Todd Myers, a director at the Washington Policy Center, joins Chelsea Follett to discuss how technology empowers individuals to protect the environment without the need for top-down government programs.
Todd Myers: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 40 Transcript
Watch the full interview here.
Chelsea Follett: Joining me today is Todd Myers. Todd is the director of the center for the environment at Washington Policy Center. He is one of the nation’s leading experts on free market environmental policy. Todd is the author of the landmark 2011 book, Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism is Harming the Environment. And was a Wall Street Journal expert panelist for energy and the environment. He has authored numerous studies on environmental issues, including five years of environmental policy, are we making a difference promoting personal choice incentives and investment to cut greenhouse gases and more. He formally served on the executive team at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, and he’s here to discuss his new book out last year, Time to Think Small: How Nimble Environmental Technologies Can Solve the Planet’s Biggest Problems. Todd, how are you?
Todd Myers: I’m very good. It’s very nice to be with you. The work of human progress is really important, and so it’s nice to join you.
Chelsea Follett: Thank you so much for speaking to me, so what gave you the idea for this book?
Todd Myers: So you mentioned my previous book, Eco-Fads, so I’ve worked in environmental policy in Washington State for more than two decades. You mentioned I worked at the State Department of Natural Resources on issues like spotted owls and old-growth and forest fires, and now I sit on the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council. So I’ve worked on salmon issues, and in that time, while I worked for government and on government boards, I saw the limitations of what government could do and politicians and how their incentives were not aligned with actually helping the environment, but more aligned with making themselves look good, and so that was what my book, Eco-Fads, was about, is how politicians in the public too often fall for environmental fads that make themselves feel better about their doing things to help the planet, but that they often don’t work. And what’s worse is that the incentives are against politicians acknowledging that they failed, so what we do is, is that we then we have bad policies that don’t work and then we double down on those policies rather than switching, and what my new book, Time to Think Small, is about is about the opportunities to shift the power to help the environment from politicians to people, and this because we have so much small technology because the iPhone, because of other…
Todd Myers: And the Internet of Things, we now have an opportunity to do that in a way that we didn’t 10 years ago. We’re certainly 50 years ago when we passed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, and yet for too many people, our mind goes back to the 1970s, to those 1970 solutions rather than 2023 solutions, where we have the technology to do really amazing things to solve big problems. Everybody turns to climate change, but there are lots of other problems like ocean plastic, protecting species around the globe, things like that, and people are using these small technologies to do really remarkable things and make a progress against environmental challenges where frankly politicians and governments have failed.
Chelsea Follett: So let’s go through the chapters one by one. You start out by explaining why you believe small technology is the future of environmental stewardship, so why is it?
Todd Myers: Well, like I said, when… Our mind goes to… When people say, “Okay, here’s an environmental problem,” people tend to go to the 1970s, to the creation of the EPA, to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act in the United States. And then around the world, there are a number of other similar sort of efforts in developing countries or in Western countries primarily, and I understand why. The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, people can debate about whether those are the right approaches, whether they were expensive, but one thing we didn’t see is they worked. Our air is much cleaner, our water is much cleaner. And at the time, there were few alternatives to that, to government intervention, like I said, you can argue about whether that was the appropriate government intervention, but to solve those problems, there was going to need to be some government intervention. That’s really… Things have really changed and not only in terms of technology, but the nature of the environmental problem has changed, and you don’t have to ask me, you can actually ask the first director of the EPA, Bill Ruckelshaus, who actually passed away a couple of years ago, but he wrote a piece about 10 years ago saying that the solutions that worked in the 1970s aren’t going to work today, because the nature of the environmental problems that we have today are distributed.
Todd Myers: You can’t go to single point sources, big outfalls into the water, big smoke stacks in the air, the types of pollution, the types of problems that we have are lots of little inputs, lots of little impacts to forest, to habitat and things like that, and the way to solve those problems is with distributed solutions, technology allows us to have those distributed solutions and make progress. And it is more effective and government really can’t do that. Government is not good at doing a million little things, government is good at doing a few big things, and so our mindset has to change, not because the opportunities are now there, but also because the nature of the problem is different.
Chelsea Follett: So why do you believe, as your second chapter is titled, that small nimble technologies are so powerful?
Todd Myers: Primarily because what technologies do in information technology, smartphones, the internet, the internet of things, and things like that, they break down traditional barriers that economists have recognized for years. So for instance, Ronald Coase talks about transaction costs, the transaction costs of coordinating efforts, both the information costs, things like that, and what technology now does is allows us to coordinate basically in a very frictionless way and get information that we never had access to. So I’ll give you a great example. So Ocean plastic is a big problem, I think people… All of us could agree, we don’t want plastic in the ocean, it doesn’t degrade, it doesn’t biodegrade and it doesn’t photodegrade very well, and there are estimates that I think are exaggerated, but there was one estimate that said that there will be plastic in the ocean by weight than fish in 2050. Now, I think that’s probably wrong, I think that’s exaggerated, but even if it’s half of that, even if it’s a tenth of that, we don’t want that.
Todd Myers: So how do you address that? Well, again, the problem is distributed, it’s not in one location, it’s little bits of plastic all over the world, and in fact, it’s not in the United States. United States puts in about a fifth amount of plastic into the ocean as for example, Sri Lanka, which is a little tiny island nation off of India. So how do you address that? So a group called Plastic Bank, what they did is that they hired people to pick up plastic that could wash into the water in developing countries, places like Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, Egypt, and then because people have phones, they could geo-locate it, they turn it into Plastic Bank in the collection centers, they would get paid on their phone because many of these people don’t have bank accounts, and then Plastic Bank would take the plastic and sells it to SC Johnson.
Todd Myers: So when you buy a Windex bottle, it will say, made with ocean-bound plastic state, and you can know with fair certainty that the plastic came from where you think it did, because they actually have a map online where you can go and see where all of the plastic was picked up, Now, the technology involved in this is nothing very special. It’s basically cell phones and internet on a web page and some data, and yet with that very simple technology, because the costs of collaboration have gone down so low, they have been able to collect 3.1 billion plastic bottles that would have washed into the ocean, and more than 150 million pounds of plastic. That is not solving the problem. That is a start, but it is a tremendous start given how simple the technology is, and that is why I think technology is playing such a big role is because the costs of getting lots of people together and having aggregated impact are so low. You can now see efforts like Plastic Bank and which you just would have been very difficult to have that sort of effective effort 20 and 30 years ago.
Chelsea Follett: How can environmentalism, in your words, pay?
Todd Myers: Well, in this case, I think, the Plastic Bank, it’s a perfect case, right? Because SC Johnson buys the plastic and they put the sticker on, and SC Johnson, I think, has a variety of motives, one of them certainly is they simply wanna do good for the planet, but another one clearly is that they think that they get a market advantage from putting that sticker on there. We saw the same thing with tuna, all tuna cans now have the dolphin safe label. Nobody is going to buy a tuna can that doesn’t say dolphin safe, and so having that label now becomes an opportunity to improve your marketing, and in Western countries where we are wealthy, we have the disposable income to pay a little bit extra for the environment, and so the technology allows those sorts of opportunities, Plastic Bank is just one example of that, of how environmental and conservation technology allow… Align the incentives, align the incentives with the environment and with your financial well-being, rather than what I said we see before too often with government, where the ascent incentives are misaligned, where looking good is more important than actually having results. When you align the incentives of personal financial benefit or just simply a desire to do good for the planet with environmental results, that’s more sustainable, that’s more effective.
Chelsea Follett: That’s a great example. Are there any other examples of private sector innovation in this space that you’d like to highlight?
Todd Myers: Yeah, let me give you one of my favorites, actually. My favorites change from time to time, ’cause I tell lots of stories in the book because working as a free market environmentalist, the pushback that we get so often is, “Okay, that sounds nice in theory, Todd, but show me where it works,” and now I can show you lots and lots of examples of where it is actually working on the ground, and so my book is full of these stories, and as I said, my favorite changes from time to time, my current favorite is called eWATERservices. And eWATERservices is a program that provides water to rural African villages by putting in pumps.
Todd Myers: Now, previously, what would happen is you would have an NGO or the United Nations or the government of a country going in and putting in a water pump to provide clean water. Without that pump, what typically happens is, is that the women of the village hike to the local river or stream pick up the water and then bring it back, the UN says that one kilometer, just over half a mile, is accessible water, so imagine hiking with a lot of water, one kilometer and having that be considered accessible, so having a pump is very valuable because you don’t have to spend all of that time, all that effort. But what what happened with these government installed pumps is that they would break, so that 40% of pumps break after a year and a half, and then what happens? Well, unless the government has gone, the NGO has gone off and the United Nations, so these pumps sit broken for months at a time.
Todd Myers: So what eWATERservices did, there were some former UN employees who were tired of seeing broken water pumps, they created internet connected water pumps, and so it’s just using Amazon Web Services because cell coverage is now everywhere, more than 90% of people in developing countries have some kind of phone. So what they would do is they would simply load their account on their phone with some money, about a penny a day for water, they would get a key fob, they would walk up to the pump and turn it on, it would measure the water. So you have a financial incentive to conserve, you can take what you need, but you don’t wanna waste.
Todd Myers: And then the other thing is, because it charges, there is now a financial incentive to keep that pump working, and so when the pump breaks, because it’s connected, they will be notified immediately and a worker in the area for eWATERservices will go to that pump and fix it. And so pumps that were broken for months at a time are now fixed within a day, and so that just shows how financial incentives align with doing good for the environment. And the alternative to getting clean water out of a pump is, as I said, you have to go to a river or a stream and get it. Well, then what you have to do is you have to boil that water, so one of the major causes of deforestation in Africa is cutting down trees to boil water and cook food, and so in talking with Alison Wedgwood, who is the head of eWATERservices, she said that she would go to these areas and the forest would just be denuded because they had to cut down all of the trees to boil the water, so if you have access to clean water, now you reduce the pressure for deforestation, so it’s not just good economically, it’s good for the environment.
Todd Myers: Now, I’ll tell you an interesting postscript to the story, which is in one of the countries that they are in, the government is running for re-election, and one of their promises in this campaign has been free water for everyone, so they have actually gone into communities where eWATERservices has pumps and drilled water… Created pumps and said, “Come and get your water for free,” and basically destroyed the business model of eWATERservices, so eWATERservices is now pulling out of the country because they realize that the politicians are promising free resources. Well, that’s a horrible way to manage resources, it doesn’t encourage conservation, but the other thing is, is what’s gonna happen when those pumps break? Who’s gonna be there? Will the government be there? The history says, no. The history says that once again, those pumps will be broken for months at a time, and you will get back into that bad old cycle of where people don’t have water, they have to go hike to get water, they have to cut down trees. So that, I think, is a perfect example of how when you align financial incentives with resource conservation and management, you get good results, and when politicians come in and their interest is in looking good rather than managing the resources, you get bad results. And we’re seeing it in real time.
Chelsea Follett: That’s a very vivid example. And there are a number of great examples in the book. Are there any others you’d like to highlight?
Todd Myers: One of my favorite… Another one of my favorites, and this is one actually, the first one that I, really… Sort of got me to sit up and pay attention to what was going on. So I used to be a computer programmer, so I like technology anyway, and so it was sort of natural for me to combine my love of technology and being a tech geek with my environmental work, but I had a friend who worked for a group called Paso Pacifico in Central America, and Paso Pacifico worked in Nicaragua and elsewhere to stop poaching of turtle eggs for endangered turtles, and they would actually go on the beaches and talk with the poachers themselves and recognize that they had an economic reason for going and getting those eggs. And so rather than telling the poachers, “Look, what you’re doing is evil or wrong,” or things like that, they would recognize, “Look, I get why you’re doing this,” and sometimes they would pay the poachers and work with them and other things like that.
Todd Myers: But what they realized was, is that the problem was not so much the poachers, the poachers were doing it because they didn’t have another good source of income, what they really wanted to do is recognize the network, who was paying them, who was buying the eggs, where was the demand for the eggs coming from. So one of the founder of Paso Pacifico was watching Breaking Bad, and in one episode of Breaking Bad, they tracked. They put a little tracker on, and she said, what if we can put a tracker in an egg, in a turtle egg, and watch where the poachers go. Watch what the networks are.
Todd Myers: And because the technology is so small and easy, they simply got a 3D printer, they printed an egg that felt like an actual turtle egg, it’s a little bit spongy, it’s not like a chicken egg, and they put a cell phone, a cell tracker in it, and they could track it, and so they tested it, and so it was actually a PhD student named Helen Pheasey from the UK, actually tested it in Costa Rica and put all these eggs in turtle clutches, because what happens is, is that the poachers come in at night, they quickly dig up the eggs, they grab them all and they put them into a bag, so if you put one egg that’s covered in sand and water, they’re not gonna notice. So what they found was, is that sure enough, people were poaching their eggs, and sometimes they would catch them, like the first… She said the first one that they found, she got a ping on her phone that it was moving and she got really excited and she looked and it was in the middle of a river where a poacher had realized it and threw it into the river, but in another case, it went back, and this is in Costa Rica, all the way from the coast to the capital, and then stopped in an alley behind a grocery store, and they said, “Look, we… “
Todd Myers: You clearly know what’s going on there, right? They’re selling the turtle eggs to some other people, so she says there’s no reason for them to be there. So that helped them identify the network rather than just targeting people who are probably impoverished, who are just trying to make a living, trying to unravel the network. But again, think about how easy that is, you simply… You watch Breaking Bad, you get a 3D printer, you create it, and suddenly now you have this very powerful tool to unravel poaching rings.
Chelsea Follett: Switching gears a bit, how does diversity reduce car pollution? This is an interesting part of the book.
Todd Myers: Yeah. So there was a lot of focus… So I live in Washington State, where we focus a lot on reducing CO2 emissions. We spend a lot of money, a lot of effort. Our governor actually ran for president saying that he was gonna reduce CO2 emissions, and the number one source of CO2 emissions in Washington State and a number of other places is transportation. And so one of the things that you hear all the time is that what we need to do is we need more transit, or we need high speed rail or things like that to get people out of their cars. But that’s just simply not a suitable approach for lots of people. The reason that people are not riding transit, and you’re especially seeing this since COVID, transit numbers are not returning. People are simply not getting back on to transit in most parts of the country, and is that it is not a convenient way for them to move to get where they want to go, cars are much better. And in fact, oftentimes, you will hear people say, “Yes, I want more transit, so that there are fewer cars in front of me when I’m driving.” So they wanna keep driving, they just want everybody else out of their way.
Todd Myers: So the way to address that though, the way to reduce CO2 emissions is to give people a variety of options that do fit their means. So that it is easier to ride transit, is less expensive, and it’s easier to do other things that are less carbon-intensive. And one of my favorite examples is a company called Pantonium based in Canada, and what they created was what they call on-demand macro transit. So in a lot of places, you have vanpools and things like that, but they’re fairly expensive because they carry a small number of people. But on-demand macro transit, is basically like Uber for buses, and what you say is, “Okay, here’s where I am, and here’s where I need to be, and here’s what time I need to be there.” And what the system does is that it says, “Okay, here’s a bus stop nearby, meet us there at this timeline,” and it creates the route on the fly based on the demands that it has. And the reason that that’s great is, one, it creates predictability for people. It’s very convenient for them, they know when to be there, and they’re guaranteed that they can get where they need to get at that time. But because it’s not a static route, because it’s a dynamically created route, they can shorten the routes. They don’t have to go to all of the bus stops where there’s nobody waiting, and so it allows people to get to their destination faster and it saves gas.
Todd Myers: So what the cities who have used this found is that ridership increased and costs decreased because people found it more convenient and the bus wasn’t having to go places where there was nobody waiting for them and waste gasoline. So the per passenger CO2 emissions went way down and people liked it. So it combined, again, environmental benefit of using less energy, emitting less CO2 while providing a better service.
Todd Myers: So that’s just one example. You talked about diversity, but that’s a perfect example of the kind of diverse ideas. And then you get programs that promote carpool and pay people to carpool, you get car sharing programs where you can rent a car for an hour. All of those sorts of options. I had a friend in Seattle and she and her husband had one car. And then when they needed another car, they would just go to a location where there was an on-demand car, unlock it with their phone, drive where they needed to drive and then go back home. And studies show that in cities where you have that on-demand vehicle access, the number of vehicles purchased in the city goes down. Because a lot of people do exactly what my friend did, which is they say, “Look, I don’t wanna spend money on a first car or a second car, I can use this service. And it’s more accessible, it’s cheaper, and it’s environmentally friendly.”
Chelsea Follett: Right. In DC, where I am, I see all of these e-scooters and e-bikes…
Todd Myers: Yeah.
Chelsea Follett: Available everywhere, just this diversity of transportation options offered through the private sector. But how does this goal of reducing car pollution also relate to the “Yes, in my back yard” movements of de-regulating zoning that would allow for a diversity and abundance of housing options?
Todd Myers: Yeah, that’s right. So I think it is difficult growth management and trying to… The zoning issue, there is a sense that people have that they can plan how to make everything accessible so you can have everything walkable. But that doesn’t work very well in the real world, and I can tell you in Washington State, where we have had very strict Growth Management laws, I don’t think that there is a single one of the growth management goals that it’s actually meeting because it’s… Actually, planning accurately is very difficult. So what is a better approach is to provide a diversity of options, both in terms of zoning and in terms of transportation, the other thing about providing a diversity of transportation options is that people… That the radius that people have for jobs is typically the extent is it’s about one hour commute, that’s about the farthest that people will go to commute to a job.
Todd Myers: And if you provide a diversity of transportation options that make it so that people can get a wider difference, expand the radius that they can get to within one hour, you expand their job options, so that diversity, no matter what zoning system you have, if you can create a large number of jobs that are accessible to residential areas within one hour using a diversity of transportation options, again, you’re not only providing better environmental alternatives, but you’re improving their job prospects and their economic prospects.
Chelsea Follett: Well, why do you write that transparency in the blockchain make fish and chocolate better?
Todd Myers: But not together. [chuckle]
Chelsea Follett: Not together. [chuckle]
Todd Myers: So there is a TV show called Portlandia, if people have watched it, about Portland, Oregon, which is just south of where I live. For people who watch it, they think it’s a comedy, I think it’s more of a documentary given my experience in Portland, Oregon, and it’s sort of about the crazy things that people in Portland do, and there’s a sketch that they do, where people are ordering at a restaurant, ordering some chicken, and they’re asking, “Okay, is this organic? Is this Oregon organic? Is it’s Portland organic?” And the waitress comes back and she brings the papers for the chicken and she says, “Here’s the chicken, here’s how he was raised. And his name is Colin.” And it’s a joke, it’s like you wanna get to know your chicken and how they were treated, and yet… We can now do that. And we can actually do more than that.
Todd Myers: The blockchain, it is just sort of a fancy name for a transparent ledger. Many things that people talk about, the blockchain, actually don’t need the blockchain, but the nice thing about blockchain is, is that it is transparent, it is hard to falsify, and when you are looking at supply chain, when you wanna know that the chicken, that was free range, that it was fed organic food, that had all of these attributes, had a nice, happy life. You wanna know the track that it got to your plate, and the blockchain is a good way to do that because it is difficult to falsify compared to just sort of internal databases which might do the same thing, but you don’t have the same reliability. So in the case of fish, you wanna make sure that the fish that you’re purchasing, especially things like tuna, that others are that… Where the stocks are low and they’re over-fished, you wanna know that it was caught sustainably, and so now you can follow that fish and what they call it is from bait to plate, so from the minute they bait the hook, catch the fish, bring it on board, you can actually track that and see, yes, the fish that I purchased is actually was caught sustainably and wasn’t caught illegally and things like that.
Todd Myers: Now, what’s gonna happen is, is that there are fish that you’re not gonna know, right? There are fish that are not gonna have that tracing because the bad guys aren’t gonna provide that transparency and information, but in the same way that a dolphin-safe tuna label works on tuna, you’re not gonna buy tuna that doesn’t have the certification that it was dolphin-safe, with tuna or other fish that you wanna know that was caught sustainably and legally, we can now get that information to make sure that it was caught in ways that are environmentally friendly, that aren’t causing over-fishing and things like that.
Todd Myers: The same thing is true with chocolate, I actually bought a chocolate bar from South America where it showed me exactly where the chocolate was and the process, and then it allowed… And it gave me a little token that I could do one of two things, I could either use that token as a discount to buy more chocolate bars, or I could turn in several of those tokens and plant another cocoa tree in the plantation in South America. And it would show me literally exactly where that tree was going to be planted. And so this sort of transparency connects people to the environmental amenities that they want, the farmers, to other things like that, to the fishers who are catching their fish and provides them the opportunity to purchase exactly the amenities that they… The environmental amenities that they want. So if you want your chicken to be named Colin, you can find a chicken named Colin. This is limited, not everybody is doing this, but there are lots of people working on these technologies, and in many cases, the beginnings of these efforts are out there, if you look for them.
Chelsea Follett: That’s fascinating. Are there any other things related to the blockchain that you’d like to highlight?
Todd Myers: Yeah, one of the other challenges with the blockchain, and we talk with energy use and trying to calculate CO2 emissions or resource use and say, “Okay, is what I’m buying really what it claims to be?” So one concern about environmentalism is, I think called Greenwashing, that you claim that you’re doing something, but when people look at it closely, it’s actually not providing the environmental benefits that they promise, and transparency, again, is part of that, but it’s all so important to businesses, you wanna know, okay, what are my energy costs? Where am I paying for energy? Where are we admitting CO2? Things like that.
Todd Myers: And if you can identify energy and other resource uses at every step of your supply chain, now you can start to make financial and management decisions based on that information. Again, aligning the financial incentives with environmental benefits, because it’s so easy to collect the data now and put that in a transparent ledger, that you can make decisions on pieces of information on your supply chain that you just simply never had the information for, so it’s not simply good for people who want to buy sustainably caught fish, it’s now good for businesses who wanna make sure that they are eliminating waste in their supply chain, which also eliminates environmental impact.
Chelsea Follett: What do you say that the Flint water crisis and Thomas Edison have in common?
Todd Myers: So the Flint water crisis, I think, is a perfect example of, that the problem with relying on government is that we can’t rely on it, and it’s a good reason, and it’s a good example of why we need to shift power to the extent that we can. I’m not an anarchist, I recognize that government is gonna have to play a role and sometimes is the most appropriate way to address some environmental problems. But too often we ignore the opportunity to shift power to people. And I think, I ought to say this, I think one of the really corrosive parts about political environmentalism is that politicians have an incentive to tell people that they don’t have any power, that only politicians can solve a problem, to sort of belittle and minimize the efforts of individuals, and you see this all the time where it’s like, “Oh, these little efforts are cute, but they don’t add up, only I as a politician, only I as a government bureaucrat can do these things,” I just think that’s… I think that’s wrong. I think it’s inaccurate, but I also think it’s morally wrong, because I think tearing others down to build yourself up is not the way that we are going to make progress on not just environmental issues, but a variety of issues.
Todd Myers: And the Flint Water Crisis I think is a good example of that. So for those who aren’t familiar with the details, Flint, Michigan was looking for a way to cut its water costs, they switched their water source, and what they didn’t realize was the new water source was corrosive of the lead pipes, there are anti-corrosive chemicals and other things you can put into the water, they didn’t do it, they didn’t realize that they needed to do it, and so what ended up happening was, people in Flint, Michigan turned on their faucets and out came dirty water, and then there was lead in the water that was found, and for a long time, governments, both at the state and federal level denied that this was going on. In fact, early on in the Flint Water Crisis, somebody from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality told people, that said, “Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” So they were wrong, there was lead in the drinking water, and yet here is the State Department of Environmental Quality telling you, “Oh, don’t worry about it.”
Todd Myers: And then when finally they realized, “Okay, yes, there’s a problem, how do we deal with this?” The EPA was trying to understand what to do, and they had some money that they could use to buy filters and other things for people in the community, and they said, “Well, this money really isn’t used, dedicated for something like that, but we could probably stretch and make a justification for it.” And so they were emailing back and forth, and they ultimately decided not to do it, and one of the managers wrote an email that said that we could do this but, “I don’t know if Flint is the kind of community we wanna go out on a limb for.” So for those people who are relying on the EPA to take care of them, to make sure that their water was clean, and when they found out that the water wasn’t clean, to help them get clean water, that was the response to EPA. And when there were hearings about it, and the regional director of the EPA was asked about this, she said that she thought EPA didn’t do anything wrong.
Todd Myers: So the reason that you need to empower people and not just government is because in very serious situations like the Flint Water Crisis, government failed again and again, and each opportunity that they had to do something to help the people, they fell down. Had you gotten filters, other things to individuals so that they took power over making sure that their water was clean and that they were protected, the problem could have been solved much more rapidly and you could have a much smaller impact on them.
Todd Myers: So it’s a great example of why local control, individual empowerment is the way to solve these environmental problems. So you asked, the title is how does Flint and Thomas Edison… You can see the same thing on energy, so not too far from where Thomas Edison created his first power plant is the Brooklyn micro-grid. So the Brooklyn micro-grid is just an effort of people who have solar panels to be able to generate electricity and then sell it to each other, and initially micro-grids are not, they’re not the most efficient way to create energy, they’re not… At this point, they’re certainly not gonna create… Compete financially with big power plants.
Todd Myers: But there’s two things that are attractive to people. One is when the power goes out, you now have an alternative. You have solar energy that can be shared. And second, there’s kind of a nice community aspect that some people like where you can buy solar from your neighbor and things like that. And because the technology exists, where people can trade electricity amongst each other in this microgrid, you can act like a little utility. If you have solar panels and you want to use your electricity, great. If the prices go up and you wanna sell your electricity to your neighbors on a hot day, and you’re willing to sit outside in the heat and not use the electricity and make a little money, you can do that too. But what’s remarkable is the technology and now allows individual people to essentially do what Thomas Edison did with his first power plant, which is generate and sell electricity. But it is using technology to push power out to individuals rather than to politicians and government.
Chelsea Follett: Could you describe the chapter on enhancing our relationship with nature, our connection with nature?
Todd Myers: Yeah. So I, like I said, I’ve worked in environmental policy for about two decades. If you had told me in college that I was going to work in environmental policy, I would’ve told you you were crazy. Because the people I knew in college who were interested in the environment looked weird and kind of smelled bad. So this is not, working in environment was not something that… I hiked a lot and was a nature lover. It was very interesting to me from a sort of a science and public policy standpoint. But what has happened is, is that over time, the environment has really started to fascinate me and opportunities to connect with it, now, are all around us. And so now, I really enjoy it. And I have a closer connection to sort of the environment.
Todd Myers: I’m a beekeeper. The reason, one of the reasons I’m a beekeeper is not because I love honey. People think I’m a little strange to have a hobby where I get stung 10 times a year. But bees, honeybees are really fascinating. And so I’ve found ways to have that connection and I really enjoy it. But I’m not a botanist. I’m very bad at identifying plants. For a long time I couldn’t identify birds, but there are now technologies that can do that. So iNaturalist is an app that you can get. And it’s, there’s a spinoff now called Seek, S-E-E-K. And what iNaturalist allowed you to do is to take a picture of a plant and then it would run that picture through its artificial intelligence because other people, lots of other people had put pictures of that plant in, the AI learned to recognize that plant.
Todd Myers: And so now when I take a picture of Oregon grape or something when I’m hiking, it’ll say, this is Oregon grape. And now I don’t have to be a botanist, I don’t have to remember all of these things. I can identify them. And I remember the first time I used, I was very skeptical of it. And the first time I used it, I was hiking with some friends and we found a dead moth, this beautiful, I mean a very large moth. And we picked it up and I said, let me try this. And so I pulled out my app, iNaturalist and I took a picture of it and boom, it came up with the name of the Moth. And it was incredible. So that started to allow me to have a connection to nature, to understand it in a deeper way than just sort of hiking and enjoying, natural beauty.
Todd Myers: And I think that’s really cool. And this becomes not just a tool to connect to the environment, but it, now, the information that is put in there becomes a tool to provide opportunities for conservation. INaturalist. So many people have used iNaturalist and put data in there that now the data that they have is, it’s like, I think it is the largest database of wildlife sightings. And numerous scientific studies have now been, published using that data. EBird is another app, that can sort of help you identify the birds that are in your yard. It knows what birds… It knows where you are ’cause of the GPS in your phone and knows what time of year it is. And it knows what birds are in the area. And so if you say, “Here’s where I saw the bird, here’s how big it is, here’s the color,” it can give you, these are the probably the birds that you’ve seen.
Todd Myers: So birders use eBird. And so now there’s all these millions of data points. And then the Central Valley of California, the Nature Conservancy wanted to see how it could create habitat for migratory seabirds. And so what they found using the data was exactly the parcels of land where migratory seabirds passed through and they went to those rice farmers and they said, “Look, in January and February, how much would we have to pay you to create habitat on your property, flood your fields a little bit for these seabirds?” And then negotiated a price, flooded their fields, created the habitat. They could use eBird now to go out and do sightings to make sure it was being used. And think about the opportunity. The way the Endangered Species Act works right now is if you have good habitat or you have species on your land, the government comes in and says, “You can’t use your land in the way you want,” it is a… Now habitat and endangered species are a liability. With what eBird did, endangered species in habitat is an asset because the nature conservancy could use that data collected by birders to show that that land had value and pay them. And it turns endangered species protection on its head because people want that connection to nature. People want to be, to see the birds and then the data that they provide becomes a tool for positive conservation.
Chelsea Follett: Now this isn’t in the book because it’s a more recent development at the time we’re recording this podcast, it’s just a few days ago. But given your knowledge of bees, I’m curious if you have any thoughts on that the first vaccine, apparently, ever approved for honey bees, protecting them against something called foulbrood, which is apparently an aggressive bacterial disease that harms honey bees.
Todd Myers: This is really cool. So it’s interesting to call it a vaccine because the treatment is put in feed and then the bees need it, and that’s the way, it’s basically an oral medicine. We do that with bees already, when I have feed, I will put things in the feed to make them healthier, technically that’s not a vaccine, it’s more like a vitamin or a nutrient or something like that, but it’s the same sort of process. But American foulbrood is a particularly destructive disease and it’s so hard to get rid of that if your hive dies of foulbrood or you suspect American foulbrood, there’s also a European foulbrood which is not as bad. We Americans like to do things extra on top of what the European. So American foulbrood is very destructive. It’s so destructive that if your hive dies or you have it, you need to burn all of your equipment because it’s very difficult to eradicate, so you can imagine if you’re a commercial beekeeper, an American foulbrood breaks out and you have a thousand hives, you have to quickly quarantine them and then you’re gonna destroy a lot of your equipment so that it doesn’t spread, so it can become very expensive.
Todd Myers: People talk about Hive-death and the percentage of hives that die every year, that’s primarily due to something else called the Varroa mite, which is a little mite that attaches itself to bees and then weakens bees, it’s not primarily because of American foulbrood, but American foulbrood is a very nasty illness. And so when I saw that I actually used to be a president of my local bee-keeping and I sent it to a bunch of my beekeeping friends and I was like, this is really cool. Because it is so destructive.
Chelsea Follett: Wow, okay, so another great example of technology moving forward for this…
Todd Myers: Yeah, and let me just add on that, which is that it’s another good example of financial incentives of the free market helping to protect species, but there’s a lot of concern, you see all these articles about, “Oh, honey bees are dying. They’re headed toward extinction.” That’s not true. That’s exaggerated, but we do see higher hive mortality than we saw. It used to be about 15% to 20% of hives died over the course of a year. Now it can be 40% and 50%.
Todd Myers: But what you see is that the highest rates of hive mortality are among hobbyists, frankly, people like me, who… I am not as experienced. I don’t go look at 100 hives a day like a commercial beekeeper does. I don’t spend a lot of money to keep them healthy. I do want to keep them healthy because I care about my bees, But I just don’t have the skill and I don’t have the incentives. The lowest rates of hive mortality, about 20%, very close to typical, are among commercial beekeepers. And why? Because they have a strong financial incentive to keep their hives safe. And so again, I’m sort of a broken record on this. But I think we need, those of us who believe in market incentives, need to tell these stories of how aligning financial incentives with the environment is the best way to manage resources. And the fact actually is, is that the number of hives in the United States has rebounded and is close to a 20-year high, precisely because commercial beekeepers have that financial incentive to keep their hives safe and to replace them when they die.
Chelsea Follett: That’s fascinating. Now, you also have a chapter exploring what’s the downside of all of this. What do you discuss in that chapter?
Todd Myers: So having been in government a long time, one of the things that I like to try to avoid, both in terms of government and in my own thinking, is hubris. Thinking that I’ve got it all figured out, because we never do, of course. So I dedicate a chapter to critiques that I have already heard or that I could come up with for the solutions. I remember reading The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. And in college, you read like some parts. And I, I don’t know, about 15 years ago, read the whole thing. And what I was really impressed by was that about two thirds of the book is actually dedicated to here are all the problems with my argument. And I just thought that was really excellent. You don’t see that much, frankly, from scientists anymore who spend most of their time trying to figure out why they’re wrong or showing why they could be wrong and yet that is the essence of the scientific process, so I wanted to do something similar, so I’ve got a chapter on that. Obviously one of the first critiques I get is, “Okay, Todd, that’s cute your book is called Time to Think Small but the problems we face are big and these small little things simply can’t tackle the magnitude of the problems, environmental problems we face.”
Todd Myers: So that was why I started off talking about Plastic Bank, to say that a system that relies on really nothing more than a web page and cell phones can remove 3.1 billion plastic bottles from beaches that might have washed into the ocean. We can, the ability to aggregate our efforts is very large, but I understand that people are skeptical of that. But we just passed the 16th anniversary of the creation of the iPhone. 16 years is not actually that long. And we have gone in 16 years from the creation of the iPhone to where our number one complaint is we all spend too much damn time on our iPhones. It has really changed things in a remarkably short amount of time. And Matt Ridley has a law that he calls Amara’s Law that I talk about, which is that what happens with new technologies is that there’s all this promise, right? Oh, this is going to change the world. This is going to do amazing things. And then it kind of goes slow. The technology doesn’t fulfill the promises. And he says, right about the point that people sort of give up on it and say, “Oh, this is never going to work out or do what we want,” it actually accelerates and starts to exceed promises and starts to do things in ways that we never anticipated.
Todd Myers: And I think we have already seen that with technology. But there are lots of things. We talked about the blockchain and sustainable supply chains for fish and things like that. You don’t find those in many places. People are still developing them. And so the blockchain is now one of those things that when people mention it, a lot of eyes roll and they say, “Oh, god, everybody’s talking about the blockchain,” and it hasn’t fulfilled the promises yet. So I think there’s hope. But there’s no doubt that for some problems, small solutions are not going to add up. But they will, I think, exceed a lot of people’s expectations. One of the other concerns that I hear all the time more on the right is that this technology can be very invasive, that people can lose their privacy. One of the examples that I give is smart thermostats. And the ability of smart thermostats to save people energy, to move their energy use out of peak hours in the evening where energy is very expensive, electricity is very expensive.
Todd Myers: But what we have seen is that some people sign up for smart thermostat programs where they are paid when there is an energy crunch, when there is very high demand, when costs go up, utilities can sign them up to say, “Okay, we’re going to turn your thermostat up or down, as the case may be, by a couple of degrees to save electricity.” And we’ve seen a lot of complaints about that. Sometimes people sign up, and then they don’t realize that they have signed up for it. They’re getting a financial reward, but that feels very invasive for people to come in, essentially, and turn your thermostat up or down. And so I understand that. I don’t like that invasiveness either. But one of the things that I do remind people is that especially in the case with electricity, is the government can already do that. And they can turn out your lights. We can have a blackout.
Todd Myers: In California, they were facing an energy shortage last year. And then there were threatened blackouts. And what California did was they sent out a text to residential customers and said, “Conserve where you can.” And people turned down their electricity use so much that it avoided the blackouts. And the amount of reduction was equivalent to the amount of all the batteries that were being used at that moment in California, just with a simple text. But that’s a less invasive way to do that. But had they not done that, or had they not used smart thermostats and adjusted, the government would have turned out your power. So I don’t like the invasiveness, but given a choice between blackouts and turning my thermostat up or down two degrees, I will choose the thermostat. But I don’t dismiss that concern. It is a real concern in my understanding.
Chelsea Follett: And another difference there seems to be the voluntary nature of it, right? Because with the private companies, you’re opting in, you might not realize you’ve opted in, but you can opt out once you do realize that. Whereas with the government, unless you move out of California to a different state, you don’t really have an option there, is that correct?
Todd Myers: Yeah, that’s absolutely correct. And in a lot of places in this country, the way that electricity is managed, a lot of the debates that you hear about wind and solar and other things like that, is about what government policy we should adopt. And so like when we had the Texas energy crisis a few years ago, the debate was about, do we need more reliable sources of energy like natural gas and coal, or do we need more renewable sources of energy? It’s all on the supply side. Where’s the consumer? The consumer is left out of the discussion. People are assumed to be essentially powerless. And I just think that that’s wrong. We need to change that. Consumers need to get in the game. They need to have more power. And they can, we have the technology, not just through smart thermostats, but a variety of other things to give consumers the information and the ability to control how they use electricity, control their prices, control what they pay. And then if they want to buy 100% renewable, they can do that too. But our mindset, when you hear all these debates about electricity, it is about which government plan is better, [chuckle] reliability or renewables. And I just think that that leaves probably the most important person out of it, which is the consumer.
Chelsea Follett: What do you mean by democratizing environmentalism, which I think relates to what you were just saying?
Todd Myers: Very much what I just said, which is that our mindset on the environment and on energy and a lot of these things is stuck in the 1970s or even before that. Our system on electricity, our system of tariffs was essentially created in the late 1800s, early 1900s, And it all assumes that consumers don’t have enough information to make rational decisions about electricity, quick decisions about electricity. But we need to change that. If I asked you or anybody else, what’s the cost of a price of gallon of gas? They could probably tell me within maybe five cents a gallon, right? Because it is everywhere, on every street corner. But if I asked, what is the price of a kilowatt hour, very few people could tell me what the price of a kilowatt hour is, despite the fact that I can tell you basically instantaneously what it is in your area, what the spot prices are at the very least. But that information is not available. And because that information is not readily available, and because our tariffs and the system doesn’t provide an incentive for people to pay attention to that. We simply don’t have the information that’s necessary.
Todd Myers: Democratizing environmentalism means giving people the information they need to make better decisions for themselves and for the environment and not just trusting politicians to take care of it for us. When we outsource the environment to politicians, we lose that connection to the environment. We lose that connection to results, I think, and that has been very destructive in a lot of areas. And the result is, is that a lot of the environmental issues that people care about are not being solved. And people don’t know why because they have outsourced the concern to others. And there is, if anybody has read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I actually think this is in the second book. But there’s a very funny example of where they were talking about trying to make something invisible. And they found that it was too difficult to make something invisible. But what they could do was make something somebody else’s problem.
Todd Myers: And by making it somebody else’s problem, it was as good as invisible. [chuckle] And that I think is what we have done with a lot of environmental issues, is we have made them somebody else’s problem. We have said that politicians will solve this so I don’t have to, or I don’t have to worry about it. And the result is by doing that, we’ve made those problems invisible to ourselves, and the policies haven’t worked. We need to make those policies and to make those issues transparent to people and give people, empower them to deal with them so that we’re not outsourcing important issues to politicians. And the result is we don’t get the results we want.
Chelsea Follett: I think that’s a great note to end on. Thank you so much for speaking to me. And again, the book is Time to Think Small: How Nimble Environmental Technologies Can Solve the Planet’s Biggest Problems. Please check it out.