How to See The Forest

Through your trees

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Canadian Treeline


Welcome back!

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Oh, and welcome to 1100 new readers. Let’s get it.

— Quinn

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I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.

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“Are we in the hardest part of the climate transition?”

Uh, maybe?

It’s a question my friend, journalist, author, and frequent pod guest Akshat Rathi asked recently and the answer is:

It’s complicated.

“…it depends?” Is that better? No? Yes?

“Where are we in the climate transition” is a pretty loaded question. Do you mean in electrifying our power sources? Or transportation? Or vis a vis sea level rise? Or crop migration? etc etc etc.

There’s a very good chance it’s both less and more complicated for me to answer this than for you.


Because there’s also a very good chance you’re some sort of specialist, even if you don’t consider yourself one. I am…not. I’m not a specialist in anything but microwaving a specific brand of quick cooking rolled oats.

You are probably a state senator, a 3rd-grade teacher, a recent retiree with a pension, a tech lobbyist, a medical resident, a grad student, a high school student, an activist, a neuromuscular surgeon, a grant writer, a fiction author, a food journalist, a screenwriter, a climate investor.

Your job is not to see the forest — like, the entire forest — through your very specific breed and collection of trees. Those being, more specifically, your beat, your students, your fundraising, your book reports or daily word count, your board meetings, your patient list.

Everything is a lot without taking into account (waves hands) everything else.

Of course, you’re good at what you do, and you’re here reading this, so you give a shit a little bit. You care about not only your own employment status, but also how it affects your family, your town, your state, country, and the world. A little bit of the forest creeps in, on some days, when you’ve got six seconds to think about it. Look at you! So worldly.

And/but when you do — it’s a lot to let it all in. Can feel like a mistake. Believe me. The forest is my job and I hide under blankets a lot of the time. My therapist spent an hour yesterday yelling at me for “bullshitting my way through a victory lap” after I asked for 1) more therapy and 2) more medication. So.

You’re not alone, though. America is laden with specialists. Just look at American medicine. We focus less on public health than ever before (whoops!), and so (in part) we have a huge shortage of primary physicians and nurses.

But that’s not like there isn’t a place for specialists in all this — sometimes you need a specialist, or seven. But what you might also really need is for them to be in open conversation with one another, and that’s…rare.

In fact, in most US health care systems, anything but surgery is basically disincentivized. So fun.

It might feel that way to you, too, like trying to see the forest is a waste of your precious time.

On the other hand — consider tunnels.

Have you ever heard the idea that — because so many of our systems and infrastructure rely on so many specialists working together — if Thanos succeeded, the loss of so many specialists means we would basically…not be able to tunnels? Or bridges, or microchips, or hospitals, or a lot of other incredibly important stuff?

Ok, anyways, back to you.

If I asked you, “Are we in the hardest part of the climate transition?” you’d most confidently use your own very specific set of skills to answer what applies to you, because what the hell else are you gonna do?

It might be something like, “Well, I’m a kindergarten teacher, and I’ve got a wild pack of 5 year olds asking me why it’s 70 degrees in January, and I’m not sure what or how much to tell them. That’s how it’s going for me.”

That’s a great answer! And it’s pretty different from my answer, because I’d last less than an hour as a kindergarten teacher.

How might someone who works at ERCOT answer the question?

Well, your one job is to keep the lights/heat/AC on, so “where are we on climate transition” means you’re aware of a greater variety of macro trends: escalating power demands, aging infrastructure, digitization of everything, volatile weather, nowhere enough storage (yet).

Maybe you work in Social Security and spend your days trying to understand the fertility crash and how, exactly, far fewer younger workers will be able to support so many older retirees. Will The Great Wealth Transfer hurt? Help? Both? Will a drastic increase of climate-driven migration help?

Or, facing the same problem, maybe you work in childcare or early childhood education. As Gianna Melillo wrote:

"As a whole, the industry is labor-intensive and requires a high level of staffing, raising the financial burden on centers and increasing the costs of care.

In addition, thin margins in the business can preclude child care centers from paying employees competitive wages, resulting in high turnover or staffing shortages which stretch centers’ financial resources. Regulations also mandate how many teachers need to be present per number of infants or toddlers.

Because taking care of children comes with a lot of liability, child care centers also bear insurance costs, boosting the price of care."

How the hell are we supposed to employ all these wind technicians, electricians, teachers, and nurses, if they can’t find or afford childcare?

Things are changing quickly, but maybe the thing you’re most aware of, even within your own speciality, are the bottlenecks keeping us from taking care of more people, so we can reach even higher.

You almost certainly work within the context of one of our on-going revolutions, and if you do, so much is changing so quickly that it’s difficult to keep track of all of it, even if you wanted to.

But it’s an important exercise — to understand your perspective, and that it is limited. And I don’t just mean in the “acknowledge your privilege” way, which is also vitally important.

There’s this “framework” (ugh) that I admittedly didn’t really get at first, but as we’ve established, I’m a moron. The idea is “the map is not the territory”.

What that really means is what you can see, or what you’ve experienced (your map), isn’t everything (the actual territory).

Not everything is on your map, and not everyone has the same map, or sometimes, like w/regard to our actual ocean, none of us have the entire map, because we haven’t mapped it. Or like how the JWST keeps fucking with our previously semi-solid understanding of the beginning of the universe. Humbling!

And sometimes…sometimes…your map is just out of date.

Any way you slice it, there’s just too many layers to this cake for any one person to keep track of, much less understand. 

It’s not just, like, climate change at the top, and then electrification below that, and then at street level, solar panel installers.

There are a bazillion variations every step of the way, each with their own learned perspective and complimentary horse blinders, entangled in so many ways, each directly — and simultaneously — feeling the squeeze — however intimately or distant — of a world not only increasingly lacking in multilateralism, but at war again; of a lack of home care, of a population saturated with Long COVID; of rising (!) subsidies for and dividends from fossil fuels; of the opportunity to power their business from the sun.

This is life in 2024’s polycrisis. Otherwise known as “Tuesday”. But it took a lot to get here, and we’ve got a long way to go.

Wherever you are in the timeline of your life, you might feel like you’re the main character in your storyline and everyone else is an NPC, but 1) you don’t have a storyline, you have choices to make and 2) your choices can affect everyone else’s timeline, and the big ones — the climate transition, the AI transition, and more — too.

"It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till."

— Gandalf

Consider someone who works exclusively in VC financing for carbon removal tech vs someone trying to secure aid for developing economies so they don’t use coal. Someone who procures fertilizer, someone who fundraisers for deforestation, who builds wells, negotiates ceasefires, cleans up labs at night. They’re just going to have very different days.

Understanding how it is all connected and which parts prop up the others is only part of the exercise.

Knowing what prism you’re looking through — and what others are out there — is important as well. One fun thing about how early explorers used to navigate by the stars was that, depending on where you were on the ocean, you’d literally see different sets of stars. In an age where longitude was a pipe dream, this was very, very important information.

When we choose, review, and share Action Steps, we understand that some actions may be blocked by others (for now!), and some won’t be.

Which is why we try to come at each problem/opportunity from a variety of angles, and then use those same frameworks and strategies so we can systemically, together, through Compound Action, overwhelm a potpourri of problems/opportunities. That’s our job, not yours.

Maybe you just want to donate to a bunch of different places within our prism because it’s late December and the tax man’s calling. Maybe you want to understand, donate to, be heard about, and volunteer for everything related to pediatric cancer (because, of course, fuck kids cancer) — the kitchen sink approach.

It’s how our forebears (mostly) beat smoking, and drastically reduced lung cancer. It’s how we will reduce food waste and the methane from it while also feeding more people. It’s how we’ll make our grid not only smarter and more connected, but more resilient with dependable, decentralized, short-term home battery storage and more centralized long-term battery storage.

When I look at the flywheel of our business, it’s:

  • Newsletter: a quick, surface-level breakdown of what’s happening and what the hell you can do about it

  • Essays: how to think about how to think about what’s happening, and, again, what you can do about it

  • Podcast: a deep dive with someone doing the work on the frontlines of the future, to help us understand what the hell we can do about it

  • Membership: more tools and connections to help you do shit, together

  • Secret Project: ???

Our upcoming secret project is something I realized was both inevitable, and missing from the flywheel. If our “forest” is science for people who give a shit, our “trees” are helping people most efficiently and effectively answer the question, “What the hell can I do about this thing?”

Sometimes that requires us to take a deeper study in some specific area to understand what has worked in the past, and not, and who’s working on the frontlines of the future to finally crack it. The people most exposed to a problem/opportunity are almost always best suited to solve it, but the answer sometimes comes out of completely unrelated areas of expertise.

One way to see more of the forest is to ask other people what they can see from their own vantage point.

What’s on their map?

So we try to take that big step back all the time and maybe not correctly answer where, exactly, we are in the climate/electrification/Interstellar/Marvel/Deadpool timeline, but at the very least — our place in it, as far as we can see.

And that’s really the key. If all you can do is all you can do, and really, that’s all you can do, you might only have time for action, not context, and that action might only be at your work, at your kids school, or in your investments, or across the world but only a click away. We get it.

“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

— Jack London

This is our place in the climate transition: to identify not only a problem’s pressure points, but also the Compound Action — related kinds of action across people and time — that will weaken a dangerous power system, or reinforce an essential piece of infrastructure like water or insurance or, I don’t know, air?

We work to change state governments so more people can benefit from Medicaid coverage, and have their bodily autonomy protected, both of which really matter as the world gets hotter.

We work to make sure Narcan is in vending machines everywhere. We help you build public and political pressure so Medicare can negotiate far more drug prices in just a few years, when we have a marginally better understanding of the full impact of drugs like Wegovy, and when remotely prescribed abortion medication is available just as widely as those are.

We soak up Nat Bullard’s excellent 2024 Decarbonization deck to understand how interest rates stalled out wind energy projects, to understand the top-level limits and possibilities of next-gen battery chemistry options, mineral resource and manufacturing options (the top 10 battery cell manufacturers are all in Asia). To understand that last year saw a record number of $1 billion weather-related disasters in the US, just as the insurance markets begin to crack apart and pull out of the areas most exposed.

We know that ocean temperatures are spiking, but deforestation is declining, and so is inflation. Solar, wind, and storage are building faster than LNG or nuclear ever have, that public energy R&D is up, just like global oil and gas capex is down. That most countries and companies have some sort of net-zero commitment, but that without an SEC disclosure rule, etc, responsibilities and oversight are mostly internal with specific, isolated jobs, laid at the feet of workers who signed up, knocked out the low-hanging fruit, and now have to figure out how to do the actual hard work without absolutely cratering quarterly reports (which, paradoxically, often means talking less and less about their climate work).

That we will look back on our failure to price not only the potential risks but on-going, compounding risks of climate impacts as a real failure, but that climate lawsuits are growing — and finally winning.

Within each of these is myriad specialties, from attorneys to building managers and renters to accountants, fund and wealth managers, chemo nurses, executive assistants, marketers, wind turbine technicians, composters, and scientists working on ocean solutions for coastal cities.

Which means there are millions and billions of highly-specialized people who need tools and support to change the timeline — who need help from us, and you.

“Perhaps there is no need to make anything up about what lies behind quantum theory.

Perhaps it really does reveal to us the deep structure of reality, where a property is no more than something that affects something else.

Perhaps this is precisely what “properties” are: the effects of interactions.

A good scientific theory, then, should not be about how things “are”, or what they “do”: it should be about how they affect one another.“

— Carlo Rovelli

We take all this in (it is exhausting, just like your job), assess where we’ve been on the timeline and where we might be going, and go: “Ok, so, who’s doing the work here? How can we help? What the hell can we do about this?”

Maybe my perspective, and this entire post, is me just trying to defend my liberal arts degree — and to not-so-subtly rally for the future of the liberal arts, where specialties are more “civilization” and less “organic chemistry”.

(Maybe it’s also why I’m a firm believer that every company should have a “Chief ‘Are We Sure We Should Fucking Do This?’ Officer” in their C-suite.

That is, to collect all of the company specialists in one room and go, “Who, exactly, is going to be affected by this? Who does it displace? Who does it benefit? What does it cost, and who can afford it? Anyone? Bueller? Can we put it back in the box once we open it? Where did we source all this shit from? Why the hell are we working on this in the first place? Do we have to make money this way?”)


Like those goddamn ancient stoics everyone can’t stop podcasting about, we, too realized the only way forward — the only way out — is through. The best I can answer is that “through” is where we are in the transition.

“We inhabit time as fish live in water.”

— Carlo Rovelli

We are fucking in it, man. The timeline is all around us.

And that means there has never been a more pivotal moment to identify your own special skills, to draw your own map, to apply one to the other, and then seek out other ways you can help.

More to come. Soon.

— Quinn

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