At Tesla’s 2023 Investor Day, Elon Musk posited that, despite what people think, we can have both an abundant and sustainable civilization within our lifetimes. Say what you will about the famous billionaire’s handling of Twitter or his questionable public comments — he’s right about this one.
If you’ve been listening to pundits and reading headlines, you would be forgiven for believing that we have only losing outcomes to choose from: Either a sustainable but austere world or an abundant but ecologically cataclysmic future.
Neither path is feasible. People don’t deserve, nor will they tolerate, poverty, and they see moves to restrict consumption as authoritarian. They then look to strongman leaders to protect their economic positions and lifestyles, often creating political scapegoats and deepening divisions.
In parallel, the disastrous impacts of climate change predicted by scientists are already accelerating and will cut off our access to resources, throw our supply chains into a tailspin, and lead to mass migration the likes of which we have never seen. The still-rippling impacts of Covid-19 are nothing in comparison to global water and food shortages, flooded and unlivable cities, and global trade grinding to a halt.
What Is Sustainable Abundance?
Sustainable abundance is a production model in which a virtuous cycle of renewable resources, sharing and circular economic models, and increasing efficiency thanks to digitization allows everyone’s needs to be met while protecting the planet.
New Ways of Looking at the Climate Problem
In order to have a future that isn’t a dystopian hellscape, we must both meet the needs of people and protect the environment we depend on for our survival and stability. New models like Doughnut Economics, first coined by Kate Raworth, seek to find a place for humanity that protects the foundation of our basic human needs (inside boundary of the doughnut), and the limits of our biosphere (outside boundary of the doughnut). Although this is a great first step, I propose that we are thickening this doughnut through innovations in sustainable products and new business models driven by technology. The limits to our collective doughnut aren’t set in stone, and we can change the rules of our game.
Our conventional economics assume many things, among them that products are produced, consumed, and disposed of. What is disposed of and how it impacts the system is not accounted for in our prices or economics. So, the rules of the game do not fit the current reality that human activities are affecting the climate and ecological systems that provide us with water, oxygen, heat, and a place to throw our trash, essentially for free.
Ecological economics takes these externalities into account and proposes that we create a circular economy. Such a system seeks to endlessly reuse, recycle, and replace our materials, similar to the way nature does. An industry of circular economy startups and companies are paving the way for our economy to make our lives of abundance more sustainable, from recycling and profitably selling everything, including batteries, e-waste, clothing fibers and food containers. They’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s a $4.5 trillion opportunity.
Technology Can Solve Ecological Problems
New innovations are not only providing us with new conveniences, they’re also opening up new ways for us to do business, share resources, consume products and have experiences. These new options are, in turn, providing more sustainable ways of providing abundance at lower costs than before. Here are just a few examples.
6 Greentech Solutions for Sustainable Abundance
- Sustainable energy.
- The sharing economy.
- Changing consumption trends.
- Increased digitalization.
- Circular economy.
- Smart contracts and distributed organizations.
This field is rapidly growing, from solar, wind, and geothermal forms of generation, to methods for using this energy to power our cars, shipping, and indoor climate control, as shared at Tesla’s 2023 Investor Day. This wave of electrification and renewable generation is accelerating so rapidly as it declines in price that it will overtake fossil fuels in our lifetimes if it continues, even just at its current pace.
The sharing economy
This may sound like old news, but it’s only getting started. As marketplaces for sharing more goods combine with automation, we can share more of our resources, reducing the need for us to overproduce products. For example, cars are very resource intensive, but are only used a few hours a day at most. Sharing models allow more people to use them for more of the time, greatly increasing resource efficiency and reducing the number of cars necessary to meet our needs.
Changing Consumption Trends
Experiences are overtaking products in desirability for younger generations. This reduces the amount of single-use items and needless trinkets that litter our economy and environment once they are thrown away. Although travel consumes fuel, all methods of travel are becoming more sustainable, either through electrification or sustainably produced fuel. Airlines are ramping up their demand for Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), while new innovations are increasing fuel efficiency.
More of the economy is becoming digital, leading to less material consumption, more efficiency, and zero marginal cost goods. This means it takes only a slightly higher amount of resources to supply goods to one person versus one million once they’re created. Imagine how much more sustainable our abundance of digital movies and music are today compared to all the VHS tapes and CDs that were produced in the past.
The circular economy will allow nearly all products to be recycled endlessly with design focused on reusability and repair and taking their full lifecycle into account upon production. Batteries, for example, have been notoriously difficult to recycle, but new methods, startups and corporate innovations are rapidly increasing their recyclability. This will reduce our need for unsustainable mass disposal and newly mined material. More ethical ways of sourcing, processing, and recycling materials will also eliminate concerns about rare earth metals.
Smart contracts and distributed organizations
These innovations will automate many of the transactions that we find tedious today and make entrepreneurship or participation in markets easier than ever before. This will bring about an ownership economy for more people than ever, where all of us can essentially own stock in the companies we do business with. This will combine with automation to bring abundance to more people and do away with much of the waste and inefficiency we see around us today.
Tech Must Build a Sustainable Future
Though we cannot be certain of the future, the biggest challenge we face in overcoming the environmental and social challenges we face today is apathy and defeatism. Neither social nor environmental collapse is acceptable, but neither are no-win scenarios for the future of our civilization. With all the resources and knowledge we have today, we can chart a path to sustainable abundance — it’s the only option we have, and a great one at that.