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Spending Google's money on conscientious causes

Dr. Larry Brilliant heads the company's efforts to fight global warming and poverty, and aid public health.

There's no question that Google is serious about its green, or environment-friendly, policies and practices.

The company not only recycles and composts, it also boasts buildings made from recycled materials and offers free commuter shuttle rides and cash incentives to employees buying hybrid gas-electric cars.

It launched a program to convert company cars to plug-in hybrids, and it . It is a leader in an initiative to increase efficiency in PCs, and its employees dine on free-range beef and eggs from cage-free hens.

This week, Google said it would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fund companies developing clean-energy technology. It plans to invest directly in technologies like solar-thermal power, wind power, and geothermal systems. The goal is to find a way to make renewable energy cheaper than coal and thus reduce greenhouse emissions that threaten the future of the planet.

CNET News.com talked about Google's philanthropic actions and philosophies with Dr. Larry Brilliant, the executive director of nonprofit Google.org. Brilliant has spent much of his adult life working on health and public-policy initiatives. A public health physician by training, he helped eradicate smallpox in India while working with the United Nations, founded a nonprofit that provides aid to the blind, and has served as a volunteer in helping victims of natural disasters.

At Google.org, Brilliant has the backing of one of the most successful technology companies and the opportunity to influence other wealthy businesses to look beyond product releases and profit margins.

Q: How significant is it for Google and Google.org--and in general, for an Internet company--to be doing this?
Brilliant: Well, the most important thing is, is it good for the world? I just did a Commonwealth Club talk with the undersecretary general of the U.N., who just released a report called "The Human Face of Climate Change."

It's really interesting. We have the luxury in the developed world of talking about climate change in the future tense, like it will be bad for my kids or my grandchildren, but if you're a farmer in Andhra Pradesh, or you're a peasant in Tanzania, you can't use the future tense because your land is already dry; you can't produce enough calories of food per hectare, as you did before.

There are thousands of suicides in southern India because the farmer is unable to keep up with the effects on (his) land from salt water. This is a real phenomenon all over the world, and we have to treat it with the respect and the urgency that it demands; not as another fad or another kind of media event. This is real.

As a fast-growing company, we realize that if we don't become part of the solution, we will be part of the problem, and that's not acceptable.

So, Google is just one company. There are lots of people trying to combat this. This is the challenge of our generation, but we're hoping that if we put everything we have into it, others will do the same, and we're in a good position because we've got cash, we have Google.org already set up to do nonprofit stuff, and we're a large buyer of electricity.

So we can prototype and test these new technologies, we've got thousands of engineers to work on it, and we have two founders who are so impassioned about this...The theme that I'm pleased to see gain attraction is that you can make money by going into the renewable-energy business.

So why should we take Google serious in the energy business? Are you in the energy business now?
Brilliant: We are in the energy business now. Why should we take Google seriously? Well, I think some people will, and some people won't. We have a need, ourselves, to be a buyer of clean energy. As a fast-growing company we realize that if we don't become part of the solution, we will be part of the problem, and that's not acceptable to (co-founders) Larry (Page), or Sergey (Brin), or me, or any of us. We don't want to be part of the problem.

We're prepared to back up this announcement with investments in start-up companies working in the area of renewable energy. We're going to be hiring like mad the best engineers that we can find--and not just engineers: scientists, chemists, physicists, material scientists. The best way to know if you should take us seriously is to watch our deeds.

How committed are you going to be, in terms of resources, time, and personnel?
Brilliant: Very committed. There are two different ways in which that commitment will be shown. Google.org will be actively investing...We've already been contacted by a lot venture capital companies, asking us if we'll partner.

We're also hiring through Google into an R&D unit that was created as of the announcement. Those are serious resources, but it's just the beginning. In the press release (announcing the renewable-energy initiative, we committed) hundreds of millions of dollars of capital.

Well, what will the effort become? It sounds like it's going to be more than just a few investments. Could it turn into something really big and long-term?
Brilliant: It depends on what we find. I was pleasantly surprised by the seven-times-greater response to the RFP (request for proposals on the plug-in hybrid-electric car) plan than I had anticipated. It gives us many more opportunities to invest. So it's hard to answer that question until we see what comes in. But we're very serious.

So how, exactly, does this fit in with Google.org's missions to improve human health and alleviate poverty?
Brilliant: Well, we've got three areas. We've announced global health, poverty mitigation, and climate change reduction or prevention. We have three other initiatives that we'll be announcing in January, so it's not the only thing we'll be doing, but it's certainly a critically important thing for us and for everyone else.

So is climate change the biggest problem we face? And what's the prognosis?
Brilliant: It is the biggest problem we face, and here is why. Microcredit organizations in Bangladesh have given loans to 5 million people, mostly women. It transformed the lives of the people they supported.

All that would be washed away--literally washed away--if the amount of global warming that is currently contemplated, and the amount of sea level rise currently contemplated, takes place.

The current estimates are for an increase in temperature of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius. Some estimates are (for an increase of) 4 to 6 degrees Celsius. The current IPCC (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report suggests a 1- to 3-meter increase in sea level.

For every 1 millimeter increase in sea rise, you lose 1.5 meters of seashore, which means that if there's 1-meter increase in sea level, you will lose a mile of seashore.

That means that in Bangladesh, 30 (million) to a 100 million Bangladeshis will become climate refugees. If these numbers are correct, it means that southern Florida, lower Manhattan, and much of the (San Francisco) Bay Area will not be immune from these changes.

Climate change will contribute to so much spread of disease.

Climate change will contribute to so much spread of disease. Mosquitoes usually die off for three months every year in the temperate world, but when temperatures increase, there won't be a seasonal die-off.

You know, in this , human beings have an advantage: mosquitoes die every year. They have to start from the zero. That's not the case anymore. They'll be able to continue to breed year-round.

All these cities that were set up by the British all throughout Africa were set up in hills at 6,000 feet, and that's because the mosquito couldn't live at 6,000 feet because it was too cold.

Malaria will now find itself extending its range in height, in season, in latitude, and when you think about the million-and-a-half kids who die every year from malaria, the best way that you can help that is by preventing climate change. The worst thing you can do to exacerbate it is by losing the battle against climate change.

What other movements or efforts do you personally support that aren't necessarily a part of Google.org?
Brilliant: My wife and I started the Seva Foundation almost 30 years ago. Seva now works in 15 countries and works to cure blindness. We have projects in India and Bangladesh and Nepal that give back sight to more than 2 million blind people.

I am really interested in early warning, in trying to find systems that detect disease before the disease becomes pandemic. That looks at these 39 new zoonotic diseases, diseases of animals that jump species--like bird flu and West Nile Virus, SARS, Ebola, Lassa fever, Marburg, and AIDS.

We are entering into a new world of animal-to-human transmission. That's a particular passion of mine--to see if we can do something about that.

What's the biggest difference you see on the ground, in terms of how charity organizations and philanthropic organizations are now run, compared to when you started?
Brilliant: Well, I've been CEO of a couple of public companies. I started (early online community) The Well, and I've worked for the U.N. in smallpox and polio and tsunami programs. I've worked for private foundations, public foundations, and I see a difference in the culture in all of them.

These are people who, having seen how businesses can run well, devote some of their own fortune and the skills that they've learned at the helm of corporations to make the nonprofit work that they do more effective and more efficient.

In the 1960s, business was the enemy of social change, and the people who are working in foundations and working in NGOs and 501(c)3s-- they thought of our corporations as their adversary.

Corporations have changed. If you just think about it for a second: (eBay founder) Pierre Omidyar, what an amazing guy; Jeff Skoll, who came out of eBay; Marc Benioff, (founder of) Salesforce.com; Larry and Sergey; (Microsoft founder) Bill Gates.

These are people who, having seen how businesses can run well, devote some of their own fortune and the skills that they've learned at the helm of corporations to make the nonprofit work that they do more effective and more efficient.

That's the biggest change, and it has penetrated the way that the large campaigns work. The polio program is just so much more businesslike than the smallpox program was.

The guinea worm program that the Carter Center runs is run magnificently well...These are things that are being done for the greater good, for the social good, for philanthropic purposes, by taking the best of business and the best minds of business.

Is this trend limited to the tech industry?
Brilliant: Look at (venture capitalist) John Doerr and the amazing work that he's done in pandemic flu and in climate change and education. You even look at what Wal-Mart has done by one person coming in as CEO and saying he wants to green the company. There's just been a lot of really positive things coming out of the leadership of the business community.

I hate to use this word "stewardship," but it seems like there is a greater moral stewardship in this community now than I've ever seen in my lifetime. It's so critical and so welcome at this time.

We've always had organizations and companies like Levi Strauss that were progressive and social-minded. Like Hewlett-Packard, when the "HP way" really meant so much to the people who worked there and to the community around it. I have a feeling that it's more widespread now. I don't have the numbers, but that's my sense.

Do you think this is happening because things have reached such a tipping point, they've gotten so bad, especially with the environment, that not to act is criminal at this point?
Brilliant: Yeah, I think so. Bertolt Brecht, the great poet of Nazi Germany, once wrote, "What kind of an age is it when to talk of the beauty of trees is almost a sin because of the current sins that it leaves unspoken?"

He was, of course, talking about the Nazi regime...I would say climate change, for many people, is as compelling and demonic, in a way. We made it ourselves, of course; we've got nobody to blame but ourselves. I think it's certainly a huge call to action with the people that I talk to and the good people that I know.

Why do you think Google is stepping up to serve as a role model? Is it just because the founders are passionate?
Brilliant: It's not just Larry and Sergey. (CEO) Eric Schmidt is a committed environmentalist. His wife is on the board of the NRDC ().

It starts from the top. There is, at Google, a committed belief that we have to do more than just be profitable. We have to be socially responsible. We have to use our good fortune and the resources that we have to make the world a better place, and (that phrase is) not corny here.

What do you think about the , which some people view as a creative answer to helping feed the world's poor?
Brilliant: Well, my wife is a devoted "slow foodie" and has been for a long time. I see a lot of good things in that, if you look at what it costs us, in terms of water, to eat one pound of hamburger.

One hamburger from a fast-food restaurant is actually the body parts of something on the order of a hundred cows...We do some nutty things as a civilization. We take pigs, and then we chop them up, and we feed them to chickens, and then we eat the chickens. Whatever is left over, we chop up and feed to the pigs.

There's no better way to incubate a virus than to take the body parts of a pig and feed it to a vegetarian bird. There are things we need to do differently. They are not necessarily related to climate change, but they are related to the kind of world that we want to give to our children and our grandchildren.

Are you a vegetarian?
Brilliant: I am a pescatarian.

So you eat fish, but not meat?
Brilliant: I eat seafood. I was a vegetarian for seven years, and actually, it's because of climate change (and the fossil fuels used to raise farm animals and distribute meat) that I've become a pescatarian. In fairness to our species, it's only recently that we realized we are all in this together.

I remember when Stewart Brand, who created The Whole Earth Catalog and was my partner at The Well, got the idea that we had never seen a picture of the whole Earth and (persuaded NASA to release the satellite image of Earth from space).

That became the flag of the generation and The Whole Earth Catalog that followed. This was a new phenomenon for us--to realize that we are on a little, little marble, and that what we do really affects the Earth.

Imagine somebody in the Middle Ages thinking that what they do and what they eat and what they buy and what they throw away will affect the whole blue marble. It's a pretty big leap. I think we've actually come to understand it just in time.

Do you think so?
Brilliant: I do think so. I am an optimist.