First, some housekeeping: Thanks to our new corporate parents, TechCrunch has the day off tomorrow, so consider this the last chapter of The Exchange for this week. (The newsletter will go out Saturday as always.) Also, Alex is off next week. Anna is taking on next week’s newsletter and may have a column or two on deck as well.
But before we slow down for a few days, let’s chat about the most recent Y Combinator Demo Day in thematic detail.
If you caught the last few Equity episodes, some of this will be familiar, but we wanted to put a flag in the ground for later reference as we cover startups for the rest of the year.
The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.
What follows is a roundup of trends among Y Combinator startups and how they squared with our expectations.
In a group of nearly 400 startups, you might think it’d be hard to find a category that felt overrepresented, but we’ve managed.
To start, we were surprised by the sheer number of startups in the cohort that were pursuing software models that incorporated no-code and low-code techniques. We expected some, surely, but not the nearly 20 that we compiled this morning.
Startups in the YC batch are building no-code and low-code tools to help developers build faster internal workflows (Tantl), build branded real estate portals (Noloco), sync data between other no-code tools (Whalesync), automate HR (Zazos), and more. Also in the mix were BrightReps, Beau, Alchemy, Hyperseed, Enso, HitPay, Whaly, Muse, Abstra, Lago, Inai and Breadcrumbs.io.
At least 18 companies in the group name-dropped no- and low-code in their pitches. They are taking on a host of industries, from finance and real estate to sales and HR. In short, no- and low-code tools are cropping up in what feels like every sector. It appears that the startup world has decided that helping non-developers build their own tools, workflows and apps is a trend here to stay.
In the United States, a 401(k) plan is an employer-sponsored defined-contribution pension account. However, with legacy institutional investing, most of these have at least some level of fossil fuel involvement and let’s face it, very few of us really know. Now a startup plans to change that.
California-based startup Sphere wants to get employees to ask their employers for investment options that are not invested in fossil fuels. To do that it’s offering financial products that make it easier – it says – for employers to offer fossil-free investment options in their 401(k) plans. This could be quite a big movement. Sphere says there are over $35 trillion in assets in retirement savings in the US as of Q1 2021.
It’s now raised a $2M funding round led by climatetech-focused VC Pale Blue Dot led the investment round. Also participating were climate-focused investors including Sundeep Ahuja of Climate Capital. Sphere is also a registered ‘Public Benefit Corporation’ allowing it to campaign in public about climate change.
Alex Wright-Gladstein, CEO and founder of Sphere said: “We are proud to be partnering with Pale Blue Dot on our mission to reverse climate change by making our money talk. Heidi, Hampus, and Joel have the experience and drive to help us make big changes on the short 7 year time scale that we have to limit warming to 1.5°C.” Wright-Gladstein has also teamed up with sustainable investing veteran Jason Britton of Reflection Asset Management and BITA custom indexes.
Wright-Gladstein said she learned the difficulty of offering fossil-free options in 401(k) plans when running her previous startup, Ayar Labs. She tried to offer a fossil-free option for employees, but found out it took would take three years to get a single fossil-free option in the plan.
Heidi Lindvall, General Partner at Pale Blue Dot said: “We are big believers in Sphere’s unique approach of raising awareness through a social movement while offering a range of low-cost products that address the structural issues in fossil-free 401(k) investing.”
Space may be the endless frontier, but here on Earth, we define space in the modern sense as something enclosed. Walls, fences and barriers enclose space, define it and make it legible. In fact, the sense of limits is so strong these days with place that we often have to add qualifiers like “open space” to describe wholly natural environments like parks and forests as places without spatial limits.
While enclosures have been with us for centuries, the barriers they raise have never been so high or politically fraught. In the United States, one of the most controversial aspects of the Trump administration was over the erection of a southern border wall with Mexico. With climate change accelerating and migrants increasing all around the world though, walls are becoming a common occurrence and political tool. Just this week, Greece erected fencing along its border with Turkey in preparation for an expected deluge of Afghan refugees fleeing violence in the wake of the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul.
John Lanchester has taken these themes of barriers, fear, and politics and intensified them in his atmospheric novel appropriately titled “The Wall.”
The conceit is simple: a thinly-disguised United Kingdom, ravaged by climate change and heavy migration from outside the island, erects a universal wall across all of its shores, posting sentries every few meters or so to monitor the barriers for any potential intruders. Their sole mission: to keep them out, whoever they might be. Failure is symbolically punished with exile and banishment, with the watchers becoming the watched.
We predominantly follow a pair of sentries who, as the above rule all but implicates for the plot, will become exiled in the course of their duties. What we get then is a meditation on the meaning of home, and also the meaning of barriers and dislocation in a world that is increasingly hostile to being a refuge for much of anyone.
While the plot and characters are a bit lackluster, what is fascinating with the novel is how well it manages to create an environment and ambiance of dread, of a society at the end of its journey. People live, parties are hosted, work is done, but all these activities takes place in a world where the jet stream has presumably disappeared, plunging our hypothetical U.K. into the cold abyss. That theme of gray, morose darkness exudes throughout the book, describing everything from the construction of the wall itself to the personalities of the people that inhabit this world.
That’s the ironic tension that propels the book forward, of global warming heating us up while we simultaneously develop the distant sangfroid to fight the ravaging effects of that heat. We are human, but wooden, divorced from the connection and community we have known in order to protect what little we have left.
That social coolness also inhabits a new set of class differences, not only between native citizens and refugees, but between generations as well. The younger generation, coming to terms with what has happened to their planet, simply no longer follow the instructions of their supposedly wise elders. A mental barrier has been constructed: how can you learn lessons from the people who allowed this to happen? Yet, the boiling anger has long since cooled to an isolated frostiness — acceptance of reality forces the inter-generational conversation to just move on.
Lanchester is astute and subtle in these extensions of the premise, and they are the most enjoyable part of what is — intentionally — a colorless work. The irony again is that this is probably best read on the beach in the middle of summer, an antidote to the heat of our world. I wouldn’t recommend it for the winter months.
There has been more and more “climate fiction” published over the past few years as the issue of climate change has reached prominence in the global consciousness. Many of these are offshoots of science fiction, with long and meandering discussions of technology, policies, and markets and more depending on the work. That can provide intellectual succor in a way and for a certain type of reader.
What Lanchester does is eschew the minutia and technologies pretty much entirely and instead simply situates us in a realistic future — a space that could even be our home. The limits of our imagination are compacted and we are forced to think in tighter quarters. It’s a thought-provoking look at a world whose frontiers are coming closer and closer to all of us all the time.
The Wall by John Lanchester
W. W. Norton, 2019, 288 pages
When did indoor air become cold and clean?
Air conditioning is one of those inventions that have become so ubiquitous, that many in the developed world don’t even realize that less than a century ago, it didn’t exist. Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that the air inside our buildings and the air outside of them were one and the same, with occupants powerless against their environment.
Eric Dean Wilson, in his just published book, “After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort,” dives deep into the history of this field. It took more than just inventing the air conditioner to make people want to buy it. In fact, whole social classes outright rejected the technology for years. It took hustle, marketing skill, and mass societal change to place air conditioning at the center of our built environment.
Wilson covers that history, but he has a more ambitious agenda: to get us to see how our everyday comforts affect other people. Our choice of frigid cooling emits flagrant quantities of greenhouse gas emissions, placing untold stress on our planet and civilization. Our pursuit of comfort ironically begets us more insecurity and ultimately, less comfort.
It’s a provocative book, and TechCrunch hosted Wilson for a discussion earlier this week on a Twitter Space. If you missed it, here are some selected highlights of our conversation.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Danny Crichton: The framing story throughout the book is about your travels with your friend Sam, who works to collect Freon and destroy it. Why did you choose that narrative arc?
Eric Dean Wilson: Sam at the time was working for this green energy company, and they were trying to find a way to take on green projects that would turn a profit. They had found that they could do this by finding used Freon, specifically what’s called CFC-12. It’s not made anymore, thank goodness, but it was responsible in part for partially destroying the ozone layer, and production of it was banned by the 90s.
But use of it, and buying and selling it on the secondary market, is totally legal. This is sort of a loophole in the legality of this refrigerant, because the United States government and the people who signed the Montreal Protocol thought that when they stopped production of it that it would pretty much get rid of Freon by the year 2000. Well, that didn’t happen, which is kind of a mystery.
So Sam was driving around the United States, finding Freon on the internet, and meeting people (often people who are auto hobbyists or mechanics or something like that) who happened to have stockpiled Freon, and he was buying it from them in order to destroy it for carbon credits on California’s cap-and-trade system. And the interesting thing about this is that he was going to basically the 48 contiguous states, and meeting people that were often global warming deniers who were often hostile to the idea of the refrigerant being destroyed at all, so he often didn’t tell them upfront that he was destroying it.
What was really interesting to me is that, aside from a cast of colorful and strange characters, and sometimes violent characters actually as well, was the fact that sometimes after establishing a business relationship first, he was able to have really frank conversations about global warming with people who were otherwise not very open to it.
In a time in which we’re told that Americans are more divided than ever politically, that we’re not speaking to each other across ideological divides, I thought this was a curious story.
Crichton: And when it comes to greenhouse gases, Freon is among the worst, right?
Wilson: I should be really clear that the main global warming gases are carbon dioxide and methane and some other ones as well. But molecule for molecule, CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) are thousands of times greater at absorbing and retaining heat, meaning that they’re just thousands of times worse for global warming, molecule for molecule. So even though there’s not that many of them in terms of parts per million in the atmosphere, there’s enough to really make a sizable contribution to global warming.
The irony is that the replacements of CFCs — HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) — for the most part, don’t really do anything to destroy the ozone layer, which is great. But they’re also super global warming gases. So the ozone crisis was solved by replacing CFCs with refrigerant that exacerbated the global warming crisis.
Crichton: Now to get to the heart of the book, you focus on the rise of air conditioning, but you start by giving readers a wide view of what life was like before its invention. Why did you do that?
Wilson: This was a surprise — I did not go into the book thinking that I was going to find this. Before air conditioning really took off in the home, there was a really different sense of what we would call personal comfort, and something that I really argue in the book is that what we’ve come to think of as personal comfort, and specifically, thermal comfort, has changed. What I argue in the book is that it’s really in part a cultural construction.
Now, I want to be really careful that people don’t hear that I’m saying that it’s entirely a construction. Yes, when we get too hot or too cold, then we can die, for sure. But what’s really interesting to me is that there’s a lot of evidence to show that before air conditioning began at the beginning of the twentieth century, people weren’t really hungry for air conditioning.
There was this greater sense that you could deal with the heat. I put that really carefully, because I don’t want to say that they suffered through it. Certainly there were heat waves and summers that got too hot. But there was a real sense that you could manage the heat through analog ways, like sleeping outside, sleeping in parks, or designing buildings that incorporate passive cooling. The thing that really disturbed me was that through the twentieth century, we really kind of forgot all that, because we didn’t need that knowledge anymore because we had air conditioning. So modernist architecture began to kind of ignore the outside conditions, because you could construct whatever conditions you wanted inside.
I think the question that nobody really asked all along is, is this good for everyone? Should we have a homogenized standard of comfort? Nobody really asked that question. And there’s a lot of people that find that the kind of American model of an office or American model of comfort is not comfortable, both in the United States, and in other places.
Crichton: Even beyond a homogenized standard though, you want readers to understand how comfort connects all of us together.
Wilson: I think that one of the pernicious things about the American definition of comfort is that it has been defined as personal comfort. And the reason why I keep using that is because it’s defined as individual comfort. And so what would it mean to think about comfort as being always connected to somebody else, as more ethical that way? Because it’s true.
The truth is that our comfort is related to other people, and vice versa. It’s really asking us to think interdependently, instead of independently, which is how we’re often encouraged to think, and that’s a huge, huge ask. Actually, that’s a huge task and a huge paradigm shift. But I really think if we’re really trying to think ecologically, and not just sustainably, we have to think about how we’re all connected and how these infrastructures, how they influence other people in other parts of the world.
Crichton: Air conditioning didn’t take off right away. In fact, its inventors and customers really had to push hard to get people to want to use it.
Wilson: Air conditioning really got its start in the early twentieth century, in order to control the conditions in factories. I was surprised to find out that air conditioning was used in places to make things hotter, or more humid and slightly hotter in a place like a textile factory, where if it’s not humid enough, cotton threads can break.
Outside the factory, movie theaters were really the first time that thermal comfort was used as a commodity. There were all kinds of other commodifications of comfort, but this was really the first time that the public could go someplace to feel cooler. And the funny thing is is that most movie theaters in the 20s and 30s were freezing cold, they were not what I would call comfortable, because the people who were running them didn’t really understand that air conditioning works best when it’s noticed least, which is a hard sell. In the 20s, though, it was a novelty, and the way that you caught people’s attention on a summer day was to crank the AC up, which felt good for like five minutes, and then it was terribly uncomfortable and you had to shiver through an hour and a half of the rest of the movie.
Crichton: I’m jumping ahead, but what does the future look like as global warming persists and our cooling increases in line with that heat?
Wilson: In so many cooling situations, there are major alternatives, like redesigning our buildings so that they require way less energy and way less cooling. There are really amazing architects who are looking to things like termite mounds, because the colonies that they build sort of have brilliantly engineered rooms with different temperatures.
That said, I was surprised how much our opinion on comfort could change by simply understanding that it could change. I think that we have to make the world of tomorrow desirable, and we can take a nod from the commercial advertising industry. We have to sell this future as one that we actually want, not as something that we’re giving up. And I think the narrative is always like, “Oh, we have to stop doing this, we have to lower this, we have to give this up.” And that’s certainly true. But I think if we understand that as not something that we’re giving up, but actually something that we’re gaining, then it makes it a lot easier. For people, it makes it feel a lot more possible.
After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort by Eric Dean Wilson.
Simon & Schuster, 2021, 480 pages
When it comes to climate change, it might seem that a book entitled “How to Do Nothing” would not only be irrelevant, but also downright obscene and even dangerous. Not to mention that after more than a year of pandemic living, many people are understandably fatigued at the prospect of continuing to keep their lives empty of social activities.
Yet, messing with our notions of action and contemplation is precisely the plan that Jenny Odell has laid out in her lapidary work, a meditation that is, ironically, a call to action.
Odell is a Bay Area star, who has been an artist in residence at a variety of institutions from the Internet Archive to Recology, San Francisco’s trash pickup and processing company. Her artistic work centers on attention, of focusing on the details that envelop us in this world and what we can learn from them. It’s an activity that leads her to birdwatching and long walks in Oakland’s public parks such as the Morcom Rose Garden.
Her book, it might be helpful to note, is subtitled “Resisting the Attention Economy” and Odell has made it her mission to help wean a generation, and well, a population off the spasmodic negativity that emanates from our social media platforms. In fact, she has a more ambitious goal: to wean people off the notion that productivity is the only value to life — that action is the only useful metric by which to measure ourselves. She wants to direct our attention to more important things.
“I fully understand where a life of sustained attention leads. In short, it leads to awareness,” she writes in the introduction. The key word here is sustained — and that’s also the connection with sustainability and the climate more broadly.
We don’t lack for information, data or opinions. In fact, we are overwhelmed with the dross of human thought. Some studies have shown that modern knowledge workers read more words per day than ever before in history — but they’re reading social media posts, emails, Slack messages and other ephemera that are each nibbling and collectively devouring our attention. What’s left is, for many of us, not much of any thought at all. The world is more frenetic and chaotic than ever before, but in the process, we have traded a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in this world for an incessant deluge of media. Odell wants us to take that imbalance and level it.
For her, that means practicing a more sustained form of attention. That’s a skill most of us have little practice with (a deficit we may not even be aware of, ironically), and indeed, sustaining attention might even mean regularly refusing to engage with the world around us. That’s a good thing in her analysis. “At their loftiest, such refusals can signify the individual capacity for self-directed action against the abiding flow; at the very least, they interrupt the monotony of the everyday.”
Controlling our attention, directing it, and filtering out the noise of contemporary life results not in further atomization and narcissism, but rather a more collective sense of being. “When the pattern of your attention has changed, you render your reality differently. You begin to move and act in a different kind of world,” she writes. Suddenly, the trees and flowers that were once backdrops to our walks to brunch become complex and elegant life in their own right. We deepen our camaraderie with our friends and colleagues in ways that we never could with an emoji in Slack. We build up the potential to work together to solve problems.
Our sustained attention also allows us to notice the details of what is changing around us, the subtle variations of our environment that come from a warming planet. “Things like the American obsession with individualism, customized filter bubbles, and personal branding—anything that insists on atomized, competing individuals striving in parallel, never touching—does the same violence to human society as a dam does to a watershed.” We can’t fix what we don’t see, and with our fragmented attention, we really don’t see much.
The irony of course is that while technology products dissolve attention — building them takes an extraordinary amount of it. While some startup founders strike it rich on a whim and others are injected with product ideas from friends or VCs, the vast majority learned to sustain their attention on a market or customer for sometimes extraordinarily long periods of time in order to notice the gaps in a market. A founder recently told me that he had been working with customers in his market for more than a decade before he eventually understood a need that wasn’t being fulfilled with existing solutions.
What’s missing in the tech and startup community today is connecting that user empathy and focus on product-market fit to the attention we need in all the other aspects of our lives today. Odell analyzes it a bit more negatively than I would: we actually have these skills and in fact, use them quite specifically. We just don’t use them broadly enough to bring our minds to look at our friendships, communities and planet in a deeper light.
Doing nothing allows us to see what matters and what doesn’t. When it comes to solving big problems, particularly some of the most intractable like climate change, it’s precisely doing nothing that allows us to see the right path to doing something.
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
Melville House, 2019, 256 pages
Bill Gates has solved many problems in his (professional) life, and in recent decades, he’s been dedicated to the plight of the world’s poor and particularly their health. Through his foundation work and charitable giving, he’s roamed the world solving problems from malaria and neglected tropical diseases to maternal health, always with an eye toward the novel and typically cheap solution.
It’s that engineering brain and mode of thinking that he brings to bear on climate change in his book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need” (yes, it’s italicized on the cover — we really do need them). Gates describes a bit of his evolution from software mogul to global health wizard to concerned climate citizen. If you look at challenges like neglected tropical diseases, for instance, climate change abundantly affects the prevalence of mosquitos and other vectors for infection. No one can avoid climate change when analyzing food security in developing nations.
With this early narrative, Gates is attempting to connect perhaps not with climate change skeptics (it’s hard to connect with them on a good day anyway), but instead to build a bridge to the skeptical-but-ready-to-rethink crowd. He admits that he didn’t think much of the problem until he saw its effects first hand, opening the door to at least some readers who may be ready to undertake a similar intellectual journey.
From there, Gates delivers an extremely sober (one could easily substitute dry) analysis of the major components of greenhouse gas emissions and how we get to net zero by removing 51 billion tons of CO2-equivalent emissions per year, which in chapter order are energy production (27%), manufacturing (31%), agriculture (19%), transportation (16%), and air conditioning (7%).
Gates is an engineer, and it shows and it is marvelous. He places a great emphasis throughout the book on understanding scale, of constantly trying to disentangle the numbers and units we hear about in the press and actually trying to understand whether a particular innovation might make any difference whatsoever. Gates offers the example of an aviation program that will save “17 million tons” of CO2, but points out that the figure is really just 0.03% of global emissions and isn’t necessarily likely to scale up more than it already has. With this framing, he’s borrowing the approach of effective altruism, or the idea that charitable dollars should flow to the projects that can provide the biggest verifiable improvement to quality of life for the least cost.
Unsurprisingly, Gates is a capitalist, and his framework for judging each potential solution is to calculate a “Green Premium” for their use. For instance, a carbon-free cement manufacturing process might cost double the more normal carbon-emitting one. Compare those added costs with the actual savings these substitutions would have on greenhouse gas emissions, and voila: you have an instant guide on the most efficient means to solving climate change.
The answer he comes up with tends to be quite portable in the end. Electrify everything, decarbonize electricity, carbon capture what’s left, and be more efficient. If that sounds hard, that’s because it is, and Gates notes the challenges in an aptly-named chapter entitled “This Will Be Hard” which begins with the line “Please don’t let the title of this chapter depress you.” I’m not sure you needed to buy the book to figure that out.
Gates ends up being an end-to-end conservative figure throughout the book. It’s not just his general approach of protecting the status quo, which is obviously latent in solutions which are essentially substitutable tweaks to our way of life and shouldn’t be surprising given the messenger. It’s also the surprising conservatism of his views on the power of technology to solve these problems. For a person who has quite literally invested billions in clean energy and other green technologies, there is surprisingly little magic that Gates proposes. It’s probably realistic, but considering the source, it can feel like pessimism.
Read in concert with some of the other books in this group of climate change reviews, and one can’t help but feel a sort of calculated naiveté on the part of Gates, a sense that we should just keep playing our cards a little while longer and see if we get a last-minute royal flush. There are early signs of solutions, but most aren’t ready for scale. Some technologies are already available, but would require prodigious outlays to retrofit cars, homes, businesses, and more to actually impact our emissions numbers. Then there’s everyone outside of the West, who deserve access to modern amenities. It’s all so easy, and yet, so out of reach.
The book’s strengths — and simultaneously its weaknesses — is that it is apolitical, fact-laden and ready to be read by all but the most ardent climate change skeptics. But it also acts as a gateway drug of sorts: once you understand the scales of the problem, the scopes of the solutions, and the challenges of Green Premiums and policy implementation, you’re left with the feeling that there is no way we are going to do this in the next few years anyway, so what’s really the point?
Gates ends the book by saying that “We should spend the next decade focusing on the technologies, policies, and market structures that will put us on the path to eliminating greenhouse gases by 2050.” He’s not wrong, but it’s also an evergreen comment, in a world that won’t be evergreen for much longer.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates
Alfred A. Knopf, 2021, 257 pages
Books on climate change, as diverse as the library is, tend to fall into a couple of categories. There are the field guides and observational accounts that chronicle the destruction of our world and make it legible for readers worldwide. There are the policy and tech analyses that splay out options for the future, deliberating tradeoffs and offering guidance to individuals and governments on their decisions. There are the histories that look at missed opportunities, and the geological histories that show what our world was really like over the eons.
Then there’s the much darker category of dystopia.
Dystopic visions of the future are engaging precisely because they are visions. That makes them easy fodder for climate fiction (“cli-fi”) novels or even video games like Final Fantasy VII, a stream of work that has accelerated much in the way that carbon has in the atmosphere. Yet, it’s a field that almost uniquely remains focused on the imagination, of “what if” scenarios and running those contexts to their narrative conclusions.
What makes “How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times” a rare read is that it is both dystopic and non-fiction.
The book, which was translated into English last year and first published in French in 2015, argues for a hard acceptance of what the authors Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens dub “collapsology.” Less a movement like the Extinction Rebellion and Deep Adaptation communities that have risen up in the Anglophone world, collapsology is centered around a multi-disciplinary and systematic inquiry into the state of our world, our civilization, and our society.
In this, they spurn the American frame of progress and technological advancement to solve challenges, as well as humanity’s innate hopeful desire to see a better world going forward. Instead, they want to understand what’s really happening today, and whether the stresses, shocks, and crises that smash into our consciousness on a regular basis are really just a mirage or a phenomenon far more profound.
It shouldn’t be hard to glean what their answer is. Servigne and Stevens walk through earth systems like energy and food production and more as they scout for tipping points, physical limits, and the other impassable barriers to society’s exponential development. What they find is troubling, of course. Exponential human population growth over more than a century has led to practically insatiable demand for every resource and alimentation that the planet has in stock.
That’s a story many of us are familiar with, but where it gets interesting is when they start to systematically explore what that demand has done for efficiency. Perhaps the most striking example they offered was the history of petroleum and Energy Return on Energy Invested, or the amount of oil and gas it takes to drill for that very resource. ERoEI, they note, has declined from 35:1 in 1990 to a factor today of about 11:1. Fuel is getting harder to find — and that means we use more fuel to drill for less fuel. It’s a negative feedback loop — and worse, an exponential one — and there’s little reason to expect these trends to reverse.
These sorts of negative feedback loops are everywhere in earth systems today if you look closely for them. The permafrost is melting in the Arctic, the Amazon rainforest today emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, higher temperatures are making it more difficult and more expensive to grow food. All this at a time when the human population is expected to add several billion more individuals this century.
As with any system, there are lock-ins where components can’t adapt because they are connected to other systems. We can’t replace gas because the entire financial and industrial system is predicated on an abundant and relatively affordable form of energy. We could try to limit the use of automobiles and trucks, but few people (in the West at least) live anywhere near the farms or mining sites where the key sustaining goods of our society come from. Those ears of corn and bags of potatoes are going to have to travel to us, or we to them, but either way, traveling is going to take place.
In the authors’ collective minds, collapsology is about coming to terms with the reality of the systems all around us and just reading the dials. It’s about accepting tipping points, discontinuities, and other non-linear paths in these systems and projecting what they mean for our own lives and those of others. It’s a call to reality, rather than a call to arms. Just look, the authors practically say.
While the first half of the book is mostly centered around exploring systems and how they inter-connect, the second half of the work explores us as humans, and debating collapsology as a phenomenon. Is it too negative? Why do we have psychological barriers that prevent us from seeing the fragility of our ecosystems and our planet? How will art and movies and books adapt to our new context? How are we going to respond to the challenges that are about to confront us in a much more visceral way? The answers — when they are available — are interesting if not always novel.
It’s fascinating to see a bit of a cultural counterpoint to the American sensibility. In some ways, collapsology is just the latest manifestation of French existentialism, updated for the twenty-first century. The book doesn’t provide solutions, nor does it necessarily argue that progress must happen or even that it could happen. Instead, it just observes the human condition, and the conditions around humans. Humans are diverse, and they are going to react to the cataclysm in the diverse ways one would come to expect.
The book offers no solution and paints a dreary future that’s just on the cusp of dystopia. But the title is fascinating, since it posits a conditional rather than an assurance. The world “can collapse” not that it “will collapse.” A reader will be forgiven for thinking the latter is the case the book is making, but ultimately, Servigne and Stevens believe that the only way to avoid collapse is to fully see the world in all its complexity. Collapsology then is really anti-collapsology, or deeply understanding the brittleness of our systems before the limits are reached. That’s a refreshingly intellectual point of view, if not necessary a salve to the fears we read and see and feel every day.
How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times by Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens. Translated from French by Andrew Brown.
Wiley, 2020, 250 pages
Originally published as “Comment tout peut s’effondrer: Petit Manuel de collapsologie à l’usage des générations présentes”
The climate is finally hitting a climax. Decades of discussions and reports by scientists have yielded pathbreaking works by writers like Elizabeth Kolbert, and today, climate fiction and non-fiction are even becoming global bestselling works. Everyone wants to read about collapse, dystopia, the aftermath — it’s in the very air we breathe after all, what with the IPCC just reporting once again that all numbers point hotter, redder, and closer to us than ever.
The shelves of climate change books extend ever farther, and yet, one can’t help but feel that not much is changing about such a dynamic topic. There are always more details to unravel of course: another species that’s meeting the end of its precarious existence, a river that no longer flows, a town losing its last sparks of civilization. Yet, we know the tropes and the typical plots at this point (or just deny any of it is happening so it doesn’t matter anyway). The most challenging problem on the Earth today is, frankly, getting a bit repetitive.
The upshot is that there are still original works, works that push the edges of our understanding, reformulate some of the old tropes, and can deliver a forceful punch that unmoors our thinking and forces us to confront the familiar destruction with a new empathy.
I wanted to find the most intriguing books for engineers and technologists who are interested in more systematic ways for understanding what is happening to our planet. Not so much on point solutions (although we have one book on that), but rather books that can develop our thinking about how to understand the changes that are by now inevitably coming.
And so, I picked out and reviewed six books that I think represent a strong canon by which to develop our intuitions about climate change, not just as an environmental problem, but as an economic, social, and personal one as well. They range from systems-thinking analyses and prototypical non-fiction to personal reflections and an atmospheric novel. Each in its own way can help us come to terms with what will be the most challenging collective mission in our lives.
Call it beach reading, while that beach is still there.
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
Our beloved Danny was back, joining Natasha and Alex and Grace and Chris to chat through yet another incredibly busy week. As a window into our process, every week we tell one another that the next week we’ll cut the show down to size. Then the week is so interesting that we end up cutting a lot of news, but also keeping a lot of news. The chaotic process is a work in progress, but it means that the end result is always what we decided we can’t not talk about.
Here’s what we got into:
Lowercarbon Capital, a climate-tech focused fund founded by longtime investor Chris Sacca and his wife Crystal Sacca, has closed on $800 million in capital, Sacca announced today in a post on the firm’s site.
According to Sacca, the commitments came exceedingly fast — in “just a few days.” Writes Sacca: “It turns out that raising for a climate fund in the context of an unprecedented heatwave and from behind the thick clouds of fire smoke probably didn’t hurt. In fact, all that pollution may have lent a warm, beautifying haze to our Zoom calls. Like an Incendiary Doom Glow Insta filter.”
The interest is far from surprising given the mounting and rather stark evidence that life as humans know it is in peril, owing to rising temperatures. On the heels of a deadly floods in Western Germany and China, wildfires in Greece and California, and in advance of yet another heat wave for which people in the Pacific Northwest are currently bracing, a new report released Monday by the United Nations’ climate science research group was clear about the current state of affairs, declaring a “code red for humanity.”
Certainly, some of Lowercarbon’s backers are interested in tech that’s working to reverse some of these trends. But as Sacca notes, if they’re purely focused on the financial rewards that climate-focused tech can reap, that’s fine, too.
“We are thrilled to see how many investors understand the urgency of the climate crisis and are already dedicating their time, as well as their capital, to real solutions,” he says in his post. “However, to be frank, we were also heartened by those investors who actually don’t care that much about the planet and instead are just chasing financial returns.”
Lowercarbon’s very thesis is that “massive change will happen because these types of investments will pay off for sheer business reasons alone,” he adds.
In addition to the Saccas, Lowercarbon is being run by Clay Dumas, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based partner who the firm describes as its most active investor. Though the Harvard grad hasn’t been in the venture world long — first joining up with Sacca in 2017 to join his earlier firm Lowercase Capital as a partner — he understands the world of politics in a way that few, more “traditional” VCs, might.
After opening a field office for the campaign to elect Barack Obama in 2008, he went on to serve as an aide in the White House to the-then Deputy Chief of Staff and later worked (again in the White House) for the Office of Digital Strategy.
Lowercarbon’s many dozens of bets to date include Heart Aerospace, a three-year-old, Göteborg, Sweden-based startup at work on an electric regional airliner to which the firm wrote a seed check (and more recently wrote a follow-on check); Holy Grail, a two-year-old, Mountain View, Ca.-based startup that’s prototyping a direct air carbon capture device that is modular and small (it announced seed funding in June); and Cervest, a six-year-old, London-based climate risk platform that says it provides commercial and government entities access to current, historic, and predictive views about how combined weather risks can impact the assets they own. The last raised $30 million in May.
Sacca, who became well-known for his early and outsize bets on both Twitter and Uber, was somewhat famously a judge on the popular TV show “Shark Tank” for several seasons before quitting the show — and venture capital — in 2017, saying he had always intended to retire at age 40. (At the time, he was 42.)
Sacca’s growing concern regarding climate change — and his lack of faith that politicians can make a dent in reversing it — prompted him to rethink that decision. As he told Forbes in March: “We think that markets might actually hold the key to unf***ing the planet.”
According to an Axios report from June of last year, Lowercarbon was originally structured as a family office with tens of millions of dollars to deploy. As of the middle of last year, the only outside money it had accepted was for a “few special-purpose vehicles with institutional investors from Sacca’s prior funds,” the outlet reported.
Now, with a fresh $800 million to invest — the capital will be divided into four funds — Sacca & Co. appear to be fully back to work. In fact, we’ll be talking with Sacca next month at TechCrunch Disrupt; to hear what’s top of mind for him right now, you won’t want to miss that conversation.
Market timing — how relevant an idea is to the current state and direction of a market — is the most important factor in determining the durability of that idea.
Several inputs inform market timing: The skew of consumer preferences in response to a pandemic. The price of goods for a resource that is finite and becoming scarce. The creation of a novel algorithmic or genetic technique that enlarges the potential of what can be streamlined, repaired and built.
But market timing is also defined by a less discussed area that is born not in capital markets but in the public sector — the regulatory landscape — namely, the decisions of government, the broader legal system and its combined level of scrutiny toward a particular subject.
We can understand the successes and challenges of several valuable companies today based on their combustion with the regulatory landscape.
We can understand the successes and challenges of several valuable companies today based on their combustion with the regulatory landscape, and perhaps also use it as an optic to see what areas represent unique opportunities for new companies to start and scale.
“The tech comes in and moves faster than regulatory regimes do, or can control it,” Uber co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick said at The Aspen Institute in 2013.
The brash statement downplayed that the regulatory landscape had, in fact, driven a number of pivotal outcomes for the company up to that event. It changed its name from UberCab to Uber after receiving a cease-and-desist order in its first market, California. Several early employees left because of the startup’s regulatory challenges and iconoclastic ethos. It shut down its taxi service in New York after just a month of operations, and then in early 2013 received its lifeline in the city after being approved through a pilot program.
Fast forward to the present, and Uber has a market cap of about $82 billion, with the ousted Kalanick having a personal net worth in the neighborhood of $2.8 billion.
Still, even at its scale, many of its most important questions on growth centered around how favorably the regulatory landscape would treat its category. Most recently, this came with the U.K. Supreme Court ruling that Uber drivers could not be classified as independent contractors.
The regulatory fabric has had similar leverage over other sharing-economy companies. In October 2014, for example, Airbnb’s business model became viable in San Francisco when Mayor Ed Lee legalized short-term rentals. In November 2015, Proposition F in the city aimed to restrict short-term rentals like Airbnb, and the startup spent millions in advertisements to mobilize voters in opposition.
Airbnb’s current market cap stands at $92 billion, and its CEO, Brian Chesky, has an estimated net worth over $11 billion. Like Uber, its regulatory tribulations continue, most recently being fined and judged to owe $9.6 million to the city of Paris.
The stories of these two companies and others in the sharing economy space demonstrate the value that the regulatory fabric can add or subtract from a company’s wealth, but also underscore the value — for founding teams, early employees, investors and customers — of navigating the gray areas.
The present regulatory fabric has precipitated market timing for ideas in a number of categories. Solutions that enable data privacy, like BigID, and ones that embed data privacy into larger customer value propositions, like Blotout, are on streamlined growth tailwinds from the GDPR in Europe and their inspired analogs in the U.S.
This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its major sixth assessment report on the physical science of climate change. The details are grim, if getting more precise, as better and more comprehensive data becomes available. As my colleague Mike Butcher summarized yesterday, it’s “stern and blunt in its conclusions.”
While many of the themes of the report will be familiar to any person not living under (an ever increasingly hot) rock, one part jumped out at me as I was perusing the documents. The working group assessed that regardless of mitigation and adaptation strategies, many of the negative changes happening to Earth will continue unabated in all future scenarios. From the summary report:
Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level. […] Mountain and polar glaciers are committed to continue melting for decades or centuries (very high confidence). Loss of permafrost carbon following permafrost thaw is irreversible at centennial timescales (high confidence) …
In short, there is already momentum toward a warmer and more chaotic world, and we have limited tools to stop many of these trends.
There has been a rush of initiatives, investments and startups bubbling around the theme of climate tech, with projects focused on everything from improving the yields and decreasing the emissions of agriculture and food production, to improving the power grid, and to reducing the emissions from air conditioning in buildings. Those initiatives are fine and important, but they don’t get at one of the toughest challenges facing us this century: that disasters are here, they are coming and they are going to continue to get more intense as the century rolls on.
Just this past week, we have seen the second-largest fire in California’s state history with the Dixie Fire, currently blazing across hundreds of thousands of acres in the northern reaches of the state. Meanwhile in Greece, hundreds of wildfires are causing an unprecedented crisis in that country. Droughts, floods, hurricanes, typhoons and more are intensifying and ravaging ever more billions of people across every continent.
One response to solving this problem is improving resilience — building up cities and structures as well as food and water systems that are fortified against these natural calamities. Many of those projects though are costly and also time-consuming, measured over the course of decades rather than months.
Instead, we need a more immediate push to develop better disaster response technology today. I’ve covered a wide segment of these companies over the past few months. There’s RapidSOS, which is adding more data into emergency calls to make responses faster and more efficient. There’s Qwake, which raised $5.5 million to build hardware and cloud services to allow firefighters to visualize their environments in smoky conditions. Meanwhile, YC-backed Gridware has also raised more than $5 million to create sensors to identify failures in the power grid faster.
In short, there are a growing crop of disaster tech startups — but more are going to be needed to fight the panoply of disasters that will strike in the years ahead.
There’s so much to do: better mental health resources for victims and first responders, easier access to recovery funds to heal lives, higher-quality sensors and data analyses to identify disasters earlier, faster logistics to evacuate people out of harm’s way. In fact, there are quite literally dozens of fields that need more investment and founder attention.
It’s not an easy market, as I pointed out in an analysis of sales cycles. Budgets are tight, disasters are random, and technology is often an afterthought. In some ways though, that friction is a font of creativity — how to build these next-generation of services and how to sell them is the risk that leads to the potential high return.
As the IPCC’s report made clear this week, the chaotic weather and intense disasters we’ve seen the past few decades aren’t going to abate any time soon. But with ingenuity, we can respond better to the disasters that are already on their way, and save lives and treasure in the process.
It’s not too late to enjoy an epic pitch-off of global proportion. The Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC) Global Finals start today, July 22 at 9:00 am (PT). Register here for free, get instant access and tune in to see seven phenomenal startups — each one tackling some of the world’s most daunting social and environmental challenges.
The day also includes a keynote address from Beth Bechdol, the deputy director-general, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, and five panel discussions ranging from powering clean energy startups to going green. Here are just two examples, and be sure to check out the event agenda so you don’t miss a minute.
Powering the Future Through Transformative Tech: XTC’s co-founders Young Sohn, Chairman of the Board at HARMAN International, and founding Managing Partner at Walden Catalyst, and Bill Tai, Partner Emeritus at Charles River Ventures jump into the breakthrough tech innovations that are transforming industries to build a radically better world. How can business, government, philanthropy, and the startup community come together to create a better tomorrow? Hear from these industry veterans and thought leaders about how technology can not only shape the future, but also where the biggest opportunities lie, including some exciting news about XTC and the FAO of the United Nations.
Cutting Out Carbon Emitters with Bioengineering: Bioengineering may soon provide compelling, low-carbon alternatives in industries where even the best methods produce significant emissions. By utilizing natural and engineered biological processes, we may soon have low-carbon textiles from Algiknit, lab-grown premium meats from Orbillion and fuels captured from waste emissions via LanzaTech. Leaders from these companies will join our panel to talk about how bioengineering can do its part in the fight against climate change.
The main event is, of course, the pitch competition. More than 3,700 startups applied, and these are the seven finalists who will compete one last time for the title of XTC 2021 champion.
In addition to choosing the winner of XTC 2021, the esteemed judges will announce the winners of the COVID-19 Innovation award, the Female Founder award, the Ethical AI award and the People’s Choice award.