Weekend Briefing No. 301
Welcome to the weekend.
This was an exceptional week because I got to meet a man I greatly admire, Rob Bilott. It’s not every day that you get to meet a true hero.
Rob is the protagonist in a new film, Dark Waters, documenting his two-decade long fight to uncover DuPont’s poisoning of a West Virginia community. (See more below). I moderated a panel discussion with Rob as a part of the Justice Film Festival this week (if you’re in NYC, check it out today). Photos from the event are here, if interested.
After seeing the film, reading his book (Exposure featured below), and speaking with him this week, the thing that struck me was that he never felt like he was a person called to defend the weak or prevent injustice. He’d traveled through life myopically focused on making the grade or getting a good job. But he was moved by the personal story of one farmer, and he thought he might be able to use his particular skill – lawyering – to present the facts to the world and… perhaps that could make a difference. He just used what he had where he was to do the best he could.
This is a call to justice that we can all embrace. What skills, resources, networks do you have? How might they be put to use in service of something greater?
100 – Nearly 100% of people in the United States have PFOA in their blood stream, and the percentages are almost as high everywhere else on the planet. That means you, your kids, your co-workers, and likely everyone you know or have ever met in your life are contaminated with this chemical.
1B – DuPont earns about $1B in revenue annually from Teflon, which is the primary source of PFOA.
10.25 – In 2005, DuPont was fined $10.25 million -- the largest civil administrative penalty EPA that had ever obtained under any federal environmental statute -- to settle violations alleged by EPA over the company's failure to comply with federal law in its handling of PFOA. That’s about 4 days of revenue for Teflon.
From Participant (Spotlight, Green Book), Dark Waters tells the shocking and heroic story of an attorney (Mark Ruffalo) who risks his career and family to uncover a dark secret hidden by one of the world’s largest corporations and to bring justice to a community dangerously exposed for decades to deadly chemicals. Corporate environmental defense attorney Rob Bilott had just made partner at his prestigious Cincinnati law firm in large part due to his work defending Big Chem companies. He finds himself conflicted after he’s contacted by two West Virginia farmers who believe that the local DuPont plant is dumping toxic waste in the area landfill that is destroying their fields and killing their cattle. Hoping to learn the truth about what is happening, Bilott, with help from his supervising partner in the firm, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), file a complaint that marks the beginning of an epic 15-year fight—one that will not only test his relationship with his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway) but also his reputation, his health and his livelihood. This film is a must see for any aspiring activist. In theaters on Friday November 22nd. Watch the trailer, learn more and buy your tickets at Dark Waters. (Sponsored Briefing)
Bitcoin & the Reformation
There are four fundamental parallels between the Protestant Reformation and the present day, which could signal profound societal and economic changes ahead. (1) Rent-seeking monopolistic service provider – Catholic Church / central banks. (2) Technological revolution as a catalyst for change – printing press / cryptography (3) New economic class not suffering from status quo – merchant class / Millennials (4) Memes – Sola Fide / HODL. Twitter (6 minutes)
From the earliest days of Arpanet, the internet has been seen as embodying an ambitious, even utopian set of values. It’s supposed to be open and global (such that anyone can plug in, anywhere) and also equal (in that every node should be able to get the same things). In retrospect, Zuckerberg’s letter in that 2012 Facebook prospectus was the high-water mark of internet boosterism, and it in fact encompassed most of the dreams that had attached themselves to the internet over the previous decades. References to Gutenberg’s printing press? Check. Denouncing of “monolithic, top-down” mind-sets, coming from the chief executive of a huge corporation? Check. Having built a machine to connect the world and let everyone have a say — thereby giving rise to a new social reality in which, as he put it at a speech in Georgetown, “people no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard” — Facebook now had to concede that there was no foolproof way to stop those voices from saying things that were unfactual or malevolent, or to stop their friends and followers from believing them. In part, this was because of a genuine Catch-22 involving scale: Phenomenal size had allowed Facebook and its fellow American tech giants to become the center of online life, but now they could not correct the most toxic problems of online spaces without wielding even more unsettling levels of power. “While I certainly worry about an erosion of truth,” Zuckerberg said, “I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100 percent true.” New York Times Magazine (15 minutes)
Why We’re WEIRD
The emergence of the Catholic Church in Europe brought with it new marriage rules which resulted in nuclear households, weak family ties, and late marriage. Which, in turn, have had deep and lasting psychological impacts on Europeans and their descendants. Unlike the solidarity and conformity that might be favored in earlier agricultural society, Christianized Western Europe favored more individualism. Even though the strict marriage taboos began to loosen in the thirteenth century and the continent has since secularized, this lasting change to family structures might explain the peculiar psychology of the WEIRD —Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. To test this hypothesis, two Harvard professors did a massive data analysis. They used medieval documents recording where bishops moved to track the expansion of Catholicism, mapping the length of time that each population in the world has been exposed to the Western Church. They then designed a metric to measure how tightly knit family structures were, including information about cousin marriage rates and whether people lived with extended family. Finally, they made a metric of WEIRDness using current psychological studies and surveys. They found that the more times a population was exposed to the Western Church, the less strong their extended family networks were and the more independence they showed. Harvard Magazine (9 minutes)
Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund has pumped $400 million into Travis Kalanick’s new company CloudKitchens, according to people familiar with the situation, in a deal that could value the operator of so-called ghost kitchens at about $5 billion and reunites the former Uber Technologies Inc. chief with one of his biggest backers. Travis’s new startup CloudKitchens buys cheap or rundown real estate, often near city centers, where it builds commissary kitchens—also known as ghost kitchens—that it rents to restaurants wanting to prepare food exclusively for delivery services (like Grubhub Inc. and DoorDash Inc.) as well as its own delivery-only restaurants. Wall Street Journal (7 minutes)
Status or Money
Do financial incentives work? One argument is that social pressure is more important. If that’s true is that good or bad? Is it good to care more about fitting in and not seeming weird than about anything else in the world? 99% of world-changing ideas are stillborn when their would-be-inventor worries they might sound weird for proposing them. 99% of great companies don’t get off the ground because their would-be-founder worries about what other people would think. The most important ideas for changing government and society sit on the lunatic fringe, because everyone worries that supporting such ideas might keep them out of the Inner Ring. Paradoxically, this argues in favor of financial incentives. The beauty of financial incentives is that they provide a counterbalance to status incentives. Slate Star Codex (14 minutes)
With more than 100 miles of steam piping and nearly 2,000 buildings served, New York’s steam system is the largest in the world. It helps wash dishes, regulate humidity in museums, make cheese. It can power turbines, so it actually offsets the need for electricity and can power cooling. I never knew this was a thing until this week. So, I had to share it with you. Check out this video. New York Times (7 minutes)
Exposure by Rob Bilott. In 1998, Rob Bilott began a legal battle against DuPont that would consume the next twenty years of his life, uncovering the worst case of environmental contamination in modern history and a corporate cover-up that put the health of hundreds of thousands of people at risk. Representing a single farmer who was convinced the creek on his property had been poisoned by runoff from a nearby DuPont landfill, Rob ultimately discovers the truth about PFAS—unregulated, toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing of Teflon and a host of other household goods. DuPont’s own scientists had issued internal warnings for years about the harmful effects of PFAS on human health, but the company continued to allow these chemicals to leach into public drinking water. Until Rob forced them to face the consequences. Exposure is an unforgettable legal drama about malice and manipulation, the failings of environmental regulation, and one lawyer’s quest to expose the truth about this previously unknown—and still unregulated—chemical that presents one of the greatest human health crises of the 21st century. Amazon
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I think of good love as something that roots, not rots, over time, and of the hyphae that are weaving through the ground below me, reaching out through the soil in search of mergings. - Robert Macfarlane