The word sustainable gets bandied about a lot. But some things that are considered sustainable can be done in an unsustainable way, and vice versa.
Take wood. We often talk about the sustainability of wood over steel. But if one were to reuse steel from a local recycler instead of import exotic woods from a rainforest in Brazil, well that’s an entirely different thing.
The part of the equation that we need to bring in here is known as “embodied energy”. The dictionary definition is “the energy that was used in the work of making a product. Embodied energy attempts to measure the total of all the energy necessary for an entire product”. And might I add, “throughout it’s entire life cycle”.
Yes this does change everything. So when considering a product we don’t only consider how long we will be able to use it but how far was it transported, how much mining was involved, how many different parts are there and where did they come from. In a global economy transport is key. And all these steps take energy.
Take your lowly pencil. It’s pretty simple right? Wood, graphite, paint, eraser, metal thingy to hold the eraser. But look closer and consider how it was made and that all of those parts could not possibly have come from one factory. The rubber is from some far away forest, the graphite was mined, the metal thingy was also processed somewhere before it even went to a factory. And from that factory moved to still another factory where it was assembled. And then shipped to a very very large warehouse where it sat for several weeks or months when it was finally shipped to your local Dollarama.
So the embodied energy in that simple pencil is fairly large given what it does and the cost. Now think about your average cell phone. Or car. Or house. And the equation for embodied energy becomes very very complex. And comparing two things also becomes a rather convoluted process. But it is important because as we make decisions about the products we use while walking on this planet it becomes more and more important to consider using things that are made locally, created with our own two hands if we can and avoid reliance on complex energy intensive items. Because given the state of the planet, Gaia is in stress (in case you’ve been asleep) and we need to seriously rethink how we walk on this planet.
Gilles Leclair is the founder of GeoStudios. Somewhat eccentric, fairly environmentalist, politically aware, he believes the world should have more off-grid communities... many more.