February 15, 2011

A Blue Economy


I stumbled upon a quote by Jonas Salk (in a TED lecture by Ken Robinson):
"If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish."
It should give us many moments to pause. Picking up where I left last week with the story of my self-created environmental hero, I want to push onward. The most depressing aspect of the global warming scenario we were given by our teacher in middle school was that we felt utterly helpless. And I, as noted in my essay from that time, felt an intense sense of self-loathing - or human loathing. Human beings only seemed to know how to take, take, and take - like narcissistic children.

We recycle, drive a hybrid car, support WWF to save some tigers, and give aid to poor countries. But it seems to be a Sisyphean task. We are putting out fires ten places while a thousand more are starting. A symptomatic treatment of environmental problems is insufficient - a systemic approach is clearly needed. We, human beings, basically need to reinvent our societies and ourselves.

Luckily, there are plenty of great actors and inventors out there, modeling interesting futures for all of us. Gunter Pauli is one such inspirational pathfinder. He proposes the Blue Economy as a new path.

But before we come to the Blue Economy, let's retrace our steps through the Red and the Green Economies. Pauli refers to the currently dominating corporate economy as the Red Economy. It is an economy based on what is taught in business schools around the world: to structure human relations in corporations to maximize (corporate) profit - the mantra being core business, core competence, and a never-ending growth of profit margin. It gives the corporations a license to disregard the world and operate as they please to maximize their own ends. The Red Economy is disconnected from the natural environment and haunted by externalities like waste, pollution and destruction of natural habitat and human societies.

As a young businessman Gunter was set on changing this business model to something more benign. He was going to front the Green Economy - an economy that would pollute less and produce less waste. He founded Ecover in the early 90s - it quickly became a leading manufacturer of ecological cleaning and washing products. In addition to produce ecological products, Pauli and his team created a "green factory" out of recycled material in which energy use was minimized, employees were rewarded for car-pooling, etc.
                     However, Pauli soon realized that although the products Ecover were producing might be biodegradable - it was a far cry from being a sustainable business. The main reason for this being that the core ingredient of the products (fatty acids) is derived from palm oil. The global market for cheap palm oil is a major driver of rain forest destruction and, thus most famously, the killing off of orangutans. He realized that business would have to do better. A Green Economy might pollute less or produce less waste - but it still might have a cancer in the system, he concluded. And - his famous analogy - can one say that a thief is good when he steals less? Polluting less is still polluting; killing less is still killing. Doing less bad is still bad, he concludes - and doing bad should be done away with, altogether.

If we teach a person how to fish, in the current economic model, he will OVERFISH. 

Luckily Pauli did not give up. He refused to believe that humans necessarily had to live like parasites on the earth. It is not evil that besets the human race, he concluded, it is ignorance:

We are not the bad people on the earth; we are the ignorant people on the earth. We are recent arrivals on this planet and we are just learning how to behave. But we are still elephants in a porcelain store. We swing around and our tail knocks everything over - and we didn't realize it. So what we need to do is to start connecting to how life exists on earth. Because when we realize how it connects, we can connect again. Today we are disconnected. The challenge that we have is that we have to start connecting. 
                                                           From Gunter Pauli's TEDxTalk in Budapest, 2010

So how to connect to our natural environments? Look to nature.
                The Blue Economy is an economy based the logic of natural systems.  It goes beyond preservation of the environment and engages regeneration. In an economic system that emulates ecosystems we will not see unemployment due to inexperience, young or old age, or handicap. Everybody will contribute at the level of their ability. All human potential will be engaged in a symbiotic relationship with the earth. Not only is it a viable system, it is more satisfying, challenging and interesting one. A Blue Economy will be without waste as whatever "waste" is produced will be food for some part of the system.
              A Blue Economy is an economy where the system is much more important than a few, "exceptional" individuals. Everybody can be creative entrepreneurs in an economy that has plenty of resources for all.

...the Blue Economy is about ensuring that ecosystems can maintain their evolutionary path so that all can benefit from nature's endless flow of creativity, adaption, and abundance. It is the young at heart who will seize upon the entrepreneurial opportunities that emulate ecosystems and cascade energy and resources to add value and generate multiple exchange benefits, translating them into income and employment.
                                                           Gunter Pauli, The Blue Economy

Here is one small example of two business graduates who decided not to go into the corporate world, but to create a mushroom business on coffee waste. Their company, Back to the Roots, has won several awards and is an inspirational example of how one can build a business upon blue economic principles.

On Gunter Pauli's websites www.blueeconomy.de and www.zeri.org there are plenty of examples for entrepreneurs. You can also sign up for newsletters and receive Blue Innovation Ideas every two weeks. 

For a short introduction to the Blue Economy, have a look:

Here is a video of Gunter at TEDxTokyo in 2009 where he goes more in depth on what the Blue Economy is about:

In the future I will share more of these inspirational examples here on this blog.


  1. This is the third time I try to post a comment...Lets see now.
    I would only like to say: Thank you for sharing your knowledge about the Blue Economy with us. Thank you again. I´m looking forward to learn more.xxx

  2. My dear reader. Thank you so much for your comment. I am so happy to see that there are people reading my blog; I really like so share and now I know somebody is reading! Jai Hos!