January 2009 Archives

Where the Future of Business Is Coming From


I have just come home from a short visit to Ann Arbor to speak at an event sponsored by the Net Impact group at the Ross School of Business. They had asked me to speak at the dinner kicking off their Forum 2009: Next practices to address future challenges. In their own words, “Net Impact is a global network of leaders who are changing the world through business.” I also had some time to spend in a small group with some of the students. Many are in a very special program (Erb Institute) that couples an MBA with a MS from the School of Natural Resources and Environment. My keynote took place over a rather raucous dinner reflecting the tremendous energy radiating from this group.

My experience at Net Impact was a welcome relief from the usual. In just the few days spent with these students, my mood shifted from the cynical or skeptical stance reflected in most of my posts to a feeling almost of exuberance. I have long viewed business as a critical player in the quest for sustainability, but mostly doubt that this institution would ever learn the necessary new rules. It may take a while, but once these graduates take hold, that seems possible. I had the same sense a week ago while teaching at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute.

I should not be surprised at what I saw. The Erb program is the result of several decades of building the joint program at Michigan. The faculty resources are both broad and deep. But the real resource I saw was the students. They reminded me of the students that I was privileged to work with during my time at MIT. It is very encouraging that sustainability is becoming a legitimate subject in business schools. It has not always been that way.

A Friend, Indeed?


This story is from today’s New York Times. I encourage you to read the whole article. But here is the part that woke me up today.

Facebook, the very popular social networking program, has spawned some new language—defriending or unfriending. It has become so easy to accumulate a very long list of facebook friends that paring down that list has become a social puzzle. Burger King saw an opportunity to attract business by offering a free Whopperâ„¢ to anyone that got rid of 10 friends by deleting them from the list. If Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, what might he have done faced with this offer? Burger King has ended the program, but not until they terminated around 234,000 friendships.

I have been ranting about technology getting in the way of authentic human relationships, and this article adds much fuel to this fire. The willingness of people to terminate a friend with a click begs the age-old question of what are friends for. In the setting I grew up in, this was an offer to be present for your comrade, and offer aid and support for whatever troubles have arisen or share the joy of some happening. My criticism of technology in general and this kind of shoddy relationship is two-fold. It always diminishes the meaning of the relationship and also cheapens the language we use to describe the relationship.

Friends play an important role on everyone’s lives. They are represent more than bonds formed by familial ties. One’s spouse can be only a spouse, but often, not always, also becomes one’s [best] friend.

When terminating a friend is reduced to a formula, the terminator (I can’t but blanch at these words. They are so devoid of warm or fuzzy feelings) has become a click machine, much as Arnold Schwartzenegger played his role in the Terminator series. But here it is being played out for real.

Mr. Schiff, 25, said he experienced only the slightest guilt at eliminating those people. While he didn’t feel the need to write to them individually to explain things, he did use his personal blog to address them en masse.

“Let’s be honest here, questionable Facebook friend,” he wrote. “We’ve been keeping you around all this time because we’d just feel bad if you ever found out that you got the ax. It’s just, well, up until now nobody offered us a Whopper in exchange for your feelings.”

This was just the sort of sentiment that Burger King and its advertising agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, were aiming to evoke when they set up the campaign. Burger King decided that it would do the talking for this article rather than its agency and delegated the task to Brian Gies, a vice president of marketing who said he was not a member of Facebook and therefore had not participated in the “Whopper Sacrifice.”

Mr. Gies explained the marketing team’s thinking about Facebook. “It seemed to us that it quickly evolved from quality of friends to quantity,” he said, “which was interesting to us because it felt like the virtual definition of a friend became something different than the friends that you’d want to hang out with.”

I’m much too old to replace my social network—built over a lifetime of relationships the hard way: one at a time—with a technological construct of what friends mean. Now that children start at a very early age to build their worlds around technologies like Facebook, will they ever understand what friendship is. Can quantity ever trump quality? (Graphic credit: Shaun Handyside)

Waste Not, Want Not

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The NYTimes had a long story in the Sunday Business section about Wal-Mart and their green initiatives. The lede was all about the history behind Wal-Mart's decision to "go green." By going green, the company committed itself not only to putting products with lower footprints on the shelf but also to building the shelves themselves (and their stores in general) in a greener manner. While undoubtedly helpful in reducing the environmental load relative to the past, the impact of Wal-Mart and their program is not entirely clear. Responding to advocacy groups, and with the leadership of the then CEO, H. Lee Scott, they drank the green Kool-Aid.
In came the fluorescent bulbs. In 2007 alone, Wal-Mart sold more than 100 million of them. For a manufacturer, selling a bulb that lasts longer means fewer sold. But it would hurt to lose Wal-Mart as a customer. So G.E. and others ramped up production of fluorescent bulbs.
It is not at all clear that Wal-Mart lost anything by promoting compact fluorescents (CFL's). The cost of CFL's is higher than the cost of incandescent bulbs over the life of the CFL. The savings to the customer come back over the lifetime in reduced energy costs. It is the utility that is losing on this deal, not Wal-Mart. The next paragraph points to another facet of their green program.
By selling only concentrated liquid laundry detergent, an effort it began last year, Wal-Mart says, its customers will save more than 400 million gallons of water, 95 million pounds of plastic resin, 125 million pounds of cardboard and 520,000 gallons of diesel fuel over three years.
In one sense they are only now learning what Toyota has learned. Waste is always costly whether it is the customers buying goods that contain less material or whether the savings come in the production system. Unless the production of concentrated detergents is significantly more expensive that for traditional formulations, the new products should be cheaper than the old ones. Any time that much waste can be wrung out of the process, there should be savings. I haven't been to a Wal-Mart to check on the price of these improved detergents, but I suspect that such savings may not have been passed along. I am not criticizing the actions, but I am a bit skeptical of the implications that Wal-Mart is doing this to be a good citizen or respond to environmental group pressures. They are to be commended for every move they make to reduce the environmental footprint all along the supply chain. But I will not stand up and cheer until they figure out how to make money while, at the same time, they teach their customers to reduce consumption in the first instance. By making goods available cheaply to masses of consumers, they are contributing significantly to the overall efficiency of the economy. But where is all the capital that this creates going? If it is going primarily to more production and more consumption, then all the greening at Wal-Mart is of little consequence in the long run. As Keynes (much in the news these days) said, "Long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead." Unless we can reduce the global footprint, the long-run is likely to be a lot shorter.

Not for the Faint-at-heart

I came across a paper written a couple of years ago that makes very interesting reading. Collapse and Transformation , by D. M. Taylor and G. M Taylor is a not quite apocalyptic, but very close, rendering of the future we face.
There are only three possibilities for the future of civilization:

(a) Cascading environmental crises will rapidly escalate, producing uncontrollable economic and political crises. At some point these crises will cause the catastrophic collapse of the societal system. This process may produce irreversible damage to social and biophysical systems.

(b) Political and business leaders will proactively respond to the growing crises through supporting environmentally friendly technologies, introducing policies for sustainable development and preventing political unrest. These efforts will slow the rate of environmental destruction and help to extend the life of industrial civilization. However, attempts to improve the system without redesigning its unsustainable structure will ultimately fail. Over time efforts to manage crises will consume more and more scarce resources and industrial civilization will collapse.

(c) As regional and global crises increase and the world economy begins to fail, the ability of existing political and economic structures to influence and control people will weaken. Growing numbers of people will question the values of contemporary civilization and start to organize alternative structures. Maintaining and restoring large areas of the earth's biosphere will become an international priority. At this point a successful transformation to a sustainable societal system is possible if new values and technologies have already developed an appropriate worldview - one capable of organizing functional new social structures. Should this happen, the collapse of contemporary civilization will become a springboard for the evolution of a sustainable civilization.

But unlike many similar articles, the authors build their case on systems thinking and complexity. They argue that a robust and resilient sustainable society can emerge if we are able to capture and harness a new holistic worldview. They juxtapose values of the old industrial age against a new sustainable age. The list is very close to the pairs I present in my book. For example, holistic/integrative vs. rational/analytic; interdependence vs. individual achievement; systemic vs. mechanistic; and self-regulating vs. bureaucratic.

Sustainability MBAs

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I'm away from home for a few days visiting one of the very few business schools committed entirely to creating MBA's with sustainability as their core learning. Bainbridge Graduate Institute is now in its fifth year. I've been working with them from their start with a few years off. But I am back here during one of their weekend intensives. The program is based largely on distance learning plus a set of face-to-face weekends.

I am here to talk about sustainability in general and pair with my colleague, Tom Johnson, to teach a couple sessions of their sustainable operations course. I met Tom here some years ago and have learned much about Toyota and what makes it different from almost all other companies. Tom has written extensively about Toyota and its implications for management.

I am always moved by the commitment and energy of the students at BGI. BGI is certainly not coming from the same place as business schools in general. The curriculum has been honed to give them a basic education in the same business principles they might pick up at any other MBA program, and also to give them an alternate model that fits both their aspirations and, from my point of view, what kind of business will work in a world where sustainability is the primary vision.

Anyone who wants to understand what greening the campus and the curriculum really means should take a long hard look at BGI. It's not a place for everyone, but everyone can learn from it. The photo is from Islandwood, the nature learning facility, where their intensive weekends are held. Having the environment as part of one's classroom emphasizes and make real so much of what we teach and learn in our high-tech, often windowless classrooms,

Post-Inauguration Thoughts

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I watched the formal part of the inauguration ceremonies at the Lexington Library where a happy group gathered around a large screen. After the formalities, anyone that so desired added a one-minute request or suggestion to a videotape that was to be sent to the new President. Lexington is where the first shots for freedom were fired. I had an uncanny sensation that I was hearing a modern version of the first shots, but aimed at new targets.

What did all this have to do with sustainability? I believe a great deal. Sustainability is always, first, a possibility of realizing something good. In the broadest sense, as I develop in my book, that something is flourishing, a word that envelops so many human aspirations as well as those that might be voiced by the natural world, if, by magic, it could speak to us.

Possibility lives in language, but is constrained by realities in the world out there. As far as we know an apple can fall only down from a tree, no matter how much we might wish it to soar into the sky. One cannot be completely free until freedom comes to everyone on the planet. President Obama spoke of the possibility that has driven my country forward since is founding.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

This small piece of his address casts a hopeful light, and a willingness to deal with the realities of today's world, in the United States and elsewhere on the globe. The more we understand the reality of today's social and natural world, the larger is the space from which possibility springs.

Pragmatism in the White House

David Brooks' Inauguration Day column focuses on the ideological past that has so dominated government for the last 60 to 70 years. He hopes that what many expect will be a strong pragmatic framework in the Obama White House will return balance to the American political scene.
Part of that will be done with his governing style. Obama aims to realize the end-of-ideology politics that Daniel Bell and others glimpsed in the early 1960s. He sees himself as a pragmatist, an empiricist. Politics is not personal with him. He does not turn political disagreements into a status contest between one kind of person and another. He is convinced that most Americans practice their politics between the 40-yard lines.
My hope for Obama is that the type of pragmatism Brooks talks about will also guide him to policies and programs that reflect the complex nature of the "big" problems of the day. They should reflect our inability to understand them fully. They should facilitate learning and be capable of adaptation along the way. Including many voices in the governance process, as is Obama's style, is the best way toward understanding and addressing complexity.

What’s the Aim of Sustainable X?


In my last post, I define sustainability in a generic sense as the possibility of system to continue to deliver some desired outputs over a long time period. Sustainability defined this way is a noun connoting possibility, not any thing. I notice that I occasionally slip into using “ability” instead of “possibility.” Possibility is the better choice because ability suggests that we know how the system works and can describe what it can do. Complexity means that we cannot do this as a rule. In a limited sense, perhaps we can as long as the system is very near a stable point, but we lose our ability to predict the outcomes of any intervention we make as soon as it departs from there.

We always must define the end that we are seeking; sustainability without further modification has little meaning. I have chosen flourishing as the end because, as I have written, this word seems to capture the “good life” robustly. When we speak of sustainable X as in sustainable development, the end is not clear, per se. If one is not careful, the adjectival use of sustainable tends to focus attention on whatever it modifies. The fact that the X is usually only a means to get somewhere, not the end itself, is easily overlooked.

In the past several weeks, the blogosphere has been filled with lists of the best and worst instances of a wide variety of sustainable X’s. I looked at these and tried to guess what ends they has in mind. I’ll start with the grandparent of all, sustainable development. The means here is economic development. The ends are implicit in the idea of development, which is, at the simplest level, the idea that wealth is tantamount to the good life. For many, including myself, this identity is problematic and underlies the rise of the conditions signaling the unsustainability of our planetary system.

Next is sustainable business. What are the ends that business serves? Foremost, in our and other market economies, it provides goods and services demanded by people; jobs; and capital returns. None of these are ends directly associated with flourishing; they can, at most, be proper means. The ends are implicit and include the same one as above--that wealth is tantamount to well-being--and that choice in the market is related to freedom. The call for corporate social responsibility, now tightly coupled to sustainable business, is also only a means, and in many cases is directed at politically convenient targets. If consumption itself is a contributor to unsustainability, as others and I strongly believe, then if business truly wants to join the effort toward generating sustainability, it must critically examine what it is doing.

Next, sustainable buildings. Here the end is usually clear, reducing environmental unsustainability by technological improvements that, in turn, reduce demands for man-made energy. Very few architects include ends more directly attached to humans. The design of spaces affects our sense of community and self-realization. Peter Block points to this in his excellent book, Community: The Structure of Belonging. The architect, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Alexander has devoted his career to this subject. His latest work, a four-volume set entitled, The Nature of Order, argues that space exerts profound influence of life within it.

Sustainable design is another confusing and confused usage. Design, itself, does nothing. What is being designed; artifacts, structures, organizations, laws, syllabi, and so on, are means to some end. Without being more specific as to the ultimate ends, sustainable design has little inherent connection to sustainability as flourishing.

I have written several recent posts on the danger that sustainability was becoming just another buzzword, without a clear meaning. I was motivated, then, by a series of similar posts all saying much the same thing. This post comes out of some more thinking about the word, sustainability, and about the end it is connected to--flourishing in my writings. It also comes from the results of a Google search using “sustainable” as the search term. Here is the list of X’s that popped up in the first six pages (warning-it’s long): communities, development, table, specific place (Africa, Seattle . . .), agriculture, measures, tourism, investment, food, packaging, living, architecture, landscapes, gardening, style, tomorrow, spaces, transport, sources, seas, industry, conservation, energy, endowments, connections, sites, hospitals, cotton, city, and village. I am afraid that this linguistic habit will disguise the critically important ends because many of these categories describes activities that tinker only with the means.

Pre-inauguration Thoughts

ideas head tree.jpg

Today is the last day of the Bush Administration. There has been enough said about the state of the world he has left. It seems to me that sustainability, while spoken about at a much higher level than eight years ago, is much further away. Its distance is a consequence of very bad policies that continue to see the world as a resource to be plundered and managed for the benefit of those with the means to exploit it. But it is also the result of the models used to think about and act toward the problems we face. This administration has been, perhaps, the most ideological in my lifetime. Choices are dichotomous: good or. evil; black or white. Bush’s famous dislike of nuance translates into a sense of singularity. There is one right way to do everything. It is this mental model that I believe is more dangerous than the “solutions” it produces.

I have slowly come to see sustainability as a generic property of complex systems. Almost all the broad ends that have emerged in the civilizing process of humanity are emergent properties of complex systems, in many cases, the entire socio-technological-natural in which our species evolved. They were the linguistic inventions of perspicacious people who observed that something that the system generated was desirable. These qualities, like justice or goodness, slowly became the aims of civil society. A large part of philosophy became devoted to figuring out how to define these broad qualities in everyday terms and how to invent systems to produce and maintain them.

They were worried about sustainability, even if they never used the word itself. Sustainability is the possibility that a complex system will continue to produce some desired positive quality over time. It is really the property we desire, not sustainability itself. We might argue that the Soviet Union was not sustainable because it could not produce lasting equality, choice, freedom and so on. Apartheid was not sustainable because it could not produce justice, Jared Diamond writes of cultures that collapsed because they more or less destroyed the healthy ecosystems on which they depended for their own health. I use flourishing as the desired property because I believe it captures more of all the things we seek that any other single word.

Complexity is a term of art that means that the system being examined or observed produces some quality or state that cannot be analytically or deterministically described by some fixed law--mathematical or otherwise. We can learn much about these systems, but cannot treat them like machines that do what we have designed them to do. Those who would try to control complex systems as if they were machines may succeed, but rigid, singular approaches may also produce catastrophic shifts in the system where the desired ends metaphorically disappear into a cloud of smoke. Such was the case with the financial collapse and the chaos in Iraq. Those managing these situations mistakenly believed they knew how the system worked. Ideologies could be interpreted as a set of solutions to a class of problems that will always work. In some cases this is possible. I expect my car to start every time I turn the key. There is also always some probability that it won’t. My car may be complicated, but it is not “complex.” It is reasonable to fix it in these cases.

Complexity must be treated differently. Any solution to restore or change a failing system must be considered tentative. This is not a philosophical, ideological, political, or moral statement. It is simply a recognition of the nature of complex systems. The new President-elect has already shown us that he is less likely to act ideologically and more likely to follow a pragmatic path. Some of my colleagues and friends are disappointed that he may be less ideologically progressive than they wish. I tell them that progressivism is as much a commitment to pragmatism as it is to any particular set of policy solutions. The last thing we need in our new President is a distaste for nuance and a commitment to certainty.

He Raised the Ecological Ante

Arne Naess, who created the concept of deep ecology, passed away at the age of 96. Dot Earth has a summary of comments on his death. His views fueled some of the more radical environmental groups, but also created a serious dialogue among mainstream environmental thinkers. He was Norway's leading philosopher. His ecological philosophy was influential in shaping my early writings about sustainability.

A Positive Spin on the Financial Crunch

Seen from a British point of view.
It’s occurring to me that actually this economic downturn and the radical change this is likely to make to our lives could actually be a good thing. For one thing there is obviously a respite for the global atmosphere due to economic growth shrinking. OK so that’s coincidental and not planned shrinking but it perhaps widens the fast closing window of opportunity for us to put in place the kinds of radical changes we need to reverse runaway climate chaos. I tend to think that what some are seeing as a temporary set-back to the eternally escalating growth model is actually far more fundamental. I’m not sure the economy will look much like it does post Depression 2.0.

And if like me you buy into the perspective that all that economic growth-chasing affluenza has conned us into thinking it will bring us ‘good lives’, then actually the dulling of the background ‘buy buy buy’ noise might give citizens and the collective some head-space to tune into deeper resonating and more meaningful messages about the true meaning of meaning and flourishing etc. I know that sort of thinking sounds very hippyish and a bit daft to many - but some of you might agree with me?

. . . But I am hopeful that as we start to have to dig deeper into Citizen Values, to talk to and trust our neighbours and become more reliant on each other, we may find greater riches than we ever thought we had or could even dream of.

Not so different from my own thoughts from this side of the Atlantic.

Cute Quiz

Try this for size.

Taking a Short Break


(Credit to Dave Walker)

I'll be back in a few days.

Think Global--Buy Local


The idea of local economies is in the air. A few days ago I met with someone I met at my last book talk. It turns out he is working to establish a local economy in the town next door to Lexington where I live. Then in the last few days, two very interesting items about local economies turned up in my daily alerts and RSS feeds from websites featuring sustainability in some form or another.

WorldChanging has a story about local currencies, noting their emergence in faltering economies.The economic function of such currencies is to enable people under severe hardship conditions to trade with others in the community.

"In the last four years, there has been a renewed interest in local economy, local production," said Witt, executive director of the E. F. Schumacher Society, a Massachusetts-based think tank focused on local production. "It just skyrocketed with the collapse of the global economy."

Complementary forms of currency are nothing new, and they frequently appear when mainstream financial systems are in distress. Examples include Greenbacks during the American Civil War, and the British Bradbury "Treasury Notes" and German Kriegsgeld during the First World War.

Alternative currencies, in theory, encourage consumers to make purchases within their communities rather than elsewhere in the country or abroad. "Buying local" circulates wealth in the region, reduces unnecessary imports, and helps avoid higher unemployment levels, supporters say.

Orion Magazine republished a 2001 article by Wendell Berry. Berry was arguing that total economies, like Thomas Friedman's Flat Earth model, erode both economic security and freedom. We have, unfortunately, seen the first part of his prediction come to be.

If the government does not propose to protect the lives, livelihoods, and freedoms of its people, then the people must think about protecting themselves. How are they to protect themselves? There seems, really, to be only one way, and that is to develop and put into practice the idea of a local economy—something that growing numbers of people are now doing. For several good reasons, they are beginning with the idea of a local food economy. People are trying to find ways to shorten the distance between producers and consumers, to make the connections between the two more direct, and to make this local economic activity a benefit to the local community. They are trying to learn to use the consumer economies of local towns and cities to preserve the livelihoods of local farm families and farm communities. They want to use the local economy to give consumers an influence over the kind and quality of their food, and to preserve land and enhance the local landscapes. They want to give everybody in the local community a direct, long-term interest in the prosperity, health, and beauty of their homeland. This is the only way presently available to make the total economy less total. It was once, I believe, the only way to make a national or a colonial economy less total. But now the necessity is greater.
Perhaps one also begins to see the difference between a small local business that must share the fate of the local community and a large absentee corporation that is set up to escape the fate of the local community by ruining the local community.
So far as I can see, the idea of a local economy rests upon only two principles: neighborhood and subsistence. In a viable neighborhood, neighbors ask themselves what they can do or provide for one another, and they find answers that they and their place can afford. This, and nothing else, is the practice of neighborhood. This practice must be, in part, charitable, but it must also be economic, and the economic part must be equitable; there is a significant charity in just prices.

In these lines from the article, Berry points to two very important links between local economies and sustainability, One is the idea of subsistence or sufficiency. Production is limited to taking care of the community. The concept of care, the other link, is central to this way of relating to others. By bringing care to the surface, people in the community can shift their mode of living from having to being, an essential step in moving toward generating sustainability. WorldChanging again quoted Witt:

"You don't just go online and use the Berkshare [the local currency, shown in the photo]. You go down to Main Street stores, have a conversation with a shopkeeper, hear what it's like to do business in the community," Witt said. "It's a conversation. It's the building of citizenship. We're out of that habit. But when we re-establish the habits, we like it."

Although we use different words, Witt recognizes the shift that occurs when relationships become at least as important as the material transactions that take place. The meaning of "local" is more than a geographic boundary, it refers a place where individuals can rediscover what they care about and flourish. The rapid growth of connectivity via the Internet has greatly diminished awareness of place and its critical role in shaping one's identity and sense of being.

Bowing to Peer Pressure

Marketplace has this interesting audio .
A growing body of research shows the most effective way to get people to go green is not through do-good appeals, but rather peer pressure. Sarah Gardner reports on the latest research findings.
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It makes interesting listening and is worth the five minutes it takes. I do accept the findings that peer pressure is effective in bringing about changed behavior, but I also believe that this behavior modification method leaves existing belief structures in place. It good for reducing unsustainability. Great. But it does little or even may hinder the move to sustainability since the actor fails to realize his or her role in creating the very mess they want to clean up. Sustainability, as flourishing, rests solidly on restoring the human consciousness of our connections to the world and our responsibility for preventing the mess in the first place. Trying to fix the world after we have broken it is inevitably a losing game. Complex systems rarely return to the same old place.

Handle With Care

Complexity researchers, Reinette Biggs, Stephen R. Carpenter, and William A. Brock, in a new article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Only the abstract that follows is freely available to the general public. They point to the danger of waiting until signs of collapse cannot be ignored. By then the collapse may be inevitable. (Hat tip to Garry Peterson)
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Ecological regime shifts are large, abrupt, long-lasting changes in ecosystems that often have considerable impacts on human economies and societies. Avoiding unintentional regime shifts is widely regarded as desirable, but prediction of ecological regime shifts is notoriously difficult. Recent research indicates that changes in ecological time series (e.g., increased variability and autocorrelation) could potentially serve as early warning indicators of impending shifts. A critical question, however, is whether such indicators provide sufficient warning to adapt management to avert regime shifts. We examine this question using a fisheries model, with regime shifts driven by angling (amenable to rapid reduction) or shoreline development (only gradual restoration is possible). The model represents key features of a broad class of ecological regime shifts. We find that if drivers can only be manipulated gradually management action is needed substantially before a regime shift to avert it; if drivers can be rapidly altered aversive action may be delayed until a shift is underway. Large increases in the indicators only occur once a regime shift is initiated, often too late for management to avert a shift. To improve usefulness in averting regime shifts, we suggest that research focus on defining critical indicator levels rather than detecting change in the indicators. Ideally, critical indicator levels should be related to switches in ecosystem attractors; we present a new spectral density ratio indicator to this end. Averting ecological regime shifts is also dependent on developing policy processes that enable society to respond more rapidly to information about impending regime shifts.
Ex ante arguments that the cost of acting prematurely before everything is known about the future would depress economic growth do not fit this model. It calls for more investment in understanding and the implementation of pragmatic, adaptive policies. The existing procedures for adopting policies to cope with complex realities like global climate change or global financial systems pick the winners by some sort of cost/benefit analysis. But this always involves making predictions of the future state at the same time that complexity research points increasingly toward the inability to predict what such a state would be and when it might abruptly appear.

Learning from India

In an interview on the E-Commerce Times, environmental educator Trudy Heller shows how we can learn sustainability from other parts of the world.
In Shillong, I would leave the guest house each morning and walk out into a scene from a sustainable economy. In the driveway and walkways, four or five women were employed sweeping up debris that had fallen from the trees during the previous night's rain. Each woman worked with a biodegradable sweeper made of broom grass, a locally grown agricultural product.

This tableau of a sustainable economy was striking to my Western senses. The system provided employment, used biodegradable, locally sourced products, and produced an excellent result -- cleared walkways and driveways -- without noise or air pollution disturbing the academic community.

At home in the United States, the problem of removing debris from driveways and walkways would be managed with an entirely different solution. A single worker equipped with a gasoline-powered tool would be hired to blow the debris off the pavement.

This solution would disturb the community with noise and air pollution, burn fossil fuel, emit carbon dioxide -- a greenhouse gas -- and provide employment for a single individual. With sustainability as the standard, it is easy to see which is the more "advanced" solution.

When asked what she meant by sustainability she replied:
In his new book, Sustainability by Design, John Ehrenfeld suggests a definition for sustainability as "the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever." Sustainability is, by this definition, a vision and a mindset. In my trip to India, sustainability became a standard against which I measured practices that were new to me.

Rather than seeing the West as the standard of environmentally sustainable practices and India as an emerging economy that is trying to catch up, I saw opportunities for both East and West to learn from each other.

This conversation points to an entirely different path from the dominant "western" approach of eco-efficient, technological "solutions" in one form or another. The still unconventional idea in the United States of local economies is the norm in many parts of the rest of the world.

More Buzzword Talk from the UK

Still finding stories about sustainability becoming a buzzword. From the Guardian:
The Centre for Policy Studies has published its 2009 lexicon of "contemporary newspeak" (ie irritating jargon) and it seems to have identified "sustainability" as the worst offender. In his preface, Bill Jamieson writes:
Few words have become more heavily used or abused in government or corporate affairs than "sustainable". It now occupies a lofty position in the towering hierarchy of buzzwords. It is commonplace today to stick the word "sustainable" in front of almost anything, to talk of "sustainable development", "sustainable transport", "sustainable housing", "sustainable communities" and so on.
I've been carping about this for a long time. Sustainable is any adjectival usage is always about the survival of whatever it is modifying. It does not have to be this way. Sustainability (a noun), in general terms, is the possibility that a complex system, like the Planet Earth, that we rely on to generate some desirable properly will continue to deliver it for a very long time. In today's troubled world, I point to flourishing as the property that is threatened, even missing. Since sustainability always implies continuing something desirable into the future, it can never be more than a possibility. The mistake made with the financial system that has collapsed was that the operators and regulators believed that they could predict its future state within some probability. In truth, the system is technically complex for which type of system future states can never be predicted reliably. The expectation that they will be in a particular state tomorrow is always only a non-numeric possibility, not some numeric probability.

Seeing (RED)©

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Coffee cup.jpeg

A few weeks ago during a break at a conference I was attending, I wandered into the Starbucks in the hotel lobby and ordered a coffee. I am not much of a coffee drinker these days, but I felt the need for some liquid refreshment. I generally prefer Peets anyway because they have great teas, and still make espresso the right way by hand tamping. Starbucks’ push button technology smoothes out all the variations that makes life interesting.

But what really caught my attention was the paper insulating band. The first item I noticed was a promise to donate a nickel to the Global Fund for every purchase of a (RED)© exclusive beverage which were listed as: Peppermint Mocha Twist, Gingersnap Latte, and Espresso Truffle. (RED)© is a program to raise funds for the Global Fund through donations by participating firms, like Starbucks, Apple, and others with very well-known brands. If people were really interested in “saving lives in Africa,” it would seem more effective if they simply would forgo one of these exotic drinks and send the money directly. It shouldn’t be necessary to buy something as a quid pro quo for a charitable, caring act. Somehow there is something strange about this message.

But what really caught my eye was Starbucks’ implicit boasting about how they were taking care of the planet. Next to a trademarked logo depicting a coffee bean inside of some sort of frame, I read these words: “Starbucksâ„¢ Shared Planetâ„¢. It’s bigger than coffee.” I surely hope so. Why any firm would even think of comparing what they do or sell to the Planet we live on is beyond me. I seems to me that humility is called for, not arrogance or some overly inflated sense of a corporate ego.

Nipping "Green" in the Budzword


Green Inc. sort of recognizes some irony in the name of their blog.


Do blogs like Green Inc. (and its predecessor, The Business of Green) have something to answer for?

People and companies employing the word “green” in environmental contexts are guilty of “mis-use, over-use, general uselessness,” according to Lake Superior State University in Michigan, which last week unveiled its results from an annual survey - it’s 34th - of words that should be banished.

“Environmental buzzwords are getting the axe this year,” the university said in a statement. “‘Green’ and ‘going green’ received the most nominations,” the university announced on New Year’s Eve…

Valerie Gilson, a commenter from Gales Ferry, Conn., added: “I’m all for being environmentally responsible, but this ‘green’ needs to be nipped in the bud.”

This is the second article pointing to the dangers of overuse of a word I spotted in the last few days. See my earlier post.

Water With Intentionâ„¢

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A few days ago I picked Fiji water as my first choice in Marketplace’s list of greenwashing candidates for 2008 and added another. Here is still another one that might top the list: H2Om. You can buy a case online in these varieties: Perfect Health, Love, Prosperity, Gratitude, Will Power, Joy, and Peace for only $34.95. Besides simply thirst quenching, this water will bring you whatever the label says. “Vibrationally charged via words, colors, music, and You!” You simply have to, “Think it While You Drink It®”

The company mission


Our Mission is to create awareness and education on world water issues, recycling, and the welfare of the planet, while inspiring people to individually generate positive energy in their lives, and in their communities.

We strive to have a positive affect on our culture and the Earth while we pay respect to the sacred life force that exists in our Water.

doesn’t quite fit the marketing message. The critical water issue today is not its mystical powers, but the lack of potable water for so many people for whom a few pennies a day would make a huge difference.

Is Sustainability Becoming Another Buzzword?


Among all the year-end recaps of 2008, a International Herald Tribune Culture column about design appeared to give sustainability a rousing cheer with a headline reading, “2008: The year that substance and sustainability reigned.” But reading further, the story was more about damning with faint praise. On the trend in design, their assessment is hardly consistent with sustainability. The article featured Nacho Carbonell’s “Evolution bench,” a highlight at the 2008 Milan Furniture Fair.


It’s ugly and ungainly. The colors are dirty, and it has a very strange shape. You can sit on it (though not very comfortably) by perching on either end, but what’s with the cave-like cocoon in the middle? Duh. The designer says he put it there so you can crawl inside to hide from the horrors of modern life…

Disturbing shapes and dystopian subplots made survivalism the cool design aesthetic of 2008…

Sustainability was the buzzword in consumer design as companies raced to develop eco-responsible cars, trucks, and whatever to make their customers feel ethically and environmentally comfortable.

Granted that this was a tough year for many, sustainability is more than surviving, and I hope is more than just a buzzword. Buzzwords may be thought to imply cultural acceptance, but here are a couple of different reasons to use these idioms:

  • [To produce] thought-control via intentional vagueness. In management, by stating organization goals with opaque words of unclear meaning; their positive connotations prevent questioning of intent, especially when many buzzwords are used.

  • To inflate the trivial to importance and stature.

If we don’t take sustainability seriously, we may end up having to buy one of Carbonell’s chairs.

Sustainability Resolutions for 2009 (ctd)


Matt May offers an important prescription for moving toward sustainability in 2009. The path to sustainability can be much shorter and straighter if you follow his formula: create a "stop-doing" list.

I suddenly realized that I had been looking at the problem in the wrong way. As is natural and intuitive, I had been looking at what to do, rather than what to not do. But as soon as I shifted my perspective, the vaunted Toyota Production System became for me a study of what wasn’t there, and of how and what to stop doing. The Lexus line of cars, which had by then become America’s leading luxury nameplate, was suddenly a shining example of eliminating anything that lacked passion and perfection. The singular thought that what isn’t there can often be as or more powerful than what is presented me with a completely different view of the world. In fact, it presented an altogether unique reality—and a life-changing one, at that.

It's how the concept of elegance -- which is by and large a subtractive approach -- took shape in my work and life.

It may be much easier to stop doing what you know is not really working than searching for the right solution to the problem you have created. Then you will find what you really care about. Problems don't exist out there in the world. You create them in conversations to yourself and others. Great sculpture is the result of what has been taken away.