Beyond Sustainability, Towards Rejuvenative Enterprise

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The future that’s coming…

The human population is set to grow to more than 9 billion by 2050. WhBeyond Sustainability, Towards Rejuvenative Enterpriseat sort of world do we want new arrivals to come in to? One of scarce resources and extreme competition for the basic elements of survival, or one in which they are able to build stable and meaningful lives for themselves and their children?

The future we can build…

The time has come to build a world where we can welcome 9 billion people rather than fear their arrival. A future of healthy and thriving ecosystems and 9 billion capable citizens is an ambitious vision and a powerful driver for the development of economies, businesses and societies. The companies that will build such a future will be Rejuvenative Enterprises.

Rejuvenative Enterprise

A Rejuvenative Enterprise is one which provides a manifest contribution to the abundance, vitality and productive capacity of natural capital and societies upon which it depends for skills, resources, markets and customers.

The goal of Rejuvenative Enterprise is to play a clear and positive role in building a world of 9 billion capable citizens.

Principles for Rejuvenative Enterprise

At the heart of these ideas are the following principles, rejuvenative companies would be able to demonstrate that they:

  • Are Thermodynamically optimised – their use of energy and materials would be in alignment with the physical characteristics and limits of the planet with a focus upon ‘entropic efficiency’.
  • Value abundance rather than scarcity – prioritising technologies and behaviours which deliver either natural (e.g. biologically-based) or managed (e.g. through closed loop stewardship) abundance.
  • Enhance Natural vitality – valuing technologies and processes which make use of the planet’s natural rejuvenative and productive abilities, learning from and utilising natural production techniques as the basis for their technological and industrial models.
  • Balance their interdependence – recognising and balancing the web of social interdependencies they exist within, seeking mutual equity within all relationships.

The path to rejuvenation

Building a sustainable, equitable future requires a clear and consistent pathway of corporate evolution from the leading business practice of today to the Rejuvenative Enterprises to come.

With a focus upon key areas of business practice, there are three fundamental steps on this evolutionary journey: Transitionary, Sustainable and Rejuvenative Enterprises.

Transitionary Enterprises

Transitionary Enterprises incorporate sustainability best practice in many of their activities based upon business as usual approaches, with an ambition for best but not leading sectoral practice.

These companies have a good grasp of incorporating good citizenship in business operations while maximising profit, but work fundamentally within traditional ‘business as usual’ cradle to grave models.

They offer a wide range of products that have integrated sustainability characteristics in either sourcing or production. While some products and services have lower than average sustainability impacts, the majority are conventional relative to their competitors.

The company uses mainly conventional energy sources together with some renewables. Carbon free goals are reached through the use of additional offsetting.

Sustainability and CSR strategy is integrated into core business structure and stakeholders are involved in some processes.

Ecological and social capital relationships are acknowledged but external costs are not accounted for or addressed. Targets for fundamental performance improvement are set, focussing upon direct and indirect impacts.

Sustainable Enterprises

Sustainable Enterprises look to achieve best in class sustainability performance. Sustainability is part of business strategy, with a class leading ambition for net positive impacts.

These companies examine their products and services in-depth and strive to operate their businesses following best sustainability practice. A number of products and services follow cradle-to-cradle production models and several products have class leading performance in energy and material efficiency. The overall product portfolio is zero-impact based.

Carbon-free production is achieved through means including integrated on-site renewable energy generating production facilities.

The corporate ambition is to achieve net-zero impact and efforts are made to achieve ‘best-in-class’ position. Business strategy is largely defined by the sustainability ambition while material sustainability issues are analysed in terms of their impact upon financial, environmental and social risk.

The CEO plays a clear leadership role in sustainability strategy and sustainability is viewed as a source of business opportunities and driver for innovation.

Sustainability communication is highly prioritised within Annual Reports (AR) and stand alone Sustainability reports include in-depth, best practice third party assurance.

Rejuvenative Enterprises

Rejuvenative organisations align and optimise their activities to long-term sustainability factors such that their ability to grow is not constrained by traditional resource limits. Taking a stewardship approach to all their resources, they make a positive contribution to social and ecological capacity.

A circular, Cradle-to-Cradle approach is used in all aspects of business operations for scarce and potentially dangerous materials where alternatives have not yet been developed.

A positive focus is placed upon the development and maintenance of the stability and capability of customers and potential customers.

Business operations function with minimal energy utilization and go beyond renewable energy with use of bio-energy harvesting. Technology utilises massively distributed industrial production capable of aggregation, hyper low voltage technology/energy systems and biological production processes.

The planning and execution of commercial activities is required to demonstrate a positive contribution to social and ecological utility, which in turn is supported by staff reward systems. Because it is in the company’s interest to maximise the pool of capable healthy customers, it ensures that none of its activities undermine this goal and that instead they make a positive contribution.

A sustainable future is within our grasp

The vast majority of the behaviours and technologies likely to support a future fit for us and our descendants already exist – should we decide to use them at the scale required.

Business evolves all the time, the coming decades will bring a more seismic change to business as usual than has been seen since the Western Industrial Revolution.

Rejuvenative Enterprises are those which understand, respond and capitalise upon the changes our planet faces, for the good of themselves, the planet and its people.

Rejuvenative enterprise promises new life, new hope and new wealth for us all, let’s embrace its challenge.

 

This post was first published by Sustainable Brands on 27/03/2014.

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Sustainability: 21st Century Natural Philosophy

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“Science is the knowledge of consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another.”

Thomas Hobbes

The Times They Aren’t a-Changing

We are at a point in our species’ history when the need for change has never been stronger. Therefore it is with some frustration that the change we require Natural-philosophyremains ever out of reach, trampled by business as usual.

At every sustainability or CSR conference a plethora of gurus will tell you that sustainability and CSR types use the wrong language, are too techy, are too interested in the difference between GRI G4 and G3.1 or are too immersed in the internecine antics of the IIRC and SASB.

This is of course true. Few consumers will prioritise a company’s use of ISO26000 over the design, performance and desirability of the products it sells.

However, the lack of mainstream acceptance of sustainability is not down to the choice of words that sustainability practitioners use. The reasons are more fundamental, more wilful, more concerning and occasionally more ludicrous.

Natural philosophy for the 21st century

We have entered a period which has strong echoes of the European Enlightenment period. Natural philosophers such as Newton, Leibnitz and Hooke, just as others had before and did after them, applied curiosity and investigation to their examinations of the world. They then held their thinking up against the orthodox world views of the day – thereby exploring the dissonance.

Eventually the approach they developed, and the “truths” they uncovered, became the foundations of the scientific approach.

Today, many groups are nagging at the gulf between what orthodoxy preaches and what “reality” suggests. For instance, rebellious students enraged by being taught economic theory rendered obsolete by the financial crash are lobbying for the development of courses of “post crash economics”. Similarly, calls for the consideration of Natural Capital as the source of all human value have their arguments founded in an article of physical truth (humans need to eat, drink and breathe) aligned against the social science conception of economic theory (economic growth can be infinite and disregard the parameters of the planet).

Truth just doesn’t cut it anymore

A strange aspect of our current orthodoxies is that for some reason they have only needed to be “truthy” or have “truthiness” to have the feeling or appearance of truth in order to be accepted or responded to.

So, economic theories only have to work with certain baked-in assumptions, or in certain contexts, to be considered capable of applying globally; regardless of whether they work in all cases and at all scales.

Likewise, theories about how the world works, or whether certain environmental issues represent threats or are the result of human activity, tend to be reliant for their success not upon the level of verifiable facts at their disposal, but whether they appeal to what we would like to believe.

Of course, even the term “truth” is a difficult one, as people can share many different conceptions of the word. Scientific method remains the only really reliable way humans have to obtain agreement on what is “true”. Sustainability advocates stray from the scientific method at their peril.

The idea that it is only “the truth will set you free”, that people faced with a strong body of evidence would choose to change their minds and their behaviour, is clearly not often the case. However, this does not mean that we can afford to move away from facts; otherwise we become untethered from any defensible position.

Divided by a common language

The challenge for those of us seeking to achieve a sustainable world is that our means of persuasion – which must acknowledge uncertainty and be rooted in the scientific method – are not always those which appeal to the majority. We should also recognise that those who do not share our belief in the need for change may use very different means to convey their message.

This produces an asymmetric situation – each side plays by different rules.

A stunning example of this is the conception of the “reality based community” – a phrase coined by a neo-con advisor to the G. W. Bush administration. This was used as term of pity and abuse and essentially said: “you scientific empiricists are slaves to ‘reality’ and are hidebound by your commitment to scientific method. We, on the other hand, are history’s actors; we make our own reality through our actions and will have created a new world while you are struggling to keep up”.

Comfort with familiarity

We also have a strong disposition to the familiar, the status quo, despite the fact that the familiar may be impermanent and itself the product of radical change. As humans we don’t tend to perceive cumulatively significant but incremental change and we also actively welcome certain other types of change – those that we consider to be “progress”.

In addition, there is some fascinating emerging psychological analysis which suggests (broadly) that progressives (perhaps most likely to be sustainability advocates) tend towards considering themselves distinct or different from others with similar views (they overstate this difference) whilst conservatives (perhaps more likely to be distrustful of sustainability) tend towards considering themselves as more aligned with those holding similar views.

In essence one side leans away from like minds and the other leans towards! This means that sustainability advocates are less cohesive and aligned than those that “reject” it – perhaps a significant reason why we find it hard to develop a collective voice for the our species’ future on the planet.

Speaking truth to power

Of course, the means and modes of communication that we need to employ must be varied, and capable of appealing to the different dimensions of what it means to be human; to rationality, desire, empathy, emotion, reason, aspiration and gut-feeling.

To-date, we haven’t done too well. But it is worth remembering that for every dollar spent espousing greater sustainability, there are many thousands, if not millions, spent encouraging a world that is profoundly unsustainable.

It is hardly surprising that, as a species, we haven’t made much progress towards being sustainable. We haven’t actually tried yet!

 

This post was published (under the sub-title above) on Sustainable Brands on 13/03/2014.

 

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Entropic Valuation – energy economics as if thermodynamics mattered

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The constitution of the universe

“Everything you are, and have, you owe to the radiations from your sun.”

Chocky (John Wyndam)

 

The Laws of Thermodynamics provably frame and shape our scopeeverything we have...

for existence, yet they are effectively ignored by economic policy and process.

The first and second laws of thermodynamics are sometimes called the “constitution of the universe”. They describe the fundamental physical principles of the behaviour of energy. The 1st Law refers to change in energy states, the 2nd Law to energy dispersal, which can be expressed as follows: “energy of all kinds in our material world disperses or spreads out if it is not hindered from doing so.

To use a metaphor, energy is like water, it only moves in one direction: towards dispersal (energy) or downhill (water). However, not all water moves downhill at the same speed, just as not all energy flows from concentrated to dispersed forms at the same rate.

The measure of the dispersal predicted by the 2nd law is entropy. As entropy applies without exception to all energetic processes, it can provide a common metric to measure the lifetime performance of different energy sources.

Why isn’t overall thermodynamic performance part of energy economics?

Despite recent advances in renewable production, fossil fuels still make up more than 80% of our planet’s energy use. There are some good, practical reasons why coal, oil and natural gas (CONG) dominate supply in the global economy. Most significantly, CONG provide concentrated, transportable sources of utilisable energy.

However, this ease of use distracts us from their lifetime energetic (entropic) performance: that is, how efficiently they capture, store and render the sun’s energy over their lifetime.

We tend to think of CONG as energy itself, but this is not accurate. They are storage media for concentrated solar energy which was aggregated by photosynthesis in prehistoric vegetation and then subjected to nearly 100 million years of geological process. In conceptual and literal terms they are natural batteries, comparable to a lithium ion battery storing energy derived from solar PV.

The Sun is the original source of almost all energy, arguably excepting nuclear, geothermal and tidal. This common origin provides the opportunity to derive like-for-like comparisons of energy sources.

Comparing the entropic performance of energy sources provides us with a way of assessing and therefore pricing the total efficiency of a wide range of energy sources. This could be called ‘entropic valuation’.

Why entropic valuation matters

Entropic valuation is a means to compare the total energetic efficiency of solar derived energy sources, it considers: “How many solar kilojoules (kJ) have gone into this storage media in order to obtain 1 kJ of usable energy from it?” This ratio can then be used to assign a nominal price to the results.

If common solar origin is considered for a range of energy types then a very different picture of value and efficiency emerges. For example, if we consider the conversion of solar kilojoules into usable kilojoules, then solar PV is circa 100,000 times more efficient than oil.

This may be technically correct, but what difference does it actually make? After all, while CONG includes many million years of investment, we don’t pay for that time and can simply reap the benefits of its existence. However, there are compelling reasons to explore the real total energetic (entropic) performance of different energy sources.

Benjamin Franklin wrote that “the great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by false estimates they have made of the value of things”.

The false estimates that we make of the value of fossil fuels blinds us to the challenges which arise from their use. Beyond the pollution impacts of burning irreplaceable stored energy, the belief that fossil fuel energetically outcompetes other sources of energy has lead to distorted markets and incentives to pursue resources that are ever harder to exploit.

Projects such as Carbon Tracker have begun to highlight the extent of the problem, calculating that only 20-40% of carbon assets held by listed companies could be burnt without exceeding global warming of 2°C. Yet the worth currently assigned to these assets can only be realised if they are used. In our current industrial model this would be a onetime use: valuable in the short term, but catastrophic in both planetary and financial terms in the future.

Applying entropic valuation to differing solar derived energy sources reveals that fossil fuels carry sunshine at a much lower rate, in terms of original energy received, than the real-time production of solar PV and storage.

overpowering fossil fuels

The above table compares the energy conversion (of solar input) efficiencies of a number of energy sources. Put simply, coal, oil and natural gas capture only 2.4% of solar input received, while solar PV captures vastly more, varying between 15 and 40%.

This ‘capture gap’ is compounded through the geological translation of ancient vegetation into concentrated fossil fuel, meaning that while every KJ of sun energy received by solar PV produces around 0.1kJ of usable energy, oil produces only 0.00000094 kJ – more than 100,000 times less!

This analysis highlights an interesting relationship between the energetic efficiency of ‘real-time’ or ‘live’ energy generation and that of fossil fuel energy generation.

These differences can be translated into money. Using the relative efficiency figures from the table above, energy sources can be priced on an equal basis. If each input kJ of Sun energy cost $1, the product energy price required to break-even per kJ produced are shown here:

The fossil fuel price problem

The whole picture – don’t forget the externalities

While comparisons of total energetic performance are dramatic, we should also remember that significant external costs arise from the use of CONG.

These costs, rarely integrated into the actual price paid for energy, exist across a range of “balance sheets” and consist of the following dimensions:

  • Climate impacts the contribution of CO2 and other emissions driving climate disruption.
  • Pollution direct impacts from extraction, production and refining in addition to combustion emissions for energy and other uses.
  • Opportunity costs one time use of such complex, time-rich compounds precludes a huge range of other uses, for: plastics, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and possible future technologies.

Use of oil - entropy

There appears to be a correlation (but not necessarily a causal link) between energetic performance and the scale of these externalities. While climate and pollution costs are well documented, the huge differences in energetic performance perhaps highlight the scale of opportunity costs incurred by our predominantly “one-time” use of fossil fuels.

Towards real-time energy

Francois de La Rochefoucauld noted that “The principal point of cleverness is to know how to value things just as they deserve.”

It is just such intelligence that humanity must apply to the environmental and energy challenges of the coming decades.

Clear and unarguable environmental and resource trends indicate an overwhelming need to connect energy pricing with the fundamental realities of physics in terms of:

  • overall energetic performance
  • longevity & replenish-ability
  • cleanliness/pollution
  • significant/irreversible opportunity costs

Entropic valuation provides a means to connect these aspects, founded in immutable physical law.

Entropic valuation reveals the orders of magnitude difference between the life time efficiency of “live” solar generation and the ‘stored sunshine’ of fossil fuels.

It suggests that truly sustainable solutions lie in growing ‘real-time’ energy and moving rapidly away from our dependence on upon finite, and borrowed, prehistoric time.

It’s time we paid rather more mind, and money, to entropy.

 

Entropic Valuation is idea developed by Joss Tantram in conjunction with Sean Grunnet Cuthbert and first tested in public at the Energy Storage World Forum, Berlin, April 2013. Our motivation in developing the idea was to explore new ways of looking at old problems and to connect energy perspectives with the energy reality defined by the laws of thermodynamics.

A slightly shorter version of this article was first published by Green Futures Magazine on 3/02/14.

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SWOT on Earth?

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“The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything….Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.”
Ada Lovelace

SWOT’s Your Resolution for the planet?

It’s a brand New Year and here in the UK, like many countries, New Year brings new aspirations and resolutions. These tend to have a strong self-improvement theme and range from the trivial to game changing – at least some people like to think so.

We thought it would be interesting to focus upon resolution for a sustainable future, and rather than just jumping on the latest trendy bandwagons or buzzwords, take stock of the state we are in before planning for the future.

As we claim to be evidence based sustainability experts here at Terrafiniti HQ, we really need some sort of management tool (however simple) to help us focus on what is really important.

We thought we’d go very strategic and take a planetary approach, so here’s our SWOT on Earth for 2014.

Of course it’s difficult to force sustainability issues into boxes so you will find some things feature more than once – it’s an interconnected world out there!

SWOT on Earth's going on?

Questions to consider

  • What would you add to the above?
  • What would you remove?
  • How can we move more entries from the right to the left, from the bad to the good?
  • How might this analysis have changed compared to 50 years ago and how might it be different in 50 years?
  • What are your New Year Sustainability Resolutions?

That which does not kill you makes you stronger

Of course, such a simplistic analysis can never contain the fantastic and sometimes bewildering complexity of life on our planet, nor map all of its facets.

The fact remains, however, that many of the issues in our SWOT present both a negative and positive face for the planet’s future.

As ever, we have in our grasp either the means to make or to undo a sustainable future.

 

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Vitality! How life makes the best of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics

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“There is no wealth but life.”

John Ruskin

The magic of life

There is much we do not know about how life works to transform the basics of matter and energy into complex materials and massively diverse interdependent systems.
Despite many miraculous advances in science and technology, our manufacturing and production is often shamed by the scale, simplicity and systemic safety of life.

Arthur C Clarke’s famous quote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” applies just as much to the wondrous technology of life as it does to as yet only imagined technology of a myriad science fictions.

Learning from life

Our species faces ever increasing challenges of ecosystem damage, pollution and inequity, against a background of rising demand and emerging scarcity. In parallel, efforts to understand and include the value of Natural Capital in economics, accounting and business are gaining momentum.
Given this, the very foundations of humanity’s technology and industrial production must be re-shaped to become capable of delivering goods and services with radically different energetic and material efficiency performance.
To do this we must learn from the ways by which life does it; cleanly, safely and abundantly.

Life’s mysterious mechanics issue a challenge for the development of truly sustainable technologies. They have also lead to a number of misapprehensions about how this aspect of life works, especially when related to the framing rules of physical existence, the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Life and entropy

The most significant of these misapprehensions is the belief that, uniquely in the known universe, life is anti-entropic, disobeying the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This Law states that energy inexorably disperses or spreads out from higher concentrations to lower concentrations if not hindered (by the need to overcome chemical activation energies) from doing so.
This has often been described as a flow or change from an ordered state to a disordered state. However, this is scientifically incorrect and works at best as a metaphor, albeit a misleading one. Because the disorder meme is so embedded in our culture, life is seen by many as anti-entropic because it provides high levels of ‘order’ through complex structures.

The energetics of life

I stand squarely in favour of life….I have a decided personal aversion to death, I find entropy distasteful, and if invited to the heat death of the universe, I would most certainly make other plans.

Haviland Tuf (George R.R. Martin)

Life, like everything else, doesn’t break the 2nd Law, it is just good at making the most of the energy available in the environment. This happens via photosynthesis by primary producers (photoautotrophs – mainly plants) or through the eating of plants by primary consumers (herbivores), or the eating of herbivores by secondary consumers (carnivores).

While life has no magical powers, it has a magic all the same. Virtually all known life on earth is driven by solar energy and is phenomenally good at diverting a proportion of available energy to drive photosynthesis. Only around 0.02% of the sun’s energy which reaches the Earth is captured for photosynthesis, yet these “scraps” are still more than enough to fuel stunning complexity and diversity across the globe.

Photosynthesis is not anti-entropic. Plants intercept around 30% of the energy available from solar radiation and use it in incredibly complicated biochemical processes to store smaller amounts of concentrated energy. The 70% not used in photosynthesis results in an increase in entropy through heating the plant and the atmosphere. This process results in lower entropy in the short term than if 100% of the energy hit bare rock or soil.

As organisms of the natural world humans are innately good at making productive use of the 2nd Law. However, our industrial production systems and technology are woefully poor at harvesting energy in any but the most ham-fisted of ways.

Our use of fossil energy is stealing time

Our prevailing economic and industrial models depend upon the accelerated entropy represented by fossil fuels – vast stores of concentrated, processed biological matter holding in suspension many millions of years of processed, prehistoric sunlight. We are burning through this bank of stolen time at a frightening rate, millennia of stored energy gone in one-time use every year.

Nature makes use of real-time energy conversion to produce complex materials in abundance. Humanity uses fossil-time energy to fuel its industrial production.

Learning more about the energetics of life, and making much better use of these techniques for our own technology and industrial production, would present us with the means by which to achieve a seismic change in the capacity and sustainability of our species.

 

Towards real time energy utilisation

““Everything you are, and have, you owe to the radiations from your sun.”

Chocky (John Wyndam)

The Sun is a vast opportunity machine – dedicated (at least for the next few billion years) to trying it’s hardest to give this planet a chance to do stuff. Neither the Sun nor the planet has an opinion on this. The Sun is equally happy heating the surfaces of sterile planets. It is humanity which has an emotional stake in this game. Humanity which has the chance to take the almost endless opportunities offered to us by the ready supply of 84 Terrawatts of energy every single day.

This abundant solar income is utilised readily by life in general but, strikingly, is all but overlooked by humans. We turn our back on this diffuse daily bounty in favour of concentrated forms from our fossil past.

Achieving a sustainable future requires us to reverse this relationship, to explore and develop massively distributed industrial production capable of aggregation, hyper low voltage technology/energy systems and biological production which takes place at the speed of our seasons.

Our challenge is to use real time rather than stolen time to achieve more than we could ever have dreamt of.

This post was also published by Sustainable Brands on 13/12/13.

 

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Valuing Natural Capital and Selling your Mother – the remix

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 An ecosystem might be likened to a great biological machine, perhaps. If this analogy is pursued, humanity must be seen as part of the machine. No doubt an important part – an engine, a key circuit – but in no case apart from the mechanism, as is often fallaciously assumed.

 Haviland Tuf (George R. R. Martin)

 

This post represents a catch up and re-mix of an idea we published just over a year ago on the growing agenda of natural capital and ecosystem valuation – and our recent framing of the idea as a short animated film. Enjoy!

 

 

Natural capital makes the world go round

The idea of pricing the value we get from ecosystems, literally pricing the Earth, has been with us for a couple of decades – famously highlighted (though not absolutely originated) by Robert Constanza in 1987 – whose research found that the value of the Earth to humanity was $33 trillion annually.

The area has been gaining significant momentum with the development and rise of the classification of ecosystem services and the emergence of natural capital accounting approaches and payments for ecosystem services. Environmental and ecosystem products have started trading on international markets and high level conferences such as the World Forum on Natural Capital are popping up like mushrooms overnight.

Fundamental dependencies indicate a value hierarchy

Using a comparable metric like money as a way to put things on a level playing field makes sense, but only up to a point. Such an approach would be fine if the things we were comparing were truly comparable. However, the environment is something you can’t do without.

There is a dependency relationship. Put simply, there is no money without human beings capable of inventing and using it. There are no human beings without food, air and water.

If you can’t measure you can’t be bothered…

The logic of ecosystem valuation is motivated by the idea that we need to value and price the contribution that our economy gets from the natural world; once that value is identified, it can be considered and balanced alongside other priorities.

Value implies price, price implies sales, and sales imply markets — if we are not careful we will reduce everything to money and lose sight of the real value we started with.

The idea that: ‘If we can’t measure it we can’t manage it’ pervades much of our current ways of prioritising activity. However, there are many cases when it simply does not either apply or help.

For instance, how do you quantify the love you feel for your children, your parents or partner? You don’t. You know the value without needing to know the quantity. Finding an exact figure is irrelevant, pointless and borderline offensive.

In essence the trouble with pricing the priceless is that it implies fungibility (economic “swap-ability”); by putting a price on your mother, you are essentially saying that you’d be equally happy with a different one that cost the same.

Valuing the invaluable

Breaking down the value of your mother into monetary amounts based on individual benefits she brings to your life will ultimately sorely undervalue her; such is the dilemma presented by the move towards valuing ecosystem services.

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Towards 9 Billion in Bubbles

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“Truth suffers from too much analysis.”

Frank Herbert

We decided to see how all our posts over the last 18 months looked through a data visualisation.

The visual below, like an interactive word cloud, highlights, scales and groups word occurance.

Towards 9 Billion’s stated aim is to produce “Innovation for a sustainable future” so the fact that the two largest/most frequent words in the bubble diagram are “sustainable” and “future” shows that we have at least been on message some of the time!

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Entropic Overhead – measuring the circular economy

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Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all.

Charles Babbage

The broken hourglass

Do you break the timer when your boiled egg is cooked?

Our economy does, it is like a broken hourglass. We collect together valuable materials, apply energy and labour, put them into products that have yet more added design and brand value and spew them out into the world before starting again (mostly), from scratch.

This of course would all be fine if scarcity was not a problem: if the materials, energy and inputs we rely upon for industrial production were either eternally abundant or safe to distribute and use. However in our current industrial models this is simply not the case.

To pursue the disposable hourglass metaphor, instead of merely turning it over when the sand has run through (a cradle-to-cradle, or circular industrial model), we smash it, buy another hourglass (a cradle-to-grave industrial model) – and maybe pop the old one in the recycling if we’re feeling virtuous.

This is all fine until the raw materials, energy and skills to make more hourglasses start to get scarce or expensive. Then we would have to start to pick over the remains of the broken one to collect these now valuable raw materials for remanufacture and reuse.

How much easier is it to retain the investment that has gone in to making an hourglass than to smash it and start again every time we want to boil an egg?

Measuring the performance of different models

The performance difference between a broken and unbroken hourglass economy is easy to sum up simply – “a lot”. However, in practice more marginal differences can be crucial. A metric would allow us to measure the difference between potential courses of action and help determine the processes and activities most effective in achieving a circular, sustainable economy. But given the complexity of modern industrial processes and the fact that a well-functioning circular economy would add further convolutions, how do we develop a suitable measure?

The common denominator for all industrial activities is energy, therefore a metric which refers to the energetic characteristics of systems and processes is required. We believe this is entropy.

Entropy applies without exception to all activities and processes. Given that universality, it might be used to measure the overall efficiency of our economy and the transition to a circular economy.

Entropy applies primarily to energy and not to matter – something we are fundamentally concerned with in the circular economy. However, matter is of little use until we organise, process, manufacture and distribute it in products and services – all these activities require energy.

We therefore propose the metric of Entropic Overhead.

 

What is Entropic Overhead?

Entropic Overhead is a relative lifecycle measure of the energetic efficiency of maintaining the utility of a product or service, or reusing its constituent materials.

It can be used to assess the energetic efficiency differences between alternative pathways: for example the energy required to either make a new product or retrieve its resources to original utility, versus the energy that would be spent on retaining the original products’ use. It can also be used to assess the efficiency of alternative uses of constituent resources, beyond the original utility, in different products and processes within a circular economy.

 In terms of the hourglass metaphor, it is the energetic performance difference between:

  • obtaining a new timer with virgin materials;
  • obtaining a new timer and making some further use of the constituent materials for other purposes;
  • remaking the broken timer by retrieving and reprocessing all the constituent materials (and supplementing with new materials where needed), and;
  • avoiding breakage and simply turning the hourglass over.

Entropic Overhead is therefore a measure of the differential energy costs we would bear because we failed to make full use of the initial investment we have made in creating a functioning object with long term utility.

Why we need a metric for the circular economy

Humans seek simplicity, and we value simple measures to tell us whether we are moving in the “right” direction and to help assess marginal choices.

However, this desire does cause us problems, such as an over reliance upon metrics that are so abstracted as to be meaningless or even dangerous. GNP was famously condemned by Senator Robert Kennedy as a metric which “measures everything in short except that which is worthwhile”.

The dictum “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” might be trite and one dimensional (and often wrong), but in this case it is useful. How do we measure progress towards a circular economy and, is there one measure, rather than a million, that we can use?

 

“all models are wrong, but some are useful”

George E. P. Box

 Finding a metric that applies everywhere is difficult. In order to do so, we must look to universal principles which apply to all, without exception. The laws of thermodynamics are a good candidate as they represent a fundamental framework for physical existence.

 

What about zero impact energy and materials?

Entropic Overhead is an ideal measure to indicate the difference between varying production approaches because, in our current unsustainable economy, energy is a useful proxy for environmental efficiency.

However, it would be possible to have an economy that used only zero impact energy sources and materials. In this utopian situation, Entropic Overhead would be less suited to indicate the sustainability or otherwise of processes.

Therefore the metric is a transitionary one – useful until we achieve a circular economy which uses zero impact energy. Before this occurs, we can rate the Entropic Overhead of different processes using carbon intensity factors to allow for different means of production.

What scale can Entropic Overhead be applied to?

Any scale we like: from a product level, comparing the performance of a leased product to a “disposable” one; to the level of a value chain; for comparing business models, or comparing national & international economies.

Who else has explored this?

“It is not once nor twice but times without number that the same ideas make their appearance in the world.”

Aristotle

Various people have explored the concept of entropy in different fields from economics to social dynamics, including Frederick Soddy in the 1930s and more recently Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. Many have caught the imagination and many have foundered, possibly because the concept of entropy has been misunderstood or misappropriated – often stretched to apply to social organisation or economics.

However, this doesn’t mean the concept is without value, particularly if we don’t over extend our interpretation of the underlying science. Entropic Overhead is seeking to avoid the pitfalls that misappropriation of the concept can create by focussing upon the fundamental energetics of different industrial and economic processes and not over extending the application of the second law.

 

Measures that matter

Truly useful measures are required if we are to assess and drive towards a sustainable world. At the physical level, sustainability requires us to find ways to exist and thrive in a system which is closed to matter – though open to energy.

This existential context should define our ways of measuring and managing performance yet we have effectively ignored the reality of life on this planet for too long.

As we start to recognise and push against the hard limits of existence we need measures which tell us, meaningfully, how we are performing and the value of doing so.

Entropic Overhead allows us to measure our progress to a sustainable future, we are keen to join with others to explore its use in practice.

 

This post was also published by Sustainable Brands on 9/09/13 and by 2degrees on 19/09/13.

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Entropic Utility – measuring the circular economy

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History is a race between education and catastrophe.

H. G. Wells

In order to avoid conclusion with the economic definition of “utility” we have renamed our proposed measure for a circular economy as Entropic Overhead. Please see the updated version here.

Profuse thanks  to Bernard Lietaer for the insight on nomenclature.

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Suicide by planet

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Human judges can show mercy. But against the laws of nature, there is no appeal.

Arthur C. Clark

Suicide by cop

You don’t have to actually kill yourself to commit suicide. It is possible to commit suicide through taking conscious, knowing and wilful behaviour likely to provoke a reaction that will lead to your death.

This is recognised in law as “Suicide by Cop”; where armed police capable of and trained in the use of deadly force, are deliberately provoked into using that force by the actions of an individual or individuals.

It is a conscious act of self destruction, conducted using an understanding of relevant cause and effect relationships.

 

 

 

  Self-preservation, nature’s first great law, all the creatures, except man, doth awe.

Andrew Marvell

Suicide by planet

In planetary terms, it is not such a huge stretch of credulity to see the parallels between the trajectory of human behaviour, impacts at a global level and the act of suicide by cop. This could be termed “suicide by planet”.

Suicide by planet constitutes the continuation of behaviour likely to lead to death due to wilful ignorance of planetary-scale cause and effect. It may not be the conscious intent of individual people. Indeed, it may be the exact opposite of what most of us intend for our lives.

However, it is a path we are heading down if we continue with global business-as-usual. Our scientific understanding of global cause and effect relationships (as framed by the laws of thermodynamics), the state of the planet and the impacts of how we consume combine to indicate a clear direction of travel.

Such a depressing outcome was not the deliberate plan of the countless economists, investors and policy makers and businesses of the ages. Indeed, many of them were genuinely committed to the advancement of human wealth and (varyingly) the public and private good.

However, when the implications of a course of action are evident but ignored then the only rational judgement that can be made on that behaviour is that it is wilfully suicidal.

Does capitalism’s headlong hurtle towards large though ultimately unbending environmental limits represent an unprecedented attempt at suicide by planet? Is it a collective, subconscious aching for oblivion, for the quiet that there will be once we have gone?

It’s just a thought…..

Of course, this might be an overly negative view of our current situation. It is possible that what we are really talking about is not the suicide of our species but the suicide of our current ways of life….

But to be frank, if we weren’t dead-set upon the suicide of our civilisation then you might think we would design, value and do things differently, wouldn’t you?

 

 

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