Saturday, April 30, 2016

George P. Mitchell and the Idea of Sustainability

Everyone knows Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Few recognize the name of George P. Mitchell (1919-2013).  However, in a tribute after his death, The Economist said, “few businesspeople have done as much to change the world as George P. Mitchell.” The easiest label is that he was “the father of fracking.” Fracking is news. In fact, Mitchell worked for over 20 years to bring the idea to fruition. Working in the oil and gas industry, he earned billions of dollars building a Fortune 500 company. He also funded research into sustainablility.

I, too, was ignorant of Mitchell’s works until I was given this book by the author. Jurgen Schmandt worked for Mitchell’s Houston Advanced Research Center. Schmandt also served as the director of the Mitchell Center for Sustainable development. This book delivers an insider’s view of the creation and development of an idea both more powerful and having more potential than the oil industry.

The concept of sustainability is not deeply rooted. Like science and constitutional government, hints of sustainability can be found in ancient texts, but the seed really was planted in 1713, as the Age of Reason blossomed into the Enlightenment.  Schmandt credits Hans Carl von Carlowitz with the invention of the word “nachhaltende” in German, i.e., sustainable in English.  He coined the phrases “nachhaltende Nutzung gebe” (sustainable yield) and “nachhaltende Entwicklung” (sustainable development).  Carlowitz was a mining administrator. Mines are shored with timbers. No hardwood, no mines. And hardwood grows slowly. Carlowitz wrote a book, Sylvicultura Oeconomica.

For 150 years, although forestry and fisheries knew the terms, most of the world was not awakened to the concepts until the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

Schmandt nicely segues from two chapters on the history of sustainability into a third on the Club of Rome. Mitchell supported the Club of Rome and its Limits to Growth thesis with his checkbook.  At the same time, as this book lays out in careful detail, Mitchell sought a business model that would make sustainability profitable. He was partially successful.
Report by the  US Energy Information Agency
George Mitchell, who died on July 26th, was a one-man refutation of the declinist hypothesis. From the 1970s America’s energy industry reconciled itself to apparently inevitable decline. Analysts produced charts to show that its oil and gas were running out. The big oil firms globalised in order to survive. But Mr Mitchell was convinced that immense reserves trapped in shale rock deep beneath the surface could be freed. He spent decades perfecting techniques for unlocking them: injecting high-pressure fluids into the ground to fracture the rock and create pathways for the trapped oil and gas (fracking) and drilling down and then sideways to increase each well’s yield (horizontal drilling).   The result was a revolution.-- The Economist, August 3, 2013 here.

The Woodlands community outside Houston did not mature according to the plans Mitchell envisioned, but it is nonetheless an island of sustainable calm in the permanent sea squall that is Houston.  That perpetual storm is a consequence of two colliding economic fronts: the success of the urban metroplex and the need for developers to offload their true costs as externalities for other people to bear.  Schmandt’s presentation is dispassionate and analytical, an engineer’s report, not a jeremiad.

 And, just as scientific literacy and liberal democracy are far from ubiquitous, so, too has sustainability proved to be a difficult problem. Despite his obvious efficacy with oil and gas, George P. Mitchell never created a business model for sustainability. We have no sustainability industry, but, rather, a myriad of local and personal efforts, most of them  marginally successful.

Mitchell himself was a man of two passions. One of his children called this “the Mitchell paradox” and that is title of Chapter 10.  It was the author’s choice: Chapter 10 could have been Chapter 1. Define the man, then show him to us.  Rather, Schmandt first introduces us to his employer, friend, and mentor. Then he provides the conceptual wrapper. 

Mitchell was not a Luddite. He parted from his ecologist colleagues when he insisted that economic growth and even expansive development may well be appropriate, especially if the billions of people in the less developed regions are to enjoy the prosperity of the Western democracies.  That does not change the fact that Earth is an island. 

Today’s news is dominated by the US Presidential election campaigns and the military campaigns in Syria and Iraq. But underneath them, continuing, and consistent, never to be completely forgotten and often to be a burr in our running shoes, are the problems of sustainable growth.

And, it is one thing to have some few privileged people working in science (as in 1713), but another that (in 2013) millions of people on every continent can recognize the periodic table. Similarly, the quest for sustainability crosses geographical, political, and economic boundaries, encompassing millions of people who can recognize the word, and have both an interest and (most important) an investment in its meaning.

This book is about the man who made that happen.


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