Sunday, May 29, 2011

A new science: Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

The search for a wider good life and caring for the global situation of the Earth is deepening our ecological conscience more and more. Now it's important to analyze the carbon, toxins, and heavy chemical elements footprint, present in the industrial products we use daily. Out of this concern is born a real new science, known by the acronym LCA: Life Cycle Assessment. The impact on the biosphere, society and health at every stage of a product is monitored, beginning with its extraction, its production, distribution, consumption and disposal.

We will give an example: into the manufacture of a one kilo crystal glass go, unbelievably, 659 different ingredients in different stages up to the final product. Which ones are harmful? The Life Cycle Assessment seeks to identify them. It also applies to the so-called green or environmentally clean products. Most are green only at the end or clean only in their end use, such as ethanol. Realistically, we must admit that all industrial production always leaves a trail of toxins, however minimal. Nothing is totally green or clean. Only relatively eco-friendly. This has been detailed by Daniel Goleman in his recent book, Ecological Intelligence (Broadway Books 2009).

Ideally, each product, along with the reference about its nutrients, fats and vitamins, would indicate the negative impacts on health, society and the environment. This is being done in the United States by an institute, Good Guide, accessible from the cellphone, which provides a triple classification: green for relatively pure products, yellow if they contain harmful elements but not seriously so, and red, undesirable for their negative ecological footprint. Now the roles have been reversed: it is not the seller but the buyer who sets the criteria for the purchase or consumption of a given product.

The mode of production is changing and our brain has not yet had sufficient time to continue that transformation. The brain has a kind of internal radar that tells us when threats and dangers are brewing. The smells, colors, flavors and sounds warn us about products, if they are damaged or if they are healthy, if an animal is going to attack us or not.

But it happens that our brain doesn't register even subtle environmental changes, or detect chemical particles dispersed in the air that could poison us. We have already introduced 104,000 artificial chemicals through biotechnology and nanotechnology. With the use of Life Cycle Assessment we note, for example, how much these synthetic chemicals decrease the male sperm count to the point of generating infertility in millions of men.

We can't keep saying that ecological changes are only good if they don't affect costs and yields. This mentality is backwards and alienated, because it doesn't take into account the changes in consciousness. The mantra of the new companies is now: "the more sustainable the better, the healthier the better, the more eco-friendly the better. "

Ecological intelligence is being added to other types of intelligence; this inclusion is more necessary than ever.

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