Author Archive

Virtual reality as an “empathy machine” and force for good?

Virtual reality.  For those of us who still enjoy THIS world, the idea of opening the floodgates of truly immersive virtual reality can seem like the ultimate triumph of the screen-mediated life, an abandonment of the core virtues of human relationship.  If computers have sucked us further down the rabbit hole than TVs, then won’t these new systems—covering our eyes and ears, even stimulating our vestibular responses—create even more separation between us?  Not necessarily, say a slew of folks who are tracking this nearly-inevitable and soon-to-arrive evolution of computer technology.  Check out this collection of videos and articles from SingularityHUB, all of which explore the ways that more immersive virtual reality interfaces could actually increase our empathy and engagement, rather than leading to atrophy of these core aspects of being human.  The promise here starts with recent studies on “mirror neurons” and goes on to ways that empathy-sparking VR could deepen journalism and enliven civic engagement.  A real mind-bender for any of us with lingering Luddite tendencies.

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Bloomberg: Don’t kick that hippie off the investment committee

A recent piece in BloombergBusiness caught our eye: Giving Hippies Key to Portfolio is Not Such a Bad Idea After All.  Not to say we told you so, but have you heard the one about Hal, Guatemalan shorts, and phone trades back in the day?  Indeed, champions of SRI have always had reassuring results to point to, but in recent months, we’re no longer shouting against the roar of business as usual’s river of denial.  A series of long-term trends reports have all come to similar conclusions: companies that embrace environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations outperform their more traditional peers.  The chart at the top of this post is a good sample, showing two different strategies for choosing more ESG-engaged companies; over the past 7-8 years, doing so has outperformed average returns by a cumulative 12-24%.  While we appreciated Bloomberg’s decision to publish our 1999 book, Investing With Your Values, we’re even more glad to see them, along with Morgan Stanley and the Harvard Business School, getting on the bus.

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Big-finance mainstream seeing the light on climate

Here comes some more indication that Paul Gilding’s optimism about market forces steering a rapid transition away from carbon-intensive energy may indeed pan out.  As Exhibit A, check out this op-ed from Hank Paulson, Secretary of Treasury for George W. Bush during the economic meltdown of 2008:

For too many years, we failed to rein in the excesses building up in the nation’s financial markets. When the credit bubble burst in 2008, the damage was devastating. Millions suffered. Many still do.

We’re making the same mistake today with climate change. We’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy. The warning signs are clear and growing more urgent as the risks go unchecked.  This is a crisis we can’t afford to ignore.

And that’s just his opening salvo.  Yowsa!  Exhibit B is even more startling; it’s a dry-as-sand financial assessment of the risks of Paulson’s “climate bubble” as it affects the world’s biggest institutional investors. Despite its “just the fact, ma’am” tone, the message is one that we can definitely get behind:

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Solar’s value to ratepayers is higher than retail price


The recent boom in rooftop solar power installations tied to the local grid has led to a lot of teeth-gnashing about how much utilities should be paying for excess electricity that they buy from distributed solar installations.  In many states, the starting point has been paying the customer the going retail rate per kWh; but utilities have been pushing hard to lower these payments, aiming for a wholesale rate instead, largely due to account for the utilities’ upkeep of transmission systems, both regional and local.  Some have even claimed that new solar can impose a net cost on the electric system as a whole, meaning installations should be limited.  A recent report commissioned by the Maine Public Utilities Commission reframes this debate in a dramatic way, by looking at the full range of costs and savings that distributed solar offer to utilities and ratepayers.  While current retail electric rates in Maine average 13 cents per kWh, the report finds that new solar capacity is worth 18 cents/kWh in the first year, and 33 cents/kWh levelized over 25 years.  The cost savings are about equally split between avoided market costs (paying for other energy sources, transmission saved by on-site/nearby use of solar, etc.) and societal benefits (health/enviro costs of pollutants, effects on overall price of electricity).  This kind of analysis could pave the way for solar to continue booming, unfettered by regulatory concerns. To learn more, check out the report, or see RMI’s summary here.


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What Atwood’s “Everything Change” can mean for you

There’s been a fair amount of online buzz this week about a longform essay from Margaret Atwood, “It’s Not Climate Change—It’s Everything Change.” It begins with a short think piece she wrote in 2009, offering some semi-plausible visions of a post-oil world, but the real meat of the piece is what follows.  For the bulk of the essay, Atwood explores how much our society’s engagement with climate, and with change itself, has shifted since 2009.  Especially interesting are a couple of other writers that she summarizes, both of whom also posted companion pieces on Medium, where Atwood’s piece appeared. Taken as a whole, the essay and responses make for a rich reflection on our times, one that combines stark realism about the entrenched nature of the current system with a good dash of hope founded on the ways that human societies have evolved in the past.  Here’s our distillation of what they have to say, and some thoughts on how these rich perspectives can inform your own approach to the life planning practice that we call resilient investing.

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Coming to terms with the Anthropocene

Once again, Andy Revkin has put together a fantastic in-depth post that can be enjoyed either as a quick overview of a complex topic or as the portal to digging into a wealth of primary sources.  This time he’s back on the question of the anthropocene—the posited new epoch in earth’s evolution that’s marked by the primary influence of humanity.  He presents what is perhaps the best point-counterpoint summary I’ve yet seen on the fundamental question underlying anthropocene thinking: can there be a “good” human age, or is this era inherently one of ecological and social decline? This really comes down to whether one has faith in humanity’s ability to forge a new balance with the earth’s natural systems.  And of course, the answer you carry forward will be a fundamental shaper of your overall world view and your approach to life and to resilient investing.

Revkin shares extended excerpts from two talks at a recent Breakthrough Institute Dialogue,

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New investment site lets you create/share targeted “funds” of stocks

The investment world is on the cusp of many disruptive changes, just like the world as a whole.  New online tech, artificial intelligence, and sharing platforms will all shake up the status quo—and the livelihoods of investment advisors like us—far more than the emergence of online brokerages did a generation ago.  There’s no telling which innovations will deliver on their promise, but this article on a new outfit called Motif caught our eye this week.  The idea is that you can put together a group of stocks that target a market segment you’re interested in being invested in:

Walia gave the example of the mobile Internet: How do you invest in that trend? Jim Cramer proposed a mobile Internet index in 2009, but no one seems to have done anything with the idea. Or, say, Facebook. So far, buying actual shares of Facebook doesn’t seem to be paying off as a way to play social networking. Walia’s alternative: Buy the companies with the most likes on Facebook. (Hey, it’s outperformed the S&P.)…Notice how much money you and your friends spend at Starbucks? Buy into a motif called Caffeine Fix. See iPads everywhere? There’s a motif for that: Tablet Takeover.

Motif users will be able to create their own motifs and share them with friends—either small groups of trusted fellow investors or one’s entire Facebook friends list.

The interface is simple (see image above), and of course you can track your results to see if your bright new “fund” is a winner.  Former top executives at eTrade and Bank of America are on board and they are emphasizing keeping trading costs very low, making it an appealing platform for bringing your own values, passions, and interests to bear in your investment approach.  But remember, the past pleasure of your particular passions is not a guarantee of future results!

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The world really is getting better

With the climate crisis capturing most of our attention, it’s all to easy to overlook the ways that the world really has been getting better over the past 25 years.  This recent Vox chart-cicle will perk you up.  Most striking are the rapid drops in extreme poverty and  hunger: undernourishment in developing countries is about half of what it was in 1990.  And perhaps the most exciting trend is the expansion of education in sub-Saharan Africa, where 80% of kids are now enrolled in school; I’m convinced that this new reservoir of education will spawn some transformative world leaders in the decades ahead.  The future may still be in the balance, but all of this adds a few good-sized weights to the “muddle through up” side of the scale.  Go see all 11 charts at Vox, or click through here for a couple more of our favorites.


Cities lead the way on climate, resilience

Everywhere I turn lately, there’s another reminder that cities are central to our hopes for a more sustainable, resilient future.  The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group—a decade-old collaboration among 75 of the world’s largest cities that are home to over a half-billion people and a quarter of the global economy—is on the forefront of these efforts, as is the Compact of Mayors, involving 84 cities, many of them smaller or mid-sized. Both groups are gearing up to have a major presence at the upcoming Paris climate talks. The C40 has just released a new report, Powering Climate Action: Cities as Global Changemakers, which highlights the collaborative potential of cities working together: “The evidence shows that cities are taking action even where they have limited power, by collaborating with other cities and non-state actors and catalysing wider climate action in the private sector and civil society.”

NRDC’s OnEarth magazine recently produced an issue devoted to city-based climate action that is full of inspiring stories, including 

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What if it really is too late?

Much of what we share here is coverage of projects, research, and news that’s relatively encouraging—ideas and actions that might spur your own constructive engagement in these challenging times.  Recently, we’ve shared evolutionary/breakthrough techno-optimist visions, close-to-home/tangible in-the-dirt initiatives, and muddling-up/market-based optimism about carbon.  But hovering there in the background, as it has been with increasing intensity for at least a couple of decades, is the specter of questions that many of us can’t quite bear to face: Did we wait too long for any of this to make a real difference?  Is catastrophic climate change now baked into the system?  Have economic elites stubbornly steered the ship onto insurmountable shoals of social inequity and ecological overshoot? What if it really is too late?

Addressing this possibility has been among the hardest parts of putting together our book and this ongoing chronicle of resilient investing resources.  But we, too, have grappled with the darker questions, and have to some degree prepared ourselves, at least internally, for the possibility that we are indeed in the early stages of a significant societal and/or ecological decline.  None of the four of us who put the book together are ready to abandon ship,

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Gilding: The End (of fossil fuels) is Nigh

The stubborn inertia of our political and energy systems in the face of stark climate change realities has been the great frustration of the past decade (or three), and is at the root of the discouragement and despair that’s growing in many of us.  Our society seems intent on waiting too long to act.  But Paul Gilding has become a leading voice for an alternate view, one that sees the past decade as prelude to a tipping point we can embrace rather than dread.  His book, The Great Disruption, laid out his view that when push came to shove with climate change, the market and the big-monied economic elites would spur a WWII-scale refocus of the economy toward carbon-neutral energy.  For the past couple of years, he’s updated the book’s themes with fresh analysis every few months, based on the latest global developments.  He’s now convinced that 2015 is the year that the “Dam of Denial” breaks, and his latest missive offers further encouragement that the long-sought disruptions are at hand:

For over a hundred years, energy markets have been defined by physical resources, supplied in large volumes by large, slow moving companies developing long life assets in the context of slow moving shifts in markets. The new emerging energy system of renewables and storage is a “technology” business, more akin to information and communications technology, where prices keep falling, quality keeps rising, change is rapid and market disruption is normal and constant.

If you haven’t tuned into Gilding before, this is a great place to start.  The new piece includes links to several of his key articles over the past two years, and will likely leave you feeling a tad—or a lot—more optimistic about our prospects.  Read on here for a few more nuggets from this most recent article:

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The plight and fight of the climate scientist

For all our encouragement that resilient investors should consider the full range of possible futures, and our respect for the array of thought leaders that inspire our archetypal Dreamers, Dealers, Doomers, Dualists, and Drivers, it really all comes down to one simple question: are we f**ked?  Pity the climate scientists, who most fully understand the forces we’ve unleashed, and who spend their days (and sleepless nights) grappling with the implications.  A recent feature in Esquire takes us into their world, and their homes, offering a sobering glimpse of what life is like for those among us who know the most.  Says one researcher who answered that aforementioned simple question by publicly affirming that, yes, we are: “I think most scientists must be burying overt recognition of the awful truths of climate change in a protective layer of denial.” A climate activist terms it “pre-traumatic stress.”  This article, When the End of Civilization is Your Day Job, is well worth the ten minute read; it’s really quite moving, and rather unsettling, since even the scientists who resist despair don’t seem to have much to offer in the way of specific encouragement.

So it was a welcome solace to see one of Andrew Revkin’s in-depth reports a few days later, on a climate science meeting attended by 2000 top researchers and policy-makers that he found “refreshing in several ways”:

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