FC113: Let Them Eat Dirt

Plus, the smallest boat on Earth, why China may have already peaked, digital public parks, and good news on tuberculosis, child marriage in Bangladesh and ocean conservation in Samoa.

FC113: Let Them Eat Dirt

Good news

The clean energy juggernaut rolls on. Lazard has just published its annual cost of electricity report, one of the energy industry's most respected benchmarks. It says the cost of onshore wind has fallen to $26 a megawatt-hour and utility scale solar is $29. Forget coal - that means that building new wind and solar is now cheaper than keeping many existing gas plants running (gas-led recovery, anyone?).

Japan, the third largest economy in the world, has committed to reaching zero emissions and achieving a carbon-neutral society by 2050, with a fundamental shift in policy on coal use. The country's new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, says “responding to climate change is no longer a constraint on economic growth." Oh, and South Korea has announced it will be carbon neutral by 2050 too. NPR

The world is winning the fight against tuberculosis. The WHO has just published its annual TB report, showing that between 2015 and 2019, global deaths fell by 14%. In fact, since 2000, TB treatment has averted more than 60 million deaths. Naturally, this incredible news has made headlines everywhere, interrupting the news cycle and bumping those two old white dudes off the front pages. WHO

Child marriage is becoming less common in Bangladesh. The proportion of girls being married before the age of 18 has dropped from 64% in 2010, to just over 50% today. In actual numbers, that means there are 10 million fewer girls who have been forced into child marriage today compared to a decade ago. UNICEF

Samoa has launched an ambitious new strategy to protect and preserve its ocean area, with a commitment to protect 30% of its territorial waters by 2025, a significant increase from the 1% currently under protection. This will result in 36,000 km2 of new fully-protected marine protected areas in the next five years. Government of Samoa

Egypt has managed to plant trees in the desert using wastewater, creating a massive 200 hectare oasis known as the Serapium Forest, which has boomed despite a recent drought. Following the success of the project, the country is now looking to plant more desert lands with trees to fight climate change. Al Monitor

Seattle's Duwamish River is visibly healing. In 2001, after a century of unchecked industrial pollution, it was labelled as one of the most toxic sites in America. After two decades of clean up efforts by conservationists and community groups, wildlife is now returning and the river is the cleanest it's been in 100 years. Seattle Met

pictures of a river
Clockwise from top left. An educational cruise with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and National Wildlife Federation, catching crab (not yet safe to eat), canoeing in the old industrial zone, catching salmon (reasonably safe to eat).

Indistinguishable from magic

Note - the recent story from NASA about water on the moon is obviously amazing, but it's been in the news everywhere, which is why we're not including it. As a general rule, we try to curate science and technology stories you don't hear about.

You've probably heard of the biodiversity hypothesis: the idea that kids who grow up in sterile environments are more likely to get sick (also known as the 'let them eat dirt' rule). Researchers from Finland have now produced the first conclusive evidence that it's true, with an awesome experiment that involved putting forest floors into urban playgrounds. Wired

A drone company in Seattle has been given approval by the FAA to start using heavy-lift drone swarms to reforest burned lands in six western US states. The drones will be carrying 25kg seed vessels with native Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine, and will operate in swarms of five, replanting burned areas twice as fast as human tree planters. Puget Sound Business Journal

Using deep learning, an international team from the University of Copenhagen and NASA has counted over 1.8 billion trees in the western Sahara that were previously invisible to traditional satellite image analysis. It's a sign of things to come: cheap satellites plus algorithms are on the cusp of completely transforming our view of the world. "It marks the beginning of a new scientific era."

Scientists in California have developed a new CRISPR genome editing approach for making much larger edits to the genome. Combining exactitude and voracity, Cas3 is capable of deleting much longer stretches of DNA than Cas9, and just as accurately. "It's like Cas9 with a motor – after finding its specific DNA target, it runs on DNA and chews it up like a Pac-Man." UCSF

Dutch researchers have 3D-printed the smallest ship on Earth: a tug boat so small it could float down the interior of a human hair. When asked why, they replied, “because we wanted to test whether macroscopic design could be emulated at the micrometre scale. Also, making a swimming micrometre-sized boat is fun.” Gizmodo

Dark Forest

Parag Khanna understands Asia better than almost anyone, and says that conventional wisdom about the rise of China is wrong, because it confuses momentum for longevity. Instead of unipolar or bipolar world, the 21st century is more likely to be the first time in human history that every continent or region represents independent poles of power in their own right. Neoma

Regular readers will be familiar with our ongoing quest to unearth great journalism from non English-speaking countries. Our latest find is The Calvert Journal, covering culture, technology and fashion from "The New East." Where else are you going to find stories about Kyrgyzstan’s all-female space agency, fighting disinformation with virtual reality in Ukraine, and Russia's emerging independent media ecosystem?

Eli Pariser has a great idea. To mend a broken internet, how about building the equivalent of digital public parks? Public spaces away from the walled gardens of the tech giants, owned by everyone, designed for everyone. It'll take money, talent and imagination, but that was true of the great city parks once upon a time too. Wired

Virtual meetings still feel weird. Elizabeth Keating, who's been studying 'technologically mediated interactions' since the late 90s, knows why. It's all about the reciprocal way humans keep each other in view - our interactions aren't just about words, but about small glances, the slight shifts of our bodies, the tiny intakes of breath. Those signals still aren't visible on our screens. Sapiens

This is a beautiful piece of art and perhaps the most perfect distillation of gratitude you'll ever hear. It's a four minute video of poet David Whyte, walking across the Irish landscape, reciting his Blessing poems and featuring the most extraordinary recordings of Celtic singing by an Irish fisherman or farmer, Pádraig Ó Néill. Watch it with good headphones. Please. Emergence

Future Brunch

We've reached the 10th episode of Future Brunch, and to celebrate we're doing a special "Ask Us Anything Episode" at 10am AEST on the 3rd November 2020 with Future Crunch co-founders, Gus and Tane (that sentence sounds very weird in the third person but we're not sure how else to do it). Come hang out for an hour, we'll be answering whatever you throw at us - questions about media bias, this newsletter, how to curate a good information diet, how to find good news, dealing with social media, conspiracy theories, whatever. To register follow this link.

Our last Future Brunch was with Kirsten Banks, a young indigenous astronomer and rising star in Australian science. We had a pretty serious geek out on all things space, our favourite parts were being shown how to find the celestial emu, and hearing some of the Aboriginal Dreaming stories about the movement of the planets. Also, some of the best supernovae facts you'll ever hear. We have a video and a full transcript of the interview up on the website.


Linda Twala is the 76 year old 'father' of Alexandra, a township in Johannesburg, South Africa. During the pandemic and lockdowns, he's been leading the charge on the ground to get food and support to the hungry and the homeless, to the people who need it. At an age when most people are thinking about hanging up their shoes, he's been an unstoppable force, helping charities distribute over 30 tonnes of maize a week.

The headquarters for those efforts are a centre for the aged he founded in 1967. After being burned down by apartheid forces in the 1980s, he rebuilt it as a place called Phuthaditjhaba which means "the gathering and taking caring of nations". Today, it houses a daily feeding scheme for over 200 children and 150 aged people, a computer lab, a gym, library, music rooms, health services and early childhood development classes. The gate is always open, encouraging a constant stream of visitors, and inside, stacks of boxes filled with food parcels and stationery and books are scattered on tables.

He says it was his mother who taught him about the importance of sharing what little you have with others. “My mother was a domestic worker and she taught us discipline, respect and how to live with people. Even though she didn’t have much, she always gave food to the hungry and the homeless.”

man helping people in a township

We're almost there. Just under a week to go until this election is over. By the time you get our next newsletter, we might already know the outcome which is simultaneously a terrifying and incredibly hopeful prospect. It's also probably a pretty good summary of our emotional state throughout the entire campaign, which, needless to say, we've been hopelessly addicted to. While it's tempting to have a go at some rank punditry, we learned our lesson in 2016. We'll definitely have something to say in the aftermath though.

Here's what we are going to be reminding ourselves on Wednesday night as we sit there with our insides twisted in a knot, watching the results come in. Progress isn't about winning. Elections, as with so many other parts of our lives, are set up as binary choices and if you throw in a few high quality graphics, they become epic battles between good and evil. Change however, isn't a single moment. It's a million moments, strung together. It doesn't happen in a single election result. It happens because over the past four years hundreds of thousands of people organised, volunteered, wrote to their elected representatives, manned the booths, knocked on doors, didn't lose their cool, and even when they did, channeled that anger into action.

We're not headed towards a single destination. This isn't really a war between good and evil. We're engaged in a process, connected to everyone around the world, and to all the ones who came before us, who looked around and said, "it doesn't have to be like this, we can do better." Whatever the outcome next week, whether we feel like the right side won or lost, remember that this is just another moment in a long succession of moments, and there are going to be plenty more after this.

We'll see you on the other side. Whew.

Much love,


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