3 Wednesdays in January: Can biotechnology heal the divide?

January 21, 2021 |

We’ve had three Wednesdays in January so far this year, and none of us will ever forget them. 

On January 6th, a mob of insurrectionists attacked the citadel of Liberty, the United States Capitol. On January 13th, the United States House of Representatives impeached President Donald J. Trump for ‘incitement of insurrection’. On January 20th, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was inaugurated as the 46th U.S. President, and 22-year old inaugural poet laureate Amanda Gorman recited:

We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried

America is divided, again. It is not the first time. 

As recently as 1968, former Washington state governor Dan Evans opened his Republican National Convention keynote with a call “to reach down and touch the troubled spirit of America” in that year of political assassinations, riots in the cities and anti-war demonstrations. In 1896, the political parties re-aligned in a raucous election in which William Jennings Bryan implored the country not to “crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln almost didn’t make it to his inauguration, alive, because of insurrectionists rising across the country. In 1824, the old Jeffersonian party collapsed in an election that split the country into sections over slavery and tariffs. 

The divide of 2021 is sectional, too. 

This time, it is the cities vs the countryside, more or less. as we debate the role of diversity in American life, and the shift of the economy from primary industries and manufacturing to services and finance. 

A five dollar box of corn flakes delivers about a dime to rural areas for the raw material, about sixty five cents to small towns for the manufacturing costs, and the rest goes to the cities for finance and services. When we look at the division of spoils for other goods, or for services such as debt, health, or housing, the economic divide is even more stark. 

And so, the math of American life has veered from efforts to add to our numbers of people, and multiply the value we represent to each other, into what former Obama advisor David Axelrod lamented as a journey into “division and subtraction”.

The internet has connected and radicalized extremists, but there is a positive internet story, too. The globalization of technology has spawned unlikely coalitions that should give us hope.  As I remarked in an exchange of notes with Andy Karsner, a former assistant secretary of energy, “wind technology can bring together an Oklahoma landowner, a DC policy wonk, a Midwestern engineer, and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur into a shared future. Innovation cements our Union.”

Our economy is changing its geography. More finance and services are leaving traditional centers as they learn to manage by Zoom.  Google is building server farms closer to renewable energy sources. Amazon is pushing its distribution centers closer to customers across the fair land. 3D printing is changing the location and logistics of manufacturing. The Low Carbon Fuel Standard is changing the impact of scale in energy production. 

It used to be the case that oil & gas refineries were built at coastal ports, at as massive a scale as regional demand could justify. That drove costs down, bigger was better because price was king.

Today, it is different. Energy prices are related to carbon value. At some point, the marginal cost of carbon exceeds the marginal value of scale, and that is something new in energy economics. Cheapest is no longer always the best.

The transformation of energy and materials — based in biotechnology — has the power to heal our divided nation, by bringing us into communion again through the power of shared enterprise. These technologies are built local, but they are developed nationally, and spread globally. And the attractions of low-cost living and small-town good feelings will attract more and more enterprises to rural areas. The pandemic has only accelerated this transition, as we have learned quite a lot this year about collaborating with workers when we are not in the office with them.

The transition to a distributed economy — away from the cities and across this beautiful land — will happen of its own accord. But it can happen faster if we organize ourselves and set bold goals.

It begins with rural broadband. We will not connect our cities and fields until we have digital equality. We need sensors in the fields to increase productivity and reduce waste. We need to move large amounts of data between cities and buildings in small towns. The Daily Digest transfers 210 GB of data each month, which would cost $2000 per month to host from our office in rural California. At our urban Utah server farm, it costs $79 per month, including data hosting support and the provision of tools. That is the digital divide, that is why more financial power is transferring to the cities.

Yet, political power is not transferring to the cities as fast as economic power. 19 percent of the votes in the United States Electoral College are apportioned equally between states, regardless of population or prosperity. The land itself has a share of the vote.

As economic power leaves rural areas and small towns, people have been trying to solve through political power something that has gone wrong because of economic inequality. Too many are left behind by American prosperity, and it has spawned an anti-immigrant, anti-foreign, anti-city, anti-Big Tech, anti-Federal movement, because the divide has not been addressed.

The effort to solve economic problems through raw political power is doomed to fail so long as it is based in an economic “cancel culture” of building walls against immigration, abandoning multi-lateral treaties on climate and trade, leaving global organizations and breaking up Big Tech monopolies. Breaking up Standard Oil did not produce a revitalization of rural life, nor did the break-up of AT&T. Abandoning the League of Nations to its fate in 1920 did not prevent the onset of the Second World War. Economic problems must be solved in economics, and we have the tools in carbon prices, sustainable technologies and digital equality. 

New tools and biorefineries will change our way of life if we pursue them, and will establish a peace amongst our unsettled people much faster than the permanent war for the control of the Federal Government has produced, or will produce.

The fourth Wednesday of January is nearly upon us. We can make it the Wednesday to remember, if we choose to go down the path of connecting city and country through the fruits of innovation, and not just the social and political routes of identity and grievance politics. Let this Wednesday be a day of equality, for all. We have the tools, let’s get on with the job.

As Amanda Gorman observed:

Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished

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