Sustainability

Why it’s hard for us to change

Things are too good for us to change it all, yet too bad for us to leave anything as it is. This is the great paradox of modern times. – Rob Wijnberg

Why I work on productivity software

I made a shift in my career four years ago to work on productivity software. The motivating force was a desire to contribute to solving the climate crisis. I’m not a climate scientist, nor a physicist or even an engineer, who could contribute directly to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.

However I can design really good software, and it turns out that’s something everyone who is working on the problem needs.

Nick Bostrom, in his article “Three Ways to Advance Science” does a good job summarizing the opportunity:

Imagine a researcher invented an inexpensive drug which was completely safe and which improved all‐round cognitive performance by just 1%. The gain would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But if the 10 million scientists in the world all benefited from the drug the inventor would increase the rate of scientific progress by roughly the same amount as adding 100,000 new scientists. Each year the invention would amount to an indirect contribution equal to 100,000 times what the average scientist contributes.

Bostrom is specifically interested in medical interventions…but I think in today’s world the more mundane problems of distraction, confusion, and noncooperation are the bigger opportunities to tackle.

Evolving to eat air

Israeli scientists have figured out how to convert a heterotroph (an organism that must consume other organisms to survive, like humans) into an autotroph (one that can live off inorganic substances like CO2, as plants do). They did it by gradually starving generations of E. coli bacteria of sugar, while keeping CO2 available. Some of the bacteria evolved mutations that enabled them to survive on the CO2 diet.

In all, the evolved bacteria picked up 11 new genetic mutations that allowed them to survive without eating other organisms.

E. coli are also the bacteria most commonly used to create ethanol and many medicines. So a version that eats CO2 and creates valuable products is an amazing development. Kinda like a tree =)

A Beautiful Future

Alex Steffen–futurist, author, founder of Worldchanging–believes that imagining a beautiful future is the key to saving humanity in the coming climate crisis:

Above all, the desire to make things beautiful…is a thing people are willing to fight for.

One way to look at the planetary crisis is to create something beautiful at the level of the necessary.

It’s not only about how to prevent something terrible…it’s about how to make beauty.

There are millions of people right now dying for the chance to see a future worth fighting for. And it’s our job to imagine it.”

Teaching corn to save the world

Agriculture is one of the major causes of our climate crisis (livestock emissions, clearcutting of forests), but a group of biologists at the Salk Institute are trying to breed crops that gobble up carbon from the air, while simultaneously strengthening their root systems.

The secret is in teaching them to build more suberin (aka cork) in their roots:

By understanding and improving just a few genetic pathways in plants, Salk’s plant biologists believe they can help plants grow bigger, more robust root systems that absorb larger amounts of carbon, burying it in the ground in the form of suberin…

Once the Salk team has developed ways to increase suberin in model plants, they will transfer these genetic traits to six prevalent crops: corn, soybean, rice, wheat, cotton/cottonseed and rapeseed/canola.

In addition to mitigating climate change, the enhanced root systems will help protect plants from stresses caused by climate changes and the additional carbon in the soil will make the soil richer, promoting better crop yields and more food for a growing global population.

This kind of piggy-backing on existing societal practices feels very promising…not quite turning a vice into a virtue, but hopefully making it less harmful.

Our bovine masters

The old joke goes that aliens might think dogs rule Earth because humans pick up after them. That might need to be modified with the news that the United States uses 41% of its land area to raise and feed cattle. That’s by far the biggest land use in America, and it’s used so that we can eat cows and drink their milk. All the other food we eat directly requires just a tenth of that; 4% of our land.

Goes with the theme from earlier this week on how we have the resources to thrive, but don’t yet use them appropriately.

Found via the excellent Information is Beautiful awards for 2018.

Dystopia and its discontents

Kim Stanley Robinson breaks down the various flavors of utopia and dystopia and comes out in favor of writing about, and pursuing, utopias, despite their limitations.

He concisely explains why dystopias are unable to spur real change:

These days I tend to think of dystopias as being fashionable, perhaps lazy, maybe even complacent, because one pleasure of reading them is cozying into the feeling that however bad our present moment is, it’s nowhere near as bad as the ones these poor characters are suffering through…If this is right, dystopia is part of our all-encompassing hopelessness.

And why utopias meet such strong opposition:

It is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many.

It’s interesting to read his comments in the context of reactions to politically progressive efforts like the Green New Deal and universal healthcare. Some of the loudest opposition has come from those who already enjoy the desired benefits.

Immediately many people will object that this is too hard, too implausible, contradictory to human nature, politically impossible, uneconomical, and so on. Yeah yeah. Here we see the shift from cruel optimism to stupid pessimism, or call it fashionable pessimism, or simply cynicism. It’s very easy to object to the utopian turn by invoking some poorly-defined but seemingly omnipresent reality principle. Well-off people do this all the time.

Crafting a compelling utopia–or as I sometimes put it, designing a better way to live together–is the defining project of our generation. We have the resources and capability; what we still lack is the right design and pathway.

Our geologic legacy

The Anthropocene is still getting started, but it’s unlikely to last forever–either we’ll transform ourselves or make ourselves extinct. In 50 million years, what will be left? Probably just a few centimeters of geologic debris:

We note that effective sedimentation rates in ocean sediment for cores with multi-million-year-old sediment are of the order of a few cm/1000 years at best, and while the degree of bioturbation may smear a short-period signal, the Anthropocene will likely only appear as a section a few cm thick, and appear almost instantaneously in the record. – The Silurian hypothesis: would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record?

Cows vs. geeks

“Unlike the cow, we get better at making meat every single day” – Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown

Launched at a tech conference, naturally.

Mapping people

Map

A fascinating map where country size is scaled by the number of residents.

What defines a country’s importance? Its GDP; its military, its resources? More than anything, the most important attribute of a country is its people–who are they, where are they, and how many of them are there? Population density will define not only opportunity, but also our impact on the earth in the next 100 years.

Population can also be a blessing or a curse for a country. I recall (but can’t attribute) one quote about China’s rise…”When the West sees a billion workers threatening their jobs, Chinese leaders see a billion mouths to feed.” Meanwhile their neighbors to the east in Japan increasingly live alone, and find themselves needing to train robots for companionship.

Should you head toward areas of high density, or away from them? Will technology make it easier to spread out, or harder? Answering these questions will be critical to success in the future.