The transition from a consumption society towards a maintenance society

June 22, 2009

The days of our consumption society are numbered. We are going to have to find another economic system to prosper in the future as it is part of solving the climate change and CO2 emission issue. Over the last 60 years, all our economy has been based in encouraging consumer demand for goods that have been produced with relatively very cheap energy, very cheap raw materials and as cheap labour as possible, with as cheap credit as possible. This has lead us where we are, which is a group of very wealthy nations wasting very precious resources, to the point of exhaustion and suffocation. If well maintained, Earth will last longAlthough some still try to resist and deny the obvious, this system is no longer sustainable and we must rethink what should drive our economy. In an earlier article, I made a reference of how previous generations used to be very cautious about what and how they consumed. The positive side of the last 60 years has been the incredible progress we have made in science, knowledge and technology, which offers possibilities unthinkable for the previous generations I was referring to. We understand our world and how it functions like never before. We have all the technological solutions to solve the climate issue, but the key is the will and the determination to change and to act. This cannot happen as long as we keep thinking the economy in terms of growth only. Growth will not go on for ever, simply because our space and our resources are limited. As there are more and more people needing more and more energy, food and other goods, the law of offer and demand will rule. Prices will inevitably go up and consumption will slow down. A new time has come. The priority must now be quality, not quantity, we must think about having enough, not having always more. This thinking is not a nostalgia to a past that also had its limitations. It is not about rejecting a market-based economy. It is about looking at the market that has always been here, but that has been pushed in the background for the easier approach of just producing more and selling it. What we will have to bring to market is not so much products as services. These services are the ones that are directly related to making all the natural and industrial cycles run harmoniously in a durable way. Just to name a few examples, I would mention all activities that are related to cleaning the damage we have caused, and recycling activities will become more and more important in our whole economy. In the same way, water treatment is going to be a crucial activity, even more so than it has been so far. Clean industries producing durable goods and services will prevail. This change will also make some jobs disappear and some appear or even reappear. As usual change always brings opportunities. It is to us to recognize them and to take them. The time has come to make the transition from this consumption society, based on wasting resources, and with no future, to a maintenance society, where wealth, and not growth, will be the economic success indicator. By acting today, we can ensure this process to happen in a smoother way than if we wait until we have no choice anymore.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


If we are what we eat, what will we eat in the future?

June 9, 2009

The past 50 years have seen, at least in the Western world, the development of the consumption society. The emphasis has been on consuming always more, by having an apparently unlimited quantity of increasingly cheaper consumption goods available. This trend happened in the agriculture and food sectors just as well, and followed a rather simple patter, actually. Mass consumption has been coupled to mass production, thanks to intensification, technical and technological progress and, last but not least, marketing.

Junk foodTechnical progress improved yields and productivity, while marketing was aimed at creating more, and new, needs. Our food has become standardized, industrialized, and processed in a wide variety of forms. As the emphasis moved to lifestyle and convenience, which came along with the rise of mass distribution, cheap energy and suburbia, we lost the connection between ourselves, the origin of our food and nature. Food became just things you buy at the supermarket, already packed in plastic and cardboard.

Now, we have come to the realization that this high production of waste, be it packaging material, be it blemished product that do not look good anymore while still perfectly edible, be it the overproduction of manure and its minerals, or be it the massive use of antibiotics and pesticides is not sustainable. Of course, much progress has already done to reduce this waste and there is a growing trend towards organic and traceable, but at this stage it not clear yet whether this is a true change in our behavior or whether it has more to do with a social status and marketing issue.

However, what the current situation might be, the fact that we understand that we cannot keep on intensifying and wasting the way we did, will inevitably bring a more fundamental change in how we consume in the future.

Some people predict such changes as the astronaut diet made out of pills, the use of a computer to tell us what and how much of it we should eat based on our activity level, or the tissue culture to replace meat, and many other scenarios. Will any of those ever happen? Who knows?

Personally, I believe that food as a very strong psychological connotation. We associate food with experiences and, although there are differences between cultures, that emotional bond will stay.

Clearly, the consumption society with all its excesses is coming to its end, and maybe the current economic crisis, which also originated in the excess of having it all at any cost, could very well be the turning point.

The next evolution is probably going to be a balanced approach between consumption, which we need to some extent, and the necessity of preserving what keeps us alive. There will be different graduations of this balance between geographic regions, but sustainability is the only way forward, as I mentioned in my previous article (Sustainability: as natural as balance).

Intensification is showing its limitations, waste of manure and of packaging are also hitting a wall, energy is getting more expensive and makes the production and the transport of food more expensive, too. This will reshape how we want to consume our food, how and where it is produced, how it is presented to us.

Cattle feedlotWe still are in a society where some people get obese by eating lots of food as quickly as they can, while they have less physical activity than the previous generations, thanks to automation. That food is produced on intensive farms and feedlots where the animals grow and fatten as quickly as possible, as they eat lots of food, while not having much physical activity. Similarly, in our society meat producers use hormones to boost growth and carcass quality, while body builders and sport professionals use steroids and growth hormone to boost their performance. Interesting similarities, don’t you think? We are indeed what we eat.

So, in a conservation society, should we expect the farms to be led by the need to preserve? This almost sounds like the farms we had at the beginning of the twentieth century. I think that there will be some of it, but the efficiency of production as well as the efficiency of preserving the environment will be much better, thanks to new technologies. We will have high yields, and at the same time, we will have highly efficient systems to use water, to recycle waste and preserve the fertility of our soils and the balance of our oceans.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


An example of profitable sustainable aquaculture

June 6, 2009

Here is an article (Sustainable Aquaculture: Net Profits) about a fish farm in Andalusia, Spain, which has a different angle than industrial intensive fish farms.

It refers to a number of arguments, such as feces contamination and lower densities, that I had mentioned in a previous article (The lessons of intensive animal husbandry to aquaculture). It also illustrates what I presented in Value chains are a great way to develop a niche, as they market their fish as the pata negra of sea bass at a premium price.

Of course, this farm is an example showing a very specific situation in a very specific environment, and providing seafood to the world population might require more intensive systems. Moreover, not everyone can afford to buy the pata negra category of food.


The PR and the reality about earth-friendly production

June 6, 2009

On Earth Day, Meat & Livestock Australia unveiled its campaign about the eart-friendly character of their production (see the article).

One can wonder if this concept is more about PR and rethoric than it is about true higher standards. Hopefully it is, but since there is quite a bit of space in the production areas, planting a few trees and leaving areas for wildlife habitat does not really seem like a particularly challenging task. Unless the impact on the environment can be monitored and tangible results can be shown over time, this could just be no more than a marketing approach to ask a few pennies for their meat without changing the cost structure. The market will decide.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Sustainability: As Natural As Balance

June 2, 2009

With the increasing awareness about climate change and our endangered environment, sustainability has become a widespread concept through all industries and the food value chains have embraced it like everyone else.

Yet, I do not quite understand why sustainability seems to be such a “revelation”, or even almost a revolutionary idea. Sustainability is the way that our societies have lived for thousands of years, probably because scarcity of goods made conserving and recycling a necessity of survival. Only over the last 50 years or so have we seemed to forget about it, because of our consuming frenzy and the abundance of goods that we thought to be about infinite.

To put the importance, and the obvious need for sustainability, let’s just look at its definition. What is not sustainable disappears. There is no need for any further philosophical or political discussion. Survival can (note that I only say can) come only from sustainability. All processes in nature that deal with life are all about recycling of organic matter in one form or another, and about balance. If the environment is favorable for a particular species, you will see this species thrive and its population grow quite strongly, to the point that it exceeds its abilities to provide for itself in its original ecosystem. Then, it starts to use more and other resources that nature can replace at the natural pace and this always results in a strong reduction of the population, as the weakest cannot find food and perish, or as the population density helps the spreading of diseases much faster than it would otherwise. Does this sound somehow familiar?

The soil that feeds usThere are many discussions in scientific, economic and political circles about whether we have reached such a stage either regarding pandemics or regarding food supplies. The specter of pandemics recently raised its head with the “swine flu” originating from Mexico. Last year, there were severe disruptions of food supplies in some parts of the world, not as much as the result of an actual shortage, but as the result of prices skyrocketing and fears that food would run out.

Are we about to run out of food? Malthus was warning about such a risk in the early nineteenth century, but since then, the world population has increased far further than he estimated was possible. Today, we probably are not in that dire a situation, yet the main food supply issue is more one of distribution between geographic regions. Some parts of the world are underfed while others die of all sorts of ailments related to overfeeding. This is more a matter of politics than purely of agricultural (including seafood) potential.

Sustainability is about allowing nature to do its work at its own pace. This is all about staying in balance and keeping natural cycles complete their courses. Since you cannot live without eating much more than 2 months, you cannot live without drinking for much more than 2 days and you cannot live without breathing for much more than 2 minutes, these cycles can be reduced to just a few critical areas for life:

  1. The cycle of air, necessary to remove, or to help nature remove the contaminants, so that air remains breathable.
  2. The cycle of water, necessary to remove, or to help nature remove, the contaminants that can make it undrinkable.
  3. The cycle of soils, necessary to preserve the fertility of the soils, and thus allow a continuous agricultural/livestock production to feed people.

Agricultural challenges aheadThis is why, with a growing human population, agriculture and food production at large, managed in a sustainable manner, will become increasingly strategic in the future, and sensible management of water resources will be a key factor for the success of agriculture as well.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Recycling and cleaning: the economic drivers of tomorrow?

May 21, 2009

Here is an article I wrote a little more than a year ago.

With an increasing population, years of throwaway goods consumption, landfills full of garbage, the pollution of our drinking water reserves and a deteriorating of our air and atmosphere, there is no doubt that our survival will largely depend on our ability to clean and to recycle the waste we produce.

The recycling business has already been developing for quite some years already and the next step should be an increasing part of their products and services as the main source of raw materials for many industries.

What indeed would be the point of trying to get resources in more and more difficult conditions and at higher and higher costs and with more and more energy use while we are sitting on a mountain of metals, plastics, glass, wood, paper, etc… Those are available in many places literally in the open air. The raw materials for the raw materials industries are there. All it takes it to sort them all.

This potentially offers many jobs opportunities as the value of this waste will increase as a result of a growing population’s demand. More machinery will also become necessary to handle this waste in a faster and more importantly safer manner. Images of kids browsing on landfills in order to get a miserable income to feed their siblings and parents are not acceptable, and I bet that one day they will do this in better conditions and for decent wages, as we will have grown from a waste gathering approach to a structured and systematic waste treatment and recycling.

Down this chain, new industries will develop in the area of processing the sorted waste. Some will have as a function to clean, others to recover the main raw material, and others to transform it into semi-finished products or even reprocessed into finished goods. Most of such industries already exist, either as active waste processors or as goods producers that will over time have to adapt and just change the origin of their raw materials and use recycled products instead of “first production” raw materials.

The other main area of need is water treatment. More and more of our water reserves are being polluted by increasing industrial activity and by more intensive agriculture and animal husbandry. In many areas, water is no longer suitable for infants as the mineral content has reached dangerous level.

The level of pollution has created a strategic need to insure health and safety, and thus preserve the sustainability of the populations depending on these water supplies.
A growing need is in sight for water treatment facilities, either for large scale centralized ones as also for smaller scale even individual local solutions. Further, industries will need to provide us with more solutions on how to use less water. There already are many systems on the market to reduce water use in kitchens and toilets. Although, these systems have brought some solutions and relief, more must be done.
Just to name one example, I would like to make you think on how ridiculous, and therefore unacceptable, the amount of water that we flush in the bathroom every time compared with the amount of liquid we produce when we visit those premises. Clearly, this is out of balance, and imagine that by saving a gallon of flush water a day, we save more than our individual need for drinking water!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Have we lost touch with Nature?

May 21, 2009

Our species has shown a tremendous capacity to understand its environment and develop all sorts of tools to thrive on Earth. Without a doubt, this is one of our greatest achievements.
Yet, this success might have brought one major drawback: because we have been able to overcome many of its challenges, we have lost the sense of how much we are connected to Nature.
We tend to take all our achievements over Nature for granted. For example, we can fly (in planes), we can swim underwater (with scuba diving equipment), or eat tomatoes all year round (thanks to greenhouses and artificial lights and climate). We just seem to forget that all of that is the result of tools and techniques that we have developed, but that are fundamentally linked to Nature providing all the components for us.
What worries me the most is that many people in the industrialized world have lost that connection.
It is simply stunning to read reports from polls among the city youth on food. When asked where meat comes from, they answer: from the supermarket. Many kids just do not realize that milk comes from cows, they do not make the connection between eggs and hens, and they do not even want to think that in order to eat meat, you have to kill an animal, which means lots of blood. No, they live in a world where they only want to consume.
Another absolutely stunning example of that disconnection came across to me on the street: a young mother (I realized her status a bit later) was loading stuff in the back of her car, while the car was running, spitting its amount of nasty fumes in her direction. I thought then: gas is too cheap since you let the engine run while doing something else. And then, there it was! When passing by the rear end of the car, I saw the buggy with the infant inside, next to the mother and just opposite to the exhaust pipe, breathing in his full load of toxic gases. Clearly, that woman has no clue of what a combustion engine produces. Just an isolated case, you may think. Well, recently and with the colder mornings, I can witness the army of those early morning windshields scratchers having their engines running, and filling enthusiastically their lungs with the fumes. Then, no wonder that some people smoke, when it says in bold letters on the package that tobacco kills them.
The funny part of all of this is that I live in a neighbourhood where there are more stores selling all sorts of organic stuff than there are butterflies. Yes, people around here are very environmentally conscious, which, by the way, I have never been able to link so far with the huge amount of SUV’s driving around.
These anecdotes just tell me one thing: we have lost touch with Nature, and I believe more and more that we will not wake up until we get punched in the nose really hard. What does not kill us, we have chosen to ignore. I am not too sure if that makes us stronger, though.
So, what to do to get back in touch with, and more importantly have the proper respect for Nature?
In my opinion, it can only come from education. Our curriculum should include a lot more of activities in which kids have to interact with Nature, and be able to physically experience it. Moreover, this should not be happening in school only. The kids and families should get assignments together as part of the education process, because many parents also need to get the basics taught to them as well. Education is the only voluntary way towards changing our lifestyle. And lifestyle is the key here. We are resisting the change because, let’s face it, our lifestyle in the industrialized world is very comfortable.
Rediscovering agriculture, working on farms, harvesting crops, dealing with farm animals, experiencing seasons and natural cycles, going fishing and hunting, learning on how to make bread, presenting in class full reports of their home energy consumption and energy saving tactics, calculating the carbon balance they produce, are just some examples of education topics that could help us reacting to the total lethargy that has been hitting us over the past few decades. We can preserve only what we know, understand and respect. It is all interconnected. If we do not respect Nature, then how can we respect others? It seems fairly obvious that if we just take from the Earth and do not give back (and on time), the “cookie jar” is going to run empty. In the end, nature is all about balance.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.