Thursday, June 29, 2006

Guest Post: Personal Factor Four: Organizing Real Environmental Action with the Internet

Vinay Gupta published this post at WorldChanging last weekend, and asked me if I'd also publish it here. Turns out I had planned on writing about it, so I was happy to accomodate him. I'm very glad to see someone pressing these issues, and will be very interested to see your responses.


Once in a while, somebody notes that the Internet should be materially contributing to solving the world's problems. I think the notion has been around since about 1965. I'd like to raise some ideas for you, WorldChanging's Open Thinktank, to think about, speculate on, contribute to and improve. Our goal is to get to a personal Factor Four improvement in your environmental impact and mine by using the collective intelligence and collective action that the internet enables...

Natural Capitalism and Waste Aggregation
One of the key concepts of Natural Capitalism is "Sell Services, Not Products." Part of the rationale for this is what I'm going to loosely term "Waste Aggregation." To take a canonical NatCap example, imagine an elevator. If the elevator is owned by the business which uses it (say a hotel) then the energy efficiency and reliability of the elevator has relatively minor impact on the bottom line of the hotel. As long as it basically works, nobody cares about its quality.

Now imagine this elevator is leased, and the company which leases it to the hotel also has to keep it running. Suddenly this company's bottom line is massively impacted by the reliability of their elevators, because every repair costs them money. For the hotel, a few thousand dollars a year on the bottom line is no big deal. But for the elevator leasing service, all those repair costs aggregate and turn into a large enough pool of money to do real engineering with. By aggregating the waste we make it profitable to get rid of it.

Recycling is a form of "waste aggregation" by the way.

Demand-Side Aggregation
To push this example further, suppose the company which leases the elevators pays for the power they consume too. Now the waste aggregated covers not just the mechanical reliability of the elevator, but also its electrical efficiency. If they also recycle / reuse elevators at end of life there is yet more aggregation. This can be termed demand side aggregation.(sorry I don't have a better link for that!)

The Internet is theoretically a great place for birds of a feather to flock together to produce demand side aggregation. (Dan Savage's Law of Internet Perversion more or less states that, no matter how weird your kink, there is a community online for you) Another good example of Internet-enabled demand-side aggregation is a site which purports to allow groups of individuals to collect money together in the manner of the Street Performer Protocol.

Where could the Internet's ability to create demand side aggregation be turned into real environmental gains? One idea - and nobody do this as a start-up before I get to it - would be to aggregate demand in an area for green real estate development. Find two hundred potential buyers, then approach green builders and set up a deal for perhaps twenty units, given that the proven demand exceeds the supply by a factor of 10-to-1, reducing risk. Another example might be communities coming together to mass purchase energy efficiency improvements or wind credits.

If we have to solve the problems we have on this planet with the tools available, the Internet is potentially a very, very good tool. Where can we use the aggregating power of the Net to reduce environmental impact worldwide?

All of Us Are Smarter than Any of Us Are
The Peak Energy Blog reads like it was written by a fellow traveller. I just came across it today by chance via a google search. Every time I look something environmental up online, I wind up one of two places: the EIA or some random green weblog. There are a lot of us out there - tens or hundreds of thousands I think.

The environmental problems we face are huge and many of them are amenable, at least in part, to relatively small actions by large groups of people. Furthermore, the intellectual labor of sorting out our environmental problems may not have to be done by a few think tanks stocked with full-on genius polymaths. It may be that a lot of our problems can be analysed to solution by "peer production." If it's good enough for Linux and Wikipedia, after all...

So how do we mobilize the Yacking Hordes of the Internet, of whom I am one, into effective teams to do something about our environmental problems?

There are a set of questions I have about the environment that I have never been able to find a good, clear answer for. That doesn't mean that there are no good, clear answers, but that I haven't been able to find them.

1. Paper or Plastic at the checkout? (I'm joking)
2. How does personal income correlate (on average) with net environmental impact (graphs, please!)
3. What are the ten most environmentally damaging consumer products in America?

These are just examples, you understand. But it seems that small teams of people, like those who operate some areas of Wikipedia, could answer these questions in a definitively well-researched form. If the programmers and architects had enough spare resources to recreate Unix and are working on recreating Windows/MacOS, can the Greens create something of equivalent power and value, a Manual Of Doing The Right Thing that people can refer to to solve their ecological quandries? What other artefacts could peer production create to help us do a better job of living on the planet? Could we start with an annotated library of Buckminster Fuller's patents, for instance?

How many other, better ways are there that we could take the combined brainpower of the ecologically-minded amateurs and start churning out real solutions? How do we actually start to harness our collective intelligence to think our way out of the potentially fatal cultural deadlock we are in about our current energy and environmental crises?

Speculation, if you will, in the comments...

Aggregating into a movement
I spent a part of today digging double dug beds, which are a part of biointensive agriculture. I hadn't had a spade in my hand since Scotland, probably, over a decade ago. I broke the damn fork so I hope the warranty works. I learned a few things in the process, and I expect to learn more as the process unfolds. (I may wind up living inside my own fiction if I'm not careful!)

All over the internet there are small and large communities of practice - centers of excellence in organic farming or living cheaply or doing home solar. There are professional networks for architects and designers. There is a grass roots movement which has been running since at least the 60s and perhaps before that, learning and maintaining knowledge.

Without meaning to sound alarmist, I'd like us to consider that the time may be at hand where we have to turn the very large number of people with green leanings into effective political and financial pressure groups. There is no guarantee that the nation state or the international agency is the right level of political action to solve environmental problems: while international agreements have done very well in certain areas (the ozone layer, for example) so far nobody has got a realistic handle on CO2 or the ways of live which are crashing our global biodiversity. We may need new approaches to solve these problems.

The problem is that individual action seems too weak: ok, I could buy more CF bulbs and be a little greener, even if I like incandescent light a bit more... but so what? Sure, I could walk more and drive less... but so what... Sure I could... individually, I feel like my actual impact is negligible. And it is.

Symbolic, token green action is personally satisfying, and may indeed be building necessary momentum and infrastructure for transforming our society, but it has little overall effect. Everybody expects somebody else to Do Something and, in truth, many of the worst problems are systemic and deeply entrenched. How energy efficient is your apartment building? If it leaks like a sieve, is there anything you can do about it? Not much, not really...

There are, however, a few clear winners we need to get behind, technologies and ways of life which could, with appropriate support, really change the way our society impacts our planet.

I'd like to pick three examples.

The first example is Green and High Performance Building. Pretty simple, really: cut the energy used to heat, cool and light your home by 75% in some cases. If a couple of hundred thousand people on the internet mobilized behind this, how much could we cut our collective environmental impact? Even if only 10% of us migrated into green dwellings over the next decade, how large would the net savings be for the group which supported this effort? Living in a green house is probably the best thing you can personally do to reduce your environmental impact.

The second example is Hypercars. Although for most of us, our homes have around twice the CO2 emissions of our cars, transport still has huge impacts on how our society functions. While "efficient cars" may be the wrong approach in the long run (see New Urbanism for a better idea) the car is still a critical battleground over the short term, particularly given the geopolitical importance of oil. The green benefits of getting america off oil would only be the beginning: imagine the "oil peace dividend."

The extremely rapid sales of hybrid vehicles are a great start, but a more efficient powertrain is only the start of designing efficienct vehicles. While I am agnostic-leaning-atheist on the hydrogen economy part of the hypercar concept, still the super-lightweight 200 mpg diesel hybrid has its appeal! How do we, as potential customers, catalyze the car companies to give us their best and push the technology envelope as far as possible to get the most efficient vehicles that are financially and technologically feasible? Do we, as potential customers, have a role in the vehicle design process?

The third and last example is Organic Farming. The number of reasons organic farming is the Right Thing are beyond immediate measure. It may not be the only Right Thing (I might be quite partial to vat grown meat), but for reasons from soil preservation through to personal health, organic is a boon. Ideas like Community Supported Agriculture have already shown that community organization can help produce a feasible, financially sustainable livlihood for organic farmers. I do not know how far organic food can replace our current pesticide-and-fertilizer food economy: there may be limits both economic and physical - but clearly we could as a culture support a much, much larger and more competitive organic farming industry. Could we do the same kind of grass-roots communit activism to create "community supported builders" (CSB) and "community supported cars" (CSC)? I am sure there ways of using our collective buying power to create the new products we want.

So let's put these three changes into context. If you are reading this the odds are very strong that you live in the North, that you are one of the richest human beings on the planet, that you have a computer and a roof over your head. If this describes you, then consider this: if you had a green home, a hypercar and ate all organic produce, your net environmental impact could be 25% of what it is now.

A purely individual Factor Four reduction in our individual environmental impact might not be feasible. Green homes are hard to find right now, hypercars don't exist and organic food is often quite expensive.

But I think that enough of us working together could start to produce Factor Four improvements in the lives of those at the forefront of our movement, the very earliest adopters. We can use our collective heft to start a "green house, green car, organic food" movement that could motivate people across the country to work together to lay the foundations of real change.

Let's discuss these ideas in the comments and elsewhere. I'm not sold on this particular agenda: a lot of analysis would be needed to figure out if these are the right places to start. Likewise, I haven't addressed cultural, institutional level changes like migrations to new fuel economies, which might be the best long term solutions.

To make tracking the discussion across other sites easier, please use the tag personalfactorfour (no spaces) if you are making blog postings etc. about this or related ideas!

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