Who is Gunter Pauli?
The Huffington Post called him "The Steve Jobs of Sustainability". His Latin American friends rather call him "The Che Guevara of Sustainability". He prefers no reference to anyone who already passed away, and wants to be judged by his children only.
He has the ears of the CEOs of leading mining companies and is about to unveil his new model for extracting ores, especially gold from the ground that will triple the miners' cash flow and turn these formally brutal dynamite explosions into a surgical intervention. The Return on Investment is so good, that mining executives who have known Gunter for years believe that this could be the real revolution with share prices coming out of the deep (most lost +50% in one year) to triple and quadruple. The numbers are solid, the innovations have been proven, and the model is being tested as we speak in the Americas.
He partners with leading oil companies in Europe to help them get rid of their stranded assets. All investments in oil, gas and petrochemicals from the sixties and seventies are at the end of their useful life. Over-investments in Saudi-Arabia and China, plus the prospect of low crude prices for a few years more stalls investment. There are +100 petrochemical installations up for closure in Europe alone, but the social and environmental cost is too high, and the margins are too low to permit investments in a reconversion of the sector. Gunter sees great opportunities and a company he chairs in Italy have already transformed 5 petrochemical facilities into profitable operations. At the request of the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and in collaboration with ENI, this revival of competitiveness is considered so strategic for Europe that it is directly supported by the Presidency of the EU Commission.
The Belgian Government is open to his advise on how to transform the threat of rising sea levels while stimulating the creation of new industries. His proposal will be unveiled later this year, but is based on 3D sea farming that has been pioneered in China over centuries. Gunter believes that producing food 2D on land is out of date, time has come to massively produce food, feed, fuel, fertilizers and chemical feedstock from the sea. The first plant operates in South Africa, the Indonesian Government is offering 100 square kilometer concessions and the Belgian Government is ready to change the laws. The first operations are up and running in the United States, and dozens more are coming on stream.
The Chinese Government appreciates his hands-on approach. When a Taiwanese inventor converted rocks and plastics to paper for packaging and print, Gunter put his network behind this breakthrough that requires no water, no tree cutting and offers paper that can be recycled forever. Four factories in 4 years have demonstrated that this is not just a good idea, this is a new standard that will totally upset the forest, paper and pulp industry. It's better, it's cheaper and makes sense. Dozens of delegations from around the world visit the plants and soon (stone) paper plants will emerge in South Africa, Mongolia, Egypt ... all nations void of water and trees!
Gunter manages a loyal network of 3,000 researchers, keen on seeing their innovations put into practice. He also works with 850 doers, people keen to get their hands dirty. While these industrial projects that have mobilized $4 billion in investments the past few years, his biggest impact may well be in education. He agreed to produce for Chinese schools (cooperation with the Ministry of Environment Protection, Ministry of Education and the Normal Universities) a total of 365 fables bringing children a new reality (like "Paper made from Stone") that even the parents consider "fantasy". He has already produced and published 108 in China and has another 7 years to finish the rest. These books are now test-run in 5,000 schools and will soon go nationwide. The number of fables in Chinese schools (and elsewhere), make his "Blue Economy" book that sold 1.2 million copies in 39 languages look like a bummer.
He started as a small entrepreneur in Japan, then moved back to Belgium, created 12 companies in 12 years (2 failed) and was hired by the United Nations University in 1994 with the support the Japanese Government to help prepare the Kyoto Protocol. None of his proposals were accepted back in 1997. However, with the support of 2,600 corporations and a few game-changers in the UN, he decided to pursue his design of highly innovative business models that 20 years later offer a fresh look at how industry will compete, how the poor can join a thriving middle class, how we can respond to basic needs of all with what we have, and how regional development will outcompete the globalized economy.
His think tank ZERI has been ranked by the University of Pennsylvania as one of the most innovative in the world (#7 in 2016) and having interacted with over 100 heads of government, and with 200 projects implemented he knows how to translate science and innovation into disruptive business models and pragmatic government policies by generating more cash flow than even hedge funds consider possible.
"I have never been against GMO, petroleum or globalization. I am on a permanent quest to find much better!" Gunter Pauli
The question to be asked, reading this background: "Does this man consider himself a rebel?"
Here are his reflections on the question asked by Ilaria Bonacorsi of the Italian magazine "Left".
First: Stop Being a Diplomat
When the Ambassador of Belgium in Tokyo told me in 1981 that I should rewrite my report about how Belgian companies could penetrate the Japanese company, after I had rewritten it twice, I told him to write it himself and left for Italy to participate in the Club of Rome meeting organized by Dr. Aurelio Peccei, former CEO of FIAT and Olivetti. Little did I know that a diplomat was not permitted to leave his posting overseas without the permission of the Ambassador. When I sent a summary of my vision of how to do business in Japan to Baron Daniel Jansen, member of the Club of Rome and president of the Belgian Federation of Enterprises he confided that "these ideas are not mainstream but since nothing else has worked, we should give it a try".
This encouragement led to the creation of my first enterprise in 1981 in Tokyo, dedicated to implementing the vision I had, selling beer, chocolate and fine linen textiles, and soon after I succeeded in licensing Belgian pharmaceutical patents to Japanese enterprises, closing joint-ventures and coordinating direct investments. The Japanese took notice of this success and took the bold step to promote my initiatives overseas claiming that: "if this young entrepreneur can succeed, why can't large European and American companies?" An independent career was born, and a rebel imposed himself on the market. It was Aurelio Peccei who had argued that I should never work for a multinational and certainly not for the government and preserve at all cost my freedom to think and act as I considered best for all.
You have a Chance when you start Young with Mother's unconditional support
When the Huffington Post (France) named me in 2014 "The Steve Jobs of Sustainability", my Latin American friends were quick to respond that I should be named "The Che Guevara of Sustainability". Perhaps they were right, since I would never worry to please, rather always worry about doing what is considered the best for all, often upsetting many who would feel the pinch from this out of the box thinker and doer who pursues a clear vision: create a better world with what we have. It all started at a very young age when I was reading about the genocide of the Native Americans and decided that I should go to the United States to rescue whatever and who ever could be rescued. Barely 8 years old, I pledged to save all money and depart at the age of 18. Luckily, my mother fully supported this crazy dream and indeed upon graduating from high school I left for Nebraska where once the Sioux roamed the land. A rebel with a cause … and patience.
Only Worry About the Others' Weaknesses (and there are many)
One year later I returned to my motherland, frustrated but ready to embrace the realities of life knowing that sometimes it is not worth fighting for a lost cause. Rebels fights for the cause they (believe) can win, even when the chances are small. Where would we get the clarity from that this is worth pursuing? It was during my early years in Japan that Mr. Shoichiro Honda explained that he never studied business, and never undertook strategic assessments like the SWOTS analysis (strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats). As a fresh Master in Business Administration from a fine European school (INSEAD, France) I questioned how he could decide on a pathway for his company without knowing his strengths. How could he decide to produce cars when his only experience was motorcycles? His answer was compelling and has guided me ever since: "I have no strengths, and my list of weaknesses is long. However, when I make the list of weaknesses of my competitors and opponents, it is even longer and that gives me the courage to pursue what I think is best".
Fantasy for Others is My Reality
I realized that Mr. Honda was as much a rebel as Che Guevara whose silhouette adorned my bedroom during my teenage years, much to the dismay of my father who thought that communists will destroy the Western culture. When he destroyed our family nucleus by escaping to Iran with another woman after 28 years of marriage, I learned that his betrayal was my greatest chance in life: take care of mom. Rebels realize that in every bad news, there is good news. My mother who had encouraged me to hold on to my dreams for a decade, and who welcomed me after I realized it was a pipedream, deserved the unconditional love from her son, just like this son had an unconditional commitment to steering this world towards a much better horizon. It seems that rebels not only go for the impossible, with passion and perseverance, but that they are surrounded by an unconditional love that offers faith and clarity that few seem to have in their quest to achieve what other often consider as fantasy.
Rebels do not live in a world of fantasy. Their world is one filled with realities, and realities they want to change. The main challenge is that everyone else in society considers these realities fantasy. The rebel has the unique capability to not only take what others consider fantasy as their reality; they are capable to go beyond their dreams. That is what gives them the courage to continue on their evolutionary path throughout life, taking one strategic breakthrough after another without ever being concerned about the pitfalls that are known to cause trouble and pain. The rebel does not face up to problems, rather avoids them, sailing around, picking up force and speed from adversaries. And all the inflicted pains are considered a passage that allows soul searching for the inner truth and strengths towards a next phase of action. A real rebel does not operate in terms of war games with battles lost and battles won, rather a rebel sees nothing but opportunities, avoiding confrontation ensuring regular surprise flipping flashes of a transformation that are presented as if the rebels lives an atmosphere of toys and sweets. This explains why rebels hardly meet objections rather transform the complex in something clear and simple, even when it is not, savoring the sympathy, especially from the arts.
The Arts: A Rebel's Logic
Rebels translate complex situations into a clear logic, insensitive to though aware of the staunch opposition from vested interests, which are overcome through minimum winning coalitions. Rebels never look for a majority, knowing that the silent majority will only join when the shift is inevitable, and never before. The rebel rather looks for the few who will tip the balance in a tightly knit friendship and an unshakable alliance exploiting every leverage point in the social fabric. Rebels advance this new truth to a core group that is self-evident, and therefore quickly grasped by others, leading to action on the ground without any resistance. How could someone be against a paper that is made from mining waste, or marble cut-offs, that have accumulated over centuries and transform this with a minute amount of polymer into a paper for print and packaging that is recyclable forever. Unless, someone works for the paper and pulp industry and obviously sees the demise of a career and a business that was thought to be a safe heaven in a flash, it is hard to be against this logic.
How can you be against the farming of mushrooms on coffee, the moment we realize that we only value 0.2% of the biomass? How can you be against paying farmers 10% of the retail price for his produce when everyone else is taking commissions on top of his costs without any consideration for the survival of his family, the rural life, and the Earth? The disarming promise of freeing up millions of hectares of land for natural forests and food while cleaning up air, water and soil, and ensuring that those who work at the bottom of our value chain have a life worth living is too compelling. This is the power of the rebel: making the impossible seems so simple.
A Rebel is different from a Revolutionary
The rebel is always driven by the common good, an intuition that there is much better. Rebels do not fight the bad; that is the role of Robin Hood and Interpol. Rather rebels fight for the opportunities that no one sees. He or she is a positive whistleblower. Of course, a rebel is an altruist, since any rebel that has a strong ego, wishing to put the self in the center is a revolutionary. This distinction is light for the outsider but decisive for those who act on the ground and make things happen. A rebel is not in search of power, rather in search of massive and positive change, empowering the landless, inspiring the moody, enjoying each moment when small steps are taken in the right direction. A revolutionary wants total control - one day and keeps control of his troops whereas a rebel believes that a job well done is the job where one is not needed, quickly providing the space and time to embark on the next intervention that could be tiny and insignificant for those who do not grasp the full picture, but strategic and homeopathic for those who connect the dots between - at first sight - totally unrelated phenomena.
Rebels never create Waves - they Surf
The rebel navigates the web of life, knowing where the energy is strongest, and the resilience is greatest, only pushing the points where power is released and leverage can be obtained. The rebel understands the power of feedback loops and multipliers, where with little effort, grand shifts can be obtained. Steve Jobs worked tirelessly to iron out what seemed idiotic details to his entourage, but now that Apple has lost its rebel, loyalists since the beginning sense the difference and sense this love of unconditional strive, and yet once the product is out, it is self-evident. Che Guevara was a revolutionary, impatient with a firm believe in the power of arms, incapable to engage with the grassroots of the Bolivian rural communities. He was paid with a bullet in the head, while exhausted from a fight against the unknown enemy and his asthma attacks.
Rebels operate with the existing forces, never trying to be the wave as a revolutionary would attempt exerting an extraordinary (personal) effort, rather rebels ride the waves that shape society permitting a swift move across without ever making a special effort. The answer and the call for action is always just around the corner, any corner. Once a rebel always a rebel, but always bathing in a new light, able to transform and transcend the present, re-emerging and reincarnating as a master who is prepared to learn from students. The leadership of a rebel is therefore one that ensures that new leadership quickly emerges and space is not preserved for the one, rather it is vacated so that the future is secured. After all rebels are not appointed, nor elected, they put themselves in charge.
Rebels at home among Peasants and Royals
The rebel knows how to navigate in different worlds, from hard work with the peasants ensuring food, managing the creation of top soil and the flow of water, to dining with the royals, able to enjoy family and friends, while finding extended periods of solitude to nourish the mission which no one entrusted. Rebels thrive on clear ethics at the core, rejecting the double moral that characterizes society that is considers less bad … as good. To pursue this lifelong mission of a rebel in heart, soul and action, there are only two simple rules: first that there are no rules, and second that rebels never accept a no for a no … and are still able to smile even when it hurts.
In the end it is all about Responsibility
When I look at the 40 years of professional life, then I certainly have been a rebel, caused pain and discomfort which I regret while opening the minds of many who now believe they can do better their parents and they themselves ever believed. Now that the University of Pennsylvania ranked our creative network as one of the most innovative think tanks in the world it is clear that this rebellious diplomat failed in the foreign service but now has to accept the responsibility that comes along with recognition at a ripe age: Inspire the next generation to be even more rebellious.
The four obstacles that block an easy passage to a sustainable energy mix
The mere introduction of competitive renewable energies and all the related innovative technologies are insufficient to steer society and the economy towards a fossil free energy mix. First of all we have to realize that the financing of renewable energy projects cannot be based on the prevailing logic of risk and return on investment. Second we need to calculate the true impact of shale gas, and its toxic contribution to the environment. Third, there is a need to transform the production and the consumption model, beyond the energy model. However, the greatest obstacle may well be the millions of MBA graduates who are all trained to cut costs at all costs without any consideration of the impact of their decisions on the systems that support life.
The shift towards renewable energy is facing four major impediments turn the present energy mix into a strategy for sustainable and competitive economic development. The blocks are:
Once we understand these factors then we quickly realize that to achieve a world without fossil fuels, more is needed than new technologies or government regulations. We need to imagine pathways out of these traps to ensure that fossil fuels are indeed part of history. As we describe these in the article below, we turn increasingly motivated to design solutions that could have an immediate effect.
While the purpose of this article is not to design a menu with solutions, it does aim to outline clearly what is possible provided we have an entrepreneurial approach and take a high degree of freedom: the liberty to imagine business solutions without having any previous experience, being hampered by any of the technological-institutional lock-ins that characterize our modern day society, and the clarity that money is not a limiting factor.
Are you building white elephants?
When Javier Morales, then the deputy mayor of the island El Hierro, part of the Canary Islands Region of Spain asked me to support the design of a local economy that one day will be independent in water and fuel, it did not take long to propose a strategy based on wind energy, hydro-power and flywheels.
The goal was not just energy: the goal was to stimulate the local economy, building on tradition and the ecosystem. Instead of viewing enewable energy and abundant water as an objective on its own, these two key inputs to live and development on the island were to stimulate agriculture and local industries. The total investment for this project at the outset in 1997 was estimated at €67 million. The response from the political and financial world was that if this little island of no more than 10,000 inhabitants would require an investment of so much money to achieve self-sufficiency, then we were invest in a very risky project that is likely to fail and turn into a "white elephant". We often neglect how entrenched our thinking is! Let us look at the same logic from another angle.
The island spent at the time €8 million a year on the importation of diesel fuel to generate electric power. Oil tankers cannot avoid spilling oil, and even though this is rather the exception that the rule, the risk remains high. The diesel power installation was noisy and polluting leaving a cloud of black air on the East side of the island. Interestingly, this economic economic and energy model is considered normal and without risk. However, it does not take an economist to realize that the total expense by the local population for importing fuel, while assuming major risks and contributing to climate change, over a decade amounts to a drainage from the economy of €80 million. This one decade of expenses is enough to fund the capital investment required to warrant four decades of energy independence. In the 1990's, that money went straight to oil producers - none of which are based in Spain. So, we raised the question: "How can the import of polluting fossil fuels be considered normal, while the redirection of a guaranteed expense by everyone on the island into local renewable sources of energy that plough money back into the economy is considered a white elephant?"
The idea to convert El Hierro into the first water and fuel self-sufficient island turned into a reality at a total cost of €86 million. The additional €21 million in capital investments were imposed after a volcano eruption forced the construction of additional infrastructure reinforcements. The facility was inaugurated in 2013! The net cash influx into the local economy over the forty years that represent the economic life time of the renewable water and power system is a surprising €680 million. After paying for the installation over a decade (€80 million), the installation saves €8 million per year for 30 years or €240 million. Then the water and power company pays dividends to the Cabildo, the local government in the order of €3 million per year, or €120 million over the life time. This adds up to a surprising €360 million that is added to the local economy over 40 years, compared to an outflow of €320 million for fuel only, making abstraction of the capital equipment required for the diesel generators. This is an amazing "delta of €680 million", a fortune for a small island. We believed that the island controls its own future. Who is to claim that the numbers are wrong, give or take one hundred million?
Now, inspired by this successful transformation of the local economy based on renewables and sustainable water production, the islanders are decided to embark on the next step: all 6,000 vehicles must be electric within a decade. It is surprising that even after the successful implementation of the renewable grid, opponents formulate the same "white elephant" arguments. How can an island afford to spend €150 million in the conversion of a car fleet from fossil fuel to electric and invest in additional renewable power generation? Why would the island ever fund an expansion of the renewable energy system only to serve the automobile fleet? Again we formulated the same question as a response: "How can an island permit the annual expense of €12 million for the purchase of fuel and diesel to power vehicles on the island?" All this money is channeled outside the economy. And, what would it mean if the €8 million for power and the €12 million for fuel were staying and circulating in the territory?
The island of El Hierro wishes to create its own electric car leasing company. All taxis and rental cars will be electric with immediate effect, and when there are 500 electric vehicles on the island, then the car leasing company will initiate the installation of a smart grid which stabilizes the network delivering micro-currents when demand so requires, and stores excess energy in car batteries as surpluses become available. When there are 2,500 vehicles, the combination of wind, hydro, flywheels and car batteries will offer a level of efficiency that further drives the cost of water and power down. Water is life and for centuries this island has suffered from a dramatic shortage of both. Just imagine the turnaround thanks to renewables and a smart grid complemented by zero emissions mobility: double the amount of water on the island at half the cost.
El Hierro has enjoyed major international media attention as a pioneer in self-sufficient islands. ©2015
We all too often forget that energy is a medium, not a purpose. Our lives depend on water, food, housing, health, mobility and each one of these core activities of life require power. It is therefore important to shift from a debate on "renewables or not", or worse "for or against fossil fuels", to a debate about our capacity to respond to the basic needs of everyone in our society. If we are prepared to transform our intentions to one that is focused on meeting needs with available resources, then indeed the debate of fossil fuel quickly shifts to a constructive dialogue about the future of communities, and how to finance this transition with available financial, human and natural resources.
Time has come to go beyond the "for or against". This divisive approach to life where we pitch the good versus the bad forces people in society to take positions. We cannot neglect the fact that the convenience of fossil fuels and its abundance for decades has permitted too many to live in air conditioned atmospheres, unaware of the unintended consequences caused by the excessive incineration of coal, petroleum and natural gas. We need to lift the debate towards one that discovers the tremendous opportunities to create a thriving local economy using what is locally available. It is a shift from cheap and easy fuel, that permits us to cut costs with an inconvenient truth, towards local energy sources that permit us to grow a sustainable economy of the territory with readily available resources.
If you pull a thread in Nature, you quickly realize that it is connected to everything else.
Unaware of the Connections
Fossil fuel has hooked us on the habit of free spending on energy without any consideration of the amount of money that is drained from the local economy. When a small island can pump hundreds of millions into the local economy over one generation of 10,000 inhabitants, imagine what can be done if larger communities emulate this model, or when hundreds of island embark on the same direction. The fuel-based economy would loose its appeal in no time. The key to understand the success of this logic is that the actual cost of oil does not matter, it is the injection of cash into the local economy exploiting local resources and growing the local economy that makes a tremendous and yet overlooked difference.
Economists merely notice the impact on the balance of payment of a nation but seldom realize the profound leakage this addiction to oil causes. Importing hundreds of millions of oil imposes the need to generate export revenues to pay the oil import bill. A country like Argentina produces enough food for 400 million people in the world, or ten times more than its own population requires. However, the country has 750,000 children under 18 malnourished. How do you explain this blind focus on export growth, increased output and the neglect of food and nutrition at home? Argentina's drive towards food exports exacerbated energy consumption and at a rate of 100,000 barrels per day ($4 million per day, or $1.5 billion per year) it is responsible for the trade deficit even when petroleum prices are at an all time low.
Fossil fuel is like a drug, it blinds us of its impact and its consequences. Even if we know - we do not want to know. Social scientists realize that there is a dangerous new species populating the Earth: one that refuses to recognizes hard facts. One of the well documented unintended side effects of burning fuel are emissions, not just carbon but also nitrogen and sulfur oxides, popularly known as SOx and NOx, which not only contribute to climate change but also affect the health of every breathing species on earth. We needed a scandal of the magnitude of Volkswagen to realize that the maximum levels of pollution set by European and Californian authorities to safeguard the respiratory health of children were openly defied by the industry, up to the point that car executives of the leading German maker installed deceiving software cheating the public at large, and with impunity. First companies that bent the rules were considered
to large to fail, and were rescued. Now companies that openly deceive and cheat are classified as too large to jail, and are merely offered an exit paying billions of dollars in fines. While we are slowly awaking to the collateral damage created by these emissions we have no idea how we have unraveled the web of life on Earth from a permanent and diligent cycle of carbon sequestration and storage, to one that permanently emits carbon all the time. Let us take the example of silk.
A Fine Threat of Silk
A century ago, the world production of silk hovered around one million tons per year. Today output hardly reaches the 100,000 tons level. The arrival of Nylon, this synthetic polymer developed by scientists at Dupont de Nemours led to the knock-out for this natural polymer produced by the mulberry caterpillar (which the English mistakenly call a worm). The traditional ecological economists would enter the debate and calculate the amount of carbon emitted by one million tons of petroleum used to produce Nylon, and compare this with the carbon sequestered in the process of producing silk. While this is a correct approach it is largely incomplete.
Silk caterpillars with a cocoon. ©2015, iStock
When the Chinese embraced silk farming 5,000 years ago, their first interest was not the silk, rather the conversion of savannas into fertile areas. Indeed, it was quickly noted that the symbiosis of a caterpillar that would devour about 50% of the canopy of the mulberry tree left on the soil a rich mix of excrement so nutritious to micro-organisms that it triggered the creation of a healthy top soil. Within a decade, an area considered infertile, planted with mulberry trees would be ready for farming water melons. What few people realized is that the caterpillars triggered a soft and unnoticed chemistry that fixes carbon massively into the soil, creating a black earth that would continue to serve humanity for centuries. This ecosystem service was the game changer of the mulberry/caterpillar symbiosis. Silk was only a by-product.
Now, with the arrival of Nylon, we are not only substituting a natural silk with petroleum derivatives at high energy expense. Much worse, we are depriving the creation of top soil and the sequestration of organically bound carbon and nitrogen. The lack of a continuous cycles of top soil generation with a blend of minerals and nutrients through the creation of additional "ecosystem services" leads to the mining of carbon and nitrogen from the top soil up to a point that there is none left. As soon as carbon is less than 5 or 6%, then the farmer is obliged to "technify" his operations including irrigation and chemicals to maintain production. Irrigation is needed since carbon poor soil cannot retain water.
The loss of N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphor and potassium) and micro-nutrients force farmers to add synthetic fertilizers since the core composition (carbon) that secures thriving micro- organisms and a diverse ecosystem is too depleted. Of course water and nutrients are only available with the infusion of massive amounts of fossil fuels.
Silk is natural and resistant, and has a useful life of at least three generations or one hundred years. Traditional kimonos, the elegant dress for ladies in Japan, would last for hundreds of years. Nylon is a typical throw away product symbolized by ladies' stockings which are sent to the bin the day a minor damage is visible. Nylon is not recycled. So not only is the silk web of life a continuous cycling of carbon, the product itself stores carbon over decades. Nylon not only releases carbon in its manufacturing, the fibers themselves capture carbon during a useful life that spans at best weeks, and more often not more than a few days.
Once we realize that the petroleum-chemistry is not only about substituting a natural fiber (silk) with a synthetic one (Nylon), it is about substituting a system that cycled carbon with long retention times and storage systems, into one that leads to the permanent spewing of carbon into the atmosphere due to this throw-away culture, then we realize how difficult it is to put a cap on carbon emissions, unless we change our consumption patterns. This makes our addiction to petroleum even more debilitating. It is like a drug addict who is not only endangering his or her own life, but destroying the whole social tissue around the community by promoting illegal production and trade that enriches a few and leaves society with all costs for rehabilitation, violence, and the penitentiary services.
Reverse the System
The key question is how to reverse this trend? We cannot go back in time and suggest that silk has to pick up its past glory as a fashion for the wealthy. It is difficult to imagine the substitution of Nylon by silk. However once we take the time to study the real opportunities embedded in the chemistry of silk, then we realize that there is an exceptional product portfolio at our doorstep that could not only serve humanity, but that could also revive the silk farming, even beyond the levels of production practiced a century ago. The new fields include medical and cosmetic applications.
Prof. Dr. Fritz Vollrath, silk expert at Oxford University who spun off several start-ups ©2015, Vollrath
As Prof. Dr. Fritz Vollrath has demonstrated through decades of fundamental research predominantly at the Department of Zoology, Oxford University, silk has unique tensile strength, permits cells to grow on and in it, and is a natural inhibitor against the growth of fungus and specific bacteria. Actually, we have forgotten that silk protects a cocoon with a caterpillar inside against the tiniest predators around and has done so very successfully for millions of years. This natural design at the molecular level has been studied in great detail. Now an amazing reality unfolds before our eyes: silk can regenerate cartilage and thus avoids knee replacement based on titanium; silk provides the scaffolding for the regeneration of nerves after trauma including the potential to one day make quadriplegics walk again.
While this application will spur the demand for only small volumes of silk, the big market will be in cosmetics where synthetic emulsifiers have become the standard, causing marine pollution with micro-beats that have a great risk of ending up in our food chain. Everything from shaving foam for men to emulsifiers in night creams to reduce wrinkles can now be substituted with a natural alternative. The non-degradable plastics beads can be replaced by silk (and other natural polymers), and that would - conservatively - require the cultivation of 2 million tons of raw silk. We can now roll-out a strategy to operate a 20-fold of acreage for silk farms around the world, with a value added that outstrips the price commanded by luxury good maker Hermès. We are pointing to a demand potential that requires to double the output from the level of silk when it was at its peak production.
The mulberry tree fruits. © 2015, Rachel Rabinowitz
We have to realize that while our addiction to petroleum is causing havoc to the atmosphere and stresses Nature's capacity to perform ecosystem services, the reverse is also true. Wherever there is bad news, we can find very good news. With other words, if the medical and cosmetics industry - realizing the documented challenges that it is facing today were to revert to silk as an option, then we will have to embark on the same massive scale of tree planting that the Chinese, the Turkish and the Italian societies had embarked on throughout history. In those days it was to please the rich and wealthy with the finest clothing. This represents an exceptional opportunity to design better quality products at competitive costs while offering a chance to increase soil fertility and offer a response to the urgent need to have sustainable agriculture with a wealth of nutrition in the soil. It is an economic model that makes sense.
Once we realize that renewables are not white elephants and that natural system are capable of strengthening "The Commons" to provide us all ecosystem services, then we have to face the challenging task to overcome the desire of a silent majority to continuously search from more of the same. As Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute stated: "the end of the stone age was not a lack of stones; the end of the petroleum age may well not be a shortage of petroleum." However we are stuck with a tremendous institutional-technological lock-in. While silk may create inroads in niche markets that make impact, the tenacity of the petroleum and gas industry to do more of the same is a proof of insensitivity to the reality of climate change, and its damaging effects on life on earth.
Silent Chemical Reactions
The battle for a healthy and sustainable world is not fought out through hard political battles in national parliaments or international conventions, it is turned into a reality through silent chemical reactions and predictable physical effects. The molecular structure of a few gases like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane trap heat in the atmosphere. So the more these simple yet stable molecules cover the Earth, the more heat is prevented from radiating out. This is basic physics. We have seen that all attempts to reduce carbon have made insufficient impact to date. We need go beyond the substitution of Nylon with silk, rather change farming, processing and uses. The drama now is that in the light of dwindling reserves of petroleum that are cheap to exploit (deep seas and extreme climate conditions), attention has diverted to natural gas which is considered cheap and abundant with at least one trillion cubic feet of reserves. That is enough fuel to supply the world for decades to come.
The promise of cheap energy in abundance is supposed to fuel the economy. Even President Obama was tricked into believing that the private sector would invest an additional $100 billion in factories that are attracted by low cost and less polluting natural gas. This magic would create - the White House believed - not less than 600,000 new manufacturing jobs. This sugar sweet perspective made the President promise to cut red tape to facilitate the transformation of the energy mix from coal to gas. The promise was hard to refuse, even by the environmentalists. Carl Pope, the long-serving director of the Sierra Club, after receiving a $25 million donation, was prepared to promote natural gas, even from doubtful sources such as fracking. Robert Kennedy Jr., one of the icons of environmental stewardship stated in 2009 that the "energy revolution over the past two years has left America awash in natural gas and has made it possible to eliminate most of our dependence on deadly, destructive coal practically overnight".
Bill McKibben correctly points out in his article in The Nation (March 2016) that the substitution of coal with natural gas is like shifting your diet from a high fat to a reduced fat. Have people not realized that after years of excesses we should not be having fat? Should we not be reducing carbon emissions and then feel a sense of pride since natural gas only emits half of the carbon compared to coal? The bad news is that we cannot only compare coal with natural gas on a ton per ton basis incinerated to produce power, we have to look at the whole system. When the statistics emerged that gas fields are leaking methane (which is officially 21 times worse in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide even when scientists claim it is rather like 100 times), then it became clear that even a minor escape of 3% would simply double the heat generating effect in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, with all the computing power in the world, science and industry are ill-equipped to sense, take stock and calculate the impact of a whole system of energy consumption. So the proposed shift to natural gas is not that convincing, on the contrary it is confusing, and more likely just more of the same. Even Robert Kennedy Jr. changed by 2013 his mind when he was faced with the hard realities and retracted his earlier endorsement.
Shale gas exploration © 2015, Justin Woolford for WRI/Flickr
A Completely New Game
Now enters the world of fracking. The process is well known: the injection of chemicals and steam under high pressure to release oil. Unfortunately, it has side-effects. The use of the word "side-effect" or unintended consequences is pejorative since the damage is well documented. However, there is not only a high level of sensitivity to the exploitation of this abundant and cheap energy, there is a remarkable scientific rigor imposed on anyone who claims anything negative about fracking. Whatever is being documented and analyzed is quickly dismissed through critique that advances that the study has flaws, is insufficiently documented, or discovered nothing more than a correlation without a proof of cause and effect. It is remarkable that industry wants to have an immediate permitting without any real due diligence for investments in shale gas operations, and a rapid deployment of capital as to enjoy positive cash flow, however all without restraints. Getting started needs no in depth proof that the process is benign, any critique will have to be substantiated with decades of research and data mining across the globe.
Few policy makers who negotiated in Paris realize the vast difference between methane and carbon emissions. Carbonic gases are stable and stay in the atmosphere for centuries. That is the bad news. The good news is that these molecules trap a moderate amount of heat. Methane is a rather unstable molecule and degrades in decades. That is the good news. The very bad news is that the amount of methane pumped into the atmosphere is rapidly increasing since natural gas is the wave of the day. This process accelerates the locking up of heat in the atmosphere. This causes rapid melting of ice caps, acidification of the seas, and rising sea levels. Introducing fracking as the main new component in the energy mix has a double sided effect: (1) the energy industry is closing coal mines; but, (2) it is opening methane geysers. This means that the oil and gas industry is riding the wave of more of the same, while the public and even the policy makers believe there is a tangible improvement towards a lower carbon energy mix. Sometimes we should ask ourselves why we are so easily fooled?
Statics based on satellite pictures demonstrate that natural gas in general but shale gas in particular (which is also sold under the label of natural gas) extracted in the United States is responsible for at least 30% of the increase in methane gas emissions around the world. In addition, fracking causes earthquakes as Josh Sandburn reported in March 2016 in Time Magazine. In 2007 the State of Oklahoma reported one earthquake with the power 3 on the Richter scale. In 2015 there were nearly one thousand earthquakes. The center state of fracking in the USA now has more earthquakes than California which lays on a known fault line. This phenomenon of earthquakes is nothing new. Groningen, the center of natural gas extraction in the Netherlands had no earthquakes before 1986, and now suffers from an average of fifty per year.
The power of these findings is that we know the source of the problem and we know what to do. Some of us would expect the political leadership of the United States, especially under a Democrat Party presidency, which pretends to be akin to measures to reduce carbon emissions, is to warn other nations not to follow the same route as the American oil and gas industry is proposing. WikiLeaks cables sent by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demonstrate that the American government was (is) doing the contrary: she was actively promoting fracking.
Mrs. Clinton successfully arm twisted the government of Bulgaria to sign a deal with Chevron in 2011 but relentless protests forced the government to ban fracking in 2012. The same happened in Romania, but there the protests were squashed by police and the Government decided to proceed with the Chevron deal supported by the US Government after the mayor of the town purchased a large area from his own city in order to hand it over to Chevron. Fortunately, France banned it, while Germany has de-facto banned even though this energy extraction process has been practiced in the country since 1975. While a few countries ban fracking, the largest leaks of methane that have already been created cannot be plugged.
Traditionally the industry fills shafts with cement, which contracts while drying. This leaving space for gas to dissipate into the atmosphere and there are no known techniques to plug them.
There are Options - and we know it
Over the decade that fracking has been practiced broad-scale in North America, the cost price of solar photo-voltaics has dropped 80%. That is good news. However, it is not good enough. We need to go beyond the mere substitution of one source of energy for another. The third reality we have to face is that we will only create a fossil free world if we change our system of production and consumption. The mere substitution of one source of energy with another will not steer societies towards a fossil free world, what is needed is a dramatic improvement of resource productivity: use what we have and do more with what nature produces and has stored, instead of forcing nature to produce ever more.
The case of coffee is one of these obvious examples that surprises many, and demonstrates once more how much more ignorant we are of the opportunities before us than of the damage we cause. Coffee is a globally traded commodity. An estimated 10 million tons of green coffee travels the world. Who is aware that only 20,000 tons are actually ingested, and a staggering 9,980,000 tons is discarded as waste. At best, this left-over from the coffee brewing process is composted, even though we know that between the moment of brewing and the moment of disposal there is already a generation of (once more) methane gas.
Shale gas and coffee are not that different. We all know that agriculture causes major methane emissions. But, what we do not know is that many of these emissions could easily have been avoided. The coffee processing industry, from the makers of instant coffee to the chains of coffee shops all have found their ecological solutions that unfortunately belong to the same category of "substituting high fat with regular fat", whereas we know we cannot have fat.
Only 0.2% of the coffee from farm to cup is ingested. ©2016, ZERI
The preferred solution of the coffee processing industry is burn its waste. While the incineration of coffee grounds, like so many other forms of agricultural residues, is often presented as an effort to reduce dependency on fossil fuels, we forget that the generation of methane gas and carbon emissions is not the most important missed opportunity. The whole supply chain could benefit from a fresh approach, since the substitution of fossil fuel with coffee left-overs is doing "less bad". We are in need of this logic that we can and must "do more good". Here goes our logic: coffee is treated either by heat or by inert gases to extract the soluble part that offers either a powder to produce an instant drink, or a hot coffee to enjoy. Since the biomass has been pre-treated it is ideal for farming mushrooms. Do we realize that 60% of the cost of mushroom farming is the sterilization of the substrate - and this energy is not required anymore if we use processed coffee and use the grounds on site? There is a broad portfolio of products that can be derived from a waste stream that is considered only good to be burned. It is a portfolio of opportunities.
The case of coffee is just one of the many examples that demonstrates that with a minor shift in handling and processing, we are able to create energy efficiencies that have not been considered viable. We can farm mushrooms with 60% less energy and no need to transport raw materials. The advantage is that most of these solutions do not require new technologies or complex engineering, neither heavy capital investments. These solutions are pragmatic and can be implemented by "you and me". The only way that we will succeed in the creation of a fossil free world is that we cascade matter, nutrition and energy just the way Nature does. It is not difficult, it is different. The book "The Blue Economy 2.0 : an update to the Report to the Club of Rome" offers insights in cases that have been implemented and inspire everyone to do much better than we ever imagined before.
The portfolio of coffee chemistry ©2016, Pauli
Epilogue: The MBA
The fourth and perhaps the greatest obstacle to achieve a world with renewables only will not be "the oil and gas lobby". The greatest impediment to turn into a green society are the millions of MBA's (masters of business administration) who have been brainwashed to only consider a core business, based on a core competence and focus on cutting costs at all cost. MBA's believe that cheaper is better, and the solution to competitiveness, thus stimulating mergers and acquisitions. As long as we are entrusting our youth to academia who are teaching the next generation of managers that more and cheaper of the same is the model forward for society then we will never have communities that will be capable of steering towards sustainability as El Hierro has done. However, when we are prepared to embrace business as Nature does, with respect for The Commons, all invisible interconnections, unseen feedback loops, multipliers and clear ethics including nothing is wasted and everyone contributes to the best of their abilities, then we will have no difficulties to achieve a fossil fuel free society.
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The aim of this blog is to present a fresh look at realities around us. Whereas I do not pretend to present the truth nor a definite position, I do wish to push the reader to think beyond the obvious. After all, time has come to dramatically improve the plight of millions, and that requires more than the predictable. Sometimes it forces us into spheres of discomfort.