Ladies and Gentlemen! I am delighted to present my latest invention: the OctoWheelBarrow. Don’t laugh – it is a lot better than the previous version, which used a square wheel.
Assume that we lived in a society where the state religion bans the use of round shapes in engineering. There would be two kinds of engineers: The opportunists and careerists would make a living from designing octagonal wheels and the decent ones would get politically involved and try to remove the ban. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
For this reason, I cannot attend innovation seminars anymore. To begin with, it is kind of surreal to have a person on stage telling people to think independently. Monty Python made fun of this in “Life of Brian”, where they had a huge crowd of people shouting “We are all different!” in unison. A creative person does not need to be told what to think.
Even worse, nobody attending such seminars is prepared to think outside the box of capitalism. There is an unwritten agreement that the purpose of all human activity is to generate ROI. If someone comes up with an idea to sell more guns, alcohol, or junk food, it is automatically considered a good thing. The purpose of a vending machine for soft drinks is to sell as many of those as possible, even if they are unhealthy. In order to accomplish this, engineers today use cameras with face recognition in order to display the gender- and age-appropriate ads. It is called progress.
My main point is not to criticize our current economic system. I just want to point out that we have all been brainwashed into believing that no alternatives are possible. Children are taught how to compute compound interest, but they do not learn where the money comes from. This way, innovation in our society is limited to technology. All other forms are banned. Ideas without business models are dead on arrival. That is not very innovative.
Here is a simple question I like to ask my students and attendees of my public lectures:
A gold digger departs into the mountains and finds a huge goldnugget. Upon returning to civilization, he is considered rich. Why?
Even though there is a simple and obvious answer to this question, many people do not get it.(*)
Our collective lack of imagination gets almost unbearable when talking about sustainability. We start by excluding the 99.9% of solutions which would be good for the environment but not have a business model and focus on the 0.1% of solutions that allow someone to get rich. That is no way to conduct a brainstorming. (Note: the figures quoted are used for rhetorical effect. They should not be interpreted literally)
Is there are conflict between economic growth and sustainability? I believe it is obvious because we are ultimately interested in consuming things. We do not work to earn money but to acquire purchasing power. Money allows us to have buy a big house with a huge garden, to get a nice car, and to travel to interesting places. In short, it allows us to consume non-renewable resources. If we were not allowed to use our money, we probably would not work that hard.
Anyway, I am not the only one of this opinion (see below). I would be happy to be proven wrong but currently I am more interested in finding out the truth. That will be the topic of a future blog post.
- Isaksen, Elisabeth T.; Narbel, Patrick A. (2017): A carbon footprint proportional to expenditure – A case for Norway? In: Ecological Economics 131, S. 152–165. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2016.08.027.
- Ward, James D.; Sutton, Paul C.; Werner, Adrian D.; Costanza, Robert; Mohr, Steve H.; Simmons, Craig T. (2016): Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible? In: PloS one 11 (10), e0164733. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0164733.
- Hickel, Jason (2019): The contradiction of the sustainable development goals: Growth versus ecology on a finite planet. In: Sustainable Development 145 (6), S. 10. DOI: 10.1002/sd.1947.
(*) Depending on demand, I might publish the correct answer here.