Our culture, the issues facing it, and what we can do to address them.

Guerrilla Public Service

Richard Ankrom was fed up. LA's signage was deficient, so in 2001, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Here's Nate Rogers describing the problem for theLAnd:

For many years, if you were traveling north on the 110 in downtown Los Angeles and were intending to go north on the 5, there was no easily visible signage to prepare you for the sudden interchange. And it’s not just any interchange, either — it’s a strange corkscrew of an exit on the left side of the freeway, sneaking up on you at the end of a tunnel. Without a decent amount of warning, you would very likely miss it — and plenty of people certainly did — ending up halfway to Pasadena before realizing what had happened.

Ankrom decided to create the sign that should have been there all along. He researched its design, cut the aluminum, painted it, and convinced the company that made the circular reflectors to give him some under the pretense of creating a film.

The film wasn't a total lie. Ankrom documented the project in a short video, and the whole thing is worth a watch:

Under cover of darkness on August 5, 2001, Ankrom climbed up a ladder and hung the sign above the highway. Thanks in part to his hardhat and safety vest, which helped him look like he belonged there, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) crew working nearby didn't stop him.

The most remarkable part of the project is that Ankrom did such a good job, Caltrans decided to keep his work up after they caught wind of the stunt when he released the video nine months later:

In a shocking moment of humility, they noted that, while they didn’t approve of Ankrom’s methods, they couldn’t deny the quality of his work. Not only would they not be pressing charges — they were going to leave his handiwork up.

The whole incident reminds me of this famous quote from Steve Jobs:

When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact:

Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it . . . Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.

Ankram's act of "guerrilla public service" blurred the line between performance art and genuine social contribution. His work is a powerful reminder that the way our world is designed isn't inevitable or immutable. It's shaped by the people with the motivation and ambition to change it.

You can, too.

Irrational Responses

According to the WHO, alcohol consumption led to the death of 3.3 million people in 2012.

That's one death every 10 seconds.

And for decades, consumption has been increasing.

In 2019, terrorism was responsible for 25,082 fatalities worldwide – a fraction of the impact that alcohol had. And yet, which gets more media attention?

Here's another example: According to estimates, climate changes already cause over 150,000 deaths every year. What would happen if we responded to this crisis if we took it as seriously as terrorism?

When we look beyond our emotional, instinctual responses, the world is often different than it first appears.

Opportunity Costs

When we see an enormous number, it's hard to understand just how big it is without putting it into context.

For example, Brown University estimates that the War in Afghanistan cost the US $2.313 trillion. We know that's a staggering sum, but just how big is it?

According to the UN, $300 billion is enough to stop the rise in greenhouse gases and buy us an additional 20 years to combat climate change. So, with the amount spent on the war in Afghanistan, you could hit pause on global warming for two decades and still have $2 trillion left over.

Want to eliminate all federal student loans? That will set you back another $1.6 trillion, leaving you with a cool $400 billion, which you could use to fund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) at its proposed level for next year ($201 million) for the next two thousand years.

That's not a typo. If you took all the money that was spent on the Afghanistan War, bought the earth 20 more years to fight climate change, and forgave all federal student debt with it, you'd still have enough money left over to fund the NEA until the year 4022.

So here's the question: If we framed spending policies not in terms of dollar amounts, but in terms of the real and tangible opportunity costs associated with those policies, would we make the same decisions?

Postscript: Here's a fun comparison to end on. Setting aside the development and launch costs, the price tag for NASA's Curiosity rover's primary 98-week mission was $116 million. The 2015 film The Martian cost $108 million to make. This means that making a Hollywood movie that takes place on Mars and actually operating a robot on the planet for a couple years cost about the same.

Shark-Infested Waters

By the time you’re in a situation that involves “shark-infested waters,” the water is actually people-infested. It’s the shark’s home, and you’re intruding. You'd be mad, too, if a shark showed up unannounced in your kitchen.

So often we like to think that we are in control over nature, but we must learn to coexist and even collaborate with it, rather than trying to bend it to our will. It's not a choice – it's the only way forward.

There's hope, though. A Warsaw pumping station is working with clams to monitor drinking water pollution. When the water becomes unfit, they clam up and trigger an alert, thanks to a sensor attached to them.

And in Cape Cod, towns are exploring using shellfish as an inexpensive way to remove excess nitrogen from the water.

Ideally, we wouldn't pollute our water in the first place. But by nurturing the Earth's own tools for restoring nature's equilibrium, we can ensure a brighter future not just for our own species, but for many others as well.

Hat tip to my friend @_KDarby_ for sharing the Warsaw clam story with me.

The Cost of Luxury

A new billboard near my apartment is advertising pizzas for $5.99/each when you buy two or more.

Earlier this week, I ordered a 2 TB external hard drive for $65 at 7:56pm. It was delivered for free less than 10 hours later.

You've probably sent or received dozens of emails today. Just imagine what exchanging all of those messages would have involved 30 years ago.

The conveniences we have today were unimaginable for the vast majority of human history, even to the richest members of society. Cheap calories, instant gratification, and constant communication – these are just a few of the many luxuries we take for granted.

As a society, we are wealthy by most traditional measures, thanks to the technological revolutions of the past couple centuries. The next revolution is figuring out how to balance this progress with its impact on our health, local economies, mental wellbeing, and more.

We’re an innovative species, and I wouldn’t bet against our ability to solve the challenges that face us. But the question remains: What are we willing to compromise in the name of progress?

A More Perfect Union

When I was little, I have a distinct memory of my father standing by the entrance of the living room, still in his work clothes, watching the news. The TV showed a clip of the president, dressed in a full suit, giving a speech about Iraq.

Congress had recently given the president a green light to wage war on terror anywhere in the world, and he was already abusing the power with Operation Iraqi Freedom – a severely misguided response to 9/11 that was so openly jingoistic, it even had a made-for-TV brand name. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis were being killed for the sin of living under an oppressive regime that wasn’t even responsible for 9/11.

Dad started to say something mean about the president, then reluctantly stopped short, explaining that no matter how much you may dislike or disagree with the person in power, people with such a high level of distinction deserve a baseline attitude of civility and respect.

Years later, in the same room, I witnessed his father also stop himself short of expressing contempt for the commander in chief. "Far be it for me to say something mean about the president of the United States."

The notion that the president still merited a minimum level of respect from people, even while speaking in the privacy of their own homes, struck me as a little odd. Their comments stood out to me, because I grew up around people who erred on the side of questioning authority, including both of them.

Though I didn’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment, their attitude seemed like a product of the rapidly fading, old-world order of the 20th century: A world where most men in white collar jobs were expected to wear ties to work every day. A world where wars were declared against other countries and fought only after being formally authorized by congress. A world where massive companies controlled all of the media’s distribution channels and spoke about the country’s leaders with respect, even when being critical of their performance.

I remember a certain resignation in Dad’s voice and body language. In that moment, he seemed to have realized that the onslaught of 24 hour cable news channels, emboldened in the aftermath of 9/11, and combined with the internet’s rapid democratization of the media’s distribution, meant that his attitude would soon seem anachronistic.

Dad finished his remark and went to the kitchen to make dinner, since Mom would be home from work soon. This household may have adhered to traditional social expectations of civility, dignity, and respect, but that didn’t mean 20th century gender norms had to stick around too.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now over. As we mark the 20th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attacks on American soil, it's clear that the post-9/11 era has come to a close. Earlier this year, the events of January 6th – fueled by sensationalist media and the rhetoric of elected officials – showed the world that the biggest threat to American democracy is no longer external.

Dad rarely wears a tie to work anymore, even when he does go into the office. I wouldn’t either, if I were him, and I don’t miss the world where that was the norm.

But we’ve lost something valuable since then. And it’s up to each of us to bring it back.

Postscript: Jon Stewart's emotional first address to his audience in the aftermath of 9/11 is worth watching today. "Any fool can destroy, but to see these guys, these firefighters, these policemen, and people from all over the country literally with buckets rebuilding, that's extraordinary. We've already won."

Building Cathedrals

Some of the greatest cathedrals in the world were constructed over multiple generations. The workers who toiled to bring these great buildings to life knew that the architect's designs for them were so ambitious, they were unlikely to live to see the finished structure.

The York Minster, for example, began construction around the year 1230 and was completed in 1472. Today, when you walk into the nave of the cathedral, you can't help but feel inspired by it's transcendent, vaulted ceilings and stunning array of stained glass windows.

Photo of the York Minster's vaulted ceiling
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

In a culture addicted to immediate gratification, it can be hard to imagine working on a project that even your grandkids may not see finished. But many of the more intangible projects humanity currently faces, like reversing climate change and eliminating systemic social inequity, may very well take more than a generation to complete.

We benefit every day from the work that those who came before us did to ensure that others would someday benefit. Their work is a gift, and we can honor them by continuing to pay it forward for future generations.


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