Can one manage sustainability? MBA mantra: “You have to be able to measure something to be able to manage it.”

20 02 2010

There are many attempts to measure sustainability, notably by the World Watch Institute on a global scale, and Ceres and other CSR organizations on the corporate or industry level. LEED and other industry standards exist for specific projects and capital investments.

Some of these steps are quite impressive, but I think we still lack a comprehensive functional definition of sustainability. Dr. Ehrenfeld has defined sustainability as “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.” I am agree with much of what is captured in this sentence; though I think it is imperfect, it is the proper definition to frame a continuing debate. I have a few quibbles, starting with the word “possibility.” Dr. Ehrenfeld writes, “Most talk about possibilities in common conversation is better couched in terms of probabilities, the chances that something missing at the moment will turn up in the next… we live only in the present” (50). In this statement, he passes over exactly the concept I would prefer – “probability,” or better yet, “likelihood.” Unlike possibility, likelihood is quantifiable. (I recently listened to a fascinating podcast from risk analyst and department chair of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University Elisabeth Paté-Cornell.)

Sustainability is often confused with stasis (particularly though not exclusively regarding economics). The word “flourish” has many definitions, but my favorite is now considered obsolete (OED verb definition 3): “Display vigour in, with; abound in, overflow with.” Human flourishing cannot be solipsistic; it must act upon or overflow into something. I am fond of the Biblical conception of humans as the gardeners of Eden. Though the question of flourishing, as Dr. Ehrenfeld says, remains subjective, the effects of flourishing in, with, upon or to may be quantified. We can create an index of measures that do not in themselves constitute flourishing, but may indicate the relative health of the human species:

  • Percentage of species with a stable breeding population
  • Percentage of ecosystems with intact cycles; historically stable ecosystems or changing according based on clearly non-human inputs
  • Number and effect of invasive species upon native ecosystems
  • Human suicide rate
  • Human rate of death from resource scarcity or infectious disease
  • Human armed conflict
  • Diversity of human culture and language
  • Discrepancy between richest and poorest in terms of standard of living, renewable and non-renewable resource consumption, and personal and political freedoms
  • Existing measures like Gross National Happiness that measure lifestyle satisfaction
  • Advances in all manner of knowledge and technology; their impacts upon these other measures

Such an index is a teleonomic expression of flourishing. Favorable circumstances on such measures indicate flourishing. A healthy Flourish Index and a quantitatively derived likelihood of its remaining health constitute a quantitative approximation of sustainability.

It is probably not the job of an MBA to establish this index. Our training is for enterprise, not statistics or economics. However, the reason we have tacked the S onto the MBA for Sustainability is that business leaders cannot (reasonably or ethically) ignore this debate. I hope to participate in the evolution of thought on sustainability, but I picked business over economy, philosophy, sociology, or statistics; those disciplines will be the leaders in quantifying and measuring my work.


WSJ “Cash for Clubbers” misses the point

26 01 2010

The Wall St Journal opinion piece, “Cash for Clubbers,” misses the point of the Cash for Clunkers tax incentive program. “The golf-cart boom has followed an IRS ruling that golf carts qualify for the electric-car credit as long as they are also road worthy.”

“Democrats then insist that to pay for these absurdities they have no choice but to raise tax rates on other things—like work and investment—that aren’t politically in vogue.”

Leaving aside the partisanship – I think you could fill in that blank with anybody – I have to play the skeptic and wonder if this is truly an unintended consequence. Ok, specifically golf carts – unintended, yes. But what do you think is the real goal of tweaking the consumer-level tax structure? I would argue that the goal is to shine the apples, not upset the apple card. To generalize, politicians and corporations (same thing now?) have a very short-term vision: next quarter, next bonus period, next election cycle. Only fools and idealists are making a serious push to reconstruct our transportation system.

Press Secretary Gibbs said, “Chairman Waxman announced that the committee had found common ground on a proposal entitled “cash for clunkers,” and the President commended the members for moving forward a plan that will help the American auto industry and provide Americans with cleaner automobiles.”

The goal was to help the American auto industry and provide Americans with cleaner automobiles. This golf cart nonsense actually contributes to that goal. For example, Berline Carts are built under license with Cadillac. (Take a look at the Escalade 07.)

If I were setting the goals, I would want to create a transportation infrastructure such that most consumers do not need automobiles. Install train tracks down the median of every interstate highway. Let every exit have a station with an almost-free car rental and a free bicycle loan for consumers with good credit and safety records. Put tolls on all the highways and let the trains be free. Socialize the cost of high-speed trains and de-socialize the cost of highways. (I now have to class myself with the fools and idealists mentioned above.)

None of my ideas would help the market for automobiles, even EVs. As Chris said, “We all know it was a veiled payout to the auto industry.” Saving the climate was not the Waxman committee’s goal. Switching our car culture to newer, more efficient cars, about as useful as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, was. While it’s not yet clear that our status quo economy has been saved, Cash for Clunkers has had exactly the intended effect.

666 Shorty Award votes

11 01 2010

I caught a screenshot of Paula Poundstone at 666. Can I use this for sympathetic magic, like teeth or toenail clippings?

Google toolbar suggestions for searches starting with “Obama”

7 10 2009

google suggested obama searches

I’m not sure I need to comment on this one.

My soul sister

30 09 2009


Castle Trail – Mount Jefferson – Grey Knob hiking trip

29 09 2009

Bar Fight and Birdie took a wonderful weekend trip in the Northern Presidentials! Take a look at our map and photos.

Are you kidding me? Oxford?

23 09 2009

There’s a problem with this screen shot from the Oxford English Dictionary.


Higher resolution pdf: OxfordProblem

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Follow-up 9/25, response from Oxford:

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Entry 1 for “Interlocutor” sense c.:

c. The comp?re in a troupe of nigger minstrels; the man in the middle of the minstrel line who questions the end men.

I’m appalled that you have the word “nigger” in your definition. Your entry on that word itself reads “This term is strongly racially offensive.”

I strongly hope you will promptly correct this entry to exclude derogatory and offensive language.


Generated on …….: Wednesday Sep 23 7:28 PM (Pacific Time) 2009