After spending years trying and failing to win a global climate treaty, environmental activists have finally changed tactics. Instead of pouring all their efforts into passing doomed legislation, they're picking big symbolic battles with the fossil fuel industry.
The campaign to derail the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada's tar sands is just the start. On the West Coast, environmentalists have mounted a similar attack on the coal industry, which wants to reverse its steep national decline by exporting millions of tons coal to China. Green groups believe they can prevent the shipments (and keep the coal in the ground) by stopping the construction of huge new coal export terminals at ports in Oregon and Washington. "Based on our back-of-the-envelope calculation, the burning of this exported coal could have a larger climate impact than all of the oil pumped through the Keystone pipeline," says Kimberly Larson, a spokeswoman for the Power Past Coal campaign, a coalition of more than 100 environmental and community groups that oppose the coal terminals.
Here's what you need to know about the biggest climate change fight that you've probably never heard of:
Yesterday afternoon, a Tesla Model S burst into flames on Washington State Route 167 outside Seattle. The auto blog Jalopnik quickly posted a video of the luxury electric car engulfed in a ball of fire and smoke. Tesla later noted that the fire hadn't been spontaneous; the car had been hit by a metal object that damaged the battery pack. The car's alert system detected a failure and told the driver to pull over, the driver wasn't injured, and the fire never spread to the passenger compartment. Even so, at the close of the stock market yesterday, Tesla's share price had fallen more than 6 percent (UPDATE: It dropped another 5 percent this morning).
The sell-off may have resulted from the video, from a ratings downgrade released the same day by an R.W. Baird stock analyst, or both. Either way, the experience shows how hard it can be for companies to stake their success on radical innovation. Behind investors' (unfounded) hand-wringing over electrical fires or production hiccups is their unease over the basic fact that nobody has ever built anything like a Tesla before.
That Tesla has come this far—the value of its stock has increased six-fold since the Model S was named Motor Trend's Car Of The Year—partly reflects the savvy of its co-founder and CEO Elon Musk. But it's also a classic illustration of the value of federal subsidies, such as the $465 million loan that Tesla received from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2010. When you're trying something really awesome and new, sometimes you need a little help from taxpayers. Just look up the early history of Google and Apple. Yet Musk, a self-described libertarian, has loudly criticized federal subsidies. I take a closer look at this sort of disconnect, which is pretty common in Silicon Valley circles, in my story in the September/October print issue, now online.
It's rush hour in Silicon Valley, and the techies on Highway 101 are shooting me laser-beam stares of envy. Beneath the floorboard of my Tesla Model S, a liquid-cooled pack of 7,000 laptop batteries propels me down the carpool lane at a hushed 65 miles per hour. Then traffic grinds to a halt, and I'm stuck trying to merge onto an exit ramp as Benzes and BMWs whip past. It's the excuse I'm waiting for: I punch the throttle, and the Model S rockets back up to speed so fast that I worry about flying off the road—a silly fear, it turns out, because the car corners like a barn swallow. "And there you go," says Tina, my beaming Tesla sales rep. "Takeoff!"
Every bit as practical as a Volvo (rear-facing trundle seat!) and sexier than an Aston Martin, the Model S isn't just the world's greatest electric car—it's arguably the world's greatest car, period. The curmudgeons at Consumer Reports call the seven-seater the best vehicle they've ever tested, and that's after docking it considerable points for only—only!—being able to travel 265 miles on a charge. The first mass-market electric car designed from scratch, it sports huge trunks in the rear and under the hood, an incredibly low center of gravity, and the ability to hit 60 mph in 4.2 seconds. Plus you can recharge it for the price of a burrito. Named car of the year by Motor Trend, the Model S has recharged Tesla as well. In May, the company announced that it had repaid, nine years early, a $465 million loan it had received from the Department of Energy.
Tesla posted its first quarterly profit the same month, and by mid-July the share price of the decade-old Palo Alto-based carmaker had more than doubled. The buzz in the Valley is that Tesla has in the Model S something with the disruptive potential of the iPhone—and in its CEO, Elon Musk, the next Steve Jobs. "Individuals come along very rarely that are both as creative and driven as that," says Jim Motavalli, who writes for the New York Times' Wheels blog. "Musk is not going to settle for a product that is good enough for the marketplace. He wants something that is insanely great."
Musk, who is 42, certainly plays the role well enough. TheNew Yorker's Tad Friend has noted how his "curious apparel"—black half-boots and a gray hacking jacket—along with his "Pee-wee haircut, glowing blue-green eyes, South African accent (he was born in Pretoria), and manifest determination to save the world—single-handedly, if necessary—conspires to make him seem somewhat alien."
Fittingly, it turns out, since in addition to Zip2 and PayPal, both of which Musk cofounded before he hit 30, his entrepreneurial portfolio includes Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), a company that aims to colonize Mars—in 2008, it landed a $1.6 billion contract to resupply the International Space Station. He is also chairman and top shareholder of SolarCity, a solar finance and installation firm. There's a kind of futuristic synergy at play here: If we all buy Teslas and charge them via a distributed solar-panel network, then maybe we can survive the effects of global warming long enough to populate the red planet.
People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with different people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. —Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
If you have something you don't want anyone to know about, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. —Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt
The conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley is that nobody cares about online privacy, except maybe creeps, wingnuts, and old people. Sure, a lot of us might say that we don't like being tracked and targeted, but few of us actually bother to check the "do not track" option in on our web browsers. Millions of people have never adjusted their Facebook privacy settings. According to a recent Pew survey, only small fractions of internet users have taken steps to avoid being observed by hackers (33 percent), advertisers (28 percent), friends (19 percent), employers (11 percent), or the government (5 percent).
What's going on here? The short answer is a lot of pretty twisted psychological stuff, which behavioral scientists are only now starting to understand.
People were willing to accept wildly varying sums of money in exchange for giving out their email address—from $0 to $100,000
Our uneasy relationship with the internet begins with the fact we don't really know who can see our data and how they might exploit it. "Not even the experts have a full understanding of how personal data is used in an increasingly complicated market," points out Carnegie Mellon University public policy professor Alessandro Acquisti, who researches the psychology behind online privacy perceptions. Behavioral economists often refer to this problem as information asymmetry: One party in a transaction (Facebook, Twitter, advertisers, the NSA) has better information than the other party (the rest of us).
The upshot is that we can't agree on what our privacy is worth. A study last year by Acquisti and Jens Grossklags of the University of California-Berkeley found that people were willing to accept wildly varying sums of money in exchange for giving out their email address and information about their hobbies and interests—from $0 to $100,000.
Our struggle to weigh the importance of online privacy reflects a classic case of what economists call "bounded rationality." That is, the ability to decide things rationally is constrained by a blinkered understanding of how those decisions might affect us.
Our bounded rationality on privacy matters makes us more vulnerable to all sorts of persuasion tactics aimed at getting us to disclose things. Behold the following behavioral examples of how, even if we really care about online privacy, we're easily prodded into behaving as though we don't.
1. Our willingness to sell our privacy is greater than our willingness to pay for it
To test this notion, Alessandro Acquisti's researchers recently went to a shopping mall, where they offered passersby one of two free gift cards. People were given either a $10 gift card that would allow them to shop anonymously or a $12 gift card that would link their names to their purchases. Next, those who first received the $10 card were asked if they wanted to swap it for the $12 card, effectively selling their privacy for $2. And those who first received the $12 card were asked if they wanted to trade it for the $10 card, effectively buying their privacy for $2. Though the choices were basically equivalent, Acquisti found that shoppers who started with more privacy (the $10 card) valued it much more than those who started with less (the $12 card).
Alessandro Acquisti, Leslie John, and John Loewenstein, Journal of Legal Studies
This helps to explain why so many people willingly sell their privacy by, say, signing up for a grocery store rewards card or a free email account, while so few will pay to protect it by, for instance, using anonymity software, which costs time to research, install, and use.
2. We reflexively accept default privacy settings
From 2005 through May 2011, Acquisti's team tracked the activities of 5,076 Facebook users. Over time, the users gradually decreased the amount of information they shared publicly—until 2009. That's when Facebook changed its default privacy settings to make profiles more public, but also encouraged users to review their settings and adjust them for more privacy if desired. Look what happened:
Fred Stutzman, Ralph Gross, Alessandro Acquisti, Journal of Privacy and Confidentiality
3. We're caught in a Privacy/Control Paradox
In 2011, Carnegie Mellon researchers mimicked what happens on social-media websites by asking students to answer 10 sensitive questions about personal behaviors such as stealing, lying, and taking drugs. The students could decline to answer any of them. One group of students was told in advance that their answers would be automatically published. A second group was asked to check a box if they agreed to give the researchers permission to publish all their answers. And a third group was asked to check a box next to each question to give permission to publish that specific answer—a condition that emulates what happens on blogs and social networks. (See the image at the top of the story.) Though each approach was functionally the same, the third group, the one who was given the most granular control, divulged twice as much sensitive information as the first group. Members of the second group were also significantly more willing to share, even though they knew all of their responses would be public.
These findings strike at the heart of what's known as the Privacy/Control Paradox: The feeling of control that you gain by checking a permission box before you publish, say, that bong hit photo, actually makes you more willing to share it with strangers than you otherwise would have been. In other words, the mere offer of control over your online privacy may induce you to be more reckless with it.
Some of the same psychological quirks that cause people to smoke cigarettes also explain why they don't stop sharing personal details online.
4. We fall for misdirection
Many social networks give users granular control over how their data is shared among users, but very little control over how it's used by the services themselves. This is a classic case of misdirection—the magician's trick of calling attention to one hand while the other stuffs a rabbit inside a hat. A Carnegie Mellon study published in July found that misdirection caused people to disclose slightly more information about themselves than they might otherwise.
5. We're addicts
Some of the same psychological quirks that cause people to smoke cigarettes also explain why they don't stop sharing personal details online. In short, we value immediate gratification, discount future costs, believe our own risks are less significant than the risks of others, and have trouble calculating the cumulative effects of thousands of small decisions. People "who genuinely want to protect their privacy might not do so because of psychological distortions well documented in the behavioral economics literature," Acquisti writes. And "these distortions may affect not only naive individuals but also sophisticated ones."
6. IGNORANCE is bliss
Ignoring privacy threats and sticking your head in the sand might actually be a good idea. Consider the recent revelation that the NSA targets people who use Tor anonymity software—just because. So why bother to become a privacy expert? Caring too much about privacy, as Google's Eric Schmidt has implied, might be taken as a sign that you have something to hide.
This "ah, fuck it" approach is known to behavioral economists as rational ignorance. "Even those that are privacy sensitive among us may rationally decide not to protect their privacy," Acquisti explains. "Not because they don't care, but because it's just too hard. You could be trying to do everything right, and your data could still be compromised."
Maybe that's why you clicked on this story, but probably still won't change your Facebook settings.
Now that Uncle Sam is about to run out of money, federal agencies will need to use their last pennies simply to keep America from falling apart. Food inspectors and pesticide regulators will stay home under the furlough plan, but fear not: Military recruiters will show up to work no matter what. Sure, your kids might die from eating tainted spinach, but they will have died in order to show that America does not give in to terrorists. Or whatever it is you call those ideologues and hostage-takers that the military fights. The point is, just remember that the military will be there for you during the budget apocalypse if you need a job, or want to watch some inspiring videos about jumping out of helicopters and hunting people with spear guns.
UPDATE: Below, readers point out a variety of reasons why furloughing military personnel is not as easy as furloughing civilian workers, which may help explain why Army recruiters are still working while food inspectors are not.