LIFEBOAT: What will float, and why?

Normally Caspian’s a personable optimistic guy. Like many of us, however, he sees disruptions ahead – and he’s afraid his childhood friend Amy, now expecting a baby, will fall into dire times. So Caspian’s determined to “scout out the future.” He’s asking people to tell him what they feel will “float” and what will “sink” in their lives – i.e., what’s sustainable? What isn’t? He believes their knowledge will coalesce into true insight about the future. From it, he’s forging living narratives about the communities and organizations that will be lifeboats and float free and clear no matter what the future holds.

People experience and interact with LIFEBOAT just as they do with real life, using technology they already know such as cellphones, smart phones, Facebook and the Internet. They follow Caspian’s story in videos, images, textfeeds, or podcasts, and respond to his ideas by calling in, by linking to web assets they’ve created, or by browsing the growing pool of citizen stories and adding to the discussions. People play LIFEBOAT because they want to help create a story about intensely relevant issues.

A participitory alternate reality game, LIFEBOAT is part of the wider Green21 multi-platform initiative that features a public television broadcast series and its supporting social media.


This guest post by John J. Berger, Ph.D., environmental policy specialist, was first published in Forest Health and Management.


According to various estimates, deforestation accounts for 15 – 20% of world greenhouse gas emissions. Because of the role that its destruction could play in expediting global climate change, the Amazon rainforest has been the center of attention with respect to deforestation and natural carbon sequestration. An article published last week in The Guardian reported:

“Barack Obama made his first public intervention in the Copenhagen climate summit Thursday by backing a plan put forward by Norway and Brazil which would [help to] protect the world’s rainforests with funding from rich countries that cannot meet their commitments to cut emissions domestically.”

Brazil has the most remaining forest of any country worldwide, and about 20% of the world’s deforestation occurs in the Amazon forest. Therefore, Brazil’s participation in collaborative talks about slowing deforestation is crucial for the success of about 20 different plans for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) that have been proposed by various countries. Discussions under UN auspices are expected to be very thorough and to continue in a separate conference following the summit in Copenhagen. Determining a means to monitor progress and ensure protection of the forests involved and the peoples who depend on them will surely require much deliberation.

To read more about Barack Obama and Brazil’s roles in addressing deforestation at the Copenhagen conference, see John Vidal’s article, Copenhagen: Barack Obama backs Norway-Brazil forest protection plan

For more information on forests and their global importance, and strategies for their protection, see Forests Forever: Their Ecology, Restoration, and Protection by Dr. John Berger

Photo Credit:Ben Sutherland
under a Creative Commons License



The Bauer limo on the way to the expo

Recently I attended the Cleantech Open Expo and Awards Gala at the Masonic Center. Thousands of people turned out including an all star cast of speakers: Bill Weihl, Green Energy Czar at Google, Steve Westly, former CFO of the State of California and Gil Friend, CEO of Natural Logic.

This event is considered the Academy Awards of Cleantech. There was no red carpet or paparazzi but the audience got to have their American Idol moment by voting for the winners for a $100K prize of start-up services. The grand prize, valued at $250,000, including $100,000 of seed capital, was to be awarded to the business plan competition winner who had been selected in secret by judges the previous day.

The finalists were in the audience, and the stakes were high.

To get to the event, I took BART to Civic Center to catch the shuttle bus. I was looking forward to my second ride ever on the famous Bauer shuttle bus that transports Google employees (and raises San Francisco real estate prices along its routes). I was the only person when I got to the pick-up spot but the driver assured me I was in the right pace. He said I was free to help myself to coffee or bottled water in the back. Huh? I’ve never been to a Green event that offered bottled water. On the bus, I took a seat and looked around. I was the only person on the bus.

A few minutes later, the bus took off and I was still the only passenger leaving me to wonder: how did everyone else get to the event?

I arrived at the Masonic Center and was impressed with the turn out. Lots of people where there, and it was a different crowd than most Green events. The men were wearing suites, even some ties, and women were wearing heels, gowns and jewels. Well, not quite, but it was a different crowd. No one was carrying a Clean Kanteen water bottle.

I checked-in and walked through the lobby. There I came face to face with a surprise, a Chevron booth. I’ve never been to an event where Chevron was the sponsor. I didn’t know what to say. I stood face to face with the booth for a few moments, then made my way into the dark theater to gather my thoughts.

Inside the theater, videos of finalists were screening. Based on the videos, the audience voted on companies, and in between, speakers made presentations. It was hard for me to determine the most deserving project. I tried to vote on the underlying ideas rather than on the quality of videos, which varied dramatically. There was no scientific review. I felt unqualified to vote, but I did.

For the rest of the afternoon, I sat in the dark and I watched the Cleantech pageant in all its glory. There was a lot of excitement and positive energy in the theater, especially when the finalists made their pitches. Others have reviewed these presentations. (For example, see Reuters and Sustainable Business.) I’d like to focus on the experience of being in the theater.

I felt a disconnect between the Cleantech world and the Green or sustainable world of permaculture, conservation, recycled materials and watershed management. The A-list speakers discussed social change, changing the arc of human history and a revolution in our lives.  To me, however, most of the technologies presented didn’t map on to these big picture ideas. Many of the technologies presented seemed like band-aids to existing problems, others seem like they will enable us to maintain our current standard of living using less energy. Is this the revolution?

I believe that technology is an important part of the solution. I also believe that there needs to be a bridge between technological innovation and social innovation in order to realize some meaningful change. This is where I hope Green21 can play a role. At the end of the day, when I took the Bauer shuttle bus back to BART, I was encouraged to see that I wasn’t the only one on the bus – there were about seven or eight other people. And no one was drinking bottled water

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(Click here for a video clip from River of Renewal and show times)

In October, a documentary I wrote and produced about the crisis over water and wild salmon in the Klamath Basin began its first round of national broadcasts on PBS. Having a show uplinked to a satellite, then downlinked to TV stations that broadcast it is a strange experience, but there have been immediate results. Already I’ve heard from a friend I lost touch with many years ago; the publisher of my companion book sent her personal rave review; and many people have ordered DVDs.

While it’s gratifying to know there will be almost 750 broadcasts around the country by the end of November, what matters is to reach the public at the moment when a show like this can make a difference. After a long process of conflict resolution and consensus building, Klamath Basin stakeholders reached an agreement on the removal of the four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River as part of what may become the largest river restoration project in history.

The tribes of the Klamath Basin played a central role in accomplishing this goal. They have a world renewal ethos: pikiawish in the Karuk language, which means “fixing the world.” People fix the world on behalf of the salmon, the deer, wildfowl and other creatures, and for the land, water, and air all living things depend on. Pikiawish is our responsibility as human beings. To act accordingly requires a range of actions from clearing streams to repairing relationships with people from rival tribes so that we can work together on what concerns us all.

This is an idea whose time has come, but it has barely begun to reach people on the necessary scale. Public education is needed to build support for the elimination of environmentally harmful dams and their replacement with power from sun, wind, biofuels, and geothermal sources, all of which are abundant in the Klamath Basin: a ten-and-a-half-million-acre region that is larger than nine of the fifty states.

Working with Jennifer Thompson on Green21 puts this book & film project into a more inclusive perspective. For I’ve told one story within a global mosaic of responses to the challenge of our time. Green21, which will be available to the public via the web as well as on TV, will present many pieces of the mosaic in ways that will open minds to the big picture.

That’s a tall order. No one label like Climate Change encompasses this challenge, since the changes include the extinction of species, widespread pollution of land, fresh water, and the atmosphere, and acidification of the oceans. The fundamental relationship between civilization and nature is, I believe, undergoing a transformation, and much is at stake, including the web of life as we know it. That’s why I am so supportive of Green21 and happy to be contributing to its eventual success, awaiting the day when that series begins its satellite uplink to audiences across the country and around the world. That series will show many pieces of the mosaic, including inspiring stories of ecologically wise ventures in alternative energy, transportation, housing and other basic aspects of life, in ways that offer examples for all of us, via media that are interactive and open-ended as well as entertaining and educational.

Like River of Renewal, the title of Green21 expresses an aspiration, that this will become a green century. And each project that puts solutions rather than pollution into the world brings us closer to that goal.

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“River of Renewal” is an award winning documentary that will air on PBS stations beginning October 25. Produced by Stephen Most, Jack Kohler and Steve Michelson, “River of Renewal” won Best Documentary Award at the American Indian Film Festival.

Conflict over water & wildlife in the Klamath Basin turned farmers and ranchers against American Indians and salmon fishermen in Oregon and California. But after lawsuits and winner-take-all politics brought disaster to the farms, the fish, and the fisheries, these stakeholders came together to forge a consensus for the common good. Will the future witness the extinction of salmon in what was once North America’s third greatest salmon-producing river? Or the restoration of the Klamath as a home for life?

“River of Renewal” is scheduled to air on KQED in San Francisco 11/15 at 6 pm (check PBS Air Dates for other stations and locations). Writer and producer Stephen Most is also a member of the Green21 team, and he’ll be blogging at this spot next week (Nov 10).  Check back then, or subscribe to on your RSS feed reader!

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At the West Coast Green conference earlier this month, Ray Anderson told the story of Interface Carpet: how a small manufacturer in Atlanta Georgia became a market leader while reducing the enormous waste of energy and materials inherent in commercial carpeting by completely rethinking the process. I’d heard the story many times before — beginning with the 1999 book “Natural Capitalism” by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins — but this was the first time I’d seen Anderson speak. I appreciated his graceful demeanor, somewhere between a wise and humble Sunday School teacher and an inspiring captain of industry.

At the same time, I was wondering:  aren’t there any new stories on the feasibility of large-scale greening? As if in answer to my question, keynote speaker Andrew Winston followed with a presentation that was uplifting, intelligent and often humorous. He described some excellent case studies, of which I’ve summarized a few below.

Drive smarter:
Con-Way freight estimates that their lowering the maximum speed of its truck fleet from 65 to 62 mph will save the company 3.2 million gallons of gas. At peak 2008 prices, that’s $15 million, or over 20% of Con-Way’s net income that year. And they found that the fewer stops to refill the tank equalled out the time loss in driving slower.

And my favorite: UPS redesigned its routes to eliminate left turns, since waiting to cross traffic wastes time, energy and fuel. The savings on “No Left Turn”? $3 million per year.

Turn the lights off:
Disney has started turning the lights off at night, on its theme park icons such as the Tree of Life, the castles, the big ball at Epcot. In addition to saving millions of kilowatt hours, it will also send a strong signal to guests as they see the park shutting down for the night. “Hmm, honey, maybe we should have turned the lights off at the motel…”

Open the door:
We think of computers as somehow being much less energy intensive than industrial machinery, but data centers are emerging as a major energy sink. As Winston says, “there’s a persistent (and believable) rumor that Google is the largest single energy user in the state of California.” Yet less than 4 percent of the energy use of a modern server farm is actual processing — the rest is cooling and keeping idle machines running. (This is reminiscent of Amory Lovins’ calculation that only 1% of a car’s energy use actually goes toward propelling the driver.)

Solutions? ”Outside air economization” or letting some of the hot air out instead of relying entirely on cooling systems. Also, “add the power bill to the CIO’s budget” — basically letting major energy users know just how much energy they’re using, and giving them an incentive to do something about it.

For more detail on these, and other case studies and insights, check out Andrew Winston’s new book Green Recovery, from Harvard Business Press, or the 30 page excerpt Green Cost Cutting which is available as a free download on his website.

Winston’s message is a powerful one: going green can be an investment, not a cost, and in many cases the pay back comes within one or two years. And if they choose not to invest in sustainable solutions, especially with respect to energy, companies are putting themselves as well as the planet at risk. Just compare Toyota today with their competition in Detroit.

Still, sifting through these examples, I had to wonder: the more sustainable course of action is not always the more profitable one, especially in the short term. Hopefully these stories are all part of a large scale shift in thinking, that will enable us to choose sustainable solutions even when there isn’t an immediate profit incentive to do so.

Photo Credit:Chris Campbell
under a Creative Commons License

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"Rosie the Riveter" using hand drill

Library of Congress public domain archive

Last week I attended Next Agenda – the event hosted an all-star attendee list in a un-conference format. The gathering brought together people uniquely positioned to take action as well as get the message out: co-founder of Wes Boyd, founder of 1Sky Gillian Caldwell and Lead Commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission Dian Grueneich, to name just a few.

I had heard much of the information that was presented before, but in this format, with people actively questioning and engaging with the material, it struck me differently, and made me feel hopeful.

Founder of Squid Labs and MacArthur genius grant winner, Saul Griffith was the keynote speaker. Saul explained that he takes an engineer’s approach to climate change, “tell me what you want, and I’ll show you how to get there.”

Working backwards from 350 (the number that leading scientists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide—measured in “Parts Per Million” in our atmosphere), Saul detailed exactly what is needed to change the direction we’re headed – how many wind turbines, how many solar panels, etc are need to be built and installed. During Saul’s presentation, I felt optimistic as he laid out a clear, if ambitious, plan of action in concrete terms.

During the break-out sessions, I learned from scientists and technologists that perhaps the greatest challenge to addressing climate change is social innovation. My enthusiasm for Green21 was validated and renewed. An effort analogous the U.S. mobilization in World War II—but on a global scale, and against a much more abstract “enemy”—is needed to get us back to 350.

I had a vision of a “green” Rosie the Riveter. The question is: will the “Yes We Can” spirit live up to the “We Can Do It!” generation? I realized we need an icon and single strategy to unite people. And now, we have social media. For me, it raised the question: can social media accelerate social change? I believe the answer is, yes. The question is how.


Green21 is excited to connect with  sustainability advisors and leaders who share our mission and support our efforts.  Please contact me ([email protected]) to add your signature to this letter.

[click here for the full text version]
[click here for the full pdf version]

Mayors’ Letter of Support We the undersigned support the goals of Green21 and value the importance of sustainability literacy and public engagement on the following issues: • Sustainability, conservation and climate change are among the most significant challenges of the 21st century. Through community initiatives, legislative action, technological advances, economic innovations and lifestyle choices, the American public today will play a crucial role in determining our global future. We bear a great responsibility to ensure that our decisions are well-informed and wise. • The mission of Green21 is to raise awareness and inspire change on a personal and societal level. Green21 is a multiplatform series that combines the excellence of public television with the power of online media. Storytelling is part of the solution – we must put a human face on the issues. People need to know viscerally that, in spite of the scale of the challenges, they themselves can make a difference. • In addition, Green21 addresses an urgent need for sustainability literacy: an integrated, systemic framework for understanding how sustainability works across different societies, technologies and spheres of human activity. Green21 takes a whole systems approach to the issues, inspiring people to reimagine the world. • Green21 recognizes that cities, towns and other local municipalities are key agents of current innovation and future change. On issues such as transportation, recycling, water use, housing and energy, local government is often closest to the reality on the ground; with a unique combination of agility, connection to communities and ability to implement new ideas. Green21 will highlight these efforts and the large role that local government plays in determining how people manage resources and services, and ultimately their quality of life Peter Drekmeier Mayor, City of Palo Alto Heyward Robinson, Ph.D. Mayor, City of Menlo Park


Green21 was featured at the Green Software Unconference at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA on Wednesday, August 19th.  A special thank you to Mary Vincent of Green Star Solution for bringing together an amazing group of green software developers, engineers, entrepreneurs and social media producers. The event’s major sponsor was CSRware, makers of carbon and sustainability management programs.

The Green21 team included  Jennifer Thompson (Executive Producer), Denise Zmekhol (Producer/Director), Ken Eklund (Director of Game Design), Michael Gelobter (Board of Advisors) and myself.

Jennifer  delivered the keynote address.  She described how social attitudes have changed radically over the past 50 years, and she named two key factors in that change: 1) media, which offers new paradigms, and 2) peer influences, in other words modeling our behavior on those around us.  In the case of climate change and sustainability, however, we don’t have 50 years.  By combining elements of both the media and peer influence models, we hope that social media can facilitate even faster change in the near future.  Jennifer then cited the work of Paul Hawken, showing how many disparate groups working toward sustainability and social justice can be seen as  different facets of a single movement. She concluded by paraphrasing one of Hawken’s more inspiring points:

If you look at the scientific data you can’t help but be pessimistic, otherwise  you don’t understand the data; but if you meet the people who are working to create real change, you can’t help but be optimistic.

After this speech, Green21 Director/Producer Denise Zmekhol screened the video she created with Google Earth Outreach “Trading Bows and Arrows for Laptops” which explores how the internet and GPS technology is being used by indigenous peoples to monitor the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest.  The audience had many questions, including the implications of a society moving from the stone age to the internet age in the space of 40 years, and work of the Surui leaders to gain access to the carbon offset market.

Green21’s Director of Game Design Ken Eklund, creator of the groundbreaking massively collaborative game “World Without Oil,” led a session on alternate reality games and social issues. Ken is developing the Green21 game “Lifeboat,” an alternate reality game that encourages participants to contribute their own experiences and discoveries, opening new paths to consensus and action. Ken and Jennifer were then briefly interviewed on the topic by Dee McCorey.  On another short video, I discuss how Green21’s  online ecosystem will bridge diverse communities that don’t often get to communicate directly over the critical issues of sustainability and climate change.

All in all, the unconference format allowed for spontaneous discussions and workshops at a manageable scale.  This event offered the ideal forum for connecting with people who are working at the intersection of technology, sustainability and social change.



The Russian River watershed, just north of San Francisco, is surely one of the more progressive and resource-conscious areas of the country. I was staying in Guerneville on the river for a few days, about midway between Santa Rosa and the coast, and I got into a conversation with a local couple about the river and related water issues. They were in their sixties. They had lived in Guerneville over 30 years, raised their kids there and remained involved in the community.

When the topic of water use came up, the man spoke with deep resentment. I’ll paraphrase:

Santa Rosa just keeps dumping on us. Literally! This has been going on for decades. They take the water out of the river for development, always more development. The more water they use, the more waste they’ll wind up flushing downstream.

Once we proposed that they put their own intake pipes downstream from their effluent, so they’d need to use the same water we do. They looked at us like we were crazy. “Why would anyone want to do that?” they asked.

I asked him if there was any solution that might work. He smiled.

Well, we had a farmer around here who once drove up to Santa Rosa City Hall and dumped a truckload of manure on the steps. I think that got their attention.

His wife added that another step, at least as effective, had been the construction of a pipeline that ships treated wastewater to the Gysers steam fields – over 10 million gallons per day – where it helps produce enough electricity to power all of San Francisco.

Since then I’ve been intrigued by the question of water use along the Russian River. One important pitfall which that conversation highlighted: the temptation to frame a resource crisis as a conflict between two opposing groups, in this case the city upstream and the town downstream. Here’s what I’ve learned so far, and some big questions that remain unanswered.

Competing Interests:

  1. Downstream Residents: the river provides most of their water supply; sufficient water quality and flow is also needed for tourism and recreation (swimming, canoeing, fishing) which is vital to the local economy
  2. Fish: Endangered species such as the Coho and Chinook salmon need unpolluted rivers for spawning with sufficient forest cover to provide shade and erosion control along the riverbank. However, apparently they also require LOW overall flow rates on the lower river near the estuary.
  3. Agriculture: Sonoma county vineyards and other agriculture use the lion’s share of water. But extractive industries, including logging and gravel mining, also require water for their operations.
  4. Urban Residents and Development: Earlier this year, water contractors representing Santa Rosa water users successfully fought a proposed 30% increase in water rates. Meanwhile, the Sonoma County Water Agency continues to try to increase the amount of water it draws from the river from 76,000 to 101,000 Acre Feet/Year (over 30 billion gallons).

Of course there are many more groups and subsets of groups at work, and agencies that represent different interests and mandates. Brenda Adelman at the Russian River Watershed Protection Committee has been reporting on these issue now for some time: see


Are there any solutions on the table that would balance the needs of all the impacted groups fairly> Could pricing water use in accordance with its scarcity and high environmental impact not only curb unsustainable development in urban/suburban areas like Santa Rosa (by reducing the economic incentives for developers) but also reduce waste discharges downstream. Less water used equals less wastewater discharged.

My biggest question is this: if Guerneville and Santa Rosa can’t make peace over the Russian River, what are the chances for India and Pakistan over the Indus?

(Photo Credit: brian-m under a Creative Commons Attribution License)

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