October 2009 Archives

Gone, but Not Forgotten, for Three Weeks


I will be away from my computer for the next three weeks. My son, Tom, will be filling on for me occasionally during this period. My wife and I are going to Turkey with a group. We will visit the modern and ancient parts of the country. In preparation for the trip, I have been reading and listening to tape stories of the very long history of the region. Some of the longest periods of empire characterize the area—Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman—reaching from a few centuries after the start of the Common Era virtually to the time of my birth.

For each, it was wars that created and brought down the empire. Power, domination, and ideology did work for a quite a while, longer than the modern era has lasted so far. Eventually all failed to provide sustainability for their imperial cultures. None had a grasp of the global system anywhere comparable to that we possess as result of our modern forms of science and technology. Even with that much larger knowledge coupled to a myriad of tools to cope with human and natural “problems,” we are faced with the potential end to the imperium of technology and economics that now transcends national borders. I hope that exposure to the vast history of Turkey in situ will help me better understand what it takes to produce sustainability.

Caring Robots--This Really Is an Oxymoron

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I started reading an article in the New Yorker about medical robots just before I went to bed last night and by the time I has finished it was way later than my usual time to turn off the light. I don’t normally remember my dreams in the morning, but I awoke to visions of robots like Wall-E, the central character in that wonderful movie about what happens when the Earth can’t support human life any more. The story told by Jerome Groopman, weaver of many wonderful tales about medicine, focuses on the current development of medical robots, but not the kind that surgeons use to improve the efficacy of their procedures, but a new kind, designed to take care of people with affective dysfunctions, like autism or moderate Alzheimer’s disease.

The technology is extraordinary, even at this early stage of development. The robots are designed to mimic typical relational human responses, like dropping the head or moving closer or farther away. Depending on the signals received from the human subject, the robot changes its behavior. “‘We actually had the robot slightly shift its personality, gradually, while interacting with the user,’ Matarić [the developer] said.’ The theory behind their development is that patients with these kinds of affective dysfunction often relate badly to other human beings, and work better with the robots.

The first part of the article focused on the mechanics and the technology, per se. Very impressive. The robots described in the story were being used to guide patients in exercises to help them improve motor skills, including speech.

Three years ago, CosmoBot, a robot produced by AnthroTronix, a Maryland-based startup, was introduced at the Neurodevelopmental Diagnostic Center for Young Children, in Crofton, Maryland, serving children with autism and with genetic disorders that affect the nervous system. CosmoBot is a Wizard of Oz robot that is externally controlled by a therapist; it has an elliptical head and the ability to swivel, in order to change its gaze. “The robot performs a motor action in a highly predictable way, repeating exactly the same sequence over and over,” Carole Samango-Sprouse, the director of the center, explained. The robot is captivating and toylike, she said, and less stressful than human demonstration, in which minor variations can seem extreme and disturbing for a child with learning or behavioral difficulties.

My standard critique about technology and its potentially stultifying effects on humans did not seem to apply to these devices, until I got toward the end and read what Sherry Turkle had to say. Turkle, well-known for her criticism of computers and other devices for suppressing human qualities, is very concerned about the possibility of negative consequences.

Thirty years ago, Turkle began studying the impact of sophisticated technologies, including virtual-reality computer games and robots, on emotional development in children and social relationships among adults. “I am not a Luddite,” Turkle said. “But there is no upside to being socialized by a robot.” Based on her observation of groups of different ages, Turkle has found that “children and the elderly start to relate to the object as a person. They begin to love it, and nurture it, and feel they have to attend to the robot’s inner state.” With this attachment and projection of their emotions, Turkle says, people begin to seek reciprocity, wanting the robot to care for them. “We were wired through evolution to feel that when something looks us in the eye, then someone is at home in it.” … Robots, Turkle argues, risk distorting the meaning of relationships, the bonds of love, and the types of emotional accommodation required to form authentic human attachments.

Sustainability rests on recovering the fundamental human sense of care. Caring is at the heart of what it is to be human. Affective dysfunction, no matter what the detailed medical description says, is a failure to appreciate the foundational place of care. Such cases usually evoke a feeling of sadness, which I would attribute to the recognition of the absence of the ability to care. Machines can be designed to mimic just about every visible facet of human behavior, but not what happens inside where caring springs from. Alan Turing developed a test to determine whether computers could think or not. None have yet passed. Eventually when someone invents a similar test to discover whether robots can care or not, I am quite confident that the robots will also flunk.

Surprise--Is New York the Greenest Place in the US?

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Environmental 360, Yale School of Forestry and Enviropnmental Studies online magazine, carried a story with this headline, “Greenest Place in the U.S.? It’s Not Where You Think.” The gist of the article is that the urban density of New York creates a smaller ecological footprint than other apparently more pristine places. The author, David Owen, a staff writer for The New Yorker has recently published a book entitled, “Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability.” Hard to buy this line while looking at this iconic photograph of Times Square.

His thesis is, after the momentary shock the assertion produces, quite plausible. Two of the major contributors to environmental harms are energy use and the automobile. Dense cities, like New York, exhibit much lower automobile ownership and use and lower per capita energy consumption than typical sprawling metropolitan areas. I haven’t read his book to understand the basis for his numbers and I am a little suspicious. The article mentions data for Manhattanites. Manhattan expands dramatically everyday as the commuters pour in from other places. It is critical to compare metropolitan areas not just the central city. In any case, his argument is pretty convincing.

Being “green” is only a part of sustainability. To determine how well anyplace impacts the sustainability of the larger system in which it sits, one has to look through the fisheye lens of sustainability. Some measure or measures of how the human being is doing is essential to such an assessment. And I wonder how New York or any similar very dense metropolis shows up in these terms. Can and does being struggle harder against having in these places? I don’t know the answer. It is telling, perhaps, that the very green New York is also the home of Bernie Madoff and almost all of the zillionaire Wall Street executives, all chasing another kind of green.

I have to add a qualifier to this last statement. I live in Lexington Massachusetts, just two blocks away from the former home of Charles Ponzi, who Madoff has made look like a small time crook.

Aspire not to have more, but to be more


This is the headline from an interesting blog from the UK that I have been following for some time. The post echoes the theme of being, not having, central in my book to the critique of modern cultures and to the possibility of breaking out of that mode of living. The post, by Jules Peck, relates to the main theme of the blog, Citizen Renaissance, calling for a shift towards the responsibility column in the civic balance sheet and away from the rights half.

Having could be seen as perhaps the basic in the free market liberal model of political economy where choice in the marketplace is viewed as the ultimate form of freedom and as the practical manifestation of the pursuit of happiness. Being reflects the sense that caring is at the center of human striving for happiness or for flourishing as I would call out as a more robust metaphor for seeking what it is to be human. Caring in turn is the essence of responsibility, as the idea of responsibility has little sense unless one cares for the object of responsible action whether that be some animate or inanimate thing.

The headline of this post and that on the blog I link to comes from Archbishop Oscar Romero (depicted in the image), a hero of the Central American Liberation Theology movement, which focused on justice for the poor and oppressed. Like Martin Luther King, Romero was assassinated during a mass. After citing many notable economists and others that have recently criticized the present form of neoliberal free-market economics, Peck noted that the same message has been heard from key religious leaders in England. I share his “heartening” feeling arising from the presence of such public figures in public conversations about sustainability.

Last week Archbishop Rowan Williams gave a wonderful speech about the environment and politics, warning against looking for a single solution to the complex environmental challenges which face us. “Instead of a desperate search to find the one great idea that will save us from ecological disaster, we are being invited to a transformation of individual and social goals that will bring us closer to the reality of interdependent life in a variegated world”. Dr Williams urges action at the personal and local, as well as at the national and international, levels. He acknowledges “the potential of the crisis to awaken a new confidence in local and civic democracy [and] … a new sense of what is politically possible for people who thought they were powerless”. “Our response to the crisis needs to be in the most basic sense, a reality check, a re‑acquaintance with the facts of our interdependence within the material world and a rediscovery of our responsibility for it”. “When we believe in transformation at the local and personal level, we are laying the surest foundations for change at the national and international level”.

Unintentional Greenwashing


TerraChoice, a green marketing firm, has gotten a lot of press through their 6, now 7 Sins of Greenwashing report. They find that 98% of some 2000 products found on the shelves of big box stores have committed at least one of the 7 sins. Here are their categories. You can find descriptions of each at their website, above.

  • Sin of the Hidden Trade-off
  • Sin of No Proof
  • Sin of Vagueness
  • Sin of Worshiping False Labels
  • Sin of Irrelevance
  • Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
  • Sin of Fibbing

Some or all of these might be attributable to intentional efforts to mislead or confuse buyers. Such behavior is virtually impossible to eliminate. There will always be free-riders who benefit by joining the pack of those with a genuine interest and honest effort to provide some public good. Fibbing--outright lying--is obviously an intention to mislead. So is irrelevance or the worshipping of false labels. The latter pretends to be "certified" by an authoritative agency. Vagueness--"A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer."--can be deliberate or the result of careless work by an uninformed supplier.

The latter cause of sin is as important as the intentional ones. Unintentional errors can and do come from the failure to understand the whole system that has produced and is producing the very problems the products claim to cure or alleviate. Irrelevance is "An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products." The growing number or ranking or ratings systems that are or will be used to order comparable products according to some measure of their potential impact on the environment or on sustainability are inevitably an incomplete indicator of the real consequences of their entire lifecycle use.

Sustainability is a property of the complex system of which our species is only a part. We have come to know a great deal about that system, but still understand little about it. All of these ranking systems come from our knowledge, but fail to represent the kind of understanding critical to guiding our actions in such a way as not to undermine the security and coherence of the system. The more we try to expand and rely on our knowledge, the farther from understanding we tend to go. Such is the fundamental context of our modern age where science rules the roost.

The fact poses a serious and daunting obstacle to any efforts toward attaining some form of sustainability. Consumption, itself, as a metaphor for all the material interactions between the economy and the earth system is suspect, and fails to align itself with what might be allowable or affordable without taking a chance that the system would jump into a new, unpredictable, and inhospitable regime. Ranking a product without asking questions about the place of that product in the overall system scheme unintentionally belongs to the sin of irrelevance and maybe a few of the others. I believe that this criticism applies even to the much-heralded Walmart Sustainability Index and have commented on this feature in several previous posts. We will not provide sufficient guidance to consumers until they are asked by the greeter that pass on entering any Walmart store, "Do you really need to buy anything today?" Or, perhaps, "Can you satisfy yourself today without some material object?"

(Cartoon courtesy of TerraChoice)

The Disclosing Power of Art

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If you haven’t seen this video of Kseniya Simonova’s winning sand animation performance, you must go there. It says much more about the world than I ever could, and calls out the absence of sustainability in the world.



What Cannot Go On Forever Will Not

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One of the inescapable conclusions I took home from the sustainable consumption conference I spoke about is very simple. The Planet cannot and will not support the material consumption levels of today and certainly not those levels projected as affluence becomes global. Bill Rees, one of the keynoters and developer of the ecological footprint concept, claims our rates of resource utilization are already equal to more than one and a half Earths and we are on the way to three or four.

Technology cannot change this. The Nobelist economist, Robert Solow, who once thought that resources was a meaningless term because technology would always find something new as each “resource” began to run out, has changed his tune. One of his famous earlier quotes says it all. “If it is very easy to substitute other factors for natural resources, then there is, in principle, no problem. The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources.” I guess he is not so sanguine about the wonders of artificial substitutes.

Interesting proposals for some sort of transition to a world that recognizes and lives within the limits of our spaceship Earth are popping up with increasing frequency. One group that has been addressing this dilemma for several decades is the UK New Economics Foundation. They have recently released a study, entitled “The Great Transition,” inspired by the work of the same name by Karl Polanyi. It’s free, but you have to register online. A few paragraphs from the Foreward tell the story of the report.

Humanity appears caught in a trap with no way out. ‘Business as usual’ is no longer an option. However, halting and reversing our consumption of more and more ‘stuff’ appears likely to trigger a massive depression with serious unemployment and poverty. This is certainly true if all we do is ‘apply the brakes’ without fundamentally redesigning the whole economic system. We are facing a series of interlinked systemic problems - consuming beyond our planetary limits; untenable inequality; growing economic instability and a breakdown in the relationship between ‘more’ and ‘better’. The only way to overcome these systemic problems is through a set of solutions which themselves address the whole.

In this report we have sketched out how, in the light of these challenges we face as a country and as a world, things could ‘turn out right’ by 2050. We have focused particularly on the UK, but many of the solutions we outline apply globally. We have called the process by which this could happen the Great Transition as a
deliberate echho of The Great Transformation, written by Karl Polanyi in the 1940s. While in a relatively short report such as this we could not hope to achieve anything remotely comparable to Polanyi’s great work, the scale of the change we need to see is at least the equal of the changes he described.

Their research points to pathways to make this transition towards a different kind of consumption and provisioning system that may be able to guide us, although with massive obstacles in the way, to a future that fits my definition of sustainability—flourishing for all life on the planet which means a healthy environment as well. They strike a hopeful note throughout the report.

By sharing our resources more equally, by building better communities and a better society and by safeguarding the natural environment, we can focus on the things that really matter and achieve genuine and lasting progress with higher levels of well being. Taken together this would amount to what we have termed the Great Transition.

The Black Side of Green Shoppers


Having just posted an entry about toilet tissue couture, my attention lit on a story about potential perverse effects of green shopping. The story in Greenbiz.com began with this lede:

We see more than our fair share of green consumer studies around these parts; it’s become one of our favorite bugaboos: This study or the next one finds that customers say they’re 100 percent likely to buy green products 100 percent of the time.

And yet, when you walk the aisles of your local office supply company, there’s nary a ream of 100 percent post-consumer recycled content paper to be found. What gives?

Why the focus on our bathroom functions? But that’s not the point here. The article is very provocative. Noting the now familiar lack of consistency between what “green” shoppers say and what they do, the reporter points to a rather fascinating academic paper that argues, based on empirical data and some theory, that green shoppers are more likely to engage in unethical behavior than people merely exposed to green products. Here is the abstract of their paper.

Consumer choices not only reflect price and quality preferences but also social and moral values as witnessed in the remarkable growth of the global market for organic and environmentally friendly products. Building on recent research on behavioral priming and moral regulation, we find that mere exposure to green products and the purchase of them lead to markedly different behavioral consequences. In line with the halo associated with green consumerism, people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green than conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products. Together, the studies show that consumption is more tightly connected to our social and ethical behaviors in directions and domains other than previously thought.

Both the Greenbiz article and the academic paper by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong from the University of Toronto make very good reading. The bottom line for me is the finding that humans are more than the standard economists’ picture of a disconnected, internal set of preferences that control our actions. We are deeply embedded in the surrounding culture and derive whatever it is that controls our behavior from its structure and our accumulated experience. The money quote from their paper: “Thus, green products do not necessarily make us better people.” Too bad, all the NGOs and marketing people will have to go back to the drawing board.

Toilet Paper Couture


A little bit of fun before I return to the serious stuff. The conference on sustainable consumption (even though I don’t like to use sustainable as an adjective) that ran the last few days was very exciting and provocative. The organizers had brought together academics from many disciplines together with a group of NGO representatives. We certainly didn’t get to a single understanding of the roots of the problem of hyper-consumption, but found ways to converse across big gaps in disciplinary language and concepts. I will be writing about what I learned as I reflect a bit more.

In the meantime, here’s a bit of lighter substance. I wonder if the designers had to use recycled tissue in the competition. Click here to see the whole collection.

Off to a Conference on Sustainable Consumption


I am off to attend a conference on sustainable consumption. It is an important event in spite of the oxymoronic sense of the term “sustainable consumption.” It’s the first gathering of academics of all sorts, largely coming from the social sciences, seasoned with some NGO representatives to keep the conversation on point. I’ll be involved until next Monday.

I am quite optimistic that we will dwell more on the consumption half of the phrase, seeking to explore why consumption has become such a central feature of our society. For me that is more important than trying to measure our impact on the Earth and set some sort of numerical target as a sustainable upper bound to the amount we consume. That aspect, is also very important. Bill Rees, one the creators of the ecological footprint way of thinking, will be among the participants. Quantifying our consumption relative to the capacity of the Earth to provide for it should serve to change the economic traffic light from green to red, without even flashing yellow, but we haven’t paid much attention to the signals.

We are and have been in great state of denial for a very long time. And if we are to break out of this state, we have to understand why we consume like addicts. The “why” is critical to understand, so practical and effective programs can be put in place to break the addictive habit. More technology simply continues to feed the habit.

I have been reading an interesting book. When Society Becomes an Addict, by Anne Wilson Schaef. She has a long chapter describing the behavioral patterns of addiction. Her model is that addiction follows from a system with these kinds of behavior I selected from a long list:

  • Self-centeredness
  • The illusion of control
  • Dishonesty
  • Confusion
  • Denial
  • Scarcity thinking

These “addictive personality” traits show up on an individual level when we focus our attention on climate change, poverty, maldistribution and other aspects of unsustainability? The more we are in denial, the longer it will be until the wake-up call that is already out there gets through. These characteristics also apply to our collective institutions—government, business. It is nothing but denial to make believe we can fix up everything with a collection of big and small BandAids. We never have, so why not stop and focus on the real causes that lie deep in our culture? I hope to come home from this conference with a better idea of why we are where we are and, maybe, a better sense of how to put ourselves in a place that works for everything, where all can flourish.

Sustainability MBA Is Not an Oxymoron


I have just returned from a weekend participating in the Marlboro College MBA in Managing for Sustainability program. It was a rich and rewarding experience, reminding me of my past experience at The Bainbridge Graduate Institute which offers a similar program. These two programs and a handful of others carry the mission to transform business as the creator, not destroyer of sustainability. An ambitious goal, but a critical one. The students at Marlboro and now at many other schools of business are joining hands within Net Impact which calls itself “a global network of leaders who are changing the world through business.” I addressed these group at the Ross School at the University of Michigan earlier this year and was very impressed with their seriousness and energy.

The Marlboro program is just a couple of years old and will be admitting its third cohort of students very soon. Like its peers it has started by bringing in adjunct teachers like me to supplement a small core of permanent faculty. Roger Saillant, one of the others working this last weekend, has just been named to head the Fowler Center for Sustainable Values at the Weatherhead Business School. During the weekend, I joined an exercise to help shape the school’s brand. The unique spirit of entrepreneurialism and concern for the world that permeates Vermont industry has played a key role in their development.

In addition to giving the students a sound foundation in how to manage along traditional lines, the curriculum adds pieces to challenge the conventional roles of business and build transformational leadership capabilities. Every day of the 3-day intensive begins and ends with a circle designed to build and enrich the community of students, faculty, and other participants. Given the unusual group of students and others who have come to Marlboro and its peers, the conversation in the circle is moving and inspirational.

Sustainability pervades the courses, instigating itself from strategy to accounting and finance. That’s very positive, but not without some problems. Sustainability, the word and concept, has yet to settle into a well understood and accepted meaning. When it is as present as it is at Marlboro, this situation can lead to confusion and cognitive dissonance, and create lots of diversion away from the main task of learning. It can also become a a strength by revealing its multiple personalities and contested nature and by exploring it explicitly. For me, sustainability follows two main streams. One springs from the recognition that we are living in an unsupportable way, using up the human and “natural” resources at a pace that exceeds the sustainable yield from the global system. I use scare quotes to call attention to the common usage that separates humans from the natural system of which we are a part when we talk about the shape of the world. This is one of the roots of unsustainability. In this mode, greening, sustainable development and other labels generally speak to maintaining our present cultural bases, but acting in ways that diminish our impacts and may even restore damaged goods. I usually refer to this conversation as reducing unsustainability.

The other branch refers to sustainability as some form of emergence from our complex, living, global system. In this sense, sustainability is the capacity of the Earth’s system to bring forth and maintain qualities we all want or need to survive. Basic is the property of life itself, that mysterious property that has come forth from the relationships present at some critical evolutionary moment. As we have become civilized, humans have added other essential properties, like freedom or justice, as important properties that define our species. I put all these together under the normative rubric of flourishing.

It is critical not to see these two branches as oppositional. We must move along both. Greening as representing the first meaning, is critical to restore the mechanics of the human and natural systems both of which are badly out of kilter. At the same time we need to follow the second path and move toward realizing the vision of flourishing. The second is, in many ways, more difficult and challenging that the first. We have been striving for flourishing ever since we had language to express what we mean, but have never quite gotten there. We have experimented with many forms of social life and flourished only in brief periods in our species history. So we still have to seek alternative guides for our cultural life.

Most of our inventiveness is being expended towards the other end, to green our practices and reduce the deterioration everywhere. This leaves little resources and intention for the other branch. We need as many (or even more) efforts and experiments to find restorative cultures and sustainability as flourishing as we need to halt the present patterns of unsustainability. One place to start, among many, is to make these distinctions explicit in schools of business and elsewhere and clear up the fuzziness and confusion around the goals of transformation. Students need to leave with commitments to green and to transform business. The first of these two can spring from the present base of theories and practices that constitute today’s business, but the second requires a new vision of what business is and does. It may and I believe will take more than transforming business. The whole of our cultural beliefs, values, and institutions need a critical reexamination and a new design. Given the power and capabilities of the institution of business, it can and must play an important, maybe the key, role in the transformation.

The Consultants Relief and Retirement Act

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No, this is not a new government program to get us out of the recession. It’s the Walmart plan to create a Sustainability Index. Greenbiz ran an article discussing the need that this program will create for most of the Walmart suppliers that have yet to carefully assess their footprint and social beneficence. That amounts to some 90,000 firms world-wide. The article estimates that only about 10% of the impacted firms have already done some of the work or have the resources to comply.

Consultants are already jumping to get business from these firms.

Walmart's sustainability assessment offers both a huge business opportunity and a potentially huge environmental business. Walmart suppliers will likely find opportunities to wring inefficiencies from their operations through the process of assessing their environmental footprints, while a bumper crop of consulting and accounting firms is springing up to help suppliers navigate the journey.

This may be putting the cart a little before the horse. Nine of the fifteen questions on the survey form require only yes or no, for example, “Have you measured your corporate greenhouse gas emissions?” It may take a consultant to explain the question and assist the firm in searching its records or examining its policies, but no measurements or quantitation is required. Presumably any questions that have no for an answer will require that the firm correct the situation at some point. Given the nature of the survey, all of these dichotomous questions are eventually going to require a yes answer. Otherwise, it will be virtually impossible to do any ranking. It’s probably one strike and you’re out.

This is unquestionably a positive move as it will force the firms to examine each of the topics being questioned and respond by filling in the gap. I am a bit skeptical about asking whether the firm has obtained 3rd party certification for any of its products. This is an onerous and expensive process, and still a controversial one in terms of the significance of the rating process. Will this substitute for the life-cycle process Walmart expects to instigate based on the inputs from the suppliers? If so then the intended ranking or rating system will have multiple algorithms and different weighting schemes.

Three more of the questions ask for whether target have been set and if so what are they? I am puzzled as to how these data are to be assessed. Reduction potential is very industry and firm specific. A numerical target, by itself, says little and may send erroneous signals about a firms intentions.

The remaining three ask for real data, if available: greenhouse emissions, water use, solid waste, Again it is not clear what meaningful information this piece of data provide. Here too, the numbers require a great deal of contextual data to provide significance to sustainability. What data is Walmart going to use to compare firms of different size, located in diverse places. Consultants enter because greenhouse gases are very difficult to measure and are largely computed from some sort of estimating program. Consultants “own” these programs and are unsurprisingly reticent to reveal their details.

Missing from the questionnaire is anything related to toxic materials. For many of the products in Walmart’s shelves, this is likely to be the most important factor in determining the “sustainability” of the product. I use scare quotes here because I do not believe that any index, based on these questions and their answers can be direct related to sustainability no matter how you define it. It is not even clear how this program will lead to reduced levels of unsustainability as long as unlimited growth drives the firm's strategy.

There is great danger that, given Walmart’s dominating position, their system will become some de facto standard. The news that followed the public airing of the project noted that other companies may join them. Greenbiz writes:

The sheer size of Walmart's reach makes the initiative a big deal, said Nancy Hirshberg, vice president of natural resources at Stonyfield Farm, a New Hampshire producer of organic yogurt and other dairy products that are sold at Walmart. "It's the biggest customer in the world asking you questions about things you should be thinking about," Hirshberg said. "Not anyone else has that power."

Hirschberg makes a key point. The Walmart process will get firms thinking about unquestionably important issues related to sustainability, but not all of what is necessary. Will the omission of these send the wrong message that what Walmart asks for is all that counts? Our knowledge about how economic activities interact quantitatively with the outside world is imperfect. Should any company be setting the rules for how to judge what is acceptable or not?

Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall

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This time of year in New England is full of contrasts. One day the leaves are green and the next bright red. We are up in Maine for the last time until next May. Yesterday when I put my boat to bed for the winter, the ocean simply glittered and the air was crisp as a Macintosh apple (A real one). It was one of those days that makes leaving so hard. Today it has been pouring without a constant stream. The dampness permeates everything. Our cottage can’t hold its own against a combination of late autumn cold and downpours. Days like this soften the sadness and ease the closing up of the place. They also force me to sit quietly in front of the fireplace and reflect.

I have been reading some pretty heavy stuff lately in preparation for a course I intend to lead next semester. I spend a day a week at one of the many Institutes for Learning in Retirement that are springing up in many places. The courses are led by members of the group and are aimed at mixing learning new things (even at our ages, you can teach old dogs new tricks as long as they are very easy) with an opportunity to get into discussions with your classmates. Our course is going to probe our search for and reliance on certainty, so central to modern cultures, and how it has brought a mixed blessing to the West and now to all four corners of the world. Prior to Columbus, most people were certain that the Earth was flat, and a few remain today. We can be more certain about much of the world out there today than those who lived in Columbus’s time. The tools and methods of science can produce evidence that we interpret in ways that tell us how much of the world behaves. We act on our knowledge about the world with certainty that the outcomes will be just as we expected it to be.

That’s fine if we limit our focus to parts of the world we can isolate and study in their entirety. Much of what we really care about can’t be crammed into one of these isolated parts, but comes forth from the whole complex world. We know, for certain, that that world is changing as a consequence of our activities on the planet. We can reveal changes that are threatening our ability to enjoy the benefits of knowledge and progress, and that threaten the likelihood that our progeny and theirs in turn will enjoy many of these gifts. We can’t predict with much certainty how serious these consequences will be or when we will need to head for higher ground—both in real terms and also metaphorically. There’s nothing much new about this situation: seers and mystics and scientists have been making dire predictions about the future from time immemorial. Now the evidence of these unintended consequences has become certain enough that we have labeled our concerns about them with the overall term of “sustainability” and talk about them in private and public.

Our conversations about sustainability are almost always ironic, but ironic in a way that is rarely seen as that. The causes that threaten sustainability, the ability of the earth to continue to support human and other life in the way we have come to expect (at least in the West), are closely connected to the failure of our technology and societal machinery to produce what we were certain would follow from their uses. Yet almost al of the approaches to delay and reduce the onset of serious challenges to our way of life employ the self-same forms of technology that we know deep-down are the culprits. It takes only a small jump to realize that it’s not the particular forms of technology that are at cause, but our certainty that we know enough about this complex world to design new chunks of it that will enable us to manage our way to a future we want. I would like the rain to stop today so I could leave here with a memory of a beautiful glistening sea. I know with certainty that I cannot, and I realize my only certain choice is to be at home in the rain and cold. This is what sustainability is about. Our failure to be at home in the world as it is is one of the deep-seated roots of the loss of sustainability.