Decision-makers at the COP26 UN climate summit might do well to remind themselves of a game called ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’. Because only by understanding the interconnection of the world’s problems can we recognize how they can be rapidly solved by addressing them systemically at the root.
Invented in the 1990s by three college students, ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ was based on the idea that prolific actor Kevin Bacon has appeared in films with a vast number of other actors. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the movie ‘Dave’ with Laura Linney who was in ‘Mystic River’ with Kevin Bacon. So, even though Schwarzenegger and Bacon have never appeared in a film together, they are still closely connected through Linney.
What then is the connection between Kevin Bacon and other actors like Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon, Richard Gere, Edward Norton, or Jim Carrey? It turns out, they all worked with Laura Linney as well – she was with Nolte and Sarandon in ‘Lorenzo’s Oil’, with Gere and Norton in ‘Primal Fear’, and with Carrey in the ‘The Truman Show’.
At RethinkX, we have noticed that many of the world’s major problems, issues, solutions and opportunities are deeply and closely connected to each other through agriculture, energy, and transportation. Like ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’, these connections often occur in ways that aren’t easily visible on the surface.
Humanity’s Only Hope for Survival. (Photo from Wikipedia by Gage Skidmore)
What we eat and wear, and how we produce those materials, how we generate electricity and heat and cool our buildings, and how we move ourselves and our goods, accounts for about 90% of global CO2 emissions, along with many other ecological problems.
The report Rethinking Climate Change identifies a handful of key technologies that are already on the market, getting cheaper and better every day, and that have the ability to radically reshape the fundamental sectors of agriculture, energy and transportation over the coming decade or two. These technologies include electric vehicles, solar power and wind power (plus the batteries used in electric vehicles and renewable power systems), as well as precision fermentation and cellular agriculture (PFCA, that is, the production of proteins and fats by growing animal, animal, or fungal cells without raising entire macro-organisms).
Just as with actors in the game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’, we have found that we can pick nearly any major global issue and find solutions by playing what might be called ‘Six Degrees of Clean Disruption’.
The fish problem
Pick up a package of frozen fish at the grocery store. In that package is a handful of meat taken from what once was a living animal, now wrapped in plastic made from petroleum. We took from that animal literally the only thing it had, its body, in order to put food on our plate.
But in that package too you essentially find the diesel fuel that powered the ship that caught the fish (or the ship that went out to an aquaculture farm to retrieve the fish).
The oil rig that produced the petroleum to make the plastic wrapping and the diesel fuel for the ship are in that package of fish too.
If the fish was farm-raised, then it was likely fed with soy protein, canola oil, ruminant proteins (leftover from cattle and other livestock) and waste parts from wild-caught fish.
In the package there is the deforested land that was used to grow the soy and canola that were fed to the aquaculture fish. The fertilizers made from natural gas that were used to farm those grains. The pipeline that moved the natural gas. The pesticides that protected the plants. The steel that made the bulk transport ships that moved the fertilizers to the farms and the feed grains to the aquaculture facilities. The water that raised the plants. The electricity that pumped the water. The coal that made the electricity. The labor of the miners who obtained the coal. The airplanes that sent the fish to countries with low labor costs where the animals could be cut into filets which were then frozen and sealed in plastic and shipped to customers. The CO2 emissions from the airplanes. The doctor’s bills for the airport workers who spent their days inhaling fuel fumes. The aluminum that made the airplanes. The magnesium used in making the aluminum. Effectively, all of these things are in that package of fish and when you buy it, you contribute to the perpetuation of all of these problems.
But from San Diego to Singapore, and from San Francisco to Berlin, start-up companies are now growing fish cells to make fish meat – real salmon, mahi-mahi, bluefin tuna and other popular products, just without killing animals.
Growing fish meat in indoor facilities also means no mercury, antibiotics, or microplastics in the meat. And it solves more problems than just the animal-rights and human-health issues. If the products can be made well enough, in principle they could replace all of aquaculture and all of wild-catch fishing, and all of the issues listed above that stem from them. If the products can be made cheap enough, they could replace existing fish meat sources quickly.
Solving the entire “fish problem” in its entirety is conceptually easier than solving any small individual part of the total problem in isolation.
The meat problem
It is not just fish meats that are being addressed. Chicken meat made without killing chickens by the company Eat Just is already available for sale. This is actual chicken meat, not some plant-based simulacrum suitable only for house pets and vegetarians, with a cutesy name that sounds like ‘chicken’.
Other companies are making beef without cattle, pork without pigs, or lobster meat without lobsters, and egg protein without chickens.
From California to Estonia to South Africa, companies are now producing cow’s milk proteins from micro-organisms, rather than from cattle.
These are not science fiction products – ice cream and cream cheese are already available on store shelves made using processes that use far less energy, land, and water than animal agriculture. And by doing so, they open the doors to solving an entire spectrum of the world’s most vexing problems.
From plastic to steel
How can we eliminate the flow of plastic into the oceans? The Ocean Cleanup estimates that 46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is from commercial fishing gear. Grow fish meat using PFCA, at a lower cost than harvesting it from the oceans, and the need for commercial fishing could drop dramatically.
What can we do to reduce CO2 emissions from steel production, which accounts for about 7% of total global CO2 emissions annually? One way is to reduce demand for the ships and oil rigs, pipelines and diesel fuel, again perhaps through PFCA meat and dairy products.
Another way is to make better digital cameras and computer processors. With these two technologies, we might be able to make trucks drive themselves, and if delivery trucks could drive themselves, then we might need about half as many of them to get our clothes to shopping malls and our food to supermarkets.
If they were electric and charged by solar panels and wind turbines, then we would not need to make diesel fuel to power truck engines nor extract the coal or natural gas to make electricity either.
The shopping center and the supermarket, both big box-shaped buildings with ample parking out front, are inventions that are only about 60 years old and arose as car ownership made shopping in bulk physically easier. But small, autonomous, electric delivery pods would mean that people would not need to drive to a supermarket to bring home a couple of bags of food. Small rolling robots could make shopping trips to the supermarket or the shopping mall obsolete.
We might not even need supermarkets that people could visit at all. We would not need to brightly light the interiors of these spaces and could fit more food in each building if those buildings were simply storage and delivery warehouses.
We could then repurpose the parking lots outside or expand the size of each building so that other former supermarkets and shopping malls could be cleared away entirely.
What would we do with that land? In short, anything we want.
Make it into parks instead of parking lots. Build affordable neighborhoods that can be traversed on a battery-powered electric bicycle. Leave it to naturally become wild again.
The handful of technologies covered in Rethinking Climate Change open up a world of opportunities to not only halt major global problems, but to also reverse damage we have already done. Making meat and dairy using PFCA, the report estimates, will free up areas of farmland the size of China, Australia and the United States combined, land that could be developed, reforested or used to restore biodiversity.
Regenerating the earth
The three Clean Disruptions – clean energy, clean food and clean transportation – could strike item after item affecting our land, air and water off the laundry list of global problems.
Solar and wind power would reduce the rate of adding mercury to the environment as the combustion of coal is a primary source of mercury. By no longer taking krill (which are fed to aquaculture fish) and wild fish from the oceans, we would no longer be taking food away from animals higher up the food chain, like penguins, seals, whales and polar bears.
Producing heat and power from solar and wind would mean less shipping of oil and natural gas, and therefore less inadvertent transport of invasive aquatic species, many of which are moved in ship ballast water.
Want to reduce or eliminate the one-third of food that becomes waste? Delivery robots could bring small portions to you on a daily basis so that less food would go to waste, dramatically cutting the need for all kinds of agriculture.
With the better tools of clean energy, clean food and clean transportation we could reduce the demand for water from freshwater aquifers, and stop and then reverse the loss of tropical forests that are being cut to get access to land to raise crops like soy, corn, palm oil or animals like beef cattle.
These things are not just good for the environment, they are good for human health and welfare too.
Clean energy makes access to plentiful clean water far easier, improving health and reducing infant mortality around the world. Battery back-up rooftop solar power makes it easier to provide lighting and clean cooking facilities to everyone, helping children to become well-nourished and well-educated. And clean, cheap energy, food and transport will help job opportunities flourish in rural areas, giving more people chances to provide good living to themselves and to their families, and to live lives of health, prosperity and dignity.
Henry David Thoreau wrote: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” The Clean Disruptions of energy, agriculture and transportation are not just a handful of new tools and technologies. They are genuine opportunities to solve problems at their root en masse, rather than simply hacking away at thousands of symptoms.