Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TED 2012: The Earth is Full. Or Not.

TED is known for putting together an eclectic program that features ideas from all different disciplines, leaving the attendees to make the linkages among the talks.  Today, we had back-to-back talks on the same topic, presenting oppposite views.

 First up was Paul Gilding.  Former global CEO of Greenpeace, and author of The Great Disruption, Paul's message was clear:  the earth is full.  We need 1.5 earths to maintain our current economy.  This growth will therefore have to come to a stop, because of the laws of physics, chemistry and economics.  Since this crisis is inevitable, the only thing left for us to do is to choose how we will react and how early we will react.  The earlier we react, the less the cost will be and the gentler the landing.  However, if we don't prepare for such enormous disruption, it will be truly ugly.

Paul was frank in saying his purpose was to instil sufficient fear to overcome complacency, change people's behaviour and drive an urgent commitment to change.

The next talk was by Peter Diamandes.  Peter runs the X Prize and is a co-founder of the Singularity University, with Ray Kurzweil.  He is a disciple of the Kurzweil doctrine that we all underestimate the pace of technological innovation:  such innovation always advances exponentially, whereas our expectations tend to be linear. 

Because of mankind's ingenuity and the relentless laws of change (think Moore's Law which says computing power doubles about every 18 months),  challenges that look insurmountable today will certainly be overcome by technological improvements tomorrow.  The earth is nowhere near full.  There isn't any real scarcity, just accessibility problems.  There's lots of solar energy to support us - we just have to harness it.  There's lots of water; we just have to harness the oceans.  In essence, Peter was saying, "Don't worry about it.  We got it."

Chris Anderson asked for a show of hands supporting Peter or Paul.  The vote was almost even, with a slight edge for Peter's optimism.  That was an interesting result in a crowd that has been accused of unreasoning Silicon Valley optimism. 

To me, there was huge irony in the question. If you really believed Paul's message of doom and took action, then Peter's prediction is likely to come true.  If you sat back comfortably, believing Peter's optimistic message, then perhaps Paul's prediction would come true.  Is that self-unfulfilling prophecy?


Rohan Jayasekera said...

In practice there may not be much linkage between the two. While some people who work on technological innovation are inspired by a desire to solve what they think are looming problems, I think they're dwarfed in number by all those who simply like working with technology and pushing it forward.

When actual problems develop (as opposed to predictions that may or may not come to pass, many of which come from those with a vested interest in a scared population), that's when technology is brought to bear -- when it's needed. Big problems don't appear overnight, so as they begin to cause trouble they also start to attract solutions.

I believe that our best defence against the big problems is a healthy "immune system": a myriad of people and organizations, working in many areas, who create a large array of available solutions. Not the central-planning model beloved of organizations such as governments and Greenpeace. They're far more likely to create big problems than to solve them.

Rohan Jayasekera said...

Also, while it may have been beyond the scope of that particular event, in his book Gilding apparently writes not only about environmental limits but about financial limits as well. The worsening global financial problem is not only more urgent than any global environmental problem but it also cannot be fought with technology, at least not directly. We've been through the largest financial mania in human history and it is not surprising that the aftermath is as bad as it is. When we think of limits, we should include (as Gilding may; I have not read his book) things like how much we can bail out certain large corporations when they make mistakes, how much we can extend dying people's lives, and how much we can spend on higher education. And (as always) politicians' pet megaprojects.

But these are not decisions that "we" will make. Who is "we" anyway? Governments are generally so slow to move that they close the barn door after the horse has bolted (e.g. here in Canada mortgage-insurance rules were tightened only after mortgage exposure was peaking). The only effective action is that taken by individuals looking out for their own interests. In practice this can get very ugly, e.g. riots in Athens, but it's the only thing that works.