Saturday, June 30, 2007

Manufactured Landscapes

We went to see Manufactured Landscapes this afternoon - a powerful documentary about Edward Burtynksy's photography of industrial landscapes. His work in this area started off with photos of mines, landfills in the like in North America, but most of the work lately has been in China. It is a great illustration of what we all know, but often forget, and can rarely truly grasp: the scale of China's growth, which is being driven in large part by our consumerism.

The film does a great job of communicating one of the key characteristics of they system "global society within the biosphere": interdependence. The film does a nice job of showing this in a such a way that it is not obtuse.

It's often hard to think about China's development, following in our footsteps, and not get depressed. The issue is complex, as clearly this development is also benefiting hundreds of millions of people in certain ways. It is not easy to say "don't develop like we did" - especially when all of the corporations are licking their chops waiting for the Chinese market to mature to the point where they can consume like us. To help understand it all, I find the Threshold Hypothesis to be very useful. The jist of it is as follows:

“For every society there seems to be a period in which economic growth–conventionally understood and measured-brings about an improvement in the quality of life, but only up to a point-the threshold point-beyond which, if there is more economic growth, quality of life may begin to deteriorate.” (Max-Neef, Ecological Economics, 1995).

Clearly, China's going through that first period (though on an unprecedented scale) - and it's quite clear that we are in the second stage, although we are slow in realizing that and adapting accordingly. Still, more and more people are waking up to this reality, stepping back and asking themselves why a few times, with regard to our careers, plans, dreams, life in general. To paraphrase Janine Benyus, more and more we're creating eddies along side the massive river of unsustainable growth, reflecting and looking for ways to create a steady-state, circular, sustainable global economy.

An incredible recent example of this is the Tallberg Forum going on in Sweden right now - that link will bring you to great videos of each day's events - very inspiring. On the China front, an Chinese interviewee from day 2 gives some great hope with a simple statement picking up on JFK vibe: it's time to stop asking what the world can do for China and start asking what China can do for the world. Great question for all of us, especially here in the US, as we come into my favorite holiday of the year, meant to celebrate the principles upon which this great country was based, and from which we unfortunately often drift too far. Stay going.

The film's website:

Edward Burtynsky's photography:

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


So, the reflective, thoughtful life of a grad student ends, and the flow of blog posts slows to a trickle…! But the excitement of creating a sustainable society certainly has not. I’ll likely turn to writing more on the Greenland Enterprises site once we get a better blog set-up going, but I’ll continue to post here from time to time.

Aside from staying busy with business development, networking and exploring new project ideas, most of our time has been dedicated to the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. It’s been going very well, with over 312 presidents so far pledging their institutions to a path towards climate neutrality.

We had a very successful public launch of the initiative in Washington DC a couple of weeks ago at the ACUPCC Leadership Summit. It was incredibly inspiring to hear some of these presidents speak about what they’re doing on their campuses and why, what it means for the future of the US and the world, and how it will benefit their institutions and stakeholders now and in the long-run. We were also treated to some talks by rock-stars in the space, including James Hansen (NASA Goddard Space Institute), Eileen Claussen (Pew Center), John Kerry (MA), Bernie Sanders (VT), Jay Inslee (WA), and Steve Johnson (EPA Administrator).

But in my opinion the presidents stole the show – Michael Crow (Arizona State), Tim White (U of Idaho), Kathy Schatzberg (Cape Cod Community College), David Hales (College of the Atlantic), David Shi (Furman), and many others – are all doing amazing things. A quick Google search will bring up some good info on them if you’re interested – especially Crow and ASU, they are shifting the paradigm in a big way, and as a result are going to be well positioned to meet the coming demands from applicants, employers, funding bodies, etc.

I also got a chance to facilitate a dialogue session amongst the presidents about implementing the commitment, sharing a definition of leadership I heard recently, which says leadership is stepping into that which you have not yet mastered. It’s safe to say that no one has yet mastered a long-term shift to climate neutrality on a large scale, so in that sense, and in many others, making this commitment is a tremendous show of leadership by these presidents and their institutions.

Our fantastic partners at ecoAmerica wrote up a summary for their blog, if you’re interested in more details (they also have some links to the excellent press coverage the event received). And we finally got to meet the rest of the team in person, after months of emails and conference calls - a great group to work with:

All in all, it’s been an interesting to see the reactions to this initiative as we go through this amazing time when the US is waking up to the global warming challenge. The resistance to signing has for the most part come from misunderstanding what the Commitment actually entails, or getting hung up on details (for example, it includes picking 2 short term actions from a list of 7, and people will take issue with one of the options on the list). Also, as with anything new, some believe it cannot be done, but I think they’ll sign on as they see the successes of the others. Another piece that’s often overlooked is the power of collective action – some schools figure they’ll be better off going it alone – but they’re missing a tremendous opportunity to send a powerful message to the rest of society about the need to collaborate for this common cause (they’ll also miss out on some great technical support, the development of a common framework and standards, and opportunities to learn from each other along the way).

Finally, and most importantly, a common reason for resistance is not seeing the larger picture, which is that ACUPCC is not just about reducing GHG emissions from campus operations, but much more about (1) educating our next generation of leaders so they’re prepared to solve this problem, by being able to deal with the complexity and communicate with each other across disciplines and (2) promoting research to develop the solutions we will need – both the physical and social technologies we are lacking. As ASU’s Crow said at the Summit, “The higher ed. community may only have about 3% of the carbon footprint, but we have 100% of the educational footprint.” As I’ve discussed before on this blog, creating a sustainable society will require not a magical new technology or set of laws, or by improving efficiencies or making incremental improvements, but with a change in our thinking, an evolution of consciousness. As Marcel Proust said, “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Stay going.