Capitol Valley – March 17, 2008
Everything old is new again
March 17, 2008
Here at CV we spend most of our time looking at new technologies, the future, and how a rush to judgment or a poor public relations decision can doom a promising technology, service, or company to failure. We see how sensationalism, poor reporting and massive “click to complain” campaigns can generate outrage where there should be none, and amplify the shrill cries of a few to the point where they dominate the public discourse.
Now, instead of looking forward, we look back to the 1960’s, when the relatively new technology of nuclear power brought a promise of unlimited, clean energy. Those days also were the height of the cold war, when the fear of atomic weapons clouded the nation’s judgment of atomic power. This interview, and the resulting article, should serve as a cautionary tale for those who would rush to judge a new technology out of fear rather than optimism, and for those who create, who compete against each other without thinking of what he and his competitors have in common, and how they can fight to protect each other, in order to compete.
For every nuclear plant that environmentalists avoided, they ended up causing two coal plants to be built. That’s the history of the last 20 years. Most new power plants in this country are coal, because the environmentalists opposed nuclear. When you ask someone like the NRDC, ‘Do you prefer nuclear or coal?’ They’ll say ‘We prefer nuclear to coal, but we don’t want either.’ It doesn’t work that way; we need power.
–Vinod Khosla, Co-Founder, Sun Microsystems, January 2008
Vinod Khosla isn’t known around Silicon Valley as a man who has bad ideas. With a net worth of around $1.5 Billion, he also knows a thing or two about a good investment.
Dr. Patrick Moore is no slouch in getting things done either. In 1974, he founded Greenpeace, possibly the best known and most successful environmental protection group in the history of the world.
Greenpeace, for those of you who have never heard of the Environmental movement, has been on the cutting edge of conservation for more than thirty years. It has critics who say that during those years it has either gone too far or not far enough. It has had a ship blown up by the French government. It has had one run aground on the very reef it was trying to protect.
Ironically, what this high-tech trailblazer and environmental pioneer have in common is the embrace of something very old that is in the midst of a renaissance: nuclear power.
Dr. Moore was on the first Greenpeace voyage in 1971 and stayed with the organization until 1986, coincidentally the same year that Khosla left Sun. Since then, he has spent his time as a consultant on environmental issues. Dr. Moore has never given up his conservationist leanings. However, whereas he first entered the public eye as an opponent of nuclear testing, nuclear weapons, and nuclear power while traveling on the Phyllis Comack to try and stop a U.S. nuclear test, today he sails a much different path. Dr. Moore wants to steer the U.S. back to being a nuclear nation in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In fact, Dr. Moore is now at odds with the juggernaut he helped create. In 2007, Voz Hernandez of Greenpeace South Asia called claims that nuclear energy is a solution to climate change “dangerous and misleading.” Hernandez went on to fan the flames, saying:
“Besides the massive financial costs involved in building a nuclear power plant, the risks of accidents like Chernobyl or the most recent one at Kashiwazaki nuclear plant in Japan following an earthquake are real…”
I wouldn’t have pictured this man as a founder of Greenpeace. Far from the “crunchy granola” stereotype of an environmental activist, or even the sharply dressed canvassers that I sometimes encounter outside the Metrorail escalator, I walked into a Dupont Circle cafe to meet a unassuming man dressed in a sharp grey suit, who could have been any lawyer working in the many law firms or agencies that line Washington’s streets. Instead, he serves as the co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, and, in some way, is attempting to make up for the unintended consequences of the actions of his younger self.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the 61-year-old native of British Columbia is that he could blend into any crowd on Capitol Hill, only drawing the sword of his considerable credentials when needed. Whereas Greenpeace is now known for its loud, emotional, disruptive and often self-defeating “mind bombs,” Moore is soft-spoken, thoughtful and precise. He rebuts emotional arguments like Hernandez’s with a razor-sharp grasp of the facts surrounding the issue that have dominated over half his life. In fact, the first question he answered dealt with the success of nuclear power in Europe and rebutted the concerns over Chernobyl.
“…the legacy of the nuclear waste remains unsolved and accidents continue to happen across the nuclear plants in operation around the world almost everyday.”
Dr. Moore projects an air of total confidence in his subject. I would love to see him in a head-to-head debate with Mr. Hernandez, as I listened to him describe how nuclear “waste” is actually fuel that we couldn’t use because of law, not science. This isn’t a new technology either, we’ve been able to do it since the cold war.
As the conversation turned to rolling out new technologies, I couldn’t help but think of the Politics Online conference last week. Specifically, the debate over the rollout of broadband in the U.S., and who should take the lead. Dr. Moore agreed that broadband and nuclear power are remarkably similar in that they are essential to our national security, and suggests…*gasp* help from the government in setting national priorities.
What struck me as the most important part about Dr. Moore and his new crusade is how circumspect he is about his past and the role he played in creating the considerable uphill battle that nuclear energy now faces.
Today’s new technologies often face the same backlash, fears, sensationalism and poor public relations that nuclear power faced in the 1970’s. The solution is to get out in front of problems and focus on the good. Of course, Silicon Valley is a dog-eat-dog world, and companies that compete with each other are loath to join together, even for a common goal, especially when government is concerned. Dr. Moore added that in any industry association that the members are, on on level or another, competing with one another. Despite this competition, the members of said association are trying to compete in the same arena and need to band together over common goals and needs so that they can be allowed to compete with each other instead of excessive government legislation and public backlash.
A more “Capitol Valley” example of this would be the hoopla that surrounded MySpace as it gained popularity and was bought by News Corporation. Although it has a lot of harmless and even useful applications (friends can use it to keep in touch and bands can preview their latest single) their founders and owners allowed, through lack of good PR and failure to pool resources with like-minded companies, the sensationalism and bad press to dominate its media attention and the public discourse. NBC spent entire episodes of “Dateline NBC” dedicating itself to showcasing the “predators” on the site. Bad press has forced News Corporation to entire separate agreements with almost every state Attorney General in the U.S. Some state legislatures have considered bills specifically to address social networking sites, which if written poorly or read incorrectly, could have chilling effects on any service which allows for user generated content.
Of course, this is not out of malice, but from the best intentions. Old Media has done much to sully the reputation of New Media by dismissing it as a haven for predators, or a dangerous zone where bad things lurk behind a single click of a mouse. Yet, for every Megan Meier ( a 14-year-old girl who hung herself after being the victim of a MySpace hoax) there are literally millions of people and groups, from teens to adults, using MySpace, Facebook, and the entire range of social networking systems out there without a single negative consequence. Happily. Safely. Productively.
No one is trying to downplay the tragedy of what happened to Megan, but the fact is, what happened to her is not indicative of the overall MySpace experience. The same thing happened with nuclear energy. Many are still focused on Chernobyl and Three Mile Island but ignore the fact that Sweden has eliminated fossil fuels from its generation of electricity, which is 50% nuclear energy and 50% hydroelectric. France? 80% nuclear. Deaths? Zero.
It doesn’t seem like they’re related, but Silicon Valley could learn a little from the missteps of U.S. Nuclear. Band together and get the positive into the public eye.
Dr. Moore is both a very smart man and one who is brave enough to admit to a mistake and take the action to try and correct it. His message to startups? Don’t wait until you have the worst public image in the world. Band together, inform the public and improve your ability to grow and thrive.