Just how many seemingly impossible problems in the world only look impossible because insufficient imagination has been dedicated to finding creative ways to re-align the incentives?
Take climate change.
On the one hand, we have everyone who would prefer the Earth not get warmer faster than civilization can possibly hope to adapt.
On the other, we have around $200 trillion dollars of infrastructure dedicated to the extraction, processing, and distribution of oil, gas, and coal and all the various byproducts available inside it.
And all the states that need that oil and coal revenue to feed their budgets, and the men, women, and children who rely on all of it to feed and clothe themselves.
And all the hard working, brilliant, and undeniably powerful men and women who have dedicated their lives to building, expanding, and maintaining the networks of value that run on these things we call fossil fuels, who know the world we live in cannot yet operate without them, but also have a lot of vested interest that they have zero desire to lose?
And on and on.
The conventional wisdom is that we are dealing with a zero-sum game where for one side to win, the other must surely have to lose.
According to the simplified version of this narrative from the environmentalist perspective, it’s the fossil fuel producing states and the companies that have mastered the art of extracting, refining, and distributing fossil fuels and the countless byproducts vs the environment, the Earth, and the rest of humanity.
The simplified version of the other side is that these environmentalists have no idea what’s actually required to operate the modern world, to keep things running, so to speak…
…all the food, products, people, information, and everything else so many of us take for granted across and around this pale blue dot hurtling through time and space, and shutting down fossil fuels on any timeline like the one everyone worried about climate change is talking about is not even close to a non-starter if you want people around the world to still have access to food and medicine and all the stuff people like.
Ah, but what if there were a way that no one on any side of the equation had to lose?
More tangibly, what if…paths existed that could align the interests of:
- Oil companies
- Textile and paper conglomerates
- Fertilizer and chemical giants
- Powerful Middle Eastern, Western, and Eastern Nations
- Pharmaceutical companies
- Independent hemp growers and experts
- Cotton farmers
- Visionaries who want to restore the world’s deserts into thriving gardens
- Oceanographers, marine biologists, and various assorted environmental experts
- Large international shipping companies
- Urban and national planners concerned about the threats from rising sea levels…
Really: every major player involved in the climate change issue and then some…to collaboratively… .
..devise and execute a solution that generates renewable sources of oil, raw materials for textiles, and new and ancient medicines, while pulling millions and millions of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back into the soil…
…that makes use of the oil companies’s massive and well-orchestrated distribution networks and, the chemical companies core competencies, the pharmaceutical companies extraordinary marketing machines…
…and does so at a ginormous, unprecedentedly large profit for everyone involved…
All while transforming the melting glaciers of the Arctic and Antarctic from an apparently fearful, even menacing symbol of environmental collapse into an incredible, life-expanding opportunity to revitalize deserts.
And even bigger than that:
What if we had a reliable, testable, repeatable ways to write new equations…not only that allowed everyone involved to keep the essence of what they have, and also produce so much more of it than they would have imagined possible even just a few years before?
Yes, it may seem too grandiose. Too big. Impossible. Maybe it is all of those things. Maybe not.
That is ok. I am not claiming to be the expert. Today, I’m here to explore some important questions:
- What if the solutions to problems that seem impossible only seem that way because we aren’t asking the right questions?
- What is required to demonstrate to all the relevant people and organizations involved…especially those with the most vested value…that there are ways forward that require neither compromise nor sacrifice from anyone at the table…
- What if the whole thing was right under our noses this whole time but we were too busy assuming the worst things about each other to even notice?
- What happens if we begin to realize that so many of the stories we hold of hate and malevolence and evil and so on all arose because of something as simple and tractable as poorly designed incentives and presuppositions that made sense at the time but are no longer working well in this moment?
Then what? Then maybe long-time antagonists could work together to design new equations, tell new kind of stories, and watch our whole world blossom.
Glaciers, biochar, and hemp: the core ingredients of a restored world?
Let’s start with the many millions of tons of fresh water currently collapsing into huge chunks of ice off of the polar ice sheets, melting into the oceans, and threatening to consume coastlines and inhabited islands the world over.
If sufficient ingenuity and resources focus on the challenge, surely there is a way to haul a bunch of those out of the oceans as glaciers, drag them into desert regions with sufficient latent soil fertility…after preparing the ground with an amazing kind of fungus called mycelium and a compost-like substance called biochar, and lay down a massive volume of diverse varieties of hemp and cannabis?
We now have something potentially extraordinary: the foundation of a world-scale carbon capture system that with the cooperation, technical expertise, and distribution networks of the leaders of all the relevant industries (from oil to cotton to pharmaceuticals and everyone in between) also supplies the world with carbon-negative sources of oil, raw materials for textiles, pharmaceutical grade cannabis, paper, and on and on.
Before we get to how THAT could potentially draws the circle for everyone at the table, let’s talk about biochar.
Here’s Wikipedia on the matter of biochar:
“Biochar is a stable solid, rich in carbon, and can endure in soil for thousands of years. Like most charcoal, biochar is made from biomass via pyrolysis. Biochar is under investigation as an approach to carbon sequestration, as it has the potential to help mitigate climate change.
Independently, biochar can increase soil fertility of acidic soils (low pH soils), increase agricultural productivity, and provide protection against some foliar and soil-borne diseases.”
Along with absorbing carbon and increasing soil fertility, biochar also has another property that makes it just ideal for planting large crops in arid regions: it retains water like a massive organic sponge.
This is useful because of the central challenges facing efforts to “green the deserts” is evaporation.
Even if you water the desert intensely, the thin, dry desert earth has a low moisture retention rate and the blistering hot sun tends to quickly evaporate whatever water does get into the ground.
While a robust quantitative analysis needs to be done here, biochar could, in concept, reduce or even eliminate that challenge by mixing a dense layer of highly absorbent organic material into the dry desert earth…the perfect base layer for the crop that gets planted on top.
What about those chemical companies who have a whole lot of value tied up in their current lines of business?
We’ll get there. First, let’s talk briefly about mycelium.
Mycelium: the “miracle” fungus
I first learned about mycelium from Paul Stamets’ illuminating TED talk: 6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save The World.
A decent metaphor for mycelium might be “the nervous system of the plant kingdom.”
While it has numerous remarkable properties and useful applications, its ability break down the hydrocarbons in oil-saturated Earth (after an oil spill) and turn them into plant food points the way to its role in this equation:
All across the Earth, the long-standing uses of hydrocarbon-based fertilizers in intensive agriculture is beginning to put the whole thing at risk…building on the acidification damage excess atmospheric carbon is doing to the oceans.
The cascading effects of these practices seem to be impacting the nutrient-density and diversity of the soil and reducing the nutritional value of the plants and vegetables we eat.
While this is the aspect of the solution I’m not nearly as solid on, mycelium seems like it could be a force multiplier…creating a layer of natural intelligence under the large-scale farming effort that I’m about to propose, allowing nature do the heavy lifting work of moving moisture and nutrients around a network of large, diverse, inter-dependent crops, breaking down undesirable things in the soil and turning them into desirable things.
…and who on Planet Earth is better positioned to collaborate with mycologists and biochar experts on creating the exact right applications of those ingredients than…traditional fertilizer and chemical companies?
As with other parts of this proposal, I haven’t yet done the quantitative part, but if the hypothesis is even close to correct here, there ought to be billions and billions of dollars in new revenues available in shifting from fossil-based fertilizers and pesticides to highly organic, regenerative compounds that generate dramatically greater yields and don’t have toxic side effects.
Would there be heavy upfront capital costs involved in retooling from oil-based fertilizers and chemicals? For sure. Would it be fair to ask the chemical companies to shoulder that for the benefit of all the rest of us?
Not a chance! But offsetting those costs with subsidies sounds like great role for Uncle Sam and his counterparts around the world.
Ok, but what about the oil companies? After all, they have literally hundreds of trillions of dollars of value tied up in supplying crude oil, refined petroleum, synthetics and other oil derivates to chemical companies…
And the political clout to back it up.
Here comes the magic of hemp.
Because when one combines the massive quantities of fresh water from the glaciers and the biochar and mycelium compounds in arid but fertile desert soils, what do you get?
Fertile, moist soil with a network of organic intelligence: perfect for planting thousands of square miles of hundreds of varieties of cannabis and hemp plants…a high-yield, self-regenerative new source of oil that also happens to be a carbon capture system of unprecedented scale.
And and who is well-positioned to become a market leader in the part of this enterprise that teaches the world how to most efficiently turn 20% of that hemp into oil and distribute it around the world for all the dozens and dozens of applications that cannabis and hemp oil provide?
A new, unprecedented form of international cooperative venture, the result of the fusion of all the world’s great oil companies from Standard Oil to Gazprom and the world’s leading independent hemp growers and botanists and former tobacco companies…
What if the CEO of a leading oil company could see this potential clearly and orchestrate all of it, realizing during a flash of insight that the company he loved was not in the petroleum business, as he’d once thought, but in the business of using world-class expertise in extraction, refining, and distribution to leverage the gifts of the Earth into the substances that power the whole human civilization?
And the pharmaceutical companies who had been fighting the cannabis trade for so long?
Maybe one of the leaders sees the pharmaceutical potential in cannabinoids, and from their position of influence starts to convince more and more of the governments of the world to relax their prohibitive attitudes towards cannabis.
And maybe then they get together with all the alternative healing experts, and with the help of the cannabinoid derivates from this giant new garden, the two former antagonists slowly, gently, mindfully pivot healthcare from subscribing to treatments towards patients and governments paying out a fair share of the social benefits in increased productivity of their populations…from managing diseases to supporting people in healing from them.
Maybe with the support of a visionary CEO of a leading hedge fund, the oil CEO could convince his peers across every great traditional human industry from oil, gas, and coal to heavy machinery and weapons to automobiles and shipping to pharmaceuticals and textiles and on and on that, they, too, could find deep veins of gold and diamonds in their industries simply by pulling back and readjusting their perspective on the businesses they were really in.
In oil, for example, the hundreds of trillions of dollars in infrastructure, a large swath of which just happens to be mostly concentrated in a desert region with very fertile but very dry ground, where well-armed nations have been locked at odds for supremacy for as long as history itself…
…in just a few years, with the intention of cooperation instead of competition in the air, all that land could be repurposed and retooled into massive, self-sustaining hemp farms that absorb so much carbon that within just a few years, the carbon required to set everything up gets fully reabsorbed and the rains are coming back to the desert of their own accord.
Suddenly, the odds of a future of human thriving are better than even. They are strongly in its favor.
It might take a little bit longer than any initial models assume for the revenues to eclipse the initial capital costs involved in pivoting the infrastructure this way, but the wealthy governments of the entire world ought to be more than happy to pitch in and subsidize the difference.
Every minute after that would be gravy.
The best gravy anyone has ever tasted. The best gravy humanity has ever, in its long history, and ever produced: the gravy of planetary cooperation.
Is any of this possible? I think so. I look forward to finding out.
Introducing Dispatches From The Abundant Future: A Series About A Brighter Destiny For Humankind
Dispatches From Our Abundant Future seeks to become a hybrid of podcast, essay series, possibly videos and maybe someday virtual reality experiences about our road away from the systems of scarcity, conflict, and fear of today to the forgiveness, abundance, peace, and elegance of tomorrow.
The road where everyone wins together for the first time in our collective time on Earth. Where nobody gets left behind.
Over the course of this project’s unfolding, we will search for, find, and lay out all sorts of potentially elegant and/or potentially ridiculous solutions to seemingly intractable problems…
Going deeper into the futuristic moonshots-like pulling millions of tons of carbon out of the air with relocated glaciers, biochar, and hemp–are stories for later seasons.
The first season starts right here on the ground in 2019, with healthcare in the United States, and a beautifully simple, elegant potential solution to one of the most seemingly intractable issues in that industry…the misaligned incentives between doctors, health systems, private insurance companies, Medicare, and patients…
…a startup that in its own small, large, and occasionally epic ways, embodies the logic of cooperation this podcast seeks to uncover:
This logic that says with the right mindset, approach, and sufficiently well-designed technology, it’s possible to rebalance incentives so that everyone with a vested interest can win together with everyone else…quite profitably, by supporting, nurturing, and improving the health well being of our fellow human beings and doing so in a way that significantly reduces Medicare’s expenses over the next few years.
Season 1 will tell the story of conscious, mindful evolution instead of mindless technological disruption. A story of the potential of cooperation, of creative re-construction, rather than the old win-lose pattern of creative destruction.
Like all the opportunities we are setting out to explore with this project, the startup and product in question is designed to significantly expand the size of the pie and every slice of it, so the people and organizations with the most value vested in the healthcare industry simultaneously keep the core essence of the value they’ve built and expand it exponentially while everyone else also reaps the benefits…
This is an ambitious goal. A tall order. Maybe it’s grandiose and unrealistic. Maybe not. A deep part of me senses all of it is possible.
See you in Season 1.