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Issue 11: Nuclear sandboxes
Plus: Why Britain can’t seem to fix its housing market, gene-edited super-rice, and one weird trick to reverse climate change.
It’s time for Works in Progress’s 11th issue.
Our lead essay by Campbell Nilsen is about olivine weathering, a process by which a common mineral can be used to absorb carbon from the sea, which in turn sucks it out of the atmosphere, potentially giving us a cheap and safe way to reverse climate change.
The issue also includes pieces on:
Creating regulatory sandboxes for nuclear power, so we can improve on some of the regulations that make nuclear so expensive, by John Myers;
How a second Green Revolution in rice can come through genetic modification, from Niko McCarty;
Why various schemes to reform Britain’s housing market since the 1950s have failed, by Samuel Watling;
How Arlington, Virginia, has led the way on transit-oriented development, by Emily Hamilton;
What made Thomas Edison a success, contra his many critics, by Eric Gilliam; and
The remarkable story of how we defeated acid rain, from Hannah Ritchie.
Though we need to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere, not every individual process can or should be decarbonised. And even if we did get CO2 emissions down to zero, we have already raised the level of carbon in the atmosphere way above pre-industrial levels. Two birds can be killed with the same stone, argues Campbell Nilsen, if we suck carbon out of the air. And the best way to do it, he says, is grinding up olivine, an abundant green mineral, into a microscopic sand and dropping it in a warm, shallow sea, taking advantage of a reaction that will draw CO2 out of the atmosphere and into the rock. For a mere hundreds of billions of dollars a year—chump change compared to the costs of climate change—we could begin to reverse global warming.
Uranium is the densest usable fuel we have yet found—a gram of uranium contains two million times more energy than a gram of coal. And though nuclear power was once cost-competitive with coal, it has become vastly more expensive. Nuclear power is safer than almost any other source of energy, writes John Myers, and essentially zero-carbon, but regulated to make it all but unaffordable. To achieve nuclear energy that’s ‘too cheap to meter’, we need to allow individual states to design their own rules and let the world benefit from the learnings that follow.
America’s ‘superstar cities’ have tended to have the worst housing shortages. The Washington DC area has not escaped this, explains Emily Hamilton. But relative to New York, LA, or San Francisco, it is doing brilliantly, with higher rates of building and lower price and rent rises. This is because planners around the metropolitan area have seen the benefits of extra density, especially around transit stations, pioneered by the government of Arlington, Virginia, since the early 1990s. This ‘transit-oriented development’ could be a model for the rest of America.
The UK’s housing shortage is even worse than the USA’s. Unlike America, which, apart from the troubled ‘superstars’, has Sunbelt cities with cheap, albeit sprawling, housing, there are no UK cities at all with both successful economies and cheap housing. And this has broadly been the case since the Second World War, shows Samuel Watling. Governments of both stripes have tried to reform the planning system to allow more housing to be built, but every single proposal – regional planning, a central land commission, flexible zoning – has failed. Only a new approach based around win-win improvements, says Watling, will succeed.
Many of us learned about acid rain at school, and then never heard about it again. It turns out it was a real thing. It was a problem, but – in the developed world – we fixed it. Hannah Ritchie tells the story of how acid rain occurred, how we devised a plan to fight it and—crucially—how governments and voters were persuaded to act.
Thomas Edison might be the most famous inventor of all time, but allegations that he just stole and popularized the ideas of others mar his reputation. These miss the point. In fact, Eric Gilliam argues, Thomas Edison did some of the most important work of all: constant experimentation and tinkering to build products that people could actually use out of promising ideas, and the creation of the conditions necessary for bringing good ideas to market.
Selective breeding of plants is the foundation of humanity’s success as a species, starting with the invention of agriculture, all the way to the Green Revolution that massively raised crop yields in the 1960s and 70s. But less well known is the huge progress we’ve continued to make on crops with both breeding and gene editing, reveals Niko McCarty. Notwithstanding all the huge progress we’re making, gene editing plants is a difficult job, and it is made more difficult by the barriers in the way of getting new crops approved.
Recently on our Substack: Notes on Progress
We’ve had a few more ‘Notes on Progress’ on Substack.
If Victorians were excited about artificial ingredients and flavors in food, then why are we so cautious about them, asks Virginia Postrel.
Living under several feet of snow is difficult. But one town conquered this with an elaborate system of under-street warm water pipes. From Manosij Majumdar.
Degrowthists argue that more economic growth is unnecessary or harmful, and we should maintain the economy where it is or even shrink it. The last 15 years of no growth in the UK are a depressing example of their vision, argues Stian Westlake.
We have more cool pieces running on Notes soon.
In cities that have no space to expand, the only way is ‘up’, at least if we want to get more agglomeration and lower rents. But this doesn’t mean everywhere needs to become like Manhattan or Hong Kong (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In the first episode of our new video series – Gentle Density – Samuel Hughes and Francis Morrone explore Park Slope, Brooklyn, to get an idea of just what gentle density is, and why people like it. We have more episodes coming out soon.
… a solution to Ireland’s housing troubles?
Our friends at The Fitzwilliam have published an essay on how Ireland might be able to tackle its housing shortage, by allowing residents of Irish streets to vote for more density. There are many parts of Cork and Dublin, in particular, that could add a few more stories to achieve ‘gentle density’ of the kind already found in some parts of those cities (like Dublin’s Merrion Square and Henrietta Street, or St Patrick’s Hill in Cork), if the people living there were given the choice.
What we’ve been up to
Saloni wrote about the most underrated problem in global health: missing data, or - how many people die from snakebites? She also published new work and charts on Our World in Data on suicides and influenza.
Ben featured in Operation Innovation from The Entrepreneurs’ Network, explaining how bringing back the corporate R&D lab could help us make faster technological progress. He also wrote about cul-de-sacs and how immigration affects house prices on his Substack.
Poor Charlie’s Almanack
Stripe Press is publishing a new edition of the bible of Charlie Munger, Poor Charlie’s Almanack, along with a full online edition of the book. The teaser website, where you can sign up for updates on the project, is brain-bending.
More from around the web
Today’s teens seem to be wracked with fear that we’re all going to burn to a crisp. Climate change is Not the End of the World, according to the first book by Hannah Ritchie, which you can pre-order now. At least, if we do as Hannah says.
Nuclear power is popular in Scotland, according to a new poll, even if not with Scottish politicians.
A scheme to host a new Great Exhibition.
Right now you are probably storing 125,000 calories as fat.
Stations on Mumbai Metro have special ultra-fast Domino’s Pizza outlets that can make, cook, and serve pizzas in 3-5 minutes.
Only three metro systems in the world recover their operating costs through fares: Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo.
A big list of important scientific projects that never managed to get funding from the biggest state funders.
We could restart aeroplane speed growth by regulating aeroplanes by noise rather than speed.
Why governments should run more experiments – to test if policy is working.
After accounting for chores, Swedes and Americans have about the same amount of leisure time.
A well-made explanation of how quantum computing works.
‘First doses first’ may have saved 10,000 lives in the UK.
— Saloni, Nick, Sam and Ben
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