On the first day of the annual TED conference last week, environmentalist Paul Gilding and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis squared off on our species’ prospects. It was a pairing of a decidedly gloomy bad cop (Resources depleted!) and irrespressibly cheerful good cop (We can tech our way to abundance!).
I really do admire Diamandis’ optimism. The technologies he talks about are stunning. Yet I found myself wondering: Abundance for whom? Diamandis uses a very species-specific metric. Humans are thriving: there are more of them than ever and, taken as an aggregate, living longer, healthier, more prosperous lives. So far, so Hans Rosling.
But we are, in fact, in the middle of a mass extinction ("Climate change models flawed, extinction rate likely higher than predicted"). For countless species, lifespans are shrinking. Many no longer have lifespans. The abundance their presence made possible is no longer available. It is not so easy to invent a mechanical bee (though there have been efforts of a sort).
Diamandis blames the media for putting us all in a bad mood with nonstop “if it bleeds, it leads” news. The implication: attitude counts. And it does. But there actually are a lot of bad things happening. Those stories are true.
The reality is not so black and white. One can be deeply troubled by world events and inspired by the promise of technology at the same time. What one cannot do is brush away the reality of abundant loss: of species, habitats, biodiversity, clean air and non-record breaking weather.
By the time a clear connection can be proved between specific weather events and climate, it will be too late, though evidence is certainly mounting:
- Record temperatures (hotter for the planet as a whole, though unevenly distributed —see Europe’s winter 2012).
- Record tornado outbreaks
- Runaway ocean acidification
Diamandis talks a lot about “humanity’s Grand Challenges.” The X Prize Foundation has tackled some genuinely awe-inspiring projects, spearheading advances in everything from commercial space travel to a tricorder-style medical diagnostic devices.
But there are some other kinds of equally Grand Challenges—a little less sparkly and sci-fi cool—that could also benefit from a little more tech.
Exhibit A: The khapra beetle, an itty bitty omnivore munching its merry way through the world’s breadbaskets at an increasingly alarming rate, with implications for humans and pretty much any other species that likes to eat.
Exhibit B: The pine bark beetle which has destroyed 6 billion-with-a-b trees over the last 15 years, just in North America, turning what were once carbon sinks into net carbon emitters (dead trees don’t absorb atmospheric carbon and burn easily).
Without tackling the khapra beetle, there is no point developing more productive, or flood and drought tolerant crops. That is, unless, of course, the point is to address beetle hunger.
Likewise, protecting trees from pine bark beetles would be considerably more effective for slowing carbon emissions than pricey and iffy terraforming schemes, such as seeding iron filings in (increasingly acidic) oceans.
Don’t get me started on what’s ailing the bees and what a game-changer that’s shaping up to be…
We need Diamandis’ enthusiasm and evangelist’s talent for sparking imagination. But the vision and metrics must be broader and deeper. Slick charts illustrating a trajectory of human prosperity driven by Moore’s Law dazzle and mislead. The subtext is that we are a path to a kind of tech-enabled perfection: the Singularity.
The vision is inspiring, but could be so much more if it were…grander, set in the context of Earth’s Grand Challenges
We are part of a whole that is being ripped apart at the seams. It is our past, our future, our hope.
— J . A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews
- "We’re on the edge of an extinction crisis" / photographer Joel Sartore / NBC
- "The Biodiversity Project" / Joel Sartore / website