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FC110: Involuntary Transatlantic Rafting Event

Plus rock n' roll gods, composting funerals, 3D-printed decoy turtle eggs, and good news on immigration laws in Italy, air pollution in London and conservation in Vietnam.

Future Crunch
Future Crunch

Life is amazing. And then it's awful. And then it's amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful it's ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That's just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it's breathtakingly beautiful.

~ L.R. Knost


Well, that will teach us.

Less than 48 hours after we suggest everyone takes a step back from the news livewire, the president of the United States is diagnosed with a deadly virus and suddenly we're there along with everyone else, tapping away furiously and staring intently at our screens. A massive, communal news event takes place and after only a few seconds of resistance we reach for our phones, knowing full well we're about to participate in an activity that acts against our interests and gives us no pleasure.

Fortunately we've pulled ourselves back into meatspace now, but not after wasting a lot of time and at least a few nights of decent sleep on the equivalent of political pornography. It's a sordid, grimly pathetic feeling, refreshing your feed to get the latest update, trying to find someone with something new to say, even though you know none of it is actionable or useful. None of it taught us anything but like everyone, we were drawn into the machine-flow atemporality of real world events, as interpreted by a pack of baying wolves, and mediated by software built in service of a multibillion-dollar advertising industry.

The problem of course is that there isn't really that much else going on. We don't have other stories to think about. Our usual cultural rituals, our social handholds - gathering with friends, annoying our families, going to the movies, teasing work colleagues, travelling, eating out, watching sport, gossiping about celebrities - have been wrenched from our grasp. The news however, has sped up, and so we're left clinging to it in an effort to make meaning. Needless to say, that doesn't work.

We've learned our lesson, we're not going to offer advice this time around. We just want to remind you that none of this is normal and it won't last. Like you, we are tired of this horrible reality TV show and we cannot wait to change the channel. The good news is that we did manage to tear ourselves away eventually (and it's been a relief). Hopefully it won't be much longer until America and the rest of the world gets to do the same.

Good news you probably didn't hear about 🌈


Myanmar has become the second country in southeast Asia, and the twelfth country in the world to eliminate trachoma. Fifteen years ago, the disease was responsible for 4% of all cases of blindness in the country. By 2018, prevalence had dropped to 0.008%, and a month ago, the WHO confirmed its elimination.

Italy has abolished anti-immigrant decrees installed by former populists, and reinstated humanitarian protection for migrants and refugees. The government has also cut the time needed for citizenship applications from four years to three. "Tonight a wall comes down. Onward towards a country with more humanity." The Local

Same-sex marriages now make up a half a million US households, five years after the Supreme Court made it legal for people to love each other. According to the latest census, there are now 980,000 same-sex households in the country, and half of those are married, an increase of almost 70% since 2014. VOA

During the first term of the most coal-friendly president in American history, 145 coal-burning units at 75 power plants have been shut down, eliminating 15% percent of the country's coal-generated capacity. This is the fastest decline in coal capacity in any single presidential term, far greater than the rate during either of President Barack Obama’s terms. #MAGA. NYT

The number of people suffering from air pollution in London has plunged from 2 million in 2016, to 119,000 in 2019, a fall of 94%. It's thanks to regulations introduced by the city's mayor, Sadiq Khan, which have resulted in 44,000 fewer dirty vehicles now driven in central London every day compared with 2017. Guardian

Greyhound racing is dying out in the United States. Thanks to changing attitudes and the efforts of animal rights activists, 39 American dog tracks have closed since 2001. In the country that invented modern commercial greyhound racing, there are now only seven dog tracks remaining in five states, and within the next two years, those will likely close too. Nat Geo

Vietnam has established a new 22,132 ha tropical forest nature reserve called Dong Chau-Khe Nuoc Trong, whose name means “clear water in the ravine." It is home to 40 globally threatened species, including the singing gibbon and the saola, a mysterious antelope-like bovine with a pair of long, straight horns known as the Asian unicorn. World Land Trust

nature reserve
Image credit: Viet Nature Conservation Centre

Indistinguishable from magic 🐇


Paleontologists have made an extraordinary discovery in Peru - the fossilized remains of a group of primates from Egypt. It means that around 35 million years ago, a group of monkeys made an epic journey from Africa to South America via 'an involuntary transatlantic rafting event.' That's a distance of almost 2,000 kilometres. Science News

The US Army has developed a radiation sensor 100,000 times more sensitive than current sensors. It measures temperature rise as photons are absorbed into graphene, and can detect a single microwave photon, the smallest amount of energy in nature. Potential applications are enormous - from night vision, thermal imaging and LIDAR to quantum information and the search for dark matter.

Scientists are using AI to pioneer a new field of medicine called vocal diagnostics. By simply listening to someone's voice, they can now diagnose conditions such as dementia, depression, autism, PTSD and even heart disease. The accuracy for diseases like Parkinson's is now 99%, and 92% for Alzheimer's, and the technology is moving from the lab to doctors' rooms. Nature

Conservationists placed 3D-printed, GPS-enabled decoy eggs into turtle nests on beaches in Costa Rica to catch poachers. A quarter of the InvestEGGators (yeah, we know) were collected by unsuspecting traffickers along with real eggs, and the researchers were able to trace their movements across a trade chain covering 137 kilometers. ZME Science

In Seattle, a company is now offering a composting service for dead people. For 30 days, the body and living microbes lie in a vessel together, decomposing. At the end, they become a cubic yard of loamy, nutrient-rich soil, which can be returned to loved ones or scattered according to the decedent’ wishes (tomatoes, anyone?). It costs about half as much as a traditional burial. OneZero

Signals of life in the Dark Forest 📡


Perhaps you've heard of superforecasters - people who don't conform to stereotypes of experts, but have an uncanny ability to make accurate predictions. There's a website called Good Judgement which aggregates their forecasts and we've been using it to make better guesses on everything from long term stockmarket behaviour to when we're likely to get a vaccine. Super useful.

Mary Harrington says that instead of seeing nature and other humans in terms of transactions, we need to see them in terms of relationships. Instead of information, we need to look for meaning, which comes to us through patterns, repetition and ritual, and "lies thick in sacred places." Powerful reframing, beautiful writing. Palladium

Andrew McAfee responds to Jason Hickel and the rest of the de-growth crowd with a great essay on how technological progress and price competition are the answer, not the problem. This is an excellent example of the eco-modernism argument in action - and while we're not sure we agree with him on everything, he's got some very good points. Wired

There's a big UN summit on biodiversity coming up in China next year, and serious moves underway to get countries to commit to a 'planetary safety net' covering 30% of land and ocean area. Super impressed by this data visualisation, which makes use of some nifty scrolling action to show which areas scientists think should be protected, and the logic behind their choices.

They don't make 'em like they used to. One of the greatest of all time has come and gone, after landing from another planet and single-handedly rearranging the DNA of rock n' roll forever. It’s only slightly hyperbolic to say there’s guitar playing before him, and then there’s everything (the entire 1980s, for starters) that came after. RIP Eddie. Produce Like A Pro

rock n roll guitarist
"To hell with the rules. If it sounds right, then it is" - Eddie Van Halen

Human Kind 💖


Meet Hadiqa Bashir.

For the past seven years, this teenager from Pakistan’s Swat Valley, ruled by the Taliban regime until just a few years ago, has made it her mission to stop child marriage. She goes door to door, speaking to mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts and grandparents about the negative impacts of early and forced marriage, and urging girls to finish their education. So far she's been able to break off 15 weddings and convince five of the 25 imams in the region to talk about the problem.

For her, the fight is personal. When she was 11 years old, her grandmother wanted to get her married, in line with local tradition, to a local taxi driver. “My family thought it was a good match. But I fought against her decision and even threatened them with legal consequences. It was a hard time but I had to do it." She then formed a group called Girls United For Human Rights, and is now preparing for a career as a lawyer, to tackle a persistent problem in a country with no federal law against child marriage.

Until then, she has other ways to make their voices heard. Sometimes, she performs skits in different localities to help people understand the issue and at other times she takes on the religious leaders and legislators. When an imam refused to speak with a girl, she sent a boy from her organization in her place. “It’s a patriarchal society here. I try to spread awareness wherever I can, especially to parents, but it’s not easy. But I will not stop what I've started, because it's personal. It's about my sisters."

young female activist speaking

That's it for this edition, thanks for reading!

A gentle reminder that the reality TV show sucks, and that you're a human being, not a helpless pawn at the mercy of the algorithms. Turn them off if you want to. Real life is heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary, and breathtakingly beautiful. Give it a go.

We'll see you next week.

Love,

FC HQ

Future Crunch

We're a team of science communicators. Our mission is to foster intelligent, optimistic thinking about the future, and create a 21st century that works for people and the planet.