Do Not Climb that Ladder

I recently finished reading The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals And Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World, by Peter Senge, Bryan Smith, Nina Kruschwitz, Joe Laur and Sara Schley Nicholas Brealey. I highly recommend this book to anyone working in sustainability / corporate responsibility. It provides practical tools to help professionals think about the challenges and opportunities presented in this field. The book made me think deeply about mental models and how our assumptions about the systems we live in affect our ability to see opportunities, understand risks, and think critically about the solutions we come up with.

For example, one of the ideas explained in the book is called the Ladder of Inference. The authors explain that the Ladder of Inference is the process by which we add meaning and draw conclusions about the world around us. It shapes the way we select data from our experiences, add meaning to the selected data, and make assumptions and conclusions according to these meanings. Ultimately, these conclusions shape our beliefs about the world. This process is cyclical; the beliefs we currently hold affect the data we select for analysis in the future.

Ladder of Inference

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Inspiration from the Net Impact 2014 Conference

I recently attended the Net Impact 2014 Conference in Minneapolis, MN and thought I would share some of the ideas and debates from the event that inspired me. The conference was full of positive, proactive energy and provided some interesting lessons for the world’s next group of sustainability leaders.

Firstly, if you have not listened to Dan Pallotta’s TED talk about the way we think about charity, I highly recommend it. He spoke at the conference on this same topic and received a very positive response from the conference attendees.

Pallotta provides some very thought provoking statistics and arguments about how our perceptions of charity often defy logic. (One excerpt: “You want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it. We’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you’re considered a parasite yourself.”) He also discusses how these beliefs about charity are impeding our ability to make effective change in the sector.

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Scaling Up Energy Efficiency

Air conditioner in a mosque in Isfahan with a European energy efficiency rating table.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), energy efficiency is defined as something that “delivers more services for the same energy input, or the same services for less energy input”. The IEA argues that “energy efficiency represents the most important plank in efforts to decarbonise the global energy system and achieve the world’s climate objectives: in the IEA scenario consistent with limiting the long-term increase in global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, the biggest share of emissions reductions – 40% – comes from energy efficiency”. It is one of the most important strategies for reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions and controlling energy demand as our economies grow and develop.

Although energy efficiency measures often bring net benefits to society  – including reduced pressure on energy systems, decreased greenhouse gas emissions, reduced pollution from fossil fuel combustion, and economic savings to energy consumers – these projects are not invested in as often as one would expect.

So, what is keeping us from investing in energy efficiency?

Energy efficiency measures may not be adopted for several reasons:

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Best Practices in Water Management: A Look at LA

The city of Los Angeles is home to 3.8 million people living in 469 square miles. It is the second largest city in the US, behind New York City (which has a population of 8.2 million people that miraculously live in 302 square miles of land).

During the last few decades, the City of Los Angeles has been working diligently, and has seen significant results, in the area of water conservation. According to data collected in March 2012, Los Angeles uses less water today than 40 years ago, despite a population increase of over 1 million people:

Source: LADWP

That’s a rather significant achievement.

So, how has LA done it?

Water use in the City of Los Angeles peaked in 1986. The following five years saw severe drought, and therefore water shortages throughout the city. In 1990, the city passed The Emergency Water Conservation Plan Ordinance which established a list of water conservation actions that the city would enact depending on the severity of water scarcity at a given time. This ordinance was later amended in 2008 to make some of the measures mandatory at all times of the year – regardless of the current water situation – and expanded certain practices to the general public. The Emergency Water Conservation Plan Ordinance places restrictions on specific actions including using water for landscaping purposes (watering lawns, trees, flowers, etc.), cleaning sidewalks with water, and serving water to customers in restaurants unless asked. The ordinance also prohibits residents to leave water leaks unattended.

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Risk and Opportunity Management for Corporate Social Responsibility

Recently, we have been discussing the theory and importance of Risk Management in project planning and management. In order to manage risks in a project, there are several tools used to plan for all possible negative impacts on a project. Project managers fill out several charts, analyzing the likelihood, severity, impacts, warning signs for each possible risk. They construct a specific budget for necessary preventative measures and possible contingency plans required to mitigate these risks.

In Risk Management, some big questions have to be answered: whats the likelihood of this risk happening?  And how much (money, time, resources, etc) is it going to cost me?


Typical Tool Used in Risk Management

One interesting topic discussed was the recent emergence of opportunity management as a core strategy to help design a project. The conversation got me to thinking about the utility of managing your opportunities. Incorporating opportunity management in projects, specifically, in the analysis of Corporate Responsibility projects, could have a large positive impact in helping to change popular opinion surrounding the topic.

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Global Rate of Consumption Reaches 1.5 Planets; America Reaches 4.

The rate at which Americans use natural resources is strikingly unsustainable; yet, they are not alone. Fortunately, the WWF has come up with some ways to fix it.

The planet is suffering from man’s demand for food, water, ipads, and airplanes. Not only are we over consuming our natural resources at an unsustainable rate, but the amount of biodiversity in many parts of the world is dramatically declining. In order to combat this problem, the WWF, one of the world’s largest conservation organizations, has laid out a global plan.

According to the recent WWF Living Planet Report, the rate of resources we consume globally in one year requires 1.5 years time for the Earth to regenerate the renewable resources used, and absorb the CO2 waste produced. Think about that stress on our Earth’s resources, year after year, without time to recuperate and replenish.

Although this statistic may seem high, consumption is expected to increase during the next decades. One main factor will be the increase in population and economic growth in countries like Brazil, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa – often called the “BRIICS” for their recent economic success. As developing countries grow, they are going to demand lifestyles and consumption rates similar to those seen in fellow “rich” countries. If they attempt to attain lifestyles similar to Americans, we’ll need 4 planets worth of resources to meet these demands.

Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012

So, what are we supposed to do? In the Living Planet Report, the WWF has defined 5 areas in which our current global system needs to focus their efforts:

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