Krzysztof Strug
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Lab-grown food is about to destroy farming – and save the planet | George Monbiot | Opinion

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It sounds like a miracle, but no great technological leaps were required. In a commercial lab on the outskirts of Helsinki, I watched scientists turn water into food. Through a porthole in a metal tank, I could see a yellow froth churning. It’s a primordial soup of bacteria, taken from the soil and multiplied in the laboratory, using hydrogen extracted from water as its energy source. When the froth was siphoned through a tangle of pipes and squirted on to heated rollers, it turned into a rich yellow flour.

This flour is not yet licensed for sale. But the scientists, working for a company called Solar Foods, were allowed to give me some while filming our documentary Apocalypse Cow. I asked them to make me a pancake: I would be the first person on Earth, beyond the lab staff, to eat such a thing. They set up a frying pan in the lab, mixed the flour with oat milk, and I took my small step for man. It tasted … just like a pancake.

But pancakes are not the intended product. Such flours are likely soon to become the feedstock for almost everything. In their raw state, they can replace the fillers now used in thousands of food products. When the bacteria are modified they will create the specific proteins needed for lab-grown meat, milk and eggs. Other tweaks will produce lauric acid – goodbye palm oil – and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids – hello lab-grown fish. The carbohydrates that remain when proteins and fats have been extracted could replace everything from pasta flour to potato crisps. The first commercial factory built by Solar Foods should be running next year.

The hydrogen pathway used by Solar Foods is about 10 times as efficient as photosynthesis. But because only part of a plant can be eaten, while the bacterial flour is mangetout, you can multiply that efficiency several times. And because it will be brewed in giant vats the land efficiency, the company estimates, is roughly 20,000 times greater. Everyone on Earth could be handsomely fed, and using a tiny fraction of its surface. If, as the company intends, the water used in the process (which is much less than required by farming) is electrolysed with solar power, the best places to build these plants will be deserts.

We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years. While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. This means multiplying particular micro-organisms, to produce particular products, in factories.I know some people will be horrified by this prospect. I can see some drawbacks. But I believe it comes in the nick of time.

Several impending disasters are converging on our food supply, any of which could be catastrophic. Climate breakdown threatens to cause what scientists call “multiple breadbasket failures”, through synchronous heatwaves and other impacts. The UN forecasts that by 2050 feeding the world will require a 20% expansion in agriculture’s global water use. But water use is already maxed out in many places: aquifers are vanishing, rivers are failing to reach the sea. The glaciers that supply half the population of Asia are rapidly retreating. Inevitable global heating – due to greenhouse gases already released – is likely to reduce dry season rainfall in critical areas, turning fertile plains into dustbowls.

A global soil crisis threatens the very basis of our subsistence, as great tracts of arable land lose their fertility through erosion, compaction and contamination. Phosphate supplies, crucial for agriculture, are dwindling fast. Insectageddon threatens catastrophic pollination failures. It is hard to see how farming can feed us all even until 2050, let alone to the end of the century and beyond.

Food production is ripping the living world apart. Fishing and farming are, by a long way, the greatest cause of extinction and loss of the diversity and abundance of wildlife. Farming is a major cause of climate breakdown, the biggest cause of river pollution and a hefty source of air pollution. Across vast tracts of the world’s surface, it has replaced complex wild ecosystems with simplified human food chains. Industrial fishing is driving cascading ecological collapse in seas around the world. Eating is now a moral minefield, as almost everything we put in our mouths – from beef to avocados, cheese to chocolate, almonds to tortilla chips, salmon to peanut butter – has an insupportable environmental cost.

But just as hope appeared to be evaporating, the new technologies I call farmfree food create astonishing possibilities to save both people and planet. Farmfree food will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature, permitting rewilding and carbon drawdown on a massive scale. It means an end to the exploitation of animals, an end to most deforestation, a massive reduction in the use of pesticides and fertiliser, the end of trawlers and longliners. It’s our best hope of stopping what some have called the “sixth great extinction”, but I prefer to call the great extermination. And, if it’s done right, it means cheap and abundant food for everyone.

Research by the thinktank RethinkX suggests that proteins from precision fermentation will be around 10 times cheaper than animal protein by 2035. The result, it says, will be the near-complete collapse of the livestock industry. The new food economy will “replace an extravagantly inefficient system that requires enormous quantities of inputs and produces huge amounts of waste with one that is precise, targeted, and tractable”. Using tiny areas of land, with a massively reduced requirement for water and nutrients, it “presents the greatest opportunity for environmental restoration in human history”.

Not only will food be cheaper, it will also be healthier. Because farmfree foods will be built up from simple ingredients, rather than broken down from complex ones, allergens, hard fats and other unhealthy components can be screened out. Meat will still be meat, though it will be grown in factories on collagen scaffolds, rather than in the bodies of animals. Starch will still be starch, fats will still be fats. But food is likely to be better, cheaper and much less damaging to the living planet.

It might seem odd for someone who has spent his life calling for political change to enthuse about a technological shift. But nowhere on Earth can I see sensible farm policies developing. Governments provide an astonishing £560bn a year in farm subsidies, and almost all of them are perverse and destructive, driving deforestation, pollution and the killing of wildlife. Research by the Food and Land Use Coalition found that only 1% of the money is used to protect the living world. It failed to find “any examples of governments using their fiscal instruments to directly support the expansion of supply of healthier and more nutritious food.”

Nor is the mainstream debate about farming taking us anywhere, except towards further catastrophe. There’s a widespread belief that the problem is intensive farming, and the answer is extensification (producing less food per hectare). It’s true that intensive farming is highly damaging, but extensive farming is even worse. Many people are rightly concerned about urban sprawl. But agricultural sprawl – which covers a much wider area – is a far greater threat to the natural world. Every hectare of land used by farming is a hectare not used for wildlife and complex living systems.

A paper in Nature suggests that, per kilo of food produced, extensive farming causes greater greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, water use and nitrogen and phosphate pollution than intensive farming. If everyone ate pasture-fed meat, we would need several new planets on which to produce it.

Farmfree production promises a far more stable and reliable food supply that can be grown anywhere, even in countries without farmland. It could be crucial to ending world hunger. But there is a hitch: a clash between consumer and producer interests. Many millions of people, working in farming and food processing, will eventually lose their jobs. Because the new processes are so efficient, the employment they create won’t match the employment they destroy.

RethinkX envisages an extremely rapid “death spiral” in the livestock industry. Only a few components, such as the milk proteins casein and whey, need to be produced through fermentation for profit margins across an entire sector to collapse. Dairy farming in the United States, it claims, will be “all but bankrupt by 2030”. It believes that the American beef industry’s revenues will fall by 90% by 2035.

While I doubt the collapse will be quite that fast, in one respect the thinktank underestimates the scale of the transformation. It fails to mention the extraordinary shift taking place in feedstock production to produce alternatives to plant products, of the kind pioneered in Helsinki. This is likely to hit arable farming as hard as cultured milk and meat production will hit livestock farming. Solar Foods thinks its products could reach cost parity with the world’s cheapest form of protein (soya from South America) within five years. Instead of pumping ever more subsidies into a dying industry, governments should be investing in helping farmers into other forms of employment, while providing relief funds for those who will suddenly lose their livelihoods.

Another hazard is the potential concentration of the farmfree food industry. We should strongly oppose the patenting of key technologies, to ensure the widest possible distribution of ownership. If governments regulate this properly, they could break the hegemony of the massive companies that now control global food commodities. If they don’t, they could reinforce it. In this sector, as in all others, we need strong anti-trust laws. We must also ensure that the new foods always have lower carbon footprints than the old ones: farmfree producers should power their operations entirely from low-carbon sources. This is a time of momentous choices, and we should make them together.

We can’t afford to wait passively for technology to save us. Over the next few years we could lose almost everything, as magnificent habitats such as the rainforests of Madagascar, West Papua and Brazil are felled to produce cattle, soya or palm oil. By temporarily shifting towards a plant-based diet with the lowest possible impacts (no avocados or out-of-season asparagus), we can help buy the necessary time to save magnificent species and places while these new technologies mature. But farmfree food offers hope where hope was missing. We will soon be able to feed the world without devouring it.

George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist. His film Apocalypse Cow is on Channel 4 at 10pm on Wednesday

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strugk
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Royal Dutch Shell may fail to reach green energy targets | Business

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Royal Dutch Shell is at risk of falling short on plans to invest up to $6bn (£4.6bn) in green energy projects between 2016 and the end of 2020, with its slow progress likely to raise concern that oil companies are not moving fast enough to help tackle the climate crisis.

The Anglo-Dutch oil company has spent an estimated $2bn on building a low-carbon energy and electricity generation business since setting up its “new energies” division in 2016. With a year to go, the sum is well below Shell’s own guidance that the total investment between 2016 and the end of 2020 would be between $4bn and $6bn.

Shell’s green energy plans are some of the most ambitious in the oil industry, despite assigning just a 10th of its spending pot to “new energies”.

Shell told investors in 2017 it would spend between $1bn to $2bn a year developing a clean energy business up to the end of 2020, up from a previous plan to spend up to $1bn a year in the same period. Under the plans Shell would spend up to $6bn on green investment , but instead it is on track to meet a third of this, with only a year left for the company to meet its guidance. Up to the end of 2019, Shell’s guidance suggests it should have spent at least $3bn.

In the same four years the company spent more than $120bn developing fossil fuel projects and set out plans to increase its total spending to $30bn a year in the early 2020s. A spokesman for Shell declined to comment.

Shell is considered a climate leader within the oil industry despite spending a fraction of its total budget on new energies, which include biofuels, hydrogen and electricity investments.

Data from Rystad Energy, a Norwegian consultancy, shows that Europe’s five largest oil companies – Shell, BP, Total, Eni and Equinor – together spent a total of $5.5bn on renewable energy projects to date, comparedwith a combined total budget of almost $90bn last year alone.

Stephen Kretzmann, the executive director of Oil Change International, said executives “trumpet their relatively tiny investments in renewables” but continue to “pour more fuel on the fire of global warming every day”.

He said: “It used to be the case that some people believed that an oil company that invested even only a small portion of their resources in renewable energy was worthy of praise… because it makes us feel better to believe that the people who run these powerful companies get it.”

Oil bosses have voiced support for global climate targets in public but the industry continues to invest an estimated 1% of its annual spending budget on clean energy while producing more fossil fuel products than the Paris Climate Agreement allows.

“The executives that run the carbon companies definitely do not get the part about the need for them to make less of the thing that is driving climate disaster,” Kretzmann added. “The big problem isn’t too little investment in renewables - it’s too much investment in, and government support for, fossil fuels.”

Shell’s green spending plans were dealt a blow earlier this year when the company missed out on a multibillion dollar race to buy Dutch utility Eneco, which has a large renewable energy portfolio. Shell and its pension fund partner lost out to a consortium of investors led by Japan’s Mitsubishi, which paid $4.5bn for the company.

The deal might have pushed Shell’s green investment towards its planned spending range. Shell said it was disappointed it lost the bid, and said that it would continue to invest growing gas and electricity generation from renewable sources.

Shell’s previous acquisitions have included UK energy supplier First Utility, a 49% stake in Australian solar company ESCO Pacific, and Eolfi, a French renewable energy developer that specialises in floating wind projects.

Shell plans to spend $2bn to $3bn through its “new energies division” every year between 2021 to 2025. The company said it plans to become the world’s biggest electricity company by the 2030s, and hopes to bring a reliable electricity supply to 100 million people in developing countries by 2030.

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Urgent new ‘roadmap to recovery’ could reverse insect apocalypse | Environment

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The world must eradicate pesticide use, prioritise nature-based farming methods and urgently reduce water, light and noise pollution to save plummeting insect populations, according to a new “roadmap to insect recovery” compiled by experts.

The call to action by more than 70 scientists from across the planet advocates immediate action on human stress factors to insects which include habitat loss and fragmentation, the climate crisis, pollution, over-harvesting and invasive species.

Phasing out synthetic pesticides and fertilisers used in industrial farming and aggressive greenhouse gas emission reductions are among a series of urgent “no-regret” solutions to reverse what conservationists have called the “unnoticed insect apocalypse”.

Alongside these measures, scientists must urgently establish which herbivores, detritivores, parasitoids, predators and pollinators are priority species for conservation, according to a new paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution. The animals are crucial to the healthy functioning of ecosystems by recycling nutrients, serving as pollinators and acting as food for other wildlife.

The paper comes amid repeated warnings about the threat of human-driven insect extinction causing a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, with more than 40% of insect species declining and a third endangered, according to the first worldwide scientific review, published in February 2019.

In July 2017, researchers warned human overpopulation and overconsumption were driving the sixth mass extinction event in world history, pointing to the “biological annihilation” of wildlife.

Lead author Prof Jeff Harvey of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, said: “As scientists, we want to gather all available knowledge and put it to action together with land managers, policymakers and everyone else involved.

“Essentially, we are thinking strategically and this is novel. Now and down the road, all to reverse insect declines.

“Most importantly, we hope that end-users and land managers now can use this roadmap in, for instance, farming, habitat management and urban development as a template for true insect recovery.”

The scientists have called on governments to follow the example of Germany, which announced a €100m action plan for insect protection in September 2019, adding that there is a strong consensus among experts that the decline of insects, other arthropods and global biodiversity is a serious threat that society must address.

In the short term, the roadmap advocates immediate action on rewilding and conservation programmes, avoiding and mitigating the impact of alien species and prioritising imports that are not produced at the cost of species-rich ecosystems. Enhancing citizen science projects to improve data quality and inform academic study was also deemed a priority.

“Most importantly, we should not wait to act until we have addressed every key knowledge gap. We currently have enough information on some key causes of insect decline to formulate no-regret solutions whilst more data are compiled for lesser known taxa and regions and long-term data are aggregated and assessed,” the roadmap states.

“Implementation should be accompanied by research that examines impacts, the results of which can be used to modify and improve the implementation of effective measures. Furthermore, such a ‘learning-by-doing’ approach ensures that these conservation strategies are robust to newly emerging pressures and threats. We must act now.”

In the long term, the scientists are calling for the establishment of an international body to document and monitor the effects of the roadmap on insect biodiversity under the auspices of existing bodies such as the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Public-private partnerships to restore, protect and create new insect habitats and manage threats are also advocated by the roadmap.

Coauthors on the roadmap for insect conservation recovery originate from Europe, North America, South and Central America, Asia, Africa, Oceania and Asia. They include biology professor Dave Goulson, known for his books on the ecology of bees and other insects, and scientist Hans de Kroon, renowned for his work on insect biomass decline.

In February 2019, analysis published in the journal Biological Conservation found that the total mass of insects had fallen by 2.5% a year for the last 25-30 years, with intensive agriculture the primary driver of falling populations.

Light pollution has also emerged as an overlooked driver of plummeting insect populations by luring them to predators, affecting the development of juvenile insects and disrupting light and dark cycles, according to a study published in November 2019. Scientists said insect deaths could be reduced by switching off unnecessary lights.

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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2010s in review: A decade of revolt

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If there’s a word that sums up the past decade of politics, it might be “revolt.”

A revolt against elites. A revolt against liberal democracy. A revolt against the status quo. The seminal events of the 2010s felt like a collective “no” to the entire system.

In 2014, a book called The Revolt of the Public was published without much fanfare. The author was Martin Gurri, a former CIA analyst who spent most of his career studying politics and the global information landscape. The book has since become a favorite of Silicon Valley types as well as people interested in technology and politics (an updated edition was republished last year).

From our perch at the end of the decade, Gurri’s book reads like prophecy. He argued that the digital revolution would transform the information space and empower the public to participate more and more in politics. That empowerment would create an impulse to revolt against the dominant institutions of society — government, media, the academy, etc. — and the elites who run them.

He concluded that that would leave us in a state of perpetual rebellion in which an unhappy public would continually scream for the destruction of the established order without any sense of what comes next. The danger is political nihilism, where everyone knows what they’re against and no one knows what they’re for.

If that doesn’t accurately describe the present state of the world, it’s not far off. So it’s probably worth reexamining what Gurri was thinking when he wrote the book, and why he believed this decade would be defined by a revolt against authority.

With the decade coming to a close, I decided to reach out to Gurri to talk about what went wrong and why, how this period compares to previous periods of upheaval, and what he thinks is on the horizon.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


Sean Illing

I’m curious what you saw when you were working as an analyst at the CIA in the early years of this decade that made you think, “Whoa, we’ve got a problem here.”

Martin Gurri

Well, my job was to analyze the global media, and for a very long time every country had its equivalent of the New York Times, what you might call an authoritative source. So if the president wanted to know how his policies were playing in France, I could go to one or two newspapers and find out.

But then things started to go terribly wrong. There was a constant tsunami of information that arose from this digital earthquake called the internet and social media. There was so much information in the world, so much contradictory information, that if you were an analyst you had no idea where to start looking or how to confirm anything. It was just unprecedented in human experience.

Sean Illing

Why is an explosion of information so politically destabilizing? I suspect some people might see more information as a good thing.

Martin Gurri

What I can say is that once we saw this tsunami of information unleashed in the world, we quickly noticed that it tracked with ever-increasing levels of social and political turbulence. The question is, why?

When you look at the form of modern government, when you look at our structures of power, our institutions, we tend to think of government as something that was created in the 18th century by the founders. But the truth is that it was shaped in the Industrial Age. It has an industrial form and it’s very top-down. It is very hierarchical. It has an almost religious faith in science and expertise.

And a system like this requires a semi-monopoly of information for the domain of each institution. Government needed to control political information, and the politicians and the media all kept a pretty tight circle of information. These are the gatekeepers that decide what’s worth knowing and how it’s known, and for all the downsides of this system, it did keep a lot of ignorance and error at bay.

So what this tsunami of information did was take away the control of these gatekeeping institutions, and I think that initiated a crisis of authority for nearly all of them. And you could see this happening all across the world in the early parts of this decade. Governments couldn’t control information and more extreme things started to happen, more chaos was unleashed.

Sean Illing

In your book, you say all of this produced a mass revolt of the public against the elites or against authority. What does that mean, exactly? And what are people saying “no” to?

Martin Gurri

The “no” is important. But it’s also important to be clear about what we mean by “the public.” The public isn’t “the people.” You’re a political theorist, you know the “the people” is basically a category of political science and political philosophy. They’re not the masses.

There used to be something called a “mass audience.” And that meant [that] there were massive numbers of people all essentially looking into a gigantic mirror in which they saw themselves reflected. So most people were consuming the same content and there was a common denominator.

The digital revolution has shattered that mirror, and now the public inhabits those broken pieces of glass. So the public isn’t one thing; it’s highly fragmented, and it’s basically mutually hostile. It’s mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.

Sean Illing

And this leads to a revolt ...

Martin Gurri

Well, my argument is that now the public only really unifies around what it rejects. This has profound political consequences. People can’t organize around a common idea or worldview, but they all seem to agree that they’re pissed off and they’re against ... the system.

So this 20th-century Industrial Age-model of democracy, where rulers are at a distance from the public, is gone. Now it’s embarrassingly clear that the rulers, the elites, don’t really know what’s going [on] or what they’re doing. And at the same time, the public has no shared organization, no common leaders, no ideology.

Instead, we have a divided populace united only by its disdain for the status quo. That’s a very destabilizing situation, and it’s what I was anticipating when I wrote my book.

Sean Illing

Why did all of this come to a head in this decade? Is this just about the digital revolution and its consequences?

Martin Gurri

It’s mostly that, but we shouldn’t take the digital revolution to just mean social media. We have a system built on the control of information that has increasingly lost its ability to control information. Governments, the scientific establishment, the media — all of these institutions are essentially in a state of crisis.

The government in particular has always needed to control the political story told about itself. In the 20th century, when [former President John F. Kennedy] made a terrible mistake in the Bay of Pigs invasion, there was still a rallying around him. Ultimately, he acknowledged his mistake and his popularity went up.

People trusted presidents in those days because they had limited access to information, and the information they had made them mostly trustworthy. That world is long gone, and the trust people once had in their government has collapsed.

Sean Illing

Did the elites invite this revolt on themselves? In other words, are we in this place because the people in power were unable or unwilling to adjust to facts that were right in front of their noses?

Martin Gurri

I’m increasingly frustrated with the elites. Look, you can’t run a modern society without some sort of hierarchy. Let’s get real. It can’t happen. So that means that you cannot run a modern society without some sort of elite class. So whatever the public is doing, it’s never going to end up in a perfectly flat society in which we all rule ourselves in some protesting way.

So we need structure, we need institutions, we need elites. But I’ve been astounded by how clueless so many of these elites are. Because of what I do, I’ve interacted with lots of important people, and they simply don’t get it.

The 20th century was so comfortable for them. They stood at the top. They talked down and nobody talked back. They want to return to that world and it can’t happen. So the elites are in a reactionary mode. They feel like the internet is this horrible thing. It has to be regulated back into the 20th century.

But that’s pure fantasy.

Sean Illing

I want to linger on your earlier point about the public only rallying around the thing it’s rejecting. People obviously want change, but most have no idea what that would look like. There are no serious alternatives to the global liberal order — at least no serious democratic alternatives — and so we seem stuck in a highly unstable period of transition with no sense of what’s on the other side.

Is that how you see it?

Martin Gurri

It’s so important to remember that we’re in the very early stages of a profound transformation from the Industrial Age to something that doesn’t even have a name yet. These things take time, and you or I may not even be around when this transition is finally complete.

But yes, the danger is that right now the public only has one modality: negation. We’re saying “no” to the system. But if you push hard enough without a vision of what comes next, or even any interest in what comes next, then it becomes nihilism, destruction for destruction’s sake. And that can sometimes seem like a form of progress, but it’s very dangerous.

So a lot of people today fear fascism or authoritarianism, but what I really fear is nihilism. And yet we’re still at the very beginning of this era. While it may seem disastrous and destabilizing now, in 50 years or 100 years it might look totally different.

Sean Illing

What’s interesting is that despite this protest and revolt, the global power structure remains mostly in place. All of this disruption hasn’t resulted in anything like a revolution in the conventional sense of that word.

Do you think that will change?

Martin Gurri

I don’t deal in prophecy, but I would say that there have been power structures that have collapsed — it’s just that they’ve collapsed into chaos. When you look at Libya or Syria or Lebanon today, there isn’t a revolution that swept through those countries, there isn’t really an alternative source of power, an alternative hierarchy ready to take over like the Bolsheviks in 1917. It’s just chaos.

I think the idea of revolution sort of died between 1989 and 1991. And while I’m not the biggest fan of revolutions, I can at least say they provided a direction for people and institutions. Today, if you use the word “progress,” you get laughed out of the room.

We have no idea what progress even looks like or what direction to go.

Sean Illing

Does this last decade remind you of any previous period in history?

Martin Gurri

Disruption and turbulence happens in cycles. I’ve heard this decade compared to the ’60s, but my contrarian take is that this is actually a worse situation in some respects. I’d compare this moment to 1848.

In 1848, the French government basically tried to put the lid on the revolution and recreate the old system, the old regime. And it all blew up. And it blew up all across Europe. It unleashed a whirlwind of chaos and revolutionary conflict. And all of this was happening as the world was beginning to move into the Industrial Age.

The thing about the ’60s, which I lived through, was that there was at least a fairly clear sense of what people were against but also what they were for. There were positive ideals and goals and projects. People were aiming for something. I think we’re missing this element today, and it worries me for all the reasons I stated earlier.

And to be clear, there are plenty of amazing things happening right now. We still live in a wildly affluent society and I don’t want to discount that. But our government and our institutions have not adapted to the digital age, to this new world, and that’s extremely worrisome.

Sean Illing

So will the system adapt? Will it reorganize itself? Or are we headed for even darker times?

Martin Gurri

The honest answer is I don’t know. The gut feeling I have is that we will get new elites. And I think the dynamic between the public and elites will change because the new elite will understand that there is advantage to be had in being closer to the public and not in disappearing at the top of the pyramid.

The only thing we can be sure of is that things will change. And look, it’s entirely possible that things will end up in a better place. Whatever one thinks of Industrial Age democracy, the truth is that it wasn’t all that democratic. There were hundreds of layers between the average person and people in power.

That’s not how democracy is supposed to work, but we accepted it. It worked well for a while. But the informational environment today is such that that kind of system can’t survive. This is a different era and it will require a different model of democracy.

Let’s hope it’s a better one.

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Crows could be the smartest animal other than primates

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Crows, in fact, might be like us not so much because they are clever (and so are we) but rather because they sometimes engage their cleverness simply for fun – and so do we.

The crows McCoy studies have a natural curiosity, she says. They cheekily grab scientific equipment and fly off with it in the aviary. Young birds especially, she says, love to play. Humans are not so different, she argues: “We have these incredibly huge brains but we use them to do crossword puzzles – that’s not something that is evolutionarily selected for.”

One could argue that there are utilitarian benefits to such mental exertion. It keeps the mind sharp, it reinforces one’s abilities – all the fitter to survive. But if there is pleasure in it or if it has unexpected effects, one might also say that such activity is just part of what makes life colourful. New Caledonian crows, like us and other clever animals, have moods and memories. Strategies and expectations. They seem remarkably able to engage with complexity.

Evolution made this possible. But cognition, like life itself, serves more than just a need. Animal intelligence allows all sorts of fascinating phenomena to arise. A gorilla that recognises human language. A crow that solves puzzles. A parrot that tells jokes.

Nature provided the notes, but animal brains make the music. The mind, as they say, is the only limit.

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New Story's first 3D-printed houses are now complete

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In a rural area on the outskirts of a town in Southern Mexico, a giant, 33-foot-long 3D printer recently built the walls of the first homes in the world’s first 3D-printed neighborhood.

The 500-square-foot houses were finished with roofs, windows, and interiors last week. New Story, the nonprofit leading the project, believes that the new construction process could be part of the solution for affordable housing in some of the poorest communities in the world. “We feel like we’ve proved what’s possible by bringing this machine down to a rural area in Mexico, in a seismic zone, and successfully printing these first few houses,” says Brett Hagler, CEO and cofounder of New Story.

The nonprofit, founded five years ago to bring housing to people living in extreme poverty, has already built more than 2,700 homes in Haiti, El Salvador, Bolivia, and Mexico, using traditional construction. In Haiti, where aid groups struggled to rebuild after the 2010 earthquake, New Story honed a process to work more quickly to finish homes. But it recognized that new technology could help it continue to work faster and decrease costs. Two years ago, it partnered with Icon, a construction tech company based in Austin, to begin developing a 3D printer rugged enough to work even in the most challenging conditions.

Icon’s printer, called the Vulcan II, isn’t the first designed to build an entire house. But the new Mexican neighborhood, which will have 50 of the homes, will be the first community to use this type of technology at scale. There have been some other experiments with 3D-printed homes, but they have all occurred in controlled conditions or in areas with little risk of natural disasters, and haven’t yet been proven in the real world.

New Story’s first-of-its-kind project, unsurprisingly, has faced challenges. The team initially planned to build in another part of Mexico, but because of delays in the process of working with the government to get the land, decided to start farther south in Tabasco, a state that borders Guatemala; the new location faces a higher risk of earthquakes, so the design went through even more structural engineering tests. (The nonprofit hasn’t named the specific town to protect the privacy of the people who will live in the neighborhood.)

After the tests were successful, the machine started the long journey south on a truck, but it got stuck at customs for three months. “[The machine] was just a brand new category that obviously didn’t exist,” says Hagler. By the time the machine made it to the village, the rainy season had started. At one point, the entry to the site flooded, so no one could access it for a week.

But the most important test—whether the printer could print a house on the site—went well. The printer works by squirting a concrete mixture in layers to build floors and walls. Software monitors the weather conditions, and the machine can adjust the mixture. “In the morning it might be drier, and then late in the afternoon, maybe it’s more humid, and then you’ll adjust that mixture a little bit in accordance to that that you get the viscosity that you need in order to have the same print quality throughout the day,” says New Story cofounder Alexandria Lafci.

The team can use an app to make slight adjustments to the blueprint on site, but the printing process is essentially autonomous. To make it even more efficient, it’s possible to print multiple houses simultaneously. The first two homes were printed at the same time, in a total of 24 hours over multiple days, because the team wanted to work only in daylight hours; in the future, they hope to run the machine for longer periods, making it even faster. New Story has partnered with a local nonprofit, Echale a Tu Casa, to finish the parts of the homes that can’t be 3D-printed, providing jobs to local construction workers.

The finished houses have two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bath—a vast difference from the simple shacks common in the area. The families who will live in the homes earn a median income of $76.50 a month. “For a majority of the families, this is the first time ever that they will have indoor restrooms and plumbing and sanitation,” says Lafci. Unlike shacks, the homes are also seismically sound. The nonprofit partnered with the local government—which is providing both the land and infrastructure like new roads and electricity—to identify the 50 families in the area in the greatest need. Once New Story finishes printing the homes, the new residents own them outright.

Some families toured the first two houses last week, noting how the new homes would stay dry in heavy rain and contrasting it with their current homes. “When it starts to rain, the house starts flooding and it is worse at night,” one future resident, Candelaria Hernández, said of the one-room shack where she currently lives with seven family members. “You have to wake up to put pots around the house so it things don’t get wet.”

The same technology could also help transform the construction of affordable housing in the United States. Earlier this year, Icon printed a welcome center for a master-planned community in Austin, Texas, designed for people who have been chronically homeless, and the company is beginning to print 400-square-foot homes in the community that will be completed in early 2020.

“The homebuilding industry is in need of a paradigm shift,” says Alex Le Roux, cofounder and chief technology officer at Icon. “We shouldn’t have to choose between things such as resiliency and affordability, or design freedom and sustainability.” The company plans to continue to print additional homes and develop the technology. In Latin America, New Story already has interest from multiple other governments that want to donate land to build similar communities, many of which have already visited the new site in Mexico. “Once people see it in person, it’s no longer a crazy idea,” says Hagler.

The nonprofit plans to continue also exploring other new approaches, acting as a sort of R&D arm for governments that have the resources to build new housing at scale but don’t yet have the best tools to do that quickly, and that are looking for ways to do it more affordably. “I think that, like with most of these big, seemingly intractable social issues, there’s no silver bullet—you need to have a lot of options of how you’re going to solve and target housing,” Lafci says. “What we’re really passionate about is developing a toolkit of a variety of options of different technologies—be it hardware, software, processes—that we can rely on in order to build homes and build community faster, better, and less expensively.”

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strugk
35 days ago
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Warsaw, Poland
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