Somehow, in the course of watching this talk by Orville Schell on China and long term thinking, I was finally struck by the potential consequences of really doing Cradle to Cradle design, and scaling up renewable energy. It would mean the possibility of material autarky. Today a swarm of idle container ships hovers around Singapore, because of a little recession. If we completely weaned ourselves off of non-renewable resources, if we closed the world’s landfills, any nation could check out of the world’s material economy. What would still flow? Renewable resources, like food, and non-food agricultural products, and to some degree water. Labor might also flow, if its price were significantly different in different places — or maybe the stuff would flow to the cheap hands — but more likely I think, those labor price imbalances would “relax to equilibrium” in time. You’d still get material flows happening if there were, on balance, growth happening: new buildings, bridges, dams, etc., or if the material were being re-distributed around the world (dismantling eastern Europe to build a booming Turkey?). Most important, information would flow. Processes and technology would be developed, and then implemented in new places, without any container ships at all. How much would culture flow? Would this help or hinder the preservation of our polyglot planet?
How much would the additional measure of freedom from external material needs affect the way nations interact with each other? Bhutan pays a high price for its economic independence, but what if the price weren’t quite so high? How much efficiency would we be willing to trade for a given amount of additional resilience? How far is our economy from this today? For instance, clearly Australia as a major exporter of both coal and iron ore to China could be exporting steel instead, but it’s actually cheaper to have it made in China and get a little bit of it shipped back as a finished product. This just seems crazy — is it true that Australian steelworkers are that much more expensive? Or that a big portion of the value of a slab of steel is the labor that goes into making it? How much of the “value” to Australia is the fact that the pollution happens in China, with lax standards? What about on smaller scales? If material flows were to become largely unnecessary, what would prevent cities, or companies, from becoming the most sovereign economic entities, negotiating their interactions without consulting nation-state governments? If that were to happen, what would prevent Silicon Valley from vaulting into the future, while Stockton regresses to ex-urban shantytown.
Maybe I’m behind the curve, but I think actually getting what we wish for with respect to a sustainable economy might be much more disruptive to the world than we think. Of course at some level that’s the whole idea — if we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going — but changing direction can be very painful, even if it’s for the better ultimately.