Fast pace

What happens when the base layer of civilization changes quickly?

Hey folks,

I’ll take today’s newsletter to introduce an idea that’s been reverberating in my brain a bit. Really, it’s just a new way to conceptualize of climate challenges and to assess the value of various solutions. Hope it sparks something for you.

Quick, fun plug for something else. On March 30th, we’re gonna convene in the morning in Brooklyn to go for a run, chat climate tech, and enjoy some coffee and tea post-run. More deets here. Would love to see you there! Non-runners need not be intimidated; there’ll be something for everyone. <3.

The newsletter in 50 words: Stewart Brandt’s pace layering idea posits that massive upheavals to things like culture and governance can be metabolized because there are other layers of civilization, like nature, that are more stable. What happens, then, when the base layer of civilization, Earth’s climate system, is actually changing quite quickly?


In his book, The Clock of the Long Now, published at the turn of the century, Stewart Brandt wrote:

The division of powers among the layers of civilization lets us relax about a few of our worries. We don't have to deplore technology and business changing rapidly while government controls, cultural mores, and "wisdom" change slowly. That's their job. Also, we don't have to fear destabilizing positive-feedback loops (such as the Singularity) crashing the whole system. Such disruption can usually be isolated and absorbed. The total effect of the pace layers is that they provide a many-leveled corrective, stabilizing feedback throughout the system. It is precisely in the apparent contradictions between the pace layers that civilization finds its surest health.

Stewart Brandt

He was talking about the concept below, referring to pace layers.

I find this heuristic useful. Typically, the higher up you go in the layers, and the more narrow and long and even frenetic the arrows get, what’s being communicated is that those layers can and do change more quickly. I don’t need to tell the energy wonks among you that the infrastructure layer of society changes more slowly than, say, fashion. It took 17 years to permit the new SunZia transmission line in the American southwest. Suffice it to say that commerce and fashion have changed a lot since 2007, when the SunZia transmission line permitting process began.

Here’s what’s troubling to me about the pace layers idea, writing in 2024. It’s not that it’s ‘wrong.’ Ideally, it holds up. In 2000, I can forgive Brandt for not having accounted for how quickly the base layer, nature, can change. The rate of change we’re now seeing to Earth’s climate in the 21st century should have been evident to folks as early as 2000 – and was to some – but perhaps it looked more like localized ecosystem changes. Folks were already razing the Amazon in 2000, actually at rates more significant than the deforestation that continues today.

Still, a few decades on, we have to ask different questions. What happens when the base layer – nature – in the framework starts changing very quickly?

The dysregulation of all things

I’ll give you your payoff to the previous question quickly today. When the base layer, nature, the one that’s supposed to change the least quickly, starts changing very quickly, it dysregulates every other layer. Earth’s climate system is a) very complex and b) the base layer of Brandt’s framework for a reason. It has changed very quickly many times throughout Earth’s 4.5B year history. Those times weren’t particularly conducive to the formation of civilization, which depends on being able to stack all the other layers on top of a stable base layer.

Whenever the base layer starts changing very quickly, it makes building all the other layers on top of it harder. We see this with climate change and infrastructure, for example. A lot of the world’s existing infrastructure is insufficiently resilient to withstand a more rapidly changing climate. And our adaptive efforts to respond to that problem are, so far, often pretty paltry

If you know me well, you’ll know I’m often the last person to wax apocalyptic or paint pictures of doom and gloom. I think it’s a fundamentally human thing to assume the moment in which we live is wholly unique from all history that preceded it. Sure, there are new things happening every day. But as it portends to claims that our moment is somehow more dire than ever before, I’m typically a bit more cautious. 

If I asked my Grandma, who grew up in Germany during the Second World War, whether that was worse than her vantage point on the world today, I reckon she’d point back to the war, which claimed the lives of three of her brothers and millions of other people, and say “Yup, that was worse.” I imagine indigenous people, whether in what is now the U.S. or Mexico or Australia or elsewhere, would say the same about when colonizers first landed on their shores. I imagine Europeans who lived through the Black Plague, which killed a third of all the continent’s inhabitants in shorter, would, too. 

Still, the present dysregulation of Earth’s climate system does strike me as novel, as potentially more of an ‘ur’-problem, because it can impact all the other layers of civilization across the whole world. You see it with culture as “climate anxiety,” and questions like whether or not you should have kids become an entrenched component of the discourse. You see it with governance, as countries most impacted by climate change and global warming find themselves unable to navigate new challenges in a sovereign fashion (which is to say, on their own). You see it with infrastructure, as it crumbles more rapidly in the face of extreme weather, or as new infrastructure to adapt to and ameliorate climate change needs to be built. You get the idea.

This dynamic is not necessarily true of big shifts in other pace layers. There are often upheavals in culture, governance, or certainly in culture and fashion. These disruptions happen, get metabolized and digested by virtue of their existence in larger systems, and smooth out again. However, the dysregulation of the base 'pace' layer, the dysregulation of nature, is uniquely destabilizing compared to past disruptions, whether or not it's 'the worst.' 

Further, Brandt wrote that "we don't have to fear destabilizing positive-feedback loops (such as the Singularity) crashing the whole system." Maybe fears of the Singularity or better-than-human AI are overblown – I sure think so. But perhaps fears of positive-feedback loops in climate systems aren't because they fly in the face of Brandt's conclusion that they can't crash the whole system. In the case of positive-feedback loops in climate, maybe they can. We don’t know that conclusively, one way or another.

Zooming out & going back to square one

It's fair to step back here and ask, "What are the primary drivers of the dysregulation of the base layer – nature and Earth's climate system – and consequently everything else?”

“Greenhouse gasses and global warming!” many of you will likely answer.

And that's right. Certainly, as long as the ‘gasses’ word stays plural. I think many folks have a mental model that suggests that more warming roughly correlates linearly to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It's not a bad rough model, but warming is quite more complicated than that and a product of many gasses beyond carbon dioxide. We won't get too bogged down in that today.

Plus, there are many other dysregulators beyond greenhouse gasses and beyond warming. For instance, most biodiversity loss and local ecosystem-level change is more a product of agriculture and land use change, not global warming (at least not yet). We wrote more about that here earlier this year.

You can check out the full report from the United Nations Environmental Program here

I could go on about other non-warming related changes and drivers that dysregulate Earth’s climate system, but, once again, I trust you get the idea.

The net-net

As it pertains to you, the reader of this newsletter, all this leads to another critical question. It’s one I think is very important to iteratively return to. Namely, are the things we’re working on as focused and impactful as they could be? As a Keep Cool reader wrote to me recently:

 ... most of the investments into climate tech are not aligned with solving the underlying challenge—maintaining sufficient equilibrium climate system stability.

I’m not sure whether I agree or disagree on the whole, but I can see where they’re coming from. Instead of twisting myself into knots trying to decide right now, I’ll put the q back to you. 

What do you think?


It isn't just bitcoin that's been ripping in price lately; cocoa has been, too.

Beyond a fundamental demand/supply imbalance, the cocoa supply chain is highly concentrated, and cocoa is facing significant risks as new fungi & climate change threaten supply.

Understandably, this has big cocoa buyers and confectionary companies considering alternatives. For more on that, I spoke with Aaron Feigelman, who is building a waste-to-value business to keep organic waste out of landfills & turn it into cocoa alternatives. In this episode of the Keep Cool Podcast, Aaron & I discuss:

  • The climactic drivers impacting supply chains like cocoa's 

  • The benefit of waste-to-value approaches in climate tech & energy

  • The nuts & bolts (or beans?) of the cocoa industry & Kawa Project's business

Listen here if this interests you, and read our deep dive on the business here.


– Nic