This week's indicator is $700 billion, which is the annual potential savings in global consumer goods from material reduction and reuse. The study by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation points to tactics such as textile collection, reusable packaging, and food waste recovery as ways to capture this value.
The United Nations recently presented a new alternative to GDP for measuring national economies, “Inclusive Wealth.” It combines a country’s manufactured, human, and natural capital into a single comprehensive measure of wealth. This is roughly analogous to looking at an individual’s net worth instead of only her annual income. The analysis is enabled by advances in the still emerging field of quantifying natural capital and environmental services. As these methods are advanced and refined, this kind of accounting will inevitably spread to the private sector, and early adopters will reap the benefits of better understanding and managing all resources, natural or otherwise.
In New York City, there is an ever-evolving debate surrounding various green-painted stripes crisscrossing the city; otherwise known as bike lanes. One of NYC’s many urban sustainability initiatives to build a “Greener, Greater New York,” bike lanes are intended as a means to encourage alternative transportation and reduce vehicle use, with numerous benefits such as improved air quality, reduced noise pollution and reduced congestion.
However, the bike lanes haven’t been without challenges: claims of business being harmed (though areas where walking/cycling are given primacy can boost retail sales 10-25%), parking spaces lost, pedestrians claim of reckless cyclists, cyclists claim of inattentive pedestrians, and that the green-painted lanes are just plain ugly. Discussion and argument and ways of addressing concerns has been thick: a New York Times Room for Debate discussion has various worthy suggestions, ranging from better enforcement to redefining the legal relationship between drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.
However, prescriptive measures aside, there is a fundamental need for a change in mindset. To enable changes in physical infrastructure, we need to build cultural infrastructure. The way we think, educate, behave and reward needs to support the transformational energy, environmental and infrastructure changes underway as we transition to a low carbon economy. Rules, laws and physical landscape can help inform our thinking and behaviors, but social and cultural norms of human behavior are, arguably, the biggest challenges to a more sustainable future. If we cannot change the cultural infrastructure, physical infrastructure changes will only go so far. Such cultural challenges are being confronted across economies: electric vehicle manufacturers are tackling range anxiety, a product of a car-dependent culture; while consumer goods producers wrestle to rethink planned obsolescence and life-cycle impacts, a product of a disposable consumption-based economy. These are issues rooted not just in physical, but cultural infrastructure.