Op-Ed: An Inconvenient Half-Truth

Screenshot from An Inconvenient Sequel.

Screenshot from An Inconvenient Sequel.

Al Gore’s new film is brilliant. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is the ten year follow-up to his original “An Inconvenient Truth”, and its prognosis for our civilization is an urgent wakeup call — uncertain and hardly reassuring, and adamant that our destiny is in our hands. Go see it. But know that we cannot solve climate change without fixing the food system.

Indeed, in seeing the film, you’ll hear about half the problem. The film’s singular focus, burning hydrocarbons (for utility energy, transportation, manufacturing, etc), is one of two human activities causing catastrophically rapid climate change. The film is silent on the other one — the food system — whose emissions of methane and other gasses into the atmosphere, combined with its destruction and depletion of ecosystems that absorb carbon from the atmosphere, account for some 29% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. We must address both in order to slow climate change to a rate our civilization can adapt to and keep up with.

Arguably the film’s messaging strategy is the right choice for a mass audience. Hydrocarbon alternatives — renewables like wind and solar — are mature and ready to scale. Their deployments are near their exponential tipping points, and we need widespread political action to accelerate (and remove barriers to) their adoption. All of the actions the film asks of its viewers toward that end make sense.

Attempts to reinvent the food system, by comparison, are in their infancy. Still in the grassroots engineering and design phase, they need political will of a different type: small groups of philanthropists and engineers working together to develop alternatives, and refining them at small scales before going big. It may sound counterintuitive, but that’s the way to get it done quickly. Indeed, it’s how hydrocarbon alternatives got to where they are now.

I’m a half-breed — an engineer who is politically active. The film is a superlative showcase of the at times magical interplay between politicians and engineers. Early on, we’re reminded of a young vice president championing the resources for NASA to build the DSCOVR Satellite. Later, we see a self-described recovering politician calling in favors to broker a deal between Solar City and the government of India, delivering a critical assist in the climate negotiations at COP21 in Paris, 2015. It comes full circle when NASA images help Al-the-citizen make his case to millions — the big blue marble fully illuminated, live from the satellite he helped launch.

All the while, we’re reminded through examples — exponential decline in the costs of solar technology, exponential growth in energy coming from renewables — that engineers, adequately funded and working toward the goals of mankind, make miracles happen.

Engineers start by understanding the scope and systemic forces of the problem, and even if we could solve climate change without fixing the food system, we shouldn’t. The other consequences of continuing our current food system pose existential threats all their own to our civilization, if not our species.

Ecosystem collapse, due among other things to destruction of forests to make room for factory farming and ranching. Toxic runoff and soil depletion. Loss of biodiversity hundreds of millions years in the making, with unknowable effects on humans. And of course, the social and geopolitical crises of mass hunger and an epidemic of chronic diseases caused by the food we eat, and the associated economy-crippling healthcare costs in the developed and developing world.

Continuing and proliferating the western food system would spell disaster for any of these reasons individually.

The good news is that in broad strokes we know how to fix it, and it’s a win-win-win-win for the environment and public health, for altruism and our natural self interest. It’s a gift of systems engineering. Never before has something so important been so easy to do.

It starts by understanding how human beings actually make decisions about what to eat, and recognizing it as a matter of both personal and systemic responsibility. By understanding what is truly healthy, which is to say, separating evidence based preventative medicine from fad diets, we notice that diets rich in whole plant foods are not only healthiest for us, but also for the planet — not just sustainable, but restorative to our natural ecosystems and biodiversity. By bringing these foods to people in a way that is convenient and affordable for everyone, and offering them in a way that makes them most appealing — making them the “optimal default”, as Kelly Brownell put it — we can shift the mainstream diet in the developed world away from a public health crisis, an environmental catastrophe, and a failure of social justice, all at the same time.

And we can experience the joy of eating again. Just as Tesla is giving us electric cars that are more fun to drive than their gas guzzling predecessors, an ecologically restorative food system can also mean better flavor and feeling much better. Our bodies, after all, are performance vehicles too.

For the better part of the time since the original “Inconvenient Truth”, my team and I at ActualFood have been figuring out how to achieve this. Our deep dive into the food system has taken us everywhere from the economics of grocery retailing to the psychology of choice architecture to life cycle assessments of food delivery logistics to building electronics that make it really cheap to move food around. We’ve approached the food system as a problem of systems engineering, and we’ve used electrical and software engineering to bring solutions into the realm of of the possible.

We’ve been able to do this because forward thinking philanthropists and foundations, recognizing the artificial divide between charity and technology entrepreneurship, took the long view and threw in with us. In so doing, they saved our mission from the systemic forces baked into return-based capital. They gave us the long arc we needed to have a shot at getting it right.

If we’re going to slow manmade climate change and address our civilization’s other problems in time to avert its collapse, we’re going to need a lot more of this, at ActualFood and at thousands of other social enterprises around the world. Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty, after a preview screening of the film in New Haven, noted that solutions to our societal challenges aren’t coming from the top down anytime soon. Rather, by necessity, they’re coming from the citizenry and bubbling up to our leaders. That’s coming not only in the form of civic participation and protest, but also in the form of invention and technology-enabled social enterprises.

To the politicians and political funders who are reading this and looking for ways to make immediate impacts in an era of political gridlock, here’s one idea. You’re really good at raising money from donors, i.e., money that isn’t return-seeking — and that’s important because it sets priorities. Engineers aren’t so much, and in this we need your help. It’s time for engineers, in vast numbers, to free ourselves from the systemic limitations of venture capital and once again do the work of mankind, with you.

Millennials are known for wanting it all. That’s our virtue. Through engineering, one can foresee a future of diminishing tradeoffs to be made, moral and otherwise. We can ditch hydrocarbons and keep our cars (see the film). We can eat what is healthy and sustainable and affordable and tasty and convenient all at the same time. We can do work that benefits us and the public interest. Engineers figure out how to eliminate tradeoffs like these, and there’s a whole new generation ready to get to work.

It’s not one person’s job to fix everything, nor the job of one film to cover everything, and Al Gore’s work is heroic. The global community must heed his message and do all it can through coordinated policy and large scale infrastructure projects to power our civilization sustainably and undo the damage of two centuries of burning hydrocarbons.

It’s our job — the human family on whom resolving this crisis depends and who will bear the burden of it if we don’t — to understand all of its causes and to address them before it’s too late. As individuals, we are hardly powerless. We can shift our consumption and encourage others to do the same, especially when armed with the whole truth about what matters most  — avoid flying and buy carbon credits when we do, reduce driving gasoline powered cars, and eat whole or minimally processed plant based foods. And those with the means to do so can devote resources towards systemic solutions that make these things the default path for most people. We don’t need to wait for large-scale government action to discover what these solutions will be.

The movie wistfully reminds us of what might have been for want of 537 votes in Florida in the 2000 election — something that one tiny team of software engineers could have delivered through a single email campaign (the viral mechanism of the time). In doing so, it optimistically reminds us of the chaotic nature of human interactions, and the enormous difference that small groups of people with adequate resources and sufficient foresight and understanding of the problem can deliver.

Philanthropists and political donors: seek out those working to reinvent the food system and fund them. Let’s work together like our world depends on it.

Because as the film points out, our world depends on it.

Greg Grinberg is the founder of ActualFood, a social enterprise whose mission is to build the technology to make healthy, sustainable eating easy for everyone, based in New Haven, CT. He can be reached at greg@actualfood.com.