Meditation on a Coke Can by Elliott Zimmermann: Lifecycle Awarmess of Manufactured Objects



Awareness, dependent origination, and impermanence are all important concepts in Buddhism. Can these concepts be applied to our everyday interaction with the environment? When looking at the Coke can you are about to throw “away” (just where IS “away”?), just what are you aware of?

In Buddhism, we often think of “awareness” in metaphysical terms, such as immediate awareness of the “essence” of an object. But in our everyday lives, objects also have a more mundane physical presence that is important to be aware of, if we are to act wisely to sustain our environment.

An Environmental Engineering Approach

  To analyze completely a product of our modern, consumer culture, an environmental engineering approach is a good place to start. Environmental engineering uses concepts like “sources” and “sinks” to look at where a manufactured object originally came from before it was manufactured (what all of its natural and human resource “inputs” are), and where it goes after it is no longer useful to consumers (how is it “disposed” of).

Mathematical formulations, called differential equations, are often employed to analyze the changes that take place in the object on its journey from “natural resource” to “useful object” to “garbage”. In effect, these mathematical formulations try to describe the impermanence and dependent origination of a technological object. They try to simulate and track change over time between objects and their environments, as well as their “interconnectedness.” In engineering terms, interconnectedness is described by positive and negative “feedback loops”. However, “cause and effect”, “dependent origination”, or even karma may be equally or even better ways of describing and understanding interconnectedness.

Let’s try taking an environmentally aware view of the aluminum soda container mentioned above. Part of the essence of this soda can has a human aspect to it; it is not simply a product of nature. In fact, the economic cost of any manufactured object is partly a reflection of the “unnaturalness” of the object, because part, and sometimes all, of the economic cost of a manufactured object represents the work that went into making the object.

We are aware that a Coke can costs some small amount of money. But normally, we are not aware of what that monetary cost represents. It represents, to some degree, frozen or crystallized human work. It represents the work needed to run the machinery that extracts the aluminum ore, the work needed to turn the ore into aluminum, form the can, paint the can, etc.

This work needed to manufacture any object can be traced back in an increasingly complex web: work was needed to design and manufacture the machines that manufactured the object. Someone had to design those machines, and someone had to make the tools to make those machines. And what about all the people involved in this work? Someone had to grow the food eaten by everyone involved in these tasks. In fact, the Shin Buddhist concept of gratitude seems to naturally arise out of a deep environmental awareness of the human effort behind almost any useful manufactured item used in our everyday lives.

Finding “Sources”

Everything comes from and is caused by something: it has dependent origination. This chain of causation can theoretically stretch back to the beginning of time. To think usefully about it though, the backward causation chain needs to stop at some point--at the “sources”, or natural resources, mentioned above. These are all of the things we find in our environment that are necessary to manufacture our material goods.

“Sources”, or natural resources, are also impermanent and embedded in a web of cause and effect. When humans use “sources”, it is important to be aware of how their impermanence is measured in time, and how these natural resources change over time. For example, minerals extracted from the earth will not regenerate for thousands or millions of years, whereas trees can grow back in a much briefer period.

When considering an aluminum soda can, what are the “sources” needed to manufacture it? Aluminum ore or recycled aluminum is necessary, of course. But large amounts of energy, water, and lesser amounts of other mineral resources are also required.

From an environmental perspective, furthermore, we must always consider that each natural resource needed to manufacture aluminum cans (or any other object) is also a “source” for many other, often competing, natural and human objects and processes. The large amounts of water needed to manufacture aluminum cans, for example, will not be available for other human or natural needs, such as human agriculture or natural forests.

“Garbage” and Recycling

  An environmental awareness of our aluminum soda can now encompasses the “sources” inherent in its being, the human work bringing it into existence, and the impermanent nature of its current use. That awareness needs additionally to include a final important aspect of its changing nature: its existence once its usefulness as a soda can has ended. It will then become “garbage”, which must go somewhere. And where ever it goes, it will not “go away”, but will eventually go to an environmental “sink”.

As with “sources”, “sinks” are a human concept imposed on the never-ending chain of causation and dependent origination. “Sinks” are what we call the environmental destinations of our waste products. The soda can may end up in a landfill, at the bottom of a lake, or as recycled aluminum to make new aluminum objects. In all cases, there will be interactions between our waste products and their sinks, though those interactions can vary greatly in speed and environmental impact.

Every decision we make about what sources and sinks to use for manufactured objects, as well as decisions about how to use these objects, sets in motion an endless series of cause and effect. For example, if recycled aluminum (instead of bauxite ore) is used as a source for new aluminum, the amount of electric energy needed to produce the new aluminum is much less. Thus, less electricity needs to be produced. If this electricity comes from hydroelectric power, less water is required, and this can have an impact on salmon populations. If the electricity is produced by coal burning, there will be less demand for burning highly polluting coal. Additionally, if the aluminum can is manufactured from recycled aluminum, a “sink” becomes a “source” for new aluminum. This means less need for bauxite ore (from which aluminum is made) and avoidance of the whole series of environmental cause and effect relationships required to mine that ore.

If our aluminum can is not recycled but is thrown in the garbage, it will eventually end up in a landfill. This is an alternative sink. While a landfill “sink” for a soda can is fairly innocuous, the atmosphere and water bodies (oceans, lakes, rivers, etc.) offer many more potentially dangerous cause-effect relationships when used as “sinks” for our culture’s discarded possessions.

Buddhists are often advised to be aware of the colors and smells of objects, and this should include manufactured objects, which may also have smells, colors, and other aesthetic aspects. Environmental awareness of manufactured objects needs to include the potentially dangerous and complicated nature of the relationships between the “sources” of these aesthetic aspects and their eventual “sinks”. The colors on many manufactured objects, for example, come from the application of paint. Paints may use volatile solvents that cause air pollution and have potentially toxic health effects. Paints also may use color pigments containing heavy metals that are toxic if they get into food or drinking water. When we look at a beautifully painted automobile, it might be useful to reflect on the changes that have occurred to make these products safer (for example, heavy metal pigments have now been removed from most automobile paints), and how much more still needs to be done.

Taking an Holistic View

  The above comments about the important cause/effect relationships between manufactured objects and the environment have very broad application in our modern technological culture. From an environmental perspective, activities that did not used to be considered part of the “manufacturing sector”, such as growing food or providing medical services, need to be analyzed in terms of their “sources”, “sinks”, and interrelationships with the environment.

If we are to have a healthy environment, we must now be aware of the sources and sinks for our food, our clothing, and many other material objects and services. Anytime humans manipulate or change the environment to satisfy their needs or desires, it is very important to be aware of the web of cause and effect relationships that are being initiated, and that will stretch far into the future. All environments have human “carrying capacities”.

The carrying capacity of the environment is its ability to provide “sources” of natural resources and “sinks” to absorb waste products without seriously disrupting the complex interrelationships that allow continued provision of those sources and sinks. If “carrying capacity” is surpassed, then the availability of natural resources will decline and the ability of the environment to safely absorb our waste products will also decline.

Our desire to gain more happiness through having more people consuming more products and services inevitability must lead to less happiness because of an environment that can not support the demands being made on it. It is only through abandoning the illusory happiness of the current consumer culture—a culture that ignores the inherent complexity of a single can of soda--that humans can come into a stable and sustainable web of interrelationships with their environment.