April 6, 2018

Ocean of Awe: Aligning Business and Philanthropy to Build a Better World

Schooling permits, Pajero Point, British Virgin Islands

“We live in a present mixed with various futures overshadowing us. In essence, we live in a science fiction novel we all write together.” — Kim Stanley Robinson

We are on the edge of a technological and social transformation comparable to the rise of multicellular life on earth. This is an exciting and deeply challenging moment in human history. In a time of divisive ideologies and irreconcilable confirmation bubbles, we need a cross-pollination of ideas, experience, and expertise to catalyze changes that will give birth to a better future. But first, we need an environment, a framework, and a vessel to enable deep conversations and understandings.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. An encounter of minds can be the starting point of infinity. Take a moment and let the metaphor sink in. Think about it, and be reminded that life comes from the ocean.

As with space travel in Tim Kreider’s New York Times op-ed “Earthlings, Unite: Let’s Go to Mars,” the care and cultivation of our oceans can be seen as a sign that “we, as a civilization, are still planning for a future — that we intend to live.” Similar but different from space missions, ocean conservation is a more earthly version of modern cathedral building.

The starry sky and the blue ocean have inspired fables and adventures throughout the millennia, for they arouse reverence and wonder, and simultaneously remind us of our own fragility, and therefore evoke our desire to discover, to transcend. Yes, awe is the word.

Awe is a powerful antidote against the avoidable dark sides that came with industrialization: numbness, meaninglessness, and carelessness. Awe forces us out of our comfort zones and awakens our slumbering souls. Instead of feeling reduced and accepting that “there is no alternative,” we can wake up and dream, again.

Perhaps there’s more to life than speculating for money and seeking incremental gains. Perhaps non-zero-sum games are the norm of existence. Think about corals, perhaps the most cliché (and brilliant) example of symbiosis. Perhaps we can reclaim our collective imagination back and, in doing so, reclaim our humanity.

We might become a cosmic people and forge our destiny among the stars. But that day will not come if we don’t pay the overdue attention to our ocean today. If we play our cards right, the fourth industrial revolution will be known as the revolution that shines light on the ignorance towards nature of the previous industrial revolutions.       

When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.

This world is infested by short-termism. It’s hard to care about the ocean if we’re primed to think about next quarter’s earnings all the time. We need to bring the collective attention to longer time frames in a way that’s relevant to our immediate interests. Listen to what our dear friend, Louis Metzger, says about biotech and deep time evolution:

The concept of deep time is inherently linked to deep evolution. The world’s metagenome encodes enzymes that catalyze the formation of diverse chemicals, most undiscovered. From ocean trenches to Himalayan peaks, organisms have evolved the ability to perform unique chemistry (the antibiotic penicillin and the antimalarial artemisinin are but two examples). The rapidly increasing number of sequenced genomes, the exponentially decreasing cost of oligonucleotide synthesis, and advances in bioinformatics are enabling the discovery both of new chemical matter, and of alternative ways to make known compounds. This trend will profoundly affect the future of green chemistry, material sciences, and medicine. One of the most compelling — if anthropocentric — arguments for the preservation of biological diversity is the maintenance of genomes that encode useful biochemistry. Once lost, such information will not evolve again on a human timescale.

Let’s play a mind game. Let’s imagine that the world’s problems are like scurvy, where something vital is missing. How shall we redirect our collective attention and media narrative to create these missing elements within our culture? What are the nutrients that are crucial for us to thrive? We could look to literature for inspiration. For example, Toni Morrison once said, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” And as Ursula Le Guin put it, “We read books to find out who we are.” What books do you want to read? What books do you need to read? What books should you write?

Moonshot by the tidal pools

When we think about corals, we think about… corals. And this is the problem. Corals are the sea and the temperature that they’re in; the microscopic algae and bacteria that live within them; the critters that rely on them; the coast that they protect; the culture, the economy, the political hegemony and the resulted policies, that interdependently effect them.

In their recent piece “Mass die-offs are driving efforts to create hardier corals,” editors at The Economist point out that multiple sub-disciplines of biotech and science need to come together in order to save the corals. Facing unprecedented crises, we must think the unthinkable, speak the unspoken, question the unquestionable. We must fundamentally reevaluate and reimagine our norms and our hidden assumptions. Let’s make this an opportunity to do things right, shall we? We need a silo-breaking playbook about collaborations for real world impact. This playbook shall aim for new norms and new opportunities, as it shall redefine the roles and the duties of science and of commercial interests, and their relation with everything else.

A good moonshot changes the world, for the collaborative process alone re-configures our relation with others, with resources, with possibilities. Once you see the new possibilities, you can’t unsee them. This will cascade. This is change.

So here’s a moonshot we propose: a collaborative effort to innovate philanthropy to inspire commercial leaders to focus on (currently) less lucrative but extremely consequential projects, starting with corals’ spineless counterparts, the mollusks. Both phyla saw considerable diversification over one hundred million years ago, and face an uncertain fate today.

R&D, to think about what you don’t think about.

We who work in science and hard tech tend to take the prevalence of R&D and the importance of material science for granted. However, many older industries, such as the fashion industry, traditionally do very little R&D at the basic material level (thanks Natsai Audrey Chieza for championing design thinking). Just to give an example, synthetic fibers from fashion garments are a major source of microplastics in ocean. It’s time to bring R&D back with a focus on saving the ocean. We need to take a multi-pronged approach, and biomaterial will be an important part of the solution. Not all solutions lend themselves to commercial interests, but this one naturally aligns with massive commercial interests. Microbes and seaweeds will be the future.

To be Blockbuster or to be Netflix? Not a difficult choice at the abstract level. At the practical level, as the world is moving away from shareholder primacy and speculative financialization (among other powerful trends), it shall become much easier for executives nowadays to choose to do the right things, to break away from what have always worked, to embrace the future. 

We are culture. Those who write the menu can change the world.

We are not passive consumers of culture; we are participants and co-creators of culture. Benjamin Buckminster has said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

This starts with rewriting the stories and the menus. Let’s take a low tech and literal interpretation of this: We can explore new ways to make jellyfish delicious and fashionable to eat. Another suggestion would be upping the game of eating sea urchins, through collaborating with culture leaders and celebrity chefs, since sea urchins are the nemesis of the ultra important kelp forests. We can create trends and make good things convenient (convenience and availability are everything), and we have the obligation to do so, to save the environment, to save ourselves. On the high tech and more elaborative or philosophical side, Revive & Restore’s Genetic Rescue Project and The Long Now Foundation’s missions are inspiring new frameworks of thinking/menus to co-create a better future.

This quote from Larry Page in a 2013 Wired Magazine article is timeless:

“I worry that something has gone seriously wrong with the way we run companies. If you read the media coverage of our company, or of the technology industry in general, it’s always about the competition. The stories are written as if they are covering a sporting event. But it’s hard to find actual examples of really amazing things that happened solely due to competition. How exciting is it to come to work if the best you can do is trounce some other company that does roughly the same thing? That’s why most companies decay slowly over time. They tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes. It’s natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren’t going to fail. But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time.

What if we see beyond zero-sum competitions and incrementalism and design systems and incentives based on such, how can we make the world better? Start with saving our oceans. This is how business and philanthropy align.

Special thanks to Yan Liu for co-authoring and serving as executive advisor of vision, creativity, and interdisciplinary insight for this article. Thank you to Kevin Costa for providing input.

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