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What Will Turn the Tide Towards Sustainability?
Alan AtKisson, 18 Oct 07
Article Photo

The October 13 edition of The Economist has a fascinating special report on innovation -- fascinating and disturbing, if one is concerned with the prospects for sustainability. Fascinating and hope-inducing, if one is looking for mechanisms by which to change the world.

In short, a revolution is well under way in the way the world's companies manage innovation. IBM has embraced Linux and "Open Innovation." "Fast failure" is the new mantra for many firms. The cost of starting a new car company has dropped by one or two orders of magnitude, from billions to mere hundred millions.

The latter, for example, inspires both hope and despair, since this change in how cars are sourced and made means both that Tesla Motors' new electric sports cars are possible ... and that cheap petrol-driven cars for India and China's billions are also possible.

Theoretically, this change in the way innovation works in Corporate Earth (one used to refer to Corporate America) has opened up space for big thinking on sustainability. Pair up Wal-Mart's famous embrace of all things green and sustainable, with founder Sam Walton's Mao-like dictum that "We don't want continuous improvement, we want radical change," and you apparently get a formula for transformation.

But has the big thinking really begun yet? IBM apparently uses its Linux-based operating system to run mega-brainstorming sessions on line, with thousands of employees participating in a great innovation-fest. How much of that brain power is harnessed, would you guess, to solving the problem of global climate change, or improving the future prospects of the world's poorest children?

What if all that brain power was harnessed to such problems? Has anybody asked IBM to try?

Cracking the hundreds of tough problems that go under the banner of "sustainable development challenges" will require far more focused effort at rapid innovation than the world has ever seen. Recent years have certainly witnessed an upturn (even a takeoff) in the innovation curves of many important technical and managerial factors, ranging from wind turbines to the number of sustainability directors in cities and companies. (Let's assume the latter is a positive trend.)

But seriously, folks, even this seeming upturn/takeoff, while worth celebrating, is merely scratching the surface of what really needs to happen, especially compared -- as The Economist's survey makes abundantly clear, or as any stroll through any airport or shopping mall should make abundantly clear -- to the amount of innovation and product development and consumption of all kinds that continues to accelerate wildly in precisely the wrong direction. Wrong, that is, from the perspective of preserving a stable climate and something like a world of functioning ecosystems, not to mention a world where every child has a fair chance to be educated, healthy, and happy.

So the question must continue to be: what can turn the tide? Writing on this site, Alex Steffen recently noted that the Gore/IPCC Nobel Prize is something like the clear "ka-chunk" sound of climate change, and even global sustainability concerns generally, landing squarely in the center of the world's leadership mainstream. But it is equally clear that while we have a problem, we still do not, as a world know what to do about it.

Most especially, we do not know how much we have to do. The now-classic "Wedges" paper by Pacala and Socolow (Science, 2004) is still a reference point for thinking through the scale of addressing a global challenge like climate change. The scaling up of technical solutions to gigaton-level carbon cuts that they describe is presented as enormously challenging, a series of "monumental tasks," yet feasible and doable. Three years and one Nobel Prize later, the world is still not grappling with the challenge of transformation even on their terms, which many consider too timid because they assume stabilization at 550 ppm CO2 (well into the dangerous range by most reckonings).

Earlier on Worldchanging, I wrote that the recent breakthrough on climate change awareness was causing many long-time activists and strategists to scratch their heads and ask, "What do I do now?" Here is one answer: keep reminding the newly converted global leaders about just how big this problem really is. Remind them that it's not just a about climate change, but about the whole structure of our resource intensive economies. Challenge them to address global problems at the appropriate scale ... and help them to imagine that transformation.

For nothing less than a transformation is necessary. I've written elsewhere ("Sustainability is Dead - Long Live Sustainability," republished in Keiner, Ed., The Future of Sustainability) about the imperative, and the possibility, of true transformation. It has happened before in recent history, and indeed other kinds of transformation are happening right now: only a word like "transformation" can describe what's happening to China, for example. I define transformation this way: "the extremely accelerated adoption of existing innovations, together with the acceleration of innovation itself." The extremely rapid conversion of industrial economies during World War II is by far the best modern example of this on the global scale -- though not the most hope-inducing, since it took global war to make that transformation happen.

And yet, scanning The Economist's ten-page summary on innovation today, one begins to think, "What if?" What if IBM's think-fests and the Googleplex's brilliant nerds and McKinsey's solution-finders and Tata's consulting engineers and the hundreds of thousands of new technically trained brains each Chinese university churns out yearly were all put to work on sustainable development as a complex systems challenge, The Greatest of All Problems?

What kinds of innovation, and how much transformation, would all that brainpower produce, if given the chance and the means to produce it?

I somehow think that not even Al Gore can make transformation happen by himself. Let's hope that it does not take another global war to catalyze it, either. After all, we already have have a "global conflagration," the great fire of global warming, already under way, and getting more visible by the day.

Note to The Economist: Run a special section on the need for a great global sustainability innovation fest, and quickly, before it's time to organize the great global bucket brigade.

Image credit: flickr/Poagao

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Comments

I would love to see all this untapped human energy unleashed on sustainability projects. It is abundantly clear that to satisfy human needs in the long term economies need to acknowledge the ecological realities, and need to be reformed around that fact.

This is the first thing I happened to read after stumbling onto Worldchanging, I'm glad to have found it. I appreciate your perspective.


Posted by: Matt Harmin on 19 Oct 07

I would love to see all this untapped human energy unleashed on sustainability projects. It is abundantly clear that to satisfy human needs in the long term economies need to acknowledge the ecological realities, and need to be reformed around that fact.

This is the first thing I happened to read after stumbling onto Worldchanging, I'm glad to have found it. I appreciate your perspective.


Posted by: Matt Harmin on 19 Oct 07

It seems to me that there are two things that make brilliant people solve problems: money and intellectual stimulation. Since it's unlikely that IBM will throw a massive part of their budget behind paying people to solve these problems it strikes me that we have a marketing problem on our hands.
How do you tell the story of a Nigerian farmer trapped in a famine to an engineer so that it makes the engineer want to tackle and solve the problem. How do you get a short feedback cycle between clusters of geniuses trying to solve problems and the problems themselves?

This is a damn good article.


Posted by: Jack Danger Canty on 19 Oct 07

For practical things to do, see the resalliance approach
It links management and adaptive evolution in an attractive way. Usefull to build up effective policies to tackle complex multistakeholders problem. It's a generic process for problem solving.
My personal opinion is that now has come the times to make the connections between all the known questions. Making the link helps to focus not only on the content but also on the process the problem is being solved.
On global questions, everyone is welcomed from the small farmer in Africa to the big companies. And there is no little problems because everything is linked in a way or another. All the connections have to be taken into account at the effective level for action, which is not the same for an african farmer and a world company as IBM.
Organizing the pertinent levels for effective and coherent global action, that's the task ahead. That is horizontal cross-cutting levels of action (climate, agriculture...) but also new cross levels (from field to earth, from now to the next centuries) using all the existing tools (economy, social links, identity links) through innovative processes such as IBM innovation fest.


Posted by: swimmer21 on 20 Oct 07

What will turn the tide towards sustainability?

I would say both negative trends and positive trends I am about to describe, would simultaneously do it for all of us.

The kinds of negative trends--reaching their asymptotes--that would do the job would be those put forward by two of the most holistic thinker I know of, Thomas Homer-Dixon and Immanuel Wallerstein.

Thomas Homer-Dixon said that the following five "tectonic stresses" would accumulate to produce a "social earthquake" that would force us to make radical changes in the way we do things:

1. Energy stress, especially from increasing scarcity of cheap conventional oil;

2. Economic stress, from widening income gaps between rich and poor and greater instability of the global economic system;

3. Demographic stress , from overpopulation and from expansion of megacities in poor societies;

4. Environmental stress, from worsening damage to earth's life-support systems.

5. Climate stress, from changes in the composition of earth's atmosphere.


On the other hand, Immanuel Wallerstein with his world-systems analysis is foreseeing the end of the road for our capitalist world-economy. It's main driving force: the endless acumulation of capital--which ofcourse is one of the fundamental cause of our global ecosocial crisis--will not last longer due to three long-term trends:

1. Rising labor cost, due to the deruralization of the world, thereby reducing the supply of cheap labor for the profit machine of our capitalist world-economy. Or on the flip side of it, the urbanization of the world, which in 2007 reached more than 50% of the world's population, is pushing the wage level higher, and squeezing profit margins.

2. Rising ecological cost, which so far has been externalized by profit-making firms. When there's no more land or rivers or air to dump our industrial waste on, and no more trees to cut down, no more fish to catch, no more oil to pump out, without sacrificing our quality of life, firms will have to internalize costs. This would happen either through environmental tax, or through governmental policy which is financed by citizen's tax which in turn would create higher demand for wage and end up squeezing the firms' profit margins.

3. Rising welfare costs, most visible in citizen's demand for better educational and health services, and a guarantee of stable income throughout their lifetime. This can only be done through the expansion of the state's welfare functions which entails higher tax, and like no.2, end up squeezing corporate profit via higher wage demand of workers.

When these factors reach their asymptotes, our world-economy would come to a grinding halt. And we must then, willingly or not, seek other forms of economic arrangements more suited to the well-being of people and all life-forms on our finite planet.


Both Thomas Homer-Dixon and Immanuel Wallerstein can not say whether humanity will be able to avoid the catasthropic kind of turning point in which all hell breaks loose, but they offer rays of hope and optimism, and ofcourse, strategic steps to avert catasthrope and move forward towards a more egalitarian and sustainable future.

The former suggests that we reduce the five "tectonic stresses" in ways that we already know of, and in ways we still need to figure out. He then cite the resilience and panarchy concept of regeneration after breakdown, which suggests that even if catasthrope is inevitable, it can still result in a new kind of social arrangement which is more in tune with our finest ideals. And the latter, even offers concrete political-economic strategies beyond the left-right divide to help us steer our way out of trouble, by aiming for short-term reform efforts (e.g. more democracy, more welfare, environmental tax, etc) and long-term permanent change efforts (e.g. decommodification of things and the commons, democratization of governance both on the national and international level, and the strengthening of the movements represented by the World Social Forum).

These efforts are what I termed as positive trends in the beginning of this commentary. The messenger of this trends would be Paul Hawken in his recent book, Blessed Unrest, which details the emergence and development of "the movement of movements" that is taking so many shapes and forms in dealing with our complex and interrelated ecosocial crises.

If we choose to look at the bright(er) side of life, there is much reason for hope, optimism for continuing our efforts towards sustainability.

Paul even go as far as making an online community which could serve as the global virtual headquarters for the movement of movements to perform it's mass networking and group-thinking efforts at www.WiserEarth.org (think of it as a cross between MySpace, Wikipedia and IBM's Innovation Fest, but for concerned citizens of the world geared to help bring about a more egalitarian and sustainable future). Although it is still in the very early phase of development, if done the right way, it would indeed perform a service most needed and valueable for mankind and non-humankind alike in this troubled times.

Thus, I'll end this somewhat optimistic commentary with the following quotations:

"It is perhaps not too much to say that, in the first decade of the new millennium, humanity has entered into a condition that is in some sense more globally united and interconnected, more sensitized to the experiences and suffering of others, in certain respects more spiritually awakened, more conscious of alternative future possibilities and ideals, more capable of collective healing and compassion, and, aided by technological advances in communication media, more able to think, feel, and respond together in a spiritually evolved manner to the world's swiftly changing realities than has ever before been possible." (Richard Tarnas)

"If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren't pessimistic, you don't have the current data. If you meet the people in this unnamed movement and aren't optimistic, you haven't got a heart. Both are true and I put my faith on people." (Paul Hawken)


Posted by: Wibowo Sulistio on 20 Oct 07

What will turn the tide towards sustainability?

I would say both negative trends and positive trends I am about to describe, would simultaneously do it for all of us.

The kinds of negative trends--reaching their asymptotes--that would do the job would be those put forward by two of the most holistic thinker I know of, Thomas Homer-Dixon and Immanuel Wallerstein.

Thomas Homer-Dixon said that the following five "tectonic stresses" would accumulate to produce a "social earthquake" that would force us to make radical changes in the way we do things:

1. Energy stress, especially from increasing scarcity of cheap conventional oil;

2. Economic stress, from widening income gaps between rich and poor and greater instability of the global economic system;

3. Demographic stress , from overpopulation and from expansion of megacities in poor societies;

4. Environmental stress, from worsening damage to earth's life-support systems.

5. Climate stress, from changes in the composition of earth's atmosphere.


On the other hand, Immanuel Wallerstein with his world-systems analysis is foreseeing the end of the road for our capitalist world-economy. It's main driving force: the endless acumulation of capital--which ofcourse is one of the fundamental cause of our global ecosocial crisis--will not last longer due to three long-term trends:

1. Rising labor cost, due to the deruralization of the world, thereby reducing the supply of cheap labor for the profit machine of our capitalist world-economy. Or on the flip side of it, the urbanization of the world, which in 2007 reached more than 50% of the world's population, is pushing the wage level higher, and squeezing profit margins.

2. Rising ecological cost, which so far has been externalized by profit-making firms. When there's no more land or rivers or air to dump our industrial waste on, and no more trees to cut down, no more fish to catch, no more oil to pump out, without sacrificing our quality of life, firms will have to internalize costs. This would happen either through environmental tax, or through governmental policy which is financed by citizen's tax which in turn would create higher demand for wage and end up squeezing the firms' profit margins.

3. Rising welfare costs, most visible in citizen's demand for better educational and health services, and a guarantee of stable income throughout their lifetime. This can only be done through the expansion of the state's welfare functions which entails higher tax, and like no.2, end up squeezing corporate profit via higher wage demand of workers.

When these factors reach their asymptotes, our world-economy would come to a grinding halt. And we must then, willingly or not, seek other forms of economic arrangements more suited to the well-being of people and all life-forms on our finite planet.


Both Thomas Homer-Dixon and Immanuel Wallerstein can not say whether humanity will be able to avoid the catasthropic kind of turning point in which all hell breaks loose, but they offer rays of hope and optimism, and ofcourse, strategic steps to avert catasthrope and move forward towards a more egalitarian and sustainable future.

The former suggests that we reduce the five "tectonic stresses" in ways that we already know of, and in ways we still need to figure out. He then cite the resilience and panarchy concept of regeneration after breakdown, which suggests that even if catasthrope is inevitable, it can still result in a new kind of social arrangement which is more in tune with our finest ideals. And the latter, even offers concrete political-economic strategies beyond the left-right divide to help us steer our way out of trouble, by aiming for short-term reform efforts (e.g. more democracy, more welfare, environmental tax, etc) and long-term permanent change efforts (e.g. decommodification of things and the commons, democratization of governance both on the national and international level, and the strengthening of the movements represented by the World Social Forum).

These efforts are what I termed as positive trends in the beginning of this commentary. The messenger of this trends would be Paul Hawken in his recent book, Blessed Unrest, which details the emergence and development of "the movement of movements" that is taking so many shapes and forms in dealing with our complex and interrelated ecosocial crises.

If we choose to look at the bright(er) side of life, there is much reason for hope, optimism for continuing our efforts towards sustainability.

Paul even go as far as making an online community which could serve as the global virtual headquarters for the movement of movements to perform it's mass networking and group-thinking efforts at www.WiserEarth.org (think of it as a cross between MySpace, Wikipedia and IBM's Innovation Fest, but for concerned citizens of the world geared to help bring about a more egalitarian and sustainable future). Although it is still in the very early phase of development, if done the right way, it would indeed perform a service most needed and valueable for mankind and non-humankind alike in this troubled times.

Thus, I'll end this somewhat optimistic commentary with the following quotations:

"It is perhaps not too much to say that, in the first decade of the new millennium, humanity has entered into a condition that is in some sense more globally united and interconnected, more sensitized to the experiences and suffering of others, in certain respects more spiritually awakened, more conscious of alternative future possibilities and ideals, more capable of collective healing and compassion, and, aided by technological advances in communication media, more able to think, feel, and respond together in a spiritually evolved manner to the world's swiftly changing realities than has ever before been possible." (Richard Tarnas)

"If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren't pessimistic, you don't have the current data. If you meet the people in this unnamed movement and aren't optimistic, you haven't got a heart. Both are true and I put my faith on people." (Paul Hawken)


Posted by: Wibowo Sulistio on 20 Oct 07

Sometimes the problem is that there are millions of very good people air conditioning their air and also running a clothes dryer to heat the cooled air, while the sun is blazing outside.

Other times the problem is people are heating the air because its freezing cold outside and then refrigerating the heated air to keep their food from spoiling.

The millions upon millions of good people doing this are not stupid as far as humans go. They are friendly warm hearted souls who will do anything they can think of to make a better world for their children and grandchildren.

We as a specie cannot figure out how to let free cold into refrigerators and blazing free sun onto washed wet clothes because our hectic quest to earn the income needed to survive in an economy attempting to grow to infinity on a finite planet is crazy.

The US incinerates 35 billion tons of plastic per year. Billions of tons of fuel are used to make the plastic and then haul it to the incinerators. No major politician or political party that I know of is suggesting standard size easy clean design glass food packaging.

Meanwhile, knowledge of pollution toxicity is growing as fast as physicists can devise new measuring devices. Humans are smart enough to see the problems but other humans are in control of armies and police and they will use their might to be the last one standing. We are caught between greed and the propensity to use justified armed dominion.


Posted by: Garrett Connelly on 22 Oct 07

We need an alternative to money (or an extension of money) that factors in the carbon (and methane etc.) cost of doing stuff. As indicated in the article, there is no inherent reason why innovation to save the climate should be any different from the current successful ways to innovate - except that there is no clear way to make the current innovations sustainable.

We have many ways of estimating the future monetary cost incurred whilst funding innovation. If the carbon cost was inherent in that calculation we'd automatically innovate towards sustainable products.

All (!) we need to do is extend money (or create a parallel system) that factors-in carbon costs.


Posted by: John Kazer on 22 Oct 07



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