Gunter Pauli is the founder of Zero Emissions Research & Initiatives (ZERI), a global network of creative minds seeking solutions to world challenges. He visited High Tech High a few years ago and discussed his work, ranging from re-growing rainforests in Brazil to publishing fables in multiple languages to teach kids about sustainability and systems thinking.
He spoke recently by phone with Cady Staff of UnBoxed about our interconnected world and how schools can empower youth to find innovative solutions to tough problems.
Could you tell me about ZERI and how you got started?
I am an entrepreneur, so I started several companies. My detergent company was extremely successful, and so I created the biggest ecological factory ever. Then I realized that in order to make my biodegradable soaps in my biodegradable factory, I was using palm oil. I was generating so much demand for palm oil that many countries started logging rain forests to plant palm trees. So I said, “Oh no, I don’t want that.” How could I try to clean up the rivers in Europe while destroying rain forests in South America and Indonesia? I said, “No, no, this ain’t right. We just can’t tolerate any collateral damage, unintended consequences. We have to focus on creating businesses that are just doing good.” And that’s how I came up with the concept of zero waste and zero emissions.
The concept means that everything has to be used, nothing can be wasted, and everything has to be thought through. And when I started doing it, I realized that we could do so much more with what we have. For example, there are sugars that are waste from the pharmaceutical industry. These sugars are dumped, and I could use them as a cleaning product. I never thought that sugars could clean well, but science has proved me wrong. It’s that kind of thinking, and being able to go and see that citrus peels have a nice alcohol that also is a great cleaning agent. I just started connecting one thing after the other after the other and said, “Gee whiz, if we were only able to think in a more interconnected way, I’m not only seeing ways to become more sustainable and more green, I’m actually having an enormous opportunity to generate more jobs, to use new technologies, to get new science applied in industry.” So, that’s how I decided to get started with ZERI.
How can we open up this world that you’re talking about to students? What would be your advice to teachers and school leaders about what we can do to promote this interconnected thinking?
My advice is to ask the kids to find solutions. Go for solutions. Say, “Okay, we know that recycling of batteries is a problem. We know that after 25 years of battery recycling, we have not succeeded in getting control of the issue. So, we’re failing.” The car battery—you know, the typical lead battery—we’re recycling 75% of the lead batteries in the world. The 10 billion little batteries that go into cell phones, hearing aids, and pace makers, most of those get discarded and go into landfills, or don’t even reach the landfills. So, when we realize that we’ve got something and we’re not finding the right solution, ask the kids to get to a solution without any of the hypotheses that we consider as the framework of thinking today. Let them get out of the box! And get creative.
Ask kids who are 14 or 16 or 18, in high school today, “Give me the 10 energy sources available to power your cell phone, your i-phone, whatever it is, without a battery.” And I’m convinced that those kids, within three months, will come up with 10 solutions. And then the battery is gone, because it’s out of the question. So, as the teacher, you pose the framework, but you pose it in such a way that they have to get out of the box. And if you have done that three or four years in a row, then as the teacher, you’re going to know all of the possible solutions that no one ever told you, even if you have a doctorate.
The kids will come up with solutions.
They will find them. And then you can experiment with it like we do. We experiment with kids about how to make electricity with banana peels and an eggshell. And you know, when kids know how to make electricity with a banana peel and an egg shell, I guarantee you that nuclear never sounds like a fine solution for them any more. It just doesn’t make sense. And engineers debating about coal-powered fire stations—it just doesn’t make sense. Because, if the kids find 10 solutions, and if they can apply one of those solutions themselves within minutes, this empowers them. This convinces them. They can see how the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, in this day, is powering a cell phone that is powered by your body temperature only. So you just have a little device sticking into your belt, but basically that device is a heat exchanger, and that heat exchanger through radio frequency is powering your cell phone. And when you see that before you, then you wonder, “How come Nokia and Sony and Samsung, how come these guys aren’t doing this? How come we never hear about that?” And that’s the trigger for the kids to get going. That’s the trigger, because that empowers them. The inaction of industry empowers them to translate their creative insights into action.
So to prepare our kids for those future jobs and systems thinking, we should just give them problems and ask them to come up with solutions?
Yeah, don’t teach them anything. Just tell them, “We need you guys to figure it out.”
What is the most surprising lesson you’ve learned through working with ZERI?
The biggest surprise is that it is a job generation machine. It generates jobs like I could never have imagined. And not just thousands of jobs; it’s 100 million jobs. I’m bringing out a book next year and I’m describing how we generate 100 million jobs. I never thought about it. I never saw it. It’s only when I started connecting and adding the numbers—gee whiz, 100 million jobs! It sounds like what we need in this time of crisis. And they’re jobs that require children and students to study things that we don’t teach them.
I’ll give you a concrete example. If we looked today at any type of small electronic device, we take it for granted that there is a battery. Here, I find so many examples of ways we can actually power small electric devices without a battery. I’m Professor of Design at the Faculty of Architecture in Turin. If I throw in front of my students the option that now you design a hearing aid, now you design an i-pod, now you design a cell phone, but it has no battery. I mean, the whole machine looks totally different. It’s much lighter. The whole pollution is gone. We are eliminating pollution. We’re eliminating mining. So, I mean, it’s time we close down the mining schools, the schools that teach you how to dig mines. It’s about time that we learn how to convert half a degree of temperature difference into an electric current.
We identify more than 10 different types of energy sources that all can be converted. For example, I can talk into my cell phone and the pressure from my voice is generating electricity. This all sounds like science fiction, like this would be for Iron Man or Spider Man or any of those, but the fact is that the prototypes already exist and they’re cheaper. So, this is the surprise and I think that’s the great thing about it. Once you eliminate certain things, once you become unconditional on some of these subjects—like when you say, “No battery!”—then you are saying, “Go for it!” But who in the electronics industry has this know-how? Who has that core competence? What we’re realizing is that people don’t have this core competence. You go inside Apple and Apple will say, “Well, you know, we need to have the lithium batteries with polymers.” And I go in and say, “No guys, no batteries.” They think I’m not for real.
It’s not that I want to upset the people who know how to make lithium batteries with polymers and who consider this to be the innovation, the green solution, of the century. I’m saying instead of having a toxic solution that becomes greener, I have a totally different solution. It’s not about a battery being replaced with a greener battery; it’s about a battery being replaced with no battery. And that kind of thinking is a real rupture in technology. And that is the type of thinking, when I talk to young people, be it in high school or university, that spurs them on. Because they say, “Wow, if that’s possible and no one is doing it, well, I’m going to do that.”
What’s your favorite ZERI project so far?
Oh, I have so many favorites. If you go online and look at EQUATOR Coffee, there you’ll see one of my favorite projects, which is about coffee and orphans in Zimbabwe. We’re re-launching the import of Zimbabwean coffee to America, in spite of the boycott against Mugabe. I think if you look at that, it is very inspiring. It shows how it is possible to re-launch an export of a crop, and how it becomes a cash crop. The waste from the coffee farm is used to grow shitake and other mushrooms and the availability of food eliminates the abuse of the girls, who were abused because they needed scarce water and food to work. With adequate food available, they are much less vulnerable to abuse; and if they don’t get abused, there’s no sex trade; and if there’s no sex trade, then you stop AIDS. And I think that empowers a consumer: you can buy your $8.00/pound coffee and you actually succeed in helping to stop AIDS. Then, you see how a system really works.
How would you define project success?
Success is when the kids upset the parents. Upsetting meaning that parents don’t understand. When parents are saying, “What are they doing? How is it ever possible to do it without a battery? What teacher is this polluting your mind? It’s science fiction. It’s not reality.” And the kids are saying, “No, no, no, mom. It is reality.” Mom says, “How can I make food out of coffee waste?” The kids respond, “Well, we can do that. You absolutely can do that, mom. You can generate, actually, great shitake mushrooms out of it.” And Mom says, “What do you mean shitake out of coffee waste? That doesn’t make any sense.”
So, it’s that level of discomfort that will really help everyone to frame the new thinking. And that’s what we need to do. And the new thinking exudes a high emotional intelligence in the sense that children feel that they are empowered and they have the capacity to change the future. And that, to me, is success. Success is a high level of discomfort and questioning and not understanding by the parents and a high level of emotional intelligence of the kids, feeling that they know how to do it. They’re confident. They’re not confident because they know how to do the latest computer game. They’re confident because they know how to change consumption and production systems.
And this is a very powerful new generation, when you can really look at waste that is existing all around and you can show that this is not the way forward. But, at the same time, instead of focusing on simply recycling the material, you can also formulate solutions. What are the other options? What can we do with this? How can we do it?
To learn more about ZERI and Gunter Pauli’s work, visit http://www.zeri.org