Will the techno-optimists save the world?

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I’m writing this on my way home from speaking at the annual TED gathering in Long Beach California, where 1,500 people gathered to listen to what the organisers call “Ideas Worth Spreading”. TED has always been an influential gathering, but then they put some of the talks online and, with over 500 million views, their global reach as a spreader of ideas has become quite a phenomenon.

There is nothing quite like this event, with its eclectic mix of investors, entrepreneurs, activists, think tanks, corporate execs and philanthropists. There’s owners and CEO’s of companies like LinkedIn and Amazon alongside enthusiastic founders of young start-ups hoping to emulate their success. There’s people with big picture ideas about where the world’s going, alongside social entrepreneurs taking today’s practical ideas into the field in the developing world. The latter included many examples of beautiful hope and simplicity, like the guy leaving a good corporate job to help run a social start-up called Wonderbags, which uses insulated bags to dramatically reduce the dangers and expense of cooking fuel in poor villages in Africa.

The optimism is infectious and so the opening session sparked quite a controversy. I gave my worldview with a talk titled “The Earth is Full”, arguing a major economic crisis was now being triggered by humanity passing the limits of the earth’s capacity to provide cheap resources, especially soil, climate and water. While I argued humanity was good in a crisis and we’d get through it, my argument left the techno-optimists a little shell-shocked, as they are more used to being uplifted with stories of optimism and endless opportunity.

They were soon reassured again by Peter Diamandis, the CEO of the X-Prize foundation, who argued that while we tend to focus on our problems, technology was an all-powerful force and could deal with any challenge we faced. He also put the case, popular with this crowd, that it was the market rather than government that would be the main driver of solutions. He and I then discussed these issues on stage with the head “TEDster” and event curator, Chris Anderson. When Chris asked via a show of hands which way they were leaning, the 1,500 strong crowd was pretty evenly divided, quite a surprise for this “we can solve anything” audience.

The debate continued in the corridors all week, sparked by more presentations on technology, such as a very interesting liquid metal battery from MIT that is suitable for grid level electricity storage and a stark wake up call from climate scientist James Hansen. Hansen is a rock star amongst climate scientists, having been arguing the case for action since the 1980’s.

As the week moved on, some concluded that the crisis vs techno-optimism division was quite artificial. This view was that of course we faced some serious issues that needed attention, but technology would achieve remarkable things and avoid a serious crisis. Besides, what could be wrong with a little optimism? It cheers you up, gets you motivated and helps get investors on board!

Others, including myself, became more convinced that techno-optimism, rather than being harmless, was potentially quite dangerous. This was all the more the case after we heard a presentation from neuroscientist Tali Sharot on humankind’s “optimism bias.” This explained how we tend strongly towards a view that things will always work out – that the future will always be better than the past. This trait has brought many benefits to humanity over our species history – after all we wouldn’t have gone hunting mammoths if we didn’t occasionally suffer delusions of optimism in the face of quite serious challenges!

But this time we face different types of challenges, ones which might make that optimism bias a threat to our species success rather a source of positive evolution.

Unlike hunting mammoths, where failure leaves you hungry, we face systemic threats with the potential to over-run all attempts to contain them.

There are two key issues to making this the case. Ecosystem lags – the delay between action e.g. emitting CO2 pollution and response e.g. the climate changing – and the inherent risks in a highly integrated global economy i.e. the low margin for error when a globally impactful crisis hits.

We learnt the latter in 2007/8, which many now believe was triggered by record oil prices sucking money out of the US economy, causing sub-prime mortgages to default and almost bringing down the global financial system. This is a good example of systemic risk vs theoretical markets. In theory higher oil prices just reduce demand and encourage alternatives but in reality change happens fast and markets can’t respond, leading to complicated impacts. As we saw, our now tightly wound and integrated global economy can thus be easily shaken to the core by a relatively normal event such as high oil prices.

The other issue challenging the techno-optimist view is lags – when fixing the cause of some problems doesn’t slow the impacts or bring benefits for a long time.

This applies to climate change, as discussed above, where the impact goes on for decades, but also to degrading soil quality or over extracting water from aquifers as is becoming a critical issue in China. When the negative impacts of such lagging impacts are substantial and economic, as is the case with climate and food related issues, it makes solving them even more difficult. This is because as the impacts take hold and a response is pursued, the negative economic consequences continue to build causing economic weakness just when the most resources are needed to fix the causes.

Put these together and we face a serious problem. Driven by their optimism bias, people use the clearly huge opportunity of technology to reassure themselves we won’t face a crisis. They believe any serious limits in the system will be avoided because technology will intervene and we’ll adapt. There are two reasons I think this is wrong and may actually be dangerous.

Firstly, while technology has huge potential to address the issues we face, without strong price signals and other government support, large-scale technology change takes a very long time. We see this today where, though there are many programs supporting clean technology around the world, it is taking a long time – many decades – for this technology to have scale impact.

This is the second reason the techno-optimists view is wrong, the science says we simply don’t have a long time. In fact we’re completely out of time, with the evidence clear that the ecosystem limits have already been breached. This is no longer forecasts but rather the measurement of today’s reality. Record temperatures for three decades in a row, acidifying oceans, soil system overload, aquifers depleting and all that resulting in rapidly rising commodity prices as argued be investors like Jeremy Grantham. And because of the ecosystem lags, this process and its economic impact has a great deal further change already built in by emissions over recent decades.

But can’t technology drive rapid change? Everyone at TED holds up their smart phones as a wonderful example of such fast, transformational change. This is a good and correct example, but it needs to be put in perspective. This is what I call a “toy technology” – something that makes our lives more convenient and more fun. These technologies are adding real value to our lives and driving change, but they are not transforming the foundations of our current economy. They also don’t threaten a powerful industry that then fights against their success. The oil industry alone is a $3 trillion per year economic powerhouse, add on coal, cars and fossil fuelled power stations and it’s going to take more than a Steve Jobs design genius, to get that amount of capital to move aside. Thus the question becomes time, something we’re out of.

I am a big believer in the power of technology and markets. I can see how they can combine to make our lives safer, cleaner and more secure. But given the scale of our challenges, particularly around climate and food, it would be naïve to think they are capable of delivering the change needed until government takes strong action to kick-start a true scale transformation. The danger in techno-optimism is that it becomes a form of denial. That things aren’t that serious and therefore politically difficult change that will confront powerful vested economic interests can be avoided. Such a view is reassuring, it feels good and it fits nicely with our genetic tendency to optimism.

Unfortunately it’s also wrong.

87 thoughts on “Will the techno-optimists save the world?

  1. George Smith

    Comment #2: Paul… really, you must share the magnitude of Your Personal Carbon Footprint and Your personal plans to manage it. There are so many like you with huge footprints who rationalize it by pointing to their “Mission” which justifies the 300+ Tons of CO2 they generate each year, while billions of us squeak by on one Ton or less.

  2. john brand

    I would like to hear more from Paul on how we can possibly manage the projected water shortage. That is one I just don’t see any way to circumvent with advances in technology. Only an unlikely radical decline in population growth might offer hope imo, and it may already be way to late for even that option.

  3. Snow Larson

    You know lets get down to brass tacks here. Your just another person who more than doubled the population of your own home, assuming your children aren’t adopted. So thanks for the message Paul, keep breeding … it feels so natural doesn’t it. Theres something NOBODY wants to talk about …opps.

  4. Watching your TED talk (twice) and reading “The Great Disruption” leads me to admire your optimism for what will follow the “great awakening” . In view the following I cannot bring myself to such a view. I believe there is an implicit assumption in your work that the scientific view will prevail.

    Reading Mooney and others on the Conservative/Republican mind and Naomi Klein re disaster capitalism I fear a potentially different outcome. Given the Republican party has assumed the mantle of all out climate change denial and the impervious nature of the conservative mind to facts and evidence suggests another possible outcome. Recognizing the Earth is heating up is not necessarily the same as recognizing the need to reduce man made carbon emissions. The first thought of a disaster capitalist is “how can I make money out of this opportunity?

    Thus I suspect an attempt to directly jump to bioengineering with little or no attempt to reduce carbon emission. I picture a “Krakatoa Soution” with lines of C5’s, C17’s, and converted 747’s hauling tons of sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, Of course this is folly – it will lead eventually to another Venus. Such a program does, however, generate lots of taxpayer funded contracts to private industry.

    Have you considered such a possibility in your work?

  5. Bill Bunting

    Hi Paul,

    Great talk. I am right beside you when you say “I have done my grieving” it is time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

    Yes the solutions are there. They will not save the planet in time due to the power of affluence ego, but they are there ready for implementation.

    Below is a comment I originally constructed for Larvatus Prodeo and then further added for another. It lays down a series of important product milestones that together have the ability to trnsform our (Australian) Carbon Emissions. The first is a product that my business partner an myself have conceptualised and is based on “in the market” technology every part of which is in commercial use in Australia today.

    Doug,

    The Paul Gilding talk is pretty well spot on. I agree with Paul when he says he has done his grieving, the situation is what it is. I am at the same point.

    “The only thing we need to change is how we think and how we feel” PG TED

    Absolute gold.

    Gilding forewarns of the war ……………….”for civilisation”,…………….. this will be a 40 year war. A war in which everyone is a winner, ………….even the 1%.

    I know as a product designer that this is entirely true. The solutions are there.

    So lets go through a set briefly, but a set that will work for Australia.

    It is important to pick off problems by degree of impact.

    Top of the list is domestic and small business energy. The set of solutions are entirely solar and include

    * GenIIPV which provides all of the energy for households along with local and commuting primary travel requirements.

    Other energy (local).

    * Bio Digesters convert primary sewerage into methane (natural gas) and already widely used in China.

    * NASA Omega converts sewerage outfall to methane biofuels and recovered elements such as phosphorus .

    The alternative vehicle set offered by designers (but not yet in production) include

    * VWL1 2 seater diesel 100klms/l A National fleet realistically be could be powered by palm oil from the Northern Territories as the consumtion is a factor of 10 lower than current vehicles. (quick palm oil calcualtion 100*100 [sqklms] *100[hect]*3000[l/hect]=3billionLitres or sufficint to replace all Aust petrol consumption at 10% for nation fleet of VWL1 equivalent vehicles) do-able.
    * Tata MegaPixel hybride 4 seater 85klm range on home charge and a full 900klm range on combined fuel (current design petrol but could be biodiesel)
    VW Bulli 6 seater or pickup van 300klm range on 40kwhrs

    * Pipistrel G4 4 seater electric powered aircraft. Proven range of 400 klms fully loaded, but with Envia batteries will fly Sydney to Melbourne or Brisbane on a single charge, and where fitted with replacable wingtip battery modules can immediately turn around to return. This aircraft is a special construction to win a prize and prove the point. The production plane would look more like the Pantera.

    * I detest the N word but I see no alternative to nuclear powered container ships as oil supply is swamped by demand.

    Coming enabling technologies.

    * Envia battery offering the possibility of 400watt hours per kilogramme. (currently under test).

    * The balance of Energy will come from wind, hydro, and gas. The gas is fossil fuel but its component will be small and used mainly for bridging extended gaps in solar supply. There are biofuel options for the gas component but natural gas is the most cost effective solution for wide distribution.

    That draws a line under domestic energy, heating and cooling, personal transport, small business energy and heating/cooling, and service vehicle systems. All of the above is based on existing proven technologies, requiring only implementation.

    This does not include supply materials and resources processing, but at this point we have resolved up to 75% of our energy requirements and resolved 50% of our CO2 emissions. This is all achieveable on a 30 year establishment programme, and the cost is heavily negative ie less than the cost of business as usual.

    The other 50% of emissions I have not researched, but I have no doubt that there is a significant measure of ready to install terchnologies that will address much of the balance.

    For what it is worth that is my assessment of the best options available at the lowest cost, and with the best extended long term energy future, and based on current “shovel ready” knowledge.

    If anyone has a better believeable story to tell I am keen to hear it in detail.
    ________________________________________________

    Personally my adation approach for my family is a living afloat one, yes I know with obvious risks. This approach involves a 3 product solution.

    1 I’m building a 34 foot (it got longer as I developed the plan) ferro cement yacht based on the Bristol Channel Cutter design solution. This is a fully featured solution which includes every comfort that we take for granted in our McMansions, except space. With yachts, though, the world is the back yard and space is a very different perception.
    2 I am building a very different pushbike. This is a bike designed to fold to briefcase size, yet include all of the ridability of your standard bike. The gearing was a problem for several years until in an accident of thinking I resolved the issue with a gearing concept that I am in the process of patenting. This will now be a bike with 13 speeds and an all internal drive. It has become a little fatter in the folded form but still fits the original design intent.
    3. The third element in the solution is a little more audatious. This will be a three seater amphibious aircraft based on a a hybride microlight/ultralight concept. This vehicle (20% through the design process) is 3.5 metres in length will weigh in at empty under 500kg have a rnge of 1300 klm land virtually anywhere with about 50 m take off and landing roll and have a cruising speed between 300 and 370 kph. It is possible to make the wings on this craft fold so that it can be stored in the storage/parking space of a mini. The cabin space is designe to be able to be partially pressurized to allow a greater altitude of flight.

    So if you put all of those elements into a solution set, what I am attempting to achieve is a minimal impact living space which can be accessed from anywhere on the Australian central eastern seaboard within a few hours, thus providing a quality living experience and full freedom of movement locally and remote, and without stretching the earth’s resources. Yes the aircraft uses fuel but the design is based on the Gemini 125 horsepower diesel (which unfrotunately appears to be no longer available but the design solution still exists and is proven) which was suitable for biodiesel fuels such as palm oil. The concept of this solution is that it is possible to move from the CBD’s of Sydney (Darling Harbour), Melbourne (the Yarra at SouthBank near Reg Anstt’s heli pad), the Brisbane River, the Torrens river for Adelaide, and Lake Burley Griffin for Canberra within 2 and a half hours for each leg. In theory anyway. All of the recent floods and fires confirm to me the robustness of this as as medium range transport solution with the bike for the last 10K, and of course convenient access to the boat no matter where it is moored.

    That is my plan, anyway. I am into realistic and deliverable design solutions, anyone of which is an important contribution to a liveable future.

    Believeable?

    I built my first 44 foot ferro cement boat in the 70’s and lived aboard that for a wonderful 4 years on Sydney. That presence left no permant scar on the planet and I am determined that my daughters are able to have have same experience.

    I’ve posted this reply to your comment at LP. And now here too. This is where my head is placed at this point in time.

    Doug,

    The Paul Gilding talk is pretty well spot on. I agree with Paul when he says he has done his grieving, the situation is what it is. I am at the same point.

    “The only thing we need to change is how we think and how we feel” PG TED

    Absolute gold.

    Gilding forewarns of the war ……………….”for civilisation”,…………….. this will be a 40 year war. A war in which everyone is a winner, ………….even the 1%.

    I know as a product designer that this is entirely true. The solutions are there.

    So lets go through a set briefly, but a set that will work for Australia.

    It is important to pick off problems by degree of impact.

    Top of the list is domestic and small business energy. The set of solutions are entirely solar and include

    GenIIPV which provides all of the energy for households along with local and commuting primary travel requirements.

    Other energy (local).

    Bio Digesters convert primary sewerage into methane (natural gas) and already widely used in China.

    NASA Omega converts sewerage outfall to methane biofuels and recovered elements such as phosphorus .

    The alternative vehicle set offered by designers (but not yet in production) include

    VWL1 2 seater diesel 100klms/l A National fleet realistically be could be powered by palm oil from the Northern Territories as the consumtion is a factor of 10 lower than current vehicles.
    Tata MegaPixel hybride 4 seater 85klm range on home charge and a full 900klm range on combined fuel (current design petrol but could be biodiesel)
    VW Bulli 6 seater or pickup van 300klm range on 40kwhrs
    Coming enabling technologies.

    Pipistrel G4 4 seater electric powered aircraft. Proven range of 400 klms fully loaded, but with Envia batteries will fly Sydney to Melbourne or Brisbane on a single charge, and where fitted with replacable wingtip battery modules can immediately turn around to return. This aircraft is a special construction to win a prize and prove the point. The production plane would look more like the Pantera.

    Envia battery offering the possibility of 400watt hours per kilogramme. (currently under test).

    The balance of Energy will come from wind, hydro, and gas. The gas is fossil fuel but its component will be small and used mainly for bridging extended gaps in solar supply. There are biofuel options for the gas component but natural gas is the most cost effective solution for wide distribution.

    That draws a line under domestic energy, heating and cooling, personal transport, small business energy and heating/cooling, and service vehicle systems. All of the above is based on existing proven technologies, requiring only implementation.

    This does not include supply materials and resources processing, but at this point we have resolved up to 75% of our energy requirements and resolved 50% of our CO2 emissions. This is all achieveable on a 30 year establishment programme, and the cost is heavily negative ie less than the cost of business as usual.

    The other 50% of emissions I have not researched, but I have no doubt that there is a significant measure of ready to install terchnologies that will address much of the balance.

    For what it is worth that is my assessment of the best options available at the lowest cost, and with the best extended long term energy future, and based on current “shovel ready” knowledge.

    If anyone has a better believeable story to tell I am keen to hear it in detail.
    ________________________________________________

    Personally my adation approach for my family is a living afloat one, yes I know with obvious risks. This approach involves a 3 product solution.

    1 I’m building a 34 foot (it got longer as I developed the plan) ferro cement yacht based on the Bristol Channel Cutter design solution. This is a fully featured solution which includes every comfort that we take for granted in our McMansions, except space. With yachts, though, the world is the back yard and space is a very different perception.
    2 I am building a very different pushbike. This is a bike designed to fold to briefcase size, yet include all of the ridability of your standard bike. The gearing was a problem for several years until in an accident of thinking I resolved the issue with a gearing concept that I am in the process of patenting. This will now be a bike with 13 speeds and an all internal drive. It has become a little fatter in the folded form but still fits the original design intent.
    3. The third element in the solution is a little more audatious. This will be a three seater amphibious aircraft based on a a hybride microlight/ultralight concept. This vehicle (20% through the design process) is 3.5 metres in length will weigh in at empty under 500kg have a rnge of 1300 klm land virtually anywhere with about 50 m take off and landing roll and have a cruising speed between 300 and 370 kph. It is possible to make the wings on this craft fold so that it can be stored in the storage/parking space of a mini. The cabin space is designe to be able to be partially pressurized to allow a greater altitude of flight.

    So if you put all of those elements into a solution set, what I am attempting to achieve is a minimal impact living space which can be accessed from anywhere on the Australian central eastern seaboard within a few hours, thus providing a quality living experience and full freedom of movement locally and remote, and without stretching the earth’s resources. Yes the aircraft uses fuel but the design is based on the Gemini 125 horsepower diesel (which unfrotunately appears to be no longer available but the design solution still exists and is proven) which was suitable for biodiesel fuels such as palm oil. The concept of this solution is that it is possible to move from the CBD’s of Sydney (Darling Harbour), Melbourne (the Yarra at SouthBank near Reg Anstt’s heli pad), the Brisbane River, the Torrens river for Adelaide, and Lake Burley Griffin for Canberra within 2 and a half hours for each leg. In theory anyway. All of the recent floods and fires confirm to me the robustness of this as as medium range transport solution with the bike for the last 10K, and of course convenient access to the boat no matter where it is moored.

    That is my plan, anyway. I am into realistic and deliverable design solutions, anyone of which is an important contribution to a liveable future.

    Believeable?

    I built my first 44 foot ferro cement boat in the 70’s and lived aboard that for a wonderful 4 years on Sydney Harbour. That presence left no permanent scar on the planet and I am determined that my daughters are able to have have that same experience.

  6. Bill Bunting

    Your talk, Paul, is just as good with repeat viewings. One thing that occurred to me was as you looked out on a densely assembled audience of perhaps several thousand, that after the event those people would disperse and spread to occupy their several thousand McMansions on the spread of roads that allow us to move in comfort, and on the Monday will move further to their expanse of work places.

    The thought is that as creatures of nature we are not at all efficient. We are expensive to the natural world. Had your audience been an equal number of Wilderbeast then after your presentation they would have moved as a group….to over there somewhere,…. and continued grazing, fertilizing that area as they munched before moving on to another field.

    So the talk is over what now. It appears that despite numerous countries being deluged to submission, here in Australia the mood for Climate Action has passed, judging by today’s “poll release”.

    What to do next?

  7. Bill Bunting

    Technology moving along.

    Covering the distance without roads. Taking the adaptive path to Climate Change.

    http://pal-v.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Pal-V_press_release.pdf

    Not the most fuel efficient PAV by any means, but this is an important milestone for Personal Air Vehicles. This is the first practical “carry it all with you” flying roadable to date. The Waterman Aerobile from 1937 was the first really practical roadable but it left its wings at the airport. It is safe to say (my judgement) that future designs will dramatically reduce the fuel consumption and provide a full electric version.

    Not surprisingly the Pal-V has attracted interest from a large number of quarters. They have been sorking on this for a lot of years. Perseverence pays off.

  8. edgar andres ochoa

    Dear optimist,
    pessimist, and realist

    while you guys were busy arguing about the glass of water, I drank it!

    Sincerely, the opportunist

    _______________________________________

    We can discus all night long, but the reality wont change, we have to act now!, in a global or local scale, with technology or theory….

  9. Bill Bunting

    Good on you Edgar,

    So having drunk the water are feeling half full or are you feeling half empty? And what are you going to do next?

  10. We are biologically conceived as children of Mother Nature to suckle the loving breast of her health, balance and beauty. Upon our birth into Industrial Society, it weans us to suck instead the plastic nipple on a bottle of whiskey. For the remainder of our lives we suffer the destructive effects of the bottle until we connect with nature’s power to help us replace our whiskey-nipple addiction. The connection is available via http://www.SaneEarth.com

    Paul, why do you think you have overlooked it?

  11. Just watched the TED talk, and Thx for bringing the heavy reality dose to this platform! Not an easy task… And it feels as though it was done with an absorbable tact ( though i’m one who already pretty much agrees with the scenario you’ve described ). With a project called the XLerrestrials we are addressing these kinds of issues with a new kind of engaged public cinema + forum called Citizen Kino. We are developing it as a form of “media self-defense”, that is an antidote to media literacy and the onslaught of consumer-data downloads (the consumer OS) and the predatory digital conglomerates. For us, we see the current state of media /communications environments, as a key territory for intervening in this continuity of defective behaviors. So long as the media continues to feed the idea of “technology redemption”, we may be unable to sufficiently extract ourselves from the delusions of corporatized culture. And these media environments may continue obstructing us from the earth’s ( and organisms’) natural and innate intelligence. Anyway to be brief here, look fwd to learning more about your work, and hope we’ll cross paths on the sustainability trails.

  12. Joe McDermott

    Coming across someone who “knows” to be true so many breathtakingly untrue things is, well, breathtaking. I’d expand, but I have to finish an O&G lease. Drill, baby.

  13. You say “disruption”, Paul, and I say “discontinuity”, probably because I cut my teeth on Velikovsky. Discontinuity is the worse case, the loss of historical memory. Remnants of long forgotten civilizations emerge as archeological anomalies, like the electrode, a conductor and insulator of advanced manufacture, found in a geode at least 250,000 years old.

    You are naive to suppose that “peak oil” had anything to do with the liquidity crisis of 2007 to present. There is no shortage of oil, there is only the expectation of shortage. This depression was caused by criminal behavior and a hugely corrupt financial system. To save ourselves we must eliminate the private financial system and replace it with a monetary system in the public interest. Most people, even enlightened ones in this forum don’t know what that means. Ignorance about money is almost universal. 19th Century American farmers understood money better than modern consumers.

    Technology exists to provide clean, sustainable energy. We don’t understand electricity. The theoretical framework of JC Maxwell is not the last word, but electrical engineers continue to operate with outmoded understandings. Energy from the vacuum, the quantum flux, is available. Proof of concept is readily available. We do not have free energy because our masters are not done selling us oil. We use the type of energy they permit us to use. When there is a true oil shortfall, new sources will be introduced. Fuel cells, probably, and thorium reactors. There will be no free energy, no decentralized, democratic energy source. The 1% could not exist if the population had unlimited cheap and sustainable energy. It is closely held and ruthlessly suppressed.

    There is a techno solution to problems posed by our mass populations, but there is no political will, nor any depth of understanding. We cannot even limit our own numbers. That’s how “in control” we are. Other species in a state of nature limit their numbers as a courtesy. We’re not even as smart as chimpanzees. We humans have no courtesy and that is why vast numbers will die off in paroxysms of fear and misery. It won’t be a bad thing. It is not even to be regretted. There simply is no option to have 9 billions on the planet. Can’t happen, not even with a technofix.

    Tomorrow morning, the black swan could be peering in our wndows. Is it a disruption or a discontinuity?

    Have a chat with James Lovelock if you’re feeling too optimistic.

  14. Eric

    Hi Paul, everyone,

    I read the Great Disruption recently, and like some other commenters here I’m over my “grieving” period and am now ready to get to work.

    However, I’m a little lost on exactly how to do that. I’d like to get in contact with people in the know and see what sort of jobs/opportunities are out there. I’m a game designer by trade and currently have a job producing web and mobile apps. I’d be happy to leverage that (games can be powerful tools for change) or to make a change if something with more direct impact presented itself.

    Anyone have any suggestions? …or can just point me in the right direction?

  15. Bill Bunting

    Eric, if you are good at what you do send me an email bill@keztek.com . The fact is that your industry is entirely the hope for the future….all time…no materials. This is what at least 30% of the 7 billion need to engage in in order to preserve resources. The art is to develop products where the user….and the developer can achieve economic activity through applied skill/creativity and time. I have some ideas.

  16. Kelly

    Dear Paul
    keep up the good work. I forward all your mail outs and videos to my networks and ask people to listen to ‘the most sensible man on the planet.’ Let the philosophy students argue about the meaning of optimism. It’s not worth expending energy over words that we’ll all apply according to our personal framework of references anyway. Your messages are getting across, keep them coming.
    cheers

  17. ra

    Thank you, sir, for addressing so eloquently and thoroughly the issues concerning those who, in a tradition near and dear to the American heart, that technology will ride over the hill like the cavalry to save us at the last moment from problems we ourselves have created. I thoroughly enjoyed your TED talk but did notice that the audience, while attentive and polite, did not take to your message the way they did for Mr. Diamandis. I thought this said a great deal about not only your audience that day but the great audience out there who either are unaware of what’s happening or, as your writing suggests, will be in denial until it hits them personally.

  18. Bill Bunting

    ra,

    Don’t be too hard on the populace. Eating, sleeping and procreating is what we are meant to do, and we do it very well as a species. Technology will come charging over the hill to save us, or some of us at least. Of course that could happen sooner rather than too later if the ideologues and religeous fuitcakes would get out of the way. The good new is that more than half US states are right on to the problem and achieving results (NYT today or yesterday).

    The technology solution is, by the way, not particularly expensive in real terms, but it does take time to implement as it is more involved than getting a new iPhone.

  19. Your TED talk shocked me, not because of the content, but because I have been saying all of your salient points for a decade now in my work as an amateur politician, youth educator, activist and change agent (and lighthouse keeper). It is good to know that you are preaching what I have been trying to practice. This is the defining issue of our time; indeed of the history of humanity. TIme to grow up people.

    Carry on,
    Mike

  20. Murray Scott

    Very eloquent Paul and I’m sure your essays will help to accelerate the sustainability transition and hence soften the blow when it comes.

    I too am a technophile and reformed ultralight pilot, much given to enthusiasms about flying cars, electric vehicles and aircraft , yachts etc. like some other contributors above. But to those who want to present these ideas in the name of sustainability I would offer a word of caution : MATERIALS.

    I am confident that even at the present state of development our electricity needs both for domestic and much of our transport can be met by wind, solar, wave and geothermal sources and a bit of biomass (please not gross palm-oil plantations) but I don’t hear anyone talking about the much more intractable problem of materials to build all these gadgets and the built environment in which we live and work. Production of the three staples of steel, aluminium and concrete all involve CO2 emissions far beyond their process energy demands, amounting to about 1/3 of all greenhouse emissions.

    The only “technodream” measure I can see to reduce materials emissions (apart from the unlikely prospect of CO2 sequestration) is to sequester solid elemental carbon into the fabric of our buildings, vehicles and machines. Of course this is beginning to happen at the high tech fringe in the form of carbon fibre composites in eg. fishing rods and Airbusses. Carbon fibres are currently made from fossil fuel stock (mostly oil) with very expensive processes and horrendously low thermodynamic efficiency. One way to improve that is to pyrolyse hydrocarbons, ideally gas, using concentrated solar thermal energy and specialised catalysts to produce carbon nanotubes and various grades of fibres plus hydrogen. Binder resins can be similarly produced from hydrocarbons, such as oil with minimal emissions using solar process heat

    With essentially zero emissions we thus get a storable transport fuel and materials to replace steel and aluminium in many applications. Cement for concrete is more difficult but its use with carbon fibre reinforcement instead of steel is well established and eliminates problems of concrete cancer.

    The bottom line from all this for activists is to redouble our efforts to STOP CSG and preserve the remaining oil from being wastefully burned in the next few decades because the residues of fossil hydrocarbons surviving in the ground are going to be our materials lifeline in centuries to come. No more steel, aluminium and concrete, except by recycling. The constraints on greenhouse gas emissions are not going to go away even after we stabilise global temperatures.

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  22. Have nearly finished TGD and have found it to be v. clarifying, well done! I was disappointed by the lightweight and cursory treatment of agriculture. Can anyone explain how to feed 9 billion without greenhouse emissions? Has anyone built a 300 horsepower electric tractor? Can the task be accomplished using horses? Can farmers look forward to less work too? Will food prices explode given the foregoing? Perhaps we will need to work longer hours to afford a new kind of “stuff”: food!

  23. Thom Foote

    At the risk of sounding totally parochial, I can only act locally and think globally. I have a small 10 acre permaculture-based, organic farm in Eastern Washington state. The disruption will, and is, affecting winter precipitation duration and dry spell duration. The only thing I can do is dig multiple 10k gallon cisterns to carry me thru the dry spell each year and be recharged in the winter. I can only work globally by supporting groups and orgs working to change policies. I cannot work thru my government. They will not be able to deal with this.

  24. Diego

    Hi Paul

    Although I agree with your general view, I think it will be half half. The limits of growth will demand change, and technology will find solutions to adapt, but only to a certain point, unless the crash will be so severe that most people can’t afford to buy technology.

    There was a wonderful experiment called “one tonne life” in Sweden where a family lived in a technologically very advanced house with an electric car.

    They tried to lower their carbon emmission of 6 tonnes per year per person to 1 tonne, and they almost succeded. But they also had to adjust their lifestyle to get there.

    Have a look, very entertaining!
    http://www.onetonnelife.com

  25. nick

    “when we feel fear we can do extraordinary things”… Seems like people can act here, like mankind can act as a whole, giving each others hands… But only a few take decisions down there i’m afraid… A few have power and money and lead us to the worse…
    I think you are one of those optimistics you’re critisizing…

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