Sandor Schoichet s a longtime Cleantech Blog reader, and Director of Meridian Management Consultants. Sandor has EE and SM degrees in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science from MIT, where he studied artificial intelligence, office automation, and business process reengineering, and completed a joint program in Management of Innovation at the Sloan and Harvard business schools. He holds undergraduate degrees in Information Sciences and Philosophy from UC Santa Cruz. He published these book reviews on our sister site Cleantech.org, and following our Cleantech Bookshelf, we liked them so much we’re republishing them here as a Reader’s Choice Bookshelf.
Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution
by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins
If there was one key to turning around the damaging business and environmental practices of modern culture, what would it be? ‘Natural Capitalism,’ the seminal 1999 call for a broader focus on sustainability, presents an overwhelming case that the key is resource efficiency and effectiveness. Just as conventional capitalism is all about using financial capital effectively, so ‘natural capitalism’ is about expanding that bottom line focus to include the natural resources and ecosystem services underlying the ability of business and society to function in the first place. The authors argue that with appropriate shifts in business perspective and government policy, our economy could be something like 90% more efficient in its use of irreplaceable natural resources, thereby mitigating ecosystem impacts, enabling global development, and staving off climate change.
Throughout history, until very recently, man has been a small actor in an overwhelmingly large world. Most of the book explores how this has given rise to our ingrained cultural patterns of wasteful resource utilization, limited focus on capital efficiency, and drive for production volumes, while assuming unbounded access to subsidized natural resources and ‘free’ ecosystem services. Shifting perspective to include natural capital on the business balance sheet, and to expand lean manufacturing principles beyond the factory walls is what’s required to address the ecology/climate change nexus. This change in perspective is embodied in a range of sustainable business concepts, including the ‘triple bottom line’ (profits, people, and planet), and the ‘cradle-to-cradle’ model for recycling products and integrating industries to eliminate ‘waste’.
The basic principles of natural capitalism put forward can be summarized as: (1) focus on natural resource efficiency (2) using closed loop, biomemetic, nontoxic processes (3) to deliver more appropriate end-user services (4) while investing in restoring, sustaining, and expanding natural capital. Following these principles leads not to constraints on business or lowered expectations, but an enormous range of new business opportunities to profit from improved efficiencies and environmentally beneficial activities. One of the best expressions of this perspective comes in the discussion on climate change, providing a refreshing contrast to the recent spate of bad news on this front: “Together, the [available business] opportunities can turn climate change into an unnecessary artifact of [our] uneconomically wasteful use of resources.”
While the authors deliver an awesome, deeply researched articulation of their vision, showing with many examples why it’s important and how it can work within our current capitalistic economies, the book has two key flaws. First, it falls prey to the syndrome first articulated by Paul Saffo, founder of the Institute for the Future, of confusing a clear vision of the future with a short path. This combines with an excessive reliance on sheer volume of examples to make their points, too many of them poorly explained, bristling with non-comparable numbers, and substituting hand-waving for real outcomes. Deeper exploration of fewer examples might have illustrated the principles better, and have been much easier to read. Also, 11 years after the original publication, many of the examples are seen to be hastily chosen and and used to support glib and overreaching conclusions that make the authors seem naive. Examples include the advent hydrogen powered cars (“hypercars”), the potential for shutting down Ruhr Valley coal production in favor of direct social payments to coal workers, or the imminent triumph of the Kyoto Protocols for international carbon trading. And, while much attention is paid to articulating the perverse incentives, misguided taxes and subsidies, and split responsibilities that impede more efficient system approaches, there’s short shrift given to new technology adoption rates, the scale of existing infrastructure investments, or the political complexities of changing incentives and subsidies.
However, if you are interested in understanding the genesis and foundations of the modern sustainability movement, this is a fundamental text. Despite its flaws, after 11 years the fundamental argument and principles hold up well and are still inspiring.
Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future
by Robert Bryce
Bryce bills himself as a purveyor of “industrial strength journalism,” and ‘Power Hungry’ doesn’t disappoint. Starting with a clear statement of his own energy policy – “I’m in favor of air conditioning and cold beer.” – Bryce provides a muscular, data-driven analysis of our modern industrial civilization and the changing mix of energy sources that power it. This is an eye-opening discussion that does an unusually good job of conveying the scale of our existing energy infrastructure, and the challenge of providing adequate energy supplies for the future, not just for the US and Europe, but for the developing world and the third world as well, under the constraints of economics and decarbonization. Bryce articulate four energy imperatives – power density, energy density, cost, and scale – and uses them as a consistent framework for looking at what he calls the “Myths of Green Energy.” His “myths” run the gamut from the idea that wind power can really reduce overall CO2 emissions, to the idea that the US lags other countries in energy efficiency, to the idea that carbon capture and sequestration could work at scale, and intriguingly, even the idea that oil is a dirty fuel compared to the alternatives. While the debunking of green alternatives has flaws, especially in the lack of attention to advanced biofuels, smart grid technologies, and green building materials, it is refreshingly apolitical – focused on facts, practical alternatives, and the requirements of scale. In some ways Bryce ends up with conclusions similar to those of Bill McKibben in his recent book ‘Eaarth’: we will not be able to turn the tide on atmospheric CO2 quickly enough, the scale is too large, the transition times are too long, the pressure for global development is too great. We will have no choice but to mitigate some problems and adapt to the rest. However, instead of advocating acceptance of a “graceful decline” as McKibben does, Bryce lays out an energetic path forward, a “no regrets” policy he dubs N2N: shifting electrical generation aggressively towards natural gas in the near term, while investing in advanced nuclear technologies for the long run. The strongest element of the book is how he effectively links the future economic health of the US with rising prospects for the rest of the world … and that will take massive quantities of carbon-free power, not only for economic development, but for mitigating unavoidable climate change impacts as well. ‘Power Hungry’ is a challenging and valuable read for everyone interested in green energy and an effective response to the climate crisis.
Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
by Stewart Brand
Brand, as ever, is a clear and forceful writer, fearlessly putting himself on the line with specific recommendations and a call to action. This is the Plan missing from Al Gore’s otherwise excellent textbook, ‘Our Choice: A Plan to Solve to Climate Crisis’ –harder-edged, more urgent, more tech-savvy, willing to name names, kick butt, and provoke a reaction. This is the place to start if you’re ready to move beyond the conventional green perspective and really get a grip on what responding to the climate challenge entails. Frightening and exhilarating at the same time!
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
by Bill McKibben
I’m conflicted about this book, and McKibben’s style in general. First, this is a valuable contribution to the debate about how to think about climate change and appropriate goals for our planetary future. McKibben actually presents many good ideas (in the second half of the book), rooted in a realistic and compelling vision of how our world is changing and how we need to adapt. However, his writing style, especially when presenting bad news (the first half of the book) is just “one damn thing after another,” an endless listing of specifics without adequate context or meaningful analysis … he apparently does not understand that anecdotes are not evidence. While he makes his argument most energetically, and has lots of suggestive detail that appears to support it, in the cases with which I am directly familiar he is guilty of taking things out of context, then making gross simplifications and overreaching generalizations. And this is too bad, because, overall, I think he’s basically right, and that his suggestions for change are excellent. Probably the most important aspect of this book is simply his tough, clear-eyed situation assessment of the damage that’s already been done, the building momentum of environmental change, and the need to get on with a meaningful response. I worry, though, that by beating us over the head with a stream of bad news, and then framing his suggestions for a response in terms of achieving a “graceful decline”, too many people will be turned off and won’t hear the good ideas towards the end of the book. The grand project of changing our culture so that we can live in a durable and robust symbiosis with our environment on a global scale … that’s not a graceful decline, but a call to help create a new age as exciting as any that went before.
Turning Oil Into Salt: Energy Independence Through Fuel Choice
by Anne Korin, Gal Luft
This slim volume is the clearest and most direct analysis I’ve yet seen of oil’s position as a strategic commodity, and the potential for open fuel standards to enable a market-based pathway to transportation fuel choice. Especially notable for its independent perspective … we hear so much about the need for ‘drop in’ petroleum equivalents and the ‘ethanol blend wall’, but not nearly enough about other approaches that might emulate the open interface model that has driven the phenomenal growth of the internet. Absolutely required reading for anyone interested in clean energy, the potential contribution of biofuels to achieving energy security, and the practical steps that we need to take to move down the path.
Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate
by Stephen H. Schneider, Tim Flannery
If you care about the big picture of climate change that’s driving the urgency behind global environmental agreements and the commercialization of greentech, then Schneider’s ‘Science as a Contact Sport’ is must reading. The book achieves two objectives in an engaging and forceful manner. First it is a great introduction to the science of climate change, presented through Schneider’s personal experience as a key participant in its development. And second, it provides much-needed insight into how the issue has played out in the US legislature and the global media, again from an up-close and personal point of view. Democracy and government are both messy systems, but still are forums where the environmental and greentech communities must ultimately triumph, and Schneider’s personal experience should be of value to everyone engaged in the battle. Some elements of Schneider’s message echo Al Gore’s discussion in ‘The Assault on Reason,’ but are presented in a clearer, more direct, and better operationalized manner. Highly recommended!
Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk from an Energy Insider
by John Hofmeister
Hofmeister writes with refreshing directness and lack of pretense about two key ideas: the disconnect between “political time” and “energy time” that drives legislative dysfunction in energy and environmental planning; and his own proposal for an independent Federal Energy Resources Board to fix it. Most of the book is a walkthrough of the current US energy business and infrastructure … the “straight talk from an energy insider” part. He convincingly lays out an array of problems with the approaches advocated by just about everyone, from left-wing environmentalists, to right-wing “infotainers”, to the energy and utility power industry itself … with special scorn for the disastrous and long-running failure of our elected officials of all stripes to address our energy needs in a serious manner. The book provides a prescient and unnerving in-depth background to current newspaper reporting on the BP spill disaster in the Gulf (it went to press just before the explosion and blowout). Hofmeister is on less firm footing, however, when he switches to his proposal for an independent energy regulatory agency modeled on the Federal Reserve. While he surely gets an ‘A’ for boldness and for thinking outside the box, how this is supposed to work and how we are supposed to get there in advance of a national energy disaster akin to the Great Depression, are both left up to “grassroots pressure.” All I can say is that I hope his non-profit, Citizens for Affordable Energy.org, is successful at pushing his ideas onto the national stage, and helping to build a consensus focus on practical solutions. Highly recommended … wherever you stand on these complex issues, Hofmeister will push your buttons and make you think about what a real solution might look like.