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Archive for February, 2010

There seem to be three sides to the climate debate. We either deny that there’s a problem; or we believe that we’ve gone too far and there’s no turning back and the future world will be unrecognizable and perhaps unlivable; or we understand our role in the situation and feel that we have the available tools to fix it.

Personally, I know too much to deny what I see going on all around me. And I have friends in the business who would say if I knew what they know I wouldn’t have any hope in the future. I see no option other than to believe we can solve this problem.  Herein lies the possibility of a fourth element of the climate question: we understand the severity of the problem and the tools currently available, but we realize that we don’t now know all we’ll need to know to overcome the obstacles facing us.

In 2004, two Princeton University professors published a paper in Science Magazine in which they coined the term, Climate Stabilization Wedges.  Robert Socolow, an engineer, and Stephen Pacala, an ecologist, base their idea on the graph which projects that the growth of our current carbon emissions—7  billion tons/year or 380 parts per million (p.p.m.)  greenhouse gases (g.h.g.—will double by the year 2050. Business as usual means upwards of fifteen billion tons of carbon and 800 p.p.m. and a drowning, chaotic, and most likely an uninhabitable world.  Ideally we are able to maintain 350 p.p.m. and people who know believe that anything over 450 p.p.m. means massive climate destabilization and rising seas.

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Socolow and Pacala have used wedges to flatten this steep graph. Each wedge represents an existing technology that will eliminate from the atmosphere 1 billion tons of carbon each year.  They’ve included a solar, a wind, and a nuclear power wedge. Sequestering carbon from coal fired power plants is another wedge. They’ve defined fifteen possible wedges.  Flattening the graph in the next half century—eliminating 7 billion tons of carbon—will require 7 wedges. (more…)

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In Wildness…….

“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Yesterday, at Dartmouth, I talked to students about Thoreau and wildness.  I thought back to the first time I heardDrawing by Callie Domek Thoreau’s statement—I think it was at a rally to build support for designating Wilderness in the High Uintas, a mountain range I’d hiked all over, east of Salt Lake City. I remember wearing a tee-shirt with Thoreau’s words and his picture. It became, after all, the credo, the coda, the abracadabra, if you will, not just for wilderness activists, but for the entire American Conservation Movement.  I recalled the many times I’d heard or seen Thoreau misquoted—In wilderness is the preservation of the world—Wilderness is within lines on maps, geographic space fitting legal criteria, and therefore a much simpler idea to grasp than wildness.

Getting to the root of the word, “wildness” seemed to be the first step toward understanding how it preserves the world.  I spent the entire day at the local library reading what I could find in the book stacks and on the internet, as well as emailing specific friends who I knew cared as much about wildness—and protecting the wilderness—as I did.  I asked them about their understanding of the term, “wildness”.

The idea of wildness covers a full spectrum of ideas. In his book, The Practice of the Wild, the poet Gary Snyder sees it from a philosophical point of view, the nature of nature” or the ultimate essence, the true heart of nature.  It is a near synonym for what is elsewhere known as the Tao, the dharma, or Buddha nature.  Others, including E.O. Wilson, see wildness as any living thing that is genetically intact, unaltered by humans, as evolution intended it to be.

Paul Shepard, in his essay, Wilderness and Wildness, doesn’t actually say, “This is how wildness preserves the world,” but he spent his life exploring the idea. For him, wildness is a genetic state, the opposite of which is not civilized, but (more…)

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The general idea we began with—Empowering Grassroots Leaders—seems to grow in importance. There are so many trends to suggest that the environmental movement may be losing ground as people—especially young people—are being taken over by the growing complications associated with modern life, not to mention the consuming nature of ever-more seductive technology.  It’s difficult to say for sure, but I truly believe that our projects respond directly to the gaps existing in the environmental discussions going on today. And, I’m not sure that any other organizations are thinking about the future to the extent that we are. Our work took on four basic forms in 2009;

  • ArtParks—in which we’ve been testing the idea that getting and keeping kids outdoors needs to involve encouraging their personal creativity, their divergent thinking.
  • Academic Bridge—where we’ve worked with Colleges and Universities by designing and helping facilitate projects that directly involve students in real-time situations where they can contribute new ideas and energy.
  • Next Generation—our work with a group of ten young conservationists moves into its fourth year. The original participants are currently developing regional processes based on the foundation they’ve been building during the life of this program.
  • Website/Blog—which besides providing information and links, we’ve started a regular blog which we hope adds substance to the question I read recently, which we believe lies at the root of many issues we face today: “[As we] move further away from the elemental forces that shaped our minds, how do we get back in touch with them?”[i]

Here are some of the details.

We’ve created the first Artpark at Tracy Aviary in the middle of Salt Lake. This is a place where lots of kids come with their parents or with school tours. The park’s director had a vacant place in the middle of the exhibits.  Our goal is to keep track of what works and use the information to encourage people in other neighborhoods to create their own. The mayor of Salt Lake City is completely on board with the idea, and so far, we’re always surprised to see how well kids, once they realize that there are no rules and that they can do whatever they want, respond to The Art Park at Tracy Aviarynothing more than rocks, trees, ropes, paint, and a small stream.  By this time next year, we should be involved in at least two other Salt Lake locations. The long term plans are to watch what happens to the kids that had a regular place to play that encouraged their creativity. We believe this to be especially important, as it seems that if they’re to be solved at all, some of the major problems we’re confronting today will be solved using ideas we’re not even dreaming of right now.

We’ve got a number of different experiments going with our Academic Bridge project. We’ve been involved in syllabus development and implementation for two courses:  a communications class at the university of Utah which designed a survey to determine factors affecting a person’s attitude toward wilderness preservation; an Environmental History class at Westminster (Salt Lake City) College where we were instrumental in using the history of the wilderness debate in southern Utah as the subject of their term projects.  We attended Environmental Policy and environmental studies classes to speak and answer questions about a career in environmental activism. We play a major role in the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities Graduate program, including teaching for ten days at their “Ecology of Residency” program in June. We are working with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance on the design of a semester-long course for rural students attending New Mexico State University in Las Cruces during which they’ll develop an accurate vision of the future for their home town that might allow them to ‘go home’[ii] once they’ve graduated.  And we are assisting two graduate students on their individual projects:  one involving an in-depth look at the history of collaboration as a tool for solving environmental issues; and another who will be using rural wildlife narratives to map migration corridors.

The four years since the first meeting of the Next Generation Project participants have brought many changes in their lives—many of which they’ll be the first to attribute to what they’ve been learning from each other and from Laura Simms and Terry Tempest Williams about the power of story to link people and understand the subterranean landscape on which most issues are based. They’re now fully engaged—as leaders in NGOs (the Arizona Wilderness Association, the Idaho League of Conservation Voters), doing graduate and post graduate work in Food Security, Native Education, African diplomacy, and Water Policy. One has become a full-time free-lance writer, covering the essential stories behind current environmental issues. Another works as the environmental program leader for a major foundation, and another in the midst of her first year at the helm of her own lobbying firm.  If indeed, the environmental movement needs a new story, these people are finding it.  They’re now involved in the development of satellite programs that will duplicate their experience at the local level.

Our website (www.greatwestinstitute.org) is growing and spreading.  In Wildlives, the blog we regularly contribute to, we use current events filtered through the idea that modern humans retain most of the same essential characteristics that have allowed us to survive throughout the eons, so why not figure out how to make use of them now.

This is all one giant experiment. We love it. We’ll keep experimenting with all this until such time when we discover that we weren’t asking the right questions, or that our approach isn’t moving toward any useful answer.

We’re glad you’re part of it and promise you won’t ever regret it.

Brooke Williams                            Chris Peterson


[i] Smith, Daniel B. Is There an Ecological Unconscious? New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/magazine/31ecopsych-t.html

[ii]

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All the talk in the news lately about the problems at Toyota has me thinking about Thomas Johnson, one of my professors at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, co-author of Profit Beyond Measure (Free Press, 2000)—a book about the Toyota Production System, and friend of mine. Throughout most of his career in management-based accounting, Tom saw business as merely financial information and believed that improving performance was based in “activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, and performance budgets.”

Twenty years ago, while gathering more information to support his theories, he was introduced to Toyota’s operations and in his own words, “walked through the looking glass.”  What he saw at Toyota was a system that organized the relationships among the people who worked there, rather than forcing them into pre-conceived financial targets. In trying to make sense of Toyota and discover what made this company so successful, Johnson began exploring the life sciences and astrophysical cosmology and any writer who successfully connected business practices with scientific principles.  He realized that Toyota’s system was successful because it resembled the way Nature organized life on earth. He surmised that Toyota’s practices were sustainable because they were analogous to the sustainability that has been at work in natural systems for billions of years.

Toyota’s system, like nature, is based on three elements: continuous improvement, no waste, and no inventory. It is focused on the process itself, not the result, because as with nature, there is no ultimate goal only constant adaptation. For most of its history, Toyota’s philosophy has been to consume no more resources than necessary to serve current customers. This means a reduction in total costs, something the rest of the business world accomplishes by lowering the unit cost by producing more and more. This means more machinery, more raw materials and huge marketing budgets in order to sell what they’ve built even if quantities surpass customer needs.  All of this costs money, which has been made available outside the company by the financial community.  Until recently Toyota eschewed financing and for the past 50 years has been able to generate enough cash building only what they sell to pay of virtually all of its growth. This includes the billions they were able to invest in the hybrid technology used in the Prius.

Since 2000, top managers had been moving away from their relationship-driven process that linked their operations to the reality of natural systems. The company had succumbed to the same abstractions and limited thinking that has driven major world corporations: that finance (shareholder value, the money changing hands when companies are bought and sold) takes precedent over people (employees and customers) and sustainable use of resources. A year ago, Toyota’s chairman announced “a return to basics” as he outlined significant changes in company leadership.

If Toyota survives perhaps there is hope for the rest of us. If they’re hovering at the edge of failure—as some believe them to be—because they abandoned their commitment to a system made up of the same essential elements that sustains life itself, and then they recover due to “a return to basics, we’ll know. We’ll know that using natural systems to guide us will help us succeed, while ignoring them can be disastrous.  I’m betting that they’ll recover.

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