Published on: May 31, 2022
Last Thursday I featured a conversation with David Katz, founder-CEO of Plastic Bank, in which we discussed his organization's use of blockchain and some high-level plastic regeneration (which is different from recycling) to create a business - and a compelling narrative - around making maximum use of resources, and building economic independence in places and for people who desperately need it.
This prompted one an MNB reader to write:
We have been submitting and processing a staggering amount of price increases in 2021 and 2022. In presenting price increases, manufacturers are asked to provide the reasons for the increase, one of which is typically an increase in the cost of commodities. This is packaging. In the past, we haven’t given much thought to the value and complexity of the “throw away” packaging in consumer products. Product delivery is part of the experience of using the product. Your interview with Mr. Katz provided insight into something that most of us working in consumer products take for granted- the actual value of that packaging.
That was the point - that Plastic Bank is a great example of an organization and its people trying to turn traditional thinking about packaging on its side, and examine ways to convert it from waste to a real financial asset.
As part of our conversation, I referenced (and linked to) a piece I read in the Tufts Observer, a student magazine at Tufts University, by an impressive young writer named Meghan Smith. She argued that the benchmarks traditionally used in a capitalist society may not be appropriate or sufficient when grappling with climate change.
Not surprisingly, this article also generated some reactions.
One MNB reader wrote:
She may not be wrong, but how do you get there from here?
Capitalism has its obvious problems, including not truly accounting for all costs (waste, pollution…), but it has also brought much of humanity out of poverty.
We need an answer to climate change, pollution…whatever you want to call it.
But I don’t know or think it can be done by sacrificing growth, without sacrificing the welfare of millions if not billions of lives.
Part of it goes back to the cost accounting…what are the costs, now and to future generations for restoring, cleaning up, deaths… Stop ignoring these costs and work them into the accounting.
The other part has to do with scarce resources. But we can still have abundance. Take the point of David’s comment about there already being more than enough plastic…we don’t need to produce more. Better thinking may disrupt entrenched industries, but also create new ones (a central tenet of capitalism).
And, from another reader:
There is so much wrong with the author’s understanding of business, capitalism, history, and climate science that it’s legitimately embarrassing. Let’s assume her premise that temperatures are rising at the rate she states and it’s largely anthropogenic are correct.
Let me ask you one question:
What economic system has led to increasingly lower levels of pollution, has led all the technological advances in green energy, and has lifted more people out of poverty in the history of mankind? You want to look at ecological disasters, look no further than the economic system people like the author want to impose.
I would suggest that if you are going to venture into areas outside your core expertise, I would suggest doing some research and putting up some counter arguments.
First of all, if I have a core expertise, it is in trying to be a provocateur - which is why Im posted the piece to begin with. (My other core expertise is in being a wisenheimer, but that's for another conversation.)
Second, good for Meghan Smith, who I may just invite to do a Zoom conversation on MNB.
Let's be clear about something. I don't think she was arguing for a system other than capitalism, just that maybe some of the traditional benchmarks of capitalism need to be examined to see if they meet the larger needs of the moment. I don't think that is such a radical argument - I have long argued here that businesses that adhere to a traditional shareholder-centric approach to growth without taking into consideration a company's broader stakeholders (employees, customers) are being myopic and need to adjust their cultures. I find it hard to believe that we cannot figure out how to achieve responsible growth that still respects the climate issues that humanity faces. (Meghan Smith didn't invent her understanding of climate science, by the way … she's clearly done a ton of research and thinking about the issue.)
If you don't want to agree with the people and studies she cites, that's fine. We're not going to solve that disagreement here. But I'll buy what David Katz pointed out, that in the end the world will be just fine. It'll be humanity that will not survive.
I believe that our species' survival requires us to be willing to think about whether traditional benchmarks are sufficient or appropriate, and that to be unwilling to engage in such a conversation is an example of epistemic closure.