Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Green manufacturing - think globally, consume locally

In discussing the advancement of personal fabrication technologies, and predicting the ways in which these technologies will affect everyday life, I've noticed that several of the underlying themes behind these changes are complementary to another seemingly unrelated topic - locally-sourced food.

Alemany Farmers Market, San Francisco

Current systems of distribution for food and manufactured goods rely on putting a concentrated strain on natural resources at the point of production, as well as through the process of shipping products over long distances, consuming inordinate amounts of fuel and emitting massive amounts of CO2 as they bring their goods to market. This is largely the scenario today, whether the product is an automobile or an artichoke.

A shift from a centralized and concentrated model of production to a localized and distributed one would have huge social, societal and environmental impacts. This should serve as a good motivator for these changes, for food as well as the other 'stuff' we consume.

I'm imagining a world in which 80% of the food we eat is harvested from within 500 miles of where we live, and where we only import things from farther afield that we can't grow at home, like coffee and tea and sugar, (that is, for those of us who live far from coffee plantations.) A few ambitious people would prefer 100% from within 200 miles. This dream is already easy to understand today, and encourages support of local farmers, artisanal cheesemakers, meat and eggs from local and pastoral ranches (as opposed to battery-farms), and a general rejection of frivolous imports like asparagus in January, lamb from the opposite hemisphere, or sushi shipped to Denver via air freight from Tokyo, as well as a rejection of overly-processed and additive-laden foods. In short, this is a healthy, natural, and low-impact world of food.

Similarly, I'm imagining a world in which 50% of the manufactured goods we consume are produced within 1500 miles of where we live.

The other half would be comprised of those items requiring highly-specialized manufacturing techniques, or for which the infrastructure required to produce the item requires investment too large to allow small-scale production possible, such as microprocessors and other intricate electronic components.

The local blacksmith, circa 1900
copyright Lakeside Historical Society

But hardware, building materials, appliances, furniture, and cars would be produced using cheap and standardized manufacturing equipment and open-source designs. Small items could be produced either at home or at a neighborhood fabber shop, not unlike the key cutting kiosks in hardware stores. Large items would be produced by a high-technology version of a neighborhood blacksmith, a CNC-equipped mini-factory located on the outskirts of urban areas that would crank out washing machines or motorcycles or delivery trucks, all made-to-order.

Economies of scale and mass production would be rendered unnecessary by the cost savings rendered by automated and easy manufacturing equipment. The majority of international trade would be reduced to simple exchanges of raw materials, and humankind's carbon footprint would be slashed dramatically.


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