Posts filed under ‘Leadership’

Understanding Our Impact

In my last entry, The Butterfly Effect, I suggested that people would make different choices if they had a better understanding of the social and environmental impacts of their consumption. While products and services bombard us with words such as green, environmentally friendly, organic, rain forest certified, dolphin free, sustainable, local, etc, their meanings are at least confusing and at worst deceptive.  My idea is to create a simple and easy to understand grading system (A, B, C, D and F) such as the ones you see posted on restaurants that guide people as to the social and environmental impact that a product embodies. The idea is to offer people with an easy way to become socially responsible consumers and businesses.

Such a grading system could be called the Environmental & Social Impact Grade (ESIG), the Social Responsibility Indicator (SRI), or the Embodied Energy Grade (EEG). My current favorite, however, is the Product Impact Grade (PIG).  This grade would be a composite picture of the product’s impact and could include such elements such as its carbon footprint, embodied energy, employee’s working conditions and pay, social impact, management pay, expected life of product, impact on human health, and corporate transparency.  These are just some of the element’s I’ve come up with off the top of my head.  The grade could represent a statistical percentage or something more simple such as A=Excellent, B=Good, C=Improving, D=Poor, F=Fail

Ideally, this grade would be prominently printed on each product label – products ranging from cigarettes to diamonds, coffee to cars, and from food to furniture. While I’m sure there would be a great deal of controversy and heated debate about what elements should be reflected by the PIG, it’s also a discussion that is long overdue.  Ideally, by reflecting a product’s sustainability, the PIG will also become a reflection of the social contract we hold with each other and our environment regardless of race or religion, wealth or politics.

Imagine if customers went into a Wal-Mart store and found most of their products labeled with a big fat “D” or “F”.  They would still be the same products we’ve been consuming for years, but the grade will give people a sense of the sustainability of that product.  No one likes a D or an F and such marks would provoke people to wonder what is behind the grade.  The labeling would be tied to a product database that details the reasons for the grade.  The grade would gradually affect consumption patterns and businesses will be forced to adapt.

This is an inexpensive, within-the-box solution that uses education to inform both consumer choices as well as business behavior.  It does not need a global treaty to implement.  Other than possibly requiring the grade to be printed, the PIG doesn’t need any government legislation.  The result could be that people choose less sustainable practices because of price, but at least our unsustainability will be the result of our conscious choice and not our blind ignorance.

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July 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm 7 comments

The Responsible Society

While I work on a new post, I thought I’d recycle one that hasn’t been viewed in a while. One of my other writing themes has been to find the magic argument that will convince the rest of the world that we need to become sustainable now. I’ve tried many different angles including religion (see Manifesting the Golden Rule). This post was an attempt to wake people up to being truly responsible for their actions. Hopefully someday someone will find that magic words…

The Sustainability Puzzle

We teach the subject of social responsibility in our universities, we lecture the topic to our children and I think many assume that society is generally responsible. But, are we? It seems to me that just as a person is responsible for their choices, society is likewise responsible for its collective actions. What does this imply? It implies that society is responsible for the failure of the systems it implements and that poverty, homelessness, hunger and inadequate healthcare are the manifestations of our system’s failures.

Throughout this blog, I’ve tried to capture the implications of responsibility by describing the essence of what distinguishes children from adults – taking responsibility for their actions. It does not magically happen at the age of 18, 21 or even 74. It is a state of mind that we accept when we are mature enough to comprehend it. And, like a teenager modern society wants…

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March 24, 2012 at 6:11 am 6 comments

Transitioning to “Cantilevered Sustainability”

My posts to the Sustainability Puzzle have focused on presenting a basic outline of how to re-organize ourselves sustainably. Now that we have a working design, how can we actually transition society into a cantilevered system of sustainability?  Well, I think there is no silver bullet, but a great deal of the legwork can be accomplished through the tried and true carrot and stick approach of tax policy.  Let me share my general thoughts with you.

One of the goals of a cantilevered system of sustainability is to cluster resources and communities around them.  It aims to densify cities and dramatically improve their sustainability.  These resource intense cities would be cantilevered by sustainable communities networked by smart rail systems in the space between cities.  Because these communities are sustainable and provide their own services, they would not require government services and would be tax free (see The Grand Bargain).

In order to prepare for the new built environment, one change I would propose is to reformulate property tax assessments to include the actual cost of services to a property as well as an “unsustainablity” assessment.  Properties that are less eco-friendly will be taxed at a higher rate than those that are resource-neutral.  The tax can increase over a period of time to make carbon-hungry buildings uneconomical, incentivizing retrofits or altogether replacement.  Another aim of the policy is to concentrate cities into a defined area — promoting vertical and green development while discouraging sprawl.  This will inevitably result in abandoning structures as well as areas that are not populated enough to make it economical for the resources required to keep them within the domain of the city. There will ultimately be a lowest tax rate in the city, but since it will be connected by roads, education and health systems, there cannot be a 0% rate within cities.  This 0% rate would be reserved for sustainable communities outside the city.

One of the greatest sources of our unsustainability is our transportation system (see Transportation Trap) and city sprawl encourages private car ownership.  By discouraging sprawl and encouraging densification through an “unsustainability tax”, we’re promoting the economics of public transport and undermining the need for the private automobile.  For example, currently malls pop up in suburbs that are only easily accessed by car and require new off ramps, dedicated traffic intersections, new sewage and water lines.  Such infrastructure sprawl will become uneconomic as its construction and maintenance will no longer be subsidized.

The traditional argument would be that increasing taxes will slow down economic activity.  However, it is also true that people will spend money to avoid taxes! If the policies are announced in advance and phased in over time, people and business will be able to make the physical changes and experience little change in their tax rate.  The benefit will be a surge in building and innovation of technologies, services and systems that will result from this planned change in our built environment.  This “call to action” will create a short-term boom of 10 years or longer during the transition into our new sustainable systems.

To read more on the wisdom of densifying cities:

http://environment.umn.edu/momentum/issue/4.1w12/steffen.html

March 11, 2012 at 7:16 am 15 comments

Reframing the Sustainability Argument: It’s about How We Organize Ourselves

Like a doctor treating a medical problem, without accurate and good information, the doctor can’t diagnose the problem correctly.  And, without an accurate diagnosis, he or she can’t develop a proper treatment.  Our society works in much the same way.  If the general population is not given accurate information about our sustainability problem, how can we expect them to realize that the treatment and its urgency are appropriate for the scale of the problem?

From our past experience, we’ve learned that the solution to our economic problems is through creating more jobs, more manufacturing and more consumption of goods.  The problem is that this solution clashes with our environmental reality—the way we live consumes too many resources and it is only going to become worse because of our population growth.  However, if we are content with a permanent economic underclass, then it may be possible to continue the current paradigm in one form or another.

The CBC documentary Surviving the Future echoes what is the common perception about how we will reach a sustainable future – through better technology.  I clearly reject this notion because the key to sustainability is in how we organize ourselves.  Solutions based on this assessment can be achieved with our current state of technology.  Time is more important than technology in determining our success because the longer we wait, the more complex and larger the problems become.

Our growing population is having a devastating impact on our environment and can’t continue.  Imminent ecological system collapses include fish depletion, water table depletion and the influence of fossil fuel, not only on the environment, but on our society.  It has distorted who we are as humans and our basic moral code of treating others as we would like to be treated is being compromised.

The good news is that, strictly speaking, we have enough resources and adequate technology to allow everyone a dignified life.  However, our current systems require a great deal of waste in order to work.  It is how we live that is creating these devastating consumption patterns that jeopardize our future. At some point, someone needs to be the adult in the room, stand up and make everyone face the facts.  How do we do this in our world with 7 billion voices?

At times I feel like I am alone in this argument for urgent action, but I know there are others such as David Suzuki that have a much larger sphere of influence and still there is not even a murmur of concern in capitals around the world.  Yes, there are documentaries such as Surviving the Future and online groups such as the  Future We Want.

Our failure to address what is probably the largest issue that humanity will face is a combination of a lack of leadership, the distraction that occurs with too many voices and the faith we place in the current economic paradigm.

The scope and scale of the problem requires a global response because it is both an issue of population and resources.  We can no longer afford to cling to quaint notions of a world with limitless resources.  A few generations ago when the world was less populated global coordination was not necessary, but today’s growth rate makes it imperative.

February 20, 2012 at 8:35 am 31 comments

Effective Government

Government is an important part of how a modern civilization organizes itself.  While many americans very often treat it as a boogy-man, Abraham Lincoln described its purpose in very practical terms: “We should do together what we cannot do as well by ourselves.”  The problem today is that government has become a catch-all and as such is becoming ineffective — kind of the “jack of all trades, master of none” syndrome.  In a sustainable system, however, government’s role will be refocused.  The concept of sustainable communities is that they are self-governing and self-reliant and designed to resolve as many issues as possible at their local level thereby decreasing the responsibilities people place on a centralized government system.

Geography: At present, governments are responsible for everything, everywhere.  This is causing a strain on its ability to provide effective services to everyone.  By contrast, in a cantilevered system of sustainability, the role of government would shrink the domain of its responsibility to the consumption based economies of the cities, leaving the sustainable communities to self-govern and coordinate resources amongst each other.

Financial Liabilities: Currently, governments are responsible for social welfare programs for everyone that is resulting in huge budget deficits as well as inadequate services for those in need.  The structure of sustainable communities would actually eliminate the need for any social welfare programs since the design of the communities achieves the same results.  So, for example, if eventually 80% of a population emigrates into the sustainable system, the US Federal government would similarly decrease its future liabilities for social security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment and all other services.

Jobs: Economics is a fancy word to describe how people make a living – providing for oneself and one’s family.  Our “modern” system accomplishes this through jobs which government policies are forced to promote at any cost.  In a consumption-based world of 6+ billion people, near full employment is not possible and irresolvable.  However, if 80% of the population retreats into a sustainable system of living, full-employment within the consumption economy becomes possible and will in fact increase the value of labor in cities.

The systems in place that make the “world go around” were not designed, but evolved over time through trial and error.  And, while they may have gotten us to where we are, they are inadequate to meet the modern challenges we now face. The game has changed and we don’t recognize it yet.  And, while I’m not sure exactly what the game is, if it’s “who’s on top”, the United States is rapidly losing its place.  Moreover, right now the United States and the world are facing the new, great depression.  The course of action I’m proposing will prime the economic pump to keep the world going in the short term and lead us into a system that is sustainable for generations to come.

June 9, 2011 at 10:40 am Leave a comment

Bumper Sticker Values and Sustainability

Honor thy parents, our children are our future and one of my personal favorites think globally, act locally may be values that we preach, but is it what we practice? While these bumper sticker gems of philosophy sound great, their disconnect with how we lead our daily lives creates the schism between us achieving our most cherished hopes and the realities we forge through our daily behaviors.

However, such a disconnect is not without reason – there are obstacles that we have created unintentionally that prevent us from living these ideals. Long distance relationships may be commonplace, but are they sustainable? Do they challenge us personally in the same way that the “pinpricks of daily life” do when we have to live in close proximity to these people? Modern realities, however, require two incomes to pay the bills. Modern realities make children leave their families for work opportunities. And, the time demands of these realities bring us to subcontract many of our responsibilities including our children’s education and the care of our aging parents. And, the fast pace of our world contributes to the growing dysfunction among these key relationships.

In order to refocus our attention to what is important its useful to take a philosophical perspective and ponder on that long asked question: what is life about? Ultimately it is about our relationships with friends and family. They say happiness can’t be bought – well, they’re right! This stuff, career prestige, status symbols of house, car and cell phones are for many our society’s means of luring others into our lives when the only real way is to be actively involved in the lives of those we love. And, we do that by sharing our thoughts and feelings and by demonstrating them through our actions. That means giving those we love our most precious resource – our time.

There is often a disconnect between our ideals and the realities of those ideals, so what are the implications of living our values? Well to put it simply, not only would our lives be reorganized, but our world would be transformed. Families would stick together geographically. Extended household would become commonplace as aging parents live with their children. Parents would educate themselves in order to aid in their children’s education. And, basically, we would spend less time working and invest more of it in our homes and communities.

Sustainability is not just an objective process that we will achieve in the environment we inhabit because to truly achieve it “out there” we also have to achieve it in ourselves. By living the values we profess, sustainability will happen without debate of costs and without fear of change. But this is the tallest order of the challenge because few people I know (if any) actually live the values they profess. So I offer you my own best advice to achieve both sustainability and happiness in bumper sticker format! Make your life your testament.

June 4, 2008 at 5:53 am

The Responsible Society

We teach the subject of social responsibility in our universities, we lecture the topic to our children and I think many assume that society is generally responsible. But, are we? It seems to me that just as a person is responsible for their choices, society is likewise responsible for its collective actions. What does this imply? It implies that society is responsible for the failure of the systems it implements and that poverty, homelessness, hunger and inadequate healthcare are the manifestations of our system’s failures.

Throughout this blog, I’ve tried to capture the implications of responsibility by describing the essence of what distinguishes children from adults – taking responsibility for their actions. It does not magically happen at the age of 18, 21 or even 74. It is a state of mind that we accept when we are mature enough to comprehend it. And, like a teenager modern society wants the benefits of being an adult, but we still try to escape taking responsibility for our choices.

As a society, I think we have yet to mature to the point of accepting our full responsibilities. The huge variance in incomes demonstrates that we still do not believe every person and job in a system is essential to the mechanics of society. Our economics is like the unexplored frontier where everyone is on their own. But, in a day of global communication, transportation and trade, with a population racing toward 7 billion, we ignore the obvious interdependence and reliance of one people’s prosperity and wealth upon another’s labor. Indeed, we are all in this together and our individual prosperity stands on the shoulders of many others. In a responsible society we will be treating our brothers as we would have them treat us. We’re not there yet.

Getting people to wrap their heads around sustainability is an uphill battle, so framing the argument in terms of responsibility is more tangible, but still neither sexy nor motivating enough for most to take action. So, in search of motivation I ask the following: Is a responsible society also a moral society? The debate of what is moral behavior can become dizzying and lost in the relativism of perspectives. However, if you believe as I do that being responsible is a subset of moral behavior, then by society focusing on meeting its responsibilities we will move a long way toward becoming a moral society.

The good news is that a responsible society also turns out to be a sustainable one. So, while people may not understand what sustainability is, most people value and can strive for being responsible. But now I’m wondering does that also imply our society will not be a moral one until it is sustainable? Hmmm. Curious, very curious…

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