Toward a Future of Energy Effectiveness

© 2003 William McDonoughTalking Point (BP)

As more and more evidence suggests that the traditional ways of doing business may not be sustainable over the long term, many of today’s leading industrialists are practicing a curious maneuver; they are trying to put the brakes on without taking their foot off the accelerator.

Following the conventional wisdom of eco-efficiency, the machines of industry are being refitted with cleaner, quieter, more efficient engines while business as usual proceeds apace. This fine-tuning, it is widely believed, will allow business to use fewer resources and release less pollution while moving confidently, if a bit more slowly, into the future.

In spite of its good intentions, eco-efficiency does not appear to be a strategy for long term success. Slowing destruction—minimizing fossil fuel waste, for example—can be an important step if you are going to turn around and head in a new direction. But if you have not changed your destination, slowing down simply perpetuates a damaging system. Industry may be able to be a little less “bad” but ultimately it’s going to come to the end of the road.

An end game, however, need not be our destiny. As Sheik Yamani, Saudi Arabia’s OPEC minister pointed out during the first so-called energy crisis, the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. Just so, the era of relying primarily on fossil fuels can end—with peace and prosperity intact—long before we run out of oil.

How? A strategy my colleague Michael Braungart and I call eco-effectiveness proposes an entirely new destination for industry: technologically advanced human systems designed to generate a wide spectrum of wholly positive effects, rather than fewer negative ones. Modeled on the intelligence and effectiveness of natural systems, this new conception of industry envisions a world powered by renewable energy in which safe, healthful materials are designed for closed-loop biological and technical cycles, elegantly and equitably deployed for the benefit of all.

This is not a strategy for a more efficient fossil fuel economy. It is a vision of a world in which energy effectiveness powers regenerative commerce—and the transformation has already begun.

Looking at the current energy economy we see that there is still an abundance of fossil fuels. Current demand curves, however, suggest that reserves may be less than we might want in the future. And tapping those reserves is not getting any easier. Indeed, notes Rutgers biologist David Ehrenfeld, studies by prominent oil geologists show that “global energy production per capita reached its peak in 1979 and has been falling at an average rate of 0.33 percent per year ever since.” At that rate, energy production per capita will fall to its 1930 level by 2030. When we factor in ecological and social expenses, such as global warming and acid deposition, the trend toward the increasing cost of fossil fuels could become even more pronounced.

The reverse is true for renewable energy. Not only are renewable sources environmentally safe, the price of inputs—sun, wind, geothermal flows—is fixed. In fact, with current technology, the cost of a wind-generated kilowatt hour in the American Midwest is now effectively cheaper than a kilowatt hour generated by natural gas. Work is advancing rapidly on solar technologies that will do the same. The ability of low cost fossil fuels to depress investments in renewable energy deployment is coming to an end.

How do we profit from these new technologies? Renewable energy deployed within effective, ecologically intelligent systems is already generating a wide spectrum of economic, ecological and social value.

Imagine major corporations, following the lead of Shaw Industries, the largest carpet company in the world, preparing to invest in solar powered manufacturing facilities that produce safe, healthful, perpetually recyclable materials designed for use in closed loop technical cycles. Imagine energy-effective corporate offices, like Gap Inc.’s, that outperform eco-efficient buildings while offering beautiful, comfortable, extraordinarily productive places to work. Imagine universities, on the heels of Oberlin College, investing in technologically advanced buildings designed to generate more energy than they consume. Cheer the City of Chicago as it supports the local development of renewable energy technologies and purchases 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2006. And celebrate China as it embraces ecologically intelligent industry and generates new solar and wind powered enterprises. 

Can these really be the fruits of a competitive marketplace? Well, yes. If we consider the Latin roots of compete, we see that it means to strive together. Imagine then, that we are all striving for the same thing: Not an end game in which one player wins, but toward a world of commercial productivity, cultural wealth, and ecological intelligence in which our passion and our best work generate prosperity for all.