Complete Society

Ideas and strategies for a sustainable world

Definitions of Sustainability – 4 types

One of my Presidio classes kicked off some good conversations by asking each student to post their definition of sustainabilit to the class’ online discussion forum. There’s a wealth of ideas and commentary being produced that would be too much to summarize in one blog post. Here’s the post I put up. The rest of my ideas and things I get from the discussion will probably come out in futre blog entries

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My approach to defining sustainability keys off something Hunter Lovins said to the effect “it’s only as useful as you can communicate it”. I agree that the reason to go through this exercise is to come up with something useful, but I think communicating your definition is only one of the uses.

Here’s what I think are 4 possible definition types based on what the definition is useful for:

1) Personal Definition. Useful if it inspires you and you can evaluate your own choices, actions, projects against it
2) Public Definition. Useful for people who want to learn about who you are
3) Helpful Definition. Useful if it helps someone else refine or improve their own Personal Definition
4) Academic Definition. Useful in adding to a conversation converging on a practical consensus, e.g. contributes to setting policies, standards, metrics.

So, I went through the exercise of defining my Personal Definition some years ago because I really needed something useful to frame my choices and opinions. I needed a framework to measure whether something was “good” or “bad”.

What I came up with was the following. It’s not wordsmithed for using in a bar because it only needs to be “Personal” or potentially “Helpful”.
As Hunter mentioned, I don’t actually like the word sustainable because it begs the question of what you’re sustaining that can’t be included in the definition.

So, I use the word “Complete”

Dictionary Main Entry: com·plete
1 a : having all necessary parts, elements, or steps
3 : highly proficient <a complete artist>

The Complete Society has all the necessary institutions, organizations, resources and processes to sustainably provide a diverse, healthy, just and beautiful world to every individual in this and future generations.

Drill down:

  • clean water, air, soil and power are elements of a healthy world. Safe is also an element of healthy.
  • “economically” and “ecologically” capture financial and environmental.
  • “beautiful” captures the value of beauty, art, delightful intangibles.
  • “this and future” provides for today’s people but also accounts for growth in human population

A corollary goes toward defining businesses:

The Complete Business/Organization is highly proficient at generating economic and social value with all products, services, and operations fulfilling Complete Society requirements.
– manufactured products deplete no limited resources. All resources are biologically derived from recent solar income or infinitely re-usable (i.e. zero waste)
– no operations harm the healthy sustainability of the environment (e.g. pollution, climate change emissions) and operations result in zero waste
– all energy consumed by operations is renewable energy
– all employees are provided equitable economic support
– all employees are provided a healthy and fair workplace that encourages a complete life and promotes personal growth
– overall operations generate an economic profit for sustainable return on investment and continuous growth in value generated

Whew, if you got this far, bravo.

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August 27, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

Save the little guys – everything is connected

During Presidio orientation Hunter Lovins made a simple statement that sounded at first like just another in a series of climate change warnings but thinking about it a little more, I think it does a good job of capturing how the whole world is an interconnected system:

“If we kill the phytoplankton, all life ends”

Take the first part of the this sentence and focus on the “we”. If you just hear that the phytoplankton are dying, you might say, that I’ve got nothing to do with that, let the marine biologists and oceanographers figure out who’s doing that and get it fixed.

But, by saying “we”, this actually states that everyone is responsible in some way. The phytoplankton are probably dying from a variety of causes, including climate change, fresh water mixing in the oceans, temparature drop in the Atlantic current, toxic chemical releases, etc. Since all of us in our current way of living contribute to these effects, we all take ownership of consequences. And remember that’s its not just the effects we know about – its likely that that cup of coffee you’re drinking is killing phytoplankton halfway across the world in some way you don’t understand.

And btw, notice the active verb “kill”. It’s not just that the phytoplankton are dying, we are actively killing them.

Now, look at the second part of the statement, “all life ends”. The fact that the phytoplankton are dying off is more than just an isolated event, it impacts everything living.   This emphasizes again that everything is connected, that even the smallest living organism that you may never have even heard of before can make the difference between life and death for human beings.

Now for me this doesn’t mean you have to think of everything in the world for anything you do every day – that’s an approach that keeps you from getting stuff done.  But I think it’s important to keep that awareness and understand that nothing happens in isolation.

Again, whole systems thinking and when it comes to a biology and life, the whole system is the whole planet.

Exercise for the reader:  Pick anything you did today.  Think about it’s effects at one or two levels of bigger scope than just your life.

August 23, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Walmart & seafood: 2 very big pictures

One of the amazing things to appreciate in my first moments at Presidio is the breadth of incredible experiences my classmates bring to the program and the community. Just one example – a spontaneous conversation during a walk to Starbucks revealed that one classmate knows almost everything about sustainable seafood. Recounting a meeting he had with the CEO of Walmart’s seafood division, he gave two different examples of what the big picture really means starting from Walmart’s commitment to sell only seafood that have been sustainably fished or farmed.

Start with the shrimp industry. Right away, you realize that there aren’t enough suppliers *in the world* with sustainable practices to provide all the shrimp that Walmart sells. So, Walmart could have just said, we’ll take what we can get and that’s the best we can do. Reasonable approach that no one would really fault them for.

But, the power of commitment (and seeing the big picture) can result in step changes that move the world forward. What Walmart actually did was buy up just about every shrimp farming operation in Thailand and convert them all to sustainable practices. That’s using their power and commitment to make a big difference but it’s also business savvy: getting ahead of the curve on anticipated demand for sustainable shrimp and opening up a whole new level of competition with the likes of Whole Foods.

The second story shows some of the perils of huge scale. Walmart also wants all of its wild fish to be sustainably “harvested”. But, scientific experts have told them that its ecologically impossible to sustainably fish the amount that Walmart needs each year. In other words, the demand just from Walmart customers already exceeds the “peak fish” amount the planet can provide ongoing. (Note: see update below)

When asked about this, the Walmart executive actually gave a shortsighted answer: These fisheries are certified sustainable now. Ignoring the big picture realization that the whole system can’t support their objective as is.

Thinking about these stories provides an interesting challenge/exercise for anyone working on sustainability. Consider what your commitment/project/objective looks like at Walmart scale. Does what you’re trying to accomplish work at the global level, for hundreds of millions of people?

Update:  See the comment from the Marine Stewardship council below.  I”ve updated the blog post above to correct the mistake about shrimp farming being MSC certified.  My classmate likely never said that – my mistake.  The statement above about ‘peak fish’ may be wrong also – I haven’t done any deeper research on that

August 21, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments

Asphalt roadways, whole-system ideas, multiple benefits

As a practical solution in the short term, this work done on using the energy captured by road asphalt may not be feasible, but I really appreciate the thinking behind it as well as the whole-system ideas that emerged from the comments.

Tapping the hot asphalt jungle for energy

So, first, assume that in a complete society, you’ll still need roadways (at least for very long time).  Then, realize that roadways are automatically a huge amount of space where solar energy is falling.  Find an efficient way to harness that energy and you’ve taken a good step towards a society infrastructure that runs completely on renewable sources.

Then in this article’s comments you see follow on insights which make this idea more “complete”.  Such a system could alleviate the heat island effect in cities.  That helps reduce city energy usage and is more healthy for the residents.

One commenter suggests using the vibration of passing cars to generate electricity.  At first blush, may sound a bit out there, but in fact there’s already projects working on this.  If your asphalt heat system was thermoelectric, why not use the same electrical transmission system to carry piezoelectric energy from vibration?

Finally, there’s a discussion on de-icing of roadways.  Its suggested that water pipes could be capture the heat to then de-ice the asphalt.  But, what if instead, you used the electrical infrastructure in reverse? Design the system so that it could run in both directions.  When necessary, send electricity back to the roadway to heat up the asphalt.  Yes, this isn’t using renewable energy per se, but it could be a more efficient way of de-icing the roads.  The potential cost savings of de-icing this way could help justify the costs of the whole system in the first place.

So, to me, this is a good example of considering the whole picture, seeing multiple benefits to the system, and coming up with a story that’s a more attractive solution than the original premise.

August 19, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Moved, moving, learning, talking

Here we are again, the Complete Society blog is live again after a hiatus of many months.  For those who remember earlier versions, I’ve moved this blog to a new hosting location and a new design, but the content is going to be very similar.

For anyone who’s new, this blog chronicles the events, ideas, conversations, etc in my experience which contribute to moving us all towards a bright green future.  My take on these things is going to be a big picture approach – how does any particular bit fit into the overall system, what are the whole system relationships, dependencies, impacts?

Personally, I’m moving into a new phase of my life and work, even more focused on advancing what I’ve been calling the Complete Society.  I’m consulting to two different startups at the intersection of Internet and sustainability as well as starting a new MBA program in Sustainable Management at the Presidio World College.  While this load may mean I don’t have much time to blog, all this work should provide plenty of blog material!

I hope you’ll find this blog interesting, a perspective worth reading, and I totally encourage you to send comments or links to other content that you think is worth discussing in the big picture.

August 14, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment