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Startup Cyanide (Part 3)

Tomorrow’s Carbon Valley

Tom Littrell
Sep 14, 2017 · 7 min read
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Photo: Joseph Mobley

Today’s Silicon Valley, tomorrow’s Carbon Valley. Our tech-trajectory is unstoppable, without a doubt, but so is our desperation for sustainable initiatives here on Earth. Once we realize as a society that long-term securities are more fruitful than short-term gains, the hottest items on the market will focus on shared producer-consumer values. As the veil is lifted on dirty tracking and deceptive marketing tricks, a future is possible where financial incentives are no longer necessary for sustainable growth, rather, moral incentives will drive individuals to be more selfless and conscious in their economic pursuits.

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There is no secret to leading a more sustainable life (or a sustainable nation, for that matter) just as there is no secret to losing weight or getting rich. Eat well, drink water, sleep, and exercise. Cut unnecessary expenses, bolster savings, and dabble in investing. Not everyone can be a Chris Froome or an [insert overused billionaire name] — after all, to have the highs there must be lows. Businesses and individuals often realize what cuts are being made to the detriment of our environment. Return to Lutz E. Schlange’s argument (Part 1) for the interdependence of society, economy, and ecology. When certain elements of societal efficiency or economic gain increase, ecological parameters suffer.

Environmentalist David Owen, author of Green Metropolis and The Conundrum, interviewed for Startup Cyanide on the intricacies and stunning realities of sustainability today. He succinctly sutures the intersections of entrepreneurship and sustainability, explaining how:

Energy efficiency has always been a goal of civilization. Humans must conserve energy and resources in order to best make use of them in the present and retain enough for the foreseeable future.

“Foreseeable” is key here! In days of old, a community could better visualize the stockpile of shared resources left to know if it needed rationing or supplementation. Today, those above the poverty line are in no way compelled to know where their energy and objects came from and how they got here.

It is an illusion when companies offer the chance to save money by implementing sustainability because that saved money is then spent on other methods of consumption, negating any reduced environmental impact. Besides, it is impossible to truly measure environmental impact of certain actions as far too many non-provable causal relationships and independent variables are involved.

This lack of causality is fuel for climate change denial and scapegoating. The futility of promised environmental impact is what allows marketing campaigns to target those wanting to make a difference. When evidence of impact is obscured, it is easy for the consumer to believe they are engaging in the reduction of their carbon footprint.

Growth and sustainability are incompatible. The very nature of sustainability is such that a population must regulate the usage and replenishment of resources in order to remain constant.

It is human need to be sustainable, but human desire to grow. The illusion of resource abundance perpetuated by morally fraught entrepreneurs results in our reduced ability to place need before want.

By extracting from carbon sinks, we are clearly not thinking ahead. The real question is, do we have the will to leave these stores of energy untouched?

To assess such will, Owen mulls on the weaknesses and limitations of the human psyche:

We are inherently selfish, but that does not mean we are doomed to fail. We have had the capacity for quite some time to decimate the planet and we have not nuked ourselves yet!

A cheery thought indeed, but perhaps a slow decay of environmental health is much worse than the swift erasure and rebirth paired with nuclear decimation. To that end, Chernobyl is no Mount St. Helens.

A key sustainability issue is our thirst for ever-increasing convenience. Abandoning ease in favor of nurturing our Earth requires action from everyone without the promise of immediate gains. It’s difficult.

If it were easy, we’d be singing ‘neath the oak tree.

Something to strive for when altering both personal habits and public policy is permanency of change. Nature’s cycles outlast the human lifespan, so the changes we make today have to have sights set for many years down the line. It seems counter-survival instinct to make sacrifices that will outlive us, and that is part of what has held us back and furnished greed.

Policy reversal, depending on origin (executive, congressional) can be either questionably quick of woefully slow. Finding the sweet spot is difficult because permanency can make both the beneficial and detrimental decisions last.

If an asteroid were hurtling toward Earth, there is no doubt that nations would work together in common interest to evade collision. Climate? Climate takes patience. Patience brews environmental politic.

Besides philosophising about environmental policy and practice, Owen sheds light on one area of his expertise: urban sustainability.

It is a false assumption that eating local is beneficial for the environment. Yes, living close to shared resources is brilliant. Urban living is far more energy-efficient than any other type. However, to grow enough food within a city to feed its inhabitants, many more resources are required than are considered.

A highly controversial idea, but one worth consideration. False assumption of environmental impact is, after all, a theme of this series.

And why stop there? If the skyscraper next-door contains huge, vertical-agriculture apparatuses, why aren’t we also returning factories to cities to produce our clothing? Etcetera, etcetera.

A wonderful question! With proper infrastructural planning, what couldn’t turn this utopian dream into reality? Practically speaking, however, this sort of paradigm shift would require decades or even centuries of tedious transformation. To build on naked land is one thing, but real estate is hard to come by.

There are two forms of climate change deniers: those who refuse to believe in the science, and those who believe that some fantastical sustainability hack is doing something of value. Earth’s human population continues to grow. Since growth and sustainability are incompatible, finding a solution to sustaining our environmental health is, was, and will be challenging. To work towards that solution, we must remain optimistic about our ability to overcome these obstacles and we must further specialize in technologies which will allow us to do so.

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Part of being optimistic about environmental reparation and stability is believing that we as humans have some intrinsic drive to protect the air we breathe and the ground we stand on. This common interest is imperative to closing the gap between what entrepreneurs are marketing to us and what goals we want to accomplish with the innovations that are such an immense byproduct of capitalism.

As Facebook struggles to counter ‘fake news’ and, “Customers becom[e] skeptical about the environmental performance and benefits of green products,” the cloud of distraction brought about by deceptive marketing and information-trolling begins to dissipate. People are fed up with the abundance of noise on mass media and seek greater clarity from information gatekeepers and product pushers. And as the cloud clears, it has become incredibly apparent that producers and consumers are on the same team — not in a phony I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine sort of way, but in the genuine sense that the economy will go nowhere so long as parties x and y keep taking advantage of one another.

Technological embargoes are unrealistic. Igniting an Olympics-Sized sense of excitement about environmentalism is asking too much. But startup teams know the power of the influence their habit-forming products are capable of. They are shipping crack in the form of software and hardware that is bigger than the fast-food industry ever was. What if their addiction algorithms were used for good instead of evil?

Dr. Julian Allwood, Professor of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Cambridge, researches large-scale industrial capacity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In a summary of his research, he boiled down the necessary steps to reach the IPCC’s (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) goals of 50–85% reduction by 2050. Steps five and six are paramount: extend the lives of products and reduce final demand. As he so astutely states: “The fall-back option that no policymaker would ever condone, except in times of war, is to reduce final demand. Yet it remains the case that we could be living with less stuff overall.”

As David Owen expressed, our inherent selfishness is not the quintessential element stifling environmental progress. It is a craving for convenience which allows us to slip into a cycle of contrived consumerism rather than careful consumption. To change the growth-driven mindset of Silicon Valley into one more ecologically-savvy, producer-consumer values must meld to achieve an affinity for greater simplicity, security, and selflessness in the startup era. Only then will we shed our capitalistic grievances and be enlightened of the boons of a new era.

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Gratitude is owed to David Owen for his interview cited throughout this piece. His latest work, Where the Water Goes, explores the majesty and massive influence of the Colorado River. Additional thanks to Joseph Mobley for capturing the featured image.

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