Archive for September, 2007


This blog is my attempt to explain more clearly what I mean by the concept of the Sustainability Puzzle. If we look at the world as a whole, how people live their lives and earn a living, scientists estimate we currently need at least 2 and a half planets to “sustain” the systems we’ve created that support the way we live — and that is with at least half the planet in poverty. In short, I believe we can do better.

The first question to ask is what do we mean by sustainability? Well, one way to look at it is from the American Indian perspective. In their decision making process, many tribes would think in terms of how their decisions and actions would affect the seven generations that followed them – not wanting to negatively impact their opportunities through short-sighted choices. Today some refer to this socio-economic goal as “intergenerational equity”–I prefer to keep it simple and call it “being responsible.” While integrating such a long-view perspective into our modern world would have wide ranging implications — from the food we eat to how we produce power, from how we transport goods to how we build our homes and communities – it’s more important to face the facts: we are consuming our children’s resources and not living within our means.

So, why is it a puzzle? First, I truly believe it’s possible to sustain everyone and not diminish our modern comforts. In fact, I believe a truly sustainable system can raise the standard of living for the majority of people in the world. And, the ability to achieve this does not lay in some distant technology of the future, but in common sense solutions that already exist. In order to be sustainable, we will need to consume fewer resources than we currently do now. The “puzzle” part is re-organizing these elements in a way to achieve a system that everyone can benefit. The internet will be a key component of the solution because it can replace much of the brick and mortar infrastructure that has evolved to form our marketplaces. But, the internet can do the same virtually and more cheaply, while allowing greater access and less environmental impact through web pages, virtual presence and VoIP technologies.

My sister told me a story this week that I’d like to share with you because I think it demonstrates the predicament we face today. One day a storm came to a village and the rain started falling. A man of great faith looked out his window and saw the streets flooding and climbed to his roof. He prayed to God to save him as the waters continued to rise. Well, later that day a man approached in a canoe and asked him if he would like a ride. The man of great faith declined the offer knowing that God would save him. A little while later, someone else came by in a row boat and again offered a lift to the man on the roof top and again he said no because God was going to save him. The waters continued to rise and the man continued to pray and a little while later a motorboat came by offering him a ride. The man with great faith turned down the offer knowing that God would save him. Well, the waters kept rising and eventually he drowned. When he arrived in heaven he stood before God and asked him “Why didn’t you save me?” God replied, “I sent you three boats! What more was I supposed to do!”

The solutions to save our world are here. Our challenge is to recognize the pieces of the puzzle and start building a sustainable world that we can all enjoy.

Additional Reading:

Behind Consumption and Consumerism


September 27, 2007 at 4:50 pm Leave a comment

Understanding the Sustainability Puzzle

I’ve been working on a presentation on sustainability and I was staring at the “sustainability graphic” and had some interesting epiphanies – at least for me. In general the graphic communicates our current perception of sustainability and thus also offers us some valuable insights. While it visually demonstrates the relationship of the social, environment and economic spheres, it is also hinting at what sustainable solutions will look like.

The most glaring message of the graphic is that sustainable solutions are a subset of our current knowledge. While we don’t know everything, from our experience we have gained quite a knowledge base of economic, environmental and social knowledge. Sustainability basically puts the lens of long term thinking on the options available to us and eliminates those options that do not take our long term interests into account. What remains is not “new” knowledge, but existing knowledge that supports society’s goals.

The graphic reveals another truth – sustainable solutions will exist in all three spheres. One of the ways our modern knowledge has developed is by dividing the fields of interest. Sustainable solutions, however, will contain elements of all spheres and will contradict our current perception of specialties. This makes sense, because these solutions focus on efficiency rather than the sprawling patchwork of systems that make up our modern life today. For example, we think of shelter as serving the social sphere. In a sustainable system, the home may become the centerpiece of the economic system because with the internet it can become the kernel of small home or community based businesses. Likewise, a sustainable home also becomes part of the environmental solution in its zero-energy use.

The graphic also visualizes the change ahead of us. The solutions do exist, but much of what we accept as normal today is also unsustainable. The inevitable truth is that systems will change and shrink. In order to achieve sustainability we will each have to “give up” some of what we take for granted today. For example, while cars are synonymous with individual freedom and expression, they have also been devastating to both the environment and human health. Mobility, however, is the trademark of our modern life. A practical, user-friendly but public mobility and transportation system will have to be implemented in order to get us where we need to be.

The graphic also acknowledges that sustainable solutions will be “different” from the current norm. What is considered “fringe” now may be part of the solution. For example, perma-culture has a strange title and may seem mystical or nebulous, but it’s actually a very practical approach to achieving permanent agricultural systems through land management techniques. I don’t believe anyone is anti-environment, but human nature is to resist what is unfamiliar. Our challenge is to clarify our social objectives and choose smarter ways of achieving them.

September 26, 2007 at 6:27 pm 4 comments

Policy Makers Gamble with Our Common Future

While our collective awareness of how human activity has affected our planet continues to grow, there is considerable debate as how to proceed. Some call for drastic measures while many want more information. Yes, there is a lot of room for disagreement, but I believe we can all agree that there is still a great deal we don’t understand about our planet and its systems. In fact, I don’t believe we will possess enough knowledge to make an absolutely informed decision for several hundred years to come. However, if we heed the advice offered by the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm”, despite our “analysis paralysis” this core principal that forms the basis of our insurance industry insists on the implementation of sustainable policies in order to fulfill this moral code.

Philosophically and technologically we possess the capabilities to realize a sustainable common future, but in the real world actions speak louder than words. By that I mean we simply need to look at actual behavior to determine intention. Is our government looking out for the least of us? From my vantage point it looks like big business has benefited the most from the current American political leadership. The uninsured and underinsured are growing, the middle class is shrinking, the environment continues to degrade and corporate profits are growing – all in response to government policies. In my book, sincere contrition for one’s past errors is best demonstrated through the immediate change in one’s behavior.

Another tactic that is not uncommon in our political culture is to punt the ball down the road and let the next guy worry about it. Similar to President Bush’s strategy toward Iraq, this tactic strives to let the next party in power take the political fallout for making the hard decisions. However, unlike most of us, you have the power to affect systemic changes now. Time is not on our side and such political tactics only contribute to the enormity of the problems we face while we wait for you to leave your offices. Remember, in a court of law ignorance is not a defense so you will be judged for you failure to take action.

One of the arguments politicians use to defend their actions is that CO2 is a global issue and requires everyone to act in order to be effective. Wrong! Leaders act first! You can’t control others, you can only control yourself. If our actions demonstrate the type of nation we are, what does our behavior say about us? Maybe the US government prefers dividing up the costs to address global warming by paying our percentage of total historical gas contributions? It sounds very fair to me, and also very expensive. Now is our chance to avoid the high cost of “fair” by investing into transforming our society and economy now! Through their inaction policy makers are leaving us morally vulnerable to taking responsibility for creating this environmental mess.

Then there’s the chicken and the egg argument for inaction that there is “no public support.” Unless I’m mistaken, I believe that one of the essential duties of a government is to look at the “big picture” issues as well as future threats and address them by educating the public and developing solutions. While our government attempted to deal with the inherent unsustainability of our energy supply by invading Iraq, this is at best a stop gap measure with no long-term benefit to the people of the United States, and has turned out not to even have a short-term benefit except to corporate interests.

Congressmen, Senators, Presidents, Parliamentarians, Prime Ministers, Kings and Queens, start doing your job — no one said it was going to be easy.

On The Web

Environmental Issues served with a twist!

World Changing
Tools, Models and Ideas for Building a Bright, Green Future

September 24, 2007 at 5:17 pm Leave a comment

2½ Planets: Implications of Our Way of Life

What are the implications of scientists’ verdict that we currently consume the equivalent of 2 and half planets? Well, begin by imagining the Earth is a cruise ship with all 6.6 billion of us on board. If we consume the ship’s resources of food, water and fuel at the same rate humanity does today, by itself our ship will run out of food, fuel and water. In order to sustain the supply of resources, there would need to be at least another cruise ship and a half to keep up with our demands. And, since the ship represents our reality and not our ideals, half of all the available food, water and fuel is consumed by only 10% of the passengers.

Now, in order to include all 6.6 billion passengers equitably into our western standard of living, how many planets would we need? Five planets? Seven planets? The specific number is unimportant because any number larger than one is arguably suicidal. It also implies that in an already over-productive system we permit a constant underclass because our system cannot support 100% of us. Our system of providing for ourselves and our families does work for a percentage of the population, but it has not proven itself capable of providing for the entire population. So our faith in the system to rid the world of poverty by offering a job to everyone is a myth. Indeed, the world is mostly divvied up among a few and their successors will live comfortably. For the remainder, our fate is predetermined. And, what does this imply for our projected population of 9 billion by 2050? Poverty will grow and only a very small percentage will live in the comfort many of us do today. Is that fair? Is that the future we want?

Maybe the issue comes down to what we believe the purpose of life is. Does that mean treating others “humanly”? At a minimum that would suggest offering food to the hungry, water to the thirsty and shelter to the homeless. While this form of social security exists in small doses, it does not exist in the abundance necessary to meet current humanitarian needs. And, if it is as simple as “getting along with others” then with the growing intolerance of religious and political extremism we are headed in the opposite direction. What if our “success” in this life is not determined by what we have accumulated, but in how we treat others? We like to evangelize our ideals that we value life above all else, but our actions sadly reveal another story.

The future we dread of rampant poverty and wars over water and oil is rapidly approaching and quick action is needed to thwart it off. With every plan there is a time component of preparation and implementation. And, as time creeps by, so does the population continue to grow, resources continue to be over-consumed, the problems compound in complexity. And, if addressing the issues begin with a 10 year plan, that’s 10 years after the decision to implement and after we develop consensus to take action. But, remember, in a court of law, ignorance is not a defense — to not choose is by default our choice.

One of the profound implications of sustainable systems is that among the many options and choices that are possible, we are choosing to limit our choices to only sustainable ones. In the United States which was founded on the ideas of liberty and personal freedom, this will be a tough pill for the American ego to swallow because it implies that we are limiting the scope of our freedom. But, isn’t that just another definition of responsibility? Maybe sustainable choices are part of an evolving civilization. Maybe the challenge we face is simply to grow up.

On The Web

Consumer Consequences
Play this game sponsored by American Public Media & see how many planets are needed to sustain 6.6 billion people that live like you!

Global Footprint Network
Read about global footprints and ecological overshoot!

September 17, 2007 at 6:56 pm Leave a comment

Is China the World’s Fool?

Wow! While China is definitely unique in our world’s history, the question of the moment is: to what end? Thousands of years of contiguous culture and history have added up to… this? Contaminated food products, recalled children’s toys laced with lead, contaminated rivers and what could be argued as slave labor? How the mighty have fallen! Now seemingly always a step behind the pack of “developed nations”, the latest incarnation of the People’s Republic of China seemingly makes it the worst of the worst, focusing on money and status rather than the historically noble pursuits of its culture such as scholarship and philosophy.

China has become the epitome of careless, capitalist behavior by ignoring our environment as well as its workers’ health and safety standards. Having once mocked the capitalist system, they now kowtow to their new God: Money. They have embraced the worst of capitalism – pure consumption for consumption’s sake and now prostitute the resources of both land and labor for the wealth and power of a few. If actions speak louder than words, then the PRC’s continued stance toward Taiwan and Tibet say enough, but their choice to support regimes of dubious intentions in their search for energy sources make them a more dangerous monster than the original! So, like Al Queda, it has become part of the problem – complaining about the world around it, but offering no new solution, only oppression and control.

It’s unfortunate, because China possesses the philosophical roots of social sustainability in its Confucian past. He believed the most effective government began with self-regulation of the individual — an ideal that is both counter-intuitive and difficult to achieve, even here in America. Rather than trying to control people’s behavior, people must feel free enough to reveal their own brand or morality. Behavior will be moderated by natural social tensions where actions reap appropriate consequences rather than through legal regulation.

Unfortunately, there is no leadership coming from the country that constitutes almost 20% of the world’s population. While Chinese are among the brightest in the world and have a rich history to draw lessons from, they are also subject to the limitations of “Group Think” that they are so vulnerable. China is trapped by its collective ego — forged from its past and controlling its future. I’m not sure if the Chinese put all their faith in authoritarian governmental styles because they fundamentally don’t trust each other or like an abused woman they constantly go back to the same abusive boyfriend – because it’s what they know. However, at this point if where we need to go is a 90% reduction in our global consumption of resources, any country not contributing to the solution is part of the problem.

From this corner of the world, if all China is offering is more of the same and our consumption behavior is the problem, they are part of the problem and unable to recognize the price they are paying in both resources and reputation. They are pursuing the same policy line as us – self-interest at the expense of less powerful countries – an unfortunate present, disconnected from its rich past. Oh well, I think it was considered an honored position to play the court’s fool…

September 10, 2007 at 7:00 pm Leave a comment

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