10 Big Green Ideas

At the first Earth Day protest in 1970, Margaret Mead, the American Anthropologist and proto-environmentalist, issued a call to action: "We have to learn to cherish this earth and cherish it as something that's fragile, that's only one, it's all we have. We have to use our scientific knowledge to correct the dangers that have come from science and technology." Back in those early days--long before we began driving hybrid cars and politicians started using words like "sustainability" and "carbon footprint" to win elections--Mead and her Earth Day comrades were on the fringe. Would she be surprised to see how mainstream the green movement is today? Probably not. After all, she once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world." All it takes is a great idea. Here we've gathered 10 of those, along with the stories of the thoughtful citizens who are trying to make them a reality.

Make a Greener Burger

Who knew hamburgers could wreck the planet? That's what environmentalists say is happening, as ranchers raze the Brazilian rainforest and their methane-emitting cows foul the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. No one has been more a target of environmentalists' ire than Blairo Maggi. Though known as a soybean tycoon, Maggi became Big Beef's best friend as a two-time governor of Mato Grosso, the frontier state that boasts Brazil's largest herds and has helped make that nation the world's No. 1 beef exporter. But this "developmentalista," who in 2005 won Greenpeace's Golden Chainsaw award for the havoc he had wreaked on the Amazon, has become Brazil's latest tree-hugger. The talk in Maggi's corral is all about "sustainable development," "carbon credits," "avoided deforestation"--and green beef. After signing on to a 2006 moratorium on selling soybeans harvested from recently deforested lands, Maggi last year extended the ban to Amazon beef cattle. He has urged ranchers and Brazil's giant meatpackers to clean up their act, and is even using satellites to monitor illegal clear-cutting and burning of forests. Why Maggi's change of heart? It's smart business. "The entire world has come to the conclusion that forests should be worth more standing than cut down," he often says. "Farmers should get paid for that." --Mac Margolis

Invest In the Improbable

They say great risk brings great reward. just ask Vinod Khosla, the Sun Microsystems cofounder who became Silicon Valley's most vaunted venture capitalist. These days, Khosla is betting on green-tech startups, with a $1 billion venture-capital fund called Khosla Ventures. "I like technologies that have a 90 percent chance of failure," he says. "Because a 10 percent chance of making 100 times your money is better than an 80 percent chance of doubling your money." He believes huge breakthroughs begin with highly improbable ideas--"black swan technologies," he calls them (a reference to Nassim Nicholas Taleb's theory about the randomness and unpredictability of big events). Khosla's flock includes investments in battery-technology startups like Recapping and Pellion, which he describes as "some really long-shot things on electricity storage, some of which are really not even batteries." He has also invested in a company called Solum that's developing a measuring tool to enable farmers to use less fertilizer, thus reducing harmful nitrogen runoff. "These are way out there, flaky ideas" that could take 10 to 15 years to bear fruit. Luckily, he can afford to be patient. --Daniel Lyons

Get Out Of the Gulf

Before this year's massive oil spill, the U.S. was getting 8 percent of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico--a number that translates to 1.6 million barrels each day. That statistic alone helped oil executives persuade President Obama last week to reopen the area. Demand, they said, is simply too high to keep the rigs dry. But is it really? Jackie Savitz, a political-policy analyst with the ocean-advocacy group Oceana, sees a fairly simple way to get out of the gulf completely.

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