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?