Cavemen Playing with Matches
Our expanding awareness and passion for everything sustainable has begun to shift the context in which we live. Electric cars, smart phones, cloud computing, on-demand movies, the Internet of Things (IoT), commercial space flights – these realities were science fiction for the masses not that long ago. Today they have become commodities of a service-based hyper-connected economy.
Keep in mind that since the dot-com bubble of the late 90s there has been an onslaught of global events, data and information breaches, and corruption that have cast a long shadow of distrust and cynicism throughout society. People are agitated, desensitized, and super stressed at the same time. Society has benefited immensely from technological innovation. But it’s also been battered and bullied by unsuspecting deviates that seek out and wield power from the dark-side of innovation.
It seems humans don’t really understand the power of creation or truly value the responsibility of destruction. If we did, we might revisit, for example, the flawed logic of a nuclear-chemical-biologic warfare. Seldom do we hit pause and think about impacts beyond the invention when it comes to creation. Give society a new toy, and society will find a unique way to play with it. But, we cannot leave well-enough alone, so we will, with a little ingenuity and time, discover a dozen more unpredicted ways to use the toy, most of which will create risks and yield impacts undesirable to human health and the environment. We’re like cavemen playing with matches, caught up in thinking we’ve discovered fire, but unprepared for when we get burned.
The proliferation and convergence of modern technologies puts us on the verge of a perfect storm. Technology is taking a back seat to political and market-based ideologies which are moving fast. Look at data breaches and IT security issues, distributed energy and microgrids, drones, driverless cars and the internet of things (IoT). An ideology rooted in efficiency, and enveloped in sustainability, is driving change, fast. But we don’t yet have the necessary frameworks in-place, calibrated to address systemic ethical, legal, and security concerns. Just look at the recent Apple vs. FBI data encryption case.
Preventing the Big Short of Business Sustainability
Truth is, we’re overcomplicating sustainability. We’re developing complex policy, technology, and financial solutions to problems that, at their core, have a common thread: human behavior. We like to design, develop, manipulate, and control our world. But are we in control of ourselves? Our choices, decisions, values, beliefs – these are reflected in everything we see, touch, hear, smell, taste and sense. We’ve created a reality that we dislike so much we’re constantly creating alternate realities to take us away from the truth. As we continue to distance our true self from the realities of how we care for each other and the earth, we only increase the odds of defaulting on our proverbial mortgage.
Financial capital can be built quickly, and fall even quicker. In contrast, natural capital takes generations to build. In most cases, natural capital does not replenish within one human life time. Economic theories and capital markets have traditionally viewed depletion of natural resources exclusively in economic terms. If natural capital is needed, markets will put a price on it, and financial capital will step in and make the purchase at market rate.
This holds together in a world where the carrying capacity of natural capital does not exceed the rate of consumption by humanity. Reality check: we don’t live in that world. It’s estimated that if everyone on earth consumed products and lived as American’s do, it would take five earth’s to fulfill that demand. Five earths! With that perspective in mind, it’s no wonder NASA is spending billions to explore Mars and other galaxies.
As technology gets out ahead of our ability to articulate what sustainability is, let alone legitimately measure and report out on it, we run the risk of creating a bubble. The bubble, fixated on talking about growth, risk, and efficiency, is primarily financially motivated and measured. For this model to work, we need more dialog, greater transparency, and more truth-telling on how ecological-and-financial indicators are interrelated. Shouldn’t sustainability and the pursuit of better living be an open source model for all?
Let’s face it, earth does not have a back-office ready to issue humanity a credit default swap when we overdraw on our ledger. Surely if it did, our premiums would be much higher that we are currently paying. The clock is ticking. If we continue with life and business as usual humanity will face a mortgage meltdown of colossal proportions.
This isn’t about predicting the future, or the current financial solvency of individuals or nations. This is about how our generation, alive here and now, rises up to accept the tough truth before us, that we are our own worst enemy. Only we can save us from ourselves. There is no miracle technology, no secret potion, and no worm-hole portal to another dimension awaiting our arrival. We’re delusional destructionists living in a world of finite resources. We’re beyond the hope of making incremental improvements in efficiency.
Our time is, as it’s always been, right now, in the moment. There will be those that say we can never rid the world of greed, corruption, human rights issues, and poverty. There will be those that say these issues are too pervasive, unrelenting, and too complex to even try. These naysayers are the ones that profiteer from the up-and-down side of financial markets. There is great political opportunity and financial wealth to be made in chaos. Every crisis needs a hero. Think about that.
Collectively we’ve written a mortgage contract between humanity and earth that simply does not add up. The adoption of new technology, persuasiveness of politics, and arrogance of financial markets provide a false sense of security. History tells us we cannot bank on this kind of insurance exclusively. Before we default on our contract, it’s time for us to challenge the fundamental principles of what it means to be human and humane.
We’ve consistently proven that we are notoriously good at destruction. So let’s begin by destroying those traits propagating social, environmental, and economic injustices, and which limit us from achieving our truest and highest sense of self and collective intelligence.
Author Acknowledgements: A special thanks to some global friends including Eva Otanke in Latvia, Stylianos Voyatzis in Greece, and Rajiv Ramchandra in India who provided critical review, perspective, and insight for this piece.