Ebony Hillbillies and the sounds of New York

Having been away for a week, I particularly appreciated hearing the sounds of the Ebony Hillbillies in the NYC Subway on my way to work on Friday (I don’t think the YouTube clip does them justice – try one of their albums instead).  They are part of a group of artist who grace MTA riders with their music, providing a cadence to the week and a lift to your commute.

Outside of buying one of their albums and giving them a few dollars, I don’t know how to thank these guys and tell them what a wonderful part of my week they are.  And it’s interesting, because peoeple who are much less talented I’m sure have gotten much more fame and fortune than they have.  So check them out and spread the word – they make wonderful music.

Would you like some petroleum with that Evian?

I’ve been running around with a factoid in my head, wondering if it’s true before I start repeating it. The factoid is that it takes a third of a bottle of petroleum to make and deliver a bottle of water.

I was told this about six months ago and hadn’t been able to check the facts until now. As far as I can tell, it is at most a small exaggeration. If you take manufacturing and delivery together, the number seems to be a quarter of a bottle according to Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute.

This is shocking, especially for a product that barely existed 10 years ago. Consumption of bottled water in the U.S. has increased fivefold in the last 10 years – from under 4 billion to more than 30 billion. Put another way, the average American has gone from having about a bottle of water once a month in 1997 to twice a week in 2007. That’s a seven-fold increase in a decade.

What’s crazy, of course, is that there’s a good substitute (tap water) out there, one with a huge infrastructure in place to distribute it right into our homes and places of work. This has all the makings of a habit we could all unlearn as quickly as we have learned, if the right message gets out.

Most of the vitriol that I’ve seen explaining why we shouldn’t drink bottled water centers on cost. It explains that bottled water can be 10,000 times more expensive than tap water to drink, and that bottled water costs more that gas (even at today’s high prices). I think these facts are interesting, but also “ho hum.” The mistake is that the anti-bottled water advocates are fighting a story with facts alone.

What’s missing from this approach is that a bottle of Evian (or Poland Spring, or Desani) is not the same thing as water from your tap. True, the quality of the water from a health perspective is essentially the same. But when you buy Evian, you’re buying the story of purity, the alps, clean mountain air, a story whose ultimate punchline is that at the most luxurious resorts, the poolboys come by and cool off the guests by spritzing them with spray bottles of…Evian. Add to that refrigeration, convenience, and habit and you understand why water and its offshoots are a big piece of Coca-Cola’s growth story these days (never mind that Dasani’s source is tap water).

So instead of dry facts that appeal to the head, why not fight a story with a story that hits people in the gut? How about taking something that’s on everyone’s mind these days – oil – and putting that at the center of the debate?

Making plastic bottles is oil-intensive: it took 17 million barrels of oil to make the 29 billion liters of bottled water Americans drank in 2006. That’s almost a full day’s worth of our nation’s annual oil consumption.

But I’m pretty sure even that idea won’t stick. So here’s my idea (and if anyone knows how I could get some donated billboard space near I-95 or Route 101 let me know):

Make a billboard with two bottles of water on a white background. The first bottle is filled with water, the second is one-quarter full of oil. Put an equals sign in between the bottles. Done.

(OK, it probably needs some snappy slogan like “Bring back the tap.” and a sentence saying, “This is how much oil it takes to bring you bottled water,” but I think all of that is incidental. The point is the powerful, simple, memorable image, one that’s worth talking about.)

If we want our advocacy to be as effective as the marketing that gets us to adopt bad habits, we have to be better at using marketers’ tools more effectively. Start with storytelling. I’m picking on bottled water but I’m sure you could come up with 10 other good examples. If you have some ideas, let me know.

Better yet, if you’re good with Photoshop, or know someone who is, ask them to make the image and send it to me, and I’ll use that to pitch the idea to Clear Channel Outdoor (who own all the billboards).

Notes for the skeptics:

1. According to the Earth Policy Institute, it takes 17 million barrels of oil to produce bottles for U.S. consumption. (Oddly, a recent NY Times article cited the Earth Policy Institute but quoted the number 1.5 million.)

2. If you are interested in this topic, check out the American Museum of Natural History water exhibit.

3. I was curious if I could get even close to Peter Gleick’s (of the Policy Institute) numbers using the information that’s being kicked around in the mainstream press. The bottom line is I could get to 10% as an oil:water ratio just for production of the bottles. I couldn’t get good information on transportation. Here’s the math for those who are interested:

a. 1 barrel of oil = 42 gallons = 158.987295 liters/barrel of oil

b. 17 million barrels of oil to produce water bottles = 2.7 billion liters of oil to produce 29 billion liters of water.

c. So just the production of the bottles means you could fill the bottle 10% with oil

4 in the morning

My summer cold, which I was sure would pass in 24 hours, is entering its second week. So, Nyquil notwithstanding, most mornings this week I’ve been awake at 4 in the morning. This feels like the worst of all times of day to be awake, doesn’t it?

Why is that? Where did I even get this idea about 4 in the morning? How did 4 in the morning get such a bad rap?

The slam poet Rives might have the answer. Check out his “4 in the morning” lyrical origami at the 2007 TED Conference. I don’t want to summarize any of it, for fear of ruining the effect. See it for yourself and you’ll see how Rives has the uncanny ability to take any topic and make it captivating, humerous and profound. His “mockingbirds” riff still gives me the chills. (check it out; it’s 4 minutes long)

Rives is just one of the speakers at the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Conference who defies easy classification. TED is a conference about the spread of ideas. It brings together some of the smartest people on the planet, and asks them to give 18 minute TED talks on their area of expertise. So the next time you’re thinking about watching a Seinfeld rerun on your DVR (“it’s just 22 minutes long,” you think), check out a TED talk instead.

I’m continually amazed by how transcendent the speakers are. Who could imagine being captivated by a biologist talking about the fastest movement in the animal world; a doctor and researcher explaining graphically why some countries are rich and others are poor; a brain scientist talking about her personal experience having a stroke; or computer scientist who modified a Wii remote control to make a $50 whiteboard (the market price is $2,500).

To me, TED is about the raw power of ideas, and of community, to change the world. It is also about how influence comes from the ability to communicate with people outside your field of expertise (see: the Obama campaign).

And listening to these speakers, one cannot help but think, “Wow, maybe I can do something totally fabulous that makes the world a different and better place.”

Tell a Friend (really)

It’s this blog’s one week anniversary. Already I’ve learned some things:

  1. Blogging takes about 3x more time than I expected
  2. I also like doing it more than I expected
  3. I think that finding out the series of random facts I need to make a post come together (e.g. what is U.S. aid to Pakistan? What’s going on with fuel economy legislation? What should I know about Maimonides?) will, over time, make me a smarter person
  4. I’m very interested in figuring out how to build an audience of interested readers

This last point is where you all come in. While I’m a big fan of shameless self(blog)-promotion (and have been doing a good deal of it), I’m looking forward to the day when I don’t have to update my Facebook profile letting people know that I have a new blog post.

Since there are many more of you than there are of me, you can play a part in this social experiment. Please pick one of the following (really, I need your help):

  1. If you’re a blogger/Facebook/MySpace/social media user, post a link to my blog somewhere in Web 2.0-land
  2. Think of one person you know and send them this email:

Dear So and So,

I’ve just started reading a blog about philanthropy and social change. Sasha’s a credible guy who works at Acumen Fund and I’m enjoying hearing what he has to say and thought you might too. The site is http://sashadichter.wordpress.com. No obligations, but thought you might want to check it out



(P.S. If you’re my mother, you’ll probably have to edit that note slightly)

Think about how much email you send out every day — don’t you think you could add this to the list without bending a friend out of shape? (If you post to a site, let me know where; he/she who generates the most traffic (per “site referrals” on WordPress) wins a prize.)

This could be fun. I promise to post about progress. Thank you!!