Gil Friend’s Blog

When I learned of Nelson Mandela’s passing earlier this month, I spent the afternoon in tears.

Not tears of grief alone, but of love, admiration, awe, inspiration at the contribution this one man has made—both to the people of South Africa on their long path to freedom, and to the people of the entire world in our daily challenge to understand what it means to be a human being.

There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.
― Nelson Mandela

Thank you, Madiba.

This month I began serving as the Chief Sustainability Officer of the City of Palo Alto.

As many of you know, I’ve been dedicated for the last 41 years, since cutting my teeth with Bucky Fuller’s World Game in 1972, to connect the human economy with the laws of nature—the time-tested, open-source principles that govern the living systems that underlie the human enterprise and all we hold dear.

After more than 20 years advising corporations and governments, I’ve found myself hungry to shift from an external advisory role to bringing all my experience to bear in one place—as a responsible executive with his ass on the line. This is a great opportunity to do that—in a remarkable community with a passionate citizenry, a tradition of innovation, a geyser of entrepreneurship and, I’m told, a pretty decent university.

Their question to me:

How can we make Palo Alto the greenest city in the country?

My question to them:

What can one small, innovative city contribute to the sustainability revolution?

It’s a thrilling opportunity—one that opens many new possibilities on innovation and influence, and that hearkens me back to my earliest labors in the sustainability vineyards, back at the Institute for Local Self Reliance in the early 1970s. But that’s a story for another time.

Natural Logic will continue operating under the leadership of my remarkable colleagues, notably Natural Logic principal (and long time friend and colleague) Michael Kleeman, senior associate Shripal Shah and others. My own role in client engagements will be much more limited and leveraged, after fulfilling current commitments. I’ll of course continue to speak, blog, tweet, podcast, etc., actively, as well as support a very small portfolio of individual coaching and thought partner clients.

There’ll be more details to come over the coming weeks—and hopefully a chance to speak directly, if that makes sense! Meanwhile, you’ll be able to follow my exploits on my  CSO twitter site and a blogging venue TBA, as well as my usual social media coordinates.

My new contact information for City of Palo Alto business and “sustainable city” matters: gil dot friend; the domain is cityofpaloalto dot org; 1-650.329.2447. For all other matters, please continue to use my Natural Logic coordinates.

My friend Jonathan Koomey‘s invited perspective article, “Moving beyond benefit-cost analysis of climate change”, was just posted by the open access on-line journal Environmental Research Letters.  Here’s the abstract and the introduction.


The conventional benefit–cost approach to understanding the climate problem has serious limitations. Fortunately, an alternative way of thinking about the problem has arisen in recent decades, based on analyzing the cost effectiveness of achieving a normatively defined warming target. This approach yields important insights, showing that delaying action is costly, required emissions reductions are rapid, and most proved reserves of fossil fuels will need to stay in the ground if we’re to stabilize the climate. I call this method ‘working forward toward a goal’, and it is one that will see wide application in the years ahead.

Michael Totten‘s comment:

Outstanding article, Jonathan Koomey. I particularly liked this passage, “Delaying action eats up the emissions budget, locks in emissions-intensive infrastructure, and makes the required reductions much more costly and difficult later. The IEA, using the ‘working forward toward a goal’ approach, estimated the costs of delay at about $0.5 trillion US for every year we put off serious climate action [13].

Conversely, early action through technology deployment brings the costs of technologies down through learning-by-doing, which is one manifestation of increasing returns to scale [19]. Because of these and other factors, our choices now affect our options later, which is known in the technical literature as path dependence [19, 20]. Luderer et al highlight the importance of such effects to the economic outcome on climate mitigation, but most conventional models of the economy ignore them [19, 21], with the likely effect of overestimating the costs of reducing emissions.”

My comment:

It’s so clear. Who wants to waste half trillion a year?

Which means the only obstacles are (1) those that profit from the delay, and (2) those that are disinformed by those that profit from the delay.

[I fully intended my recent posting, 5 things I’ve learned in 8 weeks of sustainability conferences, to be provocative. (No surprise there. You may have noticed that I’m inclined to challenge familiar thinking and push the boundaries of what’s possible, profitable and purposeful.) But some readers were more incredulous than provoked, and challenged or at least questioned some of the claims and data I reported. I’ll provide clarifications—and some corrections—next week—once we recover or rewrite the draft that vanished last week. Until then, here’s my sustainability briefing for this week. (You can also listen to me read it to you—and while you’re at it you can subscribe to my new Sustainability Briefing podcast.]

There are two big conferences I’ve been tracking this week. They’re worlds apart, and not just geographically.

The first: the UN Climate Talks in Warsaw, where the global community, as we call it, continues to struggle to find a deal to prevent the gathering storm of climate change. It’s not looking good.

“The talks,” as Reuters reports, “have stuttered over several issues, particularly whether rich nations should pay developing countries for losses suffered due to the effects of climate change, and the lack of ambitious pledges to cut emissions.” In fact 800 people from Greenpeace and WWF & other groups walked out of the talks—the first mass this has happened—to protest lack of progress towards a global deal.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, some ten thousand people have gathered for Greenbuild, focusing on the $100b green building industry—an industry reportedly doubling in size every three years. Hillary Clinton keynoted last night (and Bon Jovi performed!), but what particularly stands out for me is the growing movement toward “net zero”—not just less damage, but no damage.

Integral Group, a Bay Area design and engineering firm, has, for example, designed 41 net zero energy buildings at last count—buildings that use no more energy than they generate. But what’s notable is this: they didn’t cost a dime more to build, and in some cases less that “normal” or even energy efficient buildings! What’s the ROI of lower operating costs gained through less capital investment? It’s a deal so good that you can’t do the math. In fact it’s an offer you can’t refuse.

It’s not a niche phenomenon—net zero will be required the goal for all new homes in California in 2020 (and for all new commercial (and 50% of existing commercial) structures by 2030).

And it’s not just buildings. Companies as diverse as BT, Dell and Thrive Natural Care are talking about delivering “net good.” Dell has set its target at 10x—delivering ten times more energy savings and climate benefit from their products as it takes to produce and operate them—and while it’s not completely clear how that will be calculated, it’s a commitment worth watching.

At one level, the difference between the climate talks in Warsaw and Greenbuild in Philadelphia is the difference between seeing a vast problem or seeing a vast opportunity. It’s both of course—I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness of the climate tumult ahead. But in my view a primary focus on the opportunity—what Jigar Shah calls building creating climate wealth—a trillion dollars worth of it—is what will let loose the creativity to build a new economy—one that nurtures nature, that makes investors very, very happy, and that uplifts humanity—all seven-going-on-ten billion of us.

I’ve received a number of responses to yesterdays’s post, 5 things I’ve learned in 8 weeks of sustainability conferences, ranging from incredulous to disagreeing, about some challenging statements I made comparing fossil fuel profits with subsidies, and clean energy investment with fossil and nuclear investment.

I’ll post additional clarifications, references (and if necessary corrections) shortly—probably tomorrow.

Thanks for your patience—and your interest!