May 9, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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1 big thing: The future of the burger

Actresses Dorothy Sebastian and Joan Crawford, 1925. Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty

From every direction, the underpinnings of everyday life are being challenged — from the jobs Americans once held, to the allies we once embraced, to the decorum we tightly observed. Now, it's the hamburger — the very-nearly patriotic staple of every childhood and backyard barbecue — that's under threat.

  • What's happening: Last week, McDonald's became the latest major fast-food chain to serve plant-based burgers, saying it will test the "Big Vegan TS" burger in Germany. By the end of the year, such non-meat burgers will be in 7,200 Burger Kings, 1,000 Carl's Jrs., and hundreds of other fast-food joints.
  • That's a lot of "imposter" burgers, as George Motz, one of the world's premier hamburger experts, calls the boom in laboratory-invented burgers. "If the next generation embraces these 100%, we will lose a sense of what a real burger should be. They are getting away from the real thing."

The big picture: The hamburger goes back to a surge of German immigrants in the 1800s. When they arrived in the U.S., they brought with them a standard cuisine — chopped meat on a plate, with gravy. In the U.S., it morphed into the Hamburg Steak, a meatball-size dollop of beef between two slices of bread.

  • In the decades since, each state and region of the country has made its own twist on the burger. Similar adjustments have happened as the burger has traveled to seemingly every country in the world.
  • Now, the international community is embracing the gourmet burger at places like Smashburger, Shake Shack and Five Guys.

It may seem like people are eating less and less red meat, but that impression holds only if you compare now with the hamburger's peak years. Beef-eating crashed along with the U.S. economy starting in 2008, but it has picked up fitfully year by year and is back up to the equivalent of 229 burgers a year per person, or 4.4 a week, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. It's a global phenomenon — from 2007 to 2017, the world consumed an average of 1.9% more meat each year, the Economist reports.

The somewhat jarring arrival of faux beef burgers is part of an unlikely shake-up of the country's cultural bedrock:

  • There is a potential shift away from gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs to quiet electrics.
  • American football is losing its cachet, as teens — their parents worried about permanent injury — drop the sport. More broadly, we have seen the near-demise of the traditional pickup game of basketball.
  • "Americans are intensely proud of their hamburger heritage. It's one of the only American food inventions in the last 100 years," Motz tells Axios. "Now we have invented the fake hamburger."

Environmentalists and health experts support plant-based beef. Cows, for one, produce a good deal of the country's emissions of methane greenhouse gases. But Motz, the author of "Hamburger America," feels certain that, even if faux beef is taken up by lots of Americans, they will mostly want the real thing.

  • Even millennials, the killers of mayonnaise, cheddar cheese and other American staples, haven't — and won't — abandon the burger, he is certain.
  • "Millennials require not just food but a story behind it." Such as nostalgia — which the burger has.

Go deeper: Beef: America’s dinner and a juicy climate controversy

2. A dampened outlook for oil
Expand chart
Data: Reproduced from Barclays; Chart: Axios Visuals

Oil demand is on a trajectory to peak in the mid-2030s, and plateau through the middle of the century, Barclays analysts say in a new report.

Axios' Ben Geman reports: The report is a major new entry into attempts by forecasting bodies, consultancies and major energy companies to get their arms around how the global energy system will — and won't — transform in the decades ahead.

The big picture: The report's climate-friendly "dynamism" scenario would require circumstances to line up in a very particular way — and not just for oil — to keep temperatures from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Of note: That break with current trends would involve an array of big steps such as:

  • Larger industry and national investments in efficiency and technology, faster growth of renewables and greater electrification.
  • More recycling, cutting single-use plastics and other steps to slow the growth rate of oil used in petrochemicals.
  • Significant adoption of carbon capture and storage from 2040 onwards.

By the numbers: Getting back to the main focus of the report — oil — here's a look at where Barclays sees things heading in "development."

Overall, it sees demand just slightly higher at 105 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2050, which is just over current levels. But the uses of that oil change. Per the report:

  • Oil use in passenger cars falls from roughly 22 million barrels a day right now to slightly under 20 as efficiency gains (the biggest factor) and electric vehicles offset the huge rise of cars on the world's roads.
  • Growth of the global trucking fleet means that its oil consumption rises from 24.5 million barrels a day to nearly 30, despite gains in efficiency and electrification.

Oil needed for jet fuel rises from 6.2 mbd to 9.2 mbd in 2050. And growth in petrochemicals nearly doubles that sector's demand to 18.6 mbd in 2050.

3. Uber and Lyft protests fizzle

Striking drivers in Stamford, Connecticut. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty

Protests against ride-hailing companies today, ahead of Uber's IPO on Friday, had massive ambitions, spanning at least 6 major U.S. cities and several countries — but Uber and Lyft seemed to plug along undisturbed.

Erica writes: The protests were not invisible. In many cities, including San Francisco and New York, drivers congregated in loud, large demonstrations against low wages and mistreatment. They formed picket lines, took to podiums and stopped traffic to send a message to the Silicon Valley giants.

But the impact was not apparent on the apps themselves. In New York, ride requests didn't take an unreasonable amount of time to be filled and fares remained steady.

  • In Astoria, Queens, a few miles away from a big Uber protest in Long Island City, a New York Post reporter was able to quickly hail an Uber. And the reporter's driver told him that he was not even aware that there were protests today.
  • New York drivers gathered for a large demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge, reports AP. But rides were readily available around the Wall Street area during the morning rush hour.

The West Coast protests are making more noise.

Go deeper: Axios' Dan Primack spoke with Jos Cashon, a striking Uber and Lyft driver in Los Angeles. Listen.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Capturing what's online in China before it vanishes (Raymond Zhong — NYT)

Women's sports are having a moment (Kendall Baker — Axios)

India's water crisis (James Temple — MIT Tech Review)

Nashville wants to be the next Austin (Erik Larson — Bloomberg)

What a nearby kilonova would look like (Lisa Grossman — Science News)

5. 1 fun thing: The rise and fall of neon

Moulin Rouge in 1929. Photo: Fox/Getty

Neon signs, once a symbol of vitality — the lighting that illuminated sleepless cities — have turned, over the course of a century, into a symbol of decline.

Kaveh writes: It's been more than 100 years since the noble gas started out lighting up the streets of Paris, writes Sarah Archer for The Atlantic in a review of a newly translated 2012 book on neon lighting.

  • In 1912, the first neon sign was installed outside a barber shop on Boulevard Montmartre, and more began popping up on cinemas and nightclubs, according to Luis de Miranda, a novelist and philosopher who wrote "L'être et le néon," or "Being and Neonness."
  • Some of the earliest neon signs in the U.S. were in Los Angeles: A pair of enormous signs in blue and orange "literally stopped traffic" when they were installed, Archer writes.
  • In the Soviet Union, neon adorned government buildings — an attempt to emulate the bewitching lit-up storefronts of the West.

But by the 1970s, according to de Miranda, old, now-flickering neon signs began to take on a sheen of decrepitude and even disrepute.

  • Today, they live on in storefronts — their glamour diminished — and are increasingly taking up residence in museums.
Bryan Walsh