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.