One of the focus themes for our next accelerator round is innovations for sustainability. So we thought it a good time to ruminate a little on the topic over a spot of lunch, and our discussions quickly took us towards a seemingly irresolvable philosophical conflict at the heart of our economic system: the ideology of growth against the demand for a sustainable society.
But first, what is sustainability?
Sustainability is first and foremost about a balanced and manageable coexistence between humans and the biosphere (the sum of all ecosystems). But there are many approaches from many different fields which touch on sustainability in different ways. An obvious one involves the pace and nature of consumption, and the waste generated in the process — whether in production or transportation. But other matters also fall within the scope of sustainability: from the social perspective, for instance, one might focus on equitable resource distribution, diversity, or approaches to community building that allows future generations to be born to places of connection and wellbeing. From an economic standpoint (which is of course intertwined with consumption habits and resource depletion), one might focus instead on how ‘success’ is defined in economic terms, for instance by accounting for happiness indices as well as traditional measures of GDP.
All that to say that sustainability can be framed in different lenses, but they ultimately all center on the idea of reaching a form of equilibrium whereby humanity could thrive, and be able to do so without harming the biosphere (too much) on the way.
Taken with that (long and rather imprecise) definition, is ‘sustainable growth’ an oxymoron? Can we escape from the apparently illogical notion of seeking growth in a closed system? Because, surely, if resources are finite, then growth cannot be infinite.
Yet, living beings have existed for, well, quite some time. And aside from the occasional apocalyptic visit from some pesky meteorite, eruption of a supervolcano, or an uninvited ice age, planet earth has been relatively safe from catastrophe. But that is a digression. Most importantly, all the beings which came before us seemed to get along fine without warming the planet, setting Antarctica on fire, or using up all the water. But then humanity rocked onto the scene, bipedaled, heads full of grey matter, and boasting opposable thumbs. We manipulated our environment for our own ends and became masters of a thousand crafts; we left the food chain and created villages that became towns and cities and nation states; we sprawled across the earth with astonishing appetite, and we made new versions of ourselves with still more impressive dedication.
What happened was that we, the humans, messed up the equation. The trouble being that we got so good at surviving, we began to live longer and longer, with ever-growing populations which consumed more and more things. To paraphrase the Economist, in no previous century had the human population doubled. In the 20th century, it almost doubled twice. For every unit of human, scores more of resource units were taken up — too quickly to be replaced, and giving off too much trash to be processed.
This has taken us up to where we are now. A warming planet promising more frequent and extreme weather events; rising sea levels to threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions; ocean choking with plastic waste; droughts and famines on the horizon; dirty rivers and unbreathable air. The utter urgency of climate change is illuminating with catastrophic clarity the need to rethink our way of life.
Yet, change seems to be on the horizon. In a recent report, the Edelman Trust, a large communications firm, surveyed 607 institutional investors that collectively represented over $9trn in assets, and found that 84% of respondents said that maximizing shareholder returns can no longer be the primary goal of corporations. Further, just over half — 52% — of the respondents said they’d put more trust in firms that linked executive compensation to ESG (environmental, social, and governance) goals.
Decades of environmental activism and piling evidence has sparked outrage at the inaction of our governments and industries, and ignited a mainstream consciousness of the need for something different. What that something is, though, is yet to be defined. Does sustainability mean that growth ought of stop? Are ‘sustainability’ measures really just ideas to slow down our path to ruin, instead of solutions that could see us reach some kind of harmony with our planet? Can we actually achieve sustainability in a closed system? Will it be too little, too late? Are we now beyond the point of repair, and can only hope for mitigation? Or can technology pry open different paths, paths of sustainable growth?
In this next round of our accelerator — we want to answer these questions. We want to find the visionaries with ideas to tackle this philosophical conflict between growth and sustainability. We want to find these brilliant minds, and accelerate their journey so their solutions can be spread wide and far. We want to find the innovations that can make a more sustainable world.