Campus News

Bowdoin Breakfast: Roger Saillant '65 on Sustainability

Story posted October 05, 2004

Dr. Roger B. Saillant '65, President and CEO of Plug Power, Inc., spoke at the October 5 Bowdoin Breakfast. His talk, which addressed sustainability issues, follows.

I am pleased to be here this morning and to have this opportunity to speak about sustainability. Please understand that I recognize that the Bowdoin and Brunswick communities are embracing sustainability thinking, principles, and practices through systematic and proactive activities. You show awareness and action in Bowdoin's Environmental Mission Statement, the appointment of a Sustainability Coordinator, and the sustainability actions cited on Bowdoin's website, all of which involve and impact the Brunswick community. Because of this knowledge, I am slightly concerned that I may be "bringing coal to Newcastle." Hopefully, I may add a new insight here or there in my presentation over the next twenty minutes or so. Certainly the subsequent twenty minute period will be enlightening to me based upon your questions. Nonetheless, I am a product of this community and I want to report back as an alumnus after 39 years of thinking and doing in the outside world.

I will present my thoughts about the meaning of sustainability, highlight some data of significance globally, touch on values, beliefs and practices which impact humankind's approach to the world, and concepts about what we can do going forward. There is a lot to cover in a short time, akin to Professor Mayo's introduction to a course on natural products chemistry without his lumpy chalk.

"Sustainability" itself is a tough concept to communicate. It may not even be an attractive one. When I say to you, your life is sustainable or your marriage is sustainable, I am sure you don't feel a rush of excitement. In fact, you probably are worried that something is wrong; maybe life support should be kept handy. What does it mean? If you look at the world closely, and see a climax forest, a coral reef, or an isolated estuary, you will see nature going about its business in a slightly out of balance way. Like riding a bicycle, falling and adjusting occurs seamlessly creating balance. In nature there are ebbs and flows creating balance. Predators prey, scavengers scavenge, life forms reproduce, waste equals food, species become extinct, and new species emerge. All this and much more occurs in the natural world. The system is intimately and completely interconnected and sustainable. Now introduce man. Man is a biological being with all the associated activities appropriate for his biology. However, man with his capacity to think forward and reflect back has the ability to ask questions, seek answers, and build an ego. This ego, the mediator between perception of the self and reality, causes us to create stories in order to help us navigate through the world. I believe that these stories many times are what cause us so many problems today.

We, of the Judeao-Christian tradition, have created a myth for ourselves to explain and justify our behavior. Quoting from the Bible, Genesis 1:28, "God said to them, be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth." He could have added you can have oil, water, and mineral rights, too, thus, giving us dominion over nonliving resources as well. We are good at seeking dominance. Upon reflection, isn't it ironic that of all the things God told us to do, like the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, we have accepted His direction flawlessly when it comes to the idea of dominion, an idea which is probably the cause of a lot of global problems today.

Which gets us back to talking about this word "sustainability," a word indigenous peoples never concern themselves with, but a word non-indigenous humankind needs in order to help guide us to think systemically about other species and our intertwined existences.

One of the reasons sustainability is so difficult to define is that it challenges us to hold three distinctly different world views: rationalism, naturalism, and humanism. Rationalism is about efficiency. Naturalism places human activities within the larger natural systems. And humanism is about our need for meaning and purpose. Thinking in these terms is a challenge. Acting on all three simultaneously can appear to be contradictory to many, especially those in business - that is until the present.

The 1987 Brundtland Report uses the term "sustainable development" and defines it as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs." This definition favors the rationalist. However, I prefer the definition offered by John Ehrenfeld of MIT, who, by the way, lives about six months of the year nearby on Mere Point. He states that sustainability represents "the possibility that human and other forms of life may flourish on the earth forever." This statement encompasses the need for sustainable practices in every sphere of human and natural existence: economic, natural and humanistic.

The thoughtful business community in conjunction with others has simplified the sustainability concept into the phrase "the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit." This phrase means you must satisfy all three needs in order to be sustainable. There is a promising trend in business to insist that corporate social responsibility must embrace these concepts. At Plug Power, we are working to satisfy the triple bottom line. I hasten to add, we are having the most trouble with the profit bottom line, a concern to many impatient investors. Hopefully no one in attendance today is short term focused.

With an idea of sustainability in mind, let's look at some global data in order to assess how we are doing.

First, the Planet:

  • There are about 150 ocean dead spots around the world according to a recent UN study. The total dead area is about 70,000 square miles, approaching the size of the state of Maine. The dead zones are expected to grow in number and size.
  • Loss of species diversity is increasing at an alarming speed and by some reports is between 1,000 to 10,000 times more than the natural rate.
  • Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has increased 18.8% between 1959 and 2003. This greenhouse gas concentration is about 25% higher than it was at any time in the past 400,000 years. A good portion of the carbon dioxide level increase is due to human activity. There is a general global warming trend underway; the highest impacts are occurring in the Polar Regions, and there is clearly some correlation between increasing carbon dioxide levels and increasing temperatures. Global warming is the subject of a major portion of the September 2004 issue of National Geographic Magazine.
  • There are reports about mutation rate increases, male fertility declines, chemicals causing cancers, growth of deserts, coral reefs dying, all of which are traceable to mankind's activities. So what is it that we are doing? Well, for one thing, we are reproducing excessively.

Next, the People:

  • The current human population is 6.4 billion and growing at an annual rate of 80 million. Under the current trend the global population is expected to reach the 9 billion mark by 2050.
  • This causes a huge problem under any circumstance straining food, energy and water resources. However, it is further aggravated by the pursuit of happiness using American practices.
  • The World Bank defines the poverty level as an income of less than $2.00/day. There are 4.8 billion people at or below this level today. The average daily income in the U.S. today is about $100.
  • If these folks were to live their lives the way we do, consider these statistics impacting the third bottom line, Profits:

And finally, Profit:

  • The way we live, we consume over 25% of the world's energy production with less than 5% of the world's population, and enjoy over 30% of the world's G.D.P.
  • Americans waste, or cause to be wasted, nearly one million pounds of material per person per year. If wastewater is factored in, this waste number increases to five million pounds per person per year.

In short, if the "have-nots" were to live the way the American "haves" live today, we would have our present incredible problem growing into tomorrow's outlandishly incredible problem. By many accounts, and following this scenario, we have already exceeded the capacity of the earth to provide for a sustainable existence for all species by several fold.

Those of us who are concerned about these data might, in some context, be considered "sentinel species", those species which in biological terms respond most sensitively when the ebbs and flows get out of balance. In nature, sentinel species may die or mutate at unusual rates. For us, we may react in several different ways. We may be outspoken and rail against the status quo. We may become bio-terrorist, or we may choose to go deep within ourselves and look at our spiritual and ethical thinking, our conscious or unconscious mind, and do the work on ourselves necessary to create a better outcome. I chose the latter approach. I believe that our "hubris", our blind overreaching pride in our own self-righteousness as a species, especially in the United States, needs to be addressed. There are others in the ranks of the "cultural creatives" who share this view. According to Ray and Anderson, there may be as many as 50 million or so of these "cultural creatives" in the United States today. This means there is ample awareness out there to bring us to the "tipping point."

One measure of awareness is the number of books published annually on nature and ecological topics. In 1962 there were just six such books published but by 2003 there were 1,216 new titles. The challenge is to galvanize this awareness into action.

I believe that education is very powerful. I believe that our self education must burrow through our consciousness and rewire our unconscious mind and especially adjust our mental models. The quote earlier from Genesis about our purpose to hold "dominion" over the earth is an example of a mental model. A counter to this view is that offered in 1862 by Chief Seattle of the Suquamish tribe:

"This we know, the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself." This is an indigenous story, one lacking the idea of "dominion."

How do we reach this state of awareness?

How do we change our collective mental models? How do we create changes in the natural world that are significant? The first step begins with an understanding that it takes a long time - centuries. We need to be undaunted by the task, just like the grand cathedral builders of the Middle Ages: we must do our work knowing it will never be completed in our life times. We must be positive. Too often environmental messages provoke guilt and negative reactions which tend to lead to inaction and frustration. We must be relentless and willing to engage in the language of the leaders we face. I am often asked nowadays whom I support in the Presidential campaign. My answer is the winner. My pragmatism tells me that I must communicate and be as effective as I can with whomever is in power. It is about learning to listen in the language of those in positions of power and speaking in terms that make sense to them. When I have what I believe is a great idea and I fail to persuade, the failure is mine. I have failed to connect with others in a way that is meaningful enough for them to cause them to change. I need to be aware that in all exchanges I must be prepared to undergo my own internal changes in the process.

I believe what I have to say next is my most important message:
We, in this room, are all people of advantage. We are in the United States. The United States is a dominant force in the western culture. The western culture is dominant in the world. This Bowdoin-Brunswick community is relatively affluent, intelligent, and has a sense of positive worldly engagement. This puts us all in a position of advantage. How we choose to live our lives - how we hold ourselves accountable for our use of our dominance and advantage in the world - can profoundly accelerate or retard the changes we want to see.

I believe to be most effective we must learn to be better "guests" - better guests in every relationship: better guests in our communities, better guests in our planet setting. By "guest" I mean it in the sense that when we enter the home of someone we respect, especially for the first time, we want to impress them. It may be the home of a future in-law. We are polite, respectful and don't begin to rearrange their furniture, pictures, and plants. We know better. However, is this the way we behave today in the world as a people of advantage? Not.

I have been very lucky in my career. I have had corporate responsibilities which have led me to do business in about 20 countries around the world. I have lived in North Central Mexico and entered Eastern Europe just after the collapse of the wall in order to do business there. I learned a lot about being a guest. I learned a lot about what it took for me to become effective. I learned that as an advantaged, educated American, I had to shed my hubris and learn to be a guest.

The practice of becoming a guest and its positive outcomes may best be illustrated by the following story.

In the mid 1980s the Ford Motor Company sent me to Mexico to build two adjacent plants that would employ over 4,000 people. Ford has a template way to approach building, staging and launching plants, and has done so successfully around the world. However, in this instance, since not many people wanted to move their families to Mexico - a values issue - they chose me to go. I volunteered even though I had never launched a plant, worked in a plant, or known much about them. In addition, I knew no Spanish. I just knew that there had to be a better way to build a culture and create better performance than the typical "cookie cutter" Ford process. The lore around Ford was that a launch plant manager always fails because not enough time, money, or people are provided to assure success. Being a launch plant manager meant ending or stalling one's career. The personal value issue here was about career preservation versus "doing the right thing." The cultural value issue had to do with the idea that Mexicans were judged to be lazy, lacking in quality thinking and untrustworthy. And, of course, we were the good guys helping them out.

For me, this was a lesson in humility. I needed to listen carefully to others who were experts but, most importantly, I had to listen to the Mexican people. With the help of Bruce Gibb, an organizational psychologist, we arranged to take eight foreign service employees, not all Americans, and meet with five Mexican nationals for a week. We asked them what they thought of Americans. We asked them what they wanted the plant to look like. We asked them what kind of culture they wanted inside the plant. We asked them how long they would want foreign service employees to work in their country. They asked us about our real intentions. What did we think of Mexicans? What could we teach them? What kinds of pay and benefits could they expect? What kinds of environmental standards would we have? Could they expect the same kind of standards for health, safety and environmental protection as American workers had? The answers to these questions had to be heartfelt and real and to carry meaning. Both groups created more than contracts between them. We created covenants between and among us.

The idea of a "covenant" is to be so committed that failure to live up to the standard of the agreement meant you were diminished as a person. Your spiritual center, your inner light was dimmed.

During this week we learned truly to appreciate that we were guests and they were the hosts. Out of humility we learned how to be sensitive to their needs as we began to co-create a shared vision. There was no room for assumptions, generalizations, and inferences. We had to be specific. We had to be mutually respectful if we were going to achieve the very tough business and social goals we set for ourselves. We set up a training program for every potential employee. We taught basic math, communication, quality, team building and other social and technical skills and then "tested to pass." We only eliminated those people who clearly could not function in the emerging culture and the Mexican teacher/leaders were active in deciding who would be selected and who was to be rejected. Every "Becario" or scholarship student - all of these potential employees - were paid a fee during this process, and everyone that was accepted was honored at a "graduation luncheon" and presented with a diploma and had their picture taken during a handshake with the plant manager - me. This was an act of important personal validation for them. The vision of success was the complete transference of our business values and ethics coupled with their enthusiasm, eagerness to learn, drive to succeed, and their values and ethics...

This process went on until we had hired over 3,000 people. I will tell one story to illustrate the power of approaching plant creation with the idea that we were the guests and they were the hosts. (They were enrolled in the outcome, they saw themselves diminished if they had failed to meet our mutual covenant.) One young engineer whose name is Elfego Torres, the son of a silver miner, was in charge of plant engineering. This meant that the integrity of the facilities was his responsibility. In the city of Chihuahua, Mexico, in the middle of a high desert, we only received about 5-7 inches of rain a year. The problem was the rain usually occurred in a one-hour downfall. At 2:00AM on the night before the day of the celebration of the launch of the plant, the storm deluge happened. The thunderstorm woke me up and I worried about the integrity of the roof over the new building which had not been tested for water tightness. I drove the seven miles to the plant to assess the situation. When I arrived about 2:30 in the morning and was searching to turn on the light in the building, there was Elfego approaching from the other side of the plant with a flashlight. He was there for the same reason. The transfer of business values had occurred and our covenant was intact. The ideas of a guest and host, and of a teacher and student had vanished. That plant became a celebrated success in Mexico, and is now a model for launching plants for the Ford Motor Company. I have been able to carry these participative, and what seem to be very "common sense", practices forward to many plants around the world, including the United States, and have always obtained positive outcomes. In fact, today at Plug Power, we are incorporating and practicing the same principles and learning to be guests in each other's lives and are achieving superior success along the way.

How does this relate to sustainability and the need for mankind to create new practices and reverse the negative environmental trends?

I believe we have to recognize how spiritually powerful we are. We have to conduct our lives with more humility toward each other, toward all other species, and especially toward the children of all species for all times.

We will need to grow our spirituality and catch up to our technology. We have powerful minds. We also are capable of creating visions and allowing these visions to pull us forward. First, however, we must see ourselves as just one part of the global system and play out our roles accordingly. In closing, I am going to read to you the value statement of Plug Power which was co-created by all of our 350 employees over a period of more than six months involving many conversations and rewrites.

Plug Power is a tightly knit community passionately driven by the common goal of achieving the triple bottom line: People, Plant and Profit. Our success is based on the balance of our drive to transform the energy industry, our involvement in the community and the love of our families. We lead by example and engage our work with a singular determination and an unstoppable resolve.

As a team, we value honesty, build trust and show respect for each other, for our customers and for our competition. We will be unwavering in our support of one another and the team. We will listen with our hearts.

At all levels of the organization, we strive to be role models who continually exemplify a sense of ownership and leadership within our areas. We believe in the ability to control our own destiny and live by the creed that our word is our contract; actions are our legacy; integrity is who we are.

Our development of sustainable processes and products will ensure the preservation of resources for future generations. Our future children will know our company was one steward of the energy transformation: changing the way energy is harnessed, distributed and used.

Plug Power's goals are extraordinary and will only be achieved through hard work and shared sacrifice. Our urgency must be infectious - we have a planet to pass safely to all future generations.

That's my report on some of my life's work to the present. I wish you well on your personal journeys to become guests and to change the world. I believe the work needed to reverse the trends will not be completed in your lifetimes. It will, however, be completed. We just need to start.


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Dr. Roger B. Saillant joined Plug Power, a leader in fuel cell technology headquartered in Latham, New York, as President and Chief Executive Office in December 2000. Previously, he served for more than 30 years with Ford Motor Company, where his most recent position was Vice President and General Manager of the company's Energy Transformation Systems Group. In a 2002 interview with the Society for Organizational Learning and MIT, Dr. Saillant was quoted as saying, "I'm explicitly doing work that will make the human condition better in the long run for our environment and socially."

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