Malthus, Mankind, and Mother Earth

A case for optimism in the face of climate change

As a civil-environmental engineer interested in designing better built environments and resilience infrastructure, I meet a lot of people concerned about climate change. While the broad scope and myriad impacts of climate change can certainly make it a large and even looming problem in our psyche, many people around me seem to have taken a concerning stance when it comes to climate change discourse and solutions. Rather than becoming excited about novel technological solutions or new scientific insights, they resign themselves to platitudes about how there are simply too many people in the world, how China is relentlessly emitting, and how X number of companies/billionaires are responsible for Y percent of emissions. The best way I have heard to encapsulate these people’s views on global warming is the phrase “climate change Doomer”.

Now we’re all familiar with climate change, but if you were born before 1995 you may be asking yourself, “What is a Doomer, anyways?”. Stemming from the word boomer, the Doomer is a person who has a bleak and generally hopeless outlook on the world. They have given up on their agency, and turn instead to substances and other hedonics that leave them feeling empty. The image below is one of the more common characterizations of the Doomer. The meme, popular amongst young people, represents one’s feelings of hopelessness and resignation. The Doomer cares, but knows he can do nothing. He is weary.

While immersed in the angsty echo-chamber that is my generation’s zeitgeist, things certainly begin to feel hopeless. However enticing it may be to slip into lament, these views not only hamper climate change action, they’re seriously unfounded in the facts. In this post, I hope to inspire optimism and confidence in our ability as humans, to change our world for the better.

Let’s start with a review of climate success stories that most people have probably never heard of. Remember how acid rain was going to melt away all our buildings and statues, and kill our aquatic ecosystems? We established a market system of cap and trade through the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments that cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 51% by 2010. How about the hole in the ozone layer that was going to melt Antarctica and burn all of Australia? The Montreal Protocol in 1987 was incredibly effective at reducing our global emissions of CFCs, and was adopted by nearly every country on earth. Just take a look at the graph below. The CFC ban enacted by the Montreal Protocol has already prevented 1.1 °C of warming globally, and may prevent an additional global 1°C and 4°C in the Arctic specifically by 2050. Astoundingly, this future reduction corresponds to an approximate 25% reduction of global warming on the whole.

And it’s not just specific chemical reductions either, general air quality has largely improved in the cities of the developed world, even one’s known widely for their pollution levels. In LA for example, even despite the high wildfire frequency, air quality has steadily improved for 40 years.

This is not to say that climate change isn’t bad, it’s one of the most important problems facing humanity today. The important distinction to make is that we have the power to combat it. Our capacity to replace existing power infrastructure with renewable alternatives has been consistently under-rated by experts for over 20 years. For instance, in 2010 we achieved the World Energy Outlook 2002 prediction for 2030’s built capacity. The graph below is rather telling of our failure to understand the exponential nature of renewables growth.

And it’s not just our ability to reduce the amount of carbon we emit that is improving either, our ability to capture and sequester carbon is also greatly improving. A few years ago, it cost about $1000 to sequester a ton of carbon dioxide. Now, it can cost as low as $250. There is new technology on the horizon as well. In mid September, I met with Laurel Tincher, who works at a carbon removal company named Pull to Refresh. Her team is building a network of autonomous drone ships that will trawl the great pacific garbage patch, planting, growing, and eventually sinking deep sea kelp as a means of carbon sequestration. They estimate that at scale, they could remove a ton of carbon for $100. This pattern of price reduction mimics that of renewable energy, and is likely to accelerate as the market for carbon offsets and climate change mitigation develops and matures.

Why is optimism important? Sometimes, our misunderstandings about how impactful our actions are can lead us to make poor choices. Many climate Doomers have adopted their pessimistic outlook on climate action as a reaction to the unappealing effect:effort ratio of some of the most popular “green” lifestyle choices.

Going on a plant-based diet, biking to work, or even having one child fewer than planned are all examples of these unappealing choices. But are these really how wer’re going to save the earth? In this graph from the Founders Pledge Climate and Lifestyle Report , we can compare these choices to each other, and briefly it may look as though the anti-natalists may have an argument.

That is, until you take into account the potential effect of simply donating through targeted altruism towards green energy, accelerating change and innovation, and leading to a huge reduction of future greenhouse gas emissions. I want to stress that this is not simply carbon offsetting, but rather investing in more efficient means of producing energy per ton of carbon emissions.

In fact, green energy investments are some of the highest return prospects out there, especially compared to their conventional counterparts. This figure from the Imperial CCFI & IEA illustrates the gap nicely.

These poor lifestyle and investment decisions are not the exclusive domain of individuals either, often driven by misinformed and heavily mood associative “green” movements, nations fall prey to the same phenomenon. One key example is the recent recoil of “green” countries away from nuclear power solutions. Nations like Germany and Japan have begun closing down and decommissioning their nuclear power plants and replacing them with conventional coal plants.

The mood associative aversion to nuclear energy will undoubtedly cost more lives in the end, as a result of the long term effects of particulate matter pollution and the secondary effects of global warming. Nuclear energy has some of the best potential for safe and clean power, and because of our misjudgments, we have regulated nearly all innovation out of the field in the name of safety. Often times, the regulatory environment is so smothersome that the only plants that can pass design stages today are ones built on the knowledge from 40 years ago. But this is nothing to lament! Changing this, and ushering in the next age of energy production, could be as simple as the right politician putting words to the page.

So, if you have been feeling like a climate Doomer, I hope that I’ve shown you that by working smart rather than hard, and addressing these problems through investment and intelligent policy, we can actually solve climate change. We don’t need to dismantle capitalism, or reduce the population of the planet. If we’re lucky, we may not have to reduce consumption. The tools to attain this bright future are at our disposal, and we should be excited, rather than resigned to sink beneath the waves. Thanks for reading,

-Connor, OfAllTrades.

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Earthships

How sustainable housing innovation in the American southwest might be a window into future design principles of remote and efficient living.

As an early teenager, I consumed science fiction with intense voracity. By far, the thing that interested me most was the possibility of a self sustaining system that could support life. Whether it be some sort of sealed terrarium, the inside of a hollowed out asteroid, or a high tech escape pod, the elegance of circular systems has never failed to satisfy my imagination. This appreciation is a large part of what led me to study civil and environmental engineering, and is still a driving force behind my academic pursuits today.

Recently my curiosity led me to stumble upon a type of buildings called Earthships, which rather surprisingly share many of the same satisfying characteristics of enclosed environments. Although not practical in every location, they address many key problems with the unsustainable nature of today’s human-built environments, and because of their decentralized and grassroots nature, are a sort of bottom-up parallel to the trend of big-tech green installations, which you can read more about here.

So what is an Earthship home?

Earthships are custom built, off-grid capable homes that achieve ultra high levels of energy efficiency, built largely out of recycled or re-used materials. The style was pioneered in the 1970s by Michael Reynolds, a draft-dodging hippie who moved to the southwest from Ohio and was inspired by the local adobe style architecture.

Since he started building Earthships in Taos New Mexico, over 300 of these unique and beautiful structures have popped up around the world. Here’s a particularly beautiful one in Taos, a hotspot for the style, with over 70 Earthships forming a neighborhood. I especially like the copper-patina-esque coloring.

Beyond their aesthetics, Earthships are a delightful fusion of a few key functionalities, namely:

  • Passive Heating and Cooling Systems

  • Water Efficiency/Retention

  • Sustainable and Self Sufficient Energy Generation

  • Recycled Materials and Sustainable Construction

Lets break down how these structures provide these functionalities.

Passive heating and cooling is accomplished by taking advantage of air convection and something called thermal mass construction to create wind drafts that cool the house in the summer and store heat that is then radiated to the house at night.

In the image below, you can see how in summer, the wind shaft at the back is open, which allows air to be sucked into the home by the pressure differential caused by the vented front windows. This air is cooled by the mass of the rear mound and tire wall, and also creates a pleasant airflow in the home. In the winter, the low angle of the sun allows the home to capture much more natural light, the wall of tires at the back of the home soaks up and retains this heat, and radiate it later. During the cool night, the mass of the earth and tire wall lets some of the captured heat back out, maintaining comfortable temperature for the resident.

Earthships also rely heavily on water use and retention, with most of them sourcing their water from the rain. To keep water costs low they use intensive greywater recycling systems, sometimes opting to forgo the flush and use only composting toilets. By cutting toilets out of the equation, some Earthships can even re-use greywater after minimal treatment, before routing it to botanical cells in the front sunroom where it is used to nourish fruits and vegetables.

Sustainable Energy generation is pretty simple, Earthships generally use solar and wind energy, with an interesting array of miniature wind turbines like the one pictured below. Energy is stored for off-hours use in battery arrays.

I think it would be interesting to see a cluster of Earthships use a small scale vortex style hydro-power solution (example below), which don’t significantly disrupt river flow, can be run in series down a riverbank, and are even fish friendly.

With this diverse set of renewable energy sources, Earthships are well suited for off grid living, especially if the owner were to overbuild generation and storage capacity in order to allow any one source to provide enough to power the home in times of scarcity.

Earthships also make use of many recycled and reused materials in their construction, with the rear retaining walls and wall bases for the main structure being made mostly from tires packed with earth and covered in adobe plaster. They also make use of glass bottles in a mosaic fashion to let in diffuse light and tin cans to reflect the harsh sun from the building.

Because Earthships are made largely from recycled and repurposed materials, and are constructed by pseudo-Amish style teams of laborers, they account for significantly less embodied carbon than a conventional building would, due to the lower emissions inputs involved in the manufacturing and construction processes as compared to new construction.

So what?

In the United Sates, household climate control systems account for just over half of our energy expenditures, with this percentage climbing drastically in the country’s most extreme environments. The same trend is true for water, with around 30 percent of the average household’s water being devoted to outdoor use (read lawns), topping out at around 50 percent in the nations hottest climates. The energy generation situation in the U.S. is also concerning, with only around 11% of the nations energy being generated by renewables as shown in the figure below.

Earthships take a grassroots approach to addressing these and many other problems that loom over our world today. Too often we expect solutions to come down from on high, and more often than not the solutions that work best are ones people take initiative to do for themselves.

Density is great, but it’s not for everyone. If we can use solutions like Earthships to make living remotely more appealing and better for the environment, I’m all for it. Earthships are not a solution that can house everyone on earth, but they can teach us some valuable lessons about the systems we might eventually need to do that, and more.

-Connor, Of All Trades

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If you’d like to learn more about Earthships here are some links and resources that inspired me to learn more!

https://earthshipbiotecture.com/

https://undecidedmf.com/episodes/exploring-earthship-homes-ultimate-efficiency

https://www.insider.com/what-its-like-living-in-earthship-off-grid-sustainable-home-2020-5

On Unions

How a widely-lauded labor institution may be suppressing underprivileged workers

The past few months have seen protracted negotiations and protests over the unionization of Amazon, Uber, Google, and many other barons of 21st century industry. Over ten percent of the American workforce is unionized, and although the nation is at a historical low point in the popularity of unions, they play an important part in our past and modern day economy. Because of their economic and cultural significance in our society, there is a high degree of political polarization present in discussions about unions that leads to misguided and inconsistent policy conclusions. 

In this piece, we explore some basic concepts that are necessary for understanding unions. Before we can say what ought or ought not to be done in terms of union policy, we must answer the following questions:

How do unions work and what are their effects? 

Who do they help and who do they hurt?

How did unions operate in the past and have they changed?

The unionizing Amazon workers will benefit greatly from membership. The average union worker earns about 20% more than nonunion workers, even after adjusting for factors such as years of work experience and education level. Importantly, these benefits come without requiring an increase in working hours or productivity, resulting in an unqualified improvement to union members’ quality of life. This is the reason unions are popular. Workers and political movements that sympathize with them believe that labor deserves a bigger share of the revenue from businesses, and unions give it to them. The benefits that unions afford to their members cannot be ignored.

So that’s one question answered. Unions help their members by getting them more pay for the same work. That’s really good for those workers, but businesses never do anything for free. If unions don’t offer their employer more productivity, then how do they negotiate for higher wages? The answer lies in the process of competition: To understand this, let’s take the mining business as an example. 

Each additional worker that a business hires helps them produce more goods. Adding an extra miner lets the mine produce $20 of extra ore every hour. If a greedy business tried to cut the wages of their workers to $15, then a competing mine could profitably expand their operation by poaching these workers at a wage >$15, and selling their extra ore for $20. Similarly, if a unionized group of workers received $25 per hour, workers from other mines could profit by replacing the unionized workers at a wage <$25. So as long as businesses can hire more workers and workers can switch employers, any wage not equal to the value of what workers produce will eventually be competed away. 

In other words, if a business has a choice between union and non-union workers, they will always choose the non-union workers, because unionized workers demand higher wages without increasing the value of what they produce. In some cases, most of the workers in a particular labor pool are unionized, leaving the profit maximizing employers no choice but to hire union workers at higher wages. This is not sustainable, however. Inflated wages attract workers from other places and industries into the labor pool.  These workers switch jobs or move to the union dominated area which gives the businesses a choice between union and non-union labor and pushes wages closer to the value of the extra goods that each extra worker produces. 

So in order to keep wages above productivity, unions must avoid this competition. Given that firms are profit maximizing, and that unions need to increase wages without increasing productivity in order to be of any benefit to their members, the money for those increased wages has to come from stopping competitors from entering the labor market. This means that in order to continue getting good deals for their members, unions must resort to excluding workers who are willing to work for less than the union set wages. Effective unions ultimately derive their power from exclusion of others, and unions that don’t, can’t keep wages high enough for members to benefit.

Unions that are unable to prevent non-union workers from entering the labor market can’t keep wages high. So how do they prevent this competition? First, unions have to offer existing workers some benefits. Higher wages, better insurance, shorter hours, etc. Unions become popular because they improve the lives of existing Longshoremen, TSA agents, or Amazon workers. But these benefits can only last if other workers are prevented from negotiating their own pay. 

This is where the history of union tactics gets dark. Take, for example, UMW: the United Mine Workers union. After gathering support from a large number of miners in Illinois, they were able to recruit a majority of the mining labor force by convincing workers that they could extract benefits from the mine owners based on the threat of a huge strike and replacing a large number of mine workers. Once the agreement between the UMW and the mine owners expired, the UMW went on strike to build up leverage for negotiating. To protect their monopoly power, they violently prevented non-union workers, who were predominantly African American, from accepting the jobs that they were striking from. 

“The union had the full support of Illinois Governor John R. Tanner, who swore that he would use the state militia to “shoot to pieces with Gatling guns” any train bringing in black workers. The militia captain in Pana, Illinois, pledged his support. “If any Negroes are brought into Pana while I am in charge, and they refuse to retreat when ordered to do so, I will order my men to fire,” he pledged. “If I lose every man under my command no Negroes shall land in Pana.” Several black miners were murdered in the ensuing weeks. The AFL passed a resolution praising Governor Tanner and “Remember Pana” became a UMW slogan.”

Unions have to exclude some workers to benefit their unionized group. It is much easier to organize this exclusion along easily identifiable and pre-existing cultural, racial, and economic divides; perpetuating racism and prejudice in our society. The historical record is full of unions using this strategy. 

“South Africa’s Mines and Works (Colour Bar) Act of 1911 was passed to appease white union members’ demand to abate black competition. When the owners continued to employ black miners, the “Rand Rebellion” of 1922 ensued, “one of the bloodiest labor disputes ever to occur anywhere in the world,” followed by more restrictive legislation to reserve jobs for white unionists in 1924 (Sowell 1990: 27).”

Samuel Gompers, the most famous leader of the American Federation of Labor said “The Caucasians are not going to let their standard of living be destroyed by Negroes, Chinamen, Japs, or any other” Unions are the mechanism by which the standard of living of Caucasians (unionized) is threatened by ‘negroes, chinamen, japs, or any other’ (non-unionized).

The exclusionary tactics of unions are not limited to black workers either: anti-Chinese union agitation in California culminated in the Exclusion Law of 1882 which effectively banned immigration from Asia. Additionally, Unions promoted maximum-hour laws for women, which had the effect of increasing unemployment and lowering the income of immigrant women workers (Landes 1980).”

“The worst recorded incident of labor-related racial violence occurred in St. Louis in 1917. When the Aluminum Ore Company brought in African American workers to break a strike, 3,000 white union members marched in protest. The marchers morphed into a mob, attacking random black residents on the street. The following day, shots were exchanged between whites and black in the black part of town; two plainclothes police officers were killed. When the news got out, roving white mobs rampaged through black East St. Louis, burning homes and businesses, and assaulting men, women and children. Between 100 and 200 black working people died and 6,000 were left homeless. It foreshadowed things to come.” (Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice)

The dark history of unions doesn’t end in the past. It changes shape and form to fit the time. Famously, Jimmy Hoffa used his Mob connections to corrupt city officials to help the Teamsters land contracts, in exchange for access to Union pension funds. In a 2017 operation, the FBI arrested 19 people on charges related to paying off the bosses of New York construction unions as well as colluding with unions in price fixing. Modern unions still must exclude non-union entrants into labor markets if they want to keep wages above productivity. Their methods for achieving this are less directly violent, but the indirectness of their exclusion makes it more insidious. Rather than openly excluding marginalized groups, modern unions hide the costs of their exclusion across borders. 

For example, rather than compete fairly against workers in Mexico or Japan, American workers fund the campaigns of protectionist candidates that allow unions to offshore their exclusionary tactics. In 2004, the National Institute for Labor Relations Research estimated that the total union political expenditure reached 925 million dollars, a number that grows every year. In 2020, the NILRR showed that more than 1.4 billion of the total 14 billion in political spending was sourced from labor groups. Unions oppose guest worker programs, and while some support “immigration reform” as part of the democratic party line, this really means amnesty for existing illegal immigrants in a bid to gain their membership, not an increase in the number of immigrants accepted into the country.

Public unions like the Fraternal Order of Police participate heavily in regulatory capture, with employees having huge incentives to help lobby their employer, who, because they are the government, lack a proper “profit maximizing” drive. This costs taxpayers incalculable sums of money every year, and leads to horrible outcomes for the general public. For example, the Department of Justice has been continually foiled by police unions in efforts to reform and improve the American justice system. Unions serve only to protect their members interests, and this results in bad police officers on our streets, ballooning budgets, and the degradation of justice. 

Lets Review:

How do unions work and what are their effects? 

Unions work to secure benefits such as higher wages or better working conditions for their members through collective bargaining and the threat of labor scarcity. This is good for Union workers, but what about everyone else?

Who do they help and who do they hurt?

Unions help the workers who are in them, but because they necessarily must control the pool of labor in order to negotiate for improvements, they resort to excluding outside workers from their labor markets by constructing tight borders around them.

How did unions operate in the past and have they changed?

The past history of unions is plagued by a legacy of racism and exclusion. In the past, and when labor was more geographically dependent, this resulted in violence and discriminatory laws at home. Today, unions operate by much the same means, but target workers and labor outside of the country or ingroup by lobbying for tighter immigration control, more protectionist trade policy, and heavier occupational licensure. 

So what? 

When it comes to government and the market, we want one that pursues the interests of freedom and well-being, for everyone. Not just citizens, not just special corporate interests, and not just union members. The borders not only of our nation, but of our workplaces, and of our communities should be as open and free as possible, so that together, we might all grow richer. The impact of unions is more hidden today than it has been in the past, but the consequences are the same. People all over the world and at home unjustly suffer from a system of exclusion and corruption that only benefits a select group of individuals. 

This post was a collaboration between Connor and Maxwell Tabarrok, who each write at

And 

Respectively.

Open AI and the next Productivity Revolution

How more intuitive coding interfaces have the potential to bring about the greatest productivity spike ever seen.

In my last post, I talked about spatial software, and how a more intuitive system of interacting with our virtual world might spur an economic growth spurt akin to that of the Industrial Revolution. Recently, I saw something that blew my mind. The OpenAI Codex is a system that translates natural language into code. In the demo below, the Open AI team shows how given an API, the OpenAI Codex is able to effectively learn how to take spoken commands and code a program to fulfill their request.

Apart from the AI’s amazing ability to parse the English language, which is reminiscent of GPT-3, it has the impressive ability to parse that language into logic, which can then be turned into working code through a given API.

The implications of this are nearly impossible to predict. Not only will coding become a much more efficient occupation, but it will also become more accessible. With Codex, the days of learning java as a second language are numbered. And with such a huge barrier to entry dissipating, the floodgates of the programming world will open to anyone who can dictate or type.

Similar to how the near mythical creation of Hangul (often described as the easiest alphabet to learn in the world), drastically improved Korean literacy rates, the advent of AI logic transcription will revolutionize and accelerate innovation by bringing previously code illiterate people into the fold of software development. Currently, only .5% of people on earth have the ability to code, and most of these people are not proficient enough at it to make it as developers, who may number as few as 18.5 million. However, 47.1% of worldwide households have access to a computer, and even more have mobile phones.

Everyone is capable of thinking in logic patterns. In many ways, it is the defining ability of humanity. This means that not accounting for advancements in computer and technological access, there are roughly 3.7 Billion minds on the cusp of an effective alternative to code literacy. That is nearly a 200 fold increase in brainpower that will be able to alter and manipulate the virtual world in new and powerful ways. If I were to predict what people in the year 2100 look back upon as the most pivotal moment of the century, I would choose this in a heartbeat.

I think it shows how excited I am about this invention, so much so that I’ve already requested access to the OpenAI Codex Beta, to which I’ve included a link here:

-Connor, Of All Trades

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Review: John Palmer on Spatial Software

What happens when virtual spaces mirror the mechanics of the real world, and how better connecting them may be the start of the next innovation boom.

John Palmer’s framework for talking about how apps and programs can improve by more closely mirroring the mechanics of physical spaces inspired me to think differently about how we build our digital world. As a civil engineer, I spend much of my day thinking about how we build and interact with our physical world, so it was refreshing to think about how we do the same in the virtual realm, especially because of how different and often loose the constraints to virtual worlds are.

In reading Palmer’s piece, the abstract vocabulary is at first less than welcoming to the reader, but if you go back and review the preceding piece; Spatial Interfaces, the post opens up and becomes much more straightforward. After dissolving the semantic tripping stones of the piece, the basic thesis of Spatial Software is that most of our virtual worlds today are arbitrarily organized in a vertical stack, and usually ordered by timestamp. Twitter is a good example of this. What Palmer proposes, is that we could gain new insights and methods of informational navigation by representing our largely vertical worlds differently.

While Palmer's examples of social media platforms and notes apps being possible places where spatial organization may be widely used in the future are interesting and have large implications for the wider world, I think he may have missed one important way that spatial interfaces could change our world forever.

One of the biggest inputs to the rate of change of our online world is the amount of brainpower that works to improve it every day. Giving the expert coders we have new tools is great, but bringing new people into the fold of software engineering is better. This prompted me to ask: “what if we could code in a way that was spatially familiar?”. The more that rookie coders can rely on intuition and spatial familiarity, the lower the field’s attrition rate will be, and the more innovation we’ll end up with.

So what would these systems look like, how can we make coding more approachable to potential software engineers by employing the idea of spatial intuition? One example of this is Minecraft’s infamous Redstone system. By manipulating the arrangement of virtual blocks within the game world, players can build simple logic machines to full on computers capable of emulating other video games.

Another example which may be more broadly known among coders is Scratch. By representing pieces of code as jigsaw-puzzle like pieces, and allowing the user to interactively use their intuition to put them together, Scratch exemplifies just how easy spatial coding interfaces could make software development in the future.

By creating more and better spatially intuitive coding interfaces, we may be able to circumvent some of the barrier to entry to software engineering, and jumpstart one of the largest explosions in human innovation yet. The prospects are boundless, and the cost minimal. Needless to say, I am very excited to see what comes next.

-Connor, Of All Trades

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To learn more about spatial software and interfaces, take a look at palmer’s site here

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