Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Where are our policies leading us?

A policy is a set of guidelines or rules by which we make decisions. We have certain policies by which we work and live, even if we don't always make those explicit. If we see a pattern of decisions, decisions that seem cut out of the same mold, that's likely evidence of a policy.

François Cellier of the Institute of Computational Science of ETH Zürich, Switzerland has published an article, Ecological Footprint, Energy Consumption, and the Looming Collapse, at The Oil Drum that examines the potential effects of our policies towards growth. It's a high-level view, to be sure, but sometimes those offer great insights. Be sure to read both the article and the accompanying slide set (the article isn't that long; it's the 333 comments that take up most of the length).

I think this is a very important discussion. That's why I think it's important for each of us to be skeptical about such claims. It's not because I think he's wrong; his analysis, at least so far, seems good. It's not a call to wait for "proof," for, as John Sterman points out, we're not really waiting; we are doing things to the environment every day. It's not a call to ignore the claims, for that's not being skeptical; it's a call to test them and then to act based on what we determine. It's not a call for depression; Cellier does show a way forward (especially in the slides).

By suggesting we be skeptical, I may give the impression I think we can ignore this for a bit. I want to re-emphasize that the IPCC and others have given some pretty clear signals that the time to act is now (actually, the time to act was some years in the past; the next available time to act is now).

What does this mean for our businesses and for business in general? I think it means figuring out what to do to ensure the sustainability of our businesses and our economic system in the face of the challenges the best science says await us. The key lesson from "Out of Gas: A Systems Perspective on Potential Petroleum-Fuel Depletion" was that we not wait too long to attend to signals we get, for our systems have inertia, and we can't, as much as we might wish, always change direction instantaneously. Pay attention to Cellier's description of easy and difficult problems starting on slide 38; the signals may not be as we'd normally expect. Sometimes we can't wait to feel the wind from an impending storm; we have to rely on forecasts from meteorologists to know when to board up windows in the face of an approaching hurricane.

We can also apply that message to more typical business decisions. Do we discover we will need to add (or remove) capacity well in advance, so we can react smoothly, or do we make such discoveries only when the market begins to complain loudly? How do we figure out whether our latest initiative is about to make real progress or it's about to fail and we should abandon it and change course?

Reacting too soon can lead to the Chicken Little trap: if we respond too quickly, we diffuse our energies by responding to simple noise; if we respond too slowly, we're trapped. One of the lessons I've learned is that feedback models (of the sort I've sometimes discussed here, also called system dynamics models) can help us find what things to monitor so that we have a clearer picture to guide our decisions.

What do you think?

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