IMG_3099-e1420783311276 Sri Lanka Wakeup

our “research vessel”, Tulip

I traveled to Sri Lanka in 1983.   I was part of a World Wildlife Fund sperm whale research expedition.  Five of us lived aboard a 35 foot sailboat and went out to sea on the Indian Ocean for two weeks at a time, finding, following and observing sperm whales.  Returning to port, we would fix what had broken, re-stock food and supplies, and go back out to follow the whales, hopefully catching up with the same group we had been with before.

Sperm whales were considered a mysterious and skittish species to study.  Our scientist, Hal Whitehead, PHD, had tracked down this population of sperm whales by reading through New England whaling captain’s log books from the 19th century.  Sponsorship from National Geographic and World Wildlife Fund followed.

Not only were sperm whales plentiful off the Southern tip of Sri Lanka, we also found blue whales.  Such was the separation in Sri Lankan society between the educated and the poor, that the presence of blue whales off the East coast of Sri Lanka had gone undetected.  The fisherman saw them every day.  But there was no connection between that strata of society and the more affluent, educated group who had connections with universities, and were familiar with endangered species or the predicament of whales.  No thought was given to these wonderful creatures by the fisherman.  The blue whales were just part of the environment the fisherman shared while they set their nets.  Our research was successful and we were able to follow groups of sperm whales for hundreds of miles, ultimately ending up in the Maldives, over 400 miles from Sri Lanka.  But it was my time in Sri Lanka that was a head turner for me.

I will never forget returning to port after 10 days at sea, our water, food and fuel supplies low.  We also had two weeks of garbage to get rid of.  As we approached the town pier in the port of Trincomalee, I noticed observers gathering, no doubt to investigate our unusual sailing craft, or so I thought.

As we tied up it became clear that what they were interested in was our trash.  We didn’t even have to leave the boat to have people compete for our trash and take it from us.  Our trash was literally their treasure.

This was a whack on the side of my head.  I was raised to think an item’s life ends when we are done with it and throw it away.  All of a sudden I saw it differently. Now I saw that when we throw something away, there is no “away”.  If a byproduct that we place no value on, such as garbage, becomes a commodity that people spend their day to retrieve and utilize, are we missing something?

How much energy did it take to make that empty tin of beans in our trash?  How many times was that tin material used by man and processed?  How much energy in any form was expended on that tin?  Where is that tin today?  These questions led to an overarching question; “What is the true cost of a product?”.

I have expanded on this realization in the many years following.  I became interested in analyzing the the full life cycle of product development.  Where does the material come from?  What is the impact of the material retrieval, processing and use?  How much energy was used to make the product?  Shouldn’t we paying for the full cycle cost of the product; disposal as well as front and back end environmental costs?

I was put in touch, starkly, with the contrast between our material wealth and the scarcity in many parts of the world.  Our wealth was not just a luxury, but a responsibility, and obligation.  I returned to the States to pursue a career in mechanical engineering. With the exception of some space flight and oceanographic instruments, my career has been spent designing things for our disposable society which will all end up in a landfill at great environmental cost.  In 1983 sustainable design was not an engineering practice or even concept.  Today, it is becoming the mainstream.  Its time has come.

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