Episode 13: Elizabeth Feinberg on Plastics and Post-Apocalyptic Game Plans

Illustration of the reptation model from chemistry

Image: An illustration of the concept of reptation, “motion of long linear, entangled macromolecules in amorphous polymers.” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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Charles: This is Assigned Scientist at Bachelor’s. I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.

 Tessa: And I’m Tessa and I’m an astrobiologist.

Charles: And today we have another guest, um, Elizabeth Weinberg.

Elizabeth: Hi, it’s so good to be here.

Charles: It’s great to have you. So normally what we do to start off is just to ask our guests sort of what their background in sciences, how they got interested in science and sort of what their focus is on.

Elizabeth: So I am a chemist. I have been doing research for about 10 years. I am currently a postdoc at the University of Minnesota, and I studied sustainable materials. So I started in chemistry because I wanted to be a chef and I was like, Oh, I’m not good enough in the kitchen to be a professional chef, but I seem to be pretty good at chemistry and that’s kind of like cooking. So that’s, uh, that’s not an unusual story for a lot of chemists, I think, but, um, that’s how I got my start. And so I applied to a college to be a chemist instead of a chef.

And then in, gosh, what is it? 2011 started my PhD at the University of Rochester and did some really cool work with like organic molecules and lasers. So I was what’s called a physical, organic chemist. So basically I would make, uh, organic molecules and then shoot them with a laser and see what happens. Typically they would like fall apart and blast to pieces and I would study those reactions and…

Charles: Uh, I will… just to interject if, if I were a skeptic approaching this conversation from the outside, I think my first question would be, um… why?

Elizabeth: Why? Yeah, that’s a great question. So, there’s a branch of chemistry called mechanistic chemistry. And if you think about what most people think of as chemistry, they think of synthetic chemistry, so how we make molecules. And that’s a lot of the drugs that we use and the flavors that we use in foods and the preservatives and cleaning agents. Those are all molecules that we make, but mechanistic chemistry is the branch of chemistry that teaches us how those molecules get made, how the reactions happen. And so what I was doing was studying very, very specific reactions. So a lot of synthetic chemists would use dozens of different kinds of chemistry to make a single molecule or to make a group of molecules that might be used for drugs or might be used in food or in cleaning or as antibacterials.

Um, for me, well, I was doing… I was looking at one reaction for five years and studying that in depth under the premise that maybe 10, 20 years from now some synthetic chemists can use this chemistry to make something new that they couldn’t make before. My fundamental background in chemistry was studying how to make new reactions or how to, how to analyze reactions that we’ve never seen before

Charles: And thus lasers.

Elizabeth: Thus lasers. Yeah, so, well, I was doing was called photo induced, electron transfer or photo induced charge transfer. Basically, what I would do is, uh, blast molecules with a really powerful laser. And that would remove an electron from that molecule. Basically, it’s kind of like an, a solar panel, right? That, that light energy gets converted to electro-chemical energy. And those electrochemical reactions, uh, take place really, really quickly. Um, so when we think of really fast things or really fast reactions most people think of like something that happens in minutes or seconds. Uh, these reactions were done in, in a millionth of a second. So we needed it. Really special equipment, really fast cameras to study these reactions.

But basically what we would do is make molecules, blast them with a laser, remove an electron, which destabilizes the molecule and makes it really like excited to do different kinds of chemistry. And then we would do what’s called absorption spectroscopy. So what that means is that we would essentially look at the color of these molecules as they react and from the color would be able to discern different information about the structure of the molecules, because the color of something is entirely dependent on its molecular structure.

Charles: Okay. So then after lasers…

Elizabeth: Yes. So, lasers were fun.

Charles: I am, I have to say it’s I think like a twelve-year-old… when I hear lasers, I, I just get really fixated on lasers.

Elizabeth: Yeah, same. So that’s, that’s pretty much why I did what I did for grad school. I was like, this sounds fun. I love lasers. And that’s what I’m going to do. I’m just going to work in a laser lab for five years. That’s, that’s literally why I did what I did. Um, it was like my teenage dream come true. But after that I was like, alright, I need kind of like a, like a purpose in life. I’m late for my next, for my next trick. I want to do something that’s… like, got some real world applications, not something that’s like really esoteric and it might be used in 10 or 20 years. Um, so I got really into sustainability and so I’m on my second postdoc now.

Um, so I was at the University of Illinois, and now I’m at the University of Minnesota. And in both of these post-docs, I’ve focused on using my background in mechanistic chemistry, and studying how reactions happen and how to make new reactions and use that to make new plastic materials.

My research now is really focused on how we can make plastics that are going to destroy the world one day. I think the average American generates something like five pounds of garbage in a day. So for a family of four, you know, you’re making three tons of garbage a year. So that’s the size of like a truck, right, and that’s just, that’s just one family. And a lot of that is plastic and most of that doesn’t get recycled. We have recycling bins on every corner, at every house now, but only like 10% of plastic gets recycled in the U S most of it gets buried or a lot of it gets burned.

So my research now has been focusing on two things. One is how we can make better plastics and how we can make better processes for making plastics that require less energy. And the other has been making plastics that disappear when we don’t want them anymore so they don’t wind up in that, you know, great Pacific garbage patch, right. So that we don’t have, you know, seabirds choking on soda bottle rings. So that’s been the focus of my research the last few years.

Charles: Well, with regards to like marine conservation, this is not actually related very closely at all. Um, but I, I just have to mention that I saw a thing on Twitter recently that was like a big truck that was like to clean up garbage off of beaches. And it just like dug so violently through all the sand. And I just want to say to whoever developed that, how dare you. Invertebrates are living in there.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. Um, there are a couple projects like that. I know that there’s this one NGO that sends out these little, like boats that go around and just scoop up plastic everywhere. And my…

Charles: Invertebrates are there!

Elizabeth: Yeah. Yeah. Like if you’re, if you’re out in a boat, scooping up stuff from the ocean, how many fish, how many invertebrates are you getting? Like…

Charles: Oh, I guess…you have fish. Other things other than invertebrates are important. I would admit that if PRESSED…

Elizabeth: there are cats in the world, those are pretty important. Right?

Charles: True.

Elizabeth: I, yes.

Tessa: Well there probably aren’t as many cats in the ocean.

Charles: Maybe on boats.

Elizabeth: You know, that’s true. That’s true.

Charles: We got to get somebody… his is, I’m going to cut out, but we just got to get so many people to talk about invertebrates. No offense to all other disciplines.

Elizabeth: No, that’s fine. I mean, what I would say is that plastics don’t have vertebrae, technically… invertebrates.

Charles: I, it’s… I… I respect the game that you’re playing. It’s not going to work though. Well, I would say one thing to sort of at a very basic question.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Charles: But essentially… what makes something plastic?

Elizabeth: So what we call plastics are a class of what are really called polymers and polymer is a word made up of two chunks. Um, “poly” and “mer,” and that translates roughly to many and chunks. Um, so polymers are made up of monomers, which translates to one chunk. So a monomer is a small molecule, typically in organic carbon based molecule that we can string together in a long chain to form a polymer. So a polymer is a big chain of many, many repeating molecular units. And so you can think of it as kind of like, it looks kind of like spaghetti, right? Like cooked spaghetti, Yeti. It’s just this long floppy strand of molecule. And so plastics are a group of polymers that just have good mechanical properties.

 Um, and what I mean by that is that they, they like stick together and they’re solid and they are what we would consider like usable materials so ones you might be familiar with our polyethylene, polystyrene, um, nylon is a common plastic material. Another thing that’s related to plastics are rubbers. And so rubbers are a form when you take different polymers and you link those different chains together. So instead of like a collection of spaghetti, it’s more like a spider. And so they’re all kind of connected together into one network.

 And so the difference between plastics and rubbers is that in plastics, all those little chains can slide past each other. Um, it’s called the reptation model because it looks like a bunch of little snakes, like sliding past one another. If you want it to imagine a pile of snakes, some people may or may not want to imagine that.

Charles: I always do.

Tessa: Yeah. I was about to say – who wouldn’t want to imagine a pile of snakes?

Elizabeth: I think about it all the time, but, uh, in, in rubbers, all of those chains are what’s called cross-linked. So they’re stitched together. They’re connected. They can’t slide past one another. And so the difference between something like a polyethylene bag where you can pull it apart, right? So something like what you would use for like a, like a freezer bag where you can, you can just pull it apart, right? That’s a plastic. Whereas your tires. Um, that you hopefully can’t pull apart, right? You can, you can break them, but you can’t slowly stretch them apart. Those tires are rubber. So all those polymers pins together into one network.

So that’s plastics and the thing you didn’t ask about, which was rappers.

Charles: Listen, two for one.

Elizabeth: Yeah, yeah.

Charles: So why are plastics so hard to break down?

Elizabeth: That’s a really good question. So the main reason that they’re so hard to break down, it kind of falls into two categories. One is that there aren’t a lot of environmental degradation events for plastics. So, if you think of like glass, it will slowly shatter into many, many small pieces. Plastics tend to be tougher, right? Plastics are chemically robust. So what I mean by that is that over years and years and years, they don’t really break down in air. Most things in air will break down over time, right? Everything is slowly, slowly burning. We’re all oxidizing all the time, but plastics do that really, really slowly. And so they break down in air and water at a much slower rate than other things. Pretty much anything else. Um, they’re just inherently very in general non-reactive chemicals. And that’s, that’s part of what makes them really, really attractive for a lot of applications. Like if you’re making an artificial hip for somebody, you don’t want it to break down in their body. If you’re making food packaging, you don’t want it to break down in air on the shelf. So it’s really useful, but there’s some things that make it really useful and make it really bad for the environment.

One of the other things about plastics is that there’s nothing that, that can digest them, right? Like nothing, nothing eats plastic. Right? If you leave a wooden framed house out in the woods for a hundred years, it’ll mold and rot and break down. If you left a doll house out in the woods that was made out of plastic, nothing would grow on it. Nothing would break it down, no animals would tear it apart. Right? So there’s nothing in nature that breaks down plastics. Now, some people are discovering like little microbial bugs. Well, I say bugs, I’m talking to biologists. They’re not actually bucks. Just little microbes that actually do eat plastic.

Charles: Well… Listen, listen, I did a double major as an undergrad in linguistics. So as an entomologist, you’re using bug wrong, but as a linguist, kind of, descriptivism baby.

Elizabeth: Great. Awesome. I love descriptive scripted ism. My partner is a speech therapist and we both talk a bunch of snark about prescriptive lists. There are some research groups now that are discovering different little microbes that will chow down on plastic and can digest them. But they’re kind of futile and far between, and they’re not going to solve the global plastic crisis, at least not anytime soon. Right? These little niche microbes that we can discover in a lab may or may not have. I actually have like a global scale application. It’s too early to tell.

Charles: If there’s one thing the last 150 years have taught us, is that moving around biological organisms is always a pretty tricky proposition.

 Elizabeth: Yeah. So one of my concerns is that some of these labs have created like, uh, genetically modified bugs that that will feast down on plastics .And I am all for

 directed mutagenesis. I think it’s really cool. But if you have microbial life, if you design it in a lab that can feast on the plastics that we need to not be degradable under certain conditions. And then they get out into the environment, that can be problematic.

Tessa: There’s at least one pulp sci-fi novel of questionable quality out there about that exact premise.

Charles: Well, I, and I would also ask if you had these microbes that were eating plastic effectively, right? What then happens? Cause like, okay. Let’s say that I’m a shorebird and I eat a piece of plastic. That plastic is going to maintain itself into my digestive system. Right. Yeah. So I am a single celled organism and I eat plastic. What is happening to the plastic? Does that make sense?

Elizabeth: It does make sense. That’s a great question. And the answer is, I don’t know, you know, I’m not familiar enough with that body of research. You know, my, my understanding of it and I am. It’s perfectly possible that I’m wrong. My understanding of it is that these little microbes can break down the individual chains of these plastics into what we call small molecules. So part of the thing that makes. Plastics really, really hard for microbial life or, or animals to digest is that all of these polymer chains are huge. And so they cannot actually like cross the cell barriers. And so they just kind of like hang out and then eventually pass through the body because they’re not metabolized, but if you can break things down into smaller and smaller chunks, then, then things start to actually be able to, uh, metabolize those smaller molecules. And so when we talk about small molecules, we mean basically things that are, are. Able to be processed by some living body. My limited understanding is that these microbes are able to break down these larger polymer chains into small molecules.

Charles: And so the, the paper that you sent me, which I did try and read talks about a methodology to then break down polymers into monomers.

Elizabeth: Yes. Yes.

Charles: So can you talk about more, what that means, and also sort of what the environmental effects that might be?

Elizabeth: There was this question at the beginning, like why would I want to blast molecules with a laser and understand what’s happening? Like, why do we care? And I, I didn’t want to, like, I didn’t want to give any spoilers at that moment, but this is why we care…

Charles: Beautifully played.

Elizabeth: Thank you. Thank you. In that project, I worked on a class of materials that are called transient materials. What that means is basically they are plastics that when we don’t want them anymore, they go away. So we can send some kind of trigger or signal. Two of these molecules and make them just kind of break down the way that plastics don’t normally break down in the environment. And so when we think of polymers, right, there are many, many interconnected units and we can kind of think of them as like a chain made of hundreds of thousands of little links. And so for a lot of transit materials, what happens is that you can break one of those. One of those chain links apart, and then the chain starts de-stabilizing all the way down. And all of those links start breaking apart. And you, you wind  up with small molecules again, after you provide that trigger.

And so with the materials I worked with specifically, the one that I, that I recently published on is called cyclic polymethyl aldehyde, which I hate saying, but… go by the acronym CPMA, which is a lot easier to say and a lot easier to spell. So CPMA is a really cool material. It’s what we would call a structural material. Um, so it is strong. It is stiff. You could compare it kinda to something like, um, like polystyrene, so a commercial plastic that we’re all familiar with, but the cool thing about this. Is that when you expose it to different stimuli, it, uh, it rapidly just breaks down into its monomer, so that, that polymer falls apart. And you’re left with just the same monomer that you started with when you first made the polymer. And so you can actually take that monomer and re polymerize it and make the polymer again. So that’s called chemical recycling and you can actually create like  a closed loop system where you just keep recycling it forever with no real loss in properties.

So one of the cool things is that in this paper, while I was doing other work on this polymer, I discovered that there was a really weird mechanism in the way that this polymer fell apart. What I discovered was that if you remove one electron from one of these polymer chains, just one electron in a chain of thousands and thousands of repeat units, you destabilized the whole chain and it starts falling apart, one piece at a time, and you can actually get it to fully disintegrate in a matter of minutes. That is what we might call electrochemistry, right? And you can approach electrochemistry from a lot of different ways, so different microbes, uh, when they do protein catalyzed reactions, that can be electrochemical. You can literally just like apply an electric stimulus to a, a liquid or a solid, and that can remove electrons. Literally, you just shock it or you can do what’s my really favorite thing and is directly tied into what I did in grad school, which is photo induced charge transfer. So you can take light, uh, and convert that light energy into electrochemical energy. And you can shine light on something with an appropriate photo catalyst. So something that takes light and changes it to chemical energy, and that can remove an electron. And so you can actually shine the light onto the system and use a photo catalyst to remove an electron from the polymer and the whole thing falls apart in minutes.

So what does that actually translate to in real life? That means that using this cool new mechanism that we established using this really like. Esoteric kind of arcane, weird physical chemistry stuff. You can take this polymer using that mechanism, make something that is stiff and strong. You know, you could build whatever you want it, right? It’s just like what we would think of as, as most like commercial or consumer plastics, you can build stuff with it. And then when the sun comes up, it disappears and turns into a liquid that you can then like recollect. And recycle if you wanted to, or you could just let it out into the environment. I wouldn’t recommend doing that. Um, but you could, if you want it to.

Tessa: So plastic does that only work at night? Interesting.

Elizabeth: Yeah, there are, there are some niche applications for that. Um, you know, you could envision like, like little aerial drones that you could send up to do like atmospheric measurements, and then you don’t have to go back and get them, they just disappear when the sun comes up, but there are other ways to do that same kind of chemistry that you can make more specific. So you can say like, Hey, we don’t actually want this to happen. When the sun comes up, we want to do this in a very controlled environment in our lab. We’re in our processing facility and you can kind of tailor it to happen when you want to one of the, one of the limitations of this.

So this is the, this is the first material, the first plastic that will rapidly disappear. When, when you shine some light on it. Um, so it was a cool, like proof of concept, but there are limitations to this. And one of the big limitations is that the monitor that you form is like pure poison. So it’s not, yeah, it is a problem. Yeah. So it’s, it’s this really cool, like, proof of concept, but, you know, we  would never make shopping bags, we would never make toy cars out of it  because we don’t want to…

Charles: It… really, the, the perfect application for this would be just in a society of vampires.

Elizabeth: Oh yeah. That’d be  perfect.

Charles: Cause they don’t go out during the day and they probably can’t be killed by poison.

Elizabeth: That’s a really good point. Yeah. So I think in the future we’ll market, this technology  to the vampire society.

Tessa: I was about to say –  ready-made demographic.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s perfect.

Charles: Yeah. I just saved you all a lot of effort in marketing.

Elizabeth: I appreciate that, you know, We did actually like shop this technology around a little bit and we’re like, maybe we’ll do a startup. And then, you know, for some reason nobody wants to work with something that’s actually going to kill people. We have huge environmental benefits.

That was the project I did when I was at the university of Illinois. So I I’m no longer there, but there are a number of excellent grad students there that are still doing that work and developing nontoxic alternatives to that, that use the same chemistry, so like using that as a proof of concept taking the rules and the lessons that we learned from that mechanistic chemistry and our investigations into how these new reactions work and then applying that to things that we could actually use and maybe won’t poison people.

Charles: So what are you working on now?

Elizabeth: Yeah, so I am at the University of Minnesota working on a project for wastewater treatment. I knew nothing about sewage when I started this about a year ago, and now I know a lot about sewage, or at least more than I did. So basically, uh, the humans, farms, whatever – we make a lot of sewage, we we’re just constantly producing waste all the time. And so a theme of my research is like,  how do we mitigate all the art, all the garbage and the sewage that we produce. So I’ve moved on from, from garbage to sewage.

One of the biggest inorganic pollutants in municipal and agricultural waste is an ion called ammonium. So most people have heard of ammonia. Ammonium is just the acidic version of, of ammonia. And so it’s, it’s… the way that ammonia exists in most like aquatic systems. And so a little ammonia is a good thing. Like it’s a really, really good nutrients. Um, it helps stuff grow. I don’t know exactly what that stuff is like algae, microbes, whatever. I’m not a biologist.

Tessa: Ammonia is one of the most easily accessible forms of nitrogen and nitrogen is one of the elements you abs well, Most easily accessible form of nitrogen for living organisms. And it’s something you absolutely need for, you know, it’s up there with carbon and oxygen and phosphorus and water in terms of things you need to keep living.

Elizabeth: Yeah, yeah, so a little ammonia is a good thing, right. But there’s not a little ammonia in sewage. There’s a lot. And so when there’s a lot of it, you get what’s called eutrophication. So you’ll get a lot of algae and microbial stuff growing out of control because it’s like their favorite thing to eat. And then it kills everything else that’s around them because they just grow out of control, consume all the oxygen, everything around them dies.

 So that’s bad. That’s not good, right? Um, so that’s why like when we pumped municipal sewage into wherever, any kind of natural environment, or if there’s a leak or whatever, a lot of things die and ammonium is one of the biggest costs of that, because we’ll get these like really toxic algal blooms. So my research now, Is figuring out how we can better remove, um, ammonium from sewage.

And so right now that is typically done with microbial bio-reactors and some of these are more efficient. Some of these are less efficient. A lot of these systems, what they’ll do is they’ll like throw in these little, like plastic hockey pucks that all of the bacteria and microbial things can grow on. And they, they form like these happy little biofilm communities on these little hockey pucks. These are what we call carriers. And so those are called moving bed biofilm reactors. So whenever you see like a big open sewage pit and like a water treatment center that is typically like a biofilm reactor. So that’s actually like doing wastewater remediation as it’s going.

The research that I’m doing now is basically making better versions of these little carriers. So I am making versions of these carriers that are a hybrid of polyethylene, which is like a really common commercial polymer. And a mineral called a zeolite. And so zeolites are a class of minerals. They’re aluminum silicate, and they can do something called ion exchange.

 And so what they’ll do is, um, the ones I work with are full of sodium ions, which are pretty innocuous in most instances. And they can exchange those sodium ions and actually soak up ammonium ions. Their plates. And so they kind of removed that ammonium from the wastewater and like bring it into this little hockey puck carrier. And so we’ve just developed these materials now and I’m wrapping up that project actually like next week, I’m hoping to finish the paper on that. And then I’ll actually be supporting a group of environmental and bio engineers in putting these materials into bioreactor systems, with the idea being that they’ll like supercharge this wastewater treatment process by concentrating all of the ammonium, giving the microbes a place to live and letting them live and thrive and really  eat all this, this ammonium much, much faster and using lower energy.

We use about 2% of our total energy budget in the United States. So that’s three or

 4% of our total electricity on sewage treatment. And the hope is that these systems will hope help reduce the cost of that treatment By maybe up to like  50% in some, some cases. So it’ll make like water remediation and the treatment of polluted water and actually converting back into potable water. Again, way more efficient, way more cost-effective, uh, which will become increasingly important as, you know, the population grows and as the climate continues to change, you know, we’re, we’re facing more and more water scarcity globally And so the hope is that this will help mitigate some of that water scarcity.

Charles: [long pause] Sorry, I got lost in worrying about climate change for a second.  

Elizabeth: That happens sometimes. And then I started…

Charles: Well, and then I started thinking about science fiction, where humans abandoned the earth because we’ve just junked it up so bad.

Elizabeth: Yeah. I, uh, I actually, so I have a problem with science fiction like that. Like if we, if we have the technology to escape earth and, you know, form colonies on Mars or whatever, why don’t we just use those resources to like clean up the planet?

Charles: So it seems like a common theme of your research, which has been relatively diverse, but a common theme is sort of understanding ways, keeping things within systems so that we don’t have to recruit new materials all the time.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. Yeah. So in a lot of the chemical industry and in a lot of academic research, there’s now a big push for the development of what’s called a circular economy. So basically that means economics of sales, of manufacturing, of use of consumer goods, where all of our garbage gets reused. And right now we are so, so far from that, but we are taking steps in the right direction. And, you know, again, maybe… hope and naivete are the two sides of the same coin, but I am hopeful that in the next few decades, and I know the progress is, is maddeningly slow, but in the next few decades, I really expect to see huge changes in the degree of waste that we put into the environment and the degree of waste that we can remove from the environment. So I’m hopeful.

Charles: Oh, I, I appreciate that. As a constantly pessimistic person. Speaking of maddeningly slow change, does being somebody who was working on these technologies to improve the environmental impact of contemporary human life. Do you ever just get, I guess basically furious slash extremely scared about how slowly things move?

Elizabeth: Yes. Yes. Constantly.  I am constantly mad and constantly terrified.  And I mean, that’s, that’s just kind of who I am as a person, right?

Charles: Well, I mean, it’s nice to have company.

Elizabeth: Yeah. You know, I’ve, it’s complicated, right? Things are moving so slowly. And, you know, we have been moving in the wrong direction for so long and moving in the wrong direction with such velocity. The analogy that I like to make is that like, we, we were going downhill for so long and we’ve started to slow our descent. We are not ascending. We are, we are not quite coming out of the Canyon, but you know, maybe, maybe we’re getting towards the bottom and trying to figure out how to get back up.

Charles: Just… the notion that we’re not yet at rock bottom.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I know. I know.

Charles: Doesn’t feel great.

 Elizabeth: Sorry.

Tessa: I was going to say we haven’t stopped digging, but at least we’re slowing down.

Elizabeth: Yeah, yeah. You know, and we’re, we’re making a plan to get back out and we’re figuring out our escape route. And I do think, I do think that in the next 10 to 20 years, which seems like a really long time and in some ways it is, but…

Charles: So, we love science fact. But, we also love science fiction. And I don’t have a follow-up to that, but it was the, I think I’m going to congratulate myself on that segue. I think the segue was solid, but the landing was, um, nothing.

Elizabeth: That was great. I loved it.

Charles: Yeah. Well, I mean, a recurrence theme on this podcast is that we ask everybody about what their favorite Star Trek is.

Elizabeth: Oh, that that’s a problem for me. I I’m actually not a Star Trek fan.  

Charles: Embarrassing.

Elizabeth: It’s, I know. like, uh, it’s the, it’s the big dark secret that I hide from everyone. I’m not a star Wars fan. I, uh, I don’t like either one. Like I know that there’s that like tension and I’m just like, I’m completely outside of that.  

Charles: I’m not confident that that tension actually exists.

Elizabeth: Oh?

Charles: Well, maybe historically it did, but now it’s like, there’s such fundamentally different things that like, if they’re not really competing with each other, like they’re occupying different niches.

Elizabeth: I got that. Yeah. So my, um, my go-to sci-fi when I was young. And now, now that I’m old was a, so there, there are three of them. There was, uh, there was Farscape.

Tessa: Yeah, good choice.

Elizabeth: That was a favorite, um, Babylon five, which I know is polarizing, but also  really good. And then the, then the third, um, was Stargate. So I was a huge Stargate fan, like my entire life. I always thought it would be so cool. Like the concept of just like traveling to other worlds instantaneously through like a big hoop of rock.

Charles: If, if you’re interested in traveling long distances, seemingly instantaneously through a large circular thing I’d like to interest you today in DS9.

Elizabeth: Okay. All right.

Charles: There was a wormhole in the pilot. They discover a wormhole that connects the alpha quadrant and the gamma quadrant. And that’s my, that’s my whole pitch. Well, it’s like… the galaxy is in four quadrants and we all live in the alpha quadrant and the gamma quadrant is like 70 years away if you were to travel by warp speed or whatever, and, but they discover a wormhole and you just go through one side with a warm hole, you come out the other side, you’re in the gamut quadrant. Okay. I get up and all kinds of fun shenanigans on there. It gets to be a real bummer in season six, but they pull it up out of that nosedive.

Elizabeth: Maybe, maybe in a sense, we are in season six of history,

Charles: Genuinely, I was watching deep space, nine season six the other day. And I was on Twitter and I like looked at the screen and I looked down on Twitter. How many weird, like extreme parallel between the two. And I was like, I gotta go do something else.

Elizabeth: I  truly love that. I love that story.

Charles: The unfortunate thing is that I know that in DS9, like, I know that they win their war. Um, I don’t have equal faith in our ability to get out from under like all of the 15 crushing weights bearing down on all of us all the time.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Yeah. For me, it’s this really tough thing of like what’s individual responsibility and what is like systemic failures. And in my mind, like it’s all systemic, right. But it’s also our individual responsibility to like, push for that systemic change. Like a lot of these, a lot of chemical companies now are investing in more recyclable and more sustainable technology. And the reason they’re doing that and, and you know, this is just a fact of living in a capitalist society.

Charles: [groans loudly]

Elizabeth: The reason they’re doing that is because their customers want them to do that. Right. And so if we keep pushing for that, even at the individual level or organizing and groups of individuals, we can affect that systemic change. Right. And so I think the fact that like these, these industrial juggernauts are starting to change course. Um, the government is, is another matter, right? Like I’m…

Charles: Normally I would edit songs like that out, but I am going to leave it in because I feel like it’s accurate.

Elizabeth: And with the government, right. Like right now, things are not so good. But, um, you know, we each have this individual responsibility to make push for that change in, in whatever way we as individuals, right? You know, sometimes that takes the form of yelling on Twitter. Sometimes that takes the form of signing petition…

Charles: Yelling in person.

Elizabeth: Yelling in person. Um, You know, choosing one brand over another because they have more sustainable goals is a perfectly valid way of pushing for systemic change. In some instances, you know, it can be a smallest thing.

Charles: Well, I guess getting so like get fully giving into speculative hopelessness.

Elizabeth: Let’s do it.

Charles: Another genre of science fiction that I always loved, but now have been struggling with recently, who knows why is like post-apocalyptic

Elizabeth: h yeah, yeah. I can’t do that anymore.

Charles: Yeah. And so one sort of fun game to do is to think about. What you like, how you would react to a massive, and like, there is a lot of, for instance, particularly Indigenous criticism of the genre of post-apocalyptic where like, in, in many ways, you know, Indigenous people on this continent have been living a post-apocalypse for centuries, but like, yeah. But taking it as more of a global, like, relatively egalitarian catastrophe… sort of a, how long do you think you’d survive and then B what do you imagine your like post-apocalyptic wasteland daily life would be like that?

Elizabeth: You know, I really like that question. So, like I said, I’ve never been on the podcast before, but I got to say that’s my favorite question of any podcasts I’ve ever been on.

Charles: You’re so welcome.

Elizabeth: You know, I, I grew up a lot of people think I’m like some, some like city dweller that’s lived in urban areas, um, all my life, and it actually couldn’t be further from the streets I grew up in.

Charles: I mean, you’re trans, so you have to be a, you know, a cosmopolitan elite.

Elizabeth: Yeah, exactly. You know, Um, but I, I grew up in, um, the Catskill mountains in rural New York. When I, when I was a kid, I moved around a lot. Like we were really, really poor. Um, And so like, you know, I, I grew up well, well below the poverty line in a really rural area. And, um, you know, I, I feel like over that time, I learned how to, you know, survive in, in not such good scenarios, especially like out in the wilderness. Um, so I feel like I do all right. I’d probably last, at least a week.

Charles: I mean, I’ve always imagined, and this is true, I have long accepted that the reality is that if not the first wave of casualties, I’m  definitely in the second.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Charles: And I’m just at peace with that. Tessa, how do you, how do you think you’d do?

Tessa: Uh, my plan along with my wife is to round up some horses since we both know how to ride. And then if possible, go around and rating the bunkers of the rich and powerful in a way and take their stuff.

Elizabeth: I like that.

Charles: Hmm, that’s pretty good.

Tessa:  I don’t know how successful would be, but that’s the plan.

Elizabeth: So I guess this, this is a good segue. One of my, um, quarantine projects has been, uh, kind of related to this where I actually bought a lock pick training kit and learn how to pick locks a couple of weeks ago.And I’m not very good, but. I, um, I can open up a UL lock in about a minute now, which is like not excellent, but I feel like in the post apocalypse that might come in handy.

Charles: Yeah.

Tessa: I definitely want you on my team.

Charles: All of our, cause this is the problem is that… in, I don’t play a lot of tabletop role playing games because I am very, I’m very organized in some way as I’m very disorganized about getting people together. And the problem is that I always just want to be a wizard, but those don’t exist. So, okay. There are no transferable skills from wizard class.

Elizabeth: I mean, maybe they don’t exist yet. Maybe, maybe in some post-apocalyptic catastrophe, something will happen that will make wizards real. You never know.

Charles: You never know. That’s true. I think in reality, well, not in reality because this is make pretend, but in, in the case of like a more practical skill that I could do, I think I could become like kind of a grungy cricket farmer.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Charles: Provide low, like low intensity protein, to people.  

Elizabeth: Yeah, I dig that. I dig that. That’s a really cool. Yeah. Yeah.

Charles: Well, so now I have my role as well. Now I’m going to be in the fourth wave of casualties, get along for a couple of years and then a second horrible event will happen and then I’ll die.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, so like the cricket farmer would probably like have to get killed if we’re going through like the standard storyline, like when a roving gang comes through the idyllic peaceful village a few years down the road.

Charles: Yeah. Cause I can’t protect myself. I just have crickets.

Elizabeth: Maybe the crickets will protect you.

Charles: Maybe. I am eating them. So they like… like insects probably don’t have emotions that are recognizable to us, but if they did, I doubt they would be. Here’s what I’ll do. Here’s the reality. I will farm crickets, but I will keep a bunch of venomous arthropods as pets. That will be my first line of defense.

Elizabeth: I liked that. I liked that the, uh, the venomous arthropods could be kind of like your sheep dogs for the cricket.

Charles: Hmm. Well sort of a, sort of a weird take on sheep because sheep dogs don’t eat sheep. But I’ll like, keep a scorpion with my masses. And then if anybody goes digging their hands around, you know, don’t do that. This is a great day.. Well, fantastic. We got some hope for better recyclability for plastics and we’ve nailed down my post-apocalyptic game plan.

Elizabeth: I think this was a huge success.

Tessa: Just a lot of progress.

Charles: Um, fantastic. Well, I will say this. This has been great, I’ve loved it. You’re truly, I mean, we haven’t had that many guests, but if we had a hall of fame, cause I love it when people are just very forthcoming.

Elizabeth: Perfect. Um, this has been such a blast. Thanks for having me on.

Charles: Elizabeth, if people want to find you online, where can they go?

Elizabeth: Yeah, so, um, the easiest place to do my Twitter and that is, um, my, my display name is Elizabeth Feinberg and my Twitter handle is @EC_Feinberg

Charles: Fantastic. Um, I’m on Twitter @cockroacharles, and Tessa?

Tessa: I’m on Twitter @spacermase.

Charles: The podcast is on Twitter @ASABpod or on Instagram @ASABpod, or at our website: asabpodcast.com  Um, we still haven’t come up with a sign-off tagline. So thank you very much for listening. Catch you on the flip side.

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