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March 23, 2010

New Fast Company: World Water Day

My latest Fast Company piece went up last night, in commemoration of World Water Day 2010. This was the perfect opportunity to talk a bit about my time at the LAUNCH inaugural event, which focused on -- surprise -- water. In the essay, I talk a bit about three of the ten innovative ideas we got a chance to explore at the LAUNCH meeting. Here's one:

Dutyion Root Hydration System, a mouthful of a name for something that's actually pretty remarkable. The system takes a specialized form of hydrophilic plastic and converts it into heavy-duty tubes suitable for below-ground irrigation. If you run saltwater (or similarly brackish/unusable water) through the tubes, the plastic wicks the water out as vapor, permeating it into the soil, which can then support many kinds of food crops and trees. That is, this plastic would let you irrigate orchards and farmland with sea water.

There are still plenty of questions, most critically about how long the plastic lasts and how to bring down production cost (it's not cheap, at present), but the utility of something like would be enormous. Test uses in the Middle East have already shown quite a bit of promise; one use that could be of particular value would be to maintain trees to fight desertification.

This was actually the first item we talked about at LAUNCH, and it really set the tone for the meeting. A technology in the early stages of development, with some good test results already available, and with incredible potential for transforming the landscape. The pilot projects really underscore just how powerful this kind of tech might be: rows of fruit trees growing in the sands of Abu Dhabi, watered only by seawater pumped from the Gulf through the dutyion tubes. As I say at the end of the Fast Company post:

    On this World Water Day, 2010, it's hard not to feel a bit of hope for the future.

March 22, 2010

Getting it Right

Screen shot 2010-03-13 at 12.35.20 PM.PNG

A Survival Guide to Geoengineering, my essay for Momentum, the journal of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, is now available online and via PDF. It's an exploration of what would be necessary to reduce the risks associated with geoengineering, if (or, sadly, when) it gets deployed. This essay served as the basis of the talk I gave at the State of Green Business Forum last month.

The first part of the essay is a recap of the main issues around geoengineering -- the kinds of proposals out there, the uncertainties involved, and the political dilemmas. But the real focus is the list of five key steps that I believe to be mandatory to steer us away from the worst potential results of geoengineering:

  • Transparency
  • Ongoing international advisory group
  • A bottom-up "Ecoscientists without Borders"
  • Clear mechanisms for resolving disputes
  • Ban (with teeth) on non-state projects

Interestingly, when I gave the talk in February going over these ideas, the last is the one that I got the most push-back on. I suspect that, once real mechanisms for monitoring and managing global climate systems are in place, non-state projects could be useful and warranted. For now, however, it seems clear that non-state groups acting independently are more likely to lead to inter-state disputes than any persistent moderation of temperatures or carbon.

March 18, 2010


Shuttle Launch Pad (big)I spent the last three days at the Kennedy Space Center, for the inaugural meeting of the LAUNCH organization. We talked water, and saw some pretty interesting -- and occasionally remarkable -- innovations and proposals. I'll have more to say about them in a bit, but for now...

I grew up a space geek (and dinosaur geek, etc.), so the visit to KSC was a welcome reminder of those feelings. We didn't just get the basic tour; we actually got some behind-the-scenes stuff that was just amazing (and, because the shuttle program is ending soon, won't be replicable for much longer). We got to go into the shuttle processing facility, where one of the shuttles (in this case, Endeavor) gets cleaned and fixed and otherwise readied for an upcoming launch. This meant walking around beneath the shuttle, right below the heat-resistant tiles (and occasionally spotting when one of them needed to be replaced).

The photomontage at right was taken of the shuttle Discovery, set to launch in the next few weeks; I took the pictures while we were parked in the blast zone, where flames from the engines go in the initial moments of take-off. Anything in this zone would be instantly incinerated -- and even the fencing a few hundred yards behind us was bent and blackened.

(You can see all of the pictures I've made public at this link on Flickr.)

Even the normal tour items were pretty amazing -- the Saturn V rocket engines, the actual Apollo mission control consoles, and a piece of the Moon.

That you can touch.

And I did.

As astounding as it all was, there was a subtle melancholy there, as well. The Constellation program to return to the Moon was canceled in the most recent NASA budget (with the money redirected to more robotic missions and long-range research, so I'm actually in full approval), and the engineers we spoke to all made a point of mentioning it unhappily.

But beyond that was the recognition that the massive rockets and space-stations programs are the apotheosis of 20th century engineering. These are artifacts of yesterday's version of tomorrow, the mechanistic urge on an unthinkable scale. And such remarkable, complex systems are ultimately tied to a worldview and process that celebrates the centralized and the controlled in an era that is increasingly neither.

The future of human civilization, in the end, lies in space. But getting there, and staying there, will look nothing like the heady visions of Apollo.

March 10, 2010

Cool Project #3: Social Business Edge

yUgeP.Screen shot 2010-03-09 at 07-41-15.pngOn Monday, April 19 (yeah, just two days after the UCSC thing), I'll be speaking at Social Business Edge in New York City, a new (and hopefully recurring) event looking at the intersection of business innovation and social media.

Certainly what is going on today is more than just social media marketing, limited to marketing and community outreach efforts. Some of the leading thinkers in this area believe that we are at the start of something much larger than a retake on marketing. We are seeing a rethinking of work, collaboration, and the role of management in a changing world, where the principles and tools of the web are transforming society, media, and business. The mainstays of business theory — like innovation, competitive advantage, marketing, production, and strategic planning — need to be reconsidered and rebalanced in the context of a changing world. The rise of the real-time, social web has become one of the critical factors in this new century, along with a radically changed global economic climate, an accelerating need for sustainable business practices, and a political context demanding increased openness in business.

Assembled (and hosted) by my friend Stowe Boyd, Social Business Edge includes a pretty good variety of speakers. Stowe has decided to do this in something of a "talk show" format, so use of powerpoints will be limited, and the presentations will be more conversational than formal.

The event isn't free, but it is pretty reasonably priced for something like this. If you're in the area, and are interested in the future of social media, I think you'll find this quite valuable. Hope to see you there!

Cool Project #2: UC Santa Cruz "Intellectual Forum"

As you might know (especially if you've read my bio), I went to college at the University of California at Santa Cruz, receiving a double-BA in History (with a focus on 20th century revolutionary movements) and Anthropology (with a focus on human evolution). UCSC was a terrific place to get an education, due to (at the time) its use of narrative evaluations rather than letter grades, the deep commitment on the part of the faculty to undergraduate education, and its general spirit of enlightened experimentation. Although UC Santa Cruz has changed over the 22 years since I left, I still have real affection for the place.

So when UCSC contacted me about speaking at an upcoming event, I jumped at the opportunity to give something back.

On Saturday, April 17, I'll be one of the three featured speakers at what they're calling the "Intellectual Forum," part of the 2010 Reunion Weekend "Day by the Bay."

What does the future look like?

Three UCSC alumni explore the next generation of communities, work and health care, offering fascinating insights into the way we’ll live our lives:

Jamais Cascio (Cowell, anthropology and history ’88)
Writer, leader, and visionary, Jamais will share scenarios of the future that cross the boundaries of technology, the environment, and society. Research Fellow, Institute For The Future. Named by Foreign Policy as one of the top 100 global thinkers and a "moral guide to the future."

Shannon Brownlee (College Eight, biology ’79)
Nationally known writer and essayist whose book, Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer was named the best economics book of 2007 by the New York Times.

David Bank (Oakes, politics ’82)
Vice President, Civic Ventures. A veteran journalist, Bank was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal for nine years, covering Silicon Valley and the software industry. His book, Breaking Windows: How Bill Gates Fumbled the Future of Microsoft (Free Press) was named one of the "Best Business Books of 2001" by the Harvard Business Review

The event is free, although you'll need to register. And don't blame me for what they're calling it.

Cool Project #1: LAUNCH

Launch Logo.jpegI'm honored to have been asked to serve on the advisory council for LAUNCH, a group looking to support innovative ideas for sustainability. Sponsored by NASA, the US Department of State, US Aid for International Development, and Nike(!), LAUNCH is intended to give good ideas the assistance -- financial and otherwise -- necessary to move from concept to plan to implementation.

LAUNCH will identify 10 innovative, often disruptive world-class ideas, technologies or programs that show great promise in making tangible and impactful progress for society in each of the key challenge areas. These innovators will be invited to be part of the LAUNCH Sustainability Forum which is a high-level impact event where they present their innovative ideas to LAUNCH and engage in a collaborative discussion.

The event however, is just the starting point, post-event the Innovators will become part of the LAUNCH Accelerator, an on-going effort which utilizes the collective power of the networks, resources and expertise of the LAUNCH organization to create and execute an action plan accelerating them from where they are to where they need to be to successful have a positive impact on global sustainability.

The first meeting will be about water-related innovations; you can see the list of ideas we'll be talking through here.

My fellow LAUNCH Council members are all brilliant and insightful, and I'm gobsmacked to be a part of this group.

March 9, 2010

Pushing Back Against the Methane Tipping Point

(This is a long piece, but I'm putting it all on the front page because it's a massive issue.)

A piece in the latest issue of Science shows that there's a considerable amount of methane (CH4) coming from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, where it had been trapped under the permafrost. There's as much coming out from one small section of the Arctic ocean as from all the rest of the oceans combined. This is officially Not Good.

Here's why: methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, significantly more powerful than carbon dioxide. There are billions of tons of methane trapped under the permafrost, and if that methane starts leaking quickly, it would have a strong feedback effect -- warming the atmosphere and oceans, causing more methane to leak, and on and on. The melting of methane ice (aka "methane hydrates" and "methane clathrates") is probably the most significant global warming tipping point event out there. If we see runaway methane from underneath the Siberian permafrost, we could see temperatures increasing far faster than even the most pessimistic CO2-driven scenarios -- perhaps as much as 8-10° C, very much into the global catastrophe realm. To put it in context: rapid methane releases have been implicated in extinction events in Earth's geologic past.

(Here's one piece of mitigating information: it's unclear how long this methane leak has been happening, or the degree to which the measured methane levels exceeds previous amounts. If we're lucky, this is actually a status quo situation, and we still have time before we reach a tipping point. But basing our strategy on "if we're lucky" is not very wise.)

Because of this tipping point/feedback process, a runaway methane melt won't stop on its own. When I've written before about desperation as a driver for the rapid (and risky) implementation of geoengineering, this is precisely the scenario I had in mind. If this news holds up, and if it can be shown that the methane leak is actually increasing, then I believe that we are certain to engage in geoengineering, and probably will do so before we have enough good models and studies to suss out any unwanted consequences. We'd be faced with a choice between guaranteed catastrophe or terrible uncertainty.

We'd probably try every geoengineering option available in the event of a methane runaway, but the one that most people would focus on would be the temperature management strategies: stratospheric sulfate injection, seawater cloud brightening, and (unlikely to happen but certain to get a lot of media attention) orbiting reflectors. But there's one more method we should consider. Understanding its potential requires a bit of science talk.

I noted earlier that methane is a "significantly more powerful" greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. More specifically, it's at least 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2; some reports (such as the first piece I linked to above) cite it as 30x stronger, and I've been seen as much as 72x stronger. The difference comes from how the effect is measured over time -- methane and carbon dioxide leave the atmosphere at very different speeds. Although CO2 takes upwards of a century to cycle out naturally, methane takes only about ten years. Why the difference? Chemical processes in the atmosphere break down CH4 (in combination with oxygen) into CO2+H2O -- carbon dioxide and water. In addition, certain bacteria -- known as methanotrophs -- actually consume methane, with the same chemical results. These processes have their limits, however; an abundance of methane in the atmosphere can overwhelm the oxidation chemistry, making the methane stick around for longer than the typical 8-10 years, and the commonplace methanotrophic bacteria evolved in an environment where methane emerges gradually.

These are pretty much the only two natural methane "sinks." There are a few small-scale human processes that can make use of methane (for the production of methanol for fuel, for example) and function as artificial sinks, but such efforts would be hard-pressed to capture methane released across two million square kilometers. So here's where we start to think big.

Both of the natural processes are, in principle, amenable to human intervention. The oxidation of methane into CO2 and water is a well-understood phenomenon, and relies on the presence of OH (hydroxyl radical); upwards of 90% of lower atmosphere methane is oxidized through this process (PDF). But OH is something of a problem chemical, in that it's also a key oxidation agent for many atmospheric pollutants, such as carbon monoxide and NOx. Although we could produce OH to enhance the natural chemical oxidation process, the side-effects of pumping enough OH into the atmosphere to oxidize all of that methane would be unpredictable, but almost certainly quite bad.

So what about methanotrophic bacteria? Such bacteria have long been recognized in freshwater areas and soil, and have had limited use in bioremediation efforts. Methanotrophic Archaea -- similar to bacteria, but a wholly different kingdom of organism -- were recently identified in the oceans; research suggests that methanotrophic Archaea may be responsible for the oxidation of up to 80% of the methane in the oceans. Methanotrophic microbes can also be temperature extremophiles, as they were among the various species found after the Larsen B ice shelf collapsed.

We recently began to learn much more about how methanotrophic bacteria function, as a team from the Institute for Genomic Research sequenced the genome of the methanotroph Methylococcus capsulatus. The scientists discovered that Methylococcus has the genomic capacity to adapt to a far wider set of environments than it is currently found in. They also looked at the possibility of enhancing the microbe's ability to oxidize methane, although admittedly for purposes other than straight methane consumption.

So here's the proposal: we need to deploy methanotrophic microbes at the East Siberian Ice Shelf. Methanotrophic Archaea appears to be best-suited for this task, but we don't know as much about them as we do about bacteria. If we need to modify the microbes (to consume methane more quickly, for example), we may need to work on Methylococcus bacteria, making them viable in extremely cold seawater. I suspect that working with the Archaea will probably be sufficient, but it's important to think ahead about different pathways. Either way, we should consider just how we could make use of methanotrophs to avoid a methane-melt disaster. Given the size of the region, we'll need lots of them, but that's one advantage of biology over straight chemistry: the methanotrophs would be reproducing themselves.

We need to be aware of possible unintended consequences, but at this point, it's not clear how additional methanotrophs would pose a larger risk; moreover, a mass of methanotrophic organisms would undoubtedly be helpful for reducing overall atmospheric methane beyond the Siberian release. Nonetheless, there are some crucial questions we need to answer before we could consider deploying natural or GMO methanotrophs:

  • Is it physically possible? Could a sufficient number of methane-eating bacteria even be produced to counter a fast release of methane from the Siberian ice shelf?
  • Is it biologically possible? Would methanotrophic Archaea survive in the Siberian ocean? Could a species of methanotrophic bacteria be engineered to be able to do so (as well as consume large quantities of methane)?
  • What are the unrecognized risks? What are we missing in an initial risk analysis? Saying "we don't know the risks" doesn't, in and of itself, mean "we should not attempt this," it means "we need to do more research." Clearly, if the risks from enhancing the methane consumption and environmental adaptation capacities of a methanotroph could lead (through species-hopping genes or simple mutation) to even harder-to-manage problems than gigatons of atmospheric methane, this isn't an option. Boosting OH levels in the region would be the fallback position, as we have more experience with managing CO and NOx pollutants.

    If the frozen methane in the Siberian ocean is melting faster, our options are extremely limited. We'd no longer be in a position to stop the melting, even by ceasing all greenhouse gas production today; the temperature increases we're seeing now are the results of greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere decades ago. And when methane melts, it appears to do so quickly -- there are signs that past methane clathrate events took less than a human lifetime.

    This is why I think that methane melt would inevitably mean geoengineering. But if this is the case, the pathway I suggest here may be the best option. The engineering options are enhancements of common natural processes, as opposed to something that emulates extreme conditions (such as sulfate injection). At least with current understanding, there would be few downsides to a greater-than-expected growth of the methanotroph population -- it might even be helpful in mitigating atmospheric methane coming from other sources, such as cattle.

    A further advantage is that this is a process that could begin after we start to see significant methane output and could still have a measurably positive result. Using microbes for bio-"scrubbing" of methane from the atmosphere would work on methane that was a decade old as readily as methane fresh from the permafrost. We'd still see some effect from the methane that makes it to the atmosphere, but eventual removal would help to reduce that effect. This means that we still have time to get more certainty about the methane situation before we would need to use the methanotroph option; we don't necessarily have to rush past our better judgment in response. With a process of this magnitude, it's worth taking the time to get it right.

    If we are seeing the beginning of a runaway methane melt, we would be facing a problem of a scale with few precedents in human history. No society on the planet would be unaffected; if left unmitigated, it would continue to affect the lives of our children, and our children's children, and generations beyond that. And remember, this is a fast process -- simply pushing a bit harder to reduce carbon emissions will do nothing to stop it.

    Our choices are few, and the risk of not acting is (potentially) immense. We may well be on the brink of a new era in planetary management. Let's hope we're up to the challenge.

    (Some of this essay reproduces text from my initial methanotroph proposal on Worldchanging back in 2005. At that point, it was speculation -- now, it's something we need to seriously consider.)

  • March 3, 2010

    New Fast Company: Augmented (Fashion) Reality

    My latest Fast Company piece is up: Augmented (Fashion) Reality takes a look at what happens when the world of fashion gets ahold of AR technology.

    It starts out with a scenario. Here's a bit of it:

    I remember the first time I saw an AR outfit. I did a double-take, because I could have sworn that the woman had been wearing a fairly bland dress when I saw her at a distance, but suddenly she was wearing a sparkling gown that I could swear was made of diamonds. A few minutes later, I took off my arglasses to get something out of my eye, and *poof* her dress was back to the simple beige shift. That bland outfit was actually carrying a half-dozen or so specialized smart tags, providing abundant 3D data that my arglasses--and the AR systems of everyone else around her--translated into that diamond dress.

    I note late in the essay that fashion may end up being the "killer app" for wearable AR. The more I think about it, the more it rings true -- AR can't just be about finding the nearest Starbucks or getting a read on local environmental conditions. It has to be playful, too.

    March 2, 2010

    Participatory Panopticon On Its Way (Maybe)

    Picturephoning gives a heads-up on "Recognizr" (you know it's cutting-edge when they leave out the "e"), an iPhone app that will supposedly recognize faces seen by the camera. Here's the promo video:

    It's a prototype from the Swedish group The Astonishing Tribe. Apparently, a photo taken in Recognizr (sigh) gets compared to pictures in various social networking platforms, including Flickr (see? no "e"!!!!), Facebook, and the like.

    Picturephoning links to a hysterical Daily Mail article, which plays up the STALKRS WILL STEAL UR VIRTUE angle, not really looking at the more interesting -- and potentially more troubling -- aspects. Popular Science is a little more sober, but ultimately not hugely more informative.

    Until I see something more than just the one video, I'm going to call this one Plausible, but not at all difficult to hoax. Anybody know better?

    Jamais Cascio

    Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

    Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

    Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

    Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

    Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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