Dirt, Boredom, Neglect, and How to Change the World

Optimizing one’s altruistic efficacy often begins by identifying neglected topics.  A recent piece in Vox argued that young idealists should locate a lonely cause.  This requires a bit of contrarianism:

“ more general advice, learned in part from the good people at 80,000 Hours, is to think about all the social issues and problems that most motivate your friends — and then pick something different.”

Indeed, there is some wisdom in eschewing the do-gooding flavor of the decade in favor of an unsexy problem that CJ Cregg would remind “makes for a lousy telethon.

One such problem called to me years ago.  Da Vinci famously admonished our species by noting that “we know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.”  My childhood bedroom was filled with various representations of our solar system.  Glow-in-the-dark stars were commonly affixed to ceilings.  Dirt was something we attempted to wipe from our shoes upon entering suburban homes.

This image is neither aesthetically impressive, nor interesting to the overwhelming majority of visitors to this blog. Your existence depends upon its contents nonetheless.

And yet, to quote the agricultural educator John Jeavons:  

“man, despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication and many accomplishments, owes the fact of his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”

Plenty of children spend their formative years dreaming of careers focused on what is above them.  “Astronaut” is a common answer to the apotheosis of cliche pedagogical inquiries, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”  So too are derivatives like astronomy and astrophysics.  I never encountered a single classmate in my suburban public school with even the slightest interest in what lay below their sneakers.

See? Great content for inspirational posters for schoolchildren. Thought-provoking. Inspiring. 

Corn trades at ~$5/bushel.  We grow ~13 billion bushels in the United States annually.

Soybeans trade at ~$14/bushel.  We grow ~3 billion bushels in the United States annually.  

Those two crops alone account for over one hundred billion dollars each growing season, or in terms we can grasp, roughly the annual revenue of Amazon.  Amazon is a global company and that back-of-envelope calculation considered only corn and soybeans (I hear there are other crops too) and only the quantities grown in the US of A (other countries also have farms, I am told).

These billions of bushels feed human beings and animals (many of whom ultimately feed human beings).  This life-sustaining, economic engine is contingent upon the proper quantity of moisture in the soil from which these plants emerge.  Too much and yields plummet1, too little2 and the same result ensues.

Maximize the quantity of food grown from any parcel on planet earth and you’ll improve the quality of literally billions of lives.  Attach that solution to an industrial entity and you’ll likely become staggeringly wealthy.   How many students answer their teachers’ well-worn ice-breaking question with “I want to study dirt when I grow up?”

We focus on the problems of which we are aware, which tend to be the problems where the conversation is most frequent and most vociferous.  If the discussions of edaphic properties, topography, and hydrology were not dinner table conversation (and if they were, can I join you for dinner?), then an area desperate for intellectual energy and economic energy could never enter your consciousness.  A topic was considered “boring” or not considered at all.  Your agency was diminished as a result - you cannot solve a problem of which you are unaware. Ever wonder what else you, and the world more broadly, are ignoring?

At AE, we want to turn boring into brilliant.  We aspire to convert ignorance into invention.  We live for conversations with founders with ideas beyond the world’s current discourse.  We won’t be bored.  We’ll be intrigued.  Seriously, try us.  That is how human agency advances.

AE has its own neglected problem of interest.  While billionaires focus their charitable efforts upon a specific set of needs sparked by current events (the pandemic), our eyes, dollars, and intellectual energy shift elsewhere.  Roughly five million Americans reported living with some form of paralysis, at an estimated annual cost of over $40B.  Presuming that American exceptionalism does not extend to the prevalence of incapacitation, that would suggest over 100 million humans on planet earth endure analogous suffering (at a cost reaching hundreds of billions).  And even among the fully ambulatory, it seems inevitable that on some not-so-distant singularity-esque day, the electrical activity of a human brain and those of proximal computational devices will become one and the same.  For this reason Brain-Computer-Interfaces (BCIs) and the first operating system on which developers can create agency-increasing software (BCI OS) is the neglected topic into which AE pours its intellectual, monetary, and human resources.

Restoring human agency is how we focus our efforts to ameliorate suffering.  From our efforts to turn the electrical impulses of paralyzed human beings into meaningful acts to our efforts to deploy machine learning to increase happiness and diminish stress, we choose high-impact problems disproportionately overlooked.  

What’s your neglected problem?


Seriously, large swaths of the agricultural midwest would be swamps if not for acres upon acres rendered arable by tile drains.  Imagine, the next time you’re rolling down I-57 where the “corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,” a quagmire in lieu of the Norman Rockwell painting seen from the window.


Consider how much money will be spent on new drip irrigation as a result of climate change.  And just to be clear, you’ll pay that cost each time you buy basically anything edible.  Why we’re all fixated on hurricanes and the sea level, I’ll never know.

Thanks to Paul Graham for inspiring AE with his insights and enduring visual style, recreated here. If you enjoy irreverence, social commentary, and satire, check out our parody page. Thanks also to all the other amazing people changing the world with agency increasing technology. Apply to join us at AE.