Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tragedy of the commons

"Biologist Garret Hardin's now-famous metaphor for the deterioration or "tragedy" of the global commons begins with the notion of a pasture open to everyone in a given village. In such a situation, the herder who overgrazes the most benefits the most, and the person who grazes a herd that consumes only his "share" of the pasture's yield is effectively penalized. But eventually the entire pasture deteriorates. In this case, when overgrazing becomes the "rational" norm, you are punished for doing the right thing, rewarded for the wrong, and all suffer in the end. This outcome fulfills what philosophers going back to Aristotle have foreseen: "What is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it." Hardin's pasture, however, is not technically about a commons, but an "open access" system where anyone is free to take as much as they want. Commons have historically been extremely well controlled and regulated by the communities to which they belonged; not until colonization and industrialization have they been widely degraded and destroyed.
Nevertheless, the solution to Hardin's dilemma of a deteriorating open access system would be a pasture utility, one that operated independently of the specific grazing and herding needs of the villagers. The utility would be managed to maximize income from grazing fees, and therefore would have no economic interest in overgrazing, since any form of degradation would reduce the value of the utility to its owners. The pasture utility would monitor usage by grazers so that income was maximized. The utility would pay careful and constant attention to yield, growth, rotation, and fencing. The commons would not deteriorate under such a guardianship, and the natural predilection to overgraze would be thwarted.
The pasture utility is a useful model for a mechanism to guard our own commons, whether local or global. Such a utility can maximize the strenghts of both the private and public sectors, without succumbing to the failings of either. Utilities are hybrid enterprises because they combine two unusual features. First, they are regulated by their constituencies through public utility commissions or other forms of public sector input. In return for accepting regulation, they are given monopolies and are guaranteed a certain level of profit. In other words, by allowing some form of public control, they receive a guaranteed return on their investment, a relationship that allows them to create and execute long-term projects, and attract capital while paying low interest rates."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability. (Chapter "Pink salmon and green fees").

An example of such a utility would be the Earth Atmospheric Trust (see also this post) for the global commons that our atmosphere is, and where the utility members would be every person on Earth !

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Strategic planning

Below is the fundamental argument I made to myself long before reading Paul Hawken's book, that made me choose my position regarding global warming even if, as a scientist in an Earth science, oceanography, I know too well that the models that are used to predict climate have too coarse resolutions and sometimes questionable parameterizations of the unresolved processes:

"From a strategic point of view, the choice is clear. Whenever you are faced with two different paths, each with its uncertainties and unknowns, the cardinal rule in strategic planning is to take the path that allows you to shift to the other path should your initial decision prove wrong. As futurist Peter Schwartz advises in his book The Art of the Long View, choose the option that gives you the most options in the future. Even granting status-quo defenders their argument that we know too little about global warming to warrant changing from a hydrocarbon- to a solar-based economy, even granting them their dream that technology will come up with ingenious ways to solve many of the problems with the innate toxicity of hydrocarbons, maintaining the present course is a mistake.
If we continue on the same path and find out forty, fifty, or one hundred years from now that the scientific projections about global warming were correct, it may be too late to mount an effective counter-strategy. On the other hand, if we choose to make the transition to an economy that runs on perpetual solar income and we later find out the CO2 buildup was less a problem than anticipated, we are still ahead on every count. We have eliminated hundreds of billions of tons of pollution from the air, ground, and water, and improved health worldwide. We have engendered a myriad of new, safer, and friendlier technologies to replace those deposed. We have not poisoned the planet or our bodies with the toxins produced in a hydrocarbon-based economy. We have created hundreds of thousands of new companies and many more jobs than we lost, while moving toward a world whose work and money are infused with meaning and vision, toward a just and constructive future. Plus we will still have all of the coal and oil that we didn't burn up, extending the life of current reserves far into the future of humankind."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability. (Chapter "Pink salmon and green fees").

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Good design

Here is the follow-up on the previous post.

"In any endeavor, good design resides in two principles. First, it changes the least number of elements to achieve the greatest result. Second, it removes stress from a system rather than adding it. Bad design is pinning our hopes for environmental and cultural survival on a change in human consciousness and behavior alone, because we therefore depend on the highest number of uncontrollable elements--people--to undergo a great change. Likewise, bad design is having to institute several hundred thousand rules and restrictions under the jurisdiction of the government and expecting business to know them all, much less obey them.
Good design makes things easier and simpler. Good design seems natural, unaffected, and appeals to common sense. Good design for the commercial system accounts for and appeals to the innate behavioral modes of both governance and commerce. Let governance govern with a minimum of intrusion and with a genuinely "conservative" approach; let business be business at its best: humane and creative and efficient.
One of the ways to further this goal is to invert the old values and reverse the traditional cost-price incentives. We need a predictable and consistent market that recognizes the true, full costs of doing business and reassigns them to the marketplace, where they belong. We require a market economy that rewards the highest internalized cost, an economy in which business prospers when it is responsible both socially and ecologically. We need business to thrive by exceeding regulatory standards rather than by challenging or circumventing them. Businesses should literally compete to be more ecological, not only on moral or ethical grounds or because it is "the right thing to do", but because such behavior squarely aligns with their bottom line. In short, we must design a marketplace that obviates acts of environmental destruction by making them extremely expensive, and rewards restorative acts by bringing them within our means. If we do this, environmental restoration, economic prosperity, job creation, and social stability will become equivalent."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability. (Chapter "Restoring the guardian").

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The guardian and the commercial

"In her book Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs proposes that society can be viewed as encompassing two moral syndromes, the "guardian" and the "commercial". Jacobs argues that the guardian system, or governance, arose in territorial and hunting societies, cultures that guarded their boundaries, were suspicious of outsiders, and were deeply protective of their possessions. The guardian system is conservative and hierarchical, adheres to tradition, values loyalty, and shuns trading and inventiveness. The commercial system, on the other hand, is based on trading, and functions well when it is open, trusting of outsiders, innovative, positive, and forward-thinking. It values collaboration, contracts, initiative, and optimism.
Jacobs' thesis is that, ideally, society should separate these two functions as completely as possible. Trouble ensues when the two systems become confused about their roles and take on the functions--and therefore the behavioral traits--of the other. The virtues of one system become vices when exercised by the other. When the guardian syndrome--governance--intrudes with its hierarchical, bureaucratic assumptions into the realm of commerce, it founders, because it is no match for business in quickness and creativity. The S&L* fiasco in this country resulted directly from business's outwitting governance. Instead of insisting that industry create its own insurance system for depositors, government guaranteed that protection directly and thereby gave private institutions every incentive to choose the riskiest investments for depositors' money. [...]
Of course, the opposite situation also occurs, in which business attempts to take on the role of guardianship and governance. Every time it tries to do so, we suffer. In the context of the arguments of this book, the process might be described as follows: Business assumes the role of guardianship viv-à-vis the ecosystem and fails miserably in the task; governance steps in to try to mitigate the damage; business tries to sabotage this regulatory process and nimbly sidesteps those regulations that are put on the books; governance ups the ante and thereby becomes a hydra-headed bureaucratic monster choking off economic development while squandering money; business decries "interference in the marketplace" and sets out to redress its grievances by further corrupting the legislative and regulatory process in an attempt to become de facto guardian, if not de jure.
In the political arena, this struggle plays out in virtually every industrialized country in the world as the classic two-party schism of liberal and conservative. When liberals are in power, they understandably propose controls and regulations on business; in the more extreme forms, liberal thought tries to unite the guardian and commercial responsibilities with the guardian role predominant, producing socialist enterprises of marginal efficiency. When conservatives are in power, they attempt to reverse the regulations and give business carte blanche, invoking pious homilies to the free market and human enterprise, creating the future seeds of backlash, while avoiding the real issues of health and habitat. Conservatism has its own radical school of thought, wherein guradian and commercial roles are united but with commercial powers in the primary role. This experiment has not been tried in quite so thorough a fashion as the socialist ideology, but if it ever were attempted on a wide scale in the industrialized West, the fate of the ecosystem would be sealed.
Guardianship and commerce are trapped in a positive feedback loop, and neither is likely to solve the problems of ecological degradation and scarcity when reacting only to the excesses of the other. All of us suffer the consequences. When patterns of behavior in business repeat themselves again and again, as they do, and when the reaction of governance is another round of regulations, we would do well to consider whether "bottom-line" blame should be placed on "unruly" business or "incompetent" government, rather than on the design of the system within which they function."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability. (Chapter "Restoring the guardian").

* I think it stands for the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s in the United States (but I can't tell for sure since there are no notes in the book for that).

About how to improve the design of the system, see next post.
Note the description of the guardian (represented by the liberals) as conservative and traditional, and the description of the commercial (represented by the conservatives) as trusting of outsiders and innovative. Don't you think the names given to the political parties should have been switched ?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Competition vs. cooperation (again)

Sorry to always come back to the same subjects, but the purpose of this blog is to gather a data base of quotations from my readings on the subjects I like.

"The concept that one business succeeds because another does not is part of the same thinking that has created the dichotomy between consumer and customer. But, in fact, there is a large and overwhelming body of evidence demonstrating that competition in human culture, whether it be in business or other endeavors, does not improve the species, but is maladaptive and far from being the most intelligent cultural strategy. The country we admire, fear, and dislike the most in economic matters is Japan, a country that places an unusually high, even extraordinary emphasis on cooperation, collaboration, and harmony. That does not mean that Japanese companies do not compete, but it does mean that they do so within the larger cultural imperative of harmony. One of the reasons we in this culture compete actually has nothing to do with business, but rather is the addiction to winning, to beating an opponent. If the purpose of this competition and winning is an enlarged ego system, then it goes without saying that we will pursue it endlessly because, as all winners know, the joy is short-lived, the hunger endless. A restorative economy will have as its hallmark a business community that coevolves with the natural and human communities it serves. This necessitates a high degree of cooperation, mutual support, and collaborative problem-solving. It depends on very different skill-sets than those that are being drummed into us in sports, movies, and business schools. Competition for the consumer or between businesses is impractical, wasteful, expensive and degrading to all involved. It imitates an immature ecosystem, and in this day and age, that is retrogressive, not progressive."

Paul Hawken, in The ecology of commerce. A declaration of sustainability, chapter "The opportunity of insignificance".

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Will is the soil from which hope arises

"In the movie Awakenings, there is a scene in which an elderly woman sits motionless, confined to a wheelchair because of childhood encephalitis. The Oliver Sacks character in the movie, played by Robin Williams, fails to get any response from this woman through conversation or standard stimuli until he accidentally drops an object into her lap. She immediately reaches out to catch it. Sacks pauses to consider what has happened. He then steps back and tosses a tennis ball, with the same result: a precise catch by a woman who heretofore has been silent and immobile. When pressed by his supervising clinician as to how and why this woman can dexterously catch a tossed ball, Sacks replies that she has borrowed the "will" of the ball.
I have seen the movie again and it is this particular phrase that has stuck with me. We all borrow will: from our parents as we grow up, from coaches or mentors, even from stars and famous personages with whom we connect in less immediate ways. It is our will that is the substance of our life. When we lose it, we are on a path to a kind of death, since will is the soil from which hope arises."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability. (Chapter "The opportunity of insignificance").

Sunday, April 13, 2008

On advertisements

"Author Joanna Macy writes of a type of despair that people feel when they experience the gulf between the grotesqueness of the world and the business-as-usual tenor surrounding it. At the level of the family, the gap between what a child feels and knows is right and reasonable, and what Mom and/or Dad tells the child is right, can lead to schizophrenia. A similar dysfunctionality can affect an entire society that knows the state of the world is one way, yet is told over and over again that the world is something else. That disparity finds its most powerful and pervasive form in advertisements.
By the time he or she graduates from high school, an American teenager will have seen 350,000 commercials. Children watch commercials at school thanks to Whittle Communication's Channel One, which beams two minutes of advertising for every ten minutes of video "news" piped into thousands of classrooms. The average adult sees 21,000 commercials per year. Of these, 75 pecent are paid for by the 100 largest corporations in America. In fact, corporations spend more money trying to get us to buy their products than we spend on all of secondary education in this country. Besides breathing, what do you do more than 3,000 times a day ? What you do--or, more specifically, what is done to you--is receive several thousand messages to buy something. Not all of these are TV hard-sells. Many are marketing messages on T-shirts, shopping bags, license plates, or even stenciled on your oranges and lemons. The others are billboards, radio spots, signs, movies, newspaper ads, labels on the outside of clothing, or sponsorships at operas and sporting events. When you arrive home in the evening, one of the first things you do is collect the flyers, junk mail, catalogs, envelopes from non-profit groups containing "personalized" letters, and free samples of shampoo hanging on your doorknob. Then the computer-generated junk phone calls start during dinner.
Few of the 3,000 daily marketing messages you receive are by invitation. The fact that we are free to ignore any one particular ad doesn't diminish the fact that the commercial environment as a whole is coercive. We cannot ignore it for it is where we live. There is no other place. With the newspaper readership trailing off, and book reading likewise, TV has become America's intellectual environment. Our minds are being addressed by addictive media serving corporate sponsors whose purpose is to rearrange "reality" so that viewers forgot the world around them.
Advertising is needed to inform, direct, and educate, but in its present form, it is an invasive expression of commerce. Advertising creates envy and a sense of inadequacy; it is responsible for mediocre TV programming because the lower denominators of taste produce the highest ratings; it deceives young and old alike into purchases that are inappropriate, unnecessary, or wasteful, feeding the frenzy of consumption that is responsible for civilization's overshooting present carrying capacity. It is a type of "disvalue", the removal of value from a product by transferring the monies that should go into quality to promotion and hyperbole instead. Mass-market advertising reinforces economic centralization because of the high costs required; it is anti-democratic because it is not designed to allow dissenting voices that challenge the product's value or merits, and serves no social needs. Advertising permeates our souls, and denigrates women, the intellect, and spirituality."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability. (Chapter "When an ethic is not an ethic").

This text expresses perfectly what I feel about advertisements. So when French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced at the beginning of the year that he wanted to suppress advertisements on the French public national television channels, I for once had to applaud him. But then I was surprised to realize how many people were unhappy about that, not just people having stakes in the advertisement business, but even some people with whom I share many ideas like my friend Davy (see his post on his blog). Have advertisements brainwashed everybody ?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


"At the core, an addiction is a way to keep ourselves from feeling. Thus, anything we do that keeps us from knowing ourselves and fully experiencing the world around us can become an addiction. Work, television, food, money, sex, sports, and other activities can all be addictive when we rely on them to avoid dealing with inner problems or deeper emotions. For every addiction there is a fix, an experience that we repeat over and over again, giving us the illusion that we are alive, while in fact numbing us to the real world and our real self, until it damages or destroys us.
The extension to corporate behavior is clear. We can become addicted to the deal, the power, the action, the excitement, the conflict, the aggression, the victories, the defeats, addicted even to the chaos and the stress, addicted to the point at which we feel empowered to do anything as long as it is legal (and perhaps not even legal), oblivious to many if not all of the effects of our actions on the environment, on society, or on ourselves."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability. (Chapter "When an ethic is not an ethic").

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

On the role of government

"Of course, free marketeers will argue that whenever government sets prices, markets become inefficient. Indeed, it will be a long time before the world forgets the demise of the Soviet system and its conceit that trading and prices could be mediated by government. But what a government can and must do is set the conditions of the market in order to enforce the payment of costs. We no longer sell human beings in the free market, and yet all were "legitimate" market-based commodities in the previous century. Government did not wait to abolish the injustice of slavery until the market "regulated" itself for the simple reason that it could not wait. Where harm and suffering exist because of market dealings--when the real costs of that market are not factored into the price of goods and services--we require the government as representative of citizenry to step in to prevent those abuses, one way or another."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability. (Chapter "Pigou's solution").

I like the parallel with the problem of slavery, but I should add that the government itself waited much too long before dealing with the problem. President Lincoln is praised for having put an end to slavery, but in 1858 he said: "I will say, then, that I am not, nor even have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races... I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race." (quoted by Howard Zinn in Passionate Declarations--Essays on war and justice, chapter "Representative government"). As Howard Zinn goes on: "In January 1865 the House of Representatives, following the lead of the Senate, passed the Thirteenth Amendment, declaring slavery unconstitutional. The representative system of government, the constitutional structure of the modern democratic state, unresponsive for eighty years to the moral issue of mass enslavement, had now finally responded. It had taken thirty years of antislavery agitation and four years of bloody war. It had required a long struggle--in the streets, in the countryside, and on the battlefield."

The problem is that government itself is often controlled by the power of money from big businesses with interests that nothing changes. Therefore it takes time and large public involvement before something actually changes. The same is happening now regarding the ecological threats...

Monday, April 7, 2008

Hope (2)

"Business must change its perspective and its propaganda, which has successfully portrayed the idea of "limits" as a pejorative concept. Limits and prosperity are intimately linked. Respecting limits means respecting the fact that the world and its minutiae are diverse beyond our comprehension and highly organized for their own ends, and that all facets connect in ways which are sometimes obvious, and at other times mysterious and complex. If our economy is "limited" by inclusion as part of the greater closed system of nature, those limits are no more necessarily constricting to a sound economy than a blank canvas was to Cézanne or a flute to Jean-Pierre Rampal. The natural world of sunlight, rainfall, and photosynthesis, of topsoil and coral reefs, of raptor birds and tropical fishes, of stamens and pistils and genes is a limit which can be circumvented only at the cost of the world itself. It is precisely in the discipline imposed by the limitations of nature that we discover and imagine our lives. It is only in the fullest context of the world as it is presented to us, and not as we manipulate it, that we may celebrate our humanity and create true prosperity. Such perspectives can lead us to a very different type of economy and way of doing business, one that will be healthier for all species, not only the butterfly and the owl, but our own."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability. (Chapter "The death of birth").

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Survival of the fittest

I think it is worth pointing out this misconception of the capitalistic interpretation of Darwin's theory:

"Business often invokes the Darwinian maxim of "survival of the fittest" to defend its competitive actions. The phrase is, in fact, a misinterpretation of Darwinism. Darwin did not speak of survival of the fittest; rather, he described those who survived as fittest for a specific ecological niche. There is a big difference between those two ideas.
But this is the way of industrialism -- "the survival of the fittest" as it has been incorrectly interpreted. The "winners" are the companies that consistently overstep and exceed carrying capacity. Corporate capitalism recognizes no limit; has no habitat."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability. (Chapter "The death of birth").