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New Bottom Line Volume 8.1 – Entropy: A Parable

August 10, 1999

Late one afternoon, on a sunny day two hundred years ago, a crest-fallen young man approached the wise and respected rabbi of a small Eastern European village. He found it difficult to speak.

“Rabbi,” he finally managed, “I’m so ashamed. Can you ever forgive me?”

“For what, my son?” the old man asked. For he knew that forgiveness could follow the request but absolution could only follow acknowledgment (and penance?). And besides he had no idea what the young man was talking about.

“I’ve slandered your good name, Rabbi. I’ve spoken ill of you…”

The rabbi pondered quietly, and finally spoke. “I will forgive you, my son. But first you must do two things.”

“Whatever they are, Rabbi,” the young man said eagerly.

“Take the two feather pillows from your bed. Go to the top of the hill over looking the town. And at sunset, slice open the pillows and scatter the feathers to the wind.”

The young man hesitated a bit, since feather pillows were not inexpensive in those days. But he knew his soul would not rest until he made peace with the rabbi, so he swallowed hard, and agreed.

The day was drawing to a close, so he raced home, gathered up the pillows, and, with his wife calling after him, raced to the hilltop. As the sun began to slip below the horizon, he slit open the pillows and waved them in the air, watching the feathers get carried over the town in the rising evening wind. Somehow greatly relieved, he returned home to dinner and a most curious, but fortunately understanding, wife.

The next morning he returned to the rabbi, as he had promised. “I have scattered the pillows, Rabbi. But you said there were two things I must do.”

“Yes, my son, there is one more thing,” the rabbi responded. “Now go, and take the pillowcases, and refill them with the feathers you have scattered.”

“But Rabbi,” the young man exclaimed, “that’s impossible! The feathers are everywhere. I’ll never get them all back…”

The rabbi paused, as the young man absorbed the nature of the ordeal now before him. “Is this so very different from what you have done, my son? You can no more follow the tales you have spread everywhere they have traveled, and get them back in the bag.”

Wracked with sobs of both shame, and now, understanding, the young man gathered his pillowcases and struggled to his feet. Before he could leave, though, the rabbi blessed him, and granted the forgiveness he sought. And the young man set off to gather what feathers he could.

This bit of ancient common sense often comes to mind in modern conversations about pollution–a common enough topic–and entropy–a still unfamiliar one. As both Paul Simon and the laws of thermodynamics remind us, “everything put together sooner or later falls apart.” Things run down, systems move from ordered to disordered, stuff spreads–unless there is an organizing flow of energy from outside the system.

That much is inescapable, but we have great freedom of choice as to where and when and how the energy is applied. It’s generally much more advantageous (an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure) to apply that energy to design rather than cleanup.

How much pollution is too much? How many rumors are enough to sully a reputation? How many molecules enough to damage a living being? What’s the cost-benefit ratio of contamination? How much more “cost-effective”–not to mention right and good–to never let the feathers out of the bag in the first place?

Which reminds me of a more recent story. Concluding an integrated eco-audit of a modern food manufacturing facility, we presented the CEO & COO with a single graphic summary of the facility’s “metabolism.” This Throughput Pie™ displayed, in the wedges of a pie chart, the proportion of output that was productive (product plus recycling) versus “non-product output (NPO).” Even classing all recycling as “product,” the NPO dwarfed the product by a ratio of more than three to one. This ratio was comparatively good for that industry, but shocking enough to astonish the executives–who rightly saw the NPO as raw materials, potential product, and potential profits literally running down the drain–and to persuade the company to commit to a goal of zero emissions.

But that’s not the interesting part of the story. In a series of analyses to explore just how to do that, we discovered that the mix of strategies that would turn NPO into product could actually yield more net profit that the primary activity of the factory!

Waste to profit is of course easier said than done, and not so dramatic a possibility in all cases. (Though this was in fact a well-run company.) But the opportunity is always right there in front of us: to try to get the feathers back in the bag, or try to get it right the first time.

(c) 1999 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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