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FC91: A Nation On Fire

Plus, holographic popstars, cobra genomes, Blade Runner samples and good news on cholera, landmines and child marriage.

Future Crunch
Future Crunch

At the start of every disaster movie, there's a scientist being ignored. Except this time around, there are no actors. This isn’t a Hollywood set. It’s a serviceman from the Australian Defence Force searching the ground from an army helicopter en route to the small country town of Omeo to evacuate local civilian residents during Operation Bushfire Assist. It’s the biggest military operation in Australia since World War Two and there’s still no end in sight. Over 3,000 defence force reservists are currently in the field, two naval ships are waiting off the coast, and additional helicopters have been flown out from Singapore to help.

On the day this newsletter is going to press, more than 5% of Victoria, our home state, has burned, and temperatures of more than 40°C (104°F) are forecast, with winds of 90km/h driving a monstrous line of fire back to the alpine towns of Bright and Harrietville. 27 people are already dead. More than 100,000 km² of Australia has burned since October last year. That’s roughly equivalent to one fifth of the area of all of the United States’ national parks, or two Switzerlands. More than a billion animals are gone. Read that figure again, and try to get your head around it, the sheer magnitude of the loss and suffering. A cone of heat encases a whole continent; cities are shrouded in apocalypse orange, and a veil of smoke will soon circle the globe.

This is climate changed.

It didn’t have to be like this. We should have listened to the scientists.

A satellite image of Batemans Bay on New Year's Eve

Look, we know you come here for good news (if that’s what you need there’s still plenty of it, just scroll down). If you’re one of the 4,000 new readers who just signed up, please don’t unsubscribe yet. We’re usually a lot more upbeat. We didn’t want to start the year like this. The original plan was to write a retrospective on an incredible decade of progress for vaccines. That article’s going to have to wait until the next edition though, because right now the country we live in is on fire.

The difference between intelligent optimism and blind optimism is that the former requires us to bear witness to both the good and the bad, and to do something about it. So we’ve got some information about how you can help below.

First though, we hope you’ll excuse us if we take the gloves off for a bit. Here’s a blog post written by Gus. He’s got some things to say about the people in charge. Please note that this post in no way, shape or form represents the views of the business, and is a personal opinion only (we have to say that because this one gets a little ugly).

Read: A Burning Nation, Led By Cowards

What can you do about it?


The donations have been pouring in from around the world - at last count it’s something like $150 million. However, they’re not being distributed evenly, and right now the sector that’s getting the least attention is wildlife recovery.

The number of injured or distressed animals from these fires is mind-boggling. Wildlife Victoria is doing amazing work. It’s all volunteer run, and they’re distributing donations to wildlife shelters to help rebuild enclosures and equipment they lost in the fires so that they can continue their lifesaving work, and support those that are struggling to cope with the enormous number of animals that will need care in the coming weeks and months.

We’re donating $2,000 as a business (not from the Patreon, we’ll leave that for other causes). If any of our readers are feeling the call to help, this will go a long way.


Good news you probably didn’t hear about


In 2019, renewables produced 43% of electricity in Germany, wind power alone contributed 47% of electricity in Denmark, carbon emissions from electricity in Spain fell by 33%, zero carbon electricity outstripped fossil fuels in the United Kingdom for the first time ever, and in the United States, overall emissions fell by 2.1%.

The WHO says 11 countries received 18 million doses of its new cholera vaccine in 2018, bringing the number of global cases down by 60%. UN

The Philippines has become the first country with a serious vitamin A deficiencies to approve genetically modified golden rice.  New Scientist

US cancer death rates dropped 29% between 1991 to 2017, and the most recent update saw the largest single-year decline in mortality ever reported. NYT

Pakistan’s security forces are reporting a 31% reduction in terror and counter-terror related deaths in 2019. The Tribune

As of last month, more than half of Colombia’s municipalities are free of landmines, and the country is on track to remove all mines by 2021. Reuters

Indian Railways recorded zero passenger deaths in rail accidents in 2019, making it the national transporter's safest year in history. Economic Times

Child marriage in Bangladesh has dropped by two thirds in the past 20 years, and the country is on track to for zero under-15 marriages by 2021. IFPRI

Tunisia has become the first Arab nation to begin providing sex education for elementary and middle school students. Washington Post

Following a major drive to tackle pollution, water quality in China has improved significantly: since 2003, average chemical oxygen demand is down 63% and ammonium nitrogen levels have dropped by 78%. Phys.org

China has also banned all commercial fishing on the Yangtze – the first ban ever for Asia’s longest river - to restore aquatic life. SCMP

As of the 1st January 2019, single-use plastic plates, cups, and cotton buds are not allowed in France; straws and cutlery will follow in 2021. France24

Indistinguishable from magic

Archeologists have discovered a 44,000 year old cave painting in Indonesia, believed to be the oldest graphic story in existence. Ars Technica

A factory in Belgium has developed a commercially viable technique for decarbonising cement (reminder - 8% of global emissions). EC

An AI system has identified breast cancer from mammograms with a similar degree of accuracy to expert radiologists from the UK and the US, while significantly reducing both positive and false negatives. Reuters

A holographic Japanese popstar named Hatsune Miku is performing at Coachella this year. “She does costume changes in a split second.” GQ

An international team of scientists has published all 38 of the Indian cobra’s chromosomes, bringing anti-venom into the 21st century. Wired

A San Diego startup has grown yellowtail fish fillets from cells that behave the same way as conventional fish in all cooking applications. SeafoodSource

Bioengineers in New York have created the most powerful DNA biocomputer yet, able to calculate every square root between 1 and 900. ZDNet

Off the beaten track in the dark forest

You know what’s come a long way in the last decade? Hip hop choreography. Parris Goebbel must have sold her soul to the devil to create this. Youtube

The National Review was our favourite conservative US newspaper, until its two best writers, David French & Jonah Goldberg, decamped to The Dispatch.

Dan Wang is one of the smartest people working at the intersection of economics and technology, and has an excellent take on China’s trajectory.

This 2017 Birds of Mind set from Galactic Jungle’s art car got us through the festive perineum. Worth it for the Blade Runner sample alone. Soundcloud

Spend 10 minutes scrolling through this visualisation of the animals that live in the deep sea and feel like a kid all over again. Neal.fun

This year, how about creating better family rituals? Here’s the best technology screen time contract for children (and their parents). Psychology Today

A beautiful gallery of the 15 most awe-inspiring space images of the last decade. We’re still gobsmacked by the Juno and Rosetta missions. Vox


OK that’s all for this edition. Next time - vaccines! No more fire and anger, we promise. We just needed to get that one off our chest. Read the blog post… it includes expressions like “caliginous band of lubricated MAMILs.”

Thanks as always for the support,

Gus, Tane and the rest of the FC team.


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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.