Think Different

Yes, I am typing this on a Mac, and I recently got an iPhone. But the message of this ad (narrated by Jobs), is perhaps Jobs’ most important legacy.

Think different. Which is an echo of Lincoln’s great–and ever more pertinent–exhortation:

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Think Different
Image by secretagent007 via Flickr

Ironically, the next rebellion, the next paradigm shift in thinking we really need, is not about engineering cool, new stuff, that will make our lives easier or more amusing. It will instead take us away from a lifestyle built around acquiring exactly that sort of stuff.

But it is a testament to Jobs, and the fact that his engineering does so much more than divert and amuse, that if I had to make a list of 100 things to keep, his technology would definitely be on it.

PS: The quote above was from Lincoln’s Annual Message To Congress, Dec. 1, 1862, as he tried to lay the ground for the Emancipation Proclamation. He also said, and I add this because it resonates so powerfully in a time in which Congress knows what to do but won’t act, for partisan political reasons:

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it.

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Bicycle Economics

I’ve (half-) joked about bicycling saving the world. But I keep coming across more and more analysis to back up the claim. Elly Blue, over at Grist, has been posting some good stuff on bicycle economics, which help make the case (though I hold no illusions about how far rational argument goes in our completely dysfunctional political culture).

Here’s what she has to say about the cost savings associated with moving from cars to bikes:

Imagine getting a $3,000 to $12,000 tax rebate this year. Now imagine it coming again and again. Every year it grows by around a thousand dollars.

Imagine how this would change your daily life.

Sounds like a teabagger’s wet dream, but it’s actually a conservative estimate of how much you’d save by ditching your car, or even just one of your cars — and getting on a bicycle instead.

Read the whole thing, which has links to some good studies. I’ll leave you to ponder the power of Bike-o-nomics with this graphic (click image for larger version).

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Could Climate Change Lead to World War?


Global mean surface temperature difference fro...
Climate bomb? (Image via Wikipedia)

Well, even something short of that would not be good. But over at Grist, climate economist Nicholas Stern explains why the answer is “yes.”


Lord Nicholas Stern, one of the world’s most prominent climate economists, believes that failure to address global warming could eventually lead to World War III. In 2006, he produced the “Stern Review” on behalf of the British government, clearly laying out the potentially catastrophic economic consequences of failing to address climate pollution. Since then, the scientific understanding of the damages from global warming has grown, and Stern has warned that his report “underestimated the risks.” In an exclusive interview with ThinkProgress, Stern described his current understanding of the stark consequences of inaction, which defy the scope of standard economic language. If no global policy to cut carbon pollution is enacted, there is about a 50 percent risk that global temperatures would rise above levels not seen for 30 million years by 2100, an extraordinary rate of change. The “potentially immense” consequences of this radical transformation of our planet, Stern explained, include the “serious risk of global war.”


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Reinventing Humanity

I hope the world takes note of Carl Safina, and his new book, The View From Lazy Point (NYT review is here; Mother Jones review here). Safina is an original and deep thinker, and The View From Lazy Point is both an homage to the natural world and a clarion call–that is remarkably gentle yet utterly persuasive–for reimagining how humans live and interact with our humble planet.

I was drawn to Safina’s work because I have long been troubled by the idea that humanity has been intelligent enough to achieve great technological triumphs, yet not wise enough to find harmony and balance in human affairs or our understanding of the finite nature of Earth. We are well past the need to try and arouse humanity from its material, consumptive ways with a deluge of depressing and enervating detail about environmental destruction. That’s been going on for decades, and people have either chosen to recognize reality, or blind themselves.

What’s needed now are pathfinders and prophets who can redefine what it means to be human, and what changes humanity should make to its behaviors, economies, and cultures. Safina is searching for those sorts of answers and that’s why he is worth reading and talking about. I have no doubt that a critical mass will eventually develop behind the need to reinvent humanity. The only question is what sort of planet we will be living on when it happens. I am pessimistic, even nihilistic, about the prospects for a reasonable transition to this new epoch. But all anyone who cares can do is put out a light and hope people are drawn to it. As Safina writes: “Just as we went from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to civilized societies, now we must take the next great leap: from merely civilized to humanized.” Or wise. That would be nice.

Choosing The Right Stuff

American Apparel
Image via Wikipedia

More on the choices that flummox us: I was glad to see that apparel makers are going to start rating their products, because it’s pretty impossible for your average consumer (if they care) to have any idea what impact clothing choices have. So the Sustainable Apparel Coalition seems like the kind of innovation that is at least pointed in the right direction.

That made me wish it was easy to dig into the sustainability and environmental impact of lots more products, and–poof–I immediately stumbled across this outfit: The Good Guide (maybe it’s time to play the lottery). The Good Guide is basically a bunch of science geeks who are doing us all the favor of analyzing thousands of products, and the companies that make them (for the final rating they also take into account any conglomerates that might own the producer, as well, which is smart).

I was glad to discover that Levis gets a pretty green score (so I don’t have to figure out what else to wear).

Now it’s very unlikely that this sort of thing will drive the spending habits (for now) of anyone but eco-obsessed yuppies, but it is important that the idea of evaluating the things we buy according to how they impact the world is taking root. Even better would be if stores (I’m talking to you Walmart) committed to displaying this sort of score along with the products on their shelves. And I am sure that there will soon be an app that can scan a bar good and ping you a rating, which would make it even easier.

But nothing will really change unless sustainability and environmental and health impact are reflected in the price of a good (and not just the cost of labor and production, where all manner of abuses are hidden within an ultra-low price). You can’t fault people for wanting to save money. So the real revolution that awaits, the real revolution that is a prerequisite for the sort of change that will make a difference, is the adoption of an economic philosophy and approach that includes the external costs of making a good (impact on the environment, health of the workers, etc) in the purchase price of the good.

That is a world of $200 hamburgers, which is one way to make clear the massive shift in culture and economics that is at the logical end of this movement to start caring about how what we buy affects the earth and the future. Unfortunately, I don’t see that shift happening anytime soon. Listen to Raj Patel on this, and imagine how crazy he would sound to most Americans (and Glenn Beck’s head would explode). But Raj Patel is right.

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Save The World? Get A Bike

San Francisco Critical Mass, April 29, 2005.
Image via Wikipedia

Figuring out how to save the world can be a complicated process. Paper versus plastic. Glass milk bottle versus carton. Car versus bike.


Oh wait, that last one is not at all complicated. It’s pretty obvious that transporting our human selves more frequently, when possible, by bicycle, is good for the planet and good for us (though apparently it is tragically annoying to some drivers; and I should mention that some guy in a car, for some inexplicable (really) reason, gave me the finger yesterday while I was riding).

Here in traffic-locked DC, it’s nice to see that this conclusion is starting to change the way people get around, and that bikesharing is taking off.

These kids in Nairobi agree, and they made a pretty good rap ode to how bikes can save the world (backstory is here):


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Apps For Mac. Finally.

I always wondered why my wife got to have all the fun on her iPad and iPhone, and why Apple didn’t create an App Store for the Mac (I am still waiting for the Verizon iPhone while trying to sneak time with said wife’s iPad, so my MacBook is about all I have when it comes to App Amusement).

Well, now they have, and you can start downloading lots of distracting, time-wasting, yet ingenious and amusing apps to your Mac. You need to upgrade to Mac OS X v10.6.6, and the Mac App Store, in Austin Powers, anti-climactic fashion, grandly declares “More than one thousand apps.”

But it’s a start. Thanks, Apple. Now, can you please tell me when the Verizon iPhone will be out? My Blackberry is totally dying.

The Meat Maze

It seems pretty clear that factory-farmed meat is an abomination: both for the animal and for your health. So pushing that off your plate shouldn’t be that hard.

The real conundrum comes with the choice between no meat or organic, free-range meat (with its image of happy, frolicking, four-footers gamboling across a green nirvana–before the axe cleaves swiftly and painlessly).

Professor James McWilliams has been trying to make the case for vegetarianism, and he is growing weary with the toil. He has long been arguing that organic, free-range meat is not the panacea that morally-conscious meat-lovers believe. He has troubled himself to point out the environmental and health costs of this sort of meat as well (they are an order of magnitude less than the costs of factory-farmed meat, but still…). And he finds that instead of putting aside their steak knives, most people are more likely to stab him with them.

Where I break from most conscientious consumers is in my decision to avoid meat from free-range animals and other alternative sources. This position hasn’t won any popularity contests for me. My occasional critiques of free-range animal farming have led to, among other things, threats by a butcher to separate me from a particularly valued appendage as well as frequent charges that I’m a hired gun for agribusiness. Both concepts are equally difficult to contemplate.

My typical line of attack on free-range systems has been to illuminate hidden or unpublicized environmental and health-related pitfalls—some minor, others not so—in an attempt to persuade ethically-minded consumers that although free-range might be better than factory-farmed, it is not the panacea so many make it out to be. But this approach, for a wide variety of reasons (many of them my own fault), has been a bust.

Turns out every study has a counter-study; every assumption a counter-assumption; every bold statement an angry butcher waiting on the other end to castrate, well, my argument. It took me a while to figure this out, but drawing on scientific literature to tarnish the supposed purity of free-range farming is, when you get right down to it, counterproductive. Paradoxically, by critiquing free-range animal products with the weapons of science, I’ve possibly inspired more consumers to eat more free-range meat than to give it up. It’s a dispiriting thought at best.

Prof. McWilliams is not happy with this result. So he’s giving up. Or at least trying a new line of argument. That line is that even though free-range animals live happier lives, we are still, in the end, taking their lives.

But this position—the idea that free-range is automatically a responsible choice simply because it’s more attentive to animal welfare—is morally blurred. Better does not mean acceptable. Consumers of free-range meat who oppose factory farming on welfare grounds (however partial) cannot escape an inconvenient question: Doesn’t killing an animal we don’t need constitute the very thing that factory farming perpetuates—which is to say, harm?

"You plan to do WHAT?!"

This is a fine argument for anyone who stopped eating meat after they saw Babe. They are morally opposed to killing animals when other foods, like rice and beans, are abundantly available (or at least that is my story). The problem is that I don’t think Professor McWilliams is going to win many new converts with it. No one who happily tucks into free-range meat these days is unaware that the animal on their plate has been, um, killed. And they are okay with that.

Sadly, Professor McWilliams will have to go back to slogging away in the trenches of environmental and health-based argument. If people really understood the true cost of a hamburger (even a delicious, happy, free-range hamburger), that would affect their choices.

Or, maybe Professor McWilliams should just skip that part and instead turn his energies to getting the market to price hamburger according to its full ($200) cost. That would lead to a real revolution in meat-eating.

For those who are morally uncomfortable with the idea of killing animals for meat, but haven’t yet been able to stop eating it, I highly recommend listening to the views of Jonathan Safran Foer.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
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The Prince Of Wales Seeks “Harmony”

Okay, he also seeks relevance. But in an age where we know the way we live is completely out of synch with the world we live in, you have to take answers (or suggestions) where you can find them. So while it would be easy to dismiss the plummy tones of this latest jeremiad from HRH, The Prince Of Wales, it’s more important to consider the fact that he is, well, right.

Here is the trailer for what he is on about.
Vodpod videos no longer available.


Charles, Prince of Wales outside the White Hou...
Image via Wikipedia

The full Harmony website is here, and thanks to NBC you can watch the whole Harmony program on Hulu. If it moves you, there is some cool social media to play with, and lots of action to take.

The scale of change required, of course, is far beyond what most people–even those who like what HRH has to say–are willing to contemplate. More on that later.

But it doesn’t hurt to be talking about it, especially in such an interesting voice.

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