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.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Next Generation Retail Partnership

Jeffrey Hollender announced on Monday that Seventh Generation has started doing business with Wal-Mart.

Last time I mentioned Hollender, I accused him of whining. I stick by that accusation, but I like him nevertheless. I like his candor. I like that he's not afraid to write about complicated and substantive issues that connect only tangentially with his field of expertise. I like his company. And, after reading his latest blog post, I think it's a good thing that he and Seventh Generation have opened up to the idea of working with Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart launched a business over the weekend called Marketside. It's Big Discount's* version of the farmer's market, and Wal-Mart is piloting the venture with four stores in Arizona. Four stores selling fresh meals, natural foods, and Seventh Generation cleaning and paper products.

The first three sentences of Hollender's announcement set the tone nicely:

I’ve sometimes said that hell would freeze over before Seventh Generation would ever do business with Wal-Mart. In fact, at times I’ve made even more strongly worded statements. Now I’ve got to concede that I was wrong.

He goes on to explain why Wal-Mart is a problem, why Wal-Mart is a solution, and why he has changed his mind about working with them:

Over the past several weeks, we have all endured a wrenching lesson in what happens when some financial institutions get “too big to fail.” Well, Wal-Mart is too big to not achieve its ambitious social and environmental goals. Whether it’s climate change, health-care reform, or natural-resources depletion, we can’t take on the world’s challenges without Wal-Mart and its tens-of-thousands of partners and suppliers. At this point, we now believe that we can have a bigger impact by partnering with Wal-Mart than by shunning it.

In my opinion, it's a good post. Some people will surely see it as a reluctant but necessary apology, an excuse for greed. But it feels genuine to me. And I think anyone with strong feelings about Wal-Mart ought to read it.

Like it or not, Hollender and Seventh Generation are hugely important to the future of sustainable business. They sit on the very edge of the main stream, and their business successes and failures (and how we interpret them) will shape both the ways in which big businesses will get better and the ways in which good businesses will get bigger.

*Note: I have a strange urge lately to categorize industrial giants with a capital Big. Big Oil, of course. Big Media. Big Music? And now Big Discount? If this is annoying, let me know. I spent a few minutes wording and rewording that sentence, and I was actually pretty proud of myself when Big Discount spilled out. Reading it again, however, I'm a little skeptical.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Danger, Delicacy, and Websites

A little less than 24 hours ago, I sent the following email to Carl, the lead developer on The Carrot Project.

About to go to sleep. Thinking about interfaces. Wishing they were up and ready for action. Feeling a little frustrated that they're not.

Figured I should probably read one more little section of East of Eden. Clear the mind. Change the subject. Enable good dreams.

This is the first line I read when I picked up the book:

"In human affairs of danger and delicacy successful conclusion is sharply limited by hurry."

Let's do this thing well. Make it work right, look good, last forever. Don't stress about time. We have time. I'll try to keep reminding myself. You do it too.

Talk tomorrow.

A. I'm convinced that this kind of thing happens to me all the time. Likely many of these coincidences are born of my propensity to highlight even tenuous connections between anything and everything. But I'm excited because this coincidence is clear enough that I can use it as proof of my highly coincidental existence.

2. East of Eden is an incredible book. It amazes me over and over again.

D. Patience is a tricky virtue. We do have time, and I shouldn't worry about the fact that our interfaces aren't ready RIGHT NOW. But there will come times when speed will do us lots of good. And it's important to remember that overtrusted patience can lead to perfectionism, insularity, and missed opportunities. Regardless, however, I'm sticking with Steinbeck. No hurry. Do it carefully. Do it right. The interfaces are coming. Soon. A little taste pasted below.

Monday, October 6, 2008


Word is that today's the last day. If you haven't done it already, register. And if you want some silly people to tell you why and how to register, watch this video.

It's a good thing to tell people to vote, but I think it's a better thing to explain, honestly and humbly, why you're supporting the candidate(s) you're supporting.

And I don't care who you are or what qualifications you have. All of our reasons are probably flawed in some way. But some of our reasons, flawed or not, are original and legitimate and reasons that other people should consider.

So, if you want to take the video's advice and tell five friends to register to vote, I suggest that you buck conventional nondisclosure wisdom and tell those five people for whom you're voting and why.

I'm voting for Barack Obama.

I'm voting for him for many reasons, and here's one that might feel a little unusual:

I don't think Barack Obama believes in absolute good and absolute evil.

I think he understands that the world is complicated. I think he understands that there are legitimate (though sometimes misguided) reasons that people and governments and businesses do the things they do. And I think he understands that, in order to solve the big problems we face, we're going to have to be a lot more creative and introspective than we ever have been before.

I sense that understanding in his willingness to try different things diplomatically with Iran. I sense it in his relationships with Reverend Wright and William Ayers. I sense it in his thoughts on race and culture in the United States.

I want a President with an open mind, and I think Barack Obama will be that President.


Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Carrots, Not Acorns

I'm moving out of the office.

Been a lot of fun at Acorn. Incredible to get an opportunity to get paid to learn about the energy industry. Hugely helpful to have had an office and a whiteboard for the past 8 months. Pleasure to have worked with John Moore and everyone around him.

But it's time. For two reasons.

One, progress on The Carrot Project and increasing momentum* have made it impossible for me to give Acorn enough of my energy to feel comfortable collecting my paycheck.

And, two, given the madness on Wall St., a falling stock price, and a couple of assets in the portfolio that John has had a hard time justifying to his shareholders, Acorn is rethinking its position and purpose.

When John offered me the Entrepreneur in Residence gig in February, Acorn felt very much like a cleantech investment firm. Not sexy science project cleantech. But behind the scenes dirty hands infrastructure cleantech. Energy efficiency. Grid intelligence. Bridges to a renewable and abundant future. John was excited. And so was I.

A few days ago, however, John told me he needed to start telling a new story, a simpler story, a story to which investors can more easily connect. He told me Acorn's new mission is to save the world with fossil fuels and uranium.

And it was tough to hear that.

I believe in John's intentions, and I understand that we need to keep the lights on and the economy rolling while we develop renewables to the point at which they can compete on a large scale, but I need something more creative than that.

I'm too young and too crazy to save the world with fossil fuels and uranium. I need to focus on steering capitalism in a sustainable direction. I need carrots, not acorns.

*Note: That begs a metaphor, no? An idea as a rolling snowball? Starts as a handful of snow. Moves slowly and grows slowly at first. Let it put on some weight and hit a downhill slope, however, and look out. Sprint to keep up with it and hope neither you nor the snowball hit trees or fences or boulders or get caught in a valley in the noonday sun. Maybe?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Governments, Skepticism, and Campaign 2008

How important is this upcoming presidential election?

How important, in the big picture, is the President of the United States?

How important is the United States government?

How important are governments in general?

We know they can be important in negative ways. They can be violent and oppressive. They can use political power to destroy.

And we know they can be important as problem solving facilitators, as conduits for the will of the people. Governments that cooperate with the private and philanthropic sectors and enable social movements and technological advances are certainly preferable to governments that stifle grassroots innovation through ideological stubbornness and/or bureaucratic tangle.

But can governments create? Can they introduce positive change? Can they identify misguided or unproductive cultural tendencies and steer their people in more virtuous directions? And, if they can, what are some examples? And what were the political, economic, and war and peace conditions under which those changes were made?

One reason I ask these questions is that I'm feeling skeptical, and skepticism isn't far from cynicism, which isn't far from pessimism, and I don't want any part of any of that.

I have a tendency to doubt government creativity. Politicians in democracies seem far too concerned with re-election to ever meaningfully call their culture to task, and, similarly, authoritarian leaders seem far more focused on preserving their authoritarian perches than building better societies. But I wonder if I'm missing something,forgetting some inspiring historical moment, and I'm hoping that writing about this and hearing what other people think will help me angle my skepticism in a productive direction.

Another reason I ask is that I think it's important to ask. If governments have been positive creative forces, we ought to consider the circumstances under which that was possible and seek to re-create them.

And another reason is that I'm conflicted about the extent to which I should try to involve myself in this upcoming election. I mean I'll certainly vote. I read. I watch Saturday Night Live reenactments. And I share how I feel politically, explain myself, and try to find points of agreement and understanding with everyone I can.

But I'm wondering if I should be doing more. And that, to a certain extent anyway, depends on whether I believe a President Barack Obama will have creative power.

If, as president, by nature of that position, he'll be little but an extension of the American people's collective desire for cheap energy and easy access to money we haven't yet earned, then I think I ought to focus all my time and energy elsewhere.

But if he really is, underneath the ugly election season layer of political ridiculousness, an exceptionally thoughtful and motivated problem solver, and the constraints of government and politics won't prevent him from using his charm and lawmaking creativity to start extracting the poison of instant gratification economics* out of our culture, then maybe I need to figure out how I can help the man get elected.

I doubt I could be all that meaningfully helpful. And I'm not sure if I wouldn't be more helpful to the grand cosmic effort if I just kept as tight a focus as possible on The Carrot Project. But if this next month really is a potentially defining moment for the future of the world, then I think it'd be irresponsible not to do something.

*Note: In my opinion, one of the core problems the world faces is the fundamental difficulty we all have in considering the long term impacts of our desire for short term gain. I've referred to it in the past as
hit and run economics, a metaphor born on this blog, with partially celebratory reference, somewhat ironically, to Senator McCain's economic and environmental platform. Its the way of thinking that put us in this financial mess. It's the way of thinking that's causing climate change. It's the way of thinking that starts crazy wars. And it's a way of thinking with which The Carrot Project will always be battling.

Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)

Peace and Hustle

No Impact Man wrote today about the difficulty in maintaining a peaceful mind given the seductive nature of the work he loves and believes can change the world.

Phone calls and emails squeeze into his meditation time, and, as the hustle builds, his mind stirs, and he loses the peace that set him on his path and continues to navigate his work.

The peace is everything.

They say a peaceful mind makes a peaceful man. A peaceful man makes a peaceful family. A peaceful family makes a peaceful village. A peaceful village makes a peaceful country. A peaceful country makes a peaceful world.

I thought it made sense when I read it. A peaceful mind is definitely a beautiful thing, but it certainly is tough not to want to push yourself to the sleep and stress and workload limit when you believe in what you're doing.

But isn't there, I wondered, some peace in knowing we're pushing as hard as we possibly can? And might there even be peace in knowing we're pushing harder, stretching the limit, conditioning ourselves to handle more and more? Might No Impact Man be forgetting that windsprints get both easier and faster when we battle through the soreness and exhaustion every day?

I sent the peaceful mind post to my sister and asked her:

Do we like this?

She replied:

We love this!!!

So there you go. It's settled: bad metaphor; good post. A peaceful mind makes a peaceful world.