Is western society suffering from a collective anxiety attack? Occupy Wall Street may be an expression of just that

I wrote the post below a week or so ago and thought later I should take it down because it was too negative. In fact, a few people unsubscribed to this blog immediately after I posted it.

I do like to use this blog to build hope that there are technologies, policy options, and creative initiatives out there to make the world a more sustainable place. But a few people who read the post before I took it down have encouraged me to re-post it. It’s not my typical entry, but after a bit of editing I have decided to put it back up, for what it’s worth.

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There’s plenty of analysis out there about the Occupy Wall Street movement and its spreading global tentacles. What does it mean? What do the protesters want? Will it continue to grow? Will it fade away as the cold weather settles in? Every media pundit seems to have his or her own explanation, but really there are no clear answers; there is no easy way to explain this leaderless movement that has attracted a grab-bag of interest groups (who don’t necessarily agree with each other on the ideal path forward) willing to ride on its coattails.

I like to think of what’s happening as a symptom of our collective anxiety about the state of the world, our environment, the crumbling of our institutions and shared infrastructure, social inequality and injustice, our ability to feed our families, and the direction all of this seems to be heading. What world are our children and their children going to inherit?

The global population has just hit 7 billion and is expected to rise to an unsustainable 9 billion by 2050. How are we going to supply the rising demand for food, fresh water, oil and other commodities we depend on? We only have one planet. There’s only so much to go around.

Greenhouse-gas concentrations continue to climb, the climate has begun to change as a result, certain industries and coastal cities and island nations are already feeling the effects, and the (real) science tells us it’s going to get much worse. More weird weather — droughts, floods, tornadoes, extremes of heat and cold. Why are we not taking the necessary action to minimize the impacts?

The cost of the products and services we consume continue to exclude the impacts their manufacture and delivery have on the environment — our air, soil, oceans, rivers and lakes, and of course on biodiversity. On this overcrowded planet, where billions of poor aspire to have the same wasteful, energy-inefficient lifestyles as Canadians and Americans, can we continue to treat our biosphere and atmosphere as a dumping ground, without expectation of growing negative consequences?

Major world economies are struggling to manage a debt crisis that has the potential to send destructive ripples through the global economy. An obsession with fiscal deficits and a refusal in countries such as the United States to raise taxes — or, even better, create a carbon tax — has overshadowed a festering infrastructure deficit. Schools are crumbling. Roads are peppered with potholes. Bridges are unsafe. Transit takes a back seat to cars.

Healthcare is suffering from a severe case of angina, and as boomers get up there in years it’s only going to get worse. The pipes that bring clean water to our taps and take away (and treat) our dirty water are old, leaky and neglected only until crisis strikes. And even then, we slap on an expensive Band-Aid instead of invest in the kind of renewal that’s necessary and lasting. In many ways, we can’t even bring ourselves to put lipstick on the pig if it means coughing up more to do it.

Our cities are getting uglier, but like a balding, big-bellied couch potato that keeps touting his days as a star high school quarterback, we continue to rest on our laurels of past greatness. Yet pointing to past efforts of greatness alone — i.e. sending a man to the moon, mobilization during WWII — represent the sacrifices of past generations. What kind of sacrifice is this generation prepared to make?

We know all of these issues exists, or we choose to deny them. We refuse to give serious consideration to putting a price on carbon, even though this could help deal with growing infrastructure, fiscal and environmental deficits at the same time. We outright forbid serious discussion of road tolls and congestion charges and other logical measures as a way to get our cities moving again, fund visionary transit initiatives, and reduce urban smog. We scream bloody murder when electricity rates rise as part of the long-neglected but much-needed renewal of our power system, and we incorrectly pin most of the blame on green energy, yet another propaganda victory for the well-entrenched and highly profitable fossil-fuel industry.

At the same time, one can understand the outcry. This generation is simultaneously being asked to pay for their own and past excesses, decades of infrastructure neglect, and the security of our collective future at the same time. People are squeezed. They’re feeling the rise of electricity, fuel and food costs. New fees seem to arbitrarily appear every few months, gradually chiseling away at disposable income. With all of this happening, people are being told they have to take on more to keep the house of cards from falling down as they watch the top few per cent of income earners and the most profitable of corporations escape similar obligations.

Is this generation the last one into a Ponzi scheme that is close to running its course? It’s easy to see why some feel that way. Each time the music stops there are fewer and fewer chairs for the 99 per cent to sit on. Yes, people are angry — but most of all there is anxiety running deep through the population; a general feeling that we simply can’t continue with business as usual along the current path we’re on. Occupy Wall Street may be but one manifestation of this collective anxiety. Where does it lead? What lies around the corner? Can we keep the ball of thread from unraveling?

On an individual level, anyone who has battled anxiety — which can be quite crippling if left unchecked — will know that the source of anxiety isn’t always easy to identify. What I’ve just described above is not necessarily something the average person on the street thinks about every day, what with their busy lives and focus on work, family and friendship. But it’s in the news — online, on TV, on radio and in newspapers — and it does gradually permeate our subconscious. Over time, this can bring on feelings of worry, uneasiness, fear and even dread. It can be managed at first, but there is a cumulative effect until a breaking point is reached and occasional anxiety transforms into a persistent anxiety disorder. That breaking point could be an anxiety attack, or even more severe, a panic attack.

Is Occupy Wall Street one of those breaking points? Are the protests seen around the world a collective anxiety attack, or even a panic attack — one that may go away but, as with any untreated anxiety disorder, re-emerge with more intensity? That’s my take. More and more people are anxious. They’re freaking out. And they feel helpless.

Who knows where it will lead unless some meaningful action is taken to clearly identify and seriously address the source of this anxiety. There are solutions — technologies, policy options, economic models, etc. — out there if we choose to embrace them. Left ignored, however, you can bet the anxiety won’t permanently go away, and even if it does fade this time around it’s very likely to come back with more ferocity.

Election outcome in Ontario doesn’t mean green energy strategy doesn’t need some fixin’

Here’s my latest Clean Break column in the Toronto Star:

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By Tyler Hamilton

Ontario’s new Energy Minister Chris Bentley has much to learn over the coming weeks about the province’s complex energy file, and hopefully with that learning will come some genuine listening.

It’s tempting to think that the Liberal win earlier this month was a vote of confidence in the government’s green energy strategy, warts and all.

But one could just as easily argue that the outcome of the election would have been very different if PC party leader Tim Hudak hadn’t taken such an extremely negative position against the Green Energy Act, the feed-in tariff (FIT) program and associated initiatives.

Voters, by and large, are supportive – and many quite proud – of Ontario’s green energy vision. They see that it’s the direction we must take. They also see economic opportunity by heading in that direction, if done properly. For this reason, it appears most voters weren’t prepared to let Hudak hit stop and press the rewind button.

At the same time, the fact that the Liberals only squeaked ahead in the popular vote seems a clear message that the approach behind the vision needs some fixing – and fast.

For one, the ball has been dropped on energy conservation. We know that the cost of programs that help us reduce energy consumption is much less than building new power supply. We know that investment in energy efficiency has a much faster payback, represents a permanent reduction in carbon emissions, and is a significant job creator.

We also know that widespread support for energy conservation is the best way to help ratepayers cope with rising electricity rates. After all, who cares if the rate goes up if the monthly bill stays the same?

Yes, the smart grid will help us take control of our energy use, and smart meters can encourage us to shift when we use electricity. All of this helps, but it doesn’t encourage us to use less electricity. It’s not true conservation. And trust me, we waste a lot of energy. There’s much to conserve.

The Liberals have also paid a lot of lip-service to helping seniors and those on fixed-income cope with rising energy bills, but what’s lacking is meaningful action. The Clean Energy Benefit temporarily slapped on everyone’s bills is not an answer, nor is an end-of-year tax credit on a bill that’s paid monthly.

Another fix is needed with the FIT program itself. The rate structure is terribly out of date, and the Ontario Power Authority is already late in launching its two-year review of rates paid out for solar, wind, small hydro and biomass projects.

The rates under the FIT program were first announced in early 2009 and designed to assure a “reasonable” return on investment – about 11 or 12 per cent—for developers. The problem is that technology costs shift over time, sometimes dramatically. Solar is a case in point.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory concluded that the average pre-incentive cost of residential and commercial solar PV systems fell 17 per cent last year and a further 11 per cent in the first half of 2011.

“Solar cell prices around the world have gone down significantly,” Paco Caudet, general manager of solar module maker Siliken Canada, told me this summer. “We have brought down costs over the last five months alone by almost 30 per cent.”

You hear the same story over at Celestica, which is manufacturing solar panels and inverters in Ontario for other companies looking to comply with local content rules.

Mike Andrade, the company’s senior vice-president, echoed Caudet’s view. He said the original solar FIT rates were based on a price for panels and inverters that is now 30 to 40 per cent lower. “Developers can make a fine return on investment at a much lower FIT rate than we have now,” he said.

Yet we continue to wait for rate adjustments. In retrospect, the two-year review was a mistake. Rate structure reviews should be done annually so the program can more quickly adapt to a changing marketplace.

We might also want to ask: should developers of multi-megawatt solar projects and large wind farms be booted out of the FIT program entirely?

After all, the program was created so community cooperatives, small businesses, farmers and homeowners could participate more easily in an electricity system previously dominated by the big developers, who were the only ones with the resources to take part in a competitive bidding process.

The level of community participation hoped for just hasn’t happened under the FIT, and this may explain why the McGuinty government had such a poor showing in rural Ontario ridings. People in many of these ridings are feeling like big projects are being imposed on them and that they have little say in the process.

European studies show that there is less resistance to projects when those in the community feel they have part ownership and a voice that will be heard. The FIT needs to move in that direction.

Not to say we still won’t need the big projects. But developers of these should be required to bid against each other so that Ontario ratepayers are assured the best deal.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem we have so far: a great green vision, but not necessarily the best deal.

There’s much room for improvement, but first the government has to recognize the need.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Canuck ex-pat group C100 extends its reach into cleantech, lends helping hand to “best & brightest” Canadian entrepreneurs

My latest Clean Break column takes at look at C100 CleanTech, a group of ex-pat executives and investors based in Silicon Valley who are opening up their California network to the best and brightest Canadian clean technology entrepreneurs, at the same time giving them a chance to break out of their Canadian cocoon and get exposure to the larger world of opportunities around them.

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Tyler Hamilton

Another year, another global ranking of the world’s most anticipated clean technology companies, and once again Canadian entrepreneurs in this field remain largely invisible to the outside world.

I’m referring to the release this week of the 2011 Global Cleantech 100, put out by research and investor organization the Cleantech Group.

Last year I lamented that only two Canadian companies made the list: Montreal-based Enerkem, which turns municipal solid waste into ethanol; and Vancouver-based Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, which extracts phosphorous and other nutrients from municipal waste water and turns it into high-grade fertilizer.

Both are excellent companies that deserved the recognition, but they’re certainly not entirely representatives of the amazing clean technology innovations coming out of Canada — or even Toronto for that matter.

In this year’s U.S.-centric ranking, we didn’t fare much better. Ostara was back on the list. Enerkem got the boot.

Two new ventures were added: Another B.C.-based company, Nexterra, which turns wood waste into a type of fuel called “syngas”; and FilterBoxx Water and Environmental, a Calgary-based firm with a water and waste water treatment technology designed for use in remote locations with harsh climates.

Seems the only thing Canadians gets recognized for beyond our borders is our ability to treat waste or turn it into fuel or fertilizer. Not a bad thing, but we have so much more to offer.

Jonathan Quick, a self-described “proud Canadian” now working at Silicon Valley-based VantagePoint Capital Partners, one of the top clean tech-focused U.S. venture capital firms, says there’s huge opportunity for Canadian entrepreneurs to be recognized as world leaders in clean technology.

“We are an understated nation,” says Quick, who works closely with VantagePoint co-founder and chief executive Alan Salzman, also a Canadian. Both men grew up in Toronto.

“We have this heightened sense of fair play, and we’ve been afraid to pick winners,” Quick adds. “But this is a game, and other countries are picking winners. We need to do the same.”

VantagePoint is a member of C100, a not-for-profit group created two years ago by Chris Albinson and Anthony Lee, Canadian ex-pats working in Silicon Valley who, from a distance, thought technology entrepreneurs from Canada weren’t getting enough support at home or recognition abroad.

True to the name, the group’s aim was to create a network of 100 charter members who would agree to reach out to Canadian entrepreneurs, bring them down to California, offer mentorship and introduce them to potential partners as a way to accelerate their business development and growth.

The group now includes top executives from Apple, Cisco, eBay, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, reflecting its emphasis on Web 2.0 and information technology.

Clean technology, however, is a different beast with unique needs, so earlier this year Quick — representing VantagePoint — suggested that a splinter group be set up specifically to support the Canadian cleantech scene.

The result was the creation of C100 CleanTech, which has been operating since September and will have its formal launch in Toronto on Nov. 17.

Soon after, as part of a program called “48 hours in the Valley,” the group will select eight to 10 Canadian clean tech startups and invite them down “for two days of intense mentorship, partnership and networking events,” according to program director Atlee Clark.

Companies that can address a $1 billion or greater market, have the potential to be a $500 million business, and have a commercial product or service within 12 months can apply before Oct. 30 at www.theC100.org/cleantech.

“We really want to go out and find the best of the best, and help them take their business to the next level,” says Clark.

It’s still early days for the global clean tech sector, and there are few clearly defined leaders in the field. “Canada has just as much potential to be there,” says Quick. “There’s a real opportunity to build those billion-dollar companies.”

Perhaps it takes an ex-pat to see the opportunity so clearly.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies. Contact him at tyler@cleanbreak.ca

Guest Post: Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto to host “EV Fest” for you electric car lovers

This is a guest post from the Evergreen blog:

People know that Evergreen Brick Works celebrates both the natural and cultural heritage of Toronto. But what role does it play in shaping the future of sustainable transportation in this city and beyond?

Evergreen Brick Works is more than a vibrant space for community festivals and appreciating nature in the city. It is also a living lab and a hub for green innovation, where like-minded people and businesses can explore, advance and apply urban sustainability solutions.

So, when the Electric Vehicle Society of Canada approached us to host their upcoming EV Festival, we were fully on board. What surprised us, however, was the depth of enthusiasm toward EVs and just how far the technology has come.

The EV Fest, to be held in The Kilns and Holcim Gallery on Sunday, Oct. 23 (10 a.m.–5 p.m.), will feature dozens of registered electric vehicles on display, as well as many people who have converted their cars and can help you convert yours. And, of course, Autoshare will be on hand with their Nissan Leaf parked close by at our charging stations in the main lot. Plus, be sure to stop by Better Place and their EV demonstration centre for even more electric fun!

You’ll come away from the day recognizing that the innovation and technology for EVs already exists—it simply needs to be scaled up.

The event will also be a great precursor for many more sustainable transportation initiatives planned at Evergreen Brick Works.

We are currently gearing up to host MOVE, a Transportation Expo next summer that will guide visitors through the past, present and future of urban transportation. The Expo, presented in partnership with George Brown College’s Institute without Boundaries, will be the first in a five-year series exploring the major issues affecting cities, and will also include a suite of 10 design “charrettes” held this fall.

Look up in the sky! It’s an airship, it’s an airplane… no, it’s Solar Ship!

Here’s my latest Clean Break column about Toronto-based Solar Ship, which has designed a hybrid airship-airplane that’s driven only by solar power. This is a very cool creation.

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By Tyler Hamilton

Mining companies operating in the most remote areas of Canada may want to take notice. Ditto for humanitarian groups looking for better ways to get life-saving medical supplies to hard-to-reach, disaster-stricken regions.

A Toronto company called Solar Ship has designed an aircraft that it says will be able to travel 1,000 kilometres carrying up to 1,000 kilograms of cargo, powered only by the sunlight that shines on its back. It will also be able to take off from — and land on — a spot no larger than a high-school soccer field.

Not quite an airship, not quite an airplane, the solar ship is a hybrid of both. The delta-shaped aircraft will be filled with helium, but slightly less than what’s required to lift it off the ground.

Solar panels across the top of its body, likely backed up by a lithium-ion battery system, will supply enough electricity to drive it forward and into the air. In this way, the design achieves just the right balance of static lift (like a blimp) and aerodynamic lift (like a plane).

Jay Godsall, founder and chief executive of Solar Ship, says his aircraft will be able to go where no roads are built, where landing locations are too small or have been destroyed, and where existing airplanes and helicopters can’t reach on a single tank of fuel.

The need is certainly there. When a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, it took eight days before supplies and other aid could be delivered to the city of Jacmel.

Roads from the capital, Port-au-Prince, were blocked. The small airstrip and fuelling infrastructure in Jacmel were too damaged to accommodate supply flights from the closest U.S. city, Miami.

“Nobody could land,” says Godsall. “If we could make a similar run, and do it here in Ontario, it would be an irrefutable demonstration of our aircraft.”

He plans to hold just such a demonstration in summer 2013. A test flight of a smaller solar ship designed to carry a light load of medical supplies is expected in late 2012, somewhere in Africa.

Solar Ship’s target market is any industry with logistical headaches, including mining companies trying to open up areas of the north where roads are either non-existent or made of ice that is becoming less stable because of climate change.

Godsall recognized the need for such an aircraft back in the early 1980s while running a lawn mowing business in Ottawa.

Just 16 years old at the time, the young entrepreneur had become friendly with some students from Burundi who spoke poor English. He gave them some lessons, and in exchange his lawn mowing business got access to the African embassy crowd.

This led to occasional social visits to the Burundi embassy. One Saturday — Feb. 5, 1983, to be precise — Godsall attended a luncheon and overheard a gentleman talking about landlocked countries in Africa that had major transportation challenges.

“We have the least reliable transportation infrastructure in the world,” the gentleman said. “We have a lot of resources, but we can’t get them out to the global economy.”

The teenage Godsall responded, “Why don’t you just get yourself an airship?”

Once uttered, the idea was firmly planted. “I caught the bug,” says Godsall, explaining how he ended up doing high school projects on airships and, later at university, did an economics thesis on the use of airships to spark economic development in Africa.

“The thesis was rejected as lunacy,” he recalls. He’s had a chip on his shoulder ever since.

Godsall pressed on, starting his first airship business in the early 1990s. But he couldn’t attract the funding required to get it off the ground, so he directed his efforts instead to helping people start up businesses in Africa.

In the decade that followed, he travelled to Africa dozens of times and got to know the continent intimately, as well as the many infectious diseases that were common to the region. This included a bout with malaria in 1997 that nearly killed him.

But adversity gave birth to opportunity. Godsall ended up teaming up with the doctor who saved his life, and they built a business around getting life-saving medical supplies to remote communities.

Once again, the airship idea was floated. Only this time, Godsall decided to rethink his approach, knowing through experience that airships lifted by helium alone were difficult and awkward beasts to control.

In 2004, he approached James DeLaurier, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Aerospace Studies and, according to Godsall, “the king of engineering for airships.”

He posed a very specific problem to DeLaurier: get 1,000 kilograms of refrigerated medical supplies from point A to B. DeLaurier pulled out a model that looked like both an airship and an airplane.

“It was a freaky design, like a stealth bomber but all ballooned out, all puffed up,” Godsall recalls.

The two men agreed to pursue just such an aircraft, so DeLaurier recruited some of his U of T students and worked away to refine and improve the design. Happy with the progress, Godsall and DeLaurier registered the company Solar Ship in 2006.

Today, DeLaurier is the company’s chief aerospace engineer, and along with a team of top-notch engineers and bush pilots, the company is quietly preparing to show the world what its oddly shaped, emission-free aircraft can do.

For Godsall, the initiative is about building on Canada’s world-recognized leadership in airship design and, particularly, remote-area aviation. He knows full well there’s likely to be turbulence along the way, and that the aircraft will operate best where the sun shines and weather is steady and predictable.

But if anyone can get it right, it’s us Canadians. “Canada has the best bush plane community in the world,” says Godsall. “We have the best engineers and pilots. We’re the experts.”

This, to him, is another chance to prove it.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies. Contact him at tyler@cleanbreak.ca.