Are You Ready for the Post-Industrial World?

Last Updated Jun 25, 2008 2:06 PM EDT

book_cover.jpgThe Industrial Revolution was a bubble, and it's in the process of bursting. Smart business managers will get out before it does. That means figuring out how to take your business post-industrial, by making it green.

So let's replace one bubble with the other, eh?

First, it's audacious to suggest that the Industrial Revolution is a bubble. Yet that is the premise of "The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World." They argue that the Industrial Revolution has just been a very long bubble, and its end is coming -- that is, the problems that stem from the use of fossil fuel show that we can no longer sustain an industrial way of life.

Audacity got my attention, and so I read The Next Industrial Imperative, an article adapted from the book for strategy+business magazine (registration required). Let me be clear, too, that they are not saying post-industrial means a return to the agrarian, (though it takes them a while to get there):

Moving beyond the bubble does not mean returning to a pre-industrial way of life. But it does mean making choices that reflect very different beliefs, assumptions, and guiding principles. In nature, for example, there is one main source of energy: solar radiation. By contrast, 90 percent or more of the energy used within the industrial age bubble comes from burning fossil fuels. Moving beyond the bubble means learning to live within our "energy income," and relying on forms of energy, such as solar, wind, tidal, and plant-based energy, that come from renewable sources. Nature produces no waste: every by-product of one natural system is a nutrient for another. The industrial age bubble generates enormous amounts of waste. In a post-bubble world, everything -- cars, cell phones, office buildings, appliances -- must be 100 percent recyclable, remanufacturable, or compostable.
There are hopeful examples in the article, like General Mills figuring out a profitable use for the oat hulls left over when Cheerios are made, or how Sweden is making impressive strides towards oil independence. These show that creative thinking and individual resolve can make a difference, even in big companies.

Nobody talks numbers, however. What's it going to cost to make *everything* sustainable -- and is that even possible, since pre-Industrial humans also had junk? How much did it cost these pioneering firms? What returns have they actually received on their green investments?

Without the numbers this argument is a more extreme version of one made by McKinsey earlier this year, which said it was simply essential for businesses to start going green (see The Three Ways to a Low-Carbon Economy). This one is a bit more fear-mongering. Maybe it's better that in neither case do they talk numbers, but frame going green as a matter of business survival.

But the shape argument gives me pause; I'm a believer that green business practices are of perhaps paramount importance, but when the consultants form a chorus (s+b is published by an arm of Booz Allen Hamilton), I start to wonder about whether green isn't just another color for a bubble.

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.