Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Thank You 2008

A year ago today, I made my first ever serious New Year's Resolution. I promised myself I'd write.

And I did. Right here at first. And after a few months, over on Posterous as well. And, of course, in emails and letters and late night scrap paper too.

Some of the writing was pure joy. Some was a struggle. Some I liked. Some not so much. But I did it, and it's all out there, and it's real, and it's me.

And I'm glad.

My Aussie fireman uncle told me years ago that if I wrote I'd capture thoughts that might otherwise drift and disappear. I'm pretty sure I've done that. And I'm pretty sure I'm never stopping.

And I think I'm on the New Year's Resolution wagon for the long haul as well.

So, starting tomorrow, I'm getting serious about sharing other people's reading experiences. If someone I love or respect recommends a book and shows some passion in the recommendation, I'll read it.

More specific than last year. Maybe not as time commitment ambitious. But I know it'll complement the continued writing, and I know I'm a better thinker when I'm reading and reading purposefully. So I'm excited. Especially now that I've written it down.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Touch and Transparency

Great to get a chance to hang with John from Acorn this morning. Always a high quality source of ideas and questions and book recommendations. And, apparently, a source of video blogging inspiration as well...



People that know how to treat a user: posterous.com, thepoint.com, getglue.com, and seesmic.com. High touch 4eva.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Idealism, Infiltration, and the Metaphorical Car

I think I'm going to stick to video for a couple more posts. Test it out. See if I can handle it. See what people think. The writing'll definitely be back. But probably not until all these relatives clear out and give me a little more nighttime quiet.



The metaphor I often throw out there when trying to contrast my more perfect market approach to the crisis with the harder core, more activist approach is one involving a car on its way off a cliff. The hard core people want to stop the car: slam on the brakes, cut the engine, shoot the tires, blow up the engine. I want to yank the steering wheel as far as it'll go to one side and see if we can avoid the cliff and get moving in a sustainable direction.

Maybe we won't be able to turn in time. Maybe there are cliffs off in every direction. Maybe the car is destined to crash and burn, cliffs or no cliffs. But the car - sedentary communities, large scale agriculture, nation states, industrialism, capitalism - is a powerful thing, psychologically especially, and I'm not convinced anything's going to stop it.

I think we're stuck with this car. I think we need to make the best of it. And I think somewhere in this braintangle of humanity we have the creativity to make it run clean and happy.

Note: Eric McDavid is the entrapped co-conspirator from my totally incomplete story. The internets are a little thin on recent and recognizably reputable reports on what happened and where things stand now, but here's one clearly articulated take on the story.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

To Live and Breathe It Every Day

It's scary to question your commitment to your cause, but I think it's good. Confidence-doubt fluctuations are everywhere. No use pretending they're not.



And I figured I had to go video style with this one, because when you've coughed yourself a fully ridiculous voice, you gotta show it off.

I hope you can understand me...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Single Carrot, Freshly Observed

I've let the blogging slide a bit over the past few days.

I've been coughing. I've been in New York. I've been happily slammed by the flood of relatives rushing in for winter vacation. I've been inarticulately raving in my head about profit as an illusion. I've been asked where I'd fit into a world in which all businesses already operate sustainably. I've been listening to Cake.

And I've been keeping up an email correspondence that just revealed this link.

If you didn't catch it the first time, click again; watch closely; and read quickly.

Posted via email from Radical Transparency

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Note the Hairdo

If you want to watch me get all intense and excited while I rave on about carrots and dreams and trust and history and transparency and expertise and collaboration, click here.

It's silly. Not what I'd call a polished interview performance. But I do think I handled the moment in which I lost my train of thought like a champion.

The interview with me is just one little piece of the work that EasyEthical.org co-founders Jon Melhuish and Annesley Newholm have done to encourage collaboration between crunchy consumption projects.

See Jon's blog for more interviews and notes, and keep your eyes out in January for news about how people actually might work together.

It's a fascinating group so far. Ethical Consumer Magazine, GoodGuide, Alonovo, Buy It Like You Mean It, to name a handful. It'll take some masterful cat herding to yank us all out of our own heads and onto the same team, but you never know. Everybody's committed. Nobody seems greedy. Should be fun.

Monday, December 15, 2008

There Are Moments...

No Impact Man posted a letter from Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry today. It was an invitation to an anti-coal protest in Washington DC on March 3. The names are big. The ambitions are big. And the language is big too.

There are moments in a nation's—and a planet's—history when it may be necessary for some to break the law in order to bear witness to an evil, bring it to wider attention, and push for its correction.

I'm not sure how to react.

And I think a big part of that is that my generation doesn't know civil disobedience. We've heard stories, seen movies, read Howard Zinn. But not a lot of us have invited arrest or teargas or nightsticks.

Maybe we're weak. Maybe we're brainwashed. Maybe we're too comfortable.

But maybe we're better educated and broader minded. Maybe we see other paths. Maybe we have other tools.

I don't know.

It's definitely unsettling to see smart people so scared of coal and carbon and so fed up with business and government that they're asking their friends to march and sit and face the police. But it feels distant, a thing of another time.

And that makes me want to ask questions.

How well organized is this movement?

How will they spread their message? How will they grow?

How many people will make the trip to DC that day? How many won't because they're too scared?

What will the protesters do? Sing or scream? And will it make a difference?

Will there be fanfare? Drama? Press? Leading up to the protest? Or only once it happens?

And, of course, how will Don Blankenship and Barack Obama react?

Because I'm Lazy?

Video blogging about video blogging...



The rest of the Viddler experiment lives here.

Gary Vaynerchuk's blog lives here.

The Carrot Project blog is still under construction, but our feedback forum is doing its best to hold the fort down as we build. Come play.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

An Honest Market

I linked to Lester Brown yesterday, primarily with reference to language and metaphor. I think his ideas are important as well...

The key to building a global economy that can sustain economic progress is the creation of an honest market, one that tells the ecological truth. To create an honest market, we need to restructure the tax system by reducing taxes on work and raising them on various environmentally destructive activities to incorporate indirect costs into the market price. If we can get the market to tell the truth, then we can avoid being blindsided by a faulty accounting system that leads to bankruptcy. As Øystein Dahle, former Vice President of Exxon for Norway and the North Sea, has observed: “Socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth.”

An honest market. A market that tells ecological truth.

Paul Hawken and friends called for it many years ago. Umair Haque brought it up last week. It's the market to which this blog's title refers. And, hopefully, The Carrot Project can play a role in bringing it into being.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When Green Turns Red

Alexa doesn't blog. She emails. But I get the emails. I do blog. I told her I might share. And she didn't object.

She wrote today that green is turning red. Environmentalism is adopting a wartime language.

When she watched Thomas Friedman speak a few weeks ago, "the tone and narrative was utterly cold war." And, as she reads, she can't but feel the drumbeat of an advancing new metaphor:

Saving civilization will take a massive mobilization, and at wartime speed. The closest analogy is the belated U.S. mobilization during WWII.

That's Lester Brown: quote from an excerpt from a chapter from a book. The excerpt is called A Wartime Mobilization. The chapter is called The Great Mobilization. And the book is called Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

Alexa wonders "if this is a necessary part of social change - if language must always be 'grafted' - the same old narratives with a new set of nouns."

And that is a fascinating question.

I can't say I have an answer, but I do think it's worth keeping in mind that world war is not only this country's only frame of reference for mass collective effort; it's our only frame of reference for economic reinvention and turnaround.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dick Cheney's Beautiful Face

I'm pretty good about filling out user profiles when I join online communities. I don't go all out and write an about us section until I've used a site a few times and figured out whether I think I'll participate in the future, but I do almost always add my name, a link to this or the other blog, and a picture right away.

I leave the name for transparency's sake, because it feels like the right thing to do.

I attach the blog link (A) because you never know where you might pick up a great new reader and (B) because I like finding blog links associated with comments and contributions (I think blogs are fascinating introductions to people and often do a good job of putting user generated content in perspective).

And I post a picture because communities are just simply more fun to use when users are all represented by meaningful images and not blurry gray question marks.

But, understandably, lots of people don't fill out profiles at all. Writing and uploading take time, and most people either want to dive right into a community they've just joined or dive right out.

And this is on my mind right now because we're pulling together the beginnings of a Carrot Project community; I'm seeing a high percentage of empty profiles and faceless users; I'm wondering if and how we might be able to creatively remedy that; I remember one trick that one community used to get me to switch my picture with the quickness; and I want to know what we can learn from the trickiness.

Horribly embarrassingly, I forget the community, but their tactic was brilliant in its simplicity. They had a default user profile image, an image that represented every single new user, and that image was a Dick Cheney headshot.

And, if I remember correctly, the tactic did have a noticeable effect. I remember being impressed by the fact that just about every single contributing user in that system was represented by an image to which he or she had a personal connection.

One question, I guess, is whether that's important, whether profile pictures (or profiles in general) are useful in the creating of a community culture that breeds smooth, honest information exchange.

Another question is whether a culture is really a culture if manufactured by top-down cleverness.

Another is whether cleverness like that reveals community management personality and whether community management personality contributes to a site's stickiness.

Another is what the heck that site was so I can give them due props for their humor and irreverence and due scolding for failing to turn what was in my case a fantastic first impression into a steadily contributing user (or at least a one night stand ex-user that remembers their name).

And another is why I'm rambling on about web community theory when I have Carrot Project feedback flowing onto the site and into my inbox.

*Note: The Orangutan is my go to profile pic, and the bunny is what's representing just about every member of the Carrot Project beta community.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Tapping the SAFE

I made a little change on this blog yesterday. I took the list of TED Talks off of the right hand sidebar and replaced it with a list of people that inspire me.*

A few of the TED speakers remain on the Inspiration list, but I've cut most of them, and my last and most difficult cut was economic development statistician Hans Rosling.

I've cut him only from the sidebar, however, not from my heart, so I post now his latest: six and a half minutes of face in the handicam with Thomas Crampton, six and a half minutes of China and money and optimism...



Now pause for a moment and think about the fact that the value of the goods China produces every day is USD 1 billion higher than the value of the goods it consumes.

And, while you're paused, ask what those goods are and whether they have real value.

And ask how it's possible, with that surplus, that half of the people in China still live in intense poverty.

But stay paused and be reminded that big, meaningful surpluses do still exist. Be reminded that tiny fractions of those surpluses, if invested wisely, could fund the creation of technologies and infrastructure that will deliver abundant, sustainable energy to everyone in the world. Be reminded that we do not lack the resources** to create "a good world for everyone within one or two generations."

Thanks to Wiley for the sharing the video.

*Well. Mostly people. People and a bird.

**Yes this is Tony Robbins, and yes he is ridiculous, but he hooked me with that TED Talk. I absolutely love what he says to Al Gore.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Intrinsic, Durable, Human Value

Umair Haque channeled his inner Paul Hawken on Wednesday.

Why is industrial era business so destructive - why does it slash and burn rainforests, endanger entire species, vaporize culture and community, marginalize the poor and disadvantaged, and erode our health and vitality?

Because none of those have value in an industrial economy: none are capitalized. So the beancounters of the world are free to plunder and ruin them - because, economically, they actually don't exist.


Umair talked about capitalizing forests and animals and cultures and communities, about assigning them economic value, about turning them into assets, "assets with intrinsic, durable, human value."

And he suggested that we all wake up tomorrow, find something of real value, and start capitalizing it.

So I wonder. What is valuable in our world? What is real wealth?

Food. Water. Materials with which to build medicines and beds and buildings and tools. Energy.

Those are the fundamentals, I think.

But what else?

Information? Education? Skills? Wisdom?

Efficiency? Speed? Time?

Creativity? Imagination? Art? Beauty?

Connectivity? Community? Collaboration?

Hope? Confidence? Laughter? Love?

According to Umair, we should capitalize it. Not an easy thing to do. Nor an idea to throw away.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gotta Love the Man's Mustache, Though

One quote of many:

Jimmy Carter understood that there was a risk if we increased our dependence on foreign oil. But did it not sound similar to Obama? Turn down your thermostats? Buy a smaller car? Conserve? I have spent quite a bit of time in Russia and China, and that’s the first stage. You go from having your own car to carpooling to riding the bus to mass transit. You eventually get to where you’re walking. You go from your own apartment and bathroom to sharing kitchens with four families. That’s what socialism and the elimination of capitalism and free enterprise is all about.


That's Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, the fourth largest coal company in the United States.

It's fear. Fear of change. Fear that people are going to struggle in a new world with new challenges.

And it's sad that Blankenship and others feel that way. It'd be a bummer to live with those thoughts.

But I think a speech like that is a good sign. There's nothing calm and confident about it. It's pure desperation. A death rattle, perhaps. A horn. A buzzer. The end of Blankenship at the helm, the end of Massey at the top, the end of the coal era, and the end of those overblown fears.

Thanks to Frances Beinecke for sharing the Williamson Daily News article, and thanks to Alex for sharing the Frances Beinecke post.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Rankings, Ratings, and Philosophical Math

On Thursday, Carl sent an email telling me the time had come for some Carrot Project soul searching. Eric agreed. Wiley agreed. Brent agreed. I agreed. Emails flew all weekend. And it was beautiful. Felt like we were trying to change the world with a tiny little dot com startup or something.

So, last night, before bed, I talked to the webcam* for a few minutes.

--

Great sleep. Great morning. Heaps of anticipation as the day drifted closer to this afternoon's meeting.

I was all fired up to talk transparency, all fired up to figure out how to make sure that everyone that joins our little testing community understands why we're doing things the way we're doing them and forgives us for the potentially misleading incompleteness of our first shot at brand comparisons.

But the meeting never really made it to transparency. We looked at the problem again, and I finally admitted that we couldn't humble it away. In private beta, yeah, sure. But not long term. Not sustainably.

So we're going with Carl's big suggestion. We're taking a turn for the philosophically mathematical. We're calling on Thomas Bayes.

More to come. Soon I hope. Within the next couple of weeks anyway. Including what we expect to be strange and entertaining attempts at introducing Bayesian probability to a market segment Wiley just named "the lazy hippies."

*Note: Is the sound really bad on this video? Do I need a new microphone? It sounds ok to me, but I think I might be able to understand because it's my voice and my words and I know what I said...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Taking off in a few minutes and driving my grandfather down to North Carolina to visit some family. I'll probably go quiet on here until next Monday. Might be some action over at Radical Transparency, though. We'll see.

Quick little Thanksgiving thought before I go...

It's incredible to me that humans have invented the crazy comforts in our lives. Hot showers. Electricity. Pumpkin pie. Books. Totally weird and truly impressive.

But sad sad sad that the inventions haven't spread to everyone.

And maybe that's because those of us that have them don't fully appreciate our comforts. For, if we did, wouldn't we smile and smile and smile and feel overwhelmingly compelled to share? To introduce those comforts to everyone? Everyone, everywhere, sustainably, forever?

If we truly appreciated the showers, truly appreciated the pie, I think sharing would be a priority.

Much love and thanks to all my friends that do appreciate and have made sharing their work. Economic development people. Microfinance people. Education people. Community health people. People working to bring new, hopeful, sustainably abundant lives to the poorest places on Earth.

And special thanks one of those friends, Lander, a Kiva fellow in Indonesia, who, yesterday, told a story about a man that appreciates, a man that shares.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Leave a Trail

My grandfather has been relentless over the past month.

Hal: Your site online yet?
Jake: Not yet.
H: When?
J: We're close. Just finishing a few things. You'll be the first to know.
H: Do you have a date?
J: Next week maybe. Maybe the week after.
H: So you don't have a date?
J: No. I don't have a date...

At least twice a day with that conversation. At least.

This past Friday, finally, mercifully, it stopped. We put up the beginnings of the beta community space, and I'm off the hook with Hal. For the moment.

Now he'll go make up stories about what the website is and does, spread them around the YMCA in downtown Wilmington, DE,* and confuse everyone he can.

To do that most efficiently and effectively, however, he needs a URL, and, this morning, he requested one.

He pulled a scissor-trimmed quarter section of an index card out of his wallet and asked me to write www.carrotproject.com on the back.

"What's on the front?" I asked, as I took the card and flipped it to have a look.

A quote. A quote that Hal has been carrying for more than sixty years.

Do not go where the path may lead,
Go instead where there is no path
and leave a trail.
-R.W. Emerson

Feels good to get to share a piece of index card with that.

*Hal, 87, spends about two and a half hours a day at the Y, mostly talking Delaware politics, naked, in the locker room.

Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Words, Carrots, and Hearing What I Want to Hear

Cartoonist blogger Hugh MacLeod wrote something the other day that I can't get out of my mind.

My three big marketing successes...didn't work because I had some clever, rocket-science metric for them to play with. They succeeded simply because I convinced all three parties to talk to their markets in ways they simply hadn't been talked to before.

He says language is big. If you want strangers to listen, make your language noteworthy. Use it to distinguish yourself. Surprise people.

Or that's what I pull from Hugh's post. Or maybe it's what I want to pull from his post, what I want to believe.

And I want to believe it because I want to care about the noteworthiness of language. Because I want to surprise. Because (and I know I'm a broken record here, but it's true goddamnit) if we can't do it with a smile on our face, if we can't do it with love in our hearts, then children we ain't got no right to do it at all.

And because I'm already starting to do it. For fun.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Crunchy Con

A few months ago, a close friend of The Carrot Project told me I ought to start reading Christian conservationist Rod Dreher.

At first I was scared. Dogmatic monotheism is definitely not my thing.

I'm a little bit obsessed with evolution. I consider Richard Dawkins brilliant not only for his biology and physics but also for his unrepentant atheism. And Bertrand Russell's defense of curiosity and creativity in Why I Am Not a Christian has shaped me philosophically as much as anything I've ever read.

But, because Dreher came into my life through this crazy startup project, I took more notice than I otherwise would have, and I've been reading the man almost every day. And while I struggle sometimes with the standard social conservative vs try everything agnostic disagreements, I'm recognizing more and more common ground.

Food, for example. Dreher reads Pollan. He loves Joel Salatin. And he's on the turn a piece of the White House lawn into a mini organic farm bandwagon.

I think he's a little bit crazy. I'm sure, if he knew me or read what I've been writing, he'd have similar suspicions about me. But I want Rod Dreher in the community. I want the movement to embrace him. I want the Obama people to listen to him. And, of course - and this, I think, will be the ideologically easy part - I want him in on The Carrot Project.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hope and Lovins

Yesterday evening, The Rocky Mountain Institute emailed out a fundraising letter from Co-Founder, Chairman, and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins. It's all about applied hope, the force with which Dr. Lovins and his colleagues are trying to save the world.

Here are my favorite snippets...

On Applied Hope and Optimism:

Applied hope is not mere optimism. The optimist treats the future as fate, not choice, and thus fails to take responsibility for making the world we want. Applied hope is a deliberate choice of heart and head. The optimist, says RMI Trustee David Orr, has his feet up on the desk and a satisfied smirk knowing the deck is stacked. The person living in hope has her sleeves rolled up and is fighting hard to change or beat the odds. Optimism can easily mask cowardice. Hope requires fearlessness.

On Applied Hope and Fear:

Fear of specific and avoidable dangers has evolutionary value. Nobody has ancestors who weren’t mindful of saber-toothed tigers. But pervasive dread, currently in fashion and sometimes purposely promoted, is numbing and demotivating. When I give a talk, sometimes a questioner details the many bad things happening in the world and asks how dare I propose solutions: isn’t resistance futile? The only response I’ve found is to ask, as gently as I can, “Does feeling that way make you more effective?”

On Applied Hope and Transformation:

At RMI we’re practitioners, not theorists. We do solutions, not problems. We do transformation, not incrementalism. In a world short of both hope and time, we seek to practice Raymond Williams’s truth that “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.” Hope becomes possible, practical—even profitable—when advanced resource efficiency turns scarcity into abundance. The glass, then, is neither half empty nor half full; rather, it has a 100 percent design margin, expandable by efficiency.

I think his definition of optimism is pause-givingly harsh. I think his counter to despair is brilliantly simple. And I think the half glass metaphor adjustment is beautifully geeky.

I didn't reprint the whole letter because I feel kind of weird doing that without Dr. Lovins's permission, but, if you want to read those paragraphs in context, the letter is the first section of RMI's annual report. Download the .pdf, or download Vuzit, and ctrl + click on the .pdf link and open the in a new browser tab.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hippie Poet Geeks

We're thinking about using The Carrot Project to push a small-scale linguistic revolution.

We don't like the clunkiness of asking our users what they think a company could do to become more socially and environmentally responsible. Too many words. Too dry. Too meaninglessly professional. Too little metaphor.

So we're wondering if people might take to calling the most responsible, most worldchanging, most sustainable, most humane, most transparent, most innovative, greenest companies crunchy. And we're wondering if we can facilitate that with constant links to a crunchiness explanation page.

I just took my first stab at an explanation.

Imagine you see the word crunchy somewhere on the site. You're confused. But fear not: the word is hyperlinked. And you click. And you get this...

Carl told me he didn't like "socially and environmentally responsible." He said it was long or boring or something.

I mean I don't even believe in boring.

But he's my lead developer, and I love him, and, without him, I might die, so I kept my statistically outlying beliefs to myself and listened.

He said he wanted me to come up with a brilliantly unboring alternative. A word that communicates all the loveliness of "socially and environmentally responsible" but gives it a little spice. Spice and flavor and crunch.

And there it was.

Crunchy. Like a hippie. Or a carrot.

And I'm pretty sure I wasn't the one that said it. I think it was Eric, who was on the three way conf call and giggling in the background at the ridiculousness of our earnestness. Little did he know.

And so what if we wish we were hippie poet geeks. I think that's a totally reasonable life aspiration.

Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ask the Araboolies

No Impact Man has a problem:

A neighbor has threatened to have the police remove one of our rickshaws from the sidewalk where we park it. She says it makes the street look untidy, and the implication is that it brings the neighborhood downmarket.

Understandably frustrated, No Impact Man thinks the city needs bike parking. And bike lanes. And a healthy bike culture. But he also thinks his neighbor need a new attitude.

So he asked his readers how to change her mind, how to "get people past the limitations of the old ideas to see the possibility of the new."

I can't help but think of the Araboolies, The Araboolies of Liberty Street. Maybe they can teach us something.

For those of you that don't know the story...

Liberty Street is an extraordinarily orderly place. All the houses are identical. All the kids go to bed on time. Lawns are raked. Shirts are ironed. Shoes are tied.

General Pinch and his doubly militant wife run the show. When they make rules, people obey, for everyone's scared, and they do what they're told.

And there's not a lot of laughter.

But, one day, a new family moves in.

They speak a strange language. Their skin and hair are all different colors. They come with a busload of jungle pets. And toys. And paint. And they splash and spatter and stripe and spot their house all kinds of wild colors. And they sleep on the lawn, every one of them, in one huge bed. The pets sleep inside.

The Pinches are predictably furious. But the Araboolies know no anger. They sleep on and play on and paint on. And they make friends with the children in the neighborhood.

And those children, the orderly children, play too. And they laugh. And run. And fall. And get dirty. And laugh some more.

And the Pinches lose it and call in the army.

And I'll leave it at that. The book is good. Read it.

Sam Swope wrote it for children, but he also wrote it about children. About the influence they have. About their impact. About the fact that, even when their parents are helpless, they can change the world.

New York City and Liberty Street are significantly different places, but kids do love bikes, wherever they live.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Unsolicited Video Advice

I watched the first ever weekly update from the Office of the President Elect, and I couldn't resist...



Silly silly. Video blogging. Something I'm still convinced would be better suited to Wiley than me. It is pretty fun though, even if it does convince you you're developing a lisp.

Anyway, if anyone wants to read the Michael Pollan article, click here, and if anyone hasn't already seen my favorite GW Bush inspired comedy moment, click here.

Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Inching Closer and Closer

Front pages are tough. They're supposed to explain everything. Instantly. Perfectly. Magically.

We've taken our first real shot.

I'd be surprised things don't look totally different in 3 months, but, when we start dropping the friendliest of the friendlies into the soon to be live carrotproject.com beta space next week, the front page will look a lot like this.


Maybe not yet magical enough, but I'm excited nonetheless.

If you want to get on the site soon, and I haven't emailed or called you, get in touch, and I'll make sure you're included.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A New Ambassador?

Anybody else think Thomas Friedman is on his way to becoming the face of the climate stabilization | environmental | eco | green | sustainability | cleantech movement?

He reaches a wider and more diverse audience than Al Gore. He's more recognizable than John Doerr. He has more intellectual street cred than Leonardo DiCaprio. He's older, whiter, and more male than Majora Carter. He has less personality scandal on his hands than does Bill McDonough. His mustache is more stately, more distinguished, and has a much deeper downward curve than that of Amory Lovins. My grandmother loved him so much that, when I was living in Beijing, she mailed me clippings of almost every one of his columns.

And his message today is bigger and broader and tougher and more optimistic than ever. The man seems to have found a space in which he can operate with grace and charm and credibility.

Watch him talk about his most recent book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Watch him run a panel at the last World Economic Forum. Read the Green is the New Red, White, and Blue editorial. Read this little piece, on GM and a conditional government bailout, from yesterday's New York Times.

Who knows. Maybe the movement needs no big fancy face. Or maybe, if it does, it needs one that glows more radically than that of a Middle East peace process journalist. Majora or Doerr or Adam Werbach or Ray Anderson or Van Jones or Michael Pollan.

Anyway, just a thought.

Or a prediction.

Yeah, let's make it a prediction. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. If I'm right, I'm psychic.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Waste Management, Storytelling, and the Law

My cousin is applying to law school, and he wrote me yesterday, asking if I had any advice for him as he works to put together a personal statement outlining his reasons for pursuing a law degree. He wants to write something that shows his commitment both to social justice and environmental issues, and he wants to explain why he thinks the proper legal training will help him work toward a cleaner and more equitable world.

I told him good plan, and I asked him to call me and yank me away from what I'm doing and make me think about it seriously with him sometime this week.

This afternoon, my aunt, his mom, totally independently of my back and forth with him, sent me this:


Watch CBS Videos Online

THAT is why the law is important.

Because people try to cheat. Because they try to get rich quick. Because creativity gets misdirected. Because innocent people get hurt. And because they need help. Sophisticated help. Help that can operate internationally and follow the footprints wherever they lead.

Note: Makes me sad to see the China in that video. I don't think 60 Minutes was unfair. That's an important story, and I think they went about telling it as honestly and completely as they could. But China is so much more than that. And the good stories ought to get out too. Wokai? You guys are on that I hope.

Another Note: Big love and respect to Beijing veteran Jamie Choi for the Greenpeace interpretation that starts 7 minutes and 45 seconds into the video.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Too Much Truth

An observation from journalist Melanie Warner:

Retailers haven't figured out how to inspire customers to buy, say, organic cotton. It's bad marketing. If consumers knew how many chemicals it takes to grow and manufacture conventional cotton goods -- how it affects our water, food, air, and our risk of cancer -- maybe that would change. In a crowded marketplace, it is an unexploited competitive advantage.


Bad marketing is one way to look at it.

Another possibility is that companies are afraid to tell too much truth.

If, say, Gap gets jump up and down excited about a new line of safe, clean, worldloving organic cotton jeans, then what about those shelves and shelves and warehouses and warehouses full of the old stuff?

If they push the new product, suddenly they're competing with themselves And if they market the new product too well, they'll market their old jeans right out of business. And that might not be a problem if they could know for sure that (A) their customers are ripe for a change, (B) their marketing will be good enough to harvest every one of those ripe customers, and (C) their production facilities and/or suppliers will make the transition seamlessly and pump out shelves and shelves and warehouses and warehouses of organic cotton green jeans.

But they don't know for sure. So they're scared. Big and bureaucratic and conservative and scared.

And that's a tougher problem to solve than bad marketing.

Social intrapreneurs maybe? Smaller companies challenging for market share? Highly educated and purposeful consumers? Nonprofit marketing gurus taking matters into their own hands and telling that truth, whether the companies like it or not?

Friday, November 7, 2008

In Defense of the Crowd

Jason Calacanis, in an email blast on Wednesday, wrote about the trends he sees emerging in the startup space. He noted, among other things, a virtuous drift from reliance on user generated content.

The age of crowdsourcing your way to success is over, and we're heading back to the age of expertise and curation. Startups like GoodGuide.com are not crowdsourcing--they're paying experts. When faced with two options--a professionally produced version of a product and an anonymously gamed version of the same product--it's fairly obvious which one users will select. Wikipedia has operated without a competitor for a very long time, and there is no guarantee that they will be number one forever. ;-)

I think he's wrong.

Partially, anyway.

As a general observation, I think what Jason says makes perfect sense. I'm an internet consumer, and I want expertise. I want curation. And, under the perfect circumstances, I might even be willing to pay for those things.

But, when considering sustainability in business and social and environmental responsibility, the world in which both GoodGuide and The Carrot Project are operating, I don't trust the experts. I see uncertainty and disagreement. I see imperfect comparisons. I see controversy over the relative importance of labor standards versus carbon emissions versus solid waste management.

I'd rather seek truth by motivating a transparently imperfect crowd than proclaim truth by marrying subjective science.

For starters anyway. While we're tiny and experimental and close to zero cost. Which we are right now.

So crowdsource we will. We'll figure out which sustainability experts tell us to support which companies. We'll explain and organize those recommendations. And we'll ask our users to offer opinions, voice disagreement, amend information, and otherwise donate their knowledge to the community.

Maybe we're crazy. Maybe GoodGuide's science will hit it out of the park and render much of what we're doing irrelevant.

But professional production does have limitations.

And maybe a worldsaving mission can produce a worldsaving crowd.

Note: Add your email address to Jason's list. The man has wisdom, and he communicates it clearly.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Let It Grow

Barack Obama won that race with community.

The movement started small. It grew organically. It grew virally. It grew step by step, door to door, one on one.

Barack and his inner circle gave big love to their early adopters and innovators and turned them into grassroots evangelists.

They let that first generation of evangelists anoint the next.

They asked for help. Bitesized help. Donate ten dollars. Pass a YouTube video to your friends. Invite other local supporters over for dinner.

They thanked people. They confirmed that the help was meaningful. And they asked for more. Because they needed it. Because it truly would help the cause.

And they communicated excitement and possibility and creation, not fear.

So we communicated the same. We, the bitesized evangelists.

And, now, no matter how little time or money we gave, we feel a part of this.

Not just the win. Not just the history of last night. But, more importantly, we feel a part of the years to come.

So I have a message for the team...

Keep the community in tact. Keep asking us for help. Keep telling us you need it. And keep encouraging us to grow the community.

All campaign teams harness community to spread the message and get out the vote. But they stop there. They thank their supporters one last time and tell them they'll be in touch when the next election rolls around. They hunker down and filter all discussions through stumps, pressrooms, and hallowed halls. And they forget that they can change the world with things other than rules and regulations. They forget that in their community they have an overflowing supply of time and energy and passion.

In my opinion, if Barack Obama keeps in touch with his community, if he keeps his love for the community, if he keeps telling his community what he's up against, if he keeps asking for ideas and advice from his community, and if he keeps giving credit to his community when it creates and inspires, then the evangelism will roll right along, and he'll have millions of vehicles through which to solve big problems and make big change. Bitesized, evangelical vehicles. Vehicles that, in sum, are likely far more sustainably powerful than any law.

Note (to McCain supporters and Obama detractors): Please don't be afraid. This win and this country's immediate future belongs to you too. Join the community. Voice disagreement and concern. Recognize the convergent long term vision, and make the movement wiser.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Opportunity

I sent this note to my cousin the other day. Because he's undecided. Because he's 22. Because he's creative. Because he's fundamentally kind and generous and thoughtful. And because I love him and want him to share my excitement...

I don't like the idea of voting for an old man. Not unless his eyes sparkle with youthful ideas.

I want to vote for love and generosity and curiosity and open mindedness. The stuff of the young and inspired.

Battlescars aren't wisdom unless they teach change. Attachment to the status quo is despair. Yearning for a happier yesterday is helplessness. Conservatism is admitting that we can't be any better than what we are now or what we were then.


And, even if that is true - if there are limits, and we've hit them - I say we bite, smash, and hammer away at them anyway. Because it's more fun to hope than to hoard and hide and isolate.

Because if we can't do with a smile on our face, if we can't do it with love in our heart, then, children, we ain't got no right to do it at all.

We're supposed to be some kind of different.


And I think there's a chance that Barack Obama is some kind of different.

The More Perfect Union speech was beautiful. The tire gauges were, silly as they sounded,quite possibly the most reasonable energy policy idea the US government has had in long time. The man is cool under pressure. He's thoughtful and knowledgeable. He's curious. His wife is a superstar: absolutely rightfully unsatisfied with this country and working to make it better.

Warren Buffet and Colin Powell and Fred Wilson and Marc Andreessen and Eric Schmidt and James Fallows and Oprah all believe in him. Smart people. Reasonable people. Innovative people.

So we'll see.

If Obama's not different, if he's nothing but an actor, bummer. But we'll move on. We'll save the world despite the US government. We'll clean up its mess. Tirelessly. We'll make it irrelevant. We'll do all its work for it. With philanthropy. With sustainable business. With literature. With poetry. With simple acts of kindness and love.

And without fear.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't vote. It doesn't mean we shouldn't hope. It doesn't mean we shouldn't take this opportunity to support the candidate that inspires musical genius.

Peace. Love.

Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Hard Selling, Howard Stern, and Investing in the Ocean

Am I crazy to think that this is a weird way to sell investment research on ocean energy?

It makes me think of the summer before my senior year of college. I was working smack in the middle of Long Island. Hauppauge, NY. My employers were a roomful of musically inclined programmers that charged boutique financial services firms big money for fully customized fund management software.

As a group, they took great pride in their immaculately sculpted facial hair.

And I was their intern. I went with them to visit clients. They sent me around asking questions. I took lots of notes.

But I'm drifting. As you've probably noticed. I'm enjoying myself, though, and, relevant or not, we'll call this background info: I'm setting the stage for a very important observation.

Anyway, I spent most weekends that summer not on Long Island. I had rented the cheapest room Hauppauge had to offer. A single bed and reading lamp in the basement of a totally bizarre house with a totally bizarre family. There were heavy doors between every room in the house. All doors were closed all the time. And there were, at the very least, five other boarders in the building. Heaps of cars in the driveway and on the street outside. Vaguely familiar sleepy faces on the front walk every morning. Far more toothbrushes than expected in all the bathrooms. And lots of tiptoeing, quietly cracking doors, and tentative eyes peeking around corners.

Everyone in the house was a little bit afraid of everyone else, and my colleagues were musical geeks with families, so I spent my weekends elsewhere. Either visiting friends in New York and New England or visiting family in Pennsylvania. And by weekends I mean Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. Regardless of how far I was from Hauppauge, I would sleep wherever I had been on Sunday, wake up early on Monday, and drive straight to the office. Two, three, four hour trips. Early. Before rush hour.

And on every one of those drives, at 5am, I flipped the radio to Howard Stern. Never listened to him before. Never since. But, every Monday that summer, I tuned in.

And Howard, every Monday that summer, gave at least one hard sell pitch for a fine white powder in a yellow plastic jug. You scooped it out, mixed it in with your orange juice, and it cleaned out your system. Perfect poops. Huge, regular, perfect poops. And Howard raved on and on about how intensely awesome his poops had been since he started using the powder. He pulled out all kinds of silly quotes, all kinds of crazy numbers. He described pictures that customers had sent him. He read testimonials. He trashed the competition. He offered special call now prices. And he did it relentlessly, repetitively, and for way longer at a time than was necessary to get the message across.

And when I look at Alternative Energy Speculator's sales site and read its outrageously bold claims about our ocean powered future and the deliciously undervalued companies that are going to lead us there, I can't help but think of Howard and his powder.

And I'm surprised.

Alternative Energy Speculator's target market is people that would consider investing in alternative energy technologies. Back in the summer of 2002, Howard's target market was people that would consider buying giant yellow tubs of fairy dust and mailing in pictures of their enormous poops.

I assumed that the techniques used to sell those two products would be a lot less similar.

Apparently not.

It's a strange world out there. Beware. And enjoy.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Like a Cockroach

One of The Carrot Project's seed investors told me the other night that what he likes most about our business is our commitment to running it inexpensively.

And that was good to hear.

Good like reading that Fred Wilson respects a company that's too small to fail. Good like seeing that it only cost Gary Vaynerchuk two cents to build Wine Library TV. And good like learning that Paul Graham considers the depths of a financial crisis a great time to start a business, if you can operate on the cheap:

Fortunately the way to make a startup recession-proof is to do exactly what you should do anyway: run it as cheaply as possible. For years I've been telling founders that the surest route to success is to be the cockroaches of the corporate world. The immediate cause of death in a startup is always running out of money. The cheaper your company is to operate, the harder it is to kill.

Good to hear and good to remember.

Consider this blog post an invitation to slap me in the face if I ever get frivolous or stop scraping and hustling.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Go Phillies!

The World Series is over. The Phils won. And I can barely walk or see I'm so excited and exhausted.

Hugs and love and congratulations and high fives to Charlie Manuel and the team and the fans and the city. I love that I get to be a tiny little part of it.

And now it's time to sleep a for bit and then get up and get back to work.

October baseball in Philadelphia makes me happy, but it's time and energy and thought and dream consuming. Which is great. But we have a beta community to build, and I need to channel all the cheers and claps and smiles and transfer my Phillies focus back over into The Carrot Project.

As they say in Wayne's World, game on.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Not Enough Dinosaurs

At the end of James Governor's talk at the New York Web 2.0 Expo in September, I overheard a conversation about The Energy Collective, thought it sounded cool, and used my telepathic powers to convince Robin, the founder, to pass me a card on her way out the door.

It seemed like a simple and reasonable idea. Anyone that considers him- or herself an energy blogger can go to The Energy Collective and register a blog. Administrators subscribe to everyone's feeds, skim through lots and lots of posts, choose what they think is most valuable, roll those all star articles into a single feed, give it the Energy Collective stamp of approval, and use it as a centerpiece around which to build an energy-focused online community.

A couple of days later, I dug the card out, played around on the site, read a bunch of posts, registered A More Perfect Market, and forgot about it.

This morning, however, Google Analytics told me that The Energy Collective had linked me a little traffic, so I browsed on over to investigate.

Sure enough, not only have a few MPM posts made it into the all star feed recently, but, at the bottom of each of those articles, someone has attached a great little description of this blog:

A More Perfect Market is Jake de Grazia's weblog. He started it in January 2008 with the intention of chronicling the creation of The Carrot Project, his sustainable business focused dot com startup. The chronicling continues, but interspersed with it are thoughts about energy, social media, and, not often enough, dinosaurs.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Uncomfortable Discoveries and the Dignity of the Accused

I wrote on Thursday about a Fast Company article that exposes the unflatteringly human side of Bill McDonough, and, as I flip through it again this morning, I'm reminded that beneath the story it tells lies what might be a stranger and even more fascinating narrative: the genesis of the article itself.

The article feels to me like a confession, a negative characterization that came out not because it wanted to but because it had to, given a certain set of discoveries.

I can't imagine McDonough would have agreed to the article had he not expected it to further solidify his heroic public face, and I can't imagine the journalist, Danielle Sacks, would have been so duplicitous as to approach the assignment, from the beginning, intending to expose McDonough's shortcomings.

But, clearly, after speaking to McDonough's old colleagues and clients, Sacks realized she couldn't, in good conscience, write the story McDonough was feeding her. It wasn't real. His memory was glaringly, and likely intentionally, selective. She had to reveal. She had to criticize. Her career, her integrity, her commitment to truth was on the line.

So she wrote the story. And, as I said on Thursday, I think it's great that she did.

But I wonder when she had her epiphany about McDonough. I wonder the order in which she conducted her interviews. I wonder which bits of investigation happened when.

For I wonder the extent to which her interactions with McDonough became deceptive. I wonder when McDonough found out that he wouldn't be getting the positive publicity he envisioned, when he realized that his conversations with Sacks were fueling an effort to drag him from his great green pedestal.

And I wonder what a journalist should do when her modest profile assignment turns into big, revelatory news. Should she gamble, explain herself to the subject of her investigation, ask him for his perspective on the accusations, and hope he turns curious and introspective? Or should she play it safe, allow him to maintain his false security, gather all the material she can, and let him read the story with the rest of the world?

I hope Sacks handled things delicately. I hope she talked to him before the article printed. I hope she apologised in advance for the backlash. I hope she explained why she had to write what she wrote. And I hope she told him that she was rooting for him and ready, the moment he was poised to take his next big worldchanging breakthrough public, to write his resurrection story.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

From the Ashes of the Myth

The November issue of Fast Company has an article on the rise, stagnation, and impending fall of superstar eco-designer Bill McDonough.

McDonough, according to the article, is not all that he appears. He's a brilliant communicator with brilliant ideas, some of which he has brought to life, but the heroic image he projects is inflated. Bill McDonough is human. Proud. Paranoid. Selfish. Impractical. Stubborn.

He exaggerates the impressiveness and efficacy of the design advances he has made. He doesn't adequately acknowledge mistakes or failures and thus doesn't adequately learn from them or help others learn from them. He hoards intellectual property. He demands unfair portions of recognition and profit. And he lives an all too typically unsustainable suburban American lifestyle.

It's a tough article to read for a McDonough fan: frustrating, disappointing, and sad. But, assuming it's fair and accurate, I'm glad it's out there.

For two reasons.

1. It's a victory of truth over strategic, manipulative silence.

For those who came to know McDonough from within the environmental and design movements, an alternative narrative exists about him. Until now, it has been shielded from the mainstream for two reasons: First, McDonough has done more than most to popularize the very idea of cleaning up the world, and for that, even his detractors agree he deserves thanks; second, if word gets out that he may not be all that he appears, the overall cause of sustainability could suffer.

The cause probably will suffer when people recognize the imperfect reality of Bill McDonough. But better to isolate the infected limb, treat it, and re-connect it than to let an elephant as big and recognizable as McDonough keep dancing around the room and smashing the furniture.*

2. It reminds us that even the most monumentally capable people are prone to mind-boggling ineptitude.

And that's a good thing to remember, for it not only keeps us honest, but it inspires and empowers.

Our heroes are just like us. They fight the same impulses and make the same mistakes. They fluctuate between generosity and greed, confidence and doubt, trust and isolation. And they harness the moments when they have things figured out. If the virtuous genius Bill McDonough is capable of garden variety narcissism, then maybe it follows that the rest of us are capable of McDonough variety brilliance.

*Note: Sometimes my brain sprays metaphors in unlikely combinations, and sometimes I can't help but leave them intact. I think an unfettered gangrenous elephant makes makes the proper point, though. Right?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Second Watch

The Carrot Project was born on a boat. In the purple water. Sailing toward Osprey Reef, a lonely and magical coral lagoon 100km east of the Outer Barrier.

It was October 2006, and I had raced down from Beijing to spend 10 days working on Big Mama, an 18 meter yacht that operates out of Bloomfield, a tiny rainforest town three hours of dirt roads north of Cairns, Australia.

I did strange things with my vacations when I lived in China.

Big Mama is my uncle's boat. He and his friends built it from scratch many years ago, and they now serve a tiny sliver of Tropical North Queensland's tourism market: the brave glowing lunatics that choose adventure over comfort.*

That night two years ago, I was on watch, half-seasick, and harnessed to the guardrail. With me on deck was Chris, a candle entrepreneur turned volunteer conservationist executive, and he and I were in charge between 2am and 6am. Our responsibilities included watching for other boats, trimming the sails as needed, making sure the autopilot didn't change its mind on us, and staying awake. Technology was cooperating, and the wind was steady, so we sat and talked.

My big life plan at that point had already started coming together, for Chris and I had been scheming for months. I would spend another six to eight months in Beijing, wrap up work there, and then head on down to Cairns. While I was extracting myself from Beijing, Chris would plug me in with the necessary Aussies, and I'd lock up work with one of two sustainable agriculture projects. Bananas, possibly. Or, if not, sugar cane. Either way, the direction was clear: plants, soils, chemicals, greenhouses, food. Growing sustainable abundance.

But that night we drifted. We talked about markets, about capitalism, about greed, and about business. And we wondered what radical transparency and consumer enlightenment might mean. What would we buy if we knew what buying meant? How would we live if we could see every impact we had?

And we wondered what the internets had to offer. If there already existed a library of the essential statistics on companies and products and manufacturing processes. If there was a way to compare brands and their relative social and environmental responsibility. If there was a tool for educating consumers about the impacts businesses have on our long term well being.

We figured that something must already exist, and we figured that, if it didn't, somebody ought to make it happen.

About four months later, I had dinner with Ludovic, told him about that night on Big Mama, and the life plan grew bigger, crazier, geekier, and much more exciting.

I write this not because of any Carrot Project nostalgia-inspiring announcement or breakthrough. I write because my cousin Parker is on his way to Australia, because soon he'll be out on that water, out on that Reef, and out under those stars. I write because I'm jealous. And I write because I'm grateful.

That night in Australia gave me a project that has hooked me so deep that I'd rather be right here, in my grandfather's office, in a suburb of Wilmington, DE, cold wind whipping on the windows, than on a plane with Parker, flying to the wild side of paradise.

*Note: The pirate in the picture below is our uncle Kim. We think it's good that he looks like that, gold hoop in the ear and all. It properly limits his market for charter customers.

Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Of Buying and Elections

GoodGuide and the Center for Responsive Politics have turned corporate political contribution data into a great little brand comparison site.

They break things down by sector and show us which companies give to Democrats and which companies give to Republicans.

Take the Retail Sales sector, for example. Office Depot and Target give more money to Republicans, and Costco gives more to Democrats. In the Food and Beverage sector, none of the companies lean Democrat. Kellogg's gives almost exactly equally to both parties, and Heinz (ketchup, Mrs. John Kerry, etc.) contributes three times more to Republicans than Democrats.

It's fascinating and surprising and definitely worth a look. I couldn't help but scroll through every single sector the first time I visited the site.

But I do have a complaint. A feature request. Or, as Wiley has called every feature request I've ever made on any of the projects on which we've ever worked together, a totally unreasonable demand.

I want to know which companies give the least money to politicians and political parties, for I think the most socially and environmentally responsible thing a company can do when it comes to government is to keep their money away from the politicians.

I worry about the American political economy. A company gives a big gift to a politician. The politician wins his election. He realizes how helpful the contribution was. He sees that he has another campaign coming up in 2 or 4 or 6 years. So he lets that company's economic interests rise high on his list of priorities. And he does what he needs to do to secure future campaign money.

Surely it's not that simple. And maybe it's unfair to call a campaign contribution an act of corruption. But I'd rather support a business that doesn't try to influence policy with money. So, while I'm excited to know which companies are Democrats and which are Republicans, I would be more excited to know which companies ask our leaders to act independently.

Update (Oct 21, 10am): CEO Eric Schmidt is rooting for Obama, but it looks like Google will remain neutral. I think that's a legitimate way to go.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

On Trust and Dignity

I'm told I should write about poverty tonight. And I'm told to do it in my voice, in my style. So I'll make it up to the minute current with my thoughts and copy a paragraph from East of Eden, my daily inspiration and a book I hope never ends.

It wasn't very long before all the land in the barren hills near King City and San Ardo was taken up, and ragged families were scattered through the hills, trying their best to scratch a living from the thin flinty soil. They and the coyotes lived clever, despairing, submarginal lives. They landed with no money, no equipment, no tools, no credit, and particularly with no knowledge of the new country and no technique for using it. I don't know whether it was a divine stupidity or a great faith that let them do it. Surely such venture is nearly gone from the world. And the families did survive and grow. They had a tool or a weapon that is also nearly gone, or perhaps it is only dormant for a while. It is argued that because they believed thoroughly in a just, moral God they could put their faith there and let the smaller securities take care of themselves. But I think that because they trusted themselves and respected themselves as individuals, because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units - because of this they could give God their own courage and dignity and then receive it back. Such things have disappeared perhaps because men do not trust themselves anymore, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.

Those were late nineteenth century Californians, and no question their world was different from the shanty towns of Rio de Janeiro, the eroding grasslands of northwestern China, or the half drowned back alleys of New Orleans.

But maybe Steinbeck has found a persistent truth. Maybe survival and growth is about finding that rare weapon. Not faith. Not God. But trust. A person's trust in his own potential. Trust in the value of his life and path and future. Trust in the substance of his size and impact in an overwhelmingly vast world.

How to get there, to a world of ubiquitous trust and courage and dignity, I don't think we can ever really know.

But we can trust ourselves. We can keep on working. We can strive for that mysterious and improbable harmony of solutions.

Bill McDonough designing for sustainable abundance. Van Jones and Majora Carter training and empowering the hands that'll build a new American economy. Bill and Melinda Gates curing malaria. Paul Collier spreading credible hope. Vusi Mahlasela singing songs of love.

And every other activist, philanthropist, social entrepreneur, and storyteller, big or small, pushing forward and refusing to accept defeat.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bees, Butterflies, Elephants, and Oil Men

Neal Dikeman, CEO of Carbonflow and editor of the Cleantech Blog, made a post on Alt Energy Stocks last night.

It's about the energy industry in an economic downcycle, the history of cleantech investing, and the myth of disruptive energy technology. It's a message to energy entrepreneurs and the venture investors that back them.

Be forewarned, you do not have a comparative advantage here. The oil men invented risk taking, AND risk management. The oil men are bigger, faster, smarter, richer, have more scientists and more entrepreneurial spirit than you, AND they know energy.

So while you fight the good fight to develop technology to change the world, don't forget, be humble, learn what can be learned, build what can be built, and walk softly, because the elephant in this room floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, and he has yet to take the field.


I don't know if this is a call for helplessness, intrapreneurship, reckless virtuous bravery, or policy change, but I'm listening. If Charles Morand and Tom Konrad work with this guy, then he probably has something important to teach us.

That is a bold statement about the oil men though.

Do they know energy? They used to. And, no question about it, they have a jump on everyone else if they want to predict the future and start adjusting.

But are they predicting? Are they adjusting? Or are they fighting to preserve an increasingly untenable status quo?

I bet quite a few of those oil men, entrepreneurial spirit and all, are buried deep in the complacent gluttony of record profits and corporate enormity. I think it's possible that they'll be stifled by past success. Aren't most champion boxers dethroned by upstart challengers because they take victory for granted and show up for the big fight unprepared and out of shape?

Wishful thinking maybe, but, when you're 26 and what precious little cleantech experience you have has nothing to do with oil or fuels or commodities, boxing metaphors can be deadly convincing.

Update (Oct 15, noon): Oil analyst and energy sector investor Gregor McDonald thinks at least one institutional "oil man" is asleep at the wheel of a car full of cash. Complacency? I wonder what Neal Dikeman thinks.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Solar Powered Food

When I read an article I really like and want to pass it around to a bunch of people, I usually do one of two things. I'll either share it through Google Reader and add a little note, or I write about it and post it. And, when I write, I feel compelled to do more than just summarize or recommend. I want to riff. I want to offer commentary. I want to pretend to be a journalist. I want to weave the article in with some other thoughts and make the whole package my own little creation.

And, while that's fun for me and I'm pretty sure at least some of the time enjoyable for at least some of the people that read this madness, I worry that I don't do a great job of inspiring people to read the kernel that moved me to rave in the first place.

So, tonight, I'm (A) recommending, (B) offering quotes to whet your appetites, and (C) making one tiny little comment at the end.

(A) Michael Pollan wrote a letter to the next president in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. It's awesome. Pull it out of the recycle bin, or click here.

(B) It's about food policy and how that connects to national security, health and healthcare, and climate change. Here are a few of my favorite moments:

-Chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food.

-As Wendell Berry has tartly observed, to take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution — animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete — and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feedlot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.

-We need to stop flattering nutritionally worthless foodlike substances by calling them “junk food” — and instead make clear that such products are not in fact food of any kind.

-Let the White House chef post daily menus on the Web, listing the farmers who supplied the food, as well as recipes.

(C) If I were writing a letter to the next president right now, I'd suggest that he consider making Michael Pollan his Secretary of Agriculture.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

More on the Wal-Mart Conundrum

After I wrote about Seventh Generation and Wal-Mart the other day, my sister and I talked about the partnership. We talked about candor and forgiveness and greed and sincerity. We talked about sustainable business. We talked about responsible consumption. And we asked each other some questions:

If you agree with Jeffrey Hollender, and you think it's important to work with Wal-Mart and support the good things they're doing, how do you think we should do that, and how far do you think we should take it?

Should we go to Wal-Mart and buy their organic foods?* Would that send a good message? Would it make them more likely to replace their twinkies with organic snack cakes? Would that inventory switch create a bigger market for eco-cakes? Would small sustainable businesses that supply the cakes to Wal-Mart grow and grow and grow?

But what if you have a local baker whose shop you love and whose little business feels like an essential part of the community in which you live? Shouldn't you buy your organic cakes directly from him instead? Wouldn't it be better to support the little local guy than feed profits to a morally ambiguous corporation?

Or is that corporation's impact so big and so important that we ought to focus there? And maybe focusing on Wal-Mart will help the baker even more. Maybe if we buy lots of organic cakes from Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart will need to sign on a new load of cake suppliers. Maybe they'll hire our same little local baker to bake more cakes than he's ever baked and let him take his tiny sustainable business and turn it into a not so tiny sustainable business. Would that be better than buying directly from the baker?

But we can't forget the big box culture. The strip malls. The suburbanization. The parking lots. How damaging is that to a community? Does it keep us stuck in an unsustainable present?

Or is our reaction against it a clinging to an unsustainable past? Maybe we need big boxes. Maybe the communication line from consumer to manufacturer is clearer when the retailer in between has enormous power over the manufacturer. Maybe we can demand sustainability more effectively by demanding that Wal-Mart demands sustainability of their suppliers.

It's tricky. But I think it's all worth considering.

*Note: I realize that the system we have in place for organic certification and labeling is a bit of a disaster, but we're operating hypothetically here, and another fact about this little hypothetical world is that food that's labeled organic is actually no question about it chemical free and sustainably produced.