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Sustainability - At the Tipping Point?
Gil Friend, 5 Mar 06

image011.jpgI'm an optimist by nature, I'll confess. (A nature that sometimes seems hard to express in these times.) With that disclaimer, I think we're likely to look back on 2005 as the tipping point for "sustainability." Here's why.

In his 2001 bestseller The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,Malcolm Gladwell used the metaphor of epidemics to demonstrate how a small number of 'carriers' in a ready context can unleash massive and market-altering -- or world-altering -- waves of change.

His questions are potent, and still relevant: 'Why is it that some ideas or behaviors or products start epidemics and others don't? And what can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?'

Momentous change is not always visible at the moment it happens -- in fact it doesn't always happen in a discrete moment. And a change can take on a nearly irreversible momentum long before it becomes the dominant phenomenon.

The 'sustainability trajectory' I've tracked over the past 35 years (since long before it was called that) has looked to me like a fairly consistent exponential curve of uptake. Whether the time span is the last three decades, or one decade, or five years, or two, the curve charting the uptake and penetration of these ideas has been exponential. We'll see even more progress in coming years -- and still have major challenges ahead (see below). But 2005 may be the year of critical mass (to use another popular metaphor).

Here are a few of the milestones marking 2005:


General Electric's Ecomagination announcement was probably the one most people remember. GE is not only big, diverse, and technologically sophisticated; it also has one of the most respected management traditions; GE's most notable product isn't jet engines, medical equipment or financial services, but exceptional managers -- which makes this top-level, business-integrated initiative all the more notable, and potent.

Boeing announced that its new 787 jetliner (coming in 2008) will be 20% more efficient than anything comparable, and 70% more fuel efficient than the first commercial jet aircraft some 40 years ago. I'm someone who always pushes the companies we work with to take on audacious goals, but given the already optimized environment of aircraft design, this one surprised even me. (With growing concern about the greenhouse gas implications of air travel, it will be interesting to see how far this trend can go.


JPMorganChase was one of a growing number of major financial institutions signing on to the Equator Principles. Rainforest Action Network gets the kudos for pushing major banks to the table. The banks themselves get kudos for being willing to be pushed.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs pledged to make $1 billion available for investments in renewable energy, as part of a comprehensive 'Environmental Policy Framework' that bespeaks both a substantial grasp of the business risks and opportunities. According to an Alternet analysis, 'It's the first corporate environmental policy to hinge on the newly minted idea of "ecosystem services," which is a way of looking at the environment in terms of what [economic services] it provides for humans.'


WalMart's recent 'greening' announcement was notable (though it met with some skepticism) both for its potential scale of impact, and the indications of serious thinking behind it. As I wrote late last year: Does it go beyond lip service? That remains to be seen, of course, but it's a telling sign that WalMart CEO Lee Scott isn't just talking about 'greening' his stores. Here's what he said in Forbes: 'There will be a day of reckoning for retailers. If somebody wakes up and finds out that children that are down the river from that factory where you save three cents a foot in the cost of garden hose are developing cancers at a significant rates -- so that the American public can save three cents a foot -- those things won't be tolerated, and they shouldn't be tolerated.' Whatever you think about WalMart's social footprint, that's one thoughtful CEO.

Even among the acknowledged leaders, the bar keeps ratcheting higher. (I love it when that happens! Don't you?) Starbucks announced a commitment to a 20% renewable energy portfolio -- no small thing for such a rapidly growing company -- and Whole Foods trumped with a 100% commitment. (Making Whole Foods the second largest US renewable energy purchaser, by the way, right behind -- are you ready? -- the US Air Force! Interesting times, indeed!)


And then there were Katrina, Wilma and the two-dozen other major storms of last season. The fact- and science- averse among us may still claim to not be persuaded about global warming, but I'll wager that everyone else got the message in 2005. (For those who didn't, and who pay more attention to the pundits on Fox News than the executives at Swiss Re, one more hurricane season should do the trick.)

On the other hand

Not all the news is good news, of course, so this is not the time for complacency. If little things can make a big difference, the tipping point can tip the other way as well.

NASA's James Hansen, Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Science, asserts that 'The Earth's climate is nearing, but has not passed, a tipping point beyond which it will be impossible to avoid climate change with far-ranging undesirable consequences. These include not only the loss of the Arctic as we know it, with all that implies for wildlife and indigenous peoples, but losses on a much vaster scale due to rising seas.'

We face many serious challenges. The progress I'm lauding, and encouraging, is still too slow to avert major socio-ecological disruptions from climate change (the issue the general public is most concerned about, while scientists consider biodiversity loss to be even more serious). Major resource systems -- fisheries, forests, soils, fresh water, biodiversity, coral reefs and more -- are generally in decline worldwide. Most leaders -- in fact most people -- are still ignorant of exponential & long-lead effects, and lull themselves into the complacency of 'doing OK so far.' Grinding poverty still immiserates a third of the human family, and shames us all. The addiction to stuff drives our market. And the market still lies, by dismissing the inconvenient parts of physical reality as 'externalities'. In the face of all this, better still isn't good enough.

So what can be done to maintain the momentum, in the face of good news and bad? I'm reminded of labor organizer Joe Hill's admonition: "Don't mourn. Organize." It comes down to big pictures and small acts.

Be sure your leadership team is tracking big picture drivers like climate change and market expectations. (And if you think meeting the European product directives is challenging, just wait 'til China steps up to the plate.)
Get out ahead of Kyoto, and drive greenhouse gas emissions down aggressively. Even if you can't do it as profitably as BP has, do everything you can to insulate your organization from future energy shocks.
Engineer non-bio-compatible materials out of your supply chain. Whether because the European (and Chinese?) markets will reject them or because they have no place in living systems, they will be gone some day; your only question is 'will you wait until you have to change, or will you lead the change?'
Challenge your finance organization to adequately track 'whole system,' life cycle costs, risks and opportunities. If the tools to do it aren't there, invent them; schedule a brain transplant if necessary.
Communicate your aspirations, commitments, actions and results -- prolifically and fiercely -- at every level of your organization, and throughout your supply chain and stakeholder network. There's no telling where the next breakthrough will come from, and you want to be sure you have all ears open and all brains engaged when it does.

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An excellet read - this was the good news story I REALLY needed this morning

Posted by: Michael on 5 Mar 06

Great article.

Easy on the hurricanes, I'm still down here! But you're right, of course. In times of emergency, bureaucracy is supposed to be minimized - exactly the opposite seems to be happening. Sad.

If the tools to do it aren't there, invent them; schedule a brain transplant if necessary.

Now THAT is a quote. ;-)

Posted by: Taran on 5 Mar 06

Amory Lovins was at MIT this week. Monday he talked in the big Tang Auditorium at the business school on the general outlook of the energy situation with particular emphasis on the status of his work reinventing the automobile. Tuesday he spoke to a much smalled group in Building 66, the physics building, on the prospect for nuclear power.

I was talking to Steve Strong, the solar architect, about how things seemed to be changing, only it's like , 30 YEARS TOO LATE!!!! Steve agreed but pointed out that change is sometimes a step function - lots of little changes add up and everything seems to be the same until one more small change happens and all at once everything has changed.

He just may be right. I hope so.

All of the people, like Gil and Steve and Amory, who have been working towards this change for thirty years and more deserve to see things going there way for once at least.

Posted by: gmoke on 5 Mar 06

You know, step functions can work for us, or against us. The one thing we know for sure is that we can't know for sure what _will_ happen, leaving us only one option: to do everything we can to bring forth the world that WorldChanging is chronicling.

I'm reminded of Bucky's observation: "If humanity does not opt for integrity we are through completely. It is absolutely touch and go. Each one of us could make the difference. That is why I do what I do."

Me too.

Posted by: Gil Friend on 5 Mar 06

In all the talk about CO2 production, I have not seen much talk about CO2 absorption. Actually, it is claimed that the U.S. is a net Carbon sink, that is its forests and agriculture consume more CO2 than its industry puts out. (

Posted by: Nathan on 5 Mar 06

Nathan. Suggest you run that by who has real climate scientists who can evaluate this claim by your cited right wing think tank.

Even if these claims were true, this would not be an excuse for our current practice of increasing our carbon dioxide emissions each year while others are cutting theirs.

Even China has pledged to cut their emissions in 2006 despite its usual rapid economic growth.

Posted by: t on 6 Mar 06

"Quite clearly, our task is predominantly metaphysical, for it is how to get all of humanity to educate itself swiftly enough to generate spontaneous behaviors that will avoid extinction."

R. Buckminster Fuller, _Synergetics_

Be sure to take a look at my magnetic models of A and B Quanta at http;//

Posted by: gmoke on 6 Mar 06

Thank you for your foresight. I am planning to speak in front of the California Coastal Commission on Thursday regarding our local Pebble Beach Company's plan to cut down 17,000 trees for development, and will apply your ideas. Perhaps these small actions will eventually move us forward into a sustainable future.

Posted by: Maria Sutherland on 6 Mar 06

Enjoyed. I'd like to point out the true biological nature of consumerism. First for millions of years humans moved from place to place, with an average frequency of once a month. The behavior of being tired of the same suroundings became incorporated in our genes. So we if able redecorate our surroundings as well as ourselves. We are also outdoors animals and as all social primates status seekers. Bigger and bigger houses in reality are bringing outside space indoors. Finally our "Industrial age" cultural values assigns higher status to who has the most and newest stuff.

Posted by: Bill on 8 Mar 06



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