This post was originally written last fall, and set aside as being too speculative. I felt that there was too little evidence to back up my idea that “accepting limits” would pay off in business.
Since then, however, the Spring 2011 edition of MIT Sloan Management Review has landed on my desk. In it, a new “sustainability” study shows that “embracers” are delivering exceptional comparative advantage, and that a key characteristic of “embracers” is that they view “sustainability” as a culture to be “wired into the business” – “it’s the mindset”, says Bowman of Duke Energy. According to Wikipedia, the term “sustainability” itself is fundamentally about accepting limits, including environmental “carrying capacity” limits, energy limits, and limits in which use rates don’t exceed regeneration rates.
This attitude is in stark contrast to the attitude pervading much of human history. I myself have grown up in a world in which one of the fundamental assumptions, one of the fundamental guides to behavior, is that it is possible to do anything. The motto of the Seabees in World War II, I believe, was “The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.” Over and over, we have believed adjustments in the market, inventions and advances, daring to try something else, an all-out effort, something, anything, can fix any problem.
In mathematics, they, too, believed at the turn of the century that any problem was solvable: that any truth of any consistent, infinite mathematical system could be proved. And then Kurt Godel came along and showed that in every such system, either you could not prove all truths or you could also prove false things, one or the other. And over the next thirty years, mathematics applied to computing showed that some problems were unsolvable, and others had a fundamental lower limit on the time taken to solve the problem that meant that they could not be solved before the universe ended. By accepting these limits, mathematics and programming have flourished.
This mindset is fundamentally different from the “anything is possible” mindset. It says to work smarter, not harder, by not wasting your time on the unachievable. It says to identify the highly improbable up front and spend most of your time on solutions that don’t involve that improbability. It says, as agile programming does, that we should focus on changing our solutions as we find out these improbabilities and impossibilities, rather than piling on patch after patch. It also says, as agile programming does, that while by any short-run calculation the results of this mindset might seem worse than the results of the “anything is possible” mindset, over the long run – and frequently over the medium term – it will produce better results.
It seems more and more apparent to me that we have finally reached the point where the “anything is possible” approach is costing us dearly. I am speaking specifically about climate change – one key driver for the sustainability movement. The more I become familiar with the overwhelming scientific evidence for massive human-caused climate change and the increasing inevitability of at least some major costs of that change in every locality and country of the globe, the more I realize that an “anything is possible” mentality is a fundamental cause of most people’s failure to respond adequately so far, and a clear predictor of future failure.
Let me be more specific: as noted in the UN scientific conferences and recent additional data, “business as usual” is leading us to a carbon dioxide concentration of 1000 ppm in the atmosphere, of which about 450 ppm or 150-200 ppm over the natural amount is already “baked in”. This will result, at minimum, in global increases in temperature of 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit, which will result, among other things, in order-of-magnitude increases in the damage caused by extreme weather events, the extinction of many ecosystems supporting existing urban and rural populations – because many of these ecosystems are blocked from moving north or south by paved human habitations – so that food and shelter production must both change their location and find new ways to deliver to new locations, movement of all populations from locations on seacoasts up to 20 feet above existing sea level, and adjustment of a large proportion of heating and cooling systems to a new mix of the two – not to mention drought, famine, and economic stress. And these are just the effects over the next 60 or so years.
Adjusting to this will place additional costs on everyone, very possibly similar to a 10% tax yearly on every individual and business in every country for the next 50 years, no matter how wealthy or adept. Continuing “business as usual” for another 30 years would result in a similar, almost equally costly additional adjustment.
Our response to this so far has been in the finest tradition of “anything is possible”. We search for technological fixes under the belief that they will solve the problem, since they appear to have done so before. Most of us – except the embracers – assume that existing business incentives, focused on cutting costs – but these costs have not yet occurred – will somehow respond years before the impact begins to be felt. (Embracers, by the way, actively seek out new metrics to capture things like carbon emissions’ negative effects) We are skeptical and suspicious, since those who have predicted doom before, for whatever reason, have generally seemed to have turned out to be wrong. We hide our heads in the sand, because we have too much else to do and concerns that seem more immediate. We are distracted by possible fixes, and by their flaws.
The “embrace limits” mindset for climate changes makes one simple change: accept steady absolute reductions in carbon emissions as a limit. For example, every business, every country, every region, every county accepts that every year, its emissions are to be reduced by 1% in that year. If a business, that business also accepts that its products’ emissions are to be reduced by 1% in that year, no matter how successful the year has been. If a locality does better one year, it still is expected not to increase emissions the next year. If a country rejects this idea, investments from conforming countries are reduced by 1% each year, and products accepted from that country are expected to comply.
But this is a crude, blunt-force suggested application of “embrace limits”. There are all sorts of other applications. Investors will no longer invest in equities that seem to promise 2% long-term returns above historical norms, and will limit the amount of their capital invested in “bets,” because those investments are overwhelmingly likely to be con jobs. Project managers will no longer use metrics like time to deployment, but rather “time to value” and “agility”, because there is a strong possibility that during the project, the team will discover a limit and need to change its objective.
Because, fundamentally, climate change is a final, clear signal that Godel has won. Whether we accept limits or not, they are there; and the less we accept them and use them to work smarter, the more it costs us.