Of all industrial countries, Sweden is probably the farthest along in weaning itself from fossil fuels. Today, the country depends on oil for only 30 percent of its energy, down from 77 percent in 1970. (The United States, by contrast, depends on fossil fuels for 85 percent of its energy.) Fifteen percent of all cars sold in Sweden in 2007 can run on ethanol, up from 2 percent in 2000. A car running on ethanol made from sugarcane or cellulose is estimated to emit 85 to 90 percent less greenhouse gases than a gasoline-powered car. All the major Swedish motor vehicle manufacturers, including Scania, the largest truck manufacturer in Europe, now offer flexible-fuel cars or trucks, which run on either ethanol, conventional gasoline, or a blend. In 2005, a government-sponsored commission announced its intention to make Sweden the “world’s first oil-free economy,” starting with an existing “BioFuel Region” (as it is called): an area encompassing 22 municipalities and located on the Gulf of Bothnia, roughly 200 miles (about 320 km) north of Stockholm. In this region, lower-emission ethanol is as readily available and economical as ordinary gasoline.
One might assume that changes of this magnitude require a massive government effort involving tens of thousands of people, substantial government subsidies, and years of extensively funded research. But until recently, no such support, government-sponsored or otherwise, existed. Instead, countless local networks developed quietly, catalyzed by the efforts of small groups of committed and courageous leaders from the public and private sectors.
The Sweden story is a valuable model of what historians call “basic innovation”: fundamental changes in technology and organization that create new industries, transform existing ones, and, over time, reshape societies. Basic innovations — including electrification, the automobile, commercial air travel, digital computing, and, most recently, the Internet — involve not just a single new technology but a collection of new inventions, practices, distribution networks, businesses and business models, and shifts in personal and organizational thinking that combine to transform the way business is conducted, technology is deployed, and people are engaged.
Over the past few years, as the implications of global climate change have become clearer, a new wave of basic innovation has begun. Much of it is occurring in household-name companies. DuPont, one of the oldest and largest companies in the United States, is shifting the materials in much of its product line from petroleum-based to bio-based feedstocks; its leaders see opportunity in the creation of new products (such as soy-based polymers and thermoplastics made from corn sugar) that could reduce dependency on conventional oil and gas. Coca-Cola formed a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund in 2007, with the goal, according to Coca-Cola Chairman Neville Isdell, of replacing “every drop of water we use in our beverages and their production,” that is, not removing more water from a watershed than the company can replenish. Nike has reduced its carbon footprint by more than 75 percent since 1988. “To do this,” noted Darcy Winslow, when she was general manager of the Nike women’s fitness division (she has since moved on to the Nike Foundation), “we are having to completely rethink how we design, produce, and distribute our products and how we recover them at the end of their lifetime.”
It may be tempting to see all of these efforts as isolated cases, but in truth they are all related. They are responses to the same shift of context, in which the prospect of global climate change, in particular, and of growing waste and toxicity and diminishing key resources, in general, has catalyzed a new way of thinking. In this shift, the entire industrial age can now be seen as a kind of extended bubble, showing some of the same dynamics as a financial bubble and being equally unsustainable in the long run. The stories of the Swedish BioFuel Region, and of DuPont, Coca-Cola, Nike, and many other companies, provide clues to what will happen in the new era when the bubble and the ways of thinking embedded in it no longer hold sway.