- Important, Not Important
- 2024: The Gaps and How to Close Them
2024: The Gaps and How to Close Them
What's locked in, and what's not
I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.
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THE GAPS AND HOW TO CLOSE THEM
It’s been twenty-two years since HAL 9000 locked the front door.
Kyle Reese joined the resistance three years ago.
It’s not going great.
It’s been nine years since the whole Grays Sports Almanac debacle and ten years since Deckard joined the LAPD.
Four years since the gang wars in Neo-Tokyo, three years since Sergeant Rita Vrataski saved humanity, and one year since the Sentinels unsuccessfully tried to finish off Earth’s remaining mutants.
The future is coming and passing us by, faster and faster:
2025 is inexplicably next year, which is when Ben Richards toes the line, while Caesar and his lieutenants build a new civilization in the Muir Woods. Soon after, Zefram Cochrane is born. SeaQuest DSV pops back up, Mega-City One opens for business, and a rebuilt Detective Alex Murphy gets back to work.
In a few years, Major Motoko Kusanagi begins her hunt for the Puppet Master and Matt Damon will get left on Mars and we’ll spend an insane amount of money to get him back.
As you can tell, I have spent a significant portion of my life in a collection of fictional timelines. The aforementioned are just a very small selection — most of the others are too far in the past, too far in the future, and/or in/on entirely different worlds to apply here.
It’s all a little ironic, because part of the reason this newsletter got started is because I was a screenwriter and investor interested in exploring the fictional near-future. I wanted to understand, share, and participate in how we get from here to there — to live and work in the gaps in between.
But now it’s suddenly 2024, and — as desired — my day job is the near-future, and shit feels very real.
Just saying the number out loud — “twenty-twenty-four” — feels like fiction, but now that I’m 41 going on 95, and dad to three very quickly growing children, it feels like everything is accelerating. Like the future is here every day, whether I’m ready for it or not (narrator: he is not).
I understand that’s basically how time is perceived as we age, but also, I think it’s fair to look around and feel like things are becoming just a little bit untethered — at least, from the pax-Americana world we grew up in (YMMV).
In 2024, some gaps are closing — what machines can do for us — and some are still widening.
Gaps between COVID vaccine availability and uptake. Between childcare workers and children in need of care. Between four million new homes and the unaffordable millions of homes we have now. Between fossil fuel profits and climate tech investments. Between health care costs and retirement savings. Between the voluntary carbon market and real, additive, verified carbon removals.
The good news: we can choose to close them, opening up new intentional gaps between what is possible now and what could be, and soon.
Four years to the week after I wrote the pithy bullet above in our baby newsletter to family, to friends and former colleagues who were activists, philanthropists, policymakers, and investors, the work is both easier and harder.
I am actively trying to get better at my job this year, which primarily includes contextualizing the world’s systems and players and helping you understand what the hell you can do about it all.
In doing so, I have to actively remind myself that 2023 was, despite COVID and TB and malaria and cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and guns, among the very safest and healthiest years in human history, and that Compound Action is what got us — well, most of us — these enormous gains.
And more! In 2024, employment is incredibly low, labor is once again on the rise, we distributed billions of safe mRNA vaccines, that coal is almost done for, that we have more than enough food for all of our eight billion people — even if we waste a huge amount of it.
There are some pretty obvious caveats to everything above, and you can find our 2023 thoughts on those in our Monday newslettters and Friday essays, but for now, let’s look forward.
Compound Action is what will help us spend 2024 and the years to come attacking the remaining low hanging fruit of human rights — from maternal health to hunger, clean air and water and electrified housing — so we can most comfortably, confidently, and ethically reach for a near-future that is absolutely cooler than this one.
Economists and certain politicians would like you to believe vibes should be very up.
But for a lot more folks — folks on TikTok, folks who can’t afford kids, or daycare, or health care or who were kicked off Medicaid, folks who see a slim House majority populated by historically unproductive white supremacists and Nazis’s, folks who support Trump still/and/or more than last time, and folks horrified he’s crushing his primary opponents, folks living in one of our many, many, many parking lots, folks who lost caregivers or loved ones or colleagues over the past four years, folks who look around and notice literally everyone is sick with something right now, who see war everywhere — vibes are middling, at best.
If you’ve ever been in even a very small earthquake, it’s pretty disconcerting — like being out on the open ocean, but even more so — because you are made to suddenly feel very, very small and powerless. Maybe, like an earthquake, we just feel like more of our world is out of our control than ever before. Which is interesting vis a vis the next twelve months.
As I noted in a recent Top of Mind, more than half of the world’s population will vote this year (Taiwan, the world’s most important island, votes tomorrow).
Immigration is on the mind. Inflation is on the mind, despite and often because of an otherwise booming economy and “soft landing”.
Inequality is on the mind — even as that, like everything else, will drastically change hands in the coming decade. Billions of young Indians and Africans will increase their incomes and wealth, and the west’s richest elders become even older, even faster, as The Great Wealth Transfer gets underway and inheritance replaces entrepreneurship as the new primary source of wealth.
I don’t think it’s farcical to claim that the weird vibes are at least in part because many people seem to feel a lack of trust, a lack of representation, much less agency, in our current systems.
Which is understandable! But the reality is far better: you’ve never had more information or power to drive change on the local level, wherever you live, from citizen assemblies to literally just running for whatever office you can get your hands on.
Either way — because the vibes are so middling, and because (for example) the Right loves to cosplay as Indiana Jones bad guys, there has never ever been a better time to give a shit, to show up, to yell and march and text and call and write op-eds and knock on doors for the world you want (before Ashley does it for you).
Some macro notes before we dive into specific verticals:
Even with all of the elections this year, including here in the US, it feels like — despite everything else, and unless there’s a climate-related October surprise — climate will play a small part in the US election.
183 conflicts are currently underway alongside a messy, slow, singular energy transition, a transition away from the backbone of GDP since our great-grandparents. The S&P 500 has been absolute crushing it, despite 500 institutional investors calling geopolitics the biggest market risk in 2024, and The World Economics Forum’s recent Global Risks Report, which is decidedly not rosy.
Voters have far less confidence than ever in science as disinformation reigns and more than 10,000 research papers were retracted in 2023. This cleansing is a overall a good thing, but will not be fun along the way. Science is hard, but people had some serious whiplash when science went more or less live in 2020-2021, with enormous stakes.
There are fewer-pandemic era worries about supply chains as jobs continue to move from China to India, but trade requiring the Red Sea and/or Panama Canal (so, most, and in the Panama Canal’s case, $270 billion worth) — should be a worry re: both climate and war.
Which, really, we should be more prepared for.
I am certain of very few things, but the systemic deconstruction of journalism as a whole remains among my greatest concerns (the recent culling of recently lauded new climate desks among them).
For as much as I value, say, The Atlantic, my hope is for more representative, intimate, non-profit outlets like Capital B and The 19th or the Community News Fund to thrive.
Can a WhatsApp or TikTok-forward, reputable local news wave better capture real local problems and measurable solutions, on voters and the marginalized?
Can we teach ourselves to thrive on positive news? Or will democratized, monetizable disinformation wipe out what credibility remains? Question mark?
So much is happening, so much is predictable, so much is out of your control, and so much is within your grasp, with the right tools and information. Despite the headlines (some of which are from me!), we have reduced newborn deaths and extreme poverty to the lowest shares on record. Life expectancy is so far up (and marginally, inexcusable back down again). Death rates from disasters are far, far lower than historical averages, even as more disasters become more prevalent in more populated places.
We can do better, we must do better. We can neither make excuses nor rest on our accomplishments. There is too much to do, and too much evidence that Compound Action works, last year, this year, and in the long-term.
We have to talk about progress again — not at all costs, not by any stretch — but because the words we use, the art we make, and the stands we take are what build a better future, for everyone.
2024 should — somehow — be hotter than 2023, in year two of El Nino with some possible Pacific hurricanes, plus the on-going droughts and floods already hitting Latin American and the Caribbean.
Recent decarbonization efforts have gotten us so much father than we think, but current policies won’t get us anywhere near where we need to go. Meanwhile, expect insurance markets for homes, for offices, and for crops, to remain chaos, as farmworkers are still left out to bake in the sun.
In the US, where actual carbon pricing remains a dream, the new Climate Corps — all 18-26 year olds born well after Armageddon dropped on DVD — will get started in 2024 — all while the US continues to produce more oil than any country in history, and climate tech funding tries to pick up from a 30% drop in 2023. We’ve got nowhere to go but up!
The consumer-level IRA rebates should start to finally roll out in earnest, and if paired with literally any interest rates drops, should be warmly received — except probably by car dealers.
“Wind turbine service tech” is projected to experience more growth than any other American job in the next 10 years (followed by nurses, cough cough). Nowhere is that more obvious than in the Texas permian basin.
Global emissions might still be rising (and still inequitably), but per capita emissions peaked. We have basically decoupled emissions from GDP. This is a home run that many, many people said was impossible.
Chinese emissions may finally stabilize in the next couple years — a gargantuan effort — but are nowhere near being cut in half, as needed. German emissions are down, but mostly because of energy imports and reduced industry. Everywhere is different, everywhere is the same. It’s going to be a slog, but worth it.
The US is relying almost entirely on new industrial policy to right the ship, from lithium to batteries to chips. So, so many factories are in planning or under construction thanks to the IRA, and while it’ll take a couple years for them to come online, most (but not all) should survive (I hope), while the US solidifies its position (and lead) as the world’s energy exporter and US fossil fuel companies continue to shell out dividends like, well, like there’s no tomorrow (for them, at least, eventually).
In any country, the long-term trend is what matters, and we have to overcome interest rates and disinformation, a lack of public interest/poor messaging, and dwindling public R&D funding (where the US has been absolutely lapped by China — who, despite a cratering economy — have capitalized and have a monopoly on minerals and production, birthing invaluable companies like CATL).
Energy poverty isn’t a given anymore for so many countries, but clean energy projects remain more expensive to build in developing countries than in rich, northern ones. In countries like Colombia (and frankly, anywhere), millions of voters and consumers still think a cleaner future means a lesser quality of life.
Despite establishing the North American Charging Standard, which should finally pave the way to a massively more unified and reliable charging situation by, say, 2026, Tesla has its first real car competitor — BYD. If BYD can become as profitable as Tesla, which is less profitable than it once (briefly) was — it may really be game on.
Clean energy has scaled and become incredibly cheap, but as is obvious with offshore wind, we can no longer rely on that drop. Huge upfront investments with an impossibly long ROI will become less of a thing if permitting reform actually happens. Will new SEC rules about greenwashing and climate disclosures help clarify things a bit? I think so, but I also think the pressure has never been higher on them to…not do that.
It’s shocking to actually type this but the only thing more intractable than permitting reform is finding the (not-Chinese) minerals for this renewable energy transition — from copper to lithium, the future of batteries and EV’s are on the line.
Maybe 2024 isn’t “the” year, but I’m not exaggerating when I say migration and immigration will be the story of the next ten years. It is already part of every election, and will be a part of every election to come until we, at the very least — and as Isaac Saul so frequently writes — train and hire a gazillion more immigration attorneys and officials, a “war time” effort that should at the very least mirror the aforementioned new Climate Corps.
We have so barely even glimpsed the tip of the climate migration iceberg, a metaphor I am now realizing — like “a rising tide lifts all boats” — we should probably retire now.
Critical infrastructure is increasingly threatened by climate impacts, and still suffering from the pandemic — from frontline health workers to public transit, real estate to insurance markets and hospital databases, while other pieces are (literally) sinking or at risk. Some of this will come under renewed threat in 2024, but much more so will affect our children if we don’t get our shit together now.
Look: we no longer face a world of 3C or 4C increases — a huge achievement, with positive tipping points drawing closer — but 1.5 also looks out of reach now.
But what about 1.6?
I am here to fight for every tenth we can prevent or even claw back. And if we’re going to fight for every tenth, we have to work on every single piece of the emissions puzzle — not just the biggest ones.
Efficiency gains, methane leak tracking, heat pumps outselling furnaces, soil health, girls education, and EV’s chasing an S-curve are invaluable pieces of our arsenal. We have to also acknowledge what’s slowing the whole thing down — not just blatant fossil fuel emissions, but greenwashing and a dangerous voluntary carbon market.
Health & Bio
It’s never ever been a better or safer time to be alive, AND we are really just not doing a lot to address our stagnating life expectancy rates, nor war, famine, or cardiovascular diseases.
Despite advances in detection and treatment, cancer is somewhat inexplicably on the rise in young people, and we can no longer count on the “low hanging fruit” of reducing smoking rates to do our work for us.
Prior immunity from exposure, infections, and vaccinations means COVID deaths and hospitalizations are way down, despite the current JN.1 wave (the second biggest after Omicron).
But they’re both still unacceptably high (mid-RSV and flu season, too), while booster uptake among those 1) eligible and 2) most vulnerable remains middling, mask prevalence is even lower, and funding for Long COVID trials and treatments remains scant compared to the millions suffering still and anew.
This, all while the Florida surgeon general is trying to kill everyone in The Villages. The only thing more dysfunctional than our late-pandemic situation is apparently your mitochondria, which do NOT enjoy Long COVID.
“Now, hold on”, you might say, “I’m young and healthy and only a small percentage of people get Long COVID, so maybe I’m right to be among the 80% of eligible Americans who haven’t gotten the 2023-2024 booster.”
And I’d just remind you that the boosters are effective in preventing severe disease from the current JN.1 variant, that any variation of Long COVID absolutely sucks and isn’t worth the risk, and that the virus/buck does not stop with you: when you are infected, however young and hot you may be, you are newly eligible to infect someone else — say, someone who’s immunocompromised, and/or 60 or older.
It’s a virus, not cancer. It’s called public health for a reason.
In all of this, with an aging population and immigration in shambles, we need to rebuild and fortify our care. One foundational piece is to support (read: pay) at-home caregivers. $37 billion from the American Rescue Plan will do some of that — but it’s up to us to make sure it’s put to use this year, and if it helps, make sure we do more of it.
We can spend 2024 shutting polio down forever, and we can spend 2024 straight putting it to diseases like TB and malaria. But we can’t simultaneously ignore how childhood vaccination rates have been faltering around the globe for four years now, and we can’t ignore the rise of fuuuuucking mosquitoes and ticks and climate-enhanced, vector-borne infectious diseases.
Putting war here, because where else would it go? Will it continue to grow around the world? Will the US and her allies continue to fund Ukraine (and Israel)? Does our massive defense industry even have the capacity to do so? What the fuck are we doing to do about Israel and Gaza (and Lebanon, and Yemen…)
What does mass disinformation over the next eleven months do to our tattered mental health? How will the platforms bear them?
Speaking of mental health, it seems — for now — like Ozempic and Wegovy don’t strain our mental health. This is wonderfully good news.
But what else can these wonder drugs do? And how long will it take to find out?
And how long — when our drug system, from cancer to ADHD, is already severely strained — will they remain available, and at what price?
GLP’s are changing lives and economies — is 2024 the year we start to see real secondary effects? Or do we need to make them drastically more affordable in order to see change at scale? There are 500 million people with diabetes.
Casgevy — the first real CRISPR treatment — is similar, but different (these rigorous essays are free). The potential to change individual lives is enormous (if nowhere near the population-level scale of GLP’s), but Casgevy costs $2 million right now, meanwhile, 70% of the world’s sickle-cell patients live in sub-Saharan Africa.
If GLP’s seem to help with myriad addiction issues, what does it say (if anything) about the gut-brain axis? What does it say about secondary market effects? What does it say about the fight over sugar, and carbs, and snacks, and the rush to innovate on blood sugar measurements, to regulate the price of insulin, to protect and nourish our mental health?
What if it says…nothing?
Also, I welcome cheaper drugs from Canada, but a country with 38 million people can not suddenly provide significantly cheaper drugs for a country of 325 million.
Food & Water
I have already covered food and water quite a bit — it obviously stands outside of and fits neatly into both climate and health and bio. But I still have questions.
Will 2024 be the year we sue bottle water makers for the microplastics surfing their way through our bloodstreams? Will the US west get more snow? Will they tax alfalfa farmers? What, uh, are we going to do about our groundwater issue?
Amid our retreat from groundbreaking safety net expansions during COVID, hunger is back on the rise — illustrating so clearly that hunger, like poverty, is a choice we make. Luckily, some states are implementing their own childhood tax credits.
Across the world in 2024, amid war and El Nino storms, floods, and droughts, nations will continue to try to understand how they’re going to feed their people, much less keep up exports in a year when fertilizer and shipping routes will remain unreliable.
Someone asked me recently why I still call this section — including but not excluded to data privacy, AI ethics, supercomputers, quantum stuff, some biotech, gen AI, disinformation, cybersecurity, etc — and I basically said “What the hell else would I call it?”
I think of it like the term “climate change” — one phrase that covers so much that’s otherwise impossible to narrow down.
2024 looks like more and better idea-to-vision video, putting animators out of work, actual Vision Pro, invasive and nearly invisible smart glasses, cars and TV’s and exes that watch you and track you and listen to you wherever you go (especially and now except at Rite-Aid), whatever you say, while your own personal, wearable LLM gets better the more you take it with you and Meta (?) keeps pushing out the most transparent big models.
Consider organoid intelligence and millions of (stable) novel materials, just when batteries need them the most. Consider incredible biotech increasingly powered by AI, more mortgages and paralegals and traders and insurance powered by AI — but do they need the same licenses as their human predecessors, and can the tech companies harvesting the data and building the models and selling the subscriptions to produce the contracts and images continue to rely on Section 230, all while they claim to protect kids and teens while reorganizing their entire structure to recruit more underage users?
We find ourselves surrounded by S-curves, but where along the curves are we, and for which tools? What should you be ready for? What’s a mirage, a distraction? Disinformation, new materials, privacy, custom porn, revenge porn, copyright, old jobs and new jobs, shopping, relationships, videos, voices?
Understanding the gap between how, for example, LLM’s operate (predicting what an answer to your question looks like) and what we want from them is not only the key to managing expectations in 2024, but is among the most evergreen threads of humanity.
Sometimes understanding — much less closing — the gap takes time, like it did for GUI’s, GPS, and more (however immediately useful they seemed at first glance, we had no idea how prevalent and varied they would become).
There are questions to be had about original training data running out — LLM’s reaching the end of the internet — and about new training on synthetic data and what that means for accuracy and ethics. But for 2024 I’m mostly focused on the potential and issues that exist right now.
Like nearly infinite disinformation when again, half the world is lined up to vote. Old disinformation stalwarts like X and Facebook fired basically all of their disinformation workers, and new players like Midjourney are only beginning to grasp what damage they’re capable of servicing. From Bangladesh to India and Indonesia to Pakistan, Mexico, and the EU, populism is on the rise, fueled at least in part by disinformation at global scale.
Housing and Jobs
Again, these really apply everywhere.
We’re still short somewhere like 4 million (electrified) homes, and millions of electricians and nurses. But the WGA, SAG, and UAW, among others, have set the tone for a new generation of labor activism (however low the bar for actual participation may be), as the contracts for over a million more union workers end this year.
Vibes are vibes — and they count in an election, if you vote on them.
And you might just vote on them if you still feel like the cards are stacked against you, that everything is too expensive, and fucking David Zazlav and/or Washington is telling you “It’s fine! No, actually, better than ever.”
In Conclusion, You’re Welcome
When all of the world is watching live, when all of the world is more connected than ever before, should we be surprised when hospitals and gas stations and more are taken offline by young people on Chromebooks?
Were you surprised at how well the 2022 midterm elections went? Don’t be surprised in 2024. Be fucking vindicated.
When Obama left office, solar and wind were among the most expensive forms of energy. Today, they’re the least, right when we need them. The gap has closed.
So do you want to be a meaningful part of the next ten years, or not? Do you want to help connect the insane 400+ gigawatts of new renewables to the world’s ripe-for-rebuilding grids?
Do you have any idea how revolutionary GLP’s and mRNA vaccines are? Do you want to get them in more bodies?
Do you have any idea how fast the UK kicked coal? How do we convince India to do that? Did you see how well the child tax credit worked? Do you know how many people benefited from the Medicaid expansion?
Do you see how much change is possible? Do you see how much more reliable we can make our infrastructure? How much cleaner our air? How much healthier our offices, schools, kids, and elders?
Do you see how much corporate and political power systems are steadfastly standing in the way of these? Do you see how much you can change those, from inside and outside?
These are all rational arguments, of course. And we are nothing if not irrational, alone and in crowds. Again, these are mostly problems of our own choosing.
But we can be irrational for good, too. That’s what happens every time someone protests. People will do their best to protect their kids, and we know so many ways we can do that now — because we’ve made so many strides and because there are data and tools available to us today we’ve never had before. Let’s make it impossible to run out of formula again, shall we? People want to feel better, they want reliable, good paying jobs. Let’s fight for job guarantees, shall we?
The only way we stop leaning on short-term wins is by completely reforming the structure, from the bottom up, with and by people who’ve been marginalized all along, people born and working on the frontlines of the future.
So much will happen that we can’t predict, but no matter what, I’m going to spend 2024 trying to close these gaps and more, from the bottom up, and putting my dent in the universe. I hope you’ll join me.