On the Franklin Stove and Sustainability

As a graduate and employee of the University of Pennsylvania it’s hard to escape the shadow of Ben Franklin.  I encountered an anecdote about the Franklin Stove today in the Harvard Business Review that provides an excellent frame to think about sustainability.

Benjamin Franklin created the efficient Franklin stove on the grounds of national security. To be economically and militarily safe, he reasoned, America needed to protect its energy assets — forests and firewood! But people whose formative years go from 1985 to 1999 might have been seduced by the belief that cheap energy was a permanent fixture.

Franklin was an inventor with an active mind.  As a civic leader – and founder of the Nation’s first fire department – he was concerned about the risk of burning embers and house fire from traditional fireplaces.   His concerns were informed by his observations as a 6-year old of a devastating conflagration in Boston in 1711.

Franklin was also an optimizer.  He observed that as the stove consumed wood much of its heat was wasted as smoke up the chimney.

The fireplaces and stoves of the time were adequate, but there were risks and externalities.  Lumber – a finite resource – had to be used in the stove, and the higher the stove’s efficiency the longer your fuel would last.  The occupants of the home also needed to be concerned with the risk of their wood-constructed buildings catching fire.  There were also risk to the community at large due to tightly packed urban housing and wood construction.  Franklin’s stove [Wiki] addressed all of those needs*.

A homeowner might have balked at the cost of Franklin’s stove.  But after considering the increase in heat production, the reduction if fuel used, and the lessened risk of fire, the decision likely became easy.

When you are championing sustainability, consider the externalities.  What kind of revenue stream can come from diverting your recyclables?  What is the savings derived from reducing the tonnage of trash placed into landfills?  You need to make the invisible externalities visible if you want sustainability to be a priority for your organization.

*It is worthwhile to note that Franklin was vertically oriented with regards to “the fire industry”, having a hand in stoves, fire fighting, and fire insurance.