Gradually, and then suddenly
For the rest of our lives
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Life comes at you fast.
It’s true in high school, it’s true in Nationwide insurance commercials, and it’s especially true today, as we continue to “fight the last war” (the Industrial Revolution) but also the next one (the Information Revolution).
Before you read any further, a note: if you thought the Industrial Revolution was over, it’s only because you (and your parents) have enjoyed the relative blip of post-WWII western stability, which is now coming to an end.
For billions more, The Industrial Revolution is just beginning, and for those folks, it’s inextricably entangled with an Information Revolution even the most online of us can barely wrap our heads around.
You don’t have to read a hell of a lot of history to understand how much industry transformed our societies and economies, how we built cities like Manchester, London, Pittsburgh, and Osaka adjacent to invaluable deep-water ports, employing millions, creating all new trades, and both metaphorically and literally electrifying the stock market.
Now imagine that same process, but in West Africa or South Asia, but at the same exact time as satellite internet, GPT-4, WhatsApp, and social media, and where the newest coastal cities — growing by leaps and bounds as millions migrate to them, just like in the West — are already threatened by sea rise, despite a legacy of energy poverty and thus having contributed almost nothing to historical emissions.
These are not the same thing, and we really don’t know how it’s going to go.
We couldn’t always measure human progress the way we do today.
That’s in part because life didn’t always come at us (as a species) quite so fast. As a single early-human, yeah, sure, circumstances changed almost immediately. Got a cold? You’re fucked. Infected tooth? That’s it. Sprained ankle? You’re leopard food.
Real measurable, society-altering change took thousands of years and progress was often one step forward, six steps back.
Early humans were constantly at the mercy of disease, predators, weather, natural disasters, and more, having basically no idea why any of that shit actually happened, much less how to predict it, or survive it. It must have been exhausting, and very, very confusing. So we invented religion.
The other part was we literally couldn’t measure it — we didn’t really know about or do archaeology until some proto-Italian dude named Flavio Biondo (top-tier name, respect) got interested in overgrown ancient Rome and wondered, “What the hell’s going on under all those grassy hills cows can’t get enough of, anyways?”
If you feel like a lot has changed since the dawn of the Information Revolution, or at least, since the iPhone shitcanned Blackberry and the mental health of millions of people, you wouldn’t be wrong!
But really those were just our first baby steps. Look at what smartphones have wrought, all the pros and cons, and tell me we’re not the baby who — celebrated just moments ago for a life-altering achievement — inevitably crashed a few steps later undeveloped-cranium-first into a midcentury coffee table.
We have improved our fortunes greatly since, well, The Enlightenment, and so much else has changed since the Steve Jobs magic show. But I am here to tell you we have simply planted the seeds of an era that is already compounding on itself, showing us just how far we have to go.
We still haven’t quite figured out the Big Bang or dark matter or a lot about the brain, but we know now that dinosaurs were a thing for 250 million years and then basically evaporated overnight (while the rest evolved into birds), we can extract information-rich ice cores to understand past climate changes (not our fault for once), we can carbon-date basically anything, including your great10 -grandpa who got eaten by that leopard.
On the other hand, while there are many, many unknowns unknowns about the future, we can predict the weather now (even if Apple’s weather app keeps crashing?), we can survive much more of it (even if we’re making it worse), we have eradicated many terrible diseases (and given up on others), we understand much more about our bodies (except the vagina), and we have become our own most dangerous predator*, which is a real pros and cons situation.
We can drive (pros and cons), we can fly (pros and cons), track locations (pros and cons), edit our genes (pros and cons), trade meme stocks on our Dick Tracy watches (pros and cons), can connect live with anyone anywhere at any time (pros and cons), we know recycling doesn’t work (pros and cons), we can do brain surgeries on FETUSES IN THE WOMB (pros!), and unfortunately shoot city-dissolving missiles at each other across distances and to places our ancestors didn’t even know existed (cons all the way down).
Shit — not only can super-computers and trusted meteorologists predict storms with increasing accuracy and longer lead-times, but the internet and social media have enabled more of us to bear live witness to weather and geological carnage some 8000 miles away, storms that the not-too-distant past we’d never have even heard about.
The effects from this progress are two-fold:
First, an awareness of other humans that can hopefully build empathy for others with far less.
Second, a news machine that profits off our reptile brains and bad news, some days not doing nearly enough to focus on the big shit, and on others making it inescapable, contributing to a mental health crisis for a young generation that has done nothing but ask us to fight for them.
All of this blows minds on the daily, but it’s kid stuff compared to what’s coming, and we’re already not dealing with it well, the receipts of the miraculous Industrial Revolution and consolidated power structures well past due.
For as activated and resolute these young people may be, and as behind-the-eight-ball we are on, say, fertility rates, and as clearly revolutionary surgery in the womb may be, forcing women to give birth no matter the circumstances (and often delivering straight into poverty) does not an equitable, future-proofed society make, and neither does rolling back voting rights, no matter how many emails your goddamn large-language-model can summarize.
For most of human evolution, revolutionary change happened gradually, and then suddenly.
Basically, involved parties would herald and make bank on progress (with little interest or perspective on the costs), while everyone else felt the whiplash of a world suddenly changed.
For the rest of our lives, we are in the “suddenly” part. Get used to it (even if you can’t).
Let’s use solar power as example. Solar is drastically cheaper and growing faster than we ever imagined.
It’s not growing anywhere near fast enough, though, despite cratering prices for polysilicon and a shitload of barren rooftops, highways, and parking lots that could, once utilized, really take the wind out of (get it) some of our land-use issues.
This chart is daunting.
Solar electricity generation needs to grow by 7x over the next ~10 years to be on track for net-zero.
— Michael Thomas (@curious_founder)
May 17, 2023
The whiplash of something like AI or in this case, an entirely new power sector, can feel like a lot. But in the words of a man being chased by a T-Rex, “Must go faster.”
There are myriad obstacles in the way of unlocking much faster solar progress. Two things (or like nine things) can be true at once: We are way ahead of projections, but far behind our needs, and that’s because of, but not exclusive to:
Citizens United and a corrupt Supreme Court
NIMBY’s (and the shitheads who fund them)
Plastics but especially when we don’t know it’s plastic (like clothes)
Literally trillions in subsidies
And especially our transmission shitshow
There aren’t a lot of questions marks in that list. We know what we need to do and how to do it. We should feel very, very lucky.
As we finally, begrudgingly, calculate the net costs of the Industrial Revolution in the Global North and West, other countries are just spinning up for the first time, re-running many of the same playbooks we did but when we know so much more about the impacts on air, water, ecosystems, and health.
Hence the necessary hypocrisy of telling a couple billion folks in China and India and elsewhere that they straight-up cannot use coal, and oh, sorry for the devastating heatwaves, you can’t have air conditioners, either.
But despite well-intentioned letters to the contrary, progress cannot be halted or slowed, not on clean energy or AI or EV’s or biotech, for international competition or because that’s just what we do.
We build tools for profits and pleasure (and often both) and then see what happens, costs be ignored, lied about, damned, or kicked down the road.
To successfully run alongside the future-train that has arrived so damn suddenly, we need to capitalize on the known-knowns.
Blew a hole in the ozone? Not great! Did we fix it? You’re goddamn right we did. Congrats, humans!
Smoking killed a ton of people? We finally threw the kitchen sink at the perpetrators.
People are keeping their cars for a record 12+ years? That’s decidedly not helpful for where need to go. We need to incentivize the demand-side even further — to provide carrots and sticks to sell or trade gas-guzzlers in for (small) EV’s, or better yet, use public transportation, bike, or walk while we build up the supporting infrastructure and just demolish the supply-side once and for all.
We have to come to terms with an ever-accelerating pace of change and that we have very little control over the margins of it.
What we do have is control over the fundamentals of what’s required to survive, if not flourish, as a society, by building and future-proofing infrastructure, markets, and institutions that will at the very least satisfy our most basic needs much more equitability, and with hope, be significantly more nimble in a future that arrived yesterday.
To be clear: we’re all going to have to make unexpected choices about issues and questions that didn’t even exist months or even weeks before. But we can practice making them, and this is key.
As Susan Liautaud wrote in The Power of Ethics:
None of us can stop the train now. All we can do is try to run alongside it, building a fundamentally better world for the generations to come after us.
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News From My Notebook
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Where American air pollution is improving, and getting worse
Our friends at the All We Can Save project are hiring a Programs & Community Manager — details here!
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Octopus Energy continues to be a model for…everyone else
The Canadian west continues to burn, and climate change is a big reason why
Food & water
Oregon banned PFAS (forever chemicals) in food containers
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If growing one almond requires 3.2 gallons of water out west, how do we reconcile that?
The women working for food sovereignty on island territories
This isn’t COVID-specific (I wrote that big update last week), but it could be monumental, if we do the work: the CDC released a new health-based indoor air ventilation target, and the the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers released its own enhanced ventilation standard.
Here’s Joseph G. Allen on why it could be a game-changer.
Partners In Health CEO, Sheila Davis, discusses their ethos of combing social justice and health care. Watch it now: