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Why do it yourself is also green

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
29th September 2011


Sami Grover responds to the critique that the future won’t be handmade, by pointing out the benefits of knowledge that derive from individual or collective self-production:

“Alex Steffen once declared that the revolution will not be handmade—but I’m thinking some of the equipment used in it may very well be. Now I am, by far, one of the least practical people I know, but i do like to try my hand at some DIY projects from backyard beekeeping to home composting to brewing my own beer. Nevertheless, I’ve been challenged before about these habits—after all, what’s so green about doing things yourself? Wouldn’t it be better to employ the economies of scale and efficiencies inherent in larger-scale production?

On the one hand, these detractors may have a point. Whether it’s the inefficiencies of cooking up 5 gallons of beer (and rinsing all those bottles), or driving to the garden center each time I need chicken food, there are certainly times when doing it yourself may involve more energy or resource use than a well-oiled industrial operation might employ. (For more on this type of argument, check out my post on whether industrial monoculture is the real path to sustainable farming.)

But then there are huge opportunities for efficiency, recycling, and reuse too. Whether it is building a chicken coop from reclaimed materials, or knowing exactly what ingredients you put in your bread, the do it yourself approach gives you—in theory at least—almost complete control over every aspect of the process. In beer brewing alone, I save emissions and waste on everything from reusing bottles, through using spent grains as chicken food, to not trucking beer (which is mostly water) around the country. I even save on not paying the store to needlessly store and refrigerate my beverage.

But the argument is about more than just the relative efficiencies of centralized versus decentralized production. It’s also about ownership and knowledge. Because the more we spend time understanding just what it takes to make a gallon of beer, or grow a zucchini, the less likely we are to take them for granted.

I was reminded of this fact in reading The Moneyless Man—a first-hand account of how Mark Boyle lived without money for an entire year. It wasn’t, I realized, just about the rather abstract notion of living with or without money—but about reconnecting with just how much energy and material resources it takes to produce any one of the consumable products we make use of every day. Once you’ve spent a year chopping your own wood, growing and foraging your own food, and biking or walking wherever you have to go, you sure as heck would start to think differently about the value of that Mars bar, flat-screen TV or frozen pizza.

In many ways, this is the same argument that Rob Hopkins made on his post about solar living. It’s not just about enjoying clean energy, but rather taking responsibility for what you consume, and truly understanding your place within the ebb and flow of natural energy and resource cycles.”

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One Response to “Why do it yourself is also green”

  1. Kevin Carson Says:

    In fact so-called “economies of scale” are vastly overrated. The economies of large-scale production occur entirely at the point of production. The unit costs of production, taken alone, no doubt are lower for factory-produced goods than for home-produced. The thing is, though — as Ralph Borsodi observed — production costs are only the first of a long series of costs for factory-made goods. They’re followed by warehousing, shipping, wholesaling and retailing, and marketing costs — not to mention all the internal costs like administrative overhead and bureaucratic irrationality that are absent from home production. On the other hand, the production cost of home-made goods is the final cost. And as stated in Borsodi’s Law, for a large class of goods the diseconomies of large-scale distribution more than offset the economies of large-scale production.

    What’s more centralized mass-production industry is highly inefficient, compared to the Emilia-Romagna or Shenzhen model of lean manufacturing using general-purpose tools for craft production and frequently switching between small batches of different products on a demand-pull basis. Mass-production industry uses extremely expensive, product-specific machinery in large batches, which drastically lowers unit costs per machine. But the enormous overhead from capital outlays mandates fully utilizing capacity to amortize those outlays — which in turn mandates all the diseconomies of supply-push distribution to ensure the full output is consumed whether people want it or not. That includes in-process inventory between machines on the assembly line, a warehouse full of finished goods there’s no order for, enormous costs of high-pressure mass advertising, and landfills full of stuff built to fall apart so people will buy more and keep the wheels turning.

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