Magic, algae and what we consume

Israeli researchers have theorized an invisibility cloak. This only further blurs the already fuzzy boundaries between real life and magic.

Experiments using algae to solve our issues with carbon di-oxide emissions are an example of the magical nature of science these days. The Algoland project in Sweden is working toward zero emission cement (cement produces 5-6% of the world’s carbon di-oxide).

We’re still in the early days of exploring this. But, it is very encouraging.

While we’re hopeful science will help us solve problems created by our consumption, the fact remains that our consumption model is broken. A few examples –

  • Consumer powered — In 2007, consumers contributed to more than 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. They (/we) also contributed between 50 and 80 percent of total land, material, and water use.
  • Food — as income rises, people consume more dairy and meat products. These are the food categories with the highest environmental footprint. In fact, the global livestock industry produces more emissions than all cars, planes, trains, and ships combined. A study by Oxford University calculated that a global shift to a vegan diet would reduce food-related emission by 70 percent by 2050.
  • Clothes — The world now consumes 400 percent more clothes than two decades ago. According to the World Bank, textile processing causes 20 percent of water pollution globally. Cotton, the “thirsty crop,” makes up about half of our clothes and requires 5,300 gallons of water to produce 1kg of cotton.
  • Waste — Only 9 percent of all plastic waste produced since the 1950s has been recycled. The rest ends up in landfills or polluting our environment. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation projects that, by 2050, oceans will contain more plastic than fish.

This isn’t limited to food and clothing – but, to ideas as well. We ascribe a lot of blame to Facebook. But, Facebook’s product managers only shape their product based on what we indicate we like. They don’t control the feedback. Or, as Ben Evans eloquently puts it –

You can shape things, sometimes. You can ride and channel the trend. But I think we attribute vastly too much power to a handful of product managers in Menlo Park, and vastly too little power to the billions of people who look at their phone screen and wonder which app to open. Facebook writes algorithms, and designers cut the cloth, but that doesn’t mean they control what people look at or what people wear.

The point of all this is not to parse out what we do well and take a self righteous stance. Self righteousness is dangerous because it often precedes or accompanies a complete lack of self awareness.

For example, in our household, we are minimalist in our consumption of goods or clothing in our household. We sort our trash, recycle and even use a compostable diaper service to ensure diapers don’t go into landfills. Our diet is mostly vegetarian.

But, being self righteous about any of the above would overlook that we drive petroleum based cars, enjoy dairy and chicken every once a while, and so on.

It also inspires very little actionable change.

My hope, instead, is that this spurs reflection around 2 questions —
1. What is my consumption model like?
2. How can I do better?

A wise friend told me that the best diet is the one that is a bit better than the one you currently consume.

I think it works the same for consumption. We need to fix our consumption models. Over time, that’ll help us fix the consumption model of our families, organizations and communities… i.e., our world and, eventually, the world.

Change begins with us.


Longer version on Medium or LinkedIn.