Small Technologies: The Millions Interviews Todd Myers

October 14, 2022 | 1 book mentioned 7 min read

The latest book, Time to Think Small: How Nimble Environmental Technologies Can Solve the Planet’s Biggest Problems, from Todd Myers, the director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center, is a call to climate action that surveys the ways that smartphones and other technologies can help the fight against climate change.

The book—which has been praised by environmentalists, business executives, and members of Congress alike—explores a variety of new technologies that can help the environment, such as Buoy, a device that tracks water usage and can remotely shut off water systems, to SeaBins, which float in marinas and have collected millions of pounds of trash.

The Millions caught up with Myers to chat about Time to Think Small, the future of the environmental movement, and what gives him hope for the future.

The Millions: You’ve spent two decades working on environmental policy, you’ve worked to save endangered species, and you have a tech background. How did all of that come together in Time to Think Small?

Todd Myers: I wrote the book to address some of the problems with environmental policy that prevent us from solving important problems like ocean plastic, climate change, and species protection. My first book, Eco-Fads, highlighted the incentives that many politicians have to choose policies that look good rather than what is most effective. I saw this problem first-hand working at a state environmental agency, but I didn’t know how to fix it.

Over the past decade I began to notice people doing amazing things using small technologies like smart thermostats, smartphones, and a fake sea turtle egg used to fight poachers. Soon, I saw examples across the globe—from Fiji to Ghana and Canada. Problems that resisted government solutions, like reducing ocean plastic, were being attacked by innovators who saw that the barriers to act had been virtually eliminated. Small technology multiplied their efforts, so just a few people could be extremely effective.

Writing the book was so fun because I got to talk to people who were innovating in very clever ways and making a real difference. There were many days where I was frustrated by bleak political news and then I’d chat with someone in the U.K. about a project to reduce deforestation and it was so energizing. I want to share that optimism with others and let them know that we don’t have to outsource environmental problems to politicians—we can act ourselves.

The Millions: What is the future of the environmental movement as you see it? What needs to happen and what do you think will happen as people look to combat climate change?

Todd Myers: Conservation technology has the power to democratize environmentalism, engaging the contributions of millions of people who would like to help the environment but don’t feel like they have the time or knowledge. By reducing barriers to information and action, small technologies multiply the power of many small actions, allowing environmentalism to expand far beyond the “movement” to everyday actions.

For example, electrical generation during evening hours is not only the most expensive, it is the most carbon intensive. Smart thermostats that use artificial intelligence help homeowners shift their energy use outside this period, keeping a home or apartment comfortable without someone having to spend time thinking about it. That reduces costs and cuts CO2 emissions.

We just witnessed the power of engaging people with simple technologies. This summer, when California was facing an energy shortage one evening, utilities sent text messages to customers asking them to turn off unnecessary appliances and energy use immediately dropped. That simple act helped prevent blackouts. Smart thermostats and other energy technologies available to consumers are far more sophisticated and can help reduce energy use every day.

These technologies are also supercharging the traditional environmental movement. The foreword of my book is written by Talia Speaker, who works on a conservation technology project supported by the World Wildlife Fund. They see the power of these technologies to address threats to wildlife and ecosystems in places where government action simply isn’t an option.

The adaptability of small, environmental technologies opens a wide range of new opportunities for traditional environmental action, environmentally conscious individuals, and even those who will take environmentally friendly actions if it saves them money.

Public policy will always be an important part of addressing environmental problems, but we now have an option that doesn’t put all (or most) of our eggs in one political basket.

The Millions: What are some ways new technologies—particularly small tech like cell phones—can help the environment?

Todd Myers: There are many examples of how small, connected technologies are already helping the environment in big ways.

Some are simple. Birdwatchers who report their sightings in the eBird app are providing extremely useful information to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that has already been used to identify and protect habitat for migratory seabirds. That data has significantly improved our understanding of bird migration.

The adaptability and ubiquity of small technology means it can be applied almost anywhere in the world. In Africa, a company called eWater installed internet-connected water pumps that provide a consistent source of clean water by charging a small fee (about a penny a day). When they break, eWater gets a signal and the pumps are fixed quickly because local workers are losing money. That predictability is powerful because people in the village can get water when they need it, rather than having to hike to a river or stream to get potentially contaminated water. Knowing your water is clean means you don’t have to cut down trees to boil the water or buy plastic bags of water, which are then discarded.

There are many other examples I provide in the book that address problems ranging from the poaching of sea turtle eggs to reducing ocean plastic and reducing CO2 emissions.

The Millions: I think people often feel powerless when it comes to fixing climate change. What are some ways individuals can help the environment?

Todd Myers: There are many, but I will offer three quick examples.

First, use less electricity between 4 and 7 pm. Electricity during this period is generated mostly by natural gas and coal plants that are turned on just to meet high demand during the evening. As a result, it is also expensive and carbon-intensive. Smart thermostats do a good job of helping keep your house comfortable by pre-heating (or cooling) your home before peak hours.

Second, reduce water waste. About 10 percent of residential water is wasted—leaks, running toilets, etc. We see the impacts of drought in many places around the world and reducing water waste would help leave it for fish, farmers, and other uses. There are technologies like Phyn that can be connected to your plumbing and track water use and use artificial intelligence and alerts you when you have a leak to quickly to prevent waste.

Finally, I’ll throw in a fun one—become like Thomas Edison. Rather than just buying electricity from a big utility on the grid, join a microgrid. In the same way Thomas Edison’s first power plants provided energy to homes in a nearby neighborhood, homes with solar panels can generate and trade electricity with their neighbors.

Distributed generation like this is more durable and can provide electricity when there are blackouts, but it is also nice to buy electricity from your neighbors from a source you know. Microgrids are in their infancy, but some of the best examples are in developing countries, where there are no other options. It is an example of the power of connectivity, that anyone can become a utility.

The Millions: What do you hope readers take from the book?

Todd Myers: I want people to feel empowered. There are more opportunities than ever to make a meaningful difference and address important environmental issues. I’ve worked for more than two decades in environmental policy and at government agencies, and what I see from the many creative and energetic people using conservation technologies is very exciting.

One of my favorite quotes in the book is from someone working on capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and turning it into products. He said that when contemplating climate change it is easy to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge, but “People underestimate the power of things that start small. I prefer not to get overwhelmed.” Some of the most exciting projects started with individuals who started with a simple, local idea that scaled up.

A great deal of attention is dedicated to influencing public policy, but many policies are just one election away from being changed. Too often people think that without government, we can’t help the environment. Another of my favorite quotes is, “The man who says it can’t be done should get out of the way of the woman who is doing it.” Increasingly, people aren’t waiting for politicians to care for the planet. Small technologies offer a new method of action that isn’t contingent on election results or politicians making the right choices.

The Millions: Climate change is a politically polarizing issue—how does Time to Think Small address that polarization? And what can be done about it?

Todd Myers: Climate change is one of the most polarizing issues in politics today according to Gallup. I have friends with a wide range of views on the issue and everyone thinks they are losing. What is done by one president is undone by the next. It is hard to craft good, effective policy in that kind of political environment. If success in reducing the risk from climate change is contingent on every election going the right way, we are doomed.

The beauty of innovative environmental technologies is that you don’t have to think climate change is a crisis to want to save money by saving energy. And if a technology works for you, it doesn’t matter who is elected, you’ll keep using it and reducing your environmental impact. Innovation rarely moves backwards.

Perhaps most important is that technology connects people directly to environmental problems rather than filtering it through a political lens. People of all political stripes who care about birds can log their sightings in eBird and provide scientific data used to protect critical habitat. Rather than telling people they must act to save the climate, we can provide technology that helps save money by using energy when it is generated by CO2-free sources.

There will always be politics in these issues, of course. Sometimes that is appropriate. Much of my career has been about promoting sound government policy and working with government agencies. But technology solutions can cross party lines and continued to make progress even when our politics are challenging.

The Millions: The realities of climate change appear so bleak, yet you seem maintain a sense of hope. Is that true? And if so, how do maintain that hope? What gives you hope?

Todd Myers: Given a choice between hope and fear, I think everyone should be hopeful. Fear paralyzes. Hope inspires and energizes.

But my hope comes from the new options environmental innovation is creating. Many of the political issues I deal with today are the same I worked on two decades ago—the same arguments, the same stalemates. Innovation helps break out of that gridlock and transcend the divisive politics that make solutions so difficult, not just with the environment, but so many issues.

If the one chance to stop ocean plastic, or reduce the risk from climate change, or save sea turtles is a government program, it is a bit like putting everything on one roll of the dice. Sometimes we will win, and sometimes we will lose. The more diverse our options, however, the more likely it is that we will find a solution.

This isn’t just blind optimism. The math backs this up. There is a wonderful book by University of Michigan economist Scott Page called The Difference, about how diversity—of ideas, of perspectives, of tools—dramatically increases the chance of success.

And we are only at the beginning of realizing the potential of conservation technology. There are so many innovations to come. That is why I have so much hope.

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