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.

IMG_8465
Students playing the “Barnga” card game to illustrate norm conflicts. Anger and confusion and finally laughter are part of the mix.
IMG_8467
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.

Image

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.

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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.

Goran

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.

ps.
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?

pps.
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?