Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Buy an SUV, save the world?

I had breakfast with a friend of mine yesterday. It turns out we have both recently purchased hybrids. She moved from a Yukon to a Highlander hybrid. I went from a 3-series BMW to a Prius.

I drove away thinking about our hybrids. She was a bit disappointed with her Highlander's mileage, but it occurred to me that by moving from the Yukon to the Highlander, she reduced carbon emissions by twice the amount that I did by moving from my Beamer to the Prius. These numbers are guesstimates, but let's imagine that we each drive 12,000 miles per year, and that she went from 12 to 24 mpg (actually, I think she's getting more like 28), and I went from 24 to 48 mpg (that's actually pretty close). Those numbers are close enough for illustration, and easy to calculate with. I also found (from here) that 1 gallon of gasoline produces 19.4 pounds of CO2, a pretty amazing number. (Only 5.3 pounds are carbon, the rest is oxygen.)

The Yukon used 1000 gallons a year, producing 19,400 pounds of CO2.
The Highlander (and my Beamer) uses 500 gallons a year, producing 9,700 pounds of CO2.
My Prius uses 250 gallons a year, producing 4,850 pounds of CO2.

So she is saving 9,700 pounds of CO2, while I have only saved 4,850 pounds.

This isn't a trick. It's because the Yukon was using a lot more to start with. But it was illuminating to me. It highlights the disproportionate impact that gas hogs have. And it points out how moving from an inefficient SUV to a more efficient SUV reduces carbon emissions (and fuel consumption) by twice as much relative to the sedan-to-sedan improvement.

Hence the inflammatory title.

Of course, the biggest impact would be to go from Yukon to Prius. But it's interesting how the apparently smaller 12-to-24 change has double the impact of the apparently larger 24-to-48 change. It's all real and explainable, but counter intuitive to a lot of consumers.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Trust versus corruption

I've been spending my active time working on scaling up my favorite project, as you all know. But my less active energy (i.e. thinking, pondering, puzzling) is spent on two topics: Trust and Corruption.

Corruption came up at the tail end of reading William Easterly's "The Elusive Quest for Growth". Sure, we all know about it, but the impact on development is so big that it should dominate any policy discussion. There are sites, like and others, that spend their existence on the problem. A major issue is that no one has found a surefire way to eradicate corruption. Corruption has a corrosive effect on aid as well, since it impacts confidence that aid will go where it's intended.

By contrast, the hands-on development assistance delivered by small NGOs doesn't have nearly as much leakage. Much of my enthusiasm for Appropedia is due to my desire to crank up this approach to aid delivery, in part to increase the person-to-person contact between the developed and developing worlds. As I read about the challenge of corruption, I got even more motivated to promote small NGO aid delivery.

Now, as it happens I'm pretty much a greenhorn when it comes to delivering aid (though I hope to change that over time). So I knew I needed to connect with experienced people to see how the world really works, so that I could do the right things to scale the impact. Repeatedly, the key component to making a small NGO-to-community engagement work in the developing world You must have a trusted man-or-woman-on-the-ground. It could be an expat, but those are fairly uncommon, so doesn't address the "scaling issue". So that means it will probably be a local. And you'll need to trust them. And they will need to trust you.

As I've been considering this conundrum, I came across Aaron's post, and had to laugh. Yep, that captures a piece of the problem! Sure, most of us in the developed world have probably seen (and perhaps even touched!) skin that's a different color than our own. And though there are bigger barriers than the visual differences, it's a great nutshell story for the magnitude of the gap.

So how do we bridge this trust gap, and (mostly) bypass corruption to deliver aid and build relationships? Ah, well, that's the puzzle.

My ideas for solutions include:
  • Changing the way we vacation in the third world, so that we don't rush past all the faces but find some way to stop and bond with at least a small number of real people for several hours. That by itself is important. Translation will probably be necessary. Locals that already speak a foreign language have probably bonded a lot and are somewhat westernized. Get them to connect you to someone who doesn't speak a foreign language.
  • Revive the "pen pal" notion to grow a relationship with someone you met while traveling. This could be challenging, given the translation thought...but there are now some amazing free translation tools on the web. Email pen pals require connectivity, though. So maybe your travel plans are part of an Inveneo project :-). Or perhaps it really does make sense to work on a deeper relationship with a local who speaks your language. This might lead to...
  • Looking for ways to support "exchange students", or just visitors, from the developing world for a few weeks in the rich world. It's hard for me to imagine someone sponsoring a visitor unless there have been quite a bit of contact (a la pen pal) over time. And I have no sense for the US visa challenges involved.
As I say, these are just thoughts. That will lead to action. That will make a difference. I'll bet you've got thoughts about making a difference. If you've written them down, please leave a comment with a link. If you haven't, please do some thinking, then start a blog or a journal and practice articulating your thoughts. Writing is a great way to bring a series of ideas into a coherently expressed theme.

Trust me.

(Or maybe you think this post is a counter example? :-)

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Burnin' it up

Wow, that was fast.
I kinda new it had been a while since I posted. No shortage of things to say, just... Well, y'know... Time.

But still staggering to look at the date of the last post and find that over two weeks have passed.

Anyway, just a temporary lapse. One of many, sure, but anyway I'm back. Once again a busy week at Lake Wobegon. There was Thanksgiving, of course, and it was one of the good ones. Won't go into that, though. In addition, I've met with several people, gone to another EWB-SFP meeting, where they had a great presentation by their Appropriate Technology Design Team (ATDT), including a great presentation by Ken on the Darfur Cookstove project.

That one was particularly educational. Here are the highlights. There are about 2.2 million "IDP's" (internally displaced persons, considered distinct from refugees) in Darfur. Nearly all of them cook using the traditional "3 rock stove" technique (see photo, from ATDT Aprovecho blog post), which does not make very efficient use of fuel (i.e. firewood). Food is supplied by international aid. Fuel is supplied by gathering for nearby...except that over time the local area has been denuded of wood, and so now "nearby" means a 7 hour round trip to collect wood. Women and children perform the gathering, under threat of rape or mutilation. It's worse if men do it; the likelihood of murder is quite high. So there is value in reducing the need for collecting firewood. Solar cookers have been developed, but unfortunately the nature of the cookers does not allow for cooking of the traditional meals, and so the IDP's, desparate for a vestige of their lost lives, revert to the cooking they know, and the solar cookers have not been adopted.

ATDT got involved. They took a look at some existing FES's (fuel efficient stoves, yes it even gets its own acronym!) and found that, like the solar cookers, you could not cook the traditional meals. They also were very sensitive to wind, which tends to blow at around 6 mph in Darfur. They also wanted to develop a design for a stove that could be manufacture at a reasonable cost in Darfur itself! (It's hard, but there are lots of benefits to this.) So they made some tweaks and improvements, and have a version that looks very promising, using 1/4 of the fuel of the tradition scheme. This can make a huge difference, especially if the stoves can be made locally. Currently 50 proto stoves are undergoing testing by IDP's on site in Darfur. (Amazingly, this and other aid efforts have been hampered by travel restrictions imposed by the government in Khartoum. Apparently Nicholas Kristof's articles do not exagerate.)

Much of this (including some cool photos) is captured in the ATDT stove test blog post (this is a different post from the one referenced above). When I read this (ages ago), I noticed a comment that had been left. The comment poster essentially said "yeah, but what's this got to do with reality?" This was pretty much my reaction when I read the blog; I thought, well great, they've inched up efficiency another 3%, but airlifting 300,000 stoves to Darfur seems like the wrong priority of investment, and I figured solar cookers would make more sense. I was mistaken; everything was illuminated at the EWB-SFP meeting last week. I'm extremely impressed with the effort to engage the local IDP's in manufacturing, using materials and tools and skills available in Sudan. And there's more. They're even finding clever ways to fund this, such as a form of carbon credits, since the new stove reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by several tons over the life of the stove. Wow.

I also met with Marc, the director of The Clarence Foundation, which is doing some great work on giving circles, including a "traveling giving circle" which will make some decisions in Nairobi early next year (there's still room, I think). I'm very excited by that, and will be joining up in the new year. Also contacted Robin, who is working to improve the lives of villagers near Kilimanjaro via Hope Through Opportunity, as well as Natalie, who recently visited west Africa and wants to help make an impact on education there. Several people have been joining the effort at my favorite wiki, where page views have been skyrocketing, probably as a result of some promotional work, as well as some very successful porting efforts. (Plus, of course, it's just a damn great idea.) We've been porting (with permission, of course) some great material from the Erssons, Practical Action, International Rivers Network (along with American Rivers), and G.P.Baron of Philippine BioDigesters (really). Numerous other contributors are creating some original content as well.

And in the coming week I'm gonna be meeting with Doug, and John, and Ken and...

But I promise to write a post...though it could be a 2 liner. (Did I hear someone say "Is that a threat or a promise?")

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