Book Review: Speed & Scale
John Doerr and Ryan Panchadsaram. Speed & Scale: A Global Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now (Penguin Business 2021)
If you asked for a single book to provide a comprehensive blueprint for how we might achieve net zero by 2050 and minimize the chances of facing devastating climate change, this might have been that book. Doerr and Panchadsaram, both of Kleiner Perkins, start Speed & Scale with a sector by sector play to cancel out ~60 Gt/year of CO2-eq emissions. First, electrify transportation, decarbonize the grid, “fix food”, protect nature, and remove carbon from the atmosphere (and the oceans), this last part attached to a lofty 10 Gt target. The targets and timetables adopt an Objectives and Key Results (OKR) framework which the authors emphasize in the introduction as critical for success. Standard “you can only manage what you measure” messaging.
While the book is meant to be a banquet table of solutions wrapped in an aura of innovation and smothered in magisterial scope, the plan is primarily a technocratic plug-in-play alteration of our current existence. Cars? Replace with EVs. Electricity? More renewables, more battery storage. Supply chains? Better monitoring and land set asides.
Towards the end of the book, Laurene Powell Jobs provides one of the few worthwhile quotations: “You have to address everything at the same time.”
I had hoped Doerr and Panchadsaram might reflect on how the climate crisis could be an opportunity to reconfigure society in a way that simultaneously forestalls climate change while also fixing our other ills: gun violence, obesity, suicidality, extreme partisanship…
That holism peaks out at times, like in advocating for universal education and shrinking gender gaps in India through programs like Educate Girls.
But urbanism and a restructuring of values and social relations was simply not on this banquet table. A lot of ink was spent on EVs and battery technology and Rivian and Teslas — not even a page was dedicated to bikes, e-bikes, and improved walkability. Classic technocratic plug-and-play. Current ICE cars bad, just replace with EVs. Meat? Ethan Brown of Beyond Meat fame has a call-out box and there’s some discussion about the carbon intensity of meat consumption, but there’s certainly no investment plan to convince the masses to forego the flesh. Examples like these strike me as big failings of the book. For the authors, it feels like the problem is one of hardware version, not values. If we can just upgrade to the next version, then humanity will be saved…
This book is frustrating because it’s described through the prism of Kleiner Perkins investments. Sure, it’s definitely helpful to roll back the curtain on failed investments or the signals that investors use to assess the viability of new technologies, like renewables in the 2000s and “clean-tech” currently. But a lot of the changes that need to happen are tangential to investments – it’s about pressure campaigns on governments local and federal, and shifting public consciousness about what constitutes a full life.
In short, the vision in Speed & Scale is that if we can innovate, invest, and shave down the green premium – the added that the ‘sustainable’ option has over the existing, unsustainable alternative – then we can solve our way out of this problem. If $1.7 trillion can be invested per year over the next 20 years, then we can have matured the necessary technologies.
And yet, in spite of all the advances in the past decades, 2022 still saw the largest annual amount of GHG emissions ever.