Signals of hope: cultural shifts that are making resource availability possible

The culture of consumption in the developed world is an easy target when looking for the source of resource impacts. And the export of that culture makes scarcity inevitable. If emerging middle-class consumers in China, India and elsewhere consumed like the average American or Kuwaiti, the trope goes, we would need the ecological resources of 4 to 6 Earths.
Not so fast. What if human ingenuity could produce cultural shifts that improve resource availability? In his public lecture at the Veolia Institute & Oxford Martin School Resource Availability Conference in November, 2017, Lord Nicholas Stern pointed out that China and India are already leapfrogging to greener policies. Both countries are looking to ban new fossil-fuel vehicles in the next few decades, for example. Can they leapfrog to greener lifestyles too?
In his closing address, Veolia CEO Antoine Frérot also noted that resource pressures historically spurred new human innovation in areas from agriculture to trade. “Until now, mankind has always found the means to overcome the obstacles successively placed in its way by scarcities of various kinds,” Frérot said. “Will that be the case this time?”
Consumption is just one aspect of systemic cultural shifts that are necessary to shift to a low-carbon economy. Cultures within different industries are also changing.  

Catalysing cultural disruptions in different industries

What might bring about disruption in the way people use resources? At the Resource Availability Conference, speakers such as Bernice Lee of Chatham House’s Hoffman Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy pointed to demographic and other trends, such as ageing, the rise of single-person households, or the sharing economy, that are already driving changes in the way people think about consumption.
Intelligent technology is one particular catalyst. “The future of mobility doesn’t come from recyclable or closed-loop cars,” said Systemiq co-founder Martin Stuchtey. “It’s coming from a better understanding of commute patterns, as well as automation.” Today, data, algorithms and smartphones make ride-sharing and public transit as convenient as the car-commute; tomorrow, the taxi you summon might be a self-driving one.
To be sure, that doesn’t mean car recycling should be ignored. “We have to go through all the different resource productivity levers, not just make systems run efficiently,” Stuchtey said.  
Likewise, Goldman Sachs global investment research executive director Jaakko Kooroshy suggested that intelligent technology will be key to consuming less energy, and therefore requiring fewer resources for renewable-energy technologies: in one scenario modelled by the Goldman Sachs utilities team, if intelligent charging becomes deployable, no additional power generation capacity would be required by 2050. 
Another potential way to effect change is to rethink the culture of an industry and fill in its blind spots. Vernon Collis, a consulting engineer and architect, described the shortcomings of both engineering and architecture: architects, he said, “design first and try to make the materials work”, while engineers are technical specialists but fail to examine the social and historical context of the problems they try to solve. Neither commonly have full training on the cycle of materials, Collis added.
Manufacturing, too, needs a cultural shift towards greater end-of-life thinking, suggested Veolia UK technology and innovation head Richard Kirkman. Manufacturers could work more closely with recyclers to simplify complex products and design them for ready dis-assembly, remanufacturing and recycling.  

Shared benefit: the curious case of the mining industry

One keystone industry, however, underpins the availability of resources for all, so cultural transformation in this industry is essential. The mining industry historically has had a fractious relationship with the communities in which it operates. Jennifer Broadhurst of the University of Cape Town’s Minerals to Metals initiative described how mining in South Africa and elsewhere has made land grabs, encouraged political corruption, exploited workers, and polluted land and water. “Most communities associate mining with hardship rather than redemption,” Broadhurst said.
Yet today, in an important shift towards a collaborative culture, the mining industry is starting to work with communities and governments to take real steps to protect resources. In South Africa, for instance, some of Anglo American’s platinum mines use treated post-sewage water from nearby towns in their ore processing, reducing the use of potable water; in turn, the company helps towns with the development and upgrading of water supply and treatment facilities.
Why the transformation? It’s all about risk, said Broadhurst. Mining’s demand for water can drain and sully local water resources, affecting the livelihood of surrounding farming communities; in turn, that translates into conflict with communities, governments, and other industries, and threatens mining companies’ license to operate as national governments respond to citizens’ concerns with stricter regulation and reforms. Water security expert Franck Galland added that the price of water for businesses is relatively low, but the cost of water-related risk is much higher.

Cities: putting it all together

Cities will be pilot sites for such cultural disruptions, and epicentres of their spread, said speakers at the conference. They referred to everything from re-examining the growing use of cement in developing cities’ middle-class homes, to planning for materials recovery in future, to the very planning of urban environments themselves to encourage efficient resource use. Because cities represent about 3% of land use but 75% of resource consumption, the potential economies of scale are huge.
Cities are at the core of the circular economy and low carbon transition pathway, said Lord Stern in his address, and the fast-urbanising developing world is now more open than ever to opportunities to leapfrog to low-carbon resource availability. Instead of resisting the low-carbon transition as a conspiracy to curb development, developing nations have signed on fully to the Paris Agreement, he observed.
“This is now a story of shared leadership,” Lord Stern said. 

This story is drawn from sessions at the “Strategic Materials for a Low-Carbon Economy: From scarcity to availability,” a conference co-hosted by the Veolia Institute and Oxford Martin School in November 2017.