J.D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, became the world’s first billionaire in 1916. It wasn’t Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, or Cornelius Vanderbilt, the transportation mogul, or J.P. Morgan, the legendary banker. It was Rockefeller. And this was even considering the fact that oil had largely been used only for machinery, medicine, and lighting up to that point, and transportation only came into the mix in the early 1900s.
Oil has since become the most important commodity, ever. In fact, almost every major geopolitical event in the past century can be tied to oil.
Babies and children are most vulnerable to our current consumption model. They’re also the key to building a better one.
In my previous post, I explained why our consumption model is broken, and how we can build a new one. If you haven’t read it, here’s a quick summary (or watch the short video below):
Our consumption model is hurting our environment, our physical and mental health. We’re over-using natural resources, exposing children to toxic products, and creating too much waste. This is unsustainable.
A big part of the problem is ingrained in the fabric of our lifestyle. The changes needed go beyond what products we choose. We need to redesign our behaviors: Why and how we consume.
We can evolve to a new, higher form of consumption. When we do that, we create endless opportunities to re-imagine and improve our lives.
We have to come up with new ways to provide everyday products and services. These new ways should solve the challenges we face:
To reduce overconsumption → help us understand what we really need.
To avoid toxic products → ensure the highest sustainability standard.
To limit waste → offer after-use options such as take-back or re-sell.
Imagining a better consumption model is key to a good future.
On August 2, 2017, we started using more from nature than our planet can renew in the whole year. Every natural resource we used from that day onward resulted in “ecological overspending.” Think of it as your bank account. For the first 7 months of the year, you lived on your regular salary. After that, you started using your savings and increasing your credit card debt. Currently, humanity lives at credit and consumes resources equal to that of 1.7 planets a year. That’s compared to 1.4 a decade ago and 0.8 in 1963. If population and consumption trends continue, this figure will rise to 2 planets by 2030. This puts us — and our children — on an unsustainable path.
The Climate Crisis Is Embedded in Our Consumerist Culture
This ecological overspending contributes to the warming of our planet. It accelerated in the past 35 years — 2016 was the hottest year since record-keeping began. Most scientists agree that the leading cause of the warming is human pollution. The burning of fossil fuels and the clearing of forests are the main contributors. Clean energy and protecting our forests are critical parts of the solution. But we must look at the challenge in a more holistic manner. The climate crisis is rooted in our modern lifestyle, and in the economic model that supports it.
A recent study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology looked at the impact of consumption. It calculated that, in 2007, consumers contributed to more than 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. They also contributed between 50 and 80 percent of total land, material, and water use. US households alone contributed to a quarter of global emissions. Only 20 percent were direct emissions from the use of public transport and household fuel. The bigger part was indirect emissions from consumption of products and services. These included housing, transportation, food, manufactured products, and clothing.
The free market is perfectly suited to harnessing a solution, argues a former climate skeptic
Jerry Taylor, the founder of the Niskanen Institute, spent years of his career as a professional climate denier — his senior role at libertarian think tank Cato Institute demanded it, and he was unconvinced that the risks of taking action outweighed the destruction that action might have on the world’s economy.
But starting about seven or so years ago, Taylor began to question his own assumptions, and after studying the science — and in particular the academic economics — more carefully, he had a complete change of heart. Taylor is now an advocate for addressing climate change, and in this talk at the NewCo Shift Forum earlier this year, he explains why.
President Trump’s decision to repudiate the Paris climate agreement marked a dead end for the “work within the system” phase of business leaders’ relationship with Trump’s administration. Among the many tech executives who sat down to parley with Trump soon after his election, the thinking was: get a seat at the table with the novice chief executive, and you could sway him when it really mattered.
Nothing matters more in the long run than the fate of the planet. But Trump chose to ignore science, his peers among world leaders, every other country on earth except for Syria and Nicaragua, his own daughter and son-in-law, and all the titans of business (among them, his secretary of state) who urged him to stick with Paris. Instead, he “extended a middle finger to the world” (Politico). Many of the tech CEOs who rode the elevator up Trump Tower last December expressed their disappointment with Trump’s choice, and Elon Musk announced on Twitter that he’s quitting Trump’s advisory board (Recode). He was not alone — Disney’s chief also resigned over the issue.
Trump has ditched the Paris climate agreement. Enlightened brands will see a massive opportunity to step up and win the future.
So Trump has ditched the Paris climate agreement. He cited his duty to the ‘citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris’. Sounds as though some among the good people of Pittsburgh are not too happy about that namecheck.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Trump is only doing what he said he’d do. Of course the commentary now will be endless — and so it should be.
The entire digital economy is built on a simple transaction model in which users give companies access to their personal data and companies provide services cheap or free. It’s a convenient and successful scheme, but it has some ugly incentives built in. And every now and then, a news story that lifts the veil from its shadier corners causes the world to go “yuck.”
In the latest incident of this sort, readers of Mike Isaac’s in-depth New York Timesprofile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick yesterday learned that an email inbox cleanup service called Unroll.me was selling anonymized data about its users’ behavior to third-party companies. In this case, Uber paid Unroll.me for reports on the volume of Lyft receipts in its users’ email so it could suss out the health of its rival’s business. Much online outcry ensued (here’s a good summary from CBS News).
Where humanity is going, there are no roadmaps. The terrain is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The changes sweeping the Earth right now are literally planetary in scale and so filled with complexity that few among us even have a semblance of knowing what is actually going on. This makes it very difficult to navigate the troubled waters of the 21st Century.
Here are a few examples of things our species has not known in the three million years we’ve existed as “tool using” hominids:
Emergence of a Globalized Economic System :: In the last 500 years, a vast web of intercontinental trade arose spanning several empires, evolving into nation-states, and now becoming a truly globalized meshwork of supply chains, trade agreements, human migration patterns, and so forth.
Extraction and Consumption of Fossil Fuels :: The last time a species gathered up the waste products of a prior era and consumed them to grow itself we had a mass extinction event. And that was more than two billion years ago! I am referring to the cyanobacteria who excreted oxygen and changed the biochemistry of the Earth. Humans are doing this again by disrupting natural carbon cycles with the combustion of fossil fuels.
Explosive Population Growth :: There are now more than 7.4 billion living human beings on Earth. Our population exploded in the last 150 years, well beyond anything in the history of our species. And now we are watching the rapid depletion of vital resources as this huge population gobbles them up — literally as food and metaphorically as the built environments of our globalized civilization.
Crossing of Critical Planetary Boundaries :: The Earth has maintained incredible amounts of stability for billions of years through a vastly complex meshwork of self-regulating feedbacks. Thresholds exist (called “planetary boundaries” by the earth scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Institute) that if crossed will remove this self-regulatory capacity. There is now ample evidence that human activities have pushed us beyond as many as four of these critical operating boundaries for a globalized economic system.
A New Pace and Scale of Complexity :: Most of our history was lived out in small tribal communities where each person might know as many as 150 people. Rapid changes, when they happened, were either catastrophic (volcano wipes out village) or disruptive (drought conditions cause the tribe to migrate into a new area). But they never happened at the pace and scale we live with today. As complexity scientists will be quick to tell you, scale matters a great deal! There are qualitative differences in the interdependencies, cascading patterns, and unexpected phase transitions for large, volatile dynamic systems — intuition about smaller systems misleads and confuses more than it helps.
Entering A New Geologic Era :: Humans have enjoyed an unusual period of climate stability in which to birth agriculture, build cities, weave trade networks, and grow economic empires. That 11,000 year period is known by geologists as the Holocene. The same geologists now agree that human activities brought the Holocene to an end in the 20th Century. We are now in the “age of humans” dubbed appropriately as the Anthropocene. Our footprints on the Earth will be visible in the very chemical makeup of the planet’s crust hundreds of millions of years from now. This is how unprecedented this time in history really is.
I don’t remember the ‘70s very well, but thanks to our administration’s recent policy shifts, they’re coming back into focus, and man, we really don’t want to go back there.
Here’s a top-of-my-head rundown of all the shit going down that promises to take us forty years back, to a time when, well…you decide what kind of time it was.
Women had to fight for basic rights. Anyone remember “women’s lib”? That movement found its voice in the 70s, and made steady if punctuated progress for forty years. Now Trump’s promising to repeal the iconic 1970s Roe v. Wade decision, has scrapped equal pay (unnecessary regulations, amiright?!), and, well, this.
Dirty, climate changing coal was king in the ’70s, powering nearly half of US energy output. It’s now less than a third and dropping fast, mainly because of clean sources like solar and wind, which are starting to take power costs to zero, all while driving far more jobs than coal. Do we really want to go back? Well, Trump certainly does. WTF?
The EPA was established in 1970, when our rivers were on fire and kids had to hide inside from killer smog attacks (I was one of them). Now, Trump’s EPA has repealed decades of regulations, and it’s run by a guy who, well, hates the EPA. Oh, please, let’s go back to flaming rivers and unbreathable air, shall we?!
And then there’s climate change. After decades of science, inconvenient truths, and global disasters, the world’s leaders finally got their collective shit together and agreed to do something about our shared existential crisis. But not Trump, who thinks climate change is a hoax and has vowed to cancel the Paris accords. That sentiment might have flown in 1975. But now? Really?
“Law and Order.” If you’ve not watched 13th, please add it to your NetFlix cue…or just take 90 minutes and watch it now. The phrase “law and order” is a semiotic stand in for systemic racism and state-driven racial injustice. It rose to prominence in the 1970s as a political reaction to the civil rights movement, and has been widely discredited as social policy. But, you guessed it, Trump wants to bring it back.
Oh, and war. Remember that long, Cold one? Forty years ago, it was the most critical foreign policy issue of the day. By last year, it was all but over. Then Trump got elected, and…well, it sure feels hot again.
Rampant capitalism/neoliberalism/financialization. This is a tough subject to detangle, but in essence, the past forty years have seen the rise, and recent decline, of unrestrained, Friedman-esque capitalism (note this new book on the topic, FWIW). The Great Recession gave our body politic pause, and while Dodd Frank was in many ways toothless, it did set a new tone. Trump not only put a gaggle of bankers in charge of his government, he also is committed to repealing Dodd.
I could go on and on (immigration, creationism, public schools…) but I think I’ve made my point. We love to idealize the past, but forty years ago, women and minorities had vastly diminished rights, our environment was a mess, climate change was ignored, capitalism was unrestrained and destructive, and we were playing a terrifying game of nuclear chess with Russia. By last year, we had made massive progress on all of these crucial societal issues.
And now we’re going back to the ‘70s. Anyone else want off this particular train?
Walmart’s Kathleen McLaughlin on the Mission and Vision of a Retail Giant
Walmart is perhaps the most successful and the most reviled company in the history of American retail — and as this fascinating conversation with Kathleen McLaughlin reveals — it also may be the most misunderstood. McLaughlin traces Walmart’s recent conversion to sustainability to Hurricane Katrina, and addresses some of the companies thorniest problems, from workers’ wages to charges of greenwashing. Below is the full video of our conversation at NewCo’s Shift Forum, and the transcript, edited for clarity.