Sustainability is increasingly seen as the only way out of our pressing ecological problems. But what if the very concept of sustainability is part of the problem rather than the solution? Why would we want to sustain the current natural order, or restore it to a past state? We want to improve the way we interact with our ever-changing natural environment. Human beings are primed and hard-wired to invent and develop. Creativity is key to making a world in which all of us can flourish. We propose moving beyond sustainability to a vision of green creative entrepreneurship.
Forget sustainability: Go for green entrepreneurship
The mess we're in
We are facing a great number of systemic ecological challenges: climatic instability, food security, depleted oceans, build-up of toxic waste, and exhaustion of natural resources. The discourse on ecology often reads like a litany on the future of the world. We are using everything up, everything is getting worse, and everything is falling apart. One fundamental idea in ecological thinking is that human beings inevitably cause damage, and that this damage should be minimized. If this were true, then the solution would consist in finding or social or psychological ways to minimize waste.
The consensus suggests sustainability is the solution. However, sustainability serves only to point at the problem. While we completely agree with ecological urgency, we believe that the idea of sustainability may actually move us away from a solution. In fact, few truly embrace sustainability. Politicians, business leaders and the general public alike mostly pay lip service to the narrative of “limits to growth”. Humans are hard-wired for growth and innovation and are unlikely to give them up. Nor should they: we propose an alternative ecological culture, based on creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship, and that can break through the zero-sum game of sustainability and accelerate de-materialized growth and prosperity. These have served us well throughout human evolution, and by pushing these in the right direction we can create an exciting ecological future.
Breaking away from the zero-sum game of sustainability
Sustainability is a balancing act. Its aim is to find a balance between our current needs and those of future generations; between economic, social and environmental impacts; between the needs of various communities and populations. It is therefore by definition a zero-sum game, stemming from the environmental realization in the 1970s that Earth has material limits. The danger with the sustainability paradigm is that it suggests a solution that essentially continues the status quo. It is thus no surprise that the past 40 years of environmentalism have increased awareness but have failed miserably as a guiding paradigm for change. We do not want to sustain the human race: we want to flourish.
The concept of restoration is touted as a more active alternative to sustainability. Initially, this seemed like a good idea. We could restore forests and marine ecosystems; restore nature to the way it was before massive human intervention. There are however also problems with this idea of restoration. Do we want to restore things to the 18th-century, to the birth of Christ, or as far back as 10,000 years ago? The planet is a constantly changing ecosystem with natural rates of change. Our worry should be that human interventions have accelerated this rate of change in ways that are threatening to us, but fundamentally we should not see continuous change as a problem in itself.
Rather than avoiding doing what is bad, we need to focus our efforts on doing what is good: strengthen environments that matter to us, find new ways to tap into renewable resources, leave no toxic ingredients behind, and expand ecosystems that are vital to our survival. We must find clever ways to close the material loops of producing and consuming things, so that we enjoy the inherent abundance of natural growth. It’s not about consuming less, but about consuming and producing differently.
To be sure, not all growth needs to be material growth. For the billions living at the lower end of the economic scale, growth still means material growth: better food, better housing, a stronger infrastructure, more education and wellbeing. At this level, material goods translate directly into more opportunities for living a satisfying and meaningful life. This is why we do not subscribe to an overall ecological vision of self-restraint and minimizing impact.
Green creativity is about using the natural world in clever ways to meet human needs. It predominantly makes use of renewable resources and abundant minerals, while finding the mechanisms to cycle less abundant materials indefinitely. We can create and implement ways of dealing with severe pollution, plastic in the oceans, and trawler fishing. We know we can solve destructive practices, including those causing outsized influences such as global warming. Green creativity is about disrupting the status quo and replacing it with superior solutions. We want to disrupt a lot of the current energy, mobility, food and housing practices of the two billion people living in comfort, and stimulate rapid growth for the remaining billions who still need significant material goods for their wellbeing.
Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough’s cradle-to-cradle approach revolutionizes the way we make things. Their approach consists in either designing objects so that they can be released in the biosphere, becoming food for other natural processes, or re-using them indefinitely in the technosphere as material for new products. This new paradigm of circular economies involves thinking of waste as industrial food, and seeing the production of waste, when done in the right way, as a production of nutrients for other processes.
Once we’ve left the zero-sum game behind, the circular economy provides some thought-provoking ideas. How can human intervention go beyond recycling to up-cycling, making things better than they were? How can we go from ultimate purposing to multi-purposing of available infrastructure and natural capital? Instead of thinking about reducing human beings’ negative footprint as much as possible, why not design a positive footprint? According to Braungart, every new human being is an enrichment of the planet, and should be welcome in this world.
The blue economy movement started by Gunter Pauli makes use of clever systems thinking to achieve a better use of natural resources, and is spearheaded by small entrepreneurial projects. Peter Diamandis is a techno-optimist, who believes that the exponential growth in information, ideas and networks will allow us to solve our most pressing environmental problems and build affluence for all.
These are not just design solutions. Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins argued, more than two decades ago, that economics and ecology should not be seen as opposites or enemies. In Natural Capitalism, they describe entrepreneurial approaches and market mechanisms to achieve natural growth. Markets are a human tool; they optimize the flow of goods. Capital is one of the most powerful tools to change the world. Green creative entrepreneurship leverages this power with an ecological agenda.
Elon Musk is perhaps the best example of a successful and visionary green creative entrepreneur. Musk combines a far-out vision and the audacious goal of reducing carbon emissions, with a practical, inventive, and commercially successful business. Tesla’s strategy has been to build and popularize electric cars by starting with an expensive roadster, then a luxury sedan−the current model S−to be followed by an affordable family car. Tesla is also disrupting the dealership model by selling cars directly to the consumer. By placing quick-charge stations across America, which can be used for a flat fee by Tesla owners, it is also disrupting the structure and business model of gas stations. The most recent addition to the Tesla line-up is a home battery to store the charge from solar or wind energy.
The decision to give away the company’s patents supports this guiding vision. As Musk wrote in the blog announcing this decision, the competitors are not the trickle of other electric vehicles, but gasoline-powered cars. Green creative entrepreneurship works with a bipolar focus: a focus on the grand vision, and a focus on having a profitable company in order to be in the game.
Electric cars are part of a larger disruption combining different shifts. BMW has recently launched a whole new business model, not just for luxury car manufacturers but also for the entire transportation value chain. The i3 electric vehicle is intended to serve as the backbone for its car-sharing service. What brings BMW to enter the budding car-sharing industry? Value. Manufacturing an excellent car that requires minimal maintenance creates the potential to retain the vehicles’ components for future models. Why sell those components if the vehicle users will have no use for them within 5-10 years? Moreover, this de-materialized approach also enables capturing margins otherwise realized by others: car rental companies, parking lots and energy providers. Using car-sharing, BMW now has the potential for a series of new revenue streams, all coming from the cars they have already manufactured.
Green creative startups
We want to encourage disruptive thinking. We want entrepreneurs to disrupt the status quo of destructive ecological practices. In terms of food security and food resilience, there are lots of opportunities to change the way we feed ourselves. Take the example of algae. Many species of algae can be grown in seawater, serving as one of the only crops that do not deplete potable water or require fertile arable land. They grow very quickly; they contain a lot of nutrients and can find versatile uses in our foods.
The bottlenecks in the process of making alga widely available as foodstuff are actually historic, stemming from the fact that past experience is limiting our imagination. Currently, commercial algae production is expensive, but that is true for every new product. Achieving commodity-scale prices will require working out optimal production processes for every step along the way. How do you enclose the algae? How do you ensure uniform and predictable harvests? What are the most cost-effective ways to harvest, extract, dry and store the materials? These challenges are all achievable – after all, we’ve worked them out for sugar and grain, for meat and oil, for fresh fruits and pickled cucumbers. So why not for algae? The challenge for algae is therefore simple in concept – we’ve gained most of our agricultural experience with land-based higher plants. Sea-based micro-plants are simply a new challenge – one that will require several more brain-power years for us to bring to scale and true fruition.
Green creative entrepreneurship
Green entrepreneurs can find new niches by applying new thinking and new technological approaches to current practices. Their advantage lies in being able to start with a clean sheet, while their size gives them speed and flexibility. The might find a superior solution by applying a different perspective from a different field to the matter at hand. The best innovators are often those that use a tried-and-tested approach from one sector in a different field.
Green creative entrepreneurship is thus about seeing one’s main activities as a force for good, wanting to change the world and having maximum social impact. It’s being able to describe that vision in a way that gets others excited about it. Green creative entrepreneurship is also about having enough business sense to make a competitive and profitable product, a product that speaks to the imagination and gives its owners a sense of community. It requires the ability to attract investment for one’s vision, to direct financial resources, to challenge and negotiate with regulatory forces that are not always benign and welcoming to new ways of doing things. Green creative entrepreneurship is about storytelling that galvanizes customers, stakeholders and employees, and manages to attract fans. It’s about turning a company into a movement. Is there anything better than getting up in the morning and changing the world?
Find out how to turn your company into a movement in the THNK Creative Leadership Program, a 6-month part-time learning journey to help you realize your fullest creative leadership potential and scale your world-changing enterprise.