Science is knowledge. Knowledge is our survival strategy, as a species. Civilization is oriented toward the discovery, securing, and expansion of knowledge. The word ‘science’ is shorthand for the heroic collective human endeavor to learn, share, do, and improve.
Read any book, essay or article about business these days, and you are sure to find the words ‘innovation’ and ‘disruptive’ doing some heavy lifting somewhere crucial. What is not said as often is that there is a real and operational difference between the old economy we are emerging from and the new economy we are emerging into.
That difference is the difference between unaccountable power and inclusive collaborative dynamism… between the feudal system and universal democracy. We are not there yet. We are not even really all that close to universal democracy.
That deficit means, however, that we can say with clarity:
The biggest business of the 21st century is going to be the work of leaving behind unjust separations that are relics of the feudal system.
Sound Investment Strategy Needs a Science Foundation
Energy and industrial practices are at the heart of this, but also banking, food production, and health services. Solving climate change, meeting the SDGs, reorienting finance toward a standard no longer dependent on negative externalities, these are all part of that effort.
- 10 years after the financial crash of 2008, we are still living with an uncomfortable reality: even when “the economy” in the general and abstract is booming, the vast majority of even well-paid people still struggle to make ends meet.
- The wealth gap is still getting wider, and major incumbent industry leaders are still looking to increase the amount of direct and indirect subsidy they receive just for operating.
- There is too little overall value in circulation to meet our collective needs, in large part because unsustainable practices are bleeding value away from virtually everything and everyone.
- The hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency disaster-response costs now paid each year amount to an unprecedented and growing threat to long-term fiscal solvency.
Accountability Expands Prosperity
The model by which big, powerful institutions generate value in specific ways while socializing the general cost and harm associated with their activities is feudalism. Democracy demands accountability to the people, and a higher standard of performance for the public good.
- In energy, we now have alternatives that make pollution and greenhouse gas emission functionally unnecessary. Consumers are, as such, demanding something better.
- Banks are still digging out from the crisis; some experts suggest mainstream financial institutions still do not know how or where the revived Main Street economy will get back to the scale necessary to sustain with everyday economic activity their claimed “assets under management”.
- Farming and food production need to rapidly shift to a new paradigm of integrated sustainability; even as industry offers new solutions, smart policy might shift land values to reward producers who build soil carbon richness, and so fertility, biodiversity, and resilience.
- In health services, we have the knowledge and the technology to keep everyone healthy, but perverse market incentives make it unaffordable to do so. Solving this life-threatening and unjustifiable imbalance will be one of the major growth areas in commerce in this century.
The new economy is science-driven. That does not mean standards are rigidly dictated by the most recent peer-reviewed paper. It means that where we know enough to know better, we can and will do better. This shift is what is often called, in climate policy circles, “the transition”.
The Zero-Harm Standard
We are approaching the moment when it will no longer be possible to justify harmful practices on the premise that there are no better ways of doing business. The zero-harm standard is emerging, and will soon begin to take over one after another sector that never suspected they would have to operate with zero harm as a baseline.
We have tolerated pollution, because we had to. The means of redress were not well-enough established. We don’t have to tolerate pollution anymore. We don’t have to accept food that is chemically manipulated. We don’t have to accept premature death, simply because routine health services are too costly to access.
Breakthroughs in clean, distributed systems, and information management connecting them, will ensure that production, transmission, storage and commercialization of energy put the science of solutions ahead of the strictures of the status quo. People everywhere, of all levels of income and influence, will benefit from this paradigm shift in the creation and distribution of energy, capability, and value.
As the 21st century economy moves toward eliminating unnecessary harm and socialized cost, science-based enterprise will breathe life into new technologies that will shift not only energy, industry, food, health, information and finance.
The image at the top of this article was taken on April 25, 1990, while the crew of STS-31 moved the Hubble Space Telescope out of the cargo bay of Space Shuttle Discovery and extended its solar panels. Image credit: NASA.