Archive for October, 2007

Energy = Salt

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Let me summarize one of the strong concepts presented by one of the film’s sources. The idea, the goal really, is to make energy equal to salt.

This goal has multiple levels. First let me start with John Kanzius, a former broadcast executive with a background in physics and radio. While in his Florida retirement, John was experimenting with using radio frequencies to isolate and kill cancer cells. The unexpected finding was that he could make saltwater burn. Check out this news report here. The idea that saltwater could yield net energy is pretty revolutionary. While this got a lot of attention last summer, there are no business or technical announcements of late.

Second, on the metaphorical level, it is first important to remember the history of salt. Salt was fundamental to the development of civilization. As a food preservative, it helped reduce our seasonal vulnerability to food supplies, and made it possible for us to travel great distances. Salt has been used as payment dating back to the Romans, and been the issue in many wars. Gandhi organized the Salt March to protest the British salt tax upon Indians. Today salt is a cheap commodity.

Energy has many parallels to salt. It is a foundation of our current way of life. We have used and exploited the cheapest and most easily accessible forms of energy throughout history to have it, and today we are dependent on fossil fuels that took hundreds of thousands of years to form, for our ease of life, and our very thriving on the planet.
However, our sense of limits forces us to harbor closely our supplies, and to go to war over our access to fossil fuels.

One of my interview subjects suggested that our immediate goal should be to “make energy like salt- a cheap commodity we used to fight wars about”.
Think about that. What stands between us and this goal?

Affluent Insecurity

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

From the beginning, this project has been challenging. The subject is immense- beyond our lifetimes, and horizons; complicated- it is truly global and part of every aspect of our lives ( you never live without weather and the climate defines so much of what we create in the built world) ; and probably most of all- beyond our control.

We will never control the forces of nature. We may be able to have influence, and mitigate what damage and havoc they can impose on our way of organizing our lives, but controlling weather and climate the way we harness physics and chemistry to our purposes? Not likely.

Because of this, I have had a problem coming to terms with the apocalyptic aspect of every climate related program I see (with the exception of “Dimming The Sun”). It is as if we cannot imagine a positive outcome to a story without end. Probably due to my own experience in theater going, I have resisted this approach. Sending an audience out the door scared and depressed just doesn’t fit my idea of creating value. At least it isn’t the value I want to create.

That is why I was turned by the scientists I interviewed to look at the efforts of the private sector to respond to climate change with capitalistic applications of self interest. It was intuitive.

Well, this weekend I have been voraciously reading “Breakthrough”. While a bit wonkish, and politics oriented, it has supplied me with intelligent analysis that explains my aversion to the end of the world theme of other climate related programs, and more importantly explains the underlying social and psychological reasons that these programs have failed to move us.

I won’t try to summarize the breadth and depth of the authors’ analysis here. What I do want to offer is one concept that I find applicable across a wide variety of issues in our nation- affluent insecurity. That we find ourselves today more comfortable materially, and yet insecure about so many aspects of our lives explains a number of strange seemingly irrational situations. How is it that being poor, which used to mean that you didn’t have enough to eat, now is an indicator for obesity? Why is it that as rich and affluent as we are, we report that we are less confident about the future?

All of the real progress towards self creation that our system of democracy and capitalism has enabled has occurred during periods when our sense of security has been high. So despite the amazing thriving of humans on the planet, the real suffering and violence continues. The fact that there is enough food for all, doesn’t result in no hunger. The fact that we could live in harmony with the rules of physics and chemistry, or even build upon them, does not get us to stop poisoning ourselves.

That is why this production will not be apocalyptic. It will not be simply a rational discussion of the facts. It will be a story of how people are working right now to overcome, to rise above, and to reinvent our economy, and our world so that we are both affluent and secure enough to address these challenges.

Can virtue change the world?

Friday, October 19th, 2007

Robert B. Reich has written an article in web edition of The American Prospect that suggests “It’s naive to think corporations can or will sacrifice profits to fight climate change. Firms that go green to improve their public relations, or cut their costs are being smart — not virtuous.”

I have to question virtue as a motivation. While the vast majority aspire to be virtuous, the number is exceeded by those that are hypocrites. We all want nicer homes, better jobs, a better something. None of us want to do the wrong thing just to get them, but we often do. Not out of being evil, no.

More by design, or a failure of it. As articulated in “Cradle to Cradle”William McDonough & Michael Braungart show how we have unwittingly fallen into a immense bad design problem.

Most of us intuitively know and understand that we will act in our own self interest. George Washington did. He stated that the real difference in men is in how they define ‘self’. For some people ‘self’ is just them and their immediate family. For others it is a whole community or society.

Well MCDonough and Braungart lay out a very good case for how poorly we have designed, and therefore defined, what self interest is in the industrialized society. And they suggest that application of our brains, including our imaginations, to redefining and designing how we construct our society, as well as our goods, can transform ourselves as well.

One can’t fault Reich for being cynical about corporations. But it certainly hasn’t been successful to expect the society to change out of virtue. Self interest will continue to rule. Will we come to see a redesign of our society, which by definition must depend on government ( on this Reich and I agree) from anything less?


Thursday, October 18th, 2007

There is a lot of response to Al Gore winning the Nobel Prize. As with all things Al, there is plenty of polarity to this. Equally interesting is all the speculation about what this means for the issue, for the presidential election, etc. It has also brought out a lot of stuff that has already been said, like just how many things are wrong with details about how Gore and by association other ‘enviros’ are overstating the situation. Given how little it takes to rend the social fabric ( recall the wild west video of post Katrina New Orleans) it doesn’t seem that outrageous, but still I don’t like any data manipulated. I don’t think most people need to be jerked around to get them to think, or act.

So one thing to come to my inbox was an article by Patrick Michaels that appeared in the National Review just before the Academy Awards. It took issue with both Al Gore and George Bush relevant to climate change. This is what seeing it seven months later suggested to me-

On the issue of the ice melting- everything we thought we knew about it has been proven wrong in the last three years. There is a forty year minimum lag in carbon loading the system at least, so the trends we see now can be expected to continue, and most of the discussion is about how many degrees increase will that known load actually cause. When it melts isn’t as significant as how soon can we stop adding to the reason it is melting. It is probably going to melt within a couple hundred years, but that isn’t really our first problem.

What we don’t know are the effects are of specific impacts on the biosphere. Most of the surprises we have right now are not about the ‘highs; but how ‘lows’ have risen. This gives us the massive die off of pines in the northwest, especially BC, where the dead trees are now over a half a million acres. This is because the winters aren’t cold enough to kill off the pine beetle. This sort of stuff – unpredictable because the biosphere is relatively understudied and not understood, but critical to our economic and resource matrices – is going to multiply, even if we see only the low range of the possibilities. There are also the increases in extremes- highs, floods, range of storms etc.

So the realistic set of things to do is be prepared to adapt in whatever way circumstances require. The best adaptation preparation requires lots of cheap clean energy, and the ability to rebuild our society wherever the food and water supplies will be stable. So a whole new energy and building reinvention is called for. Transportation is right there too. Ultimately we don’t want to be burning anything to heat, run or cool anything. Electricity is the most flexible and portable energy, and the sun dumps more than enough energy to generate the electricity we need on virtually every part of the globe, even the higher latitudes. The existing grid, enhanced and regated, becomes a method of distributing from where ever it is sunny to wherever it is cloudy or dark. Eliminates issues of mass storage, and lets everyone decide for themselves if they want to be in the energy selling business. Done right, it won’t be a big decision, because we should be trying to make energy like salt, a cheap available commodity we used to have wars about. Everything else is a negotiation with death of the existing paradigm, which is to be expected. Maybe soy for fuel is a good way to help farmers deal with the fact that their land is going to be changing right underneath them. That is a marketplace equation of its own, although heavily stilted by corrupted political processes.

All of that means that virtually all the current ‘energy’ companies, to say nothing of the automakers, have to reinvent themselves, and most of the political fight right now is about how to suck the public trough while not doing that. Like many of the other ills of our society, this is about some very rich people wanting to be richer still while the community is not served. Every aspect of regulation today that is considered onerous by fair minded people had its start in trying to reign in an unintended consequence or design flaws of the industrial evolution. Why are we so calm about the fact that a food stock like tuna is being restricted because of heavy metals accumulating in them? This is a direct consequence of poor design and accounting of the true costs of the industrial processes that put those metals in the water in the first place. Today there is no ‘away’. There are too many of us to think we can just go somewhere else and find clean air and water. Even those who want to leave the planet.

The real legislation we want is about encouraging a huge investment in clean energy, a big tax break for people buying clean cars, appliances, and a huge advantage for those who build ‘green’ buildings. The carbon marketplace needs good governance too. We also need to create fees on those who don’t adapt to pay for the losers in this – coal miners who will be retrained to be solar installers etc.

At the end of the day, everything that should be done in response to climate change turns out to be great for energy independence, which translates into national security and a foreign policy clean up, and economic vitality, since the people that solve the cheap energy puzzle first get to lead the world in this. Check the price of oil and steel. These are just beginning their inflation; given the scale of development in the world and that there are four billion people that want to live as well as us. We should be figuring out how to get rich making it possible, instead of arguing about what might be two percent of the gross world product over a hundred years to figure this out.

Love All Children

Monday, October 1st, 2007

Over the last two weeks the pace of interaction with the green entrepreneur community has accelerated, and the evolving public discourse that constitutes our moving target has slowed down. As one is immersed in the pool of those who have rolled up their sleeves and dived into actually doing something, that public discourse looks, well, slow. Slow as in not very imaginative. Slow as in not too bright or just fearful. Slow as in ‘don’t mess with my cheese”.
Last week William McDonough spoke at the Always On Going Green conference where we were interviewing green entrepreneurs and networking for our live tour concept.
He asked what our intention as a species was, and offered this- Love all children of all species for all time.
I think we ought to adopt it as the mission statement.
We’re hoping to get him on camera next week. soliciting your best wishes on this.

New week, new age

Monday, October 1st, 2007

Last week we wrapped the scheduled shooting, capturing the views and perspectives of Fortune 500 leaders, and innovative business approaches to the issue of climate change.
As the scientists indicated before them, the view is that we are in a new age, one where profit and sustainable aren’t just smart, or good citizenship, but required.
As we have clearly left the last natural geologic period for whatever we might call this carbon loaded and human influenced one, the society has also moved on. Whether is it the next industrial revolution, or merely the green age, there is no way that we are in the information age, nor even the internet age.
Here is what the incredibly pragmatic and visionary people we have interviewed tell us about this age-
It is collaborative. Whether in the sciences, or business, the leaders and winners are team players. The best people want to be part of efforts that represent all their aspirations and values, and are seeking out enterprises and organizations that give the largest purpose to their work. Every progressive company is finding that by making a real commitment to sustainable long term practices, they are attracting the best talent. They also report raised morale, and enthusiasm both internally and externally. When a utility like PG&E has its customers proud to be their customers, something radically different is happening.
It is integrated. Nothing you do is isolated. Every single action becomes either part of building a sustainable future or holds it back.
It is interdisciplinary. If you know about polar ice, your information is critically of interest to wildlife biologists. If you have a clue about a lower embedded energy building material or method, there are a lot of green builders that want to talk to you.
Put these together and what happens is that every action becomes part of not only living well, but making it possible for everyone else on the planet to live well. Your consumption doesn’t alienate you, but connects you, provided you apply yourself to being informed, and smart about which choices you make.