November 13, 2011

Healthy productive soil is a cornerstone of life, and a strong example of interconnectedness.  If it weren’t for life, there would be no business. Therefore, taking care of soil is arguably a savvy business choice.  This however, is not a widely held view.  Dirt is…well…dirt.  How can we, as sustainable business managers, create awareness and communicate excitement about soil issues to the current business world?  Just as soil is only productive as a combination water (hydrosphere), minerals (lithosphere), microbes (biosphere) and air (atmosphere), in the current global environment, businesses increasingly can only be truly productive by basing actions and philosophy on the triple bottom line: the intersection of planet, people, and profit. With no planet, there are no people; with no people, there is no profit.  Similarly, without people, there are no businesses or organizations.  Therefore, to steer the awareness of an organization towards soil we must first relate soil health to the lives of business employees and stakeholders.  When members of an organization have a personal understanding of soil, then we can relate soil to the health of the organization.

Intervale inBurlingtonVT, is a wonderful example of this.  Intervale, by reclaiming a forgotten and abused tract of soil, has been able to demonstrate to the people of its community the possibilities inherent in healthy soil.  Individuals of theBurlingtoncommunity, then take what they learn about soil back to their homes and businesses.  Also, Intervale  is a business in its self that has made soil its main point.  By restoring the soil and productivity of the Intervale, the organization has also given financial opportunities to the farms and businesses that use the land.  This is just one example.  There is no “one size fits all” way to communicate to organizations about soil health.  The culture and physical situation of the community and organization must be taken into consideration.  But there are so many kinds of people and organizations in our communities, some with an expansive awareness of the importance of soil health, some with out. Some who work directly with soil, others who are so far removed from soil that it never enters their mind.   The key to successfully speaking to organizations about soil is to meet them on their own ground.  For example, how might you speak to a Bank about its relationship to soil?  I live on the Chesapeake Bay.  The Bay defines this community, and citizens from all backgrounds feel an affinity towards it and value its health.  For a bank in this area it would be important to first speak to bank employees as people, relating soil issues to the Bay’s health.  We could speak about dead zones caused by over fertilized runoff, or erosion coming from local farms, but also areas further up stream.  This can affect the local oyster and crab businesses that may be owned by bank employee friends and family.  Or perhaps speaking to waterfront property owners about erosion and how it relates to their own piece of property would be effective. After establishing a personal connection to soil health, only then can we begin to relate the organizations practices to soil health.  We could then talk to the bank about reducing paper use, and picking a paper company that uses recycled paper, or trees harvested from areas not in danger of eroding into important water ways.  Relating waste reduction and the health of the environment to both community wellbeing, and financial wellbeing of the organization is a double incentive to comply.


Viva la Intervale!

November 12, 2011

Everyone is interested in building vibrant communities because they are safe, healthy, and alive with possibilities; people are employed, they are engaged, they are helpful and concerned about others.  These are exactly the qualities that are described in the Intervale story that begins with rebuilding the neglected, polluted soil that was once so rich.  The complexity that has developed in that community from the simple initiative of rebuilding soil, reducing community waste, and producing community food is astounding.

The Intervale story shows how complex systems develop from the foundation of healthy soils, unlike the pedosphere file, which tells how this process happens scientifically, but not in a way that anyone could relate to human communities.  Neither does the Organic Trade Association, which provides information about organic soil building methods, stating the benefits and outcomes quite clearly, but it is doubtful that this information would be interesting to anyone who does not farm or garden or manage land.  And the dead zone is such a catastrophic example of bad soil management, it is really difficult to face, much less relate to.

It strikes me that the Intervale initiative contrasts sharply with other efforts relating to the pedosphere which have been highly visible and controversial.  Monsanto, for example, seeks to promote genetically modified seeds with the assertion that they will grow the crops that will feed the world.  The Keystone Pipeline also comes to mind; it is similarly touted as a project that will create jobs and help communities.  But these are examples of inherently unsustainable injections of energy from resources that are not self-generating and do not create new possibilities in communities.  Through positive feedback loops, they create resource dependence, destructive energy cycles, and community stagnation.

What is needed are more examples of the community building that comes from reclaiming and rebuilding the natural resources within a community.  The Interval example is thus far a rare pioneering effort that sooner than later needs to be commonplace.  If this model became an integral part of every community, everyone would protect the soil and invest in it because it would be a tangible, sustainable source of energy in the form of food, waste management, and possibly even electrical production.

Laurie “Duck” Caldwell

AUNE, MBA 2013


The Business of Healthy Soil

November 9, 2011

Asking an organization to change their production or service efforts to be less impactful on the pedosphere may take the most convincing when we bid them to address earth systems issues.  Most industries and organizations are far removed from soil.  Indeed, many raw materials may be directly sourced from the land (think about cotton for clothing manufacturing and trees for furniture manufacturing or construction); but the point in the industry where the big profit is made (selling the finished product or service) tends to happen indoors or in an urban setting.  Soil health is one of the last things on people’s minds, whether they are the sellers or the consumers.

Up to this point, having business think about soil has asked them to be – yet again – less bad.  As they pertain to industry and commerce, environmental regulations focus on contaminating soil as little as possible (rather than not contaminating at all) or remediating only to a certain point (but not all the way back to a pristine state), as with “archived” superfund sites (US EPA, 2011).  Because of these rules, soil contamination is constantly in the back of organizations’ minds; it’s one of those things that always needs addressing, but not in a constructive way.  There seems to be very little interest in proactively protecting the living and dynamic qualities of soil.  There is even less interest in intentionally building up strong soils.  Unfortunately, to many, dirt is dirt, and dirt is undesirable and disposable.  Dirty dirt can be replaced – it can be found everywhere, after all.

So, how does soil become integral to profitable and productive economies?  What about that Onceler, manufacturing his Thneeds?  He only came to his senses once his business failed due to his abuse of his surroundings.  Yet what if the Onceler had, voluntarily, investigated his company’s corporate social responsibility and tracked his actions over time?  He may have started to understand the interconnectedness of the resource he depends upon.  With time, perhaps the Onceler would have realized that adding positively to soil structure and nutrient levels would increase his Truffula tuft yield; trees might live longer and require less artificial care.  Perhaps citizens living around his plant would have been more able to afford his Thneeds, as they didn’t have to spend money curing the illnesses that the discharged Gluppity Glup caused.  Maybe healthy soil structure would mean less erosion, resulting in fewer road repairs and more efficient shipment of the Thneeds.

A comprehensive CSR report (or other similar sustainability self-examination) requires an organization to understand its place in the system.  Realization and clarity generally do not happen overnight, but sustainability reporting is at least a gateway for businesses to begin recognizing their nestedness in the system of Planet Earth.  That sort of self-discovery by organizations is going to be more sustainable, in the long run, than top-down regulations. As CSR reporting becomes more popular with profitable companies – and more demanded by consumers – hopefully it’s only a matter of time before those that manipulate our resources see more clearly the bonds between every single one of our natural systems and the vibrancy of our human systems. Lester Brown may disagree with the slow speed with which self-discovery will take place, but undoubtedly an organization will be more motivated to care for the ecosystem if it sees first hand how a healthy system benefits its business outcomes.


US EPA. (August 23, 2011). Why are some sites listed on CERCLIS eventually cleaned up and others not?  Retrieved from:

Cameren Cousins

AUNE MBA Candidate 2013

Soils & the TBL

October 27, 2011

As organizations begin to think about their impacts on the soil environment, I think it is very important to conceptualize the idea according to the triple bottom line (TBL).  For example, when I was looking through the Museum of Modern Art’s winter catalog this morning, I kept thinking about how the producers of the artistic plastic bowls, nifty kitchen gadgets and abstract reprints ever consider the impacts in the production of those items on the pedosphere.  Even if you made the factual case that the plastic bowl is derived from the extraction of oil reserves, I feel few businesses would really care.  The triple bottom line concept, on the other hand, allows for a framework and language to be utilized so we as MBA candidates can convince these entities of the importance of understanding soils and their place in business.

The Intervale Center is a great example of an organization that has utilized a TBL approach to build a series of thriving community businesses that all began around the idea of healthy soil and the connection to this resource.  Will Raap, the founder of the Intervale Center, smartly realized the economic, social and environmental impacts of creating a healthy soil landscape related to community farming and composting.  His emphasis on providing an economic leg to the organization is something that other organizations can latch onto, realizing that often times what is looked upon as waste can actually be a source of profit.  From a social and environmental perspective, he was also wise to nest his organization into the community through the quantifiable goals of recycling 10% of Burlington’s waste while providing 10% of their food.  By quantifying his place in the community in this regard, Raap creates a financial framework that all businesses can understand.

Will Raap and the Intervale Center are most likely an anomaly in the larger business context, however, as he has fully embraced his reliance on the pedosphere.  For the producers of the plastic bowls and kitchen gadgets that were discussed earlier, it may be harder to make the case for the reliance on soil as they rarely come into contact with the brown stuff.  A more appropriate place to begin the discussion with these organizations is to talk about corporate social responsibility and the marketing appeal that “green” products have on the average consumer.  This could provide a starting point for these organizations to examine their reliance on soil related to their most commonly analyzed factor, the financial bottom line.  As the organizations begin tracking their commodity sources, for example, they may find a financial motive for possibly closing wasted energy streams related to the pedosphere or a mass marketing appeal related to their material acquisitions.

Water Cooler Conversation – Heifetz and Brown

October 16, 2011

If Heifetz and Brown met at the watercooler, they might enjoy a heated discussion – neither would shy away from conflict or debate, especially about topics they are passionate about.

Heifetz will suggest that leaders need to step back and assess the situation in a broad way. Brown will argue that this has been happening in the last couple of decades, yet nothing seems to be accomplished, and although divergent thinking is valuable, many of the environmental concerns are too great to wait for leaders to continue to “get off the dance floor and onto the balcony” as Heifetz suggests (Heifetz and Linsky, 30). Heifetz will agree that leaders might need to respond quickly at times, but will also remind Brown that it is important to give the work back, and to make people accountable for their own behavior and beliefs changes – and that this will offer a long-term solution. Brown’s response will be to tell Heifetz to “get with the program” and understand the urgency of the situation. The world needs to act now – leaders should establish necessary rules regarding the environment, water usage, and food production. People should follow them, and that there are simply too many people on the Earth to wait for them to change themselves.

Heifetz and Brown will agree on a number of points however. They will talk about how real sustained change cannot occur only from the top-down, and that individuals will be required to act – both individual and group behavior change is necessary. Leaders will be required to embrace conflict that occurs between individuals and groups, and manage it instead of suppressing it. This conflict could bring about creative solutions to water shortages and food security. They will also suggest that current leaders might not be willing or able to facilitate this change and conflict, regardless of the change process used.

Brown might say that there are many complex ecological system challenges, but that many can and should be addressed with swift and immediate technical solutions – even forcing difficult behavioral and cultural changes necessary for the Earth to sustain itself. Heifetz might respond that, while this is “all well and good,” people will resist change without adaptive, compassionate leadership. Forced changes might only be temporary, and that a mix of adaptive and technical solutions are necessary for lasting change to such complex systems.


Brown, Lester. (2009). Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Heifetz, Ronald and Linsky, Marty. (Fall 2002) Leading with an Open Heart. Leader to Leader. pp. 28-33.

Melinda, MBA Candidate 2013


Brown-Heifetz Discussion

October 4, 2011

In his book Plan B 4.0 eco-economist Lester Brown details an immense set of problems facing our civilization.  He compares our current situation to the collapse of the Sumerian and Mayan civilizations due to food supply failure, and asks if we are facing the same future.

He describes a network of crises including global climate change, loss of usable cropland, dwindling water tables, growing global and urban populations, dependency of world agriculture on fossil fuels, and limitations in further advances in agricultural technology as we approach the upper boundary of our planet’s biological productivity.

Brown notes that:

Business as usual is not longer a viable option. Food security will deteriorate further unless leading countries collectively mobilize to stabilize population, stabilize climate, stabilize aquifers, conserve soils, protect cropland, and restrict the use of grain to produce fuel for cars. (Brown, 2009, p. 9)

Brown further notes that a result of world food insecurity, the geopolitical situation is growing dangerous in new and unanticipated ways.  Food scarcity is a major contributor to the emergence of failed states, and we are increasingly seeing a practice of more developed countries leasing or purchasing agricultural land (and the land’s associated water rights) from other, usually less developed, countries.

Brown notes that our global economy is functioning in many ways as a Ponzi Scheme.  He quotes Paul Hawken: “At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product” (P. Hawken, in Brown, 2009, p. 15).

Brown’s solution to this global, systemic, and complex crisis is what he calls “Plan B – A Plan to Save Civilization”.  He describes the resolution of the crisis as “an integrated system with four interdependent goals” (Brown, 2009, p. 25).  That is to say that it is a high-level blueprint for an adaptive solution to a complex systems issue.  He lists the four component goals as and 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, holding global population to a limit of 8 billion or less, ending global poverty, and restoring the Earth’s soils, aquifers, forests, grasslands, and fisheries. (Brown, 2009, pp. 23 – 24).  He stresses that this is an urgent and ambitious plan, and one that is absolutely necessary if our global civilization is to survive this crisis.  He stresses that we must approach this with “wartime speed” (Brown, 2009 p. 27).

In his article Leading with an Open Heart, Ronald  Heifetz describes complex problems such as the global crises described by Brown as Adaptive Challenges, which must be met with Adaptive Change. Heifetz defines Adaptive Change as being qualitatively different than a linear technical solution in that it requires people to change.  He stresses that such change is often painful and that leading people through such an experience is never easy, and often dangerous. (Heifetz, 2002, p. 28).

Heifetz notes that a leader working with an adaptive challenge will have to put ego aside and tell the people he or she is leading something like this:

We can’t go keep going on this way, but the new direction is yet undetermined, and how effective any plan will be in enabling us to thrive – or even survive – in the new environment is also unknown.  We’re going to have to go through disagreements and conflicts as we sort through what’s precious and what’s expendable; loss as we abandon comfortable pieces of the past, old routines, and even lose relationships with people; feelings of incompetence as we strive to innovate and learn new ways; doubt and uncertainty as we make inevitable wrong turns along the way (Heifetz, 2002, p 29).

How can we lead others in meeting adaptive challenges?  Heifetz reminds us that not having a specific linear fix for a problem, or even a good sense of what the problem is can be frightening.  We are tempted to pretend we know what we are doing.  This can lead to what Heifetz terms “Collusion”, or the blind leading the blind. We need to develop an open heart and avoid the usual idea that a leader must be thick skinned.  We must approach complex problems from a position of what the Buddhists call “Beginner’s Mind”.  We must approach such problems with innocence and naivete.  We need an open curiosity; and we must avoid cynicism. And above all, we must approach the challenge with compassion (Heifetz, 2002, pp. 29 – 33).

Heifetz summarizes this as “Five Challenges in Leading Adaptive Change” (Heifetz, 2002, p 30). Briefly, he describes these as

  • “Get off the dance floor and onto the balcony”  — Maintain a contemplative state even in the midst of action
  • “Think politically” — Build and maintain support networks and allies
  • “Orchestrate conflict” — Remember that conflict is often where new ideas come from.
  • “Give the work back” – People must be accountable for the adaptive change. It must be theirs, not the leaders’.  Adaptive change cannot be imposed from above.
  • “Hold steady” – Sometimes leaders must refrain from immediate action to allow the conflicting views to generate new ideas and solutions.

If Brown and Heifetz were to meet and discuss their points of view, what would they tell one another?  Clearly they share a vision of complex challenges and adaptive solutions.  Even if he does not use the same descriptive terminology, Brown’s Plan B is an interlocking set of adaptive changes which address a problem of almost limitless complexity. These are precisely the types of problems that Heifetz is working with. Where the two authors differ is in what portion of the problem they are addressing.  Brown is describing a problem from what sometimes is called the 10,000 foot level, while Heifetz is considering how leadership can be best employed to help implement such changes at the ground level. And this might lead to some considerable misunderstanding.

I could envision Brown stressing the absolute urgency of the problem facing the world, and finding Heifetz’s contemplative approach to be far too slow and open-ended.  For his part, Heifetz might point out that the changes called out in Plan B will require changes in the way that we all live our lives, and that these sorts of changes must be generated from the bottom up, not from the top down.  Even allowing for a kind of global benign despotism, it would be difficult for Heifetz to picture Plan B being successfully imposed from above.

Heifetz might point out that Brown is not allowing for the fears and changes that people will have to go through to arrive at the solutions called out in Plan B, and Brown might reply that that we simply don’t have the time to indulge in a more democratic process.  I would hope that after further discussion they might arrive at a point where this impasse is resolved.  The fact is that people will be have to be considered in a solution for the global crisis, and the fact is that the global crisis is very near the tipping point right now.  Let’s see if we can get these two talking.


Brown, Lester. (2009). Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Heifetz, Ronald and Linsky, Marty. (Fall 2002) Leading with an Open Heart. Leader to Leader. pp. 28-33.

Peter MBA Candidate 2013

PB & Bananas with Elvis? No, Mexican with Jennifer Aniston!

October 4, 2011

It is probably one of the most common icebreaker questions, if you could pick one person (dead or alive), who would you like to have lunch with?  Of course this is a super hard question.  I have heard people say musicians, actors, philosophers and sometimes a family member who has passed away.

So what would happen if Ronald Heifetz and Lester Brown had lunch?  What would they say?  Would they sit in a booth or a table?  Maybe the bar?  What would they order?  I envision it starting out with politeness.  Each one of them sharing what they do for a living and talking about their families.  I think that they would have a lot in common.  They would share a bottle of local, organic red wine and toast to all the leaders in the sustainability industry.

I’m sure that Ronald would talk about the Five Challenges in Leading Adaptive Change because he probably would see Lester as a great leader.   Lester would ask how Ronald did his research and came up with his findings.  I think Lester would ask Ronald how to help leaders get out of their own way?  How do we  get people to ask questions?  How do we get people to be naive?  I’m sure he is frustrated with how things are done and wants to know how to change it.  But that is the ultimate question, how to change people’s minds?  Of course that won’t be solved over one lunch!

At the end of the lunch, I think that Ronald would leave Lester with this thought…”Innocence will enable you to maintain hope when a situation seems hopeless, at least to some people.  And your capacity to maintain faith will be self-fulfilling in the sense that it will give other people courage to hope that life can be better” (Heifetz, 2002).

Amanda Gourgue, CMP, LEED AP, MBA Candidate 2013


Heifetz, R., & Linsky, M.  (2002).  Leading with an open heart.  Leader to Leader.