Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Stress Nexus

LONDON – Every day, the number of people inhabiting our planet grows by more than 210,000. That adds up to 1.5 million more people each and every week, adding to the demands on our vital resources.

At the same time, the world is becoming more prosperous, improving the quality of life almost everywhere. Over the past few decades, an estimated two billion people have risen into the middle class worldwide. That is a remarkable achievement.

But this ongoing global rise in prosperity also generates stresses that threaten to undermine prosperity. Call this the “prosperity paradox.”

By 2030, it is estimated that our world will need 30% more water, 40% more energy, and 50% more food to keep up with rising demand. And we will need to provide that additional energy, water, and food in ways that significantly reduce CO₂ emissions.

Addressing any of these resource needs individually would be an immense task. But the challenge of ensuring sufficient supplies of water, energy, and food is magnified many times by the linkages between them. The potential effects of climate change will influence all three. So, if we are to succeed, meeting our resource needs must be addressed intelligently and in unison.

Energy, water, and food are our most vital resources, sustaining life itself and fueling our modern societies. And they comprise a tightly intertwined network: nearly all forms of energy production require water; energy also is needed to move and treat water; and producing food requires both energy and water.

Yet, around the world, little has been done to address our needs in a comprehensive way. Inefficient use of our resources remains the norm. In developing countries – where most of the world’s population growth is occurring – sound water management is lacking, and up to 40% of electricity is lost due to poor transmission infrastructure. In the developed world, waste is also prevalent: more than one-third of the food produced in the United States goes uneaten, for example.

At the same time, we are in an era of greater economic volatility. This, in turn, is generating more political volatility, which tends to impede progress on large-scale global issues.

We need to learn to adapt our resource systems and institutions to deal with the new pace of change and uncertainty. To that end, last year Shell embarked upon a major effort to understand the future implications of what scientists refer to as the “stress nexus” of energy, water, and food. We are searching for innovative ways to make the most of the world’s finite resources and thereby ensure greater security for our vital energy, water, and food supplies.

So, what can business do? Plenty. Rather than wait for governments to act, we need to take a leadership role in offering ideas and solutions. We need to explore new forms of partnership and collaboration with governments, academia, interest groups, and businesses outside our own industries.

Shell recently brought together a small group of CEOs who have committed their companies to joint projects that may demonstrate what can be done to mitigate resource stresses. We are trying to find practical ways to make local economies and resource systems more resilient.

What is interesting about this initiative is that it involves companies from different economic sectors, not just the energy industry. We are also collaborating closely with top academics and researchers to develop a resilience methodology. We want to identify what works, then replicate it elsewhere and potentially create new business opportunities in the process.

We recognize that actions are more persuasive than words, which is why we have not really talked much about this initiative yet. It is still in its early days, and we want to wait until we have some results.

Perhaps the accumulation of collaborative efforts like this will grow into a movement and larger-scale success. In fact, this “bottom-up” approach may be more viable and build more momentum in the long run, given the obvious failure of ambitious “top-down” approaches in recent years.

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  1. CommentedNirmalan Dhas

    I meet once again the term ‘prosperity’ and am told that it is increasing. I have no way of commenting on this claim unless I am told exactly what is meant by prosperity. Is it the rich getting richer that is described as prosperity, or the poor becoming poorer that is given this name? Is the projection of the lifestyles of the rich as a goal for the middle classes and the promise to this class of its possible attainment in return for its loyalty in the suppression of the poor and the acceptance of the current status quo what is meant by prosperity? I am told that 2 billion people make up the middle class. This would mean that the better part of 5 billion are locked in poverty and it tells me that the resources of the planet are locked in the grip of a very few and is this what is meant by prosperity? I know that much that can be done is not done because very few can perceive what can be done and yet have no means of accessing the resources required to formulate and set in motion those processes of perceptual modification that may successfully engage this issue, and is this prosperity? What of the possibly large numbers of people who would be able to contribute to the task of addressing the critical issues of our times if they had the resources with which to do so, is the perpetuation of their helplessness what you call prosperity?

    I am told that there is an improvement in the quality of life. I am by no means certain of this. Every day close to 200 species are going extinct. Massive quantities of toxic gases and other materials are released into the planet every day. Our global civilization transforms massive amounts of earth into these toxic products slowly turning our environment into deadly poisons. The Polar Ice caps are melting. The jet-stream has been destabilized and now brings extreme weather volatility. The price of food has risen and continues to rise. The old have begun to outnumber the young and the sick now burden the healthy as a result of the race for immortality. We are becoming aware of the outcome of Rapid Resource Depletion, Pollution and Global Climate Change, Global Monetary Collapse and the increasing incredibility of the Growth Model of Development. If this is what is called an increase in the quality of life then this quality is indeed quite deadly.

    There is nothing called a prosperity paradox. What there is and has been for a while, is a mindless and obsessive generation of desires and an even more mindless and compulsive search for their satisfaction through the consumption of the planet at as fast a rate as possible. This is at the moment the sole objective of the Human Species. There is nothing paradoxical in this behavior. It is clearly a one-way street to disaster and the likely extinction of the human species along with many others.

    The re perception of the world as a dynamic process and the re definition of the objective of the human species as being the perception of its potential and the participation with the world in its eternal evolutionary becoming will permit the formulation and initiation of distribution systems that enables an equitable accessing of resources, the guarantee to all of the basic needs for life and the consequent de linking of access to commodities from access to wages. This may free us to become more fully human and live in ways that enhance the dynamics of the world and give them direction. In this there can be no paradox and hence what I speak of is clearly not what you call ‘prosperity’.

    Food Energy and Water are required for survival of the species but are not enough to ensure the survival of our humanity. To retain and develop our humanness and dignity we need much more than energy, food and water. We need in my opinion, all of the following:
    1. Food and Agricultural Systems
    2. Water Management and Recycling Systems
    3. Health and Social Support Systems
    4. Habitat and Communication Systems
    5. Training and Education Systems
    6. Power Generation Systems
    7. Surgical and Medical Systems
    8. Transport Systems
    9. Emergency Rapid Response Systems
    10. Guidance Systems

    The sustenance and development of these systems require much more than the reduction of Carbon Dioxide and other toxins being emitted by our global civilization or the reduction of the rate at which we consume the resources of earth. They demand perceptual capacities that are able to perceive how these systems can be reconfigured such that they can be sustained without emitting such toxins and while consuming as little as possible of the earth. The cultivation of such perceptual capacities and the facilitation of the emergence of the perceptions that they generate is a task that is little understood and hence not engaged.

    Business can facilitate the work of those who seek to engage this task while at the same time doing what is possible to reduce the toxicity of our currently global civilization and the rapid rate at which we are consuming the limited resources available to us – that is of course if business really wants to do this rather than continue along the principles that it has adopted for so long and continues to.