Peak Stuff?

04/05/2011 02:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2011

Oxford, England -- Once again it has been helpful to escape the bubble in which the U.S. media encases us. Here at the Skoll World Forum, most conversations begin with the absolute certainty that the future must look, not marginally, but fundamentally different from the present. The British counterpart to U.S. independent auto innovators like Edison 2 and Tesla (in its earlier days) is Riversimple.

Unlike Tesla, Riversimple is focusing on fuel cells rather than electric batteries charged from the grid. Like Israeli electric car manufacturer Shai Agassi of Better Place, Riversimple wants to remake the current business model, in which the customer owns everything except the fuel. But where Agassi would simply lease the battery, Riversimple would turn the entire car into a service model.

Riversimple's strategy is based on a belief that with peak oil you can't modernize cars incrementally -- you need transformative change. That change must deal with the reality that, although resource/oil-intensive vehicles may have a very low purchase price, we can't afford to operate them. But innovative solutions, if conventionally marketed, will cost too much to take over the market. And that is why a different ownership model is necessary. (Indeed, one of the major cost components of the lithium ion batteries being used by the Nissan Leaf is an overbuilding of the battery to meet the current 40,000-mile warranty of power trains -- when no one really knows how long these batteries will last.)

But as I listen to the presentations about the effectiveness of social entrepreneurship at bringing hundreds of millions and, eventually, billions of the world's poor into the consumer marketplace, it's chillingly clear that the real issue is not peak oil -- it's peak stuff. No, there isn't enough oil. But the world also doesn't contain enough coal, copper, steel, or wood to enable India, China, Asia, and Africa to develop even European standards of consumption and waste. At least not with current approaches, which assume abundant natural resources combined with only a modicum of brain. Instead, we'll need a lot more brain combined with the right soupçon of natural resources. Edison2's emphasis on an ultralight but strong vehicle, for instance, has a huge virtue: For any given capacity, a vehicle will weigh only a third as much -- and use not only a third as much fuel but also a third as much steel, plastic, copper, and rare earths.

So we've reached a point where we really needn't worry about what will happen if China, India, and Africa emulate the U.S. model and attempt to achieve our level of consumption -- it just can't happen. What we ought to worry about instead is how the U.S., with the world's biggest investment in doing things the wasteful old way, expects to keep up in a new world that relies on innovation and resource efficiency rather than resource intensity.

It's interesting that Greg Barker, the Conservative British government's Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change, proudly talks about efficiency as the centerpiece of Britain's industrial strategy and promises a Britain where every building constructed after 2015 will have zero net carbon emissions!  Even more interesting was what South Carolina Republican senator Lindsay Graham said of Barker's approach: "It is the boldest, most business-friendly, aggressive energy climate policy anywhere on the planet, and there is a lot to learn on our side of the pond about what they are doing."

It would be spectacular if Graham could assemble a cohort of Republicans who were willing to learn Britain's lessons -- which prominently include no subsidies for nuclear power.