Will the techno-optimists save the world?

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Techno-optimism is a form of denial. That things aren’t that serious and that 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.

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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 (see video below) 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. It also doesn’t threaten a powerful industry that then fights against it. 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.

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15 Comments
  1. Jake 8 years ago

    Paul,
    Before I read this article, I read one in treehugger about the chaos in the UK egg and food markets was coming about as a result of a ban on cage farming.

    Substituting caged egg farming for feedlot farming with beef, which could theoretically be banned due to methane emissions (or regulated to have expensive bioreactors) is this kind of market turmoil what we can expect to see when the climate is factored into the economy?

  2. Daniel 8 years ago

    Paul,

    I think you under-estimate “toy technology”. You surely can’t argue against the massive, transformational effect of modern communication systems, not only on our lifestyle but far more importantly on commerce? Incidentally, in support of your argument, development and subsequent adoption of modern communications didn’t happen over night – think cellular phones in briefcases…

    The thing about “toy” technologies is not that they are not powerful but appear so because they’re affordable and accessible. So with respect to alternative energy, adoption will depend on both these criteria being met through price and distribution.

  3. Leon 8 years ago

    As a technology entrepreneur, it may seem odd that I fundamentally agree with Paul. Human innovation and the ever accelerating pace of change are both astounding and will be vital in dealing with this issue. However, there is a complacence that comes from putting your faith in technology and markets that is dangerous. Too often do I hear people say that they accept there is a fundamental issue, but there will be some amazing new technology that will fix it. The problem with this is that it relies on hope, rather than taking immediate action. As Paul says, humans are fundamentally optimistic, and while this is a powerful behavioural force, it doesn’t benefit us if it results in waiting for the crisis before we deal with it. Climate change is a huge, lumbering ship, we need to be steering long before we hit the iceberg.

  4. Janet rice 8 years ago

    The critical thing is that communications technologies didn’t face massive vested interests and didn’t require massive political will to overcome these interests. Not only are modern communications better and cheaper, but the postal service and courier services didn’t initially feel threatened by them, and certainly didn’t foreshadow the impacts on them when the communications technology revolution began. In contrast the fossil fuel industries know that acknowledging the reality of climate change means they have to essentially shut up shop, despite there being lots of coal and gas left in the ground.
    The huge challenge is getting political will. Then the technologists can unleash their innovation big time!

    • John 8 years ago

      The huge challenge is actually getting the people to tell their political “masters” that their future depends on acting.

  5. Ben Courtice 8 years ago

    The “we can solve anything” mentality becomes more and more typical, the further you get from physical, especially natural sciences.

    In economics, nonsense about “dematerialising” the economy, as though we can have infinite growth magically uncoupled from and unrelated to our finite physical world is perhaps a most extreme example.

    Fukushima, once the initial disaster had occurred with the failure of the backup generators, suddenly became a no-win scenario. All we get is a limited set of very nasty choices, where it’s probably not even clear which is the least-worst option.

    Someone sitting in a university lab writing papers can assume that new generation nukes can be 100% safe, but that’s because they only ever look at them on paper. I’m a qualified mechanical fitter; one of our popular jokes is that our job description is to fix the engineers’ mistakes (and they make plenty!). Everything gets harder once you start doing it in practice.

    We need to realise the complexity of nature and that all our existence relies on it. We still don’t properly understand weather patterns like ENSO (El Nino) and can’t predict droughts or floods caused by it. We still don’t understand groundwater well at all, as the debacle of fracking has painfully reminded us.

    We can’t make artificial food. When agricultural systems fail on a large scale, we can’t just switch on a magical synthesizing factory to make food out of base minerals. You need farms to make food, and farms need suitable water and soil and weather.

    One thing that the tech and market optimists ought to focus on, however, is largely within our reach. We can control our own impact. We can reduce our footprint from technology. We can take out of the market those sectors whose growth most threatens us: put them in public hands or ban them altogether (think asbestos).

    Certainly we can be optimistic, but we need an energy revolution and as Ian Angus (climateandcapitalism.com) says, you don’t get win-win revolutions: the old has to go to make way for the new. Political conflict is necessary and inevitable.

    Thanks to Paul here for a great article.

  6. Us-mobsta 8 years ago

    I have been around so long I have my original copy of The Limits to Growth published 1972. That book was pilloried for predicting(p72)that atmospheric CO2 would,if we did nothing, rise from 320ppm in 1970 to 380ppm in 2000. It is currently 392ppm. I have every optimism in technology, none in human foresight.
    If we had begun even the smallest response at the time suggested, we would have long ago recouped and forgotten the cost. But history shows we like doing things the hard way — Europeans waged bitter warfare for a thousand years before grumpily agreeing to the EU — and climate is already no exception. Overshoot has already happened. We now want technology not merely to permanently solve our problem while we whine like children about the “cost”, but also cure the belated implementation. That’s optimism all right.

  7. D. John Hunwick 8 years ago

    I agree with both Paul and Leon. Yes we will survive the coming crisis – but the population will be well below a billion = the rest will be dead! Yes we will feed ourselves after the crisis but it will be a greater struggle than our first steps in farming 10,000 years ago. Yes we will have “toys” but of what use will they be when diseases and climatic change bears down on the remnant left. For goodness sake – don’t oppose the technological optimists, but use the lack of time left, the over burgeoning human population, and the lack of Government action on the necesssary scale to tell them they are right – but who wants to live in the environment that’s coming?

    • Jake 8 years ago

      Give me a break! Even the worst world wars we’ve ever had didn’t kill 6 billion people, and we were TRYING to kill as many as we could.

      Unless you’re suggesting some kind of nuclear holocaust, there’s more than enough resilience in the current broken system to ensure that we don’t all starve to death.

      Peak Oil wont starve us, it will force a painful and expensive shift to organic and permaculture farming.

      Our society is unsustainable, but that doesn’t mean that it will come crashing down in a day.

    • Liam 8 years ago

      Yes, it is a shame Mr Gilding avoids the central issue – population. It would give his arguments real rigour if he had the courage to address the main cause of the problems (all 7 billion of them).

  8. Chris Fraser 8 years ago

    Shouldn’t we be trying to differentiate between optimists that don’t believe emissions are a problem, to optimists that believe emissions are a problem, but assume technology will fix the consequences, and optimists that read sites like this and seek to explore technology they could possibly use at household or personal transport levels ? Surely the last group of optimists would be OK with Paul ? Maybe he doesn’t believe they make up a large proportion of all the optimists ? That was just me being optimistic.

  9. John 8 years ago

    Paul, I admire greatly what you did at TED – it takes guts to get up in front of all those people and say what you said. I have been trying to avoid scaring the pants off people because I fear that might lead to inaction but I am coming to the conclusion that people need the pants scared off them to get them acting! I will use your presentation as a model if I may – we are fast running out of time.
    More power to you and I mean that in the most energy efficient way possible.

  10. Ron Horgan 8 years ago

    Thank you Paul for the brilliant presentation.
    The techno optimists solution is a modern “cargo cult” and the population x consumption driver of demand must be reduced to a sustainable figure.
    John Hunwick sees the problem.
    Jake thinks 6 billion deaths are impossible.
    If our “just in time ” food supply chain is broken at multiple points big cities could become big cemeteries
    in a very short time.
    We must take the “war footing ” approach immediately.

  11. Derek Mackenzie 8 years ago

    Paul, Thank you for yet again for looking the beast in the eye and not flinching. You tell the whole story that you (many of us) have been piecing together for some time but may have been to afraid to admit to ourselves. The reality is that we as a community must also be brave and look into that deep dark cave and challenge the beast as Paul has done. Only if we commit to fighting this threat with all our resources will we have any chance of succeeding. If we leave it to Governments who for the most part seem to be beholden to entrenched interests, it will be too late. Fight for your children, fight for your community. Turn off the TV, stop distracting yourselves with meaningless indulgences and fight like there is no tomorrow. Because if we choose to do nothing and go on pretending that Rome isn’t burning all we will have left is ashes. Yes I am scared, but I have faced my demons and now I am ready to fight for a future that for the most part will better that the one we currently have, and will definitely better than the on the scientists predict we will have with business as usual. Good luck.

  12. Winston Smith 8 years ago

    “Everyone at TED holds up their smart phones as a wonderful example of such fast, transformational change. This is a good and correct example”

    tell this to the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

    Coltan, Gorillas and cellphones
    http://www.cellular-news.com/coltan/

    let’s cut to the bone:

    1) there is no “progress”.

    there is only privilege and comfort for a few at the expense of the many.

    as Vandana Shiva has shrewdly observed:

    “The poor are not those who have been ‘left behind’; they are the ones who have been robbed”

    see: Two Myths That Keep the World Poor
    http://odewire.com/60038/two-myths-that-keep-the-world-poor.html

    2) there is no “growth”.

    there is only rearranging of existing matter from certain states to other states: from resource to product to waste (matter cannot be created or destroyed).

    see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_of_mass

    “progress” and “growth” are the rationalized delusion of imperial mythology.

    a house of cards which is falling down.

    entropy’s a b*$#h!

    3) all that having been expressed, the literal impossibility of “progress” and “growth” (within the context of the nightmare of the amerikan dream) is different from the betterment of human existence.

    it is theoretically possible for billions to live reasonably well at a certain level of ecological footprint:

    “The world population, currently at seven billion, is well beyond Earth’s ability to sustain. By 2050, with a projected population of 10 billion people and without a change in consumption patterns, the cumulative use of natural resources will amount to the productivity of up to 27 planet Earths, the study found.

    “Sustaining the current seven billion people on the planet requires a major shift in resource use. At present, the average U.S. citizen’s ecological footprint is about 10 hectares, while a Haitian’s is less than one. The planet could sustain us if everyone’s footprint averaged two ha…”
    – Data Shows All of Earth’s Systems in Rapid Decline
    http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=56685

    it’s just not remotely likely to happen (and that’s putting it mildly).

    i certainly experience no evidence (none whatsoever) that it’s going to happen any time soon (and it’s already too late to get such balls rolling).

    enjoy!

    and good luck, we’re going to need it.

    ===

    i don’t want a job, a car and a house
    i don’t want to Occupy the past
    i want a Revolution
    a new way of being

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