Beavers and rabbits

In 1946, members of the Argentinian navy released 10 beavers to enrich the ecosystem and perhaps kick start the fur trade. Now, beavers have wrecked havoc in Argentina for decades. Unlike trees in North America, trees in South America die when beavers sink their teeth into them. Without a natural predator, they are now a hundred thousand strong. And, Argentina has declared a war on beavers

Australia faced a similar problem when 6 rabbits were introduced for hunting. Rabbits turned out to be an invasive species in Australia.

The obvious lesson here is to beware messing with the delicate balance in nature. There are two other less obvious ones.

First, small things have the ability to mess with the balance in an ecosystem. Nice organizational cultures have been destroyed by a few bad hires. Introduce one person who enjoys politicking more than doing the work and you might not notice much change. However, bring a few and it’ll soon affect the ecosystem.

On the flip side, you might also find yourself in environments where you are the invasive species. In an environment that thrives on the fact nobody asks questions, asking questions might result in the environment rejecting you.

Pay attention to the environment. Some adapt, others don’t. And, while some will work well for you, others won’t. Make sure you choose. And, once you make your choice, pay attention to the changes it undergoes. A change in your environment is sure to have an impact on your life and happiness.

Who is paying for it

Every time you get a ridiculously cheap deal, it is worth asking – who is paying for it? Here are 3 examples –

1. The “fast fashion” movement pioneered by retailers like Zara is all about designer product fads at low prices. Manufacture it quickly, use it for a short period and dispose it. It feels like a great deal for the customer.

2. Parents of new born babies have the pick of diapers at 15c/diaper. These diapers are a massive upgrade from dealing with cloth diapers that require a tremendous amount of maintenance.

3. Cheap beef. If there are no religious connotations to this, that’s only a good thing right?

Who is paying for it?

In every case, the environment. And, in the case of fast fashion, workers in developing countries who are subject to very difficult conditions. The fast fashion movement is unsustainable because of the tremendous amount of waste it generates. Diapers use hundreds of thousands of trees to manufacture and are one of the top sources of landfill waste. Since most parents do a bad job actually cleaning disposable diapers before dumping them (even if they’re asked to do so on the label), all baby waste on the diapers create a massive bio hazard as they seep out of landfills into the ground water. Cloth diapers are not all that better either – their water usage makes them just as bad. And, beef has among the worst carbon footprints possible.

The Economic term for these is “externalities.” Every one of these has negative externalities. Every one of these seems good for the customer in the short term but has really bad consequences in the long term.

So, what can we do?
1. Look for and support alternative solutions. Counter fast fashion with slow fashion – buy your clothes and actually keep them for a while. When you are done using them, donate to people who need it more than you. Don’t just use biodegradable diapers – pay for a service to compost them. Eat less beef.

All of these will cost us a bit more in the short run. Maybe we’ll find ways to make space for them by cutting other less necessary expenses.

2. Be aware of your own carbon footprint by asking – who is paying for this? It is hard to be perfectly “green.” But, we can all be a lot greener and reduce negative environment externalities in our lives. Small actions, over time, can have big impact.

Two looming questions

Every time I think about the problems we will have to spend our time solving in the next few decades, I go back to two looming questions –

1. How will we deal with the displacement of 70%+ of our workforce when machines take over most of our jobs?

2. How will we prevent human extinction by figuring out sustainable solutions to co-exist with the environment on this planet?

The onus on the first question lies more with policy makers and governments. The second, on the other hand, is in the hands of researchers and entrepreneurs. As with all complex questions, these two looming questions throw out plenty of symptoms that threaten to occupy our attention. But, attacking symptoms will not help us solve these problems. In fact, they probably get in the way.

For example, the root of political unrest and the hateful sentiments against fellow humans in most “developed” economies right now is due to the displacement. The blue collar factory worker’s job has gone away and will never come back. It is hard to come to terms with that reality. And, the politics around it don’t help. “Vote for me and I’ll get your jobs back” is a simple, if untrue, message. These simple messages win the day in the short term. True progress, unfortunately, is built on tough discussions. And, these tough discussions will not occur until we accept that this is the reality we face.

So, perhaps, the first step should not be to discuss our solutions to the problems we face. Our solutions will be very different depending on our biases.

Maybe the first step is simply to agree on the questions…

Earth Overshoot Day

Earth Overshoot Day is the day in the year when we use more of the planet’s resources than it can regenerate. The first such day was December 24, 1971. This year, it was on August 8.

There is a witty and smart George Carlin piece on “Saving the planet” –

“The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!”

The environment has largely served as a thorny issue in the past generation’s narrative. There is still a massive contingent of people who think it is all a conspiracy. The problem with pointing to everything as a conspiracy is the same as the boy crying wolf – when the wolves actually do come, you are doomed.

It is certain to be the dominant issue in the next generation, however. Maybe it’ll help if we renamed the issue from “Save the environment” to “Save humans?”

Earth Overshoot Day, environment, humansThanks to Etsy for the image

PS: If you are wondering what you can do – pick 5 out of this list to reduce your carbon footprint and be more conscious of energy consumption in your home and the office. This isn’t about the environment. This is about us…

HT: Elijah Wolfson from the Quartz Newsletter for writing about this

Tweaking the environment

One of the more powerful things you can do as a leader is to pick an environment that encourages people to behave in a certain way. This is part of the sort of intention that is required to shape culture. For example, a meeting room with lots of opportunity to write will likely have more brainstorming. A meeting room with a lot of light will likely encourage more divergent thought. Ideally, you’d pick meeting places that are consistent with the culture you want to build.

I was reminded of how powerful tweaks to your environment can be just a few days ago. The monitor I use to type these posts, for example, was supported by 3 books as its height isn’t adjustable. Even so, it was slightly shorter than the right ergonomic height.

So, every once in a while, I would slouch as I was working away on the laptop. A few days back, my wife took a photo of me eating breakfast while slouching and I found myself immediately attempting to correct my posture. But, as the immediate reaction is just one of instinct, I thought about the problem for a bit.

It was soon apparent that the fix was a simple – just add a fourth book.


And, voilà, I slouch so much lesser now. The height of the screen makes me sit up straight – the environment shapes my behavior.

It is always interesting to look at our behavior (and, in some cases, those of others) and ask ourselves – what could we change about the environment to encourage different/better behavior?