Archive for the 'Environment' Category

Intensive, not Extensive.

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

We’ve spent a long time, in this society, building and stretching out. Longer highways, bigger suburbs, bigger houses, bigger televisions with longer lists of channels supplying them, bigger meals, bigger waistbands, bigger whatever.

It’s no good.

We should seek out not that which is extensive, but that which is intensive.

  • Close human relationships.
  • Deep understanding.
  • Heartfelt compassion.
  • Intensive agriculture.
  • Rich experiences.
  • Dense cities with compact neighborhoods that don’t sprawl.

This list could go on, because the applications are endless. Variety is a wonderful thing, but we have become thralls to variety. We cannot stand ten seconds of boredom. We flit along to the next channel, we focus on acquiring the next thing, we ask for seconds and thirds when the first helping was plenty.

And we wonder why so many people complain of shallow lives, shallow experiences.

Get extensive-enough variety. But above all, seek out intensive meaning in life.


“As is a tale, so is life:
not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”



(Image by Payton Chung.)

Kevin Kelly, the Encyclopedia of Life, and the All Species Inventory.

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

This long (!) item by Kevin Kelly shows the power of thinking Big, especially in terms of BHAGs (big, hairy audacious goals) that have the promise of transforming important areas of human endeavor and understanding.

A Web Page For Every Species

Here’s a story about something big. Big as the planet. Not well known, but important. I go into great detail because I was present for part of its rise. It’s also the story of how big things get done. With set-backs, failures, many people, unexpected turns. This is not the whole story; it is just beginning. There may be lessons for others hoping to launch a big hairy audacious idea.

Kelly goes on to tell the story of the Encyclopedia of Life (cameo appearance: E. O. Wilson) and the dreamed-for All Species Inventory.

This is a great read if you’re interested in biology, biodiversity, transformative technology, or just the power of Big Ideas.

Check it out.

Attention homeschoolers!

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

This looks useful.

Feedback welcome.

Elizabeth Kolbert = excellent.

Monday, November 26th, 2007

This time around, the New Yorker staff writer has a solid piece — not her very best work, but good — on the gigantic tar sand-mining operations of Alberta. Unhelpfully for the purposes of conveying the story to you, the magazine’s site is running only an abstract of it:

A Reporter at Large, “Unconventional Crude”

However, despite my lack of Dvorak skillz, I’m a fast typist, so here’s the excerpt I want to pull out so as to tantalize you to, uh, well, I guess to find a back copy of the November 12 issue. (Memo to The New Yorker: please make my life easier here.)

Alex Farrell is a professor in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California at Berkeley who studies the impacts of unconventional oil. A few years ago, Farrell realized that all the major climate models were based on the same faulty premise: they assumed that in the future increased oil demand would be met with increased supplies of conventional crude. Together with a graduate student named Adam Brandt, Farrell decided to try to come up with projections that more accurately reflected reality. For their calculations, the two assumed that where there was a gap between demand and conventional supply it would be filled with synthetic fuels, first with tar-sands oil and later with oil from coal and shale. (According to high-end estimates, coal and oil shale could together yield some ten trillion barrels of unconventional crude.) They then calculated what the impact would be on global carbon-dioxide levels.

“All unconventional forms of oil are worse for greenhouse-gas emissions than petroleum,” Farrell told me. “And it’s pretty easy to understand why. It’s not so hard to turn liquid petroleum into liquid fuels. Turning a solid material like coal into a liquid — it sounds hard to do, and it is hard to do. And that extra effort shows up in higher energy consumption and higher water use and higher emissions.” In the case of tar-sands oil, total greenhouse-gas emissions per barrel — which is to say, the carbon dioxide produced in creating the oil and then burning it — are between fifteen and forty per cent higher than those from conventional oil. In the case of coal-to-liquids, or C.T.L., total emissions are almost two times as high as with conventional oil, and for oil shale they can be more than twice as high.

Sobering stuff to contemplate. What it makes me think of is how some black-market devotees continue to pay a fortune for powdered rhino horn (it’s used as a purported aphrodisiac) long after rhinos have come under legal protection in virtually every jurisdiction. You’d think that at some point the black-market customers would just give up on the rhino horn, but they don’t. True, the problem is many orders of magnitude bigger when we talk about energy and petroleum, but I wonder whether the psychology isn’t similar at some level. We want what we want, and we’ll go to whatever lengths to get it.
One more quote from the good Prof. Farrell, concerning efforts by some U.S. legislators to promote the C.T.L. extraction industry:

“If companies could lay off the risk of oil prices dropping below forty dollars a barrel, there would be enormous investment in this,” Farrell told me. “But, when policies are proposed to promote C.T.L., I think the question to ask is, Is this an industry we want to start now?”

Well put. Read this article if you get a chance.

My Worldchanging Austin debut.

Monday, September 24th, 2007

In case you just can’t get enough of my bloggery, check out this post I wrote for Worldchanging Austin:

Memo to Vinod Khosla: Every Little Helps.

Dig me criticizing a billionaire, yo.

What if we just stopped doing dumb stuff?

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

The First Rule of Holes: stop digging.

Community leaders in Austin is working to Bag the Bags in Austin. If you’re concerned about the environment, getting rid of plastic bags is a good thing. Reusable bags are much smarter, and it’s not like paper bags are an alien concept for retailers. So, those of you in Austin, give Bag the Bags your support.

Thinking bigger . . . what if we stopped building coal-fired power plants altogether?

Who are the audiences for bright green innovations?

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

WorldChanging talks regularly about pursuing “bright green futures” — i.e. vibrant, tech-savvy, culturally-enriched lifestyles that also put us on a better ecological path. This is all to the good, and no two ways about it. But much of the audience for these kinds of changes, I think, is under 40. That could well be my own bias, since I’m under 40 and I’m thinking of my own friends/contacts/network.

But looking through this Tom Peters slideshow got me thinking about just how much market clout is wielded today by women, especially women over 50, and how long these ladies are going to be in the driver’s seat financially — i.e. for decades to come, or more or less during the same period when James Hansen, Alex Steffen, Jamais Cascio, et al. say that we must make radical changes to our carbon-centered economy.

What can be done to “market” the idea of bright green futures to women over 50?

Change, now. You need it, the world needs it.

Sunday, August 19th, 2007

One of the scariest things you can read is this Alan Deutschman article:

Change or Die

I’ve referred before to this article, which appeared in the May 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine and led to Deutschman’s book of the same name, which debuted at the beginning of this year. The short opening section of the article tips you off to its impact:

Change or Die.

What if you were given that choice? For real. What if it weren’t just the hyperbolic rhetoric that conflates corporate performance with life and death? Not the overblown exhortations of a rabid boss, or a slick motivational speaker, or a self-dramatizing CEO. We’re talking actual life or death now. Your own life or death. What if a well-informed, trusted authority figure said you had to make difficult and enduring changes in the way you think and act? If you didn’t, your time would end soon — a lot sooner than it had to. Could you change when change really mattered? When it mattered most?

Yes, you say?

Try again.


You’re probably deluding yourself.

You wouldn’t change.

Don’t believe it? You want odds? Here are the odds, the scientifically studied odds: nine to one. That’s nine to one against you. How do you like those odds?

Deutschman got my attention – and a lot of other readers’ – with that challenge. The article goes on to talk about how Dr. Dean Ornish and others have worked to crack this nut when it comes to people’s health. Most of the worst problems that the United States faces in terms of health care are behavioral – not genetic, not related to freak accidents, and not even related to infectious disease. Just think: When Americans die younger than they should, what do they die of? No-fault cancer, some of them, or car accidents, or infections. But by and large, they die from causes tied to their own excess: heart disease, emphysema, late-onset diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and so on – all caused by behaviors of eating or drinking or smoking or failing to exercise or marinating in stress that (a) are obvious and (b) are eminently and easily subject to treatment. We’re not talking about explaining superstring theory to people, right? We’re talking about (say it with me) a high-fiber, low-fat diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and lots of water; quitting smoking or never taking it up in the first place; drinking in moderation; half an hour of aerobic exercise three times a week; and learning to manage the stressors in your life. Simple, huh?

Except we don’t want to change. We want to keep doing what we do. As Deutschman’s article documents, even after the crisis of coronary bypass surgery, 90 percent of patients “don’t sustain changes in their unhealthy lifestyles”. The fear of death isn’t enough for most people to get past the denial of the obvious – that they eat poorly, that they need to get some exercise, that they should quit smoking, and so on. All the facts in the world about lung cancer, increased stroke risk from obesity, the connection of junk-food diets to diabetes and heart disease – none of these facts change behavior by themselves, because all your goody-two-shoes data won’t change my “It’s my life, leave me alone” narrative. When we do change, we nip and tuck at the edges instead of making necessary, sweeping changes, and doing it pronto. And we’ll swear, all the way to our early graves, that we can’t change because we’re set in our ways, our old habits are too hard to break, we’re just wired like this. And similar bullshit.

In his own successful work with heart patients, Ornish stresses “the psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions that are so often ignored” in treating heart disease. Ornish’s patients learn relaxation techniques, practice meditation and yoga, get instruction in aerobic training, and attend support groups. Because this course of treatment gets at the feelings of the patients and helps to change their narratives for how they explain their lives and habits, more than three-quarters of Ornish’s patients adhere to better lifestyle habits, even three years post-op.

The breakthrough of Ornish’s approach – and the breakthrough that can apply to any of us as we try to change for the better – comes in reframing. Politicos are familiar with this concept, especially through the seminal work of the linguist George Lakoff, an expert in cognition who has written books about frames, i.e. the “mental structures that shape the way we see the world.”* In the case of heart patients, reframing could mean, for instance, taking the stress off dietary deprivation or the “fear of dying”, and empasizing instead the “joy of living”. Ornish gets his heart patients to focus on the pleasures available to them when they can take a long walk or make love without chest pain. Having access to these pleasures implies following healthy habits; the promise of pleasure can drive good habits much better than tsk-tsking at a patient for wanting a doughnut.

One of the most surprising points of Deutschman’s article is that “radical, sweeping, comprehensive changes are often easier for people than small, incremental ones”. Whether or not this invalidates my prior thinking on this issue, it certainly cuts agains the grain of it. I’ve always figured – and have often “preached” to my friends – that baby steps all the way was the right approach. But now that I think about it, I don’t think that the two approaches are at odds, not at all. If you’re going to make comprehensive changes to eat right, you still have to make baby-step choices about what you eat for breakfast, what you eat for lunch, what you eat for dinner, and what you eat at all the times in-between. You have more baby-step choices in terms of portion sizes and which dressing to use on your salad, whether to have your sandwich with bacon, cheese, both, or neither. Are you going to drink a sugared soda, or diet soda, or no soda? If you have a soda, will you stop at one, or have a refill? How many beers will you drink when you get home? And so on. Even as you’re making sweeping changes, you’ll have many baby-step decisions to make along the way – and these will be easier to make when you’ve adopted the proper frame for making fruitful choices across the board.

Since Fast Company is a business magazine, Deutschman talks about how radical change applies to the world of commerce:

Of course, radical change often isn’t possible in business situations. Still, it’s always important to identify, achieve, and celebrate some quick, positive results for the vital emotional lifts that they provide. Harvard [Business School]’s [Prof. John] Kotter believes in the importance of “short-term wins” for companies, meaning “victories that nourish faith in the change effort, emotionally reward the hard workers, keep the critics at bay, and build momentum. Without sufficient wins that are visible, timely, unambiguous, and meaningful to others, change efforts invariably run into serious problems.”

The big point I take from this, as I try to think about framing my own life for the better, is that you can – you must – make meaningful changes today, right now. If you’re trying to alter the course of something big like a company, a social practice, an industry, or a government, it’s not going to turn on a dime. But you can engender a sense of urgency and an openness to possibility in yourself and those around you – starting now. You can take steps in the right direction – starting now. You can start making a difference – starting now. All of which is code for this: You should get off your ass – starting now.

Last year I wrote an entry here about getting rid of the “pending” category in your plans. This doesn’t mean you can only engage in projects that can be finished in one day or one sitting. But it does mean that you should reframe yourself to have a strong bias toward immediate action on what’s most important to you. Be willing to take a radical step in the right direction that requires only five minutes to complete. If you’re of two minds about which project or task to tackle next, be willing to take radical action within your own mind to figure out which one comes first and then engage with it. When I do this, I’m often amazed at how little effort it takes for me to decide on what’s most important, what’s most vital, or what’s most helpful for all the things I want to accomplish. And if you’ll discard the notion that anything fruitful is going to come from putting something in the “pending” file indefinitely, it’s amazing the radical good you can do now, in this moment. Don’t be of two minds: decide where you’re headed for now, even if some element of the decision has to be a little arbitrary. Being a little bit arbitrary is fine, because we seldom have the luxury of being 100 percent certain about any course of action. So just make a choice, reframe your thoughts and habits if you need to, and forge ahead. Don’t let your dreams and plans die because you couldn’t change your way of acting on them.

I’m preaching this sermon for myself, of course. I’m revisiting “Change or Die” because I recognize that I’ll never have the impact I want to have if I keep doing things – or keep framing things – the same way I have been. (Let’s just say that my “pending” file has stayed pretty fat through the course of my life to date . . .) And as I see it, we have some pretty big challenging facing us – most notably the atmospheric overheating† that is throwing the world’s climate into turmoil, with devastating impacts on human populations and ecosystems alike. I’m more optimistic than to say that the stark choice is “change or die” when it comes to climate change. But “change or suffer drastic consequences” is compelling enough for me. So I’m changing the ways that I frame my world, my tasks, my projects. I invite you to join me.


* Lakoff volunteered extensive advice on reframing to the Democratic Party in his book, Don’t Think Of An Elephant! How Democrats And Progressives Can Win: Know Your Values And Frame The Debate: The Essential Guide For Progressives.

† As Seth Godin and others have pointed out, “global warming” sounds neutral, or even potentially good. (Warm cocoa, warm blueberry muffins, a nice warm bath . . .) We need terms that better convey the reality of the threat.

Kudos to Jimmy!

Tuesday, August 7th, 2007

My pal Jimmy (i.e. Dr. James McWilliams of Texas State Univ.) has an op-ed piece about the “Slow Food” movement in the New York Times.

Food That Travels Well

When he’s not busy writing excellent books like A Revolution in Eating, Jimmy writes excellent reviews and essays for the Texas Observer, and, you know, teaches at Texas State ‘n’ stuff.  Good, good guy, and a heck of a writer.

There’s a longer version of his food essay here:

Moveable Feast: Eating Local Isn’t Always the Greenest Option


Useful environmentally-oriented links of the day.

Friday, August 3rd, 2007

WorldChanging has conveniently grouped a wonderful list of environmental sites/blogs/organizations for us:

A Map of Worldchanging’s Favorite Online Destinations

In addition to that list, I’d also point you to Geoff Styles’s Energy Outlook blog. While his blog isn’t specifically devoted to environmental issues, he treats them in turn in his well-written short essays on technical, political, and economic aspects of the world’s energy issues.