Hi, My Name is Akon

This episode features Akon, the Senegalese rap superstar turned social entrepreneur, with excerpts from my conversation with Professor Paul Collier of Oxford University. We sat down with one of the most exciting entrepreneurs working in developing markets, and perhaps the foremost economist on African development. These are two heavyweights in their field, positioned to speak about how to think and do business in developing markets. We discuss how Akon started a 400 million dollar solar micro-grid company that has expanded into 17 developing countries in just three years,  expanding across Africa. Our next episode will feature more of my conversation with Sir Paul Collier, former director at The World Bank who has written five books including The Bottom Billion, as well as excerpts from my interview with Samba Bathily, the CEO at the helm of Akon Lighting Africa. Our article supplements these fascinating interviews, fleshing out the picture of what is working in Africa, and the new force that is socially minded entrepreneurship in the developing world.

How Akon Set Out to Become an Elon Musk for Africa

‘Hi, my name is Akon. I have done more for the people of Africa than all of the charities in the past 30 years combined, by providing solar energy to 80 million Africans in 14 African countries.’ The meme popped up in my inbox with the face of the Senegalese hip-hop/R&B artist staring into the camera before a field of solar panels. What could the musician, actor, entrepreneur, and the voice artist behind the triple platinum single Smack That have done to impact Africa? Memes are provocateurs, but when I spoke to Akon he told me that it wasn’t 14 countries anymore, today it’s 17. Founded in 2013, Akon Lighting Africa has already invested 400 million dollars in solar micro-grids in African countries. Akon’s excitement over the patchwork he is building across the continent is oddly contagious. While he speaks knowledgeably in the smooth intoxicating style of a voice artist, the substance can be all techno-entrepreneur.  Like Elon Musk, who helped build the largest solar provider in the United States (Solar City), Akon is a member of a new generation of socially conscious renewable energy moguls. Akon Lighting Africa (ALA) is rapidly scaling their business model, which is based on demonstrating commitment by providing solar systems up front, and structuring re-payment. This model allows the company to follow words with rapid action, and avoid much of the endless gridlock that comes with demanding large amounts of money up front. The success of a few companies like ALA comes just as multinationals from Barclays Bank, to Nestle, to Coca Cola have withdrawn from African markets in the face of corruption and a stagnant middle class. This is the unlikely story of how a small team of West Africans built a nimble energy company succeeding in some of most inhospitable developing markets on earth. In doing so, they are creating their own pipeline of skilled, local African workers through the Solar Academy founded in Mali in 2016. Economists agree that jobs and training are pure gold for developing nations, the keys to the elusive stability and growth they so desperately need. In an age when the West is becoming increasingly disenchanted with the power of aid and NGOs to create long term growth, the story of ALA and its operational arm, Solektra International, sheds light on the brave new world of social entrepreneurship creating an impact in the developing world.

The recipe for Akon Lighting Africa was not a single rapper. Akon is joined by two formidable co-founders, both of whom provide the ingredients required for success in a complex and risky undertaking. Thione Niang was one of 28 children born in Senegal. He began working as a busboy when he arrived in the U.S. with only 20 dollars in his pocket, to a U.S. college graduate, to the Obama campaign fundraising division. He is currently the Ambassador to the Ministry of Energy for Minority Energy Entrepreneurs and an ideal political/fundraising agent when Akon brought him on as a cofounder of ALA. His involvement reveals the importance of political support and investor perception for an organization seeking socially minded private dollars.  Mali businessman Samba Bathily is the man Akon chose as CEO of the organization, boasting long experience in the African telecommunications and energy industry that he brings to bear on the project. He started and runs both NGOs and private enterprise from his homeland in the center of the continent. Bathily’s deep roots in Mali is the reason ALA founded The Solar Academy Initiative there in 2016. This endeavor provides skilled, young African technicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs the opportunity to build and maintain the mini-grid systems locally. This represents the evolution of ALA as it goes beyond the installation of micro-grids and into the critical work of creating human infrastructure to expand the undertaking.

Perhaps the greatest roadblock to private sector growth in Africa is that to most companies and entrepreneurs outside of Africa, the continent might as well be Mars. And not the exciting Mars Elon Musk plans to land a Dragon V2 Capsule on in 2020, but a remote dead place, worthy of consideration only by the charitable. In this imagined place, all investments are speculative and morally fraught. African investment has long suffered from the kind of malaise and pessimism from which space exploration suffered after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Paul Collier called it ‘sticky investment rating’: once a bad investment where private companies cannot innovate and profit, always a bad investment.  In his 2009 book The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done, Collier pointed out that, “The problem for the reforming countries of the bottom billion is that the risk ratings take a long time to reflect turnarounds.” So why did an American rapper whose previous investment in Africa was in a diamond mine sell the mine and start a renewable energy company on a desolate continent he left long ago?

In 2010 Aliaume Damala Badara Akon Thiam returned to his Grandmother’s house in a village in Senegal where he spent large parts of his childhood. The son of a jazz musician who bounced back and forth between the U.S. and Senegal, Akon returned a national hero with the simple aim of buying a new house for the woman who helped raise him, ideally one with electricity. Shortly thereafter, Akon hit his first roadblock. “She didn’t want to leave the house that she had pretty much raised all of us in. You know, grandparents are really stubborn,” Akon recalls as he reminisces upon that first failed enterprise: moving an old women to a new house. The village to which Akon traveled in 2010 lay 65 miles from the nearest major population center, one of so many parts of rural Africa too far afield, and too poor for utilities to reach. Akon first tried to bring power to the village by meeting with his friend the Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. President Wade told Akon that such a major infrastructure project was, at that time, beyond the means of Senegal. So Akon traveled to The Middle East looking for energy investors to support the project. This was the moment when the entrepreneur explores the old broken way of doing business before he or she is forced to innovate. Like Elon Musk who went to Russia looking to buy rockets for Space-X before he built his own, Akon went to Saudi Arabia looking to build power plants. He found energy investors to the north of Senegal willing to fund the construction of several plants. Akon returned to Senegal to get the body politic on board with the project. “I ran into a lot of politics, and I realized wow, I’m in a business that creates wars. So this definitely is not as easy as I expected.” The political infighting Akon encountered hamstrings investment and discourages investors in places where regulations are agonizingly cumbersome, and politicians obstinate.  Large scale infrastructure projects relying on major outside investment quickly become politicized, as the beneficiaries fight for money that must come in part from leaders and constituents who will receive nothing. Akon remembers how, “He [President Wade] said listen son, I know you’re trying to do great things for your country, and this and that, but I think you have to find a different solution.”

That different solution became a company better suited to circumnavigate intractable political infighting. It is the kind of nimble company that is filling the void in African markets abandoned by multinational corporations. “I was riding down the street and I saw this light bulb. I saw this solar panel light bulb that someone was selling on the side of the road. And that’s when it hit me. Wow, that’s the solution, because when you think about it, Africa has an abundance of sun, and it’s our biggest resource.” To explore solar as a potential solution, Akon then traveled to Guangzhou, China to meet with the largest Chinese solar manufacturers. The moment that Akon chose to explore the potential of solar energy was perfectly timed. The U.S. levied tariffs as high as 165% on imported Chinese solar cells to protect American manufacturers, and Akon found massive underutilized solar manufacturing capacity meant to serve markets in the United States and Europe.  In the case of solar, China is a tech leader, having spent the last decade snapping up US solar technology out of the practical necessity of combatting horrendous pollution.  “We found so much stuff that wasn’t even on the market yet,” Akon remembers. When he left China, he did so with a 1 billion dollar line of credit with which to bring solar to Africa, and to provide the upfront investment that would make Akon Lighting Africa a success. The biggest challenge for ALA became convincing African leaders of the superiority of Chinese solar systems over the alternatives, a job that continues today as the company quickly establishes itself across the continent.

Akon’s story echoes other success stories in African business today, most often from companies creating markets and focusing on self-reliance in defiance of obstacles and gaps in infrastructure. One example is the Taloram Company which sells 20 cent packets of noodles in Nigeria. In Africa’s New Generation of Innovators from the January 2017 issue of The Harvard Business Review, the authors note that Taloram controls 95% of production inputs, and makes 1 billion dollars in revenue annually. Selling 20 cent noodle packets to working class Nigerians is not so different from electrifying villages for $75,000 a piece on average. The village by village solar panel model is the ‘20 cent package of noodles’ solution for infrastructure development where millions of dollars and heavy involvement by the government is the norm. The middle class in Africa remains stagnant in many countries. Addressing the needs of that ‘bottom billion’ that Western companies tend to ignore in favor of more affluent markets is the recipe for building the success that Akon and a few others are harnessing successfully.

The emergence of ALA comes at an auspicious moment for solar technology that promises growth to those companies positioned to capture market share in the next few decades. Innovation in the solar industry is occurring at a breakneck pace. Solar modules cost $300 per watt in 1956, $50 per watt in the 1970s, $10 in the 90s, and around $1.00 a watt today including installation, modules, and electronics. Pinpointing exact prices including the variable ‘soft costs’ (installation) of solar can be difficult. Those ‘soft costs’ decrease slower than the price of the cells themselves, but evidently the current state is poised at a threshold past which solar will compete on price anywhere in the world. To gain perspective on the maturation and proliferation that this technology will enjoy in the next few decades, consider the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Vision Study which projects 10% of American energy coming from solar by 2025 (100x the current 0.1% market share) and 14% coming from solar by 2035, 140x the current market share. This in-progress explosion in the United States where installation and manufacturing costs are comparatively high, is good for news for a company using Africans to install solar panels in Africa. The current effective cost of solar is around nine cents a kilowatt hour, a price point that is already competitive with traditional energy generation costing around 12 cents an hour. Yet over one-third of photovoltaic cells currently in use  are in Germany, also the world’s largest photovoltaic manufacturer, but a country about as sunny as Alaska. China expects to surpass Germany in production of photovoltaics by the end of the decade as German plants close due to market competition and flagging government enthusiasm for subsidies. However, the move of the industry South and East into poorer, sunnier markets may be a natural evolution as Germany is on track to achieve 60% renewable energy for themselves by 2035.  “We’re going into Latin America, Brazil,” says Akon. “All the emerging markets. And of course we’re going into India too. But that’s the beauty of it. Emerging markets aren’t just in Africa, they’re everywhere.” This is how we should think of companies like ALA, as experts at surviving in emerging markets.

If you are like many Westerners raised on stories of African famine and AIDS epidemics, right now you aren’t sure how you feel about a company charging villagers for solar panels. When partaking in business in Africa, the scarcity of private sector dollars does not go unnoticed, and the word ‘donation’ is more familiar than investment when it follows a discussion of the continent. Yet in Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and Why There Is a Better Way for Africa, author Dambisa Moyo notes that the transfer of 1 trillion dollars to Africa in the form of aid in the last 50 years put the recipients in a worse-off position than if they had not received it in the first place. Professor Paul Collier at Oxford is in relative agreement with Moyo, testifying to the destabilizing effect that aid can have on political and economic systems. The classic example Moyo uses is the donation of 1 million mosquito nets to a malarial region of Africa that puts every local mosquito net manufacturer and repairman out of business. Aid is in practice simply less reliable over time, and that makes all the difference. Most critically, aid fails to produce pipelines of skilled labor and jobs, the makings of long-term stability. “The way I see it, aid is only beneficial when there is a natural disaster,” says Akon, “but if there’s no natural disaster you’re handicapping people. It becomes a natural disaster because now you’re handicapping them, you’re putting them in a position to get fed, not to feed themselves. It never worked.” The voice of a self-made Senegalese immigrant joins an increasing number of modern development theorists pulling few punches as they point to business, not aid, as the critical ingredient for Africa’s health and growth.

Though Solektra International emerged to treat African energy problems, Akon and Samba Bathily understand that with any luck, they created a model that provides services to emerging markets everywhere. At their best, companies of this type allow countries to leapfrog stages of development. In 2000 around 1 in 10 Africans had cell phones. Today between 64% (Uganda) and 86% (South Africa with the same percentage as the US) of African countries have cell phones. Telecommunications matured and proliferated, and that will both drive and hopefully be the track of other maturing technologies like solar energy. Only 5% of the population owns smartphones in Uganda, 34% in South Africa, and it is here that we can glimpse what energy and access to technology means for developing a globally competitive African populace. "To connect people living in remote regions, traditional connectivity infrastructure is often difficult and inefficient, so we need to invent new technologies,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talking about Internet.org, which plans to launch satellites to provide affordable internet in Africa. Imagining a future when a child in a remote African village uses a solar powered cell phone and satellite internet to teach himself algebra online is achievable in our lifetime.  The value of such access cannot be undervalued on a continent of young strivers, but it is not everything. Security, a stable job, food, and water require more than energy acess. But energy is a big deal when it comes to creating opportunities for an Africa that has median age of 19.

Like any good visionary, Akon has grand ambitions. “Stage three is Akon Food in Africa. Which is where we’re now going to start going into all of the agriculture, taking full advantage of the rich soil out there, and making agriculture cool. And that’s the biggest challenge. What young kid under 21 wants to get into agriculture? How are you going to survive if you can’t make your own food? I already figured out the plan to make agriculture cool. I think it’s really African solutions for Africans.” Perhaps a rapper is the perfect person to understand the role of both African and Western perception in the success of ambitious African enterprises. Sierra Leone imports over 100 million dollars worth of rice annually, even as 56% of the population is actively engaged in subsistence agriculture. One cannot mechanize an activity that over half a country currently performs by hand without waging a public perception campaign. In fact, the term ‘mechanized African agriculture’ makes knowledgeable people nervous. That being said, when I asked Professor Collier about the subject, he said he favors the long term mechanization of agriculture in Africa. Though potentially a painful process, Professor Collier compared it to the transformation that began in Bangladesh with the arrival of a single foreign garment manufacturer. The company was quickly mimicked by Bangladesh owned companies and it eventually led to 20 billion dollars in annual clothing exports a year today. Revolutions like this are rife with ugly problems, but they generally do more good than harm by creating opportunities and raising the standard of living exponentially in just a few generations. It is worth noting that the man with all the optimism in the world for his own potential to create change in Africa spent three years behind bars in American prisons. Akon would be the first to remind us, “the past does not determine the future.” This African chameleon, who has himself transformed many times, should be one of Africa’s transformation architects. When I asked Akon who his hero was, he spoke with great admiration of a fellow African native. “The one person that I really love, and I love what he’s doing is Elon Musk. He’s the one guy I’ve been watching for the last five years, and I’m saying to myself he clearly gets it. I know his vision is solid, and I can feel it, and he can feel it, and that’s why he’s relentless. I love love love how he’s moving.”

Solving Impossible Problems

In Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by the inventors of the X-Prize Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis, the authors point out that, “bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.” They evangelize an optimistic vision of the future, noting that human beings generally latch onto the risks in their environment, and our outlook tends to be darker than the horizon of history. I found this sentiment most succinctly verbalized by the journalist Michael Specter, who noted in a 2010 TED Talk that a child born in Mumbai India could expect to live longer than the richest man could one hundred years ago. We lose perspective on how good we have it, and how great our potential is to improve our lot in life. It is interesting to consider climate change in light of this vision of a future full of solvable problems, as climate change is a subject discussed in the same gloomy language we use to talk about colon cancer. We never quite get past arguing that it’s very dangerous, and we’d better bend over and prepare to suffer. As with colon cancer, we’re unable to predict whether global warming will kill us. Can we stop it? Not anytime soon. How bad will it get? It could get about as bad, and be about as expensive as we can possibly imagine. But history tells us something about problems that seem impossible to solve: we usually solve them.

In Johan RockstrÖm’s 2009 article in Nature, he identified nine earth subsystems with thresholds that once crossed, will cause a shift into a new state, “often with deleterious or potentially disastrous consequences for humans.” At the top of this list was climate change, and RockstrÖm’s article pegged the critical threshold as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration above 350 parts per million. In 2015 we broached 400 parts per million, leaving RockstrÖm’s  threshold far behind. Scientists bemoaned the apparent inevitability that we will never see the underside of 400 parts per million again for the rest of our natural lives. In my last article, I noted that our fixation on reducing carbon dioxide emissions is a very poor way of solving the ‘crossed threshold problem.’ Even if we hold our proverbial breath, the cat remains out of the bag. But more importantly, it is probably as difficult to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions, as it is to say stop population growth.

Why does history tell us to stay positive? For the first quarter of the 19th century An Essay on the Principle of Population by philosopher Thomas Malthus was the most influential work of its kind. It predicted a grim future in which the population doubled every 25 years, while agricultural production grew arithmetically. The essay was the basis for predictions of famine and starvation unless birth rates could somehow be controlled. Did we solve the problem by reducing the birth rate, in the same way that today the narrative around global warming centers on reducing carbon emissions? In 1900 38% of the American labor force was made up of farmers working 843 million acres to feed 76 million people. In 2016, 0.6% of the American population fed 319 million Americans, while 0.3% of the American populace produced 133 billion dollars of food for export abroad. This massive production took place on just 915 million acres of cultivated land, just 8% more land than was being used in 1900. All this is testament to the fallibility of ‘Malthusian Catastrophe,’ and how big impossible problems get solved. How do you feed 462% more human beings worldwide with 2% of the manpower?

The answer is that entrepreneurs leveraged existing systems to do what’s already being done much better. Just 39 years after Malthus made his dire prediction, an entrepreneur named John Lawes began to experiment with manure and phosphates. In 1842, phosphorous based fertilizers were born. It took 44 years from when humanity wrung its hands imagining a bleak future, to when we made the key innovation that would bring about a solution: artificial manure companies.

If we consider the history of agriculture, and the threshold problem, it seems likely that growing, or even justrestoring the blue planet's natural ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere is the key to stabilizing our climate. Geoengineering and carbon sequestration are the technologies at our disposal to actively remove the carbon dioxide produced in millions of locations worldwide. Sequestration does things like pump carbon dioxide into underground storage tanks. Geoengineering leverages the ancient means by which the planet has always dealt with carbon dioxide. Let us take a moment to compare iron fertilization, causing plankton blooms with iron, to artificial manure. In July of 1990 at the Bretton Woods oceanographic conference, oceanographer John Martin stated, “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.” This ‘iron hypothesis’ would correspond roughly to the rise of pessimism regarding climate change. Compare this moment to the birth of plant nutrition science at the beginning of the 19th Century. About twenty years after the ‘iron hypothesis,’ the first commercial implementation of iron fertilization technology took place. The John Lawes of iron fertilization was Russ George, and his 2012 Haida Gwaii experiment seeded 10,000 square kilometers of ocean with iron minerals that created a massive plankton bloom visible by satellite. Here is where the similarities between the stories of John Lawes and his artificial fertilizer, and Russ George and his iron fertilization end. Russ George was censured as an environmental rogue, and commercial iron fertilization died on the vine, struck dead by our collective outrage. You’re going to introduce iron into the oceans? While John Lawes improved a natural process nature and humans engaged in, Russ George mimicked a process that we left to mother nature, but desperately relied on. Why this occurred relates to both how we think about our oceans, and what makes global warming such a tough problem to solve.

We have a strange relationship with the largest carbon dioxide sequestration system on the planet, our oceans. While 48% of the total landmass of the United States (and the world) is farmland, very little of the planet's oceans are farmed. While the use of artificial fertilizers was the technological evolution of a familiar process that occurred in a time before environmental regulation, we have no long tradition of commercial aquaculture, or fertilization of our oceans. Our relationship to the ocean landscape is primitive, and simple compared to our relationship to dry land. How long has it been since 50% of the calories humans consumed came from wild animals? While we farm 25% more calories per person through agriculture today than we did in 1950, we consume 400% more fish, a whopping 37 pounds per person. Fsh are the last wild animals we hunt in large numbers, and we will be about the last generation to hunt them. 50% of plankton (the grass of ocean pastures) have disappeared from our world’s oceans since 1950, and 90% of big fish stocks. The livestock of those blue pastures are gone. For their part, plankton are the ocean’s forests, and the pastures that sequester carbon dioxide deep beneath the sea. The plankton are dying already from climate change and reasons unknown, and while hunting and starving away the fish probably won’t kill us, the plankton are perhaps our fiercest guardians against global warming. All these issues are distinct from the food shortage we solved 100 years ago because they are all a, ‘tragedy of the commons’ problem. That none of us, and all of us are responsible is what makes global warming so difficult to solve. The idea of farming the oceans is foreign, offending our ancient sense of the sea as wild, pristine, and inexhaustible. Perhaps we are also bound by a primal compulsion to keep water pure, even as we take from the mysterious waves with little regard for the state of affairs on the other side of that border. Could our emotional relationship to water be dangerous to us?

What if the other ‘tragedy of the commons’ is that we will never agree internationally to geoengineer in our oceans? Because the oceans are shared, and anything we introduce into them is inherently uncontained, precaution may bind us from acting, even if acting on the oceans is the only real solution. Russ George would say that iron fertilization is so inexpensive and effective that it can’t be stopped. The implication is that he, or others like him, will carry on proving the technology at scale, international treaties be damned. On one hand, the new power in the 21st Century may be wealthy individuals who wield fortunes and power as great as nations. Perhaps the philanthropic community can intervene to solve problems that the international and scientific community will be too cautious to pursue, for better or worse. To fail to weigh risk and reward rationally at the national and international levels in this area would be a tragic weakness of our species.

While farming fish will continue to supplant the decimated wild population, when will global warming’s version of artificial manure technology become commercially viable? Without hungry mouths to drive commercialization, we must create incentive. The infant 50 billion dollar a year carbon offset market suggests that we are beginning to artificially create a market, but an artificial market will never be as flexible or pragmatic as hungry human beings. It will favor the established accepted currency, cow dung only, no artificial manure type solutions. That is my argument today, that we must be vigilant to our hypocrisies, and carefully evaluate the technologies that might bring light to the dark horizon of this modern malthusian problem. In 2010, MIT Technology Review listed carbon sequestering concrete as one of the ten breakthrough technologies of the year, yet today all commercial efforts have failed. Similarly, injecting carbon dioxide into basalt rock beneath the earth was heralded as a ‘breakthrough technology,’ but one of the only projects spent 10 million dollars sequestering just 250 tonnes of carbon. These are simply not “artificial manure solutions.” They lack scale, and they don’t leverage how the planet already sequesters millions of tonnes of carbon a year.

Today’s episode is the second part of my interview with Russ George, our controversial John Lawes of iron fertilization. Russ prefers to call the technology ocean pasture restoration, as his fertilizer is applied at far less than one millionth the concentration of the fertilizers humanity uses to keep its pastures on land productive. The most interesting thing about iron fertilization is that it is cheap, and leverages the earth’s natural carbon sequestration system. Russ’s work attempted to both address collapsing fish stocks, as well as global warming, and hopefully this article helps characterize the connection that exists between both of these ‘impossible problems of the commons.’ If we’re going to accept Russ’s work, we’re going to have to change how we think about the oceans, and just maybe the story of artificial manure provides a framework for doing just that. Whether or not iron fertilization is a key technology, it is interesting to consider its striking similarities to whatever it is we desperately need.

The Iron Man

The Real Story of Russ George and Iron Fertilization


The current hometown of one of the world’s most infamous geoengineer was unassuming. White Rock British Columbia was just shy of the U.S. border, it’s quiet downtown windswept and picturesque with a view of Puget Sound. The waters, dappled in winter sunlight on the day of my arrival, were an appropriate connection to the oceans that obsess Russ George. I met Russ in White Rock’s finest Jamaican Restaurant, and proceeded to sweat profusely over a plate of extremely spicy wings. Russ George had the homely style of a college professor on summer break, fit with a trimmed white beard in a loose fitting sweatshirt. He reported that he walked a dozen miles daily, and was only harassed by Canadian government officials occasionally these days, as the tirade against him dragged on into its fourth year.

In the summer of 2012, Russ was aboard a storm tossed 130 foot long  fishing boat in the North Pacific off the coast of Haida Gwaii, the beautiful austere island home of the indigenous Haida People. The ship was crewed by a small team of 12, and captained by a Russ, a scientifically minded environmentalist. There is something fundamental about a small team with purpose and grand vision. In the age of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley, they seem capable of making waves of infinite size, be they good or bad. The men and women on the fishing vessel were determined to mimic an ancient natural process, once described by Darwin as he sailed the world's seas aboard the Beagle. Darwin wrote about a storm blowing dust off the Sahara. He described how the dust coated the ship so heavily that it had to be shoveled off the deck. 200 years later, a naturalist and a small intrepid crew would also return nutrients to the ocean waves. In this instance, 100 tons of iron sulphate and other forms of iron minerals mixed to Russ’ specific formulation, and sifted into the hungry waters of the Pacific over 10,000 square kilometers  (4,000 square miles) of ocean where iron already floated in miniscule quantities alongside all the other elements known to man. The simple and studied act would inspire outrage and gleefully dramatic headlines around the world: Can We Stop Modern-Day Mad Scientists? Search warrants would be executed, and threats of litigation would be leveled against the crew. Like many a small team of warriors before them, their motivations would be questioned, their methods deemed unsound.

Perhaps iron fertilization didn’t fully penetrate public consciousness until 2012, but it was the oceanographer John Martin who declared in July 1990 at the Bretton Woods Oceanographic Conference, “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.” This ‘iron hypothesis,’ voiced twenty four years earlier, drew on the idea that the ocean is this planet’s temperature control engine. Nutrients (notably iron) are its gasoline, and plankton and the organisms they feed are pistons, capturing carbon out of the atmosphere, and in death, driving them deep into the hypoxic ocean depths. Some, led by John Martin, have argued that hundreds of thousands of years ago an asteroid, or just especially dusty conditions, fertilized the oceans causing massive plankton blooms that captured massive amounts of carbon (CO2 being the primary greenhouse gas blanket) and trapping it at the bottom of the ocean. It was plankton that ate the warm blankets off the earth, resulting in falling temperatures that left entire continents covered in ice miles thick. Regardless, the hypothesis illustrates the academically undisputed power that plankton has to influence global temperature continuously, even in the absence of galactic intervention. No one disputes plankton were primarily responsible for filling our air with oxygen over the last two billion years. One can imagine planetary temperatures rising, land based plants dying off as desertification takes hold, and dust from these deserts feeding plankton that sequester carbon at the bottom of the ocean, thus breaking the warming cycle. It was John Martin and his oceanographic peers who theorized that today there are large swaths of the ocean which fall into high-nutrient, low-chlorophyll zones where iron alone is enough to create and sustain large plankton blooms.

Of course today we have broken our planetary thermostat. In 2010, a study published in the journal Nature found that plankton levels in the ocean have declined 40% since 1950. Since the majority of carbon consuming plant life exists invisibly on the 70% of this planet that is water, this means we’ve experienced massive aquatic deforestation that outpaces anything perpetrated on land. Meanwhile, NOAA and NASA jointly reported that the ten hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998. The top three hottest years being 2014, 2015, and 2016. As we set  temperature records year after year, the situation looks ever bleaker, just as we realize that the oceanic thermostat is broken.

Russ George speaks knowledgeably in a surprisingly moderate tone (listen to our two podcasts episodes) about all of this. The calm scientifically verifiable arguments were impressive, considering the viciousness of the attacks against him in the press. The estimate by Russ and his climate change colleagues that their 100 tons of iron sequestered some tens of millions of tons of carbon with the plankton bloom that it created at the cost of only a few million dollars is less certain, but his real focus wasn’t the carbon. The name of the company he formed with the Haida People was The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, and was focused on restoring fishing grounds for the Haida People. A National Broadcasting Company article cites experts who agree that, “When plant plankton plummet, as they do during El Nino climate cycles, seabirds and marine mammals starve and die in huge numbers.” Russ' concern for aquatic life betrays the  fact that he isn’t quite the ‘American businessman’ (read capitalist oligarch) he has been painted as in the press. Despite this fact, I still told a Canadian border guard I was off to interview an American businessman, because it sounded particularly benign. Neither is Russ tenured with the institutional might of a university to fund his operations, although he has done nuclear physics work for the United States government, which looked after him as he and his US research ship were  targeted by environmental extremists in 2006, long before his work in Haida Gwaii.

Russ George’s first open iron experiment in 2002 utilized one ton of iron, and oddly enough, singer Neil Young's yacht. Young was an acquaintance George met at the docks willing to give a starving environmentalist a hand. That work earned Russ a feature in Nature, the gold standard for scientific reporting. The Haida Gwaii experiment ten years later controversially drew on funds from the Haida People, who hoped to both revitalize depleted fish grounds, and recoup carbon credits that might have been worth hundreds of millions. Hearing about iron fertilization as a means of revitalizing fishing stocks, it was The Haida who approached Russ.  They funded the work in plebiscite election with super-majority support, approving the expense while under the regulatory scrutiny of the Canadian government's Indian Affairs Ministry, which required quarterly reports from the Haida on the project for years prior to the first iron dust reaching their ocean.  Another government of Canada ministry provided a formal financial guarantee insuring the value of the potential carbon credits that would be earned by the Haida project.  But the carbon credits, which would have made the salmon restoration project financially sustainable, were forever gone following an article in the British Guardian, which Russ claims was filled with inaccuracies and downright falsehoods. This seems to have initiated a 180 degree shift in government attitude as a spotlight was shown on the operation for the first time in years, and a Canadian SWAT Team bursting into Russ' laboratory, destroying and confiscating the work of his team of scientists. In spite of this censure, the fish, so it seems, did show up.  

    The 2013 commercial Alaskan salmon catch more than quadrupled the state’s forecast of 52 million Pink salmon. 226 million fish were caught that year. This unprecedented boom, combined with satellite data, means that news organizations and even the 2016 Convention on Bio-Diversity Geo-Engineering Report, begrudgingly admit that the Haida Gwaii experiment succeeded in creating a large nourishing plankton bloom that fed an incredible number of fish. So what’s the controversy? Opponents say that iron fertilization is simply too risky.  They cite the dangerous precedence of individual nations attempting geoengineering experiments on their own. They cite how much we don’t know. Russ would say that we have studied iron fertilization for three decades without ever seeing or isolating concrete risks, and some opponents and scientists would have us studying it for another fifty. Alarmists cite concerns about ocean acidification due to dissolved carbon dioxide, although they admit that global warming and the human race is already transforming and acidifying the oceans in radical ways. Many environmentalists I spoke to simply do not want to let carbon producers ‘off the hook.’ Russ George would say that this is not a zero sum game we are playing with our planet: If carbon producers lose, we do not necessarily win. He also points out that we humans have already emitted nearly a trillion tons of CO2 into our atmosphere, and that ‘yesterday’s CO2’ is, if we do nothing, already a lethal overdose for most of ocean life as we know it. It seems likely that at the core of our resistance to iron fertilization is our aversion to introducing anything into our oceans. Dolphins with six pack rings around their beaks, and floating islands of garbage are just the kinds of iconic environmental issues on the other end of the spectrum from global warming, the ones easy to understand. We remove 75 million tons of fish annually, but god forbid we put anything back into the water to make up for the harvest. On land, we’ve come to understand the effect of soil exhaustion because we can see it, but we have no language to describe the exhaustion of the nutrients in our oceans. It’s simply not something we have any familiarity with. Also, humans simply like clear empty water, anything else scares us right down to our suspicious ancestral roots. We’re only just coming to terms with the dangers maintaining antiseptic oceans in our own bodies, let alone on our planet (see the rise of allergies and fecal transplants).

The problem with introducing the concept of ‘accountability’ into the climate change debate is that climate change will disproportionately affect the poorest billion people on this planet before it affects the rest of us. They will suffer for any the conceit of any moralizing we do. Eventually we will reach a crisis point when we won’t worry about who pays for a solution. The problem with climate change is that by the time that crisis point hits, it will be too late, Hitler will have crossed the Rhineland, appeasement will have failed. For this reason, global warming is the kind of problem we are bad at solving. We won’t feel its immediacy until after the bullet hits us.  This is also the problem with arguing to stay the course using current technology. No one today can foresee the full effect of what will happen over the next hundred years, but there is little optimism in our call to double down using current technology. Many environmentalists I spoke to confirmed that we are changing course, “from mitigation to adaptation,” meaning we have given up on stopping the dominoes from falling. We can only hope the doomsayers will be like Thomas Malthus, the 19th Century philosopher who looked at 70% of the world working in agriculture and the rising population, and predicted a future of starvation. The solutions are usually there, and today phosphorous based fertilizers and mechanized agriculture mean that 1% of the population makes four times more food than we actually eat. Despite everyone’s pessimism, the carbon futures market hums away with 6.2 gigatonnes of emission allowances, and offsets in 2015 valued at 48.4 billion dollars. Russ George says that this carbon market views a cheap solution to global warming which might reduce the marketplace of billions to millions, as a threat to be crushed. What if we put some of that money in an X-Prize to identify a carbon sequestration solution 100 times cheaper, one that gives us a fighting chance?

Whether or not a powerful cabal of vested parties have spurred negative media coverage of Russ George, it is undeniable that iron fertilization is a politically radioactive concept. This is only surprising because no one really doubts that it works, and no one can provide evidence to attribute ecological damage to the 2012 experiment, or for that matter any iron fertilization experiment. The idea that our oceans are off limits and must not be sullied with rock dust, doesn’t hold water either. We have gutted our oceans and destroyed their flora and fauna, even as we crank up the thermostat and dissolve our gases and chemicals in their waters. We found the most tangible question mark regarding iron fertilization to simply be its price tag. Russ George pegs the cost of sequestration through iron fertilization as low as a penny a ton, and says that even if it costs ten or one hundred times that, it would still be the large half of the holy grail we are looking for.  The Update on Climate Geoengineering in Relation to the Convention on Biological Diversity, who are on record in firm opposition to iron fertilization experiments, dismissed iron sequestration as costing $457 for one tonne of carbon, suggesting that it could be done for $20 per tonne with nitrogen. It is hard to identify from where these numbers come. Competing industry accepted land based techniques sequester carbon for $50 a tonne. If that price can be reduced by ten times or 100 times, let alone 45,700 times (Russ’ most optimistic estimate) without destroying our oceans, then we could prevent mass extinction, and inestimable economic and financial hardship. Berkeley estimated a 20% reduction in global GDP by 2100 due to unmitigated climate change, while Citibank threw out a 44 trillion dollar estimate of costs to be accrued by 2060, but no one really knows. The bottom line is pain, lots of pain.

As I sweated over Jamaican wings on a still cool afternoon in White Rock, Russ George smiled. “It just works. They destroyed or confiscated all of our scientific data and materials, but they couldn’t destroy the fish. The fish came back.” When asked if the world would ever see another iron fertilization experiment, the professorial grandfather in the baggy sweatshirt became mischievous. “It’s too cheap to be stopped. It’ll happen again, only bigger and better this time, and when it does, they won’t be able to deny that it works.”  If there’s any lesson I’ve learned as a combat engineer officer, it’s how hard it is to stop anyone from doing anything that only costs a few million dollars. We routinely discover North Korean tunnels under the DMZ that evade our ground penetrating radar, and that you can drive a tank through.  All Russ would need is a squad of men, a boat, one wealthy benefactor, and a little subterfuge. What seems undeniable as we reach new levels of crisis in climate change, is that if we as a species need anything, it’s the technology Russ George is describing: the ability to sequester carbon for one penny a ton, or ten pennies a ton, or one hundred pennies without destroying the environment. If we fail to find that solution, our outrage that someone would jeopardize the safety of our oceans is moot. They are being destroyed, they will be destroyed, there will be no preserving them in anything like their current state. As sweat dripped onto a spicy wing, I dreamed of that technology, and imagined that just maybe it was right under our noses all along.

 

Africa’s New Generation of Innovators

In Africa’s New Generation of Innovators from the January 2017 issue of The Harvard Business Review, the authors discuss the yet unfulfilled promise of breakaway growth in Africa. They note the retrenchment of some multinational corporations from the African continent citing corruption, lack of infrastructure, and skill shortages as to blame. The authors cite the distinction between ‘push’ and ‘pull’ investment, noting that in emerging markets innovators who develop products that consumers want to pull into their lives are successful. They cite the Taloram Company in Nigeria which controls 92% of inputs including 13 manufacturing plants, and 1000 vehicles while making $1 billion dollars in revenue annually and returning $100 million in taxes to the Nigerian government selling 4.5 billion packages of noodles for twenty cents apiece. The recipe to success described comes not from targeting the small and stagnant middle class in Africa, but by creating markets and focusing on self-reliance in defiance of gaps in infrastructure.  The authors describe the need to look for ‘nonconsumption:’ the need that is there but is not being met. They identify emotional markers such as frustration in response to unmet needs, consumers creating work-arounds, consumers bending laws, and identifying abundant or slack resources as key signals of an existing opportunity. Finally, the authors note that no formal program exists for identifying these opportunities, which is an opportunity in and of itself.  

Check out the article.

Ranger: Absurdity, Integration, and Exhaustion at U.S. Army's Toughest School

 
 

Article:

Not much has changed about Ranger School since World War II.  At 0500 the squad leader for the day kicks you. “Get up, fifteen minutes to eat an MRE and get on the line.”  Back then it would have been a C-Ration, but it’s basically the same.  1000 calories of shelf stable gruel forced down your throat. You must prolong your deliberate starvation for the amusement of your captors.  Don't bother warming up breakfast.  Your Camelbak hose is probably frozen anyway, and the water activated chemical heater only works at civilized temperatures.  Did you spend most of your time staring at trees when you were in Ranger School grandpa?  Yep?  No change there.  It was off to stare down the barrel of your rifle at trees until noon when the mission will have been planned and briefed, and we could walk for 12 hours with 100 pounds on our backs. Somewhere out there some marine infantry basic holdovers cum insurgent fighters would be waiting for us.

What happens if you stop staring at the trees? You have to get sleep on the line because everyone else does when they can, and the last thing you can be at Ranger School is weaker than the man next to you. Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne stated that sleep is a weapon, and nowhere is that lesson taught more carefully than in Ranger School. But you close your eyes and when you open them a terrifying man with a walking stick carved into the shape of your denuded skull will appear like a ghost crouched on top of you, breathing gently in your ear.  “Have a nice nap Ranger?”  You gulp, feeling your life force being forcibly sucked from your body. You deny it was good. This is of course a lie, it was a great nap.  Then you’ll realize your finger has been removed from your machine gun and placed up your nose, and then your weapon will go off, 50 rounds, fully automatic, and 50 miserable half-asleep men will start shouting the word “contact!” and running around preparing for battle.  Eventually they'll settle down and the truth will slowly filter around the perimeter. “False alarm, someone fell asleep.” There will be an audible groan as everyone wishes you death.  People tell me they’re scared of Ranger.  I tell them it's mostly just walking and staring at trees, what’s to fear?  A similar description could be made of The Bataan Death March.

A few things at Ranger have changed. In the 90s, four Rangers died of hypothermia in the swamps on one long four hour movement through the water.  They died just a few hundred meters from dry ground.  Now, the Ranger Instructors (RIs) carry little thermometers and temperature charts.  While this may reduce the chance of freezing to death, we suspected it only made our torture more scientific.  Like giving Nazi scientists scalpels and a pair of ice tongs.  The Ranger Instructors of yor had to guess what would kill Ranger.  The modern RI knows exactly how far he can abuse Ranger before he goes belly up.  If you know a human being won't die without a fleece cap until the temperature drops another five degrees, might you not be tempted to institute a fleece cap moratorium until the temp has dropped another four degrees?

Of course not, you're not a sadist, but remember that sociological experiment in the 70s where half the test subjects were made guards, and half prisoners?  The guards began to torture the prisoners.  Imagine instead if first the prisoners had been tortured, and then made into guards, and then told to uphold the sacrosanct standard of torture in the interest of protecting all that is sacred.  Imagine that the guards formed an ultra masculine club premised on how extensive that torture had been?  In Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation, a Ranger Commander recalls standing atop Point du Hoc on D-Day looking down on the bodies of his Ranger brethren and feeling angry. He was angry because he felt that his Rangers had been too well trained to be killed.  Even in death his fellow Rangers failed to escape his wrath. I read that book cover to cover waiting to go back into the swamps in the coldest cycle of the year.  I imagined myself freezing to death, and all the unpleasant things my instructors would say about me if I were to display such weakness.

On my 100th day of Ranger School I was assigned to build a memorial to the four Rangers that had frozen to death in the swamps.  Having just cleaned out an alligator pen (maintained to teach Ranger about things to avoid in the swamp), we spent a day turning a volleyball court into a three dimensional map of that fateful mission twenty years ago.  I knelt, shaping the sand with my bare hands. I traced the river where they had walked, and I would follow, emptying a bottle of blue spray paint into the sand.  Up to that point I had beaten the odds, making it straight through the forests of Ft Benning, and the notorious mountain phase at Camp Delonaga.  I had returned home triumphant for twenty unmolested days of Christmas leave, only to return for a last month in the swamps of the Florida Panhandle. There I failed, consigning myself to four weeks of on-site incarceration before I could even begin again the final phase with a new class.

It's hard to imagine another occupation in which you can be sentenced to four weeks in what closely resembles a Louisiana Chain Gang.  To fail and have to repeat a portion of the course with the next class of Rangers was called “recycling,” and we were recycles. It is an appropriate term that captures the sense that you are discarded garbage. Garbage with the distant possibility of redemption. We had No cell phones, we could not leave. We spent each day bouncing violently in the back of a truck, picking up spent ammunition and actual garbage at all the awful places we vaguely remembered having starved and shivered and promised ourselves that it was all almost over.  We fired rounds praying we wouldn't have to pick them up.  Pick up the first shell casing you know was yours brings about a feeling of despair.

Not far from the Ranger recycle barracks is a bank of six payphones, three of which are broken.  Every night between phases, the phones are shared by forty Rangers. Payphones in 2016? Presumably these are the last few payphones in America, and all the payphone repairmen are long dead.  As I wait in line watching an expert team jiggle a payphone in a specific way to get it to dial, I imagine that future Rangers will have to be taught to repair the antiquated devices.  Perhaps a Ranger will have to operate the switchboard, and when recycled Rangers show up to the recycle barracks, they will find a payphone repair manual scrawled on a roll of toilet paper, complete with illustrations of a Ranger shimmying up a telephone pole to repair a blown transformer with a pocket knife, chewing gum, and a few of his own molars.

Even more important to Ranger than sleep or contact with the outside world, is food.You are fed almost as much as you can eat in the purgatory between phases.  The transition from a phase of Ranger School itself to waiting for another to begin is similar to the experience of a German POW transferred from a Siberian work camp to an American run prison.  Under the new administration at least you are treated with benign neglect, an improvement from a decidedly fascist policy of working you to death.  During a phase, I remember laying in a dirt hole asking the man next to me why we all smelled like ammonia.  “That’s the smell of your body cannibalizing your muscles for fuel.  It’s the smell of your body eating itself.”  Starvation smells like cat urine. On recycle status you find yourself turning to the guy next to you as you fish a maggoty bag of 'Patriotic Sugar Cookies' out of a patrol base poop hole saying, “this isn't so bad, dinner’s in 45 minutes. I'm getting the chocolate pudding!”

Instead of two 1,200 calorie MREs a day during the phase itself, you eat 5,000 calories during off-cycle, and become terribly afflicted with Ranger Face, the Ranger corollary to gout.  It's the final insult in the systematic destruction of your body, where your face becomes rotund, even as your once muscular trunk remains flaccid and shrunken.  When you return to civilization people will whisper behind your back.  “He doesn't look starved, actually he looks kinda chubby.  Look at those jowls.” Naked, you look like a moldy Stay Puft Marshmallow stuck on the end of a stick, and that stick is also covered in a layer of moldy marshmallow, because your body hasn't seen the sun in months, and you are pale with a diaper rash all over that oozes irritably, causing your uniform to crust to your skin.  2,400 hundred calories a day may seem like a lot, but I went from 220 pounds to a sprightly 180 when I showed up for Christmas break after Mountain Phase.  When you burn 5,000 calories a day just carrying weight and staying warm, 2,400 calories is a crash diet.

It's at the payphones that I stopped feeling sorry for myself.  I was a 24 year old man with a college education at a good university. A month picking up garbage admittedly made me question what I was doing with my life.  Had I committed a crime?  Not as far as the Army knew, and this was an unusual prison in which you had to fight desperately to remain incarcerated. I certainly hadn't been convicted by a jury of my peers.  Yet, as we swapped stories in the payphone line, I discovered I was a young offender, serving easy time.  When at graduation a crusty circa World War II Ranger Sergeant Major asked, “who's been here the longest?” A first lieutenant with a haunted expression raised his hand.  “247 days sir.”  He'd been in my squad in Mountains, and we'd rated him number two out of nine.  What did he do to deserve such a sentence?  What separated a 62 Day tab from a 200?  It was the most discussed topic on any given night in the patrol base, apart from the recipe for a certain breakfast burrito that was passed around like pornography.  A man climbs into your dirt hole in the ground and asks, “you were saying about that breakfast burrito…”  With a sigh you reach into your pocket, pull out your notebook, and thumb to a dog eared page.  “Scrambled eggs, bacon, country gravy, onions sautéed in a cast iron pan with olive oil.  Is this where I left off?”  He nods, and settles into the mud, closing his eyes to listen.

The guys I really felt bad for had the families.  Guys with two kids and 150 days under their belts.  Guys who failed their third phase and had to explain to their sons and daughters why they wouldn't be picking daddy up on Friday.  The RIs reminded us often that nothing at Ranger compared to war.  If anything approximated its mental strain, it was our proximity to the familiar.  We drove through Floridian towns towing zodiac assault boats, filthy, laying on top of one another in the back of the truck. Night vision goggles jutted like probosces’ from our foreheads. We resembled a nest of cockroaches, a pile of dirty twitching creatures, antennas jutting every which way.  Suddenly there's mom and dad, and little Timmy with an ice cream cone behind us at a stoplight in the station wagon, staring up at us like we’re on TV.  Yes, they’re a little pudgy, and the car is a bit aged, but it’s Americana so close you can touch it.  “There it is boys, freedom.  Just jump down, get in the backseat, and tell those nice people to take you to the nearest strip club.  We'll tell the RIs you fell out and bounced into a storm drain.” I felt a little self-conscious beneath their mildly curious gaze. We were spotlit, blinking in a reminder that the world continued to operate without us.

If you google the words 'sleep deprivation,' the words 'Ranger School' will appear on the first page of search results.  Sleep deprivation turns intelligent people into idiots, and idiots into drooling wards of the community.  Presumably the Ranger obsession with sleep deprivation stems from a desire to teach Ranger the most important lesson of Ranger School, possibly even of life: do not trust anybody.  When you're hypothermic from standing guard at 2am, and you kick the frost encrusted sleeping bag of the next guard he will tell you, “alright, I'm up.”  Ranger teaches you not to believe him, because he is lying to you.  At first you know he’s lying, and you will keep kicking.  He will squirm, and protest, and you will strike him until your foot is tired.  Eventually, he will stand up and ask, “I'm up, are you happy now?”  Your teeth are chattering. You are not happy, but you're tired, so very tired, and so you go to bed.  At four in the morning an artillery simulator will explode, and an RI will begin screaming about lazy Rangers not wanting to stand guard and getting their buddies killed.  He promises to make your day a living hell. You will turn to your buddy and ask him if he woke up Jimmy after he finished his shift, and he will look at you like you've lost your goddamn mind.  “You never woke me up! Check this guy out trying to blame me for him not waking me up!” You'll realize that depending on one's definition of wakefulness, he's not lying.

If one wanted to hallucinate without the use of psychedelics, I would recommend sleeping only an hour or two a night, and spending the remainder of those evenings walking while staring through a night vision monocle with one eye.  Something about the world viewed through one eye in fluorescent green turns the mind to fantasy.  As you fall asleep, you will drift into trees and bushes and become entangled. Because Ranger cannot be trusted and likes to, in the words of one Ranger Instructor, “fuck you behind your back,” it is standard operating procedure at Ranger to tie all sensitive equipment to the body with parachute cord.  Night vision goggles are tied to swing arms, which are tied to mounts, which are tied to your chest with cord that swings obnoxiously in front of your face.  Changing leadership positions necessitates a 20 minute battle, as cold stiff fingers fumble with knots. Maps and thermals are desperately untied along with weapons, and a dozen other items specific to each role are exchanged.  

After a fall, I found myself stuck preposterously upside down with my face inexplicably tied to my knee.  Vines cover everything in Georgia.  They hold you against trees by an invisible parachute cord force field.  Eventually, like a wild animal driven mad by flies, you don't even attempt to identify the offending vine.  You thrash and swing your head wildly.  You fall to the ground and crawl through the darkness like a Disney princess fleeing a malevolent anthropomorphic forest. You become a blind wretch. These impromptu meltdowns give Ranger Instructors a dim view of their wards. Ranger will be found dragging his weapon and rucksack behind him, his night vision goggles hanging in front of his face, already in retreat long before having made contact with the enemy.

On other occasions, a tree may pretend to be your friend.  Do not be fooled.  In one instance, a sleepwalking Ranger arrived at our patrol base without his weapon.  When accosted by his horrified Squad Leader regarding the location of his machine gun, he replied indignantly that he “just handed it to a guy who said he'd 'take care of it.”  That he didn't receive a weapon in return, and was wandering the woods unarmed, hadn’t until that moment warranted his concern.  Frantically, the patrol set out searching for the missing metal, and the mysterious man who had, with his forked tongue, made off with a heavy machine gun from one of our nation's elite soldiers. Was it Al Qaeda?  Perhaps another platoon?  Or maybe this was in fact hell, as many suspected, and it was Lucifer himself, twisting the knife.

A desperate search revealed the truth. Tired of toting his weapon, Ranger had asked a nearby tree if it would be so kind as to carry his burden for just a little while.  Apparently the tree agreed, and Ranger proceeded to untie his weapon from his vest, and deposit it in the trees’ outstretched branches.  Often we help out our buddies by tying weapons off to their vests, and it appears the tree had requested this service.  The weapon was found tied responsibly to a branch.  Perhaps it also received a thankful pat on the bark as Ranger went stumbling off into the woods, finally free.

Such stories may seem absurd, but they happen.  We yell at people in the dark, and find that they are not there.  On a long road march we coast to a stop like a robot running out of power, asleep on our feet with 100 pounds on our back. I myself saw a gargoyle crawl onto the helmet of the man in front of me.  I distinctly remember thinking, ‘well, that there is a gargoyle.’ These happenings must be as old as the school itself, but change was in the air as I arrived at Ranger.

The first lady Rangers had just graduated the course, and the organization was perhaps just catching its breath in the wake of intense national media scrutiny.  As we shuffled through the in-processing lines, we spotted them, as explorers in a strange land might spot snow leopards.  

“There, that's definitely one!”

“No it's not, that's just a small man. In fact, I think that's Jim. Hey Jim!”

With shaved heads, women look very similar to men. There were probably a few smaller male Rangers who, while completing the five mile run were told, “There you go girl, you're doing great!” much to their confusion.  I suppose it would be better than being told, “go home bitch!  Your kind aren't welcome here.”  That's the kind of thing that can really mess with a guy's head. But such a comment would never be made by a Ranger candidate, as Ranger is too tired and miserable to be G.I. Jane vindictive. Under extreme duress a person’s relationship to others is reduced to a primeval question: can you help me or hurt me? Guys only stayed away from females out of paranoia that Ranger Instructors might view such fraternization as a sign of weakness. In an environment meant to drum out anything that was soft or weak, maybe associating with female Rangers felt to them like wearing their softer side on their sleeve.

What really makes The 90’s film G.I. Jane, about the fictional integration of The Navy SEALs, unrealistic, isn't that Demi Moore wouldn't be able to do that many pull-ups while remaining that busty, it's that the U.S. Navy, or Army for that matter, would never allow a male instructor to touch a female trainee.  If there's anything the modern United States military controls more minutely than gender integration, it's the policing of sexual assault.  The military loves safety, and safety briefs, and sexual assault prevention briefs have in recent years consumed a large portion of the army's briefing energies.  And for good reason.  Like the eponymous Ranger, Private Snuffy will try to fuck you behind your back.

Maybe it's the briefs that make Ranger Instructors hate lady Rangers.  In an all male platoon, a Ranger Instructor was queried about what he thought of the lady Rangers.  He replied, “those were some bad ass bitches, but they have no place in combat arms branches, and I hope they have a serious injury they don't know about yet.”  Maybe it's the embattled state of the ubermensch infantry culture that fosters the sentiment.  Few technologies have changed less than the art of having men with guns walk twenty miles to lay in wait to murder other men. This is less a Silicon Valley environment of rapid transformation, and more of an ancient fraternity like the samurai or the Catholic priesthood.

As I was bartending at The Gator Lounge, slave labor at the local Swamp Phase RI hangout while waiting for my life to begin again, the topic picked up again between two instructors.  “You don't see women playing in the NFL.  They can’t do this shit.”  Ranger School was not the NFL though.  It only takes four pounds of pressure to pull a trigger.  The American military is the over-muscled freaks of the world’s armies.  Yes, more North Vietnamese died in Vietnam than Americans, but how about pound for pound?  You don't have to be able to take a hit from a 320 pound linebacker to fight a war.  I met a twenty year old sniper just back from Afghanistan who'd proudly packed on 40 pounds taking the steroid Winstrol.  He failed out the first day of Ranger.  Yes, it's nice to be able to throw your enemy through a plate glass window with one arm when he grabs the barrel of your rifle.  I've met a guy who's done that. But not many Rangers can do that anyway.

Maybe it's the American male’s obsession with size that makes the lady Ranger an offensive creature.  Ironically though, Ranger whittles you down to what a ground fighter is supposed to look like.  Yes, you're a marshmallow perched on top of a pair of legs, but you're finally efficient.  A champion bodybuilder can burn up to nine pounds just while he's sleeping. That's why they consume casein, a slow release protein before they go to bed.  I know Soldiers who refuse to go to Ranger because it'd ruin the physiques they'd spent a decade obsessing over.  But why did you get big to begin with if not to become an elite Soldier?  I viewed this reluctance as a conceit of the ego. It seemed frivolous to spend one's life tethered to industrial sized refrigerators and fruit ninja blenders.  Green Berets fail out of the first week of Ranger School in droves. Because they spend so much time fighting wars they don't have time to work out. They spend an average of 200 days deployed, and their small biceps and guts belong to true warriors. Body dysmorphia is spread among Soldiers by hulking Hollywood killing machines with zero percent body fat. While incredible fitness is required to enter that world, eventually Soldiers have to choose between looking like a warrior and being one.

The most common complaint about the first lady Rangers was that the three who had passed were hand selected and trained specially for over a year in order to get through.  Heck, I spent the seven years since I contracted with the Army at seventeen training for Ranger, and I still barely survived the first week.  Maybe they deserved a bit of time.  How were they supposed to know to start training when the course only just integrated?

My first conversation with a lady Ranger came on one of the first few days of Ranger School.  We were broken into teams of two and sent off running a four mile course as fast as we could.  I was assigned a burly lieutenant named Jim with a slightly shell shocked expression.  His responses to my questions were monosyllabic, and it was clear that the last few days of abuse had been a shock to his system.  The first week of Ranger is the only really physically challenging portion of the course.  It's called Ranger Assessment Phase (RAP), and it tests your basic soldiering competencies like land navigation and physical fitness.  It also sees the vast majority of course failures.  My partner struggled to keep pace on the run, and we slowly fell to the back of the line.  We emerged on an apocryphal scene.  It was the middle of the night, and a field appeared out of the woods lit with bright stadium lighting.  Men crawled through water beneath barbed wire.  RIs screamed into megaphones as they sprayed Rangers with fire hoses.  This was what you thought of when you imagined Ranger School.  This was what all those Tough Mudder adventure racers paid to do.  This was just the original.

I felt a shiver of a thrill, and gave my partner an ‘isn't-this-exciting’ nudge in the ribs.  He gave me an I'm-gonna-vomit stumble.  We fell in doing pushups while getting sprayed with a fire hose.  In practice, Ranger physical fitness operates on the ‘running from a bear’ principle. You can't hold a deep squat all night, so you fake it a little better than the guy next to you.  The tendency is to get scared when an RI is making you do 50 push-ups and you're already at muscle failure falling on your face. The key is to just focus on the fact that neither can the guy next to you.  You hold onto that. You don't have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun your buddy.

At Sapper School, a similarly brutal military course, we wore chem lights around our necks. If at any moment you were deemed poorly motivated, the instructor walked over and broke your chemlight. Every morning my monster of a friend Benson would return to the barracks with a broken chem light.

“What are you doing wrong dude?”  I'd ask.

“I'm telling you, they just don't like my face,” he'd reply, miserable.

Rule number one of Ranger is look cool. If you’re not gonna do good, then look good

I ran with my little Ranger buddy, leaping over walls and frog walking between obstacles. Ranger Instructors are a little disappointed when a soldier is able to meet the requirements.  They circle like sharks, snapping at weakness.  “Do the exercise correctly Ranger!  Get fucking lower!”  When you do, they moodily break away to circle back for more vulnerable targets.  My buddy Jim was quickly attracting sharks.  His squat was shallow, and he struggled to muster a jog between obstacles.  I realized suddenly that I was invisible.  Two Ranger Instructors had taken up yelling at Jim as a full time occupation, and I was forgotten as I lunged casually along nearby.

Slowly, Jim became an inconvenience.  As he became physically unresponsive to abuse, the RIs cast about for some other means of torturing him, and spotted me nearby.  “Why are you fucking your buddy Ranger?  If you won't do the exercise correctly, your buddy will have to do them for you.  He will carry you to the light pole and back until you do the exercise correctly.”  Unhappily, I hefted Jim onto my back and sprinted to the light pole and back, depositing him gingerly like a small shaky child onto the ground, before returning to the push-up position.  Jim was also supposed to be doing pushups, but he was instead doing a sort of spasm while in the high plank.  I was bullshitting my pushups by only going halfway down, but to an uninitiated third party it would have no longer been clear what my partner was trying to do.  As soon as his arms began to bend, they snapped back to the locked position, as though this seemed to them like a reasonable range of motion.  The RIs had now taken up a unified cry, “What are you doing right now Ranger? Do you even know where you’re at right now?”  I was providing pep talks as I carried Jim again and again to the light pole.  “Hey buddy, you got to give me 100% so they’ll let us out of here, or eventually we’re going to die.”

These words were lost on Jim who had at this point taken on the vacant gasping of a fish flopping on the deck of a fishing vessel.  When he responded to the torrent of insults it was with slurred words.  Watching a fit human being worked to death isn't particularly exciting.  Eventually they don't make any sense, and you feel that they’re being deliberately obtuse.

“Do you want to quit Ranger?  Are you done with this course?”

“No sergeant, I will not quit.  I am good.”

“You’re not good Ranger, you fucking suck, but get the fuck out of my pit.”

The next obstacle was the thirty foot tall Giant’s Ladder, a ladder of boards six feet apart, rising thirty feet straight into the air.  I actually found my state of total exhaustion helpful, as it was too complicated to conceptualize a fear of heights in my fragile state.  I was quickly straddling the top beam, only to look down and realize Jim was still at the bottom.  He looked like a seal.  An awkward rigor mortis had set into his arms, which were now only about as useful as flippers.  He tried to hang on using his chin.  His hands grabbed at the planks but fell away impotently.  Despite his apparent handicaps he had made it up two rungs, about ten feet in the air.  He went for another rung and peeled off, falling lifeless, resigned to his fate on the mat below.

“You are a safety hazard Ranger, you don't even know where you are right now.”  Jim was still struggling to formulate a response as they laid him down in the back of an ambulance and took him away.  I was told, “get the fuck off my obstacle Ranger,” and when I did, I fell in with a lady Ranger and her partner on monkey bars over a pool of water. I was too heavy to feel confident on monkey bars under laboratory conditions, and in my current state, I barely made it two rungs.  The observing Instructor started asking me my number to write me a minus (like a demerit) for failing the obstacle, but then he stopped, “Where’s your partner Ranger?”

“In ambulance,” I croaked.

“Oh.  Alright, get out of here.”

When we assembled at the end of the course, I fell in next to the lady Ranger.

“How was it?” I asked.

“They gave me a minus at every station, they didn't give out any to my partner.”

“Well, it’s probably because you’re a woman,” I said.  

She nodded looking angry, but determined.  The guy in front of us turned.  “I was here last year.  RAP week didn't used to be this hard. I hear they made it harder to get rid of the girls.”

By the second week of Ranger School, only one artifact of gender integration remained.  In our small encampment in the woods, the squad leader of the day prepared to give his operations order brief.  The RI sat nearby watching.  As the squad leader began his brief, a Ranger walked up no more than 10 meters away, turned away from us, dropped his pants, and began pooping into a hole in the ground.  The Ranger Instructor grimaced.  He stopped the brief.  “Medic!” The medic came trotting over.  “You were given four ponchos weren't you?  Tomorrow you will string them up around the pit toilet at waist level.”   All five of the female Rangers that had started in our class of 400 had failed out on the three hour timed twelve mile ruck march event in the first week.  A Platoon of some thirty male Rangers had disappeared with them, felled by hundreds of squats and sprints that had lasted all the night before. Those four ponchos were all that indicated anything had changed.  Four camouflage ponchos, part and parcel to the outside world’s assault on this men’s club for carrying heavy objects long distances.  Why then was the Ranger Instructor insisting that we pull out these symbols of a meddling progress?  Had they not succeeded in their mission to stem the fall of man for at least one more class?  Stow away those ponchos and all was as it should be in this small thatch of woods, wasn't it?  It was clear that this instructor wanted to see a man poop as little as we did.  Patrolling was filthy exhausting work as it was, maybe he didn't mind a tiny iota of civility.  So he allowed this small change to make the patrol bases, where I would spend the next three months, look a little bit more like the world outside.  He must have thought, just this once, maybe it was time for a little change.

by John Bradley