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Articles etc./Redefining technological progress

James Robertson

Review of Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use by Ernst von Weizsacker, Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins (Earthscan, London, 1997, 358 pages, hardback) - £15.99. Futures - Vol 29, No 9 (1997).

The authors of this report to the Club of Rome are leading lights in the worldwide movement for sustainable development.

Ernst von Weizsacker is President of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Germany. Amory and Hunter Lovins head the Rocky Mountain Institute (in Colorado), which they founded in 1982 with a mission to foster the efficient and sustainable use of resources as a path to global security.

Factor Four offers an authoritative account of the part to be played by state-of-the-art technologies in the shift which the world's peoples now have to make, from the present, potentially catastrophic path of development to one which can be sustained indefinitely. Its message is that the time has come to change the direction of technological progress - towards greater resource productivity instead of greater labour productivity.

Part One is the longest part of the book. Many engineers and scientists and people in business and finance will find it the most interesting. It contains descriptions of fifty practical and profitable ways of quadrupling resource productivity.

These range through twenty examples of revolutionising energy productivity, including hypercars that could travel across the USA on one tank of fuel; twenty examples of revolutionising material productivity, including efficient use of water in industrial and residential buildings; and ten examples of revolutionising transport productivity, including increased use of video-conferences and electronic mail, new approaches to public transport (as in Curitiba in Brazil), and less transport-intensive patterns of manufacturing and distribution.

A typical example of current practice is the "embarassing, even ludicrous, transport intensivity" of strawberry yoghurt eaten in Germany. A 1993 study by the Wuppertal Institute established that, while the German public enjoyed thinking the yoghourt was produced locally just round the corner, in fact it and its ingredients travelled journeys totalling 3,500 kilometres before reaching consumers.

For countries which have high unemployment and depend on imports of petrol and diesel, it would obviously make sense to reduce the use of transport while increasing the use of labour. But this transition to more local production is unlikely to happen on a significant scale as long as labour remains expensive and transport remains cheap.

Part Two, "Making it Happen: Improving Profitability", takes up this point and calls for a reversal of existing incentive structures. These developed historically to encourage ever fuller use of natural resources in the service of technological progress, largely without regard to improving the efficiency of resource use.

  • There is the simple matter of public subsidies. According to unpublished papers circulating at the World Bank, subsidies totalling some $200 thousand million go into the energy sector alone. $30 thousand million are US federal government subsidies for energy supply. In Germany, France and Britain too, government subsidies rig the market in favour of unsustainable forms of energy supply against energy efficiency and energy conservation.
  • Perverse subsidies are reinforced by perverse tax structures, which penalise employment, incomes, profits, the use of human work and skill, and activities that add value, while favouring energy-intensive and capital-intensive methods of production and distribution, and activities that subtract value by excessive use of natural resources.
  • The fees of all the "people and organisations involved in conceiving, financing, designing, building, commissioning, operating, maintaining, selling, leasing, occupying and renovating buildings, both commercial and residential" are normally based on the cost of the buildings and equipments involved, not on their efficiency. Efforts by designers and architects to improve the resource efficiency of buildings and equipments, and so reduce the costs of constructing and operating them for their owners and occupiers, will normally result in lower fees for themselves.
  • Finally, there are straightforward market failures, exemplified by the story of the little girl who, seeing a £20 note on the pavement, asked her economist grandfather if she could pick it up. "Don't bother, my dear", he said. "If it were real, someone would have picked it up already". Other good stories illustrate the misconceptions of economists about the working of markets.

Parts Three and Four, on "A Sense of Urgency" and "A Brighter Civilisation", discuss the larger context. Part Four includes chapters on "Green Economics", "Trade and the Environment" and "Non-Material Wealth". The last stresses that "satisfaction experienced outside the world of paid employment and outside the money economy" plays a big part in non-material wellbeing.

Undoubtedly, the sustainable society of the future must include both the further development and use of resource-conserving technologies and a bigger place in our lives for activities outside the money economy. But some readers may feel that the brief concluding discussion of the latter sits rather uneasily with the much greater emphasis on the potential financial profitability of the hypercars and other ultra-high technologies of Part One.

Working out the relationship between advanced resource-efficient technologies and an enlarged informal economy, and then developing synergistic policies to encourage both, are tasks that call for further attention.

A more telling criticism, perhaps, is that doubling wealth while halving resource use is an inadequate and misleading aim to propose to the peoples of today's high-consuming, high-polluting, rich countries.

It is now widely accepted that over the next half-century it will be necessary for us to reduce our pollution and resource use, not by half but by about 90% - in order to persuade the peoples of the majority world to accept a shift to sustainable development on something like equal terms - and that whether we shall be able at the same time to double our wealth (as conventionally understood) is very doubtful indeed.

The relevant programme of the Wuppertal Institute itself is called Factor Ten, not Factor Four. But the authors apparently felt that, by presenting the opportunities and attractions of resource efficiency in a less daunting context, they would be more likely to persuade the business, financial, technical and governmental readers to whom the book is mainly addressed, to look seriously at them. Softly, softly, catchee monkey.

In spite of these possible criticisms, Factor Four is an important - and readable - contribution to the sustainable development debate. It deserves to be widely read. I hope it will be.


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