Is Our Future Revealed from the Past?

short-historyOn occasion, a book comes across my desk that has a profound impact on my understanding of the nature of our species, how we got to where we are, and where we are likely to be heading. Although “A Short History of Progress” by Ronald Wright was written in 2004, I did not pick it up until 11 years later. It was not recommended to me, nor had I heard of it. I just happened to be browsing a library and it caught my eye – serendipitous it would seem. I have since learned that it was a best seller and one critic provided the following overview:

A brilliant analysis of everything humanity has done to ruin itself down the ages.

Jan Morris
Books of the Year
Independent on Sunday

Its relevance to me is helping me grasp why we have not taken advantage of sustainable business practices despite the financial advantages and the preservation imperative of addressing climate change.

It was 24 years ago, when I was a financially challenged graduate student and very much involved in environmental and political issues. A cohort of mine, Joan Russow  who later became the Leader of Canada’s Green Party, was also short on cash but was able to gather enough to fly to Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, also known as the Earth Summit. We had such hopes that we were on the path to effecting positive changes that would ensure an inhabitable environment for future generations. It was an amazing time filled with hope, as tens of thousands of people representing 172 countries gathered to address the mounting environmental challenges resulting from human activity.

The outcomes were encouraging as many countries signed legally binding agreements. These included the Convention on Biological Diversity which sought to protect biodiversity, use natural resources sustainably, and ensure equitable sharing of genetic resources. There was also the Framework Convention on Climate Change which focused on stabilizing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere at levels that would not threaten life.

In other words, we acknowledged the damage we were doing to the foundations of life, decided to face up to this fact by assuming responsibility, and actually take concrete steps to address the issues. Heady times indeed!

Now, here we are in 2016, and after more than 2 decades of debate, we reached a landmark agreement on December 12 in Paris, which mapped out some key directives for the world including:


  • the goal of limiting global temperature increase well below 2 degrees Celsius
  • Establish binding commitments by all parties to make “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), and to pursue domestic measures aimed at achieving them;
  • mobilize $100 billion a year in support by 2020 through 2025

The expression “Better late than never” comes to mind, but may not actually apply in this case. Let’s start with the ticking time bomb of GHG concentrations which scientists argue need to be stabilized at approximately 350 part per million. In 1992 the concentrations were at around 360 PPM. Now we are hovering around 400 PPM and rising, and the rate at which we are contributing GHGs is increasing. This is due to most developed countries not seriously addressing the issue and developing countries rapidly growing their economies by burning fossil fuels.

While the Pairs Summit goal is to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the reality is we don’t even have mechanisms nor plans to keep warming below 4 degrees Celsius!


While the world is finally mobilizing, rather than changing our behavior that led to our current condition, we are using our old methods to address the very problem they created. We are throwing more money at innovation in hopes that we can resolve the problem with new technology. Which brings us back to the book “A Short History of Progress”. I will not provide a spoiler here, but think Easter Island and the demise of that civilization.

A well known quote that has been attributed to many, including Albert Einstein the famous theoretical physicist, is:

“The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”

At Greenomics, we argue that the future is dependent on individuals who embrace sustainable business practices and demonstrate leadership through environmental restoration and social justice. Some of our future blogs will focus on these individuals and companies who are leading the way. They are pursuing alternative solutions and directions to juggernaut  corporations and governments. So, I encourage you to read the book, and ponder how the insights relate to your own experience, and decide how you want to move forward.

“Command and Control” the Coming Garbage Gold Rush

Zero WasteNow that the holiday season has passed wherein we generated more garbage than any other time of year, it is time to reflect. Many of us live in a place where the waste is taken to the magic land of “away”, and we don’t have to worry about it. However, as we shift toward a greener economy, this is not the best way to serve our communities and to stimulate local economic development. What if we looked at waste as a resource that can be mined to make products we want and create local jobs? By strategically rethinking the waste stream, politicians, governments, citizens, and businesses can work together to generate wealth from what is currently a financial, environmental, and social erosion.

Strategic thinking from a business perspective can be quite simple. Crystal ball future needs and get positioned to meet those needs. For example, a clear strategic decision was made by the Bush family (former US presidents) when they acquired approximately 100,000 acres of farm land on the border between Brazil and Paraguay. While running a ranch may be part of the plan, the purchase sits on top of significant natural gas reserves as well as one of the largest underground water resources in the world. It is projected that both will be in high demand in the coming years, and now the Bushes are positioned to provide those resources once the price point tips to profitability. Is it possible that garbage dumps can become strategic resources too? We think so, and it appears some businesses and governments are positioning themselves to be players in this emerging resource industry.

While buying a garbage dump will not be as lucrative as the above deal, it is still an opportunity for visionaries. Typical urban waste is around 50% organics, which if composted becomes soil enriching fertilizer. Given our need for rich soil to grow food, by extracting the organics out of the waste stream we enhance our food production capabilities, and reduce our ‘garbage’ and demand for landfills by 50%. We also save money by reducing how much we pay to have our waste removed and acquire fertilizer for our gardens. But what about the other 50% still being dumped in the landfill?

As we move into an increasingly resource constrained world, the solid waste stream will become more important as a source for resources to produce the various products we demand. In most cases, the current perspective is simply to get the waste out of sight and out of mind as quickly and as cheaply as possible. This view will change and savvy businesses are starting to lead the charge in mining the waste stream profitably. For example, there is Urban Ore in Berkeley, California, Gibsons Resource Recovery Centre in British Columbia, and Kretsloppsparken in Gothenburg, Sweden. And this is just the start of the “gold rush” since studies by the World Bank indicate the potential annual production of solid waste to reach 27 billion tons/year by 2050. This is roughly the equivalent of 50 times the number of passenger cars in the US, which means there are plenty of opportunities for other players to enter the arena. We know that some companies have already figured out how to “mine’ the marine plastic in the Pacific to make packaging.

To solve our current challenges related to waste diversion, we need to engage the business community, but the critical question is “What is the best way to achieve success”?

There is much discussion in the waste management industry about moving to an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) model. The concept is to decrease the environmental impact of a product by making manufacturers responsible for the entire life-cycle of their products and packaging – including disposal. Given the costs of waste removal are covered through taxes, the idea of transferring those costs onto the producer and those who purchase their products sounds like a good idea. However, it is the implementation that will determine who benefits.

This brings us from thinking strategically to thinking tactically. EPR has been mandated in British Columbia by the Ministry of the Environment, and in response Multi-material British Columbia (MMBC) was formed as a not-for-profit organization to implement EPR across the province. Their mandate is to reclaim 75% of all packaging identified in the regulations. So, from a tactical business perspective, if something cannot be stopped, then it should be managed. A perspective that became clear when Alan Langdon, chair of the MMBC board, stated “From a producer point of view, if we’re going to have full financial responsibility, we want to have a say in how efficient it is.” So what changes are afoot?

First, there will be a management shift away from local governments and to a Command and Control model driven by producers and retailers through MMBC and the Recycling Council of British Columbia. This becomes a philosophical perspective with implications for the economy, society, and the environment. A shift to a command and control (CnC) structure for recycling can actually stymie local creativity in addressing waste issues because of the one model fits all approach. Meaning if an enterprising individual identifies a business opportunity that uses the waste stream as a resource, such as Eco-flex in Alberta, they would have to compete with the provincial entity for that resource. Such a scenario is likely and would lead to lost opportunities for local economic development.

Second, there will be a financial infusion from industry into recycling. BC’s Ministry of Environment claims the EPR program will reduce the financial burden to general taxpayers by $60-million to $100-million a year. However, the costs of an EPR would still be passed on to the consumer and most likely disproportionately given many of the products and packaging we get comes from outside of BC. Further, additional environmental issues are likely to arise as the waste that was distributed through the province would then have to be centralized for processing, which will increase transportation costs and associated greenhouse gas emissions.

The third big shift will be the management of waste from government (i.e. municipalities) to Producer Responsibility Organizations such as MMBC. While the stated intention is to increase recycling rates, it also undermines a local community’s abilities to use the waste stream as a resource for local job creation and economic stimuli.

As an advocate for cultivating the green economy and having the private sector provide the products and services we want and need, I am not suggesting we prevent the private sector from taking over the management of the waste stream. However, the old management style of CnC that is being developed for managing the EPR program is more likely to damage the emerging green economy as it is to address our waste stream challenges.

Waste streams are one of many topics on every municipality’s plate and generally seen as a problem rather than an opportunity. However, from the perspective of seeing the waste stream as a resource rather than a problem, local authorities appear to be unknowingly giving up local autonomy and the opportunity to cultivate a greener economy.

We need to be more creative by developing a grass roots distributed solution.