A Bright Green Future: Applying Lean to the Whole Planet

By Jason Turgeon:

In my first post a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the tension between what I called “new” and “old” environmentalism. Not that I had expected to be the first to notice this tension, but I was both pleasantly surprised and somewhat humbled when A Brighter Shade of Green floated through my field of view just days later. The article makes my point far better than I did, explaining how Bruce Sterling phrased the argument as the new “bright green” vs. the old “dark green.” Ross Robertson is a much more talented writer than I am, and I hope you can find time to read the whole thing. In case you can't, here's a capsule summary:

  • Environmentalists have been struggling privately for years with their misanthropic side. There is a certain feeling in the movement that the planet might be better off without people and/or technology, and the mainstream media and our conservative foes have picked up on this unspoken tension and magnified it.
  • Being branded as misanthropes is a really lousy way to get buy-in from the people who can make a difference.
  • Like it or not, people now control the planet and every natural system on it. And so far, we're doing a really terrible job of running the show. In the words of Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame, “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.”
  • The people (especially Alex Steffen) at WorldChanging, a blog that holds a top spot on Google Reader, have taken up the bright green torch and are busy offering up solutions to the problems we're facing today.
  • The bright green movement is in danger of swinging too far the other way: “the greatest danger for bright green today seems to be that the very thing that makes it so progressive—its attempt to integrate postmodern ecological consciousness into the modernist project of economic and social progress—is the same thing that threatens to drag it backward into an overly materialistic orientation toward sustainability and global development.”
  • The conclusion is that the movement will succeed if it can make room for spirituality, not a surprising conclusion since the article appeared in What is Enlightenment magazine.
With a close reading, Lean followers will find a lot to think about in the article. If you'll pardon my excessive use of bullet points, here are a few examples:
  • When he quotes former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach talking about Dark Green's unspoken misanthropy being “political suicide,” Robertson might as well have been talking about the need for buy-in from top management (something the green movement has never had).
  • In discussing the utility of WorldChanging's ecological footprint approach to measuring our impact on the planet, there is a strong parallel to Lean's emphasis on performance measurement.
  • Robertson's capsule summary of Cradle to Cradle touches on Lean's foundation in the elimination of waste. C-to-C is entirely about eliminating waste.
  • The coverage of the stated benefits of the current rural-to-urban shift, especially for women in the developing world, is another way of talking about Lean's respect for people.
  • When Robertson says that “World changing advocates open-source models of design, copyright, and licensing that encourage collaboration, maximize the appropriateness of solutions in local contexts, and allow for uninhibited retooling of technologies to keep pace with evolving realities on the ground,” he could just as easily have been describing Lean's reliance on Flexible Tools.
  • Talking about James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, which views the earth as a single living superorganism, and the impact on earlier generations of seeing images of the earth from space for the first time, we can take a step back and relate to Lean's systems management approach.

It seems clear to me that there is a lot of room to apply Lean thinking as we develop our “Bright Green Future.” Let me know what you think in the comments.

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  1. I’ve begun exploring some of these ideas in my blog Lessons for a new world. It is really a question of getting at root causes and then applying our prodigious human creativity to developing solutions that ensure our future while maintaining the benefits of our civilization. So far we have only been addressing symptoms and so we fail.


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