Saturday, May 31, 2008

Keeping It Cleantech

It's funny being back in your hometown after 12 years away. The first time people see you, they figure you're stopping through. They see you again, and they wonder how you swung such a nice vacation. They see you a couple more times, and they start getting suspicious. And, finally, after you keep cropping up all over the place, curiosity takes over, and they start asking questions.

What are you doing back here? Are you living here? Working here? Not a very big mid-twenties population in Wilmington or Kennett Square; certainly nothing going on in Chadds Ford. What are you thinking? Is everything ok? Is there something wrong with you?

Not one to miss the opportunity to tell stories, I usually give a rave about the 3.5 years in China: the studies, the work, and the startup project that yanked me away. I talk about Mimi, the granny, and the fact that Hal, the grandfather, and I have an arrangement by which he provides me a bed and I provide him a long term solution to his mouse infestation problem (a ferociously adorable six week old black and white kitten is napping on a bed of folded t-shirts about six inches from this keyboard). And I talk about Acorn Energy, the wonderfully generous publicly traded holding company that adopted me, gave me an office and a paycheck, and told me to work primarily on my own stuff but help out when needed.

The next questions are usually about Acorn. What's a holding company? What does it hold?

I tell people that Acorn is a cleantech investment firm. Non-sexy, behind the scenes cleantech. We invest in technologies and entrepreneurs working to add intelligence to our energy infrastructure. Nothing pretty. Nothing fancy. Invisible backend gruntwork technologies that we're betting will help bring about a clean and sustainable energy future.

I think that sounds nice, and I'm proud to be associated with a company like that, but I realize that I might be using my imagination a little too much. I'm wondering more and more if we live up to the cleantech connotations.

How much we really care? How clear is our focus on creating that sustainable future?

Acorn's a business. We're an investor. First and foremost, we look for opportunities to support entrepreneurs and technologies that'll make money for our shareholders.

Investing in cleantech companies is a huge part of how we're trying to make that happen. Four of our seven portfolio companies, in my opinion, are cleantech through and through. Another two are legacy investments, made many moons ago, before John Moore took over and before the focus shifted to the energy sector. But the last one, our most recent investment, is a bit of a worry.

It might disqualify us from throwing the word cleantech around. It might make us less attractive to socially responsible investors. It might keep me from ever buying Acorn stock.

But it might be in my head.

The investment is in an enterprise software project led by an enterprise software geek entrepreneur that we love. We're investing, more than anything, in him. And, given my peripheral status at Acorn, I've heard a lot more about him than about the company.

I talked to John. He understands my personal reservations, and he agrees that there's a significant marketing difference between being pure and being tainted. But he thinks I might be overreacting. There's a lot of weird gray area in the energy industry, a lot of technologies that support both fossil fuels and renewables, a lot of projects that'll only survive to support renewables if they enter the market agnostically and opportunistically as solutions to big oil's small problems.

He thinks I should give the project a proper look before I fully settle into a conclusion, so, starting yesterday, my Acorn focus shifted to the seventh portfolio company.

I'll be doing everything I can to help them accomplish what they want to accomplish, and I'll be asking myself just how good or bad for the world they are.

If I get the feeling I'm destroying the world, I'll scream, cry, escape back to tropical northeastern Australia, and start growing miracle fruit.

If I realize that my not cleantech enough worries are unfounded, there'll be high fives all around, and I'll get back to work.

Or, maybe, a different kind of inspiration will strike, and I'll dig in and try my hand at intrapreneurship.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Provoking What?

The June issue of Wired Magazine came out 10 days ago.

No picture on the cover. Just big letters:

Attention Environmentalists:
Keep your SUV.

Forget organics.

Go nuclear.

Screw the spotted owl.


And a subtitle:

If you're serious about global warming, only one thing matters: cutting carbon. That means facing some inconvenient truths.

I was curious and excited to read, but I was skeptical for sure.

Two days later, Breakthrough weighed in. They praised Wired. Called the cover and the stories behind it "provocative."

Provocative for sure.

But I worry. I wonder what provocative accomplishes.

What is Wired trying to provoke? A single minded world community focus on massively curtailing carbon emissions and reversing and mitigating climate change, right?

Ok. That's cool. I want to know the reasons for that. I want to talk about it. I want to consider it.

But are "keep your SUV" and "screw the spotted owl" the best ways to start the conversation?

I mean I'll listen, and I'll write back, but who am I? I'm stupid and sometimes fundamentalist in my agnosticism and search for underlying good intentions. I have consistently statistically outlying opinions. I'm the guy that just stayed on the phone for a full 30 minutes hearing a frighteningly paranoid mad scientist inventor pitch me on non peer reviewable (not non peer reviewed; non peer reviewABLE) technologies that have such outrageously worldchanging implications that I'm not even going to tell you what they are for fear that homeboy might be reading and would probably have no choice but to come kidnap and/or assassinate me if I do.

I'm not important. I'm not a movement. I'm just curious.

The kids at Oberlin, however, are important. The Grist community is important. The bloggers on It's Getting Hot in Here are important. No Impact Man is important. Together, they are a movement. They're parts of something big.

And if Wired truly is committed to an uninterrupted focus on solving the climate crisis, then Wired ought to be engaging those people and treating them, their opinions, their solutions, their passions, and their lifestyles respectfully.

I don't know where exactly this came from, but there has been a little psycho-mantra bouncing around my family these past few months, and I think it applies...

When you're about to say something to someone, before you say it, ask yourself a question. Will what I'm about to say bring us closer together or push us farther apart?

And I'm sorry to point fingers at Wired. Crunchy environmentalists say plenty of obnoxious things too. And so do I. And so does everyone else. And I think we all ought to keep that question in mind.

Here comes my idealism again, but I'm pretty sure neither Wired nor Breakthrough nor Grist nor No Impact Man are motivated more by short term greed than by a desire to create a happy and abundant long term world.

We're not big, legally heartless corporations feeling reality trying to yank our wildly profitable status quo world from our grasp. We know we need to change. We have ideas. We want other people to agree with us. And we're frustrated that they all don't.

So we provoke. We get attention.

And sometimes that's a good thing. Sometimes we provoke strategically; sometimes we enlighten.

But sometimes we don't. Sometimes we push ourselves farther apart.

Wired, you taught me some useful things about lawnmowers, warm climate carbon emissions, and the Kyoto Protocol's prejudice against nuclear power, and, for that information, I thank you. Next time, however, I suggest you engage and strategize with Alex Steffen, rather than setting him up as a "counterpoint."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Poll and the Parasaurolophus

A comment came in a couple of days ago telling me about a green living and fair trade site called WeBuyItGreen.

Jay, the site's founder, asked me if I would go to his forums and start a conversation about this blog. As part of his site, he wants to build an interactive catalog of the blogs he likes, and he wants the blurbs about the blogs to come, if possible, from the bloggers themselves rather than from him.

I went to the site, poked around a bit, read his blog, joined his discussion forum community, and wrote a few sentences about A More Perfect Market.

When I scrolled down to post the discussion thread I'd just created, I noticed that the system was asking me if I'd like to attach a poll to my thread.

I didn't know what that meant, but I was curious, so I clicked the box that said yes, thank you, I would like to attach a poll.

The system then prompted me to add my poll question.

I couldn't think of anything to ask.

Ask something I'd asked the kids at Earth Quaker Day? Ask what brand of running shoes people think is most socially and environmentally responsible? Ask what I could do to improve my blog (shorter posts, more frequent posts, more links, less links, etc.)? Ask what people think we should name the brand comparison site?

Nah. Not exciting enough. No reason to post a poll unless you're going to post a totally awesome poll. But I happened not to have the 20 minutes it would have taken to think of one that was both awesome and relevant.

So I asked what dinosaur people like best.

Turns out that surveys get seriously prominent placement on the WeBuyItGreen forums.

If nothing else, we'll prove, once and for all, that parasaurolophus is a tragically underappreciated dinosaur.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Respecting the Wanderlust

Back in the office today after a weekend of five year college reunion. Lots of great stories from lots of great people, many of whom I hadn't seen or even thought about in years.

Much racing through the mind, much I want to share, but, in the interest of reining it in, I'll keep it to one thing for now...

It turns out that one of my friends was one of the first employees of the founders of what has been an impressively successful news aggregation and distribution dot com startup.*

She was involved with early business plans. She helped raise early money. She created early content. And, after about a year, when she wanted to go to law school, the startup told her she was leaving too early.

The shares she'd earned hadn't vested (and wouldn't for another three plus years), and she'd lose a big chunk of her investment in the company if she didn't stay.

It was a bummer to give up such an investment, but school was calling, and she decided not to make the rest of her life wait for time already spent to become cash value potentially someday redeemable.

I love her decision. It's a beautiful thing to see someone do something that proves that she's not playing for the money.

But I wonder about her former employers. I wonder if it was fair of them (or a good idea for them) to reclaim the equity my friend had earned.

Now, here's the moment in the post when I offer up a couple of disclaimers. First of all, reunion weekend was overwhelming and a blur of quick and sometimes intense conversations, and my discussion with the friend mentioned above was, while more substantial than most, not nearly comprehensive enough. I think what I've written is accurate, but there is a slight possibility that my imagination played more than its fair role in assembling the little story I just told. Also, I want to acknowledge once again that I'm an entrepreneurial rookie and one whose gut instincts and epiphanies are meant to be taken with spoonfuls of salt. Ok. Interjection over. Back to the thought...

I think it's possible that my friend's former employer did the wrong thing by tying her investment to a strict term of service. I understand the rationale behind the decision. I think it is important to try to keep employees focused and committed through good times and bad, and I think it's important to have safeguards against greener grass projects coming in and poaching great people. But it seems a little heavy handed.

LanguageCalls treated me totally differently, and, while I thought nothing of it at the time, now that I've heard a friend talk about her highly contrasting experience, I have a new reason to appreciate LC, and I want to throw my thoughts out there and hopefully hear other people's reactions and experiences.

LC's founders knew from the start that I wasn't going to be around forever. They respected that, respected me and my future, and they didn't consider my unwillingness to commit to long term employment something that should preclude me from earning a small stake in the company. They gave me the option to take as much of my salary in shares as I wanted, attached no strings, and they now treat me the same way they treat people that made small, friends and family type investments.

LC treated me unsuspiciously, and I think that might be the way to go. I could be wrong, however, clouded by what might have been a unique or unusual situation I experienced. I'm curious to hear what people think.

Am I crazy to see vesting clauses as balls and chains? They preserve equity, but might they cut potentially helpful people out of the loop? They prevent fairweather commitment, but wouldn't they keep quietly unhappy people on staff? They're safe, but isn't it possible that they'll prevent the best young people from getting involved and invested and thus potentially in for the long haul?

Anyway, nothing pressing. I'm not about to make a hire or anything. Just thought I'd dangle a few questions and see what others might have to say. Let me know.

*Note: Which, I guess, should probably remain nameless. As much as I love radical transparency, I don't want to get anyone else in trouble. Not that I think this could actually get anyone in trouble, but you never know. Better to be safe.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Grand Molecular Disassemblers

Over the past couple of months, I've been sharing my office with my old friend Brent. He has been hugely helpful to the startup project in many ways but, primarily, he's been leading our research effort: exploring the various aspects of social and environmental responsibility, identifying experts that offer opinions about which businesses are most worthy of our support, and organizing the information in ways that will allow us to deliver the brand comparison function that lies at the core of the site we're building.

Brent and I go way back. We did some importantly ridiculous things together when we were in middle school. We skipped school to go fishing. We snuck cigarettes. We got drunk for the first time. We smoked pot for the first time. When we were 12 and 13 and 14, we were a formidable low impact troublemaking duo.

Brent, as he always was back then, remains a man of many talents. In addition to his information gathering skills and commitment to promoting radical social and environmental responsibility, he was a cook for Army paratroopers in Iraq; he tends and communicates with orchids; he's a budding bonsai master; and he spends his weekends scouring the woods for rare and delicious mushrooms.

A couple of days ago, he emailed me this link and explained his reason for sending it with characteristic succinctness:

Paul Stamets is a genius.

I watched the presentation (thank you TED, once again), and I think Brent's right.

The talk focuses around mycelium, the nutrient gathering vegetative threads that make up the sometimes vastly expansive underground webs of life from which mushrooms spring into existence, and it offers up six ways in which fungi can help save the world.

The stories Stamets tells, while sometimes rushed and thus confusing, do nothing if not pique curiosities and tickle imaginations. He makes, for example, what I think is one of the boldest statements I've ever heard:

I believe the invention of the computer internet is an inevitable consequence of a previously proven, biologically successful model. The Earth invented the computer internet for its own benefit, and we, now being the top organism on this planet, are trying to allocate resources in order to protect the biosphere.

Hopefully that'll tease you enough to get you to check it out. Big thanks to Brent for the recommendation, and big encouragement to Paul Stamets as he continues to spread the fungal vision.

Note: Despite any impression this post might give, Brent and I have never eaten mushrooms of any kind together. I promise. I want radical transparency from businesses, so I figure I'll provide radical transparency on the blog. If we'd gone fully psychedelic in middle school, I'd admit it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Be Cool

I spent a couple of hours today gathering ideas and advice from 16 and 17 year olds.

The Friends School down the road in Wilmington had their Earth Quaker Day today.


The day has been so named by students from the Upper School Peace and Ecology Club as a way of connecting the Quaker testimony of stewardship with the environmental challenges before us all...The focus of the speakers and breakout sessions will be looking for ways that our school community can put into place sustainable and green ideas and practices.


The faculty advisor to the Peace and Ecology Club knew of me through a friend and called a few weeks ago. He asked me to lead a couple of discussion groups, and I thought it would be fun. It'd be an opportunity to test some ideas on some unpredictable audiences.

My farmer uncle and I (he was on the Buy Local panel) rolled in a little early. We chatted it up with some P&E Club members and the other panelists and discussion leaders as they trickled in. We watched the keynote speech. And then we broke it on out and started discussing.

In both of my sessions, I kicked off with my little rave about my loyalty to certain Chinese bike mechanics. I reminded everyone that every purchase is an act in support of a business. I talked about the incredible amount of choice we have. I talked about identifying what it is that we want from businesses. I talked about figuring out which businesses provide those things. I proposed that we have an enlightenment problem. And I asked the students how they think we should go about solving it.

The conversations spun off nicely from there. The kids reminded me that people are lazy. They brought up the importance of price and price differences. They liked the Energy Star, and they expressed a desire for more labels. They weighed the pros and cons of recognizing and applauding businesses' successes rather than condemning their shortcomings. They discussed the conditions necessary for a race to the top.

And, finally, they spent the last ten minutes of the last session solidifying one extraordinarily unanimous agreement.

In order for proactive or mindful consumption to ever take off in any meaningful way, it will have to become cool.

It'll have to be fashionable.

It'll have to be THE thing to do, the ONLY way to be.

And they make a good point.

It's shocking sometimes to remember just how ambitious this project is. But it's all good. I wouldn't want it any other way. Back to work...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tweeting an Adventure

In late May 2007, I made my very first Twitter post:

Wondering what I should do with Twitter...

Close to a year later, I continue to wonder.

Twitter does occasionally provide me with useful info. It has introduced me to and inspired me to write about a great little startup nonprofit. And it does, unquestionably, provide some high quality entertainment, both through the people I read and directly:

@joeyheadset: Dropping a handful of Good n' Plenty candies into a cup of coffee: a noble experiment! (though probably doomed to failure).

I can't say I really do much with my own tweets, however. I unload non sequitor thoughts for which I can't find real life homes. I announce some blog posts and throw the occasional twodaddy.com link out there. I offer unsolicited advice to @BarackObama. But, honestly, I'm flailing.

Last night, I flailed in a new and exciting way, and, probably because there's something irresistibly ridiculous about blogging about tweeting, I feel compelled to share.

My sister got on a train in Boston in the early afternoon and asked me to pick her up in Wilmington at 830pm. The train stopped moving in Kingston, RI. She and her trainmates sat on the tracks there for more than five hours. A replacement train finally arrived. And Giuls told me her new ETA was 150am.

Midnight rolled around; I started getting tired; and late night ideas started to swirl. You know the swirl, right? Moments of intense but fleeting creativity. The pursuit of runaway imagination threads. Accidental poetry. Etc. I think you know what I mean. I think.

Regardless, my spiraling night thoughts last night had something of a common theme: adventure. I recounted adventures past, noticed the tiny adventures of which everyday life consists, and wondered in what situations we actually embrace the uncertainty of adventure and don't just seek to conquer it.

Just before I left for the train station, Twitter came to mind. It struck me that Twitter might be a tool for enabling the real time, long distance broadcast of the often misremembered rollercoaster of thoughts that pound through the heads of adventurers when they're mid-adventure.

I had a potential adventure coming up. I was driving downtown in the middle of the night. And I decided I'd tweet it. You know, just in case.

Here's how it went down, tweet by tweet:

(114am) @jdegrazia: soon an adventure begins. headed to downtown wilm, de to pick up my sister whose late train arrives at 2am.
(133am) @jdegrazia: Saw a fox. Makes me think about grizzly man.
(145am) @jdegrazia: Bunny too. Lots of wildlife tonight.
(151am) @jdegrazia: Listenin to a mix limmer made for new year's at jimbo's portable pub on the movie set 2004. Starts w sam cooke cover. Wow.
(153am) @jdegrazia: At train station. Dead quiet. Reminder of just how tiny wilm, de is. And that it's past my bedtime.
(155am) @jdegrazia: Thinkin bout blogging about tweeting this little adventure.
(158am) @jdegrazia: Sis arrived. So glad she didn't sleep through the stop. Comin from boston. All day. Ugh.
(202am) @jdegrazia: Giuls thinks my twitter experiment is weird.
(230am) @jdegrazia: Back. Fun talkin on ride home. Twitter interruptions would have been bad for the convo, so skipped em. Talked a bunch about karma.
(236am) @dshupp: @jdegrazia tell sis that twitter isn't weird, your china people have to follow you somehow
(242am) @jdegrazia: @dshupp Exactly. And make sure I don't do anything stupid. You guys are like the lil good ideas angel on my shoulder.
(244am) @jdegrazia: Still think it might be weird to blog about this tmrw though. Funny how you have these internal debates about weirdness levels.
(255am) @jdegrazia: Ok. 3am. Bedtime. Story over. The end.

Anticlimactic, right?

Sorry about that.

But oh well. It was fun to read through the tweets this morning. Fun to watch my sister's face get more and more suspicious as I explained the little experiment to her. Fun to hear from Dan and know that at least one person out there was following along real time. Fun to argue with myself about the weirdness of writing this post. And, most importantly, it was fun to ANTICIPATE adventure's onset.

It would have been much cooler, however, had the city been attacked by flocks of pterodactyls or something. I was ready to record history, and history had other things to do. Guess that's just the way it goes sometimes.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Punched Holes and Glass Booths

There's an Acorn board meeting coming up on Tuesday, and one piece of the preparation effort was the gathering and organization of reference materials for the board members, the assembly of big plastic three ring binders full of charts and graphs and tables and articles.

Last Thursday, as the information gathering neared completion, attention turned to the hole punching, collating, and pop snap binder building, and we held a rock paper scissors futility tournament to allocate the task.

I lost.

My good friend Michael had recently recommended a video, however, and, since hole punching and video watching are not mutually exclusive activities, I gathered the puncher, the binders, the tabs, and the documents, slapped on my headphones, pushed play, and got to work.

The video is a presentation that one of the founders of Glassbooth gave at Google headquarters in April. Michael was absolutely right; it's something from which I can definitely "glean an idea or two."

Glassbooth is an online tool that asks you questions based on policy-related issues, compares your responses with the views of presidential candidates, and tells you with whom you most closely align.

The data and subject matter with which Glassbooth deals, while fascinating, aren't particularly relevant to sustainable business or corporate social responsibility or creating races to the top, but the story co-founder Ian Manheimer tells about Glassbooth's origins, principles, and strategies is one to which I (and, I think, anyone looking to build something worldchangingly educational) ought to pay close attention.

He talks about trust capital, user suspicion, transparency.

He talks about the media, the current information environment, the myth of voter apathy, and why it's essential to provide quick, well-organized access to substantive but overwhelming information

He talks about trying to "take a massive set of data and marry it with an inviting and intuitive design."

He talks about mobilizing friends and friends of friends to volunteer.

He talks about poaching PR databases in the middle of the night.

And he talks about he and his co-founders begging their grandparents for the money they needed to get things started.

It's a good story. Glassbooth is trying to do good, important, educational things. And it looks like they're going about it in a thoughtful and effective way.

If you ever have 45 minutes of hole punching to do, throw on the video and see what you think.

*Note: One of the first things I did after finishing the video was to go to Glassbooth.org and take the issues quiz. The site recommended that I vote for Mike Gravel, and it told me that I am more closely ideologically aligned with Hillary than Obama. Hmmm. I feel like I might have a lot to say about this. I'd better think about it for a while first, though. Then maybe I'll send an email to Glassbooth. If I do, I'll post it in the comments.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

At Capacity

At one point last year, a lifehacking management book with what might have been a Mormon slant mysteriously set up residence next to the toilet in the old Beijing apartment/IT office.

Given its location, it got read. Nobody made it cover to cover, and I don't think there was a whole lot of attention paid to most of it, but it did start one thought bouncing through the house.

It got us talking about productivity and production capacity. As I remember, the book's basic point was that you'd better be careful if you ever asked someone to work late too many nights in a row or come in too often on weekends. At a certain point, when people get tired and burnt out, they start doing more harm than good.

Perfectly reasonable, and definitely worth considering, given the amount we had all been expecting each other to work at LanguageCalls.

I think tonight's probably one of those at capacity nights for me. There's heaps I want to write, heaps I should write, but I just don't think my brain's up for it.

I want to write about labeling and ratings and carbon footprints and quantitative measures of social and environmental responsibility.

I want to write about investing in forests: "According to one recent calculation, during the next twenty-four hours the effect of losing forests in Brazil and Indonesia will be the same as if eight million people boarded airplanes at Heathrow Airport and flew en masse to New York." (From this article from a late February issue of the New Yorker.)

I want to write about the fact that I might get a chance soon to make my second ever guest blog post. The first was about tropical fruit. I left it as a comment in August 2006 on my friend Tom's since abandoned food blog, and Tom decided to promote it to the big show. I actually like my comment about figs better than my post about durians, soursops, and miracle fruit.

I want to write about my conversation with one of the founders of Oso Eco today. They live out in Ken Kesey's old neighborhood, and they're about to launch something very cool.

And, finally, I want to write about another sentence from this week's Wall St. Journal Op-Ed Page that raised my hackles a little bit. There's a new book out called Gross National Happiness, and, apparently, according to the reviewer, according to the book, the distilled version of the recipe for happiness in the USA is:

Get a job, get married, go to church and don't listen to wild-eyed utopians.

Bummer. Maybe I'm crazy, but if there's one thing I think the world needs more of, it's people that haven't lost sight of utopia.

Nothing wrong with being realistic. Nothing wrong with baby steps. But wouldn't it be complacent of us to fully accept imperfection?

We won't ever get to perfect. Zeno's paradox stands in the way. But there's no reason to think we can't take it right up to the edge. And there's no reason to think we can't have fun doing it.

Ok. Enough. I'll be back with something more coherent in a couple of days.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Wrong Again, Karl Rove

Starting in February when I moved in with the Acorn Energy folks, I've been keeping a pretty close eye on the Wall St. Journal Op-Ed Page. I can't say I've found a lot of philosophical soulmates on the editorial board there, but Acorn is Nasdaq listed and has its roots in the New York City investment world, so I figure it's a good idea to stay keep a finger on The Journal's energy economy opinions pulse.

I did a little catching up tonight. I saw some pretty strange electricity subsidy numbers I'd never seen before. I learned that New Zealand's Kyoto commitment might force them to ease back on their sheep economy. I found out which books about presidential campaigns are Karl Rove's favorites. And I consider it absolutely outrageous that Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 didn't make the list.

If anyone is fascinated by the intensity of this year's primaries and curious to see things play out between now and November, I suggest you dig wherever you have to dig to find yourself a copy.

It's a brilliant book.

First of all, Hunter S. Thompson can flat out write. With force. With humor. With grace.

Second, his suspension of journalistic rules and conventions is totally transparent and thus, in my opinion, packed not only with irreverence but also with a highly rarefied form of integrity.

And, finally, the story takes place at the political center of a hugely compelling moment in American history.

Nixon had been president for four years. The progressive momentum of the '60s had stalled and maybe died. People on the political left were terrified. And, suddenly, emerging from the Democratic primary came a candidate that offered something new, a candidate that captured the hearts of even the most skeptical, a candidate that seemed like he might just be able to change the game.

I'll leave it at that. Hopefully you'll read on.

And, once again, I don't know what Karl Rove was thinking...

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Story of Abundance

Been a lot of talk lately about the gas tax holiday. A lot of chatter from the candidates. A lot of commentary from economically minded journalists. The occasional outlying opinion (if anyone agrees with this guy or even understands what he's trying to say, please let me know). And there's also what I think is a really nice effort by the folks at Breakthrough Institute to turn the discussion in a more productive direction.

Lindsay Meisel, the most active contributor to the Breakthrough Blog, acknowledges the tragedy of the political pandering, but, instead of making it the focus of her article, she steers us toward a simple but powerful observation: emphasizing the gravity of global warming and asking people to make short term sacrifices for the long term good of the planet isn't working very well.

She drops some numbers. According to a poll (it's a .pdf; I'm sorry) put together by ABC News, Time Magazine, and Stanford University, 68% of people oppose "increasing taxes on gasoline so people either drive less or drive cars that use less gas."

Lindsay thinks we have a storytelling problem.

We need to stop framing public policy as a response to global warming apocalypse. Instead, we should start talking about how to create a new clean energy economy that also addresses voters' concerns about energy prices, jobs, and national security.

And she offers more numbers. Another poll, this one by CBS and the New York Times, asked the same question a little differently and got significantly different results.

Would you be willing to pay higher taxes on gasoline and other fuels if the money was used for research into renewable energy like wind and solar?

64% said yes.

Now, I understand that it's difficult to compare polls from different pollsters, and I acknowledge that it's totally reasonable to be suspicious of people's answers to hypothetical questions, but I think Lindsay is onto something.

A renewable energy economy is a ridiculously exciting prospect.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos a few months ago, Larry Page, one of the founders of Google, said something that hit me pretty hard.

He was answering a question about reconciling the need to fight climate change and the need for food and infrastructure and energy in the developing world, and he illustrated economic development's dependence on electricity and combustion:

If you look at the US, you have the equivalent of 10,000 people helping you every day with energy use. They're pushing your car. They're carrying your water to you. If you work out the number of calories you'd have to use as a person to do all the things that you do, it's something like 10,000 people.

I think that's important to keep in mind, because, in the developing world, things are different. People have Larry's "helpers" in Malawi and India and China and Brazil and Papua New Guinea and Tajikistan, but they have a WHOLE lot less than Americans do.

Energy is wealth. Food and water and the materials out of which we make fun and useful things are wealth too, but energy is a nontrivial component of that wealth mix. Transportation. Heating and cooling. Materials extraction and manipulation. Agriculture. Water distribution. All those things require energy inputs. They need force that our bodies can't exert without help.

If that energy comes from fossil fuels, of which we have a finite supply, then it's difficult to imagine getting thousands of extra helpers worth of energy to billions of people in the developing world without taking thousands of helpers away from people in the developed world. A fossil fuel economy, because of the scarcity of the fuels, is, by nature, a zero sum game.

Even if we discovered a suite of instantly commercially viable carbon sequestration technologies, deployed them worldwide, stepped up extraction, stepped up generation, perfected our energy infrastructure to enable radically efficient energy use, brought helpers upon helpers to the developing world, averted climate crisis, and did it all tomorrow, we would still be dealing with what is ultimately a scarce resource. In time, we'd run low; prices would rise; and lots of people (eventually everyone) would lose their helpers.

A renewable energy economy, however, is different. Scarcity is not an issue when you talk about the sun, the wind, and the heat beneath the surface of the earth. To steal some words from Bill McDonough, an economy powered by renewable energy is one of abundance, not one of limits.

And I think that's a compelling story. Tell people where gas tax revenues will go. Tell them their capital will work to improve existing renewable energy technologies and work to find new ones. Tell them the goal of those tax dollars collected is to provide everyone, evrywhere with of cheap, renewable power. Tell them their sacrifice is an investment, an investment in the creation of an economy in which energy will become increasingly abundant and increasingly inexpensive.

And they might just jump on board.

It's a dream, for sure, but I agree with Lindsay: this is a situation in which big, positive vision and effective communication of that vision are lacking. If the numbers Lindsay showed us are any indication, the political will to transition to renewable energy might be easier to muster than we think.

*Note: The helper discussion kicks off this 45+ minute video, but, if you have time, I recommend watching the whole Q&A video and the whole pre-Q&A panel discussion. It is a time commitment, though, so if you need more convincing before surrendering to well over an hour of YouTube, maybe my blog posts here and here will help you decide.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Another Gift from Google

I think it was about a year ago when I started doing the RSS feed aggregation thing, and my instant complaint about Google Reader was that you couldn't attach a little comment when you shared something. I had urges to share certain articles, but sometimes they looked long or boring or irrelevant or like opinions with which only total lunatics would agree, so I'd hesitate.

As of Monday, however, I'll be hesitating no more. And, starting pretty soon, if the people whose shared items I read start using the add note feature, I'll have a much easier time deciding which of their shared items to read.

Exciting.

So, if anyone wants to keep up with what I'm reading and recommending (and doesn't want to wait for me to write rambling manifestos on this blog or deal with my messy del.icio.us account and the fact that I use it more as a Gonna Barrel than a real social bookmarking tool), subscribe to my shared items.

I'll add notes to everything I share, so you'll be able to ignore the recommendations that seem ignorable. I'll rein in my propensity to race down all intersecting tangents and keep the notes to a sentence or three. And I'll try to be broad about what I share. No fun reading only about energy infrastructure and proactive consumption. I'm pretty sure dinosaurs will make their way in every once in a while, and I'll even (against my better judgment probably) throw in the occasional Joey Headset article to act as a sort of proverbial dose of the old smelling salts.

And if any of you use Reader and share at all, please send me links to your shared items so I can subscribe. An RSS feed aggregator by itself is a beautiful thing. It becomes a much more beautiful thing when real live people feed you recommendations AND add notes to help you filter them quickly.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

@Ndugu

I took some time yesterday to catch up on Google Reader, and, apparently, while I was in LA, a new web celebrity emerged. Stacey Monk, founder of Epic Change.

People continue to whisper the story down the lane a little bit, so the legend hasn't solidified, but, from what I gather, it goes a little something like this:

Stacey spent some time last year in Tanzania working with Mama Lucy Kamptoni at a school called Shepherds Junior. Last July, developers bought the land Mama Lucy was renting and started planning for the hotel they'll be building sometime in 2008. Mama Lucy called Stacey. They strategized. And Stacey quit her job to start building Epic Change, a nonprofit that provides loans to schools or other community organizations and works with the organizations to turn their stories into revenue streams to pay back the loans.

In addition to being a social entrepreneur, Stacey's also a bit of a social media junkie, and, one night, as she sifted through Tweet Scan, she found a post from blogger Sam Lawrence about the fact that he wanted to take the night off. She didn't know Sam at the time, but she was feeling outgoing, so she asked him if she could write his post for him. Joking, he told her to go for it. Stacey figured yes meant yes, wrote an article about Epic Change and how it connects to Sam's go big always thesis, and sent it to him. Surprised, he polled the Twitterverse, asking whether or not he should post it. He got a positive response, so he threw it up on the blog. People read it. People liked it. People wrote about it. And now we know Stacey.

While the story of Stacey's past few days is exciting and relevant and worth remembering as the first chapter of a future case study in social media marketing, even more exciting, in my opinion, is Epic Change and the philanthropic family to which it belongs.

Epic Change is part of the next generation of the Ndugu Model.

If anyone has ever seen About Schmidt, you'll remember Ndugu. In the movie, Warren Schmidt, a newly retired midwestern widower played by Jack Nicholson, is up late one night watching TV, when he sees an ad for a sponsor a child type charity. Searching for purpose in his post-career, post-marraige life, he makes an impulse donation and, days later, gets a thick envelope in the mail telling him that he has adopted Ndugu, a Tanzanian first grader. The package encourages him to contact Ndugu directly and leads him to write a stream of hysterically and touchingly long letters about the trials, tribulations, life, and legacy of Warren Schmidt.

So. The Ndugu Model: direct support to individuals, philanthropy brought to life by human contact and return interaction. This being the '90s, instead of letters, checks, print photographs, and drawings in the mail, we have video streaming and blogs and mobile devices beaming OMG LOLs across continents.

And, either way, whether in its old sponsor a child form or in its more scalable online instantiations, the model's good. It pulls small donors deep into causes. It educates. It inspires. It engages. It reminds everyone that we can all contribute; we can all make meaningful change.

And that, I think, is big. There's a lot of resignation out there. A lot of good people feeling helpless. A lot of people with forgotten agency. Ndugu acts as a reminder. Agency remembered breeds optimism. Optimism stirs creativity and cooks up big vision. And big vision recruits the will and resources necessary to organize and execute the projects that make the change.

So, point is, I think Epic Change is smart to focus on storytelling, smart to create person to person contact. It will not only help their organization grow and make a greater contribution, but it will also empower everyone involved to do more good.

I'd like to note here that I think Kiva deserves a lot of credit for putting the online Ndugu Model on the map.

I'd also like to note that I think Wokai is evolving Kiva's ideas in the right direction. Wokai is a retail fundraising and information exchange site for China microfinance founded by some friends of mine. Keep your eyes out for a late summer launch. They are all about storytelling and donor-microentrepreneur interaction.

Finally, I'd like to bug some other friends, the founders of Power Up Gambia and the Starfish Greathearts Foundation, about taking the plunge into individual storytelling and online community exchange. Power Up Gambia is providing renewable electricity to off-grid hospitals. Starfish is working with AIDS orphans. The stories are there. The stories are what has made it possible for the organizations to do the work they've already done. But there's much more to be told. A much wider audience would both love to listen and benefit from doing so. Go big.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Sons of Scotland...

I caught up on the past couple of weeks of Umair Haque today, and, as always, he didn't disappoint. I don't know if the blog medium is ever going to inspire William Wallace style goosebumps, but, in his latest post on the HBS blog, Umair made a pretty good run at it.

Very simply:

Today's crop of investors and startups are perhaps even more economically autistic than megacorporations. Too many are willfully blind to today's deepest and most essential strategic truth: that the path to radical value creation isn't cutting more deals (dude, high-five!!) - but in rebuilding a flawed, false global economy: one which actively transfers wealth from the poor to the rich, from the sick to the healthy, from productivity to cronyism.

He's sick of it, and he thinks people are getting complacent.

If you're a revolutionary, then be one: put your money where your mouth is, and fix a big problem that changes the world for the better - if you really have the courage, the purpose, and the vision, that is.

And he'll contribute.

I think these problems are so important, I'll take a bit of time away from setting up my new lab, to advise five startups, funds, or companies that I think have the greatest insight into fixing them.

I'm going send the man an email. Braveheart's still echoing in my head, so I figure why not give it a try. I'll be in Boston in a couple of weeks, so I'll see if I can convince him to let me swing by. I think an economy in which consumers choose to support the businesses that do the best things for the world is an economy in which he'd be interested. Who knows. Maybe I'll charm him with my rave about Beijing bike mechanics.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Milken It: Part Two

Went back to Beverly Hills for another round of the Milken Institute's Global Conference today. A lot of discussion of biofuels. A mention of the fact that the world should be ruled by philosopher kings with PhDs in economics. And plenty of half-complete and incoherent thoughts spinning in my head.

Here are some questions from my notes, in no particular order:

-There was quite a bit of reference made today to the power of the US corn industry. There was total acknowledgment that that power is an economically bad thing. There was acknowledgment that that power is ultimately the product of corruption. And everyone laughed about it. Are we really resigned to a government held hostage by a greedy special interest group that doesn't want to have to compete?

-A panel of investors agreed that all the pieces are in place to keep plenty of capital flowing into cleantech, if oil stays above USD 70 per barrel. What happens if it drops below USD 70 per barrel?

-Should we discuss in a serious way how we ought to adapt to climate change? Or would that be resignation and thus counterproductive? How about geoengineering? Should we think about it or talk about it (geoengineering, for those that haven't heard the word, is doing crazy stuff like shooting particles into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight and cool the poles)? It feels apocalyptic, but it is a potential "solution," and there might come a time when it's our only weapon against catastrophe. Might it be good to have that weapon ready? What if we started a conversation with: yeah, this stuff is crazy, but there might come a point at which doing something crazy is better than doing nothing at all? Would that be psychologically acceptable? Would something like that push us to strive harder for sustainable solutions, or would it lead to feelings of helplessness and resignation?

-Apparently California has a "de-coupled system" in which electron producers and electron distributors make more money if they help electron consumers consume less. Is that true? If so, how did they pull that off? And why don't other states replicate the California system?

-You have a handful of money. There are three basic things you can do with it. You can spend it and get instant gratification. You can save it for when you really want to use it. Or you can invest it: risking that you might lose it but hoping it'll grow. If you spend it all, you don't have any leftover for savings or investment, and if you save or invest it, you don't get to spend it; you need to consume a little less in the short term. As a society, we're at a point at which we really ought to make some long term investments. For one, we ought to support the creation of a sustainable energy economy. We ought to allocate a solid chunk of our available capital to investment. If we do that, the prudent (or, if you'd rather, economical) response would be to live a little leaner, to consume less (as an economy: government bodies and individual people). Apparently, however, American political leaders can't accept trains of thought like that. In order to get elected, politicians have to promise lots of investment and lots of consumption (as governments and for their constituencies). The problem with that is that, once the investment has been made, there's no more cash for consumption. Unless you go borrow some. And thus the American way of life. Should we be worried? Are we really incapable of voting for leaders that ask us to consume less now in order to allocate more resources to creating a sustainable future?

Note: Over lunch today, we watched Michael Milken interview Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a discussion about investment in infrastructure (roads, bridges, schools, power transmission lines), and, somehow, it was highly entertaining. Not as entertaining as this, but a good time nonetheless.