Hot Topics: On Weather, Preppers and the Promise of a “Blue Economy”

It was subtle at first. It stopped getting hotter. It was more comfortable outside at ten in the morning  than it had been eight. Winds began to blow life back into Lake Michigan’s tepid water, sending white-capped waves to shore. Sweaty air dried out. Colors returned. Thought was possible. 

What difference a few degrees and a good breeze can make. A few days ago, electrical transformers lit up the skies like giant Tiki torches here in Chicago. Power outed. Roadways buckled. A bridge collapsed. Tempers flared. Guns blazed. People died.

But the next few days stretch out like a National Geographic dream: highs in the low 80s and lows in the sleep-perfect 60s. That was just a patch of weird weather, right?

Maybe.

Probably not. 

The massive dome of hot air continues to incinerate much of the country, sucking the life out of everything—reservoirs, crops, lawns, savings, dreams—pushing ecosystems to the edge and people to the brink.

The heat magnifies every vulnerability, sparking epic wildfires measured in dozens of square miles, and triggering fast moving "direchos" that hurl hurricane force winds to the horizon and beyond. As drought-ravaged ranchers sell off cattle in record numbers, desperate auto dealers slash prices on hail-dimpled cars. But a cheap steak dinner and a pre-ding’ed ride seems like a pretty thin upside.

Where did all the water go? English streets. Russian resorts. Indian wildlife parks. Thai rice paddies and computer hard drive factories. Medieval Italian hill towns. Pretty much everywhere it’s not wanted, at least in such quantity.

The last few years have shattered records for shattering records. Indeed, there is an app just to keep track. Droughts, floods, snowmageddons, heat waves, cold snaps, ice melts. “Freak” has become the new normal. The climate has tipped. Just ask the insurance companies tallying the bills.

We are past the point where doing less bad is anywhere near good enough:

…(A) thief who steals less will always be considered a thief, whereas a company that reduces pollution by 80 percent is heralded as an environmental success.

Gunter Pauli, founder, ZERI and the Blue Economy 

We map, we monitor, we measure. Yet clever tech-driven insurance schemes to help farmers micro-navigate around wild weather still can’t stop it. This year’s record corn planting in the US is quickly withering into record losses, with global implications. Not even the most super duper of GMO seeds can hack it without rain. Likewise, given the options of Hot and Scorching, how smart does a thermostat—even a lusciously designed one—really need to be?

When the meta system of climate is knocked off its tracks, all bets are off. In news story after news story, reporters wander debris fields, filming neighborhoods of leveled homes, wrecked businesses and mangled towns, invariably comparing the scenes to a war zones. Well, they are. 

Resilience? There is no bouncing back, only onward.

• PREPPERS

If you can’t fix it, prepare for it. Survivalism has gone mainstream, the focus of a new  National Geographic reality series with perhaps the most dystopian title in TV history: Doomsday Preppers. NatGeo’s mission has apparently morphed from “inspiring people to care about the planet,” to teaching people how to hang on in the Mad Max era. So man up, whales. You’ll have to save yourselves…

Learn how to stir-fry crickets, dig a spiderhole, power a car on wood, forage for plant-based medicines and shoot the heck out of anybody who gets in the way! One unusually hopeful prepper has even amassed his own private seed bank with 11,000 seeds.

The companion website includes a special feature called "The Doomsday Dashboard"  that tracks social media trends of doom and gloom. It’s a bit like watching a car wreck, only on a planetary scale: You can’t help looking.

The Doomsday Preppers are ready for a variety of cataclysmic disasters that could mean the end of the world as we know it. But which end-of-the-world scenario are we all really worried about? Using Twitter, we are mining the chatter to see what is at the forefront of the public’s collective consciousness. Will it be a megaquake, economic collapse, global pandemic, a 2012 cataclysm, nuclear war, solar-flare-induced power failures, or an extreme oil crisis that leads to the unraveling of society? Check back to see what the masses are saying, and see which catastrophe is on top of the Doomsday Dashboard.

• OR…

For those of us who prefer not to dress in camouflage or dream of a future spent bartering for shelf stable sour cream (there really is such a thing), serial entrepreneur Gunter Pauli’s ideas for a “Blue Economy” offers some hope. For Pauli, founder of the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI), the answers are, zen-ishly, in the questions. Too much atmospheric CO2? That’s an opportunity! In what can CO2 be used as an input to create something useful that generates jobs and revenue?

Inputs and outputs, virtuous spirals, biosystems thinking and business: Nature doesn’t  waste anything, so why do we?

Ecosystems only work with what they have. … And so I started to criticize my own green economy of which I was a part. I realized that green energy depends on subsidies and those organic products cost more money. And that means if we were ever to succeed, it was going to be for the rich and the few and not for everyone on this earth…

So I imagined the Blue Economy. An economy where we innovate, where we generate more cash flow, where we have more jobs, where we build up social capital and where we deliberately do everything we can to stimulate entrepreneurship.

(Gunter Pauli TEDxFlanders lecture)

Pauli cut his entrepreneurial teeth over twenty years ago with Ecover, a Belgium-based pioneer in biodegradable detergents, but learned—the hard way—that eco-friendliness was really a big picture supply chain issue. Although palm oil biodegraded like an eco-champ, palm oil plantations degraded Indonesian biodiversity. What was good for the rivers of Europe was nailing rainforests and the orangutans who lived there.

These days Pauli looks to the always reliable laws of physics and biomimicry for better answers. He touts the virtues of a cell phone powered by body heat, sound waves and microwind, a filterless water system with vortex-enabled purification, a building that uses a termite-mound inspired design for air exchange and thermal regulation—no AC required. Dozens of ideas are listed on The Blue Economy website.

So what kind of innovations do I want? I want innovations that eliminate the symbols of unsustainable production and consumption, like the 300 billion bottles of Coke we’re going to throw away. Like the 100 tons of titanium from our razors that we’re going to throw into landfills. Like the 40 billion batteries we’re going to do away with, without recycling.

Like the cup of coffee you’re drinking.

…You are only consuming 0.2% of what the farmer produced. 99.8% is wasted and generates methane gas. You never associated coffee drinking with climate change. And what about the shitake mushrooms for all you vegetarians who want to save the animals, but are responsible for the logging of oak trees in China?  We don’t make the connections. We don’t see how the business evolves.

For Pauli, smart businesses dovetail income streams.

We need to imagine businesses that generate multiple cash flows—where the waste from the coffee bean is used to grow the shitake mushroom. And thanks to the caffeine, the shitake will grow three times faster. And with the waste from the shitake, feed the pigs. I have three cash flows. And on top of that I am converting methane gas into CO2, which means I even have a CDM, a Clean Development Mechanism Project on my hands. Four cash flows. We’re in business.

Heeding the lesson of Ecover’s early missteps, Pauli keeps a big picture perspective. Organic cotton, for example, cuts out pesticides, but still drinks up vast amounts of water. The eco-issue is cotton itself:

…Time has come to explore the abundant local resources, and hemp is a first obvious option. Hemp and kenaf along with flax produce quality fibers that last, grow prolific on poor soil and have an appetite for water which is only a fraction of the thirst displayed by cotton. While the processing of hemp, kenaf and flax is still dependent on water, the overall performance is a multiple better. Time has come to create a portfolio of solutions.

Gunter Pauli (“Better Than Organic”)

It turns out we really can have it all because we actually do have it all already. But we have to quit sabotaging ourselves by poisoning the planet, making less from more and finessing outmoded ideas. Business as usual got us into this climate mess. Business smarter than usual might just help us survive it.

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

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