How do we sustain infinite growth on a finite planet? Expand the planet. In his new book, Planet A, George Nasr offers an illuminating look at four simple keys that can unlock a sustainable path and empower a regenerative economy. Modern civilization is a superorganism. Its systems evolve and adapt to thrive in specific environments. That’s exactly the problem. We often build for the wrong environment. With cheap energy, we force our will on nature and we’ve created an economy with no incentive for sustainability. Now, energy is no longer cheap, and we need to be more nimble, more realistic.
Today, we stand at a crossroads in our development, and the changing climate is the least of our worries. But we could still build our future on a sustainable foundation if we design our systems to regenerate the environment. Our economic ecosystem can add to the planet and to the life around it. And fortunately, the book outlines ways that can move us forward into the regenerative development with sustainable value chains of energy, water, and resources, because together, they can change everything.
Hey listeners. My name is Drew Appelbaum. I’m excited to be here today with George Nasr, author of Planet A: A Practitioner’s Approach to Sustainable Development. George, thank you for joining. Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.
George Nasr: Thank you. It’s pleasure to be there.
Drew Appelbaum: George, help us kick off the podcast and tell us a little bit about yourself. Can you give us a brief rundown of your professional background?
George Nasr: Yeah. I’m initially, I’m a civil engineer. I did a lot of work in construction and ended up doing a lot of work on sustainable development and climate change, consulting with UN organizations. I figured out at some point, I came to this book idea, because a lot of work on hydro politics. It came into sustainable development from the south, a torturous route. That’s my background. I grew up in Lebanon. I was always trying to figure out why people fight each other. I try to look at dynamics behind it all.
Drew Appelbaum: Why was now the time to write this book and share your story?
George Nasr: I was always wanted to write a book about sustainable development, but in a practical way. I started on and off in 2006, writing about it. I figured after I participated at the Paris Climate Change Conference, I figured there was a time to write something that summarizes the whole situation. Especially now with all these crazy things happening, everybody’s afraid of the end of the world happening in 10, 11 years or something like this. So it’s really the time to put some normalcy into the discourse or some common sense, not to say that they have a lot of common sense. I wanted to bring some normalcy to discourse, something quiet, something reasonable.
Drew Appelbaum: When you decided to write this book, who are you writing this book for?
George Nasr: I wrote it for people like me who are in engineering, who are working on development projects, anybody involved in some form of agriculture or construction, development, and everybody is being told now that you have to do something on climate change adaptation. You have to do things that are more sustainable. We hear all these buzzwords, but you don’t know what’s behind them. I wrote that for people like me, myself, but about 20 years ago, working in the field and listening to all these buzzwords and not really knowing what’s behind them. In a way, this is a message to me in the past. You read it, and then start your work.
Defining Sustainable Development
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s set the foundation and what is your definition of sustainable development?
George Nasr: It’s simple, actually. It’s any development. I say the person who says, “I don’t want to eat today and have the future kids go hungry.” Any development that makes sure that we develop today, but to ensure that future generations will also develop. That’s the simple way of looking at it.
Drew Appelbaum: How close are we to attaining that now? Because most of what you hear is that we’re just pulling so much out of the earth and really not giving that much back?
George Nasr: Yeah. I don’t think we’re in so much trouble. My approach is, I look at things much more optimistically. Yes, we always think a lot of things. There are many things that we extract, and we do not put back. However, we always had this worry. We always managed to find a way to make things last longer. To talk about oil, for example, everybody worries that oil is running out. The issue is not that oil is running out, it is that we have resources that are becoming more expensive to exploit. What we need is not to extract less, we just need to be smart about how we extract it and be smart about how we return it to the earth, because we always return it to the earth, you can bring it back in one way or bring it back as pollution. Pollution has effects on the future. That is a way to do things, which affects the future of business. I hope this gives a succinct answer without too much verbiage.
Drew Appelbaum: Are there any industries who are doing it right now?
George Nasr: It’s not industries. It’s specific areas, specific regions who are doing it right. You may see one industry in one country doing it right. In another location, they’re doing it wrong. The ones who are doing it right, in general, across industries are the ones who are working on the local level, who are involved much more in the local community. Even when they have a local visibility, then they tend to make sure everything works well, because they don’t want to hurt the neighbors. The ones who are detached from their operations, the large-scale corporations, they ended up not doing it right, because for any reason that they don’t have visibility at the local level. It’s not their kids, they’re affecting, it’s not their neighbor’s kids. It’s something that’s a number on a spreadsheet, they don’t really get above the rest.
Drew Appelbaum: Do regenerative systems, do they have to be self-sufficient or can one system hold the hand for another system until everything is connected?
George Nasr: It’s a good thing you bring about the regenerative aspect? When we think of sustainable, unfortunately, we’re thinking of things that are closed, that do not grow. I push the idea of regenerative much more because things grow. To answer your question, I’ll just say something, nothing is self-sustained on Earth. We all depend on the sun to provide with the energy. We all are parasites on the plants, who live around us. The plants eat the sunshine, and we eat the plants, in a way. Or the process of the earth, the sun moves many processes around the Earth, and we depend on them. There’s nothing really self-sustainable. We all depend on outside sources of energy from the sun, directly or indirectly.
What we need to look at is our output should be the waste from one product, as you said hold the hand, should be an input into another process. The waste from one process should be an input into another process, as much as possible. When we do this, it’s an ecosystem. Nothing almost is wasted in the nature. The sun powers, the entire ecosystem, and each plant or animal and that chain feeds on the other. We can grow our industry like this. We used to have those systems in place. We have them at the local level.
Keys to Success
Drew Appelbaum: You group the tools to success into the four keys, as you call them, which are necessary to build sustainable development. Can you list what those keys are?
George Nasr: Yes. The first one is the system, the simple thing. Any basic system, we use an example from farming. A tree is a system on itself. So what you do is every system will define the behavior of the entire process that you have. If you’re going to plant to eat, you’re going to behave in a certain way. If you’re going to plant olives, you’re going to behave. The system will behave in a certain way.
Second key would be to scale up the system. You can grow those fields, those plants. You can grow those urban structures as much as you want until you hit a certain natural limit. You know about in skiing, people sometimes they create avalanches, because an avalanche is a wave to descale the system. The system, the snow system, goes too much then nobody can ski. That’s why the second part is you scale it up, and you have to scale until a certain limit.
The third one is to realize that everything will fail. We design it for failure, not against failure. Nothing is going to last forever. We designed our systems, knowing that something will break and something else will replace it. You don’t optimize like we do now for the past 50 years, we’ve been trying to optimize everything. When we do this, everything, you get one thing, you hit one thing and everything collapses, that’s not the way to do it. Even if it’s not supposed to be efficient, it’s efficient for one to 10 years, then it’s not going to be working anymore when bad things happen.
This forth one, I call it governance, but the idea is that, that’s why I go back to the local level. All the components of the system on the partner organizations have to have a stake in your success. Otherwise, you’re not going to succeed. At some point, they’re going to be working against you. You have a covenant, like a deal, in which everybody has skin in the game, everybody has taken your success, and everybody will pay a price, if you fail. This way, when you put those four together, you will have a system that is regenerative that will emerge by itself. Ecosystems are like this.
Drew Appelbaum: How much longer do you think we need to where we put this together and where we reach a tipping point, where we could all see this sustainability working in our daily lives?
George Nasr: Well, I would say, in many places, we are already seeing it. I think, paradoxically, countries like the United States, are moving into this direction, because you have this voluntary attitude that appears in some communities and some groupings that are moving into this direction. I’ll give you an example of a community that’s already there. The Amish and the Mennonites, they are already there. There’s a bunch of others that establish themselves in the 60s and 70s, the communes. They are already there. You also have some locations, sometimes who are now moving into this and they’re being more empowered by a drive towards decentralization. I am a contrarian. I’m always looking for silver linings and positives. I think we’re already moving in that direction.
Drew Appelbaum: Once we reach sustainable development in these various verticals, are we done at that point or is there still continuously more work to be done?
George Nasr: We won’t be done for the simple reason. Look at climate change. Part of it is the role we humans are playing. We’re exacerbating the changes happening. The other part is nature always changes also. We’re never going to be done, because we still have to look around, learn from nature, learn from the systems around us, and continue building up. Especially if we’re going to go into space and colonize other planets, then we will have to build those sustainable systems onto those other worlds. We’re always going to learn, we’re always going to change things, and we’re never going to be fully satisfied with what we have. I don’t see this as a negative, it’s a positive, because when you stop learning, you stop enjoying what’s around you.
Drew Appelbaum: What impact do you hope the book will have on a reader? Are there any steps you hope they’ll take during or after reading it?
George Nasr: I hope it will help people filter out all the nonsense that’s discourse around us. I hope it will help people filter out the nonsense. Also, it will help them put things into perspective because I feel it’s an empowering story. What I try to put is, we are here, because many people before us did something that was sustainable. We are here because the ones before us succeeded. We will succeed. We just have to put things in perspective and keep doing what we’re doing, trying to make it work in the best way possible. Keep learning from the world around us.
Drew Appelbaum: You also have a companion website for the book. Can you tell readers and listeners what that website is and what they can find there?
George Nasr: Yes. I set up a website called hacking.earth. It’s “dot earth” domain. I like the hacking idea, because it sounds like you’re hacking to break the earth, but it’s the hackers’ approach. It’s not that I don’t learn anything formally. You learn from the world around you and you build on it. On the website, I go into more detail about some ideas that I barely touched on the book. I go into details about wind towers. I give an example of why in ancient Persia, they had ice in the desert. They were able to keep ice in the desert. They even made ice cream about 1000 years ago. They had systems like this. We can learn from them and adapt them to our society. Didn’t have powerful air conditioning systems, but they managed. We can learn from many ideas around us. I tried to go into more detail about those ideas.
Drew Appelbaum: Well, George, we just touched on the surface of the book here. Obviously, you go into those four steps in detail. Again, there’s so much more in the book, but I just want to say that writing this book and creating these keys to build a better planet. It’s no small feat, so congratulations on being published.
George Nasr: Thank you. Thank you. It’s been a while.
Drew Appelbaum: Sure. This has been a pleasure. I’m excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called Planet A. You can find it on Amazon. George, besides checking out the book, besides going to your website, is there anywhere else where people can connect with you?
George Nasr: I’m on Twitter, as well. I use it a lot. It is at @GeorgeJNasr. That’s basically it. I’m also on other sites like maybe, and I’m on LinkedIn at GeorgeJNasr also. They can find me on LinkedIn as well.
Drew Appelbaum: Great. Well, George, thank you so much for giving us some of your time today. Best of luck with your new book.
George Nasr: Thank you. Thank you very much.