Riskgaming

Will Malthus or human ingenuity win out in these chaotic times?

Description

It’s been another crazy week of financial news, but how do all these trends add up? This week, Danny Crichton and Josh Wolfe talk about South Korea’s burgeoning desire for nuclear weapons, some themes from the latest Lux quarterly letter and how a 1980s experimental film inspired its theme of “entropic apex,” how Gen Z and others will respond to actions by the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates and corporations to raise prices, some commentary on Twitter and Elon Musk and finally, a debate on whether Malthus was right on the future course of humanity.

Transcript

This is a human-generated transcript, however, it has not been verified for accuracy.

Danny Crichton:
We can always have Chris. That's why we're have a producer. And I'm going to spin the wheel.

Josh Wolfe:
Okay.

Danny Crichton:
Okay. 3, 2, 1. Hello, and welcome to Securities by Luxe Capital, a podcast and newsletter that focuses on science, technology, finance, and the human condition. I'm your host, Danny Crichton. I'm here with Josh Wolfe.
Josh, this has been the craziest week. I was on vacation for three weeks in late April, came back this week, and what the hell happened?

Josh Wolfe:
You were Rumpelstiltskin. I mean, you basically went to sleep, you came back. We've got Elon Musk buying Twitter, not buying Twitter, coming back, buying Twitter. We've got war going on in the world. We've got markets just utterly bombed and crashing. We've got all of the crypto true believers looking at the okay boomers and suddenly saying, "Okay, maybe they were right." You have this crazy phenomenon of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You've got a potential nuclear situation with North Korea and South Korea. You could probably opine about that. I don't know where to start. Can we spin a wheel?

Danny Crichton:
Oh, we can spin a wheel. So Josh has a wheel here we're going to spin.

Josh Wolfe:
Oh, okay. We got South Korea. It's apropos. Okay. So we're going to start with South Korea. What is going on in South Korea? First of all, how was the food?

Danny Crichton:
The food's amazing. I mean, I got to tell you, the country opened April one. Quarantine is gone, the country's curfews are going away. People can actually meet in groups of larger than four, so it was quite the party, unlike anything I've seen in the last 10 years of being there. And a lot's going on.

So new president this week, Yoon Suk Yeol has just come into office. Conservative and is going to change quite a few things from the previous liberal administration. But one of the big changes that's happened in South Korea in recent times is the popularity of nuclear weapons. Not the kind of thing you'd like to hear about in world politics, but a majority of South Koreans now believe that their country should pursue a nuclear weapons program in competition with North Korea, which obviously has had nukes for the last 15, 16 years.

Josh Wolfe:
I've heard of this by the way, that it's basically K-pop and nuclear. These are the two most popular things in Korea.

Danny Crichton:
Right, exactly. Well, but both are shiny objects, let's just say. But no, I mean obviously South Korea has always had a very productive nuclear sector. One of the largest nuclear energy industries, export a lot of nuclear power plants within the Middle East and other regions of the world. But now it's pursuing the weapon side. What they're looking at is a bad neighborhood, a rise of China. It's still very deleterious relationships with Japan, and so they want that power to say we're in control of our own destiny. We have the nuke. I think it's one of those things where obviously the US does not support this at all. We have the largest army presence anywhere in the world located in South Korea, and so it's a very, very challenging situation.

Josh Wolfe:
What is the likely resolution here? You've got somebody to the north who basically has a main export, which is the fear of using nuclear weapons. What is the likely next evolution here?

Danny Crichton:
Traditionally in Japan, obviously there's a lot of sensitivity with nuclear weapons in Japan because of Hiroshima, Nagasaki. The US has confidentially and quietly always held nuclear weapons on Japanese territory without the Japanese having control of it. So there was always sort of the compromise as you had the nuclear shield without any sort of acknowledgement from the LDP or any of the other political parties in Japan. You could imagine something similar, maybe a little more publicly in South Korea. I actually think the South Koreans want their own, regardless of never going to announce they're going to do a program, but I could imagine similar to the north where they're just sort of testing it in a couple of years. They're going to be very close to this. They have a lot of nuclear engineering talent ready to go. I expect them to sort of quietly pursue this in the background, maybe with tacit US support.

Josh Wolfe:
Do we think this is going to be a contagion? I mean, clearly there's already criticism that the election of Ukraine to decide to give up their nuclear weapons in the past was basically an invitation for an aggressor in the case of Russia. Do we see other countries starting to say, "You know what, we're joining the nuclear club too," and then we have global rearmament?

Danny Crichton:
Well, if you go back a couple of decades ago when the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was signed, I mean the goal was to ban nukes all around the world. The Soviets had it, the US had it, China had it, but the long term goal was to reduce stocks and to get rid of them entirely. And since then, a lot of folks have joined the club.

Israel has joined the club confidentially, now I think a little bit more publicly. India has tested weapons, Pakistan has tested weapons, North Korea has tested weapons. France and the UK have them. And so at some point you have to realize there's a dozen countries. There's clearly another dozen that are likely to be right behind them. You have Brazil, obviously South Korea we're talking about. Australia's not pursuing one, but you could imagine maybe as they feel more pressure on China to protect basically a continent landmass with a group of a couple hundred thousand people. I'm exaggerating, but a very small number of folks.

There's just more and more folks who want access to them. So to me, the non-proliferation goal has been entirely thrown out and we're entering this new world where it's like, look, similar to how drones are changing warfare, the cost of these programs I think are decreasing as well. You can have one for very little price. And so when you think about the next 20, 30 years, it's actually very scary in which you can imagine many, many actors, many factions having these sorts of weapons of mass destruction and they're proliferating very widely.

Josh Wolfe:
All right, I'm going to spin the wheel. You ready? And see what we got next.
Okay. Philip Glass, Koyaanisqatsi. Philip Glass. Koyaanisqatsi, you were talking about this the other day. I remember this movie. This is like the 40th anniversary of Koyaanisqatsi. What-

Danny Crichton:
That is true, yes.

Josh Wolfe:
What is this word that I'm saying?

Danny Crichton:
Right. So 1982 experimental film, Koyaanisqatsi. Famously an early work for Philip Glass on the music. The producer himself created a trilogy of films. It's a dialogue free film, so that's where the experimental label comes from, because there's no dialogue, but it's a visual representation of California. The bucolic landscapes, you see mountains, you see streams, you see birds. Everything's in balance. It's this ecosystem. It's very natural. It really comes out of that kind of 1960s vibe of hippies. And then you sort of see modern civilization arrive. You see the rise of dams, of electricity, you sort of get into urban areas.

And what Glass and the filmmaker do so brilliantly is there's this acceleration. There's this pace that picks up. You go from this smooth and calm stream and brook to a city, specifically San Francisco, where you're on the old Embarcadero Freeway, the double decker that was dropped in the Loma Prieta earthquake, and the cars are accelerating at 50, 60 miles an hour. People are moving back and forth on crosswalks. And Koyaanisqatsi is Hopi for life out of balance, chaotic life.

And what the film does so well is it shows the overwhelming feature. I mean, the experience of the viewer is that you're just overwhelmed at a certain point. There's just too much noise, there's too many smash cuts, there's all these different scenes, and then the movie switches back and it takes you back to nature and shows you what natural, balanced life looks like.

Josh Wolfe:
Do you need destruction? Do you need chaos to get back to nature, or is it just a juxtaposition? Because I remember the scenes, particularly being a New Yorker, of the time lapse of people coming down the escalators into Grand Central and it looked like this flowing river, but it was this... And then the stop and start of the crosswalks and the traffic and going up Park Avenue to Midtown to the corporate meccas. Do you need chaos and destruction when you have this accelerated pace of life to get you back, or is this a just opt-out, go to nature?

Danny Crichton:
I think it's an observation that people don't appreciate balance. Balance feels boring. And the juxtaposition shows you just how relaxed, how frenetic our daily lives are. I don't think you need destruction to go back, but recognizing that once you're in the chaos, you oftentimes don't realize that you have picked up pace. I mean, just look at the news today of how much stuff is going on. Every single hour we're having another blowup of a company. One stock's down 40%, this is up a hundred percent.

Whereas two, three years ago, it was actually very stable. Prior to the pandemic, 2019, I'm just thinking in terms of financial markets, it was actually relatively stable. We didn't have this Wall Street Journal breaking news notification on my phone every hour.

Josh Wolfe:
Now part of that is news tends to be bad news. I mean, it's not like, hey! I mean after a while, markets going up and companies getting funded, I mean that's no longer news. That became de rigueur, the norm. Now all of a sudden people are shocked. People are shocked with what has happened in markets. You are having a crash in crypto. You are having a crash in high growth stocks that were trading at, what many felt who had experienced this before, insane valuations that have now crashed "back down to earth." You are having the start of layoffs and people losing jobs.

There's a palpable sense of confusion and shock and fear which was totally absent in the past arguably 10 years. What do you think right now, this moment? I mean, you've seen this before. We've lived this before. What do you think is defining this moment right now with this younger generation that has never seen this?

Danny Crichton:
Well, I mean you're going from the diamond hands and the champagne on Rolex's to my wallet is empty, I'm broke, I have massive red in my accounts. I love that meme, by the way, that was sent around, which was the three workers inside of the fast food chain that were like, "Welcome back, Diamond Dans."

I will say one of the best analogies I have for this is when you're trained as an EMT, you know one of the things, you have a medical emergency, people are chaos. No one knows what to do, no one's prepared for someone choking at a restaurant. No one is prepared when someone has a heart attack on the subway. And so there's screaming, hopefully someone gets a call to 911, and one of the things you're trained as an EMT to do is that the crisis is over once you've arrived on the scene. It doesn't mean that the solution has happened. It doesn't mean someone will survive. But the point is that you know what to do, you're prepared, you have actions to take, there's checklists to follow.

And that's lacking in the financial markets today. We saw Terra Luna collapse this week as we're recording this just yesterday, so we're probably publishing this a couple days later, but had a stock or crypto token worth 40 billion in circulation go down literally to zero. It had multiple days of 99.99% drops. No one knows how to process that. There's no checklist, there's no financial models, there's no Excel spreadsheet you can flow into.

And so without any models, it's just pure amygdala fear. There's a classic chain of psychological emotions that is abbreviated as DABDA. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. There's funny versions of this, if you watch old Simpson clips. And people experience it. You experience something that is shocking and new and you say, "No, no, no, this isn't happening. The recent past is going to continue into the near future." And all of a sudden you finally start to say, "Okay, wait a second. Maybe it is happening and it's making me really mad."

And so I actually think that right now people are in a denial moment. They do not want to accept that what just happened, happened. And if it did just happen, fine, it's going to come back. And you are seeing people that for the past five years have basically made money. It has worked. They have been rewarded psychologically every time that a stock went down, buy the dip, to the point where it was a joke. Just buy the dip. And it worked every single time, even if it was almost sarcastic or ironic buy the dip, people were buying the dip and it worked every time.

Now people are buying the dip, it's not working. The dip keeps dipping lower. So I think if I had to speculate, the A, the anger is probably going to come next and be directed at the Fed. And the reason that I think that is that you need some sort of institution that represents a symbol of power. You go back to the last crisis, 2007, 2008. You had the Occupy movement in late '08, '09, Zuccotti Park, downtown New York, and you had interestingly left and right unified against the banksters on one side and the profiteers on the other, and you had the Tea Party right on the other.

And so the left and the right were sitting there in this otherwise park that normally had homeless people and Skid Row rallying against the system and whatever symbolically represented the system. I think that you might see an Occupy the Fed movement. Many people don't understand the Fed, they don't know what it actually does. It's got the institutional symbolism of a bunch of white columns. You've got a guy who's the head of it with some shaman priests that are there that help make some decisions. And all they know is that the Fed went into a room, made a decision, raised interest rates, and are hurting poor people who have debt, record credit card balances, and also crashed their crypto and crashed their stocks.

So what happens? You get one end, which are going to be the crypto bros that the hardcore maximalists that are saying, "End the Fed." They'll be long crypto. This is why we need to end fiat currency, this is why we need to end the dollar, et cetera.

The other end, you will have classic old school monetary theorists that are saying, "This is why we need to go back to 1971 and the gold standard before we went off of it." And I can see this weird hard left and hard right of crypto and gold reconvening people on the left and people on the right basically attacking the Fed. And then I personally worry that we see the reassertion of Donald Trump. Whether he ends up back on Twitter, but he's going to come, and all he's got to say is, "Look what happened. You guys stole the election from me, voted me out of office." He won't actually say that. "You stole the election from me and look what happened. I leave, and..." That's all he's got to do.

Josh Wolfe:
Well, and the beauty of it is people's memories are so short that Jay Powell is obviously an electee of Donald Trump.

Danny Crichton:
Yes.

Josh Wolfe:
Who was just confirmed this week in the Senate for a second term, but was obviously nominated the first time.

Danny Crichton:
The Fed ironically has a little bit of defense, which is inflation, which is if it wasn't for inflation, you would put most of the blame on the Fed. But now supply chains, we have infant formula that isn't available in stores. I like to joke there are bread lines now at the Whole Foods because no one has repaired the slicer for the custom bread I get from She Wolf bakery. And so people have to slice their own bread nowadays. And so there's now a line in the bakery department and I'm always like, "Look, there are bread lines." It's like French Revolution style, let them eat cake.

I think inflation is the thing you point at and say, "Look, it's out of our control. No one here is responsible for inflation." Supply chains are clearly bad. And to me that is so visceral. The Fed is this kind of ethereal, it's somewhere over here, the Eccles building is in DC or whatever, but I can look at the shelves and go, "Clearly..." I think that the anger will be directed to corporate America. I think you saw a tacit slight example of that with Disney in Florida over the don't say gay bill where politicians are now knocking out one of the largest employers in one of the largest states in the country.

But if you look more broadly just at the economic issues, I think folks are going to get angry at GM, at Tesla who are delivering cars. They're going to get angry at the three companies that are supposed to deliver infant baby formula. Guarantee we've given you an oligopoly over this market. You're not delivering formula. And by the way, now we found out that none of it is actually made here. We put tariffs onto Trump against Canada, so we can't actually import Canadian infant formula.

One of the things I'm writing in the newsletter right now is CT scanning. The GE machines need a contrast agent for most of the CT scans, which are produced in a single factory in Shanghai. So I think what we're actually seeing is there's no resilience thanks to the capitalism of the last decade. We've narrowed everything down to a single factory. There's one guy named Bob who's in charge of CT scan contrast agent so to speak, and it's not there. And to me, that's where the anger's going to get redirected.

And the Fed, in a different world, I could see the exact same thing. I think they're going to get lucky on this one.

Josh Wolfe:
You think the ire is going to go towards corporate? That's interesting. So we go from denial, and then you go to anger, and there's a million things that people are going to be or could be angry at. And then you go to bargaining. The old bumper sticker going back 20 years in Silicon Valley was, "Please God, let there be one more bubble." There's going to be people that are just sort of praying for give me some sort of excess. And of course, you can hear the excess of the balloon squeezing the air out right now.

Then we go into depression, and unfortunately we're joking a lot here, but I do think that there are going to be a lot of people that are actually feeling real pain. I do think that there are going to be people that are going to be in need that were well-intentioned and innocent that weren't just purely speculating and being greedy and crypto bros and crazy stock speculators.

I think that there are people that have been lured into a very risky time and didn't realize it and have real savings that they're going to lose. And we have an employment situation with something like 11 and a half million open jobs, and the Fed is looking at this current situation as they're raising rates. And obviously they're trying to fight inflation. Powell does not want to be seen as somebody weak on inflation. He wants to be seen like Volcker. But at the same time, if he pushes too hard, not appreciating how hard people are about to be hit if we're correct, if I'm correct, that you're going to tip the economy into a very serious recession. Unemployment is going to spike. You're starting to see it already in layoffs that are happening at startups. Startups are starting to lay people off, they're starting to tighten the belt.

You've got Uber of all companies starting to talk about free cash flow, right? I mean this was growth, growth, growth across every company. Now we're talking about free cash flow. Free cash flow means we got to cut expenses, we got to raise prices, we got to get profit margins up. So cutting expenses, the number one thing for most of these companies is going to be labor.

Then you get into acceptance, and I think we're going to be two years away from acceptance. I think we're likely to see a long plateau of an L-shaped decline of people's hopes and ambitions and failed attempts to buy the dip. And finally this acceptance. And then of course the combinatorial fodder from all the detritus of this current moment will reemerge, and we'll have another new wave.

Talking about bargaining, right now we've got a phenomenon on Twitter, which is Elon. The purists would say that Elon is buying Twitter because he truly wants to protect free speech. The skeptics and cynics, myself included, would say this was a tremendous way to basically liquidate at least eight and a half billion dollars of your Tesla stock so that you can "finance this thing." What's your take on this current Elon Twitter?

Danny Crichton:
To me, it's a complete microcosm of the chaos of the economy. The insanity of it, the fact that the price also was completely gargantuan ahead of where any valuation or Twitter would place it. The fact that Elon is out of it and that he's in it again just in the last week. The SEC's investigating it because he didn't file his filings on time, which conveniently for the world's richest man does not have an accountant who apparently knows how to file 5% investment rates. So to me, it's like both an amazing microcosm.

The other piece though, when you look at the discussions that are going on in the economy, and I think we have great guests coming up to discuss this further about social media and what its effects on democracy, but one of the biggest challenges to me is Twitter's importance remains absolute. There's nothing else like it. I think Facebook has absolutely declined. A lot of folks have moved to TikTok. TikTok is not where you go for economic and policy conversations. Twitter has become the operating system for the intellectual mind in the United States, which is both the scariest thing you've ever thought of, and that is why I think Musk understands, as someone who wants to get more involved in policy, who is frankly despite his libertarian... I mean, Tesla would not be here without government subsidies to have funded these early electric vehicles back in the 2000s, back in the 2010s. Same with China. The massive expansion of the Shanghai factories of batteries in China comes from massive industrial incentives. He is probably more attuned to what's going on in policy than almost any other executive. And to me, I think he understands the power of Twitter in that context.

So to me, he is selling his stock and it was convenient. I do think that's why Tesla has gone down 30% this week from, what? A high of a thousand and change to around 600 and change today. But at the same time, I do think it's a long-term investment to say, if you're going to protect your ability to operate in this way, if you still need those incentives, if all that industrial policy still has to work together to actually create the value of this company and actually realize the value of what this stock is worth, I think he's actually playing a little bit of a long game on that one.

Josh Wolfe:
I am super skeptical. I think that this was a distractionary technique. For what, I'm not a hundred percent sure, but if you truly cared about free speech, why would you lever this company? Why would you put a huge debt load on it and force it to make sort of less than perfect economic decisions?

You could have been a 9.9% shareholder and with such influence to be able to affect outcomes, all you had to do is basically tell people, "This is what we ought to be doing," and you can affect change. And you can see that now. You're seeing people laid off that are sort of interfering with potential high growth and efficiency at the company. And so there's something here, and I can't help but sound conspiratorial when I suggest it. But I look at the China angle. 50% of the production is in China. 25% of the profits for Tesla are in China. China does not allow Twitter. But it's just absolutely fascinating, the China angle for Tesla, the free speech piece, the enormity of the debt, the idea of all this participation from the public and the buyout. By the way, you can participate and own Twitter. You can buy the stock today, right?

And something just seems off. So I think you go back two weeks ago, the merger [inaudible 00:20:46] implied odds were something like 80% that it was going to get done and went down to 78%, scooted back up to in the mid-nineties, and now back down. I'm going to take the underside that this deal actually gets done.

Danny Crichton:
Well that's one of the frustrations I've had. I mean, I don't criticize the media all the time. We have enough criticism against the media on a day-to-day basis. But I mean, one of the things that just bugs the hell out of me is the number of people who said Elon Musk bought Twitter. And first of all, it didn't close, so he has not bought anything. And second of all, the complexity of the actual deal dynamics, the fact that he's so mercurial and he changes his mind back and forth as we saw literally as we're recording, stock prices are swinging 20% down, 10% up as he's sort of tweeting out on the platform he's looking to buy, which to me is also part of the insanity of this whole thing.

We're still in this mode that we just assume everything gets done, everything goes up, everything's okay. SoftBank's going to keep putting money into startups. Well, it just lost 26 billion dollars in a quarter on a hundred billion dollar first vision fund. And another what, 70 billion I think, on vision fund two. This is not a world in which things just automatically get done. Things break. Infant formula does not get delivered. You cannot get a CT scan at a modern American hospital. Twitter, I still think it's completely random to me. I know there are odds, therefore, as we'll find out in the podcast from last week with Andy Duke and Daniel Kahneman and Michael [inaudible 00:22:06], but this is not a bet I would want to take, because I have no idea. I think it'll depend literally on the day it closes, whether it actually happens or not.

Josh Wolfe:
Well look, the beauty of markets is exactly that. People are expressing expectations based on what they think will happen. And if people are super optimistic, they buy. If people are super skeptical or pessimistic, they sell. And therein lies the embedded odds that people are calculating in the voting machine in the short term, that it is the weighing machine, that it is long term of their expectations.

You just said something which just still confounds me with awe and appreciation being a skeptic and a cynic, which is so much goes wrong every day. And of course so much goes right, but the fact that everything is not just utterly falling apart and decaying, and I don't mean an exaggerated way of our infrastructure is falling apart and our bridges are collapsing and our schools are failing and our economy is dying and our country has gotten... No. Things are pretty amazing. But at the same time, it's just amazing that things are not just constantly because of the forces of entropy just declining and decaying and falling apart.

I mean obviously the salient ones of the moment that feel like they are surprises are the ones that make the news headlines and so they capture our attention. I don't know, are you fundamentally optimistic in the human condition, that we are able to keep it all together? Or more skeptical and pessimistic that the natural decay line of entropy is going to...

Danny Crichton:
I mean, we've been talking a lot about entropy. I mean, I think we're at a entropic apex right now, and specifically, we didn't even address climate change. I mean to me, I think one of the big questions is what's the limit of the caring capacity of earth? Of food. The latest estimates of grain out of the Ukraine is that we'll see a decline of about a third of the grain supply out of the Ukraine. The Ukraine's one of the largest exporters of grain worldwide, so we're going to see huge spikes. Maybe not less in the United States and other western advanced economies who can afford it, but there's going to be huge famines in Africa, Southeast Asia, and other places where grain is imported.

We're reaching this point where 8 billion people on the planet going to 10 billion by the end of the century, water's getting scarcer. While I was gone in South Korea, the big story, at least out in Asia, is in India, we had [inaudible 00:24:11] 38 temperatures where in several regions of India during the heat wave, there were areas where if you were just outside, you will die. It's so hot that your perspiration itself is heating you up and you have a positive feedback loop of heat. So you actually just have heat death. Basically, if you don't have air conditioning, you just won't make it.

And that's been predicted for many years. So to me, we need really good infrastructure. We have to be at the best and be bringing our A game to survive. We're not in the bounty of the 1950s and sixties and seventies where everything's super easy and oil's $5 a barrel. Now it's 120 and it's getting harder to build. Nuclear is impossible because environmentalists are blocking it. We're down to a windmill. And as a certain form of president likes to say, "Windmills, windmills, wee, wee!"

And that unfortunately doesn't power the economy for 8 billion people.

Josh Wolfe:
As you say, 1950s and going back, I have to ask the question. Some people talk about the United States versus other countries, but I want to talk about not geography and space. Do more people want to come here than leave? I want to talk about time. Would you rather live at any time or place in the past or someplace in time in the future?

Danny Crichton:
I would choose always the present. My answer to this question is always the present, because for one thing-

Josh Wolfe:
Very mindful and zen of you.

Danny Crichton:
And what I mean by that is first of all, as a gay man, obviously going back in time is usually not pleasant, unless maybe it's like Vienna 1900 would be kind of the one, or Berlin 1920s before some folks showed up in the 1930s.
On the flip side, the future, because I'm a pessimist, I always assume everyone's like, "I want a time machine to go to the future." I'm like, "For all I know if you listen to the existential risk folks, it's going to be awful in 50 to a hundred years."

So I always think of it as we're living our best time. We're at the peak of the parabola. We have the best rights. They haven't been taken away. That might change in a month. To me, we're like in this idealistic state. We're as progressive as we're ever going to possibly be, we have the most freedom we're ever going to have, we have the most material wealth we're going to have, and everything's going to get harder. I mean, to me, that that's always been the compromise historically, is I honestly think it was so easy. And I think my parents and grandparents, I mean obviously the Great Depression was very hard, but the amount of resources and the few number of people who actually needed them, today it's billions of more people and less resources.

So we have to be that much more efficient, that much smarter, that much more careful. We have to recycle more, we have to replenish more, we have to be more resilient because we're more globalized. You have pandemics. Everything is just harder.

Josh Wolfe:
So I'm caught by the romantic notion of now. I like that. Okay, now is better than then or before and maybe what comes next. But I mean, we know. The abundance of people relative to the scarcity of resources is never the constraining thing. I mean, this is the classic Julian Simon, Paul Ehrlich bet. But it is that one inexhaustible resource, which is human ingenuity. It is people figuring out, how do I combine these things with this wonderful thing that is abstract and ephemeral and subject to revision, which is knowledge? How do we take the silicon dioxide that is in sand, which has some utility as being used as a sandbag against water infiltration, and then melt it and turn it into glass or melt it further and etch it into semiconductors?

It has always been about the recipe and the knowledge and the know-how that we apply to the material world around us, even as it is in infinite finiteness.

Danny Crichton:
Well, and look, all of civilization is a fight against the second law of thermodynamics, right?

Josh Wolfe:
Yes.

Danny Crichton:
All of it is a fight against entropy. Everything is about destruction. Destruction is a hundred times, a thousand times easier than creation.

Josh Wolfe:
Yes.

Danny Crichton:
It takes a decade to build a castle. It takes a day for an invading force to wipe it out. And so I agree with you. I'm a huge fan of the population bomb. Bad timing. I think Ehrlich will be proven right. I think Malthus will be proven right. To me, I mean, this is one of the interests that I have right now, is fundamentally about limits. I mean, what are the physical limits of the caring capacity of the United States, of the globe in terms of food production, water, clean water, fresh water, of other resources?

One of the topics I'm actually researching right now is lithium, which is okay, there's a huge amount of lithium in the world. It's a very common material, but when you get right down to it, if you need a EV for 8 billion people, we're talking billions of cars, billions of batteries. On top of that, all of the grid scale batteries required in order to be able to use wind and solar. Suddenly we need so much more lithium than we ever thought possible, that the existing supplies are not enough, which means the cost of lithium goes up. We started looking for lithium in places that are actually environmentally destructive in and of itself. We cause all the same problems with oil. Today, oil is the key ingredients, and we do a crazy amount of things, crazy engineering.

Josh Wolfe:
And we end up also looking for alternatives. I mean, we went from whale blubber to kerosene to oil to natural gas and then to nuclear, or should I say elemental energy?

But I think this is going to be a fascinating debate for us to continue, which is the Ehrlich Simon, the Crichton Wolfe incarnation of are there fundamental limits, or will human ingenuity and knowledge transcend those limits? And I'm as skeptical as I am about the human condition and our vanity and vainglorious and pettiness and jealousy and prejudice and all the things that make us human and horrible. I'm very optimistic about people's selfish motive, ambition, status seeking drive to solve problems and get fame or money, and they will figure it out. I don't know who they are. That's our job to find them. But I'm convinced that they will figure it out and transcend limits.

Danny Crichton:
Well, I love that vision. I just wish I could believe it. And with that, we'll be back next week.

continue
listening