My regular 6:30 a.m. shower is one of my favorite moments of the day. The shower is a perfect example of the excesses of the Western lifestyle. Every day, we wash billions of gallons of clean water down the drain, while thousands of people elsewhere in the world die from lack of safe drinking water. No, my daily shower doesn’t seem to be a contribution to a better, more sustainable world.
But my most creative moments come while I’m in the shower. New ideas and insights flow as the water pours over me; most of my plans are born there. My contribution to a better world would have been smaller if I’d spent less time in the shower. I would have “wasted” less water but done fewer good things. In other words, the world is better off if I keep taking showers.
The prevailing conversation about sustainability resembles my shower dilemma. The message set forth by the Club of Rome in the 1970s, “limits to growth,” still reverberates: Our natural resources are limited; too many people live on the planet. But the “If we start tiptoeing around, maybe Mother Earth won’t notice” approach isn’t going to get us there. Climate change can’t be tamed with soothing whispers; it requires all our creativity and energy.
The quest for sustainability is the modern variant of the Industrial Revolution, and it offers entire generations the opportunity to do meaningful work and redesign societies. We must take full advantage of that opportunity. But we can only do that if we let go of our defensive, conservative vision of sustainability and adopt a vision in which two aspects are central: people and economic growth.
After all, our goal is to create a sustainable world for people—all people—and so the fight against poverty must be an integral component of our quest. We live for each other and with the planet, not for the planet. To reach our goal, we need a great deal of the very best we have to offer: innovation and economic growth.
It’s wrong to think economic growth and sustainability are mutually exclusive. Nature is characterized by constant explosive growth. I can’t command the apple tree in our yard to slow down next season. Yet that’s exactly the message fed to citizens and companies: Lower your carbon emissions and your ecological footprint. That’s fine, but we need to achieve it through innovation and the same enthusiasm with which we’ve embraced the Internet and mobile telephony, not with tail-between-our-legs retreat. It’s very simple: If we limit growth, we ultimately limit innovation.
This is not a plea to keep consuming as much oil as we can. The question is, How do we grow the economy? We are already capable of doing much more with clean energy than we’re doing, and governments can stimulate that. Germany has the highest percentage of solar panels in the world—and that’s not because the sun shines any harder there. The fossil fuels we know and love will, indeed, run out. But the carbon and hydrogen atoms that compose these resources will still be available, and we will find new ways to combine those atoms to generate energy. In a sustainable hydrogen economy, the sun, the wind and the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen produce energy. There’s no need for carbon, thus no carbon emissions. The transformation of our energy supply holds exceptional opportunities for continued economic growth toward a cleaner and more prosperous world. No company has better utilized the potential of the Internet than Google. Sometime in the future, a new Google will rise up, a power company that will change our world even more dramatically. The digital revolution is passing billions of people by, but even the poorest resident of our planet uses energy on a daily basis. The enormity of the market for clean energy is almost inconceivable, as is how richly the pioneers in this energy revolution will be rewarded.
This is the problem that arises in every conversation about sustainability: In all our future projections, clean energy gains ground mere percentage point by percentage point, and so the Earth continues to warm up. But those projections are based on known elements, though history shows that it’s always the unknown that radically changes the world. The horse-drawn carriage wasn’t replaced by the automobile percentage point by percentage point. You don’t have to be a prophet to predict that the clean energy revolution will take the world by storm in a similar fashion. Not decades into the future, just years, the coal-fired power plant will seem a hopelessly old-fashioned source of energy, a dinosaur like the first clunky business computers of the 1950s, which occupied a company’s entire basement.
If we take history as our guide, we must trust that new energy solutions will invalidate all the climate scenarios that threaten us. There’s one condition, however: We must embrace the new sustainability with open arms and direct the process of change and growth, not disrupt or delay it.
On our way to the new sustainability, we have to dare to stay in the shower a little longer. That might mean, for example, that we accept China’s construction of more carbon-spewing coal plants, simply because China—and India and Brazil and every other developing country—first needs greater prosperity. That prosperity drives the economic vitality that gives rise to solutions. You can’t expect people fighting to survive to lead the search for sustainable energy. But wherever poverty is vanquished, opportunities arise. Thanks to those coal plants, China is an economic power, and its jump in prosperity makes it a frontrunner in sustainable initiatives. In other words, thanks to its dirty coal plants, China will soon be manufacturing the clean electric cars the world needs. To get there, we must step on the gas, not the brakes.
Humanity’s mantra: The more people, the more creativity—and the more solutions. That’s why the fight against poverty is essential to the new sustainability. Paul Hawken, author of Natural Capitalism, says, “We need to address sustainability in a wider sense. It is not only about humans and their environment. It is also about the social fabric of our world, and the painful divide between the rich and the poor.”
The world needs more economic growth to respond successfully to climate change. That isn’t a paradox, but a logical next step in the development of humanity’s potential—a process that has been going on for thousands of years. A vibrant, innovative and humane economy is the answer to the challenges facing humans and our planet.
And every one of us can contribute. Inspired by the abundant blossoms that grace our apple tree in the spring, I’m looking for answers that embrace more, not less. I’m searching for solutions that make the world lovelier and cleaner and fairer and richer—and I know that the generations before me have always managed to find those solutions. It’s 6:30 a.m., I’m taking a shower, and it’s going to be a fantastic day. | Jurriaan Kamp