Where humanity is going, there are no roadmaps. The terrain is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The changes sweeping the Earth right now are literally planetary in scale and so filled with complexity that few among us even have a semblance of knowing what is actually going on. This makes it very difficult to navigate the troubled waters of the 21st Century.
Here are a few examples of things our species has not known in the three million years we’ve existed as “tool using” hominids:
Emergence of a Globalized Economic System :: In the last 500 years, a vast web of intercontinental trade arose spanning several empires, evolving into nation-states, and now becoming a truly globalized meshwork of supply chains, trade agreements, human migration patterns, and so forth.
Extraction and Consumption of Fossil Fuels :: The last time a species gathered up the waste products of a prior era and consumed them to grow itself we had a mass extinction event. And that was more than two billion years ago! I am referring to the cyanobacteria who excreted oxygen and changed the biochemistry of the Earth. Humans are doing this again by disrupting natural carbon cycles with the combustion of fossil fuels.
Explosive Population Growth :: There are now more than 7.4 billion living human beings on Earth. Our population exploded in the last 150 years, well beyond anything in the history of our species. And now we are watching the rapid depletion of vital resources as this huge population gobbles them up — literally as food and metaphorically as the built environments of our globalized civilization.
Crossing of Critical Planetary Boundaries :: The Earth has maintained incredible amounts of stability for billions of years through a vastly complex meshwork of self-regulating feedbacks. Thresholds exist (called “planetary boundaries” by the earth scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Institute) that if crossed will remove this self-regulatory capacity. There is now ample evidence that human activities have pushed us beyond as many as four of these critical operating boundaries for a globalized economic system.
A New Pace and Scale of Complexity :: Most of our history was lived out in small tribal communities where each person might know as many as 150 people. Rapid changes, when they happened, were either catastrophic (volcano wipes out village) or disruptive (drought conditions cause the tribe to migrate into a new area). But they never happened at the pace and scale we live with today. As complexity scientists will be quick to tell you, scale matters a great deal! There are qualitative differences in the interdependencies, cascading patterns, and unexpected phase transitions for large, volatile dynamic systems — intuition about smaller systems misleads and confuses more than it helps.
Entering A New Geologic Era :: Humans have enjoyed an unusual period of climate stability in which to birth agriculture, build cities, weave trade networks, and grow economic empires. That 11,000 year period is known by geologists as the Holocene. The same geologists now agree that human activities brought the Holocene to an end in the 20th Century. We are now in the “age of humans” dubbed appropriately as the Anthropocene. Our footprints on the Earth will be visible in the very chemical makeup of the planet’s crust hundreds of millions of years from now. This is how unprecedented this time in history really is.
The climate war heated up significantly today as President Trump signed a series of executive orders gutting the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce U.S. carbon emissions (The Washington Post). The orders instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to rewrite rules Obama instituted that would have led to the closing of old coal-fired power plants across the country. The policy is being pushed under a banner of “energy independence.” But the U.S. gets all of its coal domestically already, so: Huh?
The president doesn’t have legal authority to unilaterally revoke the Obama rules, known as the Clean Power Plan. That means these orders will kick off a long legal fight. Meanwhile, employment in the U.S. coal industry has been contracting for decades, thanks to reduced demand, competition from other energy sources, and increasing automation of those mines that remain open.
When does fearlessly breaking the rules turn into recklessly crossing the line? Maybe it’s when a CEO repeatedly fondles an employee’s breasts in public. That’s what the former PR head of Thinx, which makes period-proof underwear for women, says the firm’s (now former) CEO, Miki Agrawal, did to her (New York). Agrawal says the charges are “baseless.”
Thinx is a headline-making New York-based startup with a deliberately transgressive approach to product and messaging. It sells underwear, but it also crusades on behalf of “girls in the developing world who don’t have access to menstrual products.” Its subway ads caused a stir, and Agrawal has a long track record of courting controversy. A key part of Thinx’s mission, Agrawal wrote on Medium, is to “break the period taboo once and for all.” As she put it to New York: “I just love the taboo space.”
Twitter was a potent weapon in Donald Trump’s campaign arsenal. But the power of social media constantly mutates, and right now it’s working against the Trump team’s efforts to control the flow of information from the ranks of the federal civil service out to the public.
Most incoming administrations go through rough patches as their political appointees take the reins of career-run agencies. But this transition is the first one to feature rogue Twitter accounts pushing back against the dictates of new bosses — or at least, as in the case of the National Parks social media managers who decided to Tweet-blast straightforward climate facts, do what they view as their public-information jobs. The Ringerhas a good summary of January 2017’s “digital insurrection” (the Associated Press’s apt phrase).
The World Economic Forum gathers economists, businesspeople, and world leaders in Davos, Switzerland every January to hobnob about the state of the world from the side of a snowtopped Alp. When the event hit prime time in the ’90s, people started using the term “Davos Man” as shorthand for the global business elite.
Each year on the eve of the conference, the WEF releases a Global Risks Report that surveys its community about the dangers ahead. This year, economic performance trails far behind bigger worries like climate change, populist-fueled political instability, and inequality (CNBC). For the first time in 2017, “extreme weather events” tops the list of the most likely risks, followed by “large-scale involuntary migration,” “major natural disasters,” “terrorist attacks” and “data fraud/theft.”
Last week we told you about the federal climate scientists who are backing up their data to protect it from Trump administration tampering or neglect. But plenty of other information we need to steer our economy through the dangers of climate change is under threat.
Over the past decade the federal government began adding calculations of the social costs of carbon emissions to the ledgers it uses when it does cost-benefit analyses of rules and regulations. But Trump administration transition officials have said they plan to drop that practice. Michael Greenstone and Cass Sunstein, two policy experts who helped shape the Obama administration’s carbon cost estimates, argue (in The New York Times) that without such calculations, we’ll be flying blind into the climate disaster, unable to make informed choices about balancing economic costs and climate benefits. “Wishing that we did not face this trade-off,” they write, “will not make it go away.”
Often ignored by established companies, electric vehicles have been embraced by various start ups that aim to change the way we move. After early setbacks, EVs have experienced a renaissance. Of course Tesla has found success in the high-end electric car market, positioning itself as a challenger to legacy gas-engine car manufactures when it releases is lower-end model in 2018. But other companies are finding niches in all corners of the market. Zero Motorcycles have become very popular with the environmental conscious motorcyclist, and Faraday Bikes has encouraged people to ride their bicycles more often.
And then there’s Monday Motorbikes, a small company located in Brisbane, Calif. that aims for the market right between short-range bicycles and high-powered motorcycles Its fully electric moped may sound too niche for some, but these medium-range gas powered vehicles are the most popular vehicles in the world. In fact, the biggest selling vehicle of all time is the Honda Super Cub, which is in the same vehicle category as Monday Motorbike’s M1. The Honda Super Cub alone has sold more than 87 million units since its production started in 1958. Mopeds continue to be the preferred mode of transportation in Asia and Africa, due to their price range and fuel economy.
Clean energy development will continue whether the White House supports it (as it has for the past eight years) or not. President-elect Trump may doubt the reality of climate change and favor fossil fuels, but a small army of his fellow plutocrats — led by Bill Gates — just announced a new billion-dollar fund to seek technology fixes for global warming (Quartz). Other initial investors in the new Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund include Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio, and Softbank’s Masayoshi Son.
The fund has a 20-year life and will begin making investments next year in a wide variety of clean-tech areas: electrical generation, batteries, industrial processes, farming, and energy efficiency. An earlier wave of clean energy investments a decade ago failed to pay off. But it did speed deployment of solar panels, electric cars, and other foundations of a new energy economy that might be riper today — readier to provide returns in profits as well as reduced greenhouse-gas emissions.
Facebook is where a lot of the 2016 campaign played out, and it’s also where much of the election post-mortem is focusing. This is hardly the first electoral autopsy to raise issues like echo chambers, fake news, and media misfires — we had all of those in each of the last three presidential cycles, too.
What’s new about the debate this time is how it’s playing out among Facebook employees themselves. They’re beginning to ask a question that every NewCo worker sooner or later faces: Does the platform my company is building promote a mission and set of values that I believe in?