Nov 27, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Future. Happy Thanksgiving week! The newsletter is off on Saturday for the holiday weekend, but we'll be back in your inboxes next week.

  • We're coming to you special on a Friday after some technical issues kept us from sending on Wednesday.

Send us tips and ideas! Just reply to this email or reach me at erica@axios.com. Kaveh, who writes your Saturday edition, is at kaveh@axios.com.

I've got 1,096 words for you today — a 4-minute read. Here we go...

1 big thing: Why Thanksgiving isn't meatless

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Plant-based alternatives to meat have found their way into upscale restaurants and fast-food joints alike, but the trend hasn't really cracked Thanksgiving — one of the biggest meat-eating days of the year.

The big picture: Companies have made big strides in re-creating the taste of burgers and chicken nuggets with plant protein, but there are relatively few vegan options for the Thanksgiving turkey.

  • With more Americans embracing plant-based diets, a meatless turkey could rake in profits for the company that gets closest to the classic taste.

The backdrop: The most popular vegan alternative to the Thanksgiving centerpiece is Tofurky, which hit the market around 25 years ago. But even that product doesn't aim to re-create turkey's unique taste.

One reason companies haven't attempted a faux turkey is because it's much easier to re-create the texture and flavor of a processed meat product — like burgers or sausages — than it is to mimic something like steak or roasted chicken.

  • "Technically, it's super hard to make something have the texture of the muscle of an animal," says Ricardo San Martin, research director of the alternative meat program at UC Berkeley. "Turkey meatballs, for example, would be easier."
  • Re-creating the fattiness of a roasted bird is also difficult with plant protein, experts say.
  • On top of that, "Turkey is more of a niche market than chicken," says Glenn Hurowitz, who runs the environmental advocacy organization Mighty Earth. There’s been less investment in plant-based turkey than chicken.

The stakes: While eating beef has the steepest environmental impact — a diet that includes beef has 10 times the climate impact of a plant-based diet — other types of meat-eating hurt the planet, too, Hurowitz says.

  • A diet that includes chicken has three times the impact of a plant-based one.
  • For turkey and pork, it's four to six times.

But, but, but: "The biggest obstacle to plant-based turkey is how central eating turkey is to the Thanksgiving tradition," says Hurowitz. "It has meaning and values and traditions, so that's very hard to replace," San Martin says.

The bottom line: When considering the deep and wide-ranging climate effects of the meat industry, switching to a plant-based diet is one of the most impactful actions individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint, experts say.

  • But while plant-based meat products are gaining popularity in the U.S., overall meat consumption is going up, too. Says San Martin, "One is not replacing the other."
2. The world's alarming sand shortage

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The collision of rapid population growth and global urbanization is straining a crucial, often overlooked material: sand.

  • The explosive growth of cities around the world is driving an unprecedented demand for sand. The global rush to fill that demand has triggered a host of consequences, including environmental disasters and organized crime, Axios' Jacob Knutson writes.

The big picture: We use 55 billion tons of sand every year, making it the third most used natural resource in the world. Without sand, there is no asphalt, glass or concrete the skeleton of the 21st-century city.

Concrete requires a specific type of sand found on the floors of rivers, lakes, beaches and floodplains.

The effects of unlimited extraction on the environment can be severe. Researchers have found that river dredging in India has contributed to flooding in Kerala. China banned sand dredging on the Yangtze River in 2000 after bridges were undermined and thousands of feet of riverbank collapsed.

  • Sand dredging in Lake Poyang — China's largest body of freshwater — has disrupted bird migration patterns, destroyed fishing areas and increased the lake's vulnerability to drought.
  • Sand mining in the San Jacinto River may have also contributed to Hurricane Harvey's disastrous flooding of Houston in 2017.

Journalist Vince Beiser writes in the New York Times that sand mining regulations could alleviate some of the effects of extraction, depending on the government's ability to enforce them.

  • In some countries, illicit mining operations routinely violate sand excavation regulations to fuel a growing black market. "Sand mafias" in India have killed journalists and police who have tried to stop them.

What to watch: Engineers are testing materials like recycled plastic, bamboo, wood and straw to replace sand in cement, and it's possible to recycle sand from demolition waste.

  • Bur, but, but: Thilo Juchem, the president of the European Aggregates Association, tells Axios that recycled and alternative materials cannot replace the demand for billions of tons of sand.
  • "Trying to find ways to use raw materials more efficiently and wisely could ease the pressure on the demand or consumption side, but most likely only marginally," Juchem says.
3. Saving abandoned malls

A deserted mall in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

As we've reported, America is dotted with ghostly, long-abandoned carcasses of malls — massive structures that were once bustling shopping centers but were forced to close down after seeing dismal foot traffic.

  • Many of these malls have been repurposed. Some have been retrofitted into community centers or water treatment plants. Others have been turned into big warehouses to serve e-commerce companies (that one's a little on the nose).

The big picture: The trend of retrofitting abandoned malls is catching on in more and more communities, reports the Washington Post's Abha Bhattarai.

  • An evangelical Christian church bought a mall carcass in Lexington, Kentucky, to turn it into a megachurch.
  • The Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Virginia, has turned part of its unused space into a 60-bed homeless shelter.
  • And esports giant GameWorks is looking at empty spaces in malls to turn into video-gaming hubs.

The other side: While the failing malls repurpose themselves, the high-end centers continue to spend money and add attractions to draw in shoppers.

  • Manhattan's Hudson Yards cost $25 billion to build and features luxury brands and apartments.
  • The American Dream, a New Jersey mall that will open next spring, is a $5 billion project that will have a water park and indoor ski slopes in addition to stores.
  • Even grocery chains are adding fitness classes to bring in customers, CNN's Nathaniel Meyersohn reports. Hy-Vee, a Midwestern chain, has partnered with boutique fitness company OrangeTheory to build studios attached to its grocery stores. And Whole Foods’ flagship in Austin is introducing yoga and barre classes on the roof.
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Cities vs. party houses (Kim Hart — Axios)

How Texas Instruments monopolized math class (Maya Kosoff — Gen)

The human toll of Amazon's drive for speed (Will Evans — Reveal)

U.S. tech props up Chinese surveillance (Liza Lin, Josh Chin — WSJ)

The case for sending robots to day care (Matt Simon — Wired)

5. 1 🛍️ thing: Black Friday goes online

An Amazon fulfillment center, fully stocked for Black Friday. Photo: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

More and more people are dodging the long lines and busy parking lots of Black Friday — and planning to do their holiday shopping online instead.

The big picture: Despite headlines and reports describing a retail apocalypse, brick-and-mortar stores still easily trump e-commerce sites, with online shopping claiming only about 10% of all retail. But when it comes to shopping around the holidays, online has a much larger share.

  • Last year, 30% of all retail dollars spent in November were spent online, per analytics platform 1010data. That's up from 17% in 2014.
  • This year, 54% of Americans say they plan to buy the bulk of their holiday gifts online, according to data from PricewaterhouseCoopers, reported by the Washington Post.
Bryan Walsh

Thanks for reading!