Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Gotta Laugh to Keep from Cryin'...

In case you haven’t seen this yet it’s definitely good for a laugh… Will Ferrell doing Bush on global warming:

http://www.devilducky.com/media/38792/ or

Unfortunately, the realness behind that hilarity is just all too real. Another big story on climate change, in case you missed it, hit the papers over the weekend as a NASA scientist spoke out on the administration demanding that any climate change data be screened by them before being released to the public. Clearly, this is very scary stuff when politics are not only interfering and distorting science but actually superseding it.

Washington Post Article on NASA Climate Science

2005 was officially the warmest year on record. Also note in this article how much is spent each year on trying to determine what kind of risks climate change pose ($2 billion) – money better spent on implementing solutions at this point.

In related news, I’m revisiting Limits to Growth – the 30 year update as we start our literature review for the thesis.

The introduction includes a nice clear explanation of how and why the original text (LTG, 1972) was misinterpreted in some ways and did not prompt the necessary societal and policy reactions that the research showed were vital.

"Not everything bears repetition, but truth does—especially when both denied by entrenched interests and verified by new information."

—Herman E. Daly, former senior economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank and Professor School of Public Affairs University of Maryland

The reason I bring it up is that in systems it’s not so much the limits, or thresholds that are the most important, but the overshoot and consequent collapse that is the issue. Many took a simplistic interpretation of LTG, taking it to mean simply that some day we’ll run out of certain resources, and we need to be ready for that day. But as we know complex systems aren’t that straight forward. The consensus among scientists is now that we have overshot certain limits in the global system in terms of climate change and as we know, we’re already feeling the consequences in the form of storms, terrorism, etc. – which just means that it is that much more important to start acting now to minimize the adverse impacts! Anyway, put LTG on your must read list.

In regards to actions we must take now, below is a quick email exchange with a friend on ethanol, something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, apologies for the disorganized email style, but it should get the main idea across:

is this the key to the future (ethanol)?



thanks for the article, i'll check it out - before even looking at it i can say a couple of important things though:

1) There is no one key to the future - it will take a combination of so many things to reach sustainability - many "new" fuels, better city planning, changes in lifestyle, more efficient technology - the mentality that there is one big thing that will save us has to go.

2) Bio-fuels will, and already are playing a big part in the transition - ethanol has a lot of problems in terms of how much energy you get out of it vs. how much you put in - especially in the states - a lot of technical details behind it that i'm not an expert on, but depends what your raw materials are (sugar cane is among the best - corn, which the US is looking to rely more heavily on, is much less efficient - check out Michelle's post on this for details) - and practices to get that raw material - industrial agriculture in the US requires more embodied energy - used to produce fertilizers, pesticides, run machinery - than you get out at the end of the day - a net loss when you look at the whole system. That's not even counting the all-important (maybe most important) impact on soil through erosion - that is after all the basis of our civilization.

So - yes, ethanol will play a big part and the shift is already starting - still need a lot of work to have it resemble anything sustainable - and as always, gotta keep the whole system perspective to find the true costs. When we start doing it properly on the agriculture side, will be a great way to store solar energy.

Last point - we went to a biofuel conference in Stockholm, talked to the guy from Saab - they have a 'flexi-fuel' vehicle that runs on ethanol mix and/or gas - you can go to an ethonal station, use half a tank and top it off w/ unleaded or visa versa - a great technology for transitioning - and get this.... there are 4.5 MILLION of them on the roads in the US - and most people that drive them don't even know they can do that - point is, no sacrifice in the car / style / performance, and fixes one half of the 'chicken or egg' dilemma changing infrastructure w/out demand or creating demand w/out infrastructure.

Hope you're doing well, my boy.... best – Geo

(As you’ll see in the article, it covers a lot of the issues I touched on in much better detail). Anyway, some random musings, I hope to get a post up on our thesis project soon – we’ll be looking at ways to improve global offset mechanisms, like CDMs under Kyoto, details to follow. Stay going…

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Google & The New Logic

I’ve been meaning to follow up on some of the things I touched on in this post about quantum physics when Göran Carsteadt came to speak with us, and after just finishing a related project on Google, I thought now would be a good time.

Carsteadt spoke a lot about what he calls “The New Logic” in business and society in general. In this age of information and globalization as time seems to speed up, we are entering into what he describes as a more brutal period in human history – similar to when we entered the first Industrial Revolution.

In order for people and organizations to be successful, and more importantly for society to reach sustainability, we will need to embrace this new logic. The underlying shift in perception that is critical to this is one from a purely Newtonian world-view to one informed by quantum physics. It's important to remember that this shift is not an either/or decision, but a both/and situation - you don't leave behind the old, its more like adding to it.

One major associated shift is that from a world of things to a world of ideas. Carsteadt gave us an elegant, simple example of the implications of such a shift: in a world of things, people hold on tight to what they own, because when I give you a thing, you now have it, and I have nothing – so we tend to hold onto our things. But when I give you an idea, and you give me an idea, we both have two ideas, where we previously had one. So in the New Logic, sharing is mutually beneficial.

The internet is the prime example of this and the leader – Google – seems to understand this incredibly well. First, their business by nature has made the jump from the goods to the service economy – a key aspect of sustainable development (see post on Interface) (things --> ideas).

In dealing with the complex system that is the scale-free network (read Linked!) of the internet, it seems that Googlers have fostered a whole systems perspective (linear --> non-linear).

This has led to an adoption of the New Logic on the organizational level. Their hierarchical structure is loose, and they pride themselves on being a ‘flat’ organization – more of a network where people from engineering, finance, sales, etc all talk to one another and work together to co-create new ideas (hierarchies --> networks).

They are a learning organization – maybe in the truest sense of the phrase – they go beyond the scope of their own organization to introduce products in beta phase to the public and have several full-time people doing nothing but reading customer feedback (teaching --> learning).

You’ve probably heard some about the culture at the “Googleplex” – where you can bring your dog to work, play roller hockey, eat for free at the organic café, open doors, common space, etc – a lot of the typical geek, dot-com boom stuff. But clearly, they’ve done it right and created some amazing things for us by taking this approach (livelihood --> lifestyle; fear --> trust).

The most amazing thing about this is this perspective seems to have naturally pushed the company towards sustainability initiatives. They have some pretty proactive stuff going on in the company - $5,000 incentives for employees to buy fuel efficient cars, organic food, staff environmental days. They’re also pushing the server industry to improve efficiency technology for their 10,000 or so servers (clearly they have an economic incentive for this as well – best I could figure they probably spend around $2-3 million per year on energy to run and cool the servers they use to index the web).

The founders have invested in carbon pools – that will invest in CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) projects in China and India. And to top it all they have started Google.org. Check it out, it is pretty self-explanatory, and only in its infancy, but clearly their ambitions for it are large.

This is not to say there is no room for skepticism with this company – their size and influence is becoming mind-boggling. They say they value the integrity of their search results above all else, and I believe them, but there is certainly potential for abuse there. Privacy concerns are also valid – as they scan content that some might consider private domain. Easy access to public but personal information also has many people worried.

Still, I loved looking at this company because it was a pretty straight forward example of all of these things start to fit together – sustainable development, whole systems thinking, organizational learning, complex networks, meeting human needs (participation, understanding, idleness, creativity) – and it shows how businesses can benefit from embracing this kind of approach (the founders are both worth over $10 billion and the stock is above $460). I’m sure we’ll see others start to catch on! Stay going…

Friday, January 13, 2006

Margot Wallström

A quick debrief on Margot Wallström’s visit while it’s still fresh:

Wallström is the VP of the EU, her official title is the “Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication” – but for the past 5 years she was the Environment Commissioner. She’s from Sweden and has worked with Karl-Henrik before, and appointed him as a representative on a roundtable to tackle sustainability issues in the EU. For more information on her, check out her blog: http://weblog.jrc.cec.eu.int/page/wallstrom

Her focus now is on democracy in the EU and globally – but because of her past work, and the fact that she is a very thoughtful and insightful person, she knows that democracy, globalization and sustainability are inseparable issues and you cannot talk about any one of them without talking about the others.

She gave a very good brief speech last night downtown at the Karlskrona Konsert Hus that was open to the public. The content was very similar to this previous speech, but with a bit more focus on sustainability.

This morning we were able to meet and continue to ask questions in a small group with just our class and the European Spatial Planning masters program class. We talked about issues of globalization – how trade liberalization might be able to promote democracy – and we danced around how the view that free trade translates into development is simplistic. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to dig into these issues.

Another main point we wanted to drive home was the importance of a scientific definition for success in terms of sustainability that could help the EU in being strategic in its attempts to move towards sustainability. She said that she was disappointed to say that she didn’t think the adoption of such a definition was likely any time soon, but that they would probably continue to use the very inspirational, but very vague Brundtland definition – "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The Four Sustainability Principles take this definition one step further downstream in order to add the necessary specificity to be strategic in moving towards sustainability – so it was a bit of a disappointment to hear that she didn’t think they would be officially adopted soon.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Greening Goldman...

This comes as no surprise to us, but still encouraging every time a leading company like Goldman gets proactive. Especially considering Goldman owns so much of so many companies, private and public, with their proprietary investments - it's just good to see they're clueing in.

Now they just need a scientific definition of success in terms of sustainability, so they can work strategically on moving towards it!!

(click the title for full story):

The Greening of Goldman Sachs
Traci Hukill, Alternet via Truthout
One of the world's leading investment banks concedes there are real financial costs to ignoring the environment - and they don't intend to get stuck paying them.
This is not a case of Goldman pretending its job is to save the world, or forsaking its primary mission to make money for its investors. Self-interest is in full effect here. Goldman Sachs is positioning itself to be a leader in the green energy sector.

It's also averting risk. The policy says so in so many strangulated, jargoney words: "We believe that companies' management of environmental and related social risks and opportunities may affect corporate performance."

Translation: there are real financial costs to ignoring the environment and the people who depend on it for their survival, and we don't intend to get stuck paying them.
(3 January 2006)

The link this summary came from is also a pretty cool site for news: http://www.energybulletin.net/index.php

Stay going…

Monday, January 09, 2006


Updated with some pics I was able to track down....

I’m just back from a much needed and refreshing vacation in France and Switzerland. I really wish I had a camera because I don’t think my words can do the scenery in both places justice, but they were so picturesque, that most of you probably have the exact images in your mind already.

I spent Christmas in Normandy which still looks pretty much like all the movies about the invasion, just without the war. Everywhere were those small houses with dark wood frames and white plaster that make triangle patterns on all the walls. They had thatched roofs with smoke floating from the chimneys. The country side was rolling green pastures, scattered patches of forest, and narrow winding roads. I went to see the beaches, which was intense – hard to describe the emotions that I felt as I tried to imagine what it must have been like to land there.

My hosts, the Lamberts, were extremely generous, welcoming and hospitable in a way that seemed so effortless that I felt right at home as we did exactly what you’re supposed to do at Christmas: eat, walk, drink, nap, eat, sit by the fire, eat… enough cheese and wine to last me through the year.

After Christmas we went to Gstaad for a week of skiing among Europe’s fanciest. There were some “celebrity” sightings, although I was pretty oblivious to most of them – mostly big names in high fashion from Paris and London. The only two that really meant anything to me were the ‘other’ Paris – Paris Hilton’s ex-finance and Roman Polanski.

The scenery...

The culture...

The crew...

after a rough night at "ZeePalace" - my favorite part of Gstaad...

The most encouraging part of the trip though was the genuine interest about my studies and sustainability in general from so many of the people that I met. It’s clear that people are becoming aware that there is no other way for the future of business – whether it be the business of investing, fashion, energy, private equity, airplane parts, Asian import, venture capital, radiators, interior design… there was interest from all.

Many already saw the need, and thought the PR benefit could maybe increase some sales and offset some costs. What was great to see was how a quick chat about how a strategic approach for moving towards a defined vision of sustainability can translate into a competitive advantage, really got these sharp minds from a variety of businesses excited and wanting to learn more. Hopefully some of those contacts will lead to some interesting opportunities down the road.

It was such a treat to get out on the slopes as well – some pretty mellow cruisers for the most part, but it felt so good to get some carves in – and altogether with the scenery and especially the crew I was with and the people we met made it just an unforgettable week.

It’s great to be back in K-town though. I’ve moved into a new place with a great crew, which is a treat – we’ve been having a good time collecting some sparse furnishings and getting set up. We kick back into gear on Thursday, when Margot Wallström – Vice President in the European Commission – is coming to speak to us. She’s pretty big time and it is a huge score for us to be worked into her schedule. She has done some impressive work in terms of sustainability, and it will be very interesting to hear about how it is dealing with these issues in the context of high level international politics. I’ll keep you posted… I hope everyone had enjoyable holiday seasons and got to spend some time with loved ones and took some time to remember what it’s really all about! Stay going…

Karlskrona Waste Management:

Here is a delayed post on our trip a couple of months ago to Karlskrona’s waste management center, which is a pretty impressive operation for our little municipality:

The site was established in ’76 after the previous landfill was capped, and it was expected to fill up in 25 years. Instead they started sorting, recycling and composting on maybe 75% of the area, and only use the remaining 25% or so for land fill. Due to their efforts this far smaller area for landfill is now expected to last 80-90 years – a pretty solid improvement in terms of violating the 3rd Sustainability Principle.

The facility supports the population of about 62,000 people – so it’s not huge, but pretty significant. The amount of material going to landfill has fallen off by about 50% since the ‘90s, due in large part to some modest regulations and financial incentives, as well as outreach and education in the community to help people figure out how to sort waste – particularly organic waste that now gets composted. The company (which is actually owned by the municipality, but runs like a business) also recaptures methane from the landfill and uses it to heat their facilities as well as piping some to the district heating plant.

They had a bunch of roofed concrete bays for the various materials. Plastics are mostly sorted by households and businesses – soft plastics get bailed at this site and sent to incinerators, and hard plastics get sent to a recycling facility. Sweden has a law that requires producers to take responsibility for their packaging and financially support recycling. Surely, these costs get passed on to the consumer eventually, but it’s not a noticeable amount at the check-out line and it’s inspiring to see the results. They also have similar bays for metals, paper and cardboard.

In the middle of the site were large piles of garden waste – branches and shrubs – that were waiting to be chipped. Just beyond these piles were a few long structures, side by side that looked like barracks. They had retractable roofs, so they could be filled with compost materials – kitchen scraps that households have separate bins for, plus the chipped garden waste. When one was full the roof was closed, and the material sat to compost for four weeks. There is a pump system built into the floor of these units that periodically (every couple of minutes or so) blows air into the pile to keep the mix oxygenated. Next the mix sits in an outside been for a couple more weeks, and after 6-8 weeks, they’ve got nutrient rich fertilizer that they can sell to offset some of the costs.

Maybe it’s something cultural about the Swedes that they have the patience and follow the rules enough to set up such a system and make it work – but once it’s up and running smoothly, the results are staggering, if not surprising. As we move towards sustainability ‘closing the loops’ in the technosphere will be key to avoiding violations of the Sustainability Principles. With the proper education and awareness these kinds of systems can be efficient and cost-effective, and will make the concept of landfills obsolete.

But again, it is a challenge that will take coordination and communication between product designers and manufactures, government, business and citizens. Things only really become ‘garbage’ when they are mixed in a way that decreases their value or potential. So if products are designed so they can be separated into basic components, and businesses and households can manage a few bins to separate their waste, and governments or contractors can collect and manage this ‘waste’ as resources – the end result will be a far more effective system for meeting our needs without violating the Sustainability Principles.

This is happening more and more all over the world, and represents a huge business opportunity – but is something that we all need to work to encourage more of in our own communities. So go make it happen!! Stay going…

It's about time...

As we’ve seen and discussed the concept of time is central to movement towards sustainability. Unknown time-delays in complex systems make it very difficult to determine when the system will reach inflection points, tipping points, bifurcations, or thresholds. How long can a company dump mercury into a lake before it all of the sudden dies? How long must cold-war diplomacy and negotiations go on before the wall suddenly comes down? How long will it take for the increases in atmospheric CO2 to result in dramatic and erratic changes in the global climate system? How long can systematic undermining of the capacity for poor Parisians to meet their fundamental needs of participation and protection go on until sustained rioting erupts? How many decades of persistent struggle and resistance are necessary to end Apartheid?

The dramatic shifts are inevitabilities if the inputs driving the change are not altered, but it is very difficult, if not impossible to predict when the systems will “tip,” the threshold will be crossed, or the bifurcation will occur. A variety of factors can contribute to the switch happening. Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point looks in detail at some of these dramatic events in the context of society. He tells the stories well, and it’s an easy, interesting read (click on the link for a review).

Even when we’re not dealing with complex systems, the human brain has trouble dealing with the concept of time. Where it is an incredibly perceptive, intuitive, calculating machine, for whatever reason in its evolutionary development, the human brain just gets tricked by time. We have all experienced it with events that seem like they “happened yesterday and a life time ago.” Or how some weekends seem to last for a month, while others go by in about 5 minutes (all too often it’s the latter). We are in awe of the beautiful snow in New England every winter and by January we can’t figure out why the hell anyone would ever want to live there – only to fall in love with it again when spring arrives.

Gladwell’s latest book, Blink, also deals with the tricky issue of time by looking at the split second information we get – from facial expressions, art work, music, tasting food – and how much we can learn from that information. He talks about how that split second information gets processed by the ‘adaptive unconscious’ and creates a kind of intuition, particularly in experienced experts. Again, a good read, and in Gladwell fashion covers a lot of interesting, seemingly obscure research, and makes it readable and relevant to our everyday lives – and thus, movement towards sustainability.

Sort of a random post, but this issue of time comes up again and again in the context of strategic sustainable development – with the world speeding up and the quarterly economy driving decision-making understanding our limitations when it comes to conceptualizing time becomes extremely important. The concept of “slowing down to speed up” is also central to all of this, as we find it’s crucial in understanding and influencing complex systems to step back and take stock to make sure we’re heading in the right direction and doing things appropriately instead of just continuing on with business as usually only faster. So I’m sure we’ll be referring back to all of this. Stay going…