The Extinction of the Human Race and The Dot Com Bust 2.0

This morning I read two stories in the the Wall Street Journal and the The New York Times that were about Silicon Valley Unicorn companies losing 100 Billion USD and how the world’s richest countries will not meet many of their emission targets or as in the case of the United States will actually emit more climate change accelerating gases. How can we utilize all of this excess capital Venture Capitalists have to spend while also doing good for the environment?

A flare tower at a Shell Refinery in Norco burns and emits black smoke into a sky filled with dark clouds. A feeling of doom.
A flare tower at a Shell Refinery in Norco burns and emits black smoke into a sky filled with dark clouds. A feeling of doom.
From the NYT article. Credit to Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Somini Sengupta on November 26th 2019 published an article in the The New York Times about how a recent UN report has found that the world is heading to climate catastrophes. The United States and China will not meet their emission targets and are even undoing progress made towards trying to meet those goals. The pledge to reduce emissions is important to protect people who live in areas that are already being influenced by climate change as reported here, here, and here. If you read any of these articles and are a climate denier you will probably just get more angry the more you read, but the fact is things are changing for the world. Daytime flooding that used to last only a few days in the Florida Keys and Miami now occur frequently. Category 5 Hurricanes are more frequent. Venice floods last longer and are higher. Towns in Louisiana will eventually get swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico. People who have lived for generations in some areas will no longer be able to maintain their way of life. Instead of trying to slow or reverse climate change things seem to be accelerating.

Indeed, scientists who once predicted that climate change would not be felt for 8000 years in the 1950s adjusted to centuries in the 1960s through the 1980s and from the 1990s to today we are talking a timeline of 5–50 years as discussed by eugene linden here. As a scientist I see these trends being reported on and discussed and the first thing I do is I look for how the data trends and I want to extrapolate things further out. To me, the effects of climate change are being felt now. I lived in NYC during Hurricane Sandy and walked through lower Manhattan after the flooding subsided. I had conference calls with coworkers who were working from home for weeks in Houston after Hurricane Harvey and I knew people who lost houses and cars to that Hurricane.

We will see trillions of dollars in damage due to climate change in the coming years. We have billions and billions in capital sitting with Venture Capitalists now that could be put to work on companies and products that will help us reverse climate change. Billions of dollars of Venture Capital will be invested into an ecosystem that has been called a Ponzi Ballon by Chamath Palihapitiya.

Is funding co-working spaces with cold brew coffee on-tap, being able to rent Scooters on-demand a good idea? I would take the position that it is not due to hundreds of billions of dollars being lost recently. Heather Somerville just wrote in the Wall Street Journal about how Silicon Valley Adjusts to New Reality as 100 Billion Evaporates.

These companies have created value for millions of people in the short term both in the form of jobs and lower cost services and theoretically will eventually return investor’s capital. But if the whole city of Miami has to move because climate change will make southern Florida uninhabitable then it all seems like all the smartest people in the room were playing video games while the world burns down around them.

Chamath Palihapitiya’s purpose of starting Social Capital was noble, he wanted to start a fund that enabled entrepreneurs to grow meaningful companies that can solve meaningful problems. He wanted to invest in companies that were going to provide more than just a return on his investment. We do not need more capital going to photo sharing apps, food delivery apps, or things that generally make it easier for me to be a bum.

We need 10 more Social Capitals to tackle problems that will have a meaningful impact on easing our transition into a world that is in constant flux or have a meaningful impact on reducing our society’s dependence on producing climate changing gases. There are the obvious problems already trying to be solved.

  1. Electric Transportation. Telsa, Rivian, and the big car companies are making electric vehicles. The majority of oil refinement is to make some sort of C8 fuel that can power an internal combustion engine with the end result being CO2 and things or people moved to other places. This will reduce the need for Catalytic Cracking of refined oil and will reduce overall global emissions if they can get to scale fast enough.

If we could all drive electric cars that are powered from wind turbines and solar cells that would fix all our problems right? Maybe.

Why do we even need electric transportation? We drive and need to move to get to our jobs and often our jobs are not close to where we work. For some it’s because they work in factories and factories are not near residential areas and for the people who do not work in manufacturing it is usually because it is too expensive to live close to where we work.

There are two problems I outlined there: 1) Can you have factories in close proximity to residential areas? 2) Can you reduce the cost of housing so that people don’t have to live far away from where they work?

The first point brings into the concept that factories are inherently dirty, but they do not have to be. If we could have our means of production closer to our residential areas without having any issues of pollution this could really change how we look at manufacturing. To have our products made in a different country while maybe the lowest cost option due to differentials in labor it is definitely not environmentally feasible to be shipping solar panels from China to the United States.

The second point brings to the forefront the idea of lower cost housing — ideally housing that is more efficient than existing stock and close to where many people work. Not needing a commute in the first place is the easiest way to reduce emissions from driving an internal combustion car or producing an electric vehicle. There are some obvious problems about existing residents not wanting to be crowded by a large influx of “poorer” people or people being displaced by “gentrifiers” who will take over their community.

I would challenge the people who are resistant to how neighborhoods change with new housing to think about where they want people to go in the event of a major climate event that causes a significant amount of climate refugees. What if for example New Orleans no longer becomes habitable? Where will those United States citizens go? The construction of population dense buildings that utilize principles from the Passive House could not only create low energy housing for a large number of people, but ideally it should be done with lower costs.

I outline a myriad of problems in the previous paragraph, but when I think about solutions it goes down to having a dialogue with existing communities, reducing costs of building energy efficient housing, and figuring out where the safest places to build for the future. Reducing the costs of planning, construction, and more advanced materials are part of the equation, but getting local, state, and federal governments aligned is equally important.

If Venture Capitalists could fund companies that are looking to solve these problems I would be more hopeful towards our future.

On the flip side, entrepreneurs looking to secure funding for their ideas and products on how to solve some of these problems think about good business fundamentals, why your company will succeed now, and how you can give your investors an advantage over the competition. Making money and giving a return to your investors is the best way to insure that other companies like yours will succeed. Securing your intellectual property and getting government regulations to enable your product over existing technology would ensure a definite advantage.

Hopefully the wealthy people who just got a big tax break from Donald Trump can put that money to work like all the pundits on CNBC say will happen.

Written by

Writer of The Polymerist newsletter. Talk to me about chemistry, polymers, plastics, sustainability, climate change, and the future of how we live.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store