Over my last 10–11 months of travel, spending time with friends and family and nature, I’ve had a lot of time to read, meditate, relax, stress, consider, and even be inconsiderate.
I wanted to chronicle where my mind is at, and what I’m thinking about. I’ll warn you that there is an extensive amount of navel-gazing that unfolds in the paragraphs below. And I have a very deep navel thanks to “minimally invasive” peritoneal catheter implant surgery 15 years ago.
If you only have 1 minute, just skip to the “A Direction” section approximately 23,812 pages below.
There is no intention to create drama in this post. This is not some long drawn-out Lebron announcement. If you’re looking to be impressed by what I’m going to do next, you’re going to be disappointed. Especially because I don’t know exactly what I am doing. If you’re looking for something unique or some new company that you think I’m going to start, you won’t find it here.
A major influence on my list of ideas was Sam Harris’ interview with Yuval Noah Harari (the author of Sapiens and Homo Deus), where they talk through the biggest problems facing humanity — not this week or next week, but over the next decade and beyond. While a number of those challenges were already on my list, it was useful to hear a couple of ridiculously smart people provide their perspective.
As I thought about my future, I wanted to figure out where can I make the biggest impact, given:
- What am I passionate about? Because I know I will do more if I believe.
- What am I good at? Because I should apply myself where I have the skills to make the biggest difference.
- Where do I live? I’m going to live in Australia, and I’d love to focus on something that will make an impact in Australia.
- Will this connect me with people? Because I want a future where my life is deeply connected with others.
Before I wrote this blog, I hadn’t seen the 8000 hours approach to career choice or the Effective Altruism criteria for problems to work on (Great in scale, Highly neglected, Highly solvable), but there is clearly some overlap, so that means I’m pretty smart.
So what are the biggest risks to the human race? What work needs to be done? What are the biggest challenges that we face as a society?
The threat of nuclear war was the main ‘popular’ threat to humanity when I was a teenager. I did a report on nuclear arms in junior high (at the time I was a big fan of nukes…) I remember the news that the Berlin wall was coming down my first year in university. While the weapons did not go away (though the number of warheads has decreased), the tension and rhetoric settled and the perceived threat level was lower. We haven’t had a DEFCON 2 since the Gulf War (and the Bay of Pigs was the only one before then).
With North Korea, Russia making verbal comments about the increased possibility of nuclear war, the potential abandonment of arms treaties (and the current apparent violation of them), it’s back as something that kids ask their parents about.
However, I don’t think I have a role to play here. Aside from the fact that I probably watched “War Games” with Matthew Broderick about 6 times when I was a teenager, my skills, my passion, and my location don’t really match the problem at hand.
Biological or genetic catastrophe
The incredible advances in human genetics and our understanding of human biology have, like most technology, created the potential for a darker side. While I love The Stand, 28 days later, and Zombieland, that’s about the extend of my knowledge and passion here. I have been half-way-through writing a short story about a biological apocalypse for the last year, but that probably detracts from my credentials here.
Malign Artificial Intelligence
It’s worth reading and understanding this piece on Artificial Intelligence (that is now four years old…). My friend Anu also recommended both Life 3.0 and AI Superpowers if you’re interested in this topic.
I believe that AI and ML pose serious threats, especially in light of how poorly we predicted the follow on effects of these technologies applied to social media and how it impacted the US democratic process.
It might also seem like a good fit from the outside given my background in software and tech, though AI has never been an interest that captured my attention. The Terminator didn’t scare me, though the overacting in Terminator 2 did make me a bit queasy. While I can imagine AI and ML might play a role in whatever I do, I don’t have the domain expertise or passion for this space that makes me an effective leader to help us combat this threat. And I for one, welcome our new silicon overlords.
Now, things are getting interesting. I’m a strong believer that the world already has too many people. That if we don’t do something, we’re headed towards a world that might resemble the soulless mega-metropolis of Asimov’s Robot novels. As automation becomes cheaper and cheaper, as manual labor becomes less and less useful, as conversations about the need for universal income multiply, we simply have too many people on this planet.
This is exceptionally tricky ground, because there are no easy solutions. China took a drastic approach — which I think only highlights how drastic and serious this issue is. The size of our population and their increasing consumption (which the developed world has created as the “ideal” to which to aspire) is also an accelerant for climate change — the more people consuming, the more impact on the environment, and the less likely that our species survives.
As I traveled through South America, the ignorance of this issue is everywhere. I asked everyone I met if they had families and how big they were. I rarely met anyone with less than two children, and answers of five or six children were common. The evil that the Catholic church and other religions who prohibit birth control have created is enormous. The agricultural economy where more kids meant more hands to work the fields is no more — there should be no pride in family size.
Meanwhile there are over 150 million children up for adoption worldwide.
Now, it’s very easy for me to say this. I have never wanted to be a parent. I have never wanted to have kids of my own, so my personal “sacrifice” in not increasing the world’s population is non-existent. I had a vasectomy in my mid-thirties and have only regretted not doing it earlier.
This issue is a minefield. I’ve had conversations with intelligent people who propose limiting social assistance if you have more than one child, or limiting maternity leave benefits or insurance benefits if you have more than one child. While I applaud the creativity, there are some serious side-effects of solutions like this, especially around women’s reproductive and professional rights.
Mostly, I don’t have much of an ability to impact this from Australia. I have never been to China, and I do not plan to return to India unless it’s for Kashmir and the Himalayas, and since these compose 3 billion people, it’s hard to imagine a solution that’s not heavily imbedded in those countries. Factfulness (while a frustrating read) does a great job of illustrating that Africa is where the UN estimates the next billion in population growth will come from, and it’s not from high birth rates, it’s from adults living longer.
We could still reduce a billion people from the world’s population by having less children everywhere. Having 9 billion instead of 8 billion is still a failure in my book. I’d like to see a projected population growth rate that is negative.
While I will continue to be passionate about this issue, it’s not the right one for me.
My life was completely changed with the gift of a kidney from my cousin Diane, in 2004. I would never have been able to complete an Ironman, travel to Europe, Asia, and South America, or be a part of Atlassian if it were not for Diane’s gift. I am humbled (not easy to do) by her gift and will never be able to fully say thank you.
I’ve raised money for causes related to transplants in the past, I’ve done advocacy work for Transplant organisations, I’ve helped (a very slight amount) get legislation changed to make it easier to donate in the state of Texas. I’ve competed in the US, Australian, and World Transplant Games.
While I will still care deeply about organ donation, I believe there are even bigger problems that we face.
Given my own challenge with mental health two years ago, I did think about what my role there could be. While I don’t have the clinical expertise, there is certainly a lot people can do (see the documentary series Man Up). It’s the number 1 killer of Australian men ages 15–44. I want to find a way to contribute here, though I do not believe it is the cause where I can make the most impact, but I want to explore volunteering for Lifeline in whatever community I settle in.
Fast and Furious 9 is not in theatres until 2020
I realise that there is no heavier and unshakeable sadness felt by homo sapiens than the unbearable truth that F&F9 will not be released until April of 2020. While filming has begun, and we are promised plenty of car chases and explosions, if I could bring the release date forward, I can think of nothing more important to our species than the arrival of the next-to-last chapter in the greatest cinematic franchise since shadow puppets were cast on the walls of caves. But, we are helpless in the grips of the merciless machine of Hollywood and must balance patience with frothy anticipation.
You might have already guessed the conclusion of my thinking, and wondered why I wasted your time dragging you through my thinking and logic. Remember, I’m often (always?) writing for me — to have to put digital ink to digital paper, and be my own audience to see if my logic holds up, and if it feels right, and if I’m willing to proclaim it publicly.
Unless you don’t believe the science community, or you’re hoping for the end of the world, it’s hard not to put this at the top of any list.
Just a few of the facts:
- Since 1880 human activity has caused the average global temperature on Earth to increase by approximately 0.8° Celsius. This is a conservative assessment, and 97–99.4% of scientists agree that the cause and effect are correct.
- The Australia Institute in September 2018 found only 76% of Australians accept the reality of climate change, while 11% do not think climate change is occurring and 13% are unsure. Americans are more sceptical, with only 62% agreeing with the proposition that humans are primarily responsible for climate change.
- The five hottest years on record were the last five years, and 18 of the 19 hottest years have been since 2000).
These facts aren’t hard to find. I found just those above in a newsletter from my Super Fund (401K to any Yanks reading this) — just to illustrate how easy it is to find the data on what’s happening to the planet.
If you don’t believe in climate change, I’m not going to try and convince you here (that might be my future job!)
My experience in South America showed me so many different aspects of the challenge we face. Selfishly, I wanted time with nature, because I believe there is no better place to consider and contemplate than with nature. Nature is not some loving mother or positive force. It is an unfeeling, unthinking environment governed by the laws of science, but there is nothing like time spent alone in nature.
I witnessed the abundance of methane in the swamps of the Amazon rainforest, which is just one reason why clearing rainforest for agriculture is incredibly damaging to the atmosphere.
I talked with people from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru about the impact of agriculture and beef on the environment, and 99% of people were ignorant about how the farming of domesticated animals cause from 25–50% of the negative human impact on the atmosphere.
South America showed me the wonder of nature and the incredible risk we have. There are so many problems out there, from organisation to the need for evangelism, that all suit what I think I’m good at.
So what to do? Again, just to make sure you don’t read to the end and feel like you’ve been drug along with no conclusion, there is not going to be a conclusion here, just an outline of what I’ve been thinking about.
There is a LOT more than can be done than my personal shortlist below, and Drawdown, a comprehensive project plan to reduce atmospheric carbon to non-dangerous levels by 2050, does an exceptional job of providing an outline of all of them.
In Drawdown, what surprised me was a section on Women and a section on Girls Education — what do those have to do with climate change? Well, lots.
In the conclusion of the book, as it ranks the 20–50 different areas of focus (solar, electric cars, etc) it says this about Family Planning and Girls Education:
“Solutions ranked number 6 and number 7 are educating girls and family planning. Why are their impacts the same? It is difficult to draw a bright line between the impacts of family planning and educating girls because they are intertwined and both impact birth rates, so we took the total impact of both and divided it in half. Family planning refers to the universal access to contraception and reproductive health care for all women in all countries. Girls educated through secondary school have fewer children;”
This excites me, because it is exactly along the lines of the work I’ve done with Room to Read since I moved to Australia. And it ties in with helping slow the accelerating issues of overpopulation. At a minimum, it means that my passion for Room to Read is also impacting the biggest challenges I want to help solve.
Commercial / Tech
There are some great companies doing great things out there, and recently I’ve talked with a number of entrepreneurs who are taking on climate change and read about some great initiatives, including Epic.
A lot of people assumed I would start a tech company or a non-profit of some kind, but those are a last resort for me. (Aside: I believe the world has too many non-profits and that they we don’t need as many independent organisations that often duplicate the same work, and don’t have any efficiencies of scale, and are often the hubris of the founder wanting to have their own shop.)
I also feel like the problem of climate change is severe enough, and there are enough people working on the problem, that I’d rather throw my weight behind something that already has the founding team where I can take their organisation to the next level.
If the best place for me happens to be start-up or tech related, then I have the background to help an existing entity. But I also want a change of pace and that might not be the right place to start.
Advocacy, Evangelism, Politics, and Policy
Maybe it’s time I grew up and dealt head to head with these areas, which frustrate me and seem to be the least efficient way to get anything done.
Government can make a massive difference, in both directions. We can keep propping up dead industries like coal, or we can encourage investment in areas that will help us secure the future of our species. Even just figuring out how to fill out the ballot for the New South Wales elections was challenging enough that there’s room for good communicators in bridging the gap between government and reality. The Climate Council of Australia is doing a great job here.
Advocacy is another angle — if you look at the impact of what just one teenager inspired, the climate strikes of schools around the world give me hope that maybe the coming generations will believe more in science and be less like sheep, but that remains to be seen. And, my maturity level is usually somewhere in the 15 to 17 year-old range on a good day, so I fit right in. But my age group means that 350.org may be a better fit.
Plant Based Diet / Agriculture
I shifted my diet to vegan-when-possible a little less than two years ago.
My initial reason was entirely selfish, because I had read books and articles by endurance athletes like Scott Jurek, who had adopted a vegan diet because of its impacts on long distance running. Within three months I had already seen incredible results, where I was no longer sore after massive workouts.
I began to learn more about the impacts of the meat industry on the environment and it was shocking. While the narrator of “Cowspiracy” has an incredibly abrasive personality, it drives home the point that domesticated animals and agriculture are responsible for 25% to 51% of the negative human impact on the environment.
While I have never imagined myself as an evangelist for a plant based diet, maybe someone who isn’t the typical ‘greenie’ would be the best person to speak on the subject? While I might not wear a “Meat is Murder” t-shirt, I’d easily wear one that says, “Less Beef, Less Chance of a Global Environmental Apocalypse.” Yeah, I’ll work on a catchier slogan.
Reducing my personal footprint seems like a must do if I want to practice what I preach. I think there are ton of small and big things I can do in the year ahead to make sure I’m minimising my own impact. It’s not a new mission but I should reflect my beliefs inside and out.
I haven’t had a car since I moved to Australia, and if I buy one, it will be electric. I’ll try and walk or bike everywhere possible. I need to make saying “no straw” a reflex at restaurants. My next home should have solar, the right lightbulbs, #allthethings. I need to buy used rather than new whenever possible, and generally reduce consumption. the mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, (and Compost)!
Further, I believe we can all move beyond just tree hugging towards a much more intimate, sexual relationship with trees.
So what about Oz?
Australia has a wealth of challenges.
- The Beef industry here is massive as is live export.
- Our consumption of meat is 2nd in the world per capita in 2016, with only the US eating more meat per person.
- We’ve got a crappy track record of protecting our most treasured natural resources.
- For some reason we’re still arguing about whether coal is a good idea (sigh). We consumed almost four times as much coal per capita as Europeans just five years ago (we burned it, we did not ingest it). We dig up carbon in the form of coal and sell it to the world, and they burn it.
- We’re an industrialised nation which means we’re world class in food waste.
- Australia has one of the highest rates of tree clearing of any developed country historically. In the past, we’ve cleared more bush each year than poverty-stricken countries like Burma, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and the Congo.
But there is so much amazing opportunity in Australia.
- We have ridiculous amounts of sun, wind, and water.
- Already, 16% of houses have rooftop solar. We have so much open land that could be massive solar farms. Oz is one of the best places on the planet for Concentrated Solar (requires intensive high heat, but avoids the use of fossil fuels for steam turbines often required for energy storage in solar farms)
- While pumped hydro or hydroelectric is usually the first things people think about with water power, 30% of Australia’s energy could be provided by wave power from the massive amount of ocean that sits just off our shoreline.
- We’re cutting edge in a lot of renewable agricultural practices, though they need widespread adoption. Australia invented silvopasture (which combines trees or shrubs with grazing grassland) and has people leading the Pasture Cropping (combining crops with grazing), both of which are better for the environment and agriculture.
And while we have our share of people who still deny that climate change is real, Australians are 10 times more likely to change our minds (apologies that I can’t find the source for this) when presented with data than our even-more-polarised Yank counterparts. That gives me even more hope.
Australia should be a world leader in renewables, sustainable agriculture, and so much more. It just takes work.
A Direction, but not a conclusion
I have a ridiculous amount to learn about climate change, from the people who have been working on this problem for decades. I’m 30 years late to this movement — I should have been a part of it starting at age 18.
I am deeply concerned about the fate of our planet and the extinction of our species (and many others) that we are facing.
I want to figure out where I can make the biggest difference. And I’m done with navel gazing and want to get started.
I’m spending as much of my time talking to people about the problems we face in Australia, and how I could possibly help.
I don’t need to be known in my work for what I’m doing. I don’t need to run the show. I just need to know that I’m making a difference and that I’m working with great people.
I can’t wait to have a real answer to this question, and once I am back in Oz in late July, I will start dedicating my time to get that answer.