🌎 Never Tell Me The Odds
Solutions are more obvious (and complicated) than we think
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Solutions to our biggest problems shouldn’t be so perplexing. On the other hand, washing our hands wasn’t obvious for a couple hundred thousand years, and my kids STILL don't want to do it.
Plus: Seasonal allergy news, a new Barbie, non-profit grocery stores, climate hackers, the SEC, the WHO, Google’s huge new feature, and Khan Academy revolutionizes education — again
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What We Can Do
⚡️ Last week’s most popular Action Step was checking to see whether your state and/or city’s got an e-bike rebate program!
⚡️ Floods or not, fire season’s (probably) right around the corner. Get up to the minute air quality reports with a Purple Air monitor (and nifty map, too)
⚡️ Your community may need to replace toxic lead water service lines. Check out Beyond Plastic’s report on the pros and cons of PVC pipes.
⚡️ Sure, the economy and market are completely unpredictable at this point, but there’s no better time to put your retirement fund to work fighting climate change. Do it with Carbon Collective.
⚡️ Speaking of lead pipes — will microplastics and PFAS (“forever chemicals”) be our version? Check out PFAS Central’s PFAS-free brands and consumer products.
It’s a strange thing to be alive and aware in 2023.
I struggle to find the right word to describe what I feel most days. “Surreal” didn’t work when I dropped it in here. To be honest, “strange” doesn’t actually really work, either — typically defined as being “unusual or surprising in a way that is unsettling or hard to understand.“
Yes, the pace and scope of change is unsettling. But no, it’s not really hard to understand why we’re not ready for it.
For now, I’ll go with “perplexing”.
Still not perfect, but I’m going to use it, because that’s what GPT-4 suggested, and AI is a big part of this story — even if it’s just another red herring or distraction from what we need to do.
Or maybe, on the other hand, it’s just another signal: get your shit together, humanity.
GPT isn’t far off: knowing the solutions but bearing witness to inaction is a big part of the reason why I do this. But not for the reasons you think.
I sure as shit don’t know all the solutions. But I do my best every day to gather as much information as I can about what works and what’s bullshit from the people who actually know what they’re talking about, and who’ve actually been doing the work, so I can point you all towards something measurable.
Bearing witness to inaction is less about watching a city burn or drown (or both), or transmission lines not get built or buried and wondering, “Why the hell aren’t we doing anything about this?”
Inaction is usually the result of some combination of legacy power structures and banging our heads against the same wall over and over.
So to be alive and aware in 2023 is to understand the surface area of a given problem, to identify the roadblocks, to establish a clear outcome, and then to throw the kitchen sink (you) at all of the obstacles, figuring out how to go through, around, over, and under them, all at once.
This is the way*.
*as frustrating as it may be to me at times, and to so many readers and listeners, and in offline conversations.
Our desired outcomes may seem simple and obvious but getting there is not — otherwise we’d be there already.
So my work is to not only identify and define an exciting, measurable outcome (“No new emissions”), but also to understand and illustrate the fullest picture of how we get there, what stands in our way, and to most transparently determine what we can control, and what we can’t.
On the surface, this is actually easier than it’s ever been. We have more accumulated and real-time knowledge of ourselves and the world around us than ever before.
We know more than ever before about carbon and methane, flood plains, icebergs and deforestation, wastewater and indoor air, genomes, the purity of supplements, air pollution, maternal health, the brain, the voting records of elected officials and unelected Supreme Court judges, about mangroves and lentils and loneliness, and so much more.
It’s a bit much, frankly.
You see, having all of this knowledge doesn’t automatically enable us to act faster or more thoroughly. Often, it’s the opposite — every new bit of data makes us more painfully aware of some measure for which we’re falling further behind.
The measure of carbon in our atmosphere, cancer in our blood, or viruses in our water, however sexy the dashboard (I love dashboards), doesn’t necessarily help us understand the myriad entangled causes behind those figures.
We have to work to reveal the manifold carrots and sticks deeply embedded in our systems, preventing radical change (often, on purpose), however beneficial that change would be, however inequitable the suffering, however absolutely stupid it seems, watching those digits go up day after day, for not doing what we need to do and driving those numbers back down.
I cannot describe to you how often a friend walks into my office or home and innocently asks something like, “Where’s the recycling bin?”, only to find themselves ten minutes later, take-out container still in hand, on the receiving end of my standard tirade about greenwashing, forever chemicals, and oil majors pivoting to plastics, this well-intentioned human desperately, desperately wishing for a time machine or The Reckoning or a smoke bomb, anything to make it stop.
Sometimes you don’t want the whole backstory, or what we’re up against. You just want the recycling bin.
You want to believe the recycling bin — and everything it represents — is real.
In fact, a history of knowing (and facing) the odds is probably exactly why experienced smuggler Han Solo said, “Never tell me the odds.”
Believe me, I get it.
Knowing the odds can often make you want to say, “Fuck it, we’ll do it live!”, or to just take a long walk into the (rising, warming) ocean.
But even knowing the full monty, and getting more data by the day, and having a pretty good understanding of how politics works, and investing works, and medicine works, and voting works, what’s within reach and how far we’ve come — it’s still easy to stare, perplexed, at where we are today.
It’s perplexing, for example, to be alive in a moment when we know for sure that air pollution kills eight million people a year.
But instead of being so horrified that we drop everything to reduce that number to zero, we actually continue to subsidize many of the major perpetrators, to the tune of trillions of dollars a year.
I don’t know any of them personally or even really speak their language, but I feel like that’s what dolphins would do. Or octopuses.
There’s always good news, though. Some incredible outcome that’s just out of reach.
You see, unlike carbon emissions, or even relatively fast-acting methane emissions, air pollution basically goes away when you turn off the source — whether it’s automobiles, factories, wood stoves, gas stoves, or whatever. People stop being poisoned right away. Clean water is similar in this respect.
This, of course, makes the whole thing even MORE frustrating. Because turning off the source is complicated as hell. It’s a journey.
Inevitably, we have to get there first.
We have to hike all the way to fuuuuuuucking Mordor to be able to destroy the ring. We have to drive thousands of miles in a hot station wagon to get to Wally World. We — a simple, widower clownfish — have to swim thousands of miles beyond our comfort zone to even have the chance to convince our fish-son that we are not assholes, much less to come all the way back home with us. We have to travel through space all the way to the Moon to try and land a woman there, dick around for a bit, take off again, reconnect to our orbiter — IN SPACE — and then, finally, bring those women home, through an atmosphere that incinerates ships whenever possible.
A clear, measurable outcome is vital, but the journey is what gets us there.
So to zero out something like air pollution (or diabetes, or malaria, or the NFL), we have to evaluate the problem, full-stack:
We have to deal with massive industries, the companies within them, their shareholders, the products they make, and the people that buy and use them
We have to overcome their immense lobbying efforts
We have to deal with — and better yet, replace — the politics and politicians who golf with those lobbyists, and then on Monday, vote to subsidize those industries
(The same politicians that are so old and have been in office for so long, trading stocks and being lobbied, that in many cases, they let industry literally write the laws that govern them, because it’s more profitable for everyone involved, and because those elected officials no longer understand what the hell is going on out there)
We have to understand existing laws and try to write better ones, from international to local levels
We have to be able to calculate something like Sustainability WAR*.
*In baseball, WAR means “Wins Above Replacement”. Basically, how much all-around better a specific player is than an average one.
So, for example, we would consider as robustly as we can the Sustainability WAR of electric vehicles vs combustion vehicles, of silicone Stasher bags vs plastic ones, vaccine mandates vs none, corn vs lentils, meat vs forests, etc.
For the three of you who are still actually reading: I’ve got great news. We have a track record of success in dissecting and confronting big, complicated problems. We have come a hell of a long way.
Now, you may argue that we’ve made so much progress by often picking the low-hanging fruit we simply didn’t understand before. For example with clean water, sanitation, or smoking.
OF COURSE, we’re drastically healthier than before we washed our hands, or put fluoride in our water. Yes, today, even the hint of smoke in a public place is horrendous. And solving low-hanging fruit IS a massive level-up.
So we should do more of that, wherever we can. Even more great news: there’s a hell of a lot of it left. But, like washing our hands, just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s easy.
The other shit wasn’t easy, either. You just live in a time when it’s available
Our planet is more populated and her systems more extensively trashed than at any point in our history
We really, really have to wrap our heads around how much has changed
Fine, three reasons.
Much of the work that needs to be done now requires us to come to terms with the understanding that the assumptions and tactics that got us here aren’t what will carry us forward.
The people who got us the progress we enjoy today were decidedly not perfect, but they did the work.
We have to commit to compound action, but we also have to make better and different decisions than our predecessors if we want our children to be healthier, if we want to live not only longer, but healthier, and to incur drastically reduced costs across the board.
Our ancestors industrialized the world once.
Sorry, no. They colonized the world. They industrialized the Global North.
A lot of people came up, but a lot of ecosystems suffered, and a lot of people were left behind. Over the next two decades, we have to get to re-industrialize it all over again. In our favor are the many, many lessons learned along the way.
We have learned, for example, that we are often indirectly The Baddies, that we have an inability to embrace and utilize long-term thinking, to extend our most beneficial policies to everyone, or to do what is least profitable, or least risky to “the base”.
We cannot keep shooting ourselves in the foot. But people will try. Inertia, convenience, profits, liberty, being reductive — these are powerful drugs.
Red states that are overwhelmingly benefiting from the new IRA manufacturing boom are trying their hardest to…not do that because clean jobs are woke.
Changing course in those states isn’t impossible — look at Virginia and Georgia and Michigan — but it will take many years of concerted local and state-level organizing to even get close.
Media companies of every size continue to not only take fossil fuel advertising money but create the ads in-house, with their bare hands, much to the disapproval of nearly everyone under 30.
Helping them commit to not doing that requires calling them on it but also encouraging them to find alternative income streams because, if you haven’t noticed, journalism is in a bad way.
US maternal health rates are the worst among developed countries, and rates among Black mothers are many times worse.
And then there are guns, road accidents, and overdoses, all things we don’t actually need to do. We know this, and in late April, Derek Thompson expanded on it in The Atlantic:
“The U.S. mortality rate is much higher, at almost every age, than that of most of Europe, Japan, and Australia. That is, compared with the citizens of these nations, American infants are less likely to turn 5, American teenagers are less likely to turn 30, and American 30-somethings are less likely to survive to retirement.”
The big clincher, though —the bigger picture — and as Derek also notes, is our overwhelming prevalence of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. We are hooked on unhealthy food at cheap prices, we are hooked on corn and sugar, and on statins to keep all of those in check.
But we are also hooked to our couches and trucks, we refuse to build more housing and more transmission lines and train tracks and bus lanes, we refuse to acknowledge when the market just isn’t actually self-regulating, and when legacy institutions like the FDA have run their course and become impossibly unwieldy as a single unit (I will bang this drum until it’s done).
If time is a flat circle, man, so are our systems, self-reinforcing until our kids are suddenly living shorter, unhealthier, less educated lives than we are. All because we either forgot about or refuse to do the basic shit — the low-hanging fruit — that just flat-out works.
We gawk at some potentially transformative societal outcome and then go, “Wait, like all the way over there?”
We know compound interest is amazing, and we know the child tax credit worked in the very brief time it was a thing. We should obviously make it permanent, so today’s children and their parents, and generations to come, can at least afford the basic necessities, and start to build a safety net along the way, compounding whatever’s left over time.
But doing so clearly requires more than a Shit Giver as president, a one-person majority of Shit Givers in the Senate, and not losing the House. It requires not only voting for biannual House candidates, but recruiting, campaigning for, and supporting local and state candidates, some of whom get elected, some of whom turn into Congressional candidates, some of whom actually get elected, and do the right thing, and maybe it was because they didn’t have enough food growing up.
We know states that have taken Medicaid money are healthier. We know why the other states haven’t done it, we know which remaining states we might be able to flip so even more people get health insurance, and we know the groups doing the work on the ground to get them there. But we have to stop wasting dollars on sexy federal races we’ll never win and seats and states we’ll never flip (there is a bit of a theme here).
We know we need to build four million new homes. We know that requires blowing up most of our racist zoning bullshit. We also know we need to electrify the 140 million homes we already have. We know we need carpenters, plumbers, and electricians to do that. But we’re short hundreds of thousands of each of those. We need national and state-level funding for trade schools and nursing programs, where we can pay teachers more than they’d make as actual electricians or nurses, or else they’ll just do that.
We know we need to rebuild the frontlines of medicine. We know nurses and nurse practitioners are invaluable, but we’re short a million of those, too. We need more nursing schools, more and better paid nursing teachers, and a new generation of trusted community health workers.
We know, as Jesse Jenkins put it, that “we must grow the share of carbon-free electricity from 40% to 100% as fast as we possibly can — and do so even as we dramatically expand our electricity supply, which must more than double by 2050 to accommodate all the new EVs and heat pumps, electrify industrial processes, and so forth. To meet those twin challenges, we’ll have to build as much new clean generation by 2035 as the total electricity produced by all sources today, then build that same amount again by 2050.”
But building 75,000 goddamn miles of new transmission lines to connect it all is a permitting nightmare, and we won’t reform permitting in part because last time we industrialized everything we sacrificed a lot of people and a lot of ecosystems and they are understandably still very pissed off about that.
We know we need better, more equitable public schools. But we also know we know we need millions of new teachers to staff them. We should offer those folks the money and resources they need to make it a livable job (including banning guns and subsidizing clean air).
We know we need the Colorado River. It’s the freshwater source for tens of millions of people, but it’s been decimated by industrial meat, and we won’t have the hard conversations about meat or if we can continue living the West we always have.
We know that we can’t just move on after a big virus hits. And yet we’re hell-bent on moving on from COVID, despite those lost, the children left without caregivers, everyone who is still suffering, and the enormous societal and economic costs from all of those.
These things aren’t new. AI is new, ethics sure aren’t. Solar power is new-ish, transmission isn’t. Electronic textbooks are new, social studies isn’t. Wildfires that burn steel and asphalt are new, Indigenous ways of managing them aren’t. Long COVID is new, viruses aren’t.
You know what else isn’t new? Immigration, the thing that built this place and could do it again, solving like 12 crises at once.
After all, what would the aliens think?
There’s a decent chance that sometime in our lifetimes one of these monster telescopes and some AI discover that we’re not actually alone out here. And do you really want our first impression to be that we’re a bunch of self-defeating ding-dongs?
The point of all of this is: We have to open our eyes and explore the full surface area of our stupidest problems, take a deep breath and remember we’ve been here before, learn from what worked in the past, and toss — very far away — what didn’t, and then take measurable action, up and down the line.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for giving a shit. I’ll see you out there.
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News From My Notebook
Health & medicine
Seasonal allergies are coming for us all
In Cancer Alley, US chemical giants mounted a campaign against grassroots organizers, so they can continue to kill people
Apparently forever chemicals in food packaging (like take-out containers) can migrate into food
North Carolina passed a 12 week abortion ban, fuck those guys
Barbie launched the first doll with Down’s syndrome
None of the world’s top industries would be profitable if they paid for the natural capital they use
Recycling, which doesn’t really work, also spews microplastics
Environmentalists sue California over their stupidly reduced solar incentives
The SEC is taking forever to regulate climate disclosures, so the EU has gone one farther and oh boy
Florida and Louisiana are borrowing millions to pay insurance claims (go deeper in my must-listen convo with Washington Post reporter Brianna Sacks)
Food & water
In which the FDA chief dips his toe very gently into the idea of food as medicine
Non-profit grocery stores are trying to rehab America’s food deserts
Inside Big Beef’s (incredibly effective) climate messaging machine
Meet the climate hackers of frontline Malawi
Pollution from farms violates civil rights, maybe?
WATCH: Sal Khan unveils Khan Academy’s new educational chatbot, Khanmigo
Google began rolling out passkeys — this is a great day for data security (check out how to enable it now)
The FTC wants to stop Meta/Facebook from releasing any new products until they stop trouncing kids’ privacy
Washington State passed a sweeping health data law
Per the WHO, with commentary from David Wallace-Wells: Apparently the Pandemic Emergency is Over (it was America’s 4th leading cause of death in 2022)
There’s a new culprit behind Long COVID: monocytes