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February 2008

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The Greening of Expectations

by Glen Emerson Morris
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It's a fact of life that an increasing percentage of consumers want the businesses they buy from to be “green.” It's a little harder to determine exactly what defines “green” but a reasonable definition can be found online at the Wikipedia, which says, “Greening involves the process of incorporating "green" products and processes into one's environment, such as the home work place, and general life style. These "green" qualities include but are not limited to reduced toxicity, re-usability, energy efficiency, responsible packaging, recycled content, intelligent design, responsible manufacturing techniques, and reduction of personal environmental hazards.”

It's easy to see that many of the ideal green qualities, like re-usability, responsible packaging, recycled content and intelligent design are really issues that must addressed by businesses. All a consumer can do is to vote with their wallet, and buy the products that deliver the most green qualities.

Whether a consumer driven green movement will be enough to solve the problems that face us is another matter. Even if one discounts the problem of global warming, there is still a major resource crunch on the horizon that seems unavoidable.

As James Burke, the science historian and one time Scientific American columnist, pointed out in his magnum opus “The Axemakers Gift,” we are heading for a world wide disaster because we are consuming more of natures resources that nature can provide. For much of humanity's history, nature has provided humanity with far more resources than humanity needed. However, as the population went from millions to billions, humanity began to affect nature in ways nature could neither respond to or recover from. And now just as much of the world seems to be coveting the American middle class lifestyle, it seems the world is beginning to run short of the resources required to make a middle class lifestyle possible for anyone. The problem is not just the lack of resources, it's what is likely to happen politically when those resource shortages go critical.

In his 1939 classic “Nine Chains to the Moon,” Buckminster Fuller predicted a major world crisis would occur in the future over resources. This isn't really surprising, since most wars in the last few hundred years have been over resources. What made Fuller noticeable was his explanation of how the crisis could be avoided by humanity learning to use resources more efficiently. The only way to avoid to war will be to increase efficiency to the point that there will be enough resources to go around.

In 1939, Fuller estimated that the overall efficiency level of humanity's ability to convert resources to wealth was about 4%. Fuller predicted that by raising the overall resource to wealth conversion efficiency to 12% all of humanity could live a very comfortable middle class existence, and continue to increase the conversion efficiency indefinitely.

We still have a long way to go to hit a 12% efficiency level, but it's very clear that the goal is obtainable because several industries have made great progress already. Just consider the improvements in the resource to wealth efficiency of computer memory and hard drives.

Some 20 years ago, at the 1987 Macworld the lowest price I saw for memory was $250 for a one meg simm. Now you can buy a one gig simm for about $100. In 1987 that much memory would have cost $250,000. Also, back then a 20 meg hard drive cost $800, or $40 a megabyte, Now you can buy a 500 gig drive for $100, or 20 cents a gig, In 1987 500 gigs at $40, meg, a 500 gig drive would have cost 20,000,000.

The volume of materials used in memory and hard drives has declined significantly over the last 20 years, the major reason for the dramatic decline in prices. During the same time, we saw housing prices go through the roof, and cars didn't do much better.

Asking questions like, “How much money is spent on researching new ways to make housing more efficient?” is largely a waste of time since the answer is basically no money at all. In fact, for much of the past 20 years, the housing market has depended on house prices continually going up, not down.

If humanity is to be successful, the efficiency revolution behind desktop publishing and the Internet needs to be expanded to cover every aspect of the American economy. Just as we've become used to expecting that next years hard drive will offer more storage space for less money than this years, we also need to learn to expect, or demand, that next year's cars will get better gas mileage and cost less that this year's. And we should also come to expect that even next years houses will offer more square footage, and at a lower cost, than this year's houses.

There are a lot of things about advertising and marketing that could be greener, but it's still very green compared to many industries. The advertising and marketing industry has been at ground zero of the digital revolution ever since desktop publishing, digital video and the Internet combined to revolutionize mass communications. However, the advertising and marketing industry needs to do more than just adopt green policies. We also need to encourage our clients to do the same thing, and soon.

Over the next 50 years, China and India will both develop middle classes that exceed the total population of the US, and consume more resources. Over the same timeframe both China and India will develop world class military forces, possibly only matched by each other. Like all major nations, China and India will initially try to buy the resources they need, but if that approach doesn't work they will be ready, and more than able, to fight for the resources they need.

Ultimately we will have the future we plan for, and the future we expect. Just as humanity has come to expect wars as inevitable periodically, we need to come to expect perpetual peace with a constantly improving living standard. If we are willing to settle for disaster, that's certainly what we will get. But if the last 20 years has taught us anything, we can do better.

Glen Emerson Morris worked as a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has also worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2008 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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