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What’s In A Number


In a chilling sentence, an AP reporter summarized the upcoming report by the IPCC, “Many of the ills of the modern world — starvation, poverty, flooding, heat waves, droughts, war and disease — are likely to worsen as the world warms from man-made climate change.” While so much attention goes to predicting the consequences of these changes, to innovate we’ll need to better understand its causes.

The specter of climate change has largely been reduced to a single number, 350. That’s the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, in parts per million, believed to be the safe limit beyond which will cause irreversible impacts (that number hovered around 275ppm since the dawn of man until rising, from the early 1800s, in parallel with the industrial revolution). But reducing any problem to a single number hides more than it reveals.

The causes of climate change are as dense and intertwined as its consequences. The industrial revolution didn’t just bring us carbon-emitting technologies; it also brought us the modern corporation. What technologies did to the natural landscape, corporations did to the social.

The same innovations that turned coal into steam into industrial power turned villages into factory towns into “economically distressed regions;” turned populated farmland into depopulated industrial agricultural regions into lakes and streams filled with chemical fertilizer, animal waste, pesticides and antibiotics; and turned local communities into labor markets, consumer segments, and gerrymandered impotence.

This is my final post of the Hargadon Files on CapRadio, giving me license to reflect more broadly on the pursuit of sustainability through innovation. In writing on this topic, one of the most valuable lessons I have learned in the last decade of working in this area is that we must be very careful in how we define the problem.

Efforts to innovate away the problem of climate change through LED bulbs, smart meters, clean gas, and hyper-milers evoke Henry David Thoreau’s comment, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." Any solutions to climate change must bring about both technical and organizational changes.

Sure, we can and should find new ways to reduce emissions but it won’t amount to much unless we also find new ways to build businesses that strengthen rather than undermine communities and that give those communities the political voice long since lost to corporations.

Why is this so critical? Because the impact of climate change won’t be felt like a single number. It will be felt locally: In the communities spread across the Front Range of Colorado, where nine inches fell in a single day and almost 20 inches (equal to their average annual rainfall) fell in the five days; across the entirety of Vermont where Hurricane Irene dropped up to 11 inches in one day in 2011; in New York, New Jersey and Long Island, where Hurricane Sandy destroyed hundreds of homes; in Pakistan, where in 2010 flooding displaced roughly 20 million people; and in the Philippines where, this past week, Typhoon Haiyan brought winds of over 200mph that destroyed entire villages and killed an estimated 10,000 people.

In his new book, Oil & Honey Bill McKibben offered some profound advice:

“When people ask me where they should move to be safe from climate change, I always tell them anyplace with a strong community. Neighbors were optional the past fifty years, but they’ll be essential in the decades to come.”

Asked where to find those communities, he answered, “You make them.” As Verlyn Klinkenborg noted, “It’s going to take strong communities to survive the forces of nature and repair the damage. But it’s also going to take strong communities to survive social fracturing under that kind of stress.”

When we think about innovating our way towards sustainability, we need to chart our progress by more than parts per million. We need to chart it also it by the communities we re-build, strengthen, or build anew.