Today's theme is seeking solutions - technological, social, personal - in a pragmatic spirit that seems all-too lost, these days. One Place where you find that spirit flowing as vigorously as ever is the X-Prize Foundation led by Peter Diamandis.
The theme of the latest XPrize challenge seeks methods of agricultural carbon sequestration. What if there is an efficient way to capture carbon from the air and safely store it for 1000 years or more?
What if the cost of capturing the carbon is near zero - with no new technology needed?
What if the cost of storing (sequestering) the carbon is low?
What if the cost will go down as EV transportation ramps up?
What if this can be done on a massive scale promptly and globally?
And - preemptively countering the tech-hating prudes who denounce every technological contribution to problem-solving - what if this can be done morally to not encourage more carbon being added to the air?
Now I am a big supporter of X-Prize and have participated in several endeavors. In this case I’m a bit skeptical, but...
What’s the Least Bad Way to Cool the Planet? Yes it's controversial, as it should be. But many of those who oppose even researching or talking about ‘geo-engineering’ seem almost as fanatical as the Earth-killers of the Denialist Cult. Puritans vehemently denounce any talk of “palliative remedies” will distract from our need to cut carbon!
Which is simply false. Oh, we must develop sustainables and conservation as our primary and relentlessly determined goal! I have been in that fight ever since helping run the Clean Air Car Race in 1970 and later writing EARTH. Find me anyone you know with a longer track record. Still, we must also have backups to help bridge a time of spreading deserts, flooding cities, malaria and possible starvation. We are a people capable of many things, in parallel! And to that end I lent some help to this effort, led by Pro. David Keith, to study the tradeoffs now, before panic sets in.
Keith is a professor of applied physics and of public policy at Harvard, where he led the development of the university’s solar engineering research program. He founded a company doing big things in carbon capture. He is also a co-host of the podcast “Energy vs Climate”.
Consulting a bit for that effort, I spoke up for a version of geoengineering that seems the most ‘natural’ and least likely to have bad side effects… and one that I portrayed in my 1990 novel EARTH - ocean fertilization. Not the crude way performed in a few experiments so far, dropping iron dust into fast currents… though those experiments did seem to have only positive effects, spurring increased fish abundance, but apparently removing only a little carbon.
In EARTH I describe instead fertilizing some of the vast stretches of ocean that are deserts, virtually void of macroscopic life, doing it exactly the same way that nature does, off the rich fisheries of Labrador and Chile and South Africa — by stirring bottom mud to send nutrients into fast currents. (Only fast ones, for reasons I’ll explain in comments.)
Just keep an open mind, okay? We're going to need a lot of solutions, both long term and temporary, in parallel. That is, if we can ever overcome the insanity of many neighbors who reflexively hate all the solution-creating castes.
Okay this is interesting and … what’s the catch? Apparently extracting geothermal energy from a region reduces geological stresses, like earthquake activity. “Caltech researchers have discovered that the operations related to geothermal energy production at Coso over the last 30 years have de-stressed the region, making the area less prone to earthquakes. These findings could indicate ways to systematically de-stress high-risk earthquake regions, while simultaneously building clean energy infrastructure.”
Well well. Makes sense, but again, the catch? Not just California. We should use the magma under Yellowstone to power the nation! Lest we get a bad ‘burp” (see my novel Existence) or something much worse. Oh, and these geothermal plants also could locally source rare earths.
And while I'm offering click bait... a Caltech Professor analyzed the Hindenburg disaster and offered – for a NOVA episode – a highly plausible and well worked-out theory for how it happened.
Paul Shoemaker’s newly released book interviews many futurists and managerial types, with an eye toward guiding principles that can help make capitalism positive-sum. Take a look at: Taking Charge of Change: How Rebuilders Solve Hard Problems.
== Revisiting SARS-Cov-2 origins ==
I can’t count the number of folks – including likely some of you reading this now – who hammered on me for saying, half a year or so ago, that acknowledged gain-of-function research into increased virulence of SARS-type coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)… which had had lab slip-ups in the past… might have played a role in the sudden emergence of Covid19 in the very same city. Might… have. All I asserted was that it could not yet be ruled out. “Paranoia!” came the common (and rather mob-like) rejoinder, along with “shame on you for spreading hateful propaganda without any basis!”
Well, as it happens, there’s plenty of basis. And this article dispassionately delineates the pros and cons in an eye-opening way… e.g. how the original letter proclaiming an ‘obvious wet market source” was orchestrated by the very fellow who financed WIV’s gain-of-function research. If you want an eye-opening tour of the actual scientific situation and what’s known, start here.
Sure, that then opens a minefield of diplomatic and scientific ramifications that would have been much simpler, had we been able to shrug off dark possibilities as "paranoid." I'm not afraid of minefields, just cautious. It's called the Future?
== Suddenly Sanctimony Addiction is In The News! ==
Professor James Kimmel (Yale) recently got press attention for pushing the notion that: “your brain on grievance looks a lot like your brain on drugs. In fact, brain imaging studies show that harboring a grievance (a perceived wrong or injustice, real or imagined) activates the same neural reward circuitry as narcotics.” He has developed role play interventions for healing from victimization and controlling revenge cravings.
Of course this is related to my own longstanding argument that it is a huge mistake to call all 'addiction' evil, as a reflex. These reinforcement mechanisms had good evolutionary reasons… e.g. becoming “addicted to love” or to our kids or to the sublime pleasure of developing and applying a skill. The fact that such triggers can be hijacked by later means, from alcohol and drugs to video games, just redoubles our need to study the underlying reason we developed such triggers, in the first place. And, as Dr. Kimmel so cogently points out, the most destructive such 'hijacking' is grudge-sanctimony — because it causes us to lash out, drive off allies, ignore opportunities for negotiation and generally turn positive sum situations into zero… or even negative sum… ones.
Here’s my TED talk on “The addictive plague of getting mad as hell." ...And the much earlier - more detailed - background paper I once presented at the Centers for Drugs and Addiction: Addicted to Self-Righteousness?
And yes, this applies even if your ‘side’ in politics or culture wars happens to be right! The rightness of the cause is arguably orthogonal to the deepness of this addiction to the sick-sweet pleasures of sanctimony and grievance and rage. Indeed, many of those on the side of enlightenment and progress are (alas) so stoked on these reinforcement rage chemicals that they become counter-productive the the very cause we share.