The other day I was watching a program on the Science Channel about cutting-edge green technologies, such as solar towers (about which my good friend T.H. Culhane recently made a youtube video), rooftop wind turbines and high-efficiency, low-cost, thin-film solar panels, and I was struck by one thing above all else: saving the world is cool, fun and rewarding. Why wouldn’t one want to do it? Nowadays you can make enough money to live comfortably, while at the same time bringing technology, innovative financing, and social equity together to create the future. Why not get a job in the coming green economy? There’s no reason to be a hero; hell, since in the West we seem to have come to vie heroes as people that suffer for a cause, I don’t see how one could consider saving the world heroism!
Sure, there are slums around the world, and inequality, disease, war, etc., and there are many people who suffer deeply trying to solve those problems, but even for them, there are so many exciting new developments that take the sting out of the disappointments. The internet, information technology, low-cost computing, renewable energy, and social entrepreneurship have changed the nature of saving the world. It used to be that the heroes of the world wore saris, were emaciated, and spent their days praying, fasting and in jail. There is still a place for civil disobedience, and there always will be!
Anyone Can Save the World
But today, the people saving the world are designers, entrepreneurs, engineers, economists, teachers. . .they are ordinary people who know how to pull together the plethora of knowledge humans have gathered and put it to use in a way that is just, affordable and practical. In other words, just as the internet and the cell phone have made it easier for human beings to communicate and share knowledge, the multitude of technological, social and financial innovation that has taken place over the last 5 decades has made is dramatically easier to do good (of course, it has also made it easier to do harm, as Al-Qaeda makes clear). But the point is this: the barriers to entry to saving the world, and really being effective doing so, have been greatly reduced. Anyone can do it!
Design is Leading the Way
We are in an era where design (think of the great exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum called “design for the other 90%) is leading the way towards a cleaner, healthier, more equitable planet. And design is fun! We get to use all our technological and economic developments, not only to enjoy life more, but also to enables others to enjoy life more as well. This is such a simple, yet critical distinction. Too often those that want to save the world feel guilty about iPods, high-end bicycles, and comfortable homes replete with all the modern amenities. Unfortunately, that guilt prevents them from seeing that iPods, high-end bicycles and comfortable, modern homes can all save the world. I should know, since for many years I felt guilty about all that, and I have just now “seen the light.”
Ipods, Bicycles and Cars
Here’s how those things, and more, can save the world. For most, an iPod is just a fancy toy, a music player that, while functional, doesn’t offer any earth-shattering features. Yet when I was in Cairo, working with T.H. on solar water heaters for the poor, he constantly was taking out his iPod in order to show his Egyptian friends and co-workers images of other solar water heaters in order to help them design-and improve upon the design-of the systems. Nowadays, I use my iPod all the time as well-to show photos of my travels, my videos, and to listen to audiobooks that enable me to learn more about the world even as I am walking to class.
What about high-end bicycles? Well, this one is so obvious I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me sooner. The bicycle is the most efficient vehicle in the world. It is also a proven solution to obesity, congestion (both traffic and in the arteries), air pollution, climate change, and eroding communities. The problem is that with all our technological progress, people don’t want to make a lot of money in order to buy some dinky bicycle; they want a fancy, technologically advanced Mercedes. Well, what if we gave people something better to aspire to: how about a fancy, electric hypercar (made of carbon fibre, recharged by solar cells), and a fancy, hyperbike (made of carbon fibre, titanium, and so on). That way, that which people aspire to is good for them, good for others, and good for the planet. Let’s make bicycling as sexy as cars. Let’s encourage wealth so that people can buy a comfortable, durable, fancy racing bike, but let’s make sure we encourage real wealth. Real wealth isn’t getting rich by selling oil; real wealth is getting rich by selling products that harness the sun and human ingenuity in a perpetual, renewable and equitable fashion.
Finally, instead of creating a binary situation in which either one is an “eco-hero” and therefore lives in a shack, or which is an “eco-villain” and aspires to live in a McMansion, why can’t we work to show people that a reasonably-sized home, replete with all the modern amenities, is the most affordable, most resonsible, most comfortable way to live? Imagine coming home to your condo, located in a mixed-used neighborhood in an inner city. You switch on the lights and know that they are being powered by the energy captured and stored from your rooftop array: you don’t care when the price of electricity goes up, and you are unaffected by power failures. The water you use in your toilets is also harvested on your rooftop, and it is heated by a solar water heater, that is supplemented by an on-demand tankless water heater so that you never have to do without a hot shower. All the wood in your home is either recycled or FSC-certified; your windows are uber-efficient; all your energy star appliances are attractive, quiet, efficient and modern.
Doing Good is Fun
What I’m getting at is that saving the world doesn’t have to be a chore; rather, it should be fun, and it should be something that an entire generation of human beings aspires to. Think of all the young Chinese and Indians who want to live like Americans. That’s a problem, not because they want wealth and consumption, but because of the kind of wealth and consumption they seek. If we change the model, then this silly notion of “holding back economic development” just goes away. As William McDonough has said, if we design products that are “Cradle to Cradle” then we can actually celebrate consumption. And if we view saving the world as fun, then more people will want to get in on the act, and damnit, we might just create the world we are looking for; a world in which everyone is free to explore, to dream, to laugh and to love.
Finally, I want to direct your attention to a fantastic article written by Steven Pinker in the NY Times last year titled ‘the Moral Instinct’, in which he began by asking the following provocative question: “Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? And which do you think is the least admirable?” He goes on to point out that while most people would answer Mother Teresa, if you actually look at what they did for the world, then Norman Borlaug, the create of the so-called “Green Revolution” that created better crops that have fed hundreds of million of people, wins hands-down, and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has done far more to deal with global health issues than did the austere Mother Teresa. My argument is that in today’s world, not only do you not need to be Mother Teresa to save the world, but the Mother Teresa/Gandhi model is no longer the most effective way to do the most good. If you really want to do good, then invent something, invest in it, and then implement it. That way your mind, your money and your hands are involved creating the world you want to see.
Then you can be happy, have fun, and save the world. . .
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You Don’t Have to Be Gandhi: Why Anyone Can Save the World