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RE: An Open Letter to the Board of the National P2 Roundtable

Title: RE: An Open Letter to the Board of the National P2 Roundtable

Here's my 2 cents.

Sustainability may not be pollution prevention and not environmentalism.  As a matter of fact it can occur where it is at odds on both.  Sustainability, using the "triple-bottom" line argument means Economic, Social, and Environmental issues.  What you have now is a balance of groups of three factors to worry about in sustainability.  With sustainability, you mix in equity, poverty...etc. issues.  Here is a simple example, if something (a managerial decision) is economically good and socially good, but environmentally/pollution-wise so/so (at best) (a win-win-so/so) then that something will probably be an easy decision to go support.  Before with the win-so/so decision, then that decision gets much more critique and analysis.

I think Sustainability muddles up the semantics (since there is great dissensus in the term) and muddles up the decision where the balance could be easily tilted against pollution prevention and the environment.

I agree with Scott, don't muddle things up, this is not the place.

Joseph Sarkis
Professor of Environmental and Operations Management
Graduate School of Management
Clark University
950 Main Street
Worcester, MA  01610-1477

Phone: 508-793-7659
Fax: 508-793-8822
URL: www.clarku.edu/~jsarkis

-----Original Message-----
From: Butner, R Scott [mailto:scott.butner@pnl.gov]
Sent: Tuesday, April 12, 2005 3:23 PM
To: p2tech@great-lakes.net
Cc: Butner, R Scott; KZARKER@tnrcc.state.tx.us; jeff@p2.org
Subject: An Open Letter to the Board of the National P2 Roundtable

An Open Letter to the Board of the National P2 Roundtable

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

To whom it may concern:

I was fortunate enough, in this ever-shifting and uncertain world, to spend this morning relaxing amongst old and certain friends, at the National Environmental Summit meeting (aka the NPPR Spring Meeting) in Chicago.  And, as part of the morning's activities, I enjoyed listening to two people who I have great respect for -- Ken Zarker and Ken Geiser -- help to frame the debate over the future of the National P2 Roundtable, and indeed, the whole idea of P2.

And at the risk of putting words in someone else's mouth, I was intrigued by the proposal to rename the NPPR to something that better reflects the frontiers of pollution prevention, now that we find ourselves (some of us, somewhat begrudgingly) in the year 2005.

As chair of the Roundtable, it fell to Ken Zarker to put forward the strawman for the rest of us to assail or embrace.  And, in what I imagine, in retrospect, was an inevitable step, Ken bestowed upon his strawman that holiest of Holy Grails, the "S" word itself -- "Sustainable."

Actually, what I think he said was something along the lines of "The Sustainable Production and Consumption Roundtable" but by this time I had already found myself in the midst of a vivid flashback to the late 1980's, to the time of the great "definition wars" when, seemingly, more time was spent defining pollution prevention, than was spent actually doing it.

Younger members of the NPPR Board may not remember those days -- but we older folks do.  To quote Dylan (as we older folk are wont to do), "There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air."  Or, at least, drinking in the bars at night, and Joel Hirschorn besides, which was almost as good as revolution.

Now, it's true, I was, effectively, a conscientious objector during the "Pollution Prevention Definition Wars."  Or perhaps, to mangle the metaphor even more, I was in the equivalent of the P2 National Guard -- ready to fight if called upon.  But not quite ready to throw myself into the fray.

But make no mistake -- I was there.  I remember it as vividly as I remember anything with this addled brain of mine. 

No matter what Dan Rather says.

The definition wars were long and bloody, and like most wars, simultaneously changed everything and yet changed nothing.  The wars changed those who survived them, by forcing us to examine closely what we meant by "pollution prevention" and perhaps more importantly, to decide what we didn't mean.  The wars did little to change human nature, which drove most of us, over the nearly two decades that have followed, to use that definition more as a beacon than an anchor -- guiding our work, but not tying us down.

In any event, the wars were nothing I would want to repeat; even in the 1980's I often found myself thinking -- "I'm getting too old for this @#$%!"  And now that I really AM too old for that @#$%, the thought of seeing our community spend another 5 years debating semantics is just depressing.

And make no mistake, there are plenty of semantics to be debated. 

You see, I originally started my career in the sustainability field.  In the mid-1980's, when I was a young research scientist fresh out of the University of Washington, I went into renewable energy research out of a sense of calling.  Specifically, I worked on biomass energy systems, especially those designed to turn food and ag waste streams into energy. Then, as now, one of the foremost challenges to achieving sustainability is finding renewable sources of energy.  Then, as now, biomass appeared to have a role to play in meeting that challenge.

But it didn't take long for me to drift into pollution prevention, as I realized that many of the waste streams that we were turning into energy, embodied intricate chemical structure that was (thermodynamically and economically) far too valuable to turn into simple one and two-carbon molecules like methane and ethanol.  So I got more interested in finding higher valued uses for those wastes.

And like a salmon swimming back up stream, I found myself drawn steadily to the source.

Once there at the source, I felt compelled to reduce it. 

Like so many before and after me, I had found a home in P2. 

But I've always kept one foot involved in the sustainability camp, participating in such groups as the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, and the AIChE's Institute for Sustainability.  Indeed, just two months ago,  I was lucky enough to participate in a workshop sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences on the topic of "Building a Sustainable Chemical Industry."

Let me tell you something, folks.  In the field of sustainability, the definition wars may be between battles, but their outcome is far from decided.

The NAS meeting was hardly a gathering of novices.  Many of the folks who attended were veterans of sustainability conferences dating back to the early 90's.  I know because I was there, too.

And yet, as has been the case at nearly every sustainability conference or workshop I've attended over the past 12 years -- and I've attended a lot of them -- much of the discussion revolved around defining what sustainability "is." 

I contrast that with the NPPR meetings, where very little time is spent on such issues any more, and all that energy gets used instead to look at new ways of doing pollution prevention.  And discussing what works.

There's a place for both kinds of meetings.  But should NPPR decide to become "The Sustainable Products and Consumption Roundtable," make no mistake:  we will not be the ones framing the debate; we will not be the ones in the lead; we will not make the first page of Google.  We are too late to the game, too many competitors, too much institutional momentum to overcome; and too little focus, for a mostly volunteer organization like NPPR to stand out in this field. 

It would be like heading to Oregon to homestead. 

In 2005.

In the suburbs of Portland.

The new name may, in fact, better reflect what many of us who identify with NPPR actually DO, but I don't think it will serve the organization well at all.

On the way out of this morning's session, I found myself recalling Joel Hirschorn's paper in Pollution Prevention Review, "Why the Pollution Prevention Revolution Failed, and Why it Will Ultimately Succeed." (P2 Review, #7, Vol. 1, Winter 1997).  At the time of Joel's paper, I remember taking issue with what I thought was a too dogmatic approach to pollution prevention.  Joel's argument seemed to be that the introduction of such emerging ideas as industrial ecology, environmental management systems, and yes, as I recall, even sustainability --

threatened the P2 "movement" by co-opting the term and dissipating the revolutionary zeal of its proponents.  As a proponent of many of those emerging ideas (although, I never really have fully bought off on EMSs), I found myself disagreeing with Joel because I felt these ideas were all compatible with P2.

I still believe that.  

And yet, here I find myself in a similar position, arguing that NPPR should hold onto its core identity, to the familiar purple "P2."

I guess the difference is that, unlike Joel, I never fashioned myself a revolutionary (OK, well yes, there was a time in the late 60's -- but I was only 10 years old, and besides, EVERYONE was doing it then!). 

Rather, I've come to view myself as an Evolutionary.  To trade in Che Guevara for Charles Darwin, if you will.

What's the difference?

Revolutionaries throw out everything, in hopes of rebuilding from scratch.  One of their most powerful weapons is a design for something better than what exists.  When the design is inspired, divinely or otherwise, the results can be extraordinary and robust.  But all too often, the design is merely untested, and the finished product ends up broken down on the side of the road, relegated to the dustbins of history.

Evolutionaries, on the other hand, retain what works, and throw out what doesn't.  There IS no design, but somehow something functional emerges, because if it doesn't work, it doesn't survive.  Survival, rather than original vision, is what defines success for an Evolutionary.

Pollution prevention is important.  And while I respect the original vision, survival of the P2 community -- which I see as synonymous with the NPPR -- is what defines success in my mind. 

So, finally (whew!), I think it comes down to this:

The NPPR -- institutionally, and as an aggregate of it's members -- IS the heart and soul of the pollution prevention community, however far flung we have become.  It has played a role from the beginning in framing the debate over what P2 is; it has demonstrated leadership in moving P2 forward. 

Ask that ultimate arbiter of all things semantic, Google, to search for "pollution prevention," and the top 4 web sites are (in order): EPA-Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics; the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable; the Canadian Centre for Pollution Prevention; and North Carolina's P2 Pays web site.

There's a certain historical "rightness" about this.  And a certain connectedness as well. 

Hopefully, this strikes a chord with some of the board members. 

And now, it's time to return to the meeting.


Scott Butner
Wearer of many hats, but one of them will always have a purple "P2" on it

p.s. -- I've sent this open letter via the P2TECH mailing list, because like NPPR, it's one of the oldest (and arguably, the most democratic) of P2 institutions.  Not all of us are able to be in Chicago this week, so I thought I'd bring the debate to the list, and encourage replies and rebuttals.  To my colleagues on P2TECH, I apologize for the overly long missive.  I'll make up for it next time.

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