Prevention And The Provision Of Services

It should be clear from these discussions of industrial pollution prevention and product-life extension how important the design and conceptualisation stages are to a successful preventive strategy. In fact, design for long life could be considered a high-priority strategy for optimising utilisation of resources in its own right. Different aspects of design are important. Materials selection is clearly crucial: materials can be selected for improved durability; they can also be selected for recyclability. In addition, however, material selection will have important implications for component replacement. And modular design which allows for the replacement of component parts—rather than throwing away the whole product—is another important aspect in designing longlife products.

Ultimately, however, it is the way in which the provision of services is conceived which can have the biggest impact on the material intensity of the system. In Chapter 7 we shall have occasion to see just how extensive the opportunities for reducing material throughput are once we begin to reconceive the provision of particular services.

It is important to note here that services are not material outputs from the system. We cannot measure a service in terms of tonnes of a certain material or even the quantity of goods provided. Rather, services are composed of a variety of different factors such as thermal comfort, nutrition, mobility, health care, recreation and so on, each measurable only in units relevant to that service. The quantity of material goods consumed is often used as some kind of proxy for services provided. In some cases this correspondence may be valid. For instance, there is some correspondence between the provision of foodstuffs and nutrition. On the other hand, there are clearly cases where the proxy is not particularly useful.

Let us consider a particular example. There is now a well-developed system designed to supply consumers in the industrial economy with delivered fuels: coals, oils, gas, electricity. But these fuels are of no use to consumers on their own; they are useful only because they can provide certain energy services: thermal comfort, for example.

Generally speaking, however, we can provide the same level of energy service in a number of very different ways. For instance, we can provide thermal comfort in a draughty house by using an open and very inefficient coal fire, and burning a large quantity of coal in it. Equally, we could provide the same measure of thermal comfort by insulating and draught-proofing the house, and installing a high-efficiency boiler to burn oil or gas. A much lower quantity of material fuels would be consumed, but the same level of service (thermal comfort) would be provided.

In fact, we could reasonably take the example further than this. I have really taken the expression 'thermal comfort' to refer to a particular room temperature, and this is usually the way in which thermal comfort is measured. But if we are to do any justice to the complex metabolism of the human body, we should recognise that the relationship between thermal comfort and ambient temperature is not a simple, direct one. As the room temperature in a cold dwelling increases, the thermal comfort level also increases up to a certain point. After that point, however, rising room temperature rapidly indicates thermal discomfort!

What is perhaps even more interesting is that this changeover temperature, at which thermal comfort becomes thermal discomfort, is a variable point and not a fixed one. For instance, thermal comfort can be maintained in a much colder room by wearing an extra sweater. In a warmer room, the same attire would contribute to thermal discomfort. Sweaters are clearly material products, of course. And by ensuring thermal comfort by lowering room temperature and providing sweaters, we have substituted material sweater resources for material fuel resources. Only by looking at the larger system impacts could we decide whether we are environmentally better off wearing sweaters in colder rooms or raising the room temperature and going naked.

At this point, I do not want to delve into the complex issue of personal choice, which also clearly affects our decisions about thermal comfort. This is the subject matter for a later chapter in this book. But I hope that the point of the illustration is clear anyway. Thermal comfort and room temperature do not bear a simple proportional relationship to each other.

There is another interesting lesson from this case study. The human metabolism is such that thermal comfort depends intrinsically on our physical activity levels. When we are largely inactive—for instance when we are asleep or while we are engaged in predominantly sedentary occupations—thermal comfort requires a higher ambient temperature than when we are actively engaged in physical exertion.

This simple physiological fact raises the possibility of reducing our space-heating requirements by changing our lifestyles. Choice is again a factor in the argument. Western lifestyles are often arranged around minimising physical activity—usually replacing it with energy-consuming devices of one kind or another—even to the extent that physical health begins to suffer. Then, in an attempt to attain thermal comfort, we pump up the ambient room temperature, consuming ever-increasing quantities of polluting fuels.

This example illustrates just how complex the question of providing services is. A similar complexity would emerge if we started to look at nutrition. We cannot assume that increasing the consumption of food products leads to increased nutritional health. Of course, it is true that many people in the developing world are undernourished because of a poor supply of food. But in the developed world, the contrary is also true. Over-consumption of food—often of low nutritional value—is endemic in Western industrial economies, resulting in high rates of coronary disease, and compromising individual health.

Providing services is therefore not the same thing as providing material goods. This conclusion emerges so clearly from any discussion of the provision of services, and from any examination of the material intensity of providing them, that it simply cannot be ignored. Clearly, however, it leads us directly into considerations of lifestyle and into realms closer to sociology, psychology and philosophy than we have so far encountered in this book. For the moment, therefore, let us leave these more subjective reflections, and return to the main thrust of the arguments.

In the complex system of the industrial economy, enormous opportunities are open to us to reduce the material intensity with which services of different kinds are provided. Searching for technological opportunities to reduce pollution from industrial processes and extend

Figure 20 The industrial economy as an ecosystem

product lives is a crucial aspect of the new preventive environmental management strategy. Both of these strategies take us a little closer to what we are trying to achieve: an economic system which is more compatible with the complex ecological system in which it is embedded, a system which aims for high levels of internal materials cycling, and sustains itself within the environment without over-stressing the fragile materials cycles on which it depends for its survival (Figure 20).

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