A genuine path to save the economy, the planet, and the president
With jobs and the economy still weak less than 60 days before the election, President Obama is still pinning his hopes on the prospect of renewable energy and clean technologies to generate "green jobs."
That's important, but the president may be overlooking the technology family that can create more jobs and drive more sustainable growth than any other: information and communications technologies (ICT).
Clean technology is the latest investment obsession among opportunity-hungry venture capitalists. But most of the money now being spent to drive renewable energy technologies comes straight from American taxpayers, courtesy of the Department of Energy. Maybe those investments will pay off in a generation, and maybe they won't. But it would be collective suicide for us to rely on them, when proven green economy-boosting technologies are right in our pockets, literally.
Electronics, computers, advanced materials, and information-packed products and processes are the real deal -- the clean technologies that can play the biggest role now, and for generations to come, to drive growth, jobs, prosperity, and sustainability at once.
Today's innovation-driven economy -- the penetration of microchips and electronics into every industry and mass market -- was triggered in part by the two energy crises of the 1970s. High energy prices helped power the biggest growth in the history of the electronics industry, because electronics are a substitute for expensive energy and resources.
Everyone knows what happens as electronics and other high technologies enter the economy: things get smaller, smarter, cheaper, better, and more resource efficient. Today's microchips are as much as 100 million times as efficient as those made in 1960. Experimental new microchips are up to 100 times as efficient as today's.
When those chips and other electronics products are embedded in industrial products, appliances and cars and buildings become as much as one-third more resource efficient.
And when we overthrow those industrial-era products with the pure products of the information age, resource productivity can skyrocket. Email is 10 to 100 times as efficient as snail mail. Telecommuting and telemeeting can be 100 or 1000 times as efficient as meeting in person.
And it's not true that you can't eat or drive ICT: information technology has enabled continuous gains in productivity in the agricultural, manufacturing, transportation, and building sectors, delivering more food, housing, and miles on less energy, water, and work.
The world needs those efficiency leaps. Last century, cheap fossil fuels helped drive a 40-fold increase in U.S. labor productivity, and ultimately delivered prosperity to 600 million of the planet's six billion people. This century, we need a new productivity revolution: a ten-fold leap in resource productivity, the amount of economic value we derive from every unit of fuel or material we use. That's the gain many scientists say we will need to support today's affluent, and the three billion in China, India, Iraq, Iran, and the developing world on their path to prosperity, while turning down the furnace of global warming.
Scientists like James Lovelock think we are already too late. In his book, The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock says that "We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of [CO2] emissions. The worst will happen ..." By 2050, according to Lovelock, Europe's temperatures will climb 8 degrees Celsius, and the Arctic ice cap will be gone. Tropical rainforests will dry up by 2100, much of today's arable land will be barren, and territory that today is home to billions will be under the ocean.
Innovation can help us cheat that fate, by radically reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions, while providing sustainable prosperity for billions.
Imagine a world that takes full advantage of the potential of high technology to generate radical gains in resource productivity. In our book What We Learned in the Rainforest, former Mitsubishi CEO Tachi Kiuchi and I describe how in a generation today's Internet could evolve into a vastly richer global "infosphere," a virtual gathering place that could network billions of people together, to share ideas, educate people, trade resources, develop relationships, and integrate cultures. Physical consumption in such a wired world could be much lower than in today's. Billions could be prosperous, using a fraction of the resources required today.
In the decade after the first energy crises, microchips and advanced technologies broke the decades-old "iron law" that welded energy use to per capita GDP. In less than a generation, we cut U.S. energy and materials intensity -- the amount we use per unit of GDP -- by about one-third. That saved the equivalent of about 15 million barrels of oil a day, creating global excess capacity in oil production that sent prices falling.
Today -- now that we have squandered our gains and resumed our profligate waste -- we have brought on new energy crises, masquerading as terrorism, war, insecurity, climate instability, oil spills, coal disasters, and economic meltdown. What are these feedback signals telling us to do?
It's not hard to figure out. We need to drive down our reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels. The first step is to put a price on carbon -- just the marketplace signal we need to drive a more robust ICT sector.
ICT is no panacea. Today's technologies are still dependent on yesterday's industrial technologies. Their mining tailings are strewn over Africa, as are the human rights abuses that accompany the extraction of key materials like Coltan. Their waste is largely shipped to places like China, where they impose hardship on peasants who work to extract increments of value from them, placing themselves at risk.
Those challenges are real. But they can be dealt with, with smart systems to drive resource efficiency, reveal and eliminate abuses in the supply chain, and recycle - objectives possible largely through the use of ICT itself.
To drive a green, job-rich, prosperous economy, there is a grand coalition lying in wait: between the conservatives who rightly fear our dependence on Middle East oil, the environmentalists who seek to prevent global warming, and the electronics, high tech, and venture capital leaders who see business opportunity in innovation.
Republicans Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, the retired tech executives now seeking to be California's next governor and senator, are doing Californians no favors by siding with Valero Oil to seek to roll back the state's environmental standards under proposed Proposition 23. High tech executives should know better. But Democrats Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer will do us no favors either, if they mouth the president's confidence in the green jobs of the distant future. Both parties need to agree: today's high technologies can simultaneous drive down our carbon emissions, and drive up our economic prosperity, by 2% to 3% every year -- if we focus on them. ICT can power a revolution in resource productivity that can enable peace and sustainable prosperity for the world's rising billions, and for us.