The Two Names in Cleantech You Have to Know

Cleantech has a very short history, and an even shorter memory.  I’ve written over and over again about how it’s all about policy, and that there is no disruptive technology in cleantech.  Now I’m telling you that’s not quite true, the exception proves the rule.

I’d like to ask you to do some reading on two men from very different worlds.  One recently passed away, the second in his 90s.  Both passionate about the earth and people in it.  Both lightening rods for criticism.  And for the record, one taught at Texas A&M, the other graduated from there.

Both drove the development of technology that changed the world in profound ways.  Doing so in part with deep connections to both technology and policy.  They are household names in the worlds they lived in.  They are largely unknown in the cleantech world.

If we are to survive and thrive in a world with a lot more population and a lot more demand on our natural resources that it had when Norman Borlaug and George Mitchell started, we’re going to need to mint more of these guys like water.  It’s good to know it can be done.

Norman Borlaug

Father of the green revolution.  Nobel peace prize winner, credited with saving 1 billion people through better food production.  American agscientist, working all over the world from Latin America to Asia, responsible for the development and proliferation of high yield, resistant wheat.

“More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world,” the Nobel committee said in presenting him with the Peace Prize.

His obituaries tell it all.  He taught and researched at Texas A&M from 1984 on.

The green revolution has often been slammed for causing severe environmental damage.  But tell that to the masses of people around world who are alive today because of it.

“Gary H. Toenniessen, director of agricultural programs for the Rockefeller Foundation, said in an interview that Dr. Borlaug’s great achievement was to prove that intensive, modern agriculture could be made to work in the fast-growing developing countries where it was needed most, even on the small farms predominating there.

By Mr. Toenniessen’s calculation, about half the world’s population goes to bed every night after consuming grain descended from one of the high-yield varieties developed by Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues of the Green Revolution.” – Italics from the NYT obituary.

George P Mitchell

Texas oil man and sustainability?  George Mitchell can lay claim to doing both, in a big way.

He developed the fabulously successful Texas community The Woodlands, the only successful development of the original HUD funded communities of the 1970s.  Now The Woodlands is a thriving energy, biotech and technology economy founded on sustainable and environmental best practices, showing the world what can be done.  

But his big contribution to cleantech was way beyond one town. It was in pioneering the shale gas revolution through combining horizontal drillling and fracking at Mitchell Energy.  But don’t believe me.  Ask the Times Online and Forbes who the father of shale gas is.

And for those of you who missed the shale gas buzz, try this Wall Street Journal Article called Shale Gas Will Rock the World.

Like Dr. Borlaug and the Green Revoluation, shale gas and fracking have been ripped apart in the press for their environmental impact.  And like in the Green Revolution, I’d suggest you ask those whose houses are heated, and whose bills manageable because of shale gas.  Or ask just where you think we’d be without gas post nuclear accidents in Japan and food strikes in the Middle East forcing us to rethink our fuel supply chain?  Gas:  that compromise fuel of the future that everyone loves to hate, but makes up a critical part of every low carbon energy plan.

And then remember who these innovations helped the most, and who will benefit the greatest from cheap abundant food and fuel?  Not the rich in Manhattan or London.  The poorest of the poor in every corner of the world.

As I said before, if we are going to continue growing our economy and not destroying the world while we do it, we’re going to need to mint a lot of guys like these, and realize that every decision big enough to matter in food and energy involves real trade-offs taht we’ll have to face.

PS One final note:  notice that neither of these guys ever took a lick of venture capital 😉

2 replies
  1. Walter Breidenstein
    Walter Breidenstein says:

    "PS One final note: notice that neither of these guys ever took a lick of venture capital ;)"

    I recently had another call from a VC looking at our "disruptive" technology, and tried to explain the value of niche markets in gas-to-liquids. A niche where no competitors exist, and even with competitors, who cares if the technology is a cash flow machine. A 4 month payback, and $1 million a month revenue in the oil & gas sector is not uncommon if you drill a successful well…and if we can do this with GTL…why do we have to follow the VC model of "clean tech"? Why cannot we just focus on a niche market? I don't need, nor want, any government contracts or government subsidies to build our business.

    The VC model and the money follow government spending…and fortunately not everyone uses this model to be "successful" outside the valley.

    Learn from the oil & gas industry in the clean tech sector…as there is disruption for investors every time they hit a gusher. It all does not have to be funded by government using the VC model.

  2. Yori Diaz
    Yori Diaz says:

    Shale gas is leaking like a sieve into the atmosphere and at 30 times the heat-trapping power of CO2 presents a potential catastrophic risk to the zealots that are madly rushing to develop it without soberly considering it's consequences.

    Just like Borlaug and the green revolution which failed despite the intoxicated few who refuse to give it a hard look. Grain is an inflammatory food that has just spread more inflammatory diseases like diabetes so the U.S. spends billions shipping grain to starving countries and then ships more billions treating diabetes and other inflammatory diseases that high carbohydrate diets cause. Good work right wing zealots.

    The development of high-yield varieties of corn, wheat, and rice during the "green revolution" of the 1960s and '70s reduced hunger around the world. Gone, it seemed, were the days when American children heard lectures about the starving children in China. "I can remember thinking, 'I hope all the starving kids like brussels sprouts,' " [Lewis Ziska] says. "Now, places like India and China, instead of being net importers of food, rather than living on the edge, they now have plenty of food and are actually exporting their food."

    But the success of the green revolution lulled the world's leaders into complacency. Since that agricultural breakthrough, Earth's population has doubled. And, Ziska said, farmers have now realized most of the possible gains in yield. "So what was put off back in the '60s–those decisions that had to be made about where assistance was going to go, population control, and those sorts of things–those questions are now back with us again."

    The USDA plant physiologist continued, "We've given ourselves a 30-year reprieve, but those questions haven't gone away. Instead of having 3 billion people in the world, we have 6 billion people." Because of climactic uncertainty, "you have a greater strain on the resources needed to grow these crops at the levels needed to support this population." For example, he said, water is "becoming scarce around the world…. And agriculture is the greatest user of fresh water in the world, so if you don't have that water, you cannot maintain the levels of productivity you need to support 6 billion people."

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