“…it is in this space of influencing life style choices that conservation and resource management is a great leveler among societies at different ends of the energy spectrum: an Indian who consumes 600 kWh/annum and an American who consumes over 15,000 kWh/annum have much to learn from one another. Because if one really thinks about it, the energy each consumes for their day to day needs should be about the same–while one wastes out of a sense of affluence the other is pegged to a lower level of consumption due to circumstances and poverty…”
This was written to me by Srinivasan Padmanabhan, an energy efficiency expert living in India who stumbled across NoImpactMan.com. His point is that Americans and Western Europeans can learn to conserve energy from the solutions developing countries have come to out of economic necessity. In turn, developing countries can gain economically feasible technology from us as we develop it to conserve energy.
It is already happening in some ways: the use of solar panels, developed to help Americans get off the grid, to create lighting in small villages in developing countries that are off the grid because they have no choice. As an example of a swap in the opposite direction, Srinivasan suggested that a non-electric cooler developed for use in India where economic resources are short, the ceramic Mitti Cool (see photo above), might help people like me to conserve energy here in the United States.
The idea of developing technology to serve real needs--either borne out of economic necessity or the urge towards conservation--ties in with the thoughts of Benjamin Barber, the author, most recently, of Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, whom I heard talk recently at Demos. Barber suggested that one good aspect of early capitalism was that it tied self-interest to altruism: if I invent something that is good for society and distribute it, then not only will I have helped but I personally will benefit.
The problem is, Barber said, that capitalism in the United States no longer services existing need, because most of our needs are met. Instead, it manufactures need by marketing to us the idea that our cell phones are no longer cool and our TVs are no longer big enough. We feel we better buy new ones, even though we don’t really need them. How wonderful, Barber suggested, if capitalism turned back to its job of filling real, existing needs (read his Op-Ed on this theme here).
The northern, more affluent hemisphere needs technology that requires fewer resources to manufacture and use so as not to harm the planet. The southern, less affluent hemisphere needs the same low-resource technology because it should cost less. How wonderful if capitalism turned from Nintendo and SUVs—manufactured needs—to these real needs.
How do we get there? Commenters, please weigh in. This is what I’d love us to discuss in this post.
As for my two pennies worth, for one, we can help convince corporations that there are markets both here and abroad for low resource products. No Impact Man is, in part, a protest against resource gluttony. If you want me to buy, the idea goes, then prove to me your products won’t hinder the planet. I’m talking here about a consumer rebellion of sorts. But also, we must find a way to get rid of the short-term quick profit ethos. As Ben Barber pointed out in his talk, corporations with a longer view might find a cure for malaria in order to elevate people to become eventual customers.
Finally, let me point you to some people who are already thinking this way and are showing their wares at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. The current exhibition, called Design for the Other 90%, shows innovations not designed for the richest 10% of the world, like most products, but those designed for those in developing countries with genuine needs. Bravo.