An unlikely carbon pioneer

hoover.jpgFew industries that understand the realities of doing business in a carbon-constrained world might endorse as radical and visionary a program for change as Herbert Hoover did in 1921.

That’s right, Herbert Hoover, the Neville Chamberlain of U.S. presidents who thought if everyone just appeased the Depression, the economy would stop bothering everyone. In 1921, the future 31st U.S. president was then Warren Harding’s Commerce Secretary. And from that post, he doled out advice that today sounds more like Cradle-to-Cradle guru Bill McDonough than a senior Republican administration official of any era. Hoover prodded industry to stop wasting their waste–the carbon dioxide that might be captured and turned into productive use.

Take this commentary on the wasted gas emitted from the fires of industry, delivered in a 1921 speech before the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association:

“The very coke oven today that is not recovering its by-products, turning its byproducts into the air, is turning a loss that can never be recovered. Your industries are the industries that take these derivatives and turn them to account… If we are going to maintain our own world, we must turn all these waste factors into something productive, and an industry that is almost wholly founded on the recovery of those wastes naturally is worth cultivation and encouragement, not only by the country but by the government itself.

Imagine a U.S. administration of any stripe encouraging an aggressive federal program to make the world more in line with Bill McDonough’s–and Herbert Hoover’s.

— Eric R.

8 Responses to An unlikely carbon pioneer

  1. Ron says:

    Hoover was quite a Progressive president.

    In trying to fix the Great Depression, for example, he gave America some of its biggest tax increases in history with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in 1930 and the 1932 Revenue Act, had a bunch of cool stuff built with the money, and then deported ‘back to Mexico’ a couple million Mexicans and American-born-Mexican-looking people (to ease unemployment).

    However, none of his fixes worked. The depression got worse.

    It sounds like he definitely had a love for efficiency, though. I’m sure he was a very forward-looking guy.

  2. Ronald says:

    I think the biggest problem about the Great Depression was the Federal Reserve. To many advisors from Germany warning of deflation so they we to tight on the money supply.

    I’ve been to Hoovers Presidential Library in Iowa somewhere and he did quite a few things that were note worthy. That he thought of making something valuable of waste doesn’t surprise me. The house he grew up in was about 12 x12 feet. In the age he grew up, the phrase waste not want not would have been very common. They were poor.

  3. Ron says:

    Yes, of course, the Depression was caused primarily by stupid moves of the Fed. Hoover inherited it.

    And like I said, the man loved efficiency. He was an engineer (like Olin).

    He was, however, a poor social engineer. His economic fixes made things worse, by and large, as most tax & spend ‘solutions’ do.

  4. Ronald says:

    I don’t agree with you about the ‘tax and spend solutions’ don’t fix things.

    Look at World War II in the United States. Many people will say that it was the spending that occured during that war that got us out of bad economic times. People might say, it wasn’t Roosevelt’s programs that got us our of the bad economic times, it was World War II. Well, what from World War II did that, dropping bombs on people? It was the massive government tax, spending and borrowing.

  5. Eric says:

    Thanks for these comments. The thing that’s still mystifying is why Hoover’s penchant never took off. Industries squeeze efficiency, and therefore money, from virtually every other corner of their enterprises. Is it a technology question? Is it just too hard and expensive to realize the raw-material potential of various wastes?

  6. Jay Alt says:

    Hoover had a long career in public life. He became famous for helping foreigners trapped in Peking during the Boer Uprising, after WWI he ran US Aide that fed millions in war ravaged EuropeI and he was a very successful Commerce secretary under Coolidge. His talent was tapped by Truman for a commission charged to reorganize the federal govt. The other commissioners elected him chairman. Eisenhower used his talents on another commission. He was independently wealthy and IIRC, never accepted pay for his public service.

  7. john says:

    There are proximate causes and root causes when it comes to the Depression.

    From what I’ve read, one of the root causes was the extreme income inequality. When so much wealth is concentrated among so few people, evne Thorstein Veblin’s “conspicuous consumers” can’t float an economy, no matter how productive.

    A lesson for today, since we now have equalled the GD’s unequal income distribution patterns.

    I guess what Hoover failed to realize is that there are optimally efficient income distributions, just as there are optimally efficient resource allocations. The market achieves one, but not the other.

    Another lesson for today’s conservatives.

  8. Earl Killian says:

    Forget the depression. If you’re curious about people recovering their “by-products” long before Hoover suggested it, read “Farmers of Forty Centuries” by D. F. H. King, published in 1911, and simply reporting on practices very old at that time. Such things will be necessary again someday.