The Campbell Award – and Why I’m Optimistic About the Future of SF

Sofia Samatar has won the Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer! Huge congratulations, Sofia! Her victory makes everything about the post below, written before I knew the outcome, even more true:

This has been a challenging year for SF. It’s a year we’ve faced again the reality that sexism and racism and bigotry still exist here.

Yet I’d like to riff off of some thoughts I first saw Kameron Hurley express.

Because this is also the year in which the most celebrated book, no matter who wins the Hugo tonight, is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. And it’s a year in which it’s worth repeating the names of nominees for the Campbell Award, for Best New Science Fiction Writer, an award very much about the future.

I’m writing this before the award, so I don’t know who won. But the nominees speak for themselves.

Besides myself we had:

Benjanun Sriduangkaew.

Max Gladstone.

Wesley Chu.

Sofia Samatar. [Who Won!]

That’s a ballot that looks more like a cross section of the WORLD than any other. This is a ballot that’s exciting and forward looking, in the diversity of the authors on it – their genders, their ethnicities, the nations they hail from and that they’ve lived in and live in now – and of the science fiction and fantasy themes that we collectively write on.

And if these are the best new science fiction authors, if these are the rising voices of SF, then I am profoundly optimistic about the future of science fiction and fantasy.

Fifty years ago this year, no lesser a dreamer of the future than the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King wrote that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[i] I believe Dr. King was right. There are still some bad apples even in a community as progressive as SF. But overall, the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. And we are the ones who bend it.

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Nexus is a Finalist for the Endeavour Award!

I’ve just found out that Nexus is a finalist for the 2014 Endeavour Award, for the best SF or fantasy book written by a Pacific Northwest author in the previous year.  Wonderful!

The full list of finalists is:

King of Swords by Dave Duncan (47North)
Meaning of Luff by Matthew Hughes (CreateSpace)
Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
Protector by C.J. Cherryh (DAW Books)
Requiem by Ken Scholes (Tor Books)

The winner will be announced OryCon, in Portland, Oregon in November. And it comes with a grant of $1,000.

So now for Nexus that’s:

  1. Winner of the 2014 Prometheus Award (tie with Cory Doctorow’s Homeland)
  2. Shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award (which Ann Leckie’s wonderful Ancillary Justice won)
  3. Shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award (which Ann Leckie’s wonderful Ancillary Justice also won)
  4. Shortlisted for the Endeavour Award
  5. An NPR Best Book of the Year
I must say I’m completely thrilled!

Buy Nexus

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Nexus and Cory Doctorow’s Homeland Tie for the Prometheus Award

My novel Nexus and Cory Doctorow’s novel Homeland have tied for the Prometheus Award! The award is given to the best pro-freedom science fiction novel of the year.

Buy Nexus

I love the Prometheus Award because it’s focused on a particular criteria: Science fiction novels that both examine and advocate for freedom.

I wrote Nexus and Crux to explore the potential of neuroscience to link together and improve upon human minds. But I also wrote them to explore the roles of censorship, surveillance, prohibition, and extra-legal state use of force in a future not far from our own. – where the War on Terror and the War on Drugs have run smack into new technologies that could improve people’s lives, or which we can treat as threats.

Science and technology can be used to lift people up or to trod them underfoot. Making those abstract future possibilities real in the present is a core goal in my novels. I’m glad the selection committee saw that, and I’m very grateful to them for this award!

I also love that, while the award is given out by the Libertarian Futurist Society, the committee is extremely evenhanded in who they’ve awarded it to. Looking over the award’s history, it’s gone to roughly as many socialists as libertarians and largely to people who are neither. The common theme is science fiction that advocates for human liberty.

Finally, it’s a huge honor for me to share the award with Cory. As a novelist, a blogger, a columnist, and a speaker, he’s one of the most articulate voices for civil liberties in the digital age that we have. And he’s also been quite generous to me in reading and reviewing Nexus and Crux. I was really delighted just to be on the same shortlist.

From this year’s press release:

Doctorow, Naam tie for Best Novel

There was a tie for Best Novel: The winners are Homeland (TOR Books) by Cory Doctorow and Nexus (Angry Robot Books) by Ramez Naam.

Homeland, the sequel to Doctorow’s Prometheus winner Little Brother, follows the continuing adventures of a government-brutalized young leader of a movement of tech-savvy hackers who must decide whether to release an incendiary Wikileaks-style exposé of massive government abuse and corruption as part of a struggle against the invasive national-security state.

Nexus offers a gripping exploration of politics and new extremes of both freedom and tyranny in a near future where emerging technology opens up unprecedented possibilities for mind control or personal liberation and interpersonal connection.

The other Prometheus finalists for best pro-freedom novel of 2013 were Sarah Hoyt’s A Few Good Men (Baen Books); Naam’s Crux, the sequel to Nexus (both from Angry Robot Books); and Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance (Thomas & Mercer).

You can read the whole thing here.

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Political Polarization: Seek First to Understand

America is now more politically polarized than at any point in the last 20 years. This isn’t just Congress – this is the American people. That polarization shows up in beliefs about politics, about everyday life, and even in where conservatives and liberals live. And it’s most intense in those who are the most politically engaged.

In this world, I believe it’s more important than ever to try to actually understand what people of the ‘other side’ are saying, and to seek comprehension and to assume some positive intent behind their viewpoint, at least at the outset. That may turn out to be incorrect. Sometimes it’s just fear or hatred. But mutual comprehension is an increasingly scarce resource, and mutual distrust an increasingly abundant one.

I also believe it’s a civic responsibility to praise good ideas from the ‘other side’ and to point out misunderstanding, error, or bad ideas on one’s own side. I realize that isn’t popular (believe me, I do) but I see it as necessary if we’re to rebuild any degree of mutual comprehension and trust.

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Can We Beat the Surveillance State? My Keynote at CFP 2014

I was honored to be one of the keynote speakers at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2014 Conference this year.

My talk gave an overview of the surveillance state we’re building today, and then used lessons from the past to show how incredibly dangerous that can be, before launching into the steps we must take – and are taking - to roll back that surveillance state and strike a more reasonable balance.

You can watch it below.

Big thanks to Amie Stepanovich and the other organizers of CFP 2014 for the invitation to speak at the event. It was an honor for me and also incredibly enriching. I learned a lot while I was there and met some incredible people working on the front lines of these issues.

You can see video of all the main-hall talks from CFP 2014 online now:

CFP 2014 Day 1 Talks

CFP 2014 Day 2 Talks

And for those of you who missed my talk at ADA’s Books, that bookstore talk wasn’t recorded, but the talk above is an evolution of it.

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Reducing Carbon Emissions Will Be Cheaper Than Expected – It Always Is

With the announcement of EPA’s proposed cuts to carbon emissions from existing powerplants, there’s already tremendous argument about how much they’ll cost. Some will argue that they’ll destroy the economy. How has that argument worked out in the past?


Not so well.

History tells us that pollution reductions are almost always cheaper than projected, even by the EPA.  I wrote about this in The Infinite Resource.  Here’s a slightly modified excerpt:

Ozone / CFCs

In the late 70s, DuPont’s Chairman of the Board had asserted that any connection between CFCs and ozone depletion was “science fiction.”   The company warned in the 80s that phasing out CFCs could cost the US more than $130 billion and that “entire industries could fold.”[i]

The EPA expected the phase-out to cost a total of $28 billion to the US economy.

At a Congressional hearing, a representative of the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (an industry lobbying group) testified that, if CFCs were phased out on the proposed schedule, “We will see shutdowns of refrigeration equipment in supermarkets. … We will see shutdowns of chiller machines, which cool our large office buildings, our hotels, and hospitals.”[iii]  As late as 1994, the Competitive Enterprise Institute was claiming that phasing out CFCs would cost the country between $45 billion and $99 billion.[iv]

According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, the actual cost across the entire US economy turned out to be less than $10 billion.[v]   And the country’s air conditioning and refrigeration kept on working without disruption.

$10 billion is less than a tenth of what DuPont estimated, less than a quarter of the lowest end of the cost estimates from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and only slightly more than a third of what the EPA itself estimated.


In the 1970s, when the EPA began to put limits on the amount of cancer-causing benzene that could be released, chemical companies forecast that it would cost $350,000 per plant to install equipment to meet the new targets.  A few years later, new processes that eliminated benzene entirely reduced the cost to zero.

Non-Freon Air Conditioning in Cars

During the CFC phase-out debate, US automakers predicted that it would cost $650 – $1200 per car to fit new vehicles with air conditioners that didn’t use Freon.  In 1997, the cost was estimated at between $40 and $400 per car, less than a third of the initial projections.


In the 1970s, OSHA, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, estimated that ending the use of Asbestos in manufacturing and insulation would cost $150 million.  A few years later, the cost was found to be half that, at $75 million.

Steel Coke Ovens

In 1987, the EPA estimated that reducing air pollution from the steel industry’s coke ovens (where coal is cooked as part of the process of making steel) would cost $4 billion.  By 1991, experience had dropped the cost estimate to less than $400 million, a ten times reduction.

Everywhere we look, the cost of reducing either resource use or pollution drops through innovation.   Even the cost estimates of regulators turn out to be too high.   And necessity – or profit - is the mother of innovation.

EPI has an excellent research paper on this topic. Recommended reading. Here is a key table showing how, time and again, pollution reductions are dramatically cheaper than expected:

You can read more about how we reduced CFCs and reduced other pollutants in my book on innovating to overcome climate, energy, food, water, and other environmental and natural resource challenges looming ahead of us, The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 


[i] Masters, Jeffrey. “The Skeptics vs. the Ozone Hole.”, .

[ii] Whittemore, Jessica. “Reagan and the Montreal Protocol: Environmentalism at its Unlikely Finest.” The Presidency, 2008.

[iii] Cry Wolf Project, “Industry Claims About the Clean Air Act.” June 16th 2009. Accessed March 7, 2012.–-air-conditioning-and-refrigeration-institute-house-committee-energy-and-commerce.

[iv] Lieberman, Ben. “The High Cost of Cool: The Economic Impact of the CFC Phaseout in the United States.” Competitive Enterprise Institute, June 1994.

[v] Hodges, Hart. “Falling Prices; Cost of Complying With Environmental Regulations Almost Always Less Than Advertised.” Economic Policy Institue, 1990.

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Nominated for the Campbell, Clarke, Prometheus, and Kitschie!

I’m up for some awards, and on those lists with some fantastic people.

1) The Campbell Award

On Saturday the finalists for the Hugo Awards and Campbell Award for 2014 were announced.

So now I can reveal that I’m a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer.  I’m incredibly honored to be on that list, along with my friend Wes Chu, and fellow authors (and new friends) Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Sofia Samatar, and Max Gladstone.

This is an awesome list of new voices in science fiction and fantasy. Whoever wins in August, I’ll be cheering, and delighted to have been among them.

For me, this is the capstone of a few incredible months of recognition.

2) The Clarke Award

Nexus is a finalist for the 2014 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Out of 121 books submitted, Nexus was one of the 6 finalists picked, along with God’s War by Kameron Hurley (whose awesome, Hugo-nominated essay We Have Always Fought you should also read), The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann, The Adjacent by Christopher Priest, The Machine by James Smythe, and of course, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (the novel that has been on almost every award shortlist).

This is an award that’s previously gone to Margaret Atwood, Jeff Noon, Bruce Sterling, China Miéville, Neal Stephenson, Ian Macleod, Richard Morgan, and Lauren Beukes. Being on the shortlist for this year is utterly amazing.

And this year, three of the six finalists are debut novels, a fact I think is both remarkable and wonderful.

3) The Golden Tentacle (the Kitschie Award for Best Debut Novel)

Nexus was also a finalist for this year’s  Golden Tentacle Kitschie Award for the most ‘progressive, intelligent, and entertaining’ debut novel in science-fiction and fantasy. The Kitschies were announced already, and the wonderful Ann Leckie won for Ancillary Justice. You can watch her acceptance speech here.

Also on the short list was A Calculated Life by the fabulous Anne Charnock (who I’ve just met and immediately clicked with), a novel that explores similar themes to Nexus in a very different way; Stray by Monica Hesse; and the much-lauded Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.

4) The Prometheus Award

Amazingly, both Nexus and Crux are on the shortlist for the 2014 Prometheus Award. They’re up against Cory Doctorow’s Homeland, Sarah Hoyt’s A Few Good Men, and Marcus Slakey’s BrillianceThe Prometheus Award honors books that celebrate liberty, and in that respect, it’s a huge honor to be on the same ballot as Cory Doctorow, who’s a non-stop champion of individual rights, and who’s been a huge booster for Nexus and Crux.

5) An NPR Best Book of the Year

Finally, while not an award per-se, it was awesome to see Nexus named as one of NPR’s Best Books of the Year

So that’s 6 placements on 4 awards shortlists and one prominent best-of list. It’s an incredible honor.

I have no idea if I’ll win any of these, but the recognition is…amazing. It’s more than I hoped for, particularly as a debut novelist, writing stories outside the traditional norm of science fiction.

Perhaps the best thing is that I’m on those ballots with friends, with authors I’ve read and admire (and who’ve been incredibly kind to me), and with the most celebrated and innovative up-and-coming authors in the field. Indeed, many of the people on those lists are becoming friends, as we speak. It’s a privilege to share the recognition with them all. With you all.

As the winners of the rest of these awards (and the large number of Hugo Awards) are announced, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be cheering on friends and people I admire. That’s a great feeling.


p.s. – There’s a fair bit of controversy around the Hugo Awards this year.  On that topic, Kameron Hurley brings exactly the right perspective.

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Is the US an Oligarchy? Not So Fast.

There’s a new study out which, press outlets are telling me, shows that the United States is now an oligarchy, ruled by the rich and powerful, and perhaps that the US has been sliding in this direction for decades.

You can see coverage of it at The Telegraph, PolicyMic, the BBC, and other places. You can also read the actual paper online:  Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.

The headlines about it are wrong. This study doesn’t demonstrate any such thing.

The BBC’s lovely illustration of the story

I certainly don’t want to see an oligarchy. I’m a fan of representative democracy. I don’t want a world in which wealthy individuals or powerful lobbies run roughshod over individual voters. That’s a continual and ongoing concern for democracy.

This paper, however, demonstrates essentially nothing. The fundamental problem is that the mathematical models in the paper have almost no predictive power of reality.

Specifically: The mathematical model the researchers construct to see how the preferences of ordinary voters, affluent voters, and lobbyists influence the chance of a policy being enacted have an R-squared of 0.07.

What does that mean? Well, an R-squared of 1.0 means perfect fit of your model to the data. It means your mathematical model predicts reality perfectly (at least for the data points you have.)

An R-squared of 0 means (basically) that your model predicts nothing. That it has no better fit to the data than random chance.

What does an R-squared of 0.07 mean? It means the model has almost no predictive value. That it’s just barely better than random chance.

And what is this model trying to predict? Why, it’s trying to predict how the desires of median voters, affluent voters, and various lobbies impact policy. And what it finds is…almost nothing.

That model is the one from which the authors and journalists are drawing their conclusion that the US is now an oligarchy.

Below is the critical table from the paper, including the R-squared values, with my comment.

In fact, this paper fails to find any strong effect of any variable that it looked at on the likelihood of policy being enacted. They mask this a bit by ‘scaling’ all the predictive powers back up to the range of 0-1 in the next table. Perhaps they intended that as a way to more clearly show the size of one factor vs another. But it masks the fact that none of the factors they found had much of any ability to predict which policies were passed.

The authors might have done better looking at more complex variables such as:

- The percent of voters who supported or opposed a policy.
- The total amount of lobbying dollars spent on either side.
- The total amount of advertising dollars spent on either side.

But they didn’t.

This doesn’t mean that the US isn’t an oligarchy or that lobbyists and elites don’t have too much power. We don’t know that from this paper.

All we know is that the paper doesn’t prove much of anything. And that the headlines based on it – while they probably draw a great many clicks – aren’t accurately passing on what the study says.

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Carbon Prices Drive Clean Energy Innovation

I want to point out something I see commonly missed.  Carbon prices accelerate innovation that brings down the price of green energy. So do renewable energy portfolio standards, green energy subsidies, and a whole swath of other climate policies. They do this by increasing the scale of the industry, which drives more scale (a price reducer) and also brings more players, more investment (much of which goes to direct R&D) and more price competition between players (the single best driver of reduced prices there has ever been).

The context: I noticed today a brief symposium on climate change with Larry Summers, Bjorn Lomborg, Alex Tabarrok, Tyler Cowen, and others.

There are some smart responses there.

Several of the panelists put forward, quite correctly, that green energy must ultimately be cheaper than fossil energy for us to succeed at climate change.  I agree.

And various panelists put forward cases for increased government R&D in green energy or X-Prize style prizes for major innovations in green energy.  Great ideas.

But let’s look at what’s happened in the industry recently.

Here’s the price of solar power modules, on a Log Scale, over the last 30ish years.


This is a rapid exponential decline of more than 95%. Some of that incredible progress has been driven by government sponsored R&D. But the single largest driver has been the scaling of the industry, and the innovation (both scientific and highly practical) that has come with it. That industry scaling has been made possible by a host of climate initiatives.

That’s just module cost. Here’s what’s happened with overall installed cost.

More recent data suggests the price has fallen even faster, to around $2.50 / Watt installed price in the US (weighted over all installations, which means largely utility scale).

That’s a ~75% reduction in total system price over the last 12 years. That’s staggering in almost any industry.

It’s not just solar, either. The price of wind power has plunged by 90% over the last 30ish years. And while it temporarily hit a plateau (as wind power became a major consumer of carbon fiber and demand temporarily exceeded supply) prices have once again resumed their decline.

And, though few people know, the price of energy storage is also plunging. Here, on a log scale, is how much energy storage you can buy for a dollar. Over a 15 year period, driven primarily by competition by laptop and cell phone manufacturers and their providers, the cost of lithium ion batteries dropped by a factor of 10 per unit of energy stored.

As electric cars and grid-scale storage drive up demand and heat up investment, private sector R&D, and competition in the space, the price of energy storage will continue to drop.

Again, there is some basic R&D in all of these areas funded by government. But the #1 driver of the incredible price reductions in each of these areas has been intense competition between private sector companies going after a growing market.

Why is the market growing? We’re reaching the point where it’s growing on basic price dynamics. But for the past three decades, the markets for wind and solar have been bootstrapped by governmental actions. 

Bjorn Lomborg, at the symposium, said:

the best long-term strategy to tackle global warming [is] to increase dramatically investment in green research and development. They suggested doing so 10-fold to $100bn a year globally. This would equal 0.2% of global GDP. Compare this to the EU’s climate policies, which cost $280 billion a year but reduce temperatures by a trivial 0.1 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

Lomborg’s number of $280 billion is roughly an order of magnitude greater than the EU’s actual direct spending on green energy, but let’s ignore that for now. The bigger issue is that he’s missing the primary impact of their climate polices. The number one impact of Europe, and particularly Germany’s investment in clean energy has been to drop the price of clean energy for everyone, now and into the future. That means that every future dollar spent on fighting climate change via green energy is dramatically more effective, for Germany, for Europe, and for everyone else worldwide. It’s a positive externality.

The price of solar power is now roughly 1/10th of what it was when Germany started their push into it. Yet it only dropped so far because of Germany’s major push. They have, in effect, paid the early adopter tax.

More to the point, the tens of billions per year the world spends in green energy subsidies have mobilized hundreds of billions per year in industry and consumer spending (similar to the effect a prize has, I’d note!) That private spending, in turn, has translated into a massive and continuing price decline in the technology.

How is that different, in effect, than direct R&D? Indeed, do we have any indication that spending that money on direct R&D instead would have done anywhere as well?  (Note: I don’t oppose direct R&D spending. I think we should do more of it. But it’s not a replacement for creating a market explosion and tapping into price competition between market actors.)

Alex Tabbarok, of whom I’m a huge fan, is the one member of the panel to state the connection. He states that: “A carbon tax will induce innovation as people demand a way to avoid the tax.”

This is absolutely true. But I’d extend and amplify this statement.

Any policy that expands the market for green energy – and puts providers in direct price competition with one another – will induce innovation, as providers scramble to tap into that market, and compete directly with one another to bring prices down.

Indeed, this isn’t a hypothetical. One has only to look at the graphs above to see that it’s already happening.

I write much more about solar, wind, energy storage, and why the pace of innovation in them is critical – and hopeful – for both fighting climate change and for long term economic growth in the book I originally did this research for. The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

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What’s Limiting the Impact of GMOs on Global Food Security?

My friend Jon Foley, who I have a great deal of respect for, has a piece up arguing that GMOs have failed to improve global food security because they fall into a trap of reductionist thinking.

With due respect to Jon, I see this a different way.

First, GMOs do bring other global benefits.  As Keith Kloor points out at Discover, study after study has shown that GMOs have helped reduce poverty among poor farmers who grow them in the developing world, boosting the food security of those farmers and their families.  Those GMOs are primarily cotton, which is, to date, the only GMO that’s allowed to be grown in most of the developing world.

Second, global bans & politicking have stopped promising GMOs from being planted. As I pointed out in my piece on Why GMOs Matter, Especially In the Developing World, over at Grist, there are genetically modified food crops that have shown huge yield gains in parts of the world, and that have been banned from cultivation for no good scientific reason.  As I wrote at Grist, Bt Cotton boosted cotton yields by a staggering 60% or so in India, as the figure below shows:

GMO cotton gave yields a huge boost in India. Too bad similarly engineered food crops aren’t allowed.

But we don’t eat cotton. And GM crops we can eat are banned from cultivation:

But the world’s poorest countries, and in particular India and the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa, don’t allow any GM food crops to be grown. India came close to approval for a Bt eggplant (or Bt brinjal). Studies showed that it was safe, that it could cut pesticide use by half, and that it could nearly double yields by reducing losses to insects. But, while India’s regulators approved the planting and sale, activists cried out, prompting the government to place an indefinite moratorium on it. Similar things have happened elsewhere. The same Bt eggplant was supported by regulators in the Philippines who looked at the data, but then blocked by the court on grounds that reflected not specific concerns, but general, metaphorical, and emotional arguments that Nathanael Johnson describes as dominating the debate.

From this, I conclude that one of the reasons that GM crops haven’t done more to boost food security around the world is that non-scientific bans have blocked them from doing so.

Third, we need more public-sector investment in GMO research focused on food security. The fact that Bt crops produce such huge yield gains in the developing world is largely a happy accident. Yield was never the primary goal. GM crops are designed primarily for the customers that have the most to pay (western farmers), and they’ve been designed primarily to save western farmers money rather than to boost yields. It turns out that saving western farmers money by reducing the need to spray insecticide also has an even greater win for countries where insecticide is sprayed by hand (rather than by machine).  It, as a practical matter, dramatically reduces losses. That’s an effectively huge yield gain. But again, it’s a bit of a lucky accident of a product targeted at relatively well-to-do western farmers.

I’m a huge advocate of the potential for GM crops to boost yield. (Again, just look at what’s already happened with Bt cotton in India or what early trials showed with Bt brinjal as an example of what the technology can do, without even focusing on yield as the primary goal.) But if we want to see more of this as the outcome, we ought to specifically invest in R&D with that goal.

That R&D might come from the private sector. But it might better come from the public sector. Today the Gates Foundation funds R&D into GMOs that could dramatically boost yieldimprove nutrition, and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer. That’s wonderful. What would be even more wonderful is to see large governments, many of whom worry about the climate-food-water nexus as a future source of instability, investing in R&D in this area as well. Raising food security in the developing world has a triple win of raising food output, lowering poverty, and lowering instability. That’s something we’d all benefit from.

That’s what I’d call holistic thinking.

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