The renewed attention to environmental issues reflects a growing consensus that the time for debate is over. It's time to really do something on a global level about carbon emissions and water, soil and air pollution. I recently had a chance to sit down with Michael McAllum from Global Foresight (www.globalforesight.net).

McAllum's an environmental futurist who thinks the business world has a critical role to play in finding the solutions to such challenges.

Based in Australia, McAllum was in the United States working with Xelocity (www.xelocity.com) a supply-chain software and consulting firm. He cited work by Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute (www.earth-policy.org), that extends current per capita consumption rates in the United States to China 24 years down the road.

Brown notes that by 2031, when income levels at current growth rates will be comparable to the West, if the Chinese use oil at the same rate as Americans do now, that country alone will require 99 million barrels per day. Current world oil production is around 84 million barrels per day, and is unlikely to increase by much more than that. If coal burning reaches the current U.S. level of nearly 2 tons per person, China's 1.4 billion people would use 2.8 billion tons per year, more than the current world production of 2.5 billion tons. At such a consumption rate, fossil fuel burning in China would rival that of the entire world today.

McAllum describes the mindset that has driven economic growth for the past century or more as the "Age of Progress." Driven by science, knowledge and new technology, this progress has been based on the unspoken premise that the resources needed for growth are abundant and infinite.

"This paradigm has reached its limits," he writes in a follow-up conversation. "The planet and the environment simply can't support an ongoing extension of this paradigm."

Acknowledging that it challenges many of the current economic success models, he talks about the need to shift toward an "Age of Sustainable Design." McAllum notes that some companies—such as Dupont, General Electric, British Petroleum and TXU Corp.—are already changing their view of how they use resources, and are making better profits in the process. Building on scientific knowledge and technology that we already have, he says the transition to an Age of Sustainable design will depend upon two key factors.

"First, we need to develop a range of approaches that will stop the inexorable rate of carbon emissions, waste, water, soil and air pollution, that has major system consequences, and is reducing quality of life for many people across the globe," McAllum writes. "Second, through much smarter design, we need to reinvent growth and success so that we can enjoy a way of living that is better than the one we have now but that is sustainable on an intergenerational basis."

"This move to an age of sustainable design moves the debate from just efficiency to optimization," he adds. "It suggests that more money can be made if the true costs of resource use are identified, and it speaks to that deep instinct for self preservation that is telling many of us that there is mounting evidence that we just can't keep going as we are."

Admittedly, it can be difficult to relate such global problems and abstract ideas to how we live and how you run your material handling and inventory management operations. Judging by the energy saving and environmentally friendly technology that's already being deployed in some new and retrofitted factories and warehouses (See "It's Easy Being Green"), some managers and some organizations are already beginning to figure it out. Why not join them?