Earthquakes, environmental individualism, and the state of AI

Ideaspace #20

Sup y’all —

Welcome to our biweekly exploration of the Ideaspace. How’s everybody doing today?

Before getting started, some quick housekeeping.

First, the most recent issue (Subject: “In Defense of Normal”) was mistakenly sent from “The Ideaspace” rather than my name. This caused some confusion. Apologies! If you missed the last issue, you can read it here.

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Environmental individualism

About ten years ago I was on a flight leaving a conference. Sitting next to me was a man I’d seen at the event. We introduced ourselves. I learned he was a scientist focused on the environment.

“What can I do to help the environment?” I asked him. “What do I change? Should I go vegan? Something else?”

“There’s not much you or I can individually do,” he told me. “It’s bigger than us.”

He paused, then leaned in.

“Think of this as the last party before everything changes.”

I looked at him wide-eyed. The words “last party” hung in the air. He went on to explain that the coming impact of climate change — which he thought was unlikely to be reversed — would be so significant our current way of life would soon disappear forever.

Those words echo in my mind each day as I read headlines about all the new, bad weather records being set around the world. If this is the last party, it’s starting to feel like last call.

A recent climate change protest in Cologne, Germany. The protestors are standing on blocks of ice.

I appreciated my flight companion’s candor. But being told there was nothing I could do was hard to hear. We’re just supposed to wait for this thing to destroy us? How can that be? But at the time he was largely right. We could conserve and limit our energy footprint, but in terms of proactive things to balance what had already been done, it didn’t seem like there was much the average person could do.

This may be changing, however. Earlier this week I came across a company called Wren that promises to help a person become carbon neutral.

Wren calculates your personal carbon footprint using a short survey, then proposes a monthly payment to a carbon-offsetting project of your choice (like planting trees, protecting rainforests, or preventing deforestation) to balance your personal carbon usage.

What my carbon footprint looks like. Notice the box with the text “29 months.”

Seeing my own carbon footprint got to me. I learned I’m four times the global average, and 55% of my carbon footprint comes from the 14 flights I said I’d take this year (which probably undercounts it). If everyone in the world lived like me we’d already be doomed. This was not an easy mirror to look in.

Through Wren I agreed to pay $40 a month in support of tree planting and protection projects that will offset my footprint. This makes me (theoretically at least) personally carbon neutral. According to Stanford researchers, carbon offsets produce significant environmental benefits by doing things like paying people to preserve forests rather than chop them down. These offsets align economic and environmental values, and are effective as a result.

Whether offsets can make carbon-heavy lifestyles like mine, yours, and a growing number of people’s truly sustainable isn’t as clear. That seems unlikely without significant changes in behavior and technology.

A cynic might say a project like Wren is just a values-signaling cover to help people sleep better without actually changing their behavior. There’s some truth to that. But these projects don’t need to fix everything to be valuable. They just need to help slow the catastrophic shifts brought about by climate change, and make more time for good ideas — and trees — to grow.


Last week Los Angeles was struck by two significant earthquakes. I didn’t feel the first but definitely felt the second, larger one (7.1 on the Richter).

It started just as our child was getting out of the bath. My wife and I huddled with him in the bathroom doorframe as the house rocked back and forth. It lasted so long my wife and I locked eyes three separate times, wordlessly wondering, “How effing long is this going to last???” while trying not to alarm our child. (Who, when it finally finished, asked: “That was just a small one, right?”)

Afterwards I went into survivalist mode. During last year’s wildfires we’d packed a go-bag in a similarly panicked spirit and I started doing it again. I grabbed our electronics, notebooks, food, water, and every charger I could find and stuffed them into my bag. One more tremor and open road here we came. Or, closer to reality, one tremor and four hours of traffic to nowhere here we came.

Thankfully the Big One stayed away and things went back to normal. Except the other day I looked for a pen in my backpack and discovered gas masks, batteries, a flashlight, and a dozen bags of protein-rich oatmeal raisin cookie bites instead.

I laughed at myself. It seemed absurd that just a week before I’d anxiously shoved these things in. But then I remembered those moments in the doorframe when it felt like we were seconds away from hearing a snap, crack, and the rush of gravity and concrete around us. Anything seemed possible. Until, suddenly and mercifully, the shaking stopped.

The go-bag stays by the door now.


THE STATE OF AI Last week AI experts Nathan Benaich and Ideaspace reader Ian Hogarth posted an exceptional report on the State of AI in 2019. The first fifteen slides alone freaked me out. I learned that AI agents are conquering video games, receiving super-dexterous hands, and being taught to be curious by software that incentivizes the creation of new memories. Deep, disturbing, and recommended.

ME ON A PODCAST I appeared on a podcast called Intellectual Explorers Club to discuss the Dark Forest Theory of the Internet, the Ideaspace, and my upcoming book. You can listen here or by searching for my name in your preferred podcast app.

A NEW MIX Last night I watched the first artist on my latest mix, Ana Roxanna, soundtrack “an interdimensional ritual.” It was easily the most California thing I’ve ever done. The mix is called Ever Present and it goes like this:

01 Ana Roxanna, “I’m Every Sparkly Woman”
02 Sun Ra, “Springtime Again”
03 The Beach Boys, “All I Wanna Do”
04 Earl Sweatshirt, “Ontheway!”
05 PJ Harvey, “The Glorious Land”
06 Life Without Buildings, “The Leanover”
07 Mulatu Astatke, “Dewel”
08 Lucinda Chau, “Somebody Who”
09 Tony Allen, “Asiko”
10 Frank Ocean, “Ivy”
11 The Durutti Column, “Bordeaux”
12 Cut Worms, “Song of the Highest Order”
13 Bill Callahan, “The Sing”
14 Earl Sweatshirt, “Riot!”

Listen on Spotify here.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed, please share with a friend.

Peace and love,