Buyer Beware: The Pathway to Collapse Could Be Paved with the Most Sophisticated Consumer Metrics

By Senge, Peter | People & Strategy, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Buyer Beware: The Pathway to Collapse Could Be Paved with the Most Sophisticated Consumer Metrics


Senge, Peter, People & Strategy


I agree wholeheartedly with Daniel Goleman that product sustainability indices like GoodGuide.com and the one that Wal-Mart's and other retailers are working to develop are potential game changers in creating a more sustainable industrial system. But they are only first steps. We all must be careful not to be seduced by "being less bad," and continuing to destroy our inherited social and natural capital just a little less rapidly.

The first thing everyone must understand is that most all of these metrics track relative impacts: how one product fares relative to another competing product. But is the product good? That's a much tougher question to answer.

The bottom line is that nature does not care about the relative impact of one product compared to another. Nature cares about our total impact in absolute terms. Relative rankings may not only fail to convey our impact in destroying ecosystems, depleting water or soil nutrients or destabilizing global climate, they can distort the speed and scope of changes actually needed.

To illustrate, consider the real (i.e., absolute) changes needed to avoid the dangers of climate change. The growing consensus among climate scientists is that we need to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at not much above where they are today--which means we need a 70-80 percent reduction in emissions (given the rate of [CO.sub.2], sequestered by the biomass) within three or four decades. (2)

What does this mean, for example, for the average mileage for cars? Given continued historic growth in cars on the road, a lot. An 80 percent reduction in emissions would require a five-fold increase in fuel economy--for the U.S. fleet, an average of about 100 mpg. But, if the global fleet of automobiles keeps pace with GDP and grows at about 3 percent annually (some expect new car sales to rise far faster with standards of living growing far faster than 3 percent per annum in China and India), the number of cars on the road will double every 20 years, which means a four-fold increase by 2050. …

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