This Sustainable Life
176: The folly of chasing efficiency
Silicon Valley, governments, and lots of people are pushing for efficiency. I do too, but only after changing systemic beliefs and goals.
The greatest cause of global warming would have looked like the greenest clean energy innovation ever: the Watt steam engine. It led to our environmental problems today more than anything else.
We'd be fools to think today's green clean energy will do any different. Changing beliefs and goals will create results, not ignorantly continuing the patterns that got us here, thinking we're different.
Efficiency is different than reducing total waste. An LED will never compete with simply turning off the light. If you thought, but the light enables things, that belief, especially if you reflexively believe that the alternative to technology is the stone age, is the cause of global warming and our other environmental problems because it drives continuing the behavior that got us here.
What I'm saying won't change that belief. In my experience few things change belief, rarely facts, figures, doom, gloom, guilt, shame. Definitely not continuing what you're doing. What does? New experiences and community.
I'm not going to get into leadership and what influences motivations, emotions, beliefs, and behavior, but I'll tell you that if we don't change our behavior and beliefs, if we could magically return CO2 levels to pre-industrial revolution, we'd be back here pretty quickly.
And our behavior for centuries has been to make things more efficient, ignoring total waste, which we've increased. Almost nobody wants to consider consuming and producing less, despite reduce, reuse, recycle starting with reduce.
Folks, when people say that not acting now means we'll have to act more later to keep the earth able to maintain a population and society something like ours, they mean it. And people have been saying that for generations. If you believe efficiency only will make a difference, you aren't changing at all. You're doing exactly what got us here.
Change would be to reduce.
Here's one of the papers I alluded to. Quoting the paper:
we find that higher energy efficiency increased rather than reduced energy use, because lower capital cost enhanced energy use by more than the increase in energy cost reduced it. This casts strong doubts on the view that energy-saving technological change has lowered fossil energy use.
View all episodes
722. 722: Michael Forsythe: When McKinsey Comes to Town57:37When I started business school at Columbia, I hadn't heard of McKinsey. The Firm recruited heavily there, so I found out about them, but little, since they were so secretive. I learned more from my classmates, that the business world held them in high regard. People wanted to work there.I interviewed and learned I got high reviews there, but I had entered business school to improve as an entrepreneur and stayed on my path. Several friends worked there and at its peers Boston Consulting Group and Bain, as well as other consulting firms like Deloitte.I heard about Michael's book while I was reading books on colonialism, especially Heart of Darkness and King Leopold's Ghost. Leopold crafted a public persona of a benevolent philanthropist helping end the Arab slave trade in the Congo while creating a huge, cruel slave state he profited from. Given what I knew about McKinsey, I read several reviews and watched videos of the authors. They showed a company crafting a benevolent philanthropic image while profiting from others' suffering---promoting tobacco, opiates, dictatorships, and, most relevant to sustainability, oil and petroleum states.Maybe I was looking for patterns that weren't there, but they made me wonder how much McKinsey and its peers had become a modern King Leopold. The book presents some devastating finds. It's well researched, as you can imagine how anything it revealed wrongly could prompt lawsuits. Beyond McKinsey's work with the world's most polluting corporations and nations, many McKinsey people transitioned to help run some of the world's most polluting companies, including previous guest and three-time Global Managing Director Dominic Barton.In our conversation, Michael reviews some of the book and shares back stories into how he and his coauthor Walt worked. We treated many areas of McKinsey's work, but focused on sustainability-related ones.Michael's column at the New York TimesHis book When McKinsey Comes to TownIts review in the Times: Book Review: “When McKinsey Comes to Town,” by Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe
721. 721: Jim Burke, part 1: The Most Beautiful Street in New York City?01:10:09After reading about 34th Avenue in Queens and watching the video linked below, I had to ride to see it. Over a mile of a once congested street was transformed into safer, quieter places people enjoyed, especially kids. There are three schools along the route. The kids can come out and play.I met Jim there, felt inspired to do something similar near me, and invited him to the podcast. He talks about what made it possible, what's happened since it started, resistance, celebration, and more.After we recorded, we walked around my neighborhood and he showed what streets would work best to start the program with. I'm already starting to act.Before we overbuilt streets for cars, people did fine without cars. Once built, people adjusted their lives, forgot how things worked before, and claim they have no choice to drive. They act like this privilege and addiction helps the poor it impoverishes or people who can't walk everywhere whom it traps.The answer is to change our environment so cars aren't so necessary. People can adjust back.Please listen to my episode with Jason Slaughter of the video series Not Just Bikes for more advanced city changes. The U.S. is sorely lagging.Queens’ 34th Avenue Shows What Open Streets Can Do for People34th Avenue Oral History on Jim BurkeDesigning Open Streets video
720. 720: Maya Van Rossum, part 2: You Don't Have a Right to a Clean Environment. You Have to Work for It.01:09:23Do you think government should protect people's life, liberty, and property? What if it turned out it didn't, if it said other people could destroy your life, liberty, and property, and would help them do it?That's what pollution does. A lack of a clean environment means that someone polluted it and hurt you, your children, your loved ones. You don't have a right to a clean environment if you are an American, or likely anyone. Instead, others have the right to destroy your life, liberty, and property.Three states have amendments where you can sue for it, but it's hard and the nation doesn't overall.What would you do if you lost your right to free speech? Would you not work like hell to restore it? Wouldn't you recognize that others would figure out ways to profit from limiting your speech, maybe charging you for it, as a bottled water company would charge your for water? You'd act fast to prevent them from eroding your lost rights more and holding them from you.Maya is doing that work for your potential right to a clean environment. We start with this perspective, then consider how serious it is, what you can do about it, and how important it is.In short, you would much prefer life with the right to a clean environment at the constitutional level, as much as you want all the rights in the Bill of Rights.
719. 719: David Blight, part 1: From Abolitionism to Sustainability51:55Regular listeners and blog readers know my developing abolitionism as a role model for a sustainability movement. I've hosted several top scholars on the history of abolitionism in England and America, as well as the relevant constitutional law.Today's guest is a top historian and I found our conversation fascinating. He knows the history like an encyclopedia and can analyze it to answer my questions immediately.We talk about anti-slavery politics, abolitionism, Frederick Douglass's interpretation of the Constitution over time and in comparison to William Lloyd Garrison's and slave owners', and more.The big question we pursue is can we use the Constitution to make our nation sustainable? If so, how?You'll hear I'm narrowing in on answers. David and I will speak again. This conversation sets the groundwork. I believe it's history in the making, in that it's leading to political solutions for our environmental problems caused by our culture.David's home pageDavid's page at Yale
718. 718: Albert Garcia-Romeu, part 2: Psychedelics and Appreciating Nature Where You Are01:06:19I couldn't help asking question about the field of psychedelics research beyond our last conversation. He's a professional at the top of the field and well-connected. I started by asking him about comedy and psychedelics, after reading a funny piece in The Onion about it. He responded seriously, after all, there's a lot of humor in psychedelics.Then he shared about the growing communities of professionals and non-professionals. We both talked about trends in tourism, psychedelics, and sustainability. A lot of people are flying around and doing other things that lower Earth's ability to sustain life in the name of helping. They're achieving the opposite of what the marketers sold them on. Others are homogenizing and assimilating cultures in the name of promoting and protecting them.We talked about his experiences with his commitment from last time, including appreciating nature where we are, not feeling we have to drive or travel to find it.
717. 717: Pamela Paul: Writing on Controversial Subjects With Confidence47:52I met Pamela Paul after she mentioned previous guest John Sargent in a piece, There's More Than One Way to Ban a Book. I found her column covered issues others shy away from. I was curious what motivated her.We talked about what motivates her to write, how she chooses her columns, and how she writes. I was looking for encouragement to take on difficult topics with confidence, since I'm doing it in my book. I'm concerned my book could be maybe not banned but attacked for taking on topics people tell me to shy away from.She gives an inside view of an industry and vaunted institution. She also encouraged me a lot. If you're interested in exploring your boundaries, I expect her words will help you too.Pamela's opinion column at the New York TimesHer home page
716. 716: Arnold Leitner, part 2: How much energy and power do you need to be happy?01:04:32How do we affect others and how does it relate to what brings meaning to life? I'm surprised it took this long for one of my conversations to cover the meaning of life, but I'm not surprised it came with a fellow physicist. Being able to talk quantitatively about nature comfortably, from lots of practice, lets us understand patterns of what's happening.Arnold can also talk with integrity for living by the values he talks about. We see the challenges similarly, though I focus on changing culture and he focuses more on technology.Talking about culture and meaning comes later in this conversation. First we talk in numbers about the patterns he sees in power use, then we expand to reducing battery needs overall, though mostly in houses and transportation.We also talk about most likely outcomes for humanity. He sees similar results to what I expect if humanity continues business as usual, which isn't pretty. I think we can do more than he can, though I recognize few people think hundreds of millions of Americans can reduce their overall impact something like ninety percent in a few years. I didn't think I could until I did.Listen and find out why I looked up the lyrics to 99 Red Balloons and watched the Matrix for first time in at least a decade.Arnold's company YouSolar
715. 715: My mom, Marie Spodek, part 3: Starting a food coop and making ends meet as a single mom in a food desert with three kids01:09:42I've written about how people act like food coops don't work for people without resources like time and money or who have kids. It took me a long time to realize they didn't see food coops being started because the people starting them didn't have time or money and had kids. When my parents couldn't make ends meet, then after they divorced and struggled more to make ends meet, forming cooperative groups was their way out of poverty.Luckily nobody told them they couldn't do it! Likewise with the people behind Drew Gardens in the Bronx, Harlem Grown, my credit union, or countless other results of community organizing.I wrote about it in If you think food coops cost more or complain that some people don’t have access to them, you don’t know what you’re talking about and are exacerbating the problem, but my mom was there. In this episode we talk about how they helped organize a group of families to save money and time to buy higher quality food. Later that group folded into Weavers Way coop, which is one of my favorite parts of my childhood. I didn't recognize it as such as a child, though.
714. 714: Adam Hochschild, part 3: King Leopold's Ghost01:02:53Adam's book Bury the Chains inspired me to see British abolitionism as a role model movement for sustainability. The writing was simple and clear. The subject inspirational and relevant. We talked about it in our first episodes, which I recommend.At last I read his most renowned book, King Leopold's Ghost, which we talk about in this episode. I came to it after reading Heart of Darkness, which it complements. Regular readers know how much I've found imperialism, colonialism, and slavery. King Leopold's Ghost covers the case of Belgium's king pulling it off while cultivating a philanthropic reputation. It's shocking and more relevant than ever, given the continuing imperialism, colonialism, and slavery in Africa today, now for our cell phones and electric vehicles. They aren't clean, green, or renewable.Adam shares the highlights of the story. Again, the writing is simple and clear so I recommend the whole book. Start with our conversation. King Leopold's Ghost is as relevant to today as any book. If you're concerned about the environment and how corporations and government can promote themselves as green while behaving the opposite, I can't recommend it enough.Adam's page at UC Berkeley's Journalism School