It’s Time to Innovate or Die – Literally

13 November 2019

To grow or not to grow, that is the question. Like many so-called certainties that are being called into question these days, consumer capitalism is now having its time in the sun. Let’s hope it has some solar panels fitted.

For many decades, consumerism has been the cornerstone of a vibrant free-market system. Consumption, so the argument has gone, has led to economic growth, which in turn has made society richer and healthier. Advertising was the fuel of this doctrine – it encouraged us to upgrade our cars, our kitchens, to buy a new lawnmower, to take out life insurance policies. Governments slavishly charted trade surpluses and deficits and GDP growth as indicators of economic success and dominance. Free trade flourished across much of the world throughout the post-war period, and as this trade increased, so did mutual economic dependency which made the outbreak of war less likely between states that held similar systems in place. Conflict simply became too costly and counterproductive.

In short, we have been thoroughly indoctrinated that consumption not only made our lives better, it made the world more prosperous and safer. It underscored our democratic political systems.

Billions of people have been lifted out of poverty globally, and millions of lives saved and extended in the process.

Now the message emanating from certain sections of society and the media is that far from making our world better, unfettered consumerism is killing our planet and denying future generations any sort of hope. When you see oceans full of plastic and dystopian visions of children wading through piles of rubbish in India, it’s very hard to deny that something fundamental has to change.

Recently, Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s impassioned speech to the UN filled our screens and disrupted our streets. Their argument was simple – to avert climate catastrophe, governments must give up the goal of “endless economic growth”. Essentially, in order to live more sustainably, we need to stop consuming at the rate we have been. Does your family really need the second car? Should you be spending the summer holiday savings on insulating the house, and spending August in Cornwall rather than Crete? These are all very valid questions, and it’s undoubtably a good thing that we’re all becoming more environmentally aware. Lots of small changes to our lives will have a big impact on the planet.

However, I’m the sort of guy that likes having cake and likes eating it. Rather than consigning consumer capitalism to the bin, can we optimise it to save the planet as well? Government has set the goal of the UK to be net carbon neutral by 2050. History shows us that we can indeed grow while reducing emissions – since the early 1990s, our economy has grown by 65%; emissions fell by 35% in the same period. To achieve the 2050 goal, however, we’re going to have to move much quicker and much further.

A government setting a goal is fine, but it then has to set the regulatory framework to make that goal a reality. When JFK set the goal for Americans to land on the moon within the decade of the 1960s, he didn’t just leave it at that. His, and Lynton Johnson’s successive administrations, had to move mountains to make government and industry worthy of the task. And that’s not even mentioning the colossal sums of money involved – at its peak in 1965, the space programme was consuming a whopping 8% of America’s GDP. However, the subsequent economic growth that was inadvertently caused by the innovation and technological boom of the space programme, repaid the economy with dividends. Apart from the Second World War, it was America’s largest single leap forward in terms of the technology that was created, much of which still is part of everyday lives. Everything from baby formula, to memory foam, to LEDs, to solar cells – even the technology behind the camera in your phone – came from that one decade of innovation.

We now have an opportunity to set business the challenge to save the world, and not just with carbon reduction, but with all non-sustainable processes.

Far from the consumer having to bear the responsibility of saving the planet, it should be business that innovates its way out of the current quandary. We can keep consuming (environmentally friendly) things at the same rate; business makes a profit; the economy grows, and the UK becomes world leaders in new sustainable industries. Win, win, win.

So simple! I hear you cry. When making this above point, I always give the example of when the UK started to charge for single-use plastic bags in shops as a classic example of trying to get the consumer to change behaviour rather than fostering a new innovative solution. Far from charging us to use plastic bags (and what the hell happens to that money anyway?) which forces me into petty criminality by stealing them whenever I go shopping, it doesn’t solve the issue – we’re still using plastic bags, albeit not as many of them. Corn starch can be made to exactly resemble a proper plastic bag in durability and texture, but it will completely dissolve within 3 months of being in a landfill. If the government instead banned plastic bags in supermarkets completely and set industry the challenge that all new single-use bags had to be bio-degradable, then you could create a huge new internal market in a very short space of time, not to mention global exports for a new line of green products.

Recycling plastic bottles is also largely a waste of time, as plastic can’t be endlessly reprocessed. You have two recycles to make something new out of it, otherwise it gets sent to an incinerator and burned. Surely it’s better to challenge industry to come up with something better? We sent men to the moon in the 1960s using a computer that had less computational capacity than today’s pocket calculators; I don’t think it’s impossible to reinvent a plastic bottle in the 2020s.

Aluminium, the Earth’s most abundant metal, could easily fill the void until Plastic 2.0 is invented. It is also endlessly recyclable, cheap, and if it did come into contact with the ocean, would sink to the bottom and not be ingested by sea life.

Government has to take the approach of the space programme to achieve this goal. It has to move its own mountains, in terms of regulations and laws, and dangle incentives in terms of tax breaks and massive new potential markets in front of businesses in order for us to innovate our way out of this environmental crisis. America brought the power of the state to bear for ideological reasons: to prove to the world the technological advancements of the capitalist system. We have a far better reason: an existential threat to human life.

So, to come back to the humble consumer – you and me. Government can set the regulatory framework, business can innovate, but we will ultimately have to consume the finished products in order for this cycle to work. Paying more for a bottle of water that comes in bio-degradable packaging could be the upshot, but wouldn’t that be worthwhile in order to bequeath a sustainable economy onto our children?