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 / Spring 2009 / Issue 54(originally published by Booz & Company)


Sustainable Goes Strategic

At the same time, Brown’s proposals are practical, especially compared to the costs of doing nothing. For instance, the proposed budget for “eradicating poverty and stabilizing population” around the world is US$77 billion per year (including such measures as universal primary education and universal basic health care). For “restoring the earth” (including reforestation and stabilization of water tables), the ticket is $113 billion per year. In each category (feeding the world, making cities livable, increasing energy efficiency, and turning to renewable energy), he offers numerous examples of working solutions. Some involve public investments, as when Pennsylvania State University bought free passes for all its students, faculty, and staff on the local city bus line for $1 million per year. Some involve specific changes in policy, such as banning nonrefillable bottles. Many of Brown’s solutions represent business opportunities. For instance, he cites Caterpillar Inc.’s engine remanufacturing division, which recycles old diesel engines into new ones, for generating $1 billion per year in sales and growing at 15 percent per year.

The final chapter, “The Great Mobilization,” includes a clear discussion of shifts in gasoline and other carbon taxes. (See “Pollution, Prices, and Perception,” by Daniel Gabaldon, s+b, Spring 2009.) Brown quotes Harvard economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw: “Cutting income taxes while increasing gasoline taxes would lead to more rapid economic growth, less traffic congestion, safer roads, and reduced risk of global warming — all without jeopardizing long-term fiscal solvency. This may be the closest thing to a free lunch economics has to offer.” This, according to Brown, would be more effective than either bans and regulations or market-based cap and trade schemes — assuming that the political will for such measures can be found.

Advocates for Cap and Trade
Fred Krupp, as president of the Environmental Defense Fund, has long championed the carbon cap and trade idea. Now, with Miriam Horn, he has published Earth: The Sequel — The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming. (See “The Making of a Market-Minded Environmentalist,” by Fred Krupp, s+b, Summer 2008.) Krupp and Horn argue vehemently against regulations that dictate how to achieve environmental goals. They point out, for instance, that the U.S. Clean Air Act, by mandating the use of scrubbers in power plants in the 1970s, stalled research into scrubbing technology for almost two decades. Why should manufacturers refine their technology when industrial companies are required to buy the version they already offer? Schemes that render the desired end (such as less carbon in the atmosphere) into a marketable asset, but that leave the method entirely up to the producers, get much faster, more effective results.

To be sure, cap and trade ap­proaches have some inherent problems; they are by nature easier to game than, for instance, increased taxes on inefficient cars. Krupp and Horn argue that if we use the carbon cap and trade model widely to establish a true market price for despoiling the environment, the technologies waiting in the wings are powerful enough to get us out of this mess.

Perhaps the most valuable part of the book is its thorough tour of the good, bad, and uncertain of those dozens of new energy technologies. These include, respectively, solar cells that convert 42 per­cent of the sunlight they capture into electricity; corn ethanol (which returns only 30 percent more fuel than it takes to produce it, at the same time driving up world food prices); and underground coal gasification. Some of the most fascinating experiments described in this book include genetically modified yeast that can eat straw, kudzu, or wood chips and excrete “everything we now get from a barrel of oil, ranging from industrial chemicals and plastics to diesel and jet fuel.” The authors describe multiple en­trepreneurial endeavors: a company that builds windows that darken in intense sunlight, another business that makes software that powers down idle computers throughout a network, and a construction supply startup (Serious Materials Inc.) that aims to produce cement emitting 90 percent less carbon in its production than conventional cement does.

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Sustainability Resources
Works discussed in this review.

  1. Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (W.W. Norton, 2008), 412 pages
  2. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005), 586 pages
  3. Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How It Can Renew America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 448 pages
  4. Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy (Basic Books, 2005), 242 pages
  5. Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn, Earth: The Sequel — The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming (W.W. Norton, 2008), 280 pages 
  6. William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002), 196 pages
  7. Peter Senge et al., The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World (Doubleday, 2008), 416 pages
  8. Alex Steffen, editor, Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century (Abrams, 2006), 608 pages
  9. Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007), 336 pages 
  10. Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (Simon & Schuster, 1991), 934 pages 
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