Your education is in environmental science and regional planning, how did that turn into an interest in energy?
I like thinking about complex problems in a holistic way, and about how people can coordinate to solve them. Two problems requiring massive coordination are climate change and poverty. “Energy” (and the lack of it) plays a key role in both. Energy is the life-blood of civilization. The circulatory system. I confess, I was interested in energy before I was concerned about global warming.
Really? You started off with fusion didn’t you?
Well my interest in fusion came from a desire to short circuit energy dependency. As an Iranian-American I became aware of the “resource curse”: the phenomenon of developing countries rich in natural resources paradoxically undermined by that very resource (oil, in Iran’s case). Often, rather than benefiting the general population, an easily controlled resource serves to enable some minority to gain undue control (think dictators, corporations, foreign powers). Corruption reigns. Democracy is suppressed (think Mossadeq, 1953). One day I saw an article by a plasma physicist on fusion energy innovations that were not being funded. I didn’t pay much attention to it until my cousin enlisted in the US army and died in Iraq. In memory of my cousin, I vowed to do everything I could to end our dependence on fossil fuels. Per the physicist, it seemed a fusion breakthrough was imminent and could supply the muscle to get off of fossils and end the resource curse. So I started to get involved in fusion.
Along the way, I became aware of how little we spend on energy research and development in general, and how much energy as a whole suffers from “energy tribalism.” Coincidentally, it was at this time that I came across The Breakthrough Institute via the insightful Post-Partisan Power report.
Do you think fusion is the ultimate goal or salvation of the energy system?
Fusion is fascinating and holds a lot of promise. However, we don’t have a working fusion power plant delivering energy to the grid yet. It’s a tough problem to solve. Our best play is to make sure the fusion endeavor has sufficient, reliable funding, and let it roll. Be patient. Check back in from time to time. Keep a look out for the “pleasant physics surprise.” In the meantime, don’t use the dream of fusion as an excuse to avoid working through our present energy problem set. We need to roll up our sleeves and get busy: replace fossil fuels with renewables, nuclear fission and lifestyle change.
Of course, most people don’t use fusion as an excuse to avoid action. Rather, they dismiss it because it’s not commercial yet. That’s a narrow view. Innovation and experimentation have value. I agree with Bill Gates. We’re best served by a diversified portfolio of energy sources and a steady stream of funding for innovations and alternatives. At present, fusion suffers from yo-yo funding and a premature down-selection of approaches. We have barely scratched the surface of the parameter space of fusion. People say we have spent “unfathomable” sums on fusion research, but Americans have spent much more on Halloween candy. What does the Halloween candy get you? Diabetes. What does fusion research get you? A profusion of spinoff discoveries and applications (like space propulsion). And it gets you closer to unlimited energy. Imagine the day we can run our civilization by firing up miniature stars to order, here on Earth. Real stars are so inefficient. All that mass and power, just to twinkle.
I see you spent some time in Hollywood, how did that affect you?
Yes. At one point, I went to Hollywood to pursue the dream of being a screenwriter. My genre is Redemptive Environmental Science Fiction (RES Fiction). That’s science fiction with an environmental theme that has a happy ending. This period of my life was an escape. A way to fantasize about happy global outcomes that I feared were not possible, given my understanding of human nature and technology at the time. But the more I researched my screenplays, tracked emerging developments and developed my social skills - the more I realized a redemptive outcome is actually possible. It may not be likely, but it is possible. If we act. Fast. So I decided to stop fantasizing and start living the story: to embark on the quest to achieve climate stability and knock out poverty along the way.
I learned a lot from Hollywood. The key takeaway from screenwriting 101 is this: we all hear the Call to Action. And we all start out by refusing it. My escape to Hollywood was a refusal of the call. Right now, most of the world is refusing the call. This puts our planet somewhere in Act 1 of “the Quest for Sustainability.” This part is also known as the debate beat. There is no way around the debate beat.
Another takeaway: in a Quest (for example, the quest for a sustainable civilization), it’s not so much about the object of the quest (sustainability), it’s really about the people on the quest (us!), how they (we!) change and grow. Ultimately, you cannot achieve the object of the quest without the internal growth and improved relationships. Does that hold for sustainability?
Speaking of relationships: The Divestment campaign sets up the hero/villain dichotomy which is too simplistic isn’t it?
More notes from screenwriting: A hero and villain are not so different. They make different choices. Also, sometimes the person you think is a hero is not actually the hero, and someone you thought was the villain isn’t the villain. And both hero and villain can find redemption. We all have the hero and the villain within us. Action defines character.
I haven’t looked closely at the divestment campaign, so I’m not sure how it’s being framed. It’s possible some are using a simple “we’re the hero, the oil company is the villain, let’s end them” frame. The trouble is that the oil company sells its products to all of us. We’re the ones driving cars and heating our homes with gas. It’s easy to vilify a corporation. It’s harder to have the awkward conversation with your neighbor (or spouse) in which you say: “Hey! Are you still driving a combustion engine? Yo! How about community geothermal? Say! Who’s up for a windfarm off the coast or a new nuclear power plant?” (Quick call to action: Have the conversations! Tell us how it went in the comments).
The “Divestment Play” (not “play” as in theater, but “play” as in “moves to win a game”) is basically a Defense play (as is the “Ban Fracking Play”). Its purpose is to block fossil fuels, in this case by taking funding away. If you take funds away as an investor, but continue to fund them as a customer, you have unresolved conflicts within yourself. To go all the way, you need to combine the Divestment Play with Offense plays, like the “Electrification Play.” You need to inspire individuals to actually trade in their gas cars for electric cars, their gas heaters for geothermal or electric, and to demand zero carbon energy sources to run it all. Of course, these plays are much harder than the Divestment Play. They open up a host of other external and internal conflicts to work through, anything from mass financing of new cars and heating systems, to lithium shortages (for batteries) to the NIMBY that will arise when you go to set up the wind farm or nuclear power plant. And then there’s the “Grid-dle.” Still, it’s the offense plays that move the game forward.
Back to “Team Divestment.” If this is your game, another thing to consider is how best to coordinate your efforts with teams and plays within the oil company: The Shareholder Activist, Corporate Sustainability and Whistleblower plays.
This brings us to “Team Fossil.” Players on this team have some crucial plays. They have to reorganize their companies to set them up for sustainability. They have to actively retreat from the energy field, and transform into stewards of petroleum resources. They have to “go long” (term). What some people haven’t fully taken into account is that petroleum is used in a lot of things other than fuel. You name it, there’s probably petroleum in it. It’s a key component of our civilization. We need it for fertilizer, chemicals, products. It’s insane that we are burning through it as quickly as we can. Basically, we’re burning up the food of the future, the plastic, a ton of other critical stuff. We’re recklessly limiting our future options. Would you burn your groceries to keep warm? Would you burn your smart phone to drive to the grocery store - which doesn’t have much food now that you burned it all? That’s basically what we’re doing. Going out in a blaze of glory.
Fossils are valuable. We need to protect them and make their higher value uses available for generations to come. Not for decades. For thousands of years, and more. I was listening to Adam Frank on NPR talking about how “Climate Change is Not Our Fault”. I like his take on our relationship to fossil fuels, and the way he questioned the narrative of guilt surrounding climate change. SPOILER ALERT: Climate change may not be our “fault,” but it is our responsibility.
The screenplay metaphor seems to have had a big impact on you. Do you see a role for creative works from Hollywood influencing climate change policies and action?
There’s a lot of potential. The trick is that movies primarily exist to entertain and make money. Climate change movies come across as depressing, cynical, simplistic and unrealistic. The apocalyptic ones (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) might be fun box office – but what kind of action can they inspire? I think most screenwriters don’t get the elements well enough to tell compelling stories about it. It’s the same with music about climate change.
Another problem is something you touched on earlier, the simplified hero myth. Legend has it that George Lucas wrote “Star Wars” after reading Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Star Wars turned out to be box office gold. Now everyone sticks to the hero myth. As you see from Star Wars, it’s perfectly acceptable to blow up a planet in the course of the story. That’s just disposable backdrop to the hero’s journey. It’s all about the hero (and his family dynamics). Climate change is more complex, values the planet above the individual, and can’t be resolved by blowing up a death star. (Speaking of Star Wars, if you want to help restore balance to the Force, please retweet this. Thanks!) How to deconstruct the hero myth? Here is some classic dialogue from “The Other Guys”:
Holtz: This city's dying for a hero.
Gamble: Is it?
Gamble: What about nine million socially-conscious and unified citizens, all just stepping up and doing their part?
It’s like this. We are each the hero of our own story AND all our journeys have to add up to the planet’s journey. This movie is “Climate Inside Out”, with all of us as The Emotions, and Earth as Riley.
Is there any book or movie that inspired you to think differently about the future?
Yes. The book: “Year Zero.” It’s hilarious, features aliens and copyright law, and is a great metaphor for the energy problem. I also liked the movie: “Tomorrowland.” I love the montage where the main character keeps raising her hand and asking, “what can we do to fix it?” And don’t miss Michael Moore’s documentary “Where to Invade Next”, an uplifting look at quality of life options.
Back to the challenge of making a movie that captures the complexity of climate change, yet inspires, empowers and directs action. One narrative approach that might work is a sequel to “The Blob” done as a miniseries.
Of course! The original is a 1958 horror film about how the people of a town pull together, overcoming skepticism and mistrust to battle an amorphous enemy from space. Initially, the people that raise the issue aren’t believed (sound familiar?) But then the town rallies. When all seems lost, they discover the Blob can be stopped by (dramatic pause) FREEZING IT. At the end of the movie they discuss what to do with the frozen Blob: “I think you should send us the biggest transport plane you have, and take this thing to the Arctic or somewhere and drop it where it will never thaw.”
Ha Ha Ha! Jokes on us. Now it’s “never.” Who knew climate change could thaw the poles? Maybe that’s why the Blob chose our planet. Cue the sequel. Now the planet has to come together to solve climate change – to keep the Blob frozen. It should be a miniseries so that each episode can showcase different options for decarbonization and explore the dramatic conflicts that they bring up. The series can be participatory. Invite fans to film their own episodes in their own locale. After all, the whole planet has to act to stop the Blob’s prison from melting. Whenever an episode gets too preachy or overwhelming, you punch it up with scenes of the Blob breaching containment and terrorizing a town or ship or what have you. (The Blob lends itself to this plot device. Any time a tiny piece of it breaks off and melts somewhere, it consumes things and grows. People are always chipping off bits of it and taking it to study in the lab, so there are many opportunities for this to happen.) The new Blobs have to be captured and sent to the poles as well. More Blob, less ice. The clock is ticking.
Of course, for those who don’t need the whole personification (or in this case, “blobification”) of climate change in order to focus on the challenge; for those who don’t want to passively watch a miniseries; for those who want to take the direct approach and deal with climate change ASAP, there is an even better narrative device. Games. Games have much more flexibility to tell that more complex story and engage people in actively pursuing coordinated solutions. That’s what our new initiative takes advantage of.
You founded an organization called Footprints to Wings, which is a great name, but what is the goal of your organization and what motivated you to start it?
Footprints to Wings exists to illuminate and coach “The Race to Zero Carbon” - the massive multi-player real world game we are all playing, whether we realize it or not. We seek to formalize the race and create an institution that brings people from all walks of life together to win it as fast as possible.
The Race to Zero Carbon is on. At stake are the peace and prosperity of humankind, the ecological vitality of our planet and our classification as an “intelligent species” worthy of a planet. At present, Team Doom is pounding us in our civilization end zone. The Energy Supply Field is dominated by fossil fuels, the Atmosphere Field is swarming with carbon emissions. The clock is in overtime. We may have already lost. However, there may still be a chance for Team Humankind to seize possession of its senses and run the foot(print)ball to Doom’s end zone and sequester it. Our job as coaches is to empower the Players, clarify the plays, and whip the teams into shape for the win.
The rules of the race are simple. The first state to achieve a net zero carbon economy with the best quality of life, wins. We’re all going to get to zero – but one state is going to get there FIRST.
The first state? Is this for the US or the whole world?
Other countries are welcome to join. As it grows, we will set up regional and international divisions and compete for the “World Carbon Cup.” We’re starting with the US because that’s our country. And if we can get to zero carbon in the US, it proves any country can have a great American quality of life with zero carbon emissions.
How about the developing world? Do they need to modernize their energy first? Are they in the race?
They’re definitely in the race. And they need to modernize and get their quality of life up to par. As Hans Rosling says – so many of them are below the “Wash Line”. That won’t do. This is why we include “best quality of life” in the criteria to win the race. The challenge of a race to zero carbon is to figure out how to provide a great life for everyone without the carbon emissions. If you’re discounting other people’s quality of life, if you’ve got double standards, you’re disqualified from our game.
It’s State v. State because the STATE is the ideal unit of competition. We have 50 of them, all unique. There can be red state solutions, blue state solutions, wild card solutions. We can give each a handicap (based on mild weather, hydro, urban advantage, for example). There is a lot of data available, aggregated at the State level.
Speaking of metrics, some states have carbon intensive industries but then they export those products to other states. How will you account for that?
You should join the Referee and Scoreboard Committee! That’s a great accounting question. We do need to account for the energy embedded in imported stuff. David MacKay does a great job of attempting to quantify this for the UK. We need to follow suit for each state of the US. Another area of dispute is emissions from agricultural activity. At present, the information on our website is simply the carbon emissions reported by the EIA. We’re working on a more complete picture.
Since it’s State v. State, do you mostly work with policy makers at the state level?
We work with individuals at every level. The framework is this: Your Team is your State as a Whole. But a State is made up of the PLAYERS - individuals, voter-consumers - the core, indivisible units of the team. Players coordinate to form SPECIALIZED TEAMS within the state team to achieve certain objectives - to execute specific Plays. Specialized Teams can be anything: a corporation, a club, a family, the aforementioned divestment campaign, a senator’s staff. The efforts of individual Players in Specialized Teams adds up to the State score.
It’s important to realize: all the actual work comes from the Players. The effectiveness and scalability of the play comes from their teamwork. The race to zero carbon requires attention to detail, from every member of the team. To quote Bill Walsh, one of the greatest coaches in NFL history:
"From the start, my prime directive, the fundamental goal, was the full and total implementation throughout the organization of the actions and attitudes of the Standard of Performance...I had no grandiose plan or timetable for winning a championship, but rather a comprehensive standard and plan for installing a level of proficiency - competency - at which our production level would become higher in all areas, both on and off the field, than that of our opponents. Beyond that, I had faith that the score would take care of itself."
Standard of Performance? How does this apply to the Race to Zero Carbon? What’s your strategy?
As they say in Screenwriting 101, “Show, don’t tell.” It might be best if you come see the strategy for yourself. Footprint to Wings would like to invite you to our First Annual Race to Zero Carbon 5K, 10K and interactive festivities on Saturday, May 21, 2016 from 9 am to 2 pm. The event will be held outside (rain or shine) at the Duke Island State Park in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Runners welcome: Register here! Organizations with a zero carbon play welcome: Apply here to showcase it! And of course, sponsors also welcome: Email us!
In addition to the 5 and 10K, the event will feature a walk-through Zero Carbon Coaching Clinic (ZCCC). The ZCCC will allow participants (the Players) to visualize the many roles they can play in the Race to Zero Carbon; the many options and actions available to move toward zero; and how THEY NEED TO ADD UP for their state to get ALL THE WAY to zero carbon. Yes. All the way. This is the majors. No token effort. We will be there with math, maps and improv to help you see how it all connects.
As for the organizations, in our framework, each is there as a “Specialized Team” that has several “Plays” to execute to move us toward zero carbon. This event is an opportunity for each organization to put on its coaching cap (literally, we will provide coaching caps); to explain how its “Play” will make a difference in the race to zero carbon (if you need help with this, we will coach you); to explore how best to coordinate with other Specialized Teams; and to recruit Players. It’s OK: Players can join multiple teams! Our goal is to get the Players to understand the whole game, to commit to going all the way to zero, to connect with all the Specialized Teams (like your organization!) that resonate with them. Let’s inform & pump everyone up to execute the plays & get to zero ASAP!
For those who can’t make it to New Jersey on May 21, hold tight, the race will be coming to you. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon. And for as long as it takes the US to get to Zero Carbon. This is just the first of such Zero Carbon Coaching Clinic events around the country. They will be replicated and tailored to each state. Join us to help make it happen!
Don’t you think zero-carbon is unrealistic? Why not advocate for less carbon, or more clean energy?
If you fight for your limitations, you get to keep them. I know some people say the only practical way forward is “Progressive Incrementalism.” That may be as good as it gets. That’s certainly better than “Token Incrementalism.” But it doesn’t stir my soul. I believe in us. I think we’re capable of extraordinary things. The planet has gone to great trouble and expense to generate sentient beings that are capable of consciously adjusting the climate. Maybe we’re supposed to stop making excuses and level up to this responsibility. Excuses or excellence. We are free to choose.
To be clear, the goal is “net” zero. If you can’t cut the carbon emission in some area (like airplanes), you can offset it through carbon removal (the “Reforestation Play”, “Soil Remineralization Play” and so on). Looking at the question again, there are three questions packed in it:
- Is a single-minded focus on carbon the right way to go?
- Do we really need to go all the way to (net) zero to stop climate change?
- Are we capable of going all the way?
With regard to the first question: It’s not just net “carbon,” it’s anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions measured in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). True, climate change is more complex than CO2e emissions. However, at this stage of our knowledge, they are a key factor to control, and provide an easily measured goal around which to hold a contest.
With regard to the second question: If we need to go all the way, we need to go all the way. My understanding from reading James Hansen is – we need to go all the way. Yesterday.
The third question has two dimensions, technical and social. Do we have the technology? Do we have the will? Pep talk aside, the only way to get a genuine answer to this question is for all the players to understand all the plays, and to choose the ones that work for them and coordinate with each other to execute them. That’s the reasoning behind our community based Zero Carbon Coaching Clinics. Many people blithely advocate this or that, without grasping the implications of what they are advocating. Ask a 100% renewable energy enthusiast how many wind turbines they think will be required in their state and where they should be located. Most have no idea. Ask a nuclear enthusiast how many more nuclear power plants are required and where they should be located. Ask people what they know about the mining requirements of their preferred solution. It’s all vague. Without a clear, common understanding of the options, we can’t make informed choices. We can’t get through the “debate beat”. And until we do, we’re not going anywhere. Some of the information you’ll uncover through our process is depressing. Sobering. But stick with it, and you start to see much more on the field. Other possibilities. Your own values and true preferences. Friends in the stands, anxious, cheering. A team member, on the field, waving. The clouds part. You see the play, shining. And you realize what you need to do.
Getting back to incrementalism, let’s invoke coach Marie Kondo who wrote “The Magic Art of Tidying Up.” Her philosophy is to systematically tidy up your life once and for all. Discard everything you don’t need. Keep only the things that spark joy. What we’re doing is creating a system to help people systematically go through and declutter the excess carbon in their lives, once and for all. A joyful switch.
Finally, in “The Climate Fix,” Roger Pielke repeatedly observes: “No one knows how fast a major economy can decarbonize.” To which Footprint to Wings says – let’s find out. I’ll race you there.
What do you think are the biggest challenges to rapid decarbonization?
Having the conversation. Getting people to stop refusing the call. Debate. Decide. Do.