February 21, 2007

Pure vs. Practical and a $25MM Prize

I did a radio interview last week in San Francisco with Pete Wilson (the ABC TV anchor for the 6 o’clock news). We had a broad conversation about the environment in general, but he posed one really interesting question about business. He was musing about how environmentalists tend to want only the greenest solutions — what he called “pure” — and not the “practical” changes that may be more feasible. He basically asked whether business should be practical or pure about greening itself.

My immediate answer was “both.” But that takes some more explaining. I think the often justified fear is that “practical” is just an excuse for re-packaging the status quo or looking only for “end of pipe” technological fixes. “Clean coal” has been a rallying cry in some circles as the only practical solution to our energy challenge. But talking about “clean coal” is ducking the problem if it’s not actually clean (as in no carbon emitted). So am I saying that we should we pursue only the pure solution of renewables? No, we can’t. If there’s a possible technological solution for really capturing carbon from coal, then we should find it — but it has to deliver (it’s practicality with a high bar for success).

Or to take a more fun example, look at Virgin CEO Richard Branson’s recent announcement about a $25 million award for anyone who can take carbon out of the atmosphere (harking back to the prize set in the 1700s for finding a way to measure longitude — a great book on this story here). Now the pure approach would be to criticize Branson (as some have) and say that we shouldn’t put the carbon there in the first place (let’s not even go to the super-pure goal of nobody flying it ain’t gonna happen). But think about Branson’s dilemma. He cares about climate change, but his main business is flying, a mode of transport for which we have no renewable options on the horizon — you can’t put a solar panel on the wings. So if he wants to offset or tackle his contribution to the problem, he needs a way to take it out of the air — it’s actually very practical, but also more creative and fun than planting trees.

What gets complicated in these debates is that the pure, in many cases, is practical. Putting scrubbers at the end of the pipe seems more practical than the pure solution of redesigning the pollutant out of the product or process. But as many companies have found out (and told me during the research for Green to Gold), redesigning actually saved them money. The pure solution was a bit harder, but was actually more practical. In the end, finding the balance between the two is the challenge, and companies should look closely at a problem before deciding which path to take.


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