Thursday, April 5, 2012

Letter to Paul Gilding, author of "The Great Disruption" (and response)

Hello Mr. Gilding,

Last week I watched your TED talk online and immediately bought The Great Disruption. It had a huge impact on the way I think and the choices I make in the future. I am currently waiting to enter graduate school at Yale for a PhD in neuroscience, however after reading your book, environmentalism and Sustainability (with a big “S”) will always be on my mind. I am not even sure anymore that neuroscience is the best choice for me!

The claim in your book – that we are now hitting the limits of both the planet’s resources and its capacity to absorb our impact – was shocking to me for multiple reasons. I was shocked by the prescience and content of the claim. The truth tightened its grip on my reality. I was also shocked to learn that I was unaware of the scope of resource depletion on a global scale until seeing your talk. I generally pay attention to current events and I am a popular science buff. I was sympathetic to environmentalism, however I was never swept up by the wave of the green movement because its message of “saving the planet” and staying healthy was too fuzzy for me. I was aware of the Sixth Extinction, but adopted a defeatist attitude because no one was taking the necessary steps to tackle climate change.

Your book is important to me because it recognizes the peril of human welfare as well as provides a new angle for environmentalism. As you said, we are not trying to protect the environment anymore, we are trying to save ourselves. At this point I believe they are the same thing!

So here’s my point. The fact that I had not heard of The Great Disruption’s claim suggests that there are many others who are also in the dark about this topic (in other words, it’s not just denial – it’s lack of information and discussion). While I was reading the book I felt like my mind was swarming with ideas, mainly to get the word out. I believe we (the environmentalists) can create a powerful campaign to reignite environmentalism, this time as a human rights issue and with the simple but crucial objective of saving civilization.

I believe the message of environmentalism can be clearer and louder. One way we can do this is by creating a short (30 min) film which grabs attention and gives people a clear reason why climate change and resource depletion is important to them. While I was reading your book the Kony 2012 video went viral and I started wondering why your message couldn’t have a film which evoked the same kind of response. After all, preventing more climate change will undoubtedly prevent more hunger, refugees, wars, and atrocities than putting one man in jail will. So one could argue this cause is much more important. Of course there are some things which impede this idea from spreading like Kony 2012 did:
1. The “enemy” is not a person or group. This can be ameliorated by giving what we are fighting against a name (I like to call it Collapse – part of me feels like this name exaggerates the issue but in reality if we continue blindly over the edge it could very well mean the end of civilization).
2. It is relatively difficult for the public to understand. The first instinct of environmentalists and scientists is to try to explain to the public with a lot of information, but this drives people away and makes them less curious, especially in a video. Perhaps we can use simple analogies to explain what is happening in the world. The trick is to explain with the smallest number of words. I was trying to think of some analogies… like an ant farm running out of food (surely there are better analogies). Although you mentioned Jared Diamond in your book, I was surprised you didn't discuss Easter Island since it is a clear example of civilization collapse due to finite resources.
3. Explanations of resource limits and environmental impact generally lack deep emotion. An anti-collapse video could show scenes from the developing world: women waiting in line for hours to get a jug of water for their family in places such as Mozambique or the Punjab region of India. If this kind of footage were shown along with the statement “climate change is speeding up aquifer depletion”, it would make a lasting impact in people’s hearts and minds and motivate them to learn more, spread the word, and make changes in their own lives.
4. It is relatively abstract because it tries to prevent something in the future, not something that is happening now. If fully understood, the public would treat your claim as if an asteroid were heading towards Earth. People continue to avoid the conclusion by invoking technology (I believe the people whom you call the techno-optimists).

As I write this, I am comparing the Story of Stuff video to Kony 2012, two videos meant to spread awareness on an issue (however the latter got over 75 million views in less than a week). Story of Stuff is chalk-full of information, but doesn’t grab attention. There is a constant stream of information, no real emotion, and personally I felt patronized by the speaker. Comparatively, Kony 2012 looks great, tugs on the strings of emotion, and the crowds of people make you feel like you are in a community by supporting their cause. I feel like I am way out of my league here, both within environmentalism and marketing, but I am writing this because I think it would be worth looking into how to better spread the message. Maybe an advertising company would be the best option?!

Another aspect of the Kony 2012 video which I believe gave it so much success was the emotion of hope and change (the Obama 2008 campaign too!). I think Story of Stuff did little to harness that energy, and your talk and book started to but it can be made much more powerful through imagery. This should be easy to show because of all the reasons you stated – healthier people and a less polluted planet, more emphasis on communities and less on consumerism. Also, people obviously won’t change their behavior if they think the situation is hopeless. So you can show them what they can do.

Besides a video, I believe an online portal is necessary for environmentalism. Because of its massive size, it is difficult to navigate the world of environmentalism on the web. There are so many aspects of environmentalism, from water quality to climate change, and the plethora of associated websites, it becomes overwhelming and anyone new to the subject doesn’t know where to start (or what is most important).
At the least, for the sake of spreading awareness, there should be a portal for The Great Disruption. This website would have an introduction to the ideas in your book, as well as links to:
1. Climate Change reports for those still unconvinced
2. Sites which monitor global resources like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
3. Sites which monitor human impact like the Global Footprint Network
4. Sites which describe actions you can take to fight collapse such as freecycling and carrotmobbing.
5. Who are the “bad guys”? Organizations such as anti-climate change groups and ExxonMobil.

As you can probably tell, your book instilled a lot of excitement in me and if for no other reason I wanted to express my gratitude through this email. I really do want to spread the word about The Great Disruption. I am planning on sending an email to Paul Krugman, an American economist, and Nichlas D. Kristof, an American journalist, both of whom are New York Times op-ed columnists and advocates of human rights. Hopefully they will choose to write more about resource depletion and environmental impact because it is both an economic and human rights issue.

I would love to hear your thoughts about a possible Great Disruption video, a website, and ways to spread the word in general. I have some other questions and ideas as well if you are able to answer them.

Thank you for your time and for writing an incredibly powerful book,

David “Dov” Salkoff



Wow, thanks for going to so much effort to get your ideas down in such detail!

There is great richness and insight in your thinking, so firstly let me encourage you to pursue this direction. I think you could make a very significant contribution to these issues.

With respect to the video/website ideas, I think again these are great. While many have suggested this and I certainly agree re the need and the benefit of having them, I have chosen a path for myself of being a single operator, with no organisation. My focus is on doing what I do best - the writing and speaking. The frustration in this is the loss of leverage, the great thing is that after a life time of building and running organisations, I can now focus on thinking and communicating and as a result do that better.

So, the short answer, I'd love someone or a group of people to do a video/website etc on the great disruption and would happily and enthusiastically endorse their efforts, but right now this is not my focus (again, not because it's not important or useful, but because of my capacity and focus). My job is to trigger people like you to act, not to do all the acting.

But I love your thinking and approach, so if you have the energy and enthusiasm for it, then go wild!

Kind regards


This Chapter of the Journey has Ended

Well, I'm back in the states now. I traveled a bit in Tanzania with Kendra and Ann before arriving home on the 28th of November. As you can see I got very lazy about posting. Some day I will make a final post about what it's like to be back.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Provincial Science Fair

We had the provincial science fair last Saturday. There were 7 schools and 18 participants... not as many as I wanted but overall it was successful. Most important, I think the kids really liked it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

More pics from site

1) Children dancing on Mozambican Woman's Day
2) My friend Caetano, on a visit to his mom's house
3) Cae's mom making xima (corn meal)
4) Cae's mom and view of her compound
5) Cae's step-dad who goes by "soup-soup"
6) The pot was made by Cae's aunt
7) I don't know what we are doing
8) I'm eating a banana
9) Some friends in front of my house
10 and 11) JOMA (youths for change and action) meeting with a trainer from Chimoio
12) My JOMA counterpart and friend, Nelson

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Friday, April 8, 2011

Journal Entry April 6

While we were hiking Mount Binga (pictures soon) I had and interesting discussion with J about development and aid. I forgot how we got on the topic – at one point she mentioned Jeffrey Sachs and when I said I liked reading his articles she was alarmed. His perspective, if I understood right (I know close to nothing on foreign aid), was that all underdeveloped countries and communities need is for us to pump money and effort into them. If you put in enough money eventually the people will bring themselves up. At least that is the idea. However, J argued, this does nothing to build the capacity of the people. If you give people new homes and schools and wells so people can get clean water that may be good in the short term. It may save lives. But if you come back 10 years later the community will look the same. There won’t be any new wells because no one can pay for it or knows how to dig one.

J’s view was that change must come from within the community. I played devil’s advocate and asked her to propose a project to develop a community if she were in charge. First she described the importance of assessment – not just a survey of HIV prevalence or literacy rates but an in-depth, multi-dimensional assessment of the level of development of a community which you could use to measure the community’s progress, understand inter-relations of different problems, and use to encourage inter-community rivalry and progress. This might take a couple years but it’s still an important step. The problem is that no sponsor wants to fund a 2 year foreign aid project that can’t claim to save a single life.

The next step is for the people of the community to elect a council. I missed the details of it (damn ADD I was probably distracted by some ant behavior I had never seen before) but basically the people need a place and organized meetings to report a problem. Example: is it difficult for the people on one side of town to get water? The council can add this problem to the list, decide to build a well on that side of town, and devise a plan to acquire money to do it. If this requires everyone in the community giving a little bit of money per week or giving up one chicken, apparently people are willing to do it. I imagine the council could deal with more abstract problems as well, such as giving a presentation or having a meeting to discuss domestic violence. That’s the just of the idea. However again, no one wants to fund this kind of project because when you compare the numbers it looks like an ineffective strategy.

In Peace Corps, sustainability is the magic word. It’s all about applicability, thinking small and building people power. However sometimes it can be hard to put a number on that type of progress. This seems to contrast other foreign aid which revolves around numbers (the type of aid Jeffrey Sachs supports): how many mouths did you feed and how many lives did you save? That’s where the money comes from. People like to give money and think that they saved a life. They probably did, and I’m not completely against that kind of aid. But a crucial part of the solution to poverty and underdevelopment is building the capacity of the people.

I got excited today when I heard my JOMA counterpart, Nelson, talk to the kids in our journalism group. He was obviously inspired by the training-of-trainers conference last weekend (completely organized, and temporarily funded – until grant money came in - by PCVs). He reminded the students that the province of Manica doesn’t yet have a newspaper, and that one day they might become journalists. He planted the idea of giving talks in all the churches in town about issues such as gender equality and domestic violence. We also talked about how to fund the group – after the aid money stops flowing. Nelson’s new attitude is the type of progress I like to see because the change is coming from within. It would be impossible to measure. It also may seem like a small difference in a country crippled by poverty. However it’s all part of the bigger picture. Maybe the kids in my journalism group will help pave the way to more jobs or increase the transparency of the government.

I’ve thought a lot about the amount of difference Peace Corps makes. Overall it would be really hard to say because the effects may not be felt until many years down the road (perhaps when my favorite students become teachers?). It can’t be accurately measured or estimated, not even to the right magnitude, so I have to go off of what I believe to be true to justify me living and working here for 27 months. And in terms of building the capacity of the people… well there aren’t many programs like it. Some days are difficult, and often times I can be pessimistic, but in the end I truly believe it makes a big difference and will change the lives of people for the better. I’m glad to part of it. It’s just too bad the entire Peace Corps budget is smaller than that of the Army’s marching band.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Journal Entry March 22, 2011

I solved a mystery this morning, unfortunately. I’ve been leaving site about every weekend and when I come back I notice something is changed with my house. The first couple times it was small – someone had moved the nail in my window, perhaps to look inside, for example. But two weekends ago I came back and the shelf in my room had been moved and the headlamp was disassembled and the batteries were on the floor. Since the grates had been closed, it meant that someone had reached through the window in my bedroom. I didn’t notice anything missing, but it still was strange and I don’t want anyone messing around my house or looking inside. So this last weekend, before I went to Mangunde, I moved everything away from the windows, locked the grate with two locks, and took a picture of my shelf to make a record of its position and the few remaining things on it.

Yesterday when I came back home I put my backpack and other things down and then walked up to the banca next to the school to get a quick breakfast. On the way I ran into Jemusse (my new empregado – employee - after Chris and Caetano – I need someone to cook lunch for me before noon and Caetano has classes in the morning) and asked how his weekend was. I complimented him on the job he did outside my house with the lawn and then as we parted I noticed he was wearing my sandals with the scorpions on them. I asked him about it later and he said he was sorry he didn’t ask. I asked him how he got the sandals and he said he had taken them before I left and he was going to clean them along with the clothes. I was a little confused, but didn’t think much of it for the rest of the day. Then as I was going to sleep I remembered I had taken the picture.

I woke up, still curious about whether the picture would reveal anything. Sure enough, in the bottom right corner of the picture was one of the sandals… which meant Jemusse had opened my window while I was gone and used a stick to fish them out. I decided to confront him about it first thing. I grabbed a chair from inside and told him to get the other in the kitchen.

I proceeded to tell him about how someone was messing around my house every weekend and that I decided to take a picture as a record. Then I showed him the picture.

“So do you want to change your story about how you got my shoes?” I wanted to give him one last chance, but I had made my mind up in the bathroom that if he lied again he was out.

“Maybe the picture was taken before?”

“No, Jemusse, I took the picture and locked the door.”

He pretty much repeated the same excuse. I was pissed. “I don’t like it when people lie, Jemusse. I know what you did, you know what you did. You need to speak the truth.” At this point I think he still didn’t get it. “How can I invite you now?” (I meant to say “trust” but said convidar instead of confiar. God damnit why do I still suck at Portuguese?).

“I’m sorry I won’t do it again. I was afraid.”

“Well now you’ve lied to me twice, and I’m not sure whether I still want you as an employee.” I told him to go home, he was done for the day. I was going to decide if he could still work for me and he could come back the next day to discuss. I didn’t know what else to do. I wanted to scare the shit out of him so he could get it in his head that lying isn’t OK. I’ll have a talk with him tomorrow about trust (now that I know to use the actual word in Portuguese) and having the courage to tell the truth. And if he does anything like that again he’s fired for good.

This is certainly not my first experience with kids lying to me. My students lied to me recklessly before, trying to redeem some points on their test, before I chewed them out for doing so. The ones I caught didn’t seem remorseful at all, in fact some of them laughed it off, which bothered me more than them actually trying to cheat in the first place. So I’m making it my goal to change Jemusse.

As Jordan said to me earlier, I certainly didn’t foresee parenting my empregado in my Peace Corps job description.


I’ll mention science fair real quick. I offered to be the regional coordinator in central and the provincial coordinator for Manica… which is crazy because it feels like the most responsibility I’ve ever had. It’s not out of my league, just more than I’ve had. Erica (national coordinator) just sent some info about it and it’s a little overwhelming. I’ve looked over a lot of it but I’m still kind of processing –

I need to get organized and take notes on everything, including a calendar of when I need to get started working on some of the stuff. Some of the jobs include: inviting schools to the provincial fair in Chimoio, finding judges, inviting an organization to come do HIV tests and counseling, and setting up accommodations / meals for students and teachers.