Plastics: “The New Coal”

Plastics have yielded life-saving medical advances, supercharged technological advancements, helped send us to space, and transformed our lives in innumerable ways. But they are poisoning our people and our planet.

Plastics are ubiquitous. They’ve yielded life-saving medical advances, supercharged technological advancements, helped send us to space, and transformed our lives in innumerable ways. But they are poisoning our people and our planet. Move over, Industrial Age. Welcome to the Plastics Age.

The Human Cost

You, yes you, literally consume a credit card’s worth of plastic each week. Each. Week. Most of it comes from our drinking water (found in 90% of bottled water and 83 % of tap). Microplastics, first identified in the 1970s, don’t only contaminate the water and air, they’re also found in the fruits and vegetables we eat, deep in our lungs, our bloodstreams, and even in the placentas of human fetuses. Phatalates, which make plastics flexible, are linked to breast cancer, asthma, type 2 diabetes, obesity, autism spectrum disorders, reproductive issues, and a myriad of other health problems. And beyond that, certain compounds found in plastics have recently been found to release far more toxic chemicals than previously thought, causing cancer, memory loss, disrupting our endocrine systems, and who knows what else.

Plastics are an environmental justice issue. The resulting pollution and ill health more acutely affects Black and brown people and low-income communities around the world. According to a 2021 report from the United Nations, “the impacts of plastics on marginalized populations are severe, and exist at all stages of the production cycle, from extracting raw materials and manufacturing, through to consumption and disposal.”

We dispose of plastic in unjust ways. The U.S shipped 1.4 billion pounds of plastic trash overseas in 2020, largely to developing nations where it is often burned in public, discarded in waterways, or dumped into open pits due to insufficient waste management infrastructure. Sometimes called “waste colonialism,” this practice damages the health of local communities and carries a heavy carbon footprint.

And domestically, petrochemical and plastics manufacturing plants cause similarly unjust burdens on disadvantaged communities. Nearly 90% of reported pollution from U.S. plastics manufacturing is released into just 18 communities located mostly in Louisiana and Texas. Residents of the predominantly Black and low-income communities in “cancer alley” along the Mississippi River, for example, face severely elevated risks of cancer and report an unusually high incidence of miscarriages.

Environmental Impact

Plastic pollution and plastic production both continue to accelerate. Every minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck filled with plastic is dumped into our oceans. During that same minute more than 1 million plastic bags are used – each with a “working life” of only 15 minutes. Half of all plastics ever manufactured were made in the last 15 years, and production is currently expected to double by 2050. The depressing statistics just keep coming. The Unites States produced 35.7 million tons of plastic waste in 2018, more than 90% of which was dumped in landfills or burned.

From the peaks of the Himalayas to the deepest trenches in the ocean, plastic contamination is found everywhere. We’re all familiar with the haunting images of sea turtles with straws jammed in their noses, seagulls strangled by six pack rings, and whales stuffed full of plastic trash. That’s just the tip of the melting iceberg.

But if nature isn’t your thing, consider the economics. The UN estimates the societal cost of plastic used in the consumer goods sector is $75 billion each year, because of “financial impacts resulting from issues such as pollution of the marine environment or air pollution caused by incinerating plastic.”

“The New Coal”

Plastics are not only a pollution and people problem, they’re a direct contributor to the climate crisis, contrary to what many seem to believe. A sobering report from Beyond Plastics details the greenhouse gas emissions of the industry, and calls plastics “the new coal.” To provide context, if plastics were a country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, surpassing all but China, the U.S., India and Russia. The U.S. plastic industry’s contribution to climate change is on track to exceed that of coal-fired power generation by 2030. According to the report, the U.S. industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of CO2 emissions per year – equivalent to 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

And of course using plastic means using fossil fuels. By 2050, plastics are projected to account for 20% of global fossil fuel consumption.

So Where’s the Regulation?

Governments, unsurprisingly, have been slow to act. But glimmers of hope are emerging. In March, UN member states endorsed a landmark agreement that “addresses the full lifecycle of plastic from source to sea” and agreed to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee that will forge a global agreement on plastic pollution. In California, the attorney general just issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil for information on its role in causing the global plastic waste crisis. Inspired by an NPR and PBS Frontline report revealing that the fossil fuel industry financed a decades long, multi-billion dollar advertising campaign to mislead the public about recycling, the AG’s move is part of a broader investigation into “half-century campaign of deception and the ongoing harm caused to the State of California.” And more than a dozen states are considering laws requiring manufacturers, rather than taxpayers, to cover the cost of recycling, following Maine’s lead.

Where’s the Innovation?

Plastics are an inextricable part of human life at this point. To achieve the kind of “de-plasticization” we need will require major changes in products, business practices, and everyday lifestyles. A shift this massive will take time. We need to start now.

The global plastics market accounted for $621.9 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $758.6 billion by 2025. Plastic is big money and the entire sector is ripe for innovation. Startups are beginning to revolutionize packaging, recycling, and waste management, using bio-tech, AI, robots, and innovative circular economy models. Venture capital is starting to wake up to the opportunities.

Next week, we’ll continue examining plastic, taking a look at some companies disrupting the industry.

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Exxon Doubles Down on ‘Advanced Recycling’ Claims that Yield Few Results

The petroleum company is under investigation for misleading the public while exacerbating the global plastic pollution crisis.

Accused of misleading the public for decades on the promise of plastic recycling, oil and chemical companies are pushing a new idea: “advanced recycling”. Environmental advocates, however, say it’s more of the same old greenwash and litigators hope holding companies accountable for past lies might prevent the spread of a new one.

In late April, California attorney general Rob Bonta launched an investigation into ExxonMobil for its role in exacerbating the global plastic pollution crisis. Bonta says he was partly inspired by a 2020 investigation from NPR and Frontline that showed how companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Dow and Dupont were aware of the inefficacy of plastic recycling, yet they still strategized marketing campaigns that told a different story to the public.

For oil companies, those campaigns often included removing themselves from the story altogether. Even some climate advocates forget that plastic, which is made from either petroleum or ethane (a byproduct of fracking), is very much part of the climate crisis. Bonta says his investigation started with ExxonMobil because they’ve been a leader, in the plastics industry and in the messaging around recycling. A report out last year from the Mindaroo Foundation found that just 100 companies produce 90% of the world’s plastic pollution. It pinpointed ExxonMobil as the top producer in the world of single-use plastic.

In a statement responding to the investigation, ExxonMobil said it is “focused on solutions” like building the first “commercial-scale advanced recycling technology” and that “meritless allegations like these distract from the important collaborative work that is under way”.

But like regular old recycling, “advanced recycling” has so far shown little to no results.

Also known as pyrolysis or chemical recycling, the process entails using various chemical processes to turn plastic into other materials. The most common approach is warming plastic at very high heat to turn it into a low-grade fossil fuel, which can then be used either as fuel or as a feedstock for more plastic.

The technology is still in its infancy, but early studies have found that like earlier versions of plastic recycling, the “advanced” method is expensive, and that it’s difficult to collect and effectively recycle a wide variety of plastics. It also delivers few environmental benefits, not just because it’s used to create either fuel or more plastic, but also because the process itself is emissions intensive. One study commissioned by plastic manufacturers themselves found that advanced recycling generated more greenhouse gases than either landfilling plastic or burning it.

The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, a trade group for the chemical industry, has been pushing advanced recycling since China shut its borders to used plastic in 2018. The group has also been lobbying state governments to exempt their recycling process from various environmental regulations – 18 states have laws on the books that either side-step certain government oversight or designate advanced recycling facilities as eligible for subsidies.

It’s part of a strategy former Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy called “getting ahead of government intervention” in a video interview with the Greenpeace-funded investigative journalism site UnEarthed in 2021. The journalists went undercover as corporate recruiters and got McCoy talking about various lobbying strategies on climate change. “The issue is going to be disposal and recycling of plastics,” McCoy said in previously unpublished portions of the interview that were shared with the Guardian. He also noted that the ACC has been working on this issue “almost exclusively, because [federal regulators] are talking about banning plastics and a lot of it has to do with plastics in the ocean and in waterways”.

A new report out this week from the groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup found that plastic recycling rates have actually fallen in the US since the emergence of “advanced recycling” in 2018, from its highest ever point of 9% to less than 6% today, compared with a 66% recycling rate for paper.

“They’re finally kind of admitting that recycling hasn’t worked,” Beyond Plastics president Judith Enck said of groups like ACC and its members that have been lobbying against environmental protections. “And it doesn’t work by design. It’s not like they’re surprised by this. They knew all along it wouldn’t work.”

And the plastic pollution crisis isn’t likely to let up. As Bonta noted in his investigation, the fossil fuel industry has spurred the expansion of plastic for years to come. “It’s their plan B as we reduce the use of fossil fuels in transportation and buildings,” he said. The International Energy Agency has said this as well, predicting that plastic production, which is forecasted to double by 2040, will be the biggest growth market for the oil industry over the next decade.

McCoy noted that oil companies like his former employer ExxonMobil were uniquely suited to handle the increased scrutiny on plastics because they could use the same strategy they have deployed on climate change. “You want to get smart on it, because you know it’s coming,” he said.

Environmental sociologist Dr Rebecca Altman, author of the forthcoming book An Intimate History of Plastics, points to the history of Exxon’s forefather, Standard Oil, as one of the four original companies that created the modern petrochemical industry. Mobil Oil also introduced the plastic grocery bag to American stores. “They really commercialized that and took on the paper bag, which was sort of the last bastion of paper in the US supermarket by the 1970s,” Altman said.

That meant Mobil was also entrenched in the various PR battles that the chemical and energy industries were dealing with in the 1970s. “The [petrochemical] industry was really trying to figure out: how do we show our positive value? And the answer was positive advertising and then working behind the scenes on energy policy and dealing with the first wave of environmental legislation,” Altman said. “And then in the 1980s and 1990s you have this big recycling boom.”

Bonta says he’d love to see advanced recycling work, but right now it’s just “words on paper”. A 2021 Reuters investigation found several examples of failed advanced recycling programs, noting that out of 30 projects operating around the world, all were either still operating on a modest scale or had shut down, and more than half were years behind schedule on previously announced commercial plans. A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council published in March noted that even when it “works” advanced recycling is not an environmentally friendly solution.

Bonta says his investigation will include not only what the industry said about recycling in the past, but also the way it is marketing advanced recycling today. The inquiry may very well broaden to include other companies, or trade groups like the ACC. “We’ll go where the documents lead us,” he said. As to whether the investigation might become a lawsuit, Bonta says that is “absolutely” a possibility. “We’re not investigating just to investigate,” he said.

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How Catastrophe Bonds Help Mitigate the Impact of Climate Change

By transferring the risk of natural disasters, countries improve economic resilience and have greater access to capital to provide relief to citizens if an extreme weather event does occur.

While the effects of climate change are severe and interconnected, collaboration among global stakeholders is growing to lessen its effects, and that can only be positive. In the financial sector, the best-kept secret may be a relatively young asset class known as catastrophe bonds.

Catastrophe bonds (or “cat bonds”), which mark their 25th anniversary as an asset class  this year, were created to diversify risk for insurers and increase coverage after the dual disasters of Florida’s Hurricane Andrew and California’s Northridge earthquake. The effect on the entire insurance industry could have been disastrous if Andrew had hit just 25 miles south in the city of Miami. Some might assume the insurance industry could have achieved sufficient insulation from too much loss through the use of reinsurance (i.e., the insurance of insurance by specialized players) and retrocessional insurance (that’s the insurance of insurance of, yes, insurance). Those tools helped, and in many cases still do, effectively. But in a time of increasingly severe weather events, an even deeper level of protection is necessary. As a result, cat bonds have become increasingly popular.

Last year, the insurance industry faced $343 billion in climate-related catastrophic losses, making it the third costliest year on record. The differential between economic losses and insured losses (aka the “protection gap”) was 62 percent. In total, there were over 400 environmental disasters—fewer than in 2020 but they were generally more extreme and more expensive. Also in 2021, Death Valley in California experienced the highest temperature on Earth ever recorded. Cat bonds meet the moment by transferring insurance risk to the wider capital market, which can absorb exponentially more losses.

The structures of this insurance-linked security (ILS) are sophisticated, and Aon, a leading global professional services firm, is leading the way. Says Paul Schultz, the CEO of Aon Securities, the largest structurer of catastrophe bonds, which, since the market’s inception in 1997, has provided its services to clients in 39% of all issuances: “We spend a lot of our time talking to and educating the markets about catastrophe bonds.”

So here’s how they operate, in relatively simple terms: Working with institutional clients, for the most part (deals typically start around $100 million) Aon and other structuring agents act as an investment bank in the transaction. They collaborate with clients to create a Special Purpose Vehicle, or SPV, that issues the bond, to develop the structure of the bond—which specifies which risks, whether hurricanes, earthquakes, floods et al., are covered—–and to determine how they will place it in the marketplace. Then, they communicate with investors to complete the deal. During the term of such bonds, usually three years, the funds are kept in a dedicated account. If the insured catastrophic event occurs, the money goes toward covering losses. If it doesn’t, investors get it back with interest attached. There are roughly three types of “triggers” for payouts: “indemnity,” which is closely aligned with actual losses incurred by the transaction’s sponsoring insurance company or insured; “industry loss,” which is similar to indemnity but aligned with losses incurred by the insurance industry as a whole; and “parametric,” which is based on a catastrophe’s physical characteristics, like a windstorm that occurs within a certain number of miles from a particular city, at a particular velocity. Those on both sides of the transaction like such vehicles because they have low correlation to financial markets, offering diversification from other types of investments, and historically they’ve offered better returns than conventional high-yield bonds.

To keep this investment as safe as possible both for protection buyers and for investors, sound analytical methods to calculate risk are necessary. And in the case of cat bonds, these are again novel. The traditional insurance industry credo that the-past-is-the-best-predictor-of-the-future isn’t as applicable when so little historical data exists for the kind of increasingly severe weather and climate events that were previously considered rare. Floods are one example. For perils that have data quality issues, there are non-indemnity triggers (i.e. parametric and index based solutions) that can help fill the gap. Predictive forward-looking modeling, which uses thousands of data points to assess a catastrophe’s probability and cost, is also key to helping shape better decisions. Aon is also a leader on this front.

Schultz notes that his division uses multiple commercial modeling types but that Aon also has its own “Impact Forecasting” team, a catastrophe modeling center of excellence that can help create a “better and a tighter fit for clients than you could if you relied on one single data point.” Aon, which advised on over half of the cat bonds issued last year, also has a strategic alliance with artificial intelligence and machine learning company Zesty.ai to develop first-of-their-kind models for severe convective storms and floods.

Among Aon’s clients is Arch Capital Group, which worked with the firm to structure a $150 million deal that covered a wide range of catastrophe types globally—and was Arch’s first such bond in the property arena. Emmanuel Durousseau, head of retrocession and ILS at Arch Reinsurance, says, “This deal is a good complement to our overall strategy. The multi-peril, multi-region and multi-year aspects make it more capital intensive for traditional solutions, which are subject to the annual fluctuations of their market. This is where ILS can bring value to the overall picture. The cat bond allows some syndication by delivering size that would have been constrained under a private structure.”

Commenting on Aon and its role in the deal, Durousseau says, “From a sponsor point of view, as the structuring agent and bookrunner, Aon brings knowledge, market relationships, and a global presence within the investor community.”

Some might ask, in the event of a significant climate event, how would this burgeoning asset class fare? “Hurricane Katrina is actually a good example of how the market expanded after a catastrophic event,” says Aon’s Schultz. “The market was still pretty small [before it] and the traditional insurance markets and reinsurance markets couldn’t provide enough capacity for all those that were looking to hedge hurricane risk in the U.S.” Cat bonds quickly grew to a $14 billion market and that growth has continued. A landmark $12.5 billion in cat bonds was issued in 2021, and there are now $32 billion of active cat bonds in the market.

When it comes to future development and trends, Schultz highlights opportunities for social impact, via relationships with governments, humanitarian organizations, and academic institutions. Aon has worked with the World Bank on several deals including the largest ever cat bond covering earthquakes, in Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, and another covering tropical cyclones that was sponsored by Jamaica—the first sponsored by a Caribbean country. The World Bank’s participation in issuing cat bonds highlights the fact that cat bonds are beneficial to governments and countries as well. By transferring the risk of natural disasters, countries improve their economic resilience and have greater access to capital to provide disaster relief to their citizens if an extreme weather event does occur. Particularly for underserved and emerging markets, cat bonds can offer an important economic lifeline.

Such structures are also groundbreaking because they allow investors across the globe to support economically disadvantaged countries, while potentially strengthening individual stakeholders and the broader industry as well. “We want to grow the entire market,” Schultz sums up. “But we also want to maximize the social impact from these transactions.”

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Hypocritical ‘Guns of Omaha’ Take Aim at Robinhood

For Buffett and Munger to slam Robinhood for behaving in the same way as their portfolio companies, is a hypocritical moral sham.

Back in February of last year, Robinhood ran their Super Bowl commercial arguing that investors aren’t made, but born.  That trading stock is as natural as sticking your thumb in your mouth and reaching for the mobile dangling over the crib.

My reaction was not subtle.  I wrote that:

“In an era where millions are easily seduced by immediate gratification and self-flattery, and suspicious of any kind of earned expertise, Robinhood’s “We Are All Investors” ad might be the most dangerously misleading commercial in Super Bowl history.”

Now a year later Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are echoing my sentiments, and have launched the ‘Guns of Omaha’ on Robinhood, with an apocalyptic Munger saying: “It was disgusting. Now it’s unraveling… God is getting just. … There’s been some justice.”

At last year’s Woodstock of capitalism, Munger also absurdly stated:  “We don’t want to make our money selling things that are bad for people.”  (For the record, here’s what drinking a can of Coke – 9.2% of the Berkshire portfolio – does to your body.)

Buffett has been on the record saying that Robinhood caters to the gambling instincts of investors and promotes casino-like behavior.

Do you hear something?  That noise is my hypocrisy meter going bonkers.

Activision, which represents over 9% of Berkshire Hathway’s portfolio, made $5.1 billion from in-game purchases in 2021.  That’s gambling with no chance of an economic victory, just the ability to get to the next level.

But wait, there’s even more.  Bank of America, which owns Merrill Lynch and represents 12.8% of the Berkshire portfolio, is sounding very much like Robinhood.   In fact, while Robinhood has pulled back from their “we are all natural investors” appeal – their website now modestly promises “Investing is Simple Here” – Merrill Lynch tells investors that their online trading platform gives you “guidance, insights and tools to confidently put your investing ideas into action.”

That’s no different than what the Robinhood platform offers.  You don’t need the experts, it promises, just your own good ideas.

Lastly, if Buffett and Munger are going to ride their moral high horses into battle with Robinhood, they need to explain why Itochu, which represents 5.6% of the portfolio, is continuing to do business with Russia.

I hold to my original perspective that preying on our cognitive biases, minimizing the expertise involved in investing, and manipulating hopefulness is wrong and I feel the same way about the proliferation of seductive online sports betting advertising unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision. For Buffett and Munger to slam Robinhood for behaving in the same way as their portfolio companies, is a hypocritical moral sham.

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For Buffett and Munger to slam Robinhood for behaving in the same way as their portfolio companies, is a hypocritical moral sham.

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For Buffett and Munger to slam Robinhood for behaving in the same way as their portfolio companies, is a hypocritical moral sham.

Most Genome Data Comes from White Folks. Scientists Are Trying to Fix That.

With a new genome sequence, more diverse data sets, and population-specific projects, scientists are making progress in representing humanity’s real DNA diversity.

Precision medicine, which aims to tailor medicine to each individual for better outcomes, is fueled by genomic data. Unfortunately, there’s a problem with the fuel. For the past couple of decades, genomic databases have been filled with information gathered from people of European descent — and precious little from other ancestries. That means white people have gotten the earliest benefits of precision medicine, while everyone else has to wait for genomic databases to catch up.

This was a predictable situation based on the early days of genomics, when some of the largest population studies were kicked off in European countries with little ethnic diversity. Since then, scientists have been working hard on programs designed to capture the full range of genetic diversity among humans, including the All of Us research project organized by the National Institutes of Health. Recently, several teams have reported progress in improving the diversity of genomic data.

A Whole New Genome

You probably know that the first human genome was sequenced during the Human Genome Project and declared complete in 2003. But unless you work in genomics, you probably didn’t know that the human genome was never really finished. If sequencing a genome is like reading a book, the book of the human genome is really old and badly neglected. Some sections are much harder to read than others. When the first human genome sequence was ‘complete,’ nearly 10% of it actually remained unread.

But now, all these years later, scientists deployed newer technologies to churn through the whole human genome, including those previously intractable regions. The final product, a “gap-free” sequence, is a critical new resource that will make it easier for other researchers to sequence population-specific genomes and quickly increase our understanding of genomic diversity.

“Truly finishing the human genome sequence was like putting on a new pair of glasses. Now that we can clearly see everything, we are one step closer to understanding what it all means,” said Adam Phillippy, an NIH scientist who helped lead the project, in a statement. He added, “In the future, when someone has their genome sequenced, we will be able to identify all of the variants in their DNA and use that information to better guide their healthcare.”

Screening in the City

For researchers looking to expand genomic data diversity, nothing beats a big city. In New York, a program called BioMe based at Mount Sinai’s medical school has been running to gather more diverse data and answer important questions about whether underrepresented communities are willing to participate in genomic research studies.

An update on this work was presented by Mount Sinai’s Noura Abul-Husn at the recent annual meeting of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics. In a BioMe-powered study that’s been running for the past two years, scientists have used genome screening to detect potentially dangerous genetic variants and then monitor patients for associated diseases. The idea is simple: rather than waiting for people to get sick and wind up in the emergency room where doctors have to figure out what’s wrong, why not use a genome-first approach to determine their biggest health risks and try to help them avoid getting sick in the first place?

The BioMe effort, which is broader than this particular program, represents the diversity of New York. In a typical genomic collection, some 70% of samples come from people of European descent; in BioMe, just 27% of samples fall into this category, Abul-Husn said at the conference.

The genomic screening program tests for genetic variants linked to five conditions, delivering results back to patients who have opted in to learn about their susceptibilities. Abul-Husn noted that across all ethnic groups, at least 90% of participants wanted to know their results, challenging assumptions that some groups — especially those historically mistreated by the medical community — would be reluctant to learn about their DNA.

The study is still underway, but the team is already learning from it. For example, one variant they’re testing for is related to a heart condition; the variant is more common in non-European populations. Among the patients found to have the variant, Abul-Husn said that not a single one had previously been diagnosed with the disease — not even those who had been treated for heart problems. A genome-first approach, then, has strong potential for helping to overcome existing disparities in healthcare.

Battling Cancer in Indigenous Populations

In the U.S., Native Americans suffer worse outcomes from cancer than any other ethnic group, in part due to poorer access to healthcare and to receiving fewer screening procedures for cancer. By working closely with tribal leaders and performing population-specific genome analysis, scientists are hoping to better understand cancer in these communities.

Cheryl Willman, who now runs the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center and previously led the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, reported on some of these efforts at the recent annual conference of the American Association for Cancer Research. For some types of cancer, she said, “cancer screening rates in some tribal communities are as low as 4%.” That means cancers aren’t caught early on; when they are eventually found, they are more advanced and less likely to respond well to treatment.

Making matters worse is that these groups are not often included in large-scale projects to study cancer. In one major cancer genome project, Willman said, less than 0.5% of samples came from American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and Hawaiian Pacific Islanders combined. To overcome this problem, she is part of a patient engagement project working with Native Americans in the southwest in which scientists will perform genome sequencing on cancer samples collected from tribal communities. The goal is to include as many as 1,000 cancer patients and cancer survivors, collecting several types of samples from each participant for a more comprehensive view of cancer and health in these communities. “It will be an extensive data set on each patient,” Willman said. Results will be returned to each participant.

In order to make this project successful, scientists are working closely with tribal leaders. Tribal representatives participate in an advisory council for the project, review its logistical details, and will have a say in how research results are reported to the public. Scientists must receive consent not just from each participant, but also from tribal leaders, in order to proceed with sample analysis. Willman said the team also hopes to generate a representative genome sequence for this population; this would improve their ability to benefit from precision medicine.

These are just a few examples of the many projects researchers have launched to address the lack of diversity in genomic databases. With rapidly falling prices for genomic technologies, the good news is that incorporating significant volumes of data from diverse populations now costs just a fraction of what it did when these genomic databases were first set up.

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With a new genome sequence, more diverse data sets, and population-specific projects, scientists are making progress in representing humanity’s real DNA diversity.

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With a new genome sequence, more diverse data sets, and population-specific projects, scientists are making progress in representing humanity’s real DNA diversity.

We Need to Change the Abortion Rights Narrative

Banning abortion pushes the U.S. towards the path of becoming a third rate power, with uneducated, unemployable citizens whose lives will need to be subsidized by government dollars. 

Looking at abortion as solely a women’s rights issue has not served women well.  It’s time to build a louder narrative around the larger economic issues, our country’s place in the world order, and overpopulation.

Typically I don’t overshare, but it’s time we all speak up. Eons ago, when I was a college student I had an abortion. I loved my partner very deeply but knew that I was not yet ready to raise myself, never mind a family. I had to do a lot of research and then travel to a different state to have the procedure, since Pennsylvania, where I lived, didn’t legalize abortion until 1982. I scraped together the money from friends. And I never told my parents.

Every woman who has a story about how abortion saved them from a very different life trajectory needs to speak up now.

I thought that the mostly bi-partisan war over the right to choose would last forever. It provided a clean, convenient wedge between party ideologies. Something we could disagree on in theory, while retaining our rights in perpetuity. I called that one wrong. I didn’t see SCOTUS, even the newly stacked one, as having the guts (polite word) to break the nearly five-decade old barricade of its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Collectively we’ll do the obligatory handwringing about whistleblowing and document leaking.  Women will be deservedly incensed about the loss of hard-won freedom. But we all know how the story ends. SCOTUS decides that it’s beyond their scope to decide the fate of a woman’s right to choose. It will become a state by state issue where the state that you live in becomes more important to abortion rights than religion, education, gender or pretty much any other factor. Twenty states (representing 40% of the country) are poised to ban abortion immediately following the court’s decision, which as Trevor Noah pointed out “will make living in South Dakota harsher than living in Afghanistan under Sharia law.”

Logic, like the fact that most people in this country don’t want to do away with  Roe v. Wade, no longer seems to matter. Protests demanding the right to choose only seem to increase the zealousness of the opposition. It’s time to broaden the abortion rights story so that it hits lawmakers where it hurts — their pocketbooks and their egos. The story needs to shift from just being about rights to a larger one about economics, population control, family planning, health, and most importantly, America’s waning influence in the modern world.

Which Country Do You Want to Look Like

Banning abortion puts the U.S. in some very bad company. Abortions are completely banned in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Those are really poor countries with a multitude of problems. Others that ban abortions include  Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Iraq, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Suriname, Tonga, and the West Bank & Gaza Strip – generally not happy places with vital economies.

There are, by contrast, no restrictions on abortions in Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and even in predominantly Catholic countries like Italy and Ireland. It’s reasonably clear that if you overlay the map of where abortions are banned on top of a map that delineates quality of life and prosperity, you see a pattern.

Even some of the most authoritarian countries like Iran and Russia have no restrictions on abortions. And China, which we love to fault for its human rights violations, has no nationwide ban on abortion. Instead there are governmental agencies whose job it is to help with family planning. Most countries fall on a spectrum where abortion laws are conditional, focused on saving a woman’s life, maintaining her health, mental health issues, rape and incest, fetal impairments and sometimes even the socioeconomic situation of the mother. In Cyprus, Hong Kong, Finland and Barbados, for example, you can be granted an abortion if you are not financially able to raise a child. The map is varied and complex, but if the U.S. were to leave abortion rights up to the states, a large swath of the country would quickly fall into lockstep with some of the poorest, least healthy countries on earth.

We All Pick Up the Tab

Abortions are going to happen whether they’re legal or not. Illegal ones are just more dangerous. Maternal health in the United States is already at the pathetic line. We’re tied for 57th place, and studies show that banning abortions would increase the rate of maternal death by 20-30%.

In our choiceless future, we’ll see more hungry babies born to mothers who can’t feed or educate them properly. Women will be held back from entering the workforce and earning good salaries because of unwanted pregnancies. Seriously-disabled and impaired children will be born into families that cannot provide for their needs. There will be enormous mental health repercussions of unwanted pregnancies.

The list goes on and on, but at the end it’s the taxpayers who will pick up the burden of bringing unwanted children into the world. In some states — Georgia, Mississippi, and Oklahoma — more than 80 percent of unplanned births are already paid for with public dollars. Unplanned pregnancies cost US taxpayers $21 billion each year, according to one analysis. And that’s what it’s been like while abortions have been legal.

A study by the Brookings Institution found that abortion access “profoundly affects women’s lives.” It explains that having that right helps determine “whether, when, and under what circumstances they become mothers, outcomes which then reverberate through their lives, affecting marriage patterns, educational attainment, labor force participation, and earnings.”  The bottom line, says the study, is that “Restricting, or outright eliminating, abortion access by overturning Roe v. Wade would diminish women’s personal and economic lives, as well as the lives of their families.”

I’m not a political scholar, but I understand how to tell stories.  When the “it’s the right thing to do” story stops resonating, turn up the volume on a new story. Banning abortion pushes the U.S. towards the path of becoming a third rate power, with uneducated, unemployable citizens whose lives will need to be subsidized by government dollars.

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Ukraine’s Nuclear Power Plants Caught in the Crossfire of War With Russia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered fears of another nuclear power disaster in the region, 36 years after the world’s largest nuclear accident.

It took less than a minute after an unexpected power surge for one of the nuclear reactors at Chornobyl (Chernobyl in the Russian spelling) to explode on April 26, 1986, ripping the roof off and spewing dangerous chemicals into the air.

The event, and emergency cleanup that followed, left 30 workers dead, thousands exposed to cancer-causing nuclear material, and a legacy of radiation. Now, 36 years later and with war raging, Ukraine is desperate to prevent another nuclear disaster.

Nuclear reactors generate more than half of the country’s power. Ukraine is the first country with such a large and established nuclear energy program to experience war, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The country’s 15 nuclear reactors, housed in four power plants, have layers of safeguards to prevent core meltdowns like the one that happened in 1986, when Chornobyl was part of the Soviet Union. But wartime is far from normal conditions, and experts warn that Russian military action poses numerous threats to these facilities.

Andrey Ozharovsky, a Russian engineer turned anti-nuclear activist, said Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure is “quite vulnerable” to the chaos surrounding military attacks.

Chornobyl, Again

Those attacks have already begun.

The Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the 20-mile exclusion zone around it, set up to limit further spread of radioactive material following the 1986 disaster, were captured by Russian forces on Feb. 24. It was in their control until they withdrew from the site on March 31.

Although Chornobyl is not an active nuclear power plant, the massive cap covering the reactor that exploded decades ago still needs to be maintained to prevent further radiation leakage.

Sensors put in place by the Ukrainian Ecocentre in case of an accident reported a spike in radiation levels shortly after the capture, likely due to Russian military vehicles stirring up radiation in the environment.

The IAEA said the rise wasn’t enough to pose a public health hazard.

Ozharovsky, who was one of the first to raise an alarm about the recent spike at Chornobyl, said he’s concerned that radioactive dust from the site could spread across the continent.

“The most dangerous thing is that they can bring radioactive particles in their hair, in their clothes and their boots,” he says.

Olga Kosharna, a member of the Ukraine Nuclear Society, urged experts to create an updated map of radioactive contamination in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone and to restrict movement in the area.

Ukrainian officials released footage, recorded since Russia’s withdrawal, which appears to show that Russian troops had built trenches and other fortifications in parts of the exclusion zone. Those actions may have further disturbed radioactive material in the soil and plants.

On April 26 Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the IAEA, and a team of agency experts arrived in Chornobyl “to conduct nuclear safety, security and radiological assessments, deliver vital equipment and repair the agency’s remote safeguards monitoring systems,” according to a statement from the agency.

Grossi says radioactivity levels at Chornobyl have returned to “normal” after the “very, very dangerous” Russian occupation of the site.

Nuclear Plant Captured

Chornobyl isn’t the only concern. Ukraine’s active nuclear-power facilities are also at risk.

On March 4, Russian forces captured Europe’s largest active nuclear-power plant, Zaporizhzhia, located in southeastern Ukraine. During intense fighting one of the site’s buildings caught fire, but didn’t harm the plant’s six reactors, and no radiation was released.

Ukrainian technicians continue to monitor Zaporizhzhia, but the country’s regulators have claimed that Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear power company, has engineers at the plant who are giving orders to staff. Further, Ukraine reports that plant management actions require approval from the Russian commander, according to the IAEA.

“Who is now in charge of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant?” asks Ozharovsky. “The Russian army is around, but armies aren’t nuclear engineers.”

Rosatom released a statement on March 12 and denied that they’re managing the operation of Zaporizhzhia. They characterized their staff’s presence at the plant as “consultative assistance” that takes place “on a regular basis.”

Grossi expressed “deep concern” about the situation in a statement last month.

Further Threats

Since then, there’s been more reason for alarm.

On April 16, three missiles flew over the South Ukrainian nuclear power plant, Yuzhnoukrainsk, according to Energoatom, Ukraine’s state-run nuclear power company.

Then on April 26 Energoatom reported that two cruise missiles flew over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

“The flight of missiles at low altitudes directly above the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant site, where 7 nuclear facilities with a huge amount of nuclear material are located, poses huge risks,” says Petro Kotin, Energoatom’s acting president, in a statement released on the company’s Telegram channel. “After all, missiles can hit one or more nuclear facilities, and this threatens a nuclear and radiation catastrophe around the world.”

The day before, Energoatom reported that Russia fired missiles over the cooling pond of the Khmelnytskyi Nuclear Power Plant in northwest Ukraine.

Russia hasn’t commented on Energoatom’s claims.

Kosharna wrote in an email that if a missile would’ve hit one of the plants the consequences would have been “catastrophic” for the world.

A stray missile damaging the plant could cause an explosion that would disrupt the power supply. Power is needed to ensure continuous cooling of the fuel rods to prevent a meltdown.

Typically nuclear plants use back-up generators to maintain power with a grid disruption and keep the cooling systems functioning normally. In wartime fuel shortages are common, and this risks the stability of the generators. Ukraine’s current shortage is only getting worse, according to the Gas Transmission Operator of Ukraine, a gas pipeline operator.

If the grid goes down and the generators are out of fuel and the cooling systems fail, there’s a last resort to prevent radiation from spreading. Containment structures around the reactors are designed to block any release of radiation, but they’re also vulnerable to missile attacks.

Reactor failure isn’t the only significant risk to the operation.

Staff operating facilities under extreme stress also poses a problem, Ozharovsky says, because any mistake they make on the job could be calamitous.

There are also other onsite dangers. Spent nuclear fuel storage pools that are a part of the waste-disposal system contain radioactive material. If they’re damaged the liquid could be released from containment, causing a massive spread of radiation. Japanese scientists considered this to be the “worst-case scenario” of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which had a series of meltdowns after a tsunami struck the plant in 2011.

Ozharovsky said he doesn’t believe the Russian military would deliberately sabotage one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants because it would threaten their interests. But he added that even the possibility that the nuclear power plants could be harmed accidentally should trigger worldwide alarm.

“For me it’s scary,” he says. “All the other nuclear power plants, like Khmelnytskyi, like Rivne, like South Ukraine (Yuzhnoukrainsk); they can be damaged during this war. And the international community needs to take care of that.”

Any attack on a nuclear plant is a breach of international humanitarian law. The Geneva Convention’s Article 56 considers attacking a nuclear power plant a war crime.

“I hope that many other countries who still have nuclear energy on their territory will rethink physical safety, military safety,” Ozharovsky says. “That’s a challenge no one country can solve.”

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It’s Time to Scale Up Regenerative Farming

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to transform lives and diets. The Cellular Economy has the potential to transform society. Let’s find ways to fund them to make the global food system and economy more sustainable.

A half-decade ago, Nick DiDomenico’s parents bought a small property north of Boulder, Colorado. They handed a dilapidated house and 14 acres over to him to help fulfill his dream of becoming an organic farmer. Nick gave the farm an appealing name, Elk Run. But in fact the prairie land was horribly degraded. Its topsoil had been eroded by wind and rain, and the property was essentially a parched wasteland. Advisors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture advised Nick that the land was unsuitable for growing crops.

Six years later, DiDomenico and a small group of allies—with help from funders—have done the seemingly impossible: They transformed a wasteland into a veritable Garden of Eden. DiDomenico, his partner, Melissa Pulaski, and a handful of others are raising pigs, sheep, chickens, and rabbits and producing organic vegetables and grains. The non-profit organization that DiDomenico and Pulaski established, Drylands Agroecology Research, explores regenerative agriculture techniques and provides consulting and land reclamation services for other property owners along Colorado’s Front Range.

“The overarching goal is to create many more safe havens for healthy food and healthy lifestyles,” DiDomenico says. “We want to help people all over the region produce food locally and we want to promote good commercial ventures that strengthen our communities. We want to get away from the extractive economy.”

Their project illustrates a phenomenon that is underway across the United States and across the globe. People in small groups are reimagining and rebuilding the economy one experimental step at a time. Many of them share the belief that capitalism as it is being practiced today is unsustainable. It’s destroying the environment and contributing mightily to global warming. And capitalism is causing a breakdown in society because of the inequities it engenders. So, it’s time to pivot and adopt new approaches that will help make the planet and society more sustainable.

This phenomenon got its start with the social-enterprise movement in the early 2000s, but it seems to have accelerated since the COVID crisis woke people up and convinced them that now is the time to make bold changes in how we live.

I have been exploring the evolution of this phenomenon since the rise of COVID. It was then that I became involved in an initiative called Pivot Projects, a global, all-volunteer collaboration aimed at using collective intelligence, systems thinking, and AI-assisted research to help society and communities become more sustainable and resilient. I started off as a journalist embedded in Pivot Projects and later became a full participant. Late last year, Columbia University Press published my book about the group’s journey: The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action.

One of the 20+ workstreams within Pivot Projects took on the subject of building a sustainable and just economic system—an alternative to the present system, which is based on greed, maximizing profits, and exploiting workers and resources. Rather than thinking about a revolution, which hardly seemed likely, the group took aim at defining and encouraging a new way forward. Out of that quest came a concept called the Cellular Economy.

The “cells” are small groups of people dedicated to pioneering new approaches to serving people’s needs. They’re democratic, humanistic, science-based, diverse, collaborative, community-oriented, and experimental. Some are mission-driven businesses. Others are social enterprises or community organizations. “We need a fundamental shift in the very foundation of capitalism as it is practiced today,” says Damian Costello, an expert in disruptive innovation who coordinates Pivot Projects’ economics workstream. “The Cellular Economy model describes what we need to do to make this brighter, safer future a reality.”

Right now, most of these initiatives operate in isolation. The economics workstream participants believe that to fulfill their potential, the cells will have to form into networks that enable them to more readily share resources and knowledge. Nick and his colleagues have already begun reaching out to other farmers and landowners in and around Boulder whose visions and missions are aligned with theirs. He refers to this as a “mycelial network.” That’s a reference to the role that fungal mycelia play in maintaining healthy forests. The mycelia tap into tree roots, connecting individual plants together to transfer water, nitrogen, and other nutrients to where they are needed most. Essentially, these networks enable trees to collaborate with each other and live in harmony. It’s a good metaphor.

The knowledge about regenerative agriculture that DAR is sharing with others comes partly from research but mainly from experimentation on the farm. The Elk Run land is sloped, and, in the old days, water from infrequent rain and snow episodes tended to slide off it without being absorbed. Nick and his team cut ditches across the slopes to capture and store water. They planted trees in the ditches to create shade, produce fruit, and provide habitat for insects and birds. The pigs serve as roto-tillers for the degraded soil—breaking it up with their hooves and snouts and peppering it with manure. Then come the sheep and chickens and more manure. Over time, the soil is enriched to the point where it can support vegetable and grain crops.

Today, this approach produces 90% of the food that the small group needs to survive. In the future, Elk Run plans on selling produce to others. But the bigger goal is to help other landowners improve their land and produce healthy food at scale. Within 10 years, DiDomenico and friends hope to be managing 1000 acres or more using regenerative methods, to establish 10 regional hubs based on their model, and to have planted 100,000 trees. “As a Front Range community, we can build incredible resilience,” he says.

Regenerative agriculture emerged in the late 20th century as an alternative to industrial farming, with its focus on chemical inputs, monocultures, and processed food. The practice has come on strong in the past decade as farmers became more sensitive to environmental concerns and climate change. The focus is on strengthening the vitality of farm soil, increasing biodiversity, and improving the water cycle.

The COVID crisis has been a wakeup call. “People all over the world tell us they want clean air, more decentralized affordable energy, water and waste systems, and a regenerative economic model in which people live closer to nature,” says Peter Head, a leader in the sustainability field and co-founder of Pivot Projects. “Regenerative farming is a key part of recovery.”

Pivot Projects has launched regenerative agriculture projects aimed at aiding small farmers in partnership with local groups in Nepal and central Africa, in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Advances in technology are now available for farmers in remote areas, including solar for electricity and Starlink LEOS for telecommunications, but funding remains a challenge. Microfinance systems are of limited use for scaling up production, and small farmers have little access to larger grants and loans, says Colin Harrison, a former IBM executive and co-founder of Pivot Projects. The good news is that the African team has been awarded an initial $25,000 grant by the UN Food Systems organization to cover the costs of strategy development.

Back in the USA, DAR and other cellular outfits face funding challenges of their own. DAR has been fueled mainly by GoFundMe campaigns and small grants from foundations and individuals, but that’s not enough for it to scale up quickly and have a sizable impact. New funding sources and innovations are needed. We need impact investors to step up and do their part.

I asked Ian Abbott-Donnelly, one of my colleagues in Pivot Projects, to do some research into the matter using an AI-powered research tool made by SparkBeyond.

Quickly, he spotted some good news. Regenerative farming dramatically reduces the cost of inputs for farmers, reducing the amount of money they need to plant and sustain crops—and thus decreasing the need for financing and indebtedness. Details are available in this report from the government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Ian unearthed an extensive analysis of the potential for funding sustainable agriculture enterprises and projects in this article published by the National Institutes of Health.

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to transform lives and diets. The Cellular Economy has the potential to transform society. My challenge to impact investors is this: Find ways to fund them. Help make the global food system and the global economy more sustainable.

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Regenerative agriculture has the potential to transform lives and diets. The Cellular Economy has the potential to transform society. Let's find ways to fund them to make the global food system and economy more sustainable.

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Regenerative agriculture has the potential to transform lives and diets. The Cellular Economy has the potential to transform society. Let's find ways to fund them to make the global food system and economy more sustainable.

Globalization Isn’t Dead in Software Engineering

How can businesses harness the collective power of global engineering teams? Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when extending your engineering capacity.

Jamie Dimon, Larry Fink and the many others proclaiming the death of globalization haven’t been in Zus Health’s ‘virtual’ engineering room. And it’s not just us – the age of cross border engineering teams and talent has never been more vibrant. Aside from being cool and smart, engineers from outside the U.S. are often humble and lower key with zero sensationalism. At the same time, they are firm in their beliefs and savvy enough with English and U.S. culture (usually) to argue points. A winning combination.

Zus Health is an early-stage startup focused on accelerating digital health builders with a platform of healthcare-oriented, API-first services aimed at eliminating the current data siloes of today’s healthcare system. This is both an extremely visionary and challenging mission, and it will require a small army of world-class software engineers (along with many other talented teammates) to pull off – which is why along with our growing team of in-house engineers, we also work closely with an international team based in Poland.

However, there are indeed tricks of the trade (best practices some would say) in harnessing the collective power of global engineering teams. While these have evolved in the last decade or so, here are some guidelines to dig into when thinking about extending your engineering capacity. And of course, many of these apply for any sort of remote work, today’s new reality:

  • The value of ongoing customer-facing interactions cannot be overstated. While cultural, linguistic and geographic obstacles (flights are expensive!) can be challenging, exposing global engineers to customers in a shadowing environment is valuable because all engineers should build direct customer understanding and empathy.
  • Exploratory prototypes and new market definition are often best done in-house. Steel threads that fail are often more valuable than those that succeed – initial learnings are foundational to building what is actually useful for customers. If you do not intimately understand how you made it and why you made it, you do not get the benefits of knowing what to learn from the failure. Even with a perfect understanding of what went right and wrong, if offsite you will still miss the smell or the internet pop-up ad or whatever other accident that inevitably leads to inspiration. Total ownership by an external team can possibly play here, but generally the cultural, linguistic and geographic constraints make that more difficult.
  • Objectively knowable work is fertile ground for external service partners. For example, here at Zus we are building all our products based on the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) standard, a modern standard defining how electronic health information can be exchanged. Within this framework, we find that it is difficult to meaningfully reduce the tax associated with a digital health builder working in a FHIR-native environment by mapping data fields into the FHIR standard or prospecting alternatives that preserve their ability to network-connect their data in the future. FHIR is lovely in so many ways, but it is really immature as a production framework for many use cases. However, the ability to make it invisible and effortless to builders is huge. So, the possibility of an international team standing up the ability to parse wild amounts of incoming data from across the industry and refactor it for FHIR is super valuable.
  • Iteration, improvements and extensions are where the team can shine. Once you have workflows and data, if you are in a product-centric ecosystem, anyone should be able to get into the sandbox and offer alternative microservices that are faster or that do more than older ones. The future possibilities here are exciting, but obviously there must first be an ecosystem with results. External teams can build wonderful ecosystems on top of some initial proof of product-market fit, if you open up that door.

Times have changed dramatically both recently and over the last decade. There is the swagger and imagination of veterans of modern, product-centric tech business available everywhere. By adding experienced, diverse minds, companies can build a better product in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Anyone who does not consider this is not only a laggard – but they are completely missing the boat.

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