An editorial published in the Project Management World Today Web Magazine. Updated here June 2001.


Musings Index

The Biggest Project of All

We don't often venture into the truly politically sensitive arena but, come to think about it, what project does not have political overtones? Now that the short-lived dust has settled over the demise of the Kyoto Accord we can say that it should have come as no surprise to anyone. As a project, its goals sounded most appealing. But like so many projects in the conceptual phase, its details turned out to be totally unrealistic and mostly politically motivated.

As background, the Kyoto Protocol was an agreement drafted in 1997 with the goal of reducing man-made emissions of heat-trapping "greenhouse gases" with a view to reducing global warming. Such gases included carbon dioxide especially produced by burning coal and oil to produce energy, but also produced by every human and animal. For example, by 2012 the United States was expected to cut carbon dioxide emissions to a level 7 percent below that of 1990. To achieve that target, it has been estimated that the United States would have had to reduce energy consumption by some 30 percent and reduce business activity correspondingly. Canada's position, for example, would be proportionately similar.

Ironically, the current concern over an economic downturn in the global economy already underscores the dramatic consequences of such a reduction. Perhaps we should be glad that the present downturn may help us towards the Kyoto target? In any event, the so-called developing nations, already producing large amounts of carbon dioxide, and set to have the largest relative rate of industrial growth in the near future, were not required to cut their greenhouse emissions. Even if all the developed nations ratified and achieved their Kyoto targets, it is believed that the overall impact would be only about a 10% reduction in the rate of rise, yes the rate of rise, in global temperature.

Undoubtedly we have a problem but the project (Kyoto) like so many others is badly flawed. There are others, seeing a problem with the consumption of resources, who would prefer to hide behind the cloak of "Sustainable Development". Sustainable Development is said to be a type of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The concept is based on "Sustainability" typically defined as "A process or state that can be maintained indefinitely by integrating an appropriate balance between a viable economy, protection of the environment and social well-being". Even ignoring the second law of thermodynamics (that energy in everything we touch tends to spread out and become diffuse), this concept is about as feasible as balancing the competing constraints of scope, quality, time and cost on the average project.

None of this is to say that we should abandon any attempt to improve the way we do things, or not try to reduce our profligate use of energy and resources. But improvements in efficiency can only take you so far and obstructing people's desire to improve their lot, whatever their current station, is out of the question.

The real problem that underscores the situations described above, as well as countless others such as loss of wild life habitat, desertification, soil and ground water loss, chemical contamination, failure of fish stocks, over-crowding in cities, traffic congestion, and on and on is so obvious as to be hardly worthy of mention. Indeed, warnings by project management seminar key note speakers and forum attempts to generate interest in such projects in the period 1990 to 1993 have been quietly buried. Why? Because any discussion of the root cause is so politically incorrect.

What is the root cause? Do we really need to ask? Yes, it is population growth and, because of that, the very survival of mankind as we know it is at stake. If only the world could talk about it, openly and without rhetoric or prejudice, then developing a comprehensive program to tackle this problem seriously and with vigor, would be the biggest and most valuable project of all.

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