“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” – Albert Einstein
There might be disagreements about the root causes, but the facts are clear:
The world population is growing rapidly. While it took centuries to get to 1 billion people, it has only taken 80 years to grow from 2 billion to over 7 billion people. During my lifetime alone 3 billion people were added to Earth’s population.
The world’s economic middle class will grow from 1 billion to 4 billion by 2050. Most of this growth will take place in Asia and South America.
Our natural resources are becoming more scarce as more people consume fresh water, rare metals, fish, and other natural resources.
Global climate changes are making certain places warmer, others colder, some places drier, others wetter, and in the future will have a major impact on our coastlines.
In her foreword to the book I co-authored with Greg Balestrero, Organizational Survival: Profitable Strategies for a Sustainable Future, National Geographic Explorer Sylvia Earle wrote “Astronauts in training learn everything they can about the systems that keep them alive during journeys in the hostile environment beyond Earth’s atmosphere. While flying through space, they take care of their air, water, food, and temperature control as if their lives depend on it…”
It is time that we start taking care of the earth as if our lives depend on it. They do!
Now you might think “…but the earth systems are out of my control.” That’s an easy – and comforting – assumption, because it lets us off the hook for taking action. This attitude allows us to be complacent. So, the first step is to change our minds and decide that there are things that we can do. Let me give you two different examples: one personal and one professional. Both examples fall into the area of Social Innovation, which is highlighted in chapter 5 in Organizational Survival. Social innovation is “the process of inventing, securing support for, and implementing novel solutions to social needs and problems. It dissolves boundaries and brokers a dialogue between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.”1
More and more companies are looking into a new economic model that thinks of the earth as a closed system like a spaceship. This circular economy model is based on the natural world. In nature, things live, grow, die, and are reused by other organisms. There is no real waste. In contrast, our current economic model is based on cheap, easy access to available resources. We use those resources to make products, which are then used and discarded in ever-growing mountains of garbage. This linear “toss-and-replace” attitude causes several of the problems listed above. To move to the circular economy model, a company needs to change its perception from being just a manufacturer to considering the entire lifecycle of its products, including upstream and downstream impacts of the company’s business activities. Eliminating waste from the product lifecycle starts with product design. Design For Reuse/Recyclability (DFR), something that has been happening at companies like HP for many years, requires that teams design their product in such a way all components can be re-used. In this way you can “mine” your old products to create new products. For example, Philips leases its lighting products to businesses and, at the end of the contract period, Philips takes these products back into their production process where their raw materials are reused. This philosophy lowers the stress on our natural resources, and after the initial investment also saves these companies a significant amount of money. It was very encouraging to see big name companies like Nike, Philips, and DSM throw their support behind the circular economy at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2014.
The second example is an organization I volunteer for: Ice911.org. Dr. Leslie Field-Barth, an engineering consultant and a consulting professor in electric engineering, started Ice911 over seven years ago. Dr. Field-Barth learned how fast the Arctic ice is melting and realized the disastrous consequences for the earth, and more specifically for us as inhabitants of this world. She was especially concerned for the future world her children would live in. Faced with the enormity of the problem, and with no formal training in Arctic environmental management, Dr. Field-Barth wondered whether she had any unique insights that could improve the situation. But she didn’t let her unfamiliarity with climate science stop her from contributing to this important field. Instead, she began very carefully considering ways to reverse ice melt, reaching out to experts for advice, and experimenting on a very cautious scale with potential solutions, always using the doctors’ creed of “first, do no harm.” She is now in the process of presenting a potential solution to the NASA Ames Research Center for a prospective collaboration. Who could have ever imagined that her “inconvenient hobby” could come so far? Trust me, there were enough people who must have quietly thought that what she was doing was impossible, but she persevered and never gave up.
How will you change your perception, professionally and personally, in order to take care of the systems that keep us alive?
1 Stanford Social Innovation Review – http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/rediscovering_social_innovation/