There are some really simple ideas that come along sometimes and change everything. These are ideas that the moment you hear them makes you think, “oh that’s so obvious” but they really change everything. I’m not talking about things like Evolution or the world is round which are big ideas but have a lot of science behind them. It’s obvious to us now that the world is round because we’ve seen it from space but the first time it was said it wasn’t so obvious.
There’s a great apocryphal story about an employee at the Swan Vesta firm (they match matches etc). This guy who was like a janitor or something said to his bosses, “will you give me a million pounds if I tell you my idea and we use it – honestly it’s worth more but you have to promise that you’ll pay me if you use it”. After a lot of humming and hawing the firm agreed to give him the money if they used his idea. So he told them the idea, which was brilliant in its simplicity which was, “why don’t you only put the sandpaper only on one side of the box”. And all of the money that was saved by doing this was far in excess of the million pounds that they had to pay him.
This story might be true because nobody has ever disproved it but it’s almost certainly a reverse engineered story based on somebody having a conversation about how one kind of match box cost less to produce than another and then concocting the story around it.
The thing is that it’s very difficult to make money from some ideas. Some ideas are so brilliantly simple that they can’t actually be used to make money because they are so easy to copy. And some simply wouldn’t work in the same way if they were monitised. For example the world wide web and wikipedia are great examples of incredibly powerful things that were given away freely because they needed to be free or they wouldn’t have been successful. People like Tim Berners-Lee and Jimmy Wales must get asked all of the time if they wish, now they’ve seen the success of their inventions, that they had added a charge or royalties to it. And yet neither of them would have ever been successful if the charge applied.
I really think that the best way that people are going to find to save the world environmentally are going to be ideas like this. Ideas that don’t actually cost anything, or ideas which cost but cost far less than the current situation but can’t shift more units. By the very nature of environmentalism less is more. So how are these inventions or even less than inventions these ideas going to get through to us when it is in no companies interest to transmit them. This goes against the edict of consume more so how will it ever succeed?
Well in a closed system like a global economy the externalities will eventually internalise all by themselves. We have suddenly started seeing oil companies concerned about global warming. Why? That doesn’t make any sense does it? They should be the last people to come round to it. They want to be selling us their last barrel of energy. Yes of course they do but a large part of their business is supplying us with energy for heat. What if it starts getting warmer all by itself? They’d be out of business. The external cost of a warming planet has suddenly become and internal cost without the government even doing anything.
So firms will become concerned with this problem sufficiently to help us change our habits. But the big question is what if the solution is simply to consume less. Is it possible within the economy for this to naturally occur without massive government intervention?
I’m not particularly hopeful, we shall see.
Here’s an example which helps see how likely this is:
On average 62 billion e-mails are sent every day. Yes 62 billion! Obviously this is an estimate but even so it’s a big old number. Sounds about right to me though. 2 billion on the internet, 31 e-mails a day. Sounds about right. Some people are clearly slacking to keep the average down (I think I’m in about 100+).
A large chunk of this e-mail is kept – forever. Just stored on servers, on home computers, on work mailboxes. Just sitting there. And then those servers back this up and keep the same thing day after day even though it’s not really changing. That’s a lot of storage being used. And maybe it’s useful, maybe it is. I’m not going to argue about that really.
But take a look at the last e-mail conversation you had with somebody. Say it was 10 back and forth e-mails on a subject. This means that you have 10 e-mails in your sent items and 10 in your received. But in each subsequent e-mail the e-mail gets longer because it quotes from the one before it. So the tenth e-mail has all of the previous e-mail parts in it when they are totally unnecessary most of the time. I won’t say totally all of the time because from time to time I’ve looked back to see what I said if the conversation is happening slowly. But I only look down to look back because it’s conveniently there if it wasn’t I’d look back to my sent items.
Now a lot of these messages are spam which doesn’t get replied to, but a lot of e-mail is just these back and forth conversations which are just getting longer and longer.
Surely there is a better way? A better way of dealing with this? Surely it would take just a few key players to solve this problem. A few key firms to go in and change something to make this go away. But the problem is that you can’t sell it. Microsoft would be accused of taking a feature away from the users. And even though people wouldn’t miss it after a month or two and it would help save the world in a very small step at a time kind of a way people will never do it because it would mean giving up something that is only very occasionally useful and most of the time just takes up disk space – and the just in case thing would stop the change.
It’s the same reason that one supermarket hasn’t stopped selling plastic bags. If you force the customer to change and the customer doesn’t want to they’ll just shop elsewhere. But does the blunt instrument of tax work better? Perhaps we just need to help educate the companies about how the externalities are going to internalise all by themselves eventually.