When you meet Andrea Illy, the chairman and CEO of illycaffè S.p.A., a family coffee business founded in Trieste, Italy, he will tell you that he wants to make the best coffee in the world. However, his focus is far broader than that. In this essay, he explains how alternative energy sources can put human development onto a sustainable path.
We are living in an era of global “triple
unsustainability” — economic, social and environmental. The indisputable
evidence is on the front pages every morning: the never-ending aftershocks from
the financial crisis of 2007-2009, events like this year’s North African
rebellions and the now undeniable, acute effects of global warming.
Taken together, it represents a new reality that simply
can’t be wished away — a reality of unsolved problems crying out for new and
fundamental solutions, not the same old Band-Aids that only mask the wound.
First, the global economy is on an unsustainable path. It
must necessarily grow. Otherwise, it could not generate the proceeds to pay
back the enormous debts accumulated by most Western countries. Like a plane, if
the economy slows too much, it will stall and crash.
The global GDP growth of recent decades came largely from
demographic growth and productivity increases — themselves products of
globalization and information technology. Along with these came inevitable,
irrational financial exuberance. If we learned anything from recent experience,
perhaps it is to properly recognize and fear bubbles for what they are:
economic illusions that create no real value, but leave behind a mountain of
We can no longer look to population growth for natural
economic growth. Before the end of 2011, there will be seven billion people on
this planet. When I was born 47 years ago, the number stood at less than half
that. In less than five decades — roughly one one-hundred-millionth of the time
earth has existed — humanity doubled its presence. That is staggering, and
almost unthinkable. We can’t keep growing like this, because our planet’s
resources simply cannot support it.
For productivity growth to resume as required, we will
need an entirely new technological revolution. The Russian economist Nikolai
Kondratiev theorized that the economy runs in 54-year-long macro cycles,
characterized by distinct technological eras. The current one is the
information era, which started in the mid-1970s with the boom of the first
commercially viable personal computers.
It peaked with the Internet bubble of the late
1990s/early 2000s, the bursting of which mired us in a “decade of nothing.” If
we buy into Kondratiev’s notions, we have approximately 15 more years of global
economic dependence on information technology, before a new, growth-inducing
technological era begins.
Second, our society is on an unsustainable path because
of uncontrolled demographic growth. Ethology, the science of animal behavior,
holds that the higher the density of a population, the more selfish and
aggressive its members’ behavior.
As logic would suggest, the reality of finite resources,
noted earlier, is a driving force. Moreover, the mass urbanization that has
come with (and to a degree, helped perpetuate) the past half-century’s
population explosion amplifies the effects of increasingly frequent economic
crises, and of ongoing climate change.
Finally, the environment is on an unsustainable path
because our economy is based on combustion. Most of our consumption involves
fossil fuel combustion, directly or indirectly. It doesn’t start and end with
fueling our cars, heating our homes or even running our factories.
Over millions of years, the earth adapted to sequester
carbon in its solid state, because in gaseous form, carbon is a greenhouse gas
that prevents life from developing. The process naturally occurs through the
carbon cycle — underground as gas, oil or coal, and above ground as vegetation.
However, our explosive demographic growth and addiction
to fossil fuels have, over mere decades, conspired to transform carbon back
into the treacherous gas that took the earth millennia or more to fix in a
safe, solid state. The resulting bad news is well documented, in the degradation
of our atmosphere, but also of our forests and oceans, where the carbon cycle
begins. From a purely logical standpoint, global warming is the only outcome
that can ensue, along with all of its negative effects.
So, in order to survive on this planet, humanity has
three huge problems to solve: get rid of fossil fuels, stop the demographic
expansion and introduce a revolutionary technology that can save the economy.
Is there a common denominator? Fortunately, yes. And in that commonality exist
solutions already in our grasp.
Making renewable energies feasible on a mass scale is the
problem technology needs to solve. Simply acknowledging this is a huge first
step, because it guides our search, and even predicts the economic boom that
The introduction of any feasible new technology creates a
"first adoption demand” much bigger than the subsequent "substitution
demand” of the same good. This is how the boom in the initial phase of the
renewable energy cycle will create many jobs and raise disposable income, even
in poor countries. And because population tends to grow inversely with per
capita GDP, demographic growth will slow as well.
The primary renewable energy is solar, which can be used
to produce not just electricity, but also zero-emission fuels like hydrogen,
methane, biofuels and others. There are copious amounts of energy in the sun —
much more than we can consume.
Not only has solar energy been identified as a solution,
but resources have already been directed toward it, and production has already
proven feasible. To accelerate the revolution, we need a bold, coordinated
This opportunity must be presented as one simple, clear
goal for our global community and for global governance. Financing can come
from simply reallocating a portion of the enormous budgets that help sustain
the financial sector. The ensuing value created will be real and lasting.
Unlike the obsessive and misguided focus on financial
“innovation,” this value creation will not be subject to bursting upon a mere
**Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from a talk Mr.
Illy gave at the Bertelsmann Foundation’s 2011 Salzburg Trilogue.