In 2003, Pulitizer-prize winning civilization scholar, Jared Diamond, gave a TED talk entitled “Why Do Societies Collapse?”. Since then this talk—which shares the signs that collapse is near—has been viewed over 1.3MM times.
In 2012, Silicon Valley pioneer and founder of Singulariy University, Peter Diamandis teamed up with our pal, author Steven Kotler, to invite us into a future of Abundance, in which they argue:
“Humanity… is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman and child on the planet.”
This is a familiar dialogue between those worrying about a near future of increasingly scarce resources and others reassured by an emergent future of exponentially abundant capacity. Who’s right?
We sure hope it’s the gang of techno-optimists who, among other things, are counting on ubiquitous and nearly free solar energy and the billions of additional brains coming online to help solve big brewing issues. But getting there from here requires a big shift in understanding of our societal role –a shift from thinking the world is bigger than we are (so we can just keep extracting without consequence), to waking up to the reality that instead, we may be bigger than the world (and thus need very different strategies).
We’re excited to share several ideas on the horizon that give us hope we can turn this looming ecosystem crisis around …and keep California rich and fertile, too, while we’re at it.
Biomimicry: Learning from Nature
For about 3.85 billion years nature sustained the planet through an intentionally designed interdependence between its biological systems and physical infrastructure. Then along came humans. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), it took hundreds of thousands of years for the world population to grow to 1 billion, and in just another 200 years or so it grew sevenfold. It is projected to climb to over 9 billion by 2050. The impacts of over-consumption, toxic manufacturing and dirty industries have all taken their toll on what was once a finely crafted eco-system, creating a scarcity of resources for future generations; the full impacts of which we have yet to see or feel.
Some, like Janine Benyus (Co-Founder of the Biomimicry Institute and winner of the 2009 United Nations Champion of the Earth award), believe that a sustainable world already exists and that rather than learning about nature, we need to learn from it. Having consulted with over 250 global companies (like Nike, Boeing, Interface, and Proctor & Gamble), her belief is that:
“Nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. After billions of years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.”
Once a year the Biomimicry Institute hosts a global bio-design challenge, mobilizing tens of thousands of students and practitioners to solve some of our massive sustainability problems, using the world’s most comprehensive biomimicry inspiration database, AskNature, as a starting place. And this isn’t just an academic exercise. Interface Carpet founder, Ray Anderson, became a believer and steered his long-time, petroleum-rich company into a completely new, inspiring frontier.
Redesigning One of the Dirtiest Businesses
Speaking of which, one of the dirtiest industries on the planet is the trucking business, accounting for nearly 80% of greenhouse emissions attributable to all transportation in the U.S. – a number that has increased by about 18% since 1990 (EPA). This historical increase is largely due to increased demand for shipping and the limited gains in fuel efficiency across the U.S. vehicle fleet, but as the newly installed CEO & President of a $100 million trucking company, 32-year-old Caitlin Welby intends to change that.
Growing up, Welby spurned the trucking business that her grandfather had founded and her father helped build, opting instead to travel the world, embracing punk rock, yoga and vision coaching along the way. Eventually she had an epiphany that instead of denying her legacy because of the environmental impacts, she could change the trucking industry from the inside.
It’s early but Caitlin Welby is determined to transport the business toward a sustainable future. “I’m committed to farm-to-table, but the ‘to’ is the gray area, for everybody,” she says.
“All consumers and producers, we’re getting really good at what the farm is, know thy farmer and all that. And we’re really clear about the ethics of the retailer—what are Whole Foods’ practices? Who runs the grocery store? But the ‘to’ is widely ignored, and for good reason: it’s a fucking mess.” (Fast Company)
The World has Food problem… or Thinks it Does.
With humans already consuming one and a half times more resources than the planet can sustain, one of the biggest challenges facing us is how to increase agricultural output by 60-70%, to feed the extra two billion people expected to live on earth by the year 2050. With profound implications for food prices, the environment, security and future planning by governments, new agricultural techniques and climate change impacting food production are of critical importance. The good news is… historically we’ve managed to increase food production faster than population expansion. But the solution lies not only in innovative techniques and technologies to increase food production, it also resides firmly in being equally innovative to reduce food waste.
Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10% of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50% of U.S. land and swallows 80% of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40% of the food in the U.S. today goes uneaten.
In his global food-scandal campaign, Tristram Stuart sounds the warning bell on global food waste, calling for us to change the systems whereby large quantities of produce and other foods end up in trash heaps. This TED talk follows his story, which among other very compelling facts details how the UK, US and Europe have nearly twice as much food as is required by the nutritional needs of their populations, and if crops wastefully fed to livestock are included, European countries have more than three times the food than they need, while the US has around four times more food than is needed.
Intermarche, the third largest supermarket chain in France, last year decided to partner with its’ growers to ‘rehabilitate’ the 300 million tons of “inglorious” fruit and vegetables that would normally be thrown away. The result… 1.2 tons of product sold per store in two days, with a 24% increase in store traffic and more than 13 million people reached. The campaign for Inglorious Foods has been so successful, the products are now a permanent fixture in stores.
Urban Food Forests are popping up everywhere and so are new urban supper clubs that serve beautiful meals made from salvaged food. There’s even an app that deals with food waste. Every day in New York City, 6.5 millions pounds of food are thrown away. PareUp connects businesses with customers to buy surplus food at the end of a night, so instead of that ‘waste’ filling up the land, it can fill up our bodies.
Future Water Shortage or Water Windfall
Several weeks ago, Unesco’s world water development report warned that the planet could suffer a 40% shortfall in 15 years unless countries dramatically change their use of resources. As the global conversations around water usage and conservation ramp up (California in particular is a concerning topic right) there is a race to engineer innovative water technology solutions. How will we solve the problem of scarcity when it comes to clean, fresh drinking water?
A research team from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras have developed a prototype filtration system using nanotechnology, all for about $2.50 a year p/family (!!). Similarly, the ‘Lifesaver’ bottle pumps water through a nano-size filter that does pretty much the same thing, for 0.03c p/liter.
Desalination via biomimicry, though prohibitively expensive to consider at this point in time, is another option being explored in Singapore; “mimicking the biological processes by which mangrove plants and euryhaline fish (fish that can live in fresh briny or salt water) extract seawater using minimal energy. Another new approach is to use biomimetic membranes enhanced with aquaporin: proteins embedded in cell membranes that selectively shuttle water in and out of cells while blocking out salts” (The Guardian), both of which if effective, will transform our access to fresh water on a massive scale.
From a farming standpoint, though growing glaciers may seem like a radical irrigation solution right now, a 73-yr-old civic engineer from India dubbed the “Ice Man” has found a way to seed artificial glaciers. And in other news geoengineering rain is being discussed by the World Meteorological Society.
Now there’s cause for optimism!
“A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made”
While it would be easy to focus on a world in peril and a planet in crisis, there are others for whom the future represents boundless opportunities to face what confronts us with a core optimism for how we do or don’t choose to live. Gaia Vince is one such person. Formerly the editor of the journal Nature and the magazine New Scientist and a current editor at the journal Nature Climate Change, she spent 800 days traveling the world, visiting 36 countries across 5 continents in order to understand firsthand the impacts that humans are having on this planet, both positive and negative, and ultimately hopeful. Then she wrote a book; Adventures In The Anthropocene: A Journey To The Heart Of The Planet We Made. We’ve been terraforming the planet for thousands of years but as David Suzuki puts it:
“Our species has exploded into a new kind of force—one species able to alter the physical, chemical and biological properties of the planet on a geological scale. Gaia Vince’s important book provides the evolutionary, temporal and biophysical context to show with clarity the stunning speed and magnitude of the human footprint.”
“Problem-solving in the Anthropocene is a monumental task: If people aren’t moving mountains yet, Vince at least documents cases where they’re painting them, and, in Nepal, connecting them to WiFi. They’re creating artificial glaciers in Ladakh, using electrical currents to restore coral reefs in Bali and, back in New Jersey, trying to create artificial trees that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere much more effectively than their natural counterparts.” —Salon.com
The needed shift: from Extraction to Contribution
For a long list of reasons, shifting jobs from industries that harm the earth to ones that sustain it are an economic imperative. Big businesses and the private sector are undergoing a major overhaul as we all need to consider the impacts of our current rates of consumption, manufacturing processes, and sourcing of raw materials to sustain our future existence. From extraction to contribution is the way forward to an abundant future for generations ahead.
We wish you a thoughtful week, grateful for all we have at our disposal. And with a desire to keep these resources available for a long time to come.
Nancy + Emma