A Blue Streak
By Mike SeccombeApril 10, 2012
Once upon a time he was the hero of Rio, an economic pioneer at the earth summit. Now, Gunter Pauli — green entrepreneur and author of The Blue Economy — is in the business of telling tales.
Twenty years ago, when the environment was a vogue issue and even the political right professed concern about climate change, representatives of 172 countries, including 108 heads of state, gathered in Brazil for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Earth Summit.
And there, the Belgian economist and green entrepreneur Gunter Pauli says he was feted as the very model of a green entrepreneur. He had built a business producing supposedly-environmentally benign detergents. He says his factory in Belgium quickly grabbed three per cent of market share in Europe from giant corporations like Proctor & Gamble and Unilever.
Not only that, but the plant in which the products were made was hailed, he recalls, as "a breakthrough in architecture".
It was made entirely of wood, with a grass roof and zero carbon emissions because it wasn't heated. Instead, he supplied all his staff with Patagonia thermal wear, so they were dressed like members of an expedition to the Himalayas.
Indeed, the bulk purchase of thermals, Pauli says, attracted the attention of Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, "who wanted to know who in hell was buying 800 pairs of underwear for a factory".
(Chouinard suspected his clothes were to be used to test the biodegradable detergents.)
Anyway, as Pauli tells it, he was seen as a hero of Rio, a pioneer on the path to ecological sustainability.
Except he wasn't.
What he initially didn't realize was that the palm oil he was using for his biodegradable detergents, sourced half the globe away in Indonesia, was produced in a grossly environmentally destructive way. Land clearing for palm oil plantations was resulting in the destruction of vast swaths of rainforest.
"Here I was … celebrated alongside Ted Turner, and I had to admit to everyone that I was a fake. I was part of the dream of the green with my factory, and had to go back to my friends and say I was wrong.
"Collateral damage cannot be condoned," he says.
And so the self-described serial entrepreneur moved on to other ideas. In fact he began collecting them.
Two years ago he presented to the global think tank the Club of Rome a report on 100 innovations which he believes could generate 100 million jobs over the next decade while also benefitting the environment. The foundation he set up, Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives — ZERI, selected them from 2,200 potential bright ideas. He says his book about them, The Blue Economy, has so far sold more than a million copies, according to Pauli.
He explained a few of them during a brief visit to Sydney in early April. Some seem obviously simple, such as recycling used coffee grounds to grow mushrooms. Don't laugh, three million tonnes of waste grounds could produce 1.5 million tonnes of mushrooms and generate $3 billion, and it's happening already in Europe, the US and Africa.
Other ideas are far more complex.
He spoke of a project in Ulsan, South Korea, where Swedish scientists have used smart chemistry to extract methane from wastewater. A hundred thousand people, he says, can generate 15,000 cubic metres of the gas each day.
But instead of simply burning it, the gas can be separated into its component hydrogen and carbon, with the former used as a non-polluting fuel, and the latter into grapheme, a highly-conductive material which can be used for computer chips.
He calls it "making value from nothing".
Pauli can enumerate so many innovations which could produce big benefits: double-sided solar panels which are far more efficient; new catalysts that can be used to convert waste carbon dioxide — the major contributor to global warming — into plastics and paints; switching from alternating current electricity grids to locally-generated 12-volt direct current, which is what most household appliances use anyway.
The ideas are many and varied, but they're in the book. More important than the individual ideas is the mindset. And the way modern corporations think, he argues, is not very compatible with the type of innovation that is needed.
I guess he should know — among his qualifications are a degree in economics and a Master of Business Administration. And he can certainly string together the jargon of bizoids, if only to illustrate its essential meaninglessness. The masters of the modern market economy, he says, aspire to "a core business that you will have built on a core competence, and the core competence is aimed to have ever lower marginal costs, so you will press out ever more labor productivity and for that you will pursue economies of scale. In order to have success in this you will outsource and have supply-chain management in place and just in time, the solution centres will ensure that cash flow can be king. You will leverage your assets so you can be competitive in a globalized market."
And what has that yielded?
Massive unemployment, dying communities and overconsumption of poor quality products, he says.
It is not that the world lacks the technologies to make things better, he argues. What it lacks is awareness of them among entrepreneurs who might exploit and develop them.
Thus Pauli has changed his focus a lot since his signal failure on 1992. These days he is in essence a populariser, in part by design and in part by accident.
The way in which he has become a populariser by design we have already touched on: the collecting, sifting and promulgation of what he sees as valuable innovations.
But it is the accidental part which is perhaps more interesting. It is quite literally a fabulous story.
"In the beginning," he says, "it was nothing more than a dad trying to explain to his kids what I do and what's the content of my work."
So he made up stories illustrating the principles of the innovations he was discovering. He called them fables.
"I quickly accumulated six fables, 12 fables, 24 fables. And of course mothers talk to mothers and kids talk to kids and soon there was a demand for it. That's how it started, very simple, very unambitious.
"I could never have imagined where it would lead."
It led all over the world. In the year 2000, he was in Brazil and happened to share some of the fables with the mayor of the city of Curtiba, who said he would like to see them in local schools.
"I said yes but I'm no pedagogist (read: expert in educational methods). So he said they would bring a team together to help.
"So I got the opportunity to train 2,000 teachers and through these teachers 110,000 children. All the fables were translated into Portuguese and distributed for free to the children.
"That program lasted three years, and gave me a tremendous platform to realize what could be achieved, how we could inspire children to look at the professions of the future, the industries of the future, to become entrepreneurial, to argue with their parents about issues and problems.
"Soon after, the Egyptian government asked me to assist them. A program was set up to adapt the fables to a Middle Eastern context. In parallel, we started in Colombia. Then in Mexico… it started rolling and rolling.
"But there was no ambition behind it, and I tend to be an ambitious person. It just happened. The number of fables grew to 36.
"Then in February this year I was in China, and the fables had been translated into Chinese, the board of education had been looking at them and decided this was very worthwhile, so the association for the promotion of science and technology in China decided to do a trial in the city of Wuxi, about an hour outside of Shaghai, and invited me to work with the kids."
Things developed quickly from there. The Chinese authorities decided they wanted the fables in their schools too.
"The message was 'We love those 36 and we will pay for the distribution. And by the way, if you wouldn't mind producing 365, we will distribute them to every school. And if you have animation, we'll put it on TV.'
"That's 240 million kids, who would get 365 fables. It's too much to even imagine."
The Chinese, he says, want them from next year. And Pauli says he is not making a buck out of it; he's donating the fables.
"I don't think we should translate this into money. I think I have enough," he says.
But he is considering the Chinese offer of merchandising rights, with any profits to go to ZERI, to fund further research.
As of right now, though, he is still 329 fables short of the demand. Yet he is not much daunted.
"In order to get to the 100 innovations that are described in my book, and the more than 50 additional innovations that have been described in the meantime on our website, I and our team of 25 screened 2,200 innovations. So I can do 365; that's only 15 per cent of them."
But what exactly is it that these fables are about? He cites one example.
There is an owl that wants to teach a mouse how the law of gravity works. So the owl talks about an apple falling from a tree. The old Newtonian metaphor. But, says Pauli, kids all know about gravity these days. Thus the story takes a surprise turn: the mouse says, 'I'm really not so interested in how the apple gets down from the tree. I want to know how the apple gets up in the tree.'
Says Pauli: "To kids it's extremely obvious the apple must go up before it comes down.
"So, within a month the kids will learn about the forces that push the ingredients of the apple up the tree. All trees in the world push things up, with no electricity, no connection to the grid, et cetera. That allows children to start exploring the energy sources involved.
"That is to some extent giving them fresh ideas, [such as] what other energy sources haven't we exploited yet?"
The most important thing about the fables, he says, is the connections they make.
"Every fable has a direct link to different subjects of science, of history, of psychology, of economics, physics mathematics, ethics … it's all in there. They all bring a surprise.
"And at the back of every single story I celebrate a scientist who inspired me.
"It's not me, I am the translator; behind it is the scientist.
"Many scientists and inventors have big ideas, but they don't get it out in a language that's understandable."
Pauli reckons in a way his professional life has come full circle, back to the job he had at 19 as journalist. It is about explaining the complex world of the expert for the non-expert.
Or, as he puts it: "The Gunter Pauli of the 90s, wanted to be the wave. Now, instead of creating the waves I have become a surfer."