A solar entrepreneur answers questions
What environmental organization are you affiliated with? What does it do?
Greenstar. We invest in solar-powered community centers for small villages in the developing world — currently in the West Bank, Jamaica, India, Ghana, Brazil, and Tibet. The community center provides basic electricity and a connection to the world through the Internet, which enables the people to jump-start small businesses and improve education and health care. We call the program “Tools for Independence.”
Can you show us some of what Greenstar does?
Yes. A sampler of video, audio, and music is on the Greenstar website. Fire up your QuickTime and Real players and head on over. It’s the beginning of what we call “The Edge Network.” Or, click here to listen to samples of the music by itself, see the CD covers, and read details.
And to broaden the picture to include many of Greenstar’s partners and allies in microcredit, solar, wind, education, health, water pumping, and purification, agriculture, solar radio and beyond, visit this gallery, produced in co-operation with Oneworld TV.
What’s your job title?
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Make and take a lot of phone calls, read and answer a lot of emails, write proposals, edit images and video, go through websites. Coordinate material for several interconnected e-commerce websites; direct research and volunteer activities. Manage several contracts simultaneously in different parts of the world, finding the right people to install solar power and build community centers. Evaluate new opportunities.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Let’s see … 748 emails in the inbox, spread over the last 45 days, awaiting follow-up or interaction of some kind; 40 unread.
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job? What types of people? What other organizations or government agencies?
I interact regularly with several Greenstar volunteers, staff, and project managers, representatives of the U.S. government (mainly from the State, Commerce, Interior, and Energy departments), fellow contractors like Sandia Labs in Albuquerque and the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado. With allies like Sustainable Villages and Safe Water Systems. With health, energy, environment, and education ministries in the host countries where we work. Some are technical people, some are marketing people.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Problems (let’s call them “challenges”) are vendors who don’t deliver what they promise, when they promise. It’s also a challenge to comply with contracting regulations (some of our projects are in effect joint ventures with various aid groups) and raise seed money for new projects.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
One might expect government staff, both in the U.S. and overseas, to be a pain. But in fact, the closer you get to field people who do actual work with real projects and deal with real human needs, the more fun and interesting it gets, the more we learn wherever we go. There are a lot of dedicated, knowledgeable people out there, trying to turn the big wheel somehow. Just because they happen to work for a big bureaucracy doesn’t necessarily change that.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in western Ontario, Canada, grew up in Burlington, Ontario, came of age in Toronto. Now living on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment?
Meeting Ralph Nader in 1978, watching him at work, spending time with him in developing some environmental position papers. Also, meeting Al Gore in 1989, and understanding what a real environmental renaissance man could achieve.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
A mortal conflict with key investors over the direction of a business I founded, realizing that in some cases, money trumps ideas and principle.
What’s on your desk right now?
Two CDs of photos just in from Maguari, Brazil; a digital camera that needs repair; a stack of financial records; several cassettes and mini-optical discs of audio, including some new stuff from Tibet; some orders for Greenstar CDs off the website from today.
What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?
The state of denial of the Bush White House, in the face of international evidence and its own EPA, National Science Foundation, and Energy Department, of the imminent danger of rapid global climate change. Future generations will see these first years of the 21st century as the last, lost chance to avert disasters. We may have passed the tipping point already.
Who is your environmental hero?
Might seem strange, but … Mahatma Gandhi. He defined and exemplified in his life an activist passion based on profound nonviolence as a source of strength. This inner, moral power is the root of all truly effective environmental ideas.
Who is your No. 1 environmental villain/nemesis?
The current occupant of the White House. Not because he’s particularly bad himself … he’s incurious, ill-informed, passive, and willing to be led by others around him, to wield his incredible power and leadership in thoughtless ways. Not a villain, really.
What’s your environmental vice?
I drive a big, comfortable car.
How do you get around?
Automobile, and an electric bike for local travel. There is limited public transit where I live, far off in the country on the north shore of Oahu.
What are you reading these days?
What’s your favorite meal?
Home-cooked — baked salmon, roasted vegetables, local salad with organic tomatoes, papayas, and oranges from the yard.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
Yes, I’m a junkie. I read The Wall Street Journal every day, the Sunday New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Weekly, The Nation, Utne, Salon every day, Fortune, Business Week, CNET news, the headlines on Yahoo and news.google.com; I watch all the Sunday news shows, The Daily Show every day. Lots of e-zines and newsletters online. Grist.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I am truly a tree hugger. Trees need love, too, and they hug back.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The ocean. I live in the middle of the Pacific, in the center of the largest, richest, most vibrant and diverse ecosystem we know. We talk every day around sunset.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
One fiat that everyone could follow, would cost nothing, but would have immediately measurable effects: Turn off the lights when you leave the room and turn everything off at night. Can I have another one? How about flush only when needed; feed the washer and dryer only when needed, with full loads; take shorter showers; drive only when you need to, at or below the speed limit; coast to a stop instead of braking; be more patient and stack up several errands into a group so you can drive around once or twice a week, instead of every day. Use conference calls and email instead of getting on an airplane when you need to take a meeting. Talk to flowers, and listen to what they have to say. OK, I think I topped off my quota of fiats for today.
When was the last time you wore tie-dye? How about fleece?
Tie-dye — last in 1970, on the streets of the East Village. Fleece, in 1979. I have lived either in Southern California or Hawaii since then. We no fleece. (In Hawaii, we no shoes.)
Do you compost?
Which presidential candidate are you backing in 2004?
I initially backed Gen. Wesley Clark for president, and anticipate he will have a role in contributing to the campaign. Now I’m supporting Sen. John Kerry.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
No. Nothing wrong with the label, but for me it’s too confining; it’s only one color in a rainbow. Other colors include culture (I believe there’s an endangered “cultural ecology” that is at risk just as surely as the ozone layer and the jet stream), entrepreneurialism, literacy, political openness, tolerance of diversity, ethical science, responsible investment, compassion in daily life and work, respect for tradition and elders, protection of innocence in children, a spirit of playfulness and adventure. Some of these are social, some are personal, but they are all learned behaviors that we can acquire or lose.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?
Communicating with the public in simple, dramatic, accessible ways. Too much politics of confrontation, not enough theater. Too much serious policy, not enough fun.
What’s one issue about which you disagree with other environmentalists?
That protecting endangered species and ecosystems is more important than protecting people, communities, and culture. Implicitly, by their actions, environmentalists sometimes overlook the historic human element, the fact that people are part of the global ecosystem too. Environmentalists would never actually say this, of course, but sometimes their actions express it — and people in developing countries detect this quickly.
What could the environmental movement be doing better or differently to attract new people?
Have a more constructive attitude toward business, especially small businesses and entrepreneurs, who are creating all the jobs these days and employing more and more people. Environmentalists often treat businesspeople as exploiters and polluters, as the enemy. They try not to, but their instincts need a lot of retraining. Even very large global businesses (like Shell, BP, HP, Phillips, and many others) can see the moral and practical value of sound environmental practice and will do real, influential things if you communicate thoughtfully with them, learn to listen, and reward them when they do something positive. On the other end of the scale is the role that schools can play. “A” students are now being drawn to apply a combination of skills and talent to global issues. We’ve been fortunate to participate in one such pilot at Stanford. This innovative undergrad and graduate school of business program led to a new start-up operation and joint venture in India.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
When I was 18 — The Doors. Now — let’s see. In my iTunes library, playing right now — Japanese shakuhachi flute, interpreted by Jean-Pierre Rampal. An ancient Howlin’ Wolf album. Outkast. Sheryl Crow. Kelly Willis. Makana (a young Hawaiian genius). Yo Yo Ma’s Appalachian Journey.
What’s your favorite TV show?
You mean of the current crop? The West Wing. No, wait … Alias … Cold Case. No, uh … CBS Sunday Morning.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Listen to a new type of music you haven’t heard before, from some far-off place. Try high-life music from Nigeria; throat-singing from Tuva (Siberia); Buddhist chant from Tibet; Sufi turning music from Turkey; classical Karnatak singing from south-central India. Find it live and go to a concert (check out the local university and community college theaters). Then buy a CD (Greenstar has several cool ones from our villages — and the income goes to support the growth of their solar-powered community center). Don’t listen to it for top-40 hooks; absorb it patiently, in several listenings over a few days; make it part of your rhythm. Hear the human hearts within the music, and marvel at the miracle that we humans are.