The Blue Economy

Gunter Pauli: The Blue Economy, Paradigm Publications, 2010, 308 pages. ISBN 978-0912111902.

This is one of those books I have mixed views about it. The subject of the book could not be more relevant: how do we create a more sustainable world, one where we all have decent lives but live within the limits of our planet, protecting the planet's resources and all its diversity for many generations to come.

Gunter Pauli has an in-debt knowledge of how the planet's eco systems work and he wants to create an economy inspired by how nature works, using nature's techniques in our production, consumption and waste disposal. Nature has in fact no waste as all nutrients and energy cascade down for different users. So, according to Pauli, we have to create a society that produces no lasting waste to become a truly sustainable society, where waste from one process becomes a resource for the next process.

What is fascinating about this book is the examples given on how this is possible. 100 examples are given from different parts of the word where people have already started doing it or where research has been done to show it can be done. Some of those examples are truly amazing – like how to use natural silk instead of metals, for shaving for example.

To make sure we have the options of learning from nature we will have to ensure we do not lose biodiversity as we do not know which species might be useful for us to learn from in years to come. At the moment we are losing species at an alarming rate, due to industrial production in agriculture, climate change, population growth, etc. If we continue on this road we are going to lose the human specie as well.

The author of 'The Blue Economy' is making a valid critique of our existing economic model with the exhausting of our limited resources, a billion people who do not have enough to eat, two billion people who do not have access to clean water, loss of talent and dignity to millions of people due to unemployment – particularly among the young. The 2008 banking crises resulting in a global recession created an additional 50 million unemployed in the developing world. The list goes on.

Gunter Pauli also has a broad knowledge of how private businesses work. His critique of the mainstream business schools for not thinking outside the box and only interested in growth/profit makes him look for an agent of change. He sees (mainly young) business entrepreneurs – with the help of scientists – as the agent for change, a process that can create millions of jobs by learning from nature, creating long term sustainable societies – and a sustainable planet.

This is possible because new companies will be using less resources (energy, water, metals, etc), creating cheaper products, which in turn will create more profit for the shareholders without damaging the planet. To quote Pauli: “If you have a good idea you will always be able to find investors willing to finance the implementation of the idea – to products that can sell at the market.”

So Pauli accepts the law of the market, where private investors decide what should be produced based on good ideas by visionary entrepreneurs and research scientists – and what will give them a good return on their investments. Throughout the book you find constant appeals to the big international corporations that they should just wake up and see the enormous business opportunities in providing sustainable products.

This is where some of the shortcomings of the book become apparent. On page 236 Pauli gives this valid critique of market leaders: “The current economic model is rather insensitive to any change, not initiated by or not serving the interest of the dominant players themselves. Market leaders with the streamlined production and distribution systems fiercely resist any change that risks the existing processes and revenue streams, including of course bonuses.”

Even if it was possible for new young entrepreneurs to start up sustainable businesses and replace the existing market leaders how long will this take and will it take too long to avoid catastrophic damage to the planet (climate change, etc)? Pauli sees it as a purely business issue and does not talk about politics and the role of governments, let alone the role of social and civic moments (like the Transition Movement). He does not refer to the extensive literature on what is usually called Steady State Economy (Daly, Heinberg, etc).

'The Blue Economy' in a rather polemic way rejects the planned economic model – in the Stalinist bureaucratic form, which is rather easy to shoot down – but does not ask if a truly democratic planned economy is possible. Likewise, the book rejects the green economy in a few sentences – for not having achieved what it wanted, for being dependent on state funding and for only benefiting the rich. This leaves us with the market economy, which for a lot of people has not proved to be such a successful model either.

No one (except North Korea) is today arguing for a Stalinist bureaucratic economy but why not have a democratic economic system to match a political democratic system? Green economy can mean many things: using less energy and resources, producing renewable resources, eating less meat and more local, organic food, developing public transport and reducing car use. If we want to reduce our green house gas emissions fast, governments have a role to play to encourage new production methods (like renewable energy) in the start-up phase – which will make the products cheaper in the longer term. By taxing what we do not want and subsidising what is needed we can make change faster.

Many green economists or steady-state economists would probably say that Pauli's idea of using nature way's of operating is part of the green economy. However, to make an economy work it is not enough to have entrepreneurs with good ideas.

Some of Pauli's examples of how businesses can create several income streams seem to get him carried away a bit. Explaining how gold mines in South Africa could generate an income from bottled water and how some of them could be sold with a gold flake in for the more affluent parts of the market (promoting certain health benefits) one has to ask whether bottled water is really sustainable – even if was not plastic bottles. Explaining how tomatoes can be used to make lipstick with the purpose “to enhance the female beauty” one senses a lack of feminist politics.

However, these shortcomings should not take away the contribution made by Pauli to show how we need nature to make a sustainable economy. Others will have to fill in the gaps on how we get a Steady State Economy.

Finally, some might find Pauli's style of writing inspirational where others might find it slightly evangelical.

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