Bob Massie

Posts Tagged ‘pollution’

We Become What We Believe

In Things I Wrote Before on January 12, 2009 at 2:14 am

Response to Boryana Dumyanova Award,  February 24, 2008

Boryana Dumyanova was an overseas student at the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership who died tragically in a pedestrian accident in Somerville.   Her program established this honor in her name, and I was privileged to be the first recipient.

I want to express my deep gratitude to Sherman Teichman, Marcy Murninghan, Bruce Male, Hannah Flamm, and all the faculty and students here at Tufts. Thank all of you for coming. It is a deep honor and a balm to my soul to be the recipient of the Boryana Dumyanova Award.

Ten days ago I had the privilege of attending the Third Institutional Investor Summit on Climate Risk at the United Nations. I would never have believed that such an event could have taken place except that I saw it with my own eyes. Indeed, I imagined it in my own mind, long before it was a reality, in 2002.

Early on the morning after the meeting, I went for a swim in the pool on the 27th floor of the hotel. The sun was rising over the East River, behind UN headquarters, and the light flooded through the glass and made the water around me glow.

I thought about what a peculiar privilege it was to be a mammal swimming in 280,000 pounds of warm water suspended three hundred feet above the ground.

I thought, as I do every day, about why we require so many human beings to live under inhuman conditions so that a so few of us can live in real comfort.

I thought, as I do every day, about how strange it is that we are willing, as a society, to pee such gigantic amounts of carbon dioxide into the swimming pool of our atmosphere. 

How could we imagine that such foul behavior would not wreck our earth, that it would not, if unchecked, destroy all but those wealthy and shameless enough to dodge the consequences of this collective folly?(1) 

We are taught — falsely — that we must accept injustice because of the physical limits of the earth. 

We accept — wrongly — that what is defines what will be. 

We think that we are confined by our material conditions, but I believe that we are mostly hemmed in by our lack of dreams. Too many people – big people, fancy people, powerful people — have entered the 21st century with 19th century buckets covering their heads. You must help them remove those buckets. That is what Bory would want you to do. You must push them to look at (2) the world we actually live in – and the world it could become. 

Take the field of clean energy. Five years ago, at the time of the first Institutional Investor Summit, few fiduciaries or money managers had even begun to consider whether the largest physical changes in the history of human civilization would have any impact on their portfolios. Their attitude was: we never had to think about it before, so we do we have to think about it now? 

Now investors worth $15 trillion (3) are beginning to examine the structural absurdity of what Al Gore correctly calls their “subprime carbon investments” and the immense financial opportunities that will arise as the world moves into mind-boggling new technologies. (4)

A McKinsey Global Institute report released last week estimates that the cost of achieving dramatic efficiencies in greenhouse emissions would be $170 billion a year globally. (5) This might seem like a large number until one remembers that this is about the same amount as the stimulus package passed at high speed, without hearings, by a panicky Congress. 

What transformations will be possible in the future? We will only find out if we dream the biggest possible dreams.

The United States, the United Nations, the Investor Summit, the swimming pool in the sky – all of these were realities that began as ideas. If there is one motto that I would like you to write down and to pin by your bedsides so that you see it every morning when you wake up, it is this: reality follows ideas. 

The Internet seemed huge and untamable until just ten years ago when two graduate students at Stanford wondered if it would be possible to index not just a few things, but everything. (6) Then we had Google.

When the discussion of hydrogen fuel cell cars first came up at the beginning of the decade, leaders and journalists scoffed at the idea of converting 120,000 gas stations at a potential cost of $1,000,000 each – 120 billion dollars! [7] Then we spent more than four times that amount — $500 billion and counting — on the war in Iraq.  [8]

What lies ahead? It depends on whether you can imagine swimming in the sky.

I believe you will see everyone’s individual genome on the Internet. Will that mean liberation from sickness or a harsh new regime of profit-driven discrimination that punishes the ill for their inherited disease? (9)

I believe that you will see the majority of the world’s population gain access not only to each other but to the entire intellectual genome of our species — in other words, education for everyone everywhere for free.

As we move to an entirely new energy economy, we will need to concentrate some power production in specific places, though we must remember that concentrated systems are always vulnerable to pollution and terrorism, corruption and collapse. We must also disperse new forms of energy and technology directly into the human communities that need it. 

When post-apartheid South Africa wanted to give telephone service to millions, they realized that they could skip laying phone lines and go straight to cellular. (10)

We see that kind of leap-frogging all around us. China is building 40 new cities in the next ten years and every single building in every city may have high-speed wireless Internet. (11) Those buildings could control their internal temperature the way in a similar manner to the way our brains control temperature in our bodies, creating a whole new universe of efficiency, savings, and prosperity. Or they could watch our every move.

One brilliant couple is designing phosphorescent cloth that absorbs sunlight during the day and releases it during the night. (12) With this there is no need for C02 emitting power plants or high voltage lines that cut through the rainforest. Do you need to read in the dark? Unfold the cloth. Do you want to go to sleep? Roll it up. (13)

Another group of scientists is tapping kinetic energy through a light knee brace that captures the forward motion of walking. Humans eat food created through sunlight, then translate that food into calories and movement. That movement, if captured in the brace, could create enough electricity to power cell phones or pace makers, or heat the body in cold climates, or run a small computer, even a small business. (14) 

A team of students responding to a $5,000 challenge from seem to have to solved the problem of transporting, filtering, and storing clean water for poor people through a cheap tricycle. The container is built into the frame of the trike. The pedaling power pushes the water through a filter and into a reservoir in front of the handlebars, where it can be stored away from contamination by larvae or bacteria – until the person needs to bike back for more. (15)

There are millions more such ideas imbedded in your minds and of those around you.

Will such inventions move us forward or backward? We will reverse poverty and climate change — or will we accelerate them? That depends on our mental and moral commitments – your mental and moral commitments.

Every one of you sitting here is harboring dozens of viruses that are being suppressed by your invisible immune systems. (16) If your invisible immune system failed, you would rapidly be covered, for example, by very visible warts. This suppression is an unconscious gift from our ancestors. Similarly, every day we make choices that support or suppress the moral immune systems of our society. 

Do we seek security – or do we seek justice? 

Do we blame – or do we forgive?

Do we live in anxiety – or do we love in freedom?

It will be up to you – and people like you — whether tomorrow’s inventions will be stolen by the cruel and the powerful — or employed to achieve prosperity and democracy for all.

Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, recently told an interviewer that poverty exists because human beings have accepted — and continue to accept — the idea of poverty. “You create what you imagine,” he said. (17) 

Reality follows ideas.

In sum: most of the choices ahead will not be driven but what lies outside in the physical work, but what lives inside our hearts and spirits. 

If we become what we believe,   then what will you choose?


/\/\ END /\/\

The Rev. Dr. Robert Kinloch Massie ( is the founder of the Global Reporting Initiative (, the former executive director of Ceres (; and the one of the originators of the Investor Network on Climate Risk ( He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


1) Speech given by Dr. John Holdren, Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and Professor of Earth and Planetary Science, Harvard University; Director, Woods Hole Research Institute; Chairman, American Academy for the Advancement of Science  – soon to be appointed President Obama’s chief science advisor – see




5) Diana Farrell, “The Case for Investing in Energy Productivity,” McKinsey Global Institute, released February 14, 2008 –

[6] Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, “The Anatomy of A Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, Stanford University 1998 – original paper still posted at




10) “Infrastructural Investment in Long-run Economic Growth: South Africa 1875-2001”. J.W. Fedderkea, P. Perkinsb and J.M. Luizb _aUniversity of Cape Town, South Africa_bUniversity of the Witwatersrand, South Africa _Accepted 9 November 2005. Available online 5 April 2006. World Development Volume 34, Issue 6, June 2006 

11)“Cisco to network whole cities” by Kevin Allison in San Francisco, site; Dec 23, 2007 
“Cisco Systems, the world’s biggest maker of data networking equipment, plans to launch a business group, based in Bangalore, India, that will wire new buildings and even entirely new cities with state-of-the-art networking technology… China estimates it will need to build 40 cities over the next 10 years to accommodate migration of workers from the countryside.”

12) Sheila Kennedy and Frano Violich of Kennedy Violich

13); for an interview with Sheila Kennedy about application and acceptance among Mexico’s Huichol populution, see



16); see many other Google references under “verruca” and “immune suppression”


Additional note: The title of the talk comes from the concluding paragraph of  Robert Kinloch Massie, Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years [New York: Nan Talese – Doubleday, 1998]