Let’s redefine what matters
Sustainability is dead, long live sustainability
‘Sustainability’ for established enterprises has become little more than ‘compliance’ in the face of environmental regulations that are very slowly being implemented by only the most progressive governments- because we all know that the climate agreements aren’t binding. When the economy takes a downturn, say because of loss of industry because of resource depletion, policies are paradoxically instead aimed at making people consume more because our economic model only works when there’s growth in GDP. Although it seems that the media is full of attention for the environmental crisis it is probably my #echo-chamber because the numbers show that the environmentally conscious consumer is still outnumbered. That means that the (targeted) marketing budget only has to be spent on keeping people like me thinking everything is going the right way. But I know the price of a product is still the most important factor most of the time and by choosing only cheap products the true costs thereof are externalized and will be paid for in the future. And I don’t blame the consumer. I own mostly second hand stuff that I repair when needed and I get my energy from local producers but I just can’t make all the right choices when I’m in the supermarket and need an app for every product I buy to check if it’s sustainable.
The word ‘sustainability’ itself does not fit the situation we find ourselves in because not only will we not be able to keep up business as usual, we’re going to face huge challenges even if we decide to change. Read Josh Kearns’ post post so I don’t need to repeat it. The Brundtland definition that dates back to 1987 (meeting our current needs without compromising the future generation’s needs) has been torn apart by philosopher / professor Harro van Lente in his inaugural speech in 2010. He states that needs, or rather ‘wants’, are created by an interplay of governments, enterprises and researchers. Technological advancements like the smartphone with 24/7 internet access is now the thing that people being displaced by the conflict in Syria most ‘need’ to get across borders. Millennials like me (1985) however don’t ‘need’ to own a car anymore as a status thing because we can share them. Rather it’s the pics and vids of the experiences we are able to show on our social media profiles that define our status. And we would like to sustain these experiences, like flights to exotic destinations that are still dependent on fossil fuels. When we see the next big displacements it will be people seeking refuge from climate disaster that come from said exotic destinations, there will be a lot more of them and we will have to act more humanely than we do now.
Circular economy is the new black
There is a new word for sustainability and it’s ‘circular economy’. Though not a new concept, it has been successfully revived in 2010 by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, including as well the school of thought of Cradle to Cradle (2002). And businesses are getting on board as we can see from the growing list of partners on the foundation’s website, because the circular economy is finally a lot clearer on how to meet the company’s bottom line: not people, not planet, but profit. McKinsey calculated in September 2015 that Europe could have a net benefit of 1.8 Trillion EUR by 2030 from transitioning to circular economy practices so the EU followed up with its slightly unambitious Circular Economy package in which it promised 650 million from the Horizon 2020 program and 5.5 billion from “structural funds for waste management”. Personally, I think the reasons businesses and especially multinationals- but then again who doesn’t have a global supply chain- are so interested is mostly the threat of scarcity of resources in the light of geopolitical instability; it will be safer and cheaper to source your stuff locally; mining it from the landfills or extracting valuable metals from bottom ash from incinerators. It seems more like a risk management strategy than stewardship of nature or a plan for social equality. I’m all for quantifying the economic benefits because that is what gets people moving but unfortunately we’re still not measuring the right units. When I think of the e-waste dumped in Ghana and the people living on mountains of plastic in India, I state that: we would not have any waste if there was no social inequality and disregard for the environment in the countries where we make and/or discard our stuff.
Accessed October 17 on http://subrealism.blogspot.nl/2009_10_01_archive.html
Data is the new Oil
An interesting remark from Jeremy Rifkin in ‘the zero marginal cost society’ is that “there are no examples in history where people have created markets before they created a culture”. Culture is thus a prerequisite for an economy. Jaron Lanier prophesied that people living under the poverty line could earn more than their daily income just by being a user on the web. Sounded utopian when I first heard it. Just the things a person does online is worth that much per day. It is one reason why Silicon Valley VC’s are investing astronomical amounts in their next would-be ‘unicorn’, pardon my use of jargon. Then came Facebook who wanted to offer “free” internet to the people of India, but thankfully the government knew “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. At the end of the day, the large tech monopolies whether they’re offering social media or sharing-economy services have to answer to their shareholders and their bottom line is profit. If Shell is depriving people of their nature then Facebook is commodifying their culture. Sharing economy platforms like Airbnb and Snappcar are great but would be much better if they were a organized as a cooperative in which the people using the platform actually had a ‘share’.
And it happens at smaller scales as well. I did a small experiment of which I already had a pretty strong guess of the outcome. Albert Heijn keeps track of my purchases through a promotional program (offering discounts) so they can bombard me with advertisements but I’m not allowed to have insight into my own data so I can manage my expenditures. See below.
Change the game, not the player
But imagine if I could automatically have insight into everything I bought at Albert Heijn and not only that, I would directly pay the producer (farmer), could see what the origin of the product was, check it’s environmental rating and be able to do this without needing an account with one of today’s main banks. Blockchain is the game-changing technology that will make this possible. Although it must be said that also banks are for long experimenting with it and there are still some hurdles to be taken while trying to implement it (see picture), it does offer the opportunity to build up systems from the ground up and in a collaborative, peer-to-peer way like Rifkin and also Bauwens imagine.
Advanced reading into the hurdles for blockchains (specifically Ethereum and the DAO):
Also see my mention of blockchain in one of my previous posts on the sustainability of computing.
Don’t just recycle. Redefine and then Redesign!
Like with computer systems, the unwanted effects of products (let’s say waste) are best attributed to a design fault and are the result of not taking into account the full scope of scenarios that can occur. Victor Papanek would agree. My first projects as an entrepreneur, like the Perpetual Plastic Project, were very much based on starting to see where materials would be unnecessarily lost, like plastic coffee cups being thrown into the mixed waste bins and sent to the incinerator, and thinking how to make an intervention by remaking something from them. Abbie Hoffman in 1967 called this “F’ing the System”. In his pamflet and later in his book “Steal this book” he described how to live of the waste- basically free stuff- in New York city like, for example, eating leftover fruit from the market that would otherwise be thrown away. That saves you and the waste management money and replaces the need for new fruit. It’s basically shifting resources out of an area of lower value into one of higher yield which is Peter Drucker’s definition of an entrepreneur. But with the staggering amounts of the ubiquitous PET bottle that are being produced, projects like WOOF&WOW make clever use of freely available material and put the process and profit in the hands of the people but are a bandaid on the wound when it comes to the environmental problem. The fault lies in the fact that the bottle has been designed to last forever while it’s only used for a short while and there is no way to make certain that it doesn’t end up in nature. The industry should really be producing plant bottles that enrich the soil or marine environment they end up in, rather then destroy it. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative is great for aligning the industry but it needs redesigns like this to fill in the blanks.
Let’s stop buying into sustainable myths like the brown paper bag or bamboo phone cases and consider things from a system level. Let’s be respectful yet critical towards old institutions and demand our fair share of data and insight from the new elite in silicon valley. Let’s learn to love all the things climate can’t change (Josh Fox, 2016). Let’s be bold and be the change we want to see in the world because we’ve never been more connected and empowered than now. Let’s redefine what matters!
What the industry should be making.