Climate Change 2.0: How to Hack Your Way Into The Climate Change Revolution

I read a great question from acabal on HackerNews today:

Does anyone have ideas on how a mid-career software developer can switch gears into the clean energy/climate change industry, to do something to help?

To help answer acabal’s question, I found 9 technology ideas on Quora that sparked my own curiosity.

Climate Change is at a tipping point. Climate Change 2.0 is an opportunistic, solutions-driven, civilization-scale approach to climate change. Heroes, this is a call to adventure!

Let’s get curious and dream big about climate change!

9 Thought-Provoking Climate Change 2.0 Ideas

1. What is the cost per square kilometer to turn a desert into an area with full tree/vegetation cover? And how long does it take?

2. What are the best strategies for sequestering atmospheric carbon?

3. If all the used cardboard boxes were folded flat and simply buried, how much carbon would be captured and sequestrated?

4. Is a “space sunshade” a feasible solution to global warming

5. Why don’t people use the new ways to combat global warming like green algae, artificial icebergs, carbon filters, etc.?

6. Why can’t carbon emissions of diesel cars be filtered out?

7. What if we make solid blocks of CO2 and dump them into space? Will that decrease the greenhouse effect?

8. What is the difficulty of technologically using the CO2 in our air for practical use?

9. Why don’t we genetically modify crops and trees to collect more carbon and reverse climate change?

I also wrote “A Biohacker’s Guide to Climate Change” with curiosity in mind. It starts with my 5 favorite books and articles on tech opportunities in climate change.

Interested in meeting other like-minded people working on climate tech solutions?

Join the new Google group: Climate Change 2.0: A Call to Adventure

Question to you: Do you know of any active Reddit communities talking about climate change as an opportunity? Would love to find one!

Let me know if you liked this or have suggestions. Collaborators welcome, this is a planetary adventure!

Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air: Food and Agriculture (by David MacKay)

Chapter 13 Food and farming

Figure 13.1. A salad Niçoise.

Figure 13.1. A salad Niçoise.

Modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food.- Albert Bartlett

We’ve already discussed in Chapter 6 how much sustainable power could be produced through greenery; in this chapter we discuss how much power is currently consumed in giving us our daily bread. A moderately active person with a weight of 65 kg consumes food with a chemical energy content of about 2600 “Calories” per day. A “Calorie,” in food circles, is actually 1000 chemist’s calories (1 kcal). 2600 “Calories” per day is about 3 kWh per day. Most of this energy eventually escapes from the body as heat, so one function of a typical person is to act as a space heater with an output of a little over 100 W, a medium-power lightbulb. Put 10 people in a small cold room, and you can switch off the 1 kW convection heater.

Figure 13.2. Minimum energy requirement of one person.

Figure 13.2. Minimum energy requirement of one person.

How much energy do we actually consume in order to get our 3 kWh per day? If we enlarge our viewpoint to include the inevitable upstream costs of food production, then we may find that our energy footprint is substantially bigger. It depends if we are vegan, vegetarian or carnivore. The vegan has the smallest inevitable footprint: 3 kWh per day of energy from the plants he eats.

The energy cost of drinking milk

I love milk. If I drinka-pinta-milka-day, what energy does that require? A typical dairy cow produces 16 litres of milk per day. So my one pint per day (half a litre per day) requires that I employ 1/32 of a cow. Oh, hang on – I love cheese too. And to make 1 kg of Irish Cheddar takes about 9 kg of milk. So consuming 50 g of cheese per day requires the production of an extra 450 g of milk. OK: my milk and cheese habit requires that I employ 1/16 of a cow. And how much power does it take to run a cow? Well, if a cow weighing 450 kg has similar energy requirements per kilogram to a human (whose 65 kg burns 3 kWh per day) then the cow must be using about 21 kWh/d. Does this extrapolation from human to cow make you uneasy? Let’s check these numbers: says that a suckling cow of weight 450 kg needs 85 MJ/d, which is 24 kWh/d.

Figure 13.3. Milk and cheese.

Figure 13.3. Milk and cheese.

Great, our guess wasn’t far off! So my 1/16 share of a cow has an energy consumption of about 1.5 kWh per day. This figure ignores other energy costs involved in persuading the cow to make milk and the milk to turn to
cheese, and of getting the milk and cheese to travel from her to me. We’ll cover some of these costs when we discuss freight and supermarkets in Chapter 15.


Figure 13.4. Two eggs per day.

Figure 13.4. Two eggs per day.

A “layer” (a chicken that lays eggs) eats about 110 g of chicken feed per day. Assuming that chicken feed has a metabolizable energy content of 3.3 kWh per kg, that’s a power consumption of 0.4 kWh per day per chicken. Layers yield on average 290 eggs per year. So eating two eggs a day requires a power of 1 kWh per day. Each egg itself contains 80 kcal, which is about 0.1 kWh. So from an energy point of view, egg production is 20% efficient.

The energy cost of eating meat

Let’s say an enthusiastic meat-eater eats about half a pound a day (227 g). (This is the average meat consumption of Americans.) To work out the power required to maintain the meat-eater’s animals as they mature and wait for the chop, we need to know for how long the animals are around, consuming energy.

Figure 13.5. Eating meat requires extra power because we have to feed the queue of animals lining up to be eaten by the human.

Figure 13.5. Eating meat requires extra power because we have to feed the queue of animals lining up to be eaten by the human.

Chicken, pork, or beef?

  • Chicken, sir? Every chicken you eat was clucking around being a chicken for roughly 50 days. So the steady consumption of half a pound a day of chicken requires about 25 pounds of chicken to be alive, preparing
    to be eaten. And those 25 pounds of chicken consume energy.
  • Pork, madam? Pigs are around for longer – maybe 400 days from birth to bacon – so the steady consumption of half a pound a day of pork requires about 200 pounds of pork to be alive, preparing to be eaten.
  • Cow? Beef production involves the longest lead times. It takes about 1000 days of cow-time to create a steak. So the steady consumption of half a pound a day of beef requires about 500 pounds of beef to be alive, preparing to be eaten.

To condense all these ideas down to a single number, let’s assume you eat half a pound (227 g) per day of meat, made up of equal quantities of chicken, pork, and beef. This meat habit requires the perpetual sustenance of 8 pounds of chicken meat, 70 pounds of pork meat, and 170 pounds of cow meat. That’s a total of 110 kg of meat, or 170 kg of animal (since about two thirds of the animal gets turned into meat). And if the 170 kg of animal has similar power requirements to a human (whose 65 kg burns 3 kWh/d) then the power required to fuel the meat habit is

170kg × 3 kWh/d per 65 kg ≈ 8 kWh/d

I’ve again taken the physiological liberty of assuming “animals are like humans;” a more accurate estimate of the energy to make chicken is in this chapter’s endnotes. No matter, I only want a ballpark estimate, and here it is. The power required to make the food for a typical consumer of vegetables, dairy, eggs, and meat is 1.5 + 1.5 + 1 + 8 = 12 kWh per day. (The daily calorific balance of this rough diet is 1.5 kWh from vegetables; 0.7 kWh from dairy; 0.2 kWh from eggs; and 0.5 kWh from meat – a total of 2.9 kWh per day.)

This number does not include any of the power costs associated with farming, fertilizing, processing, refrigerating, and transporting the food. We’ll estimate some of those costs below, and some in Chapter 15.

Figure 13.6. Will harvest energy crops for food.

Figure 13.6. Will harvest energy crops for food.

Do these calculations give an argument in favour of vegetarianism, on the grounds of lower energy consumption? It depends on where the animals feed. Take the steep hills and mountains of Wales, for example. Could the land be used for anything other than grazing? Either these rocky pasturelands are used to sustain sheep, or they are not used to help feed humans. You can think of these natural green slopes as maintenance-free biofuel plantations, and the sheep as automated self-replicating biofuel-harvesting machines. The energy losses between sunlight and mutton are substantial, but there is probably no better way of capturing solar power in such places. (I’m not sure whether this argument for sheep-farming in Wales actually adds up: during the worst weather, Welsh sheep are moved to lower fields where their diet is supplemented with soya feed and other food grown with the help of energy-intensive fertilizers; what’s the true energy cost? I don’t know.) Similar arguments can be made in favour of carnivory for places such as the scrublands of Africa and the grasslands of
Australia; and in favour of dairy consumption in India, where millions of cows are fed on by-products of rice and maize farming. On the other hand, where animals are reared in cages and fed grain that humans could have eaten, there’s no question that it would be more energy-efficient to cut out the middlehen or middlesow, and feed the grain directly to humans.

Fertilizer and other energy costs in farming

The embodied energy in Europe’s fertilizers is about 2 kWh per day per person. According to a report to DEFRA by the University of Warwick, farming in the UK in 2005 used an energy of 0.9 kWh per day per person
for farm vehicles, machinery, heating (especially greenhouses), lighting, ventilation, and refrigeration.

The energy cost of Tiddles, Fido, and Shadowfax

Figure 13.7. The power required for animal companions’ food.

Figure 13.7. The power required for animal companions’ food.

Animal companions! Are you the servant of a dog, a cat, or a horse? There are perhaps 8 million cats in Britain. Let’s assume you look after one of them. The energy cost of Tiddles? If she eats 50 g of meat per day (chicken, pork, and beef), then the last section’s calculation says that the power required to make Tiddles’ food is just shy of 2 kWh per day. A vegetarian cat would require less.

Similarly if your dog Fido eats 200 g of meat per day, and carbohydrates amounting to 1 kWh per day, then the power required to make his food is about 9 kWh per day. Shadowfax the horse weighs about 400 kg and consumes 17 kWh per  day.


I heard that the energy footprint of food is so big that “it’s better to drive than to walk.” Whether this is true depends on your diet. It’s certainly possible to find food whose fossil-fuel energy footprint is bigger than the energy delivered to the human. A bag of crisps, for example, has an embodied energy of 1.4 kWh of fossil fuel per kWh of chemical energy eaten. The embodied energy of meat is higher. According to a study from the University of Exeter, the typical diet has an embodied energy of roughly 6 kWh per kWh eaten. To figure out whether driving a car or walking uses less energy, we need to know the transport efficiency of each mode. For the typical car of Chapter 3, the energy cost was 80 kWh per 100 km. Walking uses a net energy of 3.6 kWh per 100 km – 22 times less. So if you live entirely on food whose footprint is greater than 22 kWh per kWh then, yes, the energy
cost of getting you from A to B in a fossil-fuel-powered vehicle is less than if you go under your own steam. But if you have a typical diet (6 kWh per kWh) then “it’s better to drive than to walk” is a myth. Walking uses one quarter as much energy.

Note to reader:
This is an experiment in formatting and Creative Commons publishing. The original text is written by the wonderful David McKay, ‘Sustainable Energy without the hot air’. The book is released under a Creative Commons license. The original site’s HTML is formatted for the early 2000’s, so I wanted to try bringing one short chapter into modern “Medium – like” formatting. It took me about 45 minutes start to finish to edit this (on iPad Pro). My next thought would be improving the images, theyy are low resolution and could use an update. The original text (and a whole book) is available her for free and on Amazon in print:

A Biohacker’s Guide to Climate Change

Climate Change: let’s dream about it, let’s have fun with it, let’s make it a cool adventure.

On that, here’s my 5 favorite articles and books that merge climate change and technology. These are the pieces I’ve found myself referencing over the past year when I meet hackers and geeks curious about climate change.

1. What Can a Technologist do About Climate Change? – Bret Victor

I like this because it’s so popular  in Silicon Valley. It’s been independently re-posted to Hackernews 6 times over the past year. Paul Hawken, famous environmentalist and author of Project Drawdown, cited it as proof of Silicon Valley’s curiousity about climate during the launch of his new book, a plan for reducing carbon dioxide. When I say “climate change plus tech” it’s the most common reference people here reply with.

So I love it, it’s written by a big name in the tech scene and it has some great perspectives. It’s the best place to start if you’re a hacker interested in climate change.

2. The Whole Earth Discipline – Stewart Brand

Now this kind of veers in the serious thought-provoking direction, because it’s by Stewart Brand, and he’s got great points and perspective. He says nuclear power is good, GMOs are good, geoengineering is good. He’s an environmental pioneer and in tech circles is known for his early work designing the WELL, an early computer BBS in Berkeley in 1985. And the book is shocking to me because there’s this mea culpa along the lines of ‘look sorry about that, when we environmentalists said nuclear power was bad, and GMOs were bad, yea we screwed up. My bad. Let’s make a better path and tech paves the way’. He writes “We are as gods and we must get good at it.” Nuff said.

3. Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson

For me, this is basically biohacker bedtime stories. Three part story, terraforming mars and building the first Martian colony there. Tons of stuff about geoengineering, power sources, autonomous vehicles. Basically how would a planet run in the future. It’s a great book and if you like the first one there are 3 in the series.

4. Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air – David MacKay

This one’s math-tastic. Not so opinionated as the Whole Earth Discipline, and it’s not fantasy like Red Mars. It’s numbers and fun calculations. It doesn’t have anything to do with politics or human nature. The guy who wrote opened with ‘look I’m trying to write a climate book that has nothing to do with politics’. So he sidestepped all the carbon crap and said let’s just talk about energy, let’s talk about electrons. I found it really cool to start thinking about that most fossil fuels are locked up solar energy. Not that I think fossil fuels are ok suddenly, but I think it is a good way to look at the energy balance of the earth.

100% of our energy comes from either the sun, the moon, geothermal, or nuclear power. Nuclear power is from the beginning of the universe, geothermal is from the center of the earth, tidal power and waves comes from the moon, and everything else comes from the sun – biofuels, fossil fuels, wind power (hot air). Anyway I thought it was cool to play with math. This was the first climate-y book I read and afterwards I saw climate change like Neo at the end of the Matrix. It’s just numbers, brah.

5. Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan – Elon Musk

Super cool, he rattles it out. Great piece to see the truth: climate change is an opportunity, let’s build some awesome new systems and technologies on top of it.

Have another favorite to add? Let’s get this list to 11!

When will we be a “multiplanetary species”?

I’ve heard the term “multi-planetary species” come up recently in articles about Elon Musk, SpaceX,  and NASA (like this one). I’m curious, is there an exact moment when humanity becomes a multi planetary species?

I couldn’t find a definition or discussion. So I came up with my own answers.

Before: First off what isnt multiplanetary? Well right now humanity is not multiplanetary. Sure we’ve set foot on the moon and we have an International Space Station. Major feats, but neither of the Moon or ISS are planets so therefore we’re not a multiplanetary species yet.

After: So what does humanity look like as a multiplanetary species? Let’s go far into the future and imagine civilizations living on 5 planets, in communication with each other, trading with each other, and able to survive by themselves. That’s multiplanetary.

What’s in between? Here’s a couple moments that could define when humanity becomes a multi planetary species:

  1. Feet: “A giant leap for mankind.” When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon something happened. That was a moment, I can hear his declaration in my mind. So maybe when we set foot on the planet then we’re multi planetary. But that seems too easy to me.
  2. Death: Maybe when somebody dies on another planet that we’re “officially” multiplanetary. A pioneer dying of old age naturally seems like a more significant accomplishment than an accidental death. Either one seems too grim to me to feel like a big leap forwards.
  3. Life: good ole life. What an exciting moment it would be to see the first baby born on another planet. Being born in a place is a significant piece of identity. I left Florida when I was 4 years old, but it will always be my birthplace. Heck if a baby was born on the International Space Station that would be news! (No births or conceptions on the International Space Station have been reported yet, though porn site PornHub did attempt to crowdfund porn in space).
  4. War: the willingness to fight another planet seems like more of a post-multiplanetary event. Like they have their shit together enough to really declare independence. So that’s too far.
  5. Food:  In The Martian when Matt Damon sprouted potatoes, that was a big moment. Sustainable systems are a means to live independently indefinitely. This probably wouldn’t be a single event but an age during which a colony became able to produce its own food. The international space station right now is completely dependent on earth for its food and has no capabilities to grow food. Oxygen, calories, recycling, and energy, it’s all there. A sustainable food system kicking out its first harvest seems like the key to me.

A sustainable food system seems just as significant as a foot on Mars in our quest to be multiplanetary. Can we send somebody to jam their toes into Martian soil? Sure. But a sustainable food system releasing the colony from dependence on earth? That’s an even bigger development.

To become a multiplanetary species we need major advancements beyond rocket technology and the ability to ferry resources from Earth. We need agricultural technologies and ecosystem biology tools for true independence. I found a curious lack of biotech, plants, and only one mention of “food” in NASA’s 32 page report on “The Journey To Mars”. Food systems and earth independence are addmittedly further out than getting to Mars, but are key to becoming multiplanetary. Perhaps the ISS is a great place to practice buildig food systems with the next version of Freight Farms and MIT OpenAg.

8 Principles for Silicon Valley’s Role in the Post-Hydrocarbon Economy

Civilization is at a crossroads about the post-hydrocarbon economy. We have a unique window in the next 2 years during which every effort has 1,000x ROI that same effort 2+ years later. Here are 8 principles for Silicon Valley’s role in the Post-Hydrocarbon Economy:

  1. Climate change is an opportunity
    Elon Musk says “sustainability isn’t some silly hippy thing — it matters for everyone”. We see climate change as the biggest financial opportunity civilization has ever seen — to build new systems for food, energy, water, air, transportation, and manufacturing. A new civilization, the likes of which the world has never seen. We know that in the uncertainty lay immense challenges and enormous opportunities.
  2. A backdoor to civilization-scale
    Big corporations have the resources and infrastructure that make up our civilization. But they lack the innovative ideas and leadership. This is our opportunity to expedite a new world. What if we could truly pair the new ideas of tiny startups with the resources and infrastructure of big corporations.
  3. Right problem, Right Place
    We need to create opportunities for real world testing to bring in entrepreneurs around the world to the locale where the opportunity is most present – whether it’s food, energy, air, water, or manufacturing. For example, new clean manufacturing methods could be prototyped and tested in an industrial center like Shenzhen, China. A new agricultural startup could escape a coworking space in San Francisco and get their hands dirty in the fields alongside California’s farmers than being stuck in a coworking space in San Francisco.
  4. Do Good While Doing Good
    Our most valuable resources must be directed at our biggest challenges. Top tech, engineering, and science talent today lack opportunities to tackle world’s important problems. We believe that for significant civilization scale impact, the for-profit model must be present.
  5. It’s Already Happening
    There are already hundreds of entrepreneurs pursuing climate opportunities. We put together a database of 262 hot startup companies working on sustainable tech in just a few hours. Every few days we see articles about climate change on tech sites like Engadget and HackerNews. Connect the dots and we’ve got a trend.
  6. Startups first
    Startups represent a unique commitment to the future – quitting a job and leading a team into the unknown. Protect the ideas, strategy, and mission of a startup, while helping them to interface with the outside world. This is currently suboptimal. As my friend Sandro said, there are many dances between elephants and mice, and it is only the mice who ever get hurt.
  7. Lean Pilots
    Real-world testing can close the gap between a striving startup and corporate caution. Something something walk before you run. For example, we can’t have startups footing a $15k legal bill for engaging a corporate partner on a nebulous partnership that ends up going nowhere. That stuff hurts.
  8. Dreams + Discoveries = Inspiration
    Highlight the dreams and discoveries of innovators in the field to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs.

We seek technologies, partnerships, and business models that are past humanity’s horizons. Working with outliers from startups, governments, and corporations, we are building a toolbox around 6 core technologies:

  1. Food: Precision agriculture and freight farms to produce 2,000 calories anywhere in the world, dynamic time machines that can recreate the growing conditions of any time and place on earth
  2. Air and Water Engineering, including engineering filter mechanisms, Earth terraformation, bioengineering, and new currencies for pollutants
  3. Sustainable Transport on electric airplanes, cars, and freighters
  4. Sustainable Manufacturing – cradle to cradle manufacturing processes, logistics, autonomous factories
  5. Energy capture from the fusion reactor in the sky and next generation storage to make every joule count
  6. Energy consumption tech for living buildings, decentralized microgrids, and dynamic provisioning

P.S Would love your thoughts on this. Your help is welcomed!

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscars 2016 Speech on Climate Change Turned My Life Upside Down

(Leo is on stage for a 2017 Oscars segment so I wanted to hit publish)

All my life I’ve been hearing about reduce, reuse, recycle. I’ve been hearing about droughts and hurricanes on the news. I’ve been hearing about climate change and how important it was.

I was under the impression that the scientists and the governments of the world had this climate change thing pret-ty well taken care of. So I didn’t pay much attention to it.

Until last year when an actor named Leonardo DiCaprio, who had been trying to win an Oscar his entire career, got up on stage having finally won an Oscar.

Instead of talking about how wonderful it was to be in film, he felt so compelled to talk about his personal experiences witnessing the ravages of climate change as they were taking place in Patagonia, because they could not find snow to do their filming.

An actor got up and started talking about climate change. And that got me wondering.

I thought that this was taken care of. I thought we were going to be fine. And I realized maybe I hadn’t been paying enough attention. Maybe the scientists and the governments who I thought had a handle on this, well maybe they didn’t have a handle on it, maybe they needed help. I myself would wake up every day and work on biotechnology projects to enable other scientists. Maybe somehow I wasn’t clued in to what was going on.

So I looked into it, and now we’re here a year later. I have been so compelled by what I’ve found that I quit my job and started a company whose sole purpose is to enable other companies who have climate changing technologies that help halt climate change or help reverse climate change. My entire purpose is to help those companies get adopted at a massive scale so we can get to the place where we need to be.

So there’s this doom and gloom about climate change. That’s ok, but that’s not going to solve the problem. What is going to solve the problem is coming at this from an entrepreneurial, an innovative, and a business-minded, profit-centered point of view. Let’s enhance the scientific leadership, extend the government’s efforts, and cut a new path.

We need to be motivated to solve this thing instead of spanked into using less water, spanked into reducing our carbon footprints and driving less. The reality is people just aren’t going to do that. Humans don’t work that way.

So what can you do? You can prove out better solutions through technology. Solutions that are not only better options for individuals, but are better options for the planet – carbon neutral or carbon reversing because they’re easier, they’re better, they’re faster.

In the past year, I’ve talked with hundreds of people, leading technologists, economists, scientists and thinkers. I’m part of a team working on bringing new technologies to light, and have identified 4 key areas for climate change solutions: food, air, energy, and water. We’ve worked with one of the world’s largest consumer packaged goods companies, aerospace companies, automotive companies, and connected with dozens of innovation labs and startups in Silicon Valley. Watch me.

If this interests you, please email me immediately with subject “Oscars 2016” to Blank email is fine, or your thoughts.

(this post: many thanks to Dan Walsh who method-acted this whole post, Matt Inouye who provided structure, and Shova Ale Magar for listening and asking questions. And thanks to Jeff Mori for wanting to watch the 2016 Oscars, and Matt Walters for telling me I should write more)

HBR: Why Sustainability Is Now the Key Driver of Innovation

Cisco, for example, had traditionally regarded the used equipment it received as scrap and recycled it at a cost of about $8 million a year. Four years ago it tried to find uses for the equipment, mainly because 80% of the returns were in working condition. A value-recovery team at Cisco identified internal customers that included its customer service organization, which supports warranty claims and service contracts, and the labs that provide technical support, training, and product demonstrations. In 2005 Cisco designated the recycling group as a business unit, set clear objectives for it, and drew up a notional P&L account. As a result, the reuse of equipment rose from 5% in 2004 to 45% in 2008, and Cisco’s recycling costs fell by 40%. The unit has become a profit center that contributed $100 million to Cisco’s bottom line in 2008.

Nice, published in 2009 though, wonder how their ideas have held up.

Engadget: White House fights climate change with data sharing


Hack the planet!

The Partnership for Resilience and Preparedness (PREP) will give organizations access to troves of environmental information so they can make their own plans to counter climate change.

Joint Declaration on Harnessing the Data Revolution for Climate Resilience (

  • Organizations involved:
  • Amazon Web Services
  • Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Future Earth
  • Google
  • Group on Earth Observations
  • IBM
  • Microsoft
  • World Bank
  • World Resources Institute