Real Food, Silicon Valley-Style

Square Roots, on the site of the former Pfizer building in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where produce is grown in 10 shipping containers using only enhanced water and LEDs. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Ruffled feathers of slow food pioneers aside, Kimbal Musk’s projects focus on the link between food and community and his passion to make real food accessible to more people.

Kimbal Musk, 45, got rich working in tech alongside his older brother, Elon. Now he wants to do for food what his brother has done for electric cars and space travel.

Although Mr. Musk has food ventures humming along in Colorado, where he lives, as well as in big cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, he has become enamored of places like Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio — parts of the country he believes are the ripest for a revolution in eating and agriculture…

Mr. Musk is promoting a philosophy he calls “real food,” which nourishes the body, the farmer and the planet. It doesn’t sound much different than what writers like Michael Pollan and everyone who has ever helped start a farmers’ market or community garden have preached for years.

But Mr. Musk has big ideas about what the Silicon Valley crowd likes to call the food space, which is as exciting to him as the internet was in 1995. “We’ve never seen this kind of innovation around food,” he said.

In short, he wants to create a network of business, educational and agricultural ventures big enough to swing the nation’s food system back to one based on healthy, local food grown on chemical-free farms.

“Food is this beautiful gift we give each other three times a day,” he’ll often tell a crowd, “but you couldn’t design a worse food system than what we have.”

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The Business Sense of Doing Good

The Google logo is spelled out in heliostats (mirrors that track the sun and reflect the sunlight onto a central receiving point) during a tour of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert near the California-Nevada border February 13, 2014. The project, a partnership of NRG, BrightSource, Google and Bechtel, is the world’s largest solar thermal facility and uses 347,000 sun-facing mirrors to produce 392 Megawatts of electricity, enough energy to power more than 140,000 homes. Photograph: Steve Marcus/Reuters

The often maligned Calvin Coolidge quote the “Business of America is Business” takes on a positive note when we consider that in the current political climate many corporations are stepping up where the federal administration falls short.

American companies are still investing in renewable energy

After the November elections, many of us in the climate and energy fields were rightfully fearful. What would happen to international agreements to cut greenhouse gases? What would happen to funding for climate research? What would happen to the green energy revolution?

In most instances, Trump is worse than we could have imagined. But in one special area, the president may not matter. That is in the growth of corporate purchasing of renewable energy. It turns out there are factors that even he cannot stop that make choosing renewable energy an easy decision for many companies.

New evidence about the unstoppable renewable energy wave recently came out in a report that was released by Apex Clean Energy and the GreenBiz Group. These groups surveyed corporations to determine their future plans on renewable energy installation and adoption. They wanted to know whether these plans had changed in the past few years and what motivated their decisions to implement renewable energy strategies. The outcome of this survey is available here for people who want to read the entire document.

The groups surveyed 153 major corporations (both public and private), whose combined revenue was in excess of $250 million. Among these companies, 84% are “actively pursuing or considering purchasing renewable energy over the next 5-10 years.” Surprisingly, they found that 43% of the corporations intend to be more aggressive in their pursuit of renewable energy in the next two years. 87% of those actively pursuing renewable energy purchases stated that the election had no impact on their decision.

In fact, 11% were more inclined to purchase renewable energy. Continue reading

California Leading On Climate


Dairy cows in Fresno County, Calif. Some of the reductions in a state proposal to reduce emissions would come from curbing emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from manure piles at dairy farms. Credit Scott Smith/Associated Press

We appreciate California’s heroic measures to take responsibility and show leadership where it can on climate change:

Over the past decade, California has passed a sweeping set of climate laws to test a contentious theory: that it’s possible to cut greenhouse gas emissions far beyond what any other state has done and still enjoy robust economic growth.

Now that theory faces its biggest test yet. Last August, the State Legislature set a goal of slashing emissions more than 40 percent below today’s levels by 2030, a far deeper cut than President Barack Obama proposed for the entire United States and deeper than most other countries have contemplated.

So how will California pull this off? Continue reading

Some Climate Solutions Are Simple


A male chimpanzee hooting in the wild forests of western Uganda. Deforestation in the country is occurring at some of the fastest rates on Earth, shrinking the habitat of this endangered species. Credit Suzi Eszterhas/Minden Pictures

Thanks to the New York Times for this refresher on the basics of climate change and what is needed that we can most easily do to counter its effects:

A Cheap Fix for Climate Change? Pay People Not to Chop Down Trees

By Brad Plumer

The tropical forests in western Uganda, home to a dwindling population of endangered chimpanzees, are disappearing at some of the fastest rates on Earth as local people chop down trees for charcoal and to clear space for subsistence farming.

Now, a team of researchers has shown that there is a surprisingly cheap and easy way to slow the pace of deforestation in Uganda: Just pay landowners small sums not to cut down their trees. Their study, published in the journal Science on Thursday, demonstrated this by conducting something all too rare in environmental policy — a controlled experiment. Continue reading

Mangrove Mathematics

Mangroves play an essential role in maintaining healthy life on earth, and we’ve been privileged to work in many locations where we’ve seen their impact on biodiversity levels first-hand, including India.

Frequently these ecosystems are under threat of habitat loss, whether for agricultural or land development. Thanks again to Anthropocene for adding up the facts in such clear terms.

Intact mangroves worth twice as much as rice paddies

Conservationists frequently say that ecosystems are worth more when they’re left untouched. But to whom? Local communities who could potentially farm the land might wonder, what’s the real benefit of leaving wild areas intact?

In the Bhitarkanika mangrove in Odisha, India, a group of Indian researchers grappling with this question have arrived at a surprising answer. By leaving the mangrove intact, they say, Bhitarkanika’s surrounding communities can in fact reap almost double the economic benefits they’d get from simply converting the mangrove to crops. Continue reading

Understand Amazon Before The Next Train Leaves The Station


Oliver Munday

Mark Twain called it the Gilded Age. In his period there was plenty of reason to be concerned about monopoly powers, especially those of railroads. Echoes in the present day, of reasons to be concerned about the same, seem to be getting louder and clearer. We have shared concerns about Amazon in the past. Those were mostly little creepy concerns. But little creepy things sometimes grow big. Sometimes Amazon big. Thanks to Lina M. Khan, a legal fellow with the Open Markets Program at New America and the author of “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” recently published by the Yale Law Journal. She has made clear, in a concise essay, exactly what we need to be concerned about with Amazon.

…For consumers, so far, Amazon has delivered many benefits. Its Prime program enables users to receive, through a click, almost any item within two days. But for producers — those who make and create things — Amazon’s dominance poses immense risks. Continue reading

Coffee, Ethiopia & Change


Growing coffee provides income for about 15 percent of Ethiopia’s population and is the country’s top export. Climate change is likely to shrink the land suitable for coffee, thereby also hurting the livelihoods of many people.
Courtesy of Emily Garthwaite

Change is almost never easy. Then there is climate change. Daunting, but we cannot stop considering the implications and the options. The planet may recover in geological time, the underlying logic of those who promote denial of the urgency, but plenty of people are at risk in real time, so no option but to keep focus.

Thanks to the salt, at National Public Radio (USA) for a reminder of coffee‘s relationship with conservation, a reminder of Ethiopia in general, which is always welcome, and especially Ethiopia’s relationship with one of our favorite beverages:

Ethiopia’s Coffee Farmers Are ‘On The Front Lines Of Climate Change’

by Courtney Columbus

Ethiopia gave the world Coffea arabica, the species that produces most of the coffee we drink these days. Today, the country is the largest African producer of Arabica coffee. The crop is the backbone of the country’s economy – some 15 million Ethiopians depend on it for a living. Continue reading

The Value Of Coral Reef


Economic value of coral reefs for tourism (A). This figure summarises the combined dollar values of expenditures for on-reef and reef-adjacent tourism. Reefs without assigned tourism value are grey; all other reefs present values binned into quintiles. Lower panels show Kenya and Tanzania (B), South-central Indonesia (C), and Northern Caribbean, with part of Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas (D). (Further maps can be seen in Appendix A and online at

A country that depends on its coral reef to attract visitors, as Belize does, has every reason to pay attention to the various sciences paying attention to those reefs. Mostly marine biologists, perhaps, but also economists. Geeks and wonks are heroically gathering information, processing it, publishing it and if not for The Nature Conservancy’s efforts some of us might not ever see it.

The August, 2017 issue of Marine Policy, an academic journal, carries the article “Mapping the global value and distribution of coral reef tourism” by the scientists Mark Spalding, Lauretta Burke, Spencer A. Wood, Joscelyne Ashpole, James Hutchison, and Philine zu Ermgassen and TNC’s Cool Green Science has a summary in common language. Also they complement the academic illustration above with one of their own:


Screen shot from the Atlas of Ocean Wealth showing global reef value to tourism. © The Nature Conservancy

If it’s true that people reveal their true values by how they spend their money, coral reefs are very valuable indeed. In fact, according to a new study in the Journal Marine Policy coral reef tourism generates $36 billion (U.S) in global value every year. Continue reading

Trees & Sustainability On Small African Farms


Baobab and palm tree/Rod Waddington via Flickr

Thanks to Anthropocene for this summary:

Trees improve the environment—and bottom line—on small African farms

Economic Models Adapting To Evolving Challenges


Aerial view of flooded rice fields participating in California’s BirdReturns program. White areas are dense gatherings of birds. Photo © Drew Kelly for The Nature Conservancy

The Moneyball approach to thinking about how to make the next big breakthroughs in conservation–not surprising that we are hearing this from The Nature Conservancy’s best and brightest:

Economics: The Next Frontier in Conservation Science


Engaging in markets is not new for The Nature Conservancy. But with our roots as a land trust, we thought about markets in a very specific way. We bought property to protect biodiversity using donor and public funding. We were in the market for “externalities.” Continue reading

Fish & Coconuts & Conservation

S.W. Reddy’s discussion of the islands where she carried out empirical research in the behavioral economics vein reminds of some fundamental similarities to Kerala, especially the fish and coconuts part. Thanks to the Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science for bringing this to our attention (if you do not have 15 minutes for the video now, save the text below for later reading):

Bringing Behavioral Insights into Conservation Programs and Policies

By Sheila Walsh Reddy

Behavioral science and economics have provided important insights for health, finance, and many other domains, but are largely untapped resources for conservation. A new paper in Conservation Letters helps practitioners tap into behavioral sciences. Continue reading

Rolling Back Environmental Laws, A Rolling Plague


The proposals threaten indigenous territory in Brazil, opponents say. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

We hear it is coming to the USA after inauguration next month, and has been a tendency in tough times in many places–relaxing environmental protections to encourage economic growth. Bad ideas have a way of spreading and our thanks to the Guardian for their observations in Brazil:

Brazil’s plan to roll back environment laws draws fire: ‘The danger is real’

Environmental and indigenous activists condemn plan they say would threaten indigenous territories and make compliance with Paris deal impossible Continue reading

Bright Spot To Close Out 2016


Thanks to Bloomberg for a surprising bit of good news about the prospects for solar energy going forward:

World Energy Hits a Turning Point: Solar That’s Cheaper Than Wind

Emerging markets are leapfrogging the developed world thanks to cheap panels.

by Tom Randall

A transformation is happening in global energy markets that’s worth noting as 2016 comes to an end: Solar power, for the first time, is becoming the cheapest form of new electricity.  Continue reading

Sunstein & Thaler On Kahneman & Tversky


The book “The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds,” by Michael Lewis, tells the story of the psychologists Amos Tversky, left, and Daniel Kahneman, right. Photograph Courtesy Barbara Tversky

We are more and more intrigued by this book, reviewed by two who knew the subject(s) better than most:


By and

In 2003, we reviewed “Moneyball,” Michael Lewis’s book about Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s. The book, we noted, had become a sensation, despite focussing on what would seem to be the least exciting aspect of professional sports: upper management. Beane was a failed Major League Baseball player who went into the personnel side of the business and, by applying superior “metrics,” had remarkable success with a financial underdog. We loved the book—and pointed out that, unbeknownst to the author, it was really about behavioral economics, the combination of economics and psychology in which we shared a common interest, and which we had explored together with respect to public policy and law. Continue reading

Viewing the Nobel Prize Through a 21st Century Lens

We believe in the core principle from market-based economics that incentives drive behavior. We lean toward behavioral economics as a more robust and believable model than the standard “homo economicus” (read oversimplified but mathematically model-able idea of human decision-making) taught to most 20th century students. We believe that desire for recognition is an incentive commonly found among super-achievers. And this explains why “big” prizes are created and tend to matter over time. Not to  suggest that geniuses chase prizes (on the contrary, much of the time).

But the Nobel probably inspires its fair share of young academics in a few fields. For that reason we find this editorial opinion piece quite compelling, especially due to the first example given:

In the mid-1960s, Robert Paine, a scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, discovered a hidden organizing principle in the coastal ecosystem he was studying. When a certain species of starfish was present, a panoply of algae, limpets, barnacles, anemones and mussels lived in delicate, dynamic balance. But when he removed the starfish and tossed them into the ocean, that balance collapsed and one kind of mussel took over.

Dr. Paine coined a term to describe the starfish’s outsize influence: keystone species. Keystone species have since been identified in forests, in grasslands, in the ocean and even in the human gut. The concept has become one of ecology’s guiding theoretical principles, Continue reading

Can Environmental Regulations Increase Corporate Profits?

Image credit: Royal Olive via Flickr

A thought-provoking question, the economic and political debate over regulation and efficiency is one that has plagued governments long before the US Environmental Protection Agency was created. But with the EPA’s role in regulating pollution (among other things, of course) has come the question of whether corporations can actually benefit in the long run as a result of more stringent requirements that prevent wanton waste, for instance, being put in public waters. Sarah DeWeerdt reports:

According to conventional economic wisdom, the cost of complying with environmental regulations represents a burden that eats into companies’ profits. But another view, known as the Porter hypothesis, holds that environmental regulations can spur innovation and increased efficiency, ultimately increasing profitability.

Economists have debated these ideas for the past two decades but have had little direct empirical evidence to help settle the matter. Now, researchers Dietrich Earnhart of the University of Kansas and Dylan Rassier of the U.S. Department of Commerce have provided such a real-world test with a look at the U.S. chemical manufacturing industry between 1995 and 2001.

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Renewable Energy = Renewed Job Market

Workers with Bella Energy install solar panels on a rooftop in Boulder on July 25, 2014. Photo © Denver Post

The energy that is generated from coal needs to keep decreasing relative to alternative energy sources if we want to reduce the release of pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and rely on renewables instead. But for many people working in the coal industry, this change represents unemployment and poverty. In Colorado, a plan to train coal workers for solar energy jobs may be able to ameliorate the situation. Lea Terhune reports for Share America:

What does greater use of green energy mean for workers in more traditional energy sectors? A Colorado initiative may have the answer: put the workers where the jobs are. Consider the findings of Michigan Technological University professor Joshua M. Pearce and associates: There are nearly 209,000 solar workers in the United States, compared to about 150,000 remaining jobs in the coal industry. Hence Colorado’s plan: train unemployed coal workers to install solar panels.

“Our results show that there is a wide variety of employment opportunities in the solar industry, and that the annual pay is attractive at all levels of education,” Pearce writes in the Harvard Business Review.

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Understanding The Limits Of Growth

k10544Compared to birds, jaguars, national parks and such, this book sounds like a snoozer. But as we scan the media for ways to understand the precarious predicament of the natural world, this book sounds worthy of the challenge (thanks to NYRB) as we contemplate the balance between the environmental costs of all that growth versus all the dramatic improvements in health and other welfare:

…a magnificent book on the economic history of the United States over the last one and a half centuries. His study focuses on what he calls the “special century” from 1870 to 1970—in which living standards increased more rapidly than at any time before or after. The book is without peer in providing a statistical analysis of the uneven pace of growth and technological change, in describing the technologies that led to the remarkable progress during the special century, and in concluding with a provocative hypothesis that the future is unlikely to bring anything approaching the economic gains of the earlier period. Continue reading

With Quinoa, All’s Well Only If It Ends Well


A man holds Peruvian quinoa. New studies of detailed data gathered by Peru’s government find that the global quinoa boom really was good both for Peruvians — both those who grow it and those who eat it. Juan Karita/AP

Thanks to National Public Radion (USA)’s Salt program for this important update:

Your Quinoa Habit Really Did Help Peru’s Poor. But There’s Trouble Ahead

The price of quinoa tripled from 2006 to 2013 as America and Europe discovered this new superfood. That led to scary media reports that the people who grew it in the high Andes mountains of Bolivia and Peru could no longer afford to eat it. And while, as we reported, groups working on the ground tried to spread the word that your love of quinoa was actually helping Andean farmers, that was still anecdote, rather than evidence.
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Green Investing Sees Boost from NY State


Wind turbines seen across the Central Valley from Xandari Resort, Costa Rica

We’ve been hearing about divestment from fossil fuels for a while now, whether it be from university endowment funds (and full or partial divestment), and also featured a story from the Guardian about Bill Gates, who argued that divestment would have little impact, and rather backing green energy and investing in high-risk technologies makes more of a difference in combatting climate change.

In last week’s Opinion pages of the New York Times, Tina Rosenberg describes New York State’s new Common Retirement Fund, which is the United States’ third-largest pension fund and will put $2 billion into a Goldman Sachs investment fund that selects companies to invest in with smaller carbon footprints but have similar risk and return to typical benchmark index funds. From the sound of it, greener investment opportunities will start becoming more common and easily accessible to those of us without Bill Gates levels of money to invest in the higher-risk technologies:

Goldman created the investment fund only for New York State. But similar funds
introduced in 2014 or 2015 are open to other investors, although they have not yet attracted the capital to match New York State’s investment. And more are likely to come — especially after New York’s vote of confidence in a form of green investing that may become mainstream.

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