Dunbar’s number, the Allen curve, and why organization size matters by Paul Gambill

I had the good fortune of beginning my professional career at a company of about 160 people, spread over two offices. There were 120 people in my office when I started. Fortunately for me, that was just about the optimal size of a social group, also known as Dunbar’s number

About 20 years ago, an anthropologist named Robin Dunbar observed that there was a correlation between the size of a primate’s brain, and the typical size of a social group. Extrapolating that out to humans, he arrived at a number of ~150 as the maximum number of strong relationship ties your brain can hold. This has been confirmed through research and empirical observation of groups such as ancient Roman military company sizes and traditional hunter-gatherer tribes.

There is another relevant rule from social research called the Allen curve. This is a “rule” that as distance increases between two colleagues, their frequency of communication decreases exponentially. Because of the Allen curve, I had almost no communication with the 40 people in our other office in Denver.

That office size of 120 was nearly ideal. I knew almost everyone (consider that 150 is the limit for an individual. I certainly had more ties to people outside of work, so it’s doubtful I could have had strong ties to all of my coworkers) and we all shared in a common vision and mission for the company. 

That all changed when we were acquired by a mega-consulting firm that employs over 70,000 people nationwide. Our ties broke down, people left, and ultimately the company I had admired disintegrated. 

I learned a very strong lesson from that experience, and that is that organization size matters a great deal. It is incredibly difficult to maintain strong ties in a large corporation with many different divisions and locations. Certain economies of scale can only happen in larger organizations, but I don’t believe the trade off is worth it all that often.  

People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it by Paul Gambill

About a year ago, I was working independently on a subscription box small business out of my apartment called The Happy Crate. Each month I sourced different games, snacks, tools, and gadgets into a box and sent them to marijuana smokers across the US. I was trying to deliver experiences to people who were trying cannabis for the first time since gaining legalization in various states around the country. 

It didn't work, however, and I was at a loss trying to figure out what I should do next. I was unmotivated, and I wanted a motivating challenge. That was when a friend told me to watch this TEDx talk given by Simon Sinek:

The gist of the talk is that people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it. That really turned my thinking on its head. I was selling cheap consumer goods to people. That wasn't fulfilling, and I was struggling to communicate the why of it.

Why am I interested in carbon removal?

  • To protect and preserve the wondrous natural environments we have on Earth
  • To avoid sea level rises that would cause massive economic and physical harm to a significant number of people across the world
  • To prevent massive species extinction
  • To avoid costly climate pattern changes that make agriculture more difficult and more expensive
  • Because most climate change work is being done in the energy, activism/policy, and mitigation arenas, and there are collectively few people working on undoing the damage
  • Because it is the morally right thing to do for future generations who are still children or not even born
  • Because if we don't do something now, it will be more expensive to fix and hurt more people in the future
  • Because it's the sort of problem more people would be interested in solving (than, say, sending games to cannabis smokers)
  • To work on a really difficult challenge that no one has ever done before

These are my goals. The less humanity has to deal with the costs of climate change, the more it can use its resources for innovations that improve the lives of everyone on earth. This is an investment in the future of the planet and the future of our species. 

NASA's Climate Time Machine shows small changes over time have big impact by Paul Gambill

I'm a sucker for time lapses. Scenes like this one from Planet Earth have always been so fun to watch. Being able to visualize such small changes over a grand time scale really presents things in their proper perspective.

NASA has a beautiful website with all of their known evidence for climate change. The most amazing piece of content on there is an interactive visualization they call the Climate Time Machine.

This is a gif of the Carbon Dioxide time lapse, and I highly recommend watching the others as well. These show temperature rising, ice sheets melting, and sea levels rising (this last one is a simulation). 

There really is no question that there are major changes to the earth's climate underway. This CO2 visualization demonstrates the stark reality that we will need to undo the damage that's been done by emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The costs of climate change, or why we have to start removing CO2 now by Paul Gambill

One of the motivating challenges of working on carbon removal is that, relatively speaking, there aren’t many people or groups working on this technology. That’s a sad fact, because relative to the potential economic and human costs, this is one of the most important issues facing humanity.

How much will it cost? Last fall, researchers at Stanford performed a new sort of study of on the predicted economic outcomes of climate change left unchecked. Their analysis compared the performance of national economies in average years with warmer than average years and then baselined against averages across the world. They then plugged in expected temperature rises by 2100 to get an expected change in GDP for each country and the world.

 You can play with the interactive map at http://web.stanford.edu/~mburke/climate/map.php

You can play with the interactive map at http://web.stanford.edu/~mburke/climate/map.php

Somewhat intuitively, the northern nations (Canada, Scandinavia, Russia, etc.) are much better off. With longer growing seasons and a climate more suited to human comfort, their expected change in GDP is significantly positive.

But the warmer parts of the world will suffer greatly. Even the United States (-36%) and China (-42%) should expect to see significant shrinkage in GDP by 2100.

Overall, there is a greater than 50% probability that global economic output will shrink by 20% or more. That’s 20% less than it would normally have been had there been no climate change. 

Imagine our global economy right now. And then imagine our collective overall economy shrinking by one-fifth. That’s a mind-bogglingly large number.

What really struck me about this chart was how there is a very clear divide between rich and poor nations. Rich nations (who are mostly responsible for climate change in the first place) will largely be able to ride out the effects of climate change, but poor nations will suffer greatly. 

Fixing climate change is only going to get more difficult and more expensive as time goes on. The sooner we start pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, the less expensive and destructive the effects will be. It’s the ethical and responsible thing to do.