Friday, February 15, 2008

The carrot, not the stick

I was thinking, sitting at the Investor Summit on Climate Risk at the UN yesterday, that there is just too much bad news here. It's unmanageable. In fact, I was downright relieved that they didn't let the press into the luncheon to hear keynote speaker Al Gore (who apparently didn't want the press present, though I can't figure out why not). To hear that the world as we know it will end - and that the only way of preventing that is to immediately take steps that experience would indicate are politically impossible - is paralyzing. Then I came upon this note by David Roberts. I think he's got it right. Fear will only get you so far. What really moves the world is desire. We need to paint a picture of what life could be.
Aspirational green | Gristmill: The environmental news blog | Grist: "I'm starting to think that the thing to do is pivot completely from global warming to one-earth living. Global warming creates the condition of necessity. It is background. Foreground the positive opportunities: reducing energy bills through efficiency and green building; generating clean energy on-site or purchasing it via offsets or RECs; living in vibrant, walkable communities to boost health and wellbeing; enjoying food more, knowing where it comes from, how to grow and cook it; knowing that the material things in your life are not contributing to degrading the planet; having a good idea and making a fortune doing the right thing. These are things to aspire to."

Kleiner Perkins and climate risk

I spent yesterday at a conference at the UN on sustainable investing and climate risk. At the end of the day - all good conferences need a tag for a press release, after all - a bunch of state treasurers announced a climate risk action plan. Some 40 investors. managing $1.75 trillion, promised to insist that asset managers consider climate risks (and opportunities), invest in clean technologies, push for government policy changes, evangelize for sustainable investing, and so on. (Though the policy change most frequently demanded at the conference - a good, stiff carbon tax - isn't specifically mentioned in the action plan.)
Still, it's all well, good and hopeful. But when I looked at the list of signers, it turned out to be entirely made up of what I have begun to think of as the usual suspects: state pension funds, socially responsible investment companies, and foundations. These guys have been fighting the good fight for years, but they have never been able to persuade what I regrettably think of as real investors - the commercial asset managers, hedge funds, banks and investment banks that are in this business simply to make as much money as they can - to join them.
At the end of the conference, though, the moderator announced that famed venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers had signed onto the action plan.
Now, this is a very, very tiny tip of the iceberg. Kleiner Perkins has been investing in green technology for years. Last year the firm joined forces with Al Gore's Generation Investment Management (an action plan signer), with Gore becoming a Kleiner Perkins partner and Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr joining Generation's board. Indeed, we were told it was Gore (yesterday's lunchtime speaker) who'd persuaded the firm to sign on.
So Kleiner Perkins' pledge may have been more a courtesy to a board member than the product of a deep commitment. But the firm is a star in the commercial investing firmament. If it does become an evangelist for sustainable investing, it might get a whole new audience to listen. And that could jump-start some big changes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

No, more is not better

Two interesting - and alarming - New York Times articles cited here. How long is it going to take us to realize that there IS no fuel that's going to solve global warming? The only way to even approach energy independence or to have a hope of halting global warming, is not to use so much. US corporations are beginning to figure this out. Amory Lovins figured it out a long time ago. But as long as governments see a continuing and increasing supply of fuel as essential for economic growth, we're not going to get anywhere.

No Impact Man: Biofuels far from a silver bullet: "biofuels produced from plant matter such as corn and soybeans have been touted as the great hope for replacing petroleum to fuel cars and heat buildings. But though policy makers have rushed to the technology, it's turning out that the costs may far outweigh the benefits"

Real Food TV?

Watching "Hugh's Chicken Run," a three-part series on the moral and culinary offense that is cage-raised chicken that ran on the UK's Channel 4 last month, I kept wondering - will I ever see anything like this on American TV? But actually, why not? Sure, it was advocacy journalism. But it was also marvelous reality TV. (Here's a link to some clips. )
Here's the concept: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose River Cottage Meat Book was just released in the US, decided to try to get his local market town to give up eating, or selling, caged birds. He held town meetings, pushed take-away chicken restaurants to offer free-range kebabs, and lobbied (and got thrown out of) supermarkets.
And in an elaborate show-and-tell, he filled a big shed with chickens - caged at one end, commercial-style free-range at the other and invited townspeople in to take a look. In one clip - which Channel 4 milked for all it was worth - Hugh, who nurses his own sick chickens back to health, stood weeping at the sight of the half dead chickens which, in his role as a commercial chicken grower, he would have to kill. (In the world of commercial chicken production, it costs more to treat a sick chicken than the chicken is worth.) "I don't want to kill any more chickens," he wailed.
Interesting, how many different things the word 'kill' can mean; is killing a healthy chicken for food a different moral act from killing a sick chicken because it's too much trouble to take care of it?
Hugh also persuaded a group of lower-income local folk to try growing their own pastured chickens on a nearby patch of vacant land, a project that, while largely successful, was also rife with conflict and contradiction. However much they liked Hugh, these new chicken farmers couldn't resist making cracks about his wealth (and his double-barreled name). The project nearly came to grief because the residents came to love their chickens so much they could hardly bear to kill them. And while celebrating the town's turn to free-range chicken, Hugh runs into the woman who became the leader of the project. She's at the supermarket, resolutely and resentfully buying a cheap commercial chicken because, she argues, that's all she (and many others) can afford.