Friday, July 11, 2008


Last night, I attended a meeting of one of many groups attempting to create a more sustainable future. The aim of this particular group was to enable the business efforts of entrepreneurs (or “ecopreneurs”) by providing a forum for networking, attracting investment and employees, and education about current technologies.

As a former businessman and engineer, I am no stranger to the idea that technology and business can solve many problems. The current ecological crisis, on its face, appears to be well suited for such solutions. All we need to do is develop the right products and build demand for them (a task which will be aided by the growing cost of existing products).

The meeting was dominated by business strategy: Finding compelling value propositions and developing the appropriate market spaces with adequate funding and supply chains. As is usual in such discussions, focus was on the cost and benefit of products from the perspective of end-users, while externalizing costs as much as possible to increase profit.

In private discussions with several participants, it became clear to me that any consideration of overall reduction of consumption and adopting solutions in tune with natural systems involved the equivalent of marketing science fiction, too “out there” to be worthwhile. I felt like an atheist in an evangelist church, a feeling I know well from literal experience.

I hung in there anyway, hoping to find some inkling of hope that I could contribute to the next industrial revolution while accommodating my new-found grasp of the larger reality. The closest I could come was an assessment that these ecopreneurs are building a bridge between existing approaches and the nature-bound solutions people will be forced to embrace in several decades. They are attempting to sell novelties to a public that understands novelties, without getting caught up in the broader issue of total resource use that should be part of product demand.

Tugging at the back of my mind was the urgency of reducing the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas concentration by 2050 as well as restoring part of the biosphere we have disabled or destroyed, and unanswered questions about the pollution and social damage that might be created by carelessly designed production practices and the extraction industries they depend on. I had the growing suspicion that all these things were not being taken into account by these innovators.

I decided afterward that perhaps the greatest contribution I could make in such settings would be to bring up my questions, and present for debate the idea that a different, simpler strategy would be more effective: Working with and emulating natural systems as much as possible while taking a hard-core value engineering approach to the definition of the problems being solved.

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