Eco-Inventor Angst

There’s an intriguing, somewhat dispiriting profile by David Owen in the current New Yorker ($ubscription) of an idealistic,  enviro-minded inventor who wants to do good in the world, but is having a hard time overcoming the “limits of innovation.”

The subject of the piece is Saul Griffith, who as recently as 2004 was a Ph.D. student at MIT. By all accounts he’s brilliant–heck, that same year he won a $500,000 MacArthur “genius grant” for an eyeglass invention that the judges thought would bring cheap, corrective lens to poor communities around the world.

It didn’t work out that way, and eventually the gifted inventor turned his attention to energy–how to make it both clean and affordable. Again, things haven’t worked out as he hoped, and now Griffith is thinking that the solution to climate change lies not with technology but human behavior.

He’s also become pretty cynical. Here’s some friendly fire that is sure to singe greenies from Berkeley to Boston:

I know very few environmentalists whose heads aren’t firmly up their ass. They are bold-facedly hypocritcal, and I don’t think the environmentalism as we’ve known it is tenable or will survive. Al Gore has done a huge amount to help this cause, but he is the No. 1 environmental hypocrite. His house alone uses more energy than an average person uses in all aspects of life, and he flies prodigiously. I don’t think we can buy the argument anymore that you get special dispensation just because what you’re doing is worthwhile.

The kicker is a beaut, and shows that Griffith is as brutally honest with himself:

Right now, the main thing I’m working on is trying to invent my way out of my own hypocrisy.

5 Responses to “Eco-Inventor Angst”

  1. I saw the cover on the newstand. Nice cartoon.

  2. Chuckles says:

    A remarkably perceptive man. Difficult to argue with him really.

  3. Sashka says:

    However hard the energy problem may be, changing human behavior is even harder.

    But his assessment of environmentalists is right on the money.

  4. Brian Smith says:

    We all do it.  None of us really lives to the theoretical ideal because we are forced to make choices and to make compromises in order to get along.  It is much easier to stand on the sidelines of an activity and tell people what and how to do something when you really have very little skin in the game.
    Reminds me a film about a commune – you remember those from the late 60’s and early 70’s – where the father carved a piece of Lego for his son from a stick he found in the forest.  He only ever made one piece, though his son longed for more.  The father was caught between his belief in not having plastic toys and the need to invest his time in providing his share of food to the commune.
    Few of us would opt for the single piece of Lego.

  5. Hank Roberts says:

    I recall reading that the main contribution venture capitalists make to businesses is getting rid of the founder and putting management in place to exploit the ideas — and founders rarely appreciate how this part of the market process works, because if they’d had the funding and a free hand they’d have spent far longer investing in improving their ideas, rather than puffing them up enough to squeeze money out of quickly.
    So he blames the environmentalists?

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