Saturday, October 08, 2005

Upstream vs. Downstream

When one steps back, and looks at problems from a whole systems perspective, it quickly becomes clear that there are upstream and downstream solutions. Upstream solutions are often, if not always, more effective (and therefore more efficient). They tend to get to the heart of the problem. And in doing so, they often bring to light many more problems, that are often systemic, complex and challenging – but it’s a rather exhilarating process to look at what’s at the core of various problems, and it opens up opportunity to create new ways of doing things, instead of constantly being stuck in a reactive, problem solving mode. Come to think of it, this process of looking upstream is central to establishing and understanding the 4 Sustainability Principles – all of the various ways that our society is unsustainable can be traced back (upstream) to those four basic activities (violating the 4 principles).

The “stream” metaphor suggests that as one moves upstream, you get to larger streams, rivers and eventually the source. It becomes clear when you think about big river systems that there’s no one “source” but a complex watershed adding to the flow - just as there is no one solution, no “silver bullet” for sustainability. It’s tempting to hope for one – like a hydrogen economy, or solar power, or even a single conceptualization like Natural Capitalism, or an understanding that there are 4 Sustainability Principles – but it will need to be a combination of all sorts of solutions, brought on by different ways of thinking, learning and conceptualizing our roles in this system (the biosphere) that will bring us to a sustainable future.

For these purposes it may be more useful to think of moving “upstream” from the details of the leaves to the twigs, to the branches, to the trunk. So if we were looking at GHG and toxic emissions from the tailpipe of a car, using a downstream approach we would talk about filters on the tailpipe, recapturing and sequestering the emissions, squeezing more efficiency out of engines and passing legislation that mandates the regulation of future emission rates.

But if we were to use an upstream approach, we would explore ways to develop new types of cars that run on fuels that didn’t emit harmful substances. Or we would look at why were driving the car – let’s say to go to the grocery store – and start talking about ways we could design communities so we live close enough to the grocery store that we wouldn’t need to drive in the first place. An immediate and logical response would be something along the lines of “such undertakings are too large and complex and require the coordinated effort of too many players, often with different motivations and objectives.” And that’s true in most cases. But they’re certainly not impossible, and small bits of them are starting to happen all over the place. “Smartgrowth” initiatives in North America work to address such problems, utilizing mixed-used developments with residential, retail, commercial, industrial and recreational building all integrated. (Having “industrial” in that list might seem unwise at first glance – but when you consider a new kind of industry, that is smarter, more efficient and doesn’t require the input or removal of toxic substances and emissions, you can have an industrial facility next to a playground).

Another, simpler example of an upstream approach is the concept of preventative health care – or the idea that if the goal of the healthcare system is to have healthy people, it makes more sense to focus on keeping people well (through exercise and nutrition programs, etc) than to try to cure illnesses.

In more general terms, in relation to the first 3 (ecological) sustainability principles, the upstream vs. downstream considerations are:

· SP I (substances from the Earth’s crust)

o Downstream – the quality of the final deposit (waste) and the societal competence for dealing with it. (Is the waste product mixed with other substances? Can we contain it and keep it separate from natural systems? i.e. Ways in which we can we keep mercury or CO2 in a closed loop after use)

o Upstream – the type and rate of extraction. (how can we mine less mercury or CO2 through substitution (using other substances that are more abundant and less harmful in natural systems to meet our needs) and dematerialization (increasing efficiency and decreasing demand for such substances)

· SP II (substances produced by society)

o Downstream – keep substances in tightly controlled closed loops, and out of natural systems. (Some times impossible, as with CFC’s, or nuclear waste).

o Upstream – only produce substances that can degrade in nature. (Develop more and use existing non-toxic, non-persistent chemicals and compounds).

· SP III (degradation of ecosystems by physical means)

o Downstream – restoring natural systems (re-planting trees, shutting down fisheries for long periods of time to allow for regeneration).

o Upstream – don’t allow the rate of use / physical impact on ecosystems affect the rate of replenishment in the long term (sustainable harvest of timber or fish).

So there you have it – upstream vs. downstream – a big part of whole systems thinking and a hopefully will spark some new ways at looking at things.

A tough end of the Sox season last night, getting swept by the White Sox, but it was a hell of a season – never got old watching the Manny / Papi combo come to the plate, and a treat to have Ortiz dubbed the “greatest clutch hitter in the history of the Red Sox” by John Henry. Anyway – good thing we have the Pats…. Hope you’re all well – Stay going…