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A case for technofix.

If this decade is indeed the critical one for deciding how to save the earth, we'd better start choosing our villains more wisely.

Suggesting that industry and technology will solve environmental problems can evoke a response like saying the Hells Angels should chaperone the senior prom. From the onset of the Industrial Revolution some 300 years ago, nature lovers have focused hard on industry's destructive power. Poet William Blake penned the phrase that is still used to characterize industry--"dark Satanic mills," For novelist Sherwood Anderson, industry turned rural citizens of Winesburg, Ohio, into greedy industrialists and robot-like workers. Thoreau retreated from industrialized New England to the woods and wrote the phrase that has become an environmental battle flag, "In Wildness is the preservation of the World."

Despite ever-improving living standards worldwide, the bias against industry grew stronger, not weaker. Through guilt by association, science and technology became accessories to industry's crime. In 1977 Friends of the Earth attacked the industrial notion of progress in its treatise Progress As If Survival Mattered. On the cover a railroad track forks, one line leading to skyscrapers in a cloud of black smog, the other to a grove of trees under a shining sun. That image summed up an increasing and deliberate polarization.

The debate, of course, has simmered since the creation of cities. The Roman poet Horace 2,000 years ago upheld rural virtue against urban corruption. Now, however, if this really is the critical decade for deciding how to save the earth, environmental bias could lead us to reject the means of salvation. At the very least, it could slow down environmental progress in ways that would be fatal to the very nature we want to save and maybe to other residents of the planet.

I am reminded of a meeting of nature writers I took part in at Williams College a couple of years ago. Everyone talked about consuming less and living more simply. So I took a quick poll. How many of us lived in homes smaller than the American median size of some 1,700 square feet? How many of our cars parked outside the old Rockefeller mansion conference center got better mileage than the average fleet vehicle? No homes qualified, and only two of more than a dozen cars. Since none of us had large families, the per-capita hypocrisy was all the more shameful. It was obvious to me that if this group of distinguished and widely published environmentalists could not live more simply, cutting back on technology and consumption wasn't the answer. I will now argue that in a real world of six billion people headed fast for 12 billion, more technology, science, and industry is the answer.

Environmentalists who call for a simpler lifestyle are exhibiting typical human behavior--trying to atone for all-too-human imperfection by worshipping an impossible ideal. They also require sacrifices: Too often these are science, technology, industry, and the system of individual freedoms in whose shelter they survive. And yet, a clear look at how industry is using technology shows us that real solutions are blossoming all around us, partly because the moral indignation aroused by environmentalists has created a market, and partly in spite of that indignation.

While pundits everywhere decry the decline of social values, many American businesses are responding to a rising tide of consumer morality. As economists say, consumers vote their values with their dollars. More and more, those votes are guided by moral concerns about the environment. Recent research by the Western Wood Products Association (WWPA) revealed that by a two-to-one margin "adults would sacrifice economic growth to keep the environment clean." WWPA also says that some 30 percent of its customers now worry that by buying wood products they may be harming the environment.

Perceptive business experts have asked industry for products that respond to these concerns. Business has the ultimate responsibility of turning science into technology, and technology into new products and services, and it has begun to answer environmental demands. Motives range from pure profit to a love of nature. Let us admit the general imperfection of human motivation and move on to what's happening.

The response is moving quickly on three fronts:

* Making more things with less material.

* Substituting new products for old.

* Inventing new, kinder, gentler technologies.


Ever since the beginning of the industrial revolution, producers have tried to make more products with the same or less raw material. The debate over clearcutting has consumed the media's attention and conveyed the impression that America's forests are disappearing. They are, in fact, expanding. The reasons are simple, and all result from more complex technology:

1. Log cabins and post-and-beam yielded to the two-by-four and the frame house, using smaller, more plentiful second-growth softwood lumber.

2. Producers of wood products have used technology to produce more with less.

3. The good old days were bad days for forests. As farms and travelers converted from horses to tractors and cars, from wood heat to coal, gas, oil, and electricity, trees came back.

I can see the results all over my region--the Southeast--including the 2,000 acres of woods near my house. Within a half-mile, I can locate at least 10 huge piles of sawdust, pine bark, and rotting slabs. They may eventually renourish the earth, but for 50 years or more nothing but a few vines have grown through the piles. The heavy, thick circular saws that whined through the woods and at the mills destroyed as much as 60 percent of the logs they cut. Today's tough steel bandsaws are five times thinner. And sawmills no longer throw away slabs and sawdust. Timm Locke of Western Wood Works says that 100 years ago probably 70 percent of incoming logs left a mill as usable product. Today it's very close to 100 percent. Most western mills shun oil or electric energy created by nuclear fuel or coal, and instead burn sawdust and scrap.

Fly over New England, the mid-Atlantic, or the Southeast, and you can see clearly the old field lines that bound hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of acres of second-growth forest where fields once grew little but grass or crops. (Okay, tree farms aren't real forests, but they do shelter wildlife and lock up carbon dioxide.) Technology and industry made this greener world possible. Almost by accident.


President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have promised an economic boom from environmental technology, focusing on technology to clean up wastes, scrub smokestacks, and filter water. This remedial technology is only a sideshow compared to what is already happening. American business leads the world in creating products that give us more for less--not only less money but less environmental damage.

The idea of profitably substituting one product for another has been around since stone arrowheads replaced sharpened wood, grains replaced wild-animal protein, and coal replaced the dwindling supplies of oak needed by glass, iron, and mortar makers before the Industrial Revolution. But today environmental considerations play a big role in choosing substitutes. This is especially true when market mechanisms include environmental costs.

"Tomorrow's House" in the March issue of this magazine lists dozens of new products that are replacing not only old-growth timber but all kinds of wood. Because of today's environmental concerns and the changing nature of forests, the new technologies are paying profits--a necessary result if they are to last and grow. The Minnesota Trus Joist plant that uses shredded aspen to replace solid lumber generated some $25 million in first-year sales from a $75 million plant and expects to double that this year.

Even the pencils used by carpenters and schoolchildren are being made from a wood substitute. In New Jersey, Faber-Castell introduced American EcoWriter, a non-toxic pencil made from old newspaper and cardboard and almost indistinguishable from the familiar wooden pencil.

A new process developed at the University of Washington may remove as much as 30 percent of the wood pulp used to make the paper we write on. Most paper contains clay filler between the fibers, but Professor Graham Allan has found a way to introduce a filler inside the cells of the wood. Getting it in there while the pulp is still spongy is Allan's tree-saving secret.

The balsa-wood forests that are being depleted for everything from model airplanes to insulating supertankers and muffling the noise in train cars may be saved by a new seaweed product. At California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Robert L. Morrison has invented biodegradable SEAgel made from kelp. It can replace drug capsules, refrigerator insulation, and packaging foam. In its lightest form SEAgel is lighter than air, and a thick piece can rest on a soap bubble.

Not everyone is moving away from wood. Twiggy models at the next fashion show will be wearing more biodegradable wood instead of rayon or acrylic. And Tencel, the new wood-based fabric created by Courtauld Fibres, is a good stand-in for wool, whose sheep require cleared pasture, and for cotton, whose cultivation is chemical-intensive.

And just when landfill operators wonder if plastic packing materials will overflow the dump, technology is offering several solutions. Everyone who curses the Styrofoam "peanuts" that spill out of packages will be glad to know that new high-tech "peanuts" can be dumped in the kitchen sink or thrown out in the rain. Made from cornstarch by American Excelsior in Arlington, Texas, they will disappear within seconds of getting wet.

However, customers won't be happy to discover that this new packing can cost twice as much as Styrofoam. Forestry Suppliers, Inc. says packing costs for an average half-cubic-foot box have risen from 25 cents to 50 cents, but it has made the switch because environmentally conscious customers hate Styrofoam.

Sometimes the increased product costs are offset by the public-relations value--the reason high-profile companies like Kodak have begun using the new peanuts. American Excelsior, which still makes shredded wooden packing from aspens as well as styrene peanuts, says it expects soon to have the cost of the cornstarch product down to within 25 percent of the plastic one.

The quick-disappearing packaging came about during high-tech attempts to improve cereal making. You may not know that starch helps keep your cereal from going limp in cold milk, but it does. And as a starch maker was trying to improve the technique, a researcher suggested using a starch product for packaging. Salesmen sometimes eat the "peanuts" to demonstrate their environmental correctness, but all the flavor and nutrition has been removed to make them less appealing to bugs and rodents.


In our health-conscious society, and with land prices soaring, few industries have sought new technology more intensively than the garbage handlers. No honest environmentalist can bad-mouth high technology and promote recycling at the same time.

One of the greatest obstacles to recycling has been the cost of present technology. As most homeowners know, it is cheaper to buy a new piece of lumber than to hire someone to tear down a building and then sort, denial, and trim old lumber. The same story applies to newspaper, old tires, plastic bottles, and metal cans. The best recycling programs divert only a fraction of our garbage and often cost four times more than regular collection. Subsidizing recycling is yet another new tax, and to favor recycling by taxing virgin materials hurts the poorest consumers the most.

Any widescale, cost-effective recycling effort requires complex and innovative technology. In Montreal, Tigertec Environmental Services has been working 20 years to develop a system that makes short work of bags of unsorted garbage. After separating the metals, it shreds, heats, and composts everything else in a short 48-hour trip through long, rotating "bio-barrels." Plastics and fabrics that have not degraded are reduced pyrolytically (heat without oxygen) to pyrocarbon for metallurgy, gas, and tar. Tigertec says its largest plant has recycled 11 million cubic meters of solid wastes and produced 1.7 million tons of compost, saving some 655 acres of land from becoming a garbage dump.

Last year I traveled the Kolyma Trace in arctic Russia, a road that destroys trucks as easily as it once destroyed political prisoners of the gulags. I saw little roadside garbage, except for a few hundred thousand old tires. My host said local environmentalists had often wished someone would be inspired to find a use for them. American landfill operators and health officials have the same wish for the 200 million-plus tires that die here every year.

To make tire recycling pay requires a high-tech total-use approach. In August last year Florida inventor Charles Ledford received the state's first permit to operate a commercial tire-pyrolysis plant where heat and chemistry reduce old tires to oil, carbon black for printing, rubber crumbs, and methane. In the airtight recycling process, the plant uses its methane production to run itself. Ironically, one of the first products made from Ledford's rubber crumbs were liners for landfills.

The pyrolysis process is now being developed by a publicly traded corporation, ECO2. The company estimates that from one ton of tires it can recover 110 gallons of fuel, 500 pounds of carbon black, 150 pounds of steel, and 4,000 cubic feet of gas.

The computer has been accused of generating more paper than it has saved, but the tide is changing. Giant worldwide computer networks like Internet daily transfer quantities of information that would require multiple editions of The New York Times. A lawyer friend just set up an office with a whole wall of lawbooks contained on a single compact disk for her computer. Checkfree Corporation, founded in 1981, employs only 250 people but handles $3 billion a year in paperless checks that can be written by homeowners or large corporations. And this article will not be printed out at my desk, packed in an envelope, and carried by internal-combustion engine to the American Forests editorial office. It will go from my computer via phone to the managing editor's computer.

The fastest and most widespread environmental benefits are beginning to pour forth from an industry that terrifies fundamentalist environmentalists, who believe biotechnology is the ultimate human arrogance. New oil-eating "bugs," despite a lot of publicity, haven't been bred well enough yet to clean up the Exxon Valdez spill or the oil fields of Kuwait. New bacteria, however, have gone to work cleaning grease out of the Los Angeles sewer system's old pipes and saving millions in replacement costs.

Environmental Biotech, which produces and "trains" the new bacteria, has also applied them to the palm-oil residues that were killing Malaysia's food-rich estuaries. In Australia the company has gone to work on bacteria to save shrimp, fish, and krill from sugar-refinery wastes.

In agriculture, biotechnology has been cursed for creating crops that will allow farmers to use even more herbicides, but it is also on the verge of creating pesticides that will be much more discriminating about which of nature's creations they attack. Ciba Geigy is among the much maligned multinationals betting heavily on cell research to formulate insecticides that will be tailored to the cellular chemistry of only harmful insects. Developments like these could replace the shotgun-like pesticides now in common use.

Even the deadly chlorinated organic chemicals that persist in the environment may soon be destroyed by biologically engineered microorganisms. At the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, Piero M. Armenante is working with a white-rot fungus discovered in Siberia and expects to enlist it in a process that will break down chlorophenols that pollute many urban waste streams.

Deadly pesticides are relatively easy to produce. An alternative but safer treatment for termites is high tech. In California, Tallon Termite and Pest Control uses liquid nitrogen and says, "We freeze their little buns off."


For every action there is a reaction, for every possible solution a possible problem. The world is not divided into appropriate and inappropriate technologies. From organic gardening to biotechnology, every action requires a tradeoff. To produce the cornstarch packing peanuts, someone has to grow more corn, use more fertilizer, and more diesel fuel. To make SEAgel packing, we have to harvest kelp where sea otters feed and fish breed. Lumber substitutes often require high-tech chemical glues. We can save a lot of trees by replacing wood-house framing with steel. Midwifing a steel stud, however, takes up to nine times the energy used for wood, and steel framing requires 10 percent more insulation.

Environmentalists who would like to stop conversion of forests to pasture generally oppose biotechnology that can grow more meat or make more milk from less land. Bovine Growth Hormone, for instance, increases milk production by up to 25 percent. On an average dairy farm with 100 cows, this could liberate 25-50 acres of pasture. The treated cows, however, do get more mastitis and need more antibiotics whose residues could affect sensitive consumers. Lower milk prices, on the other hand, would have a much more powerful health effect on poverty-sensitive poor children. On still another other hand, low prices would hit the small farmer hardest.

Encouraging the use of new products in houses is fine, but even the environmental measures of "Tomorrow's House" described in this magazine (March/April 1993) make housing less affordable and encourage a luxury environmentalists should abhor--the large, free-standing, single-family house.

Perhaps Mother Teresa, Buddha, or St. Francis would be far enough removed from the temptations of this world to unhesitatingly choose lives of poverty and simplicity. Almost every day in every way, the rest of us demonstrate that we want technology to intervene between us and the awesome powers of nature. Whether we admit it or not, we all want and pay for dominion "over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Genesis, 1:28). The proof is in our breakfast cereal, our computers, cars, homes, vacation travel, GoreTex hiking shoes, microwaves, maglev trains, electronic mail systems, home insulation, painless dentistry, protheses, glossy environmental magazines . . .

The critical decisions at the end of this century will not be between living more simply or the final apocalypse of the Industrial Revolution. In a world of six billion people, the only choices are among forms of high-tech, sophisticated dominion. These choices are being offered right now in overflowing abundance by the same western business and industry psyche that stands accused by everyone from Vice President Gore to Earth First! of turning us against nature. Yes, the business that converts science and technology into industry is motivated by self-interest and often by greed. But in a system that rewards these motives only if they fulfill customer demand, the real burden is on the customer.

I have described a few examples of how business can and will respond to demands. The burden of matching industry to environment begins with consumer demands. Then it requires honest response and labeling by business. If environmentalists want to lead an effort to educate consumer taste, the first job is to recognize the complexity of our choices. Following false gurus of the simple life like English professor-farmer Wendell Berry and New Yorker writer Bill McKibben is a luxury of intellectual and affluent romantics.

Environmentalists often argue that if everyone in the world achieved the same standard of living as America and Europe, we would exhaust our natural resources. Like most such gloomy forecasts, this one denies human beings their most distinguishing trait--creativity. No society has ever applied that talent so well to the practical side of life--food, clothing, and shelter--as the free-market democratic societies born of western culture. It is no accident that the greatest human suffering is outside this tradition and that the greatest materialism and industrial destruction occurred in communist countries. And it is no accident that the environmental movement and ecology as a science developed in industrialized societies where people recognized that pursuing their self-interests demanded both free markets and free speech.

The most deadly blow we could strike at the future of our environment would be to limit the capacity of business to respond to our demands by chaining it with impossible regulations and crippling taxes in the name of a nostalgia for a golden age of simple harmony that never existed. If we can expand our understanding to include the creative potential of our society, we can see that Thoreau's elegant words have been misused. In wildness is not the preservation of the world, but in civilization is the preservation of wildness and the rest of nature.

Wallace Kaufman, a natural-resources consultant and writer, authors American Forests' book reviews column.

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Title Annotation:Industry; industry and environmental depravation
Author:Kaufman, Wallace
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:Cataclysm highway.
Next Article:A new way to oversee the public's forests?

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