Two Reasons I Cried in Shanghai

I admit it: I am a sustainability nerd.  Instead of shopping during my one free afternoon in Shanghai, I instead toured its Urban Planning Exhibition Center. Chinese celebrate urbanization—how refreshing—so most Chinese cities have similar exhibits. This one teemed with elementary school age children, studious college students, aspiring Chinese planners, and few curious westerners—many of us were taking notes!

Humanity’s battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in our cities.  More than 70% of us will be urban by 2050, because that is where wealth, health, and opportunity are found.  We will double our urban infrastructure between now and then, creating a tremendous opportunity for sustainable development.

Shanghai “gets it.”  They understand the latest and greatest urban planning theory, green-building techniques, smart-growth, transit-oriented-development, green-infrastructure, and low-impact-development.  They have clearly stated, top-down authority to pursue these practices as evidenced in the following statement at an exhibit on the third floor titled “Ecological City”

“Shanghai …will put into practice the Scientific Outlook on Development, focus on innovation driven transformation and development, and firmly embrace the concept of development led by ecological civilization and optimized by environmental protection. Through implementing the pollution reduction missions of the 3-year environmental action plans, with the highlights of total pollution load reduction, quality improvement, risk prevention, and development optimization, Shanghai will continuously strengthen environmental protection and ecological conservation, accelerate the creation of resource conservative and environmentally friendly city, and promote the green growth and low-carbon development for the harmony between human and nature. … By 2020, a clean, safe, and healthy ecological environment will be basically realized in the city. A low carbon development path suitable for a mega-city will be created. The environment foundation favorable for building the well-off society in an all-around way will be established.”

Even more impressive (to me) was an exhibit on the fourth floor that humanized and personalized the goals and motivations of ecological urbanization for sustainable development. It contained silhouettes of a family, each figure with text describing the family member’s dreams of living in an ecologically-oriented urban future. I took a picture of the girl, below.

shanghai urban planning museum girl

The text reads:

“I want to have a ‘dream home.’  I will sleep under the sky with stars, wake up with bird twitter and fragrance of flowers. I will tell stories to small dogs in the garden and play with many children under the sunshine”

This strategic appeal to family values paints an attractive image for people currently living in a smog-filled, light-polluted, crowd-filled, city of 25 million people with scarce habitat for birds or dogs.

What made me cry?

China clearly gets it. They understand that urbanization is the secret sauce of sustainable development and are relocating an eye-popping 30 million people a year from farms to cities.  They have the political power and technocratic chops to do it right. They are not hamstrung by the political polarization and petty bickering that block smart growth in most US communities. They have the money, the knowhow, and the motivation.  And they have cool museums celebrating this possible future.

But can they do it?  If they can’t, it probably can’t be done—anywhere, which means we’re in trouble (at best it means our future will be considerably less wealthy, healthy, and happy).

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Pain, Bitterness and Sustainability In China

“Sustainability is the reaction to pain,” says Richard Brubaker, sustainability guru in China, who is optimistic about sustainable development because he now sees governments and businesses responding to the pain inflicted by economic growth, pain that includes crises in public health and risks to business profits.

“Eating bitterness” is a Chinese phrase that captures the challenge of delaying gratification—sacrificing today for a better tomorrow. It may also describe a serious challenge in China to the Environmental Kuznets Curve and thus bring into question a fundamental assumption of sustainable development efforts worldwide.  The Environmental Kuznets Curve postulates that as an economy grows, so does the social will and capacity to restore and improve environmental quality.  China has placed most all its bets on promoting economic growth first and has delayed addressing the pain and bitterness growth creates.  It reasons that growth is more critical to promoting the economic capacity a viable nation needs, hoping that a stable and able nation will then be able to fix its environment.

However, the rapid economic growth in China is causing pain and bitterness that are forcing people to question whether the pollute-first-cleanup-later policy is still viable.  History suggests the policy worked for the US and Europe—we hammered our environments and implemented environmental programs later—but the acute and intensifying pain from China’s meteoric growth are raising serious doubts.  The development pathways followed by nations industrializing in the 19th and 20th century when tens of millions pulled their ways out of poverty may not be viable for 21st century developing nations with hundreds of millions of people moving into middle class lifestyles.

Examples of China’s pain and bitterness include: 1 million premature deaths per year from respiratory ailments, an average of 5.5 years shorter lives due to air pollution. Foreign companies now pay a “smog bonus” as hardship pay to entice employees to work in China.  Water is scarce and polluted. 28,000 rivers disappeared in the last 20 years because of depleted aquifers. 95% of rivers have water unfit to drink and some are bursting into flames. Cultural bitterness includes lost languages and cultural traditions, long commutes, and severed communities; as people relocate for employment, traditional communities and families erode.

The western narrative of sustainability seems quaint when viewed from China: carbon footprints, polar bears, and local food.  The Chinese narrative of sustainability is urgent: smog, flaming rivers, and collapsed businesses. Sustainability concerns are much more tangible in China.

China’s future seems at risk. Public sensitivity to sustainability issues is increasing—dramatically.  Younger people who grew up after the Cultural Revolution are more tolerant of the risks of political protest. They are also wired and tech savvy.  They’ve become discerning consumers who buy global brands that are assumed safe because global supply chains impose higher quality controls.  These evolving preferences create huge opportunity and risk for global companies: an expanding market for high value products comes with high quality expectations that can produce brand-killing mistakes.

Sustainable development requires innovation and collaboration across business, government, and public sectors and perhaps a reconceptualization of the Environmental Kuznets Curve. Pain and bitterness are motivating new models of sustainable development in China. We should all be learning from (and hoping for) successes in China.

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Green China?

I just returned from an amazing trip to China with the executive master’s program at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability.  We interviewed sustainability leaders in Yunnan and in Shanghai.  Blogs to follow.  I also did some sightseeing.  Check out my video.

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Lessons from Syria Not Good for Action on Climate Change

The Security Council produced a toothless statement that civilians should not be killed and humanitarian aid should be allowed. It took three years for the UN to agree. During which time accumulated unforgivable loss of life and destruction of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

This does not bode well for the mounting and more consequential global threat to life and civilization poised by climate change.

The war in Syria is tangible, visible, and real-time.  No one denied it was happening.  No one denied the horrible consequences.  You could see it unfold on the nightly news.  Such impotence suggests that nation states and global governance have even less power to address the diffuse, invisible, and off-in-the-future threats of climate chaos.

Climate solutions must be found elsewhere. Some of the most likely and encouraging developments are happening through collaboration and leadership by municipalities, businesses, NGOs.  What if mayors ruled the world?

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The Future & 10 Billion

Warning: uncertain times ahead!   The Future and 10 Billion belong to spurts of literature that periodically erupt, spewing warnings that the end is near and that sustainable development is not possible; classics of this genre include Malthus’ Principle of Population, Marsh’s Man and Nature, Carson’s Silent Spring, Ehrlich’s Population Bomb.

10 Billion’s author, Stephen Emmott, directs a research lab for Microsoft.  His synthesis of current conditions and future trends is … dire. His conclusion: “I think we’re fucked.” People are the problem.

In The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, Al Gore presents only a slightly more optimistic view: “the currents of change are so powerful that some have taken their oars out of the water, having decided that it is better to surrender…”  People are the problem for him, as well.

Emmott, characteristic of many scientists, offers no hope or solution other than high-tech inventions that create new and clean sources of food, material, and energy.  But he concludes that people are the problem because our insatiable demand will outpace his innovations, hence the unpleasant inevitability of ecological and social collapse.

Vice President Gore claims to be an optimist, raising his concerns  “…not out of fear, but because I believe in the future.”  Still, he offers 359 pages of concerns and only 6 pages of “what do we do now?”  Not surprisingly for a politician, many of his recommendations involve social change and new institutions such as better media, more rational communication, getting the money out of politics, and fixing market signals.

My critique of  Emmott’s and Gore’s genre of literature is that it inspires doom and gloom instead of direction and hope.  People will walk across hot coals in their bare feet if they believe they want to get to the other side.

What we need is leadership from above, from below, and from the middle.  Everyone can lead from where they are.  Everyone can help their team, their organization, their network, their society achieve direction, alignment, and commitment around sustainable development solutions.

People are not the problem, lack of leadership is.  Leadership is the solution.  Leadership is our opportunity.

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Why is the shrill wing of environmentalism so negative?

Some so-called environmentalists remind me of the Tea Party: every response to any government initiatives “No!”  “Bad!” “Don’t!”

Zach Beauchamp’s 5 Reasons Why 2013 Was The Best Year In Human History  uses five mega-trends to suggest humanity’s positive trajectory, and I looked forward to reading the details because I’ve been developing a similar narrative for my own teaching and writing projects.  His arguments, supported by many reputable sources such as WHO an IMF, show that, as a whole, we are healthier, wealthier, less violent, and less discriminating than we have been at any time in human history.  Beauchamp is not making this stuff up, nor is he a shill or an apologist; his conclusions reflect a growing chorus of arguments I’ve documented in an April 2013 essay to honor Earth Day.

But the very first response to his essay asks: “Is this a spoof…? We are in the midst of the greatest extinction period in 65 million years, and unless we radically change our ways, there won’t be anyone around to scoff at how pathologically naive this article is. What a load of rubbish.”

Subsequent yeah-sayers and nay-sayers tag-team to polarize and paralyze the discussion.

Yes we have serious challenges, but clearly we have wonderful opportunities.  Let’s find a way to collaborate.  Let’s strive for solutions, not rhetoric. Let’s be constructive, not negative. Let’s get busy constructing sustainability.

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Two Sides of the Climate Coin

The Poor Need Cheap Fossil Fuels
There’s no question that burning fossil fuels is leading to a warmer climate and that addressing this problem is important. But doing so is a question of timing and priority. For many parts of the world, fossil fuels are still vital and will be for the next few decades, because they are the only means to lift people out of the smoke and darkness of energy poverty….

Current Warming Target “Disastrous”
On other side of the coin is a new study by James Hansen and Jeffry Sachs, arguing that the target of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) as the maximum acceptable global warming above preindustrial levels would still result in “disastrous consequences,” from rampant sea level rise to widespread extinction….and that we are already well on pace to go beyond 2 degrees….

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Cross-Sector Sustainability

Most organizations conceived or reformed to solve 20thcentury problems will face challenges being effective and relevant in a populous, wealthy, globally-connected, climate changed, 21st century world. Glimmers of new organizational arrangements can be seen in cross-sector collaborative efforts such as those attempting to address the sustainable development impacts of global supply chains.  Auret van Heerden, in an oft-cited TED talk,popularized one new type of institution he calls the “Independent Republic of the Supply Chain.”

The reasons for new organizational arrangements are many.  Nations are struggling to keep up with the demands of the global economy.  They are unable to manage what crosses their borders: Goods and services circle the world in long complex supply chains and with them vast quantities of embodied water, land, and pollution (Dalina 2012, Skelton, 2011, Quaing 2013).  Climate changes, ozone holes grow, ocean fisheries collapse, and other global commons degrade with little probable or viable state-sponsored response. Corporations, meanwhile have grown in size and power, and many are now larger than most governments.  Of the 100 largest economic entities in the world, ½ are companies. Public Infrastructure—the bread and butter of government– is being privatized, owned and managed by corporations: highways, ports, and airports…even the Panama Canal. Thirty corporations today control 90% of world internet traffic.  Even national defense is public-private partnership.

The recent Global Trends 2030 National Intelligence Council report includes a scenario titled “Non-State World” in which urbanization, corporations, civil society, and accumulated capital create new institutions that define the future.   Some of the most innovative changes are occurring in this cross-sector space where business, government, civil society overlap. Governments use law and regulation to level the playing field, prevent a race to the bottom, establish markets, and make sure good actors don’t get punished and bad do. Corporations have money and management capacity and motivations for risk reduction. NGOs have moral authority, but perhaps most importantly can look problems outside temporal and spatial limits of business and politics (quarterly profits, election cycles, political boundaries, market jurisdiction).

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Knowledge Networks

I’m hoping you might help me identify some productive ways to navigate the vast intellectual space of knowledge management that seems colonized by everyone from information scientists to network-actor mappers to higher education pedagogists.

Here is the short story:  My work in DC with the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability is exposing me to intentional transnational knowledge networks managed by loosely formed communities of practice that steward knowledge about sustainable development practices on diverse topics ranging from water and infrastructure to climate adaption and food systems.

The transnational actors come from all sectors: Corporate, Civil, Faith, and Government.  They have linkages that extend from the global (conferences, contracts, partnerships,…) to the local (companies, markets, and shovel ready projects).  The goal of the transnational knowledge networks is to find and distribute best management practices to where they might be of use, to learn lessons from applications, and to circulate those lessons back through the network.  The goal is to make the world a better place, to build capacity, to help us respond to the emerging challenges of 2050.

The knowledge networks structure knowledge practices, structure questions that can be asked, and just like railroads structured where businesses and people located 100 years ago, the knowledge networks create and structure opportunity today.  Said differently, knowledge networks are the infrastructure of problem solving.

Knowledge networks probably also have positive feedback loops.  They certainly affect the answers we get to the questions we ask, so they eventually shape the questions we ask, because we want to ask questions to which answers can be provided, otherwise why bother. Ultimately this positive feedback structures what we know and how we think.

  • The computer is “an engine not a camera”
  • “Computers represent the world and thereafter create it”

What should I be reading?  Who should I talk to?

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Why is Collective Impact Important for the Chesapeake Bay?

Sustainability professionals target some of the most complex and contentious challenges facing humanity, such as securing the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s ecology, economy, and culture.   Many solutions appear just within reach, if only we had the leadership to implement them.  In response to this opportunity, the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS) is highlighting work from the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program, including projects reporting on the utility of a promising strategy called Collective Impact.

Collective Impact is becoming a preferred adaptive management technique for complex sustainability challenges.  It promotes learning and adapting through partnerships. It helps organizations and people create and see their roles in the problem and its solution, understand which resources they should bring to the table, inspires commitment, and leads to emergent, innovative solutions.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed is a classic example of a complex adaptive system that with contentious sustainability challenges and opportunities—and thus was the target of recent projects in the XMNR program. It  is one of the largest, most studied, and best funded watershed management efforts in the world, yet progress towards sustainable development remains elusive.  Solutions are beyond the capacities of any single institution, or even multiple organizations within any sector, and thus require cross-sector collaboration and innovation by multiple organizations working over time and space—Collective Impact.

Detailed case studies of innovative collaborations working in or near the watershed identified key lessons that can improve any project targeting economic, ecological, and cultural conditions of the Bay. Efforts promoting sustainable development have more and more lasting impacts if they:

–       Negotiate shared goals

–       Share measures of progress towards those goals

–       Champion the cause by rallying the troops and attracting attention

–       Secure adequate, reliable funding for the long-term

–       Communicate regularly regarding clear goals, progress, challenges, and needs

–       Adjust goals and methods as lessons are learned and shared through the network

–       Support and are supported by a backbone organization that brokers relationships, serves housekeeping functions, and provides continuity.

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