“Welcome To 2030,” the WEF essay was headlined. “I Own Nothing, Have No Privacy, And Life Has Never Been Better.”
When the article (republished here by Forbes) was first posted by the World Economic Forum in 2016, they probably didn’t anticipate the heated debate it would spark. But the assertion by its author, former minister for the environment in Denmark Ida Auken, that “you will own nothing” is certainly provocative.
Some members of the public labeled the 2030 prediction part of a harmful agenda. Some feared that it implied an underlying plan to take away their belongings by 2030. Others were chilled by the thought of a world where all of their belongings were de-facto owned by megacorporations and nation-states.
But what Auken had hoped to illustrate wasn’t a dystopian future but a potential outcome of implementing a so-called circular economy — a system where products and materials are reused and recycled instead of wasted. She posited that a future where everything is rented or leased, rather than owned outright, could have tremendous environmental benefits.
Will We Own Nothing?
Although the WEF is actively heading toward a circular economy, it is still unclear what form product ownership will take. The concept of a circular economy isn’t all that new. One of the earliest mentions of circular economies can be found in the late economist and philosopher Kenneth Boulding’s “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth,” published all the way back in 1966.
In his paper, Boulding asserted that the most sustainable way forward was to liken Earth to a giant spaceship, with limited resources, that required everyone on board to work together to make the most of what we had. Instead of assuming that resources are infinite, as orthodox economics does, a circular economy would work within finite limits.
The WEF’s modern addendum to the circular economy is the notion of “service orientation,” whereby businesses focus on providing a service rather than selling products. The service paradigm would help keep resources in use for as long as possible and minimize waste.
This is the imagined future Auken spoke to in her essay:
“When products are turned into services, no one has an interest in things with a short life span. Everything is designed for durability, repairability, and recyclability. The materials are flowing more quickly in our economy and can be transformed to new products pretty easily.”
More specifically, the author described a system in which everything was rented on an as-needed basis. “Everything you considered a product has now become a service,” she writes. “We have access to transportation, accommodation, food and all the things we need in our daily lives. One by one, all these things became free, so it ended up not making sense for us to own much.”
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An Idea Whose Time Has Already Arrived
Anyone who is an active member of our hyper-digitized Western society in 2022 can visualize exactly what this would look like. Think about the meal kit boxes that 29% of millennials have already subscribed to receive, at least on a trial basis.
Consider the data indicating that 507 million people opt to use the Apple Pay service as an alternative to keeping a physical card on their person. Or the 15 million people who get from point A to B using the Uber ride-share app every day. And of course, when was the last time anyone owned a software-use license?
This is the idea we are already hurtling toward at a rapid pace: a world in which we lease everything we need until we no longer need it. It’s all about access, not ownership.
So will we own nothing in 2030? Despite popular conspiracies, it is objectively untrue that the WEF plans on enforcing a no-ownership policy. They have simply observed that the shift is happening and identified that a circular economy is the key to sustainability.
But Will We Be Happy?
“[W]hy would I actually sell you the product if you are primarily interested in the benefit of the product?” said Frans Van Houten, CEO of Royal Phillips, told the WEF in 2016. “Maybe I can stay the owner of the product and just sell you the benefit as a service.”
While there are plenty of conspiracy theorists to go around, the concept of all products becoming services has received a healthy amount of level-headed criticism.
The benefits are clear: less waste, more durability, and easier recycling. But what concerns critics is the issue of capitalism, as explored here by financial commentator John Mauldin; and corporatism, as defined here by the editor of National Review’s Capital Matters, Andrew Suttaford.
We’ll own nothing, or significantly less than we used to — and that means we’ll be paying for the services provided to us by mega-corporations. We might be trading in one form of enslavement for another.
The truth is we don’t actually need a time machine to see the potential impacts of handing over such a monopoly on services to a select few. Facebook flipped the switch long ago by providing us with a “free” service and selling us the real product for billions of dollars in profit annually.
Will we be happy if in fact everything becomes a service? Life will be more convenient, but we are perhaps at risk of giving a small group of providers too much control over our lives. Of course, surveillance capitalism will ensure that we continue to be the product: our data, our attention, and our existence from one moment to the next.
“Once in a while I get annoyed about the fact that I have no real privacy. Nowhere I can go and not be registered. I know that, somewhere, everything I do, think and dream of is recorded. I just hope that nobody will use it against me.” – Ida Auken