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
Yeast-derived “animal products” may soon be part of an environmentally balanced diet
Mining landfills for metals and energy
Illegal fishing is getting harder, thanks to public surveillance from space
Bond markets are beginning to unlock climate finance
When stargazers look for animals
Can farmers get the same food production under solar panels that they currently do growing lettuce for your dinner table the old-fashioned way—directly under the sun? There’s an increasing body of research suggesting that they can.
Amphibious structures are not static; they respond to floods like ships to a rising tide, floating on the water’s surface.
The search for biodegradable drugs
2. Deep Dives
How computerized arugula (aka roquette) farms take over the world
How close are we to the Holy Grail of sustainable fashion?
Almost imperceptibly, we are stepping off the consumption treadmill
The material that built the modern world is due for an upgrade. What if we could transform cement from a climate wrecker
into a carbon sponge?
A photo essay on the rise of edible packaging
3. Science Shorts
Investing in climate change mitigation would also pay dividends in better health.
Automated vehicles are expected to be widely available within the next decade. By 2040, most cars on the road will likely be controlled by software — a development that’s expected to save a great many human lives by replacing blind-spotted, easily-distracted drivers with high-tech competence. There's a potential to save animal lives, too.
Local food production is championed for its low environmental impact. But a new study shows that if we abandoned global trade, food insecurity would intensify, leaving hundreds of millions undernourished around the world.
Americans are spending more time at home, which increased residential energy use, but still saved a total of 1,700 trillion bTU of energy, or 1.8% of the total energy use, in the United States mainly because of less traveling to offices and stores.
Tweaking one gene in a plant can make it more water-efficient than its non-modified counterparts. Applied to staple crops, this discovery could revolutionise the impact of agriculture across the planet.
Chemists have made a new kind of plastic that can be recycled over and over again without losing its quality. It can be broken down using mild temperatures and chemicals, and then built back up again to be good as new.
Farming more fish in the future could not only provide us with protein, but take the pressure of a limited resource: land.
To clean up our carbon mess, we don’t just need more forests, we need better forests in the right places
You would need to drive an electric car more than 50,000 km in Quebec and 150,000 km in Germany to outcompete a conventional car in terms of greenhouse gas emissions
Our behavior flows only intermittently from knowledge, and our choices reflect not just personal calculations but a host of subtle, almost instinctive, social considerations.