Can the goals of economic prosperity and sustainability be aligned?

Through removal of waste from the system authors, James Bradfield Moody and Bianca Nogrady in their book The sixth wave makes the case that they are.  In fact they predict that the breakthrough of cleantech will not only reverse environmental degradation, but also fuel the next ‘wave’ in economic growth.

 The ‘waves’ referred to in the title are the famous Kondratieff waves. Nikolai Kondratieff, a Russian economist, observed a regularity in economic upturns and downturns, which he called waves. Later, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter connected these waves with technological breakthroughs that were dominant during the upturn of the wave. In his view, a new successful class of technologies fuels a wave of new investments that takes the economy to a higher level.

The authors see a parallel in the economic mechanisms of each of these waves starting with the ‘first’ Wave: the Industrial Revolution to the most recent the ‘fifth’ wave: the ICT revolution and what they predict will be the ‘sixth’ wave cleantech.   Bradfield and Nogrady describe this with great enthusiasm, describing the mechanism through which the drive for no waste would fuel the economy.

During the ‘fifth’ wave: the ICT revolution, we saw the elimination of the middle man. Companies do not have to keep stocks of products and spare parts any more, they can now order them online. Retailers do not have to order their goods at wholesalers, they can go directly to the producer or importer. The shop as a middle man is being replaced by online shopping.

Business administration and transactions suddenly require much less work. Bradfield and Nogrady describe this as the removal of ‘waste’ from the system, waste in the form of unnecessary procedures that were suddenly a thing of the past. It is this removal of waste that released the vast sums of money suddenly earned by the smart entrepreneurs of the ICT revolution. These shortcuts boosted economic efficiency and fuelled the fifth wave. In their view, a similar mechanism will fuel the sixth wave. Waste, they tell us, is nothing other than production gone wrong. No waste will greatly enhance economic efficiency and fuel the economy.

No waste: the new technological revolution

Their claim is based on the avalanche of clean technologies coming on stream, allowing us to produce with no waste.  Since 2007, companies have commercialised products that demonstrate industrial biotechnology’s unique ability to reduce pollution, achieving measurable improvements in biomass sustainability, energy efficiency and carbon re-utilisation.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has analysed the technical feasibility and costs of developing a biomass supply sufficient to displace 30 percent of the nation’s fossil fuel use. Concurrently, biotech companies have developed technology to improve crop management as well as new crops to improve environmental performance. 

Biomimicry will allow us to find smart solutions for engineering  problems (and medical applications) – with less use of materials and energy. We are increasingly learning how to produce materials that are precisely tuned to a specific task.  This also allows us to use less materials and achieve better results.  

People, Planet & Profit

The concept of sustainability rose to significance in the corporate world with the introduction by John Elkington of the 3P scheme, incorporating People, Planet & Profits, known more commonly in business world as the triple bottom line.  Hence the idea was promoted that business has the mission of providing social and environmental benefits while also earning a profit.  This development saw companies quantify their achievements in the ‘planet’ and ‘people’ brackets and publish them for PR reasons; NGOs could stage competitions on corporate sustainable achievements, which lead to indexes like the DJSI (Dow Jones Sustainability Index). But somehow, the existence of three parameters, people, planet and profit, suggested that there would always have to be a trade-off among them, that we should ‘balance’ them. This concept is now radically questioned by the concept of ‘precision’

Precision and Precision Economics

The concept of ‘Precision’ is fully explored by Alle Bruggink and Diederik van der Hoeven in their new book ‘More with Less, Welcome to the Precision Economy’. They summarise the concept as follows: ‘Precision technology enables companies to make better products: of better quality, producing less waste and less environmental pollution, using less energy, in short: more sustainable. And in mankind’s use of hardware, a shift is going on towards more efficient use (less idle property): the sharing economy.’


They go on to add: ‘Sustainability’ in the form of ‘precision’… ‘will not just check economic forces, but guide them and take them to a higher level. In plain terms:

Sustainability is going to fuel rather than slow down the economy. Many companies that take leading positions in the sustainability indexes, and many SMEs, already look upon sustainability as not just an add-on, but as the core of their corporate strategies.’

No waste: an almost endless scope for improvement

As we look into the issue of waste, we discover that there is an almost endless scope for improvement. Scientists have even come up with Factor 10 (efficiency gain) as a realistic and necessary sustainability goal. Our most important environmental parameters (energy and resource use per unit of output) should have to improve by a factor 10 in order to compensate for population growth and wealth increase, and to restore damage done to the planet so far. And here’s the good news: this can be done!

Factor 10 improvements have in fact already been realised in many areas. The price of solar panels and eggs, the use of copper in ICT, the number of casualties in traffic per kilometre driven, the number of foreign PhD students at universities. The Limits to Growth report predicted most metals to be depleted by now. It did not happen. We greatly reduced consumption or found alternatives.

No more mercury in our thermometers and our tooth fillings, and mercury reserves went up. So-called urban mining, recycling all kinds of metals and plastics from urban waste, is taking over from traditional mine pits. Major efficiency improvements will prevent shortages of rare earth metals for use in wind turbines, cell phones and all other modern electronics. Often, entirely new processes facilitated by chemical and biological catalysis are instrumental to Factor 10 improvements in feedstock and solvents use, waste generation and product quality. Catalysis will also greatly enhance most recycle loops. No waste: it will fuel a new economic upturn.

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