Redirecting Technological Progress: Contribution to Bolsa Amazônia

The global environment is endangered. We are losing some fifty plant and animal species every day. The global climate is beginning to become hotter. Unpredictable changes may hit countries both in the temperate and tropical zones. Theoretically even the sea water table is unstable.

If major parts of the Greenland or Antarctic ice covers were breaking off, the sea water table might rise by some five up to fifty metres, with catastrophic effects on coastal zones world wide.

If we want to stabilise the ecological situation, we should aim at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by some 50 percent. That would roughly suffice to prevent global concentrations from further increasing. Similarly, land conversion, chiefly in the tropical countries should be drastically reduced, at least by 50 percent.

On the other hand, poorer countries have a right to demand a doubling at least of world economic outputs, chiefly to the benefit of the South. Together these statements mean that we have to aim at least at a quadrupling of resource productivity! A factor of four in the increase of resource productivity would allow us to double wealth while halving resource use.

Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use has been the subtitle of a book which I co-authored with the US-American scientists Amory Lovins and his wife Hunter Lovins. The title was “Factor Four”.

Quadrupling resource productivity is an ambitious goal. Thinking it through it means nothing less than redirecting technological progress. In effect, what we are aiming at it the equivalent of what used to be the industrial revolution. For 150 years of industrial progress we have seen a steady increase of labour productivity. In the industrialised countries we have achieved a twentyfold increase in labour productivity since the early 19th Century. Developing countries including Brazil are making every effort to do the same.

Today, however, labour is no longer a scarce factor. According to statistics of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), over 800 million people are unemployed or have only access to marginal work. In this day and age, it somehow doesn’t make much sense for the world economy to go on and maximise robotics and other labour saving technologies while neglecting the really scarce factor of our days, natural resources.

Redirecting technological progress means to switch priorities from labour rationalisation to resource rationalisation.

Factor Four is approaching this challenge by giving practical examples. Fifty examples were collected to prove that a factor of four in resource productivity is surely available. Five hundred more examples could have been found but would have exploded the book. The idea is to encourage engineers and business people to look for further examples within the reach of their speciality.

To illustrate the approach of Factor Four, let me give just a few examples from the book:

  • apartment buildings in cold Germany needing only ten percent of today’s heating energy.
  • tropical houses needing no air conditioners or at least doing with 75 percent less electricity for room cooling.
  • Amory Lovins’ “hypercar” which is designed to use only one-and-a-half litres per hundred kilometres.
  • Replacing an old filing cabinet with a CD-ROM system which not only yields a Factor 10 or thereabouts in material and resource productivity but also allows you much quicker and more convenient data access.
  • Curitiba’s bus system which is roughly a factor of four more resource efficient than the notoriously jammed circulation in cities like Bangkok or Lagos.
  • Dairy products using only ten percent of today’s typical transportation or energy inputs.
  • Technologies e.g. in paper manufacturing saving some 90 percent of the freshwater otherwise used.
  • Business trips replaced by video conferences – saving perhaps 99 percent of the energy.

This last example, however, raises some warnings: once you arrange a video conference, you may even increase the propensity of its participants to go on travel anyway. Nevertheless, in emergency situations e.g. of scarce oil or massive green house effect fears, video conferences are available as an alternative to certain kinds of journeys.

Many of the factor four technologies are profitable today. Also, there is an encouraging experience on the stock markets: companies going for resource efficiency or eco-efficiency tend to fare better on the stock markets than those neglecting it.

Factor four may be the dominant melody for the next phase of technological development. But there are many more options to be considered. In particular, it is important to revaluate some of the virtues of traditional technologies, namely local production and renewable energies and materials, This, I understand, is the chief philosophy of Bolsa Amazônia. Lots of local produce can be harvested from Amazonian forests on a sustainable scheme. If factor four technologies arrive, demand for renewable resources are also kept at reasonably low levels therefore not inducing overexploitation.

To further increase the profitability of the factor four technologies and local products, the frame conditions can be systematically changed. Energy and water ought to be taxed while the taxes and charges on human labour should be reduced. This “ecological tax reform” has been introduced in most EU countries. I don’t see why it shouldn’t work in Brazil as well.

What may be more suggestive for readers of Bolsa Amazônia is that The transition from conventional products to more locally produced products is ecologically desirable as well and may also save energy and wasteful transport worth a factor of four.

Our culture would also greatly benefit from switching to local products and factor four technologies.

Developing countries are even more than highly industrialised countries on the winning side of the indicated technological revolution. To most of the developing countries, the import of oil or the construction of new power plant is very uncomfortably expensive and typically leads to even higher indebtedness. Factor four technologies could come as a very welcome relief.

It is my hope that Bolsa Amazônia will play a major role in disseminating such new ideas, l with a view to help preserve the unique treasures, both cultural and ecological of the Amazon region.