The Appeal of Outsourcing

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I am thrilled my blog post earlier this week sparked such a vociferous debate on energy conservation. Among the colorful responses were a few criticisms that I was merely externalizing my impact rather than reducing it. This viewpoint fails to account for the crucial factor of utilization. Pooling labor and sharing resources is much more efficient than doing everything yourself. Automation and globalization grants us both conveniences and energy savings and I am in favor of both.

For its nutrition Soylent 2.0 is perhaps the most ecologically efficient food ever created. You may think me smug but I and many other people have poured their lives into creating something amazing and we have every right to be proud of it. Using algae ingredients over farmland, avoiding refrigeration, spoilage, animal products, retail, cooking, using entirely recyclable packaging and considering the long term potential of synthesising the whole thing biologically off grid provides unprecedented environmental savings and potential. It is sterilized and packaged in a continuous, automated, scalable process with negligible human labor. It really is amazing. Soylent makes up about 80% of my calories and I eat out the rest of the time. This lifestyle is absolutely affordable to the mass American market, with people on average spending $600 / month on food[1]. The time savings could be used for economic gains from studying, or just allow people to relax more or catch up on some sleep, which America needs a lot more than organic produce. I never plan to give up traditional food and don’t expect others to. I love meeting people that are passionate about food. I want food to be made by people that enjoy making it, and are good at making it. I’m just not one of them. Having fewer kitchens that are more heavily utilized is leagues more efficient than everyone having their own kitchen and ingredient inventory sitting around unused most of the time.

Similarly, ridesharing is obviously more sustainable than individual car ownership. Automobile utilization in the United States is as low as 3% according to some studies. UberPool alone could yield enormous savings by moving twice as many people per car per gallon. Not only is the price broadly accessible, it could save millions from the debt and risks that come with car ownership. I do take public transit when it makes sense. For the record I think Los Angeles mayor Garcetti is doing a fantastic job of investing in public transit. Sharing also accelerates the adoption of newer technologies since the aggregate savings are so great. Consider how quickly Uber drivers adopted hybrid cars to save fuel. A personal vehicle may stay on the road for 25 years, leading to “clunkers” with soft tires wasting fuel. Every Uber driver I’ve spoken to enjoys the job for its flexibility. However, part of me knows that they will soon be replaced by self driving cars. More on that later.

Finally, asserting that every factory in China is a sweatshop is prejudiced. I have personally seen factories in the United States (Las Vegas if you’re wondering) with worse working conditions than what I saw when I lived in China. Surely we both have room to improve, but every supplier I use is audited by third parties. Where do you think the clothes in American retail stores come from now? I find it more efficient and cheaper to buy direct and actually use the product than to have clothes sit around in warehouses and retail outlets for months or years. When I donate my clothes they get washed, which takes energy, but it’s in a larger centralized facility so more laundry gets done per person per machine. Again, higher utilization. It would be wasteful for me to run entire loads of wash with my few pieces of clothing. And shipping via ocean is shockingly efficient.

Let’s take the Emma Maersk container ship for example, even though the newer Triple E class ships are 35% more efficient. A trek from Hong Kong to Los Angeles takes about 14 days and burns 1,209,600 gallons of fuel. That’s a lot but it’s moving 15,000 shipping containers, each capable of fitting 36,864 t shirts. So, each shirt is responsible for 8mL of oil, which is what I would burn driving a car 266 feet. Shipping a container from China to LA uses even less fuel than trucking it from San Francisco. Buying “local” is ineffective from a sustainability perspective. It’s just ingroup bias.

On the production side I lean mostly toward polyester, which is not only easily recyclable, it has a negligible water footprint. For energy, a polyester t shirt takes about 12.5MJ to make, which is 3.5kWh, less than half a cycle in a washer and dryer. So if you’re not washing a bunch of clothes at once it can be more efficient to make new clothes than to wash them.[2][3][4][5]

Besides the usual ad hominem I found a lot of people concerned about outsourcing, almost ideologically. I suppose the worry is if we don’t win at everything someone else will take us over, foreign made t shirts and real estate investors ruining our culture. This is ridiculous. Foreign influences like films and architecture and food don’t destroy our culture, they enrich it. Global communications and transportation infrastructure is not going away, in fact it’s exploding. We can’t get enough of it. This invariably leads us to an increasingly global world, and collaboration can bear incredible fruit, as we see already in the sciences. Does anyone really think in 20 years nations will be more insular? Don’t panic. A little conservationist thinking and a few technological improvements will make many of today’s struggles irrelevant. Competition will be around art and discovery. There are plenty of atoms and the sun provides plenty of energy. Pretty soon robots will do all this work and this us vs them mentality will fade as resource conflicts become obsolete. It’s been happening for generations, violence and hunger declining. Our wars today are with debt and health and what temperature to set the air conditioner to. Can you imagine growing up in an era when food and air travel is free?

I’m not telling people how to live. I’m just showing what is possible. If a lot of people met me in the middle I think that would do the job, but to each his own. I know some of what I wrote sounded extreme, but sometimes it takes an extremist to get people to reflect.

[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/156416/americans-spend-151-week-food-high-income-180.aspx
[2] http://www.nrdc.org/international/cleanbydesign/files/CBD_FiberFacts_Polyester.pdf
[3] http://www.sei-international.org/mediamanager/documents/Publications/SEI-Report-EcologicalFootprintAndWaterAnalysisOfCottonHempAndPolyester-2005.pdf
[4] http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/laundry.html
[5] http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/dryers.html