Sunday, February 15, 2009

Reading between the lines

Reading Thomas Friedman usually makes me mad. He seems like a futurist who's always trying to put the future back into the status quo box. Then patting himself on the back for being so prescient. And I've never quite forgiven him for coming to the conclusion that invading Iraq was a good idea either. Still he is a talented observer of what lies beneath current trends. His article from the Sunday New York Times had a lot to say to me between the lines.

Turns out the real story is this great website. Makes you feel better just browsing it.

Yes, They Could. So They Did.

Published: February 14, 2009

So I am attending the Energy and Resources Institute climate conference in New Delhi, and during the afternoon session two young American women — along with one of their mothers — proposition me.

“Hey, Mr. Friedman,” they say, “would you like to take a little spin around New Delhi in our car?”

Oh, I say, I’ve heard that line before. Ah, they say, but you haven’t seen this car before. It’s a plug-in electric car that is also powered by rooftop solar panels — and the two young women, recent Yale grads, had just driven it all over India in a “climate caravan” to highlight the solutions to global warming being developed by Indian companies, communities, campuses and innovators, as well as to inspire others to take action.

>> This opening is perhaps to show that Mr. Friedman is feeling playful rather than pontifical-always a good sign- and willing to have the women with real vision show him a good time<<

They ask me if I want to drive, but I have visions of being stopped by the cops and ending up in a New Delhi jail. Not to worry, they tell me. Indian cops have been stopping them all across India. First, they ask to see driver’s licenses, then they inquire about how the green car’s solar roof manages to provide 10 percent of its mileage — and then they try to buy the car.

>>So did he take the wheel or not? I prefer to imagine him continuing his submissive role. Things usually work out better that way<<

We head off down Panchsheel Marg, one of New Delhi’s main streets. The ladies want to show me something. The U.S. Embassy and the Chinese Embassy are both located on Panchsheel, directly across from each other. They asked me to check out the rooftops of each embassy. What do I notice? Let’s see ... The U.S. Embassy’s roof is loaded with antennae and listening gear. The Chinese Embassy’s roof is loaded with ... new Chinese-made solar hot-water heaters.

You couldn’t make this up.

>>Yes. So fortunately the ladies have pointed out a rather telling metaphor FOR YOU!<<

But trying to do something about it was just one of many reasons my hosts, Caroline Howe, 23, a mechanical engineer on leave from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Alexis Ringwald, a Fulbright scholar in India and now a solar entrepreneur, joined with Kartikeya Singh, who was starting the Indian Youth Climate Network, or IYCN, to connect young climate leaders in India, a country coming under increasing global pressure to manage its carbon footprint.

>>One despairs that these "hosts", expatriots themselves, have decided that it would be more fruitful to apply their energies in India rather than the US whose carbon footprint shadows the whole world. But put that aside for now. Enthusiasm like theirs is good for the world wherever it flourishes!<<

“India is full of climate innovators, so spread out across this huge country that many people don’t get to see that these solutions are working right now,” said Howe. “We wanted to find a way to bring people together around existing solutions to inspire more action and more innovation. There’s no time left to just talk about the problem.”

>>Of course here in the States we prefer to focus our discussion on whether or not the problem actually exists. No sense solving problems that aren't real. I'm beginning to see why you left!<<

Howe and Ringwald thought the best way to do that might be a climate solutions road tour, using modified electric cars from India’s Reva Electric Car Company, whose C.E.O. Ringwald knew. They persuaded him to donate three of his cars and to retrofit them with longer-life batteries that could travel 90 miles on a single six-hour charge — and to lay on a solar roof that would extend them farther.

Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 5, they drove the cars on a 2,100-mile trip from Chennai to New Delhi, stopping in 15 cities and dozens of villages, training Indian students to start their own climate action programs and filming 20 videos of India’s top home-grown energy innovations. They also brought along a solar-powered band, plus a luggage truck that ran on plant oil extracted from jatropha and pongamia, plants locally grown on wasteland. A Bollywood dance group joined at different stops and a Czech who learned about their trip on YouTube hopped on with his truck that ran on vegetable-oil waste.

>>We're still sort of looking at 2100 miles as a 3 day road trip and wondering if the minivan has enough cupholders. Better take the corporate jet! Imagine if GMs CEO had taken a Chevy Volt full of plans like this to the first bailout begfest. Things might have gone differently.<<

Deepa Gupta, 21, a co-founder of IYCN, told The Hindustan Times that the trip opened her eyes to just how many indigenous energy solutions were budding in India — “like organic farming in Andhra Pradesh, or using neem and garlic as pesticides, or the kind of recycling in slums, such as Dharavi. We saw things already in place, like the Gadhia solar plant in Valsad, Gujarat, where steam is used for cooking and you can feed almost 50,000 people in one go.” (See:

At Rajpipla, in Gujarat, when they stopped at a local prince’s palace to recharge their cars, they discovered that his business was cultivating worms and selling them as eco-friendly alternatives to chemical fertilizers.

>>The skeptical me wonders if maybe the prince's palace was the only place with a dependable 24/7 flow of electric current. Here in the US we all live like princes in that regard. But I shouldn't let that overshadow the fact that these other projects are the real heart of change. Not everyone on the planet is obsessed with maintaining their personal transportation.<<

I met Howe and Ringwald after a tiring day, but I have to admit that as soon as they started telling me their story it really made me smile. After a year of watching adults engage in devastating recklessness in the financial markets and depressing fecklessness in the global climate talks, it’s refreshing to know that the world keeps minting idealistic young people who are not waiting for governments to act, but are starting their own projects and driving innovation.

>>Perhaps because at a visceral level they realize that government will always be hopelessly behind the curve and too slow to react to the challenges that we now face. Imprisoned by what is politically possible. No use waiting for them, let's get on with it.<<

“Why did this tour happen?” asked Ringwald. “Why this mad, insane plan to travel across India in a caravan of solar electric cars and jatropha trucks with solar music, art, dance and a potent message for climate solutions? Well ... the world needs crazy ideas to change things, because the conventional way of thinking is not working anymore.”

>>Well young ladies, here at home we just aren't convinced we need that kind of crazy thinking! We can just pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again. After all, it's worked quite well for the past 150 years or so thank you very much! If you must change the world make it the "developing world" if you please. We're happy the way we are ......... for now.<<

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