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Sustainability 1: The Commons

Uploaded: Apr 4, 2013
Picture in your mind's eye a thriving medieval farm village. Each household owns its personal plot of land for tilling, and there's a large common area – The Commons – on which all may graze their sheep. Life is good until one enterprising shepherd decides to raise more sheep. Why not? The Commons is free, after all, and no one will notice a few more ruminants munching away.

Except, of course, they do. Every other farmer follows suit, and conditions on The Commons begin to deteriorate. With everyone following their individual, immediate self-interest, there's no natural stopping point – until The Commons is ruined and all the sheep starve – farmers, too. Eventually, The Commons recovers, but the village does not.

Our tiny blue ball of a planet is a lot like that. We each enjoy the freedom to earn a little piece of our own, and most of it consists of The Commons: the air – including weather and climate, water in rivers, oceans and aquifers, and the land, most of which is owned in-common through governments. It's a remarkably resilient Commons that operates in a kind of balance across time too long for us to contemplate. It can absorb all kinds of insults, from outer space meteor collisions to eruptions from within. It's indifferent to its specific villagers, except as they play a transient role in the grand balanced scheme. Inhabitant species come and go; the planet endures.

Over time, our species has earned a reputation as serial trashers of various smaller Commons. Expand that medieval farming village to a city, for example, and it was prone to disease from sewage running in the gutters. Humankind has responded in two ways: invoke rules and work in-concert to restore and maintain The Commons, or move-on to deplete or despoil other locations.

Think of our own country's history: the westward expansion fueled by Manifest Destiny, careless exploitation of seemingly boundless resources -- and then the fundamental changes wrought by 'the closing of the frontier.' It forced Americans to start living consciously, in-concert with each other, since there was no more 'Out There' out there.

The world, with its now 7 billion human inhabitants, has reached the point where our global frontier has closed – the habitable places are all spoken-for; hell, even Houston is spoken-for. We've also put our Commons under pressure, and, without going all Hillary on you, the fate of our global village depends on how we respond: together via governments, acting on corporations and individuals.

The term coined to define conscious actions taken with our fundamental relationship with The Commons in-mind is sustainability: living today in such a way that the earth remains habitable for future generations. Organizations as diverse as Sierra Club, the UN via its Agenda 21 and The Business Roundtable (the CEOs of America's largest corporations) have embraced the concept.

Corporations have so far felt the brunt of rules made to promote sustainability, as their scale dwarfs the impact most individuals can have on The Commons. The evolution of corporate thinking in this realm is instructive.

In corporate/economic parlance, assaults on The Commons are called "externalities" – that is, if your factory generates methyl-ethyl-death as a waste that you can flush down the river, its costs are ultimately borne by others outside the business. Companies have had to 'internalize' those costs since the late 1960s founding of the EPA (per President Nixon), under such laws as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and RCRA.

Their first steps were to either dilute wastes to below legal threshold limits (e.g., taller smokestacks), or dispose of them more carefully. Dilution obviously has limits in our global closed system, and proper disposal can be costly. Doing what corporations do, they devoted resources to minimizing those expenses, and alternative processes were implemented. In many instances, modern alchemists turned former wastes streams into products made golden in circumstances nobody had considered when the materials were flushable. We generally get to see those happy outcomes in the form of commercials.

A second step has involved creating products that are, themselves, more benign, to further reduce the costs of "cradle-to-grave" responsibility (like plastic bottles recyclable into carpets, and vice versa). And finally, in some parts of the world, companies have embraced or been led to so-called "cradle-to-cradle" processes.

In these cases, they give forethought not only to disposal or recycling, but also to re-use in the next home of those particular molecules: a 2010 BMW built with its participation in the 2020 model in-mind. The Business Roundtable link above takes you to five years of annual reports from America's corporate titans on their considerable sustainability efforts. Prominent East Bay companies are well-represented.

As individuals, we've been asked to participate both directly (as in household waste separation) and by paying higher prices for some products whose global impact is now included in the cost. Like denizens of those early cities, we can no longer empty our chamber pots into the street, but must pay for the sewer infrastructure to manage waste, together. Similarly, fuels and cars run much cleaner than earlier versions, and are more expensive. In most instances, these changes have been marginal and the results clearly evident: (most) cities are livable (even Houston, mostly), and you can no longer cut LA's air with a knife (most days).

But what happens when the results are less visible, and sustainability calls for greater adjustments? Is it 'green tyranny?' Find out next week, in part 2.

Synopsis: over-grazing The Commons – any Commons – is generally a bad idea.
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Posted by Dave, a resident of Danville,
on Apr 8, 2013 at 5:26 pm

And now - partly as a result of generational turnover in corporate leadership, and partly because it make good competitive business sense (especially in a regulated business environment), corporations are becoming leaders in sustainability -- hiring Chief Sustainability Officers, and instituting changes at the board- and senior management levels.

Posted by Lance, a resident of Alamo,
on Apr 16, 2013 at 10:43 pm

Egads, my law classes contained less fluff than the digits above.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Apr 17, 2013 at 8:59 am

The Tragedy of The Commons: "On 13 December 1968, the late Garrett Hardin of Stanford University published an essay in Science magazine that was destined to become one of the journal's most requested articles in the subsequent 35 years." Web Link

Re: externalities, from Milton Friedman's last interview:

Friedman: ... Free markets work best when the transaction between two individuals affects only those individuals. But that isn't the fact. The fact is that, most often, a transaction between you and me affects a third party. That is the source of all problems for government. That is the source of all pollution problems, of the inequality problem. ... Web Link

If that's your fluff, I'm honored that you read my humble blog.

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