(A quick disclaimer: these first few posts have been pretty dense, theoretical, and longwinded – that’s mainly because we’re establishing these core ideas of sustainability. Once we get through that, they’ll get more concise and grounded. Hopefully you’ll bear with me here, so we’re all on the same page down the road. Please keep the questions and comments coming in the meantime)
The following is a preliminary script I put together for one of our first presentation exercises. It’s essentially the info from the last post jammed into a 5 minute spiel...
Hi, today I’m going to explain to you how to run something called an “ABCD Analysis” – which is a method or a tool for organizations to use in strategic planning towards sustainability.
First, “Step A” is to explain how the method works. To do this, we first need a common understanding of what sustainability is and how it can be achieved. This requires an understanding that we are looking at this organization’s role within society and society’s role within the biosphere.
Currently society is on an unsustainable path within the biosphere. I’ll use the analogy of a funnel, where we have systematic declines in resource availability, purity, and social equity on the one hand and systematic increases in population, consumption, and competitiveness on the other hand. As the walls of the funnel close, we are left with fewer and fewer options as to how to meet our needs. If trend continues at some point (though we not sure exactly when) we won’t be able to sustain our society – a scary prospect.
In order to open the walls of the funnel, we need to establish some principles for what it means to be sustainable. To do this we must first look at the natural systems and how they provide for us and make life on Earth possible. Central to this is photosynthesis, where plant cells use sun energy to organize matter into a useful form (such as food, timber). Society then pulls those resources from natural systems, along with resources from the Earth’s crust (such as metals and oil), and we use them to meet our needs before they once again flow back into the biosphere in various forms of waste (due to the first and second laws of thermodynamics, which essentially say that nothing disappears, and everything spreads).
Currently the ways in which these flows between society and the biosphere are unsustainable can be categorized into four distinct systemic problems. By setting the goal of eliminating these four problems, we can then establish four principles for sustainability, which are to:
I. Eliminate the systematic increases in concentration of substances from the Earth’s crust in the biosphere (ie, metals from mining, CO2 from fossil fuels);
II. Eliminate the systematic increases in concentration of substances produced by society in the biosphere (ie, persistent, potentially toxic man-made compounds);
III. Eliminate the systematic degradation of natural systems by physical means (ie, deforestation, over-fishing); and,
IV. Eliminate the systematic undermining of people’s ability to meet their needs (ie, exploitation of labor or resources in developing nations).
If all of our institutions, organizations, business and governments abide by those principles, we will be able to open the walls of the funnel, establish a sustainable society and eventually start restoring some of the damage we’ve already done in the biosphere.
Now that we have a common understanding of the system we’re dealing with and a shared notion of what our goals are (not violating the sustainability principles), we can move on to how B, C and D work in this method.
Step B entails asking the group to come up with a long list of how current practices violate the 4 principles.
Step C is then a brainstorming session envisioning the operation in an ideal future state when the sustainability principles aren’t violated, without worrying about current restraints (such as cost, or technology). This process is called “backcasting” from a future vision of success, as opposed to forecasting from a present flawed reality.
Step D consists of prioritizing actions that can be taken immediately to embark in the right direction on the path from the current, unsustainable reality to the future vision of sustainability. These actions must also be flexible and provide an attractive return on investment to promote subsequent actions later on.
The ABCD process can be used time and again as the organization continues to innovate and strive towards sustainability.