Sustaining Aviation Series, Post 3: My Week

Let me tell you about my week … or so.

Last Sunday, I walked up an Ottawa street carrying two cups of coffee and a copy of my book. I entered a hospital and waited by the elevator. Presently, the elevator doors opened and a man in a wheelchair popped into the hallway and smiled. This was my first opportunity to meet Jim MacNeill. Many of us who work in sustainability will know about the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), and its landmark 1987 report, Our Common Future. The document is often referred to as ‘The Brundtland Report,’ because Gro Brundtland chaired the commission. But what is less known is that the commission’s Secretary General and the lead author of that report was the man who maneuvered his wheelchair to a sitting area off the hospital lobby.

We had tried to arrange this meeting a few different times. We knew each other but had not met. So, the hospital it was: Jim had injured his leg in a fall but was getting therapy and working toward a full recovery. I was happy at the good prognosis and, frankly, (hospital or not) happy to be there. I was also nervous … and quite star-struck. From among the ranks of the world’s most impressive diplomats and bureaucrats, the man with whom I sat down to chat had been selected to lead one of the most important and difficult intellectual exercises of recent times: crafting the description of how our world could advance the effort to improve the lives of the less advantaged in a way that would avoid foisting an orders-of-magnitude worsening of our growing environmental and social catastrophes upon us. The report created new landmarks in political, environmental, and economic thought: the marriage of concepts of environmental benignity with those of economic and social development; the powerful recognition that the physical systems of the world operate within a matrix of boundaries and limits that humanity cannot exceed without enormous and potentially permanent disruption; that the economic and social future of us all—including those of us who already enjoy ‘developed world’ advantage—depends upon recognition and acceptance of such limits, and the integration of environmental, social, and economic considerations. Jim’s writing laid the groundwork for all of the discussions at the Rio Summit in 1992 and everything that has happened since. And here he sat, having coffee with me.

We were meeting because Jim had been interviewed for my book and had subsequently agreed to review it. In the course of the correspondence and telephone conversations related to the interview, I had recognized that he was a true giant and I was pretty determined to actually meet him face to face and learn, maybe, a few more things about what he thought and what made him tick. I am reporting that Jim still follows matters of sustainability with great interest and insight. And he emphasized something that I already knew: what piqued his interest regarding commercial aviation’s situation was that he had so much experience of industries that received sustainability reluctantly— seeing it as a nagging profit-destroying monster that clung to their back. While the air travel industry seemed to want to confront its main sustainability challenge head on: recognize it, adapt, and deal with it. Jim feels—and all of us who have worked in aviation feel this way—that moving in the direction of sustainable methods of producing flight energy (fuel) is not simple. But he is fascinated that such an industry takes the very public position that sustainable production of fuel is absolutely necessary and undertakes to figure out how to make it happen. So am I.

Eventually, Jim’s wife, Phyllis joined us and we all talked some more. It was wonderful. But, finally, I had to leave. The whole experience invigorated me, however. And yet, as I walked away, I couldn’t help wondering how the rest of week would progress because I knew what happened next.

On Monday I registered for the Canadian Aerospace Industry (CASI) biennial Aero conference. This year it was co-organized with the Green Aviation Research and Development Network (GARDN) and the theme was sustainability. So far, so good. But what would I see? Did they really get it? Both CASI and GARDN focus on aerospace engineering and when we think about sustainable commercial flight, their thrust is to figure out ways to make the airplanes better. Fuel is a little outside their traditional bailiwick—except for them being pretty preoccupied with figuring out ways to burn less of it. But I was encouraged. As could have been predicted, several participants pointed out that no matter how efficient airplanes get, growth in aviation eclipses those gains. That means (among other things) that, absent any change in the way we make fuel, air industry emissions of greenhouse gases rise—pretty useful recognition. As the conference progressed, I settled in to an attitude of ‘neither exhilarated nor discouraged.’ But on Wednesday afternoon, we had a treat. A Highlight Lecture was scheduled—and it was a highlight. It was entitled (pretty drearily, I thought) ‘Sustainability: The Next Non-Functional Requirement.’ The speaker was Dr Ray O Johnson. Ray proceeded to say every ‘big-picture’ thing that I would have wanted almost any audience to hear about sustainability—regardless of their area of activity. And the title of his talk turned out to reflect the critical nature of what he had to say. Here are a few words from Wikipedia (source) that rather succinctly outline the point: “Broadly, functional requirements define what a system is supposed to do and non-functional requirements define how a system is supposed to be.” This is systems engineering terminology but it so nicely sets out how we should look at this. Sustainability is a quality that human activity must have. It must be a defining criterion that air travel and everything else must evolve around. It must be an inherent characteristic in the nature of commercial flight and everything else. It’s true that if we look deeply enough at the world’s systems, the non-functional requirement of sustainability starts to imply functional requirements, but if we think about what we do on any given day at our actual paid jobs, Johnson’s conception is perfect.

Beyond that, it was perfect that he was the one making the points. Why? This is a guy whose CV paints an outstanding picture of credibility with those whom we most urgently need to influence. He’s six for six in being asked to speak at Davos since 2009. He made a career as a senior executive in the aerospace/defense establishment. He is absolutely bulletproof against charges of being flighty. When Johnson describes sustainability as an essential non-functional requirement, there cannot be any possibility of that being interpreted as enviro-idealism. This is ‘real-speak.’ Not just for sustainability advocates, but even for more conservative thinkers (who may consider themselves the only ‘adults’ in the room.)  

Going home, I couldn’t help but think how cool it would be to see Ray and Jim meet one another and talk about their work. I imagine that Johnson would be startled at the depth of insight displayed by MacNeill decades ago. I also imagine that MacNeill would be thrilled. Johnson is a very smart cookie and has absorbed and elaborated some of the deepest thought that has gone into the subject of sustainability since 1987.

Some days you just think, OK, we’re done—that captures it. But, of course, we’re not done: so few people really appreciate the work done by MacNeill and others all those years ago. So few people were in that room to hear Johnson lay it all out as an essential real element of today’s air industry. Carrying the messages forward is up to everyone who happens to become a little bit aware. But it certainly left me feeling encouraged.

That was my week. How was yours?