Sunday, September 30, 2007

Prerequisites for Zero Impact


I'm not sure what the title of this post really means, other than I am recognizing some connections between the prereq materials I studied for my foray into graduate education and the fact that I did not feel like typing "sustainability" for the millionth time. Digression - I will now start using the term "susbiz" for sustainability, at least in the context of sustainable business. All righty then! You'll notice the logo of the Global Reporting Initiative plastered on the top right. One of my first projects for BGI will be an overview and analysis of the GRI as one of the many methodologies used to rate, judge, measure, analyze, meter, and gauge businesses' efforts at susbiz and CSR. Does anyone have any tips? All those susbiz wizards out there that that may know this blog exists, feel free to chime in.

As part of the course work for the first term, I started reading "The Fifth Discipline" by Peter Senge (comments about this later), and a Schumacher Briefing by David Cook called "The Natural Step: Towards a Sustainable Society". I have also been listening to a CD lecture series when I have the time from The Great Courses called Economics. I've only listened to the basic topics, but I find it fascinating, recognizing disconnects between what I perceive to be classical economics and some of the tenets of The Natural Step and other scholarly ideas about sustainability. Listening to the section of Timothy Taylor's lecture on the environment and externalities, I was struck by one small comment in what I thought was a great summary of the problem of pollution and public policy in the modern world. He said something to the effect of (this is a paraphrase) "...saying there will be no pollution is like saying that there will be no humans..." What? There was a time when humanity was a small enough user of the planet's resources that the natural cycle could reabsorb our waste products. It may have been a few hundred or even a few thousand years ago, but it did.

Is it a worthwhile goal to have zero pollution? We can accept where we are now, and know that we are emitting substances that the natural world can not deal with, either now or in some distant or near future, but our goal should be to create systems that mimic and complement the natural world we inhabit, right? After all, as one of my new classmates reminded me a few weeks ago, we are part of the natural world and it is the source of all the wealth we have accumulated as societies.
A passage I read in the Schumacher Briefing by David Cook caught my interest for what it omitted, specifically related to the academic pursuit listed above. This is taken from the section describing the earth as a system closed to matter, and that all we do is transform it from one "thing" to another, adding or releasing energy in the process. In any case, here's what he says,
There is nothing particularly radical in this explanation of the system earth. It is fundamental science that has been known about for a comparatively long time. This is the starting point, the bread and butter, for environmentalists and ecologists.
I find that the omission of economists and engineers (or all professions for that matter!) from the common "starting point" interesting. I learned the basics of a closed system at WPI, but it was not integrated into a systems thinking model of a design process. How can continued growth (as seemingly demonstrated with the steadily rising production potential in economics) mesh with a finite system?

What's becoming clear; I am just starting to understand how much I don't know. No, I don't know what I don't know.

Speaking of production potential, a front page article from today's NYTimes caught my eye as it appears to illustrate what can happen when government regulation combines with poorly planned investment to create a boom and bust cycle. Ethanol Boom Stalling as Glut Depresses Prices; Ethanol foe energy independence? Nope. Ethanol for corn producing states to generate jobs and help someone get reelected. If only they could be combined. Now I see why Warren Buffett avoids industries that depend upon government regulation for their success.

Wouldn't some form of an energy tax be much more effective? Did you say TAX! Dear God man! Don't you know there's an election coming?!

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