BOOK REVIEW: Time To Think Small (by Todd Myers)

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The smartphone is enabling major progress against a range of environmental challenges, including by reducing plastic waste in the ocean, lowering household energy usage and cost, and identifying and protecting species and wildlife habitats.

As more millions of people use various environmental apps on their smartphones developed by various start-up environmental non-profits and businesses, their collective and cumulative efforts can mitigate a variety of environmental crises. This is possible and occurring in some ways more effectively than government policy and bureaucracy, says Todd Myers, author of the book, Time To Think Small: How Nimble Environmental Technologies Can Solve the Planet’s Biggest Problems.

These are the basic themes of this new book, published in 2022, by Charlesbridge Publishing. Myers is the Environmental Director of the Washington (State) Policy Center and former executive team member of the that state’s Department of Natural Resources. He brings two decades of work on several environmental issues including protecting spotted owl and salmon habitats, old growth forests and forest fires.

Mr. Myers also is a beekeeper, which on occasion he analogizes the synchronized action of his 200,000 bees to the potential of individualized or “decentralized” environmental stewardship to address larger problems. The unfolding of this technology centering on the smartphone is documented in the book with examples from numerous organizations, including start-up firms.

Early in the book, Myers includes discussion of how transportation has changed in recent years, particularly with the exponential growth of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, which are app-based from a smartphone. In a similar and promising fashion, environmental apps used by individuals in cumulative fashion are producing genuine environmental benefits.

Examples from the book include eWATERservices being used in some African nations as a financial incentive to keep water available to users; Seabin, a company founded by two surfers to collect garbage along marinas and which got initial funding from small donors and the crowdfunding site, Indiegogo; and the Sense company which uses artificial intelligence and pattern recognition that provides real-time data to the homeowner or business to use energy in the most cost-efficient way.

Data from smartphone is increasingly being used to track wildlife habits and identify species of animals and birds, for example, by using the eBird app developed by researchers at Cornell University. As smartphones become more ubiquitous, they are identifying and preventing inland water sources of plastic waste to prevent outflow to the oceans, with the work of the non-profit, Plastic Bank and its use of a blockchain system; are enabling fishing businesses get the best prices for their catch of day as they monitor real-time quantity and price at dockside; and helping farmers more effectively manage crops.

Smartphones also are being increasingly used to help provide greater accuracy in measuring air pressure and wind patterns to site wind turbines to maximize energy generation, something Myers compares to how they reveal traffic patterns. Smartphones “provide ground-level data in real time that improves decision making [with the] ability to take small bits of data and aggregate them into usable information.”

In these and other examples, Myers understands that moral suasion on environmental issues has limits; rather, financial incentives that benefit the individual producer or consumer become more effective for the larger environment as they go “viral,” that is, greater numbers of people take advantage of the technologies unfolding on the smartphone.

In detailing these decentralized solutions to environmental needs, Myers shows a healthy skepticism of politicians and traditional bureaucratic solutions. Politicians claim to “follow the science” but “that claim is little more than rhetoric,” he writes, and that “cool-sounding programs” do not often bring environmental successes. Example he cites are “green” buildings, which showed little to no improvement in energy savings and ethanol fuel mandates. An example of failure was the EPA’s dereliction over water contamination in Flint, Michigan.

Importantly, Myers does not overlook the risks of heavy reliance on smartphone data to cyber-attacks and the loss of privacy, nor does he ignore the limitations of the “citizen scientist” and mass data gathering on animal species and other areas.

Where I believe Myers’ case for small technology is weakest is his discussion of climate change, which he embraces as a major problem. It’s one thing for many millions of smartphones in use to maximize energy efficiency, site and prevent ocean pollution, and protect animal habitats. It’s a much bigger leap to suggest they can tangibly mitigate the global climate trajectory, regardless how many eventually are used.

“The ability to harness individual actions in support of environmental protection is small technology’s greatest promise,” Myers writes. Indeed, technological advance has been one of the great ongoing human stories that has brought greater prosperity and less poverty through the ages, along with cleaner air and water in the United States and more and more nations across the globe.

Todd Myers ably documents in Time To Think Small that technology marches on, is right at our fingertips in ways unimaginable a generation ago, and offers great promise for more efficient energy use and stewardship of nature and the environment.

  • Peter Murphy

    Peter Murphy is Senior Fellow at CFACT. He has researched and advocated for a variety of policy issues, including education reform and fiscal policy, both in the non-profit sector and in government in the administration of former New York Governor George Pataki. He previously wrote and edited The Chalkboard weblog for the NY Charter Schools Association, and has been published in numerous media outlets, including The Hill, New York Post, Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal. Twitter: @PeterMurphy26 Website:

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