- Do we need more optimism to overcome the sustainability challenge of our planet?
- Or do we need more fear and crisis to change our ways more radically?
This week I watched two talks from TED 2012 from two very different men painting two very different pictures of the future.
First was a talk called “The Earth is full” by Paul Gilding, a writer, activist and advisor on sustainability. As the title would suggest, it deals with how we are running out of resources, that we are overcrowding the planet, and that we are making too much stuff. In short, Gilding’s message is that we can’t keep up our economic growth and count on the resources to be there to support it – and us – way into the future. More likely, we will start feeling the pain perhaps already in our lifetime as we reach these limits. Two words you could probably use to accurately describe this talk would be “alarmist” and “pessimistic”.
Second was a talk called “Abundance is our future” by Peter Diamandis, Chairman of Singularity University and leader of the X Prize Foundation (cash prize for great inventions). His was the exact opposite of Gilding’s. Literally. Diamandis argues that we should be optimistic because human ingenuity, technology and a true abundance of resources will help us overcome all obstacles no matter what. He argues that we are really exaggerating the issue of resource consumption and that just like with Moore’s Law, we will be amazed by what our technology will allow us to do, like harvesting the sun’s energy and making undrinkable water drinkable. And healthcare? No problem, using cell phones we will soon be able to have point of care diagnostics that will allow emerging country people to alarm the CDC of coming pandemics. Two words to describe this talk would be “heady” and “optimistic”.
Question #1: which talk do you think I liked better? Put differently: which one did I hate (infinitely) more?
Question #2 (prize question): what is more powerful to get us to act towards a more sustainable future – fear and despair from the first video, or inspiration and hope from the second video?
Before I say anything, if you haven’t seen the talks yet, check them out below first:
Paul Gilding – “The Earth is full” – TED 2012
Peter Diamandis – “Abundance is our future” – TED 2012
Okay, so by now you’ve had a chance to see both sides of the story and you have formed your own view. That’s wonderful, really. Want to hear mine?
I know you do. So the answer to Question #1?
For those who have followed my previous musings around sustainability, it may come to no surprise that I absolutely, passionately, hated Peter Diamandis talk. Rarely has a TED talk made me so angry (think: “urrr, clenched fists, want to punch a hole in the wall”) and fueled a desire to climb the stage to slap someone silly (in a gentlemanly way, of course) as this particular one. I would probably read with satisfaction if Paul Gilding did the deed for me indeed if TED speakers have more access to each other behind the scenes…
Or as someone I know would like to say: “I mean, REALLY?”
Although the talks were not necessarily framed around the issue of sustainability, they were of course implying a concern with it but offered vastly different responses. Let me state here as well that just because I hated Diamandis’ speech (so, so much) doesn’t mean I loved Paul Gilding’s necessarily. For one, he didn’t use any slides (in consulting that’s as close to death as it gets). For another, that means he had no data or rich media to use that would have probably helped illustrate his case of doom and gloom even better. Diamandis, being a tech guy, of course even started his speech with a video. Anyhow, lastly, besides not being all that good of a speaker to begin with, Gilding failed to close with any real tangible suggestions on what to do next once we realize that everything is going to hell (pardon my French). But that’s besides the point.
Back to Diamandis. I have no personal problem with the person himself, obviously. I respect his work. But I do take issue with his optimism. Not only do I find it amazingly naive but also dangerous because he may actually make someone in his audience believe that we are really heading toward a world of abundance, that resources are essentially infinite, that technology will come to our rescue and that we as a species should be thanked for it since we are creation’s best and brightest anyway. Before I go off on a rant, which I define as a piece of rhetoric mostly emotionally driven without order or reason to its objections, allow me to post the following objections to Diamandis’ views.
- First, I believe Diamandis is committing a classical fallacy of relying blindly on the past to extrapolate broadly onto the future. By citing analogies to things like Moore’s Law, which talks about the accelerated increase of transistors we can fit in the same spot over time, he essentially argues that technology will become infinitely better, faster and more amazing so that we will be able to solve all our resource and energy issues with just a little hard thinking and ingenuity. The problem with such thinking is that it (1) assumes the future will behave according to conditions of the past and present, (2) puts blind faith in something as small and insignificant as humans to conquer things infinitely larger and more powerful like nature and (3) oozes an underlying arrogance so untenable to me that I am at a loss how to respond.
- Second, Diamandis talks in isolation of individual problems as if they can all be solved discretely through particular inventions. To the problem of our energy supply he cites that the sun produces so much energy that we just have to harvest it *whoopdeedo* and will have more than enough to go with for thousands of years. It is difficult to hide my amazement at this lack of considering the entire discipline of economics that teaches us that there are things like “costs” that prevent us from using solar energy as the solution to all. It is also further amazing to me how he sidesteps the entire discipline of politics and geopolitics to pretend for a moment that we can allocate all our resources across the world in the right way, with the right political will and courage that it would take to essentially put our voters into social and economic misery in order to fund the (still uneconomical and unscalable) solar energy solution.
That is perhaps Diamandis’ greatest intellectual flaw in his entire presentation. That he ignores what Paul Gilding didn’t. And that is the reality of systems. We live in an interconnected world. Problems at the scale of the global sustainability crisis are so interconnected and complicated that their solution must involve the challenges we face in a reality full of different economic, political and even cultural imperatives that the different peoples of the world follow. While every single solution Diamandis offers is related to amazing technology, he forgets to explain that the funding, scaling and deployment of such technologies cannot be made in blissful scientific isolation from the realities of our illogical, irrational and oftentimes inconsistent world.
Granted, if it is true that we all just inextricably carry the views of our backgrounds into our TED speeches, then I cannot blame someone who spends his days funding amazing inventors to praise the same people as the saviors of the world. In that sense, I of course do not blame Diamandis for his beliefs in themselves about the good that technology has done for humanity and, doubtlessly, the big role it will still play to its salvation eventually. As a believer in technology, I sympathize with the hope that we can invent our way out of a lot of problems.
But not all of them. Not by a long shot. On that point, Diamandis’ message of hope is intellectually bankrupted by what I consider misplaced and mistimed optimism at a time when we need more of the opposite. By “the opposite” here I do not mean “pessimism”. More uncomfortably for some, I refer to fear.
That brings me to my second question. Which one of the two forces – optimism vs. fear – can better motivate us to do what it takes to act more sustainably in time for us to somehow come out of this ecologic and economic mess we are in?
Before we answer that, we should ask what the benefits are of either one towards this goal.
Pros of Optimism
- It makes us believe, it makes us see the bright side of things, it makes us focus on the positive outcome that could be.
- It gives us comfort, it gives us hope when others would despair, to light our darkest hour.
- It feels good, it’s free and everyone can have it (presumably by watching enough Peter Diamandis’ TED talks…)
Cons of Optimism
- It has no way of telling us if our belief in a certain outcome is grounded in any laws of probability and reality. It is disconnected by definition from reality in order to be accessible to all. It transcends worry and doubt as losers’ sentiments to be left on the ground while it soars above unhindered.
- It breeds complacency for no other reason than that someone told us we can relax. It limits critical thinking and problem solving instincts.
How about fear? Nobody likes fear, first of all, so let’s start with the cons.
Cons of Fear
- It does not feel good! It makes us feel stressed, in fact (duh).
- It can prevent us from believing in ourselves, from having confidence in our ability to overcome the impossible – it is the opposite of inspiration usually.
- It can also hinder our ability to think creatively and rationally and in the worst case transforms into panic (which is fear + dumb actions)
But here I would think there just have to be some good sides to fear as well.
Pros of Fear
- It makes us question our beliefs.
- It can stimulate one of our strongest primordial instincts and inner powers. No, not love. But the will to live and to survive.
- It makes us realize what we have and what we stand to lose, as well as how much it will suck to lose that.
Even if you are no psychology major (and I wasn’t one either), you may have a greater tendency to embrace optimism as the preferable mode of thinking. I wouldn’t blame you if you did. However, let me attempt to make a case for fear in this particular debate of sustainability.
I believe the very reason that we have gotten ourselves into today’s economic and environmental ticking time bomb is in fact our species’ irrepressible sense of optimism and can-do attitude. I also believe that the reason we have made so little progress towards real change that will correct the economic and natural imbalances threatening our planet and peoples is that many of us have a deep-seated belief that in the end, everything will be fine – that is, if we even acknowledge that there is any real global problem at all. And that, I would claim, is the work of a combination of optimism and hubris. In a way, of course things have always worked out. The only issue is, we have only been around in this modern industrial, resource-intensive consumer society for about 150 years. In geological timescale, that is not even a tiny fraction of a nanosecond.
Allow me here to question the wisdom of any being or species to have it all figured out given such a minuscule amount of time in existence. Evolution doesn’t work that fast, including its ability to make any living being that smart. More pragmatically: no matter how short an amount of time that we have been around, we have managed somehow to deplete resources that truly did take geological timescales to be produced and lay around for us to pick up. And that is precisely the ultimate challenge posed by sustainability advocates: sooner or later, we run out of stuff to pick up.
No matter whether you are a Peter Diamandis fan or a Paul Gilding sympathizer, there is no denying that this is true. The only difference is that the champs from the former camp believe that it will be (1) later and (2) thanks to technology, infinitely later or not at all.
To overcome this first obstacle about belief, let me use the device of Pascal’s Wager. Skipping the philosophy 101 part, it essentially is a way of testing your belief in God. Pascal argues that even if there is none, as an insurance policy you may want to go for “belief” instead of “non-belief” because if you’re wrong (heaven-forbid), in the after-life you will have a rough time burning in hell/purgatory – eternally, that is.
Apply this to the case of climate change/sustainability issues. Even if climate change is really not happening and we face no real resource problem anytime soon, wouldn’t it be potentially wiser to take out a planetary insurance and try to do serious things to save ourselves … just in case? Of course, Pascal’s Wager is pretty easy by comparison because you can decide this on your own and it will take two seconds at most to get it done. With sustainability, it takes collective action – and that is tough to come by.
And this, ultimately, is where I think fear may have a role to play to give us collectively a little bump in the direction of taking more significant action – individuals, companies, governments – before we meet our proverbial environmental hell in the form of uncontrollable natural disasters and drastic economic contraction.
At the scale of the problem that I believe it is, I am hard-pressed to think that optimism and blind faith in technology will be the best insurance policy. Instead, if more people feared and felt the consequences of our inaction (or stupid action), we would probably make more progress towards more radical changes to the way we make consumer choices, the way we organize our economy and the way we formulate policy as nations. Not to stretch the metaphors too much, but I would bet that a loaded gun pointed at your head would quite likely lead you to do pretty much anything to feel the content of that barrel emptied, wouldn’t it?
So let me ask then: what will it take for you to be really afraid? And how afraid do you have to get before you join the believers working hard today to raise awareness that not “all is well with the world” and that only collective will and action can have a fighting chance to get us on a more saner, sustainable path for the next 150 years?