’s toxic, but did you know that it is essential for your lifestyle? Without our current process of producing ammonia (the Haber-Bosch process), we would have to change the way we consume numerous goods. Production of fertilizer, nylon, and rayon would need to be drastically changed; we would have to find alternative ways to dye cotton, wool, and silk; and, we would have to modify the way we process rubber and metal alloys. The large-scale production of ammonia is necessary for all of these materials. So, anything we consume that has relied on any of these products has relied on ammonia. If we are concerned about the sustainability of all of these products, then we must ask an important question.
Is ammonia production sustainable?
Right now we primarily use natural gas as the source of hydrogen for ammonia (NH3). So, if fossil fuels are not sustainable, and they are a large component for the production of ammonia, then is ammonia not sustainable? What if we only used a small amount of natural gas to produce ammonia? Would that be okay? Or must we completely remove the influence of fossil fuels?
As we journey together, we will explore these unseen dependencies. So, let's shed a little light on things. Specifically, I want to consider solar panels. If we want to know if solar panels are a sustainable source of energy, we need to know a few things first. What does sustainable mean? Does it just mean that sunlight is a renewable resource? Or does it say something more? Should it say something more? What does it take to make a solar panel? How much toxic waste is generated to produce a solar panel? Is the waste disposed of properly? How much energy and water are necessary to process all the essential components of a solar panel? Does it matter that the solar panel is produced in China, where the electric grid is much dirtier due to an increased dependence on coal?
Absolutely! All the small production decisions add up. Solar panel panel production uses energy. And quite a bit of it! A solar panel needs to produce electricity for a couple of years at least in order to make up for the energy used to produce it (the less carbon-intensive the production of a solar panel is, the smaller carbon debt it has to repay). If a solar panel continues to produce electricity for decades beyond repayment of its debt then we can start to see some substantial benefit to solar power. But, if solar panels are used only for a short time, their benefit could be quite small.
Now that this post is coming to an end I am hopeful. I am not hopeful that we have solved any big problems, but I am hopeful that we have some context for just how nuanced and interconnected these problems might be. I want to end on this note of time frame in relation to solar panels because I believe an understanding of sustainability presupposes a proper appreciation for time. As a result, time span will play a big part in every post on this site.
Being sustainable doesn’t mean preparing for tomorrow or next week or next year. It means preparing for next decade, next generation, and next century (at least).
 Of course there are some ecosystems on the ocean floor out of lights reach that do not have photosynthesis as the starting point for capturing energy. Instead, they are chemosynthetic. They get their energy from Hydrogen, Sulfur, Sulfides, and Methane. Here is a great article on BioEd Online that discusses a couple types of chemosynthetic organisms.
 I have assumed that "fossil fuels are not sustainable." I believe they are unsustainable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they are non-renewable. A recentjournal article in Nature outlines the relationship between climate studies and future warming of the Earth. It suggests that in order to avoid a 2°C increase in average global temperature (above pre-industrial times) we should not use more than a third of the natural gas still in the earth between now and 2050. Even then we are still only left with a 50% chance of the average global temperature remaining below that mark. Because of this I believe that continuing to use fossil fuels as we currently do is unsustainable.