Rob Parsons

Fixing the system

Scientist Jon Schulz is doing something 'radically different'

by Rob Parsons

February 19, 2009

Even rocket scientists need to refuel.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to define sustainability, but I found one who was willing to do exactly that. Jon Schulz founded the Colorado Sustainability Project in 1994, after a stint at Martin-Marietta, during which time he worked on NASA projects from Skylab to the Viking orbiters and Mars landers. Fulfilling a lifelong dream to visit Hawaii, Schulz showed up for last week's Focus Green talk by Ray Anderson, author of Mid-Course Correction. Schulz, now working as a systems designer with Integrated Living Systems, had heard Anderson speak some seven years earlier, and didn't want to miss an opportunity to be re-inspired by the former corporate CEO turned sustainability guru. Anderson, who introduced himself as a "husband, father, grandfather and radical industrialist," addressed a McCoy Theater audience that included Councilmember Mike Victorino and Mayor Charmaine Tavares. While otherwise "preaching to the choir" of Mauians interested in the sustainability movement, Anderson detailed how new thinking that considers upstream effects of corporate actions is essential. "The status quo is an opiate," Anderson related. "The break with 'we've always done it this way' is hard." Nevertheless, he shared how his company, Interface Carpets, has already achieved a 50 percent reduction in fossil fuel consumption and emits 82 percent less greenhouse gasses. The ultimate goal is not just to do no harm, but to help restore ecosystems compromised by humans' wasteful consumption.

And, Anderson reported, "These initiatives have been amazingly good for business." Still, he believes that an educational culture shift toward "enviro-responsibility" is the key component of seven steps needed to "climb the mountain of sustainability."

Schulz, trained as a biologist and accustomed to observing the way nature designs things, agrees. "Ray said, 'If the way we think about things doesn't shift, we will not achieve sustainability,'" said Schulz. He argues that whole system design, using "total resource productivity, with zero waste as a corporate goal," earns "incredibly more money" than existing practices.

"In nature," Schulz emphasizes, "nothing is separate, nothing is wasted. Everything is food for something else."

Over Sunday afternoon coffee at a Makawao deli, Schulz elaborated on his ideas. He said it's hard to comprehend how much waste we produce-how standard practice may generate as much as 94 percent waste, while the remaining 6 percent is the end product.

"If you're manufacturing and polluting," Schulz offered, "or digging stuff out of the Earth and it's causing problems-stop!" He emphasized, however, that you can't optimize any system merely by adjusting one part. Likewise, if you don't fix a dysfunctional system, your own productivity within it "doesn't matter a damn bit."

As a teenager, Schulz told me, he faced a pivotal decision between art, at which he was proficient enough that he was already selling his own artwork, and science. He chose the latter and immersed himself in university studies in zoology, physiology, microbiology and finally-at the University of Colorado-ecology.

Upon graduating, he worked for the Great Western Sugar Company, a huge sugar beet operation based in Northeastern Colorado. Running their analytical laboratory at age 26, Schulz helped the company develop proprietary information and trade secrets that allowed them to utilize every part of the sugar beet.

After extracting the sugar, the remaining four-fifths of beet pulp and beet molasses or "vin liquor" is full of proteins and minerals. Potassium is extracted for fertilizer use. Schulz described a potash shed five stories high and longer than a football field.

Crystalizers would then separate out high value glutamic acid, used for flavorings. The remaining mixture is still one-quarter protein, and is used to coat beet pellets for animal feed. Thus, Schulz helped guide an agricultural industry that was proficient in what he terms Total Resource Productivity.

He next had an opportunity to go into the aerospace industry, working on contamination control with Skylab and the Viking Mars missions. He helped assure that "planetary quarantine" treaties were honored, and that no microbes or spores were launched or landed on Mars, where we now know there is ice and permafrost.

In the 1980s, Schulz said NASA's budget "went away." Since he was "just a biologist," they looked to give him work he'd fail at so they could lay him off. But he excelled at his new assignments, drawing commendations from Martin Marietta's customers.

Finally, he was asked to put together an Integration Plan for the enormous Titan 34D launch rocket, designed to carry communications satellites and other spacecraft into orbit. His breakthrough success with the project (he later found out three others had tried and failed) came when he viewed it like an ecological food chain, and determined the key was to get the right information and hardware to the right place at the right time. In the end, his final plan was accepted by all of the 40-plus agencies and purveyors involved.

Martin Marietta laid off 12,000 of 17,000 employees in the early 1990s, eventually merging to become Lockheed Martin in 1995. This allowed Schulz, who obtained a master's degree in Systems Management from the University of Denver in 1992, to shift his focus more fully into sustainability.

Since then, he has helped design nearly three dozen off-the-grid homes, with water catchment, cisterns, purification, gray-water recycling and solar thermal and electrical systems. In existing buildings, he believes it is wise to look at energy efficiency first. Get a rating, find the leaks, then fix them.

The Colorado Sustainability Project he founded in 1994 merged four years later with the Sustainable Futures Society. Their thrust was twofold: education/outreach and implementing grassroots projects.

He learned about the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) global network while attending an Omega Institute conference in September 2001. The nonprofit ZERI was founded by Gunter Pauli, president of one of the first ecologically based corporations in Europe in the early 1990s, Ecover, which pioneered biodegradable household cleaning products.

ZERI's network of creative minds shares a common vision: using nature's design principles as inspiration and viewing waste as a resource, not a disposal issue. Striving to be "uniformly beneficial," ZERI has participated in more than 14,000 projects in more than 50 countries on five continents.

ZERI also boasts an impressive library. One noteworthy volume is Nature's 100 Best, which offers insight into green jobs based on ideas from the natural world. In partnership with the Biomimicry Guild, ZERI authors described air-conditioning inspired by termite mound design, solar cells inspired by leaves and glue-free adhesion adapted from geckos.

Pauli has helped create an education model to expand the eco-literacy of children and young adults, published and distributed by Chelsea Green. Gunter's Fables is an 18-book set containing stories told with great emotion and intelligence, such as a conversation between a sea gull and a whale or a pine tree and a sugar beet. Out of the Box is a collection of 21 "fairy tales that are true," said Schulz. The book's aim is to help business executives understand profound concepts displayed in nature.

Schulz named several other schools of thought that, like ZERI, view the economics of whole systems and following nature's guidelines as the real cornerstones of sustainability. He sees each of the multiple frameworks-permaculture; cradle to cradle; natural step; natural capitalism; ZERI; and biomimicry-as compatible ways to think clearly about system science.

Schulz took the first-ever ZERI training offered in the United States in 2002, and is now among their certified systems designers found around the world. "The Japanese are way ahead of us on this," said Schulz. "In fact, the rest of the world is ahead of us."

ZERI begins by conducting a Critical Needs Assessment and addressing basic human needs first. For example: a project in South Brazil that looked to improve rice harvests and prices determined that the majority of the children were undernourished. By adding cultivation of blue-green algae to their rice fields, they were able to provide nutritional supplements for the entire community while also commanding a high price for the coveted spirulina.

Soon Schulz will travel to India for work on specific projects, including micro-enterprise development. But first, he has his eyes on a local opportunity.

Schulz told me he stopped by the Puunene Sugar Mill last week and asked to meet with someone to discuss some whole systems thinking. He hopes to talk story with Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar plantation executives. Given Schulz's experience in Mainland sugar processing-and the fact that the company is reeling from $13 million in 2008 losses-perhaps HC&S officials will heed his advice.

Schulz feels that most economists are incompetent, because they ignore natural and social capital. "It's just more money down a rat hole if you don't shift how you think about things. The crazy thing is you can make so much more money by doing things differently and beneficially."

"The economics of whole systems is radically different than core business," he continued. "You know, the reductionist, materialistic old world view-competition, and win-lose scenarios. In the current paradigm, even compromise feels like everyone leaves the room feeling as though they lost something. I prefer when everyone wins."