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The Future is Choice, Not Destiny: Two New Books Shift The Corporate Mindset on Sustainability

Submitted by: Francesca Rheannon

Posted: May 16, 2012 – 09:00 AM EST

Tags: sustainability, climate change, energy, carbon, business

 
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By Francesca Rheannon

In The Way To Wealth, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Buy what thou hast no need of, and ere long thou shalt sell thy necessaries.” Although written some 250 years before the terms “ecological footprint” and “carrying capacity” came into parlance, his words offer sage advice for a world over-consuming its way to catastrophe – although now one should substitute “use up” for “sell.”

Our necessaries – a liveable climate, clean water, fertile soil, and an array of resources needed to supply the food, shelter and goods we depend on to survive – are being depleted at an alarming (and accelerating) rate, gobbled up by excess and waste.

Competitive Frugality

Management consultant Bruce Piasecki takes Ben Franklin as his muse and touchstone in his latest business book, Doing More With Less. Billed as a “new way to wealth,” the book distills Franklin’s philosophy of frugality into rules for modern corporations to follow in a century of burgeoning global population and diminishing resources.

“We have to become like Ben Franklin all over again," Piasecki told CSRwire.

“He was competitive in the way he used his time; frugal in the way he used his money and his resources; and diplomatic in the way that today we call ‘social capital,’ building his business and his relationships based on diplomacy. In a world of seven billion souls we all have to become frugal, inventive and diplomatic."

Piasecki argues that only those companies that practice this “competitive frugality” will thrive. He cites Toyota’s decision to get out ahead of the pack some ten years ago with the hybrid drive as an example. His firm, AHC Group worked with the Japanese auto giant’s advertising campaign.

Toyota: Doing More With Less

Bruce Piasecki: Doing More With Less“That was our first discovery, that it actually made business sense to change the efficiency of the car to go twice the distance per consumed gallon than the law required,” Piasecki told CSRwire. “Toyota then took that hybrid power train across the globe as they went from 8.2 percent of world market share to more than 12 percent.”

It’s a lesson that applies as well to emerging economies as to the mature industrialized nations, Piasecki says: “It doesn't matter if you are in India, Brazil or Indonesia, or the other rapidly growing economies like China, it’s relevant to all of us because we share the same, small boat of the earth.”

Doing More With Less doesn’t really open any new intellectual territory; rather, put to use as inspirational reading studded with case examples, it may help to move the needle of corporate consciousness further into the green end of the dial.

Cold Cash, Cool Climate

Jonathan Koomey’s book, Cold Cash, Cold Climate provides a more robust and detailed set of arguments for entrepreneurs who want to be green – or for consultants to use in building the business case for sustainability. (Stay tuned for our new series with Koomey starting next week!)

A scientist and entrepreneur, Koomey brings the full weight of his experience to Cold Cash, Cool Climate. In cogent, fact-filled prose, his chapters on climate science lay out the case for action now, providing a welcome antidote to the hysterical propaganda of the climate cranks – like the Heartland Institute, whose latest campaign of intellectual perversion compares climate change believers to mass murderers.

“Right now we're on track for doubling greenhouse gas concentrations, not once, but twice by the year 2100 -- a factor of four compared to where we were in pre-industrial times,” Koomey told CSRwire. 

Cold Cash, Cool ClimateFor every doubling of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the average temperature of the earth increases by three degrees Centigrade (about 5.4 degree F.) Greenhouse gas concentration is now 390 ppm – already past the safe limit of 350. To contemplate a four fold increase to over 1300 ppm when the warming effects of all gases are counted by century’s end (and an ultimate average global temperature rise of 6 degrees C.) is unimaginable – except to know that it will be a world unfit to live in.

Bust The Carbon Budget, Bust The Carbon Cutting Budget

And because greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for a thousand years, there’s only so much added carbon it can absorb. Like families, the atmosphere has a budget – a carbon budget. That’s the fixed amount that can be emitted and still allow the planet to stay at a habitable temperature.

Koomey also referred to the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook from 2009, citing that the costs rise stratospherically the longer we delay – each year of procrastination adds $500 billion to the bill of avoiding the direst consequences of climate change.

“Delay doesn't help us. You simply eat up the carbon budget. If you use it up now, it won't be available later. You'd have to have much more rapid deductions then.”

Hearkening back to Bruce Piasecki’s thesis, that wouldn’t be frugal. Neither would it be frugal to continue building a carbon intensive infrastructure – like the XL Keystone pipeline, drilling platforms in the Arctic, and natural gas hydrofracking operations (all of which carry their own dire short-term hazards) – that will only have to be scrapped later. As Koomey points out, “Delay is a false economy.”

Learning by Doing is as Important as R&D

Many who profess to acknowledge the climate science are nevertheless bearish on renewables because they claim wind and solar can’t replace fossil fuels in time to avert catastrophic climate change. But Koomey is optimistic – and he lays out a path for transition within the short and medium term that makes eminent sense.

“We don’t have to figure everything out before we implement it,” he told CSRwire. “R&D is good, but some of these technologies require actually doing them, before we learn how to do them well.”

experimentationIn fact, Koomey says, the pace of technological change is actually accelerated by scaling up before the kinks are all worked out. “The future is not destiny. The future is choice,” he says, and that choice is multiplied by real-world experimentation.

Sputnik Instead of Apollo

Some have argued that to create that renewable energy future, we need the federal government to establish a kind of Apollo Project, allocating major resources to a centralized engineering initiative that can innovate a sudden, major changeover. But Koomey argues that’s the wrong analogy for solving the climate problem.

“The changes we need run across our whole society – it’s not a simple technological fix. We need the kind of broad societal mobilization in the U.S. that happened after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik,” Koomey asserts.

That translates into massive increases in R& D across a broad swath of technologies, funding for education from the elementary grades up, and putting major societal resources toward building infrastructure.

That mobilization is fueled as much by entrepreneurs as by government – if not more. As Koomey describes in his book, the path to the future runs through small, medium and large companies – assisted by policy wherever possible, but not dependent on it -- developing not only the technological, but the commercial, infrastructure of the renewables economy.

It’s a vision that encompasses frugality, inventiveness and diplomacy (or social capital) --just as Ben Franklin would have had it.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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