Today's Reading

As Icelandic writer and environmental activist Andri Snær, who was integral to the organization of the funeral ceremony, wrote, "Our existence is going against future generations. That's an unbearable, existential dilemma. We're sacrificing the lives of the next generation for our own. Not even for survival but for comfort, which is probably the most absolute ethical situation that any generation has found itself in."

Central to this sad tale is the energy crisis globally and, locally, Iceland's energy harnessing practices. The Environmental Agency of Iceland reported an approximate 85 percent increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the island from 1990 to the present day.10 Of the entire GHG emissions produced by the country, heavy industry emissions constitute 48 percent of the total—even though these heavy industrial facilities run on renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric and thermal power! Large amounts of carbon dioxide are still released as a part of the process of smelting aluminum and processing silicon metals for steel manufacturing.
The Icelandic government has set goals for achieving climate neutrality; however, those goals are ambitious considering that renewable inputs are already the source for the industrial complex.

The country offers free public transportation between locations on "gray days" when pollution levels are high, and drivers are encouraged to use mass transit to reduce the pollution on heavy-smog days. However, more action is needed, and any strategy implemented by Iceland will have to tackle existing methods for processing aluminum and steel. Had the entire economic-industrial complex been evaluated when the hydroelectric and thermal power project was considered, and if environmental and social factors were included in the assessment, maybe Ok would still be alive.


The reason that today is different from one hundred years ago is that people designed it to be different. Henry Ford invented the modern-day assembly line and Model T to scale the automobile industry. Iceland's heavy industry designed steel-manufacturing processes to support and grow the country's economy. Globally, the brightest minds and most disruptive firms have placed a relentless focus on efficiency, growth, and innovation, but what they are really doing is designing the future and our present. And, as the examples here show, there are critical vulnerabilities in the current design, and we have a long way to go in designing a sustainable future.

Here are a just a few examples of the design flaws in traditional products and processes:

* The amount of waste generated to make a semiconductor microchip is over 100,000 times the weight of the chip.

* One ton of paper utilizes 98 tons of various material inputs.

* Of all materials used in the creation of everyday products, 95 percent end up as waste.

* Hospitals create 12 percent of the acid rain in the United States, 10% of the smog, and 200,000 newborn premature deaths by way of their GHG emissions.

* We would require the natural resources of five additional Earths for the global population to live as comfortably as the average American.

We've never heard of anyone asking for an x-ray with a small amount of climate change on the side. However, by continuing to passively accept the traditional design constructs we live in, that's precisely what we're doing.

Economist Herbert Simon once said, "An efficient individual is someone that attempts rationally to maximize the attainment of certain ends with the use of scarce means." By that definition, our everyday lives are littered with examples of "efficiency gone awry"—for example, solar/photovoltaic cells, pesticides, gold mining, fracking, supply-chain redundancies, and industrial farming.

When most of the products we use today were first conceived, in many cases over one hundred years ago, we had little knowledge of what their environmental impact would be. The Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s occurred under the assumption that natural resources were abundant and infinite. At the same time, advances in medical technology increased human life spans and the number of people on the planet. This meant that humans could conduct economic activity at a rapid pace and leverage those resources for a longer span of time per person. The rapid increase in industrial activity set into motion poorly designed business systems and an entire age of efficiency gone awry. We had little appreciation back then for the toxic health effects that could result from not only the products we used but also the by-products of their manufacture. And as time went on, these systems, these unsustainably designed ways of doing things, were normalized and, just like tribal wisdom, passed down through generations without disruption or question.

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