Let’s start off with podcasts again. Yeah yeah, I know that I used them as my opening two weeks ago, but this is a deep well folks. And sometimes I’m lazy.\
A bunch of podcasts I follow come out on a daily or weekly basis all year long, but a few go with the season-approach (like with television sitcoms). In that latter category is Invisibilia, and I strongly recommend it to all of you. It’s in the NPR family of podcasts, now a couple episodes into its fifth season. Here’s to many more.
Invisibilia is all about unseen forces in our world and how they change us. Their stories expertly blend science with storytelling, ranging from how a “fake it ‘til you make it” attitude transforms you to how a completely blind man started using echolocation to bike around. Yes, you read that correctly.
Listening to an episode recently, I thought of one invisible “force” that they haven’t explored yet. My guess is that they won’t – I don’t think it has too much impact on human behavior, which is core to their show. In the sustainability realm though, it’s a significant force, and often overlooked. It’s called embodied energy.
Here’s the idea. Everything around us, from the roads that we drive on to the picture frames proudly displaying our loved ones to the tallest of skyscrapers, contains a virtual amount of energy. It isn’t usable energy (like the energy that is stored in your cell phone’s battery), but rather a theoretical representation of all of the energy that it took to get that thing into the economy.
Take a stainless steel fork, for instance. Energy was used to extract the iron, chromium, and other elements needed to make the steel. Energy was used in smelting them into the steel alloy. Energy was used in fabricating the fork into its particular shape. And energy was used in transporting both the raw materials and the finished product all around the planet and eventually into your kitchen drawer.
Add it together and you have the embodied energy of the fork. Now here is why it matters.
Assume your fork slips into the garbage disposal and gets dinged on the handle pretty bad. It still works just fine, but it’s aesthetically damaged beyond repair. You now have a choice – keep it, or get a replacement.
If you replace it and throw the old one away, it means that one additional fork will enter the flow of commerce (in economics, the demand curve shifted right ever so slightly). That means that approximately the same amount of energy will be consumed in fabricating the new fork and getting it to your kitchen. If you decide not to replace it and just keep using the dinged fork, that extra energy doesn’t have to be expended (at least not until the fork is rightly and truly broken).
So by keeping that fork in use (i.e. preserving its embodied energy), you limit the amount of energy consumed in society (and limit the resulting negative impacts from that energy use, like greenhouse gas emissions). For a fork, that might not be a big deal. But the same concept applies to your computer, your car, and your office building. Those things have lots more embodied energy.
The moral of the story is this – we want to preserve as much embodied energy as possible. We can do this by reusing things, refurbishing them, redistributing them, and at the very end of their useful lives, recycling them. Even if you can’t see this energy, it’s there. And it matters.