These letters have been brought to your attention through a series of interactions between different materials. You were most likely reading these lines on your phone after a vibrating tone, and bright flashes alerted your attention. These were made possible by tungsten, found in the phone vibrating mechanism, and indium and/or some other rare earth materials found in the screen luminosity. Of course, these would not be possible without the lithium and cobalt that provided the electric energy from the battery, gold, or tantalum that delivered the functioning of some other phone components, and dozens of different metals and materials that your smartphone was made from.
The model you are holding is much faster, shinier, and flashier than the last smartphone model you’ve had. However, it is slower, darker, and more modest than the one that had just been released on the market. Once in your hand, it is hard not to think of it as a simple sum of parts. As a product whose manufacturing did not trigger any of the natural senses that get alerted once the vicinity of danger or hazard is detected. There was no sudden noise of leaves crackling or branch cracking that announces some dangerous predator’s presence. There was no visible trail of dark smoke or green acidic liquid behind it to alert you of hazardous substances used in its making. All there is is this thing—a shiny, comforting, and ego-nurturing object of desire.
We, as a species, are well adapted to interpret potential threats from the fluttering leaves. However, as Daniel Goleman (2013) nicely put it; we have no sensory equipment that could perceive the destruction of the ozone layer or increasing levels of CO2. These are slow systemic processes. And here lies one of the main obstacles to taking on a more decisive collective action against global warming. Our brains are not naturally equipped with mental models that enable us to react to slow systemic processes. In other words, we are very much quick-linear creatures.
That is why instead of seeing it as a causal loop of processes with environmental impact, we tend to see the end product. Once in our hands, it gets hard for us to grasp the global chain of interactions that led to new materials being extracted, more energy being used, and more greenhouse gases being emitted. The longer the chain gets, the interactions are harder to envision in a linear pattern of thinking. Hence the individual responsibility gets blurry. It becomes decoupled from actions. It feels dematerialized.
It is not! All our consumption choices are very much material. During the last century, the global extraction of fossil fuels increased by a factor of 12, ores and industrial minerals by a factor of 27, and construction minerals by a factor of 34 (Athanassiadis et al., 2016). So we can assume, with high confidence, that the same or higher increase patterns will apply to the extraction of rare earth elements that are contained in modern smartphones. Not to mention the related energy use and GHG emissions that will follow once the global middle class increases to 5 billion people worldwide.
Three more billions of smartphones, TV sets, PCs, and all sorts of appliances and goods will be demanded in just ten years from now! But, a simple look at the image above shows that this will not happen without pushing the Earth’s carrying capacity way beyond sustainable limits. The image shows the year 2009 when 2 billion pertained to the global middle class. Now, picture the effect of adding three more billion consumers!
The image to the right is perhaps one of the most illustrative examples of Anthropocene. This ‘manifestation of conflicting systems,’ as Goleman (2013) defined it, is driving the depletion of natural resources and emission of greenhouse gases to an unprecedented scale. And it is precisely the SCALE that led us to it in the first place. In other words, it was the economies of scale that triggered the exponential process of material extraction, beyond comparison with any other period in human evolution.
Economies of scale are what provide the possibility for cheaper products to be made. By continually reducing the cost per unit, these products become more accessible, hence their sales increase. Although the process has evolved in time, mainly due to production efficiency, the basic mechanics remain. As the prices fall, sales rise. Therefore, economies of scale occur.
It’s not all bad. The economies of scale have also provided hundreds of millions of jobs. This resulted in taking hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But this also led to a textbook example of a ‘wicked problem’. With more people getting out of poverty, their purchasing capacity increased. Greater purchasing capacity drives the demand for more and newer products to be produced. More products made requires more materials being extracted, more energy being used, more GHG being emitted, more rivers being polluted, more forests being cut,…
Perhaps the geoengineering will eventually provide humanity with the last-minute miraculous solution to clean up the atmosphere and put the Earth’s boundaries back to balance. However, time is running out. The only way to stop this slow-motion collective suicide from happening is by slowing down the loop.
This is the most difficult among the processes used and managed by the circular economy. What makes slowing more difficult than narrowing or closing loops is that it requires the behavioral change in the way we consume. It depends not just on our ability to design and manufacture more efficient products, but also on changing the way we use them.
The production/manufacturing constantly finds new ways of avoiding the costs for clean and safe processes, waste management, and decent working conditions. Hence it finds new ways to lower the production costs and stay engrained within the economies of scale. This process undoubtfully provides social benefits. It creates wealth and helps to eradicate poverty, but it also leads to ever-larger social inequality and, most importantly, to leaving an ever-larger environmental footprint.
Our consumption habits are the leading cause of the unsustainable environmental footprint our societies are leaving through the emissions that are generated along the worldwide value chain for resource extraction production and use. The only way to reduce it is by letting eudaimonia of scale to emerge.
This means promoting greater pro-environmental behavior and, through social engineering, allowing for sustainable consumption habits to gain momentum. It means supporting thousands of grassroots movements emerging all around the world and often carrying brilliant ideas. Many of whom can help companies to find new opportunities to propose, create, and capture value. But most importantly, it leads to a fundamental process of redefining what the good life is.
That is the process that needs to be scaled up. Only this way can we provide solid arguments to those claiming that the upcoming 3 billion middle-class citizens should experience the well-being presumably associated with consumption. One argument is that higher consumption patterns are not synonymous with higher well-being. Having a flashier, faster vibrating, and a newer phone may make you a moment happier, but this feeling is not accumulative and does not assure your long term greater well-being.
Living a meaningful life with purpose and hope does. That is what eudaimonia stands for. It is an ancient Greek term used to define the abundance of life achieved through the practice of virtue. It stands for achieving well-being through values, purpose, and hope. It is a reflection of our meaningful being in the society that surrounds us, and not merely our ability to consume. Therefore, scaling up eudaimonia is our best chance to slow down the loops driving climate change. It is our best chance to reach prosperity that «consists in our ability to flourish as human beings within the ecological limits of our planet”. (Jackson, 2016)
This does not mean to stop consuming. It means increasing demand for goods and products that last longer is easy to repair and recycle and, most of all, leave a smaller environmental footprint. This is far from easy but it is not quantum physics either. It’s about learning what consumption habits lead to lowering the environmental footprint and JUST DO IT.
To begin, take this brief test and see if you’re Making Good Climate Choices
Athanassiadis, A. Christis, M. Bouillard, P. Vercalsteren, A. Crawford, R.H. Khan, A.Z. (2016) Comparing a territorial-based and a consumption-based approach to assess the local and global environmental performance of cities, Journal of Cleaner Production. Journal of Cleaner Production 173 (2018) 112e123.
Goleman, D. (2013) Focus. The Hidden Driver of Excellence. HarperCollins
Hoekstra, A.Y. & Wiedmann, T.O. (2014) Humanity’s unsustainable environmental footprint. Science. VOL 344 ISSUE 6188 sciencemag.org
Jackson, T. (2016) Prosperity without growth. Foundations for the economy of tomorrow. Routledge