Monday, November 15, 2010

Sustainable business - Thoughts about Zero Growth

In a previous post, I was thinking about how the law almost prescribes that businesses grow and put growth ahead of any other social or environmental concern.

Recently I ran into this article about zero-growth economics: an area that is about understanding how an economy might work that is not based on constant growth. One in which productivity gains are used to reduce working hours while keeping output constant rather than using increased productivity to increase output and increase demand in a never ending cycle.

Below are several quotes that I took from the article that I found particularly interesting. The most important of which is probably this:
  • no-growthers regard their job not as promoting specific policies, but widening the field of debate. 
That captures the idea of Dis-enthrallment rather well.
Other thoughts:
  • "We've had 125,000 generations of humans, but it's only been the last eight that have had growth," Victor told me. "So what's considered normal? I think we live in very abnormal times.
  • he [Peter Victor] created a computer model replicating the modern Canadian economy. Then he tweaked it so that crucial elements—including consumption, productivity, and population—gradually stopped growing after 2010. To stave off unemployment, he shortened the workweek to roughly four days, creating more jobs. ... It took a couple of decades, but unemployment eventually fell to 4 percent, most people's standards of living actually rose, and greenhouse gas emissions decreased to well below Kyoto levels. The economy reached a "steady state."
  • Even Adam Smith, ...  acknowledged that it might be possible for an economy to max out its natural resources and stop growing.
  • In 1930, John Maynard Keynes likewise predicted a period in the future...when the economy wouldn't need to grow (pdf) further to meet our basic needs. Man's "economic problem" would be solved, and people would "prefer to devote our further energies to non-economic purposes." Things like art, child rearing, and leisure.
  • When Franklin Roosevelt supported grappling with Great Depression unemployment by decreasing the workweek to 30 hours, the largest corporations fought back fiercely. America, they argued, would be saved only by the new "gospel of consumption." The administration would need to pursue flat-out growth, loosening labor laws and so forth, so that the industrialists could revive the nation. Roosevelt backed down.
  •  it seemed obvious that when nations virtualized, shifting to service economies, they didn't stop gobbling natural resources or even, really, curb their appetites. They merely outsourced the problem to Asia, Africa, and South America or found cheap new sources at home
  •  the happiness of Americans, as reported by social scientists, rose steadily after World War II as GDP grew. But by the late '50s, that connection broke down: Although our median family incomes have nearly doubled since 1957, the proportion of people who say they are "very happy" has barely budged (pdf). Daly thinks we simply hit the point of diminishing returns. Our growth turned uneconomic: GDP now keeps growing mainly because we are producing gewgaws and services that don't significantly add to our happiness. Or worse: It grows because we are spending money to solve problems that growth itself created.
  •  no-growth economists agree with mainstream economists on one big point: Technological advances make workers more productive every year. In the mainstream view, these labor efficiencies make goods cheaper, which leaves consumers with more disposable incomewhich they invest or spend on more stuff, leading to more hiring to fulfill demand. By contrast, the no-growthers would do things differently; they would use those efficiencies to shorten the workweek, so that most people would stay employed and bring home a reasonable salary.
  •  Indeed, some countries have already edged towards this vision. In 1982, labor unions in the Netherlands agreed to limit demands for higher pay in exchange for policies encouraging people to work less. Within a decade, the proportion of Dutch citizens working part-time soared from 19 percent to 27 percent, the average workweek fell from 30 to 27 hours, and unemployment had plummeted from 10 percent to 5 percent. (They called it "the Dutch miracle.")
  •  Western consumption rates would need to shrink disproportionately so that citizens of countries like India and El Salvador could enjoy a lifestyle upgrade. Why? The no-growthers argue that a world with fewer yawning inequities between the rich and poor would be more stable; but quite apart from that, their models require stabilizing world population, and raising the economic lot of the poor is a proven way to do that.
  • Given the shift in wealth needed to accomplish this, Americans would ... be pretty lucky even to find ourselves where we were in 1960—when the median family made $35,994 in today's dollars (versus $61,932 in 2008).
  • technological advances mean that your dollar buys a lot more than it did back then. For a couple of bucks, you can score a pocket calculator that does things it once took a million-dollar university machine to accomplish. "We're better at making things now," Victor says, so our living standards would be considerably higher than this figure suggests.
  •  But when you take the thought experiment a few steps further, no-growth theory raises a host of questions about psychology and motivation. ... Would innovation cease if entrepreneurs didn't think they would sell a million widgets? Could individual companies still grow—and if not, who would want to invest in them?
  • There are other aspects of no-growth theory—like the population-stabilizing business—that could chill partisans of any stripe. To halt population growth, you need to reduce global fertility rates to an average of about two children per couple. But if boosting poor people's means doesn't defuse the population bomb, what then? Population control by mandate is essentially totalitarianism.
  • Daly ... has begun to think that only the Earth itself will compel people to act. In a few decades, if basic resources become scarce, prices spike, and climate change is causing global conflict, no-growth thinking could arrive whether we like it or not. "It'll be forced on us," he says. In the end, when it comes to determining the shape of our economy, the planet may possess the most powerful invisible hand of all.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

ESLs - Comparison to other lighting technologies

In a previous post I compared several light sources to understand why a person might choose one over the other.

I bumped into this story on treehugger about Electron Stimulated Luminescence (ESL) bulbs. These lights use an approach like a CRT television to cause a phosphor to light up.

Technical specs for the bulbs are:
  • efficacy = 30.7 lm/W
  • lifetime = 10,000 hrs
  • CRI = 85
  • Color Temp = 2700K, 2900K, 4000K
Other points which the makers heavily emphasize:
  • Fully linear dimming with household dimmers (vs CFLs)
  • Mercury-free, environmentally-friendly materials throughout (vs CFLs)
  • Mount in any orientation [heat issues] (vs CFLs and probably LEDs)
  • Instant on at full brightness (vs CFLs)
  • Lasts approximately 3-6 times longer than an ordinary incandescent bulb
They don't post a price but do say about price: "it will be price competitive against LED products."
If I take "price competitive" to mean 25% less than an equivalent LED bulb, that leads to an expensive bulb... (~$136/klm ESL vs $5/klm CFL).

Plotting that information in the same charts I used earlier gives the following:

The ESL bulb falls into a pretty good space in terms of visual quality. However, its efficacy is quite low compared to the other choices in the space.

Assuming that the FAQ comparison with LED lighting is any indication of how they intend to price the bulbs, then a more serious problem emerges.

The price | performance ratio is quite poor for the ESL. Its lifetime and efficacy values are FAR too low to be priced anything like an LED light. To be competitive, the price would have to be closer to that of a CFL (1/30th the current estimate).
Being Hg free, made from environmental friendly materials, dimmable, providing instant on and lacking heat issues are all very nice but, given it is only about 1/3 as energy efficient as a CFL, a 30x price premium is not warranted ... it would be hard to justify a 2x price premium I suspect.

So unless the pricing comparison with LEDs is highly misleading, ESL is likey to be DOA.
Mass market will buy CFLs because of price | performance.
Specialty applications focused on "green" creds will use LEDs because they are far superior in those aspects.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Saving the World is Like a WoW Raid?

TED recently posted another interesting talk about games and social change by Tom Chatfield.

One big take away from his talk is seven lessons from games that you can take and use outside of games to engage people with game-like rapture.
  1. Experience bars measuring progress - show progress towards a single, large, long term goal.
  2. Multiple long and short term aims - lots and lots of different tasks at a level that is still engaging. Break down a huge problem into interesting slices.
  3. Reward effort - credit for trying. No punishment for failure.
  4. Feedback - link consequence to action. Even when they are distant in time and space.
  5. Element of uncertainty - uncertain rewards at the right level of occurrence (intermittent reinforcement).
  6. Windows of enhanced attention - provide the lessons at the right time when attention is focused.
  7. Other people - doing things with your peers.

The mention of EverQuest did get me to thinking about games for sustainability in a slightly different way. I had been trying to answer how you bride the gap from games to changed behavior.
  • In games about sustainability, there is some attempt to educate, but no real requirement to actually change. Here is an example ("Fate of the World") that lets the player experiment with different policies to understand how those policies affect outcomes that are not readily apparent in a short time frame.
  • In crowdsourced efforts, like zooniverse's "old weather" project and the Great Backyard Bird Count,  people expend effort at processing data that can be used to understand our environment. That is arguably a change in behavior, but one that is of an information processing nature rather than a lifestyle change.
  • In augmented reality, an objective is overlaid on some real environment as a way to change your interaction with that environment. But it leaves the problem of making sustainability related behavior changes exciting enough to play in and of itself on a long term basis.
The answer (of the hour): Raids.
A focused game mechanic that closely coordinates people to act towards a common goal that can require a large amount of preparation outside of the specific event in order to achieve.
  • The game sets a target (e.g. kill bad guy X)
  • People gather to achieve it (e.g. clan N and clan Y decides to take on this raid for the greater glory)
  • The game could set up a mechanic whereby the first team to reduce electricity usage over baseline by 100kWhr opens the dungeon required to start the raid. Or the more energy saved by the group, the more powerful a summoned assistant the team gets (with tiers and drastic changes to powers and appearance as the tiers are achieved). As part of this mechanic, the game would:
    • Show each player's contribution towards the goal
    • Suggest approaches for achieving the goal
    • Provide some in-game feedback about the effect of this goal 
      • e.g. the saved energy builds up in a visual form somewhere in-game
      • e.g. provide tiered but randomized rewards as players' contributions reach certain levels.
    • Provide real world context of what the energy savings means (e.g. $x of savings)
    • Keep a public record of what was achieved for all groups attempting the raid to see.
  •  Rinse and repeat
Instead of trying to make a game entirely about sustainability, build it into a game that people want to play (like WoW).

One huge opportunity that comes from this is establishing the systems by which you get accurate feedback from the real world on the actions that you really want to drive. Smart meters are one example (leaving open the question of how you establish a "baseline"). But, as noted in this post, car mileage is a much larger contribution to overall energy usage. How would you monitor miles reduced? Similar questions for green buying decisions, water use, etc... some probably easier to solve (and easier to tie to a product promotional campaign) than others.