Biomimicry – How Nature is Inspiring Radical Innovation

How can Biomimicry help my product or service gain a competitive edge?

Nature has already solved virtually every problem that humans are facing and in considerably better ways than anything humans have achieved.

Biomimicry is a rapidly growing design discipline that provides breakthrough¬†strategies for solving business and technical challenges.¬†At the center of this growing movement has been award-winning inventor and biomimetic entrepreneur Jay Harman, author of¬†The Shark’s Paintbrush: Biomimicry and How Nature is Inspiring Innovation.

A 2013 Fermanian Institute report determined that by 2030, bioinspiration could account for $1 .6 trillion in total GDP, including $425 billion of US GDP. Savings in reduced resource depletion and pollution could amount to an additional $0.5 trillion worldwide.

There is not a business or product today that can’t improve profits, reduce liability, or solve intractable problems through the application of biomimetics.

“The Shark‚Äôs Paintbrush reveals how nature is inspiring design to be more efficient, effective, resilient, and beautiful.

In Nature’s 3.8 billion years of design experience, the roughly 99% of designs that didn’t work got recalled by the Manufacturer. The 1% that survived can teach profound lessons about how things should be made, how they work, and how they fit.

Jay Harman‚Äôs immersion in and curiosity about the natural world have made him one of the best biomimetic designers. The Shark‚Äôs Paintbrush is a masterly field guide for all designers and entrepreneurs who aspire to help the world of the made work like, and live harmoniously with, the world of the born.”

‚ÄďAmory B. Lovins, Chairman and Chief Scientist, Rocky Mountain Institute


  • explore or search for solutions by function, strategy, or organism



To reach Jay Harman:

Facebook: @TheSharksPaintbrush

This article ¬©2016, from a program guide for The Fortune¬ģ Growth Summit, October 25 and 26, 2016, Dallas, TX, held in partnership with

Join us for our next Scaling Up Business Growth Workshop in Columbus, OH.

To learn more and register your team, go to or contact Ann Ralston, or 614-761-1841 x2.

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Friday, March 17th, 2017 Article Archive, Book and Media Reviews, Business Insights, Corporate Social Responsibility, Main Page, Process Improvement, Scaling Up, Social Enterprise, Start Up, Sustainability, Technology Comments Off on Biomimicry – How Nature is Inspiring Radical Innovation

ExO Drivers of Change: Elon Musk Talks Climate Change Solutions at COP21


source: Scripps Center of Oceanography

Leaders of Exponential Organizations (ExOs) must be masterful at harnessing (surfing?) exponential drivers of change. There may be none bigger than our reliance on carbon-producing fuels, as can be seen in this chart of atmospheric CO2 concentrations in the past thousand years.

Elon Musk, whose company, Tesla, is among the Top 100 ExOs, spoke to a group of college students at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, discussing climate change and his view of what policymakers participating in COP21 can do to help the world transition to a sustainable future.

His message is not new, yet I appreciate how Musk frames the issues in a clear and simple way, forwards a solution that acknowledges the needs of both business and society, and (hopefully) avoids polarizing debate. This video is worth watching and sharing.

As ExO leaders, of course make plans to adapt to this driver of change, but after watching this video, ask yourself:

  • What is my preferred future?
  • How could¬†my¬†organization’s Massive Transformative Purpose (MTP) help¬†shape that future?
  • What is my¬†people strategy?¬†How do the MTP, and Values alive in my¬†company today,¬†align¬†and resonate with the A-Level talent, Community and Crowd I¬†must attract and retain to achieve that future?

In this post:

  • The video (Musk begins at 3:29)
  • A summary of Musk’s¬†key message
  • A link to a full transcript¬†(Thanks to Green Car Reports for making this available)

Musk’s Key Message: Tax Carbon Appropriately

Here is a summary of Elon Musk’s¬†message, in his words, edited for clarity.

A Hidden Carbon Subsidy

53TSubsidies_for_fossil_fuels“The reason that transition is delayed or is happening slowly is because there is a hidden subsidy on … all carbon-producing activity of enormous size – $5.3 trillion a year, worldwide, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) [source:]. … The net result is 35 gigatonnes of carbon per year released into the atmosphere.

This is analogous to not paying for garbage collection. It’s not as though we should say, in the case of garbage, have a garbage-free society. It’s very difficult to have a garbage-free society, but it’s just important that people pay for the garbage collection.

A Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax – a Non-Partiasn Issue

The solution, obviously, is to remove the subsidy. That means we need to have a carbon tax and to make it something which is neither a left nor a right issue. We should make it probably a revenue neutral carbon tax. …

Give Industry Time to React

…Moreover, in order to give industry time to react, this could be a phased-in approach so that maybe it takes five years before the carbon taxes are very high, so that means that only companies that don’t take action today will suffer in five years.

A Clear Signal from the Rulemakers

There needs to be a clear message from government in this regard because the fundamental problem is the rules today incent people to create carbon, and this is madness. Whatever you incent will happen. That’s why we’re seeing very little effect thus far.

5 to 10% of the Earth’s Land Mass Underwater = 2 billion people displaced

The net result is if we don’t take action, we could see anywhere from 5% to 10%, maybe more of the land mass absorbed by water, which maybe doesn’t sound like that much, but about a third of humanity lives right on the coastline or in low lying countries. We’d be talking about maybe 2 billion people being displaced and their homes being destroyed and their countries being gone. I think we should take action.”

– Elon Musk

– Gary Ralston
© 2015 Ralston Consulting Inc.

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Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 Article Archive, Business Insights, Corporate Social Responsibility, Exponential Organizations, Main Page, Sustainability Comments Off on ExO Drivers of Change: Elon Musk Talks Climate Change Solutions at COP21

TED Talks: Michael Porter – Why business can be good at solving social problems

Why do we turn to nonprofits, NGOs and governments to solve society’s biggest problems? Michael E. Porter¬†wrote the book on modern competitive strategy for business. Now he is thinking deeply about the intersection between society and corporate interests. While he admits he’s biased, as a business school professor, he has started four not-for-profits, himself. He¬†wants you to hear his case for letting business try to solve massive problems like climate change and access to water.

Why? Because when business solves a problem, it makes a profit — which lets that solution grow.

Can’t view the video? Want to access the interactive transcript? ¬†Click here.

Getting the discussion rolling…

There is much to like in this presentation, and it does a very good job of bridging the terrain that divides social and corporate ventures.

That said, as we reviewed this video, (and in the tradition of Muppet Show hecklers, Statler and Waldorf), Ann and I had a few thoughts:

Would business take on reform of global monetary and financial systems?

Does Porter’s premise that business will resource the solving of¬†society’s biggest problems, out of a profit motive / enlightened self-interest, ¬†scale to all of¬†society’s biggest problems? For instance, why and how would businesses around the world resource a fundamental restructuring of the current global monetary and investment systems?

Many think these systems are fundamentally broken, and at the very least, the systems are reinforcing the wealth divide. So how would that work? Business, by virtue of being able to generate wealth would voluntarily fund a global overhaul of the broken mechanisms of wealth creation and distribution, in cooperation with the worlds’ governments? The same mechanisms that capitalize business growth and fund governments, through taxation? The same governments who rarely agree about matters relating to the global commons – atmosphere, oceans, global warming, nuclear proliferation, etc.?

(I’m picturing the world described in Neal Stephenson’s intense and dark science fiction novel, Snow Crash, in which governments had¬†ceded most of their power to private corporations, organizations, and entrepreneurs operating as nation-states. brrr!)

Will public companies be allowed to move to a longer view of profitability?

On the bright side, Porter gives examples of businesses that are taking a longer view of profitability:

‚ÄúThe deeper work, the new work, the new thinking on the interface between business and social problems is actually showing that there’s a fundamental, deep synergy, particularly if you’re not thinking in the very short run. In the very short run, you can sometimes fool yourself into thinking that there’s fundamentally opposing goals, but in the long run, ultimately, we’re learning in field after field that this is simply not true.‚ÄĚ

Glad to hear it, because the last couple of public multinational corporations we worked with had a VERY difficult time making socially-conscious, longer-term investments. The pressure to meet quarterly projections coming from Wall Street, alone, was devastating, forcing them to give up their long-term aspirations or be punished in the short-term as their stock prices fell. It is ironic that the multinational companies that could do the most good may be least able within the existing system.

What do you think?

Ann and I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on Porter’s video. If you feel moved to contribute to our community’s discussion, we welcome your input on the commentary thread, below.

Thanks for watching!


– Ann and Gary Ralston

© 2014 Ralston Consulting Inc.

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Thursday, January 2nd, 2014 Article Archive, Business Insights, Corporate Social Responsibility, Main Page, Social Enterprise, Sustainability, Values Comments Off on TED Talks: Michael Porter – Why business can be good at solving social problems

Shake Up Your Biases and Preconceptions with a MOOC!

MOOCs are opening more than higher education to the world – they can open the world to you

This fall I participated in my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course – see sidebar). The course, Behavioural Economics in Action 101x, is offered by the prestigious Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, for free. I’m accessing this course through EdX, a¬†non-profit online initiative of 30 of the world’s top universities,¬†created by founding partners Harvard and MIT.¬†Their mission is expand access to the best of higher education for students around the world – and this in part means reducing or eliminating the barrier of cost.

If my class is any indication, EdX has proven its global reach. I was blown away – each pin on the world map below represents one of my over 2100 fellow learners!


Now it’s great that EdX is bringing this course to the world. Absolutely. But early into the course it dawned on me that through this MOOC, EdX had brought the world to me! While I found the course content interesting, I was much more intrigued by the varied points of view from different cultures.

A bit about the course content

What was your BIGGEST class at university?MOOCs are bigger…

A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course Рa relatively new development in the world of online learning that is generating significant buzz, and no small amount of angst about their possible impact on the business model for higher education.

Top universities are offering top-notch interactive courses to large numbers of students at once, taught by excellent faculty, many for free, and some for-credit, at a fraction of the cost of a conventional university course.

In case you are wondering how many students per class is¬†large…¬†according to Wikipedia,¬†‘Udacity’s CS101, with an enrollment of over¬†300,000 students, was¬†the largest MOOC to date.’

Behavioral economics explores, from a psychological point of view, why people sometimes make irrational decisions, and why and how their behavior does not follow the predictions of economic models. Further, these behavioral insights can be used to influence decisions in many ways, from the obvious – drive up consumer spending by offering “bargains” – to the more subtle – lose weight by doing nothing more than taking a picture of everything you consume. Such techniques or strategies, designed to subtly influence decisions toward a given outcome, are commonly referred to as¬†“Nudges”, and there has been much interest in applying such behavioral insights to larger policy and societal issues.

Many of our class discussions (held in web-based discussion forums) focused on social issues, with the intention to explore how to influence or “nudge” behaviors that increase health and overall well-being of people and societies.

Some of our early topics…

  • disrupting the transmission of AIDS in Uganda,
  • quelling noise pollution from overuse of car horns in large cities in India, and
  • shifting a nation’s personal debt and spending / saving patterns.

And the conversations were fascinating! The richness and diversity of views and the insights from different countries, socio-economic backgrounds and fields of study opened a much wider world to me, creating a deeper and more engaging learning experience. There is nothing like discussing a subject with someone from a foreign culture and way of thinking to show up your own assumptions and biases!

If you’ve been missing out on the amazing variety of free, quality education available through MOOCs, and a world of fellow learners, here are a few tips (okay, nudges!) to get you started:

See you in the MOOC-iverse!

– Ann Ralston

© 2013 Ralston Consulting Inc.

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Thursday, December 19th, 2013 Article Archive, Business Insights, Business Models, Corporate Social Responsibility, Main Page, Personal Mastery, Sustainability Comments Off on Shake Up Your Biases and Preconceptions with a MOOC!

We Believe… (part 2)

In Part 1, after watching a TEDTalk video featuring Simon Sinek, Ann and I decided to re-write the way we tell the story of Ralston Consulting Inc. following the approach in the presentation.

Sinek observes that everyone in an organization knows What they do, some know How they do it, and yet fewer know Why they do what they do. His insight is that great companies, and great leaders reverse the order of the message: Why, then How, and then What. Sinek maintains: “People don‚Äôt buy what you do; people buy why you do it.

We decided to test it out with you. Here’s a draft of our new message:


We believe the world urgently needs leaders of heart, of conscience and of long vision, who today undertake enterprise that also benefits our children’s children. It is these leaders we are interested in walking with.

We do so as partners in thought and action, co-inventing sustainable and generative ways forward where convention doesn’t cut it, the past has failed the future, and the alternatives are unclear.

We offer leading-edge tools and ideas for strategic foresight and business innovation, for lean startup and sustainable growth, for creating communities of change, and for developing our next generations of leadership.

Walk with us and tell us what you envision. Let’s create a better way forward…

What do you think and feel about it? We’d love to hear from you, and we want it all. We need the straight goods if we are to make it better.

If you’re moved to share your thoughts, either post a comment here, or email us.

Thanks very much!

Ann and Gary

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012 Article Archive, Business Insights, Corporate Social Responsibility, Main Page, Marketing, Sustainability Comments Off on We Believe… (part 2)

“The Girl Effect” Impacts Clinton Global Initiative

Here’s a systems-thinking puzzle: If you wanted to improve the global economy, slow population growth, reduce HIV-related deaths, break dependency on international aid shipments, and encourage peace, could you accomplish all that in one focused move?

Watch The Girl Effect:

Check out the widespread, high-profile response:

Now visit and see how you might help…

Our thanks to colleague, Charles Holmes, for bringing this vital campaign to our attention!

Thursday, October 21st, 2010 Article Archive, Corporate Social Responsibility, Main Page, Sustainability Comments Off on “The Girl Effect” Impacts Clinton Global Initiative

Sustainability as Competitive Advantage

MITSloanFall2009CoverInterested in sustainability? Then call the MIT Sloan Management Review, fall 2009 issue, a page turner – it includes a special report on sustainability and competitive advantage. Even better, an expanded special report is available, online, for free, thanks to sponsorship from SAS.

This report draws from in-depth interviews with more than 50 sustainability thought leaders and corporate CEOs around the world, including General Electric, Unilever, Nike, Royal Dutch Shell, Interface and BP. Shaped by the findings from those interviews, 1500 corporate executives and managers were surveyed about their perspectives on the intersection of sustainability and business strategy. Choose summary PDF or full E-Zine report (with PDF available within report – choose “Download” from the toolbar.)

Pundits interviewed in the print issue include Amory Lovins, Henry Mintzberg, Peter Schwartz, and Interface CEO, Ray Anderson. Online, you can also hear from John R. Ehrenfeld, Peter Senge and others…

© 2009 Gary Ralston

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009 Article Archive, Business Insights, Main Page, Process Improvement, Sustainability Comments Off on Sustainability as Competitive Advantage

Did the Global Economic Crisis Kill the Aspirational Leader In Us?

On December 30, 2008, the Long Term Future made a cameo appearance on the front page of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) after a prolonged absence…

ROUND ROCK, Texas — Computer giant Dell Inc. said this summer that it has become “carbon neutral,” the latest step in its quest to be “the greenest technology company on the planet.” [full article]

hidingfromtime255The Dell article is remarkable not for its content, but that, as a story about a longer timeframe, it even made it to the front page. The bigger headline is that the recession of 2008 drove the discussion about the ramifications of the long-term future of the planet and its inhabitants off the table. Many in business and government¬† dropped the environmental agenda in an instant. In its place, a worldwide, short-term focus on the immediate crises. Clean-energy firms watched their stocks fall and funding dry up. Two days later, in the WSJ 2008 markets and finance roundup, the environment’s chief competitor, oil, is mentioned 15 or so times; the environment, two times:

April 17, 2008: Changing course on global warming, President Bush calls for halting the growth of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025 but provides few specifics.

November 26, 2008: Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reach record highs and show no signs of leveling off, a U.N. agency says.

So here’s a question: How many trillions of dollars will it take to restore the economy, short-term, while glossing over issues of food, air, water, population, climate and peace, long-term? What happened to our leaders? What happened to their stated aspirations? What happened to the future?

Reaction vs. Aspiration:

In this turbulent last quarter of 2008, we have seen the leaders we observe and interact with sharply divided into two camps:

  • Reactive: What are we going to do about the crisis at-hand? Get rid of the problem.
  • Aspirational: What are our long-term goals? How do we pursue them? Create the future.

This is not to say that those focused on their long-term goals do not also address the short-term crises. It is simply that the driving force is long-term, and their short-term actions are aligned with the longer goal. We are pleased to report that most of our clients are doing well, and pursue their aspirations while quite sensibly dealing with the current reality.

But we are most concerned that the reactive orientation seems to be ruling much of leadership in big business, government and the general public. At conferences, in boardrooms, and across dinner tables, the discussion has collapsed from years and decades to days, months and quarters. The 3-year plan (does anyone recall the 5- or 10-year plan?) has been replaced by the emergency / bailout plan. Even many whose hope for change is invested in President-elect Obama are shaken by the enormity of the circumstances his administration faces as they take office.

When the reactive orientation rules the day, the way OUT of the crisis is not necessarily the way FORWARD to our desired future.

Head in the Clouds; Feet on the Ground:

Leaders practiced in organizing around their aspirations in less-than-ideal circumstances have developed certain disciplines around envisioning a goal, assessing the situation and taking innovative action. Following are a few tips in each of these categories.

Focusing on the future goal:

  1. Start with the End in Mind: When it comes to discussing situation (present) and goal (future),¬† choice of sequence really matters to one’s ability to focus on true aspirations. This is doubly so when up to one’s hind-end in alligators. Talk about the present before the future, and we might as well launch the discussion saying, “Given the dire circumstances, what can we get away with, here??”. Start by talking about the future, and the tone is quite different: “What matters, here? Independent of circumstance, what do we truly want?”.
  2. Avoid Mixing: In a crisis, bringing up future goals can start a tennis match. The first speaker serves with: “We want to release a fully-electric car.” The second returns with: “But oil is $40 / barrel today, and the price fluctuates! That’ll never happen.”
    Instead, split the discussion into two short rounds. For the first couple of minutes, focus on the goal. If someone (or the devil’s advocate in our brain!) tries to counter the goal with details of the current situation, assure them (or ourselves!) that it will be up for discussion momentarily.
  3. Be Concrete, and use Dates and Measures of Success: It won’t work be vague about goals that matter to us. What if we are moved to “do something about US residential carbon emissions”? That’s vague, and even smacks of problem-solving. Consider instead:¬† “By 2050, all homes in the US are heated and cooled with renewable energy, and require 60% less energy, overall, than in 2009.”William O’Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance once said, “At the end of the day, you ask yourself, ‘How did our vision influence our actions?’ If the answer is ‘It didn’t,’ the vision is just words.” [pp331-332, The Necessary Revolution]
  4. ChangedPrioritiesCropChoose Where to Focus: In good times, it’s easy to pursue what we want. In our minds, the outcome can seem virtually guaranteed. But when times are tough, and we remove the guarantee, we often learn where our focus has been – and that we now have a choice.If our senior motive was not reaching the goal, but instead achieving the Return on Investment if the goal is reached, but we now lack a guaranteed ROI, we are apt to abandon the goal. If, on the other hand, we find we are focused on realizing the goal for its own sake, we have a different relationship with the goal, and are more likely to follow through.Please don’t read a value judgment about pursuing ROI. The essential question is: which motive is dominant in driving our involvement with the goal? If our dominant focus and motivation is to realize the goal, rather than reap its benefits, the goal is more likely to be realized. It’s a key choice.

Focusing on the current situation:

Since we led with the goal, we now can take a different tack with our situation assessment:

  1. Keep it Relevant: Given a clear goal, one has a new, more efficient way of organizing the discussion about reality – facts relevant to achieving the goal, and facts that are irrelevant to the achievement of the goal (and now don’t need to be discussed past the test of relevance).
  2. Keep it Real: Separate fact from opinions and assumptions, and be vigilant for deeply-held assumptions and beliefs masquerading as fact. Identifying what we don’t know is every bit as useful as confirming what we do know. Brain expert, John J. Medina points out that the brain isn’t interested in reality. It is more interested in survival, and as a consequence, [unattended] memory is not reliable. The brain will change the perception of reality to stay in survival mode. The key to reliable memory is to consistently reexpose oneself to the information. [HBR May, 2008, reprint R0805B]. So stay grounded in the facts of reality.
  3. Don’t Navigate by Emotion: There is nothing wrong with emotions. They simply don’t happen to be a reliable indicator of the situation, or of progress toward long-term goals. As heretical as it might sound, you might well benefit from ignoring yourself in this department, and refocus on the goal and the situation.

Taking action in complex times:

  1. A Time for Learners: When presented with smooth trends, the human mind is good at guessing what will happen next. In times of great and rapid change such as these, it is not nearly so good at prediction. Experience and formulas and best practices fail us. Students of Complexity suggest a different strategy for effecting change where past performance has proven unreliable for predicting future outcomes: Probe, Sense, Respond. It is virtually the same process used to find one’s way across a dark bedroom without stubbing a toe.
  2. When At A Loss: When we don’t know what to do next – and it happens to all of us – what DO we do? Focus on the goal. Locate current reality. Study the difference between the two. Then invent a set of actions to move from reality to the goal. The result of any action can be evaluated and learned from, and our action plan adjusted.But when disruptive forces hit a company, all processes are up for re-evaluation. Why are we still executing this process? Is the goal still valid? Is the current situation different from the circumstances under which the process was created and refined? Given a clear goal and accurate current reality, we can determine what to keep of the process, and what to change.

Two points of light:

While we realize that times are truly challenging everywhere, we are inspired by the human capacity to transcend circumstance and envision a desired future. At its simplest, to organize around aspirations is to focus on not just one, but two pictures at once: current reality and the goal. Reconnect with what matters. Treat the current situation not as an adversary, but as a starting point on the journey. Continually test the actions in relation to the goal. By doing so, we improve the odds that the way out of the present crisis is also the way forward.

© 2008 Gary Ralston and the respective copyright holders.

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008 Business Insights, Main Page, Marketing, Sustainability Comments Off on Did the Global Economic Crisis Kill the Aspirational Leader In Us? Does Being Ethical Pay?

Companies spend huge amounts of money to be ‘socially responsible.’ Do consumers reward them for it? And how much?

Illustration: Rob Shepperson, wsj.comWe recommend this article, written by Remi Trudel and June Cotte of University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business, and published in both the Wall Street Journal, and the MITSloan Management Review, and its related podcast.

In the study, the researchers set out to determine how much consumers were willing to pay for a commodity (in this case, coffee and t-shirts), when presented with the ethical track record of the company behind the product. They found that while consumers will pay a premium to a company with at least some socially responsible practices (25% organic cotton, for instance), they wouldn’t pay much more for a company using 100% organic cotton. On the flip side, researchers discovered that consumers punished clearly un-ethical companies (i.e. lacking ethnic diversity, hurting the environment, sweatshop labor), only buying their products at a steep discount.

The findings set up an interesting tension between the economics of the business (invest only enough in ethical practice to change perception and benefit from higher margins), and the values and principles of the company (operate in a socially-responsible manner in every way we can, within our business model). Nonetheless, the conclusion is that the consumer will reward socially responsible behavior and punish unethical behavior through their buying choices.

How do your customers rate your company?

– illustration: Rob Shepperson,

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008 Article Archive, Business Insights, Main Page, Marketing, Sustainability Comments Off on Does Being Ethical Pay?

Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas

SixDegreesCover150wAs a global community, we have until 2015 to cap carbon dioxide emissions at 400 ppm, and 2 degrees Celsius average warming, or reach a tipping point leading to an unstoppable, runaway overheating of the planet.

That’s pretty much the bottom line from this extremely well-researched and well-written book by journalist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Mark Lynas. In Six Degrees, Lynas paints six scenarios of how the planet will be different – one for each degree Celsius of average global temperature increase. I’ve read the summaries for policymakers published by the Nobel Award-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and as clear as they are, they simply don’t give you the same gut-level grasp for just how much our current way of business – and of life – will be overturned.

National Geographic thought so, too, and used Mark’s work as the basis for their television special: Six Degrees Could Change the World. I suggest that you click on the Video tab, and work all the way through the various video clips. Consider, for instance, this chilling SFX shot of a New York subway car abandoned in a tunnel flooded by rising sea levels. Many of us reading this blog will easily live long enough to experience this possible future. And many of us will not want to look. Heck, I had trouble completing my research for this article because I felt overwhelmed by the scale and immediacy of the problem. But look, we must.

SubwayFlood250wThe situation is on top of us, and not nearly enough people appear to be paying attention.

In strategy, structure and systems, we are always on the lookout for feedback loops. Well, our planet has some enormous temperature-triggered positive feedback loops – tipping points or points of no return – just waiting for some species to trip them.

The first threshold, for carbon-cycle feedback, is around 3 degree Celsius of warming – 450 ppm of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Large amounts of Carbon Dioxide are predicted to be released from “reservoirs”, among them the burning forests of the Amazon and Malaysia, and the thawing Arctic icecaps and tundra.

The second threshold, for Siberian methane feedback, is around 4 degrees Celsius of warming – 550 ppm of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Large amounts of methane (23 times as potent as the same amount of Carbon Dioxide) are predicted to be released from “reservoirs”, such as those in Siberia, and methane hydrate in deep sea deposits.

So where are we now? In 2007, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) was at 382 ppm (parts per million), and we currently increase about 2 ppm per year.

Lynas concludes, based upon his review of the available research, that in order to have even a 75 percent certainty of keeping temperatures below the magic 2-degree threshold, we have seven years to reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases globally and hit a safety target of around 400 ppm of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions must peak by or before 2015, and decline by 85 percent by 2050. If we let it get to 3 degrees (as early as 2050), feedback cycles kick in, and we risk a one-way ticket to 6 degrees of global warming and mass extinction on a scale not seen since the End-Permian age.

The numbers ought to chill us all to the bone, and then fire us into immediate re-thinking of all parts of our business and lifestyle, and the prospects for our descendants.

As Lynas put it:

“We humans, one species of animal among millions, have now become de facto guardians of the planet’s climate stability – a service that used to be provided free (given a few ups and downs) by nature. Without realizing it, we have appointed ourselves janitors, our sweaty ape hands resting heavily on the climatic thermostat. A more awesome responsibility can scarcely be imagined.”

Immediate Business Implications:

Business Carbon Emissions WILL be regulated: We all know that business has had a free ride, not having to account for the global cost of releasing Greenhouse Gases. In the following decades, financial statements and regulatory reports will also account for credits and debits of these gases. If your supply chain is carbon intensive, your costs will climb.

TCClogo_smallConsumers and regulators are demanding that business be accountable for the Total Lifecycle of products and services: Large business is already having to do this. Smaller businesses should be scrambling to figure out how to manage the cost of policing their entire supply chains, and extend their financial models to include liability for disposal. Learn more at sites such as The Climate Conservancy, a non-profit created by scientists from Stanford University.

There will be a social backlash against conspicuous consumption and the disposable economy, fueled by the climate crisis: As with so many of us, our parents grew up during the depression, when recycling went by another name – survival. In my case, our family began formally recycling about the time man first landed on the moon, and has never stopped. Fast forward 40 years. In my home town of Vancouver, BC, Canada, recycling is required, and garbage is spot-checked for infractions. Yet here in Central Ohio, Ann and I must pay for the privilege of recycling. Only two families do so on our street.

StoryOfStuffToday, US consumers have trashed ninety-nine percent of all goods they buy within six months of the date of purchase. Only one percent is still in use. The US – five percent of the world’s population – consumes 30 percent of the world’s resources and creates 30 percent of the world’s garbage. It is horrifying to think that much of the world’s population would be clamoring to emulate the US. Visit this website – – for a brilliant animated presentation sponsored by the Tides Foundation, and others.

Bottom line – if your business model depends on rampant consumerism, planned and perceived obsolescence and depends upon externalized costs, your free ride may run out, really soon. Which brings us to the next issue…

Public companies will be at even worse odds with the people leading them: As a system, the stock markets (i.e. Wall Street, stockholders, 24-year-old analysts in cubicles, news media, etc.) wants public corporations to focus short-term to produce unending growth of revenue and profit. As humans, the presidents and CEO’s go home to their families – children and grandchildren – whom they care about very much. It is natural that they would want to use all their supposed influence to give them a better future – say, reversing global warming. But to do so, they must go back to work and focus long-term – whereupon they are promptly fired for not keeping their eyes on quarterly profit performance.

In the end, we as a global community must institute a new definition of success for public companies. We must create markets that value planetary stewardship in addition to ROI in setting the share prices on the daily exchange.

There will be no silver bullet: There is no single thing that will reverse global warming, nor two, nor three. There will likely be seven to fifteen major initiatives, and thousands of minor ones. Of these options, conservation – using less in the first place – should be at the top of the list. This is great news for business, both large and small, because it means that no one will have a monopoly on the business opportunities presented by this crisis / opportunity. In the next decade, there will be a flow of funding and resources to this megaproject that will be measured in percentages of our planetary GDP.

A suggestion for how to build momentum to change:

Ann and I are acutely aware of our own immense discomfort in relating to this issue. Yet, we want to know reality even more, and that lets us take one more step. Here’s what you might consider:

  1. Go watch the video footage at National Geographic’s ¬†Six Degrees Could Change the World site, then read the summary for policymakers at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change site.
  2. Watch The Story of Stuff.
  3. At the very least, read the last chapter – Choosing our Future – of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas.
  4. Browse The Climate Conservancy site.
  5. For your business, schedule reviews of business strategy and process. Research what your suppliers are doing. Evaluate your liability for disposal of your products. Re-think how you generate wealth, and realign your strategy to mitigate, and even profit from reversing global warming.
  6. WE_Logo_TM_RGB-1In your personal life, take inventory on your progress toward reducing your environmental footprint. There are thousands of sites to help. We Can Solve the Climate Crisis, a project of the Alliance for Climate Protection, founded by Nobel Laureate, Al Gore, is a great site recommended by our colleagues. National Geographic launched The Green Guide, where I found this excellent article on switching to green power through our existing public utility. Google “Carbon Footprint” for many more options.

The biggest change in the business and social climate in our time will be the change from a society of consumption and competition to a society of sustainability and cooperation. Plan to be part of leading this change. And if it wouldn’t be too much bother, please start today. Seven years will pass in a blink of an eye.

© 2008 Gary Ralston and the respective copyright holders Рall rights reserved

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008 Article Archive, Book and Media Reviews, Business Insights, Main Page, Sustainability Comments Off on Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas

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