Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Greening the New Industrial Revolution

VIENNA – Manufacturing industries present society with a dilemma. A healthy manufacturing sector helps an economy to grow, thereby raising living standards – an especially important goal for developing countries. But, as factories try to meet ever-growing consumer demand, they deplete the world’s natural resources and pollute the environment. For some, the world now faces a stark choice between rising prosperity and a cleaner, more sustainable environment. In fact, with new technology and fresh thinking, policymakers can strike a durable balance between these competing interests.

In developed countries, consumers are increasingly recognizing that, while their material well-being may be higher than ever, their quality of life suffers if the environment is damaged. For poorer countries, such concerns are dismissed as a rich-world luxury. Industrial expansion is the best way to eradicate poverty, and must surely trump environmental concerns.

No government, rich or poor, can ignore the imperative to encourage economic growth. The manufacturing sector creates jobs, makes affordable products for cash-strapped consumers, produces vital tax revenue that can be used to support social goals, and brings in foreign currency in the form of export revenue. In short, a well-run manufacturing sector spreads wealth across society.

However, trying to satisfy the seemingly endless material demands of consumers at all levels of the economic pyramid has placed an unmanageable burden on the natural world. Resources are being consumed more quickly than the planet can replace them. The manufacturing sector is particularly voracious, devouring over half of all raw materials, around 30% of the world’s energy, and 20% of its water. In the process, it produces too much waste for our fragile ecosystems to absorb.

Now, public opinion is starting to turn against what is increasingly perceived as plunder on a global scale. Policymakers may not be able to compel citizens to ration their consumption. But governments can encourage manufacturers to change how they operate, so that they use fewer resources and eliminate unnecessary waste.

Technological innovation and recyclable inputs can make a huge difference to the way the world produces and consumes. Like the dramatic changes once wrought by mass production, there is similar potential in the development and application of 3D printing, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and other resource-efficient technologies. And management thinkers from the late C. K. Prahalad to Jaideep Prabhu have shown how industry can be reconfigured to produce high-quality products cheaply and cleanly.

Indeed, these technologies and management ideas amount to something of a new industrial revolution – though one that will be very different from the Industrial Revolution that made Great Britain the dominant world power in the nineteenth century and helped it build a global empire. The current transformation will be more democratic, spreading through global supply chains and modern communications to all countries that are integrated into the global economy. And it will be characterized by partnerships between government, the private sector, and civil society.

Our challenge, and our historic opportunity, is to recognize this potential and find ways for diverse groups to collaborate and realize it. A Green Industry Conference held recently in Guangzhou, China – following similar events in Manila in 2009 and Tokyo in 2011 – provides a template for this kind of broad cooperation. Delegates shared best practices, discussed ways to accelerate change in a range of sectors, and sought innovative solutions to old management problems.

No one need be left out of this revolution. Even countries with abundant natural resources do not have to fear the shift to a greener world. By adopting new economic models, their large but finite reserves will not be rendered useless; they will simply last longer. At the same time, countries facing shortages will gain greatly from being able to reduce their own resource needs.

Businesses, too, have been quick to adopt new practices. Many now routinely monitor and report on their environmental impact. Some are even starting to organize around new industrial concepts such as the “circular economy,” which focuses on reducing waste through multiple rounds of recycling.

This revolution may have been borne out of necessity; but, with ingenuity and cooperation, it will prove to be profitable, over the long run, for countries, manufacturers, and consumers worldwide.

Read more from our "Visionary Voices" series

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  1. Commentedsanjeev verma

    It is not only the Industrial processes ,but also the end products yielded by the Industries per se ,which brrok a serious consideration.If we study the matrix of industrial products , a sizable mass consists of those items ,whose consumption rate can be decelerated,if not stalled ;to illustrate plastic ,metals etc.A study of usage of disposable plastic bottles,in the past one decade containing beverages and drinking water will throw very startling figures; consumerism is not confined to few nations;galloping consumerism in the rest of the World ,will further take a toll on our resources .It is time ,when Global think tanks and action groups must set an agenda and promote innovations,which shall minimize pollution in the industrial processes and also create green substitutes.
    U.N still enjoys faith ,reverence and acceptability ,and it shall take a lead to constitute Global Innovation Council-equipped with best of the talent ,favorable research climate and adequate financial wherewithal .This Council can incubate ,nurture and share innovations ,in-house or adopt those which have been spawned elsewhere.
    WTO shall also reorient its regime by incentivising Green technologies ,processes and products.Industry has to whole heartedly adopt innovative green solutions

  2. Commentedrobert Lapsley

    Can The Capitalist Save The World?

    In 2014 three big E’s (Environment, Energy, Economy) and their dynamic will continue building pressures for change. Behind that obvious headline is a pernicious myth, elixir, and panacea our leaders continue to sell us, our captains of industry sell us; heck, we sell it to ourselves, and we love it! Say it with me… Satisfying our common base hedonic aim is worthy of honor, obey your base biology. Chase the yum and shun the yuck. It is the story used to rationalize our consumer capitalism. Our father Adam Smith rationalized self-interest and competition leads to economic prosperity. The unintended consequence is today a crazy race and competition in which the most common and popular measure of success seems to be in the extent one can influence and control material wealth. Those relatively few successful and prosperous, continue to compete amongst themselves for more. They write the rules of engagement used to compete for the limited resource base on which we all depend.
    Our economic rules for engagement promote self and consumption at the expense of our natural ecology. When I say “self”, I mean to include not just individuals, but groups large and small, as one against another. Unfortunately when we apply these rules we effectively exercise moral blindness or indifference, not just to the many marginalized or the many more outside our economy, but more, to the critical biosphere. What if we change the rules and care for the planet? Promoting such a principle could help steer ethics and social norms in a direction more in line with our natural ecology.
    Capitalists embracing and internalizing this first principle would help to bend the arc of moral evolution away from our selfish ethos and away from our pernicious norms. Are we not misguided in principle if and when we focus on humans and our clever constructs to the exclusion of the larger planetary systems? We are after all embedded in the much larger biosphere. And few deny the mounting evidence that our growing numbers effect changes on that scale. If this ethic were to be adopted by our capitalist culture, this new capitalist might just save the world. I wonder how our economy might work when the capitalist is rewarded and revered, to the extent his novel relationships and exchanges profit the biosphere; penalized and despised when his practices degrade the biosphere? Yes, naive I know … laws already on the books, enforcement, human nature; best laid schemes, yada, yada.
    But by now it should be obvious we better serve our continued survival when we protect and defend our vital ties to the ecosphere, to planet Earth. Some argue our first principle should be a flourishing humanity; it is ironic, our means and methods threaten our continued survival. Only our hubris holds dominion over nature. To think otherwise, leads inevitably to our nemesis.
    Still today, most disagree and defend economic principles of growth and competition. Resistance to needed change dominates today’s popular culture. Even our elected leaders resist effecting needed change. With each Wall Street corruption exposed, with a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, with a growing population living in poverty, it is getting easier to convince ourselves something must change.
    And we are changing. As pressures build we plan for the next Sandy super-storm, rising sea levels, and the next Sandy Hook shooting. Still, few are planning for a new ethic. As a boy I remember it was common to see the sides of the highways strewn with bags of trash; now blatant littering is unacceptable. I feel it’s reasonable to expect the same turn away from selfish profit motives, and temporary titillations, and toward profiting the biosphere. It will take some time; the big idea wheel turns slowly.
    Serving the planet above all else is a hard sale to close. But it shouldn’t be too hard. We create the social world. The constraints and consequent selection pressures within it… they are ours to amend. We have managed to rear inspired volunteers who die in the service of “national interests”. It is not a stretch to think that we could change the rules of engagement and select for those who serve planet Earth’s biosphere and oppose anthropocentric profiteers. Again, if adopted by our capitalist culture, these new capitalist super heroes might just save the world.
    But first, there is an underlying and insidious phenomenon at play we must square. Humans are subject to the tragedy of the commons. A formidable force opposing needed change; it helps explain why we kick the can down the road, why we avoid mitigating climate change in any meaningful way. It highlights why we avoid economic reform, and resist moving social norms toward something more than sustainable, something regenerative.
    We understand that our economic incentives promote consumption, hasten the depletion of our common resources, and pollute, all contributing to the accelerated degradation of our vital ties to the natural ecology. These practices are contrary to humanity’s long-term best interests. Still, generally, people are reluctant to accept short-term pain for long-term gain. People will not easily give up what security they’ve worked hard to achieve when they have less relative to those surrounding them, when they feel unjustly disadvantaged by a “rigged system”. We must accept as fait accompli that citizens of the developed world who oppose the current economic zeitgeist and refuse to join the minions will suffer the pains of ostracism and a relative poverty. This dynamic is back-ass-ward.
    Depending on one’s skill set, one might squat some piece of land and practice permaculture, and we need them. But as things stand, even when one opts out of the economy, someone else will eagerly jump at the opportunity to take their spot, access resources, and enjoy real material gains earned exploiting our increasingly scarce common resources.
    It’s a crazy mixed up world that socially rewards one and all for the wholesale exploitation of natural resources. And we must admit this economic incentive to exploit resources today for material advantage is a problem for the future. Our economy competes for resources. We compete against each other for resources. When we do so, we are also competing against other systems natural and spiritual for the ethical principles that might better guide our way forward. We turn asunder deep-rooted natural systems when we compete. Wielding economic conventions, we press individuals, firms, cities, states and nations to conform and contribute to economic growth. Economic incentives move us to exploit what precious resources we have in order to gain some advantage now, and do so at the expense of our future generations.
    Some resist, but like myself, more acquiesce in order to provide for their family, to put food on their table and a roof over their heads. Even knowing business as usual undermines our future generation’s well being, knowing our global order emerges from those local rules we engage today, knowing current practices undermine the well being of the biosphere, even knowing all of this, I don’t stop; we don’t stop; we move closer to ecocide, and I, like most of us, contribute with impunity.
    So, what then should we expect of ourselves in 2014 as environment and energy exert greater pressures on our economy? Will the capitalist and consumer heed Natural systems warning and humble themselves? Will we seriously consider a new first principle of care for the planet? Will we better serve our interests for survival by sacrificing personal interests in the defense and support of our vital ecosphere? The evidence is mounting; the pressures are building, now more than ever… We ought consider as a rational first step forward, extending our notion of kin and community to include a healthy biosphere, and adopt as first principle the flourishing of a rich and deep ecology supporting all of us.
    I am optimistic that in time we will come to understand and approve of our place within the vast ecosphere, enhance its vitality, regenerate vital ties, complement and nurture the planet’s biosphere and thus our own. My new year’s resolution is to reach out for examples of entrepreneurs succeeding while strengthening our natural ecology and the Earths biosphere, and spread those examples far as I can.
    But now, returning to Earth, I expect, unless we are struck by some ecological 9/11, in 2014 most will disregard the need for a new ethos.
    And when they wake the morrow morning
    Remember them the Fate’s warning
    To Eurydice singing,
    Anais Mitchell’s ringing:
    “Gone, I’m Gone”

    “You can have your principles
    When you have your belly full,
    But hunger has a way with you.
    There’s no telling what you’re going to do,
    When the chips are down.”