The Glass Is Always Full: Rethinking Wealth

The Glass Is Always Full: Rethinking Wealth

Despite fears that the planet is running short on resources, the world has all that it needs to survive sustainably – the real scarcity in the picture is innovation. 

According to Dr Gunter Pauli, founder and Director of Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) and former chairman and CEO of ECOVER, the company that built the first ecological factory in the world, a change in the way business operates is needed to enable a shift in society from scarcity to abundance.

Speaking at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business in September 2013, Pauli said that “by using what we have” and tackling issues that cause environmental and related problems in new and innovative ways, the world can create new products, services, and jobs without destroying the environment.

Pauli calls this a “Blue Economy business model”, one that connects and combines seemingly separate environmental problems with open-source scientific solutions based upon processes common in the natural world, to create solutions that benefit the environment, the economy, and society.

But to cause this shift, Pauli said the rules of the game need to change. He maintains that for 50 years business has been brainwashed by the Harvard Business School way of thinking, where profit is prioritised, regardless of the ethical consequences.

But there is another way. His 2010 book, The Blue Economy presents a hundred cases of real-life innovations with the potential to generate profits, create a hundred million jobs within a decade, and make life on the planet more sustainable. The book has been translated into more than 30 languages, and Gunter’s ZERI Foundation has received awards for its programme that uses waste from harvesting coffee to grow mushrooms. “Coffee-roasters roast it, food processors process it, and consumers consume it. But what if coffee waste was used as manure for mushroom growers, or as feedstock for producing renewable fuels or plastics?”

Pauli is experimenting with both ideas through ZERI, and said that companies like Nestlé could easily do the same. “China is already exporting US$17 billion worth of mushrooms to the world. Nestlé could position itself as a health food retailer in a very short time. It doesn’t. Why? Because it is not in the mushroom business. This shortsightedness is typical of the way most businesses operate, and it is crippling innovation.” The potential benefits and chance for money to continue circulating in society by making these kinds of connections in the coffee industry is astounding – all without exhausting any resources, he said. “Wastage from 20 cups of coffee can also be made into one metre of fabric – which can be used to make clothes. Instances like this show the wealth of untapped resources we have readily available; we just need to innovate on new ways to connect, and utilise them.”

Pauli said that there are two main reasons why most businesses fail to capitalise on these kind of connections. Aside from the fallback position that profits trump ethics, despite there being options that don’t compromise either, business also has a bad habit of over-analysis, and a reluctance to take risks.

“We are dying from analysis, what we need is implementation,” he said.

South African companies, for example, have failed to capitalise on opportunities to produce stone paper from mining waste. Stone paper manufacture is a renewable innovation derived from 80% mining waste and 20% recycled plastic bottles. Taken to scale, the innovation would free up the land used by the paper industry for forestry plantations, enabling other production to take place instead, as well as reducing the depletion of trees.

South Africa has millions of crushed stones at different sites – which could easily be converted into 100% recyclable paper, but because they are too concerned with analysing every aspect of how something will operate rather than getting on with it, South African companies are being left behind. There are already 40 of these stone paper projects ongoing worldwide in countries that leapt at the opportunity – and are reaping the benefits.

“Business is stuck in a mindset of cash-flow, supply chain management, and core business, which makes it difficult for companies to get out of the straitjacket in which they’re in. Think of batteries made from wood. Coffee turned into biochemicals to absorb odours and protect our skin from UV rays. Bioplastics and biochemicals derived from agro-waste — and processed in defunct petrochemical plants. All are elements of the bright blue economy,” he said.

The world around us, he argues, provides the archetypal design for efficient, flexible and renewable use of resources. Pauli said that there should never be a question of whether a glass is half-full or half-empty, as it is always full – of both water and air.

“We are failing because we believe that because it hasn’t been done before, it means that it can’t be done. Humans have to change their role. Previously we didn’t know that what we were doing was causing such destruction, but now we do. We need to innovate and re-think the impossible to create a better world for our children,” he said.


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