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 😉