What dumplings can tell us about Achieving Sustainability

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Last week the New York Times Magazine included a piece titled: "What do Chinese dumplings have to do with global warming?" which is an interesting look into the rapid rise of refrigerated and frozen foods in China over the last two decades. One often forgets that "refrigeration" does not just mean the fridge in your kitchen but a whole "cold chain" which keeps food cold almost as soon as it leaves the farm, on the road in trucks, various warehouses, and finally to those big, wasteful, glass-fronted retail fridges before you carry the food item to your own, chilly storage.1)It is this "big tail" of almost every type of consumption which most threatens Sustainability Refrigeration poses a double threat to our climate, through its intensive use of electricity and the escape of refrigerants (which are on their own potent greenhouse gases) and Gawker piled on more threats this week accusing our fridges of making us fat and poor.

Clearly there would be serious consequences for global warming if the 1.3 billion Chinese consumed as much refrigeration per capita as their profligate American cousins. And this is not just a hypothetical, as the article points out:
In the 12 years between 1995 and 2007, China’s domestic refrigerator-ownership numbers have jumped to 95 percent from just 7 percent of urban families.
Yet, China still refrigerates far less volume per capita than the USA with a lot of room to continue their rapid growth. Amazingly, American's private refrigerators still continue to increase in size along with the scale of warehouses and other parts of the cold chain from our already preeminent global position with the most volume of space under refrigeration in the world.2)Interestingly it is the Netherlands that has the largest per capita volume of refrigerators warehouse space in the world-I would presume for all of those cut flowers. If you want to geek out on cold storage statistics check out this report from 2010. But this is bigger than just dumplings and global warming.

If what you are doing cannot be scaled to 7 billion people you are NOT Achieving Sustainability .

First, I think that we all need a reminder of how many people 7 billion really is (go check this out and come back). If we are talking about Sustainability and not just environmentalism or maintaining the status quo than we have to be thinking about whether it is possible to achieve a desirable lifestyle for every person on Earth. It is NOT Sustainable to say that "the Earth can't afford for Chinese, Indians or Africans to have refrigerators or air conditioners or drive cars or eat meat" or really do any number of things that us lucky few in developed countries take for granted as the basics of life. Unfortunately, the reality is that current patterns of consumption in the USA and even oft-admired Western Europe is not tenable to be scaled up to 7 billion. Indeed, this is the fundamental challenge of Sustainability: extending a high quality of life to everyone without compromising the socio-biological systems on which that very quality of life depends.

In the meantime, "Scaling to 7 billion" needs to become a fundamental test which any Sustainability action, trend or proposal should at least get close to being able to pass.3)We will definitely be returning to this theme a lot Many things can be easily shown to fail, whether it is commuting by yourself in a hummer thirty miles everyday or switching to a Paleo Diet. Others, such as eating local and Sustainable4)I purposely did not say organic here, as it seems highly unlikely the whole world could be fed with no artificial fertilizers or pesticides. Sustainable food will be something in between. I wrote a little about this already. or powering your household with solar panels are not feasible for all 7 billion of us, but have great potential and by engaging in them we may be able to help them eventually pass our test. Even with a whole team of researchers one could never be 100% certain whether something could truly be scaled up, but a back of the envelope calculation can give us a pretty good idea if you are even in the ballpark (and we usually are not).

As you go through your day, reflect on your different actions and activities and ask yourself, could 7 billion people do that? I think we will all end up a little humbler and more contrite about the challenges facing us to Achieving Sustainability.

Aaron Redman is the founder of Achieving Sustainability and what passes for an administrator in these parts. Currently he is working on his Sustainability PhD at ASU while raising a baby daughter and taking advantage of nap time to foment discussions on this here blog.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It is this "big tail" of almost every type of consumption which most threatens Sustainability
2. Interestingly it is the Netherlands that has the largest per capita volume of refrigerators warehouse space in the world-I would presume for all of those cut flowers. If you want to geek out on cold storage statistics check out this report from 2010.
3. We will definitely be returning to this theme a lot
4. I purposely did not say organic here, as it seems highly unlikely the whole world could be fed with no artificial fertilizers or pesticides. Sustainable food will be something in between. I wrote a little about this already.
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