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The Environmental Revolution will be as big as the Digital Revolution
The last last two decades saw the switch to digital, next will be the switch to green
For the last two and a half decades we have experienced the extraordinary switch from analogue to digital culture. From pre-Internet to a planet dominated by the World Wide Web. In the span of two decades we have completed this digital switch. Now it is time for the environmental revolution. Over the next couple of decades we will experience a similar scale of transition from a pre eco planet to a fully eco way of life. The environmental switch will be as profound as the digital switch. Indeed it will feel like digital 2.0.
We have to pinch ourselves to remember a world before the Internet. In the early 1990’s PC’s were still young. Most of them were stand alone devices - connected only to a printer. We used them to write documents or work on spreadsheets. They sat next to land-line telephones. The hot new thing was the development of servers and internal, wire-based networks enabling a group of computers to share documents, email and a printer.
Mobile phones were cumbersome and designed to make wireless telephone calls while firing off the odd SMS. The personal digital assistants (PDA) from Palm and Psion proved to be short lived and an expensive digital address books and diary.
Between the mobile phone and the PDA we caught an early glimpse of the future. What would happen if you were to merge the two devices? Presumably you could make notes and share them via SMS. Or connect address books and calendars to make calls at the flick of a button. Maybe even store and share documents. When it finally came it was called the iPhone.
At the time, TV’s largely offered terrestrial channels and the odd film peppered with ads. The US inspired a new direction with cable TV’s and thousands of channels - some offering a constant stream of films. Americans learned to swap ads for subscriptions and movie rentals. Blockbuster was all the rage.
And then sometime in the mid 1990’s it started to change. The Internet, having been invented in the late 1960’s, appeared on our devices with the introduction of the World Wide Web and its html based hypertext that was routed across telephone wires to servers that connected to other servers and to infinite numbers of end devices - mostly PC’s. Dial-up was born and with it the beginning of the Internet boom.
Most of the early Internet companies are forgotten today. Napster, Lycos and pets.com did not change the world, but they did help stoke consumer curiosity around things digital. Early trends included online content, news over dial-up, ecommerce, free email, search engines, online advertising and your local Internet service provider (ISP). Browsing appeared on WAP enabled mobile phones.
It took just a few booms and busts, trends and phases for the Internet to take over our lives. Since the mid-1990s, the Internet has had a revolutionary impact on culture, commerce, and technology, including the rise of near-instant communication by electronic mail, instant messaging, voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone calls, video chat, and the World Wide Web with its discussion forums, blogs, social networking services, and online shopping sites.
Increasing amounts of data are transmitted at higher and higher speeds over fiber-optic networks operating at 1 Gbit/s, 10 Gbit/s, or more. The Internet's takeover of the global communication landscape was rapid in historical terms: it only communicated 1% of the information flowing through telecommunications networks in the year 1993, 51% by 2000, and more than 97% of the telecommunicated information by 2007.
We understand the phases of growth by the company's that defined them. ISP equalled AOL. Ecommerce equals Amazon. Search is Google. Social networking equals Facebook. Messaging is WhatsApp and twitter equals Donald Trump (or is it the other way around). The iPhone is the mobile Internet.
Some things took an instant to take off and others took longer. We have seen the positive side of the web such as information sharing and instant news, weather and alerts. We love communicating freely over email and video and messaging. We make friends for a night and stay connected with them for ever. We all got caught by the social media and social networking bugs. We shop online. We can work from home. We learn remotely and complex surgical procedures can be done from afar.
Every company has a website and social channels. We all get that digital pr is pr. We care passionately about our Internet reputations and our resumes at Linkedin and Indeed. We find remote work at Upwork and would die to work for Google. We all wished we had come up with an idea and made a fortune in the dot com boom. None of us can exist without a smartphone, tablet or laptop. Increasingly Alexa and Siri are taking over our lives.
We get that the future is robots and smart homes and self driving cars. We accept that the digital revolution has won and we have become its online slave. We understand the dark side of the Internet including child porn, the dark web, cyber bullying and cyber theft. We have all been hit up by cyber con artists. We get how elections can be affected by fake news and strange online advertising. We accept that Facebook and gmail sell our data. We somehow let the Internet off the hook for its inefficiencies and corruptions because we remember a world without it. And no one wants to go back to the pre-Internet ice age.
But the analogue to digital transition is almost complete. Digital is our new world. Now we get to live this incredible ride that has been digital all over again.
If the last couple of decades has seen the world switch from analogue to digital then the next couple of decades will see the switch from climate disaster to climate action. From pre eco to post eco.
The environmental transition will prove just as powerful and pervasive as the digital switch. For those that missed out on making a fortune in the Internet era, you get a second chance. You can jump on the environmental wave.
The year 2020 will prove as vital for the environmental revolution as the year 2000 was for the digital revolution. We spent the late 1990’s getting the Internet off the ground and laying the foundation for digital to take over our lives. Over the last few years we have done the same with the environmental movement.
A lot of the infrastructure is in place and much of the early research has been done. Renewable energy has proven that it can take over from fossil fuels. Tesla has kicked off the electric vehicle revolution. Smart meters work. Heat pumps and biomass boilers can replace gas boilers. The vegan and sustainable fashion trends have begun. Rewilding has given us the tools to drive nature restoration and capture carbon. Mostly we have caught the public’s imagination for all things green. Consumers are geared up and ready for climate solutions.
Over the next two decades we will experience the transition to all things environmental. This will include the one-off switch to electric cars, bikes, scooters, vans and lorries. The widespread adoption of solar roof tiles and renewable energy, electric forecourts and smart meters. The switch to wind powered cargo vessels and zero emission planes and trains.
We will live in a post-plastic world and figure out how to compost waste. Packaging will be plant based. Clothes will come from recycled materials and green cloth. Towns and cities will become walkable and their green spaces will get wilder. English gardening will be abandoned for wildlife gardening. We will plant millions of trees and care about wildlife and nature. We will figure out how technology can swallow emissions, make synthetic meat at scale and create water, all while we wage guerilla warfare on disease.
We will not, in this article, spend time examining how we have got here and what the specific opportunities are - that is something we report on regularly. Instead we will try to conclude this examination by imagining where the environmental revolution could take us over the next twenty years. What the world might look like in 2040 if we embrace the eco revolution as wholeheartedly as we embraced the Internet revolution.
Our houses and offices will use light and glass to bring in heat with green roofs and insulation to absorb energy while smart meters manage energy distribution. Windows, tiles and roof panels will generate electricity. Towns and cities will be rearranged around mini-villages with school, work and shops within a fifteen minute walk from your home.
We will work from home most of the time, dropping into regional work hubs once or twice a week. Vehicles will be electric and boats increasingly wind powered. Shopping and entertainment will be online. The 3D printer will have become ubiquitous so we will no longer need goods to be delivered. Our printer will produce them for us in-home or in-office.
We will eat a largely plant based diet with a large selection of synthetic meat and vegetables. We will buy brands that are eco-friendly and we will recycle or compost all our goods. We will no longer use plastic. Packaging will be plant based. We will eat out at eco restaurants and cafes. McDonald's will offer plant based burgers and synthetic foods.
Schools and universities will offer a large swathe of environmental courses and subjects while developing green campuses and eco research labs. University research and IP will increasingly be geared towards environmental discoveries.
Companies will be obsessed with their green credentials and with greater equality and opportunity for all. They will have to become transparent about their eco supply chains, climate friendly products and zero emissions delivery. All vehicle fleets will be electric or hydro. Oil companies will have become renewable energy companies or will have gone bust.
The most popular companies to work for will be eco leaders and new eco start-ups. The most valuable companies will be leading renewable energy companies, greentech companies, synthetic food producers, green packaging companies, eco-travel and tourism groups and sustainable fashion brands. All businesses and public sector organisations will have adopted natural capital approaches to accounting.
Amazon's competition will be new environmental commerce players. Companies will be taxed for polluting and environmental regulations will be strict. Countries will vie to be the most eco-friendly with the lowest emissions and the highest sustainability and nature restoration ratings.
Planes and trains will be hydro powered and we will have learned to create food, water and energy synthetically so that we can populate other planets. We will have outposts on the moon and on Mars. Space travel will be the new thrill for the super rich. The rest of us will have pushed them to accept higher income taxes, to dramatically reduce their emission footprint and to spend their money on wind powered super yachts, eco, wildlife-rich estates and climate solving causes.
We will have learned the importance of the outdoors thanks to the multiple pandemics and lockdowns we will have lived through. Outdoor eating pods and street cafe society will be the norm. Art will increasingly be displayed outdoors and will be a common feature in towns and rural landscapes. Small and medium sized farms will farm for nature and grants will be paid for environmental services. Food producers will be either indoors or large industrial farming groups. Politicians will be green or gone.
We will still live on a planet that is on a knife edge, with regular violent storms and pandemics. Ice will keep melting and seas rising. Emissions will not have been reduced by enough. We will have hit 2C warming above pre-industrial levels. Pollution will be the number one killer in the world - above heart disease. Pandemics will still be raging. All countries, consumers and businesses will double down on environmental strategies and approaches to ty to save the planet by 2050. It will continue to be the defining issue of our time.
The Internet is where it is today because of an extraordinary alliance between consumers, government, scientists and industry to get ‘digital done’. We will need a similar grand alliance to get ‘climate done’. But the will is there and the groundwork has been laid. And if we, as a planet, embrace this new revolution we could be living in a very different world by 2040.
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