Out Of Context

Old Carbon

When is it Better to Consume than Reuse?

I follow an outdoor journalist whom I admire. The writing is personal, fluid and often deals with the emerging dilemmas facing a climate conscious outdoorsperson and adventurer. Chronicled are changes in diet, personal consumption and professional travel. I appreciate the gnawing background logic that perhaps the business of outdoors isn’t good for the outdoors. The irony is inescapable and makes for good reading.

Recently the ruminations were about replacing the off-road vehicle the family had used for years. They owned the same vehicle that I do, and the first choice of radical insurgents everywhere, an old Toyota truck. It had served them well, but they felt it was time for a new and better adventure machine that hopefully would comfortably go where they wanted on dirt, and get decent gas mileage. The market choices were carefully picked over and gone through; electric or gas, maybe even diesel, SUV or truck, full time 4wheel drive or lockers, etc., etc. It was fun to follow the writer’s line of reasoning for an old gearhead like me.

However, I was struck by the fact that the environment-money-satisfaction equation never included the consideration of rebuilding and maintaining a suitable older vehicle. I wonder what the difference in environmental impact is between creating a brand new vehicle from scratch compared to the parts, maintenance and tailpipe emissions of the old one? Sure the older vehicle will still need work, and the dirty gasoline engine puts out more CO2 while leaking oil, but when do the lines cross between that old school day-to-day impact on the planet and the environmental cost of the two tons of fresh steel and glass and electronics involved in making a new automobile? When does it make more sense to reuse than consume?

Be it an old truck or an upcycled sweater, the carbon emitted into the atmosphere during that product’s manufacturing is already out there, floating about and doing its chemistry thing. Old carbon is a way of looking at the world in terms of where and when the environmental impact of the production took place. Simply put, old carbon thinking will use things for as long as possible and values durability and reparability over sparkle and price. Just like recycling, upcycling or reuse; they all mean the same thing, i.e., in some way keep in place what has already been made. It is the biggest thing a conscious consumer can do to limit their carbon footprint. Live like grandma did; use it up, wear it out and fix it.

Like many, I fail miserably at this. All too often I find a smirking brown box at my door with an object in it that was made in some far away country out of precious resources recently dug from the ground and industrially processed into my new gizmo or doohickey. When the math involves running my own little personal kingdom versus the best thing for the planet, I tend to consume what’s most convenient and fitting of my self-image. Change my diet to be more carbon friendly? No problem. Dry my clothes on a clothesline? No way.

In the end, the journalist ended up with an almost new SUV from a completely different engineering viewpoint and manufacturer. Everything is different than before. The gas mileage is better and they can hear the stereo, but I’ll keep an eye on future writings to see if they miss the ol’ Yota.

Disclaimer: Mr. Gray drives a truck with enough miles on it to have orbited the Moon and be well on its way home. The Publisher however drives a much nicer vehicle and may not share in his opinions.