The Compression Issue

Economic growth depends on expanding use of physical resources, but it has been the easiest and fastest road to improved quality of life – or to a high life that we think is quality at the time. We became really good at it. The Chinese miracle converted resources to economic development and their tidal wave of pollution in record time.

When we can’t find more cheap raw materials or more places for junk piles, what then? Time for nostalgic dithering is running out. Among big unnoticed issues, the global food supply is on edge to tip into disaster with the next global crop shortfall. Food is just one more big problem impossible to summarize in a short report, and nearly impossible to deal with on global scale.

If we wake up, our situation is not hopeless. Many global issues are like food. At a local or regional scale where we can act, there are possibilities to waste far less and grow more food of our own. Locality by locality, industry by industry, we can sustain quality of life while consuming much less. We just have to learn different patterns of thought. Innovation has to include social innovation; not just cool gizmos and labor savers.

That is the Compression Issue.

Nobody is seriously addressing the Compression Issue. Beyond our Compression Thinking Principles, not even the Compression Institute is addressing it so far. One reason is that Compression is a bigger vision than is usually implied by sustainability, so it is hard to get in mind.

Most “sustainability” targets are more limited than dramatic cuts in consumption, for example reducing CO2 emissions. The end of economic growth is hard to imagine when we swim in the old expansionary system daily, and for now, we utterly depend on it. Just to “sell” the idea of sustainability, it is tempting to propose that suitable substitutions will let the system continue much as now.

At one point The Institute tried to kick off this deeper change with “lean and green.” Green adds environmental wastes to the seven classic wastes of lean, thus broadening the scope of wastes to eliminate. That’s progress, but like most sustainability initiatives, lean and green stops short. It is an operational initiative. Much deeper change is needed.

Companies (and consultants) trapped in transactional market systems must consider how they will be paid – a business model. For most, profit for investors is top priority. That makes it hard for a company to promote a social movement – social innovation to benefit all stakeholders. Commercial technology – cars, cellphones, web sites, etc. – certainly enabled massive social change, but when we think neighborhood associations, community schools, or churches, we think relationships, not profit-maximizing business.

To deal with “Compression Issues,” this basic social conflict has to disappear. We need vigorous learning organizations able to holistically review Compression Issues and deal with them. We propose local issue learning groups to engage in systems thinking for issues like watersheds, for example. A watershed is big and complex, but participants can see parts of it. Water and sewage affect all stakeholders in the watershed; water becomes sewage at many points. Other stakeholders affected may be “upstream or downstream” from the watershed.

Defining a system of interest may take thought, and perhaps several redefinitions. For example, is the educational system of a community actually bounded by a school district’s present legal boundaries? Every problem of a community is apt to enter the schools in some form, and classrooms are only part of the learning milieu.

A local issue learning group has to be a well-designed vigorous learning organization. It must try to consider all relevant factors in reviewing a system without hanging up just studying. But vigorous learning is another subject.

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