Editor's Note: Restraint vs. Innovation
The novelist and historian Wallace Stegner once said that every book should try to answer an anguished question. The same is true for a magazine. And the one that you hold in your hand doesn’t linger in easy territory. It gets right to the heart of one of the more anguishing questions of the Anthropocene. What does sustainable consumption look like? And would we even know it if we saw it?
From one vantage point, it looks like restraint. Sustainability at a fundamental level requires people, particularly those in highly developed countries, to stop treating life as a never-ending shopping spree. Surprisingly, there are glimmers of precisely such a transformation in the UK, other parts of Europe, and even the US. Fred Pearce reports on page 40 how some economies may be quietly approaching a phenomenon economists call “peak stuff.” Looking at the data, total domestic material consumption in the UK peaked around 2001 even as GDP continued a steady rise. But turn the globe a few degrees, and the trendline changes. Peak stuff is still decades off in China, India, and other parts of Asia—where millions of people are entering the middle class and hungering not only for food on the table and a roof overhead, but also for indoor plumbing, electricity, an automobile, a cell phone, refrigeration, and air conditioning.
From that perspective, sustainable consumption looks more like innovation. Rather than focusing on volume of consumption, perhaps we should focus on limiting the impact of consumption. Here, too, fascinating initiatives are afoot. If cement wasn’t on your consumption radar, Akshat Rathi will put it there—starting on page 66. A global race to reinvent the most ubiquitous building material on Earth is off and running. The winners will not only capture a $1 trillion global market but also possibly transform the infrastructure of our modern world into a giant carbon sponge.
Next, we take the other two pillars of consumption: food and clothing. In “This is Roquette Science” on page 58, Nathanael Johnson challenges you not only with his wordplay (read the title twice) but also with a provocative idea. Could personal food computers in which people grow their own fruits and vegetables be the harbingers of a massively distributed farming system that reduces fertilizers, pesticides, and waste? And on page 48, Veronique Greenwood tells a whodunit tale of the rise of fast fashion, its crushing environmental toll, and the technology and habits that need to change to keep your clothes out of the garbage.
Everywhere you turn in this issue, you’ll find tension between restraint and innovation. And that’s the point. Both are necessary. Every part of the sustainable consumption puzzle moves in relation to every other part. Like a Rubik’s cube, just when all the red squares get lined up, the blue and green ones need adjusting. Welcome to Issue 3.
1. Idea Watch
IDEA WATCH Benign by Design The search for biodegradable drugs . By Anthony King When Israeli scientists tested vegetables for the epilepsy drug carbamazepine, they detected it in cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, and peppers. More surprisingly, people who ate the...