Food, Science

Salmon Rebellion

Originally published in Sierra.

Last year on August 24, Ernest Alfred, an elementary-school teacher and hereditary chief from the ‘Namgis, Lawit’sis, and Mamalilikala First Nations, boated out to Swanson Island, British Columbia, and began to set up tents with a small group of other First Nations activists.

A few days earlier, Alfred had been sitting in an emergency community meeting about the problem of the fish farms of the Broughton Archipelago. Many people, including Alfred, were certain the pens were the reason behind the long decline of wild salmon in their homeland. Decades of grassroots organizing and lawsuits had shifted the balance of power between BC’s First Nations and the Canadian agencies that had leased the areas to the fish farms in the first place. In June 2018, several leases in the waters of the Musgmagw Dzawada’enuwx First Nation would expire, and hopes were high that the leases would not be renewed.

But Marine Harvest, the Norwegian company that held those leases, wasn’t acting like they were expiring. Instead, it was making plans to restock the farms with smolts—young Atlantic salmon that wouldn’t be ready to harvest when the leases ended. Alfred didn’t think that the community could risk any more delays. Last fall, the wild salmon run in the archipelago had been frighteningly low.

“We probably have two years,” Alfred said. “We are not just talking about food security and what we eat. My brother is a guide. He takes tourists who come from all over the world, and he takes them to watch the grizzly bears. And the bears couldn’t catch any fish. There are probably cubs that went to sleep for the winter that didn’t get fat enough and won’t wake up next spring.”

Alfred and his niece, Molina Dawson, stood up at the meeting. “I’m not interested in this process anymore,” Alfred said. “I don’t want to write letters. I’m going to pack my bags and take my tent and go out to this farm, and I’m not going to move until something happens.”

When the group reached Swanson, they informed the Marine Harvest employees on-site that they were being occupied, then asked where to set up tents. “They thought it was pretty cute,” said Alfred. “They didn’t take us too seriously at the beginning.” (Marine Harvest did not respond to an offer to share its version of events.) The occupiers set up camp on a floating walkway above the salmon pens.

The next day, a site manager for Marine Harvest seemed annoyed that they were still there. He came up to Alfred and told him he was trespassing. “No, you are,” Alfred said.

 

Alfred and a fellow occupier brandish jars of wild salmon. | Photo courtesy of Swanson Occupation

The waters of the Broughton Archipelago are home to at least two dozen salmon farms, according to a 2013 survey, but Alfred had chosen Swanson Island for one very specific reason: The island itself is the traditional territory of his mother’s ancestors. As long as Alfred stayed on the island, he was virtually untouchable. “It wouldn’t be right for me to go to someone else’s territory and say “get out,” Alfred said. “But I also chose it because it had not-too-bad cell coverage. Internet was very important.”

Internet was very important because Alfred did not intend to leave Swanson Island until he knew for certain that John Horgan, the premier of British Columbia, was not going to renew the leases in June. Still, even as Alfred stayed connected through the rest of the world via telecommunications, living on the island was an adjustment. “At this hour, baby seals on the island next to us sound like zombies out to get me,” Alfred wrote on his Facebook page one evening in September. “I’m going to bed!”

 

A supply boat arrives with shack-building materials. | Photo courtesy of Swanson Occupation

When the fish farms arrived in the 1980s, residents of the archipelago did not welcome them with open arms, despite promises of jobs and money. “Our people from the very beginning were very skeptical,” Alfred said. “Right off the bat, the old people—a lot of people call them ‘elders,’ but in my tradition the word that we use literally means ‘old people’—said, ‘Why would we do this when Mother Nature grows salmon for free? We would be acting as gods.’”

But it wasn’t up to the First Nations. The farm leases had been negotiated with the Canadian federal government. Over the next few decades, a series of court rulings gave legal backing to something that had always been historically true: Many of Canada’s indigenous tribes, particularly those in the western provinces, had never signed treaties giving up control over their territory.

In 1989, Carrier Lumber submitted a proposal to the BC government to log forest on Xeni Gwet’in land. In response, the Xeni Gwet’in declared the forest off limits for all logging, mining, and road building but said that non-natives were welcome to ask permission to “come and view and photograph our beautiful land.” It took the case decades to reach its conclusion, and when it did in 2014, a new legal precedent was set: Any First Nations land that was never formally ceded to the Canadian government could not be developed without the consent of those First Nations that have a claim to it. That included land that had been used for hunting or foraging, not just land that had been continuously occupied.

By then, BC’s native salmon population was in steep decline. “In the mid ’90s—that’s when my dad sold his fishing boat,” Alfred said. “The farms went in in 1989. We started to see effects almost right away.” Commercial fishery catches between 1995 and 2005 were the lowest in recorded history, and then the catch halved again between 2006 and 2014.

There were several theories as to why the salmon runs were diminishing. Salmon farms around the world were struggling with an epidemic of sea lice: tiny crustaceans that latch onto salmon in ocean waters and feed off their blood and tissue. Were fish farms providing year-round habitat to a parasite that normally would have limited opportunities to latch onto juvenile wild salmon as they emerged from streams and headed out to the open ocean? Scientific research showed that sea lice from fish farms could infect nearby wild salmon. Was that one reason why so few fish were coming back from the ocean each year?

Salmon farms were also facing periodic epidemics of piscine reovirus. A study by Alexandra Morton, a whale researcher who began studying fish farms after the area’s orca population declined, found that 95 percent of farmed Atlantic salmon had the virus, and that about 40 percent of wild Pacific salmon that spawned near the salmon farms, like those in the Broughton Archipelago, also had the virus. In areas of BC that were farthest away from salmon farms, the incidence of the virus was only 5 percent. Piscine reovirus causes heart damage, and some biologists surmised that it could be preventing wild salmon from making it to the ocean, or from surviving the long journey upstream to spawn.

But none of this changed the fact that, in the more than 20 years since salmon farming began, farmed salmon had become a $1.2 billion industry and BC’s largest agricultural export. A third of those salmon were coming from the Broughton Archipelago. Alaska had managed to ban farmed salmon, but it did so in the 1990s, before the industry got too powerful to overcome resistance. Meanwhile, companies like Marine Harvest had begun to hammer out agreements with some local tribes, which made agitating to remove the fish farms more politically complicated.

To Alfred, there’s no amount of compromise that would be worth hammering out. “It is a lot of money to these impoverished communities, but it’s a drop in the bucket to these companies,” he said. “The people who have signed those agreements are not proud of them.” According to Alfred, some tribal members believed that just getting the farms to operate differently might work: for example, moving pens farther away from traditional salmon migration routes, or closing down the farms periodically to break the lifecycle of any parasites or viruses.

But those changes were hard to monitor, hard to enforce. Alternative solutions to closing down the farms, like moving them far away from wild salmon and into facilities on land, weren’t happening fast enough. BC’s First Nations had started their own above-ground fish farm, Kuterra, which began farming in 2013, but no similar operations had followed. “The most important thing to remember is that it’s been done and we’ve proved our point,” Alfred said. “Its only downfall is that it doesn’t actually make money.” (Kuterra recently began to turn a profit but is unlikely to recoup its start-up costs.)

 

Marine Harvest’s salmon farm seen from Alfred’s cabin. | Photo courtesy of Swanson Occupation

A few weeks into the occupation, Alfred and the other occupiers (there have been anywhere from two to 18 people living on the island at any given moment) moved into an enclave of deserted cabins on the island, which had a good view of the Marine Harvest operation. Swanson Island is not the only occupation. Another Marine Harvest location, Midsummer Island, was occupied in September by a group of Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw and Namgis, including Alfred’s niece. They agreed to leave in November after Marine Harvest filed an injunction against them in court. In October, the Matriarch’s Camp, led by Tsastilqualus Umbras, a Ma’amtagila grandmother, set up outside the offices of BC premier John Horgan in Langford, relocating at one point to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Gradually, it began to look like the occupations were having some effect. In October, Lana Popham, the BC minister of agriculture, sent a letter to Marine Harvest, warning it not to stock any more salmon at its farm in Port Elizabeth, whose lease was set to expire in June 2018, because “we are entering into sensitive discussions with some of the First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago who remain opposed to open net pen salmon farming in their territories.”

A few days later, Horgan said at a salmon farm industry meeting that companies needed to remember that their leases were “not in perpetuity.” Marine Harvest objected to this messaging. “If there’s a better way to do business, we’re always interested,” Marine Harvest Canada spokesman Ian Roberts told CBC News, “but today they are very, very good sites for growing fish.”

Then, in November, a state senator in neighboring Washington announced he was planning a bill that would phase out all fish farm leases there. With the state spending hundreds of millions of dollars preserving wild Pacific salmon runs, said Senator Kevin Ranker, “raising invasive Atlantic salmon that we classify by state law as a pollutant makes no sense.”

The bill was almost certainly the direct result of the September escape of over 160,000 Atlantic salmon from a fish farm run by a company named Cooke Aquacultlure. Atlantic salmon have been used for West Coast fish farming because they are believed to not be able to survive in the Pacific Ocean on their own, and because they could live closer together than their Pacific cousins without attacking each other. Months after the escape, however, fishers in Washington are still reeling in Atlantic salmon. In December, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources terminated the lease on the farm where the escape took place.

Alfred spent New Year’s Eve on Swanson Island. “Swanson Occupation Day 131!” he announced cheerfully, camera trained on the orange-yellow Wolf Moon rising over the bay. “Happy New Year from everyone at Swanson Island Occupation!” He, some friends, and their children took all the pots and pans outside and banged them together in celebration. It wasn’t what he had planned a year earlier, but then, a lot of things had happened in 2017 that he hadn’t planned on, beginning with his decision, in August, to take a leave of absence from teaching and to occupy a fish farm instead.

As a hereditary chief, Alfred was raised with a particular responsibility to keep alive culture and tradition, and to carry it forward. “I quit my job so that I could have peace of mind,” Alfred said. “I didn’t want to lie to my students anymore about being stewards of the land when I wasn’t doing it.” A group of his former students, now high schoolers, organized two school walkouts in solidarity and demanded that the local supermarket not stock farmed salmon.

Alfred has heard that Marine Harvest will restock the pens off of Swanson soon. There are rumors afoot that the management of Canada’s fish farms would be taken from the Department of Fisheries, and Alfred remains optimistic. He suspects that early on in the occupation, Marine Harvest had tried to get a permit to evict him but then realized that his ancestral relationship to the land made that impossible. “They know,” Alfred said. “They know they are going to lose.”

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Science, Uncategorized

We’re Teaching Kids the Wrong Ways to Fight Climate Change

Originally published in Sierra.

When Seth Wynes was teaching high school science in Canada, there was one question his students asked him that he had trouble answering: What can I do to stop climate change? The existence of climate change was an unpleasant surprise for many of them—they had grown up hearing adults talk about things like peak oil in doom-laden tones, so the news that humans would trash the atmosphere before they even reached peak oil filled them with alarm. They wanted to do something.

Wynes had a few ideas that he felt were good: Bike more. Take transit. Eat less meat. Change your lightbulbs. Recycle. But it bothered him that he didn’t really know how effective those solutions were. It bothered him even more that nobody else seemed to know either.

Wynes decided to go back to school. This time, he focused on climate change. He chose Lund University in Sweden so that he could study climate change in a country that not only believed climate change was real but was actively trying to fix it. With the help of Kimberly Nicholas, one of his professors at Lund, Wynes sought out and analyzed research quantifying the effects that lone, individual actions could have on carbon emissions. He spent long nights with research papers like “Electricity and Water Consumption for Laundry Washing by Washing Machine Worldwide” and “Finding Your Dog’s Ecological ‘Pawprint’: A Hybrid EIO-LCA of Dog Food Manufacturing.”

Months later, Wynes and Nicholas had the list his high school teacher self had always wanted: 12 individual actions, ranked in order of effectiveness and whenever possible, in effectiveness by country. For example, an American or an Australian who gave up their car saved much more in terms of emissions than a resident of Great Britain did, because residents of the United States and Australia drove so much more to begin with. In all three countries, there was one action whose effect towered over the others: Have one fewer child.

Illustration courtesy of Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas, 2017, Environmental Research Letters

The 12 actions weren’t the only lifestyle choices that Wynes and Nicholas studied—just the ones that held up to mathematical analysis. Composting fell by the wayside after Wynes couldn’t find a paper rigorous enough to cite. Dog ownership was deemed similarly complicated after Wynes and Nicholas only found two papers with opposite verdicts, though they both felt safe concluding that smaller dogs were better than large ones. The math around green energy got hazy in European countries because of a problem with double-counting in some areas, but was clear-cut enough in areas with carbon-heavy electrical grids like North America and Australia to merit inclusion.

Then Wynes began comparing their resesarch to climate-related documents aimed at teenagers and adults in the three most high-emitting countries on the list: Canada, Australia, and the United States. He wanted to know—were the actions on his list the same as the actions these documents recommended?

They were not, as Wynes and Nicholas reveal in a paper that was published this week in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The most high-impact actions on his list, like living without a car, avoiding transatlantic flights, and eating a plant-based diet were often ignored entirely in educational climate change materials, which favored less-effective actions like recycling and using more energy-efficient lightbulbs. Government documents for Australia, the United States, and Canada all recommended driving more energy-efficient cars, but only one country—Australia—suggested living without a car at all, even though doing so had a cascading effect on emissions by keeping people within densely populated areas, where the structure of the city kept per-capita energy use at half the level of people living in single-family detached suburban housing.

Wynes combed through 10 Canadian high school textbooks used by 80 percent of Canadian teenagers (the sheer number of American high school textbooks kept him from doing the same here, but he encourages anyone else to do so). He found 216 individual recommended actions to mitigate climate change, and a similar focus on changes with moderate impact on the climate, as opposed to those with a higher impact. Eating a plant-based diet was presented as roughly equivalent to eating less meat, even though a completely plant-based diet can be 2 to 4.7 times more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Driving more efficiently was mentioned almost 30 times, but living without a car entirely was mentioned only six times. Out of the 216 recommended actions, only eight were ones that made Wynes’s and Nicholas’s top four.

The single most important thing that an individual could do—have one fewer child than intended—was not mentioned at all. On one level, this is easier to understand—several countries have a tradition of relying on an expanding birth rate as a way to subsidize the retirement of its older citizens. Systematic attempts to reduce birth rates in many countries have a history of being applied selectively, in ways that can only be described as racist and classist. But still, a concerned teenager might want to know that a U.S. family choosing to have one fewer child than they originally intended would, as Wynes and Nicholas put it, “provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives.”

When I asked Wynes about why he thought publications aimed at teenagers had such a strong emphasis on climate actions with only moderate impact, he hesitated, then hypothesized that the problem might be hope. Specifically, the hope that new technology would be the solution to this new, energy-related problem, the way that the Green Revolution was a solution to the limitations of agriculture, or the way that the catalytic converter cut urban air pollution. Only one of the four most-effective options—buying energy from renewable sources—requires the kind of technolgical innovation that has gotten us out of environmental pinches in the past. We already have the technology to have fewer children and to get around using fewer cars. Many short-distance air routes could be replaced with high-speed rail, and the knowledge to make that work well has been around since the 1970s.

Whether or not the kids are learning it in school, we may already be living in a world where expectations are adjusting. In the United States, the percentage of 20-somethings with driver’s licenses has fallen by 13 percent over the past three decades, and they prefer to live in cities, even if they can’t afford to live there. Even if young people do eventually buy cars and move out to the suburbs as they get older, by driving less now they’ve reduced the pollution they’ve contributed to in their lifetime.

In my years writing about climate and the environment, I’ve seen a lot of what Wynes’s and Nicholas’s paper describes. I have been told by scientific papers to buy a more-fuel-efficient car, as though the existence of people like myself who have never owned a car in the first place does not exist. I have seen teenagers being told they can fight climate change by shopping at thrift stores and taking shorter showers. As a communication strategy, it felt a bit off—teenagers as I know them are idealistic and intense, more comfortable at making dramatic statements and life changes than most adults are.

What would they do if they knew the whole truth about this troposphere we’re handing off to them? I eagerly await that study.

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Science

The Story Behind One Solar Robot

I am peering through the glass window of a refrigerator-sized machine. The machine is named Endurance, if you go by the printing on its side, or Lucy, if you go by what Leila Madrone calls it. I’m watching some plastic get tortured.

It’s going through the equivalent of 100 years of life in a harsh desert climate: It’s been exposed to extreme heat and cold, and UV radiation. It’s been sandblasted. It’s been shaken around a whole lot. It suffers, because it needs to last 30 years without anyone having to fix it. Better for it to fail now, in the lab, than later, at a solar installation in some far-flung desert.

The building, in the former industrial sector of San Francisco’s Mission District, is older than it looks: it was used to make custom mining equipment during California’s silver rush in the early 1900s. Ideally, the plastic would last as long as this building. Maybe it will. If you have a problem with plastic, Madrone tells me while we peer through the glass, if you have a problem with the way that it sticks around in the environment, you just need to use it for what it’s good for — use it for something that’s supposed to last forever.

This plastic is part of the answer to a question that Madrone found herself asking back in 2008. By that point, she had built a lot of cool robots. Her thesis in electrical engineering at MIT was a set of motorized laser guides to help people play the theremin. After years of designing precision robots for biotech, she had fulfilled the life goal of her 7-year-old self and worked with NASA — leading an engineering team working on the Gigapan, a commercial version of the robot that lived on the Mars Rover and took panoramic shots of the places it visited. But Madrone still wondered: What was the most useful robot she could build?

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Otherlab

Madrone settled on solar trackers — mechanical systems that move solar panels in order to help them follow the path of the sun. The concept isn’t new; solar-tech historian John Perlin found a description of a simple solar tracker dated 1699. (It was a slab that grapevines grew along the side of, that could be tilted throughout the day with a series of pegs and tracks to maximize sunlight.) Plants had come up with the concept even earlier.

But for someone with Madrone’s skills in automation and robotics, solar tracking looked like the right problem: It took a proven renewable technology and made it even better. Trackers in general could already boost the energy production of a solar panel by 20 percent or more. With the right breakthroughs, they could be the thing that tipped the balance and made solar the lowest-cost energy source out there.

Madrone read everything she could find about solar — in academic journals,  on the internet. She interviewed people working in the field. She began working for a solar startup called GreenVolts, which was developing equipment for concentrated solar: small, high-tech power plants whose modest footprints made it easier for them to locate near cities. GreenVolts’ technology was far out; the arrays looked sort of like a field of robotic flowers, with panels that branched out from a central column like petals. The panels, and the trunk, were actually a huge precision robot that could track and concentrate sunlight much more efficiently than old-school photovoltaic solar.

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GreenVolts

It was really cool. It also came with a lot of bells and whistles — it was, as one business reporter put it, “bling-heavy.”

In 2008, the price of ordinary, non-high tech photovoltaic solar panels began to fall, sharply. It kept on falling. This was partly due to the recession, partly due to (successful) efforts by Chinese solar companies to seize the day and drive their competitors around the world out of business by selling photovoltaic panels at below cost. There was no bling that could outcompete that kind of bargain, especially when the bargain was a proven technology that everyone in the industry knew how to install and maintain.

GreenVolts was toast, though it would take a few more years to figure that out, and Madrone was disillusioned. She left the company and spent five months traveling through Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Mexico. She visited islands where the only power source was expensive and dirty generators, and cities like Kathmandu, where the electrical grid was so non-functional that blackouts were a daily occurrence. The more that she saw, the more she became convinced that any solar technology that would have an impact needed to be so cheap and easy to manufacture that it could be deployed anywhere.

When she returned, Madrone began collaborating with an old friend at MIT, Saul Griffith. Griffith was the sort of inventor who came up with new devices and companies at the same clip that other people might, say, take out the trash, or do the nightly dishes (he’s best known for founding Instructables). At that time, he found himself increasingly preoccupied with climate change — and the problem of inventing tools to fight climate change that people actually used.

Among the projects he worked on: a road that is also a solar panel (turns out you expend more energy building it than you ever get back from using it). A wind-energy device called Makani Power, which is like the lovechild of a windmill and a kite (bought by Google X in 2012, where it has remained perpetually in the testing stage ever since). A cargo-hauling tricycle with electrical pedal assist (cool, but the battery alone costs $1,000, so not practical to bring to market). A website called WattzOn that catalogues tools to help people, cities, and utilities reduce their personal energy consumption (popular with a geeky subset of people, cities, and utilities interested in doing this, but otherwise under the radar).

Griffith had recently founded Otherlab, a research and development company that Madrone describes as part startup, part academic lab. Griffith and another Otherlab co-founder, James McBride, had also written a concept paper two years earlier, hypothesizing that mass-manufactured, plastic parts could dramatically bring down the cost of a solar tracker. Madrone moved into Otherlab and started building prototypes in a corner of the building.

Concentrated solar power (CSP) was still desperate for good trackers, so Madrone and Griffith started a new company — Sunfolding — and decided their niche would be designing a solar tracker that could work with any concentrated solar project. “We started with concentrated solar, thinking if we can do this, we can do anything,” says Madrone. CSP trackers were the hardest to build; they needed to be extremely precise while operating in harsh conditions.

What they came up with was a collection of small, inexpensive mirrors that tilted using pneumatic pressure. The whole setup had much less wind drag and fewer moving parts than a traditional steel-and-glass heliostat. In November 2012, the project won $2.6 million from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a government agency designed to fund risky but interesting energy technology, in the tradition of the Pentagon’s DARPA.

But the price of photovoltaic solar continued to fall, which made even believers in concentrated solar (which relies on an entirely different technology) balk at building new $3 billion plants. And the technology kept changing, making investors risk-shy: No one wanted to install a huge solar array, only to have to rip it out and start over a few years later because the technology didn’t work out. “There’s a lot of really neat innovations you can come up with related to energy,” says Madrone, “but they’re not necessarily what the industry needs or wants.”

What the industry needs and wants, Madrone and her colleagues hope, is huffing pneumatically a few feet away from where I’m sitting to interview Madrone, in an empty workshop on the third floor of Sunfolding HQ. It’s just around the block from Otherlab HQ, where the plastic is being tortured. This building, also old, was erected by a German-American pipe organ company that’s almost as old as the silver mining equipment company, but that proved much more long-lived. Schoenstein & Co., the pipe organ manufacturer, outgrew the space a few years ago and moved its operations to Benicia, Calif. Outside the door to the workshop is a huge room where, from 1928 until 2004, pipe organs were built. The list of each organ made on site, and its destination, still hangs from one wall.

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Christopher Michel

Today, heavy-duty engineering texts like Uhlig’s Corrosion Handbook (third edition) are scattered around the upstairs workshop. Under normal circumstances, the ping pong-table-sized solar panel in the corner of the workshop would not be moving this fast, but right now it is rapidly tilting, fast-forwarding its way through a sequence of pre-programmed days. One of the things Madrone and Griffith found is that it’s easier to program a field of solar panels with pre-existing algorithms describing the sun’s movements than it is to fuss with a sensor that follows the path of the sun in real time — but would also be one more part that could break.

Standard-issue solar tracking devices for PV are designed, in Madrone’s words, “the way you would expect an industrial machine to look like.” They’re made of motors and gear boxes and bearings, which have a lot of surfaces that rub against each other and wear out. They have to be assembled by hand in a factory somewhere. The panels are moved by a torque tube that runs along the length of 20 or 40 solar panels, so that it can move all the panels at once when it rotates. This is efficient, and doesn’t use much energy, but has the unintended effect of forcing every large-scale solar installation that wants to use tracking to become a giant, flat rectangle — no matter how many nice, oddly slanted or shaped spots are nearby.

Sunfolding’s approach is different. The only hardware that moves Madrone and Griffith’s test panel is a set of chunky, accordion-pleated tubes, about the size of a liter bottle of soda. They are linked via a series of tubes to an air compressor off to the side, and as air moves in and out of the tubes, they expand and contract, and the panel tilts. The tubes are made out of black automotive plastic; as they expand and contract, the effect is part inchworm, part Muppet.

I ask Madrone if, compared to all the other robots she’s built, this one might not be just a little boring. “I’m glad that you see it’s a robot,” she says. “Because it runs autonomous systems. It runs presumably for decades without anyone telling it what to do. It responds to the sun. If there’s bad weather it does something to protect itself. For all intents and purposes, it is a robot.

“It’s not a fast-moving robot. It doesn’t move any faster than the sun moves. But a lot of the things you have to solve for this tracking system are really interesting problems. There are things we are doing with our controls that no one else can do.

“It’s really easy to build something that works for a day,” Madrone adds. “It’s a whole other piece of work to build something that can go for a week. Every time you increase that without someone coming in and poking it and replacing things, it becomes harder and harder.”

It has not escaped Madrone’s attention that when she graduated, many of her fellow engineering students at MIT worked on hardware projects. Now, more and more of them work on software. Even with the much-hyped “internet of things,” and the tsunami of venture capital flowing through the Bay Area, the field for hardware projects is small. Companies that can invent new hardware and actually bring it all the way to market are rare. Venture capitalists may come in at the late stages of a product’s development, but they aren’t going to fund research and development for hardware when software, immaterial and scalable, is so much more tempting.

Only five years passed between Madrone’s decision to build a cheap way to move solar panels around and her actually releasing a product to market. That’s an eternity in internet years, but a pretty short one for hardware that is supposed to make it to 2045 before it needs repairing.

Getting to this point took more than building a better mousetrap. It took learning the ins and outs of an industry that was changing fast, yet skittish about changing any further. It meant leaving cool ideas by the wayside if they interfered with cost and reliability. It meant building something most individuals will never see in action (since building codes have a hard enough time permitting rooftop solar that stays perfectly still).   It meant signing on to a funding mechanism that involved spending a long, eight-hour day every three months talking technology and strategy with a government agency, ARPA-E, that was both a champion and an enforcer. (Madrone sees this as a good thing: “A lot of startups don’t have that experience where they have someone scrutinizing them and making sure they are doing everything technically correctly.”)

The tech industry, as a whole, is prone to big visions and big ideas — with good reason, since big ideas are the language of venture capital. That’s not the language that Madrone speaks.

“We have to get away from this hero mentality,” she says, as we leave the 100-year-old pipe organ factory and step out into the sunshine. “We don’t need someone to create a magical box that means we can do whatever we want all the time and use all the energy we want. We need to get really smart about our energy use and really smart about how we create energy.

“The only way we can do that is by creating an ecosystem where there are a lot of ideas working together. And we need to start valuing that kind of community of ideas instead of the one hero that is going to save us all. ”

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Environment, Science

How FEMA’s Toxic Katrina Trailers Made it to an Oil Boomtown

As soon as Nick Shapiro turned into the parking lot of the Tumbleweed Inn in Alexander, N.D., he recognized the trailers. They were off-white, boxy, almost cartoonish, and unadorned with any of the frills — racing stripes, awnings, window treatments — that a manufacturer would typically add to set a trailer apart on a display lot.

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Nick Shapiro

But these trailers had never seen a display lot. Shapiro had first seen them when he was living in New Orleans in 2010, doing fieldwork for his Oxford University PhD. In New Orleans, everyone knew what they were, and the city was desperate to get rid of them. They had been built fast, and not to last. The fact that some people were still living in them because they had never gotten enough money to rebuild their homes, or had run afoul of unethical contractors, was just an unwanted reminder of how far the city still had to go to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

But in the oil fields of Alexander, where Shapiro found them, people had, at best, only a dim memory of hearing something bad about the trailers on the late night news.

Only one person in the improvised trailer park near the Tumbleweed Inn knew where the trailers were from. Now 19, he’d lived in one as a child, after his family’s home was destroyed when the levees around New Orleans broke in 2005. “It feels like home,” he said, looking around the park. “Not the landscape. The trailers. I’m used to it.”

Most of the people living in the trailer park were like him: men, young, drawn to North Dakota from all over the U.S. by the prospect of making $16-an-hour minimum in an oil boomtown. So what if they had to pay $1,200 a month to live in a trailer out on the prairie? They made it work. They slept in bunk beds, seven to a trailer, so that they could save as much as they could, and then get the hell out of there.

Get me 120,000 trailer homes, pronto!

The story of the trailers — which Grist has assembled from Freedom of Information Act requests, interviews, and the public record — goes like this: Less than 24 hours after the New Orleans levees broke, trailer companies were in touch with local officials for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), setting up contracts to provide housing for people whose homes were destroyed in the flood. Since 80 percent of New Orleans, plus a whole lot of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coastline, had been flooded, the need for housing was overwhelming. At the time, there were about 14,000 trailers in lots around the country, waiting to be sold; FEMA needed 120,000. It ordered nearly $2.7 billion worth of travel trailers and mobile homes from 60 different companies, and the production lines cranked into overdrive.

Still, a month after Katrina and Rita hit landfall, Louisiana had only managed to get 109 families into trailers. The alternatives were overcrowded shelters, or squatting in the wreckage of the flood.

As new trailers arrived, they brought hope: They were shiny and new, and most importantly, had never been buried under 12 feet of water. But when the people who were supposed to live in them opened the doors, many noted a strong chemical smell inside. Some thought it was OK: It smelled kind of like a new car in there! Others did not think it was OK, especially after they started to get nosebleeds and headaches, and began to have trouble breathing. Local pediatricians began to notice an epidemic of respiratory infections in children in the area — and all of them seemed to be living in FEMA trailers.

“After the storm, about half of the people I knew were in FEMA trailers,” said Sierra Club organizer Becky Gillette. “Some of them were fine. The smokers didn’t complain much. But I had a friend who would wake up in the middle of the night, gasping for air.” Gillette knew a fair amount about air pollution — she’d worked on social justice campaigns around the local oil refinery. The link between mobile homes and formaldehyde was well documented; the low ceilings and small size concentrated any fumes emanating from the particleboard they were built with.

Even after the National Institutes of Health declared formaldehyde to be a carcinogen, the Department of Housing and Urban Development didn’t bother to regulate levels of formaldehyde for travel trailers or motor homes, under the theory that they were only temporary lodging. Formaldehyde test kits were about $35 apiece, and they added up fast. Gillette ordered 32 of them — over $1,200 worth. When 30 of the 32 tested positive for high formaldehyde levels, she shared the information with FEMA — which, she said, did nothing. So Gillette got a grant from the Sierra Club to buy even more kits.

FEMA — or at least some parts of FEMA — did know that the trailers were dangerous, though that would not emerge until the congressional hearings on the issue in 2008. FEMA appears to have stopped testing trailers in early 2006, after a field agent discovered that one trailer, which was occupied by a couple expecting their second child, had formaldehyde levels at 75 times the recommended threshold for workplace safety. The couple was relocated, and management pushed back against further testing, even after a man was found dead in his trailer a few months later. “Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK,” a FEMA lawyer named Patrick Preston advised on June 15, 2006. “Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”

That same month, the Sierra Club announced that, out of 44 trailers tested with kits purchased from Gillette’s grant, 40 had dangerously high formaldehyde levels. Mary DeVany, an occupational safety consultant who worked with the Sierra Club on interpreting the results, theorized that the plywood that was used to build some of the trailers wasn’t heat-treated properly. Trailers built by three companies in particular — Pilgrim International, Coachman Industries, and Gulf Stream Coach — had the highest levels. Kevin Broom, a spokesperson for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, told reporters that trailer residents needed to open their windows.

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Nick Shapiro

Used trailers, warning stickers, and the free market

FEMA ultimately succeeded in deploying 140,000 trailers up and down the ravaged Gulf Coast. Then it had to start figuring out what to do with them as people began to rebuild their lives and leave them behind. The agency had planned on getting rid of the trailers by selling them, possibly even to the people who were living in them, but that was no longer an option. In July of 2007, FEMA suspended sales of the trailers to the public, and in November, it announced plans to move as many residents as possible out of the trailers — partly, a FEMA spokesperson said, because of formaldehyde levels.

Around the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began running its own tests. It announced the results in early 2008: On average, the 519 trailers the CDC tested had five times the formaldehyde levels found in most modern homes, but a few were dramatically higher — about 40 times the recommended levels. The CDC’s then-director urged FEMA to relocate anyone still living in trailers, particularly children and the elderly, before summer, when heat would make the fumes even worse.

Even unoccupied, the trailers were costing nearly $130 million a year to store, according to federal records, but what to do with them had become a loaded question. Congressional hearings held in spring 2008 established that the trailers were unsafe. In February of 2009, the CDC started a $3.4 million pilot program designed to find people — especially children — who had lived in FEMA trailers and track the their health over time. And a massive class-action lawsuit filed by trailer residents against FEMA and the trailer manufacturers continued to work its way through the court system.

But on Jan. 1, 2010, a court injunction banning the sale of the trailers expired, and FEMA handed them off to the General Services Administration (GSA) to auction them off, for about 7 percent what FEMA had originally paid for them. The GSA made buyers sign an agreement promising not to sell them as housing, and it slapped stickers on them saying that they were not to be used for human habitation — just storage or recreation.

Observers were aghast. “What if Toyota ordered a recall, then simply put a sticker on its vehicles saying they were unfit to drive before reselling them?” said Becky Gillette. In late 2008, FEMA had quietly sold about a thousand Katrina trailers and mobile homes as scrap; six months later, they were spotted in mobile home parks in Missouri and Georgia. What was to stop the same thing from happening over and over again — stickers or no stickers?

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Nick Shapiro

As it turned out, nothing. FEMA trailers began to turn up everywhere, particularly in places where people needed a lot of housing fast, no questions asked. The stickers that read “NOT TO BE USED FOR HOUSING” were gone from the trailers almost as soon as they left the auction lot, though none of the buyers would admit to removing them.

Missing FEMA trailer sticker
Nick Shapiro

The trailers showed up later in 2010, at the Deepwater Horizon spill. They showed up in 2011 in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee, in neighborhoods that had been flattened by tornadoes.

That was when Shapiro decided to follow up and started testing the trailers himself. He’d become preoccupied with them — how ubiquitous they remained despite their known risks. He defrayed his expenses by calling in favors; there was the analytical chemistry lab that agreed to run the tests for free, and a colleague who applied part of a grant from the National Science Foundation toward shipping.

Word got out that he was testing trailers, and people from Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, and Illinois began to seek him out. Every test he did came in above the 16 ppm (parts per million) threshold that had been established as the new FEMA standard after the congressional hearings. None of the people who contacted Shapiro had been told, before they bought the trailers, that they were dangerous to live in. Most of them told Shapiro they couldn’t afford to move; they just appreciated knowing the risk.

Those who did try to get rid of the trailers, though, found that it wasn’t easy. Marty Horine of Clinton, Mo., bought a 32-foot ex-FEMA Gulfstream Cavalier for her son in 2007, two weeks before the trailers were officially declared unfit to live in.

Horine tried to return the trailer. The seller refused, and promptly declared bankruptcy. Horine contacted the General Services Administration, the government agency that had handled the trailer auctions. (“I’m a retired schoolteacher,” she says, dryly. “We’re a little bit of a bulldog, schoolteachers.”) But the GSA told Horine that it would only take the trailer back if she brought it to Hope, Arkansas, the site of the original auction, and it would only buy the trailer back for what the GSA had sold it for. Horine had bought hers from a reseller, for $6,000, while that reseller had bought it at auction for around $1,000.

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Nick Shapiro

Horine still sees FEMA trailers for sale in Clinton from time to time. Three years ago, over a hundred of them appeared for sale on a nearby lot, with the stickers scraped off. “I went over there, just acting dumb, because that’s not hard to do,” Horine drawled. “Then I said to the girl who was in charge of selling them, ‘You know this is illegal.’” The woman said that she didn’t know what Horine was talking about, but Horine noticed that the trailers were gone the next day.

Horine’s trailer remains unoccupied. She feels that selling it would be unethical. Even if she sold it on the cheap to someone who was aware of the risks, who’s to say that person wouldn’t turn around and sell it as a home to someone else? “It’s still sitting down there,” she said when I called her, as though she were describing a visitor that had overstayed its welcome.

Shapiro began to file public records requests to find out as much as he could about the trailers, and where they went. Now, when people contacted him, he had a collection of spreadsheets that he could search through to verify whether their trailer was one of the 120,000.

When a boomtown looks like a refugee camp

When Shapiro arrived in North Dakota, he was following a rumor: that the oil boom in the Bakken Shale had attracted the Katrina trailers from across the country like filings to a magnet. What he didn’t expect was to find the trailers surrounding the towns of the Bakken boom at Katrina-level densities. These boomtowns were hard to distinguish from refugee camps.

How the trailers had made their way to North Dakota from Louisiana was a riddle. Back in 2010, FEMA donated several hundred trailers to the local Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa; it would not have been hard for the trailers to migrate again out of Turtle Mountain and into the oil fields.  Shapiro was expecting to find oil and gas workers living in them. But instead the trailers were occupied by young men seeking their fortunes in the service economy that had sprung up around the oil and gas workers.

The oil and gas workers lived in nicer trailers, a few feet away. But the ones the service workers occupied were falling apart: Mold was blooming out of vents and improperly sealed crevices. In a sense, the trailers had been embalmed; now they were beginning to decompose.

The good news was, after four years of air-quality readings in FEMA trailers, the levels of formaldehyde were dropping. This spring, Shapiro returned to retest a trailer owned by a retired Mississippi couple that he had tested when they contacted him back in 2011. Back then the air had measured 105.6 ppb of formaldehyde – dangerously high.

In 2015, the level was down to 20 ppb — a fifth as high, but still over the 16 ppb safety threshold. What exactly did this mean? It’s hard to say, because no one has systematically studied how the toxic trailers might have actually harmed their residents. The CDC had a plan, known as KARE (aka, Katrina and Rita Exposures), to register and track the health of FEMA trailer residents, but it never moved past the pilot stage. Shapiro says he asked CDC why and received a letter saying that the decision to not proceed rested solely with FEMA.

Shapiro gave the couple a prototype “air remediation device” – a houseplant hooked up to an aquarium pump with the diaphragm reversed. In the last year, he’d been working with a research group called Public Lab on low-cost ways that people could monitor and clean the air in their own homes. For Shapiro, the project was a morale-booster in the face of the relentlessly dispiriting trailer research. But he also worried that the plant was a kind of cop-out — a form of potted surrender to the fact that not all environmental justice campaigns result in actual environmental justice.

He tested the couple’s trailer again, anyway. A month after the installation of the “remediation device,” the formaldehyde levels had fallen 40 percent, to 12 ppm. A decade after Katrina had summoned the trailers into existence, the ill-fated homes might almost be safe to live in.

Live in one of FEMA’s Katrina trailers? Here’s what you can do.  

Video by Mariel Carr. Special thanks to reporter Nick Shapiro. Maps by Clayton Aldern. VIN look-up tool by Cory Simmons. Video produced by The Chemical Heritage Foundation, a library, museum, and center for scholars in Philadelphia that fosters dialogue on the role of science and technology in society. Find out more about its multimedia magazine at distillations.org.

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Environment, Science

I Test-Drive a Futuristic Mini-Car

Originally published at Grist.

I hate cars for a multitude of reasons, both logical (I’m afraid of getting hit by one) and illogical (cars are just so boring).

But it’s a complicated way to be, hating things. Whenever I decide to just go ahead and full-on loathe, I find myself making exceptions. For example, I am actually pretty excited to be getting into a car right now. My excuse: It’s electric, and it looks like a jellybean on three wheels. Toyota has set up a little practice track in a high school parking lot not far from the Aspen Ideas Festival, where attendees have been disappearing for test drives. For the last few days I’ve been overhearing a lot of excited chatter about the test drives, in between all the fraught panel discussions about “What is America?” (Short answer: complicated) and “Is America a jerk?” (Short answer: probably).

The car is called the iRoad, because Toyota has been putting a lowercase “i” in front of its weirder projects for a while now, and Apple never did win those trademark infringement lawsuits. The iRoad is being billed as marrying the safety and ease of a car with the fun of a motorcycle. I am not sure about the safety part — to the eyes of someone who grew up in SUV country, the iRoad looks alarmingly small, like the clown car of the future.

But once I climb inside the clown car, the feeling changes. It has one very narrow seat in the front, which resembles the pilot seat of a Star Wars X-wing. “The steering is in the back,” says the driving instructor, Steve. “So it’s going to handle counter-intuitively. It’s a good idea to turn earlier than you usually would. There’s a gyroscope inside that will keep you from tipping over. See if you can get around the track and not knock down any of these cones.”

What I want to say is, suavely, “It’s not impossible. I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home.” But since I drive so infrequently, it takes a while for the muscle memory of the whole process to return. I stare down at my feet. Which pedal is the brake? Which pedal is the accelerator? I push my foot down on each, very slowly, while trying to look supremely confident, and like a person who under no circumstances should be forbidden to drive the prototype car.

Steve looks worried. I think Steve is on to me.

But it is too late, Steve, because I now know which pedal is the accelerator. I take off with a jolt, and round the first corner, sharply. The entire car tilts to one side with the force of the turn, in a way that feels eerily non-vehicular. (I later hear that the main engineer on the project, Yanaka Akihiro, is an ardent skier, and is obsessed with the idea of mechanically replicating the experience of skiing.) Cones topple all around me.

Steve wasn’t kidding about the turns, but each lap around the track feels like I’m getting more of the hang of it, though I’m still taking out the occasional cone. My time is up long before I’m ready to stop driving. I reluctantly step out, wondering, how would this work in the real world? Why don’t we have something like this already?

Well, we have. Many times. When I first saw the iRoad, it looked familiar, though it took a while to realize why. It’s a pint-sized ringer for the Dymaxion Car, the three-wheeled car designed by Buckminister Fuller (with design input from Norman Bel Geddes and Isamo Noguchi). The car was the toast of the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.

The Dymaxion car was much larger than the iRoad. The ideals were futuristic, but in practice it was, like many of Fuller’s later projects, heavily influenced by boat design — Fuller was an avid sailor. Even then, in a time that I (perhaps naively) imagine being rich with parking spaces, since there were so few cars in the U.S. relative to today, its parallel parking skills attracted attention.

Fuller had grand ambitions, which involved altering future models so that they could fly as well as drive. Then, one of the three demo models was involved in a car crash, and its driver was killed. Would-be investors evaporated. Only three cars were ever completed.

Buckminister Fuller insisted that the Dymaxion car had been cleared of fault for the accident, which was true — as the story goes, the crash was caused by an automobile driver who was trying to get close enough to the Dymaxion car to get a better look. But earlier this summer, Dan Neil, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, got a rare chance to take a replica of the original Dymaxion car out for a spin.

The headline — “A test drive of the death trap car designed by Buckminister Fuller” — gives you a good sense of Neil’s conclusion. The three wheels made it more likely to tip over than a regular, four-wheeled car, and the single back wheel began to oscillate dangerously from side to side when the speed got above 50 (which explains why the iRoad doesn’t go faster than 35 mph).

So far, there are only a few hundred iRoads out in the world, and none of them are for sale. A hundred of them are part of a test group in Tokyo, whose drivers are using them as personal cars. Another 70 are part of a car-sharing program in Grenoble, France. It’s been in the works for nearly a decade now; a predecessor, a three-wheeled wheelchair called the iReal, never made it past the concept stage.

What would be a good American location to introduce this vehicle? I am prejudiced, since I live there, but a place like San Francisco — with its moody weather, bad parking, not-so-great transit, and obsession with things that are shiny and new — would seem like a good fit. People in San Francisco will drive almost anything. Before the great pocket bike crackdowns of the early 2000s, the sight of huge men perched on tiny, insanely loud motorcycles was a regular part of the fabric of street life in the Mission. And San Francisco City Hall has four charging stations, which could be an ideal setup for a demo electric car fleet.

But there are issues with the California DMV. By California DMV rules, the iRoad’s weight (light) and number of wheels (less than four) means that it’s in the same class as a motorcycle — so drivers would have to wear helmets. The DMV has been “very accommodating,” according to Jason Schultz, who has been working on iRoad focus groups for Toyota —  but not so accommodating enough yet to waive the helmet law for the iRoad.

This debate over the future of the iRoad — what is it? how best to use it?  — is symptomatic of larger questions about the future of the urban car. Ten or 20 years from now, will there be enough of a market of solo people looking for a permanent, full-time car that they can squeeze into awkward parking spaces? Or will most city cars — no matter what size — be owned by carshare companies?

The carshare market makes some sense for the iRoad because, as Jana Hartline, environmental communication manager at Toyota Motor Sales, describes it, “Americans buy for the ‘what if.’” Someone who drives alone 95 percent of the time will still buy a car that seats two to four people, just in case. A carshare user could check out an iRoad for solo errands, the same way that a person listening to music alone will put on headphones instead of breaking out the boombox.

But would a carshare program go for an eccentric, three-wheeled car that requires at least 15 minutes of training for everyone who drives it, when it could go for something simple like the COMS, its four-wheeled equivalent? (Forbes described the COMS, brutally, as Toyota’s “attempt to capitalize on the diminished expectations of global slackerdom.”) And would drivers of more conventional vehicles share the road with iRoads?

Right now, there are no firm plans to put the iRoad into production, in the U.S. or anywhere. There’s no theoretical price — not even a potential price range. The iRoad is light years more advanced than the Dymaxion car, technology-wise, but it might wind up being an expensive toy (like many other three-wheeled vehicles). It could be perpetually-on-the-verge-of-happening vaporware, like Elio Motors, which claims to have 38,000 orders for its own three-wheeled car, but has struggled for years to actually get the funding to put it into production. (Elio has also struggled with the helmet issue.)

Or the iRoad could just live out its life as a flashy demo, bringing good PR to Toyota, a company which may believe in harmonious transit, but which also recently moved its U.S. headquarters to the suburban sprawl of Plano, Texas — which is one way to make sure that your employees have a lot more firsthand experience with driving than with public transit.

A vehicle like the iRoad won’t get far in a place like Plano. Its 35 mph limit means it can’t get on the highway. It holds about as much charge as a golf cart –- about 30 miles’ worth. And, quite frankly, when you get down to it, the iRoad is a golf cart — it’s just an awesome one. In the same way that Telsla’s big electric car breakthrough was in making the electric car a status symbol, instead of just something noble, the sexying-up of the golf cart is a plausible future for the metropolitan car.

That is, if you are car people. I may have loved driving the iRoad more than I ever expected, but if I want to haul things around the city, be protected from bad weather, and use renewable energy, I’ve already got my technology picked out. I’ve seen cyclists use these capacious rain ponchos in places like Shanghai. They’re kind of like a pup tent you wear on your body — and when this drought ends, believe me, I’m getting one.

It would be great to live in a future where the iRoad would be puttering through traffic. But as for actually buying one? I’m just not the target market. Call me when you put that gyroscope on a bicycle! Then we’ll talk.

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Science

The Story of Bones

Originally published in Meatpaper, Issue 16

Could I interest you in a skeleton?

Perhaps you are thinking, being a small, soft-bodied creature, that being blobbish is not so bad. What’s wrong with having the shape and constitution of a piece of cooked spaghetti?

Nothing. Honest. We don’t want to make you feel bad about yourself. But here, in the warm seas of the Cambrian, major lifestyle shifts are happening around you.

You must realize that the ice age is over. You’re floating in the warm seas of the Cambrian era now. And in case you hadn’t noticed, photosynthetic algae has taken over the world, and is farting oxygen everywhere. No matter how you feel about it, you must admit: Now the water feels weird, and you feel weird too – like you want to do stuff, even when you don’t need to.

Maybe you would like to move around more – perhaps crawl up on to the desert wasteland that is the Cambrian landscape, and take a look around? No one lives there yet. It’s all desert. It could be yours.

Maybe you would like to learn how to tap dance. If you had a skeleton, you could do that.

Perhaps we could interest you in not being eaten. Have you been paying attention? The world is increasingly full of things that could eat you.

We know what you are thinking. You are thinking “I’ll just become poisonous. I will be light and poison, and I will float upon the waves like a jellyfish.”

Well, not everyone is going to think about whether you are poisonous or not before they try to eat you. A skeleton won’t stop them, but it will slow them down. The geologist Geerat Vermeji will one day take note of the signs of skeletal injury and survival in the Cambrian fossil record and take this as a sign that the skeleton is – essentially – a tool in an arms race.

Having the right armor for an arms race is to be desired. But we realize that mineralizing – making calcium or silica a part of you, instead of leaving it out there in the world –  is a strange concept to get used to. It’s like buying a suitcase that you can never set down again.

But a skeleton doesn’t have to be fancy. Who needs a spine, for example? Those will be the last to evolve anyway, so you couldn’t have one now even if you wanted one. Interweave your blobbishness with calcium carbonate or silica the way that sponges do. That’s a nice, starter skeleton.

In the Cenozoic, some paleontologists will say that the Eicardian was a time of secret skeletons – ones that didn’t make it to fossilization.  The paleontologist Dolf Seilacher suggests creatures with a “quilted pneumatic superstructure,” which sounds very nice. Maybe you wouldn’t like a skeleton at all, if you had that.

If you don’t care about becoming especially large, an exoskeleton is very nice, and highly recommended. If you go the route of becoming an arthropod, be aware that someday you will have to shrink. The algae will lose mojo and recede. It will take a lot of oxygen with it.

If you make it through to the Cenozoic, that era with mammals and helicopters and subways the biggest you’ll get is if you decide to be the coconut crab (Birgus lantro) – about sixteen inches from stem to stern. Your life will not be bad – you’ll spend your time eating fruit and stealing shiny things from other residents of the Indo-Pacific islands. You will miss being larger, but only a little.

But perhaps stealing shiny things doesn’t excite you. Perhaps you are one of those small, squishy creatures that is interested in exploring eating other small, squishy things. You don’t need to grow a whole skeleton. Just grow enough for biting. You can just be teeth, and cartilage. This is a valid lifestyle choice.

You will have to stay in the ocean, but that won’t be so bad. If you become a colossal squid you can grow to as much as 46 feet long, and you won’t even have to pull calcium out of the world to make yourself teeth – just a beak made of chitin will be fine. You’ll be so rare that it will be nearly impossible to find you, but maybe you like that sort of thing.

We will tell you the skeletons are already coming, though. They are pouring into the fossil record like a busload of conventioneers. Your time, this general hot mess of the Cambrian, will be the geological era that will go on to bother evolutionary biologists like Charles Darwin.

This is largely because of these skeletons – it will all seem too wild and too sudden to fit the theory of natural selection as a slowly unfolding decision tree – these bones that grow the way that they still do in our bodies – starting out as nothing but cartilage at first, and then gradually interweaving with calcium and phosphorus and boron and zinc.

Maybe you don’t have as much of a choice as you think you do. In his book Arguments on Evolution, a Paleontologist’s Perspective, published in the Cenozoic, (which evolves not only people, but books) the paleontologist Antoni Hoffman will propose this: Bones are an accident.

At the bottom of the Cambrian seas, says Hoffman, are ridges of underwater volcanoes. Have you noticed the volcanoes? They erupt all the time. They are filling the ocean with calcium that was once buried safely underground.

That much calcium is toxic to living tissue. How will you protect yourself from it? One way is to store it deep within yourself, in the place where you feel it is least likely to recirculate through your body, and hurt you. You will take it into your cartilage and let it make you hard, because that hardness will be an experiment in not dying.

Maybe you are doing this already. Maybe you will continue doing this, long after the volcanoes have stopped erupting, so that calcium is something that you actually seek out. Something that you will look for on ingredients labels (another invention of the Cenozoic) and even buy in the florescent-lit pill section of the grocery store.

Because once you are done living underwater, and once you are far away from free-floating calcium, you will find that a skeleton is something that you need. It’s the way these things go, sometimes. The thing you try to protect yourself from becomes something else. The thing that holds you together. The thing you can’t do without.

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