A green future outside the industrial bubble


BOOK REVIEW: FRANK DILLONreviews The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organistations are Working Together to Create a SUstainable World.

THE HISTORIAN Jared Diamond has chronicled how many once-dominant civilisations grew quickly and then suddenly expired. Few societies, he noted, achieved such sophistication in mathematics, astronomy and social structure as the Maya of Central American, some 500 years before the arrival of the Spanish. Yet the Maya were wiped out in a generation – victims of an environmental collapse brought about by their slash-and-burn approach to agriculture.

In this timely and engaging book, Peter Senge draws on such historical lessons. The rapid and unsustainable way in which industrial development has taken place in the western world over the last century is likened to a bubble. During periods of expansion, two parallel realities develop, he says, one inside the bubble and one outside.

Both feel equally real to those who live within them, but the more the bubble grows, the more people are drawn into its powerful reinforcing beliefs until eventually those inside the bubble can no longer understand the point of view of those outside.

Senge believes the Industrial Age is such a bubble and that is about to run its course. For some two billion years, life flourished on earth based on one source of energy: solar radiation. By contrast, 90 per cent of the energy in the Industrial Age bubble comes from burning fossil fuels. In nature, there is no waste as every byproduct of one natural system is a nutrient for another.

The contradictions between how nature and modern society work cannot continue indefinitely, he argues, and the bubble may burst faster than those of us living inside it realise.

Modern society is predicated on a series of false assumptions, he says, including beliefs that energy and water supplies are infinite and cheap, that there will always be enough room to dispose of our waste, and that productivity and technological innovations offer solutions to resource issues.

Life beyond this bubble will have different rules, he asserts. We will have to live within our “energy income” by using renewable sources such as solar, wind, tidal and bio-based inputs. Everything from iPods to office buildings will need to be recyclable or compostable.

We will have to adjust to higher energy prices, fewer material possessions and a greater sense of responsibility for the welfare of the world. The upside is that this regenerative society will flourish. The revolution, as Senge sees it, is not about giving up so much as rediscovering what we most value.

For Senge, all this is far from a utopian dream; he finds hope in some of the initiatives that are already being taken. Around the world a future very different from the Industrial Age is trying to emerge. Successful innovators are those who can see the larger systems – organisations, complex supply chains, industries, cities and regions – of which they are a part. They design products, infrastructures and business models that promote the health of those systems, rather than pursuing quick-fix solutions.

A second key component is collaboration, which in this case involves building relationships in new areas, creating trust and mutuality of interest among people. As people work together, Senge says, thinking evolves from a reactive, problem-solving mode to a life-affirming sense of purpose.

Senge says that big business is leading the change in some areas, even if this is merely self-interest. GE Industrial, he notes, has saved $70 million in its annual energy expenses and reduced greenhouses gases.

There’s money to be made as well as saved. General Mills, the manufacturers of cereals such as Cheerios, used to pay to dump oat hulls. Now, it earns money from the same product, sold as a fuel.

Whole new industries have been emerging. According to McGraw Hill, the value of green building construction starts in the US in 2008 was $12 billion in 2008 and is set to rise to $60 billion in 2010. The small additional investment in a green building – estimated at around 2 per cent and falling – has a return on investment of 40 per cent per year over the life of the building.

Resource savings can also be passed onto consumers. IBM’s Project Big Green, for example, aims to save customers around 40 per cent in IT costs.

While some corporations’ early green efforts are driven by mere compliance, Senge notes an increasing move to strategic leadership. However, encouraging as these developments are, Senge says that many businesses never move beyond the “low-hanging fruit” of waste reduction and energy efficiency. Few are willing to face the fact that they are selling the “wrong” products to the wrong customers (rich consumers who should consider reducing their consumption). By contrast, a small number are reaching out to new markets.

The Necessary Revolutionis a thoughtful, insightful and readable analysis of perhaps the greatest challenge facing the world.

  • Frank Dillon is a freelance business journalist