I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

August 24, 2010

The economy vs. the environment? How much do environmental issues matter?

Blog post, ” The Eco-Debate: How Much Do Environmental Issues Matter?“, confronts the issue of the environment vs. the economy, and argues that the two are not inseparable but that we can, that we need to, pursue sustainability.

I was struck by a quote by Paul Hawken cited in the post:

At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product … We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation.”

(The post also notes that Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce was voted the No. 1 college text by business professors.)

May 5, 2010

The Product-Life Institute’s approach to ‘cradle to cradle’

Perhaps getting ahead of myself here (that is, I haven’t gotten close to finishing my summary of McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle), but I wanted to include this because of Walter Stahel’s  role in the creation of a “cradle to cradle” approach (as opposed to a “cradle-to-grave” approach.

“Cradle to grave” is simply a marketing upgrade for gravediggers, because it still relies on end-of-pipe solutions.

The Product-Life Institute was founded in 1982 by Orio Giarini and Walter R. Stahel, who were joined after a few month by Max Börlin.  The main focus of the Product-Life Institute is on practical strategies and approaches is to produce higher real wealth and economic growth with considerably lower resource consumption. Create more manual and skilled jobs with greatly reduced resource consumption. Promote the business concepts of the Functional Service Economy that focuses on the performance of goods and services, the utilization value as its central notion of economic value and private-sector initiatives to finance public works.  (from its website)

Cradle to Cradle at the Product-Life Institute


From the website:

In their 1976 research report to the European Commission in Brussels ‘The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy’, Walter Stahel and Genevieve Reday sketched the vision of an economy in loops (or circular economy) and its impact on job creation, economic competitiveness, resource savings and waste prevention. The report was published in 1982 as a book “Jobs for Tomorrow, the Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy”. Today these factors are commonly referred to as the three pillars of sustainable development: ecologic, economic and social compatibility.

In 1982, Stahel synthesized these ideas in his prize winning paper “The Product-Life Factor” and identified selling utilization instead of goods as the ultimate sustainable business model of a loop economy: selling utilisation enables to create sustainable profits without an externalization of the costs of risk and costs of waste.

In their 1987 report “Economic Strategies of Durability – longer product-life of goods as waste prevention strategy”, Stahel and Börlin demonstrated that economic actors in a loop economy can achieve a higher profitability than their competitors in the throughput economy. Using 30 case studies, the report showed that for a loop economy to be fully successful, a restructuring of the industrial economy and its framework conditions would be helpful.

As a reaction to this report in 1987, some experts put forward the idea of a product responsibility “from cradle to grave” as an alternative to a circular economy, with the advantage that cradle to grave was compatible with the existing linear economic model.

Walter R. Stahel, by training an architect, countered this idea by pointing out that “cradle to grave” is simply a marketing upgrade for gravediggers, because it still relies on end-of-pipe solutions. Stahel insisted that the really sustainable solution was to use durable goods in a loop from “cradle back to cradle”…..

The main objectives of the Product-Life Institute are to open new frontiers of economic development towards a Functional Service Economy that focuses on selling performance (services) instead of goods (product liability), internalizing all costs (cradle to cradle), product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities and waste prevention.

The vision is a sustainable economy and society resting on five pillars:

  1. Nature conservation
  2. Limited toxicity
  3. Resource productivity
  4. Social ecology
  5. Cultural ecology

Includes a link to the article, Product-Life Factor (Mitchell Prize Winning Paper 1982), which describes the impact product-life extension could have on creating more sustainable economies.

Also includes an announcement of the publication of The Performance Economy: Second Edition (Spring 2010) by Walter Stahel in which he “looks at the role of entrepreneurs and other innovators and how the dominating business models of the current ‘industrial economy’ are changing to those of a ‘performance economy’.”  A performance economy is one in which goods are not sold, but are provided as services.

Other resources

The Product-Life Institute’s blogs

Links to other resources on sustainability and eco-design

Includes links to conferences, websites, and a list of companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) the Product-Life Institute works with.

A link to the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) is included under “Courses on sustainability.”  SAGE is a research center in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  While it does offer coursework in a wide variety of environmental studies, the only thing I found on the site (admittedly after a very brief scan) was the Roy F. Weston Distinguished Global Sustainability Lecture Series, a limited number of which have PowerPoint presentations or QuickTime audiocasts.  However, it does have information for anyone interested in pursuing studies in sustainability and environmental studies.

April 27, 2010

Institute of Medicine report on “Bridging the Evidence Gap in Obesity Prevention” – is their framework comprehensive enough?

The Institute of Medicine is the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.  On April 23, 2010, it released a report, “Bridging the Evidence Gap in Obesity Prevention: A Framework to Inform Decision Making.”

New Framework Recommended for Decision Making and Research on Obesity Prevention


April 23, 2010 — To battle the obesity epidemic in America, health care professionals and policymakers need relevant, useful data on the effectiveness of obesity prevention policies and programs. A new report from the Institute of Medicine identifies a new approach to decision making and research that uses a systems perspective to gain a broader understanding of the context of obesity and the many factors that influence it.


Is the IOM systems approach missing what could be a large component of the system?

The Institute of Medicine states that it is adopting a systems approach to obesity prevention.  That sounds pretty comprehensive, right?

Well, maybe not.  Cutting to the chase, this report appears to be limited to looking at obesity prevention interventions and not all obesity causes.  The focus is entirely on caloric and energy balance.  But what if, as Dr. Robert Lustig and others have argued, what you eat and how it is metabolized are factors in the obesity epidemic?  Energy intake and energy expenditure might not reveal the whole picture.

And what about the possibility that environmental exposure to chemicals might be a factor?  Quickly skimming the report, I found Figure 4-5, “The obesity ‘system’: a broad causal map” (p. 4-12 (p.80) of the online version of the report) shows a blurry version of the diagram, but I was able to find the original on Slide 9 of the presentation, “System Dynamics Simulation in Support of Obesity Prevention Decision-Making.”

Bobby Milstein and Jack Homer, For Institute of Medicine Committee on an Evidence Framework for Obesity Prevention Decision-Making, Irvine, California, March 16, 2009

The “map” shows Prevalence of Overweight & Related Diseases being affected by two causes, Healthiness of Diet & Activity Habits and Genetic Metabolic Rate Disorders.

But what if metabolic rate disorders are not strictly genetic, but can be epigenetic or can be directly caused by chemical exposure?

That idea does not appear to have crossed their minds.  The framework and approach that are recommended look like they have merit, but I would argue that the authors are not looking at as large a system as they should be.

The environmental factors they do mention are along the lines of the “activity environment” and the food environment.”

Without acknowledging the effects exposure to chemicals might have on people’s propensity towards overweight and obesity the report is more limited than it should have been.  The focus is totally on social and behavioral interventions.  While diet and activity are probably the most important factors in obesity for most people, it appears that no thought has been given to the possibility that by reducing exposure to chemicals we might be able to prevent or at least reduce the rates and extent of overweight and obesity.

Links to Report Information

There are links to several different items here.  The links above are to a news release and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Report web page (i.e. the page for the project/activity).  Links below are to the full text of the report online, the report recommendations, a four page report brief, as well as links to a webcast and podcast of the briefing on the release of the report, links to related resources (which duplicate some of the other links), and links to pages on the meetings that led to the creation of the report.

Full Report online

Report at a Glance

  • Recommendations (HTML)
  • Report Brief (4 pp.) (PDF, HTML)

Report: Bridging the Evidence Gap in Obesity Prevention: A Framework to Inform Decision Making

Released: April 23, 2010


A Framework for Decision-Making for Obesity Prevention: Integrating Action with Evidence


Bridging the Evidence Gap in Obesity Prevention: A Framework to Inform Decision Making


April 23, 2010
Running Time: 00:58:04
Format: RealAudio (Requires free RealPlayer)  Podcast: (mp3)
To battle the obesity epidemic in America, health care professionals and policymakers need relevant, useful data on the effectiveness of obesity prevention policies and programs. A new report from the Institute of Medicine identifies a new approach to decision making and research that uses a systems perspective to gain a broader understanding of the context of obesity and the many factors that influence it.

Related Resources:

Report Briefs
Full Report
Project Website

Previous Meetings

March 13, 2010


This is a relatively new concept to me.  The article covers a lot of ground, but also includes a critique of the concept.

I decided to post something on it because I think there are parallels between it and the “cradle to cradle” approach.

The “design” aspect of both this and “cradle to cradle” seems, in one sense, a bit ironic.  Ecosystems have evolved.  The design aspect enters in because the designers are trying to use the natural world as their model.

From the Wikipedia article on Permaculture

Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies.

The word permaculture is a portmanteau of permanent agriculture, as well as permanent culture.

Modern permaculture is a system design tool. It is a way of:

  1. looking at a whole system or problem;
  2. observing how the parts relate;
  3. planning to mend sick systems by applying ideas learned from long-term sustainable working systems;
  4. seeing connections between key parts.

In permaculture, practitioners learn from the working systems of nature to plan to fix the damaged landscapes of human agricultural and city systems. This thinking applies to the design of a kitchen tool as easily to the re-design of a farm.

OBREDIM design methodology

OBREDIM is an acronym for observation, boundaries, resources, evaluation, design, implementation and maintenance.

  • Observation allows you first to see how the site functions within itself, to gain an understanding of its initial relationships. Some recommend a year-long observation of a site before anything is planted. During this period all factors, such as lay of the land, natural flora and so forth, can be brought into the design. A year allows the site to be observed through all seasons, although it must be realized that, particularly in temperate climates, there can be substantial variations between years.
  • Boundaries refer to physical ones as well as to those neighbors might place, for example.
  • Resources include the people involved, funding, as well as what can be grown or produced in the future.
  • Evaluation of the first three will then allow one to prepare for the next three. This is a careful phase of taking stock of what is at hand to work with.
  • Design is a creative and intensive process, and must stretch the ability to see possible future synergetic relationships.
  • Implementation is literally the ground-breaking part of the process when digging and shaping of the site occurs.
  • Maintenance is then required to keep the site at a healthy optimum, making minor adjustments as necessary. Good design will preclude the need for any major adjustment.

Article includes design principles from David Holmgren, one of the early advocates of permaculture.

“Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.” (Cradle to Cradle, part 2)

Continuation of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Part 1), book by McDonough and Braungart.

One of the themes of Cradle to Cradle is that in nature there is no such thing is waste.  In their words,”Waste equals food.”  They note that ecosystems truly recycle materials.  (They seem particularly fond of cherry trees and ant colonies as examples of how nature operates.)

In contrast, what society calls recycling, they call “downcycling” since in almost all cases, the “new” product recreated from the old is of lower quality each pass through the recycling stream.

In Chapter One, “A Question of Design,” McDonough & Braungart describe the use the example of the Titanic as a symbol of how we perceive technology and how it is a metaphor for the industrial infrastructure on which our society is built.

In what I found an intriguing perspective on the Industrial Revolution and the infrastructure produced by it, McDonough & Braungart ask you as the reader to imagine being given the assignment of retrospectively designing the Industrial Revolution—with the following requirements for the system:

That it:

  • put billions of pounds of toxic material into the air, water, and soil every year
  • produce some materials so dangerous they will require constant vigilance by future generations
  • result in gigantic amounts of waste
  • put valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can never be retrieved
  • require thousands of complex regulations—not to keep people and natural systems safe, but rather to keep them from being poisoned too quickly
  • measure productivity by how few people are working
  • create prosperity by digging up or cutting down natural resources and then burying or burning them
  • erode the diversity of species and cultural practices

Intentional or not, that’s what we’re doing.  Not wanting this to be taken out of context, I should note that McDonough and Braungart do discuss how this whole system developed.  I’ll cover that in the next part.  (Wow, I’ve managed to get through the first two pages of Chapter One.  ;-)  )

Links to these posts, as well as posts from other blogs, will be added to the Cradle to Cradle page.

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