Belgian economist Gunter Pauli founded the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) in 1994. A successful entrepreneur, who is inspired by the manner in which ecosystems function, he advocates observing nature to improve the human condition. As many as three years before the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, Pauli directed a team of scientists to come up with new business models that could function without emissions and waste. His book The Blue Economy took the world of economists by storm in 2010, by simultaneously challenging them and by lighting the way to growth based on knowledge and generating more value with available resources. He met and spoke with Bittu Sahgal in Mumbai and shares his world view and his optimism for the future with Sanctuary’s readers.
What is the primary message that nature is trying to convey to economists?
Nature always evolves from scarcity to abundance through creating more diversity. Imagine… a few single cells in harsh conditions over years turn into these tremendous, biodiverse ecosystems where every species contributes to the best of its ability (that is to say there is no unemployment!) and everything is continuously gifted with new value. The concept of waste does not exist and whatever is left-over is energy, matter or a nutrient for another creature. One of the key ways of achieving this state of abundance is that everything that is not necessary is simply designed out – keeping everything simple, while performance is improved. Nature needs no batteries to have power, rivers do not need filters to cleanse the water, and trees do not require pumps to lift water and nutrients into the canopy.
You write that resources will limit growth but knowledge, which has no limits, can and will drive economic growth. How exactly could this work?
When the Club of Rome (COR) presented the notion of “Limits to Growth” in 1972 it was hotly debated. Even I, as a young student in those days, had a hard time accepting that my future was going to be constrained by physical limits. However, when the COR published its report “No Limits to Learning” in 1979, I realised that this was the real calling to which I had to respond. After all, we have to maintain our path of evolution, continuously looking for new ways to respond to the basic needs of this ever-increasing world population. And we need to do this with what we have. So when we want food and we focus only on monoculture, GMO and synthetic fertilisers, then we get where we are today: a world where over one billion go to bed hungry. If, on the other hand, we learn from ecosystems where everything is always transformed into something of more value for someone else, then we see how stupid the solution is to genetically engineer rice to have short straw, because excess straw led to massive open-air burning, a source of tremendous air pollution. But what if the ‘extra’ straw could be used to produce “straw mushrooms” Volvariella volvacea?
Mushrooms you say?
Yes! You can actually produce more protein from mushrooms grown on waste straw than could ever be obtained from rice itself! And if you consider the scum that collects in paddy fields, then what you are most likely to be looking at is blue-green algae, which we do not bother to collect. However, there is more beta-carotene in that funny-looking film of algae, than scientists could ever insert into rice genes by inserting carrot qualities into the rice… promoted as “red rice”. It is amazing how ignorant we are and how we fail to see the opportunities before us. So, using what we have and imagining what more we can do is such an inspiration for creative actions. Surely we should collectively engage in this kind of reflection… and then take the right actions?.
Have big businesses responded to the concept of the blue economy or is this a small-scale-entrepreneurs-only opportunity?
Large corporations have a management philosophy based on “core business and core competence.” This implies that you only do what you know best. So if you process coffee, like Nestle does, then it is difficult to embark on mushroom farming even though the company has three million tons of coffee waste from the instant coffee production, which is good for growing an astounding 1.5 million tons of shiitake mushrooms Lentinula edodes that translates into a wholesale value of six billion dollars. But even with these staggering numbers, this multinational cannot get its head around it – because “it is not in the mushroom business.” That is why small entrepreneurs will lead the way. The coffee waste to edible mushrooms is a conversion that has provided opportunities for 15,000 people. While that may sound a lot – it is in truth only a tiny drop in the bucket. The potential is no less than 50 million jobs! If all the coffee waste in the world were converted to edible food then we would produce as much additional protein as commercial fish-farming does today. So I am dedicated to expose everyone to these opportunities big and small, those with a lot of capital and those with few resources. I hope that over time everyone will convert these opportunities, all based on science (and vision and passion) to reality.
And how are we to measure ecosystem services? Is there any real hope for the commons?
In my view the most important way to measure ecosystem services is through land value. The more the commons produce, the higher land prices will climb. This is a very important factor that is often neglected. We are living in a society with an excess of debt – massive debt carried by governments, corporations, banks, people ... and the only way to reduce debt is by generating cash – but in order to have a better cash flow we wish to cut costs (cut corners) and make everything cheaper. This is done by eliminating jobs, depleting top soil and increased mining. That model cannot offer us functional commons or their ecosystem services. If we decide to overcome the present crisis, not by cutting costs and people, but by pursuing a strategy that increases the value of what we have… then we will see a new economy emerge.
Could you quote an example?
Sure, take the case of Las Gaviotas in Colombia. This barren savannah had no drinking water and depleted top soil with a pH of 4. Thanks to the regeneration of the rainforest, the top soil was recovered, drinking water returned sustainably and the tapping of the trees creates jobs. Turpentine from resin provides fuel for mobility and locally produced food meets 90 per cent of the needs of locals. That piece of land, that SAME piece of land increased in value. Why? Because the commons, like water and top soil, regenerated, and over a 25-year-period that land value increased from one dollar per hectare to $3,000! That builds up social capital and makes the people bankable, part of the middle class if you will, within one generation. It was not by generating net income, it was by transforming a dry, inhospitable savannah into a land that responded to the basic needs of all – with what was locally available. That is why I believe that securing the commons, will enhance the value of land and offer prosperity. We have at least two implemented cases to demonstrate that this works.
Battery-free cell phones, bamboo housing, chemical-free paper, coffee waste to protein... Is this just modern alchemy, or are these dreams that could actually come true?
I am glad that you consider this alchemy. It is reality. The science is there, the demonstration is all around us but we did not notice it. We are myopic and are so used to the standard solutions that we are used to seeing all around us. The time has come to think out of the box, to look beyond the obvious and to learn how natural systems always cascade nutrients, matter and energy amongst the five kingdoms of nature – animals, plants, fungi, algae (protista) and bacteria (monera).
So you are saying in effect that nature could solve virtually all our problems?
Yes. Just about every problem that humanity faces has already been resolved somewhere, somehow by some species or other in nature! It’s amazing how natural systems simplified it all, without the paraphernalia that humans seem to need. Well there is one exception – nature has no solution for nuclear waste. That is something we will have to deal with ourselves and the most sensible solution is to simply not produce any.
In your view can India afford to go down the road of carbon energy to ‘eradicate’ poverty? Can there be equity in a zero carbon world?
Carbon is an abundant material. It just does not make sense to feel the need to pump it into the atmosphere. This is ignorance on our part. We do not realise the potential of, nor have we the experience in using hundreds of alternative sources of energy and endless ways to generate pure drinking water, while guaranteeing beautiful and healthy living conditions for all. This is what we want for everyone. This is why some of us have dedicated our lives to sharing our ideas of what nature can offer with all people.
Which is what your path-breaking book The Blue Economy is all about right?
True. The Report to the Club of Rome ‘The Blue Economy: 100 innovations, 10 years , 100 million jobs’ was published to demonstrate that we can redesign the present production and consumption model so as to respond to the basic needs of all with what we have, while turning our environment into a permanent carbon sink.
What, Gunter, would you say are the big ticket takeaways from The Blue Economy?
The key is that we are finally able to respond to the basic needs of all living species on Earth with what we have. Imagine, water, food, housing, health, energy and full employment! We need to be able to navigate from fantasy over vision to reality. But The Blue Economy is proposing nothing less since the real blockage we have is that we believe we need scarcity in order to have our economy functioning.
If you could magically appear 200 years from now to address the world, what might you tell the people of tomorrow?
That we can create a better world, that the impossible is possible and that Utopia is now topia.
For more information please go to https://www.zeri.org/ZERI/Home.html