Pot Pourri 11/23/2008

This is the second week for this feature. I will repeat the caveat from the first collection. Sustainability is not a single, tightly constrained idea. So this posting will include items about sustainability, per se; greening; complexity; culture change; and others. Please email me or leave a comment if you have other topics that you think should be included under the broad theme of sustainability. But remember I don't write about sustainability in the same way as the mainstream media does.

Giant Technological Band-Aids

A World Changing article points to the dangers of assuming that complex systemic problems are amenable to technological fixes, even very large ones. The use of geo-engineering, the intentional modification of the Earth in Britain, is viewed with skepticism by the government.
UK climate minister Joan Ruddock is wary of reliance on radical technology that could be used by some as an excuse to avoid meeting targets to reduce carbon emissions. . . The remarks by Joan Ruddock, a minister in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, appear to be a thinly veiled dig at the Bush administration, whose delegation attempted to insert a section into last year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on developing technology to block sunlight and cool the planet. The proposed text referred to it as an "important insurance" against the impacts of climate change. Speaking to MPs on the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills select committee, Ruddock was defending the government's unwillingness to fund research into so-called geoengineering - large-scale, untested interventions that either soak up carbon dioxide or prevent sunlight warming the planet
One reason for opposition is the shifting of responsibility from consumers and producers to scientists and engineers. I point out in my book that this is a characteristic of all forms of technology. Although unmentioned, this British position implicitly invokes the precautionary principle, deferring action where the unforeseen consequences can be monumental.

The Case for Technological Fixes

The above item links to an article in the Guardian arguing the polar opposite viewpoint.
Political inaction on global warming has become so dire that nations must now consider extreme technical solutions - such as blocking out the sun - to address catastrophic temperature rises, scientists from around the world warn today. The experts say a reluctance "at virtually all levels" to address soaring greenhouse gas emissions means carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are on track to pass 650 parts-per-million (ppm), which could bring an average global temperature rise of 4C. They call for more research on geo-engineering options to cool the Earth, such as dumping massive quantities of iron into oceans to boost plankton growth, and seeding artificial clouds over oceans to reflect sunlight back into space.
This post and the one immediately above illustrate a critical feature of complex systems. There is no single cause for failure and no single route to remedy. Political leadership may be weak because they have yet to hear their public clamor for change. The citizenry may be quiescent out of unawareness and skepticism about what the experts say and debate about. And so on.

A Bit of Technological Progress

GreenerBuildings announces the publication of the first report about green buildings with performance data about results achieved.
Green buildings have saved the U.S. billions of gallons of water and enough energy to avoid the equivalent of burning of 1.3 million tons of coal for electricity since the development of the LEED standards. In the process, these high-performance buildings have produced millions of dollars in employee productivity gains, avoided thousands of tons of soil erosion, and created a multibillion dollar market for the green building materials used in their construction.…
"Our findings are both encouraging and cautionary," Watson said as part of the report's release. "Overall, we believe that LEED buildings are making a major impact in reducing the overall environmental footprint of individual structures. However, significant additional progress is possible and indeed necessary on both the individual building level and in terms of market penetration if LEED is to contribute in meaningful way to reducing the environmental footprint of buildings in the U.S. and worldwide."

"What Makes a Company Sustainable?"

The header for this item is the headline for an article in thedailygreen. The example discussed is the clothing company, "Me to We: [Responsible Style]," Their website describes the company as
a new social enterprise that is committed to providing ethically manufactured, quality apparel for the socially-conscious consumer. Our product line is domestically produced, sweatshop-free and made using certified organic cotton and bamboo.
Me to We: [Responsible Style] is about bringing you products that positively affect our world. Even small things—like buying a T-shirt—can have a major impact. Our social enterprise is centered around the Me to We philosophy, which is about improving our lives and our world by reaching out to others. It involves focusing less on “Me” and more on “We”—our communities, our nation and our world. Me to We: [Responsible Style] evolved from this worldwide movement and philosophy. In a time of growing social awareness, consumers want to wear clothing that reflects their values. By using certified organic fair trade cotton, we ensure that you get the best, highest quality products and that farmers, producers and manufacturers all receive a fair wage in the supply chain. Our product line is ethical, flexible and stylish. Our comfortable designs are for everyone who wants to sport responsible styles, from individuals to entire schools, charities and businesses. To find out more about Me to We please visit www.metowe.org
Much as I applaud any company for seeking to minimize its environmental impact and contribute to the social good, I cannot see any link to sustainability. The words "[Responsible Style]" seem to me to be an empty slogan; only people can be responsible. Like the notion of geo-engineering in the first post above, what Me to We does risks fulfilling their customers' sense of obligation to make the world a better place and leave them complacent about what really is needed from them.

The Financial Crisis, Continued

I have already pointed out that the financial crisis offers an opportunity to rethink what we mean by sustainability and to adopt some new ways to think about our complex world. Andrew Winston, writing in the HBR Leading Green blog, points to a more direct consequence, the need to be efficient.
Being far more efficient and effective with resources remains one of the main pillars of going green. As Dave Steiner, CEO of Fortune 200 company Waste Management, said recently, "When things are this tight, people see that it's about saving jobs and money. There's no better time to take action." This instinct to dive in head first runs counter to the visceral need to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm. But as in most recessions, the companies that have the means to invest in smart ways during down times rebound the fastest when the economy turns around.
He adds a note about the opportunity to use the uncertainty facing consumers to introduce new products and services.
A second pillar of green business - using the environmental lens to create new ways to design, manufacture, and provide goods and services that use drastically less resources - still generates lasting value. A sustainability focus helps companies provide customers with better products and to some extent a better life. Is there a better time for product and service innovation than when consumers and business customers are stretched thin? What business wouldn't want to create a more profitable and innovative enterprise, all while building stronger relationships with customers, employees, communities and even shareholders?
The challenge for companies and others is to do all of these things: become more resource efficient, offer new "greener" products, but also stop and reflect at your part in creating the mess in the first place.