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Can Green Tech Save Us?

Jeff Goldsmith | Tuesday May 11th, 2010 | 4 Comments

It’s easy to be cynical about “green tech.” Consider the snail’s pace of progress and the rapid pace of increasing C02 levels. I’ve heard there is a “green washing” film in the works, about corporate America’s pretense of concern. And was I just dreaming that Al Gore made a film that got everyone all excited?

Even so, I drove my gasoline powered car down to Mission Bay, and entered one of the myriad shiny new buildings where a quorum of green tech leaders had assembled for the second annual GreenNet put on by another pundit, Gigaom.

Interview with Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson at GreenTech 2010


NO SILVER BULLETS

Early that morning on the “veranda”  outside the central hall, I interrupted two random attendees, the CEO of an energy company and his principal investor. I told them my premise for coming to the event, to ask people like them one simple question: “Can green tech save us?”

Both asked not to be identified and both said there was no simple answer.

“Technology is just a piece of the puzzle. It’s dangerous to look at it as a silver bullet,” said the investor. The entrepreneur in whom the former had invested added, “There needs to be a larger shift in how people act.”

THINKING DISRUPTED

The recent Icelandic ash cloud gave hope to Steve Jurvetson, Managing Partner at venture capital firm DFJ (video interview above). That’s because Skype saw a 20 million video minute spike over normal during the no-fly period. Nonlinear disruptions like Voice Over IP change how we act, and give us hope for future, incremental carbon offsets.

Venture Capitalists must have hope, or they could not invest. They seek to be disruptive not for hope’s sake, but because the companies that emerge can 10x or 100x their investments – precisely because of the disruptive changes they bring.

Their ideas can give us hope, too. Wind power is clearly not going to solve all of our problems, but Jurvetson cited a number of DFJ’s investments that try to fix our problems quite differently. Genomatica is using gene sequencing to develop and optimize microorganisms to produce new fuels – at dramatically increased efficiency because computational tools now allow us to literally program their DNA. Once their efficiency at turning sugar into fuel has been analyzed, Genomatica actively selected for the most productive individuals. Artificial selection increases output by 1000s of times, giving us hope organic fuels of the future.

Later in the day, Vinod Khosla would dismiss the idea of “hot technologies” – aka, wind, solar, etc – as already overvalued, and pointed to his own disrupted thinking during a visit to MIT. He never thought that carbon negative concrete and new approaches to air conditioning could be more arrows in the quiver that could slay the elephant in the room, more realistically than a single silver bullet.

COMPUTE SALVATION

Bill Gross, like Steve Jurvetson,  actually made a case that fast math can save us.  Two companies his firm IdeaLab has invested in are producing car designs and solar plants much the way the algae were produced by Genomatica – with massive, cheap computational power that can design genes, crunch wind resistance or align mirrors.

Two IdeaLab investments prove his point. The Aptera can achieve 230 miles per hour because cheap computation allowed designers to model wind tunnels and to quickly discover the small tweaks that resulted in a production car with drag less than a 10-speed road bike. Likewise, eSolar’s sun farms consist of thousands of cheap mirrors that are calibrated to 1/20th of 1 degree..

After the Bill Gross session, another asked-not-to-be-identified investor who manages a massive family fund said that he has hopeful days and cynical days. “Some people are in this just to make a buck,” he said. He complained that incumbent players and governments are not going to solve the problems that face us, thus the only way out is through risky investment in disruptive technology. But even with government and incumbent players there is hope.

INCUMBANT

Consider the cases of Jerry Brown and the auto industry.

Jerry Brown is running for Governor again – and he seemed to be campaigning on a platform of government transformation from beruacratic obstacle into change agent. As Mayor of Oakland, he said he fired city officials who were “luxuriating in beaucracy” – and as Governnor, perhaps he would push California’s Public Utilies Commission to move faster to set standards for the electic cars that are coming online in short order.

“We’re waiting for standard,”  for plugins says Mark Perry of Nissan, even though is on track for 25,000 LEAF orders by December of this year. PG&E Sr. Director of Customer Care, Andrew Tang countered that there was a meeting he was missing (a fine example of luxuriating in beauracracy) as he sat on the panel on the very subject of a standard. Interestingly, Mark Perry weighed in with the same spirit I had felt all day, and actually referred to the fact the Leaf is not a “silver bullet”.

The car industry is well aware that disruptive shifts may surprise them – and not just IdeaLab’s Aphera, or the Tesla which Steve Jurvetson’s first has heavily invested in. Steve Jurvetson noted during his talk that electric bicycles and scooters are the fastest selling vehicles in China – who knew?

ADDITIVE OR NEGATIVE?

Electric scooters and algae can help, but dematerializing technologies like Skype can radically change our carbon behaviors – as long as they are not additive. In other words, Skype plus travel doesn’t help but Skype replacing travel does.

The Dematerialization: Replacing Atoms With Bits panel clearly pointed at ways we are making our own salvation possible. Music downloads cause 40x less carbon that CDs – and music downloads are clearly not additive. We know that because they have indeed reduced CD consumption and caused Virgin Megastores to shutter.

Will the Kindle and iPad mean less consumption of paper and reduced shipping of printed materials? Mass abandonment of paper as reading media would be significant, because 45% of landfills are paper stated Saul Griffith of Squid Labs, a fact no panelist disputed. That’s why reading the NY Times on the iPad is a massive carbon savings – so long as we stop our subscription, which oftentimes does not happen, said Casey Harrell, IT Analyst for Greenpeace, another panelist I spoke with outside the lecture hall after the talk.

Interview with Saul Griffith of Squid Labs at GreenTech 2010

TECH IS US

Let’s presume that tech can save us. That’s the good news. The bad news is that tech IS us.

This harkens back to the asked-not-to-be-named CEO I had spoken to first thing that morning who said that people have to change their behavior. We must be truly carbon negative, adopting iPads and Kindles and weaning ourselves from paper. This is not as hopeless, because downloading music is a successful behavior change – as was the 20 million extra Skype minutes during the recent ash out across Europe.

My original cynical question as to whether tech can save us was improperly constructed, and should have been posed like this: Can tech change our behavior in ways so that we save ourselves?

In answer, all I can say is, I seem to no longer write for magazines, so let’s hope that pretty soon they have no advertisers and we can all change our behavior for the carbon negative.

Jeffrey Goldsmith is a writer and marketing consultant who executes. His perspectives have been featured in Wired, Details, Conde Nast Traveler, Heavy Metal Magazine and elsewhere.


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  • http://progressivetimes.wordpress.com T. Caine

    Sustainability is not a technological fix to supplement a wasteful lifestyle. Sustainability is a lifestyle itself, a notion that revolves around the idea of balance and stasis–a push and pull around a point of equilibrium. As convenient (and profitable) as it may be for companies to pitch products that people can use to make themselves greener without changing their course of daily events, these things are minor, small steps that will always be secondary to serious changes to our cultural norms.

  • Greenproftis

    Its not easy changing people's ways. People need to be more aware, be made more aware! Today loads of people are trying to go green. You can check out my website http://www.NowGreenProfits.com

  • http://bit.ly/cbyrne @byrnegreen

    Another voice for sustainability as a lifestyle shift and not necessarily the replacement of dirty-technologies with “green” counterparts. While these are important as an element of the redesign we are faced with, they will not solve the issue of our throughput society, especially where these “green” technologies are merely gains in efficiency leading to Jeavon's Paradox. A package redesign saving 50% of space may equal twice as much plastic consumer items on a truck, thereby reducing costs and allowing the items to be sold at lower price, hence increasing the amount of those items that go to landfill (or get “turned into energy” in some new trash-to-gas scheme).

    On the print-vs.-digital point the author focuses on as an example of the behavior change, the choice is not as cut and dry as it seems in the popular opinion. It is a point Don Carli has been addressing as a false dichotomy of late, and I highly recommend reading his most recent article on the matter: http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/03/is-digita

    Less trees cut for paper MAY mean more trees removed for mountaintop removal to get access to the coal that powers our digital lifestyle, AND increase the eWaste that (presently) goes to landfill. Not as simple as we had thought on first glance.

  • http://bit.ly/cbyrne @byrnegreen

    Another voice for sustainability as a lifestyle shift and not necessarily the replacement of dirty-technologies with “green” counterparts. While these are important as an element of the redesign we are faced with, they will not solve the issue of our throughput society, especially where these “green” technologies are merely gains in efficiency leading to Jeavon's Paradox. A package redesign saving 50% of space may equal twice as much plastic consumer items on a truck, thereby reducing costs and allowing the items to be sold at lower price, hence increasing the amount of those items that go to landfill (or get “turned into energy” in some new trash-to-gas scheme).

    On the print-vs.-digital point the author focuses on as an example of the behavior change, the choice is not as cut and dry as it seems in the popular opinion. It is a point Don Carli has been addressing as a false dichotomy of late, and I highly recommend reading his most recent article on the matter: http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/03/is-digita

    Less trees cut for paper MAY mean more trees removed for mountaintop removal to get access to the coal that powers our digital lifestyle, AND increase the eWaste that (presently) goes to landfill. Not as simple as we had thought on first glance.