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Some thoughts from the darker shadows of Earth Day, and a challenge to the P2 community

Title: Some thoughts from the darker shadows of Earth Day, and a challenge to the P2 community

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P2TECH-ies (and a few selected other friends) --

I've come, once again, to drink from the well of your wisdom.

I even brought my own (non-disposable, stainless steel, bisphenol A-free) cup.

The precipitating event for this e-mail is an invitation I received the other day from our esteemed colleague Jeff Burke, Executive Director of the National P2 Roundtable.   He wanted to know if I was willing to spend a few minutes during the NPPR break-out session at the National Environmental Summit on Wednesday May 21, to help kick off a discussion session among the NPPR membership. 

Rousing the rabble, as it were.

Well, I can rarely turn down a chance to stand in front of an audience and hold forth, especially if not bound by any strict accountability to things like "facts" or "data."  

Besides, I've spent a long time attending NPPR meetings, sort of an intellectual lint ball hanging from the rich tapestry that is the P2 community, so it was an excuse -- an opportunity! -- to come to Baltimore and see some of my friends, old and new.

How could I refuse?

However, now I find myself facing the bleak consequences of accepting his invitation -- specifically, having to select a discussion topic which will provoke the audience to such stimulating conversation that they go home saying, "I am SO glad I went to the Summit!" 

This is where the challenge comes in:  I got nuthin'.  Nada.  Zip.  Less than zero.


Now, left to my own devices, I will come up with something.  I always do. 

But I'd like to invite this group to suggest topics for discussion that YOU would like to see NPPR have, regarding the future of the organization, and of the P2 community. 

Got ideas?  Send them to me.  By now, you know where to find me.

Otherwise -- and consider this a warning, not  threat -- in two weeks the audience at the Summit is likely to hear something along the lines of my latest brainstorm:

"Going Softly into That Dark Night -- a P2 Strategy Whose Time has Come?"

Yeah.  You heard me. 

In the words (word?) of the late, great Kurt Vonnegut:  "Listen."


So, last Saturday -- as fine a day as has yet to grace the 2008 calendar; a virtual poster child for springtime in the northwest! --  I spent the morning, and well into the afternoon, working in my garden, communing with the worms, soaking up the sun, and contemplating what message I wanted to bring to the Summit. 

Alas, pulling weeds, planting gladiolas, and deciding where in the garden I should relocate the family totem pole ("Fred") took provided more distractions than you'd think they could.  So while I accomplished much in the garden, by 4 p.m. I had made little headway towards crafting my Summit message. 

But it's late April and days are getting longer up here at 47 degrees north latitude; even at 4 p.m. we had hours of daylight left.  So I decided to take a long-contemplated, oft-postponed trip across the desert to visit the Juniper Dunes Wilderness, a 7,000 acre "island" of juniper and 100-foot sand dunes surrounded by the soft green contours of dryland wheat, the giant irrigated bullseyes of potato farms, and the sage-filled shrub-steppe that fills all the spaces in between.  Though it is only 45 miles from my home, I'd never visited it.  I figured the drive would do me some good.  At the very least, I might find some good light for taking photographs of the wild rhubarb that was reputed to grow there.   I could sink my toes deep into the sand.   If I was lucky, I'd find some deeper inspiration to sink my teeth into as well.

I packed up my camera and tripod, climbed into my Mazda -- which like me, has more miles on it than I'd like to admit, and is overdue for some preventative maintenance -- and backed out of the driveway onto Stevens Drive.  I pointed the car in a generally eastern direction.

Figuratively speaking, of course, since our street runs north/south. 

As I pulled away from the curb, I turned on my iPod, and heard the opening refrains of an old Pointer Sister's song from the 70's:

I turned the volume up a few notches -- turns out that my dad was right -- I DID wreck my hearing, listening to that music so loud!  Now I have little choice but to turn it up.

For what it's worth, I've long thought that this song -- "Yes We Can Can," from their self-titled first album released in 1973 -- is, to my mind, perhaps the last viable candidate for an anthem for my generation.  As far as I can tell, it remains untouched and unspoiled, not yet co-opted into selling SUV's or laundry detergent or acting as a cliched audio synopsis each time that Hollywood wants to pay lipservice to that period of simultaneous political unrest and (for a brief while) enormous optimism that was the late 60's.  As such songs go, it's too long, and takes too much time to get to the point, and can't be easily fitted into a 30 second format. 

Though I suspect that even now, some cynical Madison Avenue types are working on it.  They're sitting around a big table, probably made of endangered tropical hardwoods, making plans to strip away the innocence from yet one more song in hopes of convincing middle aged consumers that they can replace their own lost innocence with a bit of cheap nostalgia and a Prius in the driveway.

I know.  Cynical.  Though, some would respond that cynicism is the only logical response to the world we live in. 

Those would be the cynical ones, by the way.  At least we're consistent.

On this fine Saturday, however, I didn't entertain such thoughts for even a moment.  My mood buoyed by good music, and admittedly feeling a little TOO self-satisfied about spending the last hour meticulously pulling dandelions by hand so that I didn't have to resort to herbicides, I drove off towards the dunes and started to contemplate discussion topics for my Summit presentation.


This may seem, on the surface, to be much ado about nothing.  After all, I'd been asked to give a ten minute talk -- the primary purpose of which is to get OTHER people to enter into the discussion.  No one was asking me to be the authority about anything.  * (I feel compelled to add here -- as a pre-emptive measure against those who know me well -- to say in my defense that there ARE things I am an authority on.  Really.  It's just that few people are very interested in them, which is precisely what allows me to be the authority -- niche specialization being an important adaptitve strategy in any ecosystem).  All I had to do was relate a few ideas about current issues facing P2, and get the ball rolling.  Plenty of people smarter than me would be in the audience, and they could take it from there.

Simple, really.  Right?

The problem I faced was this: 

I'm a P2 has-been.  Tasked with talking to a bunch of P2 up-and-comers.

See, even by my own admission, most of the truly interesting work in my 20+ year career in pollution prevention -- real fun stuff dealing with mass transfer in supercritical CO2 parts cleaning, multi-objective process optimization, project prioritization methodologies, environmental lifecycle analysis, debunking ISO 14001, design for environment, "green" accounting software….is more dated than a high school prom queen.  Like a lot of us, though, I continue to chug along, making contributions where I can, trying to stay reasonably current with the latest and greatest. 

But still painfully aware that I am increasingly out of touch.

I was wrapping my mind around this bitter reality when I turned off of Highway 12 onto the Pasco-Kalhoutous Highway, a sun-baked two lane that winds its way along the Snake River, where salmon once thrived, and through some of the richest farm land in the US, which in many ways sealed the salmon's fate And as the miles ticked by, though the sun was still hanging bright in the sky, my mood began to darken a bit.  So perhaps there was some psychic resonance at work that allowed the plaintative voice of Neil Young to push its way into my consciousness. I rolled up the window (in an earlier, ill-considered concession to my P2 roots, I had bought a car without air conditioning -- not a good choice when you live in a climate where summer temperatures occasionally top 110 F) and turned up the volume just in time to hear him singing the punchline from "My My, Hey Hey":

And with that lyric, juxtaposed as it was against the ongoing contemplation of my own rustiness, my mood shifted out of the blue, and into the black. 


Bear in mind:  with 5,438 different songs on my iPod, the odds of this particular song playing at this particular moment in time were relatively small. It's a simple matter of statistics.  Lots of songs means a small chance of any given song being played. 

For instance, I once calculated that I could drive from Seattle to Fresno, California -- and BACK again -- listening ONLY to my collection of Elvis Costello songs, and never hear the same song twice. 

I should note that I've never actually tried to verify this experimentally.  For one -- who wants to go to Fresno?  But mostly, I fear that if I ever tried it, my wife would probably get out of the car somewhere around Portland, and hitchike back home.  It would be a long, lonely ride home for Elvis and I.

At any rate, I'd recently finished reading "This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession," a great book by record-producer turned congitive psychologist Daniel Levitin, which discusses how the human brain processes music (and which, incidentally, closes with an air-tight scientific explanation, based on sound evolutionary principles, of why the bass players always get all the girls). 

Perhaps because I'd been reading this book, I started paying more attention than usual to the lyrics of the songs that were playing.  Egged on by the coincidence of Neil Young's great tribute to Johnny Rotten, his warning against musical obsolesence, and the contemplation of my own technical obsolesence, I started noting (or was it, constructing?) a certain theme in the songs that played.

The pattern was set, I think, when the next song in the queue was Pink Floyd's "Time" from the "Dark Side of the Moon" CD:

Or this -- from "Thousand Year Prayer" by the Cowboy Junkies:

Eddie Vedder's voice rang true on Pearl Jam's "All Those Yesterdays"

Followed back to back by an oldie from Counting Crows:

and by a recent favorite of mine from Death Cab for Cutie:

Now, lest you think that my musical collection consists entirely of dark, self-possessed songs by Emo kids in black sweatshirts, I'll have you know that I have my fair share of upbeat songs as well. 

But in any string of random events, there exists a finite possibility that a sequence will emerge which gives the appearance of being by design.  And if I were a spiritual person, I might even have been tempted to think that the heavens were sending me a message.

On such matters, though, I tend to subscribe to the world according to Iris Dement:

In any event, whether by design or by chance, the great epiphany came as I turned left off the Snake River Road, skidding across the crushed gravel of East Blackman Ridge Road in a cloud of dust.  From a distance, my dust cloud would have been the only moving thing visible for miles in any direction.  As I crested a ridgeline, the road bent to the west, pointing me into the setting sun and momentarily blinding  me to the presence of spring calves standing idly in the road.  I veered around them, leaving tire tracks at the edge of a wheat field, and regained my purchase on the road.

In that moment of brilliant light, I was illuminated -- and I swear I am not making this up -- by the opening verse of Poi Dog Pondering's "Bury Me Deep"

And there it was in front of me, as plain and as bright as the setting sun:  "Going quietly" as the final frontier in pollution prevention.


See, like many of a certain age, I've begun to come to terms with my own eventual mortality.  I'm not quite 50 yet, but my parents both died fairly young so I figure I'd best get an early start on thinking about such things. 

Like many of my cohorts, I have made certain wishes known to my loved ones -- how heroic I expect them to be in extending my life, what to do with any "stuff" I have left over when the game ends.  What to do with ME when the game is over.  The usual details.

But it occurred to me that perhaps in death there was an opportunity I'd been overlooking --  a way to take make sure that I truly reduced my footprint on this earth.  What if, I thought, I simply decided not to fight the inevitable?  What if I allowed myself to go quietly into the dark when my body finally decided it was time to let go? 

No heroic measures.  Not even any mildly strenuous measures.  My med-alert bracelet would read "No, really -- don't bother on my account!"

No life support, no blood pressure medications, no defibrillators or emergency heart surgery should I one day find myself clutching my chest.  None of it.  Roll the dice and accept the consequences without regret.  Walk into and beyond the white light, and don't look back.

Not willing myself to an early death -- certainly not! -- but instead, making a decision in relative health, to spare myself those last years when medical science can only preserve life, but not the quality of it. 

Think about it:  what better way to reduce your footprint on this earth, than simply ceasing to be? 

No more worrying about the environmental impact of that beef you had for dinner.  No fussing over the awful taste of soy milk and longing for the stuff that comes from cows.  No more being haunted by the faint hum of the air conditioner on a sleepless summer night.  No "paper or plastic?" conundrums, or wondering if that ethanol-spiked 89 octane you put in the Prius was REALLY taking food off the table of a family in China.

No more hauling around your stainless steel coffee cup, or sidestepping the issue of whether the coffee beans you put in your grinder couldn't really be replaced with something grown closer to home.

Organically grown?  Doesn't mean a thing to a corpse.

Ashes to ashes, and all that. 

As I trudged up the side of a 100 foot sand dune, sinking back one step for every two I took, I began to get excited by all this.  I mean, this was a breakthrough!   One person, by himself, wasn't going to change the world this way -- but thousands -- no, millions! -- well, we could ALL take the pledge to go away without a whimper when our times came.  Each of us might shave 5, maybe 10 years off of our time on the planet, and with it, effect a proportional reduction in our environmental impact.

This was frickin' brilliant, I panted, as I crested the tallest dune and stared into the sun.   

I sat down in the sand and watched five different varieties of beetle trace tracks across the sand -- anyone who expired here would certainly release his inner skeleton!  While the beetles kept careful notes in the sand, I began to ponder out loud all  the things that needed to be done.   We'd need to have plastic wrist bands -- black, of course.  Public service announcements -- I'm thinking Christopher Walken or Anthony Hopkins as our spokesperson.  Hire a writer -- a ghost writer, if you will -- to create a best-selling self-improvement book:  "How to save the Earth by not even trying!"   Guest appearances on Oprah AND the Daily Show.  Product placement in Starbucks.  And viral marketing over Facebook. 

Bumper stickers, of course.  But we'd be very selective about who could buy them, and we wouldn't sell them to ANYONE whose car didn’t get at least 30 mpg, or carry at least two passengers.

I mean, you wouldn't want to risk selling out, right?

Oh, there would be detractors.  The pharmaceutical companies would be the loudest.  They'd lobby for publicly subsidized medications for all those who hadn't joined our crusade, in a vain attempt to make up for lost revenues.  Network news shows would run negative stories about the cult-like nature of the movement -- after all, us old people are the only ones that still watch their drivel, and they know it.  They can't afford to lose a single one of us!

The religious right wouldn't know what to do about us -- I mean, they don't like assisted suicide, but leaving it in God's hands?  What could be wrong about that, other than the fact it was a bunch of tree huggers who were embracing the idea?

There would be some who tried to stop us.  They'd lobby and cajole and preach against this noble gesture of ours.

But we would prevail -- or die trying. 

Yes, this would be my crowning accomplishment as a P2 professional -- the final frontier. 

The sun perched on the horizon.   The dunes shifted imperceptibly with the wind.  Lone blades of grass etched compass circles in the sand, marking the direction of the wind.  Though the warmth of the spring day began to drain from the sky, I felt good.    The gloom that had followed me into the wilderness had wandered away, leaving not even a trace of footprints in the sand.   So I lifted myself up, bid adieu to the beetles, who nodded quietly in acknowledgement, and returned to their note taking.  I began walking back to the car through the sage.  I watched for rattlesnakes and listened for coyotes, who, in these parts, typically greet the coming night in a raucous fashion -- but aside from the wind, all was quiet. 

A mile or two later, I reached the car, happy in the knowledge that I still had a good idea or two left in me.  After all, I might very well be over the hill, but there are still more hills ahead to climb, and new views waiting at the top of each of them. 


Fast forward a couple of days.  Far from the sand dunes, immersed in a different sort of inner wilderness, and viewing things in a different sort of light --  I'm starting to realize that maybe the whole "early death as the ultimate P2 strategy" idea still has a few obstacles to overcome.

Like, living, for one.  It's sort of become a habit of mine, and we all know how hard habits are to break.

And my wife wasn't nearly as enthusiastic about this idea as I was.  Go figure.

The Oprah people told me they weren't interested, either.  I wonder if Ozzie Osbourne has a book club?

These are not insurmountable obstacles to be sure.  Nothing that a few really good graphics and a celebrity endorsement or two couldn't help.  

I mean, it worked for Al Gore, right?   

Maybe I could talk Michael Moore into making a documentary about the topic -- after all, we met once, 30 years ago, and I'm only one connection away from him in my LinkedIn network.

The idea -- that was the main thing.  I mean, everything made by man starts in the same place -- as an idea.  Peter Gabriel even tells us so:

As ideas go, maybe this one still needs some work.  But it's a start.

Looking back 15 years or so to the Engineering Foundation conferences on P2, I can recall walking and talking with dear friends along the beach in Santa Barbara (and later, San Diego) or sitting in a hotel lobby, engrossed in late-night conversations about how technology alone was not going to do the trick.  This seemed a great revelation to a technologist like myself; it was self-evident, I am sure, to those who considered technology as a foreign language. 

We talked of the need to change consumer behavior.   To get manufacturers interested in pursuing "green" markets.  To get celebrities "on the bandwagon" for our cause.  To think beyond the confines of the plant gate to how our communities were built. 

We talked about the need to make "green" the world's favorite color.

And looking around me today, I feel like a modern Rip Van Winkle -- awaking after a long sleep in a world that is somehow both strange and familiar at the same time. So much of what we hoped for has come to pass -- I've seen more ads touting the "green" attributes of various companies and products in the past year, than in all the years leading up to this time.   Gas prices are high, people are conserving fuel -- for now. 

It's like we've rubbed the lantern, set free the genie, and have been granted our first wish. 

We've got two left.  What shall we do with them?

And yet….

And yet, all the while, the glaciers vanish, the ice caps crumble.  The precautionary principle asserts itself in a world that repeatedly throws caution to the wind. 

The second law is enforced vigorously and without mercy.  Things are running down.  Time is running out.

Still, I am an optimist at heart, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. 

Remember the Pointer Sisters?

Thirty five years later, I actually still believe that sh*t.  It touches a still-clean part of me that hides deep down, and when it does, I know that they were telling the truth then.  And it's still the truth now.

So.  Tell me something good.  Shine a ray of light through this dark cloud and tell me where P2 is going.  Where YOU want it to go.  Venture a guess about where our new frontiers are.  What do you see from your sand dune, when you look towards the horizon?

As Elvis once sang:  "Let's talk about the future, now we've put the past away"

You've seen one of my ideas.  I've set the bar low -- certainly you can do better than THAT!

I mean, old and worn out though I may be, I've got some fight left in me.  Cynical as I've become, I'd still love to change the world.  Wouldn't you?

great gosh a-mighty!


P.s. -- for those patient souls who have made it all the way to the end, I've chosen some photographs to go along with the text…


Pictures may be worth a thousand words -- but they're a lot faster.

Scott Butner
Director, ChemAlliance
c/o Pacific NW National Laboratory
MS K7-28
3350 Q Ave
Richland, WA 99354
Voice: (509)-372-4946/Fax: (509) 375-2443
Website: http://www.chemalliance.org/
E-mail: scott.butner@pnl.gov