Everybody will agree that the coming decades are presenting many new challenges. Never before have we faced such a population growth and demand for about everything, food and water being the most essential. The difference between success and failure will reside mostly in our attitude towards change and our willingness to adapt to a different new situation. For obvious reasons, the economic model of mass consumption and resources depletion that generates a mindboggling amount of waste is coming to an end one way or another. A new system needs to come and will come. Whether it will be the easy way or the hard way really depends on us all and in particular on our leaders. I like to tell that our future will be only as bright as our leaders. It is a bit of a joke, but not quite.
What does need to change in our thinking and attitude, then? In a finite world, we must understand that always more is not sustainable. This is especially true when several billion people are thinking of having the same consumption lifestyle as developed countries have had over the past 60 years or so. The pie is not big enough to allow that kind of party (and neither is the bakery that must produce the pie). This is where we seem to be stuck in our thinking. We have learnt to think linear in the past several decades. It can go only in one direction, and it has to be up, doesn’t it? God forbid of anything going down. In the field of farming when I hear the linear argument, I like to mention two things. The first one is that if farming stats must go linear, there should not be any farm left in developed countries in the not so distant future, and the same should happen in developing countries, too, just a bit later. No farm means no food. Apparently, that does not seem acceptable. There goes a crack in the linear thinking. My second argument against thinking blindly linear is that in biology and in population dynamics, there are no linear functions. All curves are curbed in some way. There are bell curves, sigmoid curves, exponential and logarithmic curves, just to name a few. None of them are linear. If we want to plan our relation with our environment in a prosperous manner, we need to leave the linear thinking and start thinking curbed, and the curve that fits the ability to renew indefinitely our access to essential resources best is the circle. Circular thinking is the never-ending linear. That is just as much of a thinking revolution as moving away from the concept of a flat earth to embrace the idea of a spherical one, or to fathom the curbed space. Shifting from linear thinking to circular thinking simply means a shift in thinking from always more to always enough. All it means is that we need to change our ways, but it certainly does not mean the end of the world. It would only mean the end of a world. With a growing population, circular thinking actually presents a lot of business opportunities, especially considering that the alternative is going nowhere eventually. There is no doubt that those who will catch these opportunities will be the winners of tomorrow.
Such a change in thinking also results in rethinking the meaning of growth. Currently, growth, and the GDP as its favorite indicator, means mostly volume and consumption. Actually consumption is probably not the correct world to describe our societies. Buying is a more correct one. Producers want consumers to buy. Consuming in this process is really optional. What counts is the act of purchasing over and over again. We think of growth as quantitative growth. Future growth will have to be a qualitative growth. With so many new people who will need employment in the decades to come, it will be crucial that future growth will have to fill a positive social role. Similarly, to have a livable planet, the future will have to contribute positively to maintaining a healthy environment. Social and environmental responsibility will become the standard. There is no escaping this. Well, that is with the angle of building a prosperous future. If not, chaos is always a possibility.
One of the most visible consequences of a growth model based essentially on quantity and mass purchasing is waste. As consumption goods became cheaper credit became easier and disposable income increased, consuming has become about buying and throwing away. The mountains of garbage in landfills around the world should be a reminder, although we seem to have located them far away from the eyes of the wealthy and in the backyard of the poor. Quite convenient. This way, consumers could forget about the consequences of their actions… and keep on buying and throwing away. Although this happens for all consumer goods, this is especially immoral when it comes to food in a world where about a billion people do not have enough to eat. It is immoral, simply because food means the difference between life and death, and wasting food is indirectly contributing to the death of others. It is also immoral because food waste is also the waste of all the inputs used for the production of food, be it water, energy or money. Waste is an indicator of the level of efficiency. Highly efficient systems generate little or no waste. Inefficient systems generate a lot of it. I will let you judge how efficient you think we are. Waste is also an indicator of our attitude. It is not just about morals, but also about discipline. Our societies waste a lot, because we still are much too lenient with ourselves, and also because in many cases the financial incentives to do the right thing are sadly lacking. We choose the path of least resistance.
As life became easier in a number of countries, people have started to lose some essential reflexes for survival. It is not necessary to go all that much back in time to see the change. My parents, grandparents and ancestors grew up in times that were not of plenty, simply because there was no consumption society, and incidentally there was the occasional war. People would not waste anything not so much out of morals, but because they simply could not afford it. Yes, mass wasting is the fruit of luxury. My elders would not waste and they were very skilled at circular thinking. They knew that nothing is created or lost, but that everything is transformed. As resources were not plenty, the right answer was to show plenty of resourcefulness. This is how things were by then.
To take the example of food waste, they would make sure that leftovers would be on the table the next day. They would most certainly not end up in the garbage. They would feed the pigs with what they could not eat themselves. Actually, they were turning low value products such as potato peels in high value protein in the form of pork. When I was in the agricultural university, my animal nutrition teacher once told a joke that I have never forgotten, especially considering that I have spent a substantial part of my professional life in animal production. He told us that modern animal husbandry was the art of turning high value protein into cheap fat. Not quite untrue, and so much the contrast with the pork made out of table scraps. This contrast is very much present in the ongoing debate about meat production systems.
We can find many answers for the future by looking at the past. In our current times of science-based facts obsession, many seem to look down at words such as experience, wisdom and philosophy. This is not wise. Our elders might not have known all the scientific background of what they were doing, but they knew what was best for them to survive. They knew how to manage a finite world of finite resources to sustain themselves. Passing on that knowledge, experience and wisdom was an essential part of survival. There was no conflict between modernity and that knowledge, experience and wisdom. They integrated the new and the old to build a better world. Although, there is still a lot of work to eradicate poverty, let’s not forget that the result has been the emergence of prosperous societies in which a record number of people are living now.
(Part 2 of this topic will be published soon)
Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.