WALL-E

WALL-E and his coolerWe saw WALL-E yesterday with our parents and thoroughly enjoyed it (as well as the short that preceded it). I’ll mostly just echo the thoughts of others, but I was also impressed with how well they pulled off a main character (and love interest) who speak less than half a dozen words throughout the entire movie.

As with most movies, the science is only middling correct. One of the advantages of the stylization of the movie is that I didn’t mind because all of the science mistakes seemed less like ignorance and more like a stylistic choice. For example, the plan to clean Earth up apparently consists of crushing and piling the garbage. How that’s supposed to help, I don’t know, but it sure makes for some incredible visuals.

There’s definitely a strong environmental call-to-action in the movie, but it comes across very well. Instead of seeming patronizing or accusing, I felt like the message was that we can really do anything we set our minds to… so we’d better start thinking about the environment!

Above the visuals and the moral, the storytelling was top-notch. WALL-E and EVE are incredibly human (moreso than the humans, at least at first), so you care about them even if the implied crisis (Earth being buried under garbage) doesn’t thrill you.

I did find a late scene ironic, though. Despite the green overtones of the movie, the humans living in space have solved their garbage problems by… tossing their trash out the airlock. Not a huge advance over piling their trash into monuments.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to figure out something better by the time we get there. We’ve got less than a millenia to go, so we’d better hurry up!

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Greenwashing, Wired style

WiredThe June issue of Wired has an article titled Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green. In it, a variety of authors give 10 counterintuitive “green” messages:

  1. A/C is okay
  2. Organics are not the answer
  3. Farm the forests
  4. China is the solution
  5. Accept genetic engineering
  6. Carbon trading doesn’t work
  7. Embrace nuclear power
  8. Used cars–not hybrids
  9. Prepare for the worst
  10. Curious (and maybe a little annoyed) yet? Immediately following is a one-page counterpoint that blasts them for focusing too much on just carbon. There’s something to Wired’s view that global warming is going to happen so quickly that we have to focus on it exclusively if that’s what it takes. On the other hand, if we just focus on reducing carbon emissions at all costs, my guess is that we’ll end up with another mess once we fix global warming. I’d rather focus on a holistic approach now rather than jump from crisis to crisis.

    That said, some of these little articles have real problems even assuming that all you care about is carbon emissions. Some of them even contradict each other! First, they suggest we live in cities (since they have great energy density). Then, they say that organic is less important than local. I agree, but how local can your food get if you’re living in a dense city?

    Another issue, which is probably related to their length, is that they gloss over a lot of alternatives. Sure, pure carbon trading may have some issues, but a cap-and-trade system is supported by just as many economists as the carbon tax plan they support (not to mention its success with acid rain). There’s also a lot of leeway between leaving old-growth forest entirely alone (which may produce carbon) and cutting it all down (where that carbon is sequestered in, say, newly-built wooden couches).

    There’s also a lot of ragging on “environmentalists,” although their picture of an environmentalist is pretty extreme. I know a lot of environmentalists who support nuclear power (at least in the medium term), are okay with genetically modified foods, and don’t think China is unequivocably bad (imagine that!). The worst case of that is the piece on keeping your SUV (rather than buying a new hybrid). I agree that it’d be wasteful to get rid of your current car and get a new one, no matter what its gas milage, but most people getting a hybrid are doing it in lieu of a different new car, in which case that’s entirely appropriate.

    The one shining ray of light in this piece is the description of A/C, despite the strawman characterization that environmentalists don’t want people to live in hot areas. The basic point is that it costs a lot more (in terms of carbon emissions) to heat rather than to cool, at least in part because you have to modify the temperature more. Even in sunny Arizona, you’ll never have to cool more than 40 degrees (less with a nice ceiling fan); in the cold north, you might have to heat up to a difference of 60 degrees or more! The numbers they come up with a pretty incredible, although I’m not sure how much the difference in emissions is based on the assumptions they made about what fuels people are using.

    Overall, I’m sure it’s achieved what Wired wants: lots of pageviews and lots of discussion. I just hope that it’s not at the expense of encouraging people to knee-jerk against saner environmental solutions.

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Environmentalism the influential way

Robert Cialdini\'s Influence: the Psychology of PersuasionI love reading pop psychology, especially those that gather together lots of different experiments and tie them together. The funny thing to me is that the authors usually aren’t psychologists: Malcom Gladwell (a journalist), Tim Harford (the Undercover Economist), and Dan Ariely (another economist) have all written some really interesting books about our behavior as humans. Today, I read a similar book by an actual psychologist that was just as good, Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion.

I’d been meaning to finish it for a while, but travel plans and my always tall stack of books to read got in the way. Usually, I just renew for another three weeks, but someone else wanted it, so I had to finish it today so that I could return it. Luckily, it’s well-suited to reading in pieces since each chapter focuses on a different method of influence, ranging from time pressure to likability to context.

The part that I think might interest all of you was in the section on consistency. Dr. Michael Pallak ran an experiment in Iowa to try and get people to conserve energy (natural gas in a winter experiment and electricity in a summer experiment). For the control group, he gave his subjects some general tips on energy conservation and asked them to conserve. As you might expect, these people showed no change in energy usage over the following three month period.

In addition to the conservation tips, Pallak told the other groups that at the end of the season, they’d have their names posted in the newspaper as “energy conservers.” Unlike the control group, these people reduced their energy usage by 12% (28% for the electricity) in the next month! The possibility of public recognition encouraged people to work to be more environmentally sound. That’s pretty cool.

But here’s where it gets weird. After one month, the researchers sent their subjects a letter telling them that for technical reasons, the newspaper wouldn’t be publishing their names after all. The month after that, participants reduced their energy usage by over 16% (42% for electricity) from their original usage! For some reason, people were even more willing to reduce energy AFTER their initial reason was removed.

According to the author of Influence, the explanation is that once people decided to reduce their energy, they came up with more reasons why it was a good idea. They might start thinking about how good it is for the environment or how much money they’re saving, even though those reasons weren’t enough without the newspaper incentive.

Then, when the researchers revealed that the newspaper wouldn’t be publishing their names, this removed the only external reason. All that was left were these reasons that they’d internalized. Now, there could be no question that they were doing it for the reward (small as it was).

I find this experiment, and really the whole chapter about consistency, very hopeful. If you can get someone else to take a small first step, or take that small step yourself, then you make it easier to take the second step. In an earlier chapter on reciprocity, the Cialdini mentions an experiment that showed that signing a civic-minded petition was enough to make people vastly more likely to host an ugly safe driving billboard, even when the petition wasn’t about safe driving!

Just making a semi-public commitment can be enough to get you (or others) to start thinking about yourself as the type of person who does those kind of things.

That’s why I think Maggie’s driving promise has value, even if she doesn’t figure out what to do with the money.

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Be Kind Rewind

YouTube Sweded from http://www.bekindmovie.com/youtube.htmlMaggie and I just watched Be Kind Rewind. Directed by Michel Gondry (of Eternal Sunshine fame), it follows Jack Black and Mos Def as they accidentally erase all of the videos in the store and have to recreate them with a handheld camera and a $20 budget. The overarching threat is a condo development that will replace the video store unless they manage to raise $60,000. If it sounds a little like Empire Records, that’s because it is, with one huge exception. Where Empire Records focuses on the lives of the employees, Be Kind Rewind is about the entire community of Passaic, NJ.

At turns funny and sad, Be Kind Rewind is, at heart, a paean to localized connectedness. The Be Kind Rewind store and its ensemble of weird patrons contrast with “West Coast Video”‘s army of identically dressed customers, who all get the same two movies. Implied too is the difference between the big budget movies we’re familiar with and the recreations of Be Kind Rewind. The movie deftly argues that community, and movies with heart, are more important than cookie-cutter national corporations. At the same time, the movie left me questioning how much change you can actually make in your community. It’s just not worth going up against big companies on their turf. They’re extraordinarily good at making money in ways that you just can’t compete with locally.

My takeaway is that as communities, we need to be looking for ways to reconnect that don’t involve “economic” one-size-fits-all solutions. The “sweded” movies that Black and Mos Def make are important entirely because of their context. Remove them from Passaic, sell them across the country, and they become meaningless.

It’s those very things that end up leading to real happiness.

If that’s a little heavy for you, and I don’t blame you, you should check out the “sweded” trailers a YouTube Sweded.

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