Experimentum Periculosum

Life is short, but art endures; opportunity is fleeting, experimentation perilous, and judgement difficult.

—The Ancients

I am a privileged individual. A straight white male US citizen, I “play the game” on the easiest possible setting. I own a house in Baltimore, half of another house in the small Oregon town that friendliness built, and have spent a couple of years renting an apartment in Germany while working at a research institute. I barely consider prices when I shop, although if the grocery bill is more than sixty or seventy euros/dollars I will study the receipt. I mostly buy only necessities such as food, clothing, and dwelling needs, being easily amused by simple entertainments. My luxuries are essentially reading material, streaming, a few beers, caffeinated beverages, pastries (Nusskrantz! süss Nusskranz!), hiking and biking. Every few years my wife and I splurge on travel. I like to cook and to dine out.

Being a scientist is a privilege itself (although I am a very applied one who doesn’t publish enough). My particular application is “algae farming” – to me an obvious application for recycling agriculture nutrients and carbon, when considered from a hard science, hard economics perspective. The upshot from my experience is that 99% of what you may have heard about how algae can save the world is bullshit. The saving-the-world part is actually true, if you go beyond the hype of tennis shoes made from algae plastic! algae walls in skyscrapers! biodiesel from algae! And the like. My concern is not how to make large profits from growing small amounts of algae, but how build tens of millions of hectares of algae farms that happen to produce nonspecific commodity biomass as a byproduct of nutrient recycling. How can we pay for growing all that slime seeing as how there’s no way to make a profit from it in the current so-called free market? I say “so-called” because today’s “free market” only exists as a tissue of market failures when accounting for the environmental costs of production and consumption. We privatize profits but socialize costs, ironic in that so many “anti-environmentalist” “free-marketeers” so “hate” the socialism from which they derive their “wealth” and “liberty”.

Unlike most privileged people I am aware of, I’m actually spending (or perhaps it is investing, or wasting) my privilege trying various things to improve the world situation. Much of my (perilous) experimentation involves simply trying to find an employed position from which I can help guide large scale physical projects. My biggest problem is that administration and project management are not among my core competencies. I’m socially awkward and anxious, although I can hide or endure these failings for a while. I feel something like guilt when I try to manipulate or glad-hand people. Even when I pull off a successful stunt, rather than becoming invigorated from the positive feedback, I recoil, taking weeks or months to recover. Speaking of irony, I actually admire and even envy successful business people and managers. I don’t actually believe manipulating (or is that “guiding” or “helping”?) or gladhanding (“being gregarious”, “socializing”?) is wrong, I just can only barely and briefly do it. While I’ve had successes, I never quite capitalize on my fleeting opportunities, having great difficulty judging what to do next. Not just in my professional choices. I got in on the (failed) Amiga computer, the (failed) Saturn car, and the (failed) G+ social media platform. What I favor, most people don’t. Still, I am sure I am right with algae farming and will in my short life persist in developing it, exploiting occasional opportunities to experiment, overcoming as many difficulties as I can.

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