- Important, Not Important
- 2023 Review: What Just Happened?
2023 Review: What Just Happened?
I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.
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When you’re a parent, “polycrisis” is the job.
Anyways, yes, polycrisis should be your baseline expectation as a new parent. In fact, setting expectations is really the key to parenting. For behavior, bedtime, meal time, nap time, exhaustion levels, sex life, and more.
For your kids, who for a period of time do not know they have hands, obviously, but mostly, for yourself.
At one point, my wife and I had 3 kids under 3. It was glorious, exhausting, stressful, beautiful unbridled chaos. Now we have 3 kids under 11, which is just…different chaos.
If — considering the circumstances, and that each additional child grows your externalities exponentially — you expect anything other than chaos, you will be hugely disappointed. Every single day. Not to say being a parent is bad or sad or anything — though it can be any of those at any time — it’s usually everything I could have ever wanted (again, YMMV).
But my life and work often run in parallel: I am the father of three kids and also my day job is writing about the unpaid costs of systemic externalities and what the hell we can do to reduce those.
I help countries, companies, cities, families, and people ask “What are we exposed to? How can I reduce that exposure? How can I be prepared for the inevitable? What can I do to make this better, for everyone now, and in the future?”
These are also great questions to ask when your children are in diapers, potty-training, have a cough, are throwing up, have a fever, are going to school for the first time, riding a bike, allergic to some food or nut, losing their first teeth, disinvited to a birthday party, refusing to brush their remaining and/or new teeth, furious that you cut their apple in one way and not the other, etc.
But as a parent, it’s also important to understand that your risk changes over time. Risks when they’re 3 are very different from when they’re 11. But the rituals and routines you implement when they’re young can either pay off later, or come back to bite you in the ass. Or both.
2023 was no different.
Seeds of change, planted long ago, came to fruition, while other unexpected, radical change began to quickly and aggressively rewrite our understanding of geopolitics, biology, creativity, and the workplace.
Some quick hits:
It was the hottest year on record and it’s not close. War is suddenly everywhere, on the cusp of monumental elections around the world. Housing is still a fundamental building block of inequality, over a decade after the real estate crash.
Artificial intelligence context windows grow, as do chip orders. AI has taken jobs (including Sam Altman’s) but not the place of cars, and it’s not making folks a lot of money (unless you’re Sam Altman).
Malaria vaccines work, but there’s no TB vaccine — yet. CRISPR has started to work (for an ungodly price). Hunger grows. Migration grows. Renewable energy grows, as do new emissions. Journalism has never been more impactful, nor at threat.
On their own, each of these could be a co-benefit or threat multiplier, a system unlock or a failure point in this grand polycrisis.
So how did we adjust to these in 2023? How did we continue to build through them, for a better future?
Last kid metaphor, I promise:
My friend Drew was the first among our group to have kids. He may or may not remember this, but as his kid entered the toddler years, I asked him how it was going.
He gazed a thousand million miles into the distance, and then said, “You know how when you get a puppy, they’re a really annoying puppy for about two years, but if you train them every day, then they’re just…a dog for another twelve years? With a kid, you think you’ve nailed it, and then every six months, everything changes, forever, over and over again. And then you die.”
Oh, your kid’s finally out of a crib? Good luck. They took their first steps? Best wishes. Done with bottles, finally? Congratulations. Hope you’re stocked up on a very specific brand of plain pasta. Iterate and you die.
Transitioning to clean energy? Good luck with all that mining. Barely survived a pandemic? You beefed up all your health care infrastructure, right? Mandated electric vehicles? So fun. You have the chargers sorted, right?
I am less interested in rehashing everything that happened this year, than how prepared we were, and how we responded. Because those lessons will, as always, be fertile learning ground for what comes next.
I first contextualized “how I think about how to think” in my 2023 preview to the preview.
The TLDR was: The answer to “What can I do?” is “All you can do, is all you can do.”
But first, I usually challenge people to answer variations on my single favorite question: What can you do?
Like, “What CAN you do?” Or “What can YOU do?” or “WHAT can you do?”
If that feels insane, you’re welcome. In my actual preview, I wrote:
To paraphrase Bill Reilly, we did 2023 live, more live than ever before — from satellites that detect methane leaks to everyone online, everywhere, all the time.
“All the world’s a stage” is an actual thing, now. So how did we do? How did we respond? And how did we set ourselves up for 2024?
2023 was the hottest year on record, for a few reasons we’re still arguing about, but mostly for the same reasons we’re here talking about this at all.
Because of historical emissions, because of continued new emissions, because of extremely potent methane leaks, because the ocean has absorbed just about all the heat it can, because of continued deforestation, reductions in aerosols, but this year in particular, probably because of a strong El Nino.
Good news: we’re doing a lot to fight back.
We built massive amounts of new clean energy in 2023 — 33 goddamn gigawatts — but haven’t actually reduced our fossil fuel usage, much less the subsidies that provide for it, much at all.
We have to do that, and our strategy is pretty specific. Per our friends at Heatmap:
So what’s up? Well, again, the subsidies, but also energy demand is growing (and will keep growing). Like for data centers, which, funny story, have to remain pretty damn cool, and use tons of water to do so.
How have we made measurable progress so far? From Heatmap again:
Planning for a “phaseout” or drawdown or getting to Real Zero was what COP28 was supposedly about and the result was…ehhhh.
Sure, the methane agreement is great, and $650 million and counting towards loss and damage funding is a big step, and the final text mentioned “transitioning away” from fossil fuels for the first time, but “unabated” is a thing, the agreement isn’t binding, and amid other reasons, that’s why the big international agreements haven’t gotten it done so far.
From my preview:
Almost a year after I wrote that, I think the premise holds up. Will we look back at the 2023 version of COP — hosted by fossil fuel titans, magnitudes bigger than previous conferences, packed with fossil fuel lobbyists and PR firms — and say it was different? A large part remains on John Kerry’s shoulders.
From the great Bill McKibben, for Heatmap:
It’s our time, too, again, and forever. Compound Action over time is how we have gotten hard things done in the past, and it’s how we’ll make progress in the future, even as direct and indirect adaptation measures — like failing insurance markets — grow apace.
We’d have probably built even more renewable energy this year, but interest rates have absolutely crushed new projects, especially offshore wind. Related, offshore wind disinformation campaigns funded by the far right have been obnoxiously successful.
Just this week, Democratic congresspeople introduced a transmission bill (that will certainly die a fiery death if it comes up in this Congress), but which can become a stepping stone if and when they swing the House back, hold onto the Senate, and re-elect Joe Biden. Good luck.
The transition from gas is going so-so. In Europe, Putin’s war has probably pulled the transition forward a decade or more. The US has simultaneously banned new gas in a precious few blue cities while actively considering an enormous LNG facility on the Gulf Coast.
If 2023 had a theme, it was that we just keep doing the things we shouldn’t be doing, despite knowing everything we need to know.
We know how dangerous gas stoves are, now, and how much they lied to us about it, but most people still love theirs. We know how dangerous air pollution is, but states keep suing to…keep it? We elected a president who committed to an all of government approach to slowing climate change and yet over the past few years, the US has produced more oil than anyone. Anyone.
What can you do? To start, induction is rad as hell (and installing it is much cheaper and easier than solar, which you should still do and/or yell at your city council about). The portable ones make great holiday gifts, you’re welcome. Tell everyone. Be the influencer you want to see in the world. It’s science.
2023 might have gone differently if the IRA money wasn’t taking forever to roll out, but again, the interest rates, (semi-understandable) protectionism around minerals, materials, and manufacturing, and permitting delays haven’t helped. You can’t rely on a solar plant if you can’t hook it up to anything — but that might change soon.
And the IRA money has finally begun to roll out, and it’s mostly gone to red states and low-income areas. Which is great, honestly.
This is a long game. If the money continues to fund new factories and facilities — and most importantly, clean energy jobs — throughout traditionally red states, it will become (relatively) more difficult for those states’ elected officials to vote against the policies that support them.
I mean, they probably will anyways, because what the fuck do they care, but I’m just saying — now they’re biting the hand that feeds their constituents.
Thanks to a US House of Representatives that is somewhat less than functional, the Farm Bill hasn’t actually happened yet.
The EPA lost the ability to protect most of our wetlands, so they pivoted to a plan to remove all of America’s lead pipes. A no-brainer, absolutely massive undertaking with significant co-benefits.
The past few years have seen broad pushes to remake transportation to be more electric. In 2023, four-wheel EV’s are selling like hot cakes, even if US car dealers really, really, really do not want them to.
In Europe, Chinese car brands overtook legacy automakers. And two-wheelers are all over Asia, even in places where car ownership hasn’t been a thing.
The Biden administration threw billions at trains this year — the largest investment in decades, following up strategic purchases of tracks that should enable more routes and more trains at (relatively) faster speeds, all of which should hopefully, eventually, reduce highway traffic, emissions, and pollution.
Which is good, because as much as the first federally-funded EV chargers are coming online, and as much as Tesla’s charging standard overwhelmingly became…the standard, charging remains a shitshow.
One problem? Data behind charger breakdowns and maintenance, something the administration is actively trying to unlock. You can’t fix what you can’t measure. And you can’t measure what isn’t standardized.
Speaking of data…
AI AND DATA
In my preview, I said, “2023 will continue to be a story of who else has your data besides you.” This was not a big leap, reader.
Everyone has your data, and they leak it and/or sell it, all of the time (truly, pause and read this). Phones, speakers, cars, TV’s, toys, and more. Sure, yeah, this week Meta started finally encrypting messages on Facebook and Messenger, but overall in 2023, data ethics remains pretty not great.
Is that because all of the big tech companies consistently choose profits over ethics? Is it because the New York Times made a “people behind the dawn of artificial intelligence” article and chose only men?
You make the call!
I don’t think we need to completely rehash what happened with OpenAI, mostly because there’s still questions we don’t know the answer to. Did the chaos give Anthropic and Google room to keep up?
I predicted they would long before it went down:
But the jury’s out. Meanwhile, the Silicon Valley e/acc crew trumpeted technological progress at all costs (or, I guess, while refusing to acknowledge any costs). To which I said:
So what did we do about it all this year, and what did we do to prepare for the next stage? It this already the revolution it’s expected to be?
Well, the (ancient) US Senate held a series of educational hearings, and the EU agreed on a fairly protectionist set of AI rules. How much those will balance out with regard to protecting people’s data vs. just stifling innovation (especially from within the laggard EU) is totally up in the air — and how much other invasive ideas like face-scanning for age-restricted websites will succeed, is too.
And good news, truly, there is already so much innovation in the air, from magically advanced materials and biological research, to live translation.
There are also serious question marks about how generative AI will change education. I wrote:
The biggest fundamental question — which is probably an endless series of questions, depending on application — is how AI will fit in to our economy and society: as a copilot, or autopilot?
HEALTH & MEDICINE, FOOD & WATER
Well, abortion laws are going about as badly as promised and the Speaker of the House, a religious fanatic who claims God wakes him up at night to chit-chat about his role as the next Moses, once called abortion “a holocaust”, so.
Long COVID remains a criminally under appreciated factor in 2023’s society, but clinical trials and data are growing. That said, so is vaccine hesitancy — which will lead to more Long COVID, and a (stupid) rise in diseases we quashed years ago.
The West still faces a daunting, parched future, but 2022’s historically wet winter put off many of the hardest decisions. We LOVE to kick the can down the road. We already talked about the lead pipes thing — check back to see how you can help push it along.
The FDA is still a thing, which angers me — the on-going (!) baby formula fiasco being example #3498 of why it should finally be broken up. Hunger is growing, as the legacy of the child tax credit and other COVID-relief programs haunt us, clearly showing where we could improve hunger and poverty, when we choose to.
In the same breath, Wegovy and Ozempic have, to put it mildly, already changed the world. More on that next year. There are boundless questions and theories as to where they could take us, and second-order effects of their regimens will, again, be something we experience live.
Which will be a shifty ride — we are still short so many nurses, and Medicaid disenrollment continues, to the tune of almost 13 million newly without coverage, many of whom were kicked off for procedural reasons, something we’re really good at.
There is good news. We continue to fight The Long Defeat. The more abortion was on the ballot, the more the good guys won, from Ohio to Virginia. The first CRISPR sickle-cell treatments were approved, and mRNA research continues to expand. The FDA is well-aware how dysfunctional they have become, sketching out plans to reorganize and prioritize food for the first time in a long time. Funnily enough, Wegovy and Ozempic are primary examples of where new, separate, and more nimble Food and Drug Administrations can help guide a healthier future.
It is a fascinating, healthier time to be alive, but trust in faulty but necessary institutions should be a sign that revamping them for the years to come is an essential step for any administration.
OECD test scores have been dropping all over the developed world since 2010, which is probably because of phones. Not just social media, mind you, but the phones themselves — glass screens, portals to all the ways they destroy our ability to concentration for any given length of time.
Meanwhile, yes, social media, though, where health misinformation is rampant, but where kids have also been inundated with chatbots and where they all share their location with each other, all of the time.
I mentioned it above, but it’s still way too early to assess societal impacts of AI. For example, all the worry about whether kids would use GPT to cheat may be for naught (because they were already cheating). At least, in this version.
Whether or not learning with or without AI is a zero-sum game is up for grabs:
Is it so much to ask that Apple’s new mental health tools actually help a drastically larger, younger, and broader set of people than any clinical trial ever has before?
If they’re going to be glued to their phones, they/we might as well get something useful out of it.
UNEXPECTED CRAZY SHIT
Scientists in Japan created new mics from two biologically male parents. Other scientists finally got some rock samples out of the Earth’s mantle. A guy with paralysis walked again — using a brain implant. There’s a nonprescription birth control pill (for now).
Having found microplastics everywhere from mountain tops to placentas, scientists found them in the clouds, too. TSMC and ASML became even more vital — as did Nvidia, the machine behind the generative AI platform — and ChatGPT’s 100m weekly active users.
I am overall interested in how new technology like AI and biotech can help us solve old problems, but extra fascinated about the new problems they may help us discover.
I have written quite a bit about what we want versus what we need, and how those primal questions have been hijacked by ourselves, each other, and our tools, for eons.
There is a gulf between the risks we know about and simply refuse to calculate, much less do anything about, and the ones we simply can’t plan for.
Consider cardiovascular diseases. From Our World in Data:
I would argue, as usual, that the way we prepare for the unknowns unknowns is to constantly reinforce the baseline. To control what we can control. To relentlessly identify the weakest links in our systems and upgrade them.
And I don’t just mean the obvious, fundamental shit, like air, water, food, and shelter. I mean reinforcing and expanding our commitments to privacy, to rewilding ecosystems, to civil rights, to encryption, to Indigenous peoples, to interrogating and rooting our our biases, to journalism, to education, elections, and voting rights.
Again (I know), this quote really perfectly describes your first days at home with a newborn. And it really describes why, in a tumultuous 2023, the youths have turned against basically everyone in power.
The story hasn’t changed all that much — we’ve come so far, and have so far to go, if we’ll let it. But doing the unsexy work of pulling forward the millions and billions who’ve been disadvantaged all this time (and I’m including children in that group) will only enable us to go even farther in the year(s) to come.
That part will never change.