July 2009 Archives

Radical Transparency (Continued)

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Some weeks ago, I wrote a post critical of or maybe just skeptical of the claims of radical transparency made by Dan Goleman in his book, Ecological Intelligence. This followed a post about the consumer information website, GoodGuide. Goleman sees this new way of shaping consumer choice as a prime example of radical transparency, defined as providing enough information to a buyer so as to shift choice towards the best performing products according to a complex sustainability scoring system.

I saw the complexity to be the antithesis of transparency. Today I read an article on Greener Design that makes the same argument. It's always nice to have company, especially when taking a critical or oppositional point of view. The argument was embedded in a piece about the difference between the way information is used in business-to-business (B2B) transactions and business-to-consumer (B2C) relationships.

Jason Pearson, CEO of the research and design institute GreenBlue starts with this summary.

In the context of the recent GreenBiz debate about radical transparency, I believe the following three points are critical:

  1. Business-to-business (B2B) transparency is a powerful engine for sustainability.
  2. Real-life examples of B2B transparency as an engine for sustainability already exist.
  3. Contrary to comments on GreenBiz that the consumer website GoodGuide is a model of transparency, by our standard GoodGuide is a well-intentioned but not transparent endeavor, and it is counterproductive to hold it up as such a model.

The difference Pearson notes is primarily due to the complexity inherent in any sustainability scoring system that attempts to aggregate many factors into a single index. Pearson believes that businesses are used to and can cope successfully with this complexity. Consumers look for just the opposite, simplicity, and are confounded and put off by the complexity. Pearson writes:

GoodGuide clearly recognizes that consumers expect simplicity in making decisions. But to achieve this simplicity, the website sacrifices transparency and pretends to a level of precision it does not achieve.

Transparency would be full disclosure of the algorithms used to compute the numbers. Transparency would be full disclosure of the underlying data. Transparency would be full disclosure of the level of uncertainty embedded in these calculations.

Even after noting the self-interest of GreenBlue (they have their own set of sustainability criteria and focus strongly on B2B), Pearson raises important questions about GoodGuide and the effectiveness of complex sustainability indices in general. All this does not mean that these system are not useful, only that radical transparency is too strong a descriptor. This kind of labeling is my major concern. It promises more than it is able to deliver.

I have similar concerns about the potential utility of the recently announced Wal-Mart sustainability index. It may help Wal-Mart's suppliers to work their way toward best practices, but it is unlikely to guide customers to the "right" sustainability products, even if such products do really exist. And that is a question to examine another day.

Can Greener Equal Better?

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Joel Makower has a recent column asking why greener doesn’t or can’t equate to “better.” Here’s his list of what kinds of categories determine better products in consumers’ values.

• cheaper to buy

• cheaper to own

• enhanced features

• healthier

• higher performance

• improves my image

• innovative

• less wasteful

• more convenient

• more durable

• more stylish

• repairable

• reusable

• upgradeable

• uses less energy

All except the last items on the list refer to some utility for the user. Makower concedes that his argument takes a narrow view of people’s preferences.

I'll admit this is a very selfish view of the world. It assumes that most people, when making purchase decisions, don't think much beyond their own immediate needs, or those of their family. And while there are exceptions to that (and I'm sure that you, dear reader, are among those who always consider the greater good), the vast majority of consumers focus primarily on their immediate needs and interests. Which is why most green products remain niche products, and likely always will.

I fully agree with his main thesis, but not with his claim of the inevitability of the status quo. Yes, it is and will continue to be very difficult to change the calculus that people use to make choices in the market place, if you believe that choice is some rational outcome. But if you start with a different model of choice, based more on the influence of cultural norms, the possibility of change grows larger. Today these norms overwhelmingly favor internal utilities rather than external factors. If our beliefs ever include the consciousness that concern for the world and concern for our selves are intimately connected, the long list of “betters” would include many related to the connection of the potential purchase to external factors. When both psychological and sociological values line up as they do now, however, Makower’s pessimism is hard to dispel. But it is not inevitable.

Greener products do nothing or little to change consumers self-directed consciousness. Actors separate their self-directed actions from those primarily directed toward others and the environment. By buying what they think are greener (better) products, they may mistakenly come to believe that they are making the world better. This kind of assessment is never going to be grounded because the consumer cannot judge what impact his purchase is actually making in the world, only how he or she feels about what they did. And that will inevitably influenced or determined by what some "authority' says about it. I think this is the more likely reason that greener products will not equate to better products.

The photo today is a 2009 Greener Gadgets award winner, The Power Hog.

Power-Hog is a power consumption metering piggy bank designed to sensitize kids to energy cost associated with running electronics devices. Plug the tail into the outlet and the device into the snout; feed a coin to meter 30 minutes of use.

The New Economics

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My book rests largely on a critique of modernity, particularly the hegemonic use of technology to solve every problem, large and small. The few chapters offer a framework for remedying what I see as the root causes of unsustainability. But it is rather modest and focused on using technology to carry new ideas and practices into daily life, and slowly changing current cultural behavior patterns. Over and above what I have written, I have often been asked what can “I” do by many readers and others concerned about sustainability.

This is a difficult and perplexing question for me. The focus in the book was largely on re-designing everyday artifacts to express new values and practices consistent with sustainability. The two-button toilet was my prime example--a device that, simply by using it as designed, would make us consciousness of our place within and our connections to the world, and, at the same time, generate responsible, caring actions. If enough people would start to act in a sustainability way, at some point we could reach a tipping point. The societal norms would then drive the collective in the right way. This is the bottoms-up, subversive way to sustainability. I favored it because I believe that a top-down approach wold be resisted and probably stymied by the existing power structures.

At the same time, I recognized that top-down institutional change would also be, if not necessary, an effective change agent. But not just any change. Any change would have to be based on a new set of beliefs and norms, far from those implicated in bringing us unsustainability. I came across just such a set of practices and beliefs while doing a book review. The book is The New Economics of Sustainable Consumption: Seeds of Change, by Gill Seyfang.

As I do, Seyfang criticizes the underpinnings and policy consequences of the neo-classical model of a modern economy. But her main thrust is to describe what has become a movement in the UK, centered on a new set of economic principles. The movement grows on foundations laid by E. F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful), Manfred Max-Neef, Paul Ekins, Kenneth Boulding (Spaceship Earth), and others. The economic model rests on new definitions and understandings for wealth, work, money, and the place of ethics in economics. I will return to discuss each of these concepts in the future.

This movement have been ripening in the UK since 1986 and continues to be developed and disseminated by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). The ideas show up in five areas of implementation: localization, reducing individual ecological footprints, building community, taking collective action to transform the status quo, and building new infrastructure for the provisioning of everyday goods and services. I will also come back to a fuller discussion of each of these in future posts. Here in the US, we see some of these involved in the creation of local economies using local currencies, CSA farm cooperatives, buying less impactful products, co-housing experiments, and many others. The numbers of people changing their life style to some form of “sustainable consumption” is growing here, according to surveys about LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability). The boundaries between these practices are fuzzy and many practices combine several of them.

The power of these ideas lies in the possibility of transformation directly among and by people concerned about sustainability. Using everyday artifacts for transformation depends on the willingness of companies to design, manufacture, and market them. Top-down change is important because established rules and infrastructure pose barriers or, conversely, can be tweaked to promote these new concepts. This approach to “sustainable consumption” should become part of the sustainability arsenal everywhere. In searching for connected information about the new economics in any context, I found the highest concentration in the UK. In the US, pockets of activities cluster about “green” places, like western Massachusetts or Seattle, but little elsewhere. Perhaps the difference is due to the island economy of the UK. They have known the limits of their circumstances for a long time. We here in the States still act mostly as if our economic world has no bounds. This is one of the illusions of neo-classic economics. Maybe the world is flat, as Tom Friedman describes it, but it surely has limits. I find the story about the new economics very positive and helps me keep my pessimism at bay. More to come.

Sustainability--I Can Can’t Get It for You Wholesale

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Synchronicity, the experience of very closely related events coming at essentially the same time, always alerts me to be very aware of what is going on around me. This time the awareness started a few days ago when I read a book review in the New York Times of Ellen Ruppel Schell’s new book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. It continued when I watched the film, Food Inc. which showed the dangers of becoming dependent on only a few sources for the stuff we eat.

Then, today, I got our weekly email from the farmer who operates the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm we own a summer share in. It has been raining heavily for much of the summer so I expected a disappointing report for this week's distribution. What I got was indeed disappointing but not due to the dampness. Seth, the farmer, reported that both the potatoes (due in some weeks) and the tomatoes (see the photo for the effects of this blight) were badly infested with late blight.

Dreaded late blight has arrived to this farm. Over the weekend we discovered late blight in our potatoes. This fungus is very destructive to potatoes and tomatoes and when conditions are right can take down an entire crop in a few days. We are trying to manage the infection in the potatoes and hope to keep it localized to a few varieties but it will affect our yields considerably. Late blight is something we deal with almost every year but usually don’t see it arrive until September or October -once the affected crops are done with harvest. This year the infection is earlier and stronger than usual because infected seedlings were brought into the northeast from the Alabama to be sold at Walmart, Home Depot and Lowes. These plants quickly released spores into the air, which the cold wet weather provided the perfect conditions to spread. There is currently late blight reported from Maryland to Ohio to Northern Maine. You can read more about this problem in a NY Times article. Please try and buy your plants from local producers next year!

The connection to the big box stores is disturbing, partly because of their volume. The Times story is more extensive, but also makes a case for tracking the disease to these chains.

Mr. Mishanec said agricultural pathogens can easily spread when plants are distributed regionally and sold by big-box retailers.

“Farms are inspected, greenhouses are inspected,” he said, “but garden centers aren’t, and the people who work there aren’t trained to spot disease.”

These stories are all consistent. Cheaper goods from big box retailers and from manufacturing oligopolies come with a hidden or sometimes not so hidden cost. The cost comes in damage to the system in places and times far from the check-out stations. For those concerned about sustainability--something everybody should be--the price must be paid now or later. Paying it now is both cheaper and much fairer. Ruppel Schell’s book is full of examples where either the environment or workers is working for us without any or appropriate compensation.

Food, Inc.

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I went to see Food, Inc. last night. The showing was in a funky, mostly organic food restaurant cinema combination here in Brunswick, Maine. Appropriately the ticketing is on the honor system. I had read Michael Pollan's, The Omnivore's Dilemma some time ago so some of the film was familiar. Most of the reviews of the film I read had focused on the gore and gristly shots of the life and death of chickens, beef, and porkers. The film lives up to this aspect.

But what I found most disconcerting was the parts of the film that exposed the way Food, Inc. operates. After having just suffered the effects of a collapse of a financial system that was "too large to fail," I see the same situation in the food industry. The food industry is basically owned and operated by a handful of companies, each working hard to become even larger. The largest beef producer, BPI, has somewhere about 20% share of all the ground beef that is manufactured (not grown), and the owner boasted that he was hoping to own 100% of the market.

It's hard to think of anything more central to sustainability than food. Without adequate and healthy food, no one, even in affluent America, can flourish. It is clear to me, and to the producers of the film, that, as the industry has become more and more efficient, it has become less and less resilient. Some errant mutation in Roundup Ready soybeans could wipe out the whole crop. Some 94% of all soybeans start with Monsanto's genetically-modified seeds. Maybe these seeds represent a great technological step forward, but they are wiping out any vestiges of how faming came to be. Patent-based prohibitions against seed saving, the traditional faming way, run counter to sustainability. Roundup Ready corn, canola, and cotton are also now on or coming to the market.

Much like the way the financial industry captured the regulatory functions of the Government, Food, Inc. has done much the same. It is welcome news that the Obama Administration may be reversing this pernicious practice with the appointment of Margaret Hamburg as Commissioner. She comes with no ties to the drug or food industry, but rather with a distinguished record in public health.

This is a film that anyone concerned about sustainability should see. It is more than a film just about food. The way that both animals and human beings are being treated by these giant manufacturing firms (to think of them as farms is a misnomer) is about as far from any conception of sustainability as I can imagine. The impact on your and my health is not wonderful. I would imagine our genes are as antagonistic to all the artificial stuff we ingest as is corn a burden to fish and cows. Efficiency is a great concept. It has brought a better life to many world-wide, but this film shows its limits. In a system dependent on living beings, both as inputs and consumers, it is very dangerous to push it as hard as it is being pushed. Global warming is capturing most of the headlines these days, but this is another critical system that is being stressed beyond some prudent limit. If or when it does collapse, the impact will be much more serious than the loss of credit or asset values.

Here a Label; There a Label

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Just to make sure that I do not come off as as a sustainability Scrooge, I want to follow my last post about Wal-Mart with some comments from the cyberspace. The number of news and others articles about the Wal-Mart announcement is very large, not surprising as it is truly a big deal. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, writing on her blog in the Harvard Business Press says:

Wal-Mart's unilateral decision to put its purchasing and communication power behind going green also shows that a single company using its unique clout can accelerate public action to reduce greenhouse gases and reverse climate change.

Joel Makower, always an informed voice on issues like this sees two aspects in his summary, Walmart's Sustainability Index: The Hype and the Reality.

My assessment: Like so many things related to both Walmart and sustainability, there is both more and less going on here than meets the eye.

The whole story is only slowly taking shape. Although Wal-Mart labeled their project as creating a Sustainability Index (their capitalization), it is starting as something else. This description is taken from the remarks of Mike Duke, President and CEO of Wal-mart.

So today, we’re announcing that we will lead the creation of a Sustainability Index. The Index will bring about a more transparent supply chain, drive product innovation and, ultimately, provide consumers the information they need to assess the sustainability of products.

At least for a few years, the system will consist of the answers of a set of 15 questions being posed to every supplier to Wal-mart. Again, Joel Makower notes,

As for the 15 questions. Well, they're a start. Taken together, they set a fairly middling bar, the kinds of things that some leadership companies have been doing for a decade or more. And because they deal with the company, and not its products, they omit some fairly critical details. Among them: they don't mention toxic materials used in manufacturing or in the products themselves. They don't talk about the energy efficiency of products or their recyclability or other disposition at the end of their useful lives. One need only compare Walmart's Index to Nike's Considered Index, which goes deep into product details, to see how relatively primitive it is. There are equally good examples from several other companies.

I do not doubt the good intentions behind Wal-mart's move, but I am still concerned that the result will be perverse to the intended outcomes. Makower thinks that this is not simply a greenwashing program. Yes, but the ways it is taking off and the shape it will take, based only on these preliminary data, more or less doom it to end up as a form of greenwashing. For me, greenwashing is any form of communication that hides the reality of what is involved in the action from the actors: consumers in this case. Simply calling it an index is misleading. And using Sustainability in capital letters suggests it is really related to sustainability. It is, but only in part, and that is what constitutes greenwashing, unless Wal-Mart is very, very clear about what it is and what it isn't. And even if they are clear, I am skeptical that their customers will pay close enough attention to understand that buying only products rated as OK (whatever that will be) is not enough to preserve the environment and the social system. It will take an enormous, perhaps impossible, exercise of self-control by Wal-Mart to provide equivalent information on the critical limits of their Index. Their situation is like that of the drug ads on TV where the critical qualifiers are read at lightning speed.

A number of commentators said that this move was going to raise the consciousness of millions to sustainability, and that this is a very good thing. Yes, but. These many people may perhaps add the word sustainability to their vocabulary, but with little sense of what it is all about and, similarly, little understanding about what it takes to attain it. We are a nation of obese people in spite of all the information about the composition of the food we consume. Information can go only so far. What is needed is fundamental change in consumer behavior. Sustainability Indexes and calories counts are clearly not enough.

Twas Brillig and the Slithy Toves. . .

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Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky (John Tenniel’s original image is pictured here) is often quoted as an example of nonsense, but nonsense that has become familiar to a large audience. We will be seeing a different kind of example shortly when Wal-Mart releases details of their much anticipated “Sustainability Index.” Widely reported in the media, the news sends a couple of shivers up my spine. Slate has a long and informative story.

The giant retailer ($406 billion in revenues in 2008) is developing an ambitious, comprehensive, and fiendishly complex plan to measure the sustainability of every product it sells. Wal-Mart has been working quietly on what it calls a “sustainability index” for more than a year, and it will take another year or two for labels to appear on products. But the company’s grand plan-“audacious beyond words” is how one insider describes it-has the potential to transform retailing by requiring manufacturers of consumer products to dig deep into their supply chains, measure their environmental impact, and compete on those terms for favorable treatment from the world’s most powerful retailer.

My immediate concerns arise from three sources. The first is the meaningfulness of any “sustainability” index. The second is the inherent greenwashing that comes in any index labeled as “green” or “sustainability.” And the third asks whatever happened to consumer sovereignty. The power of a single enterprise to create a formidable force to guide consumers to products they (and others) claim are superior runs counter to every tenet of a free market. I’ll start with the last and work backwards.

Completely free markets operate only when everyone involved in transactions has perfect information. Supporters of labeling information and certifications argue that this kind of information begins to level the playing field, countering the usual situation where the seller and producer know much more than the buyer. But when the seller is the source of information, especially when that information is not transparent, there is much room for misconceptions and manipulation.

The name of the index to be announced is the source of my second concern. By naming an index as a measure of the relative sustainability of something, the buyer thinks that every purchase she makes is the “right” one for the world. But that is nonsense. Sustainability is a property of the whole global environmental system. And although individual efforts can contribute to lessening the impact on the environment, they do not add up to sustainability. The opposite effect is likely to overwhelm any gains; consumers buying products according to their sustainability index value will tend to become satisfied that they are doing their part and stop acting in other ways to bring about sustainability.

The most serious concern is that any index is fundamentally the result of a set of value choices made by the developers of the index, no matter what scientific claims are made. See my comments about “Goodguide” the websource of similar data. How much more important is global warming than sweat shops or whatever else is to go into the composite measure? How accurate will the index be? I will have to wait until the details are announced to comment further. But if this index is like others that have been developed, I am already skeptical about its meaning. Are the values and choices of what to include and what to omit representing Wal-mart’s and the others involved in creating the system? Should they be?

Wal-Mart insider describes the effort as “audacious.” I’m afraid that it will be. But look at how Webster defines the word. I am sure the spokesperson was using #3, but, even with very limited information at this moment, I would guess either of the other two to be more fitting.

1 : intrepidly daring : adventurous b: recklessly bold : rash

2: contemptuous of law, religion, or decorum : insolent

3: marked by originality and verve

Check Out My Interview in Sloan Management Review

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An extended interview with the Michael S. Hopkins, Editor-in-Chief of the Sloan Management Review has been published on the web. This is one of a series of interviews about sustainability as seen by a group of people with ties to MIT. Here is what the SMR says about this series.

The MIT Sustainability Interview features thought leaders from arenas as diverse as management, urban studies, history, energy science, civil engineering, and design. The conversations are wildly varied, but at root their goal is to help leading managers answer two crucial questions: “As sustainability—economic, environmental, social, and personal—becomes the defining business issue of our times, what decisions will I need to face, and what will I need to know when I face them?

You can also read my recent Plenary talk for the 5th Biennial International Conference of the International Society for Industrial Ecology. The slides are in a separate file.

There's Something Wrong With This Picture

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This story, Greening the Coffee Capsule, doesn’t work for me. It’s a little like the ads touting “green luxury.”

Summer Slowdown

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Summer has finally come to Maine at least for a few days. I will try to enjoy it while it lasts. The forecasts are showing more rain and overcast skies. Family and friends will be arriving over the next few weeks. I'll be posting articles I find interesting and relate to sustainability in some way without much comment of my own.

I have been following the writer of this piece, Umair Haque, for a while. While we are of different generations, I resonate with his thoughts. It must be quite a stretch for the Harvard Business Press to maintain his postings. He has just published a Manifesto for Generation M that is full of talk about sustainability, as I define it, without ever mentioning the S word. I put a lot less emphasis on the digital world than he does, but that is probably due to the generational difference between us. I've yet to acquire an iPod or iPhone, although I have owned almost every Macintosh model since they hit the market.

Paul Hawken's Commencement Address

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Every so often, you read something that everyone should read. Paul Hawken gave this year’s commencement address to the graduating class at the University of Portland. Here’s the link. Every paragraph is memorable, but this one gives the flavor od the whole speech.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.

The Transition Initiative

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I am a new subscriber to Orion Magazine after reading selected articles for some time. Their move to offer a web-based edition eliminated my last reason to avoid more paper coming in the mail. I can’t think of a better way to discover and read well-written articles evoking both the dreadful state of the world and powerful ways to change the situation. This is not a place for those whose approach to sustainability is to green everything. The current issue, July/August 2009, has a number of articles worth reading. I have already just posted an entry about an article questioning the efficacy of individual actions in turning the tide of unsustainability.

Another article, The Transition Initiative, argues quite the opposite: that individuals, empowered by involvement in a community, can prepare for a future reflecting both the realities of climate change and the finiteness of the Earth’s resources and also the fulfillment of the fundamental human concerns about relationships with others. The idea of the Transition Initiative is to start preparing for the effects of climate change and peak oil now. Central is the building of community ties and reconnecting to the Other.

Many people today experience a strange hollow in the psyche, a hole the size of a village. Mandy Dean alludes to this when she explains why she was drawn to the Transition Initiative: “One of the awful things about modern culture is separation and isolation; we’ve broken down almost every social bond, so the one bond left is between parent and child. In this extreme isolation, we don’t interact except with the television and the computer. We’ve lost something, and we don’t know what it is, and we try to fill it with food and alcohol and shopping but it’s never filled—what we’ve lost is our connection to our community, our place, and nature. Stepping back away from that isolation is very healing for people; getting people into groups where they can do things together starts to reverse that isolation.”

The central premise of this movement, now rapidly spreading in the UK, is that the right scale for action and change is at the community, not individual or national scale.

Many people feel that individual action on climate change is too trivial to be effective but that they are unable to influence anything at a national, governmental level. They find themselves paralyzed between the apparent futility of the small-scale and impotence in the large-scale. The Transition Initiative works right in the middle, at the scale of the community, where actions are significant, visible, and effective. “What it takes is a scale at which one can feel a degree of control over the processes of life, at which individuals become neighbors and lovers instead of just acquaintances and ciphers… participants and protagonists instead of just voters and taxpayers. That scale is the human scale,” wrote author and secessionist Kirkpatrick Sale in his 1980 book, Human Scale.

The Transition Initiative fits well into the concept of Sustainability by Design. Community is a critical cultural concept for sustainability. It carries a sense of a system, not individual, isolated actors, as the functional unit. The specific practices, described in the article, build directly on caring for both the Earth and the Other, and can help restore a sense of what it is to be human. Community is deeply engrained in our cultural DNA, but has been pushed far into the shadows by the narcissism and individualism of our modern culture. The proponents of the program have done a very careful job of balancing the stark realities of the present and future with a positive and hopeful vision.

“We’re doing work for generations to come,” says Giangrande. You can’t change a place overnight, he says, but you have to begin now in the necessary urgency of our time. “We’re facing a historical moment of choice—our actions now [are] affecting the future. Now’s the time. The system we know is breaking down. Yet out of this breakdown, there are always new possibilities.” It’s catagenesis, the birth of the new from the death of the old. The process is “so creative and so chaotic,” says Giangrande. “Let it unfold—allow it—the key is not to direct it but to encourage it. We’ve developed the A to C of transition. The D to Z is still to come.” Brave, this, and very attractive. It is catalytic, emergent, and dynamic, facing forward with a vivid vitality but backlit with another kind of ancient sunlight: human, social energy. 

Can Individual Actions Create Sustainability?

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Derrick Jensen (I apologize for the earlier misidentification of the author), writing in Orion Magazine, doesn’t think so, or, more accurately, he thinks only conscious acts of political opposition can work. I agree in part. Unsustainability is fundamentally a result of failure to understand the world social-economic system and to act solely to solve an apparent problem in a miniscule part of it. Individual acts to reduce their impact on the environment do help in the short run, but fail to address the parts of the system responsible for its failings. System dynamicists call this pattern, “shifting-the-burden.”

WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?

Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet?

Jensen argues that it is the culture and political economy that fool us into thinking we are doing our part. I do most certainly agree. He uses the term, double bind, to describe the apparent choices we have. His use is not quite the same as what Gregory Bateson meant when he coined the phrase. The actions Dempsey discusses are simply not effective, not mutually contradictory as in a double bind. Bateson was one of the first to recognize the systemic character of many of life’s dilemma’s, saying,”Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished.”

Jensen finishes with a call to act against the system that has made us into consumers, not citizens, and has lulled us into a false belief that we are doing all that we need to.

We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.  

I think this is also another ineffective “solution,” unless coupled to a fundamental change in the culture. We and the institutions that Dempsey would have us confront and take down are all part of the same system, operating on the same set of deep-rooted cultural beliefs and norms. If we throw away these institutions, without a simultaneous transformation of these beliefs and norms, we would be left to wander about without anything to guide us toward a new system that works. Revolutions fail to create a new order more often than not for this reason. Sustainability, the target of his article without explicit mention, needs such a transformation. My approach in Sustainability by Design, given the immense power of the entrenched interests and our modernist beliefs, is to sneak change in subversively so none will notice until it is too late to stem the new incoming tide.

Dignity and Flourishing Go Hand in Hand

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As I have been doing periodically, I am linking today's David Brooks New York Times column to my definition of sustainability as flourishing. Brooks writes today of the disappearance of dignified behavior from the public sphere, citing three recent events: the revelation of Governor Mark Sanford's dallying, Sarah Palin's resignation, and the buzz around Michael Jackson's death. Comparing today's public behavior to George Washington's standards, Brooks mourns the loss.

But the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone.

We can all list the causes of its demise. First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents. Second, there is the cult of naturalism. We are all encouraged to discard artifice and repression and to instead liberate our own feelings. Third, there is charismatic evangelism with its penchant for public confession. Fourth, there is radical egalitarianism and its hostility to aristocratic manners.

The old dignity code has not survived modern life. The costs of its demise are there for all to see. Every week there are new scandals featuring people who simply do not know how to act. For example, during the first few weeks of summer, three stories have dominated public conversation, and each one exemplifies another branch of indignity.

I think Brooks makes a good case, but has mislabeled it. He's writing about manners, not dignity. Dignity is about leading one's life according to his or her own standards, no matter what the circumstances are. Dignity is personified by Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi. Dignity is closely related to authenticity, the practice of making choices based on one's own set of concerns and values, not according to the prevalent norms. Mannerful behavior might seem to be just the opposite as manners are a matter of social norms. But choosing to follow that particular set of rules is an individual choice, such as made and adhered to by George Washington.

In any case, I do agree with Brooks that manners have pretty much disappeared, but not with his reasons. The loss, I think, is related more to the extreme narcissism characteristic of so much public (and private) life. We are still a mix of "me generations." Capitalism does have something to do with this, but it is the particular form of capitalism that has made consumption the measure and imperative of living. We are a population of "havers" It's the loss of a sense of "being" as caring that leads to the current banality in public life. But, as Brooks notes, our current President is bringing back public manners. There is dignity in his actions because, I believe, he really chooses to live that way. I hope he will address the causes of our poor behavior at the roots, otherwise he will be able only to set an example that, given the cynicism of the press and media, is not likely to be recognized as the treasure that it is.

My Talk in Lisbon

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I have posted my keynote talk to the International Society for Industrial Ecology on my Other Writings page. It interlaces themes of sustainability and industrial ecology. The slides I used with the talk are also posted here. The venue was the Fifth Biennial International Conference of the Society, held in Lisbon in June, 2009. I used the occasion to announce my retirement as the Executive Director, a post I have held since the Society was founded in 2000.

Counting Your Blessings

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Today is July Fourth, Independence Day in these United States. After days of rain, the sun has appropriately broken through.Today is a day of celebration with parades and fireworks, but it is also a day to reflect. After all, it is a day to remember what the Founding Fathers said in the Declaration of Independence. The Preamble begins with these ringing words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I wonder if our founders thought about these Rights in a measured sense or whether they saw them as integral concepts, either present or not. I suspect it was the latter. Life is certainly present or not. We sometimes speak of someone being half-alive, but only as a figure of speech. Liberty is more difficult to characterize. But Liberty is also is not amenable to be measured on some scale. One is either free or not. What we mean by being free is, however, subject to argument. it is what some call an essentially contested concept. We all know about it, treasure it, but cannot exactly agree on what is means. But we do not attempt to measure it.

Happiness is different. Happiness has become something that we measure along some scale. For an experiment I used the terms, “happiness scale” to do a Google search and got hundreds of entries. Human welfare or quality of life has become a surrogate for happiness in the economics that drive policy in the West. And these qualities have become equated to a measure of monetary wealth. One consequence is that unless you score a 100 on a scale of 0-100, you will probably say why not shoot for a higher score. I believe that this interpretation is deeply involved in the unsustainable state of the world today. The drive for ever more of something called happiness, equated to material wealth, can be blamed for the excess levels of consumption and for the high levels of social breakdowns seen in the United States and increasingly in other affluent and rapidly developing countries.

I think our common sense about happiness is off the track. Happiness is more like the other two rights in the Declaration of Independence. It is a holistic quality that is either present or not. It is a sense that life is good. Not just like the silly brand of tee shirts using this slogan. One’s cares are being addressed. This doesn’t mean that everything is perfect or complete. Caring is a continuing process, never completed. Perfect relationships reflect the quality, not the amount, of continuous care. It seems kind of silly to me to think about measuring a marriage on a scale of 1 to 10. Mine is a happy relationship, period. I can conjure up dozens of reasons why, if asked, but they don’t add up to how I am happy.

One can count one’s blessings as a chain of discrete events, but it’s not the counting that matters. Happiness simply cannot be measured, nor found by accumulating more of anything. On the occasion of this Holiday, take a moment to think about what you care about (or tell yourself that you should care about), and understand that it is only with both Life and Liberty that you are able to be happy. "Pursuing" Happiness sounds like it is something that can be found and owned. Wrong. Being happy is a recognition that you are fully engaged in being human.

Think Locally, Act Locally

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The phrase, “think globally, act locally,” has been used by many proponents of environmentalism since the 1970’s. Attributed variously to David Brower, Rene Dubos and others, it was a rallying cry to consider the whole Earth when acting in one’s own milieu. With the growth of the global economy, it has become very difficult to follow this advice. A large proportion of the goods of all kinds, including food, found in retail outlets comes from long distances. Virtually all consumer electronics come from abroad. Estimates of the average distance (food miles) travelled in the US range from 1500-2000 miles. Whether foods from afar are worse for the environment is arguable. Out-of-season produce that is flown in is almost always worse, but imported meat may be produce less impact than that regionally produced. So even when buying in a local store, one is essentially acting in a global sense. Globalization has led to the near extinction of locally produced goods and services. Consumer electronics and other devices are difficult or even impossible to service. Big box stores, with commodified goods from abroad, tend to drive out locally produced crafts.

One consequences of this mode of satisfaction is that consumption is driven more by conformance to societal pressures than by authentic choice. We live in a context of “needs” that never goes away. Relationships get just as commodified as the goods. I have argued in my book that this pattern tends to become addictive. The consumption conforms to social norms, but not to the real concerns of the consumer. So things that matter remain unsatisfied. Even with the growing number of green goods and services becoming available, this pattern will persist, perhaps even getting worse as many consumers will now believe that they are doing their bit for the globe.

One way out of this pattern is to reverse the slogan and focus on local community as the source for more of the commerce. This idea is not new. The idea of local economies has been around for a while. So has the idea of a local currency to support that economy and differentiate it from the global system. Writing for IPS News, Matthew Cardinale highlights communities that have issued a local currency. The need to import is lessened. Local currencies can support an economy that does not need to grow. But the feature that I find most interesting is the possibility of breaking the addictive consumption pattern.

A second way in which community currencies support environmental sustainability is that they can lead to reduced consumption, Ms. Witt argued. She believes people purchase more and more “stuff,” not because they need it, but to fill a void that community currency can satisfy.

“You know the full story about the goods you purchase. You know how they were produced. You know the carpenter who made the table. You know who her children are. You realize buying the table is supporting that family,” Ms. Witt said.

The products bought with local currency “link you to your neighborhood, your place, the people of your place. They're not just stuff ... they enrich your life the way that stuff would not. So you need less.”

This is probably an idea that the Federal Reserve bankers would raise their collective eyebrows at, but deserves serious consideration. The existing growth-dependent political economy has produced the present unsustainable conditions. Maybe this is a way to re-invent Ricardo's concept of comparative advantage in support of sustainability.

Good Ideas Are Priceless

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Matt May's "In Pursuit of Elegance" blog is one I check regularly. The latest entry is terrific. It's about learning and how ideas should be rewarded. His view will probably surprise you.

The story repeats itself all the time. Companies treat employees like a rat in a maze after cheese, by paying for approved ideas and accepted suggestions. They then wonder why they get such low participation. They give no thought to the notion that in order to get a good idea, you need a lot of ideas.

Teachers at my daughter's school are notorious for the practice, and I take them to task regularly. They want students to read more books, so they reward the completion of books. Maybe with a homework exemption. Or extra credit. Or even vouchers to the local Taco Bell. So the quick and easy books get read. The superficial books get read. Even the good readers, the ones who love to read, get swept up in the program. They stop reading the classics, turning to the quick reads to score points. Then the program is discontinued, and everyone stops reading. Even the best readers lose their love of words. And that’s a true shame.

More instances of stressing the measurable (book count) over emergent qualities (love of words). What really counts in life is, ironically, those qualities you can't count or measure.

Addiction Nation

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As it often happens, I get triggered by something I read in the news or on the web. Today it was a column in the Boston Globe by Yvonne Abraham responding to the current debate in Massachusetts about making slot machines legitimate. After general opposition to such developments in the past, the current interest is being pushed as a means to raise state revenues in these tough times. Abraham paints a sorry picture of the addictive effects of slots on exactly those who can afford it least.

Like scratch tickets, slots are gaming’s crack. Just like the instant games that bring in 70 percent of the state lottery’s take, they’re the province of poorer players. The part of Sydney where I grew up has the lowest average household incomes in the city and the highest average rates of spending on slot machines.

Slot machines and scratch cards are just another form of technology that produces addictive results. They show up in the larger milieu of consumption in general which also has turned into a more ubiquitous form of addiction.

We are addicted to many other substances and the products that contain them--alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, cocaine, oxycontin, and many more. Some are regulated or are illegal, others are heavily taxed, not so much to provide a disincentive but rather to raise revenues. So much for free choice in the market place. The debate in Massachusetts exposes the hypocrisy of the political players who claim to be protectors of people and the state.

I get the argument that the state needs money. I understand firsthand the value of the jobs that would be created. I know that people should be able to spend their money as they please.

But let’s not kid ourselves that we’re creating a new Monte Carlo here. The state, which is supposed to protect its citizens, is going to encourage some of them to harm themselves.

At least, these forms of addiction receive lip service and occasional action by the state. But the most serious form of addiction, consumption itself, is never debated. Consumption is held to be the carrier of freedom of choice. In many cases, market purchases are made freely, reflecting some authentic intention to satisfy some concern or to contribute to the satisfaction of a conscious intention. But many goods and services are bought out of an unconscious conformance to societal pressures brought to bear through advertising or popular culture--television, iPods, electronic games, smart phones, and on and on. Satisfaction here is inauthentic; it is fleeting and calls for more and more. Having built a political economy based on ever increasing consumption, it should not come as a surprise that the addictive, that is non-satisfying, inauthentic, patterns of consumption are not questioned except at the margins.

The absence of debate, especially in the United States is now exacerbated by the increasingly intense discussions of climate change, pro or con, and by concerns over the economy. Life style issues related to sustainability have been part of the public conversations in much of Europe for a while. But not here. President Obama rode to his office partly on his book, The Audacity of Hope. His view of hope is a vision of a better life, not the empty hope that a pile of coins will come tumbling out the next time I pull the lever.