Archive for April, 2007

Tip vs. bottom of iceberg

April 15, 2007 7:57 pm

Steve Rubel talked about the New Digital Divide a long time ago( 75% of online users have broadband, according to msnbc (, yet most of those empowered people are “passive” users of the Internet. 35% of Americans post photos online and only eight percent have published a blog.

This reminded me of something one of my literature teachers in high school used to illustrate how we know what we know about people who lived in times past.

How is history recorded? Think back to the middle ages or even some hundred years later. How do we know anything about this time? From artifacts that survived. From documents that survived. Who produced those documents? Probably the top 1% of the population at the time, who were wealthy enough and powerful enough to be educated enough to write and had money to spend on producing documents. So history is necessarily skewed in a certain way. We can’t possibly know exactly what the general population was thinking and experiencing. We only know about the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

Now the potential is there. Publishing your thoughts is as easy as going to the library, opening a free blogging account at one of the many blog hosting companies, and starting to write. You can be more sophisticated and buy your own domain name, have your own computer to do the writing on, or perhaps even hosting your own server on your high-speed Internet connection at home. But it’s not necessary.

We have the potential of learning about the bottom of the iceberg, and yet it seems like only few people are embracing the idea (at least according to the statistics above.)

And maybe it’s for the best. I personally have enough trouble following the thoughts recorded on about a hundred blogs, reading the newspaper, following a few TV shows (time-shifted, of course) and reading books. I couldn’t possibly be a productive person at work if I were to do any more, and even with my current load I feel a bit overwhelmed. The trick is picking the right mix of “tip of the iceberg” material.

The enemy of progress on environmental issues

7:39 pm

I was surprised at a headline in the newspaper the other day: California (or was it just the San Francisco Bay Area) is officially in a drought this year. Strange, when just last year there was more than enough water to go around. We are being asked to save 10% of our usual water consumption this year.

One way to accomplish this is installing low-flow shower heads and installing drip irrigation systems instead of the sprinkler systems that are so ubiquitous around here. That got me thinking about how we can contribute to saving 10% of our water consumption. We already have low-flow shower heads installed. So the only thing to do extra there is turning off the water while soaping up, which should be doable.

But what about the watering system? We’re renting the house we live in, like so many people here in this hyper-priced area. We could ask our landlord to upgrade the system, but why should he? There’s not really anything in it for him. We pay the water bill, not he. It would only cause hassles. And cost him money. You can imagine how this plays out for other areas where it would be a good idea to improve the house to lessen your impact on the environment. Double-paned windows, attic and wall insulation, light fixtures that allow for energy efficient lighting to be installed (our house has the first two already, luckily). Usually there is no reason whatsoever for someone to make these improvements to a rental house.

This line of reasoning extends to a lot of other areas as well. Think about what we consider a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (and global warming) - cars. There are millions and millions of cars on the streets that spew out tons and tons of carbon-dioxide, but work just fine, thank you. Ours does (so far, knock on wood.) There is no incentive for people to suddenly sell their old car and buy a new one. And imagine what would happen if everyone wanted to do that at the same time, owing to some miracle. Due to the enormous supply of cars, the price you could get for your old car would plummet. That would make it even less attractive, even if everyone had a change of consciousness suddenly.

All if this leads me to believe that one of the large problems that has to be solved politically to work on environmental issues is how to deal with the “installed base” (to use a software development term.) I have no idea how to do that without using taxation. It’s not like you can just push down an update over the Internet. And I know very well that talking about taxes in the U.S. is almost the same as committing political suicide. So if you are concerned about issues like this and have some bright ideas that don’t involve taxes, let’s hear them!

Is money the only effective behavior modification tool on a societal level?

April 4, 2007 9:26 am

It used to be that we were all inextricably connected to the planet and each other. We lived in small villages or other little communities, got our sustenance from farming or gathering, and bartered with each other. The baker would trade bread for horseshoes. The doctor would trade consultations for eggs. The farmer would trade grains for plows. Everyone took as much as they needed to live their lives. Manual and animal labor limited the amount of resources we could harvest. We had nowhere to put our waste, but nearby our communities, so we knew how to use and re-use things to their utmost potential.

Today, we have no idea how our actions impact the environment or society around us and far away. Machines powered by fossil fuels enable us to extract as many natural resources as we want, crave or desire from the planet. Industrial processes turn those resources into “stuff” for us to buy and use, and often use up and throw away. And machines transport our waste away from our communities.

Most of us are completely disconnected from the natural world by using money to buy stuff. All we know is that this widget or that gadget costs X.

We don’t know how much energy was used in making it. We don’t know what raw materials went into it. We don’t know how the raw materials were transported. We don’t know how production affected the environment. We don’t know how much the people working on it were paid, and whether that was a fair payment. We don’t know how discarding it will impact the environment.  

We don’t know anything except the price. And very often the people making the gadget externalize lots of costs. Especially the costs of throwing it away and how that contributes to slowly making our planet a pigsty for us to slowly suffocate in our own waste. Along with all other living beings. Everything we use and throw away still stays on the planet. It may not be in our neighborhood because it gets transported “away”, but it goes somewhere. We don’t know exactly where. We don’t know exactly how.

Since money is all we know, money seems to be the only answer to modifying behavior. That means that if a society wants to influence the way its members behave, the only way to do that is through taxation. If buying gas for your car causes the atmosphere to heat up, tax it some more to make people think of other ways of getting around. If buying a computer will cause toxic chemicals to leak into our water supplies once it’s discarded, tax it some more so people will think of other ways of accomplishing what they think they need a computer for. And use the taxes to support responsible re-use and final disposal, to support research into ways to design products with re-use in mind, to support mindsets that encourage living sustainably and lightly on the earth.

I know that lots of people bristle at the idea of taxes. It just seems to me that we as a society don’t understand anything but money, so we need to use monetary means to get to societal ends. The biggest of which is our obligation to future generations of the human species to enjoy life as we enjoy it right now.