Understanding the mechanics behind climate change can sometimes lead to surprising insights. The other day I learned how a staggering 35% of global aviation impact is caused by 'contrails', the condensation trails you can sometimes see forming in the sky when planes pass by.
While clouds are both reflecting sunlight (reducing the energy reaching earth's surface) as well as trapping heat, these human made clouds unfortunately have a big net negative effect.
This insight has lead to an interesting approach to fighting their impact. Google, working with American Airlines and Bill Gates' Breakthrough Energy, came up with the idea of using Machine Learning to create altitude maps where contrails are most likely to form:
“It’s just like a big map that’s saying, ‘Look, planes flying at this altitude will make a contrail. So let’s not fly any planes through there.’”
Since only a small percentage of flying is responsible for these contrails, the increased fuel usage incurred by changing course (2% increase for impacted flights, translating to 0.3% of the entire fleet) is greatly outweighed by the impact of contrail reduction.
Reading the article and seeing the enthusiasm of the team behind the effort, made me realise the power and fun of solving big puzzles with a talented team. Ideas like this just might make the difference we need.
The usual indicator to measure our wealth is Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It's straightforward but also one-dimensional, in the sense that it's just a financial representation of wealth. Researchers have developed another benchmark called the 'Genuine Progress Indicator' or GPI that also includes qualitative components of well-being, such as social and environmental factors.
Comparing the development of global GDP and GPI per capita leads to interesting observations. While GDP per capita has shown a steady rise over the years, GPI peaked mid-1970s and has declined somewhat ever since:
The result resonates with my long-standing belief that our everlasting focus on GDP growth is not the way forward. I know, there is a risk of some confirmation bias here! Digging somewhat deeper, it becomes clear that the reason why GPI declines is mainly due to the depletion of earth's resources, pollution and climate change. Even though global poverty levels have been reduced and life expectancy has gone up, financial wealth has come at a far greater cost: the certainty of long-term survival.
All this came to my attention through Jeremy Lent, an author and speaker whose work "investigates the underlying causes of our civilization’s existential crisis and who explores pathways toward a life-affirming future". In his article 'Solving the climate crisis requires the end of capitalism' he sketches a pretty black-and-white picture that combatting climate change requires fundamental changes but that the big elephant in the room is often not addressed by policy makers:
"That elephant is called capitalism, and it is high time to face the fact that, as long as capitalism remains the dominant economic system of our globalized world, the climate crisis won’t be resolved."
Without choosing sides, I do believe that present-day challenges merit taking a critical look at our current capitalist system and its drivers, essentially its overriding objective to maximize profits. Capitalism has brought us many good things and most proponents argue that it's a system that promotes (technological) innovations, which are urgently needed to solve the problems we face. However, research has also shown that quite frequently these innovations end up increasing pollution and depletion of resources. While GDP grows, GPI declines.
"This dynamic, known as the Jevons paradox, was first recognized back in the nineteenth century by economist William Stanley Jevons, who demonstrated how James Watts’ steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of coal-powered engines, paradoxically caused a dramatic increase in coal consumption even while it decreased the amount of coal required for any particular application."
The discussion is often obscured by the proposition that any alternative to capitalism is worse than capitalism itself. You may even be called a communist. Therefore, they argue, capitalism and (GDP) growth is the only way out of our problems and we should not consider another system. Of note: in all UN environmental and global warming analyses, there is not one scenario that takes into account a stable or declining GDP. Not one. They considered such scenarios 'implausable'. That's in itself strange too. It seems implausable to me that highly-educated social beings would just ignore one of simplest answers to growing pollution and use of resources: reduce the demand.
As we've argued before, the preferable future is probably a balance, a best of multiple worlds. I'd agree that changing a well-entrenched system will take decades, but that doesn't mean we should not try to clearly define and implement the boundaries of a new system based on "life-affirming values". Many new and promising economic models have already been proposed, such as Kate Raworth’s 'Doughnut economics' that we covered in our second newsletter. It is possible to reduce resource and energy consumption while reducing inequality and improving well-being.
Everyone plays a role in this crisis and has a place on the board. The pieces aren't necessarily black and white, but some are on opposite sides, some in the middle. I feel there are spaces to be filled on this board. Will you join me in trying to fill the gaps and find foundational principles that could create the conditions for long-term flourishing on a regenerated earth?
Ever since the Romans perfected the production and use of concrete (the Pantheon being a great case in point), it has become one of the main building materials in our human society. Key ingredient is cement. Given the current production techniques of cement that involve processing lumps of limestone at high temperatures, it also represents ±8% of current man-made CO2 emissions.
An obvious place to start looking for alternatives. The good news is that many people have been doing that over the past decades. One route focuses on replacing cement by other materials, such as graphene (just adding less than 0.1% by weight of graphene to concrete makes it 30% stronger). Another way is to look at how nature builds strong structures, such as coral reefs.
In its 'Simply Science' section, The Economist reported in 2021 on some very promising ideas to essentially produce 'green' cement using natural ingredients and organisms. Organisms such as bacteria that under the influence of sunlight, when placed in a bath of water and calcium, produce calcium carbonate (i.e. stone).
Companies are started around these techniques but the main challenge seems to be speed and scale. How to bring these technologies to the market in large quantities in a short time? One of the examples the article mentions concerns the Dutch company Basilisk. It produces tiny pellets containing dried spores of several bacteria and its nutrients that once water touches the mixture, it will produce calcium carbonate. If you've added these pellet to existing concrete, it will lead to 'self-healing' once the concrete cracks. After all, once a crack occurs, moisture can get into the concrete. However, this technique was already announced back in the time when I studied at university (and, yes, that's a long time ago).
Great news that so many alternatives exist and are being discovered. We should try to find ways to ensure that these techniques get applied and scaled up faster. I wonder how the Romans would approach this?
Big challenges often ask for 'big collaboration' and a certain self-sacrifice. Put our own pride aside and join hands for a greater good. I see this need in tackling the energy transition problem. There are a lot of projects initiated by individuals, companies and governments to find a solution to provide the required energy on a carbon-free basis. However, I do also observe a lack of coordination and many parties inventing the same wheel.
I was therefore pleasantly surprised to read that researchers from ETH Zürich and TU Delft have released an open-source model that can generate "hundreds of ways in which Europe’s energy system can become green and self-sufficient by 2050 [in a cost-effective way]". This model is a great tool for policymakers, researchers and companies to evaluate the effects and tradeoffs of possible measures they want to take. Detailed explanation of the model can be found here.
In addition, the model has already led to some interesting insights.
"A decision to restrict the use of biofuels, for example, necessitates a complete electrification of both heating and transportation, with electric vehicles being recharged at times of the day when sufficient electricity is available."
Personally, I truly believe this is an important step to make great strides towards a green and sustainable society. Achieving this is a matter of overriding political and regional boundaries. We need a shift in political and competitive thinking. We'll be rewarded with a positive mindset and a bright, green future.
"It turns out that there is much more flexibility in how we achieve a green, independent energy system in Europe by 2050 than we once thought."
For quite some time, it is known that coral reefs are endangered by global warming. This is because the algae that reside within corals and provide them with food experience malfunction in their photosynthetic mechanisms at higher temperatures. Rather than producing molecular oxygen as waste of the photosynthesis, they start generating highly toxic oxygen-rich compounds, such as peroxides. You probably know the side-effects of peroxide: bleaching. For some, useful for their teeth, clothes or hair but for corals a deadly cocktail.
An article in the Economist shared some good news to combat the destruction that is happening at ever-increasing speed. There are several areas of research that are showing promising results. First of all, there are coral species that are already heat resistant. These can be found for example in the Red Sea. Research focuses on either transferring these species to endangered reefs or isolating the specific genes responsible for the heat-resistance.
Another focus area is the notion that some reefs seem to be more heat-resistant than others despite the fact that they are structurally and genetically similar. It seems that the environment they are in has a big influence. Organisms that are symbiotic to corals, for example particular types of their companion algae, seem to create more robust mechanisms of photosynthesis.
All these insights and potential solutions are promising, but large scale applicability is a challenge. Just imagine how you're going to populate the Great Barrier Reef, an area as big as Italy, with heat-resistant types coming from the Red Sea. As one of the researchers, Dr Cohen, notes:
“We have to let nature do its thing, because only nature can do it on the scale that’s necessary."
Nature will surely adapt to higher temperatures itself as well. Let this promising research not distract us from tackling the root cause.
Polly Higgins delivered a truly inspiring talk in 2014 called 'I dare you to be Great' (or her shorter TED-talk) as part of a programme of Schumacher College. The college is located in England and offers ecology-centred masters programmes, short courses and horticultural programmes.
Polly is one of the driving forces behind implementing global ecological legislations and making damaging the environment a crime. She is the creator of term Ecocide. Apart from the fact that it is an interesting story how she came to be the frontrunner in this area ("Life becomes complicated when you become ethical"), her talk covers many different subjects covering multiple philosophies and life principles.
Her basic life principles are driven by three core values:
This is why she doesn't see herself as a 'protester' when fighting for new legislation and criminalizing harm to the environment, but as being a 'protector', giving earth a voice. It is the sense that there is something greater than yourself present around you and you have a duty of care. Imposing legislation is just a tool to move people on the scale from deep disconnect to deep care.
Daring to be great is also about being a carrier and/or messenger of something far greater than what you can achieve by yourself. Your own contribution can be small, but often requires a bit of courage and stepping outside your comfort zone. You'll be surprised to find a lot of like-minded people occupying that zone.
Pointing out responsibility is generally experienced like harsh feedback. Our amygdala takes over, and a ferocious counterattack is a more likely result than any form of introspection. We just hate, hate, hate to be held responsible for anything. Still, if we can learn some lessons from a couple of millennia of written human experience, taking responsibility for our actions lies at the core of personal growth, and even liberation.
Take a look at climate change and our addiction to fossil fuels that cause geopolitical issues like the conundrum we experience these days. For the Netherlands, just setting our thermostats a degree lower would help us reduce our need for Russian gas in excess of 10%. Easy, right? Then, why are no governments professing this cure like crazy these days? The answer may lie in the fact that these past two years, a lot has been asked from the population in terms of acting responsibly. Politicians may be wary of losing touch with their base by being over-demanding.
Indulge me and take part in a small thought experiment. Imagine setting your thermostat a full degree (or even two) lower, and feeling a bit chilly when you're sitting on the couch watching TV. Now, see what kind of emotions you register.
If you're like most Western citizens, you start feeling like a sucker. Your freedom feels at stake, you're being limited. Your tiny contribution to the whole will be unnoticed, right?
But once you raise the thermostat again, the cold truth is that the one who will be noticing is yourself. Deep down you know the sum of our individual actions defines our results. That it's not the government or the industry that should take action, because everything they do, they do because of you. You vote with your feet, with your wallet. And running from that responsibility causes tension.
Release from that tension can manifest itself in two forms, collective and individual. Collective release usually takes the form of a crisis forcing us to change our behaviour in a radical way. The individual release, though, is what interests me most. Inspired by the notion that T-shirt temperatures in our homes and 9 minute showers (Dutch average) are a thing of just the past few decades, I started taking 2 minute showers, wearing a sweater and having a comfy little blanket at the couch.
Re-framing responsibility into an act of liberation might be one of the most energizing little life experiments I have done. If not for the collective, do it for yourself.
Challenges inspire us to come up with new ideas or blow off dust from historic mishaps. Especially when they are existential challenges, such as a new disease or climate change. As a consequence, a plethora of innovations have inundated our world in the past years to combat climate change. Finally, many would say.
Innovation inspires innovation. I always get a lot of energy (green energy 😉) reading about new inventions and achievements. Here are two bold ideas that triggered something, to fuel your lateral thinking processes and innovation engines.
These technologies may never yield what they promise, but I'm very confident and optimistic that due to these endeavours we'll find the many paths that lead to a sustainable future. Let's put all our inspirational power together and engage!
Human beings are built to detect fast changes and rely on patterns. This reliance on patterns and predictability has huge evolutionary benefits (it saves us from constantly seeing everything like a baby does, drinking from a firehose worth of information) but it can also fool us into destructive behaviour. Normalcy bias, as it is called, is our human tendency to think our environment will stay as it is.
When COVID hit two years ago, most of us suspected that life would continue as we know it. Even after seeing the first illegally broadcasted images from China of locked down apartment buildings, most people suspected that this would be a blip that would be forgotten soon. We are just hardwired to have a tough time with imagining drastic change. Combine this tendency with increased complexity (and therefore unpredictability) in the world around us, and you get an interesting mix.
A tool that might help in getting ready for possible scenarios is the 'disaster movie' (or 'near disaster movie'). Last week I watched "Don't Look Up" on Netflix, which I think does a wonderful job of making you empathise with humanity when faced with a potentially life-eradicating comet hurling at the earth, only 6 months away. The prospect of human life being terminated might not be everybody's cup of tea, but the stellar performance of Meryl Streep (playing the President of the United States) and Jonah Hill (playing her son, also the Chief of Staff) make the potential nightmare highly palatable and a nice stretch for your bias-inspired convictions.
Marketing has a profound influence on our buying behaviour. You may have heard of a particular soft-drink brand that inserted single, split-second frames with their logo in films that were shown in movie theaters. Sales of this particular brand increased significantly. Could marketing be used to do 'the right things' as well?
Dr. Dafna Goor, Assistant Professor of Marketing at London Business School recently published her study, analysing why people still prefer standard products over their greener alternatives. It is a fascinating read.
First, she discovered that generally, consumers are more likely to choose green products in the morning. Digging deeper, the research team discovered that it is not just about the time of day, but rather how much effort someone has exerted so far.
"I suspected that exerting effort made people feel generally more deserving and therefore less likely to make a pro-social or ‘greener’ choice.”
Her suspicion was proven in several experiments. Participants that were given a hard task generally preferred a non-green reward. Reasons for this behaviour are still to be examined; depletion of physical and mental resources seem to lead to more immediate focus on yourself, more egoïsm, and less energy or 'space' to be concerned with larger issues. This behaviour doesn't seem to be deliberate.
"I think results like ours show how marketing has the potential to help people make choices that are better for them and better for the planet. It’s not about forcing people to do things they don’t want to do, but about how we can harness people’s purchasing power for the greater good.”
Of course, you could consider closing shops in the evenings, but making the shopping experience more relaxing, stress-free seems a more reasonable way forward. That will be a win-win for everyone, including the planet.
As part of finding solutions to climate change, many initiatives have been taken to 'engineer' the climate. From designing mirrors to be launched into space to releasing sulphate nano-particles, these ideas generally try to reduce global warming by reducing the heat coming into the atmosphere. As the Economist recently reported, the biggest critique is that these are not so much focused on reducing CO2. These voices do not remain unheard; many engineering experiments are put on hold as a result of protests from environmental groups.
Though all evidence and the recent IPCC report prove climate change is 'man-made', a large group of people remains that point to other factors behind long-term climate variations that the earth has experienced in the past billions of years.
Trying to observe all this from a meta-level, I tend to think that debating what exactly causes the current climate change and the most ideal solution is likely a waste of energy (pun intended). All stakeholders, including the earth, benefit from all ideas and experiments to either reduce CO2 emissions or engineer the climate.
The climate seems to be at the center of debates, globally. That's a huge gain. In my opinion, 'transition' seems to be the keyword. It is not so much about determining the exact end-game, but rather about increasing the momentum for change, whilst making corrections to its direction when necessary.
"In terms of climate impacts, you ain’t seen nothing yet. That needs to be made true of action taken to constrain them, too."
In the financial world, a 'hockey stick' chart is usually a sign you're entering territory where you ought to be on the lookout. Chances are prices have risen too high and too fast. Forecasts may be too rosy. Underlying assumptions may be positively skewed. Think bitcoin prices, internet bubbles, Tesla shares. There might be a great deal of speculation involved and this often has a negative connotation.
Not all fast-increasing prices are bad. The chart below shows the price of carbon per ton CO2 equivalent. It has tripled over the last year and this is good news for the climate. Firms in the EU are required to hold a number of carbon permits equivalent to their pollution.
This price increase has been the result of several factors. First of all, the supply of the carbon permits is limited. Secondly, the EU has recently raised the bar on emissions targets (meaning: less emissions by 2030). Lastly, professional investors and large (pension) funds have entered the carbon trading market in 2021 and taken large positions, betting on higher future prices. The little coloured bars at the bottom of the chart are an indication of trading volume and clearly show this.
At these carbon prices, carbon capture technologies and carbon-free alternative production technologies are starting to become 'in-the-money', meaning they are actually economically more attractive. Without the potentially distorting measures of subsidies. Which is exactly what the policy intended to achieve. A system where we put a price on a 'freely' available natural resource seems to work in our current economic system setup. Could this work for other natural resources, such as (sea-)water, fertile grounds, air as well?
One of the challenges humankind faces when it comes to reducing our environmental footprint is our diet. Besides the fact that research shows that 40% of food production goes to waste, our Western diets are 'overmeated'. Annual meat consumption in Western societies is over 70kg per capita per year with some exceeding 100kg, compared to for instance Japan where it is just 28kg. Because we need (and love) our proteïnes, we consume significant amounts of food where animals play a vital (sarcastically) role.
One environmental problem lies in how we produce meat. Even the most efficient meat, chicken, requires nine calories of input to get one calorie out. Therefore, a lot of effort and money has been spent on trying to educate and convince people to eat less meat, thereby reducing their footprint. However, in the US, the year 2019 recorded the highest per capita meat consumption recorded in history. It turns out changing our meat consumption behaviours is hardly susceptible to rational arguments.
"But what if we could make meat without the animal, why wouldn't we?"
The quote belongs to the CEO of Tyson Foods, one of the world's largest meat producers. It is exactly the approach the Good Food Institute (GFI) is promoting. In a recent Sam Harris' podcast, Bruce Friedrich and Liz Spect from the institute explain how following this strategy will likely be more successful than trying to change human behaviour.
"[...] for the vast majority of people sitting down to eat, it's really going to distill to: How does it taste and can I afford it?"
They sponsor research and projects on plant-based meat, cultivated meat, and fermentation. The goal is to make meat that tastes at least as well and is less expensive than meat from animals. If Mozes does not come to the mountain, the mountain will come to him. It's an interesting approach, which brings us back to education but on a different level.
"[...] one of the biggest bottlenecks we hear over and over for what's hampering the growth of the alternative protein industry is a gap around technical talent."
One of the few upsides to Brexit might be the fact that the United Kingdom will be able to define their own agricultural policies. The Economist writes about its future as the UK wil be leaving the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) this January 1st, after 47 years.
They explain how the policy has been subsidizing intensive farming methods, at considerable cost to the taxpayers, causing a lot of ecological damage. The originally intended goals behind the CAP, boosting food production, has not been making sense for decades.
Switching existing subsidies to behaviour that is beneficial for ecology and the beauty of the countryside (Britain is quite unique in considering the beauty of its farmed land as evidenced in tons of British poetry) can now be designed without EU interference. Smaller subsidies on these types of desired behaviour have shown to work beautifully with the farming community so far.
The same issue of the Economist reports on the rapid deforestation in Brazil, which makes the discussion on subsidizing Brazil for conserving rain forest all the more interesting. I must admit that originally, I felt some reluctance towards this idea ("They should do the right thing because it's the right thing" and "Why should they get free money just for having the rainforest"). An analogy with oil helped me see things more gently. The Middle East has been paid handsomely for supplying us with energy for decades. Now that cleaning Carbon Dioxide is key to our survival, why shouldn't we pay Brazil handsomely to do part of it for us?
The Saturday edition of Dutch newspaper 'de Volkskant' featured an interview with Vaclav Smil. Known for his fact-based descriptions and analyses of world's big challenges, he's regarded as one of the current greatest thinkers.
In the interview, he stresses the importance of education. He notices that many people do not know 'the basics of reality'; knowledge to better understand how the world functions as an interconnected set of systems.
The main point of the interview is that he takes issue with the strive for endless growth. He reluctantly concedes that more regulation is needed. It makes me think of the doughnut economy model about which we wrote in our second episode. All in all, he's not very positive.
I personally believe more regulation to contain growth is not necessarily the answer, but investing in (the right kind of) education is. We may possibly need to rethink our current education.
This brings me to a TED talk by Rolf Winters, in which he shares ideas to 'prepare our kids for the 21st century'. Mr. Winters and his partner are the producers of the film 'Down to Earth' in which they have tried to capture the knowledge of earth's wisdom keepers.
In this short video, he notices that:
"...we're hanging on to our own vested interests, but these are not the interests of our children."
He makes the case for changing education to focus on teaching to ask the right questions, not give the right answers. To achieve this, children need to be taught how to connect with nature, oneself, others, the bigger picture and their dreams. In his view, the mission of a school is:
"How to nurture the innate abilities and gifts of pupils for them to become the sustainable beings they were born to be and to bring forth the change-makers the world so desperately needs."
Thus it's back to growth, meaning: development. I'm positive we're able to make this switch.
Sometimes, taking a longer view may not help you be more optimistic. Seeing things in perspective can help with concocting a worldview that is more robust.
In the March issue of The Atlantic, Peter Brannen writes about the Earth's history, the tiny blip that is humanity and the wild swings that carbon dioxide content in our atmosphere has seen in the past.
"During the entire half-billion-year Phanerozoic eon of animal life, CO2 has been the primary driver of the Earth’s climate."
Although his exploration of our planet's history is proof that we have been here before, describing the consequences this has had in the past is not the good news we might hope for.
“The climate system is an angry beast,” the late Columbia climate scientist Wally Broecker was fond of saying, “and we are poking it with sticks.”
Like seeing a tiny person in an overwhelming landscape, the story Brannen tells makes me feel in awe of the grand scale of our planet's past. The timeframe we consider to be 'our history' and the definition of what we see as 'normal' vanish at this scale. It makes me realise the absurdity of claims that we are 'killing the planet'. Our planet and its lifeforms are way too robust to be killed in its entirety. We're just creating something inhabitable for us humans.
For me, the good part is seeing the challenge. The sheer arrogance, thinking humanity can engineer our long term climate, feels ludicrous and audacious at the same time. I love it.
While we are busy electrifying our car fleet in an increasing pace, another industry responsible for a large part of global emissions is still way behind in terms of big advances using this technology. I had the pleasure of seeing a small electric plane last year capable of short flights with two people aboard, proving electric propulsion has definitely made its way into a small segment of aviation. Long haul airplanes however, do not look as they are transitioning to electricity any time soon.
Popular science channel 'Answers with Joe' on YouTube sums up the current status nicely and full of humour in their episode 'Are electric airplanes doomed?'. The biggest reason for jets stil lagging is the energy density of batteries. Even with all the advances in Lithium Ion battery technology, jet fuel can still hold 45-90 times more energy per kilogram. Long haul jets needing to carry 45-90 times the current fuel weight is physically not an option. Furthermore, batteries keep their weight during travel, while fuel is burned, improving the weight ratio.
Joe closes his story with the question whether we will be able to innovate ourself out of this predicament or whether we should adapt our behaviour. For the business travel part, I feel the current pandemic has shown we can often do without, while remote meeting technology is still improving at an astounding pace.
The 2020 International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook was just published, confirming that the world’s best solar power schemes now offer the "cheapest…electricity in history". Let that sink in for a moment. The technology is now cheaper than coal and gas in most major countries and 20-50% cheaper than their earlier projections. This now causes the IEA’s main prediction scenario to have 43% more solar output by 2040 than it expected in 2018.
The report also underscores the importance of individual behaviour change, such as "working from home three days a week", playing an essential role in reaching the "net-zero emissions by 2050 case".
The results of this transition are visible in a chart created by the BlackRock Investment Institute. It shows the US electricity generation sources shift during the last 7 decades.
Not only is electricity consumption flat for the past 20 years, production by coal powered plants is plummeting. We still have a lot of challenges ahead, but seeing the needle move in the right direction makes me hopeful we can actually turn this ship.
Implementing solutions to problems often brings new challenges in a later stage that were not intended nor foreseen. Fixing those challenges alleviates damage, but often brings new problems of its own. At some point, a thorough reflection of the whole system is needed to re-visit the course we've taken.
A great example of this is modern agriculture. In the 1940's we invented chemical fertiliser, which boosted yield (measured in weight). These weakened the natural defense mechanism of plants; pesticides were then developed to protect them from their natural (now) adversaries. Now, we are faced with mass extinction of bees and a structural decline in soil health, leading much of our industry towards genetically engineered crop and monoculture in order to cope.
Trying to break this chain of endless fixing, the field of Regenerative Agriculture is gaining traction. While a relatively new term, it is a re-hash of ecological farming that has been around as long as mankind. All around the world, farmers are experimenting with these new/old techniques and are demonstrating that it can even be an economically sound choice. Knowing that further evidence is showing up as we go along and accepting that there is tons more that we do not know, I feel like trusting natural intelligence might be a good bet.
If you're up for a paradigm shift in thinking on this subject, one of our readers pointed out the trending Netflix documentary Kiss the Ground. Even if food is not a big concern for you, it will show you how to re-think complex systems.
Last week, when Tesla filed its annual 10-K report with the SEC, it revealed an investment of over $1.5 Billion in Bitcoin, causing the cryptocurrency to soar to its highest valuation ever.
As for Musk, I do not think any one person has contributed more to the transition to electric vehicles than he has. On the other hand, I think his mission to make humanity a multi-planetary species and set up shop on Mars 'for our survival' and his dystopian view of AI mostly reflects his technocratic, analytical and exponential worldview and lacks emotional wisdom. Exactly what makes him successful in his main realm of business. ⚖️
In his decision on buying Bitcoin, his anti-authoritarian impulses have clearly trumped his desire to save the planet. By design, the 'proof of work' mechanism that makes Bitcoin work, is extremely inefficient and power-hungry. The Verge reminds us:
"If bitcoin were a country, its annual electricity consumption would rank 30th in the world. It would use just under the amount of energy Norway consumes and slightly more than Argentina, according to the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance, which keeps an updated estimate of bitcoin’s energy consumption."
I would not go as far as John Quiggin (economics professor at the University of Queensland) calling it "environmental vandalism", but the move sparked a big jolt of cognitive dissonance in me, only to resolve upon accepting that moves like those are just the other side of the same coin. And I still feel the dissonance, the tension and the release, make for a great piece of music.
One of the main rules for getting great brainstorming results is not to kill grandiose ideas. Even if you think the idea is completely un-realisable, it might provide you with valuable elements that you can incorporate into a solution if you go beyond the obvious way of doing things.
Christian Schoettl, mayor of the French town of Janvry (672 inhabtants), came up with an ecological, glyphosphate- free solution to rid his town of weeds.
I couldn't find any origin story for the idea, but I can vividly imagine the conversation that might have transpired at the small 'Hotel de Ville' of Janvry, with an assistant shouting (read this with heavy french accent) "Ze sheep will go everywhere!". That's how the 'moutondeuse' was born. If you (like most of us) immediately come up with reasons that would limit the usefulness of this invention, bonus points for thinking out of the box and coming up with the next iteration!
According to research done by Stockholm Environment Institute and Oxfam Novib, the world's wealthiest 10% accounted for 49% of the world's CO2 emissions in 2015. This is more or less unchanged from the situation in 1990. The 'Bigfoot' among them is the top 1%; they account for 15% of the emissions.
Though one might use this research as another whip to bully the rich, I like to see this as good news. This relatively small group is easily identifiable. We can make a targeted effort to convince this group to significantly reduce their footprint.
Economic activity does not necessarily have to be reduced. Rather than introducing another form of wealth tax, changing behaviours and investing in new technologies can be made attractive. Next to immediate emission reductions, this could cause a snowball-effect as many wealthy individuals are an mimicked by others.
This could turn out to be a triple-edged sword: reduced emissions, rise in investments, increased well-being. China, which always seems to be growth-minded, recently announced it aims to cut CO2 emissions to zero (net) by 2060!
Claudia Schneider of the University of Cambridge writes in Aeon's Psyche on the research done into drivers for behavioural change. This has many useful applications, since most of our current societal challenges require collective action. When deciding wether to tap into people's feeling of guilt or encourage them to do better, one fact proved key:
"Having a positive self-image about who we are and what we do is a fundamental human need."
The team experimented with self-affirmation exercises and concluded a more positive effect on prosocial behaviour than using guilt as a driver.
"...instead of focusing on ‘doom and gloom’ messaging that zooms in on people’s shortcomings and risks alienating them, policymakers and strategists might find that positive messaging, speaking to people’s positive sense of self, might be a more powerful lever of behavioural change."
In case of urgency, positive affirmation and a good old slap in the face might prove for an even better combination. If anyone can show us how to wield this tool, it's the wonderful Sir David Attenborough, who joined the Instagram ranks to increase the audience for his warning on climate change with a heartfelt opening video.
Last week marked 10 years since the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. The combination of an earthquake and a tsunami caused a cascade of events, ultimately leading to 3 nuclear meltdowns.
These events were an illustration of one of the biggest drawbacks to nuclear power. While the risks are small, failure can immediately have catastrophic results. Combined with the long-lived toxic waste that nuclear power generation produces, the events led to a halt in nuclear programmes in most of the Western world.
The Economist evaluated the current state of nuclear affairs, and came to the conclusion that our response to the most recent disaster might not be the best in the long term. While solar and wind energy are on the rise and have become cheaper than ever before, looking at our energy consumption only in the Watt-hours dimension paints a flawed picture. The sun and the wind only provide us with intermittent power. As battery technology is still not mainstream, we will need other sources for a reliable grid.
"Despite this, safe and productive nuclear plants are being closed across the rich world. Those closures and the retirement of older sites mean that advanced economies could lose two-thirds of their nuclear capacity by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency"
If the gap resulting from this is filled by fossil-fuel infrastructure, this will then be in place for decades. For good reason, Bill Gates invested heavily in next-generation (safer) nuclear technology. He decided to stop his efforts after Fukushima because political will was gone. The Netflix show 'Inside Bill's Brain' gives you a great peek inside the process and the pitfalls of dealing with the matter. Our intuitive response to nuclear energy might not be in our best interest for the long term.
In general, artists have never been amongst the best paid people on this planet. You get a skewed image if you focus on the top 0.01% of painters, actors, writers and musicians, but these exceptions cannot hide the fact that the majority of people in the arts struggle to make a living with their craft.
It fascinates me how this contrasts with the way we consider all of our art forms to be uniquely human and invaluable to our well-being. We have gotten solace and comfort from art in our darkest moments and much of what we consider our historic achievements is art.
With modern incarnations of Patrons (like patreon.com) as an example of technology solving this problem, I was therefore quite enthusiastic about the dawn of the NFT. An NFT (Non Fungible Token) is a way to buy digital art based on Blockchain technology, albeit without the formal legal and economic ownership of the piece.
The NFT space has exploded recently, with many investors buying NFT's of everything from digital artwork and writing to videos of NBA action shots. Last week, a collage of work by Beeple was sold at Christies for US$ 69 Mio (not a typo).
My enthusiasm of NFT's took a turn for the worse after being confronted with Seth Godin's view and then reading this more in-depth article. While quite extreme in its conclusion, I have yet to find the fundamental flaw in the reasoning behind it. If NFT's are a modern incarnation of a pyramid scheme, it's not about to end because of a lack of buyers, but because of a clash with our moral and environmental values.
Cow farts; popularly believed to be a large contributor to global warming because they mostly contain methane. Problem is: methane is hardly found in a cow's fart (someone is actually testing that!) and they do not seem to be farting that much. Instead, the cow burps. A lot. And it contains methane.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, tens of times better at warming the planet than carbon dioxide. It is produced through fermenting cellulose-based materials such as grass in the first of four cow stomachs, the rumen. Roughly 80-95% of methane released by a cow comes from its burps.
Scientists, some financed by the meat industry, are working to find other solutions than just cutting down the meat consumption. Meat, after all, is still a good source of vital proteins. They focus on food additives and changing the diet in such a way that the rumen produces less methane. Eating a certain type of lemongrass does the job, for example. And it improves the smell as well!
But some go even as far as to say that cows could be part of a planet cooling solution. With roughly 1.4 billion cows worldwide, that seems somewhat self-fulfilling. The problem is big enough not to quarrel about which one solution is the best, but use all the avenues we have.