The Carbon Almanac Origin Story, Idea to Project in 24 Hours and Coming Together in Community to Change Culture
Featuring Carbon Almanac Founder Seth Godin and Portfolio Editor in Chief Niki Papadopoulos
In this episode, Jennifer is joined by Seth and Niki to explore the spark behind The Carbon Almanac. Seth shares why he started this, where the idea came from, what he accomplished in 24 hours and how he chose the Almanac format for the book. We learn from Niki about her role in the Almanac and how this project is different from others that she has worked on.
This is the episode to dive into if you want to hear more about how this project came to be. Why now? What's the urgency? Why choose an almanac over another format, why use a community to write a book? How can we change the culture? And how is the Carbon Almanac like the pit of a cherry?
The conversation explores the early phase of writing the book as well as the establishment of the Almanac community. Seth dives into how it's evolved, who he asked to join first, and both Niki and Seth explain their most challenging moment so far. They share the personal impact this project has had on them and where they hope the project will be in a year from now. All while reminding us that it is not too late to join the Carbon Almanac project and create meaningful contributions and take action on climate.
This podcast is a part of the Carbon Almanac Podcast Network.
Production Team: Jennifer Myers Chua, Sam Schuffenecker, Leekei Tang, Tania Marien, Barbara Orsi
Cover Art: Ray Ong
Copyright © 2022 The Carbon Almanac Network
About the Carbon Almanac Collective: What happens when regular people work together to create massive, meaningful change on a global scale? Welcome to the carbon Almanac collective. A podcast where the volunteers who created the Carbon Almanac share the insights and aha moments they had while collaborating on this landmark project to help fight the climate crisis.
Hosted by Jennifer Myers Chua, and featuring the voices of Carbon Almanac Contributors. Reminding you that it's not too late to join in on the conversation.
[00:00:49] Niki: My name is Niki Papadopoulos. I am the Editor in Chief of Portfolio, which is an imprint of Penguin Random House. I've been in New York for the past 15 years. So culturally I consider myself a New Yorker. And my role in The Carbon Almanac is a super special one. And one that I feel very privileged to have, which is that I am the liaison to the book publisher. I am the person inside of Penguin Random House who Seth talks to about the book. And so when things need to happen with the book, I am the first point of contact and then I try to make things happen inside a very large complex organization.
I was on the original invitation list to be a contributor to The Carbon Almanac. And I remember where I was when I got that email because I looked at it and I looked at it and all, I just wanted to say yes, so badly. And I sat and I thought to myself, if I join this, it will take over my life and I will not be able to do very much else and other things will suffer because of it because, I will sort of go insane about it. And so I wrote a very tortured decline to Seth and then was thrilled to find out that they wanted to publish the book. And so I would get to work on it in a professional capacity, which I'm allowed to do. And I'm encouraged to do with my time. And so, I just feel really lucky to be involved.[:
[00:02:27] Seth: I reminded myself that I needed to stop stalling. And to show up and do work where I could contribute something that most other people couldn't contribute. Because it's rare that we face an existential crisis where we can A do something about it, and B actually have leverage. And my background in making books and the benefit of the doubt that some people have given me, gave me a chance to show up. And I realized that time was short, and maybe I knew people who knew people who could come together to make a difference. And if I didn't do that, that would be on me. And so I decided to lean into this fully full-time because it's that important.[:
[00:03:21] Seth: Well, 10 years ago was the right answer but I missed it. And 10 years ago, I'm not sure we had the community or the technology in place to be able to do this the way we have now. That part of what I've learned in 30 years of looking at culture is that the culture does things when the culture is ready and it took too long, for gay people to have the right to marry. It took too long for us to finally begin undoing the caste system that treats so many people so poorly, and it took too long for us to take action on climate. But, the fact that other people are also interested in this is a symptom that we are ready.[:
[00:04:14] Seth: The book came first because, uh, when I see a problem I instantly reach for, is there a blog post or a podcast or a book that's going to help here. And, but then, because I've made almanacs in the past, I know what they entail. I realized that making an Almanac by myself was probably outside of my, um, resources, but also something that wouldn't achieve our goal, which is how do we do this together? Because the Almanac project is supposed to be a metaphor for how the community can come together to solve the problem itself.[:
[00:05:03] Seth: Okay. So here's some deep cuts, in the 1940s. Two of the most, uh, popular books in the United States and North America actually, where The World Almanac and the Information Please Almanac. Between them they're two of the best selling books in the history of humanity. Millions and millions and millions of copies sold.iant quiz show scandal of the:
[00:05:48] Jennifer: I was born.[:
My idea, my job was to think of ideas and make them. The more complicated, the better, because not too many people could do really complicated books. So I invented a book called The Information Please Business Almanac, which was a nod to the Information Please Almanacs of the 1940s. But also before the internet, it was the internet in book form. 750 pages of facts and tables and figures, and really useful stuff.
And it sold really well. We did years of it in a row. That led to The Women's Almanac. It led to The Celebrity Almanac, which I'm not so proud of, with People Magazine. And I know how to make almanacs, not many people know how to make almanacs. And when I thought about the climate problem we have, what I know is lots of things cause culture change. But one of them is a shared understanding of the truth. And certain issues are so simple. You can put it on one sheet of paper, but this one has spiraled out of controlling complexity. And so the opportunity was to say to people who like understanding here's not one person's narrative, but here it is, all the foundational stuff. You can look it up and now you'll have the confidence to talk about it.[:
[00:07:17] Niki: The unique thing about this book is that the process by which it came into the world is the thing that it seeks to teach to the readers and that does not exist. And, um, when I heard about this as a publisher, I mean, first of all, I'm always interested in hearing about anything that Seth is working on. But I also saw an opportunity to have a book that was a community effort in the same way that our efforts to combat climate change need to be a community effort. And, and this idea that any one person could own the solution to climate change is ludicrous. Just like the idea that any one person's actions can fix climate change is ludicrous.
And so I, I really love the sort of alignment between what the book was and the message of the book, and also how it was coming into the world.[:
[00:08:34] Seth: Um, like most authors, I'm just a little bit mentally off. And one of the things that authors tend to have in common, which our friend Niki can probably testify to is that most of the time we prefer to be in a room by ourselves. And we don't necessarily play well with others when it's time to do our work.
That is why you write a book instead of making a movie. And I've done a book with 32 other authors called, uh, The Big Moo, which raised over a quarter million dollars for charity. I did another book with Michael Bungay Stanier with 30 authors that raised more than a quarter of million dollars for charity.
I know how to do that. It's not as engaging, nor does it create as powerful product as when you work with people who want to work with each other. And that has been the joy of this.[:
[00:09:34] Seth: So people don't believe this, but all of the stuff I'm talking about takes about two hours. So at like 9:30 in the morning, it's I really should do something about this and 10 o'clock in the morning, it's it should be an Almanac and 10:30 in the morning, it's this is probably what it's going to be called. And 11 o'clock in the morning, it's going to be in Discourse. And at 11:30 the domains are registered and at noon, I've started to build the discourse page because I have tools. I know how to use tools. And once I decided I didn't have to have a lot of meetings about it, cause I knew what it was going to feel like. There was a giant question mark, as to whether anyone else would get the joke, but I am not exaggerating when I say that in less than 24 hours from me deciding to do this, the Discourse was up and running and I had invited Louise and a couple other people to join me.[:
[00:10:34] Seth: So. One of the things to learn about working in this format is you have to have resilience built in because most people either don't get the joke or if they do get the joke, can't persistently show up as full-time volunteers. And so you don't say like in the mission impossible movies, here are the four people going on the mission and that's all I got. You say, who are the people I'm in sync with who may or may not want to dance here?
And I had met Louise through the Akimbo workshops and she had really grown and contributed a lot there. I had met Barrett through the Domino project and he was a reliable, thoughtful person. Then I reached out to some people like Michael Bungay Stanier, and David Meerman Scott, anyone with a middle name that I could think of ,to say, you know how to make books, why don't you chip in? And then right at the beginning of this, it was also the question of what would it look like? And so one of the only people who ever got paid to work on this project was a freelancer I found in Nigeria. I think she's in Nigeria. And, I paid her a hundred dollars to build four pages. So she was also one of the first people inside the community. But again, the point was to just try it out because what's the worst that can happen is we'd stop.[:
[00:12:26] Seth: Um, there were two parts to it. Uh, the first part is probably about five years ago, I realized what a fraud, plastic recycling was. And that made me start to think deeply about lots of the other elements we're talking about. I've been a vegetarian for more than 30 years. So my identity is so tied up in trying to be light on my feet that that didn't change anything, but it did open my eyes.
But then when I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry For The Future in which he so eloquently laid out the systemic problems. That's when it was just completely clear to me that if we don't find a systemic solution it's all a waste.[:
[00:13:38] Seth: Yeah. Okay. So it's almost impossible to cause culture change with nothing but gloom and doom and negative information. And culture changes because of two reasons, affiliation and dominance. Affiliation is what are other people doing? And dominance is how do I win? And so you can say to kids, all you want, don't go in the lake until 30 minutes after eating, but they're not going to listen to you unless all the other kids aren't going in the lake, and then they're going to listen to you.
And so the opportunity here as A, to be able to say to people who like to build things, this is a really good way for you to increase your social status and maybe even make some money by building something in the face of this revolution. And number two, from an affiliation point of view, be able to say you're being left behind and you're being left out because all the other people in the circle are talking about this, doing something about this, registering to vote about this speaking up about.
Not because the asteroid is going to hit the earth, but because we're doing this together and that shift is happening right here and right now. Along the way, people who don't want the shift to happen are saying, no, no, no, no, no, no, just eat a veggie burger. But I think that there's a whole generation of people who are coming up who are smarter than that.[:
[00:15:22] Niki: It was a very gradual aha moment. If that's possible. Of realizing that the avenue to change wasn't in any small thing that we can do, because so much of our world is controlled by these larger policies and larger organizations that make these decisions that impact, you know, 90 or 95% of, of the carbon output. And I remember that the thing that Seth said to me, that really sort of struck a note was was the idea that, of, uh, of the Ogilvy memo.[:
[00:16:30] Niki: I think the idea that, that this was, this was something that these companies knew about and that they had decided, had to be actively combated against in the form of marketing. And that the marketing would then take the form of convincing people, not convincing people that this wasn't going to happen, but convincing them that, that it was, and it was their individual fault. That it didn't have anything to do with these oil companies and what they were doing, look away from them. It's you, it's your fault. It's because you had a burger today. It's because you used a plastic container. And so, when all of this goes away, it will be your fault. And that is a very clever technique for deflecting responsibility. And the, I think that understanding that that is what had happened, that that was kind of a real awakening for me.[:
[00:17:52] Niki: I think a book that has really stood the test of time and that I continue to think about as a reference point for these conversations is Margaret Atwood's book Oryx and Crake. I don't know if you remember, but there's a game that the characters play about, uh, about extinct species and, and just the relationship that humans in that novel had with their environment, with the food they were eating with the DNA of the creatures that are surrounding them. I think that has was, it was once upon a time science fiction and then it kind of became reality very slowly with none of us noticing. And, and I think if people want to experience that sort of horror that is a good book to start with.[:
[00:18:50] Seth: Long before I met Niki Papadopoulos, when I was a struggling author getting rejected day in and day out, my spouse came home from a hard day at work to hear that once again, I hadn't made a nickel and she said, why don't you do something useful? Like invent the pit-less cherry. So the next day, when business hours rolled around, I called up the US Department of Agriculture and they had something called the cherry desk, which were experts on cherries that you could talk to.
And they connected me to the cherry desk and the guy at the cherry desk said, uh, it's not hard at all to make a seedless cherry, but you can't make a pitless cherry. And I was like, what do you mean? He said, a cherry is a droop. A droop is a kind of fruit. And droops grow around the pit. If you made one without a seed, the pit would be empty. It would be really hard to grow, but it would work. He said, but no one would notice because it would still have a pit. And if you don't have a pit, you don't have a cherry. And when we think about culture change, when you think about conversations, sooner or later it's a droop. Sooner or later at its center is a core of something. And there have been really good thoughtful books written about the climate for the last 40 years, but none of them yet have become the center. And what we're trying to do here is not replace them, but augment them. To be able to say, as simply as we can, don't take our word for it, but you can look it up. Because there's a group of people who when challenged in that way, will look it up and will get the joke. And the three of us on this conversation, we get it. And if that doubles just 30 times, then everyone will get it. And then we'll be able to start having systemic action.[:
[00:20:49] Seth: Niki has such a frustrating job. Once a week, they bring a book to the world that everyone who's relevant should read and people don't. Because teachers and systems taught us that books in school were the same thing and the school was bad and the books are a pain in the neck so we avoid them. And climate is something that people associate with being alive or not being alive.
And if you show up to people and say, we need to pay attention to this, good people, people who are smart will look away. And they will look away because they just don't want to deal with it. And other people with guts and care people like Jennifer and Niki say, show me. And that's how culture change works. And that's what we need. The people who are ready to look straight at this are now being exposed to what they need to see.[:
[00:22:10] Seth: Well, I just want to insert one thing first because you didn't ask you about it. The way I work with Niki, Papadopoulos is, I have a blank check that I have offered her. If she wants me to change the title of a book I do. If she says something is going to happen, I believe her. That trusting Niki and Adrian is a foundational principle of my ability to do this work. And we wouldn't be talking if that wasn't true. So the fact that Niki believed that we would pull this off means everything.[:
[00:22:46] Niki: Because I have seen Seth lead something before. And by lead I don't mean bossing. You know, going around telling people what to do and when to do it. I mean, creating a community where people could participate with each other to get extraordinary things done. And, and I'm referring to the alt MBA, which is a program I was incredibly privileged to be a part of. I was in the first cohort and it was, it was brilliant because Seth started it and he got us all together. But then we took it off on our own. That was a really big, important part of the project. It was not Seth speaks and we take notes and we'd go and do what he says.
And so I knew that Seth would be able to create a community and empower it like that and not be sitting at the center of everything and saying, no, don't write it like that. No, don't do it like that. No, don't solve the problem that way. And that's really, it's an extraordinary thing to be able to do.
Because if you are in charge or if you lead something or if you have vision, it's very hard to then trust as you say, other people with that. But I, I know from working with him that he is really able to identify talent and be able to empower that talent, to get extraordinary things done beyond what he had imagined.[:
[00:24:12] Seth: Because in the abstract from a distance, people are hard to believe in and engage with. But up close when we are seeing people, actually seeing them, people are really good and they will dig. And the technology here, which is worth noting for those who are wanting to follow in our footsteps is if anyone wanted to leave at any time they did and turnover was our friend. It wasn't our problem. And so it was always assumed that on any given day, the only people who would be there were people who wanted to be there. And to create a culture where we said this isn't about who owns what. This isn't about who's writing what page. Any feedback you get will not be about you.
They will be about the page. And we are all here to make this page better. Once we believed that someone who couldn't handle it left, so all the personality problems went away because no one had power. Lots of people had responsibility. And I knew as a project manager who has never gone over budget and never missed a deadline in a thousand projects that I wasn't going to miss a deadline this time. Because there were enough people who wanted to be there. That we had resilience built in. It was a non fragile system.[:
[00:26:01] Niki: I think just to underscore what Seth just said. It's the people are extraordinary. Um, I did, I did a little bit of lurking on the Discourse and I was just blown away by the talent and the effort and the heart and the imagination, and the fact checking and I just, it was just really something that took my breath away. And I think it's a good reminder. You know, I think when we get stressed out, especially I'm a manager, when you get stressed out or you're worried about a deliverable, your instinct is to try and control people to kind of, to try and control the outcome. And so in doing that you diminish their agency and you make them smaller and you also take away their spark and what makes them great. And the reminder that's not how you're going to get great work ethic. That's not how you're going to encourage people to grow and flourish. And to me, that was just a really powerful thing.[:
[00:27:04] Seth: Um, it's a lot less lonely. And we have a loneliness epidemic in our world and this community. We're not good at small talk in this community. There's not a lot of time spent discussing believe it or not the weather. Um, but to know that there are people next to you on the journey, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, that you know, it it's special.
And I have long built organizations in my career and often worn myself out because I'm terrible at being a manager and a boss. I don't like the perception of power. Um, but I love being in community. And so this has been really special. And you know, there, there's a saying, you know, in Algonquin Park during the last week of the summer, you don't start planning for next summer.
You don't even start planning for tomorrow. You enjoy today. And I am right now exactly where I need to be and want to be. And I am spending zero cycles thinking about what's next. This is what's next. This is the focus of every one of my days. And to do it with a group of people like you, Jennifer, who have just consistently and magically made each day better. What a privilege.[:
[00:28:35] Seth: I would say the most challenging moment is we had some hoarding at the beginning. And I had to decide if I was going to permit the hoarding to happen, because if it, you know, we needed the eggs and the chickens were laying the eggs. So you just let the chickens lay the eggs. But you can't because it doesn't scale, it's not resilient.
So we had to stop the hoarding. We had to say, you know, there are other people who can do this too, and you're going to need to let them do it with you because we are not going to wait for you. And we were at a particularly fragile part of the project. And I knew we needed to do that and we did it and I'm glad we did. But every day, including that day, I knew that there were the right people in the room at the right time who had everybody's back. There was a less existential risk with this project than almost any one I have ever worked on. Because there have been plenty of times I've been writing a book and I got to page 80 and I was like, I don't know if there's a book here, but that never happened.[:
[00:29:45] Niki: One of the fun and challenging things about working in publishing is it you're always trying to take the complexity of something that is a book and to deliver it in like a sentence. And I had had a couple of early misfires in doing that where I think, you know, I get so excited about like the collaborative I'm like, Ooh, like this.
And then, you know, and sort of, not really realizing like what people were hearing when I was talking about that. And so, I can't remember the particular language, but I think figuring out how to position and talk about this book, in a way that could be heard by people who were not going to take, you know, for whatever reason, like they're not going to sort of sit down and pour over every single page to figure out what it is. That was a challenge for me. And that's, you know, that's a frequent challenge in book publishing as anyone will tell you. And it's one where we do spend quite a lot of time. But that, that was something that I think was a little tough. Something that wasn't challenging but that was sort of an interesting process was the cover process. We just looked at a lot of covers and, and the cover process forced us to have some other bigger conversations about like, what are we signaling with this book? Who is it for? Where does it live? Is it for the insiders only? Is it for the insiders to give to the less insiders and I felt like that process, like it was never just about an image. It was about where is this book going to live in the world and how is it going to encounter its audience. And, and so that was super clarifying for everybody. I think.[:
[00:32:10] Jennifer: So what are we trying to say with the cover then? Like, who is the Almanac for, we should have discussed this way back in the beginning of this episode, but who is the Almanac for?[:
[00:32:24] Jennifer: Well, it's for the people who we love, that we wish understood where we are at collectively at this time, who are maybe not adverse to hearing this information, but maybe either scared or think that they can't come to the conversation because they don't have the right words to say or reluctant because of what political party they're in or whatnot. That's who I think it's for. Did I get that right?[:
And you came up Jennifer with the penultimate page at the book, which is that little envelope with the red string on it, where you can write the name of the next person in your office who needs to get it because that's one of the things books are the best at. Is, if you put it on someone's desk, they have to touch it. They can't just leave it on their desk.[:
[00:34:19] Seth: What about you Niki?[:
If there's one way I could describe the typical member of The Carbon Almanac network, it's, it's a shipper. You're all shippers. You're like, yes. And that attitude is, is just replete in the Discourse. I mean, it's, it's the, like, we're going to make this happen. It's not about what I want. It's not about, oh, I, I feel, you know, an emotional connection to this particular verb. It's like, no, no, no, that's not going to work. Let's move on. Let's do this. Let's do this. What about this? And so, um, I didn't have any doubts at all.[:
[00:35:19] Seth: Nope.[:
[00:35:21] Seth: No, it's not about bravery. It's about experience with project management and understanding that if you get the politics out of the way and you work on something that's important enough and you have discipline and rigor, it'll get done. And you know, Lorne Michaels may or may not have said Saturday NightLlive, doesn't go on because it's ready. It goes on because it's 11:30 and some weeks it's not as good as other weeks, but it goes out at 11:30. We made a commitment to each other in October that is going to be done before the end of February. And it was. The real thing was how much better than I hoped would it be when it was done. And the answer is way, way better than I hoped.[:
[00:36:30] Niki: Oh, my gosh. I will say I did not expect it to be so beautiful. When Seth sent me those first few spreads, I just thought, oh wow. I heard charts. And I was like, okay, charts, you know, like sounds good. Maybe a few pictures. And the brilliance of, of having a design template that had some sort of underlying principles, but was flexible enough to accommodate different elements and could be used like that. I mean, it was just really that took my breath away a little bit. I have to say.[:
When Vivek showed up, I saw he had energy, but not a lot of book discipline. And the first two or three things he contributed weren't helpful. And we were clear with him about what helpful would look like. And to his credit within 24 hours, he got the joke and he ended up doing the first draft of at least 40 pages of this book all by himself because he listened and he learned and he changed. And that's exactly what we're asking the public to do.[:
[00:39:10] Seth: I've been in this industry for a very long time. And for a very long time, I was an outsider in the industry. And only recently did I become an insider. And it means a lot to me that people who I've admired for so long, see that there's something useful in the work.
And I have tried to open the door and I'm guessing now there's tens of thousands of people who write differently because I'm trying to teach them how what I've seen. But to do it up close and personal, and to watch people get out of their own way to dance with resistance, to ship the work and to do it with the spirit of generosity and emotional labor.
It's so gratifying. And I wish it was for a project that two weeks from now we've changed the culture forever. It's not, but that's okay because this is the project we picked. And it's a building block and we will continue to lay bricks until we make a difference. But we've already made a difference cause we've already changed the lives of thousands of people. So it multiplies.[:
[00:40:22] Niki: It continues to change me. I think that's why I'm pausing a little bit. The model of collective action. Again, I keep going back to this, but that, that has really stunned me. I think, you know, again, seeing what people are capable of when you give them clear guidelines and set a clear goal and a mission on something that matters. I just, I have been floored by what has come out of this community.
And, it's made me look at, made me look at strangers in a different way, because now everybody who I meet, I'm like, oh, are you one of them? Are you one of us? And it, it just changes the way that you relate to the world, I think. Because this is not a network of people who knew each other. This is a network of, of people from all over the world who were strangers. And the fact of this book is extraordinary. I mean, I just can't emphasize that enough. It keeps changing me.[:
[00:41:29] Jennifer: We have to get the K-Pop community involved.[:
[00:41:33] Jennifer: That's who we need. Now that I think about this. And what do you hope will be the impact of this project? Like where do you want us to be 12 months from now?[:
And I think that that is something that has been missing in the conversation about climate change. So if if we reach our goal, this community becomes a very powerful counterweight to the forces that are preventing change. Actual things are going to change because this community wants it to change. Because everyone in this community says one day, okay, this is the day we're all going to call this one office. And they, you know, blow up the office or this is the day we're all gonna visit this one website and everyone visits the website. It's just, I hope that this is the door to many other things. And many other activities that are powerful and then make meaningful change.[:
[00:43:25] Niki: Well, that's very kind. We feel incredibly lucky to know you Seth and I think you are Under selling yourself and your role here or not in terms of the sort of project manager of the book. But I really do think that that all of your teaching and your writing and your books have led to this other book. I think that you have always worked to empower people, to teach them how to contribute meaningfully and that their voice matters and that they have a responsibility to contribute. And, I'm just really excited because this book is a culmination of all of that teaching.