July 2010 Archives

Business and Sustainability: Still Not Getting It

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Deloitte recently published a survey of business sustainability aspirations and practices. Titled, "Sustainability in business today: A cross-industry view," the report showcases the responses from businesses in a wide range of sectors. Deloitte's header highlighted the following arguments for paying attention to sustainability: "Increasing regulation, investor activism and changing consumer behavior have increased the importance of “going green.” Not a whisper about the state of the world. I get from this that business lives in a corporate cocoon with its sensors tuned only to those that affect its bottom line or stockholder value (or more likely, the salary of its CEO). What about the world outside? Environment health and justice are more than mere words. They are observable things, just like investor satisfaction. Business will do little of serious impact toward sustainability until it sheds its security blanket and connects to the real, hurting world out there.

One part that I found particularly interesting was this list of various definitions being used by business.

Q: How would you define sustainability as it relates to business? Respondents told us:

“We have used the Brundtland definition at times and a triple-bottom-line type of thing, but we talk about sustainability in terms of resources - financial resources, human resources, and natural resources. Because we are a user of natural resources and wood and fiber, most of our focus is in that area.” (Respondent from a process and industrial company)

“We term it as having the minimum impact on the environment. There is a social component to that as well, but we are currently focusing on environmental sustainability.” (Respondent from a consumer products company)

“For us, sustainability is just doing business right. We believe that it is a foundation that contributes across the entire value chain. We believe that it gives us a competitive advantage by applying it in acquisition, in branding, and in marketing and development.” (Respondent from an automotive company)

“We have been careful to define it as environmental sustainability for the purposes of our team’s existence.” (Respondent from a consumer products company) “The long-term health of the business requires that we consider things beyond financial return - such as environmental performance and social responsibility and community relations.” (Respondent from a consumer products company)

“We go to the Brundtland Commission report of 1987 to start the conversation, and then take it down a level to make it more operational in nature, and then down one more level [to] land, air, water, and people.” (Respondent from a consumer products company)

“Continuous reduction of our environmental footprint throughout our own facilities and our value or supply chain. We also define it from a social perspective as making sure that the community in general, and certainly communities where we sell products, are viable and healthy and that their needs are met.” (Respondent from a consumer products company)

I start with a heavily prejudiced position about the failure of business as a whole to grasp what sustainability is fundamentally about, so it's no surprise that I find these "definitions" largely empty statements, even to the point of banality. What a shame. The best that these definitions promise is that the world will not get any worse than it is, but even that is unlikely, given the reference to the Brundtland formulation and its roots in eco-efficiency. Doing less bad through eco-efficiency is little more than a race against economic growth. Growth is certain to win.

All this begs the question of what if we are already overusing the Earth's capacity to support our species. Notwithstanding the various deniers of global warming and other current and impending system failures, students of the global ecology have ample evidence that we are already exceeding one earth's worth of capacity, and are heading for as many as four as China and India ramp up their economies. Inequality and injustice are all too prevalent in many parts of the world. The tacit argument I would expect to get in an extended discussion with any of the people quoted above is that we are just following Adam Smith's (pictured above) model of the most efficient economy, serving the self-interest of our customers and stockholders.

I doubt that that is really true in any case, but it simply doesn't work when things absolutely needed like fish or water or clean air or health or safety and so on by all these "interests" are physically scarce, not merely scarce in economic terms. Ironically the award of the latest Nobel for Economics to Elinor Ostrom was a begrudging acceptance of the need to develop different governance mechanisms for the finite life-supporting resources we rely on for sustaining ourselves. The simplistic, Smithian governance model lying underneath everyone of the definitions above simply doesn't work any more. But by mouthing these platitude without any sign of reflection or vision beyond the bottom line, business remains part of the problem, not the solution.

The Pursuit of Happiness

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One of the students in my course at Marlboro College posted a link to Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, a work from positive psychology containing a taxonomy of traits that connect to the "good life." The student suggested that these might form the basis for defining human flourishing. I agree. The authors describe the work as:

The classification is the result of a thorough study of the philosophies of the antiquities, the major world religions, the distinctions offered by historic and current social organizations. Twenty four specific strengths under six broad virtues consistently emerged across history and culture: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Each strength was thoroughly examined in its own chapter, with special attention given to its meaning, explanation, measurement, causes, correlates, consequences, and development across the life span, as well as to strategies for its deliberate cultivation.

The work is an antidote for the well known Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the authority used by practitioners to diagnose and treat all sorts of mental disorders.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States. It is intended to be applicable in a wide array of contexts and used by clinicians and researchers of many different orientations (e.g., biological, psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, interpersonal, family/systems).

Positive psychology seeks to discover what makes people's lives "good," as opposed to traditional psychology that deals primarily with conditions that interfere with one's fully functioning. The apposition of positive and traditional psychology is analogous to the anti-parallelism of sustainability and unsustainability. The single largest cost in the US in that for medical treatment, most of which is remedial. There is no specific economic category for producing the good life. It is all lumped into some measure of wealth or consumption. This belief system has produced little of the positive traits I will enumerate shortly, but has succeeded in threatening the current way of life and the planet as well. Our culture seems to prefer fixing problems after the fact rather than preventing them in the first place by design.

The six virtues, with a short definition, are:

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge - Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge
  2. Courage - Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal
  3. Humanity - Interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others
  4. Justice - Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life
  5. Temperance - Strengths that protect against excess
  6. Transcendence - Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning

I won't stop and list all the character strengths that fill out the classification scheme, but here are the entries for wisdom and knowledge:

  • Creativity [originality, ingenuity]: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it.
  • Curiosity [interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience]: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering.
  • Judgment & Open-Mindedness [critical thinking]: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; not jumping to conclusions; being able to change one's mind in light of evidence; weighing all evidence fairly.
  • Love of Learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one's own or formally; obviously related to the strength of curiosity but goes beyond it to describe the tendency to add systematically to what one knows.
  • Perspective [wisdom]: Being able to provide wise counsel to others; having ways of looking at the world that make sense to oneself and to other people.

I have defined sustainability as the possibility of human [and all other life] flourishing, arguing further that the possibility depends on getting the whole socio-technical ecological system working in such a way that signs of flourishing become manifest more or less everywhere. In my book, I suggest one way of "defining" flourishing, that is, the satisfaction of a set of 11 canonical domains of concern, such as subsistence, family, or learning. There is a great deal of overlap between these and the above classification scheme.

In my recent teaching at Marlboro, I have presented the students with yet another scheme for determining how well a person is enjoying the good life. Based on the capabilities framework of Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum has developed a scheme with 10 capabilities necessary to build a fully functioning life upon. It is another way to describe a set of conditions that might be deemed "flourishing." A few of her categories are: life, bodily health, affiliation, and play. For the managers among us, it is critical to provide some metric enabling them to put any form of control or guidance system in play. Any of these three schemes or others would do that job, but that is not the essence of sustainability.

The challenge we all face is not the "management of Planet Earth," but figuring out how to make the system produce any of these constellations of properties constituting flourishing. The positive set of virtues is a good guide for knowing how we are doing, but has little value in guiding our collective journey into the future. I know little in detail about the science of positive psychology, but it seems to focus, not surprising, on the individual and on ways to intervene to create more well-being. Sustainability needs a "science" that looks outward at the world and discovers how to design the functioning of the cultural systems such that individual human beings live a fully functioning life.

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The Walmart Sustainability Index project is one year old and the bloggers, and newsy sites are flying. It is clear from the news that the project has moved slower than Walmart's initial enthusiastic send-off heralded. I looked back at my own blog posts and see that I expressed at that time a good deal of skepticism that seems to be borne out a year later. It seems that even a company as large and powerful as Walmart can stumble a bit when taking on an issue as challenging as sustainability. But that's not surprising. The smarts that have made Walmart what it is are mostly not relevant or helpful when it comes to address sustainability.

Joel Makower has a good recap of what has happened and what has not during the past year. Some key points:

  • The Sustainability Consortium formed to create the methodology has apparently dropped the idea of the index.
  • The claims that connect the Index to sustainability have been muted.
  • The questionnaires sent to all Walmart suppliers have not produced a revolution, nor have influenced customers habits.
  • The promised transparency has yet to come.
  • Life-cycle assessment or analysis (LCA) has jumped up as notch as a tool for product evaluation, but may suffer from the same hype that the Index did.

These comments should be read as a progress report, although some are indicators of the unpromising notions that Walmart started out with.

As I reported at the outset of the Walmart initiative, giving consumers better, but not necessarily more, information about the consequences of using any particular product is basically a good idea. The devil is, as always, in the details. The problems start with the name given to the index. The name should clearly identify what kind of information is to be provided. GoodGuide, another consumer information system that offers product scores has also muted their claims about the connection to sustainability, but still not enough. It is primarily a guide for people most interested in human health impacts, but is advertised as a sustainability rating system.

To call anything a sustainability index or a similar name is to mislead the public and yourself at the same time. It is misleading in the sense that it promises more than it can deliver. The scores are always based on a set of factors that relate to bad outcomes--toxicity, climate change potential, water use, etc. They are not tied to the factors that enable a system to sustain itself and keep producing the good outcomes we expect from it. I would not be so critical if these ratings were called something like an unsustainability index, and turned upside down so that zero was the best score. Admitting that every product in the marketplace produces some bad effects (zero is virtually impossible) is a marketer's nightmare, but it is the truth. Some smart PR firm would surely find a way to step over this barrier.

LCA methodologies, the primary method used to generate ratings, are complicated and extremely data intensive. They require human value judgments at several points along the way. LCA is not a "science" as claimed by the Sustainability Consortium. It is basically an accounting system with complicated rules for allocating the inputs and outputs associated with a product or service for each stage of its life cycle. Whatever science is involved comes in the factors that are used to calculate impacts. As a consequence, the result as expressed in the form of a single rating or score is arbitrary, and depends ultimately on the weights and value judgments used in the computational method.

Perhaps, this inherent characteristic of any "rating" system is behind the failure to expose the results of the survey of suppliers to the public. The data are useful, but only to technically trained personnel who know about all the warts in the methodology. The utility of LCA to a lay community, like consumers, as opposed to a technical community, rests on the transparency and credibility of the organization doing the work. The Walmart initiative has far to go toward this end. Nothing has changed in a year. Sustainability, as expressed in almost any terms, requires less consumption--a fact that gets buried in any of the rating systems. Buying goods that score high on a "sustainability" index makes the buyer feel good, but makes the world only a little less worse than otherwise. Sustainability may come, but only if and when we find a way different from material consumption to satisfy our concerns.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

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"Reluctance to Spend" This quote comes from an article in Newsweek arguing for a do-it-yourself economic recovery in the face of an incomplete government program. Counting on the market to offer enough incentives (t-shirts and smart phones) to sleeping consumers to get them back into the habit of buying with funds they do not have, the business sector is picked to be the best way out, sort of bootstrapping the recovery. Sounds good? Politically it appeals to the market champions. Economists love it, although many say this will not be enough to restart the growth dynamic.

Now think about this in the light of another recent article on Alternet that proclaims: "The Retirement Nightmare: Half of Americans Have Less Than $2,000 Banked for Their Golden Years." I found this shocking, especially in the implication that more current consumption is good for all of us. All that these people will have to subsist on is social security, which was never intended to provide for the necessaries of life much less the new toys that these retirees are also being told to rush out and buy. I don't have the demographic data at hand to do the numbers, but with our aging population trends, we are to become an deeply impoverished nation, by our current standards. I challenge any economist to rationalize this contradiction.

Other data show that many people are doing their own arithmetic and starting to reduce their debts, paying off mortgages and credits cards. The economic crunch seemed to have done what many thought it might--wake up the general public to that arithmetic reality that the piper would have to paid--sometime.

The real choice the typical consumer/citizen faces today is very tricky--an ipod today or a meal on the table after retirement. Or worse--no ipod today and a simpler meal than was eaten a few years ago as current income is used to pay down the debts that accumulated with easy credit and an incessant call to buy, buy, buy. . . .

The mathematical models that are used to set economic policy and to guide public and private investment and strategic choices do not incorporate the consequences of growth to all these people facing an uncertain future. Life may be OK for the affluent who can maintain a semblance, weak or strong, of their current lifestyle late in their years, but for increasing numbers the resultant polices are disastrous.

The situation is clearly unsustainable. I have been reading, with my class at Marlboro, about "progress without growth" and the idea of a steady-state economy. Neither connects well with the present world as the gulf between the policies and life styles today and a sustainable system is huge, and few bridges appear out of the murk of today's cloudy future. Any realistic attempt to build such bridges to a sustainable future are absolutely bound to cause pain, severe pain to many. Our political leaders everywhere are not doing their job as leaders, only as politicians. The faster we are told the truth about the numbers, the quicker we can respond to minimize the pain. We simply cannot have jobs, today, iPods in our pockets, and food on the table when we retire (that is, if we have jobs to retire from). I count myself as lucky at my rather advanced age, not having to think about or make these choices. But I worry more and more about the choices my children and their children are facing.

I was exposed to the perils of the arithmetic of growth when I was about 10 years old, but did not appreciate it--no surprise--when I saw Fantasia, the first film I ever watched (in the cinema of course). Now with the magic of Youtube you can also watch it. Take about 10 minutes to watch this wonderful tale about growth and its consequences. No economists were involved.

Facing Death

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The industrial ecology conference is now in the past and I am at Marlboro College Graduate center teaching to the MBA for Managing Sustainability program. We have been reading Tim Jackson's book, Prosperity without Growth as the class text, adding a few ancillary articles. We're just at the point of discussing a steady-state economy (SSE)--what we mean by it, how critical is it, and how would we get there. The last two parts get all mixed together in the students' responses in class and in their answers on the assignments.

They have some trouble understanding what a SSE is. I do too. But that's not the point I want to make here. The challenge of transforming a modern economy to a SSE is immense. Every major institution within the political economy is designed to work on the basis of the expectation of continued growth. Stasis in monetary terms means economic death inside the neo-classical paradigm used to shape policy. What I have observed is that the enormity of the challenge leads to a not so subtle denial of the existential threat we are facing--that at least I and many other believe we are facing.

That threat is unlike the existential threat we all face in our own lives. Many die without ever facing the reality of the end of our lives. It comes upon us quietly in the night or abruptly on a street corner. But some have a change to undergo the transformation of death as a possibility sometime in the future to a reality now. This often happens after a diagnosis of cancer. What was only a theory is now staring you in the face and cannot be passed off for another conversation in the future. Some continue to deny what is happening, but many stop and take stock, and start to act on all those things that all of a sudden are the important ones, even if they are immensely difficult and had been put off and off.

The existential threat of the death of the Earth is very different. Even the idea of the death of the Earth is not the same. The Earth is not going to die for several billion years and, then, only when the Sun goes out. But it could die as a hospitable place for our species--a place where we flourish. But we can't think about it in the same way we can think about the death of a human--a reality we have lived with it from the time we became conscious beings.

So, that threat, the "death" of the Earth, can be nothing but a theory. We have never observed it, nor will we who are alive today. We can only deal with it as a metaphor to the way we handle the thought of our own death. Except as I noted in the cases when the threat, the possibility becomes a reality in the here and now, we deny the possibility one way or another. So it is with the death of the Earth. We deny it directly in the face of what A. N. Whitehead calls "irreducible and stubborn facts." We deny it indirectly, as my students tend to do, by arguing that any action today is fraught with so many barriers and uncertainties that action will be fruitless.

I don't believe we have the same choice, denial, we make in the case of our personal existential threat. We must act for the sake of our children, if not for the entire species. We cannot wait until we have the answers. The way we have found truth in the past is partly responsible for the problems of the present. Again following WHitehead and his colleague, William James, I believe we must act pragmatically, a word that has been in the air as we have dealt with other metaphorical deaths--the financial system. Put theory in the background for a time and start to try solutions that may seem impossible or have uncertain outcomes. Some will actually work. Most will not. But denial and inaction is bound to come up short. Unlike the short-term inevitability of biological death, it is quite possible that we can put off the "death" of the Earth for quite some time.

Still Away at a Conference

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I am still attending the Industrial Ecology Gordon Research Conference and will be away pretty much until next Monday. The Conference rules do not allow blogging abut what is being discussed, but I am sure it is OK to talk about it in general terms. The idea of the Conferences is to facilitate open discussion of the latest research without attribution or specific reference so that the group can explore work in progress without fear of premature exposure.

I gave some of the details a few days ago. I guessed right about the tenor of the presentations and, so, have been pretty busy during the discussions. Like all professional gatherings most of the value comes from informal talk and seeing old friends. So is it here. I am more convinced than ever that we will make little progress toward sustainability until we clean up our language. A few of the blog posts I wrote just before coming were all about the importance of straight talk. These were more timely than I figured.

Still More Synchronicity Today

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Just after posting the last entry, I read David Brooks column in the NYTimes. Titled, "The Medium Is the Medium," Brooks notes that children who read real books do better than those who do not. Just living in a house with a library leads to improved performance at school. There seems to be something about a "book" that somehow adds to intellectual development.

Here's his bottom line:

. . . [T]he literary world is still better [than the Internet] at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import."

Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students. . . It’s better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious.

Same basic message as Judt's and mine. Words matter, and the medium through we we acquire and use them matters. All this "wonderful" new technology hasn't yet and may never do as good a job of cultivating the human beings we have the potential to grow into.

Synchronicity: July 9, 2010

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Only yesterday, I wrote about the shortcomings of technological communication systems. They may increase the number of links among people dramatically, but can only diminish the quality and authenticity of what passes over the links.

This morning I read an essay (registration required) by Tony Judt, entitled "Words" in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books. While I will comment on a relevant part of the essay in a few moments, I must first note its poignancy. Judt, writing on the critical role words play in expressing our selves and our thoughts, has become increasingly disabled by a neurological disease, and is no longer able to express himself verbally in the way he writes about.

I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts—the view from inside is as rich as ever—but I can no longer convey them with ease. . . No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. . . . If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.

I know it is unseemly practice to crib too much from others when blogging, but today I will simply quote a few lines from Judt's essay as there is no way my words are up to the task. The main thrust of the essay is the importance of "articulacy, the way words are used, in public life.

In a world of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (not to mention texting), pithy allusion substitutes for exposition. Where once the Internet seemed an opportunity for unrestricted communication, the increasingly commercial bias of the medium—”I am what I buy”—brings impoverishment of its own. My children observe of their own generation that the communicative shorthand of their hardware has begun to seep into communication itself: “people talk like texts.”
This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Alice was right: the outcome is anarchy.
Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion...”).

Judt eloquently refutes the conceit in Wright's column that the "single brain" evolving from burgeoning global networks will allow people to act together to counteract the natural tendency toward chaos in the world. If the medium is truly to become the message without regard to the words, no one will know what the message means and, then, what to do. Judt (and I) would agree with Wright that public utterances are critical to coordinated societal action, but without some conventions about what the words mean, the subsequent action would only increase the potential for chaos, not decrease it.

Let's Improve Our Brain First

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Robert Wright wrote a semi-facetious piece in the Times about how technology is gradually networking our cognitive functions on the way ultimately to produce one monster global brain. I found the article quite confused as it tries to make a critical argument against Nick Carr's concerns about the distractive power of technology into a loosely connected positive story about the coalescence of individual cognitive functions into one big brain.

Carr has written extensively on the distractive consequences of the heavy use of screens and other forms of information technology. Recent scientific surveys, particularly on young people (see my own reporting ), bear out the impacts. The Times earlier reported on the problems created in one family by incessant use IT devices. (Also see my related blog.)

Wright notes correctly that information technology has created linkage pathways between people that have never existed before. Arguing that these linkages enable humans to do things that they also have never been able to do (I think he is wrong here), Wright suggests that such technology is evolving in a Darwinian manner just as real living creatures are.

Maybe the essential thing about technological evolution is that it’s not about us. Maybe it’s about something bigger than us — maybe something big and wonderful, maybe something big and spooky, but in any event something really, really big.

Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution has been to create these social brains, and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary brain?

Don’t get me wrong. I join other humans in considering human welfare — and the welfare of one human in particular — very important. But if we’re going to reconcile human flourishing with the march of technology, it might help to understand what technology is marching toward.

I think he has it completely backwards. Humans came first before technology, if only momentarily. Technology has been created to support flourishing, not the other way around. The word, technology, itself comes from a Greek word that refers to a creative act of a maker turning the world into an artifact full of meaning in human terms. There is a certain arrogance in giving supernatural form to something that man created. Wright should know all about this as he is the author of the recent book, The Story of God.

The tale continues: "I do think we ultimately have to embrace a superorganism of some kind — not because it’s inevitable, but because the alternative is worse." Without an all-encompassing technology, Wright says the world will turn into chaos for the lack of a system to coordinate all the people on earth. He has forgotten one terribly important factor here. We already do have such technology, language, and its derivative writing. Whatever the state of the world is today, it is not for lack of a coordinative technology.

While not mentioning this virtually universal tool, he suggests why he might have omitted it. It is not sufficiently efficient (his word) for the needs of "our" modern world. Without it, one cannot do all these critically (my word) important tasks in any hour: "1) check your e-mail and receive key input from a colleague as well as a lunch confirmation from a friend; 2) check Facebook and be led by a friend to an article that bears on your political passions, while also checking out the Web site of a group that harnesses that passion, giving you a channel for activism; 3) and, yes, waste some time reading or watching something frivolous." What on Earth does efficiency have to do with flourishing.

In any case, so what. If this is the argument for the benefits of a single global brain, I am not the least bit convinced. Technology may help the human species "flourish," as Wright writes, but what kind of life is that likely to be. Certainly not the life that Albert Borgmann writes about, or that Wendell Berry, or William Blake, or a myriad of artists and humanists find unique about our species, and that Wright seems not only to miss but obliquely dis.

Wright ends with a reference to a new work about to come out by Kevin Kelly of Wired fame, who writes about this new brain-building technology: “stitching together all the minds of the living, wrapping the planet in a vibrating cloak of electronic nerves” and asks, “How can this not stir that organ in us that is sensitive to something larger than ourselves?” Maybe we cannot but be stirred, but this in itself does not make what is happening either good or bad for us. This possibility and its consequences in terms of how we deal with the continuing evolution of this technology is missing in this discussion. Without it, this discussion is nothing but a few technophiles' ramblings.

Designing Greener Goods

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I'm getting ready to go off for a week to New Hampshire to attend this year's Gordon Research Conference on Industrial Ecology. I always find it somewhat of a drag to pick up and leave our place on the Maine Coast at the peak of the summer. But the last few days have not been the best. Global warming is certainly coming, judging from the intense heat of the last few days even here right on the coast. This year the focus of the Conference is on design--a subject I am always keenly interested in.

As one of the first persons to work within this still very young academic discipline, I find this focus most welcome. It reflects a maturation and acceptance that the ideas that have evolved over about 20 years are worth putting into practice. Some have already, but mostly unnoticed and not explicitly tied to the field. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the subject, industrial ecology is founded on the idea that natural systems display many of the characteristics we associate with sustainability, and it follows without a lot of thought that we might use knowledge based on these systems to design the socio-economic systems that we live by and in. One of the central ideas is the closing of material loops, in other words, changing our current mostly once-through material economy to one built on intertwined closed loops.

Another important outgrowth of the closed loop concept is life cycle thinking and analysis. Again this simply means that the environmental impact of any artifact must be measured over the entire life cycle from resources extraction through manufacture, distribution, use, and, finally, end-of-life processing. Much of the research in the field has gone into developing tools for life cycle analysis. Life cycle tools have been almost certainly used in some form or another any time green or sustainable something is discussed. The tool is the primary means of determining whether one artifact is less impactful than another. The results of such analyses get backed into the design process in some cases and then are used deliberately to produce new products and services that are greener or more sustainable by the common use of the word.

If these analyses are done carefully and interpreted carefully, the products that emerge will be less harmful than their predecessor, and may contribute to making the globe less unsustainable. These analyses do not tell the whole story, however. No life cycle analysis scheme I know of takes into account the rebound effect which roughly is an increase in consumption produced by the higher eco-efficiency of green products. So unless particular attention is paid to how the excess money is used, gains in greening will be overtaking by economic growth. Eco-efficiency and greening are not exactly the same thing. Eco-efficiency promises more value in economic terms for less impact. Green products often cost more for the same value or functionality.

Those who follow my work know I do not agree with this use of sustainable, and believe it is little more than a subtle form of greenwashing, suggesting that something is sustainable all by itself. But I didn't intend to take much space here to discuss this; I'll wait until I get to the Gordon Conference next week. About half the presentations have sustainable in the title so I expect to be very busy during the discussion. I get the last word as I am part of the closing panel. More later from New Hampshire.

Thoughts on the Fourth of July

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Being an American on the Fourth, I can't but think about the symbolism and meaning of our Independence Day. Two things come to mind: one is historic and one is contemporary. The historic dwells on the meaning of independence. 234 years ago, it was a call for freedom from the domination of a hegemonic nation. Along with the reaction to the British tyranny felt by the people as a whole, the colonists expressed a new kind individual freedom with its roots in the very spirit of being human. That spirit, as expressed in a myriad of journalistic pieces celebrating this day, has propelled the US to an unparalleled place in the modern world, long the envy of other nations aspiring to the material and existential richness available to most of our citizens.

But while the spirit may still exist, the world has changed dramatically. In the simplest of terms, it has become too small to accommodate today's demands on both humans and the world itself. This is the backdrop to the concerns about sustainability that are now juxtaposed against these demands for more and more. We must ask ourselves whether the ringing words of the Declaration of Independence are literally true for us today. Science has brought us much knowledge about how the world, including the human species, works, and has spawned the many technological marvels of modernity. The cost of that kind of knowledge, however, comes in a diminishing of our understanding of how the world really does work.

We still believe as a society that freedom and choice are one and the same, but fail to see the connections between one person's choices and others' freedom and well-being. The connection may have been of no or little consequence in 1776. Today we have begun to appreciate and elevate the recognition that we are all connected not only to one another but also to the world that supports our very being. That we have forgotten or never learned this "irreducible and stubborn fact" (A. N. Whitehead) is all too evident in the inequalities present and growing in the US, and in the pressure put on the planetary system to the point where that engine of life sputters and threatens to stop working.

Is anyone really free when so many on the Earth cling precariously to life? In the terms I use to define sustainability, can anyone flourish when others, considering all life, do not. Can I flourish at the same time my (yes, my) actions destroy a large and once vibrant Gulf of Mexico and all the life that was to found there? Can our Nation survive yet another attempt at ripping it asunder as our current political talk suggests? We can all arise to the occasion of the Fourth by making sure that whenever we express our freedom through the choices we make that we acknowledge that we are bound to everyone and everything affected by our actions. We can no longer act as if we have the independence to do act as we please.

The second thought I have today is related to the first. Recently, I read several pieces commenting on the country's mood, which is generally down in the mouth. People are looking to "get their life back." But what if the old way of life cannot be sustained in spite of the great spirit of America. We seem both on a collective and individual sense, to be ignoring the understanding I mentioned above that we are all connected in the wonderful, but complex Earth system. What I do no longer remains an isolated action leaving the rest of the system more or less in the same state. Like Lorenz's butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil and setting off a tornado in Texas?, my purchase of a latte in Brunswick, Maine has an impact on the lives of farmers in South America and on the forests there.

Getting my life back presupposes that the old way was sustainable except for something that was not working but could be fixed. A stimulus here and there to get the economy rolling so everyone could exercise all those choices. A little tax (maybe) here and there to shift consumption towards a greener state. Companies that would keep me on the job my whole life. All of these and other wishes certainly have merit, but fail to acknowledge that the world of the prior "good" life just isn't around any more and, even if it ever was, couldn't have kept producing the life that we thought was due to us as an inalienable right. We all must learn to rethink the Declaration of Independence in the context of a finite, complex world and stop reaching back for the good life. The challenge of sustainability lies ahead: to redefine critical terms, like freedom, happiness, or flourishing in new ways, ways that bring forth the human spirit but in keeping with our unfolding understanding of how the world really works.