Nicholas School open New Center for Sustainability and Commerce

This entry was posted Sunday, 14 October, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Duke’s Nicholas School has added a long awaited and needed Center for Sustainability and Commerce (See http://center.sustainability.duke.edu/), something to provide a balance to the less than stellar environmental achievements of the Fuqua School of Business.  Several Alumni, myself included, were privy to a hour plus long introduction by it’s new director Dr. Jay Golden, who has a joint position with the Pratt School of Engineering, taught at MIT in systems analysis and served as Walmart’s sustainability director for 3 years.  His lecture, Powerpoint driven, covered the trends in corporate sustainability, and was interesting.

The presentation’s scope was great, exhibiting the power of systems thinking and enlightening to the ground swell associated with certification systems.  But I felt it was missing some very key issues fundamental to research and an informed discussion on the role past, present and future of our economic system.  From our experience “working in the trenches” of fair trade for 20 years and 10 years in biofuels, these were my gripes:

1) Need for a Slide. There have been 4 great carbon epochs, and with each harnessing of carbon, population has grown exponentially, leveling off as those resources were depleted and substituted (Wes Jackson, the Land Institute);

2) Slide Missing. Population dynamics mimic a sine wave, and population has shot up dramatically in the last 200 years thanks to cheap energy, and the subsequent abundance in food. As any species population there are limits/constraints.  We are reaching many of those now as he showed, particularly in highly important rare Earth metals.  Peak cheap energy is here, and contraction and more likely a crash (maybe even a series of crashes) are inevitable;

3) Major Premise. Given the gigatons of carbon we are putting (and will likely continue to place) in the atmosphere, the geologic record shows that we are headed for chaotic and volatile climate disruption at best and extinction of half the planet’s species, including us;

4) Major Premise.  Very little about the future can be inferred from the past due to such dramatic changes that are occurring to our planet, the whole of our scientific knowledge has occurred during a short sub-period of climate stasis, the Holocene, we have little idea what is going to happen, but there is a high probability it won’t a be conducive to life as we know it;

5) Other Major Premise. Climate models used to project future conditions have been found to be highly conservative (e.g. evaporative rates, sea level rise and loss of arctic sea ice, to name few) and feedback loops (like methane) are just being discovered and modeled;

6) Premise. As history has shown, technology is duel-edged sword, salvation may not come in a phone app. or geo-engineering;

7) Major Externality. Because carbon and pollution are not priced, the price of everything is wrong, giving improper signals to the market, unless this is addressed immediately, all other efforts may have unintentional results or very little affect;

8) Fundamental Premise of “Free Markets” is the concept that we are “rational” players.  As Ariely’s work has shown, half our decision making may be irrational (Predictably Irrational) and we are perceptually challenged (particularly with regards to causality, the quantum mechanical world and systems integration), which begs the question that capitalism will properly allocate supply and demand of anything;

9) Major Premise. To use this Capitalist system, with it major market failures, and substitute a “sustainable” product for a non-sustainable product still does not solve the issue of through-put (See Herman Daly, Steady-State Economics), we can not consume at the rate we are going even if most our products become incrementally “more sustainable”;

9) Conclusion.  Thus, to think that a market-based system of sustainable certification is somehow going to “right the ship of capitalism” is a pipedream.

Realistically, most corporations in numerous ways have been undermining efforts to shift our economy away from fossil fuels, and regulate pollution and massive market failure. Many of those that have increased the sustainability component of their corporate structure have done so to “green wash,” provide only incremental change (not completely convinced of the problems we are facing, etc.) or have used the profits squeezed out of efficiencies to pad shareholder and executive pay.  Profits generated by energy efficiency, improved production efficiency, etc. are not being used to fix the damage that has already been done by this “free market” system, to rejuvenate degraded ecosystems or to lobby for changes that will level the playing field and improve the overall potential of the system, from which we have benefited.  Large structural problems are not being addressed and many of these efforts are primarily “lip-service,” or blatant hypocrisy.

I am fearful that The Center will simply be an apologist of a corporate capitalist system that is the engine  of our planet’s collapse,  and the source of much of the “dis-ease” that is rupturing forth.  Harboring and propagating these continued ideologies and views that have resulted in death and destruction on a massive order and are “crimes against humanity,” would not be a good strategy, at this time.  It would be better to promote at least on equal level an alternative economic worldview, a cosmology that reflects these historical and scientific truths; and provide an integral and moral keel, that redirects our business strategies from neo-liberal political economy and globalization, to one that emphasizes local, community based, resilient systems.  Desperately needed are the brightest minds and resources to design and shore up our local communities, so that we can reduce the impacts and the injustices of what are certainly headed our way.  With 600 ppm of carbon or 6 degrees of mean temperature increase, we will be suffering the repeated shocks perpetrated on us by a very small elite and a system that is completely broken.

It is high time for some moral leadership and vision.