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Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This startup founder built a Fitbit for the planet.

You can’t fight what you can’t measure. But Davida Herzl has a solution: Her company, Aclima, builds sensor networks that monitor environmental impacts at a hyperlocal scale. Clients can deploy sensors on city streets, inside buildings, even on vehicles, to compile data on pollutants, carbon footprint, and more.

Think of it as a Fitbit for a planet trying to take more steps toward carbon reduction. In addition to working with the Environmental Protection Agency, Aclima has partnered with Google’s Street View fleet to map greenhouse gas emissions and air quality in California.

Herzl ultimately wants her sensor networks to create changes in behavior, both from large institutions and from individuals who can follow their lead. “One of the things we know is that emissions from non-electric vehicles influence climate change — but now we’ve learned that the proximity of my house to a freeway increases my health risk,” she says. “That can influence whether I choose to buy an electric vehicle or a nonrenewable-fuel-based vehicle … That personal moment motivates me every day.”

Workplace culture matters to Herzl, too: She sees Aclima’s multiracial, gender-diverse crew as part of a new vanguard in Silicon Valley dedicated to solving the world’s biggest problems through industry and innovation.


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.

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Take A Breather

There’s a blood feud between a vegan strip club and a steak house. Guess where?

You got it — Portland, Oregon. Casa Diablo, the world’s first vegan strip club, is embroiled in a turf war with The Acropolis, the steak house next door.

We can’t do any more justice to the story than Broadly, which brings us an absolutely exquisite oral history of the rivalry. We’ve got HEATED salad bar disparagement, a DJ getting his foot cut off, and of course, the fundamental ideological feud between vegans and meat-eaters.

Here’s a preview:

Zukle: People say, “You don’t exploit animals, but you exploit women.” And my answer to that is humans don’t exploit animals — we murder them. We torture and murder and eat them. Exploiting an animal would be like having a poodle, making it pretty, and taking it to a competition to win 50 bucks. You might spend that 50 bucks on a dog toy — or you might spend it on marijuana for yourself. That would be exploitation. But chopping up these creatures while they’re still alive, pulling off their skin and watching them scream in agony? That is murder and torture.

Broadly: So … women are the poodles in this analogy?

Zukle: Look, I don’t cut up women. I don’t eat women, either.

Bonus: The article includes the heretofore unheard of descriptor “farm-to-strip-club-table.”


the times they are a-changin’

The Times is now publishing climate denial. Scientists are not having it.

Two weeks ago, the New York Times took on Bret Stephens — who once called climate change an “imaginary” problem — as an op-ed columnist in an effort to reflect more political perspectives.

His first column came out on Friday, and — surprise — it casts doubt on the certainty of the scientific consensus on climate.

Previously, while some readers had threatened to cancel their subscriptions as a result of his controversial stances on science, Muslims, and campus rape, “relatively few” had done so, wrote Liz Spayd, the Times’ public editor.

The backlash to Spayd’s piece was real. Climatologist Michael Mann canceled his subscription and started the Twitter hashtag #ShowYourCancellation.

“There is no left-leaning or right-leaning climate science, just as there is no Democrat or Republican theory of gravity,” wrote Stefan Rahmstorf, head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in his cancellation letter.

Other scientists joined in:

James Bennet, the paper’s editorial page editor, defended the decision to hire Stephens. We shouldn’t ignore the perspective of the “millions of people who agree with him,” he told HuffPost.

Well, yes — but millions of people have been wrong before. That doesn’t mean alternative facts should be given a platform.

Now that Stephens’ first piece is up, we’ll see if more cancellations follow.


iffy league

Harvard is divesting from fossil fuels, sort of.

The richest university in the world announced it would “pause” investments in mineral and oil and gas interests in its $36 billion endowment, the Guardian reports. This comes after escalating pressure from student-led groups, culminating in a sit-in and blockade of Harvard’s University Hall in March.

However, like any Ivy Leaguer trained to always argue for a higher grade on a half-assed essay, the university knows how to get maximum credit on a minimum effort.

Here’s Colin Butterfield, head of natural resources at the Harvard Management Company, talking to the Harvard Crimson about the new commitment: “What I can tell you is, from my area, I could honestly say that I doubt — I can’t say never, because never say never — but I doubt that we would ever make a direct investment with fossil fuels.”

The school still makes some indirect investments in fossil fuels through outside funds, Butterfield confirmed.

Yale, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, and Cornell have all made some moves away from carbon-intensive investments in recent years, in response to concerted efforts by students to school their universities in the realities of climate change.


Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This founder empowers people to choose renewables.

Usually when you flip a light switch, you have no way of knowing where the energy powering your bulb is coming from. One minute, it could be a wind turbine. Five minutes later, it’s a coal plant. But if you knew where your power was coming from at any given moment, “you could run your dishwasher or charge your car only on the renewables,” Gavin McCormick explains.

McCormick wants to make it a no-brainer to track swings in the grid’s power supply and then program appliances to use only green power. So he and partner Anna Schneider started the nonprofit WattTime in 2014. In June 2015, the first product enabled with WattTime’s software hit the shelves: JuiceBox Green 40, an electric vehicle charging station from eMotorWerks. WattTime has also partnered with Energate to make smart thermostats, Building Clouds to make HVAC controllers, and THG Energy Solutions to help businesses and homeowners shift their energy use to when there’s less demand on the grid.

There’s more to come. McCormick says that within the next three years, a predicted 26 billion appliances will be compatible with WattTime’s software, from iPhones to washing machines. “Just about anybody who controls their devices through the internet can now install the software,” McCormick says. That could translate to a pretty big dent in greenhouse gas emissions in the long run. For example, McCormick says smart thermostats would deliver a 5 percent reduction in emissions at a minimum — and in some places, like Hawaii, emissions could be virtually eliminated.


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.


bottle royale

Now THIS is how you do a socially aware ad for a carbonated beverage.

Earlier this month, Pepsi released (and then almost immediately withdrew) an ad co-opting protest imagery with truly impressive tone-deafness

Last week, a different bottled beverage threw its hat into the Woke Ring to somewhat more success. Heineken, rather than attach a protest sign to a Kardashian, decided to imagine how deep-seated social divides — such as that between a climate change denier and a supporter of science, for instance — could be bridged:

That’s a well-executed piece of media with an unassailable message: People with ideological differences should sit down and talk, and engage each other in challenging the perceptions behind said differences.

Skilled advertisers, like pick-up artists, have a highly-developed sense for the precise sensitivity and location of their audience’s emotional vulnerabilities. Judging by this commercial’s thunderously positive reception, the beer-consuming public is feeling some shame over the lack of nuanced discourse.

Appealing to that guilt is a smart move for a multibillion-dollar company whose existence relies on lots of people, regardless of their politics, buying its product.

If we have to live in a hellscape in which brands create emotionally exploitative media and, in doing so, drive cultural conversation, then fine — very good ad. 10/10 ad.


mis-lead

Way more kids than we thought have lead poisoning.

A new report finds that health officials may fail to detect a third of U.S. children with high levels of lead in their bloodstream. In some states, up to 80 percent of cases could go unreported.

Comparing 11 years of state screening to a national health survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers found that 23 states — many in the West and South — failed to detect more than half of their lead-poisoned children.

Lead is linked to behavioral and developmental problems. And according to Eric Roberts, the study’s lead author, black children are 2.7 times more likely to be exposed than their white peers; and children living below the poverty line have double the risk of exposure.

When practicing as a pediatrician in Boston, Roberts screened all his patients for lead. But when he moved to San Francisco, he was told the tests weren’t necessary. “The idea is that it’s a Northeast problem, or a Midwest problem,” he explains. That’s due to the legacy of industry and lead-based paint in older housing stock.

Regulations often direct doctors to test only “at-risk” children. But in most states, that system is falling short.

“It’s a failed policy in many places,” Roberts says.