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April Collector of the Month: Chris Neidl

Chris Neidl

Base: Austin, Texas
Profession / Pastimes: Co-Founder, OpenAir. Director of Impact, Rethinking Removals. Being a dad. That's it.
Discord Handle: @neidl_c

This July OpenAir will mark the 6th anniversary as a community. What’s it like to look back at where you started from where OAC is right now?

Yeesh. That’s a hard one. In some ways it’s kind of become what I thought it might become. But in other ways, not at all. I think the core hypothesis – that you can form open source, distributed, entirely volunteer-based networks that can fill gaps and do certain things that otherwise wouldn’t get done – has more or less held up. And that’s been incredibly gratifying to watch unfold. The highlight of my weird 20-year journeyman climate career, for sure.

But figuring out how to keep a community like this coherent and functioning, when everything internally in our collective and externally in CDR world keeps changing so fast, has been kind of like riding a bull with a blindfold on while trying to memorize a really long grocery list. I walked into this with a passion for networks and what’s called ‘peer-production’ and how such a structure might create a formula for real impact. I picked that obsession up in grad school, and it really stuck. That has not diminished. But the actual practical managerial aspects of making something like this spread and grow has been a constant challenge for myself, Matt [Parker, OpenAir co-founder] and so many others here who have put a lot of thought and heart and time into OpenAir. It’s a permanent work in progress that I hope will keep evolving in the right direction. So, fingers perpetually crossed, I guess.

Were there particular moments or milestones that you think propelled things forward at different points?

Too many to count, but here are a few that come to mind without torturing myself too much.

Seeking out Matt Parker as my co-founder. I didn’t know him before, even though we crossed paths during grad school at NYU. But I just knew very early on that I wanted a game designer to be the person I started this with. I spent so much time before as an activist and had very strong thoughts and feelings about the need for looking at this whole thing as a dynamic feedback system that is gratifying for members because its challenging and fast-paced and even competitive. That’s what politics and being a citizen really can and should be. But a lot of activist methods and tactics and inter-organizational politics are far from that. They depend on a single fuel source: moral commitment. We need a better game, so to speak, to keep people engaged and to bring the best out of everyone, regardless of where they are coming from. I know Matt would instinctively get that, and would have both creative and work habits that were calibrated to getting us moving in that direction. I was not wrong.

Starting the Discord. Even though it’s kind of insane in there, it was the big “we are open for business” moment. It’s not perfect, but we needed an environment for people to connect freely. Our Discord is home base, and will remain so. 

Toby Bryce starting and just kicking ass with This Is CDR, and picking Megha Raghavan as his co-host. They do it so well, are so professional with it, and have really made something that fills a gap. It’s for CDR nerds, and people are free to get into the weeds, but it’s also accessible to newbies. It’s been a major driver of recruitment, and more than anything has extended OpenAir’s brand in a truly positive way. And it was the first time someone came to me with a mission idea that wasn’t my own, and I just said “go for it!” That’s kind of what it’s supposed to be all about, so it created an important precedent.

Confronting anti-CDR activists on a webinar in New York. We had really tough opposition to our first CDRLA bill, which was introduced in New York in 2021. Most of this was coming from old school environmentalists at the grassroots level who simply embraced incuriosity about the subject as their strategy, opting instead to shoehorn their narrow conception of it into a bunch of old-as-time narratives that environmentalism has conventionally run on. Namely, the Luddite / Thoreauvian impulse to be suspicious of change and innovation, and an over-reliance on protest as the only avenue to good outcomes. One of these groups held a webinar for their community about our bill, and they didn’t invite us to share our side. We knew it would be infuriatingly inaccurate and distorting. So we organized. Our people showed up and made up probably three-quarters of the audience, unbeknownst to the hosts. We prepared in advance very carefully how we would unleash facts and corrections as soon as the opportunity presented itself. And boy did we. Kind of a masterpiece. And it took them completely by surprise, a real ambush. Like flop sweat was pouring out of them, literally. And while I won’t lie and say that wasn’t part of what made it memorable, what was truly significant about that moment was that it was the first time something like a CDR grassroots came out in numbers and really made itself known to devastating effect. These folks have never held an anti-CDR event since. 

The passage of New Jersey LECCLA into law. Technically LECCLA New Jersey was our second legislative win, with the New York version of the bill passing first. But to me it was more important than New York because it proved so many things about our basic idea of volunteer advocacy. For one, it was a better bill than the New York version, with a bigger impact. But more importantly, it was an example of two people, Sue Dorward and Sean Mohen, seeing what we were doing or trying to do with activism at OpenAir, and just stepping up and making something awesome happen that required incredible patience, consistency, learning on the job, and creativity. They just did a superb job bringing together a team and ultimately making law. It was another critical proof point that this could really work, and that policies could go ‘viral’. 

There are so many other moments that I could name, but that would break our format here. 

Before venturing into carbon removal, you spent 15 years in renewable energy. How did that experience influence OpenAir as an idea and a reality?

Well, solar is my first true love, and I will always be a solar guy. I owe an enormous amount to my time in that world, and so many of the ways I look at CDR, its present and its future, as well as advocacy and change-making, really came from my time there. I first dabbled in this whole network-based thing while in that world. The critical consequences of modular technology, and how simple technical features can unleash a lot of complexity and creativity that can, in turn, create surprises and opportunities for leaps forward. I saw that with my own two eyes in many solar settings over the years, and it really sank in. 

And it was in my solar period that I fell for the legislative process, policymaking and lobbying, and learned a ton about how power works and can be influenced. The political instincts I gained from pushing for laws and other policy changes in New York – which is absolutely the toughest and most bare-knuckles political environment you’ll ever encounter in a democracy, trust me – are behind so many things I do reflexively within OpenAir. 

Now we are in 2024, and lots of OpenAir changes are in the works or are under development. What’s happening, and what prompted the shifts?

They were a long time coming, and we really felt that the future and survival of OpenAir depended on making changes that we kept putting off. We were taking unnecessary damage in 2023, and I was worried we would collapse. We just weren’t really super organized, and at first that was part of the model. But as things grew and more people came in, we were seeing a high bounce rate because entering OpenAir and trying to get a handle on what it is was frustrating and confusing. A lot of these things were obvious for a while – like not having any kind of functional onboarding system that we stuck to. So over the past few months we’ve reorganized and rationalized our Discord, integrated our Discourse forum better (still a ways to go on that one, but we’ve identified our needs), started our monthly orientation for new members, and shed a lot of dormant missions so people could more easily find something to do.

We’ve also begun the process of forming steering committees, consisting of volunteer members, to focus on member support, platform management, and communications. This is so necessary. However much my anarchist leanings have caused me to push back against structure, you really need something in place to ensure continuity, efficiency and error correction in a systematic way. We hope the new committees will add to that constructively. 

A lot of other things around the bend too, like a revamp of our website this summer, among other things. But the important thing is that we’ve begun to respond to a real challenge in a grown up way (however late), and are making corrections. And we can only do that because there are people in our community who really love OpenAir, understand what we are trying to do and have faith that we can do it.