Envisioning a Future with Less Doom and Gloom: Opportunities for the Next Generation of Optimists
When it comes to stories about the fate of the earth, headlines are usually dominated by tales of gloom and doom. And there’s certainly a great deal to be depressed about: global temperatures hit their highest levels ever last year, oceans are growing so warm and acidic that fisheries could be lost, and food and water systems are in decline.
A big reason for focusing on the negative is that bad news tends to drive action. According to research by my organization, sustainable business nonprofit Future 500, negative messages typically yield two and a half times as much fundraising and five times as much media attention as positive ones. But as effective as the doom-and-gloom storyline is, there’s another important environmental narrative that’s waiting to be told.
Following the work of environmental pioneers like William McDonough, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and other eco-designers, it’s clear that there’s an audience – and a desperate need – for a new generation of realistic optimists to help us envision a genuinely prosperous post-carbon economy.
There is much to be optimistic about. In its 2013 report The 3% Solution, wildlife nonprofit World Wildlife Fund says that the key challenge facing developed countries is the need to reduce carbon emissions by roughly 3% a year. The McKinsey Global Institute says that’s not only doable, but it’s exactly what the economy needs to grow sustainably and overcome its economic deficits.
Specifically, it says, the US needs to squeeze a third more value out of the energy it uses in the next decade, and improve that efficiency by 3% a year or more thereafter, to avoid painful economic and environmental consequences.
The quest for that 3% solution may prove challenging, but it will also open up a wide range of business opportunities. Here are some of the biggest potential opportunities and the companies trying to tap them:
Creating living farms, oceans and forests
The industrial agriculture system treats land like a machine. It’s based on the assumption that, if farmers feed the earth the right fuel and keep out contaminants, the engine will run smoothly and generate massive agricultural output. That can be true, but nature offers a much more productive and sustainable model: life. Farms, forests and oceans have the capacity to create more value than they consume, something that machines can’t do. What’s more, they’re inherently sustainable.
One step that large-scale agriculture could take towards adopting the nature-based model would be to shift to carbon-reducing agriculture. Fertile soil is a complex system with millions of carbon-sequestering microorganisms per square inch. Tilling, a common agricultural practice, burns fuel, releases poisonous exhaust gasses and strips the soil. The standard solution – pumping in pesticides, herbicides and nitrogen – only adds to the problem by contaminating groundwater and polluting oceans with runoff.
Studies have shown that more natural soil amendments, like compost, manure and charcoal products, like those produced by the Biochar Company, can reduce atmospheric carbon and keep soils highly productive. In terms of water usage, treatment alternatives developed by companies like Algae Systems purify water at low cost, while generating carbon-negative fuels and fertilizers that are chemically identical to petroleum-based products.
On the retail end, Whole Foods is driving mainstream consumer demand for approaches like these. At the same time, organic, slow and local food movements are also continuing to gain momentum. For further-reaching substantive change, however, major food companies and manufacturers will need to get involved in order to make any broader systemic changes mainstream.
The sustainable seafood movement could offer a useful model for businesses and activists looking to change the agriculture system. Increasingly, careful fisheries management and the support of retailers like Walmart and Safeway are making sustainable seafood more commonplace. At the same time, groups like Environmental Defense Fund are continuing to push the needle forward.
Admittedly, the aquaculture battle is still raging and oceans are still in crisis. Carbon emissions are making them warmer, more acidic and less productive, and resource competition is driving fishing well beyond sustainable yields. So how can a living agriculture approach further benefit the seas? One way is to end the race for fish through “catch shares,” a market based system that sets aside a secure share of fish for individual fishermen, communities or fishing associations.
Forestry is another industry that could potentially offer a useful agricultural model. On the market end, brands like Nestle and Staples are helping to shift the market towards more sustainable forest practices.
In this case, too, the problem is far from over, and activist groups are continuing to ramp up pressure on customers of companies like Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited (APRIL) and a host of other palm oil and paper producers. The “zero deforestation” effort, championed by Greenpeace and others, has driven attention and engagement to a critical international issue.
Prosperity, not consumption, by design
Another business opportunity lies in the shift from excessive consumption to impressive design. Traditional business models are moored in consumption. The industrial economy, for example, propelled consumption by accelerating the speed of extraction.
Natural systems, on the other hand, develop value through efficient, smart design. AT&T, Advanced Micro Devices and Cisco are already putting this lesson to work, bringing productivity leaps to the non-digital economy. The internet of things is connecting computing devices and the Internet in factories, farms, buildings and homes. To put this in context, while industrial companies find it difficult to achieve 25% productivity gains, AMD expects a 2,500% gain in energy productivity for its computer processors by 2020.
New technologies are also following nature’s lead when it comes to design. Rather than following the traditional model of extracting complex raw materials from the earth, AMD is producing microchips and solar cells that take plentiful raw materials like silica and inscribe on them a value-creating design, building value up. That’s why – as Future 500 has documented – innovations in microchips, telecommunications, and the Internet often yield productivity gains of 1000% or more. If producers and consumers can use these innovations wisely – admittedly, a big “if” – it will be possible for the economy to harness nature’s value-creating strategy.
The sharing economy is another step forward. When digital technologies come into contact with consumptive industrial-era practices, the result can be positively disruptive. How many fewer hotels, rental cars, and taxis do we need, now that AirBNB, Zipcar and Uber enable consumers to share what they already have?
Putting a price on carbon
The third strategy also applies a core principle of nature: feedback and adaptation. While Congress delays on overarching federal climate policy, hundreds of companies are acting on their own, supporting an internal carbon price that drives down energy costs and carbon emissions simultaneously. Carbon taxes in British Columbia and Sweden, for example, outperform regulations and emission trading systems combined.
Critics argue that a carbon tax can’t happen broadly, but environmental groups have more carbon-pricing allies than they think. Even oil company ExxonMobil, a major carbon producer, is a genuine supporter – a fact that many simply can’t comprehend. But Exxon Mobil’s data tells it that, in the long term, it’s smart policy to insure that carbon pays its way.
Adopting a carbon tax shift is one systemic way to put a price on an atmospherically dangerous byproduct. And while the quest for that 3% solution will be difficult, it will open up a wide range of opportunities as well. So let’s begin to think outside the standard gloom-and-doom mentality to make systemic, positive environmental changes that benefit multiple interests. When we do, we might very well discover that the technological, corporate, and political support needed to save the planet is well within our reach.
This article was originally published in The Guardian.
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