John Johnston

The9Billion.com founder John Johnston doesn’t hug trees

I really struggle to call myself an environmentalist, at least in the traditional sense, even though I’ve founded a website to do with sustainability.

It shouldn’t, but even in this day and age for some people, the word environmentalist seems to conjure notions of so called “treehugging hippie” types.

Funnily enough, I don’t even like using the term “green”. I wouldn’t describe myself as green.

I try not to say things like ‘going green”, or “green economy”, or “green technology”.

I don’t want to be put in a green box off to the side. I think all these “green” things need to go mainstream.

Perhaps there won’t be a separate category one day – “green economy” will just be economy, and “green energy” will just be energy. That’s where we need to get to for some of these big environmental problems to be solved.

What common perceptions about environmentalists aren’t true?

Well as I said earlier, it’s not true that most environmentalists are so-called “treehugging hippy” activists.

I also don’t think the perception is true that most environmentalists these days are against advanced technologies, I’m certainly not.

I think innovative clean technologies and communication technologies in particular, are going to have a great deal to offer over the coming decades.

My site is about finding out how 9 billion people can live sustainably together, while having fun along the way.

Nobody has all the answers to that at this stage, but I think we should try to have fun finding out. Fun and pleasure are important.

It’s not all about end-of-the-world doom and gloom; quite the contrary, at least that’s true for me, and I think for many others as well.

What actions aren’t being taken to prepare for a projected world population of nine billion people?

Obviously the lack of global climate change action is a big deal, and the later we leave it, the tougher and more expensive it’s going to be to pull it back.

But I believe we can still do it, and there are quite a few positive things starting to happen.

I believe the exponential growth and dramatic lowering of the cost of solar power is one of those things, even though it’s still a small overall percentage of power.

That’s happening outside of any sort of global climate or clean energy agreement. We’re probably going to have to do this thing from the ground up, not from the top down.

Unfortunately, it seems that a certain amount of climate change is already locked-in and humanity is going to have to try and adapt, unless we find a safe technological way to reverse it later.

If we have a world population of 9 billion by about 2050 (already 7 billion now), it’s not going to be easy but as I said, I think we will work it out. Call me an optimist.

Then there’s the food, fresh water, and clean energy questions, among many others. Nobody really knows the full answers to all these questions just yet, and perhaps we’re not addressing them enough.

Part of the reason for starting The9Billion.com is to track the path to the solutions to some of these big questions, one day at a time.

You’ve also made a name for yourself as a leading social media strategist. What don’t you share on social media?

I don’t share as much about my personal life in social media these days, not as much as I used to in the beginning.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve kept all my social media profiles public as they’ve grown, that I’ve become more private. I’ve also got kids now, so that’s made me a bit more protective I guess.

I also don’t tend to engage in a lot of trivial chit-chat in social media these days.

I think there’s definitely a place for the ebb and flow of trivial conversation and chit-chat in social media; nothing wrong with it, but I guess I got a bit tired of it having been on Twitter almost every day since early 2007.

I kind of wanted there to be more purpose to the whole social media thing.

Who aren’t you following on Twitter?

If people constantly complain about trivial stuff, or are mean, I tend to ignore that. I rarely bother to unfollow once I’ve followed someone, unless they happen to be constantly harassing me or others.

I’ve enjoyed debating people quite a lot on Twitter about issues over the years, but I’m tending not to do that so much now, it’s pretty futile.

I’ve hardly blocked anyone on Twitter, except for reply spammers.

I like to pay attention to people who post stimulating thoughts and links.

You’ve had great success in your social media career, including WWF’s Earth Hour campaign. How shouldn’t a company use social media?

I don’t think companies should be trying to do the hard sell on there, that’s a real turn off for most people in social media I think.

People aren’t there to be sold at. It’s a bit like someone knocking on your door at dinnertime and trying to sell you something you don’t want, it’s very intrusive.

I think many of the things companies shouldn’t be doing in social media are just common sense really.

Act like your company is made up of real people, which it is, not a faceless brand. I think most companies are starting to get that now.

What social media platforms won’t we be using in five years?

We’ll that’s anyone’s guess, the web has been moving fast and it’s still relatively early days. It depends what’s invented and takes hold in the coming years.

For instance, if something is invented that gets popular quickly and happens to start sending Facebook’s user base into decline, and Facebook doesn’t manage to buy it out or neutralise it somehow, Facebook could take a real hit.

It seems unlikely at this point, but who knows? Chances are, if something like that happens, it won’t be from anything expected.

Imagine you were only allowed one more tweet for the rest of your life. What wouldn’t you say?

I wouldn’t try to tell people how to live their lives, but rather simply ask people to try to be kind to each other, no matter what. We could do with a lot more of that in the world.

Thanks for taking some time to chat with us John. Be sure to check out his forward-thinking website The9Billion.com

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What Others Are Saying

  1. Andrew Sedger October 23, 2012 at 5:55 am

    Great to hear from an optimistic environmentalist who isn’t a hippy but is into pleasure and kindness. Maybe there is hope for the planet.

    • Max October 29, 2012 at 12:21 am

      I agree Andrew, it is nice to see someone care about the environment but also embrace new technologies and take a practical approach to solving the world’s problems. Cheers for coming by.

  2. Thomas Cotterill October 28, 2012 at 3:35 am

    I’m in the other camp on the global warming issue. The latest research out of Britain shows “global warming” stopped 16 years ago. Temps have been flat since then. Prior to the warm spell, temps were falling. Adopting costly inefficient energy “solutions” to counter a threat that doesn’t exist is self-destructive behaviour. Canada’s Ontario province went big on windmills and solar panels and all that did was double the cost of power and put a lot of people out of work.

    • Max October 29, 2012 at 12:19 am

      Thanks for commenting Thomas, and there is a part of me that agrees with you. I find climate change hard to believe on an… instinctive level. I equate it to any other doomsday theory, to people on soapboxes talking about Armageddon or the Mayan prophecies. The difference being though that this theory is grounded in science and has the support of the majority of the world’s climate scientists. There are studies showing it is already happening, there are studies showing it isn’t, but far fewer (and often dodgy, ie Lord Monkton and his non-peer reviewed work). As predicted, summer Arctic sea ice hit its lowest point on record in September – twenty percent lower than the previous record – and is on track to be completely gone by the end of the decade.

      Even if you’re a skeptic however, doesn’t a Pascal’s Wager type approach apply here? The consequences of doing nothing if the theories prove to be true are absolutely catastrophic, while if we switch to clean energy but climate change turns out to be bunk, well, it is true we’ll be paying higher energy costs than necessary for a bit, and people will lose their jobs, so all in all a unfortunate situation but hardly comparable to environmental apocalypse. More to the point though, climate change or no we need to make the switch the renewables soon anyway and while they cost a lot to install, we then have them generating limitless power, and no longer have to spend vast sums of money surveying for and then mining resources out of the ground and ocean, and transporting the resources to power stations. And entire new industries are springing up in the creation of renewable energy, along with new jobs. Without factoring in climate change or even the environment at all, it seems to me making the switch is the sensible option.

      • Thomas Cotterill October 29, 2012 at 4:05 am

        I don’t buy the Pascal’s wager approach, Max. You are assuming two things here, not one. First, you swallow the global warming argument. Second, you accept the idea that warming will necessarily be bad. There is ample widely-accepted evidence (among non-climatologists!) to suggest that warm spells in the past have resulted in more food production, for example, and not less. The Vikings prospered for four hundred years in Greenland using Scandinavian agricultural practices and were only driven out when the climate got cold again. During those warm four centuries, sea levels did not rise, polar bears and other arctic species did not become extinct, and nothing particularly horrible happened anywhere.

        Let me give you some examples of just how bad this global warming science can be. Here in Canada we have a famous polar bear colony near Churchill, Manitoba. Tourists come from all over the world to see the huge bears, and scientists have studied the colony in great detail. It is not prospering. Conclusion: global warming is wiping the beasts out by removing the sea ice they depend on for hunting seals. You may have seen these stories yourself. But did you know that another polar bear colony has recently been found many miles further to the south where temps are even warmer and there is even less sea ice. This colony is thriving. In the wilds, animal populations fluctuate for reasons that have nothing to do with climate.

        Environmentalists and global warming scientists have long claimed that polar bear populations are declining throughout the arctic. They have made these claims in spite of aboriginal assertions that the bears are doing just fine. (The Inuit hunt polar bears.) A recent study has shown that the natives are right. Polar bear populations are actually on the rise throughout the arctic.

        Now let’s look at your technology arguments. With solar panels, what does one use for energy when the sun goes down? Answer: you need a second energy source; that is, another costly generating system. With windmills, what does one use for energy when the wind isn’t blowing? Same answer: you need another costly generating system. Let me add that, around here (SW British Columbia), the wind often dies when the sun goes down, and at the winter solstice, we have only eight hours of pallid daylight. These “green” technologies are at best an unreliable supplement to conventional power generation. They are being deployed only because irresponsible governments waste the taxpayers’ money subsidizing green energy projects to buy the environmental vote. Ontario’s green energy debacle is a classic case in point.

        The argument that we must switch to “renewable” energy sources soon is also incorrect. North America has enough coal alone to supply all its energy needs for 250 years. Clean coal technology is making that fuel a viable option even where environmental concerns are present. Natural gas reserves are vast. Canada’s unjustly-maligned oil sands will be producing for generations. Huge stores of methane lie embedded in the arctic tundra. (Methane, by the way, decays in the atmosphere in just seven years or less. It does not accumulate.) And of course, there is always nuclear power.

        I’m a great admirer of Darwin. I believe in progress and evolution in all things. The right way to deal with energy issues is to allow them to evolve naturally. The marketplace will tell us when the time is right for new technologies. The planet isn’t dying. We are not poisoning it with carbon dioxide gas. Government intervention will just make another gigantic mess.

        • Max October 29, 2012 at 5:40 pm

          You’re very right about the kneejerk cries of “climate change!” made by people whenever an animal population goes into decline or a strange weather event occurs. That bugs me no end, just as I’m sure you get bugged when a climate skeptic spouts some Illuminati conspiracy as the reason governments are trying to implement carbon trading schemes!

          To clarify, with the Pascal’s Wager approach I’m not assuming anything at all. I recognise that man-made climate change may not be true, and acknowledge that even if the climate gets warmer it may not be that bad for some of us (Greenland will be thrilled, Bangladesh not so much). But I look at the chance we’d be taking in ignoring the warnings of the majority of climate experts, and I simply don’t see the reward vs risk.

          I’m not going to argue the climate science (both of our opinions on this seem pretty set in stone!) but I will address your points on renewable energy. In regard to solar panels you ask what we would do for energy when the sun goes down, but its hardly a use-it-or-lose-it scenario – solar panels store energy up all day for use during the evening and cloudy days. As for wind, its a matter of being selective about where windfarms are constructed. Horses for courses – there are plenty of consistently windy places in the world. No single power source is the solution anyway – obviously in Canada solar isn’t going to be able to deliver what you need. That’s why a mix of solar, wind, geothermal energy (of which I understand there is plenty in British Columbia), tidal, nuclear, gas, and – as a stopgap – smaller proportions of oil and coal are the way to go.

          It just seems so inefficient to harvest materials from the ground, deliver them to a power plant, burn them, survey for new resources, harvest them, deliver, wash, rinse repeat when we can just set up renewable power stations (a massively expensive initial outlay, granted), but then kick back and relax forever.

          And aside from climate change, there are so many environmental and health problems created by the mining, transportation and burning of fossil fuels. We have no choice but to take over vast tracts of land to grow our food and build our cities, do we really need to encroach on ecosystems further drilling for oil and creating mines when we have alternatives? Not to mention the runoffs into water systems, oil spills and air pollution.

          Finally, I am also an admirer of Darwin, but I don’t see natural selection as the best way to operate – but rather as the way we happened to develop. It is inefficient, cruel and vulnerable to dramatic environmental changes. In fact one of the more effective ways to counter intelligent design arguments is to point to design flaws in various species that never would have eventuated with a Creator. I would much prefer if human economies had some kind of “intelligent design” planning for the future!

          • Thomas Cotterill October 31, 2012 at 3:52 am

            Over the years, many thinkers have refuted the logic of Pascal’s (originally religious) wager, Max. I refer you to their writings. Perhaps the wager metaphor is not really the right way to look at the climate change issue. My position in this instance is simple. To take steps in case something turns out to be true implies the assumption that it might be true. If you do not have this assumption, why are you installing expensive precautionary measures? You have further assumed that the potential negative consequences of not taking those precautions outweigh the actual verifiable financial loss of installing those measures. This is the “when there is so much at stake, why risk it?” position. That there is a lot at stake is an assumption.

            Environmentalists and climate change champions are skilled in using the “look what’s at stake” tactic. Nothing will get you what you want faster than frightening the people. I am not a young man, Max. I remember the days before anyone ever thought of global warming. What were the leftists against in those halcyon days? They were against all the things now on the global warming alarmists’ hit list. The two lists are identical. The whole climate change setup smacks of political agenda.

            Anyhow, as I see it, the real heart of your argument is twofold: your faith in numerical superiority and your trust in the integrity of peer-reviewed science. More scientists support the idea of climate change than oppose it. Peer-reviewed studies in support of climate change outnumber equivalent studies that refute it. Therefore, it makes sense to take climate change seriously. (Here I must repeat something that I said last time. It is a big stretch from accepting climate change to accepting all the terrible things touted as its inevitable effects. Your reference to Bangladesh, for example, assumes that sea levels will rise and low-lying coastal areas will be flooded. When the Vikings prospered in a much warmer Greenland, Bangladesh was not under water.)

            The trouble with placing so much trust in speculative scientific research is the reality that modern science has lost much of its objectivity. There is a powerful leftist political agenda in play among scientists. Those who control the grant money and approve projects have enormous sway. These people tend to be of a particular political stripe (on the left) and harbour all sorts of prejudices and biases more appropriate to the political arena than the scientific one. If these powerful people believe in global warming (long a leftist “cause”), would it be good for your career to favourably peer-review (or write) a paper that does not? The pressure to conform is intense. Those opposed to the idea of climate change may have exaggerated the “Climategate” scandal, but there is enough evidence to suggest that certain influential scientists are playing games to satisfy ideological, rather than scientific, positions. Like many other sceptics, I am not willing to toss my standard of living on the say so of a few well-placed but prejudiced individuals. Furthermore, never forget Einstein’s cogent observation that human stupidity is infinite.

            As for the technology: We are talking at cross-purposes with regard to solar panels. I meant the big panel farms that feed energy into the power grid. You are (presumably) talking about small rooftop installations charging batteries in the basement. The current state of battery technology will not support storage of massive amounts of energy. Most of those household units require a change from using AC to using DC. Those with DC/AC converters cost even more and still put out only low voltage. This means rewiring your entire house and replacing ALL of your appliances. Batteries are expensive and short-lived. You need a lot of them. Bon chance, Max. I don’t want to play.

            Your wind farms located in “consistently windy places” solves nothing. Nowhere on Earth does the wind blow all the time. You still need backup. Your smorgasbord of energy sources is a recipe for inefficiency and staggeringly high energy bills. Environmentally concerned individuals are always cavalier in their attitude towards spending money on projects where there is no possibility of financial return. Look where that attitude got the Europeans and the beleaguered people of Ontario. This does matter. The price of energy affects the price of literally everything else. Governments must stay solvent.

            I don’t think many people will buy your idea that, after setting up our renewable power stations, we can “kick back and relax forever.” Solar panels have an estimated lifespan of 30 years in the UK. You do have to replace them. Wind turbines need maintenance just like a car. Gearboxes last only ten years. Life expectancy for a tower is about 25 years. Then you have to pay to take the thing down, and pay again to put another one up. Wind turbines haven’t been around long enough for us get to this costly procedure. Your initial cripplingly high costs precede further huge expenditures. Geothermal uses steam turbines like those in a nuclear power plant. They require constant maintenance and periodic replacement.

            Government regulations have largely addressed the environmental concerns surrounding extraction of fossil fuels. (Yes, we can still do more.) Canada is an excellent example here. Exhausted open pit mines are reshaped and replanted. Oil and gas projects must pass stringent environmental review processes to win approval.

            Finally, let us look at the notion of those “intelligent design” plans for human economies. Humans just cannot seem to get past the need to try this. We have seen the Soviet Union go down in flames. We have seen Communist China abandon its ruinous planned economy and go for capitalist zones. We have seen the debacle of Britain’s planned post WWII economy. We have seen the chronic stagnation of India’s former planned economy. How many times do we have to walk down this road before the light goes on that human beings are not smart enough to manage something as large and complex as an economy? The only system we have ever found that works reasonably well is free market capitalism. Yes, like Darwinian evolution, it can be cruel. Businesses fail, stock markets tumble, but you know: if you want to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs.

          • Max November 5, 2012 at 11:41 pm

            You have summed up my position quite accurately Thomas- I do believe that man-made climate change might be a reality, and that it may have catastrophic effects on our planet. I am basing this on what the experts are saying, and I certainly wouldn’t appreciate a climate scientist telling me how to write articles, so I don’t presume to tell them that climate change is bunk.

            And yes, I do trust in peer-reviewed science – its gotten our civilisation this far – and I think it unlikely that a massive groupthink political agenda has taken over nearly the entire scientific community – a community, I’m sure you know, that is guided by an ethos of intense skepticism. When somebody floats a theory, scientists try and disprove it from every angle possible, and if it survives, then the theory is accepted to be true. The scientific world does not get tricked or self-deceive easily.

            Nevertheless, there’s a chance you are right that environmentalist ideologies have taken over the world’s scientists and that climate change turns out to be bunk, or harmless even if it does turn out to be true. You appear to be supremely confident that this is the case, so I won’t argue it with you further.

            Solar panels – I was talking about big solar farms as well as rooftop panels. Your point was that we wouldn’t have power when the sun goes down, but all forms of solar store up power for use at night or on cloudy days.

            As for “kicking back and relaxing forever”, I was being a tad facetious. Sure, you have maintenance and replacement costs. But no more surveying, no more mining, no more transporting the fuel to the plant, and no more restoring damaged ecosystems. You can’t possibly compare the long-term costs of renewables with fossil fuels.

            In regard to intelligent design in economy, you’ve used the most extreme examples of completely controlled economies. Even the most free market economies in the world feature an enormous amount of control through reserve bank interest rates, subsidies, special taxes etc. And most the major shifts over a short space of time that have taken place in economies throughout history have been facilitated via governments, not the free market – particularly in terms of infrastructure with roads, railways, highways, energy, telecommunications etc.

            I’ve tried to keep my answers brief this time round, but you’re quite right, this debate has outgrown these comment boxes!

  3. Janet Mitchell October 29, 2012 at 1:33 am

    It’s always a good thing to consider alternate perspectives! Thanks for this post, which, although coming from a different perspective than my own, I found interesting and thought-provoking!

  4. Thomas Cotterill October 31, 2012 at 3:54 am

    Max, I’ve just been looking over this huge debate. I think we need another blog where all this can be put up as posts rather than squeezed into comment boxes!

  5. Thomas Cotterill November 8, 2012 at 9:00 am

    Whether or not the debate has outgrown the comment boxes, I have to come after you, Max!

    Max, I am a blogger. I write what I believe to be true and I do my best to check the facts supporting my opinions. Yet people are quite entitled to call my articles bunk if they do not agree. Some people do just that. In the same way, I am entitled to call climate change bunk if I do not see the validity of the claims some scientists are making. I am not being presumptuous. There are still two sides to the climate change debate, not just that of the majority. The battle is not yet over. You, however, seem supremely confident that the issue is settled once and for all. You are entitled to your seemingly blind faith in the peer review process and I am entitled to hold my more sceptical “let’s wait and see” position. To give just one example of my point here, think of all the medications withdrawn from the market after doctors realized they did more harm than good. The studies supporting the efficacy of those medications all passed peer review before the toxic stuff hit the pharmacy shelves. Peer review is a good idea. It is not a perfect idea.

    I am not trying to trash science as a whole. Yes, overall, science has been a huge benefit, but scientists are human beings and subject to all the usual failings of ego, ambition, status game-playing, and poor judgement. We must always keep this in mind. As I have already shown, peer-reviewed science is fallible, and in the case of climate change, there are indications of a compromised process.
    Sometimes the scientific minority have it right. Did you know that science once waged war on the notion of continental drift (now called plate tectonics)? This is from Wikipedia: “David Attenborough, who attended university in the second half of the 1940s, recounted an incident illustrating its lack of acceptance then: ‘I once asked one of my lecturers why he was not talking to us about continental drift and I was told, sneeringly, that if I could I prove there was a force that could move continents, then he might think about it. The idea was moonshine, I was informed.’” The peer-reviewed science that said continents could not move was wrong. The evidence was not all in yet. The evidence on climate change is not all in yet. Perhaps the climatologists will be singing a different tune in a few more years.

    As for the politics of science: I have not claimed that a “massive group think political agenda” has taken over all of science. My position is that most universities are havens for (often-extreme) leftist political ideas and positions, and therefore graduates quite naturally emerge with a strong bias. Scientists come from these politically slanted universities. When universities divest themselves of their political biases, I will be more willing to see their graduates (and scientists) as objective.

    Your claims for green energy technology remain as unrealistic as ever, Max. In spite of what you firmly believe, there is as yet no cost-effective way to store energy from solar panels (unless you count saving domestic hot water in an insulated tank). The Gigaom website (August 23, 2012) says, “Solar and wind farms only produce power when the sun is out or the wind is blowing, so they won’t be able to send electricity to the grid consistently in ways that fossil fuel power plants can.” Yes, there are many proposals (the quoted article has plans for some new – heavily subsidized – proposed plants) and things that might work somewhere down the road, but there is nothing currently usable on a large scale. Making hydrogen or storing heat in huge tanks filled with special salts are the most likely candidates for eventual success. Once again, you need two costly energy generation systems rather than just one. Moreover, what happens to the land if all that corrosive chemical salt gets loose?

    Consider this item from an Ontario government website. “First Light Solar Park – currently the largest-scale commercial solar farm operation in Canada – is a joint venture between SkyPower Corp. and SunEdison Canada. With more than 126,000 solar panels spanning across 90 acres, this farm is expected to generate over 10 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of renewable electricity in its first year — enough to power 1,000 households.”

    Read carefully. Ninety acres buried under panels to power just 1000 households! In 2006, Canada had 12.5 million households. To go solar would consume 1,125,000 acres (450,000 hectares or 4500 square kilometers)! If America (112 million households) went solar, it would consume over 10 million acres (15,625 square miles, or about the size of Switzerland). And you are worried about a few strip mines and fossil fuel transportation? Contrary to your claim, you certainly can compare the long-term costs of renewables with fossil fuels.

    Consider these costs detailed on thestar.com newspaper website: “SunEdison and SkyPower will get 42 cents for every kilowatt-hour of solar electricity they sell to the province, or seven times more than what we are used to paying on our monthly power bill.” Seven times the going rate. Is this realistic? Or, as I said in a prior comment, is it irresponsible? A lame excuse offered up to justify the colossal cost for this installation is solar would work best during heat waves when air-conditioning causes peak demand. Summer in Ontario lasts about two months.

    I will concede the point that my examples of planned economies are the worst-case scenarios. It is also true that free-market economies are now subject to extensive government oversight. We could argue on for months about whether this is good or bad, so let us allow that to go by. Your examples of significant technological shifts ignore the fact that in every case (except roads) government was only a facilitator. There was money to be made once the thing got going. (And roads generate tax revenues by promoting trade and commerce.) There is only money to be wasted with green energy projects. The technology is just not ready yet for widespread use. In a few decades, the situation may have changed completely. In the meantime, why ruin our prosperity with crippling energy bills when it is not necessary?

    If I could have said it all in fewer words, Max, I would have!

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