We cannot meet the 80-20 challenge under the present industrial system. Success will require a sea change in the prevailing kinds of energy we use, cars we drive, buildings we live and work in, cities we design, and ways we move both people and goods around the world. It will require other changes that no one can yet imagine. That’s why basic innovation is so important: Humans must rapidly rethink and rebuild their infrastructure, technology, organizations, and approach to working with nature. Meanwhile, the growing recognition of this 80-20 challenge — among scientists, businesspeople, and citizens — is itself a signal that the industrial age bubble has reached its limits, just as general recognition of the unsustainability of many Internet businesses preceded the bursting of the dot-com bubble of the 1990s.
Moving beyond the bubble does not mean returning to a pre-industrial way of life. But it does mean making choices that reflect very different beliefs, assumptions, and guiding principles. In nature, for example, there is one main source of energy: solar radiation. By contrast, 90 percent or more of the energy used within the industrial age bubble comes from burning fossil fuels. Moving beyond the bubble means learning to live within our “energy income,” and relying on forms of energy, such as solar, wind, tidal, and plant-based energy, that come from renewable sources. Nature produces no waste: every by-product of one natural system is a nutrient for another. The industrial age bubble generates enormous amounts of waste. In a post-bubble world, everything — cars, cell phones, office buildings, appliances — must be 100 percent recyclable, remanufacturable, or compostable. There also needs to be a different attitude toward the gap between rich and poor; in an increasingly interdependent world, it is not sustainable for 15 percent of the people to have 85 percent of the wealth. All the institutions of society must accept, as the first responsibility of human beings, the need to leave a healthy global biosphere for future generations. And in this new real world, it is understood that human beings are just one of the species that matter and that all species depend on others.
Learning to live outside the industrial age bubble — and meeting the 80-20 challenge, in particular — will require basic innovations of a scale and speed never seen before. That is one reason that some institutions are turning to narrow, top-down solutions, such as restrictive regulations on particular types of energy use or materials. But these approaches can often lead to the types of solutions known in system dynamics circles as “shifting the burden”: trying to solve complex problems by addressing individual symptoms alone. Many real-world successes start small, gradually attract wider involvement, then grow to a significant scale. They unfold in the same way that the original Industrial Revolution unfolded, but today they do so at a vastly accelerated pace.
As in the original Industrial Revolution, business must play a critical role: Businesspeople can apply their skills in management, entrepreneurship, and economic acumen to galvanize a collective shift. That was Per Carstedt’s contribution. Carstedt was the owner of a large Ford dealership in northern Sweden, a family business founded by his father. After several years of living in Brazil, during which he attended the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the first global sustainability conference, Carstedt found himself deeply immersed in what he called “big-picture questions.” How long could the Industrial Revolution, driven by access to cheap energy, be maintained? The more he read and talked to friends, the more connections he saw among different problems. Says Carstedt, “I saw the scope and scale of changes that were necessary. But, I asked myself, ‘What can one person do?’”