A few weeks ago, my friend, Pat, asked me to help him with a very interesting eco-industrial project. Our discussions have caused me to think hard about the human role in climate change and why it’s so difficult for us to find solutions.
It’s now clear to me that we think and speak about consumption in outmoded ways. Further, our incentive structures drive us powerfully in the wrong direction. Changing these things will help us discuss climate and consumption more productively and, further, will drive us just as powerfully in a better direction.
Change How We Think (Our Model)
Prior to 1543, we had a geocentric (and immature) view of the world: Earth, we believed, was at the center of the universe. The flaws in this model became increasingly problematic until, in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published a discussion on heliocentrism that placed the sun at the center of the universe.
While not perfect (no model is), this new way of thinking broke a profound logjam. It unleashed a wave of scientific progress and cleared the way for Einstein and the moon landing.
Our current thinking on consumption hampers us in the same way. At every level – individual, organization, municipal, nation – we use a simple straight pipe model with us at the center: we take good stuff, use what we need, and throw away the bad stuff.
This model worked just fine when our impact, relative to Earth, was tiny. Now, however, we have overwhelmed Earth’s ability to maintain the status quo. Just like Copernicus, we need to move away from this human-centric model to something that better reflects our place in nature.
Change How We Speak (Our Language)
George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four knew full well the enormous power of words to shape our thinking. Words can imprison our minds in strictures that limit perspective and prevent exploration, or they can free our minds so as to be virtually limitless in their ability to imagine and create.
Our ability to see and solve our climate challenge is constrained by our language. We call the “good stuff” in our model “raw material” and “inputs”. These words give no hint to their source or scarcity. They imply that this “good stuff” is ours to be used as we see fit.
Similarly, “bad stuff” is called “garbage”, “sewage”, “waste” and “outputs”. Our language scorns these things and implies that they are valueless.
Our language perfectly suits our straight pipe model. It’s less perfect when we find ourselves swimming in our own outputs.
Change How We Act (Our Incentives)
Our current crises are perfectly described by the tragedy of the commons, writ large. Simply put, humans, whether as individuals or a corporation, will always put immediate self-interest over everything else. If there’s no immediate cost to discarding outputs, then we’ll continue to do so.
Self-interest is much maligned in both individuals and corporations as greedy and immoral. Yet self-interest can’t be ignored: it is hard-wired into our biology as a survival mechanism; it is encoded in the corporate mandate for profit. Rooted in survival, self-interest is a remarkably strong driver of behaviour that warnings, regulations and fines can’t hope to overcome.
How Do We Change Our Thinking, Our Speaking and Our Actions?
It’s easy enough to change our conceptual model from a straight pipe to a circle. Most people can objectively understand that we live in a closed loop, that what we consume had to come from somewhere, that what we discard has to go somewhere, and that these two “somewheres” are actually the same place.
Changing our language is a bit more difficult but, as we look at a circle with many people in it, we see that our outputs are somebody else’s inputs. And their outputs, our inputs.
What if we were to replace “garbage” and “waste” and “sewage” and “raw material” with the single word resources? We acquire resources, we transform them in some way, and then we send them back into the world.
Now we’re thinking and talking about things in a new way.
Last, we need to harness self-interest to incentivize the way we act. And the best way to do that is to place a value on resources. Because if my garbage has value, then I’m not going to simply throw it away. I’m going to find somebody to buy it.
The beautify of harnessing self-interest is that the moral discussion of climate change becomes irrelevant. You don’t have to convince me that climate change will be bad for my grand-children or that it’s destroying some far-off ecology or economy. You simply have to tell me that I can immediately increase my revenue or decrease my costs.
The Eco-Industrial Park
My friend, Pat, and I are working with this model and its language to create a site where each corporate tenant fits into the resource and financial streams of the other tenants. A little trickier than a standard landlord approach, but, done well, it generates considerable additional value to every tenant and the landlord. Certainly worth the effort from a self-interest perspective. And everybody is doing their bit for the climate!
Can #SmallBusiness Owners Save The World?
Small businesses are remarkably agile and can very quickly adopt new approaches. Further, small business owners care about their communities and their families and will incorporate this care into their decision making. So, small business owner, here are three steps for you (and me) to save the world:
1. Think circle, not straight pipe.
2. Say “resources”, not “garbage” or “raw material” or “waste”.
3. Find a business who will buy your excess resources.