Understanding the Systems We Aim to Fix

With the conversations around systems and sustainability still largely a moving a target that bounces between emotional polar bears and destructive weather systems, I honestly cannot think of a better time for a focus on understanding the systems that exist in our economy, the impact of our economy on our environmental systems, and taking steps towards applying an economic value to those externalities that will then be paid for by those who create them.

One would think.

When reviewing the Ethical Ocean post What Does It Mean To Be Eco Friendly?, a post containing an infographic that is meant to highlight the need for standardized labeling (to which I totally agree), I have once again come to the conclusion that part of the issue is that “we” fundamentally do not understand the basic systems of the economy.

Presented above, the production map is a process that moves down a chain from pre-production, to production, to packaging & distribution, to use, and ends up at disposal. Seemingly complete, but a few seconds after reading this alarm bells started going off because (with few exceptions like locally grown organic food) this is simply NOT the production process for how anything is made in the real economy.

Starting with the fundamental requirement that before pre-production (which I am going to take as sub-assembly for the average good) comes extraction. Extraction of minerals, metals, energies, and other materials which are required in the manufacturing process… and create some really nasty externalities.

Externalities that impact the environment and society (a factor that this labeling does not consider) on a global level through various issues that can range from the reduced lung capacity of children with asthma to riots in areas where cancer clusters have developed downstream from mining operation. Externalities that can (and do) do occur globally.

Which leads me back to the title of the post, understanding the systems we aim to fix.

While invaluable as a tool to engage the lay person on critical issues, we really need to move past the oversimplified versions of how the economy works in hope that readers will go out and do the research themselves. They won’t. And if really is the goal to create a groundswell of public (citizen or consumer) opinion to change the systems that they are inextricably a part of, then we need to begin educating readers at a higher level.

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