Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Good Scolding Can Save Natural Resources

The most effective strategy to save the planet from rampant consumption might simply be soundly scolding people who overuse.

STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS — Auto firms, household appliance makers, and others are busy developing products designed to save energy and reduce global warming. But the most effective strategy to save the planet from rampant consumption might simply be soundly scolding people who insist on overusing natural resources.

That’s one of the conclusions reached by Barton H. (Buzz) Thompson, Jr., the Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law and codirector of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford. Thompson spoke on January 13 to about 70 Stanford grads during a conference on environmental sustainability. The Stanford GSB Alumni Association and the Woods Institute for the Environment at the University jointly sponsored the three-day event, covering topics from green building to climate change.

Thompson illustrated the challenges facing organizations working for environmental change by recounting the story of a recent study on what it took to prod homeowners in Australia to curb their energy use.

First, residents of Perth were surveyed about how important they considered conserving household energy. Directors of the study followed up with the residents who said energy conservation was important, got access to those peoples’ utility bills, and found a significant number of them were among the highest energy users.

Letters sent to one-third of the residents outlined simple conservation measures they could use to reduce their energy bills. “That letter had absolutely no impact. They used as much energy after as before,” Thompson said.

The second group of Perth households got the same letter, plus information about how much they could potentially save by conserving. Their energy bills stayed high as well. But the third group received a letter saying that while they told surveyors that energy conservation was terribly important, “‘Your energy bills show you are one of the most intensive energy users in Perth, aren’t you ashamed of yourself, and here are various ways you can reduce your energy use,’” said Thompson. “That letter had an impact. Those people reduced their energy use by 20 percent.”

While the third group initially cut their energy use, six months they were back to their old pattern. That led Thompson to conclude: “Shame is really important. We have to think about how we can use shame more and maybe we have to keep shaming people over and over and over again.”

During the conference, titled “Reduce Your Ecological Footprint: Choosing Environmentally Sustainable Business Practices,” Stanford faculty members and alums covered topics that included green building, water scarcity, global warming, alternative-powered vehicles, climate change, growth of green industry, and how swelling populations in China and India impact the world’s resources.

Conference attendees — including many MBAs and engineering graduates — came from a variety of organizations, including nonprofits, municipal agencies, environmental groups, real estate companies, hospitality-related businesses, and venture capital firms. Several, including Stephen Paradis, MBA ’91, said they hoped to find strategies to implement in their own workplaces. Paradis, chief operating officer at the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Conservancy, said he was looking for green strategies to “maintain the park in a way that is ecologically sustainable and that does not consume so many resources. It’s worthwhile,” Paradis said, “to have the opportunity to come and hear what’s going on in this field.”

Here’s a look at just a few of the other issues discussed:

1. Continued growth of green technology firms, especially those inventing alternative fuel vehicles.

“When we first started investing in 2001, we saw about 20 business plans in clean tech. We’re now logging about 4,000,’’ said Raj Atluru, MBA ’97, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a venture capital firm based in Menlo Park with investments in companies in China, India, and the United States.

2. Desalination A process that removes excess salt from sea water to make it suitable for consumption is used in 130 countries, including the United States. Advantages include the ability to produce as much water as is needed, Thompson said, since 97 percent of the world’s water is found in the form of saltwater. The downside: it takes copious amounts of energy — and, therefore, money — to convert saltwater.

3. Water recycling purified and reused water is much cheaper to produce than desalinated water. But there have been concerns from Salinas farmers that recycled water has a high salt content, which could impact their crops. Some modern drug residue has also found its way into recycled water, said Thompson.

4. Look for the developing world to become the biggest market for environmentally friendly technologies “Forty percent of the people on the planet are striving to have your standard of living,” said Erik Straser, a Stanford engineering alum who now leads the clean-tech investment team at Mohr Davidow Ventures, another Menlo Park venture capital firm. “The advantage for you who have international aspects to your business is this is probably going to be the best avenue for your ability to expand.”

5. Understanding ecosystems The coffee production industry is a major threat to rain forest conservation efforts in Costa Rica. Bees are integral to the coffee production since they pollinate the plants, ensuring a healthy harvest. Since coffee plants bloom for only three days, bees must seek nourishment from plants in nearby rain forests for much of the year. A team of researchers discovered a higher level of pollen transfer in one coffee farm abutting the rain forest because of the higher bee population, linking the success of the coffee farm to having the rain forest nearby.

“It amounted to a 20 percent higher coffee yield, and that translated to $60,000 per year in value,” said Gretchen Daily, professor of biological sciences and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. She is helping to develop software to help policy makers map out similar “ecosystem service benefits.”