Before we reinvent the economy, we must reinvent ourselves
The bioeconomy–a sustainable economic system based on clean energy and natural products–aims to eliminate our dependence on finite fossil resources and enable equitable use of renewable biological resources and ecosystems. The bioeconomy will use frugal innovation to reinvent agricultural and industrial systems, so we can produce healthier food, drugs, and other products for more people with fewer inputs and greenhouse emissions.
The bioeconomy has great growth potential. In the European Union, the bioeconomy employs 18 million people (8.2% of total labor force) and generated $2.6 trillion of turnover in 2015. The Indian bioeconomy is poised to grow from $42 billion today to $100 billion by 2025. Growing at 15% annually since 2011, the Chinese bioeconomy is expected to be worth $1.5 trillion in 2022. All this sounds very promising.
But before we transform our agricultural and industrial systems, we must transform ourselves as human beings. To preserve nature, we must first change our inner nature. If we build the bioeconomy with the same mind-set that built our existing economic system–characterized by resource-hungry mass production and individualistic mass consumption–we will end up producing, consuming, and doing the wrong things faster, better, cheaper, and more “sustainably.”
What’s the point of using a self-driving car built with biomaterials and powered by biofuel that runs on solar-powered highways to get us to work faster when 87% of employees feel disengaged or work to death (literally, as Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer shows in his scary new book, Dying for a Paycheck)?
The average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950s, while the average family size shrunk by half during that same period. Moving to a new house that is 3D-printed with wood-based materials and is solar-powered might be good for the environment (as long as it does not further increase resource consumption per capita). But it won’t combat widespread loneliness and social isolation in America, where nearly half of all adults feel lonely today, a rate that has more than doubled since the 1980s.
Chronic diseases (cancer, heart disease, diabetes) are now epidemic in the developing world–accounting for 53% of deaths–due to unhealthy lifestyles. Obesity is now killing three times more people than malnutrition. Drinking and eating processed foods and beverages neatly packaged and bottled in biodegradable plastic won’t solve this serious healthcare issue.
Replacing toxic nylon and polyester in our clothes with biomaterials won’t help us overcome our addiction to cheap and fast fashion, which lead Americans to throw away 14 million tons of clothes each year, a 100% increase in the past two decades. Better recycling technologies won’t fix this addiction: They will only make it worse.
Professor John Schramski, a systems ecologist at the University of Georgia, views Earth as a once-charged battery that stores chemical energy built up by our planet over 4.5 billion years of evolution. With great concern, Schramski notes: “In just the last few centuries–an evolutionary blink of an eye–human energy use to fuel the rise of civilization and the modern industrial-technological-informational society has discharged the earth-space battery.” With such rapid depletion, Earth is irrevocably moving to a state where it would become inhospitable for humanity. For the sake of nature–and our own survival as human species–Schramski believes we must change our lifestyles and slow down.
The bioeconomy on its own can’t protect and preserve nature unless all of us–growth-hungry producers and voracious consumers–rein in our wild insatiable inner nature. We just can’t pursue infinite growth in a finite planet.
To transform our inner nature, it’s not enough we shift our mind-set; we must shift our consciousness. We must come out of our unconscious mode of existence and become more conscious in how we produce, consume, work, relate, and live. Only then will we be able to collectively build what I call a conscious bioeconomy.
What do I mean by conscious? The Indian yoga tradition uses the seven chakras–energy centers located in our subtle body–to describe our levels of consciousness. These seven chakras and their associated energies influence and shape our worldview, motivation, and behavior in a particular way.
In many parts of the world, we live in capitalistic societies that favor winner-takes-all competition and extol the virtues of individualistic consumerism, which is satisfied by resource-intensive and heavily polluting mass-production. In this context, we operate unconsciously driven mainly by the energies of our three lower chakras–fear (“I want to survive”), desire (“I want more”), and power (“I want it all”)–that are all about self-preservation. Driven by a perpetual sense of scarcity and insecurity, we lead self-centered unsatisfactory lives shaped by our wants rather than our needs.
To become conscious, we need to unlock our four upper chakras, so we can harness the constructive energies of compassion, ingenuity, wisdom, and unity (“I am one with everything and everyone”) to transcend the survival mode and selfish desires and co-create with others an inclusive, healthy, and caring bioeconomy. Here are ways we can do that:
The bioeconomy should catalyze and enable social inclusion. We must speed up knowledge transfer and training and invest in breakthrough technologies and business models that make bio-products and services highly affordable and accessible to the poorest and empower them (especially women) economically.
For example, in rural India, Husk Power Systems has installed mini-grids, powered by locally sourced agricultural waste like rice husks and corn cobs. Each mini-grid serves 300 customers and offers uninterrupted, clean energy to even the poorest villagers who can buy it on a pay-as-you-go basis with their cell phone.
The Rockefeller Foundation has launched Smart Power India to set up mini-grids like Husk’s in 1,000 Indian villages. These will power job training centers and small medium businesses that can train and employ poor women and youth and unleash grassroots entrepreneurship, potentially impacting 1 million lives.
The German minister of education and research says: “The bioeconomy will not sell itself. It will not simply fall into our laps, nor can it be decreed from above. It is a societal transition process, which will need time.” But we can’t afford to wait. We must speed up the transition to a bioeconomy by actively involving citizens in its creation.
In addition to funding big R&D projects in biotech, governments must also invest in bottom-up citizen science platforms. These will empower inventive “Maker citizens” to use their collective ingenuity and DIY tools to co-build an inclusive bioeconomy of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Schools and colleges can turn their students into young inventors by giving them access to open science labs like La Paillasse and low-cost R&D tools such as Stanford professor Manu Prakash’s $1 microscope and a 20¢ paper centrifuge. Students from rich and poor countries could team up to co-create eco-friendly solutions for climate change.
We have so far identified fewer than 15% of the 8.7 million species on Earth. Sadly, we may never learn much about the remaining 86% of the species, as half of them could go extinct by 2050. Conversion of natural ecosystems (grasslands, forests, wetlands) into agricultural land, deforestation, overpopulation, rapid urban development, and pollution are all accelerating biodiversity loss.
The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Modern humans emerged only 200,000 years ago. We must humbly, and quickly, learn from the natural world’s great resilience and vast wisdom to find innovative ways for nearly 10 billion people on Earth to produce, consume, and live sustainably by 2050.
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, a biodiversity scientist and former president of Mauritius, believes that Africa’s incredible variety of plant species have powerful medicinal properties and hold the key to the future of food for whole humanity. We need to cherish, study, and maintain this rich biodiversity as our very survival depends on it.
The bioeconomy could even regenerate biodiversity: A team led by Harvard geneticist George Church plans to create a genetically engineered Asian elephant-mammoth hybrid and bring it to the Arctic to prevent the tundra from thawing, which could worsen global warming. These hybrids could also help preserve the highly endangered Asian elephants.
We can no longer view nature as something “out there,” to be either exploited or protected. We must consciously realize we are nature, and nature is us. Our perspective and actions must embody this integral awareness that nature and we are essentially One. In particular, profit-driven corporations, which have long maintained an antagonistic “business vs. nature” relationship with the environment, must learn to think, feel, and act like nature. Firms need to evolve into what I call “business as nature.”
Specifically, businesses must unlearn their selfish and competitive instincts and demonstrate generosity and cooperation–two inspiring qualities that Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at University of British Columbia, has found in nature. Firms can emulate Interface, the world’s largest modular carpet manufacturer, which is building a “factory as a forest.” This plant offers freely to local communities many ecosystem services–carbon sequestration, clean air and water, and nutrient cycling–that the local ecosystem it replaces used to provide.
Mahatma Gandhi said: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Our gluttonous socioeconomic systems are depleting natural resources and polluting our atmosphere and oceans so rapidly that, by the end of this century, the Earth will cease to be hospitable for the human species.
If we want to survive and thrive, we need a radical shift in consciousness. We must learn to value quality of life over quantity in life. We must help each other enhance our material, emotional, and spiritual well-being and reach our full potential. Let’s use our compassion, ingenuity, wisdom, and sense of unity with nature to co-create a conscious bioeconomy.
Navi Radjou is a fellow at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School. He is the coauthor of Jugaad Innovation (2012), From Smart to Wise (2013), and Frugal Innovation (2015). His next book, Conscious Society: Reinventing How We Consume, Work, Relate and Live, will be published in 2019.