One of the most significant future transformations in the material sphere will be the development of a carbohydrate economy. This will be a global economy based primarily on renewable material feedstocks—as opposed to our current economy, which is founded largely on fossil fuels.
In addition to the transportation energy savings offered by resources that are close-at-hand, a renewed evaluation of material practices can enlighten the creation of new products
David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reminds us that we used to have a carbohydrate economy: two hundred years ago, Americans consumed two tons of vegetables for every ton of minerals; but thirty-five years ago, we consumed eight tons of minerals for every ton of vegetables. Cambridge professor Michael Ashby has also chronicled humanity’s global journey towards a near-total dependence on nonrenewable materials. The implications of this trajectory are clear.
Despite our near-total reliance on nonrenewable feedstocks, however, the situation is gradually changing. Many countries now mandate biofuel use, for example. Bioplastics are quickly replacing petroleum-based plastics in many applications, vegetable-based inks and oils are becoming more commonplace, and agricultural products are diversifying. These changes, which I’ve outlined in more detail below, are exerting a direct influence.
Increasing renewable resources
Plant-based feedstocks exhibit two benefits over other renewable resources: biomass is a natural store of energy and carbon, and it can be made into real, tangible products which can be worked with.
The first necessary transformation towards a carbohydrate economy will involve the expanded development of renewable resources, including both agricultural and forest-based products. This will include a rapid increase in the production of biopolymers for a variety of uses—from simplistic substances like packaging and films to complex products like microprocessors and composite panels for automobiles. Wood will also be processed in new ways that enhance its durability and functionality, and an increased number of mutant hybrids formed by the merging of wood and plastic will appear.
Plant-based feedstocks exhibit two benefits over other renewable resources: biomass is a natural store of energy and carbon, and it can be made into tangible products. However, significant challenges impede the rapid industrialization of biomass resources, including increased competition with food and energy markets, unsustainable harvesting practices, and the need to create more incentives for farmers. Considering these impediments, we must practice a thoughtful approach towards the expansion of bio-based feedstocks.
A new foundation
The realization of this new material milieu will require significant transformation. As David Morris says, “We may be changing the very material foundation of industrial economies.” The carbohydrate economy won’t happen overnight, but it is already underway. Moreover, once this new economy has matured, it will define our future reality. It is therefore important that designers understand the imminent material transformations in order to lead, rather than follow, the inevitable change.