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Daniel Gilbert on why it’s so hard to know what makes us happy

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor and author of “Stumbling on Happiness”, is someone I enjoy listening to even if I’ve heard his talk several times before. I’ve blogged his studies on happiness previously, but I’ll always catch his talks because he’s an astoundingly good presenter. (I had a chance to talk with Gilbert before his talk. I asked him to be brief, repetitive and boring so he’d be easier to blog, as I was recovering from writing 2500 words about Jason Clay’s talk. He didn’t oblige.)

His talk is called “The Four Answers”, and the answers are to the question, “Why are people so bad at knowing what makes us happy?” He reminds us that the US Declaration of Independence establishes as “self evident that people have inalienable rights; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The founding fathers thought that pursuit of happiness was difficult, but not complicated. Life in colonial times was hard: you got up in the morning and tried not to die. “Happiness is what happens when you get what you’re aiming for – and it doesn’t happen in this lifetime.” You weren’t assured the right of happiness, but the right to pursue it.

The world has changed very quickly. The agricultural, industrial and technological revolutions have transformed our reality, and now large populations have everything they could possibly need. And yet, Gilbert tells us, they’re not happy. “Happiness can’t just be getting what you’re aiming for,” or we’d all be happy. Or we could draw another conclusion, the one Gilbert argues for: “We must be aiming for the wrong things.”

The problem stems from our ability to imagine. Every animal learns from experience, from the single-celled up. Unfortunately, this can be a very expensive way to learn – the mouse that gets caught by the cat doesn’t live long enough to benefit from the lesson. Human beings are able to learn through a more sophisticated method than trial and error. We can imagine, and conclude whehter courses of action without actually engaging in them. This capacity is so important, it radically changed human anatomy, expanding the size of our heads three-fold, so we could grow huge temporal lobes, the brainspace we use to imagine.

Gilbert asks us to imagine a raw steak banana split. “Ben and Jerry’s didn’t have to make it to realize it was an error.” He offers the observation that “We are the only animal on the planet that learns from mistakes we haven’t personally made, because “imagination is a life simulator.”

There’s bad news: this simulator “is new, and still in beta testing”. Our life simulator fails in predictable ways. People make systematic series of errors when they try to predict how they will feel about the future. The heart of the talk are these four errors, the four answers to the question of why we’re so bad at knowing what makes us happy.

What we don’t imagine matters more than we imagine it does.

Who ends up happier? Assistant professors who get tenure, or those who don’t. We’d assume that tenured professors are much happier. Actually it turns out not to matter very much at all – a few years after the tenure decision, both the tenured and untenured turn out to be pretty sucessful. And “as it turns out, everyone is happier than assistant professors.” But in the moment before a tenure decision, assistant professors predict that the tenure decision will have a massive impact on their lives.

Gilbert calls this “a failure of the life simulator”, something that happens in study after study. To explain, he asks us to imagine buying a newspaper. Then he asks us for details: “What paper did you buy? What day of the week? What bill did you use? Where did you put the change?” None of us know because we imagine the central feature of a thing, not the inessential details. These inessential details matter a great detail. The professors are imaging the consequences of a tenure decision, but not other aspects of their lives, their relationships, where they live – these details have a profound effect on whether they end up happy or not.

Would you be happier in California. Everyone says that they would. And Californians tell us that they’re happier than the rest of America. But there’s no reliable correlation between California and happiness. When we imagine California, we imagine beaches and bikinis – we omit inessential details like smog, traffic and earthquakes.

You can improve the accuracy of people’s prediction of their happiness by asking them to imagine details. Gilbert explains a study where a group of football fans are asked how they’re going to feel after their team wins or loses a big game. They predict big swings, positive or negative, in happiness. Another group is asked the same question, but also asked to list things they’ll be doing the day after the game. This leads to a much narrower – and more accurate – range of emotional swings. This is a “wide focus” effect – if you ask someone to broaden their focus beyond the football game to their wider experience, considering those “inessential details”, they’re less error-prone in making predictions of their future happiness.

We can’t forsee what we’ll see once we’re seeing it

Gilbert shares some quotes from the New York Times, quotes from people happy and satisfied with their lives:

“I don’t have a minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.”
That quote was from Maurice Bickham, who served 45 years in prison for fighting back against a KKK lynching attempt, and was eventually released.

“I am so much better off, physically, financially, mentally and in almost every way.”
That’s Jim Wright, years after he was forced to resign from Congress in disgrace.

“I believe it turned out for the best.” That was Harry Langerman, a man who’d had the opportunity to franchise McDonalds, but wasn’t able to borrow the money. He became a middle manager in the Black Angus chain of steakhouses… and seems pretty happy about it.

The most astounding of these examples is Pete Best, the drummer thrown out of the Beatles. He’s been recently quoted as saying, “I’m happier than I would hae been with the Beatles.” This seems crazy – it’s not like Best went on to become a restauranteur – he’s a session drummer. Who would want to be a footnote to musical history when they could have been part of the greatest band of all time?

Gilbert explains that our brain is wired to resolve ambiguity. He shows the Necker cube, an optical illusion that can be interpreted in two ways. Stare at a Necker cube, and you’ll see it shift between orientations. If a researcher provides even a modest reward – a gentle, approving “Mmm” when you announce that you see the cube in a particular orientation, you’ll lose your ability to see the cube in another orientation within two minutes.

Given an ambiguous situation – being thrown into prison or out of the Beatles – we’ll shop amongst interpretations and pick the one that feels best. Did Best lose the gig with the Beatles, or gain a great chance to spend more time with his family? “Our brains are good at finding the best way to see things.”

Gilbert posits a situation in which we might face rejection – we ask a girl out on a date and she says no. This is an ambiguous situation. Maybe she thinks I’m ugly, he offers. Or maybe she’s an anti-semite. Or perhaps I’m a lousy conversationalist. Or maybe she’s a lesbian. Given the ambiguity, we’ll conclude she’s an anti-semitic lesbian before we conclude our own unattractiveness.

Unambiguous rejection is much harder for humans to handle than rejection from a single person. Gilbert details an experiment in which students are invited to apply for jobs as ice-cream testers. They’re invited to taste ice-cream flavors and offer names for them. In the experiment, everyone is rejected, some by a single judge, others by a panel of judges, where each rejects the applicant. Before the test, students are asked how badly they’d feel if they didn’t get the job – they all predicted they’d feel pretty bad, because “rejection sucks and it will hurt”. But the students rejected by a single judge felt only a little bad, while those rejected by a whole panel felt truly lousy. It’s one thing to reject an ambiguous defeat – that judge didn’t like me – but unambiguous setbacks are far harder for the brain to rationalize.

In the future, we will live in the present
Another optical illusion shows us how a solid-colored grey bar can look like a gradient when shown against a gradient background. It’s a simple contrast effect – things change when you compare them to other things.

If you’re visiting a friend’s house for a dinner party, which bottle of wine are you going to buy? Given four choices, you’re doing to buy the second-least expensive bottle of wine – you’re not a cheapskate, who’d buy the least expensive, but you’re not going to buy the most expensive either. Wine stores get you to buy the $33 bottle instead of the $27 by adding a bottle of $115 “aspirational” wine. No one ever buys this wine, he argues – it exists solely to increase your chances of buying a slightly more expensive wine, which doesn’t look so expensive in comparison to the very expensive wine.

If that doesn’t ring true for you (it should – even Homer Simpson has verified the theory), Gilbert offers evidence from a study that shows that people will choose to get paid $90,000 a year if their peers are paid $80,000 rather than being paid $100,000 while peers are paid $110,000. We can’t resist making comparisons, and guessing at future happiness based on these comparisons.

There’s another lab study to demonstrate the phenomenon. Researchers invite students to estimate how much they’re going to enjoy eating a bag of potato chips. They then eat them and report how much they actually enjoyed them. Simple enough. But the experiment has a twist. One group is asked to estimate their enjoyment of potato chips while there’s also a plate of chocolates on the table. They tend to give lower estimates of potato chip enjoyment. On the other hand, a group making an implicit, unstated comparison between potato chips and Spam give high estimates of potato chip enjoyment.

Here’s the thing – when students actually eat the chips, they pretty much enjoy them at the same rate. “Once you eat a potato chip, it doesn’t matter what you’re not eating. No one ever says, ‘Man, this is so not Spam.’”

“How often do we have thoughts like ‘I could have had a V8′? Or ‘maybe I should have gone to a different lecture?’” Almost never, he tells us. We compare in our imaginations, but it reality, we live in the present and evaluate our happiness based on what we’re experiencing.

Your mother doesn’t know everything.

Gilbert tells us that his mother offered him the same advice everyone’s mother offers – find a good job, get married and have kids. Is Mom – and conventional wisdom in general – right or wrong?

Marriage, as it turns out, is an extremely good predictor of happiness. Married people make more money per capita, eat better, live longer, have more sex and enjoy it more. In terms of comparisons of happiness, you’d need to be making $100,000 more as an unmarried person to be as happy as a married person. (On average, and your mileage may vary, of course. And please, keep in mind, this is Gilbert talking, not me.) Is this a causal relationship? Maybe happier people are simply more likely to get married? That’s true, but studies over time reveal a very common pattern – people are less happy before marriage, experience a happiness peak shortly after marriage, and become slightly less happy a few years into marriage, though remain significantly happier than before marriage.

Money’s a little trickier – they’re related, but the relationship is asymptotic. Earning more money doesn’t give you much of a happiness boost after an inflection point. There’s an argument about where that inflection point is, but it’s lower than you think – somewhere between $40,000 and $100,000 a year in the US, less in developing nations.

Gilbert tells us that an economist friend reacted to this set of research with the quip, “If money isn’t making you happy, you’re not spending it right.” That may be true. People often make bad choices enabled by more money. If you get a raise and move into the country, you’re going to have a commute to work – that’s a daily negative effect that may well counterbalance any happiness effect you get from the fresh air and starry skies.

Comparative money is far more important than real income. He offers another quip: “Happiness is proportional to your salary divided by your brother-in-law’s salary.” He offers another useful observation – money given away almost always leads to happiness. In an experiment, students are given $20. One set is instructed to go out and buy something for themselves; the other set is instructed to buy something for someone else or give the money away. The first group comes back slightly happier than they were before, but the second group comes back beaming. (Did I mention that Global Voices is a non-profit organization and that we accept donations online?)

Here’s the tough news for those of us contemplating parenthood: people with children tend to be less happy than married couples without children. Parents with young children are even less happy. Again, perhaps there’s a self-sorting effect – perhaps happy people decide not to have kids. But time studies suggest a curve where couples are pretty happy, get very happy when anticipating a baby, get significantly less happy when the baby arrives and don’t really recover until the kid goes to college. Gilbert shows us a study in which mothers were asked several times a day to rate their happiness by being called on a phone at random – they reported what they were doing and their happiness levels. They reported being happiest when talking with friends or eating, less happy when shopping for groceries and least happy doing housework. Time they were with children ranked between housework and grocery shopping.

Gilbert acknowledges that none of us believe these studies. He asks, “What do we do when data shows us something we don’t feel?” He offers three hypotheses that might explain the phenomenon, each with a catchy analogy:

Happiness is Armani socks
If you buy a $250 pair of Armani socks, you’re probably not going to keep this fact to yourself. You’re likely to tell people how wonderful they are, how great they feel. “We value things a lot when we pay a lot of money for them… or suffer for them.”

Happiness is heroin

“Heroin is a great source of joy,” Gilbert tells us. The problem with heroin is that it crowds out other joy, lowering your average happiness. Children might have this tendency as well, crowding other things out of life that previously were sources of pleasure. These pleasures – travel, dining out, playing loud music that your kids hate – tend not to return until the kids leave home. “Empty nest syndrome is not a DSM category. It doesn’t exist. The only known symptom is smiling.”

Happiness is baseball

A Cubs and Sox fan, Gilbert knows something about how baseball and suffering can be correlated. But he postulates a near-perfect baseball fantasy: a day game at Fenway, Becket on the mound against the Yankees, a complete-game shutout, with a 0-0 tie finally broken by a Youklis walk-off in the bottom of the ninth. You’re going to tell everyone what an amazing game you saw. The truth is, shutout baseball is pretty damned boring. If we asked you moment to moment, you’d likely be bored through most of the game and thrilled at the very end. But our memory tends to record peak moments and eliminate the routine ones.

Parenting, he offers, is like this. You have a tough day with your kid, but you get a wave of love and affection when your kid tells you he loves you. “It wasn’t a great day, you had thirty really good seconds. Transcendent happiness wipes out the moment of drudgery.”

Gilbert has obviously talked to his mother about these issues and offers her response: “Maybe as parents we fail to get the right amount of joy out of parenting.”

As the audience is now ready to immediately get married, stop seeking a raise at work and put off having children indefinitely, Gilbert reminds us that “we’re designed to pursue happiness, not to find it.” Finding happiness is a really tough task, one where “we need to outmanuever our own brains which are designed as machines for their own replication,” not for making us happy.


Jonathan Lyons on the Islamic resolution of science and monotheism

Jonathan Lyons was a correspondent for Reuters for 21 years, the first American national to be based in Tehran after the revolution. He and his wife both wrote from Tehran, and between them, they published in Reuters, the Guardian, the Economist, and the International Herald Tribune, which made them very visible targets for the regime.

He tells us about talking to an ayatollah in Qom. He realized was receiving what might be the last vestige of an Aristotelian education in rhetoric and logic from this Shia cleric. He realized this didn’t jibe with our cartoon image of Iranian clerics. And he wondered what else there might be able to learn from this tradition.

This led him to the exploration of Islam’s influence on what we think of as western science and society. He focuses in particular on Adelard of Bath, wondering what kind of person goes to the Holy Land during the crusades not to kill, but to learn Arabic and bring back that scholarship?

His book, “The House of Wisdom“, starts with a description of the unschooled, barbarian European masses knocking on the gates of the learned and sophisticated Islamic lands. He explains that Fibonnaci’s father sent him to a Muslim family to learn his math – he would have learned double-entry bookkeeping, an innovation that hadn’t yet reached the North.

When European monestaries might hold a couple of dozen volumes, Arabic libraries held hundreds of thousands of books. When the sultan decided to donate books to a new school, he sent 80,000 from his personal collection.

The seat of knowledge was Baghdad, founded by the second Abbasid caliph, Abu Jahar al-Mansour. (Apologies on all transliterations – I’m blogging in a room without Wifi and I will certainly get terms wrong – please use comments to correct.) Lyons tells us that the calif was a student of Euclid, who wanted to build a palace in a circle so that people would be equidistant from his central palace. He ordered built a circle of cottonseed oil, which lit on fire, brought the city into relief in glowing fire. While Madina-al-Salam was a mathematically planned city, the magic of it came from a city governed by law rather than by tribal tradition.

Al-Mansour ordered translations of scientific works from Greek and Persian. Ordered the creation of the House of Wisdom – the Beit al Hikma. It was modeled after the libraries of great Persian kings. This effort was strongly supported by the general population, not just by the caliphs. If you weren’t a scholar yourself, you hired scholars who lived in your house and did work in your honor. And great translators were well compensated. The translation of Greek texts into Arabic allowed Arabic to become the language of the known academic world.

These translations were more than word for word paraphrasings – to translate these texts, the scholars needed to become deeply knowledgeable as scientists. They corrected, edited and revised these texts. The Arabic translation of a great Greek work was often better than the Greek original – this came to bite the West in the neck, when Renaissance thinkers developed a fetish for the Greek originals.

The desire for science wasn’t in conflict with relgious authority – there was deep Islamic support. And the precision of Arabic was a great advantage for scholarship. A great Persian scholar began writing in Arabic because it was more precise. Arabic has 42 words for the word that meant “to be” in Latin – this gets pretty important when you’re talking about metaphysics. Mohammed brought in a religious, economic and finally an intellectual revolution.

The requirement to know the Qibla – the direction of Mecca – for prayer, burial and preparation of halal meat – had a major effect on geographic technologies. When Mohammed left Mecca for Medina, he just needed to face south to pray. This was initially adopted by Muslims in the far flung empire. But the desire for scientific accuracy superceded religious tradition. Believers in Central Asia had four choices to determine qibla:

- Honor the niche in a mosque
- Face south and honor tradition
- Face the traditional pilgrimage route to Mecca
- Take the astronomers seriously

That final, scientific solution was the one adopted. Medieval religious opinion bowed to the scientists. And the qibla adopted wasn’t the straight line on the map, but the line that honored the curvature of the earth. By the 10th century, the Islamic world had accurate geometry of a spherical earth. A hundred years before, all six major triganometric functions were in wide use.

Urban mosques began to attract timekeepers – they were religious scientists paid by the mosques, and they compiled almanacs – al-manaq – rigorous time cycles of when to pray in different locales, from Morocco to China.

Religious injunctions called on doctors to heal the sick… a very different model than in Europe, where sickness was seen as spiritual weakness. The need for pilgrimage routes required complex cartography. And alchemists were doing basic chemistry, exploring the structural nature of compounds. From azimuth to zenith, algebra to zero, we use Arabic terminology.

The idea Lyons wants us to take away is the idea that we can understand the world scientifically without putting ourselves in opposition to God. St. Augustine, he tells us, rejects science and art in becoming a Christian. In the Christian world, we see bestiaries like Aesop’s fables. They tell us very little about animals and lots about Christian morality.

Adelard of Bath was born around 1080 in England’s west country. His father was a powerful ally of the local bishop, and he was a wealthy, highly educated man who’d studied at cathedral schools in France. But he condemned contemporary learning and longed for an idealized past – “I judge the ancients eloqhent and call the moderns dumb.”

He had no interest in crusading. Instead, he resolved to learn Arabic and return with Arabic learning. We believe he was in Antioch in 1114, based on evidence of an earthquake he survived. He know he learned to wash a cadaver until the neural systems emerge from under the skin to study their structure.

He came home a changed man, determined to teach his peers about the wonders he studied in the East. He is worried that his peers reject modern scholarship from the Arab world at their peril and overfocus (as he had) on the classics of Greek literature. He brings back a book of alchemy which teaches how to tan leather, color glass and dye cloth green. And he brings back the astrolabe, the most powerful computer of its day, capable of telling time, defining true north, and measuring the height of a building. Alas, they only work if you know the latitude – we can read astrolabes based on what latitude they’re set up for.

The astrolabe, Lyons argues, is the perfect metaphor for Arab science. It’s based on Greek knowledge, advanced, done beautifully and brought to the west. People other than Adelard had gotten their hands on astrolabes and knew how to use them, but didn’t understand the cosmology behind them. Lyons sees Adelard as a cosmologist who understood the astrolabe as a scientist, not just a technician. “You can take for granted that the universe is not a rectangle or a square, but a sphere.”

Adelard advised King Henry II, and know he told him to rule through philosopher kings and to tolerate all religions. We don’t know how he died, but we think he survived into his seventh decade, and provided personal advice to the King throughout his days, based on extremely complex horoscopes provided through 1151.

Lyons calls Adelard the “first Western man of science”. He offers a quote from Adelard to explain this perspective: “Of course, God made the universe. But we may and should inquire into the natural world. The Arabs teach us that.” This is science – we can explore and understand the universe and still believe in God, and this is a little-known gift of Arab culture.

The Arabs, he concludes, are the first monotheists to get their hands on Greek and Latin texts and figure out how to use these things in a monotheistic universe. Their work preceded Maimonedes and other great thinkers responsible for this sort of synthesis.

So how do we have such a negative view of Islam today? 46% of Americans believe Islam is intolerant, and that 70% say it has nothing in common with their own faith. Most Americans see little or nothing to admire in Islam, but this is based on media impression, not on actual experience.

The culprit is anti-Islam discourse, which can be traced back to crusade-era propoganda. In the 11th century, the Church needed to create propoganda to get people to give up their lives and fight enemies they’d never met. Indeed, those church leaders had never met a Muslim. The discourse posited Islam as the opposite of Christianity. This turned Islam into a false form of Christianity, an unchaste religion, a violent faith, and in direct opposition to Christ. And we see the vision today – that Islam is anti-science, sexually perverse, undemocratic, and inherently violent.

Lyons believes that Arab contributions were slowly and steadily written out of history books. This inhibits the understanding of Islam, which makes it extremely difficult to diffuse global tensions. This distorts our domestic policy and leads to a war against Islam instead of a war against the criminals who attacked us. We’re holding what Lyons calls (quoting a Turkish saying) “a dialog of the deaf”.


I asked Lyons my best tough question, which made reference to the Arab Human Development report and the fact that there’s been very little translation from the rest of the world’s languages into Arabic over the past thousand years – languages like Spanish translate orders of magnitude more works. Why is this, and doesn’t this mean he’s putting too much of the blame for a Western/Islam misunderstanding on the West?

Lyons parses my question pretty bluntly: “In nicer language, you’re asking what happened, why the Islamic world fell behind and why they don’t currently dominate science.” He offers a variety of answers:

- We don’t know enough to date the decline of Arab science or define its cause or causes.
- We accept a notion of an Arab golden age, and the longer we study, the longer that golden age gets
- Copernicus’s work is based around two key theorems from the Arab world – perhaps this means that Arabic scientific influence lasted hundreds of years beyond when we commonly think
- Maybe we overvalue Western science – perhaps we’ve lost something in losing the integrative nature of Islamic medicine
- The Mongols killed most of the scientiss and scholars

The most satisfying answer was his last one – before admitting “this is a complex way of saying ‘I don’t know’” – current Arab states need to take blame for allowing science and learning to lapse. These states are insufficiently Islamic, not in the sense bin Ladn means, but in the sense that they do not recognize the finest examples of Arab culture and history, the love of science, art, exploration.

I’m sympathetic to this notion, much as I’m sympathetic to work on the African continent to recognizing the roots of complex, abstract mathematics in African culture as a way of reclaiming and rebuilding a love of science and learning. But it’s very hard for Lyons to keep this thread going in conversation in the audience – it very quickly turns into a discussion of terrorism… which, in turn, is an interesting example of Lyons’s key point, that our impressions of Islam tend to focus on intolerance and violence, not on the history of science and learning.


Jason Clay and measuring the environmental impact of agriculture

Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund gave a talk yesterday about video and social change, featuring the video below that tries to convince people to think through the impacts of their consumption, and what changes could be made to make use of resources more efficient.

His talk this morning looks at these issues in far more detail, asking hard questions about the sustainability of human life on a single planet in the wake of increasing consumption. This ends up being a conversation primariy about agriculture and food production, which Clay characterizes as the single largest threat to the planet.

Clay tell us that he grew up on a Missouri farm, which he ran for five years before going to college. He tells us that there’s an old midwestern saying: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” In environmental terms, we need to know where we’re going and where we are on the journey.

Ultimately, our population times consumption needs to be sustainable within the footprint of our planet – right now, we’re consuming roughly 1.25 earth’s worth of resources. If China consumes at the rate that the US population does, we need two new earths just for Chinese consumers. Clay asks whether consumers should have a choice about buying sustainable products. His answer – nope. They need to all be sustainable – consumers need to choose based on other metrics.

We need to focus on agricultural sustainability because agriculture is our major threat towards biodiversity. WWF chose 35 key biodiversity locations around the world to protect – the threat to all is human impact, and the threat of agricultural and ranching encroachment is twice as large as any other threat. We currently farm 33% of the world’s terrestrial surface, 57% of non-river and mountain land. An additional 12% of terrestrial land is protected. The fate of that remaining 30% will be determined in the next few years. Right now, we’re seeing agricultural encroachment into forest and wetlands at 0.6% a year.

Agriculture uses 70% of all water on the planet. One crop – rice – uses 14%. Water scarcity means that agriculture is becoming more unpredictable, more variable. This makes it hard for farmers to borrow against their future production. “If American and Brazilian farmers don’t get money to plant, we’re going to starve.”

We waste roughly 60% of the water allocated towards agriculture And we’ve lost half our topsoil in the last 150 years. Agriculture may provide 25-40% of greenhouse gases – we don’t really know because we don’t know how carbon is released from soil. And these ugly numbers all precede biofuels.

By 2050, we’ll have 3 billion more people in the world, and food consumption will likely triple. That’s because people spend money upgrading their diets before anything else, and “better” diets mean more animal protein. In the US, we’ve tried very hard to keep food inexensive – we pay less than 10% of our income for food in the US, eating out about 40% of the time. But we don’t necessarily pay for externalities. If you buy a large burger, the farmer gets paid about $0.25 for the ground beef. Growing that beef could require anywhere from 3000 to 15,000 liters of water – is that really a fair price for water? (Clay quipps, “Water is the new carbon – lack of water will kill you in a couple of days, unlike climate change, which takes decades.”)

The problem with getting a handle on these issues is that even big companies don’t have a huge amount of control over their carbon impacts directly – Coke, Clay tells us, controls less than 15% of their carbon impact directly, and the rest comes from the supply chain. “Generally carbon and water impacts aren’t under control of large brands or retailers – they occur upstream, in primary production of commodities.” That means that improving corporate efficiency doesn’t get the job done – you need to work with suppliers and their suppliers.

When WWF looks for places where they can impact supply chains, they look at these numbers:
- 1.4 billion producers of raw materials
- 6.7 billion consumers
- 15 commodities that represent the most potential for positive environmental impact
- 300-500 companies dominate 70-80% of trade in each of those commodities
- 200 companies represent 50% of 15 commodities, and 100 represent 25% of those 15

WWF’s take: let’s focus on those 100 companies. (Cargill is, by far, the most important of these companies.) The goal is to get them to commit to ensuring that 25% of one of these commodities will be sustainably produced, checked against third-party standards of sustainability, buy 2020. These goals need to be public and transparent to avoid greenwashing. And there’s a ton of interest in doing this – 21 companies have already partnered with WWF, and WWF is trying to bring in 15 more a year.

Mars has committed to making 100% of their cocoa sustainable. That’s important because they buy more cocoa that any other companies. Clay theorizes that 25% of the market is what it takes to “flip” a market – producers realize the economic benefits of sustainable production through higher prices and longer contracts and other producers will follow their lead in the hopes of reaching these markets.

WWF is focusing on cotton, palm oil, soy, sugar, bananas, pineapple, cocoa, coffee, wild fish, farmed salmon and shrimp, beef, pulp and paper, timber and biofuels. Bananas, pineapple, cocoa and coffee are critical to a number of regional economies, while the other are key global commodities. (Clay pauses to wax lyrical on aquaculture – it now produces more fish than wild caught, and the production goes in strange places. Turns out that Mars vastly more fish than WalMart… to make cat food.) Around each of these products, WWF convenes a roundtable to discuss global standards for impact, creating 4-8 key, measurable impacts that can be tracked and measurably reduced.

Once we start setting standards and monitoring impacts, we’re able to answer tricky questions, like whether we’re better buying local or not from a greenhouse gas point of view. It turns out that transport is only a tiny component in the carbon footprint of most products – 85% of greenhouse gas is attributable to production. So we’ve now got good studies that demonstrate that it’s far smarter from a carbon impact to raise lamb in New Zealand, freeze it and ship it to the UK than to grow locally.

This sort of analysis turns into uncomfortable news for environmentalists. Tesco looked into building more small stores and encouraging people to walk to them, rather than big stores with parking lots. They discovered that the carbon impact of the food people eat to power their walk to the store outpaces the gains from reduced car usage! The analysis of a grande latte – in the video above – shows that a company like Starbucks uses almost no water in producing a beverage, a few liters in producing a cup and lid, and hundreds in growing the coffee. You can bring a recyclable cup, and you’ll save some water… but if you really want to save water, you need to address the supply chain.

Clay looks closely at China’s increased consumption of pork – China has more pigs than the rest of the world combined. As China eats further up the food chain, they’re buying massive amounts of soy from Brazil. That soy is grown on former rain forest. Brazil is basically exporting soil and water to China in the form of soy, cotton and sugar.

We’ve got to find some way of increasing productivity if this trade is going to continue. There are eight key crops in the world which are responsible for 50% of the world’s calories. We need a 3% growth rate in production to meet our food needs – the two most critical crops, wheat and rice (which provide 80% of the globe’s calories), have less than a 1% growth rate. None of the crops with a growth rate over 2% grow in the tropics.

So we may need to get tricky. Mars discovered that 20% of cocoa trees were responsible for 80% of their suppliers’ crops. And they discovered that providing water during the dry season doubled production. Between careful irrigation and sequencing genes to discover the most productive cocoa strains, Mars predicts that their producers can grow 300-400% of their crops on 30-40% of currently farmed land. The rest can grow trees to sequester carbon, act as grazing land or as watershed. And it’s possible these techniques could be applied to oil palm and cassava, critical food crops in cocoa producing regions.

As meat consumption moves to the developing world, so does meat production. For meat to be 10% of the world’s calories, we can raise meat using nothing more than agricultural waste. But to bring meat production to 20% of calories, we need to double world grain production, which is just not possible. So we need to get more efficient. The humble fish stick is a miracle of engineering – it allows us to use 60-70% of the weight of a fish, and the remainer can go towards aquaculture feed. Fish will soon replace poultry, which was the previous miracle protein. (Think tilapia or catfish. Not much flavor, but the goal is to create a protein-rich substrate for spices.) Poultry efficiency – in terms of converting grain calories into protein ones – has doubled in efficiency every eight years over the past century. Now we need to look at other metrics. Producing a kilo of chicken requires 32 liters of water… Brazilian farmers figured out how to bring the numbers down to 16 liters. But the grain to feed the chicken requires 2500 liters per kilo – if we can reduce that 10%, we’ll see an amazing impact.

We get even bigger impacts through rehabilitating abused and abandoned land. In Brazil, farmers are buying land at 10 cents on the dollar and letting it grow grasses for five years. They’re able to borrow against the land, because when it’s rehabilitated, it’s more productive than agricultural land in use. In Borneo, farmers are buying land that was abused and planting oil palms – Clay says they’re selling carbon sequestration and palm oil simultaneously.

Business models that have multiple impacts at the same time are Clay’s obsession. He talks about conversations he’s had with Dupont about capturing sulphur from coal-burning energy plants. His idea – Dupont should capture nitrogen and sulfur and give it away to fertilizer producers. They’ll retain the rights to trade NOx and SOx credits. He predicts the model is so profitable that Dupont will be compelled to put the technology in for free in Indian and Chinese coal plants.

Making these systems work requires monitoring the commodities produced. When agricultural standards emerged, they came into play to allow people to make purchases sight unseen, defined by specifications – a bushel of #2 corn was a certain color, a certain quality and a cerain moisture. We’re now asking to buy products with values that aren’t verifiable through careful analysis. Was this organically produced? Does it contain GM materials? What’s the water usage? Is it fair trade? Was child labor involved? We don’t sell cocoa and child labor separately – we sell cocoa that’s free of child labor. We can – and need to – sell commodities bundled with cerain water and standards as well.

This won’t necessarily add cost – we’re capable of being more efficient with water and carbon footprints. But it will require third-party verification. Clay wants to see market standards emerge, before government standards come into play, because he believes markets will set a higher bar. He also believes we need to get over the idea of having completely separate supply chains. “You don’t buy green energy. You buy the bragging rights about green energy.” As long as a company is producing a certain amount of energy sustainably, you don’t care if your electrons come from coal or water. Perhaps a similar blurring can take place in agricultural markets.


I thought that this was one of the most revolutionary talks I’ve heard in a long time. Clay argues that, while consumers can have a modest impact on the environment, the real change needs to happen at corporate supply chain levels. This calls into question lots of well-meaning green orthodoxy. If it doesn’t matter all that much if you bring a recyclable cup to the coffee shop – at least in comparison to the coffee production – what other “truths” do we need to examine more closely?

One questioner asks whether we wouldn’t benefit from small, polyculture farms throughout the world. Clay administers “tough love” in response – polyculture’s great to feed a family, but it probably won’t get it out of poverty in the same way that selling commodities will. And small farmers have the biggest impact per ton of any on the planet. It’s not a scaleable way to produce food and address these issues of carbon and water.

I raised the concern that some of the well-meaning green efforts are paradoxically bad for the environment, citing Tesco’s “carbon count”… which encouraged consumers to buy less sustainable produce from Britain than more sustainable from Kenya. It turned an environmental good faith gesture into a retrograde action in green terms, as well as a damaging form of protectionism. On the other hand, people clearly want to do the right thing as environmentalists – they just don’t know what it is.

Clay suggests that it’s an and, not an or – we can take actions in our lives, but we need good data to make the right choices. But we also need to take actions as citizens. We can become informed on these issues and put thoughtful pressure on large corporations to change. He suggests letters to the Cokes and Nestles of the world, suggesting that a dozen letters is worth far more than thousands of Greenpeace postcards.

I was thrilled to see Saul Griffith – who gave the other best talk on these subjects I’ve attended in recent years – in the audience. That talk, at last year’s ETEch, looked closely at global power production and consumption and each of our personal footprints. Talking with Saul afterwards, I noted that he’d responded to his research by making massive personal changes in his life – travelling less, becoming mostly vegetarian. Clay’s talk seemed to suggest that the real impacts come at a corporate level, while Saul wondered whether there’s a moral responsibility that comes from understanding this sort of calculus. Saul assures me that the perspectives are compatible – I’d love to continue the conversation with them both to see whether the answer is that we should apply pressure for big changes at a corporate or government level, or whether we need personal change as well.


John Hagel on serendipity

Futurist and consultant John Hagel caught my attention with a talk titled “Shaping Serendipity”. He’s introduced by John Seely Brown, his frequent collaborator. Brown and Hagel are writing a new book together, and a chapter focuses on serendipity. (And as a chapter in the book I’m failing to write is also on serendipity, I made a point of attending…)

Hagel offers a definition of serendipity: “Unexpected encounters that surprise and delight.” He notes that, in telling people about the session, they’d react first with delight, and then with surprise that this could be an idea worth a whole sesson. “What can geeks, nerds and algorithms tell us about serendipity?”

He believes there are techniques we can use to shape serendipity. Deploying these techniques, we can increase the quality and the chance of these unexpected encounters.

To contexualize the idea, Hagel explains that he and Seely Brown are postulating a major shift in business climate between 1965 and today. They’re developing an index that tracks a business environment that looks increasingly competitive and difficult. They suggest that the economywide return on assets (in the US, focusing on publicly traded companies) has decreased sharply from 1965 to the present – return on assets is roughly 1/4 of what it was in 1965. This is true even within the set of highly succesful companies. And looking at the mean years of survival for companies listed in the S&P 500 has been reduced from 75 years in the 1930s to roughly 10 years now. In other words, corporations are under strong and increasing pressure. Competition is intensifying, through digital infrastructures and policy trends that favor competition.

To survive this change, companies need to move from a focus on knowledge flow, rather than on knowledge stocks. Corporations used to develop a sphere of knowledge, then monetized it by producing products. Now they need to embrace knowledge flow, and see that flow as the center of value. This means we’re always learning, always discovering and always refreshing our sphere of knowledge. This requires us to develop pull mechanisms, ways of pulling knowledge in from the world. Search is a basic form of pull mechanism, but it has its limits. How do we find things when we don’t know what we’re looking for, when we don’t know what’s out there?

Hagel suggests that we need to shape ourselves so that we’re attracting people and knowledge that we want to be surprised by. This requires us to adopt a different model for serendipity, one that doesn’t believe that serendipity is about pure chance. Within that model, all you can do is embrace it and be open to it, but you can’t attract more or better encounters. Hagel’s model involves making changes to environments, practices and your preparedness to maximize serendipity.

In understanding environments and serendipity, Hagel posits a conflict between Tom Friedman and Richard Florida. Friedman tells us the world is flat, that location doesn’t matter, and that we can access resources from anywhere in the world at any time. Richard Florida suggests that the world is spiky. More and more people are concentrating in urban settlements, in the US and around the world. If the world is so flat, why are people gathering in these places?

If you’re in a place where there’s a concentration of talent, your chances of serendipity increase radically. People move to cities in part because they realize the value of unexpected encounter. If location didn’t matter, why is travel increasing, globally? Physical environment matters and enhances serendipity.

Virtual environments can create serendipity as well. We have a choice of where we participate in virtual environments. One of the values of social networking sites is the likelihood we’ll encounter an unexpected link via a social connection. Other environments are created explicitly to generate serendipity – a platform like Innocentive, which invites unusual solutions to technical problems, can create unexpected connections. An MIT spin-off company, Sense Networks, is studying traffic patterns based on users who allow their mobile phones to be monitored. They’re able to track the flow of people as a result. If you choose to be tracked, Sense Networks will help you discover what “tribe” you belong to, and where your tribe hangs out.

Hagel cites a pair of people (both friends of mine) who have mastered the art of creating serendipity by carefully choosing their environments. One is Yossi Vardi, an Israeli technology entrepreneur who spends his life attending technology conferences and walking the halls. Another is Joi Ito, a legendary global traveller, who’s relocated from Japan to Dubai because he believes it’s emerging as a key global crossroads.

What a corporation does to enhance chances of serendipity will directly affect their chances of market success, Hagel argues. Creating online spaces that allow your customers and developers to interact, as SAP has done, can help create unexpected encounters. Unlikely online spaces like World of Warcraft can also be great spaces for serendipity, because the guild structure allows for the development of deep, trust-based relationships.

Hagel warns that you can go into these environments and not make connections. You need to learn how to rise above the noise in these spaces and attract attention so that the people you need to find will find you. He suggests that succesful actors find ways to influence conversations without direct contacts – they attract attention and sustain it, which allows connections to form when appropriate for all involved.

This, in turn, requires preparedness. He suggests that people either are disposed to finding encounters to be threatening and distracting, or to embrace and enjoy them. Hagel suggests that this probably isn’t a choice – it’s a perspective people bring to business. But if there is a way to cultivate connections that lead to serendipity is to develop passion around what you’re doing.


I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about serendipity over the past year (see here and here) and was intrigued to see how differently Hagel and I are using the term. A questioner in the audience observed that Hagel’s examples all involved finding serendipity by connecting with people, rather than encountering things or information. I’d suggest that Hagel’s examples almost all deal with creating a wider set of weak ties. Hagel explains that he believes this is the most efficient form of creating serendipity – by building new connections, you gain a source of serendipity over a long period of time.

Here’s my concern: building weak ties is great, important and helpful. We know that weak ties are incredibly useful in finding jobs, or in seeking out information within a large and complex company. But if our weak ties are largely to people we’ve got substantial common ground with – and they usually are – are these people really a source of surprise? When I get recommendations from my social circles – via Facebook or Twitter, for instance – there tends to be a lot of overlap in those recommendations. That makes sense – like everyone else, I fall into homophily traps and I flock with likeminded folks. But this means that my weak ties aren’t always the best place to find ideas that surprise and delight me, to use Hagel’s definition. Unexpected, perhaps, but I’m not sure serendipity is the right term to describe these connections.

I’m interested in questions of how we stumble onto information and ideas we’d be unlikely to find within our present sphere of weak ties. One possibility is to radically expand that circle of weak ties – start paying attention to the perspectives and opinions of people far outside our realms of ordinary experience. This isn’t easy to do – it tends to require the assistance of bridge figures, who’ve got connections to our circles and to very different circles. I also wonder whether serendipity always needs to focus on personal connection – I think we often get serendipity from media, from pop culture, from news.

All that said, I like Hagel’s idea that we can change environments to increase serendipity. I’m not sure the strategy of advertising our interests is the most important step, though it’s certainly worked for me in some ways – blog on a topic and you’re bound to find people more knowledgeable on the subject who will correct and steer you. But I’m very glad that such a prominent thinker is looking at the challenge of increasing serendipity, opening the possibility that serendipity isn’t just luck, but something we can analyse, understand and get better at.


Aspen Ideas Festival: Immigration Reform

I jogged (yes, me, jogging!) from Tim O’Reilly’s talk to a session on immigration reform at Aspen. I was still late, so I arrived during David Kennedy’s historical perspectives on American immigration. He reminds us that, despite our myths about people coming to the US out of a love of freedom, before World War 1, 44% of immigrants to America went home. Immigration was at a historical high, which dropped sharply between the wars and after WWII. During that period of time, less than 5% of population was foreign born. We tend to think of this as “normal” in terms of our national history, but it may just have been a historical anomaly.

For the last four decades, we’ve been living under immigration reform undertaken in the Johnson administration. We’ve now got roughly 36m Americans who are foreign born – that’s less in percentage terms than we had in 1910, around 13%. Around the world, we’re a less popular destination than we were 100 years ago – then, 40% of global migrants came to the US, while now it’s about 18%. And we’re low in immigrants compared to Canada (19%) or Australia (24%).

People migrate now for the reasons they did years ago. He quotes an old Roman saying, “Where there is bread, there is my country.” The industrialization of an economy tends to send people looking for new lifestyles and often towards becoming migrants. What’s different, in part, is that so much migration is coming from one state, Mexico. There’s the possibility of a “chicano Quebec”, a cultural state within a state. And the notion of illegals is pretty new – before 1924, there really wasn’t illegal immigration to the US since migration was legal.

Alan Greenspan suggest that there are major economic imperatives to act on immigration reform. He’s careful to pull immigration into two problems – one affecting low-skilled labor, and another involving some of our most skilled jobs. In the low-skilled sector of the US economy, there’s a very strong concentration of illegal immigrants. Roughly half of this at-risk group are illegal immigrants. On the high end, 40% or more of our science PhDs are foreign born, and many of the entrepreneurs are foreign born. This is an indictment of our primary and secondary schools, which are inadequate to cope with our labor needs. Greenspan tells us that we tend to overfocus on the low-skill illegals. “If we fail on the high-skill issues, we’re going to have a very hard time reestablishing hegemony.”

Alex Aleinikoff tells us that we’re still a nation of immigrants, but that the system is basically broken. We shifted enforcement of immigration to the worksite, but we’ve got no deterrance there. In the meantime, we’ve got ossified categories of permitting skilled labor, and long backlogs in reuniting families.

We tried to fix the system a couple of years ago, with a Republican president and a Democratic congress. It failed for a set of reasons – strong opposition from the right on legalization (with rhetoric around the idea of “amnesty”), opposition from important constituencies like AFL/CIO who didn’t want a guest worker program, and very little effort to create a “theme” that got Americans to embrace the idea of immigration change.

It may be hard to work on immigration in the current environment. But we’ve got a Democratic congress and President, a recognition of the importance of the Latino vote, and an economic crisis, which can be a double-edged sword. It sounds difficult to legalize 10 to 12 million workers in a situation of 10% unemployment, but with this unemployment, illegal immigration is falling sharply.

Greenspan reminds us that we tend to argue against immigration for economic reasons. We worry that immigrants lower the salaries of American wageworkers. But academics are pointing out that these sectors of our economies are shrinking – we simply don’t have many low-education, low-wage jobs… and there’s a set of jobs we need to fill and might be in trouble if we lost our illegal migrants.

Alexander points out our odd belief that people come here undocumented to avoid paying taxes. This isn’t true, and immigrants pay payroll, real estate and sales taxes. But by legalizing immigration and linking it to taxpaying, we could turn this into a tax and law enforcement issue.

Kennedy (I think) tells a funny story from southern Arizona, a massive fence with a six mile hole in it. “It looks like border patrol by Christo.” The wall ends at the Indian reservation, which won’t let the border patrol build a wall or enforce border security.

As it turns out, walls may have a paradoxical effect. When we tighten border security, transaction costs rise. The effect? People still immigrate, but they stay… and they try to bring in their families. It’s a perverse consequence of increased border security.

We get GREAT questions, including:

- Ambassador Karim Kawar, whose biometrics firm IrisGuard uses iris scans to enforce deportation from the UAE – why is the US using this sort of technology?

- A Kansas schoolteacher wants to know how to give bilingual students more time to graduate

- A Mexican-American advisor to Calderon who points out that we need to think of the US and Mexico in dialog – we supply guns and buy drugs, and we need to take ownership of parts of our border security problems.


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