The Global Marshmallow Test - Can We Delay Gratification For a More Sustainable World?
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Throughout this blog, we discussed many of the environmental, ecological, and economic problems posed by climate change, wasteful consumption, and especially the dangers of plastic.
And it’s been a bit of a Debbie downer to write about, to say the least.
Or perhaps, due to the degree of damage already done to our planet, it would be accurate to call it an apocalyptic Annie.
And the truth is, we can sit here, and write endlessly on all of the environmental problems this planet faces, we can talk about how bad it’s gotten, and how much worse it will get if we continue business as usual - but in so many ways, we are in an echo chamber speaking to ourselves, and other likeminded individuals, companies, foundations, and NGOs. And sadly, this group still a global minority (albeit a vocal and activist minded minority), especially in the developing world.
So today, I’d like to shelve gloom and doom for some pragmatic and achievable solutions.
Solutions, I believe, must be global in design. They must be pragmatic and have a long-term outlook that works for EVERYONE. Solutions must make sense for the individual and the collective – whether that collective be a company, institution, state, country, continent – or likely a combination of these.
If too punitive or unrealistic, multi-national conglomerates will find a way around regulations, often through lobbying – and similar to tax avoidance through tax havens in Panama, the British Virgin Islands, or the Cayman Islands, they will find a way shift production to “legally” avoid environmental regulations.
Here’s an example from the evidence-based news network, The Conversation:
"Another way is for firms in rich countries to keep selling the “dirty” products but redesign their production networks. They will offshore production (and jobs) in the “dirty” segment of the value chain to poor countries. They will then import the “dirty” unfinished products from poor countries for further domestic processing in the clean segment of the value chain.”
Even if companies act ethically and don’t “offshore” their pollution, it’s important that we talk about the developing world in this discussion because as the world becomes more globalized and more interconnected, we often see supply chains that stretch across continents.
Perhaps even more importantly, as the middle class grows by the tens of millions in Asia each decade and engages in increasingly western, wasteful consumption behaviors, the multiple environment crises that face this planet will not only worsen but accelerate rapidly.
According to The Center for Global Development, while developed countries have historically produced 79% of carbon emissions, currently it is developing countries that are producing the majority of carbon emissions today, currently at 63% percent.
Additionally, according the American Council on Science and Health, the developing world also causes 90% of the plastic pollution in our oceans.
We talk more about ocean plastic pollution, and the resulting microplastics created over time, in another blog post HERE:
These are just two examples of C02 emissions and ocean plastic pollution, but the bottom line is that most, if not all, of our planet’s life support systems are in decline, and the developing world (and the fact that it is home to nearly 6 billion people!) is already the biggest offender, and that trend is likely to grow and compound rapidly in the future.
Of course, the developed world is also responsible - as so much of the C02, pollution, and waste created during production is created during production of products bound for rich countries, and this is why – as I stressed earlier, in an increasingly globalized world, we must think of solutions that work for all of us.
Acting locally – through recycling, reusing, buying and consuming locally, and minimizing our carbon footprint where ever and whenever possible is important, but sadly it will barely make a global dent in carbon emissions, plastic pollution, water pollution, deforestation, etc.
Although well meaning, this is equivalent to sheering the leaves of a weed in our garden, rather than digging up the roots.
The best system is to PLAN AND DESIGN our entire production and consumption life cycle to minimize waste and inefficiency, rather than dealing with the mess afterwards.
It’s kind of like planning out a night of drinking with a buddy in advance and taking an Uber there and back instead of having to drive again to pick up your car the next morning - or the case of our global economy, driving home drunk.
This proven concept, called the circular economy, is defined by the World Economic Forum as:
“A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse and return to the biosphere, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.”
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution over 200 years ago, our traditional system of production and consumption has been linear. Produce. Buy. Consume. Discard. Repeat.
(We wrote a blog post about this called “Chuck it, F*ck it.” Where we go into more detail about this).
Through transitioning to a circular economy, all product life-cycles could be predetermined to eliminate waste as much as possible, from the beginning. Single use plastic, for example, would likely not exist at all unless it were made of non-toxic, biological, and highly bio gradable vegetable plastics or other alternatives.
This is even better than recycling because of the additional energy expended in the recycling process as well as the additional labor incurred. Furthermore, despite our best efforts or economic incentives, there will always be a great deal of goods that will never make it to the recycling process.
For larger, durable products, like cars, computers, smart phones, or other appliances for example, products would be designed to last much longer, say 10 years or more, and software and hardware could be updated regularly to optimize performance without any waste.
Here's the reason I believe this system actually COULD WORK.
Over the long term, businesses, governments, and individuals can ALL make more money, either through cost savings and/or increased revenues.
Governments can save billions on waste management, recycling, conservation efforts, etc. They will also save billions on health care incurred by dirty water, dirty air, dirty environment, etc.
Businesses can add long term, subscription revenues to their business model so that all goods could effectively be leased, rather than owned. Hardware and software updates could be much cheaper over the long term than creating complete product cycles every 2-3 years vs. a product cycle of 10+ years.
And from a marketing and reputation standpoint, wouldn’t it be nice to have companies make products that actually last?
Finally, consumers and individuals win, too.
Your car, all of your appliances, and even your smart phone – these products are all DEPRECIATING ASSETS.
You’ve heard the old adage that your car depreciates 10% the moment you drive it off the lot. Well, this is true for many consumer products as well.
It makes more sense to lease or rent depreciating products (which will incentivize design and production of products with long lifespans, and less waste), and then use those savings (which would be much less than buying an entire product upfront) to invest in long term, historical APPRECIATING ASSETS, like real estate. Or you can invest in education, the stock market, bonds, or even a small business with real cash flow.
I titled this article “The Global Marshmallow Test” – because a famous physicist, Walter Mischel, once created a famous experiment where young children could either eat one marshmallow now, or wait 20 mins alone, and then have two marshmallows. After following up years later, his team determined that those who were willing to delay short term gratification and wait for two marshmallows had a better chance of long-term success.
In many ways, I believe the transition to a global, circular economy is our society’s global marshmallow test – it is the best chance of planet has of survival in the next 50-100 years because it aligns governmental, corporate, NGO, and individual interests over the long run.
So it’s time for governments, corporations, and individuals to decide whether we want to work together today for a brighter tomorrow with an economy that converges all of our collective interests.
Or end up with one shitty marshmallow so burnt and dirty…..that you won’t even want to make a s’more.