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


Sustainable Goes Strategic

The Bottomless Well is not a call to complacency. Even if every argument Huber and Mills make is correct, there are still many environmental problems to solve. But even if only the core of their argument is correct, it would help sever the production of ordered power from the despoliation of the planet, both in the public debate and in practice.

Up the Waste Cycle
Of course, the ultimate green question for any business is, How do we get smarter at designing, producing, marketing, packaging, and transporting our products? A key guide to thinking about product design is William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle: Re­making the Way We Make Things. McDonough and Braungart (re­spectively, an architect and a chemist) argue strongly against the usual “take, make, and waste” product cycle. Even “recycling” fails their test, since almost all products can be recycled only as low-grade reclaimed basic substances, and the recycling process itself consumes a great deal of energy and labor. Instead, the authors advocate “upcycling,” a style of design in which products actually serve as “food” for the next cycle of products.

Cradle to Cradle itself is an example of this approach. The “paper” it’s printed on is a polymer that is infinitely recyclable either in its existing form or as raw material. The nontoxic ink can be washed off with extremely hot water and reclaimed. And the method does not take the form of a compromise or sacrifice: The pages are satiny and white, the print contrast easy on the eyes, the paper waterproof, and the binding and cover stronger and more durable than those of the usual paperback.

Hot, Flat, and Competitive
Aspiration is key to any future that enlists the creative entrepreneurial power of business. That power is not engaged by visions of cutbacks and deprivation. The world’s environmental problems demand solutions with an unprecedented urgency — and every solution will call for vast amounts of equipment, new technologies, evolving and customized designs, and every manner of industrial creativity. Yet the United States has let the lead in many of these niches slip away to Europeans, New Zealanders, and others around the world who have made this work more of a priority.

This is the argument of Thomas Friedman’s new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How It Can Renew America. The problem, the New York Times columnist argues, embodies its own opportunity — not only the huge business opportunity represented by rebuilding the energy infrastructure (and much of the physical plant) of the planet, but the opportunity for America to reassert its leadership in the world. (Though its argument could be applied in any country, the book is explicitly aimed at a U.S. audience.) For Friedman, the interconnected global crises are “the epitome of what John Gardner, founder of Common Cause, once described as ‘a series of great opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.’”

Friedman puts the crises in five boxes, and outlines the multiple connections among them: (1) energy supply and demand; (2) petropolitics (the fact that our current “dirty fuel” energy economy props up the worst kind of “petrodictators” across the globe); (3) climate change; (4) energy poverty (the fact that a significant portion of the world’s population is left out of the energy economy); and (5) biodiversity loss. He is cynical about the promotion of recycling and ethanol: “In the green revolution we’re having, ev­eryone’s a winner, nobody has to give up anything, and the adjective that most often modifies ‘green revolution’ is ‘easy.’ That’s not a revolution. That’s a party.”

Unimpressed by “205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth” (the title of a Working Mother article he quotes), Friedman advocates more fundamental shifts in the rules of the marketplace to set off a “forest fire of innovation” to develop new energy sources. He argues that the energy industry puts only 2 percent of revenue back into R&D every year, almost all of it dedicated to expanding traditional sources of supply — not because industry leaders are evil or stupid, but because the market and the tax system allow and en­courage them to do so.

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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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