Friday, September 30, 2011

OR, the Environment, and the Law of Unintended Consequences

The topic of the INFORMS blog challenge for September is "OR and the Environment", and I'm slipping this in just under the wire.  My guess is that most if not all of the other challenge entries will extol some way in which the use of OR helps the environment.  I shall be (slightly) contrarian here.


Problem: Reduce the cost of shipping raw materials and manufactured goods by sea.

Solution: Companies use OR techniques to pack vessels more efficiently (reducing the number of loads), route vessels more efficiently (reducing transit times and, hopefully, total travel distances), etc.

Short-term Environmental Impact: Fewer ships covering less distance means less consumption of fossil fuels, so less air (and water) pollution.

Long-term Environmental Impact: Lower shipping costs make it more cost effective for manufacturers in Europe and the US to purchase materials and components from distant countries such as India and China, shifting the manufacturing operations from regions with relatively stringent environmental reg (medium environmental regulation) ulations to regions with more lax regulations. The increased volume being shipped by ocean more than offsets the reduction in distance per shipment and results in an increase in ocean traffic.


Problem: Make alternative fuel sources for automobiles more cost-effective.

Solution: Employ OR techniques to improve the manufacture and distribution of gasohol (gasoline/alcohol mixtures), reducing the pump price and therefore expanding the consumption of gasohol.

Short-term Environmental Impact: Some of the demand for a non-renewable source (fossil fuels) with a relatively high pollutant output is shifted to a renewable source (crops such as corn) with a lower pollutant content.

Long-term Environmental Impact: Crops previously grown as animal feed or for human consumption are diverted to the more profitable biofuel production, causing shortages or price increases in food. In some countries, this causes farmers to clear forest areas for replanting with food crops. Forests capture carbon more efficiently than food crops do, and clearing a forest by burning it releases significant amounts of carbon. (There are also arguments in both directions as to whether biofuels actually produce a net gain in energy or reduce net pollution when the activities involved in growing the crops are factored in.)


Does this mean that I think OR is bad for the environment?  Not at all; but it's not automatically good for the environment either.  What OR brings to the table that might be most important, in the context of environmental impact, is a systems perspective.  Hopefully OR practitioners can help decision-makers view problems in sufficient breadth, and yet with sufficient (model-aided?) clarity, to recognize the secondary and tertiary effects of their choices. That still leaves the issue of getting environmental impact on the table as a criterion for evaluating choices -- which is a political, not mathematical problem.


  1. Great post. I think a key challenge to ORMS and related fields is finding ways to "shrink" technological solutions so that they can be applied to very large numbers of small-scale problems. Think plug-in solutions for optimizing supply chains for 1000 different mom and pop stores. Not just big iron solutions for Wal-Mart.

    Check out this great series on technology (not ORMS tech particularly) and agriculture:

  2. I agree with your comment about mom and pop. I'm not sure how small businesses are classified these days, but I suspect that really small businesses need free/really cheap access to ORMS solutions (and consulting) to be competitive with the big kids and foreign alternatives.

    Thanks for the link!


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