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The Eco-Wizard

John Picard Believes We Can Save the Planet Through Recycling and Digital Technology. And With Such Deep-Pocketed Clients as DreamWorks, the Gap and GTE, Just About Everything He Touches Turns to Green.

January 11, 1998|Alan Weisman | Contributing editor Alan Weisman's next book, "Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World," will be published this spring by Chelsea Green

Picard's life is about disproving the one remaining argument against environmentalism--that it costs too much. Most often, his path snakes through optical fibers: Picard is convinced that the digital technology we refer to as virtual reality is the key to saving the beloved old real reality. These days, Picard gets paid to dream up ways to prove this, by companies who hope to turn his ideas into products that we crave, regardless of whether we care that they also relieve environmental stress.

Picard claims the world he envisions is readily available tomorrow. It's a world where your door recognizes you and unlocks; where thinking furniture molds instantly to the ergonomic whims of your body and continually tweaks the lighting and ambient temperature for your optimum comfort; where intelligent carpet uploads the newspaper through your shoes and into your glasses; where the toilet seat checks your vital signs each morning and messages your cardiologist if something seems amiss. It's a realm where even guns aren't stupid: No crook can fire a stolen weapon--nor children accidentally shoot themselves--because the trigger responds only to the finger of its licensed owner.

Most of all, it's the Internet, which John Picard believes is where we will soon do most of our errands, our shopping, even our work. Besides energy and materials, another precious resource it will conserve, he promises, is our time. "This technology will let people work where and when they want, instead of having to shove their kids into day care and go plow away for eight hours a day. It's the purest form of freedom we've ever seen."

Even for mainline Net-surfing addicts, that's hard to swallow. As GTE's Dave Sorg, one of Picard's digital cronies, admits, even with today's swift modems, "You spend as much time waiting for something to download as you do using it." But Picard sees this infant technology, racing through generations faster than mutating fruit flies, heading toward a not-too-distant day when computerized access to almost everything will be as "frictionless as our reflexes."

Can it be true? Picard has already convinced many powerful players in this town that he is privy to the secret that some businessmen would consider trading their firstborn to know: what the future will look like. And he's getting paid hundreds of thousands to spread the word. With his guidance, for instance, the city of Beverly Hills will soon offer affluent consumers anywhere in the world real-time, online video shopping in Rodeo Drive stores, via the Internet.

But how many of us will really be able to afford this computerized future? And is a future dependent on silicon-based fiber one that, deep in our carbon-based hearts, we'll like very much?


John Picard's technical education began at 12, tearing apart old toasters and lawn mowers in an Orange County dump to see why they stopped working and touring Apollo rocket test sites with his father, an electrical engineer on contract to NASA. One night, Wernher von Braun, father of the U.S. space program, came over for dinner, and young John heard a story about John Glenn. "Seconds before liftoff, with Glenn strapped into that rocket we built for him and man's best efforts all focused on that moment, and you know what he said to himself? 'Oh, my God! I'm sitting on a pile of low bids!' "

In his 20s, Picard began to grasp how that story accounted for much of what's gone wrong with the world. By then he had left Orange Coast College to work for a contracting firm and bought himself one of the first IBM personal computers, on which he designed a program that showed, to the penny, the accumulated cost of every step of a construction job. The program saved significantly by streamlining task-scheduling, and Picard next used it to analyze the cost-efficiency of buildings. Soon, he was in business for himself, specializing in energy-efficient renovations of extravagant estates, such as Mary Pickford's, Harold Lloyd's, and that of Hollywood magnate Marvin Davis, a palace whose utility bills topped $20,000 per month.

Picard quickly realized that his fabulously wealthy clients with their four-inch copper sprinkler lines weren't so unique. Strolling through office buildings, he started noticing absurd inefficiencies--electric fixtures where windows and skylights could relieve energy budgets and the pallid, sullen cast of employees' faces, or sealed glazing that required costly cooling in lieu of free ventilation. (Years later, when the new Clinton administration invited members of his eco-Dream Team to Washington for a project called "The Greening of the White House," Picard reported to Vice President Al Gore that just one trip to the restroom showed him where his tax money went: The radiator and air conditioner were both on, and someone had cracked the window.)

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