An ethic of waste.

May 19th, 2007

This week the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting interview with George David, the highly regarded chief executive of United Technologies Corporation. David is one of the all-stars of the corporate world: in the fifteen years that he’s run UTC, the company’s value has grown tenfold. Today its offerings include everything from Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines to Otis elevators.

One of the things that struck me in David’s comments was his insistence on the importance of energy efficiency and conservation.

I think the solution to the energy problem is actually not alternative energy. To me, the solution immediately is conservation by greater efficiency. Too much in the mind of the public is this idea that conservation means deprivation. You’ve got to be cold at night, shut off the lights, stuff like that. That’s simply not true. The bottom line is that energy is wasted in the world to a phenomenal extent. There’s enormous energy savings potential in the conservation agenda where you do it by efficiency. In our own internal operations, we dropped the energy consumption at UTC by 19% over a decade at the same time the company doubled its size. All of America can drop its energy consumption by 20% in a decade easily. We’re now working with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to come up with a building that uses zero net energy.

This is music to my ears, especially considering its source. For myself, I think that the solution to our energy problems must include alternative sources of energy, but I also welcome mass adoption of David’s view on the current level of waste in our human operations. The truth is, an abundance of cheap energy over the past century, while enabling huge strides in technology, global travel, and trade, has also instilled an ethic of waste in many of us. It has become incredibly easy and cheap — relative to the prior course of human history — to make more things, to ship them quickly, and then to whisk away the leavings. It has been incredibly easy to leave the lights on, and to build in pockets of waste in our systems, simply out of habit, or for want of better forethought. It has become normal to waste. Indeed, we have come to see it as our birthright, at least judging by the way that we cling to some of our old, wasteful habits. We stamp our feet and insist that we must be able to have our cake and eat it, too, because, because . . . well, we’ve just got to.

George David isn’t buying it. He sounds like he wants a revolution in efficiency.

[Mr. David:] You can’t walk through life with a trained eye and not see the opportunities for productivity. Every time you sit in traffic, that’s a productivity loss. Every time you go to the doctor and fill out a bunch of forms and he refers you to somebody else and you fill out the same forms all over again, that’s a loss of productivity. Whenever you wait for something, that’s waste. I believe you can have 10 times more. I really do.

WSJ: Ten times more of what?

Mr. David: Everything. Everything. Just look at the differences in personal productivity between people, educated versus not educated. Or people in good, really productive labor environments, versus people who are kind of struggling because they’re in disorganized or ineffective companies.

A large number of people have been deprived by opportunity, by education, by life’s circumstance, and they end up having less than fully productive lives. It’s not only bad for them as individuals, it’s also very bad for the society because it’s all lost work.

The whole interview is well worth reading. Now that I’ve read it, I’m thinking of all the areas of my own life — whether it’s sitting in traffic or watching the paper recycling pile up in the garage — where a changed approach could radically lower the amount of waste, and lost productivity, that I see as normal.

4 Responses to “An ethic of waste.”

  1. Dan Markovitz Says:


    Great post. You might enjoy the comments I posted here:

  2. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » Dan Markowitz has interesting things to say. Says:

    […] A couple of weeks ago Dan was nice enough to pick up on a post of mine in something he wrote for the Lean Blog: The Normalcy of Waste […]

  3. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » Friday links roundup. Says:

    […] –> A couple of months ago I wrote a post on the “ethic of waste” that pervades too much of our consumer culture. As far as I recall I came up with that particular phrasing, but the idea has much wider currency. This TreeHugger item quotes extensively from a Sierra magazine piece that talks about “an economy of waste.” Well worth reading, as it reminds us that it wasn’t so long ago — World War II — that our grandparents willingly changed their ways to take on a societal threat. We need to do the same thing again now. […]

  4. The Normalcy Of Waste — Lean Blog Says:

    […] Walker, in his “What I’ve Learned So Far” blog, has an interesting comment on the WSJ interview: The truth is, an abundance of cheap energy over the past century, while […]

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