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?
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
It's hard to believe that AltWheels is here again. I helped organize this eclectic mix of veggie, hybrid, natural gas, bio-diesel, solar, and human powered vehicles when it was still being held at the Larz Anderson Museum in Brookline. Ah, those days when I was the "bike guy" so many years ago in 2003. Many thanks to Alison Sander for keeping her vision moving forward.
— Friday—Saturday 28-29 Sept. 2007 —
( FREE — Fri. 9a-7p / Sat. 10a-6p)
|Wide Range of Exciting and Fun Activities|
|⇒ See the full list of Exhibitors/Sponsors|
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Design, Design, & More Design
There are just too many things to read and learn about in this world. Perhaps that is why I feel like I am pulled in 15 different directions at the same time. I felt this exciting, and in some ways frustrating, feeling as I stared at the periodicals rack at the local Barnes & Noble in Burlington, MA. I stopped in to peruse their wide selection of old-fashioned writing journals; I was in need of a new one and have become quite particular about what I like (blank pages, place for a writing utensil, manageable size, etc.) though I have yet to find the perfect one. Perhaps that's why I keep writing, to fill them up over and over again so I can keep looking for the elusive perfectus libri. As usual I digress.
As I said, staring at the periodicals rack at B&N, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of magazines that offered topics that I am sure I would find interesting; current events (NOT People and that crap...geez!), science & technology, media, design, business, government, knitting, you name it. I found myself drawn to the latest issue of Fast Company, with the cover exhorting me to dive into the Masters of Design. My interest in something holding the promise of insights into great industrial design comes from my engineering education and my quest for knowledge about systems thinking and eco-effective creation. As I first learned when reading Cradle to Cradle a few years ago, many of our environmental challenges are rooted in habitually poor design methodologies. In any case, the article touches on a few "hot" designers and their keys to success when designing a product with the input of the people that will be using it, but not depending upon their "user generated content" to create the products. A brief point that stuck out to me follows, one that sheds some light on my previous comment regarding engineers & systems thinking,
...rosy thinking overlooks the tensions that arise when design gets factored into a big business. "Marketing people are incented to come up with great ideas," says Mitch Pergola, fuseproject's vice president and general manager. "Engineers are incented to drive out costs." To resolve those conflicts, somebody at the top has to make the Solomonic calls. "If you want to be design-driven," Béhar says, "the question is, Who's driving?"Who is driving? Us? Corporations? Governments?
On that note, perhaps there will be even more opportunities for well-designed, green, and natural products since we now know, Consumers Face The New "Fear Factor" of climate change.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
It's All About the Waste
(not that -> Thornton!)
So, I am seated at a table with my boss (ahem, manager), and we start talking about strategies to help speed up the transition of an older product into the dustbin of history while simultaneously spurring the sales of the replacement. "Let's do XXXX." someone says. Sounds like a plan. Then, a switch went off in my head. Given the level of tooth grinding I have been engaged in over the past few months, there was an audible 'click'. The switch got me to thinking of producer take-back and design for reuse. OK, the product that has been out in the market for 13+ years was not originally designed to be disassembled and reused/recycled, but isn't it possible that it has some salvage value? How does a company go about determining the value of an obsolete part?Well (comments of the unenlightened) :
- Given the price increase in raw materials over the past few years, what materials are salvageable from the product?
- How much will the salvage cost?
- What is the market price of the salvaged material?
- How mush effort ($$$) will the customer commit to sending the material back?
- Is the end-user concerned about the responsibility for the product's disposal?
- How would one quantify the value of removing obsolete products from the market?
- From a carbon emissions perspective: (not today!)
- Will employees care about - be motivated by - the idea of conservation?
- How much will it cost to disassemble (hire local HS kids through Craigslist)?
- Is there government $$$ for this (spur aggregate demand)?
Oh, by the way, Where in the World is Corporate Responsibility?, not Carmen Sandiego.
As the Dean of BGI said at orientation (paraphrase), "Going to grad school can bring out all sorts of unexpected emotions and reactions". I am experiencing them.
I am re-examining my decision-making process that brought me to BGI. Combined with the activities I participated in at Channel Rock last week, recent personal events have turned my attention to where I am, where I would like to go, and what is truly important to me. The consequences of attending a school located on the other side of the country, despite it's sustainable business leadership, is sinking in. Will the network transfer to the Northeast? Will the "brand recognition" carry enough weight here? Am I contributing to more complexity in my life than I can handle?
A comment Gifford Pinchot made when we were discussing entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship as a group addressed the importance of timing; there may be a better time to launch something than "right now". Makes sense. Launching a new home decorating service in a downward trending housing market may not be the best idea. Given that this undertaking is a bit of an entrepreneurial activity (a stretch?) on my part, does the timing make sense? Have I deeply evaluated the effect this decision will have on the other aspects of our lives? Is what I am looking for in my future career dependent upon an advanced degree at all? I love the idea of an academic pursuit, but the right environs could make it easier.
I decided to leaf through some of my old journals a few nights ago. They have been sitting on the shelf on my bedside table for a few years, dating from the start of 2004. It was fascinating to read what I wrote; 1) some of my narrative was quite well-written, and 2) I have been saying the same thing to myself about what I am looking for for at least three years, probably longer.
What have I been saying re: career/life that has kept me in knots for the past 5 years or so?
- I'd like to integrate my interest in sustainable business in my work, and share it with others
- I have isolated myself from friends and family; this is unhealthy
- My social needs (sharing with people of like mind) are not being met
- I love exploring and learning about new things (business, social concepts, etc.) and applying them
- I want to work/live in the same place
- Working passionately instead of working for something else (vacations, "stuff", etc.)
- Innovative, holistic, and forward-looking people charge me up!
OK...BGI certainly has these elements. But, are there things in my current situation that I am overlooking that would allow me to integrate these elements? I tend to throw up my hands and say to myself, "That's it! I'm leaving outta here." Does that really make sense? Have some of the drastic changes I've made in the past six years just exacerbated my confusion? I bet they have.
I wonder what it's like to think through a decision rationally and thoroughly, not in hindsight?
By the way, the photo is from a small field of corn near the center of Lincoln, MA. I rode my bike yesterday and snapped it whilst pausing to see who called.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Perhaps this will help some of the Macroeconomic concepts "stick". I thought the graph here (again taken from Krugman & Wells textbook "Economics", published in 2005) was interesting in the breakout of what goes into the CPI. There is certainly a resemblance to Maslow's hierarchy of needs (funny, I keep finding good definitions on Wikipedia?), with food related and shelter related expenditures making up over 50% of a household's total expenditures. Interesting.
Although real GDP per capita can be a useful measure in some circumstances, it has well-known limitations as a measure of a country’s living standards. Every once in a while economists are accused of believing that growth in real GDP per capita is the only thing that matters—of thinking that increasing real GDP per capita is a goal in itself. In fact, economists rarely make that mistake; the idea that economists care only about real GDP per capita is a sort of urban legend. Let’s take a moment to be clear about why a country’s real GDP per capita is not a sufficient measure of human welfare in that country and why growth in real GDP per capita is not an appropriate policy goal in itself.This passage addresses my preconceptions about the study of economics, voiced in the preceding post. I suppose it's not what the economists care about (unless they are being paid by whatever industry they may be analyzing), but what government policy wonks and industrial leaders decide to do with the information. It's up to US to hold them accountable.
One way to think about this issue is to say that an increase in real GDP means an expansion in the economy’s production possibility frontier. Because the economy has increased its productive capacity, there are more things that society can achieve. But whether society actually makes good use of that increased potential to improve living standards is another matter. To put it in a slightly different way, your income may be higher this year than last year, but whether you use that higher income to actually improve your quality of life is your choice.
The United Nations produces an annual document, the Human Development Report, that tries to rank countries by measures other than real GDP per capita. These measures include data on infant mortality, life expectancy, and literacy. It compiles these measures into the Human Development Index, which is an effort to determine how well societies are doing, aside from how much they produce. The index suggests that real GDP per capita is one of many important determinants of human welfare — but by no means the only one. Countries with high real GDP per capita — like the United States, European nations, and Japan — also score very well on just about every other indicator of human welfare. But there are some relatively poor countries — like Costa Rica — that have remarkably high literacy and life expectancy along with low infant mortality. And there are some relatively rich countries — especially countries with valuable natural resources — that score quite low on these criteria.
Back to the reality I am currently experiencing, where school, work, and family will clash over the next few months and I will be charged with managing their peaceful combination. (Image from Orion Online)
It's Saturday, it's raining, and I am settling down to an exhilarating problem set in macroeconomics. In fact, I had difficulty getting to sleep yesterday evening, more than likely the effect of the transcontinental flight Wednesday night, and decided to spend the hours after midnight reading my economics text. I find some of the content interesting, and I believe that developing my fundamental understanding of classical economics will help me understand why we make the policies we make and how people make small decisions. On the one hand, these basic tenets of economics help explain the rules we have been following for the past hundred years or so, on the other hand, I find myself thinking behind the text to who developed the study of economics and what was their motive? Has the profession of economics become a place for people interested in advancing the "growth at all costs" mentality, simply reinforcing the unsustainable economies we currently have? Are the Ivory Tower theorists working on things that may help explain where we need to go in a way that will never be applied to the "real world"? I am just scratching the surface of this topic, and no doubt my comments are made with whole-hearted ignorance of the field of study called economics, but I like throwing out these comments anyway.
I found myself reflecting on comments made by one of my new friends at BGI, comments about being sick of the guilt associated with living in a rich country and doing whatever it is we do. He was right. I find myself occasionally paralyzed with guilt, or at least thinking far too much about the repercussions of my actions. Certainly I am not proposing that we throw up our hands and blithely run ahead willy-nilly with little regard for the environmental consequences of our actions, but there is something to be said for accepting where we are and who we are and working from there. There is no perfect solution, and there are no sustainable businesses yet in existence in the USA (small sample size), therefore there are many opportunities for improvement.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
My mind is both rationally and emotionally exhausted. My body's pretty tired as well. The five days I spent with a portion of the people that make up my Cohort of BGIers was an amazing, energizing, and draining experience. I explored some aspects of myself that yielded some surprises, or at least revealed some deeply hidden emotions that have been successfully ignored for quite some time. As our dean explained, grad school can sometimes reveal some issues that have been simmering for quite some time; perhaps it is happening to me.
Saturday, September 08, 2007
The challenge I still face is opening myself the the experience; that there are indeed people that think about sustainability challenges and would like to do something about it. I have a tremendously difficult time wholeheartedly believing that our high-minded discussions about changing the world will lead anywhere, despite our best efforts. I suppose my cynicism runs deep, and will require additional good vibes and conversations to reduce it to what it was ten years ago.
Thursday, September 06, 2007
By George P. Shultz
Taken directly from the Washington post, 9/5/07 (note bullet number 4)
We in the United States -- and we as global citizens -- live in what is, in many respects, a golden moment. Economic growth is globally strong, and, if security threats can be contained, this expansion, with some ups and downs, can be sustained.
Strong growth means increased use of energy at a pace that can strain the capacity to supply what is needed at a reasonable price. This highlights two urgent questions: how to use energy without producing excess greenhouse gases that create disruptive conditions on a global scale; and how to reduce the threat to national security from excess dependence on oil.
The greenhouse gas problem is more broadly recognized today than it was during the Kyoto Protocol negotiations. Moreover, the protocol is running its course, so a new treaty is needed. That treaty should have a different structure -- one that ultimately achieves universality.
During the Reagan administration, we faced the problem of depletion of the ozone layer, and negotiations resulted in the Montreal Protocol. To be sure, the problem then was less complex than that of today. However, there are parallels, and lessons from the Montreal Protocol can be useful.
The reductions called for in ozone-depleting substances were aggressive but realistic in that they could be undertaken without severe economic damage, in part because demand triggered the development by private industry of needed chemicals and appliances.
Because we in the United States were ready to take action, we could ask others to act as well.
The protocol also recognized the importance of a little wiggle room, so provision was made for the possibility of special arrangements among countries.
The countries with low per capita incomes were integral to the process and were given special treatment in terms of trading rules and the establishment of a fund that could help them meet their obligations.
What can we learn from this? Here are some guiding principles:
- The process benefited greatly from strong U.S. leadership. We were the science leader, the moral leader and the diplomatic leader. Yes, those of us working for an agreement, notably John Negroponte, now deputy secretary of state, faced internal opposition; there were doubts about the reality of the problem and that reasonable solutions could be identified and implemented. But at all the crunch points, Ronald Reagan was there for us. The president cleared the way, and in the end he called the result a "monumental achievement." The Senate readily gave its consent to ratification.
- Universality of coverage is a necessary goal. The world must be represented at the table. Interests and capabilities vary widely. Patience and flexibility are key. We must focus on the countries that matter most and explore shared interests, identify respective vulnerabilities and adaptive options, and share views on scientific and technological advances. We could explore the possibility of industry-specific solutions within such groups as air transport, automotive, steel and electric utilities. One caution: Holdouts must not be allowed to get special treatment.
- The negotiating structure must involve constituencies because, in the end, they will bear the weight of necessary actions. At all costs, we must avoid what happened at Kyoto, where we signed the protocol after the Senate, by unanimous vote, advised President Bill Clinton not to conclude a treaty that lacked commitments by developing countries. In other words, our negotiator had lost touch with his constituency.
- The use of economic incentives (caps and trading rights, and carbon taxes) is essential to avoid disastrously high costs of control. The cap-and-trade system has been highly successful in reducing sulfur dioxide emissions by electricity utilities in the United States. That system relies on a scientifically valid and accepted emission-measurement system used by a clearly identified and homogeneous set of utilities. Fortunately, such a careful system of measurement exists for a viable greenhouse gas regimen. The product of collaboration between the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, these standards for accounting and reporting greenhouse gases should be duly understood and adopted. Even with clear units of account, however, large problems arise as the coverage and heterogeneity of the system grow. And for trading across borders, the system needs to be accepted among the trading partners. Scams are easy to imagine. No nation should be allowed to trade without a verifiable, transparent system of measuring and monitoring of reductions, and holding emitters accountable. In many respects, a straight-out carbon tax is simpler and likelier to produce the desired result. If the tax were offset by cuts elsewhere to make it revenue-neutral, acceptability would be enhanced.
- Do not expect China, India and other developing countries to accept what amounts to a cap on economic growth. They will not -- and cannot -- do that. We must create market incentives for them to cut emissions while continuing to grow and find actions that are economically feasible in a relatively low-income environment. We may also need to give them extra time, even allowing some short-term emissions growth, before requiring them to reduce their emissions. This is similar to the way we accommodated developing countries under the Montreal Protocol.
- Another imperative, a derivative of the previous point, is the need to deal effectively with issues of intellectual property. The obligation to reward innovators must be reconciled with the needs of low-income societies.
- The negotiations should not conclude until important first steps are identified and agreed upon so that everyone takes some action.
As we consider a new treaty, we must recognize that one size will not fit the world, even though some technologies may have wide, even universal, application. The Montreal Protocol, as a successful environmental treaty, provides a model for establishing a process with wide agreement to take important action.
The writer, a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution, was secretary of state from 1982 to 1989.
As I am preparing for my entrance into BGI’s sustainable MBA program, we are studying basic economics and accounting. I attended my first online class last night, and though I am suspect of the quality of online learning, I found the format and experience better than I thought. It’s interesting to have disjointed voices coming through my headphones and text and graphics appearing on the screen in front of me. All we need now is web video; then we can challenge our auditory, tactile, and optical faculties at the same time. I found value listening to the instructor’s comments to reinforce my reading and problem set work and my fellow student’s commentary, questions, and discussion. I wonder what CO2 emissions savings can be squeezed out of technologies like this? Of course, this assumes that the CO2 that went into the manufacture of the headphones, servers, routers, and computers is less than what would otherwise be emitted in face-to-face meetings.
We talked about industry “normal” and “economic” profits, and the tendency for an industry to achieve normal profits. There is a constant downward pressure on profits from the entry of firms into markets that are exhibiting higher than normal profits. Investors’ search for the lowest opportunity costs, hence placing some of their capital in an industry exhibiting higher profit potential. Additional competitors shift the supply curve to the right, increasing the quantity sold at any given price and therefore reducing profitability (assuming the long run costs to the industry participants are constant). One can see the imperative for companies to decrease costs to remain profitable in the face of profit pressure, especially in capital intensive industries. This also helps explain the “race to the bottom” associated with reducing costs by searching for the absolute lowest cost factors of production.
I suppose this is a good example of the first mover advantage; the one getting into a lucrative market first has the ability to set prices and serve the market unilaterally. This can only last for so long. If companies are not attentive, competitors entering the market aggressively can take share at such a rate as to drive the initial market leader out of the industry. Am I correct in assuming that this is what happened to IBM, resulting in the eventual sale of their PC business to Lenovo? The same downward pressure was illustrated graphically in flat panel televisions, driving many initial leaders out of the industry.
Is the same thing happening in wind and solar? I am wagering that these industries are not experiencing record profitability as they are dependent upon subsidies and compete with established lower cost producers, but could they?
What happens to these classical economic assumptions when we start to integrate the externalities that many of us interested in preserving natural capital would like to be internalized?
One final note, would the ad revenue of local Boston radio station WZLX increase or decrease if another local station decided September would be “Zeptember”? Thank goodness the demand for Led Zeppelin is STRONG!
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
My wife and I decided to camp out in a tent for the first time together this weekend. It is easy to see how dependent we are on "stuff". For two people "roughing it", we had piles of stuff; tent, sleeping bags, pillow, food, wood, clothes, water bottles, toiletries, etc., etc. To top it all off, we were at a site with 30-something other groups, each with multiple cars and way more stuff than we had. As I mentioned to my wife as we drove out route 2, at no time in our decision making process for the trip did we account for fuel price...it was just there. With a carbon tax, it may have been a different story. Image from www.anthonyzierhut.com
No Impact Man, what an idea!
I just had an online class for my BGI economics review. You know, it's pretty amazing what we can do with technology. Eight people were virtually connected over a web of electrons travelling along conductors of various ilk, metallic and otherwise. I wonder what the life-cycle analysis of a bundle of information traveling along a phone wire, or wirelessly through the ether, really is. Would you account for the percentage of the bandwidth that packet took up on that conductor and what kind of conductor it was and what technology allowed the bundle to be that bundle and the energy that went into the message sending device, the transmitting device and the receiving device? Whew!
It may very well be less than sending a message via sail boat and paper...at the very least it's faster. Of course getting the information their quickly does not mean it's necessary.