Design, Environmentalism, and Startups.
Recently, news regarding climate change, greenhouse gasses, and the state of our economy has swirled into a maelstrom of information, highlighting several opposing theories that attempt to address our current state of sociopolitical/environmental affairs. Not only are carbon and sulfur emissions an issue in the U.S, which produces roughly 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year (EPA), but physical waste pollution is a key concern as well. While the U.S. only makes up about 5% of the world’s population, we produce about 30% of the world’s waste and use 25% of the world’s resources (Pollution Facts). Undeniably, most of this pollution is linked with (almost) everything we do to function as a modern society.
From transportation, heating, electricity and food production, to industry growth, energy emerges as the paramount resource that businesses and countries are fighting to procure and control. Physical waste is a tertiary subject, one that contributes to land degradation, species endangerment, and human disease. And, whether you believe that the world is actually getting hotter, or colder, the fact remains that we are unprecedentally adding inordinate amounts of toxic byproducts into our global environment daily. And these toxins are effective; each year, over one million seabirds, along with 100,000 sea mammals, are killed by pollution. Additionally, approximately 40% of the lakes in America are too polluted for fishing and swimming, along with the other numerous untold externalities of unchecked private pollution.
So, there are these seemingly observable and preventable environmental travesties that need addressing. The real concern, though, is that the interactions between our economic infrastructure and the reliance on these unsustainable, harmful modes of energy use/waste management seem so rigid and entrenched, that attempting to reverse them remains unfeasible.
Many economic theorists posit that our economy would topple if we were to start, for example, capping the amount of carbon dioxide businesses and corporations can produce. The logic follows as such: once giant corporations are taxed for carbon emissions, their overhead increases, which in turn causes supply to decrease, resulting in increased prices and lower wages. These shifts in price and wage could result in another recession, say these economists. Investors lose confidence in the trading value of said corporations and start selling their stocks; building costs rise, causing prices for the housing market to rise, creating another housing bubble, etc… The list of consequences goes on.
What those economists fail to take into account, though, is the interconnectivity between our environment, our economy, and our quality of life. Yes, while maintaining a stable economy is important, making sure the world that we all inhabit is healthy supersedes any economic problematic. Without an ecosystem that is sustainable, clean, and stable, nothing would be possible.
So, we are faced with two options: allow the corporations, businesses and citizens to pollute the earth as much as they like, as long as the economy stays (relatively) stable; or, start taxing and capping waste and pollution rates and let the economy falter.
Okay, so the most pragmatic and logical selection would be to limit pollution and waste.
But how do we do that? As I already mentioned, society has become too big to undo. Reverting back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is almost laughable (though there are some merits to the idea), and even enacting environmental protection legislation (in the U.S. at least, Europe is remarkably progressive in creating more sustainable infrastructures) is as productive as driving on 95 the day before the Fourth of July.
I’ll tell you how we can (start to) do the impossible. We put more money—like, a lot lot lot more—into scientific research and technology.
But how do we make research and tech more attractive to private investors?
We get really good designers, marketers, and idea people (Steve Jobs people) to make science, tech, and progress, sexy. We need to make environmentalism cool. But not hipster cool— we need to make it sports cool. We need to completely shift how government, corporations, and people in general think about our current state of our commons. Organizations spend billions of dollars on sporting events every year; CEO’s and executives bring home millions of private dollars. And before we fix any of our more short term problems, pressing and important as they are (income inequality, political corruption, national debt, racism/discrimination, etc…) we ( I’m using “we” to refer to American Society) need to discuss and alter the trajectory of our current environmental policies.
Even though we have seen the rise of privately funded startups, there is a surprising lack of environmentally minded development. Without that type of movement, we are going to quickly realize the toxicicity of the seeds we have sewn ourselves.