Have we overexploited the Earth’s resources for so long that crisis is now not only inevitable, but just a few decades away? Or, is our ingenuity and technological know-how so great that we can overcome even Mother Nature’s limits?
These competing perspectives on the health of our planet and our willingness to address humanity’s growing demands upon it were on stage at the opening of this spring’s annual TED conference in Long Beach, California.
Together, sustainability advisor and former Greenpeace International CEO Paul Gilding and tech entrepreneur turned philanthropist Peter Diamandis offered a fascinating exchange of narratives that, while sharing confidence in our ability to avert catastrophic ecological and economic change, were at stark odds over the existence of the threat and our need to prepare for a decline.
To Gilding, the Earth is full. Full of us, full of our stuff, and full of our demands. We have overwhelmed our planet’s capacity to provide for us, and after ignoring the warning signs for decades, we are nearing a major and now certain economic crisis.
“We are in danger, all of us,” he says.
It’s a bleak vision. But Gilding, author of “The Great Disruption” nonetheless leaves his audience with a hopeful, even optimistic, message: We can still walk ourselves through the coming storm, and minimize its impact—if we choose to act.
“Yes, things will get ugly, and it will happen soon—certainly in our lifetime,” Gilding says. “But we are more than capable of getting through everything that’s coming.”
The future is so dire, Gilding says, that our fear should compel us to draw upon our collective ingenuity to make hard decisions. “When we feel fear and we fear loss,” he says, “we are capable of quite extraordinary things.” Technological development does indeed have a role here, but it will not in and of itself solve the coming crisis.
For Gilding, this would have been a tough crowd. TED gathers leaders in science, business and the arts to discuss topics as varied as design, education, health care and nuclear power. It’s a particularly popular forum among techno-optimists, who believe that technology can solve everything.
TED speakers are invited to discuss their vision in 18 minutes or less. Talks are typically framed with at least a note of inspiration, as was Gilding’s. But his included a reality check as shocking as a hard slap to the face, and he offered little hope that we can simply innovate our way out of an inescapable crisis that he predicts is only years away.
He acknowledges the likely skepticism of some in his audience:
“Come on, you’re thinking. That’s not possible. Technology is amazing. People are innovative. There are so many ways we can improve the way we do things. We can surely sort this out.”
In fact, that’s pretty much what Diamandis, head of Singularity University and the nonprofit X Prize Foundation, argues minutes later.
“I’m not saying we don’t have our set of problems—climate crisis, species extinction, water and energy shortage—we surely do,” Diamandis says. “As humans, we are far better at seeing the problems way in advance. But ultimately we knock them down.”
Technology won’t destroy our natural resources, says Diamandis, author of “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think,” but make it possible to sustain them indefinitely.
“Scarcity is contextual, and technology is a resource liberating force,” he says. The sun’s rays offer abundant energy potential, and the oceans endless water. Scarcity isn’t the problem; access is. And innovators today are already developing the technology to access those and other resources for human consumption.
Rather than a primary driver of ecological overshoot, Diamandis says that population growth is the engine of greater innovation, reform and economic prosperity.
And rather than economic shutdown, he says, we are on the brink of the biggest economic injection ever.
“We have the tools with this exponential technology,” Diamandis says. We have the passion of the DIY innovator. We have the capital of the techno-philanthropist. And we have three billion new minds coming online to work with us to solve the grand challenges, to do that which we must do.”
Gilding and Diamandis later appeared on stage together for a brief debate. Aside from their shared belief in humanity’s ingenuity and ability to work through even the most difficult challenges, they found little else to agree on. If either moved their audience, they were in two very different directions: Inspiration to act now to minimize the pain of ecological and economic crises, or inspiration to carry on with business as usual.
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