Saturday, August 26, 2006

If we knew then what we know now...

The previous post on backcasting is part of my efforts to catch up on some of the core concepts of strategic sustainable development. Here is an example of why it is such a powerful approach.

This quote from a recent article about Wal-mart’s sustainability efforts, highlights how the understanding of a principle-based definition of sustainability can be used to offset risks and foster competitive advantage by making the right strategic moves in the present:

“[Wal-mart CEO] Scott wondered, "If we had known ten years ago what we know now, what would we have done differently that might have kept us out of some of these issues or would have enhanced our reputation?”

Link to entire article from

Of course, we can’t predict the future, but we can invent it – by leading the way to a sustainable future, companies (and communities, nations, etc) can avoid the hitting the funnel walls and enjoy the profits and prosperity that accompany such good business all the way along. Stay going.


The concept of “backcasting” is central to a strategic approach for sustainable development. It is a way of planning in which a successful outcome is imagined in the future, followed by the question: “what do we need to do today to reach that successful outcome.” This is more effective than relying too much on forecasting, which tends to have the effect of presenting a more limited range of options, hence stifling creativity, and more important, it projects the problems of today into the future.

In the context of sustainability, we can imagine an infinite number of scenarios for a sustainable society – and ‘backcasting from scenarios’ can be thought of as a jigsaw puzzle, in which we have a shared picture of where we want to go, and we put the pieces together to get there. However, getting large groups of people to agree on a desired future scenario is often all but impossible. Further, scenarios that are too specific may limit innovation, and distract our minds from the innovative, creative solutions necessary for sustainable development.

So strategic sustainable development relies on ‘backcasting from principles for sustainability’ – which are based in science, and represent something we can all agree on: if these principles are violated, at some point our global society will collapse. To achieve a sustainable society, we know we have to not violate those principles – we don’t know exactly what that society will look like, but we can define success on a principle level. In that way, backcasting from principles is more like chess – we don’t know exactly what success will look like, but we know the principles of checkmate – and we go about playing the game in a strategic ways, always keeping that vision of future success in mind.

------------------------------------------ more details on the origins of the term:

Last year, in the Stratleade program, we had the privilege of hearing a lecture from the man who coined the term, John Robinson. The concept was introduced by Amory Lovins, who called it ‘backwards looking analysis,’ and created in response to what he called the ‘monkeys doing energy forecasting.’

Our obsession with forecasting, according to Robinson, comes from our obsession with predictive thinking. It leads us to believe that there is an unavoidable future coming down on us and there’s nothing we can do but react.

This stems from our mechanistic worldview. This view naturally leads to a focus on predictive thinking because it follows that if you can predict how something will behave, then you must understand the mechanics of it. This is problematic when we try to understand and describe complex, non-linear systems as if they were mechanical, linear systems.

Natural systems are complex and non-linear, and while we understand more and more about how they behave on the principle level, we still cannot predict the weather. Social systems are far more complex because they also have intentionality. Still, we try to force these systems into models so we can ‘understand’ them and ‘predict’ how they will behave. To do this, we are forced to make assumptions that often make the models reductionist, simplistic, and absurd. For example, in economic systems the assumptions that people are ‘rational actors’ and that there is ‘perfect information’. In large part, this is due to a tradition of compartmentalized disciplines in academia, where the social scientists have pushed a quantitative, value-neutral approach to studying these systems in the misguided pursuit of establishing concrete laws similar to the laws of nature.

Even if we could predict the future, why would we want to? We have the power to create a better future. The complexity of social systems within the biosphere demands a whole-system perspective and employing backcasting from sustainability principles. In this way, we can acknowledge the value-laden reality of social systems. We can all take a transdisciplinary approach to learning to better understand the basic constraints we must operate in. And together, we can implement the dramatic change in societal design necessary to create a sustainable society.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Karl-Henrik Robèrt

Well, another year of the master’s programme (the Stratleade programme) is about to begin. The new students have been arriving this week, and many more will hopefully be here soon if they can work out visa issues. This year’s class looks again very international, and sporting some very exciting backgrounds and expertise – from credit unions to water treatment, community development to telecom, and permaculture designers to fuel-cell engineers.

And the start of another year means another introductory series of lectures from Karl-Henrik, co-founder of the programme and founder of The Natural Step. As luck would have it, an excellent web-site called The Big Picture has just posted a series of 7 short clips of Karl-Henrik talking about The Natural Step, the 5-level framework for strategic sustainable development, the A-B-C-D analysis, etc.

So click here:

and enjoy your own personal, abbreviated version of the first day of the Stratleade programme. Stay going.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reggie pleases

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) - or "Reggie" - is the cap and trade system being established between 7 Northeastern US states - Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and New York (with Maryland committed to joining by 2007).

In December 2005, the states agreed to a memorandum of understanding committing to the system, and in March ’06 they released a draft for comments. After public input, they’ve come to a revised version, which has been well recieved - in particular because it allowed for off-sets.

Here are the main aspects:

  • The first period will run between 2009 and 2015, capping COemissions at approximately current levels – 121 million tons per year
  • After that there will be 4-year periods with tighter caps – the second period will require 10% emissions cuts by 2019
  • Coal-, oil- and gas-fired electric power plants with a capacity of 25 megawatts or more are covered under RGGI
  • These plants can trade credits – sell extras if their emissions are under their allowance, or buy on the market if they are over
  • At least 25% of the allowances have to go to strategic energy initiatives such as efficiency programs, clean energy tech, etc
  • Off-sets generated by non-electric projects – such as methane capture from agriculture or landfill projects
  • Off-set credits can come from anywhere in the US – and can be used to meet up to 3.3% of their emissions
    • Unless the price for a ton of carbon rises above $7, in which case they can account for 5%
    • Above $10, they can account for 10%, and credits from international schemes (e.g. the EU ETS) can be used as well

All-in-all, the actual reductions are quite modest – and it looks as though they’ve set it up so that the prices will be quite low, and with the offsets, there will probably be a glut of supply early on (as we’ve seen in the EU ETS – allocations were too large, and most emitters came in well under expectations). But the big thing is that the system is being set up – the kinks will get worked out, and businesses can finally start planning strategically for the reality of a fossil-free future.

Check out the press release for more details:

And the Reggie page for more info:

Stay going…

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Swedish Models...

Ahhhh... the old Swedish models pun - a classic for sustainability geeks here in Sweden. Below are the results of an initial report from Sweden's Commission on Oil Independence - this is an ambitious plan to break Sweden's oil addiction by 2020. It is inspiring in its pro-active, strategic approach. Of course it's not perfect, and not everything would transfer to the US, but there is certainly something to take from this approach:

Press release 28 June 2006

Prime Minister's Office
Commission on Oil Independence presents its report

The Commission on Oil Independence was appointed by the Government in
December 2005. Its remit was to present a concrete strategy to break Sweden's dependence on oil by 2020 - so there will be alternatives should prices rise - and tangibly reduce our actual use of oil. In this way, Sweden will be in a better position to secure its long-term energy supply, reduce climate impact, develop new technology, improve competitiveness and make better use of energy resources from forestry and agriculture. The Commission presented its report today.

Commenting on the report, Prime
Minister Göran Persson says: "The report is an important first step towards Sweden becoming independent of oil. My assessment is that this can be difficult to achieve by 2020. Moreover, the rate of progress is affected by a number of factors that are outside the scope of national policy. The clear direction of the report is a good basis for positive development. "The Commission's work has been characterised by its members' expertise in industry, agriculture and forestry, science and energy efficiency. All of them have been prepared to compromise. No one has reached their own optimal position on every issue. The result has been a consensus report. There is one single issue on which we have not agreed: whether Sweden should press to abolish Europe's protective tariffs on its own ethanol production. In every other respect, the Commission is in total agreement."

"I am now hoping for a broad discussion on the Commission's proposals so that the report can contribute to increased knowledge and offensive action from industry and consumers as well as from the agricultural and forestry sectors. The report will form the basis of the further work - analyses, inquiries, and proposals - that is necessary to develop a policy that can consolidate and develop Sweden as a pioneer in the transition to sustainable development." Commission Secretary-General Stefan Edman says: "The Commission's report opens up many exciting opportunities for Sweden. We show that by taking measures at this stage, it is possible to counter a future oil shortage and rising oil prices in a way that also promotes development, growth and employment. The report also indicates a number of conflicting objectives. I am convinced, for example, that it is possible to find a balance between increased forestry production and ambitious goals for biological diversity and nature conservation."

Conclusions of the report Overall objectives and measures The Commission has worked to ensure that Sweden will be able achieve the following objectives by 2020:
· energy efficiency improvement in society as a whole by at least 20 per cent,
· 40-50 per cent less petrol and diesel in road transport,
· 25-40 per cent less oil in industry,

· no oil for the heating of residential and commercial buildings. A special centre for energy efficiency is proposed. Its task will be to move issues forward, evaluate and submit annual reports to the Government and Riksdag on energy efficiency in homes, vehicles and industry.

Alternative fuels
The greatest consumption of oil products takes place on the roads. To break this dependence, a rapid increase in the use of alternative fuels is necessary. Production of fuel from the Swedish forestry and agriculture sectors must increase.

The Commission proposes the following measures.

· New plants. The Government should contribute to the initiation of a number
of pilot and demoplants to start production of "second generation biofuels" such as synthetic gas fuels, forest-based ethanol and biogas from the bio-based raw materials that are most efficient from the point of view of acreage and energy.
· Increased forest take-off. Forest growth needs to be increased in the long
term by 15-20 per cent through more efficient management in the form of clearing, thinning out, refined plant material, ditch clearing and fertilisation as well as through intensive cultivation of spruce and broad-leaf trees on a few per cent of the acreage.
· Energy crops. Arable land and disused, non-afforested farmland can be cultivated with energy crops and energy broad-leaf trees on a scale of 300 000-500 000 hectares.
· Demand for biovehicles. Promotion of vehicles running on alternative fuels
should continue through measures at national as well as local level. Public procurement can contribute to technological development. Government agencies should procure vehicles with new technology, thus accelerating the phasing out of fossil fuels and putting a premium on efficient vehicles. More efficient transport Potential fuel production is limited by the acreage of forest and arable land, as well as by the energy used in the production process. If availability of alternative fuels in the future is to meet the demand, fuel consumption of cars and lorries must be reduced.
· More efficient vehicles. By such means as hybrid cars, an increased
proportion of diesel-run vehicles, renewal of the vehicle fleet and better materials, Swedish cars could become on average 2550 per cent more efficient by 2020. The Commission would like to see greater incentives for fuel-efficient vehicles and reduced carbon dioxide emissions.
· Environmental classification. Fuel efficiency should be included as a factor in environmental classification of cars. The Commission recommends that consideration be given to the different size groups for cars. In this way, the necessary technological development can be pursued on a broad front in all the various car classes.
· Energy labelling. To make consumer choice easier, consideration should be given to introducing an energy-labelling system. Such systems currently exist in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
· Planning. Traffic planning can be improved by the use of systems including ITS (intelligent transport systems) and GPS. Car-pooling should be encouraged.

The Commission also proposes a series of measures to improve efficiency and
reduce goods transport on the roads, to strengthen the public transport system and railways and encourage the use of IT, for instance, to increase distance work.

Residential and commercial buildings
The use of oil for heating has decreased rapidly in recent decades. To do away in practice with all the oil used for heating, an increase in biofuels and greater energy efficiency are essential.
· New construction. Incentives for new production of low-energy buildings should be created. The Commission recommends the introduction of stricter building regulations and new incentives to encourage building in an energy-efficient way.
· Rebuilding and modernisation. Energy efficiency programmes are proposed to
provide increased knowledge and greater motivation to modernise existing residential and commercial buildings - not least in the "million homes programme" - for improved energy efficiency. A reduction in direct electric heating should be speeded up. The Government should lead the way in efforts to improve efficiency.
· Thermal power technology. District heating has a central role in the
phasing out of oil. Existing and future power stations should be supplemented by thermal power technology so they are able to produce electricity as well as heat.

Industry The Commission has set the ambition that half the heating oil used in industry must be replaced by biofuels by 2020 and that oil for industrial processes must be replaced whenever possible by biofuels or energy gases.
· Policy instruments. Incentives may be needed if the oil used for heating or steam is to be replaced by biofuels or district heating.
· Efficiency improvement. Greater cooperation between institutes of technology and primary industries could promote improvements in energy efficiency. Major benefits could also be gained by mapping energy use and efficiency improvement programmes drawn up jointly by company management and employees.
· Knowledge. Small and medium-sized enterprises should be provided with
supplementary support through energy offices and energy consultants.

Research The Commission also indicates a series of research and development projects that could be decisive in the long term for further reducing our oil use. This includes projects on solar cells, fuel cells, hybrid vehicles, wave energy and improvements in energy systems in residential buildings and industry.

Background to the Commission on Oil Independence Prime Minister Göran Persson chaired the Commission, which comprised: Professor Christian Azar, Chalmers University of Technology Lars Andersson, Chair, Government bioenergy inquiry Lotta Bångens, Chair, Sweden's Energy Advisers Birgitta Johansson-Hedberg, CEO, Swedish Farmers' Supply and Crop Marketing Association Leif Johansson, CEO, AB Volvo Göran Johnsson, former Chair, Swedish Metal Workers' Union Christer Segersteen, Chair, Federation of Swedish Forest Owners Lisa Sennerby-Forsse, Secretary-General, Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning, newly-appointed Rector, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. The Commission Staff comprised Stefan Edman, biologist and writer, and Anders Nylander, architect and energy expert.

They worked openly, and
throughout the spring they held a large number of meetings with the actors concerned, the media and other interested parties. Four public hearings were arranged and attracted considerable interest in Sweden and around the world:
· 13 December 2005: Will oil run out - and if so, when?
· 20 January 2006: Sweden's green gold - what potential do forestry and agriculture offer for bioenergy, now and in the future?
· 17 February 2006: How can we reduce dependence on petrol and other fossil fuels in the transport sector?
· 22 March 2006: How can we reduce dependence on oil and other fossil fuels
for heating and power production?

The Commission's report is published on the Government website at

Stay going...

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Household Cap & Trade

An interesting headline from PointCarbon today:

German utility EWE has launched a model project for emissions trading by
private households, claiming it was the first in the country. The utility
said that as emissions trading was expected to include the transport and
household sector eventually, this was a good opportunity for testing.

Similar proposals have been talked about in the UK as well - it will be facinating to see how we work out the details, but in theory this is a great and effective way to work towards a fossil-free society.

I'm sure there will be some rumblings about unfair restrictions on freedom as caps are placed on personal emissions - but that is just due to misunderstanding the situation. You don't hear many complaints about littering being agains the law, and I'm fairly certain if CO2 was bright orange, piled up in our line of site as we emitted it, and stank - we would have sought better options a long time ago (unfortunately, as we know its impacts are far more serious). Stay going.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Be the Change…

In response to the insightful comment about the need not only for business and government to enact the shift to a sustainable society, but also every one of us in our everyday lives – I thought I would pass on this link to SmartPower – a national non-profit marketing campaign for clean energy:

There are only a handful of state on there – but all my Mass readers can check out the options available for New England renewables, and how you can support them – for as little as $5, or as much as you want per month…

The blog of “Beo” (who left the comment) is also worth checking out:

He’s got a lot of focus on Permaculture – an idea (concept / design technique / philosophy / way of being) that could literally save the world – and highlights how each of us in urban apartments, suburban developments, and rural farms can do our part to contribute to the health of natural systems and life on earth, as opposed to taking from it.

As for “being the change” its absolutely vital – and core to understanding the whole-system. When we talk about the 5-level framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, Level 1 – the System – is about understanding the role of the individual within the organization/community within society within the biosphere (as well as about understanding the basic laws and principles of that system). It can take a while for this to sink in, but when it really does, it can be a profound realization – and empowering that each of us can be the change, until a tipping point is reached and we go through a kind of societal phase-shift to a sustainable society. It frees you from the feeling of an inevitable future crashing down on you and allows you to backcast from a successful, sustainable future, and start taking strategic steps today to get to that vision. This is the only way we can get past the “doom and gloom” so evident in my recent post about the world’s oceans, and all over the news of late with the wars and terrorism. The more people internalize this change and bring this thinking and energy to their organizations, the faster we will get there. Stay going…

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


So most of us are at some level conscious of the many threats of climate change brought on by global warming, and appreciate their complex causes and manifestations. In addition to all of the things we can do in our everyday lives that are so important and will create real change (buy local/organic, drive less, build green, sign up for green power, etc.) there is a huge leverage point at the federal and international level that is a vital complimentary component for the kind of dramatic change that is required: accepting international caps on greenhouse gas emissions by ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, and engaging in the negotiations for post-2012 targets, and pushing for more aggressive reductions. If you haven’t already, join the Virtual March by typing your email address into the banner to the right -->

or go to this link: and sign up. After you sign up – go to “Petition your Mayor” on the front page, and make your voice heard so we can start making some real progress. (by the way, it is unfortunately too late to “stop global warming” – but we really need to “stop emitting greenhouse gases”, so as to minimize global warming, and thus minimize the great disruption that climate change will bring to our global society).

You can also go to this website to voice your support for such a move, and find some resources on how to push your city and whatever organizations you’re involved with to do the same:

Kyoto USA “Make the Pledge”

A bit more about Kyoto:

The Protocol went into effect in Feb 2005 after Russia signed on, and the first “commitment period” for developed countries to meet their target runs from ’08-’12. During that time countries agree to reduce their emissions, on average, to about 5% below 1990 levels (a very modest beginning). The US signed, but did not ratify the Protocol – the Bush administrations stance is that it would be too risky for the economy and that it wasn’t fair that developing countries did not have to accept caps initially. I find this absurd for many reasons – chief among them:

  • I have faith in American business to step up to a clear challenge like this, and expect it to drive innovation and economic opportunity, instead of whining that it’s not their responsibility. In addition to the potential development in renewable energy, energy service companies and the like – the financial sector will welcome the move: the EU emissions trading scheme (which is up and running in preparation for Kyoto) has grown from €377 million in 2004 to €9.4 ($11.3) billion in 2005 and estimates for ’06 are upwards of €30 billion.
  • Most developing countries’ emissions (esp Africa) are negligible compared to the industrialized world

– particularly the US, which is responsible for almost a third of global CO2 emissions - granted, there are two major obvious logical jumps here:

1) this means in real terms, the US will need to cut more to achieve the same percentage cuts as other industrialized countries – however, the targets reflect this with the US target at 7% below ’90 levels, compared to the EU and many eastern European countries at 8%)

2) we’re probably not worried about the fact that “developing” countries don’t have caps with the exception of China (and India). The chart below shows their emissions almost rivaling ours (though much lower on a per capita basis) and as we know their growth rates are tremendous. For me this just reinforces why we need to take the lead on this – accept caps and show some good faith, and have a leg to stand on in negotiations for post-2012 when the whole world will be pushing China into accepting caps (Hong Kong and Guangdong just announced an emissions trading scheme for coal pollutants, similar to the US SOx and NOx markets – a hopeful sign that they will consider accepting GHG caps sooner rather than later)

  • Countries with weaker economies than ours have stepped up to challenge, recognizing that any negative impacts on the economy (again, I think the opposite will be the case) will pale in comparison to the detrimental impacts of climate change – as is becoming increasingly clear, we’re already feeling these impacts, and we’ll continue to feel them more acutely – right now all we can do is minimize the pain by acting as quickly as possible.

I think this is a great opportunity to enact real change by taking advantage of the power of free markets – this type of scheme that Kyoto embodies is a crucial step in adapting our economic system to the realities of the time – moving us closer to a true free-market economy, internalizing some externalities and enabling closer-to-perfect information.
Stay going.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

When it hits, ya feel no pain…

Immortal words from Bob Marley, and ironic with the focus of Thom York’s (of Radiohead) new album, The Eraser, which has some strong sustainability themes – Grist reports on the details and motivations for this. Here’s a excerpt from the LA Times :

"In the paper one day, Jonathan Porritt was basically dismissing any commitment that the working government has toward addressing global warming, saying that their gestures were like King Canute trying to stop the tide," Yorke said of the British environmentalist. "And that just went 'kaching' in my head. It's not political, really, but that's exactly what I feel is happening. We're all King Canutes, holding our hands out, saying, 'It'll go away. I can make it stop.' No, you can't."

My good friend and music-junkie, Jay Sweet author of Sweetalk, sat down with Thom York recently for a Paste Magazine cover story – look for it on stands now.

I’m tempted to dive off into a much over-due post about how important music is strengthening the social fabric, meeting fundamental needs and how it relates to the 4th sustainability principle, but unfortunately, I don’t have the time right now.

I’ll leave instead a play-list of sustainability related tunes, have fun with it:

(Nothing but) Flowers, Talking Heads

Say Goodbye, Black Eyed Peas

Be Healthy, Dead Prez

You’re the Murdera, J Boogies Dubtronic Science feat Zion I & Duence Eclipse

Cookie Jar, Jack Johnson

Worldwide Suicide, Pearl Jam

Way of Life, Dead Prez

Never Know, Jack Johnson

Freedom Highway, North Mississippi Allstars

Rollover, String Cheese Incident

Gone, Black Eyed Peas sampling Jack Johnson

Jah Work, Ben Harper

… and most of Thom Yorke’s Eraser – The Clock, Atoms for Peace, Analyse, And It Rained All Night, etc.

Stay going…

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Toxic Soup – sooner than we thought?

Today’s LA Times ran an important (though disturbing) piece on the plight of the oceans:,0,6670018,full.story

I like the article for two main reasons:

1) It illustrates (though maybe not explicitly) how sustainability issues are all inter-related, and why a whole-system approach is so important. These seemingly isolated symptoms showing up in the world’s oceans are directly tied to chemical farming, coal power, social injustice, etc. etc.

2) It highlights the time scale we’re dealing with – our combined impact, systematically altering the earth’s natural systems now have the power to reverse – with frightening speed – 2.7 billion years of evolution, which transformed this planet from an uninhabitable, toxic stew, to a delicate balance of bio-geo-chemical cycles and complex interactions between species ecosystems.

I don’t like the article because it’s a total bummer – bringing to the surface the overwhelming challenge we face. But it also shows how we have 1) the power to do so much right now and 2) the need for innovation – the opportunity that exists – to create ways in which we meet our needs in sustainable ways. For starters, this one shows why we need to phase out chemical farming as fast as possible and close nutrient loops – each of us buying organic is an easy way we can start right now. It shows more of the impacts that climate change is bringing – we all know the little things we can do there, turn off the lights, buy green power, drive less, etc – but we really need to get to the big things, like supporting political will to prompt serious, systematic change – signing Kyoto, pushing for tighter caps post-2012, etc – write your congressmen.

Another reason it’s a total bummer is it really ruined my plans to take a swim in the Baltic this afternoon – the jellies haven’t started showing up in full force yet (they were nasty here late summer last year) – but this article is too grim a reminder of what’s happening in that water. Stay going.