As I’ve written about previously, no single idea or innovation will be the magic bullet that solves the climate or biodiversity crisis. Luckily, we have lots of options to deliver significant changes, plus more coming into life. If we can get the synergies working across different sectors coupled with a collective shift in our mindsets then we can limit the damage for the future generations.
The global north consumes way too much, with little regard for the origins of our material wealth and possessions. Yet, as highlighted by the recent Ukraine crisis and the increasing effects of climate change, global supply chains are failing. A drive for sustainability, within an economic system that strives for eternal growth is doomed.
As noted in this article, and also this useful infographic, the amount of rare earth metals needed to fuel the transition to electric vehicles and renewable energy is limited. However, if we make policies that prioritise sharing economies and community wealth, for example shared vehicles that can be booked out when needed, better public transport and alternative mobility options, then limited resources can be fairly distributed. What this necessitates is a move away from individual possession to one of area-wide resources.
This is the difficult part to navigate. Let’s take this example, car ownership, which is by no means the only collective wealth we need to cultivate, and examine it more closely. Lots of difficult questions immediately spring to mind — how can we learn to relinquish individuality for common good, how can we justify the impact on product consumption, which will inevitably be less, the impacts on profits and knock-on effects on jobs? We tug at one string in this web and the whole is pulled in many places. Yet, by exploring this single idea, we can begin to understand the underlying complexity and the number of factors we need to influence to deliver this change.
Individual western/global north consumption is ingrained from our youngest ages. Many moons ago when I was doing my Masters degree, I wrote an essay entitled ‘Can you get me out of my car? An analysis of sustainable transport’. To me, the car represented freedom, ease, adventure and is a manifestation of our personality. That is what I had been conditioned to think with all those glossy adverts I’d been exposed to over my life. Only now, can I reflect and understand more deeply that conditioning. Really it is a tool, one that can carry a family, the shopping and explore places that public transport doesn’t reach. That is its use and truth, nothing more, nothing less. Breaking out of these conditioned thought processes is really hard.
If I lived in a city a car would be fairly redundant. Parking is generally a nightmare and expensive, far easier to travel by public transport. I lived in London during the tube strikes many years ago. Getting on the packed buses was a fight — literally, I saw people pushing and pulling like a Black Friday sale. Not for me all that aggro, so I walked and without knowing the backstreets, just ambled home along the bus route. It took 40 minutes and was pretty enjoyable. I could take in the architecture, the people and discover different bits of the city that I’d previously go straight past. London now has brilliant walking maps.
Where I live now, in rural Portugal, the situation is very different. Our bus services are intermittent and the car is very much part of getting about. However, I still would like to have a less recource intensive option, ideally a car-share pool. When communities have tried to explore these options, sticking points can be around insurance and damage concerns. These problems are just about bureaucracy and risk management and should be pretty simple for our intelligent monkey brains to solve.
More problematic is growing support within large organisations and consumers at large, that economic growth needs to be better aligned with social and environmental goals. These changes are happening and the Net Zero ambition is becoming more prevalent. Importantly, care must be taken to ensure that ambitions prioritise decarbonisation for all goods and services. Offsetting emissions can be done but it does not deliver benefits for the planet or the people and species that live together here, it is the last part of the process.
Returning to the car example, manufacturers and their shareholders must begin to realise that in these times of transition there needs to be a greater acceptance of lower commercial gains to deliver long-term survival. Profit will shrink, but profit can still be delivered through consistent transformation. We cannot just replace every combustion engine vehicle with an electric version, our energy infrastructure is not capable and the resources to achieve this are not around. There needs to be a move towards less vehicles in cities, accessible public transport and alternative mobility in cities. Rural transport infrastructure can be better provided by instigating community conversations to deliver options that suit different places.
In the discussions I have with sustainability practitioners, I hear about innovations and ideas that have the potential to transform these and other big challenges. Batteries that don’t require rare earth minerals or lithium, renewable technologies at small scale, which could be placed throughout existing urban areas to generate energy on site, biomimicry design solutions and many more. Humans are clever and exciting.
Whilst these times can feel dark and overwhelming, with knotty problems seemingly endless to untangle, it is worth reminding ourselves that these are also times of transition. There will be ideas that don’t make the grade, innovations that work and then are quickly replaced by others that are better. Transition times are not linear, tangents are important, leaps of imagination and creativity catalysts for change. I try hard to hold onto these thoughts as I assess the landscape of change, impacts of solutions and what nexts across our planet.
If you like this article, please give it a clap — you can clap up to 50 times! I write irregularly but around every couple of weeks or so, follow me to be notified when I do. Mainly, I’m a artist, activist and sustainability consultant, now building a new life in Portugal. To see more of my writing and support my work, visit — https://www.patreon.com/Postcards_from_Portugal or https://futurecologic.co.uk/.