Solunteering: A New Way to Fight Climate Change

I’ve got a pal who’ll resist to his last breath falling for any woman who doesn’t satisfy a psychotically specific list of screening criteria. A lady must have a Pulitzer, angel wings, ESP, gills, and the favor of Mount Olympus before he’ll date her. I think he’s missing out because I don’t think love works that way. It’s hard to come up with a checklist that means anything. Sometimes a person just smells right, you know?

Love isn’t the only subject muddied by preconceived notions. When we think of activism, what do we think of? I think of Habitat for Humanity, Doctors without Borders, protests, boycotts, voting drives, this guy, that lady, and those dudes who pretend to be other dudes.

But I don’t think of business. Specifically, until recently I’d never thought to donate my time to a company, at least without some ulterior motive like I want to jockey for a job. What would be the point?

Usually, there isn’t, except if your goal is to fight climate change, maybe there is.

Regular readers (by which I mean readers with consistent bowel movements) know I’m obsessed with understanding how individuals can most effectively join the struggle against climate change. One thought exercise I do: I try to understand what steps might allow civilization as a whole to most effectively protect itself from dramatic climate change, and then brainstorm ways for individuals to usher that process along.

When I do that, I circle around to business a lot, because business may have a key role to play in fixing the problem.  Not just any business, but one business in particular: the solar industry. Why?

Here’s a graph of the cost of solar electricity through time:

The cost is dropping exponentially.  As a result there’s a chance that solar electricity will be cheaper than fossil fuel electricity in the nearish future, which would change everything.

The very optimistic and possibly demented futurist Ray Kurzweil has been going around saying we’ve got nothing to worry about because this is a sure thing. Solar is going to be cheaper than coal soon, he says, and as soon as it is, fossil fuels are over and we’ll all be saved yay.

I’m not so sure. Like everything else, the solar industry has developed on the back of fossil fuels, and we don’t know if progress can continue as fossil fuel prices rise, as many predict. Rising fuel prices can cause recessions and depressions, which can kill progress. Here’s a graph showing the number of scientific publications through time:

Look at what happened during the recession (right after the peak). It’s enough to give a Kurzweillian optimist a tiny pause as she rockets toward the singularity.

This uncertainty underscores the urgency of advancing the solar industry now. If solar energy gets cheap enough, fast enough, then the solar industry might bootstrap on its own energy.

Therefore if you want to fight climate change, consider volunteering your time and expertise to help the solar industry along. Everyone likes free labor. Let’s calling it Solunteering, if only because I like coining new terms, even though I suck at it.

This idea might seem weird to you. Business isn’t often helpful in the remediation of societal ills. There was no Anti-Racism, Inc. to help us during the civil rights struggle. I ask you to set aside your notions of weirdness to let the idea soak for a minute.

If you decide to run with the idea, how should you go about it?

I suggest you start by identifying solar companies in your area and networking your way into a meeting. Ask your friends and family in the area if they know anyone who works for the company you’re interested in and if they do, have them make an introduction (going through mutual acquaintances usually works better than cold calling). If there are local conferences on energy, sustainability, etc., go. Be patient. Enjoy yourself. Meeting people should be fun.

You might wonder “Why Solar? Why not Wind?” I’m told there’s more room for improvement in solar than in wind or other renewables, because a) there’s a lot of energy in sunlight; and b) we’re still far from the theoretical efficiency limit for solar capture. But I’m no expert and if you think you can do more good volunteering in another part of the renewable energy industry, do it. You might also consider the energy efficiency industry.

Bonus idea for web-developers or community-organizers who happen by:

There are lots of formal programs for placing volunteers into nonprofit organizations, like volunteermatch.org. To my knowledge, no program exists for matching volunteers to businesses. Maybe there should be, one that handles the organizational overhead that businesses won’t want to deal with if they start accepting volunteer labor. You might even be able to make a business out of it.

That’s all for today. I’m off to help my pal find a lady with great set of gills.

-From the Sea

Posted March 20, 2011 in Smashing Ideas | No Comments

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