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The world is not turning into a ball of fire any time soon 🎇

Plus! Insufficient one night stands, short-sightedness, and, XY or XX.

Howdy folks, here’s the agenda for my May 2022 newsletter:

  • 👓 We invented short-sightedness

  • 🏩 Insufficient One-Night Stands

  • 🧬 XY or XX

  • 🎇 The world is not turning into a ball of fire any time soon

The last piece is a bit long, so let me start off with the few shorter topics:

👓 We invented short-sightedness

I went to an appointment this morning to see about getting laser eye surgery. While reading up on it in advance, I learned that that short-sightedness appears to be a modern phenomenon associated with lots of close-up activities, or perhaps activities indoors.

Apparently more primitive tribes/groups/people who live outdoors and do less computers/reading have a lower incidence of short-sightedness.

P.S. For those interested, Peter Attia has a worthwhile podcast episode with an eye surgeon that explains lots about eye sight and laser surgery.

🏩 Insufficient One-Night Stands?

A while back, a happily married friend of mine shared a theory that men and women are having too few one-night stands.

Their rationale was that – in a world of social isolation and porn (mostly watched by men) – a one night stand is a significant step in the right direction, and requires at least a threshold amount of social skill and interaction.

It goes without saying that:

  1. As for many one-off transactions, one night stands come with risks

  2. Those in long term relationships do better in life (when measured in many ways, including the crude metric of life-time income)

Still, isolation and depression are real, and more human interaction seems to be a reasonable antidote. Of course there are many more ways to interact socially than one-night-stands – although less sex (and/or marriage/relationships?) among younger generations may be a contributing factor to worsening mental wellbeing.

One counterpoint to all of this is that computers and robots might provide greater companionship in future – although it gives me the yuch! feeling to think about how bland and impersonal a future that may be.

🧬 XY or XX

I was in Germany last week and there was a set of toilets on the third floor marked “XY” and “XX” respectively.

In parts of the world that may be seen as transphobic. In parts of the world that may be seen as annoying – particularly for those with bad eyesight (me), science education (me, in the case of biology) or a few too many drinks (not me, at that time of the day).

Of course, I accidentally walked into the toilet marked XX. (No-one was there).

🎇 The world is not turning into a ball of fire any time soon

Deaths from Natural Disasters

Are the number of deaths from natural disasters increasing or decreasing? Turns out, deaths have decreased significantly over the last hundred years. Here is a graph from “Our World in Data” – a website put together largely by Oxford researchers:

Why is this the case? Well, it seems there were a number of large droughts and floods in the early to mid 1900s that had large associated deaths – mostly in Asia:

As to why there were big floods and droughts in the early-to-mid 20th century? I don’t know. To me, it highlights how there are large variations in the world’s climate patterns and in natural disasters. This makes me want to be cautious and skeptical about attributing causation or trends.

I encourage you to browse through the full web page of natural disaster events yourself. It includes clearly presented data on how precipitation, floods, drought, storms, cycles and temperatures have evolved over the last hundred-ish years.

Al Gore wasn’t entirely wrong, but we underestimate our ability to adapt

If there’s a key takeaway from the plot of deaths from natural disasters above, it’s that – while disaster patterns have varied – humanity’s improving ability to adapt to and weather these disasters is persuasive.

A second takeaway – looking at regional variations – is that deaths vary not just by where natural disasters happen, but how well-prepared and economically strong the areas are that get hit by natural disasters. The same scale of natural disaster can lead to a very different impact in terms of death – depending on the economic development of the region.

This brings me to a point Sahil Lavignia (founder of Gumroad, and well-known young startup investor) made on his quarterly update this past week: “The world isn’t going to blow up into a fireball any time soon. It’s not that Al Gore got things wrong about CO2 emissions posing climate change risks, it’s that we underestimate humanity’s ability to adapt.” (That’s not a verbatim quote, but it’s the best I remember.)

I agree that we underestimate our ability to adapt. I go further to add that we misunderstand (or simply don’t read) historical climate data and don’t correctly put into a broader context the potential impact of higher CO2 concentrations – while CO2 emissions appear to be causing some warming (and I want to write a review article looking at different ways that is estimated), natural disasters are not yet increasing and, if they do, the impact is going to be mostly felt by countries with poor infrastructure.

So, while we should work to reduce CO2 emissions, I think the focus is far too much on hitting net zero, when I think it should be on:

  1. Strengthening the economies/infrastructure of poorer regions. This is a political question as much as anything else, and I would start by loosening immigration from those regions (so that those that want to leave, can). It’s not a direct or quick solution, but I think it helps indirectly by a) giving more people a better life and then b) those people often go back and help their original country. Importantly, it is an approach that relies on more economic growth for those countries, not less.

  2. Taking a more holistic policy view that incorporates economic progress, infrastructure improvements, natural resource utilisation (e.g. rare metals), water quality, air quality, CO2 emissions and many more aspects. As one example of nuance: When I look at “decarbonisation” of the economy to date, the biggest impact may be the years of life saved due to improvements in air quality. Likewise, the biggest benefit I see of electric cars is air quality.

Basically, I’m saying…

Net Zero is a Reductive Approach to Progress

There is a book by venture capitalist John Doerr (early Netscape & Google investor) that is called “Measure what Matters”.

The good thing about having clear metrics is that people focus on those those metrics. The bad thing about metrics, is that people tend to only focus on those metrics – at the particular expense of what is hard to measure. Even worse, there are incentives to compromise on what is not measured in order to deliver on what is measured.

This is how I feel about “net zero” as a strategy – it is a metric that causes myopic focus, at the expense of other things that matter but are less discussed like i) the rate of development of infrastructure, particularly of poor countries, or ii) the efficiency of extraction and usage of natural resources required for a net zero approach and how such trade-offs should be balanced.

Now, in any nuanced discussion on the topic of climate change, people don’t tend to take this myopic view. Many of those I discuss climate change with rightly point out that of course there are a big range of factors at play and it is me who is interpreting “Net Zero” so reductively.

My contention, however, is that the mainstream narrative today (both media and politics) is not nuanced. It is a myopic narrative of gloom: The world will soon turn into a ball of fire and human caused climate change is the main challenge of this century.

Such a narrative fails to put CO2 emissions into the broader context for challenges, trade-offs and opportunities that humanity faces. However, I see signs now of this changing for the better. Partly of necessity owing to the economic downturn, but also partly due to public fatigue, I think this narrative is correcting itself towards taking a more holistic view.

The planet is a vastly more comfortable place to live for humans than it ever has been before, and we are far more efficient in making use of natural resources than we have been before. There is a positive and realistic vision that continues along this path and extends these comforts, and more, to people across the world.

The world is not turning into a ball of fire any time soon. It is a well of human ingenuity that will take us forward.

Some other recommended reading/watching on net zero and ESG:

  • Noah Smith’s article (second half requires a subscription) arguing that with the stock market crash, companies will focus on staying alive and not have the luxury of pursuing ESG rhetoric.

  • Stuart Kirk’s (of HSBC bank) talking about how markets are *not* mis-pricing climate risk.

Okeydok folks, that’s it for this month, feel free to comment on the article on my website or reply if you have thoughts to share, cheers, Ronan

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