Thursday, December 8, 2011

Paying what things cost

I'm going tell some stories. They're not long enough to have titles, I don't think, so let's just call these their headings:
  • Grocery bags
  • A top-tier university's e-mail system goes kaput
  • Dirt
  • Black Friday, or the Ghost of Christmas Futures
What these stories have in common is their bottom line: paying what things cost.

Grocery bags

San Francisco passed a law in 2007 that prohibits large supermarkets from using plastic grocery bags. The idea was to encourage folks to bring reusable bags to the store with them. This would help the city to do its share to reduce the resource-costs inherent in manufacturing plastic bags, and reduce the environmental damage plastic bags cause. But instead of bringing their own reusables from home, a lot of people who shop at large supermarkets have chosen to let the supermarkets pack their groceries in paper bags.

So San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi proposed another law -- set to be voted up or down this week, but in the event deferred until early next year -- to prohibit all retailers from using plastic bags (with a few exceptions for raw and fresh food), and to charge customers at all retail outlets in San Francisco a small fee for bags of any kind. Again, the idea is to reduce environmental damage caused by plastic bags, and encourage customers to use and reuse shopping bags.

As Dave Lewis, Executive Director of Save The Bay, wrote in Sunday's SF Chronicle:
These changes are good for businesses, which will no longer be expected to give away a product for free; bags will become an item for sale, just like a carton of milk.

Why is it a good idea for bags to be an item for sale? Lewis argues:
Bay Area residents use an estimated 3.8 billion plastic bags per year and discard more than 100 plastic bags per second. The average use time of a bag is only 12 minutes, but once in the environment, plastic lasts for years. Plastic trash entangles, suffocates and poisons fish and wildlife, including sea turtles, birds and marine mammals. It smothers the bay's wetlands. These bags are one of the most common items retrieved at coastal cleanup events on the bay and ocean shoreline.

So there's a cost to using plastic bags. Similarly there are costs to using disposable paper bags (costs to retailers who supply them, and in terms of wood, water, toxic chemicals, and energy used to manufacture them). These costs are obscured by the illusion to retail-customers that they're free. Mirkarimi and Lewis want to get the illusion out of the picture, and for people to pay what bags cost.

Not everyone agrees with this line of reasoning. The shrillest windbag who publishes regularly in the SF Chronicle wrote an op-ed on Sunday titled "Where windbags dare to outlaw plastic bags." Unfortunately, and as is often the case, there's nothing in Debra Saunders' piece that rises to the level of reasoned argument. It's all spinning in circles ... there would be little point to quoting Saunders. But if you're looking for an alternate opinion, have a read. It's a free country, or so they tell us.

A top-tier university's e-mail system goes kaput

UC Berkeley has been suffering a relentless series of e-mail system outages for about a month. I know, not the end of the world in the grand scheme of things, but you wouldn't know it working in the campus central IT department (which is, as it happens, where I work). The UC Berkeley e-mail system, CalMail, hosts 70,000 e-mail accounts, and forwards messages for twice that many more alumni. Faculty, staff, and more than a few of the institution's 35,000-or-so currently enrolled students depend on CalMail every ding dang day.

How did it come to pass that an enterprise IT organization of some hundreds of employees at (arguably) the top-ranking public university in the nation let it's e-mail system go kaput? Here's my boss's boss's boss's boss, Associate Vice Chancellor & Chief Information Officer Shel Waggener, on this topic, from his update to the campus of 30 November:
CalMail supports 70,000 accounts over 100 subdomains for students, faculty, staff, emeriti, and retirees, and also provides forwarding services for 140,000 alumni, handling more than 3 million messages a day. The current environment is five-years old and is reaching its normal end of life. The hardware was scheduled to be replaced this year during a normal refresh cycle; however the replacement is expensive (over $1M) and with the acceptance of the OE Productivity Suite project, as well as the strong interest in external services such as Google and Microsoft, the decision was made to pursue those options rather than investing in a platform we would only be shutting down in the near future.

"OE" is "Operational Excellence" a fix-your-budget product that Berkeley (and other campuses and for-profit companies) bought into on the advice of consulting firm Bain & Co, at a cost that substantially exceeds the replacement cost of hardware referenced above. Part of what "Operational Excellence" decision makers are recommending to mitigate campus budget woes is that we outsource e-mail. This idea has been in the works for a while, and I'm betting it's going to happen. The company to whom we will eventually outsource this critical bit of infrastructure has not yet been selected, as far as I'm aware.

Translating from spin-speak, what the excerpted quote boils down to is the following: we figured we'd operate e-mail for tens of thousands of users on a wing and a prayer while we figure out what's next, in order to save a million bucks.

How long will what's next take to come about? Factor in negotiation, selection, and contract review. Then there's the transition, which will not be a flip-the-switch kind of an operation. I'm guessing a year or two. So if the hardware on which CalMail runs "was scheduled to be replaced this year" and we've got 1-2 more years to go, we're talking two or three years on a wing and a prayer. And, as we know from the message excerpted above, five years is "normal end of life" for equipment of this sort.


Was it necessary to take the risk our IT organization took? To run a core service that everyone at UCB depends on to accomplish their work, on hardware 50% beyond its normal lifecycle, to save a million dollars? (For reference, the total campus budget -- not just IT but the whole shebang -- is $1.8 billion annually.)

So was taking that risk a poor decision?

Well, you know, the buck stops where the buck stops, and I'm sad to say that no matter how many executives were involved in the decision to squeeze the life out of CalMail hardware, our IT organization is going to be explaining and apologizing for some while to come. In the meantime, we look like cr*p.

But ... hang on a minute ... that business about the buck stopping? That's the core problem, isn't it?

With state contributions to higher ed dropping to historic lows as a percentage of operating budget, the bucks are stopping in California when it comes to supporting universities. And skyrocketing tuition being charged students and their families isn't making up the shortfall.

What's an Associate Vice Chancellor & CIO to do if he can't afford to pay what it actually costs to run e-mail for 70,000 people at a top-tier university?


Among the deepest observations I've come across about paying what things cost comes from Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Jackson wrote an essay in a book called Nature's Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies, a volume I've blogged about recently (in relation to Occupy Wall Street) and will undoubtedly cite again. Jackson's essay is titled "Think Like a Prairie: Solving the 10,000-Year-Old Problem of Agriculture." The author takes the long view, you see. Like many others in this slim volume, this single essay is worth the price of the book.

Here's a summary of Jackson's essay in a few short paragraphs:

Topsoil is the medium in which plants grow, including plants that humans cultivate (a.k.a. agriculture). Topsoil includes elements like calcium, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, and trace minerals that are essential nutrients for plants. These are, in Jackson's phrase, "ecological capital." The elements that comprise "ecological capital" are gradually and naturally leached further and further underground by the flow of water, through topsoil and into aquifer and oceans; over time, the elements and minerals are leached out of the reach of the roots of plants that need them.

How does this perfectly natural process get 'reversed' so that plants can continue to live here on Planet Earth? Wes Jackson quotes Arnold Schultz, emeritus professor in the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley, on the topic: "Well, this is a dynamic planet. It keeps recharging itself through geologic activity." That is to say, what goes down gets spit up ... by volcanos and earthquakes and the like.

That's well and good, but we humans, who have been growing plants for about 100 centuries (a blink in time on a geological scale), are using up topsoil faster than it is being recharged through geologic activity. The biggest environmental problem associated with agriculture is, Jackson asserts, the loss of topsoil: "except in major valley systems such as the Indus and the Nile, soils soon wear out [...] [I]n North America's upper Midwest, the largest region of the world's best land, many areas have lost half of their topsoil in just a century and a half of farming."

Wes Jackson doesn't just identify problems, he identifies solutions.

What his solutions boil down to is farming organized around bioequilibrium, which means recognizing that the energy input into agriculture (to make up for the loss of topsoil, generally by importing soil and minerals from elsewhere) has a significant cost ... and if you put that cost on the books, it makes sense to invest in modes of agriculture that don't deplete topsoil nearly so quickly. Jackson's organization, The Land Institute, is all about figuring out how to make agriculture work in bioequilibrium -- socially, economically, and politically.

That is, Jackson and his colleagues are trying to figure out how we can pay, season by season, what it actually costs to grow and consume what we humans grow and consume.

Black Friday, or the Ghost of Christmas Futures

On 25 November 2011, the outdoor clothing company Patagonia took out a full-page ad in the NY Times. The whole ad is available as a PDF linked from the company's blog post of the same date.

It was a smart piece of advertising, and told some important truths. Excerpting:

Black Friday, and the culture of consumption it reflects, puts the economy of natural systems that support all life firmly in the red. We’re now using the resources of one-and-a-half planets on our one and only planet. [...]

Environmental bankruptcy, as with corporate bankruptcy, can happen very slowly, then all of a sudden. This is what we face unless we slow down, then reverse the damage. We’re running short on fresh water, topsoil, fisheries, wetlands – all our planet’s natural systems and resources that support business, and life, including our own. [...]

There is much to be done and plenty for us all to do. Don’t buy what you don’t need. Think twice before you buy anything. [A]nd join us in [...] reimagin[ing] a world where we take only what nature can replace.

It's an ad, right? These people are out to sell product?

And yet.................

A last word from my grandteacher

I've studied Tai Chi Ch'uan for some years. Back in the late 1980s, when I was new to the practice, I attended summer workshops with my teacher's teacher, Lo Pang Jeng, or "Ben Lo" as he encourages Americans to call him.

Ben worked us hard. You wouldn't necessarily think all those graceful, flowing movements you see people performing in parks are physically demanding, but the practice in Ben's lineage is oriented toward the martial aspects of the art and it's grueling. In his day, Ben was a taskmaster. Especially at those weeklong summer workshops.

In his mid-eighties now, Ben is still going strong, his posture upright, physically vigorous and mentally sharp. This is a very good advertisement for something he has told students over and over and over again after making us work until we ached.

We'd be gasping at the end of thirty or forty minutes of holding difficult postures, sweat streaming, trying to massage the burning cramps out of our legs. Ben would survey the tormented objects of his instruction, laugh, then do his best impersonation of a man broken by age: hunched over, making painful, halting progress as he pushed an (imaginary) walker. Then Ben would stand erect, and look around at we suffering young folk. Merrily, in his thick Chinese accent, he'd admonish us:

You can pay now. Or you can pay later.

Those are the choices.

Thanks to Akshay Mahajan for the image of a garbage dump in Phnom Penh; to Amber Case for the image of a server room after a fire at Western Washington University; and to Matthew Felix Sun for the image of his painting At Home.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Bioneers and Occupy Wall Street
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind
Facing things we'd rather weren't so

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