Our current system of capitalism is unnecessarily wasteful; we throw away 50% of food produced in the world; 66% of the energy from uranium, oil, coal and natural gas is lost as it’s converted into electricity. A car loses 70-80% of its energy in heat exhaust, and it will spend 90% of its life parked. The average person buys 60% more clothes than they did in 2000 and according to the World Bank on average they only wear 20% of them regularly.
The Future is Sustainable
So what can we do to become more sustainable? According to futurist and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, from his book The Future Is Faster Than You Think, we are at the beginning of a convergence in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, material science, 5G, robotics, 3D printing, synthetic biology, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR). Because these technologies progress exponentially, we will see more change in the next two decades than we have in the past 1,000 years.
By leveraging new technology, intelligent product design, material science and improving on the existing inefficiencies, we can make capitalism sustainable without having to sacrifice too many conveniences. So, what could the future look like?
We will 3D print solar panels into a thin layer of film with an inexpensive material named perovskite, which increases their efficiency from 23-30% over a conventional silicon one. Since we can integrate the material into paint, we can put it onto buildings, cars and clothes, and since they don’t require glass to make, they will be a lot lighter and take up less space. To solve the intermittency problem, we will make batteries from graphene, which last eight times as long as lithium batteries and can be made from agricultural waste such as hemp.
Despite all the hype surrounding fully self-driving cars, we are probably at least one to two decades away from them being widely available. However electric and hybrid electric vehicles will grow in popularity and JP Morgan expects them to capture almost 40% of the market share by 2025. This will reduce our carbon footprint and help to reduce air pollution.
For the next decade we will fuel airplanes using cleaner-burning bio-diesel and other synthetically made fuels. These will reduce, but not eliminate CO2 emissions. Between 2030 and 2035 hydrogen fuel cell technology will be mature enough that airplanes can begin using them. Since they don’t release any harmful emissions, it will make flying guilt free.
Modular buildings and 3D-printed homes are already being built from recycled materials, and agricultural waste such as rice. They require less labour, cost 30-40% less, and once the house reaches the end of its useful lifespan, we can compost it.
Over the next decade, water scarcity will become a serious issue as climate change makes droughts more severe. We will need to modernise the farming system using technology like vertical farming, which uses 70-90% less water. In addition, we will make meat using synthetic biology as the current factory farming practices are far too resource intensive. Lab-grown or “clean meats” have the same taste and nutritional value of the real thing while using 99% less land, 80-90% less water, and emit 80- 95% fewer greenhouse gases.
GoodOnYou.Eco is a website and app that rates the sustainability of fashion brands. It reflects how consumer demands are changing toward sustainable products, which will lead to higher quality, longer-lasting goods over the ‘buy and throw away’ society that we are living in today. Things like appliances will become modular, making them easier to recycle, repair or upgrade rather than having to replace. Websites and apps like ShareMyToolBox and GlamCorner already enable customers to share tools, luxury goods and accessories, thus lowering their carbon footprint and the amount of resources required for their production. Terracycle is already reducing waste in 21 countries by helping consumers to get their favourite products in reusable packaging you can send back to the manufacturer once you are done using it. Indonesia-based AvaniEco makes bags and containers out of cassava and plant starches that are both biodegradable and compostable.
Using the latest in material science and technology sustainable capitalism can bridge the gap between convenience and being environmentally responsible.
Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.