Monday, April 21, 2008

Spring Intensive #1: Survived


So, I am back from my 5000 mile commute to BGI (at least they buy carbon indulgences for us students...I suppose I am paying for them); nestled in the 'burbs of Boston and just feeling somewhat normal after the red eye and staying up way too late on Saturday night (image from Aviation Explorer).

What did we do this time? We met our newest Economics professor and dove into some of the basics of the macroeconomy, GDP and the overall equation that helps us calculate GDP, Gov't spending, Investment, Imports & Exports, etc. It was an interesting few hours, and there will be much more to do in this area I am sure. Day two included discussions among our class about our alternative economy projects; my team is working on the topic of overwork in the US economy, reading Juliet Schor's The Overworked American. It is an interesting topic, and one that I believe has a place in the current political debates involving the pressure on the middle class (wages have stagnated since the early 80's for the majority of Americans). We also discussed the politics of Media control, PR and advertising, overspending, and management bloat. Almost too much to process.

We then jumped into Quantitative Methods. I remember some of the topics from statistics, that I must have taken in college. Standard Deviation, measured of spread, Normal Curves, etc. We went into some Human Regression, graphing two measurable variables from the class population and analyzing them for correlation. We did hair length and age....VERY weakly correlated with an R-squared value of 0.005. We noted a gender division (which I suppose makes sense) and wondered what would have happened if we took a much larger sample size that our ~20 people.

The Linear Programming session of the class was interesting as well, taking us through the capabilities of MS Excel to solve questions involving multiple constraints to maximize or minimize a function. Thank god we are not doing this by hand...I think it involves matrices and some linear algebra that I can not remember from WPI.

Class three for the weekend was Systems Thinking. I believe some brains were frying on this. Extension Diagrams, Bulls eye Diagrams, Causal Loop Diagrams, etc. What are the "things" we are measuring (the Stocks) and what are the actions we can take (Flows) to influence their state? Exogenous, Endogenous, Excluded...take your pick.

I glossed through the material this time, and I am TIRED.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Start of BGI Spring Term


There have been some interesting organizational and personnel happenings at BGI in the past six weeks. Two involved stakeholder engagement and "problems" associated with growth, The Split Intensive Incident and the Rebranding Rebellion, and the third was a bit of a bombshell on the instructor front; call it a slightly over the last minute change in our economics instructor team. What I found fascinating was observing the stakeholder engagement piece as well as the change in instructors. There has been some (warranted) hand-wringing and gnashing-of-teeth over academic rigor, management, and communication throughout this process. I am interested to see how it turns out, and be a co-creator as much as I feel compelled to.

So, back to studying. Spring Term courses are (with syllabus excerpts),

  • Systems Thinking in Action (figure above is my first stab at a model): The focus of this course is to help develop practitioners who are well grounded in systems thinking and the principles of a systems approach. The course will enable students to think systemically about this turbulent world and the manner in which they participate (reflective practitioners), as well as to effectively apply systems concepts and tools. Students will evaluate the complex nature of the challenges we face in our world and learn to appreciate the differences between mechanistic and holistic/organic paradigms. People often respond to situations or problems in a mechanistic or a reactive way, and therefore fail to see (uncover) the underlying patterns, trends and systemic structures that led to problematic unintended consequences. Frequently the root cause is a quick fix that was applied earlier to solve some initially perceived problem. The fix triggered a chain of consequences, often involving multiple delays, that eventually led to a proliferation of new problems…problems that are often worse than the initial problem.
  • Econ II; Macro & Political Economics: This course on macroeconomics looks at the interaction between actors with varying degrees of power -- namely, bankers, companies, governments, and workers -- and the resulting levels of environmental sustainability, stability, growth, and income distribution in the economy. Business decision-making occurs in the context of the rules of the capitalist game, worked out between these actors. This course looks at the structure that these rules create, the challenges posed to it by the dynamics of capitalism, the ways in which policy makers shape these rules, and the ways in which businesses and workers are affected by these changes. We will be particularly interested in the environmental and social impacts of the functioning of capitalism and, through the study of ecological economics, on the quality of life that it generates.
  • Quantitative Analysis: This class is intended to build on the Finance and the Triple Bottom Line class and begin preparation for the Sustainable Operations and Entrepreneurship classes to be taken next year. So far, our learning has been based on static assumptions with no risk incorporated. This class will teach students various methods to calculate risk as part of business decisions. It will provide various tools to gather and analyze the data needed to make information-based decisions. The course will look at tools like basic statistics, linear programming, regression analysis, decision trees, simulation modeling, and scenario planning to help the decision-making process.
  • Leadership & Personal Development: This quarter continues to build on your leadership introspection, attitudes and aptitudes. As you continue to exercise your values and your leadership style, we request you expand your sphere of observation even further. What are you learning about leadership through your ALP team? How do you use your leadership skills in other classes – economics, systems thinking and accounting, if you are taking it this year? What are the internal conversations you hold? How aware are you of your mental models? Are you able to be curious and ask questions about the implicit assumptions of others? How are your listening skills? Are they becoming more effective? When do you use powerful questions to create new perspectives? When conflicts or tension arise, how do you react, respond and contribute?
  • Continuation of Action Learning Project (mostly in Systems)
Leadership class is already stretching my internal limits, bringing up inquiries that require time and reflection. The term promises to be interesting and challenging, as I plan to be synthesizing much of what we have learned since October of last year into our work and deliverables.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Vanity Fair; Green Again?

Vanity Fair's Third Annual "Green Issue" is on the shelves. So, if it is the third annual, how many years before it becomes uncool and Vanity Fair moves on? Note the use of Polar Bears; is this the next species to be rolled out to appeal to people's sense of caring? Should we instead be highlighting members of humanity that are already experiencing the negative affects of climate change and higher food prices due to the biofuel ("grain -drain" as a fellow member of NetImpact called it) boom?

Wait a second! Here's the next silver bullet to solve the food problem from the NYTimes. Make as much fuel from plant matter as you want, we have in vitro meat manufacturing on the horizon!

Can People Have Meat and a Planet, Too?

The world has seen the first international conference on manufacturing meat. This is the process, tested so far only at laboratory scale, of growing pork, chicken, or beef through cell culture in vats instead of raising and slaughtering animals.

This may have some merit, BUT how much meat do we really need from a nutritional perspective? I am no dietician, but I do know that we evolved as omnivores; we like many different food items to obtain the nutrients we need for life. It's the protein, right?

My mental model about meat grown in an industrial process (it's what we do now) sans animal leads me down the path of Brave New World. I should be open to the possibilities.

Oh, and the Vanity Fair set will love cruelty-free meat products.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Cutting Carbon? Want BioFuel? What's the Answer?


The answer 42. Seriously, it's not that easy; and who's counting anyway? Over the past week or so, I've compiled a number of articles addressing CO2 emissions and the problems associated with tracking them, trading them, verifying them, and reducing them. An issue that appears to be overlooked is the time delay associated with some of the offsets one buys to go "carbon neutral". This article from ClimateBiz, The Benefits and Drawbacks of Carbon Offsets sheds some light on this topic as well as the issue of additionality. I've included a brief excerpt [emphasis added]:

However, when you buy 20 tons of offsets, there will not be an immediate, 20-ton reduction in greenhouse gases. For a renewable energy project with an expected life of 20 years, the 20 tons of carbon savings would typically be spread over the life of the project -- meaning that the carbon reduction would be 1 ton per year over 20 years. Moreover, the reduction doesn't start until the project is completed, which could be a year or more after your purchase.

If the funds are used to plant trees, your purchase doesn't reduce greenhouse gases immediately because the amount of carbon that trees absorb is directly related to their size. Small saplings have little effect on greenhouse gases; the effect grows as the tree does. If you buy 20 tons of offsets that go toward a tree-planting project, it's possible that atmospheric carbon would fall by less than 5 tons in the first 25 years of the trees' lives.

As the market for offsets/CERs evolves, perhaps there will be a time factor integrated into the regulatory regime to help us manage the delay; we really want to start reducing emissions NOW, not 10-20 years from now.
The NYTimes chimed in with this story, Lofty Pledge to Cut Emissions Comes With Caveat in Norway, highlighting issues similar to those revealed in the ClimateBiz piece. Here’s a taste:

But as the details of the plan have emerged, environmental groups and politicians — who applaud Norway’s impulse — say the feat relies too heavily on sleight-of-hand accounting and huge donations to environmental projects abroad, rather than meaningful emissions reductions.


Time Magazine added to the confusion in the clean energy debate with this wonderful story. Yes, there are clearly some issues with biofuels (more energy in than you get out, depending on the feedstock, using cropland to grow fuel instead of fuel, the need to create more farmland to “grow” the fuel) that this article addresses, but the headline, The Clean Energy Scam, is misleading. The article does not talk about clean energy overall, only biofuels. The title of the article should have been, “The BioFuel Scam”.

Financial Times article, Fog lifts to reveal carbon trading, brings the new breed of entrepreneurs into the fray, people looking to make a living by matching buyers and sellers of CO2. Again, a snippet:

But most carbon traders remain optimistic about the future, pointing out that teething problems are to be expected in such a young market, and that the market itself is based on a strong fundamental – the need to tackle climate change.
James Cameron, vice chairman of Climate Change Capital, says: “Entrepreneurs like risk, because risk is opportunity, so you should not complain about risk. We are still very strong believers in the carbon market.”
Even NPR got into the game this week with Young, Green Entrepreneurs Flock to Carbon Market, highlighting the new breed of altruistic capitalists seeking new ways to make a living while contributing to the saving of the planet.
States sue EPA over global warming from Power Engineering, a power generation industry magazine, clearly serving a customer base exposed to potential CO2 regulations. The gist:

A group of state attorneys general is suing the EPA over global warming, according to the Associated Press.
The group reportedly hopes to force the EPA to comply with a Supreme Court ruling mandating an EPA decision on issues related to CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHG).
Another reporting tool Climate Registry Releases Reporting Tool. We shall see how this one stacks up, and what levels of commitment companies make to reductions, not just reporting.

Climate Change Risks from the Financial Times digs into a little bit of a recent report issues by KPMG seeking to highlight the risks associated with climate change. The folks at KPMG are clearly trying to sell their consulting services, but they do raise some good points that businesses seem to think they can “win” in a carbon constrained world while underestimating the risks they face. Here’s a small chunk from the FT article [emphasis added]:

Such analysis is problematic. Irrespective of one's view on climate change, very long-term risk assessment is anathema to most companies, as KPMG acknowledges. Management incentive plans, not to mention the time horizons of even the most conservative institutional investors, are unable to confront risks beyond a few years. Even if they could, computer models or highly paid futurists cannot forecast outcomes with the accuracy needed to generate a measurable economic return.

Luckily for us, Ted Turner is on the case, and lending a scientific and rational voice to the debate (hard to gauge sarcasm). At least he's passionate.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Fear and Trembling in the New Economy


The following is taken from an article that appeared in Fast Company in March of 2000, "Do You Have the Will to Lead?". The "New Economy" reference, at the time to the web, is still applicable as we are now entering the new economy of increasing energy costs and the global repercussions of those costs.

I remember reading this article back then when I started to read about and think deeply about sustainability, the meaning of life, our role in a global society, and other light and airy subjects. The article is still among the papers stuffed into a manila folder holding various scrawlings, readings, and musings about all things career & life related.

The section that follows is taken from this article. It dives into Soren Kierkegaard's writings on anxiety and what it means as a driver of behavior. This has come to have deep significance for me in the past eight months or so as I decided to undertake my graduate education at BGI and explore who I am and what I am looking for...and feeling anxious the entire way.

You don't need a philosopher to tell you that anxiety is one by-product of what Peter Koestenbaum calls "the brutality and promise" of the new economy. But you do need a philosopher to explain how anxiety rules the human condition -- and how it can serve as a powerful, productive force in your life. The best thinker for the job, says Koestenbaum, is Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher who did as much for the analysis of anxiety as Freud did for the analysis of the subconscious. Here's a short course from Koestenbaum on the value of anxiety.

Anxiety generates knowledge.
"As Kierkegaard explains it, anxiety is the natural condition. It's a cognitive emotion that reveals truths that we would prefer to hide but that we need for our greater health. In an essay called 'The Concept of Dread,' Kierkegaard draws a connection between anxiety and free will. We cannot prove that free will is true -- because we freely choose the meaning of truth in the first place. But our anxiety tips us off to the existence of our freedom: It reminds us of our huge responsibility to choose who we are and to define our world."

Anxiety leads to action.
"Kierkegaard wrote that the most common form of despair occurs when one does not choose or 'will' to be oneself -- when a person is 'another than himself.' The opposite of despair is 'to will to be that self which one truly is.' That's the experience of anxiety. It is choosing life in the face of death; it is the experience of thought becoming action, reflection becoming behavior, and theory becoming practice. Anxiety is pure energy."

Anxiety makes you a grown-up.
"Anxiety is the experience of growth itself. In any endeavor, how do you feel when you go from one stage to the next? The answer: You feel anxious. Anxiety that is denied makes us ill; anxiety that is fully confronted and fully lived through converts itself into joy, security, strength, centeredness, and character. The practical formula: Go where the pain is."
The last line is the one that provides the best learning for me...go where the pain is. Ignoring or medicating the pain does not remove it. It must be dealt with head on. Ouch. One of my early managers would be proud of me for thinking this way.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

d2E Consumer Expo in Boston


I decided to make my way over the the Hynes Convention Center in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston (it really was a bay...about 160 years ago) for the d2E down:2:earth expo last weekend. Here's how the organizers of the expo described it:

What does it mean to be a responsible consumer?


If you’re interested in making your home more energy efficient, eating locally and sustainably year-round, and choosing eco-friendly fashions, then Down:2:Earth is the place for you. Join us March 28-30 at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center as we showcase companies that offer environmentally-responsible choices for aligning your dollars with your values. Educational workshops and chances to win great prizes are included with admission – it’s all happening at D2E
I did not expect to see anything earth-shattering (pardon the mental model pun), but did assume I would learn about some new things, some things I already knew about, and perhaps bump into to some fellow green friends. With such general expectations...they all came true.

A few cool things I saw and learned about (among MANY interesting green & sustainable things)

  • Nautigear: Bags and such made out of previously used or salvaged sailcloth. They are sailing chic, and come with the requisite seersucker blazer and Rodney Dangerfield sailing cap. Seriously, they were pretty cool, and not cheap. From their site, "Recycled sailcloth collection is eco-friendly & handcrafted in the USA using yacht sails from around the world."
  • The Natural Burial Company: Caskets made of papier mache, cardboard, whatever…stuff that’s easy for the worms to convert back into dirt. If you’re not cremated (anathema aside) no matter what sarcophagus you’re encapsulated in, eventually…you’re going to be worm food. Why spend thousands to delay the inevitable? From their site, "The Natural Burial Company promotes the production of natural goods and services to support environmentally sound funeral and cemetery practices in the 21st Century".
  • 360 Vodka: They were giving samples away, so I partook. I am not a Vodka connoisseur, but it was OK. I tried to strike up a conversation with the staff person manning the booth, to see if they had always bottled it the same way and had just recently re-branded to take advantage of the LOHAS boom, but I might as well have had a sign on my chest that said “I’m not buying”; I was completely ignored as I stood a mere four feet from them…annoying.
  • Shootflying Hill Sauce Company: I just like them because they are from Greenfield, MA, out in the western part of Massachusetts where I grew up. The chocolate-y sauces they had were quite good.
  • Taza Chocolate: An old acquaintance from Massbike, Zipcar, AltWheels, and who knows what else is owner of this company. I ate a raw cacao “seed”. I had absolutely no idea where chocolate came from. Now I know that it is from a mini football shaped pod that grows from the trunks of trees in Central and South America.
  • Zipcar: Always a fan…never a member. They recently took over Flexcar…let the car sharing industry shake out begin. Oh, and I was so chatty they gave me a T-shirt (non-organic cotton I assume but made in the USA by American Apparel - they have issues?).
  • edible BOSTON: As my sustainability education continues…I have been thinking a lot about food…knowing that the average cellophane wrapped formerly organic substance travels north of 1200 miles to get to the local supermarket. This magazine, available at local markets, helps foodies locate local and seasonal foods in the Boston area.
  • The Food Project: Related to the bullet above, from their website, “Our goal: sustainable, local food systems that bridge race, class, age, and more to ensure food security for all. Dig in!” The young man working the booth was far more engaging and was a good recruiter.
  • Boisset Family Estates: Marketing blather, "From France, the most traditional wine-producing country, comes a forward-thinking innovation for an environmentally-conscious world: French Rabbit, vintage-dated, appellation-specific French wine in unique 1 Liter octagonal-shaped packaging with screw-top closures and label-free packaging." We just wanted the smaller sizes to have little straws like kids' drink boxes...walk around town with a Tetra Pak wine box and no one would know.
  • Alchemy Goods: I was psyched to see Alchemy Goods at this event, shown by a local retailer from Cambridge, MA called Greenward. Alchemy was created by one of my classmates at BGI...gotta spread the love, though I do not have a bag yet...
There were many, many more...and I was glad to see what appeared to be a strong turnout. The vendors were busy and the well-heeled denizens of the Back Bay were getting their green fix.

How much carbon was emitted for all the travel to get to the event?