Ecology: Can We Trust It?
by Cate Gable
When I hear the term 'industrial,' I see factories pumping waste
into once clear-running streams (and, now, Erin Brockovich/Julia
Roberts running around in sandals and a halter top collecting water
samples. By the way, if you haven't seen the movie it's worth it;
ecologists don't get many chances to cheer in movie theatres these
days, but this true story provides one!); or a 'maximum yield forest,'
which is the Boise Cascade euphemism for a clear-cutting policy
that turns a deeply-shaded, mossy, multi-layered Pacific Northwest
forest into piles of slash, dry snags and rubble. So I don't much
trust that 'industrial' can be joined to 'ecology' with any good
My mind is being changed, however, by an 'industrial ecologist'
named Bill Shireman, President and CEO of Global
Futures. Bill has been a soldier for the environment for over
20 years and has the distinction of being one of the authors of
California's Bottle Bill-one of the first pieces of ecological legislation
that was crafted by a coalition of business people and enivronmentalists.
The Bottle Bill was passed in 1987 and establishes a redemption
value of 2.5 cents for selected glass, plastic and aluminum containers
in California. It is still in effect and, in fact, its scope has
just been increased by the current state administration.
It was during this time, in the middle of Bill's environmental
lobbying days, that he had a mini-revelation about the nature of
systems. He was gardening in his backyard one afternoon and wondering
whether his efforts were worth it-not only his efforts in the garden,
but, perhaps also his lobbying efforts. He found himself mulling
over the number of hours he spent in the garden, the amount of money
spent on fertilizers and fungicides, and on buying the plants themselves.
As he stopped to think about this for a moment, he stood looking
out over his fence to a vacant lot just behind his house. There
the field was growing all by itself. Now, granted, it wasn't producing
peppers and tomatoes, but, without any human intervention at all,
it was providing a mad variety of blooms and greenery and life.
"My thought was something like-it's the system that's wrong."
said Shiremen from his office last week in San Francisco. "My
garden would not be sustainable without me but the vacant lot had
developed sustainability. I realized that we need to create human
living systems-processes of communications and activities and feedback-that
are sustainable and produce the results we want."
Bill's epiphany resulted in his changing course slightly. Instead
of lobbying corporations for the environment, he now works with
them to craft policy and projects that, step by step, bring us all
closer to a sustainable future. Bill founded Global Futures in 1988
(originally California Futures) with the purpose of putting ecological
and biological values at the center of the business world.
Shireman defines "industrial ecology" as the application
of ecological and biological principles to business practices. He
is convinced that the key to working out the problems of the environment
lies in bridge-building between corporations and ecologically-minded
citizens and consulting professionals; and he has staked his reputation
and his own money on it.
The difference in Global Futures' approach is the notion of creating
a system as opposed to creating a 'program.' A program has certain
goals, executable strategies, and a finite time-frame, after which,
in true entropic fashion, whatever forces were operating in the
first place take over again. A program uses money and efforts, generally
from the outside, to 'solve' a problem.
A system, on the other hand, is about setting into motion a set
of interactive parts that use feedback to avoid problems and, aside
from the entropy tithe, generally end by creating rather than consuming
resources. A natural field, the original Mid-West prairie, let's
say, is a system that produces and supports a variety of plants
and animals, and provides oxygen, flowers, fuel, etc. The way mono-culture
agriculture is currently employed in the US, a field of grain is
a 'program' that uses labor, special equipment, fertilizers, and
water to produce crops which generally can't reseed themselves.
(The domination and dissemination of hybrid, usually sterile, plants
by the petro-chemical industry is a story for another day.)
One of Bill's most useful industrial ecology models or metaphoric
systems is the idea of the four phases of management, based on the
biological stages of a forest or any natural system:
- climax: or creative destruction & renewal
Creation is the brainstorming phase, when lots of ideas are created
and an abundance of energy and resources explodes into activity.
In the growth stage, the ideas and creativity sort themselves out
and what has proven successful becomes apparent. In the development
stage, tasks and analysis become more decentralized; replication
of the 'successful idea' is needed. Total Quality Management (TQM)
and 'learning organization' practices take place in this phase as
processes that have already been established become codified and
made more efficient or specialized.
At the end of the development stage, factors are already incubating
that provide limits to development; conditions may be changing such
that the original creative idea is no longer exactly on the mark.
Usually at this stage the 'development machine' is already in place,
though, and processes become difficult to change. Thus, the climax
stage arrives; collapse or destruction of the old processes or environment
occurs and a chance for a new start and renewal begins. The fire
that destroys a section of the forest but allows dormant seeds to
burst out into newly-created sun would be an example of this destruction
and renewal phase.
This biological model is one of the tools that Bill and his staff
use in their consulting projects with corporate clients. Right now
Global Futures is working on several ideas:
- In collaboration with Asian Productivity Organization, Global
Futures is producing a Green Productivity manual
- MacMillan Bloedel -- the facilitation of an alternative forest
- Environmental Protection Agency -- a study on computer buy-back
and recyling issues
- Industrial Ecology (IE) 2000 : Maximizing Shareholder Value,
Lessons from the Natural World -- the fifth year of an annual
conference on industrial ecology that includes discussion of
eco-issues and green case studies 1
Many green activists feel that working with business in this way
is selling out to the enemy. We have all watched the forces of information
technology bring the goals of the industrial revolution to a level
of more efficient and feverish execution. Why should we help?
If technology, in the service of industrial ecology, expands the
extractive and exploitative capacity of our industrial complex,
the environmental crisis that many of us are already aware of will
accelerate. But if information technology is used to strengthen
our ability to collect, aggregate, and analyze data; if we us it
to increase our understanding of the natural processes around us;
and if it allows us the means to more efficiently communicate with
each other, then technology becomes a handmaiden to our sustainable
"We have an ingrained habit of finding enemies, whether it's
eco-activist versus corporate CEO or liberal versus conservative."
says Shireman in the context of ecology, technology, and current
business forces. "We are always on the look-out for the 'other.'
I think we need to realize now that there is no 'other.' We're all
in this together."
Global Futures is putting the emphasis in the right place. If information
technology is providing us the Global Brain 2
then the Global Heart must provide our direction and values. Or
as Shireman puts it, " 'Head' is executing against our goals,
it provides the means; but Heart is the destination."
b i o :
Cate Gable is a poet and writer (author of Strategic Action Planning
NOW!) , strategic marketing consultant in e-commerce, teacher,
and President of Axioun Communications
International. She divides her time between Berkeley, CA;
the Pacific Northwest; and Paris, France. Send comments to her