Green Malls, SUVs, and Mansions? What’s Up With That?

Tracey Schelmetic at ThomasNet Green & Clean today throws some much-needed cold water in the face of affluent consumers who think they are helping the environment by driving a hybrid SUV or building a 5,000-square-foot “green” house:

The Ford Escape Hybrid, considered the most fuel efficient hybrid SUV on the market, gets about 32 mpg combined. This is about the same as a Toyota Yaris with a traditional engine, and far below the efficiency of a Honda Civic Hybrid, which gets 42 mpg combined.

She also takes a swipe at Whole Foods, along with some comments that will please Trader Joe’s fans:

Sitting in opposition to Whole Foods is more environmentally minded chain Trader Joe’s, a company preferred by many eco-minded shoppers. Keeping an eye on the most important factor in a green business – building size – Trader Joe’s operates out of far smaller buildings. Stores tend to average between 8,000 and 12,000 square feet, compared to Whole Foods average store size of 50,000 to 80,000 square feet. Trader Joe’s also pledged to eliminate all GM foods from its shelves in 2001, and by next year will sell no seafood products that are not sustainably sourced.

AB — 2 August 2011

How to Talk About Climate Change

The aspect of the climate change controversy (and other issues in public discourse) that intrigues me most of all is the ability of people on opposite sides to talk past each other. I say it intrigues me, but it also saddens me in a sense, as I value dialogue, engagement, and listening.

Partisan rhetoric seems designed to paint the other side as extremist and wicked. The rhetor seems willing to present an argument in a one-sided, deceptive manner so as to influence public sentiment and achieve a political agenda.

In the wrangling over climate change, the parties throw around terms like “anti-science,” “hoax,” “deniers,” “pseudo-science,” junk science,” and “anti-business,” trigger words that demonize the other side.

So I enjoyed reading Will J. Grant and Rod Lamberts’ post today over at The Conversation, “Who’s afraid of big, bad coal? Al Gore’s ‘climate reality’ is a pointless fairytale.” Grant and Lamberts’ post is a commentary on Gore’s new Climate Reality Project. They acknowledge that Gore’s project is “the kind of campaign that will do a lot for those who want to do something about climate change,” but feel that it will do “little for anyone else.” Their question is, “Where is the mechanism here that will finally get the unconverted or the hostile to agree with the need to take action on climate change?”

What most interested me was their criticism of Gore’s promotional video, in which he accuses “Big Oil” and “Big Coal” of evil manipulations. This is ridiculous, Grant and Lamberts write:

Those who got into the coal and oil industries did so for the simple goal of making a profit by providing us with the energy we need for the modern economy. They didn’t do it to be evil. They don’t want to destroy the world. They are not the nefarious oligarchs that so many would have you believe.

Yes, we now know that the carbon pollution produced by the coal and oil industries is a big problem for society. We all need to wean ourselves off such carbon intensive energy.

But we’re not going to do it by misrepresenting people’s intentions and calling them names. We’re not going to do it by punishing people who acted in good faith.

We’re only going to convince people to change by lining up their profit motive with everyone’s need for a low-carbon economy.

Seems like the kind of open, refreshing approach that can lead to actual dialogue over critical issues.

AB — 19 July 2011

When Green Gets Silly — Solar Bikinis and Eco-Bottles

Solar bikiniA long time ago, I stopped telling people that I write about “green” issues (now I say “environmental”), because of just the sort of silliness David Sims highlights in today’s article at ThomasNet Green & Clean, “Green Products We Don’t Need — Solar Bikinis? Eco-Plastic Bottles?

Sims writes,

Somehow we don’t think surveying a garbage dump’s worth of Poland Spring plastic water bottles with 30 percent less plastic and paper warms the hearts of diehard greenies. It’s a bit like marketing Big Macs to vegetarians by saying they’re now 30 percent soybean and only 70 percent meat.

AB — 1 July 2011

Are Speculative Bubbles Ever a Good Thing?

Over at Bubbleconomics, I wrote recently about the effect of speculative bubbles on innovation — see “Speculative Bubbles: Good for Innovation?

For a long time, I’ve thought that the so-called “Internet Bubble” from the 1990s was actually a good thing in many ways in that it sparked technology and business-model innovation and trained a generation in a new way of thinking about business and communication. Networking pioneer Bob Metcalfe agrees with me, as he says in a 2011 presentation:

We saw from the many Internet Era bubbles that investment, speculation, inflation, competition, and collapse are tools of innovators against the status quo. Bubbles accelerate technological innovation.

AB — 6 June 2011

The Coming Energy Internet

Over at ThomasNet Green & Clean, I’ve posted “Is an ‘Energy Internet’ Emerging?” I’ve included some insights from networking pioneer Bob Metcalfe, also Thomas L. Friedman and Jeremy Rifkin, as well as my own thinking about the increasingly networked energy grid.

In an email conversation, Metcalfe acknowledged to me that “energy can be viewed as a thermodynamics problem or a government policy problem,” but he thinks that ultimately  “it’s best instead to view energy as a networking problem.”

In a presentation, he gives a bit of history:

“While building Internet 1.0, the Arpanet,” during the 1970s, Metcalfe says in his presentation, “I remember this clearly, we did not say that our goal was YouTube.” And yet, “video is most of what the Internet now carries.”

So, he asks,

What will be energy’s YouTubes?

AB — 5 June 2011

SEO Angst: The Secret of Search Engine Optimization

Many who manage web sites invest great effort and expense in search engine optimization (SEO), the practice of optimizing the content and format of a site and its pages so as to attract the most search engine traffic.

SEO is important to online businesses, because qualified web traffic can translate into eyeballs (if a site sells advertising) or sales (if it’s an e-commerce site) or potential clients (if the site is run by, say, a consulting firm).

I’ve been around the practice of SEO for about 15 years (before it was even called SEO), and I’ve come to believe in a central truth about it:

If you want search engine traffic, the first thing you have to do is deserve it.

This means providing honest, substantive content.

This also means offering well-executed services and a customer experience that serves the visitor well.

This concept is approximately equivalent to customer-centeredness in marketing or user-centered design in software development. A business has to make a profit, try to grow, strive for market share — but business success in the long term is hard to come by without a strong customer focus, or user focus in the case of web traffic.

By all means, optimize your site for search engine traffic, but be aware that few businesses make it for very long by tricking Google.

Do what you can to direct web traffic to your site, but make sure you deserve it.

AB — 5 May 2011

New SEO Strategy: Turn Your Customers Into Enemies

Most marketers would say that good strategy requires you to treat your customers well — turn them into raving fans and they will recommend you to friends and family. In the online world, good reviews and links from grateful customers will contribute to good search-engine optimization (SEO), that much-sought collection of factors that results in high rankings in search engines.

But according to a Nov. 26, 2010, article by David Segal in the New York Times, one online entrepreneur has turned conventional wisdom on its head. His solution: Generate good SEO by creating enemies instead of fans. Enraged customers that you have ripped off and abused will fill Internet consumer web sites with negative reviews that will actually increase your ranking in Google searches. (See “A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web” for the full astonishing story.)

I would hate to contribute to the success of the retailer profiled in Segal’s article, so I’m not going to name him or his site. This SEO contrarian runs an e-commerce business selling designer eyeglasses. Segal interviewed one of his customers who says that when she complained and tried to get her money back after paying for fake designer frames, she received threats of sexual violence, phony legal documents, harassing phone calls, and a threatening email with a photo of the building where she lives and an “I am watching you” message.

Evidently, though, the marketer in question uses this kind of customer abuse as an SEO strategy. When he received many complaints on one consumer site, he posted this message in response:

Hello, My name is ********* with *********.com I just wanted to let you know that the more replies you people post the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement Its a new proven to work strategy when you post all kinds of negative it always turns positive. I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven.. Thanks so very much for your continued effort. I really appreciate it.

This retailers’s create-enemies strategy is carefully crafted. It has to be, or he would lose his credit card merchant accounts. Segal, who interviewed the retailer, relates:

The only real limit on his antics is imposed by Visa and MasterCard. If too many customers successfully dispute charges in a given month, he can be tossed out of their networks, he says. Precisely how many of these charge-backs is too many is one of the few business subjects that Mr. ********* deems off the record, but suffice it to say he tracks that figure carefully and dials down the animus if he’s nearing his limit. Until the next month arrives, when he dials it back up again.

Has this retailer’s recent notoriety reduced his Google rankings? Evidently not. A search today on “lafont designer eyeglasses” reveals the following rankings:

Google search on 'lafont designer eyeglasses'


The listing for the master of dysfunctional customer relations is third in organic search results.

Building a business by enraging your customers is exhausting work, Segal learned from his interview with the retailer:

Mr. ********* typically works from about 10 a.m. until 5 the next morning, spending much of that time feuding with unhappy customers. He describes this grueling regimen of confrontation with a heaviness that is enough to make you want to give him a hug.

“I’m sure this is taking a toll on my health,” he complains. “I probably won’t live as long as you.”

One can only hope.

— AB, 27 Nov. 2010

Why People Don’t Believe Scientists Even When There Is ‘Consensus’

An interesting study, soon to appear in the Journal of Risk Research, by Yale law professor Dan M. Kahan and colleagues, suggests that people tend to disbelieve scientists whose cultural values are different than theirs.

I’m not able to determine when this study will be published, but you can find an abstract at this link, and I was able to download a preliminary version of the whole article in PDF by clicking on the link on that page that says “One-Click Download.”

These conclusions shed light on the debate over anthropogenic climate change, Kahan tells Science Daily (“Why ‘Scientific Consensus’ Fails to Persuade“):

We know from previous research that people with individualistic values, who have a strong attachment to commerce and industry, tend to be skeptical of claimed environmental risks, while people with egalitarian values, who resent economic inequality, tend to believe that commerce and industry harms the environment.

(For more on the climate-change controversy, see my previous entry, “John Abraham’s Point-by-Point Rebuttal of Climate-Skeptic Monckton.”

Kahan and colleagues based their study on the theory of the cultural cognition of risk. In his paper, Kahan says this theory “posits a collection of psychological mechanisms that dispose individuals selectively to credit or dismiss evidence of risk in patterns that fit values they share with others.”

The researchers surveyed a representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adults. They divided this sample into groups with opposite cultural worldviews, some favoring hierarchy and individualism, the others favoring egalitarianism and communitarianism.

They surveyed the respondents to determine their beliefs about what in fact is the scientific consensus on issues of climate change, disposal of nuclear waste, and concealed handguns, with particular focus on the associated levels of risk in each of those areas. Various statements were attributed to fictional personas portrayed as authors of books on these various issues. Respondents were asked to judge whether each author is really an expert or not.

Analysis of the results on the climate-change issue revealed that:

Disagreement was sharp among individuals identified (through median splits along both dimensions of cultural worldview) as “hierarchical individualists,” on the one hand, and “egalitarian communitarians,” on the other. Solid majorities of egalitarian communitarians perceived that most expert scientists agree that global warming is occurring (78%) and that it has an anthropogenic source (68%). In contrast, 56% of hierarchical individualists believe that scientists are divided, and another 25% (as opposed to 2% for egalitarian communitarians) that most expert scientists disagree that global temperatures are increas-ing. Likewise, a majority of hierarchical individualists, 55%, believed that most expert scientists are divided on whether humans are causing global warming, with another 32% perceiving that most expert scientists disagree with this conclusion.

The study revealed similar results around the issues of geologic isolation of nuclear wastes and concealed-carry laws.

So should we conclude that people are going to believe what they want to believe, and that’s all there is to it? The authors make an interesting statement about the implications for public presentation of scientific findings:

It is not enough to assure that scientifically sound information — including evidence of what scientists themselves believe — is widely disseminated: cultural cognition strongly motivates individuals — of all worldviews — to recognize such information as sound in a selective pattern that reinforces their cultural predispositions. To overcome this effect, communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of information.

The report suggests some ways that cultural meaning might be considered in communicating with the public. One such strategy is what the authors call narrative framing:

Individuals tend to assimilate information by fitting it to pre-existing narrative templates or schemes that invest the information with meaning. The elements of these narrative templates — the identity of the stock heroes and villains, the nature of their dramatic struggles, and the moral stakes of their engagement with one another — vary in identifiable and recurring ways across cultural groups. By crafting messages to evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences, risk communicators can help to assure that the content of the information they are imparting receives considered attention across diverse cultural groups.

AB — 24 Sept. 2010

‘Quriosity’ Is Dead – Long Live ‘A Thinking Person’

Readers of will be interested to learn that I have sold that domain (someone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse). As a result, I have transferred all Quriosity content to the new domain and blog

You’ll be glad to know that A Thinking Person will continue to publish the same brilliant commentary you have come to expect from Quriosity.

The new RSS feed address for A Thinking Person is .

AB — 14 September 2010