"Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."
-- Elie Wiesel
Happy Friday, Shit Givers.
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Across the front of our website, in big bold letters, is our calling card: “Science for people who give a shit.”
You may have seen it and immediately thought “That’s me!” or “You sir, are a child.”
Either reaction is well and great. We’re not for everybody.
You’re here, though, so you either subscribed, or someone shared this article (essay? I don’t know what to call these) with you -- either way, I’ve got you in my claws, so let's presume you’re on board with the whole idea.
Now, you may fit into one of three camps:
You love the “science” part, and want use your knowledge and the forces of science for good, to better lives. Or
You identify with the “people who give a shit” part. You’re a semi-pro action taker, and you’re curious to know how science plays a role in all of this. Or
You simply just care, but you're struggling to keep up, and to affect the world around you.
However you identified with that tagline, you may have also asked yourself what it means, in practice. And that’s a good question, because while the mantra isn’t changing, I’m more focused than ever on putting it into practice for me, and for you.
Like I said, we’re not for everybody. For example, we don’t do a lot of “101” level work here. The train has mostly left the station, but it’s not going fast enough that you can’t keep up.
In fact, that's part of my job, to make sure you can catch the train. To ensure you’re as caught up as you need to be regarding what’s really driving the most change, and to help you take action, feel better, and build a better today and tomorrow, for everyone.
To clarify, though, this is also not the Train to Busan — nice on the outside, filled with deadly zombies on the inside. I don’t shirk away from the hard stuff — the climate crisis is a crisis, COVID killed and disabled tens of millions of people, growing antibacterial resistance is mildly terrifying, and racism touches everything everywhere all at once — but I also make sure to point you towards reputable, measurable actions you can take alongside thousands of other Shit Givers so you don't want to jump off the train entirely.
All of this is to say, when you sign on to be involved with “science for people who give a shit”, understand that I’m operating under the following assumptions:
You agree that generalism — or, at least, a multi-disciplinary approach — is essential.
Not only because there's so much going on, but because the issues are systemic, and generalism can help us take a big step back to understand our vast, interconnected systems, to interrogate them, and then build new ones.
Not that specialists aren't welcomed. Your numbers include many such humans, from surgeons to engineers, from 3rd grade teachers to pediatric cancer scientists, senators and AI researchers, designers and Hollywood producers, mechanical engineers who proved we could deflect asteroids, and more.
I have learned so much from you, and you, in turn have expressed immense patience with me, and interest in taking at least a part-time wider field of view.
You know that big problems are rarely isolated.
From heart surgery to soot pollution, from soil health to redlined city blocks, from wastewater to synthetic biology and drones that fight wildfires, no problem we face today exists or can be confronted, mitigated, or adapted to in isolation.
Overheated city blocks, bedrooms, and classrooms drive learning loss (mostly among the historically marginalized), while excess heat parches soil and vegetation, fueling excessive wildfires.
All while expensive cities drive people to take longer commutes in combustion engines, and often into that same increasingly-dry wildland-urban interface, escalating the odds of harm from fires, the opportunity for zoonotic spillovers, and the destruction of habitats and biodiversity the world over.
Great news, though:
Our biggest problems are tremendous opportunities.
For example: Plant-based diets reduce deforestation, improve soil health, reduce cardiovascular diseases, and the need for heart surgeries, as do cooler city blocks, and reduced exposure to transportation and wildfire pollution.
But also, improved indoor air quality from greater air flow, more air cleaning, and reduced exposure to unhealthy particles and gases mitigates childhood asthma, but also levels the playing field against a swath of airborne viruses, including COVID, measles, and the flu.
Fewer children and workers exposed to this garbage improves school attendance and economic production, building a more inclusive, educated electorate who (theoretically) elects more people from different backgrounds, all of whom actually give a shit. It's the circle of life.
Mitigation and adaptation must happen in concert.
Not unlike tackling your never-ending to-do list, just "playing catch up" against these systemic threats all the time means you're constantly bailing out the boat, when in reality, we've got to stop the water from coming in altogether.
Mitigation and adaptation must happen simultaneously for a variety of reasons, but among those:
Because we took too long to do anything about anything
Many people have been suffering for a very long time
Increasingly more people are suffering today and tomorrow
We have been steadfastly allergic to accounting for the costs along the way
Sure, yes, no question, by a variety of measures most of us are are better off than at any point in history. You are, for example, less likely to die from cancer than basically ever before, and I — by way of my skin color, race, health history, family history, education, and more -- punched one of history's most valuable golden tickets, through exactly zero effort of my own.
But averages conceal quite a bit of inequality (a "rising tide lifting all boats" doesn't imply all the boats started at the same depth (height? how do you measure boats?), also maybe that's not the best metaphor in a time of catastrophic sea-level rise, and anyways I think I'm really starting to run out of battery power on these metaphors).
THE POINT IS: Progress has come at enormous costs to resources and biodiversity that, again, we've never willingly paid the costs for, and now those bills are coming due whether we like it or not, including vaccinating bees, good work everybody.
That often means we know where we have to go, but more of us -- those privileged enough to make it this far -- are feeling the effects in places we didn't expect, and way sooner than anticipated. In cancelled insurance policies, rolling blackouts, flooding where once there was drought, in retirement plans stuffed with stranded assets, in astronomical food prices, in drought where once it was just sunshine, and in, you know, pandemics.
Sure, we need to #electrifyeverything, but to say that our grid(s) are wildly, devastatingly unprepared to handle even twice the current load, much less three times, as required, would be a dramatic understatement.
And that's because of decades of inaction, prioritizing pipelines over power lines, and worse.
And that's without the threat of freezing, fires, or flooding, or in a better future, millions of two-way industrial and home storage systems and distributed microgrids.
It didn't have to be this way.
Our problems are self-induced.*
*Well, it depends on how you define "self". Two segments of the population have never changed:
Because group 1 has yet to see really any repercussions from stripping the planet of her resources like some Michael Bay movie, they have yet to stop doing so. So group 2 continues to bear the brunt of frontline exposure to...everything.
I am decidedly not a "de-growther", mostly because I live in the world of what is politically possible, even if reforming the electorate and writing radical new policy is part of the mission. But consumption at all costs (or I guess, per my argument, no costs) is a decision a bunch of very rich folks made, and then (literally, again) sold to us, from fossil fuels to forests to fast fashion.
I fully understand the desire to not have "bad guys" in these scenarios, and to seek out the middle ground, and I know swing voters really do matter, but I also think it's pretty naive, knowing what we know about the history of real-world bad guys, and about our corporate and political actors and systems today.
Imagine for a brief moment if your country had the highest maternal mortality rate among "developed countries", but one half of your country's elected representatives claimed to be "pro-life" and wanted to "make X country great again". So they voted consistently and proudly against baseline policies that supported pregnant people, parents, and children — all in the name of tax cuts for the wealthy, who require more or less none of those policies to survive.
In fact, they went further than voting against "good" policies: they have sought and often succeeded to eliminate past good policies, while writing new "bad" ones that deprive even more pregnant people of health care, forcing them to have babies even if they were forcibly impregnanted or the baby is no longer alive, and then to be on the hook for providing them with life essentials.
They have deprived local health departments and water utilities of the resources to evolve beyond fax machines and lead pipes because government spending is evil.
They gerrymandered districts through a variety of measures to achieve a simple outcome: so Black people cannot vote. From Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, "the Census Bureau counts imprisoned individuals as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are incarcerated. Because most new prison construction occurs in predominantly white, rural areas, white communities benefit from inflated population totals at the expense of the urban, overwhelmingly minority communities from which the prisoners come."
These culprits or, yes, bad guys, designed the systems that got us here, and seek to design more, so I think we should both litigate the past, and be hell-bent on imagining a better today and tomorrow.
Our problems are, yes, already affecting people, but can get much worse.
Tick tock goes the boom boom. We are discovering more every day that tipping points aren't linear, nor do we really understand them beyond that simple measure. While it seems like we can slow, if not stop additional global heating by reducing new emissions to (actual) zero, we can't put sea-level rise back in the box. That's no bueno.
We have made enormous strides to bring projected temperature-rise scenarios into something (relatively) manageable, but as COVID continues to kill 150,000 Americans a year, I am wildly concerned about our inclination to normalize an enormous amount of suffering.
Bina Venkataraman, one of my favorite podcast guests to date (I love you all like children), wrote a book about how to be a better ancestor. This very simple idea has unlocked much of my focus here, because you simply cannot be a better ancestor by hoping shit gets better and posting black boxes on your Instagram stories. You have to do the work, for today and tomorrow, and not just in the turns-out-pretty-creepy longtermism/effective altruism way.
If you want your descendants to consider you the cool great-great-uncle, you need to drive change today, like right now, so they know deep down you did what you could to not only alleviate suffering for the people who have it much worse than you do, but to actually make shit better, like way better.
Because if nothing else, setting a foundation of "way better" now will pay off big time for them, later.
Money isn’t the only thing that compounds.
Compounding money is great (if it's available to you).
Compounding money given to children at birth and to parents in the form of wildly successful tax credits we let expire, on the other hand, is/was fucking awesome.
But you know what else compounds? Suffering. Good news: So does action. Action compounds across people, and across time.
More of that, and we have less suffering.
That's science, too. Compound action is a big reason why we are so much better off today than in the past. Millions of our recent ancestors, but especially historically marginalized people who had no choice, decided "not today" over and over again as they fought for the civil rights we take for granted, for an equal education, for clean air, clean water, against Nazis, and more.
They — not any single one of them, but all of them, together — are proof that compound action works. A little bit, every day, from each of us, and together, all of us, adds up.
We can get shit done if we collectively work for it.
Compound action is really just socially-oriented action -- or, organizing — and it's essential to eliminating the bullshit personal vs systemic actions divide.
Many of our most recommended Action Steps revolve around organizing. Understand though that this work is not easy, even when conducted on a bedrock of privilege, like my own, and stands on the shoulders of millions of mostly oppressed people who have been doing it for centuries.
You may be asking yourself, if we know so much, why aren't facts enough? If our grandparents and their parents fought and achieved so much, why wasn't it enough? When will it be enough?
There are vast forces incentivized to incentivize us to not get there.
This is no time to have wool over our eyes, when we know so much.
Understand this: If every season of Drilled wasn't enough, a new study this week in the journal Science and reported on by, well, everyone, showed how Exxon not only knew they were driving a climate crisis, but that their own internal models of projected global warming were more accurate than academics and governments basically everywhere.
In the words of another American hero, they are who we thought they were.
They also know what we're up to, so they've given up on cars and pivoted to sweatpants. They fermented insurrections for tax cuts, and have decided to defend the electoral college, to the death. They're plugging fast fashion and gas stoves for profits. They go after ESG and vaccines because they're confident their constituents don't understand them well enough to question it because they've deprived public schools of funding for decades. They will greenwash everything from net-zero plans to fetuses if it means keeping minority control over Congress, the stock market, state houses, and your body.
We need our own carrots -- and sticks.
If it isn't clear, there's no "winning" this fight. We simply achieve enough, together, to fight another day, and then another, and another. And there's no way they let us do that simply through incentives, no matter how gargantuan the rewards from, say, electrifying every business, building, appliance, and automobile in the known galaxy.
I am extremely wary of the additional resources required to build what we need to build, of the ecosystems that could be destroyed along the way, of simply reorienting land-use and geopolitics around precious graphite and and nickel instead of dinosaur bones.
But I am also partial to the argument that some folks aren't going to get in this fight without painting a very different picture of the future, not just a better one. Not just a world where the baseline is finally clean air, clean water, and clean energy, but one with an abundance of these like we've never seen, where much of nature is conserved and rewilded, to power vastly more carbon capture (if it actually works at scale, TBD), heavy industry to build more sustainable cities, and desalination for drinking water.
It's a nuanced landscape, clearly. A future of abundance doesn't mean everybody just gets a jacked-up but electric F-450 with a battery that could otherwise power a small town and which required minerals mined with very small hands in a country still locked in energy poverty and where ebola is a weekly thing.
That is not a better or different future.
We know and have access to most of what we need to do.
I have pointed out previously that the IRA and CHIPS bills should be seen as a one-two punch for this better, cleaner future. IRA unlocks, through massive funding incentives, the technologies we have right meow to produce and deploy an unholy volume of what's already available, while CHIPS funds new research and "lab to line" projects that could make the 2030's and beyond unimaginably cool.
Likewise, mRNA vaccines and CRISPR could protect billions from infection and illnesses that hold back families and continents alike.
Of course, our hyper-focus on shiny new things like technology and unaffordable medicine over people and basic public health is part of the reason we're in a bit of a pickle.
Measurable outcomes give us something to aim for.
"TV's cannot listen to you" is a pretty clear standard. "No forever chemicals, full stop" isn't complicated to understand. Execution is another thing, but that's the point here.
It's one thing to say "we will defeat this virus" and another to say "we will vaccinate 90% of the population and provide 50% of the required shots to achieve global vaccine equity" and then do the actual hard work to reverse-engineer those clear goals to build the teams, processes, budgets, and short-term milestones required to actually get there.
Similarly, ESG is a mess in part because we haven't come close to agreeing on how we measure, certify, and standardize emissions, much less terms like "net-zero" or "removal" or by outlawing offsets because they're just not real.
Building these standards is massively important to goal setting and then holding everyone responsible for getting their shit done, tick tock.
Markets and people aren’t rational.
And this transition, which is well underway, very messy, and needs to go much faster, isn't going to make thing less messy. Incentives are everything, which illustrates why, despite saving the world, the biotech sector didn't finally explode (in a good way) after the COVID vaccines hit. Where's the payoff? And what are the incentives for ESG, without standards, and universal carrots and sticks?
This is what IRA does so well, frankly. It more or less ignores ESG as we know it in favor of industrial policy designed to build industries where there are none. Long-tenured trading partners are understandably pissed about the America First sourcing and production requirements, but IRA's money is significant enough that a red state gets a new South Korean EV factory every single Tuesday.
Which is interesting, because every single Congressperson from every single red state voted against it.
The point is: we don’t have it all figured out, and we need to figure out how to figure it out, stat.
My first close friend to have children, who was also a long-time dog owner, once described the difference between raising a puppy and a child. With dogs, you've gotta put a decent amount of training in for two years or so, and then they're just...dogs...for like 10 years. With kids, about every six months, just when you think you've nailed it, everything changes, if not reverses entirely, from mobility to food preferences to hormones, and that goes on until they're 50 or so. "YOU USED TO LOVE HUMMUS!"
We need to elect young people who represent the majority, and especially the marginalized, who will build solid, equitable foundations today, because they have experienced days and years without them, so we can be better prepared for an expectedly volatile tomorrow, as we push through even more transformative changes our grandparents could only have dreamed of.
We need to build companies and institutions who respect and care for their workers and their families and their civil rights, who won't deplete the ecosystems we all share, and the very limited resources we have remaining to support our basic needs and more sustainable lifestyles.
We need to harness the massive potential of our youth while acknowledging that the rest of us have an enormous role to play.
But to do all of that, we need to get better about acknowledging what we don't know, and thinking about how to think.
To Do Better Better requires trust in one another. That we care, that we'll step up when it counts, that we won't pull the ladder up after us. It requires a radical reorientation of our assumptions and expectations, to put into practice our values, to show up for one another -- together whenever we can, and when we're most alone -- to understand 1% better every day doesn't feel very different today -- if anything, it can feel like nowhere near enough -- but in three hundred and sixty five days, much less by 2035 or 2050, at the rate of 1% a day, together, we can build something entirely new and fucking awesome.
That's compound action. That's what we're about. That's science for people who give a shit.
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