Some executives and scientists are calling for a radical rethinking of chemicals, cars, farms, and our future. The capitalism and global industrial expansion have contributed to climate change; it is also capitalism that will save us. (An expert from an article by Nancy A. Nichols @ Strategy+Business)
We need disruptive progress. We as businesses squeeze a little bit of waste here, reduce energy use there. But are we really making fast enough progress to head off the resource crunch?
The simple answer, of course, is no. Even if every company on earth emulated the practices of the best companies, it would not be enough.
Smart businesspeople as well as environmentalists are converging on one new truth: The degree of change delivered by incremental solutions is not enough to address some critical environmental problems — including toxins in our soil, water, and air; climate change; and our dependence on fossil fuels. What’s needed is transformational change that enables leaps in policy, procedure, and the very way we do business — the kind of change necessary to move from business decisions that are environmentally correct, but that devastate product lines and profits, to decisions that deliver business value, yet don’t damage the environment. In order to make progress on several critical environmental fronts, a radical rethinking of the basic building blocks of business is required, as is an entirely pragmatic eco-redesign of many products.
Perhaps a sea change in the way we think about business and the environment is already under way.
It seems as though it should be common practice for companies to analyze their products and processes to determine their potential to harm the environment or human health. Yet only in the last few decades have the majority of companies begun to think about these impacts.
For the most part, materials and chemicals have traditionally been judged almost solely on their cost and performance, both in the manufacturing process and in the finished product or service. This has led to a host of environmental and health problems, including lead in paint, asbestos in homes and schools, and bisphenol A in baby bottles and water bottles.
Of the 30,000 or so chemicals currently in common commercial use, the environmental and health impacts of only about 4 percent are routinely monitored. Some 75 percent have not been studied for such impacts at all.
The green chemistry movement is out to change that. Chemicals should be safe when they are designed; no waiting until they are in products and landfills to discover their dangers.
In searching for a better alternative, scientists and business people are looking to nature — a concept called biomimicry.
Another example of biomimicry is the vertical farm, in which crops are grown in a water and nutrient mix (hydroponics) or in a nutrient-laden mist (aeroponics) in specially constructed, sunlight-maximizing high-rise buildings. A vertical farm would behave like a functional ecosystem in which waste is recycled and the water used is recaptured by dehumidification and recycled in a closed-loop system.
One can estimate that by the year 2050, 80 percent of the global population will live in cities. But climate change and a dearth of farmland could make it increasingly difficult to grow enough food for urban dwellers, and the environmental and financial costs of shipping food great distances are already apparent. The vertical farm, which could produce the equivalent of as many as 20 traditional soil-based acres per floor depending on the crop, could be a breakthrough solution for providing food to ever-growing and ever-denser urban populations.
Consider the paradigmatic car. The 120-year-old conceptual model of the automobile is no longer tenable. Emissions, congestion, rising gas prices, and probable fuel shortages are all problems that can be traced back to cars as they are currently conceived.
We need to make a compelling case for a new approach to fitting automobiles into society: not as stand-alone cars, but as personal urban mobility systems that are fueled by electricity and hydrogen, and that function as nodes in a connected transportation network in which they communicate with one another wirelessly, thereby avoiding crashes and traffic jams.
These new vehicles must appear completely different from the car. Future vehicles must have the look and feel of a new and desirable kind of product.
The success of their design, however, is based on something else entirely: a new grid to distribute the electricity needed to power such vehicles. During the twentieth century, industrialized nations built two kinds of massive but disconnected energy conversion systems — gasoline-powered light vehicle fleets and electric grids. But that situation is about to change. There is, now, an emerging convergence of electric-drive vehicle and smart-grid technologies. They are maturing within the same time frame; each will be beneficial to the efficient operation of the other; each will facilitate the large-scale deployment of the other; and they are likely to be increasingly closely integrated with one another.
In most countries, the electric system is based on large, centralized sources of power generation. One can envision a system with many smaller sources of power and decentralized control. This new electric grid would more closely monitor supply and demand, and set flexible pricing based on how much power is being used at any one time. In addition, digital controls would allow homes and businesses to produce energy at certain hours and consume power at other times. The grid would also monitor energy use and adjust pricing to curtail demand in an effort to limit carbon emissions.
Progress and Profits
Everything is going to have to change at once if this renaissance is to be realized. The same is true for a successful industrial reboot.
The electric grid will have to change to support personal mobility units. These vehicles will need to be built without that “new car” smell — which some contend is emitted by chemicals that are harmful to our health — possibly using the kinds of green chemistry. We will have to change our notion of how and where food is grown, and that will require new notions about how we power our cities and use and reuse water, among many other things.
The capitalism and global industrial expansion have contributed to climate change; it is also capitalism that will save us.
The entrepreneurs and companies that undertake the industrial reboot will participate in the creation of new industries and the rebuilding of the infrastructure on which we all depend. In the end, profits remain quite a compelling reason to stave off some of our worst environmental nightmares.
- Better Profits Through Green Chemistry (forbes.com)
- Smart Grid, a Smart Move for the Environment (environmentechnology.wordpress.com)
- What Makes an EV-Friendly Community? (prweb.com)