Brand Futures | Spirals | Strategic Foresight

Unbound Spiral: Corporate Environmental Optimism

November 4, 2003 05:29 PM

Andrew Zolli uncovering why pollution and waste usually indicate inefficiency. So, in an economy of competing companies, inefficiency is for losers. So does it follow that in the long run, successful companies are going to be green and clean? Some optimism here!


In the context of an ongoing futures research project, we recently came across the work of Jesse Ausubel, a 21st-century renaissance scientist and Director of the Program for the Human Environment at New York's Rockefeller University. Ausubel’s scientific interests and insights are incredibly broad, from the future of the physical environment to the mathematical modeling of sustainable systems.


Of particular interest is his paper The Environment for Future Business, which contains the kind of rigorous, contrarian thinking on the future of the physical environment which demands a very close read. Unlike the much gloomier ‘standard model,’ which predicts human-accelerated rapid climate change, Ausubel is optimistic. “The wheels of history are rolling in the direction of prudent, clean use of resources. Pollution and waste usually indicate inefficiency. […] In an economy of competing companies, inefficiency is for losers. So over the long run, successful companies are going to be green and clean.”


To back up his claim, Ausubel points to two the two-centuries-long decarbonization of the world’s energy supply. Think of the fuels we have used over the last two centuries – wood, coal, oil, natural gas, etc. Each of these basic fuels contains a mixture of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Wood, for example, contains a lot of carbon, and a little hydrogen. In coal, the ratio is about 1:1.


As motors and power-plants of one sort or another have become more and more efficient, and as more carbon-dense fuels are replaced with less carbon-dense successors, the result has been the slow, 200-year ‘decarbonization’ of the world’s fuel supply. The shift has been from wood to coal, coal to oil, oil to methane and, inevitably, methane to hydrogen.



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Seen this way, the much-vaunted Hydrogen Economy seems less like the esoteric sci-fi wonder it is pitched as in the media, and more the natural and inevitable next step for a world energy system that is becoming more and more efficient.



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Ausubel also postulates that the shift from one dominant fuel to the next occurs in 40-45 year ‘pulses’, followed by lulls or depressions of a decade or two in energy consumption. Each pulse was triggered by the adoption of cleaner fuels, which in turn led to real growth in per capita energy consumption. If that’s true, the next two pulses Ausubel predicts – one for natural gas, and one for hydrogen, won’t just be good for the environment – they’ll also lead to real economic expansion. (Ausubel's Hydrogen Economy starts to take off globally around 2050 - a conservative and reasonable estimate.)


[Z+Blog!]