New Bottom Line Volume 7.5 – The Story of O

April 6, 1998

No, not that one. This one is a montage of musings about how it really works here on Earth, told through images of circles, which I hope I can evoke for you with words.

Fade in…to a 12 inch diameter steel ball. According to ever-difficult-to-categorize twentieth century design scientist Buckminster Fuller, a scale-model earth represented by this ball would present a rougher surface than the planet itself — the “bumpiness” of the steel surface more extreme than the bumpiness of five mile high mountains on an 8,000 mile diameter ball of rock. In fact, Fuller calculated, the fog formed if you breathe on the sphere would be thicker, to scale, than the thin film of life that has wrapped our rock ball as it has hurtled a few billion times round the sun.

Dissolve to a 12 inch circle on a piece of paper. The zone of life is thinner still than the line you’ve drawn. All that we know, all that we value is contained there in that fraction of a millimeter.

Zoom into the line, and dissolve: within that line, within that film, is another circle, a representation of cyclical, balanced for eons, flows of matter — plant to animal to plant to animal to plant, driven by photosynthetic harvest of solar photons that power carbohydrate and protein factories before radiating degraded heat energy back out into the cold vastness of space. It’s a process that is closed for the matter that moves through the cycles, molecules reassembled but mass unchanged, and open for the energy that flows in from space and, degraded, flows back out again. Matter changing in form but not mass, energy changing in quality but not quantity.

Of course we don’t run industrial society the same way. Yet. Fade. Like a profligate heir unwilling to live on his income, we burn up millions of years of chemical inheritance in a century or two. We use the heat to accelerate unstable and biologically unfamiliar parts of the material cycle, flooding the living factories with unwelcome foods dug up from the crust, gumming up the works, clogging the atmospheric biosphere-to-space energy filters with out of place crust-stuff.

The industrial system we’ve built within nature’s system keeps trying to run by different rules than those by which nature’s systems actually run. And there’s the rub.

Dissolve to a pie representing the physical throughput of the US economy — the total flow of “stuff” through the economy — the percentage of that flow that is useful “product” presented by slicing the pie into quarters, then cutting one of those quarters in half, and then cutting one of those slices in half yet again. About 6% product — just 1/16th of the pie — and about 94% “non-product output,” according to Robert Ayres. (If Ayres’s estimate is correct, then a ten percent reduction of waste could double net productive output with no increase in material throughput.)

Few CEO’s consider that the bulk of what our economy “manufactures”, the end result of the billions of dollars we spend on raw materials, energy, labor, management, facilities, and on and on, does not add value for either customers or shareholders, but moves through the economy absorbing value, creating in many cases negative value.

Could it be otherwise? Dissolve to an empty circle. Consider that every business, regardless of industry, scale, or profitability, produces two things, and only two: products/services that add value (hopefully to both customers and shareholders) and those that don’t. There is only one quantity of “non-product output” that makes business sense: Zero. And one business proposition that emerges: “More Value. Less Stuff.”

But how? The design template for zero waste transformation is very familiar. Dissolve. Plain as the egg on your plate. Try this simple mass-balance experiment: weigh a fresh laid, fertile chicken egg; weigh the emergent chick and shell 21 days later, and marvel at the equivalence. (Remember that the spent shell is food too — just not for you.)

Dissolve to whole earth photo. Spaceship Earth itself is another example of a zero-waste, renewable-energy-powered, material transforming, value-adding system. Somewhere between the scale of the chicken egg and the planet we have the challenge of designing processes, factories, companies and industries that meet the same standard.

Fade to white. (Hard to visualize? You’ll have to wait for the video.)

(c) 1998 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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