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Carpeting a green world

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

There’s an old joke about Pope John Paul II being pulled over in New York City traffic. The cop calls his sargeant and tells him “I got a problem – I’ve arrested somebody really big.” “Who’d you pull over?” the sarge says. “I don’t know,” the cop says, “but he’s got the pope as a driver.”

That’s a little like what happens when Al Gore takes the stage before “reformed plunderer” Ray Anderson of Interface Carpets. Gore reviews some of the most difficult evidence for climate change, the shrinkage of the arctic ice cap, and the disturbing possibility that we’re reaching a tipping point where permafrost melts and releases stored carbon as methane. He shows an amazing video of a researcher drilling into a Canadian lake and letting forth a plume of flaming methane.

The main culprits in global warming are deforestation and fossil fuels. And the main culrit Gore wants to focus on are the folks promoting “clean coal”. There is, he reminds us, no such thing. And while there’s been good progress in stopping building coal plants and building sustainable alternatives, there’s a huge marketing campaign designed to create confusion around coal. He compares a cartoon Cool Clean Coal figure with Joe Camel, and reminds us that “clean coal” was responsible for the billion gallons of coal sludge recently spilled in his native Tennessee.

But Gore is the warmup act for Ray Anderson, a successful industrialist who’s emerged as a major hero for those who’d like to see business be part of the solution to environmental problems, not part of the cause.

Anderson began manufacturing and selling carpet, a deeply oil-intensive business, in 1973. While his firm was profitable, it was far from sustainable, in environmental terms. Reading Paul Hawken in 1994, Anderson found himself personally accused of being part of the problem. Hawken argues that business and industry is the only group large enough to have a major impact on the biosphere, for good or for ill. Anderson took the book as a personal challenge to reform his business and change his role from biospheric plunderer to preserver.

This required a rethinking of the equations that govern environmental impact. In a conventional equation, population times affluence times technology equals environmental impact. Anderson wondered if the technology could be moved from the numerator to the denominator of the equation, if technology could lessen, not multiply environmental footprint.

This means using technology that’s not extractive, powered by fossil fuels and focused on labor productivity, but is renewable, cyclical, based on renewable energy, waste-free and focused on resource productivity. Anderson’s company, Interface Carpets, has reduced their carbon emissions 82% while doubling in sales, selling 85 million square years of carbon-neutral “cool carpet”.

Anderson reminds us something that Amory Lovins has told him: “If something exists, it must be possible.” And he challenges us – “If we, a petro-intensive company can do this, then anybody can.”

Perhaps Al Gore will pass that on to the clean coal folks.