Speed and Scale

My organization, the Open Earth Foundation, started a kind of book club a few months ago. For the first event, we read through the IPCC’s 6th report on climate change. We enjoyed the conversation so much, we decided to continue the practice monthly. We missed a month, so I picked a book that I thought might be appropriate: Speed and Scale by John Doerr.

Doerr is a venture capitalist at the legendary firm of Kleiner Perkins. He may be best known in the technology world, not for his very fortunate investments in companies like Google and Zynga, but for his adaptation of business practices from Intel into a goal framework called Objectives and Key Results. Called “OKRs” almost universally, this system is aligns the disparate parts of a large group into a single direction – coordinating individual, team, and company-wide goals in a a networked whole.

I wrote about Doerr’s book Measure What Matters last year. We use OKRs at OEF to keep our different teams and projects aligned.

The book is about Doerr’s other interest: climate change. Since the mid-2000s, inspired by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, Doerr has led Kleiner Perkins’s green tech investment fund. Of course, climate change is a huge project that requires coordinated work from many different parts of human society – geographically dispersed, in different disciplines, political, social and commercial. So “Speed and Scale” is Doerr’s application of his favourite technique – OKRs – to his biggest concern – climate change.

The result is a remarkably long list of objectives – 10 in all – covering a wide range of goals for reducing emissions. Each has 3 or 5 or 9 key results – measurable outcomes that show the goals has been achieved. I think the objectives are really well-thought-out; they include not only the most approachable goals like “electrify transportation” and “clean electricity”, but also the more complex and social, like “build movements into action” and “climate justice”.

The focus and energy is mostly in the ideas around venture capital and entrepreneurship, though. This is what Doerr knows best, obviously, and he clearly thinks that these patterns can be helpful in moving the cause of climate change abatement forward. There’s not a lot of consciousness, though, that part of what got us into the climate crisis was jackpot capitalism – that is, financial institutions oriented towards making huge returns from high-risk ventures. Every oil well, coal field, suburban housing development and luxury car is a someone’s investment jackpot – which they prioritised above collective safety or the natural world.

I thought the movement descriptions were a little superficial. And the discussion of climate justice leaned a lot on moral arguments, about how important it was to do the right thing, without much analysis of the social and organisational aspects of climate justice. Climate policies that unfairly penalize the people least able to shoulder the burden, and usually the people least responsible for climate change in the first place, would lead to the kind of societal unrest that would make executing the policies impossible. The entire project is only feasible if those countries, organizations and individuals most able to take on the work and expense of climate mitigation do so.

My least favourite part was his description of his billionaire friends, like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, and all the work they’re doing on sci-fi technology like backyard fusion and carbon capture. Again, it feels like the people who got us into the climate change mess taking a clubby, dilettante interest in fixing it, especially if it will make them money.

As usual, I listened to the audiobook. Doerr read this book as well as “Measure What Matters”, and in general his voice and delivery make it pretty listenable. He has a few words that are a little distracting, like “emiTTer” and “emiTTing”, which wouldn’t be a problem in any other book except one about climate change, where they’re repeated quite a bit. He also introduces a lot of guest speakers from the examples he provides in the text, and occasionally some voice actors to stand in for people who were clearly too busy, like Bill Gates.

How does the book hold up? I think the OKRs are probably as good a framework as any for working on climate change. They’re more focused on climate change than the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which may be a good or bad thing. I think Doerr’s OKRs are probably more useful than the great breakdown of places to get to work in the IPCC 6th report summary for policymakers. The billionaires, VCs and startups focus was a little hard to swallow, but the idea of a massive worldwide project that all of humanity can work on and coordinate towards sounds pretty reasonable.

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