The Blue Economy: The Only Sustainable Option?

It’s no secret that our Earth is moving towards an environmental catastrophe. Many of us try to effect change locally in our own communities, but more powerful forces are at work. Forces that put economic gain before the health of our planet.

Let’s not lie to ourselves: this Aggressive consumerismbeautiful planet of ours is run by the forces of the market economy. Any business student can blurt out the mantra: you have to compete in the global market, produce at the lowest marginal cost, sell at the maximum possible price, focus on core competences, seek economies of scale, and destroy competitors.

The Chicago School of Economics convinced us that the government should not interfere in this perfect dance of the market. Later, marketing geniuses invented the concepts of Corporate Social Responsibility and the triple bottom line in full cost accounting; all to sell the idea that even a company which destroys moorland and forest reserves can also be good, so long as they give a little to charity.

What’s the end result of these decades of ‘economic growth’? Millions of people leaving their rural communities and moving to city slums, mass unemployment (from Colombia to Morocco), an inequity that hits us daily at every traffic light, a cult of consumerism that has created unprecedented debt, and record-breaking destruction of our natural resources. Are there still people who think this system is working?

There is, however, a new economic model breaking ground in our globalized world: the Blue Economy. Apart from proposing a radical break with the green movement, it provides a completely different perspective on the struggle for sustainability.The great green paradox declares that what is good for us and the environment is very expensive, while what is bad for us and our environment is cheap (think about sodas vs. natural juices).

Under the Blue Economy model, the idea is not to try to reduce or solve pollution after the ecological damage has been done. On the contrary, it aims to redefine the concept of waste via a self-sufficient and dynamic approach. It also aims to prevent the use of materials which can only be used once, including oil.

We’ve already seen many successes from the Blue Economy. From using coffee grounds to grow mushrooms at home (remember that in our morning cup of coffee we use only 0.2% of the actual product); to using hot water, which is normally wasted in beer production, for fish farming; to large crops of algae fed with carbon dioxide, already being generated in megafactories. Experts say this algae could become the ‘super-food’ of the future, thanks to its high content of spirulina (a nutritious high-protein food supplement).

The Blue Economy is based on the power of entrepreneurship and local creativity. It seeks to break the rules we have given the system of global competition, to convert industries considered non-competitive by the standards of the market economy into viable models which preserve our world. This involves the creation of new systems made from existing
resources in our local communities. By changing our concept of waste and resource use as complementary processes, it aims to generate multiple revenue streams which can ensure a low price for what is good, and to deliver what is vital, as free.

I had the opportunity to meet the leader of this movement during a recent trip to Hungary. Although born in Belgium and living in South Africa, this entrepreneurial genius is close to Colombia through some family ties and his work at the world famous Gaviotas Experimental Centre. Find out more about Gunter Pauli and his foundation, sponsored by the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) in Tokyo, at www.zeri.org

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 16 July 2012. Image: Flickr / Burtonwood & Holmes. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.

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