Tuesday, January 27, 2009

i.heart will.i.am

Seems like I can't turn around without posting another awesome video from will.i.am - this one taking Gore's speech and challenge about creating 100% clean renewable energy within 10 years (9.5 now...I'm sure you all saw the news yesterday that Obama's going to stop the federal gov't from impeding states on setting their own higher auto-standards - a great early move).

This is a big step to see a major music star take up the call to create a sustainable society - doing a pretty damn good job of putting a lot of the pieces together (from climate and energy, to plastics and textiles, to water, to sustainable product design, etc.) and tying each back to his own daily routine - showing at the same time how (a) we're all complicit in this unsustainable reality, and how we can change our behaviors personally, demand better politically, and create better professionally, and (b) we're all getting played by corporations with goals and parameters that are in many ways misaligned with maximizing well-being for as many people as possible.

It also highlights the importance of the arts in this process of co-creating a sustainable society. For communicating in compelling ways, for inspiring, for reshaping our collective values, for connecting with our authentic selves and what's really important. Sustainable development is truly a transdisciplinary endeavor, and can't be relegated only to the scientists, engineers, designers, politicians, or economists.

Stay going

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Invention of Air

This is a great book. It's only a couple of hundred pages and I just couldn't put it down. As M says, it's basically about all of my favorite things - systems thinking, transdisciplinarity, the American Revolution, founding fathers, scientific revolution. And the author Steve Johnson is great. I've only read one of his other books (Emergence) and it was awesome as well - really a must read. Putting my biases aside, I don't know if I'd say Invention is a must read, but if you're into that sort of thing, it's definitely a great read.

The book is about Joesph Priestly - a British "natural philosopher" (scientists of the day), around the time of the Revolution, and big buddies with Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, etc. He did a ton of experiments and is often credited with 'discovering' oxygen. He isolated it first, but was kind of off in interpreting what it was, so others rounded out the discovery and named the gas. But he also basically discovered that plants give off oxygen - through very cool experiments with sprigs of mint in jars that were able to live on, while candles in jars went out, and mice died without the plants. Piecing it together with Franklin, they opened the door for the ecosystems view of the planet (though they didn't articulate it in the way we understand it today). But that process - photosynthesis, driven by solar power - the 'engine' of nature - is central to understanding the "System" level of the framework for SSD, and what makes a sustainable society. And so it's very cool to trace it back to such a key discovery, and such a key moment.

Also very cool is how the book draws out how those types of moments don't happen in isolation. The context, the interactions, the chance that lead to big changes are all crucial. And tracing Priestly through his interactions and escapades is a great way to demonstrate that. The stories about his engagement with 'societies' in London and other places he lived are great. The main one, where he got his start and met Franklin is the Honest Whigs - where they would come together on a regular basis in some pub, have a big meal and few pints and share ideas, compare notes, report back on experiments, and drive the revolution in thought that was occuring. This was a rather effective motivator for finally getting a Green Drinks chapter going here in Gloucester.

The information networks that these types of meetings, plus the great letters of the day, and the papers, created were also critical to big evolutionary leap that took place around the time. And there are parrallels, of course to today. The chages we are faced with are unprecedented, but in many ways the principles are very similar to those in any kind of big shift in a system. The openness of information and sharing of ideas got Priestly in a lot of trouble, but also got his ideas out there for others to improve upon, and consequently improve quality of life, and take us into a new chapter in our cultural evolution. The internet and mobile devices are obviously helping to drive similar dynamics today.

Priestly also shook things up in the spiritual realm, essentially founding of Unitarianism, and providing a view of Christianity that Jefferson credits with keeping him from having to abandon it all togehter. The crossing of disciplines with ease (far more common before the rigid disciplines and specializations of the modern university changed the way we view the world) is a central theme, and again resonates with the sustainability movement, as we see growth in the interrelated areas of spiritual exploration, evolving consciouness and the like.

In making this leap, the stakes are of course a bit higher. It's not the King of England and the church establishment we're facing down, it's the potential for the collapse of civilization. The good news is we're driving the mechanisms responsible for that potential, so it's really us we're facing down, and thus very much within our power to gear up and dramatically rethink and redesign how we go about our business. We've just got to get together and do it - and luckily the upswell of awareness and engagement continues to grow. Stay going.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Solutions from the Green Economy

I thought Obama's speech today was excellent - and there seemed to be a great feeling across the country, with everyone excited to witness such an historic event. It inspired me all the more to keep working to rebuild an America that is responsible and respected, one that is leading toward sustainability and not simply pressing harder on the gas pedal in the wrong direction.

The stimulus package is incredible in so many ways, for creating jobs and re-sparking the economy by funding the shift to a clean, green energy system and economy. I'm continuously surprised and pleased at how far we've come in such a relatively short time (as a product of many years of dedicated work by many people) - it is hard to believe (and fantastic and overdue) that these concepts are being put into action at the highest level, and in support of action at all levels. But still there are some important and fundamental 'blind-spots' with regard to the design of our society and economy, how we go about meeting our needs, and how we confuse the pursuit of well-being with economic growth. The Green America team has released 7 good, concise steps that will get us further down the path we now need to follow, check them out in this piece:

Everyone now understands that the economy is broken.

While many name the mortgage and credit-default-swap crises as culprits, they are only the most recent indicators of an economy with fatal design flaws. Our economy has long been based on what economist Herman Daly calls "uneconomic growth" where increases in the GDP come at an expense in resources and well-being that is worth more than the goods and services provided.

When GNP growth exacerbates social and environmental problems—from sweatshop labor to manufacturing toxic chemicals—every dollar of GNP growth reduces well-being for people and the planet, and we're all worse off.

Our fatally flawed economy creates economic injustice, poverty, and environmental crises. It doesn't have to be that way. We can create a green economy: one that serves people and the planet and offers antidotes to the current breakdown... read more »

Stay going.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Local Resilience for the Post-carbon Economy

Another MSLS alum just passed on this great piece by Daniel Lerch, the author of 'Post Carbon cities: Planning for energy and Climate uncertainty' and Program Director at the Post Carbon Institute. It does a great job of tying together systems thinking concepts and the importance of applying them to more consciously and strategically building resilient local communities with resilient local economies.


The piece also has a bunch of great links to case studies and role-model stories - in particular, check out the last paragraph that talks about success of applying the framework for strategic sustainabile development to create "eco-communities"... the success of the model in Sweden has led to an organic, grassroots adoption of the concept here. Lots of great, inspirational reading, for these back-to-back great, historic days - happy MLK and inauguration! Stay going.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Thoughts on the Inauguration

There has been so much exciting talk about the inauguration over the past few days – millions descending on Washington, including Obama, retracing part of Lincoln’s train route to the capital, celebrations and concerts, personal stories and elation. It seems like despite the violent ‘perfect storm’ around us – 2 wars, the tragic conflict in Gaza, the ever looming threat of climate disruption crashing over us, while we continue to fuel its growth, the undermining of a functioning (though fundamentally flawed) free-market economy by ideological zealots (who we trained and revered in our finest institutions), inexcusable toxic pollution being sold to and thrust upon all of us (but particularly the poor and marginalized) by our most powerful corporations, misguided policies and ideologies fueling the threat of terrorism – despite all that, and the confusion this complexity brings, there seems to be a surprisingly high level of general consensus emerging amongst us:

  • We must get off fossil fuels
  • We must create a green economy
  • That economy must be inclusive and enable millions to lift themselves out of poverty
  • Obama and the change he represents is necessary, but nowhere near sufficient – this will take an incredible amount of hard work and dedication by all of us
  • The party’s winding down and that’s ok – actually it’s welcome – it’s time to find more meaning in our lives than the empty, dictated placebo of hyper-consumerism
  • All the issues are not the separate, discrete, competing interests we thought they were – they’re all interconnected and influence each other – we can no longer afford to “problem solve” or apply “quick fixes,” we must take a whole-systems perspective and identify the leverage points where the positive can build on the positive, to get us out of the trap we’ve gotten ourselves into where the negative reinforces the negative
  • All of this will take a deep reconnection with and re-expression of our core values, and dedication to a more highly evolved global consciousness that starts inside each of us

We’ve been working on getting a Green Education, Schools, and Jobs Program into the stimulus package with the leaders of the ACUPCC, which has led me to follow the process to some degree. The transition team has their framework for the package, and the House released its legislation on Thursday, it’s got to go through the Senate, and will no doubt continue to change along the way. But Obama is serious about getting it done and out quickly – the original target of having it ready for inauguration day has been pushed back a bit, but it will likely go through by early February. By and large, the components of the packager are excellent. A year ago I would have found it very hard to imagine that the language and strategies outlined in the package would be under such serious consideration at such a high level with so much funding so soon. The focus on demand reduction is phenomenal ($6.2 billion to weatherize low-income homes, $2 billion for RE and EE research, $6.9 billion for block grants for EE strategies by local governments (fertile grounds for collaboration between Climate Protection Mayors and ACUPCC Presidents), and much more). $11 billion towards a smart grid is also a smart move to set up a scalable renewable energy system. Some tax credits and the like. I haven’t seen anything addressing pulling back subsidies to fossil fuel industries – but this is a necessary step as well, though one that will certainly meet some serious resistance.

We’ve been pulling for more focus on funding education for sustainability initiatives – in terms of operations, education and research – as (1) the job creation potential is huge (surprisingly so – 23.1 jobs created per $1 million spent, among the highest ratios for employment returns on spending), (2) the money goes to support arguably our most important and indeed institution – education, (3) there is huge deferred maintenance at most schools, colleges, and universities, (4) green retrofits will address that, but also cut GHG emissions, serving as role-models and demonstration projects, (5) those same activities turn campuses into “living labs” with huge educational value, (6) that experiential learning in hand with directed green jobs training and general education for sustainability builds the workforce we need for the green economy.

The main point though is that we’re a whole lot closer to getting on the right track, and this stimulus package holds huge promise to give us a boost to get started. I expect the inaugural speech will focus on all of the economic stuff, but more so on our role in it. The expectations and hope for Obama are sky high, and I expect him to wisely throw those expectations back on us. A good time for another viewing of the “yes we can” video. And a newer one (below) by Will.i.am, that reinforces that this is our change to create, our better world to create. All that's really changed is that at least now we don't have a president who was perhaps well-intentioned, but guided by inherently misguided and simplistic worldview, too often influenced by and ruling for the self-interested few at the expense of many. So, let’s enjoy the moment, it is historic, and gear up for the real work ahead.

Stay going.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Science of Leonardo

Fritjof Capra, an amazing systems thinker and writer has taken a slightly different route in his latest – The Science of Leonardo, Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance. It’s not so much about sustainability or theories of life, per se, but it brings a very interesting perspective to a lesser-known aspect of a well-known figure.

That perspective is that of a systemic scientist, and as he looks into the fascinating science of Leonardo, he demonstrates that the great artists view was clearly that of a systems thinker. He worked across a wide variety of fields and ‘disciplines’ – painting, sculpture, engineering, biology, music, anatomy, fluid dynamics, and more. Of course, he came before Descartes, and the Cartesian split – of the mind, the “thinking thing” from matter, the “extended thing.”

This idea that our cognition separates us from the physical world as opposed to binding us into it has been an underlying assumption of our civilization’s development for the past 400 years. That worldview is now breaking down, and looking back to the work of a great genius, hundreds of years ahead of his time in many ways, to see some of the similarities makes for an insightful read in these exciting times.

Stay going.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Birthday Barrel

So, it's my birthday, and I just had to brag on my present right away - a rain barrel! As you can see, it's pretty much just a big plastic barrel (of which the dog is very skeptical), but it's got a top that serves as a big filter so you can simply place it under the downspout of a gutter and fill 'er up. Looks like that filter-top comes off pretty easily too, which should be good for clearing it out, and cleaning the inside of the bucket now and then, if needed.

It'll stay in the basement for a couple more months, as we're still snowed in here, with more icy rain expected today, but come spring we'll be collecting our roof water for irrigating the back yard permaculture "farm".

Anyone guess which sustainability principle this helps out with? ...primarily SP3, as we use too much water we're essentially degrading the natural system of the water cycle by physical means. Also, as we put stuff (like our waste and chemicals to treat it) in the water and contaminate it we're getting into SP2 territory, and of course, in many areas and instances irresponsible water use can have serious SP4 consequences.

Anyway, anyone with a house or suitable apartment should get one of these and rig it up - helps cut down on run off saves water, pretty cheap and easy to set up. Happy birthday to me! Stay going...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Green Collar Economy

Van Jones recently became the first African American author to get a book about “the environment” on the NYT best seller list – The Green Collar Economy – How one solution can fix our two biggest problems. But, like sustainability, the book’s not really about the environment – at least not only, or primarily. It’s about us, and sustaining our civilization. He does a masterful job at putting the complex and interrelated issues of sustainability into accessible and compelling language – without sacrificing that complexity or glossing over important considerations. No easy task.

The basic premise of the green collar economy and green collar jobs has been around a little while now, but is really hitting its stride as a confluence of events – awareness of the problems and potential solutions around global warming, volatile energy prices, peak oil, energy security, along with the economic crisis, Obama, and a renewed sense of purpose in America and the world – comes together to create an incredible opportunity.

It’s about creating 5 million (or more) new jobs improving our communities and getting off fossil fuels. It’s about putting people – particularly those marginalized for too long – to work doing the things we desperately need done: insulating buildings, rebuilding the grid, installing solar and wind power systems, manning recycling centers, manufacturing sustainable products, growing local food, installing green roofs and porous pavement, deconstructing and recycling old buildings, etc.

Some perverse economic incentives need to change for this to really take off – internalize the cost of carbon, phase out subsidies to fossil fuels and industrial agriculture, and the like- and some training is needed to develop the knowledge and skills to get this done. Like many others, Jones is talking about a ‘Green New Deal’ and also a “Green Growth Alliance” – properly distinguishing between “good growth” and “bad growth” – the former being the growth of value, the latter the destructive physical growth we currently pursue.

Beyond being just about right on in my view with the huge potential for beneficial solutions, he does a masterful job highlighting the importance of the social attributes of what this shift must look like. Not only that “social problems” that need to be “solved” can be eliminated through such a shift, but also that a broad alliance of all segments of society are necessary for success. He puts into very concrete terms the idea that it’s us (humanity) against un-sustainability. These social considerations are not feel-good add-ons to sustainability work, they are the core of it. He lays out some principles for creating the green-collar economy:

1) Equal protection for all – the poor are being hit first and hardest by unsustainability – whether it’s drought in Africa, rising seas in the South Pacific, or Katrina – and we must foster a strong sense of community and equal protection if our civilization is to survive.

2) Equal opportunity for all – we cannot simply replace solar for oil and reinforce a divided society where some are systematically held back from success, it is a great opportunity to lift millions out of poverty and we will need the energy and creativity of everyone to do so.

3) Reverence for all Creation – this is self-explanatory, and sort of a combined step into Deep Ecology and inclusion of the huge segment of our global population made up by people of faith.

All in all, a very well-done, and very readable, accessible book – and as timely as ever given the confluence of events (not that this is surprising as these events are the inevitable result of the old economic system). Stay going.