Topic

Society

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

Suspended in a Sunbeam

Yesterday, I wrote about resilience – how our species gets stronger as we become more connected.

Today, I'd like to put those words into action. The war on Ukraine is evil and cruel. It reflects humanity at its worst.

But the internet makes it easy to deliver money and resources to the people who need them most. The web, when used for good, is humanity at its best.

To that end, I hope you'll consider donating to Support Hospitals in Ukraine, an organization that has partnered with Project CURE to deliver millions of dollars of humanitarian medical cargo to Ukraine since 2014.

I am matching subscriber donations up to a total of $150. Just forward your donation confirmation to me at john@johnmacgaffey.com by 1pm ET on Sunday to get it matched.

And since my employer will also match my contribution, every dollar you donate will go a long way for those in need.


In lieu of a traditional post today, I'm sharing the words of the astronomer Carl Sagan. The following is an excerpt from his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. It's a timeless call to action – a call for kindness and compassion, for we must find a way to share the only home we have:

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Resilience

In a globalized world, it's no longer possible to constrain an attack to a single country. We're too connected for that.

Attacking a country is now an attack on the world order. The atrocities are livestreamed, and the aftershocks reach people on the other side of the globe: Friends lost to violence, coworkers displaced, supply chain disruption, inflation, falling stock markets, fuel shortages, and on and on.

This interconnectedness has its fair share of challenges, but it also makes humanity stronger.

When we zoom out and look at the long arc of the post-WWII world, there is much to celebrate and be hopeful about: Extreme poverty, hunger, and the number of people who die in state-sponsored violence each year has been falling.

In other words, suffering – when measured through these lenses – is going down over time.

A single dictator can’t reverse that trend.

We’re too resilient for that.

Without a Map

When the Egyptians built the pyramids, there were no blueprints to follow at first.

When FDR implemented the New Deal, America had never simultaneously created so many new social safety nets to stabilize the economy before.

And when Ann Tsukamoto and her colleagues identified and isolated stem cells for the first time, they had to make up the process for doing so.

All progress is made without a map. If you're feeling lost, that might be a good thing. You could just be making headway for everyone else to come.

Default to Progress

Countries that make becoming an organ donor opt-out by default, rather than opt-in, have higher percentages of organ donors.

The research across industries is clear: Changing the defaults we present people with has a significant impact on the choices they make. Reducing the friction between people and the decision you want them to make is incredibly powerful.

Whether you're encouraging people to get a vaccine, volunteer at their local food pantry, or purchase your services, concentrate on making it easy.

Our society is the product of millions of smaller decisions we all make. And when we choose to design the default options available to people with care, we're choosing to default to progress.

Convenience Wins

If you've ever reached for a box of crackers instead of preparing fresh vegetables, you know how difficult it can be to choose the better option when there's more friction involved. Convenience wins.

I’ve written previously about how Stripe makes it easy to add payments to your app or service by offering a layer of abstraction for payment processing. But they also make it easy to donate 1% of your business’ revenue to fund carbon removal through their Stripe Climate initiative.

As you would expect, enabling this couldn't be any simpler: It only takes a single click to turn it on.

How many businesses do you think would be donating 1% of their revenue to the climate if it wasn’t this easy? Probably very few.

One of the reasons our climate is in trouble is because convenience often comes with a heavier carbon footprint.

But by creating systems where the healthiest option (for us and the planet) is just as easy, we can nudge the world in the right direction.

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?

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