April 25th, 2013

Conservation Hobgoblins

Taking steps that reduce the negative impact each of us has on the earth–being environmentally sensitive–is unambiguously good. While some of us are surely more virtuous than others (as in most things), I often feel as though the questions and answers around environmental sensitivity are not as clear-cut as all that. Getting into discussions about it (such as with my mother) pulls out the Hobgoblins of Logic and makes me wish that some combination of environmentalists, scientists, economists, and database engineers (I’m looking at you, Wolfram|Alpha) would get together a create a computational database to help resolve certain tricky questions.

What are those tricky questions? Well, here are a few, divided by category:

Power conservation:

If you live in Texas, Ohio, Indiana or Pennsylvania, is a plug-in electric car worse for the environment than a hybrid-electric model that charges its battery from a gas-powered engine? Those four states are among the top users of coal for electricity generation–and the emissions from coal are worse than those from gasoline. (North Carolina and Georgia should also be on this list, since two of the three largest coal-powered power plants are in those two states.) So perhaps it is better not to increase electricity demands in those states by charging your “clean”, “zero emissions” vehicle with coal-powered electricity?

Meanwhile, all those electric cars use special lithium ion batteries. Those are technically recyclable… but the costs (and energy) involved seem disproportionate to the value, which means it’s less likely to happen. So the question is: if you buy a hybrid or all-electric car, but use it in ways that diminish the life of the battery (such as letting the car sit unused for extended periods of time), is it still better for the environment? Is a 50% reduction in battery life a fair trade-off for burning fewer fossil fuels?

And speaking of transportation challenges: The “locavore” movement sure does sound appealing. And for a city slicker it’s especially appealing, because the idea that one can get fresh food from farms just a short distance away, well: this has to be better, right? Better food, better for the environment? Except that there’s all these arguments and some evidence showing that maybe that isn’t true: that an old farm using an old (less fuel-efficient, less efficiently-packed) truck coming from traffic-congested nearby areas might use more energy than a modern transportation network that ships food by plane or train long distances with great efficiency. So, which is it, local or not? And how are we supposed to know, product by product?

Water conservation:

If you live in the water-deprived Southwestern United States, and you go to the grocery store, is it better to buy the bags of greens that have been pre-washed or the greens you bring home and wash yourselves? Assuming the plastic levels are equal (since you would likely bag your unwashed greens before taking them home), what is the environmental impact difference, factoring in water and power usage?

A variant of this question is relevant here in the water-plentiful New York. Last year, some of the greens and other vegetables we received from the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group to which we belonged were so fresh-from-the-farm dirty that it took significant time under the sink to clean them. (The CSA in this case is a group that buys organic produce from some farms in Long Island; those farms bring their goods directly to a central distribution point in the neighborhood.) Is it generally better to buy these vegetables even if it takes more water to wash them, then to buy the more industrially produced organic–but pre-washed–greens at the grocery?

We are devoted to reusable containers for food storage. We buy good quality ones that can be reused many, many times, and we rarely microwave them (so they tend to last longer). So even though it seems more virtuous to use these than, say, a ziploc bag … can I take it for granted that the water required to wash them is a better use of resources than throwing out the bag? And what kind of recycling processes do we need to have in place before that equation may not be true?

Pesticides, etc.:

It’s easy to scare the bejeezus out of people about pesticides in food. (“Thanks,” Environmental Working Group!) How about telling us more info about the pesticide residues? If I peel the apple, does that get rid of it? If the strawberries are well-washed, does that get rid of it? Or are we talking about leached-into-the-food residue here? How would you balance the organics-cost-more vs. needing-to-feed-a-family dynamic?

Let’s assume that money is actually an issue. If buying organic groceries reduces my available funds for charitable donations by 15%–charity that might be given to help the hungry–is this still worth the trade-off? That is, is the environmental impact of organic produce so powerful that it can have that kind of offset?

I could probably go on. (And on.) Is the question about charitable gifts a red herring? Possibly. But overall these are very real problems–for which we are mostly unequipped to come up with genuinely logical answers. If environmentalism is to succeed–I mean, to really succeed in reshaping behavior in the modern world–someone is going to have to tackle these and other questions, probably state by state and city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood. Personalized environmental audits: the wave of the future.

April 18th, 2013

Arts & Elitism

There was an article in the New York Times on April 14th titled “Is It Art, or Is It Just Real Estate?” But the URL for the article reveals a slightly different view of the content: after the NYT’s domain name, and the relevant date and section folders, comes “the-importance-of-art-in-high-end-condo-developments.html”. That seems a more accurate summary.

Let us not make too much of the possible conflict between reporters, headline writers, and web coders, interesting though that is. Instead, I think it is important for those of us working in the arts (and especially in arts communications) to be aware of the implicit messages this article and others like it may convey to different audiences, and how we can learn from it.

So art is being used to sell very expensive condominium apartments. Who cares? There is nothing surprising about this: art has been used as a symbol of wealth and status for hundreds of years. Real estate developers can afford and surely crave being seen as “elite,” and art can be one component of that. The danger is when that message starts to carry over to perceptions of arts organizations–to how people view non-profit institutions dedicated to serving the public by presenting art.

Which leads to one simple, fundamental question: Is it ok for an arts organization to be seen as “elite”? Maybe.

If an organization can own the use of “elite” and apply it to the arts, to convey that what it has to offer is of the highest quality, that’s great. If the label “elite” evokes for people that the experience they will have at an institution is a great one, that’s terrific too. Quality surely matters to audiences, which is why (despite other institutional considerations and concerns) blockbuster exhibitions of famous art and artists tend to do well, even with admission fees attached. People want to see great art and they understand when this is what is being offered.

On the other hand, if that sense of elitism makes people perceive that an institution is really only catering to the interests of the wealthy, that’s bad. (Isn’t that self-evident?) And if people draw a connection between an institution being “elite” and and limitations on accessibility–essentially, that one must be wealthy to have access to an institution’s art experiences–that is worse.

Few institutions can afford (literally and figuratively) to carry the wrong badge of elitism, and this is an area of constant tension. Certainly an organization should celebrate those whose support, financial and otherwise, helps ensure its ability to operate. Philanthropy has been fundamental to the success and health of America’s arts institutions; if that philanthropy comes from those who sell real estate, or art, or both, that’s fine. Celebrate the right kind of elitism, the kind that encourages participation, and marry that to a commitment to accessibility, and your audiences will know and should respond in kind.

March 24th, 2013

Pascal’s Lamb

In honor of Passover, and for the various (Jewish) math nerds out there, I present: Pascal’s Lamb.

Lambs, following the pattern of Pascal's Triangle

 

Confused? Don’t be:

You’re welcome, and chag sameach.

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March 10th, 2013

Of Tails and Dogs

Periodically, I hear myself saying to clients sentences such as “I think we need to remember that the tail shouldn’t wag the dog. The decision you need to make should be driven primarily by mission, and not just by the communications implications.”

That I need to say this at all is understandable. Most of my clients are public organizations, institutions that rely on networks of donors and audiences for support and that thrive based on wide participation. Decisions that risk alienating those audiences and supporters are tough to confront, no matter how necessary they may be.

While communications concerns and implications are often (rightly) invoked at the front end of many decision-making processes, in many instances the discussions about external messaging and impact risk taking over the entire process. Good consultants can recognize this early enough and try to help the client shift gears.

Much more troubling are the opposite scenarios, where there seems to have been little or no attention paid to communications processes or decisions at all. If you’re reading this and thinking: oh, that’s because a terrible decision gets made and then communications folks have to figure out how to “sell” it publicly, you would be … wrong.

Yes, leaving the communications team out can definitely be a problem. Trying to figure out how to create a communications strategy or coherent messages for what may be very complex and multi-layered decisions is not always easy. However: that’s the job–and good communications professionals can handle this.

And in an age of digital communications, it should be obvious that leaders cannot afford (literally and figuratively) not to give their communications team a role and opportunity for input. (Does this argument even need to be backstopped with references? Pick up the newspaper or look at any business blog and it is easy to find examples of communications failures that stem from bigger leadership failures.)

But a little scraping away at the surface of these situations often reveals poor internal communications up to and through whatever the present (external) crisis might be: the questions for staff, trustees, or external constituencies may be poorly articulated, while the rationale for confronting a problem may be muddled and the ramifications of any decision left unclear. Not to mention that poor leadership often empowers as decision-makers those who are normally just one set of stakeholders among many.

In other words: the real problem is that a lack of attention to communications issues tends to reflect a lack of leadership entirely. And that is pretty much the definition of a crisis.