Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Everything Bad Is Good for You

I went to a bachelor party last week and found myself tearing through all of Everything Bad Is Good for You during my travels - it seemed an appropriate way to start the weekend. Steven Johnson is becoming one of my favorite authors having loved both Emergence and The Invention of Air. But given the title, I had low expectations for this one - it seemed like a title designed to stir up controversy and sell some books. And in some ways it was. But, again his clear style and systemic perspective won me over, and I was sold.

The premise pretty straight-forward: common wisdom is that popular culture is dumbing down society as sex, violence, gossip, and other such trashy themes become more common in TV shows, movies, and video games. Johnson turns that idea on its head, by pointing out that most shows, movies, and games have gotten increasingly complex and smart - referencing the likes of Lost, The West Wing, The Usual Suspects, Memento, Adaptation, SimCity, and even Grand Theft Auto - and analyzing what he calls the Sleeper Curve (derived from Woody Allen's Sleeper where a future society discovers that junk food is actually healthy).

Technology drives this curve in large part - things like TiVo and DVD sales allow for more complex story lines and subtle jokes because people don't have to catch everything in real time. This has led a shift from "Least Objectionable Programming" where bland, easy to understand themes rule, to "Most Repeatable Programming" where complexity and subtley rule (if you're going to buy a DVD you want to know it won'g grow stale after one viewing - and you're going to pick Seinfeld over Three's Company).

I won't spoil the book too much, as it's a good, quick read - but for me the important, and hopeful take-away from this book is that our generation of gamers, Sopranos watchers, and Facebook users are training our minds to deal with complexity - and that is exactly what we need when we confront the sustainability challenge. For the masses of us who aren't supergeniouses, but can see what's going on around us, we are increasingly aware of and in tune with the implications of our actions in a complex system - burning oil here can cause droughts there that can cause famines, unrest, and war, and disrupt trade, displace refugees, and require us to send soldiers to far off lands - multiple story lines, delayed cause and effect, complexity - all things we need to understand to create a sustaianble society, and all things that are increasingly common in pop culture.

Not to say that playing video games is going to save the day - but an interesting perspective to challenge some commonly held assumptions. I'm still looking for the parallel that shows how bachelor parties are good for you... Stay going.

Monday, May 18, 2009

be rich

"Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich."

- Paul Hawken

Just a quick quote to start off your Monday - this one from a recent commencement address by Paul Hawken at the University of Portland - based largely on Blessed Unrest. Stay going...

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

less than 1 trillion tons...

A quick news piece on a new report that I just saw on Van Ness Feldman's policy update (a great, free email update from a law firm in DC that specializes in climate law):

Scientists Set Fossil Fuel Budget for Planet. According to new research published this week in Nature, the world can burn only a quarter to a third of known fossil fuel reserves, and must limit anthropogenic emissions between 2000 and 2050 to about 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, in order to have good odds (>75%) of limiting global average temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Many climate scientists have concluded that temperature increases beyond 2 degrees will greatly increase the odds of catastrophic and potentially irreversible climate changes. According to one of the lead researchers, realistically, global emissions must peak around 2020 to meet this budget.

I think it's really helpful to get a sense of the concrete amounts of GHG we can emit to avoid the worst impacts of climate disruption, as opposed to continuing to talk in relative terms about % reductions from arbitrary baselines, which are based on forecasting what is perceived as feasible, vs. backcasting from what we know is necessary. I'm curious to check out the report in Nature to see if this limit of 1 trillion tons of CO2e is on par with what would give us a chance to stablize atmoshpheric concentrations (currently at 388.79 ppm) or actually lower them to what many believe to be a necessary level for safety of 350 ppm.... Stay going.