September 11, 1996
A friend asked me recently to speculate on environmental “surprises”–looming crises that might not be in very many people’s sights, but which are likely to demand our attention in years and decades to come. In contrast to most of the topics of these columns, some of these will seem to bear little direct relationship to the business of business, and the choices of management. Many have to do with health, climate change, chemicals and politics. Some, though, are in one way or another consequences of our way of life. Others are bound to affect it.
Human encroachment on species habitat, plus climatic and airstream changes are radically altering both the local and global pathways of these disease vectors. (see Laurie Garrett’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Coming Plague).
A new melting pot of diseases
Increased human migration–traditionally driven by famine, war and economic opportunity, and likely to be driven in the future by water and other resource constraints as well–exposes human populations to diseases to which they’ve never been exposed, and hence to which they have little resistance.
The “AIDS” epidemic may increasingly come to be understood as an indicator of broadly compromised immune response–a problem to which environmental toxins may contribute–quite a different problem than a particular infectious actor, however virulent it may be. (Meanwhile, somehow below the news media’s radar, syphilis is widespread, latent, non-reactive to most testing, presenting as apparently many other diseases–and of course, highly infectious.)
Recent research suggests that classes of synthetic chemicals that mimic characteristics of endocrine hormones may affect reproductive competence, behavior and learning abilities as well as immune response. And while OECD chemical companies have shown impressive reductions in release rates of many toxic materials, global environmental releases continue to rise.
Chemical synergies and risk assessment
A recent study in the journal Science shows that combinations of two or three common pesticides, at low levels that might be found in the environment, are up to 1600 times as powerful as any of the individual pesticides by themselves. This is not only a potential health concern; it is also a possibly mortal challenge to classic approaches to risk assessment.
Some analysts have now flagged this biological manifestation of global speedup — the currently popular antithesis to the long view–as “the #1 health problem in US.” (Do “labor saving and enhancing tools” like the computer actually save time? or do they destroy leisure? The real question underlying the GATT debate: Will Spain sacrifice the siesta to European harmonization?) Related concerns: Loss of the Dark (and of Starlight) with unknown impact on non-human life as well as people.
We’ve traditionally thought (to the extent there can be much tradition in a field just a few decades old) that genetic evolution resulted from the orderly unzipping and zipping of strands of DNA. It turns out it’s not so tidy. Genes apparently can “jump”–take a non-reproductive pathway from one organism (or even species) to another. A recent Science Tuesday article in the NY Times talked of their role in virulent E. coli contamination in the meat supply. The imagination boggles trying to follow the implications of this thread.
Add to all these the looming backdrop of declining resource capacity and rising human demands on resources, and you have prescription for disaster (or at least great unpredictability and stress)…and perhaps a path of opportunity as well.
Fortunately, there are bright signs on the landscape. These include:
Renewable energy’s new allies
European and Asian insurance companies and banks are starting to be concerned about their potential losses if global warming results in flooded coasts, etc. Long column in the Washington Post (21 January, C2) examined their perspectives and proposed that market forces will ultimately drive serious investment in alternative energy sources such as solar.
Giving up on “waste”
Significant waste reduction initiatives are taking hold in advanced societies, as companies increasingly realize what the chemical industry has long known: that wastes are potential feedstocks; pollution prevention is starting to become common sense. Extended producer responsibility, dematerialization and zero waste strategies are three important initiatives to watch.
No one may know exactly what it is, and certainly no one knows exactly how to do it, (or fully understands its implications) but a growing number of people “get it”–and are attempting, at the level of individual company, industrial symbioses and regional policy, to grow a productive body of practice from this compelling metaphor.
These coordinated, collaborative national and regional environmental plans pioneered in Holland and other countries are capturing the imagination of both national and local jurisdictions who see them as a way to get past the polarized stalemates to practical, ownable solutions.
Rollback of the Republican assault on the environment
US Republicans have found themselves deeply out of touch with their constituencies on their proposals to roll back 25 years of environmental protection, and have started to move away from confrontations on environmental issues. This is not so much testament to the deep environmental commitment of Newt’s rebels, as to deeply if latent commitments of US public, communicated through their NGOs.
A regular reader of New Bottom Line knows that I tend to be a congenital optimist, always looking on the bright side, or at least always looking for the opportunity to make lemonade from lemons. So where are the business opportunities in this dismal list? As my college physics professor used to say, we leave that problem to you to work out.