Game changers must be scalable

Game changers must be scalable

Think global, act local is a decades-old rallying cry. An attempt to bridge the psychological chasm between the enormity of environmental issues and what an individual can actually achieve from day to day.

The assumption is that if every little helps and everyone does a little locally, a collective change will emerge.

In principle, this is a scalable idea.

Each individual benefits from their own effort. Not least because they feel better for making a contribution. Add more and more people and the true benefits appear from a sum of the collective parts.

One conversion to LED lighting is a modest energy saving but when a whole city does it, baseload generation, peak demand, emissions, and energy delivery systems can all change significantly.

Most game-changing ideas are scalable like this. They may start small but grow into high volume and at some point, they are no longer local. They are market-wide. Almost all the successful consumer products from fridges to mobile phones fit this model.

The problem is that many of the ideas that would deliver sustainable environmental solutions, for example, green waste into biochar, only work at scale.

This makes them difficult to get started.

Composting green waste to create mulch and fertiliser is a good thing to do. It can be done at home, even on the balconies of high rise apartment blocks. The problem is what to do with the compost. An average household would need a fair size garden to use what can be made plus the nutrients are not returned to the paddocks where the food was grown. Compost for the farmer’s field needs a system to aggregate and transport household green waste even if the household has already decomposed it down a bit.

In principle this is scalable, only there might not be enough green waste to make the volume needed and there is a risk of contamination from weeds and pathogens.

Burning green waste at high temperatures and low oxygen (pyrolysis) converts biomass into charcoal (biochar) releasing volatile gases and leaving behind stable carbon with a honeycomb microstructure. Put this material on or into the soil and it improves water retention and nutrient exchange through the biology going on in and around the carbon particles.

This sounds like a better solution for household green waste so long as there is a digester handy, a pyrolysis machine to convert the biomass into a stable and safe form of fertilizer. Currently, not many are portable and to build one commercially, high volume is needed to make them profitable. This means starting at scale, not to get there over time.

Any number of agricultural fixes both technical and through management actions are like this. There is a chasm of scale between the individual consumer and the system of production.

This is both practical and psychological. Most city dwellers have never even been on a farm, let alone know what it takes to run one. They might be keen to do their little bit but really have no inkling of the scale needed when it is paddocks and fields that are in need of care.

It may be that this psychological chasm can’t be crossed incrementally. We might need to be ‘at scale’ for the solution to work. And in our current social and economic system this means profitable investment. More strictly, the profit that is easiest to achieve today.

In a positive future…

Everyone will recognise that not all solutions are scalable or need to be. Individual actions are encouraged in scalable directions – reduce, reuse, recycle is a fine example – to tackle the demand side.

Production will become more resilient because the finance for ‘at scale’ solutions will have a much longer time horizon that absorbs uncertainty as a manageable risk. The bond market will embrace agriculture when it sees that unpredictable production is fine when you go long and think like nature.

Farm businesses will cooperate. Not because the farmers turn to socialism but because it will be one of the ‘at scale’ solutions to more concentrated markets.

In the end… and after the virus

Every little action can help sustain us all. Each local act can lead to global solutions so long as there is room for options when the little things do not add up.

There is an opportunity now that with lockdowns we know that we can actually survive on a lot less than we thought. The scale might just have got a bit smaller for some of the options we have suggested if the need for profit has become less acute and the need for stable, reliable supply chains has grown.

You never know.

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