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We might think we understand what sustainability means, but I find that most people struggle to articulate and capture the essence. I always go back to the original definition by the former Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who chaired the first United Nations panel on sustainability in 1987: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Why “Clean Tech” became a dirty word in some circles
What gave me the insight to enter the new realm of Transformation was that the original word coined by my friend Nick Parker was based on “clean technology.” The problem with the word “cleantech” is that it came to represent impractical idealism, where technology was being judged on the basis of whether it was clean or dirty.
Transformation’s view is that technology is converging with energy, water, and agriculture, with the result of ever-increasing efficiencies. Efficiency simply means doing more with less.
If today the HVAC motors in this building were to consume a megawatt, and we pull those out and replace them with more energy efficient motors that consume only ½ a megawatt, then we’ve gotten the same work done for half the energy – half the cost, and half the damage on the environment. So that’s one example of efficiency.
Why “I’m with Science” is a brilliantly simple approach
Another form is going from 5 MPG in the old Cadillacs to 50 MPG in a new advanced efficiency vehicle. But the problem is that such an analysis makes everything more complicated, because how do I know a Tesla is better for the environment than a Mercedes on a total system efficiency basis? I don’t, unless I calculate an extremely complicated equation of finding the total system impact of having an electric car – where is the electricity coming from? Where are the batteries coming from? How will we dispose of the batteries?
And so what has been missing in the world is intellectual honesty about how to apply the definition of efficiency in a way that is scientific. That’s why I love the slogan “I’m with Science.”
People resist the complexity of the science
Sticking to the science was the one principle taught to me by Ralph Cicerone when he was the Chancellor of UC Irvine. He was a scientist, and he was the one who first showed me in 2001 the charts that much later became the Taplin Lectures at Princeton.
If you just look at the math: What is the impact when the temperature of the ocean is raised by one degree? That equation would take the work of many supercomputers. So one of the issues we’ve had with climate change and pollution is that the complexity is so great, that few people can handle the complexity of the science.
That’s why people who are concerned about climate change point to the graphs of rising CO2. They are relatively easy to follow. There are other greenhouse gases besides CO2, of course, like Methane, which is very potent, even though its volume is less than CO2. So the issue is how do we deal with all these complicated issues.
Waste is a growth industry
I launched the first company to convert methane to electricity, and it was an idea that was too early. The groundbreaking was at the Beaumont California landfill. We used the waste methane coming from the trash to create the power to run the landfill in Beaumont.
So the ultimate win is where the technology allows you to turn waste, whether that’s pollution, trash, or plastic, into any kind of value. And now, waste to value starting to become a huge growth industry as sharks are washing up dead with stomachs full of plastic.
The win is where technology allows 100% of conversion of waste to either energy or value. Unfortunately, I think the average person has a hard time understanding the reality. It’s one thing to tell someone, hey, there’s a wild animal outside the door. Then they know they need to climb out the window, or get someone to rescue them – it’s a definable problem of concrete simplicity. But if I tell you we are suffering from the total system effects of the world’s most complicated mathematical equations, you don’t know what to do with that.
“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing” – Bob Dylan
Everyone remembers some smart math genius who made a mistake, so it’s easy to say, well there must be a mistake here. That’s why I like to quote Bob Dylan “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing,” and that’s kind of where we are now. We’ve gotten unprecedented wildfires out of control up and down the state of California, and we really don’t need a weatherman to tell us that that’s a change in the climate: we’re living it. Implementing the right technology to come up with sustainable solutions to the entire spectrum of energy is key.
The Battleship Slowly Turns
The entire earth is like a large battleship and its direction changes very, very slowly. So we are already late to the battle.