Yearly Archives: 2019

10Jun/19

Beyond Traditional Environmentalism: An Alternative Paradigm on Environment

(Review of the book Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough & Michael Braungart, North Point Press)

The remedies to the environmental crisis we are facing today are now more or less accepted by all progressive and thinking minds and getting standardized. They eliminate pollution, consume less, recycle waste, minimize the use of non-renewable resources. Here are two people, an architect and a chemist, who dare to question this accepted environmental wisdom—which looks very reasonable—and offers a better and alternative paradigm for dealing with the ecological crisis facing our humanity.

The authors of this book under review William McDonough and Michael Braungart take a sharp, critical look at the present standardized remedies suggested for restoring our damaged environment, for example, recycling. But what is interesting and valuable in this book by McDonough and Braungart are not their criticism but their positive, wider and enriching vision and approach to environmentalism.

William McDonough is an architect and the principle founder of ‘William McDonough and Partners, Architecture and Community Design’, based in Virginia. Time magazine recognized him as a ‘Hero for the Planet’. In 1996, he received the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, the highest environmental honour given by the United States. Michael Braungart is a chemist and the founder of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) in Hamburg, Germany. Prior to starting EPEA, he was the director of the chemistry section of Greenpeace.

The Cradle to Grave Model

The title of the book is based on two contrasting models of development. The first one, the traditional industrial model, where things are made, used and discarded is the ‘cradle to grave’ model. McDonough and Braungart present a ‘Cradle to Cradle’ model where the discarded things, what we call as waste, become the cradle for something useful or enriching. The traditional environmentalism offers recycling as the remedy for waste. But Macdonough and Braungart indicate the defects in this method which are unrecognized in most of the discussion on it. As they point out:

“Just because a material is recycled does not make it ecologically benign, especially if it was not designed specifically for recycling. Blindly adopting superficial environmental approaches without fully understanding their effects can be no better – and perhaps even worse – than doing nothing.”

When a product is not predesigned for recycling, it may happen that one set of harmful chemicals are replaced by another equally harmful ones used in the process of recycling. McDonough and Braungart give many examples for illustrating these defects of recycling. Here is one of them:

“In some developing countries, sewage sludge is recycled into animal food, but the current design and treatment of sewage by conventional sewage system produce sludge containing chemicals that are not healthy food for animals. Sewage sludge is also used as fertiliser, which is a well-intentioned attempt to make nutrients, but as currently processed it can contain harmful substances (like dioxins, heavy metals, endocrine disrupters, and antibiotics) that are inappropriate for fertilising crops. Even residential sewage sludge contains toilet paper, made from recycled paper, may carry dioxins. Unless materials are specifically designed to ultimately become safe food for nature composting can present problems as well.”

The Cherry Tree Paradigm

But the more positive part of the book is that the authors provide a much more enriching alternative to the current thinking on environment. According to McDonough and Braungart, contemporary environmentalism based on the principle of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle, – and regulate’ impoverishes Nature and life and it is contrary to the ways of Nature, which produces a creative, diversified and beautiful abundance. The true Environmentalism has to follow this richer ways of Nature. The authors of this book frequently cite the cherry tree as the example of their alternative approach. “Consider the Cherry tree: thousands of blossoms create fruit for birds, humans and other animal, in order that one pit might eventually fall onto the ground, take root, and grow,” say the authors, and elaborate further on the way of the cherry tree:

“The tree makes copious blossom and fruit without depleting the environment. Once they fell on the ground their materials decompose and break down into nutrients that nourish microorganisms, insects, plants, animals and soils. It enriches the ecosystem, sequestering carbon, producing oxygen, cleaning air and water, and creating and stabilising soil. Among its roots and branches and on its leaves, it harbours a diverse array of flora and fauna, all of which depend on it and on one another for the functions and flows that support life. And when the tree dies, it returns to the soil, releasing as it decomposes, minerals that will feed healthy new growth in the same place … what might the human-built world look like if a cherry tree had produced it.”

Inspired by the example of the cherry tree, the authors of this book offer an alternative model of environmentalism where products can be designed in such a way that after their useful lives they will become either ‘biological nutrients’ which re-enter the cycles of Nature and the water and the soil without injecting synthetic materials or toxins into it or else they become ‘technical nutrients’ which continually circulate within the industrial cycles as useful materials or products.

Eco-efficiency and Eco-effectiveness

McDonough and Braungart make a clear distinction between ‘eco-efficiency’, which is the main principle of current environmentalism, and ‘eco-effectiveness’, which is the principle of the new paradigm that they offer as the better alternative. The main features of the eco-efficiency model are:

  • Release fewer pounds of toxic wastes into the air, soil and water every year.
  • Measure prosperity by less activity.
  • Meet the stipulation of thousands of complex regulations to keep people and natural systems from being poisoned too quickly.
  • Produce fewer materials that are so dangerous that they will require future generations to maintain constant vigilance while living in terror.

In contrast, the eco-effectiveness model is based on the following principles:

  • Buildings which, like trees, produce more energy than they consume and purify their own waste water.
  • Factories that produce affluent that are drinking water.
  • Products that when their useful life is over do not become useless waste but can be tossed into the ground to decompose and become food for plants and animals and nutrients for soil; or alternately that can return to industrial cycles to supply high-quality raw materials accrued for new products.
  • Billions and trillions of dollars’ worth of materials accrued for human and natural purposes each year.
  • Transportation that improves the quality of life while delivering goods and services.
  • A world of abundance, not one of limits, pollutions and worse.

This is not merely a utopian theory. Drawing from their rich experience in environmental consulting, the authors give many examples on how they redesigned things from carpets to corporate campuses. Let us look at one example, described by the authors:

“Working with a team assembled by Professor David Orr of Oberlin College, we conceived the idea for a building and its site modelled on the way a tree works. We imagined ways that it could purify the air, create shade and habitat, enrich soil, and change with the seasons, eventually accruing more energy than it needs to operate. Features include solar panel on the roof; a grove of trees on the building’s north side for wind protection and diversity; an interior designed to change and adapt to people’s aesthetic and functional preference with raised floors and leased carpeting; a pond that stores water for irrigation; a living machine inside and beside the building that use a pond full of specially selected organism and plants to clean the effluent; classrooms and large public rooms that face west and south to take advantage of solar gain; special windowpanes that control the amount of UV light entering the building; a restored forest on the east side of the building; and an approach to landscaping and grounds maintenance that obviates the need for pesticides or irrigation. These features are in the process of being optimized – in its first summer, the building began to generate more energy capital than it used – a small but hopeful start.”

On another assignment, a textile manufacturing company asked the authors to redesign a fabric which was producing toxic effluent and it was done in such a way that effluents are cleaner than the water that went in! The environmental inspectors were baffled and wondered whether their testing instruments were working properly!

The Larger Crisis

This brings us to the question whether the eco-efficiency model can be entirely abandoned? The authors admit that eco-efficiency is helpful as “transitional strategy to help currents system to slow down and turn around”. However, the authors do not address serious environmental problems posed by a predominantly consumerist culture, when it starts consuming limited, non-renewable resources on a large scale with a ravenous appetite. Asia in general and large populous countries such as India and China are facing such a crisis. As Kishore Mahubhari, former Singapore Ambassador to UN describes the crisis facing Asia:

“Two virtually certain major trends will create a massive global collision. First, Asian living standards will rise spectacularly. This is good. Second, Asian will replicate Western consumption patterns. This is bad. How do we gain the good and avoid the bad? This will be one of the biggest questions of the twenty-first century.”

In such situations, a strategy based on the principles of eco-efficiency with restraints and limits to consumption of resources seem to be the right remedy. Chandran Nayar, the founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, in his book Consumptionomics, presents a blueprint for tackling the Asian environmental crisis based predominately on the principle of eco-efficiency. Writing about the main cause of the environmental crisis, Nair says: “That cause is what we consume – both its volume and its nature. The only way the world can expect to have an environment fit for those currently alive to live in, and to pass on the future generation in a decent form, is by consuming less and in a different way.”

The much-talked about ‘demographic dividend’ of a large population can be realized only when we are able to provide the basic needs of the population and make each individual into a productive citizen with sufficient health, education and skill. All these require immense amount of resources and how to find it? Assuming we are able to harness these resources and create a productive population, when a large part of this population rises in the economic pyramid and takes on to the western types of consumption in the form of more and more TVs, cars, fridges, etc., then will it not become a too heavy burden for the environment? So, reducing excessive consumption of resources is something indispensable for preserving the environment, and the need for controlling the population cannot be dismissed or underestimated.

This brings us to in other important environmental concern – population growth. But the authors of this book do not offer any useful strategies on how to tackle this problem in an ‘Eco-effective’ way. They are highly critical of the reduce–minimize–avoid culture of traditional environmentalism which counsels “we must shrink our presence, our systems, our activities and even our population control through limiting birth rates as the most effective way to deal with the problem”. The authors of this book are critical of this approach but do not offer any better alternative.

How to bring down consumption? There are the outer or material methods through regulation, laws, environmental education and many others. But there is also an inner, psychological path. The driving force behind consumption is desire for more and more material objects or enjoyments and reduction or renunciation of this kind of desires can lead to reduced consumption. The best way to do it is to turn the energy of desires towards non-material objects, which aims fulfilment in the intellectual, aesthetic or spiritual realms. So a system of education which awakens this higher needs or the aspiration of these higher aims can help not only in spiritual growth but also beneficial to our environment.

M. S. Srinivasan

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13May/19

Inner Feelings and Relationships

(Harmonious relationship is one of the major aims of collective living. What is the main factor which can bring this harmony to our communal life? It is the inner feelings behind our speech, behavior and actions. This article examines this factor in a Yogic perspective.)

The quality of a relationship depends on the nature of the inner feeling behind outer speech and behavior. If it is good and sincere, the relationship remains warm and genuine, even when there is no outer contact or relationship in the form of talking, joking or laughter, and the social courtesies such as wishing ‘good morning’ or the material gifts we give to others are not mere empty or formal things but a spontaneous expression of the inner feelings. But even when such kindly outer gestures are not there, it doesn’t affect the inner feeling because we understand each other. However, when inner feelings are uncharitable, openly or aggressively or remain in a subtle, mute and suppressed form, for example, anger, dislike, scorn, irony, sarcasm, resentment, disapproval, disdain, superiority or derogatory comment, then the relationship inwardly breaks down and no amount of outer gestures of friendship and benevolence can restore the relationship. A relationship which begins with a good inner feeling may breakdown later because of darkening of the feeling created by misunderstanding, conflict or negative influences from outside such as listening to gossip, criticism or slander. And the feelings are contagious. Negative feelings in me can induce a similar feeling in the other person and destroy whatever good feelings I have for him.

It is not easy to hide the inner feelings. They are visible on the face, in our eyes or in the way we talk. Even someone with a little bit of inner sensitivity can sense it. We sometimes complain about a person that he is uncommunicative and indifferent to our presence or our attempts to relate with him. But we don’t ask whether it is due to something negative or insincere within us. For example, we ask questions pretending to know, when we have already formed definitive conclusions and judgments about it.

How to set right uncharitable feelings? There are practical guidelines in the writings and conversations of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The first step is to not to identify with the negative feelings. There needs to be an inner detachment from the feelings and observe it as a witness, and not to allow them to influence or drive our thoughts, judgements, speech, behaviour or actions. The second step is the non-judgemental attitude, that is, acceptance of the person as he or she is without judgement. For an enlightened humanity, which knows that it doesn’t comprehend the entire truth or the inner being of a person and the judgements based on the appearance, nature and character of the surface being, this knowledge can be very un-inhibiting. This attitude can considerately reduce or minimize hasty or uncharitable judgement which in turn has a positive impact on the feelings. The third step is to cultivate the ‘opposite’ which means, as the Mother (CWM, Vol. 14, p. 206) describes, “Discover in your nature the opposite way of being (benevolence, humility, goodwill) and insist that it develops to the detriment of the contrary element.”

M. S. Srinivasan

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11Apr/19

Changing Paradigms of Innovation: Orbit-Shifting Innovators

(Review of the book Making Breakthrough Innovation Happen by Porus Munshi, HarperCollins Publishers India)

At the rate that technology, product and service ranges and human thought-processes are evolving, there is a growing consensus among corporate leaders and gurus that in the future world ‘Innovation’ holds the key to competitive advantage, for companies, communities as well as for nations. However, among foremost pioneering nations, India is never regarded as a great innovator. India is more known for jugaad—quick-fix improvisations—than for lasting and breakthrough innovations.

In this book, Making Breakthrough Innovation Happen by Porus Munshi (which is described by R. Gopalakrishnan, former Executive Director of TATA Sons, as a ‘must-read work of great inspiration’), the author dispels this notion by presenting the case studies of 11 Indian companies and institutions which ‘pulled off the impossible’ by making what he calls as ‘orbit-shifting innovations’. The author is a management consultant and a partner at ‎Erehwon Innovation Consulting, a company dedicated to fuelling innovation in India.

Porus Munshi takes a different and deeper approach to the subject of innovation from the traditional ones which try to arrive at some general or universal principles or bring out a to-do list from the outer behaviour or practices or process of successful innovators.

In this book Munshi tries to understand the mindset and thought process of orbit-shifting innovator. He quotes Dr Natchiar of Arvind Eye Hospital, “We keep sharing our best practices, process and methods with other organizations … but none of them is able to replicate what we do because they focus on the process and not on the underlying philosophies that drive the organization.” She comments further: “Really the internal leads the external. As long as we focus on the external manifestation and not on the internal mind-sets and beliefs that drive orbit-shifting innovations we are going to be focusing on wrong things and true replication won’t happen.” This is very much in harmony with the Indian spiritual ethos which emphasizes on the principle of ‘from within outwards’ as the foundation of all effective action or creation.

Porus Munshi identifies four major tasks in achieving orbit-shifting innovation. First is a Mission Impossible, an extremely challenging mission. Second is to arrive at a breakthrough strategy to reach the mission. Third is to form a team which believes in the mission and convinced it can be done. Fourth is to enrol all the stakeholders and infect them with their mission.

Here are some of the companies and institutions among the 11 breakthrough innovators:

  1. Dainik Bhaskar newspaper which was able to achieve No. l circulation from the first day, wherever they launched it, in a market with reputed newspapers with a large circulation.
  2. Titan which came out with the slimmest, water-resistant watch in the world, which even the Swiss were not able to produce.
  3. Shanta Biotech which developed a low-cost Hepatitis Bvaccine and ushered in the biotechnology age in India.
  4. Trichy Police which rewrote policing programmes and created an innovative community policing system

Let us briefly look at the mission and strategies of the first and the fourth examples, Dainik Bhaskar and Trichy Police. The newspaper company Dainik Bhaskar first launched its paper in Jaipur with a mission of becoming No. 1 or 2 in circulation from day one. The company leadership discarded the traditional market surveys and aimed at in-depth understanding of the readership patterns and the needs of the readers by meeting a whopping 200,000 potential newspaper-buying households in Jaipur. They decided to evolve the product (in this case the newspaper) according to the customer needs. They went to each customer and asked him/her questions such as: “What are you not getting in the current newspaper that you would like to get more of” and “What should your newspaper do for you to make you more satisfied?” Then, based on the feedback, the survey team went back to all 200,000 households to show them what they had created, based on their feedback. A large army of fresh college students and graduates were deployed by the company to accomplish this huge task. They were formed into many small groups with a supervisor. Every day in the morning they went to work energized by a silent prayer to God and followed by a brief session of singing of inspiring or patriotic songs. Without entering into any more details of the strategies of Dainik Bhaskar, what we have tried to present here is a glimpse of the orbit-shifting thinking of the innovator.

Most of the innovations described in this book are product innovations. Among the category of service innovation, there is the case study of the famous Arvind Eye Hospital which is too well known to be retold. However, there is another remarkable case study which is not well known and goes beyond the product–service category of a true social transformation of the community. It is the case of a unique and highly innovative community policing model, conceived and implemented with admirable effectiveness by a police commissioner, J. K. Tripathy, in Trichy, a town in Tamil Nadu.

Porus Munshi describes the achievement of this great leader in the following words:

“Within two years of Tripathy’s taking over, Trichy had been transformed. As many as 261 dreaded criminals were nabbed and the crime rate dropped by about 40 per cent, an eventuality until then considered impossible. For, it was thought that crime could only increase, or at best be contained, but that it could not drop. Today, a decade later, Trichy is a city at peace and a lighthouse of communal amity. Public–police relationships are at a scale unprecedented for India. Policemen are called ‘anna’ [brother] not out of fear but out of respect and regard. They get invited to functions and marriages. All the stakeholders—community, police, politicians, bureaucrats and NGOs—work together in considerable harmony. And more importantly, for a city seething with communal anger prior to 1999, there have been no incidents of communal violence since. The police have become an integral part of the community, and this isn’t some ‘advanced’ Western country we are talking of. It has happened right here in India, in less than two years and has been sustained for a decade.”

Let us look briefly at how Tripathy was able to achieve this extraordinary result. The police force is one of the most rigid and traditional organizations, in which power and authority is concentrated at the top and wielded with a severe firmness. Tripathy changed it radically by delegating the freedom, power and authority to the frontline constables at the lowest levels. For implementing his unique community police model, Tripathy handpicked 260 constables on the basis of internal police records. He picked those with no record of corruption, bad habits and with a track record of effectiveness. The constables were called ‘beat officers’ and groups of four were responsible for a locality. They were told that the beat (area/locality) was their baby completely and that they were responsible for it in every way. They could take whatever decisions they required without consulting their superiors or supervisors. They could do whatever they thought was best.

The other unique achievement of Tripathy is that he was able to convince the beat officers that their responsibilities include not only crime-busting but also to help people in the zone in solving their individual and community problems, for example issues with the ration card, water supply, fixing street lights, finding trained and authorized plumbers and electricians. The residents of the community began giving their applications for water, sewage and telephone connections to the beat officers and these were taken up with the commissioner. When the municipality officials complained that the police were overstepping their authority and interfering into their domains, Tripathy told them bluntly: “You are corrupt and take bribes from the people to do your work. We want to serve people honestly. If you do your work honestly we will not interfere.”

Tripathy made arrangements for the beat officers to talk through television and radio programmes about their work and what they are trying to achieve through the unique community policy model. This was a great boost to their motivation. Where on the earth do ordinary constables at the lowest levels of police hierarchy allowed to present their thoughts on TV and radio? Under Tripathy’s leadership, the relationship between police and people became so friendly and intimate that they are affectionately referred by people as ‘Anna’ (or elder brother) and the beat officers were invited by people for weddings and social functions as special guests. Tripathy was able bring about a transformation in police–community relationship which is unique and rare.

I have described this case study of Tripathy in some detail because it is this kind of innovation and leadership which can create the future world. Product innovations are important for the corporate world, but what is much more important for creating a new and better world in the future are innovations which lead to the higher evolution of the community through the realization of a more holistic, inclusive and humane concepts and values, such as what Commissioner Tripathy was able to achieve.

This book by Porus Munshi, written in an easy and engaging style, is insightful and inspiring. It provides broad guidance to leaders and entrepreneurs, without becoming narrowly preachy on the nature of the thinking process which can lead to breakthrough innovation.

M. S. Srinivasan

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12Mar/19

Rising Beyond the Blame Game

In our work or relationships, whenever something goes wrong, our first instinctive reaction is to blame others. We are not aware of our own contribution to the mess or even when we know it we tend to ignore it and cling to the blame game. In an article in Harvard Business Review with the interesting title ‘Blame’ Kevin Sharer, former CEO of Amgen, describes how he was able to rise beyond the tangle of blame to harmony and understanding.

The company headed by Sharer got mired in deep financial crisis and marketing problems. And Sharer describes the situation and his state of mind: “My two most capable, trusted colleagues were in charge of our day-to-day response. But it became apparent that for the first time in their six-year partnership they were not effective as a team. In some ways they were making things worse. My state of mind wasn’t pretty. If you had a view into it, you have seen disgust, fury, fear, indignation.”

And Sharer was blaming his colleagues for the crisis facing his company. This is a very common failing of our too human nature. And it is not easy to get rid of this mindset created by the ego.

The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram describes the right ideal or attitude in such situations. “If in the work you meet with some difficulties, look sincerely into yourself and there you will discover their origin.” This requires much courage, maturity and a deep honest and objective inner observation. Sharer was able to harness these inner resources within him and recognized his own contribution to the problem. “The question occurred to me,” says Sharer “How much of my colleagues’ performance problem did I actually own?” and describes what he has discovered:

“Call it an epiphany, but that question inspired me to start scribbling. Soon I had a long list of things I could and should have done differently all the way from resource allocation and long-term capacity building to my engagement in the immediate crisis. I want to be clear that this was not an exercise in self-loathing or defeatism; it was an authentic, honest, and complete analysis of how I had failed to do my part.”

The process of healing, redemption or transformation begins from this point of sincere acceptance of our own contribution, wrong attitudes or mistakes and stop blaming others. We must understand that our inner condition made of thoughts, feelings and attitudes are contagious. As long as we dwell in the blaming mode, emanating negative vibrations such as resentment, it is transmitted to others, invoking similar feelings in them and perpetuates the conflict. But the moment we stop blaming and accept with an entire sincerity our role in the conflict, it releases a positive and subtle moral force which acts on others at the inner level.

The next step is to harness the courage to admit our mistake openly to our colleagues, which Sharer was able to do. “The following Monday, when the three of us met to review where we stood I arrived with a different attitude,” states Sharer. “I started the meeting by describing calmly and with total candour, how decisions I had made in the past had landed us where we are, and what I was prepared to change. In short, I owned the problem.” And the result was a total healing and complete dissolution of all conflict. “It stunned my colleagues,” states Sharer. “Whatever defensiveness they were feeling was swept away.” And the following conclusive remarks of Sharer were very similar to the views of many modern spiritual teachers:

“Now when issues arise at work—or in personal relationship for that matter—I know it is fundamental to me to look deeply and objectively at my own contribution to them before accepting others to change and improve.”

For example, look at following passage from the Mother, one of the greatest spiritual masters of our age:

“You can do nothing for others unless you are able to do it for yourself. You can never give a good advice to anyone unless you are able to give it to yourself first, and to follow it. And if you see a difficulty somewhere, the best way of changing this difficulty is to change it in yourself first. If you see a defect in anyone, you may be sure it is in you, and you begin to change it in yourself. And when you will have changed it in yourself, you will be strong enough to change it in others.”

And the story ends with a happy note. “At the end of the crisis,” says Sharer, “we and our company emerged better than ever.”

Reference:

  1. Kevin Sharer, ‘Blame’, Harvard Business Review, January–February, 2010, p. 36.

M. S. Srinivasan

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