BEST OF THE PRESS: If Steve had Tackled Climate

A peculiar sort of tribute to Steve Jobs at Fast Company by Boyd Cohen offers us an interesting counterfactual:

If Steve Jobs Had Applied His Talents To Energy And Climate Change

and some interesting ideas that fall outside the usual zone of bafflement and helplessness…

One of the biggest failures of the environmental and climate change movement has been its lack of proper storytelling. One of the best attempts to tell the story about climate change was Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth book and movie project. I have to give him props for raising awareness of climate change by trying to explain, sometimes with some technological wizardry, why the climate is changing and why humans are partially to blame.

However, if Steve Jobs were Al Gore, he would have done this completely differently. He would not try to scare people with the doom and gloom of climate change. If Steve Jobs wanted to change the dialogue and collective consciousness about this challenge, he would have done it in a way that inspires optimism and excitement about the convenient solutions that will make our lives better. My friend Peter Byck has tried to do this through his documentary, Carbon Nation, and my co-author Hunter Lovins and I tried to do the same with Climate Capitalism. But imagine if Steve Jobs were telling the story about how much better his new GPS and smart grid-linked EV mass transit system would allow us to get anywhere we wanted to go, faster and smarter than we ever have before.

Follow the link to read more.

But, humans “partially” to blame? Please.



  1. Although interesting, I don't think this counterfactual applies. Technologists get enthusiastic about technologies they have developed. Steve was Apple's best salesman because he had such a strong hand in the development of their products. He was excited to be selling his ideas. His products also tended to create their own markets, encouraging an infrastructure to develop around them. (Although the iTunes store was an exception, requiring negotiation with old-line music companies for rights to sell their music.)

    The carbon-neutral economy is fundamentally different. Every player has to cooperate with many others. There's little to no room for a team to invent their own rules here because compatibility rests at its core. Exciting, positive visions of the next economy will require a different approach.

    Oh, and one other thing: Steve Jobs never had to face a well-funded, powerful campaign designed to inflame public fears about the very idea of his products.

  2. "Oh, and one other thing: Steve Jobs never had to face a well-funded, powerful campaign designed to inflame public fears about the very idea of his products."

    Really? What the heck was Microsoft doing all these years?

    The main idea Jobs could have brought to clean energy is the lack of baggage. You don't need to believe in digital music to use an iPod. You don't have to believe conspiracy theories about Bill Gates to use your iPhone to direct you around gridlock. If you want an Apple-style green energy solution, you need something that doesn't require studying battery technology, or atmospheric thermodynamics, or median wind speeds during peak hour. You want something with a single button (or these days, a touchscreen), which you press to get cheap, green energy. All the technology has to stay under the hood, and all the baggage needs to stay hidden in the trunk.

  3. "Really? What the heck was Microsoft doing all these years?"

    The competition from Microsoft and others was situated within the product range: "Don't buy their computer, buy ours". "Don't buy their phone, buy ours". And so forth.

    If computers were climate, the attacks would have been of an entirely different order, such as, "If you buy a computer, you are contributing to the destruction of our fundamental rights", or "Wearing an MP3 player is a sign that you are an elitist with no concern for the real people who made our country great".

    I'm not minimizing the obstacles Jobs faced down, just emphasizing that the attacks on solutions to climate disruption are distinctly more virulent than those used in other fields.

  4. I think, nevertheless, the point is well taken.

    Nobody is presenting us with an exciting, positive view of the future. So people imagine a world just like today's but with less gasoline. Which basically would suck.

    We ought to be talking about alternative social contracts which would actually make much better use of resources and leave us the happier for it, rather than just talking about what we should stop doing.

    The only thing we are optimized for is GDP. Not only have we squeezed every last drop of improvement possible in that direction, we are now hitting limits. The very genius of competitive capital is now shrinking GDP and causing people to be cut off from the wealth that we have created.

    It's time, perhaps, that we optimized for something else.

  5. Michael, I agree with the importance of an "exciting, positive view of the future". I just didn't find Cohen's examples persuasive:

    I am convinced that if Steve Jobs had been in the role of, say , Mayor of Los Angeles, he would have introduced some radical innovation to the public transit system, making it cooler than using your own car.

    Trying to channel Steve Jobs is impossible, but whatever his solution, I bet it would be faster than single occupancy vehicles, make more use of smart technology, be powered by renewables, generate more energy than it consumed, and send excess energy back to a brilliant grid.

    To which I can only add Belle Waring and John Holbo's "... and everyone gets a pony".

    The challenge for the positive vision is that it mustn't promise outlandish, otherworldly possibilities yet must still give some hope of improvement.

    I actually think some reduction in gasoline use is a pretty positive vision of the future, especially when I'm dancing through a stream of single-occupancy 4 wheel-drives as I walk to work.

    Cohen's next paragraphs, claiming that Steve would have introduced "a brilliant (not just smart) grid", inspired my comment about propaganda campaigns. BC Hydro has committed to installing smart meters, and the hate campaign is visibly gearing up across the province.

    I don't think of these comments as an invitation to despair so much as a call for sobriety.

  6. I'd like to know more about this "hate campaign". I always respect BC for your ability to be so far ahead of the rest of North America. The idea that something so ignorant could take hold there is a bit terrifying.

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