March 20, 2021
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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,892 words or about 7 minutes
1 big thing: How stalling growth hurts the planet
Some environmentalists and economists are pushing for "degrowth" — stabilizing or even shrinking the economy — to avert environmental catastrophe.
The big picture: Degrowthism may seem like the only reasonable response to the climate challenges we face, but the experience of enforced economic shrinking during the pandemic indicates the pain would outweigh the benefits — especially for the world's poorest.
Where it stands: The global economy shrank by an estimated 4.3% in 2020, according to data from the World Bank.
- That contraction was due both to the direct pain of the pandemic and the effects of social distancing measures, but it also led to a roughly 6% reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions — the biggest annual drop since WWII.
How it works: However accidental, 2020 represented perhaps the best example we've ever experienced of degrowthism in action.
- For degrowthers, simply cleaning up the global economy by switching from fossil fuels to zero-carbon sources of energy isn't enough. Economic growth — the goal of essentially every government everywhere — is itself the problem.
- Environmental activist Greta Thunberg summed up the argument when she chastised delegates at a UN climate summit in 2019: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
- The movement now has its own dedicated academic journals, associations and conferences.
The catch: The very real human pain of 2020 — and the political fallout it created — should be taken as a warning sign to degrowthers.
- A new Pew Research Center analysis found the ranks of the global middle income — those who live on $10.01 to $20 a day — fell by 54 million in 2020 compared to the number projected before the pandemic, while the number of global poor rose by 131 million.
- And while carbon emissions did fall significantly in 2020, it came at a high cost. One analysis estimated that each ton of CO2 reduced due to pandemic-related degrowth will have an implied cost to the economy of more than $1,500.
- That's "an order of magnitude greater than the most costly of 'technofixes'" like direct capture of carbon from the air, as Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute wrote last year.
Between the lines: The strongest argument around degrowth is one rooted in a goal that its own advocates strive for: global equity.
- In a piece posted earlier this week, economist Max Roser of Our World in Data estimated the amount of global growth required to bring everyone in the world up to the level of poor people in the fairly rich nation of Denmark would be 410%.
- Whether or not global poverty can be truly conquered — meaning getting everyone at least to the minimum of the developed world — "overwhelmingly depends on whether the average incomes in those countries that are home to the poorest billions of people in the world will increase or not," Roser writes.
Be smart: With reason, we tend to focus on the huge and growing wealth gap between the ultrarich and the middle class and poor in rich countries like the U.S. But a much bigger gap exists between even the relatively less well-off in the developed world and most of humanity.
- Take electricity access, one of the basic fundamental requirements for a modern lifestyle: Californians use more electricity just to play video games than the total amount of power consumed by everyone in countries like Ghana and Kenya, according to one estimate.
What to watch: For all the environmental pressure growth has created, in recent decades, both rich and poor countries have been able to continue to grow while reducing many pollutants through more efficiency and cleaner energy.
The bottom line: To paraphrase Winston Churchill on democracy, the pursuit of growth has its faults, but it still may be the least worst way to organize an economy.
2. The slow trudge back to the office
A little more than a year after social distancing started in the U.S. — and months after vaccinations began — the vast majority of workers still have yet to return to the office.
Why it matters: Both employers and workers will need to feel safe before large-scale return to the office is possible — and even then, the lure of remote work will remain.
By the numbers: According to data from Kastle Systems — which operates security for thousands of buildings around the country — office occupancy is at just 25% in 10 major cities across the country for the week of March 15.
- Differences between cities can mostly be mapped to coronavirus response measures, with Houston, Dallas and Austin at the top, while San Francisco and New York report the lowest occupancy levels.
- But even Texas —where Gov. Greg Abbot ended the state's mask mandate on March 10 — has less than 40% occupancy, and levels are lower than they were in the fall.
What they're saying: "The surge that we all do believe will come has not started yet," says Mark Ein, chairman of Kastle Systems.
- "But once vaccination happens widely for people under 65 — the bulk of the workforce — I think you're going to have a very significant increase in people getting back to the office.
Details: To that end, Kastle will be offering property owners, tenants and employees the ability to add vaccination status as a factor to control access to buildings and offices, in news first shared with Axios.
- Vaccination status — as well as any data on testing — can be verified for employees and visitors through Kastle's app or web portal.
- Whether or not companies mandate vaccinations for their workers, "we think it's really important that we give people the tool so if they want it, they can decide how to build policies around it," says Ein.
Yes, but: According to a survey this week from Gallup, almost a quarter of American workers say they want to work remotely long term.
The bottom line: Employees who can work remotely definitely won't return in large numbers until they feel safe, and many may not want to return at all.
3. The wearable future of drug delivery
A research-stage company is developing a wearable dosing and delivery device for medication, including for the painkiller drug ketamine.
Why it matters: Wearable drug delivery systems allow doctors to precisely control doses delivered to someone at home, which could help reduce the risk of drug abuse while ensuring patients receive their medication seamlessly.
What's happening: Bexson Biomedical is partnering with the Italian medical technology company Stevanato Group to develop a proprietary formulation of the drug ketamine that could be delivered via a wearable device.
- In very low infused doses, ketamine can be an effective tool for pain management, but its popularity as a street drug makes it challenging to prescribe outside a clinical environment.
- Bexson's wearable device can be programmed to automatically give a patient a steady, low dose of ketamine to treat and prevent pain while ensuring that a patient can't abuse the drug.
- "We're controlling delivery in a way that will only provide access to the medicine as it's prescribed," says Sheldon Moberg, senior VP of drug delivery at Bexson.
Background: Moberg helped invent the world's first wireless blood glucose meter with connectivity to an insulin delivery system for people with diabetes — an early example of the utility of wearable drug delivery devices.
Where it stands: Bexson is working on wearable devices that could deliver other medications that require highly controlled doses, including psychedelics like psilocybin.
- Such devices could also help curb the opioid epidemic, which has grown as doctors have overprescribed and patients have abused addictive painkiller pills.
What's next: Wearable delivery devices that can make "dynamic adjustments based on patient conditions through sensors," says Moberg.
4. The pandemic's unexpected privacy pitfalls
Americans' rush to move all aspects of their lives online during the pandemic — classes, meetings, legal proceedings, shopping and more — left many vulnerable to exposure, exploitation and fraud, my Axios colleague Ashley Gold reports.
Why it matters: The digital environment wasn't always ready to deal with newcomers' privacy and security needs. And the people responsible for managing these activities couldn't foresee all the pitfalls of moving online.
"We have a perfect storm: a public that is more attuned to seeing misinformation, a pandemic where more and more people are doing things online from their homes, and stress and anxiety," said Ari Lightman, a professor of marketing and media at Carnegie Mellon University.
- "We spent a year buying things and setting stuff up online. I think we need to do some digital hygiene."
The big picture: "Virtual interactions during the pandemic are presenting privacy issues at scale in a way that can be really challenging," said John Verdi, vice president of policy at the Future of Privacy Forum, a privacy think tank in Washington.
Moving schools online has led to some violations of student privacy.
- Some students are wary of having their cameras on during online learning to prevent others from seeing their homes or family situations.
Meanwhile: Americans are far more vulnerable to online fraud, which was at an all-time high in 2020.
5. Worthy of your time
Distributed service sector productivity (Noah Smith)
- Thanks in part to the pandemic, we might finally be figuring out how to use the internet to be more productive. Now, back to watching March Madness on my computer while I try to write this.
An existential discussion: What is the probability of nuclear war? (Martin Hellman and Vinton Cerf — Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
- Two experts debate a question you really don't want to know the answer to.
Moore's Law for everything (Sam Altman)
- The Silicon Valley entrepreneur and CEO of OpenAI on the "tectonic shift" that will be enabled by the growth of artificial intelligence.
Will the NFL survive the new science of brain damage? (Dave Zirin — The Nation)
- Published on the same day the NFL nearly doubled its TV rights fees, this piece argues that coming tests for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living players could eventually be a fatal blow to the sport.
6. 1 good thing: America's future science greats
America's most brilliant high-schoolers were recognized in the nation's biggest student science contest this week.
Why it matters: Many of us quite literally owe our lives to the skill and dedication of the researchers who fought COVID-19, and the young winners of this year's contest should give us faith in the future of science in the U.S.
What's happening: 40 high school seniors from across the country competed virtually earlier this week in the final round of the 2021 Regeneron Science Talent Search.
- Over $1.8 million in prize money was at stake, with first place — and $250,000 — ultimately going to 18-year-old Yunseo Choi of Phillips Exeter Academy.
How it works: Choi studied matching algorithms that work for a finite number of couples... to see how it would work for an infinite number... which means...
- Look, Choi is a lot smarter than I am, and you can see her explain the project here.
- Other finalists built computer models for identifying drugs, developed biochar filtration machines, and engineered deep learning systems.
Background: The Science Talent Search has run every year since 1942, and its alumni — who include prominent scientists like geneticist Eric Lander and physicist Lisa Randall — have gone onto win 13 Nobel Prizes and 22 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, among other major science prizes.
What's next: Choi, who will be headed to Harvard in the fall, wants to go into academia.
- "I like the idea of being able to work with younger students," she says. "I think it's such a big luxury to have that privilege of thinking about problems that interest me over the long term."
The bottom line: "We need to have the best scientific minds and engineers," says Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of the Society for Science. "And the only way to do that is to invest in the next generation."