Will the techno-optimists save the world?


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.

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

  1. Paul, congratulations to you for your wonderful TED talk with I have already viewed. Fantastic – and just the right message although we know it will not get you voted “most popular guy at the conference”! Sounds like you influenced really well though.

    My area of expertise is leadership development for a sustaining existence on Earth and as I read your article I am impressed again by the ways in which we know we humans will tend to avoid learning new ways – we avoid ‘adpative change’. We avoid it by tending towards the ‘technical’ which is not about technology per se but about using thinking and ways that have already served us well. So there is no paradigm shifting learning that takes place in a ‘technical’ response. (The neuroscience research is also now confirming this too.)

    It takes the leadership of the kind you have displayed to ‘disappoint people’ and hold them to the task of talking about new possibilities. It’s a process over time and I want to say that I honor the way you speak your truth and continue to ‘hold the space’ for the conversations that need to occur. It takes courage (and resilience) because people do not want to hear… they want someone else to solve it so they can continue doing what they have always done.

    The piece I would add as an offering that may assist us all become more effective in this leaderhsip is to help people develop visions of the new future – the future we all really want. The future that represents the adaptive paradigm shift we need. I have been exploring this within my research (PhD and interdisciplinary with natural resource scientists) for the last 3 years now… and it seems to be an energising, connective piece for people to explore new possibilitiues without resistance. Which is really interesting!

    Thank you!

  2. Thanks Paul.

    My daughter said to me last week – “I wonder how long it will be before we look back on this age of smart phones in the same way we now look at cigarettes.” I thought it showed great insight.

    We are so caught up in our paradigm that we cannot see beyond it. We ask ourselves “what challenge could possible to so difficult that our technology enabled human spirit cannot solve it.” But unfortunately we treat this as a rhetorical question rather than a real one.

    Finally, my experience of the show of hands thing is that the 50% who were worried will mostly have forgotten about it all by the time they get back to their normal environments.

    But a few of them will no doubt take this on board more seriously. And for that reason it is great that you were able to address TED.

    Cheers, Ben

  3. Yeah, I’m with you Paul. Admired your TED speech. Its necessary to state and restate exactly how desperate things are, even though no-one wants to hear it. (More power to Jim Hansen – the guy is a legend.)
    Re optimism bias, you only have to listen to the Polyanna statements of bond-holders in relation to Greek default, all of them trying to work out how to get off the sinking ship asap while convincing everyone else theres no cause for panic.
    The problem with the whole Tech Fix argument is that you need a stable functioning economy to provide technological benefits . It’s no accident that the iPhone wasn’t invented in Afghanistan. And once multiple nations start falling apart theres a domino effect which makes it increasingly impossible to develop new solutions or pan-global treaties. Agreement on re-engineering the climate seems impossible even now, because no-one wants to weaken their own position. What’s it going to be like when the shit really hits the fan?

  4. Paul, Your talk at TED was brilliant and I have enjoyed making a number of blog posts there to follow up. As you recall, we had talked at some length at the TEDx in Iowa City about the importance of understanding human awareness and all of the powerful and important insights coming from neuroscience. I think your mentioning of Tali Sharot and the optimism bias is extremely important as it points to a major dysfunction in human awareness given our current unprecedented situation.

    I, for one, love new technology. I am writing this on a Mac 27 inch quad core awesome computer… best computer I have ever owned.

    But to say we can ignore the current rapid decline in the habitability of the planet because new technology will solve all our problems is a major error.

    For all the reasons you point out, it may well add additional unpredicted problems and in so far it narrows our awareness and makes us blind to the real facts pertaining to the big picture, it will contribute to the coming chaos, not solve it…

    Why are people so eager to run away from these basic truths into fantasies that diminish the awareness that could be our saving grace? Why not just look it in the eye and meet the coming crisis with joy and a passion to move all of mankind to a new and better place… no depression or fear in that stance as far as I can see? It is liberating in fact.

    For my part, I will continue to study human awareness with all of its capacities and also dysfunctions and to develop a skill in modulating awareness in service of all mankind at this unprecedented point in human and planetary history.

    All the best to you and your family and warm regards!

  5. I agree with just about everything Paul. No, tecno-optimists won’t save the world. But there is actually something going on that might buy us more time. It has taken me a long time to understand just how much damage humans have done to the earth. Moreton Bay had dugong herds 1km long, America had bison herds with millions of beasts, Africa had similar huge herds. The earth could support many times what it does now after mankind has got to it.

    The carbon farmers, the followers of Peter Andrews and his ilk, the guys that are rebuilding the soil. That is what will buy us time. It is almost an anti-technology fix but with the potential to remove 50ppm of C02 (I have not had that verified), I think it may be a very important part of the solution.
    Unfortunately it is still considered fringe, unsupported by peer review papers, just unequivocal evidence on the ground for all to see if they wish.

  6. Jean Fleming

    Thank you for a wonderful technology-free talk, that went straight to the brain and then to the heart, Paul. I have circulated it to my science communication students, many of whom are battling with the dilemmas you, Josie and Ben have commented on. Of course the techno-crowd are optimistic – nobody wants their world to change. I agree with Josie – we need to offer visions of how it could be. I, for one, don’t believe this new God we call the Market, can possibly respond in time or with enough change to make a difference.

    But keep going, Paul! Keep writing, keep TED talking. You ARE making a difference.
    Thank you!

  7. Jack W. Scott

    Good article, Paul, the Feb. 28th Seattle Times had a front page article detailing ocean acidification which was quite informative. You are correct, we are out of time, Racheal Carson in her book Silent Spring said we were at a crossroad in history, deciding whether to save Nature or roll over it. Well, it was not 1962, nor 2062 that we face the critical decision, it’s 2012, now, today. The oysters around the Pacific Northwest are dying and other species are soon to follow! Then, the entire ocean will be devoid of life, and then we go. Or……… somebody will do something!

  8. Ryan Shaw

    Great talk Paul. Like everyone else that has commented I truly believe that techno-optimists won’t save the world, rather it will be society coming together much like you described in your book.

    From a personal perspective I have found purpose and meaning in the fight against climate change, something which I find quite powerful. Over the past year I have raised expectations of myself as I increasingly take on leadership roles within the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (Australia’s largest youth led organisation).

    I would also like to agree with Josie and the power of positive visioning, Martin Luther King never said “I have a nightmare…”. While positive visioning is a form of optimism, it doesn’t rely on techno-optimism as the centre for the call to action.

    Once again great talk Paul and like yourself I am optimistic for the future because the most dedicated and passionate people I know are working towards creating it.


  9. Keep going Paul. May I suggest that we all re-visit the study of Permaculture as written and taught by David Holmgren and Bill Mollsion and maintained by a staunch little band of realists. Therein lies the complete design framework and common language for all people and businesses and professional disciplines to bring about the good change you know we must have. Any technology is just a useful “element” in an overall “system”. The System must be in overall energy balance locally and globally.

  10. Hi Paul,

    I watched your TED talk with great interest yesterday. A devastating and uplifting experience at the same time.

    You are the thinking person’s Kony 2012.

    Cheers Ben

  11. Tony H

    And isn’t it also true that technical solutions use creativity, energy and other valuable resources – not to mention the wastes created – to so often merely move a problem from one place (where the it was recognised) to another place (where it may be transformed into something which takes a while for use to discover)? A sort of sustainability Ponzi scheme. :-)

  12. Hans Sipsma

    I am with you all the way Paul. This Techno-optimism seems to me to be no different to the science fiction of the 1950-60’s when technology was deemed to have no limits, both in resources or fantasy. Out of this ethos the “Zeitgeist-Venus Project” by a bunch of wealthy Americans was born; an equally fantastic technological wet dream.

    Oh yes I have looked for answers in the weirdest places but now realise that it lies within ourselves. We need to confront our fears and false fantasies with clarity and honesty and then take practical steps towards becoming better Human Beings; less destructive, greedy, selfish and…an important one in this age of tittilating distraction and instant gratification…more actively involved.

    Thank you for being such a strong voice for a better future.

  13. Ken C

    Great talk, Paul. As a retired high school teacher I can tell you that young people are very concerned about the issue of climate change. It’s ironic that the voices of youth have been marginalized on this issue yet young people will be living in climatically unstable world far longer than most of us.

    We desperately need the energy and optimism of youth but we also need the expertise and experience of older people.

  14. Kel Feind

    Mostly, I think we are doomed. There are multiple trends that will make this world unsuitable for a large cosmopolitan human society and all are being ignored and we are rushing headlong off a high cliff. The only possible bright spot seems to me to be China, yes, China. For China has an authoritarian government that can actually get things done. The means aren’t always pretty and they have plenty of problems but several things stand out.

    The most spectacular change in China in my lifetime has been the “one child policy,” for if anything is destroying the earth it is overpopulation. The Chinese government has at least drawn a line in the sand with respect to it’s population.

    It is interesting to me that this happened roughly a generation ago. A question: Is the one child policy the cause of China’s spectacular educational achievements today? Is the far that families in China only have one child directly responsible for the success of broad swaths of Chinese youth? I think it is a question that needs to be investigated. Certainly the contrast with America could not be more stark..

  15. PDayhoff

    Your TED talk was right on track and just what we needed to hear going into Rio +20, at R. Carson +50. Diamandis’s talk was helpful in that it did imply that we could use some new technology to assist with adaptation and the long-term changes needed, however, the first hurdle is to get folks out of denial and mobilized according to a realistic schedule for the tipping points that we know about. So, realizing that the governments of the major players are going to continue to move at a snail’s pace, that leaves the rest of us to grab this monster by the horns. There are people everywhere waking up to this call for an evolutionary leap in our awareness, consciousness, and responsibility for cleaning up our mess. So, I for one will keep making personal changes and keep my eyes, ears and brain scanning for ways to make an impact before we all are bracing for impact. Thank you for your work.

  16. Liz

    Thanks Paul.
    Very timely as I have just travelled around Southern Africa with a man who is “Sitting on the fence” as far as Global warming goes !
    Having sold Air conditioning plants at a time when the “Ozone hole” was the problem.Rob is convinced that the problem is similar and technology will rescue us from what worries many of us.
    I hope that your letter may help Rob to get off his fence and support efforts to make our nosedive a little less painful.
    Thanks once again and Good Luck

  17. Belinda

    Paul, I read your book. My thought is this: The meteorologists that predict the weather have got to be getting the word out on what is really going on in the heavens. As in, reporting on things in a factual, no-ax-to-grind way. They are in the best position to know, some are very scientific and educated. The whole subject is waaaay too political!

    I blame Al Gore, though I’m sure he meant well. Just a terrible spokesperson.

  18. Jason

    Great article.

    Answer is No.

    Not unless they are “Techno optimists implementing smart / creative action plans with the support of billions of people who understand our only distinction is in being human, from a planet called Earth”

    Technology can already help solve the problem(s). And government or outdated systems never will, and or will be too slow to change.

    For me this is all about us. Nothing will happen (in time) unless like minded people en masse take action individually and in groups to actually change / do something.

    Why are we even in this predicament?

  19. Interesting reflections +Paul Gilding I am currently reading Tali Sharot’s The Optimism Bias – The Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2074067,00.html & http://www.amazon.com/Optimism-Bias-Irrationally-Positive-Brain/dp/0307378489 and am also a huge fan of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together http://alonetogetherbook.com/ TEDxUIUC – Sherry Turkle – Alone Together

    These resources point to the fact that the end of your post is accurate. I sense your new book will be called The End of Optimism.

    Warm regards,

  20. SimonL

    What i like about Paul Gilding is he is realistic about human behaviour. Remember, as Jared Diamond points out, we are the third chimpanzee. We can be, and still are, brutal with each other.

    The techno optimists don’t appreciate Paul’s talk because it is too real. If i may, i suggest much of the audience at TED are overly optimistic. Many have been influenced by the cult of optimism as described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her outstanding book entitled, “Smile or Die – How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World”. Don’t get me wrong, i love optimism, but life has taught me to calm down and be more rational and less emotional before deciding matters of importance.

    As Paul says, we can do it. It is just going to take all of us to do it, or at least the majority. After reading Paul’s book, and a lot of the recommended readings and websites, i have cut down my consumption of unnecessary items and use my car less. Look, i could probably still do better, but what i have found is my happiness has not decreased and it hasn’t been an inconvenience. I am not special, and as more people do what they can, things will change – is that optimistic or realistic?

    Anyway, Mr Paul Gilding, please keep up the good work you are doing. You convinced me.


  21. Dr. Sam Moore

    Good morning! Saw your TED presentation and have read all the comments. Way back in the ’60s Garret Harding wrote about the challenges that would result from population growth and concluded that there was no technological answer to these challenges and that resolution would have to come from intentional changes in human behavior. The transformation of the way we look at economics, vis a vis the physical limits to growth, is a similar conundrum.
    Technology will have its place in the transformation, it already has. But unless we advance towards Star Trek much faster that our current path, our situation will outrun our technology and more importantly our real understanding of complex systems. Predicting technology development and reliance on technology as the savior for our challenges is risky. Reliance on rebuilding local and regional communities and economic systems, as described in your book and many others, has to be the ticket. Technology will allow us to network our communities in ways never before possible and this can aid us in building an abundant and equitable global society. However, without stable and resilient communities that are self sufficient and really efficient (as possible) in food, water, energy and human spirit, there is no real way to have a global realization of capabilities.
    Paul, you remain “right on target” from what I see.

  22. Thank you for sending link – and appreciate your activism and sound reasoning and teaching.

    I viewed some of the tech-optomist talks and found them frightening in their short sightedness.
    They hold up their iPhones that contain rare earth materials and are a huge public health risk to manufacture and there after. RARE earth ! do they get it? i think not. Do they think they can become the new alchemists? And, here, in the US they think we can FRACK ourselves out of it? destroying the substructure of the earth. It may be an apt analogy as we foul our nest and frack ourselves into annihilation.

    I try also to remain some shed of optimism – but it appears that we humans may be too, mean spirited, and greedy and egotistical to change our evolutionary mind set before it is too late.
    In Dynamic Peace – to step forward.

  23. Thanks for this measured, friendly viewpoint. I have not seen a question of our own intent, our willingness to understand in the climate “debate,…(a debate 15years ago, but who can hear now, over the noise of a mile wide tornado?)

    The cloud of manufactured doubt from big money fits right in, but why do we make it so easy?: They just have to tickle us at gut-level, and hook us into:
    – our history of movie scientist heroes, arriving in the last seconds with the serum/gadget/sexy alien to save the planet. Yes, they’re only movies, but just check our movie/reality Venn diagram. It looks more like a bullet hole.
    – our history of government action and perceived success with acid rain and the ozone hole.
    – that slick babe in the TV ad, who assures us; “Plenty of US gas and oil! Enough for 60 years!” (So, great-grandkids? You can go jump.)
    – a cable tabloid network masquerading as news, that sells justification, comforting sounds and mumblings carefully crafted to seem right. “Balanced” reporting that give personal slander equal weight with facts.

    Our mythology is really working against us.

    This certainly piqued my interest in the Optimism Bias. I shall read more.

    Jack Cone

  24. Great post, Paul. I, too, saw your TED talk and appreciated it, but thought, ironically, that it ended on too much optimism. This piece here hits the mark–we will only avoid the worst impacts of planetary overshoot by fully accepting reality, including the step-down in consumption and production we need to make. We also need to both limit growth and transition our current activity to zero net energy.

  25. Warren Bolton

    Thinking about the TED gathering in Long Beach California reminded me of a folk lore tale about a guy, I think his name was Nero and he was holding a similar gathering with his techno mates too ( some new fangled musical instruments I understand) but I don’t think they put the flames out either! – See http://www.stupidhumans.info./ for my views.

  26. In case you haven’t heard, it’s only a matter of weeks before great swarms of nanotechnology bot-drones, billions upon billions of them, will be released into the atmosphere. Their job will be to attack all the excess carbon dioxide by removing the oxygen from the carbon. The oxygen will remain in the atmosphere so we can breath it while the carbon will be brought down to earth where it can become new lifeforms. Hopefully, ones friendly to humans and our society. The techno boys are still working on that little issue, but reports are that it will be plugged as a feature not a bug whatever the result. If nothing else, it will help to remedy the current rate of extinction of species by introducing some new ones.

    Of course, climate change due to excess burning of long buried hydrocarbons is not the only problem we face on this planet. Technology is poised to help us here too. New techniques using string theory (which is as much of a “theory” as evolution is) will shortly be employed to shift excess population to other dimensions of the multiverse. The breakthrough discovery is that we now know how to warp the laws of quantum mechanics that had previously appeared to require an object, or a person, to be in two places at once. Now, we have mastered the methods necessary to shift into another dimension and leave almost no trace in the three lower ones we usually occupy. However, the most exciting part of this discovery, besides not having to feed this excess population and it using up all our resources, is that with the use of psychic transference attenuation technology we will not miss them even if we knew them personally, although naturally this technology will be mostly used, at first, in the third world and warmer climates where the bulk of the problem lies and we don’t actually know very many people. Later, it will be rolled out to undesirable elements in the developed world such as environmentalists and those who deny that technology will solve every little problem. That’ll learn them!

    In my lifetime, I have seen the population of the world double and I have been exposed to a great deal of techno-optimist “thought.” Honestly, there’s not much one can do after the fact about the first, but I can’t help but observe that things have not universally gotten better although statistics are trotted out at regular intervals to show that people lead easier and longer lives and “toy” technology — love that expression — is waved aloft at conferences of smart people admiring each other and their attendant smarter phones. In fact, from where I stand, many things and places have deteriorated primarily through too people, their bloody cars, and the inconvenient fact that people appear to need buildings to live and shop in. Public places have been invaded by those ever so intelligent phones and their frequently unconscious owners, totally unaware of their surroundings and unable to understand where they are without looking at a Google map or know what the weather is without consulting the little monster. To claim that technology will solve things is a bit like saying that syphilis is an effective form of birth control.

    I well remember hearing in the late 1980s, again and again, the well worn lie that information technology is green. Perhaps those techno optimists did not comprehend the full implications of Moore’s Law although they frequently trumpeted its triumphalist elements as it suited them. Obviously, even then, computers will become obsolete almost by the week in much the same way as a new car loses a substantial part of its value the minute it’s driven off the dealer’s lot. None of the problems of old and discarded computers, the resources and waste needed to construct new ones, the labour standards of those in the Chinese factories, the manipulation of consumers to lust after the latest gadget, and increasingly even the employment conditions of engineers and designers in the fabled Silicon Valley can be considered green or conforming to meaningful social justice in any way whatsoever.

    There are perhaps four major introductions of technology in the twentieth century — the automobile, nuclear power, television, and the computer — that with perfect 20-20 hindsight and a sane society might well have been handled differently and with more socially satisfactory results, even if not every striving individual attained quite such a sense of personal pleasure from acquiring them with such ease. And even if not quite such large fortunes were made by those directing the introductions.

    The problem with techno optimism seems to me that its adherents wear blinders just as a horse does so it not see what’s on either side of its goal. It has become something of a religion, along with the companion hallowed free market baloney, that admits no subtlety, no reflection, no nuance, to its practice. It’s a fundamentalism, brooking no heresy — or even questioning. However, it’s my observation that most of its advocates are not educated in the life sciences fields and have next to no understanding of the non-media world. They appear not to spend enough time outdoors unless on a bicycle or running and, almost by definition, are privileged by occupation, which provides them with yet more techie toys and little inclination to question themselves more deeply than whether they should use Google or Bing — and can that restaurant be quite as awful as it says on Yelp!? Although, of course, they can get quite exercised by which version of which operating system is making things go so damn slow.

    Perhaps by now you think I’m a technophobe. Far from it. I am grateful for our ancestors who first harnessed fire, sharpened and hardened pointed sticks, and all the subsequent intellectual and practical advances that have lead to what is by all historical reporting my living a remarkably comfortable and so-far relatively secure existence. Indeed, it is because of the likeliness of losing that comfort that I am concerned by the wilder claims of techno optimism that it alone holds the key to the future — and that one of those keys is an unbridled free market. Fundamentalism is fundamentalism however you dress it up.

    What is clear at this time is that the unanticipated effects of the introduction of new technology should be considered to a much greater degree than they are, that the externalities should be minimized and borne by the users of those technologies rather than society at large, and that the profit motive, the maximization of private return, is an inadequate mechanism for steering technology introduction.

    Whether technology alone can “save the planet” strikes me as a fatuous question. The planet will continue in its orbit and day will follow night whatever humans do. Climates may, and will, change as they have done for millennia long before the current anthropogenic crisis. Despite the current rate of extinction life will continue and, if humans were to depart the scene entirely, almost certainly thrive and develop new forms with riotous profusion. Some many be intelligent in the way that the word is usually used, although I think that all life is intelligent — trees have exactly the intelligence they need to be trees as do fishes, fungi and flies have the intelligence required for their ways of life. It’s a sign of our anthropocentric arrogance that we think of saving the planet when we what we mean is saving our culture and society. In fact, I think it most likely that there will be humans in the future — we will not be extinct. However, the numbers of us and the conditions under which we live are what’s up for debate.

    Techno optimists appear to believe that we’ll continue to “advance” into some sort of golden age along a more or less linear course, while the disaster prone appear to think we’ll get to nine billion (or perhaps not) and then “Poooft!”, we’re gone. In this consideration, I’ll leave out the transhumanists and their evocation of a “singularity” — or is it The Singularity? — not because I think it absurd technically (I don’t), but because it won’t be us or our society who’s being saved any longer. The reality is likely to be considerably more messy as today extends into tomorrow and then the day after. I think it clear that we face the common conundrum of being able to have a choice of two out three conditions, but not all three. In this case, it’s a choice between high and increasing population, high standards of living (which pretty much translate into energy use and resource extraction), and sustainability. Techno optimists would argue, I suppose, that technology will allow us to have all three. It’s a tall order.

    Following his success with Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock produced a TV series, 30 Days, of people doing various things that involved them basically being out of their comfort zone for a month. One of the episodes was Off the Grid in which a couple of East Coast professionals and “typical Americans”, “voracious consumers of fossil fuels”, go off to live in the Dancing Rabbit eco-village in Missouri. Before they go, their planetary footprint is calculated and it’s pretty high — about ten planet’s worth if I recall correctly. Life at the Dancing Rabbit is pretty tough for them — it would be tough for me even after years of attempting greenness (full disclosure, I’m at about four planets last time I measured) — but Dancing Rabbit is definitely extreme low consumption, especially by US standards. At the end of their thirty days, their planetary footprint is again calculated. It’s down to 1.9! Isn’t that great! However, later it sank into me that anything greater than 1 is losing ground against eventual disaster and is not, by definition, sustainable. The global average at this time is reported as 1.5, with dramatic imbalances such as the US being at 8. It’s widely thought that a world with dramatic differences between its rich and poorer areas cannot be sustainable. This is the challenge facing the techno optimists and why technology alone will not produce a long-term workable solution.

  27. Kevin Huckstep

    Your reflections on the home-bound plane are clear and unequivocal. Your insight into techno-optimism morphing into denial is crucial in the argument.
    You and Matthew Wright of BZE would be a force to reckon with in presenting these arguments.

  28. Wayne Roth


    Very much appreciated your talk, especially the somber measured tones, your appropriately entirely black outfit. I have sent “The Earth is Full” to many friends. I really appreciated your statement of grief, for the loss we are imposing on the planet, ourselves, all the other living species. We are the creators of the sixth mass extinction event. So far, we are really more of a cancer on the planet, that its “consciousness”.

    I took Ecology 101 from Garrett Hardin way back in the 60s, and he put it succinctly, “There is no guarantee that intelligence is a positive trait for evolutionary survival.” Intelligence, Creativity, Technology, they have all created the climate problems we now face; hoping for a techno-fix is like doubling down on a bad stock market bet.

    Unfortunately the crisis we need, the Pearl Harbor you eloquently spoke of that made immediate drastic decisions possible and accepted by everyone, is unlikely to happen. That kind of event, one which will make the world come together and make everyone unquestionably accept all the sacrifices necessary to win the War to save Civilization, is unlikely. There will be no singular obvious “wake-up” call that we can all agree on until it is too late to save ourselves. The huge inertia of the Earth system means that results will lag causes by an indeterminate time, probably hundreds of years or more. We may have already crossed major tipping points. There is no sign post stuck in the planet that shouts, “Stop Here! Cliff Ahead!”

    We don’t think long term. We don’t know how to act now for the really long term. Pearl Harbor was crystal clear. Anthropogenic Global Warming, AGW, is not. But it is just as real. If Japan and Nazi Germany had won WWII that would be a tiny momentary blip for Humanity to reverse compared to what unmitigated AGW will do to the planet.

    I heard Mark Lynas talk a few nights ago at the Long Now Foundation; love his book Six Degrees. His talk laid out the basics of the Nine Boundaries that humanity should not cross, the basis of his new book, “The God Species”. During his talk he mentioned that if we continue on as we are, there will likely be 750ppmv CO2 in the atmosphere by the end of this century and then he continued to give more details. He should have stopped right there, looked out at the audience and said, “OK, enough talk, what are we each and collectively going to do now to prevent that disaster?” But he just kept on talking giving more details of the coming death without any convincing reason why he’s a techno-optimist.

    Techno-fixes; techno-optimism is just another clever denial, a way to stick our heads in the sand, pushing the responsibility off to “Science” to saves us from ourselves. There is no innate morality in Science.

    E. O. Wilson has stated the problem clearly. “Every human and every human society has to learn how to manage adroitly the perpetual ambiguity and conflict between individual needs and group needs. What I need is never the same as what we need.”

    Thank you for your strong clear honest voice.


  29. Dear Paul good article, supporting your presentation.
    I leave in Athens, Greece; I suppose you are aware that today’s Greece is the guinea pig for the coming economic crisis. I am an optimist as a character but I do not believe that we should be optimistic. Yes maybe the poor person or family in Europe or in USA today they might have a mobile telephone or a TV set, but they do not have the seeds and the land to plant an onion or a potato or an olive tree…the truth is that man does not leave by SMS alone.
    I have translated, edited and printed in Greek the book of Lester R., Brown of Earth Policy Institute ‘’World on the edge’’ and I am trying to make the ideas in it known.
    Unfortunately in those hard times it is very difficult, but
    I am giving lectures and presentation and judging by the interest of the audience I feel confidence, a lot has to be done.
    Please put my name in your list and keep in touch.
    Best regards
    Chrysostomos Fountoulis

  30. Mind you, having now listened to/watched Peter Diamandis’ TED talk, I have to admit that it’s a pretty good, very attractive in fact, pitch. If he’s right, jolly good!

    The problem is, I think, that his focus is very selective and tends towards the media/knowledge bias, which assumes that there is always an answer ‘cos there always has been so far in those arenas, while our problems seem to be more intractable and on a larger scale than simply making aluminum cheaper than gold. Although it’s far from a trivial thing for people to have decent drinking water or for three billion more people to be able to join the global electronic conversation. Don’t know how I’ll keep up, though.

    Unfortunately, there is an advantage to his approach in that somebody (or bodies) stand to make a lot of money out of all these new inventions. Whether any of them address the most pressing biospheric issues is another question. Personally, I think there’d be something rather obscene about making a ton of money by holding the world hostage for cash when one has a genuine and large scale solution to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

  31. Gray Harrison

    Hi Paul, loved the TED talk and the follow up. For many years I have recycled bicycles, advocated for bicycles, and educated people about how to fix and maintain bicycles. I am very inspired by the many people working toward sustainability, simplicity, permaculture, etc. I also despair how many _more_ people are just “living”, and not thinking about their impact. We’re in for some hard times, no doubt, but there are a lot of people I know who are already living the way we all need to live to be in harmony with the environment.

  32. Hi Paul
    We do not need new techknolegy. We have already all the technolegy we need. It is the political will to act that is missing. A vision or two would also help.
    Steve Posselt is right, returning carbon to the soil is the answer. If we were to convert all the dead biomass generated in the world each year to biochar, we would stop it rotting and putting the greenhouse gasses, methane, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon sequestered in the soil in the form of biochar would improve the soil annd our crops, and would remove more carbon than we are at present releasing from fossil fuel.
    Even James Lovelock has said that it is too late to rely on atomic energy, and that biochar sequestration together with the abandonment of fossil fuel and using renewables, of which biochar would be a useful addition, would be the best opyion at this late date

  33. Doug Ralph

    Keep up the good work Paul,i really enjoyed your TED Talk,and thanks for using language that we can all understand.

  34. Wayne Roth said, several comments back:

    ‘I heard Mark Lynas talk a few nights ago at the Long Now Foundation; love his book Six Degrees. His talk laid out the basics of the Nine Boundaries that humanity should not cross, the basis of his new book, “The God Species”.’

    The description of the book on Amazon, perhaps (almost for sure) supplied by the publisher, says:

    “But this is no depressing lamentation of eco-doom. Instead, Lynas presents a radical manifesto that calls for the increased use of controversial but environmentally-friendly technologies, such as genetic engineering and nuclear power, as part of a global effort to protect and nurture the biosphere. Ripping up years of ‘green’ orthodoxy, he reveals how the prescriptions of the current environmental movement are likely to hinder as much as help our vitally-needed effort to use science and technology to play God and save the planet.”

    Excuse me, the world truly has gone mad. Since when have genetic engineering or nuclear power been “environmentally-friendly technologies”? And, for that matter, since when has “environmentally-friendly” been grammatically correct? Or “vitally-needed effort”?

    Stewart Brand (of Long Now, Whole Earth and so-on fame) introduced the concept of genetically modified food and nuclear power as last ditch efforts to skirt the climate change crisis. Iconoclast, icon maker, tool-loving, concept-originating provocateur as he is, I don’t think Brand actually pitched them as environmentally friendly (or even “environmentally-friendly”) — just as one of the few chances we have left to squeeze through this rapidly diminishing annulus of opportunity to survive as some simulacrum of civilization.

    This is the unfortunate result of leaving free enterprise in charge of one’s culture even while one reduces spending on education. Bad grammar will be the least of our worries — but still a significant one I believe.

    It is techno-optimism at its very worst that can say something like “genetic engineering and nuclear power” will be “part of a global effort to protect and nurture the biosphere”. What drugs are these people on? Talk about a corporately induced reality warp!

  35. RuthH

    Great talk and lots of great comments. There are a lot of smart and skilled people here. So what can we do and how might we bring together our motivation and skills to move things in the right direction? How about a ‘virtual brainstorm’??

  36. JeffB

    The discussions are realistic, insightful, and lucid, but the white elephannt is still in the room!
    I’m not seeing a direct address on resolving the issue: How many people can the earth sustain. If we can’t sustain all we have now (Are we at 150%), how do we get to a sustainable number and who gets to decide on that number.
    Imagine a world that allowed all sorts of religious belief systems but was governed by a mutually agreed set of laws that supported equally all people. This set of laws would cap the global population at a sustainable level (until technology improved to allow a globally agreed increase). How would you decide which areas of the world could have more or less people? Who gets to make those decisions? A minefield but…is that what we need to become truly global citizens (no more citizenships of indiviual countries). …but I dream.
    We are humans and we, unfortunately, are all about ego, individuals and teams that think the same. This discussion is an example of our inability to agree on an approach with the “Techno Optimist” on one side and the “Crisis” on the other.
    Maybe George Orwell had something with “1984”…do we need a constant war state to maintain the population and the economy? Is that the how the crisis will manifest itself?

  37. Last para of JeffB’s comment IS the situation already. Sadly.

    And, of course, his earlier “suggestions” of one world government, control and planning are exactly what many fear the most.

  38. Jose Fernandez-Calvo

    Techno Optimists may or may not save the world, but crying “Hark, the end is nigh!!” most certainly will not. Even when it is done as well as “The Inconvenient Truth” by fellow TEDster Al Gore.

    This cry is great at begetting followers and raising fear, which may lead to some increased awareness, but it is NOT ENOUGH to save the world.

    Kyoto-style deliberations and musings may sound grand, urgent and important, but without action they are but hot air.

    The techno-optimists are our only real hope because in their ACTIONS lies a chance a permanent solution.

    Cheer for the techno optimists!!
    Support the techno-optimists!!

    And, maybe more importantly, don´t undermine them!!

    Taking pot-shots at guys like Peter Diamandis, may boost an ego here or there, but it only hurts the odds of getting out of the mess we are all in.

  39. Technology nor markets will solve the worlds problems.

    When people talk about technology being the hope of the future I think of nuclear technology. Since it’s development in pursuit of the military upper hand, the pressing question hasn’t been whether or not it is useful, but whether we have the maturity, responsibility, and unequivocal preservation of certain moral and ethical values to handle it. Thousands of tonnes of spent radioactive munitions littered across battlefields of the last 20 years delivered by the “leader of the Free World”, suggests we don’t.

    The development of technology, persistently serves the base needs of the power and control hungry. With a camera on every street corner fining us for any “wrong” move, and vast computers with intimate knowledge of our desires and preferences sending us spam every day in a range of forms, technology is being manipulated as it always has to control. In the 21st century technology has contributed to the increase of wealth inequity and is proactively creating addicted, insular, mind numbing digital fetishism. No, the techno optimists will not save the world… unless through technology we can begin to augment the aspects of our human nature that are mature, wise, and discerning.

    Markets will not “save” us, though they may save the banks for a while longer… No, this fickle, emotional ‘invisible hand’ is not going to guide us through the challenges of a growing population fed by finite and in some cases diminishing resources, to a healthy, culture cultivating zero growth economy.

    It is clear to me Paul, that your work is part of a call to order. I am of the opinion that the world is going to be saved by the growth of the political power of the NGO sector (there are now over 1 million NGOs in the world). I would like to see this as the century of consensus managed NGOs, who bolster UN charters, and their Agency and enforcement capacity; and correct the socio-pathic nature of the corporate growth engine, and the governments manipulated by them.

  40. Interesting post. I agree with you that techno optimism is dangerous. It is however just one of the various forms climate denial takes. The main denial strategy is denial of the science itself and until the science is generally embraced within the USA there is unlikely to be much real world progress in developing meaningful solutions. Australia is out of the starting blocks with a carbon tax but the tax is in politically fragile situalion. I suspect the views you expressed in your book are likely to prove to be correct. The world will only begin to move when it is too late. Meanwhile all the ordinary believer can can probably do is to keep on punching.

  41. I agree 100% with Paul Gilding. I see Paul has no presence on Facebook nor other social media … we need to spread the word … TED is a great start .. need more conduits to spread the message to other audiences ..

  42. Anthony Williamson

    How do you plan a city for 2042 with respect to buildings and movement while enabling it to continue on today’s values which in time need to be readjusted?? In all the decisions I make know there is a conflict between what the public requires, the government tolerates and what I believe is necessary!! It’s like, stop the world now and let us catch our collective breath. Paul’s TED impressive talk encourages us to do this and more……

  43. George Kong

    Contrary to Paul and most of the commenters in this thread… I believe we need to embrace technology without reservation to find the best, least disruptive path out of the storm.

    I mean this in the sense that – if we had embraced nuclear when we should’ve embraced nuclear; the majority of the world’s energy would not be carbon generating fossil fuel, but non-carbon generating, relatively minimal waste generating nuclear – with much more advancement in the technology, that would render the waste much less toxic/damaging and the chance of catastrophic melt-down impossible. Infact, we already have the technology, but no social/political will to implement it.

    In our future, we’ll continue inventing and refining game-changing technology that will dramatically change the way we use the planet’s limited resources – but without a clear plan, a clear message and goal… we have a bunch of hand wringing noise that results in horrendously sub-optimized use of those technologies.

    Vat-grown meat? Just add nutrients and energy? Not just ethically better, but much more energy efficient too? Consumers will be worried that it doesn’t have muscle texture. So lets spend more energy and effort trying to capture an artifact of the past. Consumers worried about authenticity? Let’s eschew it entirely, and continue eating authentic meat that we slaughter authentically.

    Similarly – self driving automobiles? But what about the loss of freedom? What about the loss of enjoyment of driving?

    What about all the lives saved? What about the opportunity to change the paradigm of car-ownership and instead have a mass-transit system based around self-driving cars? Cut down on parking space, cut down on accidents, cut down on inefficiencies, cut down on petrol usage (using the intelligent network of public self driving cars; use electric vehicles, that automatically go back to a station to recharge, eliminating worries about distance).

    Books vs Ebooks? Why would you want to give up that feeling, that texture? Maybe because you save trees, you save the petrol of the planes/boats and trucks delivering these pages, because you can now carry around millions of pages virtually, rather than breaking your back carrying around a few thousand? And the ability to get these books out to anyone that wants to read them, rather than just some that have access to them? That’s pretty significant too.

    In the not too distant future, we’ll invent high quality virtual reality that sensorily simulates reality and more. It will cut down the cost of human experiences from the energy and materials of whatever is been experienced, down to simply the energy required for the movement of the digital bits. Several magnitudes of reduction in energy used, for the same or better degree of efficacy.

    In a world that doesn’t optimistically embrace this technology, we will fall far short of realizing the benefits of such a technology. It’ll be ‘just a toy’. An amusement, or diversion, rather than the panacea that it actually is – the thing that both dramatically increases sustainability, and dramatically increases the experiential quality of human life.

    More than anything… I think the biggest thing that prevents really meaningful sweeping changes from happening is the incoherency of the message. We need to be unified in action and purpose. Here, it appears the techno-optimists appear to be clashing with the self titled ‘realists’, creating conflicting accounts and messages.

    It gives those that truly fear change and those that would benefit from a lack of change enough material to obfuscate the messages – enough reason and excuses for those that don’t like committing to action, to feel apathetic.

    We can embrace techno-optimism, or we can embrace self-flagellation. Either requires a dramatic change in perspective from the current aimless norm. Or we can just let the fixed boundaries of this planet continue to exert an ever greater pressure on a species that absent of goal, or objective, simply desires to ‘grow’.

  44. Marianne JULIEN

    Thank you for your talk and for the example you give as a person.

    Although I am leading a techno- project in France (on Hydrogen Energy) , I am perfectly aware that technos alone are not enough to build the transition path.

    Technos are the toys we needs to get along with our fears and change our perception of reality ?

    I am deliberatly a human-optimistic !!

    I worked for a techno/science professor in the US 20 years ago who was dreaming about giving opportunities to his students to be taught humanities…

  45. George Smith

    Sex and Fire… population increase and fuel burning… a genetic pair of immense consequences. Going to be nigh on impossible to change the genetic program which governs our response to fear. Fight or flight? More sex and fire is the likely response. It was successful for millions of years and we now sense the inevitable destiny?

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