Till 2010

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It’s hard to believe, but I have been blogging for over a year. I’m still learning the rhythm and the pace. This has been both an easy and difficult year. It’s been easy to find targets for criticism, irony, or satire. It’s been much harder to find positive trends and events.

My Internet feed readers were overwhelmed everyday with incessant ballyhoo about the potential profits to made in “sustainability” In earlier days, “plastics” was the road to riches. At least it propelled Dustin Hoffman to stardom in The Graduate. The year-end summary of the 20 most read (green business) stories in Greenbiz is almost laughable. Joel Makower who publishes the mag seems to understand the irony of what he puts out on the web. Business, writ large, tries everyday to be the solution to the problems it creates. Einstein long ago recognized the impossibility of solving problems with the same thinking and practices that created them.

Business, resting on an economic model that also is part of the problem, has deluded itself with the invention of magical sustainability indices, greener products, CSR reports that forget what Adam Smith taught about the purpose of economic structures, and other ephemera. I don’t have an immediate alternative to offer so I should be tempered in my criticism, but it is excruciating to sit daily and read the hype and misbegotten efforts out there. It is hard and paradoxical to ask business to undo the very foundations that hold up this key institution and replace them with something that, virtually certainly, would require the corporate world to completely re-invent itself. Government leaders don’t want to recognize the current reality of the natural and socio-economic world. As long as corporate power rules, governments are likely to be conservative, unwilling to shake things up as they must be to find sustainability.

The much heralded H[C]openhagen negotiations ended with a whimper. I have avoided commenting on the happenings around climate change for a couple of reasons. I know little about the realpolitik driving the myriad of interests and power groups. I do understand the science, unfortunately, because the awareness mostly makes me sad, apprehensive, and occasionally angry. Sad because the contrary arguments are not worthy of a high senior who has finished an elementary physics, and disappointed that those that abuse the science are hiding away their real positions. There is no alternative to increased temperature as a result of all the ultra-violet absorbing gases we are spewing into the atmosphere. To deny this would be the same as to argue that the law of gravity allows apples to fall upwards.

What we don’t know is how fast the change will come and how its effects will be distributed over the surface of the globe. We know that there will be winners (only in a narrow economic sense) and losers. We even know who will be the first to suffer. Rather than face up and take action now to reduce the flow of these gases, we have collectively and globally put our eggs almost entirely in the basket of new technology and energy efficiency. There are other precautions we can and should be taking. Given that it is the global system that is threatened, not some artificial sovereign nation state, arguing over past and future [national] contributions to the global commons is folly. The shame of it is that most national leaders must know this at heart. Strategists advising government leaders almost certainly have invoked game theory and cost benefit as a basis for deciding action. Their models don’t pay much heed to the likely outcome of inaction—a lose-lose result, always the worst possible outcome.

One positive sign is that the educational system has started to wake up to the challenge of producing the actors and thinkers who will have to cope with these problems on their watch, since we have done little but forward them. Much of the traffic on my blog comes from educators who are introducing new ideas about what sustainability is and what really must be done to attain it. I have just started to teach in a small new MBA in managing sustainability program at Marlboro College in Vermont. It is one of a still very small number of such programs. The students here and at the other programs are concerned, committed, and capable of transforming business at the bottom. The numbers are still small, but this kind of program has nowhere to go but up. They understand that sustainability requires more than greening the campus and building LEED Platinum buildings.

Universities are still living in the same unreality as businesses, thinking that doing less harm will take care of the future. They have different institutional barriers to leap over than does business, but they have to start thinking fundamental change, not incremental action. The whole structure and pedagogy of universities is predicated on a model of knowledge that does not fit the world as we have come to understand it. Until sustainability forces major changes in the curriculum, pedagogy, research agendas, and organizational structure, little will happen. Reductionism, the technique that has created the thousands (yes, thousands) of disciplines that populate university campuses and the methods by which we analyze problems and design solutions, doesn’t map well onto the real world, especially for problems like global warming, terrorism, and pervasive hunger.

I have been a part of a new and evolving network of researchers and others gathering under the rubric of sustainable consumption. Although I think the name itself is somewhat oxymoronic, the group is onto the right path, digging deep into the forces and drivers that have produced an economy based on consumption of largely commodified goods and services. Through this connection and some of my own research, I have discovered small experiments with alternate economic structures aimed at what Fritz Schumacher, in Small is Beautiful, called Buddhist Economics—”… to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.” None have reached or seem to be closing in on a tipping point, but they are sticking around and slowly gathering adherents.

I am aware of the shortcomings of my efforts over the past few years. It is much easier to criticize and carp than it is to offer constructive thoughts. It is not for lack of trying. I have no illusions of owning the answers. My basic way of thinking these days is through the lens of complexity. There is no a priori right answer in complex systems. The solutions to our common problems will have to come from our common efforts towards solving them. In his book, Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken has alerted us to the power of a myriad of small grass root organizations. Eventually their ideas and new practices will wash upwards and be adopted by the more powerful and entrenched elements of cultures everywhere. And on that note, Happy New Year.