Archive for March, 2008

The moving target of public discourse

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

From the beginning of this project, the evolution of the public discourse has been one of the challenges. It is difficult to plan a production to be relevant to a issue that is rapidly evolving, and hope to have it also seem timely and supply new information.

Another example of this was the Wall Street Journal’s conference for corporate leaders and investors that took place last week at the Bacara Resort just a few miles from the production office.

Reported lightly, even by the Journal, the meeting featured CEOs of several of the largest US corporations, as well as representatives of NGOs.

This story in Marketwatch brings up one of the surprises of how much has changed during the course of this production, “Most attendees said the likelihood of putting together such a high-powered conference just two years ago was nil.”

And while there was much repartee over various issues on the panels, there was a consistent agreement about a lack of leadership at the federal level. “Throughout the conference, the White House and Congress came under heavy fire for failing over the past seven years to set the policies and legal parameters business needs to come up with environmental strategies. Regardless of which party wins the 2008 presidential election, the belief among this crowd is that the “hell” of regulatory uncertainty, as GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt put it, is about to end.”

That’s right. Uncertainty is now about regulations and policy, not nature.

Certainty is about the capability to solve the problems. Doubt is about when will the policymakers make the rules stable for investors.

There is still plenty of room for disagreement, as in which technology can actually supply the cheapest and cleanest energy, and who should get front row at the subsidy feeding trough. Plenty of elbowing and politicking is ahead.

How you think is more important than how you breed

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

Doc points out the pestilent nature of mankind in a post today. A commenter criticized the video pointed to for being passe on the issue of population.
The lecture was in 2002, and while he uses population and oil use as the prime examples, his thesis, stated in part 1 is “The Greatest Shortcoming of the Human Race is our Inability to Understand the Exponetial Function”

Yes, the experts of population have demonstrated that if we sufficiently develop the third world, we can level off population at less than 10 billion. It was people’s ignorant statements about population growth that led to his mathematical example of the thesis.

But exponential function applies to our use of resources on a per capita basis as well, and the optimism you hear about oil reserves ignores the rate of increase of use required for ‘economic stability’ otherwise known as ‘growth’ of at least 3% annually. And even this fantasy language was used by the speaker to support his thesis. Just because the species might not breed a gigantic disaster is no reason not to fully embrace an understanding of exponential function and start pointing out how many ‘experts’ continue to spew about how long coal supplies will hold out or how much petroleum the earth might contain.

The same lack of understanding applies to the changes that can improve the societies sustainability. When you have people saying that getting off foreign oil is a fantasy, or that carbon credits will cost too much, underpinning those statements are equations that ignore exponential function. Conversion from fossil fuel will ultimately happen because it serves economic interests, and like many other conversions, it will happen faster than thought possible once individuals see benefit in it. Big changes can happen if they exploit the exponential function, and programs that apply it strategically can have huge results.

Ultimately, in everyday life, as well as collectively, best practices and smart thinking need to be applied for better results. Who defines those terms (‘better’ and ‘results’) will often determine what is decided to be ‘smart’. Today in Santa Barbara, at a WSJ sponsored event, lots of business leaders will extend that conversation.

Your vote is more significant than your footprint

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

Doc Searls, in his eponymous blog, pointed last week to Nansen Saleri’s article in the WSJ titled “The World Has Plenty of Oil”.
Now there are many things to note here, like Saleri’s lifetime in the oil business in Saudi Arabia, or that his estimates are just that. But far more significant is the fact that it doesn’t matter how much oil there is. Like many of us, Saleri continues to ignore the facts about exponential growth. Or other scientific or economic facts that make the continued burning of fossil fuels not practical, much less smart.
Let me share the best explanation I can find- this video featuring the famous, mind-blowing analogy of THE BACERTIA IN A BOTTLE. This is Part 3 of Dr. Albert A. Bartlett’s lecture on “Arithmetic, Population, and Energy.” You can watch just this one to have a really good illustration of exponential growth.
This is but one example of fundamental knowledge that most of us walking around do not grasp, including many ‘experts’ such as Saleri, and one thinks the leadership of the Wall Street Journal. And the rest of us fall into line as much because thinking about these issues requires us to acknowledge an obligation to change.
Many of us want to change- you know lose weight; get a better job, a bigger house, a nicer car. Not too many of us think that reinventing energy, transportation and building sectors of the economy are how that will happen. We’ll just keep doing what we always do a little better, a little different, and it’ll happen.
Knowledge is power, but it is also responsibility. Now that we know and have know-how, the challenge is not capability, but will. As in “Will we act on our knowledge?”