Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Is America becoming a third world country with first world emissions?

Arianna Huffington admits that asking if America is becoming a third world country is meant to be provocative, but she's clearly distressed by "a nation where the rich get richer, the middle class is in free fall, and the education system and infrastructure are crumbling." Her biggest distress is over the idea that "the American dream" - that our children will have a better life than we have - has vanished.

But what is a "better life?" I saw Ms. Huffington at the Economist Magazine's Innovation Summit, a portion of which focused on whether innovation will save us from the various global disasters that await us in areas such as disease, water, and of course climate change. The venue turned into shootout between optimists and pessimists, all of whom are well known and hyper-intelligent, over whether innovation is part of the problem or part of the solution.

Representing the pessimists were Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive and Paul Saffo, a Stanford-based futurist who once said, "There's less than a 50% chance that the United States will exist as a nation by the middle of this century. And that is actually the good news." Professor Diamond pointed out that unsustainable consumption rates will be our undoing, leading to growing inequality, resource scarcity, and climate related problems. The root cause of all this is our misperception that higher consumption rates equates to a higher standard of living. The Professor points out that much of Europe has been busy disproving this standard of living/consumption connection. The average per capita carbon footprint in Europe is less than half of that in the US, which seems to support this viewpoint.

This led one audience member to put the idea to Ms. Huffington that maybe the US should become a third world country.

On the other side of the debate were the optimistic technologists, lead by the prolific inventor Ray Kurzweil, who points to the dramatically increasing price-performance of phones and computers, to assert that innovation in solar energy, battery storage (and other areas such as water purification, hydroponic food production) will solve both scarcity and environmental issues long before they become critical. His underlying message is that we just need to produce and consume smarter, not less.

Both sides support the idea that the current energy and resource intensive industrial revolution is playing itself out. What's beyond it is less clear.

My seat neighbor (who turned out to be a well known CEO) and I got into a discussion at the break about the role of common sense. He mentioned that in China, firms such as Procter and Gamble are rethinking and redesigning their product lines both to accommodate the needs of Chinese households, and the resource base and ecological needs of the country. In a country where middle class is a relatively emerging idea, will it be created in a more pragmatic and sustainable fashion? From a climate perspective, there's no other viable option.

But back to the US....perhaps what's crumbling is not the middle class, but our definition of what middle class means. If the American Dream is about a better life for our kids, than maybe the focus of innovation should be on a more commonsensical definition of a better life. Cheap energy or clean energy? Big cars or reliable transportation systems? Better 'stuff' or better relationships?

The resistance to cap and trade and other flavors of climate legislation is primarily based on the notion that it will lead to a reduction in our standard of living. But that's a false choice. I like to think it's possible that we can innovate our way to a less consumption-heavy footprint that increases our standard of living. We'd have plenty left over for education and infrastructure.

Photo courtesy of the Economist Magazine. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Alice Pays a Carbon Tax in Wonderland

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the Red Queen aren't waiting around for the climate bill. According to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Disney is making the company’s business units pay an internal tax based on how much carbon they use.

Alice in Wonderland's filmmakers needed to think about everything from the commute miles for Johnny Depp's makeup artists, to buying local/organic for the on-set buffets. The more emissions they reduced or avoided, the less they had to pay into Disney's internal carbon fund.

"It would be so nice if something made sense for a change."
What an amazingly refreshing approach. Assigning a true cost to business activities is the best way to encourage greener behavior, and using the money for mitigation balances these activities with an equal measure of environmental stewardship, at least in the case of carbon. I particularly like that each business unit makes their own decisions on the feasibility and economic practicality of reducing vs. offsetting specific activities, rather than being shoe-horned into a one size fits all policy.

“Say what you mean and mean what you say.”
- Cheshire Cat
The key to this sort of voluntary program is transparency on both the measurement and reduction/offsetting sides of the equation. To be credible, Disney will need to share much more of their eco-info in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports. The program leaves lots of unanswered questions: How did they calculate each business unit's footprint? What were the organizational 'boundaries'? What is the internal price of carbon? Where does the money go? They have typically partnered with very well respected NGOs, so I suspect that they are doing a reasonable job, but when it comes to corporate behavior, show me...don't just tell me.

It's very easy to take more than nothing.
- Mad Hatter
CEO Bob Iger sees a strong need for Disney to practice environmental stewardship. In a recent interview, he pointed out that it is an "Issue of interest" to consumers, employees and shareholders. But, as Iger was asked, can a company that's focused on leisure travel and consumption be green? In other words, isn't Disney inherently a fundamentally eco-flawed enterprise? On this point, Iger was very clear an unapologetic: "Life is to be enjoyed....we don't feel guilty about growth, but we can grow in a responsible way...At least the consumption we promote in the future is better for the environment."

Be what you would seem to be -- or, if you'd like it put more simply -- Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.
- The Duchess
So is Disney the kind of firm that can lead us into a green tomorrowland, or are they doomed to forever encourage us to take another bite out of the poison apple? What do you think?

Photo: Official Alice in Wonderland Wallpaper Image, copyright Disney Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Beware the Nine Billion Ton Hamster

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

My friends at the Global Footprint Network sent me a link to a video which asks, "What if hamsters grew non-stop, the way we expect economies to?" The answer: We would have nine billion ton hamsters.

Check out the video: (

Here's the transcript:

From birth to puberty, a hamster doubles its weight each week.

If it didn't stop when mature, as animals do, and continued to double,
on its first birthday we would be staring at a nine billion ton hamster.

This hamster could eat all of the corn produced annually worldwide in a single day, and still be hungry.

There is a reason why, in nature, things grow in size only to a certain point.

So why do most economists and politicians think that the economy
can grow forever and ever and ever?

Personally, I think this massive hamster should be grass fed.

The spot was made by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a self proclaimed think-and-do-tank. While some of their ideas are intriguing - such as using a 'happiness index' and focusing on 'social return on investment', it's hard to advocate putting the brakes on economic growth when 80% of the planet's population still lives on $10 per day or less, and over two billion live on less than $2 per day.

Innovation and economic growth have increased life expectancies and quality of life, and lifted many out of poverty. It isn't decreasing economic activity we need to focus on, but rather increasing resource productivity. Let's uncouple economic growth from resource use and environmental degradation. What does this mean? Renewable energy rather than fossil fuel based sources, higher productivity, green jobs, smarter "cradle to cradle" design, doing more with less, and focusing on reuse and recycle (as well as reducing.) There's a lot of room to improve, if we simply decide to be smart about it. If we challenged automakers (or just university students) to design a car that used 50% less materials, lasted twice as along, and would get double the gas mileage, they could do so pretty easily. But we just don't adequately value those attributes (yet).

The NEF folks want to put on the economic brakes because they don't believe that the world will improve in efficiency and conservation as fast as it increases use of resources and growth. Some of their data on planetary boundaries is pretty scary and compelling. But with adequate incentives and market signals (such as a price on carbon, and continued rising energy and raw commodity costs) I think they will be proven wrong. There's a second 'green revolution' on the way, which will be driven by scarcity and environmental/regulatory caps.

Even better, let's grow the economy by putting economic value on ecosystem services, such as keeping the water clean, forests planted, and soil and air untainted. The World Resource Institute estimates that these services - what they call "Mother Nature’s life-support services" are worth twice the value of the global GDP. If we start to value and pay for these, including them in GDP, we can have our cake and eat it too!

Is it time to starve the hamster, or should we just harness the energy of that massive hamster wheel she'll be spinning on? Is triple bottom line growth (people, planet, profits) possible? Can growth be good?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Climate Change Leaders On the Defensive: How Did We Get Here?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

It was an interesting week for the climate movement. Al Gore published on Op Ed piece in the New York Times entitled "We Can't Wish Away Climate Change", and The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a statement that they intend to establish an independent committee to review IPCC procedures. Clearly, some of the most visible players in the climate movement are on the defensive. With only 35% of Americans now convinced that climate change is caused by human activity, it's no wonder.

But how did we get here? Gore points to three causes:

1. Mistakes were made.
The Op Ed piece acknowledges that "scientific enterprise will never be completely free of mistakes", and alludes to both the climategate emails and errors in reporting on the threat to the Himalayas that I blogged about a few weeks ago. Worse than the mistakes, however has been the IPCC's refusal to take responsibility. The statement by the IPCC acknowledges criticism without admitting error, maintaining the aura of immaturity surrounding the organization. As Gore points out, "What is important is that the overwhelming consensus on global warming remains unchanged" (which my organization agrees with.) The IPCC should more openly admit to, learn from, and respond to errors.

2. Opposition is getting organized.
The last few years of discussion on the solutions to the climate problem have made it clear that the heaviest emitting industries are going to feel some negative impact through regulation or caps. As Gore says, "some industries and companies whose business plans are dependent on unrestrained pollution of the atmospheric commons have become ever more entrenched. They are ferociously fighting against the mildest regulation — just as tobacco companies blocked constraints on the marketing of cigarettes for four decades after science confirmed the link of cigarettes to diseases of the lung and the heart." This is a common tactic, and many of these firms have sizable war chests to fund both explicit public opinion campaigns, as well as dubiously ethical stealth efforts.

3. Right wing media is gaining influence.
I'm not sure I agree with this point, but Gore points out that "changes in America’s political system — including the replacement of newspapers and magazines by television as the dominant medium of communication — conferred powerful advantages on wealthy advocates of unrestrained markets and weakened advocates of legal and regulatory reforms. Some news media organizations now present showmen masquerading as political thinkers who package hatred and divisiveness as entertainment. And as in times past, that has proved to be a potent drug in the veins of the body politic. Their most consistent theme is to label as “socialist” any proposal to reform exploitive behavior in the marketplace." He is giving FOX News far too much credit.

Looking at the issue from a consumer and populist perspective, I suspect that there is simply a massive underestimation of what it will take to undo decades of messaging and behavior reinforcing that cheap energy is an unlimited resource, international cooperation should automatically take a back seat to corporate profits, and that unrestrained consumerism is both a right and a virtue. It is more than just an inconvenient truth to discover that the old way is the wrong way. Change to deeply ingrained social institutions is seldom easy, and often generational.

Senator Lindsey Graham seems to understand this. As he told Thomas Friedman, “I have been to enough college campuses to know if you are 30 or younger this climate issue is not a debate. It’s a value. These young people grew up with recycling and a sensitivity to the environment — and the world will be better off for it."

Gore and Bono, photo copyright: / CC BY-SA 2.0