As a strong proponent of nuclear technology, I’m heartened to read that Exelon is investing in new technology. But I can’t help but wonder who’s buying. The French–world leaders in nuclear technology–have been struggling to maintain their commitment in the face of budget overruns. California–the U.S. leader in clean energy–just shut down its last nuclear plant this summer. Other American states still investing in nuclear plants have faced major criticism as plans run over budget and behind schedule.
Nuclear is an extremely powerful and (mostly) clean source of energy, and I’d love to see countries invest in the technology, especially if the new digital monitoring systems reduce the safety risks associated with nuclear plants. But given enthusiasm for renewables like wind and solar as well as cheaper (but far dirtier) technologies like natural gas, I can’t help but wonder how much enthusiasm is left for nuclear plant construction.
So glad you wrote this. After the climate change challenge, it was hard not to feel a bit fatalistic about the planet. It’s nice to be reminded that the future isn’t all bad, and that tech can be used to keep biosystems thriving. As you mentioned, technological solutions are extremely important in maritime environments, as these regions are hard to reach/monitor without satellite, drone, and networked technologies. Illegal fishing has been a particularly thorny problem for a long time, but advanced technologies (supported by companies like Google) are really helping to change the rules of the game.
It’s hard not to get excited about the prospect of harnessing technology to provide high-quality, low-cost education to children and adults alike. Even if there are some concerns (like privacy), companies/sites like Knewton, Khan Academy, and Wikipedia really do seem to represent the best of the Internet age.
But while education has indeed been “one of society’s great democratizing forces” for the past several centuries, I can’t help but wonder if this will continue to be true in the future. As technological change renders more and more jobs obsolete, I worry that there may simply not be enough jobs to keep our global labor force gainfully employed. This idea has gotten a lot of attention in the past few years and was the subject of an Atlantic cover story last summer. While it sounds like science fiction (and may indeed prove to be), I think the post-work world is worth taking seriously if for no other reason than because doing so forces us to reexamine our assumptions about education. Do we educate young people in order to prepare them for the work force…or for life in general? Is there a difference between the two? Should there be? What if work no longer serves as society’s primary organizing force? What if robotics render Toyota factory jobs obsolete, and Watson’s successors put MBAs, JDs, and MDs out of work?
I’ve got no answers…just a bunch of obnoxious questions. But I love that you connected Knewton to bigger issues like capital and social order because it forced me to think–if only for a moment–about those big, obnoxious, impossible-to-answer questions.
Really interesting. FoodTech is a fascinating and bizarre space–consumers are dubious/hostile to innovation (eg, our collective outrage over GMOs), but our growing population (and demand for food) impels us to seize every advantage–to include digitization. Like Art, I’m curious about the long-term impact of cow-free dairy. But in the short-term, I wonder how some of these innovations will be received by the public. I could certainly imagine a large segment of the public feeling uneasy about sensors inside the cow’s stomach. Likewise, I could see a negative reaction against new innovations in selective breeding, similar to what has already happened with modern chickens.
Even if only a small fraction of consumers respond negatively, it could have a major impact on the industry. California is the nation’s largest dairy producer by a wide margin and has some intensely activist foodies. In 2008, the state overwhelmingly passed Proposition 2, which imposed stringent new regulations on livestock farmers. If activists raised concerns about the new technologies utilized by the state’s dairy farmers, it seems highly likely that a similar measure targeting the dairy industry could be put on the ballot.
I’m thrilled that you brought up journalism and were able to leverage your first-hand knowledge of the Times’ digitization strategies. I know this issue has gotten a lot of attention over the past 10-15 years, but as you’ve noted we still haven’t reached any kind of equilibrium. And given our current troubles with fake news, the challenge of generating sufficient revenue to sustain high-quality journalism in the digital age seems as important as ever.
I don’t think I can add much to your analysis of the New York Times, but I think that the sacrifices that smaller newspapers have had to make are worth noting. While staff cutbacks and print suspensions have garnered plenty of attention, the outsourcing of journalism through outlets like LocalLabs (formerly Journatic). A few years ago, an episode of This American Life revealed that Journatic writers–most of whom were based in the Philippines–were using fake bylines. That well-known newspapers like the Chicago Tribune were publishing these stories suggests the pressure to cut costs while maximizing content generation has resulted in a worrisome loss of editorial control.
While it’s difficult to imagine stalwarts like the WSJ, NYT, and WaPo resorting to such measures, it’s important to note that these papers are facing similar pressures. I doubt there’s a silver bullet solution, but it’s encouraging to see that NYT subscriptions are up since the election, suggesting our frustration with fake news might finally be high enough to motivate us to pay for the real thing.
Great piece, Smitha.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be, but I’m surprised that the economics of beer still support barley growth in water-stressed regions. I can’t help but wonder whether regions that have plentiful water supplies might be well-positioned to enter into the supply chain in the future. Anyone who’s ever toured a brewery has likely heard all about the source of water used directly for brewing. Brewers love to brag about the clean and local sources they use in their beer–but economics are absolutely a part of this story. Because brewers use a lot of water, they naturally gravitate to cheap water sources.
But even if the economics don’t support massive shifts in supply chain management for Big Beer, I wonder if craft breweries will take up the mantle. Microbreweries have already had a massive impact on beer sales, and consumer demand for organic/non-GMO foods has had a major impact on CPGs. Perhaps an enterprising microbrewery will shift to hydroponic barley production and make sustainable supply chain management is the next step in this consumer evolution.
The data point you cited regarding tons of CO2 per passenger trip (up to 9 tons for luxury cruise passengers versus 0.49 ton for the “average international tourist trip”) was certainly eye-catching and I can see why you included it in your post. However, after looking at the source (the 270-page UNEP tourism report), it seems the word “cruise” in this context refers (rather puzzlingly) to “fly-cruise to Antarctica,” per the second paragraph on page 139.
Here’s a different calculation from a carbon offsetting company called ClimateCare: 0.43 kg per passenger mile. This is still much higher than air travel (0.257kg per passenger mile), but quite as not eye-poppingly high. A 1,000-mile cruise, for example, would have a 0.5 ton footprint–about the same as a transatlantic flight. This, of course, is a real problem for luxury cruise companies, who (as you noted) are busy trying to develop more efficient ways to power their ships.
As someone who hasn’t worked with farmers (but still wrote a post for this assignment all about their resistance to change), I found your comments about farmers’ discomfort with innovation quite interesting. Given the number of posts on innovation in the agricultural space (Cargill, Olam, Fonterra, Intrexon, Sunripe, etc.), it seems to be that one of two things must be true: either A) investment in agricultural innovation has become really frothy and very few of these companies/technologies will prove viable in the long run, or B) traditional agribusiness is poised for a major disruption.
Companies like Sunripe and AeroFarms (a New Jersey-based vertical farm) may require significant startup capital, but if their conservation efforts are successful (ie, they prove energy and water efficient at scale), then it’s difficult to see how traditional farmers will be able to compete in the long run. While disruption of more resilient, mass-produced cereal crops (corn, wheat, and soy) may still be a long way off, hydroponic and aeroponic greenhouses located near major cities may soon dominate production of other types of foods (eg, tomatoes).
This is a great piece, LC.
That agriculture innovations have dramatically increased crop yields without increasing agricultural land use has been one of the great success stories of the past century. HYP certainly seems poised to follow in this tradition, given its low cost and ability to replenish soil. And I think you’re right to point to the need for large industry players to invest in these technologies and incorporate them into their supply chains.
I can’t help but wonder, though, about the public’s response. While the environmental case for HYP seems strong, I worry about whether consumers and activists will be able to distinguish it from other potash fertilizers (ie, those that harm soil with chloride) that the USDA and other regulatory agencies have deemed unacceptable for organic growing standards. This is, of course, a major concern given that the public’s skyrocketing demand for organic and non-GMO foods is already challenging the ability of large industry players to maintain current yield-per-acre ratios. GMOs in particular have gotten a bad rap, despite scientific consensus that they are safe to eat and a boon to sustainability. While Cargill has been a strong advocate for GMO foods, they’ve also invested heavily in non-GMO crops in order to keep up with demand from food processors, who are in turn responding to consumer demand. Given its enormous potential to increase yields in a sustainable way, I would hate to see HYP suffer the same fate.
While I agree with BAH that climate change/megacities will challenge DoD operational planners and further strain budgets, I’m skeptical that this will lead to base closures and a reduced global presence.
On the contrary, if the U.S. government takes these challenges seriously, I suspect they will seek to expand DoD’s overseas presence through partnerships with allied governments in/near high-risk areas. I could easily imagine small footprint organizations (eg, crisis action teams) located inside foreign bases capable focused on building host-nation capabilities and planning for contingencies that require scaled operations.
I was part of such an organization in the southern Philippines (JSOTF-P). On a day-to-day basis, our 100-person team was focused on counterterrorism operations, but our larger mission was dedicated to improving the capabilities of the Philippine Armed Forces and building the relationships that we would need to rely on in the event of a large-scale contingency. One of the assets dedicated to this mission was the USNS Stockham, a roll on/roll off, maritime prepositioning force container ship stuffed to the gills with heavy equipment capable of supporting a Marine Air/Ground Task Force for 30 days. By DoD standards, assets like these are cheap and flexible, and could be extremely useful for the types of contingencies that climate change is likely to trigger.
To me, the real problem the Pentagon brass faces is whether or not it is willing to prioritize preparing for these types of contingencies. For the past century (and especially since the Cold War), DoD planners have viewed conflict primarily as a technological arms race between conventional belligerents–a view that becomes manifest in our defense budgets. Climate change seems to be pushing the DoD towards a future of humanitarian assistance/disaster relief missions and low-intensity conflict in urban environments, but the Pentagon brass still seems focused on programs like the joint strike fighter and the littoral combat ship that will prove of little use in those environments. Unless and until our spending priorities begin to align with the kinds of contingencies outlined in “Megacities” and “Global Trends 2030,” DoD will remain ill-equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century.