Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wool Mills, Composting Cups,The Sharing Economy and Doubling Up

Some more positive news today.

An interesting bit of retro-future. Might this type of business be run by monks in a post-collapse economy?

In 2001, a couple with science backgrounds were looking for a small business in a rural location when they came across an ad in a county journal. Discovering the ad was for an old wool mill in Genoa, New York, they took the opportunity to take over operations from the previous owners. After a week of on-site training, they found themselves on a whole new adventure in life. Now with 14 Hog Island Sheep, 29 chickens, several goats, and a cow, Jay Ardai and Suzanne O'Hara have established the Fingerlakes Woolen Mill, a sustainable operation that functions in a local context and produces beautiful, natural fibers that many eco-minded New York designers use in their work.

Read more: Fingerlakes Woolen Mill Carries History of Processing Sustainable Wool in Upstate New York | Inhabitat New York City.

Also, what if we could compost our coffee cups along with our coffee grounds?

The paper industry estimates that Americans used more that 23 billion dollars worth of paper cups last year – and as much as we love taking our morning coffee and tea on the go, the trash truly adds up. Fortunately, the geniuses at Repurpose Compostables recently invented an eco-friendly plant-based, insulated cup that can be composted in 90 days. The amazing cup has been available to the food service industry for the past year and it just became available to the masses at Bed Bath and Beyond. The cups are made from FSC-Certified paper, their manufacturing process produces 65% less CO2 than traditional paper cups, and they are completely non-toxic.

Traditional insulated cups are made with extra layers of paper, which wastes a great deal of material. The addition of a petroleum lining makes them nearly impossible to recycle as well. Repurpose Compostables utilizes a patented insulation material on a “single wall” cup that is not only plant-based and clean but also requires no heat sleeve! The company encourages using the cup compost to grow your own plants.

Read more: Plant-Based Repurpose Compostables Coffee Cups Hit Store Shelves Nationwide | Inhabitat - Green Design Will Save the World

Also, via the BBC - Collaborative Consumption. I'm not able to embed the video, but head on over to see the feature. I think the Shareable Economy is going to be a huge movement, and a challenge to the current economic paradigm. The whole thrust of the economy of the past was to encourage wasteful overcompensation as much as possible. Everyone with their own car, their own tools, their own camping equipment, etc., with much of it lying unused most of the time. In fact, much of the push for the "nuclear family" of the 1950's was to increase consumption, as an atomized family of individuals needed to consume more than a multi-generational household. Suburbia was part-and-parcel of the "consumer economy" - making sure there was enough demand for all the stuff we could produce. Alienation was a side-effect.

But that will change in the future. As incomes and the economy shrink, sharing will become more and more of a necessity. I once read that medieval manors were highly communal because they could only afford one team of oxen, so they had to share. In a declining economy, sharing can be seen as a logical adaptation, particularly with the communication tools we have at our disposal. There is so much "waste" in big cities, that it makes sense to use internet tools to put all the idle stuff that's sitting around to a good, useful purpose. Here is a great article on Collaborative Consumption and the Sharing Economy.

From an environmental perspective, it's a way for that fond and long-held hope, dematerialization, to start getting real traction. It turns out the ownership model, in and of itself, builds in a huge amount of resource inefficiency. We buy things that, by definition, as individuals, we cannot utilize fully, and they spend most of their time simply being owned (think of all your books and CDs, if you still have them). Now the ownership model is beginning to give way to the access model, wherein what's prized is access to services and experiences.

From a sustainability perspective, the crucial thing about an access model is that efficiency and durability are baked in; the profit incentive is naturally oriented toward getting the maximum number of human use-hours from the minimum amount of stuff. Just where we want the incentive to be! So greens have direct stake in seeing sharing models spread and flourish.

From an economic perspective, this puts real stress on the conventional ways of assessing an economy's performance. As sharing spreads, more and more socially productive activity will be "off the books" -- no money will exchange hands, or if it does, it will be be a direct exchange, which, if it can be tracked at all, will basically count as a gift. Enterprises like Wikipedia, YouTube, and open-source software, which are based on the coordination of distributed, voluntary efforts ("social production"), add hugely to consumer welfare but do not produce much if any in the way of profits.

Another trend you're going to see is sharing habitation. This will probably mainly be multi-generational households, but it can also be roommate situations. Mutli-generational households and sharing are some of the reasons Hispanics can live so cheaply. Eventually, we will all have to follow suit. According to the U.S. Census Bureau:

Households Doubling Up, by David Johnson, US Census Bureau: In coping with economic challenges over the past few years, many of us have combined households with other family members or individuals. These "doubled-up" households are defined as those that include at least one "additional" adult ?€" in other words, a person 18 or older who is not enrolled in school and is not the householder, spouse or cohabiting partner of the householder.

The Census Bureau reported today that the number and share of doubled-up households and adults sharing households across the country increased over the course of the recession... In spring 2007, there were 19.7 million doubled-up households, amounting to 17.0 percent of all households. Four years later, in spring 2011, the number of such households had climbed to 21.8 million, or 18.3 percent.

All in all, 61.7 million adults, or 27.7 percent, were doubled-up in 2007, rising to 69.2 million, or 30.0 percent, in 2011.

Young adults were especially hard-hit, with 5.9 million people ages 25 to 34 living in their parents' household in 2011, up from 4.7 million before the recession. That left 14.2 percent of young adults living in their parents' households in March 2011, up more than two percentage points over the period.

These young adults who lived with their parents had an official poverty rate of only 8.4 percent, since the income of their entire family is compared with the poverty threshold. If their poverty status were determined by their own income, 45.3 percent would have had income falling below the poverty threshold for a single person under age 65. ...

We've been accustomed to thinking that single people or married couples living in their own home is normal. It isn't (remember The Honeymooners?). It was an aberration from the prosperity and land build-out following the Second World War. There is a reason it was termed the "nuclear family" (in the '50s everything was 'nuclear'); it was a new phenomenon. The push to get veterans into homes after the war via loans and subsidies was designed as a means of control - even in ancient Rome, returning veterans were given land (in that case, farmland), to keep them from causing trouble from idleness. Plus, once each veteran was ensconced in his own private plywood castle, he would have little need to engage in undesirable activities, like going to Communist Party meetings (seriously, they were worried about this sort of thing). It worked - perhaps too well. Suburbia (along with it's handmaiden, TV) destroyed the nation's social capital . See Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone.

For most of history this arrangement has been unusual, and it still is unusual in many parts of the world. In Europe, where houses are passed down from generation to generation and there is less land area, people live at home until they get married. Sometimes they live at home until they have children, and sometimes they never more out! More and more, we will return to this mode of living, and the real estate market will dwindle as we get poorer and poorer. Not only are they sensible adaptations to a time of scarcity and decline, given our alienation from each other, doubling up, multigenerational households and the sharing economy might all be considered improvements to our lives. And see this:

RESILIENT JOURNAL: How to make Multigenerational Households work (Global Guerrillas)

Update 11/30:  Full house: Merged families coping under one roof (via BBC)

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