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Private property has become so prevalent in the world that we rarely think about the commons. Most people consider the subway as a public good, it is part of “public transport” after all. But they are unlikely to recognize the space on the subway as a common, the way a community would previously have thought about a shared pasture. The COVID19 crisis is a stark reminder that commons are all around us: A single infected subway rider not wearing a mask could infect dozens of people.
- Define clear group boundaries.
- Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
- Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
- Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
- Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
- Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
- Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
- Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.
All of these are important in their own way. I am particularly interested though in their relation to ideas of privacy and power.
It is immediately clear from #5 that these principles cannot be enforced unless the community can observe members’ behavior, which in many situations will be at direct odds with privacy. For example, how do you get everyone on the subway to wear a mask without some degree of observation? Yes you could try to deputize citizens or spread a lot of observers around but you could also use face recognition technology.
What’s crucial though is the interaction with power. Many of the other principles are about limiting power. For example, according to #3 community members need to be able to participate in modifying the rules. Or according to #8 decisions should be made as local as possible. So for example, New Yorker should have a say in how mask compliance is observed and enforced on the New York subway and this should not be handled by the federal government. And New Yorkers might choose to have the city use facial recognition to observe and fine those not wearing masks.
So what’s the upshot? Communities in order to manage the commons have a right that goes above individual privacy but we need to be careful to pick the lowest possible level of government and adhere to democratic processes in order to avoid excess central power.
Now that we are finally going on lockdown here in the US in order to flatten the curve of the COVID19 crisis, we also need to take drastic measures to put the economy on suspended animation. In particular, I propose the following for the duration of the lockdown:
- Suspend all interest, mortgage, rent and similar payments
- Permit companies in non-essential industries to suspend wage payments.
- Pay everyone a Universal Basic Income of $600/month
- Federally back all health insurers and in return force them to pick up all testing and treatment expenses
The goal of these measures would be to avoid personal and business bankruptcies across the economy. At present course these would decimate small businesses and further exacerbate the income and wealth inequality.
For individuals the biggest expenses by far tend to be rent, food and healthcare. Each of these is covered by one of the points above. Rent or mortgage payments are suspended as per #1. Food can be purchased from the UBI paid under #3. And healthcare is covered under #4.
For small businesses, the bulk of fixed costs are rent, interest payments and wages. Rents and interest payment would be suspended under #1, wages could be stopped under #2.
What would happen to real estate companies and lenders under this scenario? The biggest expense for real estate companies themselves turns out to be interest payments. They would stop receiving rents but would no longer need to pay interest. Should be survivable. For lenders this would be a great situation also. Right now they are facing the loss of principal on a lot of loans but under this scenario while interest payments are suspended, there is a much higher likelihood of the recovery of principal.
Sidenote: why am I proposing less than $1,000 for the UBI? Because the other measures eliminate key expenses for many people.
Is this realistic? Well in the absence of a crisis that could result in millions of deaths in the US alone not. But under present circumstances feels doable and other nations are already headed in this direction, with France suspending rent payments.
Addendum: Some clarification based on Twitter responses. By “suspend” payments I really mean suspend without a later catch up. Instead the elapsed time should be added to contracts. So for instance if you have 36 months of interest payments in total you will still have 36 months, just with a 2-3 months break in there.
I have written a few general posts about the COVID19 crisis already. Today I want to address all of those running a company or making management decisions with a simple message: avoid generic business advice! By generic advice I mean anything of the form “do x,” such as “cut 20% of cost now.” Why? Because it may or may not apply to your specific situation.
Across the USV portfolio, the COVID19 crisis has had wildly different impact on companies. Some companies are experiencing dramatic acceleration in growth, whereas others are seeing massive slow downs. If you are providing services such as distance education, subscription food delivery or services for remote teams demand for your service has just grown dramatically. Conversely if you are relying on advertising you are probably experiencing a significant contraction.
So what then is an alternative to generic advice? First principles. These can form the basis for figuring out what to do and also for evaluating advice. A crucial first principle in business is that you cannot run out of money. Bankruptcy is an absorbing state. It means that everything ends and nothing else matters. But you have to do the work to figure out whether COVID19 means you will run out of money faster or slower than before (or not at all for that matter).
And that’s not as easy as just looking at what is happening to your demand. Why? Another first principle of business is that financing needs are determined by cash flow patterns of the operating business. A corollary to this first principle is that growth can generate or consume cash depending on your working capital situation. If you have positive working capital and grow faster you consume cash. Conversely, if you have negative working capital then faster growth will produce cash.
And even that is not as straightforward as it may seem. Why? Because in a crisis a negative working capital business can flip into a positive one (which despite the terms would be a bad thing). All of your suppliers may suddenly insist on getting paid early because they are experiencing cash flow issues of their own. Conversely depending on the position you are in you may have the opportunity to go from a positive working capital business to a negative one (for example if you are providing an essential service that customers may want to prepay to assure its availability).
So as you are analyzing the impact of COVID19 on your business approach everything from a first principles perspective. One crucial aspect of first principles is that they let you evaluate risk even when you don’t have data yet. For example, you can see that flipping from negative to positive working capital may be a risk for your business even before you have suppliers asking for different payment terms.
Nothing I have argued here is really specific to the COVID19 crisis. A first principles based approach is always superior to the indiscriminate application of generic advice. It is just that in a crisis everyone is shouting generic advice even louder than normally.
I wrote a post about flattening the curve last week. I believe this week we will see some kind of government enforced lockdown in the US similar to the one in place in Italy, Spain and France. It is really the only way left at this point to have even a chance of not completely overwhelming the healthcare system (and even that’s questionable).
So what’s next after that? The key of course as always will be innovation.
The single most urgent piece here is testing. Ideally we can get this to the point where people can test themselves, but short of that we need to broadly deploy the kind of drive-through testing that’s become common in several Asian countries.
In terms of pharmaceutical innovation, the two crucial pieces we need to race for are better treatments and ultimately a vaccine. On the treatment side there are some signs that remdesivir may help. There is also experimentation with the HIV drugs lopinavir/ritonavir, as well as reports of positive effects from the malaria drug chloroquine. On the vaccine side lots of potential vaccines are being developed but testing them will take time and finding an effective one won’t be easy.
In terms of other healthcare innovation, we will need to figure out how to rapidly build a lot more ventilators as it appears that 10% of all those infected may need it. There is at least one open source initiative underway to tackle that.
But medical innovation isn’t the only kind of innovation required. There is also innovation in many other fields.
Take education as an example. We need to figure out how people can learn from home using the many tools and services that have been developed for that over the last few years. There are several great efforts underway here, such as this website with resources for parents. Our portfolio company Outschool is actively recruiting more teachers to its platform to address the surging demand. Susan and I homeschooled our kids and we believe that’s an important innovation that can be much more widely adopted.
And then there is social innovation. It appears a crucial moment in time to trial a basic income at the Federal level. Many people cannot support themselves for even a week without income and lots of jobs, especially freelance jobs, will contract dramatically. There is already a bill developed by the Economic Security project to dramatically expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. But ideally we would go even further and just let people open accounts at the Fed that can be credited with a basic income (the same way the Fed creates money for banks).
We are extremely fortunate to have a whole new set of capabilities at our disposal for confronting this crisis. Let’s use them to be as innovative as we possibly can to help save as many lives as possible but also transform the way we live. While terrifying and coming at a huge cost, the COVID19 pandemic is also an opportunity to progress towards a World After Capital.
On February 25th we sent a Coronavirus Preparedness email to all of USV’s portfolio company CEOs. Since then it has become clear that many countries, including the US, have far underestimated the severity and spread of COVID19.
As of March 10th any company that can have employees work from home should do so. Of course that is not possible if you are operating a production facility, or distribution center, or other labor that has to be carried out in person. For those companies, they should offer paid sick leave (if it all financially possible), screen anyone coming to work for fever, use surgical masks at work and have employees wash their hands frequently (including right after arrival). Non-essential travel should be canceled for all companies.
We should also call on our mayors, governors, senators and representatives to take urgent measures, including the following:
- Transparent reporting of all cases
- Rapid, decentralized and free testing
- Free medical care for all who test positive
- Paid sick leave for anyone funded by government
- Temporary ban on all gatherings of more than 100 people
- Screening of all airport arrivals for fever
It is not too late to avoid the worst outcome, but we now all need to do our part to slow down the spread in order to avoid overloading scarce medical resources, as explained clearly by this graph
For more suggestions on what to do (and not to do), check out the Flatten the Curve website.
Disclosure: I am writing this from a family trip to Peru, which currently has 11 reported cases, but the number has been doubling so far every 2 days, so I suspect there is significant underreporting still.
At the moment it appears as if Bernie Sanders might become the Democratic nominee. Bloomberg having entered the race means that the centrist vote is split four ways between Bloomberg, Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar. On the left there are only two candidates with Sanders and Warren. A lot can still change of course, especially with Super Tuesday coming up and there could be a brokered convention. But for the sake of this post, let’s assume it is Sanders.
I would still vote for Sanders in the general election, despite disagreeing with him on a great many policies including the very idea of democratic socialism. Why? Because at the moment there are foundational principles at stake that are even more important. Trump supporters and enablers keep making excuses, but it is eminently clear that Trump is leading us down the path towards a banana republic with rampant corruption and a blatant disregard for science (e.g., climate crisis, infectious disease).
The rule of law and science have been the two pillars of widespread progress. They are why our lives today are incredibly better today than they were in the middle ages. But neither of them should be taken for granted and they can be quickly dismantled. I just finished reading Red Notice by Bill Browder (it is the monthly USV book club selection). It vividly describes the horrors of rampant corruption in modern day Russia. Putin of course is someone Trump outright admires. The pardon of Rod Blagojevich shows that there is no bottom to Trump’s willingness to weaken and abase the rule of law.
As for science it has been clear from before he even took office that Trump has no concept of how and why it matters. His ongoing dismissal of the clear evidence of the climate crisis has set back US and global efforts at decarbonization. In a complete disregard for what constitutes a real threat in the modern world, in 2018 Trump cut key contagious disease positions and never replaced them. But most importantly, Trump is fundamentally averse to criticism and works hard to suppress it. Yet it is the very ability to express critical views and dissenting opinions that is the central scientific principle that powers progress.
Much as socialism is being used as a bogeyman against Sanders, there are lots of constitutional and institutional limits to the changes that he could make as a president. Whatever else one may claim about Sanders, all evidence says he would adhere to the foundational principles on which progress has been built.
So yes, Sanders is a democratic socialist and I think that’s a deeply flawed idea. But I prefer a pro-science democratic socialist over a corrupt voodoo kleptocrat any time of the day.
We are continuing to see the COVID19 coronavirus spread around the world with a big flare up in Italy. Johns Hopkins maintains a good global map of the outbreak. There are now quite a few experts who believe that the virus may be impossible to contain and could result in a global pandemic. This is something the world is woefully ill prepared for.
The danger we are now finding ourselves in can be directly traced to our reliance on the market mechanism for allocating attention. A global pandemic is an example of the kind of tail risk for which prices cannot exist. This is a key theme of my book World After Capital and I have been using pandemics as an alternative example to the climate crisis (another, while we are at it, are asteroid strikes).
Now why am I saying this is about attention and not capital? Don’t we need way more hospital beds? Well, once a pandemic is in full swing yes we will be capital constrained for sure. But we had a long time before that to work on such things as detection and treatment. SARS, which occurred nearly two decades ago, was also a coronavirus. Since then we have had another reminder of the potential danger in the form of MERS about eight years ago.
I very much hope that the experts are wrong and that COVID19 can be contained. No matter what happens, we must learn to allocate attention to tail risk threats (and opportunities, eg. nuclear fusion) outside of the market mechanism if we want humanity to progress.
PS I also wrote a prior post that relates the virus outbreak to privacy and democracy (two other themes in World After Capital)
Today I am celebrating my 53rd birthday. I am fortunate to be doing so with friends and family and, knock on wood, in good health. This makes it all the more important to me to continue helping to fight the climate crisis. Susan and I have kicked off several projects to that end.
One of these projects has been to work with Climate Crisis Collective (CCC) to build better technology for decentralized climate movements, such as Fridays for Future, Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion. We realized that these movements are crucial to achieving the level of collective action that is required.
Below is a deck that walks in detail through what has been done so far. CCC has taken a user centric approach, observing organizers to understand their technology needs. From this have come a variety of projects, including big improvements to Action Network that have already shipped and are saving organizers a lot of time and resulting in better data quality.
There is a long roadmap of additional features and pieces of software to be built. So for my birthday I am asking everyone to make a contribution to Climate Crisis Collective (tax deductible, in case you were wondering). Thanks!
I have written and spoken a lot about how technological progress is incompatible with privacy. One example I have used is someone bioengineering a virus in their basement. It turns out a much simpler example is what we are seeing today: a new virus that’s spreading. We cannot both have fast, easy international travel and also have privacy of travelers. If you travel and later come down with the coronavirus, we need to know where you went and who else may have been exposed. At a minimum society needs to be able to notify fellow travelers. Obviously in a situation like this we should also much more rapidly restrict travel than we have done.
At the same time the new coronavirus also perfectly illustrates why technological progress means we need well functioning democracies more than ever. Authoritarian governments always will suppress news that doesn’t fit with their preferred narrative, even when that news could save thousands or even millions of lives. The initial reporting of the new coronavirus by Li Wenliang was suppressed by the local government. Sadly, yesterday he himself passed away from the disease. Because of much improved internal travel within China the outbreak was able to spread further and faster than it would have in the past. The initial suppression of the news may well be the reason for why this outbreak potentially cannot be contained at all.
Here is a talk I gave at Blockstack Berlin a couple of years back that lays out some of these ideas:
The Democratic primary is coming into focus and it is not a pretty picture. Essentially the choice comes in two groups: incrementalists (Biden, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, Klobuchar) and socialists (Sanders, Warren). The incrementalists want to go back more or less to the Obama years, while the socialists want to go back to the 1970s in Europe. For the incrementalists digital technology is nothing special and for the socialists it is mostly an evil to be fought.
Then there is the one exception, the one candidate who has a plan that recognizes we no longer live in the industrial age and that digital technology can be harnessed for broad wellbeing: Andrew Yang. Andrew’s platform builds around Universal Basic Income to develop a broad program that is beautifully captured by the campaign slogan of “Humanity First.”
When he first announced his campaign, Andrew was roundly ignored. Then there was a fair bit of making fun of his candidacy. Then of course came the concerted effort by MSNBC and others to undermine Andrew’s campaign by simply not reporting on it. So we have been through the first three stages of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.“
Of course we don’t know yet what the fourth act of Andrew’s candidacy will be, but if you want to learn more, I encourage you to check out the campaign’s Youtube channel. Here is a great place to start:
And if you like what you see donate to the Yang 2020 campaign.
I have written previously about the need to regulate the use of facial recognition technology. The calls for regulation have become stronger in the wake of Kashmir Hill’s New York Times article about Clearview AI. It is extremely important to get this right. Here are a few more thoughts based on the article to add to my prior post.
First, it should be clear by now that it has become almost trivial to build a system like this. A lot of open source frameworks and neural networks have been made available that can be trained for face recognition. Clearview AI did not have to come up with some technological breakthrough, they just had to point existing technology at image sources (web scraping is also widely available).
Second, not surprisingly, the article mentions instances of the system being used successfully. Recognizing who someone is constitutes an essential part of investigative police work. If you live in New York, as I do, hardly a day goes by where there isn’t video footage of a crime such as a robbery show on television with a call to the public to identify a face.
What then does this mean? We have technology that can easily be built and that can readily help with legitimate police investigations. This are the good use cases. Then there are of course tons of ways to abuse this very same technology. For instance a police officer might use it to track down whom a former girlfriend (or boyfriend) is now dating. And by now we also have overwhelming evidence that the technology in its present state has big bias problems.
So the challenge is can we find a way to improve and apply this technology that maximizes its positive uses and minimizes its abuses? I believe this is possible. I also believe this will take time and deliberation. One idea is to set up a new agency specifically to deal with these kind of technologies used for domestic law enforcement. This could be at the state level. The law creating such an agency should focus on protecting due process (e.g. requiring a real court order, not something secret like FISA) and should set a high bar for transparency, such as how many requests were made in a time period as well as accuracy.
I am suggesting this because the existing agencies, including police departments, have all been set up before this technology has been available and have no legal safeguards and processes built in. Retrofitting them will be nearly impossible. And we shouldn’t try. We have seen what happens when we give new unchecked capabilities to police departments in recent years with equipping ever more police departments with SWAT teams.
PS What to do about individuals having facial recognition apps on their phones is a whole different story that I will write about separately. The reason to draw a clear distinction here is that individuals do not have the power of the state.
For any billionaire out there: fund nuclear fusion now! Consider this: the people who fund successful nuclear fusion are guaranteed a spot in the history books. And that spot will be immediately followed by spots for anybody else who spent serious money ($100 million+) and did not succeed. Why? Because clean electricity is absolutely crucial to fighting the climate crisis.
Is this realistic? Can we achieve nuclear fusion in our lifetimes? Having looked into the state of research, I believe it is entirely possible to get to deployed nuclear fusion within a decade provided that we take enough well funded shots on goal. We need to pursue many different technologies, including more attempts at inertial confinement using lasers.
The reason to be optimistic is that there has been important progress. Much of it has come from innovation in other fields that provide enabling technology. For example, something called REBCO tape, which was originally developed for MRI machines, allows for stronger magnetic fields which in turn makes much smaller fusion spaces possible. Similarly, inertial confinement approaches to fusion have benefitted greatly from the massive advances in laser technology. The Physics Nobel Prize in 2018 was in fact awarded for just this progress in laser intensity.
Now of course I would be delighted for governments to spend more here and pull together the equivalent of multiple Manhattan Projects. We absolutely need it. But at the moment governments are slow and hidebound and have focused all their fusion activity on a few mega projects, such as ITER. This is why people with a big checkbook have the unique opportunity of making an actual difference.
Added bonus for billionaires: you’d have something actually useful to point to as the discussion about wealth continues to heat up.
To make it easy, here’s a list of commercial fusion projects I am currently aware of (if you know of others please let me know)
Disclosure: Susan and I are personal investors in Marvel Fusion
In yesterday’s post I summarized the 2010s as fighting past battles that keep us stuck in the industrial age.
The agenda for the 2020s should be about inventing the knowledge age instead. The suggestions here draw heavily on my book World After Capital.
So without further ado, here are six key areas to work on in the 2020s.
1. FIGHT THE CLIMATE CRISIS
If we don’t get on top of the climate crisis, nothing else will matter, so I am putting this one first.
Do: Join or support Extinction Rebellion, the climate movement with the clearest theory of change rooted in non-violent direct action.
Fund: If you have lots of money, invest in nuclear fusion now. We need many shots on goal (separate blog post forthcoming). But lots of ways you can fund the fight against the climate crisis, including supporting Extinction Rebellion, and signing up for or even setting up community solar. As for venture funds, there is tons to back and we are starting to do so at USV (blog post on that coming soon). Finally, we badly need more geoengineering research and that is poorly funded at the moment.
2. DEFEND DEMOCRACY
Too many people seem to believe that we can accomplish major change only by reverting to some kind of autocracy. But even if democracy is messy, tyranny is never the answer.
Do: Vote. Far too many young people are not voting and then are somehow surprised that the election outcomes don’t reflect their interests. If you are anything other than a lawyer, but particularly if you are a scientist, run for office.
3. PROMOTE UNIVERSAL BASIC INCOME
Universal basic income (UBI) is a cornerstone policy for getting out of the industrial age into the knowledge age. UBI is no panacea but it breaks the job loop which currently has people trapped.
Do: Volunteer for Andrew Yang’s campaign. Andrew is the only presidential candidate supporting UBI.
4. FOSTER DECENTRALIZATION
Do: Buy some bitcoin. Use or build decentralized apps (on systems such as Blockstack, Algorand, ARweave, Filecoin, etc.) Move away from Google, Facebook, Amazon wherever you can and use alternatives such as Duck Duck Go. Note to self: I should have used IndieBound links for all the books throughout this post.
Fund: Open source projects via Open Collective. The blockchain foundation layers are coming along nicely, now there is lots of need to invest in decentralized application development (for example, list of Blockstack apps).
5. DEVELOP MINDFULNESS
Do: Develop your own mindfulness practice (if you don’t already have one). Doesn’t matter what it is – for some people it is yoga, for others running. Breathing exercises is what works for me.
Fund: Research into psychedelic drugs. This may seem like a non-sequitur, but it seems that these do offer a crucial shortcut to experiencing egoless states.
6. RESUME LEARNING
Do: If you have children, homeschool them. Commit to learning something new yourself. If you are an entrepreneur, start a freelearning company – here is a list of ideas.
On each of these I am excited for feedback from readers, including suggestions for what else to read, do, or fund.
Of course there are many other things you could do to advance the knowledge age so please contribute those also – getting out of the industrial age is a massive multi generational project.
Let’s get going!
On this last day of the 2010s here is a recap with a single theme: we are fighting the battles of the past instead of inventing the future. We are doing that at a time when humanity is facing an extinction level threat in the climate crisis that also represents our single biggest opportunity for transformation.
The ongoing debate about capitalism versus socialism is fundamentally caught up in the industrial age. It assumes that ownership and control of physical capital are paramount at a time when our attention is the real scarcity.
The application of antitrust to concentrated digital power is like using a hammer to drive a screw. It harkens back to scale economies at a time when network effects are the true source of power.
The push for privacy legislation fails to recognize that advanced technology and privacy are incompatible (e.g., we carry a personal radio beacon at all times). The results, such as GDPR, wind up further ensconcing the power of a few corporations (and of the state).
The resurgence of nationalism comes at at time when all the big problems are global. The climate crisis, corporate taxation and infectious disease do not stop at borders but instead require nations to work together.
The debate about growth and whether productivity has stagnated are stuck on measuring growth by GDP at a time when digital goods are creating massive consumer surplus.
We are even expending energy on fighting over who gets to call themselves a man or a woman at a time when we can edit the genome.
We are effectively fighting over where to sit on the Titanic. These fights are as vicious as they are exactly because we are frustrated that the ship is going down and want to be right about something, anything. Eke out a victory, however small, to feel good, at least for a moment.
Unlike the Titanic, we actually have the ability to save ourselves. But doing so will require embracing a new vision of what can be next for humanity, after we leave the industrial age behind.
Tomorrow I will write about how to engage in the 2020s to help move us towards what I call the Knowledge Age.
(Follow up post: An Agenda for the 2020s)
I am spending the last two days of the decade cleaning up. We moved into our current place about 8 years ago and have accumulated a lot of stuff during that time period. It will be interesting to see how far I get but I am planning to at least sort out all my clothes and electronics. While I won’t go for a strict Marie Kondo approach, I tend to err on the side of getting rid of more rather than less. Thankfully the weather here in New York is being fully cooperative with cold rain that makes staying inside a rather pleasant option. Stuff tends to clog everything, including the mind, and so I look forward to increased clarity.
Here is a picture halfway through our bedroom – the two bags on the side will go to donation (perfectly good clothes but I just haven’t worn in a long time). Susan is also going through all of her things
Now if only we could get the kids to join the effort …
Today is the impeachment vote in the House of Representatives. It will be fascinating to see if any Republicans at all will support impeachment in the House. In an extraordinary display of abdication of any allegiance to the United States constitution, Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham have already indicated that they have no interest in conducting a fair trial in the Senate but will instead take all their cues from the White House.
The damage that the Republicans are doing here to our democracy is hard to overstate. Democracies work through the rule of law and the functioning of institutions. No matter how much you believe that this impeachment should not go to trial, once the House has decided on it, the Senate should live up to the oath of affirmation that the constitution sets out for this occasion (and this occasion only).
So the pre-announcement by Republican leadership that they have no intention of conducting a fair senate trial should further strengthen individual Republican’s to vote their own conscience, instead of blindly following leadership. Here is a beautiful speech from Larry Hogan before the vote on the Nixon impeachment
Sadly I fear that no Republican will find it in themselves to show that level of calm, dispassionate and independent reason.
Last week I started digging into electricity as part of my posts the climate crisis. Today’s post continues that by looking at the potential increases in the demand for electricity from moving transportation to electric vehicles (EVs). To start with, it is quite difficult to wrap one’s head around just how much we drive in the US. In one year there are about 3.25 trillion (yup trillion) vehicle miles. I have found it difficult to find a recent breakdown of that by vehicle type, but in 2016 about 9% of that was trucks (I will use 10% as a first approximation) and the rest passenger cars.
There are fewer than 2 million EVs on the road in the United States today, which is less than 1% penetration. So again as a first approximation I will simply assume that all the vehicle miles have yet to be converted from gasoline to electric. So what does that look like in the US? An EV gets somewhere between 2.5 and 5 miles per kWh (Model X versus Leaf). I will use 4 miles per kWh. Now putting it all together for passenger cars:
0.90 * 3.25 * 10^12 miles / (4 miles / kWh) = 0.73 * 10^12 kWh
To move all passenger car traffic in the US to EVs we need to come up with an additional 0.73 trillion kWh hours of electricity. To put this in perspective we currently produce about 4.18 trillion kWh of electricity annually in the US, so we are looking at roughly a 17% increase.
Keep in mind though this was just passenger cars. Coming up with an estimate for trucks is a bit harder as there really aren’t any production electric trucks yet, so YMMV (so to speak) with the following. Based on the specifications of the Volvo FL Electric Truck, I am estimating 1km or 0.62 miles per kWh
0.10 * 3.25 * 10^12 miles / (0.62 miles / kWh) = 0.52 * 10^12 kWh
That’s another 12% or so increase in the total required electricity generation.
So together we are looking at about a 30% increase in electricity demand to move all of our cars and trucks away from fossil fuels. Not impossible at all, but also not easy. Now please keep in mind that, though that today our electricity production is still over 50% from fossil fuels.
So that starts to give us a better handle of the true scale of the issue of getting away from emissions. And as we will see in an upcoming post, it doesn’t stop there, when we take into account electrifying building heating. Now to be clear, I am not at all suggesting all of this electricity for EVs needs to be centrally generated and distributed in the current model. Also, some EVs may use fuel cells. But it still paints a picture of the magnitude of the challenge.
In order to understand solutions to the climate crisis, including the potential role of nuclear energy, it is essential to understand our current and future demand and supply of electricity. There are of course entire books that have been written about just small subtopics of electricity, so please consider this post as a guidance.
Electricity is the most refined and concentrated form of energy available to us. We can adjust its use in extremely small quantities. We can store it. We can generate it directly from sunlight without moving parts. We can transmit it in automated fashion over long distances (admittedly with losses). We can use it to easily create light, heat, force, computation. We simply have no other form of energy that comes even close to it. Electricity is a fundamental aspect of nature (it is one of the quantum fields) and our abilities to understand and use are the result some of the most beautiful breakthroughs in science.
So where we use electricity today in the United States? Here is a breakdown by major category over time
Several points here are important. First, we have massively increased our electricity demand since the 1950s. Second, the demand has actually been flat for about a decade, but has just started to tick up. Third, industrial use is smaller than one might have expected but is still about a quarter of total. Fourth, transportation use is tiny so far.
Let’s double click for a moment on the residential consumption. What do households use electricity for?
As it turns about half is used for some form of heating or cooling. Lighting accounts for a paltry 6.2% and all other uses is a massive category of nearly 40%.
What about the commercial sector? It looks like this
Here the heating and cooling use cases add up to a bit shy of 40%. Lighting plus office equipment including computers make up about a quarter. Again the all other use category is quite big at over a third.
Now before going into why these demand patterns are likely to change, here is a breakdown of where electricity comes from in the US over the last two decades
While this a bit small one can see quite clearly that in the US the biggest components of electricity generation are still carbon based. Thankfully there is a big reduction in coal (the coal), much of that has been compensated by increases in natural gas. And while solar has been growing (the light blue line) it is still small. Nuclear, the yellow line has been flat, but is a meaningful component of US electricity production.
In the next post, I will look at why the demand for electricity will have to increase substantially if we want to emit less carbon. And as should be obvious from the chart immediately above, we have a long way to go to make cleaner electricity in the US.
The word “growth” has become one of the focal points of the climate crisis debate. There are those who are worried that pricing carbon will slow down economic growth. And there are those who believe that the only way we can overcome the climate crisis is through degrowth. I fear that most of those debates will be people shouting past each other as the word growth has come to capture entire philosophies of thought. And so instead of having meaningful in-depth arguments about what kind of society we want, we dig into entrenched positions that suggest there simply cannot be common ground between people who disagree about growth.
In my podcast episode with Jason Jacobs I said that we have to stop praying at the altar of GDP. That could be interpreted as putting me in the “degrowth” camp. I want to unpack what I meant and how I think about growth. There are many things that we could grow, some of which we absolutely need to and others which hare highly dubious. The problem with GDP as a measure is that it draws no distinction between these.
Things we absolutely need to grow
- Knowledge (e.g. how to build nuclear fusion)
- Infrastructure (e.g. transportation)
- Purpose (e.g. what each one of us is here for)
- Wellness (e.g. cheaper more accessible healthcare)
Things we can almost certainly stop growing or even degrow
- Time spent working dangerous, boring jobs (e.g., anything we can automate)
- Excessive consumption (e.g. living in McMansions, hundreds of pairs of shoes)
Things we definitely, urgently need to degrow
- Greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. actually reduce CO2 in the atmosphere)
This list is not supposed to be exhaustive, it is just meant to show that once you add some detail around growth you can get past the idea that you have to be either for or against growth.
Now I suspect that the one item on the list above that may strike some people as controversial is the “Excessive Consumption” one. Their objection will be: who gets to define that? In World After Capital, my answer is that I believe individuals can come to realize that this does not actually contribute to living a good life. That we can go back to drawing a clear distinction between needs and wants. And that we can build a culture that celebrates this kind of self limitation – which is incidentally what we have had several times before (on this point I recommend both Limits by Giorgos Kallis and How Much is Enough? by Edward and Robert Skidelsky).
People who want to fight the climate crisis tend to agree on a lot of things, but nuclear power turns out to be a highly divisive issue. In this series of posts I will use nuclear power to refer to fission – I will write separately about the prospects for fusion.
There are several reasons given by people who object to nuclear power, including high cost, risk of accidents and concerns about storage/usage of radioactive materials. Conversely, advocates of investing more in nuclear power point to the need to replace coal and gas plants in providing base load electricity.
Of course a great deal has been written about these questions by people far more knowledgeable than myself. So why write YMBP (yet more blog posts)? First, because writing is a way for me to wrestle down information so that I better understand it myself (and I also tend to learn new things from comments). Second, because there is always the chance that my posts will help elucidate the issues for at least some others as well.
Let me state my current views upfront, so that you can know my biases while reading the posts: we need more nuclear power in the near term, to bridge into a future where we will not require it. If you have followed my posts on the climate crisis, you will already know that I consider it both the biggest threat and the biggest opportunity for humanity. As such, I believe that we need to use all the technologies available to us – including nuclear power – to their fullest extent, while also being mindful of the problems they each have.
My rough plan for this series of posts is as follows. I will start by looking at the supply of and demand for electricity in a scenario where we rapidly shut down coal and gas plants while simultaneously switching home heating and transportation to electricity. I will then discuss why other options (including wind and solar) are unlikely to be able to fill the resulting gap without additional nuclear power. I will then look at our understanding of radiation, which is central to many objections to nuclear power including high cost and examine those objections more closely. Finally I will suggest ways of furthering nuclear power.
I may of course switch this up depending on what I feel like when writing and based on feedback. So if you have suggestions or questions, please let me know.