disappointed /dɪsəˈpɔɪntɪd/


sad or displeased because someone or something has failed to fulfil one’s hopes or expectations.”, Oxford Dictionary

This post is about disappointment, what I expect to be the dominant mood of the 2020s. I want to share my view of why this is the case, and look into what we can do about it.

Why are so many people disappointed?

… and why do I think more will be as time goes on?

There is a mismatch between the dominant story of our current culture and reality: “Everything is getting better, and with more technology we will all be better off.” vs. ecological destruction, economic disarray, social unrest.

The main cause for disappointment is too high expectations on what we “should” get, compared with the reality of the world that is currently cracking under the load of a reckless human-driven globalized machine. The second confounding cause is that the economic elites are using monetary policy and other tricks to concentrate wealth into their hands.

Over the globe, disappointment is today manifest in different forms, from Yellow Vests in France (protesting the abolition of wealth tax and increasing taxes on fuel) to the student strikes in Chile (protesting the increasing gap between the rich and the rest). Also the Youth climate movement Fridays-for-Future is driven by disappointment in how governments handle the climate crisis.
Disappointment is driven by both real problems and unrealistic expectations.

Real Problems

We live in a world which has some severe real problems:

  • Running out of easy to harvest natural resources and energy – e.g. end of oil, minerals [Meadows]
  • Too much load on the environment, best described by the Planetary Boundaries [Planetary Boundaries].
  • Human health deterioration – despite being richer than ever, we are getting sicker by the day. “Peak Health”, when human health on the planet was best, was probably 1990. [Hulsegge]
  • Economic trickery that shifts wealth from most people into the hands of very, very few. [Martenson]


At the same time, the current globalized culture is infused in optimism. We have created inflated expectations of the future that is blinding us to the reality. Young people today are bombarded with advertisement and propaganda that tells them that they will enjoy a life of opportunity and luxury. Expensive cars are promoted as “intelligent” and international travel for vacation as bringing “unlimited peace”.

2020-01-12 20_11_36-2019 car advertisement - Google zoeken - Copy

Advertisement for an expensive car.
2020-01-09 21_13_40-63 Best Travel ads images _ Travel ads, Hotel ads, Ads
Fly away. To find “Unlimited Peace” in a country waging civil war…

But even without the expectation of luxury and material abundance, we live in a culture that is glorifying technology and stands on a story of “progress”. I grew up completely convinced that everything was getting better, and it was consistent with my observations in the 1990s. Democracy was on the rise, pollution in Western Europe was going down. Everyone was a winner. Or so I thought, until I saw the destruction that we cause in Asia, by moving most of the destructive industry there. As a kid, I witnessed how the Ruhrgebiet was transformed from a dark gray industrial landscape into a green park. However, only when I was 35, I saw the hellscape of Ningbo, and experienced the smog in Beijing.

Despite the earnest efforts of people like Hans Rosling and Bill Gates to explain how certain things improve, there are also lots of things that are moving in the wrong direction in the world today [Rosling]. Young people sense this probably better than us old guys. I guess that is why depression is on the rise among younger generations. The younger the cohort, the earlier we get depressed. [Ilardi]

How should I handle my disappointment?

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”, Reinhold Niebuhr

Of course I am disappointed. The world is not getting better every day, as I was told when I was at school. Even though I belong to a very small privileged elite who is collecting significant wealth from the destructive industrial system, I don’t support the wealth gap increase. I don’t want the biodiversity to get more and more impoverished. I don’t want multinational “food” companies to sell rubbish that makes people sick.

The ecological destruction that we are engaged in as a civilization is of course difficult to remedy as an individual, but each of us can make a difference. It is like democracy – even though one voice is small, there are ways to amplify one’s influence, e.g. by joining a political party or using your influence to build leverage.

The political idiocy of “Quantitative Easing” (printing money and handing it to the owning classes) that we allow central banks to pursue, is something that we need to resolve by political action.

In these global problems, each of us has to decide how much effort and courage to invest to pull the world in a “better” direction, and try to use the resources we have at our disposal to get maximum effect. My own actions are of course minuscule, but I hope that I effect some change by planting nut trees and by talking to people who work at the ECB and the central banks. (And by posting this kind of posts, to share my ideas and hopefully inspire someone else to also take action!)

The other lever I can pull is to adjust my expectations. I can tell myself that life is fine also if I turn the thermostat down and wear long johns instead of burning gas in the winter months. I can tell myself that another business trip to China to boost my ego is not worth it. I seek courage to sell our old car and live without one. I can choose to not go skiing and destroying yet another mountain ecosystem.

I am very inspired by people like David Holmgren, Chris McLeod, Wouter van Eck, Diana Wildschut and Patrik Andersson, who lead by example and show that life can be rich and fulfilling, without destroying the environment. They also generously share their experiences in writing and in dialogues. They help me to adjust my expectations to want what I get, instead of trying to get what I think I want… They inspired me to shift to part time work in the paid economy, and to use the freed up time to improve relationships, health and learn skills of resilience and ecology.

I think that the long term solution is to build a new global culture of “enough”, where we make peace with the ecological limits of our beautiful planet, and where we actively reduce wealth gaps. We can work together to build a world where we look at our real human needs and create structures and rituals that meet them [Rosenberg]. A world where we don’t accept advertisement that creates “wants” for consumption. A world where we don’t accept further concentration of wealth, but work for better sharing.


“The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.”, Gandhi

Disappointment is a sane response to the current conundrum of ecological/ energy/economic/health crises inside a culture of “progress”. This will become even more visible in the coming decade, when several natural and social limits are stretching to a point of fracture.

I hope more people will recognize the reality behind the rupture and avoid the populists “simple” solutions to these challenging problems.

How do you handle your disappointment? What do you do to adjust your expectations and how do you decide on which change you want to work for?

What is triggering you most right now?

How can we build a culture of peace?


FootprintNetwork, 2012. Global footprint and earth biocapacity, http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/newsletter/bv/humanity_now_demanding_1.4_earths: s.n.
Hulsegge, G., 2016. Cardiovascular risk factors over the life course (PhD Thesis). Utrecht: http://cdn.gld.nl/data/uploads/2016/04/56fe349cec7ed_proefschrift_Gerben_Hulsegge.pdf.
Holmgren, D., 2018, Retrosuburbia – a downshifters guide to a resilient future, Hepburn Australia.
Ilardi, S., 2013. Therapeutic Lifestyle Change, http://tlc.ku.edu/: Kentucky University.
Martenson, C., 2011. The Crash Course – The Unsustainable Future of Our Economy, Energy, and Environment. New York: Wiley.
Meadows, D., Randers, J. & Meadows, D. L., 1972. Limits to Growth. New York: Signet, Penguin.
Ratcliff, A. Oxfam Global Wealth Report 2019, https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/billionaire-fortunes-grew-25-billion-day-last-year-poorest-saw-their-wealth-fall
Rees, W. E., Wackernagel, M. & Testemale, P., 1998. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.
Rockström, J. et al., 2009. Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Ecology and Society, p. 14(2): 32.
Rosenberg, M., 1999. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion. 1st ed. Encinitas, CA, USA: Puddledancer Press.

Yellow vests and canalization of anger

There is always a lot of pain and frustration in the bottom 50% of all societies. During periods of systematic support to this group, as was in Europe and US during 1930-1990, the pain is tolerable. However, we are moving back into the inequality that was prevalent by early 1900 in Europe. At that time it was inheritance aristocracy, intermingled with monopolistic capitalists who were the 1%.
Today it is mainly owners of corporations and top-managers.
The symbol of the 1900 aristocracy was the cylinder tophat, the symbol of elite. Today it is an Audi Q7 or a Tesla.
Thomas Piketty wrote brilliantly about this in his classic “Capital in the 21st Century”, and his more recent research.

Return of inequality, even reported in the Economist! (https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2015/06/06/mind-the-gap)

The Yellow Vest/Gilet Jaune movement is a canalization of this frustration, through a specific narrative. Today, our society has this dominant mythology:

“Society improves through economic growth. More consumption (i.e. growth) solves all problems and improves the lives of everybody, especially those who work hard!”

The yellow vest movement has clearly identified the problem with the second part of the statement. The economic growth does not at all benefit everybody. The bottom 50% has got a lower or fixed purchase power since the 1990s, coupled with a steadily worsening health situation. When Macron removed the wealth tax last year and to add insult to injury also proclaimed to increase the fuel tax, that was the final drop. The protesters took to the street and chanted: “Macron demission” and “Trop de taxes“.

“Trop de taxes” – too much taxes

I see three problems with the narrative of the dominant mythology and the story of the Yellow Vests:

First of all, the cost of commuting to work is increasing with fuel tax, but that is possible to solve in different ways. The easiest way is to improve car fuel efficiency. The Yellow Vests should have attacked Renault headquarters for the malpractice of selling cars with terrible fuel efficiency. It is clearly possible to improve fuel efficiency with factor 10 if we want to, which would dramatically reduce the fuel cost for the people. (See e.g. Shell Ecomarathon) As an engineer I am ashamed of the terrible job we have done at improving the fuel efficiency of cars. We just added entertainment and comfort for three decades. (and I was part of this during my years working for the Delphi group)

Terrible development of fuel efficiency for 30 years, with a minor improvement at the end, thanks to the electric cars.

Secondly, the problem is not too much taxes, but that the wrong people carry the tax burden. Corporations and the wealthy pay less and less every year, shifting the burden to the bottom 75%.

Example from US – corporate profit tax is reducing dramatically. Same development in most of the World.


Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, the first part of the story is wrong. Economic growth is not necessary for society to improve. In the coming century, we will collectively be able to consume less resources than in the overflow bonanza of the last 100 years. We are running out of the same resources that have powered the phenomenal growth of comfort and luxury for the last century. This is not new, it was very well formulated in the landmark book “Limits to Growth” in 1973, but since 1980 all major politicians and industrial leaders have conveniently ignored this fact.

My suggestion is that we should follow the lead of George Monbiot and formulate a new narrative, that goes something like this:

“Corporations and the elite and the top 20% riches of the World population have squandered resources for the coming generations, and we need to stop this now. We (rich) must moderate our consumption. Now is the time to shift the tables. We will re-introduce fair taxation and change the society norms, including re-introducing restriction on rents. We will no longer be accept to be brainwashed by commercials every day.

We will eat locally grown vegetables and support each other, which will give us healthy and rich lives. We will live in smaller houses and use more bicycles. We will live great lives inside the planetary boundaries and enjoy the bounty of Nature together. Happily ever after.”

The yellow vests’ anger is well grounded, and I hope we can use the power of this anger to transform society into a better place for all of Nature, including us. One of the most inspiring examples I know is the “RetroSuburbia” movement, ignited by David Holmgren in Australia – I very much recommend to read his fantastic book on the topic! 

One of the downshifting families of the RetroSuburbia movement.What do you do to prepare for a low-impact future?

Factfulness and confirmation blindness

I just finished reading the blockbuster book by my hero Hans Rosling – “Factfulness”.
(If you have not been in awe of this phenomenal educator, check out his series of TED-talks, they are amazing!)

Beautiful book – easy read – however…

If you have read it, please let me know what you think. I am left with a strange feeling.

The main contribution

The one major contribution of the book is to further popularize “Dollar Street” and the four levels of human wealth/prosperity/development. This is a great tool to illustrate how life looks at different levels, and how many people are on each level.

World population in four levels of prosperity

(What Rosling forgets to mention is that the people on level 4 (where most of the blog readers are) is the major ecological destruction driver on this planet. If we all meet at level 3, we could all 7 billion people live rich lives sustainably. )

The prophet of progress

The core premise of the book is that the world is getting better in a number of measurable and surprising ways. Each of the 10 chapters shows one aspect of understanding data and distributions, which are quite illustrative. Throughout the book, there are numerous references to a survey that Rosling has conducted all over the world, where most people answer wrongly about the current state of the world.

I think this book has a deep ideological bias towards the “religion of progress”. It is a pamphlet to celebrate all improvements for civilization, especially in the last 200 years, while largely ignoring the price we pay for the advancements. This is deeply problematic for many reasons. It de-fangs the acute ecological problems that we face on a global scale, and lulls the readers into complacency.

Examples of problems with the book

The “knowledge survey” that is used throughout the book has a number of flaws, in my opinion. The multiple-choice-questions are of course simple to analyze, but have a strong bias to show the message that Rosling wants to show.

First of all the position-bias:
The correct choice in all the questions is the “best” of the three alternatives. Any and all mistakes are subsequently interpreted as “people have a bleak view of the world”. Imagine if the survey was repeated with the correct answer as the “worst” alternative – and how we could interpret the results as “people have a too rosy view of the world”.

Example question with “position bias”. The “best” answer is the correct one.

Secondly, some questions could have slightly changed wording which would remove the “improvement” message. E.g. “number of people” or “proportion of the population” in abject poverty. If we choose to measure the number of people suffering, there has been no improvement. However, Rosling chose to ask about the proportion of the population which has decreased, and touts this as an improvement. Is that really better or maybe worse? For the 700 million or so in deep poverty, I don’t think it helps to know that there is another billion middle class people in the world.

Thirdly, the specifics of the questions are sometimes slightly misleading. The only ecological question is about the “endangerness status” of three picture-perfect mammals : Giant Panda, Tiger and Black Rhino whose populations seem to stabilize. However, if he had chosen to ask about Pyrenean Ibex, Yangze dolphin and Hawaiian crow, the correct answer is that they all went extinct since 1996. The general decline of wildlife is real, but the specific animals of his questions are exceptional, unique successes of conservation. Therefore only experts would know the answer to the question, while a well informed audience would follow the general trend and answer this question ‘wrongly’.

Other perspectives on a factful worldview

There are lots of improvements for humanity in the last centuries, mainly thanks to the enormous energy input that comes from fossil fuels. This has allowed billions of people to survive and prosper. The energy surplus has enabled a billion or so to work on other things than food production, which is great for development of music, Internet and vaccines.

However, at the same time, we have been growing populations in maddening numbers, encouraged by the Catholic Church, Mao Zedong and the Stalin era medals for “Hero Mothers”.  We are increasing consumption of huge cars, long flights and enormous houses, encouraged by economists and advertisement, to drive “economic growth”. In the process, we are destroying ecology at an mind-boggling rate and we are depleting the stores of easily accessible fossil carbon resources. The future will look very different from the past.

The optimistic “humanity is always improving”-story therefore rings false in my ears.

Necessary facts to complement the story

I am sad that Rosling did not include the scientific model “Planetary Boundaries” (Rockstrom et al., 2009) in his book. It would convincingly show that we are reducing the natural wealth every year. Our ecological destruction is undermining our ability to have a civilization in the future.

Updated levels of the “Planetary Boundaries”, Science 2015.

It is a pity that Rosling chose to exclude the model of “ecological footprint” (W. Rees, 1996) from this factful book. Since 1975, humanity uses more resources than are replenished each year, effectively leaving a poorer planet behind to the next generation.
Those are important aspects of the status of the world, if we have the ambition to live with more factfulness.

I see the book of Rosling as part of a larger story of vocal cheerleaders of the religion of endless growth including Johan Norberg and Steven Pinker. I am not sure if this chorus is a part of wilful deception or a well-meant feel-good message?

What do you think?
Why is there such a need for shouting that “everything is fine” when it obviously is not?

I want to focus on sustainable economic contraction and reducing ecological destruction. How can we encourage modesty and cooperation?

Planetary Boundary 3 – Erosion

On a planetary scale we lose soil fertility, and this is a threat to our civilization.

What is a “Planetary Boundary” and why is it important? Link to the introduction article on this topic. The “Planetary Boundaries” is a model of global biophysical systems that support our life on the planet. For each system, quantitative models and indicator metrics have been developed to indicate the health of the system.

Updated levels of the “Planetary Boundaries”, Science 2015.

The third planetary boundary that our civilization has crossed into the catastrophe zone is Erosion, also known as “Land Use Change”. When forests are cut down and plowed to plant corn, the organic matter in the soil – the soil carbons – gas out as CO2 or is washed away with rains and wind, and finally disappear. The effect is that soils can hold less water and the consequence is flooding and slow desertification. We have lost incredible 133 billion tons organic matter in the agricultural soils since the dawn of agriculture. And there is not much left… (This kind of agriculture is therefore a kind of mining.)


The indicator chosen is how much of the total ice-free land mass of the planet that is converted to farming (in %)

1. Pre-industrial value: <1 %
2. Current value:   13%
3. Safe zone boundary:  5%
4. Catastrophe boundary:  15%

We are therefore approaching the catastrophe zone for this biophysical system, and with the current speed of cutting forests, we will reach the catastrophe limit around 2050.


Erosion as a killer of civilization is a well documented companion throughout human history, usually accompanied with the spread of the plow.

Plowed grain culture of barley and wheat was developed in Egypt, on the fertile Nile flood plains, which got seasonal replenishment of fertility. That is in principle a sustainable system that could continue throughout the millennia.

However, as soon as the plow as used on other soils, where there was no replenishment, the soils would slowly lose fertility. With oxen-drawn plows, this was a slow process. We have mechanized with diesel-drawn megaplows, and increased the destruction of soil life by application of pesticides. What earlier took a century can now be accomplished in a decade!

Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Babylon – home of the hanging gardens in those days. Now semi-desert. Photo BBC World.


Dunhuang, Gansu, China, was a very prosperous city on the Silk Road. 1500 years ago, it was the capital of the Western Liang country, and had more inhabitants than Rome. Actually more than any city in Europe. Now surrounded by desert.



The soil is turned upside down by the plow, which makes organic matter break down faster. This is advantageous for the farmer, since it kills weeds and makes plant-available compost.

Modern tilling. Image wikipedia.

However, there are three problematic effects:

1. Soil organisms die and release CO2: The disadvantage is that soil organisms like mycorhiza fungi also die when exposed to the UV rays of sunlight and gas off as CO2. The soil also loses the sponginess called “tilth”.

2. When the tilth is lost, and the mycorhiza fungi die, the soil organic matter is no longer held into the soil, but can wash away with rain drops that have direct access  due to the turned-over soil. This is why the Yellow River in China is yellow – the tilled Löss-plains release the fine organic matter and clay particles, which clog the river downstream.

You can see an example in this aerial photo of the city of Passau, where two rivers come together:

Passau, where the left river comes from an agricultural area, the right river from the forests. Image Wikipedia.

3.  Compaction blocking water flow:
There is compaction in the soil just beneath the reach of the plow, which blocks water percolation.

Compaction as a consequence of plowing (left). Image from Ontario Ministry of Agriculture.


There are ways to grow food without killing the soil. The best way is to use trees and other perennial plants, and avoid pesticide applications.

Here is a beautiful video of a project that was done in Deng Xiaoping’s China in the 1990’s, Green Gold by John D. Liu.

Here is an amazing book by the American researcher J. Russel Smith, who proposed “Tree Crops” already in 1929!

Sweet chestnuts are an amazing tree crop. Healthy and delicious!

What can I do?

  • Eat more from trees! Nuts, fruit and vegetables from trees help rebuild soils and stabilize the land. Choose walnuts instead of bacon, avocado instead of yoghurt. Chestnuts instead of potatoes.
  • Eat less meat. Buy organic grass fed meat. If you can from a farmer you know.
  • Join a political party and push for a transition to organic no-till farming. No-till means keeping the plow out of the ground.
  • Plant a fruit-tree in your yard, in your park or on a nearby schoolyard.
  • Get the book “The Carbon Farming Solution” by Eric Toensmeier with plenty of exciting tree crops!
Get your own copy of this excellent book at Chelseagreen,com or your favourite bookstore.


Planetary Boundary 2 – Eutrophication – Nitrates and Phosphates

What is a “Planetary Boundary” and why is it important? Link to the introduction article on this topic. The “Planetary Boundaries” is a model of global biophysical systems that support our life on the planet. For each system, quantitative models and indicator metrics have been developed to indicate the health of the system.

The second planetary boundary that our civilization has crossed into the catastrophe zone is Eutrophication, by polluting surface waters with nitrates and phosphates. The nitrates and phosphates come from fertilizers in agriculture, mainly from chemical-industrial agriculture (non-organic practices).


The indicators chosen are:
Nitrates – how much synthetic fertilizer nitrates do we make per year (Haber-Bosch process) from nitrogen in the air – million tons/year.
Phosphates – how much phosphorus is rinsed out into the sea from human activities – million tons/year.

1. Pre-industrial value: Nitrates 0 million tons/year, Phosphates -1 million tons/year
2. Current value: Nitrates 121 million tons/year, Phosphates 15.8 million tons/year
3. Safe zone boundary: Nitrates 69 million tons/year, Phosphates 6.9 million tons/year
4. Catastrophe boundary: Nitrates 91 million tons/year, Phosphates 12.5 million tons/year

We are therefore deep into the catastrophe zone for both nitrates and phosphates. We need to cut these geochemical flows in half on a global scale, as soon as possible.


The effect of fertilizers in surface waters (rivers, lakes, shallow sea bays) is an increase of algae, which die off and fall to the bottom in great volumes. The composting of these algae consumes all the oxygen in the water and the bottom areas die off. The most famous one is along the coast of Louisiana, USA, and the size of the death zone is as big as New Jersey (half of The Netherlands) – 11,000 km2. There are now >400 documented dead zones in the world and the number and intensity is growing every year.


“Dead zones” in the world oceans 2013 (nasa.gov). This is driven by chemical-industrial agriculture.

When the lakes and oceans die, not only fish and whales die off, but also the oxygenation of the air we breathe goes away.

The “dead zone” outside Louisiana. 11,000 km2 of dead ocean.


Algal bloom in Lake Eire, the first step in creating a fully dead zone. (http://www.miseagrant.umich.edu/lessons/lessons/by-broad-concept/physical-science/dead-zones/)

Who shat in my water?

The largest source of phosphates and nitrates in surface waters is agricultural “run off”, and on the second place is untreated human domestic sewage. (Therefore, I focus today on the agricultural sources, and I will come back to the humanure problem/solution in another post.)

Synthetic fertilizers in chemical-industrial agriculture is driving the nutrient overload wherever grains are grown. Most of the maize/corn and soy beans in the world are fed to pigs, chicken and cattle, who concentrate these nutrients in their manure.

The manure ends up both in the ground water (especially nitrates), which is the leading source of groundwater contamination, but also in our rivers, lakes and oceans. Most of the nutrients in the oceans thus come from factory meat production.

Global use of synthetic fertilizers. We need to come back to below the level of 1980. (Source UN FAO / Our World in Data.)

In Netherlands, where I live, the situation is peculiar. The meat-and-dairy sector imports animal feed containing 100,000 ton phosphates per year, which is twice as much as the agricultural fields can take. Therefore this excess manure is an important local problem, as well as contributing to the global eutrophication.

Where do the nitrates and phosphates come from?

Nitrates are magicked from thin air. Norsk Hydro/Yara is the biggest global player who uses fossil methane gas to drive the chemical process of converting nitrogen (N2) gas from the atmosphere into ammonia (NH3). The process was invented by Fritz Haber 100 years ago and has been used with ever increasing volumes. (Synthetic nitrates are therefore a problem for CO2 emissions, fossil fuel depletion and eutrophication!)

In classic (organic) agriculture, leguminous plants like clover do this job. Every third year or so, the fields were in fallow, planted with clovers, lupines and other nitrogen fixing plants. (really plants in symbiosis with nitrogen fixing bacteria). This reduces the run-off immensely and is really part of the solution. However, the temptation to use synthetic fertilizers in strong – synthetic fertilizers increase the speed of production.

Phosphates comes almost exclusively from mined rock phosphates. Morocco, China and USA are the leading producers of phosphates, with 70% of the world production. The rocks often contains other elements like cadmium, which leads to pollution at the source, and sometimes to poisoning in the field.


Since the largest chunk of nitrates and phosphates come as run-off from chemical-industrial farming, this is where we need to change. First of all we can drastically reduce the area in production by eating less meat.

Secondly, we should as a society stop (or dramatically reduce) using synthetic fertilizers. If we cut it to half, we are back in the safe zone of this planetary boundary.

The third stage is to produce healthy food in a circular way. Agriculture in balance with ecology to strengthen the soils – a.k.a. agro-ecology. There are innovative farmers who build rich soils using animals, trees, bushes and grasses. This has positive effects on other life support systems like biodiversity and the climate system. There is a whole new branch of agriculture called “Carbon Farming”, which produces food and at the same time captures CO2 into the soil and plants. Another advantage of these perennial systems is that they capture nutrient runoff so that it does not end up in the oceans!

 What can I do?

  • Eat less meat. Buy organic meat. If you can from a farmer you know.
  • Join a political party and push for a transition to organic farming.
  • Support local agro-ecology projects. Find an organic nut grower, or join an agro-ecology interest group.
  • Grow a garden or plant a fruit-tree in your yard.
  • Get the book “The Carbon Farming Solution” by Eric Toensmeier
Get your own copy of this excellent book at Chelseagreen,com or your favourite bookstore.


Planetary Boundary 1 – Biodiversity Loss

What is a “Planetary Boundary” and why is it important? Link to the introduction article on this topic. The “Planetary Boundaries” is a model of global biophysical systems that support our life on the planet. For each system, quantitative models and indicator metrics have been developed to indicate the health of the system.

For the biodiversity support system, the choice was to measure this as the extinction rate:  How many species disappear every year? Specifically as “species lost per million of species per year“.
Looking into the fossil record, we can estimate the biodiversity loss over time, and look at what is a sustainable/recoverable extinction rate, leading back to the a stable equilibrium with new species forming.

The Earth always loses some species every year, and new ones are formed through cross-overs and mutations. However, when destruction outpaces species forming, we have a problem.

Santa Helena ear-wig. An example of a recently  extinct species.
Not all species that go extinct are cute like the Dodo.

For each Planetary Boundary, there is an indicator with four numerical values (in brackets the numbers for the biodiversity loss):

  1. pre-industrial value of the indicator (loss of 1 species/million species/year)
  2. current value (loss of > 100 species/million species/year)
  3. safe zone value (try to stay inside this value – marked in green in the figure) (10 species/million species/year)
  4. catastrophe value (if we pass this, we are doomed – marked in red in the figure) (100 species/million species/year)

The Five Extinctions in the past

Elizabeth Kolbert has written about the five prehistorical extinctions that we know, and what is going on today. Five times, during the time of advanced life on Earth, the planetary system has been put out of balance with enormous extinctions as a result.

The most famous one was when the large dinosaurs disappeared some 60 million years ago. Science suggests it was an immense asteroid impact in Yucatan, Mexico. Small mammals and birds survived, and we are one of the species who appeared in the aftermath. (Most species that have walked the face of the Earth, or swam in the Sea are extinct. Some in the five great extinctions, some in the dull periods in between. We humans will also go extinct. It typically takes a million years, and since we have been around for 100,000 years or so, we could have quite some time ahead.)

What is special this time is that it is not a volcano or an asteroid driving the extinction. The “natural disaster” is our civilization.
We are the Terminators. We humans drive species into extinction at the same rate as the Yucatan asteroid.

Terminator Actions

We kill our fellow Earth-species, one bite at a time.
A handful we really eat away at, like tigers, but most are collateral damage in the chemo-industrial agriculture. We cut the rich forests and plant corn. We strip the prairies, spray herbicides and plant soy.
We bulldoze the creeks and plant wheat.
Mainly as a feedstock for meat factories.

80% of all agricultural lands are used to produce animal feed. On average on the planet, we eat more than 40 kg meat per person per year. [1]
Most of the feed is produced with pesticides, in devastating monocultures. Most of the feed goes into confined concrete factories where thousands of animals lead a life of misery, until butchering and ending up in our Supermarkets. (Let’s leave the moral point of maltreating animals here. And we will come back to the effluent of meat factories in the installment of Planetary Boundaries of Eutrophication / nitrates and phosphates in the surface waters.)

Meat is a fantastic food product, but we kill ourselves and the planet in our barbaric pork-and-chicken-binge.

State of the Planet

We are losing biodiversity at a staggering rate, especially since the 1970’s and it is most likely completely unnecessary. In a small and intensely industry-agriculturalized country like The Netherlands, there is not much left. 85% of the “Mean Species Abundance” has been lost.

Mean Species Abundance – Netherlands is the green bottom curve… Source is the government agency for environmental monitoring http://www.pbl.nl







Categories of species that we lose. Some disappear much faster than others… ref IUCN 2015.


In our travels in Asia we have seen bountiful forests razed and replaced with corn. Forests that have developed for tens of thousands of years, with amazing diversity. Now there are only small pockets left, like this forest in Khao Yai, Thailand:

Khao Yai national park, Thailand. Here they looked at 1 km2 of the forest and found 1200 species of trees! (In Sweden there are <30.)



Well, it is not really possible to get any extinct species back. Those who are gone are gone, despite the sci-fi stories of the Jurassic Parc. And the endangered species have very few individuals left, so the genetic robustness is far from ideal. We need to limit the damage and allow species to recover and recombine into new combinations, as has always happened.

Therefore, the first step is to reduce the area of growing annual grains for animal feed and plant trees. We need to recreate habitat. Lebensraum. To achieve this, we need to reduce meat consumption, since that is the dominant areal user.
We can go back to the situation of 2001, when average meat consumption was 15% less, as a starting point. In no time, we can rebuild vast areas of refuge (300 million hectares!). If we go down even further to a more healthy diet, we also have plenty of space for lots of healthy vegetable gardens everywhere!

The second step is to stop using agricultural pesticides. Go organic. Last week an article in Science came out that showed that neonicotinoid insecticides are present in 75% of all honey that was sampled from all over the world. The “precision agriculture” with minimal impact is a myth. The pesticides break down slowly and spread through our waters and kill/weaken wherever they come.

My proposal is that we handle chemical industrial agriculture as an “Asbestos-problem”. We in society made a mistake in the 1960’s and we should solve it together. We need to put some tax money in a pot and help farmers to switch over, and strengthen the legal limits.

Toxic maize seeds, grown in the middle of our village Soest, in the Netherlands. The seeds are coated with “Mesurol” which kills earth worms and other soil life. It also makes birds sick so that they leave the seeds in the fields.

The third stage is to produce healthy food in a circular way. Agriculture in balance with ecology to strengthen the soils – a.k.a. agro-ecology. There are innovative farmers who build rich soils using animals, trees, bushes and grasses. They develop new ways to cycle nutrients, where our participation as eaters is just one step of the nutrient dance.
(We are also a kind of earth worms.)

What can I do?

  • Eat less meat. Buy organic meat. If you can from a farmer you trust.
  • Join a political party and drive policy for a transition to organic farming and creation of wildlife refuges.
  • Support local agro-ecology projects. Find an organic nut grower, or join an agro-ecology interest group.
  • Grow a garden. (Simplest starting micro-garden: Get some compost and get started right away. Put a handful of garlic cloves in the dirt, and you will have plenty of delicious garlic greens to eat as soon as spring comes.)
  • Plant some trees. Try a vegetable tree like the “lettuce tree“!
Xavier San Giorgi, designer and planter of Food Forests. Here we plant hazelnut trees in Houten, Netherlands. Read more on http://foodforestry-development.nl/
Birkenhof Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable garden in Soest. We are members of this organic garden. Delicious and eco-friendly. Try to find something like this in your neighbourhood.




China is cracking

[ This is a post based on insights from a visit to China earlier this week. I love China, and it breaks my heart to see the poorly-addressed problems. Next week I will post a new item on the Planetary Boundaries.  ]

After two decades of fantastic economic development and hiding of problems, this part of the party is coming to an end. Salaries are dropping and inflation is soaring, leading to net-salary-decreases for those who have jobs, and disaster for those on the side. I visited China earlier this week, and my friends are worried about the future.

The single-party system rules with opaque power and the legal system is often a farce. In the last twenty or so years, people have accepted mis-management and mis-allocation of resources, as long as they have been on the winning team. Most people have had real salary increases of 3-6 percent per year as long as they can remember. Most young professionals earn more than their parents, and the promise was that this would go on forever.
Of course, smart people have been noticing that a lot of the “growth” has come from extreme sacrifices of ecology, justice, health and equality. Sooner or later, someone has to pick up the bill.

Empty, half-built housing block in Shanghai. It looks the same today as in 2012.

One of the most insightful analysts is Peter Navarro, and his excellent but strangely named book “The Coming China Wars” describe eight mega-problems that the Chinese government has chosen to hide instead of to solve. His prediction in 2006 was that the hidden problems of piracy, drugs, pollution, oil, Chinese imperialism, water supply, social unrest and demographics would lead to international conflicts and wars.
(I think it is useful to note that all European countries and the US also suffer from a similar affliction; ignoring structural problems around energy/oil, ecology and money printing. More about that another time. )

In the past decades, local province governments in China have been printing money to support “local businesses” like Geely Motors, Huawei etc, to grow and go global. Indirect subsidies have helped Chinese players to kill international competition in many areas. Local province governments have printed money for real estate development, driving the house market into the skies. During 2016 alone, the house prices increased with 27% in Shanghai [2]. Vegetables and other food items increased by 6%. This is great for those who own lots of property. [5]

One of many “ghost towns” in China, photo Tim Franco. Clearly not the best use of land, energy and natural resources.

However, the same development is on collision course with the reality of those who depend on a salary to live (i.e. most people). Typical white collar salaries for those who stayed in a job increased with 3%, but the new hires got much less. In total, overall white collar salaries dropped with 4% in the last 12 months [1].

House price increase in Shanghai – price increase compared to one year earlier. End of 2016 it was 30%! Illustration from GlobalPropertyGuide.com


This is in stark contrast to the previous years, when salaries have been increasing, almost on par with the price hikes in real estate. Now the trends are definitely diverging and many people lose faith in the system. The cracks cannot be hidden any longer.

Therefore, more and more people are protesting the legitimacy of the single-party state [3], even at the peril of their own work and safety. The worst crack downs are right now in the Xinjiang province, but protests are everywhere (but not every day).

Beijing city center protest, earlier this year. Photo from GlobalRiskIndex.com.

I hope that the next step from the government is to increase transparency to improve their legitimacy. If I could have a one-on-one session with President Xi, I would encourage him to strengthen the legal system and encourage independent media. Talk about the immense challenges that the country is facing and invite more people from all over the world to participate in developing solutions. I would urge him to develop agro-ecological solutions and promote frugal hedonism instead of consumerism. (I would encourage all world leaders to do the same, actually…)

Ecological food production from trees – this is the future! Here I taste the Chinese “spring fragrance tree”, also called “onion-tree”, at an agro-ecological test site.

However, the developments in China are rather in the reverse direction. During the last years, lots of semi-independent media have been shut down and international connections (VPNs) have been blocked [4]. This week, Xi Jinping even started to read an allegorical fairytale on the morning China State Radio, in an eerie echo of Chairman Mao.

Let’s do what we can to help our Chinese friends in these difficult times.


[1] White collar salary drop http://zhaopin.investorroom.com/2017-07-17-China-White-collar-Average-Salary-Declined-in-the-Second-Quarter-of-2017

[2] China house price history https://www.globalpropertyguide.com/Asia/China/Price-History

[3] Social Unrest in China http://globalriskinsights.com/2017/07/social-unrest-china-threat-regime-legitimacy-economy/

[4] Decline of Independent Journalism in China http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/the-decline-of-independent-journalism-in-china/

[5] Money printing creates ghost cities https://qz.com/98045/chinas-ghost-cities-epitomize-the-problem-with-printing-money-paul-krugman-style/

Planetary Boundaries – heading for a crash

Ten years ago, the Johan Rockström assembled the world’s leading researcher on biophysical systems to map out the Earth systems that are necessary for our civilization. One well known system that is fundamental to our way of life is the ozone layer. With a thinner ozone layer, radiation levels make life much less interesting, and at a certain point disastrous. The result was the concept of the Planetary Boundaries, which was published in the top scientific journal Nature in 2009.

I only got to know about this in 2014, and it has had a major impact on my world view, and guided much of my life since. It was shocking to learn that we threaten our civilization in numerous ways, of which climate change is only one, and that all indicators but one are getting worse every year. In this post, I will try to explain the concept and the conclusions I draw regarding my own life and some speculations for the future.

The Planetary Boundaries is a model of global biophysical systems that support our life on the planet. For each system, quantitative models and indicator metrics have been developed to indicate the health of the system.
For each system, these indicators have four numerical values:

1. pre-industrial value of the indicator
2. current value
3. safe zone value (try to stay inside this value – marked in green in the figure below)
4. catastrophe value (if we pass this, we are doomed – marked in red in the figure)

For some systems, we do not yet have quantitative models, e.g. pesticide/toxic substance use (called “novel entities”) is so complex that we maybe never will have enough knowledge to know how much we can “safely” spray of every chemical. The un-quantified systems are marked with gray in the diagram below.

The most common illustration of the model is a pie-diagram, showing all eleven biophysical systems in one picture:

Updated levels of the “Planetary Boundaries”, Science 2015.


Positive example – Ozone layer

Let’s look at the positive example of the ozone layer.
This global system is measured in an obscure metric called “global average of ozone concentration in Dobson Units” and the pre-industrial value was 290 DU. The safe zone is when we reduce the ozone concentration a little bit, but not below 276 DU.
Today we are on 285 DU, so we are in a safe zone, and it is slowly improving. (read more on NASA’s page on this).

Predicted recovery of the ozone layer. Image NASA.

The ozone depletion problem was caused by certain molecules (chlorinated organic compounds) that leaked into the atmosphere, mainly freons in cooling agents and spray-can gases. Fortunately, this was identified on time, and we got together to fix the root cause. The 1987 Montreal protocol banning the use of these chemicals was a huge success and 197 countries worked together to solve the problem. Civilization survived.

The ozone layer story is interesting from many perspectives.
First of all, it shows that it is difficult to address slow systems with large storage/stock.
We are 30 years later, and it is only now starting to improve. The first 20 years after the agreement, the ozone layer was still depleting, due to all the chlorine that was already emitted to the atmosphere. (It will likely take until 2075, almost one hundred years after the Montreal Protocol until the ozone layer is back on pre-industrial levels.)

Another interesting point is that it was a minor part of the economy (cooling agents) that was threatening our civilization in a way that was identified almost by mistake (by Paul Crutzen, who later got the Nobel Prize for his work on atmospheric chemistry).
It was therefore relatively cheap to switch this part of the economy to an alternative technology. That is in stark contrast to the conundrum of fossil fuels as a base for our energy production.


The chilling story: Biodiversity loss, phosphate and nitrate eutrophication, erosion, climate change

Five of the biophysical systems have already passed the safe boundary, and they have done it during my lifetime. Three of those are already in the catastrophe area. If we continue like this we know that civilization is toast. The only thing we don’t know is exactly when.

Peculiar and worrying is that the top three catastrophic failure areas are not much discussed in the media:

  • Biodiversity loss
  • Nitrate eutrophication – nutrient overload in surface waters
  • Posphate eutrophication – nutrient overload in surface waters

The other two systems that are on the way to become lethal are:

  • Climate change
  • Erosion (‘Land Use Change’)

Out of these, only climate change is discussed in the daily news.

I will come back to each of these five systems in future posts, to detail out a bit more about what it means and what I think we should do about it.

What do I care? Après nous le deluge?

I really want to leave a better world behind, or at least as good as I came into it. It is my main moral imperative – I pick up my own trash and I don’t destroy for future generations.

However, now I realize that this is not really the case.

I found the terminator and he is me. The way I live, is wrecking the planet in so many ways. I am a driver of biodiversity loss, of eutrophication and climate change. I only realized this when I already had lived 40 years in a grossly destructive lifestyle with intercontinental travels and a Volkswagen diesel car.
It hurts every time I start the engine.

Most of the biophysical systems were in okay shape when I was born, but have been deteriorating ever since. Most are getting worse every year. Still we don’t talk much about this.

I didn’t even know. I lived in the bliss of ignorance.

How come I did not see it?

I am not sure why I did not realize this before.
I guess that part of it is the brainwash of our culture; encouraging consumption as self-expression and the blind faith in technology and growth. (More about the technofanatsy religion of my youth in another post…)

Another reason is that we have moved the problem out of sight. Here in Western Europe, many environmental indicators have improved in the last thirty years. The Ruhr Gebiet is clean and green, compared to the grayish smokestacks of my youth. The polluting factories that produce all our stuffs have moved to Asia.
Our of sight, out of mind…

A third factor is that only a fringe of society is talking about these problems, while the main stream is focused on jobs, cars, growth and this year’s budget deficit. Even though I briefly was a member of Greenpeace, I never really understood the magnitude and urgency of the problem. Technology would fix it, right? Just around the corner is a breakthrough that will make everything perfect…

Slow awakening

I am slowly facing my own consumerist addiction. (“My name is Göran and I have a problem.”)

More and more I can look at my own behaviour and acknowledge the destructive habits I have. Slowly I learn to make other choices, even though I still have a long way to go.

A fantastic realization is surfacing; that it is possible to live a good life in balance with Nature. The myth of stuff is not true. I meet more and more inspiring people working in tune with the soil, producing healthy food in regenerative systems.  Fantastic pioneers like Wouter van Eck, who is living off a beautiful agroecological system in Groesbeek (a.k.a. Voedselbos Ketelbroek).
Even in Sweden, there is a growing movement of back-to-the-landers like David Jonstad. And in our town Soest, Joop and Corrine Wantenaar use their diverse smallholding to improve the health of their land. They improve the state of the planetary boundaries, by working in tune with ecology.

Inspiration to take the next step, and the next one after that.

Wouter van Eck on his “Food Forest”, with guest John D. Liu, 2016.
Farmer Joop in our town, the first (and until today the only) organic farmer here.



Klarien Klingen and Janneke Steenmans, inspiring young Dutch agroecological farmers.

The worlds biggest swindle?

Today I walked by the ECB building in Frankfurt-am-Main.
Behind the glass facade, something remarkable is going on.
They are printing money like crazy. 2 billion euro every day.
Not paper money (usually used by criminals), but real shiny electronic euros.

ECB main office in Frankfurt-am-Main (foto http://www.EurActive.com)

Corporations across Europe get to borrow this money at a below-inflation interest rate, and can purchase other companies and make all kinds of “investments” and show great profits. No wonder the stock markets are going well, and a small group of people get very rich.

I do not get to borrow money on these terms. Do you?

Therefore, this scheme gives a very large advantage to a very small group of people.

Why do we let this happen?

To put things into perspective, this scheme has been going on since May 2015, almost 30 months x 60 billion euro = 1800 billion euro.
This is as much money as existed in the euro scheme before they started with this “QE” program. (And twice as many euros as there were in 2006.)
The euro has doubled in numbers, but the underlying economy is essentially the same.
Therefore, in my simple logic, a euro is only worth half as much now compared to two years ago.
(We only see it in the domains where the richest compete – luxury apartments, fine cars, stocks, art is exploding.)

Eurosystem balance sheet. Corporate loans are the top part (purple). This graph does not include all of 2017. Today the purple part alone is 2400 billion euro. (graph from ecb.eu)

Imagine that we are a group of people in a village, each of which owns one gold coin.  We can barter in our town and after some time, we know how much stuff is worth. Suddenly one of the persons has as many gold coins as all the others together. He could then proceed to buy everything in the village, or the prices will go up to prevent this from happening.

My guess is that the corporations will use the money to buy all assets they can (shares, land, bonds), which drives up the price for everybody, and a small group of individuals will get super rich. Slowlythe prices will go up for all kinds of assets in due time. On the time-scale of pensions, half the value is now gone.

That is, if they stop the printing and just let the outstanding loans roll over indefinitely. However, there is no sign even for that. Last week Mario Draghi was telling the press that “the market needs support” and the printing continues at full speed.

Reduction of value during 30 years, we can do it in 30 months! (photo https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_currency)

It is eerily similar to the devaluation of the Roman silver dinars during the fall of the empire. Emperors put year-on-year more tin in the coins, until the coins were just silver coated lumps after thirty years. But in a time of enterprise server stacks – we can do it in a matter of months.

Do I miss something here?

Why do we let this happen?

Culture and Conflicts Training

Conflict management based on values and norms is one of my passions. In the last few years, I have had the privilege to lead training workshops at some of the Masters programmes at Chalmers University of Technology. Last week, I was back at Chalmers, working with students from the whole world, talking about assumptions, values and norms, see presentation attached to this post.

In most places where I have worked in the past, the limiting factor for success has been communication skills and ability to identify and handle conflicts. These are topics that most Engineers are afraid to talk about, especially when we come to feelings, needs and personal values. Fortunately, there are initiatives to include this in the curriculum, and these workshops are an example of that.

Students playing the “Barnga” card game to illustrate norm conflicts. Anger and confusion and finally laughter are part of the mix.
Another group, in the middle of the resolution of the “Barnga” card game.

I often use the “Barnga” card game as an experience exercise to feel inside how norm conflicts play out. It is a brilliantly designed game by Thiagi, and you can get a copy on Amazon here.

The MSc programs are much more international now compared to when I went to Chalmers University in the last century, which is really a big advantage for the students who realize the value of this. The international students generally have more work experience and often in multiple countries. It is a gold mine of experiences that the rest of the group can learn from.

Here is the presentation material that I used in the workshop:

Workshop Values and International Collaboration – 2017-08-29 – version 1.1

If you are interested in more anecdotes about culture and conflicts, check out my book “Deliver”.

The Seductive Power of Secrets

In one of my first meetings when I was setting up my department in China I had a revealing experience – a glimpse of the political power play that underlies office operations here.
We were three colleagues around the table, H, department head of another department inside the R&D center, S., one of my engineers, and me. One of the topics was an analysis activity that H.s team would start doing. Some of my colleagues in Europe had been doing that for some time and I had some documents describing the process. I said that I would email the documents after the meeting.


Our secret (photo by Amanda Smith)

After the meeting S. comes to me and says carefully: “Don’t send the files.”
Seeing my surprise, he continues; “It is better for us if we keep this secret. Information that only we have makes us stronger. Their department started before we started, so they have some advantage. Our department will have more foreigners, so that is our advantage. Share only a little bit at a time.”

Being Swedish and brought up in a religious faith in transparency and sharing, I almost exploded, but managed to count to ten before responding.
-“Well S. – thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. Please always do. However, this time I decided to do it differently.” Then I told him why I thought it wise to share the material and also to keep my promise. Later we could outsource some of the less interesting jobs to that team because we trained them.

I am convinced that collaboration has more “upside” than “downside” – more advantages than disadvantages. On the long run, you gain more by sharing than by hiding. It is possible everywhere to build a culture of trust to enable openness and teamwork. However, in China, most of the education system is built on competition and there is no advantage of help anyone else ever. I guess that explains why it is unusual and unfamiliar to share.


Three years later, S. is a champion of sharing. He has had the opportunity to feel the strength of teamwork. He has experienced the benefits of being open and has transformed into a role model for the junior engineers in the team. Of course there is always some politicking and positioning in any office, but I have never seen it so clear as in China. It has helped me to be more aware of the games played elsewhere, so I smell it easier these days. And now I know that it is possible to push it aside and search for sustainable synergies.


My wise brother Hugo says that hiding information is a left-over thinking from the “Stuff-society” of scarcity. If I give you one of my things, I have less and you have more. It is a zero-sum game. Classic win-lose thinking.

Today, we live in the information/knowledge/idea society. If I give you one some knowledge, I still have the same as I had, but you have more. There is a net gain for us as a system. Sharing is neutral-win, with a large chance of reciprocity, that next time you will share back, to a win-neutral situation. All together this is win-win.

Brexit – the people have spoken. And that is good.

I believe in democracy. Democracy (as in representative parlaments and direct-vote referenda) is a slow but resilient way to balance interests in society. The key success factor of the system is transparency, so that consequences are visible and understandable afterwards.

Therefore, whenever a stupid decision is taken, and the consequences lead to worse conditions for enough people, there is always a possibility for people to change their minds and vote for something else.

One example is people usually get fed up with a certain party in power, and after a few terms decide to ask someone else to run the show. [example of US presidents, who alternate parties every 8-12 years since 1945 ].

In democratic societies today, we have a challenge when it comes to the quality of the feedback. The truth is often less exciting than gossip and rumors. Powerful interests push their own stories to move the popular opinion. There are less and less journalists and more and more lobbyists.
We need publicly funded institutions who can deliver unbiased and understandable information for the general public and especially for schools.

Let’s work together to improve the information quality and understandability. We need people like Hans Rosling, who can transform difficult datasets into enjoyable and understandable infographics. In Holland, where I now live, there is e.g. an excellent “Compendium for the Environment”.

Let’s see what the British citizens vote next time around. If the EU exists by then. Otherwise, let’s build something better.

(Remember that the British citizens voted to join the EU in 1975.)

Lean and Sustainability

I love Lean thinking because it is a key tool for sustainability.
Reducing waste, doing more with less, focussing on value and Values, improving communication and collaboration, learning from observation and continuously improving our methods and increasing our knowledge. [1]

All of this is what we need to do on a broader scale in society.
The principles and the tools from the “lean toolbox” can be used in all parts of the greater community. Of course, every tool and technology can be used for multiple purposes. The tool itself has no moral a-priori goodness/badness. (A hammer can be used to build a house or to kill a neighbour.) The choice is ours how to use the tools – which is why we have to start with values.

The most convincing view on sustainability that I have encountered is called “Permaculture”. It is a philosophy based on the three core ethics: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. There is a lot written on the topic, my favourite is a book by one of the founders of the Permaculture movement, David Holmgren [1].

Permaculture ethics (Earth care, people care, fair share), surrounded by the 12 principles. [1]
Permaculture ethics (Earth care, people care, fair share), surrounded by the 12 principles. [1]
In short, the objective of permaculture is to build a society that can continue forever, preferably increasing natural and spiritual wealth over time. This is no small feat, considering how much of current civilization is built on destructive patterns and non-sustainable resource extraction.
There are technological hurdles, but also sociological and psychological challenges to move in this direction.

I believe that Lean methods can help us verbalize what we value and start moving in that direction. We can map the value stream in what we are doing and find ways of strengthening the value-adding activities.
Lean methods help us to identify practices and processes that are destructive and the lean methods help us to reduce the waste.

Maybe you wonder: “but who is the Customer, who is so central in Lean thinking?”
(The “customer” as an agent is used a lot in Lean methods to quantify what is the important output or value of a process.[3])
I believe that the customer is you.

It is you who have to feel deep in your heart what you want that your life should deliver.
I endorse the permaculture ethics of Earth Care (leave the environment better than when you came), People Care (help people grow and flourish) and Fair Share (share the surplus, don’t hoard), as guiding values. Does this activity improve the state of the Earth? Does it improve the connectedness and knowledge of the People? Does it distribute the accumulated wealth?

Viewing society and corporations through this lens helps us to develop products that improve the world. We can use all our creativity to invent new ways of working together to grow people instead of using them up as “human resources”. We can develop new profit sharing mechanisms that allow companies and organizations to flourish for longer and longer.

Let’s lean the world and build a sustainable civilization.


Published on 18 August 2014 – Overshoot Day [6].
Until today we have used up all resources that can be sustainably produced during 2014. Every day from now until the end of the year we are using up resources that leave the Earth a poorer place than when we came.
A sad, sad situation for Earth Care.

Of course it is hard. We have a car, even though we often go by bike to work. I burn plenty of gas to heat our house, even though I would like to grow the wood instead. I have conflict minerals in my mobile phone.
However, by looking at solutions and using lean tools, we can work together to find better solutions, one breath at a time. I do not know any better way. Do you?

Isn’t it ironic that the lean methodologies were developed by the world’s largest car maker Toyota?

Read more:
[1] Lean Thinking & The Machine that Changed the World – Womack and Jones
[2] Permaculture – Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren
[3] The Toyota Way – Jeffrey Liker
[4] Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture – Sepp Holzer
[5] Gaia’s Garden – Toby Hemenway
[6] Overshoot Day – link

Lake Baikal - a Unesco Natural Heritage.
Lake Baikal – a Unesco Natural Heritage.

Efficiency vs. Fairness – an interesting dilemma

Sometimes, there is a tension between the values of fairness vs. efficiency. It is a common theme in Dilbert, where well-intentioned company policy leads to something ridiculous in a particular situation. We all encounter it from time to time, when we struggle to strike the right balance between same-for-all and right-for-this-situation.

This is an aspect of the cultural dimension that Fons Trompenaars calls “Universalism/Particularism” (or What is more important, rules or relationships/the specifics of the situation?). I believe that each individual’s work culture to a large extent is based on the relative importance of values.

Some people value the rule and the principle of fairness more – and are willing to accept a negative outcome for some specific cases. Other people truly value the individual particular situation more – therefore they feel that rules are there to guide but not to stifle judgement and wisdom.

On a train ride this week, we hit into this dilemma when we took the 263 train (Beijing->Ulaan Baatar).  The 16 wagon train was almost empty. According to our wagon attendant, less than 30 passengers. This is supposedly typical for this season. The train is full in July, but the rest of the year there are plenty of empty berths. The lowest occupancy was last year in December when they drove once the whole way from Beijing to UB with only five passengers. More tourists do go the other way, but even in that direction it is quite empty in the train. Sometimes more personnel than passengers. This time, we were five passengers in our whole wagon.

Our wagon attendant explained that:  “The agreement between the governments mandated that they would always drive 15 sleeper wagons and one restaurant wagon, twice per week in the winter and three times in the summer. And since it is an international agreement – it is important to be fair and honor the agreement.”

Lifting the wagons to change the boogies.
Lifting the wagons to change the boogies.

We spent 4 hours to change boogies (wheelsets) on all 15 sleeping wagons at the border crossing between China and Mongolia. We could have used one or two wagons, and be finished in 30 minutes.

The reason for changing wheelsets is due to the rail gauge – the distance between the two rails. The railway connection between Ulaan Baatar was built in 1956, during a time when the Soviet Union had a strong presence in Mongolia. Therefore, the train tracks in Mongolia follow the Russian standard, which is wider than the Chinese standard. It was impressive and weird to see the wagons lifted up and the boogies rolled away to be replaced with a slightly different width. This boogie dance went on for hours, in the middle of the night – and we were waiting for our passports to be back from the Chinese border police. It was indeed a relief when the adjustments were completed, the passports retrieved and we could glide away into the Mongolian night to cross the Gobi Desert.

 DSC03002 DSC03003 It is an amazing waste of time and energy to do this boogie-changing. Especially for all the wagons that are almost empty. I was crying deep inside my passionate Lean-heart to see all these people doing useless work with excellent execution. There are so many important value-adding jobs out there!

Do you encounter dilemma’s of fairness vs efficiency in your job?

How do you deal with the dilemma of fairness vs efficiency in your organization?

What legends do you have about heroes in the past who broke corporate guidelines to do the right thing?

Deliver to Spec – an ethical dilemma

A few years back, I worked in an American multinational corporation in the automotive electronics business. We developed embedded software for cars, as a consultancy for the OEMs (Volvo, Saab, Jaguar,…). In this explosion of electrification, it was a playground to put processors in
every piece of plastic possible.

All the embedded computers create immense problems with reliability.
All the embedded computers create immense problems with reliability.

I ran into an ethical dilemma for consultants – the balance between delivering what was agreed vs. what they need. My company’s interest was to deliver quickly according to the agreed specification, and then sell extra-hours. I felt the pressure to implement features that were in some way faulty, so that we could close the fix-price project and then start charging for additional work. Nobody would admit this, but it was something that made me quite uncomfortable. We were taking advantage of the car-makers lack of competence in computers and software, to ensure short-term profits on our side.

The project managers inside the consultancy were heroes when they closed projects fast – and would be celebrated for their efficacy. Even when the software was crap.

It is a genuine conflict of interests, where one company has a long-term need for robustness and a great product, and the other company does not have to care. I found this corrosive for the morale, and a typical example of win-lose relationship. On the long term, everybody loses.

I think that this problem has many facets. An important one was how success was measured inside the consultancy company. Even though top management was talking about long-term partnerships and quality and integrity, that was not what was celebrated. That was not measured.
And you get what you measure, as Deming used to say [1].

There is a lot of good thinking needed to find new ways of running businesses to encourage mutual long-term benefits. How can you make your customers more successful – and – at the same time make a sustainable profit?

How do you build long term win-win relationships with your customers?

[1] W. Edwards Deming – “Out of the Crisis”

Scott Adams (c) - shares how it feels to deliver rubbish.
Scott Adams (c) – shares how it feels to deliver rubbish.

Antifragility – Idea and Book review

Antifragile - by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Antifragile – by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Thriving in uncertainty, blossoming in volatility, enjoying noise – that is being anti-fragile.
Taleb has written yet another peculiar book about randomness and nonlinearity. He invented a new word to describe the phenomenon that sometimes occurs – when there is a limited downside and a great upside to variation.
When there is a convex nonlinear effect – or a limit to losses – then the output will be better with more variability.

One (loathed) example is that of a corporate manager. The basic salary is good, whether the company makes money or loses money, but profit-sharing bonus can only be positive. If the company makes a small profit year-on-year, there is almost no bonus. However, a great profit one year followed by a loss-making year will give at least one year’s full bonus payment. Much better for the individual corporate manager. He/she benefits from variability and noise. The more, the better – at least on short term.

Taleb shows that the banking industry as a whole operates in a similar way. When there are “good years”, profits are distributed to the owners. When the banks collapse, the tax-payers take the bill. Therefore, the banking sector as a whole enjoys variability and encourages this chaos.

The problem is of course that these patterns destroy other areas in society.

Top picture - antifragile - variations have more upside than downside.
Top picture – antifragile – variations have more upside than downside.

In my view, Taleb’s main contribution is to make the patterns visible and to give names to the phenomena. He builds a simplified nonlinear dynamic framework in which we can discuss these systemic patterns. We need to understand the structures to make good decisions in designing new and better systems.
Dynamic phenomena are difficult to understand, and this book is an important contribution. I also recommend “Limits to Growth” and “The 5th Discipline”.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb - good ideas and strong opinions
Nassim Nicholas Taleb – good ideas and strong opinions

The two examples above are win-lose systems, but that is not necessary. We can design win-win structures that benefit from the natural disorder of things. We can challenge the established organizational patterns using the concept of anti-fragility and re-invent the way we work together.

One way of increasing robustness and aiming for anti-fragility is to ensure that all players in a structure have a personal stake – skin in the game. To quote Fat Tony, one of the colorful characters of the book, “Only get on a plane if the pilot is on the plane”.

Three Red Lights

“There are three little red lights that sit inside the head of the spectator”, David Williamson said, world leading close-up magician. “When the magician is holding the deck in a strange way, the first light goes off. When the card is put back in a peculiar fashion, the second one goes off. When the third light goes off, the spectator starts thinking of football.”

The three lights inside my head.
The three lights inside my head.

In a ex-DDR lecture hall in the Kulturpalast in Dresden, David Williamson [1] explained the Psychology of Magic from a spectator perspective. Full of energy and slap-stick physical humor, he visualized a very important principle about trust.
When you watch a magic trick, you open a window of trust in which the magician can let you experience something unbelievable in a wonderful way. However, it only works as long as the performer does not rub you off in the wrong way. As soon as there is something inconsistent, you start to get alert and the enjoyment is immediately reduced. The less natural the actions, the less convincing the presentation. Small clues aggregate to strengthen or weaken trust. In management it is the same. And it cuts both ways.

If an engineer in my team is doing something that feels fishy, a red light goes off, somewhere deep inside my head. And it is burning for a long time… If all three lights are on, I lose trust and confidence.
It is also true in the other way. If I as a department manager express something clumsy or insensitive a red light goes on. Three lights and I have lost a big chunk of authority…

I think this is a deeply human reaction. It is not even necessary to have fact-based observations, just indications that something is wrong. Therefore, this mechanism is not “fair” in the legalistic sense of the word. But it is usually correct.
It is captured in the old Dutch saying that “Trust comes on foot and leaves on horseback” (“Vertrouwen komt te voet en vertrekt te paard” [2]).

This energy can be both positive and negative – so we should use it in a constructive way to build stronger teams. We must also be aware of the destructive power: I speculate that this is the power of gossip. The indications are enough to change our perception of people around us.
This powerful force can be channeled to help us take care of the group and find out who needs support in difficult situations. We communicate with so much more than words. How we talk, how we say things and how timely we are say more than words. All these signals are unconsciously recorded and build momentum.

People do not see everything you do, they collect clues.
Or as my friend Ruben says, after the football philosopher JC Watts – “Character is what you do when you think that nobody is looking.”
Use the force of positive power to project energy into the people around you – and they will smile back, whether they want it or not.

[1] See more of the excellent magician David Williamson on: http://davidwilliamson.com/

[2] http://nl.wikiquote.org/wiki/Vertrouwen

[image] http://noveltylights.com

International Projects – Communication Style – Directness

One of the joys of international projects is to work with people from different communication cultures. There are many prejudices and stereotypes regarding national cultures and many are startingly true.
One of the dimensions of culture is how direct we communicate.
Direct cultures (like the Dutch) value open and honest communication, even if the message may hurt. They are feared by indirect communicators for their bluntness and lack of tact.
Indirect communication cultures (like the Chinese) value politeness and a common understanding of the topic before zooming in to the crux of the question. This can lead to boundless frustration for a direct person.

Last week I had a head-on confrontation with directness:

“So, I ask you again, shall we hire a Technical Writer or not this year?”, I said.
“If the need was big we should do that.” says HB, head of the technical center.
“Yes, but we just agreed that the need is not big now. So you mean we should not hire for this position?”
I feel that I get a bit irritated. It is the third time I ask the same question, but I do not get a clear answer.
“If the need had been big, we should hire.”, she says again.
I get hot and angry and start to fume inside. Why not just say “No” if you mean that? Are you an idiot, I think to myself. Why do we waste our time with this kind of unclear indecisions?

Suddenly I realize that I had hit my head on the boardplank of communication culture. My Chinese colleague is a master of positive, friendly, implicit communication that is crystal clear to all other Chinese colleagues. Being a blunt barbarian, I need the black-and-white statements of yes/no. She expresses her opinion just as clear, but much more politely and correctly, according to her indirect communciation culture.

The Direct style usually starts in the center with the core of the question, and then winds out towards the secondary issues and connections.
The Chinese way is to start with the context and build to the center, sometimes even leaving the obvious statement unsaid.

Indirect Communication Style starts at the outside and slowly moves to the center.
Indirect Communication Style starts at the outside and slowly moves to the center.

I used to be an expert at the indirect implicit style, but now I have lived for ten years outside of Sweden, so I am getting rusty and impatient and blunt. Working in international teams has also trained me in being very explicit, to ensure that the objectives are clear. However, the drawback is that my communication style is less eloquent and sometimes rudely impolite.

2014-01-31 04_14_06-Document1 - Microsoft Word
Direct Communication Style – starting in the middle, and only then zooms out to the wider context.

In the meeting I take a step back, and use an indirect way of getting full clarity: – “I write here in the meeting minutes that we decided to not hire the Technical Writer, at least not for the next six months. Ok?”, I say. Then I look around and get affirmative nods from everyone.
My pulse is back to normal and I smile at my colleague when we start on the next topic.

One enigma is why communication directness is not part of the classic cultural dimensions, neither by Hofstede nor Trompenaars. The work of the two Dutch authors Geert Hostede and Fons Trompenaars has been truly helpful for me in uncountable situations. They have observed behaviour in different cultures and explain it through a small set of value dimensions. However, directness is not one on their list. I wonder why?



Air Quality (cough, cough)

The first week of November has been shrouded in a hazy smog. All over Shanghai, the sunshine is dissolving into a colorful sky. It made me want to look at the numbers. It is bad, but how bad?

First of all I looked at the NOx satellite maps from the research institute in Heidelberg. They have published global maps of their measurement results. Up until the 90’s, the nitrogen oxide concentration was the most common metric for air pollution. The NO2 molecules can turn into nitric acid and acid rain.

Global NOx Air Concentration. Holland is close to Shanghai.
Global NOx Air Concentration. Holland is close to Shanghai.

But NOx is not everything. Today we can set up measurement stations to measure particulates (PM2.5/PM10), ozone, SO2, NOx etc, and calculate an “air quality index”.  A few years ago, the American Embassy started to publish air quality measurements on-line, which led to a diplomatic fight. After many rounds, in January 2013 the Chinese government agreed to the publication and started to post data from hundreds of measurement stations all across China. All our Chinese friends have smartphone apps that display the current Air Quality Index. Today it was 224. “Very Unhealthy”.

Air Quality Index smartphone app. We can follow the levels hour-by-hour.
Air Quality Index smartphone app. We can follow the levels hour-by-hour.

There is also an interesting website that publishes air quality across the world, wherever measurements are available: http://aqicn.org/

Air Pollution in Shanghai Real-time Air Quality Index Visual Map - Mozilla Fire_2013-11-08_21-54-38
Shanghai air pollution right now, Friday evening 8 November 2013. (We live next to the 158 sign, center right).

So, what if we compare to other polluted cities, like Amsterdam or New York?

Amsterdam/Rotterdam areas today.
Amsterdam area, and some Antwerpen 8 Nov 2013.  Very few measurement stations in The Netherlands.
New York Air Quality 8 Nov 2013.
New York Air Quality 8 Nov 2013.

Unfortunately, I could not find a live station in my old hometown Gothenburg, but a report stated that the year-average is 15-20 there.

The fact that numbers on air quality are published creates public awareness and political pressure to improve the situation in China. I predict a legal ban on petrol cars in the biggest cities within five years. Just like there was a ban on petrol scooters 10 years ago.

Today it costs nothing to pollute. That is a problem. This is arguably the most important challenge for Economy as a “science”, to create metrics for “externalities” and to find ways to measure and control destruction.
Part of the price for “Made in China” is the health effects and the environment impact here.
Next time you buy some cheap stuff, remember who pays.

Death rates due to urban air pollution, from WHO.
Death rates due to urban air pollution, from WHO.

Getting to No

In the West, there is a very popular management book about negotiation that is called “Getting to Yes” by Ury, Fisher and Patton, indicating that the most difficult aspect in a discussion or negotiation is to get agreement. In China, the challenge is the opposite. As I learned from my friend Linus [with intense Guangzhou experience], yes can mean many things:

A Yes is a Yes is a No? (picture from http://efc.web.unc.edu/files/2013/04/Yes-No-Blog.jpeg)
A Yes is a Yes is a No? (picture from http://efc.web.unc.edu/files/2013/04/Yes-No-Blog.jpeg)

“Yes, I understand and I agree and I will execute immediately.”
“Yes, I understand but I do not agree”
“Yes, I hear that you are speaking, but I do not understand”
“Yes, I am still alive, but I have no clue what you are talking about”
It is not very often the first one, and unfortunately not the second either.
Therefore, asking yes-no questions are of limited use in China. [footnote: I understand that this is similar all across Asia, but I do not have enough first-hand information about other places. In Japan I had this much less, but I did not spend much time there.]
Quite a few times, I have found myself asking yes-no questions, always getting yes, and scratching my head afterwards with puzzlement and disappointment why it did not work out as we had decided. “Will you finish the report before Friday? – Yes.”

The words “yes” and “no” have no direct synonyms in Chinese. Therefore, the best translation into English of how a Chinese would answer a question from a boss is: “Yes,….”, which means more or less, “Ok, …”. The negatively posed questions are especially tricky, like “Will that not work out?”.

The way to get around this linguistic artifact is to pose a different set of questions, sometimes called open questions: “When will the report be finished?”, “What do you need to finish this on time?”, “Which problems could arise?”, “Why are you convinced that this will work out?” etc. etc.

I have hit my head so many times, that I am getting allergic to “yes”. Whenever I realize that I accidentally placed a yes-no-question in the conversation, I regroup and launch a new question based on what, and I try to forget the first answer. It is not easy, and I still often run into the trap, but it is getting better and better. It goes both ways. I get better at crossing the inter-cultural chasm, and my Chinese engineers find new ways of reaching out in my direction. We try to work with humor and laugh at our misunderstandings, but it is never easy.

The challenge is: Getting to No!