September 2008 Archives

Seeking Sustainability in the Financial Market Blow-up

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When I talk about sustainability, I am usually referring to the possibility of flourishing. But sustainability can connect to many other properties that we would like to keep around for a long time. Anytime we come face-to-face with a complex system that is important to us, we probably think about sustainability even if we use some other term.

Complexity is a relatively new term, coined to explain the behavior of systems so large and interrelated that it is impossible to describe many of their interesting and desirable functions and properties by rules and scientific laws and theories. Properties like flourishing, health, well-being, resilience, justice for all, or beauty are just a few examples of this kind of property that emerges when the system as a whole is functioning properly. Just try to imagine the magnificence of the Mona Lisa as the output of a paint-by-numbers kit. Properties like beauty jump out (emerge) and are meaningful only to those interacting with or observing the system.

Much of life is merely complicated, and can be described by such rules and laws within some degree of certainty. Complexity means that we cannot expect to know how these systems work by examining them with our standard scientific tools and methods, nor manage them by applying technological or technocratic means. We may know a lot about such systems but we rarely understand them. And understanding is the key to maintaining them so that they keep producing what we want.

This is what sustainability is all about. Although the word sustainability is used today most often with reference to the environment, it is a much more general term that can be applied to any complex system. It means the possibility that the system will keep delivering the desired qualities indefinitely even when subjected to changes in its world.

Yet for some 400 years we have largely ignored the fact that complexity is the dominant form of the systems we hope to bring under our control. There are two principal reasons for this state of affairs. One is Francis Bacon’s view that humans are not a part of nature--which can be conquered and brought under our control. This view has hardened into a mindset that ignores the intimate interrelationships between humanity and the natural system that is essential to our flourishing.

The second factor comes from our dominant reductionist scientific methodology. This method is so embedded in our culture that we only rarely think about it. Reductionism is simply a way to add to our knowledge or to solve our problems by cutting up whatever we are focused on into small pieces, each of which we can get our arms or minds around. While wildly successful in the realm of science, reductionism prevents people from seeing how complex systems work and creates barriers to their governance.

The financial crisis is in part the result of slicing and dicing risk while ignoring how the whole system works and assuming that it could remain healthy without governance. Regulations are not merely some political device; they are necessary rules to keep the whole system flourishing and avoiding collapse.

Besides the obvious function to provide the infrastructure for our economic system and keep capital flowing, what we want most from the financial system is an emergent property, confidence. And when the system sputters not only does the functionality disappear, confidence evaporates. That's why it is critical to do something, almost anything to restore enough movement towards functionality so that confidence can re-emerge.

But we should be very wary of big, dramatic interventions. Complex systems behave in strange and unpredictable ways when they depart from the place where they have been working well. Complexity demands prudence and precaution since we can never be sure how the system will react to our effects to govern it.

This poses a huge challenge to those trying to fix our current problems. They have to do something to get the financial system running and restore confidence, but not so much that it will jump from the present crisis into another. And add to this that the financial system is coupled to another complex systems, the political. The players seem to have understood that restoring confidence is very important, but haven't understood that taking such big steps may be just as risky as was the condition of the system before it blew up, and upset the political system to boot.

Where is Pogo When We Need Him?

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Greenbiz had a piece yesterday with this headline, “Consumers Say Business Should Take Leading Role in Fighting Climate Change.” Drawing on several recent polls, the Greenbiz staff wrote,

Consumers believe businesses should bear the heaviest load of the burden to address climate change and while companies acknowledge the problem, they haven't done as much as they could to address it, say two recent studies.

Pogo.jpgThis is a classic case of shifting the burden, failing to see where the real roots of the problem lie. Unsustainability is a systems consequence and comes from failures in the whole system. Consumers are as much part of the breakdown as are firms. Pointing fingers is a sign of misunderstanding the situation. It is true that companies can always do better and even take a leadership stance. But without demand from consumers they would not be producing anything. If we are to convert unsustainable conditions to a state that can promote sustainability every sector has to examine and accept its contribution and take action. Pogo had it right when he said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

To GDP or Not To GDP

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Looking for something relevant to today's turmoil in Washington, I came across a month-old article from the New York Times talking about the relevance of GDP as a measure of well-being. Unsurprisingly the article by Louis Uchitelle grabbed onto many previous critical commentaries and pointed to fairly obvious flaws in the standard accounting system used to calculate GDP. This is just another example that shows how existing economic models and theories fail badly to track reality. I got the sense today that those working out the solution were engaged in a dialogue of the deaf and looking for the solution in a politically convenient place rather than facing the underlying roots. Uchitelle points to the fallacies and danger in adhering to political and economic ideologies.
While the G.D.P. has continued to rise, wages have stagnated, pensions have shrunk or disappeared and income inequality has increased. Other shortcomings have become apparent. The boom in prison construction, for example, has added greatly to the G.D.P., but the damage from the crimes that made the prisons necessary is not subtracted. Neither is environmental damage nor depleted forests, although lumbering shows up in government statistics as value added. So does health care, which is measured by the money spent, not by improvements in people’s health. Obesity is on the rise in America, undermining health, but that is not subtracted.
The thrust of the article is that we can do much better by reforming the accounting system to more accurately credit the goods and debit the bads. But, although we would get a better picture of how we spend our money, we would not understand the state of well-being one whit more clearly. The problem is not in the structure of the accounting system. It lies in the economist's fundamental presumption that well-being and wealth are inherently linked. It should not take a long time for us non-economists to put the lie to this. Surely money is important, but what matters in life are the quality of our relationships to other human beings and to the Planet we live on. The same article noted that the issue is not just limited to the US.
“We may be in the early stages in the United States of recognizing that the gross domestic product is very misleading and something must be done to get better measures of well-being,” said Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in economics at Harvard. Professor Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate at Columbia, are co-chairmen of a commission recently appointed by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, to come up with a better measure for France. While Mr. Sarkozy’s goal is to showcase a “quality of life” at odds with the country’s weak G.D.P., the high-profile effort might yield dividends here as well as abroad.
Granted it is virtually impossible to measure this in quantitative terms, it is a grave mistake to grab onto a metric simply because we can compute some value. It is the difference between capturing the magnificence of the Mona Lisa while standing in front of it and trying to reproduce it with a paint-by-the-numbers kit. In recent years alternative measures have been invented. Gross National Happiness (GNH) was coined by the King of Bhutan who was trying to point out that a people with low GDP could be happy relative to those with much higher GDP levels. This approach was instantly criticized as being built on subjective measures and possibly being bent to the political purposes. Perhaps but at least something like this has the possibility of capturing what is truly important to one's quality of life whereas GNP, no matter how precisely defined, hasn't a chance.

Flushing for Sustainability

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lids-caroma-nz.jpg
Is luxury defined by disdain for shutting off lights? It would seem so if one listens to managers thinking about adding environmental features to their hotels. Speaking about a system widely used in Europe, a master switch that is activated by your room keycard when you enter, US hoteliers expressed skepticism about the acceptance of this in the US.
It is an easy way to conserve energy. Yet it is almost never seen in the United States. Guests who are in a hurry — or simply don’t care about saving electricity — leave TVs, air-conditioners and lights on when there is no one in the room. Brian McGuinness, a vice president of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, explained the mind-set of some travelers: “Part of being on the road means the ability to live a little more luxuriously than at home, and that means not having to turn off the lights and the TV.”… Mr. McGuinness added, “People say they want to be green, but they don’t want to compromise.” As a result, he said, “We don’t really know yet what it means to be green in the hospitality field.”
The story then shifted to a discussion of a device that I write about a lot—the two-button toilet. Pictured above, this toilet offers the user an obvious choice. The real secret of this device is that it makes the user stop, reflect, and take responsibility by making a choice. Only a handful of hotels in the US have installed them, saying that they are afraid of customer push-back, in spite of demonstrated savings in water use and reduced loads on municipal treatment systems. The connection to sustainability is not the water savings—it is important for sure—but the awareness and responsibility for taking care of the Earth that can be generated via the need to stop and think. What has been a mindless routine action becomes a learning opportunity.

Wall Street Has a Lesson for Sustainability

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turmoil in the Dow.jpgIt's Saturday and the market gets a few days off before it can awaken again to the turmoil on Wall Street and Main Street. The media of all forms is full of news about bailouts, take-overs, debt acceptance, and many other arcane terms known only to those that have created the mess we are in. This blog is concerned with sustainability, not with financial security, so what's the connection between sustainability and Wall Street.

One of the central themes in my approach to sustainability is that we have to change our fundamental beliefs about how the world works. Once you start to look at worldly systems larger than the proverbial breadbox, it is critical to begin to understand them as complex systems, that is, systems that are not describable by normal scientific rules and, as a consequences, behave in unpredictable ways. As is the norm, however, we always think that we can predict the future, within some degree of certainty, by applying rules.

Much of the financial mischief has come about by using probabilistic models to predict the risk in assuming all kinds of debts, mortgages, insurance liabilities, and so on. In a complex system, rules can work for a while, but if the system is stressed beyond some [unpredictable] point, it can collapse or move onto a whole new regime. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, writing on Edge, says

So knowledge (i.e., if some statement is "true" or "false") matters little, very little in many situations. In the real world, there are very few situations where what you do and your belief if some statement is true or false naively map into each other. Some decisions require vastly more caution than others...

All of this suggests that one cannot hope to manage any system as complex as the US financial system, and regulators who try should be very sensitive to their limits. Management always implies knowledge of how the system to be managed will respond to new rules or to Band-Aids. Governance is a bit more broad in that it assumes that adaptation and learning are part of the supervisory processes besides rules. Sustainability applies to a much larger system, the whole world, rather than merely the financial parts. One should use the tumult on Wall Street to warn us that trying to fix unsustainability in general with Band-Aids is not the "right" way.

Premiumization and the Lehman Brothers Collapse

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If you are unfamiliar with the word, premiumization, read Roger Cohen's oped piece in today's New York Times. Not satisfied with merely buying more and more stuff, some hyperwealthy people are looking for special, high-priced goods that satisfy some mysterious inner need I cannot begin to understand: M&M's with your face on each piece; Renova Black, a “fashionable” toilet paper; or bottled water from the world's cleanest place.

A differentiation frenzy spawns things like Tasmanian Rain water, which justifies its price tag (up to $25 for a 750-millileter bottle in luxury hotels) because it’s collected “just minutes from where the World Meteorological Organization records the world’s purest air.”

This appeared in the same edition whose front-page headlines announced the failure of Lehman Brothers, one of Wall Street's oldest and most respected investment bankers. Having fueled the run-up of speculative investments, this house and others of the same ilk, like Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns, were bit by the same hand that fed them. Alan Greenspan once spoke of irrational exuberance saying, "But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions…"

Is premiumization simply another form of irrational exuberance? It seems so to me. The quest for goods that add virtually nothing to the well-being of someone other than massaging his or her ego is irrational in my way of thinking. It is another symptom of the erosion of meaning in our world. The pity of it is that the underlying drive that seeks individualized candy bits is the same as that that leads to excesses in the financial world. When these excesses eventually produce collapse because the financial system has become unsustainable, the pain is spread to everyone, like me, who relies on the financial system for the means to buy much simpler non-premium things like food, clothing, healthcare and shelter.

Summer's Over

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The closest thing to sustainability I know is spending the summer at our ocean-side cottage in Maine. But like so many things in life, this too comes to a close every year. Tomorrow, my wife and I pack up the car and head back to Lexington. I am always gripped by commingled feelings of gratitude and of sadness. Thankful to be able to spend another year watching the incessant cycles of nature from my office window. Not that my life in the city is so bad, but here I do get a sense of what flourishing (the subject I write about) is really all about.

The sun sets across the water just for us everyday, as the beams reflecting off the surface of the bay aim directly at our house. No day is the same as the last except that in some way they are reassuringly and paradoxically the same.

The sadness comes in anticipating a different life in the city. I write that it is possible to flourish in the midst of a noisy, evermore crowded, consuming society, but I must admit I am not always certain. I probably should not admit this feeling since I am trying to sell my new book and its ideas. But the sadness is tempered by the vision of next year that has already started to form even before this season has closed. Maybe this is what sustainability is.

Sustainability and September 11th

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On this anniversary of 9/11, it seems most appropriate to reflect on the link between that day, the subsequent seven years, and what might seem a disconnected topic: sustainability. The carnage of that day is the epitome of unsustainability--a system stretched beyond the breaking point; the failure to return to the original equilibrium state; the emergence of new patterns of behavior.

The response we have created in the United States is fashioned from the very same toolbox and beliefs and values that were in play right up to the event. They are fundamentally technological and technocratic, telling us that we can prevent the next regime changing event in our world by employing the force of technology manifest in our superior military power. Or that we can impose our beliefs and norms on the rest of the world because we know it is right.

The argument I am weaving here is not an ideological one; just the opposite. Such means do not work well in a complex world. And the world is indeed complex. We cannot predict the outcome of actions taken in the name of governance any more than foresters can predict the outcomes of traditional management practices. Technology applied may appear to treat the symptoms we observe, but it rarely gets at the underlying causes of the unwanted symptoms. Such solutions are always quick fixes; the same kind of problems seem to recur repeatedly.

Sustainability, taken as the possibility of flourishing, is the ultimate end we seek. It is a property of a complex system that needs to be very thoughtfully governed. All the scientific knowledge of our experts cannot replace the wisdom of those keen observers of history in understanding how the whole system works and how to govern it without pushing it into an unsustainable state.

9/11 was a wake-up call, not only to the real threat of terrorism, but to the need to re-conceptualize the very way we think about the world and strive to maintain it so that we and all life can sustain itself. Sustainability cannot be created by rules and formulas; it shows up only when the whole system is working right.

Energy Interdependence

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iStock_000005768889XSmall.jpgI spent a long evening yesterday taking in the Republican Convention. The political message seemed to be very simple--divide and conquer. At least now we have a pretty clear choice ahead in November. But this is not a political blog. Even so, it is often very difficult to separate sustainability from politics and last night offered such an example.

Among the many foot-stamping pauses during Sarah Palin's speech and those that preceded her on the podium, one of the loudest and most prolonged followed her invocation of "drill, baby, drill" and a long string of just about every form of energy supply technology, except for conservation. It was not just about keeping warm or filling up at the pump with cheap gas, it was all about independence, and that's the topic I want to comment on.

One key to sustainability is to accept that the world is complex; we are interdependent on each other. Independent entities, people or states, cannot survive disconnected from the world. We, here in the USA, and every other human being living today and arriving in the future depend on the Earth's resources. Not just ours in a nationalistic sense, but all that we inherited from the geological upheavals that gifted us all our fossil fuel resources and just about everything else we rely on. A politics that reduces complicated and complex issues to simplistic technofixes is part of the conditions that create unsustainability whether it is manifest in climate change or human suffering. And in this particular case, this strategy is bound to be fruitless. If we were to exploit all the energy resources within our national boundaries, we would still need to rely on the kindness of strangers to live the kind of life we do today.

More Linguistic Misuse

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Having just posted an article about the misuse of the word “sustainable,” I found this blog entry during my daily perusal of my Google alerts on the subject. I see that others have noticed the same problem with the proliferation of sustainable X. The blogger had discovered this slightly tongue-in-cheek, but deadly serious scolding, of the mindless use of sustainability in official talk in Europe.

Written Declaration on overuse of the adjective ‘sustainable’

The European Parliament,
- having regard to the concept of ‘sustainable development’, which originated in the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development,
- having regard to the European Commission document entitled ‘Towards a global partnership for sustainable development’ (COM(2002)0082 final),
- having regard to Rule 116 of its Rules of Procedure,

A. whereas the current parliamentary term has seen the overuse of the adjective ‘sustainable’ and its combination with various other words to create expressions that frequently make no sense in the context,
B. whereas the word ‘sustainable’ is repeated in almost all policies and strategies, producing empty, meaningless phrases that may give rise to dispute,
C. whereas, with the emergence of such expressions, they are being transformed into incantations and cryptography, disguising the real meaning of the concepts we discuss,
D. whereas the overuse of the adjective ‘sustainable’ is itself not sustainable,

1. Calls on European institutions and agencies to use this term in a sensible and balanced way;
2. Calls on all institutions to use the term semantically correctly;
3. Proposes a temporary moratorium on the word ‘sustainable’;
4. Instructs its President to forward this declaration, together with the names of the signatories, to the Commission, the Council and the parliaments of the Member States.

Right on, matey.

Is Sustainable X Really Sustainable?

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Conversations about sustainability only rarely refer to it as a noun. Most articles talk about “sustainable something,” like sustainable development, buildings, business, and so on and on. When sustainable is used in this adjectival sense, the object of attention is always on the word it modifies. Sustainable development is not really about sustainability, a noun, rather it’s all about [economic] development albeit a particular form of [economic] development that is supposed to be more benign than the way the modern world works today.

Most people who talk this way do care about the sad state of the world and would like to do something about it. But the way they speak traps them into ineffective patterns of behavior, focused on the wrong problems. In other cases, the conversation is not about sustainability at all, but rather how a business or other organization can out-compete others by greening its products and services. Using the web as an indicator, I did a search using “sustainable.” I didn’t look at all 73 million hits, but scanned the first few pages. Here’s the list—some were repeated: development, community, table, business, agriculture, economy, style, architecture, Northwest, South Bronx, buildings, choice, industries, and conservation.

Sustainable style jumped right out of the screen. The header blared, “look fabulous, live well, do good.” A little further down, the site offered a strategy to everyone seeking to capture the sustainable style market.

  • Be the premier resource on sustainable lifestyles and design: ‚Ä®provide useful and up-to-date information and resources to both design professionals and consumers so that they can more easily incorporate sustainability into their work and/or lives
  • Use the market: increase both the supply of and demand for sustainable products and services in the many and diverse style/design industries
  • Dangle cocktail carrots: When it comes to using a carrot or a stick, we choose the carrot as there are lots of other groups out there that are very good at the stick approach. Better yet we use tiny cocktail carrots…sometimes even the smallest positive reinforcement can create big change.
  • Surprise consumers: highlight the amount and breadth of sustainability already underway across the many and diverse style/design industries
  • Keep sustainability in the media. Insure continuous forward progress to counteract the perception of sustainability as ‘fits and starts’ (a green building here, a fashion designer using organic cotton there…)
  • Promote cross-industry awareness and inspiration: work to promote cross-industry learning and projects so that industries are aware of innovations in other industries that might be applicable in their own industry
  • Use popular culture to influence consumer choices: provide high profile lifestyle role models to inspire consumers to make more sustainable personal lifestyle choices themselves

Because the way we are immersed in and use language can easily create blindness and deafness, it is easy to attribute “greenwashing” to people who talk about their sustainable activities. Some may indeed be dissembling, but most are genuine in their desire to lessen the load on the Earth. The only way to help the latter is to give them a new vocabulary, with which they can create a new story.