Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ideas of the Future

Yesterday, I had the humble honor of attending a speech given by former President Bill Clinton. He was speaking to us, college students, at the fifth annual Campus Progress conference in Washington DC. He sought to inspire us, this room of wide-eyed youth brimming with progressive ideas and enthusiasm, to do something. Yes, simply to do…something. Everyone wants to make a difference; everyone wants to be great; everyone wants to do something with their lives; everyone wants a purpose. But people, we can’t do these things with the wave of our finger. Bill Clinton’s challenge to us: do something. It takes but one small idea to make a world of difference.

He held up a small, hockey-puck sized, chunk of recycled paper products. He said something to the effect of it not being “as sexy” as a smooth speech or a powerful demonstration, but this paper puck has saved millions of lives around the world. Having just returned from Haiti, Clinton told us the story of 8 Haitians who decided to take a stand against both the failing waste management system and the deforestation of their land. Essentially, trees were being systematically cut down to produce charcoal which Haitians use for cooking, heating, and laundry. As more trees were harvested, Haiti, which depends on trees to act as water barriers for hurricanes, was suffering the loss of home after home after home as water repeatedly flooded the city. Meanwhile, garbage littered the streets, essentially trashing the capitol city of Port-au-Prince.

The 8 Haitians, about whom Clinton was speaking, got an idea. They employed local impoverished Haitians to pick up the trash littering their city, bring it to a warehouse, and sort it. The recycled paper was mixed in a vat with wood shavings (collected free-of-charge from a local furniture maker) and water. The goopy mixture was then stamped into blocks and the water was compressed out. The resulting paper puck, referred to as “recycled paper briquettes,” was then ready for sale. Every bit as effective as charcoal, these pucks could replace it at a cheaper price. The streets are more clean, people are employed, the production of charcoal has gone down resulting in the maintenance of existing forests, and impoverished people can more affordably heat their homes, cook, and do laundry.

Clinton shared this story with us to demonstrate the importance of an idea. The cost of this project was minimal; the benefits are (and will continue to be) hugely significant. All it took was the brain power of a couple of people, some time, and work. When Clinton held up the paper puck he challenged us to do something. It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be grand. It doesn’t have to be “sexy.” It just has to be. These ideas are the future of our world.

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