Super trees, smh

Not to pick on MIT Tech Review – though kicking Silicon Valley is another story and actually fine – but this story reads quite a bit like VCs trying to re-invent the bus:

At Living Carbon, Mellor is trying to design trees that grow faster and grab more carbon than their natural peers, as well as trees that resist rot, keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere. In February, less than four years after he co-founded it, the company made headlines by planting its first “photosynthesis-enhanced” poplar trees in a strip of bottomland forests in Georgia.

This is a breakthrough, clearly: it’s the first forest in the United States that contains genetically engineered trees. But there’s still much we don’t know. How will these trees affect the rest of the forest? How far will their genes spread? And how good are they, really, at pulling more carbon from the atmosphere?

Living Carbon has already sold carbon credits for its new forest to individual consumers interested in paying to offset some of their own greenhouse gas emissions. They’re working with larger companies, to which they plan to deliver credits in the coming years. But academics who study forest health and tree photosynthesis question whether the trees will be able to absorb as much carbon as advertised.

Even Steve Strauss, a prominent tree geneticist at Oregon State University who briefly served on Living Carbon’s scientific advisory board and is conducting field trials for the company, told me in the days before the first planting that the trees might not grow as well as natural poplars. “I’m kind of a little conflicted,” he said, “that they’re going ahead with this—all the public relations and the financing—on something that we don’t know if it works.”

Re-engineering trees, okay. Super-charged trees. His misgivings are right there, as are the preconditions of going ahead with this:  ‘headlines’, ‘public relations and financing.’ Like they just came out of nowhere.

I, too, want super trees to be a thing. But c’mon. Strauss is actually quoted in the article saying, “There could be a negative. We don’t know”

The point is that Climate Solutions Hype (patent pending) continues to outstrip existing effective solutions that we just don’t like, are bored with or wish were sexier and have become one more dynamic with which the Earth must contend. Along with irony.

Image: Regular Lombardy Poplar tree (also quite super).

Sending a Message


I don’t know which image has the worse better portents – an empty parking lot or a full one.

The question will arise, is the lot half full? But worse cases aside, this isn’t about that. The price of diesel fuel continues to hover right at the point of viability for bio-diesel producers, such that they can’t really plan for anything permanent. Except they can. They don’t, and that’s another story. We thought five-dollar-gas would be here by now and that might be in part one of the reasons why it’s not. The shock that a fear of future economic shocks has itself put into the economy. It verges on the vertiginous, which itself makes all this sound like alliterative playtime. Which it isn’t.

There was a report on Marketplace yesterday about the fate of different kinds of malls in the present economy. In between the stats, something stands out a little more:

Hessam Nadji is managing director at Marcus and Millichap Real Estate Investment Services. He says one reason for the difference is an oversupply of strip malls. They’re cheaper and easier to build than great, big gallerias.

HESSAM NADJI: Because of the housing boom, there was a lot more construction of strip malls in reaction to the overheated housing market than there was construction of new malls.

Plus, he says, big shopping malls are more immune to the recession because — thanks to their food courts and movie theaters — they have an entertainment value that strip malls don’t have.

NADJI: You also have to take a look at the tenant mix that makes up a lot of demand for strip centers. And, unfortunately, a lot of them are local, smaller retailers that are under a lot of pressure right now.

Unlike chain stores that you see in a shopping mall, which don’t have to rely on just one location for business.

Sitting in an idling car in a half-empty parking lot as I was, the bigger message is the most obvious – when does the scale of what we do and what we can do slip, maybe accidentally, back into focus? Economies of scale seemed sexy, but they were nearly the opposite – though not just because objects in the mirror appeared to be closer than they actually were. We mistook the distance for something that didn’t matter, when any self-help book will tell you that the journey is the thing that counts. I think Henry Miller wrote it – happiness is not a destination. It’s a kind of dumb truth, a message we’re trying to send ourselves through the most obtuse signals. It’s why TV is so unintentionally funny.

And sometimes, radio.