Why Sustainability Is an Empty Word without Money

Sustainability and Money

Let's say you go shopping to your local supermarket.

You get there. You take a coin out of your wallet and you take your cart. You buy your stuff then you go out in the parking lot. You load the goods into your car trunk.

Then you take the cart back to its place and you take your 1 Euro coin back.

So what's this got to do with sustainability?

This is a self sustaining system. The supermarket doesn't need to hire someone to take the carts back. You do it for them coz there's money on the line.

So what I'm saying is it would be nice if people would naturally do what's reasonable to do. But, history showed us too many times we're far from being rational creatures.

Would you take the cart back if there were no money in this for you? You may say you would but would you? Really? Every single time?

We need an extra reason to do good things

Politicians and law enforcement agents should be designers of good will which leads to sustainable systems.

But above everything, when you want to design sustainability, you have to be a player of reality. Now, we'd like everybody to be environmentally responsible, to be polite, to drive safely and so on. But this doesn't happen naturally unless we design rules and punishments (for those who don't comply).

People in general are rather selfish and can't think long term. We want instant gratification. We care about ourselves first and foremost.

Understanding this key feature of human psychology brings you closer to being a player of reality. You know what people should do. You know and they know all the good consequences that may come out of it. But most of the time they won't do it if there isn't an extra incentive or a punishment.

Don't throw your beer bottle

I love societies that don't waste resources. Germany is one of them.

Erdinger Weissbier

So whenever I buy my favorite beer, I also pay for the bottle. Same happens when I buy mineral water or any other drink.

This sounds like the shopping cart and the coin story, right?

I always return the bottles (and the PET plastic bottles and the aluminum cans) to get my 25 cents back.

People would love to live in trash free cities or villages but how many would actually bring the bottles back just for that? Very few I guess. And I'm not saying that I'd be more responsible.

The beauty of this system is that they can value the bottles as much as they want. So instead of 25 cents, the bottles could cost 1 Euro/piece starting from tomorrow. That would make even more people to act responsibly.

The effect?

Less trash on the streets, less costs for the brewery, less consumption of energy and raw materials (no need to manufacture a new set of bottles), etc. Not to mention the feeling people get from acting in a responsible manner - that counts a lot! But again, we got here coz there was money on the line.

The guys who designed this system? They're players of reality.

I don't want green energy unless I can make money out of it

Nobody is actually articulating this thought but this what everyone thinks - more or less.

Yes fossil fuels are not good, yes we need more energy, yes we need to do something... So what?

The German government and in particular the late Bundestag member Hermann Scheer? Players of reality.

They knew that if a family had 15,000 Euros lying around, they'd rather buy a new car or go on a vacation instead of buying an array of solar panels for thier home.

So they said...

Here's the deal. We need to phase out nuclear power plants. They're dangerous, they need expensive fuel and they create radioactive waste.

We want renewable energy and we need you to adopt these new technologies. But we know you won't do it. Even though it's safe, clean and needs no fuels.

Maybe it's too experimental, maybe you just don't wanna go through the trouble of learning about it - it doesn't matter. We know you won't do it...yet.

So we offer you a guaranteed price for each KW/h you produce. We also guarantee that all the power you'll produce with renewables will be bought from you by electricity distribution companies. You can now become a supplier of electric power - no matter how small or big your investment will be.

Renewable energy is good. We all know it. But we're players if reality and we'll give you an extra incentive to do it.

We're gonna call this subsidy scheme the feed in tariff.

Then households and investors went into this new green energy thing. It was good, it was safe and there was money in it.

Give people an extra (fun) reason and they'll do the right things

With renewables - it's money (and earning money is fun, right?). With climbing the stairs instead of taking the escalator - it's pure fun.

More about this at TheFunTheory.com.


The final word I'd like to end with is elegance.

If you know how the human brain works and if you know how to motivate people to do the right things, then you've reached elegance in implementing your policy.

Germany is implementing its new energy policy one wind turbine and one solar farm at a time. Everyone is participating.

And when most households will have solar panels and when each land will have the majority of its power generated by renewables, then literally everyone will do the same.

Coz that's another trait of humans: we don't do much until there is a critical mass of other people doing it. Then, when social proof is established, and when we see there is no more risk, we jump in. All of us.

Over to you
  • What do you think? Are we rational and generous beings or do we really need incentives and a kick in the ass to get going?
  • What's your opinion on the German energy model?
  • Why do you think other developed countries are so slow in implementing renewable energy policies?
  • Are you a player of reality?

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