Following the Thread of Radical Transparency

Point Counter-Point

Following the Thread of Radical Transparency

Gregory A. Norris, the founder and director of international lifecycle assessment institute Sylvatica, adds his commentary to point-counterpoint blogs on radical transparency by Joel Makower and Daniel Goleman. GreenBlue President and CEO Jason Pearson also contributes to the dialogue.

What seems to be the first and central thread in this dialog is the question: "Will radical transparency be enough to yield/drive radical transformation for sustainability?"

Here are a few brief thoughts and observations on this thread.

First, of course, information alone is never "enough" to drive transformation. There must also be desire to act/change/innovate/choose differently, and the ability to do so.

Second, the open source Earthster system for radical transparency is designed to "enable the economy to know itself." One-to-all information sharing, by any actor in the economy, about the "cradle-to-gate" sustainability impacts as seen from their point in their supply chains and lifecycles. Actors anywhere in our economic web will be able to benchmark themselves versus their peers, learning about ways they are less efficient, and less sustainable, than others. They can benchmark their suppliers (and suppliers' chains) as well. The incentive for businesses to increase economic efficiency is alive and kicking, no matter which poll on consumer attitudes about sustainability you last consulted.

We are coupling the ability to calculate and publish about "cradle-to-gate" impacts with a parallel facility for publishing full lifecycle "cradle-to-grave" assessments, that can highlight the power of "green use," often much more potent than green purchasing.

And I personally believe that as information about real sustainability impacts (damages/risks and benefits/opportunities) goes from impersonal sterile generic nerdy databases to become compelling, timely, site-specific, living information -- including stories and media from the myriad journeys underlying each product -- humanity will recover from a kind of "learned helplessness" about our impacts on one another. (Learned helplessness is a term from the study of depression, which sets in after repeated experiences indicate that "what we do just doesn't matter.") I just believe that all people by their nature want to be healing forces on this Earth. And I'll keep acting on that belief, to empower that desire, as long and as powerfully as I am able.

Third, and perhaps most exciting of all to me: We can design these systems to answer the question, directly and soon -- what difference is radical transparency actually making? GoodGuide can be tweaked (if it hasn't been already) to allow purchasers to record the fact, publicly, that they just chose A instead of B; a simple additional tweak might let them attach an estimate of how many units of B they used to buy per year. Publish that information on the web, and it will be simple for all of us to tally up, real time, what the estimated impacts of consumer-choice-empowered-by-radical-transparency are. And we can do the same in Earthster, so that buyers throughout the production chains in the economy are registering when they make a change, and why.

And on the why question, I've been carrying around the vision for years now of a ubiquitous ability for us to click-to-give-thanks to the many enablers of innovations that we make. We could cite books and articles that inspired or informed us, for example, so that those which are making a big difference would quickly become more visible to everyone. We could cite mentors; inventors of the new technology we used; banks which gave us the loan to invest; even those pesky customers who wanted to use the economic web to change the world. There is plenty of thanks to go around, there's probably a need for more, and it's one of those wonderful public goods that doesn't become scarce by flowing.

Gregory A. Norris, Ph.D., founded and directs Sylvatica, an international lifecycle assessment institute. He also founded Earthster, an open source sustainable information platform, and New Earth, a global fund for community-driven sustainable development. Greg teaches LCA at Harvard, and is an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Image by stevekrh19.