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TV Review: The Sundance Channel’s Big Ideas For A Small Planet – “Work”

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“When most people go to work they leave their environmental ethics at the door,” says Joel Makower. And how true that is. It is estimated that commercial concerns account for 17% of the global warming problem. This week on Big Ideas For A Small Planet the workplace is examined, and more particularly what we can do to make a cleaner, more eco-friendly environment in which to work.

For the human race to continue to grow we must become more ecologically aware; in easy to understand terms, each of us leaves an ecological footprint that can be measured in how much land we need to support our habits. Globally it is about six acres per person, yet in the US it is almost 24. By reducing this ‘footprint’ we can make the world a better and sustainable place. Big Ideas looks at three enterprises dedicated to this mission.

Kim Jordan and Jeff Lebesch, the founders of New Belgium Brewing Company, demonstrate their dedication to the environment and to their employees by creating an ideal working environment. By using environmental stewardship they have created not only a fun workplace, but also one that is environmentally friendly. Kim explains how through good environmental management you can still make a great product and not hurt the bottom line.

David Hertz, founder and president of Syndesis Inc shows us that new is not always better. When he decided to buy a property for his booming business he decided to renovate rather than build. This is so much friendlier to the environment. Using innovative technologies, David has created a truly unique workplace. A green roof (yes, plants), solar panels, and smart lighting all lead to a situation where this building is essentially self-supporting, and its physical footprint mirrors its ecological footprint.

Maybe the most innovative enterprise reviewed in this week's episode is that of Mathis Wackernagel, co-creator of the Ecological Footprint. This Bay Area company conducts environmental audits in an effort to show how a company can reduce its environmental impact. “Every company can lower its environmental impact” he tells us, and small steps lead to larger ones. I had the opportunity to chat with this environmental leader.

When did you come up with the idea behind Ecological Footprint? And how long has the company existed?

The Ecological Footprint emerged out of my PhD work (from 1990 to 1994) in collaboration with my graduate professor, William Rees at the University of British Columbia. I have since focused much of my life on implementation – taking the Footprint from an idea to a real, policy-relevant measurement and management tool for living within the means of one planet Earth. Over the years, business leaders, scientists, academics, government officials, and non-profit organizations have vastly advanced the influence of the Footprint around the world. Collectively these efforts have started a sea change and made the case for establishing a Global Footprint Network in 2003 — a partnership-based , international network — to serve and support the Footprint community and to foster large-scale change. Now, footprint discussions are found everywhere – carbon footprints being particularly popular.

Today green is in, but that was not the case even a few years ago. Was it difficult to persuade companies that they needed your help?

Our strategy with businesses is to support green leaders in out-crowding the grey dinosaurs. Companies are starting to recognize that coming to grips with ecological limits is more than looking green. Ignoring limits becomes a potentially costly blind spot in their business strategy. This is why more and more, companies are contacting us, rather than us calling them up.

The Bay Area has a tradition for being leading edge, and amenable to new ideas. Are you moving into other cities, and what sort of reaction are you getting?

Indeed, the Bay Area is a great location for innovation. That’s one reason we are here. Our activities though are far from limited to the Bay Area. In fact, our strategy is to build a message and measurement method that works for people around the world, across the US, for Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America. This is why we have 75 partner organizations across the globe. Still our engagement in the US is weak: most of our current projects are in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Africa. There have been a number of studies in the US beyond Marin and Sonoma county: for instance, a partner of ours is producing an assessment of Utah’s Ecological Footprint.

In Europe we are working with partners and countries and hope to get the European Union to adopt the Footprint as a resource accounting metric. Local governments in Australia are exemplary leaders in Footprint applications and sustainability policy. In Africa we are bringing an ecological lens to the sustainable development debate. The Government of Japan has adopted the Footprint as a national indicator; and cities, companies and NGOs in Canada are actively using the Footprint for a variety of applications. In other words, the Footprint is being applied from global scale down to products.

In essence, Global Footprint Network is very much an international organization with an even more international partner network active on five continents. The partners share the goal of making planetary limits central to decision-making everywhere, and putting an end to ecological overshoot. Partner organizations represent industries, national and local governments, and policy and research groups around the world and together we make progress and have a reach and impact that would be impossible for any of us acting alone.

An often used statistic is the 1.3:1 ratio of resources used versus resources replenished; basically we are running on a deficit. What kind of change in this ratio can a company expect if they follow your recommendations?

Our most recent Ecological Footprint accounts show that humanity used 30% more resources in 2003 than planet Earth was able to regenerate in that year – this overuse is our global ecological deficit. Basically, humanity is living off its ecological credit card. Ecological deficit spending means liquidating the planet’s ecological assets. While this can be done for a while, overshoot ultimately leads to the depletion of resources – as in the case of fisheries collapse, deforestation, or CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere.

This is the challenge humanity is facing: while we are facing global resource overuse, many people around the globe still need larger Footprints to live well – more corrugated roofs, more rice, more electricity for their hospitals, etc. Also, some of the planet’s capacity needs to be left aside for wild species. This means that industrialized lifestyles need to become far more resource efficient if we want to get humanity out of overshoot. Recognizing this, many are now talking about the need for a factor 10 revolution – finding technologies that can provide the same service on 10 times fewer resources. Many such technologies exist – fluorescent versus incandescent lights, or wind power versus coal-fired power plants, etc.

As with almost every new concept, the key is education. How is Ecological Footprint getting the message out?

Ending ecological overshoot depends on recognizing ecological limits. In our culture, this is almost like trying to break a taboo – we don't like limits, and don't want to talk about them, we ignore them in our economic theories and political practice.

But ecological limits just are. Very much like gravity – gravity just is. Whether you like it or not. Walking up a hill we may curse gravity – but this does not make gravity disappear. The Ecological Footprint helps us recognize, measure, and manage to live well and live within ecological limits.

Part of what makes the Ecological Footprint unique is that it functions both as a resource accounting methodology and as a powerful communications tool for the recognition of planetary limits, and for more precise and accountable conversations about sustainability.

This is why we are joining with partners to spread this thinking through all kinds of channels – from calculator campaigns where people can assess their own Footprint to policy education campaigns as in the case of the "Living Planet Report" with WWF.

Our outreach efforts include publication of a widely circulated newsletter, ongoing website improvements, public talks and trainings around the world, expanding the reach, effectiveness and impact of our partner network, and media campaigns highlighting Overshoot and Footprint applications.

Judging from Google hits and ranking, the reach of our partner organizations, and the continuous mention in international media, we can say with confidence that millions are being reached and served by the Footprint.

Postscript: You can catch Big Ideas For A Small Planet Tuesday at 9pm on The Sundance Channel, and if your cable company doesn't carry this fine channel, all is not lost; you can watch most of the show online.

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