The power of our wallets to help preserve natural systems

Have you noticed how technology’s brilliant discoveries are helping to protect our world’s natural environment in ways we could never have dreamed of even a few years ago?

This morning, I read a story about a company that has figured out how to 3D print wood products from the waste left behind when we don’t use all of the 15 billion or so trees we log annually. It can make any kind of wood you want, even the endangered rosewood tree which is logged in forests in places like Madagascar to make furniture for China and which apparently is more trafficked than ivory or rhino horn. You can sand this 3D printed wood and the grain stays intact, unlike other forms of manufactured wood. Or you can actually print a chair or a bowl or other product from it.

This story followed hard on the heels of a story about the creation of paper from pulp made of wheat straw rather than trees, artificial diamonds and chicken and fish created in the laboratory. I am sure there are more that I just haven’t heard about.

And these innovations are happening so quickly that I am not sure that most of us have thought through the societal implications.

If you can use every part of a tree to create wood that is just like the real thing, do we need to log 15 billion trees each year? If you can make paper from wheat straw that farmers discard after each year’s harvest, how many fewer trees do you need to cut?

And if companies are using carbon credits generated by preserving forests, in order to reduce their own emissions from their business, how does that reduce the number of forests available to be logged? What happens to the loggers? The logging communities?

If we can generate diamonds artificially, why go to all the expensive trouble of digging down deep into remote areas of the world like the Arctic to find the ‘real thing’? And if artificial diamonds catch on, then where is the market for the so-called ‘conflict diamonds’ that have been fuelling conflict, and oligarchic wealth-building, in troubled parts of the world?

And if we can generate meat, chicken and fish in the laboratory, what happens to the world’s industrial meat production? 

The forests of the Amazon are being cleared for cattle ranching and soy growing. People in rural parts of the USA complain about the environmental destruction caused by the huge waste ponds near these industrial farms. The meat packing plants hire low-waged people, even people without papers, to cut and package the meat. Ranchers who used to sell their cattle to local meat packing plants are left out in the cold by the industrial system. This is not a sustainable system – but it involves a great deal of money, and it will stay in place as long as people keep buying meat that is produced in this way.

We are in a time of real paradigm shift, but truly, it is not easy to see what will emerge as the pace of technological innovation keeps moving so quickly. One thing does seem clear to me – that this kind of innovation is offering a way to preserve more of our natural environment through the power of our wallets, because what we choose to buy individually will either support the more sustainable new system, or that older extractive, industrial system whose unsustainability is becoming clearer each year.

This is the power of Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ model and Ellen McArthur’s circular economy model, because it links what we do individually with what happens with our planet’s health. It helps put us in the driver’s seat in terms of sustainability choices, one by one.