What you can do about climate change

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Climate change is the largest crisis humanity has ever faced. It will necessarily reshape the entire infrastructure of civilization one way or another, and magnifies many other issues that people care about (environmental, racial, and economic justice, animal rights, etc.).

It’s terrifying. I find just thinking about it to be overwhelming, and often paralyzing, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. Telling people to be worried without giving them constructive options isn’t super useful, so I wanted to share real, achievable, evidence-based actions for people who want to help, but don’t know where to begin.[1] I’m not an expert on any of these topics, but I recently re-broadcast some priorities I’d heard elsewhere.



  • Vote & make calls: policy is one of the largest levers we have. Make your voice heard. Tell your representatives and candidates that this is a top priority.
  • Advocate for radical city redesign to increase density and provide alternate transit options. Density is the #1 way to achieve lower environmental impact via benefits via heating & cooling, transit, slowing population growth, etc.


  • drive less
  • eat less beef
  • insulate your house

To get further clarity and more ideas, I asked my dear friend and green design expert Jer Faludi[2] for input. He was kind enough to write up a ranked list of suggestions for individual scale and large-scale impact, based on a series of thoroughly researched short videos he’s made, discussing the most impactful ways to make a difference.

Here’s what Jer said, lightly edited for clarity.

Your 3-item list is good for individuals making lifestyle changes, except I’d say:

#1 eat more veggies & less beef

#2 insulate your house or move into an apartment complex

#3 walk/bus/bike more

#4 get rooftop solar

To shoot higher, I’d say this: if you could invent or design anything to improve the state of the Earth, fixing not just greenhouse gases but also species extinction, water & resource depletion, pollution, here are your top priorities to help the planet.

  • Better cities:
    • make them more dense
    • create better transit options
  • Better buildings:
    • improve energy use, health, and material resource use
  • Better food:
    • improve land efficiency is #1
    • then pesticides & fertilizers
    • avoid beef, make veggie menus awesome,
    • invent cheap organic aquaponics, etc.
  • Cheaper clean energy
    • lower cost of grid energy storage is #1,
    • then solar & wind
  • Efficient transport of people (not things – shipping is a pretty low priority)
    • encourage walking, biking, transit, & telecommuting
  • Slow population growth
    • fixed by urbanizing & by empowering women via education, economics, and politics, especially in developing countries. Birth control alone is not enough.
  • For social sustainability,
    • fix income inequality, both globally and within the US
  • For political sustainability, fix voting mechanics
    • maximize the percent of the governed whose votes count, via proportional representation, ranked choice voting, no gerrymandering, campaign finance reform

Example solution areas:

– The #1 leverage point is actually to make cities denser and more livable: dense cities improve building energy & resource use (shared walls are better than the best insulation), fix transportation (walking, biking, and transit require density), and slow population growth (in many developing countries, birthrates fall by 1/2 or more from rural to urban), all at once. Make density affordable, politically easy, beautiful, and healthy.

– Many sustainability improvements already save people & companies money (like better buildings, clean energy, and efficient transport), they just require initial investments. Business models exist to enable this; scale them.

– You do not need to work in one of these industries to improve it, you can make an app for that. For example, the Google Maps transit feature has done more to increase transit use than any design project by any city transit agency.

Finally, I’m a huge fan of Alex Steffen’s writing about climate change. A take away from Alex: we can’t build a world we can’t imagine. We desperately need imaginative people to dream up and communicate how good the world will be. If you’re creative, start telling optimistic stories and inspiring the builders.

There is no single answer. We need all of the solutions. Find something you can do and contribute in your way as best you can. We need a lot of heroes.

Update: since writing this, I’ve been pointed to the excellent http://www.drawdown.org

[1] One of my first exposures to this sort of global to-do list was Bret Victor’s essay What Can a Technologist Do About Climate Change?

[2] In the fall of 2017, Jeremy Faludi will be joining Dartmouth University as a Assistant Professor of Green Design. He has a PhD from Berkeley in mechanical engineering, a Master’s from Stanford in product design, and a Bachelor’s in physics from Reed College. He dances often, and literally plays with fire.

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SeaVis: The Seattle Visualization List and Meetup

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I’ve been running the Seattle visualization meetup since late 2012. We’ve got a Google Group for jobs and announcements and a Meetup group for events. Please join both!

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Big news, new job at IBM… and moved on.

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Updated update: I’m no longer with IBM, and have taken a job in Settle with AWS.

Hello dear readers,

Just a quick note here to mention my new FT gig; I’m now working as a Visualization Expert at IBM’s Center for Advanced Visualization. Part of my role involves continuing to speak at conferences and events as I have been, and various other writing projects. Additionally, I’ll be working on a book for IBM (details TBD), writing some visualization white papers, blog posts, and other materials related to IBM’s visualization projects, and working with the fantastic teams who are devloping IBM’s public visualization tool Many Eyes and their new (unreleased) visualization engine RAVE.

I’m delighted by this new role. As I’ve been ramping up at IBM I haven’t been publishing as much externally, but will be posting links to my writing and presentations here and on twitter (@noahi) as they become available.

Best, Noah

UPDATE: Yes, I’m staying in Seattle.

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Thank you Steve Jobs

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Edit: the audio of the speech mentioned below is available as an mp3.

From: Noah Iliinsky
Date: August 26, 2011 11:04:21 AM PDT
To: sjobs@apple.com
Subject: History, inspiration, thanks.

Dear Steve,

Twenty years ago this week, we were in the same room. You were speaking to the incoming class at Reed College, and I was one of those freshmen. I remember you talking about your time at Reed, how you were always hungry, ate Roman Meal because it was filling, and would go to the Hare Krishna temple because they’d feed you (and then you’d all go steal flowers out of yards to sell). You had a friend, maybe a dean, who’d slip you $20 or $50 once in a while when you went for walks.

I was excited to see you that day, because I’d fallen in love with the Macintosh four years earlier, in 1987, when I was 13. It was so clear to me what a superior solution it was, relative to everything else that existed. It was fully as magical then as the iPad is now. I don’t know whether it inspired my passion for excellent design, or resonated with an innate sense that was already there, but that passion has never left me.

(Incidentally, while at Reed, I loved using the NeXT machines, and took a computing class from Richard Crandall. I remember your welcome greeting in the Mail program.)

These days I’m still focused on creating excellent experiences; I consult, lecture, and write (http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/au/4419) about information visualization, specifically in the domain of helping people learn how to do it well, so they can create successful, efficient, beautiful solutions.

Thank you, Steve, for all that you’ve done for us over the last 30+ years. Not only have you brought amazing designs to the world, and proven to the world that design deeply matters, but your dedication and vision has inspired me (and thousands of other designers) to do excellent work, to strive to continuously create better solutions. I cannot imagine what my life would have looked like without your contributions. Thank you.

Very best wishes, Noah

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How to buy a practical bike

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Last summer I gave a talk at Ignite Seattle on how to buy a practical bike. This is the slide deck for that talk. There’s no audio, but you can gather most of it from the images. The summary is below the presentation.

In general, when shopping for a bike, the best thing you can do is ride several and find one that sings to you. Details of manufacturer and parts are less relevant if you like how the bike feels when you ride it.

  • At a give price point, most new bikes are going to have a similar mix and quality level of parts.
  • Look for a bike where you can get the handlebar at or above the height of the seat when the seat is adjusted to your leg length.
  • Low gears are critical if you live near hills or plan on carrying or pulling loads.
  • You probably want at least 32mm / 1.25″ wide tires. You don’t need a suspension, or knobby offroad tires, or any tread at all, in the city.
  • Your frame should have room for fenders (you can wait until September for those, but shops may install them free if you buy with your new bike).

Key points when buying a practical bicycle

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Follow me on Twitter

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For those of you on Twitter, you can find me at @noahi. Please say hi! I tweet about a wider variety of topics than I post about here.

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