Why Theranos Makes Me Worry About the Green Technology Revolution
Brief thoughts on "Don't Look Up" also included for maximum clickbait
My main thought while watching Don’t Look Up was: “Would that it were so simple.” The movie is an allegory for climate change, but the threat (a comet) differs from climate change in several key ways. A comet is an immediate threat with an obvious solution. It requires no collective action and affects everyone equally. Scientists can describe exactly what will happen with a high level of certainty. I wish a comet was going to hit us;1 that would be fantastic. But our challenge is climate change, which mostly affects other people’s grandkids, i.e. the single least-given-a-shit-about demographic on Earth.
The good news is that it’s getting easier to imagine what a zero-carbon future would look like. Green energy and electric cars are an ever-larger part of our lives. Game-changing technologies like fusion power might be over the horizon. Real money is also lining up behind this stuff: Investment in climate tech is up 210 percent over last year — PwC puts it at $222 billion — and, incredibly, the half a trillion dollars for climate spending in the Build Back Better bill is not the part that’s causing Joe Manchin to lose his shit!
That’s all extremely good news. I mean extremely good news — it’s exactly what we need. Unfortunately, this blog has principles, which I keep to about 40 percent of the time, and two of those principles are “be curious” and “be honest”. And if I’m being honest: I detect a certain amount of techno-hype bullshit in this green revolution. I wonder how much of that $222 billion is chasing pie-in-the-sky claims by CEOs who won't be able to deliver. Of course, some bullshit is inevitable; people who run startups need to work in bullshit the way Michelangelo worked in marble, or else they won’t get funded. But the odd and captivating story of Theranos makes me wonder: Exactly how much bullshit are we talking about here?
I love the Theranos story. It’s a paragon of my favorite genre: Lying assholes getting what’s coming to them. One of my favorite movies is Shattered Glass, the true story of a lying little shit who published garbage in The New Republic until he got busted cold at a pancake house. The pancake house is the detail that really makes the narrative sing, and by the way: That restaurant is still open in Bethesda. I encourage you to go and soak up the history.
Theranos’ story is full of amazing, colorful details. The fact that Elizabeth Holmes dressed like Steve Jobs is exceptionally weird, especially when you consider that Jobs’ look was basically “beat poet meets burglar from a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon”. The “we’re working with the military” lie is incredibly ballsy, since it exploits our habit of suspending skepticism towards anything that claims to be for “the troops”. And the fake deep voice is incredible; it’s amazing that nobody ever jumped up during a meeting and yelled: “Fake! Your voice is clearly fake! No woman sounds like James Earl Jones — knock it the fuck off!”
It makes you wonder: Didn’t anybody have their bullshit detectors turned on? Consider the most basic description of Theranos: A person in her mid-20s with no real background in diagnostics has invented a game-changing medical device. Does that sound like something that would happen? To me, it sounds like “a toddler has invented a self-driving car” or “a dachshund has solved Planck’s constant”. I would maybe believe a 25 year-old inventing a Tik Tok filter that gives you bushy eyebrows, but even then I’d have a dozen experts run through the code line-by-line before I’d invest. The very idea of what Theranos supposedly did is Air Bud-level ridiculous.
And yet, they were once valued at $10 billion. How? Well, some of it had to do with the optimistic, “you have to believe” attitude that Theranos turned into a pathology. Holmes once started an interview with the somewhat-mangled quote: "First they think you're crazy, then they fight you, then you change the world." Naysayers within the company were often told they lacked faith. The company emblazoned a wall in their headquarters with “Do or do not — there is no try.” Which is inspiring if you ignore the fact that that line was written for a puppet by the guy who also wrote the line: “I don’t like sand.”
The “hey, they called Einstein crazy” narrative is ubiquitous despite the fact that many other people have been called crazy and most of them were actually crazy. This logic reflects a fallacy so basic that it has a name — “affirming the consequent” — and flips the script so that being called a pie-eyed dreamer with no fucking clue what they’re doing can be spun as a positive. After all: If nobody says that about you, then maybe you’re not thinking big enough! It’s a narrative that goes back to the biblical Noah, whom everyone thought was crazy, but when the Great Flood came, he got to float around on his arc yelling “WHO’S CRAZY NOW, FUCK-O’S?” Or so the Bible tells us.
But it’s remarkable how many investors got duped. It might not be an accident that many of them were old, Republican men. If you’re an old, Republican man who — how do I put this? — perhaps hasn’t had his candlestick dusted since OJ was still known for football, and you’re approached by a young woman who — how do I put this? — is a San Jose 7/East Bay 8, your judgement might be a bit clouded. The allure doesn’t even need to be sexual; it can come from the self-aggrandizing compulsion to be a highly visible patron of a compelling young person who happens to be a woman (albeit one who sounds like Sam Elliott and dresses like Ski Lodge Johnny Cash). Besides: Look at the product! A small machine that can test blood using just a finger prick! Wouldn’t that be amazing?!?!?
Some of the dynamics that allowed Theranos to go undetected for so long are clearly at play in green tech. Let’s start with the “wouldn’t that be amazing?” phenomenon. The impulse to dream big and ask questions later is perfectly captured in this scene from Silicon Valley:
A successful company has an incredible vision. They also have an incredible pitch that describes that incredible vision, because that’s how they raise incredible amounts of money. I’ve been close enough to this world through my time at EPA to have a rough idea of how green tech companies present themselves, and it’s typically this:
There are always two guys. One’s American, one’s Danish…too Danish, if you ask me. One has a one-syllable, meat-and-potatoes American name, and the other has a name that could only be Danish, so: Rob & Aksel, or Steve & Magnus, or something like that. Dave & Valdemar (or whatever) don’t wear suits — they wear jeans and blazers with no ties, because they are rad. This is them:
Pete & Asger (or whatever) have an amazing idea: They’re going to build a skyscraper entirely from pinecones. Or maybe they have a helicopter that runs on beet juice. Or it could be a meat alternative that tastes exactly like steak even though it’s worm semen. At any rate: It sounds incredible. But is there a prototype? There is! Can my boss try it? Absolutely! Just have her sign these 200 waivers just in case she gets poisoned/decapitated/skinned alive. Lawyers, right? Lou & Mikkel (or whatever) also have tchotchkes for you: A pen made from recycled goat’s teeth, and a thumb drive made of clouds that’s also an itty-bitty carbon sink. Their company’s name — which is a mashup of two of these seven words: green, blue, energy, footprint, wise, tech, and carbon — is printed on the side.
The tech is always legitimately impressive. Johan (or whatever) really has some game: There’s a reason why the Copenhagen Design Institute named him their Most Promising and Offputtingly Pale Engineer three years in a row. But “does the technology exist?” is never the right question; “does the technology scale?” is the right question. After all: Your boss’ 15-second ride in their monorail made of cheese cost them two million dollars. There are a billion companies out there with a big idea, remarkable tech, and no clear idea of how or when they’ll bring a product to market.
Investors are supposed to view the lack of a concrete plan with skepticism. But are they actually doing that? The first thing I wonder is how many people are even capable of realistically assessing which ideas will bear fruit. I feel like you’d need a background in economics, engineering, environmental science, and marketing to have any real shot. The second thing I wonder is whether people’s enthusiasm for the endeavor is goosing investment; after all, a lot of people care about climate change and want to make a difference. Those two factors — inability to assess the product and exuberance about the project’s general aura — were at play with Theranos. Of course, Theranos was cheating: They were lying on a massive scale. And as problems go, possible over-investment in green technology is a great one to have. But it seems certain that in some cases, companies’ valuations are outpacing their promise.2
This article about lab-grown meat describes my concern. Lab-grown meat — that is, meat grown from cell cultures, which eliminates the need to raise and slaughter animals — would be game-changing technology. It would be nice, after all, if we could have meat without slaughtering all these delicious animals, and agriculture is also a substantial source of greenhouse gas emissions:
To make a very long story short: People are excited about lab-grown meat. Investment is pouring in: A few companies have raised hundreds of millions of dollars. And lab-grown meat exists; you can buy it in Singapore. But scaling presents challenges that some experts feel are insurmountable. You need a sterile, controlled environment for lab-grown meat — think the “Fly” episode of Breaking Bad — and the building needs to be big. This drives up costs. If there are ways around those issues, they haven’t been invented yet. The Theranos approach to problems like these would be to invoke a vague, positive-thinking aphorism, perhaps “meat is the art of the impossible!” But at the end of the day, you can’t put an aphorism on a bun and eat it.
I had similar feelings when I wrote about direct air capture (sucking carbon out of the air). The scaling issues with DAC are mind-boggling; with current technology, removing one gigaton of carbon annually (we currently emit about 32 gigatons from energy every year) would require a structure as wide as the United States. We basically need clean energy to become common so that we can run DAC pilot projects that will lead to new technology that can hopefully be deployed at scale. And there’s no guarantee that any of it will work. Honestly, it’s hard for me to even describe these processes without feeling that I’m Underpants Gnome-ing things a bit.
I don’t mean to be pessimistic. I’ll say again that investment in green tech is very good, and there’s an excellent chance that some of this will work and people will get very rich. Also, lessons from Theranos might not be highly relevant; Theranos was, after all, committing massive fraud, and the grey-haired remnants of the Reagan-era foreign policy apparatus might not be the world’s most savvy investors. But it’s clear that some of the things we’re excited about today will ultimately amount to jack shit. There will be a few Solyndras, a Pets.com or five, and, yes, probably two or three Theranos’ (Therani?). And that’s okay as long as everyone realizes that we’re not going to run the table, technology-wise, or probably even come close.
My takeaway from this is simple: We need to keep going. We don’t have the technology we need, and there’s no guarantee that it will arrive any time soon. Anyone giving off “this will be easy!” vibes is being misleading. Some ideas that seem promising will fail, so we need to develop multiple pathways to success. That’s why the large amounts of money being directed towards green tech really are a good thing — I hope that a large number of those investors get pornographically rich. I, for one, would be willing to do sex things with anyone who invents fusion energy, if that sweetens the pot.
The uncertain status of green technology also influences my thinking on climate engineering. If you’re not familiar with the idea of altering the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, here’s a short primer and here’s a long one. It’s an extremely risky plan, no-one wants to do it, but it might be our least-bad option if we can’t get GHG emissions under control. My opinion is that we need to start thinking about climate engineering now in case we need to do it later, and the main reason I feel that way is that I’m not sure that the green technology we need will arrive in time.
That fact that Theranos was a wish-filled pile of bullshit doesn’t mean that every startup with a grand vision is the same. Though, we should prepare ourselves for the possibility that some of them are, and in fact maybe several of them are. If the once-heralded CEO of a green tech firm gets exposed as a complete fraud, we shouldn’t think “the revolution was a lie!” — we should think “this is going to make a kickass documentary.” A certain amount of bullshit should be assumed, especially because if you’re looking, it’s pretty damned obvious that the bullshit is there.
Assuming that we spot it well in advance — spotting them is the really hard part.
It’s worth noting that “some companies’ valuation is outpacing their promise” is just about the most anodyne statement I could make. After all: OF COURSE some companies are overvalued; that’s always going to be true. The point is that I suspect that some investors in green tech are overly exuberant.