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In Our Hands: How We Got Here and How We Change
Part I: How We Got Here
In 1905, Albert Einstein stated that the speed of light was fixed for all time and space.
The equations of special relativity — verified endlessly since his landmark paper was published 115 years ago — imply that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. This fact is baked into the structure of the universe in which we live. There’s no getting around the laws of physics.
This speed limit means, very simply, that we’ll never inhabit any other planet than Earth.
There is no other planetary body nearby that is remotely suitable for colonization. What, really, is the point of putting man on Mars, a planet that cannot support human life?
As for the stars, NASA's Juno probe reached speeds of about 165,000 mph (265,000 km/h) as it entered orbit around Jupiter last month. Ignoring all other issues, a probe going that rate could reach the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, in about 17,157 years (!).
This Planet Is All There Is
The geo-limiting of our species to this planet may seem a reduction in mystery, I don’t think of it that way. We can explore other worlds within our imagination (I recommend Iain M. Banks if you want to do so).
But when it comes to this world, our world, we need to protect and cherish it for ourselves, for future generations, and for the other living beings that occupy it.
This Earth, this round blue ball, is all we’ve got. There is nothing else and there will never be anything else.
We Messed It Up
Over a period of two and a half centuries, we have taken a hatchet to the well-being of our planet. Initially, this was not intentional. For the first 200 years, we just didn’t know what we were doing to our planet. Only in the last few decades have we, with horror, slowly realized that we’ve been destroying our species’ home from the inside out.
The evidence is overwhelming. I won’t repeat any of it here other than to point you to a “just the facts” piece I wrote.
Beyond the scientific evidence, plain common sense reveals what we’ve done. Think, for example, of how much of our planet is now covered with cities and roads. Our skies are filled with airplanes. Our forests have dwindled. Microplastics have been found at the bottom of the Marianas Trench — the deepest oceanic trench on Earth. The Marianas effing trench!
The Planet Is Weary
The climate crisis is a symptom, not the cause. The cause is the sheer weight of voraciously consumptive humanity on the only living environment we have, and will ever have.
The Earth’s population is now 7.8 billion — up from 1 billion in 1800 and 2.5 billion in 1950. These numbers are simply extraordinary. As David Quammen has written, “We are unique… no other species of large-bodied beast — above the size of an ant — has ever achieved anything like such abundance as the abundance of humans on Earth right now.”
We can’t change the fact that there are too many of us, although it’s beginning to emerge that population levels may be self-correcting. Prosperity appears to be inversely correlated with the fertility rate; it looks like Japan and Singapore are in every country’s future. Even in a country like India, more than half of the states’ population is now below the replacement rate.
But it is not just that there are too many of us, it is that each of us, especially the affluent, are consuming too much.
We have too much stuff. And our habit of over-consumption begins at an early age. 3.1% of the world’s children live in the U.S. yet consume 40% of the world’s toys. In the U.K., a typical child has almost 240 toys but plays with a mere 12 “favorites” per day. The average American home has doubled in size since the 1950s, and as a nation, we spend more on shoes, jewelry, watches, clothes, and shoes than on higher education. Paradoxically, we also throw away nearly 70 lbs of clothing per person per year.
The most fundamental issue, then, is our level of consumption. That is not self-correcting.
Cheaper and cleaner energy is essential; there is no disagreement whatsoever. But cheaper and cleaner energy is no panacea. It is completely intertwined with the effects of Jevons’ Paradox. Read this article by David Owens if you can, but the gist is this: “The problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvest them in additional consumption.”
An army of interested parties rebutted Owens’ article, some irate and others more balanced. I am in Owens’ camp, as might anyone be who examines his own current behavior compared with, say, 20 years ago.
The real answer is this: we need to consume less. A lot less. And the only way we can get there is by changing our own behavior.
Not the Same Everywhere
In “emerging markets”, billions of people are being lifted out of poverty and are building better lives. For them, the path to prosperity has to involve, in the short- and medium-term, consuming more.
But we now know the effects of voracious consumption, and in many cases these nations are achieving prosperity with leapfrogging technologies — going in a much straighter line to plentiful clean energy and rethinking processes to minimize negative effects on our planet.
The greatest onus is on the affluent West — and even more so the most affluent here. So much of our consumption is unnecessary; it is not something foreordained but simply reflects contingent patterns formed over the course of human history.
These patterns can be changed, and humanity has invented the tools to help make the changes.
The Role of Technology
I’m no tech partisan. I frequently rail against the deluded and messianic convictions that I see around me in the venture capital and tech worlds. I’m opposed to solutions that are positioned as a silver bullet, a magical answer. Tech of that sort is partially how we got into this mess.
But I also believe that technology can be an instrumental force in getting us out of the abyss, as an aid to helping us change our behavior. As a catalyst for helping us consume less.
Part II: How We Change
Here is a simple vision for how behavior can be changed and help reverse centuries of unfettered consumption.
Michel Foucault once said “the things that seem most evident to us are always formed in the confluence of encounters and chances, in the course of a precarious and fragile history…”, implying that even the most entrenched things have a history and are products of circumstance. We can change much of our behavior without reducing our well-being, and here is a roadmap for thinking about it.
I give no complicated calculations about emissions (and fewer than usual hyperlinks), no soaring prose. It’s plain common sense about prosaic everyday things.
The Zeal of the Newly Converted
I have written extensively about behavior change in the context of Amasia, the venture capital firm that I oversee with my partner, John Kim. That process has helped clarify not just our investment strategy for a more sustainable planet, but also my own actions and inactions.
It’s often said, and it’s true, that nobody is as irritatingly evangelical as the newly converted. Realization came very late to me — I’ve spent most of my life being an exemplar of unsustainable behavior — but it has struck me with great force.
If you can look past that, hopefully it will be clear that trivial actions — things that can and should strike us as “just plain common sense” or “that doesn’t sound like a big deal” — can have a planetary effect when all of us do it.
The Four Rs of Behavioral Change
Let me briefly lay out the Amasia sustainability framework, as it’s expressed a bit differently from other frameworks (whether in venture capital or sustainability-related thinking). While this framework was developed for our investment strategy, it has become my personal manifesto.
We call it the “Four Rs of Behavior Change”:
Regeneration and renewal: doing what we do in a way that helps replenish the biosphere.
Reusing and recycling: buying used rather than new; keeping rather than replacing; selling rather than destroying.
Replacing bricks with bytes: moving things out of the physical domain to the digital domain.
Rationalizing resources: getting to the same or better results with less stuff.
The boundaries between the Rs are blurred; this is not a perfect division. But don’t let the semantics get in the way of the bottom line: behavioral change is what it’s all about.
R1: Reduce and Regenerate
Creating a sustainable world will require that we not only reduce emissions going forward, but also regenerate the biosphere from the harm we’ve already done.
Being more intentional about our actions
I’m no mindless partisan for technology, as should be clear from much of my writing. I am also not a fan of extreme interventionist ideas such as the more speculative approaches to carbon sequestration. But there are far simpler things we can do, as individuals and as a collective, to help reduce consumption and regenerate our biosphere.
Using Joro, for example, allows you to be more intentional in reducing your personal carbon footprint. When a city uses Clarity to collect the most accurate air pollution data, it allows urban planners to think through how to design cities and reduce vehicle traffic to reduce that pollution.
And there are interventionist approaches that do make sense. Regenerative agriculture, for example. Or reforestation/afforestation.
R2: Reuse and Recycle
When you buy something that has been used before or offer something for re-use by recycling it, you help the planet.
Extending the life of your electronics
An example of reuse is something that may sound a bit different: “longer use”. I used to always want the latest shiny gadget. I don’t think I’ll ever fully get rid of that trait. But I’ve moderated it as I’ve better understood the consequences of my behavior.
iPhones have extraordinary cameras and can be used for years without requiring replacement. I don’t need a great camera if I only use it once every three years. I don’t have the time to sit around playing with RAW images. As they say, the best camera is the one you have on you, and I have my phone on me nearly all the time.
I don’t need most things I own, and my small collection of cameras is on the list. So I am now being intentional about reselling them. They are best in the hands of someone who really wants dedicated cameras.
R3: Replace Bricks with Bytes
Replacing a physical thing — for example, physical meetings with virtual meetings — with the same thing in a solely digital world helps the planet.
In the venture capital world, inordinate weight has been placed on physical meetings. Many myths go with this. Think of the “tightly-knit team working out of a garage”, or of the “weekly Monday morning partners’ meetings.”
Much of this can be dispensed with now. As we’ve discovered over the past ten months, society reshapes itself to maximize the benefits of new norms. It turns out that virtual meetings create new opportunities, new freedoms, new flexibility, new kinds of inclusions.
Face-to-face meetings have their place, but a surprising number of these can and should be replaced with virtual interactions, using products like Dialpad and Uberconference. At Amasia, we are highly intentional about this. In 2020, we made two investments that involved no in-person meetings. And I am dialing up my internal commitment to being as virtual as possible.
R4: Rationalize Resources
Replacing a complex multi-step physical process with a more efficient one helps the planet. Efficiency comes in many, many forms — including, for example, reducing food waste.
Eating my own (not dog) food
Food waste is an absolutely astounding problem, and one that makes so little sense. Here is one contribution that I’m now making to help solve the problem: when I sit down to dinner or lunch now, at home, I am the consumer of leftovers. I hoover up the waste.
This is a tremendously positive feeling — try it.
Plenty of Pleasure to Go Around
More than two decades ago in an eloquent rebuttal to Mark Sagoff, Paul Ehrlich and Gretchen Daily wrote that “restraining the growth of consumption does not mean going back to living in caves and cooking over buffalo-chip fires.”
Like them, I am not suggesting that we all start wearing hair shirts and become minimalists. There is much about modern life that is an unalloyed improvement from even a decade ago, let alone a century or millennium.
But my views about the “performance of consumption” have changed dramatically as I’ve read widely on both sustainability and our culture of consumption. I look at examples of what we think of as success and am aghast; I examine my own behavior over the decades and find much to regret.
These are all norms. Certainly, it is desirable to have a nice house. But do we really need to have a dozen mansions with enormous carbon footprints? We can lead happy and rewarding lives with far lower levels of performative consumption.
In Our Hands
We can’t just “tech” and “engineer” our way out the hole we’ve dug for ourselves. That’s why our thesis is about behavioral change — because “disruptions” and “innovations” aren’t enough.
We need to really change. Indeed one of our companies, Joro, was created for this specific purpose — to help us change.
Change how we work, travel, interact, eat, and make decisions. Change the goods we produce (and consume), and how we acquire them. And much more.
I quoted Michel Foucault earlier. In that interview, Foucault went on to say that “since these things have been made, they can be unmade, as long as we know how it was that they were made.”
In other words, we can change things if we put our minds to it — even at a planetary scale.
It is in our hands.