Earth Day 2010: Living in a Material World

Earth Day can bring out the best and worst in many people – and I’ll admit to frowning on occasion at anyone wishing a happy Earth Day. There are debates around the hypocrisy or perhaps ignorance in celebrating such a day with numerous flyers and special offers to consume more green products. But despite these very valid criticisms, Earth Day does matter if only that we all need a day to stop and take stock of our life. It is a time to celebrate our accomplishments because let’s face it change is hard. We need to figure out what comes next and this may require we look at some of our less appetizing behaviors, which we often do such an excellent job of avoiding on a day to day basis.

With that said, Earth day shouldn’t be a giant guilt-fest. We need to use it to recognize our weaknesses and figure out how to move forward constructively. What are for example, the innovations needed to address issues around toxicity, resource scarcity and geographical constraints to name just a few. Or when do we rethink our current norms – like heating our houses to 80º in the winter donning short sleeved shirts and cooling them to 65º in the summer while sporting long pants? How do we find a solution that meets the cloth diaper user’s concerns around limited landfill space and the disposable user’s concerns around energy usage?

This year, I’ve had the pleasure of working on the PopTech Ecomaterials Innovation Lab, whose goal is to foster breakthroughs in next generation ecological materials, industrial processes and critically, beginning to identify the steps, from effecting a change in consumer behavior to governmental policy, necessary to accelerate their adoption. The Lab is kicking off this summer with a three day working session. In my hunt for participants, I’ve had the opportunity to interview an incredible cross section of experts in relevant fields from green chemists and materials experts to industrial ecologists, designers and behavioral scientists to name just a few.

A couple of random yet staggering facts I gleaned from my conversations and research:

- If you were to close Sweden’s borders to any new shipments of clothing, their current stock would clothe the population for approximately15 years.

- The world consumes 67 million tons of natural and synthetic fibers annually.

- 75-80% of your clothing’s lifecycle impact comes from laundering.

And here I thought I was doing so well with my ongoing moratorium on new outfits while I was chucking clothes into the wash that were essentially barely worn.

These discussions have not only taught me a tremendous amount, they have helped me think differently about the challenges at hand such as defining what is truly green, splendidly illustrated by the fact that one industrial ecologist opted for cloth diapers while the other chose disposable. They made me realize I need to reconsider what is deemed acceptable behavior and initiate these conversations with others.

We at PopTech are incredibly excited to embark on this journey and hope you will join us. To be kept informed about the Lab and its progress, please email us at labs [at] poptech [dot] org.

As I reflect on another year gone by, what I am realizing now is that Earth Day is not just about caring for the planet but those who inhabit it. The choices we make have far reaching impacts over space, time and species. As I mentioned earlier, change is one of the hardest things and personally, putting a face to who is and will be impacted is a big help. So here are a few faces worth changing for:

Mother and baby
CC image from Flickr user randomwire.

Mother and child
CC image by Flickr user Mishimoto

Mother and baby
CC image from Flickr user prolix6x.

Father and child
Image courtesy of the author.

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