Industrial Evolution: Local Solutions for a Low Carbon Future
“At some point, someone in America is going to have to make something.”
These obvious yet perhaps revolutionary words come from Industrial Evolution, a wonderful new book by Lyle Estill, an entrepreneur, author, and, dare I say, environmental industrialist. The book’s premise reflects something that we all know but generally ignore: We can’t shop our way to real wealth. To help us move towards a better future, Industrial Evolution provides a manifesto of sorts for a new industrial ethic.
The book revolves around Estill’s company, Piedmont Biofuels, a biodiesel production facility in North Carolina. If Piedmont Biofuels sold only biodiesel, it likely would have failed – along with many of the other biodiesel producers – during the collapse of 2009. But Piedmont survived, in large part because it diversified.
As Estill notes, “When fuel production was down, design-build was booming. When design-build was soft, our research and analytics would sometimes carry the day.” Estill continues, “What we failed to understand at the time, as we were bringing our chemical plant to life, was that we were imitating nature, and accidentally diversifying.”
Diversification went much beyond the many facets and faucets of biodiesel production. In fact, much of Industrial Evolution describes how Piedmont became the anchor tenant in an eco-industrial park where the co-products of one business became the feedstock of another. To the extent possible, there was no waste. It was an industrial ecosystem made up of pipes, plants, people and more. Everyone had to survive and flourish together, so that’s what they did.
At its heart, the ethic of Industrial Evolution is about people and how they matter. Much of the value in the Piedmont Biofuels model concerns building relationships and a shared vision of society.
“People just want to have a say in how they can govern their own lives,” Estill writes. Earlier on he notes, “It’s not about the gallons. It’s not about the fuel. It’s about people.” The people of Industrial Evolution are of course not all the same, and Estill devotes some time to candidly describing their differences. For example, a chapter on local food potlucks humorously describes a dispute between the vegans, who want everything to be properly labelled, and the meat eaters, who would be perfectly happy to hammer a sign on the front lawn that reads “Vegan option.”
Human welfare is just as important as an end-goal for a new industrial ethic, and Industrial Evolution shows how critical the human aspect is to the success or failure of a business or way of life. Estill is poignant when describing the impact of the death of his brother Mark, both on the people of Piedmont Biofuels and the success of the operation itself. In general, the plant would not have flourished without the collective sharing and sacrifice by all those involved.
To appreciate Industrial Evolution, it helps to know a little about Estill. As noted early in the book, he is an industrialist who believes in production. He wants to reclaim the word “industry,” which has literally been outsourced. Likewise, Estill notes that he is not an activist. Chaining himself to a barricade to stop a bulldozer would not be high on his priority list, he writes, especially if he may have been the one who ordered the bulldozer in the first place. And yet Estill believes firmly in sustainability, people and values, and he istrying to outline a new ethic both in prose and practice. While I don’t believe this means Estill embodies a contradiction, I do believe it lends him a unique perspective on issues of sustainability.
A key part of any business story is its success, and Estill is upfront about the financial difficulties Piedmont faced. “We were fuelling ourselves. We were feeding ourselves. But we were having trouble financing ourselves,” he writes. However, financial performance is “but one measure of a company. As a place, and as a culture, and by almost any other measure, Piedmont was doing wonderfully.” Estill’s preferred metric for success is the five-pointed star of genuine wealth described in Mark Anielski’s 2007 book, The Economics of Happiness.
Ideally, being virtuous also helps pay the bills. In Industrial Evolution, Estill describes how Piedmont developed the concept of open-source biodiesel, which is predicated upon a belief that freely sharing information is right and just. Being open-sourced ended up helping Piedmont financially, as it received several grants from the public and governments.
While Industrial Evolution is an uplifting story about a group of people who found a way to succeed living by the life they thought they should live, its message runs much deeper. The challenges that Piedmont faces are much more than the next financial statement. They cut to the heart of some critical issues facing America and the world, such as climate change, peak oil and local self-reliance. While Estill doesn’t provide a full solution for these challenges, I for one am grateful he is at the frontline, standing tall.
Industrial Evolution: Local Solutions for a Low Carbon Future, Lyle Estill, Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2011, 224 pages
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