Being Green in 2001

Originally published in the last issue of Whole Earth Magazine (aka Whole Earth Review), Spring 2003


Whole Earth 101In the sixties and early seventies my g-g-generation caught fire with concern for the environment; we added it to our charm bracelet of concerns which included world hunger, the Vietnam war (and, for that matter, all goddam wars), gender and racial inequality, haircuts, junk food, television, processed food, the prohibition of Certain Substances, nuclear energy, Republicans, Democrats, polyester, and who knows what else, I’ve lost track. We were definitely going to do something about all this stuff, but most of us were distracted along the way by parties wild and mundane, kids, car payments, mortgages, alcohol and narcotics, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, trips to the mall, Star Wars, fitness programs, etc. We became mainstream capitalists, young urban professionals defined by our diverse purchases and 1significant debt loads.

So we forgot that we were supposed to be doing something about the world’s problems, though to protect the environment we kept recycling, signed petitions to save greenbelts, humpback whales and black-capped verios, bought Sierra Club calendars and drove the smaller, more energy-efficient SUVs and pickup trucks. We did our bit to control population (saving a few childcare bucks along the way). We enjoyed the great outdoors, wore rugged clothes, took our kids to Earth Day celebrations, and did what we could to avoid polluting our little corners of the world. But we were also human and fallible, possibly greedy, and we didn’t always remember in detail why this stuff about the environment was supposed to be a big deal or wonder how separating newspapers and bottles from the rest of the trash was going to save the planet. We heard that there was a hole in the ozone, so we stopped using chlorofluorocarbons and that was okay. We were pumping spray to do our part. We didn’t think to wonder whether ozone healed. What does that ozone layer do, anyway? Our kids probably knew.

We got really, really busy with our jobs and our lives. Time passed.

Scientists were still paying attention, though. In the 1950s they started measuring atmospheric CO2 at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory, and by 1983 they were noticing and worrying about increased volumes of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These gases are essential to the biosphere because they trap and hold heat from the sun’s radiation. However increased volumes were causing a warming trend over the earth’s surface. The Environmental Protection Agency said that, because of warming, “agricultural conditions will be significantly altered, environmental and economic systems potentially disrupted, and political institutions stressed.” In 1988 the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprised of the world’s leading climate scientists. They began to organize the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, where scientists acknowledged a need to take some kind of action with to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with human activity…primarily factory emissions and car exhausts. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was established to create commitments by industrialized nations to curb their emissions.

1998 was the hottest year in the last millennium, and a megastrength El Nino caused massive storms in some areas, severe drought in others. This got our attention. Perhaps it was time to hug a few trees.


I live in Boulder, Colorado, where climate and environmental studies are prominent. The National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration both have substantial research facilities in Boulder, and the University of Colorado has one of the best Environmental Studies programs in the country. I dropped in on Dr. James White, director of the Environmental Studies program. He said that the global climate is definitely changing, and there’s no doubt that human activity is a significant driver. “I think that, if you look at the simple physics around how greenhouse gases work, if you look at the fact that greenhouse gases are on the increase, we know we’re having an impact on climate,” he says, adding that the debate is really over how that impact is expressed. It might be heat, it might be megastorms and overall climatic instability.

Can’t we have more certainty? Not according to Dr. White. “My own research tells me that climate change is not this give and take, push and shove kind of linear system where if we increase CO2 by X, we get X climate change; if we increase it by 2X, we get 2X climate change. That is really what the models give us as feedback, because the models don’t have mode changes. If North Atlantic deep water fails, a sophisticated model that can handle that. But if you look at the way climate has changed historically, going back over the history of the earth, it’s not a little bit here, a little bit there. It’s more like my little brother, when we were kids. I would pester him, and he didn’t respond, and I would pester him more, and he would blow up, and yell and scream at me. When Mom asked me what I did, I said ‘All I did was poke him once, Mom.’ But there was all that energy I built up in my little brother with all those other tormenting little pokes. And it’s that kind of nonlinear behavior that makes waiting for the shoe to drop a rather dangerous activity.”

Climate is notoriously hard to predict because of its multidimensional complexity. It’s hard to discern all the potential interactions, subtle and gross, that might influence long-term weather patterns. Because weather is complex, trends are unlikely to have global consistency. For instance, despite the current global warming trend, the southeast U.S. is actually cooling, and temperature trends throughout the U.S. are relatively flat compared to the rest of the world. Bottom line here is that, though we know climate is changing, we don’t know long-term implications of the change. So what do we do?

Unfortunately some believe that, lacking clarity about the implications of climate change, we should do nothing. According to Jim White, this is a tricky debate for scientists, who are taught to think in terms of hypotheses and conditional statements. And as a culture we’re into denial, especially about problems that seem distant, the proactive handling of which involves costs. This is where we have George W. Bush et al dissing the Kyoto Accords as too expensive to implement. For Bush, short term costs outweigh long-term uncertainties about climate. Says Jim White, ” I think the sad reality is that we may, before all is said and done, get a big climate change, and that may be the mobilizing factor. Some people have argued that we’ll need that. We’ll need the big change, the grizzly bear set free in the house before we deal with the bears in the yard.”

Green Teams

White’s been looking forward. ” I see carbon dioxide and climate change as merely step one in many steps, many problems that are going to happen in the future,” he says. “We’re going to have to have global cooperation to deal with them all. So we need to take the first step with something like the Kyoto Treaty. Maybe we’re not going to get the best treaty we possibly can, maybe it’s going to have a little more economic impact than we could potentially negotiate. But let’s take the step. We’re going to have to get to some point of global cooperation in the future, and we’re certainly not going to get there if we take all of our toys and step back from the table, and say no, we’re not going along.”

Meanwhile White and his colleagues in Boulder are working on a solution in a new, cross-disciplinary approach to Environmental Sciences curriculum. The University of Colorado has a National Science Foundation grant for a curriculum called Carbon, Climate, and Society. ” The idea is for graduate students from the natural sciences – specifically biology, geological Sciences, chemistry, etc. – to be co-educated with students from economics, political science, and in particular journalism. At an early stage in a graduate career, they’ll learn team-building skills essential for them to address environmental issues. There’s just no way that a person going through any one discipline can really grasp the full breadth of environmental problems, because it involves the full complexity of humans interacting with the natural environment. So the idea is that they will learn first how to trust their colleagues in these various fields. And we want them to learn how to communicate with the media, and through the media, with the public.”

This is the kind of activism we need. It’s not enough to be educated in one of the relevant scientific disciplines. You also have to learn to develop and leverage synergy with experts in other disciplines, especially media and politics, and that kind of cooperation doesn’t have to be limited to academic environments or wait until students so trained leave school. Working scientists, policy specialists, and journalists can follow the same model, forming teams to raise consciousness and influence policy.

Corporations can do the “green team” thing, too. Managing Green Teams: Environmental Change in Organisations and Networks, a book published in the UK (Edited by John Moxen and Peter A. Strachan; published by The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK; available through Amazon UK, describes “how environmental teams can trigger changes in core operations and integrate environmental concerns in business decision-making at every level in the organization.” There several projects involving green teams, in fact, a web search on the phrase via Google got over 1,400 hits. This is definitely and idea whose time has come.

Finally, there are obvious things we can all do to mitigate our impact on climate change. We can drive smaller cars, drive less, push for more and better forms of mass transit. We can plant trees (if 250 million of us planted four trees each, that would be a billion new trees sucking CO2 out of the air!)

And we can teach our kids environmental awareness, attention, and care… education and sane tradition are the best remedies.

And what do we do about George W. Bush? Pretty obvious…

Write his mom a nice, long letter.

Jamais Cascio at Inkwell

Jamais Cascio
Jamais Cascio

Futurist Jamais Cascio is holding forth about scenarios, foresight, and climate change at Inkwell on the WELL. If you have comments or questions for the conversation, send to inkwell at

So here’s one of the nasty, generally unstated truths about climate disruption: by and large, the rich countries (the primary historical source of greenhouse gas emissions) will very likely weather climate disruptions much more readily than poor countries (historically *not* greenhouse powerhouses). This is in part due to geography — the equatorial region’s going to get hammered by global warming, and the closer-to-the-poles regions less so — but mostly due to money. The US, Europe, and Japan will be more able to afford to adapt than will China, India, or other up & coming developing nations. Australia is an exception on the geography side, and a test case in how well a rich nation can adapt.

At least in the near-medium term; left unchecked, climate disruption hoses everyone by the end of the century.

Your sense that the Pacific Northwest is one of the better places to go in the US is probably accurate. Not sure that Seattle itself is a good spot, simply due to how close it is to sea level. Portland’s a decent option, though.

Texas residents should pay close attention to what’s happening in Australia right now — that’s your likely (uncomfortably near) future.

As a general rule, you want to be further north and well above sea level. Storm systems in the western Atlantic seem to be getting charged by climate disruption more so than storms in the eastern Pacific, so you’ll probably want to be well away from the coastline in the US Northeast. Also, bear in mind that global warming means increased (a) energy in the atmosphere (driving storms) and (b) ability for the atmosphere to hold moisture, so winter storms will probably be bigger deals.

Europe’s problem is that most of the northern cities and regions aren’t accustomed to very hot summers, and don’t have the necessary infrastructure to withstand the heat (remember the heat wave that killed thousands in Europe a few years ago — they were by and large killed by the lack of air conditioning). That’s not impossible to fix. Power lines/stations that aren’t built for the heat may be a bigger issue.

To be clear, nobody gets a pass on the impacts of global warming. Water access, loss of farmland, internal population displacement*, novel pests & diseases will be big problems in the rich countries as well as the poor — it’s just that the US, etc., will have more resources to draw from to deal with these problems.

Worldchanging Interview with Jean Russell on Thrivability (2009)

In September 2009, Worldchanging published my interview with thrivability consultant Jean Russell. I’m republishing the interview here in its entirety. Jean and I have had many conversations since, and I’m persistently intrigued by her well-grounded positive vision of a world in which we humans not only survive sustainably, but thrive. (Last February, Jean arranged for Todd Hoskins to interview me – that interview’s at

Technology consultant, entrepreneur and thrivability theorist Jean Russell joined Jerry Michalski’s August 3 Yi-Tan Conference Call for a conversation about thrivability as a conceptual replacement for sustainabilty. After that talk (which you can hear via the above link), I asked Jean to join me in a brief but enlightening Worldchanging interview.

Jon Lebkowsky: Let’s start with the definition of thrivability I found at, that it’s “our path out of unsustainable practices toward a world where all people have a high quality of life, a voice, and a nurturing earth supporting them. Using whole systems approach, it demands that we evolve our way of being together, of collaborating, so that our collective wisdom and action bring forth a flourishing world and thriving life.”

What’s the origin of this definition, and what led you to start thinking about “thrivability” vs sustainability?

Jean Russell: At a Recent Changes Camp in Portland Oregon in 2006 I had a powerful two-hour conversation with Jair. I have not stayed connected to him, but in that conversation he mentioned the word thrivability. And it took hold of me for several reasons. Jair and I share a connection to Tom Munnecke, and I had been engaged in conversations with Tom on the community. Tom wrote about solution-focus, positive deviance and other ideas that informed my concepts of thrivability. So I chewed and chewed on the idea, starting a blog to track my explorations.

This definition of thrivability evolved from that blog. Because this was so alive for me, I would talk with people about it wherever I went. And so I really feel that the idea is less mine and more the ideas of people who have shared with me. It is also strongly informed by the three years of conversations on I came to the space as a writer focused on philanthropy, but while there I learned about such a wide variety of elements of social benefit work. I let my curiosity lead me, and the great wisdom of many there guide me. So, for me, thrivability is the umbrella that holds all of these efforts — it speaks to the unified whole of our efforts and the world those efforts aspires to.

I have puzzled over the connection between sustainability and thrivability. When I started the thrivability blog, I wondered if it was simply a language shift or if there was something deeper. Thanks to the network of people involved in the conversation, I feel clearer now than I did in ’07. If we drew a Venn diagram of the two, there is significant overlap. A lot of the work done under the umbrella of sustainability totally fits the concept of thrivability too. It is less that the actions are significantly different as much as the approach and aspiration is different. The language of sustainability is about neutralizing. Thrivability is about succeeding.

An example can help. If we ask, when building a home, “what isn’t sustainable here?” then we get a list of what we could do to make the house sustainable: maybe it says something about the materials we use and how the energy flows. If we are innovative, it also includes water flows and a green roof. If we ask instead, “what would make this home thrivable?” I want thrivable materials and thrivable energy. But I also want thrivable design — how do the living creatures of the home move through it? And while putting in a green roof, did we make it something that can be a garden? Did we consider the interior lighting of the house — not only for heating and cooling, but also for seasonal affective disorder? How does the house play together in the ecology of the neighborhood? Who works to build it? Are their lives more thrivable for having created the house? What else is an input/output or otherwise impacted by this house — and how can that be thrivable? Do you see how the shift from problem-focus to solution-focus includes the strategies employed in addressing the problem but also goes further?

JL: I understand the difference between the two, but it seems to me that you could have a ‘thrivability’ that isn’t sustainable, or that diminishes the sustainability of related or dependent systems. Would it make more sense to talk about “sustainable thrivability”?

JR: I think Arthur Brock points to the answer quite well. He recently wrote:

Thrivability builds on itself. It is a cycle of actions which reinvest energy for future use and stretch resources further. It transcends sustainability by creating an upward spiral of greater possibilities and increasing energy. Each cycle builds the foundation for new things to be accomplished.

Thrivability emerges from the persistent intention to create more value than you consume. When practiced over time this builds a world of ever increasing possibilities.

Thrivability already includes what is meant by sustainability. And it goes beyond it. To say sustainable thrivability in some way limits it, in fact. Think of life forming on Earth — to sustain single celled organisms is one thing — to transcend that and create multi-cellular organisms in another. The earth has conspired for life to thrive, creating upward spirals, building resources, and evolving greater complexity.

It was Arthur who first pointed out to me that the last few hundred years of consuming resources might have been just what the earth required for us to transcend this way and move to the next form of interaction, the next level of complexity.

The Tree of Life

Brain Shaped Tree, image by Bill Booth

The Tree of Life may be the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (or not); in his film called “The Tree of Life,” Terence Malick plays with the universals – grace and nature parallel good and evil. Nature is will, ego; grace is nurturing. The film’s narrative plays out in Waco, Texas and in the vast cosmos, infinite space and time, surrounding it; it places one very human story in a vast transhuman context.  In one primeval scene, one dinosaur, a predator, chooses not to kill and consume another… this establishes grace as something that precedes the human; I think the point is that nature and grace always coexisted, and always will, and grace seeps into nature. “Good” and “evil” are complex and intertwingled.

I thought the film was magnificent; in it I saw scenes familiar from my own life growing up in a Texas town in the 50s and 60s, though I wasn’t in that family, and I was far more innocent. And Malick’s family has no television set in the living room… imagine what a difference that would make.

The vision of the “tree of life” represents a sense that all life on earth is related… and there’s a tree of life web project that shows that connectedness. The planet is teeming with life, but all species are endangered by the actions and operations of one – is this nature acting without grace? Last night Oliver Markley spoke to the Central Texas World Future Society on the subject of risk and resilience – is civilization at a tipping point toward collapse?

Some issues seem to exceed even the management skills of the more advanced countries, however. When countries first detected falling underground water tables, it was logical to expect that governments in affected countries would quickly raise water use efficiency and stabilize population in order to stabilize aquifers. Unfortunately, not one country—industrial or developing—has done so. Two failing states where overpumping water and security-threatening water shortages loom large are Pakistan and Yemen.

Although the need to cut carbon emissions has been evident for some time, not one country has succeeded in becoming carbon-neutral. Thus far this has proved too difficult politically for even the most technologically advanced societies. Could rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere prove to be as unmanageable for our early twenty-first century civilization as rising salt levels in the soil were for the Sumerians in 4000 BC?

Another potentially severe stress on governments is the coming decline in oil production. Although world oil production has exceeded new oil discoveries by a wide margin for more than 20 years, only Sweden and Iceland actually have anything that remotely resembles a plan to effectively cope with a shrinking supply of oil.

This is not an exhaustive inventory of unresolved problems, but it does give a sense of how their number is growing as we fail to solve existing problems even as new ones are being added to the list. Analytically, the challenge is to assess the effects of mounting stresses on the global system. These stresses are perhaps most evident in their effect on food security, which was the weak point of many earlier civilizations that collapsed.

I think it’s time to pay attention.

Photo by Bill Booth, licensed via Creative Commons

Penguins, climate change, politics – short post (really)

Fen Montaigne has written a piece about penguins and climate change for the New Yorker. The magazine’s web site features a disturbing slide show about how the penguins are threatened by habitat change due to warming sufficient to melt arctic ice. Montaigne suggests habitat change will likely be global, affecting humans as well as penguins.

I’ve been thinking how politicization of climate change is making it hard to think about the problem, which is clearly real, and decide what action we should be taking.

My friend Emily Gertz was in Copenhagen; she’s reporting on it in a discussion at the WELL.

Finding the forks in the road

Joel Makower considers four studies that explore the impact on business of climate change and related issues – the need for water management, and uncertainty about energy sources. Says Joel, “our world these days seems to be a succession of forks in the road, points at which decisions need to be made about which pathway we collectively must take.” This reminds me of something Rod Bell used to say, repeatedly: “To solve big problems, you have to go through big confusion.” [Link]

Water and waste

If you’re tired of worrying about climate change or the economy, you can start worrying about water pollution: an article in the New York Times says raw sewage is leaking into waterways. I know that I take water for granted, and I suspect you do, too. There’s always been plenty, and it’s been so cheap we think of it as free. For most of my life, we drank water from the tap without giving it a thought. Lately we’re more comfortable buying the tap water in plastic bottles, thinking somehow that packaged water we pay more for must be safer/healthier.

I don’t really know where my water comes from, and how vulnerable that mystery supply is to toxic pollution. An eye-opener from the Times:
As cities have grown rapidly across the nation, many have neglected infrastructure projects and paved over green spaces that once absorbed rainwater. That has contributed to sewage backups into more than 400,000 basements and spills into thousands of streets, according to data collected by state and federal officials. Sometimes, waste has overflowed just upstream from drinking water intake points or near public beaches.

There is no national record-keeping of how many illnesses are caused by sewage spills. But academic research suggests that as many as 20 million people each year become ill from drinking water containing bacteria and other pathogens that are often spread by untreated waste.

Coal and ozone nonattainment in Austin

Ozone nonattainment’s impact: Chris Searles has an enightening post at Burnt Orange Report about the “Quit Coal by 2014” scenario for Austin. He quotes Travis County Commissioner Karen Hubner, who “recently mapped out ozone nonattainment’s economic impacts to Austinites, saying:  ‘The implications are huge and will cost taxpayers a lot of money. [Link]

First, going into nonattainment would subject us to a slew of new rules and regulations that could hang over our heads for up to 20 years
after we return to air quality compliance. These regulations would
create a lag effect on everything, from higher energy bills for
households to creation of new businesses, as well as more expensive
transportation projects (that you finance).

Second, “Nonattainment would require us to cede local control of transportation projects to state and federal oversight regulations. Conforming to their regulations would create longer construction times and higher construction costs.

Third, “… our businesses could be subject to much
harsher oversight than they currently enjoy… Nonattainment
regulations would subject power plants to higher emissions standards, resulting in higher electricity bills. Gasoline might have to be reformulated before it can be used to fuel our vehicles, and your car would be required to pass stringent emissions testing.