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The Fun of Climate Change | Gifford Pinchot III

Gifford Pinchot's fascinating and convincing talk re-focuses the conversation about climate change so we can be part of the solution — and have fun while we're doing it.

Full talk transcript

First of all, gloom and doom are not selling very well these days. And secondly, we need an enormous amount of creativity to solve the problems of climate change, and people are way more creative when they're having fun.

So, what to do about that? I think we have to lighten up, and forgive whoever we're blaming for climate change. We have to do something about climate change and have fun doing it. But that said, that does not mean denial of the facts. I believe we have to face the facts as well, and come from there.

This is a graph of the temperature of the Earth for the last six hundred million years, and what you can see is that the temperature goes back and forth between two temperatures: The hothouse state, which is a lot hotter than now, and the ice ages. We're a little bit in between, on our way up. The danger is it will go past the tipping point and the temperature will zoom all the way up to the hothouse state.

What happens then? Well, there'll be a lot fewer species and a lot fewer humans, so it would be a good thing to avoid it. But how will Mother Nature do? Well, she does pretty well, actually. Here's a period, five hundred and forty-two million years ago, the Cambrian explosion, when multicellular animals first appeared in the fossil record, and virtually every major phylum of animals came into being in just twenty million years. That's a pretty creative period.

I think we have to lighten up, and forgive whoever we're blaming for climate change.

Here we see the flowering of plants in another hothouse era, and the breaking out of mammals, out from under the rocks, and radiating out into all the species. Not all the species, but all the major categories we have today. So Mother Nature is gonna be okay.

But what about humans? Will we be the one species that's left? Well, the kind of species that live through massive, catastrophic change are general species. The raccoon will eat just about anything, and can live in many different environments, whereas the koala bear can eat only one thing, and that's eucalyptus leaves. And they may, in fact, be in trouble.

What about people? Other than bacteria, we're probably the most generalist species there is. We can live on an Arctic ice floe; we can live in the tropics; we can live in a desert; we can live in a rainforest. There will be people when we're done.

So, I want to tell a little story that cheered me up. Years ago, I was in a conference, a weeklong conference, and my son called me up and said, "Dad, you can't spend the entire week in weather like this indoors. Why don't you come out and play with me?"

And he took me to a disc golf course. Now disc golf is a game that's played just like golf, except you throw little frisbees into a basket instead of hitting balls into a hole. And we played 36 holes of disc golf. And then we went down to the lake and took off our clothes, swam out to a little island, climbed up a cliff, and ran around on top of the cliff until the yellow jackets chased us, and we dove back into the water and swam back to our clothes.

And as I was putting on my clothes, I had a revelation. I said, "We'd have had the same amount of fun if we'd gone to golf and taken a dip in the club pool."

But the courses were very different. No bulldozers were used to make the course that we had played on. No pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, no electricity, no concrete. Indeed the amount of environmental damage in creating that golf course was one-one thousandths or more less than creating a golf course the way we build golf courses in the United States today.

So, at this point a formula appeared in my mind. The HappoDammo Ratio. The HappoDammo Ratio is the ratio of happiness created by any activity divided by the amount of damage done by that activity. And this turns out to be a very important ratio, because actually what we have to do for civilization to survive is we have to get much better at the HappoDammo Ratio. And if we can get a thousand to one better in one activity, and we only have to get five to one better before we solve the problem of climate change, I think this is doable.

But we do have to understand happiness. And what is happiness about? Sure, we need food, warmth, water, health, things like this, but we don't need a lot of those things before something else becomes much more important to our happiness. It's about relationships, meaning, respect, freedom, and all those sorts of things that make us happy.

To give you an example of that: On average, a person who is terminally ill is happier than a person who has divorced in the last two years. The quality of relationships is more important than how we're feeling. Isn't that interesting commentary on what it means to be a human being?

Years ago, when I was an adolescent, I believed I needed a four hundred horsepower car to get laid. Shows what I knew about women, right? But I think this illustrates a more important point. And the point is this: We, in this society, are using things to get relationships.

That's really not the right way to get relationships. It's much easier to know what it takes for people to get along, it's much more important to be nice to other people, it's much more important to manage the relationship and have friends than it is to have a lot of stuff. And if that's true, we can get to a much higher HappoDammo Ratio if we just focus on what really matters. And also, in the process, save civilization. But we have to have fun doing it.

I spent the last 13 years working on how to make business more effective at dealing with climate change and social justice.

I spent the last thirteen years working on how to make business more effective at dealing with climate change and social justice. And so this is a Kevin Maas. He's a third-generation Skagit Valley dairy farmer, and he was trying to figure out, "Okay, what do I want to do for my entrepreneurship project?"

And he set small goals for himself. "I want to save family farms, stop pollution, reduce climate change, and make money, right?"

Well, he focused on manure lagoons. What they do in dairy barns these days is they flush the manure out of the barn into giant ponds, which they call lagoons. Methane bubbles up into the atmosphere and causes climate change. The pollution goes down into the groundwater and takes out the neighbor's wells and gets into the streams, and takes out the shellfish downstream. And the EPA fines the farmers and insists on major capital in projects, which they can't afford, and so the farms go out of business.

He said, "By doing one thing, I can achieve all these things."

He built a giant methane digester. This is the concrete pad for the building that he's erecting, and if you notice those little tiny dots — those are people — that will give you an idea of the scale of this thing. It's about an acre in size. And the methane from that building goes into a generator and produces 700 kilowatts of power continuously. That's about enough for 400 homes. This project was sufficiently profitable that the investors gave me another five million bucks to do another one, and another one, and another one.

He added a greenhouse for a way to use the waste heat, and he's just finished his fifth, and he's making three-and-a-half megawatts of clean power, taking coal out at least to that extent, and doing something for the climate. But he's also saving family farms, stopping pollution and he's making good money. So what you see is he in fact accomplished all those things.

But you don't have to start a business to do this.

This is Sabrina Watkins. She's in the oil business, and she's the head of sustainable development for a major oil company, and she and her team go around the organization looking for ways to save energy and prevent pollution. How are they doing? Well, in 2012 they saved a million tons of CO2. That's quite a lot actually— that's about four percent of the company's emissions, and if you realize that those are continuous processes that go on, so they're doing that every year and they add up. That's pretty good. Even just one year is the equivalent of taking 421,000 cars off the road.

And I go to meetings with Sabrina, and I notice that they’re having more fun than the average corporate citizens. They’re a little lighter-hearted and they’re joking a bit more, but at the same time they're talking about all the things they're doing, and they’re actually making life more fun for the other people in the corporation by letting them carry forward their dreams to make the world a better place to live.

You don't have to be a big player. Jed Lazar and Shauna Lambert were in their entrepreneurship class project; they said, "What do we need to have for the business we want to start?" Well, first of all, neither of them had ever worked in business before, so they said this project has to be pretty simple because we have to understand it. Second, it has to be really cheap to start, because if it's not cheap to start, we can't afford it. Finally, it has to be super-sustainable because these were a very idealistic bunch of young people.

The people, look at them; they're having a wonderful time because they're working together to do something that really matters.

So what did they come up with? Well, they came up with SoupCycle. Delivering soup lunches by bicycle in Portland. Now, come on, I mean really? I told him I thought that they had gotten a little too idealistic and maybe they should be just a little more practical. How did it go for them? Well, so far they've delivered over 300,000 lunches and they're helping out the local farmers because they buy distressed vegetables and put them into the soup, and they're giving money to the farmers that would otherwise go into the compost. They've saved about 45,000 car miles, and the business is so successful that they have in fact sold it and now are going on to start businesses with a little more ambition.

I will say SoupCycle has had a considerable impact on the Portland community. Recently the city council met to try to decide what to do, because there were so many people copying them that the streets were clogged with delivery bicycles that there was no room for the cars. Obviously, they're having fun and they're doing what they love. I mean, you can hardly keep Jed off a bicycle, and both of them love food as well.

My last story is about Wangari Mathai, and she's an activist in women's rights and the environment in Kenya. Unfortunately, she's passed away. She noticed that the women were having to go further and further to get fuel, further and further to get food, further and further to get water, and she looked at that and she realized that really a lot of this problem that people were having was coming from environmental problems. She decided to do something about it, and she put together an organization to plant trees. And she employed women who had been pushed off their farms by corporate farming to go out and grow seedlings and plant them.

How's it going? So far they've planted 51 million trees. And they've changed the environment; the trees are sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and slowing climate change. And the people, they're having a wonderful time because they're working together to do something that really matters.

This is really all I came to talk about. First of all, we have to lighten up. We have to forgive whoever we're blaming for things, and we have to lighten up in the HappoDammo sense of, finding more happiness with less stuff. And we have to get out there and do something about climate change so we feel that we’re part of the solution; not just riding along in our society as we trundle towards extinction. And, finally, we have to have fun doing it. Thank you very much.

Gifford Pinchot 


Speaker Bio

Gifford Pinchot has been an organic dairy farmer, a blacksmith, an author, an innovation consultant, a software CEO, an angel investor and is currently president of Pinchot University. He has published three books: Intrapreneuring, which introduces a new way of fostering innovation by creating space for innovators to express their entrepreneurial spirit within existing organizations, was a bestseller in 15 languages. The Intelligent Organization, written with his wife Libba, takes self-organization a step further, to include the everyday work of ordinary employees. Read more

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