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


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.

Humanity and hegemony

I’ve always been shocked by humanity’s outsized impact on the earth. After all, we’re recent arrivals on the scene and there are far fewer of us than most animals and insects. We shouldn’t have affected big things like ecosystems yet, right?

Yet a new study found that humans have destroyed 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants since civilization began. And today, 70% of all birds are farmed poultry, and 60% of mammals are livestock. As the article says, we are “simultaneously insignificant and utterly dominant in the grand scheme of life on Earth”.

One of the study’s authors wrote:

When I do a puzzle with my daughters, there is usually an elephant next to a giraffe next to a rhino. But if I was trying to give them a more realistic sense of the world, it would be a cow next to a cow next to a cow and then a chicken. – Professor Ron Milo

Another way to look at it:

A system for all of us

My all-time favorite last line of a book comes from William McDonough’s “Upcycle” (about ways to build products that enrich the environment rather than harm it) where he closes by saying:

It’s going to take all of us, and it’s going to take forever. And that’s the point.

We’re at an interesting point in history, where for the first time most of the people in the world have significant resources and freedom, but that has brought with it environmental destruction and growing inequality. It’s clear that the current path we’re on is not one that we can follow together forever…but what is a viable alternative?

Economics is one of the foundations of a society, so the economics of a collective system are crucial. Daniel Schmachtenberger has put together an interesting list of the criteria a collective economic system must support :

  • It must align the incentives of all individuals with each other and with the commons
  • It must work well with new systems of governance, law, intelligence, infrastructure, and worldview
  • It must solve the problems of today’s systems: perverse incentives, private ownership, scarcity-based valuation,
  • It must provide a viable transition path from today’s systems to the ideal future. As the author puts it, “this probably requires out-competing the current system, in a way that can scale to everyone, while obsoleting the destructive forms of competition within the new system.” Beat capitalism at its own game, if you will.

Interestingly, he later points to agriculture as the starting point for our current economic system, as it introduced both surplus and unequal scarcity for the first time. Both of these accelerated exponentially over time:

Accumulation has reached a point where single individuals have more accumulated wealth than all of the world combined before the industrial revolution. And abstraction has reached the place where tens of trillions of dollars are moved around the world daily, in digital form only, based on financial statements seeking to maximize profits…the consequences of which can include war, species extinction, climate change, increases in poverty, and so on.

More on this perspective soon, from my recent reading of James C. Scott’s Against the Grain.

The solution, in Schmachtenberger’s view, is to reverse the incentives in our current system, and make that process faster by optimizing the coherence of the people in it:

Extraction is replaced with contextualization; (value) abstraction with instantiation; and accumulation with distribution and flow dynamics…

Its source of competitive advantage (over the current system) has to come from optimizing coherence – of the agents with each other and with reality.

There’s some pretty heavy economics jargon in there, but it’s really interesting to think about designing systems that would feature these traits. My current strategy is optimizing collective intelligence through collaborative software; but worth thinking more broadly about how that interacts with the other parts of a future-viable system for all.

Doing more with less

The fundamental challenge of our generation is to design lifestyles that everyone wants and the earth can support forever. Buckminster Fuller put it well:

The possibility of a good life for any man depends upon the possibility of realizing it for all men. I must be able to convert the resources of the earth, doing more with less, until I reach a point where we can do so much as to be able to service all men in respect to all their needs.


A fun exploration of a future world where bicycles reign supreme