Guest blogger - Saul Griffith's "Energy Literacy Series"

I'm very happy to introduce our new guest blogger, Saul Griffith. He's a friend and a long time contributor to MAKE, where his Making Trouble column and Howtoons comics are reader favorites. A visit to Saul's workshop is a mind-boggling treat -- home-made bikes, giant kites, modded dune buggies, cheap eyeglass making machines, hand-held human-powered generators, and other wondrous prototype devices are all over the place. He comes closer to being a real-life Professor from Gilligan's Island than anyone I know. Saul was named a McArthur Fellow in 2007.

I'm looking forward to what Saul writes for Boing Boing over the next two weeks. I promise it will be very interesting. -- Mark


I'm guest blogging at Boing Boing! I'm excited, not only because I've long been a fan, but also because you, as readers here, are out there at the edge thinking about the future and how to build it and participate in it.

I'm failing at finishing a book (with my colleague Jim McBride who will hopefully join me in the postings) that we've been writing on climate and energy issues for what seems like forever.  As we are approaching the Copenhagen UN Climate Change conference ( on December 7th, I thought I may as well summarize the contents of my book in a 12(ish)-part series here at Boing Boing.  Sadly it already appears the world has given up hope on reaching any sort of agreement on targets at Copenhagen, which is unfortunate, but lucky for me, because the entire book is about how you might choose such a target, and how you would plan appropriate responses, personally, locally, nationally, and globally. It also will help you call bull$#!+ on people at dinner parties who espouse some fantastic new perpetual motion machine.

If you want to just read it in a book you can wait for us to get our act together, squint at pieces at, or simply read David J.C. MacKay's wonderful "Sustainability without the hot air" instead, as he is more highly functional than myself, and already got his book covering similar material for the UK out there and published.

Before the climate change deniers and skeptics run to their keyboards to write long-winded diatribes in the comments section, I'll try to ward you off by saying that you can just consider the posts as a thought experiment.  "If this climate stuff were actually true in some parallel universe, what could we do to address the problem, and what might the resultant world look like?"

Naturally a lot of that is going to be pretty serious stuff with lots of graphs and charts. I'll do my best to make the graphs and charts pretty (thanks to Kirk Von Rohr), but as that's not enough to compensate for the seriousness of the matter, I'll also be posting about the things I'm working on at, passionate about, or random things that are interesting to me right now. A lot of that will be energy generation technology stuff, bicycles, programmable matter and computational geometry, origami, cool ways to make things, and science education.

I'm an enormous fan of the engineering methodology of figuring out your goal or target, then working backwards from there to figure out what you have to do to achieve that goal. That's the basic structure of the argument. I'm also a big believer in energy literacy and having more people really understanding what's up and what the options are. So briefly, here's an outline (and i reserve the right to change my mind about the order in coming days) of the Energy Literacy series here at Boing Boing. Hopefully it will give you a much deeper understanding of what's behind the scenes and headlines of the Copenhagen conference, and just how far the public conversation about energy is from the public's concept of climate targets.

1. Energy, Power, Carbon, population. (entropy, exergy, the whole 9 yards). A primer on all of the key definitions and buzzwords and players with an emphasis on giving an intuitive understanding of the problem to non number nerds.

2. Personal Energy Use. (or How to obsessively compulsively measure the level of your own energy use)
a. Flying.
b. Driving.
c. Heating & Cooling.
d. Eating.
e. Stuff.
f. Society. (your tax dollars at work).

3. Global Energy Use demographics. (Or how to put your lifestyle into the larger global context, this is a global challenge after all)
US, current, historical.
Global, current, historical.
Breakdown per capita and by nation.

4. The need for a global climate target.
a. how might you choose that target?
b. climate models. scenarios. impact studies.
c. why +2 degrees celsius seems to be the target.
d. two ways of looking at climate. % reductions. total carbon left to burn.

5. Where can you get the power (energy) from that is not carbon based?
a. global energy balance.
b. solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, wave, nuclear, etc.
c. power density of the different options in terms of land. The nation of Renewistan.
d. how much industrial effort would that actually take?

6. By now you should have an idea of how challenging this energy supply game is, and why, perhaps, it's unlikely that we should imagine an infinite energy future. How do you live "conscious" of this. What is a lifestyle that "adds up?" My New lifestyle: Living knowing what I know now. (Or how can i figure out how to live the way I'd like everyone to live)
Heating / cooling.
Stuff. (Heirloom products)
Society. (A hair-brained argument for not paying your taxes)

7. Other ideas, Crazy ideas, Why efficiency is rarely what people call it, Get out of jail free cards and other optimistic hype.

8. Climate change can be seen as an aesthetic issue. We are designing the world we live in. How do we do that well? What could it look like?

Oh yeah, there'll be data too. I love data.

And because we all love images I can't resist posting this drawing by the son of a friend of a friend's father, Marco Ahluwalia, who I think is 9 and lives in Jakarta (so much for fact checking). We'll need inventors like him, and the optimism and spirit inherent in his master plan.

Bio: Saul Griffith is an inventor and entrepreneur. He did his PhD at MIT in programmable matter, exploring the relationship between bits and atoms, or information and materials. Since leaving MIT, he has co-founded a number of technology companies including,,,, and For the past 3-4 years he has focussed all of his efforts on energy issues relating to climate change, including working on high-altitude wind power at Makani Power, and starting, a website for understanding and quantifying personal energy use. Most recently, he has formed with Jack Bachrach and Jim McBride to focus on energy solutions, working on new generation technologies, and the design and engineering of low-energy solutions to life's high-energy consumption products and services. For sanity, and to satisfy his passion for education in science, he works on with Nick and Ingrid Dragotta. Howtoons are comics with hands-on science and engineering projects embedded in illustrated adventures. Saul spends a portion of his time as an EIR at learning about the venture capital business and advising on their clean-tech portfolio. Saul blogs when prodded at


  1. Before the climate change deniers and skeptics run to their keyboards

    Unfortunately, they’ve learned to work outside the linear time paradigm.

    1. it’s true, then, as i feared. the same bad arguments can be in a potentially unlimited number of places at once….

  2. I sincerely hope this is not going to end up being the old carbon-reduction VS geo-engineering debate.

    Because both sides fail:

    If we turned off every single carbon producing piece of machinery, carbon would continue to be released into the atmosphere by the feedback loops we have created already (for example the perma-frost melting). Yet this is besides the point because the likelihood that we will be able to reduce carbon emissions in any significant way is nil. Not only do we have a country filled with people whose idea of reducing energy consumption is buying a Prius or turning off the lights more often (if that even), but we also have massive developing nations who primarily rely on coal and oil for cheap energy to power their rapidly growing economies.

    Carbon reduction will take place over a couple of hundred years once alternate energy sources are the norm and forests can catch up with our mess. In other words, global warming WILL happen, NO MATTER WHAT (luckily GW promotes plant growth which will accelerate the carbon absorption).

    Geo-engineering is even stupider since most of the ideas are completely hypothetical, and only address one aspect of GW without dealing with the other aspects. It is a band-aid solution, not a core solution. Furthermore, some of the side effects of many of these geo-engineering solutions are WORSE than the effects of global warming. Dumping salt in the oceans? Cycling ocean temperatures where they don’t normally mix? Polluting the skies to block out sunlight? Isn’t anyone worried at the side-effects of this?

    I am not advocating doing nothing though. I am advocating devoting our time and resources to actually solving problems, not hypothesizing about ideal solutions that could never happen. We can’t predict what exactly will happen due to GW. All the models agree that average temperatures go up, but they don’t agree on what that will do. Droughts in some places, monsoons in others. Floods here, ice age there. They are all over the place.

    So we have to deal with the problems as they come, or the problems we are absolutely certain will come about. Rising sea levels is likely no matter what, so we should build sea walls. Environmental refugees are likely no matter what, so we should build decent long-term shelters. Agricultural collapse due to changing weather and environments is likely no matter what, so we should develop urban vertical farm technology.

    Way too much time and money is being wasted on efforts which will go nowhere. Carbon is important, but we CANT DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT in the short term. The best we can do is move completely to clean energy sources like nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, etc and then wait a century or two for the trees to clean it up (perhaps bio-engineer the trees to be better at absorbing carbon). Otherwise we are just fooling ourselves into thinking we are doing something.

  3. Welcome Saul! I heard the podcast of your Long Now speech & was intrigued, will be interested to see what you’ve got to say here.

  4. SG, there is no doubt that you continue to improve, grow, and teach. Good on you, and look forward to your guest postings here~!


  5. Okay, speaking as a skeptic I’ll grant you that AGW “might be real” and suggest my personal contribution.

    I promise to take no flights on private jets. Not only this year, but for the rest of my life.

    This should reduce my carbon footprint to several score tons per year less than Al Gore, Leo DiCaprio, Barbra Streisand and all the other members of the Let’s Make The Little People Conserve So I Don’t Have To Society.

    More public advocates living the Dennis Kuchinich rather than the Streisand lifestyle would do the AGW movement a world of good.

  6. I’m an AGW skeptic (I’ll pause while you boo) but think there could be common ground here. Skeptics are generally in favor of reducing fossil fuel usage, especially from foreign sources. Foreign sources are generally greater polluters and you have to transport the fuel thousands of miles at risk of oil spills. The US hasn’t built a new refinery since the Ford administration- I think there’s been some environmental advances since 1975 that could be put into new refineries- and old pipes/tanks/systems means less efficiency/capacity/safety and a greater environmental impact. Would energy producers prefer to work in the US instead of risking terrorism or another Chavez seizing their property? You betcha!

    We need a new electric grid, both for efficiency and because there are going to be renewable sources that aren’t close to the people using the energy (no hydro power in Iowa and no solar in Seattle). Skeptics will sign off on this because it makes sense and creates jobs (work in cyber terrorism or EMP attacks to make sure).

    Europe has more diesel cars than the US because we tax all diesel at commercial trucker rates. Diesel engines are more fuel efficient and pollute less. The big environmental advantage is that biodiesel is far superior to ethanol. Ethanol costs more energy to make than it contains, meaning a carbon loss for every gallon. It’s also leading to food shortages worldwide and we simply can’t plant enough corn to supply what the US would need. The diesel engine, however, was designed to run on peanut oil. It was plugged into farm machinery (combines, hay balers, etc) and the farmer would grow peanuts to enrich his soil. After the oil was squeezed out, farm animals ate the rest. Biodiesel would help us hang on until we develop a carbon-free energy chain.

    You can get much of what you want if you stop treating skeptics like morons and heretics. Afterwards, you go can back for more.

    1. Orwellian: Boo! Hiss! Actually, you make good points (in contrast to Notary Sojac’s rather tired sniping). A lot of the advantages of pushing renewables, a ‘Green New Deal’, energy efficiency-measures etc. make sense regardless of whether or not you’re convinced by the evidence for global warming. Those of us who are so convinced will need to find plenty of these arguments, perhaps most urgently in the US in preparation for the upcoming cap & trade bill.

      Of course, those kind of arguments will only take us so far: they’re unlikely to be persuasive when arguing for huge financial transfers to the developing countries worst-affected by climate change, for example.

  7. Always glad to see more discussion on these subjects. Welcome.

    Between the AGW deniers, GW deniers, peak oil deniers, the ones who think an energy starved collapse of society is a good thing and those who just don’t care at all, I sometimes wonder how many people are left who want to see or care about any changes at all. Hopefully enough.

  8. I’m an AGW skeptic who will gladly make common cause with anyone who wants to help America develop an ample and growing supply of reliable energy to wean us off dependence on imported oil.

    Unfortunately this puts me at odds with those who don’t like nuclear, don’t like coal, don’t like dams, and think that windmills spoil the view from their beachfront estates. So the common ground is rather scant….

Comments are closed.