FLI Podcast: Feeding Everyone in a Global Catastrophe with Dave Denkenberger & Joshua Pearce

Most of us working on catastrophic and existential threats focus on trying to prevent them — not on figuring out how to survive the aftermath. But what if, despite everyone’s best efforts, humanity does undergo such a catastrophe? This month’s podcast is all about what we can do in the present to ensure humanity’s survival in a future worst-case scenario. Ariel is joined by Dave Denkenberger and Joshua Pearce, co-authors of the book Feeding Everyone No Matter What, who explain what would constitute a catastrophic event, what it would take to feed the global population, and how their research could help address world hunger today. They also discuss infrastructural preparations, appropriate technology, and why it’s worth investing in these efforts.

Topics discussed include:

  • Causes of global catastrophe
  • Planning for catastrophic events
  • Getting governments onboard
  • Application to current crises
  • Alternative food sources
  • Historical precedence for societal collapse
  • Appropriate technology
  • Hardwired optimism
  • Surprising things that could save lives
  • Climate change and adaptation
  • Moral hazards
  • Why it’s in the best interest of the global wealthy to make food more available

References discussed include:

You can listen to the podcast above, or read the full transcript below. All of our podcasts are also now on Spotify and iHeartRadio! Or find us on SoundCloudiTunesGoogle Play and Stitcher.

Ariel Conn: In a world of people who worry about catastrophic threats to humanity, most efforts are geared toward preventing catastrophic threats. But what happens if something does go catastrophically wrong? How can we ensure that things don’t spiral out of control, but instead, humanity is set up to save as many lives as possible, and return to a stable, thriving state, as soon as possible? I’m Ariel Conn, and on this month’s episode of the FLI podcast, I’m speaking with Dave Denkenberger and Joshua Pearce.

Dave and Joshua want to make sure that if a catastrophic event occurs, then at the very least, all of the survivors around the planet will be able to continue eating. Dave got his Master’s from Princeton in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and his PhD from the University of Colorado at Boulder in building engineering. His dissertation was on his patented heat exchanger. He is an assistant professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks in mechanical engineering. He co-founded and directs the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters, also known as ALLFED, and he donates half his income to that. He received the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. He is a Penn State distinguished alumnus and he is a registered professional engineer. He has authored 56 publications with over 1600 citations and over 50,000 downloads — including the book Feeding Everyone No Matter What, which he co-authored with Joshua — and his work has been featured in over 20 countries, over 200 articles, including Science.

Joshua received his PhD in materials engineering from the Pennsylvania State University. He then developed the first sustainability program in the Pennsylvania State system of higher education and helped develop the Applied Sustainability Graduate Engineering Program while at Queens University Canada. He is currently the Richard Witte Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and a professor cross-appointed in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and he’s in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Michigan Technological University where he runs the Open Sustainability Technology research group. He was a Fulbright-Aalto University Distinguished Chair last year and remains a visiting professor of photovoltaics and Nano-engineering at Aalto University. He’s also a visiting professor at the University of Lorraine in France. His research concentrates on the use of open source appropriate technology to find collaborative solutions to problems in sustainability and poverty reduction. He has authored over 250 publications, which have earned more than 11,000 citations. You can find his work on appropedia.org, and his research is regularly covered by the international and national press and continually ranks in the top 0.1% on academia.edu. He helped found the field of alternative food for global catastrophes with Dave, and again he was co-author on the book Feeding Everyone No Matter What.

So Dave and Joshua, thank you so much for joining us this month.

Dave Denkenberger: Thank you.

Joshua Pearce: Thank you for having us.

Ariel Conn: My first question for the two of you is a two-part question. First, why did you decide to consider how to survive a disaster rather — than focusing on prevention, as so many other people do? And second, how did you two start working together on this topic?

Joshua Pearce: So, I’ll take a first crack at this. Both of us have worked in the area of prevention, particularly in regards to alternative energy sources in order to be able to mitigate climate destabilization from fossil fuel burning. But what we both came to realize is that many of the disasters that we look at that could actually wipe out humanity aren’t things that we can necessarily do anything to avoid. The ones that we can do something about — climate change and nuclear winter — we’ve even worked together on it.

So for example, we did a study where we looked at how many nuclear weapons a state should have if they would continue to be rational. And by rational I mean even if everything were to go your way, if you shot all of your nuclear weapons, they all hit their targets, the people you were aiming at weren’t firing back at you, at what point would just the effects of firing that many weapons hurt your own society, possibly kill many of your own people, or destroy your own nation?

The answer to that turned out to be a really remarkably low number. The answer was 100. And many of the nuclear power states currently have more weapons than that. And so it’s clear at least from our current political system that we’re not behaving rationally and that there’s a real need to have a backup plan for humanity in case something does go wrong — whether it’s our fault, or whether it’s just something that happens in nature that we can’t control like a super volcano or an asteroid impact.

Dave Denkenberger: Even though there is more focus on preventing a catastrophe than there is on resilience to the catastrophe, overall the field is highly neglected. As someone pointed out, there are still more publications on dung beetles than there are on preventing or dealing with global catastrophic risks. But I would say that the particular sub-field of resilience to the catastrophes is even more neglected. That’s why I think it’s a high priority to investigate.

Joshua Pearce: We actually met way back as undergraduate students at Penn State. I was a chemistry and physics double major and one of my friends a year above said, “You have to take an engineering science class before you leave.” It changed his life. I signed up for this class taught by the man that eventually became my advisor, Christopher Wronski, and it was a brutal class — very difficult conceptually and mathematically. And I remember when one of my first tests came back, there was this bimodal distribution where there were two students who scored A’s and everybody else failed. Turned out that the two students were Dave and I, so we started working together then just on homework assignments, and then continued collaborating through all different areas of technical experiments and theory for years and years. And then Dave had this very interesting idea about what do we do in the event of a global catastrophe? How can we feed everybody? And to attack it as an engineering problem, rather than a social problem. We started working on it very aggressively.

Dave Denkenberger: So it’s been, I guess, 18 years now that we’ve been working together: a very fruitful collaboration.

Ariel Conn: Before I get any farther into the interview, let’s quickly define what a catastrophic event is and the types of catastrophic events that you both look at most.

Dave Denkenberger: The original focus was on the catastrophes that could collapse global agriculture. These would include nuclear winter from a full-scale nuclear war like US-Russia, causing burning of cities and blocking of the sun with smoke, but it could also mean a super volcanic eruption like the one that happened about 74,000 years ago that many think nearly wiped out the human species. And then there could also be a large asteroid impact similar to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago.

And in those cases, it’s very clear we need to have some other alternative source of food, but we also look at what I call the 10% global shortfalls. These are things like a volcano that caused the year without a summer in 1816, might have reduced food supply by about 10%, and caused widespread famine including in Europe and almost in the US. Then it could be a slightly smaller sized asteroid, or a regional nuclear war, and actually many other catastrophes such as a super weed, a plant that could out-compete crops. If this happened naturally, it probably would be slow enough that we could respond, but if it were part of a coordinated terrorist attack, that could be catastrophic. Even though technically we waste more than 10% of our food and we feed more than 10% of our food to animals, I think realistically, if we had a 10% food shortfall, the price of food would go so high that hundreds of millions of people could starve.

Joshua Pearce: Something that’s really important to understand about the way that we analyze these risks is that currently, even with the agricultural system completely working fine, we’ve got somewhere on the order of 800 million people without enough food to eat, because of waste and inefficiencies. And so anything that starts to cut into our ability for our agricultural system to continue, especially if all of plant life no longer works for a number of years because of the sun being blocked, we have to have some method to provide alternative foods to feed the bulk of the human population.

Ariel Conn: I think that ties in to the next question then, and that is what does it mean to feed everyone no matter what, as you say in the title of your book?

Dave Denkenberger: As Joshua pointed out, we are still not feeding everyone adequately right now. The idea of feeding everyone no matter what is an aspirational goal, and it’s showing that if we cooperated, we could actually feed everyone, even if the sun is blocked. Of course, it might not work out exactly like that, but we think that we can do much better than if we were not prepared for one of these catastrophes.

Joshua Pearce: Right. Today, roughly one in nine people go to bed hungry every night, and somewhere on the order of 25,000 people starve to death or die from hunger-related disease [per day]. And so one of the inspiring things from our initial analysis drawn up in the book is that even in the worst-case scenarios where something major happens, like a comet strike that would wipe out the dinosaurs, humans don’t need to be wiped out: We could provide for ourselves. And the embarrassing thing is that today, even with the agricultural system working fine, we’re not able to do that. And so what I’m at least hoping is that some of our work on these alternative foods provides another mechanism to provide low-cost calories for the people that need it, even today when there is no catastrophe.

Dave Denkenberger: One of the technologies that we think could be useful even now is there’s a company called Comet Bio that is turning agricultural residues like leaves and stalks into edible sugar, and they think that’s actually going to be able to compete with sugar cane. It has the advantage of not taking up lots of land that we might be cutting the rainforest down for, so it has environmental benefits as well as humanitarian benefits. Another area that I think would be relevant is in smaller disasters, such as an earthquake or a hurricane, generally the cheapest solution is just shipping in grain from outside, but if transportation is disrupted, it might make sense to be able to produce some food locally — like if a hurricane blows all the crops down and you’re not going to be able to get any normal harvest from them, you can actually grind up those leaves, like from wheat leaves, and squeeze out the liquid, boil the liquid, and then you get a protein concentrate, and people can eat that.

Ariel Conn: So that’s definitely a question that I had, and that is to what extent can we start implementing some of the plans today during a disaster? This is a pre-recorded podcast; Dorian has just struck the Bahamas. Can the stuff that you are working on now help people who are still stuck on an island after it’s been ravaged by a hurricane?

Dave Denkenberger: I think there is potential for that, the getting food from leaves. There’s actually a non-profit organization called Leaf for Life that has been doing this in less developed countries for decades now. Some other possibilities would be some mushrooms can mature in just a few weeks, and they can grow on waste, basically.

Joshua Pearce: The ones that would be good for an immediate catastrophe are the in between food that we’re working on: between the time that you run out of stored food and the time that you can ramp up the full scale, alternative foods.

Ariel Conn: Can you elaborate on that a little bit more and explain what that process would look like? What does happen between when the disaster strikes? And what does it look like to start ramping up food development in a couple weeks or a couple months or however long that takes?

Joshua Pearce: In the book we develop 10 primary pathways to develop alternative food sources that could feed the entire global population. But the big challenge for that is it’s not just are there enough calories — but you have to have enough calories at the right time.

If, say, a comet strikes tomorrow and throws up a huge amount of earth and ash and covers the sun, we’d have roughly six months of stored food in grocery stores and pantry that we could use to eat. But then for most of the major sources of alternative food, it would take around a year to ramp them up, to take these processes that might not even exist now and get them to industrial scale to feed billions of people. So the most challenging is that six-month-to-one-year period, and for those we would be using the alternative foods that Dave talked about, the mushrooms that can grow really fast and leaves. And the leaf one, part of those leaves can come from agricultural residues, things that we already know are safe.

The much larger biomass that we might be able to use is just normal killed tree leaves. The only problem with that is that there hasn’t been really any research into whether or not that’s safe. We don’t know, for example, if you can eat maple or oak leaf concentrate. The studies haven’t been done yet. And that’s one of the areas that we’re really focusing on now, is to take some of these ideas that are promising and prove that they’re actually technically feasible and safe for people to use in the event of a serious catastrophe, a minor one, or just being able to feed people that for whatever reason don’t have enough food.

Dave Denkenberger: I would add that even though we might have six months of stored food, that would be a best-case scenario when we’ve just had the harvest in the northern hemisphere; We could only have two or three months of stored food. But in many of these catastrophes, even a pretty severe nuclear winter, there’s likely to be some sunlight still coming down to the earth, and so a recent project we’ve been working on is growing seaweed. This has a lot of advantages because seaweed can tolerate low light levels, the ocean would not cool as fast as on the land, and it grows very quickly. So we’ve actually been applying seaweed growth models to the conditions of nuclear winter.

Ariel Conn: You talk about the food that we have stored being able to last for two to six months. How much transportation is involved in that? And how much transportation would we have, given different scenarios? I’ve heard that the town I’m in now, if it gets blocked off by a big snow storm, we have about two weeks of food. So I’m curious: How does that apply elsewhere? And are we worried about transportation being cut off, or do we think that transportation will still be possible?

Dave Denkenberger: Certainly there will be destruction of infrastructure regionally, whether it’s nuclear war or a super volcano or asteroid impact. So in those affected countries, transportation of food is going to be very challenging, but most of the people would not be in those countries. That’s why we think that there’s still going to be a lot of infrastructure still functioning. There are still going to be chemical factories that we can retrofit to turn leaves into sugar, or another one of the technologies is turning natural gas into single-cell protein.

Ariel Conn: There’s the issue of developing agriculture if the sun is blocked, which is one of the things that you guys are working on, and that can happen with nuclear war leading to nuclear winter; It can happen with the super volcano, with the asteroid. Let’s go a little more in depth and into what happens with these catastrophic events that block the sun. What happens with them? Why are they so devastating?

Joshua Pearce: All the past literature on what would happen if, say, we lost agriculture for a number of years, is all pretty grim. The base assumption is that everyone would simply starve to death, and there might be some fighting before that happens. When you look at what would happen based on previous knowledge of generating food from traditional ways, those were the right answers. And so, what we’re calling catastrophic events not only deal with the most extreme ones, the sun-killing ideas, but also the maybe a little less tragic but still very detrimental to the agricultural system: so something like a planned number of terrorist events to wipe out the major bread baskets of the world. Again, for the same idea, is that you’re impacting the number of available calories that are available to the entire population, and our work is trying to ensure that we can still feed everyone.

Dave Denkenberger: We wrote a paper on if we had a scenario that chaos did not break out, but there was still trade between countries and sharing of information and a global price of food — in that case, with stored food, there might around 10% of people surviving. It could be much worse though. As Joshua pointed out, if the food were distributed equally, then everyone would starve. Also people have pointed out, well, in civilization, we have food storage, so some people could survive — but if there’s a loss of civilization through the catastrophe, and we have to go back to being hunter-gatherers, first, hunter gatherers that we still have now generally don’t have food storage, so they would not survive, but then there’s a recent book called The Secret of Our Success that argues that it might not be as easy as we think to go back to being hunter-gatherers.

So that is another failure mode where it could actually cause human extinction. But then even if we don’t have extinction, if we have a collapse of civilization, there are many reasons why we might not be able to recover civilization. We’ve had a stable climate for the last 10,000 years; That might not continue. We’ve already used up the easily accessible fossil fuels that we wouldn’t have to rebuild industrial civilization. Just thinking about the original definition of civilization, about being able to cooperate with people who are not related to you, like outside your tribe — maybe the trauma of the catastrophe could make the remaining humans less open to trusting people, and maybe we would not recover that civilization. And then I would say even if we don’t lose civilization, the trauma of the catastrophe could make other catastrophes more likely.

One people are concerned about is global totalitarianism. We’ve had totalitarian states in the past, but they’ve generally been out-competed by other, free-er societies. But if it were a global totalitarianism, then there would be no competition, and that might be a stable state that we could be stuck in. And then even if we don’t go that route, the trauma from the catastrophe could cause worse values that end up in artificial intelligence that could define our future. And I would say even on these catastrophes that are slightly less extreme, the 10% food shortfalls, we don’t know what would happen after that. Tensions would be high; This could end up in full-scale nuclear war, and then some of these really extreme scenarios occurring.

Ariel Conn: What’s the historical precedence that we’ve got to work with in terms of trying to figure out how humanity would respond?

Dave Denkenberger: There have been localized collapses of society, and Jared Diamond has cataloged a lot of these in his book Collapse, but you can argue that there have even been more global collapse scenarios. Jeffrey Ladish has been looking at some collapses historically, and some catastrophes — like the black death was very high mortality but did not result in a collapse of economic production in Europe; But other collapses actually have occurred. There’s enough uncertainty to say that collapse is possible and that we might not recover from it.

Ariel Conn: A lot of this is about food production, but I think you guys have also done work on instances in which maybe it’s easier to produce food but other resources have been destroyed. So for example, a solar flare, a solar storm knocks out our electric grid. How do we address that?

Joshua Pearce: In the event that a solar flare wipes out the electricity grid and most non-shielded electrical devices, that would be another scenario where we might legitimately lose civilization. There’s been a lot of work in the electrical engineering community on how we might shield things and harden them, but one of the things that we can absolutely do, at least on the electricity side, is start to go from our centralized grid infrastructure into a more decentralized method of producing and consuming electricity. The idea here would be that the grid would break down into a federation of micro-grids, and the micro-grids could be as small as even your own house, where you, say, have solar panels on your roof producing electricity that would charge a small battery, and then when those two sources of power don’t provide enough, you have a backup generator, a co-generation system.

And a lot of the work my group has done has shown that in the United States, those types of systems are already economic. Pretty much everywhere in the US now, if you have exposure to sunshine, you can produce electricity less expensively than you buy it from the grid. If you add in the backup generator, the backup co-gen — in many places, particularly in the northern part of the US, that’s necessary in order to provide yourself with power — that again makes you more secure. And in the event of some of these catastrophes that we’re looking at, now the ones that block the sun, the solar won’t be particularly useful, but what solar does do is preserve our fossil fuels for use in the event of a catastrophe. And if you are truly insular, in that you’re able to produce all of your own power, then you have a backup generator of some kind and fuel storage onsite.

In the context of providing some resiliency for the overall civilization, many of the technical paths that we’re on now, at least electrically, are moving us in that direction anyway. Solar and wind power are both the fastest growing sources of electricity generation both in the US and globally, and their costs now are so competitive that we’re seeing that accelerate much faster than anyone predicted.

Dave Denkenberger: It is true that a solar flare would generally only affect the large grid systems. In 1859 there was the Carrington event that basically destroyed our telegraph systems, which was all we had at the time. But then we also had a near miss with a solar flare in 2012, so the world almost did end in 2012. But then there’s evidence that in the first millennium AD that there were even larger solar storms that could disrupt electricity globally. But there are other ways that electricity could be disrupted. One of those is the high altitude detonation of a nuclear weapon, producing an electromagnetic pulse or an EMP. If this were done multiple places around the world, that could disrupt electricity globally, and the problem with that is it could affect even smaller systems. Then there’s also the coordinated cyber attack, which could be led by a narrow artificial intelligence computer virus, and then anything connected to the internet would be vulnerable, basically.

In these scenarios, at least the sun would still be shining. But we wouldn’t have our tractors, because basically everything is dependent on electricity, like pulling fossil fuels out of the ground, and we also wouldn’t have our industrial fertilizers. And so the assumption is as well that most people would die, because the reason we can feed more than seven billion people is because of the industry we’ve developed. People have also talked about, well, let’s harden the grid to EMP, but that would cost something like $100 billion.

So what we’ve been looking at are, what are inexpensive ways of getting prepared if there is a loss of electricity? One of those is can we make quickly farming implements that would work by hand or by animal power? And even though a very small percent of our total land area is being plowed by draft animals, we still actually have a lot of cows left for food, not for draft animals. It would actually be feasible to do that. 

But if we lost electricity, we’d lose communications. We have a short wave radio, or ham radio, expert on our team who’s been doing this for 58 years, and he’s estimated that for something like five million dollars, we could actually have a backup communication system, and then we would also need to have a backup power system, which would likely be solar cells. But we would need to have this system not plugged into the grid, because if it’s plugged in, it would likely get destroyed by the EMP.

Joshua Pearce: And this gets into that area of appropriate technology and open source appropriate technology that we’ve done a lot of work on. And the idea basically is that the plans for something like a solar powered ham radio station that would be used as a backup communication system, those plans need to be developed now and shared globally so that everyone, no matter where they happen to be, can start to implement these basic safety precautions now. We’re trying to do that for all the tools that we’re implementing, sharing them on sites like Appropedia.org, which is an appropriate technology wiki that already is trying to help small-scale farmers in the developing world now lift themselves out of poverty by applying science and technologies that we already know about that are generally small-scale, low-cost, and not terribly sophisticated. And so there’s many things as an overall global society that we understand much better how to do now that if you just share a little bit of information in the right way, you can help people — both today but also in the event of a catastrophe.

Dave Denkenberger: And I think that’s critical: that if one of these catastrophes happened and people realized that most people were going to die, I’m very worried that there would be chaos, potentially within countries, and then also between countries. But if people realized that we could actually feed everyone if we cooperated, then I think we have a much better chance of cooperating, so you could think of this actually as a peace project.

Ariel Conn: One of the criticisms that I’ve heard, that honestly I think it’s a little strange, but the idea that we don’t need to deal with worrying about alternative foods now because if a catastrophe strikes, then we’ll be motivated to develop these alternative food systems.

I was curious if you guys have estimates of how much of a time difference you think would exist between us having a plan for how we would feed people if these disasters do strike versus us realizing the disaster has struck and now we need to figure something out, and how long it would take us to figure something out? That second part of the question is both in situations where people are cooperating and also in situations where people are not cooperating.

Dave Denkenberger: I think that if you don’t have chaos, the big problem is that yes, people would be able to put lots of money into developing food sources, but there are some things that take a certain amount of calendar time, like testing out different diets for animals or building pilot factories for food production. You generally need to test these things out before you build the large factories. I don’t have a quantitative estimate, but I do think it would delay by many months; And as we said, we only have a few months of food storage, so I do think that a delay would cost many lives and could result in the collapse of civilization that could have been prevented if we were actually prepared ahead of time.

Joshua Pearce: I think the boy scouts are right on this. You should always be prepared. If you think about just something like the number of types of leaves that would need to be tested, if we get a head start on it in order to determine toxicity as well as the nutrients that could come from them, we’ll be much, much better off in the event of a catastrophe — whether or not we’re working together. And in the cases where we’re not working together, to have this knowledge that’s built up within the population and spread out, makes it much more likely that overall humanity will survive.

Ariel Conn: What, roughly, does it cost to plan ahead: to do this research and to get systems and organization in place so that we can feed people if a disaster strikes?

Dave Denkenberger: Around order of magnitude $100 million. We think that that would fund a lot of research to figure out what are the most promising food sources, and also interventions for handling the loss of electricity and industry, and then also doing development of the most promising food sources, actual pilot scale, and funding a backup communications system, and then also working with countries, corporations, international organizations to actually have response plans for how we would respond quickly in a catastrophe. It’s really a very small amount of money compared to the benefit, in terms of how many lives we could save and preserving civilization.

Joshua Pearce: All this money doesn’t have to come at once, and some of the issues of alternative foods are being funded in other ways. There already are, for example, chemical engineering plants being looked at to be turned into food supply factories. That work is already ongoing. What Dave is talking about is combining all the efforts that are already existing and what ALLFED is trying to do, in order to be able to provide a very good, solid backup plan for society.

Ariel Conn: So Joshua, you mentioned ALLFED, and I think now is a good time to transition to that. Can you guys explain what ALLFED is?

Dave Denkenberger: The Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters, or ALLFED, is a non-profit organization that I helped to co-found, and our goal is to build an alliance with interested stakeholders to do this research on alternate food sources, develop the sources, and then also develop these response plans.

Ariel Conn: I’ll also add a quick disclosure that I also do work with ALLFED, so I don’t know if people will care, but there that is. So what are some of the challenges you’ve faced so far in trying to implement these solutions?

Dave Denkenberger: I would say a big challenge, a surprise that came to me, is that when we’ve started talking to international organizations and countries, no one appears to have a plan for what would happen. Of course you hear about the continuity of government plans, and bunkers, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan for actually keeping most people alive. And this doesn’t apply just to the sun-blocking catastrophes; It also applies to the 10% shortfalls.

There was a UK government study that estimated that extreme weather on multiple continents, like flooding and droughts, has something like an 80% chance of happening this century that would actually reduce the food supply by 10%. And yet no one has a plan of how they would react. It’s been a challenge for people to actually take this seriously.

Joshua Pearce: I think that goes back to the devaluation of human life, where we’re not taking seriously the thousands of people that, say, starve to death today and we’re not actively trying to solve that problem when from a financial standpoint, it’s trivial based on the total economic output of the globe; From a technical standpoint, it’s ridiculously easy; But we don’t have the social infrastructure in place in order to just be able to feed everyone now and be able to meet the basic needs of humanity. What we’re proposing is to prepare for a catastrophe in order to be able to feed everybody: That actually is pretty radical.

Initially, I think when we got started, overcoming the views that this was a radical departure for what the types of research that would normally be funded or anything like that — that was something that was challenging. But I think now existential risk just as a field is growing and maturing, and because many of the technologies in the alternative food sector that we’ve looked at have direct applications today, it’s being seen as less and less radical — although, in the popular media, for example, they’d be more happy for us to talk about how we could turn rotting wood into beetles and then eat beetles than to actually look at concrete plans in order to be able to implement it and do the research that needs to be done in order to make sure that that is the right path.

Ariel Conn: Do you think people also struggle with the idea that these disasters will even happen? That there’s that issue of people not being able to recognize the risks?

Joshua Pearce: It’s very hard to comprehend. You may have your family and your friends; It’s hard to imagine a really large catastrophe. But these have happened throughout history, both at the global scale but even just something like a world war has happened multiple times in the last century. We’re, I think, hardwired to be a little bit optimistic about these things, and no one wants to see any of this happen, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to put our head in the sand. And even though it’s a relatively low probability event, say the case of an all-out nuclear war, something on the order of one percent, it still is there. And as we’ve seen in recent history, even some of the countries that we think of as stable aren’t really necessarily stable.

And so currently we have thousands of nuclear warheads, and it only takes a tiny fraction of them in order to be able to push us into one of these global catastrophic scenarios. Whether that’s an accident or one crazy government actor or a legitimate small-scale war, say an India and a Pakistan that pull out the nuclear weapons, these are things that we should be preparing for.

In the beginning it was a little bit more difficult to have people consider them, but now it’s becoming more and more mainstream. Many of our publications and ALLFED publications and collaborators are pushing into the mainstream of the literature.

Dave Denkenberger: I would say even though the probability each year is relatively low, it certainly adds up over time, and we’re eventually going to have at least some natural disaster like a volcano. But people have said, “Well, it might not occur in my lifetime, so if I work on this or if I donate to it, my money might be wasted” — and I said, “Well, do you consider if you pay for insurance and don’t get anything out of it in a year, your money is wasted?” “No.” So basically I think of this as an insurance policy for civilization.

Ariel Conn: In your research, personally for you, what are some of the interesting things that you found that you think could actually save a lot of lives that you hadn’t expected?

Dave Denkenberger: I think one particularly promising one is the turning of natural gas into single-cell protein, and fortunately, there are actually two companies that are doing this right now. They are focusing on stranded natural gas, which means too far away from a market, and they’re actually producing this as fish food and other animal feed.

Joshua Pearce: For me, living up here in the upper peninsula of Michigan where we’re surrounded by trees, can’t help but look out my window and look at all the potential biomass that could actually be a food source. If it turns out that we can get even a small fraction of that into human edible food, I think that could really shift the balance in providing food, both now and in the case of a disaster.

Dave Denkenberger: One interesting thing coming to Alaska is I’ve learned about the Aleutian Islands that stick out into the pacific. They are very cloudy. It is so cool in the summer that they cannot even grow trees. They also don’t get very much rain. The conditions there are actually fairly similar to nuclear winter in the tropics; And yet, they can grow potatoes. So lately I’ve become more optimistic that we might be able to do some agriculture near the equator where it would not freeze, even in nuclear winter.

Ariel Conn: I want to switch gears a little bit. We’ve been talking about disasters that would be relatively immediate, but one of the threats that we’re trying to figure out how to deal with now is climate change. And I was wondering how efforts that you’re both putting into alternative foods could help as we try to figure out how to adapt to climate change.

Joshua Pearce: I think a lot of the work that we’re doing has a dual use. Because we are trying to squeeze every last calorie we could out of primarily fossil fuel sources and trees and leaves, that if by using those same techniques in the ongoing disaster of climate change, we can hopefully feed more people. And so that’s things like growing mushrooms on partially decomposed wood, eating the mushrooms, but then feeding the leftovers to, say, ruminants or chickens, and then eating those. There’s a lot of industrial ecology practices we can apply to the agricultural food system so that we can get every last calorie out of our primary inputs. So that I think is something we can focus on now and push forward regardless of the speed of the catastrophe.

Dave Denkenberger: I would also say that in addition to this extreme weather on multiple continents that is made more likely by climate change, there’s also abrupt climate change in the ice core record. We’ve had an 18 degree fahrenheit drop in just one decade over a continent. That could be another scenario of a 10% food shortfall globally. And another one people have talked about is what’s called extreme climate change that would still be slow. This is sometimes called tail risk, where we have this expected or median climate change of a few degrees celsius, but maybe there would be five or even 10 degrees celsius — so 18 degree fahrenheit — that could happen over a century or two. We might not be able to have agriculture at all in the tropics, so it would be very valuable to have some food backup plan for that.

Ariel Conn: I wanted to get into concerns about moral hazards with this research. I’ve heard some criticism that if you present a solution to, say, surviving nuclear winter that maybe people will think nuclear war is more feasible. How do you address concerns like that — that if we give people a means of not starving, they’ll do something stupid?

Dave Denkenberger: I think you’ve actually summarized this succinctly by saying, this would be like saying we shouldn’t have the jaws of life because that would cause people to drive recklessly. But the longer answer would be: there is evidence that the awareness of nuclear winter in the 80s was a reason that Gorbachev and Reagan worked towards reducing the nuclear stockpile. However, we still have enough nuclear weapons to potentially cause nuclear winter, and I doubt that the decision in the heat of the moment to go to nuclear war is actually going to take into account the non-target countries. I also think that there’s a significant cost of nuclear war directly, independent of nuclear winter. I would also say that this backup plan helps up with catastrophes that we don’t have control over, like a volcanic eruption. Overall, I think we’re much better off with a backup plan.

Joshua Pearce: I of course completely agree. It’s insane to not have a backup plan. The idea that the irrational behavior that’s currently displayed in any country with more than 100 nuclear weapons isn’t going to get worse because now they know that at a larger fraction their population won’t starve to death as they use them — I think that’s crazy.

Ariel Conn: As you’ve mentioned, there are quite a few governments — in fact, as far as I can tell, all governments don’t really have a backup plan. How surprised have you been by this? And also how optimistic are you that you can convince governments to start implementing some sort of plan to feed people if disaster happens?

Dave Denkenberger: As I said, I certainly have been surprised with the lack of plans. I think that as we develop the research further and are able to show examples of companies already doing very similar things, showing more detailed analysis of what current factories we have that could be retrofitted quickly to produce food — that’s actually an active area of research that we’re doing right now — then I am optimistic that governments will eventually come around to the value of planning for these catastrophes.

Joshua Pearce: I think it’s slightly depressing when you look around the globe and all the hundreds of countries, and how poorly most of them care for their own citizens. It’s sort of a commentary on how evolved or how much of a civilization we really are, so instead of comparing number of Olympic medals or how much economic output your country does, I think we should look at the poorest citizens in each country. And if you can’t feed the people that are in your country, you should be embarrassed to be a world leader. And for whatever reason, world leaders show their faces every day while their constituents, the citizens of their countries, are starving to death today, let alone in the event of a catastrophe.

If you look at the — I’ll call them the more civilized countries, and I’ve been spending some time in Europe, where rational, science-based approaches to governing are much more mature than what I’ve been used to. I think it gives me quite a bit of optimism as we take these ideas of sustainability and of long-term planning seriously, try to move civilization into a state where it’s not doing significant harm to the environment or to our own health or to the health and the environment in the future — that gives me a lot of cause for hope. Hopefully as all the different countries throughout the world mature and grow up as governments, they can start taking the health and welfare of their own populations much more seriously.

Dave Denkenberger: And I think that even though I’m personally very motivated about the long-term future of human civilization, I think that because what we’re proposing is so cost effective, even if an individual government doesn’t put very much weight on people outside its borders, or in future generations even within the country, it’s still cost effective. And we actually wrote a paper from the US perspective showing how cheaply they could get prepared and save so many lives just within their own borders.

Ariel Conn: What do you think is most important for people to understand about both ALLFED and the other research you’re doing? And is there anything, especially that you think we didn’t get into, that is important to mention?

Dave Denkenberger: I would say that thanks to recent grants from the Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative, the Effective Altruism Lottery, and the Center for Effective Altruism, that we’ve been able to do, especially this year, a lot of new research and, as I mentioned, retrofitting factories to produce food. We’re also looking at, can we construct factories quickly, like having construction crews work around the clock? Also investigating seaweed; But I would still say that there’s much more work to do, and we have been building our alliance, and we have many researchers and volunteers that are ready to do more work with additional funding, so we estimate in the next 12 months that we could effectively use approximately $1.5 million.

Joshua Pearce: A lot of the areas of research that are needed to provide a strong backup plan for humanity are relatively greenfield; This isn’t areas that people have done a lot of research in before. And so for other academics, maybe small companies that slightly overlap the alternative food ecosystem of intellectual pursuits, there’s a lot of opportunities for you to get involved, either in direct collaboration with ALLFED or just bringing these types of ideas into your own subfield. And so we’re always looking out for collaborators, and we’re happy to talk to anybody that’s interested in this area and would like to move the ball forward.

Dave Denkenberger: We have a list of theses that undergraduates or graduates could do on the website called Effective Thesis. We’ve gotten a number of volunteers through that.

I would also say another surprising thing to me was that when we were looking at these scenarios of if the world cooperated but only had stored food, the amount of money people would spend on that stored food was tremendous — something like $90 trillion. And that huge expenditure, only 10% of people survived. But instead if we could produce alternate foods, our goal is around a dollar a dry pound of food. One pound of dry food can feed a person for a day, then more like 97% of people would be able to afford food with their current incomes. And yet, even though we feed so many more people, the total expenditure on food was less. You could argue that even if you are in the global wealthy that could potentially survive one of these catastrophes if chaos didn’t break out, it would still be in your interest to get prepared for alternate foods, because you’d have to pay less money for your food.

Ariel Conn: And that’s all with a research funding request of 1.5 million? Is that correct?

Dave Denkenberger: The full plan is more like $100 million.

Joshua Pearce: It’s what we could use as the current team now, effectively.

Ariel Conn: Okay. Well, even the 100 million still seems reasonable.

Joshua Pearce: It’s still a bargain. One of the things we’ve been primarily assuming during all of our core scenarios is that there would be human cooperation, and that things would break down into fighting, but as we know historically, that’s an extremely optimistic way to look at it. And so even if you’re one of the global wealthy, in the top 10% globally in terms of financial means and capital, even if you would be able to feed yourself in one of these relatively modest reductions in overall agricultural supply, it is not realistic to assume that the poor people are just going to lay down and starve to death. They’re going to be storming your mansion. And so if you can provide them with food with a relatively low upfront capital investment, it makes a lot of sense, again, for you personally, because you’re not fighting them off at your door.

Dave Denkenberger: One other thing that surprised me was we did a real worst case scenario where the sun is mostly blocked, say by nuclear winter, but then we also had a loss of electricity and industry globally, say there were multiple EMPs around the world. And I, going into it, was not too optimistic that we’d be able to feed everyone. But we actually have a paper on it saying that it’s technically feasible, so I think it really comes down to getting prepared and having that message in the decision makers at the right time, such that they realize it’s in their interest to cooperate.

Another issue that surprised me: when we were writing the book, I thought about seaweed, but then I looked at how much seaweed for sushi cost, and it was just tremendously expensive per calorie, so I didn’t pursue it. But then I found out later that we actually produce a lot of seaweed at a reasonable price. And so now I think that we might be able to scale up that food source from seaweed in just a few months.

Ariel Conn: How quickly does seaweed grow, and how abundantly?

Dave Denkenberger: It depends on the species, but one species that is edible, we put into the scenario of nuclear winter, and one thing to note is that the ocean, as the upper layers cool, they sink, and then the lower layers of the ocean come to the surface, and that brings nutrients to the surface. We found in pretty big areas on Earth, in the ocean, that the seaweed could actually grow more than 10% per day. With that exponential growth, you quickly scale up to feeding a lot of people. Now of course we need to scale up the infrastructure, the ropes that it grows on, but that’s what we’re working out.

The other thing I would add is that in these catastrophes, if many people are starving, then I think not only will people not care about saving other species, but they may actively eat other species to extinction. And it turns out that feeding seven billion people is a lot more food than keeping, say, 500 individuals of many different species alive. And so I think we could actually use this to save a lot of species. And if it were a natural catastrophe, well some species would go extinct naturally — so maybe for the first time, humans could actually be increasing biodiversity.

Joshua Pearce: That’s a nice optimistic way to end this.

Ariel Conn: Yeah, that’s what I was just thinking. Anything else?

Dave Denkenberger: I think that’s it.

Joshua Pearce: We’re all good.

Ariel Conn: All right. This has been a really interesting conversation. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dave Denkenberger: Thank you.

Joshua Pearce: Thank you for having us.