The "Live Earth" Meme … Threat and Opportunity

July 18, 2007
In 1952, on the Japanese island of Koshima, scientists were providing Macaca fuscata monkeys with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand. The monkeys liked the taste of the raw sweet potatoes, but they found the dirt unpleasant.

If you stayed indoors on Saturday, July 7, 2007, to avoid the heat, you might have turned on your TV set and encountered a most unusual event. With former Vice President Al Gore as their chief spokesperson, the "Live Earth" concerts might have taken energy policy a step forward or backward following the launch of his "An Inconvenient Truth" documentary. Since it could affect your bottom line, perhaps it is worth a closer look. In case you missed it, there were popular music concerts staged by the cultures on seven continents beamed to 2 billion people for one single purpose: to raise awareness and develop a response to the alleged threat of global warming. This event relates to a theory of contagious mental energy called "memes" that I think you should know about.

In his book titled "The Hundredth Monkey," Ken Keyes Jr. described an "urban legend" that might have some relevance to this rapidly growing movement. The story goes …

In 1952, on the Japanese island of Koshima, scientists were providing Macaca fuscata monkeys with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand. The monkeys liked the taste of the raw sweet potatoes, but they found the dirt unpleasant. A young female they named Imo learned she could solve the problem by washing the potatoes in a nearby stream. She taught this trick to her mother. Her playmates also learned this new way and they taught their mothers, too. This cultural innovation was gradually picked up by various monkeys and, by 1958, most all the monkeys learned to wash the sandy sweet potatoes to make them more palatable. Even monkeys on adjacent islands were washing their food. Keyes concluded that, when a certain critical number of monkeys achieve awareness, this new awareness may be communicated from mind to mind. Then it becomes a meme – a contagious idea. Although the exact number may vary, this Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon means that, when there is a point at which a new awareness reaches a critical mass, this awareness is picked up by many people. History is the record of memes among Homo sapiens … the spread of new ideas from mind to mind. Nowadays, memes can be transmitted around the world instantly with communications satellites and the Internet, like the concerts were on Saturday.

For several years, concerned scientists have been issuing warnings about a threat to life on Earth due to the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting emissions into the atmosphere – so-called greenhouse-gas emissions. While it is disputed by a vocal minority who call it a hoax or pseudo-science, the consensus among the Union of Concerned Scientists seems to be that we have nearly reached a point of no return where the emissions of carbon dioxide and related pollutants threaten the future of life on Earth. The ubiquitous use of oil, gas, and coal for transportation and energy generation are the primary targets for those who claim that something drastic must be done soon to avert the pending international disaster that will result from business as usual. The "Live Earth" concerts might just have pushed the climate-change movement over the edge into a meme. If so, what could it mean for your bottom line?

The "Live Earth" goal seems to be nothing less than a "neutral carbon footprint" for every person on Earth through adoption of a seven-part personal pledge. The main problem with this goal, as I discussed last February, is that modern economic development and lifestyles depend upon fossil fuels. One example of intolerable pollution touted by the "Live Earth" people is burning trees in the rain forest of Brazil to make charcoal in primitive kilns that is shipped internationally (including to the United States) for use in refining iron and steel to make automobiles that consume gasoline refined from oil that destroys the ozone protection afforded by the atmosphere. Another obvious threat is burning coal and natural gas in giant electric generators that fuel the industrial and commercial business that makes modern lifestyles possible all over the world. Unfortunately, the most advanced economy, and the one most criticized for its highest per capita use of energy, is the United States. The United Nations calculates our yearly per-capita energy pollution at about 6 times the world's average. A lot of it makes buildings habitable and productive. Any major disruption or curtailment of energy use threatens the basic economic fabric of this society. You may shift the data around a bit, but overall growth in energy usage parallels economic growth year after year. Achieving a new balance in energy policy between conservation and growth will take some very creative thinking.

One of the proposed solutions for climate change being touted by global-warming alarmists is the purchase and sale of carbon credits, used as a new cost of doing business. Companies, countries, and individuals could balance their CO2 output by purchasing credits from others that are emitting less greenhouse gases than government-prescribed maximums. Companies that use below their quota can sell their excess carbon credits on open markets. To make this market work, each entity would have to calculate its carbon "footprint." The assumption is that trading credits would give companies, countries, and individuals a financial incentive to produce less CO2. Planners envision the number of companies wanting/needing to buy more carbon credits will increase, which will push the market price up and encourage more groups to undertake environmentally friendly activities that create carbon credits for them to sell. Managing carbon credits in the European Union (EU) is one of the fastest-growing segments in financial services in London's financial district. Present market value of carbon credits is about $30 billion and could grow to $1 trillion within a decade. Louis Redshaw, head of environmental markets at Barclays Capital, predicts, "Carbon will be the world's biggest commodity market, and it could become the world's biggest market overall." But, government attempts to regulate the market in the EU are causing many disappointments. The price dropped below one euro, so there is little incentive for firms to cut emissions as it is cheaper to just buy credits to offset their pollution.

Al Gore wants everyone to join his worldwide movement to save the planet from ourselves. If a new energy meme actually has been created by "Live Earth," facility managers soon may face occupants who want to see what you are doing to pursue a "neutral carbon footprint" before they sign a lease. The role of energy managers in the design of new facilities could become much more important for your bottom line. Building executives who support and implement improvements to environmental sustainability that accommodate and foster economic growth could be the future leaders of society. And, buildings that can be promoted for their low carbon footprint could enjoy a larger share of market. Two billion people may have begun a "Live Earth" meme that is both a threat and an opportunity. It might even be good business.

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