Writing and Research in the Workplace

Practice examples

Growth has no set limits in terms of population or resource use beyond which lies ecological disaster. Different limits hold for the use of energy, materials, water, and land. Many of these will manifest themselves in the form of rising costs and diminishing returns, rather than in the form of any sudden loss of a resource base. The accumulation of knowledge and the development of technology can enhance the carrying capacity of the resource base. But ultimate limits there are, and sustainability requires that long before these are reached, the world must ensure equitable access to the constrained resource and reorient technological efforts to relieve the pressure.

Source: World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). Our common future. Retrieved from http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm

More of a good thing could become a problem

The third sentence proposes that the number of people who may live in a specific geographical area without creating problems for the local environment could be increased through the use of knowledge and technology to protect and manage local resources. The paragraph warns that economic growth often happens without considering the natural limits on the number of people who may live in a specific area or the amount of resources available. All resources have limits, whether it is the amount of fresh water for drinking, the number of trees available for building houses or the amount of electricity required to power factories. When limits are ignored, we are more likely to notice the higher prices than the lack of products.

For example, the original iPhone was introduced on Jan 9, 2007 with a price of $499 (Honan, 2007). The price of the new iPhone 6 is $650 (Bott, 2014). During a period of 8 years, Apple released 8 models of the iPhone series. This raises some difficult questions about the production and sale of iPhones. Who needs a new iPhone every year for 8 years? Who can afford a new iPhone every year for 8 years? Which natural minerals and how much natural materials are required to manufacture all of these iPhones? Could those natural minerals and resources be used for different purposes, such as building filtering systems for polluted air and water? The high cost of the iPhone 6 suggests that the resources Apple require for the phones are uncommon and getting closer to using up the amount available for manufacturing.

The paragraph ends with advice that all of us have the ethical responsibility to think about how to allocate resources for different purposes before the resources are fully used up. For example, does manufacturing more iPhones in China for sale in the UK increase the number of people who can live in China or in the UK? The higher price of the iPhone 6 compared to the original iPhone suggest that Apple is using up valuable natural resources to manufacture products that benefit a smaller number of people. The paragraph suggests that it would be more ethically responsible for a company like Apple to release new iPhone models less frequently to encourage people to use their phones longer and therefore use less natural resources, which would enable those resources to be used elsewhere around the world to improve living conditions.

Bott, E. (2014). How much does an iphone 6 really cost? Retrieved from http://www.zdnet.com/how-much-does-an-iphone-6-really-cost-hint-its-way-more-than-199-7000033801
Honan, M. (2007). Apple unveils iphone. Retrieved from http://www.macworld.com/article/1054769/iphone.html

(399 words)

Economics is the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses. Some optimists have said that we now live in "an era of abundance" and some pessimists have said that we are entering "an era of scarcity." Both are wrong. The wide range of goods and services available to us vastly exceeds what past generations and past centuries had to offer. But every era has always been an era of scarcity.

What does "scarce" mean? It means that what everybody wants adds up to more than there is. This may seem like a simple thing, but its implications are often grossly misunderstood, even by highly educated people. For example, a feature article in the New York Times laid out the economic woes and worries of middle-class Americans – one of the most affluent groups of human beings ever to inhabit this planet. Although the story included a picture of a middle-class American family in their own swimming pool, the main headline read: "The American Middle, Just Getting By." Other headings in the article included: "Wishes Deferred and Plans Unmet", "Goals That Remain Just Out of Sight", "Dogged Saving and Some Luxuries". In short, middle-class Americans' desires exceed what they can comfortably afford, even though what they already have would be considered unbelievable prosperity by people in many other countries around the world – or even by earlier generations of Americans. Yet, both they and the reporter regard them as "just getting by" and a Harvard sociologist spoke of "how budget constrained these people really are." However, it is not something as man-made as a budget that constrains them: Reality constrains them. There has never been enough to satisfy everyone completely. That is the real constraint. That is what scarcity means.

Source: Sowell, T. (2004). Basic economics: a citizen's guide to the economy. New York, NY, USA: Basic Books.

A more popular, though apparently more disputable, approach involves dividing all countries into "developing" and "developed" – despite the general understanding that even the most developed countries are still undergoing development. Dividing countries into "less developed" and "more developed" does not help much, because it is unclear where to draw the line between the two groups. In the absence of a single criterion of a country's development, such divisions can only be based on convention among researchers. For example, it is conventional in the World Bank to refer to low-income and middle-income countries as "developing," and to refer to high-income countries as "industrial" or "developed."

The relatively accurate classification of countries into "developing" and "developed" based on their per capita income does not, however, work well in all cases. There is, for instance, a group of "high-income developing countries" that includes Israel, Kuwait, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates. These countries are considered developing because of their economic structure or because of the official opinion of their governments, although their incomes formally place them among developed countries.

Source: Soubbotina, T. (2004). Beyond economic growth : an introduction to sustainable development. Retrieved from http://www.worldbank.org/depweb/english/beyond/global/beg-en.html

What is the internet, really? (Andrew Blum)

Source: Blum, A. (2012, Sep 19). What is the internet, really? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XE_FPEFpHt4

Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future. Far from requiring the cessation of economic growth, it recognizes that the problems of poverty and underdevelopment cannot be solved unless we have a new era of growth in which developing countries play a large role and reap large benefits.

Economic growth always brings risk of environmental damage, as it puts increased pressure on environmental resources. But policy makers guided by the concept of sustainable development will necessarily work to assure that growing economies remain firmly attached to their ecological roots and that these roots are protected and nurtured so that they may support growth over the long term. Environmental protection is thus inherent in the concept of sustainable development, as is a focus on the sources of environmental problems rather than the symptoms.

No single blueprint of sustainability will be found, as economic and social systems and ecological conditions differ widely among countries. Each nation will have to work out its own concrete policy implications. Yet irrespective of these differences, sustainable development should be seen as a global objective.

Source: World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). Our common future. Retrieved from http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm

Resilience has many definitions, depending on the branch of engineering, ecology, or system science doing the defining. For our purposes, the normal dictionary meaning will do: "the ability to bounce or spring back into shape, position, etc., after being pressed or stretched. Elasticity. The ability to recover strength, spirits, good humor, or any other aspect quickly." Resilience is a measure of a system's ability to survive and persist within a variable environment. The opposite of resilience is brittleness or rigidity.

Resilience arises from a rich structure of many feedback loops that can work in different ways to restore a system even after a large perturbation. A single balancing loop brings a system stock back to its desired state. Resilience is provided by several such loops, operating through different mechanisms, at different time scales, and with redundancy ⎼ one kicking in if another one fails.

A set of feedback loops that can restore or rebuild feedback loops is resilience at a still higher level ⎼ meta-resilience, if you will. Even higher meta-meta-resilience comes from feedback loops that can learn, create, design, and evolve ever more complex restorative structures. Systems that can do this are self-organizing.

The human body is an astonishing example of a resilient system. It can fend off thousands of different kinds of invaders, it can tolerate wide ranges of temperature and wide variations in food supply, it can reallocate blood supply, repair rips, gear up or slow down metabolism, and compensate to some extent for missing or defective parts. Add to it a self-organizing intelligence that can learn, socialize, design technologies, and even transplant body parts, and you have a formidably resilient system ⎼ although not infinitely so, because, so far at least, no human body-plus-intelligence has been resilient enough to keep itself or any other body from eventually dying.

Ecosystems are also remarkably resilient, with multiple species holding each other in check, moving around in space, multiplying or declining over time in response to weather and the availability of nutrients and the impacts of human activities. Populations and ecosystems also have the ability to "learn" and evolve through their incredibly rich genetic variability. They can, given enough time, come up with whole new systems to take advantage of changing opportunities for life support.

There are always limits to resilience.

Resilience is not the same thing as being static or constant over time. Resilient systems can be very dynamic. Short-term oscillations, or periodic outbreaks, or long cycles of succession, climax, and collapse may in fact be the normal condition, which resilience acts to restore!

And, conversely, systems that are constant over time can be unresilient. This distinction between static stability and resilience is important. Static stability is something you can see; it's measured by variation in the condition of a system week by week or year by year. Resilience is something that may be very hard to see, unless you exceed its limits, overwhelm and damage the balancing loops, and the system structure breaks down. Because resilience may not be obvious without a whole-system view, people often sacrifice resilience for stability, or for productivity, or for some other more immediately recognizable system property.

Many chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, come from breakdown of resilience mechanisms that repair DNA, keep blood vessels flexible, or control cell division. Ecological disasters in many places come from loss of resilience, as species are removed from ecosystems, soil chemistry and biology are disturbed, or toxins build up. Large organizations of all kinds, from corporations to governments, lose their resilience simply because the feedback mechanisms by which they sense and respond to their environment have to travel through too many layers of delay and distortion.

Systems need to be managed not only for productivity or stability, they also need to be managed for resilience ⎼ the ability to recover from perturbation, the ability to restore or repair themselves.

I think of resilience as a plateau upon which the system can play, performing its normal functions in safety. A resilient system has a big plateau, a lot of space over which it can wander, with gentle, elastic walls that will bounce it back, if it comes near a dangerous edge. As a system loses its resilience, its plateau shrinks, and its protective walls become lower and more rigid, until the system is operating on a knife-edge, likely to fall off in one direction or another whenever it makes a move. Loss of resilience can come as a surprise, because the system usually is paying much more attention to its play than to its playing space. One day it does something it has done a hundred times before and crashes.

Awareness of resilience enables one to see many ways to preserve or enhance a system's own restorative powers.

Source: Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in systems. White River Junction, VT, USA : Chelsea Green Publishing.

Technology Makes Money, Prisons Obsolete

If we look at the technological advances of the past 90 years, we can anticipate that those of the next 90 will be equally spellbinding. As a result of a new understandings of how our bodies work, the better nutrition and a complete mapping of the human genome, those that are born near the 22nd century can expect lifetimes of perhaps several hundred years. Preventive medicine will begin in the womb with gene therapy. We can expect organ replacement and repairing of fractured DNA to be commonplace. With our aging population we can expect greater challenges in improving the quality of life, while working on ways to save our planet from natural resource exploitation that may ultimately limits its ability to produce food.

Our greatest technological advances will be in the ability to manipulate matter at the atomic scale. We will truly become latter-day alchemists ... combining the elements to build custom molecules, that will give us new materials and medicines. We will have miniature bulldozers, excavators, sewage filters and power plants. These machines will be able to reproduce themselves and infiltrate those areas of our environment and bodies where they can build and maintain the miniature vasculature of our world.

Computing will also advance to the nanoscale, with storage of information within electron orbitals and spin. Binary will be replaced by tristate and multistate machines that will have the capacity to process and store terabytes of information in microseconds. Sensors and computers will be implanted within our bodies and embedded within the very fabric of what we wear, in the walls of our home and in our places of business. We will have personal information spaces that provide access to vast storehouses of knowledge that we can access and mine instantaneously, using intelligent agents that will filter and reconstruct three dimensional representations of information. Other software and hardware robots will assist us in our work, play and home maintenance. Money will not be needed ... just our physical characteristics act as a "fingerprint" to signal our identity with electronic processing of transactions that automatically adjusts our instantaneous net worth. Since we will be able to track the identity of everybody with sensors within our environment, the nature of crime will change ... indeed, prisons as we know them will become obsolete as we will use new therapies to rehabilitate.

Our transportation systems will become more efficient, and less polluting. But there will be less need to move our bodies to go places, for we will have transportation systems for our senses that use virtual reality to create synthesized 3D spaces, much like the holodeck of Star Trek, where we visit with our friends and family and conduct our business and education.

Everything will be wireless. Central power generation will not be needed as we will have self-contained generators in our homes that use fusion as a means of powering our appliances. Perhaps many of our appliances may be powered by the metabolism of our own bodies.

Our power will be in our knowledge and the ability to integrate and exploit the new affordances provided to us by our technology. The human adventure will continue as we explore our remaining frontiers of the ocean, space and the domains and very limits of human thought. In 90 years we will understand more about consciousness and the way the mind works. But will we be happy? --Human Interface Technology Lab Director, Thomas Furness

Source: Furness, T. (1998). The world of 2088. Columns. Retrieved from http://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns/june98/technology.html

As for my thoughts on the future of biochemistry in the next century, I can only state at this time that the complexity of the living process, as has been learned within the past 50 years, calls for new approaches and thinking. Physics, long the dominant determinant of thought and ideas in science, has been displaced by the biological sciences which display the extraordinary complexity that defies or belies many of the ideas promoted by physicists and chemists through which much of our ideas in the present century have been promoted. Hence I predict new modalities of thought in which systems analysis or concepts involving organized networks of cellular processes will come to the forefront of the biological sciences. Of course, early in the next century, much of the so-called Human Genome Project will have been completed with the promised "encyclopedia of genetic information". However, along with that will be the evidence that knowledge of the genome and its constituent genes does not give knowledge of how the living cell or organism is constructed and the multiple types of physiological processes are regulated. Hopefully the next century will see a more appropriate and detailed construction of the probabilistic schemes or networks of the living process rather than the simplistic and absolutist ways of current thinking. Sorry I won't be around.

Source: The world of 2088. (1998). Retrieved from http://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns/june98/technology.html

I'm aware of only one accurate prediction in the field of computing. In 1965, Gordon Moore, then of Fairchild Semiconductor and later a founder of Intel, had the audacity to suggest that the density of transistors on integrated circuits would double every 18 months. Amazingly, device physicists and process engineers have managed to make good on Moore's prediction over the course of more than 30 years.

This exponential rate of progress – the fact that everything about computing continues to double at fixed intervals, from the amount of performance you can buy for a dollar to the value of Microsoft stock – is why we can't predict the future of computing. There's nothing else like this, in any other field. If transportation technology had improved at the same rate as information technology over the past 30 years, then an automobile would be the size of a toaster, cost $200, go 100,000 miles per hour, and travel 150,000 miles on a gallon of fuel. A Boeing 747, introduced 30 years ago, would cost hundreds of dollars today, rather than hundreds of millions. Ridiculous? Not in computing, where today's $3,000 laptop personal computer is vastly more capable than the $3 million building-sized institutional computer of just a couple of decades ago. The implications of this sort of progress are impossible to predict.

Source: The world of 2088. (1998). Retrieved from http://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns/june98/technology.html