Friday, November 12, 2010

Casting bread on the water

When I was growing up, I must have heard at least three dozen sermons on the following text:
Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.  Ecclesiastes 11:1.
This passage was a favorite of both my rural Lutheran preacher father and the Mennonites who educated me.  And while there were minor variations on what exactly this verse meant, there was wide agreement that it was a call to use one's God-given gifts (talents, time, resources, and labor)--the "bread"--in the service of the wider community.  The point was if you cast your "bread" without asking for a reward, you would discover that your "bread" would return anyway in wonderful and unexpected ways. (This idea is quite similar to Buddhist concept of Karma.) And so communities are built, one generous and selfless act after another.

For me, this blog is in many ways about the purest example extant of casting bread on the waters I can think of.  It is a LOT of work.  It required a lifetime of research and investigation to be able to write coherently on the topics I write about.  I know I have readers because of Google analytics but almost all of them are "lurkers" so feedback is minimal.  And I am not being paid for my efforts.

But last Tuesday, some "bread" floated back into view.  I got a wonderful email from a long-time "hero" of mine by the name of Amory Lovins.  Even though Lovins is a couple of years older than I, our lives and thinking have traveled along remarkably similar paths.  For example, while we both discovered that high energy efficiency was desirable for housing, my efforts were directed at what could be done with the existing housing stock while Lovins was off building a no-holds-barred demonstration project that employed as many energy-efficient ideas as he could put in one building.

Even more remarkable similarities of vision surfaced with Lovins' 2000 book called
Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution.  It was so similar in important ways to my own Elegant Technology I had a brief moment when I wanted to complain about plagiarism.  I dropped the idea of complaining about plagiarism pretty quickly because in all likelihood, it was just another case of two people reaching similar conclusions although traveling different paths.  Besides, if it came to debating about who came up with the ideas first, I have what they call in the patent business, "prior art."

Of course, not everything about our thinking was identical.  For example, in 1994 Lovins organized an effort to build an ultra high-efficiency automobile he would call a Hypercar.  Because I had worked in an auto performance parts store during college and at one time had actually tried to build a sports car, I watched his effort with some detached amusement because I knew that building cars was insanely difficult--not to mention very expensive with incredibly high front-loaded capital costs.  "Let me know when you have something to drive" was my attitude.  Turns out, Lovins would discover that building his dream car was far above his abilities to finance.  However, the organization he formed to build Hypercar is still with us and fabricates lightweight parts.  It is called Fiberforge and was incorporated in 2004.

I always enjoy situations like this.  It is quite comforting to me to discover folks who come to similar conclusions using different paths.  And so a big "thank you" for contacting me, Mr. Lovins.

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