When staff writer Anya Kamenetz and her husband, an engineer at Google, went on their honeymoon, they set aside a week to volunteer at an AIDS hospice in Pune, India. The hospice, it turned out, desperately wanted its own Web site. So while her husband crafted the digital code, Kamenetz interviewed patients and staff, putting together the content. The site was fully functional by the time they left.
This is not your typical honeymoon. But Kamenetz is anything but typical. A New Orleans native who made her name in journalism at New York's Village Voice, she's a prolific blogger on FastCompany.com and is at work on her second book. She can appear shy at times, yet is an accomplished public speaker, particularly on college campuses across the country. And as a magazine writer, she has the insight to see long-term trends that others miss — and the courage to expose them, even if they make some parties uncomfortable.
Her feature in this issue, "Beyond the Grid," is both a compelling call to action and a cautionary tale about the power of entrenched interests. Kamenetz takes dead aim at admired environmental leaders such as Al Gore and politicians such as Senator Harry Reid, both of whom are calling for an "electric superhighway," a parallel to the information superhighway that enables the Internet. Instead, Kamenetz argues that local, renewable power — windmills and solar panels on every roof — offers a cheaper, faster, and more effective way to update our energy system. "The evidence is growing that privately owned, consumer-driven, small-scale, geographically distributed renewables could deliver a 100% greenenergy future," Kamenetz writes. "But distributed power — call it the 'microgrid' — poses an existential threat to the business model the utilities have happily depended on for more than a century. No wonder so many of them are fighting the microgrid every step of the way."
In an era of realigning priorities, fast-changing technology, and new expectations — politically, ecologically, and economically — unconventional perspectives are more important than ever. Tyler Cowen's essay, "Create Your Own Economy," reimagines the very definition of productivity. In "The Evolution of Amazon," contributing writer Adam L. Penenberg offers insights into the future of not just the e-book business but also books themselves. "Gavin Newsom Wants a Job," by senior writer Ellen McGirt, uses a colorful, controversial character to explore assumptions about the world's eighth-largest economy, California.
Despite the seeds of growth sprouting in some corners of the economy, we are still far from reaching solid ground. We risk opting for the easy, obvious choices rather than harder, smarter ones. A well-aimed spotlight can, we hope, redirect the debate. When Kamenetz went to India — where the infrastructure is still ragged and overstressed — she was struck by the fact that the hospice had a solar collector on its roof. Check out the top of your own building, read Kamenetz's story, and then ask yourself: Why doesn't mine?
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.