Energy flows: volcanoes, grounded flights and thermodynamics

21 04 2010

If anyone wanted evidence of how delicate, precarious and interdependent our systems are, they only need to look to the events of the past few days.  I was speaking at a conference in Istanbul on Thursday 15th on Creating Sustainable Value, due to fly back to the UK in the afternoon. It hadn’t been an easy choice to fly out to the conference in the first place, another example of the constant dilemma of wanting to raise awareness and responsiveness to the challenges of the 21st century, (environmental, social, economic, geopolitical, fill in the blank with your global crisis of choice) on the one hand, and not wanting to expend the carbon getting there on the other.

However, given the conference’s theme was one so close to my heart – organisational identity – the choice to attend eventually won out.  A four hour flight and too much carbon later, and I found myself in a very pleasant hotel in central Istanbul, a protected enclave from the externalities of water scarcity and desertification that a trip out of the city makes increasingly apparent.

As I delivered my presentation I already knew that I wasn’t going to get home that day. I waxed lyrical on the podium about the interconnectedness of our global civilization, and how a volcano in Iceland could prevent me getting home from Istanbul to the UK. It was an ideal rhetorical device to open my session on organisational identity and sustainability, and the need to re-formulate our often-unquestioned assumptions about the fundamental context within which we operate, our organisational purpose, values and the expressions of such. What I didn’t know at that point was that it would take me another five days to get home.

It’s easy to forget, or should I say deny, the mind-bending complexity of our global systems as they exist at the so-called ‘edge of chaos’. David Korowicz has made this point powerfully and profoundly with his paper Tipping Point. He points crucially to how our whole society, economy, indeed our entire global civilization, is actually a thermodynamic system of energy flows, and as such we are inescapably dependent on energy to service our complex social infrastructure.

We might like to think that we exist outside of and above ‘nature’, that we have been clever enough to create systems that exist in a supra-reality, disconnected and protected from our physical environment, even to the point that it becomes superfluous to our needs.  But ultimately, says Korowicz, we are a physical complex adaptive system, and therefore subject to all the same laws of thermodynamics as any other physical complex system. This means that the inevitable tendency towards entropy – disintegration – can only be countered by a constant inflow of energy. And we have engineered a global civilization that requires ever increasing amounts of energy to support ever increasing complexity, most of which is in the form of fossil fuels, ancient solar energy that was captured and laid down in the Earth’s crust millions of years’ ago.

The current aviation chaos is testament to how central this energy is to our civilization, and how taken-for-granted it is. There is no alternative to oil in the foreseeable future in the amounts we require to sustain the pace and scale of our international and interconnected societies. Going faster, moving further from equilibrium, requires more energy. And, says, Korowicz, that is inherently unsustainable. If we haven’t hit peak oil yet, it is likely we will do in the next 10-15 years.

Getting home from Istanbul by plane takes about four hours plus a car trip either end. Going overland (still by car or train, alternative but slower oil-dependent transport systems) would take at least 3 days and there’s still the Channel to negotiate.  On foot… well images of medieval pilgrimages of months and years come to mind.

As it was, in my case, it took a four hour flight to Madrid, then overland in buses, trains and cars.  Still two days and still dependent on a cross-continental flight.

So the wake-up call isn’t just about the immediate impact of stranded travellers; flowers and food perishing before reaching their destinations; the huge cost to the economy.  We are pretty good at dealing with these short-term crises generally speaking.  The wake-up call is about the fragility and systemic nature of our oil-dependent global systems, and the insidious – because it’s uncertain, creeping and therefore out-of-awareness – impact of peak oil.

Alexandra Stubbings

Leadership development at the sharp end

15 04 2010

I recently led an observation for one of our case studies in the ‘Leading Organisations of Tomorrow’ project and thought I’d share my initial personal reflections on the experience.

‘Leading Organisations of Tomorrow’ is the working title of a research project being led by three of Ashridge’s research centres – the Centre for Research in Executive Development, the Ashridge Leadership Centre, and the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability. We’re looking at eight examples of innovation in leadership development within major organisations to understand things like why did the organisation do this? Why did they do it the way they did it? What did they learn about what works well? And what kinds of impact did the interventions have? Each of these interventions included some focus on developing leaders capable steering and stewarding their organisations through the changing context of leadership in the twenty-first century.

The research involves interviews with key individuals within each of the organisations, as well as a sample of participants in each case. Where possible, we will also be observing programmes in practice to get a first hand perspective.

I joined for a few days participants in the middle of a two-week leadership programme organised for a family-owned Singaporean-based company employing around 6000 people across East Asia. The first part of the programme involved an intense week of classroom-based work in Hong Kong. I then joined the participants as they travelled to one of the company’s own palm oil plantations in East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo in Indonesia. Here participants were challenged to apply new thinking in practice with a live project to develop a management plan for this new investment that would develop a management approach combining economic success with sustainable livelihoods for local communities and sustainable stewardship of natural resources. The participants were tasked with preparing a plan and presenting it to the organisations’ senior management team, who were flying in for the final day of the programme.

I joined the participants as they engaged with the local management and toured the newly established plantation. We also engaged with local workers and their families in their homes, and other families living in local villages. Some things that really struck me were the complexity of power relations in the local villages, and the potential for these to be impacted by the coming of the plantation. I was also struck by the simplicity of the lives of families living in the villages, the sense of hope they had around new opportunities from the plantation, but also their fears around lack of health protection and education for their children. Workers and their families living on the plantation itself spoke about their isolation, and that it was impossible for them to get their kids to school as the nearest schools were too distant – but that this was an improvement on what their lives had been like before.

I was also really struck by the extent of environmental degradation across Borneo as a whole, where around two thirds of the primary rainforest has been cleared over the past 20-30 years – far more than I had imagined. This company is not destroying primary forest, which is illegal, but has been sanctioned by the government to clear secondary forest to establish the plantation, along with countless other companies across Indonesia. This company should be applauded for its aspiration to cultivate palm oil in the most sustainable way possible, but again I was struck by the scale of the challenges in meeting this aspiration – palm oil, one of the principle vegetable oils, is an ingredient in just about every food product you can imagine. But palm oil plantations are nearly always monocultures, with major biodiversity impacts, displacing forests which provide all of us with tremendously important ecosystem services, not least the role they play in the global climate. Indonesia is the world’s third largest carbon dioxide emitter (after the China and the US) principally because of the rate of deforestation. And that’s before we even mention orang-utans.

As well as experiencing these things first hand, it was also fascinating to talk with the programme participants about how they were experiencing this. On walking away from talking with one family in their simple home, a participant said to me that they had been sceptical about the programme initially, but talking with these families was having a real personal impact – ‘Those could have been my kids running around in there, this gives me a completely different context to the decisions I make back in head office, I now have a personal connection with the people who will be impacted by those decisions’

Ashridge faculty will be conducting interviews with a sample of these participants in three-four months time to explore their reflections on impact and value of the experience to them and their organisation. We’ll report back from this and the other cases over the coming months.

The Leading Organisations of Tomorrow project will share a draft report at a major event hosted by Ashridge in central London on October 14th. The final report will be published at the end of 2010 and a more in depth book exploring the key themes of the work will be published in 2011.

Umpteen Questions and a possible answer

13 04 2010

I thought one possible way of thinking about this is systemic risk analysis. The following recent report mainly on the interconnected risks associated with energy shortages (kick started by peak oil) is really worth a read. Its written by the new Risk and Reliance Network and Feasta who have promised many more follow up reports to come.

Tipping Point: Near-Term Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production

David Korowicz (From the Oil Drum Think Tank) the physicist behind the report gives an overview of the connections between the financial crisis and increasing entropy in our ever more sophisticated complex self organising social systems. Jeremy Rifkin makes similar connections in his latest book, the Empathetic Civilisation.

It also suggested that as a society locked into a growth paradigm the de-growth strategies suggest by Tim Jackson, NEF and others in recent reports such as Prosperity Without Growth are the least likely of possible scenarios going forward. The others are not pretty though.

Interestingly rather that conclude or make recommendations, the report asks us to dwell on the immensity of its proposals and sit with the discomfort for a while. What its saying essentially is that its a slightly more significant task than just changing the light bulbs.