Tag Archives: sustainability

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?

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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.

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.