Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Addiction, Sparks, and Comment Value

Umair Haque posted a few days ago about our addiction to consumption.

Our economy is built on firms whose very purpose is to sell; to relentlessly push people into endlessly consuming, without ever considering the long-run consequences.

He thinks those firms are the big problem. He thinks they can be the big solution. And he thinks "the boardroom" has an important choice to make.

Does it continue to hawk stuff that “satisfies” largely artificial needs? Or does it choose to do something authentic, meaningful, and purposive – something that makes us all radically better off than we were before?

What companies, Umair asks his readers, are making the right choice?

It's a great post: passionate, aware, thought provoking. The stuff Umair does well.

Even greater than the post, however, are the comments. Absolutely excellent.

Emil Sotirov reminds Umair not to forget about the attention economy and the huge role media will have to play if we want to transition away from purely consumption driven economics.

Jon Bischke throws it out there that education "doesn't require increasingly excessive levels of consumption to be sustainable."

Taylor Davidson thinks it'll be tough for US firms to break out of the consumption business, but he thinks businesses born or educated in the developing world might swoop in and save the day.

Nicholas Molnar
calls for changes in the way we measure things. Some people won't change without numerical justification (investors, for example), so why not give them new metrics: metrics that inspire long-term focused behavior?

Axel Garcia worries that "addiction to consumption is ingrained in our human psyche," and he thinks we should pay closer attention to the roots of historical inhumanity and societal failure. (Sadly, Axel didn't provide a link on his comment; all four name links above are worth a click for sure.)

And swv says something that I might be misinterpreting but something that feels like an evolutionary argument telling us that we're all descended from accumulation-obsessed silverback males (or bowerbirds, to make the metaphor more substantial, though not as visually evocative). Because of this, he says, we must battle biological propensities and breed for material disinterest. If we really want to meaningfully change, that is.

Big thanks to Umair for sparking the conversation.

And big congratulations to Umair for earning such a valuable response.

Fred Wilson often mentions how much he loves the comment conversations that follow from his posts. Not only are comments useful to him as thought process feedback, but, as they accumulate, they enrich their posts for future readers and multiply the value Fred offers the world.

And, even in my limited experience, I feel what Fred is saying. It's a rare and thrilling moment when I attract more than one or two comments, but, even at that small scale, comments have been good to me. They've kept me in line. They've challenged me to take my thoughts further. And they've inspired me to write a silly story I wouldn't otherwise have written.

I'm happy to be getting the comments I get now, and I'm excited to get more as the More Perfect Market community continues to grow.

I'll have to be consistently good and consistently relevant for a long time if I want to build a community as vocal as Umair's, but seeing the comment value his consumption addiction post has been earning and providing these past few days is certainly motivation to keep working at it.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Hunter Thompson's Disease

As part of my ongoing mission to drag serious creative writing back into my life, for the past week, Wampeters, Foma & Grandfalloons, a Kurt Vonnegut nonfiction compilation, has been living next to my bed. I figure if I fall asleep with my mind submerged in the words of an author I love, my dreams will teach me to write better.

Or something like that.

Anyway, one of the pieces in the Vonnegut collection is a review that he wrote of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, the Hunter S. Thompson book that I've cited more than once as the primary source of both my fascination with and suspicions about American democracy.

In the review, Vonnegut says he's worried about Thompson, worried that the cheap ugliness of the world is killing him, worried that optimism is slow painful poison...

From this moment on, let all those who feel that Americans can be as easily led to beauty as to ugliness, to truth as to public relations, to joy as to bitterness, be said to be suffering from Hunter Thompson's disease.

Vonnegut's kidding, of course. To a certain extent anyway. I think. I hope.

But, regardless, even if the reviewer is a cariacature of Vonnegut's cynicism, it's a cariacature that speaks a lot of truth.

Educated optimism isn't easy. For every act of kindness, wonder of nature, or expression of genius out there, there's a whole heap of greed, miscommunication, and pain. And that hurts. It wears. It kills. Eventually, it got Hunter Thompson. It slowed his writing to an angry trickle and sent him seeking solace in booze, seclusion, guns, and, eventually, suicide.

Not sure where these thoughts ought to leave us, but I figure it's good to keep this stuff in mind. Good to know what we're up against. Good to acknowledge the prophecy. And good to beware of historical repetition.

And good to shrug it all off. Good to follow the dangerous path because it's more dangerous and, thus, more fun. Good to embrace the disease.

Embrace it and spread it. Like mad. With urgency. With purpose. However one does that.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Big Love

T. Boone Pickens and Al Gore have been making some bold and important statements about our energy future lately, and, rightfully, they've been getting plenty of press.

There's another bold thinker out there, however, one that flies under the radar. One that seems, in my opinion, to have more relevant experience, a better understanding of energy-related technologies, and a more practical and comprehensive big vision than either the ex-VP or the oilman turned wind evangelist.

I had almost forgotten about him. As I've lamented these past few weeks the lack of a detailed blueprint of a abundant and sustainable energy future, he hasn't even cross my mind.

But, thanks to a little experimenting with an ad space barter service called Adoptic (which you can see in action if you scroll down to the bottom of the righthand sidebar), I discovered a new blog called Rebooting the Future, and the first thing I saw on there was this.

Amory Lovins. On Charlie Rose. Lovable as usual. Understated. Wise. Passionate. Articulate. And sporting an top class mustache.

I think I first tuned into Amory Lovins after going crazy over the The Ecology of Commerce, digging for all the Paul Hawken I could find, and reading my way to Natural Capitalism. I didn't fully appreciate Dr. Lovins, however, until early this year when I first watched his TED Talk. And I didn't realize how badly I need to go back and read everything he's ever written until I saw last week's interview.

I'll let it speak for itself, but, because you'll probably need some convincing to watch a 27 minute video, I will mention that it includes discussion of the world's largest chapstick, wildcatting in the detroit formation, corporate socialists in free marketeers' clothing, and a Charlie Rose moment extraordinaire in which Charlie finds a moment to interject, takes a breath, and changes the subject with a single, explosively delivered word.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Forests and Philanthropy

Word from the Wired Science Blog is that a group of professors have taken some important steps toward figuring out what it would cost to pay tropical landowners NOT to cut down their forests.

The professors, economists and ecologists, figure there's real value in preventing deforestation. And they figure that one practical way to prevent it is to pay "rent" on standing forests.

According to their numbers (which seem optimistic to me, given that they don't include oversight and enforcement costs), a USD 30 billion investment over 20 years would cut world tropical deforestation in half, a carbon sink equivalent of eliminating 1/3 of total US greenhouse gas emissions.

The question of who should and who does recognize that value comes up of course, and the professors that did the calculations figure that "a carbon market based on internationally accepted pollution constraints" ought to do the trick. Failing that, they reckon "members of international climate treaties could fund the projects directly."

I 100% agree that there's huge value in preventing deforestation. Carbon sink value. Biodiversity value. Weather pattern stabilization value. Economic botany value. Tourism value. Beauty value. Peace of mind value. Etc.

I recognize the weirdness of paying someone not to do something. I think it would probably be more economically honest to charge loggers or landowners for damage they do to public resources (the atmosphere, the planet's biodiversity, etc.). But I acknowledge the practicality of the "rent" solution, so, regardless of weirdness, I fully support it.

When we come to the question of who should pay, however, I'd rather not rely on international carbon markets or semi-independently acting governments. Not right away at least.

That's partly because I don't understand carbon economics well enough to have confidence in the responsible disbursement of the money the markets collect. It's party because I don't think enough people know enough or care enough (yet) to motivate democratically elected politicians to allocate billions of dollars to something as distant from this month's rent bill as deforestation prevention. And it's partly because I've grown (over the past 8 years, the first 8 years I've ever paid more than fleeting attention) to expect constant, heavy doses of dishonesty and incompetence from governments.

So, instead of relying on the public sector to protect our forests, I think it might be worth seeing what the philanthropic sector can do.

Obviously, it's crazy to ask nonprofits to come up with USD 30 billion, and, granted, nonprofits have their own problems with efficiency and transparency. But I think they have an essential advantage over government in this situation.

Nonprofits, by nature, take a much more long term view of things than elected politicians. Nonprofits answer only to small groups of wealthy donors that have the luxury of not fretting about the short term. They operate independently of the instant gratification instincts of the general electorate (think knee jerk desires for government mitigation of rising energy prices). And, thus, they can innovate. They can get ahead of the curve. They can invest in the future without being blamed for ignoring the present.

Suggesting that we push important work into the fickle philanthropic world makes me feel like my grandfather the Rockefeller Republican, and it does give me pause to associate myself with a dying government ideology, but in a world in which have George Soros, Warren Buffett, and a Gates Foundation, I think we ought to at least try to get this ball rolling without government involvement.

So I say forget the USD 30 billion for now. Find some fancy donors that are ready to throw down a few million, and deploy that capital immediately. Choose a high risk forest. Pay some landowners to stop deforesting. Take responsibility for protecting the space. And hire someone to keep an eye on things.*

It's certainly not an optimal solution, but why wait for governments to try to get their acts together? Go run some pilot projects and learn some lessons. And then go to the governments, and convince them to hire you and your successful track record to run some more projects.

Maybe this is happening already. Or, if not, maybe something similar is. I know the Tompkins, Patagonia founder Kris and her husband North Face founder Doug are working on something not dissimilar down in Chile and Argentina, but maybe there's more.

Anyone heard of anything? Have any opinions on which organizations would be best suited to doing this? Want to explain to me why I everything I just wrote is totally wrong?

*Note: Here's where this idea really takes a turn for the ridiculous, but might this be a good use for Blackwater-type private armies? I mean wouldn't it be kind of cool to, by paying them the big bucks, turn the world's mercenary thugs into the keepers of our most valuable natural resources? Hmmm. Probably not my best idea ever, but you never know...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Mixing Energy and Policy

I was down in Washington for a few days this past week, and I spent a big chunk of Wednesday at a conference called The National Summit on Energy Security. The conference, organized by our friends at energy education focused nonprofit 2020 Vision, was highly policy focused, highly political, highly frustrating, and, ultimately, highly educational. It was good for me: an experience that should add some nuance to a big energy vision that remains a little more whimsically utopian than I'd like.

As I've done for conferences past, I'll throw down a list of questions and give them to the internets for safekeeping:

-Is it a good idea for the US government to go into the cleantech investment business?

Barack Obama talks about a USD 50 billion venture fund, and that kind of policy prescription makes a good first impression. The longer I think about it, however, the more skeptical I get.

Is there really a worrisome lack of early stage investment capital? Is private equity tightfistedness a barrier preventing the development of the technologies we need to supply the world with clean and abundant energy?

And, if so (if it is in fact an important barrier), then does the US government have any track record of venture investing success?

-How big a problem is the scarcity of engineering expertise?

It came up quite a few times at the conference on Wednesday, and it stuck in my mind, for I've heard our emissions scrubbing friends down in North Carolina tell us many times that they'd sleep a lot easier at night if it wasn't so difficult to find and hire high quality engineers.

Are people whining? Making excuses? Or is this a real problem? Are there simply too few people out there that are trained to step in and make a technical contribution to our energy future?

And what do we do to remedy the problem? Clone Clifford Stoll, and dispatch him to classrooms worldwide?

-When is it appropriate for people to claim that what they're presenting to you is a proven technology?

At one point during the conference, a member of the audience raised his hand as if to ask a question, and, once he had the mic, he gave a little mini-pitch on Doty Energy, a startup project involved with the production of windfuels. He emphasized that he's working with proven technologies, and I imagine he said that because he thought those words would dispel suspicions that he's just some crazy scientist looking to further fund an open ended research project.

Maybe I'm semantically ignorant, and maybe those words perk the ears of people in the know, but, given the frequency with which I've been hearing and reading them these past few months, and given my inability to identify what separates a proven technology from one that's unproven, when I hear the words, they raise more doubts than they chase away.

-I'm getting increasingly confused about caps, trades, and carbon taxes.

Part of me worries that a cap and trade system is asking for a race to the middle. Putting a price on every carbon dioxide molecule emitted makes more sense to me than putting a price only on those molecules emitted beyond a government mandated level. Just seems to be too much room in there for unspectacular compliance.

Looking at things from another angle, however, no word is more politically unappetizing than tax. From a purely pragmatic perspective, it might be foolish to label what we hope will be long term climate change mitigation legislation with a word that'll make it a constant target for politicians needing edges in upcoming elections.

Also worth noting, to me anyway, was an interrupted conversation I had at the conference with Nora Brownell, former commissioner of the Federal Energy Regularoty Commission. Nora is intensely knowledgeable, articulate, irreverent, and, from all I can tell, politically independent (despite having once been a GW Bush appointee), and she has serious reservations about both cap and trade systems and carbon taxes. As I said, we didn't finish the conversation, but my sense was that her reservations traced to a deep distrust in the US government's ability to responsibly manage the funds that either would generate.

My immediate reaction is to call for a better political process that will elect better governors rather than to throw the carbon economy baby out with the government irresponsibility bathwater, but I've put an email in to Nora asking for a continuation of the conversation, so, hopefully, I'll get her full story soon.

Note: Something uncharacteristically suspicious about this post.

When I started writing, I expected lightheartedness. I had visions of giggling at the fact that the German ambassodor to the United States gave his speech bathed in a heavy blue glow from the slideshow projector that the conference organizers inexplicably left running for the full duration of his speech, and I had visions of pointing out the fact that the US 2,000 cell phone of 1985 is now a metaphor for EVERYTHING.

Didn't happen, though. I doubted my favorite politican instead.

Maybe the proximity to Capitol Hill turned me surly. Or maybe I just simply sat on this thing too long: I didn't
release the cow until it chewed and paced itself cranky.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Free Peanuts

I'd never read the Dot Earth blog before. I know nothing about Andy Revkin yet. And I've heard no details about Al Gore's call for carbon-free electricity by 2018.

But somehow I ended up on Dot Earth. Somehow I started exploring Andy's annotation of the speech. And, somehow, Andy had the foresight to reference a metaphor that would catch my attention, derail all non-figurative thinking for the night, and clamber its way onto this blog.

I think Al Gore is doing the right thing by challenging American government and the American people to commit to renewable energy. I think renewable energy is the smart way to go. And I think we should push push push to get there as fast as we can.

But 2018 might as well be tomorrow. The coal industry has power that we ought not underestimate. And Americans are absolutely wacko obsessed with cheap electricity.

Andy Revkin, my new hero, puts it this way:

Many scientists and engineers have looked to the Apollo program as a metaphor, but stressed that energy transformation is a far greater challenge. Here’s what one solar expert told me when I interviewed him for a climate story in AARP Magazine: “We already have electricity coming out of everybody’s wall socket,” says Nathan S. Lewis, a chemistry professor who co-directs the Powering the Planet project at Caltech. “This is not a new function we’re seeking. It’s a substitution. It’s not like NASA sending a man to the moon. It’s like finding a new way to send a man to the moon when Southwest Airlines is already flying there every hour handing out peanuts.”

Flying to the moon when Southwest Airlines already flies there every hour AND hands out free peanuts to boot. Wow.

The peanuts are an absolutely brilliant touch.

Thank you Andy. Thank you Nathan Lewis. And thank you Al Gore.

This is a discussion we ought to be having and a metaphor we ought to be circulating.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Prairie Blog

Wiley's blogging.

the chinabites blog

All lowercase.

Which, dude, is ridiculous. But you're forgiven. The blog's high quality, and chinabites itself is looking sharp.


The first version of chinabites was born of Wiley's desire to teach himself how to build websites in the Django framework.

And it was born of the fact that he loves introducing unsuspecting foreign visitors to the best restaurants in Beijing. And by best, I mean best. Not most popular. Not most novel. Not most foreigner friendly. Best. Most delicious. According to Wiley. And, in my opinion, the man's an authority.

His goal was to tackle the language barrier and the navigation barrier and get hungry foreigners to the tastiest food in Beijing. Without translators. Without tour guides. Without long negotiations with confused taxi drivers.

So he started taking pictures of food, writing about food, and building a space to house a little online community. An online community dedicated to sharing Beijing's best food.


All lowercase.

He's had the site live and running for many months, but I think right now is a natural time to start tuning in.

He just launched the second version of the site (fully rewrote and redesigned the whole beast). He just added the blog to the experience. And he just landed back in Beijing, armed with a camera and an intense hankering to eat the greatest food in the world.

I woke up this morning to an email from him. He'd gone out to his first Chinese meal in months, and he was in heaven. Such heaven, in fact, that he'd forgotten to take pictures.

We'll let you get away with that one time, Wiley. I'm expecting new pictures. With the quickness.


But back to the chinabites blog for a second.

I think it's curious that Wiley would name what the rest of the world hopes will be a lifetime blog effort after something other than a Prairie Dogg.

The more I think about it, though, the more I like it. Prairie Doggs don't need blog title nametags. They roam free, digging holes in the prairie wherever they damn well please.

And maybe it'll be fun to read "the chinabites blog" in some distant future lifetime when Wiley's posting about space travel in giant umbrellas.

Or, if he chooses not make the chinabites blog his lifelong dogg house, it'll be fun to follow him as he tunnels through the depths of the internets, popping his head out of a series of networked holes, each pop and gaze more focused and alert than the last.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wisdom from the Other Side

This is post number 100. Writing the first one felt big. So did hitting number 10. And so did number 50. Progress, I guess. Archives. A body of work. Moving forward one post at a time. I figure number 200 will feel even better.

I'm proud of myself for sticking with this thing: keeping discipline, battling through confusing thoughts, and staying up late to do it.

It hasn't always come naturally, but it's been worth every yawn.

For the comments. For the emails. For the ability to keep more friends and colleagues up to date than phones, Skype, and email could possibly handle. For the push to turn my thoughts into language that other people can understand. For the cleansed satisfaction of yanking things out of my head and storing them somewhere other than memory.

And for the excuse to work with my sister.

Most of what I've published here passes by her before it comes online, and every piece she reads is a piece that gets a whole lot better thanks to her thoughts and questions and edits.

I wish I could link you somewhere to give you a better introduction to Giuls, but she's not on the internets. I don't mean to say that she can't do what she needs to do online or use the web with dexterity. She can and she does. But she's not here: there's no online voice that represents Giuliana de Grazia.

Sometimes I think that's a bummer. I wish she blogged. I wish she did the Twitter thing. I wish I'd see her name show up in the comments on this blog. She's a serious writer and a serious thinker, and she'd have lots to say, lots to add.

But sometimes I'm glad that she operates on the outside. I think it's important that we all stay in contact with people that have chosen to maintain a little distance from the internets. It keeps us from forgetting that there's a bigger world out there. An offline world. A world a big part of which we can't touch unless we go visit. In person.

Huge thanks to you, Giuls. For the help. And for the reminder.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Elusive Blueprint

Acorn CEO John Moore sent me an email a few days ago telling me he loves Tom Konrad and pretty much wants to marry him. He asked me if I would sprinkle some magic blogging powder, make friends, and get a conversation going.

Whether or not I have the necessary online social networking skills to make the connection remains to be seen, but, who knows, maybe this post is the first step.

(Tom, if your investigations into the blogs that mention your work have led you here, and you're reading this, I'll warn you now that pretty soon you'll have a few Acorn-connected internet personalities following your every move. You'll find us in your comment threads, and you'll find us responding to your thoughts on the blog we're about to launch. Hopefully you won't think less of us because of our explicit intention to make friends. We're doing it because we dig what you write, value your thoughts and opinions, and want to hear more of them.)

Anyway, John's email led me back into Tom's recent work, and rereading his thoughts reminded me how much I appreciate his point of view and the way he writes about the energy industry. He doesn't speak in soundbytes. He doesn't just drop isolated statistics. He explores.

I'm new to the energy space, so I've had only limited and thus not necessarily representative exposure to the commentary landscape, but I get the feeling that there's a lot of writing out there that's looking only to bang prescriptive mantra-stats into my head.

We need 50 more nuclear power plants by 2050.

Coal fired power producers need to squeeze three times the electrons out of half the coal.

Without tapping the natural gas reserves off the Atlantic, we'll be living in a state of heatless blackout for the rest of our lives.

If we don't invest USD 100 billion in geothermal generation immediately, we've lost our a civilization.

Tom doesn't do that. He explains. He works through problems. He teaches.

I admit that I have both the ignorance and the curiosity to NEED a teacher, and I'm sure that's part of what's drawn me to Tom as opposed to other energy commentators. But I think there's something about the daunting complexity of our current energy situation and the frightening unpredictability of our energy future that leads to a lot of unproductive and unactionable shock and awe statistical communication, and I appreciate that Tom keeps his distance from that.

What I think we could all use, and what I sense that Tom's thoughts on investing in the industry are helping to create, is a holistic vision of a clean, intelligent energy infrastructure. A blueprint. Something that looks at every piece of the system we have in place now (the whole mess: fuels, generation, transmission, distribution, and end use), identifies problems and solutions, and draws a picture of a sustainable future.

I suspect that something of a blueprint exists in Tom's head, and, as he writes (and teaches), he's sharing it with us piece by piece.

One of the pieces he shared these past few days was an especially big one, one of the reasons I feel compelled to write this post. He told us to imagine a one-house grid, and he used the illustration to help explain the relationships between baseload power, intermittent renewables, dispatchable generation, and electricity storage.

It's not the whole picture. It's only one look at one piece of the electricity segment of the energy industry. And it doesn't claim to have anywhere close to all the answers. But I think it's a good entry point to Tom's writing, and it just might be a good point from which we can start drawing that blueprint.

Note: This notion of blueprint comes partly from my experience this past spring out at the Milken Global Conference. Lots of discussion out there about investing in infrastructure, energy and otherwise, and one of the things on which it seemed everyone (by everyone I mean a couple of panels of economists and CA governor Arnold Schwarzenegger) agreed was that no radical infrastructural improvement can be made without a detailed, coherent vision of the radically improved future. Infrastructure is by nature unsexy. It's mostly invisible and taken for granted. Mustering the will to get things done requires a lot of explanation, a lot of storytelling, and a holistically conceived vision that makes those things possible.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Clean Needles and Clean Coal

Going on the radio to start my monthly editorial gig on The Great Green Home Show tomorrow.

Apparently my first on air experience went well enough to get me called back. Called back to talk about clean coal.

I'll roll it out a little something like this:

1. Acorn's investment in emissions scrubbing technologies.

2. A little rave I wrote about carbon capture and sequestration.

3. This blog's subsequent inclusion on the list of the 75 best blogs that are skeptical of clean coal.

4. My comment to the listmakers explaining my conflicted feelings on the subject.

5. And the anonymous reply to my comment reminding me that I should be ashamed of myself for supporting the coal industry.

And at the center of my thoughts will be a question:

Is it reasonable to compare investing in cleaning up coal emissions with providing clean needles to heroin addicts? Are those two things similar in their imperfect practicality? Not real solutions but ways to prevent big problems from getting even bigger?

I'm sure hosts Paul and Doug, the aspiring future Click and Clack, will have plenty to say.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

In Practice

Brent's girlfriend needed a pair of sneakers. Remembering Brent's little brand comparison moonlighting gig, she asked him what he recommends.

He told her he liked Keen a lot. They seemed like a company worth supporting.

She'd never heard of them, and her plan was to go to the mall, not to some lentil-fueled, patchouli-scented hippy swap meet, so she asked Brent if he had any thoughts on main stream brands.

He told her Nike seems to have cleaned up its act considerably, and he said to keep an eye on her New Balance options. Check the shoeboxes. Some New Balances are made in the USA, and, generally, shoes made in the USA are less deserving of human rights violation suspicion than shoes made in the developing world.

So off she went. To the mall.

She took a long look at the wall of Nikes, tried a pair of New Balances, but couldn't help her eyes from drifting to one particularly good looking pair of Asics.

She figured she had to at least try them on.

Oh man were they comfortable. Perfect fit. Soft and smooth. On sale. And cute. Hard to resist.

But she remembered what Brent had told her, and she wanted to do the right thing.

So she hesitated. And thought about it. And looked at the Asics. And at the New Balances and Nikes, all homely and uninspiring. And then she looked back at the Asics as she took them off and put them in the box.

And there, on the box, she saw the magic words: made in the USA.

She bought the Asics, took them home, pulled them out, and showed them to Brent. Only New Balance manufactures in the States, you say? Really? You sure? Well what about these? Says it right here...

And as she turned the box over to show him what she'd read, it all suddenly made sense.

This box was made in the USA.


But. She still liked the shoes. And she did get them pretty cheap. And she didn't want to go back to the mall. So, really, how bad could Asics be? Are they really any different from those other companies? Is it really all that important to buy mindfully and democratically and responsibly and purposefully? Would this one pair of shoes really make all that much difference?

So she kept them. And she's happy she did.

And that, right there, is what we're up against. That's the in practice to our glorious in theory. Good looking shoes. Sales. Boxes probably deliberately labeled to mislead. The fact that it's hard not to feel small and helpless and unable to actually make any difference, positive or negative. And, of course, the way we all keep ourselves sane: short memories, the ability to forgive.

It's not gonna be easy. But maybe easy is better in theory than in practice as well.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Good Aspirations

Wade Davis, the great storyteller botanist, said that "the measure of a society is not only what it does but the quality of its aspirations."

I think that's probably a good thing to keep in mind. And not just for societies, nation states, and big, expansive, unified cultures, either. For communities. For businesses. And for individual people.

What are our aspirations? How and when did they come into being? From what are they derived?

How do we assess them? How do we decide high and low quality? Do we or should we know intuitively? Or are our intuitions governed so closely by our aspirations that objective introspection (and outro-spection, for that matter) is impossible?

How do aspirations move? From society to community to individual? Or the other direction: from the grassroots on up? Or is the movement much more complicated than that: jumpy, unconstrained, and only vaguely predictable?

How should we address the aspirations we don't like? How do we address them in societies and businesses and friends and family? How do we address them in ourselves?

Anyway, that's what I have tonight. Questions. And a couple of links to Wade Davis TED Talks: February 2003 and February 2008.

I don't know much about this aspirations puzzle. But my instincts are pulling me toward one preliminary conclusion.

Wade Davis has high quality aspirations.

He aspires to protect the indigenous cultures he studies and the indigenous people with whom he works. He aspires to protect our planet's ethnodiversity. He aspires to protect our greatest stores of human possibility.

These myriad voices of humanity are not failed attempts at being you, failed attempts at being modern. They are unique facets of the human imagination. They are unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive.

And when asked that question, they respond with 6000 different voices.

And, collectively, those voices become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us in the coming millennia.

He's fighting knee jerk cultural narcissism, and he's fighting a myth about the happy inevitability of a culturally flattening world, but the man has vision, and the man can tell stories, so I'm certainly not betting against him.

If human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can also be and must be the facilitators or cultural survival.

Next step, Wade, is for you to tell me how I can help.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

One Last Thought

This is part three in an accidental three part series. In theory, it sums things up. In theory. Here are links to part one and part two.

Not my clearest or most focused writing last night. More thinking and exploring than actual communication. But it was good for me. It led me to something reasonably concise (though something that does, I admit, diverge considerably from the original Qui Diaz thought about teaching the need):

It's important that I don't fall too deeply in love with the site I'm building. Qui is right: it's not about the tool. Getting something built and built well is important, but the first tool need be nothing but the means to build the next tool.

I've done a lot of thinking about the need what tools might be able to fill it, but my ideas were born in relative isolation. And, because of that, it's highly unlikely that they're anything close to optimal. They are, however, a place to start, a conversation point, a foundation on which to consider building.

And starting that conversation is essential: enlisting a group of people, getting them excited to participate, and listening: offering them real influence. The ideas created by that group, as they explore the need and the preliminary tool, are ideas that will push us closer to a real tool, a tool that should both serve the need and educate about it.

So we have a plan. In the current build, we're focusing on simplicity and feedback sharing. When the build provides a usable site, we'll add non-technical focus on engaging a small but committed community. We'll do our best to empower those users, offer them constant opportunities to contribute complaints and suggestions. And we'll design on from there, go where the community takes us.

And how does this fit in with horses and carts? Probably not much at all. I went overboard on that one. And, besides, more metaphor at this point would probably just muddle things further. They did serve a purpose, though, those horses and carts. They gave me another perspective from which to look at the problem, and, by doing that, they helped me arrive at this little post, one I hope is a clarification.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Taming the Wandering Horse

This is part two in an accidental three part series. It was supposed to finish the thought. But I wasn't quite satisfied. Here are links to part one and part three.

Qui Diaz thinks that online social action tools haven't had the positive impact they're capable of having. In her opinion, the tools haven't reached their potential because the people building and managing them focus too little on educating the world about the problems the tools can solve. The tools themselves are good, but not enough people see the importance of their missions, so they remain largely irrelevant.

Night before last, I started responding to Qui's article. I acknowledged her observation. I noted what I think might be a natural startup tendency, a tendency that could partially explain the problem. And I wondered what I, someone trying to build a social action tool and avoid that aspect of entrepreneurial nature, should do.

When the full moon rose and called me back to werewolfing, however, I hadn't made much progress on the what I should do portion of the response, so I wrapped up what I did have at the time and promised to revisit.

It's a day later now than originally intended, but here goes again...

I'm building a tool the goal of which is to make socially and environmentally responsible consumption easy.

At its core, it's a brand comparison tool. You're about to go buy some toilet paper, and you want to buy responsibly. You go to the site, look at your options, see which businesses operate behind which brands, find out which of those businesses are considered most socially and environmentally responsible, and, hopefully, decide to buy your toilet paper from a business whose practices you feel comfortable supporting.

The tool is important, in my opinion, because there do not exist sufficient short-term, market-based incentives pushing businesses to participate in the creation of a humane and environmentally sustainable world. The tool is important because it can create such incentives. By bringing more information to the market, it can change consumer behavior. It can and hopefully will make it possible for consumers to consciously and purposefully reward the most socially and environmentally responsible companies with their business.

So I return to the horse and the cart.

The cart I'm building is my attempt (but by no means the only attempt) at a brand comparison website, my attempt at an online resource for would-be responsible consumers.

The horse is the desire to consume responsibly. It's the recognition that the purchase of any product or service is an act in support of a business, a message to the business telling it to please continue to do the things it does. It's frustration with a capitalism that operates on incomplete information. It's the yearning for a more perfect market.

And, to be fair, as readily as that horse walks over and makes friends, she's a wanderer, not an easy horse to corral.

Laziness is a barrier. Short attention spans. Fear of change. Exhaustion from overwork. Knee-jerk disdain for anything vaguely critical of "our way of life." Blind embrace of a comfortable status quo. Etc.

Regardless, however, I'm digging around for a good rope and harness, and I believe she's a horse I can catch, with a little patience and a little good fortune.

And it's patience, I hope, that will save us from obsession with the tool and free us explore and discuss the need.

We're building the first post-prototype version of the tool, and we're building for simplicity, community, collaboration, and feedback collection.

We want to show our users the purpose of the project without overwhelming them with functionality. We want to work closely and often individually with everyone that's willing to devote time and thinking to beta testing. We want to dive deep into the user-populated tool ourselves and encourage contribution and connection by treating the site like our blog and responding to every piece of content people provide. We want to offer our most active and committed (and horse whispering) users big influence over the project going forward. And we want our tool to have its feedback communication lines open at all times.

Essentially, we've designed and we're hoping we can build a tool that will invite its users to create the next generation of the tool.

Maybe this is what they all say. Maybe I'm just another rookie entrepreneur that hasn't fallen hard enough yet to realize his own lack of coordination.

Even if that's the case, I think we'll be ok. We're prepared to move slowly if necessary. We're prepared to scrap and scrape to maintain small movement and small momentum. We're prepared to rethink the whole project, prepared, if necessary, to dump the tool and start again from scratch.

And I'm prepared, of course, to admit that I have no idea what I'm talking about. Whether it's what I write here, what I ask of the developers, or what I say to beta users as I try to pull them onboard with the big vision and introduce them to the horse, I feel good about my perspective on my own inexperience and immaturity.*

Anyway, there you go. As usual, a post that turned into something I never expected to write, and, as usual, a post full of big dreams.

*Note: Committing myself to write thoughts like these on this blog has been hugely helpful in maintaining that perspective. Knowing that people might read what I write humbles my thinking considerably. Ridiculous thoughts are much more decieving in my head than on paper. And when they come out, and I don't recognize them, someone else surely will.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Excuses Excuses

On Sunday, after reading this article in the NY Times Magazine, I made a plan to post about weeds and evolution early this week.

I resigned to breaking that promise late last night. My horse and cart post had morphed into something much bigger than I'd expected. My eyes were closing. And I figured I'd hit a good enough stopping point to make a partial post, go to sleep, and finish the thought today. The weeds would push deeper into the week or get the ax entirely, but I wouldn't stay up all night, and I'd blog on today.

Sleepiness is striking again, however, and I'm asking myself for another extension. Tomorrow.

Speaking of sleepiness and last weekend's NY Times Magazine, however, I'll leave you with a little Bob Thurman silliness before I call it a night.

My mother, who I see almost every day,* thinks I need to stop working so much. I need to eat more. I need to sleep more. And I need to start meditating again (non-denominationally, of course).

She's right. Probably especially about the meditation.

But I make excuses. Apparently, I'm too busy to meditate. Too tired to stay up 30 mins later at night or wake 30 mins earlier. It's ridiculous, but the strange, irrational part of my mind that makes decisions about sleep and breathing seems unconvinced of meditation's usefulness.

Maybe Bob Thurman's most recent NY Times Magazine cameo will persuade it otherwise.

columnist Deborah Solomon asked him what he thinks about when he meditates:

Usually, some form of trying to excavate any kind of negative thing cycling in the mind and turn it toward the positive. For example, when I am annoyed with Dick Cheney, I meditate on how Dick Cheney was my mother in a previous life and nursed me at his breast.

Hmmm. Tempting, right?

*Note: Mom's hugely generous contribution to the startup project is that she feeds the kitten and me almost every night. We couldn't do it without her.

The Carrot Project?

Brent the mushroom hunter was up late last night thinking about names, and he came in today with a list.

Apparently, he had carrots on his mind. Big Orange Carrot. Carrot Trick. Tasty Carrots. Rabbit Watch. Carrot Factor. Carrot Theory.

I liked Carrot Theory. Carrot Theory dot com.

I asked around. Responses were lukewarm. So Brent and I regrouped.

He had another idea.

The Carrot Project. Carrot Project dot com.

A carrot. A positive incentive. The elusive responsible consumer dangling just barely in reach. The bait that sets in motion a race to the top.

And a project. An experiment. A collaboration. Something forever in process.

I made some calls. Everyone dug it. So I locked up a new set of URLs.

Maybe the luster will fade. Maybe this'll be nothing but an impulse blog post and USD 30 down the drain. But, maybe, we just named the site.

What do you think?