Some years ago, I moved into a rental house in which some previous tenants had left a picture at the top of the stairs bearing this American Indian Proverb:
“Only when the last tree has been cut down; only when the last river has been poisoned; only when the last fish has been caught; only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”
At the time, I would not have considered myself much of an environmentalist. However, even then I found it very poignant, and the more I have come to learn about the challenge of sustainable development, the more striking and relevant it seems to become.
I think this quote effectively presents the challenge of the sustainability agenda today. Firstly, from a global, national or corporate level, it highlights the relationship between economic growth and resource exploitation. Secondly, if ‘money’ is interpreted more loosely, then the proverb imbues the seemingly relentless conversion of life-sustaining (yet free) resources into non-essential (yet economically valuable) material goods. Indeed, the modern consumer’s voracious appetite for such non-essential goods, in the face of catastrophic environmental change, could be described as somewhat irrational.
Lastly, this proverb presents the challenge that radical innovation for sustainability must urgently address; how do nations, and indeed corporations, generate economic value without continuing to degrade the natural resources on which humanity depends? Furthermore, how do we generate this value in a more equitable manner?
If we are to continue to live with capitalism, then we must surely learn to innovate to address these challenges. And we must innovate on a level never seen before. However, it is increasingly clear that market-driven incremental efficiency savings simply will not deliver what is necessary. As Tim Jackson asserted this month in his blog for The Guardian; “Scale wages a continual battle against efficiency. And, historically at least, it’s almost always scale that wins”. Indeed, research published by the Stockholm Environment Institute demonstrates that between 1992 and 2004, decarbonisation of the global supply chains for goods consumed in the UK were outweighed by growth in UK consumer demand. And given the rapidly rising incomes and aspirations in other parts of the world, ‘scale’ looks set to win the war.
So, the need to radically change resource-intensive business models is clear. But what do we change them to? How does one begin to direct such innovation? Does the servicisation of product-based industry, as presented by Sandra Rothenberg in the MIT Sloan Management Review, offer a better model? Or should we even be questioning, as Tim Jackson argues in “Prosperity without Growth”, the very necessity of these industries for human wellbeing? In my experience, the corporations that are currently seriously engaged with these questions are few and far between. But then this is hardly surprising, given that it requires them to question their very ‘raison d’être’, as well as challenge the behaviour and aspirations of their customers.
This brings me on to my next concern; will consumers accept this? Will they want to spend their hard-earned income in such radically different ways? Will they be willing to change their behaviour, aspirations, or belief of what it means to ‘prosper’, at all?
To move forwards on these issues, one must explore the nature, motivations and drivers of collective (‘irrational’) consumption. If we are to radically address such consumption, and find ways to generate economic value by decreasing consumption, we must first understand it. Here, surely, we could learn a few things from psychology, sociology and anthropology? To this end, I am currently immersed in ‘The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Consumption’. Perhaps I will discover during my reading some vital psychological and sociological insights into this phenomenon. For if radical innovation for sustainability is to be achieved within the framework of capitalism, then consumers must be willing to join the ride.