You have had a stressful day, so rather than cook you order a delivery. Having wolfed the flavoursome takeaway, you barely have the energy to regret what just happened. The idea of disposing of the packaging and menu via your recycling containers feels like too much effort. So you lob them in the nearby bin.
You then hit the sack where throughout the night you make your own periodic contributions to the greenhouse effect.
“You have two cars, and how many children?!”
The definition of sustainabilityhas morphed over time. Originally it referred to the capacity to keep going, eg. a sustainable system. Today it relates to the ability of humans to coexist with the Earth’s biosphere. It has also become an emotive term that has crept its way onto the agendas of both business and government leaders. It is also an increasingly significant channel in respect of social shaming.
There was a time when we simply took what we needed, some berries from a bush or a wild animal. Where we could, we would target an animal that had seen better days. Killing the young was not part of the then circular economy. We might even have said a respectful prayer of gratitude for the kill.
Fast forward to the industrial era, where a focus on wants and things led us to move beyond a focus on needs. You might say we started to make dumb decisions:
D – Disposable: Buying products that had built-in obsolescence, either by design or through poor quality.
U – Unnecessary: “Well the neighbours have one?”
M – More: “How can you live in only one home?”
B – Bigger: Think restaurant meals designed to put the family into a collective coma.
These all contribute, to varying degrees, to the linear economy (Take, make and waste).
This is not sustainable. At the end of the day, the universe doesn’t care if we destroy ourselves and take multiple species with us. Once we are gone, homeostasis will resume. Given that we are new to the planet, the more established species would be far from teary eyed in the event of human extinction.
Humans are incredible feats of bioengineering. It is amazing how we can overindulge, live an increasingly digital existence and not keel over. Though the fact is we do, eventually. It’s just that the gap between the pleasure and the final pain is too wide for many to draw a correlation.
We are made up of 15 trillion cells and not all of them are us (eg. gut bacteria).
Each cell is a living organism. So it might be argued that humans are simply an established communal model for cells to exist. In any case, cells have a track record in respect of how to keep their genome in play. Cells have the ability to recycle dysfunctional molecules and the by-products of cell respiration. Little goes to waste. It is a characteristic of living things to conserve energy because we never knew where the next meal was coming from. The industrial era changed our attitude in that respect.
It takes a village to raise a child
Pre-industrial humans were similarly parsimonious. Clothes were built to last and thus could be passed down from generation to generation. There would be very little wastage in respect of a slaughtered animal. The meat was the primary food source.
But the animal’s organs, bones, blood and fat also could be used. Their hide was our first foray into exoskeleton tech.
Communities operated in an energy-conserving manner. Local bartering shortened the supply chain and collaborative consumption, ie sharing of resources (think child minder, combine harvester or power drill) led to a better economic return on such investments.
Vexed in the city
But then communities became cities and cities become nations. It became less about living sustainably and more about power. Cities provided the structure within which profit-making organisations could operate. Goods in, goods out. Access to people was important as the factory machine could not, as yet, be fully automated (though that’s changing).
Whilst the people were largely doing inhuman process work, they were rewarded to the extent that they now had discretionary income. Thus the workers became both the organic cogs in the factory machine and the consumers of what they made. Another variant of the cyclic economy, perhaps?
Smart advertisers, who today are essentially neuroscientists, managed to convince us that we needed to buy things that we didn’t need. And if these things were made poorly, we would have to buy them again and again.
This created an economic divide between those who ran the factories and those who worked in them. In large part through educational differences, those that ran factories largely purchased assets, whilst the workers largely purchased liabilities. Visit a factory owner’s home and you will see artifacts that are likely to increase in value with time. Visit a factory worker’s home and you will see trinkets. Renoir paintings and plastic nodding car accessories are two extremes.
The biosphere pays the price on our ownership of things we do not need.
The growth in electronic devices comes at a cost, particularly in respect of human blood, depletion of natural resources and pollution. The increasing virtualisation of technology means that the Earth pays a tax for every video and tweet we share. And post.
Cities, agriculture, mining and industry are not good for the planet. Should there be an emergency biosphere conference where each species has a representative attending, it would likely be concluded that humans are the problem.
The species diversity at COP26 tells you everything.
Successful species are those that can adapt to their environment. Humans have done this and taken it a step further and started to adapt the environment to satisfy their ‘wants’. And we seem to be doing this despite the damage it is doing to the planet. We will eventually pay the ultimate species price.
I believe humans took a wrong turn at the time of the agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago. This is when we moved beyond our day-to-day survival needs to creating surpluses and a taste for ownership. We now enjoy lifestyles instead of just lives. We have better health and enjoy greater longevity than our ancestors. We live in a world today where it is impossible to get either lost or bored.
Of course I am referring to the ‘privileged few’ who enjoy the spoils of the industrial age. Though industrial colonialism is attempting to change that.
Unfortunately, modern society has perhaps given rise to a species change from Homo sapiens (wise man!). Today we are Homo dumbo (guess!). We no longer live to survive, recreate or even move humanity forward in some small way, we exist to turn natural raw materials into pollution. How did we become so stupid?
You probably know at least one person who boasts about how busy they are. You know the type, back-to-back zooms all day and an ultra-Ironman on the other side of the planet at the weekend. You may not be this extreme. Though possibly you end each day in deep exhaustion and a slight sense of despair because you have not quite ticked all the boxes on your to do list.
That headless chicken approach simply didn’t cut it. But there’s always tomorrow.
Such behaviour has us living in a sea of cortisol and that is not the best place to be when it comes to making decisions, particularly about the future and the planet. I would argue that the way in which society is structured has led to the squandering of perhaps the planet’s most valuable asset, our cognition. The modern lifestyle is designed to frazzle our ability to think and thus our ability to think about the impact of our behaviour on the planet.
Covid – Nature’s prompt?
There are short term advantages to this dynamic. Frazzled citizens are less likely to revolt. Frazzled workers will keep working in jobs that enable them to maintain a certain lifestyle, which requires the purchase of things, which by the way they have neither time nor energy to enjoy.
Covid has given us time to reflect and some of us sense that life pre-Covid is not what we want post-Covid. The factory owners sense that.
Hence the big push for a return to the office, which is currently dressed up as hybrid working.
Sustainability is now a hot topic. In corporate circles it has even been given a rebrand. CSR is so last year, ESG is what we are about. Sponsoring a tree in the Congo or setting up a watercooler in the Sudan looks good on the ESG page, but this is more signalling than substance.
Humans are amazing creatures, physically, mentally and emotionally. Again, it could be argued that our cognition is the planet’s greatest asset or its greatest liability. But I appreciate that is a somewhat anthropocentric perspective. Unfortunately, the industrial era model has turned it into a liability.
We need to reclaim our ability to think and thus make better decisions in respect of how we use our time and our discretionary income.
Companies could support this by plugging the cognitive leaks that drain our cognition. Forcing people to wade through the rush hour traffic to travel to an office on the other side of town is a perfect example of cognition being squandered at scale. This reclaimed cognition could be recycled into more innovative endeavours.
Governments could support this by creating environments that stimulate cognition, eg. parks, museums and youth clubs, rather than inhibit it, eg. poorly designed housing estates, taxation of the poor for the benefit of the rich. Building societies around communities, rather than cities and nations would help.
So much for 2020 vision
The last thing we need is a 2030, 2050 etc vision. This is like having work performance appraisals once per lifetime. Even a yearly assessment is not enough. Our progress with respect to sustainability needs to be real-time. We must track, individually and collectively, whether this has been a good or a bad week for the planet and if necessary we need to adapt our behaviours to make next week better.
If we take a sustainable approach to human cognition, we will set in motion a wave of activity that will dismantle the systems that today are considered the primary threats to the planet.
Once we regain clarity of thought, we will be in a much better position to think about the planet’s future and the implications of our behaviours.