Plant a Tree, Invent the Future

Multi-trunk Magnolia sucks carbon.
Photo: Jim Gunshinan
We planted several young trees at our home in October, including a Mission Fig, a Japanese Crabapple, a multi-trunk Magnolia, and a Copper Beech. Planting in the fall gives the trees a chance to put down some roots before the winter so that, in the spring, they don't bloom spectacularly and then die from lack of a good grounding in the soil. We took out most of our lawn so that this spring we will use much less water. There is another fall activity that I keep putting off--changing our furnace filter. I think I am averse to climbing around in the attic where our air-handler resides, due to a fear of falling through the ceiling.

I feel good that those new trees are sucking carbon out of the air as we speak. But a recent talk at Berkeley Labs, where Home Energy's offices are located, made me think much bigger. Vinod Khosla is the founder of Khosla Ventures and earned his chops as the founding Chief Executive Officer of Sun Microsystems. Khosla Ventures exists to “assist great entrepreneurs determined to build companies with lasting significance."

Khosla, a tall, thin, 60-ish, short-grey-haired man who looks like he runs marathons, threw out some questions on a big screen to get us all interested. “What if more coal plants meant cleaner air? What if more driving meant less carbon? What if a million year crude oil production cycle were reduced to hours? What if engines were twice as efficient, cutting world oil consumption in half?" There are companies supported by Khosla Ventures that are making progress on those “what-ifs." For example, a company called Pax Streamline is working on turbine designs inspired by natural forms that will significantly increase the efficiency of wind turbines, power plants, and HVAC systems.

Living Homes is creating cheap, prefabricated, highly resource efficient and really swell looking homes. Khosla talked about making flue gases from coal-fired power plants into cement or fertilizer (that's how coal plants will someday clean the air).

The title of Khosla's talk was “Extrapolating the past or Inventing the Future." He thinks we need quantum leap changes in the way we design car engines, the fuel we use; how we manufacture cement, steel, and glass; and the way we build buildings. He spiced his talked with phrases such as “80% more efficient," “3- or 4-fold increase in storage capacity," and “100 miles per gallon diesel."


This radical way of thinking and imagining is more possible given 1) the Obama administration coming to Washington, 2) the cost in treasure and lives for our fossil fuel dependency, and 3) the crash in the financial sector and the stock market. The same old way of doings things (think incremental steps and short-term gain) isn't working anymore. Except for tree planting. That's always good, even if having a small effect on planetary atmosphere. And I like figs.

(Go here for a video of Khosla's talk. Then go plant a tree and invent the future.)

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