Still in Lisbon, but winding down. Our industrial ecology conference has to be scored as a success, at least based on all the wonderful Portuguese hospitality and food and wine. Lots of the latter substance. For all of you that attend professional society meetings, you know how they go. A few gems that make attending worthwhile. Making new and seeing old friends, as usual, turns out to have the highest value.
As I mentioned, the theme of the conference is transitions to sustainability. The keynoters have been very interesting. The meeting opened with a report by Leith Sharp, who, until very recently, managed the Harvard University sustainability program. This program has many noteworthy accomplishments, but the most interesting part for me was her discussion of her experience in introducing new ideas and practices into a very conservative culture. Judged by my knowledge of what is going on at other campuses, she was extremely successful, in large part due to her sensitivity to the change process itself. Most program managers believe that if something will reduce environmental loads and save money at the same time, getting it implemented should be a breeze. Not so. Cultures are resistant to change, even to change that is positive. And academic cultures are among the most hardened.
The following plenary was given by Jan Rotmans, a Dutch academic expert on complexity and [transition management]( I don’t exactly believe you can “manage” transitions in complex systems. In fact this kind of indeterminacy is part of what defines a complex system. You cannot predict the response to any perturbation, so how can you manage the system. It’s possible to use standard management techniques, but one gets easily fooled. You can measure what you do to adjust the system, and also what happens, but if you try to connect the two in an analytic fashion, you are likely to be fooled when you make the next adjustment based on the prior analysis. Rotmans stressed, however, that one did have to approach the changes slowly, and, in a form of adaptive management, learn and adjust continually. My main disagreement is that he believes you can model the process of transition more analytically than I think possible. But the basic ideas are very useful to anyone thinking about how to make a transition to sustainability.
The third plenary was presented to us in Lisbon by Rob Socolow sitting in his office in Princeton, using some very good teleconferencing technology. Reducing carbon footprint is a subject of central concern to the industrial ecology community. Socolow gave us a lot of stark facts about carbon and global warming, and the need to drastically reduce the amounts of carbon dioxide equivalents being emitted to the atmosphere. The need for reduction is not so new to the audience, but the strategy that Socolow proposed is quite novel. He argues that attempting to allocate carbon quotas or targets among nations has been ineffective and will continue to be ineffective due to the politics involved. Instead he put forth an allocation plan based on what he calls [cosmopolitan ethics]( focusing on individuals, not nations. In the name of fairness, akin to John Rawls’s theory of justice, high-emitting (high-living) individuals would have to reduce their contributions so that those now living in dire poverty would be able to increase their use of energy. It sounds very good in principle, but such a strategy will face the same political pressures that any attempt to redistribute wealth has always had to deal with. In any case, he got the intellectual juices running. It is most interesting that this concept was introduced some 15 years ago in the first book focused on industrial ecology.
Today was my turn. The occasion was my swan song as I am stepping down as Executive Director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology after about ten years. I have held this office since the Society began. I did more than my usual preparation of a set of overheads and a minimal script, and wrote the lecture and seasoned it with what I thought would be humorous slides. The message to this group of mostly scientists and engineers was that sustainability will not come through technology. Just the opposite–continuing to rely on technology and technocratic policies will, at best, only postpone the continuing degradation of the Earth and its cultural foundations. Only a deep-seated change in cultural beliefs and values will change the present trajectory. I am told that a video of the talk will be available in a little while, and I will post a link to it. I’ll post my lecture script shortly after I clean it up a bit. The response was overwhelming and moved me greatly. I am not sure it came from what I said or was a thank you for my past service. I promised I would stay involved in the community that has spread to the four corners of the world, but I know that this will be difficult in the future. Our community has grown younger and more international over the 10 years we have existed. The energy and commitment to make the world a better place coming from this cohort lends an optimistic tone to what otherwise might be a depressing vision of the future.

2 Replies to “Still in Lisbon”

  1. I attended the conference and your presentation. You pointed out some major issues, which I found very inspiring. This could be the beginning of a change in thinking and doing, which is much needed in this time. Thank you!
    Jan de Wilt

  2. I agree with you that “sustainability” is a cultural issue and it should be approached as such. But:
    1. Technology is a cultural expression. So I don’t see how technology and culture can be treated as different things. Both culture steers technology (and its use) and technology affects culture in an co-evolutionary manner.
    2. Trying to control or steer cultural change faces similar problems with Transition Management. You commented that: “I don’t exactly believe you can “manage” transitions in complex systems”. I agree. But then why do you expect that culture can be changed intentionally?
    Culture(s) are complex systems (like ecosystems, like societies) and as such they will keep evolving and changing in highly unpredictable ways (especially since we are part of them).
    Furthermore, their behavior, characteristics and properties come as a result of the behavior, characteristics, properties and interactions of their agents. But in complex systems behavior, characteristics and properties of the agents do not necessarily pass on to the system. Similarly, the “sustainability” of the individual will not necessarily lead to “sustainability” of the whole.

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