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 for example.
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 $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 revenue to feed their budgets. And all the men and women who have so much to lose if that well runs dry.
And on and on.
But what if there were a way that no one on any side of the equation had to lose?
What if we had a reliable, testable, repeatable way 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 grandiose. Too big. Impossible. Maybe it is all of those things. Maybe not.
This is not a proposal of a definitive solution. There’s a high likelihood there are many factors not yet considered here, simply because I have not yet met the people who have more context.
That is ok. I am not claiming by any stretch to be an expert. This more of a way of exploring the 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 one time but are no longer useful 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.
Maybe the fork in the road that ends the threat of climate change begins the day enough of us have done the necessary work on ourselves to embody self-compassion, forgiveness, and love to make a bet on humanity.
Within 10-15 years of the start of this fork, whole swaths of Earth that had been lost to desert are blooming with fields of cannabis and hemp.
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 you’ll never guess who becomes the market leader in the part of this enterprise that taught 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 congolmerate, 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…
… and it was the CEO of the leading oil company who orchestrated 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?
They got 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 pivoted healthcare from subscribing to treatments towards patients and governments paying out a fair share of the social benefits…from managing diseases to supporting people in healing from them.
With the support of the CEO of a leading hedge fund, the oil CEO had convinced 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, much of which just happened 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…
…were over just a few years repurposed and retooled into massive, self-sustaining hemp farms that absorbed so much carbon that within just 5 years, the carbon required to set everything up had been fully reabsorbed and the rains were coming back of their own accord.
Suddenly, the odds were even.
It took a little bit longer than the models had assumed for the revenues to eclipse the initial capital costs, but the wealthy governments of the entire world had been more than happy to pitch in and subsidize the difference.
Every minute after that was gravy.
The best gravy anyone had ever tasted. The best gravy humanity had ever, in its long history, and ever produced: the gravy of planetary cooperation.
And led by Tim Cook’s quiet, gentle, firm moral authority, Elon Musk’s wild chaos magic and Peter Thiel’s quiet chessmastery, Silicon Valley had started to stand up from the altar of disruption…having seen that the God they worshipped was a false idol that left behind deep wounds in every community it ever touched.
In fact, the whole dream of creative destruction had been revealed for what it was: a magnet for fear, that turned the old guard against the Young Turks and vice versa, with occasionally cataclysmic results, as it has been doing for thousands of years
So out in the American West, where men have been digging for gold for a long time, a new word had become the currency of the land: alchemy.
The ancient dream of turning lead into gold, directed for the first time at entire large scale systems: carefully, methodically, gently searching for the true essence of a heavy, dense material and even more gently transmuting it from its heavy, dense form into the the precious form underneath.
Coal into diamonds. Lead into gold. Heartbreak and pain into compassion. Anger into forgiveness. Rejection into acceptance. Fear into love.
Because in the wake of one mess after another, disruption was revealed to be a fancy word that covered up a pattern as old as the Earth itself: the practice of forcing your way into something that doesn’t belong to you, that you know barely the first thing about and certainly do not respect…like a broken-hearted, lonely and insecure frat boy on too much alcohol.
So the self-proclaimed disruptors began to practice the art of approaching old things gently, with compassion and dignity and honor, with the knowledge and respect that what they once sought to disrupt were, for all their flaws, long-standing networks of value…some of which had been built over decades, even centuries, which put food on children’s plates and kept houses warm.
And this climate-change reversing hemp and cannabis conglomerate? It was the first organization of its scale that was not vertically integrated.
Thanks to this brilliant thing called Ethereum, invented by a poet of a technologist who grew up in Canada but whose roots sprouted him from the Russian motherland, a new kind of organization is flourishing around around the planet…a federation.
Distributed, leaderless, organic.
The model that catapulted ethereum from an exciting niche to a transfigurative player on the world stage was the model of an evolutionary organization, designed from day 1 around the subtle, brilliant logic of chaos, able to change its size and configuration in real time based on the ebb and flow of demand.
The business model of that form of distributed organization, by the way, was first articulated by a brilliant, reclusive, temperamental poet of a systems integrator and economic thinker, an Argentinian entrepreneur who never knew his father, who against all the odds in the oligarchic structure of his home country found his way out of a stagnant middle class by assembling and selling computers when he was still a teenager, and then rode the tiny piece of the Internet wave that rose in his part of the world into breakout success.
This man figured out that the supply and demand curve where price meets at the middle was a prison of scarcity…
…and that the key to shifting the whole world was a new equation, where supply and demand don’t ever cross paths again, but become one and the same thing, lines that grow together in parallel, expanding upwards in a new dance of infinity…the loop unwound at last, becoming a single line that just goes up and to the right forever, supply and demand each propelling each other along, the dance of the exponential equilibrium.
It took some finagling and back room negotiating, but eventually the West and the East and the Middle East and the North and the South forgive themselves and each other for all mistakes ever made in fear…mistakes every single one of us alive has made countless times, for millennia, for epochs and aeons.
And we all forgave Africa, the original motherland, for giving birth to us, for all the hardship and pain we had endured along the way…because she has been in the process of giving birth to us for a very very long time, and we are still in the adolescent phase of being born…rejecting our parents gifts, leaving our rooms a mess of soda cans and plastic bottles, and threatening to burn down the house if we don’t get our way.
China, Iran, Russia, The United States, and Saudi Arabia realized in the nick of time that a world of ashes wasn’t worth fighting for and began to redirect their extraordinary engines of creativity, innovation, and capital from the banners of fear and self-interest (with a small “s” to the banners of love and Self-interest (with a capital “S”) which happen to correlate perfectly with the causes of human health, thriving, well-being, and peace wherever and whenever they raise the white flag.
This new path begins when a sufficient mass of us have forgiven ourselves in enough depth and completeness to realize that while it may not be “reasonable,” apologizing to the people who hurt us, who frighten us…for their sake as well as our own…is a perfectly, wonderfully noble and rewarding thing to do.
In the middle section of this fork, all the disparate stories on the world stage reveal themselves at last to be a story of love and redemption, the journey of exile, return, and self-awareness:
Jesus and Tiberius, Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Kali and Shiva, Lucifer and God, Sun and Earth, Moon and Stars: duality and oneness, alpha and omega, light and dark, nothing and everything, ego and non-self, the shadow of forgetting and the light of awareness, time and timelessness, life and death itself.
…all the opposites fusing at last into a new pattern: the infinite loop becoming a circle, then the circle drawing into itself the shape of a heart..life on Earth seeing finally that it really is made of love, and that love is life.
How does that story end? I kinda think It doesn’t. Not in the way we are used to stories ending, at least.
But really, I have no idea where it goes.
I, for one, look forward to finding out. You?