Blog: A Sustainable Future Through Technology
The Extinction Rebellion protests have done a fantastic job in highlighting the severity of the climate crisis we face. They have also given us pause for thought: that “business as usual” just cannot continue. We need to do things in a new way, a different way, a more sustainable and environmentally conscious way. This new approach needs to encompass how we go about everything: how we work, how we consume, how we travel — and the truth is, the technology is out there to support this brave new world. An awful lot of processes and ways we do things are no longer fit for 21st-century life and a global population that will grow to some 12 billion people by 2050.
“Business as usual” fails us (and our futures), in that it ignores the damaging externalities, the polluting by-products of industry, needless transportation, rampant consumerism. Too little consideration goes into what is left once products are used and pollutants are dispersed. We risk a future where we are no longer Masters of our environments, but instead suffer the consequences of our past — and current — wastefulness.
For example, our carbon footprints: flying everywhere so cheaply, travelling needlessly into offices, transporting goods unnecessarily — we’re all guilty of shamefully wasteful behaviours. And whilst we’re all aware that everyone should do more, we all go back to our everyday lives excepting ourselves from this responsibility, hoping someone else will solve these issues and the problems will just go away.
“It wasn’t me”
There is a huge challenge in enabling people to relate their own behaviours to the macro consequences. What was my carbon footprint last year? I have no idea. But as the maxim goes: “If you can measure it, you can manage it”.
To change behaviours, we need viable alternatives, but also mechanisms to allow individuals to recognise and be more conscious of which of their behaviours are environmentally damaging. The digital revolution has a part to play here. With powerful emerging technologies like blockchain, big data and AI we have the capabilities to monitor, measure and report people’s current behaviours. People are generally reluctant to change unless there is some upside, so we might serve up their data in a “game” charting their journey to becoming an eco-protector with scores, live updates and real rewards. Let’s look at a few examples.
How We Work
In an era where we have Skype and Zoom and other video conference solutions, is it really necessary for everybody to travel into a centralised office to do their job? Many companies already allow people to work from home a few days a week, but shouldn’t this be the norm rather than the exception? Unfortunately, these videoconferences can be poor quality. A significant national investment in fibre broadband is necessary to allow everybody high-quality internet access. It will pay dividends in time — not least in the energy consumption (i.e. physical transportation of people) but also from productivity gains in all those people avoiding all those hours of pointless commuting.
Decentralised working is surely a step forward. Where there are empty, redundant, old shopping malls, these could be rejuvenated into localised “remote working” hubs. This would have the added benefit of generating footfall in town centres many of which are otherwise moribund. More generally, there are benefits of keeping things local — like reducing food miles.
Business as usual? We’ve got to do better.
How We Travel
The millennial “EasyJet generation” prefer to spend what money they have on experiences rather than material possessions. They “love to travel” i.e. to fly away on holidays — (don’t we all!) The fact that airline fuel is barely taxed and therefore is essentially subsidised, is an environmental travesty. As Greta Thunberg pointed out in rebuffing the UK government’s climate claims, simply hiding from these facts is an accountant’s fudge that makes Ministers’ claims of environmental progress a patent deceit.
So how can we tie people’s willingness to protect the environment with their desire for international travel? Again, if you can measure it, you can manage it. It would be relatively simple to develop a database (perhaps logging passport interactions) to show someone their carbon footprint status over the last 12 months and provide them a digital dashboard. A distributed ledger could allow many participants to engage with this data — governments, airlines, individuals. This is a strong use case for blockchain and there are already examples of incentive schemes people are building in their distributed apps. (Note that despite the energy consumption of some early public blockchains, there are environmentally sustainable derivations, such as new versions of the Bitcoin blockchain like Gochain, and permissioned blockchains like Activeledger).
We have seen through individuals’ responses to efforts like recycling, that people are willing to do their part if they are given guidance and alternatives. Whilst no one should begrudge an annual family holiday abroad, is a 5th, 6thor 7thtrip justifiable? Should it be priced accordingly?
Business as usual? We’re capable of much more.
How We Consume
Capitalism implores us to consume ever more products and services. Our global measure of success, GDP, drives us to sell more things to more people more often to deliver a growing profitable business and positive investor returns. Exponential growth of this kind is evidently completely unsustainable.
Disposable packaging and a “throw-away culture” are inherently wasteful and polluting. Whilst plastic bags and plastic packaging is cheap at the point of consumer purchase, the long-term effects are disgraceful. Fundamentally, the idea of landfill — that we pay people to take our trash away and bury it — is so pathetically primitive I find it embarrassing as a human being that we haven’t moved on to a more advanced way of doing things. In the same way as the Victorians brought sewers to London to remove and process excrement, we need to find a better way to deliver food and goods — and reuse packaging — in more sustainable way.
We already have tech companies like HelloFresh and Farm Direct reducing food miles by disintermediating long standing supply chains, bringing food directly from suppliers to consumers’ front door. Through a reduced supply chain, Ocado, the UK’s greenest retailer, have claimed to be “greener than walking to the supermarket”.
What We Consume — the Bull in the room
With regards our diets, a lot of people eat a lot of unsustainable food, i.e. high carbon emissions, high water consumption, high dependency on anti-biotics — and in quantities which is unhealthy to boot. Beef is the worst product on all counts, not least due to the intensive farming methods employed particularly in the US. Technologists are working hard to produce lab-grown meatat scale which requires 100 times less land, water and antibiotics, drastically reducing the environmental impact and potentially allowing reforestation of large areas of rainforest.
The carbon footprint of meat consumption is significant and will escalate as the global population increases. Clearly adjusting to a more plant-based diet can save money, improve health and reduce carbon emissions.
Besides food, we waste inordinate amounts of energy on trucks carting around mostly water — liquid shampoos, detergents, beverages, bottled water! (“Sorry Mr Polar Bear, your ice sheet has melted and you will starve to death …but Fiona in Hampstead really needs to drink melted ice water from the French alps”)
How can we incentivise people to change their behaviour? How can they keep score of their virtuous behaviour? With all the data collected at purchase points, supermarkets could produce carbon footprint on receipts with an indicator of best to worst, e.g. your basket is in the top 25% of eco-friendly shoppers, or yours is in the worst 25% of eco-friendly shoppers and here are some changes you might make. If everyone aimed to be better than average, it would nudge us all in the right direction. Again, a decentralised database could facilitate this.
There Is Hope — but we must seize the opportunity
Change is uncomfortable and can be expensive. But the effects of inaction are stark and very real. But we have the technology to help everyone take action.
With these tools we can:
• Help people monitor the environmental impact of their own behaviours
• Provide incentives to help people develop more environmentally friendly habits
• Nudge people towards better behaviours through gamification.
• Help people convert to more plant based diets through education, self-monitoring and gamification.
From our governments we need action:
• High speed internet — a national fibre network — is essential to reduce travel requirements
• Local working hubs — decentralized working — can decrease unnecessary commutes
• Flying may need to become a privilege rather than a de facto right
What Are You Going To Do?
The Extinction Rebellion protests have made the point that business as usual is a guaranteed path to destruction of all that we hold dear. The technology and tools are within our grasp to change our ways, but are we sufficiently motivated? Do we have the collective desire to act now?
Regrettably, until we can get organised enough to implement any technology solutions, it’s down to individuals to act, to make their own stand against “business as usual”.
What responsibility will you take? What will you do?
Jules is a Founding Partner at C4DR.com, a global network of tech hubs focused on advancing emerging and frontier technologies for common good.