Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What the Copenhagen/bikes as a schooling tool topic brought up

Yesterday, I wrote a post on Copenhagen and bicycles. It ended with the statement:
Here's a nutty idea: maybe American school children should be given bicycles instead of laptops. Now that would be radical.
This prompted a pretty neat discussion and exposition on the costs and tradeoffs of bikes and laptops as educational tools. I'd like to share it with you because I think it serves a good educational purpose. It shows what kinds of questions we can and should be asking about our pattern of life and some of the ways that we can approach issues of ecological, economic, and social sustainability in general. And this is just about laptops and bikes and the patterns that their production and use create. [Note: Names are changed.]

Jay: Why not both [laptops and bikes]? Why does it have to be one or the other?

Me: It could be both. But I think that the world could be less damaged by bikes than laptops. But it might be an interesting life cycle comparison. Hmm...

Ron: Tough one. Clearly the materials for each come from the same sources. The laptop will use electricity. The bicycle will also use electricity and fossil fuels, in that the engine (human) will require more fuel and most of our food isn't locally produced. Our food also doesn't come in simple packaging anymore, so the garbage footprint isn't ... See Morenegligible for the bike. Most laptops come in cardboard boxes with foam packing and plastic bags. Bikes, as I understand it, generally come the same way. In terms of the pollution footprint of the individual items, the laptop has a larger variety of polluting components, but the bike has more mass. Perhaps the worst component in the computer is the battery (heavy metals), while the worst in the bike is the plastic or tires. The individual components of a laptop are not reusable whereas bikes are built and rebuilt from the components of other bikes. In other words, the computer's lifespan may require that two or even three laptops be purchased and discarded during the lifespan of an average bike. As a tool of education, the computer provides access to a world of knowledge, while the bicycle provides excellent lessons in more sustainable, happy living that in the long run may keep the person alive longer.

This one really comes down to the user of each. My laptop has primarily been used as a tool for education and work. Therefore, it is more valuable and educational to me than a bicycle. I'll also keep and use the same laptop until it kicks the bucket in likely 3 to 5 years (~10 year lifespan). Some students get laptops for recreation and require more capability as media requirements advance, shortening the viable lifetime of the laptop. These users would certainly benefit more from the bike.

The real fight here is teaching students to become more independent of automobiles in general; learning to use cars sparingly. A car, after all, contains more unrecyclable crap and uses more energy and unrenewable resources, more inefficiently than either of these two items.

Nice stuff. I think that one of the things that we'd also have to examine are the conditions of the supply chain and the conditions of material extraction and their associated ecological, social, and environmental impacts. Steel and aluminum frames are easily recycled for sure and their supply chains can be kept more or less domestic (... See Morenationally dependent of course) or regional. Tubes are now easily recycled/downcycled into other things including wallets, purses, etc. Other parts, like rubber in tires and plastic in housing are more questionable. However, the maintenance materials are shifting to more renewable materials with companies like Pedro's.
All this said, the working conditions for bike manufacture may not be ideal or equal. For example, Cannondale closed its last American factory in Bradford. It is now entirely outsourced for cheaper labor to save cost. Though the U.S. has been losing labor credibility over the last 25 years, it is still superior in many ways to Chinese/Taiwanese labor law. Treatment of workers should be examined as well in a sustainability calculation. What is being sustained by riding this bike?

Turn this to the computer and you'll find that metals in computers are mined in conditions in central Africa that are nothing shy of environmentally and socially monstrous. Additionally, a computer cannot be fixed by someone who is not specially trained. I don't mean part replacement. A person with not too much training can swap video cards. But fixing a video card? Nope. Can you learn to true a wheel? Yep. It takes little time and then some practice. Sustaining a computer is quite an industrial endeavor while sustaining a bike is not.

I'd like to see this kind of comparative analysis in a class. That would be awesome. Awesome. Then both tools can be examined and potentially justified or disqualified depending on criteria. Sweet.

Not to simplify terribly, but laptop use is pretty neutral. Sometimes nine year olds will learn about global warming when their parents deny it, sometimes nine year olds willl surf scat porn. On the other hand, using a bike is good for you mentally and physically. I gotta vote bikes.

Ron: Another thing to consider when evaluating laptops (and other techno garbage) is the amount of paper usage computers will reduce over the next 10 to 15 years. I find myself relying more and more on the web and pdf friendly journal databases for my news and the scientific articles that I utilize. While recycled paper could be used in these facets, ... See Moregenerally it isn't. In this respect, the computer may actually reduce consumer/supplier waste in the form of magazines, newspapers, advertising, and junk mail. In turn, this will reduce the amount of wood pulp harvesting and tree farming, allowing for greater preservation of (semi) natural woodland.

As for the acquisition of metals for both these products, there is no argument that the environmental and humanitarian record of producers is poor. China is currently one of the largest aluminum and rare earth metal producing countries in the world. I can tell you that these metals are also available in other geological provinces (US, Canada and Australia) where the humanitarian records are better (though not great).

It's up to the consumer to learn where the products they buy and the materials in those products originate, and choose to buy products that are more environmentally, and human friendly. Perhaps an environment- and humanity-friendly consumerism class at Penn State and other universities is the best option. A class were discussions about the environmental, economic, geopolitical, and humanitarian impacts of popular products are explored, compared and argued. A few field trips to local dumps and guest lectures from folks who explore the Texas-sized garbage island in the pacific, have felt the ramifications of industrial and precious metal and diamond fed conflict in some African countries, and the experienced the effects of outsourced labor on the unemployed US factory worker. This could be a brand new (and much needed) discipline that draws off of many other economic, scientific, and sociological disciplines. Great conversation! Sustainable Consumerism 101.

But can any -ism whose ideological purpose is to consume, be sustained? Should this course actually be named Healthy Subsistence 101? Perhaps Sustainable Consumerism is the path now to a healthy subsistence.

Hear that PSU? Sustainable Consumerism 101 or Sustainable Consumerism?

What do you think?

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