Time to hit the Reset button

Published Tuesday, July 23, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Last December, when it became evident that costs for Canada’s new fighter jet were spiraling out of control, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose declared, “We have hit the reset button,” and paused the purchase.  It was a frank acknowledgement that things were not going as expected, so it was time to stop, reassess the process and consider other options. 

Reset buttons are wonderful things.  Normally associated with computers and other electronics that can run amok, they magically purge a problem and provide a clean slate with which to start over.  

If politicians can aspire to reset buttons for procurement programs gone awry, perhaps people who dream of a more sustainable planet can aspire to a few reset buttons too.

Resetting design

In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart remind us that waste is a human creation.  They point out that there is zero waste in the natural world, because the output of one biological process is perfectly recycled as input for the next.  (The grass nourishes the deer; the deer’s manure nourishes the grass.)  

McDonough and Braungart go on to suggest that, in the human world, most waste happens because products (particularly packaging) are designed for functionality, not recyclability.  The result is that some materials are by design just plain unrecyclable – think potato chip bags, candy bar wrappers or the bags inside cereal boxes.  

Other products are what McDonough and Braungart call monstrous hybrids: blends of materials that are inseparable and therefore impossible to recycle – like those cans for coffee, frozen juice or iced tea which feature conjoined cardboard, aluminum foil and metal.

So perhaps a first reset to aspire to would be a reset of principles of design.  If everything were designed to be completely recyclable, and labelled as such, it would be a giant step toward McDonough and Braungart’s goal, eliminating the concept of waste.

Resetting food

If you’re into paradoxes, few are starker than this one: 1 billion people on this planet are malnourished at the same time that nearly half of all food produced worldwide is wasted.  Much of that waste happens in homes, cafeterias and restaurants; perfectly good food is rejected because of whims of taste, appetite or time.

The onset of climate change suggests that food may be a bit more challenging to grow in the future, so perhaps a reset of how we regard – and waste – it would be a good thing.  

Resetting timelines

The Iroquois, one of Canada’s First Nations, had a Great Law requiring that all major decisions be assessed in consideration of their impacts seven generations into the future.  Conservatively speaking, that meant looking forward 140 years.  Contrast that to today’s world, where leaders are elected on a four-year timeline and thus have very little incentive to address issues that spill beyond that.  

Our environmental challenges are intergenerational; solving them will require visionary leadership and long-term commitment.  So perhaps we need to reset our timelines, strive to take a long view in a world that seems to have a hard time planning beyond next week, and demand that our leaders do the same.

Resetting priorities

It’s interesting that many of us don’t seem to mind waiting in line overnight for a big sale or the latest electronic gadget, but we seem less inclined to spend a minute or a nickel on the health of the very environment that sustains us.  The Lung Association’s slogan may be about asthma, but it applies equally to our environmental challenges: “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

So perhaps the most important reset of all would be a reset of our priorities, to a renewed understanding that everything we do depends on a healthy environment. 

Albert Einstein said, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  (He also defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”)  If we plan to solve the enormous environmental challenges we face, perhaps it’s time for a huge global reset – of design, food, timelines, priorities and more.