New Years Day, 2010
Comments and thoughts from Brightworks founder and CEO Scott Lewis
First we need to decide what needs to be done.
Then we do it.
And then we ask if it is possible.
The beginning of a new year and decade signals an appropriate moment to pause and to reflect – where have we come, where are we heading, and how do the prospects for the future appear from this particular vantage point?
Brightworks operates at the front lines of the emergent New Economy – we help our clients replace obsolete business and organizational models with strategies and practices more fully-aligned with basic principles of ecological sustainability. By taking a more mindful approach to their efforts, our clients reduce or eliminate waste, manage risk, save money, create better products and services, have happier employees, customers, constituents and communities, and help out the planet along the way. We refer to this practice as sustainability, or at its best, regenerative design. This discipline, sustainability, simply reflects a more holistic and deliberate approach to how we do things – an approach that aligns concepts like stewardship and conservation with cold, hard economic competitiveness.
With two dozen professional staff working on over a hundred leading-edge sustainability projects throughout the United States and around the globe, we gain perspective and insight regarding the opportunities and challenges before us. Following are some of the key data points, ideas and conclusions that stand out, to me, as we begin the year 2010.
1 The Challenge Has Never Been More Urgent
The scientific evidence leaves zero doubt – zero – that the Earth’s life-supporting systems face serious, serious trouble. Progress on what I call the Big Three global ecological issues – Climate Change, Toxic Pollution, and Biodiversity Loss[i], has been slow and halting, or worse, moving in the wrong direction:
- in 2009 the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 387 parts per million (ppm), a new all-time high (see graph, below). And sadly, Copenhagen will surely be remembered as the greatest lost opportunity of the decade, a power play by China and a disappointing capitulation by the US.
- biodiversity loss (extinctions) due to habitat destruction and increasing over extraction continues to rise
- on over half of America’s best crop land, the erosion rate is 27 times the natural rate
Clearly, we have our work cut out for us. This isn’t the place to belabor the details known to many readers of this commentary, but some good reference sources can be found at the sites listed in the endnotes.
2 Reasons for Hope Abound
While the facts may imply that the challenge before us appears painfully bleak, many genuine reasons to be hopeful continue to spring up – like flowers defiantly growing in a cracked urban sidewalk. First, the Earth itself shows remarkable resiliency; in many cases, a stunning ability to heal and recover, if we create the right conditions or stay out of the way. In the Pacific Northwest where I live, the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 was followed by a regeneration that “stunned scientists” according to the USGS. The Earth heals, if we allow it to do so.
Second, there is what Paul Hawken has dubbed “the largest movement in the world,” an organic, non-organized global effort “determined to heal the wounds of the earth with passion, dedication, and collective wisdom.” Put more simply, a lot of people are making a lot of effort, and some of them are exceptionally capable. This non-organized global effort includes thousands of for-profit corporations, government agencies and institutions ranging from universities to health care providers, who are implementing serious sustainability programs and carbon tracking and reporting policies.
For example, one startup I am familiar with is pioneering a thin-film photovoltaic technology, using the biomimicry approach to R&D that, if successful, will produce solar electricity at one-tenth the cost of current silicon-based systems, all with non-toxic green chemistry at room temperature. This isn’t just hopeful, it’s downright exciting. Just as the pace of climate change has moved faster than predicted, on a parallel course the rise of renewable energy has also surpassed most expectations. And billions of dollars – stimulus money and private capital – is flowing into “clean tech” and “green tech.” One of the Silicon Valley’s leading venture capitalists, for example – Vinod Khosla of Kleiner Perkins fame – has closed a $1.1 billion dollar fund to invest in “extremely risky green technology” ventures. 2009 will also be remembered as the year that the EPA finally agreed to regulated carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
3 No Time Left to Wait
So. On parallel tracks: one train heading towards disaster – drastic climate change, widespread toxic pollution, severely degraded ecosystems. Full on ecological catastrophe. This is one very real possible future – the “train wreck scenario.” On the other track, society headed towards a future full of promise. I’m not delusional enough to suggest all will be perfect if we would just make a rapid transition to one hundred percent renewable power – the forces of greed and ignorance are far too great to be eradicated that simply. But reasons for hope abound most certainly, and ultimately it may simply become a question of whether we will do enough, fast enough. I see a few key leverage points:
Scale. We have to move our efforts from buildings and organizations to communities and systems. The Portland Sustainability Institute, for example, has launched the EcoDistricts project – to explore, design and implement solutions for sustainability that require scale beyond the building or even city-block, but have been slow to happen due to barriers of policy or financing. Projects like EcoDistricts this that are scalable and replicable are becoming an increasingly important and part of the solution.
Unconventional Alliances. Rethink competition. In the race to save the planet, we all win, or all lose, together. At Brightworks, we have forged agreements with some of our most fierce competitors to find ways to leverage our respective strengths, to team up and win projects where we can each add unique value. Competition won’t go away – it helps us focus and weeds out inefficiency. But old-school “us versus them” thinking has been eclipsed by the Philosophy of Abundance, that in an infinite market (if every organization on the planet needs to change, and most will need some help navigating that process, that’s a big market), growing markets are more important than gaining market share.
Raising the Bar. In addition to ramping the physical scale of our efforts, it’s time to shift our expectations regarding goals and outcomes. Green will kill us. Green represents incremental change, sometimes expressed as “better than code.” We need to fix our minds on the idea of True Sustainability – nothing less. Regenerative design – systems that heal the damage already done to the planet. As biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus says, “when the city and the forest are functionally indistinguishable, then we will know we have arrived at real sustainability.”
At Brightworks, we take this kind of vision to heart, and strive to focus all our work on True Sustainability outcomes, and to help our clients understand and embrace that vision. We have developed tools and business processes to drive True Sustainability thinking and goal-setting into projects of all types, and every time, we see exceptional results emerge. Higher expectations yield better outcomes.
The future is unwritten, or at least so it seems. Many exceptional individuals, all across the globe, and a great deal of serious financing is focusing hard in the direction of transformative change. It may be enough, or it may not; it’s simply too early to know. But if enough of us try hard enough, we may just make the difference.
At Brightworks, I feel inspired and privileged to work with a group of passionate, brilliant colleagues committed to this common cause. And we feel equally fortunate to work in a vast community of “change agents”- clients, friends, strategic partners, project team members, mentors and allies, who are all sharing in the effort. I thank and applaud each and every one of you.
So let’s continue to work hard, and even more importantly, to work smart. There truly is no time to waste. In this coming new year, and new decade, let’s keep our perspective, not forget to celebrate our victories – even small wins add up to big wins. And celebrate life: let’s endeavor to always keep in mind, and in heart, why we are doing this. It is a most remarkable planet on which we find ourselves.
And Happy New Year.
The future is knocking at our door right now. Make no mistake, the next generation will ask us one of two questions. Either they will ask: “What were you thinking; why didn’t you act? ”
Or they will ask instead: “How did you find the moral courage to rise and successfully resolve a crisis that so many said was impossible to solve?”
~ Al Gore, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, 2008
[i] Water Scarcity has emerged in the past twenty years as the next Big Issue, but from my perspective, the issue really isn’t about supply scarcity as it is about misuse. For example, we still use 48 percent of our domestic fresh water withdrawls for thermoelectric power generation (all of which can be eliminated when we have grid-scale renewable power), and 15 percent of our water is used to grow crops to feed livestock. A bigger issues is the climate change-induced loss of snow and glacial ice in the Himalayas, and the implications for the water supply to 2 billion people.
[ii] Some good resources on the state of the planet include:
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment : www.millenniumassessment.org
The Earth Policy Institute : www.earthpolicy.org
The World Resources Institute : www.wri.org
[iii] Some great commentary from Lester Brown’s terrific book, “Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization ”:
The good news is that the shift to renewable energy is occurring at a rate and on a scale that we could not imagine even two years ago. Consider what is happening in Texas. The 8,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity in operation, the 1,000 megawatts under construction, and a huge amount in development will give it over 50,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity (think 50 coal-fired power plants). This will more than satisfy the residential needs of the state’s 24 million people. China, with its Wind Base program, is working on six wind farm mega-complexes with a total generating capacity of 105,000 megawatts. And this is in addition to the many smaller wind farms already in operation and under construction.
Most recently, a consortium of European corporations and investment banks has announced a proposal to develop a massive amount of solar thermal generating capacity in North Africa, much of it for export to Europe. In total, it could easily exceed 300,000 megawatts—roughly three times the electrical generating capacity of France. And we could cite many more examples. The energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy is moving much faster than most people realize. In the United States, for example, generating capacity for wind increased by 8,400 megawatts in 2008, while that from coal increased by only 1,400 megawatts.