We see opportunities no one else sees: In conversation with Dr. Gunter Pauli of the Blue Economy

Dubbed by The Huffington Post as the 'Steve Jobs of Sustainability’, Dr. Gunter Pauli is the founder of Tokyo-based Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI), the maverick entrepreneur behind the Blue Economy and the initiator of 200 sustainability projects around the world.

His book ‘The Blue Economy - 10 years, 100 innovations, 100 million jobs’ outlines how the principles of the circular economy can be employed to transform production and consumption from linear processes to circular ones where the waste left over from one process is converted into energy and nutrients for a subsequent one. ZERI has backed such innovative businesses as the exporting of wind from Sweden in the form of frozen, organic carrot cakes, the reforestation of 8,000 hectares of degraded land in Colombia and the growing of organic mushrooms and fodder in the waste from coffee production.

In an interview with Eartha, Dr. Pauli talks about the viability of the Blue Economy and outlines his vision for a sustainable future where innovative businesses use scientific solutions to create positive environmental impact and social capital.

Dr. Gunter Pauli/ Source

Dr. Gunter Pauli/ Source

Eartha: What are the core tenets of the Blue Economy?

Gunter Pauli: The Blue Economy believes in using locally available resources and doing more with what you have to generate more value. It is based on responding to people’s basic needs for water, food, housing, energy, jobs and creating competitive, better priced products resulting in additional streams of sustainable revenue. We want to transform business models not by cutting costs but by addressing resource scarcity, waste disposal and long-term sustainable development.

What was its genesis?

My dream for the Blue Economy emerged out of my frustration with the green one.  I’ve worked for thirty years to make the Green Economy happen but it seemed like everything that’s good for you and the environment is expensive and everything that’s bad for you and the environment is cheap. On observing the Green Economy closely, I realised that it only tries to make globalised markets a little less bad. This allowed me to imagine how we could things very differently. So I came to the conclusion that in its current state the Green Economy is for the rich and not for everyone else. The good should be cheap and we must generate value by doing more with what we have instead of sourcing globally. 

How do Blue Economy businesses balance the human and environmental aspects of an ecosystem?

In the present supply chain the custodians of the earth - farmers, fishermen, miners - are exploited and forced to work with market and commodity prices while everyone else takes commissions. That makes no sense. To change this and make it financially viable,  the farmer must earn double or even quadruple. Once farmers earn the right prices, we see a very quick shift in the attitude towards the earth. In our consumption obsession, we keep eating and drinking like always, but the farmer who sees the opportunity to have a higher income with fewer resources doesn’t say, ‘Let’s produce 10 times more.’  Most say, "I have enough’ and that can help restore the ecosystem. The beauty is that a rural community that lives off the land or sea is much faster in saying ‘I have enough’ than those living in cities disconnected from reality.

I was in Assam’s Hathikuli organic tea estate last week where I worked directly with the tea workers to ensure that the turnover in the gardens goes up 4 times in 3 years by regenerating biodiversity. What happens if you earn 4 times more? The money we earn goes into a fund to grow the local economy even further. That’s our logic - create opportunities to earn the kind of money that keeps going back into the community and grows the region.

"On observing the Green Economy closely, I realised that it only tries to make globalised markets a little less bad."

What kind of business problems are amenable to solutions offered by the Blue Economy?

We only look at basic needs - food, water, housing, health, energy, and solutions that have a social commitment for lives and livelihoods. Success for me is getting more drinking water, more healthy food and creating millions of extra jobs. Out of principle, we are not interested in IT which is the fastest growing consumer of energy, the fastest promoter of mining and big generator of e-waste - the largest waste stream today. It’s not enough for IT companies to do less bad; they must do more good.

How viable are the solutions offered by the Blue Economy in that they require not only a long-term view but a deep commitment to improving social and environmental outcomes?

Take the example of our stone paper. Conventional paper relies on millions of hectares of monoculture plantations on productive land that could have been used for growing food. Our alternative makes paper from limestone quarry dust and recycled plastics; consumes no water, uses no chemicals, requires only half the energy of pulp paper and is recyclable forever. We can no longer justify energy intensive production systems that plant millions of hectares of empty monocultures for paper, use rainwater and destroy drinking water quality in order to make paper that can be made with rock dust from mines. Moreover, the paper is half-price, we’ve cut energy by 67 percent and greenhouse gases by 90 percent. Production currently stands at a million tonnes now after just 3 years of establishing our first large scale factory. By any standards, this is massive growth and this is only in one market so far. We're moving this fast because people are passionate about the fact that we don’t cut trees or use any water. We clean up old mine dumps instead. We’ve also raised $1 billion for stone paper despite the skepticism of the whole paper industry. When you’re faced with that, who’s going to say I want to keep cutting trees and pay double the price? This is not possible in the business model for paper today so we have to create a completely new model based on something previous generations never imagined or envisioned.

What is the potential for the Blue Economy to do good on its commitment to create 100 million jobs by 2025?

I admit that we’re only at 3.5 million at the moment. Our most important challenge is the thinking that we must be given a job; people must create their own jobs. Once you create a job, you’re working with others and if we push that forward very systemically, then there's a remarkable generational shift. Stone paper is now at 50,000 jobs and mushroom farming is creating 1,00,000 jobs. The potential is huge. In mushroom farming itself, it is 50 million jobs and we are ready for rapid scale.

A suite of initiatives at Assam's Hathikuli Organic Tea Estate ensures biodiversity preservation, natural resource conservation and diversified income-generation opportuntiies for the local population/ Source

A suite of initiatives at Assam's Hathikuli Organic Tea Estate ensures biodiversity preservation, natural resource conservation and diversified income-generation opportuntiies for the local population/ Source

In a world of quick success, big exits and short term monetary gains, what are the challenges of this approach?

The greatest challenge is ignorance. If we say we can get goat farmers six times more revenue with half the present turnover, people say it’s impossible. In conventional businesses that think in terms of minimising cost and maximising economies of scale, what we propose seems impossible. I believe that you don’t talk about it, you just do it. The only way to convince people is by doing it and showing concrete success. I’ve been doing it for 23 years and it’s the only thing that talks. It overwhelms people and surprises them.

What is your vision for a sustainable city of the future?

A sustainable city is an oxymoron; it doesn’t exist. Citizens must realise that the quality of life in cities is hell and ask themselves, “what can I do?”. The challenge is: 12 million consumers who feel insignificant because they think they can’t do anything to tip this. But they can tip it. This is the big shift I saw in Johannesburg. There are 2 large industrial factories there supplying bread with lots of sugar that makes it spongy and fills people’s stomach. Given Johannesburg’s poverty line, 1.7 million people with less than a dollar a day spend 40 cents on this bread daily and suffer from obesity and other health problems. We have now introduced 5,000 bakeries that will run on renewables. We will eliminate all sugar from the bread, substitute it with mango seeds and produce a highly nutritious, affordable bread. This is recovery, where we start with this poor daily staple and push forward to transform the city? The bread industry in Johannesburg is worth 340 million dollars a year. Now, 340 million dollars is not going into the hands of 2 industrialists anymore but into the community where it circulates. A multiplier effect of factor 7 means that if money comes into the local economy, it stays there and grows the region. So an economy that lives on $1 a day now has $2.5 billion coming into it just from one small shift, they are spending less money on taxis to the two bakeries which means they now have 80 cents available in hand. We are redesigning the urban tissue by starting with what everyone needs to survive and tweaking it. Once that happens, the opportunities are endless.

Maya is a social researcher by training. Her writing has appeared in YourStory and The Alternative. She is the Founding Editor of Eartha and tweets @Maya_Kilpadi.