Roller Coasters

June 16th, 2008

The last three weeks have been a very dense version of the unique mix of science, politics and production challenge that this particular production offers.
Three weeks ago I was at George Gilder’s Telecosm, a unique conference blending science, technology and economics that reflects the vision of Gilder. The opening evening talk was by the author of “The Deniers” Lawrence Solomon. I recommend Solomon’s book, as he carefully delineates the actual work of each of the scientists he profiles, and the fact that none identify themselves as deniers of climate change. He also candidly admits in his wrap up chapter that none of his sources convinced him that climate change isn’t happening or human caused.
What is most relevant about their stories is the personal and professional costs suffered by those who are so labeled- something that should be of great concern to all committed to the pursuit of knowledge, to say nothing of freedom of thought and speech.
In a subject as global as climate, and complicated, we should be expecting there to be thousands of conflicting data points, and indeed there are. We should also be committed to exploring as deeply as possible to further refine our understanding of the subject, and the interactions of life forms with it.
While Gilder himself is a contrarian ( and on more subjects than climate change) the conference featured and encouraged argument and independent thinking. Bob Metcalf, best known as co-inventor of Ethernet, who spoke on energy. Among his key insights- energy does not equal the environment. As he points out, solving either one does not solve the other. Citing Santayana on learning from history, he point by point applied the oft cited Internet phenomena being precedent for a clean energy revolution. My favorite was his point that conservation is never as successful as generating abundance. The internet had several episodes of limits constraining capacity, but each time some unexpected breakthrough proved the limit false. So he calls for people to start making “silver bullets” in spite of the common wisdom that there are no silver bullets. He also points both the need and danger of bubbles. You can see a similar presentation and get a great sense of Metcalf by watching this presentation he gave at Always On Venture Summit East.
My favorite quote of the conference was from co-sponsor and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, “Economics is turning scarcity into abundances.”
The following week, I had the good fortune to be invited to Sustainable Brands 08 where I was able to show about eight minutes of the project, and talk for about the same. As great as it was to get some audience response, and specific feedback, the information presented at this conference confirmed a number of ‘guesses’ made about the public state of mind on the issue of climate, who is buying ‘green’ and what it is they are buying. Like Telecosm, the tone was business terms, and the clear take away was that businesses based upon ethical and authentic efforts to be conscious in their commerce are already winning every bit of the market they enter.
So high off of these two weeks, returning to the production was a realization that no real progress had been made in the production. So this week has been dominated by getting that situation turned around.
The production has high goals, and at best independent cinema funding. The issue is huge, complex, and tainted by years of idealogical positioning and framing. There is also the problem of the subject being a moving target- each day brings news that impacts the overall story.
So all together, the story selection, the tone and approach, the guesses about the public discourse and attitudes, the production team’s choices are adding up to a relevant and timely piece with a ton of information that people welcome, as well as confident voices about how to respond to that information. It is exciting to not just be able to work with some of the world’s leaders in science and business, but to feel that in telling their stories, we are able to do justice to their excellence, leadership and wisdom.

Landmarks- data

April 23rd, 2008

As the months go by, more and more signs appear on the horizon that the market is coming to the project, and it is time to get it in circulation, regardless of where it is in its own evolution.
And each day, I see items across the spectrum that show that fundamentally, people, wherever they stand on the issue of climate change, don’t have a good understanding of science, how it works, or how scientists have brought us to the state of knowledge that we have.
So let me get out in words as best I can those fundamental things.
First and foremost, is data. That objective repeatedly observable stuff that is part of the physical world. As Stephen Schneider says in the film, “there is no such thing as a democratic flood or a republican drought.” Data just is. Depending on how it is observed, there is variations, and there can be a great deal of variation in how it is interpreted, but the first task of science is to produce really good data.
Second, there are multiple data sets. In an area of interest such as climate, these are almost infinite. The climate is a very complex set of systems and sub systems that interact and have both visible and nearly invisible phenomena. So it is to be expected that there will always be some sub set of contradictory data points.
In order to have any deeper understanding, scientists come up with theories. A theory is an attempt to describe the situation in a way that makes it possible for us to understand and have the power to anticipate and use that understanding to our advantage.
For example, until Newton described gravity, it just was, but his theory gave us an understanding that made it possible to understand why things fell. Nobody argued with it, although there was plenty of work to be done on the subject of gravity. Newton’s theory wasn’t a good enough description of gravity to send a rocket to the moon for instance. Others came along and added and refined and now average people can’t even get a good grip on physics.
Today in climate, there is only one theory that adequately describes the totality of the data. That there are contradictory details does not invalidate or make this tool useless. Those who present this data do not have an alternative theory that has stood up to the standard tests of observation and repeatability. That is why they don’t get space in scientific journals.
The person who can present an alternative would be the most famous scientist of our times. And thousands of very smart people are working on that right now. But they keep coming up with stuff that is ultimately very neatly explained by humans having burned fossil fuels for the last century and a half. That explanation stands up when sliced and diced by methods of analysis that reveal the flaws in famous past errors in science.

On the social side of the issue, let me share with you something you probably don’t see in the midst of all the go green consumption promotion, or the ‘its over’ conclusions (due to this year’s winter having been cold enough): The current issue of CFO magazine has this article “How to Run Supply Chains on Less Oil”. Packed full of such advanced thinking as “pack smarter, ( meaning the trucks that ship your goods ) and “streamline the fleet” CFO’s are also advised to rethink just in time production, and localizing warehouses. There really isn’t a green word in the article. It isn’t about the environment, but rather efficiency.
How remarkable that the very thing that radical environmentalists have been calling for for years, and something of keen interest to capitalists since before Adam Smith, are now worthy of application. There are many benefits to the choices that are appropriate responses to what we know and don’t know about climate. And it begs the question of why we haven’t been taking advantage of them.

The moving target of public discourse

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

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

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?”

Progress is never a straight line

December 11th, 2007

Wired has posted on the recent Always-On investment conference panel on Green Tech.
This project has benefited from the Always-On folks support so I keep track of their coverage and network. Always-On is a great new media resource, and I expect a prosperous enterprise.

What you see in the Green investment space are a certain amount of committed investors- they do think they are going to save the world, or at least our modern western civilized version of it. They are already rich and they have foundations and their own investment firms that put their money where their hearts and minds are. They want to make money, but they aren’t there for the quarterly return. Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of these investors are posting great quarterly returns and growing businesses right now in this sector.

Then you have the people who are making a play. They are quarterly statement driven, and a huge part of that opportunity right now is guessing where the government subsidies are going to make early cash flows appear, and scraping off the top of a big number flow. This is where a lot of the ethanol and bio fuel investment is, with hydrogen fuel cells riding on government enthusiasm too. Like any volatile area, you have gamblers, and some of these are working every angle to improve their odds. When the time comes, and clean green tech is really a gold rush, these early adoptive gamblers will be joined by all the other con artists, flimflammers and representative opportunists that human nature produces. Like corruption in certain places, it is just a part of the geography that we need to work on, but it will be a sign of the success of the transition to a new economy when they show up in the space.

Seeing these guys at other meetings is how I developed my opinion that much of what is going on right now is all about who gets front row at the federal feeding trough, which is itself all about maneuvering interests to co-opt the community need to have something alternative to fossil fuel, especially oil. When the Feds (meaning Congress) get ready to shift the petroleum and coal related subsidies, this will get really ugly, with sex scandals, gun play, and rigging elections.

Somewhere in the middle of those two you have most of the solar and wind folks- people who are trying to time their risk and investment to the increasing (linked to the price of a barrel of oil?) demand. These two are the mid to long term ‘free clean’ energy sources that make the idea of really cheap energy (“like salt”) feasible. And in this space you see a pretty normal distribution of winners and losers, and I would have expected more losers frankly. Both have been around since the early 20th century, and their time hasn’t arrived yet. Edison supposedly endorsed solar lamenting that he hoped it wouldn’t take us running out of oil and coal to get round to it. These guys have some real patience and will deserve their rewards, provided they stay around to collect it.

The positive take away is that this is a lively market, and normal stuff like reported in the Wired account is a good sign that it isn’t being twisted like Russian you name it.

Collaboration

November 28th, 2007

Science has changed in the last century. One reason is that the frontiers mostly have footprints in them now. There just aren’t that many places one can set out for with a machete or snow shoes and discover something. Oh you can certainly go places that are remote and discover something new. But these days you have to be able to bring a lot more than you can carry on your back. Take ice cores for example. It takes some production to get the machinery to bore into a mile of ice in Antarctica, pull out the ancient ice, and then get it to a stable protected environment where you can analyze the physical matter in a way that reveals something we don’t already know. Imagine that you have the vision to ice core mountain glaciers, something Lonnie Thompson did starting a few decades back. You would have to figure out how to get there with the gear, get it funded, and then bring the ice back. He did, and today he is curator of the world’s most interesting ice library. And it takes a lot of people and money to keep that going.

Many of the sources for this project cited the key skill in today’s science environment as team building and collaboration. The growing social relevance of climate science has demanded of scientists storytelling and public relations skills that were often absent from the previous generation. Virtually all of what the world knows about climate over the last thirty years is the result of the US Government’s Climate Change Research Program, itself an unprecedented collaboration between what is now thirteen separate federal agencies. Given how bureaucracies work, that such a program exists after several decades, much less continues to pump out results, is a dramatic and remarkable story all by itself. That the subject has been politicized and under torque spin in multiple directions over those decades is another facet of how science is more integrated into our society than ever before.

All of this is highlighted this month by my own experience of working on the project. A month ago, I engaged in a week long intensive collaboration to produce a three and a half minute promo ( you can see it on YouTube here) to illustrate the quality and tone that I want to have 90 minutes of. Such quality requires collaboration. In the constant discussion that the effort required, the ideas and how to execute them were constantly in flux, and each and every value in each and every frame received scrutiny from multiple minds. It is how motion pictures are made today. How one gets the intense richness of today’s feature film is the result of multiple skilled people pushing the content through a deep and technical set of crafts.

The desktop digital video revolution promises that an individual can do all these things themselves. And for the month since that collaboration, I have been working in this manner- on a digital desktop, alone with my source material; my two years of background in the subject, editing and shaping the story lines that make up this remarkable progression into a subject that looms larger everyday in our society.

As a person who has been a part of some pretty great projects that have made it to the broad public through the channel of the motion picture theater, I have to report that the digital desktop experience feels like whittling with a pen knife compared to the buzz of an high quality woodshop that the collaboration was. It is why I spend a bit of each day seeking the resources to put this project back in that environment.

Just as the science is best served today by many minds and hands lifting all the complex aspects of the subject, so too is this story best served by applying the best practices of the communication industry. Consider this an invitation to participate if you have any insight or interest is seeing this product get the best practice application.

Energy = Salt

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

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?

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?