Natural systems

Good to the last drop.

I had the privilege of attending a “Water Conversation” last night here in Cochrane. It brought together a range of interested folks (from normal citizens to town employees and businessman) to chat about 4 key areas related to water, and was facilitated by folks from WaterSmart. There was also representation from Alberta Energy and the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB)…not surprising given that one of the areas under discussion was hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

I’m not going to be able to encapsulate the whole discussion, but a few interesting things popped out for me.

Water usage: Did you know the average Canadian uses 329 liters of water a day? (The average Albertan uses 350L). Compare this to places like France (150L/day) and Sweden (200L). Same, or better, standard of living…half the water consumption.

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Water cost: How much do those 350L cost you? The answer…not nearly enough.

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So what does this look like for Cochrane? Well, if you’ve been reading the Cochrane Sustainability Plan Progress Reports (which I know you have), you would have noticed that the 2011 average for Cochrane was 203L/person/day! This is thanks in large part to an innovative pricing scheme, where residents and businesses pay a tiered rate for water consumption, along with good educational programs.

For the first 25 cubic meters (25000L!), you pay 1.13/meter ($0.00113/L). For 26-60 cubic meters, you pay $1.51/1000L. Anything over 60,000L/month and you pay $2.25 per 1000L.  This tiered rate is in and of itself pretty innovative, but I argue that it’s still too cheap.

If the goal is to continue to reduce TOTAL water consumption (not just per/capita), then we’re going to have to take things to the next level. The flow of the Bow River doesn’t change, and Cochrane’s population is growing rapidly. This scenario will result in water scarcity issues, regardless of how efficiently we’re currently using water.

A couple of ideas:

  1. Make the first 40L/person/day FREE. Totally free. Water should be a right, just like the air we breathe. 40L should provide for drinking, cooking and basic sanitation. After 40L….charge the hell out of it. Triple or quadruple the current pricing scheme. Make me think about how much water I’m using, and give me an economic incentive to use less. At 1/10th of a cent per liter…I don’t even blink when I flush the toilet. And I drive a truck on vegetable oil.
  2. Create bylaws around grey water recycling. All the water that goes down the sink or the bathtub could be reused to flush toilets, or recycled and used for watering the garden. Using expensive, treated water for EVERYTHING is unsustainable.
  3. Develop a full-cost accounting structure for water, from intake to discharge. Include that price in the consumption of the commodity. Change the tiered structure so that the thresholds are much lower.

There were some interesting conversations around “private management” of water resources here in the province. A lot of us at the table were pretty leery of that idea, although business certainly has a track record of improving efficiency and getting products to markets in the leanest way possible. What about a social business or non profit? Someone tasked with managing the resource, but not standing to make a killing from it?

I highly recommend you get acquainted with what’s going on with water resources in this province, because it’s changing quickly. Check out the water conversation here (you have until FRIDAY APRIL 12th to contribute to the online survey).

The Resilient System: Feedback

Last week I wrote about Diversity vs. Efficiency, and how often in our systems we’re sacrificing the former for the latter. This week I’m going to get into Feedback a little bit.

Not the dreaded “sit down with the boss every year and chat about your annual review” kind of feedback. The kind of feedback that drives systems, both little and huge.

First though, two kinds of Feedback:

Positive Feedback: Encourages the system to “do it again”. From rave reviews at the concert hall that sparks a 2nd run of the same play, to diner’s consistently ordering the same dish at the local restaurant, positive feedback is what propels systems forward (usually quite rapidly). Positive feedback often encourages the system to use up resources (think of shareholders getting high returns from companies that cut down rainforests… the positive feedback encourages more investment, which results in more logging, which results in higher profits, which results in more investment…).

Negative Feedback: Places limits on the system, and is essential for long term system stability. It’s the wolf or coyote that keeps the rabbit population in check. It’s the group of book publishers that only buys recycled paper, instead of virgin wood. It’s the ability of the planet to absorb the carbon we emit.

Typically, positive feedback loops are much faster than negative feedback loops. Often, these positive loops will lead to runaway growth within a system, until the negative feedback loops of the system catch up (or the system uses up all the resources and crashes…also a form of negative feedback. A recent financial crisis come to mind…lot’s of little positive feedback loops at work there, creating a runaway system.)

The most important thing about feedback is that it exists, and we need to listen to it. First we need to figure out what the heck we’re measuring, and whether that’s the right “thing” that measures the stability and sustainability of the system. Thinking back to the cod fishery example from the previous post, it becomes pretty apparent that the positive feedback that was being measured didn’t indicate the resiliency of the system.

How do you know what’s going on in your system (business, classroom, community, etc.)? What do you measure? Why do you measure it? Is it positive feedback or negative?

The Resilient System: Diversity

As part of my focus on helping create a more resilient world, I’m going to be writing a series of blog posts on what I think are components of resilient systems.

The first topic is Diversity. For a system to be resilient, it needs to have resources distributed in such a way that they can be re-allocated to solving new problems as they appear, or dealing with challenges in multiple ways.  One of the main opponents of system diversity is efficiency.  There might be a conflict of interest here.

Since perhaps the dawn of mankind (but certainly the industrial revolution), we’ve been on a shared quest to increase the efficiency of our systems. From food production to education, manufacturing and transportation, we’ve been on a mission to do “more with less”. And that’s been great, and it’s led to all kinds of innovation and savings in energy, time and money. Heck, the very fact that you’re reading this on the internet (and not in a book 6-months from now) is the result of increases in communication efficiency. But the dark side to all of this efficiency is rigidity.

Called the “Rigidity Trap”, systems that are highly efficient are also highly prone to failure when confronted with crisis. One look at the cod fishery collapse in Atlantic Canada shows a system that evolved from being very diverse (lot’s of little fishing boats and owner/operators pre 1950s, using traditional fishing methods) to being highly efficient (giant trawlers with enormous haul nets and onboard cleaning and freezing facilities). The annual catch went up from 250,000 tons in the 1950s to 800,000 tons in 1968. This increase in efficiency led the system into a rigidity trap, where fisherman HAD to keep pursuing larger and larger catches, to justify the mortgages on very expensive and efficient boats. The federal government didn’t step in until 1992, at which point 42,000 people were put out of work when the fishery was closed. For over 400 years the northern Atlantic cod fishery had been one of the richest in the world, and in a few short decades of ever-increasing efficiency, was decimated.

Of course, we can look at diversity at a broad range of scales. How diverse is your personal thinking? Do you visit the same websites, read the same newspaper columnists, listen to the same radio talk shows? Do you only read things at

The next blog post will be on Feedback, as it’s the critical element that informs the system on what’s working and what’s not. From the examples above, if we only get feedback from sources that support our worldview, I think we’re in danger of developing our own “rigidity traps”.

A few things to ponder in your own systems (at whatever scale you have influence on).

  1. Are we sacrificing diversity for efficiency? And what are the consequences if our efficient system becomes so rigid that it can’t handle change, and collapses? Will 42,000 people be put out of work and an ecosystem destroyed?
  2. Do we have redundancy built into the system? Are we willing to sacrifice a bit of efficiency to ensure the system can survive crisis? (An example from my own life is heating my house. I have a traditional furnace and a wood stove. Redundant systems that perform the same task, a little less efficient, but more resilient. Same idea with the truck that runs on diesel and vegetable oil.)

Calgary Metropolitan Plan announced

I had the distinct privilege of being invited up to the Cochrane Ranchehouse this morning for the launch of the Calgary Regional Partnership’s Calgary Metropolitan Plan.

The Calgary Regional Partnership was formed in 1999 as a voluntary collaborative effort between 14 municipalities in the greater Calgary area (including the city of Calgary, of course). With a focus on preserving the natural environment and water resources, while fostering the region’s economic prosperity, this initiative has taken on the daunting task of managing the extraordinary growth in the area.

I’m going to take some time to digest the contents of the latest Metro plan (I’ll blog about it later), but in the meantime I encourage you to check out this overview video:

Now that you’re all intrigued about this fascinating topic of municipal development, go and check out the new site that outlines the CMP in a very well done, interactive and easy to digest style.

You might be asking yourself, why do I care? Well, if a “business as usual” growth pattern continues, there won’t be an “Okotoks” or a “Cochrane” as we know it. There will be the “Calgary Metro area”… a sprawling debacle of single family homes in cutely named subdivision after cutely named subdivision (last I checked, Tuscany was in Italy). I’m going to hunt around for some of the maps that I saw today and post them up. Concerning to say the least.

Of course, the business as usual growth pattern doesn’t have to hold true. Communities could embrace the following 4 principles of the CRP;

  1. Protecting the natural environment and watershed
  2. Fostering the region’s economic vitality
  3. Accommodating growth in more compact settlement patterns
  4. Integrating efficient regional infrastructure systems

And it’s one thing to embrace the principles, it’s entirely another to integrate them into decision making, and make the tough decisions now that lead to a different development path.

A final thought… Wainwright MLA Doug Griffith (currently the Minister of Municipal Affairs (@GriffMLA on twitter)) gave the CMP a glowing 2-thumbs up, including commitment to ongoing funding of the CRP initiative. Pretty great to see the various layers of government on the same page around managing growth!

Values vs. The Economy

And so is crime. And car accidents. And divorces. Do you know what’s bad for the economy? Carpooling. Buying seeds and growing your own food. Living in a smaller house, with less stuff.

How then, are we to reconcile this obviously irrational dynamic? How can we possibly change a status quo so perverse?

We’ve got a couple of options, chief among them is the notion of finding ways to describe value in more ways than one (the almighty $$). And maybe not getting so hung up on what’s good for “the economy”, when it’s obvious that what’s good for the economy is often very bad for people.

I’m sure folks are familiar with Bobby Kennedy’s speech from 1968, but it bears repeating here.

“Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. 

It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. 

It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. 

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Think about it for a second from the perspective of a business or home owner. You pay bills. You pay to fix the leaky roof. You pay to dispose of garbage (pollution). At the end of the month, you take your expenses and subtract them from your income, to see what your net income was (and hope it was positive).

On the contrary, our governments add the expenses to the income. The economy grows when an oil spill needs to be cleaned up. The more trees that are cut down, the better the economy does. Car accidents? Great for the economy. Think of the ambulance driver, firefighter, doctor, lawyer, car repair guy, insurance company… awesome. We should be getting in more car accidents.

Or perhaps we should be talking about other forms of value. Natural capital, Social or Human capital, Built capital, and yes, Financial capital. I believe the clear direction forward for our communities is learning how to measure all forms of capital, and if we can’t measure it, at least appreciating that it exists and is important in decision making.

And maybe, just maybe, we could stop talking about the “economy” as if it’s a living, breathing thing. It’s not. It’s a system that we’ve devised to account for value in society… and right now it’s not doing a very good job.

Nuclear Energy. Urbanization. GMO. All good, according to…

Stewart Brand, who in the late 1960’s started the Whole Earth Catalogue (definitely a hippy rag). If you haven’t read his book Whole Earth Discipline yet, it’s on my must read list (which probably has fewer than 20 books on it…so you know it must be good!).

This is the first of my “recommended reads” blog posts. I find myself frequently sharing with friends and family what I’ve been reading, so I thought that you might enjoy my thoughts as well.

Brand shakes up many enviro-myths with his pragmatic approach to the environmental problems the world faces. Very convincing, very well researched and grounded in convincing facts and interviews with leading experts from a variety of fields…Brand lays out a clear path to a more sustainable future.

It’s not often that you see Paul Hawken (another great author) giving out his highest compliment to a book, the fact that it “changed his mind”.

“Stewart Brand defines iconoclastic, and has now raised the bar with the most important work of his lifetime, likely one of the most original and important books of the century. As the title connotes, the writing is about disciplined thinking. Shibboleths, ideological cant, and green fetishes are put to the side with the clarity and expertise gained by years of research and forethought, a mindbending exploration of what humankind can and must do to retain the mantle of civilization. The highest compliment one can give a book is ‘it changed my mind.’ It changed mine and I am grateful.”           –Paul Hawken

It certainly changed my mind about a lot of environmental dogma’s (and environmentalists, more on that later!), and hopefully you find it equally enjoyable and enlightening.

At the very least, watch this TED Talk.