Monday, June 30, 2008

Carbon Dioxide and the Magic of Exponential Growth

If a frog is put into a pot of boiling water he will immediately jump out of the pot and save himself. But if the same frog is put into a pot of water at room temperature and the water is slowly heated, the frog will not notice the water is getting hotter until it is too late. The frog is a lot like us. He is built to notice and respond to sudden changes in his environment but is not as good at responding to gradual changes.

Two hundred years ago, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm). It is now 385 ppm and increasing at a rate of 1.7% a year, due largely to the industrial development of China and India, and their increasing dependence on coal – the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

At 1.7% per year the amount of CO2 emissions will double in 43 years. That's the magic of exponential growth. As the world industrializes, more and more energy is needed and if that energy is from fossil fuels, the amount of CO2 emissions keeps growing too.

At this rate of growth, before the end of the century the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will reach and surpass 1000 ppm. Carbon dioxide is toxic to the human heart causing decreasing contractile force as well as difficulty breathing. At concentrations of 1000 ppm CO2 causes discomfort in the form of nausea and headaches for about 20% of people. At concentrations of 2000 ppm – which we would reach within a century – the majority of people would experience discomfort. At that point, we might want to live outside all the time because the concentration of CO2 inside buildings would be even higher.

Although it is true that plants need carbon dioxide to grow, not all plants would benefit from increased levels of CO2. Specifically, our food crops would not do as well, but apparently weeds would thrive under these conditions.

Is this the kind of world we can look forward to? A world of mass hunger, misery, and nausea? Notice I haven't even mentioned global warming up until now. What is driving almost all the greatest threats to humanity, including global warming, is industrialization and economic growth.

People who believe we can continue on with business as usual are a lot like that frog in the pot – they don't notice any difference from day to day. It's not hotter today than it was yesterday. More and more children are getting asthma, but the increase is gradual so we don't notice. More people are getting cancer from the increased amounts of toxins in the environment, but the increase is so gradual that we barely notice it. Forests, which are net absorbers of CO2, are being cut down at an alarming rate – but we don't notice it because it's happening somewhere else.

Some people are worse than the frog. They're more like the ostrich that hides its head in the sand. They find the consequences of this news too overwhelming. They are too chicken to face up to the fact that we have to stop the growth of industrial output or we won't survive.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Fifth Discipline: Systems Theory

All human organizations are systems. They share common patterns, behaviours, and properties with electrical, and biological systems that can be understood and used to our advantage.

We can define a “system” as “ a web of relations among elements”. The structure of any system – the many circular interlocking, sometimes time-delayed relationships among its components – is often just as important in determining its behaviour as the individual components themselves.

Think of the solar system – a system of planets dominated by a sun, many times bigger than any of the other planets. Only the planet earth has the right distance from the sun so that the sun's energy was enough to support the development of life but not so much as to destroy life.

And life itself is a global system that has interacted with and changed the earth's atmosphere, climate, geology, and chemistry over hundreds of millions of years.

In a system, all the parts interact and influence each other in ways that aren't predictable . Think of the Beatles – who could have imagined the evolution of their music and the vast audience that could be created by those four guys as separate individuals?

Human organizations are built up to serve various purposes. Like a machine, it is individuals that make up the parts of the whole. But, unlike a machine, human organizations can learn and improve themselves. They can change and evolve.

A machine is built to further someone's goal. All of its parts are created and put together in the pursuit of that goal. Human organizations have goals, but those goals can evolve over time and come to influence those who serve in the organization as well.

You want to keep a machine running smoothly, but a human organization is much more than a machine because its components are living individuals with their own attitudes and goals. What is more, unlike the components of a machine, as human beings we care about each other and the world around us. This caring for others means that we are emotionally involved in social systems.

To be emotionally involved, to care about others, makes seeing the whole picture much harder to do because in order to see the whole we need to stand back from it and get some distance. Think of your own family as a system. It's not easy because we can't usually distance ourselves from our family. We care too much. But families are interacting systems of individuals just as much as a rock band, a corporation, a hospital, or a school.

When we learn how what we do is part of a system, we can picture ourselves as a participant rather than just a lone individual. We can be more effective than we could be as a lone individual. We can learn how to improve the system, make it work better. Sometimes we can even change its goals if we have a strong vision of what is most important to us.

The more accurate we are in seeing the workings of the system the easier it is for us to find the the points of greatest leverage and change the way the system works.

Obviously, not all change is beneficial, Some changes make things worse, which is why every organization needs to strive toward continuous learning. We all need to learn to see things accurately so that we profit from our mistakes as well as our successes.

We need to encourage diversity within all organizations because it is diversity that supports successful adaptation to change. According to Bill O'Brian, CEO of Hanover Insurance, a manager's fundamental task is in providing the enabling conditions for people to lead the most enriching lives they can.

As Peter Senge puts it in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization “In effect, the art of system thinking lies in seeing through complexity to the underlying structures generating change... It means organizing complexity into a coherent story that illuminates the causes of problems and how they can be remedied in enduring ways."  Ideally, that's what I see myself doing as a columnist and a blogger.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Gordon Campbell and the Dark Side of Green

He may have the most impressive looking carbon tax in North America, He may be encouraging renewable energy projects all over British Columbia, but dig beneath the surface and you'll find that Gordon Campbell's government is on the dark side of green.

To begin with, all those renewable energy projects are for private companies only. BC Hydro, which could have been developing wind farms and smaller hydroelectric power projects for British Columbians has been legally prevented from doing so. In it's place, the Liberal government has given away the rights to hundreds of "run of the river" hydroelectric projects as well as a bunch of wind farm licences to his business buddies for bargain prices. It's Liberal government policy to fast track and subsidize these renewable power projects, which is arguably a good thing, except that there is no benefit for BC's citizens.

You see, certified green power, that is power that comes from renewable sources like wind and water, command higher prices in the power-hungry U.S. Once these wind farms and hydro projects are up and running with the help of tax-payer subsidies there is nothing stopping them from selling their power to the U.S. That means that U.S. companies can cover our land with wind farms, can dam and divert our rivers, and we don't even benefit from the power that they generate. If we want to buy that power, we would have to pay higher prices than what we pay to BC hydro because it's "green power". Can you see the irony of this? Foreigners are going to profit from using our land and selling the power to other foreigners and our government is subsidizing them.

We've been lulled by Campbell's green public relations into thinking that the Liberal government cares about the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's all about privatization, about selling off BC's resources to feed the hungry appetite of the biggest economy in the world and taking away our public rights to affordable recreation and hunting and fishing in the process.

Ask yourself why has Campbell's government consistantly avoided public consultation on privatizing BC Hydro, and on it's renewable power policies like "run of the river"? If local municipalities had a say in renewable power projects, and if BC Hydro could develop them, all citizens would benefit by generating green power in our backyards. But not Campbell's way. We lose our wilderness, and our rivers so that multinational corporations can make a profit selling energy to the United States.

Without public involvement, so-called green projects are nothing more than resource grabs for the rich and powerful. Going green is meaningless if it doesn't lead to a sustainable future. In order to be sustainable, we need local control over the use and conservation of our resources. If we allow Gordon Campbell's Liberal government to sell them off now their won't be anything left for our children and grandchildren. If you want to know more about these issues please check out www.saveourrivers.ca and www.thetyee.ca

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What's Growth Got To Do With It?

In biological growth, living cells multiply by dividing their genetic material in two and then splitting into two distinct cells. Each cell is then free to divide in two again indefinitely, providing conditions are favourable. But at some point growth gets limited, either because the food supply runs out or because production of waste interferes with the consumption of food.

That's where variety or biodiversity comes in – because what is one creature's waste is always food for another. Everything is connected. Living things are never isolated, but are always part of what we call “ecosystems”.

When people think of a jungle, they often think of competition of many creatures eating each other up in a race for survival. But actually, a jungle is made up of a huge diversity of plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria – that, although partly competing , on the whole are cooperating with each other to form a vast interconnected web of life that supports the growth of all the countless individual species.

If one invasive species were to grow to fast and take over everything else it would eventually run out of food or end up suffocating in its own waste. That's why diversity supports biological growth – animals breathe out carbon dioxide as waste and plants take it in as food and produce oxygen as waste which animals take in as food.

Think of a cancer cell. A cancer cell is a cell in our body that's just like other cells except for one thing. Healthy cells are programmed to stop dividing after a time, which means that eventually they will die. If not for the sacrifice of healthy cells the body would not survive long. But a cancerous cell keeps multiplying and making millions of copies of itself without end.

And all this cancer cell growth consumes valuable nourishment and creates excessive waste products, both of which puts stress on the body's organ systems. At some point this excessive growth destroys the functioning of the organ systems and the body dies.

Economic growth is analogous to biological growth. Here's how Herman Daly and Joshua Farley define it in their book, Ecological Economics: “We define growth as an increase in throughput, which is the flow of natural resources from the environment, through the economy, and back to the environment as waste. It is a quantitative increase in the physical dimensions of the economy and/or the waste stream produced by the economy.”

Economic growth cannot continue indefinitely because, like a cancer, the consumption of too much resources and the production of too much waste will eventually over-stress living systems and cause breakdown of ecosystem support, which will then compromise human survival.

There is no question that economic growth has pulled human society out of mere surviving and into a world of comfort and abundance. But growth has become a secular religion. Instead of seeing it as a tool that may be close to reaching the end of its useful life, we have ended up worshipping it in a reckless and unquestioning manner.

Our task today is to convert endless economic growth into endless human development. Right now, in the developed world, we are producing more and more stuff, but not necessarily improving human life. We need to learn how to increase the meaning and quality of life without increasing material throughput.

In the old days, when a person was diagnosed with cancer, his doctor would often lie about it in order to spare his patient's suffering mental anguish. In those days, there weren't many useful treatments available.

In some ways we are in an analogous situation with regard to economic growth. Politicians and economists are denying there's a problem with unlimited growth because they haven't got the guts to try alternative solutions. Just as there are now plenty of chemotherapy treatments for cancer, there are solutions to economic growth for those who have the imagination and courage to try.